Skepticism, Religion Archive

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?

Friday, October 2, 2009

Reasons for Strong Atheism

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismWhen I first became an atheist, it was of the sort that people call 'weak atheism', and some would even have referred to it as agnosticism. Now that I've had some time to become comfortable with the idea that there aren't any deities, I've moved from the position that a god is a possibility simply lacking in evidence, to the position that gods really are pretty unlikely, and almost surely don't exist.

In a particular essay I wrote shortly after becoming an atheist, I summarized my position on deities and souls as follows.

To clarify my position on religious matters at the time of writing this essay, I'm not absolutely one-hundred percent certain about anything. However, I'm about as sure that the Earth is a globe that orbits the Sun as I am that the Bible was written by people, and that a God as presented in the Bible doesn't exist. I'm not as certain that no type of divine being exists at all. I don't see an absolute reason why there would have to be one, but that doesn't mean that there isn't one, or that a super powerful being didn't come into existence after the universe did. I'm also open to the idea that we have souls and will experience some type of afterlife. So, I may not buy into the arguments of Christianity, anymore, but I haven't rejected a spiritual aspect of the universe, altogether.

That certainly sounds sensible. So what's changed?

To start off, maybe I should begin with discussing certainties. In a philosophical sense, we can't be 100% sure of anything. There's always some small finite chance that whatever we think we know is wrong. The common arm chair philosopher argument is to ask how we can be sure that everything we know isn't just a dream, or a hallucination. Practically speaking, however, some scenarios are just so unlikely that their probability becomes infinitesimally small. So, while we admit that in a philosophical sense they have some finite probability, we live our lives as if they're impossible. Noone goes to bed at night worried that gravity will quit working and that they'll wake up in space. So, when I wrote in the first paragraph that deities almost surely do not exist, it's only in that philosophical sense that I grant that they might.

Let me digress one more time before getting into the main point. Let me explain just why I was religious before I became an atheist. It really had very little to do with evidence, and very much to do with emotion and tradition. I'd been brought up going to church, and having authority figures tell me over and over how important it was to be religious, and how important it was to have faith. Even certain parts of the Bible stress how important it is to have faith without evidence (think the story of doubting Thomas - John 20:29, or Jesus being tempted by Satan and replying that you shouldn't put God to the test - Matthew 4:7). I think the following comment I made on a blog during a discussion when I was still Christian shows just how much I valued faith over evidence.

I don't think it's a sign of personal weakness to believe in God. Knowing all that I know about science, it takes a lot of faith to accept the Bible. To me, that's more of a strength than a weakness.

I knew all along that I didn't have much evidence to support my religious beliefs, but I didn't let it shake my faith. In fact, the only 'evidence' I had for the divine were a warm fuzzy feeling that I assumed to be God's presence, and a very minor miracle that I personally witnessed (an object I'd lost turned up in a place where I was positive I'd checked very thoroughly). I knew all along that both of those forms of evidence were very shaky, and could very easily be explained through non-supernatural causes. I counted them as evidence because I wanted to believe, not because I thought they were strong evidence.

The reason I brought all that up is to reinforce that there really is no strong evidence for the divine. I've covered this in much more depth in the essay I mentioned above, but even when my faith was strong and I had no reason to doubt any evidence supporting a deity, I just didn't see it.

When I first became an atheist, it was through a rational approach. I recognized how little evidence there was for gods, and realized I was a Christian mainly through accident of birth, and didn't have any real reason to choose it over any other religion, so I was left with atheism as the only honest choice. But those emotional reasons that kept me a Christian for so long were harder to shake than any logic. Remember, the type of god that most Christians believe in isn't the fire and brimstone version from the Old Testament, it's the 'God is love' version you learn in Sunday school. I didn't like to lose that eternal protector, and I wasn't ready yet to give up the promise of an afterlife, either. I didn't want to admit there was no chance of ever having those back, so that's why I clung to a god as still being a possibility, even though there wasn't any evidence.

