Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Confidence in probability

In an incredible stroke of bad luck this week Natalie Morton (aged 14) died shortly after receiving a cervical cancer vaccine; quite rightly the story has been picked up by the press and widely publicised however I can't help thinking that the attention will cause more harm than good. Clearly this is a human tragedy and as a parent myself I feel deeply sad for Natalie's parents and family, as I'm sure anyone would. However we must also remember that cervical cancer is no walk in the park either, so I am torn between wanting to acknowledge the loss and yet afraid that all this publicity will wreck a really promising and successful campaign of immunisation for millions of young women.

This vaccine has already been given successfully to millions of girls all over the world, however it is not without it's critics; in the USA there has been a backlash from Christian groups who have boycotted it because they believe it encourages promiscuity. Several religious groups in the UK have campaigned against it too, however I think our Government made the right choice, mainly because the principal of prejudicing the health of a child because of the religious beliefs of the parent seems morally reprehensible to me.

In terms of safety this is a very safe vaccination, in fact over the course of our own UK programme the number of adverse reactions so far has been 4657 out of 1.4 million doses or 0.33%, that's a probability of 1 chance in every 300 jabs that someone may suffer a mild headache or a sore arm. To put this into perspective the probability of being involved in a car accident in the UK is roughly 0.38% (2007) i.e. slightly higher.

Interestingly it turns out that the likelihood Natalie died as a direct result of this jab is diminishing fast. We learn today that she unfortunately had a serious underlying medical condition anyway; however I fear the damage has already been done.

I do hope the various religious groups don't now jump on the "safety" bandwagon in an attempt to salvage their own agenda's, we shall see.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Herbal folklore and enchantments

I just love those old folklore myths regarding certain plants and the things that "must" be done in order to assure certain human biological functions (like successful reproduction) Much like Horoscopes; the power of authority that they convey still has a mysterious grip on many people to this day. From an historical perspective they give us a magical window into the preoccupations of our ancestors, and we see that those worries have changed very little over the centuries. Things like sex, food, illness, reproduction, death are all well represented, much as they are within the monotheistic religions that eventually took their place. The evolution of the idea that you can explain apparently inexplicable things (like fertility) through the action of undetectable and invisible (and yet uncannily human in character) forces is a clear and unbroken thread running through our past and present mythologies.

Here is an example of what must be done with Mistletoe,

In order to be effective in magical spells, mistletoe must be cut with a single stroke of a gold sickle on the Summer Solstice, the Winter Solstice, or the sixth day after the new moon. Take care not to let the plant touch the earth, lest it be rendered magically impotent. Many people continue to cling to the old belief that cutting down any mistletoe-bearing tree is a most unlucky thing to do. Some individuals who have done so are said to have met with a violent death as a result. Fairies are also said to be repelled by the sight and smell of mistletoe, a belief that unquestionably gave birth to the old custom of placing a sprig of the plant inside a child's cradle. With the protective power of the mistletoe working for them, parents who once feared that their children might be stolen by fairies and replaced with changelings could rest easier at night. In England it was once believed that if a young woman failed to be kissed beneath a sprig of Yuletide mistletoe before her wedding day, she would be forever unable to bear children. Likewise, unable to father children would be the fate of any man who never kissed beneath the yuletide mistletoe while in his bachelorhood.

I suppose modern religions in some ways represent the industrialisation of ancient "craft" superstitions like these; no longer do you need to learn about the magical powers of a hundred different plants and animals but you need only pay your money, close your eyes and let someone else worry about your worldly problems, a supermarket for our anxieties.

Here is the instruction for Willow,

In some parts of England it is still believed that willow wood should never be burned on Bonfire night. To do so invites bad luck. Driving a horse with a stick of willow brings on a stomach ache, while swatting a child or animal with one stunts their growth. Willow trees have long been valued for their natural ability to protect against sorcery and the evil eye and some individuals believe that touching them ensures good luck (touch wood). However, never reveal a secret beneath a willow, otherwise your secrets will be repeated by the wind.

You have been warned!

Lottery cash to the rescue

At long last some funding for Bletchley Park; £500K is good but they will need a lot more to spruce the old place up, the goal is £10M. Stephen Fry is on the case now so let's hope it gets a bit more publicity.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Thanks for all the meme'ories..

Hopefully we can all see what's wrong with this picture?

Yes, that's right, the woman in the photo superficially appears to be normal, but all her normal, rational and human reasoning abilities are being suppressed by an evil and destructive meme; this meme has taken over her brain and needs to be removed before this woman can regain a meaningful and fulfilling position in society. The medicine she requires is "education", and the easiest way to start her therapy would be for her to do a bit of reading on the internet, but cleverly the meme is preventing this...

Suddenly the meme's underlying purpose becomes clear.

Oh, and why pick on computers? everyone who's ever had to change a toner cartridge knows that photo-copying machines are the TRUE work of the devil!

Some advice for Atheists...

Thanks to PZ for finding this little piece, it's from a Christian writer and is titled "Five things that would make atheists seem nicer".

It's interesting because I think it exposes a deeply insecure mind-set. The thing which I see in this tactic is something that crops up a lot in the debate with Christians and other Theists, that is, a willingness to almost immediately drop into Ad-hominem attacks rather than defend their ideas with robust argument. Having used the tactic themselves they then project the logic error onto the opposition and play the "atheists are nasty/shrill/insensitive" card; which is essentially accusing atheists of using Ad-Hom via an Ad-Hom, a circular diversionary tactic.

We can see from just the title of this article that this particular Christian has failed even before he's started by using the word "seem", a nasty implication if ever there was one, anyway, let me respond to his suggestions in more detail.

1. Stop being so smug

There is nothing like starting an argument as a pot by calling the kettle black; Christians claim to have privileged access to the inner workings of the mind of the omnipotent creator of the universe and that unless you hold the same view as them you are eternally damned; pretty modest bunch of ideas no? I also read this as the workings of a mind that thinks it's "in charge" (as it has been in the West for the last 2000 years). If I were to rewrite this in an honest manner I would say it should really read, "Stop rubbing our superstitious noses in the stink-pile of reality, it makes us uncomfortable and we're fed up with being proven wrong".

2. Don't assume every piece of Christian evangelism is directed at you - we want the undecideds, not the decided-uns.

Why would atheists think that evangelism is directed at them? (jeez, I thought we were supposed to be the smug ones!); firstly this Christian is assuming that the dross which passes for "evangelical argument" in his circles is actually coherent; what atheists see is vague hand-waving about paradise and threats of an imaginary hell all sealed with Pascal's wager and teleological wish-thinking; compared to science this doesn't even make it to the first rung of a decent argument. We are all after the "undecideds", which is why this is no different from saying "shut up atheists whilst we get on with proselytising our particular brand of theism".

3. Admit that the debate about God's existence is complex - and that it can, depending on your presuppositions, be quite possible for intelligent and rational people to intelligently believe in an intervening deity who communicates through a book.

The truth of this point is that at its core is a simple concept, a concept that is not in the interests of Christians or any other religious party to expose. A simple question that any child could grasp causes the whole pack of cards to tumble down, i.e. please explain (objectively) the reason we should believe the Christian God over any of the other 20,000 gods that supposedly exist now or have ever existed?

4. Admit that the scientific method - which by its nature relies on induction rather than deduction (starting with a hypothesis and testing it rather than observing facts and forming a hypothesis) - is as open to abuse as any religious belief, and is neither objective nor infallible.

