Wednesday 30 December 2009

Burnee links for Wednesday (and my 200th EB post)

Moderately warm, with periods of extreme drought, followed by a flaming delugeCreation Science Movement — SUMO proteins wrestle cancer mutations
The big question for evolutionists is, since our DNA breaks down when left to itself, how did our ancestors survive before the many and complicated DNA repair mechanisms evolved? As this SUMO protein story shows, the more we discover, the more complicated it is. SUMO proteins certainly bear the hallmark of design.
They just don't get it, do they? Cancer mutations are examples of mutations that are harmful, and which will tend to make the organism less likely to survive (although if the onset of cancer is more often after rather than before reproductive age, the mutated genes are likely to be inherited). If DNA repair mechanisms have evolved, it's because they make it more likely that the genes responsible for those mechanisms will be inherited. What's so difficult to grasp about that? As for bearing "the hallmark of design" — it looks designed, so it must have a designer — yeah, yeah. (Have any of these creationists actually read On the Origin of Species?) DNA breaks down when left to itself? Mutations on the whole are neutral — they don't affect survivability. Some mutations are detrimental, and are therefore less likely to be passed on. Some mutations are beneficial, and are therefore more likely to be passed on. It really isn't that hard, surely?

On pulling teeth and asking AnAtheist for some evidence | The Tentative Apologist

I've been sorely tempted over the past few months to register with this site in order to post some comments of my own. Thankfully I've resisted the temptation, because I know I would likely be drawn into fruitless and frustrating to-and-fro. Randal Rauser, the "Tentative Apologist", is one of those theologians who refuses to be pinned down on anything at all. This latest post is about his request for one of his commenters,, to provide evidence for his atheism. Mr. Tentative Apologist knows perfectly well that the burden of proof does not lie with, because it isn't who is making a claim. Nevertheless Mr. T. A. continues to maintain that lack of belief in a god or gods is a claim of some kind, which requires evidence in support of it. It's telling that William Lane Craig uses the same tactic in debates about the existence of God, where he always reframes the question so that he can demand that his opponent provide "evidence that atheism is true". But if I say I see no compelling evidence for the existence of a god or gods, I'm not making a claim about the existence of anything. What use is it, therefore, to ask me to provide evidence for the lack of evidence? (I'm glad I've so far resisted the aforementioned temptation.)

Bad Idea of 2009: “other ways of knowing” « Why Evolution Is True
My vote for the worst idea of 2009 — at least in the “faith wars” — is that science and religion provide complementary (and equally valid) “ways of knowing.” It’s an idea that’s been bruited about by not just the faithful, but by atheist accommodationists like those running the National Center for Science Education.
This idea is terrible because a. it’s nonsensical, b. its proponents never examine it critically, because if they did they’d see that c. it’s wrong. It’s a mantra, a buzz-phrase.
I'd vote for that too (but only if I could also vote for the Irish Blasphemy Law, and....)

Stephen Law: Seeing Angels

This is about the recent Radio 4 Beyond Belief programme in which Chris French was asked what evidence would convince him of the existence of angels. Professor French gave a perfectly reasonable reply, in terms of a controlled experiment, which was then summarily rejected on the grounds of such things as angels being not susceptible to scientific investigation. The woo-merchants do this all the time — it makes me wonder what precisely they mean by "existence". (See my own blogpost for various links to the audio.)

Skeptic » eSkeptic » Wednesday, December 30th, 2009 — Oh, the Horror! Why Skeptics Should Embrace the Supernatural on Television by Jason Colavito

An interesting essay on the origins of supernatural fiction. (The title, however, is misleading — it's not about TV.) Some people automatically assume that if you write about ghosts you naturally believe they exist. Not so; I think the evidence for the existence of ghosts is extremely poor, but that doesn't stop me writing stories in which they feature as "real" entities. One thing that does annoy me about some "hackwork" (to use Colavito's term), and which does often apply to TV as well as film, is the idea that not only is the supernatural element real, but that it is also completely understood. I've lost count of the number of B-movie horror plots in which some character ("expert", "scientist", "investigator" or whatever) takes ten minutes to perform some massive infodump that leaves nothing to speculation. That usually occurs in the first half-hour, which at least gives me the chance to say, "Thanks, but no thanks," and switch off.

Celebrations! (or something....) — this is my 200th Evil Burnee post.

Monday 28 December 2009

Professor Chris French on "Beyond Belief" BBC Radio 4

Chris French appeared on Radio Four's Beyond Belief programme today, in a discussion about guardian angels. And yes, it was beyond belief. Prof French did extremely well to keep his cool in the face of a barrage of total weirdness.

The podcast audio (mp3) can be downloaded here for 7 days:

Or get the podcast on iTunes:

Or stream the audio from iPlayer:

The mp3 can also be downloaded from RapidShare, here:

UPDATE 2010-01-01: See also:

Chris French on Radio 4’s Beyond Belief discussing guardian angels « manicstreetpreacher
Stephen Law: Seeing Angels 

Book review: The Jewel of Medina — by Sherry Jones

The Jewel of Medina had been in my pre-order/save for later list on Amazon for many months, waiting for it to be finally published. The self-censorship chill surrounding this novel after it was unceremoniously pulled by publisher Random House had piqued my interest in what could have made them so jumpy, given that until they received an unfavourable report from one of their pre-publication readers they were keen to spend tons of money to promote it. Then the British publisher was bombed and yet again the book was withdrawn.

But when I saw that this story of Muhammad's favourite wife was available on Amazon's Kindle Store, for immediate download, I requested a free sample (which Amazon allows Kindle users to do) and a minute later I was reading it. It seemed like a straightforward fictional tale about some recognisable historical figures, told using unfamiliar-to-me terminology (which I later found explained in a glossary at the end of the book).

When I reached the end of the substantial sample I ordered the whole novel, and in another minute I was able to continue where I left off. (Why am I boring you with the technicalities of Kindle readership? Because The Jewel of Medina was the first novel I purchased for my new Kindle e-reader, that's why.)

