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God Did It

June 17, 2016 33 comments

One of the most common tricks that religious people use to escape the fact that their beliefs have been refuted by scientific knowledge is to try to assimilate the new ideas into their own, but add the element of divine intervention.

Here’s an example: Traditionally Christians have believed that life was created by God in a few days and that nothing much has changed since then. But since the Theory of Evolution was developed and since the extraordinary amount of evidence supporting it has been discovered that original myth is no longer viable. So now a common response (apart from just denying the facts as many fundamentalists do) is to say “Sure, evolution is true. That’s how God works with life”.

Another example might be the origin of the Universe. The Bible gives an account of this in Genesis and that’s exactly what people believed until science uncovered the real facts regarding the Big Bang event about 13.7 billion years ago. So the Christians (again, those who don’t simply deny the overwhelming evidence) now say “But who started the Big Bang? Of course, it was God”.

In reality, this brand of believer (it’s not just Christians) could summarise their ideas in three simple words: “God did it”.

I recently heard an interesting analogy. When I walk into a room and turn on the light most people would accept that closing the light switch simply allows the electricity to flow to the bulb which then emits light. But using the “God did it” gambit I could say instead that the “Light Fairy” did it. Flicking the switch is simply a signal for the fairy to do her magical work and provide me with light.

What I’m saying is that God and the fairy aren’t necessary. Adding that extra element provides no extra level of knowledge we didn’t already have. It just makes things unnecessarily complex.

In addition to this it is entirely arbitrary. If we were going to add an extra layer of control to evolution (or any other phenomenon) why should it be God? Why not advanced aliens? Or psychic powers? And if it is a god, then which one? What’s so special about the Christian God? Could it be Thor or Zeus instead?

Some people say there are particular aspects of these processes which indicate a supernatural power must be involved. After all, how could a “blind” process like the naturalistic form of evolution lead to advanced life? Wouldn’t a “guided” form be more likely?

Well no. Let’s look at how evolution has worked. Over 99% of species which have existed in the past have gone extinct. Does that sound like how a god would operate? It seems very inefficient to me. But let’s just say that is a viable process for a god to use. What would have happened if we found the exact opposite: that every species was successful? That would have sounded even more like a god, wouldn’t it? And, no doubt, the religious people would be pointing out how their god was responsible.

So it doesn’t matter what the facts are, the “God did it” hypothesis can be invoked and it can never be proved wrong. It can’t be wrong, because it isn’t something that can be tested. But because of that, it can’t be right either. It’s actually worse than something that is wrong.

If we test evolution instead we can find many ways it might be wrong. If every species was successful evolution would immediately be disproved because elimination of some species while others survive is its main mechanism. If one type of life didn’t lead to another through gradual change evolution would also be disproved because small mutations being selected and eventually dominating is an evolutionary mechanism.

And what about the Big Bang? Well for it to be true there has to be some precise observations which agree with theory. The universe has to be expanding, there has to be certain abundances of elements, there has to be background radiation left over from the initial expansion, and several other more minor points. So what do we find? Well all of those requirements are satisfied, including a cosmic microwave background exactly as expected if the Big Bang is true.

But God could still be involved, right? Maybe the cosmic microwave background is just a remnant of the process he used. Sure, maybe. And if there was none then God could still be involved. And if the temperature had been 1 or 5 or 100 or 500 instead of 2.72548 then maybe that was the sign of God. Again, anything is possible because “God did it” is just not a theory.

Not only is it not a theory, but it is nothing. It’s a childish, meaningless inanity which isn’t even worthy of discussion – yes, I understand the irony in the fact that I have just used a blog post to do just that!

If anyone wants to use this in a serious discussion then we need a few details. You know, the sort of details which science gives us, like when, how, or where God did it. Then we can do some serious testing and see whether there really is any merit in the idea. Until then, these religious types should just keep the silly fairy tales where they belong and let the adults get on with the real discussions of reality.

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It’s All About Balance

November 22, 2015 Leave a comment

Most people can understand the concept of opposing ideas: of positives and negatives, of good and bad, of inputs and outputs. For example, they wouldn’t consider the idea of me giving them $100 good if they knew I was also going to take away $110.

