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The Genesis of Justice: Before all learning, an infant’s mind has a sense of right and wrong

In Michael Shermer’s May 2014 ‘Skeptic’ column for Scientific American, he discusses our multifaceted moral nature, deeply entrenched in us from a very early age.



Jesus, God, or Nothing?
Raphael Lataster

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This week on Skepticality, Derek speaks with Raphael Lataster, a secular PhD researcher in religious studies who focuses on philosophy of religion, Christian origins, logic, Bayesian reasoning, and the social impacts of atheism. His Master’s thesis dealt with Jesus mythicism, concluding that historical and Bayesian reasoning justifies a skeptical position in regards to any form of ‘historical Jesus’. His work led him to write his new book, There Was No Jesus, There Is No God. Raphael shares how the ideas in the book came about, and how they fit, when so many prominent, modern, religious scholars keep making statements as to the historical certainty of a Jesus figure.

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In this week’s eSkeptic, Harriet Hall, M.D., The SkepDoc, reviews Abominable Science! Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids by Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero (Columbia University Press, 2013. ISBN: 978-0231153201). This review appeared in Skeptic magazine issue 18.4 (2013)

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Bigfoot Skepticism is Alive and Well

by Harriet Hall, M.D., The SkepDoc

The term “Bigfoot Skeptics” was recently coined by special interest groups among feminists, atheists, and libertarians to disparage those who pursue traditional skeptical topics instead of addressing the issues of social injustice, religion, and politics that they would rather focus on. “Bigfoot Skeptics” are seen as wasting their time rehashing trivial subjects. I’ve heard from subscribers to Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer magazines who let their subscriptions lapse because they thought the magazines kept revisiting topics that had already been covered to the point of boredom. Bigfoot? ESP? We already know they are bogus. Been there, done that; let’s move on.

No, let’s not give up on Bigfoot skepticism just yet. A new book by Daniel Loxton and Donald Prothero demonstrates that Bigfoot skepticism is a vital and ongoing project that can foster skeptical thinking in all areas of human endeavor. Abominable Science! Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids is the joint project of a paleontologist (Prothero) and a science popularizer for young readers who has always loved monster mysteries (Loxton). They use an effective tag-team approach: individual chapters are written by a single author, but their different perspectives merge into a seamless whole.

Rather than trying to tackle all of cryptozoology, they cover a few famous monster cryptids in depth: Bigfoot, Yeti, Nessie, sea serpents and Mokele Mbembe. As they investigate the evidence for each of these, a number of common themes emerge. There are lots of eyewitness accounts, fuzzy photographs, and hoaxes, but none of the type of evidence science demands. When there is material evidence like hair, a Yeti scalp, or footprints in the snow, a more credible explanation than cryptids is usually readily available. The hair, when properly examined by an expert, turns out to be either hair from a known animal or an artificial fiber. The Yeti scalps turn out to be from a goat-like animal called the serow. The footprints in the snow are from a bear or other local animal and have been distorted and enlarged by melting. A recent claim that Bigfoot DNA has been identified is flawed: the findings are consistent with human DNA mixed with DNA from one or more other mammals and are best explained by contamination in the lab.

Absence of evidence doesn’t usually constitute evidence of absence, but in cryptozoology it does. It is inconceivable that such large animals could exist in so many different parts of the world without anyone having found bones or other remains. If Bigfoot covered a range large enough to provide them with sufficient food and there were enough individuals to sustain a breeding population, surely we would have some material evidence by now. Meticulous surveys have thoroughly searched Loch Ness by sonar, submarine, and dredging without finding any evidence of large animals. Elephants show up spectacularly well on Google Earth: type in coordinates 10.903497, 19.93229 and zoom in on the herd—you can even see tusks and tails. No one has spotted a Mokele Mbembe on Google Earth. And the fossil record doesn’t indicate survival of large marine reptiles like plesiosaurs past the end of the dinosaur era 65 million years ago.

Local informants have been known to tell explorers what they want to hear, to embroider eyewitness accounts, and to confuse ancient legends with modern reality. The book delves into folklore, the psychology of eyewitness and hearsay accounts, and the reasons people are attracted to hunting cryptids. It includes amusing anecdotes about the personalities and activities of both hoaxers and sincere cryptid hunters.

Nessie is imagined to be a plesiosaur that swam into Loch Ness by way of a tunnel from the North Sea; but there can be no such tunnel, because the loch is 50 feet above sea level and the water hasn’t drained out. It is a freshwater lake, and the entire area was covered by an ice sheet a mile thick during the last glaciation. Think about it.

