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What is Seen and What is Unseen

The Hidden Price of Immoral Acts

I’ve been reading Tyler Hamilton’s new book, The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs, co-authored by Daniel Coyle, a journalist and author with considerable literary talent. It’s a gripping story about how Tyler Hamilton, Lance Armstrong, and all the other top cyclists have been doping for decades, using such advanced scientific programs of performance enhancement that estimates show the benefit could be as much as 10%, in races won by fractions of 1%. After nearly two decades of racing with both dope and no dope, Hamilton concludes that although a clean rider might be able to win a one-day race, it is not possible to compete in, much less win, a 3-week event like the Tour de France.

The lengths these guys go to win are almost beyond comprehension. All you do is train, eat, and sleep. And dope. The drug of choice is (or was—now that the drug testers have caught up riders use other drugs that have similar effects) EPO, or erythropoietin, a genetically modified hormone invented by Amgen that stimulates the body to produce more red blood cells, a life-saver for anemic patients undergoing chemo or suffering from other long-term ailments. Also on the menu is testosterone, human growth hormone, steroids (for injuries, not bulk, since cyclists get as skinny as they can), and others. Tyler nicknamed his EPO Edgar, as in Allen Poe. The drugs worked, he says, but only if you do everything else necessary, including logging in 5–6 hour daily training rides, reduce your body fat down to 5% or less, and program your entire life to doing nothing but racing bikes. If you are not riding, rest. Don’t walk when you can sit. Don’t sit when you can lie down. And don’t ever climb stairs. You are either a bike rider or a couch potato. If you are genetically gifted, train your ass off, starve yourself down to a skeletal frame with bird-like arms and Schwarzenegger-size legs, can ride as fast as the wind, and get on a professional team invited to the Tour de France, then and only then will the drugs give you the edge to boost yourself from barely finishing stages to contending for a top finishing spot. From what Hamilton (and others) write on this topic, I estimate that doping is worth somewhere between 50 and 100 places in the Tour de France. Yes, you might survive the race on “pan y agua” (bred and water—the riders’ euphemism for non-doping diets), but if you want to feel better than death you have to take the drugs.

Okay, so everyone does it and the playing field is level, right? Wrong. First, there’s a serious science behind proper doping, and if you don’t have the dough to hire the best dope—and doping doctors—you’re left fumbling around with dosages and frequencies and wondering if the needle or bag of blood is contaminated, or if you screwed up and overdosed and thus are still “glowing” when the drug tester pops in for an out-of-competition surprise drug test. The top pros pass hundreds of drug tests because they have the top doping docs to show them how to do it properly. According to Hamilton, the top doping doctor in the world, Michele Ferrari, was at one point paid by Lance for exclusive services. Hamilton says he spent anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 a year for doping products and services. Most riders in the peloton cannot afford anything like such a specialized and professional doping program. So, I estimate that at most 25% of the peloton are doping professionally. Another 50% or so are doping unprofessionally; that is, procuring their doping products catch as catch can, guessing at the proper dosages and frequencies, and hoping they got it right, which they often did not. The rest of the cyclists are riding pan y agua, and suffering beyond belief. Not a level playing field. The moral equivalency argument on Lance’s behalf that, “the best guy won anyway because they were all doping” (an argument I’ve made myself) is bullshit. We have no idea who the best riders were in those seven tours (or the equally doped up tours before and after). What is seen are the champion dopers. What is unseen and forever unknown is whoever the best athletes might have been.

This is the real harm to those athletes who did not want to dope, who were given the choice to dope and opted out, who pulled over to the curb on the boulevard of broken dreams, stripped off their race number, and packed it in to go home, in most cases back to menial jobs or to finish high school or start college. Who are these cyclists? Tyler names a few in his book, but in most cases we have no idea who they are because they are the unseen ones, those whose potential was never realized because they never had the chance to compete cleanly against their peers. We’ll never know how they might have done against the very best in the business because the best cheated to get there. Could Cyclist Joe from Hannibal, MO beat Lance Armstrong from Austin, TX? We’ll never know. Cyclist Joe is now Joe the Plumber, Mr. Everyman, while Lance is still glowing.

