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Category Archives: Science

I haven’t posted in some time. It hasn’t been because I haven’t anything to say, but because I have starte actually saying it. My brother B and I had been wanting to start up a podcast for some time, but with the arrival of my niece and nephew things got put on the back burner. I didn’t want to start things up on my own, but when a new homeopathy store opened up and started advertising on Facebook, I could no longer wait.

It was at this time that I put out a cattle all to my Center for Inquiry friends and was pleasantly surprised to receive numerous requests to be involved. We made our first recording a little after Xmas and we’re getting set to record our eighth episode tomorrow evening.

So what’s the podcast about? Well, the vision I have is quite broad. Essentially, it involves discussing topics anywhere that evidence-based thinking can be applied. This can involve public policy, woo woo, religion, science, education, etc. There are many great podcasts out there about atheism (The Non-Prophets, for example) or applied skepticism which exclude religious claims (e.g., The Skeptics Guide to the Universe), but almost none that make no distinction where critical thinking gets applied. (The only one I can think of off the top of my head is Skeptics with a K.)

As I like to say, I am an atheist for the same reason that I am a-reiki, a-homeopathic, a-yeti, or a-quantum healing. I see no difference in any of these claims or the requirements they need to meet before acceptance is justified. However, religion is a big component of the podcast for the simple reason that it pervades so much of society. I wouldn’t give a tinker’s damn about it except for one thing: Beliefs inform actions and believing in things without the requisite evidence often lead to harm, not to mention that it is an impoverished way of living. The universe is amazing enough without diminishing it by making up far less interesting stuff about it.

A case in point (which I would like to make into a podcast topic): a recent crime bill passed here in Canada increases prison time and takes funding away from programs which may help make inmates productive members of society when released. There is not one shred of evidence that increasing prison time makes society any safer or better off. Quite the opposite, in fact. But such thinking arises from and panders to an electorate with a religious conservative point of view that is demonstrably false. This is not how public policy should be created and does real harm to society.

The topics we discuss are as relevant to the Canadian prairies as possible (or at least nationally). There are already podcasts out there which ably cover the tribulations south of the 49th parallel. But topics which are of interst to everyone are covered as well, though we give them a decidedly local flavor.

In the first seven episodes we have talked about Xerion Homoeopathie (a Calgary purveyor of magic sugar pills) and their dissemination of anti-vaccination nonsense, the effectiveness so-called ‘liberation’ therapy as a proposed treatment of multiple sclerosis (which has a very high incidence in the prairie provinces), the absence of secular education in the town of Morinville (just north of Edmonton), and in the episode we are recording tomorrow we have an interview with rock star cosmologist Lawrence Krauss about science education and why the non-religious are labeled “strident” (or worse) just for daring to question religious claims. His new book A Universe From Nothing (which I guiltlessly plug here) is a great companion to the viral YouTube video of the same name.

Come visit us at the Legion of Reason and give us a listen, or you can find us on iTunes.


On the weekend of September 9, I and a fellow member of the Center for Inquiry attended a creationism “conference” (I’d have called it a lecture series, but hey, whatever). My overall impression is that if this is all that creationists have, evolutionary theory is not at all in jeopardy. Of course, I never thought it was. I just wanted to experience what people who believe the Earth is a mere 6,000 years old and that dinosaurs co-existed with humans had to say. The whole thing could only be accepted by those who have drunk the Kool Aid. There was nothing convincing in anything I saw, and some stretched my credulity well past the breaking point. Read More »

Brother Andre, a Holy Cross Brother in Quebec and whose personage is said to have healed thousands, will be canonized a saint tomorrow, October 17.

Color me skeptical. As part of the process for beatification on the road to canonization, the Vatican must verify that two (it is now one) miracles involving the subject has occurred. Two? A measely two? I would think that the Law of Large Numbers mixed with human nature will produce quite a few ‘miracles’. The association of a human figure up for canonization with a large sampling in which statistically unlikely events will always occur, especially when the sample size is increased by weird associations, like the oil from a lamp that Brother Andre used. Here’s one of the so-called ‘miracles’ as described in the Montreal Gazette:

The second phenomenon involved a 9-year-old who was cycling when he was struck by a car in 1998, said Father Claude Grou, rector of St. Joseph’s Oratory. The boy suffered severe head injuries and his parents were told there was no hope of recovery. Friends of the family prayed at St. Joseph’s Oratory, bringing a bottle of “St. Joseph’s oil,” a medal and a prayer card back to the parents, Grou said.

