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Posts Tagged ‘evidence’

Why does God get to be the one thing you have to believe in before you’re allowed to see any evidence?

I’m getting bogged down in that thing about “believing is seeing” again. Have faith and the way will be shown to you. Put your trust in the Lord and you’ll feel the truth in your heart. Even atheists can find God if they just open their hearts to him and accept his presence.

In other words, if you start believing now, for no reason whatever, then you’ll be provided with a reason to.

What’s struck me recently is that I can’t think of a single other question, in any other field of study, where this kind of excuse-making is necessary.

If you drop something and watch it fall, it doesn’t matter what you believe about the laws that govern the force of gravity. Your object will act in accordance with those laws, and in so doing will give you hints as to what they are.

Reality’s good like that. It doesn’t care what you think. It just gets on with its own business. It just is. Reality doesn’t wait and hide, until you agree to have blind trust in it, and only then agree to give a demonstration of E = mc2 in action.

And yet God is often claimed to be a special case. Again and again, atheists are advised that if they just believe as hard as they can, by force of will, then in a complete reversal of the rules of cause and effect and basic logic, they will become aware of the reasons to believe as a result of their belief.

Which is kinda weird, isn’t it?

I mean, I suppose it could just be a fact about the character of this all-powerful tyrant demanding our fealty. It may be that God’s personality is such that he deliberately chooses to hide from anyone being rational, and reveals himself only to those who’ve already bought into his claims based on no evidence at all.

That could be the kind of dick your god is, I guess, though that claim itself doesn’t seem to have much supporting evidence. At least, none he’s chosen to share with me.

But the way some Christians make it sound, knowledge of God is in an entirely different category of information than literally any other kind of thought processes humans are capable of having. Despite God’s omnipotence, and despite all the dramatic healing and sea-parting and genocide he used to demonstrate his presence with, the responsibility is apparently on us to set the bar much, much lower for him than any other human endeavour.

If you want to know about reality, you go and test it, and base your beliefs on what the evidence indicates. But with God? You have to believe first, and then you get the evidence. Or not, if you weren’t believing properly. Or something.

(Even Christians who use the above arguments would, I suspect, have problems with applying the same approach to any gods other than their own. But guys, if you could suspend your faith in Yahweh for a sec and just believe in Ganesha real hard and let him into your heart, you’d finally have a chance to see all the evidence that you’ve been blind to all this time. C’mon, what’s stopping you? Is it maybe the same thing stopping me from “just believing” in your god? D’ya think?)

Doubting Thomas is an example of a religion explicitly rejecting the whole notion of basing your beliefs on what really exists. He takes a position antithetical to faith in the Bible, and is denigrated for it, despite his methods basically being that of rigorous science: he’s skeptical of an outlandish proposition, investigates the evidence, and updates his position based on new data. He doesn’t believe that Jesus is really back from the dead after crucifiction, but then has a poke at the guy’s hand-holes, and changes his mind.

But then Jesus completely fucks up the moral, by saithing unto him:

Thomas, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

Repent of your common sense, foolish mortals. Accept improbable claims at face value before there’s any evidence for them. That’s how to make Jesus love you.

Of course, there’s one simple way to explain all this, one reason why the evidence for God’s existence might depend on your own expectations and beliefs at the time – besides God being a malevolent ass, I mean.

The observer effect is a real thing, after all. People behave differently in experiments when they know they’re being scrutinised, and researchers’ reports of their observations is demonstrably affected if they’re told what result they’re meant to be looking for. If you’re primed to see a particular result, or to view some aspect of the world through the lens of God’s work, then you’re more likely to encounter evidence that seems to support your idea, than if you didn’t have this pre-existing “belief”. This could explain why the observations might depend on the observer’s state of mind.

But that would imply that God is just a set of psychological conditions inside people’s heads. And he’s got to be more than that if he’s so powerful and worth all this worship, right?

