Hooray! I scored a “Not Negative!”

Update September 2012 – This was one of the sample posts chosen for the podcasting experiment; click below to listen, if you like (it is identical to the text):
Walkabout podcast – Hooray! I scored a “Not Negative!”

There’s a common argument style that crops up in defense of most of the topics that critical-thinking addresses, such as paranormal activity, alien visitation, religion, alternative medicine, psychic powers, crystal energy, divination, astrology, and the health benefits of smearing yourself with feces. And it’s a very simple one, but fortunately many skeptics and critical-thinkers fall for it. Paraphrased, the argument is, “You cannot prove that [insert topic] doesn’t exist/work.” In other words, “You can’t prove that god doesn’t exist!” and “You can’t prove that the planets don’t influence our lives!”

Now, I’ve addressed this before, most especially with the direct fact that one cannot prove a negative – no one can demonstrate that god cannot exist in some realm we haven’t discovered, or that the alignment of planets does not exert a force we have not found a way to measure. Sure, I’ll openly admit it! You won that round!

Except… what was just won? The argument establishes that [insert topic] might be possible, simply because we cannot actually establish “impossible” as a distinct certainty? Think about this for a second: it literally applies to everything that can be imagined. The universe is infinite, to most accounts, but certainly far bigger than we are going to examine in the duration of our species’ existence. The only thing such an argument really accomplishes is the admission that human beings are not omniscient.

Congratulations on that astounding conclusion! I’d award a cookie for this, but only if the debater is less than six years old. To everyone else, this is hardly a stunning victory. As an argument in favor of any particular topic or concept, it’s remarkably pathetic. I’m trying right now, but I haven’t come up with any way that the bar can be set any lower.

You may have noticed that I accentuated might in the phrase, “might be possible,” two paragraphs up. Because even that is a condition of knowledge, not physics. Anything that we have not established as “impossible,” because of our abysmal lack of omniscience, might still be impossible in our universe, due to laws of physics for instance. So we haven’t even determined “possible” as a fixed property.

Alternately, if you avoid the simple two-choice argument of “possible/impossible” and substitute levels of probability, even that dubious victory almost always vanishes. Probability requires evidence of at least factors within the proposed topic, so that something can actually be measured and statistically compared. You cannot rationally propose an order of probability such as “one chance in ten” without knowing how often certain results have actually occurred. Psychic powers, for instance, could potentially have an order of probability if we could measure electrical fields emanating from our brains (they’re actually there, but hundreds of times weaker that the fields emanating from the camera battery charging at my elbow,) and/or a way of detecting such fields by the brain itself, and/or some way in which future events produce or follow a force which is not constrained by time.

What we’re talking about with that is evidence – establishing positive support of a concept, rather than a lack of negative support. But hold on! This is using the concept of mathematics to apply to physical qualities. Does that even work? Is it rational to apply “positive” and “negative” aspects to the existence of phenomena or properties?

Technically, no. There really isn’t such a thing as a negative existence, and as we determined above, no way to prove non-existence. The best we can reasonably work with is “positive” (proven to exist) and “null” or “zero” (not positive.) Therefore, if you lack positive evidence, you’ve only established zilcho.

And that’s the argument. “You can’t determine a quality which doesn’t actually exist for [insert topic], so you have to admit to nothing!” Sure. Whatever makes you happy. Someone can even try this argument while taking tests, and not mark down any answers at all. “Ha! You can’t prove I had a wrong answer!” But I bet I can predict what the final score comes out to…

Too cool, part eight: It’s not the tool, it’s how you use it

Green herons (Butorides virescens) are cool birds. Small, subtle little guys, they tend to be pretty shy in these parts and not pose for photos all that eagerly – the shot above (and here) was taken at Wakodahatchee Wetlands in Florida, a manmade preserve smack in the heart of suburbia at Delray Beach that has to be seen to be believed. Cross the boardwalk bridge from the parking area into the wetland proper, and the cacophony of bird sounds is likely to hit you almost physically, sounding like an overdone jungle movie. And like many such areas in Florida, the normally shy birds are acclimated to people and allow much closer approaches. Yeah, you thought nature photography was all about careful stalking skill and sitting for days in blinds? It’s also about finding the places where you can get closer with less effort ;-)

Over at Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne has a post about green herons and their usage of tools, a very rare thing among birds. It seems some of them, without this being universal among the species, have taken to bait fishing by placing bread fragments on the surface of the water and waiting for it to be visited by fish, which is of course what green herons eat. Check it out, because he’s got video of this going on.

As I remarked upon over there, I’ve never seen this behavior myself, but I have seen white ibis, the birds also seen in the beginning of the video, performing this dunking maneuver, only to soften the bread it would seem. And I’ve cheated a little (just destroying all of your cherished beliefs about nature photographers, aren’t I?) and tossed bread into a pond in front of my camera to get egrets to chase the fish it attracted. Learning this behavior is an interesting bit of cognition for birds.

Yes, that's exaclty what's happening here...

It’s hard for me to say how this compares to other species and behaviors. Great blue herons (Ardea herodias) have apparently learned that, in Florida, five-gallon buckets often contain easy meals, since live-bait fishing is popular in that state and such buckets are used to house and carry fish like finger mullet. Fisherfolk learn to keep a lid on their buckets, because the herons can get pretty brazen about landing on fishing docks and helping themselves. I’ve also watched brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis), who’ve learned that casting nets can suddenly come ashore bulging with effortless meals, mobbing the poor angler who was collecting bait for a subsequent fishing trip. Many years ago when milk in England was delivered to doorstops daily, I remember reading about songbirds who would pierce the foil seals on the tops of the bottle to obtain a drink (which was bizarre in itself – milk?) None of these are tools, of course, but they all show a certain level of learning behavior, not very far removed from tossing bread into the water.

Alternately, while this isn’t directly related, I’ll include a link to show just how large a fish a great blue heron can manage to swallow whole.

The most important thing you’ll ever read

While I pick on religion a lot in this blog, this is reflecting what I see as a greater need at this point in time; in contrast, a few years back I was quite active on UFO and paranormal forums, and have dueled over topics such as health foods, astrology, and alternative medicine. They all fall under the big umbrella of critical thinking, or to be more precise, they’re all wet precisely because they don’t.

