Wednesday 29 April 2009

Thanks for spelling my name correctly

So I was at the monthly Skeptics in the Pub meeting in London on Monday evening when I got a phone call from Samantha Stein, the director of Camp Quest UK. She was doing an article with a journalist from the Independent on the upcoming inaugural Camp Quest here in the UK, and asked if the journalist could speak to me to get a perspective from a parent who was sending their children to Camp Quest.

As I fully support the ethos of Camp Quest, I was naturally more than happy to say a few words.

The article appeared on page 13 of Wednesday 29th April’s edition of The Independent and is also available on line here.

All in all I thought it was a fair article that gave a pretty accurate portrayal of the aims and goals of Camp Quest. Not knowing the journalist, I did have a few worries about how the article might have portrayed Camp Quest and my specific reasons for booking my children onto the camp, but my worries were unfounded.

I am of course aware that journalists often take a number of sources and reviews and then distil those down to the story they are interested in, so I was fully prepared to be edited out completely or restricted to a short sentence. Especially as I was only providing a token parental anecdote to give a sample opinion of those signed up to the concept. The quote attributed to me in the article was, I am pleased to say, relevant and accurately reported.

I did think however I want to use this blog to repeat my other reasons for booking my children onto the camp that did not make the final edit.

I did mention that I would be equally happy to send my children on a general summer camp not affiliated to any particular faith purely for the physical activities (which I know my kids are looking forward to). As I suspect a week away from home would help teach valuable responsibility and social skills, as long as I knew there was no hidden religious agenda. If we lived in a world were ancient myths were not afforded such reverence then I would concede that specific non religious camps would not be needed. Sadly we do not yet live in such a world.

I also mentioned the usefulness of learning some basic logical philosophy and critical thinking skills of which I have seen little evidence in their school work. I would hope that the thinking skills taught are applied to a wider set of credulous beliefs to help children evaluate and reach their own decisions on a wide range of topics such as alternative medicines, paranormal claims and conspiracy theories.

The other point I made to the journalist was my belief in the need to teach children how to think, not what to think. From my research on Camp Quest I have confidence that this exactly what they aim to do. I have no more desire to have my children indoctrinated into an Atheist viewpoint than I have to have them indoctrinated into a Jewish, Islamic or Christian viewpoint. I just want them to be able to think for themselves and reach a logical and rational explanation for the world they will inherit from us.

Monday 27 April 2009

Science & Religion Lectures: Conway Hall, 25th April 2008

I wasn’t planning to blog about this event as I was expecting Martin to be doing another of his fine in-depth live blogs. However, as he hasn’t, I feel duty bound to put fingers to keyboards for a brief summary of the day’s lectures.

I must admit that one of the key speakers that I was most looking forward to hearing was Baroness Mary Warnock, and I joined in with the collective air of disappointment on the announcement that she was unable to make it. Nonetheless Stephen Law once again provided a formidable line-up of fine minds for the days entertainment. I shall give a quick overview of each of the 4 lectures as best I can remember.

1. Jack Cohen

Jack introduced those unfamiliar with the 1857 work of religious biologist Philip Gosse with his explanation of the biblical creation. Gosse’s motivation was for a way of explaining the scientific evidence that is all around us while strictly adhering to the biblical texts he was completely unable to refute.

Most modern day creationists have to reject scientific evidence or invent convoluted excuses to explain how the earth is only 6,000 years old and how dinosaurs and humans coexisted. Gosse’s method is much more elegant in dealing with the evidence, whilst fully accommodating his belief in the word of God scribed verbatim in his preferred religious text. Of course whilst being more elegant it is still utterly bonkers.

Image visiting the Garden of Eden directly after the biblical creation. All of Gods creations are fully formed. A man with developed limbs, bones and hair can be seen along with fully grown trees existing in this mature state since the very start of creation a few moments previous. If you were to cut one of these tree’s in half, you would see the same as we would see today, i.e. a series rings representing previous growing seasons and showing what appears to be evidence for its existence prior to the recent creation event.

In other words, Gosse argues that everything was created with the details of its previous history as if it had existed before its creation. This is were the title of his book “Omphalus” from the Greek for navel, comes from. Many theologians argue that Adam was the first man and as he was not born of woman, he had no need for a navel. However, following Gosse’s hypothesis even though he had no need for his navel, he would have one as part of his inbuilt non existing history that was created along with him.

