Archive for the ‘Science’ Category


“I don’t think we should be doing critical thinking. I think if you are conscious, if you’re present with God at all times, then all things will be made clear to you. . . . You won’t have to think it through or think about it, and then whatever you do, it always turn[s] out right. There’s no second thoughts about it at all. And critical thinking sound[s] like people who are not conscious of God, they’re not centered, and so they’re trying to figure out things in their head. . . . [E]very thought you get is a lie. . . . And so if nothing in your mind is the truth, how can you think through things with . . . those thoughts?

“That’s why God said, Bring every thought into captivity. Every thought. Because every thought is a lie. . . . Because every thought is from the Deceiver.”

—Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, sermon, YouTube, May 21, 2017, quoted by John Grant in the upcoming revised and expanded edition of Corrupted Science: Fraud, Ideology, and Politics in Science (scheduled for May 2018)

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Telescopes are incredibly cheap nowadays. Taking inflation into account, they cost maybe 15% of what they did 50 years ago. Back then, it made sense to build your own ‘scope.

I did — a 6″ f10 reflector mounted on a 2X4 in place of a tube with a homemade Ramsden eyepiece and an altazimuth mount made from 1.5″ pipe. Total cost was about fifty bucks in 1960s dollars.

That’s equivalent to maybe $300 today. And for that $300 you can buy a much better ‘scope than my first reflector. Hell, you can buy a better ‘scope for half that. Why? Chinese mass production. The quality of the ‘scopes they make varies, but overall is pretty good, especially for the price. Nowadays, it’d almost certainly cost you more to build a telesceope than to buy one of equivalent size and quality.

Which brings us to the question in the headline: Assuming you’re a novice, what should you buy, and why?

  • First, stay away from telescopes with shaky mounts. The most common culprits are cheap 60mm refractors, which often cost under a hundred bucks new; but their inadequate, shaky mounts make observing miserable, often close to impossible. You’ll want a telescope with a solid mounting, which is probably the most important feature of a good telescope.
  • Second, buy a ‘scope with a 1.25″ focuser and eyepieces. Cheap 60mm refractors commonly have .965″ focusers and eyepieces, and the eyepieces are uniformly terrible (almost always Huygens eyepieces with chromatic aberration and a narrow field of view); almost worse, it’s difficult to find decent eyepieces in the .965″ size, so cheap refractors with the .965″ focuser and lousy eyepieces (and shaky mounts) are all but useless. They’re so bad that they discourage a lot of people from taking up astronomy as a hobby.
  • Third, do not buy a go-to computerized ‘scope. The equatorial-mount types are a pain to set up, and even when you do set them up correctly (polar axis aligned with the north celestial pole, so they’ll track) you’ll never learn the night sky if you rely on them. Essentially, they’re a crutch for those too lazy to learn the constellations and where the planets and deep sky objects are. Laziness is its own punishment, and those who buy go-to ‘scopes get what they deserve: disappointment and money loss. There’s a reason there are so many nearly new go-to ‘scopes on craigslist offered for a fraction of their price new.
  • Fourth, buy used. There are almost always good buys on your local craigslist, where it’s common to find ‘scopes in good shape selling for 20% to 50% of their cost new. You can get a great ‘scope for under $300 (sometimes for under $100), which is about the most a novice should consider spending.
  • Fifth, buy a decent pair of binoculars and acquaint yourself with the night sky before buying a ‘scope. I’d recommend 10X50s (10X magnification with 50mm lenses), which won’t break the bank but will provide a wide field of view and enough light-gathering surface and magnification that you can see a lot of the brighter deep sky objects — a few will look great, though most won’t look like much; but you’ll know where they are.
  • Sixth, get a good planetarium program for your computer and use it to find the constellations, planets, and deep sky objects. The best planetarium program, Stellarium, is free, and works on all platforms.
  • Seventh, once you’ve become acquainted with the night sky, buy a Dobsonian altazimuth-mount reflector. You get more bang (inches of aperture) for the buck with a Dobsonian, and for casual viewing they’re easier to use than equatorial-mounted ‘scopes. (Yes, you’ll want an equatorial mount if you ever get into celestial photography, but that’s way down the line for most novices.) You can commonly find 8″ or 10″ Dobsonian reflectors on craigslist for $150 to $300, sometimes less. Helpful hint: before buying a ‘scope, make sure you can carry it around easily. If your ‘scope is a pain to move, chances are you won’t use it much, if at all.
  • Eighth, if your ‘scope doesn’t come with eyepieces included, you’ll need at minimum two: a low-power wide-field eyepiece plus a medium-high power eyepiece, and maybe a medium power eyepiece. For the wide-field eyepiece, get one in the 25 to 32 mm focal length range, for the medium power 12 to 15 mm focal length, and for the medium-high power 8 to 10 mm focal length. (There’s not much point, at least for casual observers, in buying high power eyepieces in the 4 to 6 mm range; they drastically narrow a ‘scope’s field of view; they greatly magnify any shakiness in the mount, resulting in wavering, unsteady images; and you need very good seeing conditions to use them to any advantage at all.)
  • Ninth, make sure to buy decent eyepieces (probably Plossls or Kellners, both of which are cheap, good and plentiful), and under no circumstances buy a Huygens eyepiece (the type commonly included with 60mm refractors). You can buy good quality Chinese Plossls and Kellners on eBay for under $10, and Surplus Shed currently has a nice 30mm Kellner for $12. (On eBay, the variety of focal lengths is usually limited; at the moment, there are 10mm Plossls available for about $6.50, and all but useless 4mm Plossls for the same price; the good news is that if you watch over months you’ll likely find what you’re looking for at about the same price.)
  • Tenth, do not spend a lot of money on eyepieces or other accessories. Some fancy eyepieces cost upwards of a thousand dollars. That makes no sense at all: the point of diminishing returns arrives very quickly (around $15) with eyepieces.
  • Eleventh, if your ‘scope doesn’t come with a Telrad or red-dot finder, buy one and attach it to your ‘scope. Of the two types, Telrads are easier to use, though at $40 they’re more expensive than red-dot finders. Both types are preferable to small finder ‘scopes.
  • Finally, have fun and enjoy the beauty of the night sky. And please remember that your enjoyment will be greater if you take the time to learn the night sky, and don’t just punch numbers into a keypad.

