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Criticise the Idea

June 22, 2017 Leave a comment

I’ve been thinking about some of my recent blog posts and I have come to realise that they could be interpreted as me having a rather simplistic view of some of the topics I have discussed, especially in relation to beliefs I disapprove of, like capitalism and Islam.

There are two major nuances regarding my thoughts on these topics: first, nothing is ever entirely bad, or entirely good; and second, even if I think the belief is wrong that doesn’t mean I condemn all of the people who practice that belief.

So the anti-capitalism rant in my previous post wasn’t meant to suggest that all business owners or other people who participate in the capitalist system (which is all of us to some extent) are bad. What I meant is that capitalism has a lot of negative consequences, along with some good ones, and that I believe that, on balance, we could do a lot better.

There are a lot of greedy, self-centered, sociopaths who are deeply involved in capitalism, but there are many reasonable, hard-working, moral people too. The problem is that the core tenets of capitalism include pursuit of maximum profit, winning against competition, and minimising non-monetary elements of doing business, and by systematising and normalising what I (and a lot of other people) see as negative attributes it encourages anyone who has an existing propensity towards them.

So if a person has a natural tendency towards what otherwise might be thought of as anti-social behaviours, like greed, then that will be rewarded by participating in a capitalist system. That person will do well in such a system where a more generous, sharing person might fail.

There are some possible good outcomes of being greedy too. It might drive a person towards creating a bigger, more efficient company which might employ a lot of people or produce products more effectively, for example.

As I said, it’s about balance and I think that on balance we could do better than capitalism. But that’s not to denigrate the efforts of the minority of participants who used it for positive ends. There are a few obvious, high-profile examples, such as Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, but I’m sure there are many others we never hear about, as well.

And exactly the same argument applies to Islam. Many Muslims are great people but I believe that the underlying philosophy of Islam (and most other religions) leads to many negative consequences.

Religions tend to encourage people to believe their core dogmas and not look for anything better. It makes them think they already know everything worth knowing. Humanity has progressed through exactly the opposite attitude to this.

And they tend to make their followers feel like an “in-group” and everyone else is in some way inferior because they don’t share the special knowledge pertaining to that religion’s beliefs. Surely, we don’t need any more reasons to separate people into competing cliques than what we already have.

And they discourage free thought. Religions tend to tell people the facts are all recorded in a holy book or in the beliefs of religious leaders. If someone believes that why would they ever question potentially dangerous or incorrect beliefs? There’s a very good reason the metaphor of sheep is often used to describe religious followers.

So again there are plenty of religious people who haven’t fallen into any of the traps I described above, but undoubtedly religions make that far more likely, simply because of their underlying nature.

In summary, nothing is all bad or all good, but that doesn’t mean that criticising things that are bad on balance can’t be justified. And criticism of an idea does not automatically equate to criticism of people who hold that idea, but if the person is implicated in by an idea they hold that is just an unfortunate side effect. I always try (but don’t always succeed) to criticise the idea, not the person.

Shouting Fire!

May 25, 2017 2 comments

First, I want to make a quick comment about the big news from yesterday: the terrorist attack in Manchester. As soon as it was reported I commented “Islam again?” and I was right, it was Islam again, and it almost always is. I will write a bit more about this in a future post but I just needed to say something now because so many people are defending Islam and I think that defence is often taken too far.

But the main subject of this post is freedom of speech, and what limitations should be put on it. This subject arose after a prominent New Zealand doctor disrupted a screening of the anti-vaccination film “Vaxxed: From Cover-up to Catastrophe”. He told the audience the arguments behind the film were “based on lies and fraudulent information that harms children”.

He’s right, of course, but did he have the right to do that? I should note that, as far as I can tell, the people were not prevented from watching the film, they were just warned about it first. But they were warned in a rather extreme way, including (for some bizarre reason) a haka (a traditional Maori war-dance or challenge).

So first, is there any good evidence that vaccination either doesn’t work or is dangerous? Well, like all medical interventions, there are some risks and it might not be effective in a small number of cases, but generally it is both safe and effective. Well respected organisations like the World Health Organisation, UNESCO, and the Center for Disease Control have estimated that millions of people have been saved from death and disease by vaccinations.

Against this are a small number of poorly designed studies, some of them discredited and retracted, and contrary beliefs largely based on emotional arguments, personal opinions, anecdotes, and broad claims backed up with little specific evidence.

