My Talk for Skeptics in the Pub, Cologne on the Star of Bethlehem

Along with the big Star of Bethlehem conference in Groningen, I was in Cologne before that to give a talk about the same subject to Skeptics in the Pub. That talk was also recorded and edited nicely by the folks there, and that is now up on YouTube. (Note: the intro is in German, but my talk is in English.)

Only downside with this was that I did not do my best to stay close to the microphone, and that means my voice goes in and out a fair bit. I’m used to talking with my voice picked up by different devices, so I’ll need to remember that for the future. Still, you can get all the contents of my talk reasonably well, and the presentation went really smoothly. Plus, great folks at SiTP Koeln. They had some really good questions, but it doesn’t look like the Q&A was recorded.

I also didn’t know this before I went there, but Cologne is the city were, allegedly, the bodies of the Three Kings/Magi are kept; the cities coat of arms reflects this, and the cathedral with those bodies is a UNESCO site, and it is a lovely building. 2014-10-22 10.22.50

A bit of review of me and my talk can be found here and here (auf Deutch). Hopefully I can find an excuse and go again to this group.

Also, the holidays are approaching, so if your group needs a speaker on a timely subject, let me know.

Review of my Star of Bethlehem Book by Michael Molnar–The Shark has been Jumped

As I mentioned in my last post about the big Star of Bethlehem conference at the University of Groningen, there is a new review of my book on the subject that was published online just after the conference. At least that is when it first appeared on Twitter through the journal’s account. The journal, Science, Religion & Culture, has a review by Michael Molnar, author of the most sophisticated attempt at explaining the Star through ancient astrology. His thesis was the one most focused on at the conference, and so it received considerable analysis and criticism. Molnar did not attend the meeting for reasons unclear to me, but if he had he may have realized that his work is highly problematic and unconvincing to experts in the field.

His review of my book on the Star of Bethlehem is even more problematic. Not only does it repeat many factual errors examined at the conference, but it is filled with logical issues, changing stances from his published work, and even deceptive characterizations of what I wrote, not to mention the facts. He denies the very existence of contrary evidence he doesn’t like, accuses me of logical fallacies I did not commit, and at times writes so unclearly I don’t know if he gave what he wrote a second-read. There is a laundry list of things I can point to, but I will start with a few points that show that Molnar simply cannot be trusted on this subject; he is too invested to learn from mistakes or even understand the arguments. Continue reading

Summary of the Star of Bethlehem Conference

I am flying back home now from the amazing conference on the Star of Bethlehem at the University of Groningen. It was quite the success of collecting experts and scheduling events, including a trip to the oldest working planetarium in the world. This was also my first academic conference in the area of history and biblical studies, and I was surrounded by scholars in Iranian studies, Jewish astrology, Latin literature, ancient science, and of course New Testament studies. And it looks like I did well among this august group. Heck, after my talk a few whispered to me that it seemed like I already answered all the questions about the subject!

Not everyone could be at such an event, so I want to give my take on the various talks, not to mention the overall impression of the event. (There was a complete audio recording of all the talks and conversations in the conference room, but I don’t know if or when that will be public record.) It is also interesting that I bring this up now since this conference was in part focused on the thesis of Michael Molnar, and just the day after the conference his review of my book was published. So I will refer to this summary of the conference when discussing his review, since a lot of the same points were brought up by the various experts.

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New Book in the Loftus New Atheism Trilogy: Christianity is Not Great

I am about to fly off for my talk and conference about the Star of Bethlehem, but before that I have received a review copy of a new book on something quite biblical as well. Those that have been following what is often labeled “New Atheism” know it’s biggest names: Dawkins, Harris, & Hitchens. Dan Dennett is often included to create the Four Horsemen of the Atheist Apocalypse, but that analogy is weak given the untimely passing of Hitchens.

Nonetheless, other names in the growing atheism movement have tried to carry on the mantle, especially those with greater specialization in areas that these authors may not be well-versed in. Be that professional moral philosophy, theological history, political policy and religious influence, and so on. Dawkins is often criticized about his lack of philosophical prowess in his The God Delusion, and similar things could be said, among other things, about Harris and Hitchens. But when those with expertise come in, the case that these authors have made becomes overwhelmingly rational.

That has been the goal of editor and author John Loftus. After publishing his story on becoming an atheist and why he believed it made the most sense, and being written by a student of some of the top Christian apologists living today, Loftus knows his stuff. But he won’t be an expert in all things or best articulate all arguments. So his latest works of significant size are a round-up of some of the best authors in the so-called New Atheist movement in the Anglo-American world. Previously Loftus published The Christian Delusion, and then later The End of Christianity. Both of these titles take their lead from the titles of Dawkins’s and Harris’s books, so it makes sense that the trilogy would end with a take on Hitchens, Christianity is Not Great.** And after reading it and the history is shows, you may feel much the same.

