Monday, August 26, 2013

Visual Compilation of Contradictions

There's not much to this post beyond showing you how wonderful the Information Age is:

The BibViz Project website offers a visual and interactive illustration of all of the Biblical contradictions collected from The Skeptic's Annotated Bible.  From BibViz web page, you can hover over a reference line and see the verses that represent the contradiction.  Spectacular!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Our Woeful Legacy

While reading this op-ed piece in the New York Times by Adam Frank, an Assistant Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Rochester, my state of mind began to slowly decline until I felt downright lousy.  By the end of his article, I had become so ashamed that it was as if I had knocked a 3 year-old child off his or her tricycle.  In more ways than I think he realizes, this professor has directed the uncomfortable spotlight of truth directly on me and my generation.  And I hate it.

Sure, there are far too many people in our country who actively combat the foundations of modern science, but that's not the problem.  The problem is the far greater number of people who impulsively believe these people simply because:
  1. They are excessively self-assured.
  2. They sound remarkably convincing (good salesmanship).
  3. They yell a lot.
  4. Wave an ancient book around.
The fact that so many people so blindly adopt these ancient explanations for the natural world is precisely the reason our society will be held accountable to future generations.  And we should be utterly embarrassed at ourselves for allowing this to happen.

History will look back upon the inquisitive generations before us, who dedicated themselves tirelessly to scientific discovery, as directly contributing to the growth of humanity.  However, I do not believe those same historians will be so kind to those in and around my generation.  When I consider all of the work that so many pioneers of scientific discovery have bestowed upon us, it honestly disappoints me that so much of this effort has been so flippantly discarded or just downright ignored by so many in this country.  As a glaring example, many Americans - 46% to be precise - have completely abandoned the vast mountain of evidence supporting modern biological science in lieu of mythical explanations of the natural world written well over 3000 years ago.

But why?  Is it easier for these people to hold onto their beliefs simply because they were born into them?  Is it more comfortable to believe that your existence is infinite (well, AFTER you're born that is.  Nobody seems to care about all that time before you were conceived by your parents - but I digress.)  Or is it this notion that ancient cultures were somehow more in tune with some universal consciousness and in turn possessed the ability to perform superhuman feats?

All of this gives me reason to be disappointed in my contemporaries.  Because this generation does not strive to understand the Universe as we have in the past, nor do we display the same fervor for discovery as our predecessors.  Instead, my generation has chosen:
  • Belief in ancient texts over the magnificence and wonder of the Universe.
  • To openly dismiss solid and heavily researched principles of science.
  • Bronze Age myths and deistic magic over the breadth of data in modern biology.
  • To put their children, and the rest of us for that matter, at risk of serious infection by abandoning modern medicine over unfounded belief and very dangerous lies.
  • To maintain a rigid stance of divine exceptionalism and extraordinary privilege, with no consideration of future generations (this includes our population explosion and anthropogenic climate change).
  • To ignorantly regurgitate misinformation, bumper-sticker platitudes, and political sound bites with absolutely no requisite proof of these claims.
  • To brazenly criticize "gaps" in scientific knowledge without the same demand for consistency in your religious text.
Our grandchildren deserved better from us, and we've already let them down.

*** Edit ***

Another example - North Texas has issued a measles alert after 9 people have been diagnosed with the infection.  And this outbreak has been linked to a vaccine-denying megachurch in Tarrant County.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Cowboy Immunity

The most disturbing trend in the United States these days is the extent to which a, "Stand Your Ground" law is being exploited.  Take, for example, this story from South Carolina where a man named Shannon Scott and his lawyer, Tim Rutherford, are arguing that Scott should not be prosecuted for the murder of an  innocent, 17 year-old bystander, Darrell Niles.

Back in April of 2010, Shannon Scott's daughter called him as she and her friends were on their way home from clubbing.  His daughter claimed that they were being followed by another carload of teens, which Scott referred to as, "woman thugs."  Scott then met his daughter and her friends outside his home, where he told them to, "Go inside and lie down on the kitchen floor."  Armed with a .38 caliber pistol, Scott arbitrarily shot and killed Niles, who was sitting in his car across the street.

It has not been established if there was any other gunfire that night simply because there was so much conflicting testimony.  However, according to the police report, Scott fired first.

