Skepticism, Religion Archive

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Judged for Your Actions?

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismI've been rather busy recently, so I only have a short entry for today. It's more of just a thought.

I've read in many places, from articles to books to blog comment sections, the accusation that atheists are afraid to be judged for their actions. In this particular form, the argument seems silly. According to many of the more fundamentalist sects of Christianity, it is faith alone which saves a person, not their actions (more). But even ignoring that, most mainline Christian sects believe that acceptance of Christ is a requirement for admission to heaven.

So, rather than being judged for our actions, most sects of Christianity teach that there's really only one all important single action for which we'll be judged. It makes no difference if we've lived our entire lives giving selflessly, donating away all of our money, and spending every free moment volunteering to help people. It doesn't matter if we live like Gandhi or the Dalai Lama. If we don't believe Jesus is real, then the rest of our actions are irrelevant, and we're damned anyway.

I've written along similar lines before, for anyone interested.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Email Debunking - Government Mandated CFL Bulbs

CFL BulbAnother chain mail found its way into my inbox. It links to a video of Texas Representative Ted Poe, speaking on the House floor about the evils of our intrusive government forcing us to use light bulbs containing toxic mercury. You'll have to watch the video below to hear all of the claims, but rest assured, they're almost entirely false. I know, I know. It's a shock that a Republican Congressman would lie in front of the House, but that seems to be the case here.

Here's the e-mail I received. I didn't completely match the formatting from the e-mail, but I at least tried to give a flavor for the way it looked.


MORE political "LUNACY" of "Selected Officials" knowing better!!
Take a look at this video for some incite into the use of our new "Required" light bulbs.
This short talk is by a Texas representative in congress who is a bit upset with the new regulations regarding said light bulbs. If it doesn't make you laugh you will surely cry.


Here's the text and video from the page that link takes you to.

Once Again, a Government ‘Improvement’ Makes Things Exponentially Worse

Here’s an excellent summation by a Congressman from Texas of all the wonderful things we have to look forward to once we are forced by the Federal government to use only the new environmentally-“friendly” CFL light bulbs by 2014.

[Video moved to after blockquote]

Poe's whole rant was based on a false premise. The legislation passed by the federal government was for efficiency standards, not specific technology:

So, if you don’t want to use a mercury containing CFL bulb, you could use an LED or ESL bulb. Plus, there are new incandescent bulbs coming onto the market that meet the new efficiency standards:

He also misrepresented the EPA by calling those instructions ‘law’ instead of merely recommendations:

There’s also a U.S. company that manufactures CFLs:

I think that covers most of his points. It reminds me of the title of Al Franken’s book (which I haven't read), Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.

When I responded to the person who originally sent me the e-mail, he was appalled that a representative would so blatantly say untrue things in front of Congress. We've voted our representatives into positions of trust running our government. They should be capable and honorable. Poe was either so incompetent that he actually didn't understand the law, or he was dishonest and was simply lying to pander to his constituency. I wish I could say that I was appalled by his actions, too, but I guess I've become jaded by politics.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Email Debunking - Tips on Pumping Gas

Gas PumpThere's an e-mail that I seem to get just about every time gas prices go up. So, with the recent jump in prices, it's found its way to me again. The first time I got it several years ago, Snopes hadn't yet addressed it, so I wrote a quick reply to the person who sent it to me. Snopes has addressed it by now, but I still thought I'd share an updated version of what I wrote originally. It's a little more concise than the Snopes article.

First, for reference, here's the e-mail in question*. Note the claim to authority at the start, and the request to pass it on at the end. What chain mail would be complete without them?


I don't know what you guys are paying for gasoline.... but here in California we are paying up to $3.75 to $4.10 per gallon. My line of work is in petroleum for about 31 years now, so here are some tricks to get more of your money's worth for every gallon:

Here at the Kinder Morgan Pipeline where I work in San Jose, CA we deliver about 4 million gallons in a 24-hour period thru the pipeline. One day is diesel the next day is jet fuel, and gasoline, regular and premium grades. We have 34-storage tanks here with a total capacity of 16,800,000 gallons.

