Skepticism, Religion Archive

Monday, December 20, 2010

This Season, Celebrate Reason - Updates to Religious Essays Section

This Season, Celebrate ReasonI've revisited my Religious Essays section, and made a few changes. There's nothing major if you've already read that section and followed this blog. The biggest change was adding a few recent blog entries to the essays. I also made a few formatting changes. In particular, I've made the pdf version nicer, with a cover and even an index. (Actually, I'm working on getting it published on I was hoping to have a link to it by now, but it's been three weeks since Lulu said they shipped the first copy to me, and I still haven't received it yet, and I'm not about to let other people order until I've had a chance to see what it looks like.) I also cleaned up the index page a bit, hopefully making it easier for people to get to the essays they want to read.

Oh, and all that stuff about celebrating reason this season, I only wrote that because of the timing of updating my religious essays. Celebrate the season however you like.

Added 2010-01-12 - My book is now available, if anyone's interested.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Yes, Virginia, There Are Liars

Santa is no moreChristmas isn't here quite yet, so let me get one more Scrooge post out of the way.

With all the Christmas movies showing on TV right now, there's a frequent theme that really irritates me. It's been around a while, and is typified by the old New York Sun editorial from 1897, Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus, or in the more modern movie, The Polar Express. It's this idea that it's good for kids to believe in Santa Claus. It's not just that it's okay for small children to believe. It's the idea that when they get old enough to notice all the problems in the story and start questioning it, that they should put their doubts aside still try to just believe. Why?

I've already written about my feelings on these childhood myths in regards to lying to children, and I'm not even going to get into the aspect of Santa making children question their worth (I've been good, so how come Santa gave the lawyer's daughter more presents than me?), so here I'm going to focus more on that mindset of blind faith.

I'm guessing that this is partly, and even perhaps mainly, a spillover from religion. Most branches of Christianity make it a virtue to believe even without evidence. The story of doubting Thomas is probably the worst example of this (“You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me.”). And obviously, there are some big similarities between Santa and God. He knows what you're doing even though you can't see him, and he rewards or punishes you based on how naughty or nice you've been. So, perhaps this religious motivation to believe in something unseen is being carried over to Santa.

But at least religious people believe their God actually exists. What sane adult actually believes in Santa? I mean, as a parent, it's pretty hard to ignore who's actually putting the presents under the tree. It's not just insisting that children believe in something without evidence. It's insisting that they believe in something without evidence that we know isn't true.

I would argue that believing anything without evidence is bad. Skepticism is a good thing. It's what keeps most people from buying time shares, responding to those e-mails saying they've won the British Lottery, or sending their credit card number to the princess from Nigeria who needs help getting out of the country. If people were a little more skeptical, we wouldn't need Snopes, and I wouldn't have to write so much debunking stupid chain mails. Skepticism and critical thinking are the methods we use to figure out how the world really is, and they're skills that should be cherished and nurtured. We shouldn't promote practices that require children to suspend their skepticism. Gullibility and blind faith are not virtues.

I've read articles where people say that Santa gives children a sense of wonder. You want wonder? Just go look up in the sky some night. One of those stars is so big that if it took the place of the Sun, it would swallow up all the planets out to Jupiter. Most of them are hundreds or thousands of light years away. If you know where to look, you can see a group of stars 2.5 million light years away. Or, since it's Christmas time, you could catch a snowflake, squint your eyes, and take a good close look. They're beautiful. Or how about watching geese on their migration, gliding in for a landing on a smooth lake, wings outstretched, feet planing the water just before settling in at the last. The universe is full of so many things that are beautiful and awe-inspiring, that I don't see why anyone would have to resort to myths to try to give children a sense of wonder.

I'm not saying to get rid of Santa from the holidays. I think he's a great tradition (even if he was invented mostly by one poem, some comics, and Coke advertising), and a fun one. I just don't see the need to lie to children and insist that they believe he's actually real. Just look to another holiday for an example - Halloween. Everyone has fun pretending about monsters at Halloween. Kids enjoy getting in on the act, decorating houses, getting scared, and obviously dressing up themselves. But no one insists that you have to believe in werewolves to enjoy that holiday.

