Archive for September, 2008

It’s logical fallacy time, here in Skeptictionary corner.

An argumentum ad hominem might look like this:

Is a convicted drunk driver really qualified to comment on a matter of such importance?

Since when did we start listening to suggestions from communists on how to improve our healthcare system?

You’re wrong because you’re an idiot.

It’s an attempt to discredit an argument, by attacking the person (the hominem in “ad hominem“) who is making it, rather than the logic of the argument itself. It’s fallacious because it’s irrelevant; it doesn’t matter who is claiming something, the facts are what’s important in deciding what’s true.

For instance, I hope to get around to discussing the authenticity of the Bible on this blog before long. If you want to defend your Holy Book, it’s not going to do you any favours to rant about how a godless heathen like me can’t be trusted, or to bring up those baby seals I hunted to death that one time, without actually addressing my points. The historical evidence stands as it stands, regardless of my personal history.

And, fair’s fair; if someone brings up a point about Biblical prophecy or some such which they think supports the Bible’s divine origins, it doesn’t help me to simply declare that nobody so blinded by ideology could possibly have anything useful to say. An argument should be judged on its own merit, and irrelevant ad hominem arguments don’t advance anyone’s cause.

They tend to come in three (or maybe four) flavours:

An abusive ad hominem is a straight-forward insult or an aspersion cast against your opponent, in an illogical attempt to damage the logic of their own standing. (“Sure, he sounds like he knows what he’s talking about, but can you ever really trust a convicted jay-walker?”)

A circumstantial ad hominem is something I’ve seen described in two different ways. It can be an attempt to undermine someone’s credibility, and thus the credibility of their argument, by pointing out an apparent source of bias. (“Of course he says women should get paid more; he needs the women’s vote to get elected.”) It may also be a way of encouraging acceptance of a claim based on your audience’s personal biases, rather than on the facts that support or refute it. (Asking “What would Jesus do?” only has a chance of being persuasive to a certain demographic of the population.)

And a tu quoque (“you too!”) argument is an attempt to undermine the reasoning of an argument by accusing its opponent of acting inconsistently with it. (“If Al Gore’s so worried about the environment, why does he keep flying around on his private jet to tell us all about it?”)

Making accusations about a speaker’s character isn’t always irrelevant and inappropriate, though. Climate change either is or isn’t a problem we should be doing something about, regardless of Al Gore’s personal carbon footprint – but if you wanted to make the case that Al Gore is a hypocrite, then this would be a relevant point to bring up, even if it doesn’t make him wrong about our impact on the environment. Similarly, gender equality seems to be a fine thing, whatever any politicians are saying – but a claim that can’t be objectively verified, which relies more on the arguer’s personal opinions or authority (“You should vote me, because I’ll do something about this”) can reasonably be called into question by bringing up their personal biases.

And, so long as you’re not confusing it with logic, sometimes hurling abuse at people is just fun.

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So, the US House of Representatives rejected the government’s plan to spend $700 billion bailing out the country’s financial institutions. I’m still not nearly intelligent or informed enough to know what this means, what’s going to happen now, whether this is good, or how screwed we are. I think the only thing that differentiates me from just about everybody involved is self-awareness.

But, we have the chance to win the proposed amount of spending ten times over, and a trillion or so in change, thanks to this guy. “10 trillion Turkish lira to anyone who produces a single intermediate-form fossil demonstrating evolution” is what’s on offer, which equates to over $8 trillion. That’s the kind of money that would solve a whole lot of problems. And you know he’s good for it, because he’s a famous writer.

Even if you don’t think that the evidence demolishes this guy’s point easily, it’d be a pretty lamentable position to take if he demonstrably didn’t have the money he’s claiming to be offering. At least Randi actually has a million dollars. (I’m not saying this guy isn’t really a trillionaire, of course. I’m just saying.) Hat-tip to PZ.

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A couple of days ago, Channel 5 aired a documentary about Derek Ogilvie, the star of a show (aired on the same channel) called The Baby Mind Reader. His supposed abilities are pretty much explained by the title. His general routine is to meet with a parent/parents and young child, and tell them what’s on the kid’s mind; images, pictures, videos, and concepts appear in his head, and these supposedly relate directly to what the child is thinking.

And the first thing I want to say is that I really doubt that this guy is a fraud. He seems passionately sincere, and even pretty well-intentioned. I don’t think he’s deliberately trying to deceive people, or is conning anyone to make a fast buck. He’s trying to do some good, and help people, by making use of the talent he honestly believes that he possesses. He’s just not very skeptically minded.

He repeatedly insisted that he knows he’s not crazy, he knows he’s not lying, and he’s had so much specific information that it’s not plausible he could have got it from anywhere else. It’s only the last point that’s a source of contention for me. He’s really not in the best position to judge something like that, and when cold reading is so well established as a technique that can really impress people and give the appearance of spooky psychic powers, we can only find anything out for sure by doing proper, rigorous tests designed to rule out the “anywhere else”, and leave only the option of genuine psychicness.

If he is using cold reading, this still doesn’t mean he’s doing anything deliberately deceptive, but his style shows all the signs of it. He talks at the parents, throwing out lots of ideas fairly quickly, often being quite vague, and always looking for a reaction, to see whether he’s on the right track or should change course, or whether they’ll help him out by volunteering some details. And people will, if they’re already inclined to believe in him. (Those two links up there have plenty of detail until the Skeptictionary gets its own entry on cold reading.) He’s almost certainly not consciously lying, but there’s a lot of rationalisation going on in his head, necessary to relate the images his creative brain is producing to the feedback he’s getting from the parents.

