Friday 27 November 2009

Come Together: Pod Delusion, Lay Science & Skepchicken

As you probably know I am an habitual contributor to the excellent Pod Delusion Podcast. My involvement was somewhat fortuitous, I just happened to be watching my twitter feed when James O’Malley sent out a tweet requesting volunteers to contribute some material.

The Podcast certainly seems to have been quite well received. I noticed we are on the New and Noteworthy front page of iTunes, and today Shalinee Singh sent me that attached snap from Time Out London who have bestowed upon us the honour of “Podcast Of The Week”. This week's is especially good BTW, even though I’m not on it and we’ve had to resort to interviewing the crazy atheist bus lady.

Anyway, all of the contributors to the Pod Delusion bring something to the table, and while we have a connected broad philosophy, we can all bring a bit of originality and different perspectives and ideas to the podcast. However, without demeaning any individual contributor, I suspect it would be hard for any one person to cover the diverse section of subjects in such detail on a weekly basis, as we are able to accomplish as a group.

This model is also now followed by the excellent Lay Science blog. Despite the success of Martin Robbins as a solo blogger, I’ll wager his new format with multiple writers allows him to reach the parts other science blogs just can't reach.

Perhaps I’m a bit late in realising this method, but it seems to me that one of the secrets to the successful promotion of Science, Reason and Critical thinking is to work together with like-minded people. However, there’s one great skeptical website that worked this out ages ago, screen shot of their blog below. [Click image to embiggen]

Sunday 22 November 2009

More Reasons Why Malcolm Tucker Should Be The Next Dr. Who

Richard Dawkins, Charles Darwin & Jack of Kent

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Dawkins latest book, The Greatest Show On Earth, far superior to the commercially successful God Delusion. Anyhoo, the purpose of this post is not to attempt to review the book, just to pass comment on the final two chapters that I polished off last night.

Throughout the book Dawkins presents an arsenal of evidence, all of which gracefully converges to support Darwin’s elegant theory of natural selection as the mechanism for the fact of evolution. Each little bullet of evidence on its own is sufficient to demolish any suggestion of creationism or intelligent design. Yet, The Greatest Show on Earth acts as Dawkins Gatling gun, shredding the notion of Intelligent Design to pieces in a shower critical thinking.

The penultimate chapter focuses on the evolutionary arms race, and is one of my particular favourite chapters. As such I wanted to simply cut and paste two short paragraphs verbatim from the book.

One thing about arms races that might worry enthusiasts for intelligent design is the heavy dose of futility that loads them down. If we are going to postulate a designer of the cheetah, he has evidently put every ounce of his designing expertise into the task of perfecting a superlative killer. One look at that magnificent running machine leaves us in no doubt. The cheetah, if we are going to talk design at all, is superbly designed for killing gazelles. But the very same designer has equally evidently strained every nerve to design a gazelle that is superbly equipped to escape from those very same cheetahs. For heaven's sake, whose side is the designer on? When you look at the cheetah's taut muscles and flexing backbone, you must conclude that the designer wants the cheetah to win the race. But when you look at the sprinting, jinking, dodging gazelle, you reach exactly the opposite conclusion. Does the designer's left hand not know what his right hand is doing? Is he a sadist, who enjoys the spectator sport and is forever upping the ante on both sides to increase the thrill of the chase? Did He who made the lamb make thee?

Is it really part of the divine plan that the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the lion eat straw like the ox? In that case, what price the formidable carnassial teeth, the murderous claws of the lion and the leopard? Whence the breathtaking speed and agile escapology of the antelope and the zebra? Needless to say, no such problems arise on the evolutionary interpretation of what is going on. Each side is struggling to outwit the other because, on both sides, those individuals who succeed will automatically pass on the genes that contributed to their success. Ideas of 'futility' and 'waste' spring to our minds because we are human, and capable of looking at the welfare of the whole ecosystem. Natural selection cares only for the survival and reproduction of individual genes.

The Final Chapter however suggests to me that Mr Dawkins has been spending some time perusing the Jack of Kent blog.

In true Jack of Kent style, Dawkins lays out the final paragraph of Darwin’s masterwork, On The Origin Of Species:

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

He then takes each section of each sentence in turn and subjects it to his critical analysis to determine the unequivocal meaning of the text and the underlining thoughts and ideas of the author.

Super stuff.

Friday 20 November 2009

What do Forteans think of Skeptics?

