Freddie deBoer disses New Atheism while attacking psychic phenomena and “hooey”

July 21, 2022 • 10:00 am

Well, let me clarify my title above.  In the article below on his Substack site, deBoer claims that he started his career attacking New Atheism, and he still sees issues with it, but now thinks he went too far, especially in light of the Vice article he cites. That article notes a rise of Internet scams dealing with supernatural phenomenon like clairvoyance and tarot cards, and he sees that the doubt about faith promoted by New Atheism could be used now to quash these other issues that victimize the credulous. But the so-called demise of New Atheism has deprived people of those tools.

Unfortunately, deBoer, whose writing I admire (but seems to be writing too much these days), still feels he to get in a few licks at Dawkins and Co., and I think those licks are gratuitous and unfair. Still, his call for a revival of skepticism and demands for evidence is absolutely the mark. Faith is faith, whether it involves pastors or psychics.

Click the screenshot to see deBoer’s piece:

There are, I think, six main reasons for the “backlash” against New Atheism, which I see as the reinvigoration of faithlessness by Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens (Pinker was a player as well):

1.) People bridle at criticism of religion, especially when it is passionate and vigorous. Religion is sacrosanct, and seen by many as off limits to criticism.

2.) People accused the New Atheists of being strident and trying to wrest religion from believers.

3.) People were jealous of the success of New Atheist writings

4.) Because Muslims are considered “people of color,” opponents of New Atheism were especially critical of its perceived “Islamophobia.”

5.) The perception, often without evidence, that New Atheists were sexists or even sexual assaulters.

6.) The claim that New Atheists ignored social justice because they concentrated too much on addressing, analyzing, and attacking religion. These critics see “progressive social justice” as inextricable from New Atheism, and thus New Atheists were fighting a battle but ignoring a wider war.

In this article, deBoer seems to sign on to reasons 1,2, and 4, though he’s walked back his criticisms a bit: he says that by criticizing New Atheism’s concentration on the need for evidence, people have become susceptible to new forms of woo. That sounds good, though I don’t know if it’s true, and too much of his piece still engages in atheist-bashing.

(Regarding #4, New Atheists often concentrated on Islam because it was in their view (and mine) the most dangerous species of faith in today’s world, as Catholicism was in medieval Europe. I don’t see that as “Islamophobia”, if you conceive of that word as meaning “bigotry against Muslims”. But a “fear of Islam” could also mean “a worry about how that religion is sometimes used to oppress and kill people.)

First, deBoer cites the article below in Vice, which describes the “fake” psychics (they’re all fakes, of course, but there are some who pretend to be other people)—fakers who are now being attacked on social media. (All deBoer’s words are indented).

An actual story from Vice:

I’ll say no more about the Vice article as you can read it for yourself. I was more interested—and distressed—by deBoer’s criticisms of New Atheism, which wasn’t really a “movement” but a term invented to describe the rise of unbelief largely prompted by the authors named above.  Granted, deBoer has backed off some, but not far enough for me. The bolding is mine:

The first thing I ever wrote that got more than a couple dozen views, the piece that made the rounds in the blogosphere and in so doing kickstarted my writing career, was a piece of the type “I’m an atheist who can’t stand New Atheism.” Pieces in that vein became quite common over the years, but in 2008 it was still novel enough to attract all of that attention. This was an era in which the New Atheists still enjoyed a degree of cultural cachet, before the pomposity and shrill tone of so many in the movement curdled its public reputation, to say nothing of the accusations of Islamophobia. It was a different time. The basic contours of the piece still seem correct to me – atheism is almost certain factually true, and I am an atheist, but I have no interest in browbeating believers. I have no interest in converting believers into atheists, and atheism is not a movement. But not only would I not write that piece today, it’s one of very few pieces that I sometimes genuinely wish I had never published at all. Because the ground changed underneath us to such an extent that, well, millions of functioning adults proudly endorse astrology and other hooey in public.

Note first the attacks on New Atheism, but also his assertion that he wish he wouldn’t have written the piece not because he misunderstood or unfairly attacked New Atheism, but because his attack on the movement may have enabled people’s increased belief in woo. Also note, as I claim below, that deBoer is engaging in a form of virtue signaling here: not addressing the arguments of New Atheists but simply calling them names in a way that would appeal to atheist liberals soft on faith (“faithiests”).

Yes, the last sentence is true, though I’m not sure how much criticism on New Atheism enabled the rise of “hooey”. But I also think that deBoer is unfair by attacking New Atheists, especially the prominent ones, for being “pompous and shrill.”  In what way, for example, were Dawkins and Company “pompous and shrill”? Perhaps some of their followers were (actually, some surely were given their numbers). But both of those words could be replaced by “passionate.”

Notice that when New Atheists are accused of stuff like this, no examples are ever given. What is called “shrillness” as a pejorative term strikes me as a nasty word for “writing passionately and strongly,” which doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Were Hitchens or Harris—or any of the five people named above—”shrill”? I don’t think so.

Moreover, I doubt that deBoer would call anyone writing about politics with that same passion as “shrill”. “Shrill and strident” are usually reserved for those who criticize religion, not politics. And these are ad hominem terms, for what was really important about “New Atheism” was its arguments, not the tone of its adherents.

At least, though, deBoer recognizes that what New Atheism—as “antitheism”—was mainly about: demands for empirical evidence for what one believes. It was largely an attack on faith, and on faith that is of the most damaging kind. But deBoer can’t resist saying that some atheists are “annoying,” and again I don’t think he’d say that about politicians with whom he agreed.

He continues and begins to walk back his earlier opinions:

At some point in the 2010s, the backlash to New Atheism became so commonplace, particularly on the political left, that it seemed clear to me that we had communally missed the forest for the trees. That is to say, no matter how annoying some atheists must be, the most important question when it comes to atheism remains (and must remain) whether or not God is real. If God is real, that is the single most important fact in the universe. Issues of comity and messaging take a backseat to the existence of a divine creator, and there’s something strange about being more concerned with how we express our skepticism about such a divine creator than about its actual existence. And while many people who disdain New Atheists will admit to a casual atheism themselves, they’re far less animated and passionate about that atheism than about their hatred of the New Atheists. On a really basic level this seems to be a failure of priority.

He’s correct in the last sentence, but he’s hasn’t retracted his claims about “Islamophobia” or New atheist “browbeating believers” or “converting believers into atheists.” But, after all, if you are arguing logically and rationally against the existence of God, and are arguing with the faithful, what else are you doing but “browbeating believers” (I’d use the term “arguing with believers”; for “browbeating” is a pejorative word). And if you are making empirical arguments against a divine creator, then of course you are also, even if unintentionally, “converting believers into atheists.” Every argument for a moral, political, or ideological stance is an attempt at conversion—to change people’s minds. deBoer spends his time “browbeating Republicans” in a “shrill way”, and trying to convert those with whom he disagrees. How does he differ from New Atheists in these respects.

There are other zingers against New Atheism, too. deBoer, while saying (admirably) that he probably went too far, still goes too far, saying that the demise of New Atheism was “self inflicted”.  His inability to stop dissing New Atheism, although he recognizes its central merit—demand for evidence—is seen in his last paragraph (my bolding).

Ultimately, I think we should work to restore attention to the supernatural claims themselves rather than to the social ephemera that surround them. Of course we should want atheists to be circumspect and friendly and to avoid empty provocation. The question is when this concern about manners overwhelms our fixation on the central questions at hand; the fact that Reddit atheists are annoying can’t make God real. And for the record I think there’s a way to live life that avoids a cloying scientism and witless literalism while still not permitting any lazy mysticism to find its way into your day-to-day practices. There’s also a lot of low-hanging fruit when it comes to people believing things for no reason. I’m perfectly happy to say that I think we should restore a little stigma towards entertaining the idea that the date that you’re born (based on a largely arbitrary and human-made calendar system) dictates your mood, your love life, and your professional success. Maybe sometimes a little stigma is the healthiest option available to us.

So yes, here he admits that there’s too much woo, and the analysis of religion by New Atheists can also be extended to psychic phenomena, taro cards, and so on. But what is this “empty provocation” that deBoer speaks of? And the comment about “cloying scientism and witless literalism”—who, exactly, does that refer to? As most of us know, “scientism” is only used pejoratively, to criticize those who you think rely too much on science and evidence.  It would have been nice if deBoer gave us some examples of “cloying scientism” from some of the well known New Atheists.

Don’t get me wrong: I think the point of deBoer article is a good one: faith applies not just to religion, but to wooish hooey—to all “supernatural” psychic phenomena. But he devalues this point by his inability to resist getting in some unwarranted licks at New Atheism.

In the end, deBoer is doing with New Atheism precisely what he criticizes with ideology: he is trying to tarnish ideas he agrees with by using pejorative words and ad hominem arguments—all because he doesn’t like the way those arguments are expressed. That is what the Woke do! And he’s appealing to popular ideology by bringing up “Islamophobia”, “scientism”, and “shrillness” in attacks on religion. In other words, I think he’s engaged in signaling his virtue.

deBoer should be remorseful for his own athiest-dissing not just because it enabled the Rise of Hooey (actually, I doubt that it did), but also because it was unfair and misguided.

Is New York mayor Eric Adams a woo-meister?

July 11, 2022 • 12:45 pm

After I read Maureen Dowd’s pretty positive assessment of Mayor Eric Adams of NYC in the NYT—someone touted on this site as a potential Democratic Presidential candidate in 2024)—I was surprised to find this in last Thursday’s Guardian.  Yes, Adams would be wrong if he thought his city got “special energy” from crystals, but does he think that? Maybe. Does it matter? Nope.

Click to read:


Well, the Guardian is exaggerating a bit. Here’s how its article starts:

Healing crystals have long been a fixture in the spiritual and celebrity worlds – with Adele using them to ward off stage fright and Nicole Richie wearing a clear quartz around her neck for protection.

But the New York City mayor, Eric Adams, believes that they have even more power than that: he professed in a recent interview that he believes there is a “special energy” that comes from the city he presides over, citing its location on a store of rare gems and stones.

As the New York area news website Hell Gate has deftly pointed out, Adams may be the first “crystal guy” of politics. He regularly wears “energy stone bracelets” featuring an array of powerful crystals. And when he proclaimed a “vibe shift” is upon New York City, he wasn’t just talking about the return of low-rise jeans.

I didn’t see any mention of Adams in the New York Magazine piece, but it became paywalled before I finished reading it.

And yes, the bedrock that allows Manhattan to have so many skyscrapers does have a lot of minerals in it. But crystals? The article isn’t sure:

The mayor is right about one thing, says Andrew Pacholyk, a New York-based crystal expert: the city, indeed, is seated on unique bedrock that has been known to produce more than 100 varieties of mineral. Called the Manhattan schist, it was formed about 450m years ago in a collision between what is now the east coast of North America and the floor of the Atlantic Ocean.

So what effect might crystals be having on the lives of New Yorkers? Pacholyk is vague on specifics but believes that certain areas in Manhattan do have a “special energy” owing to the unique mix of minerals found there – including quartz, kyanite, and dumortierite. He says it can be felt more strongly in natural areas with exposed rock, like Central Park.

Adams, who shockingly declined to comment for this piece, appears to wear several varieties of quartz himself. Pacholyk analyzed a photo of Adams at a December 2021 event and found the bracelets the mayor wears feature at least a dozen varieties of crystals including amethyst, rose quartz, lapis lazuli, citrine, and aventurine.

Big deal! The loon here isn’t Adams but Pacholyk, who admits above and below that crystals have supernatural properties on humans.

Not of those minerals mentioned (save quartz) is in NYC bedrock, and even if the mayor thinks that the minerals give the city a special energy when we know they can’t, I can’t be too worried about that. After all, we admire public figures for being religious, and being, say, a Christian requires far more suspension of disbelief and far more belief in woo than does being a guy who wears a crystal bracelet and thinks it has some effect on him.

And “shockingly declined to comment for this piece”? Why is that so shocking? It’s like someone asking Mike Pence, “Mike, do you really believe all that crap about the Crucifixion and Resurrection?” I doubt that Pence would comment on that, too, and he’s far more public about his religion.

As for the “recent interview” mentioned above, it was in Politico, and says this, with additional tarring of Adams because they he’s an adhereian to the Deepak-ian form of quantum woo:

[Adams] learned that New York sits on a store of rare gems and stones, and believes that as a result, “there’s a special energy that comes from here.” On his right wrist he wears a pair of multi-colored energy stone bracelets. He has read several books by Joe Dispenza, a neuroscientist and faculty member at Honolulu’s Quantum University whose bestseller, Becoming Supernatural, teaches that we can transform our physical and emotional state through the teachings of quantum physics.

The rest of the Guardian article talks about the booming crystal industry and a claim that crystals don’t do squat, which happens to be true. But even for that they must rely on Michael Shermer; they can’t bring themselves to proclaim that there is no fricking evidence that crystals have healing properties. Fortunately Shermer gives a sensible response:

Michael Brant Shermer, an author and executive director of the Skeptics Society, says there is not a shred of scientific evidence to show crystals have a measurable effect on humans or cities like New York. Still, he says, while Adams may be the first high-profile candidate to publicly declare a love of crystals, the metaphysical has found its way into politics in the past.

As in religion! You can barely get elected to dogcatcher in America if you are an open atheist. Shermer goes on:

. . . Shermer says as long as Adams does not let his personal beliefs color his policies, the interest in crystals is harmless.

“Adams shouldn’t think, ‘What should we do about gun violence? Let me consult my crystals,’” he says. “That is a hard enough problem as it is using all the best science we have. Let’s not compound it with crystals. But I think of it the same way that I think of it in other areas of life: if it’s for entertainment purposes only, it’s fine.”

Good response, Michael. But the Guardian then lists three minerals found under NYC (quartz, dumorierite, and black and blue kyanite, and quotes crystal maven Pacholyk on the genuine magical properties of these stones. Here are two examples:


“Quartz is known as the ‘master healer’ of stones,” Pacholyk says. “Our own body has quartz in it as a mineral, so it is believed we resonate to its properties vibrationally and magnetically. If you are open to it, you can feel it.”


Dumortierite is the stone of “tolerance and tranquility”,” Pacholyk says, promoting “self-discipline, cleanliness, courage, trust, accomplishment, harmony, positive attitude, patience and tolerance”.

And so ends the article. So what’s the Guardian’s answer to its title question? It doesn’t give one, but does leave the reader thinking, “Hey, maybe there’s something to this crystal stuff after all!”

Below photo from the Guardian showing Adams wearing a bracelet, but is it a crystal one?

Photo by Getty Images in the Guardian

Indigenous psychiatry: how valuable is it?

July 5, 2022 • 12:30 pm

I’ve written a lot about how New Zealand is valorizing indigenous knowledge, and the educational system is on the path to teaching Mātauranga Māori (“MM”)—a mixture of myth, legend, practical knowledge acquired by trial and error, and spirituality—as “science”, coequal to science in science classes.  There is some science in MM, but as a whole it is certainly not the same thing as modern science, and many of its claims are either dubious or palpably false. To teach MM in science classes is to deprive the children of New Zealand of an understanding of science.

Many New Zealanders seems to regard everything about its indigenous people as not only valid, but admirable. A lot of it is, but many Kiwis are too cowed to stand up to some of the more  questionable claims of the Māori, including the claim that their Polynesian ancestors discovered Antarctica centuries ago. I know about this fear because Kiwis who do stand up against nonsense get persecuted, and I get emails from lots of them who agree with me but say that they dare not speak up because they’ll lose their jobs.

The latest effort to “indigenize” knowledge is the bestowing of a huge pot of money on Māori organizations to use “ancestral knowledge” to help cure mental health issues among the indigenous people. This is described in the Newshub article below, which you can click to read:

The article notes that “The new Māori Health Authority has a budget of half a billion dollars and CEO Riana Manuel has allocated $100 million of that to support centuries-old treatments.”

And there is a need for treatment, for the article also notes this:

Māori have the highest suicide rates of all ethnic groups in New Zealand. Mental distress among Māori is almost 50 percent higher than non-Māori and 30 percent are more likely to be left undiagnosed.

Now of course we can’t attribute this to problems that are unique to Māori, as I doubt there was a control for levels of income and other stressors that differ among ethnic groups. But there is a push to use Māori-centered therapy to cure mental illness in that ethnicgroup, and 100 million dollars for using “centuries-old treatments” is a lot of money.

What are these treatments? It’s not clear, but they’re based on lunar cycles and what can only be called psychoastrology. It’s confusing because the article is, as so often happens in Kiwi news, larded with Māori terms that even non-Māori can’t understand. See if you can suss it out:

Not so well known to non-Māori is their tradition of using the moon and stars to help treat mental health issues.

It’s called maramataka and will be incorporated into treatment by the new Māori Health Authority.

Rereata Makiha is on a mission to share ancestral knowledge with the next generation.

He’s an expert on maramataka Māori, or the Māori lunar calendar, and forecasting based on the moon cycles, star systems, tides, and the environment.

“The maramataka helps you, helps us to predict when things are going to happen, to tell us when the fish are going to run, when the eels are going to run – all those sorts of things,” he said.

“When you understand it a lot it’s a brilliant guide on when you should be doing certain things.”

Rikki Solomon teaches at-risk rangatahi and whānau how to use maramataka for improving mental health and knowing when to spend time doing certain activities in nature or around whanau.

“If we find that a whanau has had a low time or they may feel low, what we use is the maramataka to identify their cycles, their highs, and their lows,” Solomon said.

“What we observe in those low areas is what are some rituals at that time. And what I mean about rituals is what is the environment that they can connect to, because our environment is our biggest healer.”

That doesn’t really clear things up, but here’s more on the practice, with quotes from Riana Manuel, CEO of the Māori Health Authority:

“Connecting people back to those spaces and places that have been long forgotten is certainly something that will be investing in,” Manuel said.