I don't even mind movies with Santa Claus. I just hate the subplots of believing vs. not believing. When we watch Santa movies, we know he's not real, so we accept that we're watching a fantasy. We suspend our disbelief, and pretend that the movie world is one in which there is a toy factory at the North Pole and a jolly old elf who delivers toys on Christmas Eve. And in that fantasy world, of course everyone would believe, because how else would they explain where those toys came from. It would be like watching The Lord of the Rings and getting upset about the magic, or expecting that the characters in the movie would be skeptical about magic. Just make a consistent fantasy world where Santa exists and everyone knows it.

So, no, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus. He's no more real than fairies. But love and generosity and devotion certainly exist, and there are still wonders unseen and maybe even unseeable in this world. And if you want to play make believe and pretend there's a Santa, well, that's fine, too.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Another Attack in the War on Christmas

Santa in the CrosshairsI don't often simply post links to news stories, and this one was already mentioned on Pharyngula, but it happened close to home, so I figured I'd include it here.

The latest attack by militant atheists in the war on Christmas has been carried out in Bryan, Texas. The Atheist Vuvuzela Marching Band had the gall to participate in a Christmas parade, playing Christmas carols on their horns, wishing people a 'Merry Christmas', 'Happy Hanukkah', or 'Merry Kwanzaa'.

Some residents were upset by this:

"Wasn't exactly happy about the Christmas Parade this year, I spent many years teaching my children to love and respect other people and to love the fact that they were children of God and I don't feel that they should be influenced in any other way especially not at a Christmas parade," said Tina Corgey, who is a lifelong Bryan resident.

Corgey brings her three kids to the B/CS [Bryan/College Station] Christmas Parade every year.

She said she was disgusted by what she saw on Sunday.

"If you have younger children they weren't going to understand but I have older children, a teenager, 8-year-old and they were curious and they asked questions and it was hard for them to believe and understand that there are actually people out there that don't believe in God," Corgey said.

And from a little later in the article:

Tina Corgey believes the paraders performed in bad taste.

"It just, I think it could have been done somewhere else," Corgey said.

Apparently, some people are offended just by the very existence of atheists.

Oh well, a bit of perspective is needed. The article only quoted one resident who didn't like the atheists participating in the parade. So, there's no way of knowing just how controversial it was. My guess is that most people didn't really care too much (except for the fact that they were playing freakin' vuvuzelas), and this was just a reporter trying to make a story.

The article also plays a bit fast and loose with its quotations. The actual quotes by Corgey don't put her in the best light, but they're not too horrible. The statements that she was disgusted, and that she thought the performance was in bad taste, weren't direct quotes. So, was that really a paraphrase of what she said, or the reporter's interpretation?

So, it is disappointing to see someone with the views of Corgey, but to quote a single resident of a town who's upset about something isn't really all that shocking.

Added 2010-12-10 Well, I just happened across another article on the parade from the local newspaper, The Eagle. There's a short mention of the atheists in that one, and it doesn't indicate that there was a lot of controversy over their participation. There are a few negative remarks in the comment section of the article, but that's what people have come to expect in a comments section. So, just like the whole War on Christmas, this appears to be mostly a manufactured controversy.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Book Review - Thousands, Not Billions, Part II

In Part I of this review, I introduced what this book was about (an attempt by creationists to justify a young earth through radiometric dating), gave a few general comments, and described what I considered to be the most serious flaw with their hypothesis - not accounting for the heat that would be created through accelerated nuclear decay.

In this part of the review, I will address additional points from the book. It's a bit longer than the first part, but that's because I preferred to keep Part I short and to the point, and not distract from such a glaringly obvious flaw. The points here are more details.

Rather than go through chapter by chapter, I'll jump straight to the last chapter, where they summarized their most important points. I'll list those points here, followed by my commentary.

As a note, I've relied rather heavily on the Talk Origins site for references. In many cases, I'll provide several links for more information. The 'Index to Creationist Claims' links are usually short and succinct, while the articles are much more detailed. Note that both the Index to Creationist Claims and the Talk Origins articles list their references, allowing the reader to research these points even further, if they want.

Since Talk Origins covers most of these points so well already, there's little need for me to repeat everything here, so my commentary will be rather short.

