Skepfeeds-The Best Skeptical blogs of the day

Hitchens is plain amazing

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on August 12, 2010

No comment needed; his responses and attitude speak for themselves.

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Christopher Hitchens: Arrest The Pope!

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on April 13, 2010

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The Hitch lays the smack down on da pope!

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on March 29, 2010

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Intelligence Squared debate: Catholics humiliated by Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry

Posted in News by Skepdude on October 20, 2009


I have just witnessed a rout – tonight’s Intelligence Squared debate. It considered the motion “The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world”. Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry, opposing the motion, comprehensively trounced Archbishop Onaiyekan (of Abuja, Nigeria) and Ann Widdecombe, who spoke for it. The archbishop in particular was hopeless.

The voting gives a good idea of how it went. Before the debate, for the motion: 678. Against: 1102. Don’t know: 346. This is how it changed after the debate. For: 268. Against: 1876. Don’t know: 34. In other words, after hearing the speakers, the number of people in the audience who opposed the motion increased by 774. My friend Simon, who’s a season ticket holder, said it was the most decisive swing against a motion that he could remember.

The problem (from the Catholic point of view) was that the speakers arguing for the Church as a force for good were hopelessly outclassed by two hugely popular, professional performers. The archbishop had obviously decided that it would work best if he stuck to facts and figures and presented the Church as a sort of vast charitable or “social welfare” organisation. He emphasised how many Catholics there were in the world, and that even included “heads of state”, he said, as if that was a clincher. But he said virtually nothing of a religious or spiritual nature as far as I could tell, and non-Catholics would have been none the wiser about what you might call the transcendent aspects of the Church. Then later when challenged he became painfully hesitant. In the end he mumbled and spluttered and retreated into embarrassing excuses and evasions. He repeatedly got Ann Widdecombe’s name wrong. The hostility of both the audience and his opponents seemed to have discomfited him.


Is Richard Dawkins really that naive?

Posted in Rationally Speaking by Skepdude on April 28, 2009


Richard Dawkins doesn’t usually strike me as being naive, but one has to wonder when Dawkins abandons himself to the following sort of writing about his favorite topic these days, the incompatibility between science and religion, on his web site:

“If they’ve [the creationists] been told that there’s an incompatibility between religion and evolution, well, let’s convince them of evolution, and we’re there! Because after all, we’ve got the evidence. … I suspect that most of our regular readers here would agree that ridicule, of a humorous nature, is likely to be more effective than the sort of snuggling-up and head-patting that Jerry [Coyne] is attacking. I lately started to think that we need to go further: go beyond humorous ridicule, sharpen our barbs to a point where they really hurt. …You might say that two can play at that game. Suppose the religious start treating us with naked contempt, how would we like it? I think the answer is that there is a real asymmetry here. We have so much more to be contemptuous about! And we are so much better at it. We have scathingly witty spokesmen of the calibre of Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. Who have the faith-heads got, by comparison? Ann Coulter is about as good as it gets. We can’t lose!”

Oh, really? There is so much wrong with these few sentences that a whole book could be written about them, but since I am no Stephen Gould (who was famous for being able to magically turn a short essay into a book length manuscript, provided the right economic incentives), a blog post will have to do. First, though, some background. Dawkins is commenting on a recent essay by evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, who in turn was criticizing Eugenie Scott and her National Center for Science Education. While both Dawkins and Coyne profess admiration and respect for Scott and her organization (and so do I, for the record), they are upset by what they see as an “accommodationist” stance on the question of science and religion.

Scott — who is an atheist — has repeatedly said that one cannot claim that science requires atheism because atheism is a philosophical position, not a scientific one. She leverages the standard distinction between philosophical and methodological naturalism: if you are a scientist you have to be a methodological naturalist (i.e., assume for operative purposes that nature and natural laws are all that there is); but this doesn’t commit you to the stronger position of philosophical naturalism (i.e., to the claim that there really isn’t anything outside of nature and its laws). Years ago, when I first met Genie Scott, I had a Dawkins-like problem with this. I saw the distinction as sophistic hair splitting, and told her so (she was my guest for one of the annual Darwin Day events at the University of Tennessee). Then I started taking philosophy courses, understood what she was saying, and found it irrefutable. I sent her an email apologizing for my earlier obtusity.

That said, both Genie and I do recognize that science is one of the strongest arguments for philosophical naturalism, and I suspect that in her case, as in mine, a pretty big reason for why we are atheists is because of our understanding of science. Still, the philosophical/methodological distinction is both philosophically valid and pragmatically useful, since it doesn’t serve the purposes of either science or education to fuel an antagonism between a small minority of atheistic scientists and 90% of the world’s population (those taxpayers, on whose good will the existence of science and the stipends of most of said scientists depend).

