Saturday 28 June 2014

Burnee linkee Saturdee

The official Dilbert website with Scott Adams' color comic strips, animation, mashups and more!
How to be successful.

The Simpsons' secret formula: it's written by maths geeks | Television & radio | The Observer
Simon Singh writes about the subject of his new book in the Guardian/Observer. Nice of him to wait until after his recent talk at Portsmouth SitP.

Why we must not let fundamentalist atheism destroy our Christian education system | Christian News on Christian Today
Ugh. David Robertson continues to use an incorrect definition of secularism despite being repeatedly corrected in the past. Is he merely forgetful or deliberately disingenuous?

National Secular Society - A “religious ethos” is not why faith schools succeed – it’s selection that does it
Terry Sanderson says it again.

Jesus and Mo
Inspired by the final programme of the most recent series of The Big Questions (Sunday, BBC1).

How to Read and Understand a Scientific Paper: A Step-by-Step Guide for Non-Scientists | Jennifer Raff
A useful primer.

My Material Contribution to Materialism | John C. Wright's Journal
This was posted in the Unbelievable? Facebook group with the comment that it's an extended argument against materialism. It isn't. Wright articulates the arguments for materialism, then this:
"I leave the refutation of each of them as an exercise for the reader, and I give them freely to any man willing to arm himself against me."
Presumably any woman willing to arm herself against Wright will have to pay.

NeuroLogica Blog » Inflation Evidence Questioned
Science works. Go see it working.

Is God a vertebrate without substance? « Why Evolution Is True
But, but, but ... God is both apophatic and personal. You may think that's impossible, but that's cos you ain't ineffable like wot God is.

When Suits Become a Stumbling Block: A Plea to My Brothers in Christ* | The Salt Collective
Slut-shaming satire with a light touch. (No, that's not a euphemism, it's a metaphor.)

Normal Moments In Art History With No Murder
Seems perfectly innocuous...  

UK law is 'intolerant' towards Christians, says cardinal | Christian News on Christian Today
Off we go again. Look, it's really very simple. Just go to the NSS website and look at their definition of secularism:
"Secularism is a principle that involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law."
When Cormac Murphy-O'Connor uses the words "too little" he's complaining that the law is not protecting the rights of Christians in preference to the rights of anyone else. Well, tough. That's what "equal before the law" means.

Science and the Supernatural (II); Why We Get It Wrong and Why It Matters | Eat Your Brains Out; Exploring Science, Exposing Creationism
Second part of Prof. Paul Braterman's examination of whether supernatural causes are a legitimate subject for scientific investigation.

What it's like to own a Tesla Model S - A cartoonist's review of his magical space car - The Oatmeal
This (along with its follow-ups) is quite something.

Saturday 21 June 2014

How not to encourage civil exchange on Facebook

A new member of the Unbelievable? Facebook group recently posted a lengthy demand for atheists to provide a summary of the applicable standards of evidence and criteria used for applying methodological naturalism to the question of God's existence. The subsequent thread included several explanations that it wasn't the job of atheists to state which of many gods they didn't believe existed, but the poster continued with what appeared a to be a veiled attempt to shift the burden of proof. Observing the protracted circularity I weighed in with the following:
It seems to me that the OP is a ploy to get an atheist to define God, to state what evidence would be apparent if such a god did exist, and then for the OPer to follow up with a statement that the particular god so defined is not the god believed in.

If I were to bite, this is how I would respond: we have two hypotheses — “a god exists” and “no gods exist”. We also have empirical evidence — we observe the world. We can compare the likelihood of the evidence we see given the two hypotheses. Given “a god exists”, how likely is the evidence we see? And given “no gods exist”, how likely is the evidence we see? Is the likelihood of the evidence we see more likely or less likely if “a god exists” rather than “no gods exist”?

Note that I’m not coming down on either side of this question, since that wasn’t what was asked. If we are to assess the evidence we observe using methodological naturalism we are not going to find anything supernatural, merely “unexplained”. If gods are supernatural, science cannot explain them, because methodological naturalism is restricted by definition to natural mechanisms.

Methodological naturalism can be used, however, to assess claimed supernatural effects, but will only be able to provide natural explanations (if any) of those effects. What it can’t do is to say “no natural explanations are currently available, therefore the explanation is supernatural.”

Some might conclude from the above that gods and other supernatural causes are entirely beyond explanation, and may even go further and say that since it’s impossible for science (using methodological naturalism) to explain anything supernatural, we therefore can have no knowledge of the supernatural.

