Saturday, 28 February 2009

Here's Boris, who frolicked with early humans (!)

Meet Boris, the jolly dinosaur who waits for you behind these doors...

Further to yesterday's post, today I visited my friendly neighbourhood creation museum, and what a fascinating visit it was. More later.


Just thought I'd list the pamphlets I picked up at Genesis Expo today:
  • "The Genesis Expo at Portsmouth" Dr. David Rosevear, Jan 2003
  • "Language: has it evolved?" Dr. Clifford Watson, 1984, reset 1993
  • "Decrease in the Speed of Light" Malcolm Bowden
  • "Information: The Third Fundamental Quantity" Prof. Werner Gitt, May 1991
  • "Radiometric Dating Methods" Prof. D. B. Gower, Nov 1987
  • "How Old is the Earth?" A. J. Monty White, Nov 1991
Each of the above were 15p (I think one of them was only 10p), but I also picked up a free copy of "Creation" Vol 15. No. 9, March 2008. Added to these (by the curator on the till) were the following:
  • "Introducing the Creation Science Movement" (which is an invitation to join, at £10.00 per year)
  • "Putting the Pieces Together - Does Science really prove there is no God?"
Watch this space...

for part 1

Friday, 27 February 2009

Defying Darwin

From the Guardian, about ten days ago:
"Defying Darwin - The fundamental ideas behind the theory of evolution have been scientific gospel for decades - and yet creationists refuse to go the way of the dinosaurs. Who exactly are they? And just what do they believe? Stephen Moss reports"
"They do it differently in the US. The Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky (motto: "Prepare to believe!") measures 70,000 sq ft, cost $27m to build, was designed by someone from Universal Studios, and promises "murals and realistic scenery, computer-generated visual effects, over 50 exotic animals, life-sized people and dinosaur animatronics, and a special-effects theater complete with misty sea breezes and rumbling seats". The museum, opened in 2006 by creationist group Answers in Genesis to promote "true history", looks Edenic on its website. By contrast, Britain's creation museum, Genesis Expo, is housed in a former bank next to the bus station on the harbour front in Portsmouth. It does not appear to have any connection with Hollywood, and is an animatronic-free zone. The sign stretching across the front of the building is peeling, an elderly volunteer from a local church is manning the front desk, and the museum is only slowly converting its stock of creationist videos to DVD. The upside is that Genesis Expo is free to enter."
(I live in Portsmouth - I think I should pay a visit to "Genesis Expo".*)

*UPDATE 2009-02-28:

I did - click here for a taster.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

What's brewing at the United Nations?

This is worrying. Blasphemy is a victimless crime, and freedom of speech is the most important freedom in a civilised society. Check out this Edger post for more on the subject:

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Whence British Sk(c)epticism?

I come home. There's a large yellow envelope on the mat. The latest issue of Locus, I surmise, preparing my brain to peruse "the magazine of the science fiction and fantasy field". But no, it's not Locus - the envelope proclaims "Skeptical Inquirer". Great, one of my favourite mags.

But on opening the envelope I find the autumn 2008 issue of "The Skeptic" - a magazine I recall I've recently subscribed to. So, still great - I'd been wondering when I'd receive the first issue of my subscription. This issue has a special feature entitled "Making UFOlogy History", which, it turns out, comprises book reviews by David Clarke.

I'm pleased to receive a British sceptical publication, but confused by the Americanized spelling of the title, and surprised to find that the yellow envelope is franked with $3.60 in postage - presumably, I discover from the masthead inside the mag, from Amherst, New York.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not complaining. I'm delighted that such a publication exists (that's why I subscribed). But the fact that "The Skeptic" is published by the American organisation "The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry", and sent to me from the US, surely says something significant - though I'm not quite sure what - about the state of the UK sceptical movement.

All I can say is, "Roll on TAM London!"

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

OK, not cancer. How about rewiring kids' brains?

Hard on the heels of the unfounded "Facebook and Twitter will give you cancer" scare, we have the Daily Mail now warning that in addition they will reprogramme children's brains:

Here's a summary:

A neuroscientist says social networking websites shorten attention-spans, encourage instant gratification and make young people more self-centred. That's it. No evidence is cited, or even suggested to exist. Here are a few quotes from the neuroscientist, as reported in the article:
"My fear is that these technologies are infantilising the brain..."
"I often wonder whether real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitised and easier screen dialogues..."