1. For some years there has been a growing realization that carbon-14 atoms are found where they are not expected. With a half-life of 5,730 years, C-14 should no longer exist within "ancient" fossils, carbonate rocks, or coal. Yet small quantities of C-14 are indeed found in such examples on a worldwide scale. The RATE work extends this information with carbon-14 measurements in additional coal samples and also in diamonds. The RATE carbon-14 experiments on diamonds are the first ever reported in the literature. Measurable levels of C-14 are found in every case for both coal and diamond samples. This evidence supports a limited age for the earth. There is a widely held misconception that carbon-14 dating is in direct conflict with creation and the young-earth view. Instead, however, the carbon-14 findings strongly support a recent supernatural creation.

In Part I, I mentioned that this book ignored all of the other evidence for an ancient Earth. That point is especially significant here. Carbon-14 dating is very reliable. We know this by comparing Carbon-14 dates to other dating methods, such as, to quote from Wikipedia, "tree growth rings (dendrochronology), deep ocean sediment cores, lake sediment varves, coral samples, and speleothems (cave deposits)." In fact, since the forces responsible for creating atmospheric C-14 haven't remained strictly constant, causing slightly varying levels of C-14 throughout history, these other independent dating methods can be used to create calibration tables for C-14, making C-14 dating even more accurate.

But, the above doesn't explain the findings of the RATE team. How did C-14 end up in ancient rocks? Well, there are several possible sources. Any types of fissures that would expose the rock, either directly to the atmosphere, through ground water that carried dissolved carbon, or biological sources, could account for the C-14. But even for completely isolated rocks, there's another source. Remember that although cosmic rays are primarily responsible for C-14 in the atmosphere, that's not the only way that C-14 can be created. Underground, the radioactive decay of the uranium-thorium isotope series releases neutron and alpha particles, which in turn can create C-14, and are probably the main source of C-14 in ancient rocks and minerals. And remember, we're talking about trace amounts of C-14 - not enough to significantly affect dates for younger samples with much higher concentrations. Contamination and poor procedures can also be a source, which is discussed in detail in the third link below.

More info:

2. Zircons play a prominent part in the RATE studies. These are tiny crystals which often occur in granite, one of the most abundant rock types on earth. Within their crystal structures, many zircons hold helium atoms which result from the decay of internal uranium atoms. Zircons brought to the surface from deep underground are assumed to be ancient. The New Mexico zircons studied by the RATE team have a radioisotope age of 1.5 billion years. If this were true, then the internal helium atoms should long ago have escaped from the zircons. Instead, however, the RATE scientists and others find high concentrations of helium still present inside the zircon crystals.

RATE research obtained some of the first high-precision data on helium diffusion in zircon. A theoretical model based on this data gives an age for the earth of about 6,000 years. The presence of helium in zircons is a serious challenge to the concept of deep time. The helium also represents compelling evidence of accelerated nuclear decay in the past.

Reading the section of the book that dealt with this, I was struck by their lack of mention of pressure in calculating the helium diffusion rate in zircon. I would imagine that high pressure would have a significant effect - compressing the zircon and reducing the size of passages that helium could migrate through. Without including pressure in their experiments, I don't put much stock in those numbers representing what's actually going on under ground. In other words, if you don't know what the helium diffusion rate is in the conditions a rock experienced, you can't know how much helium should be in the rock.

As with all radiometric dating, the possibility of contamination is always a concern, as well.

According to the article provided in the second link below, it turns out that there are far more errors in the RATE study than I could list in a short review such as this. These include mistakes in math, misidentifying minerals, and probable helium contamination from nearby helium deposits, to name just a few.

More info:

3. Radiohalos are tiny spherical defects in rocks. They result from the decay of clusters of radioactive atoms, mainly uranium and polonium. The frequent occurrence of these halos in rocks is evidence for widespread nuclear decay. Halos are present in abundance in granites whose formation accompanied the Genesis flood. This indicates that a large-scale acceleration of nuclear decay occurred during the year-long flood event.

There is a longstanding mystery concerning radiohalos. Many of them appear to have formed during the decay of short-lived polonium radioisotopes. These transient isotopes must in turn be supplied by the decay of other isotopes with much longer half-lives. However, evidence for the long-life parents is often missing. These halo-forming isotopes include the polonium isotopes 210, 214, and 218. To explore this mystery and other questions, many thousands of radiohalos were measured in rocks worldwide. This was perhaps one of the largest-scale radiohalo studies ever undertaken.

