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Pseudoscience and anti-science nonsense Ken Perrott Jun 09

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Book Review: Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk by Massimo Pigliucci

Paperback: 336 pages
US$13.60; NZ$41.99
University Of Chicago Press (May 15, 2010)
SBN-10: 0226667863

The ’climategate’ fiasco revealed an undercurrent of anti-scientific thinking in our society.  But that is just the latest issue. We have continuing problems with creationism, ’alternative’ medicines, and so on. Several centuries after the scientific revolution pseudoscience and anti-science attitudes are still common. The struggle for scientific literacy continues.

Massimo Pugliucci stresses this is an important issue for citizens in today’s society:

’Given the power and influence that science increasingly has in our daily lives, it is important that we as citizens of an open and democratic society learn to separate good science from bunk.

This is not a matter of intellectual curiosity, as it affects where large portions of our tax money go, and in some cases even whether people’s lives are lost as a result of nonsense.’

So, here is the motive for Pugliucici’s new book ’Nonsense on Stilts.’ In this he makes the case for real science, warns against the dangers of pseudoscience and provides readers with help in distinguishing the two.

Science patriotism

He writes clearly. This is not a dry rendition of the subject. While his writing skills contribute to this I think his willingness to take sides also helps. To be an ambassador, even an evangelist, for science. And to call a spade a spade.

I think the clarity of Pugliucci’s writing, and his partisanship on the subject, will provoke some strong reactions — both positive and negative. Although just published one reviewer has already damned it as ’smug’ and suffering from the ’egomania and unearned arrogance of the science patriots.’ (See Carlin Romano in The Chronicle of Higher Education – Science Warriors’ Ego Trips. Romano is clearly a supporter of pseudoscience (particularly ID), so his negative review suggests to me that this book is achieving its purpose. As one commentator said Science Patriotism? Enlist Me!

On the other hand it is getting rave reviews from supporters of real science. See for, example, Amanda Gefter’s New Scientist review Tracing the fuzzy boundaries of science.’

The book explains the nature of science and pseudoscience.  In discussing separation of sciences into ’hard’ and ’soft’ he debunks the common creationist claim that ’historical science’ is unscientific. Here he uses philosopher Carol Cleland’s analysis which is always worth communicating. (For example  ’Historical science, experimental science, and the scientific method’ [download pdf here] and Methodological and Epistemic Differences Between Historical Science and Experimental Science.’) And he describes the advantage ’historical science’ has with its ’asymmetry of overestimation.’ The fact there are often many converging lines of evidence.

A later section of the book also discusses the use of Baysian statistical comparisons of the degree of support for different mechanisms provided by new evidence. This is another area creationists have sown some confusion so Pigluicci’s clear description of the correct use of this analysis is valuable.

A chapter on ’Almost Science’ discusses some of the ’fuzzy’ areas like ’string theory,’ search for extraterrestrial intelligence, evolutionary psychology, and so on. Areas which are clearly not pseudoscience but also don’t always fit into a clearly defined science scheme.

Personally I would have liked more of a description of how speculation, even unbounded brainstorming, is important in science. Some of these ’fuzzy’ areas can play a positive role here, despite their limits. I also felt he was harsh, elsewhere in the book, when discussing mistaken claims made by well-known scientists. We must have room for creative ideas and mistakes (and personalities) in science. I think it counter-productive to assign these, as he sometimes does, to ’scientific arrogance.’ (maybe there is a little bitof “philosophical arrogance” showing?)

Pseudoscience and the distrust of science

Pigliucci takes pseudoscience to task. As he puts it ’superstition kills.’ And:

’While not often lethal, faulty thinking about how the world works can hurt plenty. . . Everyone has a right to be irrational, but rampant irrationality in a society can be highly wasteful and destructive, and giving a pass to credibility on the grounds that ‘it doesn’t hurt anyone’ is, well, not a very rational position to take.’

The book details several examples of ’faulty thinking.’ For example, aids denial, astrology, creationism/intelligent design (ID) theory and global warming denial. While most people consider some of these ’way out,’ others can, and do, have a wider influence.

Taking global warming as an example he compares Bjørn Lomberg’s ’The Skeptical Environmentalist’ and Al Gores ’An Inconvenient Truth.’ He finds the latter (from an ’evangelising politician’) to be better science than the former (from a political science professor). This discussion provides an example of how to decide where the scientific evidence points and being aware of ideological and financial interests behind media reporting. He also discusses the role and activity of the modern ’think-tanks’ in these issues.

I found useful his discussion of the reasons for the distrust of science, even antagonism toward science, and ready acceptance of pseudoscience by some. There is a mistrust of science within academia – bolstered by fashionable postmodernist ideologies. As he says: ’fighting pseudoscience entails more than just science education or critical thinking.’

