Episode 34: Common Creationist Claims, Part 1

Episode 34: Common Creationist Claims, Part 1

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Gem Newman discusses and rebuts common creationist arguments with the help of Ashlyn Noble, Greg Christensen, and Ian Leung.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

Links: On the Origin of Species | In the Beginning | TalkOrigins.org | An Index to Creationist Claims | Neo-Darwinian Synthesis | Debating Creationists | The Evolution of the Eye (Wikipedia, Dawkins Explains Here, and Here, and Here) | Irreducible Complexity (Iron Chariots, Wikipedia) | Examples of Transitional Fossils (Tiktaalik, Archaeopteryx, Eohippus/Hyracotherium, Ambulocetus)

Contact Us: Facebook | Twitter | Email

Listen: Direct Link | iTunes | RSS Feed

Episode 31: News Update

Episode 31: News Update

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Ashlyn Noble is joined by Gem Newman, Greg Christensen, and Mark Whatman to discuss local and international news of interest to skeptics, including WiFi fears, the link between gay marriage and abortion, hominid fossils, and more! This episode is the first of our new biweekly news round-up shows. You can now expect a new episode every week!

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

Links: SkeptiCamp Winnipeg 2012 | Winnipeg Ghostbusters | Young Cannabis Smokers at Risk for Lower IQ | Winnipeg Church Being Turned into Low Income Housing | Baffling Campaign Ad Claims Same Sex Marriage Leads to More Abortions | The Winnipeg Free Press’s “Letter of the Day”: Schools Should Be Wired | WHO Fact Sheet on EHS | Episode 18: WiFi, Mobile Phones, and Electrosensitivity | New Fossils Put Face on Mysterious Human Ancestor

Contact Us: Facebook | Twitter | Email

Listen: Direct Link | iTunes | RSS Feed

Episode 26: “Thrive”

Episode 26: “Thrive”

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Gem Newman, Gary Barbon, and Mark Forkheim discuss the online conspiracy film “Thrive” with Robert Shindler, Richelle McCullough, and Greg Christensen.

This episode was recorded over Google+, so the audio quality is occasionally inconsistent. Unfortunately, due to technical difficulties, Greg, Richelle, and Robert had to drop out of the show early, but Mark, Gary, and Gem soldiered on!

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

News Items: Bad Science Watch | Students at Quebec School Have Adverse Reaction to Hypnotist Act | Hypnosis (Wikipedia, The Skeptic’s Dictionary) | Obese Father Loses Custody of His Children | Do Atheists Have a Sexual Harassment Problem? | Freethought Blogs Roundtable (Harassment at Conferences, Why Talk About Social Justice?) | SkeptiCamp Winnipeg | Winnipeg Skeptics Anti-Harassment Policy | New NSA Docs Contradict 9/11 Claims (Salon, National Security Archive) | Prometheus: It Sucked

Addressing Some of Thrive’s Claims: Thrive | Entropy and Life | Graphical (Linear) Projection | The Flower of Life | Skeptoid on UFOs | SkeptiCamp Winnipeg: Perpetual Motion and Free Energy | The Hutchison “Effect” | The Death of Eugene Mallove (Suspects Arrested, Schaffer Enters Guilty Plea) | Interviewees Repudiate Thrive (Interviewees Distance Themselves from the Film, John Robbins Speaks Out Against Thrive) | Thrive Debunked (Index, Ancient Astronauts, Crop Circles, “False Flag” Attacks, Global Domination)

What Are You Reading? Hitch-22 | Against Intellectual Monopoly | Hegemony or Survival | Fundamentals of Computational Neuroscience | Going Solo | Singlism | Dying of the Light | John Dies at the End | Redshirts | I Am Legend | Why Are You Atheists So Angry? | Before Watchmen

Contact Us: Facebook | Twitter | Email

Listen: Direct Link | iTunes | RSS Feed

Creationism Makes for Antisocial Networking

Cross-posted from Startled Disbelief.