Astrology: Fraud or Superstition(This is an updated version of the pamphlet Astrology: Fraud or Superstition? originally published by See Sharp Press in 1987.)

 

Origins and Popularity of Astrology

For millennia, human beings have looked up at the night sky and asked themselves, “What does it all mean?” One of the oldest recorded answers is provided by astrology: the belief that the stars and planets strongly influence our lives.

Humans began observing the night sky tens of thousands of years ago, but astrology is of more recent origin. The earliest records of astrology date from approximately 4,000 years ago, at a time when science was unknown and the religious/magical view of the world was near universal. (Religion and magic were a natural outgrowth of wonder and ignorance; they likely survived, at least in part, because they were useful to the priests and royalty as a means of frightening their subjects into line.)

Thus, astrology was the result of combining the ancient practice of observing the night sky with a magical view of the world, specifically what Lawrence Jerome, in 1975 in The Humanist, calls the “principle of correspondences.” He explains this principle as follows: “The omen or magic object has certain physical properties that are related to the external world by analogy. For instance, the reddish color of the planet Mars means to the astrologer that it is magically related with blood, war and metal iron. . . .”

After its invention by the Babylonians (whose priests both used astrology and read the entrails of animals to foretell the futures of kings and nations), astrology was further developed by the ancient Greeks, who named the planets after their deities and ascribed the qualities of those deities to the planets. (Those qualities are still the ones ascribed to the planets in “modern” astrology.) Finally, in the second century c.e., Ptolemy wrote his Tetrabiblos, the astrological bible, in the city of Alexandria and brought astrology into its “modern” form.

During the Middle Ages, astrology was denounced by the church and went into eclipse, though it remained popular in the islamic world and in the East. In Europe, it began to flourish in the late Middle Ages, from roughly the 13th century on, and was very popular during the Renaissance. But the rise of science toward the end of the period sent astrology into eclipse once again, and it didn’t resurface as a widely held belief until the turbulent years of the early twentieth century.

Since its resurrection, belief in astrology has touched all segments of the population, not only in the U.S., but in Europe as well. Most of the top Nazis believed in astrology. Himmler’s astrologer, Wilhelm Wulff, even wrote a book on the subject, Zodiac and Swastika. Hitler himself, however, apparently did not believe in astrology and viewed it as merely a convenient means of manipulation.