Humans are so prone to pattern recognition that they see patterns where there are none. We know that people have seen very convincing cryptids that on closer examination turned out to be bears, tree stumps, otters swimming in a row, cormorants, harbor seals, sharks, seaweed, the wake from boats, etc. People see what they want to see, and some of them are creationists with the hidden agenda of trying to prove that humans and dinosaurs co-existed and that the whole theory of evolution is wrong.

The chapters on cryptids are preceded by a meaty chapter on how science works and what distinguishes it from pseudoscience. The final chapter discusses why people believe in monsters and why cryptozoology matters. Here the authors disagree. Loxton encourages cryptozoology as a mostly harmless “gateway drug” that can lead lovers of mystery and the natural world to grapple with the nature of scientific evidence and hopefully develop a degree of scientific literacy. Prothero discourages it as a pseudoscience that promotes anti-scientific and anti-rational thinking. It’s refreshing to see how two people with those different perspectives can concentrate on evaluating the evidence and collaborate to write such an important book.

Wouldn’t it be exciting if these monsters really existed? It’s fun to imagine, but cryptozoologists tend to fall into pseudoscience and accept unreliable eyewitness testimony. Carl Sagan pointed out that the future of humanity depends on science and technology, but that “we have arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster.”

Bigfoot skepticism is alive and well. The important insights gleaned from analyzing the evidence for and against cryptids can help us think critically about the quality of evidence in every field, from feminism to economics. We still have a lot to learn from Bigfoot, and Loxton and Prothero are excellent teachers. END

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  1. Bob Pease says:

    ..” Carl Sagan pointed out that the future of humanity depends on science and technology, but that “we have arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster.”

    If someone can help me to find chapteraand verse here I would appreciate it .

    “Arrangements” seem lately to
    to “Teach the test ” to middle class kids from :good” ( i.e. “Caucasian”) neighborhoods
    and language illiteracy in general .
    De facto ethnic segregation of U.S

  2. Bob Pease says:

    ANSWER to my Question about SAGAN Quote


  3. Bad Boy Scientist says:

    We want MORE criticial thinking in our students? Be careful what you wish for …

    One of the most impressive displays of critical thinking I’ve seen was done to attack the arguments against Astrology in one of my Intro to Astronomy classes. One young lady shredded most of the standard arguments against Astrology given in Frosh Astro (and it turns out that she didn’t ‘believe in Astrology’ she just hated flimsy arguments). I’ll recap breifly here some of her points.

    Pointing out populations of famous people that do not support astrology (ie. their birth-dates are evenly distributed throughout the year) is flimsy because it is cherry picking data. There are many populations, like pro athletes, that appear to support astrology. In fact, the birth-dates in America are not evenly distributed over the year so these arguments (that appear in too many text books) are either sloppy or deceptive.

    She disposed of the ‘lack of a mechanism argument’ handily, too – Astrology predates the scientific method so it’s absurd to demand it act like modern science. It is not obliged to justify itself with a mechanism. There are many things people do, eg. creating art & music that cannot be explained with a mechanism but that does not invalidate those things. A lot of ‘tried and true’ practices that people use every day are not well understood (she provided some examples, but my memory fails me) – the fact that we don’t know how something works does not imply that it doesn’t work.

    She nuked the argument of the shifting signs due to the precession of Earth’s orbit, too. Since the IAU defined the boundaries of these constellations and it those boundaries that do no align with the Sun signs at present – it’s weakens the argument just a bit. Maybe the astrologers are using different boundaries… or maybe their astrological predictions are shifting with the shifting signs.

    Her coup de grace was regarding all those studies which show the Barnum Effect and Placebo Effect coming into play for Astrology – they inadvertently show that ASTROLOGY ACTUALLY WORKS. It may not work because of some mysterious force in the heavens, rather it relies on human psychology – but it works. It works just like when players boost their morale with superstitious rituals before big games. It works just like when a businessman chants some positive mental meme before a big negotiation. It works like how religion helps people cope with mortality. It works like how thinking you’re drinking an alcoholic beverage can lower inhibitions and make you act drunk.

    As I said, it was one of the most splendid examples of critical thinking that I have seen – it even changed my mind about how I address Astrology in my Astronomy class. I no longer say it is BS – I say that it is a psychological phenomenon and it doesn’t matter if you’re using stars, Tarrot cards, or Tea Leaves – or if you’re listening to your coach’s pep talk at half time – it’s all psychology.

