What would Jesus see?

In the lengthy history of divine sightings, this one is my favourite. I gotta respect the seller's up-front honesty, and I confess to getting a similar idea for a scam. Anyone willing to pay $20,000 for a pretzel should be eagerly parted from their money, and given to someone who needs it....or at least given to someone clever and ballsy enough to try this.

One of the world's most presitgeous science journals, Nature, has given Canada a failing grade when it comes to the Harper government's support and recognition of science. (*UPDATE*, The Nature Article is now on a subsription basis. You can find what the National Post said about the story here)

The article sites the steady decline in science-program funding, and the effective dissolving of scientific advisory posts. Scientific panels are comprised of half-scientists, half-government adminstrators. In addition, the Harper government has ignored Kyoto protocols, and muzzled environmental scientists. During a recent confrence honouring the Canadian co-winners of the nobel peace prize for their work on climate change, the PM and Cabinet ministers were conspicuously absent, an insult to be sure. The Nature article lays all this out far better than I can, so instead I refer you to the link above.

Is it any wonder? The reactionary Canadian public elected an Alberta-oil conservative from a religious and business background. This is a man who has snubbed the scientific community whenever it admonised the oil and natural gas industry at every opportunity. This government has also engaged in the most secretive press-relations policies that have existed since I've been alive: secret cabinet meetings, entering parliament in the backdoor (hidden from the press), muzzeling his MP's from talking to the press, and even using the RCMP to block out the media from approaching a caucus meeting in Charlottetown last summer. The Liberal Party has had at least two meaningul opportunities to topple the government but either abstained from the vote or walked out of the vote because they were afraid of facing another election.....despite the fact that if there was an election, the Liberals would have LOTS of fodder to run on. But alas, the Liberals are spineless, and the Conservatives are brainless.

Proud to be a Canadian right now.

Make like Pearl Jam & do the Evolution

When I was attending college in London, Ontario a few years ago, I was reading Roger Fouts’ exploration of the capacity of chimpanzees, both in the wild and in captivity, to learn language from humans, and their ability to create their own language. The cover portrayed a chimp in a Mr. Rogers-like sweater, an image which made a man sitting across from me on the bus extremely irate: “That cover! It’s bullshit! I never came from no monkey”. Foolishly, I allowed myself to get sucked into an impromptu debate, a difficult challenge to be sure. After all, how do you defend evolution from one its deniers, especially when their own knuckles seem to be a little closer to the ground? Surely they could see that through their own sloped brow!

This coming Feb 12, I invite you all to celebrate Darwin Day, the 199th birthday of our favourite hirsute naturalist, Charles Darwin. From to the Secular Students Alliance:

There is an organized movement against the teaching of biological evolution through natural selection. Those opposing evolution have spread a tremendous amount of misinformation. Also, efforts to reduce the teaching of evolution have left many people without a quality science education….We seek to remind ourselves and our communities how important responsible scientific inquiry and education is to both our understanding of the world and our well being.

Considering the multitudinous incarnations of evolutionary theory, it is quite remarkable just how much Darwin got right the first time. Notions such as gradualism and natural selection were hotly contested at the time, but later discoveries of genetics, DNA, and most recently, the mapping of the human genome, perfectly coincided with the predictions laid out by Darwin and, owing to the axiom that science is predictable and repeatable, the theory of evolution has, for all intents and purposes, transcended the status of theory, and became law.

There is a widespread misconception among most that evolution is still trapped in the theory stage: that its problems (to be sure, there are problems), are so damning that scientists are reluctant to accept it as law. This is untrue, and is a typical perception of those unfamiliar with the scientific process, scientific community, or with scientific discoveries. Evolution has survived 150 years of the rigors and vigors of the scientific peer review process, and it has held up to the most difficult scrutiny (DNA), and the most inane (religious, spiritual). Scientists no longer debate evolution. Scientists do not believe in evolution. They accept it. Like man-made global warming, the science has confirmed it, and the scientists must now convince the rest of us that it’s legit. But we don’t seem to want to listen.