Just like they do with Matariki, Māori use maramataka as a way of reading the cosmos to prepare for what’s coming.

“It’s a way of rebuilding the body, your wairua, and rebuilding your energy and getting prepared for the high energy days ahead,” Makiha said.

“So it goes in waves like that and if people understand it and go back to that rather than rush, rush, rush every day, I think that’s what drives a lot of the ill-health.”

If you can figure out what they’re doing from this, you’re a better person than I am.

Now there may indeed be a benefit to using Māori practitioners and ancient Māori practices to treat mental illness. After all, people often feel that therapists who have a background similar to their own are more desirable.  Women, for example, often feel that a woman therapist will treat their problems better, and the same goes for ethnic minorities.  So there may be something to shared experience and background that is therapeutic (there’s also, of course, a placebo effect).

My criticism here is simply that these practices are being adopted in the absence of clinical trials, and so there is only a “traditional” basis for the therapy. Might Māori be helped more with other practices, like cognitive behavioral therapy, practices that have been tested and shown to be efficacious? Or even medication, which has a significant effect on things like depression. (A combination of talk and drug therapy seems to be the most curative).

As a colleague wrote me, this absence of scientific testing of a method that will absorb $100 million is the same issue raised with MM: what is claimed (or assumed) to be “scientific” has not been vetted using the scientific method. To quote the colleague:

This is exactly the problem that led me to raise concerns about MM versus science in the first place. We now have two alternate sets of “facts.” One is based on scientific evidence, and the other may be supported by some evidence but has never been tested in a way that would be considered acceptable for medical science.

Mental health is a form of health, and this is like treating diseases using astrology and “traditional methods” that have never been subject to genuine scientific tests. Doesn’t it seem wise, before investing $100 million in mental-health treatment, that the government of New Zealand be sure that those treatments actually work? 

Sadly, that’s not the way the New Zealand government rolls.

Sheldrake vs. Pigliucci

May 31, 2022 • 9:15 am

Remember Rupert Sheldrake, a notorious quack who combines his pseudoscience with an extraordinarily thin skin, so that when his quackery is called out, he cries that his “good” scientific ideas are being unfairly suppressed?  He’s still here, which disturbs both Pigliucci and me. The good news is that serious scientists have dismissed Sheldrake’s ideas a long time ago, and it’s only the credulous public that keeps him going, for he says what they want to hear.  Also, he doesn’t rant, but speaks with a Received English accent, which makes him seem saner than he is.

I used to post about Sheldrake all the time (see pages at this link), as his ideas were so unbelievably crazy that I couldn’t resist. Further, he was given the platform of a TEDx Whitechapel talk in which he expounded scientific misconceptions, and when TEDx moved the talk from their YouTube channel to another site because of its errors, Sheldrake claimed censorship.  As Massimo Pigliucci notes in the article below:

Like many purveyors of pseudoscience, [Sheldrake] suffers from Galileo syndrome, the belief that he is a lonely genius who sees further than anyone else, but whom the scientific establishment fights against in order to preserve the status quo.

Click below to read Pigliucci’s critical take on Sheldrake, who’s still hanging about like a bad penny.

In many ways Sheldrake resembles Deepak Chopra, another self-styled “misunderstood genius”. Among Sheldrake’s questionable ideas are that of “morphic resonance”, the notion that people can sense when others are staring at their backs, as well as the claim that dogs can be psychic. But let Massimo outline some of these (all have been debunked or explained as naturalistic phenomena):

But let’s get to the substance of what Sheldrake has been claiming now for decades. Back in 1981 he published a book, A New Science of Life, which prompted a devastating review by John Maddox in Nature, part of which is quoted at the beginning of this article. That’s where Sheldrake proposes his notion of “morphic resonance,” an entirely new phenomenon that is meant to account for both known and still unexplained phenomena, from biological heredity to the alleged “fact” that when a rat learns to navigate a maze in a laboratory other rats, in other locations, mysteriously acquire the same knowledge.

The notion, as much as one can make any sense of it, is that the entire universe is actually a living thing (Sheldrake also endorses the idea of panpsychism) characterized by a “morphic field” that makes all these things (and many more thereof, including telepathy) possible through a kind of diffused memory.

Morphic fields are reminiscent of the Jungian (itself pseudoscientific) notion of archetypes, with the difference that Jung limited his particular bit of empirically unsubstantiated speculation to the human subconscious, while Sheldrake goes cosmic.

The idea of morphic resonance — like pretty much all of Sheldrake’s ideas — is also not at all original. To begin with, it closely resembles the long discredited concept of a vital force, or élan vital, proposed by French philosopher Henri Bergson in his 1907 book Creative Evolution, and actually tracking all the way back to first century BCE Stoic Posidonius of Apamea. I don’t know whether Sheldrake is aware of these forerunners, but he does acknowledge the influence of the neo-vitalist Hans Driesch and his philosophy of entelechy (a term originally coined by Aristotle).

Needless to say, but let’s state it clearly anyway, there is absolutely no evidence that life forces, morphogenetic fields, and related concepts have any correspondence with the real world. Accordingly, Sheldrake hasn’t been able to publish his ideas in real scientific journals. Which I’m sure he attributes, conveniently, to a worldwide conspiracy against him.

Then again, some of his claims have been subjected to test even when the pertinent evidence (and only part of the methodology) appeared only in Sheldrake’s own books. For example, psychologist Richard Wiseman has investigated multiple claims made by Sheldrake, and found them wanting. In a paper entitled “The Psychic Pet Phenomenon: A Reply to Rupert Sheldrake” Wiseman tried to replicate an experiment carried out by Sheldrake using a “psychic pet,” which turned out to be a dog named Jaytee. The claim was that Jaytee would hang around the porch of his owner’s house for longer periods whenever the owner was on his way home. Wiseman’s explanation of the alleged phenomenon is far more prosaic than dog telepathy: the data is consistent with a dog’s natural waiting behavior, and specifically with the tendency of the dog to prolong visits to the porch the longer the owner had been away. As Sam Woolfe puts it in a critical article on Sheldrake, “this is evidence of a dog anticipating the arrival of their owner, instead of knowing it through psychic abilities.” Physicist Freeman Dyson (quoted by John Greenbank in an article Philosophy Now) added:

“Recently Rupert Sheldrake did some interesting experiments on ESP in dogs. Dogs are much better than humans for such experiments. Dogs are dumb, they are not interested in the outcome of the experiment, and they do not cheat. Unfortunately Rupert Sheldrake is not a dog. He is human, and his essential role in his experiments makes his results questionable.”

Wiseman, in his near infinite patience and intellectual honesty, also checked another of Sheldrake’s bizarre ideas. In his book, The Sense of Being Stared At, Sheldrake claims that after tens of thousands of trials, 60% of the subjects reported a feeling of being stared at when they, in fact, were. This would be higher than the expected rate by chance, which is 50%. But Wiseman repeated the experiment and found no statistically significant deviation from the 50–50 rate. Naturally.

Sheldrake has also argued that the speed of light has been dropping over time, a view for which there is absolutely zero evidence. If you go to his talk (link above), he claims that this change in the speed of light “is the most embarrassing episode in the history of science”. (There was no change.)

Yet despite the fact that he’s a palpable quackpot, Sheldrake still gets invites to talk. As Massimo notes in the article, Sheldrake has been invited to the “How the Light Gets In” Festival at Hay in Wales, a generally serious venue that I spoke at once. In fact, Sheldrake has been invited several times, and for no good reason that I can see. It’s not to demonstrate quackery; it’s because Sheldrake’s message, which is antimaterialistic, pro-panpsychism, teleological, and gives a purpose for nature, is like cream to those cats who demand purpose in their science.

Here’s Sheldrake being asked about the supposed death of New Atheism. Instead of answering the question, he immediately goes back years to kvetch about his “banned” TEDx talk, which clearly still smarts, and to argue that his “cancellation” (his talk wasn’t removed, just put on a new site) was in fact the beginning of the death of New Atheism. This is a man who vastly overrates his own influence.  The “Galileo Syndrome” is quite evident.

It’s ironic that in the Facebook clip above, Sheldrake mentions the “reproducibility crisis” in science as an example of how science is unreliable, for none of Sheldrake’s own contentions have been replicated.

In a way I feel sorry for Sheldrake, who must wake up each morning feeling aggrieved that his greatness hasn’t been recognized. But on the other hand I despise his pushing woo and dissing science when there’s no substantive basis for his assertions. In the end, I agree with Massimo’s assessment (The Science Delusion is one of Sheldrake’s books.)

. . . the scientific approach to understanding the world has been around for five (if you count from Galileo) or 25 centuries (if you count from Pre-Socratics like Thales of Miletus). And for all the “alternative ways of knowing” that people like Sheldrake keep throwing up, it has been extremely successful and unparalleled. Meanwhile, none of the alleged alternatives has produced anything other than vague and untestable speculations. That’s why, in the end, I have to agree with Greenbank, who writes:

“The Science Delusion, is disturbingly eccentric. Fluently superficial, it combines a disorderly collage of scientific fact and opinion with an intrusive yet disjunctive metaphysical program.” (Philosophy Now)

h/t: Daniel

Shades of Nostradamus: the NYT touts precognition

May 11, 2022 • 1:15 pm

The tweet below from Steve PInker, which is spot on, brought this NYT book review to my attention. Once again, the paper dilates on the supernatural without any warning to the reader that there’s no evidence for the efficacy of “precognition”—being able to see into the future, a form of extra-sensory perception (ESP). Yet the book review implies that there might be something to it.