Well, according to a recent article in the Fortean Times, Skeptics are also known as "Debunkers" or "Deniers". So with that complete misapprehension on what a skeptic is, here is a transcript from that Fortean Times article entitled: FBI Fortean Bureau of Investigation: 101 UK Spectics' 2009 Conference, Muncaster by Peter Brookesmith

The haunted castle of Muncaster in Cumbria has been in the Pennington family for some eight centuries. The castle and its estate are wonderfully maintained and have the most spectacular prospect of the mountains that hem in the English lakes. The place also has enough spooks to keep you awake for far longer than a weekend flying visit.

Muncaster has long been known as the haunt of King Henry VI (who during the Wars of the Roses hid out here after the major defeat of the Lancastrian forces at Hexham in 1464), and the ghost of an apprentice carpenter who had his head hacked off while asleep - and so naturally carries it about with him on his jaunts. The 16th century castle jester Tom Skelton, is believed to haunt the place too, and has a reputation for playing poltish pranks on those he takes against or whom he considers a threat to the Pennington family's interests. It was he who, on orders from Sir Ferdinand Pennington, loyally decapitated the luckless 'prentice, who had got above his station with the laird's daughter Helwise; so it goes. Then there is the white garbed ghost of the reputedly foul·mouthed Mary Bragg - a local girl who in the 19th century was hanged from the castle's main gate by drunken yobs. There is even a spook cat: a lion, no less, shot in Kenya by the last Lord Muncaster, has reportedly been heard growling while sauntering about the place at dusk.

Perhaps the most interesting of Muncaster's creepy stories centre on the Tapestry Room. There are huge, complex, magnetic anomalies within the room itself, and the mattress on the bed lies on a sheet of chain mail, which itself has become magnetised. The focus of the anomalies in the room happens to coincide with the position of a guest's head upon the pillow. Those sleeping in the room have reported hearing the persistent weeping of a child, a woman's voice singing, and mysterious footsteps; seeing the door open of its own accord; and feeling themselves pat led by invisible hands. Some even say they have been hurled from the bed.

Dr Jason Braithwaite, of Birmingham University, who describes himself as a brain scientist, has been investigating the room since the 1995. He says, as a good scientist would, that the reports of hauntings and the physical anomalies might be unconnected. There are a number of ideas, some of them double blind experiments, in the pipeline to test this. One of Dr Braithwaite's fellow researchers told us a nice tale of following someone up the stairs (all he could see was her legs; he assumed it was a member of the team on the premises at the time) to the Tapestry Room. Another researcher was already in the room. He saw a dark blue form enter and then seem to envelop him, before vanishing. Then the first researcher came in, and was suitably surprised not to see the person he thought he was following upstairs. If that isn't enough, there was a third person in the Tapestry Room at the time, who saw nothing at all. Pick the bones out of that if you can. Stout-hearted Hazel Muir (who was there to report on the conference for New Scientist) and her partner Tim Brown spent Saturday night in the room, jus' fer the crack, as it were. Sadly, nothing more unusual happened than Tim being kept awake because his back was giving him gyp.

Perhaps because he's known the Pennington family for years or, pel' haps, with a more ironic or provocative intent, Dr Braithwaite (who with Dr Wendy Cousins and John Jackson organised the event) thought this an excellent location for the UK Skeptics' 2009 conference, It was indeed, for one of their intentions was explicitly not to lay on a self-gratifying schmooze at which 'skeptics' (a.k.a. debunkers or deniers) [My Emphasis] could reinforce their sense of being supremely rational, superior to benighted proles. and generally the last hope of a ruinous age.

Rather, the organisers meant this to be an opportunity for those genuine sceptics, who want no more than to know what really lies behind reports of unexplained events, to exchange views and information with those with more faith in the anomalousness of anomalies but who are trying to find some hard evidence that weird things really do happen. The speakers represented a pretty fair cross-section of this population, and more work was probably done amiably exchanging views in after-hours gassing and drinking than in presentations and panel sessions. Which is how it should be. And the audience included a number of people generally committed to 'the paranormal' but ready to consider materialist or scientific interpretations. This contingent may of may not have had something of the night about them, but they had phenomenal stamina when it came to the small hours of the morning ...

When it came to official business, there wasn't a dull presentation among them. Some speakers dealt with problems in so detailed and subtle a manner that it's impossible to do them justice here. David Wilde and Dr Christine Mohr, for instance, gave intriguing talks on out-of-body experiences and near-death experiences. Mr Wilde seems to have encountered people who regarded their OBEs as revelatory (territory usually reserved for NDEers), but not to have noticed how unusual this is. Dr Mohr offered much evidence to suggest that OBEs are related to confusions at the temporo-parietal junction in the brain as it tries to process information about a person's physicai co-ordinates in space.

