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.

Thursday 8 October 2009

Jon Ronson at TAM London

When the gnome-like figure of Jon Ronson* mounted the Mermaid stage I was pleasantly surprised to find that the impression of flabbergasted diffidence given by his media appearances seems to be his natural persona. My previous knowledge of him derives from two programmes: a BBC Radio 4 documentary about Robbie Williams attending a UFO convention to speak to alien abductees, and a Channel 4 film in the recent Revelations series, about the Alpha Course.

I'm currently reading his book, Them - Adventures with Extremists, and finding it compulsive. Ronson has a down-to-earth narrative style that's hard to put down.

He began his presentation with a trailer for the film The Men Who Stare at Goats, based on his book of the same name, though he said he had nothing to do with the making of the film. It's about the US military's psychic spying programme, which bizarrely included attempts to kill with the power of the mind. Hence the goats, which were used as target practice. Ronson showed a few other clips from the film as he outlined the absurdity of it all.

I vaguely remember a BBC Horizon programme from decades ago on this subject, and I remember my amazement watching it. Surely, I thought, the US military weren't really doing this? The TV programme itself seemed to remain neutral on the veracity of the claims, which included "remote viewing", but to me the whole thing appeared completely crackpot.

Ronson also showed a clip verifying his dubious distinction of having a weapon named after him. The "Ronsonator" is a fiendish device, as we saw during demonstrations of similar weapons, which could perhaps be described as the knuckle-dusters from Hell:

During the Q & A Ronson answered questions about his film on the Alpha Course, updated us on the whereabouts of one of the subjects of Them, and declined to talk about his current project, which is about Scientology, other than to say that his relations with the Scientologists had so far been cordial. Fascinating stuff.
*Jon Ronson's website froze my browser (Firefox Mac) - you have been warned.

Tuesday 6 October 2009

Absolute knowledge of God's existence

Would it not be possible for an omnipotent God to implant into someone's mind the certain knowledge that he exists?

If that were possible, and if it has happened, then there is - or was - at least one person who at some point in time has known with absolute certainty that God exists. I'm not talking about faith here; by absolute certainty I mean certainty of God's existence, plus the additional certainty that such knowledge is true. This is knowledge that doesn't require proof, or even evidence. It just is.

Would such knowledge qualify as "properly basic belief"? If so, and you come across someone who claims as much, and additionally claims to possess such knowledge, then there's absolutely no point in engaging them in debate about the truth or otherwise of their belief, because they know what they know, and rational argument will be futile. This person knows that God exists, and nothing will shake that knowledge because it is true knowledge.

To anyone else, however, such "knowledge" - whether true knowledge or not - is indistinguishable from delusion.

Monday 5 October 2009

Brian Cox at TAM London

Last weekend I attended The Amaz!ng Meeting, London, put on by the James Randi Educational Foundation. This was the first TAM to be held beyond the shores of North America. It more than fulfilled my expectations and I had a great time. I'll post some of my impressions here, beginning with the first presentation.

It was a scheduling masterstroke to kick off TAM London with a lavishly illustrated presentation by Professor Brian Cox, who explained the purpose behind the Large Hadron Collider (and, incidentally, behind scientific research in general). He outlined the LHC's current state, and by way of a compressed but lucid lecture on cosmology and leading-edge particle physics he showed why this huge accelerator beneath the Swiss-French border is important. His elaboration of the problem that caused the LHC to be shut down shortly after it was commissioned was the clearest I've heard.

His main point was that while it's possible to theorise about scientific subjects, ultimately such theories have to be tested, and when it comes to particle physics, the only way of testing them is with something like the LHC. He also covered the media's misguided panic over the possibility of the LHC producing miniature black holes, listing some media quotes from a number of scientists - including himself: "Anyone who thinks the LHC will destroy the world is a twat."

In Brian Cox we are fortunate to have someone who not only knows his subject inside out, but is also able to communicate abstruse ideas with clarity, wit and passion. (It's no surprise that one of his scientific heroes is Carl Sagan.)

Friday 2 October 2009

New episode of Skepticule posted

Skepticule-002-20091001 is now posted.

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In an hour or so I shall be on my way to TAM London, so expect some TAM-related posts next week.