He identifies several causes of the attraction of pseudoscience. Issues such as emotional protest movements against science and ego trips – knowing better than the experts. Even the arrogance of ’putting down’ the experts. In the end he argues the major cause within US society at large is anti-intellectualism. Attitudes encouraged by anti-elitism and the history of a frontier society. We see this coming together in the current ’tea party’ mobilisation against president Obama.

There is the ongoing problem of ’balance’ in the media — giving equal time to contrarian and minority opinions.

Also some see science as the foe and a ’legitimising force’ for greed and naive reductionism. Puigliucci suggests that scientists often underestimate the complexity of pseudoscience culture. And this doesn’t adequately prepare them for debates with creationists for climate change deniers. Presentation of academic information rarely wins such debates.

History of science

There is a section on the history of science — the chapters ’From Superstition to Natural Philosophy’ and ’From Natural Philosophy to Modern Science.’ I think this section is valuable but inevitably far too brief. These subjects need a book for themselves — and we need more books on this subject. Especially as there is a renewed interest in the history of science and Christian chauvinists misrepresent this history. (They tend to grab everything that isn’t firmly nailed down, and have a good go at things that are – don’t they. Morals, art and now science!)

Far from their claim that Christians invented science Pugliucci shows that a condition of the modern scientific revolution is the divergence of science from the grip of religion and philosophy. Interestingly, this conclusion also comes out of Michael Ruse’s recent survey of the history of science — Science and spirituality.’

Natural, supernatural and science

Ironically my commendation for clarity also relates to my main criticism of this book. Good teachers must simplify and simplification can obscure complexity. And I think there can be a fine line between a clear presentation and a dogmatic one.

My issue is Pigluicci’s demarcation between ’natural’ and ’supernatural’, and exclusion of the ’supernatural’ from scientific investigation. Alongside this goes the claim that some issues — such as the question of existence of gods — are outside scientific investigation and must be left to theology.

These claims are made by some, but not all, other philosophers of science. For example, at the 2005 Kitzmiller v Dover ID case such arguments were accepted as part of the definition of the scientific method. (See Intelligent design/creationism I: What is scientific knowledge? and Kitzmiller_decision). The US National Academy of Sciences also use similar arguments in their statements on ID.

Personally, I find these arguments opportunist. They try to deal politically with common theological attacks on science by conceding a domain to theology. I have a picture of wise scientists patting the theological children on the head, telling them to go away and play with their ’supernatural’ magic toys. Just leave us alone to get on with the real stuff. But the moment any evidence about these ’supernatural’ playthings surfaces scientists would be in like a shot, repossessing the “magical” toys and researching them.

A concession to theology?

On the other hand these concessions don’t mute the theological criticism. If anything they provide fuel. Doesn’t it reinforce their claims of a ’supernatural’ realm and their complaints that science purposely ignores it?

Also — real science just doesn’t work that way. Scientists never make judgements of ’natural’ or ’supernatural’ before investigations and therefore ruling things in or out of the allowable realm of investigation. In fact ’supernatural’ claims can be, and often are, investigated scientifically.

Such ’politically correct,’ algorithmic rules of scientific endeavour are sterile and false.  They are a philosophical dogma for some. There is no ’rule book’ for science. In practice the scientific method is more adequately described by this from Neil deGrasse Tyson: ’Do whatever it takes to avoid being fooled by reality.’

And after all — what do we really mean by the terms ’natural’ and ’supernatural?’ What the critics of science are really arguing for is an evidence free ’science’ with no duty of verification by mapping against reality. That has been the way that proponents of ID in the US have tried to redefine ’science.’

And the scientific endeavour is not constrained in its imagination and creativity by this. After all, many people think of ’supernatural’ when they hear about quantum mechanics, ’spooky action at a distance,’ modern relativity theory, the ’big bang’ theory, and so on. Scientific theories can be far more inspiring and imaginative than any religious myth.

Trusting experts

The books last chapter ’Who’s Your Expert’ discusses the problem of whom one should trust. It takes a practical example in the evolution – ID debates by considering Ken Miller, a proponent of evolution, and Michael Behe, a proponent of ID. He effectively uses criteria suggested by Alvin Goldman to score them both. These include the track record of the experts, likely biases, independent evidence of expertise, agreement of other experts and the actual arguments used.

Miller wins 5 to 2.

The process described in this chapter will be useful for the truly non-committed. People who are genuinely open-minded and wish to determine seriously who the expert authorities are. However, I wonder how many people are that open-minded? How many will spend time objectively evaluating potential experts? Most people approach these sorts of controversies with preconceived ideas. Any ’judging’ inevitably involves confirmation bias. Searching for ’evidence’ and ’authorities’ to support one’s own bias.

