Monday, June 16, 2014

Cat and Dog people under attack! Cynicism and ignorance passing as science journalism

According to an unpublished study that has attracted attention recently, cat people are more intelligent than dog people. Details of the study and its findings are provided in this press release, and it has been widely reported on many websites, such as Time and Huffington Post. As the study has not yet been published, I cannot comment in any depth on its quality, but from what little I have seen so far, I would say that it seems sound enough in terms of its scientific rigour. However, science journalist Faye Flam, writing for Knight Science Journalism at MIT, begs to differ. In a piece titled Cat people smarter than dog people? Study should be a hoax, but probably isn't, Flam takes the position that the study is meaningless rubbish designed to get publicity, and that thinking people should not take it seriously. However, Flam's critique demonstrates a complete lack of knowledge or insight into the topic, lacks substance and seems to be little more than an exercise in cheap cynicism.

Differences in personality traits between people who describe themselves either as "cat people" or "dog people" have been researched in a number of academic studies. For example, one well-known study found that cat people differed from dog people in all of the Big Five personality traits, being lower in extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, and higher in neuroticism and openness to experience. (I have discussed the implications of this particular study in an article on my blog on Psychology Today.) Another interesting and soon to be published paper on this topic looking at other personality traits can be viewed here. The study I focus on here, by Denise Guastello and colleagues, looked at yet another set of personality traits (Cattell's 16PF), and also appears to be the first study of its kind to examine whether cat and dog people differ in intelligence. The study surveyed 600 college students, and found that not only did cat and dog people differ on a variety of personality traits, in line with previous research, but that cat people scored higher than dog people in a measure of intelligence.













Although the details are somewhat sketchy, so far as I can tell, this seems like a valid research design with reasonable conclusions. Openness to experience is associated with intelligence and knowledge (e.g. see this article), and previous research has found that cat people are higher than dog people in this trait, so it does not seem all that surprising that they would be higher in intelligence as well. Of course, it is possible that the results found by Guastello and colleagues might turn out to be false positives or methodological artefacts, but in the absence of any evidence for this at this stage I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, Faye Flam seems inclined to be much more cynical than I am and goes on at some length about why she thinks the whole thing is a big joke. Unfortunately, she never provides any actual evidence why she thinks this is a reasonable position to take and shows considerable ignorance in the process.

Flam claims that there is a not so subtle formula one can use to whip up these kinds of studies that will grab international publicity. Apparently, doing substantive research that builds on existing knowledge does not enter into it, it's all about marketing I suppose. 
All you have to do is round up a few college students [Does 600 count as "a few"?], and divide them into two categories. It might be cat people vs. dog people, or baseball vs. soccer fans, or people who prefer fish tacos vs. those who prefer chicken tacos.
The implication here seems to be that the categories chosen by Guastello and colleagues for their study are actually arbitrary and meaningless in themselves, and chosen simply for being "cute." As I have noted, there is an existing body of literature - some of the relevant papers can even be found in a few seconds on google - that provides evidence supporting the validity of the concept of people self-identifying as cat or dog people, but Flam does not appear to have done even such a rudimentary search on the topic. She also fails to demonstrate that she knows anything at all about the literature on personality and intelligence testing.
Then give them some tests. Claim the tests reveal intelligence, or introversion/extroversion, or whatever seems sexy and attention-getting.
 Tests for assessing intelligence have been around for over a hundred years and have been intensively researched since then. Tests for assessing personality traits have been around for nearly as long and have also been intensively researched. The 16PF test that Guastello and colleagues used in their study was developed in the 1940s. Flam implies that such tests only "claim" to reveal these things, as if this is not really true, with the implication that they might as well be bogus and are only included so that one can generate some "sexy" but actually meaningless results. This completely ignores the thousands of research papers that have been written on the subject that show that these tests actually do measure meaningful aspects of behavior.
As long as the samples aren't really big, chance alone will ensure that the results will be slightly different. One group will always look a little smarter or more outgaining [sic, presumably she means "outgoing"] or whatever you claim you’re testing. If not, add more tests. That’s the nature of what scientists refer to as noise.
 Well gosh darn it, if there was only some way of telling if group differences in test scores are nothing more than random chance fluctuations or real substantive differences! Oh wait a second, I just remembered there are these things called "statistical significance tests" that are designed exactly for this purpose. To be fair though, these tests are not perfect and it is true that if you perform multiple tests on the same sample some of the results might be statistically significant due to chance. Fortunately, there are procedures for correcting for multiple comparisons that are discussed in, oh I don't know, every basic statistics textbook ever. And what would Flam consider to be a "really big" sample size that would provide a valid test of whether or not the results are due to chance? There are statistical procedures for determining if a given sample size is adequate for the analyses being performed, but Flam does not say if she is aware of this or not. 
Then assume your observed differences are not random noise but meaningful correlations and make up a story to explain it. The researchers in this case had a ready explanation for why the dog people were more “lively”…
 You mean the researchers actually attempted to provide an explanation for the results they observed?? Who do they think they are?? Oh, but wait a second, isn't this a normal part of science? Formulate a hypothesis, design a study to test it, analyse the results and then provide an explanation of what the results mean and whether or not they confirm the original hypothesis? I don't understand, what exactly is Flam's problem here? Here is the researcher's explanation that Flam quotes:
“It makes sense that a dog person is going to be more lively, because they're going to want to be out there, outside, talking to people, bringing their dog," Guastello said. "Whereas, if you're more introverted, and sensitive, maybe you're more at home reading a book, and your cat doesn't need to go outside for a walk.”
 Hmm, Guastello and colleagues gave some people who self-identified as cat people or dog people some well researched personality tests and the results indicated that they differed on the expected traits and then explain why they think this result makes sense. I fail to see what is so shockingly ridiculous or unscientific about this that Flam thinks the study deserves to be treated as some sort of hoax.

