Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Dog bites man

The sexual-liberal community is apparently up in arms about the Pope's latest comments on gender theory. I, however, welcome this news because it contributes further to the exposition of the Pope as a right-wing, conservative religious crazy person. Yes, his remarks are offensive and ignorant; but they should not be surprising.

It is quite telling that the majority of negative comments in the article come from Christian sources. It is my fond hope that this trend continues, and the religious right does more to marginalise itself in the eyes of society. I look forward to the day when "Pope spews yet more hateful ignorant pigshit" is not news.

Friday, 19 December 2008

The Life, Death and Legacy of Deep Throat

Possibly the most famous informant since Judas, the man known until just three years ago only as "Deep Throat", has died, aged 95. There are a few reasons for mentioning this here.

Firstly, he is an interesting figure for sceptics - he contributed one of the greatest amounts of fuel to the fire of the conspiracy theory culture that any one person has managed. It finally proved, in the eyes of many, that the government cannot be trusted; that there really are conspiracies and cover-ups at the highest levels of government.

Despite this being a perfectly valid point, however, what is rarely if ever taken into account by conspiracy nuts theorists is that not only do conspiracies and cover-ups happen, but so does whistleblowing. Compared to some conspiracy theories, the Watergate scandal was relatively small in terms of how many people knew the truth; and yet someone spoke up. This is a perfect demonstration of one of the mainstays of arguing against conspiracies - the whistleblower argument. So not only did Deep Throat provide conspiracy theorists with the perfect proof, he also provided the perfect counter-argument.

The second thing I find interesting about Mark Felt is his expressed misgivings about what he did; apparently he felt guilty about "betraying his FBI badge". Some critics agree with this assessment and brand him a traitor for turning on the Commander in Chief - a strange assessment considering the FBI is not a military organisation but a civilian one. Either way, I disagree with his critics and argue rather that he upheld his oath as a federal employee; the oath he took bound him to uphold the constitution, not to defend the president.

Of course, it's not as simple as that. As associate director of the FBI, he was also supposed to protect the information relating to the investigation, and send it through the correct channels. This is the obligation he violated, and surely the source of his moral discomfort. What he did, though, fulfilled the spirit of his role rather than the by-the-letter procedure thereof.

Here comes the quick ethical philosophy section, because me being me I find it hard to resist. Mark Felt suffered a moral dilemma, which is what happens when one or more roles in which you sees yourself oblige you to take two conflicting courses of action. In this case, he was obliged to follow procedure, and also to see that justice was done. Normally these two obligations would not conflict - and indeed the theory is that they are more or less synonymous. However, with regards to the Watergate scandal, the procedure was blocked, hindered, and/or corrupt - giving rise to the dilemma.

I say he did the right thing. He chose principle over procedure, and in exposing the Nixon administration's misdeeds, he carried out the most important role of his position. It was, after all, an important founding tenet of the constitution that nobody would be above the law; his obligation to defend and enact this principle overrode his obligation to follow Bureau procedure. What's more interesting than the whole Watergate débacle is his later conviction (and pardon) for approving illegal raids. That has echoes in recent legislation, and involves arguments about the right to privacy and the measures necessary to combat terrorism.

That will have to wait for another day and another blog entry. For now, it is enough to remember the man known for over thirty years only as Deep Throat, and what he did. I only hope that his Alzheimer's provided him some degree of moral peace in his final years, and he died free of torment.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Fictional Sceptics #5: Questionable Content

A very brief Fictional Sceptics post today, because this is something which has only just become apparent to me and there's not a lot to say on the matter.

You may or may not be familiar with the webcomic Questionable Content, drawn by Jeph Jacques. It's a usually-amusing serial comic about a bunch of twenty-somethings, most of whom have some pretty messed up issues. You know, the usual. It's not my favourite webcomic, certainly, but it's usually entertaining enough.

Today, it climbed up a little more in my estimations by having one of the characters fly off into a rant about metaphysical beliefs and evidence. It may not be much, but it's nice to see the sceptical mindset portrayed as another facet of an everyday person's persona.

It's a shame it had to invoke the clichéd "strict religious upbringing" as the cause of the character's scepticism, but it is true that many sceptics have that in their past. Certainly not all, however - I'm pleased to say I'm part of the exception.

So thanks, Jeph. I'm looking forward to seeing more of this aspect of Penelope's personality.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Brief update

Apologies for not writing for a while - I think this is the longest I've gone without uploading a new entry. There's a lot going on at the moment, and most of it is less than enjoyable - this means that updates here are likely to continue to be sporadic for a while. I'll write when I can, but my at-least-one-post-a-week aim might be ambitious.

In the meantime, however, I thought I'd inform you of an interesting development which is in the pipeline. As you may well be aware, London Skeptics in the Pub has been a roaring success, particularly in the last year or so. The sister event in Leicester is also doing well, with speakers booked for most of the coming year and attendance at a decent level. These two groups may be soon joined by a third - one in Birmingham. This is pretty great news for me, as I now live a stone's throw away in Wolverhampton - so naturally I'd love to see it get off the ground.

The main organiser at the moment is none other than Jon Donni, of BadPsychics fame/infamy. There's not yet a website set up, as this is still an idea being tested for feasibility. If you think you'd be interested in attending regular meet-ups with fellow skeptics in Birmingham, then head over to the FarceBook group and put your name down.

Hopefully you'll hear from me again soon - at least one post a week is still the aim - but don't be surprised if I'm a little quiet for a while. I'm still around, the blog is still active, so please be patient with me.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

BCA vs Simon Singh

You may or may not be aware of the libel action being brought against Simon Singh by the British Chiropractic Association. But if you're interested in finding out more, the current best sources are Holford Watch and the ongoing coverage at Jack of Kent.

The bad news is that the BCA aren't backing off. The good news (as I understand it) is that this means that, as part of the "fair comment" defence, the evidence for and against chiropractic - in respect to the six named child health conditions - is centrally relevant to the case, and will be well and truly put in the spotlight.

An important point to keep in mind, however, is whether this is the correct arena for this matter. Should it really be a matter decided legally, when the legal concept of evidence is so far removed from the scientific one as to be almost indistinguishable? Sadly, it seems to be a symptom of the horrific state of defamation legislation in this country.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Too much to ask?

I have no problem with people believing in gods, or indeed holding any supernatural beliefs - I think I've made that quite clear in previous entries here. I also have no problem with people who believe that these irrationalities are compatible with science. I think they're horribly and utterly wrong, but I also accept that they're quite entitled to hold those beliefs.

What I do have a problem with, however, is when this sort of person is appointed to a top position related to science. Such as, oh I don't know, The British Science Minister, who claims to have a "sixth sense". Also, he believes in God and sees no conflict between these beliefs and science.

Also, apparently, the new Canadian Minister for Science and Technology is a doctor of chiropractic.

Is it too much to ask that our top science positions are filled by people with the ability to think critically, and in a scientific manner?


Wednesday, 12 November 2008

What do you do?

You are the presidential candidate of the same party as the incumbent, in the last few months of the campaign. The president makes a controversial decision which, by association, could harm your chances. Polls show that a significant majority of the population does not approve. The press is asking for your comment.

What do you do?

In all likelihood, your advisors will be telling you to distance yourself from the president, and perhaps even go so far as criticising his decision. It's the obvious political choice, as the alternative offers very little advantage - siding with the president may keep some bridges intact, but burning those bridges keeps your chances of getting elected intact.

Some among you may recognise the scenario. It was one of the many complications on the road to the election in the final season of The West Wing. The reason I'm writing about it here is that Matt Santos' solution to the problem struck me as an approach characteristic of the sceptical mindset.

He did not distance himself from the president's decision. However, he also did not simply state his approval of Bartlett's actions. He stated his support for the president and then went about explaining his reasons for doing so - and the president's reasons for doing what he did. He saw that the main reason Bartlett's approval ratings were so low was the presentation of the matter in the media; his tactic was aimed at improving the information available to the public.

Perhaps it was a somewhat naïve move, based on the assumption that the press would report his full explanation and not the simple summary that he sided with the president. But one of the more appealing aspects of this particular presidential candidate is his determined idealism and reluctance to play by the standard rules of campaigning.

There are a number of different branches I could follow from this anecdote, and I probably will do so at some point. A rant about soundbite campaigning; the connection between scepticism and idealism; maybe even a comparison of the West Wing election to the most recent one. For now, it is just interesting to note that, when presented with a dilemma, it's a good idea to make sure it's not a false one.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Nihil illegitimae carborundum...

