Friday, December 16, 2011

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

PZ on free will

Like PZ, I can’t get very excited about the question of free will. I agree with him that for free will to be anything other than an illusion, our minds would have to be able to reach into our brains and change it’s behaviour.  Minds would have to be intangible things, independent of brains, and this is demonstrably (and trivially so) not the case.

I’ve never been able to understand why people find it so difficult to accept that we could be fooled by a sensation of free will. It certainly feels like we can make choices, but what reason do we have to assume that makes it true?

Scooby-doo is a morality tale for secular humanists. Unfortunately, it is shit.

A post here makes some good points. As Tim Minchin points out in the excellent Storm:

That show was so cool

Because every time there’s a church with a ghoul

Or a ghost in a school

They looked beneath the mask and what was inside?

The fucking janitor or the dude who runs the water slide.

Throughout history

Every mystery

Ever solved has turned out to be

Not Magic.

This article goes further:

Because that's the thing about Scooby-Doo: The bad guys in every episode aren't monsters, they're liars.

More than that, they’re liars who prey on superstitious people so they can fleece them.  Sound familiar? 

The article goes on to point out that the episodes are about children searching for truth in a world where adults are either liars or believe the liars because they’ve been fooled by stories of the supernatural. 

Some other good points are made.  For example: “curiosity and thinking always triumph over fear” and 

To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, Scooby Doo has value not because it shows us that there are monsters, but because it shows us that those monsters are just the products of evil people who want to make us too afraid to see through their lies, and goes a step further by giving us a blueprint that shows exactly how to defeat them.

The article is a little over-enthusiastic and the show heavily romanticised.  I’ve always been dismayed that the main  heroes of the show are the two cowardly idiots. No matter how often they pull off the monster's mask and find it was old Mr Johnson all along, Shaggy and Scooby never learn. Well of course, all those other monsters turned out to be not monsters, but let’s automatically assume this one is legit, despite our vast experience.  They never acquire any critical faculties and this is not an admirable trait.

Velma should have been the hero, but the show’s makers seemed to do everything they possibly could to make sure she wasn’t. She’s portrayed as a frumpy nerd who can easily be defeated by simply taking her glasses away. In fact, as far as I can tell, the only reason for Daphne existing at all (other than being Fred’s beard) was to demonstrate how frumpy, nerdy and undesirable smart girls are supposed to be.  The show didn’t do a thing to make kids want to be more like Velma.

The principle of the show was great and something I’d like to see a lot more of in both children’s and adult TV. Shows like the awful X Files could have been great as an adult Scooby-Doo.  It could have explored the nature of evidence.  The friction between Mulder and Scully could have been been about what counts as proper evidence rather than ‘spooky shit does/doesn’t exist’.  I think it might even work if they never got to the bottom of the mystery in some episodes and had to leave it unexplained.  Mulder would take that as proof that the supernatural is real and Scully would roll her eyes at him and try to explain why it’s not.  Scully wouldn’t have to be right all the time.  She could even be closed-mided rather than appropriately skeptical sometimes.  And hopefully she’d learn her lesson, just so long as there’s never any real evidence of the supernatural.  That could have been a great show.  But it’s easier to pander to superstition, so we got drivel instead.

While I find some of the principles of Scooby-doo laudable, I could never stand the show.  Even pre-Scrappy.

Hemant has a good comment about all this here:

There’s a lot of truth to that. After all, what scares you more? Frankenstein or a Christian pastor who thinks the Bible ought to be the playbook for your life? The former might send a temporary chill up your spine, but the latter permanently ruins lives by convincing so many people that he’s right, hurting their ability to think rationally, manipulating them into giving up their money (even when they don’t have any give), convincing them that people who don’t fall in line with the faith are eternally condemned, and persuading them to put their lives in control of an imaginary being instead of taking full control of it themselves.

Yep.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Driving destroys virginity

According to the BBC:

A report in Saudi Arabia has warned that if Saudi women were given the right to drive, it would spell the end of virginity in the country.

Assuming that Kamal Subhi – who wrote the report – doesn’t think that women driving will cause babies to be born with sexual experience (not something I’m willing to put past him), the claim dissolves into the usual one.  He means that if women are allowed the beginnings of freedoms equal to those of men, then fewer of the women he might personally want to fuck would be virgins, which he seems to think is a national emergency.

The report contains graphic warnings that letting women drive would increase prostitution, pornography, homosexuality and divorce.

These are all extraordinary claims, but the homosexuality one is especially bewildering.  I wonder if he means female homosexuality (women will be allowed to visit each other unsupervised so won’t be able to resist jumping on top of each other) or male homosexuality (the women will be off driving around so men will all have to fuck each other until they get home).

Silly as the report apparently is, the problem that women have effectively no rights in Saudi Arabia is highlighted by this sentence in the BBC story:

Though there is no formal ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia, if they get behind the wheel, they can be arrested.

They can be arrested under the blanket acknowledgement that women don’t have the right to do anything at all.

Where to begin? Oh, I see now

The Fail reports that – according to the headline – "”Christians [are] a minority at ‘biased’ BBC where staff are more likely to be atheists or non-believers”

Wait a cotton-picking minute, aren’t atheists the same thing as non-believers?  I suppose the count might include those damnable fence-sitting agnostics, but either way this seems a clear attempt to dilute the number of atheists.  Times are bad, unbelievers are among us, but at least they’re not all atheists. We couldn’t allow atheists to be wandering around in a television company unpersecuted, could we? 

Ah, but this is a story about persecution, isn’t it?

The new research has been seized on by critics who accuse the Corporation of bias against Christianity and marginalising the faith in its output.

Because ‘only’ 22.5% of staff said they were Christian.

And there’s the story laid bare. It’s OK to discriminate against atheists, but not against Christians. Christians are automatically preferred staff and something must be done to thin out the atheist ranks.

I mean just look at this:

The survey found that just 22.5 per cent of all staff professed to be Christians.
Yet the combination of those who said they were atheists and those who had no faith came to a total of 23.5 per cent.

What do you mean “yet”?  It’s an implied assumption that – at the very least – Christian staff should outnumber atheists.  It’s pure bigotry.

Random BBC employee Roger Bolton said:

There is an inbuilt but unconscious bias against religion, fuelled by the fact staff are not representative of the public. It is not a conspiracy but it needs a correction.

What kind of ‘correction’?  This can really only mean the sacking of atheists in favour of Christians or the hiring of Christians instead of atheists in new appointments. 

Then a random Catholic opined that the BBC is:

…institutionally incapable of reflecting the society it serves since BBC staff are not representative of the audience they broadcast to.

I can’t imagine what this means.  Would more catholic canteen staff or technicians quantitatively change the nature of the BBC’s output?  It’s a familiar and stupid argument.  What they mean, of course, is that they want to have more influence on what’s broadcast.  They are quite aware that this has nothing to do with the religious affiliation of random BBC staff, but sense an opportunity for bigotry which they just can’t bring themselves to ignore.

Well, Catholic Church and Independent Christian Broadcasting Council, I accuse you of being institutionally incapable of reflecting the society you serve since we have a lot of atheists and people of non-Christian religions in this country.  Surely the composition of staff in your organisations should precisely reflect that mix?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Jesus and Mo do it again

An oldie, but Very Nice: http://www.jesusandmo.net/2011/11/16/sssh2/

15 years or so ago, I was what I’d today call an accommodationist. I didn’t believe in any kind of god or any other supernatural fuckwittery, but I felt compelled to respect other people’s beliefs.

‘Compelled’ is the right word. I didn’t really respect those beliefs. But I felt like I was supposed to so I mumbled along with the nonsense on the few occasions I could be dragged into a church and I let people drone on about the quantumness of crystals or the fractalness of spirituality, knowing it was nonsense, letting it slide and hating myself for it.

Presumably there was a single moment when I suddenly realised that I didn’t actually have to respect idiotic beliefs at all, but I don’t remember it.  It’s a pity, because it must have been a pretty decent revelation. The only thing I can compare it to is the day I suddenly realised I could say no when my boss asked me to do stupid work.  Until then, I didn’t know I could. That was a dramatic shift in the power balance between employer and employee which has never reversed.  It was immensely liberating and so was the revelation that I owe nothing to the feelings of people who believe stupid things, so I’m sorry I can’t remember it.

“So what?” is a powerful question.  So what if I offend you?  You’ve never cared about whether you offend me.

Technorati Tags: ,

Even stupider comment to a stupid daily mail article about ghosts

I'm looking forward to hearing how the atheists and those oh so clever scientists and secular media propagandists explain these ghosts

have 'evolved' into being as they believe everything has. Won't hold my breath.

-- David Thomas, North Wales

Hard to know where to begin, isn’t it?

