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Interesting Observation
from eSkeptic reader LeLeynKa:

Recently spotted in the Science section of a book mail order club:

Wedged dead center between Surgery of the Larynx and Related Structures, Second Edition and Guide to Liver Transplants is a book entitled The UFO Investigator’s Handbook: The Practical Guide to Researching, Identifying, and Documenting Unexplained Sightings.

Thank you so much for not giving up in your quest against pseudoscience despite its remarkably high volume even in so-called Science sections.


In the most recent issue of Skeptic, Vol. 10, No. 3, we published an excerpt from Richard Dawkins’ latest book, A Devil’s Chaplain. We inadvertantly left out the reference from which it came. So, with apologies to Richard, here is the full reference along with a review of the book by long-time skeptic, humanist, and writer William Harwood.

The following is William Harwood’s review of Richard Dawkins’ book A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love (Houghton Mifflin, NY, 2003, ISBN 0618335404).

William Harwood (wharwood@telus.net) is a member of the editorial board of Free Inquiry, and contributing editor of American Rationalist. He is the author of Mythology’s Last Gods (Prometheus), and editor/translator of The Judaeo-Christian Bible Fully Translated (Booksurge.com). His most recent book is A Humanist in the Bible Belt (1stbooks.com).


Dawkins, Darwin & the Devil

a book review by William Harwood

“What a book a Devil’s Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horribly cruel works of nature.” These are the words of Charles Darwin, borrowed by Richard Dawkins for the title essay of this, a collection of published articles, essays, opinion editorials, and reviews. What both Darwin and Dawkins mean is that anyone seeking proof that the universe was not designed and supervised by a benevolent creator need look no further than the natural world in which, for example, wasps lay their eggs in the living bodies of caterpillars.

Blindness to suffering is an inherent consequence of natural selection. Nature is neither kind nor cruel but indifferent.

Dawkins is best known as the apologist-in-chief for what Stephen Jay Gould called “Darwinian fundamentalists.” Although he has his fair share of critics, particularly those who do not fully embrace the tenets of evolutionary psychology, he has a far larger pantheon of supporters who champion Dawkins’ record of useful, logical and meaningful contributions to the advancement of science and the annulment of superstitious ignorance. Where Dawkins and Gould disagreed, Gould was right on the extremes of sociobiology, and Dawkins was right on the imbecility of Gould’s Non-Overlapping Magisteria doublethink.

In defending his earlier books, The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins writes (p. 11),

If you seem to smell inconsistency or even contradiction, you are mistaken. There is no inconsistency in favouring Darwinism as an academic scientist while opposing it as a human being.

Since the former book appeared to endorse a somewhat purposeful evolution, and the latter a purposeless evolution, I do see inconsistency. Perhaps this is an eye-of-the-beholder situation, and Dawkins never intended “selfish gene” to be anything more than a metaphor.

In his chapter, “What is True?” Dawkins annihilates the philosophical hogwash that truth is relative and that there is no absolute truth. He writes (p. 15):

Science boosts its claim to truth by its spectacular ability to make matter and energy jump through hoops on command, and to predict what will happen and when.

Religion cannot do that. Paranormalists cannot do that. Add 3 and 5 and the predictable sum will always be 8. That is absolute truth. Anyone who thinks otherwise should consider a brain transplant.

An essay entitled “Gaps in the Mind” spells out the conditioned thinking (actually non-thinking) that led South African courts to adjudicate “whether particular individuals of mixed parentage count as white, black or ‘coloured’” (p. 21). That there is a continuous link from humans to gorillas, with the intermediate species merely long dead, is beyond the understanding of speciesists. Tie the label Homo sapiens even to a tiny piece of insensible embryonic tissue, and its life suddenly leaps to infinite, incomputable value” (p. 21). As Dawkins points out (p. 22), “Self-styled ‘pro-lifers,’ and others that indulge in footling debates about exactly when in its development a foetus ‘becomes’ human, exhibit the same discontinuous mentality. ‘Human,’ to the discontinuous mind, is an absolutist concept. There can be no half measures. And from this flows much evil.” Since the allegedly pro-life paranoia of one Polish expatriate in Rome is edging the human species ever closer to starvation and extinction, “much evil” is unduly charitable.

In “Science, Genetics and Ethics,” Dawkins demolishes the “muddleheaded” objections to genetically modified food so entertainingly that I will not detract from the reader’s pleasure by revealing the details. “The present Luddism over genetic engineering may die a natural death as the computer-illiterate generation is superseded” (p. 28). Let us hope so. As Dawkins warns (p. 29), “I fear that, if the green movement’s high-amplitude warnings over GMOs turn out to be empty, people will be dangerously disinclined to listen to other and more serious warnings.” In other words, opponents of genetic engineering are crying wolf, and Aesop showed where that can lead.

