Friday 31 December 2010

Burnee links for New Year's Eve

British Centre for Science Education: "Evolution and its rivals" - special issue of Synthese
The articles are available online for free (including as downloadable PDFs) until the end of 2010.
(Oops — a bit late with this! Maybe they'll be available again.)

A Holiday Message from Ricky Gervais: Why I'm An Atheist - Speakeasy - WSJ
Plain speaking from Ricky Gervais. However, some of the comments at the WSJ are pretty inane.

Prince Charles too dangerous to be king: This eccentric royal could imperil monarchy | Mail Online
I think most level-headed people are aware of the the Prince of Woo's woolly-mindedness. He's propped up the alternative-medicine industry in the UK and his ill-judged pronouncements have stultified the country's architectural progress. Sure, he needs something to do while waiting to accede, but most of what he's done seems to have been on the whole detrimental. Maybe when he's King he'll be too occupied in the pomp and ceremony of regal duties to pay attention to his hobby horses.

Johann Hari: Your right to protest is under threat - Johann Hari, Commentators - The Independent
The threat is that people will be too afraid of indiscriminate police tactics to join what should be a peaceful protest.

But the shepherd never gets fleeced… : Pharyngula
OK, this is America, but I thought they were supposed to have "separation of church and state" over there. Apparently they just love their priests so much...

Daylight Atheism > Bowing to the Text
Concerning ID's intellectual honesty.

Intelligent Design creationism is fundamentally wrong : Pharyngula
PZ is a-skewering again. Shame he has to do this, but those IDiots are persistent. (And wrong.)

Casey Luskin distorts Behe’s paper « Why Evolution Is True
Exactly as Jerry Coyne predicted.

Does God Exist? Ricky Gervais Takes Your Questions - Speakeasy - WSJ
A follow-up to his previous piece. It's a gem.

YouTube - QED Vodka
Do you know how homeopathic remedies are made?

Celebrity endorsements that are science fiction trashed in annual list | Science | The Guardian
Unfortunately the people who lap up celebrity gossip are probably not the ones who read the Guardian science pages.

Sarah Hippolitus - Love is Stronger than Logic
A fascinating insight into a panel that took place after a one-on-one theist-atheist debate.

The New Age Medicine of Prince Charles | The Quackometer
Andy Lewis gets his teeth into the heir to the throne.

Ignorance: Comparing Dawkins and Plantinga | The Uncredible Hallq
Chris Hallquist is about to tackle the so-called philosophical ignorance of Dawkins and compare it to the so-called scientific ignorance of Plantinga. This could get interesting.

Sam Harris: A New Year's Resolution for the Rich
Clear and unequivocal. Plain speaking (as always) from Sam Harris.

Holy books for the UK government! : Pharyngula
There are probably plenty of candidates qualifying for legal protection from textual molestation.

Hyperbole and a Half: The Year Kenny Loggins Ruined Christmas
A heartwarming Christmas story (that encapsulates the skeptical viewpoint).

"Has God Gone Global?" — Night Waves — BBC Radio 3

From the BBC blurb:
Philip Dodd is joined by a panel of thinkers at the Sage Gateshead to discuss the impact global religion will have on future politics - for good or ill:

David Holloway, vicar of Evangelical Jesmond Parish Church in Newcastle argues that Britain must reconnect with its Christian roots.

Medhi Hassan, Senior Political Editor of the New Statesman Magazine and practising Muslim. A key opponent of Islamophobia in the British Press.

Maryam Narmazie, political activist and spokesperson for Iran Solidarity, Equal Rights Now, the One Law for All Campaign against Sharia Law in Britain and the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain.

Philip Blond, influential theologian behind Red Toryism and Director of the Res publica think tank.

45 minutes streaming audio available on iPlayer:

The discussion was considerably frustrating to listen to. Maryam Namazie had her work cut out countering the usual inanities: secularists have no basis for morality, Dawkins' stridency is the last gasp of atheism, we must live in harmony with other religions even though mine is true and all the others are false, etc.

Saturday 11 December 2010

Burnee links for Saturday

Greta Christina's Blog: Why Religion Is Like Fanfic
A post from 2007, but worth revisiting every so often.

Stone Age flour
"Ultimately there can only be one ‘preconceived view of the evidence’ that can be correct—one that is based on a true history of man’s origins. The Bible’s account of history is true—a history that makes it clear that evolutionary ideas of a pre-agriculture ‘Stone Age’ are without foundation. Early man not only practiced agriculture but also made “all kinds of tools of bronze and iron” (Genesis 4:22), though later circumstances saw some people lose that capacity."
Creation Ministries International bemoans the "preconceived view of the evidence" allegedly adopted by evolutionary theory, then blatantly boasts of its own. Bye-bye logic.

Sense About Science | The effects of the English libel laws on bloggers
An article complementing Sense About Science's guide ‘So you’ve had a threatening letter. What can you do?’

I Have Been Putting on my Shoes | The Quackometer
Andy Lewis on libel risks and precautions for bloggers.

Johann Hari: How to spot a lame, lame argument - Johann Hari, Commentators - The Independent
'what-aboutery', and how to keep arguments focussed.

Richard Dawkins | Christopher Hitchens is my hero of 2010 | Comment is free |
One gnu-atheist praises another — no surprise there, but it's worth reading nevertheless.

Greta Christina's Blog: Can Atheism Be Proven Wrong?
It could be, but like Greta I'm not holding my breath.

Hospital Trust faces £120 million in cuts to front line services but finds the money for chaplains and prayer rooms | National Secular Society
According to the article the Royal Oldham Hospital prayer room has a new ablution area for Muslim users.

Wikileaks and the Long Haul « Clay Shirky
Whatever is done about WikiLeaks, it should be legal. It's no good complaining that someone has done something illegal, and then using illegal counter-measures. See this quote from "A Man for All Seasons":
William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
William Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!

Curiouser and curiouser: managing discovery making : Nature News
Nobel laureate Ahmed Zewail explains why fundamental science is crucial to scientific progress.

