Saturday, 1 August 2009


Well, Blogspot, it's been eighteen and a half months. You've been good to me, but now I'm moving on.

This blog is no longer active. All updates are now to be found on my new website, Skeptophile.com. The blog has been reincarnated there, under the same name. So update your bookmarks:

http://skeptophile.com/blog is the new address for A Sceptical I.

See you on the other side!

Wednesday, 29 July 2009


For various reasons, I've decided that the time has come to move my personal website from a friend's server, where it has been sat happily for a good number of years, to a more .. official .. position. To this end, I have purchased a domain name and begun renting the old web hosting thingy.

I'm still deciding what the new site should involve, as I want more than just the basics I had on the old one. For starters, I intend to move this blog to the new address; but I also want the wider site to be about the general theme of this blog - science meets the humanities, finds they can get along, and all that.

I'll keep you updated here, of course, at least until the new site is up and running and can get by on its own without stabilisers. Any suggestions you have for the new site will be gratefully received, of course.

Saturday, 25 July 2009


If you know me (whether personally or simply through my posts here), you'll probably know I have a fascination with mythology. This extends beyond a mere enjoyment of the stories, into what they can tell us about the human condition, and our cultural history. But recently, I heard a wonderful quote which I'd like to share with you, as best as I can remember it:

"Mythology is a vital part of our history, and must be kept alive. But to claim that one mythology is more valid, or holds more truth than another, is arrogant and dangerous. (pause) Basically what I'm saying is that religion is bullshit."

An elegant summary if ever there was one. The speaker in this case was a man I'm coming to admire more and more - Heri Joensen, vocalist of the very excellent Faeroese folk metal band Tyr. They've always had strong pagan overtones in their music, and he is becoming less subtle and more outspoken about his distaste for religion - particularly Christianity purely due to the history of persecution in Northern Europe around the turn of the second millennium.

Thinking about this recently, I recalled a teacher I had at A-Level, in Religious Studies. A creationist (and a bloody nice bloke by the way), he objected to the term "Christian mythology", because he felt it somehow denigrated the religion. I disagreed silently at the time, unsure of my ability to marshal arguments against his position. But on reflection now, it's not a difficult case to demolish. The real question is, why on earth would Christianity not count as mythology?

Perhaps on first glance it's a little more subtle (or perhaps dull and boring would be a more honest appraisal) than most mythologies, with highlights being a rather tame collection of stories that would seem unremarkable indeed amongst the vibrant madness that one encounters in those of Egypt, Greece, India, and Scandinavia (to name but a few). But a lack of imagination does not exempt it from being mythological.

It is still, after all, a collection of stories, with symbolism and morals and magic and impossible events. There is no objective reason to place it above any other set of mythologies, and of course the impulse to do so comes simply for one's own biased regard for that one belief system. Which is why I think it is sad (however inevitable it may be) when one set of mythologies manages to all but wipe out a competing one, and I think that Christianity's triumph in Europe is one of the great cultural tragedies of history. But why did it succeed? Why did people choose to follow the teachings of the Bible over their own cultural stories?

Well of course, to get the answer to that question we need to look predominantly to the ruling class; it was they who converted first, and passed on that conversion to their people, through force, persuasion, or simply a kind of peer pressure. So the question becomes one of why those in power adopted the new faith from the south. Was it a resonance of truth and goodness they felt? Possibly, I'll not deny that. But looking at it realistically, I'd say it was more likely that the majority of them simply found it more useful, more expedient.

I don't think it is too controversial to suggest that most of those in power are there because they sought it. It is hardly a leap to also suggest that those who seek power and attain it do not cease to seek it. Is it any wonder that they chose to adopt a religion which preaches meekness, obedience, unquestioning devotion, and enforces it with fear? I'm afraid I have another quote for you, this time from a novel I read fairly recently. It's Viking: King's Man, book three of a wonderful trilogy by Tim Severin:

"...the worship of the White Christ suits men who seek to dominate others. It is not the belief of the humble, but of despots and tyrants. When a man claims he is specially selected by the White Christ, then all those who follow that religion must treat him as if they are revering the God himself... This is a contradiction of all that the God is meant to stand for, yet I have witnessed how, among rulers of men, it is the truly ruthless and the ambitious who adopt the Christian faith, then use it to suppress the dignity of their fellows."

Simply, Christianity succeeded where other mythologies failed because it was a useful tool by which men might gain and maintain power. Politics has, once again, shown itself to be a (if not the) driving force behind major cultural change. However innocent, bland and otherwise fluffy and inoffensive* a belief system might be, there will always be someone there to exploit it. That's human nature.

* Though I might note here that, despite the commendable and generally positive attitude of many of its adherents, Christianity isn't the nicest of religions once you examine the literature. No, sir.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Provoked thoughts

Last night I went to see a talk by the great Richard Wiseman at Leicester Skeptics in the Pub. A most entertaining and interesting evening was had by all (if my own experience and that of my friends was representative). When we got home, we had a look at some of the things Richard has on his blog, and came across this video:

Of course we partook of the rather bizarre-looking ritual and by the end there was a great deal of space between my hands, while my partner's had barely moved. This is of only passing interest, really. The really thought-provoking part came later when I considered this in relation to the next talk taking place in Leicester.

On the 18th of AUgust, Dr Christine Mohr is giving a talk about the links between imagination / creativity and belief in the paranormal. Perhaps it's not immediately apparent where this is going, but bear with me.

The personality test from Richard Wiseman is (unless I am somewhat mistaken) an example of the ideomotor effect. It is not a stretch to suggest (indeed Richard does so himself, I think) a connection between this effect and greater imagination. Is there, then, a case to be made for a related connection between the ideomotor effect and belief in the paranormal?

I'd hardly be surprised if there were, but it just struck me as one of those neat little webs of interrelated causes and effects that make science (and fringe science, like psychology) so very interesting.

On a partly-related note, you might be interested to learn that movements are being made in the direction of establishing a Skeptics in the Pub event in Birmingham. Seeing as this is so close to my current residence, I'm trying to get involved in helping set it up. Hopefully I will have some solid news to report on this front soon, or at least a tentative update.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

The Power of the Hypothetical

ResearchBlogging.org"So remember, when you're feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth..."

In science, an hypothesis is a wonderful thing. It is the glimmer of imagination and possibility that can give rise to years of research and fascinating advances in our knowledge of the world. But it is still just the preliminary stage - when people say something is "just a theory", they are thinking of the colloquial meaning which is more analogous to hypothesis. It's a weak form of knowledge, little better than conjecture.

But the power of the hypothetical goes beyond that. In philosophy, hypothetical scenarios are often (or indeed exhaustively) used to examine arguments, beliefs, and assumptions - of which the subject is sometimes previously unaware of using / having / making. I'm currently leafing through a book full of such hypotheticals - called The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten. The title is perfectly demonstrative of the kind of thinking contained therein - thought experiments which are often semi-nonsensical, but which nevertheless challenge us to examine our underlying reasons for what we believe. IS it immoral to eat a pig that wants to be eaten (assuming it is immoral to eat one that does not)? And if so, why?

