Friday 2 December 2011

Make Your Very Own Clarksonator

To make your very own Clarksonator, you will need:

  • 3 Sheets of Paper
  • Some Cardboard
  • 2 brass paper fasteners
  • Scissors
  • Stapler
  • Pritt Stick
  • A Sharp Pencil
  • A Computer and Printer
  • A Sense of Humour
  • Time on Your Hands
  • Poor Taste

  1. Print out the above Clarksonator and paste it onto a sheet of thin cardboard.
  2. Cut out a second piece of card the same size to use for the backing.
  3. Cut out the rectangular windows in the front card. You may need to get James May to help you with this bit.
  4. Print out the "Target Wheel" below and paste it onto some card and cut it into a circle.
  5. Using the sharp pencil, make a hole in the centre of the "Target Wheel" and another hole where indicated on the Clarksonator.
  6. Insert the "Target Wheel" between the front and back of the Clarksonator and push the paper fastener through. Open out the fastener at the back and ensure the wheel spins correctly.
  7. Next print out the "Retribution Wheel" shown below and paste it to some cardboard and insert it into the Clarksonator.
  8. Staple the edges of the Clarksonator ensuring not to staple the wheels.
Target Wheel
Retribution Wheel

"The Clarksonator works a treat, the other day I saw some vegetarians, so I consulted my Clarksonator and told them that they should be made into pies and eaten by John Prescott. It was really funny, me and Hammond laughed about it for hours"
James May, Broadcaster

Monday 21 November 2011

Tasty Boxer Short Recipes for Prof. Jim Al-Khalili

Despite further experiments at CERN confirming that neutrinos have travelled faster than the speed of light; the scientific community remain a trifle sceptical and still unwilling to resign Einstein’s theory of special relativity to bin just yet.

Nonetheless Prof Jim Al-Khalili, who famously boasted that he would “eat his boxer shorts” if anything travels faster than the speed of light, must surely be eyeing his undercrackers with unpalatable suspicion.

To this end our crack team of particle physicists here at Science, Reason and Critical Thinking have teamed up with top comedy chef Heston Blumenthal, to help alleviate Jim’s woes. In the highly unlikely event that Einstein’s theory turns out to be as much use as Anne Frank’s drum kit, our team have prepared a selection of gourmet recipes for Jim to choose from…


Spiced undercrackers stuffed with braised plums

Deep fried garlic butter shreddies in a tempura batter with trimmed leeks and flat leaf parsley

Tacklebags and coriander fritters with halloumi and sweet lemon dressing

Tandorri kecks in mini pitas with a yoghurt mint dressing


Baked underchunders with red onions stuffed with toasted spiced couscous

Trolleys tart tatin with shaved manchego and rocket

Peppered underdaks with a whisky sauce 

Smoked dung collectors kedgeree

Roast grundies, caramelised apple wedges with a broccoli and mustard jus

Bon Appetit

Saturday 19 November 2011

Beware the Paramyth

What’s the fastest growing form of woo woo in Britain today?
  • Is it perhaps those brash rambunctious religionists at the more happy-clappy end of the spiritual spectrum?
  • Is it the quack army and their ever-growing canon of inefficacious alternative therapies?
  • Is it psychics and ghosts hunters who’ve plummeted lowbrow TV to new depths?
  • Is it the mind-body-spirit brigade of Newage nutters and neopagan fruitcakes who reject formal religion in order to fanny about with their own personalised spiritual delusions?
I suspect not. I would like to propose a new contender that as far as I’m aware, hasn’t even got a specific name yet, so let me try and explain it.

There is a new wave of modern myths sweeping the country that although diverse in nature have a common theme. At the heart of each of these myths is a tiny conspiracy theory that panders to our tabloid fuelled fears that those with different views, traditions and ideas to us, are influencing policies that will bring about the downfall of our traditional way of life.

These paranoid myths (paramyths?) may have a grain of truth at their centre, but have been exaggerated to become outright lies that spread like wild fire by uncritical paramythers more anxious to propagate their ideological agendas than check the facts.

Let me give you a few examples to explain what I’m talking about:

Yesterday my wife was talking to the man on the checkout tills at Asda about opening times over the Christmas period. She was told that Asda would be closed on Christmas Day, but would be open on Boxing Day. Not because of cooperate greed or because that in all probability the other supermarkets in our area will also open on Boxing day but:
“Because of the Muslims.”
No further explanation was necessary. We all know the secret Muslim agenda to turn our beloved Christian country into another Islamic State.

Here’s another example: earlier this week the Telegraph ran with this headline:
BBC drops Frozen Planet's climate change episode to sell show better abroad
We all know that those gas-guzzling Yanks put their head in the sand at the first mention of man-made climate change. Why else then would the BBC not package this episode up for sale with the rest of the series?

During the 2010 Football World Cup I remember my kids reporting on a rumour that was making its way around the school yard and virally spreading through facebook that:
Pubs ban England Shirts
And a tabloid newspaper championed our cause to fly St George’s Flag in the face of the forces who apparently sought to ban such things.

Again needling the fans to unproportionately act against an ever-popular paper-selling anti-English conspiracy lie. Steven Baxter has a much more reasoned investigation here:

Even a government minister (admittedly one of the more stupid ones) has been sucked in by these paramyths. At this years Conservative Party Conference the Home Secretary, Theresa May, came out with this howler:
The illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because – and I am not making this up – he had a pet cat."
Theresa May may not have made it up, but some paramyth peddling pillock did, and she uncritically bought it.

