Friday, November 28, 2008

Zuma's Country of God

Jacob Zuma is apparently an idiot.

That's no big surprise to the bulk of my readers, I'm sure. There have been plenty of examples of idiocy spewing forth from him over the years, but I suppose I always gave him the benefit of the doubt... assuming that his lack of formal education left him intellectually stunted, but not necessarily stupid.

After reading this article on IOL this afternoon, I've decided that there's probably no difference between the two. His stuntedness is, for all practical purposes, equivalent to stupidity.

This is what has led me to this conclusion.

At the National Presidential Religious Leaders summit* yesterday, Zuma said

"When all of us take office in government... we raise our right hand and indeed pronounce... so help me God. I believe no one can argue South Africa is not based on the principles of God," said Zuma.

"The bible says pray for those who are in government. I believe we must go beyond that. You must advise and criticise if there are things we do that are not in keeping with the principles of God."
He also points out the fact that the following phrase appears in the preamble to the constitution:

"May God protect our people...God bless South Africa."
Now, I wasn't there when the constitution was being drafted, but it seems pretty obvious to me that this specific wording was chosen so as to remain ambivalent to which "God" was being referred to here. Is it YHWH? Jehovah? Jesus? AllahThe Deist God? Spinoza's GodZeus? Thor? Quetzlcoatl? The Flying Spaghetti Monster?

It doesn't specify. And I imagine that it was a deliberate choice to write it this way, and not to refer to a specific version of God, so as not to alienate South Africans adhering to faiths other than Christianity. (I'll ignore for the moment the fact that it still manages to alienate those of us who believe in no gods - that's a subject for another post).

So isn't it interesting that Zuma automatically assumes that the God of the bible is the one we should be paying attention to? Why is Zuma's God the important one, and everyone else's gods are not?

He also presumes that the bible is the best way to find out what "the principles of God" are. The morality expressed in the bible is at best ambiguous. How are we to interpret it correctly? What makes Zuma's interpretation better than mine?

Of course it makes sense that Zuma would look to the bible for his values. He is, after all, a polygamist and not opposed to having his way with younger women - both of which are strongly advocated in the Christian bible.

I would expect a presidential candidate to be capable of looking beyond bronze-age mysticism and see the functional logic in a utilitarian ethical system. Blind adherence to a non-specific religious moral code is intellectually immature, and does not serve a president, or a country, well. Particularly a country such as ours which claims to pride itself on its ethnic diversity.

*Exactly why such a summit exists mystifies me.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Tokoloshe

There are a wide variety of spellings for this creature, so I'll just stick with this one.

The Tokoloshe is a mythical creature. I designate it as such because no physical specimens of it have ever been found, catalogued or analysed. Until that happens, I will generously categorise it alongside the sasquatch, yeti and chupacabra as a cryptozoological creature.

I'm not convinced that it even deserves that classification though. I'll explain why a little further on.

The Tokoloshe is frequently described as a vaguely humanoid creature the size of a human child. The precise description varies considerably depending on which version of the story you hear, but generally speaking it's a pretty ugly critter. It's usually described as furry and possesses very large genitals.

It's troublesome and mischievous, and can potentially cause harm to people.

Okay so far. Here's the crazy part.

The tokoloshe is often employed (sometimes created) by witches and wizards for a variety of functions. From personal revenge to sexual favours. It can even turn invisible by swallowing a magic pebble.

Right. So we're talking about a fairy here: a magical being with mystical powers. 

The only way to deal with claims like this sceptically seems to be to separate it into two distinct claims:

  1. There is a small, mischievous, vaguely humanoid creature that inhabits certain parts of Southern Africa that sometimes interferes with and causes trouble for humans in the area.
  2. There is a magical creature employed by witches and wizards to perform a wide variety of strange things. 

Let's deal with them in that order.

Another cryptozoological creature that gets way more press than the Tokoloshe is Bigfoot. A large bipedal ape-like creature inhabiting the forests of North America. There is at least one well documented animal fitting that description that everyone knows lives in those areas. Bears.


A great many alleged Bigfoot sightings are attributable to bears. Could the same be true of the Tokoloshe? Are there any native wildlife that fit the Tokoloshe's description?

Yes there are. Monkeys.


Of course I can't prove that all Tokoloshe sightings are attributable to monkeys. But it seems a likely hypothesis, doesn't it?

So we have two competing hypotheses:
1. There is a previously undocumented ape living in Southern Africa... a well-explored eco-tourism destination.
2. Monkeys.

Both of these hypotheses explain the phenomenon equally well. The first hypothesis requires that we introduce some new ideas to explain the phenomenon, as well as raising questions about how such a creature evaded detection for so long, whereas the second only relies on the misinterpretation of some culturally sensitive eye-witnesses. That doesn't tell us which one is true, but Occam's Razor does tell us which is more likely.