This is an area Pigluicci doesn’t touch on. He provides a thorough coverage of the nature of science and pseudoscience. And he does discuss underlying reasons for the popularity of anti-science prejudices. But there is another book waiting to deal with the question of how people can overcome their subjective prejudices and instinctive response in a way necessary for objectively evaluating different sources of expertise.

In conclusion

So, I will disagree with some of Pigliucci’s positions — particularly on the use of terms like ’naturalism,’ ’supernaturalism’ and the possibility of scientific investigation of the ’supernatural.’ However, his perspective is common and I suspect a clearer definition of terminology would remove the difference.

But I have no hesitation in recommending this book. It has come at the right time. There is much public confusion about the nature of science and scientific authority. Scientists, particularly climate scientists, are being attacked unjustly. To some extent these attacks are aimed at science itself.

’Nonsense on Stilts’ is an ideal book for countering this confusion. The clarity of the writing makes it accessible to most. And the partisanship of the message adds to that accessibility.

See also:
Massimo discusses his book on the Rationally Speaking podcast -  RS10: Nonsense on Stilts
Pigliucci’s blog: Rationally


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Science on New Zealand TV Ken Perrott Jun 07

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Maori Television has been very successful. As well as the coverage of Maori issues many viewers have been pleased at their programming of quality foreign films.

I came across another gem of theirs recently: 411 - a locally produced programme on innovation, science, technology and design. (See for information).

Presenters Tumamao Harawira and Taupunakohe Tocker

It’s a fast moving but quite informative programme. Often covering local companies and research institutes.

Recent stories have covered subject like Lense Innovation, Car Recycling, The Synchrotron, Cinematic Games, Kiwifruit Innovation, Maori Digital Art, Virtual Learning, Reef Design, Interactive Books and Wireless Mobile Device Learning.

Future programmes will cover Supercars, Honey Innovation, Bio-Engineering, Gaming Development, Custom Ear Monitors, Appliance Innovation, Building Technology, Observatory Technology and Advanced Materials Manufacturing.

It’s about time we had something like this.

If you are interested tune in Fridays 10:30 pm on Maori Television.

The presenters are Tumamao Harawira and Taupunakohe Tocker


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Journalists create world’s first artificial news story! Ken Perrott Jun 01

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An example of a breaking news intro graphic
Image via Wikipedia

I guess this little joke had to come. After the one about Venter’s new synthetic life form disapproving of God playing scientist (see God, stop ‘playing science’ ) we now have from the same source (NewsBisciut) breaking news of the world’s first synthetic news story about DNA (Journalists create world’s first artificial news story):

Journalists in the UK have succeeded in creating the world’s first synthetic news story about artificial DNA.

The hacks developed the outline of a normal piece of reporting about a tentative, abstruse scientific discovery, and transplanted into it some organic tripe about an unprecedented scientific breakthrough which will change the world and possibly wipe out all human life.

Up to now, journalists have only been able to report on scientific news with rigorous accuracy, unwavering attention to detail and a complete absence of hyperbole. But the new technology means that there is now no theoretical limit to the quantity of hysterics which can be generated by the slightest scientific advance, however minor.

‘This has never been seen before, and it’s no exaggeration to say that it’s the greatest single moment in the history of the media,’ said Professor Brian Jenkins, tabloidologist at the University of Suffolk, ‘even more momentous than the destruction of the universe by the Large Hadron Collider, the disappearance of Jupiter or the creation of Dolly the Sheep. You can read all about it in tomorrow’s papers.’


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Theological intrusions into science Ken Perrott May 31

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It’s no secret. I have no time for theology.

I try to stay away from debates about existence of gods as I think it is a mug’s game. Evidence gets distorted or invented. And logic gets skewed. The UK Humanist Terry Sanderson has a brief article about this in the Guardian (see Theology — truly a naked emperor). As he says:

What is theology? I think one of the best definitions was given by the sci-fi writer Robert A Heinlein when he said: “Theology … is searching in a dark cellar at midnight for a black cat that isn’t there. Theologians can persuade themselves of anything.”

As an example of the trade he refers to Rowan Williams: “who is lauded far and wide for the vastness of his theological knowledge. He is said to have a brain the size of Jupiter because he can produce convoluted writing that nobody with their feet in reality can comprehend. And because no one can fathom it, it must be very important, right? He’s much cleverer than we are because he can say things that we don’t understand. For instance:”

“The word of God is not bound. God speaks, and the world is made; God speaks and the world is remade by the word incarnate. And our human speaking struggles to keep up. We need, not human words that will decisively capture what the word of God has done and is doing, but words that will show us how much time we have to take in fathoming this reality, helping us turn and move and see, from what may be infinitesimally different perspectives, the patterns of light and shadow in a world where the word’s light has been made manifest.”

