Thursday, October 29, 2009

If only facts spoke for themselves...

Before I get into my posting, let me apologize to religious people - but not all religious people, the ones that practice it privately and don't let it affect their logical thinking when it comes to other aspects of life. Having said that, people making decisions based on non-existent sky deities are silly, don't get me wrong. The decision to support an organization that preaches the existence of a sky fairy is mind-boggling.

Apparently that doesn't piss me off as much as people speaking (preaching) with authority on things which they are ill-informed. I don't have a problem with a person choosing to remain ignorant but when they speak to others and suggest others do insane things based on their malformed opinions, they're nothing short of loathsome.

"There is a sky fairy" is far less dangerous (it leads to other crazy, wild and dangerous things, sure) than someone saying "the H1N1 vaccine kills more people than the H1N1 flu does".

Scientists (yeah, I'm talking to you!) need to get their heads out of the sand - facts, alone, don't speak for themselves. The evidence shows the efficacy of the H1N1 vaccine and the risks of being vaccinated (immunized really, but I won't get into that) are absolutely INSIGNIFICANT compared to the REAL risk of contracting the H1N1 virus. Yet, with all that, people are still (wrongly) preaching against getting immunized.

The trouble with science is that the scientific method works - scientists do not speak with certainty on anything and it is the provisional status of "truth" that makes science work. The willingness to accept where the evidence leads is what brings about updated theories and, as it applies to medicine, improved procedures and medicine and a continual improvement in the reduction of human suffering.

The overwhelming consensus among scientists is that the H1N1 virus is PANDEMIC and is a serious threat to even healthy people (oddly, maybe more dangerous to them!). Scientists, however, are not media figures, they aren't interested in the publicity and often aren't the best people to popularize their fields. This is what needs to change.

If someone suggests to you that there are legitimate reasons to not get vaccinated, they are based on falsities, myths and/or blatant lies.

It is not only the right thing for you to do for yourself (protect yourself by being immunized - especially by a vaccine that is a near perfect match to the virus!), it is your obligation to your fellow human beings.

If the evidence (facts), alone, spoke for themselves, there would be a number of things that would be different.

For example, there would be:
- No anti-vax movement
- No homeopathy, reflexology, aromatherapy, acupuncture
- Fewer viral infections (immunizations work - small pox, polio, etc.)
- Less people taking antibiotics
- No Young Earth Creationists
- No anti-evolution movement
- No faith healers
- No need for me to get pissed off about such blatant ignoramuses

Having said all that, Amy Wallace got a LOT of response to her article about the war on science and the anti-vax movement - some of it might bring you to tears.

Please, educate yourself (at the very least before you find a soap box).

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Paul Morden Gets It Right: There is no God

Paul Morden is a reporter at our local paper, The Sarnia Observer. He recently posted a column about being too lazy to get the H1N1 vaccine. As much as I can understand the lack of desire for people to wait in line to get the flu shot, unlike the virus itself, the wait won't potentially kill you.

In Paul's column, he speaks about being able to get anywhere in our city in about 10 minutes. We don't have much traffic (though right now, we have lots of construction) and our pedestrian traffic hardly slows turns at intersections. He says "We treat having to wait for a pedestrian to clear an intersection, when we want to turn, like a supreme travesty of justice, or just one more piece of evidence that there is no God."

I agree with Paul that "God" almost certainly does not exist. And, if having to wait for a pedestrian is another piece of evidence, you'd need a helicopter to get that piece of evidence to the top of the pile.

Thank you, Paul, for being a skeptic when it comes to religion and thank you, again, for not making my wait for the vaccine another person longer. However, I hope laziness isn't what ends up killing you.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Really Paul? That's the craziest part of the religion?

As, I'm sure, many of you have already heard, Paul Haggis has left the Church of Scientology after 35 years.
Paul Haggis was born in London, Ontario - about an hour from where I call home and is known for writing and directing films such as "Crash" and writing "Million Dollar Baby".

Having another member of the cult (Scientology is definitely a cult) leave is a good thing - having some of the darkest and deepest crazy ideas exposed is even better. Unfortunately, however, Paul sees "homophobia" as the craziest part.

Admittedly, being against Prop8 or against equal rights for all humans is nasty and despicable - something only the most bigoted organizations (churches/religions) could do. The idea, however, isn't so crazy - millions of people hold to that absurd religious dogma. It isn't the domain, simply, of Scientology.

