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...]

Popular Delusions VI: Homeopathy

Before the advent of evidence-based medicine, a huge variety of quack nostrums and dubious cures flourished. Many of these have faded away with time - and in cases like radioactive water, this was almost certainly for the best. However, some superstitious treatments that predate scientific medicine are still being used today. One of the most prominent is homeopathy.Invented by Samuel Hahnemann in the early 1800s, homeopathy claims that "like cures like": a substance that produces symptoms of … [Read more...]

On Magic(k)

Throughout history, groups such as the Puritans have railed against what they see as the overly elaborate and ostentatious ceremony and ritual surrounding religious events. But despite the fulminations of religious reformers, ceremony and ritual are not superfluous add-ons to faith, but very much at the core of it. Belief in the supernatural is usually intended to give the believer a sense of control over events, and a highly elaborate, ritualized ceremony is often more effective at this than a … [Read more...]

An Exercise in Perspective


If you're not familiar with the HubbleSite, you should be. The official website of the Hubble Space Telescope is rich with scientific background, news releases and announcements of new discoveries, and of course, jaw-dropping imagery of the cosmos, taken by one of humanity's most justifiably famous scientific instruments.One of Hubble's newest images has left me feeling inspired, and I'd like to say a few words about it. But first, the picture itself:This stunningly gorgeous … [Read more...]

How to Think Critically II: Salience

"Just another day in the city. A sidewalk grate, the kind that millions of feet trod upon every day, gives way, sending a woman tumbling into the hole and landing her in the hospital. Downtown, a 15-foot pipe falls off a 40-story skyscraper, crashing through a firehouse nearby, injuring two.In densely packed Manhattan, with so many taxis speeding down the street, so many subways to trip and fall in front of, and of course so many rapes, robberies and murders to contend with, the whole place … [Read more...]

Inducing Superstition

The human brain is a belief-forming machine. It is what defines us as a species: we guide our actions by creating mental models of the world and using those models to hypothesize about what will happen under a given set of circumstances. Our ability to create such models far surpasses that of any other species, and accounts for our unprecedented degree of deliberate technological control over the world.However, though we are intelligent, we are not infallible. Humans of every culture and … [Read more...]

Do You Really Believe That?

Noah's FloodToday I'm introducing a new post series on Daylight Atheism, "Do You Really Believe That?" The purpose of this series is to highlight religious claims that are so extravagantly bizarre, so manifestly at odds with everything we know about the universe, or so just plain ridiculous that even religious believers shouldn't be able to take them seriously. I'll begin today with one of the most obviously ludicrous and implausible parts of the Bible, the story of Noah's flood. As absurd as … [Read more...]

The Milgram Obedience Experiment

Stanley Milgram. "Behavioral study of obedience." Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, vol. 67, no.4 (1963), p.371-378.In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram conducted one of the most important experiments ever done in the field of human psychology and social conformity. For ethical reasons, this study probably could not be repeated today, but that only makes it even more important to raise awareness of its findings.Milgram, a psychology professor at Yale University, recruited 40 male subjects … [Read more...]