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Just a very quick update on this today. There’s still no God, so there’s not a whole lot to report on.

And, while I don’t particularly want to be unkind, I thought I should briefly draw your attention to a comment from the Facebook group. I won’t insult you by explaining why it made me laugh as much as it did.

One thing I have found interesting. According to my understanding of the Bible God wants us to believe in him out of our free will. He doesn’t want to force us in any way to follow him. Therefore isn’t providing empirical evidence of his existence, in effect, taking away free will? In other words if we had clear evidence of God’s existence wouldn’t we kinda be forced to follow him? Just a thought.

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha.

Christ, that’s desperate.

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One common point of discussion on the Facebook group for this experiment is just how we’re meant to be doing this prayer thing.

I can’t find the exact comment again now, but I think I read someone asking, essentially: “After saying, hi God, let me know if you’re there… what are we meant to do with the next 2-3 minutes?”

Personally, I tend to make my prayer requests waffle on a bit. For instance, today I’m going with:

God, if you’re there, please give me some kind of sign that I should believe in you. If a personal divine revelation is all I can expect, please note that the usual warm fuzzy feelings aren’t quite going to cut it. If the greatest power you’re capable of exerting over my world is less than what I can achieve by stroking the cat or giving Kirsty a hug – or, as some people on Facebook suggest, if you’re going to continue being petty and hiding from me unless I pray in just the right way – then God, God, I don’t even wanna know you.

Some may consider it a little crass to ask whether you take requests, but arguably not as crass as letting thousands of children starve to death every day all over the planet. So, if you’re open to suggestions, but you don’t want to appear in person or do anything too flashy, providing a proof of Goldbach’s conjecture via divine inspiration would do very nicely.

I sometimes go on like this for a while, and end up in something of a back-and-forth in my own head, debating the relative merits of certain suggestions, considering possible religious responses or excuses as to why such-and-such doesn’t undermine their faith…

I can have some good conversations with myself. But it’s worth remembering that they are just with myself. I’m a long way from seeing any reason to believe that this semi-voluntary internal dialogue is a product of anything more than my own imagination.

Things are definitely going on in my head as a result of all this praying. Interesting things, which give me some idea why some people might get ideas about God speaking to them. But there are so many more unambiguous ways that any deity could make me aware of its existence. Goldbach’s conjecture is just the first example off the top of my head. If God can’t come up with something at least that good, and is sticking with vague sensations and slightly odd coincidences here and there, then he’s not really trying.

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Are you a weak atheist or a strong atheist?

Most people who read this blog will have some idea what I’m talking about. And most of them, I suspect, will be one or the other. (Theists and agnostics, you can join in soon.)

To recap briefly, “weak atheism” commonly describes a position which doesn’t accept the existence of God, but doesn’t actively deny it either. A weak atheist won’t say “God does not exist”, but simply doesn’t positively believe in any such being.

“Strong atheism” you can probably surmise for yourself. There is no God, it affirms. It makes a positive statement, an active truth-claim.

I’ve written before about whether any form of atheism can really be wholly without affirmation, as weak atheism is often described. But regardless, it’s accepted by a lot of non-believers that strong atheism is somehow a step too far. We’re not obliged to be convinced by the evidence offered for God’s existence, but we don’t have ground to make truth claims ourselves. We shouldn’t say that he definitely doesn’t exist.

After all, you can’t prove a negative. If you were to claim that there’s a unicorn in your kitchen, I could safely withhold my belief until you offer some evidence. But can I ever really make the claim there is no unicorn? Especially if it turns out to be even more magical than regular unicorns, and can render itself invisible and intangible and otherwise impervious to detection?

I might say I don’t believe in such a beast. But can I ever claim to have proved that it’s not there?

Of course, this may seem a petty distinction. It doesn’t matter to most atheists if they can’t technically prove there’s no God (or unicorn). But a common stance they take is to explain why this lack of disproof doesn’t matter for their position. And I’m not sure they’re going about it quite right.

