Science & the Mass Extinction of Primitive Thought

2401285296_57f4963b2d_b.jpgPlants caused a mass extinction, but also the conditions that led to new forms of complex, energetic life – eventually human beings.

This happened because of a single radical change, the advent of photosynthesis. This swept away the overwhelming majority of other forms of life and was such a powerful change that it almost wiped out the organisms that stumbled across it.

Yet, coming out the other side, this was the great shift in biology that brought us to where we are now.

It’s no secret that I don’t like philosophy. It’s an improvement on religion, but it’s still – essentially – a blind groping after truth that falls victim to its own pedantry far more often than it produces anything useful or insightful. It seems scared of the prospect that we might be able to know something and is rife with internecine wars over terminology and meanings that – to an outsider – seem blindingly obvious (such as the Empiricism/Rationalism conflict, which is absurd, reason needs something to operate upon and confirm its hypotheses).

Still, after yet another argument over these points and the absurdity of metaphysics, I had something of an epiphany about just why science is so powerful and transformative. Why it has had the massively disruptive effect that it does and how this can be analogous to great biological shifts.

Consider this. Early life had no real way of reasoning or experimenting as we would think of it. We sometimes use these terms to describe evolution, but this is anthropomorphising it. Our language relates primarily to human activity, and so we have a tendency to humanise these forces. Still, evolution operates by blind chance, combined with selection.

A bacterium cannot consider the value of photosynthesis or strive to discover it, but variation and mutation down generations can modify and differentiate randomly and, eventually, a particular strain will ‘hit’ upon a successful change. Like developing the capacity to photosynthesise.

Before the capacity to think evolved this was the only way an organism could ‘reason’ or modify its behaviour. Via survival. This is – obviously – immensely wasteful, and this is akin to theology. The blind groping of faith, the superstition of the false positives – as we find with the ‘religious pigeons’ experiments. Perhaps, by chance, this would occasionally discover something useful or applicable, but more often than not it would not.

The capacity to think, to reason, exists at many different levels in the animal kingdom and so is hard to pinpoint, but we do know that animals besides humans are able to puzzle out their surroundings and solve problems, to a degree. Squirrels will negotiate assault courses and solve simple puzzles to get at nuts. Crows, dolphins, otters, apes and monkeys have been observed to use tools in their problem-solving. This has greatly increased their capacity to survive and deal with their surroundings and this is, perhaps, analogous to philosophy. It’s better than the massacre-dependent blind automata of semi-random evolution, but not by a great deal. It did provide the evolutionary impetus for the development of intelligence, however, and that gets us to humans.

One can argue over whether humans have a monopoly on what you might call ‘true intelligence’ but it is different to the problem solving we see in other animals. We are able to self-modify, to use technology and to think in the abstract in a way animals do not. We can take a solution to one problem, take it apart, reformulate it and apply it in other situation. We’re capable of storing, transmitting and teaching complex knowledge and this is revolutionary. In the analogy, this is like the advent of science and like humanity, science has become utterly dominant and has killed off a great deal of its opposition, a mass extinction of invalid modes of thought – like religion and philosophy.

Science has provided us a way of genuinely knowing what is true and extrapolating fundamentals and applications from that knowledge. This is dramatically better than anything else and the only way we really have of knowing that anything is real or true. It’s systemised, self-correcting, without hanging speculation, self-critical and – most importantly – it works.

Theism clings on, in volcanic pools, hydrothermal vents and the anaerobic depths of stygian sediment. Philosophy clings on because hitting a shell with a stone will sometimes get you a nut. Science, however, science is a quantum leap in knowledge, a way of testing and understanding any validity of any other claim and there is nothing else that does what it does.

Show us what’s actually true.

Perhaps that’s why philosophy and religion hate it so much and try to undermine it. They know they’re obsolete and marked for extinction.

Gender Ideology Over Reality?

delusions_of_gender_the_bad_science_of_brain_sexismThis story came across my feed and I found it fascinating, not so much because of its content per se, but rather for the chain of thoughts it set off in my head.

Put briefly, the story runs as follows. A school district in Florida streamed some classes based on gender segregation, rather than ability and tailored girls’ classes to girls and boys’ classes to boys. This prompted the ACLU to get involved filing an objection that this violated anti sexism legislation and that it was based on junk science about gender differences (contentious topic).

I’ll offer no particular comment on that, save to say that while gender-separated schooling is often praised for higher standards, this may well be because it tends to only occur in private institutions. I would also say that I think schools provide an excellent opportunity to socialise and to learn to deal with the opposite gender that segregation can rob kids of.

Still, the question that was missing was whether or not standards had improved, in other words, whether the different teaching approaches had made a difference to grades and attainment while they had been running. The actual impact of the experiment appears nowhere in the news stories or summaries and doesn’t appear to be a question worthy of consideration.

If standards had improved, wouldn’t this be worth examining? Same if they had declined?