Unfortunately for the pursuit of science, the socio-political implications of Darwin’s findings quickly outpaced the work itself. Darwin, in the tradition of Galileo, Copernicus and Kepler, committed that most horrendous of crimes that a scientist can commit: suggesting that humans are not special. Any factual revelation that puts humanity in its proper context (that is, an insignificant one) has been met with hostility, excommunication, and even threats of immolation. Arguably, Darwin’s findings were of greater significance and insult: to suggest that humans had any biological analog in the animal kingdom, and may even be PART of that kingdom, was a de facto conclusion that left little room for an interventionist, personal God (a room already made smaller by Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler and Newton).

I wrote a paper several years ago describing the evolution of first nations cultures after European contact, and was I lambasted as being racist, a reaction that reflected not a reactionary culture, but the commonplace Lamarckian mistake that evolution is about improvement (a notion he recanted and apologized for late in life). Let’s be certain: Evolution says nothing about how life began, or how life advances, but instead focuses on how species adapt to their environment. Furthermore, I caution anti-evolution activists from invoking eugenics and Hitler when admonishing evolution. It is a teleological mistake, a non-sequitur, ad hominem attack, and slippery slope argument: four fatal logical fallacies that reflect the religious community’s ignorance and venom when discussing the outrageous notion that humanity might not be so special as the ancient texts written by people with no little-to-no knowledge of biology and astronomy might want us to believe. There is also the mistake of inconsistency, as countless religious texts and leaders for millennia have taught about the hierarchy of life and even the God-given superiority of one race over another.

This February 12 (also the birthday of the greatest American hero after Batman, Abraham Lincoln), take a moment to reflect on the sheer magnitude of the diversity of life, and of the extremely humble beginnings of man. It was a long, arduous, disease-ridden process, full of birth defects, crippling mutations, extinctions and crap-throwing (the latter of which can still be seen at some keggers). Over hundreds of thousands of years, humans eventually came along and learned how to sharpen a stick, make a fire, build a hut, and go to the moon. It was not a snake in a tree talking to two naked people who didn’t have belly buttons. So to that man sitting on the bus yelling at me that he “didn’t come from no monkey”, I quote the founder of modern brain surgery, Paul Broca: “I would rather be a transformed ape than a degenerate son of Adam”.

Trust no one: Especially Conspiracy Theorists

Let’s be honest: the world can be a scary place, where insurmountably terrible things can happen to destabilize our way of life, and our confidence in our place in the world. When things as terrible as the JFK assassination and 9/11 strike a blow to our culture, we seek many things: solace, revenge, mourning, and occasionally answers. In our search for what can cause such horrendous acts like 9/11, the uninformed observer will typically tend towards fanciful explanations, regardless of their veracity, and the moral implications of these explanations. To explain why we must be cautious in our dealings with the conspiracy theory community, I will frame this article under the theory that George W. Bush caused 9/11, and despite the various forms this theory has taken, I will condense the key points into one unified theory.

Symptomatic of conspiracy theorists is anomaly hunting. Far too often people can fall into the trap of looking for anomalies, assuming false questions and false gaps in the evidence, and then answering these questions with conjecture, hearsay, suspicion, and a loose-change understanding of inference. The 9/11 conspiracy theorists will frothingly scream about there being no plane wreckage or shattered glass at the Pentagon, or at the Twin towers, questions surrounding the collapse of tower 7, or the melting point of steel. These questions are either a) easily answered (The Pentagon had bomb-proof windows, and was built to withstand an atomic explosion…more than enough to deal with an airplane, or b) flat out erroneous (burning jet fuel may not be enough to melt steel, but at the peak temperature, steel looses 90% of its molecular cohesion, and tower 7 fell because nearly a quarter of it was torn away above the 10th floor). Unfortunately, true believers will dismiss such pesky issues as physics and camera footage as being either part of the conspiracy, or they will sidestep the answer all together to bring up another challenging “question”….a logical fallacy called the “moving goalpost”.

