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.