So, yesterday I got into a YouTube comment argument (yes, I KNOW, I know, I shouldn’t be in YouTube comments in the first place, much less engaging anybody there) with someone about the non-link between vaccines and autism. A raw food personality that I generally agree with mentioned in a video about vaccines being linked to autism, and I fired off a comment immediately, basically saying, “UM, NO.” It’s common knowledge that Andrew Wakefield’s study was retracted by the medical journal in which it was published and that he himself was subject to a medical misconduct inquiry. The ruling: Wakefield and two of his team members were found to have “acted dishonestly and irresponsibly” and shown “callous disregard” for the children in the study. (See this article in Time for more details.)
In other words, his study was found to be total bollocks.
One of the channel’s followers said that she “disagreed” with science, and that since I hadn’t lived through someone being “hurt” by vaccinations, that I didn’t know what I was talking about. My reply: “Um . . . well, actually, as far as the study being debunked . . . I kinda do know what I’m talking about.”
The problem–or, rather, a big part of the problem–is that people seem to have dis-internalized the fact that science is not a group of conclusions that one agrees or disagrees with. I feel as though people believe that scientists sit around their labs, stroking their beards (or their crazy Einstein hair, maybe) and imagining what the universe might be like. If that’s what science was, it wouldn’t be any more viable than religion, so sure, it would be perfectly legit to disagree with science.
I’m thankful that’s not how science works. If that’s what scientists did, we wouldn’t know anything about anything.
Those of us who were paying attention in sixth grade know that science is a method that we use to learn about the world in a systematic way. I guess the big picture of this didn’t sink in for some, and explaining it never seems to help. Then, it hit me–there is a way to explain science using something that everyone loves: the show Law & Order. Feel free to use this explanation when you come across anybody who doesn’t quite get what science is about. (Substitute Dragnet, CSI, or any other police procedural accordingly.)
What happens first in every episode of Law & Order? A crime is committed, and the police are called. They get to the scene after the fact unless the timing works out so that they’re standing right there when it happens, so they don’t usually see the crime, just the results of the crime. The crime is sort of like . . . noticing an interesting event out in the world, or having a question about how something works. As a scientist, you’re a detective of the world; you want to find out more about it so you can explain it.
So, the police start doing investigative work. They gather evidence. They have to find the right evidence that leads to the right conclusions; the crime might be, say, the murder of a convenience store clerk. The police have to ask themselves what evidence would lead to clues that could solve the murder. They could ask everyone in the city if they know what happened, but that would be a grossly inefficient use of time. So they first decide to view the store’s security tapes and interview a few witnesses who were on the scene, to find some concrete information that will direct their investigation.
A scientist also starts by gathering evidence. Maybe the scientist is wondering why water freezes faster when it’s hot than when it’s already cold. (This is a true thing that happens.) It would be pretty silly to jump right into experimentation–maybe someone else already proved why this happens. Or, maybe the scientist would devise an experiment that someone else has already done, and she could read the research that’s already been done and add to it rather than re-inventing the wheel.
The police, once they’ve started gathering evidence, usually start to get an idea of who might have committed the crime. That’s not enough, of course–they have to prove it. Now that they believe they know who did it, they can narrow their focus considerably; they can get search warrants to look for bloodstained clothing, or a weapon that matches. If they find an item that provides proof, that helps their case; if they find nothing, they can’t prove their case. If they find enough nothing, they may have to start over because their idea of who did it could be wrong.
A scientist also gets an idea of why she thinks that water freezes faster when it’s hot than when it’s cold. In science, we call a possible answer to a scientific question a hypothesis. A hypothesis by itself is meaningless; just like the police can’t make an arrest without getting enough evidence to prove that the suspect committed the crime, a scientist can’t confirm a hypothesis without proving that the hypothesis is correct via experimentation. The scientist must find a way to gather data that supports her idea. She can do this by manipulating variables in different scenarios and recording the results. The results may or may not confirm her hypothesis–if the evidence is not there to be found, her hypothesis can’t be confirmed.
