Posts tagged “science”

Prayer is the religious equivalent of alternative medicine

August 30th, 2017

Among all the news about Hurricane Harvey, I came across this story about a Texas Pastor who opted not to evacuate because “we’re just praying and believing that it’ll slow down or something miraculous will take place.” In reading the criticism of his decision to rely on prayer in lieu of action, I was struck by how similar the argument is to that against alternative medicine.

Pastor Freddy Naranjo

Like alternative medicine, we know that prayer doesn’t actually work. (By which I mean it has no measurable, external effect; it can certainly be psychologically beneficial for the person praying, and can have placebo effects.) Like alternative medicine, it’s usually harmless in itself. (Though a lack of regulations means that you don’t always know what you’re getting with alternative treatments such as dietary supplements, so they certainly have the potential to be dangerous—that is different from prayer, at least.) But also like alternative medicine, using it to justify inaction can cause real harm: this year alone, there were at least two high-profile cases of children dying when their parents opted for faith healing instead of medical treatment.

This is why the “what’s the harm?” defense fails for both prayer and alternative medicine, as well as for pretty much every pseudoscientific, supernatural, or paranormal claim out there. Leaving aside that believing false things is bad unto itself, these things do in fact cause harm sometimes. And even when they don’t, they’re still promoting the same kind of dangerous thinking, and for no real benefit.

As we know, Hurricane Harvey has turned out to be every bit as devastating as predicted to Texas’ gulf coast. I have been unable to find information about Pastor Naranjo, his congregation, or his church since Harvey’s landfall last week. I hope (but do not pray) that they are safe.

Mayim Bialik on science and religion

May 9th, 2017

Actor and neuroscientist Mayim Bialik recently recorded a video in which she defends her religious beliefs and their apparent inconsistency with her work as a scientist:

It sounds like Ms. Bialik thinks atheists don’t “have a tremendious sense of gratitude and humility for our place in the natural and scientific world.” She asks, “Do you ever get that feeling like ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe we exist’?” I do, and it instills in me a profoundly humbling sense of awe. But of course it would be wrong to think that’s evidence for the divine. In fact that’s such a common error that there is a specific name for it.

She goes on to name all of the ways she benefits from her religious beliefs (among others, she’s “inspired by the notion of a responsibility to a universe that is governed by something bigger than me”), and of course that’s a personal value judgment that is completely valid and which no one can discount. But that has nothing to do with the scientific question of whether those beliefs are true, so in that sense, I think she fails to reconcile her belief in religion with her practice as a scientist. Yes, religion and science are compatible “in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind.” That’s a testament to the power of compartmentalization, and has little to do with the ability of religion’s emprical claims to withstand scientific scrutiny.

Carroll vs. Craig on God and Cosmology

February 22nd, 2014

I attended a debate between physicist (and atheist) Sean Carroll and Christian apologist and philosopher William Lane Craig on “The Existence of God in Light of Contemporary Cosmology” last night at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

I thought it was a pretty good debate. The main issue I had was that both speakers, but Craig in particular, spoke in highly technical language about physics and cosmology, to an audience that I don’t think was quite that familiar with either subject. The most egregious example is when Craig invoked something called the “Boltzmann brain” in defense of the fine-tuning argument, without really explaining what it is. Carroll gave a cursory explanation during his turn, but it was brought up repeatedly throughout the debate, and while I eventually came to a basic understanding of the argument, it was still too far over my head for me to meaningfully consider the argument. The moderator even joked about this, suggesting that the audience Google it during intermission.

But there was still plenty that I did understand, and I thought Carroll did an excellent job holding his own, and possibly even besting, someone who is easily among the strongest debaters that Christian apologetics as to offer.

Something that stood out to me was when Craig characterized Carroll’s model of the multiverse as entailing that the universe simply “pop into existence.” Craig continued to use that phrase in subsequent rounds, with barely any recognition that Carroll has specifically repudiated that characterization. It emphasizes something that’s been clear to me from listening to past Craig debates, that he has a script and he tends to stick to it.

