Thursday, 28 March 2013

Scientist Makes Mistake!

University tests prove conclusively that scientists are sometimes wrong.


Does this mean we should disbelieve everything scientists say?  Should we toss out of the window widely-attested scientific findings about such important things as the age of the earth, the health effects of tobacco or the processes of climate change?

Funnily enough, no.  We should believe them when they are right and disbelieve them when they are wrong .  The more difficult question is: how can you tell?

The answer to this is in two parts.  The first is, you need to ask other scientists.  Scientists themselves have two terms for this - peer review, and replication.  Peer review is where you get other scientists to look at a work of science and check that the methodology is sound, the evidence has been properly gathered and supports the conclusion, and so on.  Replication is what you do when results are tentative, or based on small samples - you run the experiment or test again in slightly different circumstances to see if you get the same result.  If you keep doing these two things consistently, then over time scientists will correct each others' mistakes.

This leads to a follow up question - how can we trust the integrity and independence of the scientists on whom we are relying?  How do we know they're not lying or fudging their results to favour a particular point of view?

Surprisingly, the answer to this question turns out to be not public floggings but public funding.  This is because of what economists refer to as the Principle of Funder Directed Note Sequencing.  First identified in relation to players of wind instruments, this Principle has been found to be applicable to a wide range of professions.

It suggests that scientists who are employed by particular organisations have a strong financial incentive to report findings that serve the interests of their employers.  Scientists paid by drug companies will be tempted to find that more expensive drugs will improve health.  Scientists paid by coal mining companies will be sorely tempted to find that carbon emissions have minimal effect on the earth's climate.

If follows, then, that if you want scientists to act in the public interest, it will be easiest for them to do so if paid by the public.  Ideally they will be tenured and protected from direct political interference so that their findings are not open to political manipulation.  Their data and research will be freely available for anyone to check, review, replicate or just muck about with to ensure they are not deceiving us.  They will be encouraged to speak their mind even if their findings are not popular.  They will be encouraged to research things that are important for the wellbeing of society even if there is no money to be made out of their findings.

You pay peanuts, you get monkeys.  Monkeys are great experimental subjects but very poor at scientific method.  For that you need highly trained scientists, and if you want them you have to pay what they're worth.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

More Batty Policies

About 18 months ago I had a good laugh at the expense of then Queensland Opposition Leader Campbell Newman's plan to "move on" colonies of flying foxes which have taken up residence in urban areas.  As I pointed out, the idea sounds good in a soundbite but is rather absurd in practice since flying foxes are not easy to herd.


Of course we all know that since then Newman has become Queensland Premier with such a thumping majority that he thinks everyone now has to do his bidding, even wild animals.  Every silly thing he said as opposition leader has now become law - including move-on powers against giant fruit bats.  He is annoyed that some local governments are not falling into line, and is threatening to override them, arrange for the bat move-on himself (at least get one of his slaves to do it - or several!) then send the local council the bill.

Sometimes I think I might be one of the few sane people left in Queensland but the Brisbane Times reassures me I'm not alone, and that other people more qualified than me agree with me on this subject. 

Senior Lecturer at the James Cook University School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Dr Jon Luly, has trashed the idea saying anyone with elementary knowledge of bats knew moving colonies did not work.

"It is remarkably stupid," he said.  "Because it will basically achieve absolutely nothing in terms of solving whatever problem he thinks there is and it is very likely to make the circumstances worse.  It’s taking Queensland back to the dark ages in terms of animal management practice."

Dr Luly said there was a "very strong risk" of bats ending up closer to people in an "uncontrolled" way if colonies were moved and the problem had been made worse in Charters Towers by trying to move colonies. He said bats "almost immediately" moved to a place worse for humans than the original place they were moved from.

"The Premier is just running off at the mouth because he’s got a few vocal people in his ear,’’ Dr Luly said.  "He thinks the simple solution is to go and run around shooting things and electrocuting things which is the kind of attitude Joh Bjelke-Petersen had, not only with animals, but with greenies in some respects.  It’s a very primitive view of natural resource management."

He said the primary issue with moving bat colonies was there was no way to predict where the bats would end up.  Dr Luly said the solution was to make sure people got the correct information to inform their decision about whether they could live with a bat colony or not.  He said it was a "very rare" case which would support moving a bat colony and even then this rarely solved the problem.

