Sunday 14 December 2008

Neil Gaiman on Freedom of Speech

From the blog of Neil Gaiman, British writer of fantasy and comics, comes this impassioned response concerning the need to defend freedom of any and all speech, even speech you vehemently disagree with:

As a Brit living in the US he's acutely aware of the differences in legislation between the two countries:
I loved coming to the US in 1992, mostly because I loved the idea that freedom of speech was paramount. I still do. With all its faults, the US has Freedom of Speech. You can't be arrested for saying things the government doesn't like. You can say what you like, write what you like, and know that the remedy to someone saying or writing or showing something that offends you is not to read it, or to speak out against it. I loved that I could read and make my own mind up about something. (It's worth noting that the UK, for example, has no such law, and that even the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that interference with free speech was "necessary in a democratic society" in order to guarantee the rights of others "to protection from gratuitous insults to their religious feelings.")

Monday 1 December 2008

The Resurrection is true because ... well, it just is!

I'm beginning to perceive a pattern in Christian theology, as manifested in some debates I've heard recently,* and that is the total reliance on the Resurrection of Christ. Both Wilson and Lennox placed ultimate importance and authority on the 'fact' of the Resurrection. Wilson, particularly, begged the question by saying, basically, that if you believe in the Resurrection you have to believe in all the other miracles in the Bible. But at no time in his debate with Christopher Hitchens at the Westminster Theological Seminary did he explain why he accepted the 'truth' of the Resurrection in the first place. (I strongly suspect that, if pressed, he'd claim it was true because it was in the Bible.)

Hitchens was genial but incisive, and on great form, though a lot of what he says in these debates is no longer new to me. Of the so-called New Atheists he's probably the most willing to debate anybody anywhere, and it's understandable that his thesis is familiar to anyone who's heard him debate on several previous occasions. Nevertheless, when his form is this good he's a special pleasure to listen to - literate, erudite and pointedly wry.

*Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson

John Lennox and Michael Shermer
(via eSkeptic)

Sunday 30 November 2008

Burnee links for Sunday

"The collective obsession focusing on the loss of a small vaginal membrane still carries on, and it should be stopped"

"And then there's the flat-out creepy association made between a woman's alleged moral worth and her virginity, a stance often accompanied by the father's right to 'give away' his daughters' sexuality when and how he chooses to, as exemplified by the growing popularity of 'purity balls' and communal pledges within the American evangelical community. Here we are, once again, with authoritarian paternal figures using religious and cultural to control their offsprings' bodies no matter that abstinence campaigns have been, time and time again, proved to be inefficient in preventing teenagers from having sex or combating unwanted pregnancies. Not that pro-lifers wish their promiscuous teenagers eternal damnation: when Sarah Palin's 17-year-old daughter announced her pregnancy, conservatives conveniently ignored the 'making the baby' part to rejoice at Bristol Palin's decision to 'have the child and not sneak off to have an abortion'."

"It doesn't make you a eugenicist to speak up for the right to abort a foetus that may have Down's"

"This week it was shown that there were more children born in the United Kingdom last year with Down's syndrome than there were before the introduction of universal testing, 20 years ago. One of the reasons is more obvious than the other - fertility among women in their 30s outstripped that of those in their 20s for the first time in the UK during 2005. Mothers are getting older and that trend is continuing; with it the incidence of Down's syndrome increases. The more surprising aspect, I find, is that 40% of women who have a Down's syndrome baby having been advised of that strong possibility during pregnancy didn't believe the test results."

More on the incidence of Down's syndrome from Ben Goldacre at Bad Science:

Scientific proof that we live in a warmer and more caring universe

"The internet provides a space for discussion of God outside the narrow margins of the British print media"

"If I may be allowed a quick spurt of self-reference, a few of my pieces for Cif have been a bit off-the-wall (inviting people to join me in a new religious ritual, for example), and polemical (calling atheists cowards), and personal (explaining the basis of my faith), and obscure (cutting-edge analysis of a blasphemy trial of 1656), and downright theological (expressing my belief in Satan). No newspaper would be likely to print such articles. But they found many interested readers (as well as hostile atheists), and sparked some well-informed debates (as well as some rude ranting). Likewise my recent debate with Julian Baggini about literal and metaphorical belief was not the sort of thing a paper would print – it would seem too earnest, too up-itself, too rarified for a print-editor to contemplate. But there are many people interested in such discussions."

"Extremist Hindu groups offered money, food and alcohol to mobs to kill Christians and destroy their homes, according to Christian aid workers in the eastern state of Orissa."

'In recent weeks the violence has subsided but at least 11,000 Christian refugees remain in camps in Kandhamal, the district worst affected. “They are too scared to go home. They know that if they return to their villages they will be forced to convert to Hinduism,” Father Manoj, who is based at the Archbishop’s office in Bhubaneshwar, the state capital, said.'