But almost everybody fails to take this idea to its natural end point, because they don’t look at both sides when they are considering a political, social, or philosophical point. They tend to only look at the side of the issue which suits some pre-conceived, intuitive idea of what the answer should be. And this applies to the political left and right, to old and young, even to intelligent and ignorant.

Let me give you an example. I met a reasonably intelligent person at the pub last night who turned out to be a young-Earth creationist. Yes, I have managed to avoid debates with creationists for a significant time, in fact it has been 16 months (a blog post titled “Not Even Wrong” from 2014-07-19) since I mentioned it as a major theme in this blog!

But all good things must come to an end. Actually, to be honest, I love debating creationists. It’s just so entertaining to watch their convoluted maneuvers trying to defend something which is essentially indefensible!

But back to the main theme here: balance. Here’s the sort of thing I hear from the more sophisticated defenders of unreality: they point out minor problems with opposing theories (for creationists this is just about everything: big bang, evolution, etc) without looking at the vast bulk of evidence which disagrees with their perspective.

So they will quote (often out of context or incompletely) a well known scientist and claim that indicates doubt about evolution, but they will ignore the hundreds of quotes supporting evolution. If quoting someone is sufficient to support your side (a doubtful proposition anyway) then surely quotes from a hundred people against your views should also be considered. But they’re not.

Or they might find some small areas of doubt in a theory, or some aspect of a theory which was shown to be genuinely incorrect or inaccurate but later corrected, but they will ignore hundreds of times where the theory was shown to be accurate and where it predicted the real world precisely. Again, if a weakness in a theory can be assimilated into a person’s opinion on science then it’s only fair (and logical) to look at the strengths as well.

People who have irrational worldviews also seem to have a lot of problems (perhaps deliberately) with assessing probability. Here’s an example: if we find that light has been travelling from distant galaxies for billions of years which is more likely: that the galaxy has been there for billions of years producing light or that it was created in some unspecified way with the light already travelling through space?

The “travelling light” theory is possible but surely it is extremely unlikely since we have zero evidence of it ever happening. But that’s the sort of incredibly unlikely thought creationists will cling to while totally ignoring the far more likely possibility that the universe is simply billions of years old.

Finally, creationists often seem to have trouble appreciating the strength of multiple independent sources of evidence. There is overwhelming evidence from completely independent areas of knowledge: astronomy, physics, biology, geology, history, archaeology, and many others showing the universe is old. But they prefer to believe a single source of extremely doubtful accuracy instead. Where’s the balance in that?

I know that by picking on (young Earth) creationists I have attacked the easiest target because their beliefs are simply absurd and many other groups have far more sophisticated, and difficult to refute, beliefs. But the process is the same, even if slightly less obvious: it’s all about balance.

Not Even Wrong

July 19, 2014 1 comment

There’s an expression “not even wrong”, which is generally attributed to theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli, and which I have heard used to describe many ideas of doubtful validity and even some of the more speculative ideas in science such as string theory.

But I think there are degrees of “not even wrong-ness”. String theory is a genuine attempt at describing reality and there are ways to decide whether it’s right or wrong even if we can’t really perform the experiments right now. So describing string theory as not even wrong is too harsh I think, although I do agree we should be careful about attaching too much significance to it until experiments supporting it can be performed.

The same could be said concerning other speculative scientific theories, such as multiverse theories. But again, these are genuine efforts at understanding the universe and they can be proved and disproved even though we don’t really have the experiments to do that yet, so I don’t think they can be described as not even wrong either.

So at this point you might be wondering what does deserve that label? Well you probably won’t be surprised to hear that I would apply it to “theories” espoused by people who are motivated by worldviews other than rational science. And yes, I mean people like my friend Richard who is clearly motivated by supporting his own particular interpretation of the Christian religion.

Recently I have been shocked to realise that he is, by any reasonable definition, a creationist! And creationism is obviously something that really is “not even wrong”. So let’s go through a few attributes of creationism which show this…

First, what community does the “theory” (I will use that word even though creationism isn’t really a theory at all) come from? Well it’s clearly not from the science community because there are just no scientific papers which support creationism. Clearly it comes from the religious community, in fact from certain religions within that community, and even then from only certain groups within that community with particularly irrational views.

So creationism fails on that count. It isn’t a genuine attempt at establishing the truth because it only exists within a population with fixed views which are based on ideology rather than an honest attempt at understanding.

