The Absolute Reasonableness of Absolute Uncertainty

By Michael Hawkins

One of the common complaints raised by theists comes from the phrase “There’s probably no God” as one way to describe atheistic thought. This runs counter to the caricatures of atheists out there that says atheism automatically equals absolute certainty that no gods exist. To many it sounds more like agnosticism and doesn’t quite fit into their notion of what an atheism actually believes (or, rather, doesn’t believe).

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins actually spends more time than should be necessary on the point of how to define atheism. He creates a 7 point scale where a “1” is an absolute believer, someone with no doubt in the existence of God, and a “7” is the polar opposite, an absolutely certain atheist. In the middle are varying levels of belief or disbelief. Dawkins places himself as a “6”, describing himself as nearly certain there are no gods, but allowing for their possibility, however slim that may be. This is how a huge swath of atheists also describe themselves. (It’s at the root of some of the messages being put out on the atheist bus campaigns around the world, in fact.)

The complaint to this is the belief that atheism means absolute certainty. What requires this? The word means “without theism”. That does not imply certainty of what is true, but rather a degree of certainty of what is not true. In modern connotations, the term includes a rejection of deism and usually anything supernatural. But, still, how does this rise to become certainty?

Many people, for whatever reason, insist that any lack of certainty thus equals agnosticism. There are two issues with this. First, no, it doesn’t. Atheism, again, does not require certainty. Second, the only way one can arrive at this conclusion is to use the modern connotations of atheism. The problem comes when the connotations of agnosticism are then ignored, ever so conveniently. That is, the fact that atheism is usually taken to mean a complete rejection of all things supernatural is employed, but then the fact that agnosticism is usually taken to mean a 50/50 uncertainty is ignored. This is why Dawkins needed his scale. Few people are right in the middle (“4”). Most people lean one way or the other. In fact, it has to be hoped a majority of people do not categorize themselves as “1”, pretending as if they’re absolutely certain of their God’s existence. Everyone should have doubt; the lack of it is a mark of fundamentalism.

In essence, the argument that atheism is absolute certainty is a blatantly dishonest one. If the term means absolute certainty, then it cannot be ignored that agnosticism usually means a perfect middle ground. It is bad form to ground an argument in cherry-picked connotations; in this case, demanding a self-proclaimed atheist call himself “agnostic” due to a lack of 100% certainty is weak because the common notion of a 50/50 split for agnostics is being ignored – clearly the self-proclaimed atheist is not 50/50 on the existence of gods, no matter what label one wishes to use. This would be like demanding that anyone who says unicorns are possible must also believe the mythical beasts have a 50/50 shot of existing. Of course unicorns are possible – and everyone should acknowledge that fact – but they are exceedingly unlikely and for that reason no one believes in them. And more importantly, there is not a shred of evidence for their existence. This does not make anyone agnostic towards unicorns except in the strictest, most semantic, most useless sense.

Importantly, this goes beyond a mere game of semantics. Anyone who has bothered to debate religion with an atheist present knows full well that any show of uncertainty will gladden the heart of any nearby theist. This should not be so. The ability to say “Yes, I might be wrong” and “No, I cannot be positive” is an admirable one. (And, in fact, more theists recognize this than are likely being given credit here.)

But more germane to the issue is that any scientifically inclined atheist is an atheist based upon the availability of evidence – and there is no evidence for any god. Anywhere. Ever. There’s faith – the very antithesis of evidence – and there are (very) vaguely internally consistent texts written by the few elite, literate farmers mulling around thousands of years ago, but there is no evidence. It is on that point that the atheist mind turns. Of course (!) there is the possibility of evidence for gods. No reasonable atheist is going to deny that. The problem is just that no one has been able to produce any of it yet. Without evidence, it is unreasonable to declare knowledge on a subject; equally, it is unreasonable to declare certainty even with evidence. (And that needs some parsing.)

There are two sorts of certainty: there’s the philosophical and then there’s the practical. The philosophical is where the atheist (and hopefully the more reasonable theist) allows for a lack of certainty. There’s just no way to know some things, is there? But the practical is where the term atheism, even with a number of its modern connotations, comes in. There is as much evidence for gods as there is for celestial teapots, but no one is about to declare themselves uncertain about the non-existence of floating cookware in space. It would be impractical and nonsensical.