Only buy or fill up your car or truck in the early morning when the ground temperature is still cold. Remember that all service stations have their storage tanks buried below ground. The colder the ground the more dense the gasoline, when it gets warmer gasoline expands, so buying in the afternoon or in the evening....your gallon is not exactly a gallon. In the petroleum business, the specific gravity and the temperature of the gasoline, diesel and jet fuel, ethanol and other petroleum products plays an important role. A 1-degree rise in temperature is a big deal for this business. But the service stations do not have temperature compensation at the pumps.

When you're filling up do not squeeze the trigger of the nozzle to a fast mode. If you look you will see that the trigger has three (3) stages: low, middle, and high. You should be pumping on low mode, thereby minimizing the vapors that are created while you are pumping. All hoses at the pump have a vapor return. If you are pumping on the fast rate, some of the liquid that goes to your tank becomes vapor. Those vapors are being sucked up and back into the underground storage tank so you're getting less worth for your money.

One of the most important tips is to fill up when your gas tank is HALF FULL. The reason for this is the more gas you have in your tank the less air occupying its empty space. Gasoline evaporates faster than you can imagine. Gasoline storage tanks have an internal floating roof. This roof serves as zero clearance between the gas and the atmosphere, so it minimizes the evaporation. Unlike service stations, here where I work, every truck that we load is temperature compensated so that every gallon is actually the exact amount.

Another reminder, if there is a gasoline truck pumping into the storage tanks when you stop to buy gas, DO NOT fill up; most likely the gasoline is being stirred up as the gas is being delivered, and you might pick up some of the dirt that normally settles on the bottom.

To have an impact, we need to reach literally millions of gas buyers. It's really simple to do.

I'm sending this note to about thirty people. If each of you send it to at least ten more (30 x 10 = 300)...and those 300 send it to at least ten more (300 x 10 = 3,000) and so on, by the time the message reaches the sixth generation of people, we will have reached over THREE MILLION consumers!!!!!!! If those three million get excited and pass this on to ten friends each, then 30 million people will have been contacted!

If it goes one level further, you guessed it..... THREE HUNDRED MILLION PEOPLE!!!

Again, all you have to do is send this to 10 people. How long would it take?

The first time I read through this e-mail, I thought that it all seemed technically true, just not very significant. And the more I think about it, the more insignificant the effects seem.

The part about a gallon not being a gallon is silly wording, but I realize what the author was trying to get at - that the warmer it is, the less dense the gas is, so the less of it you're getting by mass. However, the fact that the tanks are buried underground means that temperature stays a lot more constant than if they were above ground, and any temperature fluctuation is pretty insignificant. In fact, I found this animated graph showing soil temperature by depth, and how it varies from hour to hour. One meter deep, and you can't see the graph moving at all**.

The part about gas evaporating if your tank's almost empty seems pretty silly, too. First of all, unless your tank was completely empty (like newly installed, never had a drop of gas in it - not likely if you actually drove your car to the station), your tank's already full of gasoline vapor. It's probably already at its max partial pressure. More gasoline won't evaporate unless you get rid of that vapor. But, even assuming that your tank was completely open to the atmosphere, gasoline doesn't evaporate that fast. I can think of plenty of projects where I've poured gas into a coffee can for cleaning a part or something, and I don't see the gas evaporating in front of my eyes. It usually doesn't take me more than a few minutes to fill up my tank, so I can't imagine that a significant amount of gas would evaporate in that time.

I wonder about the part on pumping gas faster making it evaporate more, too, for the same problem as above. Your gasoline may be slightly warmer because there's more work being done to it to get it to pump faster, but you've still got the problem that you're pumping it into a mostly closed container that's already going to be full of gasoline vapor. Plus, it's not like gas stations have terribly fast pumps - the pump at the airport I used to work at would put out a gallon every couple seconds or so (it was many years ago that I worked there, so I don't remember exactly).

