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The Suspension of Skepticism

How many opinions make up a fact?

The entire body of human knowledge has its foundation in logic, reason, and empiricism. We observe. We question. We attempt to explain. We want to know. As we’ve fine tuned the processes logic, reason, and empiricism depend on… math, philosophy, scientific method, etc… the growth of our body of knowledge has greatly accelerated. This has led to rapid improvements in every measure of human well being. We are healthier, wealthier, and live longer. We have managed to largely insulate ourselves against many of the forces of nature that formerly humbled and destroyed us. Disease, predators, and climactic conditions are more and more held at bay. War and other forms of violence are in decline. We’ve made great strides in much of the world in pollution control and protection of biodiversity and environment. These improvements are measurable. Statistics attest, and can be investigated at humanprogress.org and ourworldindata.org, among others.

Despite this amazing progress, and the empirical data that says it is true, large numbers of people around the world contend that things are NOT getting better, and are getting worse. They are pessimistic even though there is every reason to be optimistic for the future of humanity and nature. A great number of scientists share in this pessimism. And they always have. Human history is littered with prognostications of doom. This pessimism is evident in every ‘prophesy’ that the very progress that brought us our comfort and prosperity is dooming us. Many of these claims come from SCIENTISTS… scientists that have access to all the same data you and I have. Yet they grasp at minor and temporary indicators to assert that horrors await us, while minimizing or ignoring the impact of a much stronger set of positive indicators. Fortunately, brilliant minds like Steven Pinker and Matt Ridley (and many others) have begun to enlighten us to the realities of modern life: It’s a LOT better than what we had previously. We DO have reason for optimism.

So why are so many scientists so pessimistic? Because scientists are human, and subject to the same evolutionary influences as the rest of us. They are liable to various biases, poor reasoning, faulty logic, mistakes, self interest, and even deliberately misleading and corrupt practices. This is not to say something nefarious is afoot, at least not on any large scale. This is why the scientific method and peer review were developed; to weed out influences that might lead to incorrect conclusions. Of course they aren’t perfect screens. But the ongoing nature of scientific inquiry means any conclusion is open to future examination, revision, or rejection. Science is NEVER settled. Better explanations will always replace weak ones.

Which brings me to Michael Shermer’s article in Scientific American; Why Climate Skeptics Are Wrong. I’m a great admirer of Shermer, and greatly appreciative of his efforts to advance and promote skepticism as a force for good for everyone, scientist and non-scientist alike. However, like anyone else, he is also subject to bias and error. And here, it is his skepticism of skepticism that is wrong.

Shermer aims to replace scientific consensus with “consilience of inductions.” Fine. The explanation sounds reasonable. But he provides no examples of the “convergence of evidence.” In fact he moves from that description back to a discussion of “consensus science”:

“Is there a consensus on AGW? There is. The tens of thousands of scientists who belong to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society, the American Geophysical Union, the American Medical Association, the American Meteorological Society, the American Physical Society, the Geological Society of America, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and, most notably, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change all concur that AGW is in fact real. Why?”

This is misleading. Endorsement of the orgs doesn’t equal endorsement of the members in whole or part. Tens of thousands of scientists belong to those organizations. Do the members support leadership 100%? Or 1%? Somewhere in between? He doesn’t know, yet leads you to believe they ALL support the leaders’ endorsement. In truth, we don’t know if the members were consulted at all. What is this endorsement worth? It can’t be quantified. It’s value from a statistical or scientific perspective is nil. And it should be mentioned some of these societies base their position on the same Cook et al paper mentioned later. They are NOT all independent evaluations of the evidence. And one last tidbit regarding the IPCC… They admit warming is out of step with CO2 emissions, has paused for at least 15 years, and that 111/114 climate models overstate warming.

IPCC Report

AR5 Climate Models Evaluation

“The answer is that there is a convergence of evidence from multiple lines of inquiry—pollen, tree rings, ice cores, corals, glacial and polar ice-cap melt, sea-level rise, ecological shifts, carbon dioxide increases, the unprecedented rate of temperature increase—that all converge to a singular conclusion. AGW doubters point to the occasional anomaly in a particular data set, as if one incongruity gainsays all the other lines of evidence. But that is not how consilience science works. For AGW skeptics to overturn the consensus, they would need to find flaws with all the lines of supportive evidence and show a consistent convergence of evidence toward a different theory that explains the data.”