Continuing his witty but barbed observations, Dawkins note: “Trial by jury must be one of the most conspicuously bad good ideas anyone ever had” (p. 38). By example Dawkins cites the trials of Louise Woodward and O. J. Simpson. He asks (p. 41), “Could you imagine even one other jury reaching the same verdict in the O. J. Simpson case?” Juries are asked to evaluate evidence in fields in which they are totally incompetent. “And should I be charged with a serious crime, here’s how I want to be tried. If I know myself to be guilty, I’ll go with the loose cannon of a jury, the more ignorant, prejudiced and capricious the better. But if I am innocent …please give me a judge” (p. 41).

The chapter on “Crystalline Truth and Crystal Balls” is best compared to using a sledgehammer to squash an ant. Unfortunately, believers in such hogwash if they can be cured at all, require such overkill. Treating nonsense beliefs as unworthy of rebuttal can be a very bad strategy, as the Velikovsky fiasco proved.

Dawkins’ highly favorable review of Intellectual Impostures employs the tactic of exposing disseminators of gibberish by quoting them. If critics keep doing that, hundreds of thousands of fatuous ignoramuses who use doubletalk to disguise the meaninglessness of their discourses could be put out of business. Tut tut.

In the introduction to the five essays on religion, Dawkins writes (p. 117),

To describe religions as mind viruses is sometimes interpreted as contemptuous or even hostile. It is both. I am often asked why I am so hostile to organized religion. My first response is that I am not exactly friendly toward disorganized religion either.

And his reference (p. 118) to “the religious atrocity committed in New York on 11 September 2001” acknowledges that the first cause of that atrocity was not an individual, not an aberrant sub-sect, but religion itself. Belief in Bertrand Russell’s postulated china teapot orbiting the sun does not trigger man’s inhumanity to man.

Mothers don’t warn their sons off marrying teapot-shiksas whose parents believe in three teapots rather than one. People who put the milk in first don’t kneecap those who put the tea in first.

Only religion has an unbroken record of inspiring ninety percent of all manmade evil for at least three thousand years.

On his own concept of memes, Dawkins opines (p. 127):

I became a little alarmed at the number of my readers who took the meme more positively as a theory of human culture in its own right—either to criticize it (unfairly, given my original modest intention) or to carry it far beyond the limits of what I then thought justified. This was why I may have seemed to backtrack.

As a severe critic of meme theory, the least I can do is acknowledge Dawkins’ foregoing rebuttal.

Are science and religion converging? No. There are modern scientists whose words sound religious but whose beliefs, on close examination, turn out to be identical to those of other scientists who straightforwardly call themselves atheists (p. 146).

That is how Dawkins begins a chapter. He ends it (p. 151) with, “To an honest judge, the alleged convergence between religion and science is a shallow, empty, hollow, spin-doctored sham.”

In the specific chapter on the September 11 atrocity, Dawkins writes (p. 157),

My last vestige of ‘hands off religion’ respect disappeared in the smoke and choking dust of September 11th 2001, followed by the “National Day of Prayer,” when prelates and pastors did their tremulous Martin Luther King impersonations and urged people of mutually incompatible faiths to hold hands, united in homage to the very force that caused the problem in the first place.

He goes on to say

My point is not that religion itself is the motivation for wars, murders and terrorist attacks, but that religion is the principal label, and the most dangerous one, by which a ‘they’ as opposed to a ‘we’ can be identified at all. Hitler’s sub-Wagnerian ravings constituted a religion of his own foundation, and his anti-Semitism owed a lot to his never-renounced Roman Catholicism.

The chapter on Snake Oil is epitomized as follows (p. 181):

Either it is true that a medicine works or it isn’t. It cannot be false in the ordinary sense but true in some “alternative” sense. If a therapy or treatment is anything more than a placebo, properly conducted double-blind trials, statistically analyzed, will eventually bring it through with flying colours. Many candidates for recognition as “orthodox” medicines fail the test and are summarily dropped. The “alternative” label should not (though, alas, it does) provide immunity from the same fate.

In printing a letter written to his daughter when she was ten but not given to her or published until eight years later, Dawkins writes (p. 241),

I had always been scrupulously careful to avoid the smallest suggestion of infant indoctrination, which I think is ultimately responsible for much of the evil in the world. Others, less close to her, showed no such scruples, which upset me, as I very much wanted her, as I want all children, to make up her own mind freely when she became old enough to do so. I would encourage her to think, without telling her what to think.

Dawkins is in good company in denouncing infant indoctrination. Paul Kurtz has expressed similar opposition to such child abuse. And in the Canadian province of Alberta , four notorious families of hatemongering religious fanatics can only be explained by the second generation being parentally brainwashed in infancy.

Finally, Dawkins acknowledges the valuable contribution of his editor, who decided which of his essays should be included in A Devil’s Chaplain, as indeed he should. Her choices were excellent.