The majority of Scientology (not the anti-gay position) makes the craziness of Mormonism seem believable. The story of Galactic Overlord Xenu, the use of Purification Rundowns and Introspection Rundowns and the claims about the E-Meter are purely unbelievable.
I know, I know, Scientology was also created by a Sci-Fi author (L.Ron Hubbard) but, seriously, the stories of every other religion are just made up too.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Bonnie Kearns' Letter to the Editor

As a primer, check out BBC News (UK) and their article on "Anglicans ponder Rome invitation".

Bonnie Kearns (the person who submitted the following letter to the editor of our local newspaper) points out the oddity of the Church being led by men (As Bill Maher says in Religulous (and I paraphrase) "and by men, I mean people with penises") - oh, and the obvious part about religion being oppressive.


Sir: I've been following the news about the reconciliation between the Anglican and Catholic churches. Hallelujah, hallelujah, for now after many years they are coming together. And why? Is it because of love, joy and commitment to be serve humankind? No it's because the Catholic church is a tad shy of priests and rather than do the right thing -that being to allow women to be priests -they invite the Anglican church so they can continue their "good old boys club" values.
I'm getting really tired of the fact that being a spiritual leader in the Catholic Church requires a male appendage.
I've lived in Afghanistan and I've seen firsthand how women live lives of suppression and oppression. But you don't have to travel that far to see inequity and exclusion.
I always wondered why the benches in church are called pews but now I'm starting to get a whiff of why.
-- Bonnie Kearns Sarnia

Another excellent article written about this subject is by Paula Kirby - Business as usual for Vatican Enterprises, Inc.

Update: Richard Dawkins jumps in!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Chatting With Mormons!

I just received an email from a blog regular and, I have to admit, chatting with Mormons (Mormons? What's the extra "m" for?) does look like fun!

He claims he was on the "Atheism" site and saw an ad for Chatting with Mormons and was tempted (by the devil, obviously) to visit it.

Here's his chat transcript: (Though I suspect if time was spent on planning the direction of the conversation, one could have endless amounts of fun! Sure, take that as a challenge!)

(The top of the chat says: You are speaking with Kerry, who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Information provided in this session is to provide assistance only and is not an official statement of the Church.)

