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Scam Science Journals and “The Simpsons”

Baby Maggie Simpson and Mrs. Krabappel doing science. (Original art by former "Simpsons" animator Anna Maltese, used with permission).

Baby Maggie Simpson and Mrs. Krabappel doing science. (Original art by former “Simpsons” animator Anna Maltese, used with permission).

Several times a week my email inbox contains offers to contribute to journals in subjects like engineering and agricultural sciences and in many other fields. The emails look legit, but my red flags go up nonetheless. I’m not an engineer, nor do I work in agriculture, or most other fields. I’m a geologist and paleontologist, and I teach geophysics, astronomy, oceanography, and meteorology, but I don’t work in every field of science. Clearly, my email address (which I willingly gave to legitimate scientific organizations) has been added to a compilation of scientists’ email addresses and sold and now every scam “journal” will spam me with these emails, not worrying about whether their “journal” is in my field or not.

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15-01-28


IN THE YEAR 2525: Big Science, Big History, and the Far Future of Humanity

2015 SKEPTIC CONFERENCE
REGISTRATION NOW OPEN!

The 2015 Skeptics Society Conference, at Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium (May 29–31 2015)

Get complete details

Order tickets online


OUR NEXT LECTURE AT CALTECH

THE MORAL ARC: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom

Sun., Feb. 8, 2015 at 2 pm
Baxter Hall, Caltech

WE ARE LIVING in the most moral period of our species’ history. Ever since the Enlightenment, thinkers have consciously applied the methods of science to solve social and moral problems, and in the process created the modern world of liberal democracies, civil rights, equal justice, open political and economic borders, and prosperity the likes of which no human society in history has ever enjoyed. More people in more places have greater rights, freedoms, liberties, literacy, education, and prosperity—the likes of which no human society in history has ever enjoyed.

In this provocative and compelling talk—that includes brief histories of freedom rights, women’s rights, gay rights, and animal rights, along with considerations of the nature of evil and moral regress—Shermer explains how scientific ways of thinking have moved us ever closer to a more just world.

A book signing will follow the lecture. We will have copies of the book, The Moral Arc: How Science Leads Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom, available for purchase. Can’t attend the lecture? Order The Moral Arc online.

Ticket Information

First come, first served at the door. Seating is limited. $10 for Skeptics Society members and the JPL/Caltech community, $15 for nonmembers. Your admission fee is a donation that pays for our lecture expenses.

Read about other
upcoming lectures


Sam Harris Interviews Shermer:
On Being Right about Right & Wrong

On January 26, 2015, Sam Harris published an interview with Michael Shermer about his new book, The Moral Arc.

Read the interview


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Weekly Highlights

INSIGHT at Skeptic.com sheds light, offers critical perspective, and serves as a broadly accessible, evidence-based resource on mysteries of science, paranormal claims, and the wild, woolly, wonderful weirdness of the fringe. This week’s highlights are:

Daniel Loxton
Book Review: The Big Golden Book
of Dinosaurs

Daniel Loxton reviews a colorful nonfiction dinosaur book for children.

Read the Insight

Daniel Loxton
Skeptic David Morrison Receives
AAS Education Prize

Daniel Loxton shares the Skeptics Society’s congratulations to past Skeptic magazine cover story author David Morrison, named this month as the recipient of the 2015 Education Prize from the American Astronomical Society.

Read the Insight


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MonsterTalk # 94
A Fear of Spiders
spider-cover

One of the most common fears in the world is the fear of spiders. But what does a rationalist do when gripped by an irrational fear? MonsterTalk interviews author Lynne Kelly about her transition from arachnophobia to spider enthusiast. Note: This episode deals with spider sexual reproduction which includes masturbation and cannibalism.


Get the MonsterTalk Podcast App (presented by Skeptic Magazine) and enjoy the science show about monsters on your handheld devices! Available for iOS, Android, and Windows 8 devices. Subscribe to MonsterTalk for free on iTunes. Follow the RSS feed.

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Book Review: The Big Golden Book of Dinosaurs

The Big Golden Book of Dinosaurs, by Robert T. Bakker, illustrated by Luis V. Rey (New York: Golden Books, 2013); 64 pages; reviewed by Daniel Loxton.

This review also appears in the current January–February 2015 issue of the Reports of the National Center for Science Education (Vol. 35, No. 1). See the table of contents, or download a PDF copy of this article here.

Cover of The Big Golden Book of Dinosaurs

The Big Golden Book of Dinosaurs, by Robert T Bakker, illustrated by Luis V Rey

I’ve always loved books about prehistoric animals. Nothing brings back the glow and wonder of childhood like opening my dog-eared, loose-paged copies of Golden Books’ 1977 Dinosaurs, with its old-school tail-dragging creatures painted by legendary fantasy artists Tim and Greg Hildebrandt, or Happytime Books’ 1979 Dinosaurs, lovingly illustrated by Bernard Herbert Robinson—and lovingly inscribed “This book belongs to Danny” on the frontispiece. I spent more happy hours with those books than I could possibly tell you, curled up on my grandma’s couch. Did it matter that the animals were often inaccurate even by the standards of the time, or sometimes mislabeled altogether? Did I love such books less for presenting the whole of the geologic past as a jumbled Lost World where Jurassic Stegosaurus might have challenged Cretaceous T. rex, or perhaps even have grazed beside mammoths? Of course not—but with better books I might have loved these vanished creatures in deeper, truer ways.

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Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation

Bill Nye

SPARKED BY A CONTROVERSIAL DEBATE in February 2014, Bill Nye has set off on an energetic campaign to spread awareness of evolution and the powerful way it shapes our lives. In Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation, he explains why race does not really exist; evaluates the true promise and peril of genetically modified food; reveals how new species are born, in a dog kennel and in a London subway; takes a stroll through 4.5 billion years of time; and explores the new search for alien life, including aliens right here on Earth. With infectious enthusiasm, Bill Nye shows that evolution is much more than a rebuttal to creationism; it is an essential way to understand how nature works—and to change the world. Don’t miss this enlightening “In Conversation” with Bill Nye, hosted by Michael Shermer.

A book signing followed the lecture. Order Undeniable from Amazon.

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Skeptic David Morrison Receives AAS Education Prize

David Morrison. Image courtesy NASA Ames Research Center

David Morrison. Image courtesy NASA Ames Research Center

Many congratulations are due to astronomer and skeptic David Morrison, named as the recipient of the 2015 Education Prize from the American Astronomical Society (AAS) at their 225th semiannual meeting held January 4–8, 2015 in Seattle, Washington. The AAS is North America’s major organization of professional astronomers.

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15-01-21


ANNOUNCING The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom

AVAILABLE IN STORES NOW!

