jump to navigation

What’s the point of prayer? May 17, 2017

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Responses.
Tags: , , , , , ,

I recently left this as a comment on Wondering Eagle’s blog post about prayer.  Since I haven’t blogged much recently, and I’m pretty pleased with the comment, I thought I should give it its own post.

I’ve always been puzzled about the disconnect between what evangelicals say about god, and what they say about prayer. They say their god is all-powerful, all knowing, benevolent, and has a perfect plan for their lives. Then they spend time telling god things and begging god to change stuff. If god already knows what people need, why spend time telling him what you want? If god has a perfect plan, then why are they asking him to change it, just for them? And why do they think a request to change his perfect plan is more effective if they have more people doing it? Is god not going to “bless America” unless a bunch of christian politicians make sure to ask him to in their every speech? (This is why I laugh at the whole “prayer warrior” idea. It’s just magical thinking.) They say “trust god” and “let go and let god” and then they spend long hours in prayer not trusting him and giving him advice on what to do.

Back when I was a believer, the only kinds of prayer that actually made sense were things like “Help me understand. Help me be strong to do the things that I need to do. Help me cope with what I can’t change.”

Now the way evangelicals pray would make a lot more sense if they were talking about a limited god, like the ones in the Greek pantheon. Those gods didn’t have perfect plans, didn’t know everything you were thinking, and if you sucked up to them enough, and sacrificed enough cattle, they might be willing to take your advice about what to do. Modern evangelicals often sound like they are preaching about YHWH and Jesus, but then praying and tithing to Zeus.


The Supernatural and “Supernatural” November 7, 2016

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Rants, Responses.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Oftentimes, during a conversation between a theist making a conversion attempt and an atheist, the topic of lack of evidence for the supernatural comes up.  And sometimes the atheist demands, not only evidence that the supernatural exists, but some kind of an explanation for the mechanism by how it operates.  But I don’t need that second part, and don’t think we need to demand it.  If I had strong enough evidence that the supernatural existed, I’d accept that it did.

The theist will then usually protest about how there’s tons of evidence.  Faith healing that’s not statistically better than placebos!  A plane crashed and somebody survived!  Just look at the trees! And other such stuff that isn’t good evidence for the supernatural.

What would a world look like where there was good evidence for the existence of the supernatural?  I’ve found a really good example.  I’ve just finished a binge watch on Netflix of the first eleven seasons of the series Supernatural (go figure).  The basic setup, for those of you unfamiliar with the show, is a pair of brothers who travel the country saving people from various supernatural bad guys and monsters.  In their world, this stuff really exists, and behaves in predictable ways.  The brothers are often testing solutions to see what works, and researching into records to see what has been successful for other monster hunters in the past. For example, what works on a werewolf always works on a werewolf, but is not necessarily effective on a skinwalker or a vampire.  The trunk of their car is filled with dozens of different weapons, to be prepared for anything they run into.

I’d like to look at the show’s treatment of demons in particular, since often theists claim that demons are real.

In this show, if someone is possessed by a demon, there’s no vague “I think they’re possessed because they said crazy things” or “I have a bad feeling”.  Nope, in the Supernatural world, if you think someone is demon possessed, throw holy water on them.  If it burns them, and they smoke and scream, there’s a demon.  If they say “what did you do that for?” then it’s not a demon.  (Could be something else, though.  Best to run a few other tests.)

Demons can possess people without their permission, but can be evicted by someone else performing the exorcism incantation, upon which they exit from the possessed person visibly.  No uncertain “I feel better now, so it must be gone” stuff. You can see it leave.


But if you want to kill it, you need a special demon knife.  And there are specific rules and constraints on their behavior.   They are unable to possess someone who has a warding tattoo:


If you trick one of them into standing on a devil’s trap, even if it’s under a carpet, they can’t leave until the trap outline is broken.


If you put specific items in a box, bury it at a crossroads, and say the right incantation, a crossroads demon will appear, ready to make a deal with you.

crossroads-demonAnd if you make a deal with a demon, they will abide by it, no cheating.  But you had better read the fine print first, because they will abide by the letter of the agreement, not the intent.

And there’s a lot more specifics on demons, that I won’t go into here.  Each different sort of baddie in the series also has specific characteristics and weaknesses.  Not some vague woo-woo “I feel a spirit in the room whose name starts with either a C or a J”.  Nope, if there’s a ghost around, the temperature drops, the EM meter goes whoop, the ghost is usually visible and often solid, and they are repelled by cold iron or salt.  You want to be rid of them?  Find out what is tethering them to earth (usually remains of some kind) salt and burn that, and the ghost disappears in a burst of flame.  Usually just in the nick of time, of course.


