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.