Saturday, July 24, 2010

If something isn't going your way, why not pray?

Last week was the first week of semester and I was at the booth for Reason and Science Society helping to entice newcomers over by standing behind the more attractive members of the group and not talking much so they wouldn't be scared off. A conversation sprung up (as they do) about why a certain person, who I shall call Eliza, believed in God. This being Yahweh of course, but any God will suffice during this post. Eliza's reason for believing in God was that God answered his/her prayers. When pushed to give examples we heard this amazing tale, that nearly gave me an aneurysm trying not to laugh.

Apparently Eliza had some teeth problems and was informed that he/she may require extensive dental treatment. Eliza prayed to God asking to not have to have the dental treatment. And lo! Eliza's prayers were answered. No one seemed impressed by this miracle of the modern era (maybe it gets a better reaction at youth group with lots of "Praise his name!" and "Amen" being shouted out), so Eliza shared another testimony of the time he/she was feeling worried about a hockey game and after praying, felt better. Now this sounded weak to even Eliza who then admitted that it may have been psychological. Eliza failed to gain any converts that day AND inspired an Atheist to blog, so -10 Jesus points for Eliza there. He/she's never going to get enough for the hot tub add on in his/her sky mansion at this rate.

Now I don't want you to think that Eliza is stupid or anything. This is just an example of how the human brain is just a bit fail. We tend to remember the hits and forget the misses, so it seems to Eliza that his/her prayers are answered more often than not. This is because of the Confirmation Bias, which is one of the more important cognitive biases we suffer from. If you haven't already, go to wikipedia and read what it is. Go ahead, I'll wait.

So, although it's not unusual for people to think their prayers are answered I still find it bizarre that people do it in the first place. It is the ultimate hubris to think that you can appeal to an omnipotent being and get them to change the universe to suit you. You are essentially saying that you think God got it wrong and you are asking him to change his mind. If God is benevolent and omnipotent he is already doing whatever is best and you yapping to him about it achieves nothing. Unless your God is a petty tyrant who is flattered by the attention or is charged up by prayers like a D&D God, you are wasting your time.

I felt especially annoyed at Eliza, who instead of being happy that he/she lived in a country with dental treatment and could afford to have said treatment, he/she bitched to their deity about not wanting it. If I was Eliza's God I'd be pretty pissed off about the lack of gratitude. Look, if he's not granting the prayers of the children in Africa who just want to not die painfully, what makes you think your pathetic problems are more worthy?

I think I'll allow Mrs Betty Bowers to explain it to us.
Advocatus Diaboli

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

What's a sceptic anyway?

What is a sceptic? What makes someone a sceptic? How do you know if you are one? Aren't sceptics just boring closed minded people? How do I get sceptics to have sex with me? All very good questions, which I will endeavour to answer here:

What is a sceptic?
Basically a sceptic is someone who doesn't believe a claim unless there is evidence to support it. If a friend walked up to you and said "I can fly", most people would ask to see their friend fly before accepting that claim. If you are wise you might go a bit further and check that there are no wires allowing your friend to fake flight. You might even ask an expert in illusions to investigate further before accepting the extraordinary claim of flight.

What makes someone a sceptic?
There are very few people who would believe their friend could fly just because they said they could. We would require some kind of evidence. In that regard, we're all sceptical to an extent. Interpreting the evidence and deciding if it supports the claim can actually be pretty difficult. Learning about fair experimental procedures and data analysis takes a bit of time and effort. Many sceptics take this time because a)it's fun and b)you get benefits from not falling for false claims. Future posts will discuss how to develop your sceptic-fu.

It is important to note that sceptics may not automatically accept a claim, but once the evidence is clear they should accept the conclusion the evidence leads to. This is what separates sceptics from denialists. Denialists dismiss a claim despite the evidence, a sceptic doesn't accept a claim unless there is evidence. This does mean new evidence can and should change your mind. It's best not to take arguments with a sceptic personally as they're not personally attached to their 'beliefs' so are a little more callous about them than non-sceptics.

How do I know if I'm a Sceptic?
Well, if you want some proof before you believe stuff people tell you, that's it. You're a Sceptic. Congratulations! If you want to be good at Scepticism, it takes a bit more. But trust me, it's worth learning about. (Hopefully, you didn't accept that based on my word or you haven't learned anything).

Aren't Sceptics just boring close-minded people?
Scepticism isn't about being close-minded. The opposite is in fact true. A Sceptic should be open-minded. They also should be sceptical about those new ideas and not accept them as true until the evidence is taken into account. Be warned though, Sceptics have often heard the same claims many times and some may get a bit impatient about hearing them again. If you want to challenge a Sceptic, it is advisable to do so with new evidence instead of the same tired old arguments.

As for being boring, well, I guess the term 'boring' is subjective. I haven't measured the 'boringness' level of a representative sample of sceptics so I can't say for sure but I am pretty sceptical that they are more or less boring than any other subgroup (see what I did there).

How do I get Sceptics to have sex with me?
I'd suggest being honest and not trying to use pick up lines or asking what their sign is. Perhaps "Hey, would you like to have sex with me?" might work. Just make sure you try it on a large enough sample size before you reject the approach.

Advocatus Diaboli

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Happy Franz Boas Day!

July 9th marks the day that Franz Boas was born. In the tradition of Darwin Day and Ada Lovelace Day I'd like to start a day to celebrate the life and works of Franz Boas and also Social Science in general. Social Science contributes to the body of scientific knowledge and can make positive impacts on people's lives. With Social Science we learn about ourselves as people and as scientists. Social Science allows us to improve the way we do science in general and should be celebrated just as much as the so called hard-sciences.

Franz Boas is known as 'The Father of American Anthropology' because of his influence on modern Anthropology. His original doctorate was in physics and he believed strongly in applying the scientific method to Anthropology. This approach completely changed Anthropology for the better. Previously, cultural studies were not rigorously conducted and they relied on interpretations of anecdotal experience.

Boas is also famous for his activism in fighting racism and cultural bias in science. Biological Anthropology in Boas' time was very much focused on categorising people into racial groups. Boas argued that differences between groups were mostly social, not biological and that science was being used to perpetuate racism when it should be being used to reduce it. Boas also opened up opportunities for women in science and his most (in)famous pupils were women. Anthropology was a new frontier without the old boys club of other disciplines, which gave women a chance to get involved right from the start.

So, this July 9th think of Boas. Or next July 9th, since by time you read this it will be over.

If you'd like to comment, I'd like to hear about a something in Social Science you really like. Or maybe you could share a scientist that inspires you and you think deserves a 'day'.
Advocatus Diaboli

Welcome to Sceptics NZ

If you're reading this, you're probably one of the 5 people I know. (Hi guys). This blog is intended to be a place to talk about issues in sceptism (with a c) from a New Zealand perspective. As much I love blogs like Skepchick, The Friendly Atheist and Blag Hag, the American sceptical experience is not the same for us down under. New Zealand has a unique and interesting history and our sceptical issues are also unique and interesting.

There's some great people who are willing to contribute to this blog, each with their own areas of interest so hopefully visits to this blog will be varied and interesting no matter what your flavour of sceptism is. If you wish to contribute please email us at and let us know. More contributers means less work for me.

Since I'm new to this blogging thing, it will take me a while to work out the features and get everything more pretty and less geocities homepage-looking. This is just the intro post, so don't get disappointed yet. Please feel free to comment, discussions are the best part of blogging. We don't have any plans to moderate comments yet, but this might bite us in the bum in the future so that may change. Spammers of course, will be removed without mercy.

Hope you enjoy the blog!
Advocatus Diaboli