In each of these “multiple lines of inquiry” there are questions as to the rates, measurements, and cause. If you choose not to look at contrary evidence, disregard, or cherry pick only what supports your bias, you’ll arrive at a conclusion. But it will have nothing to do with science. In the case of ice cores, even prominent ‘warmists’ admit CO2 lags warming by 800 years.  In the others, they are NOT unprecendented. All have happened before. And the geological record shows both lower and higher temps in much higher atmospheric CO2 concentrations. In fact all changes seen now are within the range of natural variability. Shermer then moves on (he is now using consilience and consensus interchangeably) to suggest skeptics need to “overturn the consensus” after saying in the very same paragraph: “It is not because of the sheer number of scientists. After all, science is not conducted by poll. As Albert Einstein said in response to a 1931 book skeptical of relativity theory entitled 100 Authors against Einstein, “Why 100? If I were wrong, one would have been enough.” Why would skeptics need to overturn a consensus? A consensus is an opinion. Notice the burden here is not on ‘the consensus’ to show a testable hypothesis confirmed by experiment, but on skeptics to overturn opinion. This isn’t science, but the epitome of politics.

Next Shermer moves on to the crux of all confused AGW arguments; the Cook et al study. To even call this a ‘study’ is laughable. It isn’t even a poll of opinions. It is a text search of selected abstracts. But even if we accept what Shermer says “Of those papers that stated a position on AGW, about 97 percent concluded that climate change is real and caused by humans” it still tells us nothing. Of course climate change is real. I defy Shermer or Cook to find any sane person, scientist or not, that disputes that. So it comes down to what “caused by humans” means. 100% caused by humans? 0.1% caused by humans? Somewhere in between? Doesn’t say. Again, this is statistically and scientifically meaningless. What it really says is that 97% of an unknown number of papers we carefully selected from 11,944 (how many were selected vs rejected?) by a text search of abstracts accept climate changes, and some undefined percentage of that may be due to human activity. A monkey with dementia would use more rigorous standards than Cook. And Shermer willingly repeats the nonsense.

Now if Shermer wanted to look into this a little deeper he could. He CHOSE not to. That is bias. And I hope he is uncomfortable with it. What Cook actually said about the 11,944 papers is this: 11 944 climate abstracts from 1991–2011 matching the topics ‘global climate change’ or ‘global warming’. We find that 66.4% of abstracts expressed no position on AGW, 32.6% endorsed AGW, 0.7% rejected AGW and 0.3% were uncertain about the cause of global warming.”

Joanne Nova, Richard Tol, and Jose Duarte (and others) have all written devastating critiques of Cook et al. Shermer could have found them as easily as I did before becoming Cook’s Minister of Propaganda. See:

Jo Nova on Cook’s 97%

Richard Tol – Global warming consensus claim does not stand up

Jose Duarte – Cooking stove use, housing associations, white males, and the 97%

In short, I don’t know whether Shermer is lacking introspection, careless, or simply a victim of unrecognized bias. In any case, I would urge him to reflect on his own closing sentence.

“Such practices are deceptive and fail to further climate science when exposed by skeptical scrutiny, an integral element to the scientific process.”

 

CJ Werleman threatens legal action against Godless Spellchecker

Source: CJ Werleman threatens legal action against Godless Spellchecker

Shifting The What Now?

(This is very much a follow up to a previous blog post I did a few months back…)

I’ve seen, repeatedly, arguments that say atheists shouldn’t assert that there is no god because this shifts the burden of proof. The most recent is @godless_mom (who I very much like and very often agree with), tweet and video link here.

The problem seems to lie with how people interpret proof/prove/disprove. A widely held opinion is that any statement sufficiently vague and nonsensical can’t be disproved. For example, replace “god” in any claim with “magical platypus”. In either instance there is no evidence. And in the second anyone will admit the notion is ridiculous… a mockery even. Yet when pressed they will often admit that either claim meets the same criteria: It is BECAUSE it is purely nonsensical and totally beyond the bounds of reason that it can’t be disproved.