Men and women, boys and girls are different, though the extent of that difference is a contentious subject, especially when it comes to behaviour. Might it be possible that different approaches might work better for different genders? Well, we’re not going to find out from this.

This isn’t the only example though, we can look to another case, and this might not be the kind of instance you might think.

Before December 31st 2012 women used to get cheaper car insurance. Why did they get cheaper car insurance? Well, that’s a complicated matter but insurance companies rely on reliable calculations and as far as they were concerned women were – on average – safer drivers. This was based on hard data, collected by companies whose livelihood depended on accuracy.

However, in a rare case of total gender parity, the EU decided that this was unfair and that discrimination on the basis of gender – even factually based – wasn’t allowed. You might think as an egalitarian I would be happy about this – as a rare case of men being treated as equals. That’s not the case though. If men are higher risk drivers, it’s only fair that men should pay more for car insurance, just as it would be fair that women would pay more for private health insurance.

In theory, spreading the risk should bring down the prices for the high risk group, since the low risk group takes up the slack. Of course, this being private companies, this didn’t really happen, it was an opportunity to gouge.

Taking equality to mean being identical then, in this practical case, didn’t result in a positive for anyone except the companies. Men’s insurance barely went down (10% at best), if at all and women’s insurance leapt up by as much as 25%. Nobody won.

Sometimes we’re just going to have to accept that there are differences, whether they’re innate or whether they’re (temporarily) cultural and to ensure everything’s fair and appropriate. That’s going to necessitate studies into our differences but we need to strip these studies of their ideological taint and not attack them – or even interest in them – on an ideological basis in order to find out what’s true.

Shortly after hell freezes over…

More Ham: Observational and Historical Science

hamThis division is pure, grade ‘A’, nonsensical horseshit. There is no such division in science between observational and historical, there’s just science. ‘History’, a humanities subject, is sometimes called ‘Historical Science’ but in your actual ray-packs and jet-guns science, such a distinction does not exist.

Essentially, what Ken Ham is suggesting by making this division is that ‘If you didn’t see it, it didn’t happen’. Nye dealt with this quite adroitly with comparisons to procedural crime dramas like CSI and so on. Hopefully a point aimed at a level that could get through to the creationist audience. After all, everyone can appreciate the need for a justice system and one that – hopefully – catches the right guy and can prove it in court. There are many imperfect parallels between criminal investigation and science and that makes it a great way to reach people and help them understand. (Presumption of innocence = Burden of Proof, Judge & Jury = Peer Review, Evidence = Observations & Experiments).

Can we use observations in the present to determine what happened in the past?

Let us suppose that I have a piece of ham. Not Ham, just ham. Now we all know that ham is a pork product, made from pigs. Do we though? How do we know? Were we there when the ham was made? No, we weren’t. How might we use observations in the present, to determine that this ham was a pig in the past?

Well, ham is still pig flesh. We could take a biopsy from my sandwich and send it away for testing. It could then be cross-checked against the pig genome and if the genetic blueprints match any reasonable person might agree that yes, this ham used to be a pig.

We could also trace the ham back to its source. Tracking where food comes from is hugely important for hygiene and other reasons. It allowed all those ‘horsey’ lasagne ready meals to be tracked back to their source and allowed prosecutions and fines to be levelled. Incidentally it was genetic testing (see above) that demonstrated the presence of pony flesh in the first place. We can go back to the supermarket, from there to the supplier, the factory, the farm and to the herd of pigs. Depending on the country and level of food paranoia we might even be able to trace it all the way back to an individually recorded pig.

Does this not seem a reasonable way to pursue information about the past?

Ham relies on ‘testimony’, witness statements. Of course, the Bible isn’t reliable witness statements and doesn’t come from the time of the alleged events so it fails even by his own standard, but that’s another argument. Never mind that witness statements are the most unreliable 42_43e9fe72926526557c320ce95a8819feform of evidence we have, they’re great at convincing juries and in a similar way ‘testimonials’ are great for convincing people to sign up to the faith and drink the Flavor-Aid. This is where science has a bit of a PR problem. Scientists rightly couch everything they say in cautious terms, but that reads as weakness or uncertainty to that kind of crowd. ‘We think’ and ‘The evidence suggests’ and ‘It’s probable that’ sounds unimpressive next to ‘I know’ or ‘God told me’, whatever the truth of the matter might be.

If we went by Ham’s way of thinking criminals would walk free most of the time and we would cut ourselves off from some of the only meaningful ways we truly have to look into the past. It is telling when someone is so utterly desperate to maintain their outmoded belief system that they’re willing to throw any and all reason under the bus.

Hammy Presuppositional Apologetics

In the big Ham on Nye debate, Ham tried – a couple of times – to get Nye on the hook with presuppositional apologetics. These were the times he was asking ‘Could you be wrong about everything you know?’ Nye didn’t take the bait either time, which is good because it means the time was spent more productively. I was going to write a big-ass post all about this line of silliness, but the short video at the bottom pretty well covers everything I would want to say.