Totally wrong, this is a mischaracterisation of science; I would go so far as to say a lie. Science uses both deductive and inductive logic and it has something that no religion has or has ever had, that is a process of testing claims AGAINST REAL-WORLD OBSERVATIONS. Science is bounded by evidence, and religion has no bounds at all. Again, we see the true concern of the faithful mind in its projection of an internal concern onto a straw-man of science. Any individual can abuse anything of course, but the fact remains that "abuse" or hucksterism is the norm among the ranks of the superstitious, gullibility is often synonymous with faith.

5. Try to deal with the actual notions of God seriously believed in by millions of people rather than inventing straw-men (or spaghetti monsters) to dismiss the concepts of God - and deal with the Bible paying attention to context and the broader Christological narrative rather than quoting obscure Old Testament laws. By all means quote the laws when they are applied incorrectly by "Christians" - but understand how they're meant to work before dealing with the Christians described in point 3.

Which God? Which Christians? Which Laws? Which Book? Which narrative? There are thousands of different interpretations and sects each utterly convinced they are right because religion has no objective process to validate the truth claims of any of them, please explain why Baptists are wrong and Episcopalians right?. The only intellectually honest position is the one that rejects all of them and says "we don't know". The "Teflon" trick of the theologian is that once any particular thing is demolished by force of argument or evidence, they shift the goalposts, "Oh no, that's not our faith you atheists are arguing against" or "Oh no you shouldn't pay attention to the old testament" or "Oh no, that's just allegory, don't take that sentence literally, it's the next sentence that's important".

So, until the Theists come up with a single scrap of evidence that what they believe is true then forgive us atheists for calling it as we see it, apologetic whining is still whining so if it's that obvious then quit with the Ad-Hom's and show us the money!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

10 random beliefs

I did this post originally for dmk's "St. Aidan to Abbey Manor" blog, someone over their tagged him to list a set of 10 things you believe, ethical, philosophical or theological. I thought that was an interesting proposition, since we rarely commit these kinds of things to paper (or blog!) and accepted the challenge. Anyway, here are my 10 things; I did find this quite difficult, not so much the capturing things in words part but the deciding what should be in the list, its fun, I encourage you to try it!

1.Basic Human morality is innate; however we must add to and evolve the basics as we learn more about ethics and endeavour to reduce suffering in the world.

2.All human beings share the same set of emotions and feelings, for example love, hope, fear, wonder, awe, transcendence and human solidarity etc. our differences are much less than our similarities.

3.Planet Earth is it; we just get one life, it defies probability that we are even here at all, we are the lucky ones.

4.We make our own purposes in life, it’s up to us to take responsibility, grasp the nettle and make the most of any potential we have.

5.Sexuality, like race and gender are continuums, not binary and driven by genes; we don’t understand all the mechanisms yet but we shouldn’t fear any of them.

6.The fewer reasons there are in the world to divide people the better.

7.Knowledge cannot be gained by tradition, authority or revelation, it requires effort!

8.Our universe is utterly awe inspiring; our most beautiful, most complete and most reliable explanation for it comes from the natural sciences.

9.Reason is our species most valuable ability (by far) and evidence is the ultimate arbiter of the truth of our beliefs.

10.Dave Gilmour rocks and Luc Besson is a genius.

Now over to you!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

What if..

The Daily Mail had existed in those days :)

Friday, September 25, 2009

Superstition fights science (again)..

I noticed this little story today from Kenya; it's the usual stuff, ignorant religious folk refusing to take their 5 year old daughter to the doctor, preferring to pray instead. It looks like the girl will be dead soon, hopefully the parents will be punished for their infanticide and the world turns.

I wonder how many Einstein's, Mozart's and Newtons have been lost to humanity because of morons like this.

More banana man logic

In a previous post I described Ray Comfort's plan to distribute 50,000 copies of Darwin's "On the origin of species" with a "special" inserted preface written by Comfort. Well now I have obtained a copy of that preface and can confirm that it is entirely up to the normal intellectual standards of the "banana man". It is very hard to pick any particular part that stands out; it's all pretty asinine, but to illustrate what I mean here is a few paragraphs on DNA (remember Comfort has no scientific qualifications whatsoever, nor any theological ones)

More importantly, this claim of evolutionists makes a huge assumption. What is the scientific basis for assuming that similar DNA means a common ancestor? When you see a biplane and a jet—which share common features of wings, body, tires, engine, controls, etc.—do you assume that one must have evolved from the other naturally, without a maker?

That's illogical. It's more reasonable to conclude that similar design indicates a common, intelligent designer. An architect typically uses the same building materials for numerous buildings, and a car manufacturer commonly uses the same parts in various models. So if we have a common Designer, we would expect to find that a similar "blueprint" was used in many different creatures.

So what Ray is arguing here is that because animals have very similar DNA it doesn't necessarily mean they have common ancestors it could mean that they were created individually but using the same "blueprint".

First we have the usual conflation of man-made things and natural things, i.e. the non-sequitur that because man-made things are designed then natural things have to be we know a posterior that people make jet planes there is overwhelming evidence for it, Comfort ignores the fact that we also have overwhelming evidence that natural processes create natural things.

Anyway let's put aside the glaring logic errors and focus on the evidence. Let's assume that God did indeed create DNA in the same way that a human designer creates a design for an aircraft, the human would certainly design the parts of the aircraft that needed to be there for the correct functioning of it, i.e. wings, wheels, a cabin, seats, engines etc. and certainly some of the same ideas would be carried forwards from previous modes of mass-transport, i.e. the "Blueprint" idea, a good example would be trains. Trains have seats, wheels, engines and cabins etc. but think about it, if you laid out the individual parts of the TGV in one hanger and the Airbus A380 in another how many would be identical and made of the same material? it's likely that they would only number a few dozen, mostly insignificant screws and plastic fixings, i.e. <1%. In the case of DNA the differences between human DNA and chimp DNA are roughly 4%; that is 96% of the components in our DNA are IDENTICAL in every way, same material, same order and same structure.

The only reasonable explanation for this is evolution, if you are an intelligent designer you can design every animal from scratch, like the train and the airbus you don't need to reuse the same design, hence we see utterly unique configurations of utterly unique components in human design. Evolution on the other hand cannot start from scratch it has to adapt existing design in tiny ways to achieve new results, therefore all the legacy exists in every new species, which is exactly what we see in nature.

So how do we know that the entire legacy DNA of all ancestors exists in every modern species, easy, watch what happens when the system goes wrong!

This is a picture shows a snake that has grown a lizard's leg, not just any old stumpy leg but a well defined and perfect lizard leg, complete with toes and claws, now where did that come from if the ancestral lizard DNA wasn't already present in the snake and suppressed with genetic switches during embryonic growth (an act of God?).

Need more evidence? How about the retrovirus DNA that is inside every one of our cells. Back in the mists of time one of our ancestors was infected with a retrovirus, what these little critters do is inject their DNA into a host cell and use the mechanism of the host cell to replicate, occasionally that virus just sits there injected into the normal DNA sequence, benign and functionless, like a typing mistake in a document. Guess what, the exact same retrovirus sequence is present in chimp DNA, in exactly the same place as ours. What Ray has to explain is why his "designer" not only copied the DNA of apes to make the DNA of men but he also copied the errors too?

I could go on.

So, if you are offered one of these books you know what to do; take as many copies as you can, rip out the first 50 pages and punch a hole in them, thread the hole with a string and hang the whole bundle up in the nearest toilet.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Problem, what problem?

