Monday, June 29, 2009

The right to offend

I've been having some interesting conversations and thoughts about where the line is these days in terms of offending people by pointing out what I think are fallacies, flaws and inconsistencies in their beliefs. Religious people especially like to blur the distinction between themselves and their beliefs; it seems to be a commonly held position that faith based opinions should be respected regardless of their obvious flaws. This is strange to a rationalist like me, in no other field of human conversation are ideas respected simply because someone believes them to be true. Look at politics for example, sport, entertainment, there are as many opinions as there are people but somehow religion demands special treatment.

Other people say things like "aw leave them alone, think of all the good things that religions do", well yes that may be true but so what, many totally objectionable political parties do good things to, for example Hezbollah provides excellent health care and yet that is not a valid reason to give them a free ride when it comes to debate on the middle east. Another frequent claim is "you can't criticise religious stupidity because they aren't the only ones who can be stupid", absolutely, politicians can be incredibly stupid, as can financiers and sports people but just because MUFC donates money to UNICEF it doesn't mean I have to respect Christiano Ronaldo's views on abortion.

There are also people who have a misconception that I criticise religion because I have contempt for religious people or their beliefs, or that I "hate god", as I point out it is difficult to hate something you don't believe in. No, I attack religion because it represents a particularly nasty form of elitism or tribalism; it's like discriminating against people that don't walk under ladders but a thousand times more consequential. If religion truly were "just another opinion" like which coffee to buy, then no one would care, but no one says cappuccino drinkers should be killed or denied representation; alas no religion is that benign.

Atheist is a somewhat negative and meaningless term; I don't believe in fairies either but don't feel the need to be labelled as such, rationalist would describe me in a more positive way but unfortunately the ranks of the religious and the apologetic think it clever to label people like me "militant atheists", I have even heard the term "rabid atheists" used in this context. So what is it I do that is militant, well, I speak out, I express a well researched opinion, I don't accept things on faith, if someone asks I tell them what I think with honesty; ok I accept that some people find these things objectionable but are they really "militant"?

Here is a video on this subject made by FFreeThinker and although the sound is a bit hit and miss the ideas are nicely presented.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Government officials crushed to death

Today at the government central information office dozens of civil servants and party officials were crushed to death in a catastrophic rush to bury bad news. In a statement read by Jack Mickelson the government expressed deep sorrow at the loss of life and sent condolences to the families, but assured fellow politicians that despite the disaster stories about updates on MPs expenses, cancelled multi-million pound projects and horrendous debt figures were successfully released to the press.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

David Tredinnick

I'm sure everyone is thoroughly fed up with the MP expenses saga, but this story today tweaked my interest, not only does it illustrate dishonesty but is also has a great "bad science" angle too; two bangs for my buck!

The story concerns MP David Tredinnick (member for Bosworth) who spent £200 on astrology software and £300 pound on consulting services to learn how to use it, so not only is Mr Tredinnick dishonest he is ignorant, stupid and gullible to boot!

This is not the first time Mr Tredinnick has fallen foul of his obvious character flaws, he was once a parliamentary private secretary but was forced to resign and was suspended for 20 days for accepting a £1000 bribe to ask questions in the house, this was popularly known as the cash for questions affair.

Unbelievably (to me at least) he has been an MP for 20 years, so perhaps he should think about calling it a day, his star is clearly no longer rising.

Tim Minchin for Prime Minister

Actually Tim Minchin is Australian so probably couldn't be our prime minister, but hey, a boy can dream. Here is Tim "going off on one" about pseudo-science and religion (the usual); but as ever he puts it to music and the result is funny and poignant at the same time.

If you think this is good have a poke around his other YouTube stuff, I particularly recommend a beat poem called "storm" it sums up wishy washy relativist thinking nicely.

Monday, June 22, 2009

You can’t beat a bit of bully

Just when you think you have seen every example of delusional bull-shit going something comes along that simply trumps everything else. Take this story from Kansas and the Wichita Eagle it concerns a young man called Chase Kear who apparently had a bad accident whilst pole vaulting, unfortunate certainly, but take a look at what happened next and then think about "to what" would you attribute the recovery of this person.

  1. Chase suffers a serious brain trauma
  2. Bystanders call for medical help on their cell phones
  3. Doctors arrive minutes later in a helicopter
  4. Doctors administer emergency care
  5. Helicopter arrives in hospital
  6. Surgeons remove part of his skill to reduce brain swelling
  7. Kear is treated with anti-biotic drugs to prevent infection
  8. Swelling reduces, doctors restore Kear's skull
  9. Kear survives and undergoes rehabilitation treatment

Now I would expect any commentary about these events from family or friends to pay tribute to the skill and training of the doctors, surgeons and nurses involved, perhaps a nod in the direction of the helicopter pilot or maybe a thank you to the people who alerted them to the accident in the first place. Oh no my friends, we are dealing with Catholics here, this young man clearly survived because a "miracle" occurred, whilst all this 21st century science was going on a bunch of people sat around doing nothing, with their hands clasped, mumbling things to an invisible man in the sky so that he would intervene and do undetectable things; clearly this played the pivotal part in a successful outcome, in fact this is such a no brainer apparently that the Vatican itself has sent a "man" to investigate this "miracle".