There’s two additional points I would make.

Presuppositional apologists try to claim that all truth and logic, the basis of science itself is contingent upon the existence of god. This is their presupposition and they try to claim that people they’re arguing with have their own, equally egregious, presuppositions.

This isn’t true.

Logic, reason, science all come from observation and measurement and the time-tested accuracy and utility of that methodology. It is more correct to say that reason follows post-supposition. We test a thing to see if it is true and then apply it. If it doesn’t work, we discard or revise it and try again. We don’t even presuppose that these results are going to be consistent, which is why we have peer review, repeat experimentation and so on. This is not circular, because these methods produce knowledge which can then be used. If we were wrong about radioactive decay, smoke alarms wouldn’t work. If we were wrong about the lifting effect of wings, planes couldn’t fly and so forth.

The Christian presuppositional argument (and it is usually Christian) can also be applied to other deities, ‘real’ or imagined and even to the universe itself without the need to invoke supernaturalism at all. Whatever stance you take it would follow that whatever the source of logic, reason and science (natural laws) would be, it should be demonstrable via those same natural laws. Can we evidence a god via that method? No. Is it then reasonable to assume that such exists? No. (Incidentally, I’ve seen Muslims try to use this argument too, so right there we have a conflict).

Presuppositional apologetics is just another, dishonest, semantic word game. Just as with William Lane Craig’s version of the Kalam Cosmological argument and as such should probably, at best, be pointed and laughed at.

Religious Spam Round-Up 6: Science in the Koran

religionandscienceEvery day social media users, especially those identifying as agnostics, atheists and skeptics, are subjected to a barrage of religious spam from true believers. This tends to be repeated, day in, day out, several times a day with no attempt to engage or discuss the matter. It’s spam, plain and simple. Some groups even seem to use small botnets, multiple accounts or proxies to spam hundreds of identical or similar messages all in one go.

Let’s look at some, all from one afternoon and evening on Twitter and only a small sample…

Science in the Koran

Christian creationists have, again, largely been beaten back to the fringes, despite their undue influence in the USA. The idea that their pseudoscience is actually scientific is not a wide, globally held belief within Christianity since they’ve taken a drubbing on that score year on year.

Muslims, however, very much like to believe – and it seems in a more mainstream sense – that somehow their belief is not only compatible with science but that the Koran contains miraculous scientific knowledge.

Balderdash and piffle and much of this runs into the same logical problems that assert claims of prophecy.

1. This is post-hoc reinterpretation of vague, poetic scripture to fit modern understanding. The original passages are so vague as to be able to be interpreted any number of ways and, indeed, they have been over the ages. Many modern claims of science in the Koran use older, discredited scientific conclusions in their claim that the Koran is accurate.

2. If the Koran is so amazingly scientific where are the scientific discoveries attributable to the Koran? As with prophecy, what’s the use of a prophecy that can only be interpreted after the event? Post-hoc reinterpretation yet again.

3. The few things that sound remotely credible are accountable for from ancient knowledge. We consistently underestimate our forebears. Greek knowledge of the period and before is recognisable and other claims can be accounted for from simple observations available to even the crudest peasant.

Short version, there’s no reason to believe any of these claims.

If you want a longer version, TheIslamMiracle on Youtube is a great debunking resource.

Why are you so mean?

Inherit-The-StarsBeing a lovely chap I have a lot of friends who are either relatively harmless theists/woo fans, or reasonable and moderate agnostics and atheists. Many of them are upset or boggled that I – or anyone else – could be such a strident atheist. They’re often critical of Dawkins and the kind of people who, honestly, mistake Harris’ concerns over Islam for racism.

It can be hard to explain to people quite why you’re so strident and spend so much time fighting, arguing and raising awareness of religious issues and bigotry. They understand why things like opposing male and female genital mutilation or supporting the ‘extension’ of marriage rights are important but they don’t grasp the objections to what they see as harmless – if silly – beliefs, religious education or the comfort and charity supported by it.

Let me try to explain…

It’s Wrong

Religio-spiritual beliefs are just factually wrong. It’s really that simple. There’s no afterlife, no heaven, no hell, no such thing as sin. There’s no god watching over us or devil tempting us. There are no spirits, no ghosts, no monsters under the bed. The world isn’t designed and made with us in mind. There’s no ‘special’ way that we’re intended to live, no divine law, no miracle cures or curses. There’s no magic.

If you want to split hairs then strictly speaking I’m an agnostic atheist and a skeptic. It’s that there’s no evidence for any of these things, so that it’s irrational to believe in them. In lots of cases we can say ‘X’ doesn’t exist or ‘Y’ is impossible but really to all intents and purposes we might as well just say ‘this shit is wrong’.