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My #AncientAliens Chat on Paranormal Review Radio is Up

As mentioned previously, I was on the Internet radio show, Paranormal Review Radio, this previous Friday. I think all went rather well. The hosts let me say things at length, and the questions I thought were interesting ones. Most importantly I enjoyed myself in the process, and I must have left a good impression since they said they would want to have me on again.

You can listen to the interview/chat now here. I am on for about an hour and a half, and the hosts carry on for another thirty-ish minutes. They have some speculations to try and resolve some of the issues I brought up with the Ancient Alien Theory, and it gives me some ideas about how to talk about the subject in the future with even better agility. I don’t know when I will talk about the subject again, though it will come up in my Star of Bethlehem talk in Cologne in a few weeks. You are coming to that, right?

Check Out Paranormal Podcasts at Blog Talk Radio with ParanormalReview on BlogTalkRadio

More #AncientAliens Talk on Paranormal Review Radio with Me this Friday

I know everyone loved my talk at Illini about aliens, especially of the ancient sort, but unfortunately not everyone in the world could be there. But this Friday, Sept 26 at 10 pm EST, I will be on Paranormal Review Radio to talk about the subject and perhaps debunk the idea.

They have also produced a fun little promotional video.

I’m not totally sure what to expect, and I’ll be on my own as the skeptic. Jason Colavito was also asked to join, but he probably won’t be able to make it. Unfortunate, since he knows the material orders of magnitude better than I do. But at worst, I think this will be fun.

So, listen in or at least cheer me on.

My Upcoming Talk about Science, Religion, the Star of Bethlehem in Cologne (Köln)

Several months ago I was asked to participate on a conference about the Star of Bethlehem at the University of Groningen. But before I get there, I will be stopping in Cologne (Köln) in Germany to give a lecture for the Skeptics in the Pub group there. My lecture will be in English, if for no other reason than my German is nothing to listen to (one can say ein Bier, bitte only so many times). Besides the links above see the Post by The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View book page.

Hope you can come and check it all out! And if you are in Germany, Denmark, or the Netherlands (and maybe France) and have a skeptic/humanist/atheist/religious studies group, contact me ASAP if you want me to make a tour stop. I need to buy plane tickets really soon.

Been away from blogging, not going to be fixed soon

I have not had much chance to write much for a while now, as I have been very, very busy. I finished my previous job, moved back to Michigan, now getting a new job in Massachusetts, which means more moving. Oh, and did I mention having to get ready for a new job?

So lots has happened, along with talking at and preparing for conferences, a family reunion, and a whole lot of driving around from state to state to state. But in the future, I am planning on talking for a paranormal internet radio program, traveling to the Netherlands for a conference on the Star of Bethlehem, and getting into some educational research. But so much to do, yet I hope to get some interesting blog posts in soon.

Recent Math Book Reviews

Connecting to my previous post on the need to be well-read-up in order to do critical thinking, I am going to be doing a series of book reviews.

Here I want to discuss a few books published recently and which I have read in the last few months that are focused on math. They are not books on how to do math (i.e., textbooks), but instead they discuss mathematical concepts and their relations to ways of thinking about the world. Sometimes they touch on theological issues, sometimes a lot. But all three are good reads.

Dot, Dot, Dot: Infinity Plus God Equals Folly 

Infinity is a really, really weird concept. It takes any intuitions we have and makes us say apparently silly things. But there are rigorous ways of dealing with infinity, but there are also limitations, even for the most brilliant mathematicians.

One of the points is that you never really reach infinity. No matter where you start on a number line or how long you count forward, you never even get closer to infinity. This means that it is not possible to use something finite to create an infinite set. That is, you cannot construct infinity from finite sets and operations. Hence we get lazy when writing a set that is supposed to go on forever with … (hence the title of the book). And yet we can talk about infinite sets. In fact, we can talk about different sized infinities. If that didn’t make sense to you, then you are getting the point about how weird infinity is.

In this book, mathematician James Lindsay shows many important points about how infinity is used and understood by mathematicians and how the terminology is poorly used in other contexts, especially when applied to God. In many ways the book is focused on problems with the infinite god concept, but what I found as one of the more interesting threads running through the book is the problem with mathematical Platonism. What Lindsay shows very well is how much math is a human project. We chose the various axioms and definitions, and those different choices can lead to all sorts of amazing conclusions. But showing how much math is a human invention, it shows that there isn’t really a “true form” of the set of all rational numbers and the like. We chose the rules. Historically, there have been arguments about whether negative numbers are really numbers, or if i is a number or not. Or even if zero is a number! Why do most people consider these objects numbers in the end? Because of what we can do with them. They are practical, even imaginary numbers (I couldn’t do the physics I learned in grad school without them).