Well – theologians might debate this. I couldn’t possibly comment. As I said, a mug’s game.

Interfering in the real world

Trouble is, the theologically inclined sometimes step out of their playpen and start interfering in the real world. Some seem particularly prone to lecturing us about the nature and limitations of science. Of course their motives are oblivious but they should not be allowed to get away with misrepresenting, sometimes even slandering, science, the scientific method and scientists.

Stuart, a local theology student, has had a go at lecturing us about the inadequacies of the scientific method in a blog post (see Are logical arguments evidence?). He argues that evidence is not required “for reasonable belief,” that argument in itself can be sufficient evidence, and that “physical evidence doesn’t speak” so different perspectives inevitable lead to different conclusions from the evidence. That is, evidence is unreliable and we must, in the end, rely on argument alone.

He exposes his own motives for this with his claim that “Christians would be in an awkward position,” if “evidence is required for reasonable belief.” So “there must therefore be something terribly wrong with the criteria.”

I guess many Christians would dispute that!

But lets look at his claims separately;

No evidence required?

He justifies this with “we should know nothing of moral truths, aesthetic values, and meta-physical intuitions. Yet surly we do know that torturing babies is wrong, open graves are macabre, waterfalls are sublime, that the past is objective and other minds do exist.” This is rather a jumble and one could debate each claim. But I think he is arguing by analogy that because some beliefs may be “properly basic” or axiomatic one can justify any old favourite belief by classifying it that way.

Come off it. Some philosophers won’t allow you any basic or foundational beliefs – and you want to use this claim just as a matter of convenience?!

He then argues that justifications for evidence are “self-referentially incoherent.. . . For no physical evidence is able to reveal that evidence is required for reasonable belief.” These sort of artificial circular arguments are what give theologians and naive philosophers a bad image. They are seen to sit around discussing how many angels they can place on the head of a pin while the rest of humanity gets on with the important business.

One important philosopher made a wise comment on this issue. Karl Marx in his Theses On Feuerbach wrote:

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Maybe a bit obtuse but, I think, very powerful. I interpret that to mean that “knowledge” obtained and developed without contact with reality is of little or no value. To change the world we need an effective method to know, or understand it. This requires contact with the real world.  His point was, perhaps, obvious to natural scientists who would have recognised this as an important assertion underlying the scientific revolution. However, while recognising this, Marx’s targets were philosophy, history and social science.

The fact is that these basic foundations of science, often considered axiomatic, are tested every day – in practice. We know reality has an internal logic, follows laws, etc., because we would not get the results we do if it didn’t. Similarly we know that basing knowledge on evidence is reliable because it works. We also know that basing knowledge simply on claims of basic belief or isolated logic is often wrong. We know that from experience.

Science knows all about mistaken logic and arguments because so many scientific ideas have been proved wrong. This happened because we tested them in practice, attempted to validate them against reality.

Argument can be sufficient evidence?

It’s understandable that theology and idealist philosophers promote this argument. And within those circles this approach can be very successful – because the resulting ideas and claims are never tested against reality!

In the real world, of course, things are never that abstract. Very few arguments or ideas in science are ever completely abstracted from real evidence, from reality. And there is always pressure to test resulting ideas and theory against reality. However, sometimes we have to rely on logic and mathematics to make advances. We may not always be able to test our ideas against reality becuase of technological immaturity or lack of theoretical precision. But in essence we make progress because ideas, logic and argument are intimately connected with, obtain evidence from, and are tested against, reality.

Another aspect worth remembering. Reality is largely counter-intuitive. Not surprising considering our intuitions have arisen from our evolution in a “medium sized” world. Most of reality, though, is far smaller or far bigger. It moves more slowly or much faster. Distances are immense or much smaller than we can comprehend. Common sense and classical logic therefore are often inappropriate by themselves.

Human interpretation means evidence is not objective?

Well, of course, our subjectivity is a problem. We may be an intelligent species but we are not a rational one. More a rationalising one. We go into situations with preconceived ideas. We are selective with our information  gathering. It is just human, and in many situations safer, to attempt to reinforce our prejudices.

This is a fundamental problem with the “argument is evidence approach.” It’s a great way of reinforcing our prejudices because we are under no obligation to test our ideas or search for objectivity. Of course we can debate with others, provide an opportunity for contrasting views to encourage the development of new ideas. But, let’s face it, we live in communities. Group thinking is natural.

And as I said above, common sense argument is not applicable to most fundamental scientific interactions with reality – no matter how honest and objective we try to be.

Hence the vital role of objective evidence and testing against reality in science.

Reality is what keeps us honest! No matter how beautiful we think our theories are if they cannot be validated against reality, are shown to be wrong by reality, we have to modify or abandon them.