Let’s do away with these old canards and caricatures and move forward with a mutual and honest understanding.

April-May 2011 Edition

The latest edition of Without Apology is out. I’ve so far only placed copies around UMA, though I may do the neighborhood thing again. At any rate, I have seen quite a few people reading the publication, especially the article about what it would take to change my view on evolution. Of course, I also tend to be in the building that is mostly science courses, so that makes sense.

Most of the articles are edits of articles that have appeared on FTSOS, but there are two pieces written by others. One is an economics piece by Michael Hartwell. Another is an anti-Newt article by Ashley F. Miller. Both are very well done, so take a look. And thank you to both authors for contributing.


Newt Is A Tool

By Ashley F. Miller

Do you remember those halcyon days when John McCain really was a moderate? There was a brief moment after his nomination when I thought, gosh, this is going to be Vinick v Santos, a fight between two moderates, maybe even a no-lose situation for the American people. Those were better times. One of the front-runners for the Republican nomination is Newt Gingrich, a man who I don’t particularly like but who seemed sane enough, like maybe he wouldn’t just bait voters with the stupidest things he could think of. I’ve forgotten how rigorous the fight to the bottom for the GOP nomination is.

Alright, admittedly, I made the mistake of clicking on a CNN headline about Newt Gingrich and “atheists”. Atheists is in quotes there because CNN seems to only share that word when it’s in quotes. I know better than going to CNN, and I know better than reading stories about GOP nominees, and I really should know better than to read any story about “atheists”, but I couldn’t help myself.

Ol’ Newt is worried that the country is going to become a “secular atheists country” overrun by “radical Islamists.” I just want you to take that in for a second. He is worried about people who are secular, atheist, and muslim… at the same time.

Now, I know Newt isn’t stupid, he’s just a craven ass. And I’m allowed to say that because we went to the same undergraduate institution. Newt must know that being an atheist and being an “Islamist” are mutually exclusive positions. Unless I should fear the domination of this country by those fundamentalist atheist Christianists.


I’m sorry, it’s just the dumb appeal to the lowest common denominator. It burns. It burns because I know that it works. I know that someone is reading that stupid CNN article and thinking, “God, you know, that Newt Gingrich has a point. This country is under threat of Muslim Atheists. And hell, the only thing worse than a Muslim, is an Atheist, and the only thing worse than an Atheist, is a Muslim one.”

On the other hand, it’s refreshing to see how far we’ve come as a nation to think that being a Catholic is American and not indicative of a political devotion to papistry that will lead this nation into the fiery pits of hell. Because, as we all once knew, Catholics aren’t proper Christians, and Merka is a Kristyen Nayshun. Things are different now, right?

Excuse me while I go weep.

Why Buying Local Doesn’t Work

Update: I allowed this to be published prior to my knowledge that Mr. Hartwell was unfit to practice journalism – he fails to fact check and he’s bad at his job. I do not disavow any specific aspect of what has been written below, but what follows would not be published by me today.

By Michael Hartwell

Pseudoscience comes from many angles. Woo is woo, but the major forms skeptics encounter are in biology, medicine and physics – “hard” sciences. Economics is an ugly cousin to these disciplines. It’s imprecise, it overlaps with politics and there are major disagreements among the experts.

Still, economic pseudoscience exists. The particular economic woo I’m writing about here is called “local purchasing” or localism. You have probably witnessed a campaign to “buy local” by purchasing goods and services from businesses with headquarters in your area. This is said to “keep the money in the community.” Next, the local business owner spends the money at another local store, creating a “multiplier effect.” The chef buys from the farmer, who buys from the shoemaker, who buys from the mechanic, etc.

By restricting sales within the community, we are told, this closed-loop system will generate jobs and wealth within the community. The money leaves the community, however, if we buy from outsiders and wealth and jobs are lost.

This sounds reasonable to the general public, but it is pure pseudoscience. The closest skeptical comparison is the scheme to create energy by burning hydrogen from seawater. The flaw was that advocates kept track of the energy coming out of the system, but ignored all the energy that went in to separate the hydrogen. Burning salt water creates a net energy loss, while local purchasing preferences impoverishes a community.