Let’s take two less contentious claims, and examine whether we need to be “weak” or “strong” in our disbelief of each one:

  1. I have never worn a hat.
  2. The entire Universe was created forty-five minutes ago.

You probably don’t believe either of these statements is true. But, if you had to pick, which would you say is more likely?

I’m guessing you’d go with the first. I mean, it sounds very unlikely, but it’s possible. Maybe it’s just never really come up in my life: nobody ever gave me a hat and suggested I try it on, my ears have always been good at keeping themselves warm, my family never bothered with Christmas crackers and any paper garments that might be kept inside them, that kind of thing. Or maybe I developed an aversion to hats at an early age and made a conscious decision never to let one touch my head.

It’s a bit of a stretch. And easily enough disproved by a picture of me wearing an awesome hat. But it’s less outright ridiculous than the second assertion. What possible reason could there be to suppose that the entirety of creation – all the galaxies already in motion away from each other, the light from the stars already on its way to our eyes, everybody’s memories of years past – were all summoned into existence, created wholly intact, in the last hour?

It’s obviously silly. But how do you disprove it?

There’s not much you can say to that. It’s completely implausible and not supported by a shred of evidence… but there’s nothing you can point to which actively refutes it. The best you can do is note that there’s no reason to suppose it’s true, it goes against every aspect of our understanding of how the world works, and it clearly seems to be something that’s just been made up to make some sort of point.

For the hat thing, though? There are pictures of me wearing a hat. It’s been disproved. Myth: BUSTED.

So, having seen the proof, are you now comfortable declaring it an outright falsehood that I’ve never worn a hat? You don’t have to just be agnostic any more; there’s evidence. Can that claim be rebutted, in a way which the forty-five-minute-old-Universe claim can’t?

I think you’re quite entitled to tell me: “Don’t be silly. You have worn a hat.” You’d be quite rational to base that on that picture of me wearing a hat. But can’t you be just as definite about my other claim, even without an equivalent picture which disproves it?

If you think that making an active negative claim is only acceptable where a palpable disproof exists, then this implies that “I’ve never worn a hat” is a less likely proposition than really really really really young Earth creationism. And that just seems wrong.

For one thing, the evidence you’re basing your truth-claim on might not be that conclusive. Maybe all the pictures that exist of me in hats are photoshopped. Maybe it’s not actually me in that one I linked to above, but just a top-of-the-head lookalike. Maybe there’s a grand conspiracy around it, covering up the truth of my hatless past. Can you prove there isn’t?

Of course you can’t. But despite this lack of disproof, you’re still entitled to actively deny such a situation, not just withhold acceptance. It doesn’t make you dogmatic to believe something sensible, even if you can’t produce knock-out evidence, if it’s a situation where you don’t need knock-out evidence for your claim to be almost certainly true.

It doesn’t mean you won’t be convinced by evidence. Everyone makes many statements of fact every day of their lives, without adding the words “provisionally, according to the best available evidence, but I’m prepared to change my mind if new data arises” to the end of every clause. It isn’t closed-minded to think that some things are true and others aren’t.

So go on, make a few bold claims, with certainty. Actively deny the truth of a claim you can’t disprove, but which has no supporting evidence of any note and which is vanishingly unlikely on its face.

Is there a conspiracy to make you believe I’ve ever worn a hat? No there is not.

Was the Universe only created 45 minutes ago, or less than 10,000 years ago, with every impression of being much older? No it was not.

Can Sylvia Browne communicated with deceased spirits? No she cannot.

Does homeopathy work? No it does not.

Is there a God? No there is not.

Reason is on your side.

This ended up being way longer than it needed to be. I guess that’s what re-writes are for, in principle. Oh well.

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Mark Vernon takes issue with the way skeptics insist on applying a reasonable critical analysis to subjective experience:

They fixate on the many ways in which individuals can be self-deluded, and forget that they can also be wonderfully discerning. They miss truths that can only be known by acquaintance, which is to say, by letting them in.