In Dr. Michael Shermer’s latest book, The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom, he claims that we are living in the most moral period of our species’ history. It is a book about moral progress that demonstrates through extensive data and heroic stories that the arc of the moral universe bends toward truth, justice, and freedom. Of the many factors that have come together over the centuries to bend the arc in a more moral direction, science and reason are foremost.

The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom (book over)

The Scientific Revolution led by Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton was so world-changing that thinkers in other fields consciously aimed at revolutionizing the social, political, and economic worlds using the same methods of science. This led to the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment, which in turn created the modern secular world of liberal democracies, civil rights and civil liberties, equal justice under the law, open political and economic borders, and the expansion of the moral sphere to include more people—and now even animals—as worthy of moral consideration. Epic in scope, The Moral Arc is the Cosmos of human history.

Visit MoralArc.org
the official website


INTRODUCING the Moral Progress Blog

We are pleased and proud to announce, in conjunction with the publication of The Moral Arc, the Moral Progress Blog, where we can report on all the good things that are happening in the world as a reminder, among a litany of bad news reported by the media every day, that there is hope for humanity. In this blog Dr. Shermer will have an opportunity to write on topics that are not well suited for his monthly Scientific American column or the INSIGHT at Skeptic.com blog, topics related to: Animal Rights, Capitalism, Civil Rights, Crime, Evil, Gay Rights, Genocide, Justice, Morality, Reason, Religion, Slavery, Terrorism, Torture, Violence, War, and Women’s Rights.

We look forward to your comments, and will be inviting readers to submit their own stories in a new section we plan to introduce soon, called “A Million Acts of Kindness.”

Naturally we will not be ignoring all the areas of moral progress yet to be realized, but always when possible and appropriate putting them into a proper historical context.

NEW on the Moral Progress Blog
Was Martin Luther King, Jr. Right About
the Arc of the Moral Universe?

On Sunday, March 21st, 1965, about 8,000 people gathered at Brown Chapel in Selma, Alabama and began a march to the capitol building in Montgomery. At the front of the crowd was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and they were marching for one reason. Justice. They wanted simply to be given the right to vote.

They had tried to march twice before, but were met with tear gas, billy clubs, and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire. And both times they were forced to turn back. But not this time. This time President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered 2,000 National Guard troops to protect the marchers. And so for five days, over a span of 53 miles, through biting cold and frequent rain, they marched. Word spread, the number of demonstrators grew, and by the time they reached the capitol building on March 25, their numbers had swelled to at least 25,000…

Continue Reading


Tickets Still Available for BILL NYE, this Sunday, at Caltech

We will have copies of Undeniable available for purchase. A book signing will follow the lecture. Read about this event.

Tickets are $15 for Skeptics Society members/Caltech/JPL community; $20 for general public; $5 for Caltech students. Tickets may be purchased in advance through the Caltech ticket office in 101 Winnett, at the door, by calling at 626-395-4652 between 9am–4pm Monday through Friday (Do not leave a message.), or online using the link below. Ordering tickets ahead of time is strongly recommended.

Order tickets in advance


May 29–31, 2015 / Save the Dates!

See the 2015 conference web page for more details and registration information to come, and stay tuned to eSkeptic.


Skepticality logo
Let Your Soul Go
SKEPTICALITY EPISODE 246

In this episode of Skepticality, Derek has a conversation with Julien Musolino. Julien is an associate professor of cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics and Rutgers University and the author of the book The Soul Fallacy: What Science Shows We Gain from Letting Go of Our Soul Beliefs. In this interview, Julien describes why he argues that the existence of the soul is a testable hypothesis—one that’s failed time and time again to hold up against the weight of scientific evidence. And, despite these findings, why he, and everyone else, should not be sad, or depressed by this fact, but embrace it and lead happier and more productive lives.

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Get the Skepticality App — the Official Podcast App of Skeptic Magazine and the Skeptics Society, so you can enjoy your science fix and engaging interviews on the go! Available for iOS, Android, and Windows 8 devices.


About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, Gary Whittenberger examines Miklos Jako’s “Soft Theism” God postulated in Jako’s article “In Defense of Soft Theism,” which appeared in Skeptic Magazine 19.2 (2014). Whittenberger argues that, when considering the origins of existence, we don’t need to step outside the boundaries of science.

Gary J. Whittenberger is a free-lance writer and retired psychologist, living in Tallahassee, Florida. He received his doctoral degree from Florida State University after which he worked for 23 years as a psychologist in prisons. He has published many articles on science, philosophy, psychology, and religion, and their intersection, and he is a member of several freethought organizations.

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Skeptical of Soft Theism

by Gary J. Whittenberger

The central belief of Soft Theism, introduced and advocated by Miklos Jako in a recent issue of Skeptic (Vol. 19, No.2, 2014), argues that there exists “a great Intelligence that created and sustains the world…[that] does not concern Itself with human affairs at all…[that] wants us to behave well,” and that “transcends space, time, nature, and logic.” To begin, I’m skeptical of the term “great Intelligence.” Making the same mistake as many New Agers, Jako reifies one property of humanity—intelligence —and implies that it can exist by itself separate from a living person. This is no more reasonable than belief in a great Reproduction separate from a reproducing person.

Jako claims that his Soft Theism has “none of the superstitious baggage of traditional religion,” but unfortunately it does. The central belief meets the essential criteria for “superstition” defined in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary: It is based on faith or trust in magic, it results from ignorance and a false conception of causation, and it is maintained despite evidence to the contrary.

Thousands of gods have been hypothesized to exist. I will call the god of Soft Theism according to Miklos Jako the “ST.1 god.” (There may be other versions of Soft Theism whose gods could be labeled differently.) Clearly, the ST.1 god is different from the god of most Jews, Christians, and Muslims, who is often called “God” (with a capital “G”), but to avoid confusion I will call this god the “JCM god.” Whereas the JCM god is thought to intervene in earthly and human affairs moderately or very often and a Deist god is thought to intervene not at all, the ST.1 god is thought to intervene rarely. Believers in the JCM and ST.1 gods would need to specify when, why, and how their gods have intervened in order to properly fill out their worldviews. Jako admits that there is no “hard evidence” for the ST.1 god. Although it is reasonable to believe that ST.1 god possibly exists, without hard evidence it is not reasonable to believe that it probably exists, as Jako seems to do.

Jako thinks about the possibility of an intentionally unverifiable god, but if such a god existed, this fact could not be distinguished from the existence of no god, and so there would be no good reason to believe in such a god. Despite Jako’s claim, this god would not “make more sense than not.” If the ST.1 god rarely intervenes in earthly and human affairs, then he would not be unverifiable—there should be detectable signs of his rare interventions. Jako cannot have it both ways.