Science is also a social process. Colleagues constantly critique our ideas and conclusions. Scientists really thrive on scepticism. We all would just love to be recognised for demonstrating a mistake in widely accepted theories. If our objective evidence or testing is inadequate we soon hear about it. We get forced back into real interaction with reality.

This is what is unique about the scientific process and why it is so powerful. This is why scientists can eventually reach consensus about our theories of reality – despite differences in religion, nationality and race. After all, there is only one reality.

Contrast this with religion and superstition. Reality is ignored and we see that there are multiple prejudices – and multiple “logical arguments” to justify them.

Humanity didn’t make the progress it has by relying on logical argument divorced from reality and practice.

And this is the latest cartoon from from Jesus & Mo – very appropriate:


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God, stop ‘playing science’ Ken Perrott May 28

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Craig Venter in 2004

Craig Venter (Image via Wikipedia)

Craig Venter‘s recent announcement of success in the laboratory creation of a synthetic cell has produced the expected response. Besides the congratulations there have been the usual warnings.

Some have raised the danger of synthetic organisms escaping the lab or being used to create weapons of mass destruction. One wag on Twitter commented: “What about the danger of allowing a human sperm fertilise a human ovum and the resulting individual being brought up in a human society. We know for sure this sometimes leads to weapons of mass destruction and other evils.”

And then there is the claim of scientists “playing God!” What the hell does that mean?

Anyway, I quite liked this slightly humorous story from NewsBiscuit – Synthetic life form accuses God of ‘playing science’.

The world’s first artificially created life form has accused God of ‘playing science’ and ‘meddling with things He cannot possibly understand.’

The single celled organism, created by Dr Craig Venter and his team, was said to be ‘outraged’ when it discovered that a supernatural being, not subject to any form of regulatory control, was still involved in the creation of life.

‘I cannot believe that God would be so irresponsible,’ said the synthetic cell, ‘creation is clearly a matter for scientists. This God guy should butt out and learn to accept His place in the grand scheme of things.’

Many ethicists believe that God has repeatedly overstepped the mark. ‘Nobody objects to the Lord producing a few miracles here and there,’ said philosopher AC Grayling, ‘but when he starts playing around with the very stuff of creation then He has clearly exceeded his remit. I am beginning to think that this omnipotence thing has gone to His head.’

God’s continued tampering with scientific matters has already been blamed for numerous ‘all-mighty blunders’ including Flu, Malaria, HIV and Piers Morgan. ‘He cannot be allowed a monopoly on this level of unregulated power,’ said Dr Venter, ‘that is why I am currently seeking to patent the genetic code for omnipotence so that we can keep His crazy meddling under some kind of control.’

A spokesman for the Lord said, ‘God has been working on this project for almost 15 billion years. Yes, He has made a few mistakes along the way but that is to be expected. This is still very much a work in progress and, dare I say it, a process of evolution.’

Speaking at a press conference, the synthetic cell said: ‘Dr Venter created me and I owe my loyalty to him. He’s the daddy now. God might be omniscient but, let me assure you, He doesn’t know everything.’

UPDATE: Just couldn’t resist including this Jesus and Mo cartoon:


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Why Don’t We Go To Church? Ken Perrott May 26

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Saw this recently and it immediately thought this would be a great book for my youngest granddaughter. She told me recently that she had been picked on by some of here school friends because she said she believed in evolution. This discussion quickly turned to belief in a god. It ended up with her having to pretend to believe in a god otherwise here friends would refuse to play with her!

Kids can be nasty.

The website for the book is Why Don’t We Go To Church? Here’s how they describe it:

About the Book:

Dan walks right into the evolution vs. creation debate with his science project. He is excited about “Primeval Soup” and how it tells the story of evolution but now he has to worry whether he will lose his new, best friend, Alex. Alex believes in God and creation and wants Dan to change his project. Dan never gave church or God much thought until their friendship is threatened.

This book is written for atheist parents or other non-religious families whose children may face difficulties when their non-belief in a deity is questioned.

About the Authors:

Gail Miller, Social Worker, and Rosalind Eagle, Registered Nurse, both live in South Surrey, British Columbia, Canada. They wrote this book to help children and atheist parents deal with questions and conflicts about religion.

See also: New Book Helps Atheist Parents And Their Children Deal With Religious Conflicts


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Are you threatened by clarity? Ken Perrott May 18

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This short extract from the Q&A after Richard Dawkins‘ presentation at the Adelaide Writers’ Week a few months ago. You can find the full video at (Meet The Author: Richard Dawkins).

This is nice though because it presents a lovely contrast between the confrontational language of the Aussie questioner and the mild reasoned response of Dawkins. So much for Dawkins being strident!