It’s so easy to be the hero when you’re the champ. All the accolades flow to you, along with media coverage, paid endorsements and speaking engagements, private jets and celebrity dinners, and lots and lots of money. It is so easy to be generous to others when you’re on top, funding your own and others charities, becoming the good guy who is going to defeat cancer. It’s all so glamorous when you’re on top. This is what is seen. What is unseen are the non-dopers, the moral ones who were robbed of the possibility of being champ, of starting their own charities, of being generous and inspirational to others, of basking in the glory, of being the hero. They will never have the possibility of that experience because it was taken away from them by the cheaters.

This is the problem with cheating across the moral landscape: it’s robs others of their possibilities. The Wall Street inside trader who drives in limos and flies in private jets is what is seen. What is unseen are the little investors who play by the rules and as a consequence of the cheater drive crappy cars, fly commercial coach, and watch their 401K’s shrink. We can see the deceptive co-worker who pinches the company here and there; what we don’t see is how those limited resources might have been allocated toward the benefit of honest employees. The cheating spouse is seen, the possibly unfulfilled dreams of the children of broken homes is unseen. The corrupt politician who wrangles a deal to extract taxes from a general fund to build a bridge to nowhere in his district stands for photo ops and basks in the glory. He gets to be the hero. What is unseen is where our money might have been spent otherwise, as we see fit. And, finally, on the grandest scale of all, wars and terrorism steal the possibilities of what might have been for those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. What is seen are flag-draped coffins and flower-strewn graves. What is unseen are unfulfilled relationships and the unborn children of the soldiers and victims, those who, with a nod to Neil Young, “will never go to school, never get to fall in love, never get to be cool.”

What is seen are immoral acts. What is unseen is the hidden price of those acts. What is seen are the champions and the cheaters. What is unseen are the honest ones who had the courage and the character to walk away with their morality. This is the larger lesson of cheating. It robs everyone of what might have been. With cheating, what might have been is now what never was. It erases history. What is prologue is past.

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Is America a Christian Nation? Readers Respond to Chuck Colson

On November 4, the Los Angeles Times published my Opinion Editorial entitled “What’s God Got to do With it?” (which I also posted on Skepticblog) about Congress reaffirming our national motto “In God We Trust.” I argued that trust does not come from God but from very specific social, political, and economic institutions.

Chuck Colson, the one-time special counsel for President Richard Nixon, one of the Watergate Seven who also pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in his attempt to defame the Pentagon Papers defendant Daniel Ellsberg, and the man who found God and Jesus just in time for his jail sentence in federal prison, now blogs on political and social issues from a Christian perspective and has attempted a smack-down of my Op-Ed by arguing that “God Has a Lot to Do With It.”

His argument is summarized in his own words thusly:

It was Christianity, you see, that taught the West that all human beings are created in the image of God. Without that understanding, the very words of the Declaration of Independence, “that all Men are created equal, that they endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights,” could never have been written.

Most of all, our ideas about what constitutes a free and secure society are derived from Christianity. Political scientist Glenn Tinder has written about how much of what we celebrate in our society, like the “respect for the individual and a belief in the essential equality of all human beings,” has “strong roots in the union of the spiritual and the political achieved in the vision of Christianity.”

Before I respond in my next blog with a deeper historical analysis of how equality, liberty, prosperity, and trust arose well ahead of religious doctrines (see, in the mean time, Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature for a thorough history of this development), I tweeted the link to Colson’s rebuttal and asked my readers to respond in their own way, which they did with some very cogent points:

Nicholas Johnson writes:

Those poor Greeks and Romans. They knew nothing, apparently.

Nathan George writes:

It should be pointed out that Colson seems to dismiss science by saying “the science Shermer puts so much stock in” as he types this very statement on his computer which science, not Christianity, is responsible for.

David Carmer writes:

It is the height of hypocrisy to say that we, as a nation, trust in a deity. If we truly had sincere trust we’d need no army, no judicial system, no anti-trust laws, no prison system, no government oversight, and so on. An honest deep felt trust in God would logically lead to us living in a lawless state wherein we expected our benevolent protector to handle the details and to keep us safe. To embrace the motto, shouldn’t we get rid of all those laws and government organizations that are designed especially because we cannot trust in divine intervention? 

Hans Van Ingelgom writes:

The biggest problem I face when discussing Christianity is that I don’t know what it stands for. Christianity is subdivided in countless branches, often with opposing views. You can’t simply discuss somebody’s views just by knowing he’s a Christian. Does respect for the individual include the right of gay marriage? Should the state be neutral to religion, respecting individual choices? It depends on what Christian you ask.

David Schumacher writes:

You might remind Colson that some of the Christian founders were still using spectral evidence to put people to death as recently as the witch killings of Salem.

David Allen writes:

The response to Chuck is easy—Christ was a wise man and Christian values are good, but no god is needed to come up with those values. And as for him citing the Declaration of Independence and the words “All men are created equal”—those words were written by men who held slaves, so the words ring hollow.

Mark Bowermaster writes:

Yeah, because nothing says free and secure like an omnipotent cloud wizard demanding your allegiance by threat of never ending immolation.

Adam Qureshi writes:

His argument does not even pass the null hypothesis. What the heck did we do before Christianity came along a mere 2 thousand years ago?

Eric Lawton writes:

The ancient Greeks were just as much a source of all these values such as the rule of law. Christianity plunged us into centuries of dark ages, superstition and theocracy. Of course those people, the early Protestants, who helped us to restore these values through the enlightenment were Christians, because it was pretty much illegal not to be. But it doesn’t prove that it was because they were Christians that they did that; otherwise it would have happened much earlier. It was the beginning of our escape from Christianity and a return to secular values which got us where we are, and is one of the reasons for the separation of Church and State in the U.S.

Peter McCully writes:

And what has Christianity given us concerning the rights of homosexuals, women, slaves or even animals? Most, if not all of the advances in human rights over the last two hundred years or so have been a gradual unpicking of the stitches in Christianity’s fabric. Nice of the church to take credit for it though.

David Serbin writes:

Colton is both right and wrong. Education, laws, and enforcement of laws do have some root in religion. But what Colton forgets is that these were bad things. Education for centuries meant hitting children, dress codes, and other awful practices that are only practiced today by private religious schools (although as we’ve seen with Penn State and other teacher’s scandals, public schools aren’t great either). Another problem is that citing the law from the Bible begs the question: which laws? Laws that stone adulterers or ban gay marriage? Surely those laws don’t make society any better off. Finally, Colton says that God is responsible for freedom of the individual, equality, and security. But banning gay marriage does not increase individuality nor equality. The Founders were of varying religious beliefs, but they fled in part due to the Church of England and they would be rolling in their graves if they saw the way that Christians have abused their 1st amendment right of freedom of religion to try and make this country a theocracy by using the state to put God on the pledge, the dollar, and anywhere and everywhere possible.

Jerry Jaffe writes:

When the bible tells us to stone our neighbors to death (Deut. 17 2–5) and we don’t, is that because we know right from wrong without reference to the bible, perhaps?

Andi Wolfe writes:

How very convenient that Colson forgets that the Declaration of Independence did not apply to slaves and women. If you really want to invoke a religion that values all humans, respects individuals, and promotes the essential equality of all human beings, look to the Buddhists. They actually live their lives as if their beliefs have meaning.

Will Colon writes:

You might be inclined to point out that if religion—specifically Christianity—is in some way responsible for the freedoms that we enjoy as Americans, why is it that historically theocratic nations or nations endorsing a particular religion have been home to some of the most illiberal treatment of humans in our species’ history. The Grand Inquisitor’s Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God by Jonathan Kirsch is a good book that touches on this; specifically it highlights how the absolutism of religion—again, specifically Christianity—lends itself to scenarios like the Inquisition and the injustices that dovetail along with it. It’s also worth noting that while many of our Founding Fathers did hold some belief in a creator—a common belief of the time—a great number of them were Deists who were deeply skeptical of the Christian god.

Bob Makin writes:

As to the claim that a free and secure society is derived from Christianity, may I enquire as to what the practice of slavery, the Inquisition and pogroms against the Jews have to do with freedom and security? I would think that the capriciousness of that religion does more to inject a great degree of uncertainty into any civilization which finds itself under its influence. Given that God has been a merciless and cruel dictator given to fits of rage, widespread destruction of entire societies, not to mention the annihilation of the entire population of the earth, I fail to see that being created in his image is any kind of recommendation.

David Kaloyanides writes:

Colson ignores the foundation of democracy in Athens more than 500 years before Christianity existed. He ignores the code of Hamurrabi, which is our oldest codified set of laws that governed the behavior of humans. He also ignores the teachings of the New Testament where Christians were called upon to obey whatever governing authority existed at the time as such was established by God. Colson also ignores the amazing educational progress of the far east where most people were literate while the early Christians were not. Colson also equates the West’s scientific pursuits to Christianity when in fact it was the Renaissance—the rediscovery of the Greek and Roman culture and science that spurred the growth of both science and political thinking. Finally, the founders of our nation were “Christians” loosely speaking. But they were nothing like a Colson Christian. Nothing in Christianity supports democratic thinking. Rather, it promotes totalitarianism form of theocracy. It does not support capitalism, as Christians are expressly taught to shun the material and share all worldly possessions in common. The language of the New Testament lends itself more to a communist than capitalist economic world view. But as the New Testament was not interested in politics or economic policy, Colson is just wrong about how its teachings promoted our system of government today.

Joe Seither writes:

There is simply no expressly religious language in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights—except the parts that make absolutely crystal-clear that religion and politics should remain independent from one another. Now, this is a really important point, given that many of the founders were theists, but also with some deists, freethinkers and freemasons in the mix. Given this, it’s no accident or trivial point that they enshrined in the very first amendment a separation between government and religion. The fact that some or many of the founders were men of faith adds much gravity to the proposition that the anti-establishment principle and language they agreed upon—and signed their names to—was no mere accident. It was intentional.

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Touching History


Skeptical Luminaries right to left: paranormal investigator Joe Nickell, Center for Inquiry founder Paul Kurtz, the Amazing One himself, and psychologist and magician Ray Hyman

On Sunday, October 3, a group of skeptics gathered in Falls Church, Virginia to celebrate James Randi’s 82nd birthday. What an amazing meeting it was … er, an astonishing evening I mean, as Randi prefers to retain the “amazing” adjective for his moniker, James “The Amazing” Randi. Take a look at just a few of the giants present in the above photo — the legends of skepticism (from right to left: paranormal investigator Joe Nickell, Center for Inquiry founder Paul Kurtz, the Amazing One himself, and psychologist and magician Ray Hyman).


click any of the following thumbnail images to enlarge

Also in attendance were Richard Dawkins, the magician Jamy Ian Swiss, the President of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) D. J. Grothe, and many other skeptical luminaries from around the world, many of whom sang Randi’s praises in the tribute portion of the evening. Randi was presented with a beautiful birthday cake with his inimitable likeness on the icing, and something well short of 82 candles on top to blow out, which he managed successfully.


After dinner we all adjourned to the private library of a good friend of Randi and benefactor of JREF, who kindly allowed us to peruse his collection of some of the rarest books in the history of science, along with other spectacular items of considerable interest. It is, in short, the finest collection I have ever seen anywhere in the world. Any single volume on any of the shelves would be an item worthy of possession as one’s most cherished belonging, and here there were hundreds of such treasures.


How’s this for starters?: The Archimedes Palimpsest, purchased at auction for $2.2 million. Check out the two sets of lines on this page: one set of bold lines in Latin that was a medieval prayer book, and the other lighter lines in Greek that was nothing less than one of the most important treatises ever published by the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes. I highly recommend the book, The Archimedes Codex, by Reviel Netz and William Noel, that uncovers the mystery story of how this book came to auction, and the scientific detective story of how Archimedes ancient words were coaxed back to life. (Quality paper for publishing was so rare in the Middle Ages that older books were reused by scraping off the text and reprinting over it.)


If that isn’t awe inspiring enough, check out the photo of a page from an ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead that Joe Nickell and I are examining. Because papyrus paper is so delicate this one is under glass (so we couldn’t “touch history” directly in this case), but Joe and I were trying to find Randi’s name in there somewhere…


Talk about touching some old stuff, look at this many millennia-old Babylonian cylinder with cuneiform writing on it, apparently an ancient calculator of sorts (if memory serves … it was a heady evening trying to take in all these treasures).

Going back tens of thousands of years, look at the magnificent Wholly Mammoth tusk, and guess what that is in my hand: yes, that’s Wholly Mammoth hair. Is there a lab somewhere in the world who could take the DNA from that hair and clone a mammoth back to life? Forget Jurassic Park; I’d settle for Paleolithic Land.


Given my interest in World War II and all things Nazi, which I had to learn in researching my book Denying History (about the Holocaust deniers), this item made the hair on the back of my neck stand up: it’s a first edition of Mein Kampf. This one in particular was signed by Adolf Hitler to “Dr. Goebbels”, 1925. Next to it is another first edition addressed in Hitler’s hand to Hermann Goering.

As well, the library contains two Nazi enigma code machines, designed and built for encryption and decryption of messages and was used during the Second World War. The cracking of the enigma code encryption algorithms by the British led project ULTRA is said to have shortened the war by at least two years, if not being the single most important step toward victory.


There is something about touching history in this way that almost beggars description. It’s visceral. Running my fingers over the cuneiform clay cuts in the cylinder while imagining some ancient Babylonian accountant or scribe holding it in one hand while pressing into the wet clay with a small writing stick in the other draws one back in time. Rubbing the tips of my fingers over the parchment paper of medieval manuscripts brings to my inner ear a Gregorian chant wafting through the cold, dank halls of a European monastery with monks keeping alive ancient wisdom through their endless hours of copying the masters.


Visiting this library, in fact, is like a time machine, transporting you back anywhere into the past you like just by touching the spine of a book and pulling it off the shelf. I know, this all sounds so … well … New Ageish. I am a materialist, a monist — someone who does not believe that there is something immaterial like a soul or spirit or essence of a thing that carries on beyond the physical material of its original pattern. But to hold an item of such antiquity and such rarity and originality overwhelms the senses and enthuses the emotions beyond what meager words such as these can convey.

I touched the past and it lived again.

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Doing Science in the Past

The comparative method of historical science helps to explain Haiti’s poverty
magazine cover

HISTORY IS NOT OFTEN THOUGHT OF AS A SCIENCE, but it can be if it uses the “comparative method.” Jared Diamond, professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, and James A. Robinson, professor of government at Harvard University, employ the method effectively in the new book they have co-edited, Natural Experiments of History. (Order the lecture on DVD. Jared Diamond lectured, based on this book, as part of the Skeptics Society’s Distinguished Lecture Series at Caltech.) In a timely study comparing Haiti with the Dominican Republic, for example, Diamond demonstrates that although both countries inhabit the same island, Hispaniola, because of geopolitical differences one ended up dirt poor while the other flourished. (continue reading…)

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Science & the Decline of Magic

I am optimistic that science is winning out over magic and superstition. That may seem irrational, given the data from pollsters on what people believe. For example, a 2005 Pew Research Center poll found that 42 percent of Americans believe that “living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” The situation is even worse when we examine other superstitions, such as these percentages of belief published in a 2002 National Science Foundation study: (continue reading…)

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