So as far as knowledge of gods is concerned, we are left with “revelation” and nothing else.
This was largely ignored, but I reproduce it here because it summarises my position, and also because it is now unavailable on Facebook. After some further exchanges the thread appeared to be homing in on something, perhaps to a point where a degree of agreement might have been achieved. But eight hours later the entire thread had disappeared, so I posted a query:

What happened to Daniel Ray's thread querying the standards and criteria applicable to methodological naturalism? It was here last night, but this morning it's gone.
  • John Bradbury He's still a member of the group so perhaps he deleted the thread.
    [missing comment here]
  • John Bradbury That's a shame. I was enjoying reading the exchange between you and Paul Jenkins
    3 hrs · Like · 1
    [missing comment here]
  • John Bradbury That's an admirable attitude Daniel Ray but please don't delete your threads, just resist the temptation to keep posting! I usually get to a point, even in my own threads where I stop notifications and that might help you resist!
  • Paul Jenkins Bad form, Daniel. When a thread is deleted without warning, others who contributed to it are less likely to engage with other OPs from the same user.
    [missing comment here]
Even the thread above makes no sense, because after deleting the thread in question (and apologising for doing so) it appears that Daniel Ray's comments above have subsequently also been deleted. He may have deleted his account.

Either stand by your written word, or apologise for it. But don't delete it without warning, especially if doing so will delete everyone else's contribution — or as shown above, eviscerate a thread into nonsense.

Saturday 14 June 2014

Burnee links catch-up

Most of these links are old. But the main purpose of Burnee links is so that I have somewhere to keep links to stuff I'm interested in (so stop complaining about old links). Plus this is my 800th post. Thank you.

Christians aren’t being driven out of public life – they’re just losing their unfair advantages
Robin Ince's reply to Cristina Odone's crazed rant (to which there is a link at the top of Ince's article). An uncharacteristically even-tempered but nevertheless comprehensive rebuttal, to which all so-called "persecuted Christians" in the UK should pay heed.

“The Experience of God” Review – Introduction
James Croft tackles David Bentley Hart's latest tome.

More than just an illusion
This article from Christianity Today Australia demonstrates how religious belief can really mess with your mind. It's asking (and incidentally answering) the question: are stage magicians "of the devil"?

BBC News - Bletchley Park's bitter dispute over its future
Via James Thomas, who asks, "What the hell is this?" Indeed, the last thing Churchill's "golden geese who never squawked" need is to be Disneyfied.

Every Day Things Zoomed in at a Microscopic Level Look Trippy
Fascinating. The weirdest is surely the blood clot.

How “God’s Not Dead” Makes Christians Look Even Worse Than It Makes Atheists Look
Not so much one to miss then, but to actively avoid.

Creationism Is Not Being Ignored On 'Cosmos' -- It's Actually The Focus | ThinkProgress
Although creationism isn't science, it is a belief shared by a significant proportion of Americans. Cosmos is therefore making a point of showing how creationism is utterly wrong.

Cruel and Unusual » A Million Gods
Encapsulating the reasons against capital punishment.

The Creeping Danger of Conspiracy Theorists | Vanity Fair
This would be hilarious if it weren't so depressing.

Why Was Edwina Rogers Fired from the Secular Coalition for America?
It was a controversial appointment but they thought they could handle the fallout. Maybe it turned out they couldn't.

Man Trapped Overnight at Vegas Airport Shoots Ridiculous Music Video

Evolution is a lie says the school. Good curriculum, says England’s School Inspectorate | Eat Your Brains Out; Exploring Science, Exposing Creationism
Outright nonsense being taught in British schools. Until recently I thought this kind faux education was limited to American home-schooling.

Tuesday 10 June 2014

Heavenly confirmation bias

Here's a video[1] of an Intelligence Squared[2] debate, on the motion that "Death is Not Final". The Three Pauls talked briefly about this on Skepticule episode 73[3], but I'm using this blogpost to set down a slightly more detailed account of my reactions to how the debate proceeded.

Eben Alexander[4] is a neurosurgeon who claims to have seen Heaven during a near-death experience (NDE) while under the knife on the operating table. He wrote a book about it, Proof of Heaven[5], using his credentials as a man of medical science to persuade the general public to take him on his word that he knows there is an afterlife because he was given a tour of the place. The book is a bestseller.

Supporting Alexander was Raymond Moody[6], who apparently coined the phrase "near-death experience"[7], but apart from that I don't think he contributed much of substance to the discussion. Indeed he seemed to be on another (astral?) plane altogether.

