July 27, 2008

The foolishness of the 'atheists are fools' "argument"

If a man, who happens to be a Christian, has written a computer program that has some bug in it somewhere such that when you run his program to produce a list of purchases in a selected month but the "money paid" amount is wrong;

and a man, who happens to be an atheist, is assigned to perform the bug analysis, so he experiments with the program a little bit and digs into some of the program code and discovers that the bug in the program is simply that the query code that is run on the database is wrongly including purchases that have a "cancelled" status;

and then the man, who is a Christian, says, "You're an atheist, so you're just a fool. The Bible says so. So your claim that I've made an error in my computer program and your explanation and solution of it is wrong";

then the genuine fool - indeed, the idiotic moron (no joke) - would be the man who happens to be a Christian for using such a silly "argument" in the first place.

If a man, who happens to be a Christian, gets caught up in having an adulterous affair with a woman;

and another man who is a private investigator, and who happens to be an atheist, is hired by the first man's wife (who didn't happen to inquire into his religious beliefs or lack thereof) to do some investigative work to discover whether or not her husband (who is a Christian) is lying to her about what he's doing with some of his time on his own, and in the course of doing his investigative work on the husband the investigator (who is an atheist) tracks him (using a GPS device attached to his car) and ends up discovering him and "the other woman" at a hotel in a nearby town, and he even takes some really "juicy" (i.e., incriminating) pictures with his camera, after which the investigator gives a full report to the wife;

and then when confronted by his wife using the critical information provided by the investigator (who is an atheist), the man (who is a Christian), points out to his wife, "You can't pay any attention to that investigator, because he's an atheist, and as God tells us in the Bible he's just a fool,"

then the wife will show the husband exactly how irrelevant his prejudice-pandering "atheists are fools" red herring argument really is, as she completely ignores the very foolish and totally stupid argument of her husband and tosses him out on his ear and then files for a divorce for his unrepentant attitude and defiance in the face of his own error.

It's quite ironic how Christians who go for the "It's perfectly okay for me to ignore the errors this man is pointing out in my statements, because, as the Bible tells us, atheists are fools" (Psalm 14:1 - "The fool has said in his heart, 'There is no God.'") are the very ones who are demonstrating their own foolishness by using such obviously fallacious rhetoric in the first place.

The fallacy (actually, multiple fallacies are wrapped up in it) is one of the kinds of arguments that are called "red herring" (more generally, fallacies of relevance).

Red Herring
The name of this fallacy comes from the sport of fox hunting in which a dried, smoked herring, which is red in color, is dragged across the trail of the fox to throw the hounds off the scent. Thus, a "red herring" argument is one which distracts the audience from the issue in question through the introduction of some irrelevancy. This frequently occurs during debates when there is an at least implicit topic, yet it is easy to lose track of it. By extension, it applies to any argument in which the premisses are logically irrelevant to the conclusion.

Argumentum ad Hominem
A debater commits the Ad Hominem Fallacy when he introduces irrelevant personal premisses about his opponent. Such red herrings may successfully distract the opponent or the audience from the topic of the debate.

Ad hominem
(RationalWiki entry, 7/20,2008)
It occurs when people who are unable to attack the argument being made attack instead the person making it. As such arguments have nothing to do with the topic, they have no weight, not even if the attack is true. Two plus two still equals four even if the first person to point this out was the most morally reprehensible person to have ever lived.

Ad hominem
(Wikipedia entry, 7/20/2008)
An ad hominem fallacy is a genetic fallacy and red herring, and is most often (but not always) an appeal to emotion.

An ad hominem fallacy consists of asserting that someone's argument is wrong and/or he is wrong to argue at all purely because of something discreditable/not-authoritative about the person or those persons cited by him rather than addressing the soundness of the argument itself. The implication is that the person's argument and/or ability to argue correctly lacks authority. Merely insulting another person in the middle of otherwise rational discourse does not necessarily constitute an ad hominem fallacy (though it is not usually regarded as acceptable). It must be clear that the purpose of the characterization is to discredit the person offering the argument, and, specifically, to invite others to discount his arguments.


"You claim that this man is innocent, but you cannot be trusted since you are a criminal as well."

