On Deepities

I love language. I also love, to borrow from Lois Lowry’s The Giver, precision of language. I have no issue with big words or even long sentences, but I do have a problem when people use big words and long sentences as a means to confound, and inexplicably impress, their target audiences.

Skeptics like Daniel Dennett and Peter Boghossian have charitably called these phrases, “deepities.” Others might just call them bullshit, but for this post we’ll stick with Dennett’s original word, “deepity!”

A deepity is a string of meaningless, often high-sounding words that have no precise meaning whatsoever, but boy do they sound impressive!

There are certain domains of human pursuit where deepities are offered as explanations all the time. Religion and to a lesser extent, philosophy are two such domains. Deepak Chopra is legendary for his ability to weave mysticism and physics terms in to rambling, incoherent nonsense that his fans absolutely eat up!

Below is the tweet Deepak currently has pinned to his twitter feed:

What the heck does that even mean? Consciousness is the constant of all constants? I can almost guarantee that if you asked Deepak to provide operational definitions for his idea of “consciousness” and his idea of “constants,” you would be drawn in to a thirty-minute lecture on quantum consciousness and quasi-God enlightenment paradigms, the conclusion of which would leave you wanting either a cheeseburger or a lobotomy.

Deepities are not limited to the professionals either. Here’s a twitter exchange I had just yesterday. You’ll notice that I use the Socratic method. It’s a very effective technique to cut through deepities.

The C.S. Lewis quote wasn’t a deepity insomuch as it was a claim to knowledge that has no evidence. So I simply responded with a question that targeted the more general question around, “why should we believe him,” rather than target the claim about God and Satan itself.

The deepity came in the answer I received:

“Lewis expressed truths of Scripture uniquely. It’s true.”

Never mind the discussion about what exactly does Pressing On Ed mean by a “truth of Scripture,” and why he thinks it’s a good thing to have to be unique about making sense of something that’s allegedly true? In other words, for something allegedly so important, shouldn’t we all be able to conclude whether or not it’s true without needing a unique translation of English in to English?

But rather than go down that road, I was more curious about how one determines a “truth of Scripture.”

“Personal faith & study by comparing what the Bible says about truth w/ what really happens.”

The next answer I received was a bit more straightforward. We were cutting through the deepities. There were still some nonsensical phrases like “personal faith,” but it sounded like we might be getting somewhere with a testable claim!  Comparing something that the Bible says is true, with what actually occurs in reality, sounds like something we can actually do!

Alas, my request for Pressing On Ed to provide an example of this test has gone unanswered. Maybe he is researching and will get back to me.

Until then, be on guard for deepities and happy critical thinking!

Will the Correct Bible Translation Please Stand Up?

If you’ve read my piece “It’s Good to Get Gobsmacked” either on my blog or on the Street Epistemology blog, or if you’ve listened to the corresponding recording of that piece on the SE Podcast, then you already know that I grew up going to a Southern Baptist church.

While I do not ever recall it being explicitly stated at church, and while my memories are admittedly quite distant as the years have rolled past, I’m quite sure it was implied that the King James Version (KJV) was the expected translation of the Bible that we were to use during our services and our Bible studies.

For many years my assumption was that there was no better translation.

With all of the “thees and thous and shalts and shalt nots,” the KJV was the first mass-produced English translation of the Bible. And being first has some serious sticking power! Not to mention that 16th century English just sounds more exotic. As if that somehow makes the words more believable. It’s sort of like how Hollywood has almost every character of antiquity – Greek, Roman, Middle Eastern, etc. – speak English with a British accent. It makes no sense, but it somehow is more believable than an ancient character speaking English with an American accent.

But does being first, or does being the most widespread, mean it’s the most correct?

In this case, not even close.

According to most Biblical scholars (the academic experts who spend their lives reading and studying Latin and Greek languages, Greco-Roman history, etc., and who build evidence-based cases for this sort of thing) the King James translation of the New Testament is based on the Textus Receptus.  The Textus Receptus is nearly universally accepted by those same scholars as a fairly poor and unreliable translation built on Erasmus’ cobbled together 12th century manuscripts.

Even shortly after Erasmus published his translation, other more “reliable” Greek translations began to trickle out. Whether it was Erasmus or someone else, the bottom line is all translations are based on copies of copies of copies of the original manuscripts. And there are no original manuscripts. None. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

Because there are no original manuscripts of any of the New Testament writings, and because these thousands upon thousands of copies of manuscripts were scattered across what was the former Roman Empire, and because none of these copies of copies agree precisely with each other in terms of content, and because these copies of copies were written by many different people over the course of centuries, and because the KJV was published before the academic field of “Textual Criticism” had ever been dreamed up, I always find it peculiar when people suggest the KJV translation is somehow the “best.”

If we are defining “best” as the translation most likely to be closest to what the original authors wrote, then most scholars agree the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (NRSV), first published in 1989, the best. Yet people still say things like:

In summary, in 1516 Erasmus completed a rushed Greek translation based on a dozen or so copies of the New Testament that he was able to get his hands on in Europe. William Tyndale translated that copy in to “modern” English in 1526 (an act for which he was charged with heresy and executed), and the King James Version while also “translated” from the Greek, relied heavily on Tyndale’s translation. Alas, the KJV stuck and to this day, despite hundreds if not thousands of additional textual discoveries since the KJV and despite an entire academic discipline devoted to understanding how the Bible came to be the Bible, people still believe the KJV is somehow the best.