"It is hard to see how living this way on a daily basis will not result in brains, or rather minds, different from those of previous generations..."

"Of course, we do not know whether the current increase in autism is due more to increased awareness and diagnosis of autism, or whether it can - if there is a true increase - be in any way linked to an increased prevalence among people of spending time in screen relationships."
Fear, wonderment, difficulty of seeing, and lack of knowledge - not exactly the soundest basis for such conclusions, is it?

Susan Greenfield is a respected scientist, but the Mail's article gives the impression that her warning is nothing more than unsubstantiated opinion.

(via Derren Brown Blog)

UPDATE 2009-02-25:

Ben Goldacre appeared with Aric Sigman on BBC Newsnight the same day, in a segment also featuring recorded sound-bites from Susan Greenfield. Her statements are indeed unfounded - she admits as much. Watch the Newsnight segment on YouTube:

...and there was a follow-up on this morning's Today Programme, with Colin Blakemore injecting a modicum of common sense into the whole affair (thereby backing up Ben Goldacre's position):

Monday, 23 February 2009

Black and white circularity - the transcendental proof

During a recent search for information about the transcendental argument for the existence of God I came upon this website, "Proof That God Exists". Click on that link and you will be taken to an intimidating page of four large grey buttons that allow you to choose between four options:
  • Absolute Truth Exists
  • Absolute Truth Does Not Exist
  • I Don't Know If Absolute Truth Exists
  • I Don't Care If Absolute Truth Exists
Follow through this series of choices and you will inevitably arrive at the point where you will be invited to admit that you believe that God exists:
"To reach this page you had to acknowledge that immaterial, universal, unchanging laws of logic, mathematics, science, and absolute morality exist. Universal, immaterial, unchanging laws are necessary for rational thinking to be possible. Universal, immaterial, unchanging laws cannot be accounted for if the universe was random or only material in nature."
Which leads to:
"The Proof that God exists is that without Him you couldn't prove anything."
And then, via a choice between "I believe that God exists" and "I do not believe that God exists" you reach a page of FAQs, amongst which is this:
"By what authority do Christians claim the Bible as their ultimate authority?"
I pick this one out as it illustrates the particular circularity of the argument:
"Any claim to ultimate authority must be self-authorizing. If we use any other authority by which to authorize the Bible, THAT authority then becomes our ultimate authority. For instance, if we say that we will accept the Bible as our ultimate authority only if %100 of literary scholars say it is true, then those scholars become our ultimate authority, not the Bible. Christians therefore claim the Bible as our ultimate authority by its own authority as the word of God. I'm sure many people will say: "But that's using circular logic!" (using what is to be proven in the proof). What you must realize though, is that any claim to ultimate authority uses circularity, but not all can be valid."
Following this paragraph is a discussion of circular argumentation. It goes something like this: the believer's argument is criticised as being circular, but the unbeliever's argument is also circular, therefore the believer's argument is true. Unfortunately for this so-called proof, such reasoning also "proves" that the unbeliever's argument is true, because it is also circular, or "self-authorizing".

This section goes on at length about ultimate authority, completely missing the point that there is an assumption here that there must be an ultimate authority. The whole point of a worldview derived from atheism (meaning "lack of belief in a god or gods") is that there is no ultimate authority.

The problem with all of this is that the terms were not defined at the outset. Immaterial, universal, unchanging laws of logic, mathematics and science, absolute truth and absolute morality are the basis of the choices that are printed on the big grey buttons, but at no time are you able to question the definitions of these terms. The website's authors clearly have some simplistic notions as to what these terms mean, and these notions do not admit of any subtlety, preferring to railroad the hapless agnostic into an admission he or she may not really agree with.

Ultimately (a favourite word of this website), I take issue with their use of the word "immaterial", which they imply means that something is outside of the natural world, or to put it another way, supernatural. This simply isn't the case. Laws of logic, science, mathematics, even morality, may be immaterial in the sense of being abstract, but that doesn't make them supernatural.

(This so-called proof claims not only to prove the existence of God by use of a series of strict binary dichotomies, but also claims that the God it thus proves can only be the Christian God. All other gods, by this token, are false. This I didn't get - maybe I need a few more of those big grey buttons - or a course in philosophy.)