This argument would generally be accepted as reasonable, as regards personal evidence, on the premise that criminals are likely to lie to protect each other. On the other hand, it is a valid example of ad hominem if the person making the claim is doing so on the basis of evidence independent of their own credibility.

This particular piece of rhetoric ("atheists are fools"), used as an argument, also happens to function as another form of red herring at the same time, namely as an appeal to emotion by appealing to many other Christians' emotional prejudice against atheists: "This criticism of this creationist claim is wrong because the criticism is made by atheists (and you know how bad atheists are)." In other words, the rhetoric is being used to attack something an atheist has stated in discussion (regardless of whether or not what the atheist is talking about has any relevance to what is being discussed) on the basis of nothing more than anti-atheist prejudice.

Emotional Appeals
Emotional appeals all have two things in common:

1. They attempt to elicit an emotional response that will serve as the basis of any decision made, instead of presenting an argument and relying on its soundness.

2. As a result, they are never acceptable in an argument, though they can be quite effective in arousing non-rational responses.

Fallacious appeals to emotions are effective because it's easier for most people not to think critically, but to rely on their gut reaction; and it's easier for the person making the appeal to excite his listeners' emotions than to construct a persuasive argument.

Appeal to Prejudice. A prejudice is a predisposition to judge groups of people or things either positively or negatively, even after the facts of a case indicate otherwise....

By appealing to a prejudice in the listener, the person making the argument attempts to ensure a favorable reaction. Most often, such an appeal works on negative images, and extreme cases can be classified as so-called "hate speech" when directed against a group defined by race, ethnicity, or gender.

Finally - and note that this in only in the case of certain contexts in which this rhetoric is used, such as in discussions where a person who is an atheist has been discussing various factual errors and errors in reasoning used by creationists in their attacks against science - the function that the "atheists are fools" rhetoric serves is as a "begging the question" form of fallacy. The argument goes something like this: "We know that atheists are not able to correctly deal with facts and reason properly because of the very fact that they are atheists, therefore it is okay to ignore any of the criticisms stated by this atheist about creationist arguments since criticisms by atheists are wrong." In logical form, it's something like this:
Premise 1: Statements made by atheists are wrong.
(Atheists are not able to correctly deal with
facts and reasoning about the facts, because
atheists are "fools.")

Premise 2: This person who is stating criticisms
of creationism is an atheist.

Conclusion: Therefore, we can ignore anything
pointed out by an atheist because his
criticisms are wrong.
The conclusion merely assumes the truth of the first premise (it actually only restates the first premise).

Of course, the only way to know whether or not the criticisms being stated by the atheist are right or wrong (or irrelevant) is to actually deal with the facts (or dig into the information being purported to be factual) and to actually deal with the conceptual details of the reasoning that is being used with the facts that the person who happens to be an atheist is pointing out - and the very purpose of the "begging the question" fallacy being used is to prevent others from conducting such rational consideration.

So the use of the "atheists are fools" rhetoric as any kind of argument is based on a whole bundle of rhetorical fallacies. The fact that the Christians who use this rhetoric would even think that their "atheists are fools" "argument" has any relevance whatsoever for dealing with... well, with dealing with anything in terms of rational argument, especially in the context of discussing criticisms of creationist arguments to try to get creationists to deal with the scientific facts that show that their numerous arguments are permeated with factual and conceptual errors (as well as being ignorant about the actual science) is just another one of those amusing ironies of how so much of the rhetoric creationists love to use is itself quite foolish, being nothing more than the use of basic and well-known fallacies.

June 5, 2008

Christians pretend critical scrutiny is "persecution"

[I wrote this in response to "The Christian Persecution Delusion. Again." by Ed Brayton (Feb. 25, 2008).]

What theists/Christians who pretend to be "persecuted" for their religious beliefs really mean is that they don't want a bunch of people openly criticizing their religious beliefs for lacking rational justification (i.e., for being superstition), and if you do, then they'll whine and moan about being "persecuted." They're using this rhetoric to try to keep a lid on this open criticism of faith-based beliefs in "polite society."

This is one reason I have found the religious criticism of the "new" atheism for being "militant" so amusingly ironic. What religious people who say these kinds of things really mean is that they have enjoyed the free ride they've had when the expression of religious belief is "respected" (not subjected to rational, critical scrutiny) - and they've had free reign to bad-mouth atheism and atheists for centuries - and atheists in society have basically kept their mouths shut. What irks them is that atheism has grown enough in U.S. society that now atheists are not willing to just keep their mouths shut anymore.