One of the great parts of Law & Order is that it doesn’t stop when the police catch the criminal; neither does science stop when the scientist thinks she has proven her hypothesis. The next part of Law & Order is the trial: the prosecuting attorney must present the evidence to a jury of the suspect’s peers. The scientist must do the same; the findings of the experiments are written up and published in a scientific journal, where other scientists can look at the methods, see if the data matches the conclusions, and replicate the experiments to see if they can get the same data using the same methods. If the scientist’s peers find fault with the experiments or her interpretation of the data, her hypothesis isn’t proven at all. It’s the same as the defense poking holes in the prosecution’s case, only the entire scientific community becomes the defense. They’re defending against false science being represented as truth.
Getting a “conviction” in the scientific world requires mountains of evidence gathered through correct procedure in experiments that can be replicated and found to give consistent results. And unlike the court system, there is no double jeopardy in science; a scientist can try again and again to prove a hypothesis, and the community can try again and again to either replicate or debunk the results of a study or experiment. Science can’t get off on a technicality.
Part of the disconnect seems to be that people don’t realize how much work goes into science. The detective shows don’t portray all of the grunt work that police have to do, such as interviewing dozens of people who probably won’t know anything about the crime, but who might know and thus can’t be ignored. People don’t see that science isn’t all whiz-bang discovery; there’s a lot of tedium, repetition, crossing t’s and dotting i’s, and going back over the same ground to make sure that nothing was missed. So when we scoff at people who treat science like it’s someone’s personal opinion… well, that’s why. It takes very little effort to form a personal opinion–it’s something we do automatically several times a day; it takes a lot of effort to correctly do science.
If they still don’t understand science after you’ve drawn all of the parallels, there’s only one option left: sit them down in front of a Law & Order marathon (there’s always one playing somewhere) until they get it. You may have to restrain them. Remember, this is for the good of humanity; a day of watching Sam Waterston or Mariska Hargitay is a sacrifice we may all have to make. For science.
If there’s a worse time of the year to have the cloud of a death anniversary hanging over you than mid-Februrary in the northern hemisphere, I’m not sure when it would be. All of the feel-good winter times are over; you’ve taken down the Christmas tree, put away the champagne flutes, and all that’s left is to trudge through until the sun comes back out.
When I called my mom yesterday, she said almost right away, “You’re calling because of tomorrow, aren’t you?” Today marks the twenty-eighth year since my brother passed away. He had massive birth defects–from what I’ve been told, his heart was incredibly malformed, to the point that I’m amazed he toughed it out as long as he did. He must have been a very strong boy for all of that. He had three open heart surgeries before he died, at just over a year old.
I was only two when he passed, and I only have one single memory of him. I don’t know how accurate the memory is; our brains are fickle when it comes to data storage, subtly going in and fixing this, changing that, nudging events around without us being even slightly aware. My memory is hazy enough to begin with, considering I probably wasn’t yet two: I was playing with my 1-2-3 Sesame Street playset, and my brother kept rolling over in his walker and trying to take my figurines. I was, of course, incredibly annoyed. I used to feel a little guilt over that–if I had known, if I had been old enough to be out of the “me me me” stage of development, of course I would have let him play with ALL of the toys–but now that I’m older, I am pleased that my one memory of him is a real brother-sister interaction. Brother steals toys, sister gets mad. We really were siblings.
Apparently, I was a very good big sister, most of the time. My mom says that I used to push my brother down the hall in his rolling-walker (what the hell do you call those things?) as fast as I could go, which is probably not very fast at all considering I was not even two. He would laugh and laugh. I found a series of blurry Polaroids in my photo box of the two of us, and I was leaning over to kiss him. The picture quality sucks, but the intent is captured.
Of course, there’s also the photograph–lost in time now, sadly–of the two of us sitting on my great-grandmother’s lap. He’s crying his head off because I’m shamelessly drinking a bottle that I’d just snatched out of his hands. I had my moments of rottenness.
It’s very odd to go through life as an only child when you’re not supposed to have been one. Most times, it doesn’t really disrupt my only-child mentality because I was so young when it happened, but I have moments when I remember strongly that there’s supposed to be someone else. We probably would have celebrated our birthdays together, as his was only two days after mine. He probably would have razzed me this year for being thirty, him still comfortably sitting at twenty-nine. I probably would have bought beer for him when I turned twenty-one, and watched out for him when he got to high school a year after I did.