In contrast, Dr Wendy Cousins skimmed over the peculiar and fascinating relationship between 19th-century scientists and the bizarre goings-on in spiritualist seance halls. As I learned out-of-hours, Dr Cousins is steeped in this stuff and could probably have had the gathering's eyes even further out on stalks than they already went, for hours. So, for me, her talk ended about a day too soon.

One of the most intriguing papers was given by Karen Douglas, on conspiracy theorists, wondering like many among us what kind of person seriously entertains hard-core conspiracy beliefs. She had tested a number of people for their Machiavellian outlook (there is a well-established protocol for this) and cross-related the results to their sympathy for conspiracies. And lo, most people with devious political tendencies also go for conspiracy theories.

She then examined this sub-group, in effect asking them if, given the need and the opportunity, they would fake Moon landings, assassinate heads of state, do deals with aliens, and so on. And yes, most of them would. Dr Douglas didn't say so outright, but one might conclude from this finding that conspiracies don't so much appeal to particular individuals, as reflect, and perhaps objectify, their own outlook. It's as if, subconsciously, they are saying to themselves "I'd do that - therefore that's what they're doing."

While forteans should be glad that gatherings of this nature can occur, they should be gladder yet to hear the words of Jason Braithwaite as he kicked off the conference, and of Prof. Chris French, who's often misperceived as a dyed-in-the wool debunker, in his keynote speech. Broth had fascinating tales to tell of how the brain (or the mind) can fool itself and us. Probably as a consequence of knowing these things, both took the view that the null hypothesis in investigating apparently paranormal and anomalous phenomena should be that a scientifically explicable (or at least recognisable), 'normal' rather than paranormal set of circumstances is at work. There are literally billions of connections in the neural networks of the brain: any of them can disconnect or misconnect at any time, so no wonder we all occasionally have bizarre experiences, and some have them more than others. This approach doesn't exclude paranormal explanations: it simply asks that scientists exhaust their options before adding further hypotheses to their adumbrations.

Thus Jason Braithwaite's remark that one should beware of paranormal 'explanations' because they involve a vast number of unexamined assumptions, fell happily into the porches of mine ears. But he made the more penetrating point that simply because science can't (or doesn't bother to, I thought) explain some anomalous experiences, it's illogical to 'explain' them by calling them paranormal. Most refreshing though was his comment that the ultra-skeptical dismissal of weird experiences as merely 'all in the mind' was often intended as the end of the story, whereas it should be the start of a conversation. Likewise, Chris French commented that anomalous psychology shouldn't be seen as agaillst parapsychology, but as another way of trying to "see if there's anything there. Whatever we find out still tells us a lot about our own psychology." All this echoes what a group of British forteans have been saying among themselves for years.

Drs Braithwaite and French also stressed the power of context and prior beiief in interpreting odd experiences. Given a widespread perception of 'creepiness' in Muncaster's Tapestry Room, people are primed to translate the mundane into the spooky. Given that rock music is intrinsically wicked, some people will be able to discern Satanic messages therein, as long as the music is played backwards. It would have been good to have a social scientist or an anthropologist or al least a psycho-socialist anomalist on stage to broaden the discussion of this aspect of things, for 'context' is a word with a wide reach. Such a contributor could also have shaded in Chris French's rather simplistic ascription of alien-abduction experiences to sleep paralysis. The conundrum has many more triggers than that.

The next UK Skeptics' conference is loosely scheduled for 2011. Seats are extremely limited, but forteans should be there if they can.


NB For my definition of skeptic see this old post here

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Hampshire Skeptics

I have been talking to Dave from the Hampshire Skeptics Society with a view to setting up a “Skeptics in the Pub” in Hampshire in the near future.

We need to ensure that we have a suitable audience so if you live in or around Hampshire and would be interested in attending a Hampshire SitP event, please register on the Hampshire Skeptics society group and/or join the Hampshire Skeptics group on Facebook.

More information soon when we’ve selected a suitable pub and formalised a few speakers.

Friday 13 November 2009

MRI Brain Scan

Ever since the human brain evolved a conscious understanding of itself, its inner workings have been a cause of fascination and intrigue. Recent scientific developments in Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) have started to allow neurologists a glimpse at what is going on inside the human brain. By combining the MRI technology with recent software developments, Science, Reason and Critical Thinking are now able to bring you exclusive new video footage revealing startling new evidence in the understanding on male psychology.

