Superstition

Deepak Chopra/Deadbat Chopstick semi-feuds with Brian Cox on Twitter

If you follow “spiritual” guru Deepak Chopra on Twitter, you know how annoying he can be, especially when he feels challenged. He regularly gets into social media semi-feuds with actual scientists, and I say semi-feuds because most of his opponents don’t bother to reply. That leaves Deepak by his lonesome, furiously spitting out 8,000 (mostly nonsense) tweets with no response. It reminds me of grade school, when you could watch a bully self-destruct in real-time as his victim employed the effective tactic of simply ignoring his oppressor.

Jerry Coyne’s website brought the most recent Twitter semi-feud to my attention yesterday, this time between Deepak and rock-star English physicist Brian Cox. I’m a big fan of Brian Cox – he’s almost a perfect meld between Dawkins and Sagan in that he’s especially adept at expounding the wonders of science (ala Sagan) and equally intolerant of nonsense, woo, and superstitious thinking (ala Dawkins…also, Cox is British). Anyway, Cox ends the feud with a knock-out blow, what I believe the internet calls a “pwn”. Here’s the summarized feud (though you should check out some of the responses from followers of each):

1pm on the 19th, Deepak posts some of his regular science-sounding nonsense:

Twitter 1

The next morning, Brian Cox, an actual scientist, decides to correct Deepak with this tweet:

Twitter

Which unleashes a rapid pack of “Deepak crazies” who swarm Brian’s twitter feed (if you think Deepak is defensive, you should see his followers):

Twitter 2

And all the while Deepak is of course tweeting out 9,000,000 of his own responses:

Twitter 3

And tries to throw the hammer down with this one:

Capture

Which sets him up for this wonderful pwn:

Capture

 

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Death is not final? Sean Carroll vs. Dr. Heaven (Eben Alexander)

Sean Carroll is quickly becoming my favorite living scientist and defender of rationalism. He just posted another stellar public debate performance in the Intelligence Squared US series, arguing – along with Yale neuroscientist Steven Novella – against the motion, “Death is not final”. You can catch the full video below.

I’m impressed by Intelligence Squared’s persistence in addressing deeply fractious issues like religion and politics. Sadly, not many mainstream outlets organize discussions on these issues, and I think they do a terrific job of having civil discussions on issues that are sometimes uncomfortable. The moderator, John Donvan, is pleasant, and the format is about as good as you can do for a formal debate (7 minute opening statements, questions from the moderator, questions from the audience, short closing statements). They also do a pre- and post-debate poll from the audience to determine the winner based on the percentage increase or decrease for or against the motion.

SPOILER ALERT

So, highlights?

Sean had near perfect answers in both his prepared and impromptu responses (including the memorable analogy of life being a process like fire and not a substance like air or water) . As one of the commenters on his blog, Preposterous Universe, said, Sean is basically batting a thousand when it comes to these things, and that’s not an easy feat, even when you have facts on your side. But after an impressive debut with Michael Shermer against Dinesh D’Souza and Ian Hutchison, and handily defeating everyone’s least favorite apologist William Lane Craig, and now this debate, Sean has cemented himself as one of the best public defenders of science and skepticism out there. He has a knack for being polite, funny, refreshingly clear and uncompromising, and non-threatening – all characteristics that open up people’s willingness to listen.

This was my first exposure to Steven Novella, and I think he did a good job, but isn’t as practiced a public speaker. He also sadly had to endure an illegitimate poning when Dr. Heaven (more on him in a minute) misquoted the late Carl Sagan. Steven corrected the misrepresentation, and Dr. Heaven doubled-down by quoting a page number from A Demon-Haunted World (essentially the skeptic’s Bible) to boost his credibility, and it got a large audience cheer. Of course the quote was completely misrepresented. Carl Sagan never came close to suggesting there was legitimate evidence for paranormal activity (he just said there were some claims worth investigating, which any open-minded scientist would say). Novella called Alexander out on this, but it wasn’t as forceful and didn’t play as well with the audience.