It’s possible that some vaccines have unknown hazards and it’s even possible that some might not be as effective as currently believed, but the only rational conclusion possible at this time is that vaccination is a valuable disease prevention technique.

So it is reasonable to say that vaccination works and is safe to the extent that any small risks are easily compensated for by the potential benefits.

But the second question is less straightforward. Is it OK to try to stop people from exercising their right to freedom of opinion? Should the “authorities” prevent films like this one from being shown? And should opponents of the film’s message be allowed to present their opinions to an audience who really don’t want to hear it?

I believe in personal freedom of expression but I think everyone would recognise there must be limits to this. This is the old classic question: is it OK to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre when there is no fire? If you have freedom of expression then why not? Does that freedom trump the risk of people being injured when trying to exit the theatre?

I suspect that most people, including those at the screening of “Vaxxed”, would say that falsely shouting fire is a bad thing and that’s probably what they thought the doctor was metaphorically doing. But, as I indicated above, he was really doing the equivalent of shouting “fire” when there really was a fire. Because, if the movie persuades parents not to vaccinate their kids in large numbers it could result in new epidemics of disease which would cause far more deaths than those likely to occur in a theatre fire.

Another case could be made to say that the doctor was not inhibiting freedom of expression because in offering his own opinion he was actually enhancing that expression. If presenting one side of the “controversy” (note that there is no real controversy) is seen as giving freedom of expression then surely presenting the other side as well just improves that. Anti-vaccination protestors seem to think it is their right to turn up at pro-vaccination events so what’s wrong with the opposite scenario?

Finally, do people have the right to be ignorant? I would say no, but even if they do, do they have the right to inflict their ignorant views, and the negative consequences of those views, onto others? Many of those people who go to “Vaxxed” will be parents and some of those will fail to vaccinate their kids as a consequence. That’s causing potential suffering to another person because they’re too naive to see through anti-vaccination propaganda themselves.

It seems to me the doctor was a hero in many ways. Maybe he got a little bit too confrontational in the way he did what he did, but was he right to do it? I think so.

A Ticket to Heaven

May 23, 2017 Leave a comment

When my wife arrived at her cafe a few days ago she found a whole pile of “tickets” stuffed under the door. Regrettably they weren’t tickets to the Ed Sheeran concert here next year (not a fan myself, but she seems to be) but they were for something even better: heaven!

According to the ticket: “Entry to Heaven requires that you have lived a perfect life and never broken one of the Ten Commandments. Have you ever told a lie? Or stolen anything (regardless of value)? If so, you will end up in Hell.”

This seems rather harsh, especially for people who have no idea what the 10 Commandments even are (less than half the world are Christians), but reading further it seems there is a certain amount of wriggle room, because “But God in His mercy provided a way for ALL sins to be forgiven. He sent His Son to take your punishment: God commended His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

There seems to be a few odd aspects to this system. First, if God is so mercifull why didn’t he just forgive us instead of allowing His Son to be tortured and killed? In fact, God didn’t just allow it, he required it, or there would have been no sacrifice. After all, who requires the forgiveness? God does. So in order to allow that he needed Jesus to be horribly tortured. Very strange when you look at it logically, isn’t it?

But it gets a lot worse than that. It says here that anyone who sins (and since no one has a perfect life that would mean everyone) will definitely go to Hell, no matter how minor the sin. But everyone can be forgiven their sins, no matter how bad, if they make some sort of commitment to Jesus. Later on, the ticket recommends prayer to God listing your sins (that would be a long prayer for some people), stating that you put your trust in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour, and requesting forgiveness and everlasting life. After the prayer you must read the Bible every day and follow what it says.

So a person who told one small lie (even one which was for the good of the person being lied to) and didn’t pray would go to Hell, but someone who spent a life murdering, stealing, etc, then prayed just before his death would be fine. What kind of messed up god is this? This is not a ticket to Heaven, it’s a “get out of jail free” card – or should that be “get out of Hell free”.

There’s a URL (www.2besaved.com) on the ticket which leads to a web site which is one of the ugliest I have seen in recent times. Apparently God doesn’t believe in hiring good web designers. At the site you can “CLICK HERE IF YOU NEED TO BE SAVED” (I didn’t feel the need) or “CLICK HERE IF YOU’RE A CHRISTIAN” (I’m not) or “CLICK HERE FOR FURTHER STUDY” (that sounded like me). By the way, sorry about the all caps, it’s just that kind of site.

