Sunday, April 24, 2011

Open thread on episode #706...Zombie Jesus Apocalypse

Here's the thread for today's show, gang. As you might have guessed, there will be a bit of an undead theme in play today, as this is the day Christians everywhere celebrate the awakening of an ambulatory corpse, though surprisingly few of them recognize that he was simply the vanguard of a full-on zombie invasion of Jerusalem (Matthew 27:52-53). Why Christians don't make more of this in their evangelism efforts I'll never know. Seems so much better a selling point than such useless things as creationism or raging homophobia.

Matt is in Des Moines this weekend at the American Atheists convention, so it's myself and Jen on today. As for other AXP traveling plans, I am planning on making it (with a little help from my friends) to The Amaz!ng Meeting 9 this summer, and who knows, but maybe some of us will be at this year's Skepticon and next year's Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne. Time will tell.

Note From Kazim, 4/27/2011:
At the request of the ACA board, I have removed the fundraising link from the paragraph above. Please be advised that Martin is not attending TAM as an "official" representative of the Atheist Community of Austin, and any contributions to him are a personal donation to an individual, and do not benefit the ACA in any way.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Following the script

We got an excellent question from a fan in Perth, Australia, enough that I wanted to share my answer online.

A friend of mine regaled me with a tale a while back, about a theist spouting a well worn apologetic to a prominent atheist. Rather than shoot it down with a just as well worn counter, he simply replied with "did you really think that would work?" Now, I don't know the whole story, but apparently said atheist went on to berate said theist about stupid they were for thinking that of all the things that this atheist had heard and read, it was this one guy spouting this one thing that he probably got of some website that would change his mind. While I'm not a fan of berating people, It does strike me as a valid idea, the whole "do you really think that'll stump me" response.

However, following a lively debate with some fellow atheist friends a while back, I was on the receiving end of a sudden rush of perspective. You see, they were just saying the same old stuff as well. The usual cookies about the christian god being immoral, how many different religions there are all over the world, the nonsense of disregarding science just because it can't explain EVERYTHING... same old crap you hear from people with an education. It got me thinking, what if the shoe was on the other foot? My girlfriend's mother is an Anglican priest and I know for a fact that if I just spouted one of the usual chestnuts to her, she'd have an answer pretty quickly, probably one that'd get me off the script, if there is such a thing as an atheist script.

I suppose my question is, shouldn't a skeptic be trying to come up with new responses all the time, forever? I hate to go us vs them, but the idea of stock responses to stock questions and insular self congratulation seems very, very, well... dumb. In Perth, we don't have many fundies at all, but a lot of people are so vaguely middle class white spiritual, anti-science. The usual crap, "can't prove everything" what the bleep do we know pseudo-spiritual nonsense, and when I try to have honest discourse with them, it just descends into stock responses and I give up. It's very disheartening.

To condense it, my question is: As people who reject claims on the basis of logic and reason, is it enough just to have stock responses? Shouldn't we be trying to come up with new, better and always unexpected ways to exercise our skepticism? Hope you can shed some light on my ramblings.

And my answer is: Yes and no.

It is a mistake to completely dismiss the value of having an arsenal of sound bites. The thing is, you use your stock responses exactly as long as they work well. At the point where they stop working, you either enhance them or abandon them for something that works better.

For example. My stock response to "God must have created the universe because it couldn't have created itself" is probably always going to be some variant of asking, or leading into, the question "What created God?"

Theists don't like this. They ridicule it. They say it's like a question that a little child would ask. They come up with variants like the Kalam argument, in which instead of saying "Everything that exists has a cause" they say instead, "Everything that begins to exist has a cause" -- thereby creating a special pleading loophole. If you're attentive enough, then you can see where the sleight of hand occurs, much as you can look at a "proof" that your high school buddy used to produce showing that 1=2, and identify the fallacious step where he divided by zero or something.

The thing is, the fact that someone will ridicule and dismiss an argument is not, in itself, a demonstration that the argument is not working. I could enter a history class and loudly scoff: "What's that?! You expect me to believe that Henry VIII became the King of England in 1509??? You're so ignorant!" I don't doubt that if I tried this against a bunch of teachers, at least a few of them would be so insecure that they wouldn't argue with you, lapsing into embarrassed silence or changing the subject. This seems to be the disposition of many biology teachers today who would otherwise be teaching evolution.

Your atheist friend who says "Did you really think THAT would work?" is using a tactic. It is neither inherently good nor bad; it's just potentially effective or not effective in a particular situation. The tactic is a combination of poisoning the well and psychological intimidation. He wants to give the opponent and/or the audience the emotional feeling that the opponent is ignorant and the atheist knows more. That feeling may or may not be justified, and the intimidation may or may not work.