The thing is, we as a species are notoriously bad about rational thought, and fool ourselves in so many myriad ways that at times it seems this defines us more than our intelligence does. Worse than this, however, is the open defiance of this concept, this curious failure of humans to recognize it when we are wrong, or to even consider the possibility. All of those topics I mentioned above, and many more besides (politics comes to mind,) are prey to this – it’s probably safe to say there isn’t a facet of human culture that is not. Which is why I promote critical thinking, and the foremost part of this is adopting the premise that we can always be wrong.

Looking back, one thing in particular helped this aspect along, for me. In the early 1980s there was a magazine called, “Science 80,” only it reflected what year it was actually issued within, thus “Science 81” and “Science 82” as it went along, not the best of naming moves. It’s defunct now, and I cannot locate this particular article to provide credit, but it dealt with suggestibility and implanted memories. It featured a college study of eyewitnesses to a supposed crime, actually staged, with the criteria that a stolen item was described by the “victim” and later recounted to security guards by the eyewitnesses. The details provided about the item, in some cases quite specific, didn’t actually relate to the item the eyewitnesses saw – they had actually not seen an item at all, because there was nothing stolen. All details were supplied by the “victim,” or in some cases just imagined.

There have been a lot of studies about this, really, and it boils down to one very simple idea: our memories are not like recordings, able to be played back with fidelity, but extremely malleable instead. We can actually respond to suggestibility on an astounding level, and worse, have no way of differentiating this. There’s at least one study now that indicates how memory may be a single-use kind of thing, and we retain memories because every time we play them back in our minds, we rebuild them into a new memory. That one, of course, may have attendant details from the rebuilding. A good example is how we remember movie quotes, and the number of them that are simply wrong (“Luke, I am your father,” and “Play it again, Sam,” being two of the most quoted that never actually appeared in the movies.)

We also have a nasty tendency to color our experiences in terms of expectations, assigning traits or categories that are not supported by what we’ve actually sensed. Sometimes, this is influenced by something that we’ve never encountered ourselves, but have only heard about. It becomes pathetically easy to obtain ghost encounters from virtually any building or locale, but the darker and older, the better. All you need is to create a reputation with a few stories. I don’t think I’m surprising anyone by saying that every odd sound or visual phenomenon instantly becomes a ghost in such circumstances, but perhaps many don’t realize this is not something experienced only by those obsessed with ghosts – it’s something we can all be haunted by (a ha ha.)

And then, there’s the common experience of déjà vu [or just deja vu if the accents didn’t render], the distinctive feeling that we’re actually encountering a repeat performance, or a precognitive memory of what’s happening to us at a particular moment. Those that have experienced it usually find it very compelling, and I can vouch for that, but notably, it hasn’t been shown to be actually precognitive in any way. In other words, no one seems to have ever documented it, providing a written account that existed before the experienced event. Instead, it always seems to be this odd feeling of memory just as the event occurs. What this suggests, and studies have supported this, is that the feeling of this being a memory is the defining trait, not the actual existence of the memory. We get a stray feeling of, “Oh, yeah, I remember this!” but not because we actually do remember, but simply because the emotional response typically associated with memories triggered improperly – a false alarm.

The same can be said for many of those great ideas we have just before awakening, which fade away too quickly for us to remember them. Some of the people who have successfully retained them find they’re total nonsense in the light of full consciousness – it wasn’t the idea, it was the eureka emotion all by itself. Who can’t remember a dream, perhaps a lot of them, where emotional properties were assigned to items or events that didn’t seem the least related?

If we consider our minds as this great device for thought and experience, and that memories are indelible records of experience, we’re quite simply mistaken – this has been evidenced and indeed proven, time and time again. But many people never realize this. In fact, in discussions of UFO and paranormal events, the biggest influence by far is not eyewitness accounts, but the weight given to them. Even raising the question of whether the witness actually saw what they believe they did is usually considered impugning the witness, and can immediately get someone labeled a debunker, or closed-minded. The irony, that this failure to recognize the possibility of human error is more closed-minded than considering the possibility, is not lost on those urging critical examination.

The aspect of suggestibility is not only known to courts of law, in some cases it is actively promoted. Attorneys have their clients rehearse their stories over and over again, and this is not because their memory is so indelible. As it says in the study linked above and again right here (at the very least, read the first few pages,) even the careful use of certain words can influence the impression people have of events – smashed instead of bumped being their example when referring to a car accident. Often, this isn’t even intended, but a by-product of both popular opinion and media influence. In a high profile story in The New Yorker magazine, a father of three was convicted of arson and first-degree murder, partially on the testimony of neighbor eyewitnesses to the fire. But the neighbors’ testimonies changed drastically after news reports that the investigators were considering arson as a cause – before that, they had maintained that the suspect showed no indications of unexpected or remorseless behavior. And while such effects are well-known to courts, eyewitness testimony is still treated as much more trustworthy than it should be, because humans relate to the emotional aspect of the witness’ account, with little recognition paid to the fallibility. Since attorneys can benefit from this, they’re not going to be the ones who draw attention to the undeniably damaging aspects of it.

Only a few decades ago, there began a dramatic upsurge in repressed memory therapy, the practice of interviewing and sometimes hypnotizing patients to discover memories, almost always of childhood sexual abuse, that the patient had supposedly suppressed in horror and loathing. Hyped by the media and promoted by all those people who delight in scandal, it became a highly-regarded practice until a few huge settlements on mistaken cases brought attention to the well-known fact that hypnosis actually increases suggestibility, and therapists can influence a patient’s story. Far from revealing hidden records of past events, such therapy can be a fantastic tool for implanting false memories. Is it any surprise that certain therapists were known for their specialization in repressed memories? Is it a greater surprise that a very large number of their patients demonstrated, to the therapists, unmistakable evidence of past abuse, so much so that one made the astounding claim that repressed memories were present in up to 60% of sexual abuse cases? The fields of psychiatry and psychology routinely deal with mental health issues from the inability to forget traumatic experiences, but somehow this trait seemed to reverse when it came to repressed memory therapies. Eventually, the practice started receiving the critical examination that it should have had in the first place, but not before tremendous amounts of damage were done in pursuit of ephemeral “memories” treated as if they had the strength of physical evidence.

