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.

Tuesday 12 October 2010

Claire Rayner (1931-2010)

Claire Rayner died yesterday. I heard the announcement on Radio 4 this morning, and remembered she had recently contributed (as I did) to the "Humanist Heroes" series at the British Humanist Association's Humanist Life website. (She was a former President of the BHA.)

The Today Programme had her son Jay Rayner on, and I was struck by what a superb advertisement his interview was for the humanist attitude to rites of passage and life in general. No regrets, but fond remembrances and laughter.

Here's the audio:

And here's the BHA's tribute: