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Some basics on religious freedom

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170 ft. Cross at Sagemont Church, Houston, TX. (cc) Luna715,

According to a news article by AP, the Swiss seem to have just voted to affirm a policy of banning Islamic minarets, the onion-shaped towers commonly seen on mosques. The move comes as a right wing initiative in response to fears over the growing Muslim population in the area, and what is seen as possible unwanted cultural shifts in their society. The initiative’s co-president Ulrich Schlueer said, “Forced marriages and other things like cemeteries separating the pure and impure — we don’t have that in Switzerland, and we do not want to introduce it.”

This reminds me of France’s move to ban the Hijab head scarves in their public schools a few years ago. In both cases, I find these kinds of moves unfortunate and the result of fear – ironically, likely to only produce more fear, aggression, and isolation in the future.

Europe has a strong secular streak in its governmental system, and the United States, religious though it is, was remarkable specifically because of its secular constitution. Yet, there is definitely something different between the philosophies of American secularism and European secularism.

In Europe, the idea seems to be that the government is going to enforce secularism on the citizens to some extent. There are much more intrusive laws regarding so-called “cult” activities, laws against various symbols or forms of expression, and so on. Now, they’re telling people not only what styles of buildings they can build on their own property, but what they can wear on their bodies. Secularists in Europe would be wise to keep in mind that it is not religion that is a threat, but rather certain elements found in fundamentalist religion, such as: intolerance, dogmatism, domination, ideology, unfounded beliefs, fear, paranoia, etc. Most importantly, they need to understand these traits can find their way into any human institution, including government. There have been several instances where ‘political religions’ have arisen in Europe and beyond, and when wielded with the vigor of a religious movement, the ‘enforced secular state’ is just as much a threat as any traditional religion.

In the United States, a secular government is as equally valued and important as in Europe. The wall of separation between church and state has been a foundational principle of our government since its inception. But, here, the perspective has some important differences. With American secularism, the emphasis is on the state being restricted – rather than the state doing the restricting. In other words, American secularism is about reigning in the power of the government. It’s about telling the government that it cannot interfere in religious matters. Individuals are free to practice their religions, wear what they want, build the kinds of churches they want, and so on. This is all, provided they are not harming others. It is also provided assuming that religion does not try to infiltrate government, and thus use its power base as a way to extend the interests of any one faith. We have these sorts of legal issues come up all the time, where people will try to get their religious views mounted on court houses and so on. So, the wall is important, but my primary point here is that the main emphasis is on restricting the state.

For example, everyone knows the phrase “they took prayer out of schools” but what isn’t often appreciated is this: they didn’t tell students they couldn’t pray. What they did was tell their own employees (the teachers – agents of the government) they they were not allowed to lead other people’s children in prayer, because it was inappropriate for government employees to be doing that to free citizens. The same applied to the use of government property for the sake of evangelizing. The entire matter is about restricting the government from telling your children what religious practices they’re going to follow. Children themselves are perfectly free to pray, and many student prayer groups meet on school grounds in appropriate times (with the same facilities made available for other interests as well).

In another example, when I was President of the Humanists of Houston, I was interviewed over the matter of several gigantic white crosses that have been placed around various entry highways into the city of Houston. These crosses have been placed on church properties around the city, with the intent being to give the impression that one is entering a ‘Christian city’ as they enter.

I told the interviewer that we certainly don’t agree with the notion that this is exclusively a Christian city or that Christians should have some privileged position. We also didn’t find the suggestive nature of the large icons to be tasteful or respectful. But then I said – however, the crosses are placed on private church property, and were paid for privately. As far as was known, no other building code violations or signage regulations had been violated. No one is obligated to be tasteful or respectful, and I have no right not to be offended. Therefore, the crosses are perfectly within the rights of those putting them up. The interviewer kept trying to goad me into saying something like, “they need to be banned” or that we were going to try and get the government to force them down or something. But I stood my ground that (a) we didn’t care for the statement personally, but (b) it was within their rights.

There are a lot of places where I think the U.S. needs improvement, but when it comes to our take on secularism vs the European approach, I’m happy we seem to be on a better track. Europe is facing a lot of inter-cultural conflicts, fears, and other issues right now, and their reaction against religion will only stoke more. I hope instead they look more toward inclusion, but with a firm handle on foundational principles of religious freedom. There are some principles of individual liberty that should override raw numbers in a vote. If one maintains that, then one needn’t fear Islamic law making its way into the system. Let people wear, say, and build what they want, and that same stance on individual human rights will be there to hold the gate when the pressure swings the other way. But without that foundation of individual liberty, no one is safe. If the Swiss have the numbers to pass such laws today, simply on the basis of mob rule – then I fear for them when the demographic proportions have turned around.