His first test is at some college in the UK. A child-minder will bring in each of six children, one at a time, and Derek will spend some time in their presence, picking up whatever vibes he can, and will write up a complete reading for each child. The children’s parents aren’t present for any of this, but later on they’ll all get a chance to read through all of the readings, and see if they can pick the one that was made for their child. This will rule out the possibility that he’s just bouncing ideas off the feedback he’s getting from the parents, but still seems to fall well within the scope of the psychic powers he’s claiming to have.

Except, at one point, he points out this very fact himself, and talks about how he usually also has the parents there to work with and how much easier that makes things. Why should it? If you’ve got a psychic connection with the kid, the images you’re getting from them should be descriptive enough in themselves, without having to be nudged toward anything pertinent by someone else.

And at one point he starts going off doing a lengthy reading about the childminder herself, who is conveniently in the room and able to provide useful feedback on what he’s saying. The Professor running the experiment has to come through after several minutes and suggest he gets back on track; the impression this all gives is that Derek can only do anything in his usual limited scope, where the cold reading techniques can be relied on, and wants to be able to point to something “impressive” he achieved today in the event that he totally flunks the actual test.

Which he did. One of the six parents identified the correct reading; for the other five, the supposed transcript of their own child’s thoughts didn’t stand out from those of a bunch of other kids.

Again, he falls back to “It’s not made up in my mind”. Oh, piss off. Everything is made up in your mind one way or another, that’s how minds work. The question is whether your mind is doing it all on its own, or whether it’s being prompted by some outside stimulus. In other words, are you getting psychic readings, or are you just a human being with a creative brain? And his whine of “Just trust me on this, please” is frankly embarrassing. Of course they’re not going to just trust you, you couldn’t do it, what the hell do you think they put together this test for?

He said something earlier about searching for the truth, but he’s only searching for some justification of what he’s already convinced of. No “truth” is going to change his mind. He’s in tears after failing this test. He has to keep believing in himself, because it’s just not conceivable that he might have been wrong all this time. “It’s very sad when people say things about me,” he says. Well, they’re not being mean. They’re saying there’s no evidence to suggest that you’ve got psychic powers, because there isn’t. You were right there when they found that out. It’s called science, they did a test, and you failed. If you’d done what you’d set out to do, and given even four of the six sets of parents a reading they could recognise as applying to their child, they would have given you the credit for it. But you couldn’t.

Then we move on to another test, where he presumably hopes to have better luck, in Florida, under the watchful eye of the amazing James Randi himself. This time, the protocol is rather different, though it has also been agreed to in advance by Derek.

Incidentally, it really is important that he accepts every aspect of the testing before they get started. We wouldn’t learn anything if we were testing him outside of his claimed abilities. If he claimed his powers only worked when he was within a couple of feet of the child, or looking at the child’s face, then they’d have to arrange for that to happen, rather than putting him in the next room. Here, though, Derek has said that he’s happy with all the conditions under which the test is going to take place. We couldn’t test a pianist’s musical ability by handing them a violin; similarly, we have to make every possbile allowance so that someone like Derek is satisfied that the situation is conducive to a successful performance.

This time, there’s only one child involved in the test. Derek met ten children, and their parents, and chose this one to work with. There’s a box with ten different children’s toys, which Derek gets to examine, before he goes into a sound-proof room next door, from where he’s previously said that he’ll still be able to get a reading from the child. There’s a bag full of ten little balls, rather like table-tennis balls, numbered one to ten, each corresponding to one of the toys. When Derek says he’s ready (into a microphone, so that he can be heard in the other room), the child draws a ball from the bag at random, and they check the number. Randi then takes out the corresponding toy from the cupboard, and gives it to the kid to play with, under the supervision of the child’s parents. Derek writes down which toy he thinks the kid has, then tells them to move onto the next one. The numbered ball is replaced, and another random draw is made. This continues until ten draws have been made.

So, Derek has a list of ten toys written down that he thinks the child was given, in order, each from the available selection of ten. If six of his guesses match up with what the kid actually had at the time, he wins.

He got one right, out of ten.

But I guess he should have been happy with that, because as soon as he finished he said, “That was tough. I’ll probably get none.” Eesh. Dude, this is exactly what you keep saying you can do. It’s not a pop quiz. It’s not an end-of-term exam. You tell us you can read children’s minds, you’re being asked to read a child’s mind, in conditions under which you previously said that you could read children’s minds. If there’s anything to your claims at all, this is precisely where you should excel. The tests aren’t “designed for you to fail”, they’re designed for you to fail if you’re not psychic. If you had the ability you said you did, you would have been able to do this. You couldn’t do this. It’s not rocket science.

You’re right, Derek, Randi isn’t “going to give away a million dollars just off the cuff”. What he’s going to do is try to find out whether anyone is actually psychic, and be thorough in his efforts to rule out any other explanation for what looks like a successful result, and then give away a million dollars, if he finds anyone who can really do it. How was anything about the test responsible for your utter failure to show anything remotely impressive?

Randi opines that Derek is probably quite sincere, not a fraud, and the guy really believes he can do what he claims. He gets plenty of airtime to discuss his conclusions and his previous experiences with other psychics and claimants to paranormal skills, which is grand.

But then it goes downhill in the final stretch. Derek goes to have his brain scanned, to see what actually goes on in his head when he’s doing his thing. Someone with letters after his name hooks him up to an EEG-meter of some sort, or something similar, but right from the start it all smacks of pseudo-science.

The actual data we get from Derek’s brain is directly described in terms such as “a state associated with communication of a non-verbal and emotional nature, as opposed to a verbal or semantic nature”, which I’m sure makes a lot of neurological sense. But the inanely credulous Dr. Whatshisname doing the research seems to think that Derek is entirely vindicated because of this. According to him, the changes in brain state Derek registered are “consistent with your report and the activity that you’re engaged in,” and this apparently “confirms and validates what you say.”