The part about the tanker stirring up sediment seems like the best advice from the e-mail. However, according to that Snopes article, there are already filters in place at the gas station to minimize particulates making it into your tank.

Probably the best way to get the most mileage for your money is to adjust your driving habits, and not accelerate hard. I'd bet that would make your gas go a lot farther than only filling up on the slow setting on cold days.

* Some versions of the e-mail I've received were combined with another chain e-mail that had erroneous information about U.S. oil imports from the Middle East, and which companies were supposedly importing the most. Snopes has covered that one, as well.

** Also, with the thermal inertia of the fuel and tank, and the insulating properties of the tank, the fuel temperature will lag the ground temperature, meaning it's not at its coolest early in the morning. Assume that for a week, you have several days of the exact same weather. The ground temperature will oscillate from its high to low. The fuel will respond by being heated or cooled by the ground, but won't track it exactly. It will lag due to any insulating properties of the tanks. As long as the ground is warmer than the fuel, the fuel temperature will increase. When the ground temperature starts dropping, it's still a little warmer than the fuel, so the fuel temperature will continue increasing until the ground temperature finally drops below the fuel temperature. Now, the fuel will begin cooling, but lagging the ground temperature. When the ground temperature gets to its low point and starts increasing again, it will still be cooler than the fuel, so the fuel will continue to cool until the ground has warmed up some more. Still, with as little that the ground temperature varys, this is all academic, anyway.

Edited 2011-03-22 Moved the sentences about the start and end of the e-mail to before the blockquote, to improve flow.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Book Review - Why Evolution Is True

I've just finished reading Jerry Coyne's book, Why Evolution Is True. This is one of my new favorites for introducing evolution to people who don't currently understand or accept it. It contains a great balance of theory and evidence, or in other words, explaining how evolution works, as well as showing the evidence of how we know that.

The book covered a wide range of topics, and did it well while keeping the book to a manageable length. It started with an explanation of what evolution actually is. This was a pretty important chapter, given how much many people misunderstand evolution. He then moved on to fossil evidence for evolution, followed by discussion of vestigial organs, embryological evidence, evidence from poor 'design', and biogeographical evidence. Following all that was a discussion of natural selection and sexual selection, and then a discussion of speciation. The penultimate chapter focused on recent human evolution (recent as in after the chimp & bonobo lineage diverged from ours). Finally was a chapter to wrap it all up, which also discussed what some people believe to be implications of evolution (i.e. if it says we're just animals, why not act like animals). Of course, by covering such a broad range of topics, Coyne couldn't delve too deeply into any single one, but I think it was very good for an introductory book.

Why Evolution Is True was written not just to explain evolution, but also as a counter to creationism. In many places, he pointed out why evolution was a more reasonable explanation to certain pieces of evidence than creationism. When I read Richard Dawkins' book, The Greatest Show on Earth, I'd mentioned that he hammered too hard on creationists, and that it was a bit of a distraction. In contrast, Coyne seemed to spend just enough time discussing creationism without it becoming too distracting from the far more interesting story of evolution itself.

Coyne was also very balanced in his discussions of controversial areas, or areas where the evidence isn't conclusive. For example, in the discussion of sexual selection, he mentioned both the good genes hypothesis and the perceptual bias hypothesis, as well as studies that provided evidence for both.

In short, this book is a great introduction to people who don't understand evolution. Donald Prothero's Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters may have a more detailed discussion of the fossil evidence, and Carl Zimmer's The Tangled Bank may have a more detailed discussion of the mechanisms, but Coyne's book has just the right balance of theory and evidence, especially evidence from a broad range of disciplines.

For a great review from Amazon, go here.

Updated 2011-11-02 Fixed link to Zimmer's The Tangled Bank.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Standards of Evidence for Religion

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismI've often written that I could be convinced of a religion given enough evidence. I suppose it would be fair to discuss just what that evidence would be.