Alexander Pope Parody on Evolution
and Intelligent Design Creationism

Anthropologist Dr. Tom McIver (tmciver@msn.com), a long time contributor to Skeptic magazine and one of the world’s leading experts on the history of the creationist movement and thought (see his article in our most recent issue on “Who Made It?” about the history of the silly story told by creationists about famous astronomers throughout the ages who were stumped when asked about who made the cosmos), sent me this delightful parody of Alexander Pope, in light of recent attempts to legislate creationism into public school science classrooms (see article at end of eSkeptic about Georgia ‘s pending legislation). Tom is from Ohio, thus the title, but it could apply to any state. The original lines from Pope are appended after the parody. A brilliant piece of parody Tom! —Michael Shermer


Epistle to the Ohio Board of Education:
Concerning the proposed Science Standards

a parody by Tom McIver,
composed after perusing Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man

“Creation” now “Intelligent Design”
Now science tries to ape, and redefine.
But natural law alone in science reigns,
No supernatural cause or source it feigns.

Conceivable disproof its truest sign;
Its theories are human, not divine.
DI, IDnet, SEAO: all a ruse;
To trip us, charm, bewilder, and confuse.
All are but cogs of one deceptive plan
To loosen natural law howe’er they can.

The proper study of ID is God,
In science class ‘tis travesty and fraud.
All living things betray a tangled past,
With mysteries most plentiful and vast.
Complexity and history conceal
And frustrate our best efforts to reveal.

If miracles be given, though, as cause,
One or a thousand, no more natural laws.
All life involves a struggle to survive
Environments non-living and alive.
Ideas in science, too, compete to best
Opposing theories tried and put to test.
Those win that nature proves a better fit,
Not forced on us by fiat or by writ.

True science is a still-evolving whole,
Whose body nature is, our tests the soul.
A little science is a dangerous tide
When mixed with human bias, greed, and pride.
Experimental methods are its rails,
But mix religion in and science fails.

No, science cannot tell us how to act
(Religion, morals, ethics, speak to that)
Yet science helps to tell us what we are;
From primal germ, mankind, and distant star.
We bear true kinship with all life on Earth
Though facts of ancestry show not our worth.

Hope oft consoles where science cannot tread,
Belief connects the living with their dead;
As faith hath power to soothe the troubled breast,
Religion doth both drive and help us rest.
Since oft what is, is not what ought to be,
Our Bibles from despair may help us free.

Don’t glibly sneak in God, though, to explain
What properly is science’s domain.
God said “Let Darwin be!” and not be banned;
From any science classroom in the land.
Ohio, Kansas, every U.S. state,
Keep evolution in the textbooks straight.

Excerpts from Essay on Man

by Alexander Pope,
(containing lines referred to above)

All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body, Nature is, and God the soul;

All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee;
All Chance, Direction, which thou canst not see;
All Discord, Harmony, not understood;
All partial Evil, universal Good:
And, spite of Pride, in erring Reason’s spite,
One truth is clear, “Whatever IS, is RIGHT.”

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of Mankind is Man.
Plac’d on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic* side,
[*sceptic in the Pyrrhonian sense, ed.]

With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest,
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;
In doubt his Mind or Body to prefer,
Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus’d;
Still by himself abus’d, or disabus’d;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of Truth, in endless Error hurl’d:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

See, thro’ this air, this ocean, and this earth,
All matter quick, and bursting into birth.
Above, how high progressive life may go!
Around, how wide! how deep extend below!
Vast chain of being, which from God began,
Natures ethereal, human, angel, man
Beast, bird, fish, insect! what no eye can see,
No glass can reach! from Infinite to thee,
From thee to Nothing! — On superior pow’rs
Were we to press, inferior might on ours:
Or in the full creation leave a void,
Where, one step broken, the great scale’s destoy’d:
From Nature’s chain whatever link you strike,
Tenth or ten thousandth, breaks the chain alike.

Excerpts from Essay on Criticism

by Alexander Pope

A little learning is a dangerous thing
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

Nay, fly to Altars; there they’ll talk you dead;
For Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread.
Distrustful Sense with modest Caution speaks;
It still looks home, and short Excursions makes;
But ratling Nonsense in full Vollies breaks;

Epitaph that Pope wrote for Newton

Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night:
God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light.

Lines Written by Congreve

(about the same time)

Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast,
To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.


Evolution-Creationism Contoversy Erupts in Georgia

The following article appeared is in the New York Times on January 30th, 2004. (copyright © 2004)


Georgia Takes on Evolution

by Andrew Jacobs

Atlanta, Jan. 29. A proposed set of guidelines for middle and high school science classes in Georgia has caused a furor after state education officials removed the word “evolution” and scaled back ideas about the age of Earth and the natural selection of species.