The further study was a bit disappointing though, because even the bizarre ticket made more sense than the material in that section. There was a complicated argument about which day is the sabbath, an even worse discussion on how to pronounce God’s name (Yahweh), and a rather alarming essay on the correct way to eat meat (hint: it’s best not to).

But I’m not even sure why all of this detail is so important, because I can do whatever I want, then get forgiveness from God later.

Now you might have noticed a rather flippant, facetious tone to this post so far. That is because the whole things is just so silly that it’s hard to take seriously. But many people do, and that’s why I like to write these “anti-religion rants”.

Many atheists, even really “strident” ones, like Richard Dawkins (I don’t really believe he is strident, of course), seem to back away from criticising the New Testament and the alleged teachings of Jesus in particular.

There’s a certain amount of sense in this because the New Testament undoubtedly has a more forgiving, accepting, and positive tone than the Old. But there is one thing about it which is at least as damaging and negative as anything in the Old Testament: the mythology regarding Hell.

Because in the OT, Hell is just a place with no particular function of punishment. In fact both the righteous and unrighteous go there (to two separate areas) and it is best thought of as “the underworld”.

It is only in the NT, with the teachings of “kind, forgiving, loving Jesus” that the idea of Hell as a place of eternal torment is introduced. And that place is reserved for whom? Is it morally corrupt people like murderers? No, it is for people who fail to accept Jesus as their “saviour”. So Jesus seems to offer salvation but only from a hideous torture that he himself introduced. And not only that, salvation is not given to those of high moral standing but to those who are prepared to become slaves of his particular movement.

If any other leader of any kind resorted to these tactics would we celebrate him as a wise and loving leader or as a hideous despot? I think we all know the answer to that.

So I think it is fair to label Jesus (let’s just assume he actually existed for the purpose of this discussion) in that negative way, but we should also have some balance and admit that there is a lot of good stuff in his alleged thoughts too. In the end, he’s just like anyone else: a mixture of good and bad. And the New Testament is just like any other book of mythology/philosophy/theology: a mixture of good and bad.

The key thing is that the good doesn’t come from the religion. What good is there is recognised because humans, as a social species, have moral standards which are more or less consistent, although they vary to some extent across cultures and across time. We don’t get a ticket to heaven through mindless servility to a deity. We get that (metaphorically, because heaven doesn’t really exist) through doing the right thing.

I’m a Troll

May 19, 2017 Leave a comment

In the old Norwegian fairy tale, Three Billy Goats Gruff, the three goats must try to cross a bridge to get to richer meadows, but are challenged by a fearsome and hideous troll. This guy is both territorial and aggressive, and has a habit of trying to eat anything that dares to cross the bridge.

Is this a good metaphor for our friend, the internet troll? Maybe it is. But the word “troll” is another one on my list of words I try to avoid using, and my reader, Derek Ramsey, indicated he would like to see my reasons why, probably because he (along with many others) thinks I might indulge in a certain amount of trolling activity myself!

Here’s the definition of an internet troll, from Wikipedia: “…a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community … with the intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal, on-topic discussion often for the troll’s amusement.”

Having read this I have to admit that I do sometimes stir up trouble just for the fun of it. But even then I do have a higher purpose, and I would like to think that the majority of the time I am accused of “trolling” I am actually trying to make people think in a different way, or trying to make people question their fundamental beliefs, or even offering my opinion with the possibility that it will be proved wrong.

So trolling is more a matter of intent rather than form, and it is just too easy for people with unpopular or alternative views to be dismissed by the majority because they are “just a troll”.

The first time I was excluded from an on-line community due to “excess trolling” was many years ago when I used to offer “alternative commentary” on a site called “GodTube” (I know it looks like I made that up, but it is a real site). This site offers “Christian, funny, inspirational, music, ministry, educational, cute and videos” with a religious perspective.

Of course, that is fine and people are welcome to have communities which represent their interests, but I also think that the internet makes it too easy to enter an “echo chamber” of like-minded people who exclusively parrot the standard dogma of the group and prevent a wider perspective from emerging.

And then there are the blatant lies. In particular I found a lot of anti-science and anti-atheism material on GodTube that I felt I should offer an alternative perspective on. I knew this would cause some of the effects described in the definition of a troll. I knew it would sow discord, I knew it would upset people, I knew it was inflammatory, and I knew it would likely evoke an emotional response and disrupt normal, on-topic discussion.

And, to be honest, it was to a certain extent, for my own amusement.