Like any tactic, this one has its strengths and weaknesses. If you pull this trick, and your opponent stammers out some apologies and tries to talk about something else, you've just gained a point of data saying that it is a good tactic for you. You pulled it off. On the other hand, do this in an inappropriate way, and you look like an arrogant prick. For an example where this approach bombed, check out the historical Bush/Gore debate, where voters came away with a lasting impression of Gore loudly sighing, rolling his eyes, and getting in Bush's personal space -- which was perceived as needlessly condescending, irrespective of whether Gore's impatience was warranted or not.

Scorning your opponent this way is like throwing a lot of money into the pot in poker. It may be that you are putting all that money in because you genuinely have a good hand -- i.e., you are armed with better facts, your opponent really is ignorant, and you can prove it handily when it's time to show your cards. On the other hand, it may be a bluff, and you're secretly hoping that your opponent will fold under your withering gaze so that you can collect the money without a prolonged fight that you stand to lose.

And yes, religious people apply this tactic all the time. Let me throw a few book titles at you:
  • You Can Lead an Atheist to Evidence, But You Can't Make Him Think (Ray Comfort)
  • I Don't Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist (Norman Geisler)
  • Evolution, A Fairy Tale for Grownups! (Ray again -- sorry, but that guy is a walking textbook on this technique)
So as you noticed, it happens on both sides. What, then, do you do when somebody attacks you with that "I've already heard that argument" line while showing obvious contempt?

I think the most important rule here is to keep your cool, don't flinch, and find a way to do a quick end-run around the brush off. The best way to do this, I think, is to highlight the person's arrogance as their weakness rather than their strength.

This is a place where the "reductio ad absurdum" technique often comes in handy. Ask yourself: "Okay, so this guy is acting as if my argument isn't even worthy of consideration. What implications also follow from his dismissal?" Highlighting obvious contradictions is useful, and so is the question "How do you know...?"

Here's a sample dialogue.

Theist: "Everything has a cause. Since the chain can't go back infinitely, there must be a God." (Note: oversimplified, in some cases.)
Atheist: "What created God?"
Theist: "That's a ridiculous question. It's something a child would ask."
Atheist: "Oh, so you don't think everything had a cause."

(Reversal. Instead of demanding that the theist acknowledge your point, you accept his dismissal and calmly look for a contradiction.)

Theist: "Well I don't mean that everything has a cause. Everything which begins to exist has a cause. But God is eternal."
Atheist: "How do you know that?"

(The theist just tried to inject an assertion, again counting on the assumption that it's so obvious that only a fool would challenge it. Don't be intimidated by this.)

The conversation may go in any number of directions at this point -- my money's on "science vs. faith as a means for knowing things." The important thing, though, is that you find a way around the theist baldly asserting a certainty that he has not earned.

As with any argument, it's a game. If you fold, then it doesn't matter how unsupported your opponent was in reality; you still lose. On the flip side, if your opponent calls you on your claim and you can't back it up, you may well lose worse, because then your opponent has condescended to you and then proven that the condescension was justified. That's the gamble you take when you are arrogant.

As you probably noticed, you very much should have an arsenal of "opening moves" that, by and large, don't have to vary much. If you trot out a move and you see your opponent driven before you (and, of course, hear the lamentation of the women!) then you keep doing that. To someone who doesn't argue on a regular basis, this can look easy, even lazy, and perhaps very risky.

The critical point here is that the opening is not the whole game. Good for you if you can occasionally checkmate your opponent in three moves and that's all it takes. (Fear Edward Current!) But if your opponent doesn't cave right away, then what is going to determine your success is your ability to defend the sound bite, to think on the fly and justify your reasoning, not just to quote it.

Developing opening moves does not necessarily have to be a solo, creative process. You don't have to reinvent the wheel every time you talk to a new person. You should by all means watch other people's debates, see what works and what doesn't, and shamelessly steal the stuff you like. That doesn't make you a mindless parrot, it makes you a smart shopper. But if you use these arguments and then you lose, you should always be willing to take a step back. Ask yourself: Did his response win because it really is actually logically superior? Has he actually made a point? Has he uncovered a genuine flaw in my thought process?

If that turns out to be true, it may well be that you have to dump that argument from your arsenal. The unfit do not survive, it's evolution in action. (And please note that this is intellectual Darwinism, not social Darwinism. I'm advocating the death and abandonment of ideas, not people.)