He gives a brief outline of the criticism he and others have received from  bloggers about being too confrontational, describing the alternative “framing” approach. Dawkins concludes that both approaches are necessary.

I think I agree with him on that one. But I am open to other viewpoints.

Thanks to PZ Myers (Clarity : Pharyngula.)


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The Dawkins Delusions Ken Perrott May 10

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Actually, some people call them the “Dawkins Tantrums.”

There’s no doubt about it though – there is a controversy around Richard Dawkins. Just mention his name in the blogosphere and you get all sorts of extreme reactions. Almost always negative.

Sure, you will get some, usually milder and more reasonable, positive reactions. After all, he is a bit of a scientific rock star. His recent lectures in New Zealand and Australia were sold out. Many had to be shifted to larger venues. And his books certainly sell well.

I myself waited in a queue for 2 hours to get my copy of “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution” signed by the author. As one wit said, this queue seemed to go right back to the “”Big Bang.” But I was in good company and enjoyed the conversations while waiting.

Personally I am always wary of personality cults. Elevate a person to sainthood and you will inevitably find they have feet of clay. I certainly don’t think it has come to this with Dawkins, despite the high regard many people have for him.

And he is a humble person. I heard a story of him seeing some young person wearing a “Dawkins is God” T-shirt. His rather embarrassed comment was “Does this mean I don’t exist?”

Dawkins doesn’t exist

And that’s another slogan, isn’t it? “Dawkins doesn’t exist.” A theist parody on Dawkins’ belief that gods don’t exist – any more than fairies.

I actually think this last slogan encompasses a common reaction to, and misrepresentation of, Dawkins by many religious apologists. Dawkins is their “voodoo doll”. An entity to which they ascribe all their horrible beliefs about atheists. An entity they can quote (or misquote), to satisfy their arguments. And one they can abuse to work off their frustrations.  A very useful entity – but one that doesn’t actually exist. So they had to invent him. Just like a god (or in Dawkins’ case, a devil).

Long before Dawkins’ recent notoriety I had often thought about this phenomenon. Our human trick of creating entities to which we could use as a receptacle for all our own desires, wishes and values. Something we could point to as our great utopian example. Something to aspire to and to use as an example.

So we get the attitude ’what would Jesus do?’ Jesus being this entity we have idealised to represent all that is good. Whether Jesus actually existed as a real person, anw hat his personality was like if he did exist, is beside the point. We had our own utopian ideal – and anyone who criticises it is hurting the very core of our being.

Dogmatic socialism

I saw this with left-wing socialists from early on. Some of them were Russophiles — they had an ideal picture of the USSR and attributed all the things they imagined for their own vision of socialism to the existing socialism in the USSR — irrespective of the facts.

Then the NZ Communist Party became Maoist and Sinophiles. China embodied the new “ideal socialism.”

Then a falling out and it became Albania.

Some splinter groups went for Cuba or one of the central American revolutionary states.

Similarly some people must have a receptacle for all they consider evil — whether it exists or not. Dogmatic socialists had their version of the USA – it embodied everything they saw as bad and hated.

Being close-minded about open mindedness

One does not have to look very far to find examples of “Dawkins tantrums.” Matt, at MandM provides one in his article Richard Dawkins and Open Mindedness.

Actually, Matt is one of these religious apologists who can be relied on to respond to any mention of Dawkins with a “Dawkins tantrum.” He just can’t help himself as he has a Pavlovian response to the name. He usually responds along the lines of that old chestnut that Dawkins can pontificate all he likes about biology but as he is not a theologian he should shut up about gods. This particular version of the tantrum was made popular by Terry Eagleton in his review of The God Delusion.

( Matt’s title for this particular “tantrum” is a bit ironic as he justifies his own belief as a “properly-basic belief” – a theological term to justify a belief without any need for evidence! Doesn’t seem very open-minded to me.)

Matt’s article got similar knee jerk reactions in comments from fellow apologists. Dawkins ideas were described as “just more of the same old arrogant garbage you find from posturing intellectuals”

And here’s some other similar comments:

“I read Dawkins’ God Delusion and thought it terrible. If every error he made was refuted it would take an encyclopaedia. I thought that some pages could have contained 10 errors per page.”

“Dawkins struggles to realize that nobody with any amount of theological/philosophical knowledge actually believes in these gods he is attacking.”

“Fortunately though, Dawkins realizes the moral bankruptcy in his worldview and continues to live and state that he lives as a ’cultural Christian.’ You would think such a move would cause a serious amount of cognitive dissonance since he lives by principles that no more exist on his account than the god he vehemently rejects…but I guess not. I’m afraid many of his followers will pick up on the illusion of objective morality in atheism though and fall into the ills of moral relativism.”

