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.