Tag Archives: Delusion

Compartmentalizing Delusion

CompartmentsReligious people hold a lot of beliefs that nonbelievers conclude are delusional (see here). Many of these believers also hold important positions of responsibility in the government, in the media, and business. Some of them even sit on our Congressional Science Committee. Their decisions deeply impact public policy and the very existence of us and of our planet.

Those most fervent in their beliefs proudly tout the fact that their deeply held religious beliefs guide and influence all of their decisions as a lawmaker. But when someone points out that those deeply held religious beliefs are in direct conflict and contradiction to basic reason and accepted public policy, they then typically claim compartmentalization.

Essentially the contradictory claim they make is that while they affirm that they are deeply influenced by nonsensical ideas, those nonsensical ideas do not influence their thinking in rational matters. They insist that they can wail over rapture on Sunday and make prudent, long-term budget decisions on Monday. They can enumerate why evolution is a hoax cooked up by scientists at Wednesday evening Bible study, then properly assess the advise of climate change scientists in their Thursday morning advisory board meeting. They can affirm that the Bible is the only source of truth on Saturday morning, then go home and work on educational text book selections all afternoon. They assert that one is not affected by the other in the least – except when they want to tout the fact that it is.

Their amazingly selective isolation of thinking, they claim, is all thanks to the magic of compartmentalization. It lets them espouse crazy beliefs and claim to be perfectly sane and rational too. This claim is made so often and with such matter-of-fact certainty, that most people just tend to accept it as true.

But let’s examine this claim of compartmentalization more closely.

All of us compartmentalize somewhat. In fact, such compartmentalization is critical to our functioning. We mentally separate work and home, parent and spouse, private and public. When we think of scientific models, we hold two seemingly different views at the same time (see here). Compartmentalization is an essential rational and emotional adaptation. Maybe that’s partly why we accept their claim of exceptional compartmentalization so easily.

But all normal and highly functional behaviors can become abnormal and dysfunctional at some point. At the extreme, we see people with multiple personalities that are split so completely that they are not even aware of each other. And although some extremely rare individuals can apparently completely isolate their thinking, most of us cannot. For most of us, any irrational, dysfunctional thinking does spill over and taints our rational thinking.

We humans can do hand-stands too. When I was in high school, there were a couple of guys on my gymnastic team who could literally walk up and down stairs between classes, in a crowd at full speed, on their hands with perfect form. But because those rare individuals could do it doesn’t mean we can all claim it. Just because Jimmy Carter seemed to isolate his religious belief from his rational thinking in a healthy way, doesn’t mean that many of us can do that. Jimmy Carter was more like the gymnast who could walk up and down stairs on his hands. Most others who believe they can isolate belief from rationality will invariably plummet down the stairs, taking innumerable others crashing down with them.

As I point out in my book, Belief in Science and the Science of Belief (see here), religious belief is the pot smoking of rational thought. Every pot smoker or alcoholic is convinced that they can handle it. That their rational thinking is not affected. They think what they are expounding while high is really profound, but it’s really just nonsensical gibberish. Religious people can’t see how ridiculous they sound while they’re high on the Bible and only listening to others who are just as stoned.

We don’t easily accept this same claim of compartmentalization in any area other than religion. We don’t fully accept that ones stressful job as a homicide cop has no affect on their home life. We would not accept the assertion by a racist that while he may attend Klan meetings on Friday nights, this has no impact on his professional behavior as a hiring manager. Most of us would be at least skeptical in accepting any opinion expressed by a Wiccan who claimed to have supernatural powers, despite any claim of compartmentalization.

Even religious people don’t accept any compartmentalization except the one they claim. If I ran for public office as an atheist, I don’t have any illusions that my claim that I can compartmentalize my atheism would be sufficient to convince any religious people to trust that my judgement has not been tainted by my atheism.

Religious thinkers claim compartmentalization to avoid legitimate skepticism regarding their compromised rationality. Sadly, we accept this claim for the most part. We should stop giving them this free pass. Not only can such fervent “deeply held” delusions not be sufficiently compartmentalized, but believers don’t really want or intend to compartmentalize away their beliefs in any case.

Religious people want and need to propagate their beliefs and weave them inextricably into public policy. Our polite acceptance of their dubious claim of compartmentalization only helps enable them to do that.

 

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But I Know What I Saw!