Much has been made of the Prophet's paedophilic tendencies in taking a wife aged nine years (she was betrothed to him at age six), but in this fictional account of her marriage to Muhammad, though A'isha is indeed married aged nine, it's not until she is 15 that her marriage is consummated. I've no idea how accurate this narrative is. Sherry Jones, the author, who is not a Muslim, explains in a Q & A at the end of the book that she did take certain liberties with the historical account, but this particular aspect is not mentioned.

Being the first-person story of a child, this is inevitably a self-centred story. A'isha is headstrong and full of her own importance, alternating with bouts of extreme self-doubt, with the result that her fickleness tends to tedium after a while. The shallowness of her vision is reflected in the narrative, though this might be expected in a child's story. It might also explain why we never get any real sense of place; Mecca and Medina are locations of geographical uniqueness, but A'isha, constrained as she is in purdah and subsequently in Muhammad's harem, tells us little of what these places are like. She makes frequent visits to the poor in a "tent city" but all too frequently we are confined in her thoughts of other things.

At one point she runs away, almost indulging in a fling with her childhood sweetheart — this is giving nothing away, as the conclusion of this event is what opens the story. Unfortunately it looks as if this messing with the structure of the novel might have been done at the last minute, as the text appears to have been simply clipped from the middle of the novel and plonked on to the beginning, with only rudimentary attempts to fix the ragged edges left behind.

There are some moments of pithy and evocative writing towards the end of the novel, but not enough to balance the shallow and often leaden prose that goes before. This may have been the author's intention, to show A'isha's outlook and intellect maturing, but it seems ill-judged to fetter the majority of the narrative for such small effect.

One aspect of the novel's style, which I'm assuming isn't an artefact of its formatting for the Kindle, is an unconventional quirk in the way dialogue is shown. Conventionally, when someone speaks and then someone else speaks — whether or not there are dialogue tags (he said, she said and the like) — the second speaker's words are shown in quotation marks, but in a new paragraph. Many times this format is used in The Jewel of Medina, but it turns out that the same person is speaking. Unfortunately this format quirk isn't sufficiently different from the conventionally accepted (and most popular) style, with the result that it simply confused me, and I had to stop and re-read. Anything that drops the reader out of the narrative is undesirable and an impediment to good novelistic style.

The Jewel of Medina is not a bad book, but it isn't a particularly good one either. Its interest lies in its historical subject matter and, inevitably, the controversy surrounding it. I read somewhere that the novel, dealing with the Prophet's intimate relations with his wives, was pornographic. It isn't.

Monday 21 December 2009

Burnee links for Monday

Hot!'A message from Simon Singh:' by Simon Singh and Síle Lane -
The fight goes on...

Remembering the Rushdie Affair « Ask the Agent
I recently read The Jewel of Medina by Sherry Jones, so this post about what it was like to be a bookseller fire-bombed for selling Rushdie's The Satanic Verses struck a chord. (Via Friendly Atheist.)

Truth in Science – Letter to all UK schools › British Centre for Science Education
Looks like they're still at it....

Science, Reason and Critical Thinking: The Ladybird Book of Chiropractic Treatment & English Libel Law
What we need is guide so simple a child could understand it. Here it is:

Theodicy III: Primo Levi versus Francis Collins « Why Evolution Is True
I've read some Primo Levi, but not Francis Collins. It seems to me, however, that Jerry Coyne's take on theodicy is exactly right.

A contest gets a winner: common creationist claims refuted : Pharyngula
One to bookmark for when you need it (and you will).

Creation Science Movement — New evidence on chance mutation and cancer
Once again this reveals the creationist blind-spot:
Two amazing observations relevant to the creation versus evolution argument flow from this. First, is it not astounding that the cells of our bodies are able to survive so well for so long under such an onslaught? Secondly, and most devastating for the evolutionary hypothesis of natural selection acting on chance mutations, we see that random copying errors break down and destroy rather than build up and create as neo-Darwinians insist. How can people believe in information-adding beneficial mutations in the light of the scientific facts, right before our eyes again in today’s news, that mutations cause cancer? Once again, the actual science validates the genetic entropy hypothesis, the idea that DNA sequences start out good but tend to go downhill with time and chance, the opposite of what neo-Darwinism requires to be so.
Most mutations are neutral. Some are detrimental to the organism, and some are beneficial, in that they confer better adaptation or survivability for the organism in its environment. To say that DNA sequences "start out good but tend to go downhill with time and chance" betrays the creationist mind-set of purpose — as if there's something that so-called neo-Darwinism is trying to achieve. Evolution does what it does because it has no choice. "Goodness" simply doesn't come into it.

Saturday 12 December 2009

Them: Adventures With Extremists — by Jon Ronson

Some time before TAM London I was recommended by someone on a blog (I think it was one of the Skepchicks) to read The Men Who Stare At Goats by Jon Ronson, because it was a good book that was being made into a film — and Ronson was likely to talk about it at TAM. Almost as an aside, this same blogger also recommended Them: Adventures With Extremists by the same author. I found both books cheaply at Amazon UK so I ordered them (I mean, I ordered Them, and I ordered The Men Who... oh, forget it).

When the books arrived I perused the blurbs, and noticed that Them had a reference to David Icke, and when I flicked through it I saw there was a chapter titled "There are lizards, and there are lizards". So I turned to it. Soon I'd read the whole chapter, and decided to start the book at the beginning, immediately. It was that compulsive.

Ronson spent time with a variety of extremists, conspiracy theorists and nutters (er... Icke?), reporting his conversations without foisting his own judgement on the reader. He has a self-effacing style of journalism — a kind of equal-opportunity indifference that treats a conversation with a little known Islamic fundamentalist on the same level as, say, Denis Healey.

The theme of the book is the search for the secret room in which the New World Order controls the whole world. The fact that some of the conspiracy theorists believe that the members of the elite "Bilderberg Group" (whether or not that elusive group is actually the NWO) consist of alien shape-shifting lizards twelve feet high only adds extra weirdness to the whole affair. It's an amusing journey which reads as if extracted verbatim from Ronson's journal.

He draws few conclusions, presenting his findings as they are, so the total effect seems more than a little disjointed. It's not a definitively researched thesis, though the dry humour sprinkled throughout the narrative more than makes up for any perceived lack of academic rigour. Ronson seems less concerned with assembling known facts than with conveying the general paranoia of his interviewees. It's hard to judge the extent or significance of what he's reporting, but it does make for a fascinating — if picaresque — story, especially, I imagine, if you have a penchant for sacrificing children to giant owls.