Here’s the tweet:

The NYT piece reviews this book (note the title). The account may be true, but the “death foretold”? Fuggedabout it.  (Click to go to Amazon link):

The author of this big of clickbait is W. M. Akers, whose bona fides, as given by the NYT, are “W.M. Akers is the author of “Westside,” “Deadball: Baseball With Dice” and the newsletter “Strange Times.” His most recent novel is “Westside Lights.”

The review (click to read):

Knight’s book tells the story of a British psychiatrist named John Baker, who was drawn to the supernatural and especially to precognition. He thought that if he could suss out credible instances of people foreseeing disasters, he might be able to prevent those disasters (think of a non-crime version of precogs in “Minority Report”). Here’s one instance of precognition that got Baker’s juices flowing:

n Oct. 21, 1966, Lorna Middleton woke up choking. The sensation passed, leaving behind melancholy and a sense of impending doom. After a lifetime of experiencing premonitions of misery and death, Middleton, a North London piano teacher, recognized the signs. Something hideous was on the way.

A few hours later, workers on a heap of coal waste in South Wales watched with horror as the 111-foot tower of “spoil” collapsed and cascaded down the mountain toward the village of Aberfan — thousands of tons of slurry and rock bearing down on the primary school. It was just past 10 in the morning and the classrooms were full of students doing spelling exercises, singing songs, learning math. When a 30-foot wave of refuse slammed into the building, they were buried alive. One hundred and forty-four people died that day. One hundred and sixteen were children, most between 7 and 10 years old. It was the sort of horror that makes people demand meaning — the sort for which meaning is rarely found.

Now that’s not a very precise example of precognition, is it? In fact, thousands of people probably had bad dreams that night, and where is the coal spoil in Middleton’s nonspecific dream? This seems like nothing more than pure coincidence. And how could precognition work, anyway? This doesn’t appear to be a subject of much interest to Knight—or Akers.

But in fact coincidence is what Baker was trawling for, looking for cases in which real “precogs” could be used in a practical way. If only the exact nature of the disaster could be predicted! Baker got to work, teaming up with Alan Hencher, a postal employee whose migraine headaches were supposed to predict disasters (but of what sort?) and Lorna Middleton, who had the bad dream that was followed by the coal-spoil avalanche::

Barker used his connections at The Evening Standard to solicit premonitions of the disaster. He found 22 he believed credible, including Middleton’s — he believed any vision accompanied by physical symptoms to be particularly strong. On the back of this research, The Standard recruited Barker to create a standing “Premonitions Bureau” that could catalog predictions and check to see how many came true. The Standard brass saw it as an offbeat way to sell papers. Barker considered it his chance to save the world.

“He wanted an instrument that was sensitive enough to capture intimations that were otherwise impossible to detect,” writes Knight. “He envisaged the fully fledged Premonitions Bureau as a ‘central clearinghouse to which the public could always write or telephone should they experience any premonitions, particularly those which they felt were related to future catastrophes.’ Over time, the Premonitions Bureau would become a databank for the nation’s dreams and visions — ‘mass premonitions,’ Barker later called them — and issue alerts based on the visions it received.”

So were any disasters averted? Nope, of course not. What we got is what we expected: there were dozens of premonitions, and  some of them roughly matched something that happened, but most (more than 97%) did not. And even when they didn’t, they stretched the premonitions so they’d be sort-of true:

In the first week of 1967, Barker and the Standard staff began sorting predictions into categories like “Royalty,” “Racing,” Fire” and “Non-specified disasters.” (The science correspondent Peter Fairley often drew on the racing file for betting tips.) Once categorized, they would wait to see what happened, and attempt to connect the tragedies on the news page with the prophecies in their files.

Along with Alan Hencher, a postal employee whose migraines seemed to anticipate disaster, Middleton became Barker’s best source. He greeted her successful predictions with glee. When the death of the astronaut Vladimir Komarov bore out her warning of peril in space, Barker wrote to say, “You were spot on. Well done!” When Bobby Kennedy was assassinated after months of her warning that his life was in danger, Barker called it her best work yet.

But what about Middleton’s unsuccessful predictions—her “worst work”? The review says nothing, except that they fudged the unsuccessful guesses to make them seem more accurate:

If they sometimes had to stretch to make the news fit what Middleton and her fellows dreamed up — letting tornadoes in the Midwest satisfy a prediction of catastrophic weather in California, for instance — Barker saw no problem. He was overjoyed with the success of his star psychics and hoped to scour the country to find more like them. He believed second sight was as common as left-handedness. It didn’t matter that the premonitions were rarely specific enough to be useful, warning simply of a train to derail somewhere, an airliner to crash at some point. Barker believed he was onto something cosmic.

Rarely specific enough to be useful? Why don’t they give us one instance in which a predication was useful, and evidence that the predictions that proved accurate were more common than could be accounted for by coincidence (e.g., was there one person whose precognitions were almost invariably accurate?) If this worked, that person would have won a million bucks from James Randi (nobody ever did). Even according to the author’s count, only 3% of the predictions “came true” (mostly from MIddleton and Hetcher). And that, I’m sure, is stretching it.

The text here gives one no assurance that anything other than coincidence was involved. To make a scientific and definitive statement about the efficacy of precognition, you’d need a rigorous and accurate set of tests, tests incorporating fraud-detectors like James Randi. There are no such tests that have proved successful. The NYT does not mention this.

But wait! There was one “successful” prediction: Middleton and Hencher predicted that Barker would soon die (they give no date) and a year and a half after the “predictions bureau” was founded, Barker had a cerebral hemorrhage and croaked. Is that uncanny, or just coincidence?

The review concludes that the precog experiment was indeed “worth a shot”:

Barker’s psychics’ predictions had proved accurate, but they did not help him avoid his fate. He had hoped to use the Bureau to change the future. It had not even come close. By Knight’s count, only 3 percent of the Bureau’s predictions came true — nearly all of the successes from Middleton and Hencher. It found no useful data and prevented no tragedies. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth a shot.

“We confer meaning as a way to control our existence,” writes Knight. “It makes life livable. The alternative is frightening.”

Three percent is better than nothing. Even false meaning is preferable to fear.

I’m sorry to have to say this, but that conclusion is bullshit.  If “false meaning is preferable to fear”, then we should all become religious. And, anyway, what kind of fear does 3% of coincidental matches dispel? What is the frightening abyss into which we must gaze if none of the predictions were even remotely true? The last two paragraphs are pure New Yorker-style prose: they sound good, but they say nothing.

Some of the evidence for precognition that people found convincing came from Daryl Bem. This evidence has not held up (see also here).  Doesn’t the NYT or its authors owe us that information, or the fact that there is no conceivable way that the laws of physics could even allow precognition?  No, because the paper is are wedded to cosseting our “spiritual” side.


NPR promotes tarot

February 6, 2022 • 9:45 am

It seems that many venues of the “mainstream liberal media”, like National Public Radio (NPR) and the New York Times, are devoting more space to woo: dowsing, tarot, talking to the dead, astrology, and so on. Now the MSLM has become a bit savvier about this nonsense. It often claims, as in the NPR “Life Kit” article below, that these things don’t really work through magical methods, but they help you get in tune with your feelings and become psychologically more astute. (Any person with more than a few neurons would ask an astrologer or tarot reader, “How come you’re not rich from forecasting the economy or stock market? And people are getting smarter about that.)

Still NPR, in the article below, walks a fine line between psychology and magic. And if you need psychological support or help in making a decision, there are always friends (preferably women, who are less prescriptive and tend to listen more than do men), or, if you want to pay, there are therapists, who don’t profess any magical abilities.

NPR is funded in part by the government, so it’s our money that funds about 11% of this nonsense. Click on the screenshot below:


First come the caveats (“it doesn’t predict the future”) and then the promise (“it helps you make decisions”). But seriously, is looking at cards that have specific meanings going to be a better way to make a decision than to talk to good people? After all, the cards are just a matter of chance, and there could be considerable confirmation bias involved in having them “help you” to decide what you want, which may not be the best decision.

The caveats (all emphases below are mine):

I didn’t always listen to the readings, but the rituals provided me a space to ruminate on and figure out my own answers to the question that’s being asked of the cards. Years later, along with many others, I’ve returned to the practice as a way of staying grounded during this time of indecision and overwhelm.

As tarot reader and writer Michelle Tea puts it, some people mistakenly come to tarot for a prediction of the future, when it’s really about self-reflection. “If you’re a person that wants to integrate more spirituality into your life or to look at life a bit more philosophically, it’s a great tool to even just pick a daily card.”