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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Daily mail invents outrage

It’s not much of a shock.  This time, it has noticed that Tesco has stopped sponsoring the Cancer Research Race for Life – a charity for which it has raised hundreds of millions of pounds over more than a decade – and is coincidentally sponsoring Pride London.  This, the headline tells us, is an outrage.  It tries to hide behind the highly dubious idea that cancer research is inherently more important or deserving but this is a thinly veiled cover for simple homophobia because the two events are not connected anyway.  Corporate sponsorship deals don’t work that way and Tesco themselves have said that the one is not a replacement for another.  They are funding hundreds of other events too, but there’s no suggestion that any of these is less worthy of funding than Pride.

Naturally, they drag in some mainstream religious organisations to make ignorant comment.  I don’t suppose they had to try too hard to get the quotes they wanted.  Francis Phillips of the Catholic Herald said:

Tesco is a supermarket.

Its remit has been to sell good-quality food and other items at very reasonable prices, and in this it has been hugely successful.

Why has it now aligned itself with an aggressive political organisation such as Pride London?

‘Why has it given up its sponsorship of Cancer Research? Or at least…why hasn’t it taken up with another mainstream charity such as the British Legion or Age UK?

‘There are thousands of ex-servicemen and wounded soldiers needing help in this country, and millions of elderly people in danger of neglect.
‘They are a fundamental part of the fabric of our society – the kind of fabric that Tesco should be reflecting.’

I rather think Tesco can choose whatever remit it likes.  I assume Phillips would be perfectly happy if Tesco were to give money to that other aggressive political organisation, the Catholic Church.  Her last paragraph is particularly interesting. She obviously thinks that homosexuals are not a fundamental part of the fabric of our society.

David Skinner of Anglican Mainstream has written to Tesco to complain about the fair treatment of LGBT people:

For Tesco to sponsor a tiny homosexual minority – according to the Office for National Statistics, that amounts to little more than 1 per cent of the population – will be showing the utmost contempt for a large proportion of British society that still adheres, more or less, to the morality and values of the Ten Commandments.’

This is another extraordinary statement.  I imagine Skinner would not object to Tesco supporting other charities that addressed a small percentage of the population.  It’s also interesting to see the near panic with which he tries to downplay the number of homosexuals.  I imagine him staring around in terror with bloodshot eyes, back to the wall of course.

They both want people to boycott Tesco for promoting the idea that people should not be discriminated against on the basis of their sexuality.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Misused phrases

For some reason, these amuse me.  I’m talking about well-known phrases which people have misheard and then go ahead and misuse.  The more priggish they sound when they misuse them, the better.

I’ve often promised that I’ll put together a list of these one day, but I keep forgetting, then I keep forgetting the misused phrases too.  Here’s a first stab at a list, I’ll add more as I think of them. 

There needs to be a name for this sort of thing and for all I know there is.  ‘Misused phrases’ is a bit lame.  Malapropism isn’t quite right because in some cases the phrase as (mis-)used has the same meaning as the original phrase.  It’s just that the words within the phrase are changed so they make no sense at all. If anyone has a better idea, let me know.

Here’s the list so far (there are lots more, I just can’t remember them at this moment):

1. Wallah! (instead of VoilĂ ).  This is hilarious because…. well, what do people think they’re saying?  Trying to sound clever, you are doing it rong.  I’ve heard this said out loud a few times and I might have misheard it.  But I’ve also seen it in comment threads loads of times and often without being ridiculed.

2. It’s a doggy dog world (instead of It’s a dog-eat-dog world).  Again, what is it these people think they are saying?  To be fair, the ‘correct’ phrase is bewilderingly stupid anyway.  I have never once seen a dog eat a dog. While I daresay it occasionally happens, for me it is not the main defining feature of the planet. (I know the original phrase is a bizarre invoking of a counterfactual world where dogs eat dogs to get ahead in dog society, but that doesn’t actually make a great deal of sense either.)

3. It’s a removable feast (instead of It’s a movable feast). An interesting one, this. Phrases are often things that have an identity separate from their actual words.  They become a bit like a word themselves in that we don’t think of the constituents. In this case, someone has changed one of the words in the phrase anyway, preserving the spirit of its modern usage by adapting it to a new situation, but decoupling it from its origins and resulting in it making no sense at all.  So it seems to be taking a phrase, breaking it apart into words, changing the words, then assembling it back into a phrase which is not supposed to have a literal meaning.  A moveable feast is a celebration like Easter which happens on a different date every year.  A removable feast sounds like you’re sitting at the table, knife and fork in hand, tablecloth tucked into your shirt, gazing forlornly as someone takes all the food away.

4. For all intensive purposes (instead of for all intents and purposes).  Well, perhaps people think they’re talking about those purposes that are especially important or crucial, but this is such a different meaning from the ‘correct’ phrase that it’s hard to know what was going on in people’s minds when they heard the original used correctly.

5. Begging the question. This annoys me less than it used to.  It has a technical meaning, which is a logical fallacy related to circular reasoning (you assume the answer in the very asking of the question) but it’s often used to mean that something raises a question.  In some ways, it seems fair enough.  Some situations actually do seem to beg questions. Or rather, for questions to be answered.  Perhaps people should say it begs the answers.  But on the other hand, the phrase has an existing technical meaning and there’s no need to steal it for another purpose.  Get your own phrase, you moocher.

6. Escape goat (instead of a scape goat). I have no idea at all what’s going on here.  What’s an escape goat supposed to be?  If anything, it seems like an escape goat might be the exact opposite of a scape goat.  Someone heard the phrase, completely failed to understand what it meant and used it anyway.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Gentleman/scholar/acrobat owns coward/blaggard

On 12th October, Jerry Coyne debated the theologian John Haught about whether science and religion are compatible. SPOILER ALERT: they aren’t.

Both parties gave their permission for the event to be filmed and it duly was.  But now Haught is blocking its release to the public because, he says, it “failed to meet what I consider to be reasonable standards of fruitful academic exchange.”

He doesn’t say what standards those are or how the debate somehow doesn’t meet them.  And he says he won’t comment further.  You can read more about this on Jerry’s site and on Pharyngula.

It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that Haught recognises that he lost the debate in a spectacular fashion and is trying to stop people finding out.  This doesn’t really meet what I consider to be reasonable standards of fruitful academic exchange.

So I wrote him a letter:

Professor Haught,

I was disappointed to read on Jerry Coyne's site that the video of your debate with him on 12th October will not be released to the public because you've blocked it. Your statement that the event “failed to meet what I consider to be reasonable standards of fruitful academic exchange" might be a lot more plausible if you'd explain it further. What standards are those? In what way do you feel they weren't met? Please feel free to be as specific as possible.

I'd like to encourage you to change your mind and agree to release the video or at the very least explain in much more detail why you will not. While you refuse, the only conclusion we can glean is that Jerry made you look like a fool through superior argument and you're embarrassed.

Don't be embarrassed, Professor Haught. If you were beaten fair and square, chalk it up to experience and face the consequences. If you feel there was unfair play or that you won the debate but for some reason the public shouldn't see it, by all means tell us why.

Kicking over the Scrabble board fails to meet what I consider to be reasonable standards of fruitful academic exchange.

I look forward to hearing from you,

Regards,

r

I don’t expect he’ll reply.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Playground arguments

That guy picked on you every day for years because he was jealous.

Words can never hurt you.

If you refuse to do something stupid – because it’s stupid – then you must be scared.

None of these arguments were convincing in the playground and I’m less inclined to believe them now.  But I’m not a professional philosopher like Daniel Came so presumably I’m wrong.

Came argues that Richard Dawkins’ refusal to debate a fool means that he’s scared.

Because we all know, don’t we Daniel, that if someone challenges us to do something, we’re automatically obliged to do it and if we don’t you’re entitled to make up any shit you want to explain why.

Well, I say Came “argues”.  It’s difficult indeed to locate an argument.

Fuck it, if you can find one, I’ll give you a prize.  Really.

Until there’s a winner, I’m going to go with my gut feeling that if you nock someone for not rising to a stupid attack, you’re a fucking idiot.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The greatest moral force the world has ever known

Yes, I know, I know, I KNOW, alright?  I know that the Catholic Church has been complicit in stealing a generation of Spanish children because they didn’t like the look of the parents.  Some of them were women, for goodness sake.  I’ve just been busy and it’s taken a long time for me to get around to it.  And by now everything’s been said.

This is what happened: 300,000 women were told by nuns that the baby they’d just given birth to had died, when in fact the nuns had sold it to a family they decided was better.  This happened a lot to unmarried mothers.

It apparently began under Franco as political (if it can be called that) move, but the church was complicit throughout and carried on the practice into the 90s, long after Franco had gone.

Let’s just say that again: parents were told that their babies were dead.  Instead, they were stolen and sold.

It’s hard to imagine anything more cruel.

The greatest moral force the world has ever known.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Nice work, Simon: Let’s test Psychic Sally

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/oct/13/sally-morgan-prove-psychic-powers

Sally: all you have to do is say what it is you can do, agree to the protocol that will test what you yourself claim and then go through with the test. And than – and I understand that this might be the part you have difficulty with – stand by the results.