(I'm pleased to report, Jon Ronson did indeed talk about Them and The Men Who Stare at Goats at TAM London.)

Thursday 10 December 2009

Burnee links for Thursday

Hot hot hot!The Atheist Experience: Hooray, Mormons!
An object-lesson in dealing on your doorstep.

Group organizes to be 'good without God' --
Clear evidence that the various atheist billboards are serving a useful purpose. Unfortunately the comments on this article may lead you to despair. (Via

Febrile nitwits and the hacked climate change emails : Pharyngula
Before we throw up our hands in horror, let's have a look at the facts.

Intelligent design is not science | Denis Alexander | Comment is free |
A somewhat half-hearted rebuttal of Alastair Noble's article. (Read mine.)

I am leaving the JREF Presidency | Bad Astronomy | Discover Magazine
Definitely a surprise.

Are atheists really fundamentalists? - Telegraph
A slightly equivocal report of the debate I recently attended. Even though Nigel Farndale says he voted against the motion (as did I), his article contains some nonsensical assertions — for instance: "The professor of philosophy seemed to have no idea how insulting he was being to the bishop when he compared his belief to the belief a child has in fairies, pixies and goblins." The professor of philosophy was of course A.C. Grayling, the least insulting debater I have ever heard. The idea that this comparison is insulting lies at the heart of the problem the so-called new atheists have with religion, which unjustly claims immunity from offence by right.

Hey Religious Believers, Where's Your Evidence? | Belief | AlterNet
Greta Christina examines the evidence religious believers offer in support their beliefs. Or she would if they offered any.

Saturday 5 December 2009

If you're opposed to faith schools, should you work for them?

(I've been meaning to write this post for a while. It concerns a matter of integrity and could possibly brand me a hypocrite.)

I'm not in favour of faith schools. I think they are ideologically divisive and work against integrating different cultures into society at large. Isolating children in a learning culture that explicitly excludes those of different ethnic, cultural or religious origins may reinforce a specific social heritage, but it also encourages an undesirable "them and us" attitude. A particularly illustrative example is that of Northern Ireland where sectarian strife has been inculcated into generations of schoolchildren, leading to inter-faith violence that remains difficult to eradicate.

At the same time I understand why caring parents tend to favour faith schools: the standards of behaviour and academic achievement in those schools appear in general to be higher than in non-faith schools. The perceived differential, however, is less to do with the disputable benefits of faith-based education than with faith schools' use of a form of selection; faith schools, on the pretext of a religious test of applicants (actually of their parents), are able to screen out pupils who would tend to lower their averages.

So I think there's a good case for saying that faith schools are unfairly catering for a privileged elite, and the extra feature — religious indoctrination — is just an additional undesirable add-on.

I don't believe faith schools are in general a good idea. But in my day job I deal with faith schools — specifically, voluntary aided Catholic primary (and a few secondary) schools — providing services that are paid for 90% by the state and 10% by the church. I could therefore say that if 85% of my living comes from work in faith schools, 8.5% of that living is funded by the church.

Doesn't this run counter to my ethical principles? Am I not supporting the idea of faith schools by not quitting my job and finding something else to do?

Not necessarily.

The people who benefit from my work are the pupils, and to some extent the teachers. Improving conditions and facilities for children aged 4 to 11 (or 15 in the case of secondary schools), who are unlikely to have had any say in where they go to school, is a matter of making a difference where one can. The pupils and teachers are not responsible for the system, and meanwhile children need to be educated.

The indoctrination aspect is of course a concern to me. The schools I visit display religious imagery — and there's plenty of stuff about Jesus, as one would expect from Catholic schools, but I'm pleased to report that I've never seen any creationist nonsense. I'd heard that the Catholics don't like Harry Potter, but my observations indicate otherwise. The preponderance of religious ritual in these schools, however, is worrying — in the case of primary schools this is definitely indoctrination of children too young to know what's being done to them. Visiting a Catholic primary school on the day of First Communion is a disturbing experience (and goes some way to explaining the incidence of paedophilia in the Catholic priesthood — but that's probably best left to another blog-post).

If these schools didn't exist I would hope to be providing the same services to secular state schools — it's an accident of my employment that the firm I work for has connections with the Catholic Church, whose local administrators turn to us for professional services.

Ultimately it comes down to this: I'm against faith schools because although they may be giving children a good academic education, they do a disservice by indoctrinating them with religious dogma that's incapable of objective substantiation, and they are socially divisive. If I can improve their conditions to the extent that their environment is more conducive to learning in general, I hope the children will get an even better academic education, as a result of which they'll have a better chance, as they grow older, of seeing through the religious nonsense.

Being as it were on the inside, I also get to see how one particular denomination of faith-based education operates. It's far from ideal, but I believe I can live (and work) with it.