The oratory distributes more than 100,000 bottles of the oil annually. In his day, Brother Andre offered a bit of oil to the sick from a lamp that was burning in front of a statue of St. Joseph. He would tell them to rub it on their bodies and pray to St. Joseph to heal them.

Soon after the parents of the boy started praying to Brother Andre, “the healing started to come,” Grou said. “In a few days, he was no longer in danger of death, and in a few days more, they found he was recovering his faculties; he started to talk.”

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This Calgary local news story is somewhat disturbing. Not disturbing in the same way that CTV Calgary News presented a homeopathic remedy as a viable method of treating food allergies (which the ‘patient’ – read: son-who-has-a-sucker-for-a-mother – was unlikely to have had in the first place) without any input from the evidence-based medical community whatsoever to explain why this ‘treatment’ can not be differentiated from quackery. That was one of the most irresponsible and unethical pieces of journalism (I use the term very loosely) I have ever witnessed. You can read more about that debacle here.

No. This story carried by Global TV Calgary News was actually quite good and I give full marks to Shane Jones for his professional journalistic skills. Some people might see this and only see the weight loss and not listen to what sound science has to say on the matter, but there’s only so far we can go before personal responsibility for actions kicks in.

The subject of the segue was the so-called hCG diet (it can be viewed here, and begins at the 33′ 40″ mark). hCG – short for human chorionic gonadotropin – is a glycoprotein hormone released during pregnancy that prevents the disintegration of the corpus luteum of the ovary, thereby maintaining progesterone production. This is critical since progesterone is involved in the menstrual cycle and maintaining its production extends the luteal phase of the cycle. In other words, it’s what stops menstruation during pregnancy.
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I was just listening to a caller on an old episode of The Atheist Experience (about 1 hr 3 min in – I love that show). The caller was quite disingenuous, asked Matt and Jeff what their degrees were (they have none), went on to present his own bona fides (computer programmer “degree”), and then asked what their proof was for the origins of the universe. Matt headed the caller off at the pass quite nicely. He said (quite rightly) that that did not matter, since even if we had no explanation this lends no credence to any other hypothesis. Competing ideas are simply not necessarily equal in terms of their truth value, and just because someone considers one false does not make their own idea true, unless we are speaking of a true dichotomy (which this most definitely is not). A further problem is the caller desired “proof”. The only place the word “proof” is applicable is in mathematics and logic. In the natural sciences, conclusions are drawn based on evidence – we do not deal in “proof”.

The caller also committed another fallacy, claiming that if we do not observe something directly then it is not scientific. We did not observe the universe come into existence, therefor we can not say that Big Bang model is correct. That is patently absurd. All experiments – even those in a laboratory – are indirect measurements. When we mix chemicals in order to observe how they react, we are not directly looking at the individual molecules. We might see a color or temperature change in the mixture, but does the fact that these are indirect observations of what is going on invalidate the idea that a reaction has taken place? Even if we identify the product, it is still historical even if it happened only a few minutes ago. Historical evidence is simply another type of indirect observation. Jeff made a good point that since we have only known of Pluto’s existence for about six decades – far less than it takes Pluto to make a complete orbit – the caller must conclude that we can not know that Pluto orbits the sun!

Think of it this way. You come home to find the family cat looking guilty in front of an overturned plate of unsecured leftovers. There are many possible explanations for this scene, but are they all equally likely? Perhaps it was death rays from Mars – in a plot by Martians to assassinate my cat who is secretly the only thing standing between us and a planetary invasion – missed, the rays striking the plate on the counter sending it careening onto the floor. Does anyone really think that this explanation is on a par with the possibility that the cat (in its gastronomic zeal) pushed the plate off the counter and followed it onto the floor to finish off the leftovers? I don’t think so. Yet each explains the scene fully.

The truth is, each and every one of us uses historical evidence daily, yet this caller chose to claim that in this specific instance – coincidentally one in which he found it convenient to do so – one could not validly arrive at a scientific conclusion in this manner. This is obviously nonsense. Certainly, the caller is correct in one aspect – that we did not directly observe the Big Bang event. But this event gave rise to observable consequences. From astronomical observations (such as Hubble’s observation of a red shift proportional to the distance a galaxy is from ours) and particle physics cosmologists have built a model to explain what they see. Even more importantly, this model makes testable predictions – observations that weren’t been made at the time the model was proposed but what would be expected to be observed if we look, such as the cosmic background radiation and relative abundance of primordial elements such as hydrogen, helium and lithium.