Of course Newman believes he knows better and is confident that the bats will bend to his will if he is persistent enough.  Sadly, he also believes that if he shuts his eyes firmly enough climate change will go away so he has abolished all the government's climate-change related programs and wound back a large number of environmental protections in the name of "cutting green tape". 

I have heard that in his second term, Newman plans to solve tidal erosion by commanding the waves to stop five metres from the shore, and that he will simultaneously solve the problems of flooding and drought by commanding the rivers to flow inland on alternate days in the wet season and inundate arid Western Queensland.

"What manner of man is this, that even the wind and waves obey him?"

Friday, 22 March 2013

The Survival of Julia Gillard

Benjamin Disraeli is supposed to have said, "Prediction is extraordinarily difficult, particularly when it concerns the future."  He lived in simpler times.  Now Australian political commentators are all at sea trying to even work out what happened in the past.  After a week of even greater than usual instability in the federal Labor Party, our Prime Minister Julia Gillard retained the leadership by default when Kevin Rudd declined to put his name forward. 


No doubt Rudd's supporters are now wondering why they bothered.  Australian electors are also wondering.  Is he a man of principle who kept his word, refusing to challenge despite the pressure from his colleagues?  Or is he a cynical bastard who hung his supporters out to dry when it was clear he would lose?  Either way, Gillard achieves, even if by default, the miracle of surviving yet again.  Whether she can perform the same feat in September against an opponent who will most certainly challenge, and appears to overwhelmingly have the numbers, remains to be seen.

However, there are other questions that baffle me, and that lie behind the current political crisis. 

First of all is the debacle around media laws.  Labor has been a minority government for over two years now.  Why has it still not learnt how to negotate with the independents on the cross benches?  Why are its senior ministers so ignorant that they think they can announce legislation and these very clearly independent players will just nod their heads?  Are we ruled by complete dunderheads?

This leads to a more interesting historical question.  Did that other complete dunderhead, Tony Abbot, actually show more intelligence than he appeared to in the negotiations over who would form a minority government?  In a situation where the independent members he needed to convince were rural conservatives, indeed former Coalition party members, how did he fail to make the most of his advantage? 

I'm thinking that perhaps he was more foresighted than I gave him credit for.  He knew his own ministers would be just as dunderheaded as the Labor ones, and that if he took government in 2010 he would now be in exactly the position Gillard is in, fighting off imminent collapse while his opponents laugh from the sidelines.  Instead, all he has to do is watch and point jeeringly as the Labor ministers make fools of themselves.  Australian voters hate chaos and will elect his government with a solid majority to bring an end to it all.

So now, a bit more foresight.  Tony Abbott has been reticent about his policy positions for a good reason.  Like the recently elected Newman Government here in Queensland, he will use inflated estimates of the budget deficit and the government's debt position to justify swathing cuts to Commonwealth programs.  These will fall most heavily on the poorest members of society - social security recipients, those dependent on the public health system, sole parents.  Environmental programs will be slashed wholesale, the coal industry will have open slather. 

I'm no fan of Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd or any of the sorry lot who have given us such a farce over the past few weeks.  Their policies on asylum seekers, Aboriginal affairs and the social security status of sole parents are appalling.  Yet despite their dysfunction they have done some good things.  They have introduced the Carbon Tax, made the first steps down the road to setting up the National Disability Insurance Scheme, implemented some really good housing programs and some seminal reforms to homelessness services, delivered much needed apologies to people who have suffered as a result of past government abuses. 

All this will be wiped away by an Abbott government and in its place will be deregulation for big business, budget austerity and environmental vandalism.  Look ahead, people!  Don't do it!

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Lewis' Trilemma Strikes Again

Well blow me down with a feather duster.  After not hearing Lewis' Trilemma (the "lunatic, liar or Lord" argument) for years, I hear it twice in a fortnight.

I couple of weeks ago I told you how I heard it from the pulpit in my own church.  Fair enough, our rector is a busy working pastor and doesn't have time to think through the fine points of every sermon.  Then last Thursday a good friend graduated from the Queensland Theological College and I went along to clap as he got his hard-earned piece of paper.  There it was again, popping up its three ugly heads at the close of Douglas O'Donnell's guest speech.  I hope the theological graduates were shaking their heads at the faux pas.

It slightly spoiled what was otherwise an intriguing address.  O'Donnell's subject was the Sermon on the Mount, and his point was that the central theme of the sermon is Jesus' authority.  In support of this idea he cited four pieces of evidence.


