Month: April 2012

It’s the bacterium I tell you!

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Seemingly in response to my challenge for researchers to test my theory that religion is a bacterial infection, New Scientist has published this article, which clearly provides confirmatory observations.

While my hypothesis involves critical thinking, I think analytical thinking is essentially the same thing – perhaps a more generalised version.

After describing the research, the report concludes:

The simplest way to explain these effects, the team conclude, is if intuitive thinking leads to belief, and analytical thinking suppresses or overrides this process. That gives analytical thinking a causal role in disbelief.

They’re saying that using your brain for analytical/critical thinking prevents and/or repairs religious belief.

This is what I’m saying! They have the right answer, but they’ve missed the mechanism – the bacterium.

Where might all this lead? To paraphrase MLK, ‘I have a dream’, and it is that perhaps one day we might develop a vaccine to be given to toddlers, and in one generation wipe out irrational belief. And the bonus is that rational and critical thinking become the default!

In the meantime, we should brace ourselves for the impending union of religious fundamentalists with the anti-vaccine crowd, which promises to spawn a whole new brand of stupid.

I guess it’s a case of be careful what you wish for.

The voice of reason – AC Grayling

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Although I have a copy of Grayling’s ‘The Good Book’ on the shelf at home, I haven’t actually dived into it yet (I admit that I find the thickness a bit daunting!).

But I’m now more motivated to start it, after catching a recent episode of The Spirit of Things, which airs on ABC Radio National here, which featured AC Grayling being interviewed about the work. For those unaware, the Spirit of Things is one of those unapologetically religious programs, taking as given all manner of faith-based belief. You may recall my previous writing on this in relation to one Jeremy Begbie, and his ridiculous synthesis of religion and music.

In the Grayling episode, host Rachel Kohn gives the book a fair run, including several readings from it, but unfortunately can’t resist trying to score points in favour of the bible, and trying to minimise Grayling’s arguments. In one example, after discussing the issues of cleverness versus wisdom, there is this exchange:

Rachael Kohn: And may I ask you who you would look up to as the pre-eminent embodiment of a wise man?

Anthony C Grayling: […] For myself, I admire many, many people, many great achievers, creative minds, thinkers. I could range very widely from recent times, people like Einstein and Russell, right the way back through history to David Hume, to Descartes, to Copernicus, to Galileo, to everybody who ventured to think and to use this rather remarkable thing that human beings have which is an insightful, incisive, creative intellect, to understand our world a bit better and to move us forward in making some progress in it.

At this point, Kohn has a dig at him, and then tries to move on quickly:

Rachael Kohn: Well, I must say Einstein and Russell have dubious personal reputations. They may have been brilliant, but there has certainly been a lot of criticism cast on how they behaved in their personal lives. But I know you’re going to be coming to Australia to address the Global Atheist Convention, and this whole movement I suppose has been dubbed in the UK as the kind of ‘God wars’. How do you see it and what sort of message will you be bringing?

Clearly, Grayling wasn’t going to let her get away with it, and responds:

Anthony C Grayling: On the point that you just made about Einstein and Russell there, if we allowed people to go through our (figuratively speaking) rubbish bins, each one of us would not escape whipping, as somebody once said. We’re all human with our failings, and we would admire nobody if we didn’t think that we did them some generous act by looking at the best things that they managed.

In another example she tries to wedge him on the notion of free will:

Rachael Kohn: One of the things that atheists really resist and I would say a lot of religious people too, is the notion of obedience. And right in the Genesis chapter of your secular bible you urge people to do nothing against their will, to covet nothing of anyone else’s, and in so doing they will encounter no resistance and they will be free then to do what they wish and life will be lovely…. Gosh, I can easily see your secular bible being quoted out of context at the way the Bible often is, and people often saying, ‘It says there to do nothing against my will, so I’ll just go ahead and do this.’