Modern tarot, which derives from mid-15th century European playing cards, has rules and structure that often feel inaccessible to newcomers: even if you’ve gotten a reading before, you may be intimidated by the cards, or wondering whether you’re witchy or cool enough to practice tarot yourself.

But what is the “spirituality” you want? Is this a sneaky way of talking about the numinous, or a kind of woo? What you want to integrate into your life is rationality, not spirituality.

And if you get a reading from someone else, well, the chances that you are using them to forecast your life is much higher, as these people are practiced grifters and cold readers, though some may employ a form of therapy. (They are not, of course, trained in therapy.)You can see an actual reading below by the subject of this NPR article (and interview), reader Michelle Tea, who’s touted for “her prescient readings” (see below).

Then things get a bit more numinous as you learn to pick more cards from the pack of 78:

Tea says this is yet another common misconception about tarot. “Tarot is incredibly welcoming for a novice. If I could learn it, really anybody can,” she says. “It’s just about becoming comfortable with the imagery, learning them by heart and understanding how the cards talk to each other so that when you pull a series of cards, you understand how they flow into a type of story.”

The story, of course, is really one you tell yourself; the pretense is that there’s some pattern, a pattern violating the laws of physics, that will guide your life and answer your questions.

And then it gets more numinous yet, with a helpful chart on how to use the cards:

A standard tarot deck has 78 cards divided into two groups, 22 major arcana cards and 56 minor arcana cards. The major arcana showcase big life events, while the minor arcana look at the strokes and speak to our daily lives, though much of this, of course, varies on the reader.

The major arcana are composed of the archetype cards like the sun, the magician and the lovers. They’re often numbered as zero (the fool) to 22 (the world). “When major cards come up in readings, they usually talk about a moment that is really significant,” Tea explains, “like a peak moment in our lives or a significant learning opportunity, a lesson that’s going to be very impactful for us.”

The minor arcana are divided into four elements, similar to traditional playing cards — running from one to 10, followed by face cards. Elements are represented by symbols, which Tea breaks down here. . . .

So the cards begin to assume meanings to guide you.  The helpful chart (click to enlarge):

credit: Clare Marie Schneider/NPR

And the tarot can help you!

And now we get to the real woo:

Ask specific questions:

To receive more insightful readings, try to avoid asking big picture questions that cover the span of a year or speak to your general mood.

“If you’re overwhelmed and you want the tarot to reassure you, that’s really not the tarot’s job,” says Tea. “The tarot isn’t here to tell you everything’s going to be okay, but if you’re having a challenging moment, the tarot can help you deal with it.”

You can still, of course, lean on the cards. Rather than asking a muddy question like “Is everything going to be okay?” you can reframe it to “What actions could I take?”

Tarot can also respond to yes or no questions like “Should I leave my job?” Or even day-to-day questions like “How should I talk about splitting chores with my roommates?” If you disagree with the cards, that’s okay, too. As Tea says, “The tarot is a tool for you to be proactive in your own life, and to move into your own destiny with confidence.”

In other words, why use cards at all if it’s fine to disagree with them?

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, and comrades, what we have here is your taxpayer money going to tout a bunch of bogus card therapy.

You can find a 15-minute conversation between tarot reader Michelle Tea and and NPR Host Janet Lee here. It’s even worse. It turns out that Lee, who co-wrote the article above, isn’t exactly skeptical of tarot, for she says this:

“Today, I keep up with the spiritual practice by giving tarot readings. I spent years practicing on my own before reading for other people, but when I first started, I felt like I wasn’t witchy or spooky enough to learn tarot at all. What convinced me otherwise was a book by writer and tarot reader Michelle Tea.”

And Tea says this:

TEA: And you can also pick cards about just sort of, you know, what should you do with your career, what should you do with your art practice, you know, where should you live? Should you ask that person on a date? Like, tarot also responds wonderfully to all of our sort of petty (laughter) – the petty concerns that feel very important to us as human beings.

“Tarot responds. . . “.  In other words, these ancient cards tell us what to do with our lives.

The first line of the blurb for Tea’s Amazon book on tarot is this:

Long before Michelle Tea was winning awards for her poignant memoirs, she was a scrappy misfit on the streets of San Francisco, supporting herself by giving eerily prescient tarot readings.

Prescient means this: “Having or showing knowledge of events before they take place.”

Ah. . . there we have it.  Note that in the reading below, there are clearly predictions about the future. As usual, the readings are so ambiguous that they can be construed any way they want. That’s where the cold reading comes in.

It’s clear that the folks who pay or buy cards to engage in this kind of mishigass do want answers, and thus may use a human reader first before they try to deal personally with the cards. But the important questions for us are these:

  1.  Has there been a scientific test of tarot to see if it’s better than no tarot (or fake cards) in helping people with their lives, or better than a therapist or talking to a friend?
  2. Why is NPR touting this nonsense? If it wants to help people in difficulties, shouldn’t its Life Kit present proper solutions instead of woo?
  3. Where are the scientific caveats about the usefulness of traditional packs of 78 cards in helping you or predicting the future, whether or not you take specific actions? Why did they not interview any tarot skeptics. The coverage is thus grossly unbalanced.
  4. And why are places like the NYT or NPR so into this kind of nonsense? Is it a replacement for religion.

Let’s get a reading with Tea, shown in the video below.

If you don’t think she’s using this to prognosticate, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle. (I am a monkey’s distant descendant, though.) One thing is for sure: we don’t need no stinking tarot cards in our Life Kit.

h/t: Ginger K.

Wired touts astrology as a practice that works

January 7, 2022 • 9:45 am

The other day, when I criticized the op-ed in Scientific American that tarred E. O. Wilson (along with others like Mendel and Darwin) as a “racist”, I added the usual observation: the magazine is getting terminally woke and nonscientific.  One hopes it would regain its former status as a sought-after place for laypeople to learn about science, but that won’t happen until they replace the Editor-in-Chief and/or get a new philosophy.

One commenter, though, suggested that a good replacement for Sci. Am. is Wired.  I haven’t read Wired much, and have no strong feelings about it one way or the other. But this new article—yes, an article, not an op-ed—suggests that Wired, too, may be the victim of woo, and bears watching. Click on the screenshot to read:

It’s the usual modern apologia for astrology, which can’t bring itself to admit that astrology is a “science” that cannot make accurate predictions, and also argues that astrology is much more than just a form of “cold reading” or therapy: the stars and planets really do affect our futures in some way we don’t understand.  Since there is no evidence that tests of astrology, properly conducted, show any ability to predict personality or the future (see below) this is basically Wired magazine’s presentation of woo—without any criticism. It is touting astrology, which victimizes people who pay good morning for nothing.

It’s even worse, for the author is identified this way:

Diana Rose Harper is a professional consulting & teaching astrologer currently living in southern California.

Yes, it works! And it’s historically justified!

ASTROLOGY IS A predictive art. And though many astrologers twist themselves into intellectual knots in an attempt to legitimize astrology within a scientific materialist paradigm—thereby creating a boundary between astrology and less-reputable “fortune-telling,” and avoiding guilt-by-association proximity with swindling “psychics”—there is no mechanistic explanation for how it works. Empirical astrological data, while extant, fails to satisfy the craving for clearly replicable quantitative results. The massively subjective nature of astrological interpretation doesn’t help: Two astrologers can look at the same planetary configuration and come to decidedly different conclusions, and sometimes, they’re both right.

Check out the link for “extant”, implying that there are actual data justifying the use of planetary and celestial positions in helping people. It just goes to the journal for astrologers!

And here’s a historical justification:

Still, rulers of nations and empires have a long history of relying on astrologers as part of the growth and maintenance of power; there’s just as long a history of astrologers being imprisoned (or worse). The ability to predict is precisely what makes astrology so potent, and exactly what brings risk into astrological practice.

There’s no test of the ability to predict that shows it works, and a “long history” proves nothing. There’s a long history of people praying to God and Jesus, but that doesn’t mean either that these figures exist or that prayer works.

Gobbledygook! It works but it requires a combination of stars and empathy!

But the celestial charts are still important!

As Sam Reynolds, an astrologer who started out as a skeptic and has served on the board for the international astrology organization ISAR, points out, even character analysis via the natal chart is essentially a form of thematic forecasting: “By virtue of looking at your character, [astrology] can bespeak what is likely to manifest, what we’re likely dealing with,” an extension of Heraclitus’s dictum that “character is destiny.” Character influences how we navigate the circumstances life throws at us. “Fate has two arms: one of them is yours,” he says. “Astrology is about learning how to work the arm that you can work.”

Working the workable arm of fate is what astrologer, teacher, and CUSP app cofounder Kirah Tabourn does for herself and for her clients. A planning-focused astrologer, Tabourn considers prediction to provide “more grounding in the present by having some idea of the patterning of the future,” including the precious gift of organizing one’s life. “[Astrological timing] helps people feel like there’s some structure, an order to things,” she says. “It helps people make decisions.”

. . .However, knowing that people make choices based on astrology comes with an imperative to be as ethical as possible when translating celestial movements for clients. “Our clients and content consumers are often in a space of putting a lot of weight into what [astrologers] say,” adds Tabourn. “Being really mindful of that power dynamic is super important.”

