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.