Posts Tagged ‘skepticism’

2012 — The end of the world as we know it

September 10, 2009

As some would like to get you excited about anyway. Lately, the History Channel has been apparently trying to boost ratings by getting people excited about the end of the world coming shortly. In 2012, to be precise, and Dec. 21, 2012 to be even more precise. Of course, the world was already supposed to have ended in 1914, 1936, 1945, 1952, 1969, 1981, 1982, 1988, 1992, 1994, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, among other dates, including as early as 247. In 2013, we’ll likely be able to add 2012 to this list of failed dates.

So, why? Any google search will tell you that this particular date is the date that the Mayan calendar ends. In fact, as the above link shows, it seems likely that the Mayans had some notion of an age of enlightenment beginning with that new cycle. See here for more on the Mayan calendar end. Their calendars appear to be inspired from spiritual cycles, but based on the motions of Venus and possibly other planets. They were quite good at naked eye observational astronomy, great at making accurate seasonal predictions (useful for growing crops) based on those observations, and fantastic architects. They also seemed to think that blood letting is effective method to keep harmony in the universe and the gods happy to ensure good crops. So maybe in any case, the ancient Mayans are not the go-to guys for a useful model about how the universe works. There is still much to learn about the universe, of course, but nothing in astronomy, plate tectonics, or anything else suggests that an ultimate calamity is set to occur during 2012.

From what little I’ve seen on the programs on the History Channel, they don’t seem to be taking this more sober approach though. In fact, in their advertisements, they proclaim that many of the great prophets such as Nostradamus all point to a coming doomsday in 2012. In fact, I can’t find anywhere where Nostradamus makes a prediction specifically for 2012. The closest I’ve found is this famous quatrain:

The year 1999, seventh month,
From the sky will come a great King of Terror:
To bring back to life the great King of the Mongols,
Before and after Mars to reign by good luck.

Well, that’s clear. Let’s see, what happened July 1999? Ah, the Liberty Bell 7 from the Mercury program was lifted out of the Atlantic ocean. Man, Nostradamus was spot on after all! Oh wait, he said “Mars”, not “Mercury”. Must have been a typo. But 2012? Huh? Oh, I get it. Nostradamus was talking about Jupiter and the collision of comet Shoemaker-Levy. The five comet fragment that slammed into Jupiter. After all, Jupiter is the “King” of the planets, and to any Jovians living on the gas giant, those comet fragments must have seemed like a terror in the sky. But that was from 1994, five years off from 1999. Perhaps there was some perturbation Nostradamus forgot to calculate, or maybe five years is symbolic? Plus his quatrain would make the comet the king. Oh well, I’m sure somebody can think of some way to make it fit and it will be wonderfully poetic and symbolic.

Now I’m sure in 2012, somebody will find something that will twist some vaguely worded quatrain or prophecy to seem like that’s what was meant. One of the token skeptics on the History Channel said that these so-called prophets shoot a lot of arrows and later people draw targets around them to make it look like that’s where the arrow was meant to go. Shoot enough arrows and people will find ways to draw targets around them. I couldn’t say it better myself.

Of course, no mention of famous doomsday prophets is complete without Edgar Cayce. Someday I’ll have to do a full write up on this guy. The History Channel again seems to link up Cayce with 2012. So far, I’ve found no mention that Cayce predicted anything specifically for 2012. But that would seem to be irrelevant anyway. One of the major gifts he was supposed to have was psychic healing and diagnosis. In fact, there is no reliable evidence this ever worked. He seemed to rely on old homemade remedies and homeopaths and the like. What Cayce fans point to as evidence in favor of his psychic diagnoses is, in fact a scatter shot of arrows towards which they could point at one of the arrows in a diagnosis to claim victory. According to what I saw on the History Channel, he opened up a psychic hospital to perpetuate his fraud, er. self-delusions, er, cures. If his method was so successful, we would have expected this to have become a booming medical center. In fact, it went broke (albeit in a really bad economy), a fact one would think would have been “forseen”. For James Randi’s write up on Cayce, see here.

For another great take, and a rare agreement from me for this site, check out God and Science for another perspective on all the 2012 hoopla. For a taste:

The 2012 disasters are such good violence and mayhem that they would make the ultimate disaster movie. Hey, somebody needs to make a lot of money…

Well said.

So, in short, when the big bad asteroid comes to destroy the earth, the prophets and seers will not be the ones to tell you about it. It will be the astronomers, with telescopes pointed at the sky and scribbling down orbital mechanics calculations. Unless, of course, one of the prophets also happens to be one of the afore-mentioned astronomers.


District 9 review

September 8, 2009

Well, we finally went out and saw the movie District 9. For its intent, this movie was quite well done. In the extremely unlikely event aliens would ever come here, and if they were in the sad shape these aliens happened to be in, I would hope that the outcome would be different. Sadly, in this hypothetical situation, I can see this movie as being not too far off the mark. In the movie, the worst of humanity was put on display for our visitors. Humanity’s inhumanity to others who are different, to themselves, along with a healthy dose of greed and superstition. The reason this is somewhat plausible is because this is stuff we’ve seen before. With European colonization of the Americas, to apartheid in South Africa, to Nigerian witchhunts, to the genocide in Rwanda. The fact that people do notice these things and that there is moral outrage is a sign of progress, but it seems we have a significant ways to go to raise the bar.

Possible spoilers below the fold.

Science, religion, and accomodations

June 27, 2009

Right. Let’s see if I can get back on track blogging instead of letting those pesky little details like work and life get in the way. One needs a sense of priority after all.

So, lately, the buzz around the blogosphere has been about whether or not science and religion are compatible. The spark was apparently a new blog from Jerry Coyne. In one posting, referenced is Lawrence Krauss, who quoted Sam Harris arguing that reconciling modern science with Iron age convictions was “ridiculous”. Of course, PZ Myers had several observations on this discussion, the latest of which can be found here. Another salvo was fired from Sean Carroll at Cosmic Variance. Since this is a topic close to my interests, I would be remiss if I were not to throw in my 2 cents.

Are science and religion compatible? Well, if you want to define your religion as a belief in a supernatural being transcendent to the universe and who is undetectable and never interacts with anything in the universe, then sure, why not? I’m in a generous mood, and such a god and science really have nothing to say about each other. Completely useless as a religion, and in reality, this is not the type of entity most religions posit anyway. The big 3 Abrahamic faiths declare a supernatural entity who has (and in many cases continues to) interacted with the universe and humanity in particular. This means we can bring scientific methodology and logical reasoning to bear. In particular, the scriptural texts that are supposedly the best evidence for this god are full of scientific errors, misunderstandings, and contradictions. Metaphorizing stories away aside, we know there the world was not created in 6 days 6000 years ago. We were not made separate from the animals from dust. The evidence is clear that there was no global flood. The world is not supported on pillars. Historical and literary analysis shows it highly likely that Jesus never existed..

The claims about the state of the world reached via religious means have almost always been contradicted when careful scientific scrutiny has been applied. Indeed, claims about human nature reached via religious means stand in contrast to what we have learned through the painstaking rigor of science. Think about how the linkage between the physical construct of the brain and our personality stands in stark contrast to the idea of an invisible and immortal soul, for example. Each time, those who wish to hold on to religious faith must dance around the problems, squeeze their god into tinier gaps, and/or build elaborate baroque smoke, mirror metaphors to make it look like the religious stories don’t really conflict with reality, or try to dismantle science education by trying to get mythology taught as science. Now one of the ways these religions claim that a god interacts with the universe is via miracles. Making the sun stand still for a day. Resurrecting a corpse. Helping people getting better from various ailments by proper usage of various drugs under the care of a doctor. Oh wait, that latter was actually science and the hard work of doctors.

I have seen one argument made by a few of my fellow atheists (and I’m not sure where I read this) on the compatibility issue that I don’t think is quite correct. The argument is that the miracles did not happen, because they are incompatible with reality. Well, yes. That’s pretty much the point. A god above the laws of physics can do whatever he or she wants. That would count as pretty good evidence that such a being exists (assuming appropriate verification can be made, of course). The correct question is whether or not such events took place. It seems all the major miracles occurred long ago. The further back, the more miraculous. The scriptural stories including miracles have been handed down over the centuries copied down from sources which were second hand at best. We know how easily fooled our brains are, even first hand. Given the major problems inherent in the Bible, we simply have no reason to think that these stories are in any way reliable. We have no reliable evidence these events took place.

Now some do argue that science and religion are compatible in the sense that some scientists do hold religious beliefs. This does not mean that the religious beliefs they hold are compatible with scientific knowledge. As Sam Harris points in The End of Faith, our imperfect finite brains are perfectly capable of holding a contradictory set of beliefs. The scientific work is approached via honest and rigorous inquiry without mixing religion. Religious beliefs are dealt with by varying combinations of subjective feelings and authoritative dogma. As long as they are kept out of direct internal conflict, the cognitive dissonance is not recognized as such. Or the cognitive dissonance is skirted around by unjustifiable rationalizations for the religious views. Perhaps in some sense, the religious belief system is seen as a beautiful and fragile crystal. Too delicate for the full brunt of critical scientific and logical inquiry. However, long ago I and many others have seen that this beautiful crystal is nothing but cheap glass. It’s not doing anything useful and gets in the way of our understanding of how things work. Its beauty is simply an illusion that disappears on closer and honest scrutiny.