The downside to the immense meaning-making potential of astrology? It renders the practice vulnerable to misuse by uncareful types with dubious commitment to honorable behavior. An astrologer more concerned with being right or being (in)famous than they are with being helpful runs the very real risk of chasing sensationalism at the expense of integrity. This results in people who use astrology as an excuse to be an ambulance chaser or to create viral, fear-mongering social media content. Astrologers without deliberate training in counseling skills or trauma-informed practice, even those with the very best intentions, run the risk of inadvertently distressing their clients rather than supporting them. Some professional astrological organizations attempt to address these issues through codes of ethics, but because there’s no governing body dictating who can and cannot call themselves an astrologer, such codes are limited in their capacity to reign in practitioners behaving irresponsibly. Additionally, those codes, by their very nature, cannot fully address ethical differences across cultures or generational divides.

Note the emphasis on counseling and empathy. If her astrology “works” (and that has yet to be ascertained), it will surely be due to the “friend/counselor effect”. Talking to anyone who empathizes with you, whether or not they are “paid friends”, is better than doing nothing.

I’ll draw this piece to a merciful close, though Harper says a lot more that one could parse. But why bother; there’s no material way the alignment of stars and planets when you are born could affect your personality or future. Until we think there’s a naturalistic way this could happen, I’ll just end with Hitchens’s Razor: What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

For astrology, as with many species of woo, there is no evidence for it at all, much less “extraordinary” evidence. In this case, Wired is not only “unscientific”, but antiscientific. Let us dismiss it with prejudice!

Two bits of Irish woo

December 23, 2021 • 11:15 am

There’s a time when “blarney” becomes crazy and harmful, and we have two cases that appeared at the same time.  The first represents the New York Times‘s recent presentation of woo in extenso, with almost no critical remarks. The editors are soft on astrology, they’re soft on dowsing, they’re soft on religion, and now they’re soft on a mixture of religion and spiritual healing. Click the screenshot to read:

As the article reports, there are a number of faith healers in Ireland who have what they call “the cure”. It’s nothing new; it’s the old “laying on of hands” by believers, often accompanied by prayer, holy water, etc., to effect cures. The guy in the photo above, Joe Gallagher in Pullough, is the seventh son of a seventh son (not that rare in Catholic Ireland, but increasingly rarer), and this is supposed to give him special healing abilities. Here’s how the author, Megan Specia, describes “The Cure”:

Mr. Gallagher is just one of hundreds of men and women across Ireland who are healers, or have “the cure,” an approach to health care that interweaves home remedies with mysticism, superstition, religion and a sprinkle of magic.

It’s part of a belief in folk medicine, curing charms and faith healers that is still a way of life for many in Ireland, if a fading one.

Some who are believed to have the cure are seventh sons, like Mr. Gallagher, a birth order long thought to bestow special powers.

Others are keepers of family customs that range from rituals, prayers and charms to herbal tinctures, offered up as treatments for everything from burns and sprains to rashes and coughs.

Since his childhood, people have sought out Mr. Gallagher. “I think you must have the belief,” he said, acknowledging that the process doesn’t always work. “I wouldn’t say that I can do miracles.”


People come from miles around to see healers like Gallagher, who are reputed to cure things like:

  • burns
  • sprains
  • coughs
  • rashes
  • warts
  • shingles
  • ringworm (in dogs, too!)

An example:

Bart Gibbons, 57, who owns a grocery store in the village of Drumshanbo in County Leitrim, has a cure for warts that was passed down from his father and his father’s father before him.

It involves taking a bundle of rushes and saying a combination of prayers as they are held over the affected area. Then, he buries the reed-like plants. The belief is that when they decay, the warts are gone.

They don’t get paid, so at least that’s good, but have they done controlled trials with these shamans? I don’t think so. At least they’re cheaper than doctors, but isn’t there a form of national healthcare in Ireland? And, as you know, warts sometimes go away by themselves.

The only comments that are negative in this longish piece are these:

Attributing positive outcomes of the cure to something like a placebo effect makes sense to Ronald Moore, an associate professor of public health at University College Dublin who has spent years researching folk cures and who emphasized there is little scientific evidence for the efficacy of these practices.

Well, then, why not just give the people sugar pills? And the statement above is quickly followed by this:

But that doesn’t mean the medical community completely dismisses potential benefits, with some doctors known to send their patients for the cure, often for skin issues or other minor troubles.

“Modern practices on the one hand pooh pooh this, as scandalous and outrageous and quackery,” Dr. Moore said. “But in fact, and in reality, they utilize it.”

Those doctors are shameful. At least they don’t send patients to the Irish shamans for maladies like cancer and heart disease. (Shamans may, however, try to cure people of more serious stuff.)

Although the practice is “deeply religious”, it works on dogs, too!  Can dogs lose their ailments by “The Cure”? I thought Edward Feser maintained that dogs don’t have souls. But here’s the last picture of healing in the piece; I’ve included the paper’s caption. The picture makes me laugh out loud: a real LOL:

Mr. Keane performing the cure for ringworm on one of the dogs from a neighboring house in Cloghans.Credit…Paulo Nunes dos Santos for The New York Times

Once again the New York Times is touting quackery by publicizing it and only bringing in one lone dissenter, who is immediately countered by a physician enthusiast. What is going on with this newspaper?


This article with its hilarious title is a serious piece in another Times—the Irish Times. Being a Catholic coutry and all, I suppose papers there have more article like this one. If you read the piece, you’ll see that “lay theologian” (indeed!) Brendan Butler is deeply besotted with God and baby Jesus, the “eternal Cosmic Christ.” And Jesus is said to be the “culmination of 13.8 billion years of evolution.” This implies that evolution in humans has stopped, but yet we’re still evolving and so is every other species.  Read and weep to find out why Jesus is the End of Evolution:

Okay, here’s the whole scientific explanation of why Jesus is the culmination of evolution (it’s part of a longer piece that sounds like a sermon):

How to reconcile a human and a divine nature in one person became the subject of controversy until it was resolved in 431 at the council of Ephesus by declaring Mary as ‘Theotokos’ – the mother of God.

But this led to another question: why did the eternal creator God become a mortal and fragile human creature? Various explanations were put forward, with the most common being that it was necessary for God the Son to become human and die on a cross for the sins of the human race.

However, another explanation associated with the Franciscan theologian John Dun Scotus, fits in with our post-Darwin, post-Einstein and post-Hubble world. In this view the baby Jesus, born in Bethlehem, was the culmination of 13.8 billion years of the evolutionary process.

He was born with the substance of the stars and molecules of prehistoric life present and active in his body. In this Christology the baby is not just a child of the universe but the eternal Cosmic Christ who released that primal energy which burst forth and created the universe.

Evolutionary process

This Christ remained an integral part of the evolutionary process, sustaining it and driving it forward towards greater and greater complexity until the apex of that movement emerged as homo sapiens.

It was always God’s plan that the creator Christ, already present in the universe as an invisible presence, would become fully human and be born as a human being.

I think Mr. Butler should take a course in evolution, where he’d learn that there is no evidence that evolution is teleological, and that it was going on for 3.5 billion years before Baby Jesus was born. Who sustained evolution until then?  But I’m pleased to learn that Jesus, like the rest of us, was made of billion-year-old carbon. Still, he’s got to get himself back to the garden (of Eden).

It’s just tripe, of course, but why would the Irish times give a millimeter of space to stuff like this?

Below: the author with the paper’s caption; Butler is apparently Jesus’s ghostwriter:

Brendan Butler is a lay theologian and author of My Story by Jesus of Nazareth

h/t: Kieran, Alexandra

More indigenous anger from New Zealand about real science

December 5, 2021 • 12:30 pm

Here’s another kerfuffle that two academics from New Zealand called to my attention. I am letting one of them comment on a recent exchange about a paper involving Maori burning of land, which apparently produced carbon deposits in Antarctica.

The paper below was published in Nature last month, and suggests an explanation for high rates of carbon deposition found in Antarctic ice cores starting about 700 years ago: levels three times higher than in previous centuries.  As the abstract below shows, the most likely explanation was soot being blown towards Antarctica from either Tasmania, New Zealand, or Patagonia.  But the record of fire use (“paleofire” studies), the directionality of carbon distribution, plus the timing (Maori settled New Zealand around 1300), suggests suggests that New Zealand was the source, probably from Maori burning of forests or fields that caused ancillary wildfires.  Here’s a paragraph from the paper (“BB” is “biomass burning”).

Palaeofire records from Patagonia and Tasmania, as well as modelling, indicate that BB prior to European colonization was driven primarily by large-scale climate variations, and that BB in both regions was low for much of the past 700 years when the climate in Patagonia and Tasmania was relatively we (Fig. 1). Indigenous hunter-gatherer populations had been living in Tasmania and Patagonia for millennia before European arrival and probably used small-scale fires for land management However, there is little historical or proxy evidence of large changes in anthropogenic BB before European settlement in the 19th century.