To be fair, Faye Flam does convey one nugget of real information that is worth noting.
Maybe the study was extremely carefully done, but there’s really no way to know. I can’t find a paper. It looks like it all started with a talk at a conference.
Flam is correct to point out that the study has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal and what information is currently available derives from a conference presentation. Hence, news sites, such as Time and Huffington Post, that have hyped the results may be jumping the gun as it is impossible to assess the study’s rigour at this stage. If Flam had just pointed this out and left it at that I would not have a problem. However, there is no justification for what amounts to a cynical and uninformed accusation that the research study was performed in an academically shoddy manner simply to gain attention, an accusation based on no evidence whatsoever. Flam waits until near the end of her critique to acknowledge that for all she knows the study might be a very good one. Since she has no evidence that the study is actually a bad one, then what justification does she have for such an extreme lack of charity to the authors?

I would think that "science journalism" should attempt to provide an informed and thoughtful discussion of scientific issues, but what we have here is nothing but crud bereft of substance or insight. "Science dismissal" would be a more apt term for it.

If you are interested in reading more in-depth articles on psychology why not check out my blog Unique - Like Everybody Else on Psychology Today. Also please consider following me on 
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© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.  

Thursday, October 10, 2013

"Zeus might be Real!" And the Whole World might be Magic too!

The New York Times published a bizarre opinion piece by philosopher Gary Gutting called Did Zeus Exist? With apparent earnestness, Gutting argues that not only did the ancient Greeks have good reason to believe in the existence of Zeus (and presumably their other gods) but that we should take seriously the possibility that they might just have been right. Not that they were right, but that the idea is just plausible enough that we cannot reasonably dismiss it altogether. Naturally I have wondered if this is some sort of elaborate joke, but if so the punch line remains elusive. Perhaps it was intended as a provocative thought experiment to encourage critical thinking and scepticism about our own claims to knowledge. However, if this was the intention – and I have no proof that it is – then it fails miserably as the amount of uncritical nonsense presented to the reader is so shocking it has to be seen to be believed.




Could Zeus have existed just because people believed in him? What about fictional deities like Cthulhu or Sauron, could they exist on some mysterious plane of reality too? 
Gutting acknowledges that we have no evidence at all today that Zeus existed, but that “back in the day (say, 500-400 B.C.), there would seem to have been considerable evidence” to justify believing in him. Let’s examine this “considerable” amount of evidence that Gutting assembles and see just how well it stands up under scrutiny.

Firstly, Gutting seems very impressed that most people in ancient Greek times apparently never even questioned the existence of divine beings. So if enough people believe in something, then there might be something to it then? Because that’s how the smart people decide what is true, by popular vote I suppose.

Oddly enough, after stating that few people ever questioned the existence of Zeus, not even clever fellows like Plato or Aristotle, he goes on to ask, “Why did belief in the gods persist in spite of critical challenges?” (Huh? I thought there were no critical challenges? I’m confused already.) He answers his own question, by stating that the Greeks were convinced by “experiences of divine actions in their lives.” He cites author Robert Parker: “The greatest evidence for the existence of gods is that piety works . . . the converse is that impiety leads to disaster.” Examples of piety at work include “clear expressions of a god’s favour such as weather conditions hampering an enemy, a miraculous escape, or a cure…” Oh yes, piety works alright – except when it doesn’t. For example, Hannibal’s successes in Italy were believed by the ancient Romans to be a sign of divine wrath. Presumably, failure to escape from a dangerous situation, or remaining ill in spite of prayers for a cure, were seen as signs of divine disfavour, rather than evidence that piety works no better than chance, or that the gods might not be real after all. Has Gutting honestly not heard of confirmation bias?  Someone who believes in gods can easily interpret anything that happens as confirmation of their belief because the ways of the gods are inscrutable and mysterious. The fact that the ancient Greeks did exactly this is hardly impressive or evidence of anything except the gullibility of human nature.

Gutting does seem to be aware that there are mundane explanations for why people in ancient times might have believed in their gods, e.g. such as the sociological theory that organised religion reinforces social control of how people behave. However, he wants us to consider an alternative possibility:
“Yes, but why did the society so insist on belief in the gods?  We may assume it’s simply for the sake of social control.  But the reason could just as well be that everyone was rightly convinced — from their own and others’ experiences — that the gods existed.  Then the control would derive from the belief, not vice versa.”
I think it is equally plausible to argue that the reason could just as well be that they were being manipulated by a super-computer from another galaxy. Then the control would derive from an extra-galactic source, not a sociological one.  