A few weeks ago, Nathan Hatton, a friend of mine from the Winnipeg Skeptics, posted a link to an Examiner.com article that discussed a Tennessee bill that aims to promote “critical thinking” with regard to evolution, global warming, and other scientific subjects that “can cause controversy”. Anyone with a passing familiarity with creationist propaganda should be able to spot the red flags a kilometre away. (This is HB 368/SB 893, which recently passed into law through the cowardly inaction of Governor Bill Haslam, in case you’re wondering.)

Image by Randall Munroe from the ever-awesome xkcd. (CC BY-NC 2.5)

Nathan quoted from the article: “Science is rigorous… Scientific theories must provide natural and testable explanations. Creationism and intelligent design provide neither.” Many of his friends were rather upset by this, as it turns out, and the comment thread began to rapidly balloon in size. At his request, I took the time to respond to several of the claims made by pro-creationist commenters.

Comments are full and unedited (I have screencaps to settle any disputes that may arise), but are in some cases rearranged slightly to allow responses to directly follow claims, making the conversation a little easier on the reader. I won’t reproduce every one of the 108 comments here, but I’ll present both sides of this argument as fairly as I can. Spelling and punctuation as in the original.

Commenter 1: wow, Nathan! There are some serious statements in there like teaching creationism is likened unto child abuse?!?! ! really? There are many scientists that have found Christianity to be the actual answer while trying to prove evolutionism. To think that teaching children to have faith in things that humans may not be able to “scientifically prove” is child abuse doesn’t leave much hope for us, does it? Sorry brother, I can’t say that I agree with that whatsoever..

Nathan: The “actual answer” to what? Whether a person is converted to Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, or any other faith while investigating evolution (I am sure that there are examples of each) is irrelevant to the point that “creationism” is not science and should not be part of a science curriculum. When it comes to the origins of species, a person does not need “faith” because it is something that we can “scientifically prove.” Evolution is one of the most robust scientific paradigms we have. I’m all for religion classes and actually feel that students should be MORE educated on religion than they are now, but the place is not in the science classroom.

Commenter 1: You don’t think there may be a small, even tiny possibility that science as we know it may actually opne day findc the truth to be that Creationism has a place? To ignore any path is to render ourselves ignorant of what it could possibly bring. We shouldn’t take anything off the table if we are truly open to whatever the truth may hold. We all know my take on faith in God, but wouldn’t it be silly to totally ignore the millions of people and artifacts that we have? Science should be embracing this to grow so we can all grow in understanding, I would think. Then again, who am I?….lol

Gem: In response to [Commenter 1]’s early comments, I’ll quote Stephen Jay Gould, as I think that he said it best: “In science, ‘fact’ can only mean ‘confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.’ I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.” Scientists aren’t denying the possibility the universe may have been created, but there is overwhelming evidence in support of evolution, and a dearth of evidence to support creation. In science, we keep an open mind, but that doesn’t mean that, given our current state of knowledge, all possibilities are equally likely, or merit equal consideration.

Commenter 1: we’re debating theoretical data that, as far as we know, the government has altered so as not to alarm us of catastrophic events that have already begun to take place. This debate could easily go on forever. We’re debating theories derived from findings, whether correct or not, based on man and his/her interpretation, and limited to what we believe we can or cannot prove according the the knowledge and understanding we have as of now. Something I learned from a very wise man was this. What I learn today will be wrong tomorrow. We’re always discovering new things. The fact is, Christianity is what the new world known as the western hemisphere has derived it’s laws and foundations upon.

Commenter 2: What that very wise man was describing was science. The book on religion never changes.

Gem: I would also dispute that the laws and foundations of the western hemisphere are derived from Christianity. I would argue that instead they are founded in the European Enlightenment. Regardless, this is irrelevant. We’re talking about science, not law.

