Monday, 5 August 2013

Prayer Fails

The widespread belief amongst the faithful that intercessory prayers are effective at curing disease is strong.  It is sufficiently strong that it doesn’t waver when children like the Schaibles die of medical neglect. The faithful watch children die as their bronze-age chants fail, and feel no remorse, no doubt.
The best scientific study working with large groups on the effectiveness of prayer remains with Benson et al (2006) [1]. The study overcame the methodological weakness of previous studies by using proper randomisation of subjects and ‘blind’ techniques, combined with large sample sizes.

About 1800 coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) patients were in the study. The patients were randomized, such that only 1/3 knew definitely they would receive intercessory prayer to assist recovery. The other 2/3rd did not know if they would receive prayer. Half of them did, half didn’t.

The study showed that prayer had no effect on complication-free recovery from CABG. The group that did know they were receiving prayer however, had a significantly higher risk of complications (59% versus 51%). It was speculated that knowing they were receiving prayer, increased their anxiety (perhaps they were sicker than they had been led to believe) and this contributed to the increased rates of complications.

There is no scientific evidence that validates the belief that prayer is effective at curing disease.

[1] Herbert Benson MD, Jeffery A. Dusek , Jane B. Sherwood , Peter Lam , Charles F. Bethea , William Carpenter , Sidney Levitsky , Peter C. Hill , Donald W. Clem, Jr. , Manoj K. Jain , , David Drumel , Stephen L. Kopecky , Paul S. Mueller , Dean Marek, Sue Rollins ,  and Patricia L. Hibberd (2006). Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: a multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer. American Heart Journal 151(4): 934-942

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Let's talk about "Macroevolution"

One of the recent Creationist gambits is the invention of the macro and micro-evolution shibboleths.  This is a convenient way to act like a hypocrite- by accepting "microevolution" they can continue to use modern antibiotics and crops.  By rejecting "macroevolution" they get to cling on to their beliefs.

Like so many arguments used before, this rejecting "macroevolution" depends on a combination of ignorance and dishonesty.  The reason I put "macroevolution" in quote-marks is because as far as biologists have ever been concerned, there is only evolution.  This is the change in inheritable traits (allele frequency) in populations over generations.  There aren't different processes.  The Creationist argument starts on an unsound scientific basis.  (This is usually typified by them being unable to define what "macroevolution" is to me).  Paleontologists sometimes use the term macroevolution but this doesn't really line-up with the creationist term. In this context, macroevolution describes the large-scale changes seen in the fossil record.  In the creationist sense, it usually means common ancestry.

DNA- Advances in molecular biology in the 1980s forced Creationists to invent the 'Macroevolution" argument
Ok, so why have Creationists come up with this argument?  Well, basically because older arguments got over-run by advances in modern biology.  When we could only dimly see changes occurring at the molecular level, creationists would appeal to ignorance.  If we can't see these changes occurring, then they weren't going to buy into evolution of any kind.  Once we showed we could see evolution occurring at the level of individual genes, there were only two options.  Accept that evolution occurs or invent a new definition of evolution and insist this is yet to be proved.  The "macroevolution" argument comes down to the dishonest gambit of inventing a new definition. 

The argument is also intellectually dishonest.  The Creationist concept often boils down to speciation.  They insist that a speciation event must be observed for their concept of "macroevolution" to be tested and proved.  Given we estimate it usually takes 50,000 to 100,000 years for a speciation-process to complete, then really, they're just trying to create a test that is impossible to pass.  Human history isn't long enough (usually) to see a new species evolve.  Insisting we observe in 50 years an event that takes 50,000 is appalling dishonesty.  This isn't about creating tests that are falsifiable (truly scientific), it's about contriving a test that is impossible to pass. 

Nonetheless, we have observed speciation events.  While it usually takes a long time, the 'tail of this distribution' can yield some much faster events.  For example, the sunflower Helianthus anomalus and the groundsel Senecio cambrensis are recently evolved plant species.  They've evolved by a process called polypoloid hybridisation.  And the neat thing about this, is we've replicated it in the lab.  We've tested the observations by seeing if we can duplicate it and succeeded.  These are entire new species as demonstrated by their new chromosome count.  

