Skepticism, Religion Archive

Friday, June 19, 2015

Wichita Falls Flood Wrap-Up: The Jesus Pandering

The big flood scare I blogged about a few weeks ago (Wichita Falls' Historic Drought Ended by Historic Flood and Wichita Falls Flood Information Resources) is over, and despite a minor scare this past week, it looks like we're in the clear for now. But, there were a few things about the reaction to the drought and flood that I still wanted to comment on.

On the weekend when the situation seemed most dire, and the National Weather Service was predicting a flood 3 ft higher than the previous record flood for the city, the city council held a special emergency meeting to inform the public. Being close to the area affected, I went to that meeting. For the most part, it was very informative, and I'm grateful to the city for all their efforts in this situation. Despite a few minor missteps, it was certainly handled better than the flood in 2007. However, there was one part of the meeting that rubbed me the wrong way. This isn't a major complaint on my part (I'm not going to contact the Freedom from Religion Foundation or anything), but it is a gripe.

You can watch a video of the meeting below. There's a half hour of just the news channel's logo before the video actually begins (it's from a live recording). The meeting starts at about 35:30, but the part that irritates me starts at 1:22:03.

The pastor of First Baptist Church, Dr. Robert McCartney, was in attendance (the doctorate is from a seminary). I don't know much about McCartney himself, but his church is the one that unleashed Robert Jeffress on the world, so he's already tainted a bit by association. Anyway, the mayor called him up to lead everyone in a prayer. I'm not visible in the video, but if they'd have panned to the back of the room, you'd have noticed a rather grumpy looking person who wasn't bowing their head like almost everyone else in attendance. This was a public meeting, run by the city government. On top of that, there was a real emergency going on, and the mayor decided to waste everyone's time listening to a minster. Actually, that's what bothered me the most when this happened. I normally say 'to each their own' and don't get that bothered by people praying. But this wasn't a token prayer before a meal. This was a real emergency, and people were turning to their super powerful imaginary friend for help. The mayor might was well have called up a witch doctor and had us all sit through a chicken sacrifice to appease the rain gods.

I understand that religious people will want to turn to their god(s) in times like these for comfort, and they have every right to do so. But do it on your own time. If you want to hear from the pastor, go to church. Don't bring the pastor in to a public meeting (not to mention the violation of the establishment clause).

McCartney's prayer was mostly what you'd expect - praising God, thanking him for ending the drought, and asking him not to flood the city. One part did stand out to me, though.

And God I pray, first of all, that you would stop this rain, from happening. Lord, we don't need any more, and we're asking you not to send this huge amount of rain that's being forecast.

Man, what arrogance. First of all, he's informing God that we don't need the rain, as if an omnipotent deity needed informing. Then, he's asking God to change his plans. I left a comment in a previous entry, What's the Point of Intercessory Prayer?, that sums up my opinion on this attitude:

I was a Christian for many years before I became an atheist, and long before I began questioning my faith I'd given up on intercessory prayers. It just seemed so conceited. There's a pretty famous line in the Lord's prayer about 'thy will be done.' There was also the story of Jesus praying on the Mount of Olives - "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done." And that was Jesus, God himself, praying (I'll admit, the trinity makes no sense). If even God the Son wouldn't ask God the Father to change his plans, how vain is it for a mere mortal to ask it?

The closing of McCartney's prayer also bothered me - not because it was anything out of the ordinary or unexpected from a Christian, but just because it was another reminder of a sectarian prayer taking place in a public meeting.

God, we pray now for our city. You have rescued us, as we said, from one crisis. Rescue us again Father, and we will give you glory forth. In Jesus name I pray. Amen.

And it wasn't a particularly short prayer, either. It was just over 2 ½ minutes long.

There was actually one funny part to the meeting that got a chuckle out of everyone there, and it was even related to religion. At around 1:21:15, one of the area residents commented:

Can you ask people to pull those Pray for Rain signs out of their yards?