Followed by Grayling’s wonderful response:

Anthony C Grayling: You do need, I think, to look at the surrounding verses to put that into context a little bit, because you could just as easily quote St Paul where he says ‘love and do what you will’, which seems to be a kind of a licence for everything. And nobody I think who has any capacity for reflection would want to just take five or six words or a few lines out of context and act on them.

To his credit, Grayling is calm and measured throughout, and the real feature of this interview is his articulate and measured response to all of her questions. In my view, he is easily the most articulate and accessible presenters of the philosophy of non-theism, Dawkins included.

In this brief discussion he clearly demonstrates that is is possible to talk about all the ways to live a good life without any reference to a deity.

Worth a listen for that alone.

The germ theory of religion

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I’ve been thinking.

About religion. And I was wrong – religion is not a quantum phenomenon as I have previously postulated.

I have a new theory. This theory seems pretty solid, because, as with any good theory, it seems to explain all the observed behaviours of its subject. What remains of course, it to test the theory’s predictive ability, but that’s for another day. So here it is – the germ theory of religion.

The Theory

For a long time, stomach ulcers were thought to have been caused primarily by stress, until we made the discovery that there are bacteria at work, namely Helicobacter pylori. Now that we know that this is the dominant cause, antibiotics can be used to treat the illness.

Similarly, I believe religiosity is actually caused by a bacterial infection in the brain, at the nano-scale. As yet, it is not possible to isolate and look at these bacteria, but I’m sure they will be shown to exist, and in time, be capable of being treated with modern medicine.

While I believe the bacteria to be small, they are fairly intricate, and capable of  controlling the host to some extent – a phenomenon we’ve seen with other species and their parasitic brain infections. So it is with religion.

Observed behaviour

The modus operandi of the putative religiobacter rationalbrainius is to infect its host, with the sole aim of propagating the species in the most efficient way possible. In this sense, it is a beautiful example of Darwinism in motion, the irony of which is superb. By forcing its host to suspend disbelief and critical thinking, the organism is able to coerce it to:

  1. believe in dieties and other fantasy figures, which in turn,
  2. encourages the organism to congregate with other infected hosts for the purpose of encouraging genetic variation of the organism, and hence enhancing survivability, to enable,
  3.  coopting of uninfected (potential) hosts to attend gatherings of infected hosts, to facilitate transmission of the organism.

In fact, some variants of the organism are so adept at open air transmission, that they (via the host) attempt propagation on a door-to-door basis.

It further appears that certain types of neural activity have the effect of counteracting the parasite, and even killing it. We see excellent examples of this – for example, strongly religious behaviour which suddenly stops – as in the case of priests who undergo a reverse ‘conversion’. In such cases, the cognitive dissonance which accompanies the acquisition of information which strongly contradicts the fictitious beliefs established by the parasites causes a catastrophic breakdown of the neural pathways which are critical to the survival of the parasite. This in effect reboots the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for critical thinking (amongst other things).

It has been found that inoculation  is possible if done at an early age. Children who are presented with reality in the early years of their development, are able to develop neural structures which resist infection. This is a pronounced effect; so much so that even children cohabiting with strongly infected adults can resist infection.

One of the interesting aspects of this infection is its self-limiting behaviour. Without such a mechanism, growth and spread would have been exponential, and would have consumed humanity entirely. But this is clearly not the case.

This is due to competition between the strains of the organism, and is analogous to wars between sections of the human population. The determination of some strains of the organism to dominate, ultimately results in the destruction of large swathes of its cousins. Such is its competitiveness, that its density across the human population is kept in check.

We do however find concentrations on different parts of the planet, and this is due to the greater control exerted by the organism over its hosts. In these areas, such as southern United States, the hosts are sufficiently well represented in the government structures that the spread of  the organism is assured. In particular, these hosts are also able to influence the educational structures in those areas to limit the ability of the society to inoculate its young. In these areas, the organism is highly evolved, and has adapted to allow a higher density of infection before achieving equilibrium.