As an aside, we've also observed new structures evolve.  The Italian wall-lizard Podarcis sicula on  Pod Mrcaru has been observed to evolve a different head shape and size, along with caecal valves in the gut. The change to the gut is a major and novel structural shift in response to the more vegetarian diet of these lizards.

The argument based on "macroevolution" isn't just dishonest.  It's already been clubbed to death by a mob of angry facts.

The argument is also redundant.  What is seldom recognised is that the same advances in molecular biology that demolished the original creationist arguments also took out the "macroevolution" argument.  One of the most important things about biology, is that inheritable traits get inherited.  Genes leave a long trail back in time.  We don't need to observe speciation events.  A very good record of them is left at the molecular level.  The same genetic evidence that can show paternity, also shows we have a common ancestor with the other great ape species. It's just following the trail back. And we're at a point where we're looking at thousands of molecules at a time.  Similarities aren't down to random chance.  The distribution is not uniform but very convergent. Common ancestry makes a very important, very testable prediction- traits will be organised as nested hierarchies.  That is what we see.

The "macroevolution" argument  runs into many other problems.
  1. What is the barrier to new species forming?  The plant-species above show there's no intrinsic barrier.  And we know that populations keep accumulating differences.  If one early ape species had two separate populations 7 million years ago, and ended up today with a similarity of 98.6% in their DNA, are they still the same species?  There is nothing we've found in biology that can stop genetic changes accumulating.
  2. The distribution of non-coding DNA.  Why for example, do we share most of our psuedogenes and Alu inserts with chimps.  It's easy to see why we'd have over 1m identical Alu inserts to chimps if we both had the same ancestor and inherited them.  Because afterall, they're inheritable. Mostly all we can tell about these short, non-coding sequences is they correlate to a bunch of diseases we'd rather not have. Like colorectal cancer.  
  3. How and where do new species occur? Paleontology has pretty much determined that 99% of all species of planet earth have gone extinct. If nothing can evolve from existing species, then there's a pretty big problem left to explain the motives and mechanisms by which new species occur.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

The Body-Count Proof of God

One of the dilemmas the religious face, is accounting for the horrific atrocities of their religion whilst simultaneously holding on to the belief their faith is the product of a loving, moral creator.  I can't say that I'm persuaded for instance, that a religion that spawned the crusades, inquisition, witch-trials and pogrom demonstrates any divine origin.

There is a type of theist who responds to this by arguing that atheism has killed more. This is done by cherry-picking some of the 20th C totalitarian states and the death toll these perpetuated. In effect, they are trying to justify the body count of their religion with the body count of other regimes.
  • The argument is on one hand, simply offensive. The emergence of totalitarian regimes in the early and mid-twentieth century were a product of many factors. These factors were myriad- political economic, military etc.  Most importantly, such states ranged from true Christian regimes (Mussolini, Franco) to Christian-influenced theism (Hitler)
    German Wehrmacht belt-buckle with slogan "God with Us".
    to communist regimes in E Europe (Stalin). The mass-slaughter of people in the mid-20th C by totalitarian governments, is just an argument against totalitarianism. That’s the only fair conclusion we can draw from this slaughter. 
  • The comparison also fails because the Communist regimes did not kill in the name of atheism. They killed because they identified some groups as being enemies of the state and targeted them. Atheism isn’t a political philosophy. It is not a synonym with Marxism.
  • On the other hand, religions have killed in the name of their religion. Christians tortured and executed their neighbours for witchcraft because that’s exactly what their religion said to do. Torture was attendant to this to force a confession- so that the person’s soul could still be saved. It was a strange concern- Christian love- for the soul that made torture acceptable.
  • The history of Islam since the days of the 4th Caliph Ali is one driven by sectarian violence. The normally moderate 12th C Damascene historian ibn al-Qalanisi describes the attacks on the Batinis in Damascus- adding with relish how their slain bodies were just left in the streets for the dogs to devour.The current stories of horrific
    Two Bombs Kill 66 in Baquba, Iraq
    bombings from the Middle East show little has changed.
  • The third problem is the changes in technology are ignored. If the Crusaders had spandau machine-guns instead of swords and spears, the whole body-count comparison would look a lot different. It’s not even a fair comparison.
Lastly, the whole line of argument is a big ‘so what’. If your case for god is that your religion has killed a few million people less than some other doctrine, it’s still a pretty odious religion. And it offers absolutely no evidence for the existence of god. Maybe atheism does make some people evil. So what? It doesn’t make your god real. Only valid evidence can do that.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The - "I was a former atheist" - ploy

