World Atheist Convention: Day 2 (Super, Super Late Edition)

As I haven’t been blogging for months, I completely missed the fact that I never actually posted this piece. While it’s remarkably out of date (back in June for cripes’ sake!) it’s still got enough content in it that I can’t leave it sitting in my drafts. Enjoy!

Unfortunately due to a lack of internet access and other things during the weekend I wasn’t able to keep hugely up to date with blog posts on the conference and I also missed the early sessions on Sunday morning, which is a shame as I missed the awesome Maryam Namazie who I hear was on form as ever, but I’m here to add my voice to the many others reporting from the event.
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World Atheist Convention 2011: Day 1

Aloha and greetings from sunny Dublin! Unusually warm and sunny for Ireland despite the time of the year but rather nice to start off the weekend of the WAC 2011!

I’d like to just stick my oar in on a topic that came up and piqued my interest. It’s the issue of why do we have a gathering in the first place? Surely all we could talk about is our shared lack of belief. It conjures up a rather dolorous image of a group of people twiddling their thumbs and constantly asking each other if they believe in God yet. The simple answer is because we are the minority. The wonderful point was made that in a society where most everyone collected stamps and thought it was a moral requirement, there would be groups of aphilatelists popping up discussing how to live their lives well while not collecting stamps. The same is true of atheists. The long answer is that in a world that is primarily religious, a world where the common consensus is that religion of some form is a necessary foundation for a moral life, a world where people are assumed to be religious, a world where social and legal policies greatly reflect the religious beliefs of the people and their elected members of government it is vital the people who don’t collect stamps stand up and say “Hey, hang on a second. How dare you accuse us of being amoral when you impose a pre-existing, socially conceived moral framework onto your religion and then try to pass it off to us as having its origins in your delusion of choice.”

That is why we have conventions.

Beliefs vs. Fact

This has long been a debate of various sorts and forms in the non-believing community but I think I’ve finally figured out how I want to phrase my argument in relation to it.

We have these things called beliefs, that quite often are not based on evidence, yet are still robust, rational and logical. For example “I believe that peanut butter and jam make a good sandwich filling” is a rational belief as I’m basing it upon my own experience and the experience of others. The problem with beliefs though is that they can quite often be wrong and can also disagree with both established consensus and even reality itself. For example “I believe that I can see Angels who guide me through life and watch over me.” On the one hand, a lot of people don’t share this belief, and on the other there’s no actual evidence for it outside of one person’s subjective experience.

We also have things called facts. These puppies are a hell of a lot more useful. For example “so long as the Earth maintains it orbit around the sun, the sun will always rise the next day” this is an established fact. We can link the rising of the sun to the structure of our solar system and based upon that establish logically and rationally that the above example is indeed a fact. The important thing to note here is the details may differ or change with new scientific understandings or discoveries, for example it could potentially happen that the times we now attribute to sunrise and sunset across the globe could migrate slowly forcing us to alter our current timezone system (it’s not likely, but certainly not impossible) but still the rising of the sun would remain a fact. So too can we say that while the individual mechanics underlying the Theory of Evolution* may change, or more rather our understanding of those underlying mechanics, the theory as a whole is an undeniable fact.

That word “undeniable” is a key one though. With beliefs one simply believes or disbelieves. With facts, however one can accept it or deny it. While accepting it requires no active belief (we don’t believe in gravity, we accept it as a fact of nature) denying facts requires some active belief. To deny a fact such as gravity, one needs to actively believe either that people are wrong and it is not a fact or believe that universe does not in fact function the way the so-called fact would imply.

This important distinction between disbelief and denial is rather profound and it’s effect can be seen in modern parlance. People who doubt that Hitler and his Nazi government put millions of Jews to death during WWII are not called Holocaust-disbelievers. The Holocaust is not a belief to be debated upon such as Deism or Theism etc… it is an established fact of history. To doubt the Holocaust happened is to deny a fact of the world. As I mentioned above, some details may change over time, we may yet uncover secret documents that detail that someone other than we thought was actually signing the orders in Auschwitz for the murders (unlikely) but the overall fact will remain a fact.

With all this in mind I think it’s time we stop asking/responding to questions in the form of “Do you believe in [insert established scientific fact here]” and start demanding that the question become “Do you accept [insert established scientific fact here]”

I do not believe in a God or gods. I do not “deny” God or gods as they are not Fact. I do not “believe” in Evolution, I accept Evolution. These are important phrases and important kinds of phraseology that I think would serve not only the non-believing community well, but mankind in general also.

* – It’s NOT just a theory. It’s a Theory.