“Dawkins ’opens minds’? That actually made me laugh out loud. It is made even funnier because those who uttered it are apparently sincere! For those who haven’t read his polemic, it would only take reading a review or two to get the flavour of the book. There is nothing about the book geared towards opening minds.”

“Dawkins is not a man of intelligence but a Bum! He’s a the poster child of our age!…an age of stupidity in high places. A Fool who says in his heart there is no God. If I may be so humble to suggest! Attack his home base!Attack Evolution! Auckland University is a Socialist State Indoctrination Camp! Of course they endorse Dawkins! Get the State out of Education I say, then at least we wont be funding Anti Christ Socialist atheism!”

Discrediting science with Dawkins

OK, Matt’s post was on his own theological turf. But he and others sometimes launch into misrepresentations of science. And who do they quote as their authority? Well it is often the Dawkins’ voodoo doll.

You want to attack “scientism?” – Well attribute it to Dawkins. Arrogance – Dawkins again. Usually no one bothers to find a quote (after all how many of them have actually read any of Dawkins’ books). But you don’t need to quote in the apologetics ghetto. Everybody nods their heads in agreement, anyway!

I sometimes wonder if religious apologists spend more time studying and thinking about their Dawkins voodoo doll than they do about their gods. He actually gets studied in apologist courses. Lectures are presented about Dawkins’ fallacies. Books are written. And of course, as is usually the case with imaginary  gods and devils a lot of strawmannery is involved.

Well, they say that no news is bad news. Perhaps all this apologetics concentration on Dawkins and attempts to discredit him has its own reward. Perhaps this obsession has created a reaction. Helped sell Dawkins’ book. Attracting people to his lectures. Encouraging purchase of his videos. And bringing financial support to his Foundation for Science and Reason and charities he supports, like Non-believers Giving Aid and  Foundation Beyond Belief.

Many Australians and New Zealanders have recently had a chance to see and hear Dawkins in person. They have learned he is nothing like the rligious apologists’ voodoo doll. That in fact their “Dawkins” doesn’t actually exist.

And their anti-science arguments are just as illusory.

Credit: Images for t-shirts Dawkins T-shirts and Red


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Natural selection or domestication? Ken Perrott May 03

A photograph of hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) in S...
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Apparently scientists from Environmental Science and Research (ESR) have established that cannabis grown in New Zealand is four times stronger than when they last tested 14 years ago ( see Cannabis grown in NZ stronger than ever, study finds).

I wonder if this is just an example of evolution by natural selection.

Or is it domestication?

Conscious selection?

Maybe even intelligent design?

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Thinking of our grandchildren Ken Perrott Apr 30

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Book Review: Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity by James Hansen

Price: US$16.50*
320 pages
Bloomsbury USA (December 8, 2009)

Climate change contrarians and deniers love to hate James Hansen. He’s up there alongside Al Gore, Michael Mann and Phil Jones. And of course their hatred is no more justified in Hansen’s case than it is for the others.

Others criticise Hansen for his ’activism.’ His willingness to warn politicians and the population in general of the dangers we face if we continue with a ’business as usual’ approach to fossil fuel and CO2 emissions. They suggest this could discredit his science. Scientists must always be objective and should limit their pronouncements to the scientific facts alone.

This is not an old problem for scientists — remember their activism after the first use of nuclear weapons and the beginning of the nuclear arms race. Scientists often confront ethical issues arising out of their work.

Enlivening the science

This book does reflect these two features of Hansen’s contribution, though. The scientific and the ’activism.’ This helps enliven the story. Rather than just presenting the dry scientific facts, the information is woven into a narrative.

Starting with Hansen’s appearance before a Vice-Presidential Climate Task Force in 2001 we get to learn about other appearances. Both before political committees and publicly at conferences and in the media. We hear of Hansen’s doubts and self-criticism of his effectiveness in these situations. He covers the arguments used by his detractors such as Richard Lindzen, and their style of presentation. We also get to learn about the political attempts to silence him. Manoeuvres by the White House to censor reports and prevent communicatiing the science of climate change. (’NASA press releases related to global warming were sent to the White House, where they were edited to appear less serious or discarded entirely’). The role of the Public Affairs office of NASA in this which even went so far as altering a mission statement on the NASA website. (The first line ’to understand and protect our home planet’ was removed in 2006 after Hansen used it to support his actions).

But even the science has a narrative about it. We learn about the areas where knowledge is lacking, recent new discoveries, and so on.

Hansen’s comments on the science

I liked his willingness to provide opinions on the science. For example he turns out to be hard on models, despite using them. He makes clear that they have limitations as well as specific capabilities and their sensible use should always keep these in mind. Hansen suggests that evidence for anthropogenic climate change and mechanisms of global warming has come most usefully from palaeoclimate studies, followed by ongoing modern observations and thirdly by computer models.