What economists know

Localism is really a rehash of an outdated economic view called mercantalism, where entire nations thought restricting trade would create wealth. They thought nations would become rich by increasing their exports and decreasing their imports. Goods and services would leave the nation, and gold and silver would come in.

Adam Smith disproved mercantalism with his book The Wealth of Nations in 1776, arguing that wealth is not in gold and silver, but in goods and resources. Money is just a proxy for resources. By specializing in the production of some goods and trading for others, people can take advantage of economies of scale and end up wealthier than the nations that tried to be self-sufficient. A Smithian nation would become very good at making Item X and trade some surplus for Item Y from a neighbor, while a mercantilist nation would do a mediocre job of producing Item X and Item Y and trade some of it away for shiny pieces of metal.

Building onto Smith’s work, David Ricardo introduced comparative advantage with his 1817 book Principles of Political Economy and Taxation. Comparative Advantage is counter-intuitive, rarely understood by the public and undeniably true. It is the idea that entities should concentrate not on the tasks that they are the most skilled at, but the tasks that require their most valuable skills in comparison with other entities.

For example, say John Lennon and Neil Diamond are on a camping trip and want to listen to some music while sitting around a warm fire. One person needs to play the guitar while the other constantly tends the fire. Let’s assume Neil Diamond is a talented musician, but the worst fire-stoker in history and would let the flames go out, while John Lennon is internationally recognized as the most talented musician and fire-stoker of the century. Who should do which task?

The optional choice is to have John stoke the fire while Neil plays the guitar. Even though John is better at both, he benefits from having Neil around to play the guitar while he works on the fire. In essence, they are specializing in tasks and trading with each other. So with Smith’s strategy of dividing tasks and trading, and Ricardo’s addition of assigning entities to the tasks where their skills are needed the most, international trade has emerged as a critical tool in creating wealth and improving the standard of living for the general public.

The “multiplier effect” that localists and other mercantilists cite is a real concept, but more inevitable than they realize. Economic Journalist Frédéric Bastiat famously criticized this sort of scheme in his 1850 essay Ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas (That Which is Seen and That Which is Unseen) with a parable about breaking windows.
A boy throws a stone through the window of a local bakery and a crowd of people gather around, displeased at the vandalism. One person tries to find a silver lining and suggests the ruffian is actually a social benefactor, as the baker will now have to hire the local glazier for a new window. The glazier will have more money to buy from the cobbler. Everyone is happy and believes the local economy has been stimulated.

Sound familiar yet?

But no one bothered to ask the baker what he thinks. They forgot to look at the other half of the equation – where the money for the glazier is coming from. It turns out the baker had been saving up his money to buy a new suit from the tailor, but now has to buy another window. The tailor could have spent that money at the cobbler, and so on and so forth. The community is now a little bit poorer as the baker has one less suit then he otherwise would have.

As Adam Smith showed, wealth is in resources and destruction doesn’t create resources – it destroys them. Bastiat went on to say that burning the city of Paris down to the cobblestones would create jobs in reconstruction, but destroy wealth.

Enter the woo-promoters and misguided social activists

But not everyone has read Smith, Ricardo or Bastiat. Modern mercantilists claim the nation will be wealthier if we buy domestic products, subsidize domestic companies, oppose immigrant labor and thwart the outsourcing of jobs. It’s the same bag of bones; only instead of trading away goods and services for precious metals they accept green pieces of paper.

Economist David Henderson coined the phrase “Do-It-Yourself Economics,” which are “firmly held intuitive economic ideas and beliefs which owe little or nothing to textbooks, treatises or the evidence of economic history.”

