Not Rocket Science

In the USA, the ‘era of celebrity and social media’ is accelerating the decline of reason. While some years ago it was observed that the average intelligence of on-line articles was dropping, it’s ostensibly now in free-fall.

Admittedly, though, it’s not from a great height.


Meet Mike Hughes, all-American rocket enthusiast and future Darwin Award recipient. Although Mike isn’t a rocket scientist, this doesn’t prevent him from building, and flying, his own rockets (steam-powered, because – thankfully – they don’t give out industrial grade rocket propellant to just anyone). Doubtlessly, this is another impressive – if unnecessary – proof of the Dunning Kruger effect. It’s a miracle he’s still alive – he rode one of his contraptions for a quarter of a mile before it impacted and left him in a walker for two weeks.

Now, although Mike isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, he’s discovered what every real rocket scientist discovers:

If God had wanted us to fly rockets, he’d have given us more money.

But luckily Mike also discovered a group that’s even more strapped for brains than he is, and who are much better funded: the Flat Earth Society. And so – it would seem – Mike joined FES, and FES paid for Mike’s hobby. He then declared that his goal is to prove that earth is flat: from his targeted altitude the curvature of the horizon should be apparent if the earth was, indeed, a sphere. Now, we should note that this lofty goal currently sits at a modest third of a mile (530 meters or 1600 feet above ground), so Mike could easily get to a higher altitude if he rode Shanghai Tower’s elevator to the top floor – or reach much greater altitude if he climbed one of the mountains that surround the Mojave desert, his intended launch site. More to the point, you could simply attach a camera to a weather balloon and see the earth’s curvature without risk to life and limb. It’s therefore more than likely that Mike merely paid lip service to those people whom he managed to stick with the bill for his obsession. “A fool and his money…’, so to speak.

As a whole, this is entirely entertaining, and right up my alley – even if there is a possible tragedy waiting in the wings. After all, we are talking about a bunch of idiots who are helping another one to find the way of the Dodo: as Wile E. Coyote can attest, flying your home-brew rockets is as rampantly stupid as is belief in a flat earth, and so last Saturday found me, pop-corn in hand, scanning the Internet for news on Mike’s launch.

That’s where I came across this year’s most egregiously stupid headline, courtesy of NBC:

Can a self-taught rocket scientist prove the Earth is flat?

[cue an incredulous pause that includes a blank stare, furiously re-checking the URL, and at least two blinks]

Are you frigging kidding me?

Even with Betteridge’s law, this is NBC’s official capitulation to The Stoopid; it’s in line with other headlines over purported unresolved questions (e.g. climate change) or conspiracy theories (Birther, 9/11, JFK, Reptilians, Moon Landing anyone?) for the open-mouth-breathing majority of Americans. At best, this headline was approved for financial reasons (a.k.a. clickbait); it’s still an admission that NBC believe that their audience is so stupid that they view a flat earth as a viable discussion. More likely though, the editors found nothing wrong with the headline; perhaps they even thought it was a fair, balanced contribution to a scientific issue. It seems that we’ve now gone from fake news to fake questions.


[NOTE: It took some time for me to get this article published – Mike has flown his rocket, and survived. Shape of Earth still undecided]

Tip-toeing Tutors

A research paper shows how English secondary school teachers handle the question of how to bridge the gap between religion and science. The researchers found out that science and religious education teachers tackle this problem differently:

Both RE and science teachers were aware that a “science vs religion” viewpoint turned some students off their subjects. Science teachers responded by emphasising “respect” for religion but avoiding controversial discussion, whereas RE teachers tackled the tension. While there is some curriculum guidance about science for RE teachers, science teachers have little guidance or help on how to address science and religion, and so are negotiating their own way through this difficult territory.