If you read my previous entry, Wichita Falls - Pray for Rain, you might remember these signs:

Pray for Rain Sign

They popped up all over the city during the drought. Well, now that the drought's over, a new sign has been popping up:

Thank Jesus Sign

Actually, I don't have anything much to say about these signs. Sure, they bug me a little bit, mainly because they seem to be more of a command to others than thanksgiving themselves. But they're nowhwere near as bad as that prayer at a city meeting, and at least these signs are on private property. I'll note that there don't seem to be near as many of these signs as there were Pray for Rain signs, though.

Anyway, I'm glad the flood danger is over, and that the flood didn't turn out to be anywhere near as bad as it could have been. And I'm grateful to the city for all they did and for being on top of the situation this time around. I just wish that Jesus didn't infect everything in this city.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Jurassic World's Naked Dinosaurs

Jurassic World LogoThe latest installment in the Jurassic Park franchise comes out this weekend, Jurassic World. There's been a lot of talk among dinosaur fans about how this movie isn't putting feathers on the theropods, even though there's pretty convincing evidence that many theropods were covered in feathers. This controversy goes back to 2013 when the director first announced that the dinosaurs would be featherless, and you can read how many dinosaur fans reacted in the comments to a blog entry on National Geographic's Phenomena, A Velociraptor Without Feathers Isn't a Velociraptor.

Nearly all of the comments condemned the director's decision. But, even on a site like that, there were a few people who preferred naked dinosaurs. Here's one example.

You know, this is a MONSTER movie, not a national geographic documentary. A fluffy dinosaur is a lot less scary than a big scaly monster lizard.

Here's another.

Yeah, that's a great argument and everything, but.... I just don't like feathery raptors. A lot of people don't, and a lot of people do, and it just happens that someone who doesn't is in charge of the film. Fandom and reason don't go together for me. If there was another franchise that did feathery raptors, that'd be fine, but a major change, like turning my childhood favorites from tall and scary to chicken sized and fluffy would cause at least a little grumbling. D: And I hope they have more puppets and robotics in 5.

Seriously? Take a look at this picture of a modern day dinosaur (yes, it is). Even though this animal has feathers, it's not cute and fluffy. Really, it's pretty intense, and if it were a bit bigger, it would be terrifying.

Golden Eagle
Image Source: Smashing Photoz

Now, take a look at these two pictures. They're actually both of the same animal. This time, it's a mammal - a bear, in fact. But if the idea's supposed to be that a soft covering makes an animal less scary, then a hairless bear should look scarier. Instead, it looks sickly, and not particularly intimidating at all.

Hairless Spectacled Bear
Image Source: Daily Mail
Spectacled Bear
Image Source: Daily Mail

Finally, here's one last picture. I don't see how someone could say this reconstruction of a dinosaur is less intimidating because it also happens to have feathers.

Feathered Dromaeosaurid
Image Source: Imugr

Actually, before moving on, let me just recommend following that Imugr link. It's an article by someone else peeved at the idea that Jurassic World didn't include feathers, and goes into more detail than this short entry of mine, including some of the evidence for feathered dinosaurs.

I realize Jurassic World is a movie, and there will always be inaccuracies in movies. But still, this one is science fiction, which should be based on, well, science. In fact, that's much of what made the first Jurassic Park movie so good. It was revolutionary in incorporating so much knowledge from the dinosaur Renaissance and depicting dinosaurs in an active way they'd never been seen on screen before. It really did alter the public perception of dinosaurs away from the slow lumbering beasts of yore. Now, with an opportunity to again advance the public perception of dinosaurs with new discoveries since the first movie, they've abandoned that approach and decided to stay stuck in the past. What a shame.

Jurassic World Logo Source: JurassicWorldMovie.com

Friday, June 5, 2015

Dictionary Atheism

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismIf you follow movement atheism at all, you're probably aware of PZ Myers and his blog, Pharyngula. A few years ago, PZ coined a new term, Dictionary Atheism. You can read his full explanation in his entry, Why Are You an Atheist?, but the gist is that he doesn't like when people cling to the dictionary definition of atheism as lacking belief in gods, ignoring all the positive values that led them to their atheism, or the moral values that come out of it. He seems to think that 'atheism' should imply more than lack of belief in gods, and more specifically a liberal outlook. PZ just brought this up again in a recent entry, My lasting contribution to atheism, which has motivated me to post my opinion on this issue (note that this is recycled from a comment I left on another blog, the Digital Cuttlefish, in the entry, I Thought I Saw A Dictionary Atheist).

While I'm a liberal atheist myself, I don't particularly like the idea of trying to make 'atheism' synonymous with 'liberal atheism'. For one thing, there are already good terms for the types of social issues that liberal atheists want to promote, such as the obvious 'liberal atheism', or especially 'secular humanism'. Why try to make the term atheist mean something already defined by those other terms?

The bigger problem is that conservative atheists, while definitely a minority, aren't negligible. According to a Pew survey from 2012, "Nones" on the Rise:

The religiously unaffiliated are heavily Democratic in their partisanship and liberal in their political ideology. More than six-in-ten describe themselves as Democrats or say they lean toward the Democratic Party (compared with 48% of all registered voters). And there are roughly twice as many self-described liberals (38%) as conservatives (20%) among the religiously unaffiliated. Among voters overall, this balance is reversed.

Granted, unaffiliated isn't exactly the same thing as atheist, but note that about 1/5th identified as conservative.

A 2008 Pew survey (pdf) did break down responses to some questions all the way to atheist, not just unaffiliated, and 13% of atheists think "abortion should be illegal in all or most cases", and 14% of atheists think "homosexuality is a way of life that should be discouraged by society". That's a sizeable enough minority that it can't be ignored as a part of atheism.

I've written numerous times about the problems caused by religion. See for example, the entry, Why Do I Spend So Much Time on Religion, where I include links describing some of these problems (fire bombings, children being tried for witchcraft in the modern day, opposition to marriage equality, etc.). So, I see people leaving religion as a positive thing in that they've at least left behind this great big negative influence*. But really, that's all atheism is, is a blank slate.

The fact that so many atheists promote conservative ideologies demonstrates that atheism doesn't necessarily lead to liberal values. And while atheists like me or PZ may strongly wish for all other atheists (or even more accurately, all other people) to promote liberal ideas, you simply can't ignore all those conservative atheists or dismiss them as not true Scottsmen. Liberal atheism requires more than just atheism, like critical thinking, free thought, and especially secular humanism. Personally, I'd just stick to calling it New Atheism (or even Gnu Atheism), since that term seems to have stuck, and let the 'dictionary atheists' keep plain old atheism.


*I realize not all people are equally negatively influenced by religion. To quote myself from another previous entry, Hercules Misunderstands Atheists - Responding to Kevin Sorbo, "If religion was all soup kitchens and homeless shelters, or even just spaghetti dinners and Christmas bazaars, religious debates could be mainly academic and philosophical. As soon as religious people quit causing so much trouble in the world, atheists will quit getting angry about religion."

Updated 2016-01-29: Slightly clarified second paragraph, and clarified that children are being tried for witchcraft in the modern day, and that this isn't just a historical complaint.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Response to Harold Faulkner's Global Warming Denialism

Global Warming IconReviewing through the comments of the blog to clean out spam, I came across a comment that I'd accidentally left held up in moderation, a comment to the entry, Response to Global Warming Denialist E-mail - Volcanoes and Global Cooling. When I Googled certain phrases from the comment, I got back hundreds of returns from Google. The commenter, Harold Faulkner, is plastering blog comment threads and Internet discussion forums with this article of his.

I also realized that I'd read Faulkner's comment before. He'd e-mailed it to me right about the same time he left the comment on this blog. In good faith, I sent him a reply addressing portions of what he'd written, but I never heard back. Of course, at the time, I didn't realize that he was simply spamming hundreds of people with this article. Now that I've come across all this again, I decided that I'd adapt and expand that original response into a blog entry all its own. Since there are probably many variations of this article (I'm not going to click on each Google return to compare them), I'm going to focus just on the one he e-mailed to me.

Faulkner began his article with the following question:

People in the USA, are being told by the U.S. government and media that global warming is man-made. If that is true, how can the government and media explain the high temperatures the earth has experienced in past years when there were far fewer people?