It’s not that localists and other mercantilists have new insights that have overturned some dusty old ideas, it’s that they never read them and aren’t aware they exist. As Paul Krugman wrote in his 1996 Pop Internationalism, a wonderful book on economic woo:

“…We learn that the authors on my reading list do not base their disdain for academic economics on a superior or more subtle understanding. Rather, their views are startlingly crude and uniformed… [the view] is dominated by entirely ignorant men, who have managed to convince themselves and everyone else who matters that they have deep insights, but are in fact unaware of the most basic principles of and facts about the world economy.”
The point of jobs are not to keep people busy, they are to produce things of value. However, pseduoeconomic schemes often focus on creating useless jobs instead of producing things. Milton Friedman once mocked a purposely-inefficient job-creation program that made workers dig with shovels instead of backhoes by suggesting they be given spoons instead.

Imagine two castaways stuck on a deserted island. The first night they agree one will gather firewood while the other scrounges for food. However, 50 feet into the brush the food-gatherer discovers a third castaway with a ten-year supply of non-perishable food he’s eager to share. What reaction do you suppose the castaway who was attempting to gather food would have?

Would you expect him to be upset and saddened?

No? But remember, he just lost his job. A “foreigner” is attempting to flood his little economy with cheap food. Of course, he would be happy to have it, as letting someone else provide food frees him up to work on other tasks, such as building a shelter or making a rescue-signal. The same lesson applies to the division of labor in advanced societies. Letting someone else grow our food frees us up to work on other things, like entertainment or medical technology. It doesn’t matter what side of the community border they do it on.

Taking localism claims seriously

Now that I’ve described how economists see wealth, money and jobs, let’s look back at the economic claims of the basic “buy local” movement.

The claim is that by purchasing things entirely from within the community, money will stay in the community and the community will become wealthier.

So that means that the community will turn resources into goods using jack-of-all-trade production, instead of specializing. Therefore, more resources will be used to create fewer goods. These goods will then be traded within the community. The focus is to “buy local” but not to “sell local” so occasionally goods will be sold outside the community and more green pieces of paper will come in. However, no new goods will be allowed into the community – they must be made locally, so the volume of green pieces of paper will increase.

Localism concentrates on what the merchants take in, but it forgets to factor in what consumers pay out. Higher production costs mean local goods will cost more to buy, so the purchasing power of these green pieces of paper will decrease. In addition, with resources leaving the community and more green pieces of paper coming in, the ratio of resources to currency will change. This is essentially inflation, and merchants will demand more money as goods become scarce while they are awash in currency. Even in their perfect dream economy, dollar bills may stay in the community, but wealth will not increase, as wealth means having more goods and resources.

Buying local means higher prices, fewer choices, longer work hours and a lower standard of living. It claims that using inefficient production will increase the amount of goods and resources. By slowing down, we’ll go faster. Resources will be conjured from thin air. It is pseudoscience, pure and simply.

Localists are classic pseudoscientists

We all understand that creationists know next to nothing about biology. They do not study biology. Normally, we shouldn’t fault a person for that, but these people have a great interest in biology. We know this because they speak about biology all the time. They do not make sophisticated criticisms based on intimate knowledge of the subject, but instead make “common sense” observations on a crude version of biology.

Localist activists are the same way. Clearly, they have a deep interest in economics. They talk at length about the multiplier effect, supply and demand and growth. They don’t know anything about comparative advantage, economies of scale, creative destruction or trade. Apparently, their interest in economics isn’t strong enough to get them to actually study economics.

They want the veneer of science, so they cite what they refer to as studies – non-peer-reviewed amateur reports they claim show financial benefits. All of these so-called studies come from two sources. The transparently-named “Institute for Local Self Reliance” and a small firm called “Civic Economics,” which as far as I can tell is two guys in Austin Texas with a pocket calculator.

In a 2008 Buy Local debate at the University of Vermont, localist Bill McKibben used a classic “Gish Gallop” tactic against economist Russ Roberts, demanding he respond to a list of bogus claims too long to address in the time allotted.

And like conspiracy theorists, localism is a hydra with many heads. Decapitating the economic claims causes believers to shift to claims about the environment, national security or aesthetics. This is the critical response I expect to receive, even though Brian Dunning has already done a great job of exploding the environmental claims.

Changing Views

By Michael Hawkins

What would change my view on evolution?

It depends what is meant by “change”. My view on evolution changes quite frequently, actually. Sometimes it’s a qualitative change: the relationships between our known ancestral cousins are always shifting ever so slightly. Often, there is little consensus about where to place certain members of the genus Homo on the evolutionary tree. As new evidence is found, as more research is done, as further facts come to light, my views are always changing on that aspect of evolution.

