Monday, July 21, 2014

Nury Vittachi Makes Claims he Doesn't Support

Scince 2.0 has posted an essay by Nury Vittachi entitled "Scientists discover that atheists might not exist, and that’s not a joke." It's a bold claim to say the least and worth examining.The essay starts off with the statement:

Metaphysical thought processes are more deeply wired than hitherto suspected

That's not much of a claim. Saying any aspect of human psychology is more complicated than we previously thought is about as obvious as saying that quantum physics is more complicated than we previously thought.
WHILE MILITANT ATHEISTS like Richard Dawkins may be convinced God doesn’t exist, God, if he is around, may be amused to find that atheists might not exist.

Cognitive scientists are becoming increasingly aware that a metaphysical outlook may be so deeply ingrained in human thought processes that it cannot be expunged.

Now that we have a clear idea of the essay's thesis, Vittachi goes on to spend a few more paragraphs, which I won't quote here, restating it. He quotes Graham Lawton and Pascal Boyer in an apparent effort to suggest they agree with his basic premise. A reference is made to "studies" showing a cognitive bias in favor of religious thinking, but the studies are not mentioned by name, no citation is given. A new claim is made, but not supported, when he writes:
Scientists have discovered that “invisible friends” are not something reserved for children. We all have them, and encounter them often in the form of interior monologues. As we experience events, we mentally tell a non-present listener about it.

Again, no evidence is offered to support the claims. "Boyer of Washington University, himself an atheist" is quoted to support the assertion, but so far the essay has consisted of nothing but bald assertions commingled with appeals to authority. Eventually however Vittachi lets slip a reference to something we can check:

These findings may go a long way to explaining a series of puzzles in recent social science studies. In the United States, 38% of people who identified themselves as atheist or agnostic went on to claim to believe in a God or a Higher Power (Pew Forum, “Religion and the Unaffiliated”, 2012).
Taken at face value, this seems to counter Vittachi's claim. According to the quoted statistic, 62% of people who identified as atheist or agnostic do NOT believe in a higher power. The very USE of the statistic is suspect, as it lumps atheists and agnostics into the same group. Given the difference between the two, it's only reasonable to assume that a selection of agnostics will hold out hope for a deity. The dividing line between atheists, agnostics and deists can be a fuzzy one. Vittachi is using variation within the population to declare that a segment of the population does not exist. This is despite the fact that 62% of the people mentioned in the statistic meet the very criteria for the group Vittachi is arguing does not exist. Vittachi might as well be arguing that heterosexuals do not exist because he can find examples of homosexuals and bisexuals.

Vittachi's quoted statistic seems to come from the "Religious, Spiritual or Neither?" section of Religion and the Unaffiliated. the actual survey results includes 7% of people who identified as "Atheist/ Agnostic" as being "religious." While this reduces the 62% above to 57%, it still means over half of the people who identified as atheist or agnostic meet a criteria that Vittachi appears to be arguing does not exist.

The next line is even more absurd:
While the UK is often defined as an irreligious place, a recent survey by Theos, a think tank, found that very few people—only 13 per cent of adults—agreed with the statement “humans are purely material beings with no spiritual element”. For the vast majority of us, unseen realities are very present.
That's right folks, Nury Vittachi appears to be making the claim that being a minority means you don't exist. He also fails to provide a citation for the claim.

When researchers asked people whether they had taken part in esoteric spiritual practices such as having a Reiki session or having their aura read, the results were almost identical (between 38 and 40%) for people who defined themselves as religious, non-religious or atheist.
It's important to point out that pseudosciences like auroa reading and Reiki are called pseudoscience because there are word soup explanations for them that can trick a person into thinking there's a scientific basis for them. Babbling about Reiki being proof someone isn't really an atheist is a bit like calming that nobody who likes the color purple can really be an atheist, because of all the Biblical references to royal purple.

What follows are a few paragraphs of rhetorical wanking, more assertions and claims made without any evidence. For an essay that claims scientists may have proven atheists don't exist, it's shockingly sparse on references to the studies that one presumes support the thesis.  The closest the essay gets to a citation is a vague and mangled third hand reference to Einstein followed by the claim that Darwin found one atheist too "aggressive" and that he supposedly wanted his children to attend church services.

The rest of the essay meanders on and peters out in much the same way. A few half-hearted philosophical claims are made with a few vague quotes, but no real SCIENCE is offered.

The essay title implies there's some research, some evidence to demonstrate atheists don't really exist. The actual essay demonstrates that Nury Vittachi spews rhetorical BS about as well as a first year philosophy student while engaging in what may be the laziest and most inept demonstration of quote mining since Kent Hovind's dissertation.

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