Monday 29 September 2008

Burnee links for Monday

For a few days the tendrils of the internet will reach for me in vain, so no updates till next weekend.

Meanwhile . . .

The Freethinker › Decrease in viscosity turns Catholic brains to jelly

The BEAST: America's Best Fiend
PZ Myers answers some questions

Sue Blackmore: Can human consciousness survive without a brain? | Comment is free |

Pharyngula: Help an atheist out

Butterflies and Wheels Article
Islam and Human Rights

The Pagan Prattle Online: Creationism in Northern Ireland

British Humanist Association
Humanists take legal action on GCSE exclusion

No Science, Please - Books & Culture
A review of The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing

Skeptic: eSkeptic: Wednesday, September 24th, 2008
How to resolve the war

Mmegi Online :: The American anti-intellectual threat

Predictably / Irrational

The Freethinker › Stealth Christians infiltrate Lancashire schools

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.

Politics, religion and moral psychology: Jonathan Haidt - TED Talks

Jonathan Haidt: The real difference between liberals and conservatives

These TED Talks are usually (as here) short, pithy and well worth watching. Unique, provocative content.

Thursday 18 September 2008

Will Eoin Colfer taint Douglas Adams' masterpiece? (repost from other blog)

Eoin Colfer (pic) has been asked to write the sixth part of Douglas Adams' Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy 'trilogy', and some people are expressing concern.

I'm linking to the repost on as well as the original Guardian article, because the comments at highlight a common concern raised whenever some piece of literature is 'continued', or a classic film is remade.

People seem to be worried that an inferior sequel or continuation somehow taints the original work. It doesn't. The original work is still there. Look at modernisations of Shakespeare. You may like them or loathe them, but the original plays are still available, entirely unaltered by any reinterpretation. My great uncle, Herbert M. Jenkins, was adamant that Shakespeare should be played in one of only two ways: Elizabethan dress, or the dress of the period the play was portraying. (He had a point - there's a passage in Julius Caesar where Caesar is described by an onlooker as "throwing open his doublet". No mention of him wearing a toga, which seems more likely attire for ancient Rome.)

I think Uncle Bertie was wrong. Authors, dramatists, film-makers, indeed creators of any kind are free to draw on any sources for their inspiration, copyright permitting. They may or may not do a good job (though that's often a matter of opinion or artistic judgement). But whatever they do, they will not extinguish the original work, which is available for anyone to experience in its pristine original form.

Or even to make yet another adaptation.

Saturday 13 September 2008

LHC roundup

By no means comprehensive, just some stuff that caught my eye (or my newsreader) during this week of Big Bang Day. First, just to check:

Has the Large Hadron Collider destroyed the world yet?

. . . which neatly leads into:

Hysteria over LHC reaches critical mass | Edger

The BBC has been as guilty as anyone in its general news bulletins, though Radio 4 put out some good coverage - Engineering Solutions with Adam Hart-Davis, in particular:

After the above link expires, download an mp3 from RapidShare here:

Finally, also from Adam Hart-Davis:

Large Hadron Collider: Why we're all in love with the 'God particle' machine - Telegraph

Friday 12 September 2008

Dancing plague - Strasbourg, 1518

You couldn't make it up . . .
"In July 1518, a terrifying and mysterious plague struck the medieval city of Strasbourg. Hundreds of men and women danced wildly, day after day, in the punishing summer heat. Some of them even died. In his book A Time to Dance A Time To Die, just published, a British historian of medicine based at Michigan State University has uncovered fresh evidence into why this so called dancing plague took place. The author John Waller explains what exactly the dancing plague was."
Today Programme, BBC Radio 4:

Wednesday 10 September 2008

Harlan Ellison: "Pay the Writer" - an outdated concept? (repost from other blog)

Harlan Ellison is well known for being . . . forthright.

(via WritersWeekly)
His point of view is a valid one, but it's also a little dated in this age of new media. For all his maverick bluster Ellison is an established writer who got where he is today by traditional methods. Those methods have become less appropriate now that so much free stuff is available.

New writers ('underpublished' writers, as Evo Terra of calls them) would do well to explore the alternatives. Slavishly insisting that every word carries a price-tag can be counterproductive. In essence Ellison is right, but it's worth remembering that writers can receive 'value' for their work in other than money.

Sunday 7 September 2008

Burnee links for Sunday

Legal bid to stop CERN atom smasher from 'destroying the world' - Telegraph

The “Carl Sagan Institute”… of Ufology! | forgetomori » The unkindest cut?

Pharyngula: Palinanity

Pharyngula: Didgeridoos are not for you, little girl

Polly Toynbee: Faith schools may be Blair's most damaging legacy | Comment is free | The Guardian

The Associated Press: McCain fought money on teen pregnancy programs

Skepchick: Fine, I’ll say it then…
"Sarah Palin has been John McCain’s running mate for less than a week now and I’m already so sick of her I want to punch my TV. I feel like I know more about her and her family than I do about my own family. I certainly know more about her than I do about any of my neighbors. What I find most annoying though, is how much coverage is being given to a question that no one even asked:

How can Sarah Palin shirk her womanly mommy duties to run for VP?"
The Freethinker › Heaven’s full of people who were never born

An Open Letter to Gov. Sarah Palin on Women's Rights | Reproductive Justice and Gender | AlterNet

Sue Blackmore: Those who teach our children science have a duty to reveal the workings of nature | Comment is free |

Babies, acupuncture and the secret to a good night's sleep - Sydney Morning Herald

Autism and Vaccines: Why Bad Logic Trumps Science | LiveScience

David Bradnack: Face to faith | Comment is free | The Guardian
The Christian creed is full of bad science that makes it a religion of deception, argues David Bradnack

Thursday 4 September 2008

Professor Brian Cox on the Large Hadron Collider, Moon Hoaxers and Intelligent Design

Next week's Radio Times has an interview with Professor Brian Cox, who has no patience with conspiracy theorists:

Radio Times:
"Cern is being sued in the US over the possible dangers of turning on the LHC, such as creating a mini black hole that might swallow the planet. Could it be the end of everything?"
Brian Cox:
"The nonsense you find on the web about 'doomsday scenarios' is conspiracy theory rubbish generated by a small group of nutters, primarily on the other side of the Atlantic. These people also think that the Theory of Relativity is a Jewish conspiracy and that America didn't land on the Moon. Both are more likely, by the way, than the LHC destroying the world. I'm slightly irritated, because this non-story is symptomatic of a larger mistrust in science, particularly in the US, which includes things like intelligent design."
Radio Times:
"One final question: how can you be certain? We've heard of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle - does it mean you can't be sure of anything?"
Brian Cox:
"The Uncertainty Principle is part of quantum mechanics, and the whole subject is based on that. So it affects every result at LHC, but it doesn't affect the conclusion that anyone who thinks the LHC will destroy the world is a t**t."