Councils ban use of Latin terms.

I'll admit this right now: I'm an elitist. Oddly, I think people should strive to better themselves with no upper limit to this endeavour, and the people who have succeeded more in this regard should be respected and heeded for their greater experience. I also believe that if you come across a term you don't understand, you should go look it up, or ask someone you think would know. Laziness in this regard is rewarded with continued ignorance. Your fate is in your own hands.

This having been said, however, the headline is misleading. The councils in question are not seeking to ban the Latin phrases in question - I don't know what kind of repercussions might await someone using one of them, but the quotes given in the article seem to make quite clear that it is an advisory step, not a prohibitive one.

I'm all in favour of reducing jargon, particularly in those media which are likely to have a wide and varied audience. But come on, are you seriously telling me that the majority of people get confused by "e.g." - or don't understand "via"? That seems somewhat unlikely to me, somehow.

The only bright side I see to this is that it might prevent people from saying "icksetra" instead of "et cetera", which, what with my being an elitist bastard, really annoys me.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Point of Empathy

It was with a certain sense of anticipation that I read a recent entry on Skepchick, entitled My Confession. Not because I thought it was finally Rebbecca declaring her secret crush on me, but because there had been rumblings that Elyse would be telling the tale of her time as a phone psychic. It did not disappoint; what followed was sad, fascinating, and heartbreaking. Go read it now, because if you don't then I'm talking to the wall - this post was entirely inspired by that one.

PentagramUsually when I hear something like that, I search for what might be called a point of empathy: something in my own life which I can use to relate to what's going on in the other person's life. In this case, the loss of her sister brought a comparison with the loss of my father, 6 years ago. Did I cope in the same or similar way that Elyse was trying to? My immediate reaction was no - I didn't consciously turn to anything for comfort initially. But then I remembered the Wicca Incident, and realised my story of loss may have a lot more in common with Elyse's than I had first thought.

It started, as these things so often do, with my girlfriend at the time (she will naturally remain anonymous here, but for the sake of all those potentially abused pronouns and synonyms, let's call her Alicia. I will not be speculating on her motivations). She was far more spiritual than I was, but being as I was young and in love, it didn't stay that way for long. I've always been fascinated by mythology and magic, so it was perhaps only natural that when spiritualism came calling, it was in the form of Wicca. Normally I would just take an interest, and study it objectively; but Alicia was of the belief that to fully understand you had to experience first-hand. So we became Wiccans.

It was only a matter of time before I applied my new faith in the supernatural (and hopelessly vague) concept of "energy" and some kind of spirit world to the recent loss of my father (for anyone interested in the chronology, Alicia and I started our relationship around 7 months after my father's death; the Wicca came a month or two after that). It was the first time I'd truly dealt with the emotions of it, and I don't know if it was the belief system or just having someone that close to me to confide in, but I finally cried. 8 or 9 months after his death, I finally started mourning for him. I will always be indebted to Alicia for that, at least.

It was the ouija board that finally did it. While I hadn't heard of the ideomotor effect, I was fairly certain that ouija boards involved some trickery, be it conscious or not. Yet somehow Alicia convinced me that we had contacted the spirit of my father, and that it would be a good idea to go tell my mum this bit of news. I will never forget her reaction, and we haven't spoken of it since - and not in one of those "unspoken agreement" things. She actually told me that we would never mention it again. I try not to have any regrets in my life - but it's hard to think of this incident any other way. Is it possible to feel ashamed but not count it as a regret?

I wouldn't go so far as to say that this was what set me on the path to what I now recognise as scepticism; like Elyse, I was already heading that way anyway - mostly because of a secular, open-minded upbringing. But I think this was when I first realised the harm that these practices can cause. My heart was no longer in the Wicca, and I gave it up completely when I split with Alicia; the only thing I kept was the name I created for myself and which I now use as my internet pseudonym.

It is because of this episode in my life that I feel able to empathise with people who turn to spiritualism and pseudoscience in order to cope with the loss of a loved one. I can also empathise with those who find it wanting. I am ashamed of what happened, yes, but I do not regret it; because, after the complex interplay of cause and effect had woven their magic, it turns out to have been another push along the road to scepticism and rationality. I cannot regret anything that has brought me here.

Asking the Question

There was recently an utterly fantastic post on Skepchick which hit the nail on the head in far too many ways to mention:

My instinct is that if we just keep on being ourselves, unapologetically, things will change. I think things are changing, but socialized norms are tricky things to overcome. Also I think it is crucial that we talk about these things. Making skeptics of all genders examine critically how they think about these issues can only help root out previously unrecognized stereotypes and prejudices, and, hopefully, lead to a more diverse movement.

The comment thread very much does justice to the quality of the original entry, which is unsurprising - Skepchick is always a great source of open, intelligent debate. One comment did remind me of something which I would like to share with you all; you may have seen it already - it did the rounds on the internet a little while ago - but it cannot be viewed too many times. If you needed more convincing that Joss Whedon is a man worth his weight in gold, hearken ye well:

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Stop worrying?

The biggest news in the athiest/sceptical sphere at the moment is probably the "atheist bus campaign" - by which I mean that it is the story that has garnered the most attention among the news/opinion sources I read on a regular basis.

When I first got wind of the idea a little while ago, I greeted it with mirth and interest; I thought it was about time we had some secular, atheist or agnostic messages out in the "real world". It would help stimulate debate, and perhaps make people realise that they're not alone in feeling detached from religion (a feeling I'm sure is more prevalent than generally believed).

Now that the campaign has well and truly taken off (last I heard they had exceeded their target by a staggering £75,000 or so), it's even turning up in the "Politics" section of my RSS feeds - at Liberal Conspiracy and even a spoof by the great Beau Bo D'Or.

Of course, being sceptics, there has been little agreement on whether the slogan that had been settled upon was the right one to use. The first objections centered around the use of the word "probably", and this choice may or may not have been down to advertising regulations not allowing more assertive statements. Others have claimed it's too patronising and will not achieve what it aims to.

The most interesting objections come from an authoritative source, Tracy King at Skepchick.org, who expands on her initial misgivings in this comment. As someone who not only works in marketing, but was also a one-time Christian, her opinion is a very well-informed one on this matter. For her, the slogan not only doesn't cut it, but is actually counter-productive. Sadly, I'm inclined to agree.

The question that needs to be asked when designing this sort of thing has to be about what the effect of the advert is intended to be. As far as I can tell, the motivation behind this one is to get people thinking, talking, and questioning religion, and also to put a friendly face on the alternatives - in this case, humanism. So will the chosen slogan have the intended effect? The general consensus among those discussing it seems to be "no". The thread on the UK-Skeptics Forum has now turned mostly toward what the slogan should be.

I have no experience as a slogan-writer so can do little to offer alternatives; but as far as concepts go, I'd prefer one that didn't evoke "God" at all. I feel that a campaign simply promoting rational, free, and intelligent debate would be more beneficial. The biggest problem faced in this regard is how best to word it so that average people will actually look at it and think.

I don't know how far along the process is as far as the advertising is concerned, but if it's at all possible, those organising the campaign should rethink the slogan in consultation with marketing advisers. The amount of money they have raised is a mandate to take it seriously and do the best job they possibly can.

Friday, 17 October 2008

This is what we were afraid of

There is a reason I have opposed the majority of the anti-terror legislation passed in Britain in recent years. In fact, there is more than one.

Firstly and not to be overlooked is the simple ideological opposition to the erosion of civil liberties. I don't actually care if someone is suspected of terrorism - that does not, and should not, negate their rights.

Secondly, in regards to the legislation seeking to introduce databases of information on the public at large (such as the ID cards database and the NHS patient information database), there is the concern that the data would be misplaced. It has happened so regularly in the last year or two that it hardly seems to be newsworthy any more. Even if we think the system is necessary, how can we trust the government to keep our information suitably protected?

Finally, and most seriously, is the point that so few seem to grasp. When I raise the subject of anti-terror legislation, I'm sometimes met by the argument that these things are necessary and the only people who should be afraid are the terrorists; the only people who lose liberties are those who arguably don't deserve them in the first place. This misses the point entirely.

It is now unnecessary for someone to be charged if the police want to hold them for up to 28 days. A month, without charge. All they need to do is say "terrorism", and, like magic, superpowers are unlocked. Already we have had examples of so-called anti-terror legislation being used against people not even suspected of being terrorists. A heckler at a Labour party conference, for instance; and, most recently and shockingly, the state of Iceland.