For myself, earlier I turned cold water into hot tea and in a few seconds I shall be pressing a button and affecting electrons thousands of miles away; I await the men in red with eager anticipation.

Friday, June 19, 2009

L’Ortolan take II

I made it to the l'Ortolan restaurant last night for a meal with a fellow wine geek from the USA, it was a good evening although we talked about work far to much and not enough about wine!

I had a set menu which was part of a mid-week offer that the restaurant is running currently at a fixed price of £38 per head although the final bill came to over £100 in the end as we got through a couple of bottles of wine, one good and one awful (more on that later).

So the food, overall very good, proceedings got underway with an amuse bouche of cold (fishy) vichyssoise, ok but not memorable, then the starter consisted of pressed confit of pork belly with parsley, shallots and grain mustard, I'd give it 8/10 the pork was well prepared and had a nice savoury-sweet thing going on which tweaked the appetite nicely. For the main course I had roasted rump of veal, sweetbreads, morel mushroom ravioli and truffle oil, I really liked this dish easily 9/10, beautiful presentation the flavours complemented each other well and although the portion was quite small it was a satisfying dish. Next up was a little sorbet (apricot or something like that) and I chose to take the cheese course rather than a pudding, I ended my meal with some Pont-l'Évêque, roquefort and brie.

Wine-wise we tried a bottle of Mas de Daumas Gassac red 2006, not a wine I have had before but have always wanted to try. It comes from the south of France (near Montpellier) not quite a proper cotes du Rhone perhaps more Languedoc. The wine is primarily cabernet sauvignon 80% and then 20% blend of all kinds of other grapes including syrah and petit verdot. They must do a pretty harsh selection because the concentration is great, a serious wine that would probably age very well. Upfront nose of dark fruits and wood, silky smooth on the palette, dense, minerals, slightly funky in a good way (must have some mourvedre in it?), fairly long finish, I must buy some of this!

The second wine we had was a little more down market (expense accounts bulging slightly at this point!) we went for the Stump Jump red a GSM blend from the d'Arenberg stable, this was awful, not faulty but just poor, it tasted weedy and acidic with way too much alcohol and frankly worth avoiding, stupid name, pointless wine.

The only thing that really lets this restaurant down is the wine list, for a 1 star establishment the choice is really poor and the prices are simply ludicrous, the Mas weighed in at £60 (£20 retail) and the Stump £25 (£8 retail) so a roughly 3X mark up on both wines, this kind of thing really sticks in my throat.

I was so disappointed by the second wine we had that we retired after the meal to my house where I raided the cellar for a lovely bottle of Yarra Yering Dry Red No. 1 Cabernet (2005), a sumptuous and rich wine full of black currents, blackberries, meaty, vanilla and toast flavours with a typical minty and long finish, in fact I can still taste it now!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Be careful what you wish for…

People who feel pressure to look attractive are more fearful of being rejected because of their appearance than are their peers, according to a new study by researchers at the University at Buffalo and the University of Kent, of course beauty is in the eye of the beholder, see below.

Read all about it here

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

I smell a rat, or at least I used to.

Consumers in the USA have been warned to stop using a homoeopathic cold remedy product called Zircam. Apparently this product does nothing to help you recover from a cold but does destroy your sense of smell, permanently. The effect on people like me who enjoy collecting wine as a hobby or professional critics, or chefs etc. would be simply catastrophic; and if you think about it, loosing your sense of smell is a potentially life threatening disability. Not recognising burning smells when you should or the smell of a gas leak etc. could limit ones longevity in a pretty serious way.

When tackled regarding this serious oversight the FDA (the Food & Drug Administration) said that "Zircam was never formally approved because it is part of a small group of remedies that are not required to undergo federal review before launching. Known as homeopathic products, the formulations often contain herbs, minerals and flowers."

Minerals like Zinc, which is known to cause nerve damage if used in excessive quantities, all it needed was some BS marketing that claimed efficacy for swine flu and we could have had a whole lot of anosmic people wandering around wishing they just had flu.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


Just a quick post, here is a round up of some dumb things done because of religion that I've come across lately.

First up we have the couple in Dorset who cannot leave their Bournemouth flat because the automatic motion sensors turn the lights on, they are Jewish you see and apparently the creator of the universe, aka. Yahweh gets real picky about these things; "let there be no light" on the Sabbath he says. I pity the poor residents who now have an unwanted legal bill to sort this BS out.

Some more people who think its better to treat sick children with prayer or quackery instead of proper medicine; yep you guessed it, all the kids died.