Exactly the same thing was at work in alien “abduction” cases, with a few prominent therapists promoting the practice while – and I know you’re going to be shocked at this – offering their services to help reveal such repressed memories. In abduction cases, the repression was supposedly induced by the aliens rather than the patient, but the gist is the same. For both childhood abuse and alien abductions, however, one very distinctive trait is that corroboration, in the form of physical evidence, other witnesses, and such, is virtually impossible. One should certainly be suspicious of therapies touted with a high degree of accuracy that cannot possibly offer any way of determining such.

I want to take a moment here to point out something. In many of these cases, perhaps most, the therapists were not actually trying to create false memories, and honestly believed they were helping their patients. What might have been at work is a combination of things. One simply being pride, in that the therapists felt vindicated and supported by the “positive” results of their therapy, and stayed with methods that seemed to work most effectively. The other is related; as trained professionals (most of them, anyway,) they may have felt they were aware of and unable to fall for the trap of leading the patient along. The possibility of the false positive wasn’t controlled for.

This really means that it’s up to us. We’re not perfect beings, and our senses and our minds are not infallible – in fact, they are prone to errors, so many that we cannot even be aware of where they might be influenced. We need to recognize this, and in fact remain suspicious of our very abilities to experience what goes on around us. It sounds a bit like I’m following the old Descartes argument here: “How can we be sure of anything?” But that’s ridiculously extreme, and like much of philosophy actually leads nowhere – what can you do with that? What I’m saying is that we can be fooled in many ways, so making some effort to support our conclusions is not only useful, it’s practically a necessity. Along with always bearing in mind that we still might not be right after that. Being wrong is okay, and in fact unavoidable. Refusing to realize this and/or correct ourselves is not. There’s an old saying regarding scientific research, to wit, that one needs to be even more suspicious of findings that support a favored theory, because we want to see this too much, and can easily miss the findings that contradict it. In skeptical circles, this is called confirmation bias – counting the “hits,” the positive evidence, and ignoring the “misses.”

Worse, this isn’t helped by belief in religious creation – it can be actively harmed by it. Feeling that humans are “chosen” creatures designed by a perfect deity doesn’t leave a lot of room to feel that we can make mistakes, despite the glaringly obvious evidence that we can. But recognizing that evolution shapes life largely by trial-and-error, and that humans are a product of utilizing old functions in new ways (a work in progress, if you will) allows that we may not always operate the way we’d prefer. It is, perhaps, a nod to the functionality of this process that we can recognize fallibility for what it is, rather than either being oblivious of it, or denying it because we’d rather not believe it’s true.

This might be unnecessary to point out, but convincing people of this when engaging in critical examination of certain topics is remarkably hard to do. People don’t like admitting that they’re wrong. Amusingly, it could be an example of that imperfect job that evolution does. Being wrong is certainly a good thing to avoid, for obvious reasons. But the emotional reaction within us that helps us avoid this isn’t specific enough – it doesn’t differentiate enough between trying to be right, or simply not admitting that we’re wrong. Too often, if no one actually catches us in a mistake, this is sufficient. It shouldn’t be, and we need to pay attention to those circumstances when we’re, in effect, in denial about actually being wrong, and concentrate instead on ensuring that we’re as correct as we can be. This is not the same as winning an argument, by the way, a mistake made far too often.

For skeptics active in debate, however, there’s another aspect to be considered right alongside this. That emotional drive against being wrong means that, even if we have produced an unshakable and irrefutable argument, our “opponent” (for want of a better word) is highly unlikely to concede – we’re not going to see a clear victory. The admission of being wrong is almost certainly going to be a private one, sparing the embarrassment of public recognition. We cannot, and should not, expect to see someone change their mind. Our only goal should be to present the most cogent arguments that we can, and leave it be. Let the seed grow. It can be frustrating, to be sure, but it also leads to a better process: simply presenting the case and stepping away, without the emotional investment of seeking a resolution or victory.

Of course, considering ourselves skeptics and critical-thinkers doesn’t absolve us of error-prone traits, either, and like some of the therapists outlined above, may cause us to drop our guards and feel we’re not likely to be caught. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that all of us are wrong, in one way or another, every day. It’s unavoidable. But the distaste we feel over this thought should be channeled towards correcting our mistakes, instead of avoiding recognition of them.

And by all means, don’t take my word for it. There are a lot of resources available to examine these topics in much more detail, and I encourage you to check them out on your own.

Just because, part four

I just wanted to throw this one out there, because I liked the effect. It was taken four years ago as an experiment, and came out differently than expected. Take a moment and see if you can figure out how it was produced.

I can provide a clue: Most times, TTL flashes operate by measuring the light that makes it to the exposure meter within the camera, and gets shut off when enough is detected. This happens remarkably fast, in a few ten-thousands of a second, so while the flash may look instantaneous to us, it is actually started, then halted by the camera when it determines enough light has been received by the film or (in this case) digital sensor. Except, when the subject is dark and insufficient light is being received, the flash can actually discharge the entire capacitor, which results in some light fading at the end of the exposure. Therefore, moving objects appear brightly lit at the beginning of the exposure, but get dimmer towards the end. This can result in streaking, with the apparent direction opposite of the actual.

Not enough? How about if I tell you I was aiming straight up?

If you haven’t gotten it with those, I’ll simply tell you I stuck the camera out from under the edge of the roof during a downpour and fired off a frame with the flash, which illuminated the rain. The closest drops showed the greatest apparent motion, appearing to be moving towards the center of the frame by the fading flash, when in actuality they were falling past the wide-angle lens. Some drops are well out of focus, others not so. The color effects, such as the red spheres to the left side, I haven’t fully explained, but may be illuminated by light passing through water droplets on the flash head, which was refracted into different colors of the spectrum. I would have suspected a more uniform effect among close drops, though, so maybe it’s the flash light refracting through drops suspended in the air, illuminating close neighbors.

