Hello and welcome to Reckon, the Southern Skeptical Society Blog.

Posted in Skepticism, Southern Skeptical Society with tags , , , on 08/04/2009 by skepticryan

As the South contains a diverse range of people, this Blog will reflect this aspect.  We will have many contributors, and through these contributors we hope to provide a wider view of the issues that affect all of us.  If there are issues you would like to hear about, or if there are issues in your local area that you wish to be made known, please feel free to contact us.  Thank you for your interest, and we look forward to your feedback.  Please feel free to visit our Facebook page.

Inquisitively yours,

The Southern Skeptical Society

God In the Texas House

Posted in Religion, Separation of church and state. with tags , , , , , , on 05/10/2011 by mk616

[Reblogged from http://mk616.wordpress.com/2011/05/07/god-in-the-texas-house/]

A few days ago – May 3 – Ben Dailey, lead pastor of Calvary Church in Irving, Texas, delivered an invocation to the Texas House of Representatives (full journal of the day is here; invocation begins immediately after lists of present/absent representatives). Full video of the invocation:

I’m not a fan of official prayer in the state capitol, but that is not the purpose of this. The invocations are to be expected. To my knowledge, they occur in every legislature in the United States, at both the state and federal levels. I am by all means opposed to this, but really, the invocations are just irritating background noise when compared to the many other, more provocative things done by religious adherents in the US. We deal with the more important issues first.

Now, I would have simply tuned out this invocation, as I do with all the rest, but a particular line caught my attention.

I pray that you will give us thankful hearts for the many blessings you have given us and health and wholeness to those in our state who suffer with sickness and infirmity, shortage and lack. God, forgive us of our pride, prejudice, intolerance, bigotry, and unbelief. Give us an attitude of gratitude, love, forgiveness, and acceptance. [Emphasis added]

I have a serious problem with this. Don’t get me wrong, it sounds exactly like the kind of thing I’d expect to hear in a sermon. It’s very common for the clergy in this country (and especially in this state) to place non-belief right alongside intolerance and bigotry (never mind, of course, the fact that the religion the clergymen and women tend to represent has a much greater association with intolerance and bigotry, in a historical sense, than does non-belief). And of course that irritates me too, but it’s easy to disprove when dealing with a single believer, or even a small congregation. The biggest problem I have is that this was said on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives, and there was no objection. None whatsoever.

Never mind the fact that the pastor just put atheists and agnostics on the level of the Klan. Never mind the fact that with this statement Dailey has shown a complete lack of understanding of unbelief . It is the fact that the Texas state legislature can so easily and callously disregard an entire block of the population they supposedly represent that makes me truly upset.

But it gets worse. You would think that at least one media outlet would mention something about this. That there would be some level of concern somewhere.But instead, all media attention focused on the very end of the invocation, where the pastor asked god to help the Dallas Cowboys win the Super Bowl this year. And I will admit, if this past season was any indication, the Cowboys could definitely use some help from on high. But this part of the invocation didn’t bother me. More than anything, it made me laugh a bit at the inanity of modern religion, which has apparently been relegated to begging the sky for forgiveness from abstract rules, and for victory in football. And while this is definitely interesting, I don’t see how this prayer for the Cowboys overshadows the much more glaring problem of total disregard for the irreligious population of Texas.

In his invocation Dailey asked god for forgiveness for prejudice, intolerance, and bigotry. The pastor may do well to work on overcoming his own prejudices. And the legislature could do well to stand up for the people they’re supposed to represent, even if their religious views aren’t exactly popular.

Being A Birther Does Not Make You A Skeptic

Posted in Skepticism on 05/09/2011 by mk616

The other day, I was attempting to have a conversation with a Birther. I say “attempting” because this person, like pretty much anyone attached to a conspiracy theory, refused to listen to anything said on the subject which did not conform with his viewpoint. In the end, after I had pointed out Obama’s certificate of live birth in the state of Hawaii,  and the fact that, regardless of where Obama was born, he would still be considered a natural-born citizen of the U.S. as his mother was a U.S. citizen, the Birther responded: “Well, I don’t know about that. I’m just a skeptic in that area.”

