Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Emile Varsava's Letter to the Editor - Sarnia Observer

In a recent edition of The Sarnia Observer, Emile Varsava writes:
Sir: After Adam and Eve were put out from the Garden of Eden, the Bible states that they had two sons, Cain and Abel (they had other children also), Jealousy developed between Cain and Abel, because Cain's sacrifice to God was not accepted like Abel's was. In anger, Cain killed his brother. God called to Cain, and asked, "where is your brother Abel?" Cain answered, am I my brother's keeper? The Bible does not state if God answered Abel.

Centuries later, in Luke's Gospel, Jesus gave the answer to Cain's question, am I my brother's keeper.

Lawyer asked Jesus, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus asked him what is written in the law, he answered, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with thy soul, with thy mind, and love thy neighbour as thyself. Jesus said thou hast answered correctly. The lawyer asked, who is my neighbour? Jesus told him the Good Samaritan story. How a certain Samaritan stopped to help a man who had been beaten, robbed, and left for dead.

The Samaritan poured wine and oil on the victim's wounds, put him on his own steed, took him to an Inn, paid the innkeeper to look after the victim until the Samaritan returned. Jesus told the lawyer, "go and do likewise." What Jesus said to the lawyer, Jesus is saying to all of us, go and help those in need.

John's Gospel tells us to love one another. Our live must be active, we must all be Good Samaritans. The doctrine of feeding the hungry was introduced by the Prophet Isaiah, who lived 750 years before Christ. Isiah said feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, help those in need. This is the foundation of Christian faith.

-- Emile Varsava Sarnia
If that were all that the Christian Faith was all about, I can't see many people being against it.  However, I think the foundation of the Christian faith is dogmatic acceptance of unbelievable (literally) doctrines.

As an aside, when one reads a letter like Emile's they should be driven to ask "Is that why Christians spend billions and billions annually on their massive houses of worship?" but I digress.

Without getting into whether or not Jesus or Isaiah existed, the reality is that the idea of taking care of others pre-dates Christianity by many many years.  Humanity has existed for a couple hundred thousand years and it is clear that co-operation is what enabled our species to thrive.  It didn't take some sky-fairy to tell us that murdering was bad for us to realize that permitting murder wasn't in our best interest.

Since all of us (but the truly wacky) realize that Adam and Eve (Cain and Abel, etc.) did not exist, the premise of Emile's first paragraph is no stronger than referring to a Berenstain Bears story or one from another children's book.  (Though I think the Berenstain Bears probably make the points better without getting into a jealous papa bear that kills off thousands of his "children" for owning something like a stuffed teddy bear.)

Emile goes on to relate her reading of Luke when she speaks about the lawyer asking Jesus how he is to gain eternal life (which almost certainly does not exist).  The "law" states that you must first love "god" (what a jealous bugger he is!) and then love thy neighbour.  The concept of mutual respect, again, predates Christianity and can be derived from a naturalistic set of morals based simply on the goal of reducing human suffering (and likely was arrived at that way in the beginning).

In other words, (and using Emile's), "the foundation of the Christian faith" is copied from earlier myths and societies.  That's not much to base your beliefs on!

Though the bible does suggest some pretty good things, we can't forget the other doctrines of many faiths that are based on the very same book (not to consider the many things that were justified/supported for years by the bible - slavery and other horrific ideas like an eye-for-an-eye or stoning people to death for not believing). 

Many people use the bible, today, to support the restriction of human/equal rights for women, homosexuals and others.  It also interferes with science education, medical research and other attempts on reducing human suffering (ie. population/birth control, contraceptives, vaccinations and others).  It leads people to hold irrational beliefs about the destruction of our planet and how we should treat it - the idea that only "god" can destroy what he has created.

So, Emile, let's agree that we should work together to alleviate the suffering of others.  Let's give credit where credit is due, however - to humanity.  The golden rule was a man-made construct as your letter suggests (Isaiah wasn't "god") - we need not believe in any "gods" to accept it and we need not give credit to anyone or anything else. 