I don’t have any psychic abilities but let me make a prediction anyway: Sally will noisily accept the challenge…. and then never, ever actually take the test.

Stop persecuting yourself

I don’t know what a Centre for Transatlantic Affairs is, but it’s director has written a particularly insipid article for the Huffington Post which says Christians in the UK are being persecuted by an increasingly secular society.  Well he problem is the usual one, isn’t it?  Christians think they’re being persecuted if they aren’t heaped with undeserved respect.  Secular societies are naturally going to strip away some of this privilege in favour of, you know, actual fairness and so Christians will surely decide they are being persecuted.  My heart does not bleed.

For anyone who follows the British media's reporting of American politics, the continuous attempt to run down certain American politicians on account of their faith rather than engaging with their politics has now become a rather boring familiarity.

When I first read this, I had a hard time working out what the guy was on about.

Bush and Palin are crazed evangelical fundamentalists we are forever being told, oh yawn, is this kind of cheap and lazy defamation really what we have to make do with for journalism?

Oh…. Bush and Palin…. Well… I guess we did run them down based on their crazed fundamentalist evangelism…. but they’re hardly very relevant now, are they?  And that’s rather the point: Obama is a Christian, but we don’t tend to attack him for it.  We were disparaging and – let’s face it – scared of people like Bush and Palin because they are batshit insane, not solely because they are Christians. We ran them down because they manifestly wanted to turn the planet into their own personal brand of theocracy.  That’s plainly and obviously crazy and that’s why we found them problematic.

Yet what is far more concerning is what is happening to Christians here in our own country. It is only when one steps back and takes an overview of the litany of cases where Christians have been discriminated against for their religious convictions, that it is possible to appreciate what resembles a sustained assault against the Christian communities in Britain.

These guys never say who’s doing the attacking or why, do they? Nobody’s more atheist than I am, but I have no interest in attacking Christian communities in Britain and I don’t know anyone who does.  But let’s have a look at all these attacks, shall we?

Whether it is the case of the nurse who was suspended for offering to pray for a patient, the van driver who faced disciplinary action if he refused to remove a palm cross from his dashboard, the couple who were prohibited from fostering because of their Christian beliefs or the supply teacher who was dismissed when she mentioned praying for a child's family. The list goes on and on.

Seriously?  The list goes on and on and these are the best examples?  Even if those stories were as true as they are presented here (they aren’t) then they would hardly constitute a ‘sustained attack on Christian communities’.

It is as if there is a systematic effort to extrapolate British society from its Christian heritage and the values that have for centuries served as a basis for British culture and identity.

Well that’s embarrassing.  But in any case, it isn’t like that at all. Nobody argues that Christianity isn’t culturally important.  Nobody’s trying to marginalise Christians.  We secularists want to marginalise the impact of Christianity – and all religion – on public life, but few of us are interested in attacking Christians, Christian heritage or anyone’s values.  The latter claim, by the way, is especially strange.  How can an attack on values be extrapolated (see what I did there) from one man’s employer telling them not to display a cross?  He hasn’t thought this through.

A systematic effort would imply that we all get together to work out how best to hurt Christians.  I must have missed the meeting where we all decided to ban that guy’s cross and tell the nurse off.

Those who have been responsible for these moves have often advocated for them on the grounds of creating a more secular and therefore a supposedly more inclusive and pluralistic society for everyone.

Have they?  Is that what the cross-banning employer or the hospital were trying to do?  Besides, how can increased secularism possibly be less inclusive, as he implies?  All it can possibly mean is that the religious end up having the same amount of influence on public life as everyone else.

Yet it is hard to escape the fact that it has often been the very same people who have promoted secular values when it has come to driving out Christian aspects of public life, who have simultaneously lent their support for the establishment of a parallel religious legal system in the form of Sharia law courts.

Who are these people?  I don’t know of anyone who simultaneously promotes secularism and the introduction of Sharia courts.  Neither does Tom J Wilson, apparently, since he doesn’t name names or explain his astonishing claim further.

Instead, he turns it into a case of fatwa envy:

How is it that the media has often lambasted Christian individuals who have found themselves dismissed from work or even in court on account of their views on sexuality and yet concurrent to this we hear so relatively little about those hard-line Islamic preachers who have openly preached hate over issues of gender and homosexuality, issues that the liberal press claims to champion.

He proceeds to compare some apples with some oranges and decides for no particular reason that this is proof of systematic attacks on Christians by unnamed forces.

It is as if Christians and their faith have become fair game.

This is the crux of Wilson’s argument and the basis of his misunderstanding.  Christians are fair game.  So is everyone else.  That’s what secularism is about.  Nobody gets unfair influence and nobody is protected from ridicule or offense because of their religion.

Those who cannot bring themselves to understand this will naturally also prove unable to appreciate what it means to actually be British and our society will continue to suffer from the chronic loss of values and any sense of purpose that currently seems to be at the heart of so many of the social challenges that we now face.

That’s a nice little tidbit to through in at the end as though it were an unassailable fact.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Damned whether you do or not

PZ talks about a couple of incidents.  In the first, a Muslim actress has been sentenced to 90 lashes and a year in jail for acting.  She acted in this film, made in Australia, which describes part of the plight of women in Iran.  I wish I could say that the irony will burn more than the lashes, but it won’t.  Ninety lashes.  Of a whip. On flesh.  And a year in jail.  For doing her job.

In the second, a Muslim student is thrown off a plane for looking Muslim.  This was after a ‘random’ ‘second screening’ and other various hurdles to get on the plane in the first place.  In the end, the captain decided that he couldn’t fly with someone muslim-looking on the plane because it made his crew uneasy.  The idea that pilots can decide to discriminate that way against passengers is news to me, but it probably shouldn’t be.  I can’t help but imagine plane ‘captains’ (a fucking ludicrous title for a pilot) leading passengers in prayer over the tannoy before agreeing to take off.

I have two stories of ridiculousness while attempting to fly.  The first happened not too long after 9/11. I was passing through New York airport on the way to somewhere or other, Chicago, possibly.  I’d managed to fly all the way from the UK with my regulation bottles of deodorant etc. in their regulation plastic bags, but these were confiscated in New York as being dangerous, even though they met the proper guidelines.  Well, OK, a minor inconvenience.  But while I was waiting in the queue to board the plane, there was a sign saying that if I was carrying a gun, I should report it to staff.  Carrying a gun is apparently perfectly acceptable on internal flights – as long as you report it - but a tin of Lynx is dangerous.

The second is more whiny but illustrates the attitude of airport staff.  The last time I flew out of the UK I was selected for a ‘random’ drugs test.  I’m not sure what profiling boxes I ticked, especially now I’m pushing forty, but they wanted to swab my bag for traces of drugs.  That’s fine by me, I’ve never attempted to traffic drugs and if I did I probably wouldn’t elect to use my own hand luggage to do so.  The swab came back clean of course, but the airport staff were clearly disappointed with this outcome. 

“We couldn’t find anything”, they said, huffily.  Not “There was nothing there, you’re innocent, thanks for your cooperation” but “We know you’re guilty, we just can’t prove it…..yet… I suppose we have to let you through security, but we’ve got our eyes on you”

I wasn’t a problem for me and I don’t mind being checked to see if I’m trafficking drugs (although I’m not sure what would have happened if they’d somehow found traces of drugs on my bag even  though there were no drugs inside – would I have been allowed to travel?  Would I have faced other charges? I’ve no idea).  What bothers me is the attitude of airport staff. I was automatically guilty because I ticked some boxes on a profile.  It didn’t occur to them that I might be innocent. 

In my case it was a minor inconvenience because I didn’t have any drugs.  The problem is that people with darker skin or Muslim attire are bang to rights by this despotic regime.  I fully expect to see this kind of bullying discrimination in America, but I mourn to see it here in the UK.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Special pleading?

Here it is argued that scientists should be allowed to check stories about their work before they are published.  Some people from Cardiff University claim that science stories are qualitatively different from other types of story and should be treated accordingly.  As exasperated as I get at science reporting, I don’t buy it.  They lavishly overstate the value, purpose and process of peer review and befuddlingly misrepresent what science journalists are actually trying to do.

To properly represent a body of scientific work, the same journalistic skills are needed whether the work is peer reviewed or not, so their argument that peer review gives scientific work special license that nobody else gets is obviously nonsense. 

I agree wholeheartedly that much science reporting is woeful and probably harmful. But I don’t see – and nor do the authors successfully argue – how allowing scientists to check publications about that work will help.  How would it work?  Would we get to veto negative stories?  Would we spend weeks working with journalists to make an article acceptable, only to find the window has been missed in any case?

It would be preferable to have principled science reporters following a well-established code, which could be easily policed.  Are there primary sources?  If so, they should be provided.  Are the results peer reviewed or not?  They should say so.  Is a controversy being manufactured where none actually exists?  This is where journalistic balance comes in.  I’m no fan of he-said-she-said journalism, but when an extraordinary claim is being made, we really do need more conservative types to explain whether or not it’s something the community really disagrees with (eg intelligent design, vaccines, global warming).

In other words, this is about journalistic integrity and competence (as journalists rather than scientific experts) and the fact that peer reviewed journals have provisional academic integrity has nothing to do with it.

H/T Tracy King @tkingdoll

Damn you, PZ

Well thanks for that, PZ.  I’ve just spent nearly two hours going through your list of banned people and reminding myself of their stupidity instead of doing the million work I have to do. 

It was like friendsreunited.  Remember that annoying little shit at school who wouldn’t leave you alone and then was satisfyingly jailed for sexual assault on 15th January 2005 and ordered to register as a sex offender for 7 years for molesting a seriously ill homeless woman, abusing a position of spurious power he disgustingly manipulated her into because of her desperate circumstances?  No?  Just me?  Well anyway, reading through the banned list and their various offenses is almost as satisfying as that.

{Jason Spayne (perhaps formerly) of Valley Road, Northallerton, North Yorkshire and (definitely) a former guest of Her Majesty: I’m not even slightly surprised.  You were an evil, selfish, stupid little troll at school. It’s a pity you never managed to learn how to be a decent human being and a shame indeed that you hurt someone so badly because of your putrescent sense of privilege.  I wish I could believe you’ve since learned something.}

*ahem*.  Nothing to see here.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Bill O’Reilly crushes Richard Dawkins

He says so and you can’t say it if it’s not true, right?

He does no such thing, of course. He misrepresents the book as some kind of atheist plot to mock god and when Richard says no it isn’t and explains why, Billo just says yes it is.

It’s physically painful to watch Bill O’Reilly in action.  He famously calls his show a spin-free zone, but it’s manifestly festooned with spin.  His claim to have ‘crushed’ Dawkins aside, he begins by claiming that Richard is on a crusade to “convince believers they’re idiots.”  That’s not spin?  How about introducing him as “atheist Richard Dawkins”.  Not “biologist Richard Dawkins” or “author Richard Dawkins” or even just “Richard Dawkins”.  Bill thinks that “atheist” is an unpleasant epithet and will influence his audience’s opinion of what follows.  Isn’t this the very definition of spin?  That’s why I called him Billo earlier: it makes him sound like a clown, which is what it is.  That’s spin.  I just don’t claim I don’t use it.

Bill then says that Richard’s book mocks god. He doesn’t provide any evidence for this.  He doesn’t even provide an example.  In his mind, saying that science can explain something is mocking god.

There’s an extraordinary part where Richard explains the format of the book.  He says that every chapter starts by describing a myth. Billo the Clown points at him and bellows “HA!” and smiles in a self-satisfied way as if that somehow proves his point.  From then, he’s relentless.  The fact that Judeo Christian myths are in a tiny minority in Richard’s book is a matter of ‘semantic games’, according to Bill.  What Richard really wants to do, despite The Magic of Reality not being about that at all, is to tell people they’re idiots if they believe in god.

Well they are, but the book is about science.  It’s about good and bad reasons to believe things.  Bill is just lying.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Dear Emma B: A moving post

I remember this from when PZ first posted it and now it’s been deservedly nominated for an award.  It’s an open letter PZ wrote to a child who was proud of asking a stupid question.  She was proud because it was what Ken Ham taught her to say and she thought she was doing a good job.  The incident threw the horror show of Ham’s ‘teaching’ into sharp relief.  As PZ points out, the question Emma asks is a bad one for all sorts of reasons.  It doesn’t do a thing to determine whether a proposition is true or false.  It was meant (by Ham, presumably not by Emma B) to ridicule; to cast doubt on science in the minds of people who already want to believe it’s wrong.

PZ’s letter is excellent.  It describes why the question is a bad one and offers a better question to ask instead.  It’s a beautiful piece of writing, too.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

It's basically all or nothing

Euan Murray plays rugby.  But not on Sundays.  Because the bible says not to play rugby on Sundays.

The Glasgow-born prop, 31, has chosen to prioritise his faith this weekend, meaning he will miss Scotland's Pool B clash with Argentina on Sunday.

I’m reasonably certain that if he chose to prioritise going out on the rancid piss on Saturday night and spending Sunday in bed, his bosses wouldn’t be so sympathetic.  Personally, I can’t see the difference.

"I don't see why there have to be games on Sundays," said Murray. "I hope things will change in future."

Well, it’s for the same two reasons shops now open on Sundays.  First, people want them to.  Christians shop on Sundays just like everyone else.  And second, it’s an economic necessity.

But he isn’t paid for his economic or socio-political skills. He’s paid to run into people and things.  And we might well admire him for having the courage of his convictions:

Murray will hope that he has done enough in previous matches to get his place in the team back for next week's match against England, which takes place on a Saturday.

He’s taking a risk for his beliefs, which some might indeed find admirable.  But he kind of spoils it:

"It's basically all or nothing, following Jesus. I don't believe in pick 'n' mix Christianity. I believe the Bible is the word of God, so who am I to ignore something from it?”

Well where do we start?  He obviously trims his beard and sideburns, which is specifically forbidden in Leviticus 19:27.  Do you think he eats pork?  He looks like he eats pork.  If he does, Leviticus 11:8 has something to say to him.  I’m entertaining a fantasy that rugby balls are made from pigskin, in which case he wouldn’t be allowed to even touch them and might successfully argue to his boss that he be paid for never touching the ball, but I’ve never yet noticed reality living up to any of these fantasies so I don’t hold out much hope.  I’ve also failed to uncover evidence that he bears tattoos or tattoos bears, at least one of which is forbidden, but I know for a fact that he wears polyester and other fabric blends.  That’s sinful.  Leviticus 19:19 says so quite clearly.  Hopefully he doesn’t eat shellfish because they are also strictly verboten.  It’s not just shellfish though, plenty of other animals get the same treatment: camel, rock badger, rabbit, eagle, vulture, buzzard, falcon, raven, crow, ostrich, owl, seagull, hawk, pelican, stork, heron, bat, winged insects that walk on four legs unless they have joints to jump with like grasshoppers (!), bear, mole, mouse, lizard, gecko, crocodile, chameleon and snail.  I’ve eaten some of the things on that list, rendering me sinful.  I hope Euan hasn’t because that would be pick ‘n’ mix religion.

Well, you get the idea.  But scripture goes rather further than telling us what not to do.  It tells us what we must do, too.  For example, Exodus 31:15 tells us to kill anyone who works on the Sabbath.  Does Euan do that?  Has he righteously slaughtered his team-mates?  Does he pop round to his local newsagents on Sunday morning and pop a cap in the shopkeeper?

"It's basically all or nothing, following Jesus. I don't believe in pick 'n' mix Christianity. I believe the Bible is the word of God, so who am I to ignore something from it?”

Who indeed? 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Psychic Sally Replies

She’s innocent!  She says.

Psychic Sally still in business

Despite being caught cheating by using an earpiece, Psychic Sally Morgan still seems to be in business.  I daresay this fraud is safe from prosecution due to the ‘for entertainment purposes only’ disclaimer, but I wish her audience would wake up and see Morgan for what she really is.  With little hope though: Peter Popoff is still in (big) business years after being debunked on live TV by James Randi.

Well done to Chris French and The Guardian for publicising Morgan’s dishonesty.  Perhaps a few people will get the message.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Literally

Theology is a strange field (if, as Richard Dawkins wonders, it’s even a proper subject at all).  It’s an exercise in making stuff up to save faith from the ravages of scientific evidence.  With such an empty premise, it’s hardly surprising that the content is so often equally void of content. 

Theologians tie themselves in especially hairy knots when it comes to the literal truth or otherwise of Genesis. Modern genetics shows us that humans can’t have originated from a single pair of ancestors.  In fact, we know that at some point in our hominid past, our ancestors went through a bottleneck of a few thousand individuals, but certainly not only two.

So theology trips over itself trying to reconcile it with the account in Genesis. Usually, this is pretty easy: you just say it’s a metaphor and leave it at that.  Nevermind that there are no instructions saying which bits of the bible are supposed to be metaphors and which are supposed to be true, that – after all – is what theology is for.  You see, making stuff up to wallpaper over uncomfortable truths.

But it’s harder in the case of Adam and Eve because of the sorry doctrine of original sin.  The whole point of Christianity is that Jesus came down to Earth from his magic star to redeem us of the guilt, carried by semen (so theologians say) from Adam down, into every one of us.  For some reason, Jesus’ weird proxy blood sacrifice is meant to absolve us of these sins (you know, the ones we didn’t even have the pleasure of committing).

Nonsensical as all this is, it poses a problem for theologians. Either the Genesis story is literally true or it’s a metaphor.  If it’s a metaphor then the central premise of Christianity is broken: there’s no original sin so Jesus couldn’t have died to redeem it.  But we know with certainty that the story isn’t and couldn’t be literally true, so where does theology go from there?

It makes stuff up!

Mark Shea claims here that there were lots of other people around at the time of Adam and Eve.  Adam is the ancestor of all living humans, but not the only ancestor, since Adam and Eve’s children were impregnated by all the other people around at the time.  Problem solved…. except that isn’t what the bible says.  There’s nothing in it about all these other people.  It’s all just made up so that the story makes (very slightly) more sense.  It can be literally true if you fudge the details in a way that’s not at all supported by biblical text.  That kind of practice is hardly bubbling with intellectual honesty or even internal integrity.  And besides, if the story of Genesis is a metaphor, what’s it a metaphor for?  As a metaphor for the big gang, the formation of the galaxies and evolution, for example, it’s rather sadly lacking.

But as Jerry Coyne reports here, theologians are nowhere near done making stuff up.  In his words, the Catholic Church says that lies are truer than truth.  He quotes Mike Flynn:

The mythic language is truer language than newspaper language, because it brings us to the heart of what happened, which is far more important than a photographic record of what happened.

Which glosses over the idea that for something to be truer, it has to be true in the first place.  The photographic evidence would at least determine whether the event happened and then by all means ask further questions that the photograph itself doesn’t answer.  But the point is that if all you’ve got is the photograph, you can’t just make stuff up to support what you want it all to mean. 

That’s what is meant here by ‘mythic language’.  It means you can have your magic bread and eat it too.  It means lies are truer than truth.  And it means you can explain away the fact that science proves Genesis – and therefore the entire central premise of Christianity – wrong, and still believe it’s right anyway.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Defenders of marriage

“We love them to death, and we love them without being judgmental,” the 62-year-old Chandler, Ariz., retiree said. “But the actual marriage I cannot agree with.”

Barbera Von Aspern says she loves her daughter but won’t go to her wedding because she’s marrying a woman.  It pains her – she unrealistically claims – that she won’t be at her daughter’s wedding, but her religious beliefs (she’s a Mormon) mean that she’s had to choose this course of action.

“It was very difficult," Von Aspern says. "We had to bring them to the house and hug them and love them and tell them these things and not let that keep us apart."

This woman ‘had’ to tell her daughter to not let the fact that she wouldn’t attend her wedding - because she felt her marriage was an abomination – keep them apart.  This is the most astonishing display of passive aggressive behaviour I think I’ve ever seen. Barbera wants her daughter to suffer because she herself is a bigot.  She just can’t swallow her religious bile for a day and be part of her daughter’s celebration.

And this is where the hypocrisy smashes through like the Hulk with IBS. She uses the ceremony as a sort of proxy for the bigotry of what she’s committed to believing.  How fucked up does a person have to be to convolute themselves into a position like that?

Barb presumably wishes the couple well and doesn’t object to the relationship, but to justify her belief in stupidity she has to draw an arbitrary line in the sand.  A line that – presumably – nobody was interested in crossing anyway. 

Too bad the cost is so high.  Oh, not the cost to Barb.  There’s no cost there.  Piety is it’s own reward and if you can mince in a little martyrdom so much the better.  Barb *revels* in her supposed pain.

The cost to the daughter is probably pretty high, though.  She probably wanted her mother to be at her wedding.  She probably wanted her mother to share in her own joy on a day that will change her life. 

But let’s strip this of the drama.  My parents believe that no marriage is really properly valid unless it’s a Christian marriage.  My marriage was not Christian.  But they came to the wedding.  They wanted to be a part of it, even though they didn’t approve.  They don’t think of me and my wife as not married, even though they don’t think secular marriages really count.

Similarly, I think that promising god that you’ll love, honour and obey is a pretty poor way to do things even if you believe in god or that people should obey one another.  I hate the mumbo as much as the jumbo and don’t like going to church weddings.  But I still go, despite HOW MUCH IT BURNS.

It’s such a small price to pay, isn’t it, to hold your tongue for a couple of hours?  And the idea that someone might approve of the marriage but not of the wedding is plain incoherent. 

Nobody buys that, Barb.  You hurt your daughter to make yourself feel pious.  I hope she realises she’s better off conducting her relationship with you on her terms rather than on yours.

That damnable cuttlefish puts it better, as usual.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Danny Penman of the Daily Mail is a credulous idiot

Or a sensationalist liar.  Penman has a PhD in biochemistry and claims to be a skeptic.  For a skeptic, he believes a lot of strange things for no good reason and does his level best to convince other people to believe them too.

Here’s a list of some of the things he seems to believe in:

  • ‘Psychic’ Sally Morgan is really psychic
  • His broken leg healed in half the time it would have because he meditated
  • People might be able to kill goats by staring at them
  • Poltergeists might exist (in South Shields of all places)
  • We might be able to transplant human souls and heart transplants might also transplant memories and character to the new owner
  • Hypnotism alone can block pain
  • Faith healing works

It’s not that he explicitly says these things are true.  He uses a standard daily mail trick of saying “the overwhelming majority of evidence is against this, BUT…..” and then adding some reference to a deeply emotional anecdote.  The reader is supposed to focus more on the but than on the fact that evidence doesn’t support it.  It’s an effective trick and the reason I think Penman might be a liar rather than an idiot, selling people things they want to read rather than what’s, you know, actually true.

His article on Psychic Sally is topical because there are reports that last night she was caught cheating:

Sue went to see psychic Sally Morgan last night in the Grand Canal Theatre. She was great in the first half but during the second half Sue began to hear somebody talking loudly at the back of where she was sitting. She thought it was somebody heckling but she soon realised that everything he said Sally was repeating on stage. He would say a name like David and she would repeat it onstage. Other callers who were also at the show tell of similar experiences.

We’ve seen this shtick before.

It’s funny.  In just about every article I’ve read about Sally, she’s offered to do a reading for the interviewer, even if they seem skeptical.  However, her number one complaint seems to be about people who ask her to give readings at dinner parties.  They just want to trip her up. She has described a charming story in which a man at a party asked her to tell him something about himself, so to shut him up, she told him and his friends that he suffered from rectal bleeding and had recently been digitally examined by a doctor.  And yet…. she always offers to do readings for journalists she has appointments with.  Could this possibly be anything to do with Google?

Penman writes:

I was trained to be a cynical hard-nosed scientist. My PhD in biochemistry taught me that logic, rationality and devotion to the truth are the most important qualities for any scientist. When I became a journalist, I kept these values close to my heart.

*Snortle*.

Recently my ‘rational' view of the world was shattered [by Morgan].

Sally offered (as usual) to do a reading.  She began by delivering a bombshell:

"You're going to Greece," she said.

A few days earlier I'd decided to go on holiday to Crete. It was the beginning of a long list of insights that left me physically shaking and chilled to the core.

Really, insight?  Lots of people go to Crete, so it was a good bet.  Perhaps Greek holidays were especially cheap that year.  If Penman hadn’t had plans to go there, she could have insisted that it was to be at some time in the far future.  To the credulous, that would count as a hit.  If he was going to somewhere close to Greece, that would count as a hit too. If he’d recently been to Greece or even if he remembered it fondly from his youth, that would have counted as a hit too.  What seems like an impressive coincidence at first becomes a lot less so when you consider that it was practically impossible for her to ‘miss’.

When I showed her a picture of my girlfriend, Sally said that she would soon be moving to either Oxford, Cambridge or, most likely, Bristol. The previous month my girlfriend had accepted a job as a lecturer at a college in Bristol. Sally could not have known this.

Couldn’t she?  It’s surprising what you can find out with Google.  Did she have a blog?  Facebook or Twitter account?  If not, has Penman ever mentioned her in an article?  When I Googled Penman, the first link was to his agent, with convenient contact details.  Sally is in showbiz too: does she know the agent?  Could she have called and asked questions about him?  Perhaps he mentioned the new job to his agent in passing?  Could she have found out from the agency website what other clients that agent has and reasoned that some of those people might know Penman?  Perhaps she knows some of them personally, could she have talked to them?

This is all pure speculation, of course and I’m not claiming this is how she did it.  It might have been a pure guess, for example.  Besides, all she really needed to do was find out that she was an academic and then mention three good universities. First, this makes the prediction seem more impressive: she didn’t mention academia specifically.  That would have been suspiciously accurate.  But by mentioning Oxford, Cambridge and Bristol, she established that connection in Penman’s mind.  This could be just a mysterious way of revealing something she already knew.  And second, once again, if Penman’s girlfriend hadn’t been moving to Bristol, it would still be counted as a hit because – as an academic – it might well be something she intended or aspired to do in the far future.

So I’m not impressed so far.

One of the most stunning revelations concerned a long-running argument between my parents - a dispute Sally cannot have known anything about. When my parents married in the early 1950s, my mother wanted to keep her maiden name. My father was equally determined that she should accept his surname. Sally could not have known anything about this argument. And yet she knew about the dispute in detail. It was obviously not on any official records and I doubt if anyone outside the family knew anything about it.