No. No, it doesn’t.

What Derek says isn’t that he’s in a state associated with communication of a non-verbal and emotional nature. What Derek says is that he’s psychic. And you really can’t prove that with a brain scan. There are no “parts of the brain that we would expect you to use” while you’re employing psychic powers. We don’t know what parts of the brain those are, for the same reason that we don’t know what sorts of materials we would expect to find in the exhaust fumes of an alien spaceship, or what flavour of ice cream is Bigfoot’s favourite. There still hasn’t been any evidence presented that anything paranormal is going on.

It was so ridiculous, and no distinction ever seemed to be drawn between being psychic and having “something unusual going on in your brain activity”. Those two are really not equivalent. So far we’ve been testing the first. I’d be far more willing to grant Derek Ogilvie the second. And yet, he knows that “there’s something going on, and if there’s any way it can be proved it’s in these results, because this test categorically will determine if there is something unusual going on in my brain activity.”

Really? Measuring your unusual brain activity is the best way to prove that you can read babies’ minds? That wouldn’t be, say, those times you were asked to read some babies’ minds, and you were tested as to whether or not you could do it? That’s not as good a way to tell whether you can read babies’ minds, as sticking some electrodes on your forehead and looking at whether your thoughts are “emotionally dominant”?

This is about on a level with “Hey guys, the stuff-o-meter’s beeping! That means something spooky’s going on, and because we’re ghost hunters, it must be a ghost!” Seriously, people. What particular levels of brain activity are associated with psychic activity? We can’t have any answer for that until we’ve done some tests measuring brain activity in people who are definitely doing something psychic, compared it with a control group of people who aren’t, and come up with a theory that can be used to explain previous results and predict future cases. (You know, like how science works.) Until then, saying these results are “consistent” with something like that is meaningless. They’re also consistent with some guy having an overactive imagination, and a researcher who doesn’t know how to critically analyse his results.

Bottom line: Derek Ogilvie says he’s psychic, and that he can read babies’ minds. You know what would have validated that? If he’d read those babies’ minds. It didn’t happen when he said it ought to have happened. That’s called a falsifiable hypothesis. But he’s had some nice and comforting reassurance from the Doc, so he’s happy. And Channel 5 get to pretend that there’s still some point to this guy, rather than holding up their hands and saying “Okay, we admit it, we made some trashy TV shows and didn’t really care to scientifically investigate this guy at the time, we were just trying to make an entertaining show that would get good ratings, we’re a TV station, what were you expecting?”

Unsurprisingly, Derek’s going back to see the Doc again and do some more work with him. But he’s also planning to go see Randi again too, and reckons that now he knows the way it’ll work, he’ll be able to do better next time. I understand that he’s entitled to apply again after a year. I’m sure Randi can’t wait.

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Being wrong about stuff is both fun and easy. There’s a unicorn in my garden who brings me ice cream every day! See, you can’t tell me that’s not an improvement in every way over the sad reality of my actual life.

However, some people aren’t happy with this idea. Some people don’t want me to have a unicorn. Some people are more interested in being able to distinguish true things from untrue things, and only want to believe the former. Some people want to take their ideas about how the world works, and then improve them over time, as they learn more stuff. They say that this leads to a “better understanding” of the world, and has provided us with useful things like “technological advances” and “improved quality of life”. Whatever good that‘s supposed to be.

It’s difficult to know where to start to explain why the scientific method is a good thing, because it seems like it ought to be enough to wave my hands around and go, “Well… duh!” It really does seem that obvious that this is a good way of doing things, and actually articulating an argument in its favour seems almost unnatural. And yet, not everyone sees it as a self-evidently good thing, so explaining its usefulness is important.

So, sarcasm off for a moment, as I try to describe more or less how science works.

Firstly, people notice things that are going on. Everyone does this, even if they’re not doing science. We wouldn’t be active participants in the world if we weren’t always observing things, processing them, and deciding how to act based on our interpretations. For instance, it has been noticed for centuries in most parts of the world that the sun appears at one horizon, moves across the sky, and sinks below the other horizon, at a rate of once per day.

After noticing a few things about the world, we might come up with some interesting questions as to how it works. These questions might look like: “Hey, you know how the Sun rises and sets every day? What’s up with that?”

Once we’ve found a question to ask about the world, we can start coming up with answers. At this point, pretty much anything that answers the question, and explains whatever phenomena we’re asking it about, is a potentially good next step, and is called a hypothesis. It might be solidly based on previous research, or it might be some crazy shit we came up with while we were stoned and staring at our hands with a profound sense of wonder. For now, it doesn’t matter.

Noticing something, asking a question about it, and proposing a hypothesis, might look something like this:

How does that great fiery ball move across the sky each day, providing us with light and heat? Perhaps the great god Helios drags it behind him in his chariot.

My friends ate the berries from that bush, and then soon afterwards they made choking noises, fell over, and stopped moving. Why did this happen? Maybe they were God’s berries, and he struck them down for stealing them.

My friends ate the berries from that bush, and then soon afterwards they made choking noises, fell over, and stopped moving. Why did this happen? Maybe there was something bad in the berries that’s harmful to be eaten.

Why does everyone point and laugh at my mullet whenever I go outside? I guess nobody round here has any fashion sense.

We humans are immensely complicated creatures, and we live in a fantastically complex and beautiful world. How could all this wonder have come about? It must have all been put here by God.

And so on. It’s often not verbalised quite so formally, but this process of thinking is the basis of formulating hypotheses.