It’s as wrong as smells causing disease. It’s as wrong as a flat Earth. There’s no reason to believe this absolute bollocks any more.

We know better.

It’s Dangerous

Even if we strip away the specific, offensive, horrible beliefs that justify war, murder, torture, mutilation and oppression there’s the dark heart of every irrational belief system still there.


Faith is belief without evidence. The idea that this is somehow a valid reason to believe anything, let alone to act, is supremely dangerous. A belief held to without reason is – usually – immune to reason. A rational belief held because of data can be changed if the data changes or improves. A faith belief will be clung to in the teeth of the evidence and no matter how much harm it causes can rarely do anything but harm.

To be fair this goes beyond religion and into politics. Ideological faith can be just as harmful and just as rife for abuse. It is telling that in liberal countries the generational retention rates of both religious and political affiliations are practically identical. Politics and ‘religion’ would both be served better by the application of some critical thinking.

Accepting the idea that faith is valid allows all this toxic shit to persist. Couple that with either totalitarianism or uninformed democracy and you have a recipe for disaster.

We Can’t Afford it

It is an inescapable fact – unless of course you’re a person of faith – that the world is sliding into a confluence of several crises. Climate change, overpopulation, peak oil (peak energy really), damage to the seas, the forest, mass extinction, the end of useful antibiotics, a shortage of rare earths… the list just seems to get bigger every day. These problems are not insurmountable, with the proper will and sacrifice, if we put our shoulders to the wheel as a species.

The longer we wait to act the harder it will become and the more extreme measures will be needed. Technology, science, human unity, progress these are our ‘outs’ from this developmental bottleneck. So long as we deny we have a problem, or even willingly rush headlong into it as some right-wing religious conservatives in the US do, we have no chance of getting out of it.

Superstition has a very long history of slowing technological and social progress. From the Vatican to Al-Ghazali. Europe won out over the Middle East more because they were slacker in suppressing progress than from supporting it. While religion has held sway advances have been made in spite of, not because of it.

Even in modern times we see this problem in opposition to stem cell research and GM crops as well as climate change denial.

I don’t want to sound too melodramatic but honestly, this is a choice between grubbing in the mud and inheriting the stars and anything that lessens our chances to thrive and survive as a species is hard to justify indulging any longer.

Aethics – Touching Dick

vulture11bSo Dawkins produces a rather intelligent and nuanced statement in an interview for The Times Magazine and, yet again, makes the mistake of thinking that people reading it  will approach it with the same level of intelligence and nuance. That, along with a propensity for bluntness, are simultaneously his most frustrating and his most admirable qualities. What he said is being misrepresented as ‘OMFG DAWKINS IS EXCUSING PAEDOPHILIA!’ which isn’t remotely accurate, as can be seen by actually bothering to read the quotes that his detractors are using.

Let’s look at the extract, and I’ll add some emphasis in bold:

In an interview in The Times magazine on Saturday (Sept. 7), Dawkins, 72, he said he was unable to condemn what he called “the mild pedophilia” he experienced at an English school when he was a child in the 1950s.

Referring to his early days at a boarding school in Salisbury, he recalled how one of the (unnamed) masters “pulled me on his knee and put his hand inside my shorts[1].”

He said other children in his school peer group had been molested by the same teacher but concluded: “I don’t think he did any of us lasting harm[2].”

“I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours. Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism[3], I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild pedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today[4],” he said.

He said the most notorious cases of pedophilia involve rape and even murder and should not be bracketed with what he called “just mild touching up[5].”

Firstly, we don’t have the whole interview and the context of the comment. If this is anything like the normal state of affairs the journalist involved is looking for things that make good copy and, much like quote-mining from creationists, the outcome is rarely representative of the actual conversation or point.

Secondly, we have to contend with the fact that a lot of people are just out for Dawkins and whatever he says will be taken the worst way possible. This includes Christians, Muslims, political ‘moderates’ who think criticising Islam is racism and the internet commissars of social justice to be found in Atheismplus and the ironically named Freethought Blogs.

Taking the salient points from what he said.

[1]: Dawkins identifies himself as a victim. Normally, amongst many of his regular critics, this would mean he would have to be listened to and not criticised in any way. Whatever he said would have to be taken on board no matter how crazy. That this hasn’t happened here is encouraging, in that perhaps we can learn not to shield victims from examination, but also (further) demonstrates the hypocrisy of many of his critics. Note that sexual abuse in boarding schools was (is?) so common as to be a joke – much like prison rape – in the UK and given the background of most Tory MPs either explains or makes very strange their propensity to condemn homosexuality.

[2]: Saying it caused no ‘lasting harm’ is not the same as excusing it or saying it caused ‘no harm’. As a victim himself and now being successful and relatively unbothered by what happened to him he stands as evidential support for this thesis. If we are to believe that abuse etc of all forms is as widespread as some claim (rape, sexual assault) then there are millions upon millions of people who do cope in much the same way Dawkins has.