And then there are quantitative changes. One excellent example comes from the discovery of tetrapod footprints in 2009. That discovery pushed the evolution of tetrapods back about 18 million years. All the relationships between species of that general time period stayed the same, but our view of when tetrapods began to populate the land changed.

And then there are all sorts of other changes, like recently when it was shown that natural selection works differently on allele fixation in sexually reproducing populations versus more simple asexual populations. (That was also a qualitative change, but on the genetic, not taxonomic, level.)

So if that is what is meant by “change”, then there are all sorts of examples that show how my views on evolution are, well, evolving. The same can be said of biologists around the world. But what if by “change”, the real question being asked is, What would make me dismiss evolution? Then the answer is very different.

A basic fact of how science works is that it does not tend to operate on individual studies. It requires a body of evidence to change views. For example, I reject a connection between cell phone use and cancer. Studies have shown possible links, but they have been far from conclusive, weak even. And more importantly, there is a body of evidence showing no significant link. I’m going with the evidence in bulk, not the individual packaging. This relates directly to the question of what it would take to get me to dismiss evolution because there is a famous quote by J.B.S. Haldane I had in mind when starting this article. When asked what it would take to change his mind, he retorted, “Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian.”

But that wouldn’t change my mind. My very first suspicion would be fraud; I suspect little more from creationists (and we know how much they would be promoting such a discovery). But let’s say it came from a reputable research team, then what? I would admittedly be perplexed. There is no reason a fossil rabbit ought to be found in that era, but that doesn’t mean we get to throw out such a well established theory as evolution. We know evolution is true insomuch as we know gravity is true. It would necessarily take more than a few rabbit fossils to alter the unifying theory of biology, just as it would take more than an apple falling up for us to alter the theory of gravity. Even if we could never explain the fossils satisfactorily, I would have no doubts that evolution still formed the basis of everything in biology.

What would change my view would be the discovery of a number of fossils in all the wrong places. We would need to start finding mammals and birds dating back 800 million years; we would need to see dinosaur fossils embedded in the rocks of 20 million years ago; we would, yes, need to see rabbit fossils in the Precambrian. No, I wouldn’t need these specific examples, but I would need these sorts of examples. I don’t want just individual anomalies that fly in the face of modern theories. I need more than that: it takes a body of evidence to start changing my view.

Because that’s how science works.

Christians Deep Down

Christians say that all we need to believe is faith. We need to have faith that God is there, that he loves us. If we let him into our hearts, he will enter and it will be glorious.

But this isn’t what Christians really believe. They aren’t motivated by their so-called love or belief in their particular, cultural god. No. What motivates them is a hatred for science and rationality and reason. They refuse to let any of these things into their minds.

Deep down Christians know there is no God. They know that science has shown the world, for all intents and purposes, to be an atheistic one. They really do know that the Universe is 13.7 billion years old, that it is governed by understandable laws, that because of quantum mechanics and a law like gravity, there must be a Universe. They really do know that life is 3.9 billion years old, that it came from a simple replicator, that the why behind life is that genes will necessarily replicate as a population so long as they are able to do so. They really do know that humans are incidental, that natural selection does not demand we ever exist, and in fact, that it says our odds of being here would virtually disappear if the tape of life were to be re-run. They really do know that all that matters is what we do with the lives we have now because these are the only lives we will ever have. They really do know that things like love and sympathy and empathy and values and morality and all those special connections so many of us have with one another are what drive our goodwill. They really do know all these things and more.

But Christians will deny. They will deny it until the very end. The idea that science and reason and rationality have prevailed – not may prevail or will prevail, but *have* prevailed – hits at their very core. It destroys them to know that what they fundamentally hate is king of all. As H. L. Mencken once said, “The truth that survives is simply the lie that is pleasantest to believe.”

Okay. So are you offended? Does this all seem horribly polemic, horribly hateful, inaccurate, and unfair? Even if you aren’t a Christian, do you find the preceding paragraphs to be wildly stupid?

I hope so.

