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...]

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...]

The One-Reason Worldview

"Most well-meaning creationists would agree in principle that things that are not carefully documented and researched should not be used. But in practice, many of them are very quick to accept the sorts of evidences mentioned here, without asking too many questions. Why this seeming urge to find a startling, exciting 'magic bullet'?"—Ken Ham for Answers in Genesis, "Searching for the magic bullet"There's a tendency that I've noticed is very common in fundamentalist religious groups, … [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...]

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...]

Through a Glass, Brightly

In past posts such as last December's "The Theodicy of Narnia", I've called attention to some of the unintentionally revealing comments that famous theists have made about their own belief systems. C.S. Lewis, for example, wrote whole books to defend the thesis that God's existence is compatible with pain and suffering, but when it came to creating his own fictional world, he took pains to point out that its history was overwhelmingly blissful and peaceful so as not to cast doubt on the goodness … [Read more...]

How to Think Critically I

Extraordinary ClaimsIn the Popular Delusions series, I have explored just a few varieties of the vast number of nonsensical beliefs which afflict humanity. From the belief that astronomical bodies millions of light-years distant control our destiny here on Earth, to the belief that water remembers what substances were once dissolved in it, to the belief that reality is just a construct of the mind and can be altered by wishing hard enough, it seems there is no kind of absurdity a skeptic could … [Read more...]

The Harris-Sullivan Debate: III

In the previous exchange from their debate, Andrew Sullivan has declared that his faith in God is not based on any evidence whatsoever, and no imaginable evidence could cause him to change his mind about it. Sam Harris reacts with bemusement, as well he might:I now feel like a tennis player, in mid-serve, who notices that his opponent is no longer holding a racket.You have simply declared your faith to be immune to rational challenge. As you didn't come to believe in God by taking any state … [Read more...]

No Oracles

One of the major purposes of religion is and has always been as a way for human beings to seek knowledge about the world they could not otherwise attain. The ancient Greek oracle of Delphi, for example, is said to have foreseen the answers to supplicants' questions while in an ecstatic trance from breathing the vapors of her cave. Comets and other unusual astronomical events were believed to be portents from God presaging events of great earthly significance such as the downfall of kings. … [Read more...]


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