Monthly Archives: March 2009

Ray’s Comforting Private Universe – Pt 1

Christian apologist – New Zealand’s own Ray Comfort is a prolific author, but the question is, does he have anything worthwhile to say?

With more than 70 Christian book titles to his name he clearly has a message. On a recent 60 minutes episode here in New Zealand, Ray Comfort claimed he has pretty much had the same message in every book, just a different cover.

This is abundantly clear in his new book “You Can Lead An Atheist To Water But You Can’t Make Him Think”. We will leave the reference to atheists being male aside, the somewhat provocative title leads one to suspect there will be some good evidence inside that will dash an argument skeptical of Christianity to the ground, kick it a few times and leave it reeling in the gutter. If you were led to believe this by the cover, you will be greatly disappointed.

I actually like Ray Comfort. He is from New Zealand, so am I, he is a kind natured guy and means well, but he does himself, and Christianity, a great disservice when he opens his mouth or puts pen to paper. Again, this is evident in his latest book.

Not even rational

The book has really two parts, none of them evidence against atheism and none very convincing to skeptics. Ray isn’t concerned about rational arguments, he seems content with the same design fallacies and faith-based arguments that he has sprinkled through all his other works.

The first part really sets the scene with a grossly generalised strawman argument that states skeptics and atheists are “angry”. I think it is interesting to point out, that as a skeptic myself, the skpetical community is more bemused and bored with the same old arguments time and time again being used as “evidence”.

Much of this so called “evidence” is really flimsy and simple to the point where it is impossible to take seriously intellectually. Still, the arguments are convincing to a great many, but I maintain that if a Christian is serious about their faith then they ought conduct their reasoning without resorting to perversion of science and logic to suit their own ends.

The second part of the book is vintage Comfort – Christian arguments for Christianity and nothing that would keep a skeptic awake at night wondering. I won’t go into the explicitly Christian philosophy second half of the book – this review is more concerned with Ray’s scientific claims. If you have read any of his earlier works (which are mainstream aplogetic arguments) then there really is no need to read this book.

The first part of the book fails miserably as an argument for God and Christianity for three main reasons: (a) Too much of Comfort’s argument relies on problematic design arguments (teleology) of the William Paley ilk; (b) Comfort demonstrates a willful ignorance of basic science and distorts science in order to sound convincing (though I think he genuinely believes his interpretation of science is valid; and (c) He makes no effort to pin his arguments down with sound logic – he just throws arguments out there riddled with logical fallacies.

These three attributes do not make for a very solid or convincing argument – hence the reason skeptics remain unconvinced and… “angry”.

Without further ado, here is the argument for an intelligent designer (Christian God) as stated in the first few chapters of Comfort’s new book:

Ray’s “it seems logical to me” arguments from design

Well design arguments aren’t the exclusive domain of Ray Comfort – William Paley wrote about them more than 200 years ago. The teleological argument – that the way things are looks designed so there is a designer logic has several flaws and too many limitations to be evidence of anything, especially God.

Design arguments are based on subjective circular reasoning

Ray’s logic:
(1) Look, the world is full of complex things.
(2) These things have purposes.
(3) If things in nature have purposes then they are designed with these purposes in mind. (4) Purpose infers designer.
(5) [Wave the magic wand] The fact there are luscious fruits, beautiful flowers, water, air to breathe all shows that God exists [hey presto].

When you examine this argument you will notice several logical fallacies:

Firstly, the design argument is a non sequiter. “It looks like it is designed therefore this confirms the existence of a designer.” This simply does not follow. It is not possible to determine there is purpose and design in something if we have no other examples to compare it to. Ray looks at a painting and says, we know there must be a painter.

He will typically mention a few other examples and then make the fallacious leap to nature (the same argument Paley made about watches). We know watches are made by watch makers, we have can go and see them in action. The problem is, we have never seen a universe being formed, we cannot just infer design and leave it at that.

Charles Darwin destroyed the “it looks designed so there must be a designer” intuitive reasoning with an elegant explanation of how complexity emerges via natural forces from simplicity. Natural selection really did cripple the design argument forever after. Maybe this is why creationists will do whatever they can to divert people’s attention away from these inconvenient observations. Scottish philosopher David Hume also destroyed the teleological argument in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

A second logical fallacy at work here is that the design argument requires observational selection – looking at natural objects and inferring design requires ignoring those that don’t fit the bill (often called “cherry picking”). The design argument can therefore be said to be developed out of convenience.

Ray can argue all he likes about the beauty and purpose inherent in creation but he ultimately can’t escape that obvious examples of poor design. Viruses and bacteria stalk the Earth killing millions of people every year; asteroids that are indifferent to our survival fling around in orbits that eventually put some of them on a collision course with Earth. About two-thirds of the Earth is covered by water and much of the land is uninhabitable because of ice, mountains and desert. As physicist Victor Stenger points out, when you look at the physical universe it is exactly as you would expect if natural forces and processes brought it about. Design is an illusion – a natural tendency given the way our brains have evolved.

The design argument is an argument from ignorance – there is no positive evidence for a designer. Furthermore, Voltaire argued that even if it was determined that the universe was designed this could not prove the existence of any specific deity.

To Comfort, nature is not only confirmation of God but also of his nature, in that he has kindly given human beings everything they need for survival. Though Comfort does not use the example in his book, he has posited that a banana is “an atheist’s nightmare”. The banana, he reasons, is so obviously designed for human consumption that it follows God made it. He then says when we look at all of creation we see the same design. It is not hard to see where this argument fails miserably… What about pineapples and coconuts? Are they obviously designed for consumption? Nuts? Shellfish? Meat?