But of course the perennial paramyth that always starts to kick off around this time each year is Melanie Philips’ favourite, The Winterval Myth.

I suspect these examples may just be the tip of the iceberg. It’s therefore high time we picked up our burning pitchforks and headed off on our crusade against the paramythers*.

When it comes to hanging monkeys, there are an awful lot of would be Hartlepudlians out there.

*A more suitable name may be substituted if someone comes up with a better one.

Friday 18 November 2011

It’s Skeptical Correctness Gone Mad

Go on, admit it, you all think that Psychic Sally is a big fat fraud.

However, the majority of skeptics and rational commentators on the recent tribulations of the ever so lovely  Sally Morgan have gone out of their way to make it perfectly clear that they are absolutely not accusing her of being a fraud. And I too would like to make it quite clear up front to everyone, including Sally’s legal team, that I’m not making that allegation either.

We all know perfectly well that we cannot scientifically disprove Sally’s psychic claims any more than we can disprove Bertrand Russell’s celestial teapot or Carl Sagan’s garage dwelling dragon. The likelihood of Sally’s mystic abilities being supernatural powers currently unknown to science are roughly equivalent to the likelihood of spontaneous heavenly crockery. Indeed the possibility any self proclaimed psychic has genuine paranormal powers are as close to zero as makes no odds, but it is nonetheless important to concede that it’s not an absolute impossibility. It therefore doesn’t seem at all unreasonable to transfer the burden of proof onto Sally, and kindly invite her to prove her mystical abilities under scientifically controlled conditions.

Sally may well be many things, but one think she is clearly not, is a complete and utter fuckwit. She knows as well as we do that the seemingly inexplicable phenomena seen in her stage shows will not manifest themselves under tightly controlled test conditions. She also knows as well as we do that it is not possible to empirically disprove her claims through the scientific method, so it’s hardly surprising that her response is simply to bat the burden of proof back to the skeptical community.


This deadlocked situation seems to have spawned a set of almost creed-like clichés resonating around the sceptical community. How often have you heard phrases along the lines of?
“Sally may well have genuine psychic abilities; we just want to give her the opportunity to prove her powers beyond all reasonable doubt.”
The sceptical community are reduced to pussyfooting around the big name psychics being ultra careful not to explicitly claim they are frauds (apart from clear cut cases like Peter Popoff).

The preferred tactic seems to be hopelessly goading them into proving their claimed abilities under controlled conditions like the James Randi Million Dollar Challenge with more clichés like:
“We would love for Sally to prove that she has genuine psychic abilities as it would be one of the most monumental scientific discoveries in history”
But would we truly be thrilled and delighted if a psychic were to pass a controlled test? Would we set to work rewriting the science books straight away in the light of this truly astounding new observation? Or would we not still be a little sceptical? Would we be reluctant to immediately overturn a wealth of negative data in the light of a new freak positive? It would certainly be a fascinating discovery that would warrant in depth inquiry, but with extreme caution.

But of course these offers of a potential scientific paradigm shift and the possibility of bringing psychic investigation into the realms of credible science are meaningless carrots, dangled in the safe knowledge that we all know its just a load of old bunkum and cheap parlour tricks really.

Bunkum it almost certainly is, but it’s hard to hammer the point home when restricted by the unwritten rules of sceptical correctness.

Perhaps there is another way. Perhaps it’s just a matter of giving the psychics enough rope and waiting. In the last episode of Derren Brown’s recent series “The Experiments” he conducted an experiment in to luck by seeding a made up rumour of a lucky dog statue. The rumour quickly spread around the local townsfolk and eventually drew the interests of Psychic Sally herself who credulously proclaimed that the statute was standing at the centre of “a vortex of energy”.

This looks like a much better way of exposing bullshit, and helping the public avoid treading in it.

Well spotted commenters, I did mean to include something about self delusion. Just read fraud in its broadest terms covering both conscious and self deluded.

Saturday 5 November 2011

Skeptics in the Planetarium

The Hampshire Skeptics Society cordially invite you to join them on the 8th of December, 2011 at Winchester's premier nightspot*, Intech Science Centre and Planetarium!

We are immensely proud to announce that we will be joined by the following esteemed guests:

Sheila Kanani - Mullard Space Science Laboratory

Sheila is a PhD student at UCL (Mullard Space Science Laboratory) who, when not building spacecraft like the Cassini Probe, analysing the data from such probes before anyone else on the planet gets to see it, inspiring the next generation of UK physicists and teaching at Space School UK , likes to unwind by entertaining the masses at events such as Bright Club and Spacetacular!.

Helen Arney - Physicist, Festival of the Spoken Nerd, musical comedian, all round good egg

For anyone that attended this years sell-out Uncaged Monkeys tour, Helen needs no introduction. Unless of course you suffer from short term memory syndrome. In which case; brilliant! You are going to enjoy Helen's set even more as every song will break over you like the first flush of love and each, frankly, disgusting aside will make you blush like a sixteen year old debutante who has accidentally stumbled upon her fathers secret cake stash. If you would like a sneak preview, check out Helen's fantastic work here.

Helen Keen - Space Enthusiast! Robot Enthusiast! Tea Enthusiast! Survivalist!

