Sunday 26 April 2009

Book review: Tricks of the Mind – Derren Brown

One thing any book needs to be to win me over, whatever its subject, is well written. A few years ago I read several articles by Sam Harris on the web, and regardless of his message, his prose delighted me. I wanted to read more of his writing, so I bought a copy of The End of Faith and wasn't disappointed.

Derren Brown's Tricks of the Mind isn't quite in Harris's class, but it is well written, its scope is definitely wider(!) plus there are more jokes. Brown relishes the literary trick (likely beloved of conjurors) of setting up a paragraph clearly pointing in one direction then entirely undermining it in the final sentence.

Wry humour and amusing tricks aside, this is a serious book from a master illusionist, mentalist and showman. Brown not only tells how a trick is performed, but goes on to analyse its underlying psychology, explaining not just how it works, but why. Don't expect him to reveal the intricacies of more complicated tricks, but his discussion of the psychology of conjuring is revealing in itself. He includes personal anecdotes throughout the book, though how much of the "real" Derren Brown these truly reveal is impossible to know, considering the man's profession.

Later on Brown explains memory systems, with many practical exercises that demonstrate they do actually work. He also covers hypnotism in depth, even inviting the reader to try it out. I've had my suspicions about the true nature of hypnotism, and was pleased to see them confirmed (though I appreciate that's hardly conclusive proof of what I suspected). After a diversion into self-help motivational techniques he moves on to unconscious communication and lie-detection, describing how it is possible for a skilled, practised and perceptive operator to tell whether or not someone is speaking the truth.

In the last part of the book he looks at pseudo-science, alternative medicine and scepticism in general, including critical thinking, statistics and probability. From there he moves on to comprehensive and passionate coverage of psychic mediums and cold-reading – laced, however, with irony and wit that make these serious chapters a pleasure to read. Finally we have a generously annotated reading list, plus references and an alphabetical index.

My recommendation? Read it – you'll be entertained as well as informed.

Tricks of the Mind, Derren BROWN, Channel 4 Books (Transworld) pb, 416pp, £7.99 ISBN 978-1-905-02635-7

Thursday 23 April 2009

Patriotic bells on St George's Day

This morning, at the end of my drive into work, I heard the sound of church bells. St George's Church is within earshot of my office - and today being St George's Day, the church was doing its patriotic best to annoy me.

I like church bells. The idea of enthusiastic, sweaty campanologists exerting themselves in not-quite-perfect synchronism is a splendid concept, and imagining a group of them in earnest, muscular concentration at the foot of St George's modern bell-tower should have brought a patriotic glow to the cockles of my cynical heart. But it didn't, because I knew that these were not real bells. The cacophonous impingement on my morning serenity was likely initiated by someone pressing a button - or perhaps even by a pre-programmed timer*.

So what, you ask? Why should it bother me that these were not real bells? Because I care about what is and isn't real; about what's true and what's false. Because every single fake thing calls into question the genuine article.

But maybe I shouldn't be surprised - this noise was coming from a church. Fake bells from a fake god - what did I expect?

*Actually this is more probable, as the 15-minute ear-assault was repeated at 12 noon and 3 pm (and for all I know 6 pm as well, though I'd escaped by then).

Burnee links for Thursday

The Free World Bars Free Speech -

The Skeptical Manipulation - JREF

How One Ripped Page Changed a Life By James Pence -

Rationally Speaking: Faith and Reason

New Humanist Blog: Official body explains why bus ad complaints were knocked back

Pharyngula: God's timeline

Jeff Schweitzer: Morality Originates in Religion...Not

Statements & Letters - UN Watch - Joint NGO Statement on Danger of U.N.
“Defamation of Religions” Campaign

(Hundreds of organisations have signed this statement)

Science-Based Medicine » Playing by the Rules
(via onegoodmove)

Experts say new scientific evidence helpfully justifies massive pre-existing moral prejudice. - Bad Science

AC Grayling Speaks Out Again! | AnAtheist.Net

Pharyngula: Catholic geezers deny biology in Louisiana

Sunday 19 April 2009

Who needs an ultimate authority?

Debates between theists and atheists often show up a basic disagreement that goes beyond god-belief, especially in debates about morality. The Australian "Skeptic Zone" podcast recently published a recording of a debate between sceptic Ian Bryce and Reverend Ian Powell on the motion "We Can Be Good Enough Without God". The debate rehashed some of the usual arguments pro and con, but was otherwise a bit disappointing.

Theists can appear superficially successful in such debates, especially if they happen to be ordained priests used to preaching to a congregation. When it comes to public speaking, practice, I imagine, can be an advantage. Comment about the debate appeared on the associated blog, including from Ian Powell, the debating theist. His comment revealed the basic disagreement that I'm attempting to address:
...I really am genuinely puzzled that quite a few atheists don’t seem to see the logical rational difficulty (at least) of starting from base reality of energy etc and working step by careful step to an intellectually coherent binding moral "ought" – socially convenient ought- yes , evolutionary helpful ought - yes – but not one that has any ultimate legitimacy.
Elsewhere the disagreement often surfaces in the form of a statement or a question asking why an atheist should care about anything, since we are all nothing but chemical reactions and electrical impulses. Atheists will counter this argument saying that since they know this life is all they have, all the more reason to live it to the full rather than simply marking time until going to their (non-existent) heavenly reward. Some go further and question how "truly moral" someone can be if their actions are dictated by fear of divine retribution, rather than by the actual benefit conferred on their fellows. It's a valid riposte, as far as it goes, but it doesn't address the fundamental issue. What the theist is really asking is: "Where is your ultimate authority, if it isn't God?" A Christian, for example, may answer this on behalf of atheists by saying that atheists put themselves in the position of ultimate authority, or that atheists invent an ultimate authority, perhaps by making up an alternative set of "humanist commandments".

This misses the point. Christians who ask "Where is your ultimate authority?" frame the question on the basis of their own ultimate authority, namely God, or the Bible as the word of God. If an atheist claims neither of these as the ultimate authority, the theist naturally wants to know what actually is the atheist's ultimate authority.

But there is no ultimate authority. Not God, not scripture, not the Ten Commandments, not the Humanist Manifesto. Nothing. The ultimate authority does not exist. Morality has evolved as a way for humans to survive in social groups, and continues to do so. Now that social groups can be global, morality needs to reflect the aims and wishes of worldwide communities. Rigidly clinging to ancient dogma is, at the very least, inappropriate.

Saturday 4 April 2009

George Hrab on the "abrasiveness" of Dawkins and Myers

George Hrab, musician, atheist, sceptic, recently answered a query on his Geologic Podcast about the so-called abrasiveness of "militant atheists" Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers.

Relevant audio clip (4'02" 1.9 MB) here:
(Warning: strong language.)

Get the whole 46-minute show here:

Incidentally, George also wrote and performed the theme song for the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast, and has released an accompanying video:

Despite appearances, Geo's production team for this video was minimal in the extreme (consisting of, amongst no others, himself).