Other clues

While not constituting strong evidence, there are other observations supporting the theory. These include:

  • Debates between infected and uninfected individuals are characterised by the infected host often babbling incoherently. This is thought to be interference by the organism with the speech planning areas of the frontal lobe, and may event extend this influence into the temporal lobe which is responsible for speech production. Involvement of the temporal lobe is further supported by the propensity of infected individuals to seemingly ignore auditory stimuli, although this may be deliberate strategy, again caused by the planning section of the frontal lobe.
  • Early music generated by infected individuals was simplistic, but nonetheless beautiful. This demonstrated the ability of the organism to influence the host to find other means of displaying ‘worship’, and other means of attracting uninfected individuals to gatherings. This was initially effective, but also has self-limited. The organism has apparently only limited control of these functions, and this is amply demonstrated by the puerile attempts at modern music by so-called ‘christian rock bands’. Attempts to attract uninfected people to these events inevitably fail due to the failure of this organism to master the neural pathways which control ‘hipness’.
  • The ability to repeatedly read books such as the bible, and interpret the same words in many different ways is indicative of influence over the occipital lobe – that is, visual processing is flawed in such a way that different meaning can be ascribed to the same set of words, to the extent desired by the reader. This effect is a form of paradolia, which is the perception of a pattern where none exists, and extends to the ability of infected individuals to perceive the face of Jesus in a piece of toast.
  • Close to the point of death, uninfected individuals are at their weakest, and most susceptible to the infection. Influence from infected family and/or a socially embedded carrier (i.e. minister), facilitates rapid infection. (The evolutionary advantage for this behaviour is unclear, since the host is about to die. Either the organism is not sufficiently aware of the difference between life and death on the macro scale, or, it sees the higher purpose of encouraging family and friends to remain susceptible. This is pure conjecture at this stage and requires further study).

Evidence to date and predictive power

In addition to the above brief observations,  more solid evidence is already available, in the form of longitudinal studies, comparing children who are inoculated in the early years, versus those who are indoctrinated – for example, by examining outcomes from religious instruction classes and clear thinking classes. To date, all meta-studies support the hypothesis that an infection is at work. While there may be other explanations, by Occam’s Razor, the existence of an infection requires the fewest new assumptions, and is consistent with all that we know about human physiology.

If this theory is indeed correct, then what predictions could be made in advance, or tests run, to confirm it?

  1. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging could be used to compare brain activity in the relevant areas, before and after deconversion, though the number of participants may be prohibitively high to ensure a sufficient number of deconverted individuals are available. To increase numbers, targeting certain groups will be necessary to ensure a high deconversion ration – for example, mormons and jehovas witnesses.
  2. Physical isolation – the raising of children in an environment known to be free of the relevant bacterium, should result in zero cases of infection.

I’m sure there’s many more, but that’s a starting point.

I’m happy to hand over this idea to any infectious diseases researchers out there who may wish to follow it up.

I think it’s a winner.

Another wake-up call for those against vaccination

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Occasionally one sees stories like this, which, as my wife put it, “takes the debate from the esoteric to the punch-in-the-guts“.

It’s another sad testimony from a victim of pertussis (whooping cough) – an entirely vaccine-preventable illness. The story is written by the mother of the infant, which died 27 days after being born, because the mother didn’t have immunity to this nasty disease.

The introduction to this article sets the scene for us:

Western Australia is in the midst of a whooping cough epidemic. More than 1500 cases have been recorded so far this year – 1000 more than at the same time last year, and almost 1400 more than in 2010. The highest rates are in primary school-aged children. Only 87% of 5-7 year olds in WA are fully immunised when they start school, contributing to a lack of immunity among the community for the deadly disease.

The victims are often those who can’t be immunised, like newborn babies. Chelsey Charles has experienced what no mother should ever have to, after her daughter contracted whooping cough after birth.

Chelsey Charles goes on to tell us what transpired in those 27 days. She closes with the following appeal:

I’m doing my best to educate the world by telling Kaliah’s story. Pertussis, or whooping cough, is very dangerous for infants because they can’t be vaccinated until they’re eight weeks old. This means newborns don’t have a fighting chance. The best way to keep the babies safe is to get vaccinated – and the more people are vaccinated, the better it will be.

