Last month, in "The Aura of Infallibility", I talked about how some religious believers declare themselves and their beliefs to be infallible in order to ward off the frightening possibility of having to decide what is true. This is, obviously, a futile tactic. We can proclaim ourselves to be immune to error as often as we like, but reality is unlikely to be impressed. Human beliefs, no matter how strongly or confidently held, do not decide the way the universe is.What these believers fear, … [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...]

The Aura of Infallibility

Religious beliefs, as a general rule, aren't based on evidence.I have little doubt that my fellow nonbelievers will agree without reservation, and equally little doubt that religious believers will call me arrogant and uninformed for so sweepingly dismissing the basis of their beliefs. But that's not what I'm trying to say. By this statement, I'm not referring to the question of whether solid evidence underlies the tenets of religion (although I trust I've made my views on that issue known). … [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...]

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...]