Written by DT Strain

November 29, 2009 at 11:50 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Humanist Contemplatives Houston Meetup report

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The Humanist Contemplative emblem. Groups exist in Houston and at Harvard.

Last night (11/25/09) a few of us came together at Borders Books & Music on Kirby, to discuss the contemplative life, the overlapping lessons and practices available from many different ancient philosophies, and make plans for a program of topics in the next year.

The program for the Humanist Contemplative Houston Meetup will begin at the ground level and build up from there. This means our first focus will be on the nature of reality. In this we will begin with a look at modern complex systems theory. Moving on from there, we will explore both the Taoist views of Nature and those expressed by Heraclitus. In this, we will look for the common threads to see what profound insights they can tell us about how the universe unfolds and how we can build productive perspectives around that reality, which will be conducive to a life of happiness.

The next step in our program will then be to move on to the connection between “what is”, and how we approach life, or how best to live in the light of those realities. This will begin with exploring the mindsets, priorities, and perspectives of the Buddhists, the Stoics, and others. We’ll look at how these perspectives, once deeply understood and intuitively grasped (beyond mere intellectual knowledge) can have a profound impact on our attitudes and approaches. Lastly, we’ll look at the lifestyle implications of those approaches, namely ethics and practices.

This is a long-term plan for us, but it will give us a skeletal structure of concepts. What we want to do is bring everything to the table that humanity has to offer. So, rather than planning to study a specific philosophy, our skeleton is an outline of certain concepts (on the natural universe, its implications to value, how that effects lifestyle, and the pursuit of the flourishing life). It will then be open to us and all who attend to bring whatever philosophic takes on those concepts they can for comparison and contrast. One of us will be bringing in Native American views at some point for example.

We then looked at format and decided that the best structure for our monthly meetup (our “discourse”) would be in three parts. The first part would be teaching-based, or the intellectual. Here we will share concepts from whatever sources we like. We don’t want there to be ‘homework’ or required reading for this group, but we will have a heads-up on what will be discussed, some suggested reading, and so on. The idea is that we’ll all have things to say and questions to offer from our own experiences of things we’re already reading or have read, or that we hope to learn more about.  In other words, this exploration is to be done at the event itself, with others.  The second part of our discourse, will leave the academic and focus on the practical. In other words, we’ll look each time at solid practices and behaviors which can either help us to instill these lessons on a deeper level, build habits, or have direct effects on our happiness and wellbeing. The third and last part of our discourses will be more personal in nature. Here we will move beyond hypothetical talk of either teachings or practices and speak with one another about our own personal lives. We’ll share our challenges and plans in our path, giving and receiving encouragement or advice as needed.

For now, our entire program outline is very basic, but here is a flavor of the kinds of things we’ll be looking at:

Humanist Contemplatives Discourse Schedule

I. Complexity
An layman’s conceptual overview of complex systems theory. Traits of complex systems such as self-emergence, bifurcation, autopoeisis, emergent properties, and more will be covered. The application and relevance of complexity to the many aspects of our world will also be examined.

II. Taoism & Heraclitus (East & West on Nature)
The writings of Heraclitus as he observed the changing flux of Nature are compared with Taoist conceptions of Nature, which recalls what we know about complex systems.

III. Chuang-Tzu & Stoic Ethics (Living with Complexity)
With an integrated modern-ancient conception of a complexity-based Nature in mind, we look at what implications that has for how we live our lives. In doing so, we compare the Taoist Chuang-Tsu’s understanding of the implications, with the Stoic’s understanding of ‘living in accordance with Nature’.

IV. Stoic Physics
Moving beyond Heraclitus to full Stoicism. A more focused look at the universe as it exists in the traditional Stoic model. The nature of the passive and active, the Logos (Divine Fire), Stoic determinism and materialism, and more will be examined.

V. Buddhist Physics
We will look at what is really meant by the descriptions of reality given by core Buddhism in a naturalistic context. Some comparison will be made with Taoist descriptions.