This little story really made me chuckle today, apparently a prison in Dorset installed anti-bacterial hand-gel dispensers to stem the spread of swine flu and within hours several of the inmates were intoxicated from drinking it, now the facility has been removed.

Firstly, how desperate must you be to neck the hand gel and secondly I cannot imagine how bad it must taste; according to the BBC there were similar incidents in reception areas of hospitals earlier this year.

Honestly, some people!

Global conspiracy?

Is it just me or does Col. Gaddafi look incredibly similar to "the hood" from Thunderbirds, are those shades intended to hide the give-away bushy eyebrows?

Makes you think doesn't it ....

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Did he get the date wrong?

People in Sydney Australia woke up to this apocalyptic scene today:

A blood red sky! very impressive indeed, perhaps I was overly hasty in taking the mickey out of a prophetic rapture enthusiast in an earlier post, maybe he just got the date slightly wrong?

So, warning message from God or a dust storm blown in from the outback, what would be the rational choice?

The only way is UP!

According to a recent survey the number of people with no religion in the USA grew from 8% of the population in 1990 to 15% today (2009), if this survey is accurate then it means non-religious people are the fastest growing segment there.

Here is the press statement from team at Trinity College who ran the survey.

The percentage of Americans claiming no religion, which jumped from 8.2 in 1990 to 14.2 in 2001, has now increased to 15 percent. Given the estimated growth of the American adult population since the last census from 207 million to 228 million, that reflects an additional 4.7 million "Nones." Northern New England has now taken over from the Pacific Northwest as the least religious section of the country, with Vermont, at 34 percent "Nones," leading all other states by a full 9 points.

"Many people thought our 2001 finding was an anomaly," [Ariela] Keysar said. We now know it wasn't. The 'Nones' are the only group to have grown in every state of the Union."

This is good news for the USA and probably the world, I'd feel a lot safer with a rational finger on the trigger than a superstitious one; and I always liked New England, nice ice cream, bit chilly in Winter though.

Tesco "value" religion?

Following on from a recent story about yet another Christian health service worker having their wrists slapped over wearing a piece of jewellery (crucifix) to work, here is an interesting corollary, Daniel Jones, the leader of the "International Church of Jediism" was recently banned from his local Tesco in Bangor (N. Wales) because he insisted on wearing a hooded gown; he has since made an official complaint against what he describes as religious discrimination. Apparently there are 500,000 followers of this particular organisation, putting it (numerically at least) on a par with say the Rastafarians or other minority faiths in this country.

The interest for me in this story is not really the validity or otherwise of his complaint but more as a thought experiment; if you strip away the tradition and authority of Christianity or Islam etc. then there is essentially no difference between these two cases. Both Jediism and Rastafarianism are simply ideas resting in the brains of many people, memes if you will. Ideas like these are powerful and certainly inform the behaviour of the brains they reside in, they can also provide the "user" with inspiration and comfort. In practice though the religious meme just sits there, unlike other kinds of ideas it does not advance, doesn't grow, and cannot improve, it's stuck in a time warp and constrained by an unfalsifiable fictional narrative laid down in the past (in the case of Jediism 1977!). When I compare this with the body of human scientific knowledge, which is also a set of ideas or memes transmitted from one person to another, the contrast is stark. Science is constantly growing, constantly improving and forever changing as parts of it are shown to be wrong or need to incorporate new facts; rational ideas seem to differ from superstitious ones in that they can evolve in this way, providing both utility and inspiration, regardless of the bling involved!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Banana man & noobin

I seem to be talking about Ray Comfort a lot lately; perhaps it's all part of his evil plot to sucker the Atheist community into giving him free publicity and like moths to his stupid flame we can't help but be drawn in. In any case, he is up to more dastardly tricks along with his toy boy buddy Kirk Cameron (some E-list American actor); as a publicity stunt he is handing out 50,000 free "special" editions of Darwin's "On the origin of species", only the thing that's "special" though is that he's created a 50 page pre-face that outlines his loony ideas (as featured in the video link of a couple of posts ago); so we have all the usual stuff, "something can't be created from nothing", "how did the first dog find a mate", "paintings must have a painter", "Darwin was a racist", "Hitler was a Darwinist", "Darwin hated women" and all of that garbage.

I can't help wondering where Ray gets the money to commission 50,000 copies of a book that he then gives away for free; the "first church of stupid" must be a lucrative gig! Anyway it sounds like a good opportunity to grab a copy of the "origin" cut out the first 50 pages and hey presto, win-win. In order to celebrate this act of generosity here is a little tribute video done by an intelligent young woman called Cristina on you-tube, I'd love to see her debate Ray, I can imagine that would be messy.

You may be wondering why I titled this post "Banana man & noobin", well Ray is world famous on the net for another little video he did with Kirk just over a year ago, it's called "The Atheists nightmare" and in it they explain how a banana is proof positive that God exists; yes really! If you need a laugh I thoroughly recommend it.

Still here?

Now that its the 22nd of September we need to take stock of those that were "raptured" during the night; anyone still reading this is presumably a hopeless sinner and now faces 7 years of trials and tribulation (another Labour term?) never mind though there are some advantages; I suggest you pay one of your Christian neighbours a visit on your way to work this morning (traffic should be lighter), if they aren't in then they have clearly been whisked up to heaven, so help yourself to their house, car, that nice flat screen TV you've had your eye on. In other news apparently the Daily Mail has shut down, sales of Barbour jackets have crashed and the Conservative party has evaporated.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Ray of darkness?

Following on from the ejaculations of team stupid in the video link I posted from the 700 club, I thought it would be a good idea to point out the scientific and logical errors that these particular Christians are pushing out as "obvious truth" to their followers.

There were two main arguments made during the interview,
  • How did sex evolve, or in Rays simple mind, when the first dog evolved where did the female dog come from?
  • You can't have a painting without a painter (etc.) and you can't get something from nothing.
When we look at the first point we can see the working of a seriously confused (or seriously devious) mind; let's be charitable and assume Ray is just confused, what he hasn't realised is that individuals don't evolve, populations do. Evolution does not work by dogs giving birth to cats or apes to people, that would be a plainly stupid thing to believe; change is much more gradual than this. In the case of sexual reproduction, i.e. having a male and female (notice Ray assumes the Male evolved first) that trait evolved way, way back in the mists of time before there were mammals, reptiles or even fish; hundreds if not thousands of millions of years ago, probably from something like a hermaphrodite worm in the pre-Cambrian, in fact some animals can reproduce this way today so we don't have to invent or imagine anything, some reptiles for example use parthenogenesis sporadically when conditions demand it . For simple animals back in the pre-Cambrian the gender difference would be quite small although even in humans the actual chemical differences between genders is miniscule, mainly switches that turn features on or off. The genetic advantage of sexual reproduction would be great for the first populations of animals to start to take advantage of it, so, by the time fish evolved we already had males and females (as seen in the fossil record) existing in such populations. Fish branched into amphibians and reptiles and all this time sexual reproduction was going on between males and females within those populations; reptiles branched into mammals and so on to the current day.

The second point Ray makes shows a hopelessly simplistic view of nature, he points to human artefacts, i.e. paintings, buildings, cars etc. things which were obviously made by people, he then extends this (obvious) rule of thumb to everything in the universe, this is a complete non-sequitur, we can show this is wrong simply by pointing to one complex thing that is not created by an intelligent designer, for example a snowflake or a rainbow. He then goes on to commit a bifurcation fallacy by assuming that there are only two possibilities, i.e. nothing created something or God created something, this neglects the possibility that the universe has always existed. To use human artefacts as examples is simply disingenuous and Ray unwittingly hoists himself by his own petard and any rational person will ask the question, if something cannot be created from nothing then who created Yahweh?