Seeing the human side of math (rather than the human side of certain mathematicians) was excellent, especially when it comes to the sorts of concepts that bugger human comprehension. I value the volume for doing more than just showing what makes an infinite God incoherent, but it shows how much math is truly a human adventure and not simply that boring stuff forces on you in school.

The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules our Lives 

Infinity blows our intuitions away because of how far it is beyond our experience, but we live in a world where apparently random things happen. Nonetheless, we get confused and confounded by probabilities all the time. Here physicist Leonard Mlodinow shows many aspects of the historical threads that touch on how we developed and understand probability. There is plenty of talk about gambling with games of chance, but that’s largely because a lot of probability theory was first developed to understand just that. Sometimes we joke that lotteries are a tax on those that are bad at math, but really understanding math (especially statistics) belies that argument (a really good anecdote for that is talked about in the next book below).

When it comes to thinking about things in the political arena, this book is great because of the focus it provides on judicial cases. There are plenty of ways that probabilities can be abused, where meager evidence is made to look extraordinary by making sins of probability calculation. In particular, not all probabilities are independent. Consider the following numbers that I have made up: 1/3 of men have a mustache, 1/3 of men have a beard. What is the probability of a man having a mustache and a beard? If you multiple those two fractions together, you get 1/9. However, these are hardly independent probabilities; if you have a mustache, you are more likely than average to have a beard as well. Heck, with current fashion trends as I have noticed it may be more rare to have a mustache without a beard–perhaps it makes people think porn-stache. Why would this sort of consideration be important? Well, suppose you have an eyewitness say a suspect has a mustache and beard. If you nab a person fitting that description he won’t be nearly as likely a suspect as you think; it is not 1 in 9. Moreover, considering that in a given city there could be a million people, then the chances of nabbing the right suspect by using these criteria are really bad. And yet a case like this (with some additional details) was used at first to convict a couple of a significant crime.

It’s number games like this that make it in fact difficult to know what are the real numbers if you are on a jury. You can be told that a DNA sample matching a random person is less than one in a million, and so you think a positive match in a court case means that person’s blood being at the scene of the crime is really high (more than 99.9999%). But a more relevant probability is the lab making a mistake, like mixing up which sample to test. That is much more probable. Still not likely (less than 1 in a 100), but not as super-solid as you think.

So if you are deciding a person’s life, an idea of what constitutes good evidence and what reasonable doubt would mean should be well-shaped. Even if you don’t have numbers, thinking about things in terms of less than, more than, equal, much less than, etc., is very important to making such decisions. And for a lot of other things. We live in a world that is governed by the unpredictable and probabilistic, and not just at the quantum level. Books likes this from Mlodinow help tune our probability intuitions. Also, Mlodinow is a great and humorous writer.

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking 

The title is ambitious, no? But there is truth in how powerful thinking mathematically can be. A refrain of this book is that math is the extension of common sense. Instead of thinking of math as a bunch of algorithms to memorize and steps to get to the “right” answer, what math is supposed to do is model ones thinking. And if you model your thinking clearly and consistently, then you can more confidently achieve accurate results.

More importantly, though, it to see if you project your reasoning does it lead to nonsense? In the first section of this book by mathematician Jordan Ellenberg there is a lot of emphasis on how not all curves are lines. By that, he means that not all trends are so straight-forward as have more, get more. For example, there is the concept of the Laffer Curve. This is about what should the tax rate be if the government wants to maximize its income. Obviously if the tax rate is zero, then the government will take in nothing. If you raise the tax rate, then you can bring in more money. But does that mean a higher rate rate always brings in more? If you made the tax rate 100%, then no one would have an incentive to work since all of their money is taken from them. Might as well not work at all, or find ways of hiding it. So again, the government will take in no income. Thus, the optimum tax rate for government income must be between 0 and 100%. Where that is is an empirical question (and if that is a worthy goal is another question), but clearly increases the tax rate is not going to necessarily mean more income. And of course, if you absurdly make the tax rate greater than 100% then no way will anyone work since you will owe more than you have no matter how much you work. In other arenas, it is clear that following a linear model of the relationship between things is not reasonable and even ridiculous.

Now, there is some overlap between this book at the previous two above, but Ellenberg’s volume covers a lot of areas in math and its relation to arguments and concepts in the real world, sometimes with surprising results. Would you guess that using a finite geometry you can figure out what are the best lottery tickets to pick are, given certain lottery rules for winning? A group buying up tickets in Massachusetts did, and they pulled in some serious dough.