Interestingly, unlike the previous examples, Penman doesn’t quote her verbatim on this issue, with the result that we don’t know what ‘detail’ she actually uncovered.  We don’t know whether, for example, she led him to reveal the information himself, which is a popular tactic of psychics.  Afterwards, it would seem as though she herself had supplied the information.  I would like to see a transcript of their conversation before being impressed.

Sally had only three working days to gather information about me from such official sources as births, deaths and marriage certificates. Even a skilled detective would have problems building up a comprehensive picture about my family in the time available. However, even if Sally had unlimited time and money, much of the information she gave me was simply unavailable.

Would a private detective have such difficulties?  I don’t really know, but I doubt it.  I don’t think Penman knows either. 

We can always look at the previously-mentioned article by Robert Chalmers for some indication of the actual – as opposed to Penman’s imagined – difficulty of this sort of thing:

The following morning, I get a call from Richard Wiseman. With no assistance from a spirit guide, he has discovered the first names of my mother and brother. He put my name into a search engine, which led him to my publisher's website, where he found my place of birth. Then he consulted a site called genesunited.com. "I put in Manchester, and your name," he says, "which produced a list of records. From those I found your mother's maiden name, which led me to your brother. The whole thing took me a little under 90 minutes." Continuing the process myself, via the online registry of births, Friends Reunited and a school website, I find my brother's middle name online: this was a fairly laborious process of trial and error, which took the best part of an hour.

These are people who – unlike private detectives or Psychic Sally – don’t do this for a living.

Penman is just engaging in wishful thinking to justify his credulity.  As for the ‘unavailable’ information, see above.  Maybe, maybe not.  There are unofficial sources in plenty, after all, and there’s the distinct possibility that she was leading him to reveal information and making it seem like she came up with it herself.  That’s what psychics do after all.

I quickly ruled out the possibility that Sally was lucky and simply guessed the details of my unusual and chaotic family. Her reading was just too detailed and accurate for that.

This would make a lot more sense if we knew what detail should be considered too much for coincidence.  But this brings up another trick magicians often use: they use different methods to pull off the same trick.  For example, suppose they produce something from thin air.  You know they’ve palmed it or it’s come out of their sleeve or something.  So they produce more objects, this time showing that they couldn’t have done it that way.  They might even make this part of the act: they might say that you probably think I pulled it from my sleeve and roll their sleeve up the second time.  Then they might say you probably think I palmed it and do the trick in some other way that means they couldn’t have palmed it.  They’ve done the trick in several different ways but we have a tendency to assume there was only one trick.  Perhaps in the last case, the magician really did pull it from his sleeve, but by that time he’s already demonstrated that the trick can be done without doing that.  Since we assume he is using the same method each time, it looks more mysterious.  I expect Sally did the same thing.  Some Googling, some cold-reading, some guesswork…

I was then left with two possibilities, both of which were equally ‘irrational'. Firstly, Sally had interrogated me under hypnosis, extracted deeply buried stories from my past and then fed them back to me. The second possibility was that my dead relatives really had come back to talk to me and proffer advice for the future.

You should always be suspicious when you find yourself with only two alternatives, especially if they are both insane.  If you genuinely can’t think of more alternatives, you’ve probably been fooled.  You’re probably trying to explain the wrong thing.

I decided to secretly test Sally by sending along three customers. Two were equipped with surveillance gear to see if Sally was hypnotising her customers.

After my exhaustive investigation, I can confidently say that Sally was not hypnotising or manipulating her customers in any way.

First, he can only at best be confident that she didn’t manipulate those customers and second, I think he’s already demonstrated that he is not competent to judge whether people are being manipulated.  I suspect he doesn’t know about the tools of cold-reading so doesn’t know what to look for.  Third, the investigation doesn’t sound very exhaustive to me.  Why didn’t he get in touch with James Randi?  Or Richard Wiseman?  Or any number of other high profile ‘debunkers’ of psychics?  Robert Chalmers did when he interviewed Sally.  And why did only two of the three have surveillance devices?  What kind of scientific test is this?

Here are the views of the people we sent along to test Sally:

The views?  What have their views to do with it?  What kind of way is this to conduct a test?  Why didn’t he publish recording or transcripts of the readings?  Why didn’t he send along a magician or an expert in the psychology of cold reading?

Penman sums up:

With varying degrees of accuracy, in all three cases Sally had provided at least some amazing insights that defied rational explanation. But was her ‘gift' paranormal? After my encounters with her, I have come to believe that the idea is not as far-fetched as many claim and that there are possible explanations from within the world science.

This should be good.  He continues:

Strange as it may seem, in scientific principle at least, time can theoretically flow forwards and backwards. If this were to happen in practice, Sally might be able to ‘recall' events that have yet to take place in our own ‘real' time (fans of Back to the Future will find this easier to comprehend).

This is pure babble.  Penman is referring to the fact that the laws of physics do not require that time run in any particular direction.  This is a long way from saying that time sometimes moves backwards somehow.  Besides, the idea isn’t even internally coherent.  Where, exactly, is time running backwards?  In Sally’s brain?  Then why isn’t her brain running backwards?  There’s no way I can frame this theory of psychic phenomena in a way that makes the slightest sense.  And there’s certainly no evidence for it (evidence of what?) It’s just an out-and-out stupid thing to say.

The other possibility, of course, is that we really do live on after our physical bodies die. The universe is composed of energy that ceaselessly fluctuates in space. Given that our minds may reside in energy fields generated by our brains, isn't it at least possible that our consciousness somehow becomes imprinted on the fabric of the universe where those with special skills can detect it?

Penman is pulling a Chopra here. He’s sprinkling the word ‘energy’ around like salad dressing in the mistaken belief that it explains anything.  What he suggests is ‘conceivable’ only in the sense that we could imagine such a thing.  But then we’d have to ask what substrate it is that our minds get imprinted on and how the software runs when our brains aren’t involved.  Why do they get imprinted?  Lots of other things generate ‘energy fields’ too.  Are they also imprinted on the ‘fabric of the universe’?  It’s just another incoherent idea with no hypothesis of how it might work and most importantly no evidence for it at all

And yet Penman has the gall to suggest that his deranged speculations have something to do with science.  He’s got a science PhD, for goodness’ sake, he should have a reasonably keen understanding of what constitutes science.

Above all, the fact that we cannot understand how psychics such as Sally operate does not mean that they are not genuine.

Wait, what?  Of course it doesn’t. Why would it and why would anyone claim it did?  But more importantly, Danny, less of the “we”.  I think I have an excellent grasp of how ‘Psychic’ Sally operates and so do many others.  You can read all about it here on our very own web.  You could have too, if you’d troubled yourself.  Don’t assume that everyone else shares your expansive ignorance. 

There’s a very simple way to find out whether Sally is really psychic.  You test her properly.  I’m certain that the JREF would be delighted to do it and if she’s on the level, Sally could earn a million dollars for a few hours work.  She certainly qualifies to apply for the JREF Prize

Let me assure you, Danny, that their tests will be a lot more competently designed than yours, so perhaps you’d rather keep your fingers in your ears.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The monstrous Pearls

These people are monsters.  They preach what they call a biblical and Christian method of bringing up children or, as they charmingly put it, training them.  I’m not sure why they call it biblical, though, since little or none of what they teach appears in the bible.  What they seem to be doing instead is justifying their views on dealing with children.  It’s saying something when even the bible isn’t as awful as these people.

The Pearls believe in isolation.  They think that children should never be out of their parents’ sight.  At church, they must sit with their parents, not their friends. After church, they must stand with their parents rather than playing with their friends.  Since they must also be homeschooled, it’s worth asking how they can have any friends in the first place, especially because, according to the Pearls, “slumber parties are sin parties”.

There’s no privacy or freedom at home, either.  Children are to be supervised at all times.  There must be no physical way for them to access the web.  They are not allowed in their bedrooms except to sleep or to read quietly and the door must be open at all times, except for a strict 2 minutes to allow them to dress.

Phone calls are limited to 3 minutes and must be supervised, the list goes on.

Any transgression is dealt with by beatings.  Virtually any transgression at all.  Beating is the first resort.  Not with the hands of course.  Hands are for ‘loving and helping’.  So obviously they must be beaten with an instrument.  They recommend 1/4 inch plumbing line:

“It will fit in your purse or hang around your neck. You can buy them [sic] for $1.00 at Home Depot or any hardware store,”

How convenient.  But it gets better.  The pipes, explains Pearl,

“come cheaper by the dozen and can be widely distributed in every room and vehicle. Just the high profile of their accessibility keeps kids in line.”

Elizabeth and Kevin Schatz of California bought the Pearls’ book. Then they followed its advice, beating their 7 year old adopted daughter to death and hospitalising her sister.  The former had got a word wrong in a homeschool lesson.  The other was deemed to be a “liar” and a “bad influence”.  So the Schatz’ beat them for hours, taking breaks only to pray.