When challenged on their egregious assertions (like what happened to the passengers, how to account for the cell phone calls from mid-air, why did the black box survive and precisely correspond with an impact at the Pentagon?), the answers they provide convey ever-more complicated reasoning, explaining an unknown with an unknown (or a presumption, with no evidence). According to the various incarnations of the theory, the passengers were re-routed and executed, or the plane was flown by remote; the cell phone calls were faked, and the black box was also faked….somehow…whatever, evidence doesn’t matter, stop asking questions!

Conspiracy theories tend to generate far more questions then they can answer, and as such, invariably bring in more and more people to be in on the conspiracy. Eventually, these theories collapse under their own weight. In order to compensate for their ever-mounting complexity and improbability, more and more people need to be brought into the fold: It wasn’t just Bush and his cronies, it was the Saudi gov’t too. It was also the CIA. And the FBI. And the Military, the Air Force, Senators, House Members, and the Media! Yeah, the media is also in on the conspiracy. Them, and the civilian airline industry! How many people need to be involved in a conspiracy for it to be impossibly massive? 100? 10,000? With something like 9/11, I tend to think the latter would be necessary to pull it off, but only 10 need to know about it to spill the beans. Does anyone remember how bad Bill Clinton got in trouble because he couldn’t keep a blow-job under wraps? Or what about Watergate, where the country was almost up in arms over a presidential bugging-job in a hotel?

The unspoken major premise of conspiracy theorists divides the world into three simplistic categories: 1) The conspirators, that elite group of malevolent power-mongers that masterminded this act of unspeakable evil, 2) The ones who figured it all out, the guardians of suppressed knowledge and have a divine mission to spread the ‘real’ truth before something worse happens, and 3) The Dupes. Most of us apparently fall into this category because we believe the conspirators, and ridicule the ones who ‘figured it out’. Those in the 2nd category will continue to try to expose the conspirators, and when ridiculed by the dupes, they will use it to embolden their cause, as it becomes the jet fuel hot enough to melt the steel of corruption.

The biggest tragedy throughout all this though, is that this conspiracy theory lets the real murders off the hook without missing a beat. In my most mean-spirited moments, I conceive a greater insult to the memory of those who died, or to the dignity of those who lost a loved one. Sad.

Enough people (myself included) have written in great detail about how absurd and transparent the Church of Scientology is, so I won't waste your time (though it would be fun regardless). Scientology crept in the news this last week with the announcement that Will Smith has embraced it teachings...and people are LIVID! I've told this to quite a few people and the reactions have been occasionally been exasperation, but mostly sadness. sadness and surprise. Will Smith, even more than Wayne Brady, has been the non-threatening black man that middle-class white America loved in his sitcom and blockbuster films alike. Scientology, in turn, has been that freaky-deaky religion that millionaires practice, and somehow aliens fit in there too, according to the general knowledge. But we LOVE Will Smith! He's the Fresh fucking-Prince! Why, oh why must he succumb to the Lord Xenu!?!

The bigger question I want to ask is why this is so surprising? Will Smith, being the hyper-celebrity that he is, has grown up in a culture of "yes". Not since his "rap" career started, has Will Smith ever had to endure the sting of being told "no, you're not special". Never. Will Smith is special, talented, charming, and he can do no wrong in our eyes. This is the deification of celebrities that we practice on a minute-by-minute basis, and have been for over a generation. Is it any wonder these self-deluded half-talents can't recognize crazy-shit when it comes their way? Of course Will Smith is going to embrace scientology when his friend Tom Cruise tells him how great it is....these two men are perfect, and everything that attracts them MUST also be perfect. Why won't those nay-sayers just get with the program?

I for one, hope more well-loved celebrities convert to scientology. Because when enough of the a-listers convert, they will continue to alienate themselves from us, and we will view them with more and more disdain, dislike, and weirdness. Only then, I think, will we wean ourselves from the celebrity hero-worship which grips our news cycle, and society at large.

But of course, I could be wrong.