Intangible Evidence for Ghosts Pt. I

As the title suggests, if there does happen to be any robust evidence for the existence of ghosts or spirits or any other popular manifestations of the supernatural world, it’s intangible. We can’t see it and we certainly can’t find it. I was recently watching a Discovery series called Ghost Lab as part of my search for engaging entertainment and I was drawn in by their claims of “scientific” studies and a search for “evidence of the afterlife.” For the sake of transparency I must admit that I only watched the first episode in the first series and I have not watched any of the other episodes, including the latest series. That being said I found their so-called “scientific” methods highly flawed and their whole approach smacks of a distinct lack of impartiality.

These guys, the Klinge brothers, are coming into this whole situation with the assumption that there is such a thing as the afterlife and spirits and they contaminate all of the conclusions they draw with this bias. They are like the theist who is sure that God exists and that the Bible is true and takes any evidence she comes across and twists and manipulates it until it confirms her belief. This kind of thing is, for the uninformed, called “confirmation bias” and it simply means that you ignore anything that could disagree with your theory and you only look at that which seems to confirm it. It’s a common theme in pseudo-science and bad theology (now there’s a redundant phrase if ever I’ve heard one) and it is not a part of the scientific method.

The first episode is helpful, however, as it illuminates both the motivation behind the investigations and the methods used by the team which is, after all, the meat of the discussion: how do you (or can you even) prove that ghosts and/or spirits exist? Near the beginning of the episode one of the brothers retells the story that got him interested in the world of the paranormal. We are shown a piece of old footage, which one can only assume is the one in question, as he tells us about filming a visit to Gettysburg with his family when he was young and he was amazed to see a lone, small group of people dressed up in Civil War get-up strolling through a field whereby he asked his parents to pull over so he could get out and get closer to film them. He then tells us that he turned off the camera, made his way out of the car and got as close to the field as he could yet when he looked to find the group they had simply disappeared. He says, rather authoritatively, that there were not close enough to the forest line to have made it there by that time and, seemingly most importantly for him, there were no other groups or onlookers nearby which, he assumes, would indicate a re-enactment of some sort. Now, if the footage we saw is the footage shot then I have to question his claim that they could not have made it to the tree line in that time. The landscape seems to be very rolling and hilly and the group seen on screen with a giant waving flag does not appear to be too far away from the tree line in the shot that we see. I have to question both why he turned off the camera in the first place, and how long it took him between that point and getting to seeing that they had disappeared. If I was him in that situation, even at that age (I think he mentioned being around 9 or so at that point) I would hesitate to jump to a supernatural explanation for their disappearance.

This presupposition of supernatural events seems to have followed this man and his brother well into their adult lives and into their supposed scientific investigation of supernatural claims as we’ll see in the following examples I’d like to mention from that show. They investigate two specific locations that are supposedly haunted. One is a municipal auditorium which has connections to rock-a-billy and Elvis himself while the other is a plantation house which is connected with civil war era military men and abuse of slaves.

The Shreveport Municipal Auditorium is their first stop. They detail some of the stories from people who have experienced strange goings-on and they go over some of the potential explanations for the phenomena from the point of view of the paranormal world and then they proceed to investigate. I’m fairly impressed with most of their methods as they lay down a lot of monitoring equipment over a large area to try and capture as much information as possible using devices to detect changes in temperature, shifts in electromagnetic fields and sound recorders to pick up any so-called Electronic Voice Phenomena. These EVP are my first issue, although I must preface this with the fact that throughout their investigations, they focus most of their efforts upon the places that have been reported as being linked to paranormal events, which is not truly scientific. It would be far more scientific to simply gather all the available data they could over an extended period of time and then collate the it to examine it for any noticeable phenomena. Furthermore their equipment is never shown to be insusceptible to outside interference from other electronics or other forms of electromagnetic interference especially given that they conduct the Shreveport investigations in a large old building that contains large amounts of electrical wiring and equipment, which is apparently left connected and untouched during their, primarily, night-time investigations.