If the problem of evil is a powerful argument against a good god and a perhaps a clincher for atheism— as Jako admits—then it would not be reasonable for him to believe that any good and powerful god exists. At best his ST.1 god would have to be amoral, and at worst immoral or evil. For example, if the ST.1 god did exist, then he should be considered responsible for natural disasters since he would be the creator and sustainer of the world. Natural disasters would occur only because this god wanted them to occur. Does Jako admire or worship this ST.1 god? If this god did exist, I would abhor him.

If a god who transcends space, time, nature, and logic is the only kind of god which makes sense to Jako, then that is fine for him, but that kind of god will make no sense at all to nearly all human persons, especially skeptics. A god who transcended time couldn’t do anything at all, including create and sustain our universe, so the definition of the ST.1 god actually becomes self-contradictory. If the ST.1 god transcends logic and is intentionally unverifiable (leaves no evidence of his existence), as Jako apparently believes, then Jako has no tools of skepticism or reason to convince the rest of us skeptics to accept his claim. He is relying totally on faith or wishful thinking.

With regard to a first cause, Jako claims that there are three possibilities: “1. The universe has always existed. 2. The universe came into existence out of nothing. 3. The universe was created by an entity.” This is a false trichotomy since these three possibilities are neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive. If the universe always existed, then it may have undergone a great transformation (beginning with the Big Bang) and this change may have had no cause at all, an unintelligent physical cause, an intelligent physical one, an unintelligent nonphysical cause, or an intelligent nonphysical one. If the universe came into existence out of nothing (#2), then, likewise, this may have had no cause at all, an unintelligent physical cause, an intelligent physical one, an unintelligent nonphysical cause, or an intelligent nonphysical one. So, there seem to be at least ten possibilities instead of just three.

Jako seems to think that the most likely of these alternatives is that the universe came into existence from nothing and this event had an intelligent nonphysical cause. I think he has embraced the least likely of the ten alternatives. Arguably, the most likely scenario is that the universe has always existed and underwent a great transformation (beginning with the Big Bang) for which there was an unintelligent physical cause. This is supported best by the evidence and Occam’s Razor. The Law of Conservation of Matter-Energy supports the hypothesis of an eternal universe. There have been millions of demonstrations of the transformation of matterenergy, but no demonstrations of the creation or destruction of it. We have no evidence of nonphysical causes. There have been billions of demonstrations of the connection of intelligence to complex physical structures, brains in particular, and no demonstrations of the connection of intelligence to anything else. Brains appear to be a very recent development in the 13.8-billion-year history of our universe since the Big Bang. This explanation is also based on the least number of assumptions.

Jako says that a spiritual thing, like the ST.1 god, would not need a cause. But how does he know this? He doesn’t. It makes more sense to me that there was an infinite regress of physical causes rather than that a nonphysical intelligence was the first cause of our universe. We know that there have been multiple series of physical causes extending all the way back to the Big Bang. It is more probable that these series extended backwards before the Big Bang than that they simply stopped at that moment. Also, there is no evidence of nonphysical causes.

When considering the origins of existence we don’t need to step outside the boundaries of science, as Jako insists. Instead we should use science, our best tool for investigating reality, to hypothesize about what we don’t already know. Dispensing with evidence and logic does not have a proven track record of success.

When Jako suggests that we need the ST.1 god to fill “the ultimate gap,” i.e. “how the whole thing started,” then by “whole thing” he could mean the universe itself or he could mean merely the Big Bang. But if the universe always existed, then that “whole thing” never started, and Jako is begging the question. On the other hand, we don’t have a good explanation of the Big Bang, but we should not assume that this constitutes a gap that will never be filled. If that gap is filled, then will Jako come up with a new “ultimate gap?”

Jako says that it makes more sense to him that life came from life than that life came from nonlife, but this should not make more sense to him since the evidence does not support that hypothesis. There is evidence of nonliving things existing on the Earth prior to 3.5 billion years ago, but there is no evidence of living things existing on the Earth prior to that time. Although there are other possible explanations, the best explanation for now is that some nonliving things changed into living things through a process not yet fully understood. Scientists specializing in biochemistry and related fields are working on the problem and there are good reasons to think they will eventually solve it. Contrary to there being a “gap,” there are in fact at least half a dozen testable hypotheses to explain the origin of life. Just because there is little agreement on which one is likeliest to be true does not mean the problem is an insoluble one.

Jako also says that it makes more sense to him that intelligence came from intelligence than that intelligence came from nonintelligence. However, intelligence is always associated with brains (robots may become an exception), and there is no evidence for the existence of brains prior to the advent of multicellular organisms on the Earth. Contrary to what Jako believes, most scientists, atheists and theists alike, think that life came from nonlife and intelligence came from nonintelligence during the course of Earth’s history.

Jako finds it miraculous that when he scratches his arm during yard work the wound is healed a few days later. But there is no miracle here. The natural physical healing process is well understood. He says “I think there is an indefinable life force.” If something is indefinable, then what observations could be made to support or undermine its existence? How could it be distinguished from nothing? Before the 1850s, belief in vitalism was still widespread, but it is an idea now rejected by the overwhelming consensus of biologists. Jako says “I do not believe in miracles, but I think life itself is a miracle.” This is equivalent to saying “I do not believe in any miracles, but I believe in at least one miracle,” which is an internal contradiction.

Jako says “Science may tell us the details of how something happens, but not why it should happen. I think this sustaining force can reasonably be interpreted as God caring about us.” Jako does not tell us what would be the difference between the questions “Why did it happen?” vs. “Why should it have happened?” By using “should” did he mean to bring in a moral consideration? I don’t know. At any rate, “why” questions usually refer to motives of persons. Science can sometimes tell us why persons have engaged in some acts, but it cannot tell us why water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, why life exists, or why there is gravity. These types of questions are meaningless, unless there exists some super person responsible for these facts whose motives can be examined. So, asking “why” questions begs the question of god’s existence. In addition, if the ST.1 god did exist and cared about us, as Jako suggests, then there shouldn’t be any of those pesky natural disasters. So the ST.1 god very probably doesn’t exist.

Jako believes that the argument that “life on Earth can be explained only by God’s design, not by sheer luck” is a “half decent argument.” It is not. First, design by God or ST.1 god is not the only explanation for life on Earth. Secondly, “sheer luck” is not the only alternative to some god’s design. A combination of natural orderly processes and sheer luck is probably the best explanation. The claim presented by Jako is not nearly “half decent.”

Applying skepticism, reason, and critical thinking skills to Soft Theism I can confidently conclude that this hypothesis is very probably false. Like the minority of scientists who believe in one god or another, e.g. Francis Collins, Hugh Ross, etc., Miklos Jako is the victim of “compartmentalization of the mind.” Although he is adept at being skeptical with respect to some questions (“Do mediums communicate with the dead?), he fails to generalize his critical thinking skills to other questions (“Does a god exist?). I certainly accept Miklos Jako into the family of skeptics, but I encourage him to extend his skepticism even further. END

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15-01-14


INTHE YEAR 2525: Big Science, Big History, and the Far Future of Humanity

May 29–31, 2015 / Save the Dates!