A "militant" atheist is simply an atheist who doesn't automatically keep his mouth shut any more just because someone says, "Well, I believe this because it's my faith." Now we increasingly have "militant" atheists who won't let that be the end of discussion, but continue on, "Okay, so what? Now I want your reasons for that belief. Oh, you don't have any? So, what you're really telling me is that you arbitrarily believe it just because you wish to believe even though you can't rationally justify it. Therefore, there's no reason for anyone to believe it. And that's my point. That's why I don't accept your belief, and furthermore that's exactly what I'm openly telling everyone else when it happens to come up in conversation."

It is this openness of basic criticism that makes us "new" atheists so "militant." The "militant atheist" pejorative is nothing more than yet another example of the kind of rhetorical trickery commonly used by Christians and other theists to denigrate and try to ward off rational, critical scrutiny of their personal ideas.

June 3, 2008

Energy production and usage after oil

[Note that I originally published this essay on Apr. 23, 2008 in some online discussion groups I'm a member of.]

Below are some articles that I have found to be of relevance to the "energy crunch" problem coming to human civilization in the 21st century. This problem occurs as the intersection of two issues.

First, "third world" countries around the world have been industrializing and substantially increasing their energy consumption, in line with other countries such as the United States, Great Britain, and so on that have had such higher energy consumption for many decades. So the demand for energy is increasing substantially.

Second, by far human civilization has come to rely on oil to produce the majority of the energy we use, but oil is a nonsustainable (nonrenewable) energy resource, and numerous experts in the oil industry and other analysts estimate that we will be reaching "peak oil" status within the next 10 to 20 years (the point at which, due to the relatively fixed amount of oil, it will reach maximum production but then production will decline after that point).

Demand increasing. Supply dwindling.

I don't happen to be one of the doomsayers, but this is an issue that people really should become increasingly aware of, in terms of (1) simply being personally conscious about ways in which to reduce their consumption of energy (energy conservation), (2) making social/political choices implementing social policies that reward more efficient uses of energy, and (3) also making social/political choices rewarding experimentation, development, and implementation of methods of producing energy that do not use oil.

By the way, in terms of energy consumption efficiency, I'm not thinking in terms of top-down government dictated social mandates, but more in terms of bottom-up economic choices. In other words, if it really is more energy efficient then it should be cheaper and people will buy it precisely because of that. These things can be very simple, such as using more energy efficient light bulbs. If you're only going four or six blocks, just walk instead of driving the car. (And I note that people are beginning to think along this line more, with gasoline approaching $4 a gallon.) On a government level, such a simple decision can have very significant consequence, such as when a city implements a policy to, over time, when a street light burns out, simply replace the street light with a more energy efficient light.

I have no personal vested interest in any particular energy producing method. I simply am aware of the fact of what oil is, and the fact that it really is going to run out over time over the next 100 to 150 years *or so*. (No one needs to quibble with me about the number. If you want to say it's 200 or 300 years, that's fine, my point remains the same.) I also happen to think that for me personally this is not a major issue, because I'm going to die an old man before it becomes a truly major problem. But I'm smart enough to realize that in the long term we need to consider what should be thought about and done now to help deal with the problem over time, for human civilization in following generations.

Also note that I have particular disdain for government boondoggles, wasting tax money giving handouts to wealthy big business agricultural interests Note that this doesn't just waste tax money, but more importantly it actually *diverts attention and effort away from methods that really work*. I'm not saying what I'm saying here because I have any bias against biofuels, because I don't. (Indeed, in the online references below you'll see me refer you to another example of biofuel production that I am led to believe is far superior to corn ethanol.) It's just that I've never read anything over the last twenty years that has ever led me to judge that the corn ethanol projects have been anything more than a waste of time and tax money.