This is one of the reasons I so enjoy science fiction - there is such an immense crossover with so many areas of philosophy, and there is no better arena for bringing thought experiments and hypotheticals into the mainstream consciousness. Just look at The Matrix - how many people had questioned the very nature of reality, and the evidence of their senses, before watching that film? Every philosopher was familiar with the idea, of course - as it was an imaginative adaptation of Descartes' hyperbolic doubt and evil demon hypothetical. But it wasn't well-known, in the public sense of the phrase.

Now it seems the hypothetical has been given yet more power - or rather, yet another facet of its power has been discovered. Previous to this recent research, people were often encouraged to promote a positive outlook in themselves by focusing on the good things in their lives, "counting their blessings", as it were. However, studies into this method returned mixed results at best, and a new hypothesis was tested - that, rather than simply thinking about the positive aspects of one's life, one should imagine what one's life would be like had those things never happened at all. The contrast this creates between the present and the parallel (and negative) "possible presents" reinforces the positivity of one's life.

So next time, instead of just thinking "it could be worse", perhaps you should actually think about exactly how it could be worse. And how easily it might have turned out that way.

Koo, M., Algoe, S., Wilson, T., & Gilbert, D. (2008). It's a wonderful life: Mentally subtracting positive events improves people's affective states, contrary to their affective forecasts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95 (5), 1217-1224 DOI: 10.1037/a0013316

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Breaking my silence to support free speech

It's no surprise to those who read this blog that I'm kind of in favour of free speech - you know, just a bit. It's one of the many reasons I've taken an interest in the ongoing legal battle between Simon Singh and the British Chiropractic Association. It's also why I'm here to promote the Sense About Science campaign to keep libel laws out of science. I've added the badge to the side bar and I recommend you click on it. If you're just too damn lazy to scroll down (and who could blame you?) here it is:

And with that, I leave you again. I apologise for my long silences of late, but we still have no internet access in the flat and with my new job I have a lot less free time than I used to when I was unemployed. Hopefully the former situation will resolve soon, and I'll be back with you, boring your eyes out as usual.

All the best, dear hypothetical reader. Until next time.

Friday, 8 May 2009

BCA vs Singh update

On the offchance any of my readers do not also read the great bloggings of my friend Jack of Kent, I recommend that you take a gander at his new update on the preliminary hearing of the libel case brought against Simon Singh by the British Chiropractic Association (to be found here).

I have nothing to add, except in echoing Jack's sentiment that this is an astonishing, bizarre and horrendously illiberal ruling.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Two apologies, and a follow-up

The first apology is for the past month - not only has it been a hectic and internetless move to the new flat, but calamity and illness have also meant that I've been far from being in the right frame of mind to write here. The second apology is for the future, because I don't know how often I'm going to be able to post over the next month or two. The internet connection is hardly forthcoming, and the precious hours I'm able to squeeze out of the wi-fi access at the pub are being consumed simply by trying to stay up-to-date and in contact with my friends. So, I apologise.

You might be interested to know that there have been a great many reasons to believe that the rune casting I made a month ago has proven to be true - certainly the move was made, and I even went down to Southampton for a very brief visit to bring more of my belongings up to the flat. This would definitely justify the presence of the "Raido" journeying rune. The "Algiz" sanctuary rune is similarly easy to explain through the new flat, as it is definitely starting to feel like a home and safe haven. The reversed "Dagaz" night rune, which apparently can serve as a warning of plans going awry, can also be seen to have come true. Let's just say the move has not been without problems.

So a clean sweep with my first cast. Not bad going. It's definitely illustrating for me how people can easily believe in the power of these things, particularly when the interpretation is so vague and malleable.

I hope I'll be able to post a little more often now that things are starting to straighten out at home. I'll definitely be back when the internet manages to make its glittering and wondrous way into our abode. Perhaps the next entry will be another rune casting. Whenever and whatever that next post is, I'll see you then.

Friday, 3 April 2009


Today's entry is about the future.

Firstly, because I need to warn you that the blog might be a little quiet over the next few weeks as I move to a new flat with the very special feature of Uncertain Internets. Got a few ideas in the pipeline, though, so hopefully I'll be able to get online enough to keep this blog up and running.

Secondly, it strikes me that this is an ideal time to introduce a new regular feature here, tying into my status as a pagan atheist. You may or may not know that the Northern European mythologies, with which I most closely relate, contain a system of auguries involving runes. These work in much the same way as the more popular tarot cards, with a number of symbols standing for various ideas.

What I thought I'd do is something of an experiment, in no way scientific, into the practice of using these runes to read my "fortune". After setting up the rules (the method of taking a reading, the meanings of each rune, and any restrictions on interpretation), I'll try to take regular-ish readings and then see how true they turn out to be. So, on with it.

Right from the outset, let me make this clear: this is not a test of the ability of rune-casting to predict the future or disclose facts about the past. The sole purpose of this little exercise is basically to just get an insight into how these readings can be interpreted to fit a normal life with normal events, without the intervention of a cold reader or medium.

My method will be simple: when making a cast, I will shake all the runes in my cupped hands, and carefully let three fall at random, without seeing which they are. Those will be my reading, and the rest put aside for the time being. If a rune lands facing up, its standard meaning will hold sway; if it is face down, I will interpret that as a reversed meaning - for instance, if Eihwaz lands facing up, it means safety; if facing down, it means danger or vulnerability.

Here's a basic list of the runes and their primary meanings. Fehu: wealth. Uraz: strength. Thurisaz: chaos. Ansuz: wisdom. Raido: journey. Kaunaz: fire. Gebo: gift. Wunjo: joy. Hagalaz: disruption. Nauthiz: need. Isa: standstill. Jera: success. Eihwaz: safety. Pertho: future. Algiz: sanctuary. Sowulo: sun. Teiwaz: victory. Berkana: life. Ehwaz: horse. Mannaz: man. Laguz: water. Inguz: fertility. Othila: inheritance. Dagaz: day. Blank: destiny.

So right away we see that runes are representative of some very vague and open-to-interpretation notions. Virtually any reading could probably be twisted to fit the complexities of a normal life. But let's not allow that to dissuade us! This should be fun. So here's the first cast:

Raido. Algiz. A reversed Dagaz.

So a journey, sanctuary, and something that probably represents night. I'd call that a pretty great hit for a first cast - we're moving (or "journeying") to a new flat (or "sanctuary") after all. Not sure what the night part represents, though. I'm led to understand that "day" carries along with it implications of certainty and optimism - as in, daylight is the time to get things done. Is it telling me that this is not the right time for a journey to our new sanctuary? Or is it reflecting our feelings of insecurity about the enterprise? Or perhaps it's referring the the lack of security in my partner's job right now. Hmmmm.