Kevin Schatz pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and torture and was sentenced to two life terms; he will serve a minimum of 22 years. Elizabeth Schatz pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and infliction of unlawful corporal punishment and received a sentence of 13 years. During the trial, Zariah addressed the court. She spoke in a soft voice and occasionally broke down in sobs. She said Lydia had meant the world to her, and she said, “I don’t know what I did to deserve what you did to me.”

The Pearls say they have sold more than 650,000 copies of their book. The book that tells parents to constantly beat their children with plumbing pipes.  Even without the beatings their doctrine is monstrous.  It’s evil to isolate children or to subjugate them to your will.  It’s barbaric to force them to behave as if they’re not children and to forbid the simple joy of running around like an idiot. 

Would you date an atheist?

Quite good, quite good. I was going to say that this sort of thing seems less of a problem in Britain than it is in the US, but then it occurred to me that my own sister would certainly never consider dating an atheist.  And I thought about some of the religious people I know – mostly Catholics and Muslims– who I’m sure would be horrified if their children dated atheists.

Is this the same thing?  I get the impression that it is probably not.  My sister would not date an atheist, but I don’t think she hates and fears us: I think she’s just can’t imagine sharing her life with someone who doesn’t share her beliefs.  Those Catholics (and others) would probably react the same way to anyone who wasn’t a Catholic, rather than picking on atheists in general.  Some might even be more prejudiced against Protestants or Muslims (and vice versa) than against atheists. 

Something slightly different seems to be the case in the US.  A lot of people really seem to hate atheists because they are atheists rather than because they are not specifically a member of their own group.  In fact, people who only nominally ally themselves with a particular religious group hate and distrust atheists.  These people don’t go to church, they spend only a few moments of their lives thinking about any or all gods.  They are pretty close to being atheist in practice, but they nevertheless hate atheists in principle.

I’m not saying that the situation here in the UK is anything other than tedious and pathetic.  But it does seem qualitatively different and quantitatively better than the situation in the US.  Let’s hope it keeps going in the right direction.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Nobody’s bothered

Loath as I am to link to the Daily Mail, this article claims that 2/3 of schools in England ignore their nonsensical legal requirement to provide a daily act of ‘collective worship’.

So that’s good.  2/3 of schools aren’t wasting their or their pupils’ time by teaching them magic.

Some of the comments are astonishing though, as you’d expect from Mail readers.  Here’s a few at random.

This one seems to be a threat of some kind, but I can’t for the life of me work out what the threat is or who is being threatened:

UK: Your Godlessness is a vacuum and it is will be filled. You can look to your roots in Christianity if your wish to remain identifiable British (barely at this point), or be replaced. There are several groups up to the task and IN your nation. It's up to you.

- Phil, Ottawa, Canada

Sully seems unaware of the irony in his own post:

I'm glad, we should go back to worshipping God, we were a better off country with respect for each other and morals. All of you atheists who disagree, get off this planet. It's for the God worshippers

- Sully, Yorkshire

Jones hasn’t troubled him or herself to read the 10 commandments before endorsing them.  I’m struggling to understand why teaching kids metaphors that are so poorly constructed that you have to spend even more time explaining the supposed morality tale within is a better idea than just teaching them about morality in plain English.  Especially since the parables are invariably told  as though they are true stories.

It would be a shame if it were banned. It was one way to teach people right from wrong, to teach them some moral behaviour, how to behave towards each other. I don't believe in God or an afterlife, but I think the ten commandments aren't a bad piece of guidance and the parables and other stories could illustrate or model good behaviour. You can listen to the stories and sermons, take what is good from them and make your own minds up if there is a God or not.

- Jones, Germany

I’m pretty sure I was behind this guy in the supermarket queue the other day.  He was buying mint imperials and string and leather driving gloves:

People seem to forget that we are a Christian Country and from time began we prayed to God, no matter how mythical it may seem. It It is the duty of a Christian Country to teach and pray. Unfortunately those growing up today have no idea of what happened in the last two wars but pray we did for victory over our oppressors. We have so much immigration that our religion seems to be second when it should be first. Other religions will attempt to take over if we let religion die a natural death in the UK. I have been through two world wars and all people prayed at school and church. I believe I am better because of it but do not attend Church very often. Bring it back in all schools.

- Don , East Anglia

And finally, of course, atheists are paedophiles:

all children should be made to study the Book of Proverbs. It will save them one day and bring up decent folk. Unlike the unruly, free thinkers what our society is becoming. Looting, drunkenness, adultery and selfishness the way of life now. Next thing, the Me, Myself and I society will be fighting for their rights to have sex with our kids. Its coming, just read daily how more and more women paedophiles (in schools too) are on the increase along with the general public beginning to accept kids in various risky adult pose. Isnt there an article here about a mother dressing up her toddler to look like the prostitute in the movie Pretty Woman? No one stopped it? Silence is as good as acceptance. Go on, red flag me and prove me right,.. this is a godless society and its perverted.

- mutal, uk, 7/9/2011 3:37

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Who would win in a fight? Sad vs Angry? Michael Pearl delights in hating people who have suffered tragedy

Only look at this if you’re made of stronger stuff than I am.  It’s very upsetting.

A woman suffered a miscarriage and it tore her world apart.  The death of a foetus is itself a grief I’m not sure I can comprehend. The reactions of her friends and family, although probably sympathetic, didn’t help her.  She felt that her husband didn’t feel the grief she did.  She was told by another (presumably well-meaning) family member that she probably hadn’t felt the baby kicking at all.  She’d just felt the corpse floating around.

This tragedy changed her perspective.  She stopped going to church and she stopped believing in prayer.  She couldn’t believe that this was a test of her faith especially since she’d had a pretty poor time of things already, having suffered abuse of one sort or another for most of her life. 

She began to wonder how the god she’d always believed in could possibly be the god that let this happen, as well she might.

She told her painful story to Michael Pearl in the hope he’d be able to help others in similar situations.  She said:

I don’t know if you have an article on coping with a miscarriage (I checked before writing this) but if you feel compelled to write one, many women would be grateful.

I’m going to quote Pearl’s response verbatim. It’s hard to know what to add. Awfulness and inhumanity drips from every sentence but I don’t think you have to go any further than the second word to feel your heart plummet into your bowels.  Pearl turns her grief into anger so he can send a self-righteous message that does nothing to help this woman or anyone else.

Your anger is based on the assumption that you know better than God what is best. Your child is now in the presence of God beholding the face of the Father (Matthew 18:10). “It is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish (Matthew 18:14). Your child will appear again in the Millennium as a child to be raised by someone—possibly you—to maturity, and so make a choice concerning the Savior. In reference to the Millennium the Bible says, “And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the streets thereof’’ (Zechariah 8:5). One of those playing children is your little one. Jesus held your child before your did. Are you angry at him for drawing this little one to himself? He said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:14).

Are you thinking about what is best for your child, or what you think is best for yourself? Do you know that this little one would be born whole to live a normal life? Do you know that he/she would not suffer from a chronic disease? Do you know that you child would have grown up to honor God and life a fruitful life? If your child was not going to be saved, would you still want him/her to come into the world and live such a short time just to spend eternity in hell? How can you be so sure that you know what is best? Like Job you need to be humbled and face the fact that your world has revolved around you. It is time you resigned as chairman of the universe and leave it to God to do a little “baby sitting” until you get there to take over for him. I am sure your baby is in the best of hands.

This response is as hateful as it is bewildering.  She wasn’t angry, she was asking someone she apparently trusted to help other people who might be as grief-stricken as her.  Along the way she started to lose her faith and Pearl caricatured that understandable way of thinking as anger at god and her as a dreadful person who deserved her lot and needed to be ‘humbled’ for daring to ask whether there were resources to help other people cope with similar things. 

It’s about the most shameful thing I’ve ever read.  I just can’t bring myself to comment on it, the hatred speaks for itself. 

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Pastor Mike responds

I wrote here about Pastor Mike, who a year ago wanted to make a list of atheists so he could harass and try to bankrupt them. More recently, PZ wrote about it here and Hemant Mehta wrote about it here.  This focussed a lot of attention on Pastor Mike’s site and he responded by making his blog private so that only his friends could see it.  Not a very brave or consistent act for someone who wants to put all atheists on a harassment list.

I emailed Pastor Mike and to my surprise, he responded.  Here’s my email:

Hi Pastor Mike,

First, let me say that since I understand you have suffered from or are suffering recent illness, I hope you are well on the road to recovery.

Second, I expect you have a lot of messages about your atheist registration scheme and rightly so.  It's an idea that certainly needs rethinking.  Since you've likely been deluged with information, I won't add to it here.  I just wanted to say that I've written about your crackpot scheme here: http://lookatthestateofthat.blogspot.com/2011/08/if-youve-done-nothing-wrong-theres.html

If you or any of your members would like to respond, you'd be very welcome indeed.  I'd rather know more about your actual motivations than to speculate about them.
Hoping you have a speedy recovery,

r

Pastor Mike responded by posting on my blog as follows:

For what its worth , I have abandoned the entire idea and have no desire to do any "atheist list." It was written mostly in parody ( jokingly ). Instead , I am simply going to continue praying for the salvation of all the lost.
The continued hate mail I get is already validating my point.
God bless you and yours -
Pastor Mike

I posted on the aforementioned blogs that I’d received this message and wondered whether it was the One True Pastor Mike.  He responded:

Yes , it was the ‘real me.’ I invite you all to check out my latest post on my I-net church at:

http://pastormikeschurch.blogspot.com/

I feel I have extended the olive branch , which is all I can do.