OK, fair enough. Let’s explore this farther. String theory of multiverse posits that there could be an infinite number of parallel universes that may or may not have characteristics similar to our own. There could be a parallel universe in which conditions to make life possible never happened. There could be a parallel universe in which the fundamental laws of physics are very different from ours. Perhaps another where 2+2=5, because the fundamental nature of reality is so completely different.

These ARE theoretical possibilities based on mathematics. Do we then say with a straight face that life doesn’t exist, gravity is a myth, or 2+2=5? Keep in mind that there IS a mathematical basis for multiverse… which is MORE than can be said for any god claim. No, of course we don’t. We discard these notions, just as we discard notions that our entire reality is a computer simulation. And I’ll state again, there is MORE reason to think these are possibilities than to think god is a possibility.

So we come back to what is proof, and what does it mean to prove or disprove… Proof: evidence OR ARGUMENT establishing or helping to establish a fact or the truth of a statement. Examine these two statements:

  • There is a god.
  • There is no god.

The first is not a valid hypothesis because it is unfalsifiable.

The second IS a valid hypothesis because it IS falsifiable. Producing a god falsifies it.

The OR ARGUMENT portion of the proof definition is critical here. Because material evidence of the existence/nonexistence of anything sufficiently vague or ridiculous to render it nonsensical within our knowledge of reality is impossible to establish. However, the problem isn’t with ability/inability to establish the absolute, but with the acceptance of the vague/ridiculous description. Wolfgang Pauli said of such arguments, “It is not only not right, it is not even wrong.” The assertion that something ridiculous and meaningless can’t be disproved is itself a fallacy because a ‘correct’ conclusion is drawn from premises that are not applicable in any way to our reality.

A color blind person may assert red is green. They have reason to believe it true. It is still false. And can be shown as such. There is no such rationale for god claims. This is WHY Hitchens was correct in saying “That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” If the god argument WASN’T flawed, if X% independently verified the claim as with color blindness, the dismissal would be WRONG. Because the argument can be shown invalid… and invalid DOES mean false… the dismissal is valid. Material evidence is not required.

There are things that ARE knowable without such material evidence… We are sure of our own existence. We are sure of mathematical truths. We accept certain logical and philosophical propositions. To wrap, we don’t need smoking gun evidence to prove or disprove EVERY claim. And it IS logically valid and consistent to say so.

Of course I invite replies and corrections…  🙂

An open letter to Rev. Dr. David Fekete

Re: Silencing prayer privileges one voice only (APRIL 30, 2015)

It is somewhat unsettling that someone that is permitted to use the title ‘Dr’ can be so wrong from so many angles. It is confounding that someone with the title ‘Dr’ can misunderstand the basic dictionary meanings of words, when free dictionaries are available to anyone with an internet connection. And it is unforgiveable that someone using the title of ‘Dr’ would attempt to misrepresent the values and intentions of others in support of his own bias towards a shaky dogma. So, ‘Dr’ Fekete, let’s address this mess of overripe tripe…

Let’s start with “revealed knowledge”. What “knowledge” is this? Revealed to whom? Knowledge is what is known. What is known can be demonstrated or explained to others. It can be tested. It can be confirmed by experiment, or through logic. And perhaps most importantly, it can be ARGUED. Now you don’t have the courage to describe your ‘revealed’ truth, but I think it a reasonable assumption that you are referring to oral traditions of illiterate desert tribes. Their stories were originally written in ancient, dead languages, on clay tablets, pottery, parchment or animal skins. This eventually coalesced into ancient Judaism. Successive generations continued to add to these stories. These were then translated and transcribed to Greek or Latin, with missing bits filled in as a best guess. This was centuries before the earliest Chinese printing methods, and at least 1400+ before the Gutenberg press, so every copy was done by hand, with every successive iteration introducing more possibility of error. Eventually, centuries later, the remnants of the Roman Empire adopted these traditions as their own. Centuries after that, the ROMAN Catholic church, a legacy of a great military power, convened First Council of Nicaea to decide what version of all these stories they should use going forward. This is the beginnings of ‘standardized’ Christian dogma of today. There is no revelation. It is not knowledge, nor is it testable, nor logical. It is dogma and dictation. You believe or else… The stories for other religions are similar. The mere fact that there are so many competing versions should give a reasonable person pause. They obviously can’t all be right, however they CAN all be wrong. And in light of all the knowledge accumulated through scientific discovery (a process religion fought desperately, and often to the death), the second possibility is infinitely more likely.

