Emptying the Haunted Air

Almost two hundred years ago, the English Romantic poet John Keats wrote a poem, "Lamia", in which he lamented that the advance of scientific understanding would rob the world of its beauty and wonder. Keats' chief villain, though not named in the poem, was Isaac Newton, whose use of the prism to split white light into its component colors was viewed by Keats as akin to desecration:Do not all charms fly At the mere touch of cold philosophy? There was an awful rainbow once in heaven: We know … [Read more...]

Popular Delusions VII: Alien Abduction

Back in August, in "Some Thoughts on Fermi's Paradox", I proposed some explanations for why there's no evidence of intelligent alien species. But I left out what seems like the most obvious explanation of all: they do exist, and they're already here.This may well be the most popular answer. To judge by polls like this one from 2002, almost half of American adults believe that intelligent aliens have visited the Earth. (Ironically, The Onion actually gets this percentage right in its deadpan … [Read more...]

The Cure for Cancer! (Cure Not Included)

The other day, I received a jaw-dropping piece of spam e-mail:The Detox Box is a remarkable device that uses frequencies to destroy toxins in the body. It's similar to how a singer can hit a note and shatter a wine glass.According to the e-mail, this marvelous machine is based on the ideas of one Dr. Royal Rife, who lived in the 1930s and claimed to have developed the world's first "virus microscope". (It is physically impossible to resolve the average virus with a light microscope, … [Read more...]

Do You Really Believe That? (III)

The Ten PlaguesThe third installment of "Do You Really Believe That?" will examine another famous story of the Old Testament, the ten plagues of Egypt. As the Book of Exodus tells it, the Israelite prophet Moses was chosen by God to set his people free from their long slavery in Egypt. But when the hard-hearted Pharaoh refused to release them, God sent ten plagues upon the land, each more terrible than the last, until the Egyptians' resistance finally crumbled.These are the famous … [Read more...]

Francis Collins on Atheism

The Point of Inquiry podcast recently aired a very interesting interview between D.J. Grothe and Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the Human Genome Project and a devout evangelical Christian. In the interview, Collins discusses the intersection of science and religious faith, whether belief in God is a scientific hypothesis, and the attacks on religion by Richard Dawkins and other prominent atheist scientists.Dr. Collins is a superlative scientist, and his published work is beyond reproach. … [Read more...]

On Incorruptibility

One of the stranger supposed miracles in the Christian catalog is the miracle of incorruptibility. More common in Catholicism (I have yet to come across any Protestant examples), this term refers to a saint or holy person whose body miraculously refuses to decompose after death, instead remaining intact and even lifelike.This apologist site lists some of the more prominent Catholic incorruptibles, though as is usual with apologetics, considerable exaggeration has crept in. For example, … [Read more...]

The Asch Conformity Experiment

Solomon Asch. "Opinions and social pressure." Scientific American, vol.193, no.5 (1955), p.31-35.Back in April, I wrote about the classic Milgram experiment and what it shows about how disturbingly willing people are to submit to authority, even in the presence of strong countervailing reasons. What about when the pressure to obey comes not from an authority figure above us, but from our peers? How will people fare then?A classic study was done on this question in 1955 by Solomon Asch. In … [Read more...]

Some Thoughts on Fermi's Paradox

The Drake equation, developed in the 1960s by the astronomer Frank Drake, laid the foundation for the scientific search for extraterrestrial life. This equation provides a way to estimate the number of intelligent, communicating civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy by combining all the prerequisites for the existence of such civilizations.The remarkable thing about the Drake equation is that even seemingly conservative values for its various factors tend to predict a galaxy overflowing with … [Read more...]

How to Think Critically III: Randomness

I've written before that the human mind is a pattern-seeking engine. We are wired by evolution to seek cause-and-effect relationships in the world around us, and when there are relationships to be found, we often do very well. The problem is when there are no causal relationships to be found. People in such situations often develop what we call superstitions, erroneous conclusions about what sorts of causes are correlated with desired outcomes. In other words, we do not have an instinctive grasp … [Read more...]

Do You Really Believe That? (II)

The Tower of BabelThe second installment of "Do You Really Believe That?" will examine another classic Old Testament story, the Tower of Babel. According to this story, in the days after Noah's flood, all humanity spoke one language. Filled with pride and ambition, they came together and began to build a tower "whose top may reach unto heaven" (Genesis 11:4). God witnesses this and is upset, not because the building of the tower displays hubris, but because he actually fears that humanity will … [Read more...]


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