For which he gets seven points for originality of phrasing, and loses them all again for waffling the same old tosh.

Yes, individuals can often be self-deluded, and they can often be wonderfully discerning. The whole point of skepticism is in trying to determine which of those a person is doing at any given moment.

Which are the truths that should simply be “let in” – which seems to mean accepted and believed, without any criticism, doubt, or regard for reality? All too often, it seems to be only those “facts” which fit the preconceptions of whoever is arguing that rationalism should sometimes be abandoned, because it doesn’t let them believe what they want to believe.

That which can be destroyed by the truth should be, after all, and any truth worth “letting in” can only be bolstered by a rational examination of it.

As for the usefulness of subjective experience, and truth “known by acquaintance”, have a look at this checkerboard with a shadow cast over it:

 

 

Think the square marked A is darker than the one marked B? Well, that’s where blithely trusting your subjective experiences will get you.

Here’s another popular one:

 

 

See the brown centre square on the top face, and the yellow centre square on the bottom-left face of the cube? They’re the same colour. Save the image and go test it out in MS Paint if you don’t believe me.

That second one still melts my brain. I had to go check it again myself just now. They just look like completely different colours – and nobody else knows what’s going on in my brain when I see it. Nobody else can directly share what I’m experiencing. I have this pure subjective knowledge, which strongly suggests a truth based on my own experiences of the world.

And you can prove me wrong in a matter of seconds.

Rationalists are interested in being right. Knowing how and when we’re most in danger of being wrong is a crucial part of that, and it never stops applying. Things don’t get a free pass just because they’re a “subjective truth” or you have “faith”. We’re never obliged to just assume that this is one of those times you’re being instinctively discerning, rather than self-deluded.

Whatever your claim might be, religious or not, faith-based or not: If it can be destroyed by the truth, it should be.

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In a report published today, the Science and Technology Committee concludes that the NHS should cease funding homeopathy. It also concludes that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) should not allow homeopathic product labels to make medical claims without evidence of efficacy. As they are not medicines, homeopathic products should no longer be licensed by the MHRA.

Nice when people get things right.

That Evidence Check report I mentioned yesterday is now available, and Ben Goldacre shares the full release. As he says, looks like pretty sensible stuff. It’s not medicine; homeopathic pills are just sugar; lying to patients about placebos is not okay. That kind of thing.

Ben also made a good point on Twitter earlier – while the problem with accepting homeopathy as medicine is often cited as a “lack of evidence”, in fact we have a great deal of very solid and reliable evidence. That it doesn’t work. It’s like saying “Well, maybe this elephant will be able to fly… It doesn’t look like any of them can at the moment, but we just don’t have enough evidence.”

Le Canard Noir is all over this, of course, looking through the whole thing in great detail. I’m glad that the authors of the report seem to understand this point:

We do not doubt that homeopathy makes some patients feel better. However, patient satisfaction can occur through a placebo effect alone and therefore does not prove the efficacy of homeopathic interventions.

And, as anaglyph reminded me yesterday, you don’t even need a particular placebo effect to just start to feel better over time, and be tempted to confuse correlation with causation as you simply regress to the mean.

Also reporting on this is gimpy, who quotes a comment from a homeopath named Carol Boyce that made me grind my teeth just a little:

Mr Stewart made a valiant attempt to to [sic] bring balance to the proceedings but was hopelessly outnumbered.

A question needs to be asked in parliament about the conduct of this Evidence Check and it’s [sic] inherent bias.

It’s almost impossible to hear a phrase like “bring balance to the proceedings” and not imagine that this must be a good thing to do, restoring some necessary fairness. But nonsense doesn’t deserve to be fairly balanced with science, and if nonsense is all you have on your side then it’s entirely right that things should be biased against you. That’s another thing that’s meant to sound like it’s inherently negative and unfair and unacceptable, “bias”. And there are many cases where bias is unjustified and should be fought against. But there are some cases where it’s proper and necessary.