This is the real danger of anti-terror legislation. Whenever it proves expedient, it will be used against those not under suspicion of the crimes it was created to fight.

Which is why I am less than pleased by the proposed Communications Data Bill. "Orwellian" barely does it justice. If you are resident in the UK, I urge you to review the proposed new measures (which are well summarised by the Skeptobot here) and write to your MP. Consent by silence is an awful, awful thing.

"...while the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth. And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn't there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression. And where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission. How did this happen? Who's to blame? Well certainly there are those more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable, but again truth be told, if you're looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror. I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn't be? War, terror, disease. There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense."
V, V For Vendetta

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Fuck (aspects of) the mainstream

Sorry if this entry is a little incoherent. I'm feeling somewhat crap and yet felt the need to blog.

It's something I see a lot, particularly among the friends I have in what is bafflingly and tediously known as the "alternative" community: a shunning of the mainstream. A friend told me today that she liked a TV series before it arrived on the BBC, but as soon as it did, she went off it because it went "too mainstream". I share the irrational urge to shun things which are being hyped and which are becoming popular; perhaps it's just a result of the questioning of authority, or not wanting to appear conformist. Whatever the reason, it's clear to me at least that it can be an irrational urge: if the TV show didn't change at all simply by becoming popular, then there is no reason to dislike it if you liked it before.

Of course, this is not always the case. Sometimes, when something becomes popular it changes in order to remain so, or become more so. This is often the case in music, and one of the reasons the "mainstream" is so reviled by fans of so-called alternative music: it means that a band will sometimes compromise its style etc. in order to increase appeal.

So, on the one hand, I sympathise with those who sport t-shirts with the amusingly widespread "Fuck the mainstream" slogan. But, as usual, I think you'll find it's more complicated than that. I'm tempted to put the title of this post on a t-shirt too, now.

For instance, as a band becomes more popular, they are more likely to be able to continue making music and touring - and their fans will have greater access to that band. If they make no compromise in their sound, then as far as I can see it's win-win; the only thing they gain that can be seen as negative is popularity, which is not terribly rational to view in that light. Even if they do change their sound, do them the courtesy of seriously considering the change from an aesthetic point of view before dismissing it. Dimmu Borgir undeniably changed their sound as they became more popular, and this has proven less than popular with their original fanbase. But you know what? I like the music they're making these days.

The trend is even more pronounced for a television series: the more people watch it, the less likely it is that Fox the network will cancel it. In a roundabout way, I suppose it makes some kind of sense to curse the mainstream for being so heavily relied upon in this regard - the mere fact that something is not embraced by a lot of people should not condemn it to oblivion and obscurity. But at the same time, the way it is is the way it is - mainstream acceptance allows our favourite shows to continue on and entertain us.

There is a more important message here, for sceptics, rationalists, freethinkers and all the other categories of the sane: the mainstream is to be shunned at your own risk. There is a reason why entire organisations are set up to promote the public understanding of science: if more people understand its value - its necessity - then progress becomes easier. More young people will choose science as a career path; more will consider it an important issue in politics; more funding becomes available to scientific projects.

As much as the state of the mainstream media pains me at present, simply saying "fuck it" helps nobody. What is needed is improvement in standards, and more general promotion of just how useful, important, and cool science can be. We need to work with the mainstream, get rationality out of the shadows, and being freely discussed by the majority of people.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Rebel without an advertising campaign

There has been an advertising campaign over here recently, in the style of the classic American road movie - girl meets boy, girl gets pregnant, mother doesn't approve of boy, boy and girl shout "screw you!" and run away together. Oh, and in this particular case, the boy is made of cactus.

I was generally uninterested in this, as I am with most advertising campaigns. Until the advert was pulled, after a series of complaints about its content and message:

BBC News: Cactus kid advert ordered off air.

Apparently this is because it depicts teenage pregnancy in a less than demonising light, and its hookline, "for people who don't like water", discourages a healthy diet. Let's take the latter first, because it's easier to deal with.

Discourages a healthy diet. Unlike, for instance, adverts for McDonalds, Galaxy chocolate, Haribo, and every other advert on television? I'm sorry, but that just doesn't wash. At all. If anyone can see sense in that proposition, please tell me, because it entirely escapes my grasp.

The pregnancy is the more interesting part; as far as I can see, it's there as part of the spoof/homage referring to the classic genre of American road movies. I don't think there is any danger that anyone watching it would take away from the advert the message that "teenage pregnancy is desirable" - it doesn't play a significant enough role in the advert for it to be anything more than a plot device.

Did it "condone teenage pregnancy and underage sex"? Not that I could see. The girl didn't seem to be underage, though she may have been in her late teens. Underage sex (in this country at least) would imply under 16 - and she certainly didn't look that young. As for the pregnancy, all it did was acknowledge that these things happen; if that's enough for some people to claim that it condones the action, then they should be complaining until they're blue in the face about soap operas.

Poor Cactus Kid. They'll never stop persecuting rebels.

Away Turf

One of the more commented posts here recently was Home Turf, in which I inveighed at some length regarding the logically necessary divide between science and religion. Religion is fine, I concluded, as long as it remains in the private sphere.

My good friend Von made a comment which brought to attention something which was left unsaid (though perhaps implied) in my original rant - why religion is actually OK at all.

There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that religion has played a positive role in a great many lives. The advantages it brings are almost too numerous to list, but here's a cursory top-of-the-head job: removes/reduces fear of death; provides consolation after a loss; creates a sense of wonder; absolves from guilt; "explains" everything; provides cast-iron moral code; binds communities together... I could go on, but I won't.

These are the things which should be celebrated about religion; but they should not be considered - as they so often are - the sole domain thereof. As an atheist, I am truly and profoundly insulted when people argue that atheism means amorality; I don't fear death because all evidence suggests that it is the absence of experience, and it is thus senseless to fear it; and a sense of wonder is certainly no stranger to me - nature in all its complex splendour is quite amazing enough without having to resort to supernature.

But isn't it more interesting (and fruitful) to discuss these issues, like the true value of religion and the role it might, should, does - or not - play in society? Rather than obsessing over complete and eternal non-starters like the verifiability of deities? Religious-types: stop offering proof. Scientific-types: stop demanding it.

The first step in looking for meaningful answers is to ask meaningful questions.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Dear YouTube...

Please stop censoring freedom of expression.

Either: reinstate fsmdude's account and his videos which offend only those who have some wacky beliefs in regard to a biscuit...

Or: define yourselves officially as a Catholic website for only Catholic-friendly videos, and I can begin looking for alternative video-hosting websites to frequent.

Thank you.

[Via here and here. (PZ, naturally)]

UPDATE: fsmdude is now back online. Thank you, YouTube. Now don't do it again.

On a personal note, the dissertation is handed in and the Masters degree is officially over and done with. Posting to this blog should slowly start getting back to normal now. Thanks for your patience.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Blink 8: That's no temple...

Just a quick one today, as the dissertation is becoming something of a priority to put it mildly. I just got back from my first visit to Stonehenge, which was pretty magnificent. The tour bus I used to get there from nearby Salisbury had audio commentary which included the busting of a couple of myths about the site - so I thought it would be an easy thing to post here in lieu of more substantial entries.

Stonehenge was not built as a druidic temple. The druids were part of a Celtic religious framework which did not exist in Britain until millennia after the stone circle was constructed. It was later adopted by them for use in religious ceremonies, but this was not the purpose for which it was built. It is a Neolithic monument.

So there you go - a popular myth dispelled. Find more information in the following locations:

Stonehenge on Wikipedia
Druids on Wikipedia
Stonehenge at English Heritage
Animated history of Stonehenge from the BBC

Tuesday, 16 September 2008


It has recently come to my attention that I have been terribly disingenuous to you all. I have been repeating the poisoned lies of Big Pharma and misleading people in their honest pursuit of wellness.

Homeopathy can and does work. The anecdotal evidence is enough to void the claims of any so-called "scientific trial". This doesn't mean, however, that I have ceased to have any problem with homeopathy. I still think there are better alternatives.

I mean, it's just so expensive isn't it? Do we really want to pay that much for sugar (and lactose) pills?

My solution to this problem is something I like to call Haribology. I, like the homeopaths, make no claims that the treatment contains even a molecule of active ingredient; rather, the healing powers of Haribo™ come from the spirit of joy and wellness embodied by the smiling face on the packaging. This instills the very same essence into the tasty, sugary goodness within, and leads to optimal health - at a fraction of the cost of homeopathic remedies.