VI. Stoicism, Taoism, Buddhism, & the Natural Universe
Bringing together the Stoic, Buddhist, and modern complexity-based physics – we will attempt to reach an understanding of the overlap and consistency between them.

VII. Value & Ethics, the Stoic/Buddhist good life
How different modes of description are possible, important, and equally valid depending on the communicative function needed. Overlap and contrast in the approach to life between different traditions is examined.

VIII. Humanism & ancient philosophy
With a grasp of ancient/modern physics/ethics as a whole, we will tie this back into Humanism, and explore its place in the Humanist worldview.

IX. Synthophy – the synthesis of global wisdom, modern science, and humanistic concern
The Five Synthophic Realms and the 20 Synthophic Precepts will be presented as a complete basis of natural spirituality, will be presented and discussed.

After planning these things, we also did a great deal of sharing and discussion of these ideas themselves. As such the evening was not merely planning but we seemed to get a lot out of it. The value of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT, heavily influenced by Stoicism) was shared, and we talked about anger issues, self judgment, and more. All in all, a very satisfying discourse.

Right now our group is very small in terms of actual attendance, and it will likely always be so, but if you would like to join us – you are certainly welcome. Our normal discourses will take place on the second Wednesday of each month, so that puts the next one on December 9, 2009 at 7:00pm. For location, details, and to sign up to receive ongoing information on this group, please visit sign up, and RSVP today!

Written by DT Strain

November 26, 2009 at 9:32 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Event: Yes! Humanists celebrate the solstice

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That time of year! (cc) Rachel (AriCee),

It’s that time of year again! Humanists, like those in many other traditions, do indeed celebrate around the time of the winter solstice. Why? Well, for one it’s fun – but it’s also important to have a special time of year where we call attention to fellowship, sharing, and the value of giving. Why not do it at a time of year when the weather is bad and people tend to be affected by that? Furthermore, attaching celebrations to natural events like solstices makes perfect sense for a people who have a naturalistic worldview, and a sense of awe at the natural universe (Humanists also celebrate World Humanist Day on or around the summer solstice).

In more logistical terms, it makes good sense to celebrate when the rest of our community is celebrating in similar ways, which of course affects work and business schedules and the like. This way, we can also join with non-Humanist friends and family in the celebration of those values of our various holidays which overlap and are compatible. These must have been similar concerns when early Christians decided that the pagan celebration of the solstice was a good time of year to celebrate the birth of their savior.

There are other names for the Humanist celebration around this time of year. One is called HumanLight, a fairly new term adopted by the American Humanist Association and some others. It’s basically another name for the same concept, taking place technically on December 23rd. Many of these terms are still gelling together, but the celebration itself has been pretty broad and constant among Humanists. Here in Houston, the Humanists of Houston has been holding a Winter Solstice Celebration for many, many years. Over the years it has grown and has lately become an event shared with, and sponsored by, the family of organizations known as the Houston Freethought Alliance. So, without further ado, let me announce this year’s 2009 Winter Solstice Party!

The Houston Freethought Alliance presents…
2009 Winter Solstice Party

Date & Time: December 12th, 2009 from 4:00 PM to 7:00 PM
Theme: Celestial Splendor
Location: Memorial Park Golf Club (click here for an online map)
1001 E Memorial Loop; Houston TX 77007

Food/Drink: Beck’s Prime Steakhouse will provide a rib eye steak, chicken, hamburger, hot dog, or veggie burger; plus unlimited sides, soda, and water for $18 per adult. Burgers and dogs for kids under 12 yrs old for $8/child. For menu details, check out ‘The Blowout’. Adult beverages will be available for purchase!
Please note –outside food and drink is not allowed!

Entertainment: We will have games for kids and our own Santa Claus! Please let us know the ages of kids attending when you RSVP. We will also be having a raffle/silent auction to raise funds for Camp Quest Texas! Check out the SECULAR Center website for a list of prizes!

RSVP: Please RSVP online at no later than December 7th, 2009. Click on our ‘Events & Volunteering’ page and then click on ‘RSVP for the HFA Solstice Party’.

Enter username: hfasolsticeparty and password: solstice2009.

Questions? E-mail or call 832 295-0188.



