Witch Hunts, Sex Scandals, and the Atheist Community

I attended The Amazing Meeting 2, the skeptics conference organized by magician James Randi, in 2004.  I’ve been to many conferences before and after, but this one was a big deal for me.  Though not actually an atheist conference, I think it was the first chance I had to publicly kick around my embryonic interest in atheism.  A year later, I heard Sam Harris lecture on his new book, The End of Faith, and my interest in Christianity and atheism was ignited.

I bring this up because of dark clouds gathering over The Amazing Meeting.  I don’t pretend to understand the issue, but an Elevatorgate-like discussion has blown up about an incident of sexual harassment at a previous TAM, how it was handled, and then the inevitable recursive discussions about the descriptions of those incidents, critiques of those discussions, analysis of those critiques, and so on, seemingly to infinity.

Are women welcome and safe at TAM?  That the question is even being asked is incredible to me, but early evidence suggests the fraction of attendees who are women will be half of last year’s 40% because of concern over this story.  It must be an unintended consequence to all sides for a conference that is accused of being unfriendly to women to now become even more populated by men.

Some good has come out of this in that it has encouraged conferences to adopt anti-harassment policies.  That sounds like a positive step to restore confidence, assuming that they’re not extreme by, say, prohibiting a handshake or tap on the shoulder.

I’m amazed at the byzantine turns this topic has taken and the hold it has on some atheist bloggers.  It would take me days to read all that has been written, and let me say again that, not having done that, I don’t pretend to be well-informed about the issue.  But let me summarize an event that happened in my part of the country about 15 years ago that, while much more extreme, may have parallels to today’s anxiety about TAM.

Perhaps you remember the story about the Wenatchee child sex ring, what has been called history’s most extensive child sex abuse investigation.

It began in 1992, when, after much questioning, the 7-year-old daughter of poor and uneducated parents accused a family acquaintance of molesting her.  After repeated encouragement by the Wenatchee police lieutenant who was acting as foster parent to the girl and her sister, the girls eventually named over a hundred abusers and many child victims.

Local Pentecostal pastor Robert Robertson tried to do the right thing and talk sense to the investigators.  For his troubles, he and his family were sucked into the investigation, and the story was rewoven to include his church as a center for orgies with the children.  Others who also tried to rein in the crazy were also charged or fired.  (What explains a defense of the accused but that that person is similarly guilty?)

Child witnesses, mostly from 9 to 13 years old, were often taken from their families and placed in foster care. Many said later that they were subjected to hours of frightening grilling and if they didn’t believe they had been sexually abused, they were told they were “in denial” or had suppressed the memory of the abuse. They were also told that siblings and other children had witnessed their abuse, or that that their parents had already confessed.

Interrogators called some children who denied abuse liars. Children were told that if they agreed to accusations they wouldn’t be separated from parents or siblings. Many of them later recanted. [The police lieutenant] neither recorded nor kept notes of his interrogations.

Recantations were ignored. “It’s well known that children are telling the truth when they say they’ve been abused,” [the] Wenatchee Child Protective Services [supervisor said.] “But (they) are usually lying when they deny it.”

In all, “43 adults were arrested and accused of 29,726 counts of sexually abusing 60 children….  Eighteen pleaded guilty, mostly on the basis of signed confessions.  Ten were convicted at trial.  Three were acquitted.  Eighteen went to prison.”  All confessions were later recanted, all felony convictions related to the sex ring appear to have been overturned, a third of the children claimed to have been abused were at one point taken from their parents and put up for adoption, and the city of Wenatchee had to face lawsuits claiming millions of dollars in damages.

It was a modern-day replay of the 1692 Salem witch trial in which several girls’ accusations resulted in 19 people being hanged and one more pressed to death.

No, just because there’s smoke doesn’t mean there’s fire, and someone encouraging restraint isn’t necessarily part of the problem.  I hope the Wenatchee example of good intentions gone horribly wrong highlights some potential parallels with the TAM situation and that all parties analyze the evidence dispassionately.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Links about the Wenatchee sex case:

  • “Wenatchee Witch Hunt: Child Sex Abuse Trials In Douglas and Chelan Counties,” HistoryLink.
  • “Wenatchee child abuse prosecutions,” Wikipedia.