But that's not the only outcome. You can look for other cases where people have had to deal with that same argument, and find a response that will get you a step further in your next conversation. And in that case, you will become more confident and your response will be stronger each time you face that argument.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Everybody chill — the archive is secure!

Since we've been getting a flurry of panicked emails about Google Video shutting down from people who fear the entire Atheist Experience video archive is about to vanish into the ether, I thought a general "calm the ravening hordes" post was in order. We are, in fact, cognizant of the concept of backups, and in addition to having everything stored ourselves, we've got our current episodes on now. Anything you can't see there should be obtainable on DVD-R. So business will continue uninterrupted. Fear not.

Ustream chat room moderation

This is just a heads up. I think I've mentioned in the past that I kind of hate the chat room environment on Ustream. Ever since we've started there, we've gotten hundreds of people watching each show live. It's often kind of a free-for-all of random stream of consciousness babbling, profanity, trash talking, and the kind of explicit sexual comments that are unlikely to leave a good impression on casual viewers.

Up until recently we've fielded email complaints about this by stating that the chat room is a free speech forum and we don't have any responsibility for what people say. The upside of this approach is that nobody has to do any work. The downside is that, well, it remains an incredibly hostile place for new viewers.

So we've been experimentally moderating the chat room. I've done this a couple of times myself, on weeks when I'm not on the show just log in, and kick out people who are being disruptive. Several other regulars have also been in on the act.

Moderation is necessarily a subjective judgment call, especially in the situation where lines of text are being fired off so fast that they scroll off the screen within about ten seconds. As a result, it's inevitable that people who get kicked off for (for example) using "gay" as a swear word, or using language that would probably be used freely (but sparingly) on The Non-Prophets, or being one voice in a dozen people who are participating in a hilarious conversation about rape, will think they have been treated unfairly. If you get kicked for deliberately insulting a moderator, probably even more so.

My message to those people is: tough luck. The chat room is a privilege, not your graffiti wall. If you're a regular it's very unlikely you will be kicked, but Phil Plait's often maligned advice, "Don't be a dick," very much does apply here. If you've been kicked, you are welcome to keep watching the show without chat. If you decide that you refuse to watch the show anymore as a result of having been kicked, well you know... don't let the door hit ya, etc.

I'm confident that the chat room can become a friendlier place over time, but for now the phase one solution is that people will be watching and wielding the big stick to keep the annoyances out.

[Edit: Changed the post to say "Ustream" instead of "", as I had the archive site and the live streaming site mixed up.]

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Austin Stone pastor writes in, dismisses Mark as "crazy"

Today an email popped up from Ronnie Smith, a teaching pastor at Austin Stone Community Church. Most of it was addressed to Matt and is in the nature of a personal correspondence, but I thought I'd excerpt the opening paragraph as it pertains to the show in general. (Note: Ronnie's statements here are themselves not meant to be taken as an official communique from Stone Church, but simply voicing his own concerns as to the impression Mark may have been giving viewers of the show.)

My name is Ronnie Smith and I serve as one of the teaching pastors at the Austin Stone Community Church. You may have heard of us from “Mark” whoever that guy is. Anyway, first, please don’t let guys like “Mark” color your perception of our congregation. You were raised in a Southern Baptist church for a while and I’m sure you encountered your share of crazies, that you wished hadn’t identified with you. We have about 8,000 people attending church each Sunday so we can’t really deal with every person that walks through the door. I’m sure it bothers you as well when fellow atheists either spew things you don’t really believe or act in a way that doesn’t represent your character.

Fair enough. Though I'm sure Mark will be unhappy to hear, next time he calls, that the church he's so eagerly defending is rushing to distance themselves from him, claiming him to be nothing more than an anonymous face in the crowd. In truth, many of us had already suspected as much, as Mark seems utterly unequipped in any of the conversations we've had with him on the show to respond to literally anything thrown at him. He isn't a fellow who understands what he believes or why he believes it, whereas someone who actually represents a large church such as this ought to, at the very least, be able to hold his own in a discussion. (Even if he's only doing so with PRATT arguments.)

Hopefully, this will open up some more dialogue with the Stone Church folks, and we'll get some really enjoyable phone calls coming in from people who actually represent the church and can engage us in spirited conversation.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Building your mental immune system

When Mark from Stone Church called again yesterday, he provided a perfect example of something that I've been meaning to blog about for a few months. Namely, it is a tempting but extremely bad habit to only associate with people who agree with you all your life.

One issue that most Atheist Experience hosts feel passionately about, apart from religion, is the spate of anti-scientific attacks which have been leveled against vaccinations. When you vaccinate yourself, you deliberately expose your body to small quantities of a disease or virus, in order to train your immune system to recognize and attack that disease. If you don't get vaccinated, when the disease attacks you in its natural form it will likely be much stronger, and your body still won't know how to deal with it.

The fact that they may be adorable is only slight consolation.

Worse, by putting yourself at risk for this disease, you also become a carrier, which could increase its presence in the population at large. The more people there are in a given population who haven't been vaccinated against a disease, the more risk everyone takes of catching it, and the more common the disease comes.

Critical thinking, of course, is your immune system against bad ideas. Even if you have a general background in skepticism and logic, it can be hard to spot the flaws in a claim that you've never heard before. The first time anyone encounters a concerted efforts to discredit vaccination, or prove that alien abductions occur based on anecdotes, or claim that evolution is a scientific conspiracy with no more proof than Biblical literalism -- it's not as easy as you might think to see through those arguments.

It's really not good enough to say "That's stupid" and ignore them, because if you have a policy of treating ideas you disagree with that way, then you risk becoming so dogmatic that you wind up rejecting things that are actually true. Instead, skepticism is a habit that requires practice. It's good mental exercise to take such claims seriously, to ask yourself "What are the implications if this claim is true? Can I investigate it? Are there arguments against it already out there in the memesphere? If so, are they convincing, or do the debunking efforts rely on fallacies themselves? If there are none, why not? Is it not high enough profile, or is there something else going on?"

A lot of religious traditions -- like those practiced in Austin Stone Church -- reject this approach. Followers of such religions not only don't try to understand competing points of view themselves, they regard any efforts to do so with suspicion and fear. They may actually believe that it's a sin against God, or a trick by Satan, if you are even humoring a bad idea. Apologists will often seriously question the value of sending kids to college, because they might be exposed to "worldly" ideas. Cults sometimes advise their members not to read newspapers or watch TV, lest their minds be poisoned by outsiders rejecting their beliefs.

This is the intellectual equivalent of avoiding diseases by locking yourself in a hermetically sealed bubble for life. It can work, of course. As long as no germs can get inside the bubble, you can't catch anything. On the other hand, once you're committed to this plan, you can never leave the bubble for any reason. If you do, your immune system is likely to be so weak that you are especially vulnerable to any and all diseases you might encounter. Something very much like this is speculated to have happened to the relatively isolated Native American population when they first encountered European settlers who, by virtue of living on a much larger, more diverse, and densely populated continent, were relatively swimming in diseases regularly, and hence had much broader immunities.

Here, take this blanket. No really, I insist. We're not using it anymore.

So when you've been sheltered by fundamentalism your whole life, my feeling is that you have to keep sheltering yourself or become similarly vulnerable to invasion from foreign ideas. Which is essentially what Mark told us he does in our call yesterday.

Many emailers have homed in on the fact that Mark kept telling us what his church believes, as synonymous with what he believes. Tracie and I mentioned that the kind of evidence that we would need for God is not really all that strict, and that you don't need to pray or "have faith" in order to be convinced that your mom exists. When something is real and testable, it can be perceived independently by many different people in the same way.

Mark responded that everyone at his church believes the same thing about God, and he proved it by reading a "statement of faith" that all church members are required agree to. I said, "It sounds like you have to devote a lot of work to making people believe the same thing." And of course, there are 30,000 other Christian denominations in the US, many of which have very different perspectives on who this God person is.

I have long loved this interview that American Atheists spokesman David Silverman once did with Douglas Adams.

Above: A face that David Silverman probably did not have to make while talking to Douglas Adams.

In the interview, Adams elaborated on a great many of his atheist beliefs in a way that he has rarely done explicitly in his other work. One of the most striking and memorable arguments presented by Adams was in comparing religious beliefs to other types of scholarship.

Adams points out that if you wish to be taken seriously in the realms of science, history, or math, you should expect to be challenged constantly. Any claim you make, no matter how trivial the matter may look to those outside the discipline, will be subjected to withering criticism and debate, and the ideas that remain standing after this process, round after round, are the ones that can eventually be regarded as credible.

But religions don't accept that burden of proof. Quite the opposite, in fact; when someone promotes a silly belief as a statement of faith, we're asked to lend that faith some sort of automatic respect. Atheists who argue with the faith-beliefs of others are regularly regarded as being dicks.

Anyway, Douglas Adams concluded:

So, I was already familiar with and (I’m afraid) accepting of, the view that you couldn't apply the logic of physics to religion, that they were dealing with different types of 'truth'. ... What astonished me, however, was the realization that the arguments in favor of religious ideas were so feeble and silly next to the robust arguments of something as interpretative and opinionated as history. In fact they were embarrassingly childish. They were never subject to the kind of outright challenge which was the normal stock in trade of any other area of intellectual endeavor whatsoever. Why not? Because they wouldn’t stand up to it.