Too bad poor Darrell Niles can't tell his side of the story.  And to me, this story goes way beyond Trayvon Martin because we're not talking about some idiot picking a fight with the victim and then shooting the victim when the idiot is losing the fight.  We're talking about giving people like this gun nut** the capability of shooting first, and then hiding behind a defense like, "I was scared for my life!"  It is horrifying what this guy and his attorney are trying to do.  Because if they are successful in their argument, this case will broaden the, "Stand Your Ground" law to the point that anyone with a gun can fire without reasonable cause, with as many bullets as they want, without ever thinking twice about where and in whom those bullets might land.

Here's the part that mortifies me:
"When someone like Scott, in fear for his life, shoots his gun, '...they cannot be expected to shoot straight always because they are not supposed to have their life in jeopardy,' Rutherford said."
Excuse me???  You're damn right I expect someone who is taking the law into their own hands to shoot straight.  And furthermore, I don't care if you feel your life is in jeopardy.  If you take an innocent life simply because you're a trigger happy ego maniac, then your rights are forfeit.

Again, from the article:
"It’s terrible, but Darrell Niles, a 17-year-old innocent bystander, just got in the way, they said. 
'He simply ended up being in the wrong place at the wrong time,' Rutherford said."
Got in the way?  Wrong place at the wrong time?  Boy, I'll say.  "Wrong time" takes on a whole new meaning: young Darrell was in the wrong state in a time where rampant fear and paranoia are coupled with a obsessive gun culture.

** Anyone that has a sign in his window that reads, "Fight Crime - Shoot First" qualifies as a gun nut.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Unclean beast! Get thee down!

*** PLEASE NOTE: This is not The Onion ***

Some things are just so ludicrous, they stand on their own merit and do not require any commentary whatsoever.  I give you, Creation Today:

That's right, dragons were real because if they weren't, well then god just compared our adversary to a make-believe creature that never existed.  He said it, not me.

This is just so stupid that I have absolutely nothing to add.  Heck, I'll just add one of my favorite lines from Dragonslayer:
"...if it weren't for sorcerers, there wouldn't be any dragons. Once, the skies were dotted with them. Magnificent horned backs, leathern wings... soaring... and their hot-breathed wind. Oh, I know this creature of yours... Vermithrax Pejorative. Look at these scales, these ridges. When a dragon gets this old, it knows nothing but pain, constant pain. It grows decrepit... crippled... pitiful. Spiteful!"
I take that back, I think this video seems appropriate, too:

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Studying the Edge of Death

Yesterday I read something that I found truly fascinating.  A team of researchers from the University of Michigan Health System published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that showed that within the first 30 seconds after clinical death in rats (where the heart stops):
"... all of the rats displayed a widespread, transient surge of highly synchronized brain activity that had features associated with a highly aroused brain."  
Notice the word "all"?  That's significant because any scientific study expects outliers.  But in this scenario, each brain reacted in exactly the same manner.

Thus, with this initial data in hand, the team then decided to confirm the results by getting a bit more, ahem, data.  They chose a few more Rattus norvegicus volunteers and switched the method of death to asphyxiation.  Again, the results were nearly identical to the patterns of those who preceded the suffocated rats in death (the original set of lucky volunteers who succumbed to cardiac arrest.)

This is a remarkable study because it’s the first time that researchers have actually studied and quantified the dying brain.  I think most people would agree that it's not that big of a leap to extrapolate this phenomenon to human beings.  Since we are mammals with similar – albeit much bigger – brains, then consequently it is highly likely that our brains behave in a similar fashion.  This, too, would be the first natural explanation for near-death experiences with clinical evidence to support it.

Notice I said, “most people.”

In steps Jeffrey Long, MD, a radiation oncologist and self-proclaimed skeptic-turned-believer, who claims:
“The majority of near-death experiences cannot be explained by such a study.”
How so?  Where is your contradictory evidence, beyond simple hearsay and personal anecdotes of near death experiences?  But of course Dr. Long has to issue a statement disagreeing with this study without a shred of contradicting evidence.  How else can he sell more of his, “Evidence of the Afterlife” books if he was to agree that this study has the potential to show that his initial premise of near-death experience is full of new-age religious nonsense?

