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Robert Todd Carroll


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logo.gif (2126 bytes) the Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 60

October 23, 2005

The desire to understand the world and the desire to reform it are the two great engines of progress. -- Bertrand Russell

In this issue:

What's New in The Skeptic's Dictionary & Skeptic's Refuge

I reviewed Mary Roach's Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, a book about scientists hoping to prove we don't just turn to mush when we die. Most of these scientists seem to hope that our spirits live on to float around near the surface of the earth as fragments of trivial information.

Reading Roach's chapter on ectoplasm inspired me to revise my article on that subject.

The entry on anecdotal evidence was also revised, something I've been meaning to do for quite some time, but that's another story.

"What if Dean Radin is Right?" is the title of an essay that takes a critical look at what the world will be like if Radin and other parapsychologists are right about the existence and eventual harnessing of psychic abilities such as telepathy and psychokinesis.

End of the World?

The death toll is now estimated at about 80,000 from the 7.6-magnitude earthquake that devastated parts of Pakistan and India on October 8. Some 300,000 people are said to have been made homeless. In September, hurricane Stan brought heavy rainfall that displaced thousands of people in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and southeastern Mexico. Then hurricane Wilma hit the Yucatan coastline and pounded Mexico on its way to Florida. Now Alpha, the 22nd named storm of the 2005 season, threatens Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated parts of the Gulf coast and left perhaps a million homeless. Last year's earthquake and tsunami near Indonesia left over 200,000 dead and millions homeless. What's going on?

The Pat Robertsons of the world are trying to fit these natural disasters into their worldview, which says that everything is part of God's plan. These disasters point to the end of the world and the second coming. These self-anointed prophets are deluded about everything else so why should we trust them about their grasp of reality when it come to what's going on with our planet?

Others blame capitalism.* If communism were still much of a force, I'm sure some would blame it.

Still others think that governments are controlling the weather. They can't keep secrets, control their own tongues, or predict yesterday's football scores, but they can control the weather. Right.

The smart money says that nothing special is going on. You are on the planet Earth. It's cooling down from its formation several billion years ago. Earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, volcanoes, mudslides, hurricanes, tornadoes, lightning fires, and the like are common fare on this planet. If these things weren't happening, it's likely the planet would not be habitable. When none of these things occurs any more, the planet will be dead. It will become a nice place to visit, though, like Mars.

Scam of the Day

The Lutec 1000 Free Energy Machine, batteries not included, is our pick this month. Unfortunately, John and Lou haven't quite got a working model yet, so you can't order one and they still aren't sure what it's going to cost. But they did find a Dutchman to verify that the thing will work.

Quack of the Hour

The quack of the hour award goes to "trance channeler" Verna V. Aridon Yater, Ph.D. She is the founder of the Blue Mountain Center, nestled in the Rocky Mountains and guarded by extraterrestrials and Takawa, a spirit guide. Dr. Yater will soon be on tour in Australia, where she promises to channel Dr. Fritz and a team of 27 spirit doctors. Get your tickets now because this one promises to be a sellout.

Quackery of the Minute

The award goes to Keylontic Science. It's science all right, at least by Michael Behe's definition of science. This one's got advanced races no real scientist has ever heard of, esoteric texts with messages like "love is good" and "everything is creative." You'd think people would get tired of creating the same thing over and over again.

Should Fundamentalists be Tolerated?

If we apply the fundamentalists' own standards, they should be stopped at every opportunity from advancing their anti-science, anti-progress agenda. We won't apply those standards, of course, so the question is what should we be doing if we care about rationality, progress, scientific understanding, technological advances, and extending the opportunity of a happy and peaceful life to more people?

I don't know that New Scientist (NS) has an answer to that question but in a special report on fundamentalism in the October 8-14, 2005, issue it asks "Does religious fundamentalism really pose a threat to the scientific world view?" You can guess at their answer by the title of the article in which that question appears: "End of Enlightenment."

What is a fundamentalist? Christian fundamentalists prefer the label "evangelical," according to NS. I don't know what Islamic fundamentalists prefer to be called, but both share  a belief in an inerrant revelation that represents the infallible truth. Both believe in the direct creation of everything by God. And both believe that God expects them to live according to the rules set down in the inerrant text. Fundamentalists see the world as a cosmic struggle of good against evil (p. 14). Anyone who does not accept their beliefs is an enemy of God.  Finally, fundamentalists believe they are to be missionaries for God and that can mean anything from proselytizing to strapping a bomb to one's midriff for later detonation at a pre-school.

"Meeting of Minds" by Michael Brooks, another article in the NS special report, notes that scientific studies have found that "there is no real difference between fundamentalists and everybody else" when it comes to personality traits, modes of thinking, or psychological flaws. Contrary to appearances, "fundamentalists do not have an abnormally high regard for, or willingness to acquiesce to, authority figures." They don't tend to be prejudiced or racist. However, "homophobic is a different matter."