(Yay! my 100th Evil Burnee post! Shouldn't I celebrate or something?)

UPDATE 2009-02-27:

Today I listened to the latest Atheist Experience podcast, in which Matt Dillahunty engaged at length with another Matt (Matt Slick) about the Transcendental Argument for God. There is also a video version:

Sunday, 22 February 2009

The frustration of "Intelligent Design"

The reason why concerned scientists get so irate when discussing the ideas of "intelligent design creationists" is that ID proponents glibly claim they have an alternative to the Theory of Evolution, and when challenged they steadfastly refuse to produce it. Claiming that because evolution does not (yet) explain in complete detail how life came to be the way it is today, their alternative must by default be true, is not only presenting a classic false dichotomy, it is also welching on a promise: what, then, is the alternative theory - the one that does explain life in complete detail?

The ID proponents' response to this question is "God". But where's the explanation, the theory? Oh, it's not God? It's instead "an intelligent designer"? Well, whatever, but what's the theory, the explanation?

This lack of explanation is far worse than the scientists' answer, which is: we don't know. Scientists take this lack of knowledge as inspiration for further research; the ID answer stops research in its tracks. What's the point of pursuing the question if the answer is "Goddidit"?

ID, along with other spin-doctoring of the Discovery Institute and its ilk, comes down to one thing: science contradicts scripture, and therefore must be wrong. But science, as everyone knows, actually works, and people won't easily be persuaded that it's mistaken. So the Discovery Institute's job is to come up with science that supports scripture. To date they've been unsuccessful in this quest, and it seems likely that they will remain so. It's a hiding to nothing, because this isn't how science is done. Science follows the scientific method: investigation, hypothesis, attempts to falsify, followed by more investigation, hypotheses, repeat as necessary, until the revised hypothesis resists falsification, at which point you have a theory.

ID proponents, however, continue to lobby for so-called "academic freedom", attempting to challenge science with non-science. They will continue to lose this battle, but only if concerned individuals remain vigilant, and continue to point out what is and isn't science, to those responsible for making decisions in education.

Burnee links for Sunday

BBC NEWS | UK | Bus posters: Atheist and Christian head-to-head

The Gentle Secularist: an interview with Ariane Sherine

In Defence of Johann Hari | Edger

Creationists are still denying Darwin. Stephen Moss asks why | World news | The Guardian

Doubting Darwin: Debate Over The Mind's Evolution : NPR
A short outline of a long-running inter-blog debate between Steven Novella and Michael Egnor, concerning dualism.

Pharyngula: We consider ourselves atheists and scientists, of course

(click to bignify) (click here for original post)

YouTube - Evolution

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Moral relativism - a debate too short

This week's Moral Maze was broadcast live on BBC Radio 4, on the evening of Wednesday 18 February 2009.

From the Radio 4 website:
This week the Moral Maze celebrates its 500th edition with a special programme in front of a live audience at the Royal Society of Medicine, in London. The question Michael Buerk and the panel will be posing is; if you don’t believe in a set of divinely inspired moral rules, how do you decide right from wrong in a world with complex and competing interests? We live in an age where there is no longer general agreement on religion and the time when our society was united by a common set of values based on a belief in God is long gone. Is it hopelessly optimistic to believe that Man can create an ethical framework based on a belief in individual responsibility and mutual respect or are those secular values a much a better guide than any sectarian dogma or religious text? Can a post-religious society be a moral society and if so, whose morals will we live by?

PANEL: Michael Buerk (Chair); Melanie Phillips; Claire Fox; Michael Portillo; Clifford Longley.

WITNESSES: Tom Butler, Bishop of Southwark; Professor Alistair McGrath, Head of the Centre for Theology, Religion and Culture at King’s College and author of The Dawkins Delusion; Peter Cave, chair of the British Humanist Philosophers group and author of Humanism, a Beginner's Guide; Dr Evan Harris MP, Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon.
The audio is available here for seven days:

Also available on RapidShare:
(20 MB 64k mp3 43'34")

The Moral Maze is usually live, but not recorded before an audience. This 500th edition was broadcast live, and in front of an audience, whose reactions to the various contributions were audible. Peter Cave did a good job deflecting Melanie Phillips' loaded questions, and succeeded in doing so with understated humour and a degree of gentle mockery. Alister McGrath was, as expected, his usual circumlocutory self (a description I've used before - he doesn't change). Michael Portillo seemed to be sincerely engaged with the issues, but the debate was too short with too many participants. My (biased) assessment of the consensus is that the secularist/humanist side won this debate by a clear margin. At the least, the programme will have raised consciousness.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Facebook and Twitter will give you cancer!