Second, is creationism a well documented theory with specific, clearly defined attributes? Absolutely not. There are old Earth creationists, young Earth creationists, those who reject evolution completely and others who think God guides it, some who think the Bible is literal truth, others who think it’s a metaphor, and still others who pick and choose based on nothing more than convenience.

So any time evidence is found against creationism the supporter just switches things around a bit and says something like “no, that’s not what creationism is, serious creationists think this…” and how can you debate that because in reality creationism says both everything and nothing

Third, creationism has its own terminology which it uses to obfuscate its obvious weaknesses. For example, micro- and macro-evolution aren’t well defined scientific terms which have any specific meaning. And referring to “kinds” instead of species leaves a gap where false beliefs can escape. Specific branches of science also have their own jargon, of course, but they are well defined scientific terms which could be explained to a non-specialist if necessary.

Fourth, creationism has a very emotional appeal. What is more likely to make its followers feel good: the idea that we are the product of a caring and all powerful creator, or the idea that we are just the product of chance and natural physical processes? For someone seeking reassurance instead of truth creationism has an obvious attraction.

Fifth, what is the source for the “knowledge” behind creationism? Religious beliefs are “revealed truths” rather than scientific ideas which are the result of careful theory and experimentation. Creationism is a theory derived from an old book with absolutely no scientific credibility. Science is derived from observation of the real world, formulation of theories, careful testing of those ideas, revision of them, and in some cases completely discarding them and starting again.

Sixth, creationism is basically a “gaps” theory. Most of the arguments for creationism are arguments (almost completely without merit) against evolution, abiogenesis, and the Big Bang. Creationists seem to think that the fact that they personally find evolution hard to accept means that God (usually their specific interpretation of the many gods out there) did it instead.

Finally, creationism has no detail. Basically it can be entirely specified in one sentence: “God did it.” But when, how, why? Are there any details at all? Apart from a few contradictory personal opinions, no. It’s almost completely without any real structure, which is how it must be of course because details make theories testable.

So without even looking at any of the specific claims of creationism it can be consigned to the pile of other useless nonsense that most modern, intelligent people have already consigned to the scrap heap of superstition.

I know that some creationists (and I have debated some fairly well known ones) know they’re wrong and are just constantly lying to maintain something which they benefit from in some ways. Others are just too ignorant to understand that creationism is nonsense. And others still are the saddest cases of all: they are lying to themselves. They have genuinely convinced themselves that creationism has some merit. How can it? It’s not even wrong!

Consider the Odds

July 2, 2014 Leave a comment

When I debate people who believe in superstitious and pseudoscientific stuff there are a few fundamental flaws in their reasoning process I see over and over again. It doesn’t matter what the origin of the particular belief is, the reasoning tends to be the same. And it’s not necessarily that the errors they make are completely outrageous and obvious, in fact they obviously aren’t or I guess they wouldn’t be making them!

So what are these errors? They tend to reduce to poor handling of probability questions. Evaluating probability is important because, as I have often said in this blog, we can never be 100% certain about anything in the real world. Since nothing is ever totally certain when evaluating truth claims (and absolute truth claims should never really exist) it all gets back to evaluating chances.

Let’s look at some examples…

1. I’m not totally certain that evolution is the true explanation for the diversity of life on Earth but I am very confident that it is, and anyone who really looks at all the evidence fairly should reach the same conclusion. And I know that the origin of life is unknown and might always be uncertain because it happened billions of years ago and produced no fossils, but there are extremely viable theories which fit in with existing science so I see no reason to doubt them.

2. I’m not totally certain that global climate change is true and that humans are the major cause of it, but I am quite confident that it is (not quite as sure as I am of evolution but still quite confident).

3. I’m not totally sure that there is no need for a supernatural element to be introduced to explain all of the phenomena we see in the universe but currently there is insufficient reason to doubt conventional physical processes so that’s what I use as my working theory.

Note that it’s necessary to look at all the evidence and treat it all with the respect it deserves (and that will vary depending on its source) before deciding what the conclusion should be. If I wanted to pick and choose the evidence I could find “proof” for absolutely anything, and yes, that includes a flat Earth, alien reptile overlords… anything!