The Pod Delusion: Episode 9

This week:
EXCLUSIVE: Skeptical Voter Launch (0:49) by Richard Wilson
Glenn Beck 1990 (3:45) by Salim Fadhley
Hollywood Skepticism (9:54) by Jon Treadway
Skepticism vs Denial (16:00) by Crispian Jago
Downloading TV (20:57) by Mark Thompson
Large Hadron Collider (25:49) by Professor Wilhelm Howells

And here's the link to the Skeptical Voter website mentioned in the podcast

God Aid

I have just been watching this recent Intelligence squared debate, recorded at Methodist Central Hall on Monday 19th October. The motion: “The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world” was supported by Anne Widdecombe MP and Archbishop John Onaiyekan and most eloquently and deftly opposed by Archatheist Christopher Hitches and National Treasure, Stephen Fry.

If you have seen the video or read the reports you will already know that it was a complete rout for the Enlightenment with Widdecombe and Onaiyekan receiving a damn good verbal kicking. A boxing referee may well have shown pity and called a halt to the proceedings after round 2, but Zeinab Badawi allowed the punch drunk Catholics to cling on to the ropes for the duration.

I was of course, delighted to hear Hitchens and Fry drawing attention to the long list of unequivocal harm proliferated and condoned by the Catholic Church, both in its long history and indeed now. And I was of course unsurprised that the Catholic apologists where unable to justify the inhumane actions of their Church and disappointed that they were also unwilling to apologise for them.

Despite a resounding victory for free thought in the final vote of the evening, I wanted to ensure that the one positive point offered by Widdecombe and Onaiyekan was not simply ignored in the heat of the battle.

The strongest argument put forward from the Catholic camp to support the motion was the undeniable massive amount of much needed aid and charity supplied by the Church. However, before looking at this, allow me to backtrack a few hundred years.

When the church had a complete strangle hold on society, it was free to bolster its numbers in foreign parts and spread the good word with a good old fashioned Crusade. Thankfully, in these enlightened times the majority of us can see the immorality in such an approach. If however the term Crusade still holds a little romance for you, try substituting it for Jihad, as its true meaning is much clearer when not blurred by you own particular belief system.

Eventually replacing crusades with missionary work seemed to provide a more acceptable non-violent evangelism for spreading the gospel to those not fortunate enough to have been born into the one true faith. Although once again with modern eyes we can see how breaking Star Trek’s prime directive is not especially wise, and interfering with local cultures and superstitions to simply replace them with alternative foreign myths and dogmas is not an especially virtuous occupation.

Today’s missionary work proceeds by wrapping much needed aid, desperately required in the developing world, in a religious package. This may superficially seem like a pretty good deal. Food, money and education can be distributed by compassionate well meaning individuals where it is most needed along with a message of an all loving God than may also bring hope to many people.

Sadly however, I suspect the God packaging that accompanies this aid is not as benign as we would hope. Seeding the currently dominant western religion spreads the doctrines and creeds based on the myths and superstitious at the root of that religion. An ancient revealed truth is by definition problematic to update in line with the modern world and therefore frequently at odds with liberal thinking, gender equality, tolerance and the extended morality embraced by a more progressive secular society.

To draw an analogy, I recall a conversation many years ago with a religious friend who explained to me why she was boycotting all Nestle products. She explained how their policy of providing free formula milk to new mothers in the third world provided useful and immediate benefit but in the long term created a troublesome dependency.

While some religious aid may well be distributed without strings attached, there is nonetheless a certain amount of religious packaging to much of the aid. The spread of these ideas must surely be the cause in many of the current problems experienced in the developing world.

To give two short examples:

A local Nigerian priest denouncing a 5 year old child as a witch due to his religious delusion rather than a logical understanding of causation and correlation is sadly far from an isolated event. This report from the Telegraph details how hundreds of children have been branded as witches, and before being pushed out of their homes, have been beaten, slashed with knives, thrown onto fires or had acid poured over them in an attempt to make them confess to being possessed by demons. A harrowing echo of the Inquisition in our own pre-enlightened times and a direct consequence of a warped religious mindset.

And of course, as Ann Widdecombe will be expecting me to mention, the papal misinformation concerning his supposedly infallible claim that condoms actually contribute to the spread of the HIV Aids virus. I could not think of a more fatally dangerous meme to propagate in countries rife with the HIV virus.

In the Intelliegence2 debate, Hitchens and Fry held a strong set of trump cards that made it virtually impossible for them to loose the debate in front of a rational thinking audience. But why not ensure that Rationality and Reason hold the full set of the trump cards.