Jack went on to further explain the hypothesis by giving more examples, and I really enjoyed his bumbling presentation style. This argument will of course neatly deal with the miles of rock strata, fossils and light from distant galaxies that are such an inconvenience to most creationists. However, after we had understood the gist of the Omphalus idea it would have been nice to have applied it to a relevant use rather than simply reinforcing the idea with further examples.

As amusing as it would be to present creationists with an alternative load of fetid dingo’s kidneys for not critically challenging the biblical account of creation, I’ve yet to see how another crazy idea can help those blinded by faith to accept evidence. Unless the absurdity of the idea can somehow provide a mirror for seeing more traditional creationist accounts for what they are.

An entertaining talk and one that will certainly cause me to look up Jack Cohen on Amazon. The science of Terry Pratchett’s discworld sounds like a good place for me to start.

2. Simon Singh

It is of course always a privilege to hear Simon Singh talk as there is no doubting his gift for communicating and his love of science. It is in fact for this reason I photo-shopped Simon on to the shoulders of Carl Sagan in my recent TAM London speakers’ blog. Despite the comic indignation, I hope it will be seen as the mark of reverence in which it was intended.

Simon’s talk on this occasion was the Big Bang theory and consisted of a brief and entertaining run through of his excellent book of the same name. One of the reasons I love Simon Singh’s Big Bang book is that it answers the question: “How do we know that?" And "Why do scientists think that?” Teaching the Big Bang without reference to how we know it just leaves you wondering why you should believe it. Singh’s book starts from first principles and builds up by first explaining how we know the circumference of the Earth, how we know the distance of the sun and the moon, and how we know the workings of the solar system.

Due to time restrictions Simon starts of the lecture from the initial idea of the big bang theory by Belgium Catholic Priest Georges Lemaître. Of course the name “Big Bang” was not in use at this time and the theory was not scientifically accepted, especially as it smacked of the Biblical creation story rather than the solid state model preferred by Einstein and other contemporary scientists.

Singh then goes on to explain how astronomer Edwin Hubble went on to observe how the galaxies are all moving away from each other by noticing that the light from these galaxies is shifted to the red end of the spectrum. The Doppler Effect shows how the wavelength varies depending on if an object is moving away, or towards the observer (as in the familiar sound of a passing racing car).

Despite this evidence for an expanding universe and the extrapolation of running the scenario backwards to the beginnings of space and time, many scientists preferred to stick with the solid state model of the universe. In fact the phrase “Big Bang” was coined by Fred Hoyle at this time as a somewhat disparaging term for the theory. But of course it stuck, and Singh even manages to play us the original radio excerpt where the phrase was coined.

Further evidence was however required to fully validate the big bang theory and although the notion of echoes of microwave radiation emitting from the big bang should be detectible to validate the theory, the equipment of the time was not sufficient to do so.

Most of us are familiar with the tale of Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson years later using a microwave receiver to pick up signals emitted by celestial sources in our milky way but being constantly plagued with background noise from all directions. After cleaning out the deposits left by the pigeons nesting in the receiver they eventually realise they are listening to the cosmic radiation of the big bang and had discovered the predicted evidence required to fully support the Big Bang model.

Naturally Simon explains all this in much more detail and with numerous witty interjections, but of course you’re much better off reading the book than this clumsy summary.

3. Stephen Law

“It’s pretty obvious” says Stephen law, “that an all loving benevolent God does not exist”. Stephen takes us through some of the obvious points put forward by non believers such as “Why is there so much evil and suffering in the world?” For each of these pieces of evidence for the non existence of a benevolent God, Stephen points us at the arguments that sophisticated theologians have come up with to counter this evidence.

The main argument used by the religious to explain the existence of evil deeds is of course “freewill”. Without freewill we are mere puppets doing the good bidding of our creator. In order for our actions to have meaning and for us to truly exhibit love and compassion we must have freewill and the ability to choose these options for ourselves. Therefore the potential for evil is the price we must pay for the necessity of freewill.

So perhaps it’s not as obvious after all that there is no benevolent God, because theologians have come up with imaginative reasons to explain what at first glance look like screaming evidence for the non existence of God. Stephen gives further examples that I’ll gloss over in this review for the sake of brevity.

Having established a reasonable set of theological notions to refute each of the supposed obvious claims of the non-believers, Stephen proposes the idea that the universe was created by an all evil God. Not Satan, but a creator God who is completely evil and wants nothing but suffering, pain and misery.