Thou shalt think critically about such things!

Happy critical thinking!

Cool facts for Ark Encounter visitors: How old things actually are

Noah's Ark
Noah’s Ark Cartoon

In the spirit of Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter, the white elephant project celebrating scientific illiteracy that opened in Kentucky, it might be useful to have at the ready some fact-based talking points should you find yourself in a conversation with a Young Earth Creationist.

Here are the various ages of 38 things that I think are pretty darn awesome. Estimates here are of course based on the latest science, so being based on good science they are subject to adjustment with better evidence. Of course the astute reader will notice that 36 of these are actually older than 6000 years, but last two are so cool I included them in the count. Enjoy!

  1. Age of the Universe: 13.77 Billion Years
  2. Age of the Milky Way: 13.6 Billion Years
  3. Age of the Sun: 4.57 Billion Years
  4. Age of Earth: 4.54 Billion Years
  5. RNA on Earth: 4 Billion Years
  6. Prokaryotes on Earth: 3.8 Billion Years
  7. Photosynthesis on Earth: 2.8 Billion Years
  8. Eukaryotes on Earth: 2.1 Billion Years
  9. Sexual Reproduction on Earth: 1.2 Billion Years
  10. Multicellular life on Earth: 1.5 Billion Years
  11. Cambrian explosion on Earth: 570-530 Million Years
  12. Arthropods on Earth: 570 Million Years
  13. First animal footprints on land: 530 Million Years
  14. Plants move on to land: 434 Million Years
  15. Meet Tiktaalik roseae, the transitional fossil fish with a neck: 375 Million Years
  16. Dinosaurs and mammals on the scene: 225 Million Years
  17. Tyrannosaurus Rex roars: 68 Million Years
  18. Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event (bye bye Dinosaurs, make room for more mammals): 65.5 Million Years
  19. Earliest primate ancestor: 55 Million Years
  20. New World monkeys (long tails) and Catarrhini: 30 Million Years
  21. Catarrhini splits in to Old World monkeys and apes (Hominoidae): 25 Million Years
  22. Proconsul, one of the earliest monkey to ape transitional fossils: 21 Million Years
  23. Hominoidae splits in to Great Apes and Lesser Apes: 15 Million Years
  24. Speciation within Great Apes launches lines toward gorillas (10 Million Years), and our common ancestor with chimpanzees (7 Million Years)
  25. Strong evidence for bipedalism in Australopithecus afarensis (3.7 Million Years)
  26. First stone tools (2.6 Million Years)
  27. Homo habilis, the earliest of our ancestors to show a significant increase in brain size and also the first to be found associated with stone tools
  28. Homo erectus (aka Homo ergaster) (1.8 Million Years)
  29. Homo ergaster controls fire (1.5 Million Years)
  30. Homo heidelbergensis leaves footprints in Italy  (385 Thousand Years)
  31. Homo sapiens (200 Thousand Years)
  32. Homo sapiens leave Africa (100 Thousand Years)
  33. Homo sapiens arrive in Australia (50 Thousand Years)
  34. Neanderthal extinct (40 Thousand Years)
  35. Homo sapiens become last man standing (12 Thousand Years)
  36. Agricultural society develops (10 Thousand Years)
  37. The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest story ever written by humans, is jotted down in Mesopotamia (4,150 Years)
  38. The age of the universe is estimated by Homo sapiens using the WMAP satellite (6 Years)

Please leave a comment below or contact me via Twitter or Facebook if you see any mistakes or updates that need to be made. Also let me know if there are some really cool events that I may have missed that you think deserve to be on the timeline.

Featured image via AllPosters.com

Fun “feedback” on my pro science letter

I wrote a letter to the editor a week or so ago extolling a science initiative between a high school and an elementary school whereby the high school science students were helping the elementary school students learn the scientific method.

Yes, I did take an unapologetic swipe at scientific illiteracy. Yes, I did take a thinly veiled swipe at climate change deniers, creationists, and anti-vaxxers and from that otherwise fairly innocuous letter, a reader responded with the following:

Science should be rooted in the Bible

RE: 5/29 MDJ article “Children excited about science is wonderful” lists climate change/ evolution by natural selection as science ….

Darwin’s “theory” is still taught as fact in our institutions but Divine Creation is outlawed because as Dr. Richard Lewontin wrote “it would allow ‘the Divine foot in the door.’” It is better to not just let the “Divine Foot” but the “whole nine yard” Supernal Creator in now and find the truth rather than wait like Darwin did until it is too late.

The writer stated, “what so many adults seem to have missed along the way” as C. S. Lewis wrote, “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth thrown in; aim at earth and you get neither.” So-called “science” not based on a Biblical foundation is not science, but is like Darwin’s unfounded exuberance.

I think it’s interesting that the letter writer above seems to question climate science and biology, but skipped immunizations, as if germ theory might be the only one that counts as “real” science.  Irrespective, that someone is willing to take the time to advertise to an entire community, their scientific illiteracy at this level, then we clearly still have some work to do.