Skepticism, Religion Archive

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Ray Comfort - Still Ignorant on Evolution

On the Origin of Species - The Ray Comfort EditionWow. Just, wow. I know I've talked about Ray Comfort more times on this blog than is healthy (for example - here, here, here, here, here, and here), but now, not just is he publishing his drivel on his own, making scam websites, or getting followers to put the equivalent of junk mail into books at the book store. Now, he's been published in a blog on the U.S. News and World Report website, and boy is it ignorant.

The background of this article is this. Ray Comfort is publishing two versions of a reprint of Darwin's Origin of Species, along with an introduction in each version. The first version was abridged, and the introduction was made publicly available on the web. After the negative publicity it received, Comfort made his second version unabridged, and supposedly with a modified introduction. To give an idea of the introduction, here's how Comfort himself described it (be forewarned - there are many falsehoods and examples of bad logic in just these two paragraphs*).

This introduction gives the history of evolution, a timeline of Darwin's life, Hitler's undeniable connections to the theory, Darwin's racism, his disdain for women, and his thoughts on the existence of God. It lists the theory's many hoaxes, exposes the unscientific belief that nothing created everything, points to the incredible structure of DNA, and the absence of any species-to-species transitional forms.

It presents a balanced view of Creationism with information on scientists who believed that God created the universe—scientists such as Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Nicholas Copernicus, Francis Bacon, Michael Faraday, Louis Pasteur and Johannes Kepler. It uses many original graphics and "is for use in schools, colleges, and prestigious learning institutions." The introduction also contains the entire contents of the popular booklet, "Why Christianity?"

Towards the end of September, Dan Gilgoff posted an entry in his God & Country blog on U.S. News & World Report describing Comfort's book (the first version). After all the feedback Gilgoff got for that entry, he decided to revisit the issue. He set up an online debate between Ray Comfort and Eugenie Scott, the executive director of the National Center for Science Education. The debate consisted of four posts in total - Comfort's original argument, Scott's original argument, Comfort's response to Scott, and finally, Scott's response to Comfort.

I guess there are several ways I could have addressed this in a blog post, but I've decided to focus on Comfort's second post. That one struck me as so out and out ignorant, that it seemed a ripe target. I encourage you to read Scott's response first, but I thought I could supplement what she already wrote.

Continue reading "Ray Comfort - Still Ignorant on Evolution" »

Monday, October 26, 2009

Evolution No More a Fact than the Civil War

There's a minor brouhaha over Nicholas Wade's review of Richard Dawkins's latest book, "The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution". Wade claimed that Dawkins had confused fact and theory, which prompted quite a few letters to the editor explaining Wade's mistake.

Now, I don't often get involved in discussions in the comments sections on websites, but I did leave a couple comments on this one. Rather than give a long introduction, I'll jump right to quoting the relevant comments from the article. Here is the original comment that prompted me to reply.

These people who keep arguing that evolution is a fact because there is so much supporting evidence for it are very funny. Evolution is a fact only if you can directly observe it happening. Otherwise, it is not a fact and will never be a fact. What is a fact is the evolutionists religious zealotry… ;)

— island

I responded thusly.

Island wrote: "Evolution is a fact only if you can directly observe it happening."

Aside from the observed instances of evolution (Lenski's e. coli experiments are a popular recent example), this statement seems to imply that nothing from history can be a fact, since events that happened in the past can no longer be directly observed. I don't think that's the way most people use the word, since, for example, I think most people would call it a 'fact' that the U.S. Civil War occurred, or that Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the U.S. There are other forms of evidence besides direct observation.

— Fatboy

Island responded to my comment as follows (this is the comment that made it worth reposting this whole exchange).

The civil war may be a fact, but you can't *know* this beyond any shadow of a doubt. You can know it beyond any *reasonable* doubt, however, so we can have an extremely high degree of certainty that it happened, but that is not the same thing. We can confidently assume that humans evolved from apes, because there is much supporting historical evidence in support of this assumption, but it will always be an assumption, and will never be a knowable truth…. or a fact.

— island

I responded again.


You're playing semantic games. You say it's not a fact that the Civil War occurred. Your definition of 'fact' is different from everybody I know personally, but at least now it's clear why you argue that evolution isn't a fact.

However, if something has to be proven 'beyond any shadow of a doubt' to be a fact, and the Civil War doesn't meet that criteria for you, I'm curious if there's anything that you would consider a fact. After all, one can always fall back on solipsism or Last Thursdayism to cast doubt on just about everything.


Island did follow up with a long comment, and a link.

Fatboy, you miss the point that the scientific method is not “solipsism” and there can be no room for slopiness in this because theories are **always** subject to a better theory as defined by efficiency, or accuracy in conjunction with Occam.