Sam and Dean don’t need to know the actual mechanism that makes all this possible.  They just see it in action, every day.  If theists could pull out examples of stuff like this, that’s predictable and testable and doesn’t line up with the laws of our physical universe, and our most thorough testing was unable to reveal any use of trickery or special effects, then I’d be willing to consider that the supernatural exists.  I wouldn’t need to know how it works, I’d be fine with seeing that it does work.

But Sam and Dean’s world isn’t our world.  The show even made this point by having the characters break through into our world at one point, where they found themselves on a TV set in Vancouver, and to their dismay found out that magic doesn’t work here!

Of course, I would not need a theist to show me exactly this evidence to establish that the supernatural is something more than their imagination.   But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  Claiming the existence of an invisible realm full of invisible super-beings that interact with us?  That’s really, really extraordinary.  Show me evidence as strong as the characters are provided with on this show, or don’t bother.

That one spooky thing (wrap-up) October 14, 2014

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches.
Tags: , , , , , ,



OK, time to wrap the series up.

When you’ve deconverted from religion and superstition, and decided to live a life based in reality, what do you think about that one strange thing that might have once happened to you?  That thing that keeps you convinced that there’s a supernatural realm out there somewhere?

Before you can decide that it’s actually “supernatural”, you really need to consider the following alternate possibilities, which I’ve discussed in earlier posts:

  • It’s a natural occurrence that’s rare or unfamiliar to you (Part 1)
  • It’s technological (also Part 1)
  • It’s somebody deliberately tricking you (Part 2)
  • It’s a problem of faulty perception and/or faulty memory, perhaps combined with some of the above (Part 3, 3.1 and 3.2)
  • It’s “supernatural”

So, when you are thinking of that thing you once saw, before you conclude it was an actual “impossible thing”, first you need to run through a serious thought process about it.  Could you have mis-perceived it initially?  Or filled in mental gaps based on what you expected to see?  Did someone have something to gain by tricking you?  And have you embellished your memory over time, to the point where what you remember now really might not be what you saw initially?

Suppose that you have run through all those possibilities, and still have not come up with a plausible explanation.  Then you are left with two possibilities that I can think of.  Either it actually fell under one of the above categories but you couldn’t figure it out, or it was ‘supernatural”.  (Remember probability, which of those is most likely?)

So, finally, if you have still come to the conclusion that the thing you saw might actually  be supernatural”, we have the problem of defining that term.  Like “spirituality”, it’s a word that people throw around all the time, but when asked for a straightforward definition, they either can’t define it, or define it in terms of other vague undefined concepts, which isn’t helpful.  Here’s my working definition of “supernatural”:  We live in a four dimensional space-time universe  of matter and energy, governed by predictable physical forces.  That’s the “natural world”.  “Supernatural” would be something that is not that, either wholly or in part.

For us to detect something “supernatural”, it would have to have the ability to interact with our physical world in some way.  Even if that’s just deflecting some photons, or causing an EM disruption, or just planting a thought in somebody’s brain, all of those things are interactions with our physical world.  Any being that is completely unable to interact with our world would be totally undetectable and therefore irrelevant.

To be sure that something is really supernatural, you’d have to examine it in a way that eliminates all of the other possibilities we have already discussed.  Since the real world is so messy, the best way we can be sure is to do carefully controlled examinations, where we reduce the variables down to just the thing we are examining and eliminate cheating.  Of course, a fleeting “ghostly vision” isn’t going to be easy to catch in a lab experiment!   Lots of investigators have worked to pin down something “supernatural”, to where we could get a look at it, and actually say something coherent about it.  Alas, the better the controls are on your experiment, the more the “supernatural” aspect goes away.  The JREF has had a standing ONE MILLION DOLLAR prize to anyone who can demonstrate something supernatural under conditions controlled to eliminate cheating and wishful thinking.  So far no one has even passed the first round of tests.  Does this mean there isn’t any such thing?  Well, no, but given the results so far,  I’m not holding my breath.

Earlier posts in this series: Part 1 Part 2 – Part 3Part 3.1Part 3.2

That One Spooky Thing (part 3.2) July 17, 2014

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches.
Tags: , , , , , ,

Continuing on…

I’ve been writing on the topic of how to think about that one thing lingering in your mind that might still make you wonder about the supernatural. As before, the possibilities that I have thought of are these:

•It’s a natural occurrence that’s rare or unfamiliar to you
•It’s technological
•It’s somebody deliberately tricking you
•It’s a problem of faulty perception and/or faulty memory, perhaps combined with some of the above
•It’s “supernatural”

So this time I’d like to talk about memory.  We like to think of our memories as video recorders, perfectly recording what happened and playing it back the same way every time.  But, sorry to say, this is not the case.  Our memories are buggy, subject to change, and just not very reliable, especially about details.