In the U.S., a number of years ago Time magazine identified Ronald Reagan as a client of astrologer Carroll Righter, and a survey in the 1980s revealed that 15% of college undergraduates believed astrology was scientific. Today, the percentage is far higher: in 2014, a National Science Foundation (NSF) report stated that 30% of college graduates consider astrology scientific.

Among the general population, the percentage is even higher. Three decades ago, Jon D. Miller of Northern Illinois University reported that 39% of adult Americans believed that astrology is scientific. Things have only gotten worse since then. The 2014 NSF study reports that 45% of adult Americans believe astrology is scientific. One  suspects considerable overlap between that group and the 46% cited by the NSF who don’t know that it takes the Earth one year to orbit the sun.

In the 1980s, two-thirds of U.S. daily newspapers carried horoscopes. There were at least 10,000 full-time and 175,000 part-time astrologers in the country. And astrologically related books, magazines, and magazine articles were a glut on the market. A few sample titles: “The Astrology Way to Stock Market Profits,” “Birth Control by Astrology,” “Astrology: Judging Compatibility,” and “Choosing by the Stars: Appropriate Perfumes.”

Things haven’t changed much since then. If anything, the percentage of newspapers carrying astrology columns has probably gone up, the number of astrologers has almost certainly gone up along with population and credulity, and astrology books still sell like, well, astrology books.

(A number of years ago I wrote, under a pseudonym, a “horrorscope” for a humor magazine in which I listed among my credits an article in Motor Trend titled, “Astrology and MPGs: Tune Your Car by the Stars.” After reviewing astrology book titles, my only question is when Motor Trend will get around to publishing such an article.)

Why Astrology is Magic, Not Science

In addition to its being based on the magical “principle of correspondences,” there are many other reasons to regard astrology as a system of magic rather than as a science. First of all, astrologers have never attempted to explain how astrology supposedly works—that is, why the apparent positions of different astronomical bodies supposedly have different effects upon different people. As Bart Bok, former president of the American Astronomical Society, put it:

Many believers in astrology have suggested that each planet issues a different variety of special as-yet-undetected radiations or “vibrations” . . . [but] there is apparently conclusive evidence that the sun, moon, planets, and stars are all made of the same stuff, varieties and combinations of atomic particles and molecules, all governed by uniform laws of physics. It does not make sense to suppose that the various planets and the moon, all with rather similar physical properties, could manage to affect human affairs in totally dissimilar fashion.

Second, astrology does not even take into account all of the major bodies in our solar system, let alone all those in our galaxy or the hundreds of billions of other galaxies in the universe. Many astrologers still make their planetary computations using only the planets known to the ancients; they don’t take into account those discovered by modern science (Uranus, Neptune, and the minor planets); and no astrologers take into account the nearest stars, which are far nearer to us than those in the zodiac constellations, whose stars are at wildly varying distances.

Third, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that the mysterious, undetectable, astrological forces supposedly emanating from the planets would be any stronger than the gravitational forces of the planets. And those forces are weak indeed. At its nearest conjunction, Mars exerts far less gravitational force upon a newborn infant than the midwife or doctor who delivers the child.

Fourth, astrologers, in their computations, do not take into account the inverse square law, which is a fundamental law of physics. It says that the amount of radiation received by a body varies as the inverse square of its distance from the source of the radiation. For example, the amount of light reaching a ship four miles from a lighthouse will be only one-quarter (per unit of surface area) of that reaching a ship two miles from the lighthouse, and one-sixteenth of that reaching a ship one mile from the lighthouse. But laws of physics do not matter to astrologers, and they don’t care whether Mars is 40 million or 200 million miles away. They only concern themselves with the apparent position—to a viewer on Earth—of Mars in relation to the backdrop of the zodiac constellations and the other planets. So, if the astrological “radiation” (“vibration”—choose your own nebulous term) of the planets does influence human beings as astrologers claim, it would have to be a most peculiar type of radiation, one which disobeys a fundamental, well-established law of physics.