He goes on to talk about something much more interesting than belief in omens. He notes that during religious rituals worshippers would sometimes actually experience a sense of contact with the divine, a conviction that they could feel the presence of the gods. I think this is a genuinely interesting psychological phenomenon, and people today still have experiences like this, although the particular gods involved depend on the specific religion of the worshipper. Gutting is aware that scientific explanations for such experiences have been proposed by psychologists and neuroscientists, but he summarily dismisses them.

“In principle, any experience of our daily lives can be produced by electrochemical alternations of the brain, but this does not show that, for example, I did not actually eat breakfast or talk to my wife this morning.”

Gosh, what an insightful response. Gutting seems to be saying: “Anything we experience might be an illusion or a hallucination; therefore, anything at all we can experience just might be real.”

If we take this seriously, then the fact that there is corroborating evidence for the existence of things like breakfasts or wives, but that there is no such evidence for the existence of gods, should not trouble us. I once did a research project on people with schizophrenia. One fellow I spoke to was adamant that he had a radioactive transmitter implanted in his brain that was the source of voices only he could hear that constantly abused him. By Gutting’s logic, we should take this man’s explanation of the voices that trouble him just as seriously as a more mundane psychiatric one. The fact that this man’s beliefs do not appear to be grounded in anything that most people would consider to be real is only a minor detail.

Gutting explains why the lack of any evidence for the existence of gods of any kind is not an issue:
“Yes, but the people who worshiped Zeus claimed to experience his presence in their everyday lives and, especially, in their religious ceremonies.  There’s no reason for us to accept this claim, but we have no reason for thinking they were wrong.”
No reason?? Again, I am forced to wonder if this is some sort of joke. This is like saying that anything at all might be true and there is no way of knowing if certain beliefs might be wrong. In other words, modern science, with its careful attempts to discern between true and false ideas about reality, can go take a flying leap just because ancient peoples claimed to experience things they thought were of supernatural origin. Gutting goes on to up the ante by suggesting that ancient peoples might have lived in a different kind of reality altogether:
“But how can we be so sure that the Greeks lived in the same sort of world as we do? … This response has force only if we assume that there is very little likelihood of a world that contains supernatural forces.  But we have no a priori basis for such an assumption.   We may well think that our world contains little or no evidence of the supernatural.  But that is no reason to think the same was true of the Greek world.”
This is a great argument. In essence, Gutting seems to be saying that we should take seriously the possibility that the world just might be a magical place where the nature of reality is not consistent over time. The ancient Greeks for all we know might have lived in some special world where the laws of science as we know them just did not apply. Ironic considering that the ancient Greeks were pioneers in the discovery of universal laws and regularities in nature that form the basis of modern science.

Gutting sums up his argument by stating that “atheistic denial” of Zeus’ existence is “ungrounded.” We have no reason, he says, to assume that the ancient Greeks lacked good evidence for his existence. Indeed, he might still exist today, but just remains in hiding! Gutting’s ideas about what constitute reason and good evidence seem to derive from Alice in Wonderland. He concludes thusly:
In any case, to the question, “May we properly remain agnostic about whether Zeus ever existed?” the answer is “Yes, we may.”

My response: “yes, we may… if we are prepared to jettison reason and seriously consider any and all fantasies as equally probable, no matter how crazy.”



P.S. Apologies if the font sizes are inconsistent throughout this article. Blogger is playing up on me. Could this be the gods' way of getting revenge for me not believing in them??


Hat tip to The Friendly Atheist for alerting me to Gutting's article. 

Near Earth Object has a nice succinct critique of the article as well.

Further reading - the following articles are about belief in non-human entities based on psychedelic drug experiences:

DMT, Aliens and Reality: Part 1 & Part 2
  

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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Who is "Islamophobic" really?

To be "phobic" of something is normally taken to mean to be frightened of it. The Greek word phobos actually means fear or terror, so it would make sense to think that people who are "Islamophobic" are those who are frightened of Islam. However, in recent times, the term "islamophobic" has been used to describe those who publicly criticise Islam such as Richard Dawkins and other "new atheists" e.g. in a rubbish article a few months ago by Salon.com.

However, this use of the term seems rather ironic to me, considering how much courage it takes to dare to criticise Islam in today's climate of fear.

Case in point: a student newspaper Woroni based at the Australian National University, the country's flagship university no less, ran a series of satirical articles about "Advice from Religion." The first four articles, which poked fun at Catholicism, Scientology, Mormonism, and Judaism respectively, all ran without problems. The fifth instalment in this series was bold enough to poke fun at Islam.

Infographic from Woroni which the university forced students to remove. For more details see The Friendly Atheist piece about this

The university's response, described in detail on the Woroni website, makes for some disturbing reading. In brief, the students responsible were summoned before the Chancelry, threatened with disciplinary action, including academic exclusion from the university, and forced to remove the piece from their website. The university cited some politically correct BS about "providing a welcoming environment for a diverse student and academic population." However, they also cited particular concerns about the likelihood of religious violence that I think are much more telling: 
“This was most clearly demonstrated by the Jyllands- Posten cartoon controversy … and violent protests in Sydney on September 15 last year,” the Chancelry told Woroni.
 So now we get to the heart of the matter. The student newspaper poked fun at Catholics, Mormons, Jews, and Scientologists, yet there were no complaints about making students of these faiths feel unwelcome. Yet when they criticise Islam specifically, the university threatens to expel them. They even admit that they are afraid of a violent response by Muslim extremists.