Now, let's leave emotion behind. Even if Christianity wasn't the result of Yahweh intervening with his creation, it still had to come from somewhere. One interesting observation is that nearly every culture has a religion, nearly all of which include deities. It's pretty unlikely that religion has been invented out of thin air independently in each of those cultures. There are a few options that seem much more parsimonious - 1) that there actually is something to religion, and all these myths are attempts to explain some mysterious force in the universe (think the fable of the blind men and the elephant), 2) there's something about human nature that makes people keep inventing religion, 3) religion was present in the common ancestral group of all modern humans and has been passed down, being modified along the way (similar to language).

Another interesting observation is that, not just do many cultures have religion, but the deities in these separate religions serve similar, specific functions. For example, the Greek goddess Ganymede, the Norse god Thor, the Aztec god Tlaloc, the Egyptian God Tefnut, are all gods of rain. The cultures all believed that rain was explained by the existence of these gods. It's a similar case in other cultures, and for many different phenomena. This would seem to indicate that the first of the three options above isn't true. It's not some mysterious force that early religions described - it was unexplained natural phenomena. It seems probable that the reason all cultures have religion is down to the latter two reasons from above, and quite probably a combination of those two reasons. Curiosity is part of human nature, as is a tendency to imagine agency where there is none. This could have very easily led early humans to conjecture that supernatural forces were controlling aspects of the universe that they couldn't yet explain. As people spread across the world and religious traditions were passed down from generation to generation, the slight differences in isolated groups led to the various religions that we have today.

Judaism (and hence Christianity), being monotheistic, may seem a bit different than the polytheistic religions. However, it appears that early Judaism was henotheistic - in other words, that they believed in multiple gods, but worshipped only one. The earliest roots of Judaism appear to be from a prior Canaanite religion, with an entire pantheon of gods. Certainly, some passages in the Old Testament hint at these polytheistic origins (the use of 'we' in Genesis, the worship of other gods, etc.) And certain stories from Judaism are certainly from earlier cultures, such as Noah's flood being a rehashed version of the Mesopotamian Flood Myth. Many aspects of the Old Testament also read as just so stories explaining why the universe is the way it is - going back to what I mentioned above about religion explaining the unexplained natural phenomena.

It certainly seems that religion was invented by our ancient ancestors, not as a deliberate fabrication, but like I said, as an attempt to explain nature. The very concept of gods is part of that invention. That is very important, so let me repeat it - the very concept of gods is an invention of human mythology.

So, there are two key points from what I wrote above - there is no evidence for any gods, and the very concept of gods is a human invention. Given those two points, it seems almost certain that gods don't exist. It's a bit like unicorns, leprechauns, or fairies. Gods are just another set of mythical beings. We don't go around saying that gnomes are a remote possibility simply lacking in evidence - we rightly say that gnomes are products of our imaginations and never really existed. Why, when it comes to a different invention of human mythology, do so many people say that it's something we can never know for certain, or that deities are outside the realm of investigation, or that it takes faith to think they aren't real? These are things I would have said myself when I was still Christian, but now I recognize them for the double standard they are.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Skeptical Look at Bio-Identical Hormone Replacement Therapy

CaduceusA few weeks ago, my wife attended a presentation by a local doctor and a local pharmacy on something called bio-identical hormone replacement therapy (BHRT). (If you've read this blog before, guess which pharmacy.) The presentation sounded mostly reasonable, but a few things that were said didn't sit quite right with my wife, so she asked me to use my Google skills to research it a bit for her. I'm not a doctor, but I have a healthy skepticism. And when professional organizations with the appropriate expertise express concerns over specific treatments, I become even more skeptical of claims of proponents of those treatments.

Before getting into everything that I found, here's the bottom line. Conventional hormone replacement therapy carries risks, but may be worth it for the patient. That's up for the patient and their doctor to decide. Bio-identical hormone replacement therapy doesn't appear to be significantly safer, if at all, compared to conventional hormone replacement therapy. After more trials and research, it may turn out that BHRT is slightly better than conventional HRT, but somebody needs to do the work to determine that, first. If someone's considering hormone replacement therapy, they shouldn't buy into claims that the bio-identical variety is safer, and shouldn't let those claims influence their decision on whether or not to use hormone replacement therapy.