Climate change deniers are great at this, and because climate change is one of the least well proven theories it is even easier. But if you are convinced by the negative evidence try this: forget what you think you already know and do some searches for evidence using neutral phrases. Make a note of the evidence for and against and do take the credibility of the source into account.

Note the critical phrase here: “forget what you think you already know”. That’s the key because the underlying cause of the phenomenon I have already described is arriving at the conclusion before looking at the evidence.

And that is the real problem even though most people deny it. Obviously if biased people admitted that bias it wouldn’t be as strong, but it is always there, and that does include rational skeptics like me. I admit I assume the conventional scientific explanation is correct before I go looking but I make a real effort to look at the contrary evidence as well.

The advantage I have is that being a skeptic and science supporter I have no emotional attachment to any particular idea. People who deny science almost always have a political, religious, or some other irrational belief which leads them to that conclusion.

It’s fair enough to retain some degree of doubt over any idea. As I indicated above, I’m not totally sure about any scientific theory, but if I wanted to present a credible alternative to an established scientific theory I would need really good evidence. And cherry picking evidence from established opponents of mainstream science really isn’t good enough because these people’s ideas are generally well known to the community and have already been found lacking.

So if you want to disprove climate change don’t go quoting the ideas from a Canadian gardener (as one opponent of mine did) and if you want to disprove evolution don’t quote completely discredited pseudoscience from a religious site, and if you want to reject the findings of neuroscientists regarding the current scientific theories of mind don’t quote the musings of a retired philosopher.

We’ve heard it all before, OK? It wasn’t convincing when these points were first made and it is no more convincing now. Repeating the same discredited points over and over doesn’t make them more credible, it makes the person making them less!

So yes, I agree there are people who have alternative theories to evolution, there are some fairly credible people who doubt climate change, and there are some who think dualism has some merit, but look at these ideas on balance. Assign a probability to them. When almost every expert in the field and every expert in unrelated fields agrees something is probably true you should take notice even if you can find a few contrary opinions. The majority of experts aren’t always right but that is always the best way to bet!

If you still disagree with me then try this: think of an idea that you think is very unlikely to be true but isn’t totally crazy. For example, if you are a Christian then try Islam. Now do some research on evidence which is claimed to support this idea while ignoring the counter-evidence. Quite convincing, isn’t it? But you know it’s not true (or very unlikely to be) because you know you’re only getting one side of the story, right? Well that’s exactly how a neutral observer sees your claims.

The so-called evidence for Islam looks exactly like the so-called evidence for Christianity to a neutral observer like an atheist. You know the Muslims are deluded. Is there any chance that you are deluded in exactly the same way?

Think about it. And consider the odds.

Be Skeptical of Yourself

May 29, 2014 6 comments

Sometimes when I debate people on subjects which might be seen as somewhat controversial I like to demonstrate their bias by illustrating a similar point using a comparable issue which I hope will have a bit less emotional attachment for the person. For example, if someone refuses to accept the fact of evolution because “some scientists disagree with it” I might point out that there is some disagreement with similar, otherwise well accepted theories, as well.

So the conversation might go something like: sure, you can find some people who claim to be experts who don’t accept evolution but there are also people who don’t accept the theory of gravity, or some aspects of world history, or climate change as well, and few reasonable people would deny these.

By now you can probably see the problem with this approach because denial of various well accepted science tends to happen in groups: people who deny evolution also often deny climate change, for example. So in reality I am weakening my argument rather than strengthening it. Why? Because I tend to underestimate the degree to which some people live in a world ruled by a deluded, anti-intellectual, anti-science narrative.

In this fantasy world evolution, Big Bang cosmology, climate change, and many other ideas which have been proved beyond reasonable doubt are all viewed with equal suspicion. What I like to say (in a somewhat unkind way) is that if you are a crazy on one subject there’s a good chance you will be a crazy on many others as well!

A similar phenomenon occurs with conspiracy theories. I know people who think many conspiracies, such as the Moon Hoax, 9/11, JFK, chemical contrails, water fluoridation, etc, are all true. Do they really think the Illuminati, the New World Order, alien reptile overlords, or whoever else is behind all this stuff could really successfully execute all of these conspiracies?

Up until now I have mainly mentioned crazy beliefs which conservatives tend to back but I have to say that there are similar problems with many beliefs of those on the political left. I was discussing this with a person from Greenpeace the other day. I told them I support a lot of their work but I think their total rejection of technologies like genetic modification and nuclear power is wrong and based on ideology rather than facts.