I find it ironic, even hypocritical, that people who are brave enough to criticise Islam are described as "islamophobic", yet those who are most cowed by fear of Islam are the ones who would suppress all criticism of it. People who would forbid criticism of Islam due to fear are the ones who truly deserve the label "islamophobic."



Once upon a time, universities cherished the right of freedom of speech. The fact that Australia's most prestigious university would show such cowardice and disregard for the principles of academic freedom is a sorry reflection on the times we live in. But what is even more disturbing perhaps is the fact that such responses are rooted in realistic fears of violence by intolerant people with contempt for the values of liberal democracy. However, placating the sensibilities of fanatics who demand "respect" for their violent beliefs by shutting people up out of fear is not only cowardly, it provides no real solution to the problem. Instead, it will only reinforce the sense of entitlement and embolden religious fanatics to demand more and more concessions to their preferences at the expense of liberty.

Further reading
Surrendering freedom to the violent: ANU censors student paper for mocking Islam

New Atheism should be able to criticise Islam without being accused of Islamophobia

Is Insulting Religion "Extremism"? No amount of provocation can excuse violence. Piece I wrote on Psychology Today in response to "The Innocence of Muslims" riots

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Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Life of Jesus as a Fantasy Camp



Imagine there were such a thing a Nazi prison fantasy camp. That is, a recreation of a concentration camp where people could voluntarily go to temporarily experience life as a prisoner for a week or so. (I seem to recall that such a thing has actually been done somewhere but I don’t have the details.) Now imagine, that a wealthy man decided to check into such a camp for a week-long holiday. Let’s put aside for the moment the question of why he would do this and just humour me. For a week he experiences life in a fairly realistic mock prison with rather harsh conditions. Afterwards, he gets to go back home to his comfortable life in which he wants for nothing. He might reasonably say that he has a better appreciation of all the good things that he has after such an experience. But imagine instead that he actually said that his experiences in the mock camp were fully equivalent to those of real prisoners who had been detained against their will in real Nazi concentration camps. That is, the suffering and deprivation he experienced during his week of voluntary incarceration was every bit as bad as that of a real prisoner and that he now he has a complete and authentic insight into what it would be like to endure such conditions for real. How would you react to such a statement?
I would be offended. The wealthy man entered the camp voluntarily, and the whole time he was there he knew that before too long he would be back in his comfortable home as if nothing had ever happened. For this man to claim that his experience was comparable to that of a real prisoner – held against his will and with no hope of release – is obscene.
Now consider the claim by theologian Richard Swinburne[1] in The Resurrection of God Incarnate that the existence of suffering is consistent with the existence of an omnipotent and good God. Swinburne states:

that suffering does not count against the existence of God... [because] God would become incarnate to share our suffering and to make atonement for our sins.

He goes on to make rather bold assertions about the suffering of Jesus:

Suffering has been felt to be inconsistent with an omnipotent, good, and omniscient God. The only way I can see to reconcile these is to observe that the evidence is not all in yet—except in one case. Who could say that anyone suffered more than Jesus—with sweating blood (hemathidrosis) in Gethsemane, even before the physical abuse began.

Two thousand years later, theologians are yet to come up with a satisfactory answer to he problem of evil.

Let’s leave aside for a moment the sheer pointlessness of God justifying the existence of suffering in mortal creatures by inflicting extra suffering upon himself. Or the fact that this does not even begin to make sense as a resolution to the problem of theodicy. Swinburne’s claim that no one in the history of the world ever suffered more than Jesus is monumental in its sweeping arrogance. Untold masses of people throughout history have experienced horrendous suffering, including starvation, cancer, torture, and slavery, not to mention grief and heartbreak. Yet Swinburne expects us to believe without any evidence that none of this can compare to what Jesus experienced. Sweating blood! Oh yes, much worse than anything else a human could experience. This is in spite of the fact that hemathidrosis is a known medical condition that has been attested in ordinary humans, so Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane is hardly unique.   

If I had to choose between sweating blood for a while and being in this man's shoes, it would be an easy decision.

There is a deeper problem with Swinburne’s claims than his lack of imagination about the extent of human suffering. Swinburne is trying to prove that Jesus was God incarnate. Yet if this were true then it is simply not possible that his suffering was in any way comparable to the depths of mental anguish that humans are vulnerable to.
Consider the qualities that God is supposed to possess. He is believed to be immortal, all-powerful and to have foreknowledge of the future. The Incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus were all supposed to be part of God’s eternal plan. Therefore, God voluntarily chose to experience suffering, knew in advance exactly what it would involve, and knew all along that after his death he would rise from the dead to continue his blissful and immortal existence without any lingering trauma. Any suffering God experienced was a temporary inconvenience at worst, hardly a major disruption of his life. 

God sacrifices himself to himself to avert his own anger at the sin of a mythical man and woman with no concept of right and wrong. Yeah, that makes sense. 