Next we start to come to the real meat of the scientific method. Using our hypothesis, we start to make predictions. We say: okay, if this idea we’ve suggested is really how things are, then it explains what we’ve already noticed, but what else should follow? What else should we see, if we keep looking at things, and maybe dig a little deeper? And, perhaps even more importantly, what doesn’t follow from our hypothesis? What do we not expect to see?

This last bit is vital, and demonstrates a crucial way in which science differs from non-scientific and pseudo-scientific approaches to the world. We basically gave ourselves free range to be creative with our hypotheses, which is great – creativity is important in science – but it can lead to some pretty wacky ideas. If our friends died after eating some berries, then angry gods and poisonous fruit both provide a line of cause and effect that explains it just fine. But if we don’t go any further, there’s no reason to think that any one hypothesis is “better” than any of the numerous others we could have picked. We have to see whether we’ve picked a good one, by doing some hypothesis testing.

If an explanation is going to be any good to us, it has to be specific enough to predict what we’ll see when we look in certain places. And hand-in-hand with predictive power comes falsifiability – if our hypothesis predicts that something will happen, then there must be some other things which, according to the hypothesis, shouldn’t happen. If they do, then our hypothesis is a bad one which fails to fit the evidence.

For instance, our hypothesis about the berries might simply be, “These berries are poisonous”. This explains why the people who ate them are now dead. One prediction it makes about the future is that anyone else who eats the berries should also die shortly afterwards. We could put together an experiment by which to test this hypothesis, such as feeding the berries to someone we don’t like and watching to see whether they keel over. (Cruel, perhaps, but it’s FOR SCIENCE!) If they did, this would support our hypothesis.

But if they didn’t, then our hypothesis has a problem, and may need to be abandoned. However proud with ourselves we may have felt for coming up with this brilliant explanation, it might be bunk. If it fails in its predictive powers then we can’t afford to keep clinging to it just for old time’s sake.

The idea of falsifiability may seem odd, or not really that important. If your theory is good, then why should you need to be able to prove it wrong, in order to prove it right? The thing is, unless there’s some imaginable way that it could seem wrong, it doesn’t really tell us anything interesting about the universe.

There could be an invisible, intangible, inaudible, and very mischievous imp living in my wardrobe, which would perfectly explain what keeps happening to my socks. But if this imp is completely undetectable, then this tells me nothing about what I’m likely to observe in the future, and he may as well not be there at all. If, on the other hand, I know something specific about this particular breed of imp, then I can make predictions like “If I leave these socks out here, they should disappear at a certain rate”, and I can potentially find out if there’s no invisible imp after all, if I keep good track of my socks and they stay put.

Then, once we’ve noticed some new things, and gathered some new data (whether in a lab experiment, or just by looking somewhere different, or whatever), we check how well the hypothesis holds up.

If things happened like we predicted they would, yay! Looks like our hypothesis has some usefulness. We’ve successfully predicted something with it. It might even be a good description of how the universe is. That’d be neat. Once this has happened a few times, and we’ve started building up a substantial and well-established model of what’s going on, we might start to call this hypothesis a theory.

If they didn’t, then maybe the hypothesis needs tweaking a little bit. Maybe the imp only likes green socks, or the berries only poison people during a full moon. Depending on the exact nature of the results, we might come up with a slightly different, better hypothesis, which explains these new results as well as the old ones, and which does predict things correctly the next time we gather more data. But it might just be that it was a bad hypothesis, and we should give it up and think of something new. In the above cases, it’s probably more likely that there is no invisible sock-stealing imp; and maybe my dead friends ate something other than the berries as well, as it seems unlikely that the lunar cycle would have such an effect. (More on Occam’s Razor in a future essay.)

And, crucially, it’s a never-ending process. Once you have a theory, which can explain things and usefully predict the future, you keep testing it, you constantly watch out for new evidence, or perform new experiments, to see if it holds up, to make sure you really are as right as you can be, and to leap on any possible shortcomings or failings in your current model. And if you find some, then you come up with something new and go through it all again.

This is why science rocks. If you’re doing it right, you will always, always be learning new things. Your understanding of the world will get better and better, because you’ll be putting all your ideas out there for people to test, and they will be trying their damnedest to pick away at any flaws and tear your models down, to prove you wrong, over and over again – and when they find they can’t do that any more, and it seems that you absolutely must be right, whatever facts they gather and whatever experiments they run, then you know you’ve got as close to the truth as you can possibly get. And then you still keep looking.

It’s win-win. If you were right all along, then nobody will be able to use any facts to prove you wrong, and the more they look into it, the more it’ll look like you’d got it sussed from the start. But if you were wrong, either completely or in some small detail, then when it starts to look that way – when enough evidence turns up which your hypothesis can’t explain, and when it’s not predicting the future as accurately as some other model – then you get to change your mind and be right anyway.

Science rocks. The scientific method is the best set of tools we have for minimising our collective wrongness. Use it. Be righter.

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Hoping to have a lengthy essay about SCIENCE up tomorrow. In the meantime, that whole Two Minutes Hate thing sometimes seems like a rather fun idea. Especially when people are using a “dirty bomb” as an entirely unironic metaphor for legal rulings in favour of gay marriage. I’m still yet to hear a single reason why “every other state in the union” is going to be “devastated” if some more people are allowed to get married. We’re urged to “think of all the unintended consequences”, without being told what a single one of them will be. Apparently it involves a lot of scary stuff to do with “your children, your grandchildren, their beliefs, your beliefs, your money, and your liberties” somehow. Oh no! I like my liberties! Something must be done!

Also, that creepy evangelist guy, who was in the news recently for claiming Biblical precedent that puberty effectively estabishes the age of consent for girls, has had his “compound” raided by the FBI, and six girls aged 10-17 were removed. Apparently all these allegations about him have been propagated by the “anti-Christ government”. Yeah, that’s definitely among the predominant failings in US politics at the moment – nobody’s that keen on Jesus.