And keep that in mind the next time something "amazing" happens - like when miners are rescued from a collapsed mine by technology and humans - thank those who are like you and I - the people who want nothing more than for the human condition to be improved.  It is no time to be thanking a "god" - it is time to be amazed and intrigued by human ingenuity, the search for "truth" and the continuing advancement of technology.  The world, as it is, is amazing enough - we don't need to make crap up.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

You say my car is crap but you don't even have a car yourself?

I was recently at an auction and standing beside a grey truck waiting for some people to clear out before we left.  The conversation that followed actually happened:
Man standing beside me: (Him) "Is that your truck?"
Me: "No, sorry." (I thought he was going to ask me to move it.)
Him: "Good, Chevy makes a horrible truck.  I wouldn't drive a Chevy if someone gave it to me."
Me: "Oh, what kind of a truck do you recommend?  Or should I ask what kind of a truck do you drive?"
Him: "I don't own a truck but I'd definitely buy a Ford if I got one."
Me: "Oh? What kind of a car do you own?"
Him: "Well, I don't have one at the moment."
Me: "So you'd probably drive a Chevy if someone gave you one?"
Him: "Yeah, if someone gave me one."
Me: "That's what I thought."


I had a giggle at his expense and I hoped that he learned how silly his argument was.  He probably didn't.

It reminds me of people who are Intelligent Design advocates.  They're knocking a theory, that does everything that it needs to, simply because the theory they don't have but wish they had would be better than evolution.  Intelligent Design advocates have yet to postulate a theory to replace the theory they vehemently oppose. 

Stupid squared.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Back to Basics: Debating the uninformed

Sometimes I'm just stuck for what to blog about.  Many arguments against religion, alt medicine, anti-vaccination are so basic and have been used for so long that I wonder what it is going to take to get people to start thinking.

The recent Pew study that showed that atheists and agnostics have a greater knowledge about religion than the religious is pretty telling of what I should be blogging about - the basic arguments.  It is often clear in my daily discussions that many "believers" haven't even thought about some of the main concepts and doctrines of their own religion so when they are faced with a rebuttal to a new-age-ish philosophical argument their faith is unchanged.  I think the same can be said for alt-med acceptance and other odd beliefs.

Maybe it is truly time to get back to the basics.  Maybe a simple understanding or explanation of the elementary aspects is what we really need to be doing.  Maybe I've missed out on opportunities to get someone to think simply by making an argument that is far more complicated than anything they think they'll ever spend the time/energy to comprehend (nothing against that, there are times when I wish I didn't feel the need to understand the justification for things - ask my wife, sometimes she'll lose me for hours as I try to find out WHY it is that something might be true or WHY it is that something works).

The Pew Study is a great place to start - and to expand on some of the questions.  Here are some simple arguments (or ideas) that I think we often skip right past and they're ones that might just be ones people haven't thought about. (This list is obviously not exhaustive.)

When discussing evolution with a Catholic who doesn't accept evolution, maybe a simple reminder (it turns out that maybe it isn't a reminder) that the Catholic church accepts evolution.  They also accept that the earth is billions of years old.  (That leads to Adam & Eve not existing - what does that mean for original sin? The creation of the earth in 7 days? World-wide flood?)

For people who suggest that the universe needed a creator and that creator was "god", ask them what created god?  If god, himself, didn't need a creator, then why must the universe have needed one?  You are forced with the ultimate regression (what created god? what created that? what created that?) - at some point something would have had to come to being without a creator.  To postulate a god is to complicate things unnecessarily.

Questions relating to god's ability to do anything and the idea that prayer works:  Why doesn't god heal amputees?  If other species are able to do it (as George Hrab said - You can cut off a starfish's limb and not only will it grow back but that fucker will never mouth off to you again.) why couldn't humans?

Many are not aware that the stories about Christ were not written by eyewitnesses - it wasn't even written by people who were alive at the time that the events supposedly happened.