"A meeting of around 400 evangelicals at one of London's biggest churches went largely unnoticed last week. Hardly surprising really, given that nothing was achieved and nothing agreed. But actually, the fractious, ill-tempered gathering could be scene as a significant tipping point in years to come. Talk of division and schism in the Anglican communion has been discussed for years, but is normally viewed as a battle between the liberals and evangelicals. Now it's the evangelicals who are fighting amongst themselves."

"The simmering tensions spilt over at the recent meeting, held at All Souls Langham Place - the church which was home to the evangelical doyen John Stott for 30 years. Lacking such an inspirational and unifying figure, they have been reduced to bickering and squabbling."

'The Government is about to fund a series of conferences on religious belief - organised, needless to say, by militant atheists. The British Humanist Association will host free public events at which Evan Harris MP (the scary Lib Dem nicknamed "Dr Death" for his pro-abortion views) and atheist philosopher AC Grayling will talk about "religion or belief in equality and human rights groups". The bill will be footed by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) - ie, the taxpayer.'

'We shall see how much fuss the General Synod or Eccleston Square make about this ludicrous waste of money as we dip into recession. Probably not much, I guess. They'll just ask that they should also be allowed to stick their hands into the public honeypot so they can spread their Thought for the Day-style message in "seminars" etc.'

Tuesday 25 November 2008

What would it take to convince you that you're mistaken?

A critical test of anyone who appears to hold fundamental - or indeed fundamentalist - beliefs, is to ask the question, "What would it take to convince you that you're mistaken?" Someone who is convinced beyond reason that their beliefs are true will always reply to the effect that nothing would convince them. This is a sure sign of unreasonable fixed belief, and it's not worth anyone's time trying to argue them out of their position.

It's a question often asked of atheists, but Michael Shermer's flippant response, "A deposit of ten million dollars in a Swiss bank account under my name," doesn't count*.

For myself, the idea of a personal God who listens to your thoughts, answers your prayers, obsesses over what you do with your sexual organs and demands worship on pain of eternal banishment to some undefined unpleasantness, is absurd in the extreme and not worthy of consideration. I therefore find it hard to imagine anything that could convince me that such a God exists. Nevertheless, just because I can't imagine it, doesn't mean it's not a possibility, however remote. There's a chance I could be convinced of God's existence, but only if He convinced me Himself, in person, in a manner congruent with my reasonable standards for evidence. I will not, however, accept his petition from any third party.

The probability of such a petition is highly unlikely, I believe, but (as I've already indicated) not completely out of the question.

There is, however, an area where I would be more likely to accept the existence of some kind of intelligent creator - though this intelligence would bear little resemblance to the God of scripture.

If scientific analysis were to reveal that the Big Bang could not have been instigated by anything other than the creative will of some kind of intelligence, science might have to concede that the universe came about by other than natural processes. But speculation about what happened at, during, just before or just after the Big Bang appears to be mired in philosophy rather than science, with doubts about whether you can meaningfully say anything temporal or spacial about an event that brought both space and time into existence. (You might also question your definition of 'natural processes'.)

Similarly, if science were to show that the presence of information in DNA could not have originated naturally, the existence of some agency that inserted the information would have to be postulated. But we would have no reason to call that agent 'God'. Just because such an agent would likely be beyond our comprehension, we are not barred from speculating on its origins.

What applies to DNA also applies to the Big Bang. Calling the originator of the Big Bang 'God', or the originator of the information present in DNA 'God', simply stops all further speculation. It's an abdication of intellectual responsibility, not worthy of science, and should be deplored.

Science has yet to explain these things, but that doesn't mean the answer is "Goddidit."

There are many arguments for the existence of God, and the Argument from Design (also known as the teleological argument) is the least weak.

(*During a recent debate in Australia between John Lennox and Michael Shermer, the moderator asked Shermer, "What piece of evidence, formula, piece of reasoning, whatever ... what would cause you to believe in God?")

Sunday 23 November 2008

Fantasy on a Thursday night: Apparitions - BBC1

Utter tosh or serious religious fiction?

Apparently the new high-profile drama Apparitions, starring Martin Shaw, was originally scheduled for the beginning of this year, but is only now appearing on UK TV screens:

It's earnest stuff, judging by the first two episodes, with plenty of gore and special effects, but it has a problem with credibility. Being based on Catholicism, it inevitably elicits rolled eyes as the main characters come out with religious nonsense as if it were established fact. Martin Shaw plays a Catholic priest who moonlights as an exorcist - naturally he's very good, playing it as Judge John Deed in a dog collar.

It will be interesting to see whether the Catholic Church denounces the show. I have a feeling it won't. It didn't denounce the film The Exorcist, and probably rightly so, as everything in that film ought to have reinforced any Catholic's faith.

And if the Catholic Church doesn't denounce Apparitions, are we to interpret that as tacit approval - that the things it portrays are in line with Catholic doctrine?

Wednesday 19 November 2008

Religion or Cult - is there any difference?

[I]f you pound people hard enough with certainty when they're feeling vulnerable under the pressures of life; if you offer them instant family when their lives are poor in friendship; if you offer them a message which makes meaning of life, when their lives are confused and problematical; if you offer them a special task - to spread the group's gospel when their work is dull or meaningless, or they can find no work to do; if you offer them clear leadership when they can find no-one to admire or believe in or follow in their world or church; if you offer all this, together with intoxicating, mind numbing worship - then you're offering a powerful package which many people will buy.
The passage above, spoken on air only yesterday, is a comprehensive exposition of the mind-wrecking aspects of religion. But this wasn't some so-called New Atheist ranting against the evils of faith, this was The Rt Rev. Tom Butler, whom you can hear delivering his Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4 here:

You can read the whole thing for yourself here:

Burnee links for Wednesday

How atheists robbed me of my faith in atheism | Comment is free |

Susan McCarthy: Tact means not saying 'you're going hell', or, 'I don't believe it' | Comment is free |

Put creationism on a par with evolution, say third of teachers - Times Online

NeuroLogica Blog » Reflexology in UK Schools

Greg M. Epstein: Atheism/Agnosticism Plus Compassion Equals Humanism - On Faith at

(Just a few links this week - I've been busy.)

Sunday 9 November 2008

Fires of Hell

The flames of hell, the lake of fire, eternal torment, unremitting agony - it sounds tough, and sufficiently off-putting to deter any potential sinner.

"But it's not like that," say the religious moderates. "That's an outmoded view of Hell," they say. "Hell," they say, "is separation from God."

Oh really. Well in that case, as an atheist I'm here to tell you - it's not so bad.

Californians are selfish?

Sooner or later we'll have to deal with this in the UK, but for now we can only look in abject amazement at what the Californian majority has done.

Personally I can't understand it. The nearest thing I can liken the passing of Proposition 8 to is an unbelievably selfish dog-in-the-manger attitude. We can be thankful for one small mercy I suppose: at least those same-sex marriages that occurred during the brief respite will not be annulled.

"Marriage is ours! You can't have it!" seems to encapsulate what the vote is saying. The majority don't want gay marriage. Fine, it's entirely up to you whether you approve or not. But don't deny it to those who do want it. Gay marriages aren't performed in church, so it's not a religious issue.

In the UK we have church marriages and we have registry office marriages. The church should consider itself privileged that signing the register as part of a church ceremony counts as a legal wedding. Those who don't wish for a church ceremony can have a civil wedding at a registry office - and they will be legally married under UK law.

The church is free to make up its own rules as to who can and can't be married in church (though in the case of the Church of England it's a bit more complicated than that, because they are the 'established church'). Those who don't like the rules can get married in a registry office.

It seems to me that what's happened in California is that the majority has voted for the church to have dominion over the secular. In a country whose constitution explicitly forbids such interference, this is a serious matter indeed.

In the general euphoria surrounding the news that the American electorate made a wise choice on November 4, the passing of Proposition 8 in California is unpleasant and embarrassing.

UPDATE, 2008-11-12:

Burnee links for Sunday (belated post - more soon)

Missed a post last Sunday - here's what would have been in it (probably) . . .

"Website censorship erodes the very freedoms that the home secretary
purports to defend"

John Ozimek: A victory for the terrorists | Comment is free |

The UK's law banning the display of material that "directly or
indirectly" encourages terrorism is likely to be unenforceable.

"There is no contradiction between creation and science, says Benedict XVI"

Stephen Hawking to address Vatican conference on evolution -Times Online

"The Catholic Church accepts evolution, but sees it as part of the
divine plan. Pope Benedict has been described as a 'theistic
evolutionist' who believes that God created life through evolution,
and thus that there is no inherent clash between religion and science.

"The Catholic Church does not take the Genesis story that God created
the world in six days literally, regarding it instead as an allegory.
However some Christians - not least in the United States - do take the
Genesis account literally and object to evolution being taught in

"A passion for conservative values has united diverse Christian
groups, giving them influence way beyond their numbers"

Religion remains fundamental to US politics | Susan Jacoby - Times Online

"To most of my European friends, an inexplicable aspect of American
culture is the quixotic persistence and social influence of religious
fundamentalism. They cannot understand how Americans could seriously
consider for the second highest office in the land a candidate who has
worshipped all her adult life at churches where congregants believe
the literal truth of every word in the Bible and practise 'speaking in
tongues'. Thanks to YouTube, we even know that Sarah Palin has been
blessed to protect her against witchcraft."

(Some of the comments on this article are discouraging, to say the least.)

Vatican approves psychological tests for screening out homosexuals :: Damian Thompson

"The Vatican has given cautious approval to the use of psychological
tests to root out men with 'deep-seated homosexual tendencies' from
seminaries. Rome first used this phrase in 2005, when it said that
these tendencies were a bar to ordination; now, in a document released
today, it sanctions the use of tests to identify those 'deep-seated'
traits - but not without the seminarian's permission.

"Voluntary tests can also be used to identify men for whom the burden
of celibacy is too great and will cause emotional disturbance even if
they manage to keep their vows."

Two posts from Tim Farley:
The Long Tail of Skeptical Web Sites « Skeptical Software Tools

Skeptics! Load your google bombs! « Skeptical Software Tools
If you've previously linked to Stop Sylvia Browne, you should now link to Stop Sylvia Dot Com, like this: Stop Sylvia Browne. Why is this important? See Tim's post.

Friday 7 November 2008

Iconoclasts - Andrew Keen - BBC Radio 4 (repost from other blog)

I didn't hear it live (I was watching a fireworks display at the time), but the programme mentioned on a previous post is available to stream for a few days more:

Website here:

The debate was bit of a mess, and nothing much was resolved. None of the participants addressed the fundamental issue - that new media technology has rendered the old gatekeeper-style of publishing obsolete. We live in a different world now, and there's no going back.

When the audio streaming link above expires, download the mp3 from RapidShare:

Sunday 2 November 2008

YouTube - Palin Ignorant About Scientific Research

This video clip (in various versions) has by now done the rounds of the blogs and news sites, and it might seem superfluous to repeat it here. But this is just one more example of the continuous anti-science, anti-intellectual and anti-elite stance taken by McCain/Palin throughout the current US election campaign. Just one more to add to the list, which now includes:

'planetariums and other foolishness'
'overhead projector' - referring to the Zeiss projector of the Adler Planetarium in Chicago (a planetarium I have visited myself, and where I found the educational facilities especially impressive)
'fruit fly research, in Paris, France. I kid you not!'

This isn't dumbing down - it's dumbing off the bottom of the scale.

UPDATE 2008-11-03:

(From Wendy Chao, via Skepchick)

Wednesday 29 October 2008

Andrew Keen and the end of new media (repost from other blog)

Internet curmudgeon Andrew Keen is at it again, moaning about people creating stuff for free, and telling them that they've got it coming:

Andrew Keen predicts the end of "free labor" online - Boing Boing
...which links to this article at Internet Evolution:
Economy to Give Open-Source a Good Thumping

Keen continues to judge Web 2.0 by mid-twentieth-century standards, but new media technology is fundamentally different from what we had back then, and many of the old criteria have ceased to apply. In the UK we'll be getting more of his doomsaying next week. Here's an extract from


Wednesday 05 November
8:00pm -
BBC Radio 4
Edward Stourton chairs a live discussion series in which guests set out their strong views on a subject, before being challenged by a panel of experts. 2: Andrew Keen, one of the pioneering entrepreneurs of the internet boom, argues that Web 2.0 is an anarchic movement that destroys culture of real value.
It will be interesting to learn who's on the panel of experts. It's a live show, and the producers are asking for listener input during the broadcast: Until then I offer this quote from Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan: "What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

Monday 27 October 2008

My Confession - Elyse -

Some people's path to scepticism is a gentle amble along a relatively unchallenging track. You learn some science and begin to question the beliefs of your childhood. The final break from the world of irrationality may be emotional, but short lived, and once you emerge into the clearing of rational, evidence-based reasoning, the relief can be its own reward.

It's not like that for everyone. Check out this awesome post at the Skepchick blog, where Elyse relates her own heart-rending story of sceptical awakening.

Sunday 26 October 2008

Burnee links for Sunday

So where are the links to the Atheist Bus, you ask? See my previous post: An Atheist Bus roundup

Burnee links follow:

Pharyngula: Where will you be after you're dead?

This is the article that PZ is talking about:
Never Say Die: Why We Can't Imagine Death: Scientific American

The soul? It may all be in your mind - The Boston Globe

Raise Your Voice | Edger

CFI Issues Statement on Religious Discrimination Exemption | Center for Inquiry

The Freethinker › Law Lords condemn sharia as unfair to women

An Atheist Bus roundup

"Organising atheists is like herding cats," someone once said. Well, the cats have been cool and have organised themselves.

Ariane Sherine: All aboard the atheist bus campaign | Comment is free |

When I made my modest donation to the fund in the evening of the day it launched, there was a notice to say that the target (£5,500) had been reached shortly after 10 am. During the time it took me to enter my credit card details the fund increased by about £2,000. The last time I checked (while writing this post) the fund stood at £108,506.83.

There's been a good deal of adverse comment from both believers and non-believers in the press and online - but the important thing is that people are talking about the campaign. To facilitate further discussions I offer this roundup of comment:

The Freethinker › It’s a miracle! - Resurrected atheist bus campaign takes off like a rocket

No-God squad climb aboard the atheist bus | Joan Bakewell - Times Online

The Guardian has aggregated relevant articles from Comment is Free into a single page:
Comment is free + Atheism | Comment is free |

Atheism on a bus :: Nick Spencer :: Telegraph

D J Taylor: Beyond belief - Commentators, Opinion - The Independent

Howard Jacobson: So God 'probably' doesn't exist. Don't these atheists have any conviction? - The Independent

Has blogging had its day? (repost from other blog)

In general agreement with what these people were saying on the Today Programme recently, I think the answer is no.

It is not worth starting a blog, and if you already have one you should think about closing it down, an article on the technology website Wired says. Robin Hamman, of computing consultancy Headshift, and Guardian writer and blogger Kate Bevan discuss whether shorter forms of communication, such as Twitter, are taking over.

They go on about Twitter - a service I've never seen the point of, even if whole swathes of savvy internet users seem to swear by it (though perhaps not literally).

I blog because I'm a writer, and because I frequently don't know what I really think until I've written it down. Whether anyone else reads the thing isn't necessarily an issue (though discourse is, as always, welcome).

(And just in case anyone scoffs at the idea of a monthly post here at WitteringOn being classed as actual blogging, I would refer them to my other blog, Notes from an Evil Burnee.)

If the audio stream isn't working, download the mp3 from RapidShare here:

(5'50"; 1.4 Mb)

Thursday 23 October 2008

Ban Religion! Gilbert & George at the Serpentine Gallery

A very odd report on the Today Programme (BBC Radio 4) last Monday morning (20 October):
What does the art world have to say on the great events of our time? Dozens of artists have taken part in a "manifesto marathon" at the Serpentine Gallery in London, delivering their own statements for the 21st century. Today presenter Evan Davis reports on how the art world is coping with the current economic turmoil.
Streaming audio clip (5'03") available here:

Gilbert and George performed their two-word manifesto, and during the interview accused religion of criminal activity and of being based on lies.

If the audio stream isn't working, download the mp3 from RapidShare:

Tuesday 21 October 2008

You have a right to be offended

You might take offence at all kinds of things. If someone suggests that your dress-sense isn't all it should be, or derides your taste in music, you may believe they have offended you. Indeed, someone might have intended to offend you.

But offence is a consensual state of mind. If someone intends to offend you by taking certain actions, then they will only succeed in their intention if you agree to it. You must consent to the offence, by agreeing with the offender that their actions are offensive to you. Whether or not you are, in fact, offended, is entirely up to you. You can choose between being offended and not being offended.

You can take offence or not, as you please. That is your right, and your choice.

Anyone who maintains that they are being offended against their will is admitting defeat. I think religious people who claim offence know this, and that's why their response is so often to seek to reprimand or silence the offender, or in more 'serious' cases, to seek recourse to law. Or in the 'worst' cases, to kill the offender.

When there's no sound, reasoned argument that can be put forward in defence of the offended, the offended resort to playground tactics: whining to teacher about 'what someone said', or in the case of the offended who tend towards the bully-boy approach, plain and simple violence against the offender.

These tactics are similar to those employed by the purveyors of quack medicines. If someone points out that a quack medicine doesn't do what it's claimed to, or that the evidence presented by its purveyors is flawed, you can be sure that they won't respond by presenting sound evidence. They will seek to silence the dissenter, by law if necessary. It's a reliable test of genuineness - if the medicine was genuinely efficacious, but the evidence was unsound, surely the way forward would be to get better evidence. If, instead, the lawsuits start flying, you can be pretty sure the product is bogus.

And so it is with religion. The most bogus religions are the ones that bleat loudest about being offended. What about those religions that don't protest about 'offence'?

Can you think of any?

UPDATE, 2008-10-22: See this important post on the Center For Inquiry website:

Sunday 19 October 2008

Burnee links for Sunday

YouTube - Why Atheists Care About YOUR Religion

(That the above is followed by this next link is, I promise, entirely coincidental.)
Skepchick: Critical Thinking at its Finest: "for reedbraden: monsters, magic, and boobs"

Terry Sanderson: The BBC's director-general holds non-believers in contempt | Comment is free |
While there's a link to Mark Thompson's speech (in .DOC format) in the above article, Times Online has link to an mp3:

AC Grayling: Free to think for themselves | Comment is free |
Grayling's article on the Council of Ex-Muslims' conference elicited this response:

Nesrine Malik: Death for apostasy? | Comment is free |
This is not to say that Muslim governments – and Arab ones in particular – have a tolerant view of apostasy but the death threat is invoked only rarely and more for political reasons rather than religion ones: to set an example or to save face as a proxy punishment for challenging the social or political status quo. While this is in no way acceptable, it is an extension of the general lack of enshrined civic human rights and evolved political institutions and processes – a historical, social and geo-political reality in many Muslim countries that makes a mockery of any comparison to the experience of those renouncing Christianity or Judaism.
Apostates may be let off with being lightly killed. So that's okay then.