This is an artificial problem, and the tack that the science teachers take is dangerously wrong. Religions, like all ideologies should never be respected, and are fair game for discussion. It may, however, be a good idea to pay your respect to the people who hold these ideologies. But only to a certain point: people who, for example, believe the white race to be superior deserve no respect at all. Neither as a person nor their ideology.

This should be a non-issue. Science teachers could easily point this out to their students and shut down any possible discussions: while different people may hold different religious beliefs, science applies to all. There is no such thing as ‘Hindu Physics’ or ‘Christian Physics’. There is just Physics. If you need a religious qualifier, it’s not science.

Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. The real problem is mentioned only in an aside:

They [the teachers] knew the discussions were controversial, and worried about parent complaints.

Right. It’s not the students. Their parents are the real problem. Not to mention parents who send their kids to faith schools.

Good luck trying to resolve that when your approach to solving this is to tip-toe around the problem. Nothing was ever solved that way.

With apologies to Pink Floyd, the teachers must draw a line in the sand:

“Parents, leave these kids alone!”

Big numbers, small minds

A few years ago I stood outside my tent, at night, in the painted desert. Being a city-dweller, I had never before seen a starry sky like that. It was big. It was unspeakably beautiful. And a bit scary. Although I wasn’t alone that night on the Colorado Plateau, staring at the immense sky I felt lonely, and a bit vulnerable.

I was reminded of this moment by a great article on the fermi paradox. Isn’t it incredible that the awe-inspiring panorama we can see at night, the thousands of visible stars represent only a tiny fraction – much less than a millionth – of the stars of our milky way? And that the milky way is only one in billions of galaxies in the universe?

At the dawn of humanity, our ancestors must have looked up, and realized not just how beautiful the world, but also just how small humans were. Being intelligent, they looked to explain the immensity. Looking for comfort, they invented benevolent gods that sheltered them. People had big minds, but their knowledge was small. It was a natural conclusion that super-human phenomena require super-human explanations.

Today we have immeasurably more knowledge, and we can draw much better conclusions about the world around us. One of the astonishing facts about our universe is that, at a conservative estimate, the universe contains at least 100 earth-like planets for each grain of sand in this world.

For. Each. Grain. Of. Sand.

There is only little scientific controversy about this number – some say it’s a lot higher, some say it’s only half of that. Let’s be even more conservative and say it’s only one. Now go down to the beach, and imagine that for each grain of sand you see there’s an earth-like planet out there.

And now try to reconcile this with the notion that a god made our world – and only this world – special, that after creating earth (and the rest) he now hangs around this one tiny world; to listen to all our thoughts and to judge us based on what we eat, and how and whom we sleep with.

People back then believed it out of necessity: they had big minds, but small knowledge.

People who believe something like that today have small minds, but, unfortunately, big numbers.

Muslim Mars

As Time reports, the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments (GAIAE) in the United Arab Emirates have issued a fatwa against traveling to Mars. Their reasoning:

It is not permissible to travel to Mars and never to return if there is no life on Mars. The chances of dying are higher than living.

GAIAE concludes that the trip is akin to suicide, and not permissible.

Well, I guess that’s why they are called explorers, guys! Does GAIAE really want to supply the western world with legitimate reason to call muslims ‘Sissies’? After all, there are dirty, morally degenerate unbelievers who are perfectly willing to take the plunge.

Mars One – the Organization that funds the one-way trip to Mars – was able to dig up a perfect reply: They compare the first Martian settlers with Muslim explorers like Ibn Battuta, and include a Quranic verse that encourages Muslims to go out and see ‘the signs of God’s creation in the heavens and the earth’.

Well played, Mars One! At least it’s better played than Swiss Comedians Viktor Giacobbo and Mike Müller who merely commented that it’s certainly important to distinguish suicide by exploration from one in a crowded market.

So, after the ‘Red Moon’ scare in the 50s and 60s, we can sleep easy knowing that there will be no ‘Muslim Mars’ threat.