Well this might turn into a regular feature, it might not. Either way, it's always interesting to think about why these methods of prediction and fate-reading are so popular, and why they seem to work so well a lot of the time. As I said, I'm not going to change my mind on this - I don't believe that the rocks I drop with scratches in can tell me what's going to happen next week. It's just something I'm using to gain and share some insight into the interpretation process. I hope you enjoy and value it as much as I do.

Monday, 30 March 2009

A symbol too far?

Just a quick thought today, prompted by the news that over 100,000 people in Britain are seeking to reverse their childhood baptism/christening [via AFP]. I sympathise with them, though I myself was never put through such a farcical abusive ceremony (thanks mum!) - but I can't help but think that by doing this they are imbuing the ceremonies with far more meaning than they deserve.

If I'm right in thinking that these people want to be de-baptised because they have discovered the enormous unlikeliness of the Christian teachings and would prefer to live their lives as rational beings, then why do they care so much that some old chap mumbled some mumbo-jumbo over them and splashed their foreheads with water when they were kids? Surely their seeking of this piece of paper is demonstrative of their belief that the whole ceremony is completely meaningless. The piece of paper is also meaningless, so why seek it out and pay cash money for it? Why do you care?

I fully support the National Secular Society, and if you're going to donate money to an organisation and haven't decided which yet, you could do worse than consider them in your shortlist. But I don't approve of them selling something which is entirely meaningless. I thought they were against that sort of business.

In an entirely unrelated topic, I will soon be opening up a service for anyone who wants to be declared "Nice". If you, as a child, were told by a parent or other authoritative adult (perhaps in a costume) that you were on Santa's "Naughty List", send me the small sum of £3 and I'll happily print you off a piece of paper reversing your status as "Naughty" and declaring you "Nice" - for all the world to see.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Fictional Sceptics #6: Star Trek (part 2)

In my previous entry on the matter, I discussed how (early) Star Trek acted as a kind of utopian vision for secular humanism. I also showed that, despite how dated it can seem at times, it was always a highly progressive series - particularly in terms of race and gender equality.

This time, I want to examine the numinous aspects of Star Trek - that is to say, the ways in which it preserved the sense of wonder to an almost spiritual level while remaining secular. It is closely linked to the spirit of scientific discovery, and the kind of excitement exemplified by the likes of Carl Sagan in his Cosmos series, and Phil Plait at a new development or line of research. It is an important aspect of science and scepticism which religious people often claim cannot be found outside of supernatural belief systems.

There are dozens of examples I could use to illustrate this point; it seemed that every other episode of The Next Generation involved the crew investigating, researching or just sightseeing at some interesting nebula, supernova or what have you; sometimes it was the premise of the show, sometimes it was an incidental detail along the way - but it always managed to express that they were explorers and scientists first, experiencing the wonder of the galaxy first-hand.

The particular example I want to use today, however, is a little more complex. Those of you who read my footnote on the post-Roddenberry Star Trek in my previous post will know that I noted a drop in secular humanism as a theme after Gene Roddenberry's departure. What I'd like to add to that is that subsequent series did seem to be more morally complex than TOS and TNG, and, while they were more accommodating to religion, they rarely - if ever - attributed to it powers that it does not and could not possess.

The case of the Prophets of Bajor is a particularly interesting case. Here we have a hugely pervasive religion with a tremendous amount of power over its followers - and incidentally a vehicle through which the series can explore themes relevant to scepticism and religion. The interesting thing is that their "prophets" - spirits or gods, essentially - are real. That is, they are actual beings who reside within the stable wormhole proximate to Bajor.

It is interesting to note the contrast in reactions between the Starfleet personnel and the Bajoran clergy (for want of a better term) to the scientific discoveries made in the wormhole. Both are awestruck, but that's where the similarities end. The officers, Sisko in particular, are desperate to know more about the wormhole and the beings that reside within in it - from what little they already know, the wormhole is stable because it was constructed by the aliens, and the aliens themselves do not experience a "linear existence" as we do, and thus have no concept of time. The Bajorans remain steadfast in their dogma, though at first it seems that the two can coexist - the spiritual definition of the prophets, and the scientific explanation of them.

But when a religious controversy springs up about the teaching of science in school, the tensions become clear. The question is asked as to why the station's single school is teaching only about the science of the wormhole and not the spiritual dimensions acknowledged by the Bajorans (a majority of the students, it should be noted). The teacher is adamant that only the science will be taught, and that the school is not a suitable place for spiritual instruction. It's a great parallel to the evolution/creationism debate.

But to get back to my point, at no time does it seem that there is less wonder and beauty to be found through the scientific perspective as opposed to the religious one. Indeed, it seems as if the religious people, having caught a glimpse of the truth, immediately shut their eyes so as to preserve that glimmer of wonder, and, having instilled it with all their hopes and expanded it with their imaginations, are unwilling to then open their eyes and see the truth of the wonders - which is no less amazing.

The best thing about post-Roddenberry Star Trek is that it becomes more complex in terms of morality and personalities, and therefore far more relevant to the real world. It is no longer a Utopia, but perhaps more of a realistic cultural extrapolation of where humanity might find itself a few centuries from now.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Hampshire: The Report

Firstly, if you've not read my earlier post on the subject of creationism-in-schools advice being given to Hampshire County Council, go ahead and read up. I'll still be here when you get back. All done? Good.

I have located a copy of the report I mentioned. It can be found here:

"Teaching About Creationism and Evolution in Schools"

It begins in a reasonable fashion - and in fact continues likewise until the section vaguely headed "Evaluate". Up until this point, I've not had a major problem with anything said, and in fact it sounds like a decent attempt at providing support for conducting a debate on this matter. After that point, however, it all gets a bit Disco.

For instance, it is quite insistent on the difference between creationism and intelligent design, and actually uses the words "the scientific theory of intelligent design". This is horrifically misleading, disingenuous and false. Intelligent design is not a scientific theory; it is barely an hypothesis (which, incidentally, is the word they use earlier in the report - consistency please?). Almost as bad is their use of the word "scholar" to describe such unthinking dogmatists as Behe and Minnich

What is also telling is that, despite the fact that the language being used seems to be pluralist, it is clear that the report is centered on a Christian worldview. Creationism is defined as "typically" conforming to Genesis and the Bible, whereas "Intelligent Design" apparently doesn't. There is no mention (except through the most vague implication) that other faiths involve a creation myth. I know we're nominally a Christian nation, but our non-faith schools are generally meant to be cosmopolitan in this regard.

There are numerous other reasons I dislike this report, including its quoting of William Bloody Paley and not the counter-argument from Dawkins et al; but the main question I wanted answered was: where is this debate intended to take place? In the science class, or in religious education?