Also, it amazes me how much so many people are confused about hydrogen fuel cells and the so-called "hydrogen economy." This is NOT an alternative production of energy. (Note that here I'm not referring to atomic fusion.) The idea of hydrogen use has to do with another issue entirely, which is coming up with ways to reduce our impact on the environment with our high energy usage. Hydrogen is ONLY an "energy carrier." You can think of it like a battery - you have to put energy into the battery to get it out. Hydrogen has nothing to do with thinking about energy production, but is only tangentially related in terms of coming up with methods of consuming energy more "cleanly." (And it's debatable whether hydrogen is even, or can be made to be, a feasibly efficient energy carrier.)

There is no one solution to this problem. There are many solutions will grow and evolve in combination in terms of scientific and technological development, and economic feasability, as our societies are forced to move away from our primary dependence on oil, since ultimately we really don't have any choice about it. The oil isn't going to run out in 20 or 30 years, but it *is* going to run out. It is not a sustainable energy resource in the long term, and we all know it.

With all this in mind, I provide you with some recent online references, about a variety of ideas concerning energy production besides oil.

Geothermal Heat Pumps

U.S. Leads World in Wind-Power Growth

"Grass Gas" Shows Promise as Superefficient, Clean Fuel

Tapping tidal energy: the wave of the future

A Solar Grand Plan
(Scientific American, December 2007)

ITER Project (Fusion Energy)

Glenn Morton's Oil Crisis Page

What in the world is happening to energy?

The Hydrogen Economy

June 1, 2008

Is teaching creationism only being fair to the children?

[Note that I originally published this essay on Feb. 28, 2008 in some online discussion groups I'm a member of. This version has been very slightly edited with a few word changes.]

In regard to teaching creationism in public school science classes, when creationists say things like, "It's only fair (to the children) to teach both theories," what they really mean is that since they don't like the science, because it contradicts their religious beliefs, they want to teach their religious beliefs to children. "It's only fair to teach both viewpoints."

There are two serious problems with this. One is a category problem, and the other is a fundamental legal problem.

The category problem has to do with the fact that in science classes you're supposed to be teaching... well, uh, science.

Creationism isn't science. When creationists use the term "both theories," they're using a false comparison based on a semantic ambiguity of two different meanings of the word "theory." Look up "theory" in the dictionary.

A scientific theory is "A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena" (American Heritage Dictionary, 4th Ed.). Creationism is only a "theory" in the sense of "An assumption based on limited information or knowledge; a conjecture," and a faith-based conjecture, at that. These two meanings are almost the opposite of one another. The first is based on extensive scientific examination and testing. The second is basically an initial hypothesis, or just a guess.

These are not the same thing at all. There is no comparison. The scientific theory of evolution has been repeatedly tested, experimentally refined and verified by scientific research, and is fruitfully used to guide further scientific investigation. The "theory" (i.e., the religious doctrines) of creationism is none of these things. It's religious doctrine believed on faith.

Religious doctrine is not science. Anti-evolution rhetoric based on religious belief is not science. Pseudoscience claims, motivated by religious belief, and used to pretend creationism is scientific, are not science.

Thus, to teach children "both theories" is to seriously confuse them, even fundamentally mislead them, about science. It is not at all fair to children to tell them, "We're going to teach you about science," and then teach them sectarian religious concepts as if they are science, or teach them false claims about science based on religious motivations and call it science. When something isn't science, we shouldn't be misleading children by pretending it's science. Creationism doesn't belong in science classes because it isn't science. Attacks against evolution based on creationist beliefs don't belong in science classes because they aren't science.

The legal problem has to do with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution. In numerous court cases it has been determined quite consistently that the idea of teaching creationism as if it's science in public schools is a violation of the First Amendment. (Because it's sectarian religious belief, not science.)

In particular, in the 2005 case in Pennsylvania (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District), it was determined that the current popular form of creationism called "intelligent design" is simply another tactic of the creationist strategy of trying to get religious beliefs into public school science classes by falsely pretending that sectarian religious beliefs are science. (The case didn't determine anything we didn't already know about this creationist tactic, it's just that the case is an example of arriving at the same conclusion through a formal legal process.) Again, this is a violation of the First Amendment.

Creationist opposition to the teaching of evolution in public school science classes is simply one major skirmish of a culture war going on in the United States between people with conservative religious beliefs and everyone else. We are where we are at now as the result of our cultural history, and in this case it's the result of religious traditions in the United States that have opposed evolution and other areas of science for over a hundred years. The current threads of anti-evolution thought began with the backlash against the promotion of science education that started in the late 1950s, most notably from the movement started by the young earth creationist Henry M. Morris. The young earth creationists virtually singled-handedly created the idea of a "scientific creationism," by generating a significant body of pseudoscience literature misrepresenting and distorting science, filled with false "scientific" information.