And that, in a nutshell, is why it's not a good idea to show politeness and "respect" for people's beliefs. I try as much as I can to show respect for the people themselves, and appreciate the diversity of backgrounds that causes them to think the way they do. Greta Christina wrote a great article a few months back called "No, Atheists Don't Have to Show 'Respect' for Religion," which observes the same behavior. Greta says:

And, of course, it's ridiculously hypocritical to engage in fervent political and cultural discourse -- as so many progressive ecumenical believers do -- and then expect religion to get a free pass. It's absurd to accept and even welcome vigorous public debate over politics, science, medicine, economics, gender, sexuality, education, the role of government, etc... and then get appalled and insulted when religion is treated as just another hypothesis about the world, one that can be debated and criticized like any other.

It's not about making fun of religion just for sport. When you tiptoe around someone's beliefs, you're not doing them any favors. All you are doing is allowing them to stay in their little bubble for a bit longer, while enabling them to spread the idea that it's okay to be closed off to competing ideas.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Show #704: Open Thread

I don't have much of a topic today. May be discussing a bit about a conversation I had recently that included a few things of note:

1. I was told recently that the amazing things in nature couldn't have been produced naturally. I said nature is so amazing--in the things I see it do--I can't really put much past it. Why wouldn't I think nature could do something cool--like produce a tree? The person replied that's the reason they believe a god is involved, precisely because nature is so amazing--so unbelievably, incredibly, mind-blowingly amazing--that only a god could have created.

2. Next I was told (during the same dialog) that I was being "negative." The reason I was being "negative" was that I pointed out they worship a god that commanded genocide, mass infanticide, execution of gays, endorsement of slavery, making raped women marry their rapists, telling people to "take no thought for tomorrow," setting up a human sacrificial plan to deal with the heinous and self-imposed crime of being imperfect and human and exercising freedoms He supposedly gave us. I asked "if this god did what your Bible indicates...why on Earth would you choose to worship it?" I was told that anybody could go through and pick out the "bad" bits...but why focus on the negative--when there are good things in there, too? So, it's "negative" to say we ought not to worship a god who tells us to put the babies of our neighbors to the sword; but it's positive to worship a god who tells his followers to put babies to the sword if you simply ignore that part and focus on "love one another."

It reminds me a bit of the caller who said that the recent Giffords assassination attempt was a miracle. The idea that a woman is severely brain damaged, several people--including a child--are dead, and more are wounded, and that is evidence of god's merciful benevolence, just continues to floor me. When a random shooting that results in hideous loss of life and pain can be evidence of goodness and loving mercy--what isn't evidence of goodness and loving mercy? Honestly?

As the show is an hour these days, I'm not sure how much time there will even be for discussion. But these would be my points for today if we have time or lulls in the calls.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Some thought experiments on "potential life"

An ex-theist emailed to say that, although he has made a lot of changes to his thinking regarding gay rights and race issues since abandoning his theism, the abortion issue still bothers him.

The human egg and sperm are not in and of themselves able to "live" and reproduce/multiply on their own. Once they are joined, something happens that causes them to "become alive" and the cells will them multiply on their own without any external influence other than feeding off the body of the mother.

The glob of cells will in the vast majority of cases eventually become a human and the progression of its growth can not be physically stopped by the mother or father without the prescribed use of a poison pill, or physical instrument where a doctor must physically cut it or smash it until the growth stops.

I'm no legal scholar, but I can not see how this action can not be defined as anything other than "killing" an immature human.

Rather than just send him off to another site, I gave a little more thought to the implications of requiring the care of a fetus on the basis of it being a potential future life as soon as the sperm and egg join. For starters, you can't go wrong reading Carl Sagan's essay on abortion from Billions and Billions:

Despite many claims to the contrary, life does not begin at conception: It is an unbroken chain that stretches back nearly to the origin of the Earth, 4.6 billion years ago. Nor does human life begin at conception: It is an unbroken chain dating back to the origin of our species, hundreds of thousands of years ago. Every human sperm and egg is, beyond the shadow of a doubt, alive. They are not human beings, of course. However, it could be argued that neither is a fertilized egg.

In some animals, an egg develops into a healthy adult without benefit of a sperm cell. But not, so far as we know, among humans. A sperm and an unfertilized egg jointly comprise the full genetic blueprint for a human being. Under certain circumstances, after fertilization, they can develop into a baby. But most fertilized eggs are spontaneously miscarried. Development into a baby is by no means guaranteed. Neither a sperm and egg separately, nor a fertilized egg, is more than a potential baby or a potential adult. So if a sperm and egg are as human as the fertilized egg produced by their union, and if it is murder to destroy a fertilized egg--despite the fact that it's only potentially a baby--why isn't it murder to destroy a sperm or an egg?

