Thursday 24 June 2010

The ultimate quack remedy — David Tredinnick & Simon Singh — Today Programme, BBC Radio 4

Question: Does homeopathy work?

Answer: No.

This matter is settled. We don't need more research — the research has been done. It clearly shows that homeopathy is no more effective than placebo. Taxpayers' money that has heretofore funded homeopathy on the National Health Service should therefore be redirected to medical interventions that have been shown to have demonstrable effect. This was essentially the finding of the recent Parliamentary Science & Technology Select Committee Evidence Check on homeopathy.

Some people, however, refuse to take "no" for an answer. On this morning's Today Programme, Conservative MP David Tredinnick called for still more research on this failed magic:
(Streaming audio, 4'41")

Simon Singh was also on the programme, and he summarily demolished David Tredinnick's best evidence. Neverthless the MP went on to call for yet more research, because homeopathy is "popular" with doctors and patients. Fortunately (given the time constraints of the Today Programme) Simon Singh was quick enough to give a highly amusing example of homeopathy's lack of plausibility, along with the financial motives behind the manufacture of its remedies.

David Tredinnick wants more research because he knows that the aggregate of research done so far fails to show that homeopathy is effective. He will continue to call for more research until it stops giving him answers he doesn't like.

That's not going to happen. Homeopathy has been fully tested — it doesn't work. There's nothing in it.

Tuesday 22 June 2010

My Humanist Hero: Arthur C. Clarke

A quick announcement — over at Humanist Life my contribution to the Humanist Heroes series has just been posted:
"As a teenager I was entranced by the writings of Arthur C. Clarke. While Clarke is best known for his collaboration with Stanley Kubrick on the film script for 2001: A Space Odyssey, his interests ranged from the eminently practical to the wildly speculative. He was the first to propose the use of geostationary communications satellites; he was also chairman of the British Interplanetary Society. "
Continue reading here:

Several others are already available, and there are more to come. Well worth perusal (and apparently there's still time to submit your own).

Tuesday 8 June 2010

Burnee links for Tuesday

Failing The Insider Test: The Problem of Hell
Why questioning atheists' source of morality is not a valid rebuttal of accusations that the God of the Bible is evil.

Religion has nothing to do with science – and vice versa | Francisco J. Ayala | Science |
Ayala says that science has no business pontificating on "values". Unfortunately he offers nothing to support his notion that religion has any business doing it either.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Scientists don't always know best - Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Commentators - The Independent
We have emotions, desires, faith, dreams, uncharted (unchartable) psychological geographies, mysterious physical responses that cannot be validated by scientific methodologies and templates. Such claims for the unknowable and unmeasurable are usually met with friendly pity and mockery or faint scorn.
If they are "unknowable and unmeasurable" you have no justification for claiming them. (It's called evidence.)

Vatican reaches out to atheists – but not you, Richard Dawkins - Europe, World - The Independent
Oh really? What is the Vatican afraid of?

Faith No More: a cautionary tale | HumanistLife
Terri Julians gives a heartfelt account of losing her faith, with some advice for those who miss its comfort in times of grief.

BBC News - 'Right to live' group targets MPs
The campaigners claim that the prevailing view is that disabled people's lives are not worth living, and that this contradicts the perception that many disabled people have of themselves.
They campaigners may indeed make a claim about what is the prevailing view, but that doesn't mean their claim is true. It seems most unlikely to me, and typical of the "slippery slope" arguments used against those who are in favour of assisted dying in very specific circumstances.

God, Science and Philanthropy | The Nation
Informative (and faintly disturbing) article on the origins and current state of the Templeton Foundation.

Catholics blast 'hostile' C4 film about the Pope - Telegraph
So who would you commission to make a TV documentary about Pope Benny?

A duel at sunrise - Butterflies and Wheels
Ophelia Benson ponders why Cristina Odone clearly isn't afraid of being sued by Richard Dawkins.
She is apparently a “good Catholic,” in the sense that she is blindly loyal to the Catholic church and will stoop to almost anything to defend it – but she is not a good person. She takes advantage of other people’s principles in order to defame them.

Sunday 6 June 2010

Religion delivers what people want — but only to a few

Organised religion isn't about belief. It isn't about redemption. It isn't about morality or the fate of one's immortal soul. Organised religion is about power — the power of an anointed elite over everyone else.

There are are countless examples of this power — the Catholic Church is one, the Anglican Church is another, the two dominant Muslim sects, Sunni and Shia, are yet others. In all these examples we have a priesthood (the anointed elite) who presume to tell the unanointed what they are allowed to do.

In the politics of interpersonal and social dynamics there's one thing prized above all others, and it's not happiness, wealth or health. It's sovereignty. What people want most of all is not to be told what to do by someone else, and the surest way of achieving this objective is to become the person who does the telling.

Organised religion has the ideal hierarchy for this, because once someone is a member of the elite, their word goes, by virtue of their status, and it matters not one jot whether their authority is grounded on fact or fantasy — the religious elite commands power by arbitrary decree. Its members' assertions are largely unquestioned even when entirely lacking objective substantiation. In the past this elite has not expected to be challenged, and when in these more enlightened times it increasingly is challenged, religion has no real answer, falling back on tradition and the status quo.

"Accommodationists" — those atheists who maintain that religious and non-religious folk can engage in constructive dialogue with each other — are against such challenges, stating that the likes of Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers do atheism a disservice by being so stridently and militantly opposed to religion. Accommodationists maintain that there need not be conflict between religion and science. Well, maybe constructive dialogue is possible between the religious and non-religious — just not on the subject of religion.

I've no objection to religious faith, as long as those who profess it do not impose their beliefs on others who don't share them. It's in the nature of religious belief, however, that it must impinge on the rights and duties of everyone it touches, otherwise it's not much of a belief. It's this inevitable encroachment that persuades me that the accommodationists are wrong.

It's true that there are many religious moderates who profess a religious faith of some kind, at the same time as accepting the findings of science. But it seems to me that religious moderates are either suppressing their faith, or else they aren't truly committed to their belief. Accommodationists who claim that science and religion are compatible — on the basis that there are many excellent scientists who are also religious believers — are missing the point. It's quite possible to hold any number of incompatible beliefs, even if those beliefs are obviously inconsistent with each other. One can believe, for example, that the human mind is an emergent property of the amazing but entirely materialistic complexity of the human brain, while at the same time believing that we all have free will. These two ideas may be incompatible, but people can still simultaneously believe them both. Just because we believe something, however, it doesn't follow that our belief is true.

Despite what religious moderates maintain, organised religion does make specific claims about the nature of reality — claims that are plainly incompatible with scientific knowledge. Religious moderates may suggest that their scripture is not intended to be interpreted as making such claims, even if a superficial reading of scripture reveals that it does indeed make such claims. This, of course, is where the theologian steps in, like a mafioso's lawyer, to contend that though the text in question appears to be at odds with reality as we have come to know it, an "alternative" reading will reveal that the words actually mean something else. (It doesn't matter what the words mean, as long as the chosen meaning can be made to fit.)

But theology doesn't appear to be based on anything solid. Rather, theology1 appears to be entirely fabricated — arbitrarily — from nothing. It's like the scene from the film Cruise of the Gods in which a fan of a hit science fiction TV series delivers a lecture explaining the hidden meaning behind the names of all the fictional characters. Unfortunately for this fan's thesis the writer is in the audience, has had a bit too much to drink, and explains that in fact he named all his characters using anagrams of the items on the menu of his local curry house.

1. For a comprehensive analysis of why sceptics and atheists need not be concerned with theology, see Chris Ray at Factonista.