The second collection of answers to questions we’ve been promised atheists can’t answer

In the previous set of answers, we got a glimpse of what the author was getting at: they conflate religion with creation and morality, by contrast making atheism evolution and some variety of nihilism or relativism.

Now we’re looking at the next 12 questions I cannot answer because I’m not religious, starting with question 13. By chance, they are a little more political and varied.

13. Why is Richard Dawkins afraid to debate Ray Comfort?
Richard Dawkins has said in very clear terms that he won’t debate creationists because it artificially exaggerates their presence in society by being in discussion with scientists. If Creationism withstood a trial by science it would be Science and other reputable scientific journals. Professional scientists are not debating evolution on the level of whether it is true: the theory of evolution has withstood a trial by science and the debates are about the details of ancestry and phylogenetics.
That said, I don’t know that the questioner knows Dawkins is afraid. He might be, for Comfort is a trained rhetorician and debater. Dawkins is not. That means in a stood-in-front-of-a-crowd-and-judge-by-a-layman-audience debate, Comfort has the advantage. Judged by an expert audience, written down, Dawkins has the clear advantage of being right.

14. Did you know Christopher Hitchens was saved before death?
No. I didn’t know that. In fact, I doubt it. I certainly can’t find any evidence this is true. I can find evidence of Christians seeming to relish is spreading the rumour, as Hitchens guessed they would, and some of the rumour-spreading is done by people happy to describe their religion in terms of fear, which is revealing. More importantly, Hitchens addressed this issue himself in his life. He said it is an unpleasant history that rumours of strident atheists having a deathbed conversion are common; Darwin being an example.
In an interview for CNN with Anderson Cooper Hitchens, when asked about a possible deathbed conversion―even if it is when he is alone―said “if it comes it will be when I am very ill; when I am half demented either by drugs for by pain. I won’t have control over what I say… I can’t say that the entity, that by then wouldn’t be me, wouldn’t do such a pathetic thing. I can tell you that: not when I’m lucid.”

15. Are you aware Ray Comfort disproved atheism with a banana?
Again, the atheism/evolution confusion is present. But, did you know that a natural banana looks nothing like the banana Comfort was holding, but has been selectively bred? The banana he used is the result of all the mechanisms of evolution, sped up by the intentional selection made by humans. And, even if that weren’t the case, even if the modern banana were entirely natural, Comfort’s argument still doesn’t prove anything.
A hidden assumption in Comfort’s “If you study a well made banana…” presentation is that the purpose of a banana is apparent: the banana was made for people, because God’s plan is human convenience. That is a semi-well defined claim that we can then properly investigate. Then the problem of suffering, pain, anatomical inefficiencies, parasites and disease all challenge the premise that God’s design was about human convenience. If you try to dodge these challenges, you lose the definition of the purpose of the design, which handicaps your ability to speak of design.

16. Why do people laugh at evolutionists?
The crocoduck, human offspring from chimpanzee parents and frogs to princes are all considerable misrepresentations of evolutionary theory that are, themselves, ridiculous and ludicrous. But, these misrepresentations are commonplace and intentionally spread by people who have been corrected. (This is violation of ‘thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour’.) It is these strawmen of evolution that people laugh at. But well-informed people are laughing at the poorly informed people who spread these misconceptions, not evolutionists.

17. How did the planets form when the Big Bang explosion all of a sudden happen? After all, you don’t see round objects form when something blows up.
The Big Bang [sic] didn’t belt-out planets. The Big Bang produced a mess of quantum particles, which expanded, cooled and condensed into hydrogen. Clouds of hydrogen collapsed under their own gravity forming stars. Stars are the nuclear furnaces of the universe, building heavier elements by fusing nuclei of atoms and then exploding, delivering the elements to areas around the universe. They can re-collapse into stars under their gravity or dust can collapse into planets. It’s actually incredibly easy to look up videos and articles explaining this at all levels of education. I have no idea why the questioner happily embarasses themselves by asking this instead of looking it up.

18. If evolution is real, how can it explain gravity, angular momentum, human emotions, and why we worship God?
Germ Theory and Atomic Theory also don’t answer questions of gravity, angular momentum, emotions or faith. And neither should they. Scientific theories explain given, related sets of observations and data. Each scientific theory only deals with well defined aspects of the universe. Evolution explains biological diversity, fossil and skeleton plans, genetics and phylogenetics, resistant bacteria, fossil distribution (when coupled with Tectonic Theory) and some other data.