Another thing that impressed me about the debate was the quality of the audience questions during the question-and-answer session at the end. They were almost all thoughtful questions that elicited meaningful and interesting responses. There was also very little rambling or lecturing from the audience, which I find can often be a problem at events like this. The moderator had explicitly warned the audience beforehand that they would not be permitted to lecture, but I find that even that sort of warning is usually ineffective. But it turned out not to be an issue here.

Overall, it was a fun if sometimes frustrating debate, and I am very glad to have attended.

A Tempest in a Pepsi Can

July 22nd, 2010

Science Blogs is “the largest online community dedicated to science.” Created by the Seed Media Group, it serves as the host for dozens of quality blogs dedicated to science and related topics. I’ve greatly enjoyed reading P.Z. Myers’ Pharyngula and Ed Brayton’s Dispatches from the Culture Wars, especially.

Recently, Seed attempted to welcome a new member to the Science Blogs family, as they were to become the new home of PepsiCo’s Food Frontiers blog. Personally, I thought it was a great idea. I’ve recently become interested in Food Science, since my girlfriend is currently working towards her PhD in the field. I also thought it would be interesting to hear from scientists who are actually working in private industry; most writers on Science Blogs work in academia, which is perfectly fine, but wouldn’t it be nice to add a different kind of voice to the conversation?


Apparently, it wouldn’t, at least not according to a surprising number of Science Bloggers who jumped ship immediately after the announcement was made, concerned that Science Blogs was selling out to a greedy, faceless corporation. Bora Zivkovic, one of the most popular writers on the site, hastily departed, as did Peter A. Lipson, “Abel Pharmboy,” Suzanne E. Franks, Mike Dunford, “GrrlScientist,” and others. “Orac,” another of the site’s most popular writers, is currently “dithering over [his] future” at Science Blogs, while the aforementioned P.Z. Myers is on strike.

Is it just me, or is this a huge overreaction on the part of the Science Blogs community? The plan was for PepsiCo to sponsor Science Blogs in exchange for the hosting, and I understand the concern about allowing corporate interests overtake pure science, but Food Frontiers was pulled from Science Blogs before a single real post was made (an introductory “hey, we’re happy to be here at Science Blogs” message was the only thing that got posted), and looking at the existing Food Frontiers blog, one is struck by just how innocuous their posts actually are. Yes, there’s a fair bit of self-congratulatory, PR-heavy corporate-speak, but there are also substantive posts about science and nutrition, which I believe would have added real value to Science Blogs.

Hans Schantz has a great response to the whole kerfuffle, which I recommend reading. I agree with him wholeheartedly, particularly his lamentation of “the obvious and utter contempt that some of the ScienceBlog bloggers have for scientists employed in industry.”

Science and Religion Are Not Compatible

May 14th, 2010

In a recent article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Mano Singham discusses “The New War Between Science and Religion.” The article is well written, and worth reading, not least of all because Singham takes a position all too rare among the mainstream media, and one with which I whole-heartedly agree: that science and religion are not compatible.

There are certain areas in which the conflict between science and religion is especially visible, such as the Creation/Evolution debate. Frequently, people attempt to resolve these differences by asserting that there is no conflict, because science and religion address fundamentally different issues. Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould famously described this principle as “non-overlapping magisteria.” Science answers questions about the physical, observable world, proponents of this view assert, while religion answers questions about spirituality and morality.

Stephen Jay Gould

This view is naïve. Worse, it’s incorrect in practice. Like it or not, religions do make claims about the physical world. The three Abrahamic religions, for example, assert that God exists, that he responds to prayers, and that he sometimes intervenes in human affairs. This is a scientific claim! We can investigate it, compare it to our actual observations of the workings of the world, and determine how well it reflects reality. And unfortunately for religious adherents, claims based on religious texts, except when they’re so vague as to be virtually meaningless, are virtually always not borne out by the evidence. Consider Biblical claims about the age of the Earth and its place in the Universe.