Links about charges against The Amazing Meeting:

  • “‘Dogmatic Feminism’ Discussion Podcast (part 1),” Ask an Atheist blog, 6/12/12.
  • “‘Dogmatic Feminism’ Pt. 2, and Some Other Things,” Ask an Atheist blog, 6/14/12.
  • Jason Thibeault, “Harassment policies campaign – timeline of major events,” Lousy Canuck blog, 6/15/12.

God is as Believable as Unicorns

atheist christian discussionA chapter in Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World (1995) is titled “The Dragon in My Garage.”  In the spirit of Sagan’s story, here is an imagined exchange between you and me about my unicorn.

Me: I have a unicorn in my garage!

You: Wow—let’s see!

Me: You don’t want to just take my word for it?

You: Of course not—I want to see.

(I open the garage door.)

Me: Okay, here you go.

You: Uh … this garage is empty.

Me: No … uh, he’s invisible.

You: Okay … can you make him make a sound?

Me: No—he’s silent, too.

You: Can we see food vanish as he eats it?

Me: Of course not—he’s magic.  He doesn’t need food.

(You wander through the garage with your hands out in front.)

Me: What are you doing?

You: Trying to feel for it.

Me: Uh … no—he’s really small and he scampers away.

You: Can you hear him running?  Like the sound of hooves on concrete?

Me: No—I told you he’s silent.

You: Well, how about spreading flour on the floor so we can see the footprints.

Me: Nope.  He can float.  And I’m sure he would, because he doesn’t like to be detected.

You: Can we can catch him with a net and weigh him?  Can we put a sheet over him so I can see him moving underneath?  Could we spray paint and see it on his body?

Me: No—he’s … he’s noncorporeal.  Yeah, that’s it.  Noncorporeal.

Of course, by now you’ve lost interest in this “unicorn.”  Still, you haven’t been able to falsify my claim.  I win!

But no one would accept this conclusion.  By slithering away from every possible test, this supernatural claim has no evidence in support of it.  Any unicorn that has this little impact in the world is pretty much the same as no unicorn at all.  We can’t prove it’s nonexistent, but it’s functionally nonexistent.

“You haven’t been able to falsify my claim” is true, but this is backwards reasoning.  The proper conclusion is: There is no evidence to support this claim, so there’s no reason to accept this claim.

Isn’t this how Christians evaluate the miracle claims of other religions?  Why not handle those of Christianity the same way?

Jesus is Santa Claus for adults
(seen on a bumper sticker)

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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Word of the Day: Cottlingley Fairies

In 1917, two girls spent much of their summer playing by a stream.  Repeatedly scolded for returning home wet and muddy, they said that they were playing with fairies.  To prove it, they borrowed a camera and returned claiming that they had proof.  That photo is shown here.

A total of five photos were taken over several years.  The fairies were called the Cottingley fairies after Cottingley, England, the town where the girls lived.

A relative showed two of the photos at a 1919 public meeting of the Theosophical Society, a spiritualist organization.  From there, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a devotee of spiritualism, took the baton.  He wrote a 1920 article in The Strand Magazine that made the photos famous.  To his credit, Conan Doyle asked experts to critique the photos.  The opinions were mixed, but he decided to go with the story anyway.

Spiritualism, the popular belief that we can communicate with the spirits of the dead, was waning at the time of the article.  Magician Harry Houdini, annoyed by fakers using tricks to defraud the gullible, devoted much time to debunking psychics and mediums in the 1920s until his death in 1926.

Houdini and Conan Doyle had been friends, but the friendship failed because of their opposite views on spiritualism.  Conan Doyle believed that Houdini himself had supernatural powers and was using them to suppress the powers of the psychics that he debunked.

Research in 1983 exposed details of the Cottingley hoax, and the two principles finally admitted that they had faked the fairies by using cardboard cutouts of drawings copied from a book.

I learned of a modern parallel to this hoax at The Amazing Meeting in 2004.  James Randi told the story of Project Alpha, during which he planted two fake psychics (Steve Shaw and Michael Edwards, actually talented amateur magicians) in the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research in 1979.  Randi contacted the researchers before planting his fakes to caution them how to avoid being deceived.  The advice was thorough and genuine, and if they’d followed it, they would have uncovered the trickery.