Quite frankly how we managed to blag an appearance from Helen, now that she is the comedian in residence at Newcastle's Centre for Life and following her hit Radio 4 show It IS Rocket Science is beyond me although our threat to release the compromising video of her throwing a diva hissy fit and smacking long suffering writing partner Miriam Underhill across the upper arms until she cried, may have something to with it (Thanks Kash, I owe you one buddy!).

Robin Ince - Science Groupie, Scientist Herder, President of the Richard Feynman Appreciation Society

I don't need to even write anything here, do I? If you don't appreciate how amazing it is that Robin is joining us this evening then you are dead to me, dead...

We will have a fully licensed bar and some really cheap food and if we ask Dr. Jenny Shipway really nicely she may even put on a planetarium show for us all on a night that promises to be one you will never forget!**

*(If looking up at the stars is your thing)
**(Short term memory syndrome - see Helen Arney) 

Many thanks to James Thomas for arraigning the venue and special guests and providing the above text.

We also plan to be publishing a new exciting calendar of speakers for 2012 at Winchester Skeptics in the Pub here soon.

Wednesday 2 November 2011

The Hitchhiker's Guide To Religion

Religion: Some information to help you live with it.

Religion is farfetched. Really farfetched. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly farfetched it is. I mean, you may think it's fairly improbable that fairies exist, but that's just peanuts to religion. Listen ….

The Messiah

The Encyclopaedia Galactica defines a Messiah as
“A humanoid deity designed to suffer the sins of man”
The marketing division of the Holy Roman Catholic Church describe a Messiah as:
 "Your Pretend Pal Who's Fun To Be With."
Curiously enough an edition of the Encyclopaedia Galactica that fell through a temporal python warp from 1979 defined the Messiah as:
 “A very naughty boy”

The Christian Fish

Pan Galactic Communion Wine

To make your own Pan Galactic Communion Wine:

Take the blood from one body of that Ol' Christ Spirit after muttering a few magic spells over some cheap red plonk.

Add a wafer.

Drink, but very unquestioningly.

The effect is like having your brain washed by a slice of theology wrapped round a large logical impossibility.

Islamic Sermons

Islamic sermons are of course, the third worst in the universe. The second worst is that of the Jews of Israel. During a recitation by their chief Rabbi Yona Metzger the Groper of his sermon "Ode To A Signature I Forged One Mid Summer Morning" four of his audience suffered severe groping and the women suffered sexual harassment. Yona was reported to have denied the allegations and claimed it was a violation of the basic human rights enjoyed by every individual. The very worst sermons of all are by Anne Atkins and are aired on The Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 during Thought for the Day.

Apologies to the great DNA.

Wednesday 26 October 2011

How Many Festival Tents Does it Take to Close a Cathedral?

Q: How Many Festival Tents Does it Take to Close a Cathedral?
A: About 97

I know this because during my lunch break I left my warm office on the South Bank, trip-trapped over the Millennium Bridge and walked up the magnificent front steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, completely unimpeded.

I stood near the top of the easily accessible, completely unobstructed front steps and did a quick recce of the small array of tightly packed dome tents at one side of the foot of the steps. A quick tot-up from my vantage point revealed around 97 tents (not counting the additional protesters hidden out of sight around the side of the Cathedral).

The tents were fronted up by a small number of quiet, well-mannered protesters who were significantly outnumbered by films crews, press photographers, curious onlookers, opportunistic leafleters and intrepid bloggers on their lunch break.

Firstly, I have to congratulate the protestors for peacefully and safely invoking their right to free speech and effectively raising the awareness of the Occupy The City campaign  (#OccupyLSX), whilst being far less obstructive to the Cathedral visitors than the normal £14.50 admission charge.

However, as worthy as this campaign may well be, this blog is more concerned with the irrational knee-jerk behaviour of the Cathedral’s custodians. Whether the church officials acted on undisclosed health and safety grounds or were simply worried that church visitors might be exposed to the forces of liberal free-thought as a valid alternative to unquestionable authoritarianism is unclear, but either way they chose to make their stand and close the Cathedral. As time goes by and it becomes clearer that a wrong decision has been made, the Bishop of London has had to call for the protestors to move on to save themselves the embarrassment of admitting they were wrong to close the Cathedral in the first place.

I’m rather hoping that the protestors will dig their heels in, as the deafening silence of the Cathedral tills is likely to spur the church officials into action. Of course all that is really required is for the church officials to simply hold up their hands up and re-evaluate their hasty closure decision. However, despite plenty of practise at it, the church are still not especially good at admitting when they're wrong, but perhaps they can find a weaselly way of reversing their decision and attempting to save face.

But the interesting thing we have discovered is that it turns out to be far easier to close down a Cathedral than anyone suspected. I’m not especially anxious to close down Cathedrals, but I am always terribly excited at yet another opportunity to expose the frequently inherent irrationally of religious leaders.

So armed with the useful information that it takes less than 100 strategically positioned small festival tents to bring a major Cathedral to its knees, it might be time to extrapolate again.

As there are 42 Cathedrals in the United Kingdom, and assuming that the church officials for each Cathedral are as stupid as those at St Paul’s, then it will take a mere 4,074 happy campers to close down every Cathedral in the land on Sunday morning.

So, anyone fancy a camping trip this weekend?

Normally I’d love to join you, but I’ve actually got a rather nice Hotel booked this weekend. Solidarity Brothers.

(Oh, and Sisters, sorry Loretta).