'Intelligent Design' is a flawed apologetic | Ekklesia
Bob Carling gives a comprehensive account of the condition of ID in Britain today, in the light of Michael Behe's lecture tour and the new Centre for Intelligent Design.

Mutual criticism is vital in science. Libel laws threaten it | Ben Goldacre | Comment is free |
This is the gist of Ben Goldacre's recent World Service "Discovery" radio programme.

The Scientific Guide to Global Warming Skepticism
A lay-person's guide (downloadable PDF).

Manchester Made It Easy: QED. Manchester. Question. Explore. Discover.
Dr Janis Bennion explains about the QED conference in February.

The Rogues Gallery » Blog Archive » Evil Woman
"If this does not define the word “Vulture”, than I do not know how else to define it."
It's hard to believe that the hospital authorities turn a blind eye to such despicable exploitation.

Cardiff Humanists are not “aggressive atheists” trying to ban Christmas | HumanistLife
More on those angry god-deniers who are hell-bent on expunging all mention of Christmas from society.

Pray, should we keep this law for ever and ever? Amen - News - TES Connect
No, we shouldn't. This is a hangover from a time when the religious make-up up state schools was different from how it is today. School assemblies serve several useful purposes, but "worship" isn't one of them. Many schools, as Andrew Copson points out, simply ignore the law. When I was in secondary education, our RE teacher told us that it was clear who was being worshipped in our morning assembly, and it wasn't God.
(Via HumanistLife)

Adam Rutherford at TAM London 2010

DSC_1802w_AdamRutherford"I'm going to talk to you about Jesus."

DSC_1803w_AdamRutherfordThus did scientist, TV presenter, editor and professional geek Adam Rutherford begin his TAM London talk. It turns out that he had done the Alpha Course ― a series of free evangelical evening classes, versions of which are held all over the country, indeed all over the world. This seems a rather odd thing for him to have done, given that he is an atheist. The course is designed for those he described as the de-churched ― that is, those who were brought up with a more or less Christian background and belief, and subsequently lapsed. For the un-churched ― those who grew up without religious indoctrination ― the course is likely to be far less effective. As part of his exploration of the Alpha Course Adam Rutherford interviewed its current leader, the man responsible for its global expansion, evangelical preacher Nicky Gumbel. The whole thing is written up at the Guardian | Comment is Free | Belief (which I highly recommend).
I've seen the ads for the Alpha Course, and I've watched Jon Ronson's TV documentary. A few years ago I also saw several of the David Frost TV series "Alpha: Will it Change Their Lives?" and its more recent follow up: "Alpha: Did it Change Their Lives?" The David Frost series featured clips from the Alpha Course led by Nicky Gumbel at Holy Trinity Brompton. Apparently the satellite courses make extensive use of videos of Nicky Gumbel's sermons (if sermon is the right word), though they are free to adapt.

DSC_1806w_AdamRutherfordPrior to Adam Rutherford's talk I would have said that the most controversial aspect of the Alpha Course is the weekend away. The course includes a residential component at which the participants can immerse themselves in evangelical godliness, culminating in a session of glossolalia ― otherwise known as "speaking in tongues".

I got the impression from the David Frost series that the course is intended for teetering agnostics, and is unlikely to sway those who self-identify as atheists. There was nothing I heard in the Nicky Gumbel clips, or saw in any of the documentaries, to suggest that they are using anything other than small group dynamics to encourage people to share and discuss hitherto private thoughts about belief. To be honest, I found it unimpressive. The fact that they are promoting glossolalia suggests that the whole enterprise is geared towards emotional response and "personal experience of the Holy Spirit" rather than addressing annoying factors like reason and evidence.

Adam Rutherford's experience seems to bear out my suspicions, though he identified an additional concern that I don't recall surfacing in the documentaries. The Alpha Course, he says, is a homophobic cult. He puts it that strongly, despite finding Nicky Gumbel himself to be a thoroughly nice chap.

Sunday 5 December 2010

God-talk and eschatology at the Creation Science Movement

Over at the Creation Science Movement website, "Dr Stephen Hayes offers his thoughts on evolution, the fact of extinction and the environment."

Most of what he says seems relatively "non-creationist", though he seems to be hung up about what happens when species become extinct. He's claiming that because we don't see evolution instantly filling the gaps left by extinct species, therefore evolution isn't happening (which proves it isn't true). He even mentions that biologists don't expect to see evolution filling the gaps because it happens slowly. But isn't that precisely what we should expect? Extinction may occur "suddenly", but the resulting gaps in the environment aren't going to be instantly filled. Evolution takes time.

Further on he says this rather odd thing: "Species can split into different varieties through natural or intelligently guided selection-as with dog or apple breeding- but this is division, not addition of the gene pool." It is addition to the gene pool — where once you had a single species, now you have two. Greater variety or biodiversity is surely an increase in the total of genetic information.

Hayes seems to be in two minds about environmentalism, espousing sensible ecological husbandry on the one hand (not for the good of the planet, but because it will look good to be doing the right thing when Jesus returns), while on the other admitting it's probably all for nought as the good guys are going to be raptured.

Environmentalism clearly doesn't easily mix with God-talk and eschatology.

David Allen Green at Winchester Skeptics in the Pub

David Allen Green, also known as legal blogger Jack of Kent, was the latest speaker at Winchester Skeptics in the Pub on 24th November at the Roebuck Inn. Fresh from the #TwitterJokeTrial appeal dismissal David gave us his account of proceedings in an engaging talk without notes or PowerPoint. The issues raised by the Paul Chambers Twitter affair and others have implications beyond the internet social media within which they would initially appear to be confined. Issues of privacy, publication, and the status of conversations conducted online via Twitter or Facebook, or any online forum where the distinction between public and private conversation space becomes blurred, are all considerations that can lead to unexpected (and undesirable) consequences.

One of the problems is that the phenomenon of online social media is still relatively new, and people will inevitably be testing its limits, whether intentionally or unintentionally. And because it's new, the resolution of such tests seems often to be the job of the courts. For the hapless participants this is likely to be unnerving, extremely expensive and potentially life-changing.

David Allen Green, aka Jack of Kent, has made a name for himself as the foremost explicator of these matters. He's a media lawyer with a reputation for clear legal analysis set out in a way understandable to non-lawyers (that is, the rest of us). I met him briefly at the Penderel's Oak in Holborn, the evening before TAM London 2009, and one thing I particularly remember from our brief conversation was his statement that as a lawyer he was in a position to say things about current legal cases that non-lawyers could not, because he knew precisely how far he could go while staying within the law. He confirmed in his SitP talk that his writing is deliberately "legal-proof".

He explained how he got into blogging and how he became a Skeptic (with a K), saying that his skepticism was founded on no more than an insistence that there should be a critical or evidence-based approach to issues when appropriate. He stressed that skepticism shouldn't be used as a means to specific ends.

He has given talks on witchcraft trials from a strictly legal standpoint, maintaining that the existence or not of witchcraft — in the sense of supernatural powers — was never an issue. He detailed his involvement with the Simon Singh libel case, and the importance of libel reform. He also touched on a couple of other cases he's been involved with, Dave Osler and Sally Bercow, but went into more detail about Paul Chambers, whose case is ongoing, though looking pretty grim at present.

In addition to his Jack of Kent blog — so significant in letting the world know the salient details of Simon Singh's battle with the British Chiropractic Association — David Allen Green has also been blogging regularly at New Statesman. They must be pleased with his efforts, as he is now the New Statesman legal correspondent. He also writes the Bad Law? column at The Lawyer.

The Q&A was understandably centred around the Paul Chambers #TwitterJokeTrial case, and its implications for establishing a dividing line between public and private conversation space. In response to a question David gave the example of a Daily Mail article that appeared to intentionally humiliate a civil servant making extensive use of Twitter. The question is, was it reasonable for Sarah Baskerville to treat Twitter as a private medium for off-the-cuff comments about her work and colleagues? Personally I think one has to be mindful of the reach of internet social media, but given Twitter's informality this is easy to forget.

This was an excellent talk about serious issues, delivered by an insider with a gift for explication of complex matters.

I had a couple of questions for David, which I would have asked if I hadn't felt that they'd likely derail the Q&A conversation, centred as it was on the public/private demarcation issue. The first is about the Simon Singh libel case: at a point fairly late in proceedings it appeared that the BCA themselves had posted a libellous statement on their website, to the effect that Simon Singh had been malicious in his article. On his Jack of Kent blog David wrote that if Simon decided to countersue, the case would be over. The BCA amended their website, but the offending statement was still accessible if one knew the correct URL. At the time I thought this was a sign that the BCA knew they were going to lose, and that this hastily amended (but not immediately deleted) libel was a ploy to end the case without losing face over their original suit. I'm curious as to whether this incident had any eventual bearing on the case.

My second question is: whatever happened to Jack's Climate Quest?

Friday 3 December 2010

Burnee links for Friday

Miss Manners And the Big C | Culture | Vanity Fair
The Hitch update: "...the thing about Stage Four is that there is no such thing as Stage Five."

TSN: The Great Debate Panel
Can scientists determine what is right and wrong?

Science, Reason and Critical Thinking: The New Age Vehicle Well-Running Centre
Classic. (And not just for classic cars....)

Johann Hari: The religious excuse for barbarity - Johann Hari, Commentators - The Independent
"No, we don't respect your desire to needlessly torment animals because some hallucinating desert nomads did it centuries ago. We don't respect it at all. You can cry that we are 'persecuting' you if we stop you committing acts of cruelty if you want.

"It's what the religious – Christian, Jew and Muslim alike – did when we stopped you tormenting women and gays and anybody else you could get your hands on. One of the great markers of the advance of human kindness is the howls you will hear from the Men of God."
Stephen Law: Draft paper for comments
I've struggled with attempts to understand Alvin Plantinga's "Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism" — and been unable to pin down precisely why I don't buy it. It takes an articulate philosopher's analysis to tease its abstruse strands apart, for which much thanks are due to Stephen Law.

Creation Science Movement - News: "Species can split into different varieties through natural or intelligently guided selection-as with dog or apple breeding- but this is division, not addition of the gene pool."
God-talk and eschatology.

Hitchens on mockery and Helping - Butterflies and Wheels
Ophelia Benson on the Hitchens-Paxman Newsnight interview.

Tuesday 30 November 2010

Michael Behe: still flogging the flagellum

Westminster Chapel is a large 19thC Romanesque style evangelical church located in Buckingham Gate, London, opposite its junction with Petty France. On Monday 22nd November I arrived at the appointed hour of 6:30 pm just as the doors were opened. I presented my ticket and was given a question slip and a "Promo Copy — Not for Resale" DVD, Unlocking the Mystery of Life by Illustra Media.

Taking advantage of my punctuality I was able to grab a good position in the centre of the third pew from the front. Before me a large screen hung above a raised stage with a lectern to the right and a drum kit to the left. (I hoped we were not to be subjected to live evangelical music, though faint recorded music emanated from the PA speakers either side of the stage.) The screen above displayed the logo for Justin Brierley's Premier Christian Radio Unbelievable? show, promoting the evening's event, Darwin or Design: An Evening with Michael Behe.

Professor Behe arrived about 6:35, and a little later I noticed Keith Fox take a seat near the front. As seven o'clock approached I estimated that between 150 and 200 people filled the ground floor pews, leaving the galleries empty. (I saw no video cameras, though an official-looking photographer took pictures throughout the evening from various viewpoints, including of the audience).

At about 7:05 Justin Brierley mounted the stage to introduce the evening's proceedings. David Williams, a trustee of the Centre for Intelligent Design was first up, touting the centre's ID merchandise, including DVDs of that disgracefully mendacious film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, and the textbook Explore Evolution. Also available was Michael Behe's book Darwin's Black Box, though strangely not his latest, The Edge of Evolution. After a short introduction from Justin, Prof. Behe took the stage.

I shall not give a blow by blow account of Michael Behe's talk. Justin mentioned that the event was being recorded for later broadcast, apparently including the Q&A, so those interested will be able to hear the talk for themselves. What follows are my comments on what I consider Behe's more contentious points.