I was disappointed. There was nothing there to suggest that this was being proposed as a discussion to have in a particular setting or context. It could well be that this report itself has a context of which I am unaware, and the text toward to top of the report was sufficiently indecipherable to allow that perhaps that information is contained within that section; but if this is not the case, and the debate is being offered regardless of context, then I have to conclude that the news items surrounding this report are misleading.

That is not to say that there is nothing to worry about. This report is indicative of a greatly disturbing trend in our education system: there is no doubt in my mind that this report was compiled by a creationist and that the intent behind it is to push discussion of intelligent design into places it does not belong. That being said, however, there are a few questions that still need to be asked:

1. Where are these discussions intended to take place?
2. Are they trying to get intelligent design discussed as a scientific theory?
3. How seriously is this report being taken?
4. Are there advisory bodies in opposition to, and on the same level as, SACRE (Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education) that are pushing the scientific, secularist viewpoint?

I'm going to do my best to get answers to these questions, but until then I must conclude that the report is deeply worrying, but not as bad as it could be. Intelligent design is still not a part of the science curriculum, and this report doesn't suggest that it should be.

Hampshire = Kansas? Not yet.

Being a Hampshire lad by birth, I was somewhat perturbed by the news that Hampshire schools are getting "advice" on creationism. Now, don't get me wrong, there's nothing inherently wrong with that fact - but it's the kind of phrase that sets off alarm bells.

The worry is that it's a "foot in the door" scenario which could lead to creationism* being taught in the classroom alongside science, and being given equal credence. Of course, this need not necessarily be the case here: at the moment the language being used to refer to this move is stressing advice rather than curriculum.

It is important that teachers know how to respond to inquiries from students about the relationship between creationism and evolution, and therefore an "advice package" seems like a jolly good idea. Exactly how good an idea it is, though, depends solely on the content of the report. I have written to Hampshire County Council asking them for a copy of the report, after having no luck searching online (there seems to be a direct link on the RichardDawkins.net forum, but at the time of writing this there's a quite serious problem with the website).

So until I find out what is actually advised, I'd like to take a moment to think about what I'd like it to say. Ideally, as far as the science classroom is concerned, I think the advice should be simply about how to deal with pupils' questions, and not how to raise the subject itself outside of that context. Creationism has no place in the science class. But that does not mean that pupils' questions on the subject should be ignored or simply rebuffed. It is important that they are informed about why creationism is not science, and why it is not appropriate to discuss metaphysics in the science classroom. Also, I have no problem with creationism - and its relationship with science - being discussed in religious education classes; that's where it belongs.

What I am afraid of is that this is not the tone that has been taken by the report; that, instead, it advises that it is entirely appropriate and even necessary to discuss creationism as a rival theory to evolution and the big bang. This is the area in which the creationists have been gaining most ground: in simply muddying the waters. The real problem will be that introducing guidelines for talking about religion in the science classroom will confuse rather than inform.

I'm all for getting pupils to discuss these issues, but everything that is done in the context of a science lesson should be science. Metaphysics should be checked at the door; it has no place in that setting.

* I use the word creationism as synonymous with so-called "intelligent design theory" because I hope that by this point nobody has any illusions. They are one and the same.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Antidisestablishmentarianism: a Comparison

Yes, part of the reason for this entry is that it is a legitimate excuse to use that word, much the same as happened with my A-Level Politics coursework. But at the same time, it's also a very interesting subject, particularly when taken comparatively. Some of the issues I want to address here are: the prominence of the issue of the separation of church and state in the United States and United Kingdom; the reason for those different levels of prominence; and any implications there might be for the two societies. No doubt the discussion will range more widely, but that's the basic structure I have in mind. So let's begin.

I suppose the best place to start with this issue, as with most, is to define it. The separation of church and state is the phrase used to describe either the distance that organised religion keeps from the apparatus and activity of state politics, or the official, constitutional provisions for that distance. In short, it can refer to the rules, or to the reality. The U.S. and the U.K. have very different situations in both cases, and those differences are the subject of this entry.

Firstly, then, let's look at the prominence of the issue - how high up is it in terms of public concern/awareness? Well, in the U.S., there are few more visible issues than the separation of church and state, with strong advocacy groups on the matter and implications for such diverse issues as prayer in schools, "In God We Trust" on the currency, and even gay rights. In the U.K., meanwhile, the issue is hardly on the radar at all; certainly there are similar issues with gay rights, creationism in the classroom, and various others, but rarely do discussions on these matters make mention of the established nature of the Church of England. It doesn't seem to affect either legislation on, or public opinion of, the major issues.

So what is the formal position of religion in each of these nations? In the United States, there is a clear clause in the Constitution (Amendment I, concerning freedom of expression) prohibiting the establishment of religion by the state. What does this mean? Well, a fairly good example is the situation in the United Kingdom, as it happens: we have what is called an "established" Church here, the Anglican Church or Church of England. This means that not only is their brand of protestantism the official state religion (the monarch is still required to be a member of that religion because he or she is the nominal head of the Church), but also that members of that Church have seats in our national legislature.

Without going into great and tedious detail, the House of Lords is the upper house of the British Parliament, but has less legislative power than the House of Commons. It is also the highest court in the country. Among its 743 members, there are 26 bishops of the Church of England, known as the Lords Spiritual. It is hardly contentious to suggest that the presence of such figures in the legislature of the United States would be controversial and hugely unconstitutional.

So why is there no such uproar here? Well, the right answer (to the extent that there is one) is of course terribly complex and most likely involves matters of social history, and the complex interplay of power between the state, the church, and the people. But at least a part of the reason is simply that we don't have a constitution; there is no hallowed sacred document to which we can refer to determine if a certain practice or state of affairs is "allowed" by the rules upon which our nation was founded. Because, when you get right down to it, it's hard to say exactly how or when - or even if - that happened. Certainly there have been a slew of treaties (the latest coming as late as 1927), but there has never been a document drawn up to compare significantly with the strict and explicit terms of the U.S. Constitution.

It is strange to note how reversed the situation seems to be between the U.S. and the U.K.; one might expect the country with overt religious influence in the legislature to be the one that experiences a great deal of religious influence on legislation. But rather, it is the nation with explicit prohibition of religious influence on the legislature that is the arena for so much religious lobbying and debate. So on the one side of the Atlantic we have a secular government and a predominantly religious society, and on the other we have a nominally religious government and a - for all intents and purposes - secular society. Is it a case of causation, or correlation?

The answer is, of course, complicated. I am tempted to argue that it is a combination of the two on both sides of the ocean, but in the States it seems to be more causation than correlation, and in Britain more correlation than causation. I don't think it would be too controversial to suggest that the majority of British subjects are generally of an apathetic disposition with regards to religious matters; even the few who do attend church seem to be, for the most part, relatively liberal. Equally uncontroversial to me would be the suggestion that the U.S. was settled predominantly by religious persons, many fleeing persecution. For one reason or another, religion has persisted in a much stronger way in the U.S. than in Britain.