If perchance you would prefer some quality investigative journalism to my vitriolic catcalling, I would highly recommend a visit to my good friend David’s Blog over on the New Statesman where he has fairly and intelligently dissected the whole sorry affair.

Tuesday 18 October 2011

What Must The Catholic Church Do To Finally Concede The Moral High Ground?

Whist morality is an innate human quality with evolutionary advantages, it was nonetheless well shepherded in early cultural development by religion. Although we now have a better understanding of the natural origins of morality and are more than capable of being good without god, tradition and culture still maintain the now defunct association between religion and morality. So much so that as soon as we suspect a moral decline the first port of call for the press and media is always a priest or bishop to point us in the right moral direction. We install Bishops in the House of Lords to ensure a moral health-check on new legislation and we religiously broadcast platitudes on the Radio 4's Today programme just to keep our moral compasses in check. Tradition, culture and public opinion will simply not accept the uncoupled status of religion and morality.

To their credit though, the Catholic Church have been working very hard to clearly demonstrate this misconnect. We are familiar with the church's institutionalised child abuse and habitual cover ups, we’re familiar with the frequent homophobia, the antiquated suppression of women and the unforgivable deadly sexual health misinformation. But the vast majority of us still refuse to let the church step down from the moral high ground.

Today sees a new low in Catholic immorality as the secret of Spain’s stolen babies is finally revealed. Parents considered “undesirable” or morally or economically deficient by priests, nuns and doctors were told their babies had died so that they could be placed with “approved” families.

Despite the revelation of this latest scandal (which the Catholic Church is of course at the heart of), I have no doubts that we will still be encouraged to look up to these child traffickers for our moral guidance.

I’ll wager that even if the Vatican installed gas chambers and ovens in St Peter’s Basilica and invaded Poland, we would still be wheeling in a priest to give us a good talking to on our depraved morality.

Saturday 1 October 2011

When Will The Church of England Shut Up Shop For The Last Time?

It’s that fun time again when the Office of National Statistics release a whole bunch of completely unsurprising figures that the newspapers can spin to reflect whatever point of view they suspect will sell the most papers. I might as well add my own biased spin to counter the Daily Mail's arse dribble.

In 2011, 68.5% of the UK population apparently identified themselves as Christian, compared to 71.3 % the previous year, with the overwhelming majority of the slack being taken up by us godless heathens.

These percentages of course refer to “Cultural Christians” rather than “Practicing Christians”, indeed the wording of the question includes the caveat “even if not currently practicing”. However, what I think is a far more pertinent statistic, is the actual Church attendance numbers.

The above graph shows the average weekly attendance of Church of England services over the last 10 years. Indeed, if you look at the source you can see this same declining trend in Sunday Worship going all the way back to the late 1960’s. There is of course no surprise in seeing this steady slump in church attendance. Each year an average of 14,300 fewer people attend Anglican services.

That means that on average, each week, 275 regular church attendees have either died or have woken up and decided that it's all a bit silly really and they’d rather have a nice lie in of a Sunday morning.

Of course extrapolating figures generally leads to some very dodgy conclusions, but what the hell, let’s extrapolate anyway.

Assuming the same steady decline continues year on year at the same rate, then on Sunday 16th January 2089 the last 75 stragglers will wander through the hallowed doors for one final sing-song and a couple of nice platitudes before being sent on their merry way for the last time. The following week, Sunday 23rd January 2089, every church, chapel and cathedral across England will be empty, vacant, void. Completely deserted.

I wonder if on Monday 24th January 2089 when the Daily Mail reports with horror that no bugger turned up for Church yesterday, that the government will still feel justified in their support of an education policy that actively discriminates based on the alleged religious beliefs of parents and a theocratic admissions policy for the House of Lords.

After all, if I were to believe this dodgy extrapolation, it could be in the lifetime of my children.

Thursday 22 September 2011

The “Christian" Killing of Troy Davis

At 11:08PM (03:08 GMT), Troy Davis was pronounced dead following his execution by the state of Georgia for the murder of police officer Mark MacPhail.

Despite claims from Amnesty that there “was serious doubts about his guilt", the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles denied clemency.

The current members of the State Board of Pardons and Paroles that approved the killing of Troy Davis by lethal injection are listed here. The board members biographies include the following quotes:

“He is involved in a local Baptist Church and takes part in many community events and activities.”

“He is an avid supporter of his church and community activities, and serves as a member of several government and civic boards.”
In fact the Hinterland Gazette state that all 5 members of the board are Christians “Who hold the word of God true and close at Heart”.

I would hope that if any UK government agencies where staffed solely with members of a particular religious persuasion, then a few flags of bias concern would be raised. However, I suspect that in the state of Georgia, the fact that the State Board of Pardons and Paroles is exclusively representative of one specific religious viewpoint is no more surprising than the fact that the Georgia Right to Life, anti abortion organisation is also dominated by Christian dogmas.

To a non Christian it may seem rather paradoxical that Christian ideology is both the driving force behind anti abortion and euthanasia organisations as well as common trait in those that appear to support a barbaric death penalty willing to take the life of a fellow human being.

However any perceived paradox is merely a misunderstanding of Christian ideology. Where there is unquestioning faith in an all powerful supernatural being with the ultimate power and divine right to both grant, and ruthlessly take away life, it is inevitable that there will be mortal accomplices willing to assist.