    If you teach more critical thinking to our youth be prepared for them to spot all of the weaknesses in our arguments, too. But that’s good. Sometimes we need someone to think critically about our critical thinking… I think they call that ‘peer review’

    • Bob Pease says:

      Rhetoric is convincing discourse, (usually flawed , and frequently intentionally so ) on both sides.
      Students who get far enough to take your course are the
      kids who DON’T get left behind when teachers are “teaching the test” to keep their jobs.

      Astronomancy ( astrology) obviously “Works” but its uncritical acceptance make Sagan’s point that political is easy upon folks who believe in “magickal (sic) stuff.

      • Bob Pease says:

        “political manipulation”

        sorry about that!!


      • Bad Boy Scientist says:

        Bob, I think you miss my point. Critical Thinking is a two-edged sword.

        Many of the arguments against Astrology contained in Freshman texts are pretty flimsy. If a student applies critical thinking to these arguments she sees (has seen) that we who uncritically pass along these flimsy arguments have little room to criticize people who uncritically accept astrology. In fact, we should be trying to be better – if we’re advocating Sagan’s position we should be the ones to say “Well … that isn’t a good case against Astrology.”

        Another point: I have worked with thousands and thousands of college & high school students in informal STEM camps, Junior Colleges and Elite Universities – I have never encountered a student who does not know how t think critically (with the exception of a few developmentally handicapped students). I realize that just because a student doesn’t engage in critical thinking in my class or on my pet topic doesn’t mean they are incapable of critical thinking. Critical thinking is tiring – like running. No one runs everywhere they go – and it is foolish and arrogant for me to conclude that students who do not run to my class cannot run at all. They run when they want to and it’s my job as an educator of science to motivate them and show them the joy of running. I mean critical thinking.

        • Bob Pease says:

          I agree with your point , but I was commenting on the fact that too few students in Elementary and Secondary Education would even be taking courses such as these because of manipulation of standards to challenge those who least need it.

          Cynically stated, many U.S. schools are holding pens for trainee criminals
          who see their future compromising of “The Joint” and “Rackets”
          In most others , the ” non-elect” face a very uncertain future economically.

          The “ratings” of schools ( national test performance) are very strongly related to the median cost of
          single-family residences in that district.
          Check out Greatschools, for example.

          If teachers want to keep their jobs, they ” teach the test ” to the
          Smart kids and let the rest ( disproportionately “ethnic minorities”)
          try to keep up.

          The de facto segregation of American Society is still happening.

          Generally , almost everyone’s’ social friends and neighborhoods are grossly
          skewed towards the “Ethnic” group to which they belong.

          The Emperor’s Clothes need closer inspection


    • William says:

      Sorry, I don’t see anything in that girl’s arguments that show critical thinking, nor that they debunk anything.

      Part of the problem with astrology is that it assigns 12 constellations to the complete circle, with each “house” being 30 degrees wide. Now this can be considered mostly a graphics form to make calculations easier – but it is also claimed that the influences of the planets depends on the houses that they are in. (“When the Moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligns with Mars – then peace …”).

      Double blind tests of professional astrologers attempting to match natal signs up with individuals have produced nothing better than random results. In other words, the same percentage of matches would have been made by pulling slips of paper out of a hat.

      There are big differences between psychological influences and celestial influences. The viability of one does NOT prove the existence of the other. Stating that psychological factors show that “astrology actually works” is disingenuous, at best. Your “Her coup de grace” paragraph is balderdash.

  4. Roy Niles says:

    That comment was more informative than the articles that preceded it.

    • Bob Pease says:

      The above comment is more interesting than any of the other comments

      The reason is that the antecedent of the pronoun “that” changes as more posts are added!!

  5. ken stieg says:

    I have been studying astrology for over a decade and I believe it deserves some real research.

    • W Corvi says:

      Well, Ken, I assume if you’ve been studying astrology for a decade, that you HAVE done some real research (or wasted 10 years). What did you find?

      I think the main argument against it working is what it DOESN’T predict. Take 9/11 for example, NOT ONE astrologer or psychic predicted it. Well, one did, and she had flight numbers, hijackers names – amazing details! Why didn’t we hear about it? She said, while announcing her prediction in October, that she FORGOT TO TELL ANYONE!

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