Fifth, many astrologers ignore precession. The Earth’s rotational axis is not stable, and the Earth wobbles like a top—but much more slowly. So slowly, in fact, that it takes approximately 26,000 years for the Earth’s axis to complete one rotation around the 47-degree-diameter circle it describes. This slow wobbling is called precession. It means, among other things, that the stars we now see in summer will be seen in winter (and vice versa) 13,000 years from now. It also means that the sun has receded almost a full sign along the zodiac since the Tetrabiblos was written nearly two millennia ago. So, the calculations of astrologers who rely on that hoary source are now off almost a full sign.

Sixth, the most popular type of astrology is natal astrology, in which astrological forces supposedly leap into action at the moment of an individual’s birth, imprinting her or him with certain characteristics. But the choice of the time of birth as the moment of supposed astrological imprinting makes no sense at all. Astrologers choose the time of birth purely because it’s convenient. They might object that a mother’s body shields her baby from astrological “radiation” until birth, but that argument ignores the fact that almost all babies are born indoors, and it would be illogical to think that this “radiation” could penetrate wood, concrete and steel, but not a few centimeters of human flesh.

Some astrologers, especially the “humanistic” variety, attempt to discount criticisms such as these by claiming that the planets and stars do not produce astrological effects, but, rather, that the positions of astronomical bodies only serve as “indications” of astrological forces. This is a transparent attempt to evade questioning of astrology’s supposed causal mechanism by retreating into a fog of ever-vaguer claims. By taking such a position, astrologers are saying in effect that for unknown reasons the positions of some of the stars and planets are indications of the undetectable effects of unknown types of undetectable forces emanating from unknown, undetectable sources. Such a proposition is even more ludicrous than the traditional astrological view that the stars and planets—never mind how—influence our personalities and daily lives.

Finally, there is absolutely no empirical evidence, absolutely none, that astrology has any value whatsoever as a means of prediction. What scientific testing has been done indicates that there are no astrological “effects.” For instance, former Michigan State University psychologist Bernie Silberman asked astrologers to list compatible and incompatible signs. Silberman then inspected the records of 478 couples who divorced and 2978 who married in 1967 and 1968 in Michigan. He found no correspondence beyond that of random chance between the astrological signs predicted to be compatible or incompatible by astrologers and the signs of those getting married or divorced. French statistician Michel Gauquelin has conducted far more detailed tests which also have discovered no astrological effects. (Gauquelin’s early, highly publicized report of a “Mars effect” on professional athletes was the result of an error in his calculations, and similar studies conducted by others showed no such effect.) In one test he examined the signs (moon, zodiacal, planetary, ascendant, and mid-heaven) for 15,560 professionals from five European nations in 10 different occupations. He found no evidence of any astrological effects. His calculations showed that the correlation between astrological signs and occupations to be that of random chance.

Reasons for Belief in Astrology

The fact that millions of astrological believers claim that they “feel” astrological influences in their own lives and “see” astrological influences at work in the lives of others is a prime example of wishful thinking, and nothing more. Believers in astrology, like other religionists, want so badly to believe in their preordination system that they “feel” and “see” effects where none exist. Similarly, a great many born-again christians claim to “feel” the presence of Jesus or the “holy spirit” and to “see” the hand of Satan at work in astrology and other occult beliefs. (Most born-again christians really do believe that Satan exists.) And if believers in astrology want us to accept their feelings as evidence supporting their beliefs, they must, to be consistent, grant the same evidentiary value to the feelings of born-again christians, which in some ways directly contradict the feelings of astrological believers—all of which demonstrates the unreliability of personal feelings as “evidence” in matters of this sort.

Why would anyone believe in anything as patently absurd as astrology? Probably for reasons similar to those of persons who believe in such patent absurdities as transubstantiation or their own “personal savior.” One particularly disturbing aspect of this belief in the absurd is that many astrological believers not only do not use logical (scientific) reasoning, but they do not want to use it. Their “reasoning,” like that of climate change deniers, is that of a stubborn child: “If I want it to be true, it must be true!” So, they adopt (probably unconsciously) a dishonest intellectual attitude, clinging obstinately to anything which seems to confirm their belief, while ignoring the plethora of inconvenient facts which call it into doubt. The pathetic clamoring about Gauquelin’s since-disproven “Mars effect”—while other similar studies indicated that no such effect existed, and the above-listed objections to astrology went unanswered—is a case in point.