In answer to Michael Grayer's excellent comment below the fold...

I have indeed mined the two quotes from the biographies of the 2 board members that include a statement of their Christian faith on their official State Board biographies.  The other three board members do not include a statement of faith in their biographies. There seems however little doubt that all 5 members are practicing Christians as can bee seen from the following links that I apologise for not including in the original post.

L Gale Buckner is "an ctive member of the Holy Creek Baptist Church"

Robert E. Keller is a "Sunday School teacher, choir member and administrative board member of the Jonesboro First United Methodist Church"

and (not quite so conclusive I admit) Albert Murray's background includes the use of faith based programmes for at-risk youths.

I think my original point stands, the killing of Troy Davis was sanctioned by 5 Christians. Of course I would expect most moderate Christians to oppose the death penalty, hence my supposed paradox, however there remains an uncanny correlation (not necessarily a causation) between right wing christian views and the support of the death penalty. I was therefore simply musing that the worshipping of a deity who frequently demonstrates scant regard for human life my influence similar thinking in his followers.

Sunday 18 September 2011

Magical v. Rational Candles

My wife loves candles.

Our garden is strewn with lanterns, numerous devices for holding tea lights and a selection of garden candles. Things don’t get much better inside, we have candles perched on the mantelpiece and suspended from anywhere that will grant suitable purchase. If Thomas Eddison ever comes round for tea, he’ll wonder why he bothered.

One of the gifts bestowed upon my wife from one of her friends for her birthday last month was, unsurprisingly, a candle. Partly because of my wife’s love of candles, but also (I suspect), partly to try and wind me up, as it was no ordinary candle, it was a magical candle.

I often try and parody irrational nonsense on this blog by ridiculing uncritical ideas or exaggerating irrational claims to their extreme to expose their inherent silliness.

However as much as I tried, I couldn’t write anything more outlandish or more amusing than the text already supplied with the magical candle. So here it is:

"The Herbs and oils included in this candle are associated with the moon.
Use this candle for psychic receptivity, intuition, soul dreams, magic, emotional memory, adaptability, feelings and reflection.
Our ancestors used candles for both ritual & domestic purposes. The sacred flame can be used as a focus in candle burning to reflect the divine light within. Through colour and magical herbal infusions added to the wax when blending each candle serves its own purpose.

Three important factors to remember when candle burning are Concentration, Visualisation and Willpower.

Energy follows thought. To turn your dreams, wishes and visualisations into realities, follow thought with action, charged with the cosmic energy of the sacred flame.

Until not too long ago, candles and oil lamps were the only source of light after night had fallen and during the long hours of darkness during the winter months, candles lit up the imagination, painted shadows on the walls and illuminated the twilight zone between consciousness and imagination.

Star Child Magical Candles are created by hand, using a selection of high quality waxes to ensure a long lasting flame, each candle is potentised with our lunar prepared magical infusions.

Many spiritual traditions use candles as magical tools to reflect the divine light or as votive offerings to accompany prayers.

Our candles are intended to kindle the sacred flame within and bring your magic alive, they may be used for spiritual and ritual work to aid concentration for a specific magical intent. As you focus on the flame visualise your intentions being consumed and transformed into ethereal thought forms.
Magical Candles create an ambience which helps focus attention and at the same time serves as a reminder of the inner flame, the divine spark that shines within.

Our Magical Infusions contain herbs, flowers, resins, barks and magical tokens collected at sacred sites from all over the world. They are prepared in accordance with the cycles of the sun and the moon. The symbols assigned to each type of candle indicate the ethereal nature of the special infusions added to the respective blends and thus provide a reference to their magical qualities.

Magically, the purpose of invoking planetary and elemental energies is to bring about corresponding changes on the mental, physical or emotional plane."

 Impressive bollocksmithing indeed.

As it was my wife’s friend’s birthday last week, I felt compelled to return the favour, so I repackaged a standard garden candle as a “Rational Candle”. Here it is with my accompanying product information:

I’m pretty sure she’ll see the funny side as I’m confident she rightly treats the rhetoric of the magical candle with a pinch of salt.

In fact I imagine most people who buy the candles must either buy them as a tongue in cheek novelty item or because they simply like the fairytale ambience and tone of the product rather than a staunch belief in the candles ability to actually increase psychic receptibility.

I also suspect that the company that manufactures the candles are motivated to do so more by their business acumen to fill a market requirement rather than a blind belief in the magical qualities of their products. And of course their mystical yet shrewd weasel words insure that no specific magical claims are actually made. Like Boots selling un-evidenced homeopathy, if people are daft enough to buy it, there’s always someone more than willing to sell it.

So I’m not going to take the bait and write a lengthy diatribe on the dangers and consequences of such wooly thinking. I’m optimistic enough to hope that even the targeted consumers don’t really take the magical candle bullshit seriously.

But nonetheless I can’t help but feel a little bemused. I think that the information on my rational candle, though no doubt considered dry and boring by the majority, is far more awe inspiring than the more marketable new age dribble espoused by the magical candle.

As explained on my rational candle, the colours of the flame can be used to construe the molecular composition of the consumed fuel. A basic scientific principle that when investigated by the likes of Herschel, Talbot and Swan was extrapolated to allow scientists to use spectral analysis to deduce the chemical composition of the distant stars and thus determine that hydrogen is by far the most abundant element in the universe. Why is that not more fascinating?