Behe used the mousetrap as an example of irreducible complexity and proceeded to speculate as to how it might work if any one of its parts were removed — concluding that of course it wouldn't work, it would be broken. But Prof. Behe knows (I hope) that mousetraps don't reproduce, and that they are, in fact, designed. This IC argument is no better than Paley's Watch. Watches, you'll note, also don't reproduce.

Dean Franklin - 06.04.03 Mount Rushmore Monument (by-sa)-3 new

Would you believe he's still using Mount Rushmore as an example of design detection? But the only reason we can tell that the sculptures of US presidents' heads were designed is because we know what faces look like, and we also have some concept of the shapes that natural erosion can produce on a mountainside. Suppose Mount Rushmore was observed by an alien race who had no concept of human faces — would they be able to detect that the mountain's contours had been designed? Behe's design detection is based entirely on preconceptions and comes down to no more than if it looks designed it must have had a designer.

Behe's problem is in the way he formulates his thesis. He claims that the way to detect design is to look for "a purposeful arrangement of parts", and apparently can't see that this is begging the question. By describing something as "purposeful" he's assuming that it's designed, in a kind of teleological tautology. Once again Behe's "design-detection" is no more than it's designed if it looks designed.

Along with repeating his "purposeful arrangement" mantra, Behe consistently labelled Darwinian evolution as "chance" and "accident" when he clearly knows that these words inaccurately characterise the process. He must be aware that the only accidental or chance aspect of evolutionary theory is random genetic mutation. The component of evolution that causes the actual evolving — natural selection — is far from chance or accident.

Flagellum base diagram enAfter fourteen years of comprehensive refutation, Michael Behe is still flogging the flagellum. Indeed, during the Q&A he was challenged that his examples of irreducible complexity, including the bacterial flagellum, have all been refuted. His response? "They're wrong!"

At one point in the lecture he asserted that the evidence for design is strong, while there is little evidence for Darwinism, going on to describe Darwinism's attempt to explain complexity as "wishful speculation". But intelligent design is itself the ultimate wishful speculation: "it's so complicated it must have been designed."

SETI, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, was raised in the Q&A. SETI is often cited by ID enthusiasts as an example of design-detection, as if to give ID legitimacy by comparison. SETI scientists, however, are not looking for an intelligent signal from space, but for a narrow-band signal. Any modulation of that signal is expected to have been lost (smeared out), so it's unlikely to carry any intelligent content. Comparisons with the efforts of ID proponents are unwarranted.

When challenged by Keith Fox, Behe stated that if ID is correct, evolutionary biologists are wasting their time looking for evolutionary pathways to explain complexity. And yet he insists ID is not a science-stopper. Behe has claimed elsewhere that mainstream science ignores ID for "philosophical reasons", but there's a good reason for that — it's because ID is a philosophical idea, not a scientific one.

Behe claims that complex biological systems are "best explained by intelligent design" — this is a very peculiar use of the word "explained". One might reasonably ask for some — indeed any — details of this explanation. But ID proponents never provide any. Behe's response elsewhere to this criticism, and in the light of apparent flaws in the "design" of nature, is that "we can't know the mind of the designer." This is what I find so profoundly frustrating about ID. In what way can any of this be even remotely described as science?


ID has no evidence of its own. ID proponents carry out no research, restricting themselves to pointing out gaps in evolutionary theory. If something can't currently be explained by evolution, they claim that somebody (the "intelligent designer") must have done it instead. They contend that science is itself unnecessarily restricted in its scope by a priori ruling out supernatural explanations. But science must, if it is to be at all useful to us, restrict itself to methodological naturalism. If science were to accept non-natural explanations for observed phenomena, the scientific method would be irretrievably broken and useless, and scientific progress would grind to a halt.

It was an interesting but frustrating evening. Given the hype surrounding Behe's week-long whistle-stop UK lecture tour I had expected something new. But it was the same old nonsense — indeed the same old non-science.

UPDATE 2010-12-02:
Here's a short, useful video on Behe's irreducible complexity.

Michael Behe's presentation slides are available as a PDF here:

Early in his presentation Behe showed this Far Side cartoon, and went on to say that anyone will recognise that the skewering device was designed for a purpose — to which I would ask, has he never seen a Venus Flytrap? The way Gary Larson has drawn the device indicates to me that it could well be a rare jungle plant that has evolved to capture large animals. The ankle suspension is obviously a plant. So I think Behe clearly missed his point here, exposing his ID presuppositions.

(Go to the presentation PDF for the cartoon caption, though it's not part of Behe's thesis.)

Monday 22 November 2010

Darwin or Design — tonight!

In a few minutes I shall be getting on a train to London, to attend this:
I'll post a report here, probably towards the end of this week.

UPDATE 2010-11-30: Somewhat delayed, my report is now posted.

Thursday 18 November 2010

Burnee links for Thursday

BMJ Group blogs: Journal of Medical Ethics blog » Blog Archive » Odone and the CPS: Scaremongering about Euthanasia
Cristina Odone's report eviscerated.

Jim Mulligan - Faith in schools? | New Humanist
There's hope yet, it seems. One thing we must discourage, however, is any increase in exclusively Muslim schools.

The Atheist Experience™: Another year, another Hell House
Maybe Russell Glasser is a glutton for punishment, but he has some clear-sighted observations in this piece.

British Centre for Science Education: How not to attack Intelligent Design Creationism
Some more for the armoury against ID.

Sex before marriage is a path to misery, teenagers are told - Home News, UK - The Independent
Sex before marriage is evil.

Dolphinarium: Tribune Vardy statement in open court
Did Sir Peter Vardy pay for the teaching of creationism in British schools' science lessons? For some background, see this 2004 article:
Revealed: Blair's link to schools that take the Creation literally - UK Politics, UK - The Independent

I said I wouldn’t blog but...
Increase your bust size (with added "libel-chill").

Modern Technology is Making You Stupid. Sorry What? |
Professor Susan "Unsubstantiated Assertions" Greenfield is, regrettably, still at it.

Why Libel Laws Must Change | The Quackometer
Andy Lewis gives his personal account of "libel chill" — and why it's got to stop.

Baskers - honestlyreal
An account of thoughtless victimization.