The standard reply of astrologers to this is the childish, “You’re one too,” which evades the question of their own dishonesty by implying that skeptics also ignore inconvenient facts. Unfortunately for the astrologers, that does not appear to be the case. A study of information evaluation by psychologists Peter Glick of Lawrence University and Mark Snyder of the University of Minnesota, published in the May/June 1986 Humanist, concluded that skeptics are “fact-oriented,” while astrological believers are “theory-driven”:

[S]keptics paid close attention to the information they gathered . . . while believers largely ignored what targets told them when it came to pass judgment on how well the astrological horoscope had predicted the targets’ personalities.

A study of credence in another occult belief, ESP, published in the March 1980 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, tends to confirm that occult believers ignore contradictory evidence much more often than skeptics. In that study, skeptics and ESP believers read articles with which they agreed and with which they disagreed, and then answered questions about the articles. Approximately 90% of the skeptics correctly remembered the conclusions of articles regardless of whether the articles were pro- or anti-ESP, while fewer than 40% of the ESP believers correctly recalled the conclusion of the article which debunked ESP; a large majority of the believers “remembered” that the article debunking ESP concluded that ESP exists.

Another of Gauquelin’s experiments provides a more amusing example of the self-deception of occult believers. He took out a newspaper advertisement in which he promised free personalized horoscopes to all who answered the ad. One hundred fifty persons responded. Gauquelin then sent out the same horoscope to all 150 and asked them how well it fit them. Ninety-four percent replied that they recognized themselves in it. The horoscope was that of Dr. Michel Petiot, a mass murderer.

Why do occult believers have such a reluctance to face facts? Glick and Snyder concluded that, “in order to maintain the sense of being able to predict events, the believer makes the facts ‘fit’ the theory whether or not these events are consistent with the theory’s predictions.” The reason for this blindness is obvious.

It’s an unfortunate fact that a great many people do not want to go to the work of making their own decisions. They want someone or something to tell them how to act, how to think, and how to feel. Astrology, like other religious beliefs, fills the bill. As a system of preordination (“Oh! You’re a Scorpio! You must . . .”), it gives believers a nice, neat means of interpreting reality and of tailoring their behavior and expectations to fit the prescriptions of their belief system. Astrologers themselves admit this, with some of them maintaining that astrology “controls,” “influences,” or “can serve as a road guide.” (The difference between these descriptions is one of degree, not substance.)

Still, why do so many choose astrology as a belief system rather than Mormonism, Catholicism, Islam, etc.? A probable reason is that astrology meets the desire of many people for a preordination system, yet it does not contain the most unpleasant aspects of conventional religions. It is silly and utterly irrational, and almost certainly influences some to make unfortunate personal decisions. (Consider the effect of articles such as “Birth Control by Astrology” upon those who take them seriously.) In extreme cases, astrological belief may incline individuals toward passivity—after all, if everything is written in the stars, why not just go with the flow? But unlike such religions as Judaism, Christianity, Mormonism, and Islam, astrology is not based upon guilt, misogyny, and sexual repression. It is simply based upon credulousness, ignorance, irrationality, and the eagerness of human sheep to be led.

Astrology is a handy crutch for those who are repelled by the more overtly reactionary, inhumane aspects of conventional religions, but are not yet ready to free themselves from supernatural preordination systems. In itself, this turn from organized religion is mildly encouraging. But it would be far more encouraging to see believers in astrology rise from the Procrustean bed of their irrational beliefs and begin to think for themselves.


 

(For the last few months we’ve been running the best posts from years past, posts that will be new to most of our subscribers. This one is from 2013. We’ll be posting more blasts from the past for the next several months, and will intersperse them with new material.)

by S.C. Hitchcock, author of Disbelief 101: A disbeliefYoung Person’s Guide to Atheism

The State of Kentucky features a Creation Museum dedicated to a theory that is refuted by, and I mean this in the literal sense, every living or mechanical thing you will ever see. (Not one thing, biological or technological, popped into existence without an ancestor.) Taking my cue from the success of this “museum,” I’ve decided to create a theme park based on Holocaust denial.

I’ll call the park NaziWorld and will create a main attraction called The Holocoaster. Patrons will thrill to a ride with more twists and turns and loops than Holocaust-denial “logic.” Featured attractions will include a horror castle called Dr. Mengele’s lab, a haunted graveyard with six million empty graves, and a beer garden/sports bar (The Berchtesgarten, naturlich) with “Spingtime for Hitler” playing on a continuous loop on its big-screen TVs.

Most Americans know as much about World War II as they do about biology, so this seems like a sound business plan. Most are familiar with the whiskery square that darkened Hitler’s septum, and know that the Nazis wore sexy uniforms, didn’t like Jews, and had a lot to do with the war that was filmed in black and white, but that’s about it.

If this works, and it will, I’ve got plans for more money-making theme parks. How about a “trickle-down” waterpark, where the water is supplied by the executive suite restrooms high overhead?

What could possibly go wrong? Americans (at least our current [2017] sad excuse for a president) will lap it up — or should that be “lie down for it, and let it wash over them”?

(Editor’s Note: Sorry S.C., couldn’t resist adding that final sentence.)

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(We recently began running the best posts from years past, posts that will be new to most of our subscribers. We’re currently featuring blasts from the past from 2013, and will be for the next few months; we’ll intersperse them with new material.)

GOD HATES AMPUTEES

Faith healing

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From Pamela Sutter’s e-book, May the Farce be with You: A lighthearted look at why God does not exist.

May the Farce be with You


by Chaz Bufe, publisher See Sharp Press

Know-nothingism has become fashionable on the religious right. Many right-wing fundamentalists insist that assertions contained in an ancient mish-mash of a book are every bit as valid as carefully arrived-at, repeatedly tested scientific theories and conclusions.

In a striking bit of irony, some go even further and (unconsciously) mimic academic postmodernists, insisting that all “opinions” (including scientific conclusions) are equal. Thus willful ignorance among the least educated mirrors willful ignorance among the most educated.

Given all this, it’s good to remind ourselves of why facts matter, and why science is superior to religious faith.

Failure to take facts into account has real-world consequences. To cite a trivial example, if you believe you’re invulnerable because you believe you are, test your hypothesis by stepping in front of a truck. To cite a sadder, all-too-real example, science has established that the similarities between human beings vastly outweigh the differences, and that there’s no basis for assertions that any race is superior to any other. So, are the opinions of racists just as valid as  the scientific conclusion that the differences between racial groups are trivial?

To cite still another example of why facts matter, in the Middle Ages in Europe, with science at a standstill, many believed that disease and bad weather were caused by witchcraft. End result? Tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of “witches” were brutally murdered for “causing” storms and disease.

There are innumerable other examples demonstrating why facts matter. And, yes, you can’t absolutely prove anything, but probabilities are so high in so many cases that it’s reasonable to act as if the probablity is 100%.

So, facts do matter. But why does science trump religion?

1. The scientific method is the only reliable way to arrive at the most probably correct explanation of almost anything. Scientists reach conclusions by formulating hypotheses, checking those hypotheses against observed phenomena, devising experiments to test the hypotheses, checking them for internal consistency, and checking to see if the hypotheses can generate accurate predictions. Then doing all this over and over again, with different scientists repeatedly testing the hypotheses (“theories” if they consistently pass all these tests over a prolonged period of time) through experiment, observation, and analysis.

This is a bit different than pointing to a hoary book written by iron-age slaveholders and asserting, “This is a fact! It says so here!”

2. Science is self-correcting. Religion isn’t. Science continually tests and refines hypotheses and theories to arrive at more accurate explanations. Religion doesn’t.

A good example of this is provided by scientific exploration of racial differences between humans. In the 19th century, some scientists asserted that whites were superior to other races. By the middle of the 20th century, other scientists had definitively debunked those assertions through observation, experiment, and analysis. (Yes, there are still a few racist scientists, but their assertions are knocked down almost as soon as they make them, and the vast majority of scientists now accept, in line with scientific research, that assertions of racial superiority or inferiority are baseless.)

The overt racism of the Book of Mormon slightly predates the racist assertions of some 19th-century scientists, with the Book of Mormon itself referring to caucasians as “white and exceedingly fair and delightsome” (2 Nephi 5:20-21); and as late as 1935, Mormon Prophet Joseph Fielding Smith asserted that “because of [Cain’s] wickedness he became the father of an inferior race.” (The Way to Perfection, p. 101)

Finally, in 1978, in response to widespread social condemnation (and undoubtedly a desire to increase the number of potential converts), then-prophet Spencer W. Kimball announced a new “revelation” that the church should abandon its racial restrictions on the priesthood (but not the “revealed” racist passage in 2 Nephi, nor the racist statements of previous “prophets”). That’s a bit different than the way science handled the matter, eh?

3. Science improves daily life. Religion doesn’t. One clear example of this is in the field of medicine. Scientists discovered the microbial nature of disease. That discovery led to use of antiseptics and the later development of antibiotics, which have saved the lives of untold millions.

In contrast, religion has led to no developments that improve daily life. (And please don’t start talking about the power of prayer and the peace it supposedly brings–we’re speaking here of demonstrable physical improvement.)

4. Science leads. Religion lags. A good example of this is our understanding of the universe beyond the Earth. Early scientists (Copernicus, Galileo, et al.) led the way to accurate description of the physical universe.

At the same time, the church was insisting that the sun revolves around the Earth, and hauling scientists who dared to state the opposite before the Inquisition.

Another example is the scientific versus religious attitude toward women. Science has established that while there are obvious and not-so-obvious differences between men and women, their intellectual abilities are almost identical (with a few end-of-the-bell-curve differences in a few specific areas).

In contrast, religion has insisted on the inferiority and consequent subordination of women from antiquity. To cite but two of a great many Bible verses denigrating women, “How then can man be justified with God? or how can he be clean that is born of a woman?” (Job 25:4) and “These [redeemed] are they which were not defiled with women.” (Revelation 14:4)

Today, some religions have acknowledged reality and accept the equality of men and women. Others have dug in their heels and still insist upon female subordination, though most are now wary of openly stating that women are inferior. And it’s safe to say that the more conservative the religion–that is, the more literally its members take their scriptures–the more likely they are to insist upon the inferiority and subjugation of women.

5. Finally, as Neil deGrasse Tyson famously remarked, science opens doors and religion closes them. Science not only leads to improvement in daily life, but to broader intellectual horizons; it encourages people to think for themselves, to question everything; it leads to one question after another.

Religion insists that all the answers are contained in ancient holy books, and that it’s wrong, dangerous to question those answers–that you have an intellect, but you shouldn’t use it.

It’s hard to conceive of anything more stultifying.


Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? front cover

by Chaz Bufe, author of Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure?

There are direct connections between the beliefs underlying Alcoholic Anonymous and those underlying the “war on drugs.” The most fundamental is that alcohol and other drugs are “cunning, baffling, powerful!” (to quote AA’s  “Big Book”) This belief is reflected in the common “drug war” term “dangerous drugs” in reference to illegal drugs, which combined, until recently, to kill about 5% of the roughly half-million Americans killed annually by tobacco and alcohol; today, about 50,000 are killed annually by overdoses, the vast majority by opioid overdoses. In other words, alcohol (roughly 100,000 deaths) and tobacco (roughly 400,000 deaths) kill ten times as many Americans as all illegal (and misdirected pharmaceutical) drugs combined.

To put this in further perspective, “drug warriors” almost never refer to alcohol and tobacco as “dangerous drugs,” while they do routinely refer to marijuana, which has never killed a soul, as a “dangerous drug.” Some of them might actually believe that it is.

The concomitant belief, that human beings are “powerless” over “cunning, baffling, powerful!” drugs, is shared by both AA and drug prohibitionists. In AA and its clones (NA, CA, etc.) that belief is enshrined in the first of the 12 steps. It’s also part of the bedrock of the “drug war”: if people are powerless and drugs are powerful, the only way to stop the harm of drug addiction is to cut off the supply of drugs.

The other underlying “drug war” belief is based in punitive Christian morality: the belief that the only way to deal with prohibited (sinful) behavior is through punitive measures–in the case of drugs, that it’s necessary to lock people in cages for using drugs and for making drugs available to others.

Another aspect of this belief system, common to both AA and the “drug war,”  is the belief that drug use and abuse are an individual matter, that individual drug users and abusers are either victims of a “disease” (according to AA — never mind the absurdity of labeling behaviors as “diseases”) or are criminals (according to “drug warriors”). What ties these two seemingly disparate beliefs together is that they both divorce drug use and abuse from their social and economic contexts.