Not suitable for vegetarians.


Hopefully back to regular (and moderately serious) posting within a couple of weeks. As a taste of what's to come, I already have two entries in the making - both quite large, hence not having the time to work on them at the moment. One is another in my "Fictional Sceptics in Popular Culture" series, and the other concerns an interesting and amusing email I received this weekend. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Home Turf

Yes, dear reader, you're getting treated to another of my regular helpings of "Why philosophy is great". I'm sure you're suitably thrilled at this prospect.

There is a school of thought within philosophy (generally Wittgensteinian if you're interested) which argues that the most (perhaps the only) important contribution philosophy can make to real life is the diagnosis and treatment of misunderstandings, particularly those caused by language. There are many possible examples of this, such as subjective definitions of "proof", "knowledge", "belief", etc.

As an illustrative anecdote from my own life, I occasionally have arguments (not rows; series of progressive statements intended to establish a consensus) with my dear mother about - amongst other topics - alternative medicine. Toward the end of one such discussion, I made note of the fact that we actually agreed, despite appearances. This was because I had noticed that we were simply operating on different definitions of the word "work"; when considering what it is for a treatment to "work", she includes the placebo effect and I do not. Aside from this, we were making entirely the same points and agreeing throughout; once I pointed out this fundamental misunderstanding, the discussion was less confrontational.

I believe there is a misunderstanding at the core much of the antagonism between science and religion, and it is what will always happen when a naturally rational being attempts to justify their irrational beliefs in rational terms. There is nothing wrong with irrational beliefs, as long as one accepts that they are irrational; as soon as you start trying to justify (for example) your belief in a deity on empirical grounds, you invite, if not outright ridicule, at least a sound defeat in rational debate.

God and all metaphysical phenomena lie outside empirical perception - that is why they're called metaphysical. There is no point looking for evidence because the very (supposed) nature of these things denies the possibility of evidence. All attempts to prove the existence of deities on purely logical grounds, too, have failed miserably and laughably. The fact that claims of the supernatural are exclusively beyond the purview of rational science means that there is a huge gulf separating them from it. Irrationality should never try to justify itself on rational grounds - its very nature precludes success.

This is why I believe religion should be kept on the personal level; as long as it does no harm and doesn't pretend to be rational, I have no problem with it - but society as a whole cannot afford to be irrational.

The only time that science and religion should engage each other is when one is attempting to pass itself off as the other. I won't lie here - it's (almost?) always religion trying to pass itself off as science; because guess what? They think that seeming rational and basing their beliefs on empirical evidence is a desirable trait - cognitive dissonance anyone? The current classic example of this is creationism (a completely irrational belief if ever there was one) trying to pass itself off as science under the guise of Intelligent Design. Apparently there are those who believe that irrationality has a place in science classrooms; this is exactly when science and the rational community should defend with every argument at our disposal, and keep the irrational separate.

The divide between religion and science is identical with the divide between rationality and irrationality. As long as you keep them separate, all is well. But cross over from one to the other and you've got a fight on your hands.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Respect and Guilt

I will attempt to get through this post without intentional innuendo.

Australia 2020 Summit: Day 1There has been an uproar in Australia recently over a book accused of encouraging girls to take up the didgeridoo. It seems that there are those among the aboriginal leaders who argue that the instrument is a male one and forbid women from even touching it, let alone playing it. [original story via BBC News Online]

The publisher has apologised for this "extreme faux pas", but I've heard nothing regarding what - if anything - they plan to do about it. I'm hoping it will stop at an apology, but would not be surprised if the book were retracted, edited and reissued to remove the offending section.

World Youth Day Cross Arrives In SydneyThere is an automatic respect accorded to these ancient tribal customs which is comparable to (and indeed is in places literally) that accorded religion. I don't think I need to necessarily go into why this is unwarranted, especially where oppression based on gender is concerned. Why is sexual discrimination alright when it's done for reasons based on tradition alone?

But further to this, there is often a degree of racial guilt when dealing with the indigenous peoples of Australia, North America, and other such places where they have been less than generously treated in the past. There is a terrible fear of offending these aboriginal societies in the West, lest they bring up that touchy subject of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Now I'm not saying we need to stop respecting them - quite the opposite; I'm saying we need to respect them enough to tell them when they're doing something unjust. Irrational beliefs should not be accorded respect simply by virtue of their antiquity. This even applies to those cultures whose ancestors our ancestors greatly wronged.

Basically, if an aboriginal girl wants to give that big stick a damn good blow, she should be perfectly free to do so.

Damnit. So close.

Monday, 1 September 2008

So what is it?*

A looming dissertation deadline means that updates here are likely to be weekly at best over the course of September. Also, for the week or two after that I may be too drunk to write coherently. Anyway, on with today's entry...

Oddly enough, one of the most discussed topics among sceptics is the definition of scepticism itself. All seem to agree that it involves doubt in some way, but many also argue that this is not the most important defining feature; indeed, some argue that the perception of a sceptic as "one who doubts" is one which gives a false impression of the endeavour of modern scepticism.

So what is this endeavour? There must be some core principle that unites sceptics, or some certain resemblances between them - or the label of "sceptic" itself has nothing upon which to attach and is thus essentially meaningless. I would submit that rather than characterising it as a disposition to doubt, it should be regarded at its most basic level as a firm belief in the necessary freedom of enquiry. This seems to me to be a fairly solid definition of that elusive core principle that unites all sceptics.

Of course, diversity abounds when we move past that point and build further ideas into the framework - the addition of (still seemingly fundamental) ideals can and does alienate a certain minority of people who nonetheless consider themselves sceptics and promoters above all else of the absolute freedom of enquiry. There are those among the remaining majority, however, who claim that those in the minority are simply misapplying the central idea of scepticism.

For instance, what does freedom of enquiry entail? Presumably that there is no subject off-limits, no taboo and no reason to resist rational discussion of any topic. But does that go to say that equal time should be given over to each discussion? Should the ongoing controversy of string theory be given less attention so as to make way for UFOlogists, conspiracy theorists and psychics? I, and most of my fellow sceptics, would answer "no". Yet there are those who disagree.

Is a sceptic one who agrees with mantras such as "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence"? I'm tempted to say yes. Perhaps it is more clearly expressed, however, by saying that a sceptic is one who changes her mind when presented with sufficient evidence. Obviously a lot of diversity among sceptics occurs because of their varying definitions of where the line of sufficiency lies.

There is too much material out there defining sceptics in negative terms (by this I don't mean derogatory terms, simply that the definitions are negative ones) such as "sceptics don't believe in psychic powers" or "sceptics don't believe in alien abduction". Well, a significant part of the agenda for those making scepticism more visible has to be presenting it in terms of what a sceptic is, and does believe, rather than what he does not. Of course, it is also important that this does not consume the entire agenda; it's all very well promoting freedom of enquiry - but one ought to leave time to carry some out as well.

* 14 Geek Points for whichever smegheads get this reference.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Cows... with Magnets!

Now here's a headline to set off a healthy bit of scepticism:

"Cattle shown to align north-south"

I'm not going to rubbish that claim straight off the bat, but I'd definitely need a little more proof than a few anecdotes and images before thinking there was something to it. Why would they do that? I'm well aware that a sense of magnetic direction is seemingly quite a widespread phenomenon among Terran fauna, but I have a hard time understanding why this particular ability would be of any use to cattle.

Over eight and a half thousand images of cattle were examined, apparently. That's a pretty good sample size, I'd say; but nowhere do I see the numbers involved in working out the incidence of north-south alignment (if anyone can grab access to the actual article, I'd be grateful for a link).

A couple of other points stood out for me in the BBC report of this: firstly, that in Africa and South America, the scientists carrying out the study noted a north-east/south-west alignment rather than the north-south seen elsewhere; they explain this by pointing out that the magnetic field is weaker there. OK, granted. But why then are they still aligning along a different line? Without seeing the data itself, that sounds to me like whatever method they used to determine significant alignment might be a little too generous.

Secondly comes the speculation of reasons why this north-south alignment might be happening; the lead scientist is quoted as speculating that it could be anti-predatory behaviour.

I'm sorry, what?

Do most predators come from the north or south? Would it not be a more effective technique to have the herd facing in different directions if it's an alert system you're looking for? I can appreciate the use in having the herd facing the same direction - if the need to flee arises, it makes that safety-in-numbers thing much easier to manage. This would seem to be the most reasonable explanation for a herd facing in generally the same direction as each other. But if this is the case, why north-south? Perhaps they just like facing south; perhaps it feels like going downhill...