For context, here's support for Sagan's claim of the frequency of spontaneous abortion from the University of Ottowa:
"The incidence of spontaneous abortion is estimated to be 50% of all pregnancies, based on the assumption that many pregnancies abort spontaneously with no clinical recognition."

So if a fertilized egg is more likely than not to not grow into an adult human being, why draw arbitrary lines in the sand saying that it becomes murder in that particular moment?

For the sake of argument, I'd like you to imagine that time travel is possible in order to consider the following eight thought experiments.

  1. You go back in time and deliberately prevent somebody's parents from meeting. To be concrete, we'll call him "Biff". History has now changed and Biff is never born. Have you killed Biff? (If you're like me, the answer is "Maybe. I'll have to think about it a bit.")
  2. Suppose that, instead of preventing Biff's parents from meeting, you go back to the night of his conception and strike up a conversation with them. The three of you have a delightful time until late at night, and they never get around to having sex. Again, Biff is never conceived. Again, have you murdered him?
  3. Now suppose that Biff's parents were already actively planning to have a kid, and so they go at at the next night. A child is conceived but -- due to the statistical issues involved -- a different sperm implant in the egg, and the genes expresses themselves in very different ways. Returning to the present, you find that Biff doesn't exist at all. In his place, his not at all similar brother Griff was born. Is Biff now dead?
  4. In order to fix the timestream, you travel back and prevent yourself from meeting Griff's parents, thus restoring the original history. Biff is born and Griff is not. Have you now killed Griff?
  5. You and your partner discuss having a child of your own, and almost decide to do it, but in the end you decide that the cons just barely outweigh the pros. Had the argument gone a little bit differently, you might have had a kid. Have you killed your future child?
  6. You (or your wife) are pregnant, but there are complications -- possibly not fatal, but definitely not something you would like to deal with. You agree to abort the baby and try again. The original fetus is never born, and the new baby is healthy, happy, and grows to adulthood. If you had chosen to bear the original fetus, you wouldn't have wanted any more children. By deciding not to have the abortion, would you have been killing the healthy baby?
  7. Some religious groups teach that child bearing is a responsibility and a duty. Protection of any kind is never allowed during sex, and therefore they have fifteen kids. Compare them to a couple who bear two children by choice and then use protection for the rest of their lives. Have they killed the other thirteen children that they might have had? Do thirteen murders simultaneously occur as soon as the man gets a vasectomy? What if they decided to have no kids, is the murder count now bumped up to fifteen?
  8. Similarly, is an abstinent couple committing murder by giving their future children no opportunity to come to life?

Monday, April 04, 2011

Authentic Angel Sighting - or Fail?

A reply I offered to a claim of an angel sighting (by an atheist). Below is my answer. I clipped their content, only because several paragraphs were not about this event, but other unrelated stuff. Below, however, is the full content of their text (in red) relating the tale, and my responses:

I checked the e-mail list, and your note didn't show up in regular e-mail or in spam, so no idea what happened to it. I haven't been answering mail for a bit, because I'm horribly busy this summer, but will answer this one for that reason. I've snipped out all the superfluous paragraphs, and I'm putting your story (whether or not you like the show or are an atheist is not relevant to anyone's evaluation of the story below) to the blog where it can receive skeptical feedback.

BRIEFLY--what I'm about to write I experienced with my twin sister, myself, and our friend C in about 1986-1987. Three months ago, I revisited this experience and I called them both. I asked my sister what her memories were of this experience--she remembered it in clear detail...

It may seem like "clear detail"--but research on memory says otherwise. Forgetfulness of events varies widely, but learning method makes a demonstrated difference. In your case, there was no method--and no matter how "clear" it feels, none of us, including her, can know how reliable the recollection of any of the three of you is now.

...which were consistent with my own. When I called our friend C and brought it up she responded with GREAT enthusiasm--she remembered it perfectly and was astonished that I would call her to ask her if she remembered it...she was shocked.