One last point on the design argument. Because human beings are innate teleologists – we naturally infer purpose and design in nature – this is confirmation of why science was created in the first place. Our own perception and cognitive faculties have inherent flaws and biases that prevent us from being fully rational. Science is the methodology that has helped us overcome these limitations and has contributed to the progress of our species. Ray Comfort merely confirms this in the way he approaches argumentation.

I have run out of space here due to an overzealous job of dismissing the argument for an intelligent designer from observation. The deconstruction of Ray Comfort’s selective interpretation of science will continue in the next post where we look at thermodynamics.

Global Warming/Climate Change deniers are not skeptics

Global warming – and its associated term – climate change – is one of the most important yet divisive issues of our time. And make no mistake, both terms are scientific and a solid scientific consensus has emerged from a convergence of data from many different fields of inquiry.

Yet there are a good many people dedicated, dogmatically so, to denying various aspects of climate change. There are global warming deniers, denialists that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas (or at least produces negligent atmospheric effects) and they all, therefore, share the belief that human activity is not to blame for climate change.

It is important to point out that people who deny scientific findings are denialists and not skeptics. A true skeptic adheres to the scientific method and therefore is skeptical of claims that stem from beliefs inconsistent with the science. Skepticism is a positive venture, precisely because it is about the pursuit of truth and knowledge through the scientific method.

Denialists Of All Stripes
Many denialists are in fact conspiracy theorists, and once the conspiracy belief system is swallowed then all that exists is the conspiracy. This is a common trait in all forms of denial, whether they be holocaust, aids denial or global warming. Some think science is just wrong while others take that extra few hundred miles of faith leaping to imply, or flat out claim, a grand conspiracy. And grand the conspiracy would have to be considering the amazing number of individual agents with separate spheres of influence that it would take if true. A scientists analysing ice core samples in Antarctica have very little to do with a climatologist studying rainfall and climate of the Amazon rainforest. Yet, their conclusions might feed into the same hypothesis and in fact, this is what we find when we look at their research. We will look at this in a moment. First, let’s address what global warming deniers are really saying:

  • GW deniers believe their own stories are better informed than the science gathered by numerous climatology organisations, endorsed by peer review and all of the academies of science from the major industrialised nations.
  • Many, not all, GW deniers dismiss the notion that, the increase of the CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere as a result of industrialisation has accelerated climate change processes.
  • GW deniers cherry pick short term trends as proof that GW isn’t happening. Meanwhile, glaciers and ice shelves continue to recede at an alarming rate.
  • Some GW deniers go to the extreme end of confirmation bias and distortion of facts by claiming that CO2 isn’t a greenhouse gas – they claim it has a limited radiation forcing effect. This is apparent justification to just leap in and burn as much coal and fossil fuels as we like. This claim also ignores the fact that, regardless of GW, more methane, CO2, nitrogen and sulphur oxides in the atmosphere is not a healthy thing.
  • Another popular claim among GW deniers is the idea that climate change happens anyway. Yes, this is true, however, implicit in that argument is the supposition that humans have no impact on the climate change process. This is claimed despite the fact that industrialisation has changed the composition of the atmosphere dramatically. Concentrations of CO2 and methane have increased by 36% and 148% respectively since the beginning of the industrial revolution in the mid-1700s.
  • The possibility of one person knowing enough about the research that feeds into climate change theory is very slim. Yet, GW deniers seem to think they do know enough. The endeavour of one particular scientific theory maybe so all encompassing that it is impossible for one person to call themselves an expert in the field. This is a strength of science though, because research from multiple disciplines can feed into a theory – each branch contributing its own findings. It is unscientific to have hubris and think you know it all.

Climate change models are the best extrapolations we have of future climate trends. Climate models are dependent on the best data possible and therefore change as new information arises. This revision of climate models is seen as a weakness by GW deniers, so they engage in combat with nonsense arguments like “we can’t even predict the weather for tomorrow accurately (so how can we trust these climate models that are constantly changing)” . Weather is spontaneous and while predictable to an extent, the variable can change very quickly. Climate trends can be analysed and because they are long term projections, we can make informed assessments of climate data. The trend will have a saw tooth effect, the complexity of climate variables ensures that it won’t be a smooth trend, but the overall pattern, revealed by some models, shows a possible 4% warming by 2050. This would be dire for human populations as it would force mass migrations from uninhabitable zones to cooler, wetter regions.

One final word on climate models. Notice how these models require data and therefore change as better data is discovered. Notice too how the beliefs of GW deniers are not contingent on new information and therefore will seldom change. “But we’ve been in a cooling period since a peak average global temperature in 1998”. So what? This is cherry picking data from a small dataset. How can 10 years of apparent lower average global temperature represent a long term trend of global warming? There will always be fluctuations. Selecting data and saying “ha ha – gotcha” is very unscientific. This is exactly what astrologers do when describing predictions made by the stars, all the¬†while ignoring the misses. Arguing from the fallacy of small numbers is a feature of pseudoscience.

Now is not the time to ignore the climate science. As with any science, there are detractors and the suspicions of the political motivations. It is obvious that some things will have to change and privileges lost. Many are therefore resistant to changing wasteful habits. Those profiting from fossil fuels will lose out. Humans aren’t really good at change. We get comfortable and that security blanket is hard to leave. Changing isn’t an option any longer. The best methods of knowledge gathering and testing have been applied to real world trends and have revealed a startling trend towards a dramatically different world. We turn against such knowledge at our own peril.

As I conclude this story a New Scientist article has outlined the changes Earth will undergo by 2099. The conclusions aren’t encouraging. I also found an article that also expands on this story.