Popular Delusions VIII: Anti-Vaccine Hysteria

In all of human history, the invention of vaccination should be classed as one of our greatest medical triumphs. This innovation has saved millions of lives and prevented untold suffering and misery; it has brought many once-epidemic diseases under control, and eradicated others altogether. Tragically, our era has seen a dangerous new strain of pseudoscience emerge, one that threatens all of these gains.The theory behind vaccines is conceptually simple. Human beings possess an exquisitely … [Read more...]

On the Limits of Knowledge

A common argument made by religious apologists is that atheism is unreasonable because, to exclude the possibility of God, a person would have to have total knowledge of all that exists in the universe. Otherwise, we might overlook a deity hiding in one of the gaps in our knowledge. As one Christian put it to me in an e-mail:And certainly, unless you have visited an appreciable portion of the cosmos and whatever else, there is at least a reasonable possibility that a creator exists. In other … [Read more...]

The Curiously Postmodern Modern Apologists

Back in November, a debate with a Christian in another comment thread took a curious turn:But I have faith in the gospel and what it promises me, just like you have faith in your readings. Your suposed facts and my suposed facts, what makes mine so wrong and your so right. Are facts from the bible so different from the facts you read from magazines, books and websites....nope. It all boils down to faith. Until you can tell me that you were there from the beginning up until now, you dont … [Read more...]

How to Think Critically V

Double-Blind TestsIn a post back in October, I dissected the claims of a spam e-mail that landed in my inbox to promote the "Detox Box", an expensive piece of snake oil claimed to be able to cure any disease through the power of pseudoscience. As is usual in these matters, an offended true believer showed up in the comments to proclaim her faith in the device:The Detox Box works for me and I wouldn't go without it. It is my personal results. I don't need a double blind study to know that it … [Read more...]

Do You Really Believe That? (IV)

The Zombie SaintsAccording to all three of the New Testament's Synoptic gospels, miracles attended Jesus' death: a mysterious midday darkness over all the land and the veil of the Jewish temple torn in half. (The Gospel of John omits these miracles, differing with the Synoptics in this point as in others.) However, there's one miracle that only one gospel records."And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, … [Read more...]

The Rise and Fall of the James Ossuary

In October 2002, a dramatic find exploded onto the scene in the field of Biblical archaeology. At a Washington press conference, Hershel Shanks, editor and publisher of the Biblical Archaeology Review, presented a large audience with what he called "the first ever archaeological discovery to corroborate Biblical references to Jesus." The find was an ossuary - a stone box used in the ancient world to bury the bones of a deceased person - with an Aramaic inscription reading, "Yaakov bar Yoseph, … [Read more...]

How to Think Critically IV

Falsifiability and the Burden of Proof"Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of … [Read more...]

Calling the Earth to Witness

According to Buddhist tradition, the final stage of Prince Siddhartha Gautama's becoming the Buddha came after he had rejected the extremes of both luxury and asceticism in his quest for enlightenment. Sitting beneath a Bodhi tree in meditation, he vowed not to stir from that spot until he had found the answer to the problem of suffering.While he sat there, he had an encounter with the demon lord Mara, who sought to keep him from enlightenment by breaking his concentration. Mara first … [Read more...]

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...]


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