This is not only not a surprise, but unfortunately, we have an issue known as "conformity" with memory that causes a sticky wicket here. When cops come to a crime, they pull the witnesses apart to question them. This is to avoid the witnesses contaminating each others' stories by coloring each others' recollections by hearing what others say they saw. People have been demonstrated to actually change their correct evaluations to incorrect ones when confronted with very small groups (yes, including three people) with different evaluations. And below, you say you were initially mocked for your reaction and that even the one who mocked you thought the event was "amazing." It's unrealistic for me to believe you saw something bizarre and decided not to discuss it among yourselves at the time. And by doing so, you contaminated all three stories/memories for all time. I do get it's natural to talk about a thing like this. But it's an unfortunate reality that it calls all your stories into question now. Are parts that align aligning because of what you all independently saw? Or due to influence between you during your later discussion of the event? We now have no way to know.

Here's what happened.

On a summer day in 1986 or 1987,

Again, far in the past--decades ago.

me and my twin sister S were living in Ft. Mohave Arizona. We went to our friend C's trailer where she lived. We visited, whatever, I don't remember what we did or said. We went outside her trailer. Climbed down her steps. Now before I express what we saw let me state the geography because this is very important. We were looking due west at a mountain range that is just across the Colorado River in extreme Southern Nevada/California right where the three states meet. It was just after dusk and when we looked at the sky

OK. So it's around sunset as you are facing the sun, or it's after sunset, and light has already begun fading. Either option is not the best for clear sight. You are staring toward what is, or was, a huge source of light that is now filtering at an angle through the atmosphere at a point where atmospheric distortion is common.

we saw a multicolored

Stop right there. When I hear "multi-colored" in the sky, it's impossible NOT to think "light refraction." There is a huge list of bizarre light phenomena that cause "multi-colored" phenomena of countless types in the sky when the sun filters through (or other factors are present): rainbows, aurora borealis, halos, coronas, aureoles, and many, many more rare phenomena. Any level of dust or mist can sometimes exaggerate this. So, my first thought is that what you're describing is a huge candidate for one of these.

angelic being

Since nobody knows what an angel is, this is unhelpful. We don't know it was a "being" or an "angel." You give no indication you even tested in any way to see if it was solid and not a mirage of some sort or a light phenomena of some kind.

that can only be measured in size by degrees: It was perhaps if you were to look at the sky 20, perhaps 25 degrees in height/size.

The sky presents size and distance dilemmas that are uniquely problematic. I can cover the entire sun on a summer day in Texas, just with my thumb. That should not be confused with my thumb being as large as the sun. So, I don't know size/distance of what you describe--nobody does, because saying it covered from x-degrees to y-degrees is as unhelpful as saying my thumb blocked out the whole sun.

It was a being

You don't ever demonstrate how you determined this.

with wings,

With what appeared to be something shaped like wings.


Again, sounds like light refraction.

with it's face hidden in it's right wing.

If the "face" was "hidden"--then how do you know there was a face?

It was not looking at us.

See above question.

It was hiding or shielding its eyes from us.

Then how do you know it had "eyes"?

It was hovering in the sky,

And yet seemed to have "wings"? And this didn't strike you as evidence that it was potentially illusory rather than real?

just before the mountains but floating if you will in the sky.

Again with the mountains. And again, doesn't "wings," but "floating," seem nonsensical? But let me get back to the mountains. There are specific illusions/mirages that are only observed in/around mountains. Not surprisingly, one is a giant human form encased in a rainbow (multi-colored) halo. It is even sometimes called a "mountain specter." Here is a picture of one that looks like a human figure with wings in a multi-colored background:

I can't help but relate this to your description. For the record, these things can be quite large and appear above the mountains as well:

It was HUGE. It wasn't like an angel that you would see in a painting

Which just goes back to "then what sort of angel was it like? A real one?" I don't know what an angel is, and you're saying it isn't like the I'm back to square one. Or do you just mean it was exactly like religious depictions, but larger? Except I don't recall rainbow angels in any old depictions.

...being a bit larger than a person--ten feet high. It was immense.

Like the mountain specters. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying it was a mountain specter. I'm saying that you can see a lot of weird crap in the atmosphere--all of which you discounted in Facebook chat when you said it was supernatural. How you determined it wasn't any sort of atmospheric illusion is beyond me, because you offer no verification or evidence, just a story including that you never verified what it was. So how you rule out a battery of odd atmospheric possibilities is a larger mystery than your story. But, before you write back to insist that a mountain specter isn't the specific phenomena you observed, don't bother. It's never what I suggest to people, and it's always exactly what they've already decided it was--despite the fact it was ages ago and they took no steps to verify any cause (like toss a rock toward it to see if it's at least a stone's throw away? Or try to talk to it--since it's a being?). It may not have been a Broken Spectre (mountain specter), but this is only put forward to suggest there is at least one easy-to-find explanation that matches everything you described so far: multi-colored, winged, large human, no visible face, in the mountains. Bingo. But even if it's not that--it shows the atmosphere can do some pretty bizarro crap--that you aren't considering as possible. (Again, based on the Facebook chat where you told me it could only have been supernatural).