The Guardian's love affair with the Koran :: Damian Thompson
Always fun to watch the papers having a go at each other...

Catholic chaos over gay adoption :: Damian Thompson

Rowan Williams says "human greed" to blame for financial crisis - Times Online

Monday 13 October 2008

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Impressive animation - important message:

(via BoingBoing)

Saturday 11 October 2008

You've read the Bad Science blog, now buy the book

For some years I've been suspicious of mainstream media. Almost everyone I know who has had even the tiniest bit of media coverage has told of some distortion, misrepresentation or downright lies (um ... I mean, things reported as facts when they're not). Reading articles about matters on which I do have some expertise, I've been struck by the preponderance of inaccuracies. So the idea that the media don't tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth isn't new to me, as it probably isn't new to anyone. And though I've been reading Ben Goldacre's blog for over a year now, and on that basis was looking forward to reading his book, I wasn't prepared for the sheer scale of misrepresentation he so clearly and entertainingly documents in Bad Science (Fourth Estate, 2008).

He has a chapter (7) entitled "Dr Gillian McKeith PhD" in which he deconstructs the scientific pronouncements of a media nutritionist who is, apparently, a "prime-time TV celebrity", with a Channel 4 show entitled You Are What You Eat. Her name wasn't familiar to me, though I recognised the title of the show even if I'd never seen it. (I don't watch 'make-over' or similar shows - I find them embarassing and voyeuristic, especially with the modern trend of treating participants like recalcitrant schoolchildren.)

Goldacre's indictments of McKeith are damning and comprehensive, and given that (as I understand it) his book is a compendium of his Guardian columns and his blog posts, I imagined that McKeith would by now have been consigned to the media scrap-heap. But just to check, I did a little internet research, which yielded so many results that I found myself skimming the latest edition of Radio Times, to discover that You Are What You Eat was currently showing daily in an early morning slot on More4. As it happened I was due to leave the country for a few days, so I set my DVR to record a week's worth of these half-hour programmes in my absence.

I watched them back-to-back on my return (though I did fast-forward parts of the fourth and fifth, as the repetitious format had by then become seriously grating). What Goldacre says in his book is true - McKeith appeared to be obsessed with faeces and colonic irrigation, and repeatedly came out with scientific-sounding stuff for which there is no proper evidence. The programmes were strictly formatted to the point of tedium, and I was frankly amazed that they were still on TV.

Bad Science covers a lot of specifics, from the absurdities of Brain Gym to the scandal of the MMR vaccine scare - and nearly all of them are initiated, compounded and perpetuated by ill-informed and inexpert media. On the way through this quagmire of dumbing-down headlines Goldacre gives us primers on statistics, probablility, evidence-based medicine and ethical journalism. Anyone who reads the blog will be aware of Goldacre's journalistic light touch, and will therefore be clamouring for a copy of this book.

For my own part, not since reading Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World have I found a book so enlightening.

Tuesday 7 October 2008

Burnee links for Tuesday

The Freethinker › Put Palin in the White House – and kiss your ass goodbye!

Pharyngula: Aaargh — I have to disagree with Harry Kroto

I generally agree with PZ's assessment of Sir Harry Kroto's piece, when he says that Sir Harry's point that science and religion are incompatible should not have been sufficient to oust Michael Reiss from his post. But Reiss did more - he made some dangerous suggestions concerning creationism in the classroom, and that was why he had to go. Here's more:

Harry Kroto: Creationists such as the Rev Reiss don't have the intellectual integrity to teach science | Comment is free |

Pullman defiant over US protests against Northern Lights | Books |

Alpha Mummy - Times Online - WBLG: I hope my daughter isn't a virgin when she marries

A biologist reviews an evolution textbook from the ID camp

Skepchick: Critical Thinking at its Finest The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe: Mouthpiece of Satan

Atheist Revolution: Atheism 101: A Reading List

Tiktaalik: a transitional fossil

Quackery creeps into good universities too - but through Human Resources

Monday 6 October 2008

Sense about Science accuses ES-UK of scaremongering

On this morning's Today Programme there was a brief exchange about a pamphlet that Sense about Science have circulated (available as a PDF), saying that the electro-sensitivity protesters are scare-mongering. Unfortunately this short radio piece wasn't long enough for the 'research' claimed by each side of the debate to be properly challenged.
"Pressure groups are scaremongering about the effects of mobile masts and wi-fi on health, the charity Sense about Science says. Elaine Fox, a psychologist from Essex University who helped with Sense's research, and Michael Bevington, of the charity Electro Sensitivity UK, discuss whether there is any evidence that these devices cause harm. "
Streaming audio available here:

Michael Bevington of Electro Sensitivity UK was quick to claim all sorts of valid research to prove his claims, though I don't think he really meant to say that there had been "hundreds of thousands of studies". The ES-UK website contains links to about 36 research studies, though as far as I can see not all of them support the ES-UK case. The page begins thus:
"Research Studies into Electrical Sensitivity

The following is a brief summary of the research that has found positive associations between the suspected electromagnetic causes and the symptoms of those with Electrical Sensitivity, in reverse date order:"

Does this imply that there's been no research that has found no associations? Michael Bevington said this morning that "there have been studies which show 100% accuracy between emission of the radiation and people feeling it". This doesn't, of course, rule out the existence of studies which show less than 100% accuracy (whatever such a statement might actually mean).

If nothing else, the short exchange points up the general futility of 'sound-bite radio' when it comes to emotive issues needing rigorous science to back them up.

Monday 29 September 2008

Sunday 28 September 2008

The Virgin Daughters (Channel 4 TV)

Last Thursday, at exactly the same time that Five was broadcasting The Million Dollar Mind Reader, Channel 4 showed the latest in the Cutting Edge documentary series: The Virgin Daughters. To quote from the Channel 4 website:
This week Cutting Edge explores the controversial purity movement currently sweeping across the United States. One-in-six American girls now pledges to remain a virgin - and some even to save their first kiss - until their wedding day. But is this their decision, or their fathers'?

Providing a fascinating insight into America's heartland, award-winning documentary maker Jane Treays follows a group of fathers and daughters as they prepare to attend a Purity Ball in Colorado Springs. (1/5) (2/5) (3/5) (4/5) (5/5)

(Thanks again to threespeed79 for uploading the YouTube video clips. BitTorrent enabled viewers go here.)

It was fascinating to watch, not just for the fairly neutral stance that the documentary makers took with the commentary, but also for the way the film accentuated the superficial wholesomeness of the community. The fathers were upstanding, quietly reverent and sincere. The daughters were beautiful, well-spoken and articulate. The religious aspect was evident but not stressed. The whole production spoke of quality, and indeed purity. Even the background music promoted an air of idyllic magnificence.

But despite the portrayal of genuine concern for the future of young lives needing to be cherished, the many scenes with the fathers and daughters together was undeniably and disturbingly creepy. So much utter perfection on display could only, I felt (entirely without evidence), hide something horrendously putrid at its core. Maybe I'm conditioned by so many sad news reports of in-family abuse, but this impression was, for me, unavoidable.

Randy Wilson, a father, is the minister at New Life Church, Colorado Springs* (where the infamous Ted Haggard was minister until his spectacular fall from grace), and he runs the Purity Ball. His wife Lisa was asked about her reasons for promoting purity. Surprisingly she did not quote biblical texts to support her view. Rather, she pointed out the risks of sex before marriage: unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. This is ironic, given that these people clearly support 'abstinence only' sex education (which means, in effect, no sex education at all).

It was telling, also, that the one son interviewed on the programme was shown wearing a tee-shirt emblazoned "Patrick Henry College", a university that was the subject of another Channel 4 documentary, God's Next Army.

(*If Randy Wilson is the minister of New Life Church, Colorado Springs, why can't I find his name listed anywhere on the church's website?)

Saturday 27 September 2008

The Million Dollar Mind Reader

On the UK's Channel Five TV last Thursday night we were treated to an hour-long documentary in the Extraordinary People strand - the Million Dollar Mind Reader, about Derek Ogilvie, who had a series in 2006 on the same channel called The Baby Mind Reader. (1/5) (2/5) (3/5) (4/5) (5/5)

(Thanks to threespeed79 for posting the YouTube videos.*)

Credit must go to Derek Ogilvie for stepping up to the challenge. That he did so reinforces the impression given in the documentary that he genuinely believes he has psychic powers. A charlatan would know that he or she stood very little chance of coming through a proper scientific test. How many other high-profile 'psychics' have accepted James Randi's Million Dollar Challenge? Maybe some are in the process, but, so far, no others have been tested.

After his miserable performances at, firstly, Goldsmiths College, University of London (under the supervision of Professor Chris French), and secondly at the University of Miami, Florida, where he was tested by Randi, Ogilvie willingly submitted to some EEG tests that apparently showed something unusual going on in his brain, but the scientist concerned too readily linked this to some kind of 'ability'. So what if Ogilvie is able to go into a kind of semi-trance when he does his readings - that doesn't mean he's psychic. Googling the the scientist himself doesn't inspire confidence in his scientific rigour, bringing up this website (amongst others) for Dr. Gerald Gluck, PhD.