Tuesday 1 December 2009

Creationist twaddle in the Guardian

This article by Alastair Noble in the Guardian's Comment is free section was flagged at No doubt it will be kicked to death — deservedly so — but I did find some particular dumbosities that made me wonder whether the Guardian is being deliberately provocative having it appear on their site:
As a former science teacher and schools inspector, I am disturbed that proposals for science education are based on near-complete ignorance of intelligent design. I also think the views of most British people in this matter should not be so readily set aside.
I am disturbed that a former science teacher and schools inspector should propose the teaching of non-science in a science class. "Near-complete ignorance" is pretty much the most anyone can know about intelligent design, because there's nothing there. And scientific truth is not a matter of public popularity — even if every last British citizen thought creationism was true, that would not make it so.
It is an all too common error to confuse intelligent design with religious belief. While creationism draws its conclusions primarily from religious sources, intelligent design argues from observations of the natural world. And it has a good pedigree. A universe intelligible by design principles was the conclusion of many of the great pioneers of modern science.
Intelligent design is a religious belief (and was declared so by Judge Jones in the famous Dover trial in America). If you look at the natural world and conclude that it was intelligently designed, you must take the next step and ask who designed it. Aliens? God? You choose, but you must base your choice on scientific evidence. If you have no evidence, then why are you proposing this as science? Intelligent design does not have "a good pedigree". It's true that great pioneers of modern science were creationists, but they were pre-Darwin. They were also religious, along with the majority of the population at the time.
It is easily overlooked that the origin of life, the integrated complexity of biological systems and the vast information content of DNA have not been adequately explained by purely materialistic or neo-Darwinian processes. Indeed it is hard to see how they ever will.
Actually the integrated complexity of biological systems has been largely explained by evolution and natural selection. The information content of DNA will probably be explained too. It may be hard for you to see how, Mr. Noble, but just because you can't imagine it, that's no excuse for throwing your hands in the air and proclaiming it must have been done by aliens or God. There's progress on the abiogenesis front too — I understand it's been suggested in some quarters that the production of life in the laboratory may be achieved within a few years.
In an area such as this, where we cannot observe what happened directly, a legitimate scientific approach is to make an inference to the best explanation. In the case of the huge bank of functional information embedded in biological systems, the best explanation – based on the observation everywhere else that such information only arises from intelligence – is that it too has an intelligent source.
The "observation everywhere else" is that information is created by human intelligence. That's a sample of one, from which you cannot extrapolate anything because it's statistically unsound. Much of biology that was once thought to be irreducibly complex has now been shown to have evolved, or to have plausible evolutionary pathways to its present form. There's no reason to suppose that the presence of information in DNA will not be similarly explained.
There is a tendency in school science to present the evidence for evolution as uniformly convincing and all-encompassing, failing to distinguish between what is directly observable – such as change and adaptation over time through natural selection – and the more hypothetical elements, like the descent of all living things from a common ancestor. The evidence for these various strands is not of equal strength.
The research accruing from the complete sequencing of both the human genome and the genomes of other animals makes it far more likely that all living things have a single common ancestor, now that we understand so much more about how DNA works. Evolution by random mutation and natural selection is a scientific theory that's been consistently hammered for 150 years. Every scrap of new evidence uncovered has had the potential to falsify the theory, but instead has reinforced it, to the extent that evolution can be considered as much a scientific fact as the "theory" of gravity.
If you insist that intelligent causation is to be excluded in the study of origins then you are teaching materialist philosophy, not science.
I'm at a loss to know how intelligent causation could actually be taught in a science class. What do you tell the students? What demonstrations do you devise? Let's say, for instance, you're looking at the structure of primitive, single-celled organisms and you want the students to understand how they might have come into existence. You might talk about amino acids and self-replicating molecules — or you might simply close the textbook and say, "An intelligent causative agent caused the first cells to come into existence." That's not science, that's an intellectual cop-out.
I believe current government guidance is wrong in denying intelligent design the status of science. However, it does encourage teachers to handle it "positively and educationally". That's a small step in the right direction.
"Intelligent design" is not science.

Saturday 28 November 2009

Burnee links for Saturday

Ouch!BBC rejects call for non-religious speakers on Thought for the Day | Media |
Bummer. I'm not surprised though, as I seriously doubted that the BBC would budge an inch on this. Nevertheless I think they should change the name so it more accurately reflects the content. Obviously "thought" is not necessarily religious.

BBC Trust approves continuing discrimination against humanists on Thought for the Day — BHA
Told you.

BHA responds to critics: "take the time to read the adverts and think"
The media response to the "Please Don't Label Me" campaign illustrates precisely why the campaign is needed.

Hey, preacher – leave those kids alone | Ariane Sherine | Comment is free |
Ariane Sherine launches the latest stage in the Atheist Bus/Book/Billboard Campaign.

New Humanist — "Vote rationally with Skeptical Voter"
Should be worth checking out, if you care who represents you.

The Acts of the Apostles (of Science) - Reciprocal Space - Stephen Curry's blog on Nature Network
Ever since I first heard the story as a child, I've been on the side of "Doubting Thomas" — Stephen Curry articulates why.

On Faith Panelists Blog: Influence on equal terms - Paula Kirby
The brilliant and incisive Paula Kirby tells "secular humanist" John Denham precisely what's wrong with his "belief in faith".

How to get inner peace - DC's Improbable Science
One reason why advice should be specific.

Atheism is the new fundamentalism' by Debate - Intelligence Squared -
I'll be there. Expect a report of some kind.

Friday 27 November 2009

Richard Dawkins at Conway Hall (June 2009)

My own effort at recording a snippet of Richard Dawkins' opening talk at the BHA Darwin, Humanism and Science one-day conference at Conway Hall last June was less than successful, so I'm glad to see this at last posted on YouTube. (I imagine the delay might have been something to do with the book tour for The Greatest Show On Earth. Dawkins gave a similar talk at the AAI 2009 convention, but I'm embedding this one, which I actually attended.)

(The day was opened by Richard Dawkins and closed by A. C. Grayling, and I'll be hearing them both in person again at the Wellington Squared debate in Crowthorne on Sunday.)

Saturday 21 November 2009

"News Quiz" discusses "Thought for the Day"

Friday's "News Quiz" on BBC Radio 4 had a couple of minutes on the BBC Trust's decision this week not to allow non-religious viewpoints on the Today Programme's "Thought for the Day" segment. The participants are Francis Wheen, Carrie Quinlan, Jeremy Hardy (who has a go at Richard Dawkins) and Sue Perkins, with Sandi Toksvig in the chair.

Relevant excerpt (2'46" 1.3 Mb mp3):

Podcast episode (28'06" 25.8 Mb mp3) downloadable for seven days:

Audio stream from iPlayer for seven days:

For iPlayer-deprived listeners, download the relevant episode's mp3 here:

Monday 16 November 2009

Burnee links for Monday

Flaming links!The Great Desecration : Pharyngula
This seminal event of the atheist blogosphere in July last year has come up for discussion again recently (it never really went away), so I decided to link to it — for some reason I didn't at the time. "Crackergate" — or the sentiment behind it — is to an extent fueling the controversy over accommodationism, and though some may consider that PZ Myers was unnecessarily provocative in his actions over the consecrated Eucharist that came into his possession, I personally feel that he judged the whole affair pretty shrewdly. If you read the blog post that accompanies the photograph depicting said desecration you can see that the entire incident serves to illustrate much that PZ espouses in his writing and speaking. Even the existence of his hate-mail (including death threats) contributes to the points he made — and continues to make.

xkcd - A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language - By Randall Munroe
Such a simple message.

(Click the image to see the whole strip.)

When antiscience kills: dowsing edition | Bad Astronomy | Discover Magazine
You thought that staring at goats in order to give them heart attacks — and similar nutty stuff — was all in the past? Think again.

A Leicester skeptic visits a business making some strange claims - This is
I'm sure there's a perfectly rational explanation for why two separate tests for 400 allergens came up with almost entirely different results despite using samples taken from only one person ... such as, "it doesn't work".
(Via Jack of Kent)

Off The Wall - JREF
It's disheartening to know that Derek Acorah still commands TV ratings in the UK, despite how obviously fake the various programmes are. Incidentally Derren Brown has an amusing Acorah anecdote in Tricks of the Mind.

'Casey Luskin: Let's restore civility to the debate on evolution and intelligent design ' by Casey Luskin - -
Luskin is being (to put it mildly) disingenuous. But my reason for linking to this is the particular comment by "NiceMrSmith". I share his frustration.

Shoddy Sewell in Sunday Times Shocker — New Humanist
Shoddy indeed, and deserving of the opprobrium this article is getting. (Here's my own opprobrium on it.)

The Meming of Life » [fuehrer221 has logged out] — Parenting Beyond Belief
Made me laugh. And think.

Confessions of a Catholic Atheist: Moral Relativism, or Why Everything Isn't OK
Moral relativism is a dirty word*, but we have to ask: relative to what?

Faith groups to be key policy advisers - Telegraph
John Denham may have his heart in the right place, but one cannot help wondering about his brain. A. C. Grayling follows up:
John Denham's misplaced 'faith group' faith | AC Grayling | Comment is free |

(*Yes I know; two words.)

Saturday 14 November 2009

Charles Darwin and the children of the evolution - Times Online

There's so much wrong with this article.

For a start, whatever these psychopaths are saying about following "natural selection", that's not what they're doing. They are instituting their own kind of artificial selection — trying to give what they see as Darwinism a "helping hand". This is no different from what Hitler attempted with eugenics, which was based not on "random mutation and natural selection" but on the kind of artificial selection that dog-breeders (for instance) have been doing for centuries. All this article shows is that many people don't understand what Darwin's theory says (and have probably learned what they "know" from creationists — who consistently get Darwin wrong).

he author of this article, also seems to fall into the trap of somehow associating morality (or lack of it) with Darwin's theory. Unfortunately for morality, scientific facts are not amenable to opinion. The science is either true or false. Creationists are fond of saying that Darwin's theory leads to immorality, which, even if that were the case, has no bearing whatever on its scientific validity.

All this article shows is not that Darwin's theory has somehow been detrimental to some people's morality, but that some people are appallingly ill-informed about it. The fault lies squarely in the lap of education, and illustrates perfectly why evolution should be part of the primary school curriculum.

One last thing: citing Ann Coulter in support of your argument is, to put it mildly, ill-advised.

Sunday 8 November 2009

Humanist Symposium #45

The 45th Humanist Symposium is now available at Confessions of a Closet Atheist. This is my first time participating in any kind of blog carnival, and I'm proud to be in such varied and interesting company. (For my money the pick of the bunch is Greta Christina's contribution, which is typically insightful and comprehensive.)

Tuesday 3 November 2009

Burnee links for Tuesday

Keep the home fires burning...Review: Unscientific America : The Uncredible Hallq
If you thought the reviews so far were bad....

Letters to the Earth — The First Question
Why is there something rather than nothing?

Can We Talk About Religion, Please? - The Moral of the Story Blog -
Yes we can, but it's still likely to raise disproportionate ire among religionists who think they have immunity from criticism.

'Give us your misogynists and bigots' by Richard Dawkins - The Washington Post -
Linked from rather than the Washington post, to give the piece some context.

U.S. resists anti-defamation resolution - World Faith-
At last the US speaks out against the OIC's insidious UN resolution.
(Via Pharyngula)

Science and free speech go hand-in-hand — British Humanist Association
How inconvenient and irresponsible of Professor David Nutt to point out that scientific evidence isn't something that is subject to a vote.

The internet has done for Scientology. Could it rumble the Christians, too? | Marina Hyde | Comment is free | The Guardian
We can only hope....

Decomposing Humanism: Why Replace Religion? | Religion & Theology | ReligionDispatches
Austin Dacey makes the point that it's not necessary for Humanism (with a capital H) to replace religion.

Guest Voices: The secularist case against "Atheism 3.0" - On Faith at
Here's Austin Dacey again, hoping (probably in vain) that we can focus less on the "atheism vs religion" arguments and more on things that really matter. (Plus there's a book to promote.)

Are the "New Atheists" As Bad as Christian Fundamentalists? | Belief | AlterNet
Frank Schaeffer delivers a diatribe against Dawkins and Hitchens (but Dennet is a nice chap, apparently). But wait! Didn't he forget Harris?

Ray Comfort Replies to Eugenie Scott : Pharyngula
So that misguided people don't simply shut their ears to reasoned criticism one should give them the benefit of the doubt. Some people, however, are willfully, obstinately ignorant and deserve to be ridiculed without mercy.

Sunday 1 November 2009

''The Evolution of Confusion'' by Dan Dennett, AAI 2009

''The Evolution of Confusion'' by Dan Dennett, AAI 2009, RDFRS, Josh Timonen -

For a superb take-down of theology, watch this video of Dan Dennett at the Atheist Alliance International 2009 convention:

I concur with his characterisation of philosophical theology as "a pseudo-sophisticated mug's game" and "willful obscurity".

Sunday 25 October 2009

Burnee links for Sunday

Hot!England’s libel laws don’t just gag me, they blindfold you | Simon Singh - Times Online
Simon Singh outlines why his libel case is important.

CFI Opposes “Defamation of Religions” Resolution at the UN | Center for Inquiry
There's something seriously adrift at the UN if these kinds of resolutions get repeatedly passed.