He followed that up with the following graph to support his case:

Bogus Global Temperature History
Click on image to view full size


The first red flag for that graph should be that there's no scale given for the y-axis. Further, the relative heights of the different peaks and valleys don't match with what I've seen from reputable sources. Practically every graph I've seen of reconstructed historical temperatures looks about like this:

2000 Year Temperature Comparison
Click on image to view full size
"2000 Year Temperature Comparison". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons


Here's another graph, but going back much further in time:

All palaeotemps by Glen Fergus
Click on image to view full size
"All palaeotemps" by Glen Fergus - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons


Since both of those graphs were made a few years ago, here's a more recent graph that goes right up to almost the present day, though with a shorter overall timeframe than either of the two other graphs:

Annual Global Temperature (Combined Land & Ocean)
Click on image to view full size
Source: USA Today - Record! 2014 was Earth's warmest year


Note that in all those graphs, unlike in the graph Faulkner provided, the warming continues right up to the present day. In fact, 2014 is the warmest year on record.

Of course, there are many factors affecting the Earth's climate, and as the climate was varying long before humans were around, human activities aren't the only cause. It should go without saying that climatologists are already well aware of those causes and include them in their studies. I mean, you'd have to have a very, very low opinion of climatologists to think that they ignored those natural causes or were so ignorant that they didn't even think to study them.

If you look at the second of the reputable graphs above, the main thing you notice about modern day global warming is how rapid it is. It's unprecedented as far back as the temperatures have been reconstructed. No natural variations have created a temperature change as rapid as the one we're experiencing right now.

Faulkner also tried to downplay the effect of CO2 and instead say that climate change is natural variation due to other factors. Here Faulkner basically describes the Milankovitch Cycles, but seems to be saying these are the primary driver of current climate change.

The above points out that the universe is too huge and the earth is too small for the earth's population to have any effect on the earth's temperature. The earth's temperature is a function of the sun's temperature and the effects from the many massive planets in the universe, i.e., "The gravity of the Moon and (to a lesser extent) of the Sun makes the Earth's axis swivel around like a tilted spinning top. Other planets of the Solar System especially Jupiter, Mars and Venus, influence the Earth's tilt and the shape of its orbit, in a more-or-less cyclic fashion, with significant effects on the intensity of sunshine falling on different regions of the Earth during the various seasons."

As I said above, you'd have to have a very low opinion of climate scientists to assume that they don't understand actual climate science. The issue is that current CO2 levels are dwarfing effects such as the Milankovitch cycles, causing the current warming.

To further his attempt to downplay the effects of CO2, in one of his 'fun facts', he pointed out what a small fraction of the atmosphere CO2 constitutes.

At 380 parts per million CO2 is a minor constituent of earth's atmosphere--less than 4/100ths of 1% of all gases present. Compared to former geologic times, earth's current atmosphere is CO2- impoverished.

Well, that is true, but it doesn't change the fact that CO2 is a greenhouse gas that does significantly affect global temperatures. This isn't controversial among scientists. It's why Venus is so hot. The greenhouse effect is also why Earth isn't a giant snowball, so it's a good thing. But just like poisons, it's the 'dose', so to speak, that's important. The past 10,000 years have had a relatively stable climate, and civilization has sprung up and flourished in that time. But this stability is important. If climate and weather patterns change, current 'bread bowls' may end up as dust bowls. And with rising sea levels, some current ocean front property may quickly become a whole lot less valuable. If this change was occurring over thousands of years, it wouldn't be much of a problem. People would slowly adapt. The fact that it's occurring over 100 years or so is what makes it such a big problem. The adaptation will have to be very rapid, which in turns means it will be costly, and there will likely be a good bit of suffering involved.

I'm not going to point out the problems with all of Faulkner's stats, but I'll tackle the first one from his list of Fun Facts about CO2:

Of the 186 billion tons of carbon from CO2 that enter earth's atmosphere each year from all sources, only 6 billion tons are from human activity. Approximately 90 billion tons come from biologic activity in earth's oceans and another 90 billion tons from such sources as volcanoes and decaying land plants.

