Sunday, 21 August 2016

But You're Not A Scientist!

In recent discussions with evolution deniers, quite often I've been told two things.  One is that I'm not a scientist so how would I know what I'm talking about and the other is that I have to take a scientist's word on faith.  At first glance, these seem like reasonable statements, however, when you slow them down and look at them more closely, you will find that they aren't so accurate.

Let's first look at the fact that I am not a scientist.  The definition of scientist is as follows:

"A person engaging in a systematic activity to acquire knowledge that describes and predicts the natural world. In a more restricted sense, a scientist may refer to an individual who uses the scientific method."

Now let's look at the definition of expert:

"A person who is very knowledgeable about or skillful in a particular area."

A scientist is a person who acquires knowledge and an expert is a person who learns about and understands the information acquired by the scientist.  We aren't all scientists.  It takes scientists to figure out how to design a working helicopter, but it takes an expert engineer to build one and an expert aviator to fly one.  Most helicopter pilots would be unable to build one and most helicopter engineers would be unable to fly one.  Then there are scientists who not only figure out how to build better helicopters, but can also engineer and fly them.  Having said this, you don't necessarily have to even be an expert to fly one.  Every pilot has to start somewhere, right?

For over 150 years, scientists have been studying and acquiring knowledge that contributes to the continually developing theory of evolution.  These scientists have provided the information and all we need to do is learn this information.  A person who studies a particular topic, such as the theory of evolution, is usually an expert compared to those who don't understand it at all.  If you are unsure about someone's expertise on a particular topic, just check their claims by going back to the original source of information provided by the scientists.

Let's look at the second claim made about me.  I have to take a scientist's word on faith.  The two definitions of faith are as follows:

1. "Complete trust or confidence in someone or something."
2. "Strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof."

Usually, when someone accuses you of accepting a scientist's word on faith (yes, this is an accusation), they are using a logical fallacy called false equivocation.  This means they are using one definition of a word that doesn't match the context in which that word is being used.  In this case, the accuser is using the second definition of the word faith which is belief without evidence rather than the correct definition which is trust or confidence in the scientist.

Now even using the correct definition can cause reason to doubt considering the fact that it's possible to trust someone who is wrong, but trusting a scientist's word doesn't by necessity have to be by belief without evidence.  Trusting a scientist can and should be based on looking at the evidence presented.

Bill Nye is often ridiculed by doubters for not being a scientist.  As I've demonstrated, there's a difference between being scientist and being an expert.  You don't need a PhD in physics to pilot a helicopter.  You don't need a PhD in biology, paleontology, geology, zoology, chemistry, molecular biology, taxonomy, mathematics, cosmology, physics, probability, anthropology, archaeology, history or philosophy to learn about and be an expert among your peers on how evolution works.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

If Something Can't Come From Nothing, Then Who Created The Universe?

See this storm cloud?

To say it came from nothing would be absurd, right?  Of course it would, but would it be sensible to say that there must have been a mind behind it, or would that be equally as absurd? To say that because you can't get something from nothing, the only conclusion is that it had to have been intelligently designed, that is called a false dichotomy, or false dilemma.

In ancient times, before humans had knowledge of the behaviour of warm and cold air, air pressure, precipitation, etc, it seemed perfectly sensible to them to assume that a thunderstorm was the manifestation of the gods since there was no other explanation available.  This may seem ridiculous to us now, but we do still hear claims of the very same false dichotomy being made today.  Just as our distant ancestors didn't understand the physics of meteorology, we do not yet understand the causes behind the existence of our universe.  Claims are continually being made that because something can't come from nothing, then the only other explanation is intelligent design.  This is a false dichotomy saying it has to be one or the other and deliberately leaving no room for further exploration of what may have preceeded our universe as we know it.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Is There One Piece Of Evidence That Proves Evolution?

Time and time again I've had people say to me, "Show me one piece of evidence that proves evolution to be true."  What an annoying request.  It's a silly request.  It's like saying, "Show me one piece of evidence that proves agriculture to be true."  Where do you start?  Is there one stand-alone example capable of proving agriculture?  No, and one of the reasons that evolution deniers make this ridiculous demand is because they don't understand (nor want to know) what the word theory means in science.