Kerry: hey , this is ashley and kerry, what brings you to the site today?
Visitor: questions (and an ad)
Visitor: I was raised Catholic but left the faith at about 17 or 18. What is different about moronism?
Kerry: ok great, we're here to help in any way we can
Visitor: I have a couple friends who are Mormons but some of the story seems a bit unbelievable.
Visitor: I am looking for a community of like-minded people so I thought I'd come check it out.
Kerry: what is it that seems unbelievable to you? we can start from there
Visitor: Joseph Smith, really. Much of that story seems a bit odd. Mind you I've only heard it from only semi-educated mormons (they wouldn't be theologians by any stretch of the imagination - just followers of the faith)
Visitor: The special undergarments, the story of the garden of eden being in the US, natives being the lost tribe of israel, are a bit strange, too, I must add.
Visitor: Aside from that, my two friends are awesome people and I don't think they'd be the type of people to be swayed by a bunch of made up stuff. They probably just don't articulate well.
Kerry: how old are you ?
Visitor: 23
Visitor: They are 23 and 27.
Kerry: that's a good age
Visitor: I'm enjoying it!
Kerry: especially to look into finding the truth
Visitor: Yeah, I think I need to give it an honest go.
Kerry: im sure your friends know what they are talking about and are strong in their beliefs too. we're glad you're willing to 'give it an honest go'
Kerry: we're missionaries from the church and we
Visitor: To mormons, how old is the earth?
Kerry: are here to help explain some of our beliefs and help you make that step yourself
Kerry: missionaries in your area can also come over and explain more to help you understand the gospel of jesus Christ which is faith, repentance, baptism, receiving the gift of the holy ghost and then enduring to the end.
Kerry: i don't think the 'mormons' have a definite answer to how old the earth is.
Visitor: But evolution is accepted and the like?
Kerry: we have no stand on evolution either way
Visitor: good, because I'm studying biology and I'm having a hard time with the idea that the earth is only 10,000 years old
Kerry: i can imagine with your search that you're also finding a balance between school and religion
Visitor: that is important
Kerry: it seems that you are open minded and willing to learn though
Kerry: what do you know about Joseph Smith
Visitor: Yeah - just not so open minded the my brain falls out.
Kerry: haha you have personality too, that's good
Visitor: Well, from what I understand, he claims to have found some gold tablets and, with the help of a stone (?) was able to translate what was on the tables. (Did anyone else see the tablets?)
Kerry: we are wanting to meet with you more than just today to help you understand at a pace (so your braind DOESNT fall out)
Visitor: His wife got upset that he was cheating on her (taking another wife?) so she destroyed the translation and he started over.
Kerry: yes, actually 11 others were able to see them. in the front of the Book of Mormon there is the testimony of three witnesses and the Testimony of eight witnesses which you can read
Kerry: that part about Emma (his wife) isn't true.
Visitor: oh, that's good to know
Kerry: he didn't start over. after the first 116 pages had been translated, his scribe Oliver Cowdery wanted to show them to his family.
Kerry: he took them and then a mob came and stole them. they planned to change the wording, have Joseph Smith retranslate them and then try to prove he was a false prophet because it wouldnt have matched with the one they had possession of
Kerry: God told Joseph not to retranslate it for the safety of the truth.
Visitor: of course he would!
Visitor: two copies of the truth would be a bit much?
Kerry: tell us about it! we're slightly short on time at the moment but we'd like to set up a time tomorrow when we can tell you more about Joseph Smith and help you understand this story better.
Kerry: (especially if one was changed so that it could make out there was no truth in the first place)
Visitor: good point
Kerry: so is tomorrow good for you or maybe sunday?
Visitor: Tomorrow isn't going to be good. I am going to church with on Sunday (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) but what about Monday?
Kerry: monday sounds perfect! where abouts are you at? we have to make sure of time differences when we set up a time
Visitor: I do like the Mormon story better - the story about Jesus seems so absurd. At least Joseph Smith actually existed.
Kerry: i'm sorry, i don't understand
Visitor: I'm in the Eastern Time Zone
Kerry: what time is it there now?
Kerry: what is your email address so we can send you a link to the chat page for monday
Visitor: You don't understand about Jesus? In the Catholic church, they believe in a guy named "Jesus" who was born (well, they haven't decided when he was born, really - it could be a couple possible dates, years apart) of a virgin, died on the cross, etc. but there exists no evidence of him actually ever living. Are you not familiar with the Catholic story?
Visitor: It's 2:55PM here.
Kerry: yes, i am familiar with the catholic beliefs. there seems a lot we can talk about on Monday. When you go to church, you'll hear Jesus mentioned a lot. He is the son of God and did come to earth. he allowed us to return back to live with God.
Visitor: Oh.. so you believe that crazy Jesus story AND the odd stuff about Joseph Smith? That's not possible. (Please don't tell me you actually do have magic underwear too?)
Kerry: so on Monday, does morning, afternoon, or evening work best for you?

The conversation goes into them setting up another discussion for Monday. I hope we get to see the results of that!

I love the story about the translation going missing and that Joseph wouldn't retranslate it. I've heard a number of excuses on that.

Sadly, the Mormon story is batshit crazy. It is only crazier than the Christian story because they believe that one too!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Please stop believing woo-woo, we have better things to study

Recently the University of York released a study indicating that magnetic bracelets are inneffective at reducing arthritis pain.

In this scam alone, millions of dollars have been wasted by people hoping for a solution to their pain - swindled away from them by people falsely claiming the effectiveness of their woo-woo.

While the study's results are not surprising, it raises an interesting point regarding such studies and the need for them. When a study, like the University of York's, comes out that shows that there is no benefit (at least not greater than placebo) to a treatment, it reaffirms, for many of us, what we've already assumed. This particular study was the first done on these specific claims in about 30 years - so, until now, we've had little (as skeptics) to point to to confirm our suspicions.

However, for most other "alternative" therapies, there are already substantial and consistent studies showing the ineffectiveness (or dangers) yet people continue to subscribe to such irrationality. Countless studies have shown that reflexology, chiropractic, aromatherapy, homeopathy and most other alternative "medicines" or "therapies" are not effective and can be deadly/dangerous.

The problem is a difficult one to tackle but it is something that NEEDS to happen. I am not sure that doing the studies, however, solves much.