The first was the setting of the sermon on top of a mountain.  This, like the other mountaintop scenes in Matthew, suggests a parallel with Moses ascending Mount Sinai and returning with the words of the Torah written on stone tablets - except that instead of stone writings Jesus delivers his own words.

Second is the formula which recurs through the body of the sermon.  Jesus says "you have heard that it was said..." and quotes or paraphrases a verse from the Torah.  Then he goes on, "...but I say to you..." and outlines his own intepretation or reworking of the cited verse.  Adultery is reframed as lust, murder as anger, and so on.

Third is the closing words of the sermon, in which he uses the image of wise and foolish builders to exhort his hearers not just to hear his words, but to obey them, and promises to disown those who don't.

Finally there is the reaction of the crowds, who "were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes".

As if to finish with a flourish, this is where O'Donnell quoted Lewis' words from Mere Christianity.

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

It did indeed provide a rhetorical flourish to close a well-constructed sermon.  Lewis is a master of English prose, his choice of words and the cadence of his sentences contibute as much to the power of his argument as the logic of his proposition.  Indeed more.  I won't repeat what I said in my earlier post, you can read it here.  Suffice to say there are a lot more than three options.  If you don't want to take my word for it, have a look at this fascinating re-presentation of the question, complete with thoroughly subjective assignments of mathematical probability.

Ultimately O'Donnell's faux pas highlighted the weakness of his own argument.  He is undoubtedly correct that the Sermon on the Mount incorporates a claim to authority by which Jesus radically rewrites the Mosaic Law.  To say this authority is the subject of the sermon, however, is like saying the subject of a court order is the power of the court to give orders.  Jesus' authority represents the context of the sermon.  Its content is the rewriting of the Law itself. 

A king who sits in his castle year after year and issues no decrees is a king in name only.  We may tip our hats as we pass his door, but he has no real impact on our lives.  A king who issues oppressive or foolish decrees will excite our rebellion and disobedience.  No matter how well founded his claim to authority, he will not hold it for long and will never have our love. 

We don't accept Jesus' authority simply because he claims it, or because of some piece of seemingly unassailable logic.  We accept it because of what he said and did, because of the stunning insight of his moral teaching and the example of his self-sacrificial love.  This is a king we want to follow, and so we do.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

What is an Atheist?

Reading Tom Frame has got me thinking again about the idea of atheism.  When someone says they are an atheist, what are they saying about themselves?  What do the words "I am an atheist" tell you about a person's world view?

If you were to ask me my worldview, I would say I am a Christian.  I might qualify that - I am a progressive Christian who has been strongly influenced by liberation theology. From this, you would be able to deduce a lot about my worldview. 

You would know that I believe there is a god, although I don't claim full knowledge by any means.  You would know I place a high value on the teachings of Jesus and try to follow them, that I am particularly driven by concern for social justice and for the elimination of poverty.  You would know that I value compassion and empathy, that I have a more or less traditional Chrisitan view about what is right or wrong.

The same would be true of someone who said they were a Buddhist, or a follower of Islam.  It would also be true of someone who told you, say, that they were a Marxist, or a liberal humanist.  Each of these labels tells you what the person stands for. 

Of course none of us is "pure" in following the worldview we espouse.  In reality I have a wide range of influences in my life, some of which I have adopted consciously, some I may not even be aware of.

However, if I was to ask you what your world view is and you told me you were an atheist, my response would be, "OK, now I know what your worldview is not, please tell me what it is."

The very word "atheism" tells us that this is a negation.  This person does not believe in God, the gods, the supernatural, life after death, an absolute given standard of morality, or any claims of special revelation.  The point of atheism is to deny these things, and to loosen their hold on humanity.  Atheism is a clearing of the decks.

So my question is, clearing them for what?  Just because you're an atheist, this doesn't mean you don't have a worldview.  Everybody has one.  Can you please tell me what yours is?  What values do you hold dear, and why?  What drives you to get up in the morning?  What can I expect from you if we become close, or work together?  What sort of society will you build?  Or are you merely motivated by the fun of tearing down the world views of other people?

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Losing My Religion

It's interesting how you can live in a society, and yet know so little about it.  You have an intimate circle of friends and relations and you have a reasonable idea what they think and how they react, but you have no way of knowing, without detailed research, if what you and your friends think and experience is typical.