Speaking of the Christian bible, I often am discussing it with people who don't even realize that it wasn't compiled until hundreds of years later.  Depending on your faith, the bible contains a varying number of books too - if it is the word of god, do you think he's pissed that people are leaving out some of his books (or including books that aren't his word)?

The bible doesn't state that Adam ate an apple.  It doesn't even specify the fruit - many Christians are surprised to learn that (especially after claiming that they've read the bible many times).

There is no supporting evidence outside of the bible of Jesus' existence.  There wasn't a census around the time of Jesus' birth and, even if there was, it'd be no reason for Joseph to have headed "home" - Jesus wasn't from Joseph's bloodline (immaculate conception) and, if he was, the logic fails as to why you would be counted where your ancestors (many generations removed) lived.

Jesus wasn't born on December 25 (if he even ever existed, that is) - Christmas was moved to that date to coincide (take over?) the pagan holidays of the time.  The bible clearly (ha!) states when Jesus was born and it wasn't December 25!

Simple bits of information can be provided to dismantle other beliefs as well:

Have a belief in homeopathy?  Do you know that many homeopathic "medicines" are so dilute that they can't simply contain a single molecule of the supposed active ingredient? 

Ionic Foot Cleanse?  When you go for your foot cleanse, don't put your feet in and the water will change colour just as it does if you put your feet in.

Ear Candling?  Burn the candle without putting it in an ear - the same "debris" and "wax" will result.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

I can't explain it, but it worked for me!

To begin let me assure you that I am not picking on Jeffrey Needham anymore than, say, doctors are picking on a section of skin when they are attempting to remove a patch of skin cancer.  There is little in chiropractic that has been proven to offer benefit but, given that there is some areas where it MAY be helpful, I do not think that chiropractic is worthless.  Much of what Jeffrey Needham "pushes" is bullshit.  Chiropractic does not cure colds, asthma, bed wedding, ear infections, etc.  Without reservation I would discourage a child from ever seeing a chiropractor unless under the specific direction and care of an orthopedist (which will seldom, if ever, happen).

A number of people have sent me emails or, in person, asked me questions about Chiropractic and many of the defenders of it say "I can't explain it, but it worked for me!"  That is almost a standard line used by any "supporter" of alternative medicine.  Most importantly, the question is "by work, what did it do?".

Many diseases are self-limiting - they follow a natural course and, ultimately, go away.  The common cold, headaches and ear infections are examples of diseases that typically run their course on their own.  It is often said that when you have a cold if you take some cold medicine, it goes away in 7 days whereas if you do not, it goes away in a week.

Muscle soreness, joint pain, back pain, etc., often follow cycles - periods where it isn't as bad compared to periods where it seems worse.  Some people with chronic pain report periods of little (or no) irritation and periods of increased pain - with no apparent contributing causes (or changes in activities).

Before suggesting that chiropractic "worked", we must be sure that the explanation doesn't lie elsewhere.  For chiropractic, it is often the case that the pain would have naturally diminished (or gone away) and, in some cases, would have done so sooner without chiropractic.

This fallacy that people fall victim to is the correlation not causation fallacy.  Simply because some "thing" occurs after another "thing" does not mean that the first thing "caused" the second thing.  (I've mentioned in an earlier blog that blaming autism on vaccination is like blaming vaccination for the child turning 1.)  The fallacy is often called "post hoc, ergo propter hoc" (translates to "after this, therefore because of this").

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

An unexpected pregnancy is no time to take advantage of people

Let me make this clear:  You may agree or disagree with this blog entry solely on your preconceptions of abortion.  This blog is not about whether or not abortion should be legal (it is in Canada. In Ontario it is a practice that is covered by OHIP) - it is about lying for Jesus.

I've recently noticed an advertisement for The Pregnancy Centre on a local website in Sarnia.  I have discussed this "organization", in person, with a number of people and the discussion almost always seems to be trumped by the word "abortion".  I'm not pro-abortion (I don't think anyone is) and I promised my mom that I'd never have one - a promise that I have kept and will keep.  (My mom was proud to hear that I'd never consider an abortion but she was probably concerned I didn't realize that, as a boy, I couldn't get pregnant anyway.)