You can click on the image for a slightly larger version. I haven’t done any editing on this at all except for resizing – no color enhancements or contrast changes. If you noticed some “dead patches” in the frame, these were most likely caused by water drops already on the lens, blurring the drops beyond distinction. Just a neat effect, and I was impressed with the amount of color that showed up.

The growing threat to our nation’s parents

A series of Tweets from teenagers across the country is shedding light on what may be a serious menace to American parents: their growing inability to chill the fuck out.

Spurred on by books by “leading sociologists,” as they’re often referred to in parental circles, child-rearing adults may be falling victim to an insidious trend that might be bigger than most teenagers believe. “I’m kinda worried,” texts one adolescent, referring to her mother after an unexpected sit-down talk, “she thinks I’m sexting strangers. Srsly.”

The trend, brought to light on a Facebook page called, “My Parents Are ZOMGing,” shows disturbing tendencies for parents to treat changing social communication methods as indications that their children are in danger. Many of the comments on that site compare adult reactions to normal teen habits; some of these reactions are causing alarm and, most notably, exasperation. Brandon Ellerby sums it up in his status update, posted from his cellphone while on the schoolbus: ” [My] Dad says Im spnding 2 mch time on MySpace!” The status earned 72 Likes from among Ellerby’s 214 Friends, and started a thread reaching 46 comments so far and growing – only a few of them offering possible explanations for his father’s erratic behavior. Most teens agree that this is a symptom of a much bigger concern.

Some young adults are placing the blame on the ever-present market of adult-help books, which exploit the typical concerns of parents by exaggerating, and in some cases inventing, extreme consequences of social media. Many of these books, which are not screened for content by teenagers or responsible editors, take isolated situations and trumpet them as likely outcomes. LaWanda Corbin, a nineteen-year-old college freshman studying statistics this semester, gave us more insight from her cellphone between classes. “There’s, you know, always weird things happening somewhere, because there’s a shitload of people in the country. So some book writers pick these stories out and make ’em sound like they’re happening all the time. Then Oprah gets the book on her show and everyone thinks it’s serious ’cause she says so.” Corbin has previous experience with such influences, having been regularly fed fish oil capsules a few years ago when her mother read about it in Martha Stewart Living magazine, a periodical aimed specifically at parents, especially the vulnerable mother market. “She goes for all that fad shit,” added Corbin. “She doesn’t know that most of those articles and books are based on reading studies wrong; they don’t say what the writers say they do.”

Others have had to cope with their parents trying to find evidence of threats where none exist. “My mom keeps looking through my texts when she gets ahold of my phone,” explains Cesily Andrews, a sophomore at River Valley High aiming to get into marketing in a few years. “She keeps asking me what ‘WTF’ and ‘BRB’ means, but she doesn’t ever believe me when I tell her. It’s like she gets mad ’cause I’m not dealing drugs over my phone or something. Then she starts telling me I gotta use proper words when texting! But she bitches when I spend too much time texting, too! I mean, make up your mind!”

Teens that have tried various methods of addressing this trend caution that it can often backfire. Dylan Mackie, who handled such situations for six years before attending a college out-of-state, tells of the hazards of trying to go it alone. “You think that your parents are just worried, you know, all parents do,” he says, shaking his head when we spoke to him at the coffee shop as he Tweeted from his laptop. “So you Friend them on Facebook, so they can see what you’re actually doing, and chill out a bit. But then you have them jumping into threads with your Friends, and reminding you of curfew, or asking who’s going to be at the party. They don’t relax at all – they just look for more shit to freak over.” After a brief pause to read a reply, Mackie went on, “But the worst is when they try to be cool. It’s totally gay. Take my word for it, just tell them you don’t even have an account.”

Most parents, when asked, see this as much more typical, and nothing to be alarmed over. “Parents should be concerned over what their children get into,” says Jim Therbutin, a longtime father. “It’s not like when we were kids, where the worst you could do was get a girl pregnant. Sometimes, that even turned out okay,” he added thoughtfully. “But now kids are having sex at seven years old when their wristbands get broken, and running up multi-thousand dollar phone bills, and getting trapped in balloons. Look at YouTube! We never did stupid stuff like that when we were that age! You’re not being a good parent if you simply give them some good guidelines and let them have a little responsibility and freedom. Kids just don’t have the sense we had when we were young – it’s all these violent video games and Lady Gaga, it means a parent has to keep their children from going wacko. It’d be irresponsible not to.”

Despite this viewpoint, however, the nation’s young adults remain concerned that their parents have lost their perspective and their grip with reality, and are considering drastic measures if it goes on much longer. “I just can’t wait until I move out,” we were told, reflecting the growing sentiment of many American teens.

*      *      *      *

Thanks to World of Weird Things for the idea, and Sherry Turkle for creating another exploitative book about nonsense fears. And I apologize for resorting to the stilted hackneyed tabloid style of writing…

Dealing with the real world

You know, it’s not too often that I select articles to respond to here, mostly because my readership is small and I’m fairly remote – I’d rather respond where the article appears, and reach the same audience. At the same time, I’m more often simply passing on thoughts that stand alone when I can. But this one not only deserved a response, it demonstrates some of the larger problems which bear their own examination.

BioLogos is an organization that seeks to rectify the “warfare” between science and religion, and get them to live in harmony – don’t take my interpretation of it, you can see their mission on the About page connected to that link. It’s funded by the Templeton Foundation, which has much the same goal. The problem is, there’s really no disharmony or warfare involved. Science, as I’ve said before, is merely a methodical process of learning. It examines nature and, through tests and measurements and lots of attention, finds out how things work. Scientific laws aren’t arbitrary creations of scientists, but merely expressions of natural constants – if you have no idea what they are, they still work exactly the same for you.

The conflict (which often gets treated as “warfare” and deliberate attacks upon religion if you ask the religious) comes in when nothing in the slightest supernatural, mystical, or religious is found when we do this – in other words, no evidence for religious “truths” are ever found. At all.