So let’s now look at your paranoid diatribe against secularism and humanism:

Secularism strives for a secular state; the separation of church and state. Keeping religion and governance separate benefits both; government isn’t distracted from its day to day duties, and religions are free from the heavy hands of theocratic dogma that might be imposed by another religion getting the upper hand. (There is a reason we have the word ‘theocracy’.) The state will not give the appearance of favor or endorsement to one , or any, or all religions. Freedom OF religion necessitates freedom FROM religion. It does not dictate that you can’t worship, that you can’t assemble in worship, or what form of worship you are permitted.

Humanism, in simple terms, values the wellbeing of humans and humanity above the dictates of ideology and dogma. That anyone could possibly construe this as a negative speaks to the devastating effects of religious indoctrination on the human psyche; the victims consider themselves and other humans as worthless. It also speaks volumes about the frailty of religions that they demand protection from reasoned thought, and dominion over the innocent, in return for protection of a nonexistent second life. No. I won’t allow you to speak against humanity in favor of an invisible dictatorship without challenge. If your religion has any value, it places the dignity of human wellbeing above all else. And if your god disagrees, he can tell me in person. YOU have no authority.

And let’s address some remaining points…

Secular humanism makes no assumptions other than the church and state function best separately, and human wellbeing should not be assumed secondary to any ideology or dogma.

Secular humanism denies no one a voice, and AFFIRMS pluralism by assuring all that they are on equal footing, with none favored over others.

Secular humanism makes no statement about what is “an acceptable system of knowing”. Reason and logic do that.

Now to address the most obnoxious and distasteful paragraph:

“For believers, including believers in secular humanism, faith is perhaps the deepest value held. It matters most to believers. Silencing the voice of a person’s most deeply cherished values does a great disservice to human expression. It disallows discourse on what matters most.”

Belief in secular humanism is grounded in logic and reason, as outlined previously. Religious beliefs are grounded in indoctrination with dogma, superstition and fear. These are not equal ‘values’. Nor is anyone silenced. You can stand on the steps of city hall and express yourself to your heart’s content. You can attend church with others of your faith. You can read scripture at home, on the bus, in the library, etc… You can write letters to publications expressing your faith, or your dismay in the lack of faith. You are not in ANY way silenced, or prevented from practicing or expressing your faith, except as an extension of the state. In fact you aren’t arguing for discourse, you are arguing for the opposite… the right to state unfounded opinion, unopposed, from a bully pulpit. Discourse is what happens in council when they DEBATE issues, like the decision to discontinue prayers.

Lastly, I very much doubt you stand by your statement that “every perspective on faith should be represented”. Should the likes of Jim Jones be given a platform in council? Mullah Omar? Kim Jong-Un? Segregationists? David Koresh? Satanists? Richard Dawkins? Scientologists? Snake handlers? Are their perspectives on faith worthy or not? Would you invite them to speak before your congregation?

Organ Donation: Your Kindness May Pay Off In Unexpected Ways

Update at end (23-Apr-2015)

I thought for a long time about registering to be an organ donor. There are thousands of people in Canada on dialysis, waiting for kidneys. The cost to the health care system and taxpayers to have a patient sick and on dialysis is huge. And that doesn’t even touch on the cost to the patients waiting on the kidney, both in financial and human terms.

I was already registered to be an organ donor at death, but the greatest chances for a successful transplant are from living donors. We all have two kidneys and can function perfectly fine with one. I am very fortunate that by accident of birth, I am relatively healthy and live in a free and prosperous country… and wanted to do something to possibly help another that wasn’t so lucky.