If a scientific study was all that was necessary to change the minds of people, chiropractic (at least as we know it), reflexology, homeopathy, ear candling, aromatherapy, acupuncture and many more services would be non-existent. Psychics, faith healers, preachers, dowsers, priests, sorcerers, witches and many others would be out of business.

Society needs to return to respecting and supporting science and change to a "prove it" attitude for positive assertions/claims. We are wasting (yes, WASTING) unimaginable amounts of money debunking woo-woo - these dollars could be better spent on solving the problems that cause the symptoms in the first place.

When someone makes a claim about something that just doesn't sound right - ask them for the evidence. You may just end up saving yourself some time and money - it could even save your life. (See the latest eSkeptic for information on How Chiropractic Kills)

Update: Since posting this, I visited and a recent article on Aggressive Quackery Marketing has some comments regarding people continuing to accept woo-woo even after science has shown it to be ineffective. View the comments - specifically by Dr. Benway (of Tufted Titmouse).

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Let me begin by saying I'm a skeptic too...

Often when talking with people who believe in the paranormal, pseudoscience, gods and other forms of woo-woo, they will preface their "argument" with claiming to be a skeptic too. A statement like that says many things - it gives me reason for hope (I'll explain) and a clear indication that what they are about to say is going to disprove their claim.

I'm hopeful and reassured by people saying they're skeptics too as I think it is important that we 're-claim' the word/title. Too often skepticism and the word skeptic is a negative term when it shouldn't be. Holding off on making judgment until the evidence favours one is a GOOD thing, a positive thing and it is nice to see that people use the term in a positive sense. (As in, "I'm as good as any at being skeptical, but...").

The phrase, "I'm a skeptic, but" almost always leads to a statement of faith that is based on a lack of evidence or in spite of the evidence. Last night, I was speaking with one of my wife's friends who said "I'm a serious skeptic, but, I did have this psychic one time who was able to tell me... ". The lady went on to tell me how her husband was amazed at some of the things she said and that there was no way for the psychic to have known without truly having psychic powers.

Discussing a topic like a personal experience and the fallibility of the human mind is tough with someone who firmly believes the story the way they are telling it. Stories like this are often embellished and or mis-remembered and certainly only relate to the "hits" that the psychic had and does not include the "misses".

A true skeptic (speaking about the person experiencing/enduring a psychic reading), before asserting that a person has psychic abilities, would have required more evidence for any "hits" that were made and counted the "misses".

For the hits, is there any possible way that psychic could have known these things? Was it just a guess? For this lady, she said that the psychic knew that her husband's birthday was in December - and how could she have known that? Odds alone suggest that it wasn't too far fetched to suggest a simple guess. Did the psychic say "Oh, and I know your husband was born in December"? Or did she possibly say "I feel that someone in your family was born around the holiday season?" (Which could have been November, December or January) or something else vague? Is it more likely that she saw the sticker on your licence plate before she entered your home and noticed that it was set to expire in December (in Ontario, plates renew on your birthday)?

Along the lines of "what is more likely", Michael Shermer's talk on Why People Believe Weird Things at TED is well worth viewing.

Are You Risking the Lives of Others?

I have spent much time addressing claims that the MMR vaccine is associated with Autism (it isn't). Study after study after study have shown that there is no causal link between the MMR vaccine and the incidence of autism. That is a dead issue.

However, the anti-vaccination movement has spilled over (and has been brewing, obviously, for a number of years) into seasonal flu and, more importantly, H1N1 vaccination myths.

I won't go into what herd immunity is or even the thimerosal arguments - I addressed them in an old blog posting (Jenny McCarthy is my hero).

Wired Magazine has recently published an article, "An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All" that is well worth the read. It is a lengthy article but explains the war on science, a little history of the anti-vax movement and addresses a great number of the myths that still surround vaccinations.

In the end, the Anti-Vax movement's greatest weapon? Lies. The misinformation might kill or harm you or someone you love.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Tar Tar Pits: Rancho La Brea

On Sunday of the AAI conference, the American Atheists organized a half-day Los Angeles bus trip that included stops at the Page Museum and in Santa Monica. Somewhere around 100 people took advantage of the offer. With so many atheists in just a couple of buses, you would have thought that 'God' would have had some fun with us. The joke, really, was on her/him/it.