Normally, this shouldn’t be any big deal, right? Who cares if science can find god? Science is imperfect, but god is everywhere, and all that. Except, no one can seem to agree on what god is or does. As we get more detailed about god’s word and god’s functions and miracles and such, they aren’t actually leading us anywhere, providing any knowledge, provoking the human spirit to new heights, or, well, anything, really. Science, on the other hand, is responsible for massive gains in knowledge, ability, health, welfare, transportation, understanding, and so on. We use it, we rely on it, we’re incredibly happy with it, because it works. And after relying on religion to help us burn people at the stake, drive off demons causing headaches and convulsions, tell us who wasn’t “chosen,” and all that fun stuff from a loving god, science started giving us things that actually worked. So, we use it.

What this actually means is that religion is fading away and losing all the power it once had, and those that wielded this power are quite perturbed by this. Those that liked the idea that they were “chosen” and “saved” and guaranteed a fun time for the remainder of eternity are frustrated that this guarantee looks like it won’t stand up in court. And those that feel that the world shouldn’t be unfair don’t want to hear that “fairness” is only a human concept, and adversity just something to be dealt with. So, there’s resistance. That brings us to the article.

One World: Science and Christianity in Respectful Dialogue, Part I” by Loren Wilkinson is what BioLogos seems to think is a reconciliation between science and religion. It’s unfortunate that Wilkinson doesn’t seem to even understand what science is, much less how it works, and indicative of a greater problem with BioLogos‘ supposed mission is that this article falls so wide of the mark. The first sentence crashes spectacularly not just once, but twice:

The BioLogos Foundation, with its commitment to the “integration of science and Christian faith” is one of many signs that the 150-year-old idea of a “warfare” between science and religion is ending.

Well, the attacks of religion against science have been going on for a lot longer than 150 years, because they certainly didn’t start (as I’m sure Wilkinson is implying) with Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. Pretty much from the start of christianity, it’s been trashing the rights of human beings, torturing those that failed to avow their obeisance to the scripture, and pillaging those areas of the world considered not holy enough. Galileo was forced to renounce his work on planetary motion – you know, that Earth revolves around the Sun? – and Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for refusing to recant his theory that the sun was one of many such stars in the universe. You have heard of witch hunts, right? Wilkinson apparently hasn’t. So, either Wilkinson learned absolutely nothing from history, or wants to ignore it entirely in favor of minimizing the church’s warfare against people who dared examine the natural world and learn from it, as well as people who simply didn’t find scripture all that useful, who got to be tortured and killed too.

That’s part one. Part two, for the same sentence, is that BioLogos isn’t really a sign of the end of the warfare, because it doesn’t actually reconcile anything. All it’s doing is fighting to make religion seem relevant to a world that no longer needs it. Let’s keep going, because you may be thinking I’m saying that from bias or spite. On this “warfare”:

First, it obscures the recognition that science at its core, is a religious activity, in the deepest and most literal sense of “re-ligious”—that which links. Religion and science both come from the uniquely human passion to see the diverse pieces of our experience as one supple and coherent body of knowledge: thus its connection with a word like “ligament”, the tissue which holds the skeleton together.

Well, first of all, it’s one hell of a stretch to use the word in the form of its Latin roots and claim this is what it means – especially since dictionaries don’t even recognize this usage of the root, much less the word. Both “religion” and “ligament” have the same root meaning, but it isn’t “to link” – it’s “to bind.” That didn’t sell as well, I’m guessing.

But, he might actually be right that religion and science came from seeking knowledge… though he didn’t actually say this, did he? He’s trying to say they’re intended to be united, which is another stretch. I’ll let this one go, though – sure, we seek knowledge. Philosophy and astrology have the same root cause too. But one’s a semi-valid pursuit of understanding, and the other’s a pile of imagined horseshit. Examining roots doesn’t actually get us anywhere, does it? Nor does thinking that, as supposed forms of knowledge, they are united in goal and value.

There is no science without scientists, and scientists are always and only humans, probing and coming to know an inexhaustibly mysterious cosmos by means of their own passions, beliefs, hunches and theories.

No and no. Science is merely finding out how things work – it only needs scientists to express it to others. Natural laws work without human input at all. The structure of scientific investigation is in place solely because we’re fallible and prone to mistakes. And that’s where the second part of this sentence falls flat, in that science specifically weeds out the passions, beliefs, and hunches to reveal only what is. A scientist can be exceptionally passionate about the aether, for example, and believe in it fervently, but when the tests reveal it doesn’t exist, accepting that is science. I point this out because Wilkinson, having started to couch knowledge in terms of emotion, plans to use this shifty little trick later on.

Second, and more specifically, the warfare language hides the fact that the modern tradition of empirical science has deep roots in the Jewish and Christian tradition. The point was first made clearly in Michael Foster’s meticulously reasoned series of articles, “The Christian Doctrine of Creation and the Origins of Modern Science”, published in the resolutely positivist philosophical journal Mind in 1934.

Actually, empirical science (christians do so love that word, “empirical”) has roots that predate christianity by centuries. The Greeks knew the world was spherical, and had pretty damn good measurements of it, before the biblical stories calling it flat and rectangular made it out of the middle east. The Romans had remarkably long-lasting architecture, aqueducts, roads, monetary systems, and such before jesus was born. Ötzi the Iceman possessed smelted ores used for tools and weapons, a thousand years before the time of the great flood. So, uh, bullshit. The point was false long before Michael Foster came along.

The warfare language implies that there were two kinds of knowledge: “religious knowledge”, established only by emotion and authority, and scientific knowledge, established by experience, experiment and testing. If true this would be a disastrous situation, culturally and personally, since it would doom “religious” people to living in a pseudo-reality constructed from dogma and wishful thinking, and “scientific” people living in a meaningless world of emotion-free “facts” each of which they must establish for themselves.

I agree with Wilkinson, it would be disastrous for “religious” people (his quotes) to live in a pseudo-reality constructed from dogma and wishful thinking. Only, that’s exactly what they do. That’s why there’s a conflict with science – because the real world doesn’t demonstrate any of the properties they really want it to have. Boo hoo.