Basically this sounds like fluff reporting of a half-baked investigation. I'd like to see the numbers involved, but at the moment I remain unconvinced that there is a phenomenon to explain here; I'll agree that in general a herd will face in more or less the same direction. That much is hardly news. The north-south thing, though? Needs a little more work.


EDIT: The story has been taken up by Ed at Not Exactly Rocket Science, and it seems that he's read the article! Here's his take on it. Reading through, it seems like those numbers I was after do actually add up quite nicely; as for the reason behind it, the general notion seems to be that they have as much reason to line up in this way as a compass needle does. It's just what they do. Some intriguing ideas are being thrown around about physiological processes running smoother when aligned with the poles, but these are still at the hypothesis stage.

I wouldn't be much of a sceptic if I didn't change my tune when faced with the numbers. I still maintain my opinion of the original piece on the BBC, though. The quality of science reporting is, as I should have come to expect by now, somewhat south (haha) of optimal.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Feminism and I

I consider myself a feminist. I am far from being alone in this (Skepchick.org, for instance), but I just had reason to consider this label which I place upon myself might be in need of elucidation.

A friend of mine blogging under the name Lost Reverence recently wrote an entry entitled The Punishment of Women for Men's Own Failings..., and as she doesn't allow comments on her blog, I thought I'd post my feelings on it here.

While I widely agree with her - which has a tendency to happen - I do worry a little at some of the language used, particularly toward the end of the entry. Yes, I suppose that "men cannot control their emotions" - but I'd rather there was a qualifier in front of that, such as "some", or maybe even "most". The problem I have here is that, while promoting the rights and dignity of women (which I fully endorse, as part of being a feminist), it is all-too-easy to fall into the trap of painting all men with the same brush, much as has been - and is - done to women.

I suppose the best way of understanding the kind of feminism I endorse (and which I think has the greatest chance of succeeding) is as being more about gender equality. This is an end which, in the current social climate, can best be achieved by promoting the rights of women, which is why it's usually included under the heading of feminism. What I'm not out to do is deny that there are differences between the sexes - and it's quite possible that emotional stability is one of the things which tends to be found more in one than the other. But the ultimate aim of gender equality, I think, should be to finally be able to appreciate individuals as complex beings in their own right; this would naturally include influences of biology upon them, but would not end there as it so often does today.

On a personal note in response to LR's post, I have had my heart broken* at least once - and despite this fact and the fact of my gender, I also consider myself relatively stable on an emotional level. I certainly don't see any way in which I am punishing my current partner for my past mistakes or failings. But then maybe it's all subconscious and terribly Freudian. I do hope not.

* I too dislike this overly-emotional term. It smacks of rhetoric. Suggestions for alternatives appreciated.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Alternative Flight and our Gappy Friend.

In a recent QuackCast, Dr Mark Crislip put together a rather amusing satire on the topic of "alternative flight", taken largely from his earlier blog post at Science-Based Medicine. The jist of it is that we should be introducing more alternative modalities into aeronautics just as they have been introduced to medicine; if there's a problem with the plane, don't necessarily just call the engineers - get some Reiki Masters and Tarot readers in there. Crislip's actual satire is far more involved and entertaining than that brief summary, but you get the idea.

Now I do hope I'll be forgiven if I'm wrong in this assessment, but I got the impression that the general point of the satire was to say "you wouldn't apply these crazy unscientific methods to something like aeronautical engineering, so why would you do so with medicine and the science of human biology? It's a fair question up to a point: if the scientific method is good enough for flight, why do people go elsewhere when it comes to their own bodies?

It is a fair question, but the analogy is limited in its scope; a cursory probing will actually adequately answer the question it poses. We created aircraft; the science of aeronautics is pretty complete - we (or at least, those qualified in the necessary fields) know how every last bit of an aircraft works, because we came up with the damned things and have been developing them for over a century now. The same can hardly be said of the human body; we certainly didn't design them ourselves and had only an "ignition" role to play in their actual creation. As for the expertise, even the most qualified and knowledgeable in the medical profession don't know everything there is to know about the function of the human body - certainly not to the extent that aeronautical engineers understand that of aircraft.

This isn't to say either a) that we never will or b) that there is any other way to get the answers than the tried-and-true scientific method. But it does explain why people are far more willing to look into "alternatives" in medicine than in aeronautics: there are far more unknowns. SCAMs are just another God of the Gaps.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Fictional Sceptics #4: Something New

OK, so my "fictional sceptics" feature was originally named "Fictional Sceptics in Pop Culture". But today I'm breaking with that particular pattern because I want to bring you something that is most certainly not part of the popular culture. It's a short story by an unknown author going by the name of Nick Westwood*, set in a parallel future the better part of a thousand years distant. It's part of a wider collection of stories which will eventually form The Unity Chronicles. Various other background pieces for this collection can be found at the author's page on DeviantART.

The Uraz Research Facility never slept. This was aided by its positioning at the temperate northern pole of the planet, where they experienced only two hours of semi-darkness in every thirty. The sun was at its highest in the sky when Nakato finally lost his temper.

'It's what we're made of! Please try to lift your mind out of religious complacency and comprehend what I'm telling you!'

'I'm sorry, Hari. I'm trying to understand what you're saying but it goes against everything we know about the universe and our place in it. You can't just dismiss centuries of knowledge with a few simple phrases.'

'I agree. But that's not what's going on here; firstly, it's not centuries of knowledge - it's centuries of willful ignorance. Secondly, I'm not dismissing it with a few simple phrases, I'm dismantling it with logic and reason.'

'But how do you know all those old texts are even real? They must have been outlawed for a reason.'

'Of course they were outlawed for a reason; they were outlawed because they run contrary to every teaching of the Book of Unity. Contradictions in matters of fact as well as in the morality of all this new research.

'But that's just the point, isn't it? Science isn't meant to play God.'

'What is it meant to do then, Faerin? Toil away at petty, circular research and find more and more advanced ways for humanity to destroy itself? I don't know about you, but I'm sick of that; and I thought this new alliance would bring the opportunity to break from the old dogma, to give science the freedom it needs to find the truth and improve lives. Do you know that in some respects we're actually less advanced than Earth scientists over a thousand years ago? Before any colonisation had taken place? Does that make even a little bit of sense to you?'

'What did they know that we don't? It's hard to imagine a culture ignorant of space travel could be more advanced than us in any way. Besides, how could all that information just get lost like that?'

'It was "lost" because of the rise of the Church, don't you get it? The fields of genetics, evolutionary biology, cybernetics - all outlawed because of the threats they presented to the Church's theological dogma. Anything they claimed as "science playing God" was made anathema; funding was pulled, and research was legislated against. Before the Church gained dominance, science had made great leaps in understanding exactly what humans were made of, and of what they might one day be capable. The censorship imposed didn't just set us back by decades, it completely removed entire fields of research. Now that we're free of that dogma, I was hoping to to revive the outlawed sciences. Give me one good reason why we shouldn't - one that doesn't appeal to religious authority.'

'I can't, Hari. It just goes against the grain. It feels wrong.'

'Of course it does; that's the point. If we don't challenge these boundaries then our science will remain restricted in the way it has been for the last few centuries. It feels wrong because like the rest of us you were raised in a dogmatic, blindly unquestioning society. All I ask is that you read these texts and then tell me if you still feel the same way. Try to keep an open mind.'

- - - - -

Two days later, Hari Nakato sat at his workbench poring over a set of readings he had just taken. Everything from the texts were being confirmed; every test he ran resulted in the exact predicted outcomes. Just then, Faerin entered the lab. Her hair was unkempt and her eyes bloodshot. Her face bore a strange expression, that Nakato recognised only too well; a conflicted mixture of enlightenment, disbelief, and frenzied excitement. She'd read the texts.

'Hari, they knew how we came to be. There was no Almighty Hand, no mud sculptures, no miracles. They - they actually mapped a human genome, they proved a relation to other apes. The potential for genetic modification, for eradicating disease and deformity even prior to birth... You were right. The ancient Terrans were way ahead of us, they knew things we'd never imagined were even there to know. How could the Church even defend itself against that sort of advancement?'

'Nobody knows for sure; it's astounding that these texts even survived to be honest. The only other history we have left is what we're told by the Church, and as has become abundantly clear, they can't be trusted to tell the truth. I think we can probably assume that they managed to raise a furore over the implications of the research - the morality of modifying "God's Design", and once they'd got their foot in the door they were free to outlaw anything that contradicted their precious book.'