If you’re against vaccination or just aren’t vaccinated, I really hope my little girl’s story changed your mind. Whooping cough spreads very quickly. To protect babies everywhere please get vaccinated.

If you’re one of those ill-formed, or simply weak-minded, individuals who believe that you have a right to not vaccinate you and your children, or worse, that no-one should vaccinate themselves or their children, then please take note: the medical evidence is overwhelming that vaccination is a great thing, and that any risks are far outweighed by the benefits to individuals and to society. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that vaccination is one of the most important developments every conceived by humans, ranking right up there with the germ theory of illness.

For everyone’s sake, if you’re in any doubt, please consult experts – as many of them as you like, but do it. DO NOT be led by the host of cranks which inhabit the internet, espousing the dubious theories. And certainly do not be led by your ‘mommy instinct’, made famous by Jennifer McCarthy in the US.

The end of the world

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I’m not even sure I should be drawing attention to this, but, as far as I can make out, the world is coming to and end on Dec 21st this year.

How do I know this? Well, all the physics and maths in this article tells us so. Bummer, that’s sure to ruin Christmas.

Before you dust off your bucket list, I should tell you, the link comes from the comments section of an article in New Scientist, posted by one known as Polemos. This guy is a serial pest and trouble-maker, and seems to get his jollies by posting contrarian views on anything and everything. He poses as a polymath, but seems to be a bugger-all-math, for want of a catchier antonym. And don’t be fooled by the wikipedia-like look to the page – it’s not.

In the article, credits are given to ‘The Eschaton’. A cute pseudonym, given the content of the article. According to the real wikipedia, eschatology “…is a part of philosophy concerned with what are believed to be the final events and the ultimate destiny of humanity“. In the case of this article, and almost everything Polemos writes, I prefer to think his pseudonym is based on the morphologically similar word, ‘scatology’, which is, in short, the study of feces. Far more appropriate – I’m sure you’ll agree once you’ve seen the article.

Anyhow, I wasted several valuable minutes scanning the article; I certainly could have used that time better, for example, trimming my toenails or rearranging the icons on my computer desktop.

It’s a great (and probably the most egregious) example of science-babble I’ve ever seen.

OK, he’s attempting to prove that the end of the world is nigh. But the article doesn’t even have a decent introduction and conclusion. This guy might try to sound erudite by pinching someone else’s vocabulary, but he doesn’t know the first thing about writing up science; or any sort of writing for the matter. It’s just like many papers which try to support alternative medicine or other fantasy beliefs – load up with sciencey-sounding words, and heaps of impressive references, and job done.

But full marks for cobbling together so many bits of physics and cosmology.

In conclusion (must practice what I preach), this guy is another looney-tune with too much time on his hands and too few brain cells in the cranium.

Dawkins vs. Pell – a match made in heaven

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Oh boy.

Did you see the great face-off on Q&A last night? Dawkins vs Pell, you can watch it below.

Holy cow, what a mismatch it turned out to be. Even though jet-lagged, Dawkins was his usual self, alternating between incisive comments and snapping at inappropriate laughter by the audience. Early on, he seemed to feel the audience was stacked against him, but as the show wore on, there seemed to be no bias one way or the other, unless you count Tony Jones’ obviously siding with Dawkins, by putting many of Pell’s statements under the microscope.

While this held great promise, unfortunately Pell didn’t rise to the occasion, and came off as a rambling fool. At times he dug himself into a logical hole, and kept digging. The most surprising thing was that when asked to explain the catholic church’s view on something or other, he was unable (or unwilling) to clearly do so. He seemed to prefer to ramble on with the usual meaningless and nebulous religi-speak, raising more questions than were answered.