I’m biased strongly in favour of eating pasta instead of rat poison. I’m also biased strongly in favour of spending tax money on medicine instead of homeopathy.

This is all being covered in more depth by various intrepid investigative blogojournalists (there just isn’t a comfortable “blogger+journalist” portmanteau), and I’m pretty sure Martin Robbins is planning to have his own round-up of events soon too. (Edit 23/02/10: Yep.) I’m still only really a commentator a rung or two below, only joining in the chatter a little later once all the big players have done the real legwork, but that’s okay. This way I get to be lazy and still feel like I’m joining in.

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(Which you know means I’ve been lazy today and am struggling to get something done before bed.)

I can’t find the letter of October 19th referred to in this post, perhaps because I don’t care and I haven’t really tried. But I’ve never heard anyone in the anti-theistic or irreligious crowd saying that religion is “learned only from parents” (emphasis mine). Most of us are paying enough attention to the world, I think, to have noticed that not every single individual slavishly follows the dogma of their immediate biological predecessors. Many people do indeed make leaps of faith in one direction or another, having been influenced by a variety of factors.

But come on. The culture in which a person grows up, and in particular the people who raise them, are more influential than anything else in determining what religion someone will be. If this wasn’t the case, it couldn’t be true that predominantly Christian or Muslim areas of the world even exist – at least, not for more than a generation or so. If it were a total crapshoot, or if people’s religious views were based entirely on independent thinking and grounded in the same assumptions, there wouldn’t be such obvious geographical distributions.

“If people needed evidence to believe in God, we would all be atheist” is a significantly less ridiculous statement than “there is tremendous evidence for miracles”. Anyway, isn’t the notion that evidence is antithetical to belief in God pretty much the whole point of having faith?

To say God is not real is like saying atoms are not real because early scientists who sought them couldn’t see them.

If early scientists had a notion of something called “atoms”, and expected to see them under certain conditions, but didn’t observe anything where their theoretical model predicted they should, then the correct conclusion for them to draw would be that such atoms did not exist. If we now know that atoms do exist, because of repeated experimental results in which they turn up exactly where we expect them to, then maybe our concept of “atoms” has changed since the time when they didn’t seem to be there. God is still in the former state of not seeming to be observable where it’s predicted he should be. Either that or no predictions that might test his presence are even possible.

Several sources of “evidence” are cited, and it’s promised that they’re really, really good, no honestly they’re great, he just didn’t feel like outlining any of the really, really good arguments in them here. Oh well.

I’m too busy rolling my eyes at this one to really go through it in depth. Most of it’s the usual inane bullshit – tediously misunderstanding the burden of proof, I’ll provide my evidence that God doesn’t exist when you provide concrete proof there isn’t a unicorn in your kitchen, blah blah blah – but I do want to pick up on one thing in particular:

Here we have a lowly man demanding that almighty God prove himself scientifically.

Damn fucking right he is.

The not-so-lowly men claiming to speak for your almighty God are making some pretty grand claims about him. They tell us things like, we know the blessed truth of the all-powerful creator of the universe, and seek to spread the word of a being who has the power and the judgement to condemn you to eternal, infinite suffering if you don’t follow his rules for your entire life, yes, these rules here that we’ll tell you all about.

To be that kind of god is to demand everything from us, to take ownership of our humanity. Do you think that you get to impose that kind of rule on my species? Do you call impudent and arrogant anyone who asks why this god is worthy of our utter and complete self-sacrifice?

Then listen carefully: fuck right off, you evil tyrant.

And stop mischaracterising Einstein while you’re at it.

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Reminder: Submit your entries for the 119th Skeptics’ Circle as per this entry here, ahead of Thursday September 10th. There’s plenty of time yet to get skeptically scribbling and have your post featured.