Hey, now that I read all that I realise that I am a troll! But that is the whole point. In that situation I don’t think that being a troll was bad, and that’s why I don’t like the word.

After many instances of challenging videos on GodTube which rejected evolution, tried to show that the Christian god was supported by real evidence, pretended that events like the Flood, Exodus, etc were actually real, and generally denigrated atheism and science, I was kicked off the community. I could have created a new account and carried on but I thought a break would be good and I moved onto other projects. After all, a troll’s work is never done!

More recently I have been un-friended on Facebook for daring to challenge left-wing ideology which I believe is not based on reality. Since I clearly identify with the political left myself this might seem strange, but I think it is even more important that the “team” I support is credible than that the “other team” is. After all, I can just laugh at the idiotic ideas held by conservatives or fundamentalist Christians, but when a similar criticism could be applied to those I would normally support it becomes difficult.

So when a whole bunch of “lefties” are talking about how dreadful society is as a result of another post, based on absolutely zero real-world evidence, about misogyny, I naturally like to point out that they are doing exactly what they accuse conservatives of, and exactly what turns moderates away from their perspective: they are unquestioningly accepting ideology as fact.

It could very well be that the phenomenon is real, but simple-minded support for a silly political doctrine in an echo chamber of far-left political correctness is no proof, and is certainly no way to approach a problem in an honest way.

And that’s where a bit of what could be uncharitably called trolling or more positively called challenging ideas is called for. And that’s what I do. If people don’t like it they can point out where I am wrong (and that has happened on rare occasions) or they can just shut me down because I’m a “troll”. But how does that second approach achieve anything worthwhile?

It doesn’t, and that’s why we need people to challenge established beliefs. We don’t need this in an extreme or dishonest form such as that practiced by a genuine troll, but it is hard to say which is which – when does a fair challenge to majority beliefs become trolling? It’s too hard to say, so the idea of trolling itself is best avoided.

We don’t need to ban the troll, we need to ban the excuse of ignoring someone by labelling them a troll. That’s my point. Who disagrees with that?

Easily Offended

May 17, 2017 2 comments

Language constantly evolves, and words inevitably change their meanings over time. Sometimes this causes no real problems as people adapt to the new meanings, but other times a word might get used in such a confusing context, or with such poor intent, that it is better not to be used at all.

When I say “with such poor intent” above I mean that words are used by some people to shut down a discussion, or to disguise a real issue, instead of engaging in honest debate.

Of course the preceding paragraphs are to introduce the subject of my favourite words which have become meaningless through over-use or dishonest use, and without further ado, here they are…

Number one: offensive. I reject the use of the word offensive because it implies there is some fundamental attribute of a statement or action which makes it offensive. I would say a better way to look at the phenomenon is to say “I am offended”. That means it is the person making the claim who is the originator of the offence, not the object it is being aimed at.

For example, if I say (as Stephen Fry did) that God is “stupid” and an “utter maniac” then I might expect some religious people (like some bishops in the UK) to be offended. But the statement itself isn’t inherently offensive. I for one, would say it is letting God off fairly lightly! And, more seriously, I think it provides an interesting starting point for a discussion of the classic theological problem of evil.

So if the bishops said “I am offended” instead of “that is offensive” we could get onto a useful discussion about why they are offended. Is it because the problem of evil has no viable answer, even after thousands of years of discussion? Is it because they want to shut down the discussion to avoid embarrassing revelations on the nature of their theological beliefs? We will never know because they refuse to discuss comments which they claim are naturally inherently offensive.

Even in situations where the implication of a comment against me was mildly insulting I would never use the “offence defence”. For example, if someone said to me “you atheists just want to avoid your moral responsibility to God” I could say “that’s offensive” and demand an apology, or I could be more honest and explain why that makes no sense.

The phenomenon isn’t limited to religion, of course. Any criticism that a person or group wants to avoid can be labelled offensive and can therefore be avoided. I see it a lot in sensitive political situations, especially those involving race and gender. There are some comments which should be perfectly reasonable but could almost be guaranteed to illicit either real or feigned offence by both the target of the comment, and maybe even more frequently, by people apparently not directly affected but still prepared to let their moral outrage be shown.

The most egregious part of this phenomenon is not the way it punishes transgressors, but the way it inhibits people presenting dissenting opinions in the first place. If a person wants to make a perfectly reasonable point but knows that type of point has been labelled as “offensive” in the past then he might not make the point, either because it might be seen as anti-social or even because there might be consequences such as being forced out of a discussion, being forced to apologise, or even being forced to resign from a job.