'But aren't we going to do a similar thing with these texts? Who's to say that these are more valid than the Book of Unity?'

'I see you took the message of the questioning mindset to heart; but you seem to have overlooked the most important one - the texts themselves tell us not to take them as unquestionable truths but test them, probe them - doubt them. That's what I've been doing while you were away missing two nights' sleep. Everything I was able to test of what they say is true, Faerin. Everything. We just rediscovered DNA and the origin of the species. Given a few more decades and sufficient funding and personnel, we might actually be back to where we were a millennium ago. Further, if you count the progress we've made in the fields of research that weren't outlawed.'

'God bless the Varangian Alliance.'

'I can think of more suitable ways to put it, but yes. Things are finally starting to look up.'

Nothing to add to that really, I'll let it speak for itself.

* Yeah, that's me.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

A sign in the sky

Apologies for the absence (once again). Work, holiday and a broken internet connection are to blame in this particular case - certainly not me.

Anyway, I was wandering around striding purposefully between one important engagement and another at my university the other day, when a strange sight made me stop in my tracks. Finally, I thought to myself; incontrovertible proof that there is a higher power. Validation of all those stories told as a child, all those bizarre rituals at bedtime.

Ladies and gentlemen, there is a tooth fairy:

I always knew. Parents wouldn't lie about that sort of thing.

Clearly this dental daemon also operates a kind of "Bat-signal" style of alert system. That the signal disappeared soon after its sudden appearance only lends weight to this clear-cut fact.

Rejoice, humanity. The proof is given.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Real World Happenings #1: Chariots of the Gods

OK, so welcome to my third semi-regular feature - Real World Happenings. This is a plan to occasionally document moments in my own personal life in which scepticism has played an important part. I can't promise this will happen often, but it's becoming more regular as time goes on and I gain confidence in this part of my identity.

My mother, much like myself, loves to read books. Recently she mentioned she was reading something called "Chariots of the Gods", as if I would immediately know what she was talking about. In my clearly undereducated ignorance, I did not. She described it as an interesting read, which propounds* an "alternative" viewpoint on the history of the human race; the key point of which is that the origin of life on earth may have had intelligent extraterrestrial origin.

Can't say that I was sold at that point. I leafed through it this afternoon, had a look at the pictures because I wanted the bitesize taster version. My immediate reaction was something like "Bunk; bunk; probably genuinely unexplained; bunk; interesting; interesting bunk; batshit-crazy bunk" and so forth. Not one to simply leave it at that (which would be cynicism rather than constructive scepticism), I delved with gay abandon into the internets. Within five minutes I was able to tell my dear mother that Erich von Däniken's theories had been thoroughly discredited, including an entire book which essentially constitutes a page-by-page refutation thereof.

It should be stressed that, despite the near-complete refutation of Däniken's theories - aided by his own admissions of the fabrication of "evidence" - the book remains a rich source of entertainment and even intellectual stimulation; even if he's wrong, it's an interesting possibility to consider. And as my mother so astutely pointed out, it makes about as much sense as some invisible "God" character.

* Yeah, she didn't use the word propound. You got me.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

The importance of antidote

There are many reasons I see such a strong link between philosophy and scepticism. One of these is probably bias on my part, being a great lover of both and prone to making connections. Another prominent reason, however, can be summed up in the word therapy.

While in other contexts this is a word which would set off some alarm bells - it's one which is used extensively by Supplementary, Complementary and Alternative Medicines (my favourite acronym) to give the illusion of competence where none exists - in this context, it is therapy of the most genuine and beneficial sort.

Acupuncture ModelPeople suffer from misconceptions. It's just a fact of life that this is the case, and there's nothing we can do to completely prevent this on a global scale. What the philosopher or sceptic is able to do is analyse an argument or a stated position, and identify fallacies. They can then determine the appropriate way of dissuading the person from that misconception (though of course there must be a degree of willing on the part of the subject). This diagnosis-treatment approach is why this particular brand of philosophy is known as therapeutic - and the parallels with scepticism are striking.

This process in scepticism is aided substantially by the wonders of the interwebs and the ever-growing freedom of information. Someone insisting that acupuncture or homeopathy has a proven track record in clinical trials? Ask to see the published research - or better yet, show them the reams of research which contradicts their position.

Of course, an important part of any therapy is to treat primary causes rather than the symptoms alone; and the source of so much of the ignorance and misunderstanding in the world is the mainstream media. For the majority of people, who do not get their news from the internet, the main sources of information are television and the dead tree press - the worst of which are the tabloids. It seems impossible for a story to appear in The Scum that isn't in some way serving the editorial agenda, every story spun to promote the paper's pet worldview.

An example: for one reason or another, lately there has been a rise in awareness of knife crime in the UK; the government is pledging new measures to combat it, and the opposition are using it as further "evidence" that society is going down the pan. The latest crime survey figures were recently splashed across the headlines - crying out things like "crime wave" and "a stabbing every 4 minutes in Blade Britain".

Now, I've spoken before about the evil of statistics in the media, and this is another case of the media twisting the figures to suit their agenda. This is where we need our antidotes, and there are few as effective at bursting the hyperbolic bubble of social commentary as Obsolete, and in this case he certainly doesn't disappoint. His entry on the subject reveals the figures behind the hysteria: 6% of violent crime in England & Wales in the last year involved a knife.

Without going into too much detail (head over to Obsolete's article if you want the full load), the basic point here is that crime is down - and even knife crime in particular has seen a (albeit statistically insignificant) decrease in the last year. Where, then, does this apocalyptic vision of a Broken, Blade-wielding Britain come from? Speculatively, I would have to say that it's probably the media themselves; though the Why is a different matter.

But can you imagine how hard it would be to get the facts were it not for the internet? How much more widespread the influence of the media would be? I shudder at the thought, to be honest.

The internet is a wonderful resource, and one of the best uses to which it can be put is as part of the therapeutic process of scepticism, treating misconceptions and bringing the "antidote" of actual facts to a wider audience.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Fictional Sceptics #3: Stargate SG-1

Being something of a sci-fi nerd, I have for many years had much love for the movie Stargate, and for its spin-off series SG-1. The latter is, for me at least, far superior - or was until some of the later series anyway. The premise had immense scope, and despite the obvious was far less fantastical than the film.

Rather than focusing on a specific character this time, I feel the scepticism inherent in the show is better seen on the level of concepts, outlook and methodology. There are reams of material suitable for examination here, but as I've been working my way through the DVDs of series 2 I expect most of my references will be from there.

Where to begin? Perhaps one of the series' main appeals is that it takes contemporary-minded people and presents them with revelations that turn their understanding of the universe on its head. It does a very good job of exploring how such people would react to these situations - which includes a good deal of scepticism. Evidence is gathered and taken into account, and above all questioned. Everything is subject to reason. It also does a great service not only to the scientific method but to the passion which goes alongside it; in the episode New Ground there is an exchange between Teal'c and a young man from another planet:

Nyan: "You are proof that my theories have been all wrong."
Teal'c: "Then perhaps you would be better off if I were no longer alive."
Nyan: "Teal'c, I am a scientist. When I find evidence that my theories are wrong, it is as exciting as if they were correct. Scientific advance in either direction is still an advance."

And of course, you could hardly find a better avatar of the love and passion for science than Samantha Carter, SG-1's theoretical astrophysicist. It is a tribute to the actress that her eyes actually light up* when she's explaining an exciting new discovery.

What is perhaps the most striking about the general concepts of the show, especially in the earlier seasons, is the juxtaposition of the two main, warring societies: Earth and the Goa'uld. While the former needs little description here, the latter is epitomised by dogma, fanatical religion and unquestioning superstition. Wherever there is fear of their "godlike" powers, the SG-1 team are quick to dispel the myth and deny that there is any magic at work - only superior technology.

There are a few moments in the show which could not be more perfectly symbolic of the scepticism I'm describing. One of these is in the episode Thor's Chariot; a powerful race has protected a people who are approximately at the level of 10th-century Scandinavia, and made provisions for allowing contact when they reach a sufficient level of civilisation. The means of establishing when they have reached this point is a series of tests hidden in a place called the Hall of Thor's Might, which is reached by touching the red stone embedded in an obelisk. SG-1 are told that "it is forbidden to touch the stone".

Isn't that perfect? The first step on the road to civilisation advancement necessarily involves questioning received ideas and mythology. The very activity which is anathema to their parasitic enemies, who run a society based on ideological slavery. Oh, the symbolism!

