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.