19. How did pond scum make living things appear out of nowhere?
Can you look a child in the eye and, without guilt, tell the child this is something evolutionary theory claims or predicts? Knowing the 9th Commandment, are you sure you don’t want to retract this question (and many of the others)? Pond scum is complex life, having undergone the same 3.5 billion years of evolution as all other life. Such complex plant life is not expected to become anything other than a plant, especially not a mammal.
It is more appropriate to think of life coming from something much more primitive: organic chemistry. Lipids and proteins form naturally and there are mechanisms by which they count as plausible precursors to replicating life.

20. How can evolution be true if we don’t see pocket watches or airplanes form by themselves?
By what mechanism do you imagine watches and aeroplanes might emerge? Biological evolution depends on generations, heritability, variation and environmental pressures and narrow biological niches. Aeroplanes and watches don’t have this. They don’t have random variation, generations or an environment to adapt to. There is no reasonable analogy between manmade mechanical creations and organic entities.
The imagery this question actually comes from―a Boeing 747 forming from a scrap yard during a hurricane―is more preposterous than the humans born of chimpanzees. Biological change is gradual and so the one-generation step between chimpanzees and humans is a bigger step than nature tends to make (successfully). The step between absolute chaos (a scrapyard) and a well-functioning machine (a Boeing 747) is a bigger step in complexity again.

21. Did you know that dinosaurs and man lived together?
Dinosaurs aren’t in the Bible and no science has found any evidence of this. (Except for in absolute technicalities, like the crocodylia, making crocodiles and alligators modern day dinosaurs, or birds, their descendants). Dinosaurs went extinct approximately 65 million years ago, but it would be a generous estimate to call the human race 1 million years old. So, it’s not at all clear how the questioner came to this conclusion.

22. If evolution is real, then why do caring people like Rick Santorum argue that it must be challenged in the classroom?
Based on Santorum’s work to include the “Santorum Amendment” to the No Child Left Behind act shows that Santorum challenged evolution in the classroom for misinformed reasons. Santorum believed there was continued scientific controversy regarding evolution, but there simply isn’t. There is controversy, but it’s all in the details. It’s not about the overall truth evolution, it’s a scientific fact.
Listening to Santorum discuss his belief that evolution doesn’t belong in the science classroom (and that Intelligent Design does), his theological bias is clear; he feels a ‘Creator’ is a better explanation of some things. He believes this despite not having a clear understanding of evolution. That is a bias.

23. Why are youtube atheists like AronRa and Thunderf00t afraid to debate Ray Comfort?
Thunderf00t has debated Ray Comfort. And AronRa has issued an open invitation for Ray Comfort to debate him.

24. Why do we celebrate Christmas if Christianity is not real?
I don’t mean to open with pernickety semantics, but Christianity is real. The content of Christianity is unsupported or false, but the acceptance of it (which is what Christianity is) is very much real. Christianity is cultural, it was spread by sword and missionary work; it was snuck into aid and hidden in charity work. Because it is cultural, adherence to it doesn’t demonstrate its truth any more than Valentine’s Day shows Eros or Cupid are real, or Ramadan shows Allah is real and Mohammed is the true prophet.
Not only does adherence not show truth, but Christmas is a mix of secular and pagan symbols: the Yule Log, bringing a tree into the house, the big feast etc. The date of Christmas was intentionally picked to ease the transition from paganism. Jesus was born beside a ripe fig tree in the Middle East (according to the Koran): about June.

(Not Very) Clever Questions Atheists can’t (be Bothered to) Answer

Here is a list of questions the author thinks atheists are unable to answer. There is a good chance the questions are insincere and the questions have done the round before. In places they have been answered better, but what’s the point in blogging if I won’t say something someone else has already said better (Lord knows everyone else does).

My plan is to answer the 48 questions across 4 posts of (quick! Do the maths) 12 questions each. I’ve already written all the answers so I know I lose my cool by the last post. I’ll publish them on Wednesdays. Put it in your calendar…