Every so often, you run into a religious person who employs this line on you. They claim "they were an atheist but then, they saw the light" (or whatever). There’s a moment of awkwardness that follows this clumsy attempt to build a rapport.

Here’s why it does not work.
  • First, there are not any commonly-held doctrines to atheism. You can’t presume your former reasons not to have Jesus in your life are the same as mine. Jumping straight in and assuming I was in a similar state to you is, well, inane. At least ask me why I’m an atheist.
  • Second, there’s a difference between being an atheist and non-religious.  Being an atheist is an actual position taken towards the evidence for gods. Many “former atheists” I’ve encountered were simply non-religious for a time. They were indifferent to the claims by religion- they didn’t take an atheist position. It was far too apathetic. But they’re still primed for belief- they are exposed often and regularly to religious influences.
These conversion stories are pretty basic fare for Christians. And I appreciate that from such a perspective, anyone who hasn’t adopted a formal religious stance is clumped into the big atheist set. It must sound kind of exciting, hearing these tales of conversion of atheists. But it doesn’t work like this. Real atheists don’t get converted to Christianity by listening to your faith and convictions.  Witnessing goes down like a cup of cold-sick.

If you want to convert atheist, then the only thing that will work is valid evidence that your beliefs can be substantiated. We’ve all heard the Jesus speech before. We’ve all been witnessed to, we’ve all been prayed for. You need to stump-up with actual evidence rather than assertions describing your faith.

Sigh, a house is not a universe

The return of the Faulty Analogy Fallacy

Sometimes I get this argument popping up. It’s an argument from analogy. Kind of, because we know houses were designed and built, and a house is like the universe, it must be that the universe was designed and built by a creator.

Like most arguments from analogy, it is a weak argument*. It is not an appeal to evidence. It is an appeal to all sorts of hidden assumptions and presumptions that get attached to it. It fails simply because those assumptions aren’t shared by others.

We can test the claim that houses are designed objects. This is based on the following traits:
  • Observations: We actually see houses getting built by human agents. So far, nobody has observed a universe being built by an external agent.
  • Objective: A house has a specific objective. It provides shelter for the occupants. It is this use- to which it is purposely built- that tells us its designed. Nobody has proved that the universe has a like-objective. The universe appears entirely indifferent to our existence. It was around about 14bn years before we turned up, and will continue long after our solar-system dies.
  • Efficiency: This relatives to objective. Objects that are designed try to meet their objectives in efficient ways- needless redundancy, wastage of materials, inflated risks- all invalidate the idea of design. A vast universe that hurtles deadly space rocks at us, and bathes us in deadly UV radiation, could do with some tweaks.
  • Economy: designed artifacts are constrained by the resources available for their use. The decision to use one input over another, is driven by a conscious and deliberate observable decision. We don’t observe these substitutions occurring in the universe.
* Indeed, if you have to make an argument based on an analogy that cannot be supported by evidence, chances are it’s fatally flawed. Please stop.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

I am not an evolutionist

Until I got on to the web and started interacting with creationists again, I’d never heard this term before. Lets be clear- I reject it, utterly and totally. 

I am a biologist, not an evolutionist. That means I have spent years at University getting an advanced education. That means a lot of practical work in the field and in the lab. 

It means that I know the difference between a monkey and an ape. I have travelled to, and worked on 4 different continents with a variety of wildlife. In the course of this work, I have discovered and published things. I have been exposed to various hazards along the way. I have lost colleagues to fatal diseases and accidents.  At no point in time I ever met a creationist doing fieldwork in these places.         