Now this is just speculation, but it seems to me reasonable to suggest that the current state of affairs, with religious lobbyists jostling and campaigning ceaselessly to crowbar some small modicum of their faith into the affairs of state, could have its genesis in the very constitutional measures designed to thwart them. Imposing secularism upon a strongly religious society could quite conceivably lead to strong resentment and this very kind of campaigning. Now, I'm not saying that the constitution is the only reason for the current state of affairs, or even that this is a worse situation than exists in Britain. Indeed, I think that the U.S. constitution is the only thing standing in the way of the country becoming an overtly religious one at the governmental level.

I can't purport to know the reasons why Britain is, broadly speaking, a secular society. Perhaps it is partly because of the establishment of religion; perhaps it has instilled in the religious groups a kind of complacency. But I doubt that this is the case. The fact of the matter is that in Britain, the Church enjoys far greater official power than religious groups in the U.S., but far less public support. As far as creating secular legislation is concerned, ultimately, having a secular society is more important than having a secular government.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

The Power of Metaphor, or, Don't Blame Santa

Before I begin, I ought to warn you that there is no real conclusion or argument to be found in this entry; it is rather intended as a collection of musings hoped to inform but primarily provoke further thought. Most of what is contained herein is part of an ongoing internal discussion I'm holding with myself, and this forms something of an update as to the point that that debate has reached. So open your mind, and read on.

I have made mention before of my status as a pagan atheist. It's not just an incidental matter for me, either; while I don't believe the Gods or spirits are actual entities capable of any kind of interaction with this world, I believe they are powerful and practically useful metaphors for a great deal of human life. The Gods we choose for ourselves - if choose them we do - represent those principles which are most important to us. For this reason I tend more toward the Northern European pantheon, in particular the Norse Gods. If I had a Sabbath like the Christian Sunday or Jewish Friday, it would be Wednesday, named for Odin, a.k.a. Woden (Woden's Daeg -> Wednesday) - for he is the figure with whom I most identify.

He is the symbol for wisdom, courage, and honour - among many other things. He is also seen as the guardian of travellers, much as the Christian Saint Christopher. All of these themes are ones which ring true with me: I aspire to be wise, courageous and honourable above all else; I can think of no qualities I would rather possess. There is also an emphasis on respect and reverence for nature in the Northern European religions, which it won't surprise you to find has particular resonance with me.

So why, you might ask, don't I just identify with those qualities directly instead of expressing them through the language of mythology and religious faith? It is a good question, and one which I have asked myself on many an occasion. I think the answer, as far as I can fathom it, lies in what I refer to as the "power of metaphor"; that is, the linguistic and emotional force that can be expressed only in terms of phenomena that transcend the physical, evidential world. Humanity is known for being a fickle race, and a claimed devotion to an abstract concept such as justice seems to hold less force, somehow, than a claimed devotion to a deity personifying that concept. It is an appeal to the eternal nature of these ideals as opposed to the sometimes-fleeting nature of humanity's adherence to them.

Another example of this that I recently found out about (thanks to my friend the Nietzschean feminist) is Laveyan satanism, which again is essentially an atheist religion. The ideals it favours are individualism, a realistic approach to humanity's darker impulses and an acceptance of these drives as an inevitable an essential component of understanding what it is to be human. There is also a strong element of anarchism, a rebelliousness and hostility toward authority that is reflected in few other mythologies. But it is atheist - and specifically non-Christian, a claim which cannot be made by theistic Satanism - because it entails a commitment to these ideals only, not a belief in a literal Satan or lesser demons. There is much in LaVeyan Satanism which rings true with me and values which are shared by the pagan faith.

On a tangentally-related topic, I also want to address the topic of Santa Claus - not as a metaphor, but as a belief tantamount to religion but treated as a socially-acceptable falsehood. This line of thought comes from listening to my backlog of Point of Inquiry podcasts, specifically the interview with Todd C. Riniolo. He noted an objection to the widely-used argument in sceptical circles that it is little wonder that people are credulous in adulthood when they are raised to believe in Santa Claus as children. It is rarely used as a forceful argument, usually instead forming a arbitrary comment; but nonetheless is worth addressing. Riniolo's objection is that there is simply no proof that belief in Santa during childhood leads to credulity in adulthood. Indeed, he argues, the "debunking" of Santa constitutes many a child's first truly sceptical activity.

I thought this was a very interesting point, and it contributed to an ongoing internal debate I've been conducting with regards to how best to raise a child in the sceptical mindset. It hasn't helped me make up my mind on the subject, but has made a significant contribution to the complexity of the issue. Is it wrong to lie to one's children in this regard, or is it a valuable experience that teaches them that deception (harmless or otherwise) is everywhere and that nobody is to be trusted implicitly? On a personal note, I think I "grew out of" notions like God and spiritualism around the same time as I did the notion of Santa. I don't recall being annoyed at the deception, either; at some point it just became a childish absurdity and I scoffed at my parents for persisting in the charade.

So would it be better or worse to deny one's child this experience? Should we rather explain as best we can the lessons that would be learned through it, rather than perpetuate the white lies? At the very least, it seems that the lies do less harm than one might think.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Virus-avoidance advice

There has been a great deal of news and rumour recently about a new virus or worm targeting users of FarceBook, MurdochSpace, and the other one. Normally not the sort of thing that would find its way to these pages, as it seems to be a completely genuine danger and not in any way fraudulent. What prompted this blog post, however, was the public reaction to the news; I know of people who have decided to not use the networking sites at all while this thing persists. Not an unreasonable precaution, but why deny yourself the distractions of social networking if it's not necessary? And according to the details of this case, it's really not.

As with most digital viruses, the best advice for avoiding infection seems to be "don't be a moron"; though it does appear that this worm is more sneaky than most. It's also not new - it's been around since at least December, when there was a big news event on the subject - see articles from The Guardian, PC World, BBC News, The Huffington Post and Reuters.

This virus, known as "Koobface" can be avoided by simply knowing the way in which it operates. The best source for this information seems to be the video here, the summary of which is that the virus works through sending messages from infected accounts to friends of that account. The message comprises of a link to a video, ostensibly on YouTube, and a phrase or two suggesting that the target is featured in that video. Now listen carefully to the next part, because it's the one thing you should remember about the Koobface virus:

The only way it can infect your account or computer is if you click that link and then install what it requests that you install.

So the obvious advice is: don't do that.

Knowing how these individual virii operate is the key to avoiding them - besides good old common sense, anyway. If you get a link to a video with a message suggesting you're in it, don't follow the link, delete the message. If in doubt, ask your friend if the message is genuine. There is no evidence to suggest that the virus is so clever as to be able to respond to such an inquiry.

