What we're about

"The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall." —Thomas Paine (1737-1809) American revolutionary, pamphleteer, and atheist, "The Age of Reason"

Had enough of astrologers, psychics, homeopaths, and spirit channelers? Yearning to talk with someone rational for awhile? Meet up with other local skeptics for some refreshing and sane conversation.

If you've got some kind of event or opportunity that's commensurate with what we're about (as described below), we'd love to hear about it and publicize it to our 1000+ members. E-mail your idea to RichardSRussell@tds.net and we'll either schedule it or explain why not.

What is a skeptic, anyway? It's someone who lives by the Missouri state motto: "Show me!". Does some claim seem too good (or amazing) to be true? Well, that's because it's probably not. Having an open mind isn't the same as having holes in your head.

OTOH, doubting everything makes you a cynic, and suspecting everybody makes you a conspiracy theorist. Skeptics who ARE shown something are willing to accept it. A couple of cases in point:

(1) Even little kids notice that the east coast of South America and the west coast of Africa look like jigsaw-puzzle pieces that should fit together. DID they, at one time? In the early 20th Century, skeptics scoffed at the idea. "Just coincidence", they said. And rightly so. There was no known mechanism for how anything that big could be moved. Then Alfred Wegener showed evidence that continental drift had definitely happened, and later Arthur Holmes explained how plate tectonics was the mechanism behind it. With those in hand, skeptics were convinced.

(2) For most of human existence, people believed the Earth was only a few tens of thousands of years old. Skeptics concurred. If the Sun were made of wood or coal or petroleum, it couldn't possibly keep burning for much longer than that. But there was all this other geological evidence that indicated the planet was millions, if not billions of years old. What to believe? Skeptics openly admitted they didn't have the answers. But as soon as we discovered the amazing amounts of energy that could be produced by nuclear fusion, the source of the Sun's longevity was revealed, and skeptics settled in on the proper scientific answer.

We skeptics take our cues from people like the Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman, who pointed out: "I have argued flying saucers with lots of people. I was interested in this: they keep arguing that it is possible. And that's true. It IS possible. They do not appreciate that the problem is not to demonstrate whether it's possible or not, but whether it's going on or not."

In other words, "show me".

Upcoming events (4+)

Book Club - Ed Yong - I Contain Multitudes

Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co. - Hilldale

For our second book, we will read Ed Yong's famous work, I contain multitudes. For several generations, humanity was ignorant of such things as microbes, the causes of diseases, genetics and evolution etc. This book covers such groundbreaking ideas as how intimately intertwined our very lives are with the microbiome inside each of us, how organisms obtain and shed genes through processes such as horizontal gene transfer etc.

Book on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01824YMCM/
Print length - around 360 pages

Once again, I've just picked a date and location, but if you have suggestions, please feel free to let meknow.

Decline of Religion in America

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Is religion fading in America? Is opposition (or simple indifference) to religion on the rise? Has the COVID pandemic done anything to affect the situation?

These are simply placeholder questions. As we get closer to the session date, guest presenter Robert Godfrey gets to chime in.

This will be a virtual meeting conducted via Zoom. A link will be sent out at noon on the day of the event to people who’ve RSVPed.

The End

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Normally January is a time to celebrate new beginnings, not endings, let alone THE End (of everything). Not that anybody would be celebrating it in any event (assuming there is an “anybody”), but as rationalists we should be willing to look the possibility dead in the eye.

Consider the graphic above. It shows that, for most of the nasty diseases in human history, the ones that were almost certain to kill you were hard to catch, and the ones you were almost certain to catch hardly ever killed you. But suppose (as many alarmed epidemiologists were doing during the COVID pandemic) we had the worst of both worlds, with evolution producing the ideal viral predator — something like pneumonic plague, easily transmitted via sneezing, fast-acting, and almost invariably lethal. What would that mean for humanity?

Well, something akin to that has happened before in human history, according to anthropologists, who refer to it as the “genetic bottleneck”. The Toba supervolcano, which erupted around 75,000 BCE, enshrouded the planet with dust for most of a decade, killing off plant life all over the world, starving many species into extinction, whittling our forebear Homo sapiens down to maybe 3,000 to 10,000 individuals, and probably hastening the extinction of the Neanderthals.