Christopher Hitchens: 'You have to choose your future regrets' | interview | Books | The Observer
A useful interview of the Hitch, who's still going strong despite his gloomy prognosis.

Charlie Brooker | The words you read next will be your last ... | Comment is free | The Guardian
Irony overload: Charlie Brooker gives his unique take on the #TwitterJokeTrial.

The Associated Press: Palestinian held for Facebook criticism of Islam
Where atheism is a criminal offence.

The Free Speech Blog: Official blog of Index on Censorship » Palestine’s ‘Atheist blogger’ behind bars
Arrested for atheism.

The Shadow Scholar - The Chronicle Review - The Chronicle of Higher Education
Disturbing revelations — on so many levels. (Via Pharyngula.)

See Yourself Reflected | Science |
Stephen Curry uses some modern public sculpture as inspiration for a piece on Carl Sagan and Jacob Bronowski (but mostly Carl Sagan).

The accidental exclusion of non-white atheists | Alom Shaha | Comment is free |
Do we need positive discrimination? See also...

Science, Reason and Critical Thinking: Middle Class, Middle Aged, Rationally Minded, Educated, White Gentlemen in the Pub (MCMARMEWGitP)
Do we need positive discrimination? Crispian Jago seems to be suggesting that we do, or at least he's pointing out that minorities are not equal, by virtue of being minorities, and perhaps we should make allowances for that.

Monday 15 November 2010

Cory Doctorow at TAM London 2010

The subject of copyright might not at first appear entirely relevant to the skeptical theme of TAM London, but Cory Doctorow is an engaging speaker and I was keen to hear him in person. (I also had a personal interest in hearing him speak, as I've had my own creative work published beside his, in the podcast fiction anthology Voices: New Media Fiction, edited by Mur Lafferty.) In the event Doctorow's talk fitted the theme perfectly, as he is skeptical of the whole idea of copyright as it is attempted to be implemented in the modern digital world.


Doctorow is himself a pioneer in copyright reform. As a science-fiction writer he makes all his novels available for free under Creative Commons, yet still earns money from the same novels published conventionally. He worked for some years at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, so is no stranger to challenging accepted paradigms.

He pointed out that the way copyright-owners currently seek to restrict use of their intellectual property is simply impractical in the age of the internet, and that "yesterday's pirates are today's admirals". As an example he cited the invention of the phonograph, which appeared to threaten publishers of sheet music. When it became possible to mechanically record music played from the printed sheets, the music publishers understandably objected to the recording companies' selling their recordings direct to the public. They considered the recording companies pirates, but now the recording companies are the admirals, protesting at the ease with which their recordings can be shared at very low cost without remuneration to the companies that manufactured the recordings. He described Viacom's attempts to force YouTube to vet — for copyright violation — all uploads to the world's most popular video-sharing website as doomed: there simply isn't enough time between now and the heat death of the universe for YouTube to do such a thing.


Cory Doctorow is always great value as a speaker — clear, provocative, funny and disciplined. He dealt with questions from the floor in typical no-nonsense fashion. Other public speakers could learn a lot from his style. If you want more Doctorow, I recommend his website as a first stop. He's also an editor of BoingBoing, the well-known tech/culture blog.


Wednesday 10 November 2010

Libel reform — mass blog posting

I post the following at the suggestion of Simon Singh:
This week is the first anniversary of the report Free Speech is Not for Sale, which highlighted the oppressive nature of English libel law. In short, the law is extremely hostile to writers, while being unreasonably friendly towards powerful corporations and individuals who want to silence critics.
The English libel law is particularly dangerous for bloggers, who are generally not backed by publishers, and who can end up being sued in London regardless of where the blog was posted. The internet allows bloggers to reach a global audience, but it also allows the High Court in London to have a global reach.
You can read more about the peculiar and grossly unfair nature of English libel law at the website of the Libel Reform Campaign. You will see that the campaign is not calling for the removal of libel law, but for a libel law that is fair and which would allow writers a reasonable opportunity to express their opinion and then defend it.
The good news is that the British Government has made a commitment to draft a bill that will reform libel, but it is essential that bloggers and their readers send a strong signal to politicians so that they follow through on this promise. You can do this by joining me and over 50,000 others who have signed the libel reform petition at
Remember, you can sign the petition whatever your nationality and wherever you live. Indeed, signatories from overseas remind British politicians that the English libel law is out of step with the rest of the free world.
If you have already signed the petition, then please encourage friends, family and colleagues to sign up. Moreover, if you have your own blog, you can join hundreds of other bloggers by posting this blog on your own site. There is a real chance that bloggers could help change the most censorious libel law in the democratic world.
We must speak out to defend free speech. Please sign the petition for libel reform at

Saturday 30 October 2010

Richard Dawkins at TAM London 2010

DSC_1772w_RichardDawkinsFor many at TAM London 2010 the appearance of Richard Dawkins is likely to have been a big draw. He was scheduled to speak at last year's inaugural TAM London, but pulled out — presumably due to a clash with his US book tour.

As with Sue Blackmore I'd heard Richard Dawkins speak in person on two previous occasions — at Conway Hall in June 2009 as part of the Darwin, Humanism and Science one-day conference, and more recently at the Intelligence Squared debate "Atheism is the New Fundamentalism" at Wellington College in Crowthorne, Berkshire. I've also seen many videos and heard many radio programmes on which Dawkins has featured, so I was especially pleased to hear him deliver a talk I'd not previously heard.

DSC_1776w_RichardDawkinsHe's proposing that the teaching of evolution can serve as an all-round education in the same way that the teaching of classics has been traditionally considered as an education fit for any profession. An understanding of evolution encompasses many fields and imparts a knowledge of humanity's place in the living world, and relative to the universe as a whole. That's the gist, but the thesis was closely argued — and illustrated — with typical Dawkins clarity and rigour. I didn't take notes, so I'll refer you to someone who apparently did. The Sceptical Banter blog details Dawkins' argument and provides plenty of links to background material. The lecture was enlightening, with much content, and I'd really like to hear it again. If the past is anything to go by, I think that's quite likely to happen.