I recall that Dr. Michael Shermer has also discussed this phenomenon on several different occasions, each of which pointing to the same naturalistic conclusion.  Dr. Shermer writes that oftentimes death is a process that can take two, five, even 10 minutes to complete, with the brain producing hallucinations while in a state of hypoxia.  Yet people like Dr. Deepak Chopra and the good Dr. Long continue to muddy the water with ideas of some mystical universal consciousness, or an esoteric human soul that transcends the body.  Rubbish!  Both of these ideas are both pure conjecture and have no basis in science.

Admittedly these near-death experiences sound impressive and were certainly very real to the person whose brain was busy dying.  But then again, how would these people know the difference?  Our brain is how we interpret stimuli, so of course our brain will believe what it forced upon on itself (assuming that the patient remembers it.)  But these experiences are no more real than someone who has woken up in a state of confusion after a vivid dream.

This phenomenon is why Dr. Long is able to sell so many books with stories of people who have been yanked back from the brink and claim to have experienced something divine.  These patients are very convincing because they themselves are completely convinced that it occurred.  And naturally, people who have been raised with the notion of heaven and hell will buy this nonsense hook, line, and sinker.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Judge Not

When I first saw this story I thought it was an article from The Onion, but upon second glance I realized it wasn't. Tennessee Judge Lu Ann Ballew has ordered the parents of Messiah DeShawn McCullough to change his first name to "Martin" because:
"The word Messiah is a title and it's a title that has only been earned by one person and that one person is Jesus Christ."
A religious judge in a religious area of the country decides to trample on the rights of parents to name their child as they see fit, and she's so comfortable in her decision that she goes on public record with foolish rhetoric that is undeniably religious.  How absurd are the religious extremists willing to be when, "Messiah" evokes this kind of response?  Moreover, how comfortable can she really be in her faith if the name, "Messiah" sends her into such a tantrum that she simply abandons her impartiality?

I've even seen some people try to justify her actions by asserting that Judge Ballew was just thinking of the child.  In fact, Judge Ballew even suggested that herself:
"It could put him at odds with a lot of people and at this point he has had no choice in what his name is."
How so, exactly?  Please explain how that name would put this child at odds with a lot of people?  According to a link from the BBC, there were more than 700 babies named "Messiah" in the United States last year.  So who is going to be offended by that name other than you and the overly sensitive Christians trying to come to your rescue?

If you don't find this whole thing distressing enough, read some of the comments on, the website of a Tennessee news station.  Luckily, most of them want the judge removed.  Other comments, however, show you just how low religious extremism has gone.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Reality vs. Imagery

After seeing several posts and photos of the Sun shining through the clouds on a couple of different social media sites, I had a thought.  Why is it that some very common and very natural phenomenon tend to inspire religious awe?

Here's the first example:

Isn't that breathtaking?  This is a picture of the Grand Teton National Park and was taken by my Mom.

For you personally, what first comes to mind when you see this?  Does it provoke an emotional response or a sense of spirituality?

Here's my take: I love how the sunlight just pours through those broken clouds.  Since I was very young, I've loved this visual effect.  First of all, it's undeniably gorgeous.  But second, it always takes me back to a game I played with myself where I enjoyed visualizing myself floating above the Earth with the Sun behind me, and seeing the shadow on the Earth from space.  Ah, memories...

Now here's the second photo of this experiment:

This is a picture of the annular solar eclipse in May, 2012, and was taken by me.

Okay, now what first comes to mind when you see this?  Does it provoke an emotional response or a sense of spirituality?

Is there a difference in perception from one event to the other?  How so?

From my point of view, I think the second picture is far more inspiring than the first.  (And no, it's not because I'm the one that took the picture.)  WOW!  In just one simple photograph, I get to see the relationship between three different celestial bodies and stand in awe of the magnitude of the distances involved just to bring this image to my eye.

I'm betting there are those that have a far different perception of the two images, and my thought is that this is likely due to emotional programming at a very young age.  Most people living on the Earth now are not particularly inspired by eclipses (nor do eclipses provoke a sense of spirituality) because we have been taught that this is simply the Moon sneaking in front of the Sun.  On the other hand, the first image is so frequently used in religious imagery in Christian circles, that many people instantly associate it with faith, God, or Jesus.

So what do you think?  What's your perception of these two photographs?  I'd really appreciate some feedback from both sides on this thought.  Thanks!