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