DSC_1780w_RichardDawkinsDSC_1777w_RichardDawkinsIn contrast to Sue Blackmore's lively talk this was a relatively subdued lecture, with Dawkins' passion for his subject seeming a touch more low-key than usual. Perhaps this was the first time he had delivered this particular talk and was taking it slower than normal (which for Dawkins is pretty slow anyway), testing it out. The photographs accurately suggest that there were few laughs, and there was no Q&A session after.

Given the disappointing news that broke a few days after TAM London, Professor Dawkins may have had other matters weighing on his mind.

Wednesday 27 October 2010

The Intelligent Design v Evolution debate isn't going away

Both ID and evolutionary theory attempt to explain how life came to be as it is today. Each side appears to be driven by its own motives, but those motives are largely irrelevant to the scientific debate.

On the one hand we have evolutionary theory, which says that random mutation plus natural selection produces gradual change in populations of living organisms such that subsequent generations become progressively more suited to prevailing conditions, and these small changes accumulate to the big changes we see over geological time. Though the theory seems sound (and immensely elegant), I understand there are some stages in the process that science has yet to explain adequately.

Michael Behe
And on the other hand we have intelligent design theory, which says that unexplained stages in evolution can be explained by positing an intelligent designer. To me this is no more than an "intelligent-designer-of-the-gaps". My main objection to the ID argument is that it isn't an explanation. Hypothesizing an intelligent designer isn't testable by science, so ID can't legitimately be described as science. If I suggest that the gaps in evolutionary theory can be explained as the intervention of magic pixies I don't expect anyone to accept this as a scientific explanation — but as explanations go, it has as much science in it as ID.

Justin Brierley
Despite this, however, there are some scientists who claim that ID is science. One such is Professor Michael Behe of Lehigh University, and he will be touring the UK next month, giving illustrated lectures. One of these, at 7 pm in Westminster Chapel in London, on November 22nd, will be hosted by Justin Brierley of Premier Christian Radio's Unbelievable? programme. All are invited, at a ticket price of £10 (which includes a DVD), but bookings must be made in advance.

Behe's tour is in conjunction with the newly announced Centre for Intelligent Design based in Scotland (where apparently school curricula have no prohibition on teaching ID or creationism in school science lessons).

Paul Sims
Paul Sims at the New Humanist blog suggests that journalists should ignore Behe's lectures, starving him and the C4ID of the oxygen of publicity. This is tempting but in my opinion misguided. Anyone who cares about science education in the UK should be prepared to challenge those who aim to corrupt it. Intelligent design as a concept may be a fit subject for a philosophy class, but it has no place in science teaching.

UPDATE 2010-10-30:
Some useful resources related to ID:

Fake ID:

British Centre for Science Education

(Image positions also tweaked.)

Monday 25 October 2010

Burnee links for Monday

Would you Adam and Eve it? Top scientists tell Scottish pupils: the Bible is true - Herald Scotland | News | Education
More on the Centre for Intelligent Design — includes this quote from Alastair Noble:
“The problem is not, as Darwin saw it, the survival of the fittest; the problem is the arrival of the fittest.”
Nice sound-bite, but it doesn't make sense. He's talking about origins and implying that Darwinian evolution maintains that organisms start off being fit for their environment. It doesn't. Saying "the problem is the arrival of the fittest" is actually describing what ID (or at least creationism) maintains — that organisms are created perfect. There is indeed a problem with this; it's incorrect.

Fighting talk in church | Sue Blackmore | Comment is free |
"Aggressive atheists" are atheists who say shrill, strident or militant things such as "I don't believe in God."

The Metropolis » Review: The Amaz!ng Meeting - what happens when Cory Doctorow, Stephen Fry, Alan Moore, and the Amazing Randi play host to 1000 of their closest friends | Snipe
A local review of TAM London 2010.

The 21st Floor » Blog Archive » FakeID Campaign
Intelligent Design is not science. If you're resident north of the border, write and tell your MSP.

New Statesman - Who are these Skeptics? And do they matter?
David Allen Green (aka Jack of Kent) reviews the skeptic "movement" in the light of TAM London 2010 (at which he was a participating panellist).

Sunday 24 October 2010

Sue Blackmore at TAM London 2010

DSC_1763w_SueBlackmoreIt was entirely appropriate that the second Amaz!ng Meeting London should begin with Sue Blackmore's talk on her arduous path to skepticism*. Professor Susan Blackmore is well known on the skeptic/humanist/atheist circuit, and her appearance at TAM London 2010 was the third time I've heard her speak in person — the others being the Humanist Philosophers' one-day event "Evolution: Is This All There Is?" at Conway Hall on 31 October 2009, and a debate about intelligent design following a screening of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed at Imperial College on 27 February 2010, arranged through Premier Christian Radio.

DSC_1761w_SueBlackmoreHer talk at TAM London, however, was of a different and personal kind, being an illustrated account of her own search for actual paranormal phenomena. At college she personally had a paranormal experience — specifically an out-of-body experience, which convinced her that such things were real. She set out, therefore, to do the necessary rigorous research to prove, scientifically, the existence of the paranormal. She was disappointed, however, that her research didn't come up with the categorical proof she was hoping for. There were some positive results, but in terms of statistical significance they didn't count. Nevertheless the "paranormal" is a wide field, so she broadened her research to take in other aspects of paranormal manifestation. Time and again the results showed there was nothing there, and eventually, reluctantly, she had to concede that in fact the paranormal does not exist. No telepathy, no clairvoyance, no precognition, no ghosts. Nothing. It took twenty years.

DSC_1768w_SueBlackmoreDSC_1767w_SueBlackmoreWoo-merchants are often challenged to produce evidence backing up their claims. What they usually provide (if anything) is anecdotal — rarely is anything approaching scientific  proof forthcoming. Sue Blackmore's story shows why: when such claims are put to the test — rigorous, scientific, peer-reviewed test — they fail. Randi's Million Dollar Prize is safe.

(Sue Blackmore made a point of giving her talk in the same garb she wore at college — she showed photographs to prove it — in a fitting tribute to her former self.)

*Sharp-eyed readers will note that I have succumbed, despite my initial declaration, to spelling skepticism with a 'k'. I've become used to reading it thus, and so thus shall I henceforth write it.

Tuesday 19 October 2010

How relevant to skepticism was TAM London 2010?

There's been some discussion in the #TAMLondon twitterverse about the relevance to skepticism of some of this year's sessions. In an effort to gauge the discussion I've created a kind of survey that might yield an actual "percentage of relevance." My own response to my self-created survey is below, and a PDF of the survey form is available from Google Docs.

From the image above — click it to bignify — you can see that I considered TAM London 2010 to be 72% relevant to skepticism. What's your score?

(I'm no statistician, so if anyone has a more accurate or more appropriate way of reducing the form to a single figure please let me know.)

Sunday 17 October 2010

TAM London — day two summary

Less of a rush this morning, so had time for coffee and some pastries masquerading as breakfast. Got a good position a couple of rows behind where I was yesterday, with what I hoped would be a clear view to the lectern for photographs. Up on screen we were treated to an image of a well known "indefatigable cornish git" — Yea doth Crispian Jago now have his own Skeptic Trumps card (though when I saw him at lunchtime he appeared to have deliberately changed his appearance from that portrayed in Neil Davies' caricature).

Richard Wiseman introduced science writer Marcus Chown, who went down (or is that up?) his list of Ten Bonkers Things About the Universe, bookended with cosmological audio-visuals (Elton John, David Bowie).

Next came JREF president DJ Grothe with his take on the skeptical movement, both globally and regionally, also focussing on the moral imperatives of skepticism, where he briefly referenced Sam Harris's new book (which I have with me this weekend).

The Technology and New Media panel, expertly moderated by Rebecca Watson, comprised TV reporter Kate Russell, writer Gia Milinovich, blogger and journalist Martin Robbins (aka the Lay Scientist), and Little Atoms host Neil Denny. Much discussion ensued, some of it about the difference between new and old media.

Rebecca Watson also hosted the next item, a conversation with writer and artist Melinda Gebbie about her collaboration with Alan Moore in producing erotic comic-book Lost Girls. Interesting, certainly, but one can't help wondering what it has to do with skepticism. There was also a Q & A session.

Stephen Fry appeared on video, interviewed by Tim Minchin. Interesting and philosophical — philological even.

Lunch was slightly more relaxed than yesterday (at least for me, probably because I knew what to expect). Then we had Graham Linehan in conversation with Jon Ronson (making yet another unscheduled appearance at TAM London 2010). Discussion of Graham Linehan's oeuvre in TV and his use of Twitter.

PZ Myers continued to entrench his position as the world's most aggressive atheist, despite never having thrown a punch (let alone a bomb) in the direction of true believers and other purveyors of nonsense. Ridicule followed by constructive criticism appears to be his formula — purposeful (rather than gratuitous) obnoxiousness.

After coffee Alan Moore challenged our credulity by claiming he was a rationalist who worshipped a serpentine sock puppet, and challenged my own concentration by reading a long poem. Then it was back to the discussion format as he was interviewed by Neil Denny and Josie Long.

TAM London was wrapped up with thanks from the man himself, James Randi.

It was definitely a different TAM from last year, with a noticeable shift to the godless side of skepticism (not that I have any objection to such a shift myself, though I suspect it may disconcert some), and more use of the informal discussion format rather than just individual presentations.

It was with a head buzzing full of TAM that I headed out for something to eat prior to the aftershow party at the Monarch in Chalk Farm.

(As with yesterday's post, links and a few refinements will follow. I hope to be covering most of the individual speakers in more detail as subsequent posts.)

Saturday 16 October 2010

TAM London — day one summary

I shall be covering the individual speakers in a later post, so for now here's a summary of proceedings at day one of TAM London (links and other refinements to follow).

Even though I collected my badge yesterday afternoon I still found myself in a long queue for the goodie bag, so any thoughts of coffee were abandoned. Bag contained schedule (at last we find out who's on when), TAM London Commemorative Brochure, TAM London Pen, Sense About Science button-badge and flyers on the Libel Reform Campaign, British Humanist Association, Alpha Project, Richard Dawkins Foundation and a business card for Little Atoms. Notwithstanding T-shirts were to be collected later, that's rather less "good" than  last year's goodie bag.

Amateur Transplants, a musical duo, sang some very short, punny (and funny) songs, then Master of Ceremonies Richard Wiseman introduced the man himself, James Randi, for his welcome. Nice that Randi was able to come in person this year — and he received a standing ovation.

Main speakers in order:

Sue Blackmore gave us her account of becoming a skeptic, detailing much of the research she conducted into the paranormal. For her it was a worldview-shattering experience.

Richard Dawkins delivered a measured lecture about why the teaching of evolution should serve the purpose that once was considered the preserve of the classics. Good to hear a brand new Richard Dawkins talk—  and live too!

Cory Doctorow talked about copyright, and how big media doesn't understand what it's dealing with in the modern digital world, then answered questions in his typical rapid-fire manner.

Adam Rutherford gave us his assessment of the Alpha Course and its head, Nicky Gumbel, but admitted that he's not the type of person the course is aimed at. Adam Rutherford is a scientist, but also a vocal atheist and humanist. He believes the Alpha Course is a homophobic cult.

Then it was time for lunch, but not actually enough time. The buffet was very good, once I got within sight of it. Getting my hands and teeth on it, however,  took somewhat longer. Maybe I shouldn't have detoured to collect my T-shirt.

Back in the room we had another short gig from Amateur Transplants, followed by a discussion between Andy (Ghost Stories) Nyman and Richard Wiseman, who are apparently longtime buddies (with photos to prove it). Andy Nyman talked about what makes for a good show, whether on stage or TV, and how he came to work with Derren Brown.

Karen James told us about the Beagle Project, which aims to build a replica of HMS Beagle and sail it along the same route as the original. At first I thought this was an expensive publicity stunt, but hearing Karen James' impassioned plea for  science education and how the teaching of evolution is sabotaged or at least enervated by an undercurrent of virulent creationism, and as I recalled the 80's TV series "The Voyage of Charles Darwin", I realised that this is the kind of project that I generally support, as it provides experiential tangibility to bring a possibly dry subject alive.

Paula Kirby offered us an engaging analysis of the Christian Party's political manifesto, in a repeat of the talk she gave at Copenhagen, and discussed the dire need for secularism in Britain.

Skeptical Activism was the subject under discussion between Tracey Brown, Evan Harris, Simon Singh and David Allen Green, all of whom gave their own short initial talks. Lively discussion continued as a result of questions from the floor.

Coffee came next, and this was better organised than lunch — possibly because there was less for people to choose from. Then back in the room we had a conversation between James Randi and Robin Ince. Hearing Randi talk about his skeptical origins and some of his later encounters with "psychics", "mediums" and "faith healers" — and hearing it live — was inspiring. It's clear that Randi is dedicated to what he does — he cares.

After his discussion with Robin Ince, Randi announced the TAM London 2010 Award and the Grassroots Skepticism Award. The first of these went to Ben Goldacre — richly deserved — and though he wasn't present we watched a pre-recorded video of him. Whether deliberate or the result of initially stalled playback, we were treated to a typical freeze-frame zany Ben Goldacre, who then delivered his "acceptance speech" in front of the geekiest bookshelf I've ever seen.

The Grassroots Award went to Rhys Morgan, again richly deserved, for his single-handed headline-grabbing stance against quack remedy "Miracle Mineral Solution", which has been touted as effective against Crohn's Disease from which Rhys Morgan suffers. Skeptical activism of such calibre ought to be recognised in any event, but this award is especially satisfying as he's only 15 years old.

The optional evening event this year was Tim Minchin and an exclusive preview of the new Storm animation, but these were preceded by Amateur Transplants again, regaling us with even worse puns than before, plus a vehement and obviously heartfelt diatribe against Tube strikers (amongst others). Chris Cox read some minds without actually reading them, and then after a short break Tim Minchin sat down at the piano to give us an utterly brilliant and typically subversive new song. Then he did the Pope Song, and it was great to hear it live.

More utter brilliance followed, with the eagerly awaited premier of the new Storm animation. I want this — I want to show it to everyone I know. The subsequent discussion between Tim Minchin, producer Tracy King and director Dan Turner was interesting, as were some of the questions from the floor, but a little over-extended. But yeah, the movie is fantastic.

More tomorrow.

Friday 15 October 2010

TAM London starts tomorrow

I'm in London for ... er ... TAM London. Got my badge this afternoon at the Hilton Metropole in an effort to avoid the queues tomorrow morning, and later met up with a motley skeptical assortment at the Core Grill, where I had a burger and a pint — for the price of a pint (that's a good deal, despite the scarcity of cutlery).

Saw Ghost Stories at the Duke of York's Theatre (though due to a mix-up with transport I was a bit late and missed the first story — I need to persuade someone that I really was there and it's OK to tell me what happened in the first few minutes. As for you, dear reader, you'll have to go and see it for yourself.)

That's all (early start tomorrow).

Wednesday 13 October 2010

Burnee links for Wednesday

Where are we in history? - A C Grayling - To Set Prometheus Free -
The first chapter of A C Grayling's recent book, To Set Prometheus Free. Razor sharp, distinguished and beautifully written.

Divided Minds, Specious Souls § SEEDMAGAZINE.COM
Who am I? Am I the sum of my parts? Or am I just my parts?

Asbestos saga proves our feeble press watchdog has no bark and no bite | Richard Wilson | Science |
What happened instead, in my view, speaks volumes both about the character of the Daily Mail, and the credibility of the newspaper industry's self-regulatory body.
Richard Wilson bemoans the time it takes to get a newspaper to admit it was wrong.

And another thing... - sillypunk's posterous
Some ruminations on God and the Universe: Eddington, Jeans, Huxley and Einstein by Chapman Cohen (London, 1931). If you think those nasty new atheists are shrill, maybe you should read what one of the older ones wrote.

Newly opened UK Centre for Intelligent Design claims it will focus on science, not religion | Science |
Riazat Butt reports that the C4ID claims it will focus on the "evidence" for intelligent design. Good luck with that, Mr Noble.

Ray Gosling: 'I looked into that camera. And I just said it' | Jon Ronson | UK news | The Guardian
Why did veteran broadcaster Ray Gosling confess on-air to a mercy killing that he didn't do? (Includes a short video.)

Men like Bishop Eddie Long are fouling the legacy of the civil rights movement. - By Christopher Hitchens - Slate Magazine
The Hitch remains as sharp and wry as ever.

Phil Zuckerman: Imagine No Religion: Can a Society Be Successful Without It?
The answer, apparently, is yes. Shock! Horror!

The Moral Landscape - By Sam Harris -
My copy of Sam Harris's new book is apparently on its way to me, but there are several reviews to read in the meantime. This one, by Kwame Anthony Appiah, appears dissatisfied that Harris doesn't stick to accepted categories.

Sam Harris: Can There Be a Science of Good and Evil?
Sam Harris adumbrates the theme of his new book.

Book Review: The Moral Landscape -
Marilynne Robinson doesn't like Sam Harris's new book — mainly because it isn't about what she thinks it ought to be about.

New Statesman - A bad day for Scientology?
David Allen Green (otherwise known as blogger "Jack of Kent") explains why the rise of social media spells the end of intimidation by rich organisations with expensive lawyers.

Science and Morality (Practical Ethics)
More doubts about Sam Harris's thesis. (Personally I'll reserve judgement until I've read the book.)

The Atheist Experience™: Non Credo in Unum Deum: Religion in classical music
Russell Glasser on the merits of religious music — and art inspiration in general.

Science and religion aren't friends -
Jerry Coyne's rallying cry for science is like a breath of fresh air (particularly for me after enduring the awful pablum of Polkinghorne and Ross on last Saturday's Unbelievable?).

The Last Month, In La Vida Amazing
I went to DragonCon in 2007, and it was a totally mind-blowing experience for me. I agree wholeheartedly with much of what James Randi says in this Swift post about his own most recent attendance at Atlanta's science-fiction extravaganza.