Evolution as Darwin presented it similarly relied on historical evidence (it no longer does – evolution is being observed in action, such as the Pod Mrcaru lizard introduced onto the Croatian island in 1971 for this specific purpose). Predictions came fast and furious. It was hypothesized that horses evolved from mammals with more than one toe. This hypothesis was rapidly followed by its confirmation, particularly from North American fossil finds. There have been thousands of such finds. The whale evolved from a land mammal and its fossil lineage is incredibly well defined, right down to our ability to see how the position of the nasal passage moved from the front to the top of the head. Lineages derived from comparative morphology match those derived measuring genetic differences as predicted by the modern synthesis. These evidences all confirm predictions made by evolutionary theory and thus strengthen it greatly.

In short, conclusions based on historical evidence are perfectly valid and scientific. The only difference between doing an experiment in a lab and drawing conclusions from historical evidence is that there are tighter controls and a greater ease in adjusting variables in former. That’s it. The Earth, the universe- these are laboratories and nature itself has done the experiments. In both situations we are observing the results and explaining them. Rejection of this always seems to be associated with an incompatibility between closely-held ideas and reality. For those who deny evolution and Big Bang cosmology, grow up. If you think that when science conflicts with a held belief, so much worse for science, then you have abandoned reason and the only thing left which might get through to you is mockery.

Matt had as good a response. He hung up on his ass.

ABSTRACT. Facilitated communication was regailed as a major breakthrough in 1990 in communicating with people who have autism. The claim was that 90% of children suffering from nonverbal autism could communicate with the aid of a keyboard and a facilitator guiding their hands to make the keystrokes. Scientific examination of the claims made by facilitated communication proponents showed a different story. When facilitated communication was performed under controlled conditions, the majority of studies showed no effect. Those few controlled studies which did show benefit suffered from severe methodological problems. It has been found that the authorship can not be attributed to the autistic subject. Rather, it is the facilitator unconsciously doing the typing via the ideomotor effect. The illusion of subject authorship is very strong, as is made clear by the belief in its efficacy by both its practitioners and parents of autistic children making use of facilitated communication. Coupling this with a parent’s desire to interact with their autistic child makes it even more so. But facilitators have on many occasions accused a parent of sexual abuse through their subject, and at times a child’s testimony via facilitated communication has been accepted as evidence despite its failure to pass the Frye test. Facilitated communication has been discredited in the scientific community, yet it continues to be applied. The harm it causes is clear. It has destroyed lives with false allegations of sexual abuse and may prevent the special needs of autistic and sufferers of similar nonverbal disorders from being met on the basis of what a facilitator says via the subject.

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In an ongoing series of blogs designed to slice through the credulous nonsense of new age mythology and antiquated religious concepts, I present here some of the surprisingly large number of papers dealing with what neuroscience has to say about so-called “out-of-body experience” (OBE). Along with heautoscopy (the hallucination of seeing one’s own body at a distance, which can occur with schizophrenia) and the strong feeling of a presence, OBEs comprise what is known as autoscopia.

I first started this series with a look at duality and why it is utter nonsense. Commenter leo1500 didn’t like my use of Phineas Gage as an example of brain damage refuting mind-brain dualism. Too bad. Phineas Gage is representative of thousands of people with frontal lobe damage induced permanent (it’s not as if temporary helps the dualist maintain the delusion…) personality change that have been studied.

Nor is this the only type of brain damage example I could have used. Hippocampal damage can permanently end a person’s ability to form new memories. Brain damage can also cause prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize faces. Such people do not have any vision problems at all – they are as able to navigate in a complex environment as anyone. How does dualism explain these observations? In short, it doesn’t. But the computational theory of mind does -the circutry involved in processing new memories and facial information is disrupted.

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I want to say this at the get-go before I am accused of being prejudiced and bigoted: I do not think that only atheists can do science. I do not think that only atheists can determine science policy. In searching for someone to head the NIH, such a policy would reduce the field considerably and exclude many excellent candidates that we would be justified in predicting they would do a fantastic job.

Francis Collins is not one of them. Yes, he has shown his ability to administer very large scientific projects. Yes, he has demonstrated his ability to do good science. But these are not the only requirements for heading the National Institutes of Health, the largest funding agency for biomedical research in the US. Something less well known is that it also funds research outside the US if certain conditions are met.

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In this the third part of a look at what science has to say on the concept of free will, we will delve into the relationship between volition and consciousness. And it gets weird. I won’t even rag on William ‘Lame’ Craig this time, though it is always tempting. One thing I should say before continuing is what version of free will I am rejecting: the traditional contra-causal free will which is a consequence of discredited dualistic notions. Tom Clark puts it this way:

If you imagine a situation in which you are behaving and you make a particular choice, many people suppose that given that situation exactly as it transpired you could have chosen something other than what you did. But a science-based naturalism looking at the situation as it arises will see the choice as a function of the exact conditions that were present at the time. So if you play that scenario there is no reason to think that anything else would have happened. Many people think, in supposing that they have contra-causal free will, that had they been in that situation even with the same desires, the same exact circumstances inside and outside themselves, they could have chosen or done something other than what they did. And this is what [naturalists] are denying. This is what I think a thorough science-based naturalism challenges is this idea of a causally-autonomous,  metaphysically-autonomous self that somehow gets to cause things but is itself not fully caused1.

There are some types of free will that are compatible with determinism and we will get to those later. True contra-causal free will just has too many issues associated with it to be a viable concept. One I have alluded to before, that we would be paralyzed into inaction if a large part of our everyday actions weren’t calculated at a subconscious level. There are just too many choices at every moment. ‘Walking across the street’ is a high-level intention, but each individual step requires a decision to place the foot calculated from terrain, balance, etc. If you have to think about it, you will simply fall over. Second is that contra-causal free will means that people would be far less predictable than they are, which is not a good thing.

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In the first installment, wherein I bashed William Lane Craig (as I do at every opportunity – he’s a terrible philosopher and I’m not sure he is even a good person, what with thinking genocide is okay if it is ordered by god) and presented evidence which suggests that the classical version of free will, which relies heavily on the discredited concept of mind-brain duality, should be discarded. Instead, the only model which makes sense of these data is the computational model of the mind. (For those interested in getting into the nitty-gritty of this way of looking at consciousness, I highly recommend Stephen Pinker’s How the Mind Works.) Perhaps I should clarify my position on philosophy a bit, since I ragged on it in my last post. I don’t think philosophy useless. But a philosophical argument in a vacuum is not evidence (listening, Craig?). The argument must have a context within it is couched. Indeed, philosophy in the absence of at least some form of verification simply underscores its impotence. Craig is an extreme form of this, making the claim that “verificationalism” (is that even a word?) has been discarded.

If by “verificationalism” he means we demand that claims be verified, then, my response is this: “Says who, Brylcreem-boy?” Without verification, one can believe anything, like some dude turning water into wine or such. Has he never heard the phrase, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”? According to Craig, historical claims can’t be verified. Well, a little evidence would be nice, wouldn’t it? Craig’s view of science is that we use only our senses to find explanations for phenomena. Horse manure! We accept historical evidence all the time! But the quality of historical evidence matters to a skeptic. Francis Collins defends this same position in Religulous, where he makes the claim that nonbelievers set up an impossible standard of evidence for Christianity to meet. I don’t think so at all. I think my standard of evidence is quite reasonable. That the evidence for Christianity fails to meet this standard is not my problem.  Craig and Collins seem to think that we should lower our standards that have worked well enough for everything else, but that is just so much special pleading. Do that and you will accept anything at all, like homeopathy or iridology. I don’t play that, and both of these guys should be ashamed of themselves for trying to make excuses for belief in the face of a paucity of evidence. If they want to believe, believe! But don’t try to snow me….

Schematic of a model for volition (reference 1).

Schematic of a model for volition (reference 1).

Well, now that I got out of my system, let’s get back to free will and the idea of using the computational model of the mind to make decisions. When viewed in this manner, it is possible to construct a testable model of volition. Volition is modeled “as a set of decision processes that each specify details of an action.”1 The final decision of whether to perform an action (called the ‘whether decision’) is a combination of early and motivational components, with a final predictive check. Each process specifies particular kinds of information that determines our actions, and thus volition can be looked at as a form of decision making. We shall look at what each of these processes supplies in turn.

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