To be fair the person was pretty good about it (probably because she wanted a donation) but I doubt whether my well reasoned approach made a lot of difference to the way she felt about GM or nuclear power.

So I think I need to be a bit more careful about the comparisons I use in future. For example, if I am debating a religious nut who thinks evolution isn’t true because some scientists doubt it (in fact I know of no scientists who doubt the essential truth of evolution sufficiently to publish a paper about it in a respected journal) then instead of comparing it with climate change, which they will probably also reject for equally invalid reasons, I could use the historicity of Jesus.

Because there is a lot of doubt about Jesus. I admit that the majority of experts (but not all) think there was a person (or persons) that the stories we now know were based on, but few think those stories are completely true and the doubt, confusion, lack of evidence, contradictory details, and general lack of certainty in the Jesus myth is far greater than anything in the scientific realm which is remotely comparable, including climate change, evolution, and the Big Bang.

So if people want to doubt evolution or climate change because of the “significant level of disagreement amongst experts” (which actually doesn’t even exist) then they should be even more skeptical about Jesus. But, of course, they won’t be, because they are happy to become “skeptics” (which is not the correct word, it should be “deniers”) about some subjects but are totally credulous when it comes to others.

Well I’m sorry, but part of being a real skeptic is checking the authenticity of everything, not just the things which contradict an existing religious or political view. And anyone who finds themselves settling into a pattern of denying the standard set of conservative topics should be very skeptical – of themselves!

Science isn’t the Enemy

November 23, 2013 22 comments

I recently listened to a podcast where a professional astronomer was lamenting the current lack of respect given to her profession and to science in general. I think there are two elements to this point which I need to mention. First, the level of respect varies from one country to another and between groups within a country. And second, where it does exist it is more an anti-intellectual bias rather than one against astronomy (or any other less “practical” sciences) or science in particular.

I’m sure we have all come across the people who are actually proud of their ignorance. Sometimes I talk about how amazing the work being done at CERN is and a person might respond with “oh, I don’t know anything about that” with a sort of self-satisfied expression as if that made them better in some way. Or I might mention how incredibly useful modern smartphones like the iPhone are and they will reply “I would never use something like that” even though they might have just been talking about a situation where GPS or some other technology would have helped them.

So astronomers shouldn’t take the lack of respect for them as anything personal. I work with technology in a university and I often get the impression people see that as inferior in some way to managing a shop, or being an accountant, for example. And I have often come across the situation where people assume my colleagues working in the more esoteric fields such as quantum physics or organic chemistry are just viewed as boffins working on their own pet projects and as being of no real use to society.

It hasn’t always been like this. In the past scientists and technology professionals were often viewed in a similar way to pop music performers or movie stars today. They toured and gave lectures to packed halls, they demonstrated new inventions and discoveries, and their contributions were seen as a way to achieve a better future.

I think there are several factors which have contributed to the decline of these attitudes. First, neo-liberalism (you didn’t think I’d get through a blog post without mentioning that, did you?) has emphasised the alleged value of commerce over other activities. Second, science has challenged many established views (evolution and cosmology challenge religion, and climate science challenges some established conservative dogma, for example) so some groups have attempted to discredit it as a result. And third, the rise of environmentalism – which I agree has a lot of positive points – has often had an anti-progress aspect as well, such as begin against nuclear power and genetic engineering.

None of these are good reasons to be anti-science. If science disproves your religious beliefs then change them or do better science to show the original stuff is wrong. If science shows your political ideas won’t work then you should be able to change those views to fit without abandoning your core ideals. And if new technology doesn’t fit in with your environmental philosophy then maybe it is time to have a more pragmatic approach to your cause.

Whatever the case, science and technology are not the enemy of any reasonable and rational group. If you find yourself opposed to them then I think there’s a very good chance that it is you who has got it wrong.

Dumber and Smarter

November 5, 2013 Leave a comment

Is the internet making us dumber or smarter? Many people make assumptions regarding this question and they are split between the two options fairly equally indicating that just assuming isn’t good enough. One problem is defining the words “dumb” and “smart” of course, because if they relate to intelligence instead of knowledge it might be that the internet can have no effect.