Meanwhile, people do live in a world of emotion-free facts, and despite Wilkinson’s placement of scare-quotes around the word, facts do indeed exist (for an organization that supposedly supports science alongside religion, this seems like a snarky thing to let slip by, doesn’t it? It’s the kind of thing that a godbot that denigrates science would do, actually.) And yes, these facts have no emotions – how stupid can your point be? Emotions are the traits of living species. Wilkinson wants to imply here that scientists do not feel emotion, but perhaps even he knew that this was one piece of bullshit that he couldn’t pull off. That doesn’t stop him from implying that science dismisses emotions further down in the article, though. This is a favorite within religious arguments, as if emotion is the key to knowledge or “truth.” You’ll see it a lot.

But meaning? Yes, there’s another of the favorite words of the religious, and I’ve addressed this too. Despite the fervent avowals of every religion that this is what they specifically provide, I haven’t actually seen it. Depending on who you ask, it’s to “spread the good word” (seems to be a lot of trouble to go through, floods and wars and all that, to let people know about an omnipotent being who could establish it in our minds in an eyeblink,) or it’s something mysterious we aren’t meant to know – this one invariably comes up when the religious get stumped. Neither one really does anything for me, sorry to say. The chair I’m sitting in is “meaningless,” as are the rocks out in the yard. But we can find a use for both, and even gain knowledge from them. In fact, the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge works pretty damn well as a meaning to me, but that’s simply because we evolved to seek it. So?

We live in one world, part of which we know on authority, part of which we know on experience.

Ah, we come to the common religious tactic of assertion! Just a little sentence fragment, intended to justify and legitimize scripture by saying we know something on “authority.” But, pray tell (yow I’m a hoot,) what is this knowledge that we gained on authority? Can we use it in any way? Is it the creation of the world in seven days? The garden of eden? Noah’s flood? Tower of babel, david & goliath, samson & delilah, jesus, peter? What bits have given us something that contributes to our lives and advancement as humans? Be careful now, because I don’t work from christianity being the only religion in the world, and you’ll have to prove that christians, with this special knowledge, are more advanced than others without it. I’ll be demanding real evidence.

Because, the real reason we have BioLogos and Wilkinson trying to become one with science is that science has that legitimacy they both want, and do not have from their scripture. The more we know, the sillier the biblical stories get, and that’s been going on for a few hundred years now.

From here, Wilkinson then starts mixing jargon-speak about scientific models with philosophical speculation about how adam & eve can fit into the facts of evolution – supposedly, you can take this inane concept about human progenitors and “model” it. No, you actually can’t, and the point he’s trying to hide in the smoke is that both human history and simple logic render the adam & eve story as fatuous. Models give us the means to examine what affect such a premise would have on human development – just saying “we modeled it” is meaningless. What do the models measure and produce? Well, they don’t produce anything, because in order to even try to apply their model into what we know about evolutionary development, they have to change the criteria from the scripture to fit the facts. That makes the scriptural accounts an admitted dead end. Even if the model produced some kind of results, the results couldn’t then tally back into scripture because that’s not what they tested in the first place. In fact, they tested nothing at all, because this talk about models didn’t actually involve any method for which models are used. It’s simply a way to make mere idle speculation sound important.

I want you to notice something here, too, because it’s exceptionally common. Wilkinson doesn’t seem to have any issues with trashing “facts,” most especially when they don’t go the way he’d like them to, and his ignorance of church history is phenomenal. But then he openly tries to use science (or an abject bastardization of it, anyway) as a way to give scripture an improved stature. Notice that we’re not even finding biblical accounts that predicted scientific findings, a pretty solid method of saying that knowledge can come from scripture. We’re warping scripture to try and blend it into what science has already established, and in doing so, holding up scripture as “knowledge from authority.” Cute, isn’t it?

It gets better. On the detailed rebuttals from Jerry Coyne and Eric MacDonald:

Both write from within that familiar fog of confusion (typical of both a-theist and religious fundamentalisms) which arises whenever we assume that the only relationship between religion and science is one of warfare.

You are, of course, welcome to read their input and see if either of them seems to be in a confused fog, or treating the advancement of this model theory as “warfare.” Both, instead, know very well that reliable knowledge comes from evidence and support, function and testability. They address why the model theory fails. But it doesn’t work for Wilkinson’s agenda to have to deal with facts, so he openly resorts to demonizing the opposition, perhaps hoping (and probably being right in far too many cases) that his intended audience isn’t bright enough to see for themselves.

And it goes on, with Wilkinson attempting to draw a metaphorical use for genesis by claiming it defines man’s relation to the cosmos, the purpose of it, and the purpose to man. That is accomplishes none of these is simply ignored outright – again, if it has been asserted, there is no reason to support this assertion with something so crass as evidence, is there? Welcome to what you receive when you seek real answers from religion.

Theologians throughout the entire history of christianity have spent untold years trying to reconcile scriptural accounts in some euphemistic or metaphorical way, but none of them have ever stood up to scrutiny, much less produced any kind of supporting evidence. Sooner or later, you have to come to the realization that the story is simply bullshit. The very fact that it’s taken this long (and will still continue at least a little bit longer) is evidence that the search for religious knowledge isn’t going to work until you treat it like science does, and accept the bad results with the good. It’s fine to start with a premise and see how well it fits, but when it doesn’t, even after all this time, you need to look for something that does. Oh, wait! We’ve already found that long ago! Thus, the “warfare” isn’t a duel between science and religion, but between emotional crutches and accepting reality. And if you want to challenge the idea of our current theories being “reality,” I’ll let you have that point – we can’t prove anything beyond a shadow of a doubt, we can only find what has the greatest evidenced support. That example of greatest evidenced support that Wilkinson alludes to in the beginning, mind you, forms the backbone of biology, anatomy, medicine, and other disciplines, and manages to both function and predict with incredible accuracy. You know, that’s kinda why we use it.

The article even goes so far as to call biblical scripture a “data set,” which is so astoundingly dishonest about science and data that it shows BioLogos as the lie that it is. No one intending to promote science in any way as a useful function could consider haphazard writings from several thousand years ago as “data,” except as evidence that humans indeed had a language then. And of course, to consider it useful information, you would then, if you had an honest bone in your body, have to consider all of the other scriptural “data” as well – you know, the ones from religions that don’t agree with christianity. BioLogos, naturally enough, cannot do that, because it says right there in their mission that christianity is the only standpoint they promote. You may notice that they do not establish why christianity wins this competition, but I imagine that if you ask, you’ll get answers much the same as Wilkinson’s wordy but vacuous article here.