Scientific investigation of heaven

March 18, 2009

O.K., not quite heaven, but near-death experiences, anyway. Earlier, I posted about the possible physical bases of near-death experiences (or NDEs). Now, a study has been launched to investigate just this. Fortunately, some of the methodology seems to be scientific, more or less, in nature. They will be studying patients who undergo hypothermic cardiac standstill procedures and so are possible candidates to experience one of those NDEs. From the link:

The experiments are fairly rudimentary: In addition to monitoring brain activity, researchers will plant pictures near the ceiling that are not visible from the ground, and test the subjects’ memories by uttering random words in the room.

If patients report an out-of-body experience in which they claim to watch their operation from above — that is, if their consciousness separates from their dying brain — then the reasoning is that they should be able to identify the pictures.

“I am not a religious person so I am not trying to validate religion,” Dr. Beauregard says. “I just think these questions are the most fascinating questions for humanity, and they deserve to be investigated further.”

I think nothing conclusive will be demonstrated, although if done carefully enough, I rather doubt any evidence will be found for existence of the self outside the physical body. Further, although a good start, I think recollection of hearing random words uttered would not be conclusive as the brain may be picking up on it somehow. Putting up pictures out of view though is a better approach. So far, out of 65 patients, nobody has seen the pictures, which is, of course, exactly what we’d expect if it’s all the brain. Of course, it seems none them experienced an NDE either.

In addition to the photographs placed on the ceiling, a special sensor will be attached to the patients to test whether those who see tunnels and visions have minute levels of oxygen in their brains that previously went undetected. A doctor with the study will call out the names of cities or colours during the cardiac arrest to see if patients recall them upon reviving.

If no one can identify the visual or verbal cues, Dr. Parnia says, the experiment will confirm the “false memory” theory; however, if they are recalled, he says, the study will demonstrate that consciousness is something that can exist, if for only a short time, outside the physical brain.

As I mentioned earlier, I don’t think the verbal cues will be conclusive of anything. They may not detect all the oxygen and it is not clear to me that the brain can be receiving and storing some sort of signal.

However, I think Dr. Parnia is completely correct when it is noted:

But at the very least, Dr. Parnia and his colleagues say, the phenomenon of near-death experience merits the search for a scientific answer to what is often deemed a spiritual event.

“People die; death is a biological process,” Dr. Parnia says. “And science should take over the study of death.”

I certainly don’t have a problem with a scientific approach to these experiences. As I’ve mentioned earlier, this has already led us to a better working knowledge of neural networks, etc. Dr. Parnia has taken, what appears to be at least, a rational mindset. Make a hypothesis about an external (to the body) existence of personality and, as rigorously as possible under the circumstances, test it. Of course, there are already a number of expectations I would have if this were the case. Out of the millions and millions of people who have died, I would expect at least one reliable communication from the beyond. There has been none. I would expect personality and emotions to not be so entirely susceptible to physical changes in the brain, as has been repeatedly documented elsewhere. I think it would be reasonable to expect at least one reliable success from people who have been trying to do “remote viewing”. There are none. I think it is a fairly safe bet what Dr. Parnia is going to find, or rather, not find.

A great pyramid scam

March 15, 2009

After getting home this Saturday night, I popped on the ol’ television out of curiosity. The History Channel had a show on “Ancient Astronauts”. So, I thought this ought to be amusing for a few minutes. You could cut the credulity with a knife.

Apparently, the pyramid is an amazing structure. How could lowly humans possibly come up with it? Why are these mysterious pyramid shapes found throughout the world? It would seem that the narrators of this fine enlightening show had not gotten around yet to considering the possibility that a pyramid structure is, in fact, the most stable large structure, at least in a place with gravity (which most spots on the Earth have), that could be built with technology possessed by ancient peoples. This is discussed in more detail here. How they were built is not a mystery either, as discussed here.

The most hilarious bit though, was what was said immediately prior to my changing the channel (I just couldn’t take any more entertainment). Apparently, two of the pyramids have the same perimeter. How, some strangely unimaginative person queried, could this possibly be done? Clearly, the implication is that ancient Egyptians were utterly incapable of either working from a set design or even measuring the perimeter of the pyramid to figure out what to make the perimeter of the next one and plan accordingly. Amazing. By this logic, 747 jets are designed and built by extraterrestrials, along with cars, and cookie cutter houses. It was immediately after this I figured I should see what else was on.

Do they really think humans were so incapable of figuring anything out, even back in the days of the ancient Egyptians? Why is it that every time somebody can’t figure out how something was done, or sees some fanciful drawings, extraterrestrials are immediately invoked by some? Now, if they found a clear extraterrestrial skeleton (or its equivalent) in a pyramid, or some piece of alien technology clearly not of human origin, then we’d have something. Until then, give our a species a little credit, eh? We’re not perfect and are still learning, but we’ve always been pretty good problem solvers.