Although the main purpose of this post is to announce the Winter Solstice Party, I would be silly not to acknowledge this as the day right before Thanksgiving. For those who are wondering, there isn’t an official version of Thanksgiving for Humanists of which I’m aware. However, I think you’ll find most Humanists celebrate it in some fashion, if for no other reason than that most of their surrounding culture, friends, and family do. But I’d like to take this paragraph to suggest to my Humanist friends that we should approach tomorrow with more than the love of Turkey. While we are non-theistic, it is also a good idea to have at least one time a year where we focus on gratitude. Not only is it a good opportunity to thank others in our lives for what they have done for us and what they mean to us, but it is a psychologically healthy practice to recall those things which are good in our lives, and for which we can have an appreciation. In that spirit, I’d like to wish everyone out there a happy Thanksgiving, and offer my sincere thanks to all those who take the time to read my babbling, and especially who have offered their comments and input!

Written by DT Strain

November 25, 2009 at 11:03 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Absolute truth: does it exist?

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"You can't handle the truth!" In the film, A Few Good Men, Lt. Kaffee (Tom Cruise) and Lt. Cdr. Galloway (Demi Moore) attempt to uncover the Truth about Col. Jessep's (Jack Nicholson, pictured) role in the death of a soldier. Photo: Warner Brothers.

A friend recently asked my opinion on the existence of ‘absolute truth’. By the term ‘absolute truth’ I’m assuming we mean things which are objectively true, independently of our perception or ideas about them. In looking at the question, “is there absolute truth?” I’d begin by imagining just what it would mean were we to answer “no” as do the philosophical postmodernists. Does that mean that reality is determined by our minds? In other words, the closet has nothing in it until I open the door (that is a literal example by the way – not metaphorical!). Another example would be to say that germs really were not the cause of disease until we looked for them, at which point the universe changed. In such a world, it would be hard to imagine how the consistency we see in our observations maintains itself. But even if we were to imagine it does so because we are all truly of one mind, or some other explanation, it still doesn’t get us out of the predicament that to suggest this sort of illusory universe is an extraordinary claim for which we have no evidence.

Another possibility might be that the universe exists objectively and independently of our minds and perception, yet it is in a constant state of flux, meaning any ‘truth’ we establish changes from moment to moment. While it’s true that all things are in flux (even the laws of physics ‘evolved’ in some sense as the universe expanded), we can phrase certain statements more completely to account for that.

So, it’s really difficult to imagine a sound alternative to their being an absolute truth. Even in cases where our fanciful imaginations can pull off some illustriously self-consistent mental model whereby there would be no absolute truth, it inevitably fails the test of Occam’s Razor. Therefore, I’d have to go with there being an absolute truth. As strong supporters of science and the scientific method (which presumes an independently existing reality to even operate), Humanists are not postmodernist – they are modernists. There have, in fact, been several articles in prominent Humanist magazines criticizing the postmodern-left and their critique of science.

How do you define what is meant by ‘absolute truth’? It means the same thing a six year old imagines when you talk about what is true and what is false. It’s quite simple: there is one reality that is ‘just so’. If your statement is consistent with that reality, it is True. If it is not consistent with reality, the statement is False.

But here is the problem / error / issue / important point:

People often confuse this with the separate matter of whether or not we can know what those absolute truths are with complete certainty. In his book Natural Atheism, David Eller ludicrously defines “knowledge”. He has a very over-exaggerated certainty with regard to what he calls ‘facts’. Eller imagines that if we use correct ‘reason’ and our information is correct, that we will then be able to arrive at ‘facts’ which we can know are True, and this knowledge can be distinguished from ‘opinions’ or ‘beliefs’.

In my view (and in the traditional view) all of our thoughts on what is so are belief. ‘Knowledge’ is justified, true belief. Beliefs can be sound or unsound, rational or irrational, based on solid grounds or flimsy grounds, justified or unjustified, true or false. In these things, you have deductive matters and inductive matters. In deductive matters, when our logic is sound and if our premises true, then we can know with certainty that our conclusion must be true – but this doesn’t get us very far in practical terms. The problem is that we often don’t know for certain whether our premises are true. Furthermore, if we are making a mistake in our logic (especially for highly complex matters), we would not realize it. So, in any given case it is always possible we are wrong. As for inductive matters that is even worse because inductive logic, by its very nature, does not result in infallible statements. Most of the really important and useful thinking we have to do involves induction and in these cases, it is possible to have correct premises, perfect logic, make no mistakes, and yet still be wrong.

