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September 2011

Skeptic magazine editor Michael Shermer discusses why people are often duped…

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Pat Tillman’s Atheism

September 2011
The Tillman Story (DVD cover)

In the 2010 documentary film, The Tillman Story, the story of Pat Tillman and his tragic death at the hands of “friendly fire” is retold. Tillman was the NFL star who gave it all up to join the military cause in Afghanistan after being inspired by 9/11 to do something for his country. He did not do it for the glory or publicity, and gave up a lucrative football career for what he perceived to be a worthy cause. After his death the U.S. government implemented a publicity campaign to use Tillman’s death as a tool to promote the war as a cause so worthy that even a highly-paid NFL star believed it to be worth the sacrifice. What the government failed to mention is that Tillman was killed at the hands of his fellow soldiers during a “fog of war” incident in a steep and narrow slot canyon in which there was much confusion about where enemy fire was originating. It’s a very disturbing film to watch—infuriating in fact—and Jon Krakauer’s book, Where Men Win Glory, presents the story in excruciating detail in a compelling narrative.

Pat Tillman was an atheist. At his funeral his younger brother Richard got up to speak, visibly upset, noticeably inebriated, and with beer in hand proceeded to thank everyone for their warm sentiments, but upbraided those like Maria Shriver and Senator John McCain who made religious overtones in their sentiments, noting about his brother Pat: “He’s not with God, he’s fucking dead. He’s not religious. Thanks for your thoughts, but he’s fucking dead.”

Later in the film there is a radio interview presented with Colonel Ralph Kauzlarich, who was the Regimental Executive Officer at Forward Operating Base Salerno on Khost, Afghanistan, under which Tillman was serving at the time of his death, and who led the military investigation into Pat’s death. I found the following exchange to be among the most disturbing things in the entire film that was missed by most reviewers, starting in reference to the grieving Tillman family who were at the time vigorously pursuing an investigation into Pat’s death and the government cover up of it:

Kauzlarich: “These people are having a hard time letting it go. It may be because of their religious beliefs. I don’t know how an atheist thinks, but I can only imagine that that would be pretty tough. If you’re an atheist and you don’t believe in anything, if you die what is there to go to? Nothing. You’re worm dirt. It’s pretty hard to get your head around that.”

Host: “So you suspect that’s probably the reason this thing [the family’s persistence in getting to the bottom of Pat’s death] is running on.”

Kauzlarich: “I think so. There’s not a whole lot of trust in the system or faith in the system.”

So…if you’re an atheist it means that you’re not going to buy into the belief that death—even a tragic, unnecessary, and friendly-fire death—will somehow be made acceptable by the belief that all will be made right in heaven where all the good Conservative Christian soldiers will meet up once again. This is very disturbing. What this knucklehead nincompoop is saying is that if the Tillman family were good Christians they would have gone along with the patriotic platitudes of the military in assuaging everyone’s grief by pretending that it was all done in the name of god and country. But since the Tillmans are atheists it means that they actually want truth and justice now! How inconvenient. How pathetic. And this is yet another point against religious belief: it leads you to blur your focus on the here-and-now and let slip your grip on reality, and allow yourself to be manipulated by those who have neither the conscience nor the courage to stand up for what is right and true.

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The Way of the Mister, Vol. 1: Reparative Therapy

September 2011

This is the first of what will be a series of videos on differing topics. “The Way of the Mister” videos continue the ethos of the Mr. Deity worldview, but branch out in ways that would not work within the the Deity cosmography or with the Deity characters. It is the cast’s desire to do more videos like this, and the ideas are pouring out of Brian Dalton. But many of them require bigger budgets than they currently have and they’re hoping to rectify that with a non-profit organization which will focus on this broader mission — to educate with humor and satire.

Michael Shermer has a short cameo in this episode.

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What is Pseudoscience?

September 2011
Distinguishing between science and pseudoscience
is problematic
magazine cover

CLIMATE DENIERS ARE ACCUSED OF PRACTICING PSEUDOSCIENCE, as are intelligent design creationists, astrologers, UFOlogists, parapsychologists, practitioners of alternative medicine, and often anyone who strays far from the scientific mainstream. The boundary problem between science and pseudoscience, in fact, is notoriously fraught with definitional disagreements because the categories are too broad and fuzzy on the edges, and the term “pseudoscience” is subject to adjectival abuse against any claim one happens to dislike for any reason. In his 2010 book Nonsense on Stilts (University of Chicago Press), philosopher of science Massimo Pigliucci concedes that there is “no litmus test,” because “the boundaries separating science, nonscience, and pseudoscience are much fuzzier and more permeable than Popper (or, for that matter, most scientists) would have us believe.”

It was Karl Popper who first identified what he called “the demarcation problem” of finding a criterion to distinguish between empirical science, such as the successful 1919 test of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and pseudoscience, such as Freud’s theories, whose adherents sought only confirming evidence while ignoring disconfirming cases. Einstein’s theory might have been falsified had solar-eclipse data not shown the requisite deflection of starlight bent by the sun’s gravitational field. Freud’s theories, however, could never be disproved, because there was no testable hypothesis open to refutability. Thus, Popper famously declared “falsifiability” as the ultimate criterion of demarcation. (continue reading…)

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Skepticism 101: A Call for Course Syllabuses from Those Teaching Skeptical Courses

August 2011

TO ALL TEACHERS AND PROFESSORS who are teaching courses in skepticism, critical thinking, science and pseudoscience, science and the paranormal, science studies, history or philosophy of science, the psychology of paranormal beliefs, religious studies, and the like…

Please send us your course syllabuses, reading lists, video/YouTube links, classroom demonstration ideas, student projects and experiments, research project ideas, and the like to my graduate student Anondah Saide. I want to add them to my own course syllabus on Skepticism 101, and create an online Skeptical Studies Program at Skeptic.com for teachers and professors everywhere to go to in a creative commons/open source system so that we can build a new academic field going forward with skepticism into academia.

I know that such courses are being taught around the world because for the past two decades of publishing Skeptic magazine and writing skeptical books, I receive a lot of mail from teachers and professors seeking permission to use our materials.

What I would like to do is to create academic departments of Skeptical Studies, as the next step in the skeptical movement. (See, for example, Phil Zuckerman’s program of Secular Studies he is implementing this year at Pitzer College in Claremont, where I teach a graduate course in the spring. We have magazines and journals, trade books and conferences. The next step is a more organized penetration into academia via courses, textbooks, departments, and the like. I want to create a clearing house, an open-source site for people to access materials that will be made available to create your own course in Skeptical Studies, such as Skepticism 101: syllabuses, books, articles, assignments, videos, demonstrations, experiments, research projects, and the like. I am envisioning something along the lines of how psychology became an academic field a century ago.

To start the process off I share with you my own course syllabus for Skepticism 101, which I am teaching this semester starting this week at Chapman University on Tuesdays from 4–7pm with 36 freshman, the future of the skeptical movement!

Download Shermer’s Course Syllabus for Skepticism 101

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