Archive for the ‘Science’ Category


(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.)


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 drugs, alcohol, and illegal 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. 

Related Posts

The media is abuzz, and friends have been calling me, about the so-called Super Moon. There’s nothing to get excited about here, folks: the (full) moon will be at perigee (its closest point to the Earth) and about 14% larger in diameter than it is at apogee (its farthest point from the earth), and only about 7% larger than the full moon is on average.

If they didn’t read the hype, and hence didn’t expect to see something, very probably 99% of people wouldn’t notice this rather subtle difference. And the other 1% would be amateur and professional astronomers who’d be aware of it, but wouldn’t get excited about it.

There are lessons to be drawn from this.

As Oscar Wilde put it in The Critic as Artist, “[Journalism] keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community.”

And as Wilde put it so well in The Soul of Man Under Socialism, “[T]he public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing. Journalism, conscious of this, and having tradesman-like habits, supplies their demands.”

There’s very little to add other than that journalism has advanced significantly since Wilde’s day and now manufactures things not worth knowing.

Stanislav Andreski

“So long as authority inspires awe, confusion and absurdity enhance conservative tendencies in society. Firstly, because clear and logical thinking leads to a cumulation of knowledge (of which the progress of the natural sciences provides the best example) and the advance of knowledge sooner or later undermines the traditional order. Confused thinking, on the other hand, leads nowhere in particular and can be indulged indefinitely without producing any impact upon the world.”

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–Stanislav Andreski, Social Sciences as Sorcery, quoted by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont in the introduction to Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science

We put up our 1,000th post a couple of weeks ago. Since then, we’ve been looking through everything we’ve posted, and have been putting up “best of” lists in our most popular categories.

This is the eighth of our first-1,000 “best of” lists. We’ve already posted the Science Fiction, HumorMusicInterviews, AtheismEconomics, and Addictions lists, and will shortly be putting up our final “best ofs”: Politics and  Religion.

Best Science & Skepticism Posts