The second claim is more difficult to deal with. The most difficult thing about it is the lack of consistency. In my research, I haven't been able to come across a consistent list of the magical attributes Tokoloshes are supposed to have.

What follows is the best that I've been able to distill from all the conflicting accounts:
  • They can turn invisible - either completely invisible or only to particular people, like adults.
  • They can be summoned or created by witches and wizards to do their bidding.
The first attribute is terribly convenient. How can you prove or disprove the existence of something that's undetectable? You can't. This is, as Pauli said, not even wrong. And of course the proposed mechanism through which they turn invisible is "magic". As soon as magic is invoked, the conversation is over... there's nothing verifiable about magical explanations.

The same goes for the second attribute. It's unverifiable, and therefore not a valid hypothesis.

The entire second claim sounds like prescientific, stone-age superstition and mysticism. I suspect that it's propagated by sangomas and inyangas in order to keep themselves employed. And of course it's protected from public scrutiny under the banner of "culture".

Of course, if you're reading this, you probably don't believe in the Tokoloshe anyway. But I hope I've made a small contribution, so that should you ever find yourself face-to-face with a believer, you'll be able to tell them not to be scared of monkeys.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Sceptical Activism and the Prime Directive

In a recent episode of the Geologic Podcast, George was asked a question about how he felt about sceptical activism in contrast to respect for cultural diversity. He immediately equated it to the Prime Directive, and discussed his initial thoughts on it.

This is a thought that has occurred to me as well. I was recently asked to participate in a panel discussion at an SFSA convention on the Prime Directive, so its intricacies are still relatively fresh in my mind.

The Prime Directive is a fictional law in Star Trek that prohibits Starfleet personnel from interfering in any way with members of other cultures. The assumption is that any interference, even if benevolent in intent, could have unforeseeable consequences that could potentially be disastrous.

The motivation for it stems from one of the underlying philosophical tenets that Starfleet adheres to: IDIC - Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. Federation citizens are not permitted to assume that just because their technology is more advanced than other cultures, that they are superior to them in an way. And therefore may not impose their own values upon other cultures, but must rather allow them to develop on their own, in the hope that someday they might greet them as technological equals, and possibly as allies.

While this law makes sense in the context of a world where interstellar travel is easy, and where primitive cultures can exist in effective isolation until they are able to master Warp Drive, how applicable is it to 21st century Earth? And particularly to those of us who wish to advocate and propagate what we think is a superior technology: critical thinking?

In short: do I have the right to try and help a true believer by exposing them to critical thinking? If the believer asks for help, that would be one thing. But that almost never happens... in the vast majority of cases, the believer is happy in their delusions, and doesn't want my "help".

James Randi makes an analogy that sceptical activism is like running into a burning building and carrying some poor resident out over your shoulder. That certainly seems like the right thing to do. But what if that resident doesn't want to be saved? What if they like it in there, and are blindly willing to accept the consequences of remaining inside?

It seems silly that that might be the case, but it does appear to be. True believers seem content to sit comfortably in the blazing inferno, blissfully unaware of the danger they're in. And unwilling to listen to anyone tell them otherwise.

Conversely, a Christian might see my atheism as similarly sitting in the fire of eternal damnation. They're probably wrong, but they don't know that.

I see blogging as something of a compromise. I put content into the ether, and people can find it if they're looking. It's a pretty milquetoast medium though, because it's so passive. I would much rather have a soap-box in the mainstream media - television or radio, where I could actively get my message to a far larger audience. But do I have a right to do that?

Yes, I know that the woo faction don't hesitate to use the media to propagate their nonsense... and to substantial effect. Just as in Star Trek, races that don't adhere to the Prime Directive see no harm in exlploiting technologically less advanced people wherever they find them. But that doesn't make it right. Fighting fire with fire isn't necessarily the ethical choice.

So I find myself in something of a quandry. What do you think?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Back to Basics: Evolution

I was inspired by a recent debate I participated in to present here a brief outline of the evidence that exists for evolution. I'm not the first to do this, and this is far from an exhaustive resource, but hopefully I'll be able to provide a good starting point for any evolution deniers who are genuinely interested in learning more about it.

Where did the idea of evolution come from?

It's a common misconception that the theory of evolution was developed, in whole cloth, by Charles Darwin and remains dogmatically unchanged to this day. This is not the case.

The idea of biological evolution seems to date back to the philosophers of ancient Greece, who noticed anatomical similarities between different life forms, and postulated that those life forms might share some sort of common ancestor.

This idea fluctuated in its popularity, but remained pretty firmly in the realm of philosophy until Charles Darwin provided a plausible mechanism through which evolution might work: natural selection. Only then did evolution transform from an idea to a theory - it could make predictions that could be tested.

And tested it was. Since Darwin's first publication, On the Origin of Species, much has been learned about biology, and all of it, so far, has fit neatly into the Theory of Evolution. Sure, a lot of the details had to be rethought, but no evidence produced so far has refuted the theory as a whole.