So I believe phrases like “that is offensive” are best not used at all. People should take ownership of their opinions and admit that the offense arises from them. They should say “I am offended” instead and expect to have to explain why.

I gave a few examples (some quite humorous) of use of offense in a cynical context in a post called “That’s Offensive!” from 2015-11-30. Have a look at that for some further comments on this idea.

At this point it seems I have written enough on my first word alone to make a long enough blog post. The other words to avoid will need to wait for a future post. To give my readers an idea of what to expect, here are the other words I want to cover: inappropriate, racist, misogynist, privilege, dictatorship, troll, and literally.

Do you use any of these words? Do you think your use of them is justified? If you do, you should read the future posts or comment on this one.

Play the Ball

April 11, 2017 Leave a comment

When I engage in one of my (extremely infrequent) rants I often get a bit personal. I often describe the groups (it’s usually a group rather than an individual) under discussion in somewhat unflattering terms. Words like stupid, mindless, bureaucratic, corrupt, incompetent, and (good ol’ plain) scum tend to predominate.

If I use the search function on my blog for the word “scum” I come across criticisms of Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush, Martin Shkreli, Serco (a company that runs prisons in New Zealand), Alice Walton, the Genesis Energy board, the CEO of BP, a spokesman for Westpac bank, the National government, Ports of Auckland, Affco, Westboro Church, the people in charge of the global financial system in general, Fonterra, the American movie industry, the NZ Evangelistic Society, News Corp, and Theresa Gattung.

That’s quite a list, isn’t it? In my defence, I only used the word in 27 posts (out of a total of almost 2000) in almost 15 years of blogging, so I don’t over-use to quite the extent you might think, and there is a good mix there of politicians (usually of the right), corporate leaders, large businesses, and some more unpleasant examples of religious institutions.

But a basic tenet of good debating is to avoid informal logical fallacies, such as the ad hominem. So I should be criticising the idea or action, not the person involved. In other words, I should “play the ball, not the man” (or woman).

Like all informal fallacies though, the ad hominem isn’t necessarily always wrong. Sometimes an individual really does deserve severe criticism. While it might be something which has been done or said that I am most offended by, there’s still a person who who did it or said it, and I’m sure that a lot of bad things done by one person would not be done by another.

The response to criticism is often “I’m just doing my job” which is usually referred to as the “Nuremberg Defence” after the Nazis who used it at the Nuremberg war trials (it’s a real term so this is not an example of me breaking Godwin’s Law). I mentioned this subject in a post “The Nuremberg Defence” from 2014-11-20.

But people always have a choice. Given the same situation some people will make the wrong choice just because it’s easier, or they can use it for their own benefit, or they haven’t bothered checking the true consequences, or for many other reasons. In every case though, these decisions are made as a result of a character flaw in the individual.

I think a “better person” would not have done the same thing. They might not have simply refused an order, but they might have taken steps to minimise its harm, or to work “behind the scenes” to work against it, or at least to carry it out with some element of contrition.

So ad hominem attacks are OK, as long as the reason for the attack is clear. And the attack on the person should follow a reasoned critique of their behaviour, not the other way around. In other words, it is not OK to criticise something because a certain person did it (as I often see with criticisms of Donald Trump’s actions, not all of which are bad) but it is OK to say someone is a bad person because they did bad things (after why those things are bad is logically explained).

Informal logical fallacies are OK but it is important to remember that they are informal and are not infallible. Just because it looks superficially like an ad hominem has been used doesn’t mean the argument can be ignored. It does mean the argument should be looked at more carefully, but it’s important to remember that some people just aren’t as good as others.

And most importantly, it is essential to remember that often the people with the most power also have the greatest character flaws. My “scum list” above shows that very clearly!

Do It Yourself

March 3, 2017 Leave a comment

I was going to post this comment as part of an anti-creationist rant but I realised that there was so much to it that I really needed to post it as a separate item. The issue I wanted to tackle was how many believers in mysticism base their beliefs on revealed sources, such as holy books, but the same criticism could be made against “rational” people, like myself, because I also use sources (such as science books, Wikipedia, etc).

So basically what I wanted to do was to show that anyone can discover significant things about the real world by themselves without relying on any information from existing sources, and that they can show anyone how to do the same observation/experiment which would prove their point beyond any reasonable doubt.