The simple fact is that we don't know where the universe came from or if it has always existed, there are physicists working on various hypothesis, indeed the LHC in part is helping to answer some of these questions, it is not even clear for example that a vacuum is even stable and matter and energy seems to pop into existence all over the place. Once we have a universe though, the path to get to homo-sapiens are more or less known; the theory of evolution explains how we get from simple forms to more complex forms not where the universe comes from so in this regard Mr Comfort adds a straw man fallacy to his already impressive list of errors.

Quick run out and shag something NOW!

According to the author of this web site the "rapture" is going to happen today!!

This particular piece of Christian nuttiness is a prophecy that the end of the world will be initiated by Jesus coming (floating?) back to the planet to "save" the true believers by whisking them off to paradise with him leaving the rest of us to clean up the mess and get on with things without them; funny though, I can't see any downside for us blasphemers?

*Warning* don't try to read this web site for too long, the insane colour scheme and random use of caps. causes your brain to haemorrhage.

*Note to self* check this site tomorrow.

Want to see something criminal?

Take a look at this Christian TV channel where the host (Pat Robinson) and a guest called Ray Comfort attempts to persuade viewers that his criminal level of ignorance regarding evolution and science is a reason to believe Christianity is true. This man is so incredibly ignorant on these matters that you wonder if it’s really all just a scam, and he’s simply milking the ignorance in his constituency and cashing in by flogging them his books?

So, is this just yet another money generating religious scam or a case of “dumb and dumber”, you decide.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Officially weird

Hold onto your hats!, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux is visiting the UK, so what can her fans look forward to? a whirlwind round of book signings, public readings, a stadium concert perhaps? hold on, hold on, she's been dead for over a hundred years! As always with religious claims, the reality fails to live up to the promise, what is actually visiting the UK are a couple of bones in a shiny box.

It is baffling to me why there is "mounting excitement" among the Catholics of Britain, we are talking about dusty old bones in a box, this is paganism surely? This stuff is coming from a community of people who (in large numbers) protested about Harry Potter because it portrays "MAGIC"!, and yet are beside themselves with excitement that a couple of old bones will rejuvenate their clapped out hips..

Matthew Parris has a nice story about it in the times, his take is that we need stories like this from time to time in order to reaffirm our Atheism, he goes on to say

"For pity’s sake, closet atheists of Britain, come out! Don’t “respect” this credulous folly! Don’t let the madnesses of these faith minorities go by default! Stop our politicians kowtowing to nutters! Cease the embarrassed muttering about being “don’t knows” on religion, and shout it out. We do know! It isn’t true! All that is necessary for the triumph of religion is that disbelievers should do nothing. God speed to this ludicrous casket of bones; they have reminded me of an eternal truth: agnosticism is not enough."

So in conclusion, Catholics stop!, consider what you're doing, chill out, read a good book (something by Philip Pullman perhaps?) or go see a chick flick instead of this nonsense, you know it makes sense.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

PZ Takes no prisoners

In conjunction with Richard Dawkins new book hitting the Times best seller list here is PZ Myers letting rip on the subject of creationists, scathing but absolutely true.

There are no more excuses. None. 

The defining characteristic of all arguments with creationists is how damned ignorant they are. I'm sure many scientists have been stupefied into stunned silence when they first encounter these people; these advocates of creationism are typically loud and certain and have invested much time and effort into apologetics, but when you sit down and try to have a serious discussion with them, you quickly discover that their knowledge of basic biology is nonexistent. It's worse than that. We're used to freshmen entering our classes who don't know much about the basics, and we can deal with that; these, though, are people with negative knowledge, whose brains are so packed with raging falsehoods that we have to struggle to overcome an unfamiliar hurdle. 

For example, last year I got into a radio debate with a Discovery Institute creationist, Geoffrey Simmons. He had written a whole book for creationists arguing that there are no transitional fossils…yet he had never heard of any of the major fossil discoveries in the whale series, and seemed to have gleaned all of his understanding from a garbled misreading of a short Scientific American article. 

It's infuriating. You want to argue against evolution? Then you'd better have some elementary understanding of what evolution actually says. We've got the same phenomenon going on right now in one of the comment threads, where a particularly obtuse creationist, Sean Pitman, is raving about the inadequacy of natural selection. I wouldn't mind, except that he's a freaking idiot. This goes on day after day — creationists are mired in a pit of ignorance so deep and so black that it takes incredible patience to lead people out of it (and also, some rhetorical boot-stomping against the fools who are trying to drag others even deeper into the darkness).

If you want to read more, click here...

Frank Schaeffer on fire

Take a look at this video, it's Frank Schaeffer speaking to Rachel Maddow of MSNBC on the subject of Conservative Christians in America; I think he's on the money; finally people are speaking out on mainstream media about the connection between faith, delusional anti-intellectualism and loony-tune politics, when you let faith rule your life you can believe absolutely anything.

The reason for his outburst? apparently 35% of conservatives in New Jersey believe that Obama is the Anti-Christ - nice..

Thank God for Mississippi

In a deliberate echo of my blog pal Elizabeth I came across a story today about this fine Southern American state, but mine has a religious twist. According to data collected from Pew and the Centre for Disease Control, Mississippi has the doubly dubious honour of being the most religious state in the Union and the one with the highest number of teenage births.

The key question is, is there a correlation? Sociologist Amy Adamczyk makes a case for it as follows,

Adamczyk says the idea that anti-contraception principles could be behind the link is controversial, as studies on the topic have varied results. "The idea is that in the heat of the moment, a young woman who has said, 'I'm going to be a virgin on my wedding night,' is with her boyfriend and she says 'Let's just do it.' And since they didn't plan it, nobody has a condom. And so it increases their chances of a pregnancy," Adamczyk said.

I can certainly see her point and the numbers do seem to support this view, for example the states with the least teen births (New Hampshire & Vermont) are also the least religious.

So, is sex more popular than Jesus?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A bit of Islamic slap…

Here's an interesting thing.

I came across this little agony aunt-esc site aimed at Muslims ("ask the iman" if you will) and it's a fascinating insight into how religion works. Take this example, the question posed by a female reader is "Is it haram for women to wear make-up and kohl?", "haram" means forbidden and Kohl is essentially eye-makeup.

The interesting bit is the response from "academy teacher" Ustadha Zaynab Ansari, here it is (in italics)

In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful

Praise be to Allah. May the peace and blessings of Allah shower upon our Beloved Messenger, his family, companions, and those who follow them.
Dear Sister,

Wearing kohl is one of the Sunnah's of the Prophet, peace be upon him. It is allowed for both males and females. Unless you will bring undue attention to yourself, it is permissible for you to wear kohl.

Makeup is different. In Surat al-Nur, Allah says, "And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands' fathers, their sons, their husbands' sons, their brothers, or their brothers' sons or their sisters' sons, or their women or the servants whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex, and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O you Believers turn you all together towards Allah, that you may attain Bliss". (Qur'an 24:31).

Scholars have interpreted the directive to not display beauty and ornaments except what ordinarily appears in terms of ordinary adornment and extra adornment. Ordinary adornments like kohl, henna, or a ring are permissible to wear in public. Extra adornment, like perfume, lipstick, dazzling eye colours, and the like are not permissible to wear in public. In short, any type of adornment which makes a woman look "made-up" and attracts amorous attention is not permissible, as this would defeat the whole purpose of hijab.