Some grumpy skeptics may be displeased to find out that fundamentalists "seem to be well-balanced people. They score highly on subjective measures of marital happiness, optimism and self-control, and have a low incidence of depression and anxiety." In short, the bastards (at least the Christian ones) seem to be "happy, sincere and healthy." On the bright side, Brooks thinks that fundamentalist Christianity is "widely considered as irrelevant to modern theology as it is to modern science." The latter jab is at the attempt to "science-up" religion by such bogus projects as intelligent design. But as Mike Holderness says in his article, "Enemy at the gates," the idea isn't to do science but to overthrow scientific materialism and its cultural legacies.

Starting with "the wedge strategy," the folks at the Discovery Institute, set out to systematically make war on science. A wedge when applied at a tree trunk's weakest point can cause it to split up. The weak points the fundamentalists have focused on are well known: evolution; abortion; euthanasia, homosexuality, and now stem cell research. One reason the religious right and the political right make such cozy bedfellows is that the political right can build from the successes of the religious right. One of the fruits of a faith-based approach to science will be a dismissal of what [Discovery Institute Senior Fellow George] Gilder calls the "chimeras of popular 'science'": ideas such as global warming, pollution problems and ozone depletion" (p. 48). Gilder—a promoter of supply-side economics during the Reagan era—sees faith as essential to human achievement. He seems to measure human achievement in terms of destroying modern science, expanding new markets, and promoting global capitalism. Improving the quality of life for the masses of people does not seem to be one of Gilder's concerns or measures of human achievement.

According to Scott Appleby, the force that drives fundamentalism is modernity, best exemplified by science. Science emphasizes empirical evidence rather than revelation, progress and change rather than stable anchoring in eternal truths, argument and evidence rather than traditional authority, and science has bumped off many religious myths by its discoveries. For many people, the uncertainty, complexity, and confusion ("dread and anxiety") produced by science is just too much for them and they retreat to an infallible sacred text, a belief in the superiority of their own religious views and in the inadequacy of reason. They resign themselves to the will of God. This view may seem to contradict the view offered by Brooks, who restricted his observations to Christian fundamentalists in the U.S. Appleby's assessment is based on a massive five-volume study of worldwide fundamentalism. However, fundamentalism eases the anxiety for its adherents, so the two views aren't really incompatible.

NS points out that "not everyone who holds fundamentalist religious views can necessarily be characterised as anti-science or anti-progress." Indeed, polls indicate that there are many non-fundamentalists who agree with their views on evolution, global warming, abortion, drilling for oil in Alaska, homosexuality, and stem cell research. The wedge strategy is working. The campaign against science, led by theologians like William Dembski, is working. Will there be a new world order of faith-based politics united with faith-based science? Maybe it is Armageddon time. The forces of good (science, progress, care for the planet and its occupants) against evil (fanatical fundamentalist religions, nostalgia for a pre-scientific Eden, expansion of globalization without regard for reality-based science or expansion of suicide bombings without regard for reality). I don't think that's what the folks waiting for the rapture have in mind. In any case, this is war and war is no laughing matter. The stakes are as high as they get: the future of the planet and the people who live on it.

You know which side I'm on. If you want to get off the sidelines, you might consider joining the Campaign to Defend the Constitution whose motto is "Because the Religious Right is Wrong." This looks like a good group even though it may have made a mistake in choosing DEFCON as its acronym. (DEFCON is also the name of a group of hackers.) According to their website, The Campaign to Defend the Constitution "is an online grassroots movement combating the growing power of the religious right. We will fight for the separation of church and state, individual freedom, scientific progress, pluralism, and tolerance while respecting people of faith and their beliefs." Amen. It's time to quit turning the other cheek and fight back. It's also time for those with a naturalistic worldview (whatever we choose to call ourselves) to recognize that there are many religious people, including some who are fundamentalists, who are not right wingnuts and who are just as concerned as we are about the encroachment of religion in the science classroom.

Amazing Meeting 4 (January 26-29, 2006)

The James Randi Educational Foundation's Amazing Meeting 4 is drawing closer. So far nearly 300 have signed up and registration is way ahead of last year, when nearly 400 attended this annual skeptic's gathering in Las Vegas. I'm looking forward to hearing Daniel Dennett speak on "religion as a natural phenomenon" and why we should approach religion with all the tools of science.

In the 21st century, every global problem we confront, from political oppression and economic disparity and injustice to food and water and the environment, will be complicated by the religious allegiances of those we are trying to help. Unless we come to understand religion a lot better than we currently do, we will probably bungle our opportunities. Treating religion as a phenomenon for scientific investigation requires abandoning aspects of our traditional deference to religion, a change that many will view with alarm, but this should not dissuade us. Until we understand the power that religion has to shape human behavior, we will continue to underestimate it, at our peril.

I'm looking forward to seeing the Mythbusters, Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage. Also appearing will be the first woman and the youngest person ever to lead the American Civil Liberties Union, Nadine Strossen. Physicist Murray Gell-Mann will deliver the keynote address. Many regulars will be there: Randi, Michael Shermer, Phil Plait, Jerry Andrus, Julia Sweeney, Jami Ian Swiss, and Penn & Teller. Richard Wiseman and Christopher Hitchins return. Ellen Johnson, the President of American Atheists, and space scientist Dr. Carolyn Porco will be there as well. And many more. The theme this year is "Science in Politics and the Politics of Science." You could hardly get more current and relevant than that. See you there!


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