Announcing the 2015 Skeptics Society Conference,
at Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium

Save the dates for our upcoming conference in May, hosted by Michael Shermer at Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium.

Topics

The future of the universe, the solar system, and the earth and its resources; the fate of civilizations and the nation-state; changing economic systems; the expanding moral sphere and progress or regress in morality; what language humans will speak; what race (if any) humans will be; the changing nature of gender roles; the future of religion, conflicts, and wars; how we can (or if we should) colonize the solar system and galaxy; and how humanity can become a Type I, Type II, or even a Type III civilization.

Confirmed speakers

Jared Diamond, Lawrence Krauss, Carol Tavris, John McWhorter, Ian Morris, Greg Benford, David Brin, and Donald Prothero.

Confirmed Conference Speakers: Jared Diamond, Lawrence Krauss, Carol Tavris, John McWhorter, Ian Morris, Greg Benford, David Brin, and Donald Prothero
Entertainment

Close-up magic; Art Benjamin—the mathemagician and lightning calculator; and musical virtuoso Frankie Moreno—pianist and performer prodigy turned Las Vegas headliner sensation.

Basic Itinerary

Friday night dinner with the speakers and special guests. Saturday lectures and evening show. Sunday geology tour to see California’s faults OR a trip to Mt. Wilson to see where Edwin Hubble discovered the expanding universe.

Registration

See the 2015 conference web page for more details and registration information to come. Save the dates for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see and hear some of today’s greatest minds and most talented performers.


Don’t miss BILL NYE, the Science Guy

in conversation with Michael Shermer, discussing Bill’s new book: Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation
Bill Nye

Sun., Jan. 25, 2015 at 2 pm
Beckman Auditorium

SPARKED BY A CONTROVERSIAL DEBATE in February 2014, Bill Nye has set off on an energetic campaign to spread awareness of evolution and the powerful way it shapes our lives. In Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation, he explains why race does not really exist; evaluates the true promise and peril of genetically modified food; reveals how new species are born, in a dog kennel and in a London subway; takes a stroll through 4.5 billion years of time; and explores the new search for alien life, including aliens right here on Earth. With infectious enthusiasm, Bill Nye shows that evolution is much more than a rebuttal to creationism; it is an essential way to understand how nature works—and to change the world. Don’t miss this enlightening “In Conversation” with Bill Nye, hosted by Michael Shermer.

A book signing will follow the lecture. We will have copies of the book, Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation, available for purchase. Can’t attend the lecture? Order Undeniable from Amazon.

Ticket Information

Tickets are $15 for Skeptics Society members/Caltech/JPL community; $20 for general public; $5 for Caltech students. Tickets may be purchased in advance through the Caltech ticket office in 101 Winnett, at the door, by calling at 626-395-4652 between 9am–4pm Monday through Friday (Do not leave a message.), or online using the link below. Ordering tickets ahead of time is strongly recommended.

Order tickets in advance


INSIGHT at Skeptic.com banner

Weekly Highlights

INSIGHT at Skeptic.com sheds light, offers critical perspective, and serves as a broadly accessible, evidence-based resource on mysteries of science, paranormal claims, and the wild, woolly, wonderful weirdness of the fringe. This week’s highlights are:

Tim Farley
In the Valley of the Shadow of Death

Donald Prothero observes the 10-year anniversary of a deadly landslide in a coastal California town, and warns that such geologic catastrophes are sure to be repeated in the future.

Read the Insight


Je suis Chalrie

ABOVE: A screenshot from January 12, 2015 of the Charlie Hebdo website. The Je suis Charlie (“I am Charlie”) slogan has quickly became an endorsement of freedom of speech and press, with the hashtag #jesuischarlie having reached about 5 million tweets since last week’s shooting, when two gunmen opened fire in the Paris headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, killing twelve.

Some might characterize the faith-inspired murder of satirical cartoonists as shocking. But the prospect of violent reprisal for religious criticism was hardly inconceivable to the now-deceased artists of Charlie Hebdo. In this week’s eSkeptic, Kenneth Krause describes potential relationships between religion and violence, and questions whether these murders would seem possible in the absence of religious devotion to an allegedly all-powerful god.

Kenneth W. Krause is a contributing editor and “Science Watch” columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer and a regular contributor to Skeptic magazine.

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Charlie Hebdo: Why Islam, Again?

by Kenneth W. Krause

Some might characterize the faith-inspired murder of satirical cartoonists as shocking. But the prospect of violent reprisal for religious criticism was hardly inconceivable to the now-deceased artists of Charlie Hebdo. In 2011, for example the magazine’s same Parisian offices were firebombed for publishing an issue purportedly guest-edited by the Prophet Muhammad.

Nor was last week’s three-day massacre of 17 people a colossal surprise to me. It might have been, I suppose, if such attacks typically derived merely from the dysfunctional minds of irreligious psychopaths or the maniacal excesses of religious “extremists,” as most commentators tend to describe them.

But, as the perpetrators themselves all-too proudly confess, these are acts firmly grounded in religious text and tradition. Of course, it can be difficult to determine whether a violent act occurs because of religious belief. It is insufficient to simply note, as some critics of religion often do, that the Bible prescribes death for a variety of objectively mundane offenses, including adultery (Leviticus 20:10) and taking the Lord’s name in vain (Leviticus 24:16). And to merely remind, for example, that Deuteronomy 13:7–11 commands the devoted to stone to death all who attempt to “divert you from Yahweh your God,” or that Qur’an 9:73 instructs prophets of Islam to “make war” on unbelievers, provides precious little evidence upon which to base an indictment of religious conviction.

Sam Harris’s vague declaration, “As man believes, so will he act,” seems entirely plausible, of course, but also highly presumptive given the fact that people are known to frequently hold two or more conflicting beliefs at once.1 Nor can we casually assume that every suicide bomber or terrorist has taken inspiration from holy authority—even if he or she is religious.

But there is substantial merit in Harris’s criticism of religionists who, regardless of the circumstances, “tend to argue that it is not faith itself but man’s baser nature that inspires such violence.” First, there can exist more than one sine qua non, or cause-in-fact for any outcome, especially in the psychologically knotty context of human aggression. Furthermore, when aggressors declare religious inspiration, as the Charlie Hebdo murderers did, we should accept them at their word.

A More Methodical Approach

But to more astutely characterize the relationship between religion and violence, and to distinguish between differentially aggressive traditions, we should apply a more disciplined method. Cultural anthropologist David Eller proposes a comprehensive model of violence consisting of five contributing dimensions or conditions that, together, predict the source’s propensity to expand both the scope and scale of hostility.2 These dimensions include group integration, identity, institutions, interests, and ideology.