But I will continue discussing the wider context of the question and treat the two words more generally. So, which is it?

Many technology enthusiasts predicted the internet would be the great liberator, the great educator, and the great equaliser for everyone – or at least for those who have access to it (over 2.4 billion, or about one third of the world population, according to current estimates).

On the other hand many people see the internet as a provider of trivial, shallow information; as a way of storing information instead of it being memorised by a person; and of being a place where everyone can contribute, even if they maybe shouldn’t!

Of course at this stage you should recognise that both are right. The internet provides vast amounts of incredibly useful, accurate, detailed information, but also has equally vast amounts of puerile nonsense. So internet users can get what they want (either accurate or nonsensical) depending on where they look. And that really is the problem.

If people could be trusted to look at various perspectives and to find well researched information, even if it didn’t necessarily support their pre-formed ideas, then everything would be fine. But, of course, they can’t.

For example, there’s Wikipedia which is a (mostly) reliable source of good, relatively unbiased information (and it’s all referenced so it can be easily checked). But there’s also Conservapedia which is a worthless pile of lies, propaganda, and brainless nonsense. If a conservative Christian (for example) doesn’t like the truth about evolution as presented in Wikipedia they can go to Conservapedia to get a dose of lies which support what they want to believe.

On Conservapedia we find this rather alarming claim: “The fossil record does not support the theory of evolution and is one of the flaws in the theory of evolution”, and yes, it is referenced. But the references are to religious organisations with no scientific credibility at all. If you want to support or reject a scientific theory then you really should use science to do it, not an organisation with a fantasy-based worldview.

But for the naive, and those who desperately want to reject evolution, the two sources (Wikipedia and Conservapedia) seem the same apart from emphasising different perspectives. They’re not of course. Wikipedia treats evolution as the scientific topic it should be where Conservapedia deals with it from a totally biased religious and political perspective.

Anyone who listened to mainstream news sources would soon realise which is right and which is wrong. There is constant discussion of evolution without the slightest hint that there is any controversy about its scientific accuracy (because there isn’t) and the only mention of creationism is when it tries yet another dirty trick in its perpetual efforts to hide the truth.

But, of course, there are alternative “mainstream” news sources too. If you want to be poorly informed on almost everything you can listen to Fox News. It has been shown that its supporters are less well informed than people who listen to no news at all! Of course those people claim that sort of conclusion is all part of the vast liberal agenda which controls all the other mainstream news. Once a conspiracy is invoked to explain awkward problems any semblance reality is totally lost.

Another aspect of the problem is how the big social networks operate. Most of them (for example, Facebook) try to connect their users to people they already know and who probably have similar perspectives. So most users of these networks will probably just have their existing biases reinforced rather than being challenged by alternative ideas. Because Facebook, Google, and others just want the user to spend as much time on their sites as possible it is in their interest to feed them what they want.

In a recent interview I listened to the idea of “serendipity” and a “risk dial” were discussed. In some sources, such as conventional radio programs, the listener hears what is already programmed so there is always a possibility that there might be a serendipitous event where the listener hears something they wouldn’t normally choose and which might make them reconsider their ideas. The “risk dial” is an idea where potentially controversial or challenging ideas might be presented to the user instead of stuff similar to what they already have experienced (when the dial is turned to “high risk”).

The interviewee said that when he monitored his own internet use he found that he rarely looked at alternative perspectives. So I decided to do the same thing myself.

I must admit that I have a bias towards a particular type of site. For example, yesterday I visited Wikipedia about 20 times but Conservapedia once (and that only resulted in my opinion of it being so contemptible being reinforced) But if I had found Conservapedia fair and interesting I would have visited it more in the future. And even that one visit was worthwhile because it did give me another perspective: the perspective that so many people live in a fantasy world where they deliberately allow themselves to be deceived!

There’s not a lot of point in being exposed to mindless propaganda just to get another perspective on a topic. When the “other perspective” is nonsensical why waste your time with it? The problem is that it’s just too easy to use as an excuse, and my opponents probably look at reality-based sources the same way.

I guess there’s just nothing much which can be done about the problem. While there are groups of people who want to be told a certain thing irrespective of whether it’s true or not there will be web sites to cater for them. That’s the downside of internet freedom, I guess.