Tom Frame is a former Anglican Bishop to the Defence Forces and current Director of St Mark's National Theological Centre in Canberra.  His book Losing My Religion is an attempt to lift the veil on one aspect of our society - the level and nature of religious belief and unbelief in Australia.  Has unbelief increased in Australia?  If so what are the causes of this growing unbelief, and what are its consequences? 

Sadly, his attempt to answer these questions is at best only partly successful.  There are two reasons for this.  One is that the available evidence is insufficient to answer such a complex question.  The other is that Frame, for all his erudition, doesn't seem to know how to use much of the evidence he has.

He suggests that religious belief in Australia has declined steadily from a high point in the 1950s.  His main evidence for this is the census data on religion, which shows a steady decrease in the proportion of people identifying as belonging to a Christian denomination, and an increase in the proportion ticking the "no religion" box. 

This point seems correct as far as it goes, although his rather haphazard handling of the data makes it hard to be sure.  Some graphs and tables would have helped.  However, the main problem is that he doesn't get to grips with what the data mean.  What are people saying when they tick a box that says "Anglican" or "Catholic"?  Since the large majority of these people rarely if ever actually go to church, it seems certain this is not a statement of belief so much as affiliation, or possibly ancestry.

He mentions various other sources of data which could possibly add to our understanding of this question - church attendance figures, the National Church Life Survey, Hugh Mackay's social surveys.  However, he makes little use of them.  I looked in vain for an Australian equivalent to Christine Wicker's illuminating book on American evangelicalism. 

Another factor he fails to really address, although he illustrates it at length, is the overwhelming frustration of Australia's 19th century church leaders.  In their eyes, Australia was "the most godless place on earth".  Did belief grow in the first half of the 20th century, and then decline?  Or did the desire for respectability merely lead non-believers to occasionally attend church for social reasons? Either way, why did this happen?  Frame doesn't really tell us, although he does hint that it might be the latter.

All this meant I wasn't really sure if I should accept his thesis about the decline of belief when so much of his own evidence pointed in the other direction, but for the sake of argument I read on to his analysis of the causes.  He identifies three intellectual threads which he says have contributed to a decline of belief - trends in philosophy which have removed the necessity for God, the development of scientific knowledge, and the growth of what he calls "secular theology" from Bultmann and Tillich through to John Shelby Spong.

I enjoyed his summary but two things nagged at me.  The first was that all the trends he referred to, and all the thinkers, were from Europe and North America.  This is fair enough in itself, since Australia is hardly the centre of the intellectual universe, but his account of how these issues have been dealt with in the Australian church and the wider society was meagre by comparison.  A brief chapter with some haphazard quotes and citations hardly does the job in a book that purports to be about this country.

Then there was another problem.  Early in the book Frame cites some very interesting studies from Britain and the USA on why people abandon belief.  There seems to be no comparable Australian research, but overseas data suggests that personal reasons - disillusionment with the church, personal crises or hardships - feature much larger than intellectual ones in people's loss of faith.  Yet in examining causes he reverts to the intellectual issues.  Perhaps this is the only area where there is evidence, or perhaps it's where he feels most comfortable.  Certainly it would have been good to hear a little more about the social or emotional reasons believers might leave the church - the saga of sexual abuse, perhaps, or pastoral failings, or a failure to respond appropriately to suffering?

Which brings us to his final area of enquiry, the social consequences of loss of belief.  This is perhaps the most perplexing part of the book.  He focuses strongly on the activities of those he refers to as "anti-theists" - Dawkins, Harris and co and their Australian equivalents Phillip Adams, Terry Lane and Tamas Pataki, although of the Australians only Pataki really qualifies as an anti-theist as opposed to merely an atheist.

His idea is that the activities of these people are indicative of a de-legitimising of religious (and specifically Christian) perspectives in public affairs.  He fears that over time, it will become increasingly difficult to present an openly Christian view on issues of public concern.  At one stage he discusses the advent of the Secular Party of Australia, whose slogan is "Freedom from Religion".  Yet he ignores the fact that while this fringe political party gained less than one in a thousand votes in the 2007 Senate election, Family First has a sitting Senator.  Our two most recent past Prime Ministers, as well as our current Opposition Leader, are avowed Christians.  Even Adams and Lane are more interested in engaging critically with religious leaders than silencing them.  It seems a long stretch to suggest religion is being excluded from public life, although there is no guarantee that this will not happen in some unknown future.

