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Australasian ScienceMy patience is tried

Sometimes I am surprised at how patient I can be when dealing with people whose grasp of reality is tenuous and who make absurd claims and then refuse to recognise anything which shows those claims to be wrong. Here are three recent examples.

I saw in a television news program that the incidence of a certain class of crime had dropped by 114% over ten years. I commented that it is not possible for this to have happened unless criminals are now assisting people and giving them money instead of mugging them and stealing and I was told that I didn't understand arithmetic. Apparently it is perfectly understandable that something can reduce by more than its value. All you have to do is start with the end figure and work backwards, an example being that a drop from 214 to 100 incidents would be a reduction of 114% because everyone knows what the person making the statement meant. When I pointed out that you have to apply the percentage to the original number and a drop from 214 to 100 is a 53.3% reduction I was told that I obviously could not understand that it was possible in mathematics to work with the square root of minus one.

A 9/11 Truther challenged me to prove scientifically that Building 7 at the World Trade Center could fall down if it had not been demolished by deliberately placed explosive charges. My reply was that the extensive damage to one side of the building caused by debris from the collapse of the two towers weakened the structure, and when you take out a lot of the struts and reinforcement on one side of a building it can actually fall down by itself. Relying on the fact that it was nearly impossible to get a photograph of the damaged side of the building because this almost required the photographer to stand in the ruins of the towers, he told me that as no photograph existed of any damage, no damage had occurred and therefore the building must have been blown up. I offered a photograph from ABC News, one of the very few which showed the damage to the south face of Building 7 before the collapse. He responded that he didn't believe that was Building 7 because it must have been Building 5 and then changed the subject completely and asked me if I had any evidence that Osama bin Laden had anything to do with the day's events.

A religious nut told me that Australia is legally a Christian country, that no religion is allowed except Christianity, all laws have to recognise the holy trinity and the Bible and follow the Ten Commandments, and that nobody who is not a Christian can have any input to the political process. I asked for evidence of his claim and was told that it is all set out in the Preamble to the Constitution. I noted that the words "trinity", "bible" and "commandment" do not appear anywhere in the Preamble (which you can read here) and he came back with a repetition of the claim that Christianity is mandatory for anyone who wants to participate in politics. I asked him to explain how Sir Isaac Isaacs (the first Australian born Governor General and Jewish), Bill Hayden (atheist Governor General), Bob Hawke and Julia Gillard (both atheists, both Prime Minister) had managed to get and keep their jobs and he referred me to a news story about a public school where Christian bigots had been withdrawing their children because some of the pupils were Muslims. I asked what this had to do with religion and political office and I was again referred to the Preamble to the Constitution and told that Christianity was a prerequisite for Australian citizenship (and that Islam had existed since long before the birth of Jesus). When I asked for proof of this I was told that all oaths have to recognise God Almighty so it is impossible for anybody who is not a Christian to swear allegiance, so Muslims could not become citizens. I quoted the Schedule to the Constitution which gives the form of Affirmation to be used in place of an oath by people who choose not to swear to some god and got a repetition of his previous claim.

What is common to all these is an adamantine refusal to even consider anything which is contrary to the person's position and the ultimate reliance on the logical fallacy of non sequitur when faced with something they can't answer, as if changing the subject settles the matter in their favour.

Here's my challenge to people who want to change the rules of arithmetic, engineering or constitutional law (or anything else) – provide evidence, don't just repeat your claim and then ask another question.

This article was published as the Naked Skeptic column in the December 2011 edition of Australasian Science
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