As I stated, “degrees of certainty” (or our confidence level), increases with the strength of evidence, and I don't expect evolutionary theory to be radically overturned because of this, but it is a fact that a better theory will always be possible that approximates the historic record more accurately or with equal accuracy, but in less steps than Evolutionary theory does.

In this case, “evolution” didn't necessarily occur via the criterion that define our current understanding of the process, and the author might choose not to incorporate the term into this theory. In which case, “evolution” never was a fact.

Like I said, I don't expect it, but there is no room for play or you are not representing science like you claim to be, which is the point where the lies embellishments and distortions of this politics hurt science.

My personal beef is the way that this ideological mentality predetermines the assumptions about impetus behind some of the less-well defined mechanisms of evolutionary theory that are automatically taken to be of random or accidental nature, rather than of necessity or natural law, because evolutionists wrongly perceive such an admission in favor of the creationists position.

Which, unfortunately, justifies the pressure of the “other side” in order to counterbalance the dogma of the left.

And those are observable facts… ;)

— island

This is an excellent example of what I am talking about:

— island

I responded one last time.


I was all ready to go with another long explanation of 'facts' and levels of certainty, but decided against arguing over semantics. If, as you already stated, your definition of 'fact' precludes including the occurrence of the U.S. Civil war in that definition, you're clearly using a definition well outside the standard usage. If 'fact' is to have any meaning at all, it must surely mean 'very high level of certainty', and not 'absolute 100% certainty'.

When you wrote, "theories are **always** subject to a better theory as defined by efficiency, or accuracy in conjunction with Occam," you're pedantically correct, but really stretching the point. Larry Woolf's quote of Gould above explains this point better than anything I could write, so there's no need for me to dwell on it.

To steer this back to the topic of the article, it seems that you may also be missing the point of what Dawkins wrote originally. Descent with modification occurred. We can be as sure of that as we can of the existence of the Roman Empire, the occurrence of the Civil War, Armstrong and Aldrin landing on the Moon, or the idea that the Earth orbits the Sun, whether you're willing to call those things facts or only grant them high levels of certainty. That's not being disingenuous. There really is that much evidence supporting common descent.

Now, there's the separate issue of what drives that evolution, the 'mechanisms' as you put it. That's where the theory comes into play, and is also where more of the uncertainty is, concerning natural selection, sexual selection, group selection, or genetic drift, to name just a few. We still know that those things occur, because they have been observed, too (except group selection - it's still questionable). However, there is a question as to how important each has been to the history of life on this planet.

— Fatboy

For reference, the Gould quote was this.

Well, evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world's data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein's theory of gravitation replaced Newton's, but apples did not suspend themselves in midair pending the outcome. And humans evolved from apelike ancestors whether they did so by Darwin's proposed mechanism or by some other, yet to be discovered.

As another aside, I know I didn't address the link that island provided, but I think Douglas Adams already covered the anthropic principle quite well. (I've also seen an even less reverant refutation of the anthropic principle.)

This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in - an interesting hole I find myself in - fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise.

If island responds again, I'll include the response here. However, I'm not sure if I'll leave any more comments on the NY Times site. There's an old saying about arguing with fools, and when someone resorts to saying that the historicity of the Civil War is something we can't be sure about, they may not be the type of people you want to be seen arguing with.

(There's always the chance that perhaps I'm a victim of Poe's Law. Island did, after all, leave a winking smiley in two comments. However, I get the feeling that island is being serious.)

Friday, October 23, 2009

What's the Point of Intercessory Prayer?

Hands Clasped in PrayerThis is something I've written about before (and has been written about by others), but it really struck me last night, so I felt like commenting on it today.

Last night, my daughter had her girl scout award ceremony. As is pretty common for these things, her troop meets at a church. The room where we had the ceremony is also a meeting room for one of the Sunday school classes, and one of the walls had a section for "Prayer Requests," where students put up little notes with things they'd like the congregation to pray for*.

One of the girl scouts, I'm assuming one who hasn't been exposed to church too much, asked what the "Prayer Requests" wall was about. The troop leader explained it to her, but I had a thought that made me smirk a bit, and bite my tongue not to say out loud - because God wouldn't know those people were having problems unless he heard about it through prayer.

When you stop and think about it, if you believe that your god is all knowing and all powerful, then intercessory prayer really is a weird thing. Sure, it makes sense if you believe in imperfect or fickle gods, who may or may not follow the daily events of our personal lives, and who may or may not care what happens to us. But that's not the type of god most Christians believe in.