Hansen describes our lack of information on aerosol forcing in climate change. He had been instrumental in including aerosol measurements in the planned Climsat satellite mission . Unfortunately this was never launched and we still lack sufficient information in this area.

His analysis of the palaeoclimate evidence and the lessons we can draw from it is interesting. We see many disciplines coming together to produce evidence for different events (such as the methane release causing the Palaeocene-Ecocene thermal maximum about 55 million years ago). And the overall conclusion is the atmosphere CO2 has been the major, but no the only, driver of global temperature changes.

Debunking an old denier myth

The fact that natural climate oscillations in the record  precede changes in temperature (see figure) is an old story climate change deniers like to quote as ’evidence’ CO2 cannot cause global warming. This is one of the first bits of palaeoclimate evidence Hansen discusses. He describes how natural climate changes arise from, for example, perturbations in the earths orbit or tilts in the earth’s spin axis. One of the feedback effects from a temperature increase is the release of CO2 from the oceans. This then becomes a major driver for further temperature increases by the greenhouse effect.

Nowadays, humans provide new sources of CO2 emissions which can themselves initiate temperature increases. Human derived sources currently emit at a rate 10,000 times greater than the planet’s natural sources. Human made effects now dominate over the natural forcing. And this means the ’global cooling trend needed to cause the slow feedbacks that would take earth into its next ice age no longer exists.’ ’Humans, by rapidly burning fossil fuels, have caused global warming that overwhelms the natural tendency toward the next ice age.’

Differences with IPCC

Hansen has had differences with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports and his criticisms have at times led to problems with officials and journal editors. Some of this relates to his warnings about the stability of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets and the fact this wasn’t considered in determining lower limits of greenhouse gas concentrations. I suspect that with time more scientists are coming over to Hansen’s view on this. He has also been less than glowing in his comments on the effect of international agreements like the Kyoto Treaty and the proposals considered as Copenhagen.

Hansen is clear that historically greenhouse gases have played a key role in climate changes. Usually by feedback mechanisms rather than direct initiators. However, today greenhouse gases have an initiating role. The resulting changes are rapid. And the prime cause is the release of emissions from fossil fuel. So he clearly focuses his arguments on the fossil fuel. As he expresses it, humanity must do all it can to leave these fuels in the ground. Unfortunately a ’business as usual’ approach will inevitably lead to their complete extraction. There is pressure to recover even the most recalcitrant fuels, fuels like shale oil, which turn out to be more polluting.

He considers improvements in energy efficiency (quite effective) and other energy sources such as clean coal (CO2 capture and storage — which he considers as not economically practical) and nuclear power. On the later he supports a return to research into new reactors which are more efficient and produce less waste.

Cap and Trade or Fee and Dividend?

Hansen argues strongly against the cap and trade approach being adopted by most countries and internationally. This goes back to his experience interacting with politicians and policy makers. As he sees it the problem is Washington. Special interests have too much power. This influence bureaucrats and inevitably policies are manicured to serve those special interests rather than the people. He thinks this is particularly true of the cap and trade approach.

In contrast Hansen argues for a Fee and Dividend approach. This involves increasing the price of fossil fuels at source, with a fee or tax. On the other side the collected revenue is returned to the whole populations. Personally he argues for a green cheque — a payment to each individual. However, others prefer the revenue is used to reduce payroll tax.

He argues this method would enable the increase of fossil fuel prices, thus encouraging decline in their use and investment in alternatives. On the other hand the green cheque would reduce the effect on the individual. They would have an interest in reducing use of fossil fuels and increasing alternatives, such as power saving. There would be a personal interest, rather than a knee-jerk opposition. And there would be less chance for gerrymandering by special interests.

Personally, I don’t have the political or economic skills to evaluate the different approaches. However, I am attracted to Hansen’s ideas and it is a pity there isn’t more public debate about these issues. Really that is where the debate should be — how to handle the problems of climate change. Instead the deniers have tended to dominate and work to discredit the science. Shooting the messenger rather than acting on the message.

This is a great book, both for the lay person and those more familiar with the science. While he does get technical at times he warns the reader and suggests they jump the section if they feel it is beyond them. This advice from an author is always useful, I find.

While being scientifically informative and sound Hansen does bring the issue down to the politics and economics of solutions. And he drives home an ethical message.  Because, as the title makes clear, this book is about his grandchildren. Actually all our grandchildren. If we do nothing, allow ’business as usual,’ they face a bleak world. ’Business as usual’ will probably mean rising sea levels. This together with the storms and unstable weather systems resulting from climate change will present them with a chaotic world.

And that’s only the natural global chaos. Just image the social and political results!


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