Two years later, after the lab’s successes were well known within the psychic community and the fake psychics were celebrities, the deception was made public.  The press was so bad that the McDonnell laboratory shut down.

The moral of the story: unless you’re a magician, don’t pretend that you can expose a magician.  Said another way, just because you’re smart (and let’s assume both that the researchers were smart and most skeptics are smart), don’t think that you can’t be duped.  This was Conan Doyle’s failing.

Magician Ricky Jay said, “The ideal audience would be Nobel Prize winners. …  They often have an ego with them that says, ‘I am really smart so I can’t be fooled.’  No one is easier to fool.”

If you believe in the existence of fairies at the bottom of the garden,
you are deemed fit for the [loony] bin.
If you believe in parthenogenesis, ascension, transubstantiation and all the rest of it,
you are deemed fit to govern the country.
— Jonathan Meades

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Related posts:

Related links:

  • Paul Hoffman, “Why Are Smart People Some of the Most Gullible People Around?” Discover, 2/10/11.
  • “Cottingley Fairies,” Wikipedia.
  • “The Derbyshire Fairy,” Museum of Hoaxes.
  • Emma Clayton, “Photographic expert uncovered hoax after testing cameras used by Cottingley cousins,” Telegraph & Argus, 11/17/10.

Claims that Prayer Cures Disease

green blogs--bacteria under a microscopeWashington recently declared a state epidemic for pertussis (whooping cough).  Pertussis hasn’t been this bad in Washington for decades.  The number of cases (close to 2000) is already ten times the number from last year.

Before routine child vaccination in the 1940s, pertussis caused thousands of fatalities annually in the U.S.

You might imagine that this is a story about anti-vaxers, afraid of a perceived vaccine-autism link, who have refused to vaccinate their children and helped create this epidemic.  Not this time.  The anti-vaccine movement seems not to be a factor.

Instead, the interesting angle on this story is not disease prevented by vaccine but disease prevented by prayer.  Kingdom League International, an online ministry based in western Washington, says in a brief article titled “Whooping Cough Epidemic Halted in Jefferson County”:

Churches in Jefferson County [one of those hardest hit by the statewide epidemic] used our strategy to mobilize prayer and establish councils to connect in 7 spheres of society.*  On Mar 27 they met and a County Commissioner asked them to pray about the whooping cough epidemic. …  As of April 13 there has not been one case reported.  From epidemic proportions to zero.

A bold claim, but the only evidence is that of the improvement in statistics.  The elephant in the room, of course, is whether we can find natural explanations besides prayer to explain the facts.  And, of course, we can.  Epidemics peak and then diminish, particularly when there’s an effective health system in place that can administer vaccines.  There were 21 confirmed cases for this county in 2012, with no new cases since mid-April.  Is this remarkable?  Is this unexplained by the efforts of the public health system?  Looks to me like an epidemic that’s simply run its course.

Not surprisingly, I jumped into a discussion with the author in the comment section.  Aside from being asked my faith status (though I’m not sure how this affects one’s ability to evaluate evidence), I got the expected tsunami of miracle claims—a bad knee healed, a barren woman now pregnant, lung cancer cured, demons cast out, blindness healed, a stroke patient recovering, a rainstorm to break a heat wave, a cracked rib healed, and so on.

(For comparison, consider the pinnacle of medical cure sites, Lourdes.  After 150 years as a pilgrimage site and with six million visitors per year, the Catholic Church has recognized just 67 miraculous cures.)

I pointed out to my Kingdom League correspondent that natural explanations hadn’t been ruled out.  Surprisingly, there was no interest in doing so.

I tried to portray this as a missed opportunity.  If these claims are more than just anecdotal, then this group should create a dossier of x-rays, test results, photographs, or other evidence, both before and after the miracle.  Add the report of the doctor who witnessed the change and then show this to the Centers for Disease Control or an epidemiologist or some other qualified authority.  Why hide your light under a basket?  Jesus had no problem using miracles to prove his divinity (John 10:37–8).

There seems to be no shortage of these miracles (at least in their minds), so if one miracle claim isn’t convincing, then pray for some more and try again to convince the skeptics.

That this group has no interest in going beyond feel-good anecdotes makes me think that they understand that their claims wouldn’t withstand scrutiny, not because skeptics wouldn’t play fair, but because honestly evaluating the claims would show them to be little more than wishful thinking.