Commenter 1: That man was referring to something that had absolutely nothing to do with this topic at all. Do you seriously believe we have discovered all the secrets? That we truly understand everything? Not possible my friend. Unless you have a time machine it simply seems ridiculous to discount anything that offers us substancial information and there is an unbelievable amount of information to support faith.

Commenter 2: Now you’re describing science. If in the very minute chance that the beginning of existence is ever traced back to an omnipotent higher power, it will be science that proves it, not the bible. And it will be the working theory of evolution that gets there.

Commenter 1: and if it all points back to the Bible? what then, would your argument be?

Gem: To ask, repeatedly, if we “seriously believe we have discovered all the secrets” is a ridiculous straw-man. You are disingenuously misrepresenting our position, for no scientist or science enthusiast would propose such a thing. Instead, we recognise the limits of our understanding. We teach that which is established on a strong theoretical and empirical foundation. As we collect more data, we further fine-tune the models to ensure that they reflect reality as best we can.

Gem: You ask, “and if it all points back to the Bible? what then, would your argument be?” Then we would gladly reevaluate! Science is not ideologically dedicated to any conclusion; belief in a proposition should be proportional to the evidence that supports it. But you’re proposing contrafactuals, here—there’s no reason to believe that “it” will ever point back to the Bible.

Commenter 1: you can’t disprove it and that information has been around longer than most of the things that we can date and use as fact. it’s hypothetical to say the world has been here for millions of years, theoretical at best. Proof has not been provided except for what we can fathom.

Gem: [Commenter 1] keeps harping on about “proof”: that’s a red herring. Science doesn’t deal in proof: it deals in theory and evidence. While some scientists may use “proof” colloquially, I would refer you back to the Stephen Jay Gould quotation that I posted a few minutes ago. All conclusions are provisional.

Nathan: The thing is, no matter how much evidence is put forward for evolution, the answer will never be “revealed” to theists who refuse to look at what overwhelming evidence there is. Same as the people who say the earth is flat. Or that rabbits don’t chew cud.

Nathan: Above it should say “Or that rabbits chew cud.”

Nathan: Evolution provides models that can be tested and falsified.

Commenter 1: To return to the point that began this conversation, I think we should be worrying about much more pressing matters than whether or not faith is introduced to the science classroom as we’ve already conceited, it may well be the truth that science is looking to prove in trying to discover how we came to be who and whaty we are today

Commenter 2: But… it’s not. There’s no evidence of it. And evidence is the root of all facts, and science. So it doesn’t belong there, until there’s something that leads it in that direction. That’s like saying the flying spaghetti monster should be taught in classrooms, because you can’t prove it wrong. The flying spaghetti monster MIGHT be the answer. But is it? Well no, probably not. So science wouldn’t work with that theory.

Commenter 1: Prove to me that you love your parents…

Commenter 1: proof of what has happened, especially if it be by an all-knowing God as I and many others believe cannot be proven by a single train of thought. To discount things outside of what we know would be to prove ourselves ignorant

Gem: That old canard of “you can’t prove love” was brought up. Again, this is absurd. I could provide you with ample evidence that I love my wife, and that she loves me. If my wife had no evidence that I loved her, I would hope that she would investigate the issue, and if she discovered sufficient evidence that I had been unfaithful (for example), I would hope that she would leave me.

Commenter 1: So when science opens our eyes to understand that 2000 year old book, after having to go through the trials and failures, what then will you say?

Nathan: Right. So the next time someone gets sick, I won’t suggest anti-virals (developed with the help of evolutionary theory). I’ll kill some doves and burn them on the altar. one works just as well as the other, right?

Commenter 1: prayer heals my friend…

Commenter 1: Faith healing, not as seen on tv, but true fith healing does exist. Ahh, but it takes absolute faith

Nathan: Again, no evidence for that. And they’ve done tests.

Gem: The proposition that faith healing works (but only for those whose faith is pure!) is clearly designed to be unfalsifiable. It is therefore scientifically useless.

Commenter 1: plenty of tests that cancers have disappeared, but with no explanation. Mysteries out there that we will all be happy to see

Nathan: Even if they have disappeared with no explanation, it does not mean that prayer did it.