And that’s really the lesson to be learned from all this. When you’re in pursuit of your agenda, you can resort to a lot of tricks to try and establish support for it. Putting together a long litany of impressive-sounding points only works if someone is concerned by the sounds, not the content. If the content won’t stand up against critical examination, you may actually get called on your blatant and biased attempts to skew the results in your favor – in which case, you can decry the language and the disrespectful tone as Wilkinson does. This ignores the fact that nothing in his treatise smokescreen deserves respect, but only demonstrates a shameless manipulation of both facts and emotion. This is the legacy of religion – if you dare to examine the history, you’ll find that this hasn’t ever been different.

My question has always been, why do people find this so compelling? Isn’t the flow of bullshit from the most valued proponents embarrassing enough to avoid? Doesn’t the lack of a decent argument indicate something?

There’s always a way

Skimming through my archive photos looking for a topic for a blog post, I found one! Amazing, isn’t it? Anyway, one of the things I tell my photography students (and anyone else that will listen) routinely is that chasing equipment isn’t the key to getting those wonderful images they’ve been after. I’d use myself as an example, because I’ve worked on a shoestring all my life, but I may not be getting the wonderful images they’ve been after myself. I’ve gotten plenty that I’ve liked, so we’ll just stick with that and proceed from there.

I have a page set up on this topic already, but briefly, elaborate equipment doesn’t magically create good images, and the lack thereof doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to work around it. While I have always had an interest in aquatic things, and love snorkeling, I’ve never gotten scuba-certified and never owned an underwater camera. So, I cheated, and while I lived in Florida, I set up a small fishtank to work from. Snorkel trips down to the nearby saltwater lagoon, close enough to walk or bicycle to, provided lots of small subjects, and the tank afforded me something that I wouldn’t be getting even with a decent underwater camera rig: the ability to control conditions, lighting, and be handy when certain species displayed something noteworthy.

From time to time, I would spot a subtle, fast, and very shy fish in the lagoon, but had a very difficult time getting close enough to obtain a decent shot. Plus, shooting from above the surface almost always results in distortion and glare from the rippling surface.

I did what I could, but I knew that even with an underwater camera, I wasn’t getting close enough to these spooky buggers to get any kind of clarity through the water, certainly not a nice detail shot. But then one day, I spotted a small collection of fry, baby fish, that I was able to herd into a more enclosed area and scoop up an example in a collecting jar that I’d been carrying with me routinely. Once home, I installed it in my tank, adjusted the lights, and set to work. The fish only had a limited amount of room to dart away within, the suspended sediment was much reduced, and I could adjust the lights to get the perfect angle.

Is that better? This (after a very brief search with a guess at the name) is a Redfin Needlefish (Strongylura notata,) and while my grinning model here isn’t 5 cm (2 in) long, they apparently can get to be quite large. My wild example at top is probably in the range of 15-25 cm if memory serves.

But you want a better look at that head, don’t you?

I sharpened this a little bit to bring out those teeth better, considering that they’re probably half a millimeter in length, or less. Even with a proper underwater macro lens and a lighting rig that could illuminate a subject this close, there’s very little chance I could get close enough to such a subject in the wild without resorting to baiting, and a whole lot of patience. Instead, my actual costs were for the fishtank and the off-camera cord for my flash unit, and I shot a sequence of photos in the space of a few minutes before releasing this guy back where I caught him.

So, before you throw money at more camera gear, see what can be accomplished with a little thought. Every piece of equipment, every technique, has its good and bad points, and it’s probably better to examine the good points of what’s available to you now (and the bad points of the waiting and the cost of the new equipment,) rather than reversing that as too many people do, and weighing the good points of the new equipment against the bad points of their current equipment. Your wallet, and perhaps your spouse, may be much happier, too.

Lucky guess

I amused myself earlier this evening by doing a little astronomical shooting, but in a strictly casual way. I have an 8-inch Galilean telescope which I can use to get fairly decent photos like the one for this post, but it’s packed away and I wasn’t motivated enough to dig it out. Instead, I simply used the 170-500mm zoom lens, both with and without the 2x teleconverter. I found that the teleconverter didn’t provide any edge in these conditions, and simply worked without it.

Later, looking at the details of the lunar surface in this sample from the shoot, I began wondering about Tycho, the remarkably prominent crater seen here at lower right, even visible to the naked eye. The ray pattern of ejecta extends across almost half the diameter of the moon’s surface, and the impact itself had to be devastating. The subtly remarkable trait about it, though, is the direction that it faces. The moon is in what’s called a synchronous rotation, keeping one side (mostly) towards Earth as it orbits. This has resulted in the near side being relatively light on craters, while the far side is absolutely covered with them. The stronger Earth gravity basically captured most of the debris that might have impacted the near side. Tycho, however, marks a distinctive contradiction to this, and presents some indication that the asteroid that caused it passed rather close to Earth.

I started to wonder how it compared with the Chicxulub (“cheek-shoe-lube”) impactor, the asteroid that struck 65 million years ago and was most likely responsible for the extinction of nearly all dinosaurs. That one had produced a debris cloud that extended across much of Earth, and potentially caused catastrophic changes to climate through the suspended atmospheric particles and volcanic aftereffects. Were they similar in size? And how old was Tycho, anyway?

The answer was rather surprising. Tycho is approximately 108 million years old, young for a lunar crater, but much older than Chicxulub at 65 million years. And also much smaller, the crater being slightly less than half the size of Chicxulub’s, or at least what Chicxulub had been before climatological erosion and plate tectonics nearly erased all traces of it. The surprising part is that they both are theorized as being from the same origin, the breakup of an asteroid after a collision in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, roughly 160 million years ago. The debris from this produced many small asteroids known as the Baptistina family, two of which creating Tycho and Chicxulub after they were ejected from the belt by the impact and captured by Earth/moon gravity, another being the current asteroid 298 Baptistina. So two devastating impacts to neighboring bodies were actually caused by siblings, if the theory is correct.