Now, on with the regular blog.


Ooh, someone’s written me a letter.

It’s not one of the old-fashioned kind which appeared on my doormat amidst the bills and ads for takeaway pizza services, admittedly. And it’s a bit impersonal, addressed to “Dear Skeptic”, and put up on the internet where anyone could read it. But it’s always nice to hear from someone who cares enough to write.

I’m terrible at producing timely replies to people’s correspondence, so I’m going to make a point of getting this one done straight away, and putting it up here, so that you can all hold me accountable for being prompt, and so that my pen-pal can find it immediately without having to wait.


Dear Demian Farnworth,

Hi! How’s it going? Please don’t feel you need to apologise for not writing sooner. I know how things can get on top of you, other priorities can mount up, and you just never seem to find the time for those little things you always meant to get around to. I’ve been meaning to replace the lightbulbs in the living room for months. It’s cool, you’re here now, and there’s no time like the present to catch up.

But I see you’re concerned about some of my behaviour lately, and I hope I can put your mind at ease on a few points here as well. Although I do feel we’ve gotten to know each other well over the recent years never that we’ve known each other, rest assured that your obligations to me stretch not an inch further than whatever guidelines you wish to establish for yourself.

Honestly, you are “obligated” to me in no binding way whatever. (At least, as regards the nature of our discussions, beyond the basic morals of human decency.) You could respond to all my questions by doing a little dance and showering me with confetti, and you would have reneged on no contract.

But there are favours which I might ask of you, to aid a smooth negotiation of terms in any future conversation. You may grant or refuse such boons entirely at your whim; I will hold no grudge if you prefer to disengage completely and keep your own counsel. But, well, if we’re going to have a discussion, there needs to be some give and take.

For instance, you’re quite welcome to articulate your gospel, explain what’s important to you, and express the truth as you see it. Of course you are, it sounds like a great thing to do, and I’m always interested in hearing what people think and what got them there.

But, well. If you do that, I get to judge what you’re saying. And if I want to persistently and mercilessly call bullshit on it, then that’s part of the deal.

You’re not obligated to just take this criticism with no resistance, obviously. You’re not even obliged to listen to me. I mean, if you do decide to stuff cottage cheese in your ears rather than hear what I have to say, then I might not want to bother talking to you any more – but hey, it’s your prerogative.

You’re even welcome to speculate openly as to my motives when I criticise you. I know I do that about you sometimes, which appears to be what pushed you to write to me in the first place. But, well. It kinda doesn’t matter why we’ve taken the positions we have. If I’m wrong about something, then you should be able to present an effective counter-argument to it, regardless of whether I got there through logical deliberation or sheer bloody-mindedness.

Take this point you make, for instance:

But unfortunately, you’re not looking to understand our position. You’re looking for a soft spot. And when you think you find that soft spot–you punch it…

You demand we give you a systematic explanation that satisfies you. We explain, you find another soft spot–and punch that one. Ad infinitum.

Yeah. I don’t know if you’ve heard of this thing called science, but it’s a pretty nifty thing we’ve figured out, which is how we’ve actually discovered everything we know to be true about the world. Sounds useful, right? And a big part of scientifically testing whether an idea is true is, as you put it, to punch its soft spots.

It’s sort of a violent metaphor, but a model of how the world works isn’t a puppy, or a baby whose squishy and fragile head needs to be supported. Those “soft spots” aren’t hunks of tender flesh being cruelly pounded by some brutal butcher; they’re potential weaknesses in a hypothesis. The “punches” I seek to deliver aren’t physically violent – I have only fractionally more upper-body strength than Mr Burns – but represent efforts to demonstrate flaws in this hypothesis, by asking probing questions, suggesting counter-examples, pointing out logical fallacies, and the like.