So I registered and went through all the questionnaires, compatibility review, diagnostics and testing, and follow ups, and consultations, and retesting. (They are very thorough, as you would expect… nobody wants a worn out kidney that doesn’t match, or carries a payload.) And it is quite interesting. I learned things about medicine I didn’t know previously… like blood type compatibility is not always necessary for a donor match. Or that in donor chains, one anonymous donor can set off a chain that results in up to 4 successful transplants. Medical science is amazing!

After an ultrasound I was told I had what looked like I had kidney stones. But nothing serious; so far, so good. I moved on to the next stage which is testing kidney function and CT scan. Kidneys work like a charm. But the CT showed I had multiple cysts on each kidney. After consultations, the transplant team advised me that I wouldn’t be a good candidate for the donor program because of the risk of future polycystic kidney disease. So I have to see a nephrologist and talk about a management plan to keep an eye on things and make sure I don’t lose any kidney function…

Even though I was declined from the donor program, I am now aware of a potential problem that I otherwise wouldn’t know about. And I can monitor the condition to make sure if anything starts going wrong, I’ll know BEFORE I get seriously ill.

The point of this little story is that I want to encourage others to please consider registering for living donor programs. Your gift may never be needed, or you may give a sick person another chance at living the kind of healthy, carefree life most of us take for granted. Or, as in my case, they may find that you aren’t suited to be a donor, but you get a head start on managing something that you otherwise may not have known about until you were sick.

Thanks for your time!

Follow up: I’ve received permission to post the other half of this story. Theresa Richarz (@treericharz) was my potential partner in the LDPE program. This is an update to her side of this story: https://www.facebook.com/theresa.richarz/posts/10155437777395545

Open Letter to Miranda Devine

This is my response to the column written by Miranda Devine (Jihadis fill atheist void) in the Sydney Daily Telegraph, March 18, 2015:

Dear Miranda,

Personal anecdote and supposition may be sufficient for you to ‘believe’ (you don’t really, but I’ll come back to that), but some people like evidence to back up claims. It is the reason to believe. These people are known as rational. Belief without reason is irrational.

Let’s not forget reasoned doubt, skepticism, is the very backbone of science. What has given you all the comforts and conveniences you enjoy today? Not religion, not god. Religion ALWAYS fights change. Christianity has fought change for 2000 years. It only adapts AFTER the critical mass of society moves on without it. Then it attempts to regain it’s footing with ingratiating acceptance of what people long before reasoned was true. Religion burned ‘heretics’ at the stake for hundreds of years. Many of these people committed no crime other than try to learn about their world instead of unquestioned acceptance of dogma. Thankfully we progressed, very slowly, to where we now understand biology, chemistry, physics, etc… none of which were explained by the bible, and ALL of which religion fought. So no thanks to religion, you live in modern comforts and type up your drivel on marvels of modern electronics.

And you do NOT believe as the bible commands. Do you wear mixed fibers? Do you eat shellfish? Are you accepting of other cultures and religions? Do you tithe? Ever enjoy sex out of wedlock? If you TRULY believe the word of the bible, you KNOW it commands horrible death as punishment for things that are of no consequence to anyone else, except a vicious and irrational deity. Rational people discarded the bible and religion as guidance when they realized it made no bloody sense… except as a manual for abuse and hatred in lust for power.

Hate gays? There is a religion for that!
Want to own slaves? The bible or quran will allow it.
Looking for permission to kill imagined enemies? Allahu akbar. Amen.
Consider women inferior to men? Well pick one; ALL religions agree.

The perfect, omnipotent and omniscient God created man in his image, let him run amok, was dissatisfied with the results, and drowned everyone/everything on earth in a fit of rage, except ONE family we are all descended from. I guess he didn’t see that coming… and then couldn’t fix it. But don’t worry… it didn’t actually happen. It’s just a fable about morals… Morals? Rage, genocide, and incest are moral?

So we get to your ridiculous comments about a young man who is dead and can’t speak for himself. Was he driven to act out of atheism? You explicitly state he converted to Islam. You destroy your own argument right out of the gate. There is no reason to refute anything else. You did it yourself.