Apologies for the appalling titular pun, by the way. It could have been worse. (The fabulous stereotype I can abide, but “ass destruction”? No, I’m above that.) Straight-forward essay about science tomorrow, I promise.

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Oh, right, this thing

Kinda forgot I had a blog I’m supposed to be posting to today. Got distracted by all those jobs I’m applying for and totally not slacking off. D’oh.

Well, Greta Christina is not so quick to shirk her duties, and is busy writing stuff I wish I was awesome enough to come up with, and you should really be paying more attention to her anyway.

I guess I haven’t really said anything very news-y for a while. It’s not that interesting stuff hasn’t been happening, I just haven’t seemed that inspired to sit down and yammer about any of it. Something’ll turn up to piss me off soon enough, I’m sure, but for now you might be seeing the Skeptictionary expanding before anything else.

Ooh, I taped the show about when Randi put the Baby Mind Reader to the test, which just aired here a couple of hours ago. With luck I’ll report back tomorrow on whether the guy’s stunned the world and won a million dollars. (Prepare not to be astonished.)

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Isn’t it annoying how, when you’re having an argument with someone, they keep demanding that you make sense, or expecting you to explain yourself, or telling you that your position has no basis in reality? Like, when you’re pointing out how that Obama guy’s definitely a Muslim, but people keep bringing up those Christian churches he went to for years and all those things he’s said about being a Christian, and completely ignore that one time it looked like he was wearing a turban? Doesn’t that just piss you off?

Some people are just sticklers for sound logic that way. A logical fallacy is some type of argument which doesn’t work, and can’t reasonably be used to support the proposed conclusion. This section of the Skeptictionary is going to be about the various types of logical fallacy that people constantly use, often without really being aware of it. These are important to understand, and to avoid as much as possible, for what I hope are obvious reasons. If you’re trying to persuade someone else of your correctness, and you’re having to use manipulative strategies and faulty logic to do it, then maybe what you’re arguing ain’t so great. And if you don’t know how to spot a fallacious argument, then you’re in a pretty weak position to judge when someone else is taking you for a ride.

Arguments that try to sound persuasive, without actually invoking logic or making any sense, may look something like this:

“Have you examined every photo of an alien spaceship ever and proved that every one of them is a fake?”
“If you let them gays get married, next year you’ll be legally obligated to go on a honeymoon with your dog!”
“I’m just too ahead of my time for you to understand me. They laughed at Einstein too when he invented the speed of light.”
“It’s not a horse, it’s a unicorn! His horn’s only visible if you really believe in him!”
“You know who also wanted universal healthcare? Communists.”

It’s a useful skill to have, to understand why these kinds of arguments shouldn’t persuade us. Otherwise we could end up basing our political opinions on some irrelevant nonsense, or giving money to nutcases for pointless scientific research because they think they’re the next Einstein, or rallying against a good idea just to avoid being painted with some undesirable label.

So, this section of the Skeptictionary is going to detail some of the wonky arguments to watch out for, and to call people on when you see them being used to try and convince you of something.

Anyway, you know who gets taken in by logical fallacies? Communists. You’re not a communist, are you?

(What are we thinking of the name “Skeptictionary”, by the way? I was also toying with Rationalmanac, but I’m not wholly convinced by either. Suggestions welcome.)

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An example to us all

Penn Jillette is my hero.

I really, really hope that if I ever find myself in need of open brain surgery, I turn out to be the kind of person who will use it as an excuse for doing a disgusting magic trick.

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Hell has been imagined in various different ways, but let’s just start with the premise that God loves us, and also that he has the power to do pretty much whatever he wants. (Common enough religious tropes, though the specifics I use will probably stay somewhat Jesus-centric.) Why, then, would he choose to send some of us to Hell, generally agreed to be a place of eternal and infinite suffering?

Well, maybe we simply deserve this punishment. Most belief systems that include a Hell will also describe their god as just and righteous. Presumably, then, when he sends us to eternal torment, it is entirely fair of him to do so. His justice is unquestionable, and in this way as in all others his acts are entirely noble and good.

My question is… really? An infinite punishment meted out for a finite crime? Totally fair? It seems counter-intuitive to say the least. It also doesn’t allow for the chance that, eventually, people might start to feel a tinge of regret for whatever it was they did. I don’t know what the recidivism rates are like in this (or any) country, and I don’t care to do the research, but even if many people don’t turn themselves around after a decades-long prison stretch on earth, surely a few thousand millennia of unceasing pain might induce a smidgen of remorse.

And even if somebody isn’t remotely sorry for what they did, infinite punishment? Really? Look, however many people you’ve raped and murdered and taken to Westlife gigs, it’ll be no time at all in cosmic terms before every trace of suffering you’ve caused has been wiped clean and forgotten. Sure, if there really is a God, then the rapists and murderers and criminally insipid boy-bands might have a bit of explaining to do if they ever bump into him. But the suggested punishment is 100000000000000000000000000 times worse than any compendium of crimes a person could ever commit. And way more than that, too. Infinity’s pretty huge. If we’re supposed to accept that a just god could do this to us, then I’d want to be let in on the logic supposedly at work to justify what seems like a colossal over-reaction. At least give me a hint.

In Christian doctrine, there is one truly unforgivable sin, namely that of “blasphemy against the holy spirit”. Mark 3:29 reads: “But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation.” Quite what this Holy Ghost character would take as blasphemy seems to be left open to interpretation – which is just what you want in an explanation of what actions will condemn you to infinite punishment – but whatever it is, he sure don’t like it.