To this very day we are still dealing with the false "facts" and fallacious arguments that young earth creationists put out in the 1960s and 1970s, still dealing with the fallout of a whole generation (almost two now) of conservative religious people brought up being taught all these false claims about science that are not actually scientific at all. In discussions with creationists that are about specific areas of science, the problem is not what creationists know, but what they think they know that just ain't so. Creationists will often say that their disagreement with scientists isn't about the facts, but about the interpretation of the facts. Yet in actual discussions with creationists, when dealing with the specific details about specific areas of science, we find that creationists dispute the facts all the time. (Most often they're simply unaware of the facts, but when you bring them to their attention they deliberately and defiantly ignore them.)

The solution to this particular skirmish in the culture war is to meet it head on. The reason the problem has become as extensive as it is right now is precisely because in the past when people with certain religious beliefs attacked science, we've had the general social tendency to "turn the other cheek" and give space to them - out of a misplaced respect for religious belief. If people want to believe things on the basis of faith, and they do this privately, more power to them. But when people speak out publicly, attacking science, using pseudoscientific claims that are factually wrong and using arguments that are logically fallacious, they need to be confronted head on just as publicly, specifically addressing their erroneous claims and explaining why they are wrong. They should not be given undue respect for publicly proclaiming manifestly false claims about science merely because their false claims are motivated by religious belief.

It's because those who came before us did not meet creationists head on as openly, forthrightly, and explicitly as should have been done, that the problem has festered and grown so that now we have the even worse problems we're having. So now it's up to us to deal with it, and now we know we cannot shy away from this because we see what shying away from the problem in the past has led to. If we do not meet these creationists head on, and deal with them with all the forthright critical scrutiny they deserve, they really will sabotage science education in this country, as has been their objective for almost 50 years.

And that's the only thing that's fair to the children of this country.

Relevant online references

2005 Creationism Trial (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District)

Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial documents

Decision by U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III (12/20/2005)

1987 Creationism Trial (Edwards v. Aguillard)
Edwards v. Aguillard
U.S. Supreme Court Decision

1981 Creationism Trial (McLean v. Arkansas)
McLean v. Arkansas Documentation Project

McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education
Decision by U.S. District Judge William R. Overton (1/5/1982)

1975 Creationism Trial (Daniel v. Waters)

February 11, 2008

Is biological evolution "just a theory"?

In the creationist rhetoric we often see the claim that evolution is "just a theory." When creationists say this they are using the colloquial meaning of the word "theory" in order to pretend that evolution is just a guess, a speculation, a conjecture. While a guess or conjecture is one dictionary definition of the word "theory," when we're talking about science and how the word "theory" is being used by scientists in reference to evolution (the theory of evolution), then what we need to know is how the word "theory" is used in the context of science.

The first two definitions of "theory" as given in the American Heritage Dictionary are what are relevant to the context of science:

1. A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena.

2. The branch of a science or art consisting of its explanatory statements, accepted principles, and methods of analysis, as opposed to practice: a fine musician who had never studied theory.

For example, we also have the theory of gravity. Gravity is not just a guess, not just a speculation, and neither is evolution. So when creationists pretend that evolution is "just a theory" in the sense of being merely some kind of guess or speculation they are not using it in the dictionary sense of the word as the word is used in science when scientists refer to the theory of evolution. The dictionary sense of the word tells us that evolution is a set of scientific principles "that has been repeatedly tested" and that "can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena."

Creationists often play games with words like this in their rhetoric to try to obfuscate the actual facts and confuse people about the proper understanding of the relevant concepts - in other words, creationists love to play all kinds of word games to misrepresent matters as much as possible - but we should be careful to clarify such words correctly as part of showing why the creationist rhetoric is wrong.

Evolution is indeed a scientific theory, not because it's merely some kind of speculation, but precisely because over the many decades since Darwin the theory has been so extensively tested and refined in a variety of ways and in a variety of areas of scientific research.