A short item on the Today Programme this morning had Dr Aric Sigman explaining the conclusions of a paper he has authored for the peer-reviewed Institute of Biology Journal, Biologist, entitled Well Connected?: The Biological Implications of ‘Social Networking’. The BBC website covers it here: BBC NEWS | UK | Online networking 'harms health' and you can hear Dr Sigman on the BBC here:

I'm not a biologist, and not a member of the Institute of Biology, so I can't access Dr Sigman's article*. But his press release is available on his website, so I've looked at that. Early on in the press release is this graph, presumably excerpted from the article:

I'm not a biologist, neither am I a statistician, but this graph seems to show only that over a period of 20 years, face-to-face social interaction went down from six hours to two hours per day, while over the same two decades use of electronic media went up from four to eight hours per day. So the conclusion seems to be that the four hours that were spent face-to-face in 1987, were in 2007 spent in using electronic media. He seems to be suggesting that face-to-face interaction has gone down because of the increase in use of electronic media. Maybe. Or it could be coincidence. The graph doesn't show what people were doing with the other hours in the day, so on the whole it doesn't tell you very much.

The rest of the press release seems to claim that face-to-face interaction has positive health effects, and this may well be true, but the preponderance of "links" and "associations" suggests that most of these are correlations and not causation. Take this, for example:

"Women who have suspected coronary artery disease (CAD) with a small social
circle exhibit more than twice the death rate of those with a larger social circle."
It's possible that some women have a small social circle for reasons that are to do with being medically disposed to more serious and life-threatening coronary artery disease - not the other way around. I've not seen Dr Sigman's actual paper (which appears to be a meta-study, and presumably doesn't include any actual clinical research), so I don't know if the causation he ascribes is valid.

Valid or not, it makes a good headline, and you can rely on the Daily Mail to pick it up: How using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer.

If the audio expires, download it from RapidShare here:

*UPDATE 2009-02-19:
The paper published in Biologist is now freely available:

UPDATE 2009-02-20:
Until I get around to reading the paper myself, here's someone who already has:
(via Ben Goldacre's Twitter feed)

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Christopher Booker, creationist

"One would never have guessed from the adulation heaped on the great man by the likes of Sir David Attenborough that there is something very odd about Darwin’s theory."
Okay, I'm with you so far, Mr Booker, but this I didn't expect:
"One great stumbling block to his argument is that evolution has repeatedly taken place in leaps forward so sudden and so complex that they could not possibly have been accounted for by the gradual process he suggested - “the Cambrian explosion" of new life forms, the complexities of the eye, the post-Cretaceous explosion of mammals. Again and again some new development emerged which required a whole mass of interdependent changes to take place simultaneously, such as the transformation of reptiles into feathered, hollow-boned and warm-blooded birds."
It's from last week's Sunday Telegraph, also available online:

I can't help wondering whether Mr Booker actually understood (or even paid any attention to) what David Attenborough so lucidly explained in his recent exemplary BBC TV programme, "Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life". To take just one obvious example from the quote above, Attenborough's explanation of the evolution of the eye, accompanied by clear and excellent graphics, shows precisely why it cannot be held to be "irreducibly complex".

Just because you don't understand something, doesn't mean it's incapable of being understood. Do your research - pontificating on the basis of ignorance is not what I call reasoned argument.

Burnee links for (another) Saturday

CV of a bus driver - 110 « My Creative Year

Pharyngula: Gerald Warner, death cultist

New Humanist Blog: Bunch of dougnuts

Sir David Attenborough: 'I get hate mail telling me to burn in hell for not crediting God' - Telegraph

Johann Hari: Why should I respect these oppressive religions? - Johann Hari, Commentators - The Independent

Christina Martin - occasional writer and comedian: He's behind you!

YouTube - Nature Video: David Attenborough on Darwin

Notes Archive - Butterflies & Wheels - This is our Thought for the Day, god damn it!

Johann Hari: Despite these riots, I stand by what I wrote - Johann Hari, Commentators - The Independent
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