As I discussed in the last two posts, the first problem with memory lies in perception.  If we have misunderstood what we saw or heard, then we are remembering it incorrectly from the start.  So that’s one strike against us to begin with.  Let’s try a simple memory exercise before you read the rest of this post; take a pencil and paper and draw a simple line drawing of a bicycle.  Should be easy right?  Take a minute and give it a try.


That One Spooky Thing (Part 3.1) April 7, 2014

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches.
Tags: , , , ,


Continuing with the way our brains impose patterns on random noise…

I want to discuss an important idea called “priming”

First, fill in the blank to make an English word:  S O _ P


That one spooky thing (continued) January 21, 2014

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches, Responses.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

(In this series:  Part 1   Part 3  Part 3.1 Part 3.2 Wrap-up )

Okay, more on this.  If you have deconverted from religion, and have gotten rid of most or all of your superstitions, what do you do with that one strange experience that you can’t explain?  How do you work that out?

My list of possibilities looks like this:

  • It’s a natural occurrence that’s rare or unfamiliar to you
  • It’s technological
  • It’s somebody deliberately tricking you
  • It’s a problem of faulty perception and/or faulty memory, perhaps combined with some of the above
  • It’s “supernatural”

And last time I talked about natural and technological things that might be misinterpreted.  So lets continue with

Deliberate Hoaxes

People like to think that they are hard to fool.  And often they are completely wrong about this.   As Richard Feynman so famously said:

The  first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest  person to fool.

So let’s look at an example of a time and place where people are willing to be fooled – faith healing.


Truth in Advertising October 23, 2013

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Rants, Uncategorized.
Tags: , , ,

Homeopathy Ad

OK, so a week ago Sunday the Parade Magazine that came in The Washington Post ran this ad.  (Sorry my scan is a little blurry.  Click on the photo to see it more clearly.)

One line of medicines to treat all these different conditions?  Suspicious.  So I read over the ad to see what kind of medication this was.  No mention of it in the main text, but when I went and got a magnifying glass, and looked at the images of the packaging, there it was in the upper right-hand corner.  Illegible to the naked eye, and almost as bad under magnification. It said “homeopathic.”

Can you see it?

Homeopathic closeup

I went to the website for this company, and it was also pretty difficult there to figure out that they were selling homeopathic “remedies”.  I thought that there ought to be some kind of oversight to prevent this sort of fraud, but this was during the government shutdown, so maybe they were taking advantage of the lack of regulators.  But I needed to complain to somebody, and Rite-Aid’s logo was right there on the page, so I found their ethics complaint website, and sent in the following:

On Sunday, October 15, the attached advertisement ran in the print edition Parade Magazine which I received with my Washington Post, and as you can see this ad had your name and logo in the lower left-hand corner.

I spent some time reading the ad, attempting to determine what sort of medication this was, and what the active ingredients were.  Eventually, I got out a magnifier and was able to just make out that each package was labeled “homeopathic”.  Nowhere else in the ad could I find this indicated, and the labels were illegible without magnification.  It appears that this ad is deliberately concealing the nature of what is being sold, a dishonest practice.

Homeopathic preparations generally do not contain any measurable level of active ingredients, and clinical trials have shown them to be no more effective than a placebo.  While I understand that there is a market for such products, a major pharmacy should not give the impression that it endorses their use.

If Rite-Aid allows its name to be associated with an advertisement for a medication, I would expect that the ad would meet at least a minimum standard of honesty about the identity and efficacy of the product.  I would expect that the word “homeopathic” to appear legibly in the ad, and that there be a disclaimer such as “these statements have not been evaluated by the FDA” or “The FDA does not evaluate these remedies for safety or effectiveness,” or a disclaimer that Rite-Aid does not guarantee anything beyond their safety and lack of side effects.

Considering that this company, Magnilife, is using your name and logo to sell boxes of sugar pills for $20 each, they stand to make quite a profit off the reputation of Rite-Aid.  I ask, as a concerned consumer, that you respond as to whether their use of your logo and name was authorized, and what your policy is regarding truth in advertising in ads that bear your name.

As of today, I have heard nothing back from Rite-Aid.  If I do get a response (and I doubt that I will), I’ll post an update.

Update – I checked at the Rite-Aid website on 10/31/13, and as of yet they have given no response.

Extraordinary event, extraordinary evidence September 9, 2013

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Rants.
Tags: , , , , , ,

I’ve been thinking lately about standards of evidence.  I see a lot of people make colossally outrageous claims (usually religious or pseudo-scientific), with little to nothing to back them up.  And they are taken aback when challenged that an ancient book or a feeling in their “heart” doesn’t suffice to convince anybody else.