Alpha course poll finds 96% of people do not believe in god — British Humanist Association
I wonder if the BHA's Public Affairs Officer Naomi Phillips, quoted in this press release, has considered the possibility that the Alpha Course poll may have been Pharyngulated.

Jack of Kent: The Legal Scholarship of Dr Lionel Milgrom
... or lack of. A valuable lesson in the world of today's media: as a basic principle when discussing controversial issues, at least get your facts right.

Butterflies and Wheels Article — "How Pleasant to Know Mr Ham" by Ed Turner
See also my recent Skepticule interview with Ed Turner.

Fancy a coffee? Look out – the evangelists are waiting for you! | National Secular Society:
"The Waterlooville branch of Costa is hosting an Alpha Course starting this week, the first time one has been seen outside a church. Organiser Gary Chapman, from Church of the Good Shepherd, had the idea after attending two separate training sessions about Alpha and Café Church."
There's an Alpha Course running (in a church) about two miles from me in Cosham, and Waterlooville is the town where I work. Is this all a reaction to the success of the Atheist Bus Campaign?

New Tory MP declines to take religious oath | National Secular Society
This is a good sign, although it seems that god-belief still pervades the Conservative leadership.

Sneaky card looks fun : Pharyngula
Yes it does. And it's refreshing to see something like this steering away from modern technology for a change.

Listen and cringe : Pharyngula
My friendly neighbourhood creation museum gets the once-over. Again.

Little Kitten - Tim Minchin Goes Rock’N’Roald
I found Tim Minchin's brief but intense gig at TAM London hugely impressive. And now I discover he's involved with the Royal Shakespeare Company — the best theatre company in the world — who themselves have an impressive record with musicals (I was present for the Barbican press night of Les Miserables — a critical failure but an economic masterstroke. I doubt the RSC would be currently rebuilding their Stratford-upon-Avon base without the income accruing worldwide from every single performance of Les Mis.)

On Faith Panelists Blog: Business as usual for Vatican Enterprises, Inc. - Paula Kirby
One more item on the list of reasons why the Catholic Church is not a force for good in the world.

It’s Been a Year Since I Lost My Religion « Struck by Enlightning
See? It really is worth it.

I Must I Must Increase My Bust « The Merseyside Skeptics Society
Well, not me personally, but, you know....

Saturday 24 October 2009

There is a line to be drawn — why I'm against "accommodationism"

Most people who meet me would, I think, consider that I'm a fairly easy-going chap, not prone to outbursts of vitriolic invective or uncompromising rage.

I'm usually prepared to accommodate people's foibles and make allowances for mild idiosyncrasies. This makes for a quite life, without avoidable friction. And it's fine as far as it goes. It's fine if others are prepared to be included in the give and take. But being easy-going doesn't mean you need to be a doormat. There comes a time when easy-going ceases to be a beneficial strategy. When others won't play by the rules, and take advantage of someone's attitude of tolerance, that's when the normally meek and mild need to take a firm stand.

Nowhere is this more important in today's multicultural world than in matters of belief — especially unsubstantiated belief. That's why, in the matter of the current belief/non-belief/accommodationist debate, I'm firmly on the side of Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers.

"Accommodationism" is all very fine and dandy, but it doesn't work. Giving leave to those who proclaim unsubstantiated belief to have sway over matters that are capable of objective substantiation simply opens the gate to mysticism and woo. Whether it's "alternative" medicine being endorsed by the National Health Service, or the validity of moral edicts derived from ancient scripture, those of us who base our lives on what is objectively true have a duty to point out unsubstantiated assertion, especially if someone is attempting to influence decisions that will affect other people. It's no good attempting to excuse behaviour of this sort with words of conciliation. Unsupported, dangerous nonsense should be stamped on, forthwith.

Believers in woo can be left to wallow in their fantasies, but the moment they become purveyors of woo they implicitly open themselves to public scrutiny, and we should not be shy in calling them on anything that appears to fail the evidential test. Assertions not grounded in evidence should be brought into the light of rational analysis, even to the extent of naming and shaming. The purveyors of woo, be they magical thinkers or faith-based dogmatists, should be made to account for their claims or else withdraw them. Those who refuse should be publicly shunned.

"But your reality isn't the only one," they say. "What's real for you, isn't necessarily real for us." OK, fine. Show me your "reality". Show me, in particular, what makes you think it's real. Show me the evidence. If you won't, then don't expect me or anyone else to give it credence.

There is a line to be drawn, and it's here. I'm an easy-going chap, most of the time. Rant over.

Friday 23 October 2009

Evolutionary Theory: Is This All There Is?

Yesterday I received my ticket for a one-day event on Saturday 31 October at Conway Hall put on by the Humanist Philosophers, supported by the South Place Ethical Society and the British Humanist Association, entitled Evolutionary Theory: Is this all there is?

Here's the blurb from the BHA website:

Evolutionary Theory has a lot going for it, but how far does it go? Can it provide adequate explanations of human psychology - emotions, imagination - of our moral sense and aesthetic appreciation? Does Evoluntary Theory have anything valuable to say about our free choices and the meaning of life?

These questions will be explored in three discussions, chaired by Peter Cave (chair of Humanist Philosophers and author of 'Humanism: a beginner's guide'), with opportunities for questions and contributions from the floor.

Human psychology: 'Are human minds made by memes?' with Susan Blackmore, Visiting Professor of Psychology at the University of Plymouth and Simon Blackburn, Professor of Philosophy, University of Cambridge

Ethics: 'Can there be genuine value and virtue in a godless universe?' with Emeritus Professor John Cottingham, University of Reading; Professor David Papineau, King's College, London; Professor Janet Radcliffe Richards, Director of the Centre for Bioethics and Philosophy of Medicine at University College London.

Meaning and purposes of life: 'What does evolutionary biology have to say about the meaning of life?' by Michael Reiss, Professor of Science Education and Assistant Director of the Institute of Education and Emeritus Professor Richard Norman, University of Kent.

It should be an interesting day. Michael Reiss resigned his post as education director of the Royal Society after his controversial statements about how creationism should be treated in school classrooms.

(As of today, tickets to the event are still available.)

Thursday 22 October 2009

Latest Skepticule now available

Skepticule-004-20091021 is now posted.