Derek Ogilvie: genuine person? Possibly. Genuine psychic? No.

(*Also available via BitTorrent, here.)

Monday 22 September 2008

The Atheist Blogroll

Back in 2005 when I came across the Skepticality podcast, I was delighted to find people who were actually talking about stuff that had been bothering me for some time (I said so on my own podcast The Rev Up Review, and Derek and Swoopy were kind enough to include a clip of it on a later show). It was a revelation to me that there were lots of like-minded individuals out there in the world, and that my doubts about religion and the paranormal were not just stubborn refusal to take things on trust.

Fast forward over three years and I have my own sceptical blog (you're reading it), and I'm far from alone. Notes from an Evil Burnee has been added to The Atheist Blogroll, which comprises hundreds of blogs. Look to the right of this page, scroll down and you'll find links to some of the recently updated ones there. The Atheist Blogroll is a community-building service provided free of charge to atheist bloggers from around the world. If you'd like to join, visit Mojoey at Deep Thoughts for more information.

UPDATE: Ever since I posted this entry it has bugged me that I couldn't find the edition of Skepticality in which Derek & Swoopy played my clip. Extensive (!) research has revealed the reason. They didn't. It's funny how memory can play tricks, especially when tacitly reinforced by the very person who, I thought, played the clip (see Derek's comment to this post).

What actually happened is they posted a downloadable clip on the front page of the Skepticality website. Of course, it's no longer there, but through the wonders of the Wayback Machine you can still see the page, if not actually download the clip.

Saturday 20 September 2008

Michael Reiss: did he jump or was he pushed?

So Michael Reiss has 'stepped down' from his post as Director of Education at the Royal Society. Shortly prior to the announcement this letter appeared in The Times:

Sir, Creationism has no scientific validity but this does not stop some people from believing that it does (“Royal Society and the case for creationism”, Sept 12). If a young person raises the issue of creationism in a science class, a teacher should be in a position to examine why it does not stand up to scientific investigation. This position is the same as current government policy.

Evolution is recognised as the best explanation for the history of life on Earth from its beginnings and for the diversity of species. It is rightly taught as an essential part of biology and science courses in schools, colleges and universities across the world.

Professor Michael Reiss

Director of Education

The Royal Society

I believe Michael Reiss also issued a statement attempting to clarify his position (I say 'believe' because I remember reading it somewhere, but now I can't find it).

Anyway, his original piece is available to view at the British Association website, so whatever he has said subsequently, we can judge his words as they stand:
My central argument of this article is that creationism is best seen by a science teacher not as a misconception but as a worldview. The implication of this is that the most a science teacher can normally aspire to is to ensure that students with creationist beliefs understand the scientific position. In the short term, this scientific worldview is unlikely to supplant a creationist one.

So how might one teach evolution in science lessons, say to 14-16 year-olds? The first thing to note is that there is scope for young people to discuss beliefs about the origins of the Earth and living things in other subjects, notably religious education (RE). In England, the DCSF (Department for Children, Schools and Families) and QCA (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) have published a non-statutory national framework for RE and teaching units which include a unit asking 'How can we answer questions about creation and origins?'. The unit focuses on creation and the origins of the universe and human life, as well as the relationships between religion and science. It can be downloaded from
Well, that seems eminently sensible. But there's more:
I do believe in taking seriously and respectfully the concerns of students who do not accept the theory of evolution while still introducing them to it. While it is unlikely that this will help students who have a conflict between science and their religious beliefs to resolve the conflict, good science teaching can help students to manage it - and to learn more science. Creationism can profitably be seen not as a simple misconception that careful science teaching can correct, as careful science teaching might hope to persuade a student that an object continues at uniform velocity unless acted on by a net force, or that most of the mass of a plant comes from air. Rather, a student who believes in creationism can be seen as inhabiting a non-scientific worldview, that is a very different way of seeing the world. One very rarely changes one's worldview as a result of a 50 minute lesson, however well taught.
It's that penultimate sentence that irks. "Rather, a student who believes in creationism can be seen as inhabiting a non-scientific worldview, that is a very different way of seeing the world."

Yes, and giving it credence in a science lesson is the last thing science teachers should do. Soft-pedalling on the conflict between science and patently unscientific views of the nature of the physical world will only perpetuate irrationality. It's not enough to point out that a worldview is incompatible with science ("but that's ok, I respect your religious beliefs"). Rather, a student who believes in creationism should be shown how his or her worldview is in direct contradiction to actual physical reality.

Michael Reiss was pushed, and rightly so.

Friday 19 September 2008

CFI: It's Time for Science and Reason

We need more efforts like this, to counter the pernicious spread of woo-woo throughout modern life. We need more of the likes of Dawkins, Pinker and Dennett on TV, and more exposure of rational thinking generally.