[3]: Much like technology, culture seems to be changing at a faster and faster rate. Morality changes with it. There are things we accept today that our ancestors would thoroughly condemn and vice versa. As skeptics and atheists many of us are condemned for our ‘moral relativism’ under the mistaken belief that it renders us incapable of making moral judgements rather than it simply being an acknowledgement that morality is a construct (much more so than gender, which is readily accepted as being a social construct in many quarters). Darwin is frequently criticised (ironically) by creationists for being a racist. This is in part due to a change in terminology (race and species) that confuses the poor dears, but also because – by modern standards – he was. That was, however, the conventional wisdom of the day and – for the day – Darwin was mightily progressive. He was an abolitionist, at least believed non-whites to be the same species as whites and worked with charities and missions to improve the lot of people in less salubrious circumstances. You don’t need to go back that far to see racism as accepted. The Black and White Minstrel Show didn’t end until 1978 and Bernard Manning was still getting work up into the 2000s in a postmodern and ironic way. Dawkins is simply acknowledging that morality shifts over time and that it can be unfair to judge people by modern standards when looking into the past. Even the relatively recent past.

[4]: Importantly, Dawkins here states that he condemns it today and in the moral context of today. Something that everyone seems to be missing in their rush to retweet their outrage to the world.

[5]: Black and white thinking is a scourge. Surely we can all accept that ‘bad stuff’ happens along a continuum and while everything along that continuum is bad there are things that are less bad and things that are more bad. Lest we forget, this is the same couple of days in which an eight year old child bride was fucked to death by her husband on her wedding night. Death is irrecoverable. Is that not worse than what Dawkins and his schoolmates suffered?

Morality is something I think a lot of us struggle with. The issue in Yemen is cultural in space as Dawkins issue is cultural in time. We can do better today, surely, than we did in the past and we can improve things in Yemen, can we not? Can we build a relatively objective moral framework based on sound reasoning and science and in doing so can we forgive the past and the actions of the ignorant and ‘holy’ or not?

This is complicated stuff and not suited to Twitter’s outrage mobs.

The Atheism Plus/FTB Problem


Atheismplus continues to be a problem for the atheist community (such as it is). It’s easy to pour scorn, there are many opportunities to do so, but serious problems deserve a more serious response as well. Given past experience with A+ and their ‘sort’ in other arenas (games and fiction) is is incredibly hard to keep my temper when discussing this subject – but I’ll try. Given that we’re often told one can be both emotional and rational at the same time by the Plussers that shouldn’t be too much of a problem.


New Atheism was a godsend (ha, ha). Open, loud, take-no-bullshit it united and created a whole new generation of vocal atheists and was led by some great minds with some real skill. Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens gave us a profile and vocal, intellectual presence we hadn’t really had since Sagan. We lost Hitchens but the rest continue to do good work (yes, even Dawkins). New Atheism united us and aggressively took on the status quo, not least of all with mockery and derision. While this may not directly win any deconverts it does have a positive effect, despite being ‘mean’, in that it pops the bubble of respect that religion – with its ridiculous ideas – commands.

What’s the problem: To be an atheist, even a new atheist, all you have to do is not believe in god and, perhaps, to believe in separation of church and state. To be an Atheism+ person you must be an atheist, a feminist (for a rather narrow and specific definition of feminism), must adhere to particular views, language and modes of expression when it comes to sexuality, gender and many social issues. It narrows it down and down and down to a particular orthodoxy many of the ideas of which aren’t particularly scientific. Many of these ideas might be accepted within ‘gender studies’ etc but they’re not well supported. Fail to sign up to any of this and you’re out of the club.

 Confusing & Parochial

Any specialist area of study, including large parts of atheism and skepticism, develop specialist language that can get confusing. Acronyms, arguments etc can be impossible for outsiders to understand without explanation. Most people aren’t going to know (without googling) what terms like ‘interpolation’ or ‘burden of proof’ mean. The scientific meaning of theory is very specific and not the same as the colloquial meaning. If we start tossing around terms like ‘argumentum ad hominem’ when the apologists set in we may have to explain ourselves, not that the apologist is likely to believe us even when we do. Just look how often we have to explain what evolution actually means or that no, we didn’t come from modern monkeys. This stuff is hard and we take the time to teach others about it – and quite right too.