Basically, anything that could truly be defined as miraculous would count as evidence toward a god. The Ebon Musings website has a page titled The Theist's Guide to Converting Atheists, which contains lists of evidence that that author would find convincing. Overall, I agree with the types of evidence listed. These include fulfilled prophecies, miraculous occurrences, direct manifestation of the divine, a scripture that contained knowledge that couldn't have been known at the time it was written, or a scripture that was entirely consistent and flawless.

However, there are many caveats. First, the evidence that the miracle occurred must be strong and convincing (as Carl Sagan said, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.") For example, consider the case of Prahlad Jani (here's another source). He's an Indian yogi who claims that he's gone 70 years without eating or drinking. A doctor has even performed some tests supposedly confirming his claims. Unfortunately, the tests didn't use the best methodology, and the doctor wouldn't let another investigator who had experience exposing frauds be involved in the study. From the best information that outsiders have been able to gather, it appears that he's just a normal person, who was eating normally up until his time in the hospital, and then began suffering from the effects of dehydration and starvation while he was there.

As another example, consider Ram Bahadur Bamjan (here's another source on this one), who some claim is the reincarnation of the Buddha, and who others claim (since according to Buddhism, the Buddha has already achieved nirvana) is a Bodhisattva. Bamjan has supposedly sat under a tree meditating for months on end, with no food or water. However, there's no good evidence to back the claims up. There was even a screen put in front of him every night. When the Discovery Channel sent a film crew to make a documentary, they couldn't detect his heat with an infrared camera the first night they tried (makes you wonder if he'd been leaving every night all along). On a second attempt, they did observe him to go without food for 96 hours. Four days of fasting is a feat, but hardly miraculous.

So, like I said, the evidence that the miracle occurred must be strong and convincing. It can't be merely hearsay.

As another caveat, the miracle really should be something that's unexplainable by natural processes. This rules out those events that fall into the realm of unlikely, but not impossible. As I've said before, my chances of winning the lottery may be a million to one, but somebody still manages to win every week. In other words, given enough opportunities, unlikely events will inevitably happen to someone. I think one of my favorite examples of such an unlikely event is a truck that nearly went over a cliff, but ended up landing on a small ledge. You can see the pictures and read about it on Snopes. Unfortunately, vehicles fall off cliffs all the time. So, as lucky as it may have been for the driver of that pickup to land where he did, it was just the odds playing out. If, say, vehicles with Jews never went over cliffs, while vehicles with non-Jews went over regularly, then there might something to God protecting his chosen people. But in reality, religious affiliation has no effect on your chances of death by precipitous plunge.

Other, stranger seeming 'miracles', can also be explained naturally. Speaking in tongues, or glossolalia, appears very strange - speakers making vocalizations that they're convinced are other languages. However, as it's been studied, it's been learned that the speakers are using sounds that they're already familiar with from their own language (i.e. a native English speaker won't make the guttural vocalizations of German or French). Further, to quote that Wikipedia article, "where certain prominent glossolalists had visited, whole groups of glossolalists would speak in his style of speech." This certainly makes it appear that it's a learned behavior. I doubt that the speakers are intentionally lying, but I also doubt that they're doing anything more than making interesting noises.

Faith healing is an example that requires both above caveats. First, I'd need to see some strong evidence that a person was actually healed (and that the supposed event wasn't a fraud). But, there are many examples of people who think they've been healed. Many of these can be chalked up to self hypnosis or the placebo effect. A person gets caught up in the moment, and subjective symptoms are reduced. There are also a few cases where a person does get better after visiting the healer, but most of those are likely be coincidence. There's no guarantee that the cure came from the healer, as opposed to just occurring spontaneously (which does happen). Really, what would be needed is some type of study involving a control group, to see just how effective faith healing really is (though I doubt many researchers would be willing to deny patients real treatment for such a study).