Friday, 6 March 2009


There have been times on this blog when I have alluded to my dislike for the word "Darwinism". Well, now I have an excuse to let rip with a rant on the subject, courtesy of a new article on BBC News by Andrew Marr:

The danger of worshipping Darwin

I have a lot of time for Andrew Marr; I think as a historian and particularly as a presenter of history, he has a great deal to offer. But in this case, he is either ignorant of the facts, or simply creating a controversy for the sake of having something to say on the matter. Because what does his article actually argue?

The majority of it is taken up with what he himself describes as "trivial" comparisons between evolution and religion, such as the observation that the natural history museums of Oxford and London bare a striking resemblance to cathedrals. Religion has heretics, evolution has heretics - Richard Owen. Religions have holy artifacts, evolution has holy artifacts - dinosaur bones. Religious people make pilgrimages, and Darwin's journey could be compared to such a trek. Marr's admission of the triviality of these weak parallels points to exactly how useless and arbitrary they are.

After this horrendous triviality, he goes on to what might be called the "meat" of his argument. Which is that the more striking similarity between what he calls "Darwinism" (shudder) and religion is that it "offers both a method and a message". The method is the scientific method of observation and experiment, contrasted with the religious method of prayer and mantras. The message is about the importance of the web of life, as opposed to religion's emphasis on, I suppose, nonsense.

He claims that "to deal with the consequences [of climate change and species extinction], we have to turn to scientific evidence, which will be brought to us by - yes - Darwinists." This reveals the definition of "Darwinism" with which he is working in this article: to my eye, it seems to be nothing more than a synonym for "scientist". The only criteria by which he judges someone to be a Darwinist is her adherence to the scientific method, something which predates Darwin himself by a good number of years (try hundreds if not thousands).

This is why I object to the term "Darwinism". Because that's not what it's describing. The word seems to describe a dogma whereby one man's word is taken as unquestionable truth; this is not the case with Darwin, as often it is scientists (those Marr would not hesitate to describe as Darwinists) who are the first to point out the flaws in his theory. Indeed, he himself devoted much of his great work On the Origin of Species to detailing the holes and flaws in what he had produced, challenging if not pleading others to improve upon it. When you use the word "Darwinism" to describe the pursuit of the scientific method, which unavoidably questions Darwin, you are setting up a confusing, oxymoronic term.

So what is the conclusion of Marr's argument, answering the question he asks at the start, "In this year of his double anniversary, are we in danger of turning Charles Darwin if not into God, at least into the founder of a secular religion?"?

"Darwinism, as I take it, is a creed of observation, fact, a deep modesty about conclusions and lifelong readiness to be proved wrong.

I don't say it offers everything that religion can. But I do say that, in this respect, it is better.

However we celebrate the old man, we mustn't let his work crust into creed or harden to dogma."

So, basically, there is no danger of Darwinism (taken as he takes it, in that oxymoronic way) turning into a religion - as long as we don't let it turn into a religion.

Thank you, Andrew. That was a truly tautological useful piece of journalism.

Maybe I'm just bitter because when I heard the TV programme announced upon which this article is based, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, I was hoping beyond hope for some kind of adaptation of the Dan Dennett book of the same name, which I guarantee you is a worthier read.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Scepticism and Denial

During an interview on Point of Inquiry with Kendrick Frazier, the editor of The Skeptical Inquirer, I was interested to hear him address a point on what is often called "denialism". This is the phenomenon whereby someone who has grave doubts about a certain doctrine or set of facts is labelled a "denier", such as with holocaust denial, climate change denial, or vaccine denial. It is a point of annoyance for many freethinkers like myself that these deniers are given, by themselves and others, the epithet "sceptic" (so a climate change denier becomes a climate change sceptic and so forth).

Surely, though, that's what they are - to some degree at least. They are "sceptical" of the claims made by those who believe climate change is real, or that the holocaust did happen, in so much as they doubt the claims. It is, as is so often the case, a matter of definition. In common parlance, there is nothing wrong with calling these people sceptics - it is much more usually seen as a position of doubt than as an attitude toward inquiry and evidence. But when the context of the conversation changes, and scepticism takes on its newer meaning with which readers of this blog will be familiar, it is no longer appropriate to refer to them in those terms.

The new meaning of sceptic, which has its origin in the U.S. with figures such as Carl Sagan and James Randi, is associated not with denial or promotion of particular doctrines, but rather an outlook. This outlook is one of free-thought, rational discourse and unbiased inquiry, and it is therefore a mistake to associate it primarily with doubt alone. Under this definition, those who oppose the ideas of climate change and the holocaust, for instance, should by no means be named as sceptics. Their minds are not open to the evidence, and their position is not flexible, as that of any good sceptic (under this definition) should be.

What they do is far more accurately described as "denial" than "scepticism", so I agree with Kendrick Frazier that they should be referred to in this way. It is all part and parcel of the process to stake a claim on the word "sceptic", and turn it into something far more positive than the curmudgeonly, narrow-minded, blind denial with which it is still too often associated in everyday contexts. Will this endeavour ever bear fruit, and is it worth it? Those are questions for another day. For now, it is enough to remember, whenever you hear someone referred to as a "sceptic" with respect to a particular issue, to ask whether the word "denier" would be a more accurate description.

Friday, 20 February 2009

What else could it be?

Via Neil Gaiman on Twitter, comes the news that not only has Plato been revived from the dead, not only is he now writing for The Sun, but his fabled lost city of Atlantis has been found. Quite the news day.

In typical Sun fashion, the article could hardly be more credulous; nothing is considered as alternative explanation for the find. But when the Telegraph article on the same subject follows suit, perhaps credulity is indeed the answer. Especially if Plato says it's true.

Here are but a few reasons to be sceptical (other than the very good reason of simply having this as a default position): the reported "city" is the size of Wales. Does anyone else think that maybe that's just a little on the large side, even for a fabled city of legend? There isn't the kind of detail you'd expect to see in the outline if this was indeed a city the size of a relatively small country. There are only ten or so "streets" in either plane, and no less distinct, narrower lines in between to indicate smaller streets or buildings of any normal size.

Secondly, Atlantis is generally accepted in scholoarly circles as being nothing more than a narrative, heuristic device by Plato to illustrate his points and tell a story. In this way it can be seen as any product of imagination as opposed to history: nothing of the Atlantis myth (aside from the sheer scale, a classic exaggeration of such tales) cannot be traced to something historical with which Plato would have been familiar; wars were certainly no stranger to the Athens of his lifetime, and even a city lost to the sea overnight would have been a familiar concept.

Finally, we have the problem of all the other discoveries of Atlantis over the years; as recently as 2004, sites have been found and claimed to be the fabled lost city because of some feature or other that matches with Plato's rhetorical account. What makes this one more likely than the others?

Now, I don't know enough about oceanography or indeed Google Ocean to postulate convincingly on what this picture might show - the possibilities as far as I can think are some kind of geological formation, or perhaps an artifact of the mapping process. I'd welcome any suggestions, but will take some considerable convincing that what this picture shows is a city our only source of knowledge for which is the probably-rhetorical account of a philosopher well known for talking out of his arse.