New Zealand was among the last habitable places on Earth to be colonized by humans and charcoal-based fire records indicate a very different BB history than Tasmania and Patagonia. Wildfire was absent or insignificant before about 1300 but widespread during the past 700 years (Fig. 1), with pronounced increases in fire occurrence attributed to arrival and colonization of New Zealand by the Māori and their use of fire for land clearing and management.


For several reasons, this paper angered those who accept Maori “other ways of knowing”, both for its assumed conclusions (“Maori caused pollution”) but also because no Maori were involved in the investigation; the implication being that their different points of view might have changed the paper’s conclusions.  I’m no expert on this, but the degree of anger this paper inspired was conveyed to me by a retired academic from New Zealand, who sent me these links. His/her commentary is indented:

I thought you might be interested in the piece at the link you’ll find below. It appeared a couple of months ago on the website, Scoop, whose purpose is largely the dissemination of press releases. However, they also publish commentaries by prominent journalists and, from time to time, ask experts to comment on significant events and on scientific findings which might be of wider interest than just the particular field in which the research was conducted. The piece below falls into the latter category.

Click on screenshot to read.
More from my correspondent:
It was occasioned by the publication in Nature of an article that suggested elevated levels of black carbon in Antarctic ice cores might be attributable to wildfires set during the early period of Maori settlement in New Zealand/Aotearoa. [See the paper and its link above.] In this case, three local “experts” were asked to respond to the findings and it’s those responses that I thought you might find of interest.
The first response teeters on the brink of invoking Maori ways of knowing but doesn’t quite tumble into the abyss. But it does suggest that the researchers should have asked Maori before publishing their article or, better still, involved Maori in the research itself.
Here’s part of the first response, whose excerpts are in italics:

Dr Priscilla Wehi, Director, Te Pūnaha Matatini Centre of Research Excellence in Complex Systems, comments:

“It is scientifically spectacular to see an analysis of Antarctic ice cores show fire patterns in Aotearoa over the last millennia so clearly. The topic is fascinating, but does it miss what we already know in our research community? The work led me to reflect on diversity and inclusion in science. A swathe of research tells us that diverse teams create excellent science, and there is gender variation in the author list. Other research has visualised citation and collaboration patterns in science and concluded that research from Australasia and the’ global south’ is often missing from the work of our European and North American colleagues. Although some well-known New Zealand research is cited here, it remains that other excellent research does not seem to have global purchase.

“The authors, based across northern America, Europe and Australia, also apparently lack New Zealand collaboration despite the central topic of Māori burning and fire use. ‘Helicopter science’, where research is led and conducted by those who live and work far from the subject of their work, is currently under scrutiny in the research community. An important critique is that this approach is likely to miss important insights. The ethics of such ‘helicopter science’ have been debated widely over the last year or so, as concerns over the exclusion of different groups from research, including Indigenous peoples, have escalated. Indeed, this issue has been noted by the very journal in which this study is published.

“Issues that have already been researched locally – from dust transport to Antarctica through to population estimates of Māori settlement – are often identified by local collaborators who, one hopes, have additionally been building the next generation of researchers in the nation where the focus of the research is situated. All of this leads me to return to this paper, which I found fascinating, and ask – how much better could this have been, were it more inclusive in its approach?”

My answer is, “We don’t know, but I doubt it would have been better unless they found a Maori scientist who had knowledge equal or superior to that of the scientists who actually participated.

My correspondent in NZ continues:

The second seems a much more reasoned assessment of the sort one might expect from a practising scientist.

Here’s an excerpt from review #2,  which is indeed from a practicing scientist  She points out the possibility that in the 16th and 17th century there could have been soot contributions from Australia and Patagonia, but leaves untouched the Nature-paper evidence that the carbon emissions 700 years ago came from Maori land-burning:

Dr Holly Winton, Rutherford Postdoctoral Fellow, Antarctic Research Centre, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

. . . “Surprisingly, a new study by McConnell et al. (2021) in Nature suggests that New Zealand has been the dominant source of black carbon to a large sector of Antarctica since the 13th century. An array of black carbon records from ice cores clustered in western East Antarctica and the Antarctica Peninsula were examined over the last 2000 years. Black carbon concentrations in the Antarctic Peninsula record dramatically increased in the 13th century well above previous levels with the highest concentrations in the 16th and 17th centuries.

“The authors associate this with the arrival, and land management practices, of Māori in New Zealand. The Antarctic-New Zealand connection was made by comparing the ice core record to a charcoal record from a lake sediment core in New Zealand which is indicative of local biomass burning. While the magnitude of black carbon change is evident in both records from the 13th century until today, the trend is not. Ice core black carbon peaks in the 16th and 17th century. At the same time, the New Zealand charcoal record declines. This disparity leaves me wondering about additional black carbon sources from Australia and Patagonia during this time, changes in the hydrological cycle or changes in the transport processes that drive the variability in the ice core black carbon record. Australian and Patagonian black carbon was ruled out as charcoal records from these source regions increased well before the 13th century.

My correspondent continues:

However, it is the third response that I thought would most interest you, though “horrify” might be a more apt way of expressing it. For far from teetering on the brink of the abyss this so-called expert (and it’s worth noting that her background is in adult education and not in any recognised scientific discipline) plunges right in, exposing the reader to Matauranga Maori “Science” in all its “glorious” mythology. I think you’ll agree that it strongly reinforces the points you and others have been making over the past few days.

Finally, as worrying as the third response might be for what it shows “other ways of knowing” actually involve, it also highlights a growing problem for scientific research in New Zealand, one which might not be immediately apparent to anyone unfamiliar with our state bureaucracy. In the third paragraph, you’ll see the following:

Obviously these authors have not caught up with the positive changes in research and science in this country where Matauranga Maori within the MBIE Vision Matauranga policy demands Maori involvement, Maori participation and Maori leadership. This involvement starts from the basic premise that we as Maori will tell their own stories and control their own knowledge.

Now, MBIE is New Zealand’s Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment so, in her naivety (or more probably ignorance) the third respondent clearly thinks that science is whatever a New Zealand government department defines it to be. Moreover, it would appear that she also thinks that scientists, wherever they might be in the world, are remiss for not recognizing this and amending their practice accordingly.

Of course one could simply smile at the naivety/ignorance of that particular individual (though my inclination would be for a rather less benign response) but to do only that would be to ignore a rather disturbing fact, for one of MBIE’s prime functions is to promote and fund scientific research in New Zealand. So, if the official MBIE view is that Matauranga Maori is of equal status to what you and I and most rational people would consider Science to be, what does that portend for the future of scientific research in New Zealand?

And here is the whole third response:

Associate Professor Sandy Morrison, Acting Dean of the Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Studies, University of Waikato; co-lead for Vision Mātauranga, Antarctic Science Platform; lead for Vision Mātauranga, Deep South National Science Challenge, comments:

“The association of Māori with fire is longstanding. Mahuika goddess of fire gifted her fingernails of flames to enable us to have fire for warmth; fire for sustenance; fire to provide nutrients for the earth. We attribute and honour Mahuika. She is part of our whakapapa. Her mokopuna Māui attempted to reduce her power by tricking her into giving up all of her fingernails but she was able to outwit him, planting her flame into the trees so that fire would be freely available. Fire also defined our boundaries of authority as expressed in this whakataukī ‘ka wera hoki i te ahi, e mana ana anō’ meaning ‘while the fire burns, the mana is effective.’ We claimed occupation of our territories by the principle of ahi kaa, that is, we kept our home fires burning.

“Through our Ātua, gods and goddesses, we developed deeply embedded practises and rituals and our relationship with fire was interdependent, reciprocal, beneficial and also very practical. Upon arrival to these lands, we relied on the aruhe or fernroot as part of our staple diet. We relied on the moa and other birdlife for food. Burning became part of our practises; regular burning allowed plants to regenerate and some of the minerals in the ash provided rich nutrients for the land. Regular burning facilitated hunting and access to hunting grounds. Such practises would be typical for any newcomers creating homes on unfamiliar lands to allow time to become acquainted with seasonal cycles, climatic conditions, finding the best places to lay out their plantations and hence their new settlements or kainga. No doubt some burning would not have been controlled as well as they may have planned, but this can be understood. It is not unlike any other peoples adjusting to new lands and new conditions.