Eller applies his model to religion as follows: First, religion is clearly a group venture featuring “exclusionary membership,” “collective ideas,” and “the leadership principle, with attendant expectations of conformity if not strict obedience”—often to superhuman authorities deserving of special deference. Second, sacred traditions offer both personal and collective identities to their adherents that stimulate moods, motivations, and “most critically, actions.”

Next, most faiths provide institutions, perhaps involving creeds, codes of conduct, rituals, and hierarchical offices which at some point, according to Eller, can render the religion indistinguishable from government. Fourth, all religions aspire to fulfill certain interests. Most crucially, they seek to preserve and perpetuate the group along with its doctrines and behavioral norms. The attainment of ultimate good or evil (heaven or hell, for example), the discouragement or punishment of “dissent or deviance,” proselytization and conversion, and opposition to non-believers might be included as well.

Finally, “religion may be the ultimate ideology,” the author avers, “since its framework is so totally external (i.e., supernaturally ordained or given), its rules and standards so obligatory, its bonds so unbreakable, and its legitimation so absolute.” For Eller, the “supernatural premise” is critical:

This provides the most effective possible legitimation for what we are ordered or ordained to do: it makes the group, its identity, its institutions, its interests, and its particular ideology good and right … by definition. Therefore, if it is in the identity or the institutions or the interests or the ideology of a religion to be violent, that too is good and right, even righteous.

Arguably, Eller concludes, “no other social force observed in history can meet those conditions as well as religion.” And when a given tradition satisfies multiple conditions, “violence becomes not only likely but comparatively minor in the light of greater religious truths.”

Confronting the question at hand, then, I propose a somewhat familiar, though perhaps distinctively limited two-part hypothesis describing potential relationships between religion and aggression. First, I do not contend that religion is ever the sole, original, or even primary cause of bellicosity. Such might be the case in any given instance, but for the purpose of determining generally whether faith plays a meaningful role in violence, we need only ask whether the religion is a sine qua non of the conflict.

Second, although all religions can and often do stimulate a variety of both positive and negative behaviors, clearly not all faiths are identical in their inherent inclination toward hostility. Indeed, there should be little question that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam satisfied each of Eller’s conditions. Accordingly, I suggest that the Abrahamic monotheisms are either uniquely adapted to the task or otherwise especially capable of inspiring violence from both their followers and non-followers.

Monotheism Conceptually

Eller denies that all religion is “inherently” violent. Nonetheless, he recognizes monotheism’s tendency toward a dualistic, good versus evil, attitude that not only “builds conflict into the very fabric of the cosmic system” by crafting two “irrevocably antagonistic” domains “with the ever-present potential for actual conflict and violence,” but also “breeds and demands a fervor of belief that makes persecution seem necessary and valuable.”

Baylor University anthropologist Rodney Stark agrees. Committed to a “doctrine of exclusive religious truth,” he writes, particularistic traditions “always contain the potential for dangerous conflicts because theological disagreements seem inevitable.” Innovative heresy naturally arises from the religious person’s desire to comprehend scripture thought to be inspired by the all-powerful and “one true god.” As such, Stark finds, “the decisive factor governing religious hatred and conflict is whether, and to what degree, religious disagreement—pluralism, if you will—is tolerated.”3

Religious author Jonathan Kirsch compared the relative bellicosity of polytheistic and monotheistic traditions this way:

[F]atefully, monotheism turned out to inspire a ferocity and even a fanaticism that are mostly absent from polytheism. At the heart of polytheism is an open-minded and easygoing approach to religious belief and practice, a willingness to entertain the idea that there are many gods and many ways to worship them. At the heart of monotheism, by contrast, is the sure conviction that only a single god exists, a tendency to regard one’s own rituals and practices as the only proper way to worship the one true god.4

Religious scholar Edward Meltzer adds that for the monotheist, “all divine volition must have one source, and this entails the attribution of violent and vengeful actions to one and the same deity and makes them an indelible part of the divine persona.” Meanwhile, polytheists “have the flexibility of compartmentalizing the divine” and to “place responsibility for … repugnant actions on certain deities, and thus to marginalize them.”5

For Kirsch, the Biblical tale of the golden calf reveals an exceptional belligerence in the faiths of Abraham. After convincing a pitiless and indiscriminate Yahweh not to obliterate every Israelite for worshiping the false idol, Moses nonetheless organizes a “death squad” to murder the 3,000 men and women (to “slay brother, neighbor, and kin,” according to Exodus 32:27) who actually betrayed their strangely jealous god.

In the Pentateuch and elsewhere, Kirsch elaborates, “the Bible can be read as a bitter song of despair as sung by the disappointed prophets of Yahweh who tried but failed to call their fellow Israelites to worship of the True God.” “Fatefully,” Kirsch notes, the prophets—like their wrathful deity—“are roused to a fierce, relentless and punishing anger toward any man or woman who they find to be insufficiently faithful.”

This ultimate and non-negotiable “exclusivism” of worship and belief, Kirsch concludes, comprises the “core value of monotheism.” And “the most militant monotheists—Jews, Christians and Muslims alike—embrace the belief that God demands the blood of the nonbeliever” because the foulest of sins is not lust, greed, rape, or even murder, but “rather the offering of worship to gods and goddesses other than the True God.”

Indeed, as Biblical archeologist Eric Cline observed a decade ago, Jerusalem alone has suffered 118 separate conflicts in the past four millennia. It has been “completely destroyed twice, besieged twenty-three times, attacked an additional fifty-two times, and captured and recaptured forty-four times.” The city has endured twenty revolts and “at least five separate periods of violent terrorist attacks during the past century.”6

Modern Islam

Sam Harris believes we are at war with Islam. “It is not merely that we are at war with an otherwise peaceful religion that has been ‘hijacked’ by extremists,” he argues. “We are at war with precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran, and further elaborated in the literature of the hadith.” “A future in which Islam and the West do not stand on the brink of mutual annihilation,” Harris portends, “is a future in which most Muslims have learned to ignore most of their canon, just as most Christians have learned to do.”7

Is it unfair of Harris to target Islam when Western history is saturated with Christian bloodshed? Pope Innocent III’s 13th-century crusade against the French Cathars, for example, may have ended a million lives. The French Religious Wars of the 16th-century between Catholics and Protestant Huguenots left around three million slain, and the 17th-century Thirty Years War waged by French and Spanish Catholics against Protestant Germans and Scandinavians annihilated perhaps 7.5 million.