At no point in time, have I taken a course in evolutionism. There are no journals on evolutionism. There are no academic or government positions that have evolutionist as the title. The term only exists as a pejorative attempt by creationists to create the fiction that an entire scientific discipline is a mere dogma.

If your claims are built entirely on what you have read on creationist websites and sources, then your beliefs are dogmatic. There is no symmetry between creationism and biology. Until you get off your arses, stop trying to appropriate other people’s research, and start doing your own, not one iota of credit can be given to the creationist view.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Letters to the faithful: Some Etiquette

I’m afraid it has become necessary to compose a simple guide for Christians wanting to undertake dialogue with atheists.  This has been spurred by the social lapses I’ve encountered recently.
1. Don’t pretend you want dialogue when you want to preach instead.  Dialogue does not mean you get to preach at me without responding to my objections to your claims.  Dialogue does not mean witnessing to me. Dialogue actually requires a two way system of open communication.

2. Don’t finish a conversation by saying ‘God bless’ or the like. It doesn’t make you a good person. It really means that you have so little respect for your opponent’s values that you are still willing to dump your religious values on them. Unsolicited and undesired impositions of your values are just rude.

3. Don’t assume atheists are angry. It is easy to attribute emotional content to web-exchanges that has no real basis in fact. This becomes aggravating because then the exchange breaks down. I’ll make some objection and you dismiss that because you think I’m just being angry. If you can’t honestly deal with objections, why pretend you’re indulging in dialogue?  It seems to be a common religious fiction that atheists are inherently angry people. That’s not true. The cause is more likely to be closer to home. You’re wasting time on this nonsense I’m angry- which eventually is going to piss me off.

4. Don’t employ the superiority gambit. There is few things more aggravating than assuring me I don’t know true happiness or love because I don’t share your religious beliefs. That is deeply patronising and likely to offend. Expect your claim to be treated with contempt.

5. Don’t threaten me with hell. If I threatened to arrange your torture if you didn’t agree with me, you’d neither think highly of me nor find this a persuasive argument. It works the other way too. I’m not going to suddenly believe god exists because you have this unproven claim I’ll be tortured if I don’t. It just makes you appear to be a coward (motivated by fear) and a bully.  You know, neither of those are laudable traits.

6. Don’t play the apologist-website dodge. Let’s face it. My time is limited. If you can only respond to my objections by recommending I visit some apologist website, you’re wasting my time. Give a proper answer a go. I’ll think more highly of you. Sending me to a website that generates palpable falsehoods about evolution (hey, I can tell) or merely objections religious people imagine atheists have, don’t deal with my objections. Atheists don’t follow the same script so the scripted answers on apologist websites are pretty pointless.

7. Passages from the bible aren’t answers. You know the bit in bible class when they say the word of god has power. They lied.

8. Don’t play the martyr card. Look, you might be a nice person. But being a Xtian isn’t to an atheist, a synonym for being a nice or trustworthy person. And if you don’t want me telling you honestly what parts of your religion I find abhorrent or ludicrous, then why are you talking to me? Christians often seem very keen to play the matryr card (I’m persecuting you) to end a dialogue rather than grapple with issues like human suffering. You have to remember, atheists aren’t going to have all these patsy-questions you can research by looking up a website. They’re going to have really tricky ones. And I’m not going to bother with a charade that we’re destined to best buddies.

9. Don’t lecture me on what I must believe. Asking your pastor for what atheists believe is like asking a cat how birds fly. I’ve identified as an atheist for decades. I don’t need anyone telling me what I must or must not believe in. I’m the atheist right? I think I’ve got a good handle on that already. If I correct you on what atheism is, why would you disagree with me? If I said Xtians have to believe the earth is the centre of the solar system and that witchcraft is not only real, anyone suspected of being a witch should be killed, I imagine you might object to that definition. It’s the same thing for atheists. Don’t make up stuff about what we believe. Just accept the corrections and move on.