What’s the problem: The ‘plus’ part of A+ is, pretty much, made up of a rather parochial, insular subculture centred around an extreme form of ‘liberalism’ (in the American sense) that seems to meet the worst stereotypes of the equally loony extreme conservatives. The language of gender studies groups and ‘social justice’ (I use scare quotes because I don’t think it qualifies) is very specialised and just like a lot of atheist/skeptic/philosophy terms isn’t known to outsiders. Unlike atheism Vs theism where we explain and link at length there seems to be a steadfast and absolute refusal to explain the specialist terminology, ideas and principles found in the ideas that they adhere to. It’s ‘not their job to educate’ and any requirement for clarification or explanation – or any objection – is likely to get you a singularly unhelpful link to ‘derailing for dummies’ or ‘finally feminism’. The second of which is only a tiny amount more helpful than the first since it doesn’t really back up what it claims, just defines it. Further, they’re cutting themselves off from the cut and thrust of debate through over-moderated fora, BlockBot etc. Creating a dangerous echo chamber.

A Gift to our Enemies

There are all sorts of damaging claims made about atheists and they’re all complete bollocks. Attempts to conflate atheism with evolution (and confusion over what evolution is), or Nazism or Communism. Claims that all atheists are ‘libtards’ or socialists (I’m a left anarchist as it happens, but there’s plenty of us that aren’t). There are constant attempts to make atheism more than what it is; the simple rejection of the claim that god/s exist. Yes, it’s true that atheists tend to be from an educated middle class, tend to be left wing and so on, but that’s by no means the whole story.

What’s the problem?: Atheismplus meets the stereotype that our enemies use against us and creates a solid bloc of social and political orthodoxy that plays into the idea that atheists are all abortion happy hippies, homosexuals, lefties etc. There’s nothing wrong with any of this of course, but diversity gives us a much stronger message. The other part of this is that Atheismplus spends all its time attacking its own people – fellow atheists – trying to act as a ‘moral majority’ and tearing down those who should be their allies. They’re far more interested – it seems – in trying to police conventions, fling around flimsy accusations, shame their fellows in the broader atheism movement and find anything and everything to cause drama about, often to the expense of the sorts of issues that should have primacy to atheists.


A problem with the internet in general, other than vanishing down the rabbit hole of Youtube or Wikipedia, is that anything and everything you say can be cherrypicked and lives forever. Lose your temper? Misspell something? Poorly judge your words in a throwaway tweet? You’re fucked. It is incredibly easy to make you look bad or to come back months or years later, dig up one ill-timed or phrased comment and use it to fuck you over. Social media especially combines the immediacy of conversation with the permanency of writing. The practical upshot of all this is that it is very, very easy to make people look bad or take their comments the wrong way, deliberately or not.

What’s the Problem?: It is very, very, very easy to make spurious accusations online and they proliferate far faster than the truth. A reputation can be deep-sixed in hours and can’t be fully rebuilt – if at all – for years. The veracity of the accusations has nothing to do with it and Chinese whispers (or Telephone if you think of that as racially insensitive) can turn even a fairly innocuous slander into something far worse in short order. Atheismplus are rather free with their accusations and finger pointing. Accusations of rape and sexual misconduct directed at various prominent figures without anything to back them up are perhaps the most egregious example – especially lately – but accusations of ‘rape apologism’ are also common, thoroughly insulting and any defence or anger towards the claim is taken as support for it! Bonkers! No minds are being changed, people are just being pissed off and set against Atheismplus as a whole.

Crying Wolf

In an ideal world, especially with us all being atheists and skeptics, each and every claim should be taken independently and assessed on its evidence. This is one of the few areas where historical methodology differs from scientific methodology in that in history you are always mindful of considering the source. While this does come in with today’s atmosphere of corporate sponsored studies with predetermined findings it’s much more of a social and historical issues. Still, things aren’t ideal or perfect and people’s individual and group reputations do come into it.

What’s the Problem?: ‘Elevatorgate’ was the incident that kicked everything off, that led to Atheismplus and everything else that’s happened. This is amazing given that it was an ‘incident’ in which absolutely nothing meaningful or concerning happened. Things haven’t really improved much since then. The insult a certain fragment of the community took at the arched eyebrows and ‘Really?’ comments from the larger body of atheism seems to have fed on itself more and more and the idea that Elevatorgate was a problem has been added to with any number of other ‘incidents’ that are considered equally inconsequential by the larger group. Atheismplus and its allies have cried wolf about minor issues so often that it has become incredibly difficult to take any of their drama seriously or even to believe many of their claims. The accusations against Shermer would – in normal circumstances – deserve to be taken seriously (and taken through the proper authorities). In the climate Atheismplus has created there is an established reason to be skeptical.


There’s a line (or rather, a section) in Diamond Age about how hypocrisy isn’t the big sin it’s made out to be. For a person to be a hypocrite they must be at least trying to do the right thing, it’s just that they’ve failed in some way. Nonetheless, if hypocritical behaviour becomes common enough I think it is valid to point out the hypocrisy.