My gut feel is that the people making the claims about BHRT are full of it. I've always been skeptical of the people who think 'natural' means safer (remember that cyanide and snake venom are natural, too), and that seems to be one of the main arguments for BHRT. The pamphlets promoting BHRT even had some statements about how pharmaceutical companies won't research BHRT because there's no profit in it, which of course set off my BS detectors, since it just rings of a conspiracy theory. Any doctors or pharmacies making unfounded claims about the benefits of BHRT are, in my opinion, being dishonest.

Anyway, I looked up a few sites to see what people had to say about BHRT and compounded BHRT. Here's what I found.

Continue reading "A Skeptical Look at Bio-Identical Hormone Replacement Therapy" »

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Balanced Views

As with most of my recent blog entries, this started as an e-mail response to a friend, and has been adapted for use here.

Libra ScalesLooking to alternate viewpoints to get a balanced view of things is something we should all strive to do. If you only ever visit forums where everyone agrees with each other, those forums become echo chambers, and nobody ever examines their views. On the opposite end of the spectrum, though, just how do you determine who's worth listening to when there are so many voices and not all views are equally valid?

Strictly logically speaking, it makes no difference who's making an argument. It's the arguments themselves that need to be addressed to determine whether they're true or not. If you hang around the Internet long enough, you're bound to see people using the term ad hominem to criticize arguments against the messenger that ignore the message. Practically speaking, though, there's no way to read every point out there. In the age of the Internet, everybody with a computer can broadcast their opinions to the entire world. And with hundreds of channels on the satellite, even TV doesn't have the same respectability as it once did. At what point can you say that a certain source is no longer trustworthy, and no longer worth spending your time reading what they have to say? When the boy keeps crying wolf, at what point do you quit paying attention?

Are there any sources so outlandish you can just ignore them altogether? For example, in arguments over science curricula, I could point you to an organization that honestly and truly believes the world is flat. They've got quite a website with discussion forums to support their claim. But are they even worth taking a first look? It's very, very well documented that the world is roughly spherical. Can't we just call those people cranks without worrying about examining both sides of the flat earth issue?

A 'culture war' I've gotten more caught up in myself is evolution/geology/astronomy (and I guess you could throw physics in there too for radioactive decay & the speed of light) vs. creationism. I'd always accepted the science, but wondered if I might have been missing something when I first learned just how many people in this country doubted evolution and an ancient universe (this was around the time that Intelligent Design began making headlines a few years ago). So, I looked into the claims made by groups like Answers in Genesis, the Discovery Institute, the Institute for Creation Research, or individuals like Kent Hovind or Ray Comfort, and at the same time looked a little more into how science works and how we know what we know. The end result, as could probably be expected, is that the evidence for evolution and an ancient universe is overwhelming, and all those anti-science groups had used a lot of poor arguments (and even some dishonesty) to support their cause. But, they continue writing new essays and books, coming up with more arguments, and even making movies to support their claims. Am I still obligated to read what they have to say? Is it wrong to dismiss their new arguments out of hand because I've already seen how poorly they've performed in the past? Is it close minded to not want to waste any more of my time with them?

I guess what I'm getting at is the issue of credibility. Of course, we should always be skeptical of every source, never completely trust any single one, and always seek verification from other independent sources. Some sources are credible enough, however, that you can be pretty confident in the information from them until you see conflicting information from another source, while other sources are so lacking in credibility that you shouldn't accept anything from them until you've seen it elsewhere. Dictionaries and encyclopedias would fall into the former category. They're bound to have a few errors, but the entire editorial process guarantees that they're pretty darned accurate. E-mail forwards and tabloids definitely fall into the latter category. Other sources fall some where in between, so we have to determine how much trust we have in those sources.

Credibility isn't just about honesty. I'm sure the flat earthers I mentioned above are sincere in their claims and don't think they're lying. But they're still completely wrong, none the less. So, credibility has as much to do with competence as it does with sincerity.