I was speechless. Most of my energy and mental focus was spent keeping myself from screaming and bashing my head against a wall. I mean, this person had just used the word “skeptic” the same way a religious believer would use “faith”. It was shocking, to say the least. So the Birther walked away as I stood there looking stupid, unable to understand exactly what it was he’d said.

Having had time to consider this, though, I think I get where he was coming from. Skepticism isn’t exactly widely understood. Many people just throw the words “skeptical” and “skepticism” around in everyday conversation, to signify a denial of a particular idea or mindset. I’ve had many conversations with people who, when I mentioned my skepticism, asked something to the effect of: “how can you not believe in anything?” These people tend to equate skepticism with the denial of the concept of “truth”; that is, in their view, skeptics believe that nothing can actually be known, and therefore, nothing can be declared to be true. And in a way, this is accurate. Probably the greatest example of skeptical thought and reasoning in our society, the scientific method, is based in part around the idea that nothing can be known with absolute certainty. This is what allows the scientific method to work so well. It allows theories to be modified, adapted, or even thrown out, in light of new evidence. It keeps science from becoming dogmatic. However, despite this rejection of absolute certainty, there are still things we can know beyond a reasonable doubt. For example, we know that the Earth is not flat. We know that the Earth is not the center of our universe. We know that disease is caused by microorganisms and certain biological/genetic factors, as opposed to demons or sin.

The problem here is that people in general seem to confuse skepticism with denialism, the absolute rejection of an empirical reality. Denialism, unlike skepticism, rejects evidence and knowledge. However, it is extremely rare to find someone who practices absolute denialism. There really aren’t many people who are willing to say nothing is true, and the only place you’re likely to find people who take this position would be a university philosophy department. Instead, people who exhibit a denialistic world view on certain issues tend to accept many things on faith, and only deny what contradicts their preconceived ideas, Birthers being a prime example of this.

Skepticism, however, is never outright denial. Skepticism actually withholds judgement, until sufficient evidence is presented to determine the truth value of a particular claim. This is why a skeptic will generally accept the claims made by the theory of evolution, given the weight of the evidence (fossil record, comparative genetics, etc.), while the same skeptic would reject the claims of the Birther movement, given the weight of the evidence against these claims. But people don’t get this; instead, skepticism is generally viewed as a denial. This would explain why creationists accuse skeptics of not applying skepticism equally to the claims of creationism and the claims of evolutionary theory. They expect a skeptic to simply deny both ideas. After all, to be a skeptic, one must be doubtful, right? Well, true, but only to a reasonable degree. Once evidence is presented, the doubt may no longer be necessary.

Let’s look at the example of the Birther movement. If it is based on skepticism, as my earlier Birther acquaintance claimed, sufficient evidence should be able to sway the opinion of the Birther in question. So, let’s look at the evidence. The Birther makes the claim that Obama was not born in the U.S., and as evidence, he points to Obama’s failure to present his birth certificate, and to numerous Birther articles claiming that Obama was born in Kenya. Then the opposing evidence will be brought forward:

First, Obama’s certificate of live birth from the state of Hawaii:

(http://www.barackobamabirthcertificate.net/obama-certification-of-live-birth/)

Second, the excerpt from U.S. law at the time of Obama’s birth which states that:

“A child born abroad to one U.S. citizen parent and one alien parent acquires U.S. citizenship at birth under Section 301(g) of the INA provided the U.S. citizen parent was physically present in the United States or one of its outlying possessions for the time period required by the law applicable at the time of the child’s birth. (For birth on or after November 14, 1986, a period of five years physical presence, two after the age of fourteen, is required. For birth between December 24, 1952 and November 13, 1986, a period of ten years, five after the age of fourteen, is required for physical presence in the United States or one of its outlying possessions to transmit U.S. citizenship to the child.) The U.S. citizen parent must be genetically related to the child to transmit U.S. citizenship.” (http://travel.state.gov/law/citizenship/citizenship_5199.html)

The above law makes Obama’s location of birth irrelevant in determining his citizenship, as his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, was a U.S. citizen, who had lived within the U.S. for ten years of her life, and was married to Obama’s father at the time of his birth, satisfying all requirements of the law. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ann_Dunham)

The opposition may even go on to point out that President Obama and his father, who was born in Kenya, share the same name, which is likely the cause of all the confusion. This would also explain the assertions that Obama is secretly a Muslim, as his father, Barack Obama, Sr. was raised Muslim.

Now, show this evidence to any skeptic, and they will likely reject the Birther hypothesis. Good luck getting a similar reaction from a Birther.

UPDATE – And now that Obama’s long form birth certificate has been released, there should be even less of an issue. Though there are people still trying their hardest to prove it’s a forgery.

Power BS

Posted in Power Balance, Pseudoscience on 05/05/2011 by skeptykl

Having seen several people wearing Power Balance bracelets lately and having to discuss the inefficacy of said bracelets, I thought I would just take a moment to share a couple of links to previous articles about this. The manufacturers of these bracelets has admitted  “that there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims. Therefore we engaged in misleading conduct.” Hopefully I am not preaching to the choir and save a few people some $$$. Peace!

http://news.discovery.com/human/power-balance-maker-admits-bands-are-worthless.html

http://theness.com/neurologicablog/?p=2672

Skepticism vs. Religion

Posted in Religion, Skepticism, Southern Skeptical Society on 04/21/2011 by skeptykl

A valid point was brought to my attention recently. As skeptics we have a tendency to pick on religion. It is, by far, the easiest to find bs on. When we started the Southern Skeptical Society it was not my intention to strictly go after religion. Unless, of course, they insist on making unfounded claims. Also, when I began this endeavor, I considered myself agnostic. I was raised catholic and it wasn’t until later (not that late) in life that I really started letting go of my religion. Since I have been on this journey it has only strengthened my views on religion. Not the religious necessarily, just religion. I now consider myself a non-believer the same way any sane person would consider themselves a non-believer in, say, zombies. Sorry, although they are cool they aren’t real. But no one feels the need to point out their ‘azombieism’. The truth is religion has infused itself into so many facets of our lives and cultures that it is hard NOT to pick on religion. I recently attended an excellent lecture by Tom Flynn (Center for Inquiry) hosted by the New Orleans Secular Humanist Association, titled The Trouble With Easter and he discussed the inconsistencies of several books of the Bible in regards to the resurrection of Jesus as well as many other hijackings of tradition by Christianity. This was just another reinforcement of how easy it is to go after the low hanging “forbidden” fruit known as religion as part of our skeptical, rational way of thinking.

Creationism increasingly proving to be good science?

Posted in Creationism, Education, Evolution, Religion, Science with tags , , , , on 09/15/2009 by skepticryan

Stephen K. reposponds to this Marietta Daily Journal article.

Creationism increasingly proving to be good science?

Author: Stephen K.

An article appeared yesterday in the Marietta Daily Journal, a local publication for residents of Marietta, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta.  The article was written by Nelson Price, pastor emeritus of Roswell Street Baptist Church.  In this article he proposes that “Darwinism” is a religion and uses quote mining to argue his point.  Ironically, despite the title of his article, Price does not demonstrate how Creationism is increasingly proving to be good science; no he merely tries to poke holes in established scientific theory.

He starts off the quote mining with Isaac Newton.  Considering Newton died over a hundred years prior to the publication of Origin of the Species, the fact that he believed that a god created life and the universe is not all that surprising.  At the time of Newton’s death the modern Germ Theory of disease had not been fully established either, does that make it wrong?  He continues to quote other scientists including Einstein.  Unfortunately, Einstein’s quote that “God doesn’t play dice,” was a quote about quantum mechanics, not evolution or abiogenesis.  If Price enjoys quotes from Einstein so much, I wonder what he would think about this one:

It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”

Albert Einstein in Albert Einstein: The Human Side, edited by Helen Dukas (Einstein’s secretary) and Banesh Hoffman, and published by Princeton University Press.

Scientists are people too. Just because a handful of scientists are quoted as supposedly (I say supposedly because we don’t know the context of the quotes, as evidenced above with Einstein) believing that the universe must have been created or divinely designed does not invalidate the vast body of evidence that points the other direction.  Also, something to keep in mind when someone quotes “a scientist” is that scientists are very specialized in what they do.  A chemist knows more about chemistry that he or she knows about cosmology.  An astronomer knows more about astronomy than he or she knows about geology, and so on. Both Newton and Einstein were physicists, not biologists. One cannot simply lump all scientists together and assume they know everything about everything. There is only one quote used by Price that argues against abiogenesis that is credited to an actual biologist. All of the others are not biologist, geneticists, or paleontologists. The only other biologist quoted was Dawkins, who is not quoted for or against anything.  Again, a dissenting viewpoint does not invalidate anything.