1. If creationists can’t do science, then why do Kent Hovind and Duane T. Gish, who are creation scientists, have professional degrees in science?
Ah, Kent Hovind. I have to admit to having a bit of a soft spot for him: he’s charismatic, entertaining and delivers underhanded insults as smoothly as anyone. And he does have a PhD. It is from Patriot Bible University and it is in Christian Education. He doesn’t have any professional scientific degrees that I can find, and many academics have questioned the validity of his PhD. Not least because Patriot university is not accredited, which means there is no way of making sure Dr Hovind met recognised standards to obtain his doctorate.
Duane T Gish is someone I am less familiar with and had to Google. His education and professional work I am much more impressed by. Which is good. I’m glad the question references someone whose degree is worthwhile because it allows me to discuss the heart of the question. This question sets the tone for what we are going to have to do to answer them: address the underlying assumptions being made. Sometimes that is easy (like here) and sometimes it is more tenuous. This question assumes that if one is a creationist, atheists claim they can’t do science. This isn’t true. Some of them can do science. What they can’t do is science, consistently. Sam Harris argues that in some respects, that creationists and other forms of extremists can do science is precisely the concern: by accepting religious dogma on one hand, while possibly being a talented nuclear physicist or virologist on the other, one could be an ideological eschatologist with access to weapons of mass destruction.
I bring up Sam Harris’ idea not to cause fear, but to make it very clear that the assumption that creationists cannot do science is not one that is ubiquitous among atheists.
I say creationists can’t do science consistently because when it comes to the diversity of life on earth, creationists throw out all the philosophies, methodologies and peer review of science (which, if they are a scientist themselves, are all elements that support their definition as well), and actively prefer poorly defined and unsupported answers. That is unscientific.

2. If dinosaurs turned into birds, why are we not afraid of them?
To a certain extent, I leave it to the reader to figure out what the underlying assumptions are. But here’s a few assumptions I think the questioner is either explicitly or implicitly making: all dinosaurs are scary, ‘scariness’ is a genetic trait, said genetic trait cannot be lost over evolutionary time, humans had any opportunity to evolve a fear of dinosaurs specifically. None of which are right.
Fear is a subjective thing with an evolutionary advantage. And fear is effected by certain traits like unfamiliarity (non-genetic), size (genetic) and knowledge (non-genetic). So, birds’ sudden flitting and fast movement might unnerve the occasional person, but in general they are small, familiar animals which we know tend not to cause harm.

3. If homosexuality is right, then how come two people of the same sex not produce a child?
You also cannot produce a child by offering a homeless person shelter and food for a night, nor by defending someone being attacked on the street. The production of children is not the metric by which we measure good deeds or moral things. If you demand that we define a ‘good marriage’ as one that produces children, then the elderly and the infertile should be banned from marriage, as should I as someone who currently doesn’t want one. Marriage is an institution for loving couples, regardless of childbearing ability.

4. What purpose do we have if evolution is real?
What purpose can you give yourself? I am going to blow the horn of religious nihilism again. The assumption of this question is that one cannot have an inherent meaning and that meaning cannot be dependent on human thought. The questioner assumes that ‘purpose’ (what ever that means) must be provided, externally, from a higher power. I don’t think that is a mature idea of purpose. Purpose is about direction, and all of our directions entwine and interact. Yes, some people make their purpose that of chaos as destruction. But the rest of us are searching for some level of harmony and have a response to the rest: prison. Our purposes, generally speaking, are about loving, being loved and being better people.

5. You say Jesus never existed, but have you heard of the Shroud of Turin?
Yes, I have. No one has ever told me why it’s important. If one looks at the details of the Shroud, it simply doesn’t suggest anything about Jesus. It’s carbon dated to the medieval period, it’s a crude picture of a face and body, showing some signs of injury consistent with crucifixion. It was once a common form of punishment and dates to the wrong time.
Even if this tentative evidence was―for some reason― taken as evidence of Jesus, not all atheists deny the existence of Jesus Christ. Plenty of atheists think the writings and saying attributed to Jesus Christ as quite nice. Others accept that such a man could have existed. That doesn’t mean he was magic. And even if he was magic, that doesn’t mean there’s a God.
Taking the Shroud of Turin as evidence of Jesus is a big leap. Lots of people were crucified and lots of people have been moved to create art about Jesus. Either of these facts could explain the Shroud of Turin.