I decided to choose the age of the universe as a suitable subject, because it was a controversial subject (there are many young Earth creationists), and it was relatively easy to test. Of course, as I intimated above, it got more complex than I imagined. However, here is my proof – which anyone with a bit of time and a small budget can follow – that the universe, and therefore the Earth, is much older than the 6000 years the young Earth creationists claim.

I could start by trying to establish the age of the oldest things I know of. I could use biology, archaeology, chemistry or physics here, but I know a bit more about astronomy, so let’s use that.

We know the light from stars travels through space at the speed of light. If the stars are far enough away that the light took more than 6000 years to get here then the universe must be more than 6000 years old, so creationism is wrong. I know there are some possible objections to these initial assumptions but let’s leave those aside for now.

First, how fast is the speed of light? Can I figure this out for myself or do I need to take it on trust (some would say faith) from a book? Well it is actually quite easy to figure this out because we can use a highly regular event at a known distance to calculate the time it took for light to reach us. The most obvious choice is timings of Jupiter’s moons.

The moons of Jupiter (there are 4 big ones) take precise times to complete an orbit. I can figure that time out by just watching Jupiter for a few weeks. But we would expect a delay in the times because the light from an event (like a Moon going in front of or behind Jupiter) will take a while to reach us.

Conveniently, the distance from the Earth to Jupiter varies because some times the Earth and Jupiter are on the same side of the Sun, and others the opposite side. So when they are on the same side the distance from the Earth is the radius of Jupiter’s orbit minus the radius of the Earth’s, and when they are on opposite sides it is the radius of Jupiter’s orbit PLUS the radius of the Earth’s. Note that the size of Jupiters orbit doesn’t matter because the difference is just double the size of the Earth’s (in fact it is double the radius, or the diameter).

So now we need to know the size of the Earth’s orbit. How would we do that? There is a technique called parallax which requires no previous assumptions, it is just simple geometry. If you observe the position of an object from two locations the angle to the object will vary.

It’s simple to demonstrate… Hold your finger up in from of your eyes and look at it through one eye and then the other. The apparent position against a distant background wall will change. Move your finger closer and the change will be bigger. If you measure that change you can calculate the distance to your finger with some simple maths.

In astronomy we can do the same thing, except for distant objects the change is small… really small. And we also need two observing locations a large distance apart (the further apart they are, the bigger the change is and therefore the easier it is to measure). Either side of the Earth is OK for close objects, like the Moon (a mere 384000 kilometers away) but for stars (the closest is 42 trillion kilometers away) we need something more. Usually astronomers use the Earth on either side of its orbit (a distance of 300 million kilometers) so the two observations will be 6 months apart.

So getting back to our experiment. You might think we could measure the distance to a star, or a planet like Jupiter, or the Sun using this technique but it’s not quite so simple because the effect is so small. What we do instead is measure the distance to the Moon (which is close) using parallax from two widely separated parts on the Earth. I admit this needs a collaborator on the other side of the Earth, so it involves more than just one individual person, but the principle is the same.

Once we know that it can be used to measure other distances. For example, if we measure the angle between the Moon and Sun when the Earth-Moon-Sun angle is a right angle we can use trigonometry to get the distance to the Sun. It’s not easy because the angle is very close to 90 degrees (the Earth-Sun side of the triangle is much longer than the Earth-Moon side) but it can be done.

So now we know the difference in distance between the Earth and Jupiter in the two situations I mentioned at the start of this post. If we carefully measure the difference in time between the timings of Jupiter’s Moons from Earth when Earth is on either side of its orbit we get a difference of about 16 minutes. So light is taking half of that time to travel from the Sun to the Earth. We know that distance from the previous geometric calculations, so we know the speed of light.

Note that none of this is open to any reasonable criticism. It is simple, makes no assumptions which can fairly be questioned, and anyone can do it without relying on existing knowledge. Note that if you want to derive the basic trig calculations that is fairly easy too, but few people would argue about those.

So the Sun is 8 light minutes away meaning the light we see from the Sun left it 8 minutes ago. We are seeing the Sun literally as it was 8 minutes in the past. This means it must have existed 8 minutes in the past. But who cares? Well this is interesting but looking at more distant objects – those not just light minutes away but light years, thousands of light years, millions of light years away say more about the true age of the Universe.