In everyday language, theory most commonly means hypothesis, or an idea that hasn't been tested.  For example, if I found a broken glass on the kitchen floor, in answer to what happened, I could say my theory is that the four year old running around the house knocked it off the counter top.  This seems perfectly reasonable since she's knocked over other things during the course of the day.  But that is only a hypothesis and looking back through the security footage, I would find that it was in fact the cat that broke the glass.  So you see, theory in this sense is just a baseless hypothesis, or educated guess that is prone to inaccuracy.

In the scientific community, theory has an entirely different meaning.  While laypersons use the word theory to cover multiple meanings, the scientists use less ambiguous language - hypothesis, theory and law.  Hypothesis is an idea that needs to be tested and proven.  Theory is an explanation of how a particular area of science works.  Law is a statement of fact.  If a scientific law is ever proven to fail, it ceases to be law.  A scientific theory is usually continually being developed and refined.  You may hear people say that theories are always changing so you can't trust them, but that is a dishonest statement.

When a new scientific discovery is made, it adds to the relative theory, usally filling in gaps or adjusting a small part to a more accurate explanation.  Change in a scientific theory does not mean the entire theory is thrown out and replaced with another theory, which is what evolution-deniers would like you to believe.  The same goes for the claim that science is always changing its mind.  No, science is always being refined and added to.

Let's look at some other applications of the word theory in science.  We have gravitational theory.  It doesn't mean we're guessing that there is gravity (although flat earth believers would make that claim), it is an explanation of how gravity works, how it behaves, etc.  We have germ theory.  It doesn't mean we're guessing that there are germs, it is an explanation of how germs behave, how they evolve, how they affect other animals, etc.  We have music theory.  It doesn't mean we're guessing that music exists, it is an explanation of how different frequencies of sound are produced, behave, interract, etc.  And then we have evolutionary theory.  It doesn't mean that we're guessing that evolution happened, it is an explanation of how biological life evolved, how natural selection works, etc.

So going back to one peice of evidence that proves evolution, the reason we can't provide once piece of evidence is because the theory of evolution is a thorough explanation of the diversity of life.  It covers many fields, such as biology, molecular biology, chemistry, paleontology, taxonimy, zoology, and so forth.  Just as I can't give you once piece of a puzzle to prove the puzzle is a picture of a tiger, I can't give you one piece of evidence to prove the theory of evolution to be fact because the entire theory of evolution can't be proven with one piece of evidence alone. 

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Did We Land On The Moon?

This is likely one of the greatest and most argued conspiracies of all time.  The problem now is that there is so much information readily available from both sides of the debate and it's difficult to distinguish the truth from the fiction.  Both sides present such compelling 'evidence' to support their arguments that you may possibly find it tiresome and end up just picking a side and going with it - and I fear that this has happened in many cases.
In this article, I will look into the observable evidence available to us.  Before I start, we need to be clear on what observable evidence is.  A common misinterpretation of observable evidence is the need to see an event take place.  For example, evolution deniers will say we have no observable evidence in support of the theory of evolution because we weren't there millions of years ago to see it take place.  This is a false equivication.  Evidence for a past event is not the event itself but the clues left behind.  We do have an overwhelming amount of observable evidence for the theory of evolution, such as the fossil record, geological record, molecular biology, etc.  If my house was burgled last night while I was out, the observable evidence available would be fingerprints, DNA, security footage and any other telling signs that may be found, like a dropped driver's license (wouldn't that be hilarious!).

The Footage

When the first Apollo mission lauched in 1969, there were plenty of spectators there witnessing the event, but eyewitness accounts are the most unreliable sources of evidence.  Nevermind, because we have visual footage of this happening.  There is no doubt that a rocket was launched, but what if it was just for show and never actually landed on the moon?  Good question.  We have footage of the lunar modual descending onto the lunar surface.  But what if it was fake footage made in a studio in the Nevada desert?  Good question.  They did not have the technology to create a continuous film at that length.  For a video offering a more in depth explanation of the technology that would be required to pull off such a hoax, click here.


One of the purposes of landing on the moon was to set up a retroreflector.  This is a reflector that will reflect light back to its source from a wide range of angles with minimum scattering of light.  In other words, you can point a laser at it and the laser will reflect right back to you.  There are a number of retroreflectors on the lunar surface now and scientists use them to experiment with light, such as accurately measuring its speed.