The crux of Price’s argument is not on evolution, but rather abiogenesis, the study of how life began. Evolution does not touch on the origin of life, but rather how life developed once it was here.  Price brings up the probability question in regard to the question of life from non-life. The website Talk Origins has a few articles discussing this argument and why it is wrong, most notably that Creationists wrongly look at how probable it would be for a modern protein to spontaneously generate, instead of what abiogenesis actually theorizes, which is that the first proteins would have had much smaller numbers of amino acids.

Price ends his article by equating evolution with religion, stating that: “Darwinists are as religious as the ‘religious’ and live by faith.”  This is patently false on a few grounds, most notably the definition of faith. Faith is belief without evidence.  Unfortunately, for Creationists, the evidence for evolution grows every day.  The predictions made by evolution as to types of fossil we should find in a particular strata come true time after time.  Evolution is one of the most robust theories in science; however, as with any branch of science, evidence presents itself that contradicts previous conclusions, then those conclusions are abandoned or revised.  Science, unlike religion, is constantly changing, but the Creationists never seem to understand that just because some little pieces of the puzzle turn out to be wrong does not invalidate the entire theory.  Scientists actively seek to falsify previous findings.  That is how science works.  When was the last time a creation “scientist” attempted to falsify anything regarding creation?  I personally don’t know the answer, but I have a pretty good idea.

For further reading on the Creationism – Evolution debate, I cannot recommend Talk Origins enough.

The Santa Theory

Posted in Education with tags , , on 08/11/2009 by skeptykl

Author: Brad Fusilier

We have all at least heard the phrase “God is Santa for adults”. I have decided to approach my 3 year old daughters education with that in mind. Let me explain. She is enrolled at a B- Ba- Bap- Baptist (there I said it) school due to the higher quality of the education. Also, because her birthday is in September, she falls into some knucklehead rule that says she will have to have completed 1st grade somewhere else before being admitted to public school or start school 1 year late. Of course my original objection was due to the indoctrination that she will be exposed to.   As I battled with none other than myself on the matter, it hit me.   In the same way that some of our parents did us and their parents did them and so on, we allow our children (at least I do) to believe in Santa, the Easter Bunnym and the Tooth Fairy.

Experiencing these “myths” resulted in some of my fondest memories of childhood. As children get older and really begin to ask questions about these myths, why should the discussion of a god be any different. It is up to us as parents to decide when and how we will help our children differentiate between real and fantasy and lead an evidence-based life. I found my way to rational, critical thinking after believing, going to church every Sunday, making my communion, attending catechism every Saturday and being confirmed. All of this led me to the realization that religion should not be a deciding factor in building a solid educational foundation for my child(ren).

God may not leave presents, candy or money when a tooth falls out (BTW, would that not be his fault since he designed it that way? – he should pay), but being around while my daughter gets a quality education and learns the fundamentals I can live with. On the other hand, my 8 year old son has critical thinking programs and exercises built into his 3rd grade curriculum. At least even in lower elementary, the school system is teaching them HOW to think. Bottom line, it is up to us as skeptical, critical thinking parents to equip them with the tools they need to assess the world around them. The rest is up to them regardless of where they learn their ABC’s.

APA Calls Gay-to-Straight Therapies Ineffective, Potentially Harmful

Posted in Gay/Lesbian, LGBT, Skepticism with tags , , , , , , on 08/10/2009 by skepticryan

Author: Jon David Johnson

At the risk of cliché, the weather just turned from raining to pouring for the reparative (gay-to-straight) therapy community.  After having been panned in two nationally released movies in the last year, the community faces its most definitive reprobation yet in the form of a meta-study released by the American Psychological Association.  The study covered 83 peer-reviewed articles since 1960, and concludes:

Contrary to claims of sexual orientation change advocates and practitioners, there is insufficient evidence to support the use of psychological interventions to change sexual orientation…At most, certain studies suggested that some individuals learned how to ignore or not act on their   homosexual attractions…psychologists cannot predict the impact of these treatments and need to be very cautious, given that some qualitative research suggests the potential for harm.[1]