Compare this to the human experience of real and terrible suffering. Humans are regularly inflicted with adverse conditions that they do not choose, do not foresee, and over which they have no control. A person who is murdered does not have the option of magically resurrecting afterwards. Those who survive horrific experiences are often left with post-traumatic stress symptoms in which they endure the anguish of mentally reliving the traumatic event over and over again.
If God were real he could not even begin to comprehend what it was like to be human. God could never know what it was like to be powerless, to be uncertain, to be mortal, to be traumatised, or to be heartbroken. Compared to the depths of suffering that humans are heir to, the events that Jesus supposedly went through were a fantasy camp.




[1] I have previously written about Swinburne on this blog here and here


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© Scott McGreal. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Why belief in Hell really isn't very nice at all

There has been some discussion about the topic of Hell over at Psychology Today recently. You might even  say it's a hot topic! (Sorry.) Psychologist Nathan Heflick wrote about the psychological aspects of the subject and invited readers to share why they personally believe in Hell. Humanistic blogger Greg Henriques, took a more controversial line, and wrote an article stating that he finds it  rather objectionable when religious people go on about how people who don't believe in God are going to be sent to Hell for their impiety. He was even bold enough to say that if there actually is a loving God then he would never do such a cruel thing; either that or this God person is not a morally just being. Either way, telling people they are going to Hell is just plain not nice.

Image of Hell in the style of Bosch 

This article prompted a response from Christian blogger Michael Austin. He acknowledges that the idea that God sends people to Hell (or lets people go there, depending on your interpretation) does not seem all that nice. In fact, many Christians are "deeply troubled by the thought of people spending eternity in Hell." And as well they might be. If this doctrine were true, then most people who have ever lived will end up in this dreadful place. Even worse, if you are Christian, then you face the prospect that people you care deeply about - family members, friends, one's spouse - might share this dire fate. Honestly, how do they sleep at night?

Detail of "The Last Judgment" by Luca Signorelli

But I digress. Austin's particular concern is with how the doctrine of Hell can be reconciled with the goodness of God. Many critics of the doctrine, just like Greg Henriques mentioned earlier, have argued that it can't be. And jettisoning the doctrine apparently is not an option for good Christians. (Although, as Austin notes, some Christians have done exactly that.) Austin quotes C.S. Lewis on this point:
There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it (1) has the full support of Scripture, and, (2) especially, of our Lord's own words; (3) it has always been held by Christendom [thus three arguments from authority]; and (4) it has the support of reason (sic!). 
 Christians don't get to pick and choose what they believe you know! Or do they? Austin finds some wiggle room. Enough room for considerable theological gymnastics in fact. His argument is that God does not actually send people to Hell. He simply honours their choice to be separate from him. What a nice guy God is, allowing people their choice of how to spend eternity. Hell is "not some sort of medieval torture chamber" but simply "separation from the ultimate source of joy, love, peace, and light." So Hell is actually a favour done by God in his goodness for those who actually want to spend eternity in the absence of joy, love, peace, and light. Because some people just don't want those things I suppose.

Well there are a few problems with this. The most obvious one concerns inconsistency. Austin quotes Lewis to the effect that belief in Hell is required by scripture, especially by the words of Jesus himself. Jesus apparently had a great deal to say about Hell and there are over 70 references to Hell attributed to him. Hell is most definitely referred to as a place of punishment, such as Matthew 25: 46:
And these shall go away into everlasting punishment.
There are lurid descriptions in the New Testament of the horrors awaiting the damned. The place is described as a "lake which burneth with fire and brimstone"  and there are repeated references to a "worm that dieth not" that presumably gnaws on the flesh of the damned. No, not a medieval torture chamber, medieval technology did not have the capacity to create lakes of molten sulphur or immortal worms.

Furthermore, according to the words of Jesus, sinners are cast into this place. Matthew 25: 30 for example is one of several references to people being thrown into Hell:
And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness...
According to Austin, God allows people to go into Hell voluntarily, but according to Jesus they are thrown there like prisoners. But Hell is somehow compatible with a loving God because in spite of all these scriptural references to punishment, torment, and being cast into fire like garbage, God has simply created this place so that unbelievers have somewhere to go after they die. This is like saying, "It's up to you really, if you don't want to spend eternity with me, you have everlasting punishment as an alternative. Just saying, don't want you to feel pressured at all."

What strikes me as odd about all this is that unbelievers do actually manage to experience a measure of joy, peace, love and so on while they are still alive in spite of not believing that these things come from God. So it is possible for people to be happy without God playing a role in their lives. So if God's wish is actually to accommodate people who don't believe in him because of his infinite goodness, then why not create a paradise world for unbelievers where they can be left in peace after they die? Like a nice planet somewhere, with green fields, sandy beaches and tropical islands in the sun where no-one has to do any work? Only thing is,  God won't be joining you, that's all. Surely being omnipotent that would be in his power? Why tell people that Hell is a horrible place of everlasting punishment full of immortal worms and lakes of fire when the intention is simply to provide people with an opt out from Heaven? Believers might counter-argue that even though unbelievers think they are happy without God, his presence is still somehow essential to their happiness, for reasons that are not at all clear. But if God really is omnipotent why can He not make it possible for people to be happy in his absence?