Pray v. To ask the laws of the universe to be annulled
on behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.
— Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Addendum 6/1/12: After further discussion with the author of the KLI article, he reminded me that links in the comment section give more than anecdotal information, including this article in the Southern Medical Journal.

*KLI focuses on the Dominionists’ Seven Spheres of Influence.

Photo credit: AJC1

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Christians as Star Trek Fans

fiction that undercuts Christian apologeticsChristians are modern people, no less intelligent than any other group of people, and yet they jump into a world of ancient mythology and act like it’s real.  They’re like trekkers who dress up as Vulcans or Klingons at a Star Trek convention.  Or as Imperial Storm Troopers or Wolverine at a Comicon or Dragon*con.

The difference, of course, is that faux Vulcans or Klingons know that it’s just for fun.  They might spend lots of time and money on their costumes.  They might learn to speak Vulcan or Klingon.  But at the end of the conference, they put conventional clothes back on and reenter conventional society.  They know it’s fiction.

In a similar way, Christians leave church and reenter conventional society.  Some know (or suspect) that the mythology isn’t real, like a trekker who’s in it for the pageantry and camaraderie, but many Christians do live the mythology.

This reminds me of the M*A*S*H television episode where Radar O’Reilly tells Sidney the psychiatrist that he has a teddy bear and wonders if he’s crazy.

“Me and my teddy bear are very close,” Radar said.  “I mean … sometimes I talk to it.”

“Does it ever talk back?” Sidney asked.


“You know how many people write letters to Romeo and Juliet and think that ‘I Love Lucy’ is real?” Sidney said.  “Those people are living nice, safe lives, with towels and sheets.  They’re not up to their ankles in mud, blood, and death the way you are.”

Sidney predicts that Radar probably won’t need the teddy bear once he leaves Korea.  In Radar’s last episode, this prophecy is fulfilled.

You can get through life thinking that “I Love Lucy” or some other sitcom is real, or that food is produced at the grocery store, or that electricity is made somewhere on the other side of the electric plug but with no idea of how.  You can imagine that 9/11 was a conspiracy, that the Apollo moon landing was a hoax, that homeopathy works, or that we live in the end times.

Or that God exists.

During medieval times and before, people did know where food came from (and horseshoes and wagons and cathedrals and any other element of their lives) because if they didn’t participate in that industry personally, they’d at least have seen how it was done.

Though they had a thorough grasp of the simple technology of their world, they also believed lots of nutty stuff, religion included.  But, of course, they didn’t have an alternative.  They didn’t have modern science to explain away the superstition and poorly evidenced explanations.

Medieval society was harsh and unforgiving, but modern life coddles people.  It’s society with air bags.  Though they have little excuse, people can hold their unsupportable beliefs with little penalty.  They can see science and technology deliver nine times but still doubt it the tenth time, and they can see religion fail nine times but still expect it to succeed the tenth time.

Society insulates Christians from reality as if they were Klingons at a convention.  I just wish that, like the Klingons, they realized that it’s all just pretend.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Related posts:

Related links:

  • Damon Young, “Believers share their dubious apologetics with Trekkers,” The Drum Opinion, 4/13/12.

Conference Notes

Why imagine that there is a god?I recently returned from the Orange County Freethought Alliance conference.  Though a local conference, it had an impressive lineup.  Of course, they had an advantage with some well-known Los Angeles-area speakers: Michael Shermer (Skeptic magazine), Phil Zuckerman, Jim Underdown, Brian Dunning, Mr. Deity (Brian Dalton), Eddie Tabash, and Heina Dadabhoy (Muslim blogger at Skepchick.org).  But they also had some great out-of-towners: Robert Price, Aron Ra, Richard Carrier, Barbara Forrest (expert witness in Kitzmiller v. Dover), David Silverman, and Dan Barker (FFRF).

I’ll give some (probably disjointed) highlights.

David Silverman, president of American Atheists, said that the next Reason Rally is scheduled for 2016 (location unknown).  He also said that Fox News has reported that they will become more centrist.

Lawyer Eddie Tabash emphasized that the next president will almost surely pick a Supreme Court justice to replace Justice Ginsberg (now 79 years old) at least.  He spoke about being at the recent $15 million Obama fundraiser hosted by George Clooney.  When he got his two minutes with Obama, Tabash quipped, “I am the first atheist in history to be in the presence of his savior.”