Anyway, if you've not watched the show, I'd suggest giving it a look - though it can be a trifle silly in places, and stretched the premise to near-breaking point as it aged, there is a great deal of value in it, not least from a scientific, sceptical viewpoint.

* Not literally. That would mean something quite different in the context of the show.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008


My profound apologies for not updating more often over the last few weeks, I don't really have an excuse. There is another Fictional Sceptics entry in the making, but it may take a little while. In the meantime, I'll point you at a great post from PZ Myers, who is getting irate over a cracker:

I find this all utterly unbelievable. It's like Dark Age superstition and malice, all thriving with the endorsement of secular institutions here in 21st century America. It is a culture of deluded lunatics calling the shots and making human beings dance to their mythical bunkum.
He does get so wonderfully eloquent when he's mad. The comments are also, as always, worth reading; the first one makes a very strong point - basically, that you'd think passing the body of Christ through one's digestive system would constitute significant abuse.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

A momentous occasion indeed...

It is to Messers Darwin and Wallace that I dedicate this post, in honor of the event that is sadly no longer remembered, and in recognition of the impostors that aim to discredit and dismantle their great work. Tell me dear reader, do you know what day it is?*

150 years ago today, the idea of natural selection was presented for the first time to the public - beginning something so revolutionary that its impact can be neither estimated nor overestimated. Your task for today is to read this post from the Beagle Project, and tell someone about what you read therein. Just mention it in passing, if you like, that today marks 150 years since one of the most momentous events in the history of science. You don't need to bore your audience with the microscopic details if they're not interested - just get the word out. This is a day that should be marked with more than a mere ripple through the science blogging community.

* With apologies to the Wachowski brothers, and 18 Geek Points to anyone who got the reference

Sunday, 29 June 2008

Sacred Sodding Cow

You'll sometimes hear that even the die-hard sceptics have a so-called "sacred cow", something which is excepted from their otherwise critical inquiry. The form of this can sometimes be surprising, like the otherwise-perfect scientist who nevertheless believes that the idea of God is perfectly compatible with their rationality. It recently occurred to me that I too have one, which no matter how rational I try to be, still nags at my intuition.

So I give you my holy cow: Sod's Law. Also known as Murphy's Law in the colonies, it concerns the perception of the world as generally contrary in nature. If something can go wrong, it will.

Clearly, this runs counter to the rational model of reality which would state that in a given situation in which there is an even chance of either of two outcomes, repeated trials should result in approximately even results. Sod's Law, however, states that if one of the two outcomes is less desirable than the other, that is the more likely to happen.

This is probably the result of a particular world-view, call it pessimism or cynicism perhaps. It would make sense that someone under the influence of this outlook would be more likely to commit confirmation bias, noticing only those times at which something does go wrong, and of course not mentally registering everything that goes smoothly. Even if one's mindset is less skewed than this, it is understandable that things "progressing as normal" would be less easily remembered than setbacks and general awkwardness.

I think this will just be an ongoing battle for me, having to continually remind myself of the actual odds involved, and that my desires do not have a direct effect on outcomes. It's comforting to know that I'm far from being the only one suffering from this misconception, and that it's really not all that bizarre.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Total Eclipse of the Art

I am a big fan of literature. I have a great many books, and have been known to go to the reading room in the British Museum to just bask in the glow of so many great works. It's an awesome sight.

I also love mythology, which is of course inseparable from my love of literature. A substantial part of my upbringing involved education in the Greek myths such as Theseus and the Minotaur, Icarus, and - of course - Homer's Odyssey. I also studied the latter in some great detail during my A-level in Classical Civilisation, so while I don't consider myself an expert on these matters, I'm far from uninformed.

No wonder, then, that this headline caught my eye: Celestial Clues Hint At Eclipse In Homer's Odyssey. It seems that a couple of scientists have been piecing together "evidence" from the text to work out a date for the fall of Troy, using the apparent solar eclipse near the end of the Odyssey as a reference - such eclipses being terribly rare, of course.

I don't really have a problem with the endeavour itself (though it's a little like someone in a thousand years' time trying to work out the exact dates of the events described in Arthurian legend). Presumably however, they would be familiar with another Greek myth: Procrustes. Procrustes was a bandit who would invite guests to lie on his iron bed, and then remove limbs if they were too tall for it, or stretch them on the rack if they were too short. The details of the myth are largely irrelevant here, and all we need take away from it is the derived word "procrustean", for it is a good word and a useful one. It refers to any endeavour which strives to fit the evidence to a pre-existing theory. The well-known logical fallacy of "cherry-picking" is a similar concept.

I can't help but think that there's some procrustean chicanery going on here - 1178BCE is the year they've identified as that of the nearest solar eclipse, which is fair enough. It's the sort of event you'd expect to be remembered, and if the story is true then yes it would be passed on. But the other celestial events are another matter: if the naming of planets after gods dates to around 1000BCE, then even if the poet or poets were familiar with the practice it's unlikely that they would be able to accurately associate the movement of the planets with events which were purported to have happened several centuries previously.

Even if one accepts that, however, there is one line in the article which just made me cringe:

"Not only is this corroborative evidence that this date might be something important," Magnasco says, "but if we take it as a given that the death of the suitors happened on this particular eclipse date, then everything else described in The Odyssey happens exactly as is described."

Oh, ok. So the Greek underworld exists as described, there was at least one real Cyclops, who was the son of - wait for it - Poseidon. A god.

Please, scientists, leave the literature alone. It's all very fascinating - and possibly historically valuable - but art is art. As if Troy didn't do a good enough job of pissing all over some of my favourite mythology.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Faith in Science

This morning I was catching up on my podcasts when I heard something familiar said about the divide between religion and scepticism in society. The point wasn't laboured, but I felt the need to explore it myself - so here I am.

It regards the public campaign for critical thinking, and the criticism of this from the religious camp. Their argument is that atheist pots are simply calling the theist kettles black when they criticise them for preaching their dogma. Isn't scepticism just another dogma spread by its adherents in the same way as religion?

Well, no. While the public presentation and the processes of dissemination can seem similar, the point which is being missed by the theist side of this argument is that what sceptics and critical thinking proponents are advancing is basically the opposite of dogma. What we are advocating is not faith - it is the absence of faith, the end of reliance upon faith. It is simply a questioning mindset, a process of reasonable doubt rather than a set of unquestioning and unquestionable beliefs.

Science is not being held up as the source of all knowledge and wisdom in the same way that sacred texts are by their adherents. The most important difference, overlooked by the aforementioned critics, is that self-doubt is built in to the scientific outlook; this is forbidden - or at least frowned upon - in religion. At its most basic, to promote the sceptical cause is to promote the freedom of inquiry; to call this "just another faith" is to completely misunderstand and misrepresent that view.

Friday, 20 June 2008

Concussion versus Compression

Something new and exciting today, dear reader. This is the first guest post on A Sceptical I, brought to you by my friend who goes by the name Asclepius. Asclepius authors a medical blog over at Hippocrates Got Lost, described as the account of "a Nursing student staggering through the mundane and the insane". He's here today to help dispel a medical myth which is, in my experience, very widespread. So without further ado, here are the words of Asclepius:

"He's taken a knock to the head. You've got to keep him awake, the concussion might kill him!"

This is a misconception held by almost everyone I have ever met, including a few healthcare professionals. Its not easy to challenge an idea that has been reinforced with every generation.

Concussion is by far the least dangerous of all brain trauma. The word says it all. The brain has been shaken, it doesnt like being shaken. The result may be felt throughout the body. Nausea, Dizziness, Slurring, Difficulty Concentrating. The brain will restabilise from a concussion. Assuming the trauma hasnt caused any other problems there is no reason their condition should deteriorate.

A much greater threat is commonly referred to as Compression. Anything from a major to a very minor blood vessel in the brain may have ruptured. It may be so minor the patient doesnt show any stroke symptoms. However when the blood that has leaked out of its conduits coagulates (usually against the lining of the meninges) it becomes harder and denser this pushes the brain away from the side of the skull and compresses it. This is a medical emergency and can only be treated with surgery.

You can have a concussion without having compression. This is the case for most people. However If you knocked your head hard enough to blow a vessel you will have experienced a concussion (assuming the patient isnt on thrombolytics such as warfarin or has just been treated with streptokinese. The idea of keeping a patient awake for as long as possible after a head trauma is to assess any deterioration in their state. They may descend into diminished awareness, they may demonstrate extreme behavioral changes. This deterioration is a good indicator of one of two things -

1. A compression.
2. Some fat bastard has kept you awake for 18 hours and all you want to do is sleep off your headache.

To conclude -
Concussion = Non-Life Threatening.
Compression = Brown Trousers Time.