What’s the Problem?: For a group whose (vaguely) stated goals include tolerance, safety and inclusion of women and minorities in atheism Atheismplus is a total failure. Attempts to interfere with harassment policies and promoting the (unevidenced) idea that atheist meetings are hotbeds of sexual exploitation have slashed female attendance at events like TAM which were practically on 50/50 parity. Rather than trying to invest in the future of the movement or seek the best and most effective speakers there’s an insistence on the basis of gender rather than expertise. Not that there aren’t good speakers of all genders but when you pass over expert male speakers to include sub-par ones with axes to grind rather than progress to make that’s an issue. There’s also something peculiar in claiming to be atheists and skeptics while suspending skepticism when it comes to certain claims – like the highly questionable 1-in-4 rape statistic or broader concepts like patriarchy and rape culture. Skepticism or demands for evidence in these arenas is treated as hostility. Base hypocrisy.

The Issue With BlockBot

On the face of it something like the BlockBot on Twitter seems like a good idea. A combined list of trolls and abusers that you can sign up to to autoblock them. This should work like Adblock or anti-spam software and should make Twitter a better experience for everyone. Unfortunately, it’s under the control of Atheismplus and, thus, takes a role that is much more like an electronic commissar than a tool to improve your internet experience.

What’s the problem?: There seems to be some confusion on Atheismplus’ part as to why BlockBot pisses people off so much or is attacked as a constriction on free speech. The more advanced levels, the abusers, spammers, doxxers (though that’s a bit subjective these days) aren’t the problem. It’s the lower level. Having your unsubstantiated beliefs challenged or mocked can be annoying, but it’s no less valid for that. It’s this level that turns BlockBot from a potentially useful internet tool to an ideological enforcer, shielding Atheismplus ideologiues from criticism. Even worse, those who sign up to it are never going to have the opportunity to make up their own minds about it. An additional problem was (may still be) the spam reporting aspect, which would feed into an algorithm to suspend accounts, which absolutely and unquestionably was/is an attempt to constrict free expression and one that obnoxious theists (Sacerdotus for example) have engaged in. It also has the eternal problem that bedevils any attempt to enforce rules on the internet, at least some of the moderators are fucking arseholes who shouldn’t be trusted to boil water, let alone run this.

Is there Room for Discussion?

The best thing for all considered may be for Atheismplus to just bugger off, go its own way and to stop messing around with the broader atheist community. Get their own conventions, have their own areas, be left completely alone and leave everyone else alone. This seems unlikely to happen though and does run the risk of leaving Atheismplus to become an even deeper and more extreme echo chamber than it already is. Something we all, as atheists, should be very alert and aware to – the danger of cults and the kind of extremism that emerges in echo chambers.

For a group so dead set against abuse, Atheismplus is remarkably abusive, dropping accusations of rape apologism and some form of sexism, racism or other – even to the point of tiptoeing around criticising Islam or at least giving Dawkins an earful over criticising it. They are willing to dish it out but can’t take even the mildest form of criticism. So long as this continues and so long as more reasoned critics – including myself (on a good day) have no capability to argue and discuss with them there’ll be no progress and no middle ground.

I suspect, sadly, there is no middle ground for Atheismplus and that’s the problem, they’re extremists and they’re extremists on issues that aren’t – yet – resolved via science. Attempts to reach out and find some sort of discussion, to make reasoned critique just get rebuffed. So why try?

Orthodoxy seems more important to them than truth, or progress, or skepticism, or atheism.

The Real Dr Skeptic

Hypochondriac's NightmareOh dear PZ… you keep sinking lower.

Dr Skeptic is sitting in his office when a Mr Myers bursts in and tells him on behalf of an anonymous ‘friend’ that they caught leprosy from someone at a business conference. While rare this is within the bounds of possibility, but Dr Skeptic can’t do anything to confirm or refute this self-diagnosis without examining the patient. The claim is sufficient to investigate, but not sufficient – especially without the actual patient – to assume it to be true. Even though leprosy is a serious disease and a more infectious version would be big trouble.

To diagnose the patient Dr Skeptic will need to see them, examine their symptoms and come to a conclusion based on what they can see. The anonymous friend dropping by with a feasible but unlikely scenario isn’t going to do that.

Let us also say, for arguments sake, that Mr Myers – and this alleged leprosy victim – are also members of a self-help group for hypochondriacs and that members of this group have repeatedly turned up at Dr Skeptic’s door insisting they have brain cancer after having spent all night on WebMD entering their symptoms. Might – an established pattern of behaviour having emerged – Dr Skeptic not be somewhat justified in treating the leprosy claim with a pinch or two of salt?

Of course, they might really have leprosy, but if – for years – you’ve had Ms Watson coming to the clinic and claiming her skull is infested with scorpions just because she got a slight headache that went away when she took some ibuprofen, a reluctance to take it seriously isn’t that hard to understand.

Claims made, without evidence, should not be taken as true whether they’re medical, legal, scientific or otherwise. The claim is the basis for an examination, not evidence in and of itself and not an excuse to call the CDC, start a witch hunt or blow the national budget on cold fusion.