In 1975, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but that hasn’t stopped some reparative therapy advocates, like the overtly religious Exodus International[2] or the quasi-secular NARTH[3] from gaining traction in recent years, following the “culture wars” of the last two decades and a couple dubious and widely misrepresented studies in the early part of this decade.  Most notable among those studies is the Spitzer study[4] conducted in 2001 and reported incorrectly by many news outlets as reflecting a change of heart on the value of reparative therapy by one of the vocal advocates of removing homosexuality from the DSM.  As with many studies on the subject, the Spitzer study suffered both sample bias (two-thirds of his participants were referred by NARTH or by Christian advocates of reparative therapy) and lax questioning methodologies.  What is perhaps most eye-catching in the study is that in spite of the large sample bias in favor of proponents of reparative therapy, 86% of men and 63% of women reported the persistence of homosexual feelings and attractions.  Another prominent study in the same year by Ariel Shidlo and Michael Schroeder[5] suffered similar sample and question bias (seeking out participants harmed by the therapy, a large majority not surprisingly said they had been, while 3% said the therapy was successful) and has been misused by parties on both sides of the issue.

My Two Cents

I am no expert on this subject, and I don’t pretend that reading 10 or 15 articles makes me one.  That being said, what seems clear to me in reading some of the available literature is that a very large majority of “successful” gay-to-straight cases are actually cases of the suppression of behavior (many of which don’t last) rather than an actual psychological change.  Furthermore, while studies like Shidlo and Schroeder have their own problems, the number of people who have potentially suffered genuine harm or distress as a result of these therapies likely outweighs the number of people who have potentially made a genuine and happy conversion.  Finally, a lot of the material offered in support of reparative therapy by groups like NARTH is either self-referential or based on the recycled articles of a very few people (Joseph Nicolosi, the group’s founder, Mark Yarhouse, Warren Throckmorton, and the misrepresented Spitzer study noted above).  Given the number of people working in the fields of psychology and psychiatry, this is a pretty thin lineup and, combined with the setting up of gay activists or gay-affirmative therapists as straw men, reminds me of the pseudo-science Discovery Institute.

While it is certainly the case that there exist psychologists and counselors of all ideological persuasions who abuse their patient relationships to promote their own beliefs, it is not in my mind the case that there is a categorical problem with gay-affirmative therapy practices as there is with reparative practice.  The reason is pretty straightforward:  most anyone entering into gay-affirmative therapy is going to have significant pre-existing feelings of homosexuality or bi-sexuality, so that the practitioner is usually swimming with the current, so to speak – though there may be some who can be criticized for too strongly advocating a gay lifestyle to someone merely curious or confused.  With reparative therapy however, the practitioner is by definition swimming against the current of the patient’s feelings.  It seems to me intuitively obvious that the effort to fundamentally alter one’s emotional constitution is going to be much more jarring and potentially harmful than the effort to affirm it.  In the event of a severe mental disorder, in which one is an imminent danger to themselves or to others, the effort may be worth it.  Homosexuality, however, is neither a disorder nor a danger, though the advocates of reparative therapy are implicitly accepting one or both of those ideas.

The influence of conservative religion, even in supposedly secular groups like NARTH, cannot be underestimated here.  In much of the literature at the NARTH website and elsewhere, conflict with religious values is cited as a reason for seeking reparative therapy, as though when one’s feelings are in conflict with his religion, it must be his feelings that are wrong.  And, of course, the notion of homosexuality as a danger or disorder derives principally from religious texts.  At the risk of expanding the issue, it is easy to argue that reparative therapies are driven by the attempt of religion to exert control over the society around it.

Regardless, in all cases the job of the practitioner should be to provide support and help the patient feel comfortable, first with themselves, and then with the society in which they live.  The practitioner should do no harm.  There is too much reason to think that reparative therapy can do harm, and too little evidence that it works at any significant rate for the responsible practitioner to employ it.


[1] http://www.apa.org/releases/therapeutic.html

[2] http://www.exodus-international.org/

[3] http://www.narth.com/index.html

[4] http://www.religioustolerance.org/hom_spit.htm

[5] http://wthrockmorton.com/tag/shidlo/ http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=1075