Another consideration is that many claims for the divine cross religious borders. If a Christian and a Hindu have both claimed to have felt a god's presence, or to have received a divine message, which one of them should we trust more? Should the Christian or Hindu evidence be counted equally? Doesn't it seem more likely that it's really all in their heads? If supposed miracles occur just as often for diverse people regardless of their religion, then it doesn't argue strongly for their particular religions. This does leave open the possibility of a non-denominational god, but it seems more likely that there are more earthly causes that are being misinterpreted.

Prophecy requires special mention. Of course, these require the same standard of evidence as other miracles. Pointing to a prophecy in an old book, and then pointing to another section of the same book that says the prophecy was fulfilled, isn't very convincing without independent sources confirming the claims. But for prophecies to be convincing, they must also be specific. Nostradamus's writings are an example of how bad this can be. When every generation can interpret a prophecy to be applicable to events happening in their own time, then the prophecy probably isn't specific enough. Prophets must also have a decent accuracy. As the saying goes, even a broken clock is right twice a day. If someone throws out enough prophecies, some are bound to come true. Prophecies must also be unlikely, or something that would be very difficult to predict otherwise. It's not very profound to prophesize that the next round of presidential candidates will lie during their campaigning.

Ideally, miracles should be witnessed by more than one person. Personal revelations fall into this category, especially considering, like I wrote above, that people from diverse religions are all convinced that they've personally felt their god's presence. Another example is the case of Adele Brise. She claims to have seen and spoke to an apparition of the Virgin Mary. The thing is, there were two other women with her, neither of whom could see Adele's vision. Despite the unverifiable nature of the event, the Catholic Church has officially decreed that "these apparitions as worthy of belief". There are many reasons a person could claim to see apparitions or hear voices. The simplest, though I like to hope the least common because I like to think the best of people, is that they're simply lying - looking for attention, a way to make a buck, or even just playing a joke. But there are also people who really do have mental problems, who have hallucinations or hear voices in their heads. Just because some of them claim the voices are coming from on high doesn't mean that we shouldn't give them the appropriate treatments they need.

Assuming that a miracle did meet the appropriate standards, I can say that I still wouldn't be convinced by a single example. There are too many other possible mechanisms. For example, let's just say that a prophet came along who truly could predict the future. It's possible their insights were divine, but it's also possible that seeing into the future was an ability of humans, and that most people simply aren't very good at. I would want to see research done into where the prophet's ability came from. I wouldn't immediately jump to accepting their religion.

There are other possibilities that may seem outlandish, but no more so than Thor being a real deity. As Arthur C. Clarke wrote, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." It's a big universe out there, and it's possible we're not alone. SciFi shows like Star Trek make us want to think that advanced civilizations would be noble and peaceful, but we don't know that they would. Maybe a civilization wanted to conquer our planet, but their space ship didn't have the resources to do it outright. A few magic tricks to impress the natives would go a long way. Or maybe aliens would be practical jokers, having a bit of fun at the primitive apes' expense.

An important consideration here is the timing of miracles. As far as I've seen, there haven't been any well documented miracles. But even the claims of miracles show a decrease in grandeur over time. The Bible describes Moses parting the Red Sea, while a more modern miracle I described above was a woman seeing a vision her companions couldn't. It really seems as if many supposed ancient miracles are myths, and many more are due to people not understanding how the universe really works. As we learn more and more about the universe around us, and as documentation of events becomes better and better, miracles become more and more minor. But if there truly were a god, it wouldn't have to be that way. A god could continue performing major miracles throughout the ages. Considering the dearth of miracles in the past, the source of any new 'miracles' would have to be carefully considered.

My discussion of miracles above wasn't exhaustive. There are other classes of miracles that I didn't discuss. But I think that this gives a sense for the standards I'm looking for. Miracles must be well documented, not explainable by natural means, and more than simply unlikely events. And even if a supposed miracle was well documented, we must consider other possibilities before accepting it as evidence for any particular religion.


Selling Out