A while back I wrote a blog about the likelihood (or unlikelihood rather) that we could ever meet aliens from another planet (see here). Even though it is highly unlikely we’ll ever meet them, I also wrote another article about what aliens probably look like (see here). In response to the latter article, I received the following comment and question. I thought it might be useful to respond in some detail.

Hi my name is Mark. 2 days ago around 1pm I had a encounter. It almost brought tears to my eyes and my emotional state was altered with unknown feelings. I was sitting on my patio when I noticed something watching me. I looked up at it. And it was aware of me spoting it and its prescense. The alien was a pure white flame/orb??? It flew down wards looked towards me and dissapered. I wrote all I could down about it and what and how I thought it worked or functioned. Some ppl wait there whole life to see what I saw. It was real!!!!!!!! It was so different. The light was extremly bright yet it had no glow to it. It was alive. (It somehow uses the golden ration to dissaper. Such as folding our perpective dimension. Only my theory ) Help Me………. I wanna let the world know how beautiful diffrent strange and awe strucking it was. The scariest part was it was spying on me. It came close and vanished??? Into nothing. Thank you this is no joke please let me know of what u think.

Let’s consider the rational way to respond to such an incident. First, I cannot completely accept this report as is. It could be, Mark, that you are just profoundly delusional. Or it could be that you simply cooked this up to troll and get a response. Or it could be that this was not actually your experience, but something someone told you that you are representing as a first-hand account. Crazy stories like this get started all the time (see here).

But Mark, let’s assume that you are not insane and are not pulling a joke but that you truly believe this experience happened to you. There are still many, many ways of intellectually and emotionally responding to such an incident that do not require you to suspend all of your rationality and accept incredible explanations.

Indeed, such an incident happened to me. I write about it in my book, Belief in Science and the Science of Belief (see here). I highly recommend you read it as it goes into far greater depth about how one should interpret unexplainable experiences. Indeed, it is not particularly rational to acknowledge that you have five fingers. Only when our rationality is sorely tested can we truly discover whether we are really rational thinkers. It is only when  we refuse to accept easy explanations, when we reject the ridiculous beliefs of others, that we can claim to be rational. If we believe ridiculous propositions like alien visitations, psychic powers, ghosts, or even gods – no matter how many other people may believe these things – then we are not truly rational.

As to your particular experience Mark, there are many explanations that are far more likely than that you were visited by aliens. First, you may be remembering a dream. I have difficulty differentiating some dream memories from actual memories. You may have had a waking dream. And realize that none of us are either fully sane or insane. None of us are immune to an occasional delusion. It is only when these episodes become profoundly persistent that they become a mental illness. We are all somewhat susceptible to paranoid delusions (see here), and frankly your report has elements of paranoia.

I’m sure, Mark, that you’ll insist that none of those things apply to you, and they may not. But that doesn’t mean that therefore you are at liberty to believe that you were spied upon by aliens. When we don’t understand something, the truly rational response is to suspend any judgement, forestall any conclusions, until if and when we learn more. A rational person, as does any good scientist, accepts not knowing what happened rather than accept some implausibly easy fantasy as a substitute for knowing.

My ghost-encounter happened 30 years ago Mark, and I still am far happier not knowing what happened than to accept that I actually saw a ghost. By remaining in the dark with my eyes open, I leave open the possibility of one day seeing the real truth, even if that truth turns out to be that I simply had a momentary brain-fart.

 

 

How These Things Get Started

There are no end to the crazy stories that go around. My uncle was saved from a bear by Bigfoot and has the scars to prove it. This guy on TV was molested by aliens – his story was checked out by a team of scientists. My grandmother was kissed by her dead husband and she wouldn’t make that kind of thing up. The Virgin Mary appeared to a homeless guy in the Bronx who had no reason to lie. Forty-Seven cows mysteriously died in Iowa after a Haitian witch doctor got snubbed at a truck stop and cursed the town – couldn’t be coincidence. Everyone knows that old house is haunted by a woman who was murdered by her lover in the 40’s. That was the day my dead pet returned to save my life.

Given that there is absolutely no possibility that any of these stories are actually true, one has to wonder how they ever get started in the first place. We even have to wonder whether they might have some element of truth if only because there seems to be no conceivable way that such tales could ever get started if there wasn’t some truth to them.

But get started they do. While I cannot give you every particular origin story, I can relate to you one real example to illustrate how these things get started.