Commenter 1: I’ve seen and been witness to healings that couldn’t scientifically be proven

Commenter 1: Doesn’t mean that faith in God and His work didn’t heal, either, my dear friend

Nathan: healing could have come from many things. Why attribute it to the prayer?

Commenter 1: If science can’t prove or disprove yet recognizes things claimed to be of God, how can we turn our backs on that?

Commenter 1: there are holes in scienced, it was developed by humans

Nathan: Ah, the ‘God of the gaps’ argument.

Commenter 1: you can’t disprove it… nor can science prove the lack of existence of God. What we do know is there is an entire world beyond our imagination that we have no idea how to understand

Gem: [Commenter 1] asks, “If science can’t prove or disprove yet recognizes things claimed to be of God, how can we turn our backs on that?” Science cannot disprove the existence of leprechauns or pixies, either. That doesn’t somehow make them plausible or likely to exist.

Commenter 3: I have to say also that perhaps leprachauns do exist, as was said science should be testable, I am saying Creationism is. In this life there is known fact and there is faith. both are good

Gem: I see no reason to believe that faith is good or useful.

Commenter 3: creationism in true form IS scientific, has natural and testable theories

Gem: Such as?

Commenter 3: carbon dating, a man had his tooth pulled and carbon dated it. I don’t remember the exact age it dated at but it was apparently thousands of years old. There are some creatures from dinosaur age that still exist which are listed in the Bible. The Bible supports dinosaur theories. I did not see the presentation myself or I am sure I could tell you alot more

Gem: First of all, those aren’t testable claims made by a “creation theory”: they are attempts to poke holes in evolutionary theory. Even if evolution were “proven” false, it wouldn’t make Biblical creation any more plausible.

Gem: I cannot speak to your specific tooth example, but radiocarbon dating is only accurate for items that are between 150 and 50,000 years, for several different reasons (significant increases in carbon production since the industrial revolution and atmospheric nuclear testing in the 1950s, for example). There are several other types of radiometric dating, which work for various periods of time (due to the varying half-lives of the isotopes in question). These forms of radiometric dating are calibrated to each other (the isotopes used are valid for overlapping periods of time, which allows for such calibration) and to other forms of dating, such as sedimentary dating, tree-ring dating, and the known dating of archaeological objects whose provenance is well documented. They match, within known error bars. (More info here: http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/CD/CD011.html)

Gem: I’m not sure how creatures from the “dinosaur age” that still exist (e.g., crocodillians?) are relevant. Evolution does not predict that all creatures from the Cretaceous period would now be extinct. Would you mind clarifying this point?

Commenter 3: I believe that Christians came to North America because they weren’t allowed to practice their religion freely at the time. Guess what? They aren’t again

Gem: No? I find that claim laughable, given the fact that 84% of Americans are Christian (2005 estimate), 73% of Canadians are Christian (2010 estimate), and 96% of Mexicans are Christian (2005 estimate).

Gem: Christians can’t practice their religion freely? Of course they can! They simply aren’t allowed to impose it on others quite so much as they used to be able to.

Commenter 3: Christians have scientifically studied the dinosaur age and is not just a fly by theorie

Gem: “It is not just a fly by theorie”? I don’t understand what you’re trying to say.

Commenter 3: for one thing it would be nice if you would give me time to respond

Commenter 3: I am done for now, look that stuff up on the computer if it interests you,

Commenter 3: and i think it was lakonian

Gem: You haven’t given me anything to look up.

Commenter 3: then go away, I can’t think anymore right now

Nathan: Well, whadda ya know, a “science versus religion debate” involving theists and methodological naturalists wasn’t put to rest once and for all on my facebook page.

I believe that the last commenter meant “Laconian”, but given that Laconia is a region of Greece, I wasn’t able to determine what argument this person was trying to make. With so little to go on, Google was unhelpful. I tried!