UPDATE: The Daily Mail, of all things, has "dashed hopes" that Atlantis had been found. Guess what it was. Yup, an artifact of the mapping process.

"Details for the ocean maps on Google Earth come from sonar measurements of the sea floor recorded by boats - and the area around the Canaries was mapped by boats travelling in a series of straight lines."

Well that explains that, then. Is the magic gone, now that the truth is known? Only in a literal sense; the explanation of how this illusion happened is still very interesting. Or maybe that's just me.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Small Wonders #1: Evolution

My head is somewhat fuzzy with The Ill at the moment, so just a quick entry today in case coherence is in short supply.

What better way to inaugurate my "Small Wonders" series than with Darwin's Theory of Evolution, something so often taken for granted? It seems common sense to say that life as we know it has evolved from less complex forms, and yet look at it more closely and it is truly an absolute wonder that one man (ignoring, as most of the world sadly does, young Wallace) formulated, researched, developed and presented a theory with such staggering implications for virtually every field of study.

It seems so elegantly simple, and yet at the same time mind-numbingly complex. "Species change over time" is the pithy, easily-understood summary of literally a lifetime's work, and it has branches reaching off into innumerable other lifetimes' works. Genetics; medicine; zoology; biology; even ethics and philosophy were profoundly affected by the dawn of the Theory.

I greatly recommend finding out more about this subject; there should be no lack of freely-available information at this of all times. It is quite simply one of the most important scientific breakthroughs of all time, and one which can be appreciated at any level - from its simplest summary to the greatest levels of detail.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

At Long Last...

It was announced in the later hours of yesterday that the 3rd and 4th of October 2009 would see a TAM in London. I am, to put it mildly, rather excited by this news.

Those who know what TAM is have probably already heard this news; for those who don't, TAM stands for The Amaz!ng Meeting - an annual conference in Las Vegas sponsored by the James Randi Educational Foundation. It is a gathering of atheists, sceptics, scientists, secularists and freethinkers of all colours. There is also a healthy dose of wit and jocularity to be had, of course. We all know of the connection between intelligence and comedy...

Not only is it guaranteed to be stuffed to the brim with absolutely fascinating keynote lectures, but it's also an opportunity to meet like-minded people in an environment where there is no need to disguise one's scepticism. It's a shame that the wider world is so often hostile to free debate, but TAM is an oasis of reason in the harsh desert of ignorance. Yes, I'm somewhat looking forward to it.

If you want to learn more, here's the (somewhat terse) news in the official press release; they're also on Twitter and FarceBook.

I hope to see you there!

Monday, 2 February 2009

Ignorance and Obfuscation

Half of Britons do not believe in evolution, survey finds.

"More than one-fifth prefer creationism or intelligent design, while many others are confused about Darwin's theory."

Right from the start, we have a misleading headline which suggests (not explicitly, but leaves open for misinterpretation) that half of Britons are creationists. In fact it's less than one quarter.

The real story here is that, to my mind at least, the creationist campaign - particularly that of intelligent design - has succeeded in blurring the issue. While I don't know that more people believe in creationism, I think more people are under the impression that there is doubt where no serious rational doubt exists. I can't seem to bring the previous figures to hand, though - so if you know what they were, please let me know - particularly if I've got it wrong. I wouldn't be surprised if this poll returned the exact same results as last time, actually. It wasn't that long ago. Also, let's not go over the many ways this data could be skewed - I'd at least want to know what questions were asked before trying to draw any sensible conclusions.

I'm all in favour of having these issues out in the open where they can be discussed, but that's not what we're dealing with here. Creationists are campaigning to get their rubbish accepted to the same degree as evidence-based theories, and disguising it under the banner of freedom of speech and open debate. Scientists are not blameless, either - more needs to be done to promote the public understanding of science, which would hopefully prevent a quarter of people from simply being "confused" by evolution. Those who bear the overwhelming burden of responsibility here, though, are the media; while there is a great deal of good science on the BBC and elsewhere (Attenborough being the absolute pinnacle), there is too much dumbing-down, and ignoring of science stories in favour of sensationalism and big headlines.

There is no easy solution, nor one single person or group to blame. What I do know is that 50% is too high a proportion of the population to be in any serious doubt about the theory of evolution.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Cursed Cowell

I'm almost one hundred per cent certain that Simon Cowell has been cursed more than once. So the question is, why did this instance become news?

"She [...] said, 'You're all doomed'.

"Then we had a really bad session, the worst ever, in fact."

Is there even a point playing the "spot the logical fallacy" game with this? I'm not sure I've ever seen a clearer case.

Does this mean a witch put a curse on the MSN news website? Because it's reall bad reporting, possibly the worst ever, in fact.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Small wonders

By way of a new semi-regular feature on this blog, I intend to write a number of short pieces on the small things that one can so easily forget about, but which are nevertheless quite amazing when one stops to think. It is basically meant not only to inform and remind my readers of these small wonders, but also to reinforce the numinous aspect of atheism and scepticism. I've decided there's not enough "holy crap this is amazing!" on this blog, and the new discoveries provoking that reaction are more or less covered by the main science blogs out there such as Pharyngula, Bad Astronomy, and Not Exactly Rocket Science. So I'm left with the stuff hiding in plain sight.

Look out for this new feature, coming soon to A Sceptical I near you. Early posts in the series are planned to cover aeroplanes, electricity, and cats.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

A New Hope?

I was among the many millions of people who tuned in yesterday to witness the historic inauguration of the 44th president of the U.S.A.. It was as superb a speech as I had come to expect from Obama, and it was nice to see and hear true oratory art return to what is arguably the highest public office in the world.

But of course it is the content of the speech that truly matters, and here again he did not disappoint. Again he made history (to the best of my knowledge) by becoming the first president to acknowledge the existence and importance of atheists and agnostics in their inaugural speech. Even better than this, however, was the promise that science would be restored to its rightful place; the scientific community had been given promises along those lines throughout the campaign - and it was truly gratifying to see it given such prominence.

The overwhelming theme of the speech, however, had a distinct secular humanist feel, one of shared responsibility and a positive belief in society's ability to effect change.

The future looks, despite the present dark, a lot brighter than it has for some time. Thank you to every American who chose hope over fear.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

A year of my Sceptical I

Well here we are, one year to the day since the birth of this blog. A lot has happened in that time, and all in all I'm pleased with the result; I remember the first excitement of getting a comment from someone with whom I'd never had any prior contact. In fact, I'd like to say thank you here to everyone who has commented on this blog over the last twelve months. There aren't many of you, it's true, but I am grateful for every word. In particular that first commenter, who has remained a regular reader throughout the short life of this blog - Andrew of WongaBlog. Thanks for sticking with me!

I was aiming to get 100 entries up by today, but sadly I have missed this target by just a few posts. Not that it matters, of course - and I'll be passing this entirely arbitrary waypoint in the very near future. I have managed to meet my one entry per week target with only two exceptions thus far, which I am very pleased with.

Anyway, to mark this occasion I've been looking back through the archives from this past year, and here I present a few of my choice highlights:

Add pinch of salt before swallowing whole
This was the subject which first sparked my desire to start a sceptically-themed blog. It turned into something of an essay, which I have tried to avoid in more recent months - certainly without use of pictures. It is an examination of a piece of propaganda on YouTube which was being put about by supporters of Ron Paul in the run-up to the primaries. I still look on it as one of the better pieces of in-depth sceptical analysis to have appeared on this blog.

A Cautionary Tale
This was a big moment for me. A very short entry just to bring Messers Fry & Laurie to my reader's attention became that little bit more special when it was linked from Skepchick. It's still awesome.

The Pagan Atheist
My post finally explaining my position on mixing paganism with atheism. Quite a popular hit on google since, it seems, and one of my better entries.

Fictional Sceptics in Pop Culture
In the first of what has become a series of posts on the subject, I discuss the importance of fictional representatives of scepticism, particularly in sitcoms - in which they are everyday people who just happen to have a rational outlook.

The importance of antidote
Here I wax verbose about the links between two of my favourite subjects: scepticism, and philosophy as therapy. It's hardly surprising the subject was on my mind, given that the latter formed a significant part of my MA dissertation.

Home Turf and Away Turf
A pair of entries on the relationship between science and religion, which got a significant number of comments between them.

The Life, Death and Legacy of Deep Throat
One of my better recent entries, this one examines the character of Deep Throat, the informant who leaked Watergate to the press. His significance for scepticism is greater than one might expect.

Still in the pipeline at the moment are posts about the links between scepticism and idealism, an examination of Obama from a rational perspective, and of course the second part of my look at Star Trek.

In the meantime, thank you again for reading my little blog - I hope it was as good a use of your time as it has been of mine.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

MP ignorant, offensive

MP brands dyslexia a 'fiction'

I accept that Graham Stringer MP has the best interests of children at heart, and wants to improve standards of education by introducing a system of synthetic phonics, something that has show promise in trials in Scotland. I'm all for that.

But to do this by attacking dyslexia as nothing but a myth is misinformed, misguided, and wrong. There have been studies conducted using FMRI which apparently show clear evidence of differences in physiology (referenced here); the evidence is not yet incontrovertible, by any means, but it is far from being a myth.

Mr Stringer needs to shut the hell up and listen to the evidence before shooting his mouth off and dismissing a troubling condition which affects millions of people. There are better ways to promote more efficient teaching methods - the trials speak for themselves in this regard. If there are funding issues, you can't just call a costly condition a myth and divert its section of the budget. Yes it's a simple solution to a complex problem, but that's not always what we need. In fact, it's quite rare that that would suffice.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Fictional Sceptics #6: Star Trek (part 1)

Star Trek is one of the best-realised and most popular science fiction universes in the history of the genre. It is also fertile ground for musings on the subject of scepticism in its content; so fertile, in fact, that I've decided to give over more than the usual solitary entry to the discussion thereof.

In this, the first part, I want to focus on the secular humanism that can be seen in virtually every episode of both the original series (TOS) and the Next Generation (TNG). As noted in this thread on the Richard Dawkins forum, atheism and secularism is often portrayed as amoral; one of the best arguments against this (in the world of fiction anyway) is the Star Trek of Gene Roddenberry*.

If anything, the Star Trek morality is too prominent much of the time, and can make for some rather cheesy (some even tedious) moments of moralising. Wherever one stands on this issue, it's hard if not impossible to make a case that there is no moral message in Star Trek; and equally hard to make a case that the morality that is there is religious in origin. Indeed, back in the early days, it was quite the controversy that there wasn't a chaplain of any kind on board the Enterprise - despite the network executives' attempts to crowbar one in, Roddenberry was adamant.

What is also worth remembering is the radically progressive nature of TOS when it first aired. Not only were men and women portrayed working side by side as equals, but people of different races also. In fact, a previous draft of the proposal to the network for the show had Majel Barrett (later Roddenberry's wife) in the role of second-in-command. While this was more radical than the network could accept at the time, the version that finally aired was certainly still very progressive for its time.

This entry is not intended as an exhaustive essay on humanist morality in Star Trek; for more details on this fascinating subject, see this interview with Gene Roddenberry for The Humanist. Try to ignore the occasional typo or spellcheck error (though I have to say, "Captain Piracy" is one of the better ones I've ever seen). I also recommend the recent Point of Inquiry interview with Tom Flynn.

Tune in next time when I'll be discussing the numinous aspects of Star Trek, and how it shows brilliantly that secular doesn't mean soulless (except perhaps in the literal sense).

* Once Rick Berman took over, coming into the series of Deep Space Nine and Voyager, there is a noticeable trend of greater accommodation for the supernatural, religion, and things that cannot be explained by science. The Bajorans (particularly the crazy weirdness they had going on with Sisko) and Chakotay's Native American spiritualism are the obvious examples. While not intrinsically a bad thing, the secular messages took a substantial nose-dive with the departure of Roddenberry.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Subtext and subterfuge

Recently in my travels and travails around the city of Wolverhampton, I came across a substantially large advertisement which looked a little like this:

Which I thought was interesting. Beyond the obvious point being made, the implication that belief in a god and belief in Santa Claus were comparable struck me as unusual in what is a relatively mainstream commercial context. My first thought was that you wouldn't get that in the U.S., at least not without tremendous uproar. Perhaps I'm wrong though - I welcome any comments on the matter.

What was more interesting was the logo in the corner, showing that it was an advert for the Prince's Trust. The Prince (of Wales) isn't exactly well known for his liberal views on anything other than the barmier portions of pseudoscience, so this was a surprise. Perhaps, being simply the founder and figurehead of the organisation, he remains unaware of this particular campaign. Again, I could easily be wrong on this score.

What this allows me to do, however, is mention the charity's work itself. The Prince's Trust has a commendable mission of supporting young people in business and personal development, but I don't intend to give them any money any time soon - and not just because I'm penniless.

Firstly, some of their top dogs (or fat cats) are earning in excess of £80,000 per year. That's too much, even for those at the top, considering the organisation is set up purely for the benefit of young people looking to better themselves. Well, as long as the majority of its income goes on that, I guess it's not so bad, right? Right. Sadly this is not the case. The figures from the 2006/7 financial year are reported as follows on the Wikipedia page:

So from a total income of nearly £51 million, less than £21 million was spent on directly helping young people.

Of course, charities need administration/promotion/etc costs. But 40% of income being spent on the charity's target is simply not good enough.

I cannot deny that the Trust does good work, nor indeed that their advertising caught my eye on this occasion; but it's not a charity I intend to patronise.