One summer during college I was rooming with my longtime buddy Steve. As I walked back to our place late one sweltering night in Wisconsin, I was feeling particularly bored and fanciful. The nighttime shadows helped work my imagination into a receptive frame of mind and when I walked past the window of a local craft shop I was struck by these hand-crafted dolls on display in the window. Now like many people I do admit to being generally spooked by dolls and as I looked at this one particularly creepy looking doll bathed in old-time street lamps, I got inspired to mischief.

I took off running (I had been a track and cross-country runner) but got myself plenty winded by the time I reached our building. I stumbled, intentionally falling and crashing up the stairway and pounded on our door with desperate urgency. Steve opened the door to the sight of me in very convincing panic-stricken terror. I rushed into the room and I made him drag my terrifying story from me. I told him that I had been walking past this store and noticed this doll and suddenly I felt an eerie presence, like some evil spirit, and without warning this doll leapt at the window and clawed at me. I panicked and ran all the way back to the room, the entire time feeling like some malevolent demon was chasing me.

Steve’s reaction was all I could have hoped for. Though frightened he valiantly insisted that we go back that very night to face this demon. I reluctantly agreed to show him where the store was but refused to get closer than the end of the block. I watched down the street as Steve heroically inched forward, craning his neck tentatively to glimpse this demon-doll. Suddenly he jerked, bolted, almost got hit by a passing car as he stumbled into the street, ran all the way back to and past me, shouting breathlessly “I saw it dude! It was the most hideous thing I’ve ever seen!!”

RamonaAudleyYup, in retrospect I should have owned up to my prank right then and there. But Steve was so pumped up I decided to tell him in the morning. By the next morning I had forgotten all about it, and anyway Steve had already left to go somewhere before I woke up. I was reminded of my folly when Steve returned and proudly related how he had gone to the craft shop, paranormal investigator like, to sleuth out the origins of this demon doll. The owner told him that by the greatest of coincidences, the doll-maker, a lady by the name of Ramona Audley (pictured right) happened to be paying a visit at that very same moment. Steve politely confronted Ramona and asked her whether she knew that she was crafting possessed dolls. Ramona apparently nearly went into a terrified state of shock and I was later to learn that the dolls were removed from the store window that very day (Ramona, I did you wrong and I’m so sorry).

It gets worse. When Steve told me what he had done I was mortified. That poor Ramona Audley! I never intended to frighten her or the shop owner! But how could I tell Steve the truth of my prank now that he had done this? I settled for hoping that this whole debacle would just blow over.

Needless to say it did not just blow over. It took on a life of its own like Godzilla emerging from the ocean to wrack havoc. For the next several decades, whenever Steve introduced me at any kind of gathering, he insisted that I tell the doll story. Of course I would refuse, feigning intentionally ambiguous reluctance. But Steve would invariably take over and tell the story on my behalf, prefacing it with a lengthy introduction about how he would never believe this story from anyone else in the entire world except from me. My credibility and sanity and integrity are (were) apparently just that irreproachable.

If you dear reader could have admitted to making up this story prior to this you are a better person than me.  And to make matters even worse, Steve is a naturally gregarious guy who became a minor celebrity with a sizable fan following. Who knows how many people he has told this story to who have in turn related it to many other people, who all swear that they were assured that this story came from an impeachable source. Every year that went by while I hoped that the story would be finally forgotten, every time I failed to disavow it, the myth became that much more indestructible.

My dolls truly had become demons. A few years ago I agreed to be interviewed for a video documentary about my friend Steve. To my horror and chagrin Steve had prompted the documentarian to ask me about the “Doll Story,” which he did, on camera. The story had finally advanced to a line I could not cross and I admitted to my prank on camera rather than perpetuate it any further.

Even after that public admission, I still live in perpetual dread of seeing this bogus story reenacted on the History or Science channel. Lots of people are probably more willing to believe that I lied about it not happening rather than believe that I simply made it up as a silly impulsive prank. After all, what kind of inconceivably horrible person would make up such a story? Umm, yes, that would be me.

And that, my friends, is how these things get started.

Dismissed with Prejudice

ElvisDo you have one of those wacky friends? The ones with a deep, sincere, heartfelt conviction that Elvis still lives. That he is actually in seclusion preparing for his epic comeback? Busy rehearsing for the ultimate Elvis concert that will transform the world?

Your friend undoubtedly has an articulate rebuttal for every possible reason you can throw at him for dismissing the possibility that Elvis might still be alive. His death was staged. The witnesses are all in on it. The corpse in Graceland is a DNA-identical clone of him. He is being kept young by a chemical concoction that the pharmaceutical industry has suppressed.

Your friend probably turns the tables on your skepticism quite easily. How can you be so arrogant to claim to know everything? Are you that close-minded? Surely you can’t prove and therefore can’t know for certain that he isn’t still alive. If you are as scientifically open-minded as you claim you must admit some possibility that he might still be alive. Surely you can admit that reasonable people can disagree on this unless you believe he is dead purely as a matter of faith. The only intellectually honest position on this question must be agnosticism.

Your friend points to several well-regarded scientists who admit that it is possible Elvis is alive. He recommends a plethora of scholarly books that debunk all those fallacious “scientific” arguments claiming that Elvis is dead.

Or perhaps your friend has a different but similarly wacky belief that he clings to and argues for with great passion.

All that was my way of setting the stage for the real point of this article – that I do not need to read any of those books purporting to prove that Elvis might be alive. Elvis is dead. Period. Any book that starts with the premise that he may still be alive is necessarily idiotic. There is no need for me to actually read them in order to legitimately dismiss them out of hand. Good scientists dismiss an infinite number of implausible claims all the time every day.

So there is no need for me to entertain arguments about how Elvis might still be alive. And there is no reason for me to read a book that starts with the premise that Elvis is alive or the Holocaust did not happen or the Moon landing was faked or alien overlords built the pyramids. I can dismiss them all out of hand without even reading the book jacket. The only reason to read them may be if your interest is studying delusional thinking or the infection of magical thinking amongst otherwise healthy individuals.

And I have read a great many of these books that purport to present a logical or scientific argument for at least allowing the possibility that god might exist. When I wrote my book Belief in Science and the Science of Belief (see here) I took the time to slog through a 4-foot stack of books that undoubtedly made Amazon the lucrative enterprise it is today. It was largely a waste of time and money on my part. Believers have had two millennia to come up with arguments so there are simply no new ones to be found.

As a concrete example, I bought several books on Neurotheology (see here). I did the world a service by throwing these out rather than reselling them. Written by Andrew B. Newberg and a host of his followers, these books typically spend 250 pages citing brain imaging and cognitive studies related to belief and god. Their real goal is to establish their science creds so that you will believe them when, in the last 50 pages, they leap to outlandish claims that go something like “since we have clearly evolved to believe in god, the only conclusion must be that god himself designed us to believe in him.”

The only conclusion is that this is an idiotic conclusion. But then again what can you hope to get from any author that starts from the silly premise that god exists and works backwards?

Religious books purporting to be scientifically legitimate examinations of the “evidence” for god pop up on Amazon every day like so many weeds. I can’t read them all but I can still dismiss them all out of hand. There simply is no god, can be no god, and therefore every book claiming to argue this point is necessarily as idiotic as books arguing that Elvis is alive and well and living in a secret wing of Graceland.

And thus, dear reader, we finally reach the heart of my dilemma: Do I read these silly books and respond to them or do I simply ignore them?

Ignoring them is not easy. If no one pushes back on them, they seem to win the argument. And there are so many of them saying the same silly things that many readers mistake quantity as an indication of quality. On the other hand, the time for engaging these silly debates is over. At this stage of the atheist movement, we must move past engaging in and thereby legitimizing these ridiculous debates. We should give no more consideration to religious ideas than we do to racist ideas or homophobic ideas or sexist ideas or the idea that Elvis is amongst us.

Still it’s hard to resist getting sucked in. Recently a new book appeared on Amazon called “Can Science Explain Religion” (see here) written by a priest who is also a Professor of Religion. It apparently “debunks” the very theory of the evolution of belief that I present in my own book. Do I buy this and read it so I can credibly criticize it and defend my position, and thereby risk encouraging this nonsense? Or is it best not to even respond and hope that the rest of the country follows my sensible example?

After struggling with this dilemma for many years, I have come to believe that refusing to engage is the best strategy moving forward. Engaging in further debate with them only feeds the beast. Like booing Donald Trump at a rally.

It’s not an easy course of action nor is it without risk or criticism. But in science, we must first ask whether our basic assumptions are valid before we enter into discussions of the resulting questions. We must not let ourselves get caught up in grand debates over how Santa manages to deliver all those presents in one night when the very premise of Santa is pure fantasy.

And that is how we should respond to these books and these arguments – by dismissing them out of hand and with great prejudice and by refusing to entertain dependent arguments arising out of purely implausible assumptions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Delusion Defense

In a previous article I made the case that all religious beliefs are delusions and should be called out as such (found here). I really do keep this view in perspective however and don’t actually feel particularly compelled to call out all my religious friends and associates as delusional at every opportunity. But I still maintain that it is absolutely necessary to do so without compunction when it comes to extremely delusional thinkers like Ken Ham (see here) who publically propagate a large number of very bizarre delusions.

Regardless of how accurate and justified it may be to characterize all religious beliefs as delusions, doing so is problematic simply because of the huge number of people who believe. If you call religious beliefs delusional, then all religious people are at least somewhat delusional. And that is most of us. And if believers are all delusional, that would produce profound ramifications in all manner of social and legal interactions.

In his book “Bad Faith” (found here), Paul Offit looks at the insane faith healing beliefs of Amish, Christian Scientists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses who feel compelled by their faith to commit murder through the withholding of medical care for their children and other loved ones. In a recent lecture I attended, Offit observed that our legal system essentially gives these families “one free murder” before the State is willing to characterize their beliefs as dangerous and harmful.

Sure they are clearly crazy. But non-religious people can be crazy too. Most normal religious beliefs are entirely reasonable.

Except it is not that simple.

In his book “Under the Banner of Heaven’ (found here), John Krakauer documents the insane history of Mormonism and the 40,000 Mormons who still believe much of it and practice polygamy. In particular, he documents the story of Ron and Dan Lafferty, Mormon brothers who felt compelled by their faith to commit multiple murders. The defense in that case argued for an insanity plea based largely upon the craziness of their religious beliefs.

Their defense argued that the delusional beliefs of the Lafferty brothers rose to the level of insanity and that their clients were therefore not fit to stand trial. However, psychiatrists for the State argued that their beliefs were essentially no different in any qualitative way from any other belief considered “normal.” (It could be argued that no person who believes in an afterlife truly understands the consequences of their actions.)

In his book “Thinking About the Insanity Defense” (found here), author Ellsworth Fersch lays out the fundamental problem in the Lafferty case:

“Their strategy was to show that he was sane through comparison with other individuals. First, they pointed out all the similarities between his fundamentalist religious beliefs and the religious beliefs of people with ordinary religious faiths. By doing so, they made his seemingly outlandish claims and ideas seem much more normal. For example, Dr. Gardner compared Ron Lafferty’s belief in reflector shields to belief in guardian angels. This strategy was effective because it forced anyone who was willing to consider whether he was insane to also consider the larger question of whether any religious person is insane.”

Belief ties sanity and delusion into an almost inescapable Gordian knot. To uphold an insanity defense would be to imply that all religious believers are similarly insane. That would never be acceptable. But to exempt religious beliefs would make it extremely difficult to ever characterize anyone as insane or make any value judgment about any belief. It would make it difficult to interfere with any dangerous behavior such as faith healing when it is claimed to be based upon a “deeply held belief.” That in fact serves the narrow self-interest of believers.

DelusionDefenseThese are extremely vexing conundrums even for psychologists.  They have been completely muddled over this all the way back to Freud who suggested that all religious beliefs are delusional and that religion is a mass-delusion. On the more diplomatic side of the argument is the definition established by the American Psychiatric Association (codified in DSM-IV) which says essentially that a belief is a delusion – well unless enough people believe it that is. Clearly if Freud is right, then that conclusion leads necessarily to widespread clinical, social, and legal ramifications. However, if the APA is correct, then sanity is completely contextual. What might be sane in one society or in one group or at one time in history may be completely delusional and result in institutionalization in another setting. Precisely how many believers must I recruit in order for my insane delusions to be considered sane and immunized from ridicule? The APA view creates significant social problems for all aspects of society.

In his paper “Faith or Delusion? At the Crossroads of Religion and Psychosis,” Joseph M. Pierre attempts to review the psychiatric literature in order to find a sensible middle ground. Pierre points out that:

“Neither Freud’s stance that all religious belief is delusional nor DSM-IV’s strategy of avoiding mention of religious thinking in discussions of psychosis is an acceptable way to resolve the ambiguity between normal religious belief and religious delusion.”

One might think this question should be resolvable by simply looking at other criteria to evaluate sanity, not merely the presence of religious beliefs. But Pierre goes on in his paper to review the body of psychiatric works that attempt to distinguish faith from delusion using a wide range of possible criteria. None of these attempts prove to be satisfactory. Since every belief is inherently not based on any objective facts, it is impossible to make qualitative distinctions between “normal” beliefs and “delusional” beliefs. Attempts to measure their impact by other indirect measures, such as excessive preoccupation, conviction, emotional valence, claims of universal validity, and level of contradiction all fail to provide a satisfactory distinction.

So the situation we are left with is that we are precluded from ever admitting that religious beliefs are delusional, even though the APA defines beliefs as delusions held by a sufficiently large number of people. Instead we are forced to make mostly arbitrary decisions about when to characterize a belief as a delusion. But I think I have a suggestion to help with this problem. It seems to me that much of this Gordian Knot is glued together by a presumption, a prejudice, and a conceit that says that sanity and insanity are exclusive binary conditions.

As I argue in my book (found here), we each have a myriad of ideas that could each be placed along a wide spectrum from sane to insane. If someone has a lot of delusional ideas a lot of the time, that person may cross the threshold of clinical insanity, but we all still do have some insane ideas some of the time.

If we would only stop applying to word delusional to people and instead start applying it with less reluctance to ideas, recognizing that we all have some delusional ideas some of the time, then I think we go a long way toward reaching the balance we need to respond to mass-delusional thinking in a more reasonable and consistent manner.

But I’m out of room for now. I’ll expand on this in a future article.

Ken Ham Crib Sheet

As a follow-up to yesterday’s blog questioning the sanity of Ken Ham (found here), I have compiled a list of the essential arguments put forth by Ken during his debate with Bill Nye. While it seems at first viewing that he commands a dizzying array of arguments, they are mostly rephrased or derivative versions of the same few silly assertions. Distilled below is pretty much the entire Creationist repertoire that he repeats over and over in different ways with great airs of authority. I added my own sometimes mostly snarky rebuttals. Feel free to use these when you feel compelled to respond quickly to friends or coworkers who repeat these delusional arguments.

ken-ham

Man is not the ultimate authority. God is.

Science agrees that man is not the ultimate authority. It simply acknowledges that verifiable and reproducible facts are.

Science has been hijacked by secularists.

Ballsy try, but it’s clearly the other way around, with creationists like Ken desperately trying to gain legitimacy by donning the mantle of science.

Some scientists are creationists.

Ken repeatedly attempts to argue by authority by trotting out testimonials from scientists who share his delusions. Yes a very few scientists are creationists – and some priests are child-molesters. What does that prove except that some priests can be immoral and some scientists can be crazy? By the way, I sincerely doubt that he would accept the literal belief of a few demented Hindi scientists as proof that the universe was created by Brahma.

Interpretations depend upon your presuppositions.

Absolutely, and the scientific method is the only method we have to prove or disprove those presuppositions. But science doesn’t start by proudly proclaiming its presupposition that the bible is the inerrant and irrefutable source of all truth.

The bible predicts things and we see them actually confirmed.

No surprise when you proclaim anything you choose in the bible to be “symbolic” and then take license to interpret those symbols however necessary to confirm your desired predictions. Nostradamus made many more correct predictions than the bible.

How could we have logic without god if we are just random?

This is a centuries-old argument that is unworthy of a first-year philosophy class. The cosmos is not random and logic has no need for god when it can depend upon physical laws and causality.

Observational science is legitimate but Historical science is not.

There is no such distinction except within Ken Ham’s addled brain. He simply fabricated this artificial distinction to dismiss any science he does not like. Science is science. But when you try to understand what qualifies as ‘Observational’ science and what qualifies as “Historical” science, you quickly see that the only criterion is whatever Ken Ham wants to believe. Anything he agrees with is by his definition the good “Observational” science. Anything he wants to deny is by his definition illegitimate “Historical” science.

You must understand that parts of the bible are Literal and other parts are Poetic.