Tom Frame has proposed some big questions.  Answering them was always going to be a hard ask and it's not surprising he struggled.  I would have too.  Perhaps he could use this book as the starting point for a research program which would help fill some of the gaps.  Then he would be able to write a book I would really like to read.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Lunatic, Liar, Lord or...

I was surprised in church last Sunday to hear our preacher propound the "lunatic, liar or Lord" argument.  I thought he might have known better.

This argument did not originate with CS Lewis, but he popularised it in his 1952 book Mere Christianity, and it has been widely used by Evangelical apologists ever since.  The argument runs something like this: Jesus made a number of quite startling claims about himself, like "the Father and I are one", or "no-one comes to the Father but through me".  In the light of these claims, it is not reasonable to suggest that Jesus was merely a good man or an inspired teacher.  If he made these claims believing them to be true, but they were not, he was a lunatic with delusions of gradeur.  If he made them knowing they were not true, he was simply a charlatan.  If he was neither of these things, then we are forced to acknowledge his lordship and submit to him.

Apologetics serves two purposes.  It bolsters the faith of those who may be questioning or wavering, and it entices and convinces those who are open and enquiring towards the faith.  The "liar, lunatic or Lord" argument has been successful on both counts.  For Evangelicals it serves as a bulwark not so much against outright unbelief as against more liberal or progessive forms of Christianity, suggesting that these theologies are unreasonable.  For inquirers from outside, it is a psychologically astute strategy because it plays on a point of sympathy.  In our society organised religion attracts a good deal of suspicion but Jesus himself tends to be viewed a lot more sympathetically.  Many who think this way actually know very little about Jesus, and this argument encourages them to take a closer look.

It's a pity the argument doesn't stand up very well to scrutiny.  The main source of its weakness is that it enters the question at the half-way point, assuming things it is not safe to assume. 

Anyone familiar with the accounts of Jesus' life contained in the Gospels, from fundamentalist Christians to wholly secular scholars, agrees that they were not written by Jesus.  They were written by various of his early followers, no earlier than 30 years after the events they describe and in some instances possibly as many as 70 years after. 

There are then two basic possibilities - they are accurate factual accounts of Jesus' words and deeds, or they are not.  These two possibilities and their various sub-sets are the subject of fierce dispute amongst New Testament scholars and in the wider church.

If they are factual accounts, then Lewis' argument holds.  If they are not a range of other possibilities opens up.  These possibilities focus not so much on Jesus himself as on the disciples and their motivations.  Here are three.

It is possible that they were secretive.  On this interpretation, the Gospel writers regarded the real truth about Jesus as something to be revealed only to a select few, either because the knowledge was politically sensitive or because early Christianity functioned as a mystery religion with outer and inner circles.  The gospels are a smokescreen, presenting Jesus for popular consumption while embedding the deeper truth in a code revealed only to initiates.  The fact there is little evidence to support this idea doesn't prevent a substantial number of people from believing it.

A second possibility is that they were simply mistaken.  In the time that elapsed between the events of Jesus' life and the writing of the gospels, the stories grew and changed in the retelling.  The gospels, in this view, record this inflated story, which is at some remove from the original events.  Some scholars believe it is impossible to get behind this version to the "real" truth of Jesus, while others expend great effort and time in the attempt.  The result of their labours is generally some version of the very position Lewis was trying to debunk - Jesus was a good man, gifted teacher, etc but not divine.  The key weakness of this view can be seen by asking the question - why were the originals of these stories circulating in the first place? 

Finally, it is possible that they have been misunderstood.  The cultural distance between us and them means that we are disposed to take the accounts literally in the way Lewis does.  The original writers, in this explanation, intended them to be understood symbolically, drawing on images from the Old Testament and Roman culture to present an alternative view of Jewish spirituality and the imperatives of empire.  Of course the actuality behind the symbols still needs to be identified and understood in this interpretation.

I know I bang on a lot about bad apologetics.  The risk is that when people discover the logical faults in the arguments that support their faith, they abandon the entire faith, not just the bits based on the faulty arguments.  We set believers up for a fall. 

I'm not entirely sure what a good apologetic is on this, but I suspect it begins with the existence of the Gospels themselves.  In the face of persecution by the Roman authorities, ostracism from the main stream of Jewish religion and scorn from the leading philosophers of the age, the first generation of Christians had sufficient reverence for Jesus to sustain their faith, pass it on to a second generation and record it for posterity.  Whatever the precise nature of the records, their history is enough to make us look more closely.

*You can read further thoughts about Lewis' Trilemma here.