Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Bizarre Case of Bob Lazar.

The above YouTubes are videos of a couple of Bob Lazar interviews. Bob Lazar is the man who claims to have worked as a reverse engineer on an alien flying saucer at Area 51/S4. Two scientific skeptics, David L Morgan and Stanton Friedman, have debunked both Lazar’s grasp of science and his claimed CV (See here on Lazar’s Wiki page). For me another indictment against Lazar is Lazar’s treatment of American Anti-gravity aficionado Tim Ventura .

Be that as it may, I think most people would nevertheless agree that superficially at least Lazar is a good story teller. In the interview he appears to be relaxed and fluent. It looks to me as if Lazar has his story well-rehearsed; he gives the impression of not being fazed by any of the questions and is well prepared for them. If it is a hoax he must have spent hours running over it in his fertile imagination - in fact, built up his own mental virtual world that lies in wait for likely questions. As he answers the interviewers questions he doesn't falter and knows what he is going to say; his story includes interesting touches of observed detail that give it the authenticity of plausibility, as is the wont of all good fiction writers.  However, when it came to some of the technical details it has the touch and feel of a scifi cut-away diagram; a little bit of general annotating scientific patter here and there but no nuts and bolts. Lazar also has the skill of not over embroidering his story; he adroitly uses the device of a limited security clearance to avoid the danger of having to concoct potentially implausible scenarios about things we would love to know, such as how the area 51 people came by this alien vehicle. 

But as in the case of David Ike the Bob Lazar story reveals something about our society and it holds a moral. In fact towards the end of the first video Lazar himself eloquently draws out the lesson: Secrecy, over-security and closed authoritarian politics can stifle scientific research. Science flourishes best when both the debates and the files are open and available to a large community of scientists. An environment of shared information, especially information pertinent to our weltanschauung, gives less of a foothold for the suspicions, antagonisms, and the fanciful imaginings of the disaffected and alienated. Schismogenesis is caused by a regenerative circuit between two sides and is, to my mind, yet again implicated in an example of societal polarisation.  Lazar himself  helps that polarisation along when he says that government is not interested in protecting its citizens but is out for itself. Growing mutual distrust between the governors and the governed is the very reason why a story like Lazar's can take a hold in Western society. This is the chief lesson the bizarre Lazar affair teaches us.

 A diagram of the real deal according to Lazar…. 

 (Diagram from: http://tommytoy.typepad.com/tommy-toy-pbt-consultin/2012/01/bob-lazar-stated-that-the-sport-model-flying-disc-amplified-the-strong-nuclear-force-of-element-115-ununpentium.html) 

 A cutaway of a scifi flying saucer al la George Adamski …. 

 …I’m damned if I can tell the difference!

End Note:
For a studied opinion on Bob Lazar's story have a look at this web page .

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Lies, Lies Damnable Lies … and Conspiracy Theory!

In a blog-post dated January 14th and entitled “Princeton student lies about the creation museum” Ken Ham reveals something of his fundamentalist habits of mind. A Princeton Physics student named Tyler Simko criticizes the creation museum in his blog and in response Ham launches into the all too typical fundamentalist revilement about “lies”. Viz:

….full of outright lies….outrageous claims…another lie….. egregious lie….. intentionally misrepresented…

Finally Ham, who was probably foaming at the mouth after that little lot, goes for nuclear button and deploys the ultimate censure; namely, that to be at odds with Ken Ham entails being at odds with God and therefore in danger of eternal judgement.

Simko’s flagrant lies make me want to pity him for the account he’ll have to give one day for his attempts to lead others astray and undermine Ken’s God’s Word.

Having an ongoing interest in the study of religious sects and cults I am very familiar with this knee jerk use of the word “lie”: A Jehovah’s Witness once told me I was a “lover of lies” and this reformo-charismatic fundamentalist  accused me of propagating a lie when I told him he was part of a religious sect.

To be fair Simko refers to the lies at the creation museum, but then, unlike Ham’s attack, Simko’s isn’t a personal attack; instead he attacks a culture rather than a person. In his reply to Ham Simko gives fair reason why he stands by all that he has said (apart from one retraction he has to make down to factual error). This is not to say I agree with Simko’s line of thinking, but his points are at least arguable and genuine; except to the perversely paranoiac they are clearly not intended untruths (=lies) as Ham tries to make out.

The final irony is that Ham asks the following:

I wonder if the young man will be honest enough to apologize to his readers and correct his false statements:

As far as I can see Simko has nothing to apologize for. If anything it is Ken Ham who should apologize for his attempted assassination of this student’s character using some very familiar (to me, at least) religious abuse. Fortunately Simko will have plenty of support from his science community and is therefore well out of reach of this kind of moral duress. Unfortunately that is not the same for many for whom fundamentalist sectarianism is a thoroughly intimidating cultural ambiance. As I have advised before: If you are attracted to God and faith, please avoid fundamentalism – as a culture it is well tuned to applying moral pressures and this can end in much grief. Above all, in the final analysis, it undermines the faith. As even Simko observes:
Additionally, I suggest to Mr. Ham that he direct more of a focus towards spreading Jesus’s fundamental messages of love, tolerance and “turning the other cheek,” as messages that I have received from many of his supporters have been anything but respectful.

Sectarian religions have the resources to apply some very strong emotional pressures to believers (See also here). Finally I would like to take this opportunity to once again remark that Ham’s fundamentalist habits of mind provide fertile ground for conspiracy theory (See here). The fundamentalist finds himself disconnected from the world beyond the narrow confines of his sect, a world that his culture trains him to treat with deep suspicion. Fundamentalists are likely to feel that if you are not with them then you must be against them and if you are against them you are against God, thus in effect committing the unforgivable sin. In particular, if you criticise them that is read as sure fire proof you are in thrall to Satan the father of lies and therefore depraved. No matter how one might reason the fundamentalist reads it as the chicanery and artifice of a black heart worthy of the kind of moral abuse we see Ken Ham handing out. It is no surprise that this jaundiced disaffected outlook on the extra-sectarian world easily crystallises into some expression of conspiracy theory.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Generalised Fundamentalism.

Human Fundamentalism is an explosion of your alter ego” says the blurb; but tribalism is also likely to be factor.

PZ Myers has been recently bad-mouthing “accomodationist” atheists Peter Higgs (of Higgs Boson fame) and Peter Kloor both of whom appear to take a complaisant stance toward theists (at least theists of the more liberal variety). In fact Kloor and Higgs use the term “fundamentalist” of the kind of culture that PZ Myers represents.  This, need I say, annoys PZ Myers no end.
In spite of my own working theism I would not want to claim that the evidence relevant to God’s existence is overwhelmingly compelling: We have lots of anecdotes, feelings, intuitions, personal revelations, and some historical documents of debatable status, although we do have some very interesting philosophical pointers. But all this evidence is insufficient, in my opinion, to condemn fair minded people like Higgs and Kloor to an eternity of torture, as some fundamentalists would have it. Moreover, the mindless brute sectarianism of much fundamentalism is evidence that weighs heavily against theism and registers with me as mitigating circumstances as far as atheists are concerned. 

One can hardly blame a reasonable atheist/agnostic for being noncommittal about anything other than the products of the hard sciences: Physics, Chemistry and to a certain extent biology have given us a picture of realities that are highly coherent and rational, objects that one can return to at will and find consistency and persistency. In comparison evolutionary psychology, history, sociology and the like have a complexity of subject matter that would be epistemically intractable if we tried to treat them with the same formal methods of the hard sciences. It gets even worse with the paranormal: Ghosts, cryptozoology, aliens, and religion are largely based on observational erratics and subjective feelings. One can hardly blame people for washing their hands of the whole business of the paranormal when its material is so epistemically unfriendly. Moreover, many religions make good their irregular evidential status with liberal dollops of Gnosticism, fideism, legalism, godbotting and above all the fear of the unknown; it is no surprise that much fundamentalist religion majors on spiritual threats about the grave consequences of incurring divine displeasure.

But the inherent difficulties of paranormal material are also its own claim to mitigating circumstances.  Theism is a product of an informal world view synthesis and the enunciation of some very high level objects and concepts. These objects and concepts are hardly the stuff of spring extending and test tube precipitating science . When it comes to this kind of world view synthesis unequivocal truth statements are hard to come by and the formal epistemology of the physical sciences which is at its the best when handling the elemental breaks down. In fact this break down starts to happen in formal science itself: On PZ Myers’ own admission science is making very heavy weather of evolutionary psychology and not surprisingly in my view; mental phenomena are highly complex implying a concomitantly highly convoluted natural history.  When it comes to an object like natural history, which is both very complex and necessarily untestable at will, we have to fall back, to a large measure, on “best fit science”; that is the kind of retrospective analysis that employs lots of imagination as attempts are made to fit the received data into some preconceived theoretical narrative. I see nothing wrong with this kind of activity given that it is imposed upon us by circumstances beyond our control and as long as it is carried out with self-awareness, tentativeness and above all with epistemic humility. But a call to epistemic humility is unlikely to be listened to: At the ontological high end people are playing for high stakes and human nature ensures that the difficulties arriving at unequivocal conclusions are made up for by an accompanying epistemic arrogance. A shouting match. is inevitable, but if we are to cling to truly democratic traditions then we must accept that in democratic societies the great parliament of ideas  is going to be like other parliaments I’m familiar with; namely, a kind of controlled row.

PZ Myers doesn’t like being compared with religious fundamentalists. Just how far he qualifies for the label “Science fundamentalist” depends on how strict he is with his epistemological Methodism: The formalties of spring extending and test tube precipitating science are guarded so jealously by some that they declare anyone transcending them to be anti-science heretics. It is no surprise, then, that science fundamentalists get uptight about evolutionary psychologists: The complexity and epistemic inaccessibility with which evolutionary psychologists have  to work gives them little option but to fall back on less formal and reliable methods; that’s OK with me as long as they proceed with epistemic humility.

Religious fundies, like science fundies, seek a formal epistemology that excludes all others on pain of charges of “heresy”. The epistemology of the religious fundamentalists revolves around treating scripture in a highly notational rather than connotational way : That is, they are quite sure they can readout very literal lessons from scripture using sure-fire mechanical rules; “Godbotting”, is the term. Both science and religious fundamentalists seek an exclusive and overriding authoritative epistemological Methodism that gives them a base from which they can scream down hell and damnation on all who transcend their methods. They are, as a rule, very hot on the idea of accessing and telling people “The Truth”, but they are unwilling to admit that at all but the lowest of levels, claims to being the mouth piece of “The Truth” must be treated with the utmost caution. For fundamentalists of all kinds there arises a conflict between their version of “science” and other world views because they don’t take seriously and are uncomfortable with the epistemic difficulties found at the high end. The telling trait of all fundamentalism is its insecurity with ambiguity, especially the ambiguity surrounding answers to the big questions of life; it consequently seeks and often thinks it has found a sure fire epistemic method. The outcome of that is an all too common epistemic arrogance.

12/02/13: Note On Evolutionary Psychology:  See the following two links for the opinion of anti-theists Larry Moran and  PZ Myers on the subject of evolutionary psychology:

They pretty much give a blanket rubbishing to all academic efforts in this field. What they don't seem to understand is that one can't port the same highly formal standards used by spring extending and test tube precipitating science to the study of people. It's like a physicist or a mathematician telling an historian how to do his job. When it comes to the humanities we come to terms with the lack of epistemic rigour imposed by complex inaccessible ontologies by giving formal place to controversy, non-consensus and the argument of parliament - the very things that are anathema to the instinctual epistemic arrogance of the  fundamentalists.