Episode 14: A Creationism Primer

Episode 14: A Creationism Primer

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Robert Shindler, Laura Targownik, Richelle McCullough, and Greg Christensen define creationism and discuss several key points relating to intelligent design, evolution, and the scientific method.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

Links: Quebec Kids Cannot Opt Out of Religion Course (CTV, Global) | Hyperbaric Chamber Explosion Kills Horse and Employee (Eventing Nation, Chronicle of Horse, Chronicle of Horse Followup) | Hyperbaric-Oxygen Therapy | An Introduction to Creationism | TalkOrigins | Index to Creationist Claims | The Winnipeg Skeptics Visit the Creation Museum | The Counter-Creationism Handbook

Contact Us: Facebook | Twitter | Email

Listen: Direct Link | iTunes | RSS Feed

Episode 13: What Is Love?

Episode 13: What Is Love?

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, just in time for Valentine’s Day, Laura Targownik ponders the nature of love with Laura Creek Newman, Robert Shindler, and Mark Forkheim.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

Links: 18-Year-Old Miraculously Finds Soulmate In Hometown | Soulmate Dropped for New, Better Soulmate | Acupuncturist Claims Cervical Cancer Is for Prostitutes | Straw Vulcan | Darwin Day | Oldest Known Primate | Chiropractic Neurology | Oxytocin and Love

Contact Us: Facebook | Twitter | Email

Listen: Direct Link | iTunes | RSS Feed

The opposite of stumped: 9 unanswerable anti-vax questions answered

9 Questions That Stump Every Pro-Vaccine Advocate and Their Claims found its way onto the Facebook page for the Winnipeg Skeptics when a member’s friend posted it, along with the qualification “if you can give me a good, scientifically-backed answer to each of these questions, I will vaccinate my children.”

Oh, if it only were all so easy! The article claims:

I have never encountered one pro-vaccine advocate, whether medically or scientifically qualified, who could answer even 1 let alone all 9 of these questions.

Well, here’s one non-immunologist, non-virologist, unqualified physiology & medical student who had zero problem with finding scientific answers to any of their questions. Let’s dive right in, shall we?

1. Could you please provide one double-blind, placebo-controlled study that can prove the safety and effectiveness of vaccines?

Yes, although you can’t find any modern studies of old vaccines, because it’s unethical to deviate from the standard of care. However, there are tons of modern (i.e. internet searchable) literature on the subject. Honestly, go to Google Scholar and search “double blind placebo vaccine” I’ll start you off:
Prophylactic quadrivalent human papillomavirus (types 6, 11, 16, and 18) L1 virus-like particle vaccine in young women: a randomised double-blind placebo-controlled multicentre phase II efficacy trial

2. Could you please provide scientific evidence on ANY study which can confirm the long-term safety and effectiveness of vaccines?

Yes. Seriously, it took me 30 seconds to find this. Google Scholar is your friend.

3. Could you please provide scientific evidence which can prove that disease reduction in any part of the world, at any point in history was attributable to inoculation of populations?

4. Could you please explain how the safety and mechanism of vaccines in the human body are scientifically proven if their pharmacokinetics (the study of bodily absorption, distribution, metabolism and excretion of ingredients) are never examined or analyzed in any vaccine study?

You can’t study the pharmacokinetics of something which is not physically acting on the body—rather, vaccines are designed to be acted upon. I can’t answer this; not because of a conspiracy, but because this is an unanswerable question. It’s like asking, “Why haven’t they studied the mating habits of tennis shoes?”

5. Could you please provide scientific justification as to how injecting a human being with a confirmed neurotoxin is beneficial to human health and prevents disease?

Neurotoxins are a matter of dosage, just like radiation, and all interventions are a risk-benefit ratio. You accept the risk of getting a chest x-ray if you might have pneumonia because the dose is very low, and you won’t have it done repeatedly. Also, for something to be a neurotoxin and have effects on the brain, it must be able to pass the blood-brain barrier. This is very, very difficult and chemists spend their entire lives trying to design something that will get across. Just because something can be toxic doesn’t mean it is, just because something has risk doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, and just because something has theoretical potential to do harm doesn’t mean that it will do harm.