But, obviously, there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation here. The thing is, y’see, is that God is the one being offended here, and he is infinite, so therefore a crime against the infinite god is an infinite crime and deserves infinite retribution. So, it all makes sense.

This, if you’ll excuse my using some technical jargon for a moment, makes no motherfucking goddamn sense. If you’re arguing that your God’s ego is infinitely fragile, then you might have a point, but that’s not a thing I’ve heard anyone proudly proclaim in so many words.

Maybe it works both ways. “Hey, God, lookin’ sharp today.” Is that enough to win me an eternal reward in paradise to balance out the endless punishment I already earned by tossing out an equally casual one-liner? No? So, the deal is, we have to work really hard for any hope of happiness, and one little momentary lapse into sacrilege is enough to bollocks up the whole thing. We’re all sinners, and the only thing that can save us from a hell-bound life of depravity is if we ask for God’s grace – from the right god, obviously.

Um. Why does it work that way around? I mean, is it just me, or does this God guy seem just a little bit eager – particularly for someone who loves us all infinitely – to watch us have our genitals skewered on pitchforks by all the demons of Hades? There are a number of people whom I love, but very few of them I would enjoy watching scream in agony while Satan eats their intestines and rapes them with swordfish for more than… I guess ten thousand years or so. Very few.

Our relationship with God is often compared to that of a child and a parent. God allows the existence of human suffering for the same reason parents don’t save their children from every possible harm: they don’t want to over-protectively shield them from the world, because this would do them the greater injury of preventing them from truly experiencing life. We’ve been told how to behave, and like a naughty child, sometimes we must learn the hard way what happens when we flout the instructions of our more knowledgable authority figure.

My question is… really? That’s how some people are justifying the existence of Hell? You don’t think there comes a point where maybe a parent should intervene for the good of their children – to protect them from, say, I don’t know, the worst thing that it’s possible to imagine? Even if it might diminish the richness of their experience of life, or impinge on their free will? (Oh, Christ on a cracker and Mary in a cheese toastie, don’t get me started on free will.)

Sure, letting your kids graze their knees from time to time with mildly dangerous activities is important, but that doesn’t begin to compare with what’s at stake here. A good, loving parent might be standing by with a bottle of Witch-hazel and an elastoplast. God, in this metaphor, is telling us, “Well, you used your free will to ride your bike across the roof, and it would’ve been wrong for me to intrude on that, and now you’ll never use your legs ever again. Let that be a lesson to you.”

Taking a blame-the-victim mentality to the extreme, the excuse is sometimes made that anyone who is sent to Hell has in fact chosen this path. They are responsible for their own fate, which could have been easily avoided simply by accepting Jesus’ offer of salvation, or by following God’s law and repenting their sin, or whatever else it is we’re supposed to do. Those who ignore these handy escape routes will be punished for their foolishness, and it’ll be their own fault. So, it’s not only disobedience and insufficient sucking-up which will lead to our benevolent creator allowing us to be tortured without end, but also making an honest mistake as to which improbable and incoherent mythos to buy into.

If you really think that a person whose only crime is subscribing to a belief system that’s different from yours is choosing pain and suffering without end, you really need to choke on the nearest sharp and pointy thing. Nobody walks up to the gates of Hell, accepts its reality, understands the exact nature of what lies inside, and genuinely decides, “Well, I think I’ll go in here and be brutally maimed and tortured for eternity or so”. It’s still God making the decisions about what happens to us.

To stretch the analogy further, imagine a parent telling their young son or daughter, “Now Wayne/Ingrid, Mummy and Daddy love you very much, but if you spill any more food on our nice carpet, I’ll bash you around the head with a shovel. It might seem disproportionate, but because I’ve told you exactly how to behave and how to be safe, if I do have to smash your face in, you’ll only be doing it to yourself.” Better yet, rather than talking to their child directly, imagine that the parent leaves several notes lying around, all of which contradict each other about what the child should do, and make similar threats about what’ll happen if they get it wrong, and are all signed “Your loving parents”. This is obviously unhinged, and none of the qualities so commonly attributed to God give him any more of a right to be such a dick.

If you believe in Hell, and also believe that God is unfair, cruel, and evil, then at least that’s consistent, if just a mite cynical. But if you think that the kind of loving god so many religions claim to worship is also capable of allowing such brutality as this, then either you have a pitifully shallow imagination (and just don’t get quite how atrocious this kind of brutality would be), or the charade that you are any kind of a reasonable human being is a very flimsy one. Having to believe that anyone who wrongs your god will suffer for it forever is a contemptibly primitive way of thinking, which we as a species should really have grown out of centuries ago.

This is adapted for the Skeptictionary from some older material.

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Well, thanks for reading, I hope I’ve enlightened and enriched a few more lives.

Oh, alright, I’ll elaborate for anyone not quite convinced.

One of the most prevalent and slanderous rumours about atheists, and others who live a largely secular life with little god-influence in particular, is that we have terrible oral hygiene and off-puttingly bad breath. Nearly as pernicious as this, however, is the accusation that we have no basis for moral behaviour. This latter claim is the one I’ll be repudiating here. (The bad breath rumour isn’t actually that widespread, if I’m honest.)

Ever since the arm or the chair was invented (I don’t know which came first, I’m not a historian), the notions of God and morality have instigated some of the most idle armchair speculation in our species’ history. (That is, the largest amount of idle armchair speculation, not the armchair speculation that was the most idle.) But after all this time, people can’t seem to make up their mind what a word like “morality” even means – a sad indictment on the failure of the “Big Dictionary” corporations to adequately define reality and shape our perception of it, as is surely their responsibility.

But, I suppose you can see why it’s not something they’ve ever managed to solve by simply ordering pizza, pulling an all-nighter, and resolving not to leave the room until every last straggling loose end of the issue has been ironed out and nailed down (neither of which sound like things you’d do to loose ends, but hey, I didn’t invent idioms). It is a tricky one.

