Monday, 28 February 2011

Vatican attempts accommodation, but is there an ulterior motive?

Via HumanistLife I became aware of this article over on BBC News:


I posted the following comment on the HumanistLife blog:
“If the Big Bang was the start of everything, what came before it?”

Silly question (or at least very poorly worded). If the Big Bang was the start of "everything" then obviously nothing came before it. If something came before it, it couldn't have been the start of "everything". If the purpose of the website is "greater understanding" and this is the best it can come up with, it's doomed.

"But there was a time when the Church was hostile to those who challenged orthodox teachings."

Aren't we still in that time?

"Where there are scientifically proven explanations for things, the Church says they should be accepted. Where there are not, then faith may have a role."

God of the gaps.

"The Church says it is about parallel realities, not competing ones."

NOMA nonsense.

I'm highly suspicious of any attempts to "reconcile" religious teaching with science, because religion is fundamentally at odds with what science tells us. The core tenets of religion — souls, afterlife, supernatural beings, supernatural occurrences, claims that the universe was created by a deity — are all counter to what science increasingly reveals to us as how things actually are. Such attempts may be superficially intended as an accommodation between incompatible disciplines, but at root they are simply aiming to slow the inevitable: the dwindling power of the church.

Doomed.
This is accommodationism, not by "faitheists" but by the religionists themselves, and therefore — call me cynical — not to be trusted.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Burnee links for Sunday

It's open season on women and doctors out there! : Pharyngula
I first heard about this on some podcast. It seems the proposed legislation could make it legal to kill an abortion doctor.

The Meming of Life » When science goes south Parenting Beyond Belief on secular parenting and other natural wonders
On evolution, schools, and the damage done by "conflict avoidance". And the disturbing follow-up:
http://parentingbeyondbelief.com/blog/?p=5420
And the follow-up to the follow-up:
The Meming of Life » The incredible shrinking woman

Review: Sam Harris's Guide to Nearly Everything | The National Interest
Scott Atran reviews The Moral Landscape. He doesn't like it.

YouTube - The Real Cost Of Religious Faith - Atheist Experience 696
I heard this on the audio podcast version of Axp. My admiration for these guys is undiminished.


Response to Critics :: Sam Harris
Clarifications as well as responses (though this was written before the Atran review).

A minor point - Butterflies and Wheels
Ophelia Benson makes a good (but minor) point. But there may be a case for using softer or less incendiary language when your audience is known to react adversely to strong tone. This is mitigation for the sake of achieving your desired results, despite your audience's interpretive shortcomings — I wouldn't call it framing.

British Centre for Science Education: Creationism and Science Education in the UK - time to stop laughing and to start worrying
This is no time to be complacent. Vigilance and exposure are what's required to stem the flow of creationist nonsense into schools.

Can you OD on woo? : Pharyngula
PZ Myers brings us five minutes of tosh. Not fake tosh, mind you — this is the genuine stuff:

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Near-death experiences are evidence of ... being near death

Isn't Gary Habermas supposed to be some hotshot apologist? Going by his first contribution to Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God, I'd say such a reputation is undeserved. In "Near Death Experiences — Evidence for an Afterlife?" Habermas puts a very weak case for NDEs being evidence for anything other than malfunctioning of the brain when it's deprived of oxygen. I'd recommend he watch anaesthetist Kevin Fong's BBC Horizon documentary Back from the Dead, which shows examples of people who have flat-lined for hours and then revived and fully recovered. This is even being used as a medical technique ("therapeutic hypothermia") for tricky heart operations.

Habermas does his case no favours by using dodgy references. The notes to his piece refer to the work of Melvin Morse, whose website Spiritual Scientific is truly a haven of woo-woo, with such things as "The God Spot" and "Distance Reiki Healing". Here's a typical quote: "Our right temporal lobe permits the opening of a quantum connection with nonlocal reality, at the point of death." This, Morse states, is his scientific conclusion. If he's legitimately concluded something this remarkable on the basis of sound, peer-reviewed research, I'd say he's in line for a Nobel Prize.

Another of Habermas's sources is the book Light and Death. According to the Amazon blurb, its author Michael B. Sabom, a born-again Christian, "scrutinizes near-death experiences in the light of what the Bible has to say about death and dying, the realities of light and darkness, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ." Not the most dispassionate or unbiased viewpoint he could have found, in my opinion.

But even the Bible references Habermas uses are poor support for his case. He cites Luke 16:22, in which the beggar Lazarus "died and was carried by angels into Paradise" (p 26.) This is not a near-death experience, it's a report of something that's purported to have happened after death. How Habermas expects us to take this as evidence for anything at all is beyond me.

He also cites Acts 7:55-56, which is supposedly a report of what Stephen said happened to him. I looked up the passage, and it's second- or third-hand unreliable hearsay, not evidence.

Unconvincing.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Stand-up Maths at Winchester Skeptics in the Pub

Last night, back at the Roebuck Inn after a single enforced expulsion to the Slug and Lettuce in the the city centre, Hampshire Skeptics Society hosted Matt Parker, the Stand-up Mathematician, at Winchester Skeptics in the Pub. And a highly amusing time was had by all.

Matt's talk was titled "Clutching at Random Straws" and dealt with our innate tendency to detect patterns where none exist. His subjects included — amongst other delights — the deeply significant alignment of the ancient Woolworth civilisation, the explicable causal links between human birth-rate and preponderance of mobile-phone masts, and the likelihood of there being two or more people with the same birthday in any given group of people — such as those attending a Skeptics-in-the-Pub night.

The Q&A session was equally lively, and included Matt expounding his views on environmentalism and organic farming, as well as giving a quick rundown of the pros and cons of the Alternative Vote and First Past The Post voting systems (as follows, paraphrased):
If you're first past the post, it means you got the most votes. So let's say you've got four people who are running for an election — the person who gets the most votes might have 26% of the votes, and everyone else got just under 25. In which case they would get in on just 26% of people voting for them. So in fact 74% of people may adamantly not want them. And so that's kind of the thrust of this — you need a bigger vote than anyone else, but you don't need a bigger vote than everyone who's against you. And proportional voting is that if you vote for one of your guys, and it seems like they're not going to get in, you get to have a second choice, so your vote goes to the second choice, and if they're not going to get in, it goes to the third choice. You get to the final two people, and the person who is ranked higher more than the other person, gets in.

Say one guy was ranked above the other 52% of the time, and the other guy was ranked higher 48% of the time, that means 52% would rather have one than the other — more people for than against, rather than just more people for one than for the other. In an apolitical sense, I think AV is the fairer way to decide which candidate has the fewest people against them.
Matt Parker is in the business of communicating mathematics, and we need more of his clear and direct style. He's available to lecture in schools and other places, as well as having a presence on the interwebs — as, for example, below:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZ3GGWrDwMM

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Bumper crop of Burnee links for Thursday

Cosmology 101: The Beginning
How did it all start? Universe Today promises enlightenment — and a continuing story.

Ultra-Darwinists and the pious gene | Mark Vernon | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk
When I saw this article linked from RD.net, I thought, "There's only one person I'm aware of who talks about 'Ultra-Darwinists' and it's not Mark Vernon." But yes, it's Conor "Did Darwin Kill God" Cunningham's new book that this article is a review of.

Kevin Myers: Can it be that when the founding cells of life were formed, someone planned for a rainy day? - Kevin Myers, Columnists - Independent.ie
Oh dear. Another closet IDist who doesn't understand how something could have evolved — therefore it must have been designed that way.

Another misleading story reports that blogs ‘r’ dead — Scott Rosenberg's Wordyard
As someone of the "older" generation who has recently upped his blogging frequency, I found this ... interesting.

Atheist Response to Rabbi « Conversational Atheist
We keep plugging away, despite the monotonous repetition of the same old theistic arguments. We assume that people are in general interested in truth, but could that possibly be misguided? Some theists give the impression that truth comes a poor second to faith. But faith is the ultimate irrationality. I want to believe things that are true, for the simple reason that they are true.

10 Creepy Plants That Shouldn't Exist | Cracked.com
Incredible feats of botany, given the wise-crack treatment. You'll laugh, you'll puke.
(Via @HayleyStevens)

Can dreams predict the future? | Science | The Guardian
An extract from Richard Wiseman's new book. And Amazon have informed me that my pre-order will be fulfilled sooner than predicted (spooky!).

Chelsea Coleman - The Comfort Blanket
The "community" aspect of humanism is important, as is the distinction between atheism as a description of beliefs (or lack of them), and humanism as a worldview.

Christians are morbid ghouls. No one is surprised. : Pharyngula
Is PZ pulling a fast one here? As a fiction writer myself I'm intrigued by PZ's teasing, even though he's saying that these three stories aren't even worth the dollar charged for each one.

NeuroLogica Blog » Does Atheism Lead to Immorality?
Steve Novella on that hoary old theistic canard. He's not the first, and regrettably won't be the last.
(Via @psiloiordinary)

Should Employers Be Allowed to Ask for Your Facebook Login? - Alexis Madrigal - Technology - The Atlantic
They can certainly ask; Employees can certainly refuse. This is definitely an invasion of privacy.

James Delingpole, keeping an open mind on homeopathy – Telegraph Blogs
James Delingpole appears to have thrown away any last vestige of credibility.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Plantinga's "Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism"

AlvinPlantingaAs it raised its head in my ongoing project to review Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God I thought I would mention I was introduced several months ago to Alvin Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). I understood at the time that the EAAN was expounded in Warrant and Proper Function, an expensive book that I wasn't inclined to buy. However I also understood that a shortened version of the EAAN was contained in Plantinga's paper "Content and Natural Selection". Having looked at the paper I was glad not to have shelled out for the longer work, as it seemed likely to be impenetrable to me.

As for "Content and Natural Selection", I couldn't get much beyond the first page. It starts off with a proposition that in English appears to say that the probability of natural evolutionary processes selecting for reliable belief-forming mechanisms is low. I wondered if this was intended to represent what atheists maintain in order to explain what they see as the preponderance of false god-belief. In such general form it would indeed seem to be self-refuting — if evolution gives us lots of false beliefs as a survival mechanism, then any belief, be it belief in God, in metaphysical naturalism, or in the proposition itself, is more likely to be false than true.

Regarding the initial probability argument, unless I've misunderstood the initial thrust (which I may have done), Plantinga actually starts off with the proposition that the probability of evolution selecting (indirectly) for true belief is low. I don't see any support for this proposition (to begin with I thought he was proposing this as the naturalistic position, but apparently he's not). He quotes Quine and Popper who suggest that evolution would tend to select for true belief, but doesn't refute them other than by quoting other authorities. Without such refutation maybe we should go with Quine and Popper. So in his own terms Plantinga appears not to have a foundation for his very first premise. Naturalism therefore stands as a warranted worldview.

Notwithstanding the above, how does the EAAN deal with the idea that god-belief isn't an evolutionary advantage in itself, but merely a side-effect of our bias towards belief in agency? In its general form the proposition applies across the board, ignoring the possibility that natural evolutionary processes could select for behaviour resulting both from true beliefs about some things and from false beliefs about others. They could, for example, select for behaviour resulting from true beliefs about natural evolutionary processes and for behaviour resulting from false beliefs about gods — or vice versa.

Plantinga seems to be suggesting that beliefs as a result of evolution are present fully formed, with no account taken of experience. People's beliefs are not wholly formed by their genes, they are also formed by what they perceive in their lives. Their perception may be influenced by their belief-forming mechanism (whether or not that mechanism is a result of evolutionary processes) but mostly they will believe something because they perceive it to be true. (You can be sure, however, that Plantinga's supporters will point out that perception is part of our belief-forming mechanism.)

But is any of this valid? Are "beliefs" — true or false — the kind of things that are so intrinsically bound up with behaviour that they can be naturally selected for? Only if different beliefs have behaviours in common, which themselves can be selected for. Our beliefs are not inherited genetically, and our belief-forming mechanisms are only partly inherited. Beliefs are, however, often passed on to children through indoctrination, so the selection mechanism may well be similar.

Plantinga is proposing that the truth or falsity of a belief is only an indirect selecting factor, because it's likely that the truth or falsity of the belief may be irrelevant to its survival value. What matters about the belief is that it encourages or discourages particular actions. It's those actions that are acted on by natural selection, regardless of whether they are instigated by true belief or by false belief. Some actions may have good survival value despite resulting from false belief, and vice versa. Despite the convoluted hypothetical examples Plantinga has given elsewhere, it's clear to me that there are likely to be many more true beliefs that lead to survival-promoting behaviours that there will be false beliefs leading to survival-promoting behaviours.

The proposition's generality makes it unsound. God-belief could be a false belief of a special kind, a kind that has fewer or weaker consequences than false belief in agency in general. So our tendency to believe in agents where there are none may have stronger consequences than our belief in a non-existent god. In that case natural selection would have a greater effect on our belief in overall agency than it would on our belief in a particular god.

In "Content and Natural Selection" and in Warrant and Proper Function (a version of which I have since found online) Plantinga employs a fairly dense style and contracts much of his argument (at least in the final chapter of WaPF) into hard-to-parse mathematical notation in order to show that belief in naturalism is unwarranted. Yet despite a whole book leading to this conclusion, his contention that this doesn't apply to theism is tossed off in a vague paragraph about man being created in the image of God. This is, at the very least, disingenuous. Also I note he's using his own particular definition of naturalism ("the belief that there is no such person as God") that appears to be calculated to favour his thesis, so that when he claims to show that naturalism is unwarrranted, it automatically follows that God exists.

Rather like presuppositionalism, Plantinga's thesis seems to be a negative argument — casting doubt on the reliability of our cognitive mechanisms. We think something is true (or false) but our basis for determining truth is apparently undermined. This is a bit like saying, "You can't disprove the existence of God, therefore he exists." I don't buy it.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

George Hrab at #QEDcon — "The Assumption"

George Hrab not only gave stellar service as MC of the QED conference (Question.Explore.Discover) on the weekend of 5th & 6th February 2011 in Manchester, UK but also performed after the Gala Dinner on Saturday night. This is a sample of his gig, shot on a JVC GC-FM1 pocket camcorder.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YX2exQvY5P0


The quality isn't great, as I was some way away and the lighting levels were fairly low, so the picture is grainy. The image stabilisation in iMovie works well, but judders when camera flashes go off. And I was right next to one of the speakers, which is why the sound is overmodulated in parts. (The JVC GC-FM1 pocket camcorder is fixed-focus and has no adjustments. It's a point-and-shoot camcorder, so I pointed and shot.)

But apart from all that, I'm quite pleased with the result.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Moral argument fails to impress

In the second instalment of my review of Evidence for God edited by Dembski & Licona, I look at "The Moral Argument for God's Existence" by Paul Copan.*

The short form:

In a fairly blustering manner Copan merely asserts that objective moral values are built in to humans because they are made in the image of God. He refers obliquely to Alvin Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism but doesn't offer much else. To him the only options are moral absolutism on the one hand and moral relativism on the other. (He should read Sam Harris.)

The longer form:

Copan is using the same argument as William Lane Craig:
  1. If objective moral values exist, then God exists.
  2. Objective moral values do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.
This is a tired old argument that fails in both its premises (it's also poorly — and circularly — worded.) For a start, Copan doesn't define objective moral values in any other way than existing "whether or not a person or culture believes in them" (p 20.) This says nothing about their source. Copan simply assumes that humans are aware of these values because humans "have been made in the image of God" (p 21.) As usual for proponents of this argument he doesn't explain what this is supposed to mean. Premise 1 is an example of begging the question, in which the premise contains the assumption it's attempting to prove: by objective, Copan and Craig mean transcendent or god-given, because that's what they think is meant by "existing whether or not a person or culture believes in them".

But there's no reason to suppose that so-called objective moral values exist independent of what people believe. We know that humans tend to detect agency, and do so even when — in some cases — no agents are present. They evolved as such because detecting agency gave them a survival advantage — it's better to detect agents when no agents are present, than not to detect them when they are. This propensity for attributing agency led early humans into animism, and then into varieties of theism. So the idea of a "supreme agent" comes rather easily to a culture steeped in the necessary detection of agency, and that superior agent is naturally assumed to have intentions and desires regarding the beings over which it is supreme.

The truth, however, is that moral values are not handed down from above, but built up from within the evolving culture itself, as matters of social glue, co-operation for common benefit, and mutual flourishing. Organised religion seeks to codify these values in order to offer shortcuts to moral decision-making, unfortunately tending to set the values in stone, often with disastrous results.

But back to the book. In several places Copan contradicts himself. He places objective morality and relative morality as opposites with nothing in between, yet quotes Samuel Johnson as saying, "The fact that there is such a thing as twilight does not mean that we cannot distinguish between day and night" (p 22.) He goes on to maintain that without objective moral values we cannot know right from wrong. He also maintains that "normally functioning human beings" are aware of objective moral values, and then uses Jeffrey Dahmer — a psychopath — as an example of what happens if you don't believe in them. He's already said that atheists can be moral, yet here he's equating them with psychopaths?

This is really unimpressive. We're only two chapters in, and I can only assume Dembski and Licona put the weakest arguments first, and that the strong ones are later in the book. I hope so, else this review is going to be an extremely tedious project.


*A version of Copan's chapter is available here:
http://www.4truth.net/fourtruthpbgod.aspx?pageid=8589952712

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Burnee links for Sunday

Religion: Faith in science : Nature News
I share Jerry Coyne's unease at Templeton's research-skewing programme of grants and prizes. Research into "spirituality" isn't likely to go anywhere until someone can actually define it. It's all woolly-minded obfuscation designed to give religion some kind of scientific validity. It won't work.

Science, Reason and Critical Thinking: Rupert and the God Delusion
The indefatigable (and fearless...) Crispian Jago does it again.

Johann Hari: Get bishops out of our law-making - Johann Hari, Commentators - The Independent
Bishops, Out! Last year I attended a discussion/debate organised by the Labour Humanists at the Houses of Parliament, on precisely this issue. It was clear then, as it is now, that the position of the so-called Lords Spiritual is completely untenable. They have as much right to be there as a group of unelected dentists.

Gays will be faking it if they marry in church – Telegraph Blogs
This is a really strange piece by Cristina Odone. Is she confused about what marriage is? Marriage has a legal definition in English Law (setting aside for the moment its equivalence or non-equivalence to civil partnership), but how it's defined religiously depends surely on the religion in question. Getting married in a church counts as a legal marriage in Britain, but that's a concession. Whatever additional significance is conferred by a religious ritual is entirely dependent on who's officiating and who's participating. (Or to put it another way, it's all made up — so you can ascribe whatever meaning you like to it.) Cristina Odone is getting all exercised by something that has no real significance in law. But that's what religionists do, isn't it?
(Via Humanist Life.)

The Alister McGrath sneaky side-step shuffle : Pharyngula
PZ Myers exposes vacuous theology. Maybe he should pick a more robust target, as McGrath's circumlocutory effusion is well known for its absence of content.

Why are you an atheist? : Pharyngula
Here's a post from PZ Myers that I missed at the beginning of the month. Worth going back for though.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

The ineffable is thoroughly effed — on Unbelievable?

Premier's Unbelievable? radio show continues to be a "curate's egg" experience. Some episodes are engaging and thought-provoking, but often they can be frustrating, and listening to them can be quite fascinating in a "Can this possibly get any worse?" kind of way. Today's show was like that. Justin Brierley's guests were Chris Sinkinson and John Hick. Here's Justin's introduction from the Unbelievable? website:
In an age of religious pluralism it can seem arrogant for Christians to claim they have "the truth" or the only means to salvation. So when Jesus said "no-one comes to the Father except through me" what did he mean? And what about those who have not heard the Gospel? John Hick is a noted philosopher and theologian who is a proponent of a pluralist view of religion - that there is one light (God) but many lampshades (religious expressions). Chris Sinkinson is a pastor and Bible tutor who has critiqued Hick's work. He says that pluralism empties Christianity of any content and in its own way disrespects other religions more than his own exclusivist stance.
I grant that this might be of interest to theologians, but I wonder how it would have gone down with the average Premier Radio listener. (No doubt we'll discover next week, when Justin reads some of his email — but I don't know how typical the respondents to Unbelievable? are.)

The show is available as mp3 audio here:
http://media.premier.org.uk/unbelievable/780e0b5d-0808-44f6-b9ac-063c3a2fdd31.mp3

In many ways I felt John Hick had the right idea. He was challenging all religions that claim to know the truth, much as an atheist might challenge, but seemed to take the lowest common denominator and opt for the kind of apophatic deity so beloved of the likes of Karen Armstrong and Terry Eagleton: God is a mystery; God is unknowable. So how can these people claim to know anything at all about such a God? John Hick almost, but not quite, went as far as to say that one couldn't know if God actually existed. In the face of such lack of knowledge he seemed to take that last bit on faith; he chose to believe in something called the "Ultimate Real" — presumably given such a name so that it needn't be defined in any substantial manner. Bear in mind that this Ultimate Real isn't a personal God. It has no personality, and it certainly doesn't answer prayers. There is, in fact, no way at all of knowing that it exists.

It's all very cosy, and presumably John Hick finds it reassuring that this Ultimate Real is there somewhere, in some sense. Maybe. Reassuring or not, personally I care whether my beliefs are true, and I'd like to believe something because it's true, rather than for any other reason.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Coalition drops the homeopathetic pill

Today, from HM Government, I received this email:
You signed a petition asking the Prime Minister to implement the recommendations of the House Commons Science and Technology committee evidence check on Homeopathy.

Her Majesty's Government has responded to that petition and you can view it here:

http://www.hmg.gov.uk/epetition-responses/petition-view.aspx?epref=nohomeopathy

Her Majesty's Government

Petition information - http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/nohomeopathy/

If you would like to opt out of receiving further mail on this or any other petitions you signed, please email optoutpetitions@hmg.gov.uk
It asks if I'd like to opt out of further emails.... Might as well, given the effectiveness of signing this particular petition. Here's HM Government's response to the petition in question:
The new Government considered the findings and recommendations of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee and has published a full response. 

The Department of Health will not be withdrawing funding for homeopathy on the NHS, nor will the licensing of homeopathic products be stopped.  Decisions on the provision and funding of any treatment will remain the responsibility of the NHS locally.

A patient who wants homeopathic treatment on the NHS should speak to his or her GP.  If the GP is satisfied this would be the most appropriate and effective treatment then, subject to any local commissioning policies, he or she can refer them to a practitioner or one of the NHS homeopathic hospitals. 

In deciding whether homeopathy is appropriate for a patient, the treating clinician would be expected to take into account safety, clinical and cost-effectiveness as well as the availability of suitably qualified and regulated practitioners.  The Department of Health would not intervene in such decisions.

The Department’s response to the Science and Technology Committee report explains the reasons behind its decisions in more detail.  The response can be found on clicking on the following link:

So there you have it. In response to the recommendations of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee Evidence Check on Homeopathy, the Government is going to do ... precisely nothing.

Incidentally, that last link goes to something entitled: "Government response to the House of Lords Select Committee on Science & Technology report: Resistance to antibiotics and other antimicrobial agents", which as far as I can tell has nothing whatever to do with homeopathy.

Homeopathetic, that's what I call it.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Four Burnee links for Thursday

Mosque school arrest following Channel 4 documentary | UK news | The Guardian
Glad to see something happening about the atrocities filmed in this programme.

Driving Things to the Extreme « A Thousand Things Astronomy
To anyone who thinks you need hugely expensive astronomical equipment to take pictures of celestial bodies...

Teaching of evolution in school science under new threat
The idea that there could be schools that are not required to teach the national curriculum seems totally ludicrous to me.

On Faith Panelists Blog: Religion: the ultimate tyranny - Paula Kirby
She's back! And rightly objecting to the ludicrous implication that religion is in favour of freedom. PZ Myers liked this article too:
Ah, that feels so good…Paula Kirby really cut loose on the believers yesterday. The topic was the compatibility of religion and freedom—they're about as compatible as religion and science.
Religion claims to set its followers free, while all the time holding them in thrall and insisting they kiss the hand of their jailer. There can be no true freedom so long as religion still keeps the human mind in shackles.
You really must read the whole thing. It's probably not a good idea to do it at work, though, because afterwords you'll want to snuggle up and fall asleep.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

A protest song to define protest songs

A fascinating article by Dorian Lynskey in today's Guardian online tells the story of "Strange Fruit", the protest song that defined the career of jazz singer Billie Holiday.
It is a clear, fresh New York night in March 1939. You're on a date and you've decided to investigate a new club in a former speakeasy on West 4th Street: Cafe Society, which calls itself "The Wrong Place for the Right People". Even if you don't get the gag on the way in – the doormen wear tattered clothes – then the penny drops when you enter the L-shaped, 200-capacity basement and see the satirical murals spoofing Manhattan's high-society swells. Unusually for a New York nightclub, black patrons are not just welcomed but privileged with the best seats in the house.

You've heard the buzz about the resident singer, a 23-year-old black woman called Billie Holiday who made her name up in Harlem with Count Basie's band. She has golden-brown, almost Polynesian skin, a ripe figure and a single gardenia in her hair. She has a way of owning the room, but she's not flashy. Her voice is plump and pleasure-seeking, prodding and caressing a song until it yields more delights than its author had intended, bringing a spark of vivacity and a measure of cool to even the hokier material.

And then it happens. The house lights go down, leaving Holiday illuminated by the hard, white beam of a single spotlight.
Click to read more.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4ZyuULy9zs

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

God, contingency and special pleading — the cosmological argument

As promised here's the first instalment of my review of Evidence for God, edited by Dembski & Licona.

"The Cosmological Argument" by David Beck

Here's Beck's argument, conveniently set out by his own headings:
  • Step 1: What We Observe and Experience in Our Universe Is Contingent
  • Step 2: A Network of Causally Dependent Contingent Things Cannot Be Infinite
  • Step 3: A Network of Causally Dependent Contingent Things Must Be Finite
  • Conclusion: There Must Be a First Cause in the Network of Contingent Causes
You'll not be surprised to learn that the First Cause is not only "uncaused" but is also "God". But going right back to Step 1, Beck asserts, "We know of nothing that spontaneously initiates its own causal activity." (p 16.) I think a certain quantum physicist (name of Schrödinger) might have taken issue with this assertion.

Be that as it may, the problem with Beck's argument is that he's refuting himself. He starts off by claiming that everything that has been caused must have a cause that caused it. This is nothing but tautology. It's the same as saying that everything that has been caused has been caused. Anyone can play that game: things that are coloured red are coloured red. But then he goes on to claim that this can't go on for ever, and therefore there must be something that started off all the causing, and because it started off the causing, it wasn't itself caused by anything else (which, you'll note, is yet more tautology — this first cause is uncaused because ... it's uncaused — and it's the first cause because it wasn't itself caused).

It's also amusing to realise that the so-called First Cause posited by this infinity-averse argument turns out to be an infinite and eternal God.

Beck specifically denies the idea of an infinite universe — but I don't think this is something you can simply assert. Our universe may have begun in the Big Bang, but the Big Bang may have been the result of something in an alternative eternal universe. This alternative universe, if eternal, does not need to have been caused. This is similar to the argument about something coming from nothing. The question, "How can something come from nothing?" may be an unnecessary question if there has always been something.

Beck's conclusion, "There must be a first cause in the network of contingent causes," seems to me to be self-refuting special pleading. Beck is also not above a bit of emotional blackmail. In response to the hypothetical objection, "What caused God? If the universe is a network of causes and effects, then you cannot arbitrarily stop at some point and call it God," Beck states (my emphasis):
"This, however, misses the whole point of the argument. The Cosmological Argument shows that a series of contingents must be finite: it must eventually lead to a non-contingent. It would be nonsense to ask what causes this first uncaused cause. So this objection simply fails to understand the argument." (p 19.)
This is similar to insisting that parallel lines meet at infinity. It's confusing a concept with a physical reality. Parallel lines do not meet anywhere, by definition.

My other main objection to this argument, which to be fair to Beck, does admit of incomplete knowledge of our universe, is nevertheless the hubris of assuming any first cause must be God; that if the existence of contingent things demands the existence of something non-contingent, that non-contingent thing must be God, for the simple reason that God is defined as the only non-contingent thing.

God of the gaps, anyone?

Monday, 14 February 2011

Faith schools: suffer the little children — and they do

The BBC Radio 4 programme Beyond Belief is a mixed bag. Each week Ernie Rae speaks with studio guests and includes a pre-recorded report or interview. I've mentioned a few previously on this blog. Often the subject matter is of only marginal interest to me but this afternoon's edition was about faith schools, featuring the Rev Janina Ainsworth — Church of England Chief Education Officer, Ibrahim Hewitt — former head of Al-Aqsa Primary School in Leicester and now an inspector of faith schools, and Andrew Copson — Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association.

The programme is available as a podcast, and this week's edition is downloadable as mp3 audio here:
http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/radio4/belief/belief_20110214-1700a.mp3

Janina Ainsworth seemed convinced that faith schools were inherently a "good thing", while Ibrahim Hewitt's views were all over the place. I particularly liked Ernie Rae's question to him towards the end of the broadcast, as to how probability is taught during maths lessons in a Muslim school. Apparently the children are told that there's no such thing as chance: if you throw dice, the results are not random but willed by God.

During the entire discussion Andrew Copson had the firmest grasp on the issues, seeing through the equivocation and appeals to emotion of the other two guests. I suspect that even Ernie Rae has serious doubts about the validity of faith schools. Given his introduction at the start of the broadcast, I don't think he was merely playing devil's advocate here.

But the most telling point in the programme was a recorded interview with Peter Flack, assistant secretary of the Leicester National Union of Teachers, who believes faith schools are a danger to society. He asked:
"What is so different about children who come from families with religious beliefs, that they need to be educated separately, that they need to be segregated from everybody else?"
Later in the day we had a perfect illustration of the danger Peter Flack warns about. Channel Four's Dispatches: Lessons in Hate and Violence, presented by Tazeen Ahmad and broadcast at 8 pm (with a repeat at 2:40 am), showed precisely what can happen to children if they are left in the clutches of faith-based education. We're not talking only of incitement to violence — these children (some as young as six) were being repeatedly hit. The violence was recorded as part of Dispatches' trademark "secret filming". What's worse, the featured establishments had been inspected and passed as fit places for young children to be "instructed".

A trailer clip of the programme is available here:
http://www.channel4.com/programmes/dispatches/video/series-80/episode-1/lessons-in-hate-and-violence

Those in favour of faith-based education often speak of it enabling children to become part of the community. The evidence suggests, however, that the "community" of which they speak is a narrow one, deliberately segregated from the wider society into which it ought to be integrated.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Burnee links for Sunday

You can't overdose on homeopathic remedies; Why won't homeopathy skeptics drink their own medicine?
Talk about spectacularly missing the point! The reason why you can't overdose on homeopathic remedies has nothing to do with "vibrations", it's because there's nothing in them. Truly wonderful nonsense.

Stephen Law: Free schools to teach creationism
Stephen Law is rightly indignant about an insidious practice that's becoming less insidious and more blatant as the control of schools is relinquished to the private sector. And if you want to know who "Dave" is, go here:
http://stephenlaw.blogspot.com/2011/02/strange-case-of-dave.html

CFI Supports U.S. Rep. Pete Stark’s Darwin Day Resolution | Center for Inquiry
Pete Stark: a lone voice in American politics?

I am Denial Girl! Can I get a theme song? | Godless Girl
I'm not sure I would have taken this tack in response to the Reverend's tired old email, but I don't blame Godless Girl for doing so. The Reverend's sentiments aren't original, or logical, and certainly say more about him than they say about Godless Girl.

Jourdemayne: Exorcism: Ancient & Modern
It beggars belief — mine at least — that this stuff is still, in this day and age, thought by significant numbers of people in authority to be a real phenomenon.

Loose Ends and Global Warming. I get angry. - steve's posterous
"May Darwin protect us from the ignorant views of actors and writers who confuse being an exciting rebel with being dumb about science."
People say silly things. When they do, this should be pointed out to them.

Lawrence Krauss: Religious viewpoints need not conflict with science - steve's posterous
Another post from Steve Zara. (As an anti-accommodationist I couldn't resist it.)

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Are human values moral values?

Revisiting the Unbelievable? online discussion group this weekend after a period of absence, I noted that considerable to and fro was in full swing regarding the show in which Paul Thompson ("Sinbad") debated Mark Roques on the question of "human value". This is a pretty diffuse term to begin with, and the discussion on the show didn't define it with any precision. The debate illustrated a typical clash of mindsets that could not be resolved during the limited time for the show, and although the online forum discussion allows for greater depth, it isn't any more likely to reach a resolution.

Rather than dwell on that particular discussion in isolation, I'll simply point to its similarities with the 11 September 2010 edition of Unbelievable? — a discussion between Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association, and Peter D. Williams of Catholic Voices. The show wasn't explicitly about human values, but it showed the same clash of mindsets as the more recent broadcast.

Andrew Copson is one of humanism's most articulate advocates, and the fact that he made no impression at all on Peter Williams during their discussion illustrates the futility of attacking the theist position on the metaphysics of morality. Unfortunately the show's format prevented this aspect of their disagreement being further explored. Not that such exploration would have made much difference, I suspect.

The theist position is that morality must by definition have a transcendent basis. The humanist position is that such a basis is neither proven nor necessary. While it may be too much to hope that theists such as Peter Williams will be swayed by the arguments Andrew put forward, there may have been theists (and others) listening to the show who don't necessarily buy into a fundamentally transcendent nature of morality, and who will see that Andrew's humanist viewpoint is a perfectly valid stance, and one that is based on reality rather than some disputed, unproven supernatural proposition.

Andrew's point at the end of the exchange was well made: as a result of the discussion he said he was more convinced of his own position than he had been before.

In brief, as I see it, the problem with the "moral argument for the existence of God" as espoused by some theists, is mainly one of definition. A humanist may go into some detail as to how he or she derives moral values without a belief that those values are god-given (as I have done myself), but theists are unable to accept such a line of argument because they believe that any values derived from something other than God aren't "moral" values at all. It's as if they define morality as "a system of values dictated by God". Never mind that such a definition impales itself on the horns of the Euthypro dilemma — which, despite theistic protestations to the contrary, has never been successfully resolved.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Armand Leroi delivers the 2011 Darwin Day Lecture

IMG_0367w_ArmandLeroi


Without notes and with just a few informative slides, Armand Leroi delivered his captivating 2011 Darwin Day Lecture to a packed Conway Hall on Wednesday evening. His talk, titled "Mutants, and what to do about them" covered the possibilities, practicalities and economics of screening for genetic diseases. Phrased thus, it sounds like a dry subject, but Professor Leroi spoke with commitment and deep knowledge, in clear and expressive language that allowed his succinct points to hit home. His lecture was introduced by Robert Ashby, British Humanist Association (BHA) Board of Trustees Chair, while the lecture itself and its subsequent Q&A was chaired by BHA Vice President Richard Dawkins. The evening concluded with a few announcements from BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson.

IMG_0362w_RobertAshbyIMG_0365w_RichardDawkinsIMG_0374w_AndrewCopson

Though he did not shy away from the eugenic implications of universal screening of human embryos, he was clear in his avoidance of making moral judgements. It's not necessary here to reiterate these or any other points in his lecture, as you can listen to the entire thing yourself — along with some intelligent questions from the floor. The audio was recorded by the Pod Delusion and is available from their website, which incidentally also allows embedding of the player, as below:


IMG_0368w_ArmandLeroi

The latest regular episode of the Pod Delusion also contains brief interviews with Armand Leroi and Richard Dawkins before the lecture:


There's also a direct mp3 download link for the above episode 71 here:
http://media.ipadio.com/20110211011055.mp3



UPDATE 2011-02-16: Unfortunately the Pod Delusion embedding feature appears a little flaky for its special episodes, so here's a direct link to the lecture:
http://poddelusion.co.uk/blog/2011/02/09/bha-darwin-day-lecture-listen-live-at-730pm/

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Burnee links for Thursday

Richard Dawkins, the Protestant atheist | Thomas Jackson | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk
Another unfocussed diatribe against a straw man.

Harris and Pigliucci: On moral philosophy - Butterflies and Wheels
Peter Beattie with a refreshingly serious consideration of The Moral Landscape.

Times Higher Education - Justice for Hedgehogs
Law, ethics and morality. Simon Blackburn remains unconvinced by Ronald Dworkin's book.

Established church aims to re-evangelise us all — New Humanist
Commenting on John Sentamu's General Synod speech, Paul Sims quotes Naomi Phillips of the BHA:
"This is a tension at the heart of the Church of England which demands resolution. The Church of England wishes – as a church – to promote Christianity and of course it should be free to do so, but it should not be privileged in doing so, and it is not legitimate for it to enlist our shared and publicly-funded schools, social services and our parliament in its evangelistic task."
And yes, it probably is time for disestablishment.

Lord Monckton attacked from all sides... by climate sceptics | Carbon Brief
Lord Monckton is not a scientist, so the traction he gets (as evident from the Storyville documentary) is disturbing. But I think the 'swivel-eyed loon' comment is — at the very least — unfortunate.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Blogging every day — a success?

Due to QEDcon over last weekend I seem to have let the momentous occasion of my 300th Evil Burnee post go by without comment. I'll correct that omission with this brief, meandering rant about blogging in general, why I blog, and what it's been like blogging every day this year (so far).

This is actually (I think) the 307th post. I knew I was approaching 300 — and that I'd pass it soon — when I decided at the beginning of 2011 to post something every day for a month. Previously I posted when I felt like it. Sometimes an event in the news, an item on the radio, or something online would prompt me to ponder and urge me to write. That was fine, if I got around to actually writing about it. Sometimes there'd be a delay (life, you know?); sometimes I'd even have a few notes, but often the timeliness of the post in prospect would pass, and it perhaps didn't seem appropriate to post something retrospectively when there were other more pressing items of interest to blog about. If I got around to them.

So I resolved to experiment with (at least) one post per day, and for January 2011 it went well. Five original blogposts per week, plus two lists of Burnee links, kept the stream going. February has been a little different, with QED intervening (not that I stopped blogging during the weekend — operational netbook permitting), and other matters squeezing my blogging time. Nevertheless I'm keeping it up, albeit with a number of slightly backdated posts needing perforce to be retrofitted.

I blog to clarify my thoughts — sometimes I'm unsure what I really think until I write it down — and to let others know my position if they're interested. ("Others" could of course include my future self: Notes from an Evil Burnee provides a record of my position on a range of issues, as well as being a useful repository of links to online articles I've found interesting for one reason or another, at one time or another.)

And the discipline of blogging every day has been useful in encouraging engagement with the issues at hand. It's all very well hearing or reading something during the day and thinking, "Maybe I'll write something about that at the weekend, or next week, or...." Much more useful, productive and motivating to think, "I'll write about that tonight."

So the experiment has been successful, and will continue. Many more words to come.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Why Dawkins gets a bad rap for his books

DSC_1776w_RichardDawkinsAnyone who has actually read a book by Richard Dawkins knows that he writes with transparent clarity. And that's his undoing, as far as his detractors are concerned. If a book has a provocative title — The God Delusion, for instance — persons of a certain predisposition will be predisposed not to read the book itself, and will rely on others to tell them what the book contains. TGD was even described by one detractor as a "barely literate diatribe" — which is so far from the truth one can only wonder if this person read even a single sentence of it.