I make no apologies for any technical precision lost in making this post ready for the general public. I also realise I may have misspelt a few of the words unique to my profession.

I would like to thank Darkwinter for giving me the opportunity to act as a guest author on his blog.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Fictional Sceptics #2: House, M.D.

House is one of my favourite shows of all time, one of those rare instances of greatness on the otherwise-wearying Box of Blight. I won't bother giving you a thorough synopsis of the general idea behind the show - I'm sure you're skilled enough at the intertubes to track down the information if you require it. Suffice it to say that my entry today regards the eponymous character, Doctor Gregory House - flawlessly played by fellow sceptic Hugh Laurie.

It's hard to know where to begin with House; there is so much about him that simply screams "sceptic". He is a champion of deductive reasoning and the scientific method, a great critic of religion and anything remotely false or non-evidence based. Perhaps, as with my examination of Lisa Simpson, it would be best to take a look at a typically illustrative episode as an example.

Season 2, Episode 19: House vs. God. A young preacher is brought in after collapsing during a faith healing session (itself a great scene, he asks for a doctor after praising the healing power of Jesus). God apparently talks to this particular teenager, prompting House to consider psychosis as a possible symptom. "If you talk to God, you're religious; God talks to you and you're psychotic."

The kid's first trick is claiming that God had spoken to him of a female physician harbouring vengeful thoughts about a co-worker. This is true of Doctor Cameron, and both she and Doctor Foreman (the co-worker in question) are somewhat impressed by this. House is not, as he could see for himself the body language the boy had picked up on. It's a classic trick of psychics and the like, and though a useful thing to bring attention to it's hardly difficult to debunk.

Slightly more impressive at first glance is when Boyd, the patient, tells House that God wants him to invite Doctor Wilson to his poker game. House's first reaction is to tell Wilson to stop talking to his patient, but Wilson denies having done so. It remains a mystery until it is revealed that Boyd has been talking to Grace, Wilson's liver cancer patient; Wilson has been seeing her socially for a short while and has kept it a secret. Nevertheless, it is she who has passed on the information about House's poker game.

The big mystery, however, is the "miracle" that takes place in this episode. Boyd was wandering the halls in a daze after a complex partial seizure, and came across Grace. He told her not to worry, and asked God to make her whole again. Nothing much is thought of this, until Wilson scans her liver and finds that the tumour is shrinking. The team gets to work trying to diagnose some medical reason for this, but get nowhere.

Until, that is, House reaches one of his trademark epiphanies. All Boyd's symptoms are explained by the virus herpes encephalitis, which he transmitted to Grace when he "healed" her. The virus attacked her tumour first, shrinking it temporarily. Rare, yes, but not unheard of. This is the traditional medical fare of the show. As House asserts, "There is nothing in the universe that can't be explained - eventually."

This is not to say that House is the perfect sceptic, of course - a man with so many problems is hardly a candidate for being the perfect anything. While he always makes diagnoses based on the evidence available, he is reckless and will often skip over further testing and move straight onto treatment - or trust his instincts rather more than a doctor probably should. He will also make assumptions based on his less-than-generous view of human nature; while this often works in his favour, it does sometimes obstruct the diagnosis process.

He is, after all, and like us real sceptics, a flawed human being. But he remains a great example of rational thought and critical thinking on television.

Thursday, 12 June 2008


A nice whimsical post today, as I'm feeling rather jolly due to travelling to the Midlands for the weekend. A few days of seeing old friends - and spending some much-needed time with my other half - await.

I've scheduled a pre-written entry to go up while I'm away, so that'll keep the blog ticking over nicely. Today, however, I bring you a joke (that's mildly NSFW) about one particular danger of superstitious, uncritical thinking.

A Husband takes his wife to play her first game of golf. Of course, the wife promptly hacked her first shot right through the window of the biggest house adjacent to the course. The husband cringed, "I warned you to be careful! Now we'll have to go up there, find the owner, apologise, and see how much your lousy drive is going to cost us."

So the couple walked up to the house and knocked on the door. A warm voice said, "Come on in." When they opened the door, they saw the damage that was done: glass was all over the place, and a broken antique bottle was lying on its side near the broken window. A large black man was sitting on the couch and asked, "Are you the people that broke my window?"

"Uh..yeah, sir. We're sure sorry about that," the husband replied.
"Oh, no apology is necessary. Actually I want to thank you. You see, I'm a genie, and I've been trapped in that bottle for a thousand years. Now that you've released me, I'm allowed to grant three wishes. I'll give you each one wish, but if you don't mind, I will keep the last one for myself."
"Wow, that's great" the husband said. He pondered a moment and blurted out, "I'd like a million dollars a year for the rest of my life."
"No problem," said the genie. "You've got it, it's the least I can do. And I'll guarantee you a long, healthy life and now you young lady what do you want?" the genie asked.
"I'd like to own a gorgeous home complete with servants in every country in the world," she said.
"Consider it done," the genie said. "And your homes will always be safe from fire, burglary and natural disasters!"
"And now," the couple asked in unison, "what's your wish, genie?"
"Well since I've been trapped in that bottle and haven't been with a woman in more than a thousand years, my wish is to have sex with your wife."

The husband looked at his wife and said, "Gee, honey, you know we both now have a fortune, and all those houses. What do you think?"
She mulled it over for a few moments and said, "You know, you're right. Considering our good fortune, I guess I wouldn't mind, but what about you honey?"
"You know I love you sweetheart," said the husband. "I'd do the same for you!"

So the genie and the woman went upstairs where they spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying each other. The genie was insatiable.

After about three hours of non-stop sex, the genie rolled over and looked directly into her eyes and asked, "How old are you and your husband?"
"Why, we're both 35," she responded breathlessly.
"No kidding." He said, "Thirty-five years old and both of you still believe in genies?"

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Compulsory religion

I'll not dispute that religion is one of the central aspects of our modern society; that much is sadly a given. But what I want to discuss today is the question of whether children should be subjected to compulsory religious studies in school. This is the case here in England to the best of my knowledge - up to the age of 14 a child has no option but to study religion alongside science, English, maths, and history. Then, even if they don't choose it as an option at GCSE level, they still have to take one compulsory (non-assessed) class a week alongside their choices.

What is the value of this?

I can understand and agree with almost every argument in favour of the subject - excepting the evangelical "convert the heathens" viewpoint of course - but still fail to see why it should be a) religious studies in particular, and b) why it should be compulsory. I can see the value in studying other cultures (naturally including religions), and yes that could be seen to be a good thing to have as compulsory. But please, let's have "cultural studies" or something; I can't help but feel that an emphasis on religion is doing nothing to shake the grip which superstitious nonsense has upon society.

The other aspect people might want to involve as a positive in favour of religious studies is the fact that it allows children to think about "the important questions in life" - the classic being of course is there a God? But religious education doesn't allow this in my experience. It either takes a purely cultural/historical viewpoint, teaching what it is that various faiths believe, or it takes belief in God (usually Judeo-Christian) for granted. Then it basically turns into big questions like "what does God mean to me", and examining the nature of omnipotence etc.

While the latter form of enquiry can lead to worthwhile places, it is rarely given the chance because of the religious bias. In order to free up the endeavour for these "big important questions", one must remove as much bias as possible. The neutral standpoint in this abstract area is epitomised by philosophy. This love of wisdom is the most pure form of inquiry - no question is off-limits, and the more abstract or the more challenging the better. Should philosophy replace religious education as compulsory in schools then? I believe so, but there is one subject that I think should trump it.

Critical thinking. I took a short pilot course in critical thinking in college - it was worth half an A-level as far as qualifications were concerned, but it was worth far more in terms of the skills it provided. If it is well-taught, it can give the students the ability to think clearly and perceptively about virtually anything. Brian Dunning of Skeptoid fame has just released a free 40-minute introductory video for the subject, and I would like nothing more than for this to be played in schools all over the world at least once. It's called Here Be Dragons.

In closing, I'd very much like to see all compulsory aspects to religious education removed from the curriculum. I have nothing against educating our children in cultural and philosophical concepts, or even against making a certain degree of that education compulsory; but why must it center around nonsense? Why can it not be centered around an open, enquiring mind - no matter what conclusions that mind reaches?