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This edition features an interview atheist Ed Turner

Friday 16 October 2009

Burnee links for Friday

Hey, look at the pretty flickering light...Poor Ardipithecus…exploited again : Pharyngula
PZ Myers explains the folly of those who attempt justification of religious dogma with flawed readings of palaeontology. Again.

Butterflies and Wheels Article: Are the 'New Atheists' avoiding the 'real arguments'?
This was brought to my attention by manicstreetpreacher. It pretty much encapsulates my enduring suspicions about vacuous theology. I especially liked Edmund Standing's description of theological pursuits: "the creation of a smokescreen of meaningless jargon in an attempt to make superstition appear sophisticated."

Creationists Say Science and Bible Disprove Ardi Fossil Is Evidence of Evolution - ABC News
...and the Earth is flat, and stationary, with the Sun orbiting it every 24 hours. (This is so bad it hurts.)

Daylight Atheism > Kiva Atheists’ Million-Dollar Milestone
Atheists have no morals, live purely for themselves alone, and have no reason to give to charity (they also eat babies — alive).

Guest Voices: Where is the Evidence of God? - On Faith at
Paula Kirby on evidence — as concise and clear as one could wish.

Creation Science Movement: ‘God is not the Creator’, claims academic
"What Professor Van Wolde seems to be doing is to take the Ancient Near Eastern myths and try to squeeze the Genesis account into conformity with them. But if the only way you can do this is to distort the Genesis account, then it is a pretty good sign that the endeavour is doomed to fail."
Of course, such squeezing and distortion is something that creationists wouldn't dream of attempting....

Complementary and Alternative Medicines: 14 Oct 2009: House of Commons debates ( David Tredinnick (Bosworth, Conservative)

On homeopathy:
"...very clear randomised, double-blind trials that proved that it is effective in the particular area of childhood diarrhoea..."
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Citations please.

In the cathedral I saw a sign. God help us | Matthew Parris - Times Online
Those relics again. See also this excerpt from the Today Programme:

Thursday 15 October 2009

Ariane Sherine at TAM London

If any one person is likely to dispel the notion that atheists are all heartless nihilists, that person must be the lovely Ariane Sherine, who graced the Mermaid stage after lunch on Saturday, to give us the full story of the Atheist Bus Campaign.

It's a heartwarming tale that began with her initial reaction to a Christian bus advertisement and the uncompromising website it linked to (with its dire warning of Hell), and her subsequent suggestion in the Guardian that atheists might like to club together and pay for an ad with a less intimidating message. After a couple of false starts — gleefully snickered at by the press — the campaign suddenly took off, reaching its funding target within hours of its formal launch. The final sum raised was in excess of £150,000 — about 14 times the initial target of £11,000.

News of the campaign's overwhelming success quickly travelled around the globe, prompting similar efforts in many other countries. Atheism, it seemed, had arrived. By bus.

The campaign did have its detractors, many of whom showed up in Ariane Sherine's email, and she treated us to a sad selection of these. They were, however, vastly outnumbered by messages of support, and she thanked those who had been vocal in their encouragement.

Now there's a book. The Atheist's Guide to Christmas is an anthology of contributions from many well known people of the godless persuasion, with all royalties going to the Terrence Higgins Trust. Not bad, for a bunch of nihilistic heathens with nary a moral amongst them.

Ariane Sherine seemed to spend a good deal of her time during the two days of TAM London tirelessly signing copies of the book she edited. No quick-scrawl-and-on-to-the-next for her — each book was patiently inscribed while chatting pleasantly to the recipient. If Richard Dawkins is Britain's most prominent atheist, whom the atheist community might (or might not) like to name as some kind of figurehead, Ariane Sherine is the atheist many of the younger generation must surely aspire to be.

TAM London edition of Skepticule now available

Skepticule-003-20091014 is now posted.

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This edition features an interview with satirical blogger Crispian Jago.

Monday 12 October 2009

The purpose of life

This post is sparked by an interesting recent episode of The Unbelievers, an engaging podcast out of New Zealand, in which the two hosts discussed (among other things) the idea of purpose, and how it colours the perception of both religious and non-religious people. While they agreed that atheism does not itself have a purpose, they nevertheless went on to speculate that the purpose of life could in some sense be "to reproduce". This, I feel, illustrates the strong grip that the idea of "intention" has on our human way of thinking, and it's not, in my opinion, helpful.

In the absence of a religious purpose for human life (for instance, "the glorification of God"), it might seem reasonable for perpetuation of the species to be offered as a substitute. But reproduction is simply what humans, and other species, do. If they didn't, they would become extinct. Reproduction is not, therefore, a purpose, but simply the result of evolution. Those that are best at reproduction (which includes being good at surviving to reproductive age) are the ones who pass on their genes to the most offspring.

Such a statement is somewhat tautologous ("the ones that survive are the ones that survive"), but its very tautology shows why the idea of a "purpose" behind it is wrong-headed. Human reproduction is the way it is as a result of random mutation and natural selection. There never was any over-arching intention or purpose behind it. Any instinctive impulse to reproduce is there because those without such an impulse tended not to reproduce.

But if there's no intrinsic purpose to life, why are we here? That, surely, is entirely up to us.

Saturday 10 October 2009

Simon Singh at TAM London

Simon Singh, bastion of journalistic integrity with his stand against an apparently vexatious libel suit brought against him by the British Chiropractic Association, talked initially about the Bible Code, which is the idea that holy scripture contains hidden references to modern events — or in other words predictions — and therefore must be the true Word of God. This, apparently, is nonsense and has been shown to be such by applying the same "decoding" techniques to other literature. For instance, Herman Melville's Moby Dick can be shown to contain hidden references to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

This was but preamble to what I think most of us in the audience wanted to hear: the story so far regarding the libel suit. Singh then told us the story, explaining why he decided not to back down, and illustrated how his stand has raised two related but separate issues: the threat to freedom of speech, where essential and legitimate criticism of bogus practices is suppressed — often by journalists' self-censorship for fear of being sued; and the absurdly inflated costs of defending a libel case in England — to the point where aggrieved plaintiffs go out of their way to sue in this country because they know that in most cases a defendant cannot afford to win, let alone lose. Another reason he cited for not backing down, "Because I'm right," elicited spontaneous applause from the TAM London audience.