Ridiculous of course, this sounds like a prosperous idea, how could such an evil God allow for someone like Mother Teresa who (apparently) did so much good in the world. Well of course, such an evil God could make us puppets to carry out his evil deeds, but they would be meaningless unless we had freewill in order to truly choose to be evil. For each of the claims to refute the existence of an all evil God we are able to use the exact same theological argument to dismiss it as we did for the benevolent God. This time though it sounds more absurd because the idea of an all evil God is less familiar and the counter arguments used in this context just sounds like pathetic bleating. But they are the exact same arguments used by theologians today. Why should they be any more valid when defending the benevolent God?

I thought Stephen came up with one of the cleverest arguments for the support of the evil God hypothesis during the Q&A session. “Why would an evil God create religions that are a comfort to people, provide solace and hope and do so much good work in the world”. Well suppose the all evil God revealed his extisance to a group of people in order to perpetuate such a religion, but then revealed himself to an alternative group with a few pieces of different information. The belief by each group that they alone have the divine unquestionable truth would recreate centuries of hatred, suffering and religious wars, it the perfect move for the all evil God.

4. Raj Persaud

I have to confess to not knowing who the final speaker was but I was filled in by some of my fellow attendees over lunch. I understand that Raj Persaud is a well known psychiatrist thanks to regular appearances on TV, and he was certainly a dapper and eloquent orator. The main focus of his talk was on the differences between “Internals” and “Externals”.

Raj starts us off with an imaginary scenario. Two people attend a job interview and are both unsuccessful in securing the job. The first person is an “Internal”; they take responsibility for their fate and view their failure at the interview as a consequence of their own qualifications and ability. The “External” assumes that there were forces outside of his control and he never had a chance of getting the job.

The external person gets more immediate gratification, although he didn’t get the job he can take solace in the fact that there was nothing he could have done about it anyway. The internal person however takes more responsibility and examines how he could do better in the future, peruses further education and skills and in the long term becomes better equipped for future job interviews.

These are traits that I can clearly recognise in a lot of people so I felt a lot of resonance with Raj’s talk. More disturbing however were the statistics presented showing a growing trend in the number of externals in the modern world today and the changes in our culture that fosters and promotes this type of viewpoint.

As always a highly enjoyable set of lectures, and I would recommend checking the CFI website for future events.

Thursday 23 April 2009

Daniel Dennett: A Darwinian Perspective of Religion (Video)

A few weeks a go I posted a blog on a Daniel Dennett lecture that I attended, put on by the British Humanist Society at Conway Hall in London.

The video of this lecture has now been produced and uploaded in its entirety to YouTube. It includes the introduction by Richard Dawkins, and the questions and answer at the end of the lecture.

So get yourself a drink, put your feet up and feed your brain

Saturday 18 April 2009

The Basingstoke Fairies Vs The Cottingley Fairies

I went for a short walk in the woods this afternoon with the wife and kids. In the midst of the dark woods I saw a glint of light flash past my eyes. We all stood still for a few moments and focused our eyes, what looked like a large dragonfly hovered just above a branch. We sat still and watched closely. Gradually it came nearer and settled a few feet away from the children. By this time we could clearly see that it was not a dragonfly, but we had in fact been lucky enough to catch a rare glimpse of a woodland fairy. We stayed in the woods a little while and gradually the fairies gained enough confidence to come up to my children and even settle on their outstretched hands. I was fortunate enough to have my camera with me and so was able to take the following photographs.

The photograph’s I took of the Basingstoke fairies today, reminded me in many ways of the Cottingley fairies photographed in July 1917. Picture below.

However, unlike the photographs I took this afternoon, the Cottingley fairies were widely regarded as genuine by a large number of people, including a non-critical thinking Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I believe the young girls who faked the above picture kept up the pretence into their old age before finally admitting to the prank.

Everyone who looks at my pictures will instantly think that I have photo-shopped some images of fairies from the Internet on to some snaps I took of my kids. And of course they would be quite right. The reason, however, they would jump to this conclusion I think is no reflection on my Photoshop skills, I believe they would have reached the same conclusion, however professionally done the photographs looked. The reason why everyone automatically assumes that my photographs were faked is because we are all familiar with the tools and techniques for doctoring photographs. You don’t need to be Jonathon Creek to work that one out.

When the Cottingley fairy pictures were taken, people were not so familiar with the notion of altering photographs or producing fake images, so the initial assumption with many people was that they were real.