So… there almost certainly is a single absolute objective Truth, but we can only know that Truth subjectively. There is always the possibility we are wrong. This is why we must build in certain safeguards to our conclusion-making – both in our daily lives and in science so as to minimize our errors as much as possible. In science these things are formalized into practices and policies. They include things like: requiring confirmation from others through independent peer review and experiment, presentation of all methods and showing one’s work, the aforementioned Occam’s Razor, and requiring extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims. This is an imperfect and ongoing practice, but the only way we can be humble about our limited ability to know.

What about absolute truth in ethics? While many of my Humanist friends disagree, I believe even in ethics there is Truth. Even in a universe where reality ultimately boils down to nothing but “atoms and the void”, I believe the answers to ethical questions are objective and independent of our ideas, opinions, or beliefs about them. Whenever we answer an ethical question, we are either objectively correct or incorrect in that answer, just as if I had said that 2+2=5. Knowing that ethical Truth is another matter and something I plan to go into more in the future.

Thanks for reading!

Written by DT Strain

November 24, 2009 at 12:51 pm

Chiropractic Practice Building Schemes…..

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Making it as a chiropractor is hard. Some do very well, but because of low demand and marketplace oversaturation many practices fail. In fact, chiropractors are more likely to default on student loans than any other health related profession. It is easy to see why so many turn to the practice building techniques taught in chiropractic school classrooms and seminars run by companies promising to bring more patients in.

Virtually everything you see on a chiropractic website or read about a chiropractor in a local publication, is part of a prepackaged practice building scheme. The wording is carefully chosed to have the biggest impact. Every flyer or handout found in a chiropractor’s waiting room is designed to indoctrinate you so that you not only come back, but you go out and spread the word. Here is a nearly ubiquitous example from a chiropractic website’s FAQ section:

“How long will you need chiropractic care?

You’ll need chiropractic care as long as you live in Hanover Park and encounter physical, chemical or emotional stress that you cannot adapt to or accommodate. Ready to get started? Call our office today.”
And another from a different chiropractic website’s “Story of Chiropractic” page: 
“Ultimately, the goal of the chiropractic treatment is to restore the body to its natural state of optimal health.  In order to accomplish this, I use a variety of treatment methods, including manual adjustments, massage, trigger point therapy, nutrition, exercise rehabilitation, massage, as well as counseling on lifestyle issues that impact your health.  Since the body has a remarkable ability to heal itself and to maintain its own health, the primary focus is simply to remove those things which interfere with the body’s normal healing ability.”  
Usually these practice building techniques come in the form of setting up information booths at local gyms or fairs, ads for free spinal exams, or pseudojournalistic press releases run in smaller local publications or on personal websites (1, 2, 3, 4). I’m sure you have seen these before, but you may not have realized something.

These seemingly personal stories always revolve around two things. The chiropractor always tells the story of how he or she, or a family member, was injured and could only find relief in the caring hands of a chiropractor, thus inspiring them to join the field. And they always involve the chiropractor making a confession about how they have been taking the credit for healing all those patients when really it was the chiropractic all along. Check out the links above and you’ll see, and trust me there are thousands more that are easily accessible online.

The reason why the general format is similar, and often exactly the same word for word, is because these chiropractors are using a standard template bought from practice building firms. The chiropractor simply puts in his or her name, practice location and hours, and some personal information such as a picture and a description of his or her beautiful family. I imagine that they choose from a list of personal tragedies that led them into the chiropractors office, and the testimonials typically placed in the ad are likely invented as well.

 Many of these ads disparage the medical profession, and I have come across a number which blame vaccines for SIDS and other health problems. I am constantly amazed at the audacity of placing these cookie cutter ads when the internet provides such an easy way to compare them to others and see through the charade. But I don’t think that anyone using such techniques ultimately care. It probably doesn’t take many suckers to fall for this tactic, and to sign a longterm maintenance contract, to turn a profit.

Written by skepticpedi

March 30, 2009 at 7:03 am

And you thought that intelligent design was bad for Texas education

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It appears that there are more efforts to undermine the quality of science education in Texas.  First we have the whole teaching of “strengths and weaknesses of evolution” debacle.  Now, some in the state government are trying to bypass higher education boards to allow unqualified and illegitimate institutions to grant higher degrees.

This news comes form the good people at the NCSE:

House Bill 2800 (PDF), introduced in the Texas House of Representatives on March 9, 2009, would, if enacted, in effect exempt institutions such as the Institute for Creation Research’s graduate school from Texas’s regulations governing degree-granting institutions.