Singh explained all this without once uttering the "contentious" phrase that apparently triggered the BCA's action. That was left to the blogger "Jack of Kent" (aka lawyer David Allen Green) who during the Q & A read the offending paragraph from Singh's Guardian article. I was pleased to meet the notorious Jack of Kent the previous evening at the Penderel's Oak in Holborn, where several of those attending the "secret" George Hrab gig gravitated afterwards. Jack of Kent explained during conversation on Friday evening that as a lawyer he's able to say stuff others can't, because he knows just how far he can go without being sued.

Simon Singh thanked all those who continue to support him in the stand he's taking, singling out satirical blogger Crispian Jago for lightening his spirit.

For our part, the TAM London audience gave Simon Singh a standing ovation.

Theodicy, or idiocy?

Listening to a recent episode of Unbelievable? in which Andrew Wilson and Norman Bacrac discussed their occasionally coincident views of God, I was struck once again by how the subject of theology seems to have been invented purely as an attempt to reconcile the inconsistencies of god-belief. The fact that theologians appear to tie themselves in logical knots trying to show how an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and omnibenevolent deity is somehow compatible and consistent with the physical universe as we perceive it, simply shows that they refuse to accept the most parsimonious explanation.

Theodicy, for example, is a real problem, but it's a problem that goes away entirely if you apply Occam's razor and accept that in all probability God doesn't exist.

For a relentless no-holds-barred take-down of theology, see this recent post from Chris Ray at Factonista:

Why skeptics do not, and should not, waste their time with academic theology | Factonista

Friday 9 October 2009

Burnee links for Friday

Don't get burned!The discarded crutches prove that miracles can happen - Telegraph:
"Lourdes is littered with discarded crutches and we can argue the toss about whether it’s a result of psychosomatic healing or divine help. But a remarkable number of those miracles of healing have been independently verified by doctors with no church connections. And that’s a fact."
I think you'll find "the fact" is that in the history of Lourdes pilgrimages, less than a hundred Vatican-ratified miracles are deemed to have occurred. Taken as a percentage of the total number of pilgrims visiting the shrine in the hope of a miracle, that's an appalling record.

Call to stop relaxation of assisted suicide rules amid questions about Lord Phillips' role - Telegraph:
In an interview with The Daily Telegraph’s columnist Mary Riddell on Sept 11, Lord Phillips said he felt “enormous sympathy” for terminally ill patients who wanted to end their own lives in assisted suicides.

He added that he sympathised with people facing a “quite hideous termination of their life” as a result of “horrible diseases” who wanted to avoid a prolonged death and spare their relatives pain or distress.

The campaigners claimed that these remarks showed that Lord Phillips had allowed his personal views to colour his judgement in the Purdy case - which overturned two early decisions by more junior courts - as the country’s senior Law Lord.
Would it have been better if Lord Phillips had said he felt "no sympathy" for terminally ill patients? The Christian Legal Centre seem to be impugning the man simply because they don't agree with his judgement, when all he's doing is showing that he can see both sides of the argument - which is surely what we want in a judge.

Dr. Frank Lipman: Swine Flu: What To Do? - The Huffington Post
Authoritative advice from someone described as an "Integrative Physician" (maybe he uses calculus as a diagnostic tool). So what happened to "complementary" and "alternative"? (Personally I prefer the term "quack".) Here's his final piece of advice:
14) Keep homeopathic Oscillococcinum on hand

Take it at the earliest sign of a cold or flu. Early intervention is essential. If you are exposed to someone with the flu directly, you can take one dose twice a day for two days. You can also take one vial once a week throughout the winter, and two or three times a week during flu season, as a preventative measure.
Well, at least you won't die of thirst (or perhaps it's sugar-deprivation).
(Via Pharyngula)

A creationist edition of The Origin « Why Evolution Is True
I try to be charitable. I don't like to label people stupid unjustly. But Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron give every appearance of being willfully stupid. Ignorance, of course, is no crime, but Comfort has been told time and again where he's getting the most basic aspects of evolutionary theory wrong, yet he persists in spouting non-scientific nonsense. He's completely out of his depth, but appears not to realise it. Or if he does realise it, he's just plain dishonest. Jerry Coyne has the right idea:
"Enough. You don’t have to read this introduction; the theology is as dreadful as the science."
William Lane Craig Provides the “Scholarly” Basis for Holy Horror « manicstreetpreacher's blog
Craig's God is for those of a strong stomach only. This deity's morals are the epitome of fickle caprice - he may lay down the law for you, but he doesn't follow it himself. And he may even command you to break his law ("Do as I say, not as I do"). And anyway, what does it matter if innocents are slaughtered? If they're innocent they'll be going to heaven that much sooner. Manicstreetpreacher dissects Craig's repugnant moral philosophy with surgical abandon.

Advice for atheists? : Pharyngula
PZ is getting uppity. (What, again?)

Greta Christina's Blog: Atheism and History: A Grandiose Thought
Greta Christina is thinking big.

The First Amendment and Obama’s Administration | Center for Inquiry
Ibn Warraq points out that the approval of the recent UN Human Rights Council resolution (US co-sponsored) against - among other things - "negative stereotyping of religions" ought to mean that the First Amendment be repealed. Somehow I don't think that's going to happen.

BBC NEWS | Magazine | When sceptics fight back
BBC coverage of TAM London

The Amazing Meeting, London: Skeptics In The Pub Grows Up - Londonist
More coverage of TAM London

WEEK 1a: “Christianity: Boring, Untrue and Irrelevant?” « Alpha Course: Reviewed
The beginning of Stephen Butterfield's series of blog posts on the Alpha Course.

Science, Reason and Critical Thinking: TAM London
Upcoming Skepticule interviewee Crispian Jago gives us his TAM London round-up.

TAM London in review | Bad Astronomy | Discover Magazine
JREF president Phil Plait reviews the event.

Why skeptics do not, and should not, waste their time with academic theology | Factonista
a) Theology is irrelevant, b) Theology is about dishonesty, c) Theology is without substance.