Neither of us would have called my mother today for any special reason. We both might call my father more often than I do now, which is never.
I like to think that he would have been tall, like my dad. I think my dad would have taught him to play the guitar, provided that my brother didn’t get the short, stubby fingers that I inherited from somewhere or another (my parents both have beautiful long fingers, but not me). If his eyes didn’t darken to hazel-green like mine did, they’d stay big and blue like my mom’s; he’d probably have girls swooning all over him, especially if he had the easy charm that my father has when he’s in the mood to turn it on. I prefer to think he would have my mother’s temperament, though. Maybe he wouldn’t have, but it’s what I like to think.
He would have been loved. We both would have been very loved.
For me, the word “sister” is usually one that happens to other people. I make time to remember that, for a short while, it happened to me, too.
It’s never been any secret that I think poorly of the tendency of some atheists to combat theists head-on. Recently, a number of atheist Twitter users were blocked/banned/something or another for faith-baiting, a practice that entails getting into (often very condescending) arguments on Twitter with theists, and then openly mocking same. I’ve seen it in my timeline, and it disgusts me. While I do very rarely get into discussions with theists on Twitter, I try not to faith-bait (with the exception of the one time I mind-fucked a guy from WBC, and I admit that I was in the wrong to do it no matter how nasty those people are). I think it’s abhorrent.
Why? I find it to be a form of bullying. I’m not saying that the theists don’t start it, and I’m not saying that they don’t also bully atheists, because they do bully atheists. I’m not a theist and that group doesn’t represent me, so I’m not dealing with them right now; but I find them attacking us also abhorrent, for the record. I still don’t think that we have any reason to respond in-kind–and in fact, I think it weakens our case considerably. “But s/he started it!” is not a valid, grown-up reason to engage in a pissing match, folks.
“Oh, but atheists are not a group the way theists are and we don’t represent other atheists and only ourselves” blah blah blah. Save it. While that may be technically true, it’s not perceived as true by the vast majority of the theist population; also, we atheists do tend to congregate online. We join atheist websites and we follow each other on Twitter; we comment on each others’ blogs. We do have a community. Maybe it doesn’t represent every single person, but yes, we have a community. Y’all are making our community look bad.
“But, but but, we’re just trying to enlighten them and tell them the truth.” Yeah, that’s not what I see. I see a lot of smug people poking fun of other people that they consider to be backwards and unenlightened. A lot of times, the people are backwards and unenlightened. (Individually, not because they’re theists.) So, congratulations: you’ve just expended a ton of mental energy and loathing on a person who isn’t even going to understand you while also making my Twitter feed a place of rudeness and negativity. Awesome job, yo–are you going to go make fun of children who still believe in Santa Claus next?
“THEY NEED TO BE ENLIGHTENED THOUGH. THEY NEED IT. THEY ARE IGNORANT.” Orly? Who appointed you head of Deciding Who Needs to Be Enlightened? And do you really think that a caustic Twitter conversation is going to get to that end? Theists are taught that God is the center of their lives; I don’t think @RandomAtheist55734 is really going to be able to upend that with YouTube videos, snide remarks, and spelling corrections. I think we also all know this. One’s journey with faith–especially the one that leads one to divorce faith–is a deeply personal experience that will be little affected by a digital stranger pointing out how wrong you are. Plus, it takes a pretty hefty amount of self-inflicted fact-blindness to go against solid, scientific evidence in the first place. Breaking into Fort Knox might be easier than cracking that particular nut.
Despite all of the protests I’ve ever heard that people faith-bait theists to educate them, I think people faith-bait because it feels good. This practice gets in the way of actual progress, and it’s pretty childish, in my opinion.
Let’s take the conversation that came across my feed earlier. A woman had professed her faith on her Twitter, and questioned atheism–how can we say we don’t believe in God? An atheist found this, RT’d it, and said, “Because God isn’t real.” The woman didn’t have any grasp of what the words “proof” and “evidence” entailed,so she was already a lost cause for her end of the argument. Then another atheist jumped in, and the snarky remarks started. Suddenly, it was two vs. one. The theist dropped out of the conversation, and the two atheists went on, poking fun at her. Good job, guys–now she dislikes atheists even more, and she’d probably fight harder to keep us down if given the opportunity.