Consider an analogy. A loving father is preparing his will in order to provide for his children after he is gone. He knows that after he dies he will be absent from their lives but he wants them to be happy and prosperous anyway. Therefore, he makes preparations so that they will benefit from his legacy. According to believers, God knows that he will be absent from the lives of certain people after they die. Why cannot he make arrangements for them to benefit in his absence? Surely, if he is loving and good, he would do this.

A final point I find particularly irksome is the idea that people who do not believe simply do not want to be with God and are making a final choice not to be with him. What this assumes is that deep down unbelievers really do believe God is real, but are rejecting him for some unknown reason. I'm not just making this up, there are Christians who actually believe this. For example, creepy William Lane Craig (whom I have dealt with elsewhere) actually has this to say:
No one in the final analysis really fails to become a Christian because of lack of arguments; he fails to become a Christian because he loves darkness rather than light and wants nothing to do with God.

Ah, no. Christians seem to have a hard time grasping this, but when someone says that they do not believe in God, they mean they genuinely do not think God is real. Yet Christians seem to think that someone who chose not to believe in God while they were alive because they saw no reason to do so, will one day wake up in the afterlife, be confronted by God and go, "Oops there really is a God after all, but I love darkness so much I would rather spend an eternity in Hell than admit I made a mistake."

In summary, Christians justify believing in Hell based on scripture. Some, such as Michael Austin, want to argue that Hell is compatible with a good God who honours one's choices. But according to these same scriptures, God does not honour choices, he punishes people for making a choice he does not approve of. Furthermore, people who go on about how unbelievers are choosing to be separated from God really ought to make an effort to grasp what the concept of unbelief actually means. Therefore, no matter how Christian theologians bend over backwards to whitewash the concept, the doctrine of Hell remains as inhumane and illogical as ever. Really not nice at all.

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Further reading:

Interesting article on why even Heaven may not be so nice after all:

The Problem with Heaven - The A-Unicornist

Great video by QualiaSoup critiquing the concept: Hell: an excessive punishment 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Bigfoot is your cousin! Or how to make "news" out of nothing

I generally enjoy reading Time magazine because they usually provide thoughtful commentary on serious news. That's why I was rather taken aback when I read a recent article with the sensationalistic title of "Bigfoot Is Part Human, and Here Are the DNA Tests to Prove It, Claims Researcher". The "researcher" in question claims that she somehow obtained DNA from an honest-to-god Sasquatch, ran some fancy tests and came up with the amazing conclusion that Bigfoot is one of our long lost relatives, part-human and part some never before heard of hominid. Oh they do eventually get around to explaining that the so-called researcher is basically a crackpot who cannot back up her claims and then go on to say why no-one is taking her seriously. But that is after spending two paragraphs treating her claims as if they deserve some sort of serious consideration. 


Let's take stock of what this piece of "news" actually contains. Melba Ketchum, a veterinarian, claims that she has unambiguous "proof" that not only does Bigfoot exist, but has modern human ancestry. But the thing is Ketchum refuses to share this "proof" with anyone - she will not share her data, will not explain her methods, and, critically, refuses to explain how she obtained these supposed DNA samples belonging to a creature that no-one has ever been able to even photograph, let alone prove exists.

So, in other words, Ketchum has proved nothing at all. 

The Time article then goes on to explain why respectable scientists do not believe her. Funny that. But does one really need a Ph.D. to realise that when someone makes far-fetched and outlandish claims without providing any reason to believe a word she says, that one should not take her seriously? 

Is this what passes for news now? "Crackpot announces amazing discovery she can't prove, scientists go 'Meh.'" 

Perhaps more concerning than the lack of newsworthiness of this folderol, is the potential for spreading misinformation. There is research evidence that misinformation tends to be "sticky", that is, it remains in memory and tends to influence what people believe. This may be because believing information, even stupid information, is easy, whereas evaluating its credibility and rejecting it takes more effort. What the Time article has done is to present a bold headline that implies that Ketchum's claims are somehow credible. A "researcher" has "proof" - this is what stands out and is easy to remember. The fact that she expects people to take her on her word that her "proof" is real and that she has not allowed anyone to even examine it, is buried in the middle of the article and easily overlooked, especially by busy readers. 

An even more egregious example of Time presenting misinformation as having credibility it does not deserve is a link on the same page as the Ketchum article to a story with the ludicrous title "Scientists ‘95% Sure’ Bigfoot Lives in Russian Tundra". Ooh, now we have "scientists" who are quite positive they have found Bigfoot/the Yeti, how amazing! This tall tale is over a year old, yet there is no mention at all of the rather important detail that one of the scientists on this particular expedition has publicly expressed the opinion that this whole event was carefully staged for publicity and that there was no corroborating evidence they had found anything. The interesting thing here is that this particular scientist, Jeffrey Meldrum, is not even a Bigfoot sceptic  but someone who has seriously searched for evidence of the existence of this elusive creature. Yet anyone reading the Time article only would go away with the impression that there was in fact virtual "proof" that Bigfoot is real when even a Bigfoot enthusiast thinks it was a hoax. 

There are plenty of important real discoveries going on in the world. Stories like this just lend undeserved credibility to pseudoscience and foolishness in my opinion. 

Further reading
Here is an amusing article that provides much more detail about the publicity surrounding Ketchum's claims. 