To emphasize the judicial predicament that thoughtful Americans are in, he gave this fun quote:

Disfavoring practicing homosexuals in custody matters promotes the general welfare of the people of our State. … The State carries the power of the sword, that is, the power to prohibit conduct with physical penalties, such as confinement and even execution.  It must use that power to prevent the subversion of children toward this lifestyle, to not encourage a criminal lifestyle…  Homosexual behavior is a ground for divorce, an act of sexual misconduct punishable as a crime in Alabama, a crime against nature, an inherent evil, and an act so heinous that it defies one’s ability to describe it.

That’s Alabama Supreme Court judge Roy Moore referring to a 2002 custody case involving a lesbian mother.  He was later removed from office after refusing to remove a stone monument of the Ten Commandments from the courthouse.  (Perhaps that humiliation is a selling point to some voters since he’s the favorite to regain his former job this November.)

In June 2005, Justice Antonin Scalia stated that

The [First Amendment’s] Establishment Clause … permits the disregard of devout atheists.

And Clarence Thomas has said that the Establishment Clause limits only the federal government, not state governments.  That is, in his mind state governments aren’t bound by the constraint to “make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Sounds more like April Fool’s Day than that these are the considered opinions of state and federal Supreme Court justices.

On a lighter note, Brian Dunning (Skeptoid podcast) gave a puzzle.  The full moon is the same size as what held at arm’s length?  Is it a ball bearing, a pea, a dime, a nickel, a quarter, a silver dollar, a plum, or a baseball?  (The answer is below.)  This was an especially apt puzzle since we had a spectacular partial (80%) solar eclipse at the end of the conference.

Dunning gave himself as an example of how tenacious false beliefs can be.  After he concluded that vitamin C had no effect on colds, it took a year to wean himself off of it.  This is like Greta Christina’s gradual acceptance of the lack of evidence for glucosamine as joint medicine or Sam Harris’s Fireplace Delusion.  It helps to understand our own blind spots when we try to understand those of other people.

Richard Carrier, newly famous because of his online argument with Bart Ehrman about the Jesus Myth theory, talked about the fine-tuning argument.  It was a good talk and especially helpful because I’d read Vic Stenger’s The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning and hadn’t gotten the concise summary that I was hoping for.  I’ll leave a more detailed summary of this talk for later.

Michael Shermer talked about “The Moral Arc of Reason.”  He noted that asking, “Why should we be good without God?” is like asking “Why should we be hungry (or jealous or happy or any other human feeling) without God?”  These are all natural feelings with plausible natural causes.

He used graphs and statistics to argue that things are getting better within society (wars, income, and other social metrics), much like Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature.  But why is this not simply an aberration?  Why imagine that this is a legitimate trend within society and not cherry picking of the data?  Shermer argued for a moral equivalent of the Flynn Effect, the startling effect that has caused an increase in average IQ scores of about three points per decade, perhaps for as long as a century.  The Flynn Effect has been (tentatively) explained with the hypothesis that modern society has trained us to be better in abstract reasoning (mentally moving 3D shapes, for example).  Perhaps there is a moral equivalent at work as well, that modern society has given us a new appreciation for peace and harmony.

I have long been fascinated with the work of Phil Zuckerman, who (along with Gregory Paul) has shown the far better social metrics of less-religious countries compared to the religious U.S.  Zuckerman talked about the new Secular Studies major he developed at Pitzer.

Barbara Forrest of SE Louisiana University, an expert witness in the Dover trial, says that “critical analysis of evolution” and “academic freedom” are some of the new creationist code words.

Jim Underdown is a paranormal investigator who will be on Dr. Phil debunking psychics this week (“Inside the Other Side,” 5/25/12).  He noted that the Bible’s miracle claims are similar to today’s paranormal claims, which have been tested and debunked.  The one million dollar JREF prize for a successful paranormal demonstration remains unclaimed, for example.

The answer to Brian Dunning’s puzzle: the full moon is the same size as a pea held at arm’s length.  My guess was a dime, so I need to try this myself to verify it.

Played at the conference, here’s Jesus singing “I will survive” (a must-see if you haven’t watched this before).

Photo credit: Mirror