Samples of Moon Rock

While the astronaughts were moonwalking, they spent a great deal of their time collecting samples of lunar soil and rock and lots of it.  But how do we know they came from the moon and not some desert here on earth? Good question.  The composition of space rock is quite different to rock you find here on Earth.  How do we know they aren't meteorites?  Good question.  These rocks show no signs of reaching extreme temperatures caused by air friction when entering the Earth's atmosphere.

Items Left Behind

Yep.  If you can't accept the observable evidence available to you, then go back to the scene of the crime.  There are many items left on the moon after the lunar missions, such as the lunar rover, flags, trash, retroreflectors as we mentioned earlier, golf club, golf ball, hammer, feather and many other items that the Apollo crews needed to discard to keep the lunar module as light as possible.

Here is a video comparing original landing footage with recent flyby footage of the landing site.

On a humourous note, take a look at this brilliant performance by Mitchell and Webb on faking a moon landing.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Abolishing Religious Instruction From New Zealand Secular Schools

The battle to have RI removed from New Zealand secular schools has been going on for a little while now. As a huge knee-jerk reaction I promptly volunteered to give my perspective on RI in schools as I had spent most of my life in children's ministry. I spent a few days writing a review on the curriculum used to teach RI and also a background on my own experience in children's ministry including my time as an RI teacher. In my background story and review I made sure I got straight to the point with brutal honesty. It wasn't the time to be politically correct or refrain from possible offences. The truth needed to get out and we be done with RI in our secular schools once and for all!

After some months of discussions, learning, reflecting and most importantly, thinking, I came to realize two things. Firstly, I had no support in light of the fact that I would be upsetting most of my friends and family which would inevitably cause a great tension between us and most likely end our relationships. The ‘support group’ for the campaign weren't particularly friendly and accepting of things that went against what they wanted to believe goes on in children's ministry. As someone who knows child and youth evangelism inside out, they should really take my thoughts and advice into consideration. At the end of the day, most of these people are on a warpath to eradicate something they don't really understand and once they've won the battle, they'll have no idea what their achievement actually means. I decided to pull out of the campaign and wash my hands of it. Many people were angry with me, but these people I've never met so no loss to me.

The second thing that I realized after much thought is that removing RI was going to cause an even greater problem. I should have seen this while I was writing my background story because I even mentioned it in there without recognising what I was getting at.  CEC puts their time and resources into RI which in my experience is the least effective form of children's evangelism. When we take this privilege away from them, they will then turn to more effective programs making an already problematic children's ministry more effective and quite frankly, dangerous.  The church sees legal battles that threaten their privilege to evangelize children as spiritual battles and in their eyes, spiritual trumps legal.  They will fight and they will fight dirty.  The law becomes irrelevant when souls are at risk.

Now don't get me wrong. When I say fight dirty, I don't mean there will be kidnappings and muggings. I mean the church will up their game and their tactics will move to the next level of cunning. The CEO of Churches Education Commission said himself, “This campaign against us has allowed us as an organisation to really get into an innovation space.” This isn't a benign comment.

What I believe we should be doing is educating, not having legal battles. The legal route is “we want this, we don't want that.” Educating is a much more approachable and effective way of making changes. As Dr Kerry Sparkman wrote in his book The Ant And The Ferrari, adding legislation and introducing tougher penalties is like putting more ambulances at the bottom of the cliff rather than addressing the reason that people are jumping off in the first place. Rather than say no to RI which will cause greater problems in the future, we should be working with those who provide it and also with the schools and address the problem that caused this issue in the first place - the choice to opt out rather than to opt in. I admit that the schools weren't taking the issue seriously enough, but take the school to court for not respecting parents’ wishes rather than taking the state to court and having RI abolished.

Do I support RI? No. Do I think it should be removed from secular schools? Yes, but only by going about it in in the right manner. Even the most friendly dog will bite if you poke it with sticks and the church is quite a large dog and not to be messed with recklessly. Right now, the best solution would be to have schools change RI from opt out to an extracurricular activity that parents can choose to opt in.

Monday, 20 June 2016

What is Genetic Information?