It's size could only be measured in degrees from the top of the mountain to it's top...probably 20, maybe 30 degrees.

Again, is my thumb as big as the sun?

When I saw this angel, at the age of 16 or so, I IMMEDIATELY fell on my face. I prostrated myself onto the ground in sheer horror and fear. I was praying and was in total shock.

Immediate facepalm. You've offered this long, detailed description—and now you say you immediately turned away upon seeing it and laid on the ground praying? Additionally, praying? So, at the time of this sighting you were theistic at some level. This means primed for a vision of an angel in the same way Christians who have NDE seem to always see Jesus.

I don't know what my twin sister S did when she saw it

Clearly, as you were facing the ground. So, there's a lot you didn't see. Additionally, your brain was in a state--you admit you were in "fear"--which releases a lot of odd brain chemistry.

but our friend C mocked me.

Odd reaction, isn't it--for a woman who just saw, like you, a real live angel and not just a cool atmospheric phenomena?

She said to me, "you're just like Shirley MacLaine" know--kinda mocking me about it.

Again, she wasn't saying "Wow--we just saw some weird angel being?!" And that isn't a clue that maybe what she saw was interpreted a bit differently?

For years, I was totally floored that she could react to this experience in such a mocking way.

I'm sure you were--because if she saw what you claim was actually there, her reaction would make no sense, right?

Twenty years or so went by.

Again...big problem with time/distance from the event.

In 2010--don't remember the month--I was thinking about this. I called my sister. I asked her if she remembered this experience. She did.

Recalling the event is not evidence you saw an angel, just fyi. It's evidence she recalls an event. I don't know what her perception of it was--or has become. However, as described above, since you've discussed it (contamination in the form of conformity) and it was 20 years ago or more (memory distorts and fades with time, even if it doesn't feel like to us), her recollection of the event at this point would be little to no help.

I called C. She not only remembered but was like, "Oh my God, that's amazing, I remember it vividly".

Again, "vivid" should not be confused with "accurate," when we're talking about 20+ years ago.

Again--I can't PROVE to you guys that I experienced this. There is no way I can prove to you that this occurred other than to take perhaps a lie detector test...maybe in an ideal world us three could come to Austin, take Sodium Pentathol or lie detector tests, or whatnot to try to prove that this is true.

Here is where perhaps the biggest fallacy occurs. Many people believe they've been abducted by aliens. They tell very similar stories. I don't doubt their sincerity. I doubt their interpretation of events. Here, I only have your interpretation of the event. And two other people recall "something" happened. You did nothing to verify what you saw--so you don't know, and I don't know, and nobody knows what it was. It was 20 years ago, and we can't go back and investigate. I only have you saying "this is what it was" and offering no evidence except contaminated witnesses of 20+ year-old events.

It's lost to the past. And there's nothing in the story--and nothing that could ever be in any testimony-only tale--to confirm whether what you saw was real or illusory--natural or not. However, all verified explanations for all phenomena ever observed that have been explained, have been confirmed as natural events. So, I'm putting my money on "natural event." But if you ever find a way to demonstrate otherwise (not just insist), feel free to provide your evidence.

[Addendum: I shot the first mountain specter link to a skeptic friend on Facebook chat this morning while I was editing the blog. I hadn't told him about this correspondence or what I was blogging. I included no context--just said "cool phenomena" and the link. He posted back immediately "It's an angel!!!"]

Friday, April 01, 2011


Attention all atheists:


Are you listening to me now???


PZ Myers, the little jerkface, time to bury him under piles of squid. I BET HE'D LIKE THAT!

Katy Perry has B**BS! And Elmo is looking! DON'T THINK WE AREN'T ON TO YOU, ELMO!!!

Can you hear me, you ill-begotten miscreants?


Just like this cat...

...We will trap all atheists... IN A BOX!!!!!!!!!!



Screw all of you! I am OFF my MEDS and I couldn't be more ravenous!

He speaks the truth!


We will get you out LIKE MUSTARD!!!!!!!

Blah blah blah blah froth froth froth glurk argh splunge.

Watch out, Dawkins, I'm COMING FOR YOUR BLOG NEXT!!!!!!!

MANIACAL LAUGHTER! This will show them all. They're bound to take me seriously NOW.

[Update: Phew! April 1 is finally over, and I can change my blogger name back to Kazim instead of DM.

I hope it's obvious to all the commenters that I was in no way expecting to "fool" anyone, but I hope you got a laugh out of it. :)]