The timeline is clear.  The Institution of Creation Research (ICR) moves to Texas in 2007.  The Texas Higher Education Coordination Board denied the ability of the ICR to grant masters degrees on April 24, 2008.  Now, less than a year later, Leo Berman introduces a bill (HB 2800) that would allow the ICR to again offer masters degrees in creation science (I am not sure about PhDs).

So what has changed with the introduction of this new bill?  If qualified, certain “institutions” would not require the board’s approval to grant degrees.  House Bill 2800 will provide exceptions for institutions that don’t accept state funding, don’t accept state-administered federal funding, are nonprofit, and have substantial coursework.  As the NCSE points out, the ICR would fulfill these requirements.

In my opinion, these are pretty loose guidelines.  Undoubtedly, the ICR will be the first to benefit from these changes, but who is next?

Written by bort901

March 13, 2009 at 8:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Two 150 ft crosses allows Grace Community to claim Houston as theirs.

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I am personally not a very religious person.  I am also not ant-religion. However, I do get offended and a little worried when a particular church proclaims that the city I live in is theirs.

Just north of Houston, Texas is the Grace Community Church.  It is your average megachurch, except for a peculiar billboard next to the freeway.  On this billboard is a picture of a large cross and the proclamation:

Marking our city

After staring at this billboard everyday while I am stuck in traffic, I decided to check out what exactly they mean by “marking our city.”  I had assumed that they were talking about their complex of church buildings. They aren’t.  The city in question is actually Houston itself.crossproject_markhouston

Their intentions can be found on the church’s website. They are planning on building two 150-foot tall crosses, one on each side of Houston on  I-45.  According to the website (emphasis mine):

These will stand as a proclamation of the Grace of God over Houston with a prayer tower inviting people to pray for God to move in our city

There is also a quote from Lou and Paula Gallardo (could this be the guy from Amerisciences?) that says:

A cross at each end of the city is a great dream and will draw people to God in an unprecedented way. I want Houston to be marked for God.

I know I am making a mountain out of a mole hill, but it still bothers me.  The assumption that everyone in the city believes the same as they do disturbs me.  Or worse, they know that others don’t think the same, but they don’t care or they want to convert the nonbelievers.

More information can be found here.

Written by bort901

January 24, 2009 at 10:07 am

Levels of pseudoskepticism

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Last week, I wrote how there were different levels of skepticism.  There a similar levels of pseudoskepticism.  Pseudoskepticism is the practice of promoting an unsubstantiated idea or theory using the language of skepticism.  Denial is a big part of the philosophy, but many logical fallacies are also to blame.  Frequently, the word skeptic is placed after theory.  For example, evolution skeptic and global warming skeptic are commonly seen.  Of course the word skeptic is not necessary and pseudoskepticism can take many forms.  The point here is that you can still have healthy skepticism towards any topic, but conclusions shouldn’t be be based on pseudoscience or plain old denial.

Below I have listed the different levels of pseudoskepticism as I see them.  Just like with my levels of skepticism, I don’t want this post to insult anyone, but to hopefully open people’s eyes to the shenanigans all around us.  I will be using examples from Intelligent Design proponents as I am most familiar with the movement’s methods and techniques.

Level 1 pseudoskeptic

The first level of a pseudoskeptic is someone who doubts a particular idea or theory.  There is a small difference here between the real skeptic and the pseudoskeptic.  The key difference here is that a skeptic will look at the evidence before coming to a conclusion.  In intelligent design, a skeptic would look at the two sides and conclude that there is a scientific consensus and actual evidence for evolution, while none exists for intelligent design.  The level 1 pseudoskeptic would look at the same evidence and conclude that since there is not perfect evidence for either, neither one is more likely to be true.     

Level 2 pseudoskeptic

The second level of pseudoskeptic is someone who has made up their mind for the pseudoscientific side of a debate in spite of the evidence to the other side.  This person outright denies that there is evidence contrary to their position.  They rely heavily on logical fallacies to prove their point.  They also claim that they are the real purveyors of science.  For example, evolution skeptics (or ID/creation proponents) outright deny that their are transitional fossils.  They also argue that evolution could not possibly happen because they couldn’t imagine how random mutation and natural selection could lead to the current state of life’s diversity (argument from personal incredulity).

Level 3 pseudoskeptic

A third level pseudoskeptic is someone who is spreading their false skepticism through a  website/podcast/ etc.  These people are actively trying to undermine real scientific observations and conclusions.  These people will often rely on non-experts or non-peer reviewed studies.  Anecdotal evidence or anomalies will also be presented.  In fact, anything but actual science will be presented.  One example from an evolution skeptic is Denyse O’Leary.  She has several blogs which attack evolution through the techniques mentioned above.  She has no real scientific training, but that doesn’t stop her from spreading her pseudoscientific wares.

Level 4

The highest level of a pseudoskeptic is someone who is well known throughout the pseudoskeptic circles.  These people have a large influence over the similar minded people.  One thing that makes people like this so dangerous is that they sound like the voice of reason to the unsuspecting.  It is not apparent without prior knowledge that they are not giving the accurate or complete story.  Often these people have no real training in the subject that they are focusing on.

One prime example of someone that has reached this stage is Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute.  Luskin exhibits all the characteristics.  He may not be as recognizable as Richard Dawkins or James Randi, but he certainly is well known in the “evolution skeptic” circles.  He repeatedly denies the existence of evidence for evolution, comments on scientific discoveries of which he is nowhere near qualified, and relies heavily on logical fallacies.

Written by bort901

January 23, 2009 at 2:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

NPR Listener Rends Fabric of Space and Time…..

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Philadelphia, PA-Chaos broke out today at the studios of WHYY-FM in Philadelphia when a caller refused to turn down his radio resulting in a tear in the very fabric of space and time, and the death or disappearance of hundreds of people.

“I don’t know what the heck happened over there”, Rick from Tuscon explained. “One minute I’m asking that dude from The Shield where he got his motivation from and the next all hell is breaking loose.”

Scientists are scrambling to piece together what exactly happened to leave so many of the people working at WHYY-FM that day dead or missing without a trace. Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku of the City University of New York believes that there are a number of possible explanations. “The infinite feedback loop caused by the callers radio may have somehow elevated the harmonic of the missing individuals, carrying them fully, or partially, into a higher dimension. Also this may just be a big coincidence and a black hole simply formed in the middle of the building.”

Maggi Leyden, Executive director of Donor Relations at WHYY-FM and one of the few survivors of the horrific event, remains hopeful about the future of the public radio. “I can’t say that I’ll ever truly get over seeing Terry Gross ripped in half at the waist, but I can say that now would be the perfect time for listeners out there to support their local NPR stations.”

Written by skepticpedi

January 23, 2009 at 12:51 pm

Posted in Satire, Science, Uncategorized

Tagged with

How to Design a Positive Study: Meditation for Childhood ADHD…..

with 63 comments

Several news sources and blogs have recently reported on a study looking into the benefit of transcendental meditation (TM) in children diagnosed with ADHD. A January 5th report from Reuters Health, a news service which claims to be “internationally recognized as unbiased, authoritative, timely and dependable, with the reputation for quality that one expects from a Reuters company“, actually serves as a perfect example of how not to cover science or health news. With a skeptical mindset, a few minutes of spare time and an internet connection, I was easily able to discover the dubious reality behind this “landmark” research.

The study, led by “cognitive learning specialist” Sarina J. Grosswald, involved the instruction in TM techniques of 10 students previously diagnosed with ADHD and enrolled in a private school for children with learning disabilities. These students were followed over three months, at the end of which they were evaluated for improvement in a number of areas.  According to the Reuters’ piece,

After three months, Grosswald and her colleagues found, the students reported lower stress and anxiety levels, while their ADHD symptoms also improved, based on questionnaires given to teachers and parents.”

Impressive. For those who are confused, TM is a form of meditation developed by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 1950’s which involves the repetition of a meaningless sound, or mantra, while sitting quietly with eyes shut. This allows the practitioner to quiet the mind and discover the “source of thought”. The mind and body are then able to achieve a state of calm and, according to proponents, reap myriad medical benefits far beyond that of simply increased peace of mind. Believers in TM have also been known to claim that an extension of the technique can lead to fighting crime with their minds and flying. I’m not kidding.

This is a pilot study published in a online education journal edited by graduate students, something which does no inspire confidence in me. I do not think that a reputable peer-reviewed medical journal would have accpeted it. At least the authors do admit in the discussion section that it would be inappropriate to make claims regarding a cause and effect relationship between TM and any improvement in ADHD symptoms based on these results. That doesn’t stop them from making bold statements regarding the benefit of TM, however, as I will soon get to. 

The flaws in this study are numerous. The number of subjects is too small, there is no control group and it isn’t blinded. The study reveals that some of the children are on medication but it does not take into account the possibility of recent changes in medical therapy, or improved compliance while on the study. It is based purely on self-report and subjective questionairres and there is very high liklihood that a placebo effect could have been the sole responsible factor in the subjects’ apparent improvements. The authors then call for larger and better designed studies, something which I don’t think is justified for these reasons, but my problem with this study, and concerns regarding the credulous take by the media, go much deeper than what I’ve already explained.

What led me to dig deeper after reading the Reuters’ report was the following quote:

The effect was much greater than we expected,” lead researcher Sarina J. Grosswald, a cognitive learning specialist in Arlington, Virginia, said in a written statement.” 

I wondered why the researcher had expected an effect and hypothesized that there may be a connection between the researchers and TM more significant than academic curiosity. I was quickly able to discover that Grosswald is a hardcore believer in TM. Just read this quote by Grosswald from a website called Ask The Doctors, which provides a forum for specialists to answer questions related to TM and health:

The TM technique is the exact opposite of harmful. It reduces your risk of getting serious chronic health problems like hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease. In fact, research on the Transcendental Meditation program shows that people who practice it go to the doctor about 50% less than the general population. And if they are in the hospital for some reason, their hospital stay is 50% shorter, on average. For some conditions, the need for medical care is as much as 87% less for TM meditators. Practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique is one of the best things you can do for your health.”

She clearly does not come across as an unbiased investigator. In reading her other responses on the “Ask The Doctors” website, and especially after listening to a 16-minute talk she gave in 2005, when this research actually took place, which is posted on a Maharishi Vedic Education Development Corporation sponsored website that focuses on “ADHD, the Mind and the Transcendental Meditation technique” called Insights in Health, it is obvious that she is a true believer. That doesn’t prove the research is bogus by itself, but it is a red flag.

A more concerning red flag, and one which was also discovered in the talk given by Grosswald, is the fact that the 10 children involved in the study may have been coached. In the last few minutes of the presentation, Grosswald presents clips of the children meeting with the TM proponents prior to the initiation of the study, where it appears that they are told what the expected outcome of the trial is, that their symptoms will improve with TM. 

Not only are these kids aged 11 to 14 being told what the expected outcome of the study is by study investigators, the headmaster of the school, Linda Handy, can be seen at the very end of the video discussing how amazing the technique is and how it will change the students’ futures for the better. I am forced to question whether the teachers, whose evaluations of the study subjects’ behavior and performance are an integral component of the study conclusions of positive effect, might have been hesitant to give a negative evaluation when their boss is clearly also a true believer.

In the acknowledgments section, The authors thank the Abramson Family Foundation for funding and the Institute for Community Enrichment for support. The Abramson Family Foundation is an organization which believes that TM can help students achieve the full potential of their brain.

The Abramson Family Foundation has been funding research on Transcendental Meditation and providing scholarships for students to learn the technique for the past 20 years. This has been a rewarding investment in the youth of our nation. Here is a common sense approach—a sound and scientific way—of fulfilling the purpose of education, which is to create intelligent, dynamic, happy, healthy and successful human beings.”

Of note, Grosswald sits on the Board of Advisors for the foundation. Joining her on the Board is none other than the  school headmaster Linda Handy. Whatever doubt I had in my lack of enthusiasm for this study fell by the wayside upon that discovery. While it may not have been intentional on the part of the study authors, the school headmaster, or the pro-TM funding organizations, this study was designed in a way that coulnd’t possibly yield anything other than a positive result. And calls for further study, especially with public funds in addition to the over twenty million already spent by the NIH on TM, are unwarranted.

It wasn’t difficult to look at this study and see that the claims being made by TM supporters aren’t valid. It wasn’t even that hard to uncover the connections between the investigators, the school where the study was conducted and pro-TM organizations. Yet I was unable to find one news report that displayed even the slightest amount of critical thinking, instead reading like press releases from TM believers. The current state of science and health reporting is rather depressing, and I don’t see things improving any time soon as more and more dedicated science writers are falling prey to the poor economy.

Written by skepticpedi

January 7, 2009 at 1:33 pm