I have recently encountered a gentleman on YouTube who insisted that genetic information is lost during speciation. I asked him to demonstrate his reasoning and his evidence for this is "because it's obvious."  He is under the impression that because a chihuahua is smaller than its wolf ancestor and doesn't look like a wolf, then the genetic information needed to make a wolf has obviously been lost.  This reasoning comes as a result of a common misunderstanding among evolution deniers.  The fact is, a chihuahua still has the genes of its wolf ancestor but they reside in the genome as obsolete data.

I frequently hear this in combination with the fallacious second law of thermodynamics argument where it is argued that everything degenerates, therefore genetic information can only be lost, not gained.  Of course this is entirely untrue, but let's look at the crux of these arguments; the failure to understand what genetic information actually is.  The following is an excerpt from my book Answers In Evolution - Can Genetic Mutations Add Information to the Genome?

Read the following two sentences.

1. The large Boeing 747 passenger jet plane landed on the long flat runway airstrip before coming to a stop.

2. The Boeing 747 landed.

            What is the difference between these two sentences?  Does either one convey more or less information than the other or do they both tell the same story?  At first glance, one may be forgiven for claiming that there is more information in the first sentence than the second sentence.  But look again.  When you read, ‘The Boeing 747 landed’, does that give you a different picture than the first sentence?  We already know that a Boeing 747 is a large passenger jet plane, we already know that planes land on long flat runway airstrips, and we already know that the plane will inevitably come to a stop.
            The information in the first sentence is uneconomically portrayed, wasting time, data and money if this was a message sent via a paid means of communication such as text messaging, emails and the old-fashioned telegrams.
            Now let’s say we have a person who has never seen a Boeing 747 or an airstrip before.  This scenario changes our perception of information.  Whilst the second sentence contains enough information for a person who knows about aviation, it’s meaningless to one who does not.  In this case, the first sentence contains more information than the second sentence.
            So we see, information is only as valuable as its ‘surprise factor’.  If you didn’t know that the Boeing landed, then giving you the new information results in the surprise.  All of the superfluous information in the second sentence is of no surprise to you at all. Therefore, nothing is gained.  From this, we can draw two conclusions.  The first conclusion is that information can be useful in some applications and obsolete in others.  Information has no effect unless it causes a change.  The second conclusion is that there is a lot of obsolete information which is nothing more than random noise in the grand scheme of things.  This information causes no change under the relevant circumstances.

If you'd like to learn more on genetic information, you can purchase my book here.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Which Heater is More Efficient?

It's getting colder and time to get out the heaters!  But if you are buying a heater, here's a few tips when listening to the salesman.

All heaters (except for heat pumps which don't actually convert electricity to heat) are 100% efficient.  If a salesman tells you one 2000W heater is cheaper to run than another 2000W heater, they are either lying or don't know what they're talking about.  It's like saying one 2L bottle of milk has more milk than the other 2L bottle of milk.  The thing you need to base your decision on is what style of heating you want.  Fan heaters heat the air in the room more quickly, but the air is then cooled by the floor, walls and ceiling.  Convection heaters take more time to heat the air, but at the same time the heated air slowly heats the walls, ceiling.  Radiators, like panel heaters and oil heaters take even longer, but they are a more consistent heat since they heat the walls, ceiling etc which in turn evenly distributes the heat throughout the room.  Once the room is heated, the ambient temp is easily maintained.

So if you're icy cold and want instant heat, sit in front of a bar heater or fan heater.  If you want the room to be comfortable, switch on a convection or panel heater about 20 minutes before you want to use the room (depending on how cold the room is, you may need to give it longer). The more you spend on a heater with a thermostat, the more consistent the ambient temperature.

If you have a heat pump, turning up the temperature doesn't heat the room more quickly.  Just set it to the temperature you find comfortable and wait for it to bring the room to that temp.  Setting it at a much higher temperature takes the same amount of time to heat the room, but then it keeps on raising the temp until it reaches the dialled temp.  Keep curtains closed and keep doors closed that will allow heat to escape, like bathroom, hallway, toilet, laundry doors etc.

Don't heat parts of the house that you seldom use, such as toilet, spare bedroom, etc.  Keep those doors closed.  Try to localise the heat to where it's needed most.  Unless you plan to spend the evening sitting in your hallway, keep the doors closed and retain the heat in your living area.