Once we got to the exchange about evolution, things got more interesting, and at times comical. After all, you have a man who has devoted his life to the subject, versus someone who questions its very existence as an explanatory theory. The exchange in particular about neanderthals exposed Pell’s ignorance and simplistic understanding of evolution, and left Dawkins somewhat speechless.

Clearly though, Pell had done some homework. He was armed with references to Dawkins’ books, and even blog entries, quoting from them to make some point about how inconsistent Dawkins is, or whatever. The key example was Dawkins’ agnostic/atheist dilemma, which he freely admits has given him some grief. However, he was still clear that the agnosticism is still only based on the fact that it is not possible to disprove some things, and hence technically he can’t be totally sure about the lack of a god.

Overall, it was pretty embarrassing for the church. Unfortunately, Dawkins hasn’t been presented with much in the way of intellectual argument here in Australia; last time he was here, and on Q&A, he was seated next to Steve Fielding, former senator and young earth creationist. It was hard not to cringe every time Fielding opened his mouth, making arguments so inane that Dawkins couldn’t even formulate a response.

Maybe next year we can pit Dawkins against Barnaby Joyce – that would be the trifecta.

UpdateHere’s what PZ Myers had to say about the show. As usual, he doesn’t hold back. And in the comments of PZ’s piece, Richard Dawkins gives his own review of the evening. Apparently he was less than happy with the participation of Tony Jones. I’ve quoted his full comment below the video.

You can watch the whole thing here:


Richard Dawkins himself had this to say about the ‘debate’:

I too was disappointed in this so-called debate. I don’t want to put all the blame on my jet lag (I had spent the whole night on the plane from Los Angeles and, incidentally, missed the whole of Easter Day crossing the Date Line). The two things that really threw me were, first, the astonishing bias of the audience and, second, the interfering chairman.

Right from the start when we were introduced, it was clear that the studio audience was dominated by a Catholic cheer squad. The cheered whenever the Cardinal said anything, however stupid and ignorant. To be fair to the ABC, I am confident that they were not responsible for stacking the audience. I believe it was genuinely first-come-first-served, and I can only think that the Catholics must have got off the mark very swiftly and rallied the troops. Our side just isn’t very good at doing that: perhaps it is one of our more endearing qualities. It was encouraging that the vote of viewers at large came down heavily on our side, to the evident surprise and discomfort of the studio audience.

Such an extreme audience bias was a little off-putting, but it wouldn’t have mattered so much if the chairman had allowed us to have a proper debate instead of continually racing ahead to get in another dopey question. There were times when the Cardinal had doled out more than enough rope to hang himself but then, in the nick of time, the chairman blundered in and rescued him with yet another samey question from the audience. The only time the chairman did a good job was when he pressed the Cardinal on what seemed perilously close to anti-Semitism.

More and more, I am thinking that discussions of this kind are positively ruined by an interfering chairman. That was also true of my encounter with the Archbishop of Canterbury, which could have developed into an interesting conversation but for the meddling chairman who, to make matters worse, was a ‘philosopher’ with special training in obscurantism.

Cardinal Pell had evidently been well prepped, formally briefed (for example with his alleged fact that Darwin called himself a theist on page 92 of his autobiography). I knew it wasn’t true that Darwin was a theist and said so, but I obviously couldn’t counter the “Page 92″, which duly got a cheer from the touchline. I’ve since had a chance to look it up and, as expected, it refers to the way Darwin felt earlier in his life, not his maturity when he said he preferred to call himself ‘agnostic’ because the people “are not yet ripe for atheism”.

Another missed opportunity on my part was when the Cardinal nastily insinuated that I had not read to the end of Lawrence Krauss’s book having written the Foreword. Actually I didn’t write the Foreword, I wrote the Afterword, which suggests that the Cardinal hadn’t read the book. Indeed, the content of what he said suggests that he (or whoever briefed him) had read only the infamous review in the New York Times, again by a philosopher not a scientist.

Altogether an unsatisfactory evening. Much better was the radio interview the following morning, after I had had a night’s sleep and had my wits more properly about me: