Skepfeeds-The Best Skeptical blogs of the day

“What matters is that they show respect.”

Posted in Edger by Skepdude on October 14, 2008

Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, recently released a press release chastising the writers of the Fox crime show “Bones” for an on-screen portrayal of blasphemy, saying that one of the lines spoken by a character on the show “cuts to the heart and soul of Catholicism” and “was entirely gratuitous.”

This is the line in question, which occurs during a conversation between two characters and is spoken by the show’s title character: ““One pastor gets her teeth whitened, and the other drinks wine on Sunday mornings and tells everyone that it’s been miraculously transformed into blood. Which of those is more outlandish?”

““It does not matter that non-Catholics may not accept what happens at Mass. What matters is that they show respect,” commented Mr. Donohue, whose successful career of Catholic advocacy work includes respectfully blaming Jessica Delfino for terrorism, respectfully saying that Jews control Hollywood, and respectfully referring to the creators of “South Park” as “little whores” (they respectfully cajoled him right back in a later episode). He has also waged a profoundly respectful war against PZ Myers for desecrating the Eucharist, and against University of Central Florida student Webster Cook for refusing to be force-fed a magical cracker.


Biologie Totale: The quackery of German New Medicine on steroids

Posted in Respectful Insolence by Skepdude on October 14, 2008

OK, I give up.

I hadn’t planned on blogging about this because I thought I had already taken care of this woo before. Well, not exactly this woo, but a related woo of which this new issue is just a warmed over more woo-ified version. Indeed, I had even considered it as a candidate to be the first “victim” of a new, improved, resurrected version of Your Friday Dose of Woo (yes, I still do intend to resurrect it but haven’t managed to find the time to give it the justice it deserves), but decided against using this particular form of woo because, well, it’s quackery that kills. And that’s a buzzkill if anything is.

Still, you, my readers, would not let me easily ignore this particular bit of quackery. Over the last few days, you sent stories about it to me. It is indeed appalling and utterly pseudoscientific. It is indeed full of the most amazing bits of idiocy. It is indeed Biologie Totale.

Except that it’s nothing of the sort. Unfortunately, it’s gaining traction in Quebec:

A new therapy that claims to cure cancer and other diseases but has been blamed for dozens of deaths in Europe is gaining popularity in Canada, according to a Radio-Canada investigation.”Total biology” is a therapeutic approach that claims illness is caused by psychological conflicts in the brain.

The approach, also known as new medicine or bio-psycho-genealogy, professes to heal all disease, including AIDS and advanced forms of cancer.

The method is gaining traction in Quebec where patients are often told to ignore their cancer, or stop medical treatment altogether, according to an investigation by CBC’s French-language service.


Mande Barung Bunk

Posted in Neurologica by Skepdude on October 14, 2008

Dipu Marak is referred to by the BBC in multiple articles as a “passionate yeti believer.” Recently Marak’s passionate belief was put to the test, and he passed (or failed, depending upon your perspective) with flying colors.

The mande barung is the local name for an alleged ape-like creature believed to inhabit the Garo hills in Meghalaya, India. It is the “Bigfoot” of the region. Incidentally, the “Yeti” is the name for such a mythical creature in Nepal.

Why is Dipu Marak a passionate believer? He says:

“We have so many reports of sightings that I sincerely believe there is some sort of huge creature in the Garo hills.”

He is committing the common fallacy of either limiting the number of hypotheses he is willing to consider, or prematurely dismissing some. Specifically he is failing to consider that many eyewitness reports can simply be wrong. There are many historical examples that prove this principle.

My favorite example is “The Great American Airship Mania of 1896-97″ which Robert E. Bartholomew documented so well. At the time there was the widespread belief that we were on the verge of inventing airships (heavier than air flying machines) – and so people starting seeing them. Their descriptions fit the quaint image of an airship, not the designs that eventually worked and took to the air.


Fundie Claim #17: No religion, no meaning!

Posted in Evolved and Rational by Skepdude on October 14, 2008


Fundie: Without religion, life would be meaningless and without purpose! We need god to have a purpose in life! What is the meaning of life in the atheist worldview? There is none, BAWWWWW! The negation of the notion of an afterlife, souls, spirits and zomgwtfgod causes one’s life to be pointless. Therefore, we need religion!

Listen up, theistards: If you believe that your life is pointless without a belief in an imaginary sky-daddy that listens to your every prayer, you need to grow the fuck up. Yes, leaving religion is not an easy task, but you seriously need to get a fucking grip. There is so much out there in the world that makes basing your life on a fucking holy book written by mortal men thousands of years ago seem as stupid as believing in Xenu and thetans. Wishing for something to be true does not make it true, so your argument is simply hot air and BAWWWWW.

The obsession with ‘purpose’ and ‘meaning’ stems from the human inability and/or refusal to consider that this life is all there is, and that this is it. Many people simply cannot face the fact that after they cease breathing, it’s kthxbai over. Humans are egotistical creatures, as seen in religions that claim that man is the center of the universe, and notice that such religions tend to resist any progress that casts doubt on this idea (Galileo, anyone?). Humans are often femotionally needy and we can’t comprehend the fact that our lifespan is fleeting, temporal…and then, nothing. We are just going to end up in the ground being worm food no matter what, and this fact often makes people go BAWWWWW.

There seems to be an increasing tendency among atheists to downplay this aspect of rationalism when dealing with religious nuts, perhaps in order to avoid playing into their hands. In my opinion, fuck this shit. We need to outgrow our delusions of ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’, pointing out that the only meaning and purpose to life is what we make out of it. The universe doesn’t care, there are no gods who fucking care, there are no angels looking out for us – nobody cares and will care unless we humans take it into our hands and start caring.

We need to get over our obsession with purpose, and I see no reason to hide the fact that we live in a purposeless world just to make people feel better about themselves. We need to make this fact known so that people would take responsibility for their own lives instead of sitting around and whining about how god will look after them or that their sorry lives are a part of god’s plan.

If we don’t wake the fuck up and be responsible for our own lives without deluding ourselves about a higher power looking after us, humanity is headed on a path to self-destruction; and no amount of wailing about ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’ is going to change it.

Grow the fuck up, humans.


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Why I Am a Humanist

Posted in Rationally Speaking by Skepdude on October 14, 2008


A few months ago Mark Rowlands, over at Secular Philosophy, wrote a  twopart essay, followed by an update, on why he is not a humanist. Several people have asked me to respond, since this question comes up often, for instance whenever I say that I am more comfortable with the label “humanist” than “atheist” (although I am most certainly both, and proud of it). So let’s reconstruct Rowlands’ reasoning and try to see where, I think, he goes astray.

Mark begins by listing a series of definitions of humanism, mostly from dictionaries, all taken from the website of the Institute for Humanist Studies (full disclosure: I collaborate regularly with IHS and have designed an online course for their continuum of adult education). Arguably the best definition of those cited by Rowlands comes from the Merriam Webster:

“[Humanism is] a doctrine, attitude, or way of life centered on human interests or values; especially: a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual’s dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason.”

What is wrong with this? According to Mark, “humanism is simply an article of faith, akin to many religions.” Wow, slow down! All definitions of humanism include a clause about its rejection of supernaturalism, and religions (as opposed to, say, philosophies) do include a supernatural component. This is akin to the oft-heard, and quite silly, refrain that atheism is a religion. Atheism is a philosophical or epistemological position about the world. When it is militant and intolerant (as it sometimes is), it becomes an ideology. But most certainly not a religion. To call humanism or atheism a religion is a fundamental category mistake.

Why does Rowlands make this extraordinary claim, sure to astonish any self-reported humanist (such as yours truly)? He says that “the unquestioned article of faith contained in all of these statements is obvious: humans are the most important thing there is — at least in the known universe.” He then goes on to argue (quite appropriately) that there is no objective way to establish that humans are either “better” or “more important” than any other life form in the universe, case closed.

But wait, this may very well be a case of simply setting up a straw man for the pleasure of bringing it down with little effort. I don’t think for a moment that most humanists think of human beings as better or more important than anything else in the universe, and this position absolutely does not follow from, nor is it implied by, the tenets of humanism.

Let’s go back to the Webster definition, piece by piece: “[a] doctrine, attitude, or way of life centered on human interests or values.” Just because someone centers her values or way of life around X it doesn’t follow that she thinks X is objectively the best thing in the world. Think, for instance, of your family. Very likely, if you are a parent, you will concentrate your efforts, time, and resources on the welfare of your family. Most people, possibly even Rowlands, would grant that this is a perfectly good and honorable thing to do. But it absolutely does not follow that therefore you think your family is intrinsically more important than any other family on earth. It is most important to you, because it is your family, and that suffices to justify, socially and morally, your efforts on its behalf (though you should still set aside some of that effort and resources to help other people or causes outside your family).

Rowlands sees this point, but dismisses it with a rather forced example. He rewrites the various definitions of humanism by substituting “white people” for “human,” as in “a way of life centered on white people’s interests or values.” He wishes to show that one could pick any arbitrary group and the same philosophy would apply, showing that humanism is therefore a faith, and possibly a pernicious one. But as my example of your family should indicate, not all groups are equally worthy of special consideration, subjectively or objectively. “White people” is a biologically spurious and socially pernicious grouping, while “family” is a biologically natural and socially constructive grouping. There is a difference, and to ignore it is to fall for the postmodernist fallacy that anything goes.

Back to Webster: “a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual’s dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason.” “Usually” here probably refers to the fact that humanism started out during the Renaissance, when one simply could not profess atheism, until independence from religion began to be asserted three centuries later, culminating in the Enlightenment . It is precisely because of the rejection of supernatural nonsense and an emphasis on human dignity, worth and ability to pursue self-realization that I think humanism is the best positive philosophy we have. How can Rowlands not consider himself a humanist?

The real answer, I suspect, emerges from the third part of his commentary, the one where he addresses miscellaneous objections from his readers. Mark states “Matt m [one of his blog’s readers] wouldn’t extend the social contract to animals who can’t understand it. Well, my twelve month old son is an animal who can’t understand the contract. Should I not extend it to him? More generally: I’ve written two books on this – Animal Rights (1998, 2009) and Animals Like Us (2002).” Ah, that’s where the rub hits the philosophical pavement, so to speak. Rowlands has a problem with humanism because it is too parochial, it does not extend to the rest of the animal (but what about the vegetable and bacterial?) world. Some of my good friends are vegetarians (no kidding), and at least one close friend of mine has always pointed out to me that she doesn’t consider herself a humanist precisely for the reason implied by Rowlands’ comment on animal rights: it is too restrictive a notion.

But I wish to make the argument that it is the animal rights perspective — as laudable as it is — that misses the point here. First, let’s take care of Mark’s twelve month old son: it really should go without saying that there is an objective difference between an animal that is in the process of developing toward a full grown human being, with good chances of becoming a person, and an animal — say a wolf, to use Rowlands’ own example, who simply does not have the biological ability to do so. It does make a difference whether a being has the potential to understand the concept of rights or not: this clearly and objectively separates (without making them “better”) human beings from all other animals (including our closest primate cousins). It also makes human beings the proper recipients (and negotiators) of rights — an inherently human concept, incidentally.

Second, and more importantly, my example of why — and within what limits — our own families are more important than others to us shows the fallacy in Rowlands’ argument: humanism, with its centering on the human condition, does not imply the negation of the ethical status of other living beings, just like our justified but admittedly subjective interest in our own family does by no means imply that other families are not important in an absolute sense. Indeed, many humanists are supporters of animal rights, and they base their support on their compassion as well as their logic, not on the whims of imaginary supernatural beings (at least some of whom allegedly tell us to do with animals what we wish, since they were created to serve our needs).

This is why I am a humanist.


#49 Homosexual Cartoon Characters

Posted in Stuff God Hates by Skepdude on October 14, 2008


Prepare thyself, he who reads this, to tremble and quake before the Incredible Word of God, as written by THE LORD HIMSELF!

Today, in the middle of the seventh month of My Divine Hatred Therapy, I shall vent My Righteous Rage at something that has been pestering Me for quite some time – flamingly homosexual cartoon characters!

Ever since the invention of the cartoon, Satanus has been hard at work . He has spent decades corrupting the minds of sweet, innocent Christian children with his blatantly sodomite cartoon characters. And I have had enough!

Again, as I have said before, I have no problem with homosexuals. I think it is fine and they should all get married, so long as they never ever French-kiss or engage in anal sex or any other sodomy of any kind. Is that too much to ask?

I could look the other way if these queer cartoons could just be discreet about it. After all, there are a number of fine examples of homosexual cartoon characters that are firmly in the closet, such as: Waylon Smithers, Tigra from Thundercats, Dr. Quest and Race Bannon, or every member of GIJOE and Cobra.

Why can’t they all be so decent? Most homosexual cartoon characters are only too happy to flaunt their gayness. More than that, they seem to revel in rubbing your nose in it*.

In fact, these queer cartoons just go ahead and anal and fist each other right in front of kids every Saturday morning on TV.

Why, just this weekend I skipped out on Temple and sat down to watch an episode of Spongebog Squarepants. I watched Spongebob bend Squidward over a seashell and slam his sponge-penis up octopus-anus for half an hour. Both 15-minute episodes!

Well I am a loving and merciful God, so I shall grant you all a boon. If you wish to avoid an eternity in hell, here are but a few of the homosexual cartoon characters to avoid at all costs: Spongebob “Squarepants, Winnie the Pooh, Big Gay Al, Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, He-Man, Huckleberry Hound, Snagglepuss, Mr. Garrison, Popeye the Sailor Man, Captain Planet, Peppermint Patty, Vanity Smurf, Snarf from Thundercats, Fred and Velma, Batman and Robin, Timon and Pumbaa, Ren and Stimpy, Sleepy and Dopey, and the Ambiguously Gay Duo.

This ban, of course, also includes live action puppets and people in costumes such as: Barney, the Muppet named ‘Scooter,’ the Teletubby known as ‘Tiddlywink,’ Bert and Ernie, and Big Bird and Snuffleupagus.

Amongst many others too numerous to name. I expect you to be vigilant and on the lookout for other gay cartoon characters, and to protect yourself and your children from any cartoon or other fictional characters you may suspect of engaging in homosexual acts.

From now on, I declare the only cartoons children may watch to be Veggie-tales and Davy and Goliath. And that’s it! Everything else is clearly quite gay.

I, The Almighty Lord, have spoken.


Book Review: DEATH FROM THE SKIES! by Phil Plait

Posted in Skepchick by Skepdude on October 14, 2008


Among science communicators, there’s an ongoing discussion on how best to reach people. There’s the Carl Sagan-route, full of awe and gentle wonder and turtlenecks, and there’s the Mythbusters-route, which relies upon explosions and goofy shenanigans to teach while entertaining. And now there is the Phil Plait-route, defined by educating the audience while scaring the pants off them.

Death from the Skies!Death from the Skies: These are the Ways the World Will End is a gripping, well-written follow-up to Dr. Phil Plait’s first book, Bad Astronomy. Those of you who have read Bad Astronomy — or who follow Phil’s fantastic blog of the same name — already know what to expect in DftS, and you won’t be disappointed. Phil excels at conveying complex scientific ideas in an easy-to-grasp manner. He’s the science teacher you wish you had in high school, who can relate to your frustration when the formulas get long and the Universe seems to ignore all those laws you learned in freshman Physics.

Of course, Phil’s knack for simplifying science is only half the battle, as a wise GI Joe once said. What really sets this book apart is the brilliant concept: death and destruction on a scale that makes Godzilla v. Mothra look just silly. I mean sillier. You get my point.

The Large Hadron Collider became the biggest science news story of 2008, purely because of a public misconception that it might bring about the end times. Other popular headline-grabbers this year: the Mayan calendar ending in 2012, at least two blockbusters involving the destruction of New York, and the lack of solar activity possibly signaling an incoming mini ice age. Obviously, this is the sort of topic that grabs attention.

The problem is, how do you capitalize off of society’s innate morbid curiosity without freaking people out about scenarios that are not very likely to occur? In DftS, Phil manages to present a believable scenario of destruction and explain the science behind it, without necessarily inspiring any new doomsday cults. Take, for instance, a gamma-ray burst (GRB). This is seriously freak-tastic stuff: a star a few trillion miles from Earth, like say Eta Carinae, dies. From our perspective, we see a pretty cool flash of light in the sky, and then a few hours later, 2/3 of the Earth is covered in a lethal dose of radiation. Phil uses this scenario to explain topics like black holes and the accretion disks surrounding them, neutron stars, the weird-but-true theory that as an object’s gravity increases as it gets smaller while retaining its mass, and the penetrative power of muons (hint: don’t bother hiding from them less than 2,000 feet underground). Throughout the chapter he throws in things like, “To make this more clear: we are in no danger from a GRB, Eta or otherwise, in the near or even mid-term future.” And then he continues to scare the pants off everyone by speculating further. At the very end of the book, he includes a helpful chart showing the chances of each scenario happening. Death by GRB appears to be about 1 in 14,000,000 and there’s nothing you can do to prevent it anyway, meaning that you’re quite literally better off worrying about shark attacks.

So, I love the scary parts of the book, I love the care taken to put those scary parts into perspective, and I especially love the science — speaking as someone with basically no formal science education, I learned an awful lot about astronomy, physics, chemistry, and even biology. The breadth of information in the book pretty much guarantees that everyone will learn something. Probably something really terrifying, but something.

To balance that glowing review, just in case you all think I’m only saying these nice things because Phil is my pal, I’ll also mention that the book is not perfect. Now, I did read an advance proof that may not be exactly like the final version, but I feel I should warn you just in case: Death from the Skies is absolutely infested with puns. Puns made up by Phil, and if you know Phil, you know what that means. Luckily, most of them are bolded and set apart from the rest of the text as subheads, so if you’re prepared then you will know to glance over them as you read. Here are a few:

Current Events (about magnetic fields)
Sirius Danger? (about the star, and yes, he went there)
The Hole Truth (about black holes)
I’ve Fallen and I Can’t Get Up (no, seriously)
Pasta-ta (about black hole spaghettification)
Man Hole (about Phil’s trip to his favorite dance club)

I’ll stop there before your eyes melt.

Of course, I’m only (half-) kidding. Phil’s goofy sense of humor is why I love him, and it’s why scientists and laypeople alike enjoy reading about the Universe from his perspective. His love of science is infectious, and I’m optimistic that Death from the Skies will introduce a new audience to the wonders of astronomy. I’d like to give this book to all those people fretting about the various made-up ways the world might end (the LHC, the Mayan calendar, Godzilla, Armageddon), to open their eyes to what’s actually happening out there. Reading the book, what struck me above all is not just the specifics of what we know through science, but simply that we know at all. Death from the Skies will take you trillions of years into the future and beyond, using actual science to speculate about what will happen to our planet, our Sun, our galaxy, and our Universe. That is so very cool, and so much more satisfying than anything you’ll get from the vague predictions of your average Doomsday crowd.