Thoughts on the Expelled Affair

By now, I assume, the entire blogosphere has heard about the public-relations fiasco which the producers of the creationist film Expelled have brought upon themselves. If you haven't, here's a brief rundown: last week, everyone's favorite fire-breathing atheist blogger and biology professor, P.Z. Myers, went to see an advance screening of the film. It seems only fair that he'd get to see it - he was deceived into appearing in it by the producers, who told him it was going to be called Crossroads … [Read more...]

Do You Really Believe That? (V)

Anointing the SickThe New Testament's Book of James gives some very unusual instructions on how to treat illness:"Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him."—James 5:14-15In eras when human knowledge was far less advanced, it's not surprising that … [Read more...]

The Million-Dollar Challenge Ends

Some news from earlier this year you might have missed: James Randi is officially ending his million-dollar challenge to those who claim they have psychic or supernatural powers. The challenge will be offered for two more years, and assuming no one succeeds and claims the money, will be terminated in March 2010.It's not hard to see why Randi would do this. After ten years without a single successful applicant, I think he's made his point. Unsurprisingly, the best-known, most prominent psychic … [Read more...]

The Scars of Evolution

Human beings, like all other species on this planet, have a history. We came into existence through a process of slow, grinding trial-and-error, occurring over geological time via the sieve of differential survival. And like all species, our bodies and our genes reflect and bear witness to that history. Far from being perfect, one-time creations, we still bear the scars of the evolutionary process that made us.This post will discuss some of the lines of evidence which hint at humanity's past. … [Read more...]

How to Think Critically VI: Bayes' Rule

You've just been to the doctor, and she has some bad news. There's a deadly new disease sweeping the population - one which strikes 1 out of 100 people and invariably kills everyone who catches it. Medical science has developed a test that is 95% accurate during the incubation period: that is, when given to someone who has the disease, it correctly returns a positive result 95% of the time, and when given to someone who does not have the disease, it correctly returns a negative result 95% of the … [Read more...]

February 2008 Science Updates

There's been so much important news pouring in this month that it's hard to keep up with it. But despite the flood of information, there've been a few especially significant discoveries that I think shouldn't be overlooked. There are three that I thought deserve special notice:• On February 13, astronomers announced the discovery of a new solar system that resembles our own more closely than any exoplanetary system that was previously known. The new system, given the unlovely designation … [Read more...]

Conflicting Miracles

"Saint Jnanadeva is revered for his Bhagavad Gita translation and commentary in the Maharastrian language. Among several miracles that established this 13th-century saint's reputation, the most famous involved a water buffalo. Challenged by the arrogant brahmins of Paithan that he was not qualified to recite the Vedas, Jnanadeva replied, 'Anyone can recite the Vedas.' He placed his hand upon a nearby water buffalo, which proceeded to correctly chant Vedic verses for more than an … [Read more...]

Is Sex for Procreation?

"Contraception is wrong because it's a deliberate violation of the design God built into the human race, often referred to as 'natural law.' The natural law purpose of sex is procreation....sexual pleasure within marriage becomes unnatural, and even harmful to the spouses, when it is used in a way that deliberately excludes the basic purpose of sex, which is procreation."— Christian religions, it is a common teaching that the … [Read more...]

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...]