Most Christians I know believe that Yahweh is omnipotent, omniscient, and that he has a perfect plan for us. If that's the case, what could you expect to achieve through prayer? Yahweh already knows what's going on - he doesn't need earthly informants. It's not as if it's a popularity contest, and Yahweh's going to count votes to determine his divine intervention. And it really is less than humble to ask the almighty to change his divine plan simply because you don't like it. The plan is supposedly perfect, after all.

I can understand other types of prayer - praise, thanksgiving, asking for strength for yourself. But when it comes to intercessory prayer, it seems a bit, well, odd.

Anyway, these aren't terribly original thoughts. But, the more and more I've been outside of Christianity, the stranger and stranger some of those old habits seem.

*I don't mean to belittle the actual topics of most of the prayer requests. There were definitely some serious issues on that wall.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?

I received an e-mail forward the other day, which contained a PowerPoint presentation giving the supposed origin of Arabic numerals. It claimed that when each number is written with only straight lines, the number of angles created is the same as the quantity being represented. The text accompanying the presentation made the additional claim that these numerals have remained unchanged for thousands of years.

That explanation is completely false. I won't go into detail on the origins of the numerals in this entry since there are already sources that cover this. There are several Wikipedia articles that overlap on this subject. The first one below is probably best for the history of the symbols. The second one has some good general information. The third one has a good picture of the first known use of Arabic numerals in Europe.

Hindu-Arabic Numeral System
Arabic Numerals
History of the Hindu-Arabic Numeral System

The unique feature of our numbering system, having each position represent a power of 10 (as opposed to a system like Roman numerals), developed some time between the first and sixth centuries. Most of the symbols in that early system came from Brahmi numerals (which themselves came from earlier sources), but a few seem to have come from other sources, such as Buddhist inscriptions. The symbol for zero is an exception, having been invented around the same time as the decimal numbering system. There's some question to how those Brahmi symbols were developed and what they originally represented, but it certainly wasn't for counting angles. One, two, and three are pretty easy, since, like Roman Numerals, they were simply one, two, or three lines (even in Arabic numerals, one, two, and three all seem to have been originally related to simple counting - follow those links). The other symbols may have come from their alphabet.

At any rate, the symbols have evolved quite a bit over the centuries, going down different paths in the different regions where they've been used. I've borrowed one of the images from Wikipedia and posted it below, a table compiled in 1757 showing various usages of numerals in European history (go to Wikipedia for a higher resolution image). Not only would we have a hard time reading the numbers from other regions of the world today, we'd have a hard time reading some of the earliest European uses.

Histoire de la Mathematique, 1757

Continue reading "Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?" »

Friday, October 16, 2009

Another Crazy E-mail

I received an e-mail forward recently. It was a story supposedly written by an airline passenger who got seated next to some soldiers who were on their way to receive special training in preparation for being deployed to Afghanistan. The airline was selling $5 sack lunches; the soldiers didn't have the money to spend; so the author bought them all lunches. Once crew and passengers learned what the author had done, there were some accolades, and a few donations totalling $75 in cash, which the author gave to the soldiers at the end of the flight. If you want to read the full thing, it's available on Snopes.

Nothing too special, right? It seems pretty typical for an e-mail forward - lots of non-specific information along with a moral lesson. Heck, it may even be true (though if I was a betting man, considering the reliability of e-mail forwards, I'd wager not). So why is it worth a blog entry?

There was a preface on the particular version of the e-mail that I received that actually made me chuckle out loud.

The liberal cannot confirm this, so it is a good bet that it is valid for the most part. A beautiful story.

You just can't help but wonder what type of mindset it takes to write something like that. To begin with, the person was accusing Snopes of being too liberal. To be honest, I have seen this claim before, but it only holds up if Stephen Colbert was right, if reality really does have a liberal bias. Because honestly, the main thing that Barbara and David Mikkelson do is debunk urban legends, particularly those that get passed around in e-mails. It may be the case that Snopes debunks more conservative myths than liberal myths, but I'd be willing to bet that it's because there are far more erroneous e-mail forwards coming from the right for them to debunk. Besides, this particular story is about being nice to individual members of the military. I'd hardly consider that partisan. Or is the author implying that just being 'liberal' makes a source less trustworthy?

And then there's the main claim, that because Snopes doesn't confirm the story, that it's probably true. This just doesn't make sense at all. If the author were implying that the Mikkelsons are bad at doing research, there's still a lack of evidence. To make the claim that if a poor researcher can't find evidence, then the evidence probably exists, is a bit silly. I can claim that leprechauns exist, and I doubt the Mikkelsons would be able to find any evidence confirming the existence of leprechauns. Should I follow this author's lead and use this as confirmation that leprechauns are real? Or is the author so cynical as to think that the Mikkelson's lie about everything. If so, when should I be expecting my check from Microsoft?


Selling Out