Another person came across my feed calling a theist “crazy.” Really excellent, really. Just an aside, you know that if you provoke people about their religion, it makes them upset and they might seem “crazy,” right? You probably don’t care. Being right is more important than being humane toward others, amirite?
I think what upsets me most about all of this is the fact that being supposedly “enlightened” about religion doesn’t do anything to change human nature. I guess that makes sense; I mean, religion exploits actual weaknesses of humanity, so the weaknesses would obviously still be there even if you took away the God figure. It saddens me because the answer to becoming better humans is more complex than, say, eliminating religions that teach destructive ideas. It’s all still going to be there. We’ll strip away obstacle by obstacle, but we’ll still be left with ourselves. We have a inescapable duality in our nature. The sinner and the saint. The corrupt and the noble. Selfish and selfless.
I guess it’s futile to ask people to stop faith-baiting. If it feels good, people are going to do it. I really wish people would concentrate their energies on positive things–things that could actually change the world for the better. I know. Pipe dream. A girl’s gotta have dreams, though.
I am sorry I have been neglecting you, personal blog.
I love you, I really do. But I have been working very hard at another blog. Yes, that’s right–my book blog. I know, it’s not the same as here. Here, I talk about so many controversial things that I can’t talk about there. In fact, I talk about EVERYTHING here! I only talk about books over there. Still, I’ve been writing an awful lot over there, and I’m sorry, personal blog.
Are you sitting down, personal blog? I have some news. I won an award recently for blogging. No, not for blogging here. Yes, it’s for the new blog. I’m sorry. Aw, don’t say that. You’re a very good blog and I love you very much. Anywho, they are sending me to New York City to receive an award and I guess it’s probably going to be fancy. Don’t worry. I will take pictures.
Yes, of course you can come with me. I mean, I kind of have to put all of the posts over at the new blog because I promised everyone. Oh, you know, everyone. How many? Um . . . I don’t know, probably over 2000. No, don’t cry!
Anyway, please forgive me for neglecting you. That was not my original intention. You are still my very first blog, and you will always be special. (Except for that LiveJournal I had once. Oh, and my MySpace blog. But you’re definitely #3.)
If I could rewind the clock:
I’d tell myself at thirteen that I don’t need to be messing around with boys yet. I’d tell myself that sex is not the same as love. I’d tell myself that I could be a complete and whole and loved person without turning myself into a commodity. I’d tell myself that my father didn’t show love because his heart was broken, not because I was a deficient child. I’d tell myself that it does get better.
I’d tell myself at sixteen not to use the internet.
I’d tell myself at eighteen not to make a stupid, stupid crack at my best friend that kept us from talking for months. I’d tell myself not to get off the phone when he called me for the last time. I’d tell myself to tell him to go to the hospital right away, not to delay.
I’d tell myself at twenty to pick a major–pick any-goddamn-thing–and just finish school.
I’d tell myself at twenty-two not to start smoking.
I’d tell myself at twenty-three not to give up my life for love. I’d tell myself not to quit my job. I’d tell myself to get help with the stress that overwhelmed me. I’d tell myself not to shut down and never to quit moving. I’d tell myself to buy a real damn bed instead of sleeping in a windowless room on a pile of clothes.
I’d tell myself at twenty-five not to worry about people’s judgments of me, and not to believe others’ judgments of the world. I’d tell myself that real friends don’t hide from you, and that people who love you shouldn’t just love you when it’s convenient for them. I’d tell myself not to stop calling my grandma, even though it hurt me and it was hard to talk to her. I’d tell myself that my mother was doing the best she could.
I’d tell myself at twenty-six to consider it more deeply. I’d tell myself to keep those jobs. Any job. Because I’m strong enough to do anything when I don’t let fear beat me down. I’d tell myself to get out of the house more.
I’d tell myself at twenty-eight to push for an apartment with a dishwasher and a shower.
Next year, I turn 30. I’ve spent over half a decade now in difficult solitude, despite the people around me who love me. The walls have gotten so high I can’t seem to climb them, and I seem to have crash-landed in a Gordian knot. Every time I come close to unraveling one part, another part tangles hopelessly. In other words, I’m a hot mess.