The Pregnancy Centre is a front for a religious attack and not only on the woman's right to choose - but (and most importantly) on a woman's right to make an INFORMED choice.  They spend a lot of time advertising many of the services they offer - pregnancy tests, options counseling, support groups and material support.  I applaud organizations for their willingness to fill gaps in services and I find it even more noble when they are able to offer the services at no charge to the client. 

Though the services (or most of them) are offered "free" at The Pregnancy Centre, not all of them are - some come with pretty serious requirements.  However, most of the services they offer are offered for free already.  Pregnancy testing is even covered by OHIP!  Counseling is also available (and from licensed professionals, none-the-less) as well as support groups.  More importantly, the counseling available elsewhere (and government supported) is non-sectarian and is designed to be based on the best available knowledge not an ancient text. 

The "Material Support" that is offered from the Centre is not quite free - yes, you can borrow clothing from them but in order to do so, you have to take part in their activities.  To get "baby bucks" (as they call them) to "buy" stuff from them you have to take their courses.

The problem that we should all have with The Pregnancy Centre is that it is a front for religious instruction and indoctrination.  The agency is not government funded (and it shouldn't be), it is funded by a couple dozen churches, is (or was) operated by the wife of a Baptist minister in Sarnia and the sales pitches that it makes to churches is FAR different from those that it makes to the general public.  The Pregnancy Centre lies for Jesus.

The Pregnancy Centre's "options" counseling never includes a referral or true information on getting an abortion - they spend a substantial amount of time speaking with clients about belief and trust in "god" and discourage abortion with "horror stories" (yes, stories - some of which could be completely made up and others might be exaggerations).  Vulnerable and confused women (often teenagers and young adults) are subjected to images and stories to discourage them from considering their options.

Whether or not you agree with abortion, lying about it is not a reasonable or humane way to "inform" a person - especially a person facing an enormous life-changing decision. 

If you know someone (or are, yourself) in a situation where you need advice and information about the options available to you in situations like these - stay away from The Pregnancy Centre - misinformation, shame and Jesus are a dangerous mix. 

(Options counseling, material support and support groups have a strong Christian/Jesus focused theme. Don't believe me? Let them tell you about it...)

Friday, October 8, 2010

Robbie Thomas Revisited

As you may know, a number of months ago Robbie Thomas claimed that he was in the process of suing me.  It comes with great surprise and regret that my opinion on psychic phenomenon took a direct hit when, this morning, I received a notice for a registered letter.

I picked up my registered letter and, guess what, it was my Nexus card.  Yes, my Nexus card.  No, it wasn't a letter from Robbie's lawyer.  It was at that point that I realized that predictions I made had actually come true.  My pretty firm belief in the non-existence of true psychic abilities was being put to the test.

A number of months ago, I predicted that, though many know me both as, well, me, and as "Sarnia Skeptic" Robbie Thomas would not be able to identify me (he isn't psychic after all) and, though I offered to identify myself to Robbie's supposed lawyer if there was a lawsuit to be filed against me, that Robbie was lying about a pending lawsuit.  Both of my predictions were true.  I had to question whether I, too, possessed psychic powers (I don't - nobody does).

I'm revisiting the "Robbie Thomas" crap on Small Town Skepticism (though would seem the more appropriate place for it) because 1.) it helps promote and 2.) his threats were to me specifically.

To reiterate something that we (myself and other skeptics as well as contributors to have said many times before - Robbie Thomas is not psychic and he has not solved a single missing persons or murder case using his claimed (but non-existent) psychic powers.  And Robbie claims he has been doing this for over 20 years now.  My apologies for the out-dated graphic on my blog - I leave it at 18 so that Robbie doesn't feel like the true failure that he is.  I mean, it is bad enough not having a single success in 18 years, let alone 20!

Now to the meat of this entry.  Robbie Thomas now claims to be a Psychic Criminal Profiler - which is almost self-contradictory in title alone.  (I think really does the Psychic Criminal Profiling.)