Dawkins is an educator. His books are written mostly for a lay audience, and he takes care to be precise. This is particularly noticeable in his latest, The Greatest Show On Earth, where he elucidates, in detail, the overwhelming evidence for the fact of evolution. After reading TGSOE, no-one of moderate education or intelligence can fail to have an understanding of why evolution explains how we came to be here.

That his sentences only need to be read once in order to glean the meaning therein, unfortunately counts against Dawkins when he is read by someone used to grappling with the obfuscations of theology. Dawkins' writing is so clear by comparison it can be dismissed as simplistic, superficial or shallow — when it is nothing of the kind. Clarity is the enemy — indeed the antithesis — of theology. That's why the likes of Terry Eagleton and Karen Armstrong dislike it so much.

Clarity is often, as Dawkins himself has noted, mistaken for stridency, militancy and shrillness. If people accuse Dawkins of being strident, militant or shrill, you can be sure they've not read his books or heard him speak. His message is clear — and if his detractors understand it (as they must, if they understand English), they have only one way to attack it — by attacking him. They interpret his clear message as an assault on the intricate convolutions of theological navel-gazing. In the face of Dawkins' exemplary clarity those who resort to such ad hominem attacks can be justly labelled shrill, militant or strident.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Burnee links for Monday (delayed after QEDcon)

Clergy told to take on the 'new atheists' - Telegraph
"A report endorsed by Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury," according to Jonathan Wynne-Jones, "warns that the Church faces a battle to prevent faith being seen as a social problem"

I'd suggest that a good way to prevent faith being seen as a social problem is for faith to stop being a social problem.
The rallying call comes amid fears that Christians are suffering from an increasing level of discrimination following a series of cases in which they have been punished for sharing their beliefs.
Proselytising in the workplace is to be deplored. And often it's not just for sharing their beliefs, but for unfair discrimination against people who have a right to be treated equally. Your religion should not give you a free pass to discriminate unfairly.
The Church is keen to address the rise of new atheism, which has grown over recent years with the publication of bestselling books arguing against religion.

However, the document says that this intolerance is becoming more widespread and can be seen in public bodies, which it says must be challenged over attitudes of "suspicion or hostility towards churches and other faith groups"
Since when has the publication of bestselling books been "intolerant"? You guys have had it easy for far too long. Now your number's up.
(Via Butterflies and Wheels)


Accommodationism is false - steve's posterous
And that's a true statement. Steve Zara expands on it a little.


The Atheist Experience™: Notice how misogynist the GOP has gotten lately? Want to do something fun about it?
Monstrous indeed. It's amazing what downright evil some people will do as a result of religious dogma.


Skeptical Times « The Hampshire Skeptics Society
This one-page newspaper was handed out to everyone at QED. Good ice-breaker, from those cheeky Irish Skeptics.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

QED day two — science-based skepticism

It turns out that during the entire two days I didn't go to any of the events in the breakout room. I don't know what this says about me, or about the main QED speakers, or about the concept of having things going on other than in the main room.

First thing, in the main room, was Michael Marshall on stage to update us on the global #ten23 campaign: Homeopathy — there's nothing in it! He mentioned that earlier in the day (after only two hours sleep) he took part in a brief radio discussion about the campaign, opposite a homeopath who didn't seem to get it (surprise!), and having since heard the piece I'm amazed how Marsh managed to stay cool in the face of the homeopath's same old same old.

As 10:23 am approached, Marsh showed some examples of his "homeopathy hate mail" — to which he always replies politely — and then it was time for the overdose. The pilules provided in unmarked vials to every attendant were apparently homeopathic Belladonna, and on the given signal over three hundred people downed enough "medicine" to ... well, to do nothing at all. And that was the point (a point that, as mentioned above, was entirely lost on Marsh's homeopathic radio opponent).

Wendy Grossman was the first speaker of the day. She's the founding editor of The Skeptic magazine in the UK, and her wide-ranging talk on Policy-Based Evidence emphasised the need to base policy on evidence rather than seeking evidence for policies adopted for other reasons. She touched on copyright, Big Pharma, public relations, ghost-writing of scientific papers and even UFOs — amongst many other matters. I hope there'll be a QED DVD, because Wendy Grossman's talk was one of those content-rich presentations (despite having only one slide) that would repay another hearing.

Simon Singh talked about the Big Bang — which is the title of one of his many books — and he seemed happy to be expounding on something other than libel-reform, homeopathy and chiropractic. I was particularly interested in his take on the Paul Nurse/James Delingpole BBC Horizon clash, as he talked about how non-experts can be expected to come to rational decisions about complex matters such as climate change, which is something I blogged about recently.

Having learned from my experience yesterday, I bought my lunch in the hotel bar and was therefore not late for Jon Ronson's typically idiosyncratic talk, The Psychopath Test, which is also the title of his forthcoming book from which he read some brief extracts. He identified certain characteristics of psychopaths and in the process unwittingly indicted at least half his audience. He also showed some video clips, including from his film about the Bilderberg Group (based on his book Them), and the Insane Clown Posse "Miracles" rap-music video (paused often, to intersperse comments) that he previously showed at TAM London 2010.

Colin Wright demonstrated the maths of juggling, including the idea of a negative juggling ball that goes back in time (to be fair, he also demonstrated how the maths worked for this concept, and showed how it's not actually nonsense). He did make the juggling itself look easy, though it clearly isn't. But the core point of his talk was that maths enables you to make predictions about physical systems (something Simon Singh also touched on). In Colin Wright's case, this enabled him to extrapolate the maths to produce a completely new juggling pattern, which he was able to show to attendees at a juggling conference. (A juggling conference is probably a bit like a skeptic conference, but with more balls.)

Final speaker was Eugenie Scott, director of the US National Center for Science Education. She gave us a run-down of the problems associated with the teaching of evolution in American schools, and how creationists have attempted to insinuate creationism into the school curriculum by various means. The creationists' methods have become more sophisticated over the years, from "scientific creationism" through "teaching the controversy" to "academic freedom". These are lessons we in Britain must learn and take to heart, because the creationists are hard at work in the UK. The Scotland-based UK Centre for Intelligent Design is busy amassing its forces, and will be attempting to inveigle its way into Scottish schools, using the same tactics the Discovery Institute has been adapting for years. Vigilance is essential if we are to prevent children's scientific education being stunted by ID/creationist nonsense.

The closing ceremony consisted of Mike Hall thanking a whole load of people who had contributed in many different ways to the success of QED — and it has been a resounding success — followed by a general exodus to the bar, where it was pleasant to relax off schedule. Eight of us went for a meal at a nearby Indian restaurant, after which we spent the rest of the evening back in the bar. I would welcome the opportunity to do it all again next year.


Note: due to failure of my netbook during Saturday night, this post was written Monday evening and backdated.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

QED day one — your brain lies to you

First day of #QEDcon has been intense. This is my brief adumbration of events, to be expanded (with links) in later posts. (I know I said that about TAM London 2010, but that's an ongoing blogging project, for which your patient indulgence is required. As for this also.)