‎6. Can you provide a risk/benefit profile on how the benefits of injecting a known neurotoxin exceeds its risks to human health for the intended goal of preventing disease?

See the above study on measles vaccines saving hundreds of thousands of lives. Any risk of “injecting a known neurotoxin” (Which one? At what dose? Neurotoxic to who? Correlation or causative?) is unequivocally lower than the very real and potentially lethal risk of an outbreak in an unvaccinated community or one with a low uptake.

7. Could you please provide scientific justification on how bypassing the respiratory tract (or mucous membrane) is advantageous and how directly injecting viruses into the bloodstream enhances immune functioning and prevents future infections?

Different parts of your body have different types of antibodies associated with them. In the mucous membranes of your body, like the GI tract and the respiratory tract, white blood cells at the membrane produce IgA antibodies on exposure to a pathogen. In the blood stream, you have direct access to the memory cells which produce IgGs: the more robust antibodies that provide lifetime immunity against a particular pathogen. Those memory cells will stay in your lymph nodes, ready to produce an onslaught of deadly (to the pathogen) IgGs whenever the body recognizes it again. IgAs are incapable of this, and many respiratory pathogens are defeated after exposure by the body’s initial defences, before an specific set of antibodies can ever be manufactured.

8. Could you please provide scientific justification on how a vaccine would prevent viruses from mutating?

Viruses mutate as they replicate, but fortunately, by definition, viruses require the machinery of living organisms to do so. To do this, viruses must enter the cells and hijack their function to produce more viruses. If the body is prepared to identify the pathogen, it can respond immediately to the pathogen in a matter of hours instead of days. Given that viruses can replicate at phenomenal rates, the faster the body responds, the less replication will happen, the less likely a beneficial (to the virus) mutation will occur. Furthermore, even if a mutation does happen, if individuals around the infected patient are all immunized, the mutation will not be carried on. The nice thing about adaptive (post-exposure) immunity is that it identifies a bunch of different parts of the pathogen as foreign, so even if little bits of it change, one antibody might be useless but all of the others will still work!

9. Could you please provide scientific justification as to how a vaccination can target a virus in an infected individual who does not have the exact viral configuration or strain the vaccine was developed for?

Although I sort of just addressed this, it’s a matter of phylogeny. If you look at human beings (obviously far more complicated than viruses, but work with me) almost all of our diversity and mutation is contained in a fraction of a fraction of a percentage of our DNA. This is because we all come from a common ancestor and we have been building off of that base DNA ever since, so we have more in common than not. Viruses work the same way. Each type of virus has certain defining characteristics, defining proteins that make it work. For retroviruses, this is something like reverse transcriptase, which allows the HIV to copy itself into our DNA and hide. So, if the vaccine causes you to develop an antibody against a particular protein, say one on the surface of a influenza virus, it’s going to make antibodies against little chunks of it, and the odds of a related virus having mutated all of those little chunks beyond the wiggle-room there is in these sorts of processes is pretty low.

Think of pathogens like fugitives and antibodies like really zoomed in “wanted” photos that the body has put up in the Post Office. The fugitive tries to hide by dying their hair, so maybe that photo of their hair is useless. And maybe they’ve changed their shirt, so throw out that photo too. But that hand is still a hand, and that mouth looks like the right mouth even though it’s got a moustache now. The fugitive is spotted—the white blood cells are primed to look for that mouth and that hand—and the pathogen is “arrested”.

That’s not to say that an imperfect match is going to lead to the best result. If you can put all those little snapshots together and get the whole thing, you’re even better off, just like a perfect match is going to trigger a wide variety of antibodies to be produced and the response will be more robust, but immunization with a closely related virus is going to provide some protection.