Educators across the state said that the document, which was released on the Internet this month, was a veiled effort to bolster creationism and that it would leave the state’s public school graduates at a disadvantage.

“They’ve taken away a major component of biology and acted as if it doesn’t exist,” said David Bechler, who heads the biology department at Valdosta State University . “By doing this, we’re leaving the public shortchanged of the knowledge they should have.”

Although education officials said the final version would not be binding on teachers, its contents will ultimately help shape achievement exams. And in a state where religion-based concepts of creation are widely held, many teachers said a curriculum without mentioning “evolution” would make it harder to broach the subject in the classroom.

Georgia’s schools superintendent, Kathy Cox, held a news conference near the Capitol on Thursday, a day after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an article about the proposed changes.

A handful of states already omit the word “evolution” from their teaching guidelines, and Ms. Cox called it “a buzz word that causes a lot of negative reaction.” She added that people often associate it with “that monkeys-to-man sort of thing.”

Still, Ms. Cox, who was elected to the post in 2002, said the concept would be taught, as well as “emerging models of change” that challenge Darwin ‘s theories. “Galileo was not considered reputable when he came out with his theory,” she said.

Much of the state’s 800-page curriculum was adopted verbatim from the “Standards for Excellence in Education,” an academic framework produced by the Council for Basic Education, a nonprofit group. But when it came to science, the Georgia Education Department omitted large chunks of material, including references to Earth’s age and the concept that all organisms on Earth are related through common ancestry. “Evolution” was replaced with “changes over time,” and in another phrase that referred to the “long history of the Earth,” the authors removed the word “long.” Many proponents of creationism say Earth is at most several thousand years old, based on a literal reading of the Bible.

Sarah L. Pallas, an associate professor of biology at Georgia State University, said, “The point of these benchmarks is to prepare the American work force to be scientifically competitive.” She said, “By removing the benchmarks that deal with evolutionary life, we don’t have a chance of catching up to the rest of the world.”

The guidelines, which were adopted by a panel of 25 educators, will be officially adopted in 90 days, and Ms. Cox said the public could still influence the final document. “If the teachers and parents across the state say this isn’t what we want,” she said, “then we’ll change it.”

In the past, Ms. Cox, has not masked her feelings on the matter of creationism versus evolution. During her run for office, Ms. Cox congratulated parents who wanted Christian notions of Earth and human creation to be taught in schools.

“I’d leave the state out of it and would make sure teachers were well prepared to deal with competing theories,” she said at a public debate.

Educators say the current curriculum is weak in biology, leading to a high failure rate in the sciences among high school students across the state. Even those who do well in high school science are not necessarily proficient in the fundamentals of biology, astronomy and geology, say some educators.

David Jackson, an associate professor at the University of Georgia who trains middle school science teachers, said about half the students entering his class each year had little knowledge of evolutionary theory.

“In many cases, they’ve never been exposed to the basic facts about fossils and the universe,” he said. “I think there’s already formal and informal discouragements to teaching evolution in public school.”

The statewide dispute here follows a similar battle two years ago in Cobb County, a fast-growing suburb north of Atlanta . In that case, the Cobb County school board approved a policy to allow schools to teach “disputed views” on the origins of man, referring to creationism, although the decision was later softened by the schools superintendent, who instructed teachers to follow the state curriculum.

Eric Meikle of the National Center for Science Education said several other states currently omit the word “evolution” from their science standards. In Alabama , the state board of education voted in 2001 to place disclaimers on biology textbooks to describe evolution as a controversial theory.

“This kind of thing is happening all the time, in all parts of the country,” Mr. Meikle said.

Dr. Francisco J. Ayala, the author of a 1999 report by the National Academy of Sciences titled “Science and Creationism,” vehemently opposes including the discussion of alternative ideas of species evolution.

“Creation is not science, so it should not be taught in science class,” said Dr. Ayala, a professor of genetics at the University of California at Irvine . “We don’t teach astrology instead of astronomy or witchcraft practices instead of medicine.”

But Keith Delaplane, a professor of entomology at the University of Georgia , says the wholesale rejection of alternative theories of evolution is unscientific.

“My opinion is that the very nature of science is openness to alternative explanations, even if those explanations go against the current majority,” said Professor Delaplane, a proponent of intelligent-design theory, which questions the primacy of evolution’s role in natural selection. “They deserve at least a fair hearing in the classroom, and right now they’re being laughed out of the arena.”

1 Comment »

One Comment

  1. Nathan Phillips says:

    The term “fair hearing” is very telling. Science is not determined by a jury. Even if it were, I doubt that the science of evolution would get a fair hearing in a Georgia school. The purpose of education is not to throw every random idea generated in the world at children, some of the least educated among us, and expect them to come up with the best answers. Part of the job of education is to give children the critical thinking skills necessary to recognize non-science when it is being introduced into a classroom. I doubt that this happens nearly enough.

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