The wide time lag between the two impacts isn’t anything odd – while we might picture chunks hurtling across space in a direct line towards impact, the reality is that debris and dust tends to be nudged and drifts across space, and may be temporarily captured by planetary gravity in an unstable orbit. Eventually, the gravitational influences of two close bodies produces a combination of pulls that sends the debris into the path of the orbiting planet or moon. In cosmic terms, the 43 million year difference between the two impacts is relatively small.

Tycho, by the way, displays evidence that its impact produced molten rock and deep scarring, while Chicxulub created a region of underground (and underwater, now) caverns called cenotes. You should check out the Wikipedia page on the impact – it was a mess.

Also interesting is that Manicouagan Crater in Quebec (enter “51.374100 N 68.672437 W” in the online mapping site of your choice, like Google Maps or Bing – you’ll probably need to zoom out) is only 70 km (43 mi) in diameter in the visible ring, compared to Tycho’s 85 km (52 mi) and Chicxulub’s 180 km (112 mi). Yet Chicxulub isn’t even visible (21.352998 N 89.100186 W), while Manicouagan, at 215.5 million years several times older than Chicxulub, can easily be made out from space. The secret is the terrain they’re within. Manicouagan sits in the middle of a tectonic plate, one that is very flat and has no mountains to produce lots of water flow – in essence, it is a swampy lowland, so erosion is slow. Cruise around your map and see – there are lots of impact craters of varying ages all throughout the region, including a cool double crater. Chicxulub, meanwhile, sits very close to the boundaries of several tectonic plates and has undergone significant changes in the intervening time – the Central American region is not volcano-riddled for nothing. The surface evidence of the crater has long since been driven away, but the subsurface remnants still exist. Another, even younger one sits under the Chesapeake Bay and may be about the size of Tycho.

While all of these sound like very long times ago, in geological and cosmological terms they’re recent. The ugly truth is, other such impacts could happen at any time, and the asteroids or comets that might cause such a catastrophic impact need only be a few kilometers across (Chicxulub was estimated to be something like 10 km in diameter.) That’s small. Our ability to spot such asteroids isn’t that great right now, which means we may have little warning of one approaching. Regardless, we have virtually no way of doing anything about it anyway. While our space program meanders along begging for table scraps left over from pork-barrel military projects that mostly chase ghosts, we’re gambling that the next big impact won’t happen until we’re ready. But of course, we’re spending billions because we’re terrified of a scattered band of extremists making shoe and underwear bombs. Am I missing something?

Another update

Spurred on by this post, I added a page about exposure to the Tips & Tricks gallery on my main website. It can now be found here, and covers what the camera is doing, what you’re after, and how to achieve what you want.

Exposure isn’t a simple subject, so don’t expect a quick explanation, but hopefully this will help you understand it if you need help. Take a look and see what you think!

Something to add

For some time now, I’ve been playing with several ideas about introducing school kids to critical thinking, because I feel it’s a trait that’s sorely needed, and sorely lacking, in the US today. It doesn’t help that I have no educational background, no relation to schools, and no connections to anyone that does – working in a vacuum is probably not the best way to go about this, which is why I haven’t been pouring a lot of effort into it. You’re reading exactly where the majority of my efforts go.

Something I read recently caused me, just an hour ago, to realize that something else could be added. Skeptics and critical thinkers have a lot of resources, and there’s a commonality to much of it – some of this is owed to Carl Sagan, who outlined a great collection of information in Demon Haunted World. There are lists of common fallacies to thinking, and some contribution from the scientific method and its practices to eliminate bias and error. I don’t recall ever running across this one, however, but it strikes me as a good one to include.

I was reading a book about Richard Feynman’s life, who’s best known for his work on understanding quantum electrodynamics, as well as being a bit of a character and an enthusiastic science educator. He was directly involved in the Manhattan Project, the program that developed the atomic bomb, and he later reflected on the ethics of his participation in this. When he was recruited around 1942, Germany was a fierce threat to Europe and, perhaps, even America, and it was believed they were hard on the trail of their own atomic bomb. Feynman, like the majority of Americans at the time, felt obligated to do his part in halting the Nazi tide, and horrified at the thought of such a powerful device in Nazi hands.

Before the Manhattan Project reached fruition, however, Nazi Germany collapsed, and the threat from that quarter effectively vanished. This didn’t really change the project for Feynman, and apparently not for anyone else. To all appearances, by this time (several years of constant involvement in,) it was both an overriding goal and a puzzle to solve, and it did not occur to Feynman that the reason he was involved in it in the first place had vanished until long after the bombs had been used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The point I’m making isn’t about the ethics of nuclear weapons, or about what should be someone’s proper motivations. I’m more looking at how we may get involved in something for the right reasons, but once committed, we change from having an overriding goal to treating things as a challenge to our abilities. We sometimes make a decision, then put that factor entirely out of our heads as a “done deal” and proceed towards meeting this goal, without evaluating whether the goal remains, or is worth the time, effort, money, commitment, or emotion we are putting into it. Most times, I think we do this with minor projects – I suspect everyone can remember a special occasion they were trying to make “just right” and ended up getting terribly stressed over, without realizing that such occasions are usually to relieve stress. But Feynman’s words brought home that this is probably a very common trait, and one that we should be aware of.

It pays to step back, routinely, and look at what we’re trying to accomplish from a distance, to maintain perspective. It’s valuable to keep the reasons why we do things firmly in mind, and to recognize that these can both change, and may only be worth a certain investment anyway (replacing the washing machine might be expensive, but after four days and a significant amount of emotional turmoil trying to fix it, maybe it’s worth the money?) And it’s important to recognize that our minds shift gears, and small goals or advances take over the importance from larger ones, while masquerading under the rational decision that started the process. I suspect gamblers labor under this all the time, convinced that one more attempt will justify the time and money invested already. I know I’ve done it with photography projects (I just recently threw out a camera strobe project I started years ago to save some money, which I replaced with a manufactured unit just a few less years ago when it never worked as planned.)

We can be reluctant to abandon a puzzle unsolved, or a project uncompleted, but if they’re not fulfilling our larger goals reasonably, we should be able to see this for what it this. We must remind ourselves to take the time to look, though.