An insistence on evidence and on ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is not an assault on women or ‘going to the defense of powerful men’, it’s being consistent in the application of logic, reason and evidence.

Not Everyone Believes

This ridiculous proposal – that everyone, somehow, deep down, believes in god – came from a commentator on the previous posts who then linked to his blog on the topic to try and show that this was the case. OK, you want traffic, I like arguments. Let’s trade.

Here’s the blog:

Here’s me tearing it a new arsehole:

One of the things that fascinates me about modern defenders of the Christian faith is how casually they begin in the wrong place. They start with the assumption that their listeners are objective and analytical and can be persuaded by facts. I doubt this is true.

Well, it depends whom you’re trying to convince. Members of other religions are unlikely to be convinced by such arguments but the atheists who are also sceptics – like myself – are open to being persuaded by logic, reason and, most importantly, evidence. You doubt it is true we can be convinced by such, I doubt you have anything of that ilk to convince us with.

Then they assume their role is one of defense attorney who presents a reliable case sufficient to free God from the atheist’s accusations. I know this isn’t true. The Bible starts in a completely different place, saying we are “without excuse” for not believing (Romans 1:20). The atheist needs a defense attorney.

Here I’m going to pull a shocker and actually agree with the Pastor. The Christian IS in the position of the prosecution and the burden of proof is on them. Innocent until proven guilty (the prosecutor must show beyond any and all reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty) mirrors directly with non-existent until proven existent (the theist must show beyond any and all reasonable doubt that their god exists).

For the atheists all we have to do is show that there is enough reason to doubt what the theist is proposing. If they show up to court without any evidence, the case is going to be dismissed. So this is – as analogies go – a pretty good one.

And what’s most surprising about this to me is that the guy who says he doesn’t believe in God has already shown that he depends upon a world in which God does exist in three ways.


First, when one says, “God does not exist,” that person is assuming that the purpose of communication is to tell the truth.

No, it’s to communicate ideas. The purpose of communication also includes lying, creating fiction, giving instructions, etc etc. Also, by and large, when an atheist says god does not exist, it is shorthand for: “There is absolutely no evidence for a god, no reason to believe in one and everything we do see suggests other, better explanations. So I don’t believe in a god.” That’s just a bit of a mouthful to squeeze into a Twitter conversation.

But this moral undergirding is suspicious. If God doesn’t exist, morality is at best a mistaken byproduct of blind evolution. So long as survival of the fittest is the only goal, there’s really no objective moral obligation. I can tell the truth if I want and not if I don’t. But when we say, “God does not exist,” we’re assuming that communication in general rests on a real obligation to tell the truth, which is a moral claim.

I think the problem here is a lack of understanding of what ‘the fittest’ means or the implications of ‘the selfish gene’ and group selection. There is positive survival utility to cooperation in a social species and that survival utility supports behaviours and instincts – like honesty, like guilt – that reinforce that societal benefit. Evolutionary psychology provides a basis for the only things that really begin to approach – even remotely – objective morality.

  • Altruism good.
  • Selfishness bad.

We humans complicate matters by developing other, less objective, more subjective moral systems and superimposing them over our instinctual base. Your religion being one of them.

Second, when you say, “God does not exist,” you are assuming that the thoughts in your head accurately reflect the world around you. You really think that in the universe, there is not a God, and that your perception of that world is accurate. But there’s a problem. In a godless universe, everything is simply matter. Everything is made up of colliding particles. Our brains in our heads are just a collection of particles that have come to function in certain ways. But there’s nothing objective that obligates the particles in our heads to give us an accurate picture of the real world (this is sort of the red pill here).

It is not an assumption that our senses provide an accurate picture but one shown to be true to ourselves and to others for… well, all of human existence. Science works no matter what you belief. Delusion doesn’t alter reality. If I throw a ball, someone else can catch it. In short, we have damn good reason to think that our perception of the world is at least reasonably accurate and in science we hone that through repeat experiment, peer review and practical applications (which wouldn’t work if our perception wasn’t correct). Misleading perceptions have obvious problems when it comes to survival,.

Third, when you say “God does not exist,” you are trusting that communication actually works. You are trusting that the ideas in one person’s head can be translated into language, perceived consistently, and received accurately… …Again, a material universe with no guiding conscience would not necessitate that words have meaning or that language is effective. These things require something more purposeful than the blind movements of particles.

Humans. Intentional agents with volition.

So when someone says “I don’t believe in God,” they are trusting that we are bound by the objective moral obligation to tell the truth, that our brains are bound to purposefully reveal accurate information, and that communication can be infused with objective meaning, none of which should necessarily exist in a godless universe. That person is acting like God is there at exactly the moment she says he isn’t. So ironically, the person who says “God does not exist” is actually proving that God does.

So, as shown above. No, this isn’t correct. You have really just engaged in a rather long-winded redefinition fallacy based around a peculiar notion of what ‘truth’ means.