Please, in the future, try to understand your source material and NOT write out of blind, malicious bias. Isn’t it what Jesus would want you to do?

An Open Letter To Lawrence Krauss

The following is in reference to a recent article in Slate penned by Lawrence Krauss, “If You Don’t Accept That Climate Change Is Real, You’re Not a Skeptic. You’re a Denier“.

Unfortunately, Dr. Krauss, we are all, even prominent and respected scientists like yourself, subject to bias. And in this case you are either ignorant of contrary data, or bias leads you to discount it to maintain your position. Even the IPCC WG1 AR5 report, in evaluation of climate models (Chapter 9, Box 9.2, page 769) states that what they call the “hiatus” in warming can’t be explained, and 111/114 models, or 97%, overstate warming compared to real world observation. This gives the appearance of a systemic bias in the models in favor of an AGW/co2 hypothesis.

As Richard Feynman said, “If it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t make a difference how beautiful your guess is. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is. If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong”.

Well, the IPCC… hardly an impartial organization… admits it “disagrees with experiment”. 31,000+ scientists have disputed the AGW/co2 hypothesis in The Oregon Petition. Prominent NASA astronauts, scientists, program directors, etc, have decried the politicization of NASA and their positions on climate change. Even the “97% of scientists” claim quoted ad nauseum in the media has no scientific basis, wrongly classified papers, and has been discredited as marketing. Indeed, peer-reviewed studies suggest a majority of scientists may also dispute what is constantly called the ‘consensus’ position. No, that does NOT mean these studies should be taken at face value and exclude those that are contrary. That would be cherry-picking. What it does is introduce DOUBT about what we are told is “settled” or “consensus”.

Further, there seems to be a deliberate attempt by you to conflate skepticism of AGW/co2 hypothesis with climate change denial, and to deride any opposition to your one sided view as unscientific. By these standards many eminent, credentialed and respected scientists that accept climate change and that man has a role, but are unconvinced of the claims that man is almost solely responsible, would be declared ‘deniers’. Among them are contributors to IPCC reports such as Judith Curry and John Christy. These are not ideologues. They are pragmatists that accept much of the AGW/co2 climate change narrative, but draw the line at politics and deliberate deceit in the name of self interest directing the narrative away from science and into bias and extremism.

Many accept climate does change (we are only 12,000 years out of an ice age after all) but aren’t convinced we can say with any certainty what is man’s role. And for the record, not ONCE have I ever heard a skeptic claim climate does not change. I have never heard a skeptic claim certainty in this area at all. In fact, it is the proponents of the AGW/co2 hypothesis that say we can stop looking, we already have the answers, and suggest we can stabilize the climate by reducing co2 emissions… in effect outing themselves as both closed minded, and climate change deniers.

Add to this the never ending stream of apocalyptic warnings that have yet to materialize, the shrill and repeated claims that defy any cursory scientific examination (deep ocean heating, ocean acidification, polar bear extinction, more common and catastrophic storms, 50% decline in wildlife since 1970, rapidly melting Antarctic ice, etc…) and there is an ever expanding portfolio of reasons to be not just skeptical (ALWAYS a reasonable position), but wary, and even cynical. And this is a tragedy. Polarization has taken the place of data and analysis. It means we are NOT directing resources according to need, and are setting policy based on at best a wet-finger-in-the-wind guess, and at worst, deliberately misrepresented or outright fraudulent claims.

This is not to say man doesn’t have a role in climate change, or that co2 plays no part. But you can’t say that either of these things are true, or quantify them with any degree of certainty when the models used to make the assertions can’t accurately predict experiment… in this case real world temperature readings. What you CAN say when experiment doesn’t match the prediction is that the hypothesis is flawed, incomplete, or wrong.

I’m not a scientist, but I AM a skeptic, and I understand something of the scientific method. And making assertions that are based on models that are shown to overstate warming at a 97% rate is in direct opposition to the scientific method. Unless, of course, you can show why Feynman was wrong all along and models override experiment. In short, when considering the weight of ALL evidence, to assert that questioning your position is unscientific is itself unscientific, and unbecoming a scientist of your reputation and stature.

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