Jerry Coyne, however (with whom I often disagree, especially on scientific matters), does have a point that Scott and the NCSE should address: if the National Center for Science Education claims neutrality with respect to the relationship between science and religion, then why — as Coyne observes — do they list on their web site (under “recommended books”) a plethora of obviously biased books on the subject? Why does the NCSE feel ok to endorse the vacuous writings (as it pertains to the alleged compatibility between science and religion) by pro-religion scientists like Francis Collins, Ken Miller, and Simon Conway Morris, to name a few? Either these books should be ignored, or the NCSE should also recommend the (equally questionable) works of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and so on. Either science can neither prove or disprove gods, or it can, the philosophical/methodological distinction cuts both ways. Genie, what’s up?

Now back to Dawkins. As we have seen, he claims that we would be better off being on the offensive against religionists, because we’ve got the evidence. Oh yes, and because Christopher Hitchens is a better rhetorician than Ann Coulter (though he doesn’t look half as good, unfortunately). The latter is certainly true, but to pick on Coulter is to stack the deck much too obviously on one’s side. The real problem is that, pace Dawkins, evidence has nothing to do with it, because this isn’t a scientific debate. Look, even the most outrageous version of young earth creationism cannot be scientifically falsified. Wanna try? Consider the following: if there is any obvious evidence of the fact that evolution has occurred, it ought to be the impressive and worldwide consistent fossil record. Moreover, using the geological column as a way to date events during the history of the earth predates Darwin (i.e., it was invented by creationists), and we keep discovering new intermediate fossils further documenting evolution every year.

But a staunch creationist will argue (I know this from personal experience) that god simply orchestrated the whole appearance of fossils and intermediate forms to test our faith. As stunning and nonsensical as this “theory” may be, it makes the creationist completely and utterly impervious to evidence: the more evidence you bring up, the more he feels validated in his faith, because faith is belief regardless or despite the evidence. Now Dawkins will say that these people are irrational ignoramuses, and they certainly are. But that misses the point entirely: the lowly creationist has just given the mighty evolutionist a humbling (if unconscious) lesson in philosophy by showing that evidence simply does not enter the debate. If evidence is out, then we are left with sheer rhetorical force. But there too, atheists are easily outmatched: Coulter notwithstanding, there are armies of professionally trained preachers out there who will trump Hitchens — in the eyes of their constituencies at least — even when the latter is perfectly sober. And the important keyword here is “constituency,” since these are the very same people that turn around and elect a creationist board of education, causing endless headaches to Scott and collaborators, headaches that are not in the least helped by Dawkins-style posturing.

And really, look at Dawkins’ prescription here. According to him we should be even more “contemptuous” than the religious fanatics are; we should “really hurt” with our “sharp barbs”; we “can’t lose” because truth is clearly on our side. One almost gets the feeling that if Dawkins had the resources of the Inquisition at his disposal he might just use them in the name of scientific Truth (a philosophical oxymoron, by the way). Thanks for the public relations disaster, Dick!

What are we to do, then? First, learning some good philosophy wouldn’t hurt the likes of Dawkins a bit. That way they would finally appreciate that Genie’s position is not just a matter of pragmatism, and it has nothing to do with intellectual cowardice. Second, and more importantly, we really need to turn to psychology and sociology, the sciences that tell us how and when people change their minds. If we want a cultural change, we need to understand how cultures change. And by the way, let us remember that scientists are most certainly not immune to the same problem of walking around with a mind a bit less open than one would hope. Dawkins may like to think that science is about free inquiry that inevitably leads to people accepting new discoveries and renouncing old ideas based on the weight of evidence and rationality. If so, he hasn’t practiced science in a while (indeed, he hasn’t). As physicist Max Plank aptly said: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” Analogously with creationism: changing minds is a painstaking, largely unrewarding, capillary job, which the National Center for Science Education does superbly. Dawkins & co. should simply get out of the way and let them do their work.

[Note: I became aware of this latest much ado about nothing debate through a fairly well balanced post by Paul Fidalgo at the DC Secularism Examiner, where you will find additional quotations from the various parties involved.]


Hitchens vs. D’Souza 01/2009

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on February 26, 2009

I just got done listening to the debate between Christopher Hitchens and Dinesh D’Souza they just had this January. The video is available here. I suggest anyone interested in the God issue needs to listen. Hitchens is simply fantastic and besides the pre-writen opening and closing statements, D’Souza comes across as a illogical, babbling, incoherent, defensive, My-god-is-greater-than-your-god-cause-the-bible-says-so, pathetic looser really. Hitchens in my opinion completely overshadows him on the head to head and the audience Q&A portion. I only managed to listen to the audio during my daily commutte, but I must make time to watch the video, I think the body language and facial expressions will make me enjoy it even more.

Rock rock rock the boat ….

Posted in Skepdude, Video by Skepdude on November 26, 2008

Get it? Cause he can’t stop rocking back and forth. 