So we can use this idea in reverse. Above we calculated a distance based on a time difference and the speed of light. Now we will calculate a time based on distance and the speed of light. If a star is 10,000 light years away the light left it 10,000 years ago, so it existed 10,000 years ago, so the universe is at least 10,000 years old.

There is only one direct method to calculate distance and that is parallax. But even from opposite sides of the Earth’s orbit – a baseline of 300 million kilometers – parallax angles are ridiculously small. But with a moderate size telescope (one which many amateurs could afford), and careful observation, they can be measured. The parallax angle of the closest star is about 800 milliarcseconds, or 0.01 degrees. That gives an angle which is the equivalent of the width of a small coin about 5 kilometers away.

Do this observation, then a simple calculation, and the nearest star turns out to be 40 trillion kilometers (4 light years) away. When we see that star we see it as it was 4 years ago. In that time the star could have gone out or been swallowed by a black hole (very unlikely) and we wouldn’t know.

The greatest distance so far detected using parallax is 10,000 light years, but that was with the Hubble Space Telescope, so that is beyond the direct experience of the average person! However note that using this direct, uncontroversial technique, the universe is already at least 10,000 years old, making young Earth creationism impossible.

Another rather obvious consequence of these distance measures is that stars are like our Sun. So if we know how bright stars are we can compare that with how bright they appear to be and get a distance approximation. If a star looks really dim it must be at a great distance. The problem is, of course, that stars vary greatly in brightness and we can’t assume they are all the same brightness as the Sun.

There is another feature of stars which even an amateur can make use of though – that is the spectrum. Examining the spectrum can show what type of star produced the light. The amateur observer can even calibrate his measurements using common chemicals in a lab. The chemicals in the star are the same and give the same signatures (approximately, at least).

So knowing the type of star gives an approximation of the brightness and that can be used to get the distance. The most distant star visible to the naked eye is 16,000 light years away. This would be bright enough to get a spectrum in a telescope, determine the type of star, and estimate the distance. Of course, it would be hit and miss trying to find a distant star to study (because we’re not supposed to use any information already published) but enough persistence would pay off eventually.

There are objects in the sky called globular clusters. These are collections of a few hundred thousand to a few million stars, quite close together. To the naked eye they look like a fuzzy patch but through a small telescope they can be seen to be made of individual stars. A simple calculation based on their apparent brightness shows they are tens of thousands of light years away. A similar technique can be applied to galaxies but these give distances of millions of light years.

In addition, an amateur with a fairly advanced telescope and the latest digital photography equipment – all of which is available at a price many people could afford – could do the investigation of red-shifts originally done by Edwin Hubble over 100 years ago.

A red shift is the shift in the spectrum of an object caused by its movement away from us. As I said above, the spectra of common chemicals can be tested in the lab and compared with the spectrum seen from astronomical objects. As objects get more distant they are found to be moving away more quickly and have higher red shifts. So looking at a red shift gives an approximate measure of distance.

This technique can only be used for really distant objects, like galaxies, so it is a bit more challenging for an amateur, but it will give results of millions to billions of light years, meaning the objects are at least millions or billions of years old.

There are some possible objections to everything I have discussed above. First, maybe the speed of light was much faster in the past meaning that the light could have travelled the vast distances in less time than assumed, meaning the universe could still be just 6000 years old.

Second, the light from the objects could have been created in transit. So a galaxy could have been created 2 million years ago but its light could also be created already travelled 99% of the way to the Earth.

Finally, maybe there is a supernatural explanation that cannot be explained through science or logic, or maybe all of the evidence above is just the malicious work of the devil trying to lead us all astray.

The second and third objections aren’t generally supported, even by most creationists, because they imply that nothing we see can be trusted, and God is not usually thought to be deliberately misleading.

The first one isn’t totally ridiculous though, and there is some serious science suggesting the speed of light might have been faster in the past. But do the calculations and that speed would have to be ridiculously fast – millions of times faster than it is now. If it was changing at that rate then we would see changes over recorded history. So that claim could also be checked by anyone who was prepared to dig into old sources for timings of eclipses, the length of the day, etc.

Astronomy is an interesting science because so much of it is still do-able by amateurs. Follow the steps above and not only will you get a perspective on some of the greatest work done in the past, but you will also make for yourself a truly fundamental discovery about the universe: that it is really old.

It requires no faith in authority, no reference to trusted texts, and no unfounded assumptions. It just involves a few years of dedicated observation and study. I admit I haven’t done all of this myself, but it’s good to know I could if I wanted to.