A criminal profiler, as described on HubPages, is "an individual with appropriate Education, experience and skill to thoroughly examine available physical evidence, crime scene characteristics and associated behavioural evidence to infer offender characteristics and render a criminal profile."

Criminal profiling can be a useful tool that is often employed by police agencies.  A profile, however, is not evidence.  Many cases that have involved "profiling" have been, in hindsight, pretty accurate in their description of a criminal's patterns, activities, history, etc.  They aren't, however, always accurate and in some cases have put focus on areas that distracted the case.  Much of profiling is based on disciplines of science but the predictions that are made are often very speculative and can be entirely off-base.

Adding the term "Psychic" to the title of Criminal Profiler makes the information that much more suspect.  At least in standard profiling, a person can review the deductions and inferences that were made to obtain the profile and, in the future, fine tune the process to provide more specific and accurate information.  When "and magic happens" is added to any equation, the answers or results are often less valid and not worth considering.  Since "psychic" phenomenon has never passed even the most basic of scientific investigations, the resulting products from a "Psychic Criminal Profiler" would not stand up to scrutiny.

Simply adding "Criminal Profiler" to "Psychic" almost infers, in itself, that psychic "skills" do not exist.  If psychics were truly able to communicate with the dead and/or "remote view", why would they need to build a "profile", could they not simply ask the deceased individual who killed them or could they not see the exact location that a missing person is being kept? 

A profile done in advance of catching the criminal - something that is often not admissible as evidence in court - is only 70% right 80% of the time (I couldn't find statistics but I am assured that it is better than 50% but not anywhere near 100% accurate) - combined with "psychic" (which many people will attribute psychic abilities to someone who has one hit in 10 guesses (10% accuracy!)).  In other words, possibly useful information made completely useless because it is based 100% on something that does not exist.

To sum up:
Robbie has not been able to identify me using his psychic powers (do you think he could find a murderer or a missing person?)
Robbie lied about suing me.
Robbie has not solved a single missing persons or murder case using psychic powers.
Robbie Thomas is not listed as an expert witness for profiling in any publically available court documents.

As The Skeptic's Dictionary so aptly states:
Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people. Psychics aren't overly worried about other psychics reading their minds and revealing their innermost secrets to the world. No casino has ever banned psychics from the gaming room because there is no need.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Don't be fooled, the Q-Ray isn't useless!

I was recently watching a late-night television show and during the commercial break, there were advertisements for “Q-Ray” bracelets. Forgive me for being blunt but stupidity has no limits.

The Q-Ray bracelet is nothing new – they company advertises that they’ve been selling them for 15 years. The problem is that the bracelets have only ever been credited with curing one ailment (more on that later). The bracelets have no plausible method of action and have been discredited time and time again by even the simplest of studies. During the commercials for the product I had to just shake my head in amazement.

Just this morning, however, I received a SPAM from a company advertising “hologram power bracelets” at huge discounts (“Normally sold in stores for $60” but available from them “for only 19.95$”). I didn’t follow the link (I didn’t want them to know I actually read their email) but I did a quick search and found countless varieties of this useless crap.

During my search, I came across an Australian newspaper article that mentions these “Power Balance” “powerbands” and their $60 pricetag. One can not help but be heartily amused by the ironic final sentence. A link on that page (“Science takes up challenge of wrist band”) is mildly ironic in itself – the idea that a chiropractor was going to actually perform clinical studies (my apologies to the strict minority of chiropractors who strive to be science based).

It turns out that “Power Balance” and the “Q-Ray” do both have the same effect – no matter what model you buy, they are both able to cure you of the not-so-common ailment of “thick wallet syndrome”. If you have too much money in your wallet, they both offer a quick and easy way to thin it out (depending on the model you buy, it can help to a greater or lesser degree – from a quick search, it appears that the double mesh necklace is the most effective).

For more information, check out CBC Marketplace “Buying Belief”
Also see Quackwatch