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How not to fight religious superstition

Posted in Rationally Speaking by Skepdude on October 28, 2008


In the summer of 1835 the editor in chief of the New York Sun, Richard Adams Locke (a descendant of John the philosopher) started publishing articles relating to the increasingly stunning discoveries of astronomer John Herschel. With his telescope placed in a good observational spot in South Africa, Herschel had unearthed astronomical evidence of lakes on the moon! Over a few days, Locke reported, Herschel’s observations had confirmed first the existence of herds of animals, then of intelligent beings, and finally even of houses of worship on our close planetary companion. The New York Sun’s sales shot up, and New York was awash with talk of the new scientific findings.

Of course, Locke’s reports were actually a hoax, though he was astonished to find out that many people kept believing them even after it was revealed that Herschel (who was, in fact in South Africa at the time, unaware of the scheme) had never made any of the alleged claims. Locke’s was an exercise in ridiculing superstition with the aim of forcing people to realize how gullible and silly their beliefs really are, thereby prompting their abandonment. It failed spectacularly.

What prompted Locke’s experiment was the fact that although astronomy was very popular that year, since Halley’s comet was due to reappear after the summer, many New Yorkers considered it further proof of intelligent design in the universe! You see, obviously God is so powerful that it can throw large celestial objects around as He pleases, the (by then well known to science) laws of mechanics be damned. Locke, much in the fashion of his fellow countryman, Richard Dawkins, thought that the United States was a wonderful place full of energy and promise of change, which would be even better if only Americans could rid themselves of religious nonsense (on the latter point, of course, I am firmly with both Dawkins and Locke). Hence the idea of the hoax, and the sour disappointment that must have followed Locke’s witnessing of New Yorkers’ reaction to it.

The 19th century moon hoax is described in a new book by Matthew Goodman, The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York. It may be difficult to imagine people who lived only less than two centuries ago seriously taking a random block of ice as evidence for a divine creator, but it’s likely that readers of the 23rd century will react with equal astonishment to the news that half of Americans at the dawn of the millennium couldn’t see the obvious fact that we are animals closely related to chimpanzees and gorillas.

The serious question, highlighted by the parallels between the two situations — is how do we fight superstition. Locke and Dawkins may be amusing to their respective fellow intellectuals (yours truly included), but obviously their sarcasm doesn’t do the job that they intend for it to do. Just in the same way, one might add, that Joe Sixpack or Joe the Plumber surely don’t find The Daily Show with Jon Stewart very funny. Then again, on this blog I recently praised the sarcastic approach to religion used by Bill Maher in his recent movie, Religulous. Along similar lines, a recent National Public Radio commentary on Duck Soup, the classic Marx Brothers movie, reminded us of how biting Groucho and brothers’ social satire could be, in that case making fun of the Great Depression that had started only three years earlier, and that among other things had wiped out the Marxs’ savings, forcing them to go back to acting to make a living (who said there was no positive side to the economic collapse of the nation?).

Satire can change the world, which was the point of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, where monks who translate Aristotle’s writings on comedy are mysteriously killed because once we can make fun of the gods we do not take them seriously anymore, and all hell breaks lose, so to speak. (You are of course better off reading the book, but Sean Connery was certainly charming in the lead role of the corresponding movie.) It has been said that anyone can write a tragedy, because all it takes is to put black on white the way life actually is. But intelligent comedy about society takes real genius, from Aristophanes to Shakespeare, from Groucho to Jon Stewart.

The trick that some get right, but Locke obviously did not, is to aim the satire at the right level and at the right audience. Maher’s critique of religion is much less intellectual than Dawkins’, and therefore all the more effective. Most people don’t believe in god because of the intricacies — such as they are — of the ontological argument. It is therefore senseless to explain to them why the argument doesn’t work. But when Maher was confronted by a Jesus impersonator who asked him “What if you are wrong?” he simply replied, “Well, what if you are wrong?” There is of course a kind of theological gymnastics that can get you out of that one, but the blank stare on the fake Jesus’ face was priceless: it had clearly never occurred to him that there was a chance that he was the one who picked the wrong religion. Oops!

Similarly with the audience. I’m sure the overwhelming majority of people who watch The Daily Show are cappuccino-drinking, New York Times-reading, Volkswagen Beetle-driving unabashed liberals such as myself (alas, I sold my Beetle when I moved to New York, to reduce my carbon footprint, but you get the point). But his show is so popular that clips of it appear not only on YouTube, but on CNN and other “mainstream” media outlets, thereby greatly enlarging the audience, and likely reaching people who may drink cappuccino but don’t read the New York Times. Some of these people will recognize the commonsense humor that Stewart displays, and may begin to appreciate the absurdity of, say, Sarah Palin’s contradictions on pork barrel spending, and so on.

The world isn’t going to change just because of humor, of course. Nonetheless, today’s New Yorkers really would think it completely silly to look at a comet as proof of intelligent design in the universe, thereby further reducing the scope of supernatural so-called “explanations.” If well done, comedy can help open up people’s minds and prepare the terrain for more serious discourse. But enough of this, I need to go to a comedy club in Manhattan tonight which is featuring The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi. Tickets – $15 (plus mandatory drinks)!