Anyway, back to EVP. This is the first issue I have with their methods as they focus their efforts on detecting EVP in one of the supposed paranormal event sites and they contaminate their results so thoroughly that it is quite simply required that we ignore any of the results they find. It is important to understand that the devices they use are handheld recorders with low-quality microphones and the hardware itself modulates the input volume based on the level of the input it receives so the quieter the surroundings become the higher the gain on the recordings, which further increases distortion of any captured input until the device regulates the level to a more manageable volume. Furthermore, since it’s a low quality microphone being used, as anyone who has recorded any kind of audio or video on a mobile phone knows, distortion is guaranteed when things get any way loud. So, they conduct their EVP test, which consists of asking an empty room a series of questions and waiting for a response, supposedly from an other-worldly entity. I highly recommend Derren Brown’s tv show Derren Brown Investigates The Ghost Hunter for a look at how sketchy these EVP, and, more importantly, their highly subjective and downright ludicrous interpretations, can be. Before the test was conducted, they were advised that one of the supernatural events in the building involved someone hearing someone, who apparently wasn’t there, saying “they saw the light”. Once the complete the testing and return to their operations truck to review the audio file they come across what sounds like some distant voice saying, you guessed it, “they saw the light”, now to my ears, and to anyone who has listened to the quality of the recording and the amount of noise and distortion going on, what they hear as a distant voice saying this phrase they had pre-attuned to, I hear it as simply the rustling and movement of lots of people and equipment in a big, echoing space, which is exactly what their testing environment was like. They then did something which initially I thought would redeem them from their mistakes in that they went back to the site where the so-called EVP was detected and they had one of their team utter the supposed phrase in a hushed manner and then brought back the recording to their truck to analyse and compare both audio samples of the supposed phrase. I initially applauded this as it showed true scientific methodology, if only for a brief moment: This is our hypothesis, let’s go conduct an experiment and see if our hypothesis conflicts with the real world or not. They failed spectacularly in that all they did was look at the general wave forms of both audio files and compare their general shape. The supposed EVP was lower in volume than their voice sample but its general shape seemed to correspond to the sample of the team member uttering the phrase. And that was it, they concluded that their EVP was indeed evidence of some sort of other-worldly presence uttering a phrase. That’s it. No further in-depth analysis, no confirmation that the waveform and frequencies actually conform to human speech and no accounting for the fact that most people have radically different voice patterns.

It’s extremely common where EVP are concerned to have someone in a room with a handheld recorder either in hand or resting somewhere asking questions of the empty room and on the recording you hear, when the questioner falls silent, the background noise increases in volume audibly and becomes extremely dominant as the gain on the recording device rises to detect any and all bits of input. Anyone familiar with any kind of audio knows that the higher the gain goes the more distorted and noisy the signal becomes to the point where the signal to noise ratio is just untenable and nothing meaningful can be taken from the signal. What paranormal researchers then do is listen to these sections of pure noises and try to discern human voices or sounds from them. In case of so-called ‘demonologists’ they don’t even limit themselves to discernibly human voices but anything that sound remotely like any kind of words or phrases. Quite often the questions will come in the form of Yes/No questions, seemingly in order to make the communication as easily as possible for these spirits. Given that these spirits are said to be able to inhabit people and control them, suck the temperature from a room in order to manifest physically and have also been charged with physically interacting with objects and/or people and flinging them across the room, or making them levitate, it seems highly suspect to assume that these entities could not string convincing sentences of audible and comprehensible words together. No, instead we are left with clips and phrases as vague and subjectively interpreted as is possible to imagine. If one were to attempt to prove the existence of other-worldly entities through EVP it would require far more sensitive equipment and far more well controlled circumstances where someone simply shifting their stance would not lead to the recording equipment picking up the rustling of their trousers and mangling it through high-gain distortion into something vague and noisy that an entirely impressionable and biased individual could then subjectively interpret as a muffled “Yes” in response to a vague question that he has intentionally formed in the hopes of receiving a Yes or No response (where no response at all would then further be interpreted as a lack of willingness to respond to the question at hand).

So, we’ve shown that not only is the entire concept of EVP and the common approach to it completely flawed and biased, but we’ve also shown specifically that the methods implemented by the team to both capture the necessary data and then interpret it were flawed, biased and, crucially, wholly unscientific. Should we give them the benefit of the doubt and say they were merely overcome by their enthusiasm? No, not in the slightest. They then go on to experience a series of so-called paranormal events, none of which are captured on camera, and none of which are repeatable or objectively confirmed. All confirmation of the events came from subjective viewers in a highly biased and impressionable state. One of the specific examples was of a door that is purported to open and close itself, which apparently happened during their night of testing but did they decide to set up some cameras on the door in question and observe it? No. They seemed distinctly determined to do everything they could to make every opportunity for highly subjective and non repeatable events to occur.

