Pirates, Herpes and Marriage -how evidence and experiments do or don’t work

Duck Quacks Don’t Echo is a brilliant TV show. It’s a light hearted affair hosted by comedian Lee Mack but manages to include highly informative educational content.  The idea of the show is that guests come along with their chosen “facts” that are then tested to see if they can be proven.Sometimes though I have a few quibbles with the experiments and what they actually prove. For example, in a recent episode, the stated fact was that pirates wore eye patches so that they could see better in the dark. When they went below deck they would swap the eye patch from left eye to right so they could quickly adjust to the darkness.

So, how would you prove this claim to be a fact?  Let me tell you what they did on the show. They got lots of different people to go from sunlight into a dark room and timed how long it took for them to walk through the dark room. Some used eye patches and swapped them over, some did not.  The result was conclusive, those with eye patches did far better. At the end of the experiment, the fact was declared proven.

Do you see the problem? They hadn’t proven the fact that pirates wore eye patches for this purpose. They had proven that eye patches helped you see in the dark. Now of course from that they could make reasonable inferences that this would be why pirates would use them but that is different to saying that you’ve proved the fact.  The producers of the show had made a category error. They had been doing tests to prove a scientific theory when in fact they were dealing with a historical claim.  Of course, it might be true that pirates had worn eye patches for this reason but it may be that they just thought it made them look scarier or a lot of them may have lost eyes. On the otherhand, the experiment could have failed and the fact might still have been true. The pirates might have been wrongly assuming the patches would help.   The evidence you would need for a historical event would include eye witness reports and/or archaeological evidence. So in this case, I’d expect there to be things like letters or written instructions between pirates or reports from people who had observed their practices.

I was reminded of this reading an article in the Metro “humans only invented marriage because we all had herpes.” Now, I’m sure that the original scientists would distance themselves from the way it’s been reported but do you notice the same mistake being made again. Someone does some modelling to see how a disease would behave under certain conditions and then a conclusion is reached that this explains the motives and decisions of people from the distant past.

The article explains that scientists had modelled how populations would breed and grow and how a disease like herpes would be transmitted through multiple sexual relationships. Monogamous relationships were shown to better protect against disease spread. At this point, you don’t really have a problem with the claim. In fact, the experiment seems to have just demonstrated what we already knew. This after all, is the basis for your average sex education lesson! But that’s old news, so the more sensational announcement that the experiment has explained why we have marriage is needed.

But this no more explains marriage than the habit of preachers using football illustrations explains the existence of football.   Imagine if I told you that most preacher use at least one sports illustration per week so from this we can see that a few hundred years back, people got together and said “sermons are boring, let’s invent a sport where 22 men kick a ball about so the vicar’s got something more interesting to talk about.”

Now, I think that in this case, the people promoting the experiment are starting with some pre-suppositions. They are presupposing that there is no creator God who has revealed his purposes to us. They are also running with the presupposition that we are subject to materialistic determinism that things like emotions, love, loyalty, faithfulness, goodness don’t really exist. So their model fits with their pre-suppositions and gives an explanation that they find credible. Fair enough but it’s not evidence for what did happen in the past!


5 thoughts on “Pirates, Herpes and Marriage -how evidence and experiments do or don’t work

  1. “The evidence you would need for a historical event would include eye witness reports and/or archaeological evidence. So in this case, I’d expect there to be things like letters or written instructions between pirates or reports from people who had observed their practices.”

    I would too. I would clarify this by saying that the letters and written instructions must be contemporary with the pirates existence and its best if some of these contemporary writers can be shown to be unsympathetic to the claims of believers. Letters of unknown provenance and age are not considered evidence. Eyewitness reports can always have problems as any modern expert in law will tell you. One also must have evidence that those who claim to be eyewitnesses are indeed that.

    You have a presupposition that there is a creator god and that god is yours *and* that it has revealed some purpose to you (these purposes not agreed upon even by Christians). What evidence do you have to support this claim? I have evidence,, not a presupposition, that the laws of physics work and can be shown to be responsible for the events in the universe, including the probable start, the Big Bang. The recent discovery of gravity waves is one more bit of evidence that the physics work. If you use a GPS, that uses the same laws of physics that show that the theories work, and that the creation stories told are nothing more than myths just like any other bronze/iron age culture.

    We also have evidence that emotions are based on chemistry. This does not devalue them, it is just a fact. Love, loyalty, faithfulness and goodness exist. You have created a strawman argument claiming that some people say that they don’t. They just don’t exist as magic or something from a “soul” something that again has no evidence for it.

    There is no evidence the claims of your religion of what happened in the past actually transpired. No archaeology, no eyewitnesses, and no letters or instructions that are contemporary with the essential events. We have some letters from Paul that make claims of what happened in the past, but he was basing his claims on stories of what had transpired before, stories not based on evidence.

    We do have evidence of what has happened in the past. The archaeology and contemporary authors recorded the Egyptian kingdoms going on as usual, wars, conquests, harvests, construction. No mention of any “exodus” or “Flood” (and Christians do not agree on what dates these things supposedly happened). Chinese archaeology and writers, Indian archaeology and writers, North American archaeology, etc don’t notice the supposed events of the bible. There is nothing to support the existence of a man/god that gathered thousands of men, plus women and children,twice outside of a Roman occupied city. There is no evidence of a massive earthquake, a sky darkening and the dead walking around in Jerusalem, on one day; no geological evidence, no archaeological evidence, no contemporary writers. Reality contradicts the claims of the bible.


  2. Hi again, thanks for your comments. There’s quite a big difference between the claim you appear to be making that there is no evidence and the more normal discussion that there is which acknowledges that evidence exists and has been presented but then as is normal with historical investigation lots of challenging, debating and evaluation the specific meaning and significance of each item of evidence.

    I personally would encourage a serious historical investigation of the claims about Jesus to start with NT Wright’s Christian origins series which looks at Jesus, The Resurrection and Paul. I don’t personally agree with all of Wright’s theological interpretation of Paul -but I do appreciate his careful research and academic engagement. Another interesting starting point for wider questions about the reliability and trustworthiness of the Bible would be Tyndale House Cambridge that facilitates a lot of research and discussion. A shorter read would probably be Craig Blomberg’s The Historical Reliability of the Gospels -or the older work by FF Bruce “The New Testament Documents are the reliable.”

    James Sire “Why should anyone believe anything at all?” and Tim Keller’s “The Reason for God” are also good starting points for why we should believe in and trust in God.


  3. Hello Dave,

    Not sure why you didn’t just reply to my comment so I could see your response.

    If there is “quite a big difference” in my claim that there is no evidence to support your claims, why not show what this difference is? You claim that there is somehow a “more normal discussion” that there is evidence. What is this evidence that supports your claims about your bible, Dave? What you have are claims, the stories of the bible, but nothing that supports that they happened. There is nothing that supports the stories of creation, the flood, the tower of Babel, the fabulous palaces and temples, the battles of hundreds of thousands, the complete destructions of groups of people, the events of JCs live and most certainly the events surrounding the cruxifiction. There’s no evidence and thus this is not contested. We certainly have claims that Chrisitans will produce evidence “real soon now”, but there’s not been one splinter from the supposed ark (either one), not one chariot wheel from the Red Sea or even in any part that the exodus supposedly crossed, not one latrine from the 600,000+ people wandering around for 4 decades, not one bit to show that God created the universe, and well, we do have piles of parts of the cross and all of the relics that the Catholic Church venerates, with no evidence at all that those things are actually what they are claimed.

    Now, compare this to evidence that exists and is contested: cave paintings (why, when and how), archaeological remains of cities and peoples (why civilizations fall and how e.g. Rome, Anasazi), battle reports (number of dead, reasons for victory). Each of these things are based on evidence. You want to claim that all opinions have equal weight and that is not the case.

    I ask you again, provide evidence for your claims. What shows that the Flood happened? When did it happen? What shows the exodus happened? What shows that the cruxifiction happened and the events claimed around the cruxifiction happened? You’ve consistently refused to provide evidence for your claims, and there is less and less reason to believe you have anything at all.

    Your very own doubts about Wright’s claims shows that there is no reason to believe his baseless claims; you agree when convenient. There is no careful research by Wright. He makes claims and has nothing to support them. He claims that some parts of the bible are to be literally accepted and then ignores others as convenient, just like you; with nothing to show why he approves of some parts and ignores others except his own presuppositions. For Wright, the words that JC supposedly uttered about the end times don’t “really” mean this, but that is just one interpretation among many, none supported by evidence. He is no more careful in his research or academically engage than the theists who say he’s wrong. For example, Wright says “Nobody in Jesus’s day would have claimed that the visions of Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Ezekiel had yet been fulfilled.” That is quite true. They also said that the messiah to come had certain aspects already in their holy book to be fulfilled and the character Jesus Christ did not fulfill them. That’s why there are still Jews. Wright ignores this which is rather silly since anyone can read the bible and see he wrong at best and lying by omission at worst.

