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?

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Blink 7: The Moon Effect

A classic anecdote, particularly among such people as police and paramedics, is that (for example) the real nutters come out when there's a full moon. They don't usually go so far as to say that with every full moon comes a night with nothing but nutters, but do seem to suggest that there is a significant trend. If you want a good selection of anecdotes on this score, head over to the Yahoo! Answers page, "Full moon - does it bother you?" (be prepared for some industrial-strength ignorance).

The full moon has also been popularly associated with all sorts of things, like rises in suicide rates, crime rates, accident & emergency admission rates, alcoholism, natural disasters and many many more. Here's the important factoid for you to remember: there is no evidence to support these hypotheses. And yes, studies have been done.

What this is is a classic example of confirmation bias - one only notices the events which confirm the hypothesis that one has (consciously or otherwise) adopted. I won't spend a lot of time debunking all of this - it's a "Blink" post after all - so I'll just point you at a very useful SkepDic entry: "Full moon and lunar effects". There's a substantial reading list at the foot of that article if you want to look further into this subject.

Sunday, 1 June 2008


I've decided I need to blog more about political matters, if for no other reason than to keep my interest in that area alive. I mean, it was half of my undergraduate degree - I don't want to have wasted all that time. There's plenty of scope for it from a sceptical viewpoint, too: commentary on current legislation, criticism (or indeed praise) of particular politicians or parties for the quality of critical thinking they display; for this particular entry, I want to dispel a myth that has grown in the public consciousness. As you may have guessed from the title, my topic today is anarchism.

I don't think I need to go into an awful lot of detail as to the nature of the myth I'm attempting to dispel - it's a fairly familiar one after all. It is the view that anarchy is synonymous with chaos and disorder, and most usually associates it with civil disobedience and a refusal to recognise any form of authority whatsoever. There are many reasons for this portrayal, not least among them being the agenda of the ruling and elite classes. Obviously anarchism is a clear threat to their privileged position.

The other main reason behind the public misunderstanding of anarchism is its glamourisation in pop culture, such as the punk rock movement exemplified by the Sex Pistols. This really solidified the perception of anarchism as an extremist, disruptive and anti-progressive view; it also added touches of anti-intellectualism. All of this, ironically enough, has served only to marginalise and anathematise the idea, which was very much the purpose of the elitist agenda.

So how should it be perceived? Well if you know me at all by now, you'll know where I'm going to start: the word itself. The Greek word "Arkhos" means chief or ruler, and of course the "an-" prefix denotes a negative. It is simply the view of a society with no leader, no chieftain - no head (hence the term "acephalous"). This is not to say that there is no organisation or law in such a society - nor indeed that it would be primitivist and anti-progressive. In academic circles, the term "anarchism" is usually taken to refer to an anti-statist position, and "anarchist" to one who wishes to see the apparatus of state-governed society dissolved.

All very well, you might say - but what do they seek to put in its place? This is where the most surprises lie for those whose grasp of anarchy is simply an acceptance of the popular, chaotic image: they don't expect the anarchist to propose anything beyond the destruction of the state machinery. As a matter of fact, there are a great number of differing views within anarchism over exactly what form society should take.

Much of this disagreement stems from the level of authority of which the anarchist wishes to rid society - if it is simply centralised national government, then there are many options for organising people on a local level. If, however, they wish to enshrine the individual as the sole source of authority of every kind, then the result is inevitably the kind of chaos generally associated with the word. Clearly the more productive views are toward the former end of the spectrum, and there are many reasons why the latter would not work - or even be true anarchism.

There is much to be said in favour of an anarchist society; greater liberty being the most obvious and enticing. It is quite easy to conceive of a world in which people are able to function as a cohesive society governed not by elevated officials but by general consent. There is no reason why such a society would be amoral, as the popular depiction would have us believe - any more than would be true of an atheistic society. Indeed, there is an understandable trend toward atheism in anarchist thought.

The biggest problem for anarchism as a political ideal, however, is that it really is an ideal. It relies far too heavily upon goodwill and co-operation if it is to function at all well, and it is clear to anyone with even the most basic understanding of human nature that it simply would not work - the strong and unprincipled would rise to the top and exploit their natural position of power. I once wrote an essay on anarchism, and the quote I used to summarise at the end was this, from Andrew Vincent's Modern Political Ideologies:

Apart from some of the more rigid and strange absurdities of individualist anarchists, the communist, collectivist and mutualist anarchists express a millennial vision of what we would really like to be in our better moments, but which we know is relatively hopeless.

Just bear this in mind when you next hear the term "anarchist". In the true sense of the word, an anarchist is not a terrorist or someone bent on sowing chaos, but rather an idealist with a Utopian vision for society that will never be realised.