“The internationally authored paper by scientists who examined Antarctic ice core records to find that carbon emissions increased significantly from wildfires after Māori first arrived in Aotearoa is devoid of context, devoid of cultural understandings and is yet another example of what we have grown to expect from western science. It relies on measurements, modelling and silo thinking and the paper whether intentional or not, posits Māori as the ‘naughty’ offenders. Moreover, it reeks of scientific arrogance with its implicit assumption that somehow Māori have a lot to account for in terms of contributing to carbon emissions and destroying the pristine environment of the Southern Oceans and Antarctica. Goodness knows why Māori are primarily emphasised, and for what purpose this article was written. Obviously these authors have not caught up with the positive changes in research and science in this country where Mātauranga Māori within the MBIE Vision Mātauranga policy demands Māori involvement, Māori participation and Māori leadership. This involvement starts from the basic premise that we as Māori will tell our own stories and control our own knowledge. Mātauranga Māori is a living knowledge system rooted in our environmental encounters which was outward looking and relationship based. We are connected in kinship even to fire through Mahuika as the spiritual goddess of fire. Similarly we have relationships with the Southern Oceans and the Antarctica through our stories of voyaging and navigation and food gathering. Our relationships with marine life, bird life and the oceans are well recorded through our intergenerational continuum and held in our tribal lore. These are places to which we also have longstanding relationships where we will not intentionally embark on destructive practises. The principle of kaitikaitanga or guardianship is a mantel of responsibility for us and one we willingly share to improve the wellbeing of our oceans and planet. Please do not distort your scientific evidence nor hide behind the intricacies of scientific modelling to position Māori as the problem. I am sure that you can do better than that.”

Dr. Morrison’s points appear to be these.

a.) She evinces a tacit acceptance of New Zealand “ways of knowing”, though it’s not clear what she believes.

b.) Yes, Maori burned land, but they had to because it was their deeply embedded in their mythology-derived practices. And yes, some fires got out of control.  But that was not the point of the Nature paper, which is not pointing a finger of blame at the Maori. It’s just an investigation of where carbon spikes in Antarctic ice cores came from.

c.) The third paragraph  appears devoid of understanding of the Nature paper itself.  Note that the arrogance said to exist in the paper (i.e., “the Maori polluted Antarctica!”) is nowhere to be found in that paper. The purpose of the paper is obvious, though Morrison doesn’t see it: to account for an anomalous carbon spike. Does she not know that scientists get curious? The whole point of the last paragraph is to impugn modern science compared to Maori “ways of knowing.” Note too the denigration of the paper’s modelling, which was intended to see if New Zealand, given distance and wind, could account for the carbon spikes. The answer was “yes.”

My correspondent, who wishes to remain anonymous for obvious reasons (several signers of “The Listener” letter have been threatened), notes that there’s a very real possibility that Mātauranga Māori will at least nudge “real” science aside, and thus impede the growth of knowledge.

I shouldn’t have to point out that scientists who defend their discipline and the knowledge it produces should under no circumstances be put in danger of their jobs, careers, or reputations simply for defending the toolkit of science as the best way to understand nature.

New Zealand is a wonderful place, and I love it, but many of its residents have got to stop pretending that there are multiple ways of knowing that can be taken as science! There is no special “Maori science”; there’s just “science.”

The “teach Maori other ways of knowing in science class” fracas continues; Richard Dawkins weighs in

December 4, 2021 • 12:00 pm

As I wrote yesterday, a big woke fracas is brewing in New Zealand, with the universities and government on the side of the woke, and the science professors (by and large) on the side of the angels. Since my piece appeared, I’ve gotten half a dozen emails from academics in New Zealand, objecting to the University of Auckland’s new policy to teach Maori “ways of knowing”, which include creationism, alongside modern “real” science—and in science class!  This all started last summer, and is still going on.

This notion of “different but equal ways of knowing” is palpably ridiculous, and while I don’t want to denigrate the Maori people or the efforts that both Maori and New Zealanders are making to achieve harmony, I cannot abide the insistence that Maori “wisdom,” which is a combination of mythology, religion, and questionable assertions about the Universe, to be taught as scientific truth. As the saying goes, “You are entitled to your opinions, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.” Clearly, this drive to incorporate indigenous beliefs into the science curriculum is part of an effort of the government and universities to placate and make reparations to the Maori, who were badly treated by European colonists. I applaud the drive for comity, but I deplore those who want to replace modern science with a melange of myths and faith. Yes, “indigenous knowledge” can be valuable, but its claims must always be tested using modern science.

The misguided effort to teach Maori indigenous knowledge as coequal with science will not only confuse the Maori (and everyone else!), but disadvantage those who embrace indigenous ways of knowing. Suppose, for example, that a Maori teenager wants to be a physicist. Well, there are no positions for “physicists doing Maori string theory”; there are only positions for physicists. There is no Maori physics or American physics or Indian physics, there is just “modern physics”.

I also wrote yesterday that seven academics from the University of Auckland wrote a short piece in The Listener (read it here), objecting to the insertion of Maori Matauranga (ways of knowing) into science curricula. Instead of their fellow academics defending them, the “Satanic Seven,” as I call them, have been demonized. Their jobs have been threatened, the Vice Chancellor of Auckland University has said the seven don’t adhere to the University’s “values,” and two of them are being threatened with expulsion from New Zealand’s Royal Society.

Here’s the message that Vice Chancellor Dawn Freshwater sent to the University of Auckland community, noting the equivalence of Maori and scientific “ways of knowing” and—playing the ultimate trump card—claiming that denying that Maori “ways of knowing” constitute science has “caused considerable hurt and dismay among our staff, students, and alumni.” I hate to be brutal here, but that hurt and dismay counts for nothing in this debate. The issue is about what is true, what is not true, and how to find the truth. (Click to enlarge).

This antiscience drive, in the service of good intentions but deeply misguided, must be stopped. If you want to see what Kiwi scientists are up against, read this piece (click on the screenshot):

Here’s just a bit:

Secondary science teachers may believe that teaching science through the scientific method aligns with tertiary science education, making a strong rationale for them to reject the proposed changes. But this belief is flawed on two grounds: first, since contemporary philosophy of science accepts that there is no one ‘scientific method’ (Okasha, 2016); and second, because tertiary science educators are also under pressure to introduce Māori knowledge into their curricula, and may well expect their secondary school colleagues to share this responsibility. The next section considers how science teachers could respond to the challenge represented by these changes in relation to each of the three Māori concepts in the titles shown above.

. . . . We argue that the introduction of carefully selected Māori concepts in NCEA Science is a positive move. It challenges deeply-held teacher assumptions about science and Māori knowledge, and encourages science teachers to consider the philosophy of science in more depth. On its own, such a change cannot overcome the entire history of lack of Māori participation and achievement in science education, but it is an innovative and interesting way to bring Māori concepts into school science. Arguably it does so in a more meaningful way than ‘translating’ science into Māori, which means the invention of a pressure-cooked lexicon (Stewart, 2011).

There’s a lot more, and I won’t go into the details, but suffice it to say that a lot of involves forcing Maori concepts into the Procrustean bed of modern science through selective interpretation. (One also sees this in the ways some Muslims claim that the Qur’an anticipates all of modern science.) It is a mess.  Maori anthropology and sociology should of course be taught to all Kiwis, for the colonial and Maori cultures are trying to effect rapprochement, and Maori culture is very deeply embedded in “colonial” culture. But there should be no compromise when it comes to teaching science.

One way to stop this insidious debasement of science is for the international community to call out New Zealand for what it’s doing. That is the route Richard Dawkins has taken, and more power to him. First he issued this tweet after he read my piece from yesterday:

And yes, write to Roger Ridley at the NZ Royal Society (he’s the chief executive) objecting to its contemplation of ejecting two scientists who signed this reasonable letter. Richard gives the email above, and I put up the letter I wrote to Ridley yesterday (bottom of post). I urge you to drop just a short email in defense of science, for I think it will have an effect.

Richard has also written to Ridley directly, and has given me permission to reproduce his email. Here it is:

Dear Dr Ridley:

I have read Professor Jerry Coyne’s long, detailed and fair-minded critique of the ludicrous move to incorporate Maori “ways of knowing” into science curricula in New Zealand, and the frankly appalling failure of the Royal Society of New Zealand to stand up for science – which is, after all, what your Society exists to do.

The world is full of thousands of creation myths and other colourful legends, any of which might be taught alongside Maori myths. Why choose Maori myths? For no better reason than that Maoris arrived in New Zealand a few centuries before Europeans. That would be a good reason to teach Maori mythology in anthropology classes. Arguably there’s even better reason for Australian schools to teach the myths of their indigenous peoples, who arrived tens of thousands of years before Europeans. Or for British schools to teach Celtic myths. Or Anglo-Saxon myths. But no indigenous myths from anywhere in the world, no matter how poetic or hauntingly beautiful, belong in science classes. Science classes are emphatically not the place to teach scientific falsehoods alongside true science. Creationism is still bollocks even it is indigenous bollocks.

The Royal Society of New Zealand, like the Royal Society of which I have the honour to be a Fellow, is supposed to stand for science. Not “Western” science, not “European” science, not “White” science, not “Colonialist” science. Just science. Science is science is science, and it doesn’t matter who does it, or where, or what “tradition” they may have been brought up in. True science is evidence-based not tradition-based; it incorporates safeguards such as peer review, repeated experimental testing of hypotheses, double-blind trials, instruments to supplement and validate fallible senses etc. True science works: lands spacecraft on comets, develops vaccines against plagues, predicts eclipses to the nearest second, reconstructs the lives of extinct species such as the tragically destroyed Moas.

If New Zealand’s Royal Society won’t stand up for true science in your country who will? What else is the Society for? What else is the rationale for its existence?

Yours very sincerely
Richard Dawkins FRS
Emeritus Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, University of Oxford