So I wanted to look at an actual extraordinary event, and the evidence pointing to it having happened.


Why we can’t win August 14, 2013

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Rants, Responses.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,


I just needed to post this today.

Reposted from Jim C. Hines via Pharyngula

After TAM, back to the land of Woo-Woo July 19, 2013

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Events, Rants.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

After a great weekend at TAM2013, my spouse and I extended our weekend with another couple of nights on the main Vegas strip, specifically the Excalibur hotel.  The first night we headed up to their steakhouse for dinner, and lo and behold, look at what was just outside the door.

Xtreme Energy Bracelet Kiosk in Vegas

Yes, its the same “energy bracelet” scam that the skeptical movement keeps fighting.  (Richard Saunders recently got these things banned in Australia.) But like a whack-a-mole game, this keeps turning back up.  The two guys in the picture are apparently Russian, and they will come right up to you as you walk by, waving a bracelet at you. They were doing the same tired old balance tricks as “evidence”, the same tricks I have been teaching my RE class for years.   This first night I showed them the bracelet I was wearing, a “Placebo” bracelet made by the same company in China that manufactures all the others.

They had no idea what “placebo” meant, and thought it might be “spaseebo”, which they said was Russian for “thank you”.  I told them that it meant that energy bracelets were fakes, including theirs.  They protested that they wanted to show me their “ion-meter” and show us their “science”.  I was tired and told them “no way” and my spouse finally had to tell them to stop following us.

Here’s  the website for their company, showing that they charge $39.00 and up for these things.     http://www.xeband.com/shopxe.php

I had  talked to a member of Granite State Skeptics earlier that weekend, who are the group responsible for having the Placebo bracelets made.  He said that the Chinese company charges in the range of $0.85 to $1.00 each for them in the small quantities that they order.  A company buying a huge order would pay rather less.  That’s quite a markup!

By the next day I was ready to pry a little more into what they were claiming, so I headed back there with my camera, and fortunately found two different salesmen on duty, again Russian.  I spoke to a very blond woman who was ready to show me just how wonderful her bracelets were.

She boasted that older hologram bracelets didn’t actually work, that it wasn’t the hologram that did anything.  (Of course, their current bracelets also have holograms, which she didn’t explain.)  But she said that their bracelets were made with Tourmaline in them, which produced negative ions, which were beneficial for your bloodflow, health and energy.

I started prodding her further:  “What kind of ions does it make?”

Negative ions,” she replies.

“Yes, but ions are atoms or groups of atoms that have lost or gained electrons. There are lots of different kinds of ions.  What kind are these?”

Negative ions produced by the tourmaline in the braceletThe Tourmaline is a mineral, and it makes negative ions.”

“Yes, but what type of negative ions are they?”

Tourmaline ions.”  Yes, she really said that.  I asked her to show me this ion meter that they had.  Here’s a photo:

"Ion Tester" vegas

She first measured what she said was a fake bracelet they had there, which appeared to be a power balance bracelet with the hologram removed.  I didn’t press her on why it was necessary to have the hologram removed, given her earlier claim that it wasn’t the hologram that did anything.  But she used her meter on it, and it registered “3”.  (She pressed the bracelet against a disc on the back of the meter, and a number read out on the front.  I didn’t have a chance to try this myself, to see how it would read some other object, or whether the pressure applied affected the readout.)

“3 what?” I asked.  “What are the units here?”  “3 ions,” she replied.  “3 IONS????”  “Yes, 3 ions.”

She measured one of their bracelets, and it measured quite a lot of “ions”, over 1700 I think.  I then produced my Placebo bracelet, and asked if she could measure it.  It read 81 “ions”.

I asked her what the benefit of wearing this bracelet is supposed to be.  She said that the negative ions increased bloodflow, and that this produced the beneficial effects.

“Really, so how do negative ions do that?”

Well, you know, a lot of people say that it makes them feel relaxed.  For instance, how do you feel when you go to the ocean or a lake?”


Well a lot of people say it makes them feel relaxed.  The negative ions produce relaxation.”

“Oh, you meant how I feel when I go near and ocean or lake!” (This woman was so clueless, I couldn’t help trolling her a bit.)

She also pulled up a bunch of woo-woo on the internet on the computer she had nearby, to show how true this all was.  I asked her if I could take some photos, and got this photo of the claims they are making.

Xtreme Energy Bracelet Health Claims

Later, I looked up whether Tourmaline has ever been shown to actually have any of these health benefits, and found this:


Which concludes that there are no studies that show any benefit from this kind of stuff.

In the same shopping area as the energy bracelets we also found an “Oxygen Bar”.  And there was also one on the casino level as well.

Oxygen Bar Sign