If your hypothesis can withstand being punched in this way – if it remains consistent, shows significant predictive and explanatory power, isn’t easily sliced away by Ockham’s Razor, and so on – then it sounds like it’s not such a soft spot after all. It sounds like it’d be quite a tough carapace surrounding a solid theory, were that the case. But you’ll never know that, if you never let anyone punch it for fear it might crumble.

And if it does crumble, then it’s not really something worth protecting.

So, when you complain about the way I seek out a soft spot and punch it, what you seem to mean is that I keep expecting you to be able to justify your beliefs with data and logic, and demonstrate that you’re making some sort of sense.

You’re not obligated to do that. But I’m not obligated to take you seriously if you don’t.

You’re also not obligated to assume that I’m capable of intelligent discussion, or that I’m willing to listen to new ideas, take new evidence on board, and refine or adapt my opinions and beliefs if it seems rational to do so. You’re not obligated to credit me with any intellectual honesty, and you are perfectly within your rights to dismiss my refusal to accept your conclusions as the result of pompous arrogance, blindness to reason, and a fundamentalist devotion to my own ideology which irrationally excludes your own set of beliefs.

Just like I’m not obligated to refrain from calling you a deluded, patronising, Bible-thumping, unthinkingly dogmatic twat.

But if I go around saying things like that, we’re really not going to get anywhere. And I don’t think we’ll enjoy each other’s company half as much.

The main theme of your letter was about your sometime tendency to change the subject on me. I fear I may have strayed from the subject myself a little in my own missive, but I’ll try to get back to that now.

If you’re changing the subject, that implies that the discussion is ongoing – there still is a subject, so we’re still talking, and I can presume you don’t consider this discussion completely fruitless just yet. But if you’re changing the subject because you consider the question I’m asking unimportant, it probably doesn’t seem that way to me. I’m only asking it because I consider the answer to be of significance, and if you don’t answer, whatever your reasons are, it sometimes just looks like you’re floundering.

You’re not obligated to disabuse me of this notion every time I ask a question you don’t want to answer. Maybe you’ve answered enough questions for one day. Maybe your dinner’s ready, or there’s a movie you want to go see. But if I don’t get an answer, that’s what it’s going to look like.

And while preaching the gospel might be the most important subject to you, it seems like it’d be a pretty ineffectual effort if you’re not going to take into account my objections, and the reasons why I remain unconvinced by all your grand proclamations about the wrath of God and the law of the cross. You’d probably have better luck if you let me ask some questions, and try to stay on-topic while explaining things to me.

I’ve run out of steam now, so I’ll stop here. But I do hope to receive another letter from you again soon. And what was that delightful perfume you used on the envelope?

Yours,

Skeptic


And people say the internet has killed the art of pen-pallery. Pah.

Also, I took this opportunity to check my unread mail, and found this particular gem also awaiting my attention. I don’t think I’ll be replying to this one, though. I’m not sure it even came to the right address. They seem to have confused me with a gullible prick.

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I just watched the film Horton Hears A Who!. It was very philosophically troubling.

No, really.

I never read the book, so this rant will apply to the movie version only. And I’m sure this is one of those times where Your Mileage My Vary, as to how much I should be reading into all this or whether any of it matters. But I’ll summarise the outline of the story in a way that highlights what bugged me about it. This isn’t a review of the film, which I mostly found sweet and adorable and entertaining, but just a discussion of this one point.

(Spoilers abound, obviously, though given that it’s a family-friendly animated film based on a Dr Seuss book there really aren’t many ground-breaking surprises for me to undermine.)

Horton’s an elephant. He becomes aware of an invisible world that nobody else can see, full of hundreds of tiny little people, on a miniscule speck of dust on a small clover flower. He gets chatting to one of these little guys – the Mayor of Who-ville – and realises that he is responsible for their fate. He determines to find somewhere safe and stable to place the speck, so that the inhabitants of Who-ville can live safely.