One of the things that I'm really big on is science. I think it's the best method we have for answering questions that have objective answers, or in other words, the best method we have for determining reality. Some questions are beyond science. For example, gun control comes down to a question of personal freedom vs. societal safety. It's a question of how much value we place on those two aspects. Science can't give us those values. It can certainly provide statistics, telling us how many people a year are killed by guns or comparing safety in nations with gun control laws to those without. So, we can use science to help inform our opinion, but we can't use it to make the final decisions on legislation.

Most people don't understand science very well, but for most of those people, you just have to let it slide or you'd be arguing all the time, and I'd rather just enjoy their company (as I've pointed out before, 1 in 4 Americans thinks the Sun goes around the Earth, and over half don't realize electrons are smaller than atoms). But, once people are in a position of public prominence, where their voice is heard by a large number of people, they have a responsibility to make sure their voice is accurate. And that means either having a very good grip on science themselves, or, less preferably, knowing where to go to get the results from science.

This is especially true for politicians. They make the laws that affect all of us, so they need to make sure that their laws are based in reality. And they deal with a large range of issues, so they need to know how to determine the best sources even when the issue is outside their immediate field of expertise. When politicians get the science wrong, it really makes me question their credibility. It means either that they're ignorant, or that they're willing to put their ideology ahead of the evidence (or, hopefully much less common, that they're willing to lie to pander to their constituents).

One of the most obvious examples of this is global warming. The evidence for global warming is very strong, and the vast majority of experts in the relevant fields are confident in the science. When I see politicians or other public figures claim that global warming isn't happening, or saying that the science isn't all that certain, it makes me question everything else they say. Another example, not quite so prevalent yet, but getting bigger, is the anti-vaccination movement, or the whole alternative medicine movement in general. Medicine now is the best it's ever been in history, thanks almost entirely to evidence based practices and the double blind clinical trial. Vaccines have saved millions. People who are willing to ignore that put their lives at risk, and in the case of the anti-vaccination movement, put other's lives at risk because of reduced herd immunity. So, the global warming denialists, anti-vaccinationists, alternative medicine proponents, or anyone else who gets science egregiously wrong, also make me question everything else that they say, because it shows that they're too ignorant to understand the evidence or are willing to ignore that evidence when it suits their agenda.

Everything I've said so far has been pretty neutral on politics - just general statements. But I'll be honest - in the past decade or so since I've been more actively following politics, it seems that Republicans are worse off in the credibility department than Democrats (i.e. The Republican War on Science). It's certainly not an all or nothing dichotomy, as there are plenty of Democrats I wouldn't trust as far as I could throw, and plenty of crazy ideas seem to be more associated with the left (9/11 conspiracy theories, alternative medicine), but as the comedian Stephen Colbert often says, it seems that "Reality has a well known liberal bias." Maybe my perception is due to sampling bias because I receive far more erroneous e-mail forwards that support Republicans than those supporting Democrats. Maybe it's because the Republicans have been in power, so they've been critiqued a bit closer, and maybe I'll start to see more of it coming from the left now that they're in power. Maybe it was the Bush administration in particular that abused science, and it isn't such a general trait for all Republicans. Maybe the official platform of the Texas GOP isn't actually representative of most Texas Republicans or indicative of Republicans in other states. But you don't often hear of Democratic school board members introducing anti-evolution measures. And the amount of Republican politicians who refuse to make a simple comment on Obama's citizenship, or who fanned the flames of this death panel nonsense and spread other misinformation over the health care debate, doesn't help with their credibility, either.

I thought of not including that previous paragraph so that this entry would remain politically neutral, but that's honestly how I see it, and I figured that it would help others to see partly why I have the views I do. I realize that politicians from both sides of the aisle will lie to win votes, but my impression is that there's far more misinformation from the right side than the left. But, that's also why I appreciate the conservative e-mails that friends send me, and hope that they keep sending me. It keeps me from only seeing one side of things.

Anyway, I apologize for rambling a bit with this entry. Looking to alternate viewpoints to get a balanced view of things is a noble goal. The problem is that there's just not enough time to listen to everybody's point of view, so it becomes a challenge of figuring out who's credible enough to listen to in the first place.

Updated 2009-09-09 - Removed a section describing my own views on gun control, since it doesn't add at all to the theme of this entry.


Selling Out