God bless and keep you all –

Pastor Mike

And I can now confirm that it really does seem to be the real Mike.  Brilliant.  Let’s look at what he has to say (from his new blog) and ask a few questions of Pastor Mike:

For what its worth , I have abandoned the entire idea and have no desire to do any "atheist list." It was written mostly in parody ( jokingly ). Instead , I am simply going to continue praying for the salvation of all the lost.

Why did he abandon the idea?  When did he abandon it?

If it was a parody, what was it a parody of? A parody is something cast in the style of something or someone else for humorous purposes.  What is the something or someone else in this case?  Where is the humour?  And if he means “joke” rather than “parody”, where is the punchline?  Where did threatening atheists become funny, because I’m struggling to see the joke?

The continued hate mail and character assassinations I continue to get have already validated the point I wanted to make.

It’s indeed a shame if Mike has received hate mail. I’ve had hate mail and it isn’t much fun.  We have to be careful though: there tends to be a marked difference between what I’d call hate mail and what religious fundamentalists like Pastor Mike might call hate mail.  For example, I would consider threats as probably belonging to that category but disagreements with my stance as probably not.  So it would be interesting to know what sort of mail Mike has received, whether it’s really hate-filled by any reasonable judgement, and whether it stacks up to his own clearly stated hatred of atheists.  He’s welcome to clear that up here: he knows the URL now and I post anything that’s not spam.

But more import is Pastor Mike’s idea that this alleged hate mail has somehow validated his point.  Which point was that, Mike?  I thought it was all a joke.  Either you meant it all as a joke and therefore didn’t have a point, which can therefore not be validated by hate mail, or it wasn’t a joke in which case you’re a liar.

I am instead , simply placing it in The LORD's Hands , and am continuing to pray for the salvation of all the lost. Feel free to drop by here from time to time and read upcoming sermons , VOD's , and simply proclaiming the truth of God's Word.

Placing what in those hands, exactly?  Pastor Mike, you were the aggressor and the bully here.  We were all just sitting around minding our own business and not believing in any gods when you suddenly decided you wanted to know where we lived.  What is it you’ve placed in the Lord’s hands?  Our punishment? Well have the decency to say so.

Thank you all for your "tolerance."

Please, Mike.  You began by attacking us.  What tolerance do you expect?  We don’t believe what you believe, but we shouldn’t be pissed off if you want to make a list so you can discriminate against us and bankrupt us? 

You will note that atheists aren’t trying to do the same thing to believers.

We aren’t the ones lacking in tolerance.

This will be my LAST statement in reference to the "atheist list" (that was never going to happen to begin with).

And yet there was an actual list, according to a few people who read your old site before you locked it down.  From what these people have said it included snail and email addresses of atheists and you promised to supply IP addresses on request. 

Would you care to deny that, Mike?  Or perhaps you’d like to answer some of the many questions I and others have posed to you.  Answer here, if you like.

Monday, August 29, 2011

If you’ve done nothing wrong, there’s nothing to be frightened of…

Edit: I keep meaning to add that Pastor Mike wrote his piece about a year ago and nobody noticed until people like PZ picked it up recently.  Since getting all that attention, Pastor Mike has made his blog private, so that only his friends can read it.  I’ve pasted the entire text of his post at the bottom of this one. 

It’s a brave move for someone who wants atheists on a public list so he can hassle and discriminate against them.  He already restricted comments to members, ensuring nobody said anything he didn’t approve of. Now he doesn’t want anyone even reading the blog unless they already agree with what it says.  Brave indeed. Pastor Mike, you can always comment here if you want to explain your actions.


This guy wants a (US) national registry of atheists.  Why would this be of any use or interest to anyone at all? 

Registering atheists like Richard Dawkins ( above ) would at least let people know who - and WHERE - they reside

(emphasis his)

Sorry, Pastor Mike, I’m still not sure I follow.  Why would you want to know that?  I suppose at least Pastor Mike might learn that Richard Dawkins doesn’t live in America, but I’m pretty sure everyone else knew that anyway.  Fortunately, Pastor Mike further explains his reasoning:

I mean , think about it . There are already National Registrys for convicted sex offenders , ex-convicts , terrorist cells , hate groups like the KKK , skinheads , radical Islamists , etc..

And we’re straight into the assertion that atheists are directly comparable to sex offenders.  Is there really a national registry for terrorist cells? You’d think that would make counter-terrorism quite easy.  Just look up the cells on the register and you’re done.

I’m not convinced at the usefulness of national registers for sex offenders (or at least, publicly accessible ones), but at least there’s an argument to be made about protecting the public.  What protection does Pastor Mike feel he needs from atheists?

Well, he doesn’t say.  This is because his real reason for wanting to register atheists is so he can harass them and encourage people to boycott their businesses.

Now , many (especially the atheists ) , may ask "Why do this , what's the purpose ?"Duhhh , Mr. Atheist , for the same purpose many States put the names and photos of convicted sex offenders and other ex-felons on the I-Net - to INFORM the public ! I mean , in the City of Miramar , Florida , where I live , the population is approx. 109,000 . My family and I would sure like to know how many of those 109,000 are ADMITTED atheists ! Perhaps we may actually know some . In which case we could begin to witness to them and warn them of the dangers of atheism . Or perhaps they are radical atheists , whose hearts are as hard as Pharaoh's , in that case , if they are business owners , we would encourage all our Christian friends , as well as the various churches and their congregations NOT to patronize them as we would only be "feeding" Satan .

Pastor Mike, sex offender registries are indeed – rightly or not - about informing the public.  Informing them of potential dangers. They aren’t there to provide the public with a list of people to discriminate against and harass.  That’s why access to those lists is usually tightly controlled.

Frankly , I don't see why anyone would oppose this idea - including the atheists themselves ( unless of course , they're actually ashamed of their atheist religion , and would prefer to stay in the 'closet.' ) .

Pastor Mike has already made the reasons pretty clear.  There’s every reason to be scared of Pastor Mike and his fellow thugs.  They already think we’re basically the same as sex offenders and criminals.  They already want to boycott our businesses and relentlessly preach to us or shun us.  And this is before they’ve even got started with the list.  We don’t have to be ashamed of our atheism to be concerned about your nutjob agenda, particularly in a country where crimes against atheists are unlikely to be met with much sympathy by the police and courts. 

Part of that agenda, of course, is to try make us ashamed by trying to marginalise us with local communities. To shame us into professing belief.  And if we don’t - Pastor Mike threatens - he’ll try to put us out of business.  Not because he doesn’t want people to be atheists, but because he doesn’t want anyone to be allowed to say they’re atheists.

I’m not ashamed of being an atheist and Pastor Mike can put me on his list if he wants.  I think I’m pretty safe from his disgusting plan here.


Pastor Mike’s original post

Brothers and Sisters , I have been seriously considering forming a (Christian ) grassroots type of organization to be named “The Christian National Registry of Atheists” or something similar . I mean , think about it . There are already National Registrys for convicted sex offenders , ex-convicts , terrorist cells , hate groups like the KKK , skinheads , radical Islamists , etc..

This type of “National Registry” would merely be for informationpurposes . To inform the public of KNOWN ( i.e., self-admitted) atheists . For example , let’s say you live in Colorado Springs , Colorado , you could simply scroll down ( from the I-Net site /Blog ) I would have , to the State of Colorado , and then when you see “Colorado Springs” , you will see the names of all the self-admitted atheist(s) who live there ( e.g., if an atheist’s name happened to be “Phil Small” ) . The individual’s physical address , and other known personal information would NOT be disclosed ( though , perhaps a photo could be ) .

Now , many (especially the atheists ) , may ask “Why do this , what’s the purpose ?” Duhhh , Mr. Atheist , for the same purpose many States put the names and photos of convicted sex offenders and other ex-felons on the I-Net – to INFORM the public ! I mean , in the City of Miramar , Florida , where I live , the population is approx. 109,000 . My family and I would sure like to know how many of those 109,000 are ADMITTED atheists ! Perhaps we may actually know some . In which case we could begin to witness to them and warn them of the dangers of atheism . Or perhaps they are radical atheists , whose hearts are as hard as Pharaoh’s , in that case , if they are business owners , we would encourage all our Christian friends , as well as the various churches and their congregations NOT to patronize them as we would only be “feeding” Satan .

Frankly , I don’t see why anyone would oppose this idea – including the atheists themselves ( unless of course , they’re actually ashamed of their atheist religion , and would prefer to stay in the ‘closet.’ ) .