Originally posted on Sept 23/2007

Last year Arthur published an article titled “Picking a Psychic: The Guide for Dummies and University Students”. As a then-host of a satiric radio show, I was elated at the comic-fodder provided for me, but I later came to realize the larger issue that is a palpable threat to rationality: Psychics. I should clarify: by psychics, I include all individuals who purport, support or otherwise encourage activity from all of (but not limited to) the following fields: Talking to the dead (or channeling), astrology, palm-reading, divining the future, angels, animal spirits, telepathy, telekinesis, applied kinesiology (using crystals), homeopathy, auras, psychic crime-solving, law of attraction, faith healing, tarot cards, and feng shui. These are all quick-answer solutions that require lots of money yet ask of neither effort, nor thought. Before I continue, I want it be absolutely clear that I am I no way condemning these practices because they are illegitimate compared to the power of Jesus and of prayer, as I find these to be every bit as cooky and hocus-pocus as placing an amethyst on your forehead to cure your headaches. Let me elaborate…

It is always of paramount importance to ask questions. Even the more conscientious psychics will tell you this. But it is important to ask the proper questions. Don’t ask a psychic questions that you think will trap them in a cycle of their own nonsense, as they’ve encountered it before, and their answer will always be the same “it doesn’t work like that”. Ask questions that are honest, earnest, and above all, reasonable. If a psychic says he can read minds, ask him “whose mind?”, “when can you read minds?”, and “with what degree of accuracy can you read minds?” I think we can all agree that these are indeed fair questions, but more importantly, they set parameters which can be observed under controlled conditions. I challenge any psychic out there to answer these questions and allow us to observe and record. If they are the real deal, then my email will no doubt be overflowing with messages by the end of the week from eager psychics defending their art/science/craft/horseshit.

On another note, the law of attraction states, simply put, that your thoughts, emotions, beliefs and actions dictate the cards you are dealt in life. In effect, you can change you life, by simply thinking about it. If you want that raise, all you need to do is think about what it would be like getting that raise. Ditto for that elusive love-of-your-life, the dream vacation, or even a Ferrari (I wish I was making up these examples, yet they can all be found in numerous law of attraction books). I’ll repeat: all you need to do to get the Ferrari, is to want a Ferrari. The Secret (by Ronda Byrne) goes one step further, recommending you simply “ask the universe”. Please try not to laugh. You can achieve a level of happiness unparalleled if you simply ask the universe. It is a decidedly old-take on a very American notion of taking your destiny into your own hands. However, The backhand of this Disney outlook is that everyone is in their situation because they deserve it. Anyone in your family dying of cancer? Probably because they didn’t wish no-cancer enough. Friend killed in a car accident by a drunk-driver? Positive thoughts on their way home might have saved them. Dying of starvation in Darfur? Try asking the unive ….oops too late on that one. Well, I suppose we can’t all drop $30 on a shitty book when Oprah tells us to.

Moreover, a larger questions still looms: if these people really can commune with the dead, predict the future and read minds, why the minimalist career choice? If they are on the level, seemingly it would mark the opening for a strikingly drastic shift in scientific study, and for humanity at large. Or why not play the stock market and the lottery? We know it’s not because they aren’t greedy, as they release countless hardcover books at prices you’d have to be a psychic to afford. In short, why are these people, who are so adamant that they are genuine, playing such petty, small-potato games, when they truly could change the world for the better? Answer: they can’t, they’re liars. All of them.

But please, don’t take my word for it. I ain’t shit, but you are. Never forget that.

Thanks for visiting this blog of some canadian Skeptic. I'm Steve....I'm some canadian skeptic. It doesn't matter which one really.

I've been blogging since 2002 with various non-connected entries ranging from the banalaties of relationship-breakups, the self-pitying post-crippling-injury posts, bitching about politics, personal things, and school. I've posted articles I've written, and I intend to do the same.

This blog is an attempt to bring in my skepticism into a cohesive dedicated blog....I still want to write about politics and other such nonesense, and it can still be seen at my personal blog, http://steveisgood.livejournal.com, but this is a skeptical blog. It's also an attempt to make a more palpable presence within the skeptical community: a community of like-minded cool people who I would like to correspond with. If you run a skeptical blog and would like to do a link-exchange, drop me a line and I've be very glad for the opportunity.

The first few entries are going to be skeptic-related posts I made on my personal blog, and then I can start posting with some degree of regularity.

And that, is the first blog of Some Canadian Skeptic.

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