6. Why do we not see humans being born in the zoos from monkeys if we came from monkeys?
Excellent question. Not because it demonstrates some nuanced understanding or contradiction, but for the complete opposite reason: if asked sincerely (this could be a Poe), it belies a massive misunderstanding of evolution. We did not come from chimps; they are our cousins, not our grandparents. We share grandparents.
The grandparent we share is tentatively and colloquially called Pan prior or technically referred to as Chimpanzee-Human Last Common Ancestor (CHLCA). CHLCA lived between 7 and 13 million years ago. CHLCA’s descendants became the distinct groups of the Great Apes; we are not a linear progression from each other, we are parallel lines all coming from CHLCA; evolution is a branching process. That’s why it causes diversity.
Children of Chimpanzees in captivity should be distinctly Chimpanzees; that is the prediction the theory of evolution makes. They will be slightly different to their parents, but should still be distinctly Chimp-y. Asking why we don’t see big leaps, like Chimp to a human, in a single generation is a bit like asking why you don’t go to bed young and wake up old. It’s a gradual process there small changes accumulate over generations.

7. Why do we go to church if God is not real?
Why do others go to Mosques or Gurdwaras? Does their attendance make their Gods real? The reasons some people attend Church are quite interesting. There is a social aspect, where a House of Worship stands as a social space regardless of theology. An ex-partner’s family attended Church so they could get married in a Church, which they only wanted to do for cultural reasons (particularly the expectations of one of their mothers); so cultural and familial pressure is a factor.
Not to mention, sincere belief. Some people go to Church because they sincerely believe a wrong thing. The invasiveness of religion into culture is a historical fact, a relic of times before cultures criticised ideas from authority and before science started answering so many of our questions.

8. How did the Grand Canyon form?
The Rocky Mountains (and, arguably, the Colorado plateau) were created and elevated by compression of the Pacific and North American tectonic plates. We think we can reliably date this back to about 80 million years ago. The erosion is the result of many factors and precisely how important each one was is uncertain. The climate, firstly, helps a lot: the desert area means that thermal expansion weathering weakened the rocks and the soils. But, as most people have probably guessed, the river plays the biggest role. Directly, the water erodes the rock through a process called denudation. Put simply, erosion and deposition work together to make flat surfaces (at approximately sea-level. (The unevenness is caused up geological uplift, like tectonics.) This means the river, where it is, buzz-saws through the land towards sea-level. Indirectly, the water in the river supports vegetation which produces organic acids which weaken rock (producing soils). Coupled with the climate, it makes the area very susceptible to denudation.
The river is not the only denuding force. Wind and climatic change over the last 80 million years (but the last 4 millions years in particular) also play a large role in widening the canyon.

9. Do you know that Jesus loves you?
I don’t know that. I have reasoned to doubt it, like that at a best reasonable guess, he’s dead (and more doubtful reasonable claims question Jesus’s existence altogether). But I can believe he would love me if he were alive, even if he hadn’t met me. I have heard of people who claim to ‘love’ everyone and everything, and I can sympathise to a level: I don’t wish any harm to come to anyone (as pedestrian as that sounds, it is proto-universal love).
If Jesus loves me, he doesn’t want me to go to Hell. So, why am I in danger of going to Hell? Does Jesus have no authority over Hell, or does he not really love me?

10. If Christianity is false, then why is it popular?
A quick Google search shows there are about 2.2 billion Christians in the world, between 1.6 and 1.9 billion Muslims and about 1 billion Hindus. To me, it sounds like phone ownership levels (1 billion Android users and 470 million iOS users). Popularity doesn’t indicate truth, else the geocentric view of the solar system would have been correct until we changed our mind. Islam and Christianity are popular because they have been intentionally spread by the sword, torture and missionary work.

11. If you say Christianity is not true, then why do hundreds of people continue to become saved every day?
This is the same question. But I’ll give a different answer. There are aspects of human psychology that are wired for religious thinking. People prefer having a provisional answer to no answer at all. There is also a ‘God network’ in the brain (slightly more complex that a ‘God spot’). It appears to be related to the Limbic system and is most frequently related to fear. This can be good, for fear can change our behaviour. But it can also be hijacked by highly profitable organisations that demand our fear and respect.

12. Why do we not see half trees and half carrots, fronkeys, and crocoducks if evolution is real?
Make an effort to understand the opposing side and even your own side. These questions are promoted as being aimed at atheists, suggesting the divide is between atheists and theists. Yet, reading the questions, it is clearly about Creationist Christians against everyone else. If you are Christian but believe in evolution, then this question is still aimed at you. I bring this up because the questioner appears not to understand that Creationism is not the same as religion and accepting evolution is not the same as atheism. Not understanding that undermines the credibility of the questioner and the pretense used to offer these questions.
However, we don’t see fronkeys or crocoducks because evolution is real. What we do expect to see is an animal that was an ancestor to both, and we should expect such an ancestor to be very old indeed (as birds and reptiles are distant relations). The Spinosaurus is a fair candidate for such an ancestor, living about 95 million years ago.
It is an utter misunderstanding of descent with variation to assume that one animal becomes another by an intermediate hybrid. That is just silly.

Until next time,

Allallt

Lidl and Ethics (and a quick brain dump of ideas)

The idea in evolutionary psychology that our ethical intuitions are ingrained into our genetics seems repugnant and counter-intuitive to many. It seems obvious to so many commenters of the topic that the selfish gene should program only for selfish behaviour. And so the nuance of the idea, that cooperation is more successful than competition and so is selected for by evolutionary success, is lost on many. There exists an example of an analogous system, whereby the intuitive answer is simply not the correct one.

There is a grocers’ company set to break the €100 billion mark in the next 5 years, become the leading grocery provider in Western Europe (overtaking Tesco and Carrefour) and is over seen by a German multimillionaire. Now, when it comes to business, we can all take a fair guess that it’s not a premium-chain… But, making the most profit through a premium chain would be the same assumption as evolutionary success coming from selfish behaviour. Lidl (and its parent company: Schwartz Group) is set to become the leading grocery supermarket, on the back of budget groceries (at good quality), while paying its staff quite reasonably. That success, the success of the budget supermarkets, is analogous to the success of cooperative behaviour over selfish behaviour.

There’s an interesting aside, where what you would assume works (in economics) simply isn’t so. Canada, with a higher minimum wage than America and free healthcare, now has a richer middle class than America. This, in turn, reminds me of my idea of having political parties replaced by an information system: we have enough information to actually look at whether Canada is just lucky, or whether their economic policy just works. We can compare it to other countries. (And Google should do it…)

Anyway, that’s my quick brain dump between lists. (Generating, editing or reading lists is apparently a manager’s job *yawn*)

Confession: after 5 weeks working out of a Catholic school’s grounds

I am currently working in a managerial role in a Catholic School. I’m not actually working for the Catholic School, I am working for a separate organisation that is renting the site for during the Summer Holidays. And in the spirit on being in a Catholic environment, I thought I might give a small series of confessions. I’ve now met an aggressive atheist (i.e. someone who appears aggressive in their atheism) and I think mass is bug-nutty crazy.

I’ll start with Sandra (not her real name): the aggressive atheist. Until now I have said that I haven’t encountered these aggressive atheists in real life, and I certainly haven’t met proportionally more atheists who are aggressive than religious/agnostics who are aggressive. But I have now met Sandra, a person who seems an odd specimen to me as she is so very relaxed in all things, except her atheism. A monk on site mentions there is a “strong room” for their valuable items while we were touring the abbey and it made her angry to think of the wealth of this monastery when there is such poverty, even locally. She voices her outrage that Catholicism is a premium membership her native country–Germany–where you must be a paying member to be buried in the Church. She also has problems with the concept of abstinence; an “unnatural” command (there’s a nice sentiment for an attractive woman to utter…). And the demeanour in which she expresses herself is sincerely aggressive. Yet, she is so placid in all other areas. Working here I’ve also met José (not his real name) who, while staring at Jesus on the cross and more-or-less unprompted, said “how can they believe this bullshit?”

Now, I’m not chastising these people. There is a certain irony in people sending their children to a private Catholic Church in the certainty of the truth of Catholicism when it contains the seventh commandment; and there is a certain moral outrage is an organisation that makes itself a moral authority also hoarding wealth. And I am certainly not saying these two people are representative of atheism; I have found meeting these people to be remarkable (in fact, blog worthy) events. That shows their rarity, even if only in my experience.

My second confession: Mass is bug-nutty bat-shit crazy. I attended mass for a saint’s day because it was the name day of a student who is Catholic. Oddly enough, I felt I had a duty of care that included me attending. I apologise if it sounds accusatory, but I didn’t want to leave one of my students alone with a group of monks. I implore you, even if you are Catholic, to observe a mass with a cynical eye. We entered on the far right of the Abbey and sat in the left row of seats. As we crossed the aisle, people turned to bow down the aisle. They stopped, turned, and bowed to nothing in particular (so far as I could see). There was a reading from Exodus, where God says (and I’m paraphrasing here): “The Egyptians won’t let the Israelites go unless I really mess them up; so I am going to really mess them up” (and, as we know, what God went on to do was administer blanket torture to the innocent and the guilty alike, until the Pharaoh ‘let [those] people go’). It was seen as a passage of justice. There were several songs and chants, in English and in Latin and there was no indication of whether one should sing along, repeat after the Monk or announce “Amen” or “And to you”, yet everyone seemed to know.

Then the Monks began to set up communion. The wine and the chalices and the wafers were in various different places, and everything was done slowly and deliberately and every time a monk walked past the mid point of the width of the abbey they stopped, turned away from their audience and bowed… seemingly at the table they were setting up on. A monk then sung something that I’m sure the rest of the audience could decipher into the chalice and periodically lifted it over his head at which point the abbey bells would ring three times. Without being called, the entire congregation formed two orderly queues in front of two monks who offered a wafer and wine (wine! at 9:30am!) to everyone except the apparently gluten intolerant person who had been sat to my right. The gluten intolerant person, who I shall call Helga, told me that if I wanted a blessing from the monk, then I should cross my arms in front of myself after I have received communion. I thanked Helga for this information, stood up to let her and Sandra up to go to communion, then returned to my seat (getting puzzled looks from more than one person).

If you are not a Catholic (and even if you are) I urge you to watch mass and observe the pomp and ceremony, the dance and spectacle, as indifferently as you can. I’m not making any theological point here, it is just a strange and weird environment and I want you to share my amusement and befuddlement.

The Most Influential Biologist (?) and How To Change The Way You Blog Forever

Picture from the Huffing Post - huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/08/20/richard-dawkins-sparks-twitter-debate-over-aborting-down-syndrome-fetuses_n_5694961.html

Allen So―a friend of mine―commented on someone’s Facebook discussion that Richard Dawkins is is the most influential living biologist. I’ll be honest, that didn’t seem right. Richard Dawkins is vocal and very famous, but he also sort of exists in an echo chamber: creationists didn’t pick up The Selfish Gene and sincerely read it; readers were mostly already interested in science or biology and accepted evolution. So we tried to pin down exactly what he meant by “influential”. The result was a proto-metric for being influential and that helped me understand how to be influential.

Allen seemed to mean “famous”. That’s a very different word to influential, with a very different meaning. And I’d argue that David Attenborough is more famous than Dawkins. Dawkins can be harsh to listen to and may admit to being turned off by what he says (including my stepdad, a former student of Dawkins, who describes him as arrogant and pompous but had no idea he had become famous for his atheism). Attenborough, by contrast, is affable, friendly and makes content which is more consumable and enjoyable.

I am not saying that I don’t enjoy Dawkins’ books and interviews, because I do, but I understand that I am a part of his echo chamber. Attenborough’s documentaries on the BBC are globally famous and I haven’t found anyone who doesn’t like at least one documentary or Attenborough himself (even if it is just for awful impressions of his voice).

But I disagree with Allen’s definition of “influential”. Chris Brogan and Juliet Stanwell Smith probably best sum up my idea of influence in their book The Impact Equation: they’ve written is as

Impact = contrast x (reach + exposure + articulation + trust + echo)

They use the word impact (to be more influential), but I think in this context influence is a suitable synonym. This is perhaps more specific than I have thought needed, but all the right elements are there. I’ll take just a moment to discuss them and what they mean to my hobby: blogging. I’m not ashamed to admit that I want more followers, shares and likes as vapid as all that is.

Contrast is the most interesting one. Influences someone to agree with something they are already confident about is no influence at all: if you’d tried nothing, nothing would be different. To influence things, you must want something different, so that you can effect change. This is why I like getting atheist followers, but delight in getting religious ones.

Reach and Exposure are very similar, but not quite the same. The number of followers I have is my reach: it’s the potential size of an audience. My local newspaper has my entire county in its reach, this blog has a reach of approximately 350 people. Exposure is about how often you can direct readership. To increase that, you need catchy titles (I’ve tried to spice up this title, inspired by clickbait; compare it to me other titles) and interesting pictures. All your reach sees in the shortened blurb, they have to open the post before it is counted as exposure.

Articulation is about the clarity of your writing, directness and relevance. I cut out a short story about Allen’s Facebook argument with a creationist, as well as his professional and academic bio because it wasn’t relevant to what I wanted to write. My writing is more direct for that.

Trust is paramount. I have read some very direct and well written religious blogs that, when fact checked, didn’t hold up. But there’s something a little more intangible about being trustworthy as well: sincerity. The Food Babe, for example, talks absolute nonsense a lot of the time. But she manages to write passionately and sincerely so her audience trusts her because she seems to care. She’s demonstrably wrong, but still acquires a lot of trust.

Echo is not, as it first seems, about likes and shares. It’s about developing an accord on an emotional level. I have unfollowed atheist bloggers because their writing somehow alienates me from their topic. You need your message to echo in the mind of each individual reader, make it worthy of their thought. There are cheap tricks to do this, like making Pokemon analogies which, for my generation, is suddenly evoking childhood feelings which makes the post echo in my mind. The more mature way of doing it is, again, about sincerity.

So, for one to be influential, they must have an idea that is novel (contrast), effects change (trust and echo) in a large number of people (reach and exposure). I really do not think Dawkins fits the criteria for the most influential. The Selfish Gene and meme theory are solely academic ideas and as such the most change they can effect is academic; it feeds back into the university teaching. That immediately limits the audience you have as only people who describe themselves as academics or intellectuals will really care. The God Delusion fails to be properly influential because it alienates a lot of religious readers instead of creating an echo or engender trust.

Francis Compton died in 2004, and Francis Crick died in 2008, but James Watson is still alive and his work has been extraordinarily influential. He is the still-living father of genetics and the ability of nucleic acids to hold information. All of genetics was born from a small collection of people, leading to the academic discipline of genetics, mapping the human and Neanderthal genomes, medical advancement and much more. Watson’s work has a global reach, being part of exam curriculums and the foundation of a lot of work in hospitals. It’s not only people who believe it that have Watson’s ideas successfully influence them, for the work of doctors based on Watson’s work has changed lives. Watson, despite enjoying very little name recognition, is much more influential than Dawkins.

But this still doesn’t seem like enough. I am reminded of Neil deGrasse Tyson. He’s not a biologist, but the nature of his influence is different and worthy of a look. Tyson is famously passionate and articulate, which means him trustworthy and creates an echo in his audience. These traits, plus his academic success (and a lot of luck, I don’t doubt), have extended his audience not only to the Hayden Planetarium, but to the US Government. Tyson works on the President’s Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy, influencing government decisions (particularly arguing to expand funding to NASA). This gave me the idea of looking for living influential biologists who are influential in ways periphery to direct academic biology.

From the Guardian - http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/sep/04/ebola-six-nine-months-control-who-margaret-chan

And from there, without question (I would think) we get to the the most influential biologist on the planet: Dr Margaret Chen. She is the Director-General of WHO (my car is also her namesake, because the licence ends is WHO, I named my car after her). Okay, Dr Chen enjoys basically no name recognition globally, her efforts are the most influential I can think of: she has meant the difference between life and death for millions of people, which is undoubtedly as much contrast as one can ever get; the policies and procedures she has overseen are in place around the world with billions of people under her care to some degree and the organisation she oversees is sincerely trusted by governments across the world

Stories that make me think I might be a Conservative

The Desert

Paul, Andy and Mike had just met. They were all out backpacking when they met in the North-East of Australia. They had decided to rent a car as a group and drive to the North-West of Australia. They agreed to make a stop at a few sites along the way and at one stop Andy and Mike got a little bored, so they started a water fight.

The rules were simple enough: whoever was wettest by the time the water bottles were empty was the loser. Paul advised against the game. “We’re in the desert, water is literally our most scarce commodity. Treat it with a little more respect.”

“God, Paul, you’re so boring. We’re just having a little fun.” Mike said, and Andy agreed. “I just don’t think you’re being sensible. If anything goes wrong, we’ll want all the water we can get.” But Andy and Mike ignored Paul and continued playing. Paul swigged from his water bottle and put it in the glove box of the car. “I win!” Mike exclaimed “can we go now? It’s boring here”.

“Yup. We’re all ready to go.” Paul said and they piled in the car and set off. 15 miles later, at just-before-3 in the afternoon, the car ran out of petrol. They were 80 miles from civilisation and had just under 1.5 litres of water left, between them: Paul’s share.

 

At the pub

10 mates have been going to the pub on a Thursday afternoon for a quick round at lunch for the last few years. They’ve been going it since they were at college together. And the there was a rule that had followed them since their early days: pay what fraction you can, so long as the whole bill is paid. When they were at college, this was an about-equal payment. There was some give and some take from month to month depending on who had exams or missed a shift of evening work or had to buy a coursebook, but generally it was all about even. Now, they all had jobs.

There was a gardener, a plasterer, a barber… basically 9 of them had about-equal, about-average pay. The 10th was a financial consultant, he earned a lot more than the other friends. But rules were rules, and the financial consultant paid about 80% of the round, where the rest paid just over 2% each. Or, to put it another way, their regular round (a beer each) cost £20 so the financial consultant paid £16 and the rest paid about 40p each.

One Thursday the bar tender comes up to the friends just as they are about to leave and says “I’ve over-charged you. Tax on beer went down” and the bar tender places £2 on a variety of coins on the table. The financial consultant grabs £1.60, puts his coat on and starts to leave. “Woah there!” the gardener halts the financial consultant, “that should be 20p each. Why are you walking off with £1.60?”

The financial consultant smirked and continued towards the door before the stares of his friends made him very aware the gardener was serious, and his friends agreed. “Come now, for 3 years I’ve paid for more than half the beer, I’ve been putting nearly all the money in the pot. Proportionately, that is my money” the financial consultant explained.

“Yeah, but you can afford it” the painter argued.
“And I’ve got kids to feed” the bricklayer added.

The financial consultant pocketed his money and next Thursday he went for a drink in a different pub. And his 9 friends had to pay £1.90 for their beer.

 

The Dark Object

Claire, Abi and Robin are all siblings. Claire is the oldest and Robin is the youngest. One day all three children were out playing in Baiter park, which adjoins a shallow natural harbour. Abi and Claire were playing on the small beach beside the harbour and Robin was on the grass. Abi pointed into the harbour and said calmly “what’s that?” All of a sudden Claire shrieked “Ewwwwww. Gross gross gross!” and was pointing at what Abi had seen: something dark a few feet away in the harbour. Claire hated anything an 8-year-old girl might consider ‘icky’ and a wet unidentified dark object no bigger than a child’s shoe was enough to send her into histrionic wailing. Abi stared at the dark object and asked (as 6-year-olds do) “What is it?”

Neither of them knew. Claire’s wailing subsided intermittently to show her curiosity. Both the girls stood on the narrow beach pondering what it was. Abi said she was going to get it. “No! Yuck. You’re digusting. Don’t go in there. You’ll be smelly” Claire went on warning her sister against going in after the yucky, dark object. However, Abi took the risk. She took off her shoes and waded a few feet in and pulled up the dark object.

As the water cascaded off it, a Velcro seal became apparent and tugging at it Abi discovered she was holding a lost wallet. It opened and was empty: no ID, no coins. As she thumbed through the separate pockets she found a £20 note. From the narrow beach Claire saw Abi holding the £20 note and was excited that they had found money. When Abi refused to share the £20 because not only had she waded out to it, but she is also the one who saw it first, Claire ran to their mum and their mum made Abi share the £20 with Claire and her brother, Robin.

Claire and Robin spent their share on sweets, where Abi bought herself an inflatable ring so that she could float out into the harbour. Once Claire and Robin had finished their sweets, they also wanted a ride on the inflatable ring. Abi refused; she had already shared her £20, they had not shared her sweets and the inflatable ring was rightly hers. Claire and Robin told their mother and their mother made them take turns in the ring: Abi was forced to share.

Quick Fire Round

New Testament Round

  1. If the rise of Christianity is evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, do you also believe in the tablets Joseph Smith claimed to find because of the rise of Mormonism?
  2. Sathya Sai Baba (died 2011)
    1. Sathya Sai Baba has witnesses to his miraculous healing of others, resurrections and virgin birth (among other miracles). Are you less convinced by Sathya Sai Baba’s witnesses in this modern context than Jesus’ witnesses in the 1st century?
    2. If so, why?
  3. Where did Jesus tell his disciples to go after his resurrection?

Old Testament Round

  1. What does archaeological evidence say about the Exodus of the slaves from Egypt?
  2. Cain
    1. What happened to Cain after he killed Abel?
    2. If you answered “He got married”, who did he marry?
    3. If you answered that the Earth no was no longer fertile for him, how did humanity continue (with his brother dead and him unable to eat)?
  3. How many sons did Abraham have?
  4. What should a healthy person’s lifespan be, approximately?

The Qur’anic Round

  1. Is there a Geographic and literal point on Earth where the sun sets into a murky puddle?
  2. Did Mohammed literally fly on a winged horse?
  3. (If you answered “No” to either of the above) How can you tell the Qur’an is scientifically accurate when it indulges in non-literal descriptions?
  4. What are stars?
  5. Give details on the size and distance from the Earth of the moon and sun.

Enjoy.