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.