So no, Random Internet Website that hasn’t even bothered to try and learn about the immune system (I cannot reiterate enough that I am not an immunology expert and all of this information is freely available via appropriate internet search): none of these are stumpable questions. If someone is confused by your questions, it’s because they don’t make sense or because they are so unbelievably broad as to be useless.

Asking questions is good, and should be encouraged! You should know these things before you vaccinate your kids! However, critical thinking can teach you to ask better questions. For example: What sort of evidence is there for the 25 year safety and efficacy of the Canadian childhood MMR vaccine in a healthy Canadian population? This a specific, quantifiable, discrete question to which discrete answers can be obtained. These are the sort of questions that scientists ask—and the ones that drive the clinical trials you’re asking for.

Episode 9: Communicating with People Who Believe Weird Things

Episode 9: Communicating with People Who Believe Weird Things

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Gem Newman, Ashlyn Noble, Anlina Sheng, and Greg Christensen discuss how to approach someone with odd beliefs and whether or not it’s okay to be a dick in the name of science.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

Links: Legal Challenge to Catholic Schools’ Taxpayer Funding | Phil Plait’s “Don’t Be a Dick” | Greta Christina’s “Why Are You Atheists So Angry?” | Intelligence2 Debate: “The Catholic Church is a Force for Good in the World” | The Winnipeg Skeptics Visit a Creation Museum | Gem Newman’s “I Don’t Debate Science” | Cut Onion Contamination on Snopes

Also on this episode, the first instalment of Where’s My Jetpack? This week, Old Man Newman demands to know, “Where’s my jetpack?”

Where’s My Jetpack? Links: Soar Over Water on Your Hydro Powered Jet Pack | Man with Jetpack Races Actual Jets | Jetpack (Wikipedia)

Contact Us: Facebook | Twitter | Email

Listen: Direct Link | iTunes | RSS Feed

Skeptical News Roundup

Some quick hits!

Steve Thoms from Skeptic North has posted an excellent summary of the WiFi scare, detailing why you shouldn’t worry too much about EMF.

This wonderful Pharyngula post was recently nominated for the 2011 edition of The Open Laboratory. This provides me with an excuse to link to it, which I’ve been meaning to do for months. Give it a read. Seriously, it’s excellent.

Diana Goods of the Humanist Association of Manitoba wrote a nice letter to the editor explaining why Steinbach’s newest megachurch isn’t anything to get excited about. Hat tip to Jeff Olsson.

Also from Pharyngula comes the tale of this new lunacy from Orson Scott Card. Apparently Card’s 2008 rewrite of Hamlet depicts the ghostly king as an evil paedophile who turns everyone gay. I’m not making this up.

And finally, on a lighter note, Felicia Day linked to this on Google+:

Also, these watches are awesomely geeky. That is all.

Artificial Dissemination

At a social event with the Winnipeg Skeptics this week we ended up talking about religious people and the religious right among other things. We were marveling at how some of the Republicans in the U.S. can be so far off the deep-end with their beliefs. It reminded me of an article I’d read a couple months ago, for which the connection may not be immediately obvious. Hopefully I can explain.

In my personal obsession with psychology and sociology I’ve tried to understand how people think and why they do what they do. This article describes how we tend to operate by personality archetypes (specifically those relating to gender) and how they affect the way we think about ourselves; and by extension, how we think about others. The focus of this article is arguing against the idea of gender based essentialism, and that most of how we behave is according to how we think about ourselves and is passed on socially. I don’t at all want to undermine the profound revelations to be made on just this issue, but I think that these findings also have vast implications for every arena of our lives.

During that discussion with the Skeptics I was reminded a family member, which I related to the group. I explained how she identifies as a conservative and repeats many of the standard truisms that go with that, yet when I asked to explain her views she actually breaks to the left. How could this be? Most of the extended family is conservative, her local community is very conservative, and lives with a staunchly conservative partner. She even votes conservative! Why is there such a mismatch in her views versus her identity?