The RATE research suggests that the polonium isotopes are derived from uranium via accelerated decay. The polonium atoms then were rapidly removed and transported away from their uranium sources by underground hydrothermal fluids. The polonium atoms accumulated at new sites and formed secondary radiohalos near their uranium parent halos. Thus, the short-lived isotopes are not parentless after all, but instead were physically removed from their point of origin.

I don't have much to say on this, other than directing readers to the links below. From studies done by others, it appears that the biggest problem with the RATE research is that polonium probably wasn't responsible for the halos. It seems most likely that a radon isotope (a decay product of uranium) was their source. Given that radon is a gas that can diffuse through the minerals, there is no problem with the halos being separated from the uranium. In fact, when others have looked for halos, they've found them clustered around cracks in the minerals, which is exactly where you'd expect to find them if it was due to gas diffusion.

More Info:

4. Many rock units worldwide were analyzed by radioisotope dating techniques. These experiments include the parent-daughter isotopes potassium-argon, rubidium-strontium, samarium-neodynium, and also the lead-lead method. The efforts gave fresh data on apparent age and their consistency. Some examples of concordance, or agreement in age were found, while many other examples showed discordance, or disagreement. In fact, both extremes often occurred in the same rock unit.

Great trust is traditionally placed in the results from isochron plots. These are graphs which are thought to give valid information on initial conditions, possible sample contamination, and sample age. The RATE results raise serious cautions concerning the interpretation of isochrons. Even when an isocrhon plot of data appears to produce a straight line with excellent statistical support, the calculated sample age is often in conflict with other results. The conclusion is that no isochron age can be trusted with confidence.

Once again, this result appears to be due to bad methodology on the part of the RATE team. Read the first link provided below. Depending on what samples are dated and what methods are used, there can be quite a bit of variation, but this is already known by geochronologists. For example, if you take samples of a metamorphic rock, then you're bound to get different dates from different minerals in the rocks. Also, if you use a dating method that relies on a certain element, such as potassium, but the mineral you're dating doesn't have much potassium in it, then you're not going to get very reliable results. When researchers take appropriate samples, and use appropriate methods, they do get consistent dates.

More Info:

5. There are three important assumptions made in radioisotope dating. Each has been addressed by RATE research and found to be subject to failure. The first assumption is that the initial conditions of rock samples can be determined accurately. This is challenged by the many discordant isochron dates. Also, ancient dates are often obtained for volcanic rocks known to be very recent in origin. The second assumption is that the open or closed nature of rock samples can be determined and quantified. However, there are frequent indications of the mixing of mantle and crustal isotopes with rock samples. Also, polonium radiohalos show the movement of isotopes through rocks and minerals by hydrothermal transport. The third assumption is that nuclear half-lives have remained constant throughout history. This assumption is countered by the unexpected helium found in "ancient" zircons. also, there are abundant radiohalos and fission tracks in rocks which were rapidly deposited during the Flood.

Most of the points raised above are dealt with elsewhere in this review, so here I'll only deal with one - the claim of ancient dates for recent volcanic eruptions. To be fair, the book didn't deal much with dating of recent volcanic eruptions. It was only discussed in a few paragraphs. However, since they used it as a point of evidence, it's still worth discussing.

The main thing I was most struck by was how this 'fact' was discussed, which points to a larger problem with the book. The RATE team did date some rocks from a volcano named Mount Ngauruhoe in New Zealand, but then simply stated matter of factly that other recent volcanic rocks had also been given ancient dates, without any reference. In fact, the book only had a grand total of 16 references at the end. Compare that to any good science book, such as Donald Prothero's Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters, which has around that many recommendations for further reading (or more) at the end of each chapter, and literally hundreds of references in the back of the book. Even on this blog, I try to use references as much as possible. Granted, mine usually aren't to primary sources like peer reviewed journal articles, but at least it lets the reader know where my information came from, and gives them a starting point to research it further.

Moving on, here's the quote where the volcanos dated by others were mentioned the first time.