Opposing Alexander and Moody were Sean Carroll[8] and Steven Novella[9], who argued that, yes, death is final. Sean Carroll is a cosmologist and a good debater — as we saw recently[10] when he took on Christian apologist William Lane Craig[11], refuting Craig's arguments with ease and not a little aplomb. Steven Novella is a neurologist and another accomplished debater, so he was a particularly good choice to be put up against the afterlife proponents. I should point out here that though Alexander has made much of his credentials as a neurosurgeon, as far as I'm aware this is not the same as a neurologist (which is what Novella is). The difference between neurology and neurosurgery can probably be likened to that between fluid dynamics and plumbing, or between botany and gardening.

As is usual with Intelligence Squared, the debate format was semi-formal with a moderator, and an audience-vote before the debate and another afterwards. All four participants made opening statements, then there were rebuttals and questions. Alexander read his opening statement somewhat stiffly, whereas Carroll and Novella spoke extempore directly to the audience without notes. Moody, it seemed to me, just waffled.

Alexander and Moody took the position that consciousness is complicated and not understood, and therefore it might have a component that is separate from the brain. Moody was unhelpfully speculative on this point, while Alexander claimed to have proved it. Carroll and Novella on the other hand maintained that there is no evidence for consciousness existing apart from the brain, and that consciousness — and anything we describe as "mind" — is inextricably linked to the brain. Novella's phrase for this was: "The mind is what the brain does." Though consciousness is at present unexplained, much research is now under way, and the current lack of a full explanation is no justification for unevidenced claims for conciousness being mind-independent.

Alexander claimed that his tour through the afterlife took place when his brain was incapable of registering anything, but as Novella pointed out, he cannot know this. We don't know what time it is when we dream. As I see it, there's an even deeper flaw with Alexander's claim, which to me is so obvious I wonder how NDE's can ever be taken as evidence for anything other than being "near death". If Alexander's brain was all but completely non-functioning, how can he trust anything he perceived during that period?

By way of analogy, imagine this scenario. At a notoriously dangerous intersection a horrific traffic accident takes place, involving several vehicles, and everyone involved is killed. When the authorities arrive on the scene they find that one of the cars is relatively new, and so they decide to interrogate the engine management system (EMS) using standard computerised diagnostic tools. Though the car is a write-off, the electronics appear to be still partly functioning. The EMS is able to respond to the diagnostic tools, reporting that the vehicle is now — at the very moment the tools are probing — travelling at 90 miles per hour without consuming a drop of fuel. What does this indicate? Does it indicate that despite appearances (a crushed car incapable of motion) the vehicle is in fact moving very fast with impossibly low fuel consumption? Of course not — it indicates that the EMS is damaged, and its reports cannot be trusted.

This debate was a splendid example of confirmation bias. The idea of life after death is so attractive, some people will ignore the counter-evidence no matter how obvious it appears. Even after Novella had clearly stated that there were no reliably documented cases of NDEs and out-of-body experiences that produced information that could not have been obtained any other way, Alexander went on to state that there were too many cases that couldn't be explained — though he provided no citations for these.

Alexander further illustrated his confirmation bias (I'll assume that's what it was, rather than impute nefarious motives) when he stated that Carl Sagan[12] wrote in The Demon-Haunted World[13] that he was open to the possibility of consciousness independent of the brain — he even quoted the page number. Alexander was either naïve or mistaken, because while Novella could only splutter in astonishment that Sagan would never have said anything of the sort, several of those watching the debate's live stream simply looked up the page, photographed it, and posted the image on Twitter with the relevant hashtag during the debate — thus giving the lie to Alexander's rash claim.

At one point Alexander challenged the other side to provide a one-sentence explanation of consciousness, knowing of course that there currently isn't one. Novella stated again that there was ongoing research, but as Jonathan MS Pearce[14] has pointed out[15], he missed the chance to demand a one-sentence explanation of God. Despite this, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the after-debate vote confirmed that the motion "Death is Not Final" had been comfortably defeated.

Is Alexander's insistence that he has "proof of Heaven" based on anything more than confirmation bias? His stance seems so obviously flawed that I'm left wondering if there aren't some effects of brain-damage hanging around after his near-death experience. That's the kinder interpretation. Another interpretation, less kind, might be that a neurosurgeon's salary could be considered a pittance in comparison to royalties from a bestselling book.


1. YouTube: Death is Not Final
2. Intelligence2
3. Skepticule 073 —
4. Eben Alexander —
5. Proof of Heaven
6. Raymond Moody —
7. Near-Death Experience —
8. Sean Carroll —
9. Steven Novella —
10. YouTube: God & Cosmology
11. William Lane Craig —
12. Carl Sagan —
13. The Demon-Haunted World
14. Jonathan M. S. Pearce —
15. "Carroll & Novella vs Alexander & Moody. Some terrible, terrible arguments" —