If you're not familiar with Rancho La Brea (they're often called The La Brea Tar pits, which means "Tar Tar pits"), you should work to change that. From what I understand, there is no Spanish word for "asphalt" and that is why they're called "Tar pits" - even though it isn't tar.

La Brea is home to some of the best preserved and most numerous fossils from a recent ice age. Inside the Page Museum, they have reconstructed a number of species using real fossils from those specific species - that, due to the true unlikelihood of fossilization and the usual destruction of animals prior to fossilization, is amazing. What is more amazing (to young earth creationists, anyway) is that the fossils range in age from twice the age of the earth to about 8 times as old as the earth. (11,000 years to 50,000 years old - they were between 5,000 and 44,000 years old before god even created the earth!)

If you're ever in the Los Angeles, California, area, make sure to include a trip the Page Museum - you'll be amazed at what is inside!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

It's no longer a 'secret'...

Believing absurd things can be deadly.

James Arthur Ray is featured in "The Secret"and has been seen on Oprah Winfrey (as well as others) but his latest accomplishment is proving that following him can be deadly.

This just goes to prove that thinking critically might just save your life.

As I've referenced before, - it's worth a visit.


Monday, October 12, 2009

Wow, what a convention

As readers of my blog will know, a number of people from Sarnia traveled to Burbank, California for the Atheist Alliance International Conference "Darwin's Legacy".

The attendance at the conference was well over what they anticipated (PZ Myers' talk was so busy that people were sitting in the aisles, standing along the walls and listening (as much as the could) from just outside the doors of the room).

I have a number of interesting stories to tell and some pictures to show from the event. I haven't had a chance to copy the pictures from my cameras yet and, with having to go back to work tomorrow, I'm sure the next few days will be hectic too.

The AAI convention, this year, was co-sponsored by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. With such a sponsorship, a number of the talks were more reason and science focused which made for an educating and enligthening weekend. Carolyn Porco (an atheist*) was one of the speakers - Carolyn was the "real person" behind the character that Jodie Foster played in Carl Sagan's epic Contact.

From the world of podcasts, I had the pleasure of spending a few minutes with Brother Richard (Atheist News)(also of Atheist Nexus) and David Driscoll (American Freethought). Both of these guys were, like most atheists, friendly, well-spoken, articulate, approachable and funny.

Contrary to other conventions I've been to (outside the freethinking/skeptic/atheist movement), the speakers are not put on a pedestal away from the conference attendees. After most speakers had a chance to present, attendees were given an opportunity to ask questions or point out areas where they disagree. Even more amazing is that most of the speakers were around for the full convention and, when they could, would engage in conversations with the rest of us.

In the next couple of weeks, I'll get some of my pictures posted and tell you, more in depth, about my experience at the event.

*An atheist is someone who doesn't believe in gods. Sorry Carolyn.

I don't believe that...

Religulous has been out for almost a year and, admittedly, it is a funny movie but with a really serious message (which, in hindsight, takes a lot of the fun out of it). I recently had a discussion with a "believer" about the film and, as it often does, apparently nobody believes what so many people believe. Odd statement, but let me explain.

In Religulous, Bill Maher lets people state their beliefs and, unfortunately, didn't confront much of the absurdity. He did, however, enable them to expand on their absurd statements which added to the hilarity. (I think he should have tackled some of the claims - many are easily countered but, I suspect, for the sake of comedy, they weren't.)

This particular gentleman and most "believers" that I've spoken with about the film will claim something along the lines of "Bill just taped the wackos or the fringe, most people don't believe that stuff". Unfortunately that is not at all true.

I like to then ask questions like "Do you believe in a talking snake?" or "Do you believe that a man (Jonah) lived in a giant fish (or a whale) for 3 days?" or "Do you believe that man lived to be hundreds of years old?"

If the answer is "yes" to any of these questions, then hearing simply the question and that answer would elicit laughter by most thinking people. This is pretty much what Bill Maher did in some of the movie. These people aren't "odd" or on the fringe - these same answers would be given by many mainstream believers. (That doesn't and shouldn't make them any less absurd, though.)

Having said all that, there are many believers who don't believe in the literal interpretation of the flood story, the creation story or the talking snake. Often I'm told, when I point out absurdities, that "I don't believe that" or "Most christians don't believe that". It just goes to make my point in my "Not Your God" posting from last year.