The RATE radioisotope studies reveal large-scale errors for volcanic rocks known to be less than a century old. Similar results have been previously published for many other modern lavas which yield exceedingly old ages. This is particularly true of basaltic lavas on ocean islands such as Hawaii. These young rocks commonly carry "ancient" radioisotope signatures inherited from their mantle sources.

It seems that there is a study of Hawaiin lava that this could be referring to -
J. G. Funkhouser and J. J. Naughton, "He and Ar in ultramafic inclusions", Journal of Geophysical Research, Vol. 73, 1968, pp. 4601-4607. However, the creationists are either misinterpreting or misrepresenting what the study actually says. The study was specifically looking at xenoliths, or inclusions, which are recognizable material that's been embedded in the flow, and not part of the magma that came up from deep underground. So the researchers knew that the inclusions were going to be older than the lava. What's more, when they dated what was recognizable as the magma from the eruption, they found that, "The matrix rock of the Hualalai nodules was erupted during 1801-1802 [Richter and Murata, 1961] and, indeed, can be said to contain no measurable radiogenic argon within experimental error." So they did correctly date the eruption as very recent.

More Info:

6. The concept of accelerated decay arises many times in the RATE work. It is the logical inference of placing millions or billions of year's worth of nuclear decay, at present rates, into a short time frame. The episodes of increased nuclear activity appear to have occurred during the creation week and also during the flood of Noah's day.

The evidences for vast amounts of decay include the abundance of nuclear decay products, high concentrations of helium atoms residing in zircon crystals, radiohalos, and fission tracks. Theoretical RATE studies suggest several possible ways by which nuclear decay could have been accelerated. Of special interest are large changes in decay rates that can result from a temporary adjustment of various physical constants and parameters. The ideas are rather complex and involve nuclear forces, higher dimensions, and string theory. This theoretical RATE work provides possible mechanisms for accelerated nuclear decay.

I know this is a smart alec answer, but I would have thought that the "logical inference of ... millions or billions of year's worth of nuclear decay" would be millions or billions of year's worth of time for it to happen in.

Obviously, the biggest flaw in arguing for accelerated decay is the point I made in Part I - you must also account for the accelerated release of energy. Seeing as how the Earth isn't vaporized, I seriously doubt a period of accelerated decay such as what has been proposed by RATE.

RATE has proposed that the accelerated decay occurred universe-wide. Luckily, we can study the past for our universe. In fact, that's all we can study, given the huge distances involved and the time it takes light to reach us (this in itself is another indication of an ancient universe, given that some observed galaxies are billions of light years away). Nothing we see in studying the universe (and especially relevant for this discussion are supernovae) indicates that radioactive decay has ever been any different than it is now.

They also mentioned a "temporary adjustment of various physical constants and parameters." These constants control more than just radioactive decay. In fact, the whole point of fine tuning arguments so often used by creationists is that the universe would be very different if those constants were even slightly different.

There is even more discussion of how we know the decay rates have been constant in the links below.

More Info:

7. The RATE radioisotope dating measurements also contribute information regarding accelerated nuclear decay. These measurements reveal two distinct trends. First, the isotopes which decay by alpha particle emission tend to give older dates than the isotopes which undergo beta decay. Second, heavier isotopes tend to give older dates than lighter isotopes. Neither of these trends should exist if the radioisotopes have had constant half-lives and accurately measure the ages of rocks. This decay information may provide useful clues to understanding the mechanisms responsible for accelerated nuclear decay.

Given all the problems discussed above about the RATE team not producing accurate dates, I don't see any reason to even address this point. The effect they're mentioning isn't seen by other researchers.

8. The linguistic studies of Genesis 1:1-2:3 likewise support a recent creation. This research shows that biblical texts may be identified as either narrative or poetry with a high degree of confidence, based on the Hebrew verb forms used by the authors. The distributions of finite verbs in numerous Old Testament narrative and poetic passages were analyzed. The Genesis creation story is found to be a narrative account describing literal historical events. This conclusion challenges all efforts to explain away the early chapters of Genesis as non-literal poetry, metaphor, or allegory. The research also contradicts the currently popular idea that the Genesis account describes the big-bang theory in pre-scientific terms.