    Wright also uses the same claim that many other apologists use:
    “The answer must hinge upon the resurrection. If nothing happened to the body of Jesus, I cannot see why any of his implicit or explicit claims should be regarded as true. What is more, I cannot as a historian see why anyone would have continued to belong to his movement and regard him as its messiah. There were several other messianic or quasi-messianic movements within a hundred years on either side of Jesus. Routinely, they ended with the leader being killed by the authorities or by a rival group. If your messiah is killed, naturally you conclude that he was not the messiah. Some of those movements continued to exist; where they did, they took a new leader from the same family. (Note, however, that nobody ever said James, the brother of Jesus, was the messiah.) Such groups did not suffer from that blessed twentieth-century disease of cognitive dissonance. In particular, they did not go around saying that their messiah had been raised from the dead. I agree with Paula Fredriksen: the early Christians really did believe that Jesus had been raised bodily from the dead.10 What is more, I cannot make sense of the whole picture, historically or theologically, unless I say that they were right.” Nothing much different than Paul’s claim that if the resurrection is nonsense, then the religion is pointless.

    Wright tries to claim that since he has personal incredulity, and that he claims to be a historian, then whatever he disbelieves must be correct. As usual, reality shows the claim to be wrong. People constantly continue to believe in things that have no evidence to support them. By Wrights’s claim, since Mulsims believe in Mohammed, then the magic flight to Jerusalem must have happened because why would they keep believing in the religion if it didn’t? Every religion that you don’t believe in is evidence of this
    Wright seems to forget that the Jesus “movement” did have new leaders, and those leaders claimed to be directly approved by Jesus/God e.g. Paul (though there is the problem that Paul disagrees with Jesus more than a few time). No family needed. He has no evidence that there was no cognitive dissonance, just one more baseless claim. People really believed that aliens were going to come for them, to the point they died. Does that mean that aliens were really coming for them? And wow, that last bit is curious, that Wright says that he can’t makes sense of anything unless he already believes that the claims are right; exactly what a historian wouldn’t say.

    I’ve already done a serious historical investigation of the claims about Jesus. I’ve read pro and con claims about them. I’ve read Wright, Craig, etc. I’ve read Carrier and Ehrman, etc. There is no historical reliability of the gospels; the gospels are not even reliable in comparison to each other. Wright tries an appeal to emotion whilst inventing his weeping JC, when that’s just invention, it doesn’t even follow his bible. Here’s another think that Wright claims “If your messiah is killed, naturally you conclude that he was not the messiah. Some of those movements continued to exist; where they did, they took a new leader from the same family.” Perhaps if the messiah said he wasn’t going to die, this would hold, but when your supposed messiah sets up the final act that he *must* die, then there is no problem at all; death is completely expected and indeed anticipated. We also have Paul claiming to be the spiritual descendent of JC.

    Wright’s claims are like WLC who needs a tomb to exist for his nonsense to work. Problem is, there isn’t even a tomb that Christians can agree on. Christians lost the most important location of their religion. How does that work, JB?

    The new testament is not reliable as a historical document. The required events have nothing to support that they happened. No wisemen, no birth by a virgin, no star, no agreement when JC got the holy spirit, no massacre of the innocents, no ridiculous census, no journey to Egypt, no gatherings of legions of men outside of a roman occupied city, no massive earthquake, no darkening of the sky, no walking dead hanging out in Jerusalem. No record of the supposed so many acts that JC did after he was dead that they would not fit in the books of the world. You’d think someone would have noticed those. The NT does mention some real people and places. So does the latest issue of Spider-man and the myths of the Greeks and Romans. I know you won’t answer this, but I’ll ask: are they as true as your bible?

    You mention these books. Tell me what is the best argument you thinkn they have that the bible is an accurate recording of history.