As Douglas Adams famously wrote:
"Is it not enough to see that the garden is beautiful, without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?"
In many cases, apparently not.

Thursday 15 September 2011

An Apology from God … Inspired by Johann Hari

Having recently read Johann Hari’s apology in The Independent I felt that I ought to come clean too …

I did two wrong and stupid things.

The first concerns that fact that I have allowed many people to believe that the Bible is my literal word.

When we compiled the bible we found historical accounts that seemed perfectly reasonable at the time they were written, but later didn’t really convey the values we wanted to propagate. Some were quite confusing and unclear. When this happened we simply excluded these accounts from the bible and selected alternative accounts that expressed our current vision for Christianity. At the time I justified this by saying I was giving the clearest possible representation of what the religion should be like.

But I was wrong. A divinely revealed text isn’t a cherry picked selection of man-made narratives and stories to support a particular ideology and currently fashionable set of values. It’s a beautiful articulate and comprehensible celestial dictation of the mind of an all-powerful supernatural entity that transcends current knowledge and confirms subsequently discovered wisdom. If you want to simply compile a canon of man made ideas, histories and laws there are conventions to let you do that. You write, “The best explanation at the time was” rather than “And so it came to pass”, and instead of “Thus said the Lord” you write “So said some bloke or other with voices in his head”.

If I had asked some of the other deities they would have told me how best to chronicle my myths. It was arrogant and stupid of me not to ask.

The other thing I did wrong was that I started to allow religious fundamentalists to create visions of the religion that weren’t my own. Using this fundamentalism I allowed them to try and take out scientific facts that contradicted my revealed word. I allowed fundamentalists to hold views that were divisive and exclusive. I even allowed some of them to say that "I hate fags". I am mortified to have done this because it breaches the most basic humanitarian principles. I appologise to the later group unreservedly and totally.

If it were the other way around – if another deity had been homophobic, attempted to subjugate women or promote dangerous misinformation on sexual health – I’d be withering. I’d say, it’s not hard, stop spreading such divisive misinformation, and don’t threaten disbelievers with eternal torture. Spare me the self-pitying excuses. Plenty of deities have your problems and pressures and none have the amount of followers you do, and they don’t do anything half as awful.

In 2007 I travelled to Lourdes to heal a few believers of cancer. An anonymous claim was made that I had failed to divinely intervene and send the cancer of one pilgrim into remission. However, a Vatican investigation into these claims said that it was a real miracle and that they had photos and everything.

The worst part of this for me has been thinking about the people I have let down. The believers who have prayed to me over the years and told me they love all the stuff I’ve done in the bible. I am sorry that it isn’t all literally true.

But offering words of apology is not enough. So first, even though I stand by my account in Genesis, I am renouncing the geocentric model. I am withdrawing it as an act of contrition for the errors I made elsewhere. But this isn’t much, since it has been abandoned by scientists for years anyway. So second, I am going to take an unpaid leave of absence from the universe, and at my own expense I will be undertaking a programme of deity training. (I created the earth in just six days straight after the big bang). And third, when I return I’ll finally stamp out all wars, poverty and suffering.

Many thanks to Johann for helping me see my own flaws and I would like to apologise again to my believers and the people hurt by my actions. I know that some of you have lost faith in my work. I will do everything I can now to regain it. I hope, after a period of retraining, you will give me the chance.

Yours God.

Tuesday 13 September 2011

2012 Olympic Prayer Testing

Great Britain's athletes are being warned about the risks of seeking divine intervention in the build-up to the 2012 Olympics.

Recent high profile cases have seen British shot putter Sister Inviolata of the Immaculate Conception banned for four months after members of her convent tested positive for intercessory prayer.

It is this sort of thing that UK Anti Wishful Thinking Agency is keen to help athletes avoid as the time approaches when the eyes of the sporting world will be focused on London.

Surveys have shown that one in ten British athletes have at one time or other dabbled with performance enhancing prayers in the hope of gaining a slight edge over their competitors. Many athletes believe that the all powerful deity of their choice will be willing to influence the outcome of sporting events to their advantage and the detriment of their fellow athletes, if they ask nicely enough.

A spokeswoman for the UK Anti Wishful Thinking Agency stated that prayer abuse has been rife in many sports for years but due to the inability to record any actual measurable differences in those athletes using divine intervention, it has always been hard to prosecute.

In the run up to the London 2012 Olympics athletes are being warned that the prayer-testing authorities are being extra vigilant and will be keeping an eye out for the tell-tale signs of illegal performance enhancing prayers such as the possession of rosary beads, a travel rug or the excessive head-butting of tall walls.

With many prayers readily available these days in high street churches and mosques it is all too easy for unsuspecting young athletes to get access to mystic mantras and celestial appeals that they do not realise are on the World Supernatural Pleading Prohibited list.

The UK Anti Wishful Thinking Agency will be working with many young British athletes over the coming months to educate them in basic critical thinking techniques to ensure they do not fall foul of these strict anti prayer regulations. A spokeswoman for the agency stated:

'I think it's something that everyone would agree with and is an aim for everyone involved in sport - to make it as incredulous as possible. That is what we are all working towards.'

Science Reason & Critical Thinking wish all our athletes the very best of British and advise them to keep their heads up and their hands apart.