And Allah knows best.

Once you get over all the grovelling, how bloody confusing!

If you wear a hijab the only part of you people can see is your face, and it's ok to put makeup on your eyes (the purpose of which is to enhance sexual attention via the face), the parts of your body that are covered cannot have makeup on them, but presumably no one would see them anyway. However any makeup would need to be removed and re-applied 5 times a day for prayers (only a man could make up such an impractical rule!)

Then there is the instruction that women can't draw attention to themselves through the use of makeup but can flash their baps to their husbands fathers (not their mother's fathers?) and their brother's sons, I'm sorry but that's some messed up family!

It is so plain to me that these petty rules and restrictions are man-made, its just simple logic; what kind of evil, sick God would make the life of Muslim clowns such a living hell?

All things bright and beautiful...

Whilst we're on the subject of things that make you go euwww! how about this miracle of nature, a parasite (of the Isopod family) that burrows into a fish and then eats and replaces its tongue!

In addition to this picture which was taken off the East coast of the USA, apparently an unsuspecting diner in London found one in the mouth of a red snapper he was about to eat back in 2005 (I wonder what the correct wine is to drink with Isopod? probably Riesling...)

What on earth was God thinking when he created this little beauty?

It's a crack

Take a quick look at this picture, if you are over 40 and see sheep, then you need glasses (I did!)

I have to ask the obvious question, who are the people that do these kinds of photographs, is the pay good or do they do it for a cheap thrill?  and somewhere there has to be a big pile of "warm" pants, euuwww!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

RIP Keith Floyd

Sad news today Keith Floyd, the original TV chef has died; I remember with fondness his TV shows, I think he was largely responsible for kindling my long standing love affair with food and wine. He also had excellent taste in music being a big fan of the Stranglers, apparently Hugh Cornwell used to play in his original Bistro in Bristol in the 80s; anyway cheers Keith!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Official quandary…

Ok, I'm in an official quandary now; faced with a story about a bunch of thugs protesting about Islam, who do I side with???

Thugs offend me, Islam offends me. In theory both groups would want to cause me harm; the thugs because, well they are thugs and Islam, well because they're theocratic thugs. I must admit there's not much clear light between the two groups in my mind. If you cross the extreme ends of either faction, you will probably end up with a severe beating, stoning, flogging or worse. I find it noteworthy that at the end of a recent protest by the English Defence League (EDL) in Harrow, young Muslims turned on the police, throwing bricks and bottles; a change is as good as a rest I suppose?

I have no objection at all to people lawfully protesting against Islam or for that matter Christianity, Big Brother, Atheism or anything else, and doing so should not be considered racist, provocative or "hateful". Like Christianity or Socialism, Islam is just a set of (diverse) ideas that certain people hold. Freedom of speech laws in this country should mean that anyone can criticise any idea, religion should not have any special privileges or immunity.

Unfortunately our current Government don't seem to see things this way, there is a tendency to immediately label any anti-Islamic protest or outburst as hate-speech or racist. This is ludicrous of course; Islam is no more a race than Christianity or "right-wing" is a race, in a statement by Tony McNulty (Labour MP) said

"This was a house of God they were objecting to. They can wrap it up in whatever politics they like, but they were anti Muslim religion."

Millions of people in our Country don't believe God even exists let alone has a postal address in Harrow East; so why is such vapid reasoning anything like a valid objection to legitimate protest?

Hey Catholics, want a new saint?

I must confess I know very little about the Catholic beatification process, I'm sure there are very many rules and exceptions to it. I read a story about the death of a man today who would definitely be on my sainthood list, simply because he quietly and diligently worked to make a real and tangible impact on the whole of human kind; regardless of faith, colour or creed.

The man in question is Norman Borlaug, Norman who? I hear you ask, NB was a scientist (I have no idea what religion he followed or none) but back in the 60s he figured out how to hybridise wheat in order to increase yields and disease resistance. This sounds like the kind of geeky stuff that boffins in white coats do, i.e. of little interest to "normal" people. The big deal about Norman's work was that it succeeded in enabling the doubling of food production world-wide between 1960 and 1990, this increase almost certainly avoided a worldwide famine in the late 20th century; it is conservatively estimated that he was directly responsible for saving many hundreds of millions of lives. He wasn't a rich or famous man, quite modest you could say, and he dedicated the later years of his life to training and education; his legacy is of epic scale though, he truly made the world a better place for generations, particularly poor people in the third world.

If there are conditions for becoming a saint then surely Norman Borlaug exceeds them?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

American anti-idol

I'm looking forward to "Creation"; it looks like a nice little British film about Charles Darwin, it's got some well known actors in it and has its premiere in the UK tomorrow. The film has already opened the Toronto film festival and has been sold in almost every country around the world, except America. So what can we conclude from this snub, that the factual account of the life of one of the greatest minds ever to grace this planet is too "hot to handle" for 21st Century American minds? ignorance is bliss apparently.

Several US based "Christian" movie sites that review films from a "Christian" perspective have produced damning albeit ignorant reviews of the film already, here is an example of one of them, described Darwin as the father of eugenics and denounced him as "a racist, a bigot and an 1800s naturalist whose legacy is mass murder". His "half-baked theory" directly influenced Adolf Hitler and led to "atrocities, crimes against humanity, cloning and genetic engineering"

What a pile of poo!; it's incredible that supposedly educated people in 2009 continue to think in this delusional way, but as I said in my last post about 9-11, when you have "faith" anything is possible.

For the more enlightened among us the film is released in the UK on the 25th September; I'll be hopefully reviewing it in early October.

Friday, September 11, 2009


Well it's that time of the year again, 9/11 or as us Brits like to call it 11/9. Many bloggers are putting up posts about this historic event 8 years ago today; it is so indelibly etched on our collective consciousness that it's almost a mandatory topic. I have a mixed memory of the day, of course I remember the anguish and the drama of the terrorist attacks, but it was also memorable for me because it was the day that my newborn son came home for the first time and my wife and I were so excited to be looking after him; learning new emotions and experiences at an exponential rate. It was doubly poignant for me because the company I worked for at the time had an office on Wall street (a few blocks from the WTC) and at that time I was shuttling back and forth to New York, my plan had been to be in NY that week and had it not been for my son being born I probably would have been staying in the Marriot at the WTC itself or possibly the Hilton across the square which is where I normally stayed.

Like everyone else I was glued to the news that day and watched with horror as events unfolded; my work colleagues and I desperately tried to contact our American friends and colleagues to make sure they were OK but it was dreadfully difficult, the phone system was severely stressed and most people weren't in the places they normally were. In the end our story was not a tragic one nobody I knew was killed or injured, at least not physically anyway.

I visited the site a few weeks later, my lasting memory was of the smell, anyone who has ever had a deep freeze full of meat defrost and sit festering for a month will know the kind of smell I'm talking about; we had to move the entire office up to Midtown after that, it was so awful. The other feeling I had was of the sheer magnitude and scale of the aftermath, the whole area looked like Godzilla had stridden through the place, taking swipes out of the buildings as he went.

The attacks also had a profound effect on me intellectually; combined with my new found responsibilities it made me seriously re-evaluate what I thought about religion and its place in our society. Many apologists would claim that these attacks had little to do with "real" religion and I wouldn't be so naïve to think that they were exclusively about religion, but religion was and remains an important and enabling component, when you have faith, anything is possible.