I am a firm believer in the freedom of individuals to practice any religion they like. But I also care greatly about knowledge and truth, and I don’t believe that religion deserves a privileged position such that its claims are somehow above the inquiries we make with regard to any similar but non-religious claim. If someone claims that the all life on Earth was created more-or-less in its present form within the last 10,000 years, or that all life except for eight people and two of each animal was wiped out in a worldwide flood, why shouldn’t we compare these claims against the physical and historic evidence to determine whether or not they’re true? Truth is important.

Of course, most religious adherents aren’t fundamentalists, and don’t believe every story of their holy text to be literally true, so they don’t have beliefs that are so obviously disconnected from reality. This makes it easy for apologists to cite the myriad examples of scientists who are religion as evidence of the mutual compatibility of science and religion. This is a silly argument that Singham ably dismantles. I like this quote he borrows from Jerry Coyne: “this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind.” I am also fond of P.Z. Myers’ stock retort to this like of thinking; he invokes Dennis Rader, the “BTK killer,” a serial killer who was also a Lutheran Deacon. Does this mean that Christianity and serial murder are compatible?

Ultimately, science and religion are not compatible because they represent two fundamentally different ways of looking at the world. Science asserts that we can discern facts by empirically studying the world around us. Religion makes assertions which aren’t backed by any such evidence (in fact, are frequently in conflict with the evidence). Since we are always making new discoveries and learning new things about our world, science is ever-changing, always bringing our understanding ever-closer to the reality. Religion, in contrast, believes that it already has the answers; it provides no incentive to learn anything new, and has nothing worthwhile to contribute to our understanding of the Universe or our place in it.

“Prove It!”

December 9th, 2009

The much-publicized United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009 is currently being held in Copenhagen, Denmark. In the weeks leading up to the conference, The Science Museum in the U.K. opened an exhibit and accompanying website dubbed “Prove It!,” intended to impart to visitors the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting the idea of anthropogenic climate change. Either at a computer terminal at the exhibit in the museum, or via the website, visitors could vote to register their agreement or disagreement with the following statement: “I’ve seen the evidence. And I want the government to prove they’re serious about climate change by negotiating a strong, effective, fair deal at Copenhagen.”


More than 14,000 votes were collected. Popular science blogger P.Z. Myers even attempted to “Pharyngulate” the online poll by encouraging his readers to sign up and vote for the “agree” option. The results? After one month, 6,058 voters agreed, and 8,238 disagreed.

The Science Museum promptly closed the poll and issued a statement in which the museum director lamented that “more work needs to be done to convince people of the reality of human-induced climate change and of the urgency with which we must agree an international solution.” Writing for The Guardian, Jonathan Jones blamed the exhibit itself for the unexpected poll results, describing it as “patronising.” He explained, “the museum has produced a majority of nearly two to one against accepting the scientific reality of climate change.”

I don’t entirely agree with Jones’ assessment; I think that two issues are being conflated. Remember, the statement about which the poll asked wasn’t “I believe in the scientific evidence for climate change.” Rather, it said, “I want the government to prove they’re serious…by negotiating a strong, effective, fair deal at Copenhagen.” I wonder how many of the disagreeing voters were perfectly convinced of the science behind anthropogenic climate change, but alienated by the political rhetoric? As one reader remarked in response to Myers’ plea, “‘Strong, effective, fair’ to me translates as ‘bureaucratic, ambiguous and counterproductive.’”


I’m no climatologist, but it seems to me that the science behind climate change is pretty solid. The earth is warming, and humans are responsible for a significant amount of that warming. Yes, there are “denialists” who claim that climate change is a leftist conspiracy, that the scientists whose work supports it are all part of some anti-corporate cabal. These people are wrong. But one doesn’t have to be a denialist to disagree that pushing for ineffectual, bureaucratic legislation is the right approach to the problem.

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