When I was still a Christian, and assumed the Bible had to match up with reality, I interpreted Genesis figuratively. Now that I'm no longer a Christian, and don't have to force the Bible to be an accurate book, I can take it for what it is. And, to be honest, I tend to agree that the writers of the first book of Genesis did believe it was a literal story. Actually, I'll take it a bit further. I think the writers believed in the same cosmology as other nearby cultures, that the earth was a flat disc with a dome - the firmament - above it. It would certainly explain Genesis 1:6-8.

More Info:

Throughout the book, the author mentioned Noah's Flood several times. It was actually a bit surreal to see someone seriously discussing the Flood as a legitimate topic. The author didn't go into detail about the Flood, so I won't discuss it in detail here. Rather, I'll simply direct interested readers to the appropriate page on Talk Origins. In particular, I like section 7 of that article, discussing how a global flood is completely inconsistent with the geological record.

Before closing this review, I'll take one last chance to put this in perspective (bordering on an argument from authority combined with an ad hominem). A handful of researchers, who have admitted that they already believe in a young Earth because of scripture, and that they will 'channel' data to fit that perspective, have done a few studies that they say indicate the Earth is only a few thousand years old. The scientific community, composed of people from multiple religious backgrounds, have performed thousands and thousands of experiments over more than a century, and reached a consensus that the Earth is around 4 1/2 billion years old. I mentioned Charles Lyell in Part I of this review. He was the man who popularized uniformitarianism when he published Principles of Geology, before Darwin even got aboard the Beagle. Lyell was a Christian. He struggled with the theory of evolution because he thought it went against his religious beliefs. Most of his contemporaries who were convinced by his book and the other science being done at the time were also Christians. Obviously, they thought the evidence for an ancient Earth was irrefutable, and didn't come up with the explanation simply because they wanted one that didn't include God. The point is, when people aren't blinded by preconceptions, they tend to agree with the scientific consensus.

So, I've now read a modern 'scientific' book on creationism. Obviously, I wasn't convinced by the arguments it contained. If anything, it's reinforced my view that creationism is nonsense. But, I suppose it was worth reading to see an opposing point of view. It's also prodded me to learn more about geology and physics, and learning more is always a good thing.

I usually end my reviews with a recommendation for or against reading the book. In this case, I definitely recommend against, unless you already know enough about the science, or are willing to put in the effort to research the claims. Otherwise, the arguments can sound convincing, and could mislead most of the people who read the book. If you don't know about these topics already, go read a real science book on geology.

I'll leave this challenge open. If anybody wants to recommend a better book that argues for creationism, I will read it and evaluate the arguments.

Monday, November 29, 2010

War on Christmas 2010

Santa in the CrosshairsWith Thanksgiving out of the way, the Christmas Season is now officially upon us, which also means that the War on Christmas has officially started for the year. I've already written an entry all about this - War on Christmas - where I discuss a bit the true history of Christmas in this country (hint: the Puritans really, really didn't like it), the origins of some of our traditions, along with some of the other nonsense people think of as part of the war (Xmas, Happy Holidays, Seasons Greetings, etc.).

I don't have much to add over what I wrote two years ago, so instead I'll link to what others have come up with for Christmas. First, is a poem from The Digital Cuttlefish, The Night Before (The War On) Christmas. I've only included the first 3 verses below. Follow the link to read the rest. (It's also worth going to the Digital Cuttlefish home page to read the rest of their poetry.)

The Night Before (The War On) Christmas

‘Twas the night before Christmas; the Christians all hunkered
In basements of buildings they’d armored and bunkered.
They huddled in silence; they huddled in fear,
With thoughts that the atheists soon would draw near

The War Against Christmas had started on Fox—
Just a couple of fools on the idiot-box
Who were looking for noise to give ratings a boost—
But lately, those chickens have come home to roost:

Believers are frightened; they’re panicked; they’re scared,
And not one among them will go unprepared;
They’ve heard that the atheists roam, Christmas night,
So Christians stay hidden, and safe out of sight.

Read the rest at the Digital Cuttlefish

To be honest, I really do like Christmas - the decorations, the getting together with family, the celebrating. Here's a song from Tim Minchin, White Wine in the Sun, that fairly well echoes my views.


Selling Out