And a big part of the issue lies in identifying the “source” of our morality – how it is decided what qualifies as a moral action. No surprise, then, that in such a controversial and significant area of undecided philosophising, religion should claim immediate and unequivocal victory, proudly trumpeting its own candidate, the Supreme Being and Creator of the Universe (who I’ll informally refer to as “God”, at the risk of sounding impertinently over-familiar) as the answer to this problem, as well as to virtually every other problem ever posed.

So, do humans need God in order to be moral?

The common claim is that God is the only source of all morality. He alone defines what is good and moral, and what is not. The only moral actions are those that please God, and immoral actions are anything which angers him. Make the big dude happy, don’t piss him off, and you’ll get along just fine.

And on one level, this doesn’t sound like such a bad idea – God is one guy you really don’t want to piss off, after all. Seriously, he’s hardcore. If you’ve ever touched an electric fence, you’ll know how even a small and momentary burst of current can send a powerful and unsettling jolt down your arm. Well, God is the dude who holds onto lightning in his bare fucking hands, before throwing it down and destroying your home. Bad. Ass. If he told me to stop kissing girls I’m not married to because it’s an affront to his divinity, or not to… I dunno, something about coveting and asses, then there’s no way I’m gonna argue.

The thing is, we already have a word for this idea of being told exactly what to do, and then doing it obediently. It’s called obedience. It’s often associated with adjectives like “blind” and “unquestioning”, and it feels like there must be some important difference between this and morality. Morality, for instance, surely has more to do with concepts like good and evil than simply following the directions of some scary cloud-dwelling electric-fetishist.

If there is no such difference, then God could command you to murder thy neighbour, covet his ox, drown his cat, burn down his house, key his car, and give his kids papercuts in their eyes before stealing their Nintendo Wii, and it would actually be immoral of you not to do all this. Who cares if the little brats are crying because Mister Whiskers is all soggy and won’t wake up? God’s the only one whose opinion matters.

The less sociopathic among you, however, might reject this rather macabre idea. You might, in your woefully ill-conceived innocence, try to tell me something like, “God wouldn’t command anything like that”. But if his word is all that’s stopping your vandalistic rampage from being morally righteous and good, then why the gosh-darn flipping crikey wouldn’t he? Why is he any more likely to tell you to give charitably and love your neighbour, than to go out and start raping nuns at the fastest rate you can muster, if good is whatever God says it is? Is there something already “wrong” about raping nuns, by some rule which God can’t just rewrite at his whim?

I chose the examples in that paragraph up there because they would clearly cause unjustified suffering, and because very few people would deny that they are all certainly immoral acts. (Also because my neighbour’s a dick and I want a Wii. But that’s not important right now.) It seems implausible that God could simply assert that these things are all morally okay, and they would instantly become so. Our ideas about what’s “good” and “bad” seem inextricably linked with, well, whether things are good or bad. And papercuts in the eyes are just bad. It just naturally feels that way, even if it doesn’t occur to us to stop and think about what God’s thoughts might be.

If you say that God wouldn’t tell us to drown kittens, or rape nuns, or do anything “bad”, then there must be some reason why those things are bad, beyond whether God has instructed it or not. Wherever our values of morality do come from, it’s not from some allegedly benign dictator who has the authority to say, “Alright everyone, listen up, stabbing each other in the neck is now okay! There’s nothing immoral about it! So go crazy!” It doesn’t work like that. The fact that we can all find this concept ridiculous is enough to show that moral decisions are something that we can make up our own minds about, at least to some extent.

It’s just not plausible that some obvious abomination – be it stabbing or stealing, GTA or GBH, rape or Riverdance – could be made “moral” simply because God decrees it so. We can tell that murder is immoral, because of what it does to people, based solely on our understanding of the world and of humanity. We didn’t need to be handed down instructions from on high, we actually figured that one out on our own. Even if God hadn’t told you that murder was wrong, you’d still be able to work it out, right? Because, if you couldn’t… I think I’d rather you didn’t get too close to me.

His lerningz, let Him divienly reveel them

But even if God doesn’t define the morality of our behaviour, he could still be helpful in deciding what we should be doing. He’s God, after all. He’s supposed to know a thing or two, he’s been around a while, he might have picked up a few tricks. We’re not really in the same league as this guy – we may have managed to work out some of the easier, less subtle bits ourselves (stabbing people in the neck: mostly bad), but for more intricate moral guidance, why not rely on someone with a bit more life experience? Say, someone who created all life, and gave it a fairly massive play area for it to start eating itself in? That’s some serious life experience, right there. Maybe we should listen to the guy when he tells us what he thinks.

Sadly, we run into the occasional chasmic snag with this idea also. Although submitting to the superior knowledge of an ineffable authority might sound nice in theory (well, assuming you don’t think it sounds like the most sinister and dangerous idea imaginable), we don’t really have any such authority available for us to follow. There seems to be quite a lot of his advice written down here and there, but some bits of it keep saying that other bits are just stuff that people made up, and shouldn’t be trusted. Obviously I’m not saying we should go against God’s instructions, so we’d better ignore those bits… but wait, those bits are saying that this is the stuff that was fictionalised later on by just a bunch of guys… Oh, this is getting confusing. Couldn’t God have sorted things out a bit more clearly, so we knew exactly which bits of his supposed dictation we were supposed to trust him on?