They then went on to what I find is one of the more ridiculous techniques I’ve come across in paranormal investigations and it seems wholly informed by the presupposition that spirits of dead humans exist and inhabit certain locations for interminable amounts of time. They call the technique “Era Cues” whereby based upon the dominant ghost story in the location (in Shreveport the dominant story was that the rockabilly culture and maybe even Elvis himself was inhabiting the building, seemingly reminiscing and unable to let go of a “golden era” of music and culture) they then do everything they can to introduce cues to that specific era in time, hence “Era Cues”, it’s a somewhat elegant idea and even more so when you buy into their presuppositions but it is once again entirely devoid of any substantial evidence whatsoever. First of all it presupposes the existences of human spirits. Then it further presupposes, solely on the back of the first flawed premise, that these spirits will hang around long after their death. We then build the house of cards one layer higher on the back of our flawed foundations to presuppose that somehow these spirits, who apparently “act out” at random, will be induced to “act out” more than usual by stimulus that is apparently linked to their supposed era.

In order to effect this higher incidence of “acting out” the team ask a rockabilly style band to come set up on stage and play some “era” music. The issue I pointed out earlier of loud people in a loud room trying to be quiet to hear quiet other-worldly noises is amplified (pun intended) by the team insisting that when the song finishes that everyone in the giant auditorium be quiet so that the team members, spread throughout the building can listen for any strange goings on. What do we find? Two jumpy and impressionable female team members (casting no stereotypes here, merely accurate descriptions of specific individuals) say that they heard a door close somewhere behind them that they swear, and video footage apparently confirms, was open earlier. Really? That’s it? That’s all we get from rockabilly spirits energised by music from their era? A closing door? Yes, apparently that’s the extent of the powers of human spirits, they make people’s rustling pants sound like voices and they encourage doors to close (off-camera). [Please bear in mind that my “rustling pants” hypothesis has far more evidence behind it than their weighty presuppositions, however, I still acknowledge the fact that it could also have been a shirt or some equipment etc…]

End of Part One. Part Two will deal with their visit to a plantation house with a ghost story apparently dating back to the American Civil War.

Why are Children Good…?

Well it certainly hasn’t got a damn thing to do with whether or not they eat a piece of bread/cracker symbolic of the body a 2000 year dead jewish zombie, that’s for sure!

In his article, Cardinal Cañizares said that Pope Pius’s insistence on the careful preparation of children to receive first Communion still stands, but so does his concern that children have access to the grace that will help them be good and to mature into strong Christians.

‘Grace’ does not make anyone good and it is not something you can force-feed a child. Grace has to be earned and developed, and it’s not at all clear that any child of seven years old could easily fit into a common description of grace and do so knowingly and in full command of that grace.

You help a child become good and moral and strong, you do not make a child do or become anything for that is the wrong path. A parent’s role is to nurture and guide the child in their growth as a person, not to drag them kicking and screaming behind them along a pre-determined path.

I’m all for Catholics having the freedom to specify whatever doctrines they see fit within the confines of their own dogma, however, all controversies aside, it’s abundantly clear that the Catholic Church is not a suitable place to look for good child developmental strategies.

If you want to purport that force-feeding a child a meal of bread it cannot truly grasp the supposed significance of and the full ramifications for, that is your right within the confines of your faith; but if you wish to go further and thereby claim that that meal in and of itself will aid in that child becoming a good and moral person, you have a lot to answer for. You also may have stumbled across a magical drug of sorts too. Imagine the world we could live in if by giving children a simple meal of bread, a one-time only affair, they would grow up to be upstanding moral citizens and productive members of society! It would be amazing.

Yet, as amazing a claim as it would be, not only would it be complete bollox and hocum in the highest (I sense a twist on a common hymn theme after that one) it’s not even close to the claim the Catholic is making. They are instead claiming that through this one-time meal that a child will develop a communion with Jesus (the aforementioned so-old-his-bones-had-they-ever-existed-have-turned-to-dust jewish zombie) and also thereby grow up to become a good Christian.

Where’s the evidence? Oh, wait, they’re only claiming that it will “help” them to grow up to be so. Well, again, where’s the evidence? Where’s the study of child after child being given the rite and given the same developmental support throughout their growth as compared to a control group of youngsters not given the bread meal? Where’s the resulting evidence supporting these claims?

Nowhere to be found. Nothing. Zero. Zilch. Why? Because even children who grow up finding themselves having distinctly religious experiences in their lives, including one particular meal of bread, grow up to be murdering assholes, mysogynistic pricks, whores and criminals.

Would feeding them this meal any earlier solve that issue? Not a hope. And why? Because it is the nurture and care and time and love and lessons that a parent gives to it’s child that helps it become who it will become, not some meaningless piece of bread symbolising the long dead head of a fishing club that got out of hand.

Do not look to religion to make a good person out of your child, look in the god-damned mirror and ask yourself is your child learning the right lessons.