    It doesn’t surprise me that you have scuttled back to the lovely solcipcism that Christians find them selves cornered in. Why should anyone believe in anything at all? Evidence, dear, evidence. You do that every day. Sire is quite a charlatan. I’ve seen where he asks “What is prime reality?” as what our worldview is based on. Where is the evidence that his god is the only god and is the “prime reality”? He, like you, has no evidence that his claims are true. He also asks this “Why is it possible to know anything at all?” and tries to make up that it is because “God”. No evidence, just one more circular argument. At the end, all he has is that he wants to pretend his opinions are true, and that everyone else’s are false, no evidence needed.
    Keller’s “Reason for God” is quite like the claims of a fellow that occasionally posts on my blog who needs this god to exist because he wants to pretend that good and evil are objective, but can’t actually show this to be the case. He must presuppose God’s existence for his personal belief to make sense. He also makes the idiotic claim that doubt is “really” a “leap of faith”, a common attempt for a Christian to try to claim that everyone is like them, so they can get their sop of external validation they so desperately need. He continues with claiming that we can’t question this god because maybe, just maybe, there is a good reason to murder billions as painfully as possible. Nope, sorry, if I’m all powerful, not just a poseur, by definition there is no good reason to need harm. He also makes the always awful argument that suffering is “good” for people. I wonder, it is “good” for children to starve to death? Is it good to be burnt to death? Keller, like most Christians, doesn’t actually think about what his claims lead to. He just wants the happy fluff to make people feel good. He also is sure that anyone who doesn’t agree with him isn’t a TrueChristian, but of course, every Christian claims he’s a TrueChristian and can’t show that he’s different than the next. He is quite fascinated with C.S. Lewis, using his ideas quite a bit. One bit that shows he and Lewis are a bit thoughtless is if people send themselves to heaven or hell, why’s the point of JC?

    Keller also seems to need to make false claims. He quotes Dr. Hawking as saying this “Almost everyone now believes that the universe, and time itself, had a beginning at the Big Bang”. To try to make believe that Hawking support him. This is called quotemining, when a dishonest person, very often Christians, don’t include the whole passage that disproves what they have tried to lie about. This is what the whole passage says: “Almost everyone now believes that the universe, and time itself, had a beginning at the Big Bang. It is perhaps ironic that, having changed my mind, I am now trying to convince other physicists that there was in fact no singularity at the beginning of the universe – as we shall see later, it can disappear once quantum effects are taken into account. (“A Brief History of Time,” p. 50) Why does Keller feel the need to lie?

    Of course, Keller ends up where my commenter ends: God must exist for morality to exist and how dare atheists have good lives without God! The problem there is that Christians do not agree on what morality this god supports and cannot show he supports one more than others. IS it the morality of the OT? Is it of the NT? OR is what has been invented by Christians in the thousands of years since it was invented? Since you cannot show this god exists, or what it wants, there is no reason to believe or trust in your version of your god or the gods of others. If there is no presupposition made that a god must exist, there is none needed.


  4. Thanks for your comments. No, I don’t need to agree with everything each of those authors says for me to suggest that what they say might be helpful for readers here as starting points for in depth discussion of the evidence presented – they are humans and will be fallible, just as I am.

    By the way, it might be helpful to explain a little bit again about my own focus here. This website wasn’t set up for debate but for training and teaching purposes. There are blogs set up where people specifically focus on debate and argument and there are people who put a lot of time into continuing quite long debates sometimes over 100 comments pinging backwards and forwards.

    You’ll appreciate that I make conscious decisions about where to focus my time and energy and one of those decisions from the outset was that this wouldn’t be a site where I spent a lot of time in “comment argument.” So what I try to do is acknowledge comments, give a brief response and take on board feedback when producing further articles. I also try and recommend wider reading.

    I note that you say you’ve read and engaged with those authors I suggested on this occasion. I think other readers will be able to read them for themselves and conclude whether or not your reviews are fair.

    There’ll also be opportunity to read further articles here on atheism and later on creation, then some stuff focused on Jesus to see how I handle those sorts of questions. My approach won’t be everyone’s cup of tea and won’t persuade everyone but I can talk through why I believe in God and am convinced by the Gospel then people can make their own decisions. As I mentioned, before, if your finding this site and desire to engage comes because you have genuine questions about what I believe and why and you want to discuss further then I’m happy for you to email me with all your objections and challenges and I’d be happy to respond as fully as I’m able.

    P.s was a little bit confused you the Keller – Hawking ref so just been and double checked. The quote in Keller is not from A Brief History of Time but from Robert Penrose and Stephen Hawking The Nature of Time and Space, 1996. The quote from the cited book doesn’t continue as you have it. Two possibilities here 1. Either Hawking started a different sentence elsewhere with the same starting get phrase or 2. two statements by Hawking have been edited together. Either way, Keller isn’t as far as I can see misusing the original Hawking quote. Hope that helps clarify a misunderstanding


  5. Also – I may try if I get time to put something together specifically on why I think the gospels and Paul are credible witnesses with a particular focus with a particular focus on Luke’s Gospel (where I have a particular interest) and 1 Corinthians which we are looking at in our Sunday morning meetings


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