Religion is bad for your health

This is one of those Darwin award kind of stories and irresistible in the same way. A devout Catholic (and claustrophobic) who became stuck in a lift prayed intently for escape, eventually the engineers got him out whereby he ran to the nearest church (presumably to thank God?), anyway when he got there he hugged a stone pillar and the 800 pound alter perched on top of it fell and killed him instantly.

Very unfortunate of course, but I can't help thinking that this the exact kind of random, accidental event that you would expect to happen all the time if there was no such thing as a supernatural, omniscient, paternal creator, and just a bunch of evolved ape like mammals running around on a small lump of space rock ?

Alan Turing gets his apology

So, Gordon Brown has issued an apology to Alan Turing, an eminently sensible thing to do and I suppose from a political point of view a "no-brainer" for him. Another religiously inspired prejudice apologised for, as the ethics of our society evolve beyond our delusional need for supernatural intervention.

For those interested in what the PM said, here is the text in full reproduced from the number 10 web site.

2009 has been a year of deep reflection - a chance for Britain, as a nation, to commemorate the profound debts we owe to those who came before. A unique combination of anniversaries and events have stirred in us that sense of pride and gratitude which characterise the British experience. Earlier this year I stood with Presidents Sarkozy and Obama to honour the service and the sacrifice of the heroes who stormed the beaches of Normandy 65 years ago. And just last week, we marked the 70 years which have passed since the British government declared its willingness to take up arms against Fascism and declared the outbreak of World War Two. So I am both pleased and proud that, thanks to a coalition of computer scientists, historians and LGBT activists, we have this year a chance to mark and celebrate another contribution to Britain's fight against the darkness of dictatorship; that of code-breaker Alan Turing.

Turing was a quite brilliant mathematician, most famous for his work on breaking the German Enigma codes. It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of World War Two could well have been very different. He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war. The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely. In 1952, he was convicted of 'gross indecency' - in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence - and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison - was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later.

Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can't put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly. Over the years millions more lived in fear of conviction.

I am proud that those days are gone and that in the last 12 years this government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT community. This recognition of Alan's status as one of Britain's most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue.

But even more than that, Alan deserves recognition for his contribution to humankind. For those of us born after 1945, into a Europe which is united, democratic and at peace, it is hard to imagine that our continent was once the theatre of mankind's darkest hour. It is difficult to believe that in living memory, people could become so consumed by hate - by anti-Semitism, by homophobia, by xenophobia and other murderous prejudices - that the gas chambers and crematoria became a piece of the European landscape as surely as the galleries and universities and concert halls which had marked out the European civilisation for hundreds of years. It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe's history and not Europe's present.

So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Hubble gets a new pair of specs.

So NASA has finally shown us what the newly made-over Hubble space-telescope can do, and very impressive it is too!

In May this year the shuttle Atlantis visited the device and updated several of the key components such as the wide field camera and several gyroscopes and batteries. This overhaul generally gave the Hubble telescope an extended operational life to 2020 as well as new and improved capabilities.

Hubble is one of the most important scientific tools ever built, it has answered some of the most important questions in cosmology so far in the history of our species, for example thanks to Hubble we know that our universe is 13.7 billion years old, that it is expanding and that the rate of that expansion is increasing. It also was the first to confirm the existence of planets orbiting other stars and the first to directly measure the 3-d distribution of dark matter, it has also shown us our solar system's probable destiny; at the heart of most galaxies including our own is a monster black hole with a mass many millions or even billions of times that of our Sun just biding it's time until the moment it becomes large enough to ingest everything around it. Better let NASA have some more cash to develop those WARP engines, how hard can it be?

I got all excited, for a moment…

In a monumentally stupid article today the daily telegraph seems to have lost their marbles over creationism. The subtitle of the piece is "The best arguments to support creation"; fantastic I thought, they must have marshalled their best researchers and scientists to the case to come up with some really difficult and challenging questions for us to ponder.

See for yourselves…

No evidence for evolution
There is no evidence that evolution has occurred because no transitional forms exist in fossils i.e. scientists cannot prove with fossils that fish evolved into amphibians or that amphibians evolved into reptiles, or that reptiles evolved into birds and mammals. Perhaps because of this a surprising number of contemporary scientists support the Creation theory.

Of course there is evidence, even in 1859 when Darwin first proposed Natural Selection there was mountains of evidence, fossil evidence alone is overwhelming and that isn't even the most important evidence; DNA records and the distribution of species each provide clear and unequivocal evidence of evolution, and in fact DNA alone is enough to prove it beyond any reasonable doubt. This first point is so stupid it must be a mistake, surely the next 4 argument will be better, right?

History is too short
Creationists argue that if the world is as old as evolution claims it is there would be
-billions more stone age skeletons than have been found
-many more historical records like cave paintings than have been found
-a lot more sodium chloride in the sea
-a lot more sea-floor sediment

OK so the second best argument is that the Earth is only 6000 years old, I know jokes older than that, there are trees that are older than that, we see billions of stars every night that are more than 6000 light years away, is the author of this piece a complete imbecile? Such an assertion would mean that everything, and I mean EVERYTHING we know about physics, biology, chemistry and geology is wrong, please tell me this is going to get better?

Compound Eye
The eye that enables some organisms to see in the dark is so complex that no proven theories for its evolutionary development have yet been put forth. As the CreationWiki puts it, the Compound Eye "has all of the hallmarks of intelligent design and defies attempts to explain it through natural mechanisms".

This is just bizarre, why pick out one seemingly random organ out of the many to choose from? Biologists know how the compound eye develops, we know many of the molecules involved and there are no miracles required. Its proteins and small diffusible molecules interacting to negotiate the construction of a repeating pattern of simple optical elements, surely this can't get any worse, oh wait…

The Bible uses allegory to explain the creation of the earth. It is a story, so employs figures of speech and other literary devices to tell the story of how God created man e.g. Genesis "days" could also be read as "ages".

This is an argument against creation for God's sake! He is saying that the Bible is just a fairy tale and don't take it too seriously, please tell me that there is at least one shred of intelligent thought in here, somewhere, anywhere?

For what purpose is all of this?
Evolutionists have never offered a satisfactory explanation.

Well, looks like there wasn't any intelligent thought going on after all; why does there have to be a "why", why does Ayres rock exist, why does a coin you flip land on heads instead of tails, rejecting a mountain of evidence because it doesn't satisfy childish wish thinking is a pathetic non-argument, how disappointing.

If this is the best creationists can come up with then I think Dawkins will be sleeping like a baby tonight.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Good news from Afghanistan (yes really!)

Afghan national, Sayed Pervez Kambaksh was up until very recently living under the threat of a death sentence. For 20 months he has been rotting on death row in a prison in Kabul, you may wonder what heinous crime he committed to have such a drastic sentence passed by a jury of his peers. Planting a roadside bomb maybe or perhaps kidnaping and beheading a western aid worker? No, nothing like that, Afghanistan is a Muslim country and a different morality exists there. Sayed was sentenced to death for downloading information on Women's rights from the internet, let that one sink in a while.

Following a petition from readers of the independent and various representations from state leaders and governments around the world the Afghan authorities have finally released him, dropped the charges and flown him out of the country into hiding (why hiding?).

I can't help but be amazed at the reluctance on the part of the media and the Government here in the UK to point out the Elephant in the room here. These are not minor cultural differences, local tradition or emergency rules, this is a huge chasm in the way we in the West think about human rights and the way Islamic regimes like Afghanistan interpret and implement the perceived wishes of ancient literature. Now clearly the reasons for the West to be involved at all in Afghanistan are wide and numerous with self-interest undoubtedly playing a part in the mix. However, I am struggling to get my head around the inescapable conclusion that (among other things) our soldiers are being killed and maimed in order that a medieval system of morality, which is completely at odds with our own can be imposed on a population at least 50% of whom will be demoted to a status slightly above "property", is everyone OK with this?