The most efficient form of heating is the heat pump.  Spending a couple of thousand dollars on a heat pump will pay for itself within a few years and you also gain the added benefit of cooling in the hot summer.  If you don't want to have a fixed heat pump installed, you can always purchase a portable heat pump (portable air conditioner) for a fraction of the cost.  Generally you'll find these portable heat pumps are rated at around 1kw power consumption and they will produce around 3kw of heat.  That's like having three 1kw heaters for the price of one!

So at the end of the day, when the salesperson says to you, "This heater is more efficient to run that that heater,"  what he's actually saying is either a.  "I don't know what I'm talking about" or b. "This heater is a lower wattage and will produce less heat than that heater."

Can Personal Experience Be 100% Accurate?

When I was a child at the age of around 6, I fell over at school and something stung me on the palm of my hand.  I shook my hand before I got a look at what stung me and then when I looked, I saw a yellow blob with a stinger injecting venom into me.  When I arrived home after school, my mother asked me what stung me and I said I don't know.  She asked me to describe it and I said it was yellow but it wasn't a wasp.  So my mother looked through an encyclopedia of insects and found a yellow ichneumon wasp.  She showed me the picture and told me that's what stung me.  Even though I knew it didn't look like what I saw, I spent the rest of my life believing that I was in fact stung by an ichneumon wasp and I was mistaken in what I actually saw.

Looking back, I based my belief on authority.  My mother based her belief entirely on the fact that it was yellow and not a common wasp.  As a result, I believed something that wasn't true because what I saw was in fact the venom sack of a bee.  This is a fine example of how unreliable personal experience is in finding truth.

The Amway Religion

Back in 2002, I almost got caught up in Amway.  I met with these people who promised me some amazing things.  I went around to their house to hear of this wonderful job opportunity.  They sat me down and my first question was, "What's the job?"  They said they'd explain all that to me, but first they just want to talk about some things, and went on to say stuff like, "Wouldn't it be wonderful to wake up in the morning and stroll out to the golf course without worrying about money?  Wouldn't it be wonderful to receive an unexpected bill in the mail and happily write a check to pay it?"  This sounded pretty good to me, so I asked once again, what is the actual job?  And again they said it would all be explained at the seminar the following week.  They gave me a motivational book and some cassette tapes to listen to.

The following week, I went to the seminar.  I learnt nothing about Amway, but I heard how amazing it was to not have to worry about money, not have to go to work and to have your dream car, dream home etc.  I also heard a few success stories of other people who were part of Amway.  After the seminar, I asked again what the actual job was, and they changed the subject back to the seminar.

A week later, I went to the second seminar, hearing all the same motivational jargon.  After the seminar, I told the guy trying to get me into Amway that I don't think Amway is for me and I'll just leave it thanks.  He replied with something I'll never forget.  He said, "I think you're losing the faith in Amway and you just need to listen to the tapes, read the book and come to more meetings."

Have a think about this.  Listen to the tapes, read the book and come to more meetings, then you'll regain faith.  Sounds a little like how religion works, does it not?

Continual Compensation

When a product grows too fast for its platform, we encounter bottlenecking issues.  People don't upgrade their computers every year - hell, my computer is 7 years old - but user software is continually developing.  Facebook got to a point where videos and photos were chewing through people's data and making their internet devices slow right down, so they had to change the way visual media is executed.  Facebook has become so resource hungry as of late that they've had to change the way we view our feeds.  No, Facebook doesn't change every so often just to annoy you, it's actually to benefit you with a better, more streamlined and suitable interface for your internet device.

Now for the point that you inevitably anticipated... everything else is the same - including religion.  Cars become faster, so more safety features need to be added to compensate for an increase in risk.  Faster cars use more fuel, so the focus shifts to designing more economical engines.

In very ancient times, things like lightening, sickness and ultimate purpose were not understood, so humans compensated by filling in the gaps with the concept of the supernatural.  Epilepsy was explained as being caused by demons, sickness was explained as being the result of a curse, lightening was explained as being a manifested wrath of the gods and ultimate purpose was rationalised as a result of being created.  This worked fine for a time, but eventually we discovered new things, new and more rational explanations.  After a few millennia, lightening was discovered to be an electrical discharge, sickness was discovered to be caused by microorganisms and biological defects, epilepsy was discovered to be a result of a neurological malfunction and as for ultimate purpose, opinions are still divided due to the tough grasp of ontological security.