Observational vs. Historical idiocy

Aside from the documentation HBO produced, some Creationists are actively trying to spread their idea of ignorance over fact. That is required in order to claim with a straight face that there is scientific proof that the whole universe is only 6000 years old, and that the story of Genesis, as narrated by the Abrahamic Bible is literally true.

In a recent debate, Creationist Ken Ham asserts that instead of science, we really have two kinds of sciences: ‘observational’ and ‘historical’. The ‘real’ science Ken claims, is the ‘observational’ one, with ‘historical science’ being a lesser discipline. To someone who doesn’t know what science is, his words may even make sense.

Alas, they don’t. Ham simply tries a semantic sleigh of hands, hoping that his audience doesn’t know better. He even tried this in the debate. He asserts that the word ‘observational’ is closely linked to ‘eye witness evidence’, hence ‘observational science’ is science where you see the result with your own eyes.

Now, in science – and in court – evidence from eye witnesses is generally regarded as the least reliable form of evidence. Need I really detail the eye witness accounts of UFOs, Yetis, Loch Ness Monsters and Alien Abductions? No, the human eye, memory and mind are easily fooled.

The brouhaha surrounding the issue of ‘observational’ science results from Ken’s deliberate misrepresentation of what the words ‘observational’ and ‘historical’ mean in scientific terms. The truth is that all scientific evidence is observational, including indirect evidence that can’t directly be seen with your eyes. Paleontologists never saw a living dinosaur – but they observed their remains, and deduced, after correlating lots of similar evidence, how these animals looked and lived. That knowledge then was used to predict future findings, most famously when paleontologists predicted that they should be able to find smaller dinosaur remains in the footprints of Argentinosaurus huinculensis. And they were, equally famously, able to deduce how fast such a large beast could walk.

So why the false distinction? According to Ken, only experiments that can be reproduced in a lab should be accepted as ‘observational science’, all other is ‘historical’. Any science dealing with the past is therefore merely conjecture, not science. So if a scientists comes up with some findings in a lab today that nevertheless touches upon something of the past (say age of Earth), Ken is now free to dismiss that as ‘historical science’, and, therefore conjecture.
Plus, that’s where the Bible comes in. For everything in the past, we should use eye witness accounts, and Ken asserts that the Bible is full of accurate eye witness accounts. If all historical science is conjecture, he argues, the Bible is as accurate as the Big Bang theory (not the series).

Put that way, it’s actually quite pathetic. Too bad so many fall for it.

Official: Majority of Republicans are stupid.

It’s official: the majority of american Republicans are stupid:

Today, 43% of Republicans and 67% of Democrats say humans have evolved.

While the Democrats aren’t looking too smart either, this means that less than half of all Republicans acknowledge the facts; the rest lives in some scientific la-la-land. Note that this is actually a regression – a few years ago fewer republicans believed in the idiocy of a literal biblical genesis.

In 2009, 54% of Republicans and 64% of Democrats said humans have evolved over time.

I guess this is home ‘schooling’ showing results… Or perhaps we are seeing the very first signs ever of devolution.

As an aside: It’s not that you ‘believe’ in evolution. You either believe in religion, or are convinced by the facts that evolution is real.

Open your mind!

Sometime, when discussing religion with a believer, a peculiar accusation comes up: ‘you are so closed-minded’.

Personally, I find that statement to be a near-insult. Deep down I feel that what this person really thinks is ‘You should think like me’, not that I should be open-minded. The fact remains that my mind is open to the possibility of gods – that’s why I ask for proof instead of rejecting the notion out of hand.

In a rational world we are convinced about the existence of things. We don’t really ‘believe’, we merely assume something to be true. These assumptions can easily be invalidated without crushing our self-esteem. Unfortunately, we colloquially often use ‘I believe’ when we mean to say ‘I’m convinced’. Believers latch onto this linguistic imprecision and assert that since we believe these things to be true, science is also a religion. But even if science was a near-religion, the differences between religion and science are staggering:

Let’s assume I’m convinced of a certain assumption: earth is flat. Along comes someone with incontrovertible proof of a different view. A short while later (hopefully) I’ll have accepted the new view on reality and integrated it into my own.