Thursday 8 September 2011

Why Photographs of the Apollo Landing Site Will Not Convince the Denialists

As interesting and fascinating as this weeks lunar photographs showing the Apollo landing sites are, they are as much use as tits on a bull when it comes to convincing moon landing deniers of the reality of those epic and pioneering missions.

If a belief has been uncritically adopted because it aligns with existing beliefs and assumptions, was communicated by an articulate authority figure to impressionable ears, or simply panders to the subjects inbuilt paranoia, then logical reasoned arguments and even photographic evidence will struggle to overturn them.

Such beliefs become even harder to overturn as they become entrenched over time as believers invest more and more personal stock in that belief. Indeed believers are able to add more and more ridiculous beliefs to their arsenal as their initial foundations become more solidified. This is the principal deviously employed by scientology. No one in their right mind can be pulled off the street and made to believe that they are inhabited by the tortured souls of dead aliens who came to earth long ago in a big ass spaceship. This is precisely why scientology sought to restrict such information to those believers who had progressed their credulity far enough to uncritically accept such ideas. By spoon feeding nonsense in small increments it eventually becomes possible to believe in the most outlandish nonsense.

In much the same way creationism, homophobia and female subjugation can sit firmly on the solid foundation of more mainstream and acceptable religious beliefs. Moon landing denial is another example of a rather silly belief taking root on the foundations of other conspiracy “theories” which in turn often sit on perfectly plausible conspiracies. As a general rule of thumb the addition of the qualifier “theory” is usually a good demarcation marker as to when things get a bit silly.

Back to the point. Having developed and embroidered a rather nutty idea (such as moon landing denial) and spending years shoring it up with cherry picked anecdotes, it becomes a matter of routine to simply bat away any inconvenient and incontrovertible evidence that would at first sight appear to piss on that theory. In fact the more ridiculous the belief, the easier it becomes to invent ridiculous excuses to explain away inconvenient truths. I’m sure the conspiracy theory message boards will already be rammed with comments from believers claiming that NASA are “in” on the conspiracy and the photographs are therefore clearly photoshopped. Presumably there’ll be some much more elaborate excuses too.

There are countless examples of frauds and charlatans who've methods have been clearly exposed, yet the faithful continue to follow undeterred. So I suspect that even If the most ardent moon landing denialist was physically taken to the moon and shown the Apollo landing site first hand, he would no doubt still claim he'd been in a flight simulator and a film set.

Wednesday 31 August 2011

The Detox 2000 (Patent Pending)

In Professor Edzard Ernst’s article in today’s Guardian regarding the alternative-medicine version of detox, he states that:
"Unless someone is very severely ill, the elimination of toxins is most efficiently being taken care of by various organs – for instance, the liver, kidneys, skin, lungs and the gut. In a healthy person, the function of these systems is already optimal. No improvements are needed or can be achieved by detox therapies."
This is of course simply because the currently available alternative medicine detox techniques such as diet supplements, goji berries, and even the old hosepipe up the jacksie routine are simply not sufficiently potent enough to have any effect beyond the body’s natural detoxifying processes.

As there is clearly a market for a more effective form of alternative detox, our team of crack scientists at Science, Reason and Critical Thinking has worked through his lunch break to develop the Detox 2000 (Patent Pending).

Ernst states that currently available colon cleansing techniques have been unable to show good clinical evidence to prove that they lower toxin levels in the body. As previously stated this is probably just because the gentle nature of the currently available colonic irrigation systems are simply not aggressive enough to remove the more stubborn clingons from the colon wall. This will not be a problem for the Detox 2000 (patent pending).

The Detox 2000 (Patent Pending) uses a heavy duty industrial standard high pressure blaster to thrust a specially prepared cocktail of bleach, ground chillies and fun snaps at a pressure of 800 bar (1,670,834 Pounds / Square Foot) into the patient’s lower colonic access portal.  

The Detox 2000 (Patent Pending) is the ideal detox remedy for today’s self-indulgent consumers, allowing them to eat whatever the hell they like, whenever they like, safe in the knowledge that they can always ram their Detox 2000 (Patent Pending) up their arseholes as soon as they get home.

BTW has anyone got an email address for Duncan Bannatyne or Deborah Meaden? I’m looking for an investment of £87.70 (for a days tool hire in order to conduct a clinical trial on the dog), in exchange for 20% equity in the Detox 2000 (Patent Pending).

Tuesday 30 August 2011

Scientifically Accurate Labelling of the Acupuncture Meridians and Acupoints

Acupuncturists claim to be able to treat a whole range of ailments by strategically inserting needles into various acupoints along the body’s meridian lines in order to control the flow of an invisible life energy known as ch’i or qi, and thus balance the body’s mystical yin and yang.

Following an in-depth and investigation into alternative therapies, in the bestseller Trick or Treatment, science writer Dr. Simon Singh and, Britain’s first Professor of Complementary Medicine, Prof. Edzard Ernst, summarize this basic principle of acupuncture thus:

“The traditional principles of acupuncture are deeply flawed, as there is no evidence at all to demonstrate the existence of Ch’I or meridians.”

But just because a therapy is scientifically implausible if it nonetheless produces unequivocal positive results then we must still consider it a valuable therapy. However, Singh and Ernst’s go on to conclude:

“By focusing on the increasing number of high-quality research papers, reliable conclusions from systematic reviews make it clear that acupuncture does not work for a whole range of conditions, except as a placebo. Hence, if you see acupuncture being advertised by a clinic, then you can assume that it does not really work, except possibly in the treatment of some types of pain and nausea.”