For QEDcon I thought the biggest problem was going to be deciding when to break out to the breakout room, but at least for today I found my preferences were all for the main room — on the basis that much of what was going on in the breakout room was likely to be accessible at a later date (at least in audio podcast form). The main room is apparently being video-recorded — not just for the projection screens.

Bruce Hood was first up (after George Hrab's introduction) with Hugging Murderers and Stabbing Teddy Bears in which he presented some of the ideas about essentialism that he covered in his book (which I've read, and of which more later). An onerous task — opening the show, as it were — but well handled, and we were soon into the intricacies of evolved cognition. All of us have built-in (not necessarily accurate) ways of interpreting our surroundings, which we never fully grow out of. This cognitive unreliability proved to be a theme of the day.

Professor Hood's talk was a tricky one to follow, but Kat Akingbade gave us her take on the value of faith (a slightly different topic from that scheduled). She also explained that though the target audience of the web series Science of Scams was teenagers, the show garnered a wide demographic, illustrating the critical need for training people to use critical thought.

She described how she elected to adopt a religious faith for one week, in an attempt to enter and perhaps understand the mindset of a believer. This was no doubt useful for experiencing and illuminating the rules and rituals of a particular religion, but since (as she admitted) she didn't actually become a believer — even for a week — I felt this was an exercise of limited merit. It's not the rituals that are the problem with faith — it's the dogma, and those without faith can easily circumvent the most damaging aspects of the dogma because they don't feel bound by it.

Next came the panel Ghost Investigations Today, with Chris French, Hayley Stevens and Trystan Swayle. Some brief exposition on their respective experiences in investigating paranormal activity — whether or not of ghostly origin — and their current methods, yielded insights into what it's actually like ghost-hunting (and why that's not what it should be called). Unlike for the previous two speakers, the panel audio was weak and I missed some of what was being said, including most of the questions from the floor.

The break for lunch wasn't long enough for anyone going farther afield than the hotel bar (as I did, along with others from Winchester Skeptics in the Pub). Which meant that we were late back and missed the beginning (about 20 minutes) of Jim Al-Khalili's talk on time travel. But what I did hear was fascination stuff. He maintains that travelling backwards in time is possible in principle (if not in practice), according to the modern theory of Quantum Gravity — grandfather paradox notwithstanding. (Incidentally I conferred with neighbours and established that I had missed only introductory laying of time-travel groundwork. The tricky bits — like how to to configure your double-wormhole space-time tunnel — came later, which I heard.) Mind-bending though this all is, the science apparently supports it, which goes to show that we can't trust our intuitive conclusions on such abstruse matters.

In a lively talk Chris Atkins demonstrated the blatant perfidy of the British tabloid (and some not so tabloid) press, and included selected clips from the films he's made. If you had any vestige of credulity left regarding the integrity of tabloid journalism in the UK, this talk would have dispelled it.

Chris French's The Psychology of Ghosts and Haunting expanded on some of the topics he touched on in his earlier panel, talking about ghost-hunting kit, predilections and biases. He made the point that the TV show he was on (as the "token skeptic") did not fake any ghostly activity, which explains why nothing much happened, and why the show didn't get renewed. When modern TV ghost-hunters report ghostly activity, they're doing it because they've already convinced themselves that ghosts exist — in spite of the lack of sound objective evidence to support such a conviction.

Last of the afternoon talks was by Steven Novella, who was soon into his stride regaling us with the difference between how the brain subjectively seems to operate, and how the same brain-functions appear to a neuroscientist such as himself. Once again the brain is playing tricks, making us think it works in a particular way, when in fact the science says it simply can't. (This whole discussion is weird anyway; the brain trying to examine itself is almost certainly not party to all the information it needs to do such a thing. If our brains were simple enough that we could understand them, they would be too simple for us to be able to do it.)

Then came a break before the Gala Dinner at 6 pm. This was a sit-down affair with people randomly allocated to tables, each with one of the QED speakers. I found myself seated next to the aforementioned Professor Bruce Hood, who proved to be excellent "value" — keeping us fascinated and entertained with stories from his field of study. I was pleased to say that I'd read his book Supersense, but as it was the Kindle edition I regretted not being able to bring a copy for him to sign.

Dinner was followed by a prolonged sound-check, as the audio set-up seemed to be misbehaving, but it was eventually fixed and Matt Parker introduced Helen Keene standing in for Robin Ince who'd had to pull out at short notice. Helen Keene's interactive history of the space race (including shadow puppets!) was smart, hilarious and incredibly geeky. Matt Parker followed with a freestyle routine on skepticism with a numerical bent (much of which seemed to be a mix-and-match made up as he went along), and George Hrab finished off with a typically polished performance of some of his best-loved songs.

A great day of skeptical infusion. Exhausting too. More tomorrow.

Friday, 4 February 2011

#QEDcon is go for launch.

Via one taxi, a train, a tube, another train and a short walk I'm now in Manchester for #QEDcon, ready for the start of proceedings at 9:00 tomorrow morning.

After settling into my hotel room on the 6th floor I transverticulated to level three where the promise of satisfying comestibles awaited. The said comestibles comprised as much curry as I could consume, notwithstanding permitted platter recharges of unlimited enumeration. So I ate as much as I wanted.

Then to the bar, awash with skeptics from all over the country (plus some from much farther afield). Pre-registration was efficient and friendly, and the QED badges are quite nifty (but it has to be said I'm easily impressed in this department).

Alcoholically lubricated discussion ensued between various attendees regarding the QEDcon schedule (amongst, no doubt, other things), and as far as I can tell a good time was had by all.

But now it's time for bed.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Burnee links for Thursday

Alister McGrath loves him some Deep Rifts : Pharyngula
Doesn't McGrath have a new book out? Get ready for some circumlocutory proliferation.

Pod Delusion Live in Southampton on 26th February » The Pod Delusion - A Podcast about Interesting Things
I might go to this, seeing as it's local, and as I missed the Winchester one ... and as I'm not sure if I'll see the QEDcon one (depends what's on at the same time).

Four Dollars, Almost Five: The cosmological argument refuted in a nutshell
This is almost exactly the same as the very first argument in that book I decided to review.
Message from the stars: astrology is “rubbish” and “nonsense” | HumanistLife
Prime time TV pronouncements on the reality of astrology are welcome. Stargazing LIVE was an excellent series, and I particularly appreciated the expressed sentiment that it's all very well looking at pictures on a screen (from, say, Hubble), but there's no substitute for letting the actual photons from celestial objects enter your own eyes.

Tim Minchin on a roll | The Australian
A revealing and comprehensive piece on the current king of subversive musical humour.
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