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Smutty school-boys up in arms!

In an act of PC madness Flintshire council have renamed that icon of pre-pubescent toilet humor "spotted dick". The culnary delight of schoolboys everywhere is now known (in their council canteen) as "spotted richard", we await with trepidation for their verdict on Winnie-the-pooh.

Cough, cough, more tea vicar?

An interesting little story surfaced yesterday about a photographer who took some rather "artistic" (nudge, nudge) snap shots in a Church in Cornwall without the permission of the vicar or the church. Now the actions of the photographer do sound quite unreasonable, you can't go around shooting a bunch of "art" using naked models engaging in (simulated?) lesbian sex on private property without some kind of permission; however the way in which the church dealt with this matter is quite astonishing. Rather than approaching him directly and demanding an apology or at least commission, the church instructed their representatives to write letters threatening legal action accusing him of (wait for it) blasphemy, yes that old medieval law that we abolished last year. Now come on guys, if you're going to threaten someone at least use a law that's still on the statute books, was this a case of wishful thinking perhaps?

Anyway, now the case has been dropped, the threats were so obviously hollow that the guy just ignored them and the negative publicity seems to be causing discomfort. Now being of entrepreneurial stock I reckon the church is missing a trick here, I can see a whole new line in set rental for erotic, fetish and alternative life-style art, they'd be queuing up for it! After all, nudity and anatomical detail was all the rage in the Renaissance, oh yes, and aren't we supposed to be all made in God's image?

For reference purposes of course here is an example of one of the pictures (very nice), if you want to see the other pictures (warning they are not suitable for work or under 18s) they are here

Monday, September 07, 2009

Lolcats rulz

This nice little picture is floating around the atheist blogs today, it's an ahh inducing lolcat with a godless twist (my favourite!) For those who haven't already sampled the delights of lolcats here is the original site. I'm not quite sure what it is about these things that make them funny and slightly adictive but they seem to have entered the collective conciousness fairly effortlessly (if our office is anything to go by!)

Here is an interesting thought experiment, take all the hours that are used by humans to pray to their different dieties and trade them all in for hours of cancer research - would religious people go for that?

I was feeling left out, but now…

It seems that every day, religious people find images of Jesus in tins of marmite, and Virgin Mary shaped Doritos etc. For atheists these events must be like a knife to the heart, clearly their whole world view is shaken to its core by the miracle of the cheese sandwich of our lady fatima (well not really). I do think we have symbol-envy though; recently there was a campaign to introduce a kind of italic red "A" to symbolise Atheism, I'm not sure this kind of thing would ever work though, most Atheists I know well hate the idea of being labelled, anyway here is that symbol for those who haven't seen it before (tee-shirts available at the RD.NET site)

However, I was thrilled today to discover this image taken of a rock formation in Boulder Colorado, what clearer indication could there be that we are the chosen people?

Of course being the sceptical little party poopers that they are, atheists in Boulder are protesting the site claiming "its just a rock", bloody rationalists!

(yay 200 posts!)

Friday, September 04, 2009

New Dawkins book release today!

Richard Dawkins has released a new book today; its about what he is calling the "evidence for evolution", I guess if you are Richard Dawkins and have to deal with all those ignorant creationists arguments every day this is something he needed to get off his chest once and for all.

There are many books on this subject already (all Biology and nature books in fact!), but lets hope that with the public awareness of his name running high more than just scientists and atheists will read it, raising conciousness is the key.

Althought I must say I'm looking forward to the flood of inanity from the talking snake-bots, it will be amusing to observe them scurrying around quote mining and trying to pick holes in the content of the book, no doubt we will see a plethera of parasitic titles pouring out onto the market soon too, I can see the titles now,

- The greatest show in heaven
- Jesus, the greatest showman on earth
- God the greatest ringmaster
- Who needs the snakes with legs show when you can have TALKING snake show!

I'm sure you get the drift...

Not feeling well?

I wondered how long it would be before we saw the real human angle to this story; according to this report in the FT swine flu seems to occur more frequently on Mondays than any other day of the week... how strange.. :)

Thursday, September 03, 2009

I'm alright, Jack!

Wouldn't ya just know it, in the debate about assisted suicide the main faith consituencies come out on the side of suffering. In what is becoming predictably suicidal for them, our top dog God gang in the shape of the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols and the chief rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks have united behind the wish to cling onto state control of our very last biological function, the exact moment of our death.

By all means campaign for strict controls and absolutly strive for better pain relief and preventative medicine, but to simply stand in the face of logic and human compassion in a thinly veiled attempt to foist their bronze-age beliefs that control of birth and death should be out of our hands, shows a preference for dogma over kindness, for superstition-based moralism over humaneness.

An interesting side bar to this argument is that fact that the ex-head of the Church of England, King George V (1936) was it turns out, terminated via a lethal injection of morphine and cocaine administered by his doctor, apparently according to his wishes.

Soooo... if it's good enough for royalty why isn't it good enough for the rest of us?

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Mutant ninja humans

I came across this interesting story today on the BBC science site; it's about DNA mutation from one generation to another.

Up until the late nineteenth century it was unknown how speciation (the branching of one species from another, i.e. mammals from reptiles or homo-habilis from australopithecines) might occur, even Darwin (1859) although he correctly deduced that it did occur had no idea what the mechanism was. It turns out that the mechanism is to do with our genes, and one of the principal ways in which variation is introduced into a gene pool is by the mutation (or changing) of our genes when we reproduce. So how do our genes mutate or change, adding and subtracting information? Well, when our DNA is copied in order to produce new DNA (i.e. of the child) sometimes that process incurs errors. Fortunately for us the vast majority of these errors are benign and harmless (or we wouldn't be here) but sometimes they inflict us with genetic disabilities and sometimes they are advantageous, longer legs, bigger brains, better eyesight etc. Advantageous DNA mutations cause the body in which they travel to be more likely to survive to reproduce and therefore tend to get passed on to the next generation, gradually becoming more numerous in the overall population; eventually the differences build up and a new species evolves.

A question has always remained, exactly how many mutations occur between one generation and the next? Now the answer has been accurately estimated by scientists in Japan looking at segments of DNA from related people going back over 200 years using ultra-modern sequencing techniques; the answer turns out to be between 100 and 200 (i.e. 150) mutations on average occur every time we reproduce. Doesn't sound like much does it, but when you think about world population over time and work the numbers you get (very) roughly 7 trillion mutations in the last 100 years, each of which could potentially change a key characteristic of a person from that of their parent.

Considering we have been evolving as a separate species for roughly 6 million years and that life itself has been evolving for at least 3 billion years, then you start to see how dramatic cumulative changes over time are not only possible but actually inevitable.

We can’t be provincial anymore

There has been some interesting reaction to the tee-shirt story in Sedalia, Kansas that broke a few days ago; first the local press picked it up and now it seems that the story has gone viral.

These kinds of stories break every day, the religiously inspired officials in some town or village do or say something stupid and make everyone there look like backward hicks, evolution is usually the trigger but you also see divinely revealed misogyny, witchcraft, FGM, anti-medicine, anti-GW, dangerous rituals etc. etc. the list goes on and on. Usually you only get to hear the official line on these things through the mainstream media who often simply parrot what has already been said, but I always crave to know what the locals really think. Luckily in this case you can see what some of them feel by looking at the comments section of their local paper report on the story, it's interesting, seems like the religious anti-rationalists in Sedalia don't have things entirely their own way; here are a couple of comments which I thought were on the money although there are many more like this.