Wishful thinking? No, this happens regularly. Here are two of the most spectacular changes from the past 100 years: Einstein’s theory of relativity over Newtonian Physics and the current model of continents drifting on lava over the Monolithic Earth model. Each time new evidence is found, it is examined, and when a new model fits better, the old one is discarded.

Contrast that with religious thinking: The Bible is the unchanging truth, any evidence that does not fit the ‘truth’ is rejected or laughed away as ‘theory’. Somehow believers sucker themselves into believing that their minds are open when they, on the same grounds that they accept theirs, reject the notion of another god. That is pure dogma – as closed-minded as you can get.

The ‘open your mind’ line is almost as stupid as the other old chestnut ‘you should be more humble’.

Sturgeon’s law and religion

Sturgeon’s law states that ’90 percent of everything is crap’.
With regards to science, that is probably true: almost every thesis has been overthrown or changed at least once. Less than 10% of all laws have remained as they were originally formulated. Is that a bad thing or good? Religions are quick to point to the ever changing landscape of scientific discoveries and laws, and interpret that as a flaw, calling it ‘unreliable’.

But let’s look at the alternative:
Religions tout their ‘absolute truth’ and ‘unchanging, objective morality’; out of necessity they can’t change. Confronted with mountains of evidence that contradict their religious dogma, they try to ignore, re-interpret or laugh away facts as said unreliable evidence.

Perhaps 90% of all science is crap. But if we look at religions through the eyes of a rational, ethical being we discover another important fact:

With regards to religion, Sturgeon was 10 percent short.

The definition of insanity

Albert Einstein once quipped

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

With the possible exception of software testing, Einstein hit the nail on the head. It is, after all the foundation of science: the fact that you can repeat your experiment anywhere, and get the same results.

Praying does not work. I know. I’ve tried. Still broke.

Why do so many people keep praying?

One thing is sure: they’re not Einstein.

Plastic purity


An allegedly highly devout believer travels on a plane, covering himself in a plastic bag:


Douche in a bag (Image: Reddit)

According to this article the man covered “himself in a plastic bag for the whole of his journey because his religion forbids him to fly over cemeteries.”

Because? That’s like writing “Cars are black because Frank is a nice tree.” Conventionally, the word because is followed by an explanation. Like religion, this explains exactly nothing. What is going on here?

his religion forbids him to fly over cemeteries – Says who? I’m the first to admit that my knowledge of what’s written in Talmud and Torah is spotty at best, but I’m quite sure that commercial air travel isn’t covered in either. Air travel at that time usually consisted of either being thrown off a cliff, or being hurled bodily by a catapult. In both cases crossing a graveyard during transit would not have ranked high on anyone’s list of priorities, as it also was the foreseeable endpoint of the journey.

So this is already quite insane. But the ‘explanation’ gets even weirder:

The plastic bag creates a kind of barrier between the Kohein and the surrounding tumah, or impurity – Yeah, right! Because a 0.0005 inch plastic film covering the Kohein is so much better than the airtight sheet metal surrounding all passengers. It can’t be protection from ‘impure’ air – the man is breathing aircraft air; the oxygen in his bag wouldn’t last 15 minutes, causing him to suffocate even before take-off.
And – plastic? That isn’t covered in scripture either. Where do these guys get their guidance from?
If it’s plastic because it’s convenient – well, isn’t it even more convenient to just not do it? Or is it just holier-than-thou theatrics? His ‘purity’ certainly seems about as natural as the plastic bag

This looks suspiciously like some douche grandstanding his piousness. Never mind the fact that if this plane crashed, he would obstruct his seat neighbor’s escape route, ensuring that he, too, would end up in a body bag.


Just why again should we respect this?