That whole area, of the unconvincing nature of all the supposedly holy writings, will get covered in more depth in future essays. But whichever we decide are his divine instructions, they seem a bit thin on the ground. I mean, have you ever tried to read, like, the Law, for whatever country you’re living in at the moment? Because whenever I see people on TV reading stuff about law, it looks like there’s loads of it. I mean, loads. There seems to be a paragraph or a subsection for every tiny thing, and even if TV can’t entirely be trusted to accurately mirror the real world (which is obviously ridiculous, but bear with me), then the whole of the Law for a reasonably large and modern country has got to take up, ooh, five or six whole books, at least. Maybe more.

And some of the people arguing for God think this could all be done away with, in favour of a set of rules ten sentences long. Can that really be all a civilisation needs? In a world of patents, trademarks, copyright law, and intellectual property, to consider but one area of the legal system from my own entirely uninformed perspective, is “Thou shalt not steal” really going to cover all the technicalities? I think we’ve done a not-too-shabby job ourselves of formulating legal systems relevant to our own societies; God hasn’t released any new material in a while, and his old stuff’s starting to seem a bit dated.

Also, I know I threw it in there as a casual aside a few paragraphs back, but it really is quite a dangerous idea to unquestioningly give up one’s will and reason to some alleged “authority”. Most actual gods do sound, if not sufficiently benevolent, at least terrifying enough that they shouldn’t be argued with. But if you’re going to throw your lot in with one of them, trust them to get it all right, and completely stop thinking about it yourself, then you’re going to want to be damn sure that you haven’t just been duped by a bunch of mystics with some crazy ideas about what kind of bread you’re not allowed to eat. Especially when the punishment for getting it wrong is to have rocks thrown at you until you die.

I can conceive of a situation, unlikely but not utterly impossible, where it would make sense to suppress our ideas of right and wrong and go along with some religious rules that seem, on the surface, unreasonable. Our omnipotent, omniscient overlord might have sufficiently proven his all-round omni-osity to everyone’s satisfaction, and we would be willing to take his word that, okay, we should lay off the sodomy already, even though we were really having fun. If he’s proven himself in other areas, and we’re certain that this truly is a wise and ineffable authority we’re submitting to, who can never possibly be effed, then we might choose to just take his word on other things too.

But we’re a long way from having any divine authority so well established. I’m far from convinced, anyway, and the people who are convinced can’t make up their minds which is the ineffable authority we should obey, and which are the misguided ramblings of ancient nomads. If God’s purported spokespeople want our cooperation in sticking to arbitrary rules that make no sense to us, they’re going to have to start being a few orders of magnitude more persuasive than “blah blah mysterious ways blah blah beyond our comprehension blah blah eternal hellfire blah”.

Good godless, y’all

Speaking of eternal hellfire, let’s deal with the suggestion that it’s only this threat, of never-ending suffering as a punishment for behaving immorally, which keeps any of us in moral check in the first place. After all, if you’re not constantly looking back over your shoulder to make sure you’re not pissing off someone tougher than you who’s threatened to kick your ass, why would it ever occur to you not to shoot your own grandmother in the face and claim your inheritance early?

Again, I turn to those among you who are not demented psychopaths to supply an answer to this conundrum, which genuinely has many (though emphatically not all) religious people baffled. Are all God’s followers really only trying to save their own skins from being roasted? Can a believer only ever perform good actions in a self-serving attempt to improve their own lot come Judgment Day? Or might some people actually be good?

I’d bet that the majority of religious parents love their children for no different or less worthy reasons than the non-religious. And most Christians who refrain from killing people (even when it seems to be sanctioned) wouldn’t go on a cross-country chainsaw rampage if they thought they could get away with it. People just don’t need to be commanded from on high, or threatened with damnation, to behave decently. We don’t work like that. Atheists, broadly speaking, can be trusted to behave responsibly, and it’s utterly laughable when a group like the Catholic Church ever tries to claim the moral high ground these days, or says that God is “necessary” for us to behave well.

The idea that atheism is inherently nihilistic is enduringly popular among people who have chosen not to engage their brains on the subject. These people also sometimes seem to think that, whatever is actually the case, atheists should be immoral, because an atheistic philosophy demands it – as if, by acting like generous, caring, compassionate people, we’re somehow doing it wrong. It’s simply a fact that many people do manage to deny your particular brand of creator, without going around kicking puppies whenever they can do so with impunity. (For instance, I strictly limit my own puppy-kicking to academic research purposes.) Atheists regularly live full lives and raise families and do just about everything else generally considered necessary for a meaningful existence.

But aside from all that, this attitude fails to consider whether life would actually be any more worth living (or morality any more worth adhering to) given the presence of an all-powerful god and the immortal soul that tends to accompany it.

The everlasting reward/punishment we might be in for utterly dwarfs our paltry few decades on this planet into total insignificance. Every single event ever lived through by anyone, however colossal and world-shattering it may have seemed at the time, will be followed by a trillion trillion years in which to forget about it. You may spend the rest of eternity enjoying the utter delights and wonders of paradise – in which case whatever happened to you in one measly lifetime really shouldn’t be bothering you for very long, unless you’re unbelievably petty. Or you might now find your attention rather firmly captivated by the unending suffering being inflicted on you in Hell, in which case you’ll probably be looking back fondly on whatever happened to you before all the endless pain.

There’ll be more on Hell in a future essay, but it is jarring how significant a fate we make for ourselves in this paradigm during those first few decades, an infinitesimal fraction of our existence as a whole. And by “jarring” I of course mean “completely fucked up”.

On the other hand, if these scarce few thousand days are all we’ll ever have, they might start to seem rather more significant, and we might find some reason to care how we treat people during them, without any eventual reward or punishment always in our sights. You know, being good.

This is adapted for the Skeptictionary from a previous piece of mine about God and morality. I’ll be redrafting it anytime improvements can be added, so let me know if you find it incomplete, insufficient, or unfunny.

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