Amy posted a poem at IB that I find particularly striking. I’m feeling particularly morose today (could you tell?) so I’ll leave you with it:
Not Waving but Drowning
by Stevie Smith
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
Last night, I saw someone engage with a fellow atheist on Twitter, and for some reason, I felt the need to jump in. Oh, I remember–they had said, “Suppose God is real, just a hypothetical.” My digital acquaintance replied, “Which god?”; I felt, though, that this was an irrelevant question. The hypothetical made me itchy. I sent a reply of my own:
And that got the ball rolling on a conversation that made me moan, groan, and wish I didn’t feel the need to interfere with such things.
First, he asked me what I would consider “evidence” of God’s existence. I said, the same evidence that lets us know anything else exists. The majority of people must have the capacity to experience the evidence; it can’t be something that can be explained away naturally (it can’t be a regular guy with no Godlike powers pretending to be God, it can’t be pointing to a perfectly natural phenomenon and saying “The sky is blue–because God!”, it has to be measurable, concrete evidence). I tried to cover the bases as well as I could, because really? Anybody who has to ask you what kind of evidence you need is someone who is looking for a loophole. Pro tip: IT IS ALWAYS THE KIND OF EVIDENCE THAT IS EVIDENCE. I need the same kind of evidence to convince me that God exists as I do to convince me that the couch I’m sitting on exists, or trees exist, or my car exists, or India exists, or anything exists.
That having been said, he makes his opening volley: “Have you ever heard of Anthony [sic] Flew?” Immediately, I am suspicious. Because I have not heard of this person, for one thing. So I go to look him up, browse Wikipedia and some of the source sites, and laugh.
“Are you mentioning him because he was an atheist who changed his mind?”‘
I guessed this first because I have seen a number of theists argue this as though they’ve just put one over on us. With Dawkins’ recent admission that he doesn’t “know” that there’s no god, I’ve actually seen it a lot lately. Another tip: one atheist shifting or revealing a hidden or new opinion about the origins of life means . . . nothing. It means nothing at all regarding the existence of god if Richard Dawkins explains that he doesn’t know for absolute certain if god exists or not. Pointing at these occurrences and saying “ha-HA! One of your own tribe changed his/her mind, so I must be correct!” is like me pointing at all of the people who grew up Christian and became atheist and saying the same. This argument is unconvincing because it’s based on nothing but someone’s opinion and not on actual evidence. Please stop using this stupid non-argument.
I was wrong, though–that wasn’t the reason. Dude shot back: “no that he found scientific data that there must be a creator”
I laughed. I can’t help it. I laughed so much. Not to be unkind, just at the absurdity of it. You’re asking me to swallow a lot of things when you say this:
- You’re asking me to believe that someone found actual, undeniable scientific proof that God exists and it hasn’t been cross-verified by every scientist forever and put on the cover of every magazine, newspaper, news site, copy of the Left Behind series, and episode of the 700 club.
- You’re asking me to believe that someone found actual, undeniable scientific proof that God exists and certain theists that frequently battle us on Twitter haven’t been rubbing our noses in it and screaming “IN YOUR FACE!”
- More often than not (and this was the case here), you’re asking me to believe that a non-scientist found actual, undeniable scientific proof that God exists, and that scientists didn’t find it.
- You’re asking me to believe that such proof even could exist.
I explained to the gentleman that Flew was not a scientist, so his theories about the complexity of DNA were about as helpful as a painter’s theories about neurosurgery. My new friend said, no, Flew was a scientist. I said, no, he studied philosophy, Japanese, and humanities, and was in the Royal Air Force; he did not have a degree in biology, nor could I find any information in various bios that stated that he did any kind of work at all in the field of biology–or any other scientific field, for that matter. I said, this is a classic “god of the gaps” argument and the logic is clearly flawed. My new friend went away rather suddenly.
I was sort of baffled that a person could throw out a name and a backstory as an “argument” and not bother doing a shred of research. It took me about 5 minutes of looking at various things Flew said and did in his life to break what he said about god and the “complexities of DNA” down into the garbage that it is. I’m baffled, but I know that religious belief–faith–is by its own nature irrational, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Still.