Like the subjects in the article above, I believe that most people adopt cookie-cutter identities in an attempt to fit in with their social circles. This is something we do in many aspects of our lives, and not just with gender or sexual identity. We do it with our politics, our jobs,  in our romantic relationships, with our families and friends, and with our children. In essence, we wear many different hats. It’s a basic mechanic of social grouping and we apply it to almost everything. With it we sometimes even adopt beliefs that are not our own, though we may wear them loosely.

Now, moving further towards the point embedded in the title: we don’t just do this to ourselves. We do it to others. Often, we do it oppressively. We repeat little truisms about other groups. We make presumptions about who other people are without actually knowing, based on nothing more than a projected and/or perceived group identity. We reinforce our position within some groups by advertising how we treat other groups. Other times it’s simply and subtly implied in our choice of words or the tone of our voice. In all these ways we project on others our subliminal (or overt) message about who they are (especially in comparison to us), and what we think their value and purpose are.

Whenever harsh words like oppression or privilege are used, I think there is something embedded in our neuro-linguistic vocabulary that implies ill-intent. Let me say it explicitly: bad intentions are not required to create oppression. For us it may just be learned patterns and we may not even know the message that we are conveying! As such, sometimes all that is required is ignorance (lack of specific knowledge, not to be confused with stupidity). Language is full of traps like this.

When we operate within the world-view and norms of our social group without bad intentions, and someone comes up to us and tells us that we’re oppressing them with our words and actions, it’s easy to think of them as being deluded. After all, what they’re saying is completely outside of what we know to be normal, natural and obviously true. We know our intentions are good (or at least not intentionally malicious), so obviously they are full of it, right? I mean, it’s not hard to believe. We have so many daily examples of people complaining about things that don’t make any sense to us and some who are indeed obviously deluded.

No political correctness
Image via Wikipedia

Here is the birthplace of the concept of “Political Correctness”, where the hidden motif of that other person is to stifle our very being, and sanitize all of existence into rainbows and kittens and everything nice. The belief that their group thinks that way in comparison to ours fits well with our understanding of how things are and they just confirmed it for us. More importantly, they’re in our face telling us we’re bad, and we feel threatened! We need to make it stop, and stop now! Our emotions appeal to our little problem solver upstairs, and it gives us an answer that makes the bad feeling go away.

But why?

Millions of years of evolution have given us this handy fight-or-flight mechanism to protect us from threats, both to our body and to our carefully nurtured, albeit tenuous sense of self. But as we ought to know, evolution is not perfect. Especially when in just a few short years (historically speaking) our world has gone from small communities and tribes with similar values and identities to a global society of remarkable complexity and conflicting values. It’s no surprise that our instincts could misfire. What’s really going on is usually more complex than whatever scenario our brain comes up with in half a second and with almost no meaningful information.

We feel more than we think.

The problem is that many of our socially absorbed views and behaviours are demonstrably false and counter-productive to our proclaimed goals. On the whole, we don’t think to find the truth. We rationalize to preserve our identity. Without deliberate investigation into ourselves and our world, and decoupling from these pre-canned identities (or at least being aware of and working around them), we will continue flying blindly on autopilot, and our greater issues will never be solved.

Won’t evolution fix everything eventually?

Evolution is just the explanation of how we got here. It doesn’t magically give us what we want. It doesn’t deal with our wishes for happiness or camaraderie. It doesn’t deal with things working optimally at all. It is merely “survival of the good enough.”

However, we have a brain that is capable not only of rational thought, but also of deep introspection. We have it because it was the advantage we needed to survive. We can leave our future to the magic of death and suffering to select some better genes, or we can use the tools we have proactively and figure out how to get what we want through greater awareness. Our evolution has not yet brought us to fully rational thinking or conscious social function and as the social world continues expanding through advances in social technology, the pressure to get there will also increase.

So I ask you now, who are you? And more importantly:

Who do you want to be?

Cross-posted from Jack-in-the-Brain