Just as he dismisses any science he finds inconvenient as “Historical,” he conveniently dismisses anything in the bible he disagrees with as “Poetic” while anything he chooses to believe is “Literal.” It must be very convenient when you can define reality based on whatever you want to believe. But that is also the unmistakable hallmark of delusion and even insanity.

The evolutionary tree should really be organized into Kinds.

Another way Mr. Ham attempts to redefine reality to fit his insanity is in his concept of biological “Kinds.” This is a cornerstone fabrication by Mr. Ham. By imposing his completely artificial notion of “Kinds” of species as a starting point, he is then able to make ridiculous claims and suggest completely contrived flaws in evolutionary theory. By starting with his “Kinds” construct, he is then able to argue that Noah could reasonably have carried every “Kind” of animal in the Arc, that the species diversity we see today could have plausibly arisen out of his “Kinds,” and that there is no evidence of his “Kinds” evolving into another “Kind,” thus denying the evolution of species. This is of course all utter nonsense, but if he can get people to accept his premise of “Kinds” as a starting point, then he can get them to follow him down this rabbit hole into Alice in Wonderland-land. The Mad Hatter was quite inventive and clever.

You can’t know that what is true today was true in the past.

Only if you are delusional. We actually do know that the laws of chemistry and physics apply always and everywhere in our universe without exception.

You didn’t observe the past directly so you can’t know anything about it.

So then Ken can’t know anything about his family history by leafing through a photo album – he didn’t observe the events directly after all. The simple truth is that we can and do know a tremendous amount about the past. We can observe the past directly just by looking into space after all. Or we can simply study all the evidence just lying all around us like little fossilized photographs.

Dating methods don’t agree.

Technically true, but still an obvious lie. Any differences between various scientific dating methods are minuscule compared to their vast disagreement with biblical claim of 6,000 years.

Can you name one piece of technology that could only have been developed starting with a belief in molecules-to-man evolution?

This is a red-herring, an invalid diversionary question. But sure we’ll play this game. How about clones, genetically modified foods, transgenic plants and animals, hybrid species, designer bacteria, and an exploding number of patents for new life forms? The list goes on and on.

You can’t prove any instance of a new trait appearing that wasn’t already there.

If Ken merely did a simple Google search of popular articles, he might find “10 Astounding Cases of Modern Evolution” reported by Popular Science (found here). There are thousands of such examples including the sudden development of new survival traits amongst bedbugs here in New York City. But this is yet another red-herring since most changes are incredibly tiny and only accumulate into observable traits after exceedingly long periods of time.

I hope this summary helps you to recognize and respond to these laughably fallacious sorts of arguments that some Creationists put forth. Unfortunately, guys like Ken are practiced at making themselves appear to be scientifically literate and they do appear to cite a plethora of legitimate arguments raising doubt in the science of evolution, but in reality they offer only smoke floating on air.

From Belief to Delusion

When I wrote my 2008 book Belief in Science and the Science of Belief (here on Amazon), I intentionally treated belief as just, well – belief. I intentionally softened any characterizations that might seem excessively inflammatory and personal. But in this more intimate setting amongst friends like you, we can ask whether the word belief is far too weak and benign, even inaccurate, to describe many of the assertions of the Religious Right.

Remember the formal debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham on creationism? Ham challenged Nye to debate the topic and the notable exchange took place on February 4th, 2014. You can find the debate online if you missed it (here on YouTube). If you are old enough, you might know Bill Nye as the amiable “Science Guy” from his highly-regarded science show that ran from 1993 through 1998. Mr. Nye continues to be a passionate advocate and popularist of science.

Creation Museum

“Learning” at the Creation Museum

His opponent, Mr. Ham, was and is the President of the Answers in Genesis Ministry and is a tireless evangelist preaching young Earth creationism – mainly targeting kids. Mr. Ham is a key principal behind the Creation “Museum” (website) – a Biblical-themed amusement park that you may have glimpsed in the film Religulous by Bill Maher.

As I listened to the specious and frankly ludicrous arguments put forth with such conviction by Mr. Ham, I could not help but wonder whether belief is far too mealy-mouthed a word for what Ham and those like him suffer from. Is not delusion is a far more accurate word to describe his kind of thinking? And if so, is it really helpful to be so very reluctant to call it what it is?