Islamic scholar and apostate, Ibn Warraq, doesn’t think so. Westerners tend to mistakenly differentiate between Islam and “Islamic fundamentalism,” he explains. The two are actually one in the same, he says, because Islamic cultures continue to read their Qur’an and hadith literally. Such societies will remain hostile to democratic ideals, Warraq advises, until they permit a “rigorous self-criticism that eschews comforting delusions of a…Golden Age of total Muslim victory in all spheres; the separation of religion and state; and secularism.”8

Likely entailed in this hypothetical transformation would be a religious schism the magnitude of which would resemble the Christian Reformation in its tendency to wrest scriptural control and interpretation from the clutch of religious and political elites and into the hands of commoners. Only then can a meaningful Enlightenment toward secularism follow. And as author Lee Harris has opined, “with the advent of universal secular education, undertaken by the state, the goal was to create whole populations that refrained from solving their conflicts through an appeal to violence.”9

In the contemporary West, Rodney Stark concurs, “religious wars seldom involve bloodshed, being primarily conducted in the courts and legislative bodies.”10 In the United States, for example, anti-abortion terrorism might be the only exception, and even that has become rare. But such is clearly not the case in many Muslim nations, where religious battles continue and are now “mainly fought by civilian volunteers.”

In fact, data recently collected by Stark appears to support Sam Harris’s critique rather robustly. Consulting a variety of worldwide sources, Stark assembled a list of all religious atrocities that occurred during 2012.11 In order to qualify, each attack had to be religiously motivated and result in at least one fatality. Attacks committed by government forces were excluded. In the process, Stark’s team “became deeply concerned that nearly all of the cases we were finding involved Muslim attackers, and the rest were Buddhists.” In the end, they discovered only three Christian assaults—all “reprisals for Muslim attacks on Christians.”

In all, 808 religiously motivated homicides were found in the reports. A total of 5,026 persons died—3,774 Muslims, 1,045 Christians, 110 Buddhists, 23 Jews, 21 Hindus, and 53 seculars. Most were killed with explosives or firearms but, disturbingly, 24 percent died from beatings or torture perpetrated not by deranged individuals, but rather by “organized groups.” In fact, Stark details, many reports “tell of gouged out eyes, of tongues torn out and testicles crushed, of rapes and beatings, all done prior to victims being burned to death, stoned, or slowly cut to pieces.”

Table 1: Incidents of Religious Atrocities by Nation (2012)

As Table 1 shows, present-day religious terrorism almost always occurs within Islam: 70 percent of the atrocities took place in Muslim countries, and 75 percent of the victims were Muslims slaughtered by other Muslims, often the result of majority Sunni killing Shi’ah (the majority only in Iran and Iraq). Pakistan (80 percent Sunni) ranked first in 2012, likely due to its chronically weak central government and the contributions of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Christians accounted for 20 percent (159) of all documented victims. Eleven percent of those (17) were killed in Pakistan, but nearly half (79) were slain in Nigeria, often by Muslim members of Boko Haram, often translated from the Hausa language as “Western education is forbidden.” Formally known as the Congregation and People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad, Boko Haram was founded in 2002 to impose Muslim rule on 170 million Nigerians, nearly half of which are Christian. Some estimate that Boko Haram jihadists—funded in part by Saudi Arabia—have murdered more than 10,000 people in the last decade.

Such attacks are indisputably perpetrated by few among many Muslims. But whether the Muslim world condemns religious extremism, even religious violence, is another question. According to Stark, “it is incorrect to claim that the support of religious terrorism in the Islamic world is only among small, unrepresentative cells of extremists.” In fact, recent polling data tends to demonstrate “more widespread public support than many have believed.”

Shari’a, the religious law and moral code of Islam, is considered infallible because it derives from the Qur’an, tracks the examples of Muhammad, and is thought to have been given by Allah. It controls everything from politics and economics to prayer, sex, hygiene, and diet. The expressed goal of all militant Muslim groups, Stark argues, is to establish Shari’a everywhere in the world.

Table 2: Percent of Muslims who think Shari'a should be...

Gallup World Polls from 2007 and 2008 show that nearly all Muslims in Muslim countries want Shari’a to play some role in government.12 As Table 2 illustrates, the degree of desired implementation varies from nation to nation. Strikingly, however, a clear majority in 10 Muslim countries—and a two-thirds supermajority in five—want Shari’a to be the exclusive source of legislation. In 2013, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life asked citizens in 12 Islamic nations whether they supported the death penalty for apostasy.13 Their responses are reflected in Table 3. Table 4 shows the percentage of Muslims in 11 countries who believe it is often or sometimes justified to kill a woman for adultery or premarital sex in order to protect her family’s honor. Thankfully, only in Pakistan and Iraq do a majority (60 percent) agree. But in all other Muslim nations polled, a substantial minority—including 41 percent in Jordan, Lebanon, and Pakistan—appear to approve of these horrific murders as well as their governments’ documented reluctance to prosecute them.

Table 3: Percent that favor the death penalty for people who leave the Muslim religion
Table 4: Percent of Muslims who responded that it is sometimes/often justified for family members to end a woman's life who engages in premarital sex or adultery, in order to protect the family's honor
Conclusion

Islam is not universally violent, of course. The same polls, for example, show that few British and German Muslims and only five percent of French Muslims agree that honor killing is morally acceptable. But the data from Islamic nations tends first, to support the proposition that Abrahamic monotheism is uniquely adapted to inspire violence, and second, to demonstrate that the belief in one god continues to fulfill this exceptionally vicious legacy. It is no accident, for example, that nearly all Muslims in these countries are particularists, believing that “Islam is the one true faith leading to eternal life.”14

In conclusion, none of this would seem possible in the absence of religious devotion to an allegedly all-powerful god. END

References
  1. Harris, Sam. 2005. The End of Faith. NY: W.W. Norton.
  2. Eller, Jack David. 2010. Cruel Creeds, Virtuous Violence: Religious Violence across Culture and History. NY: Prometheus.
  3. Stark, R. and K. Corcoran. 2014. Religious Hostility: A Global Assessment of Hatred and Terror. Waco, TX: ISR Books.
  4. Kirsch, J. 2004. God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism. NY: Viking Compass.
  5. Meltzer, E. 2004. “Violence, Prejudice, and Religion: A Reflection on the Ancient Near East,” in The Destructive Power of Religion: Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Volume 2: Religion, Psychology, and Violence), ed. J. Harold Ellens. Westport, CT: Praeger.
  6. Cline, E.H. 2004. Jerusalem Besieged: From Ancient Canaan to Modern Israel. U. of Mich. Press.
  7. Harris, The End of Faith.
  8. Warraq, Ibn. 2003. Why I Am Not a Muslim. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.
  9. Harris, L. 2007. The Suicide of Reason: Radical Islam’s Threat to the West. NY: Basic Books.
  10. Stark and Corcoran, Religious Hostility.
  11. Stark’s sources included thereligionofpeace.com, the Political Instability Task Force Worldwide Atrocities Data Set, Tel Aviv University’s annual report on worldwide anti-Semitic incidents, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s annual report for 2013, and the U.S. State Department’s International Freedom Report, 2013.
  12. The Gallup World Poll studies have surveyed at least 1000 adults in each of 160 countries (having about 97 percent of the world’s population) every year since 2005.
  13. The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society. 2013. http://pewrsr.ch/19aHxGF (posted April 30, 2013) and http://pewrsr.ch/1zg1Yxh
  14. Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, The World’s Muslims: Religion Politics and Society. (Washington, DC, 2013).
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In the Valley of the Shadow of Death

Aerial view of the La Conchita landslide after the 2005 event. Photograph by Mark Reid, courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Aerial view of the La Conchita landslide after the 2005 event. (Photograph by Mark Reid, courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.)

Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.

— Will Durant

The mountain is coming down!” he shrieked. Standing directly underneath the tumbling hillside, hearing its terrible crackle and roar and watching a plume of earth spew toward the sky, the men broke and ran for their lives … He lost sight of the others as the hillside bore down. Out of the corner of one eye, he could see a house and a trailer in hot pursuit.

Los Angeles Times, January 2005

Ten years ago today, the tiny coastal town of La Conchita, California, experienced a terrible tragedy. The winter of 2004–2005 was unusually wet in Southern California. Many places in the steep mountains behind the urban belt had flooded and experienced landslides. Huge amounts of rain had fallen in the last weeks of December and the first weeks of January. In the sleepy coastal town of La Conchita, there was no reason to think that the winter rainy season would be unlike any other. La Conchita consisted of a few dozen houses with about 300 residents, located right on the coast on Highway 101 between the wealthier communities of Santa Barbara and Ventura. La Conchita was much more laid-back and inexpensive, with small beach cottages inhabited mostly by retired surfers, artists, beachcombers, and hippies who savored their pleasant beachfront life without Santa Barbara’s high prices and congestion.

(more…)

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15-01-07


A couple spots just opened up for our January tour of Central California. Bring a friend and join us!

Don’t miss BILL NYE, the Science Guy

in conversation with Michael Shermer, discussing Bill’s new book: Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation
Bill Nye Bill Nye

Sun., Jan. 25, 2015 at 2 pm
Beckman Auditorium

SPARKED BY A CONTROVERSIAL DEBATE in February 2014, Bill Nye has set off on an energetic campaign to spread awareness of evolution and the powerful way it shapes our lives. In Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation, he explains why race does not really exist; evaluates the true promise and peril of genetically modified food; reveals how new species are born, in a dog kennel and in a London subway; takes a stroll through 4.5 billion years of time; and explores the new search for alien life, including aliens right here on Earth. With infectious enthusiasm, Bill Nye shows that evolution is much more than a rebuttal to creationism; it is an essential way to understand how nature works—and to change the world. Don’t miss this enlightening “In Conversation” with Bill Nye, hosted by Michael Shermer.

A book signing will follow the lecture. We will have copies of the book, Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation, available for purchase. Can’t attend the lecture? Order Undeniable from Amazon.

Ticket Information

Tickets are $15 for Skeptics Society members/Caltech/JPL community; $20 for general public; $5 for Caltech students. Tickets may be purchased in advance through the Caltech ticket office in 101 Winnett, at the door, by calling at 626-395-4652 between 9am and 4pm Monday through Friday (Do not leave a message.), or online using the link below. Ordering tickets ahead of time is strongly recommended.

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Bradley Voytek, On Demand
Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?

WITH THEIR ENDLESS WANDERING, lumbering gait, insatiable hunger, antisocial behavior, and apparently memory-less existence, zombies are the walking nightmares of our deepest fears. What do these characteristic behaviors reveal about the inner workings of the zombie mind? Could we diagnose zombism as a neurological condition by studying their behavior? In Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?, Dr. Bradley Voytek, a professor of computational cognitive science and neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego, applies neuro-know-how to dissect the puzzle of what has happened to the zombie brain to make the undead act differently than their human prey. Combining tongue-in-cheek analysis with modern neuroscientific principles, Voytek shows how zombism can be understood in terms of current knowledge regarding how the brain works. Voytek draws on zombie popular culture and identifies a characteristic zombie behavior that can be explained using neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, and brain-behavior relationships. Through this exploration he sheds light on fundamental neuroscientific questions such as: How does the brain function during sleeping and waking? What neural systems control movement? What is the nature of sensory perception? Order Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? from Amazon.

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Here Be Zombies

In Michael Shermer’s January 2015 “Skeptic” column for Scientific American, he discusses our fear of and fascination with zombies—those liminal beings that fall in between categories (animate and inanimate, human and nonhuman)—and what the living dead can teach us about ancient prejudices.

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About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, Michael Shermer discusses race relations and the law in America through the lens of Max Weber’s 1919 theory on “legitimate use of physical force.” A slightly different version of this OpEd was originally published at Time.com on December 23, 2014.

Michael Shermer is publisher of Skeptic magazine and a monthly columnist for Scientific American. His new book, The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom, comes out on January 20, 2014. Follow him on Twitter @michaelshermer.

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The 1919 Theory That Explains Why Police Officers Need Their Guns

by Michael Shermer

In 1919, with the smoke still clearing from the battlefields of the First World War, the German sociologist Max Weber began a systematic study of the nation-state by defining a state as any “human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” But what constitutes legitimate force? We should keep this question in mind when considering the run of recent events involving conflicts between police and citizens, from the killing of two unarmed black men by cops in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., earlier last year, as well as the murder of two police offers in New York City in December.

Over the course of many centuries the criminal justice system, with its armed police, replaced self-help justice conducted by gangs and individuals. Human communities such as drug gangs and mafia syndicates use physical force, but it is not legitimate and they do not have a monopoly; this leads to higher rates of violence because there is no strong state to act as an objective third party to oversee disputes. In Mexico, for example, the high incidence of violence can be traced in part to the inability of the state to enforce its drug laws, leading gangs to settle their differences themselves. States, for all their faults, have more checks and balances than individuals. This is why Justitia—the Roman goddess of justice—is often depicted wearing a blindfold (symbolizing impartiality) and carrying a scale on which to weigh the evidence in one hand and a double-edged sword, for her power to enforce the law, in the other.

Today the state’s justice is conducted through two systems: criminal and civil. Civil justice deals with disputes between individuals or groups, whereas criminal justice deals with crimes against the laws of the land that are punishable only by the state. This is why criminal cases are labeled The State v. John Doe or The People v. Jane Roe: the state is the injured party. California, for example, continues to pursue charges against the filmmaker Roman Polanski for allegedly raping an underage girl in 1977, even though she—a woman now in her 40s—has requested that the state drop the charges. In late December 2014 he filed another motion to have all charges against him dropped, and Geimer has even offered to testify on his behalf, but the state of California is unlikely to drop the charges because that would show weakness in its commitment to the rule of law.