My hypothesis suggests that as people become more familiar with the tools and techniques used by charlatans, hoaxers and fraudsters, they become less accepting of their claims and more likely to lean towards a more rational explanation for what they see.

Therefore if we all become more familiar with cold reading, will more of us find rational explanations to why psychics seem to know the unknowable?

If Richard Wiseman teaches us all how to bend spoons, will we be less impressed with certain Israeli conjurors?

If we understand more about neurology and pareidolia will we see less ghosts and UFO’s?

The example of my fairy photo’s suggest that all we need is a bit of familiarity in the methods of the hoaxers.

Friday 17 April 2009

TAM London – Standing On The Shoulders of Giants

Inspired by the great guest line up announced for The Amazing Meeting in London on 3-4th October this year, I decided to arse around with Photoshop. Although I suspect they might not be amused.

NB Bill Murray is actually in character (Dr Peter Venkman), otherwise it just doesn’t work.

Link to real site here

Thursday 16 April 2009

Will our Teachers Vote for Science, Reason & Critical Thinking?

A motion at the NUT conference this weekend will argue:
whilst religion and philosophy should be taught in schools, religious groups on the other hand, “should have no place in the control and management of schools.”

So will our teachers vote to try and halt the spread of Blair’s Faith School Madness?

Read the full Article from the Freethinker Here

Tuesday 7 April 2009

Arsetrology: Your Daily Shitoscope Reading

As we all know, Astrology is a belief that the relative positions of the celestial bodies can predict the personalities and affairs of individuals. I have discovered a far more accurate and precise method of predicting an individuals fortune and personal traits based on the much more accurate science of bowel movements. Like traditional Astrology, everybody can be divided into 12 groups, or Houses. Unlike celestial astrology, the 12 houses represent not the dates of birth, but the 12 possible bowel movements each person may have on any one day. I then use a complex and mysterious set of axioms to determine your own personal shitoscope reading.

Before I use my mystical powers to tell your fortunes, I will first need to introduce you to the twelve “Shit Houses”:

1. Rusty Water
Diarrhea also known as arse piss or anal firewater

2. Ghost Turd
A stool of which there is no trace when one stands up to admire it

3. Dead Otter
A single stool of immense proportions

4. Copper Bolt
Large or heavy stool also known as a Depth Charge or Belly Flopper

5. Anal Delight
Soft light brown fluffy chocolate or butterscotch coloured pudding served in a large porcelain bowl

6. Baking One
The act of not going for a shit when you really ought to

7. Bum Goblin
A gnarled malevolent turd that jumps out from behind you, casting a painful spell on your ringpiece

8. Shitterish Allsorts
A single lavatorial sitting that produces a pot-pourri of stool consistencies from copper bolts to a rusty water geyser and all points between. Aka Bomb Bay Mix

9. Bovril Bullets
Peppering the porcelain with brown shot

10. Brown Lilo
A buoyant Tom Tit that, left alone, will eventually float out to sea

11. Fizzy Gravy
Bubble poo

12. Shitsophrenia
The condition where the sufferer alternates between having wild squirts and normal bowel movements throughout the day

Once you have had your daily bowel movement(s) and determined your "Shit House", look up your Shitoscope below, and prepare to be amazed at the accuracy of this amazing new phenomenon.

Rusty Water:
You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them.

Ghost Turd:
At times you have serious doubts whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.

Dead Otter
Most of the time you are positive and cheerful, but there has been a time in the past where you were very upset. You have a tendancy to be critical of yourself.

Copper Bolt:
You are a very kind and considerate person, but when somebody does something to break your trust, you feel deep-seated anger.

Anal Delight:
Disciplined and self controlled on the outside, you tend to be insecure inside.

Baking One:
you are mostly shy and quiet, but when the mood strikes you, you can easily become the center of attention.

Bum Goblin:
You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof.

Shitterish Allsorts:
You have found it unwise to be frank in revealing yourself to others. You have a great need for people to like and admire you.

Bovril Bullets:
Some of your aspirations tend to be very unrealistic. You feel great sometimes, other times you feel like hiding away.

Brown Lilo
You are trying to go the way you want to go and are beginning to succeed. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage.

Fizzy Gravy
At times you are extraverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.

You need close relationships but at the same time hate being restricted by them.

Please let me know how acurate I am, hopefully we can replace the daily horoscopes in a National newspaper with my new Shitoscopes.

BTW. Thanks to Viz’s Roger’s Profanisaurus and some random Barnum statements from the web.