Now, before the psychologists amongst you get all up in arms that I’m diagnosing my fellow human beings, let me assure you that I use the word delusional purely in a lay sense, not as any kind of clinical diagnosis. But just because the word has particular meaning in clinical settings, does not mean we are not allowed to use it in a more general sense. We don’t need a judge to certify certain criminal activity as criminal and we don’t need a priest to proclaim certain behaviors as evil. We are perfectly free to do so as well.

For a fair and impartial definition of delusion we can most conveniently start with Wikipedia (go to link), which defines it as follows:

“A delusion is a belief held with strong conviction despite superior evidence to the contrary. As a pathology, it is distinct from a belief based on false or incomplete information, confabulation, dogma, illusion, or other effects of perception.”

That definition establishes a very clear distinction between belief and delusion, one which is easily recognizable at least at the extremes. A belief is simply an unsupported conclusion based on insufficient or incorrect information. A delusion is a belief that persists regardless of any amount of evidence to the contrary.

In the case of Ken Ham, his creationist views go far beyond a mistaken belief based on false or incomplete information. He maintains his unalterable convictions despite incomparably superior evidence to the contrary. No doubt, he would argue that the evidence for evolution is not actually superior, but any delusional person would similarly deny all evidence contrary to their delusion. Any objectively rational person could not help but conclude that the evidence for evolution goes far beyond merely superior to overwhelming and that the convoluted arguments that Ham puts forth to deny this evidence are utterly irrational.

According to Wikipedia again, delusions are further subcategorized into four distinct groups. One of these, the “Bizarre Delusion,” is defined as follows:

“A delusion that is very strange and completely implausible; an example of a bizarre delusion would be that aliens have removed the reporting person’s brain.”

I contend that the thinking of Ken Ham and other evolution deniers should be fairly and accurately categorized as a Bizarre Delusion. Their creationist views are certainly “completely implausible” and it would be considered “very strange” if they were not so commonplace. It is important to recognize that they have studied this a lot, and do not simply hold a completely uninformed and clueless belief in creation like presumably say, Rick Perry. And they are evidently not just lying about their belief like at least some other Conservative politicians. They are truly delusional.

Words matter and they should be used accurately. In principle, if a more accurate word is available it should be used. It seems undeniable that Bizarre Delusion is a far more appropriate word than belief to describe the thinking of Ham and those who share his delusions. But words also have power, and we should avoid words that convey implications or elicit reactions we would like to avoid. So even if the bizarre thinking of Ham and others like him is in fact delusional by definition, what value is there in labeling it as such? Doesn’t that just necessarily alienate those you would like to bring around to a less delusional way of thinking?

Even considering those possible undesirable side-effects, the word belief is neither accurate nor helpful in describing these delusions. It is not merely polite and non-confrontational but it actively helps enable these delusions. It suggests that such delusional thinking is harmless and even reasonable and acceptable when sheltered under the protective umbrella of other more rational beliefs. But delusions are seldom harmless and never reasonable or acceptable. Calling this kind of delusional thinking “belief” gives it more legitimacy than it deserves. If we were to consistently refer to this kind of thinking as delusions rather than as beliefs, we would more accurately communicate the true nature and real-world implications of these tangibly harmful assertions.

Certainly using the word delusion instead of belief would elicit a much more visceral response by opponents and allies alike, but I for one would welcome that reaction. I say call a delusion a delusion and stand by the implicit assertion that such delusional thinking goes way beyond mere belief and that it is irrational, unacceptable, and harmful. Calling a delusion a delusion may be just the hit of reality that these deluded people need, or at least those influenced by them need, to honestly reconsider the soundness of their reasoning. At the very least, it may give some people, politicians in particular, some hesitation in associating themselves with these delusional ideas.

So the next time someone espouses delusionary thinking, consider calling it out (nicely) as delusion. Instead of responding with the customary “I respect your beliefs but I don’t share them,” you might say something more provocative like “sorry but I can’t give any credence to such delusions.” If the other party questions how you dare characterize their sincere, heartfelt belief as a delusion, you should be able to give them a very clear and compelling justification for your use of that word. Or just refer them to Wikipedia.

But do not overuse it. Although one could arguably call any belief in god delusional, to do so would only dilute its effectiveness. There is a wide grey spectrum between belief and delusion. Reserve the label of delusional to those like Ken Ham who are clearly at the delusional end of the spectrum.

Here is an extra credit homework question for you. If Ken Ham has clearly slipped from belief into delusion, how far has he slid down the slope from delusion to insanity?