Of course, that was a pre-technological milieu, and the starting population was nowhere near the 7 billion humans we have today (AKA “way too many”). With language, modern medicine, and technology at our disposal, modern humanity is presumably better able to deal with such catastrophes. But certainly not with complete success, as over 6 million worldwide casualties from COVID-19 will attest.

What if a real super-duper-COVID came along? What if, instead of killing off 1% of the planet’s people, it took out 99%? What would life be like for the survivors? In particular, would the Hand of God be seen in all this? And, if so, as the deplorable cause or the only thing that kept the survivors alive?

Needless to say, such post-apocalyptic imaginings have long been a staple of science fiction. If you’d like to prep for our discussion of The End, recommended readings (all classics of the genre) are:
• “Nightfall”, by Isaac Asimov (1941)
Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart (1949)
A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller Jr. (1959)
• “The Last Flight of Doctor Ain”, by James Tiptree Jr. (1969)

This will be a virtual meeting conducted via Zoom. A link will be sent out at noon on the day of the event to people who’ve RSVPed.

How Would We Know?

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Are we living in a computer simulation like The Matrix? How would we know?

Why is there something rather than nothing? How would we know?

Was the entire world created 5 minutes ago, including each of us with all our memories intact? How would we know?

In Edwin Abbott’s Flatland, 2-dimensional beings living on a flat surface understand length and width but have no concept of height. Are we 3-dimensional beings oblivious to a 4th spatial dimension? How would we know?

Did a supreme intelligence create the Universe 13.77 billion years ago, give it a little shove to get it started, then walk away to let it wind down on its own? HWWK?

What if, every time somebody made a decision, the universe split into two separate timelines, identical but for the decision going one way on one timeline and the other way in the other one? HWWK?

Gravitational measurements indicate that the Universe is about 5% what we think of as normal matter and energy, 30% dark matter, and 65% dark energy. Are we physically occupying the same space with dark-matter people, passing effortlessly thru them without noticing, because their equivalent of protons, electrons, and neutrons have no way of interacting electromagnetically with ours? HWWK?

Notice that these questions are qualitatively different from ones like “What was family life like for our ancestors 200,000 years ago?” (past), “Is my perception of red the same as yours?” (present), or “Will I ever be able to self-levitate?” (future). Those are cases where we can at least imagine a line of inquiry, such as the one about “Is there a Contra-Earth in our exact same orbit, only on the far side of the Sun, where we can never see it?”. The answer to that was “Let’s invent space flight and go look.” (We did, and there isn’t.)

But for all those “HWWK?” questions, we wouldn’t even have a clue where to start looking. This drives some people nuts.

Face it: We human beings are natural prey animals. No fangs. No claws. No armor. No fur. No poison. Crappy camouflage. Slow runners. Poor swimmers. Can’t fly. And, to top it all off, soppily devoted to our offspring, who remain helpless and useless for years after birth. (Contrast that with colts or fawns struggling to their feet within minutes of being born.)

Our only evolutionary advantage is our big honkin’ brains, which let us understand how the world around us works — and gives us language to share that knowledge with our fellow humans — so we can survive, thrive, and reproduce.

But the pathological consequence of this is that some humans just can’t stand uncertainty. They have an itch that must be scratched. They need to know! They must have The Answer!

This is how religion was invented. “What causes the lightning? I’m afraid.” “There, there, Zeus is just angry at Hera again. It’ll go away.” Just because this was complete, utter, totally made-up bullshit didn’t matter, since it had been delivered in tones of calm assurance. The itch had been scratched. That person knew, and thus was to be trusted and believed.

What religions of the future will be born out of people claiming to know the answers to all the unanswerable questions listed above? How would we know?

This will be a virtual meeting conducted via Zoom. A link will be sent out at noon on the day of the event to people who’ve RSVPed.

Past events (591)

O Come Let Us Adore Him

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