I'm actually not going to fact check his numbers*, but instead point out how this is a very misleading way of looking at the issue. There are short term and long term carbon cycles. In the short term, biological activity does release a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere (both marine and land based). But in that same timeframe, other biological activity (plants & algae), is absorbing that CO2 for photosynthesis. For the most part, that cycle is pretty balanced, with emissions matching absorption. In other words, if there were no other inputs to the cycle, atmospheric CO2 levels would stay at equilibrium. There's also a long term cycle. Some biological and geological factors absorb CO2 and trap it, such as fossil fuels. Other geological factors emit small amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, like volcanoes. The natural inputs to this long term cycle are also more or less in equilibrium. But what's happened recently, is that humans started digging up all these fossil fuels and burning them. We've thrown off the equilibrium. All this carbon that had been sequestered and was destined to only be released to the atmosphere slowly at some point in the distant future is now being put into the atmosphere over the course of decades. The normal sinks that would absorb this CO2 and sequester it just can't keep up. So, even though human CO2 emissions from fossil fuels make up only a small percentage of total CO2 emissions each year, it's a cumulative process. Each year, more and more carbon builds up in the atmosphere, leading to more global warming.

To use an overly simplistic way of looking at it - just assume for the sake of argument that natural CO2 emissions are balanced by natural CO2 sinks, but that any man-made emissions just build-up in the atmosphere. Using Faulkner's numbers*, if human activity accounts for 6 billion tons annually, in 30 years that excess would match the yearly carbon cycle. So, using these overly simplistic assumptions, that would represent a doubling of atmospheric CO2 in 30 years, or a tripling in 60 years. Luckily, the real world isn't that simplistic, and natural carbon sinks can absorb more than just the natural carbon emissions, but this shows how this imbalance is a cumulative effect that builds over the years. In reality, current CO2 levels around about 43% higher than pre-industrial levels (Wikipedia).

I'll give another example, using myself as an analogy. Like many people at the start of the year, I started a diet. I didn't changed my eating patterns much, just a few hundred calories per day. That calorie deficit is pretty small on a daily basis, and only slightly less than the calories I burn in a day, but it builds up over time. In two weeks, I'd lost a few pounds, and over the course of a few months, the effect was a sizeable percentage of my body weight. That's how it is with anthropogenic CO2. It's a shift in the balance of the carbon cycle that builds up over decades.

Anyway, this is just one more example of a climate change denialist spreading misinformation, but since he tried it on my site, I felt a bit of an obligation to reply.

---

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

*Actually, if you go and check out the blog entry where Faulkner originally left his comment, Response to Global Warming Denialist E-mail - Volcanoes and Global Cooling, you'll see that his numbers are off. He's claiming 6 billion tons of CO2 from human activity, while the USGS estimated it at closer to 35 billion metric tons in 2010 (38 billion short tons). He was off by over a factor of 6.

For the sake of people who might google phrases from Faulkner's article, or for anyone who's interested in reading it, I've put his full article below the fold.

Continue reading "Response to Harold Faulkner's Global Warming Denialism" »

Monday, April 13, 2015

Another Look at Ben Carson's Views on Evolution

Ben CarsonI know it wasn't that long ago that I said I was done writing about Ben Carson (see Ben Carson Wrap Up), but I got into another discussion the other day where he came up, and the person I was talking with was pretty sure that Carson really did accept evolution. So, for due diligence, I took another look to see if I could find Carson's views on evolution in a source more recent than the Adventist Review interview from a few years ago that I'd been assuming was his current position. I found an interview from September of 2014 where he talked about evolution again, and it looks like his views haven't changed. You can listen to just the evolution portion by going to Right Wing Watch. The full interview is available on the Faith & Liberty podcast.

I did my best to transcribe his response below (though I did take the liberty of not writing all his 'um's, 'uh's, or stutters).

I don't know how old the Earth is, because the Bible says in the beginning God created heaven and the Earth. It doesn't say how long a time went by before he started creation. So no one has that knowledge based on the Bible. What I do know is that I believe that God is all powerful. He can do anything. So if he can create a man who is fully mature, he could also create an Earth that was mature. So, you know, carbon dating, all these things, you know, really don't mean anything to a god who has the ability to create anything at any point in time. And the problem with man is that they believe that they're so smart that if they can't explain how God did something, then it didn't happen. Which of course means that they're God. You don't need a god if you consider yourself capable of explaining everything.

After this, the interviewer momentarily interrupted, "Those are good points. What about being a surgeon? Any of that lead you to some of those conclusions, too?" To which Carson replied as below.

Well, certainly being a neurosurgeon and dealing with the complexity of the human brain - billions and billions of neurons, hundreds of billions of interconnections. And they all have to be connected the right way. And somebody says that came from a slime pit full of promiscuous biochemicals? I don't think so. And, you know, even if you look at something like natural selection, which I totally believe in, by the way. But, with natural selection it says that, you know, things that are useful tend to be passed on. Things that are not useful don't get passed on. And this is how, you know, the whole genetic display occurs. But, how, on the basis of that, do you ever develop a kidney? Or how do you develop an eyeball, which has multiple parts, none of which have any function without the others. So did a rod cell just appear one day, and just decide, let me sit around for a few million years until a cone cell develops? And then, a retinal network can develop? And then, you know, posterior and an anterior chamber and a lens and a cornea and short ciliary nerves? Gimme a break. You know, according to their scheme - boom! It had to just occur overnight. Had to be there.

So, I instead say, if you have an intelligent creator, what he does is give his creatures the ability to adapt to the environment so he doesn't have to start over every 50 years, so he can [unintelligible] all over again. And that's why you see the changes that occur within species, with environment and with time that makes perfectly good sense for a created universe and a created Earth.

So, he does say that he accepts 'natural selection', but qualifies it as 'within species'. He also says that carbon dating can't be trusted, implies that there really was a historical Adam, implies the human brain couldn't be the product of billions of years of evolution starting with single celled organisms, and flat out denies that kidneys or eyes could have evolved. In that last sentence, he even said 'a created Earth', and in the opening paragraph he implied that it could have been created 'mature' (shades of Last Thursdayism). His position seems to be fairly straight-forward old earth creationism. Perhaps Carson does say different things in different venues, but that would be a problem in and of itself. If he was willing to make such contradictory statements to different audiences, he wouldn't have much credibility.

Assuming what Carson's saying here is what he actually thinks, then it's back to what I've said before about his extreme arrogance - pontificating about a subject about which he's so extremely ignorant. Just read that part about the eye. He seems to think that if an eye evolved, it must have appeared fully formed, and he seems to think this is what evolutionary biologists actually believe. Has he ever even read a biology book? He's an extremely talented surgeon, so he had to take biology classes, but how can he make such ignorant statements if he actually paid attention in class? It's not like this is a new topic. Darwin himself addressed eye evolution in the Origin of Species (Chapter 6). And with just a bit of googling, you can find explanations of how the vertebrate eye evolved in a stepwise fashion (e.g. Wikipedia). Here's one of my favorite diagrams on eye evolution (which I've shown before), showing actual existing eyes in molluscs that are far from the complex human eye, lacking many of the features Carson said must have been present for the eye to function properly, but which obviously provide benefit to those molluscs.

Evolution of Complex Eyes

I don't want to dwell on this last point because it's not part of the main theme of evolution this post is about, but that whole section on people coming up with secular explanations and thinking they're now gods is completely ridiculous. I wonder how many evolutionary biologists or atheists Carson has talked with, and where he gets this absurd characterization.

I know you don't need to understand evolutionary biology perfectly to be a politician. But given Carson's background as a surgeon, it's unsettling that he is so ignorant when it comes to the foundational concept of biology (particularly concepts that he should have learned in high school biology). Further, as I've said before, the worst part is that he's so sure of himself in an area where he's so ignorant. Nobody knows everything, politicians included (or maybe especially). But what good politicians must be able to do is recognize the limits of their knowledge so that they can ask for input and advice from appropriate experts. I wouldn't trust a politician who didn't know their own limits.

Image Source for Ben Carson: Christian Post, Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Image Source for Eye Evolution: Random Internet source, but probably originally from Douglas J. Futuyma's Evolutionary Biology

Archives

Selling Out