Okay, so what's the evidence?

As with most theories, there is no one piece of evidence that can prove or disprove evolution. That's not how science works. Rather there are multiple lines of evidence that all converge at a point, and that point is very successfully explained by the theory of evolution.

The first evidence, that which gave rise to the idea to begin with, is that of anatomical similarities between species. This is something we can see with our own eyes.

Look at your hand. It's attached to the end of a limb. One of four similar limbs. It probably has five digits - four fingers and an opposable thumb. 

Now look at a chimpanzee's hand. It's very similar, isn't it? It's also at the end of one of four limbs, and also consists of five digits - four fingers and an opposable thumb. A chimp's hand is a little different though. It's hairier, and the comparative lengths of the digits is a little different. 

Now look at a monkey's hand. Again, very similar, but not quite as similar. Now look at a lemur's hand. And a rat's. And a lizard's. And a frog's.

If you line up all these images you can almost see a steady progression from frog hand to human hand. It almost looks as if frogs possess the primeordeal hand, and that lizards, rats, lemurs, monkeys, chimps and humans all descended from the frog, collecting upgrades to their hands as they went.

This isn't how it happened, but it's not far off. What it does suggest is that chimps and humans had a common ancestor... one that probably looked more like a chimp than a human. And that that common ancestor probably had another common ancestor shared with modern monkeys - one that probably looked more like a monkey than a chimp, and so on all the way back to frogs.

Okay, so now we have the makings of a hypothesis. In order to test it, we need more evidence.

What else do we now know about living things? They have DNA which is passed down from one generation to another. We know that DNA is largely responsible for determining what we look like, how we act and what we do. So if chimps and humans have a recent common ancestor, we can predict that they would probably have very similar DNA. Right?

Well, that has been tested. And guess what? Humans and chimps have very similar DNA! Not only that, humans have DNA that is similar to monkeys, but not as similar as to chimps. And even less similar to lemurs. And so on, all the way down to frogs.

Okay, so we now have one line of evidence that points to evolution being true. Of course there are other possible explanations for the DNA similarity. And that's okay. What we need to do is look for other predictions that evolution makes, and test those.

If humans and chimps had a common ancestor, it would probably have been very long ago. Millions of years. We know this because we know the average mutation rate of human DNA, and therefore we can come up with a pretty good estimate of how long it would take something like a chimp to evolve into something like a human, one mutation at a time.

So how do we find out whether animals existed in the distant past? Unfortunately there's no good way of doing that. But there is one way: fossils.

Sometimes an animal dies in just the right spot at just the right time and impresions of its body are preserved in rock. This is very rare, and we're lucky to have any fossils at all. But we do have a few... just enough to see that animals once existed that were something like a chimp, and also something like a human.

We can also tell, by using various techniques, how old the rocks are that the fossils are preserved in. This gives us a rough date of when that animal lived. If that date is close to the date predicted by evolution, we have another confirmatory line of evidence on our hands. And guess what! It matches!

Again, it's still possible that it's just a coincidence that humans and chimps share DNA and that an animal once existed that looks like it may have been a common ancestor of both. There are still other hypotheses that could explain both of these. So how do we go about determining the better theory?

One way is by applying the same test to other species. If we see the same pattern of DNA similarity and fossil record apply to lots of other species, it lends considerable weight to the evidence. This, also, has been done. And guess what? It confirms it!

So what do we have? We have a theory that makes some pretty clear predictions. Those predictions have been tested, and the theory has been upheld. So it's plausible. But is evolution actually possible? Can we see organisms developing new traits as a result of random mutations coupled with natural selection? Yup.

Is that it? Three lines of evidence?

Well, yes and no. What I've given here is a very broad oversimplification of the lines of evidence supporting the theory of evolution. Each of these lines of evidence actually consists of hundreds, if not thousands, of individual strands of evidence. The depth of this subject, and its many, many forms of evidence, is enough to keep some of the brightest people busy all the time. I encourage you to explore them, as I have been doing.

One strand on it's own is weak, and can't withstand much scrutiny. But the combined strength of all those individual strands, all aligned in the same direction, makes the Theory of Evolution one of the most reliable ideas known to science. Evolution isn't just a fact, it's an orchestra of facts, playing in harmony the music of life as we know it. 

Evolution is us.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Stop Sylvia Browne

Due to a series of unfortunate events, Skeptical Superhero Robert Lancaster has had his old domain commandeered by psychic pirates.

If you're looking for Robert's Stop Sylvia Brown goodness, you'll need to point your browser to

If you want to find out what you can do to help, check out this article over at Skeptools.

Dauntless Crew Show Me the Love

I thought some of you may enjoy some of the art produced by one of my Officers, Ensign Jim Nave, in an attempt to educate and protect his crewmates.