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.