Now, onto Dr. Heaven (Eben Alexander). This guy burst onto the stage with a cover story in Newsweek maybe a year ago, where he claimed to have had an NDE that proved heaven was real. He then promptly wrote a book, Proof of Heaven, which has been on the best-seller list for quite some time, as one would expect. I suspected he was a charlatan immediately, and this debate more or less demonstrated that – he didn’t seem to understand modern neuroscience (a neurologist, after all, doesn’t necessarily have to) and just seemed to brush off Novella’s alternative explanations and refutations. He also suggested, at first a little sheepishly and then blatantly, that quantum mechanics and consciousness are both fundamentally related since they are confusing and that the latter led Einstein into mysticism (…no…). Most frustratingly, he made the brilliant argument (and I’m not oversimplifying here) that since we don’t perfectly understand consciousness, heaven exists. I was a little disappointed actually. I was hoping (as maybe we all do) that he might have more than personal conviction and bad reasoning skills, but that’s about all Dr. Alexander adds up to (and a little more initial credibility than your Uncle Bob because he was once a practicing neurosurgeon). For additional credibility he likes to tout that he used to be a materialist and skeptic, but I’m not at all convinced that he ever took those ideas seriously in the first place – his description of materialism reminded me eerily of those by religious apologists who you can tell don’t understand what they are talking about. If he had ever been a hardened skeptic, that part of his brain must not have turned back on after the coma, because this was 101 stuff.

Dr. Moody, while a seemingly pleasant man, didn’t help his side much. He pontificated a bit dreamily on Plato and Democritus and seemed at times to be arguing with himself on where he actually stood. He also offered hardly any evidence at all (and certainly none that was compelling) for his stance – and this from a man who is supposedly the world’s leading expert on NDE’s.

But I think Sean essentially won the debate by focusing on the following argument: if you believe in life after death, you are saying that established science is not just a little wrong, but very, very, very wrong, and that it has somehow escaped the notice of any experiment ever. The mind existing after the destruction of the brain is simply incompatible with what we know. He admitted that for him, it isn’t even an interesting question anymore because our understanding of physics (yes, including quantum mechanics, Eben) is quite straightforward and eliminates the possibility. He then closed eloquently and reminded everyone, as he’s done before, that life is not a dress rehearsal – it’s all we have, and that finite aspect is what  gives life its meaning.

Oh, and justly, Sean and Steven won the debate, improving the audience position against the motion by 15%, compared to only a 5% increase for the motion.

 

 

The Nature of Evidence: Science vs. Religion

Lawrence Krauss has a new op-ed in the LA Times criticizing the Catholic Church’s loose definition of what constitutes evidence. As you probably know, being named a saint requires the sufficient demonstration of at least two miracles, and the late Pope John Paul II recently met this requirement by “curing” a woman in Costa Rica in 2011 (of what, the article does not say). A panel of doctors ruled that her recovery was otherwise inexplicable.

The problem, as Krauss notes, is that inexplicable remissions happen in medicine somewhat frequently. Are all of these miracles, or is it more likely there is still some aspect of these diseases we still do not adequately understand (remember that medicine, despite the authoritative white lab coats worn by its practitioners, is a relatively recent discipline just now finding its footing as a science)? The Catholic Church is all too ready to declare instances like this “miraculous” without ever considering the more likely alternatives. This stands in direct contrast to the scientific ethos, which gives as much attention to trying to prove ideas wrong as it does to trying to prove them right.

In the mid 1800s, a miraculous appearance of the Virgin Mary was reported in Lourdes, France. Millions have since visited that site in hopes of being cured of their ailments, physical or otherwise. The Catholic Church has kept records of any claimed cures in Lourdes, and more than 60 have been ruled “miraculous”. Of course, it’s not difficult to compare this figure to the number of visitors to the site, year in and year out, and to compare that figure to the average spontaneous remission rate in most cancers and popular diseases. Unfortunately for the church, the latter number is actually higher – meaning, essentially, people who don’t visit Lourdes actually have a higher chance of spontaneous cure than those who do.

Between standards of evidence, there is probably no wider gap than that between the Vatican and science. Claims of miracles are not trivial – if true, they would indeed point to a higher power, and of something beyond our everyday experience. Therein lies the importance of being skeptical, of not settling for substandard evidence in the form of personal testimony or “God of the gaps” arguments (ie. we can’t explain it – therefore, God). As Carl Sagan summarized so well, we have to be careful not to yield to personal preferences in our search for truth, and acknowledge that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Krauss’ Full Article Available Here: Pope John Paul II and the trouble with miracles – July 7, 2013 – LA Times

On Correcting Bookstore Mistakes – Intelligent Design is Not Science

A few days ago, I took a trip to a small town in central Texas and, as is habit, stopped by a local bookstore. I was a little shocked (though maybe I shouldn’t have been) to find two fringe “science” books displayed prominently near the door: Stephen C. Meyer’s recently released “Darwin’s Doubt” and physician Eben Alexander’s “Proof of Heaven“. The rest of this particular bookstore’s science section, meanwhile, was suspiciously weak, relegated to one small wall of five shelves and containing only three or four volumes on Darwinian evolution. The Christianity section, meanwhile, stretched across six aisles.

Meyer’s book, which I have not read, apparently advocates for Intelligent Design (a movement that should be categorized as religion, not science – see overview here, description of the Discovery Institute’s “wedge strategy” here, and if you have lots of time, a fantastic PBS documentary on the controversy here). Alexander’s book, “Proof of Heaven” is even more offensive as a representation of responsible science. You should first read his account here (he, like many others, had a NDE, or near-death experience, that he says proves consciousness exists outside the brain) and then read Sam Harris’ response here, which rightly decimates such a stupendous claim. The two most important points to remember – being a neurosurgeon doesn’t mean you actually understand neuroscience all that well (cutting brains is not the same as studying them), and being highly educated doesn’t mean you have much critical thinking capacity (since he wrote a book, he apparently emerged from his COMA, so isn’t it much more likely he had his NDE as he was regaining consciousness, and not while completely “brain-dead”?).

Proof of Heaven?

Bookstores have no obligation to maintain a balanced inventory of material. They are businesses that need to cater to customer demands in order to make a profit and survive. But I can’t help feeling sad that customers in this particular location (and probably numerous others throughout the country) are in some way being cheated out of access to proper science and instead being fed garbage.

I did the only thing I could think of – moved Meyer’s book out of the thin science section and put it where it belonged, in the middle of the Christian apology aisle (well, it was more of a wing).

“Whoever dies in this garment will not suffer everlasting fire.” – The Brown Scapular and Catholic Superstition

A garment said to protect you from eternal fire.

A garment said to protect you from eternal fire.

When I was nine or ten, my older cousin introduced me this thing above, which if you’re not familiar is called a brown scapular. It was once a full body garment, worn over the shoulders, but has evolved into what is now basically a necklace. You drape it around your head and one of the cloth squares rests on your chest and the other on your back. I remember where we were when my cousin first showed me this thing, pulling it out from under his shirt. We were beneath a row of four large pine trees on the edge of a creek that ran through the backyard of our grandparent’s house. He didn’t know what it was called, but he knew what it did – it protected you from the tortures of Hell.

That was, at least, what his parents had been convinced of, having recently converted to “Traditionalist Catholicism” (a more conservative form of Catholicism that rejects the reforms of the Second Vatican Council). His entire family, including his older sister and younger brother, began wearing brown scapulars at all hours of the day – not even taking them off to shower. Such devotion to brown scapulars can be traced back to the 13th century, when the Blessed Virgin herself supposedly appeared to Simon Stock, the superior general of the Carmelites, telling him: “Take, beloved son, this scapular of thy Order as a badge of my confraternity, and for thee and for all Carmelites, a sign of grace. Whoever dies in this garment will not suffer everlasting fire. It is a sign of salvation, a safeguard in dangers, a pledge of peace and of the covenant.” Well, with a claim like that, it’s no wonder that so many people throughout the centuries have believed it. You can even find supposed “proofs” for its efficacy here: The Wonders of the Brown Scapular.

Flash forward hundreds of years to the present and we still have priests telling believers that a cloth garment can invoke the intercession of the Virgin Mary at the time of one’s death. We have parents telling their children (children!) to wear this piece of cloth lest they die with too many sins on their back to avoid eternal punishment. We have cousins scaring cousins under pine trees in their grandpa’s backyard (if you haven’t yet, check out Richard Dawkins moderating a panel at the AHA conference on “Religious Child Abuse“).

And yes, at ten, I fell for it. Right there, under the pine trees. I hunted down a brown scapular and got one for my little sister, too. I wore it at school for a few days, quietly, until in gym class I had to change my shirt and a friend of mine asked me what it was. I explained, and he hesitated for a moment before saying something that I can still remember clearly, something that made me feel like a fool, something that was perfectly correct, and something that immediately broke the spell of superstition I had embraced:

“That’s stupid.”

It was stupid. I put my shirt back on and threw the thing away after lunch.