"Great, now the world thinks we're a bunch of back woods idiots. Good going #200. Unfortunately, our town made the national news back in 2004 when the Kerry/Edwards train stopped in town and that didn't cast us in a good light. Very sad that that same mindset is what will most likely get us in the national news this time. However, what is really sad is that the school district bows to a few parents--one of who is a teacher. There are many good people here working to bring our town into the 21st century--by trying to bring us new doctors, teachers, jobs, etc. With this kind of stuff getting out in the media--any media be it social or msm--we are cast in a poor light. Professionals don't want to move here when they see this stuff. Parents: Let the schools do their job and you teach your kids your religion at home. Sedalia School Board: You need to ask yourselves, "are we serving our children? our community?" If you are bowing to pressures from a few then the answer is no you are not. If you can't do that, then you need to resign your position and let new board members straighten out this administration."

And another one:-

"Here are the questions a school district should be asking itself: How do we help more of our children attend better universities? How do we help more of them become doctors, engineers, scientists and professionals? How do we instil a thirst for knowledge that will make them better citizens? That's what most parents want for their children. Students deserve the opportunity to make something more of their lives. They deserve the best education a community can possibly provide. It is their birthright.

They can no more become a doctor without an understanding of evolutionary biology than they can become an engineer without knowledge of Newtonian mechanics.

What never ceases to amaze me is that dominionist fundamentalists are never asking how to improve the quality of a school's education and give children better opportunities. They're asking, "How can I make these children as pig-ignorant as me?""

I think its great that a little local story like this can go global so quickly, now the school officials in Sedalia know that the whole world is watching them (at least for a few minutes) and it has become very difficult for them to continue to promote ignorance while hiding behind the veil of "faith" – we can't be provincial anymore.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Don’t take it personally

Richard Dawkins is a controversial figure; in the domain of Biology he is a very influential and revered academic, having first popularised the notion that genes are the key unit of selection rather than bodies he went on to introduce the concept of the meme as the unit of human cultural evolution. Much like "on the origin of species" a hundred years before, his book "the selfish gene" (1976) was a landmark in how we now think about evolution and selection in particular. Recently Dawkins has turned his attention to Atheism and religion, his recent book "The God Delusion" was a best seller and helped to put in motion a general shift in the zeitgeist over the last year or two, perhaps even altering the apparent trend at the time for increasing religious fundamentalism.

Whenever the subject of Dawkins comes up in conversation with religious people the reaction is fairly uniform, he is regarded as disrespectful, strident and perhaps even downright rude; this underlying impression understandably means that quite a lot of people don't actually read his work because they think he is simply going to insult them. I am a big fan of Dawkins, but that doesn't mean I agree with everything he writes or says either, however, there is clearly a point of fracture here which I believe is worthy of examination.

Dawkins is a scientist, he often uses language which is academic in definition, for example words like "theory" have a different meaning in science than they do in general use, even his book titles, for example the "selfish" gene misleads a lot of people into thinking that he is proposing that genes have intelligence and purpose, the opposite is true. So when he uses a word like "Delusion" I believe he is simply using the word in the academic sense, i.e. "belief in something for which there is no supporting evidence", he is not saying stupid. Clearly then, there are a range of possibilities in terms of what would qualify as delusion when using this strict definition, I can think of at least four scenarios, only one of which would actually qualify.

  1. The believer was raised culturally to believe in God but have never really put much thought into it; when asked such a person might say "I'm a Catholic" or "I'm a Jew" but this is more of a cultural label than a fixed set of beliefs. This state probably represents the majority of moderate religious people, and according to our definition is not delusional.
  2. The believer has no scientific education and is simply unaware of the strength of evidence for things like evolution or the big bang theory etc.; again, this is not a delusional position. Often atheists use another controversial word to describe this position, for example, that it is based on "ignorance", again this does not mean "stupid"; it simply means "you don't know".
  3. The believer has looked at scientific evidence but does not understand how it refutes their belief, this lack of depth or ignorance is simply wrong, not delusional. Again there is a vocabulary issue here, the word "wrong" simply means that evidence exists which falsifies the belief, for example radiometric dating falsifies the belief that the world is 6,000 years old, it does not mean bad or stupid etc.
  4. The believer has looked and understood the evidence after having put some thought into it, however has disregarded that evidence and still insists on sticking to the letter of things like the Genesis creation myth etc. Sorry, but this is delusional.

Using precise terms with specific meaning is essential within technical disciplines, ambiguity is our enemy; however outside of scientific discourse ambiguity can be an ally, it serves as a way of drawing people with opposing views into the conversation, causing questions to be asked and explanations invited. It is really hard for scientists to break out of this mode of speaking, I do it myself all the time, using words like delusion and ignorant. The opposite is also true of course when religious people use allegory and deliberately imprecise language to describe concepts, this kind of thing is guaranteed to wind us rational types up.

Is there a halfway house in this debate? Probably, I'm not sure what though; perhaps more concise examples, better analogies or even more humour; whatever it is an open mind is required.

It’s confirmed, the Pope is Catholic

In what is becoming boringly repetitive, the Pope recently laid Global warming at the feet of Atheists (along with all the other evils previously attributed to us). Yes folks, if you don't believe in his invisible friend then it's your fault that rain forest is being destroyed and those little tiger cubs are being thrown into the garbage compacter. Of course this is a familiar line from Rome, "you can't be moral without God", or to translate the Latin more accurately "give your money to the RC church or burn in hell".

More self serving nonsense you are unlikely to find. Keep in mind that this invective is coming from an organisation that has plundered the known world for centuries to enrich itself and from a man residing in golden palaces surrounded by unimaginable luxury and opulence; as Terry Sanderson (president of the NSS) said in commentary on this "We have nothing to learn about environmentalism from this hypocrite."

In other news today, a bear is photographed taking a dump in the forest!

And the band played on..

Here is a fascinating insight into the mind of the fundamentalist Christian; a Kansas school marching band thought they were being distinctive by printing some tee shirts for an upcoming performance at a festival called "Brass Evolutions 2009"; the shirts had the following picture on them, i.e. depicting the ascent of man but with a trumpet twist.

Unfortunately for the band they ran smack bang into the wall of ignorance that is Christian evolution denial; several "concerned" parents objected, and in what looks like a blind panic the top brass of the school capitulated and ordered the band to destroy all the offending garments. In a statement the teacher involved with the band said,

"I was disappointed with the image on the shirt. I don’t think evolution should be associated with our school."

Let that little gem sink in for a second, this is a teacher dismissing at a stroke one of the pillars of modern science education over an ancient story about an apple and a talking snake. In equally baffling statements one of the senior officials of the school said that "the district is required by law to remain neutral where religion is concerned", so apparently the staff at this school believe evolution meets the criteria necessary to be considered a religion.

The additional pinch of irony here is that this particular picture conveys a bunch of "evolutionary" ideas that are simply wrong, first we have evolution portrayed as a directed process, i.e. that modern humans somehow represent the goal of evolution (i.e. why aren't Orang-utans the goal of evolution?) and secondly that humans descended from modern apes, again wrong.

Of course no one really cares about a bunch of tee shirts in a mid-western town that no one has heard of outside of Missouri, however it illustrates nicely how even in the most secular country in the world, religion still operates in the teeth of opposition to reason.