One of the sections of the book I found most interesting is how our measure of public opinion can give contradictory results. Suppose on third of voters want to not cut spending, one third want to cut spending and cut it from defense, and one third want to cut spending and cut it from entitlements. If a politician doesn’t cut spending, 2/3rds will be unhappy; if a politician cuts spending in defense, 2/3rds will be unhappy; and if a polotician cuts spending on entitlements, 2/3rds will be happy. In other words, no course of action is the “right” one, as no matter what a majority will be against you. Now, you could instead rank priorities. For example, the first person may say their first choice is to no cut spending at all, but if spending had to be cut it should first come from defense before coming from entitlements. Another person can also rank their choices as they see fit. If you say the first choice is given 2 points, the second choice 1 point, and the third choice 0, then you can add up the choices of everyone and find where the ranked preferences lead. This method, called the Borda count, is similar to how your GPA is calculated (A = 4, E/F = 0), and it is used in some elections around the world. With it, you can get a different result than you would with the majority vote system. You could imagine how it would have affected the 2000 US Presidential elections; almost all of the votes for Ralph Nader would have gone to Gore and then Gore would have wold Florida (and thus the presidency), so a Borda count could have changes the history of the first decade of the 20th century (how much, I don’t know). But there exist other ways of potentially running a voting system, and they all have points to consider. If you consider all the options, you realize that it is possible to get different results with different polling/voting methods. So it’s almost like there isn’t really public consensus on issues, unless there is a significant majority.

I won’t get into everything Ellenberg goes into, and I want to leave his stories of the various mathematicians and statisticians as he tells them. But the key point is that you can see how you can build your own mathematical models of what you think is correct or fair and reasonable and see that it implies. Don’t consider math just stuff with calculators but a way of thinking. It won’t guarantee you are right, but it’s a far more useful and enlightening way to figure out the world. The real world, not just that of abstractions.

Critical Thinking and Expert Consensus

Here’s a problem: how to you know what is right if you don’t explore the question for yourself?

While we should strive to only accept those things which we can verify for ourselves, that is simply impossible to do in all things. We can’t all do our own cancer treatment studies, for example. Doing just one such study takes huge amounts of time, money, effort, and knowledge in getting results and interpreting them. And that would be just one study. What about food safety, or discoveries in modern physics? It’s implausible that you will be trying to double-check that you can create your own superconductor at higher temperatures.

So either you have to be ignorant about so much that is important in the modern world, or you need to accept the work done by others. But how reliable can that be? We know individuals lie or are mistaken all the time, and being an expert or well-experienced in a field doesn’t stop that from happening. It’s easy to point to examples in recent times, such as scientists paid to argue against the connection between smoking and lung cancer as well as other examples detailed in Merchants of Doubt. However, one of the authors of that book, Naomi Oreskes, argues that we should still trust the scientific enterprise as she details well in this TED talk.

Simple summary of why we trust science.

In particular, Oreskes says we should put our trust not in individuals experts but scientific consensus, a wisdom of the crowd of experts in a subject. And the reason that the scientific consensus should be given weight rather than, say, the consensus of astrologers on their subject, is because of the nature and values of science, especially its organized skepticism. So, if there is a group of people with expertise in a subject, and if that community of experts evaluates a claim and it goes through debate and is analyzed with good data and skeptical inquiry, and that group comes to a consensus, those of us outside of that group have good reason to trust the results of that group; at the very least, it is much more likely that they are right than wrong, and you are unable to determine otherwise.

Or are you?

The question now arises as to when might you have reason to doubt the consensus? Perhaps now those outside of the group doing the research can evaluate the claims because so much of the data and analysis papers are online we can go figure it out for ourselves. The problem is, that is much harder than one thinks. That point is made well in Harry Collins’s book Are We all Scientific Experts Now? With the particular example of so-called Climategate, we see what happens when emails by the researchers are cherry-picked and misunderstood to mean something dastardly. Additionally, Collins shows the healthcare disaster in South Africa when the president of that country did his research online and then denied the use of anti-retroviral drugs to alleviate the spread of HIV to newborn children. Doubting the consensus to go with the minority report or fringe view tends to lead to misunderstanding and even suffering.

But why do people outside of the expert researchers fail to examine the evidence properly? And are we doomed to just trust the consensus no matter what? What can a regular person do to make sure that they have justified reason to trust any or all given consensuses? About two months ago, Richard Carrier posted a blog entry on that subject on how to evaluate an argument from consensus, and since then he has discussed the question in a few different places, in particular this video chat on Inspiring Doubt.

Carrier does make good points about when a consensus may not be a reliable consensus (if the experts haven’t evaluated the methods critically or having considered the opposing arguments, which is why astrologers cannot be trusted when they state astrology works), but one thing in particular comes up in that blog post and his interview: our use of critical thinking skills to evaluate the arguments of the experts, especially if against a fringe view. And while it is true that if you can see someone continuously using fallacious arguments you have reason to doubt the strength of that person’s position, there is trouble with using critical thinking. This is in part to something echoed by Chris Hallquist, Julia Galef, and Luke Muehlhauser, and in part it is related to the talk I will be giving at the upcoming SSA East conference next weekend.

So, what is wrong with critical thinking?  Continue reading