The above quote is taken from a more detailed conclusion that I would recommend reading in full. But it certainly seems from their investigation into the evidence that jabbing the patient outside of the recognised meridians or acupoints or indeed pretending to jab them with either telescopic sham needles, or simply not inserting the needles far enough, has pretty much the same effect as “proper” acupuncture for all treatments other than possibly certain types of pain and nausea.

Nevertheless, if the theatrical nature of acupuncture induces a measurable placebo effect then some may argue that there is still a benefit to its usage. However, as more and more healthcare practitioners recognise the importance of honesty with their patients we should perhaps consider more ethical methods of conveying acupuncture.

Most acupuncture patients are familiar with the standard acupuncture maps showing the body’s meridians and their various acupoints along those meridians that supposedly have distinct influences on different ailments. Rather than tall stories of ancient pre-scientific notions of an invisible and undetectable life energy why not simply state the most plausible explanations for any perceived benefit. All we actually need to do to achieve this is to simply re-label the meridian lines to describe how they are most likely to work and re-label the acupoints to describe the current unequivocally scientifically proven effect of that particular acupoint.

I’ve even done it for you …

Oh, OK I admit it, it was all just a convoluted way of strategically placing the label "Sweet Fanny Adams" on the anatomical acupuncture chart, but I can never resist a good fanny gag.

Saturday 20 August 2011

An Optimist’s Tour of the Future: One Curious Man Sets Out to Answer “What’s Next?”

Anyone who knows me or has been following my blog for a while will know that I self-identify with the label “Skeptic”.

I’ve written before about some of the unfortunate conations of the term skeptic, especially when people misuse the term to express their personal disbelief in a pre-designated concept, often as a result of indoctrination into a belief rather than as the result of following a rigours methodology.

I view scepticism rather like the scientific method itself, as a tool. I try not to simply sort ideas into either bollocks or bona fide and then seek validation for my arbitrary taxonomy. I like to think I use the critical and fair methods of scepticism to logically determine whether or not I should throw yet another belief into the bollocks bucket or not. Although to be fair, I do seem to have ended up with a rather bumper bucket of bollocks brimming with bullshit.

Another unfortunate connotation of the term skeptic is some of the words it is associated with. Here’s a screen grab from for the word “Skeptic”.

I’d be proud for most of these synonyms to be emblazoned on my T Shirts. I particularly like “Freethinker”, “Heathen”, “Profaner” and “Rationalist”. But there are two words in this list that I do not identify with:

Cynic and Pessimist

The Notes on the screen grab give a half reasonable differentiation between cynics and skeptics, although I would have preferred some usage of the word “evidence” to be included in close proximity to the word “skeptic.”

As for the term “Pessimist”, that really isn’t me at all. I am the complete opposite of a pessimist. When posed with the perennial glass half empty/full chestnut, I don’t merely see the glass as half full, I invariably suspect there’s actually probably a little bit more than half left in it and anyway I was just going to the bar so I’ll get another one if I really need to.

In short, I’m an optimist who likes to critically evaluate ideas.

How fortuitous then that a few months ago, despite no pending book orders, the book shaped package that appeared on my doorstep contained a copy of Mark Stevenson’s splendid book: An Optimists Tour of the Future.

Mark actually contacted me on Facebook just over two years ago now and sent me some very kind comments about my blog. He mentioned his devotion to critical thinking and the scientific method and he told me he was going to write a book. I told Mark how envious I was of his opportunity and wished him all the best.

I didn’t hear from Mark for a long time, presumably he was off somewhere on his exciting adventure, researching his book or whatever it is that authors do with their advances.

I have of course now read Mark’s book, and I’ve found out exactly what he’d been up to, but I’d never once imagined what a fascinating, inspirational, enlightening and heartening adventure he had been having.

In a bravely ambitious quest to find credible scientific answers to the burning question of what the future holds, Mark compiled a remarkable visiting list of pioneering scientists, entrepreneurs, world leaders and environmentalists. All of which are capable of thinking so far outside of the box you are left wondering why you ever considered the box a viable method of packaging in the first place.

Mark deftly circumnavigates the very sharpest cutting edges of science without suffering a single prick.

The first port of call regards the limitations of the human body, after all I guess it's good to know how far the future will personally concern us before we set off on our journey.

Marks delves into the bold claims of the transhumanists and emerges with a just credible vision of human longevity before exploring the advances in gene sequencing that provide clear and unarguable predictions of a revolution in a more personalised healthcare system that really does just seem to be around the corner.

Moving from man to machine Mark probes the current advances in robotics and artificial intelligence with some fascinating visits that would translate beautifully into a more visual media if Mark gets the opportunity. Mark’s impressive visiting schedule in this part of the journey includes interviews with noted pioneers Vint Cerf and Ray Kurzweil.

However perhaps the most important area where a bit of optimism is required is around the pressing concerns of climate change, environmental issues and renewable energy. Of course this is where blind optimism would in fact be more of a hindrance than a help with mere wishful thinking providing false hope and curbing more credible research into some of the planets current key issues. But surely if there were well-founded and scientifically feasible suggestions that could have a serious impact on some of these questions we would have heard about them by now? Well if you haven’t, that is exactly why you simply must read this book.

But finally, many thanks to Mark for so eloquently pointing out that my beloved scepticism does not go hand in hand with pessimism.