I’m somewhat embarrassed by the fact that pious believers can point at comparatively miserly levels of secular aid. Can we not strive to ensure we gradually increase the level of no strings attached, non religious aid offered. I’ve no wish for people to withdraw their support for a religious charity if they don’t replace it with an equivalent secular donation. But hopefully more people will eventually want to donate for humanitarian reasons rather than religious reasons, and I think things are indeed moving in that direction.

So finally, a hat-tip to Ariane Sherine, who recently edited the delightful, The Atheists Guide to Christmas, a book whose proceeds will go to the Terrence Higgins Trust, and hopefully in some way counter the harm caused by Papal Propaganda.

Sunday 8 November 2009

Goldacre Launches New Product Range ...

Can simply switching from butter to low-fat spreads sort out all of your weight and cholesterol problems?

Friday 6 November 2009

How Did I Get Here?

We can all trace our lives back through arbitrary chance events where a seemingly unimportant simple choice may had lead to an entirely different life. If I hadn't have taken the day off work on Monday 10th December 1984, I wouldn't have met my wife, and subsequently I wouldn't have my children or any of the things most precious to me now.

I thought I'd ponder for a few moments on how I came to be writing a blog on Science, Reason and Critical Thinking and retrace the chance events that lead me here. As with the above example on how I met my wife, there were a number of chance occurrences that begat other chances. I traced things back to the first modern "science" book that I read as a result of the disillusionment experienced on the Alpha course.

This lead to various other science books and eventually a Michael Shermer book, which lead me to the Skeptic magazine. It was this magazine that introduced me to the "Skepticality" podcast which is at the root of much of my current reading, listening, meetings and nights out.

Here's a clumsy diagram outlining some of the key books, podcasts, websites, events and organisations that got me to where I am now. NB If there's any unfamiliar names or logos on the diagram then I highly recommend checking it out.
NB By drawing things out it seems to identify a number of podcasts, namely "Skepticality", "The Skeptic Guide To The Universe" and "Little Atoms", and the monthly Skeptics in the Pub meetings that really need to be held responsible for this blog.

Wednesday 4 November 2009

God Spam

It’s most frustrating when my inbox’s fills up with emails offering me the best deals on little blue pills or informing me that I need to buy some herbal magic to make my cock bigger. In fact, not only is it frustrating, it’s a bloody nuisance. I have to waste my time and effort sifting through my emails looking for important stuff and often missing useful information or have genuine emails mistakenly junked by my spam filters.

Although I like to promote my blog, I ensure I only pimp it to a target audience of people who have opted to follow me on Twitter or are Facebook friends. As I do not want my inbox filling up with unsolicited messages about blogs I am not interested in, I think it inconsiderate to spam other people at random with the hope of spreading the good news of science, reason and critical thinking.

Sadly many others don’t show such consideration and rather bizarrely, I’ve recently been getting an increasing amount of unwelcomed Christian spam. It started off with spam emails offering the services of Christian dating sites. With the implied pious emphasis on meeting more genuine and decent people on a Christian dating site.

Then I started getting spam emails about Christian debt consolidation services. Again with the implied emphasis that they can offer a much better deal to a moral trustworthy upstanding Christian than they can to the heathen population at large.

Then this morning I got some Christian spam offering me great deals on a selection of new bibles. I am now regularly receiving considerable quantities of extremely poorly targeted nuisance, sanctimonious God spam in my inbox.

Perhaps these emails originate from habitual generic spammers with no care for the content of their message, sent on behalf of dodgy companies wishing to exploit a Christian marketplace who are perceived as being more likely to purchase a product or service emblazed with the logo of their chosen deity.

Or perhaps the spam has originated from a religious community so blinded by their ideology and anxious to spread their word and fill their coffers that they fail to see the immorality in spamming their nonsense to the disinterested.

Either way, I wish they’d pack it in.

Sunday 1 November 2009

Jenny McCarthy: Body Count - Video

Derek Bartholomaus' excellent web site does a superb job of outlining the harm caused by the anti-vaccination rhetoric spouted by Jenny McCarthy.

I've cobbled together the following video to highlight some of the key information taken from Derek's "Jenny McCarthy Body Count" web site and Dr. Steven Novella's blog post regarding vaccines and autism.

You could argue that, like Jenny McCarthy, I am not suitably qualified to comment on the efficacy and dangers associated with vaccines. That's why I base my opinions on scientific evidence and the vast overall medical expertise supporting the use of vaccines rather than relying on my "daddy" instinct and anecdotal cases based on confusion of causation and correlation.

Music is by Santana, and is owned or licensed by Sony Music Entertainment and as a result this video will not be available in Germany, but I've used it anyway as I thought it was a jolly good fit.