Update, July 2013: Apparently an independent geneticist has been allowed to analyse the "Bigfoot" sample and guess what? Melba Ketchum's claims turn out to be complete nonsense!
“Bigfoot” Samples Yield Opossum DNA
Funnily enough, the Time article still contains no mention of this important information...

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Freud and the Snopes Psychopath Test


Some people worry themselves needlessly over the meaning of disturbing dream content


On Snopes the other day I came across a rather amusing hoax email that claims that there is a simple psychological test that will reveal whether or not a person is a psychopath. Here are the details:

The Snopes article goes on to explain why this supposed test is absurd. Even psychopaths are sensible enough to realise that there are less sinister ways of getting the attention of the opposite sex, such as simply talking to the man. The article does not say how this hoax originated (presumably some person who thought it would be more fun to remain anonymous). When I read this though, I was struck by a parallel with a case reported by Sigmund Freud  in The Interpretation of Dreams. A young woman patient dreamt that her sister's young son was lying in a coffin. Freud discounted the idea that she wished for the death of her nephew, as she was not that cruel. She told Freud about a time when her other nephew, her sister's first born, had actually died. At that time,  her ex-fiancĂ©, a professor, made a a condolence call. The woman still loved him but rarely saw him since they had broken off their engagement. During his visit, she had a chance to be near him as he looked at the dead child lying in the coffin. Freud could then make his interpretation: "If now the other boy were to die, the same thing would happen . . . and the professor would be certain to come to offer his condolences, so that you would see him again under the same conditions as the other time. The dream means no more than your wish to see him once more, a wish which you are inwardly struggling against."



Back when I was teaching psychology students, I would tell them about this dream to illustrate Freud's dream theory. I'd finish off by joking that this seemed like a drastic way just to get a date! The story in the psychopath test seems to involve a similar kind of thinking - meet a man you like at a funeral, then wish that there could be another funeral to have an excuse to meet him again. Admittedly, Freud's patient did not actually plan on killing her poor nephew!

I can only speculate but I think there's some chance that the fake psychopath test was inspired in some way by Freud's account of his case study. Perhaps part of the appeal of the fake psychopath test is that it promises that it can reveal hidden features of someone's personality through a symbolic story. Freud's theory of dream interpretation also claims that hidden features of one's personality can be revealed through the symbolism of dreams. However, research into dreams has not confirmed Freud's belief that dreams have hidden meanings that can revealed through free association. (In recent years psychoanalyst and neurosurgeon Mark Solms has claimed that discoveries in neuroscience confirm Freud's dream theory. However, Solms' attempt to revive Freud's theory has not been widely accepted. For example, see this document for a rebuttal of some of his claims by neuroscientist J. Allan Hobson.) Unfortunately there do not seem to be such quick and easy ways to plumb the depths of the human mind as promised by both the fake psychopath test and Freudian psychoanalysis, although the fantasy remains as appealing as ever.


Friday, October 5, 2012

Genocide is OK if the True God commands it – but how to know which God is the right one?

Richard Dawkins in recent writings has referred a number of times to a charming fellow named William Lane Craig, also known as "the Genocide Preacher". For those who have not heard of him he has a webpage with the preposterous title of "Reasonable Faith". In a recent Q & A page he explains why it was perfectly reasonable for Yahweh to command the wholesale slaughter of men, women and children so that his chosen people could have their land. His argument is that whatever God commands is necessarily good, so therefore killing people, even innocent children is not only perfectly fine, but morally obligatory if God has said that it must be done. He thinks this is perfectly compatible with his vision of God as being all-loving, compassionate and good. The destruction of the Canaanites was morally justifiable because these people were "wicked" and had come under His divine judgment. Why a compassionate and all-loving God would make such harsh judgments is far from clear but who are we mere mortals to question God? 
So the adults were "wicked" enough to merit Yahweh's judgment, but what about the children? Is not killing children including babies,just because their parents are wicked  a bit  harsh, even for Yahweh?
Yahweh on wheels (Image source: The New Oxonian)

Craig explains why this is not actually morally wrong:

(Click on the image to enlarge.)

Well there we have it. Children who are put to death go to a place that is ten times better than any life they could have on Earth, so the Israelites were actually doing them a favour! Craig claims that they are actually "happy" to quit this life - so their apparent screams of terror are really cries of joy! 

Maybe I'm just a killjoy but personally I think this is an indictment of the whole idea of life after death as being "better" than life in this world. I have read historical accounts of early Christian martyrs who not only welcomed  death, but actually provoked people into killing them because they were assured that they would experience the eternal bliss of paradise. At least they didn't go around killing children. Apologists for religion sometimes try to argue that without religion, people have no reason to be moral and therefore atheism opens the way to an "anything goes" principle where any atrocity is permitted. But this argument is easily turned on its head because as we have just seen, "anything goes", including infanticide and genocide, as long as God has commanded it. And after all, if there is a better world awaiting the martyrs, life in this world has little value by comparison. 


Craig does set some moral boundaries though. Let's examine his argument why killing people in the name of Allah for example is not morally defensible:

(Click on the image to enlarge.)

