That’s right – there is already a conspiracy theory alleging that the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre was actually a conspiracy, that it either did not happen at all, or happened very differently from what is being reported. James Tracey, an associate professor of communications at Florida Atlantic University, runs a conspiracy-mongering blog in which he calls into question the official story of what happened at Sandy Hook.
It is the usual conspiracy fare – anomaly hunting combined with the usual logical fallacies. It is interesting, however, to see it applied to an event that, for me, happened right next door and when I personally know some of the people involved. I guess that makes me part of the conspiracy.
Before I delve into his claims, it is interesting to note that Tracy teaches a course called, Culture of Conspiracy. This raised an interesting possibility for me. Does he run such a course because he is a conspiracy theorist, or is his conspiracy theorist persona (including his blog) all part of a radical teaching strategy? What better way to teach about conspiracy theories than to simulate one yourself (a meta-conspiracy)? If the latter, I wonder how long he plans to keep up the charade before revealing what he is doing.
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In just about every disaster or event in which there are many deaths, such as a plane crash, there is likely to be, by random chance alone, individuals who survived due to an unlikely sequence of events. Passengers missing their flight by a few minutes can look back at all the small delays that added up to them seeing the doors close as they a jog up to their gate. If that plane were then to crash, killing everyone on board, those small delays might seem like destiny. The passenger who canceled their flight because of flying anxiety might feel as if they had a premonition.
This is nothing but the lottery fallacy – judging the odds of an event occurring after the fact. What are the odds of one specific person winning the lottery? Hundreds of millions to one against. What are the odds of someone winning the lottery? Very good.
Likewise, what are the chances that someone will miss or choose not to take any particular flight? Very high – therefore this is likely to be true about any flight that happens to crash. If you are that one person, however, it may be difficult to shake the sense that your improbable survival was more than just a lucky coincidence.
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What is the proper basis for morality? This question comes up frequently in skeptical circles for various reasons – it tests the limits of science, the role of philosophy, and is often used as a justification for religion. There has been a vibrant discussion of the issue, in fact, on my recent posts from last week. The comments seemed to contain more questions than anything else, however.
Religion and Morality
Often defenders of religion in general or of a particular set of religious beliefs will argue that religion is a source of morality. They may even argue that it is the only true source of morality, which then becomes defined as behavioral rules set down by God.
There are fatal problems with this position, however. The first is that there is no general agreement on whether or not there is a god or gods, and if there is what is the proper tradition of said god. There are scores of religions in the world, each with their own traditions. Of course, if god does not exist, any moral system based upon the commandments of god do not have a legitimate basis (at least not as absolute morality derived from an omniscient god).
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“I Woke Up This Morning, And I Realized That Somebody Had Broken Into My Apartment, Stolen All My Things And Replaced Them With Exact Duplicates.”
– Comedian Steven Wright
Yesterday I wrote about the young earth creationist argument that, even though the universe is only 6-10 thousand years old, we can see light from stars billions of light years away because God created the light already on its way to earth. I pointed out that this argument requires that God also created an entire fake history of the universe, including light from supernova that never occurred of stars that never existed. The one-liner above, delivered dead-pan in the style of Steven Wright, is funny because we intuitively realize the absurdity of the statement. How would one know, and even if it were true, what’s the difference?
The post inspired some interesting comments, and sometimes I like to respond to comments in a separate post. One of the things I enjoy about blogging as a literary form is its interactive nature. I always find it more interesting to respond to the arguments of others rather than just give a monologue or lecture. I find it more effective as a teaching tool, because you are confronting specific thought processes and resolving differences of reasoning. For convenience I will include only the section of each comment I will be responding to. You can browse through the comments to the original post if you want to see entire comments, who left them, and to respond directly to them if you wish.
So he says because a statement is nonfalsifiable it makes it untrue? There are plenty of nonfalsifiable statements that could be true or false. Evolutionists assume there can be no miraculous events, therefore no miraculous events occurred. Circular reasoning if you ask me.
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Creationists are an endless source of logical fallacies and pseudoscience. There are several reasons for this – creationism is institutionalized motivated reasoning, they have had over a century to make up fallacious arguments, and evolutionary theory is complex and multifarious so there are many opportunities for distortion and error.
For this reason creationism is an excellent foil for learning critical thinking skills. But it is also challenging, because effectively countering creationist arguments often requires a thorough and accurate understanding of evolutionary theory, geology, paleontology, genetics, and even astronomy and physics, in addition to familiarity with creationist arguments themselves. Often the errors in logic and distortion of scientific facts are subtle or a few layers deep, and having only a superficial understanding of the arguments can get even scientists into trouble. This is partly why the infamous Duane Gish was so “successful” debating evolutionary scientists in public – they knew the science but they did not have a mastery over creationist nonsense.
A recent example of this, in my opinion, comes from debate.org. A debate was started by someone wishing to defend evolutionary theory who wished to focus on one issue (it’s always a good idea to keep any such debates as focused as possible). His position is this:
This is a debate that can take many forms and include many arguments, but I will simply make one observation that I think immediately decides the debate:
“The fundamentalist idea that the universe is only a few thousand years old must also come with a denial of the known, immense distance between other galaxies and our own. If the cosmos were only a few thousand years old, and the speed of light is accepted as known, then we would have no way of seeing these very distant galaxies, the light from which having to had traveled billions of years to make them visible to us.”
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Happy New Year to all of my readers.
Neurologica is now 6 years old. I have published 1,270 posts. It has been a great experience and I look forward to continue blogging in 2013. What I enjoy most about blogging is the immediate feedback that I get – so thank you to everyone who has taken the time to leave comments, whether they are typo corrections, thoughtful dissertations, or quick impressions they are extremely useful to me as a science communicator. Also thank you to everyone who has left topic suggestions – I do review them frequently and use them as a source of topic ideas.
An active blog is actually a community, and I am proud of the one I have here. My recent post on Sandy Hook is a good example. The discussion in the comments was exactly the kind of discussion that I think is most constructive. It was respectful and based mostly on evidence and arguments. I read many blogs, and this is more of the exception than the rule. There was also vigorous debate, not just a chorus of agreement. I think a successful blog is one in which I learn as much or more from all of you as you learn from me.
So thanks again, and I will see you in the comments in 2013.