50 years ago, it was wrong for an unmarried Christian couple to hold hands.  Today, it’s wrong in some Islamic states for an unmarried couple to hold hands.  50 years ago, it was wrong for a Christian woman to show too much skin.  Today, it’s wrong in some Islamic states for a woman to show any skin at all.  50 years ago it was wrong for a married Christian couple to divorce.  Over the years, divorce became more common so a compensation had to eventually be made and is now accepted by most Christian denominations that divorce isn’t that bad.  All kinds of cherry picking of the Bible sees to it that it is justified.  Unmarried couples holding hands is ok because compensation was made by broadening the boundaries.  In free speech society, it has become easier to walk away from ridicule so many popular denominations compensated by not ridiculing couples for living together while unmarried, finally accepting gay people without prejudice and seeing prosperity as being a gift from God rather than an obstacle in the way of eternal life.

When we compensate, we find balance.  This is true in any situation, whether it be religion, mechanical engineering, computing, politics, society, medical science, the process of evolution and everything else.  The path of least resistance always wins out, but some situations take far longer.  In cosmological terms, modern society has only been around for a few minutes, so we still have a long way to go before we finally iron out the rough spots like war, poverty, etc.  But we will get there.  Eventually.

Is God the Objective Source of Morality?

We hear time and time again from the religious community that without God, we would not have an objective source of morality.  Let’s break this down and address it systematically.

“Without God.”  What does this mean?  Does it mean a literally absent God, a purposely withdrawn God or an intentional ignorance of God?  For all intents and purposes, the first two options are empirically the same.  The third option is interesting because in that case, we need to determine who is in control.

Imagine finding yourself face to face with an angry dog.  For simplicity, you have three options.  You could try your best to defend yourself when the dog attacks, you could try your best to run faster than the dog or you could ignore the dog, pretending it isn’t there.  The pretend option leads us to an interesting scenario.  While touching a hot stove, pretending it isn’t hot isn’t going to stop you from being burned.  But pretending that an angry dog isn’t there might just save you.  If the dog sees no threat, it most likely won’t attack.

How is God analogous to a dog?  Well if God is real, then ignoring God isn’t going to stop Him from going about His business because being omnipotent, we have no control.  But if you swap the agenticity of God over to the imagination of a person, then ignoring God would cause Him to dissipate and become harmless.

What do we observe in the real world?  We observe randomness.  We observe a universe that is mathematically without influence.  Some cancer patients have successful cancer treatments, some sadly don’t.  The same goes for religious cancer patients who have people praying prayers of faith.  With a universe that operates as though there is no influential agent, we can make the assumption that there is no God influencing it since a God is not needed.

So without God means a literal absence of a God.  The next part of the statement is, “we would not have”.  This is a definite logical condition.  It claims “If X then Y,” not, “If X then probably Y.”

The last part of the statement is, “an objective source of morality.”  We need to define what an objective source of morality is.  Is it a set of rules?  Is it conditional on geographic location?  Morality in the US is considerably different than morality in Syria.  In New Zealand it is moral for a 16 year old to have sex but that would be immoral in the United States.  The Holy Bible lists a set of rules commonly known as the Ten Commandments and Christians claim that this is the basis of morality, but the Holy Qur’an has a completely different set of rules upon which Islam bases its morality.

Many religions all claim absolute morality even though they all differ, so as the human race, we need to collectively agree on a universal set of morals.  If you take what is universally agreed upon by the majority of a diverse humanity and we remove the philosophical constructs of love, peace, etc, leaving us with one objective rule that protects ourselves and everyone around us, we are left with the platinum rule: “Treat others the way they want to be treated.”  Now of course this only works when everyone harmoniously follows the rule so we won’t get into silly debates on self harming or what not.

So let’s reconstruct the original statement in our defined form.  “If God does not exist, then we would not treat others the way they want to be treated.”  Think about that for a moment.  Religion claims that if God does not exist, then we would not treat others the way they want to be treated.  Look around and see what’s going on in this world.  How many people are being treated the way they want to be treated?