Now maybe we can stop hearing about how atheists really deep down just hate themselves, happiness, love, God, and everything else under the sun, hm?

When I Chose My Sexual Orientation

By Michael Hawkins

I think it was around 2000. I was 15 and in my freshmen year of high school. Adolescent hormones raged inside me. Everything in life was so busy, so much more complicated. I had all these new feelings inside me. Which sexual orientation was I to choose?

I created an excel flow chart that I worked on weekend after weekend. If I was going to figure out what I liked, I was going to need to make a rational decision with some hard data. I listed all the attributes I liked in guys in one area of the chart and all the attributes of girls I liked in another area. It was going to be a tough competition.

I took my sheets and translated them into tables and graphs. As I looked at the boys, I noticed several things I liked: We all seemed to like being assholes to each other, only guys seemed to want to go to the arcade, and we all had the same juvenile sense of humor. “What’s that, Billy? An armpit fart? Ho-ho, har-har! Well done, my friend! Well done! You are certainly in the running!”

I took a look at the tables and graphs for the girls. It looked like they had these magical things called “boobies”.

Then, to play it safe and sure, I rechecked the data, specifically looking at the graphs. Here’s what I got for the boys:

And for the girls:

There the science was right in front of me. I clearly had far more hard data in favor of the girls than the boys. I even compared my data set to those of my friends. Some had the same numbers. Others had more mixed information. Still others had just the inverse. I even found out girls had these things called “minds”. My choice was clear.

So when did you decide to be gay or straight? What sort of scientifically accurate charts did you make?

A basic of science

By Michael Hawkins

I often find myself reminded of a post I made on just the third day in the life of my blog. It was about a media report on a recent study that said a certain pesticide found in anti-bacterial soaps may actually contribute to the development of antibiotic resistance by bacteria. It was a fine study, but it was far from conclusive. (The news article wasn’t so cautious in its assertions.) Perhaps it would be best if people only used regular old soap, what with that not really qualifying as a real sacrifice, but as for the science, I was far from ready to say that that pesticide was a contributor to antibiotic resistance among bacteria in any significant way in the given environment.

And the reason is quite simple: science does not rely upon individual studies. Of course, we may be able to point back to the results from one lab or one group of researchers as published in a single study as the linchpin that opened up a whole new branch of study. But that doesn’t mean we believe that paper as being conclusive on its own. It only works when we have a body of evidence. In most cases that means a number of studies looking at the same or a similar problem and coming to the same or very similar conclusions. For a single paper that proves itself a linchpin, that means we need a number of other studies which use its findings as their basis. For instance, green fluorescent protein, or GFP, was shown to work as a marker of gene expression in a pretty definitive study. It has about a bajillion (rough estimate) other studies on it, but no one needed to reproduce the study which won one research team the Nobel Prize in chemistry. But people did use that study as a basis for about a gagillion (rough estimate again) studies. If the original study was wrong or faked or otherwise limited, we would be well aware of that by now because of all those subsequent studies. That is one way to compose a body of evidence.

To put this another way, take the studies on intercessory prayer and its efficacy. We have some that show positive results. “Look, God is here to help!” But then we have others that show negative results. “Oh, no! God must be angry!” And then we have a whole bunch which shows a null result. “Uh…God must be indifferent.” So how do we interpret these results?

Remember, we need to be looking at the evidence as a body. As one of those intolerant, bigoted, hate-filled evilutionist atheists, I would find it humorous, at least on one level, if prayer gave negative health results. But I don’t get to have that laugh. Instead, I have to conclude that prayer has no detectable effect on health. None of the studies are conclusive; they suffer from bias, or are statistically insignificant in either direction, or just show a blatant null result. The most likely conclusion is that prayer does nothing. No study has convinced me otherwise, and most of the studies have shown prayer to be inconsequential to the well being of people anyway.

What I hope this post enables readers to do is recognize a fundamental aspect of how science works so that next time they see a study which concludes a link between this or that, they know what to think. That doesn’t mean it is okay to just dismiss a non-bias confirming study (i.e., a study that doesn’t give a result one likes). It just means that it is always necessary to look at the entire body of evidence before drawing a conclusion.


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