However, a mean old kangaroo hears about Horton’s fanciful notion of a community of strange little people living on a speck, and is having none of it. She demands that he stop putting such ludicrous notions into the heads of the jungle’s children, and tries to steal and destroy the speck in her efforts to cease this nonsense. She repeats her mantra that “If you can’t see it, or hear it, or feel it, it doesn’t exist”.

As Horton continues on his quest, the kangaroo becomes increasingly furious at his behaviour, and turns the whole rest of the jungle against him, insisting that he must be stopped. They surround and capture him, taking the clover and the speck to be destroyed. They almost succeed, but at the last moment the Whos of Who-ville manage to make enough noise that they can be heard by the rest of the animals (whose ears aren’t as large and sensitive as Horton’s). The speck is saved, and the animals realise that Horton was right all along. Even the kangaroo eventually comes around.

A similar process pans out in Who-ville itself. The mayor tries to convince everyone of the danger their world is in, of which Horton has warned them, but is voted down by the council. Eventually they all hear Horton’s voice, and realise that they should follow the mayor’s advice.

Let’s paraphrase all that in more loaded terminology:

Some guy makes a pretty unlikely claim about something which seems impossible. He can’t offer any proof, but it’s very important to him. He heroically stands up for what he believes (which of course turns out to be entirely correct). He has to fight against others who don’t believe him, and who insist that nothing can exist beyond the directly experienced world. These non-believers seek to oppress him and brutally condemn him for his belief, and blot out the source of any such dissent from accepted materialism. They use fiery rhetoric to incite anger, and refuse to listen to his pleas to be given a chance and his protestations of sanity. But slowly the masses are swayed, and come to realise that his imaginary friend is really real after all.

So, can anyone guess the parallel I’m drawing here?

I know my interests and priorities differ from your average movie-goer, so maybe to most people it wouldn’t seem too heavy-handed, but I’m not the first person to have noticed this. It feels like a parable about those horrid, angry atheists trying to stomp on people’s faith and get rid of God, take the Christ out of Christmas, and so forth. And it grates because it’s such a contrived, unnecessary caricature.

Look, Horton and the mayor are both making some pretty far-out claims. The ridiculous-sounding nature of what they’re saying – about a town on a speck, or an invisible elephant in the sky – is played for laughs more than once, as people chuckle at the lunacy of it all. And frankly, they’re right to. The people refusing to take these outlandish claims absolutely and immediately at face value could be behaving entirely correctly. But no, they all – or at least, the ringleaders – are shown as spiteful, venomous, mocking, and completely intolerant of any ideas that differ from their own.

It’s played as a battle between belief and skepticism, but in a way everyone’s using the same principles of empiricism as each other. Horton knows there’s a town on the speck, because he’s spoken to the mayor who’s told him all about it. None of the others have experienced any of this, and what convinces them of it at the end is not some blind leap of faith, but evidence, in the form of the sound of the Whos finally raising their voices high enough to be heard. So when there was no evidence beyond the testimony of one lone elephant, they had doubts, but once new data arrived, they swung around and amended their preconceptions. So, why do they have to be cast as the baddies for just not being as gullible as would have suited the protagonist?

The kangaroo is a pretty obnoxious example of a straw man. Generally speaking, people who dare to publicly doubt things, and don’t accept the truth of every idea maintained by every individual to whom it personally matters, aren’t out to destroy anybody’s liberties, or to castigate and imprison them for what they think. I know they want to play up the dastardly villainousness of the dastardly villain for dramatic reasons, but it makes the skeptic/believer dichotomy seem incredibly and unfairly one-sided.

So, because I’ve taken such offense to this film, I shall of course be campaigning for its prohibition and destruction, and the prosecution of all those involved in its creation. Because that’s what we atheists are like when someone tries to express ideas that don’t mesh with our own.

(I know the title’s weird, but my pun muscles aren’t feeling well today. They’re both gods, I think, and I’m sorta talking about religion… so… yeah.)

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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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