A moment’s reflection shows that this is an absurd approach. If drug use and abuse were entirely the result of individual immorality or individual powerlessness over drugs,  the rates of drug use and abuse would not vary drastically (if at all) from one nation to another, nor would the rates vary wildly within nations over the years. But they do. Neither “disease” advocates nor “drug warriors” can explain these variances. To explain them, you need to consider social and economic contexts.

A case in point is a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Princeton researchers Anne Case and Angus Deaton on the increased mortality rate among middle-aged white, especially male, Americans aged 45 to 54 from 1998 to 2015, with the increase being .5% per year. During the previous two decades, 1978 to 1998, the mortality in that age range had been decreasing by about 2% per year–as indeed it’s continued to do so in all of the other developed countries since 1998. Why? The researchers posit that, while there’s no definitive proof, these increases are likely due to an increased suicide rate and increased drug and alcohol abuse triggered at least in part by increased financial stress.

If 12-step advocates and drug prohibitionists were correct that the use and abuse of alcohol and other drugs is a result only of individual “disease” or inherent “criminal” (sinful) tendencies, this increase in drug and alcohol abuse would not have happened. But it did. The solution advanced by 12-step advocates is treatment, and by “drug warriors” is a combination of imprisonment and treatment. In both cases, the treatment offered is almost exclusively 12-step treatment, which does not consider social or economic contexts nor social or economic solutions, but rather focuses exclusively on individual “wrongs,” “shortcomings,” and “defects of character” (respectively, steps  5, 7, and 6), with the solution to alcohol/drug abuse being “prayer” (step 11), taking a “moral inventory” (step 4), and “turn[ing] our will and our lives over to the care of God” (step 3).

As one would expect, the 12-step religious program does not work very well. As covered in  a previous post, Alcoholics Anonymous is not effective, both AA’s own statistics (“Comments on AA’s Triennial Surveys”) and controlled studies report that the recovery rate in AA is no better than the rate of spontaneous remission, about 5% annually. Controlled studies of formal 12-step treatment have been even more dismal, with some components used in such treatment, e.g. confrontational “counseling,” having negative outcomes.

So, what do AA advocates and “drug warriors” lean on for scientific support?

One of the standard studies cited — quite possibly the most commonly cited — by 12-step advocates and prohibitionists was conducted in the 1960s. It involved placing rats in Skinner boxes (small boxes with no toys or other amenities–essentially solitary confinement for rats in an ultra-deprived environment) and then giving the rats the choice of either plain water to drink or water laced with morphine. Surprise, surprise — the rats chose the water with morphine. This study was widely cited by both drug prohibitionists and the mass media as “proof” that rats, and by extension people, are powerless over irresistible drugs.

In the 1970s, researchers at Simon Fraser University conducted a similar study, but with the rats in a much larger cage filled “with things that rats like, such as platforms for climbing, tin cans for hiding in, wood chips for strewing around, and running wheels for exercise. Naturally we included lots of rats of both sexes, and naturally the place soon was teeming with babies. The rats loved it and we loved it too, so we called it ‘Rat Park.'” The results? The Rat Park experiment showed that in this rich environment the rats ignored the morphine-laced water and drank plain water instead. The initial study was published in 1978 in the scientific  journal Psychophramacology. The mass media, government, and disease-concept advocates ignored it, and AA, 12-step treatment, and the “war on drugs” rolled on, leaving millions of ruined lives in their wake.

The lessons of all this are obvious: It’s time to stop blaming those who are self-medicating, and to stop looking at drug use, abuse, and addiction as the result of individual sinfulness or “disease.” It’s time to stop locking people in cages.

It is time to start looking at, and addressing, the environmental, economic, and social reasons why millions of people find life so intolerable that they — like rats in a deprived environment — feel the need to seek solace in illegal drugs, alcohol, and misdirected pharmaceutical drugs. And it’s long past time to start doing something about the environmental, economic, and social reasons for drug use, abuse, and addiction.

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For more information on Rat Park, see lead researcher Bruce K. Alexander’s 2010 book, The Globalization of Addiction: A study in poverty of the spirit. 

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