That’s why people sometimes take the law into their own hands, via vigilantism or protest, when they do not feel that the law is fair to them: because the criminal-justice system acts on behalf of only the state, rather than on behalf of individuals, it requires trust in the state in order to work. That trust is lacking for many black communities in America; a 2013 Gallup poll, for example, found that 25% of whites but 68% of blacks believe that “the American justice system is biased against black people.”

This theory is important to keep in mind when thinking about what happened between 12:01pm and 12:03pm on Aug. 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo., when police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed teenager Michael Brown. Was his use of physical force legitimate or not? A grand jury determined that it could not make such a determination based on the conflicting eyewitness accounts, and so Wilson’s actions will not be considered criminal by the state. Something similar happened in New York when Eric Garner died at the hands of the police—was it a legal “grappling hold” or “headlock” or an illegal chokehold? Even with video evidence the grand jury voted not to indict the police officers, based on a medical examination that concluded Garner’s death was not due to damage to the windpipe or neck bones, but was the result of compression to the neck and body in conjunction with asthma, heart disease and obesity. Though Brown’s and Garner’s families may choose to pursue civil cases, only the state can say—or, as the case may be, not say—that a crime has been committed.

Though much remains unclear about what happened in these situations, Weber’s theory can also help us understand how a seemingly innocent encounter between a citizen and a police officer could escalate into lethal violence. When Officer Wilson asked Michael Brown to move from the middle of the street to the sidewalk and Brown refused, Wilson was faced with the dilemma all cops face when a suspect refuses to comply: back down and thereby lose both the monopoly and the legitimacy of law enforcement, or ratchet up the intensity of tactics to achieve compliance. The latter is what happened on that fateful day when Brown not only refused to comply with Wilson’s demand, but—according to some reports—also reached into his squad car to grab his gun. As a former Baltimore police officer and police commissioner named Fred Bealefeld told the New York Times “If someone grabs your weapon, as a cop you’re not thinking they are going to scare you with it. In my mind, every time someone tried to grab my gun in the street, they were going to try to kill me. That encounter changes everything.” The case of Eric Garner was similar in that when he was approached by the police on suspicion of selling single cigarettes without tax stamps, he responded by complaining of being harassed by the police. In response, the police moved to arrest Garner by physically grabbing him, which he also resisted, leading to an escalation of violence and his death.

In a world where Weber’s theory is in effect, allowing a civilian to potentially use force against the police is a challenge to the whole fabric of society. Though it’s possible to debate how much police force is legitimate, any non-police force is inherently illegitimate. This is why the killing of two New York City police officers—40-year old Rafael Ramos and 32-year old Wenjian Liu—on December 20 is likely to shift the sympathies of the public away from the peaceful protesters marching against injustice and back toward the police, especially after news reports surfaced that the alleged shooter, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, posted on social media that it was in retaliation for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner (the killer took his own life shortly after the shootings). This is most likely a one-off event unlikely to be repeated in cities across the U.S., but it nonetheless punctuates the point that there’s a reason the police in all civilized states are armed in one way or another.

The deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were tragedies that need this kind of perspective, because in fact the vast majority of law enforcement officers are good people just trying to do their jobs of administering the state’s rule of law, and the vast majority of African-Americans are good people just trying to lead their lives without hassle from law enforcement. That these two communities occasionally collide in this manner is tragic, but a bit more historical perspective shows that this is far less common than it used to be.

Urban violence from the 1950s through the 1980s was commonplace, a regular feature on the nightly news; it’s now mostly relegated to historical documentaries featuring black-and-white footage of fire hoses and police dogs. And racist attitudes of Americans really are on the decline. Polling data show, for example, that in the 1940s nearly three-quarters of Americans agreed that “black and white students should go to separate schools.” That figure collapsed to almost zero by 1995, when pollsters quit asking the question. In 1960 almost half of all white Americans said that they would move if a black family moved in next door. Today that figure is also close to zero. At the turn of the 20th century lynchings were commonplace, averaging a couple a week through the 1920s, finally coming to an end by the 1950s, as shown by data from the Oxford University economist Max Roser. A 2013 Gallup poll on interracial marriage also shows the positive trend in tolerance over the past half century; in keeping with other rights revolutions where age is a factor in becoming more tolerant, the approval rate of interracial marriage in this study was 96% among 18– to 29-year-olds, 93% of 30– 49-year-olds, 84% of 50– to 64-year-olds, and 70% of 65 year olds and older. And think about the case of Donald Sterling, forced to sell his basketball team, the Clippers, for racist remarks he made in private to his mistress. In the 1950s an old white guy who thought of blacks like Sterling seems to today wouldn’t have needed to be especially private about his prejudices. Today, the few who still think like this mostly keep it to themselves or publish their views in fringe white supremacist newsletters or web sites.

Clearly, as recent events have shown, racial violence is not zero and we have a ways to go before America is truly color blind, but, as the oft-quoted Martin Luther King line says, the arc of the moral universe really is bending toward justice. It would be good to keep that fact in mind when watching the daily news. There’s good reason for our police to be armed, and reason for the officers to be able to use their weapons, and for the most part they apply that force judiciously—and, with that in mind, we can continue working on refining what is meant by Weber’s “legitimate use of force” to insure that it is rational, reasonable and applied to everyone equally. END

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14-12-31

Happy New Year!

We wish to extend our sincere appreciation and gratitude to our supporters this year, and wish you all a happy and prosperous new year. Your generous donations continue to help your Skeptics Society—a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational organization—to promote science and critical thinking. We could not do it without you!


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Things Skeptics Knew a Century Ago About How Thinking Goes Wrong

Daniel Loxton shares some very old skeptical discussions of some very modern psychological concepts.

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A Tsunami to Remember

Donald Prothero commemorates the 10th anniversary of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, reflecting upon its horrifying power and resulting loss of life.

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Top 10 Myths About Evolution (and how we know it really happened)

If humans came from apes, why aren’t apes evolving into humans? Find out in this pamphlet!

FREE PDF Download

Top 10 Things You Should Know About Alternative Medicine

Top 10 Things You Should Know About Alternative Medicine

Topics include: chiropractic, the placebo effect, homeopathy, acupuncture, and the questionable benefits of organic food, detoxification, and ‘natural’ remedies.

FREE PDF Download

Learn to be a Psychic in 10 Easy Lessons

Learn to do Psychic “Cold Reading” in 10
Easy Lessons

Psychic readings and fortunetelling are an ancient art — a combination of acting and psychological manipulation.

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