Let's repeat what Craig says just for emphasis: the problem with killing people in the name of Islam is not due to the wrong moral theory, the real problem is that they have the "wrong" god. As Craig points out Allah hates non-Muslims (no argument from me there) but Yahweh loves everyone - even those who are so "wicked" they must be killed. Allah is utterly "arbitrary" in his dealings with mankind, but any atrocity commanded by Yahweh is automatically good because "He can give and take life as he chooses." (Craig's actual words.) See the difference? No, neither can I. 


But let's assume for the sake of argument that there is some substantive difference, and that the choice of "right" versus "wrong" god matters. How can anyone honestly know which god is the right one? Personal experience? If I hear a voice commanding me to kill infants, how do I know that this command really does issue from the "true" god and not one of the "false" ones? Nowadays, most people, even devoutly religious ones, would think that I had gone mad if I started claiming that God had given me such an order. What about faith? Craig expresses complete faith that Yahweh is in fact the true god. But Muslims also have complete faith that Allah is the true god too! How is one to choose? 


I think that if one is completely honest, one would have to admit that even if it turns out that there is a real god somewhere, there is no way of knowing which of various competing gods is the "true" one. Therefore, there is no sensible basis for choosing. Geoffrey Berg has argued that even if God is real there is no way that humans could ever recognise him or truly know that he exists. He calls this "the Man and God comprehension gulf argument." The implication is that even if God revealed himself to humanity and attempted "proof" by performing all sorts of miracles, we could never really know if the being in question really was God and not just a very powerful being. (Star Trek fans might consider the omnipotent character "Q" who could easily pose as God if he had felt so inclined.)    

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Extreme views on what is "extremism"



According to some commentators, the recent riot in Libya in which an embassy was burned and four Americans killed  may be viewed as an extreme response to "extremism". Huffington Post blogger Ahmed Shihab-Eldin argues that:
Were it not for YouTube, perhaps Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, would still be alive.
He was of course referring to this video by Sam Bacile in which the prophet Muhammad is insulted. He then goes on to say that, "extremism begets extremism." 

This sentiment was echoed by social psychologist Ravi Iyer, who goes on to state that, "Killing begets killing. Violence  begets violence." He then goes on to compare Bacile to other "extremists":
Indeed, there is clear evidence that Sam Bacile, Terry JonesOsama Bin LadenCharles Manson, and other extremists understand this implicitly and commit their extremist acts with the idea of inciting a wider war.
The implicit assumption here is that making and posting a film intended to insult a religious group is an act of "extremism" and that this is somehow in the same class of actions as violently mobbing an embassy or carrying out acts of terror. Note that Terry Jones is classed as one of these "extremists". His terrifying act of extremism was to burn a book deemed sacred by certain people. Offensive as this might be to Muslims, I hardly think this is in any way comparable to the actions of people like Charles Manson or Osama bin Laden who were responsible for the actual killing of human beings. 

Posting an offensive video is not an act of "violence" in any sensible use of the word, and certainly not a  form of killing as no-one actually died in the making of the film as far as I know. I have only watched part of the video, but to the best of my knowledge it does not advocate that anyone be killed. So how is it a form of extremism? 

Ravi Iyer argues that incivility is provocative and regularly leads to violence. Sure, I would agree that violence often is preceded by provocation of some sort, such as deliberately insulting words. But does this mean that the video is to blame for the actions of people who chose to go into the streets with torches with the intention of burning a building while people were inside? Where is the responsibility here? If a man comes up to me and says, "You're mother is a whore!" am I not responsible for how I choose to react? Even if the man is deliberately trying to incite me to fight, I would still be held legally responsible in a court of law if I chose to react with violence. As a human being I have a choice about how I react to provocation. In such a situation I have many choices, such as telling the man he is a stupid idiot and walking away. 

Violence does not simply follow on from provocation in the way that night follows day. There is  a choice involved. Iyer cites a number of research studies on how people typically react to various kinds of threats to show that group reactions to incivility are fairly predictable. I think he does make a point that incivility is not the best way to deal with inter-group tensions. However, there has also been research finding that when people choose to react with violence to provocation, it is because they believe that violence is an acceptable, or even expected, response. For example, if someone is raised in a "culture of honor" they may believe that failure to respond to a provocation with aggression will be seen as a sign of being weak. Similarly, if someone believes that an insult to their religion or holy book is equivalent to a shocking crime that must be avenged, violence is the predictable result. 


This image is authentic: sign held by a Muslim protester in London. Image source.

Consider what the world might be like if people generally believed that violence was never an acceptable response to a mere insult. Would not the world be a more peaceful place? Is this too much to ask for? Ahmed Shihab-Eldin argued that it is intolerance, not Islam, that is the real cancer. But does tolerance mean that critics of religion must shut up so that some people will not be offended? What happened to tolerance of differing opinions? Any religion, or interpretation of religion if you prefer, that preaches that violence is an acceptable response to non-violent provocation is preaching intolerance. People have the right to be upset when they feel insulted. No-one has the right to go out and kill people and spread terror just because they are upset. 

Incivility may be unwise, but it is hardly morally equivalent to extremism. Blaming rudeness for resulting acts of violence seems like an abrogation of moral responsibility on the part of those who choose to engage in violent acts. It is time for people to realise that not being offended is a preference and not a human right. Being offended is never an excuse for violence. Ever.  

Further reading

Innocence of Muslims? Richard Dawkins responds to the "liberal apologia towards Islamic violence."