Then we have the Christian fundamentalist couple in Singapore who got 8 weeks in jail for distributing a totally wacko cartoon strip featuring Muslims claiming to be plotting to put a "Muslim flag" over the white-house and an Islamic revolution that is (apparently) bringing England to her knees. Looking at the cartoon I reckon it should have been 8 weeks psychiatric treatment.

And we have the irate Muslim parents of children at a Blackburn school who hounded one of the teachers so much that she was forced to quit, the reason for this behaviour?, because she "looked like a man". Apparently the poor woman had short hair and had posted some photographs of herself on FaceBook wearing trousers. The school in question is private and has a majority of female pupils, apparently music is viewed as un-Islamic and students are taught Islamic studies instead of RE, Arabic and Urdu are also taught instead of modern European languages. Sounds like a swell place to get a balanced education.

Finally we have the Catholic priest who having been caught for the fifth time sexually abusing children refused to apologise for an assault that happened in 1968 because he claimed he was giving the 11 year old boy "anatomy lessons". With any luck in his prison cell after lights out some very large and very sexually frustrated inmates will give Father Gannon an anatomy lesson of his own.

Monday, June 15, 2009

A hiss take, surely?

Just surfing the WEB during my lunch break as I munch on an apple, and I came across this story about wind farms in Africa, nothing out of the ordinary about that I hear you say, but look more closely, here is a picture of the aforementioned wind farm just north of Cape Town in South Africa, I draw your attention to the sign warning people not to enter the site.

Now, I know that genetic engineering has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, but trained attack snakes, holy serpentes Batman!

Islamic Enlightenment

An interesting article in the New York Times from a couple of weeks ago, the subject is that eternal mammalian preoccupation SEX, the thing that makes it interesting is that here we have the story of a brave woman who has the temerity to acknowledge that sex between human beings actually exists and (shock horror!) some people have a few problems with it from time to time.

Ms Wedad Lootah published a book earlier this year entitled "Top Secret: Sexual Guidance for Married Couples", why "secret" you may be thinking, well, Ms Lootah is a marriage counsellor in Dubai. The book has drawn praise from some liberals there as well as the predictable death threats from the lunatic conservatives who say she is guilty of blasphemy or worse.

According to Ms Lootah sex education in Islamic theocracies seems to be a little hit and miss, in particular she finds herself advising men that anal sex is not the "only" option with women, she said.

Many men who had anal sex with men before marriage want the same thing with their wives, because they don't know anything else. This is one reason we need sex education in our schools.

In Muslim countries where the genders are rigorously separated, many men have their first sexual experiences with other men; this understandably affects their attitudes toward sex in marriage.

She also finds herself advising women on the existence of the female orgasm. One of the cases that impelled her to write the book, she said, was a 52-year-old client who had grandchildren but had never known sexual pleasure with her husband.

Finally, she discovered orgasm! Imagine, all that time she did not know.

This is a good news story as far as I am concerned, I believe that our world would be a far safer place if Islam underwent the same kind of enlightenment era that Christianity did a few hundred years ago, if it is to happen at all, I believe it will be Muslim women who will lead the much needed rational revolution in these societies.

Half full or half empty?

There are two ways of looking at this story; a charitable viewing would see the author allowing ignorant creationists to hang themselves on their own words. However, a cynical perspective would see the ever politically correct BBC giving un-opposed air time to ignorant creationists in a disingenuous and naïve article about a preposterous affront to honest people the world over.

The creationist museum in Kentucky and the associated organisation that funds it is a huge, expensive vehicle for telling lies, I wonder if the BBC would allow such biased publicity about other similarly dishonest organisations and topics, holocaust denial for example. How would the public react if an article by David Irving was published in the mainstream media without a single refutation from any expert, photographs, or Nazi document highlighting the overwhelming evidence in the affirmative?

I think the BBC was wrong to provide coverage like this, without counter argument, no mention of the evidence for evolution, no mention of the thousands of museums around the world that stand in opposition to this and no objectivity, it simply allows the creationists and their adherents to present their misguided views without challenge. Do we even know if the profits from this disgusting museum are subject to tax or is AIG considered a church and therefore exempt in the US?

Then there are the quotes from people going to the museum, admittedly they do make them sound like ignorant hicks.

In particular, we have some bloke who said "Why is Darwin buried with kings at Westminster Abbey? He's not a king." You would think that someone would do a tiny bit of research before coming up with a comment like that, clearly this twit doesn't realise that Newton, Herschel, Shakespeare, Milton, Stephenson and Lyell are also buried there (among many others), he clearly has a view of England that is based on a medieval Disney fantasy (I wonder if he even owns a passport?). Then there is the lady who says "she's not sure Darwin believed his own theory" I can confirm to her that no educated person is sure they believe that she actually said that! And then we have the retired "professor" who says "if you don't believe in Genesis, you don't believe in anything else", talk about insulting just about everyone on the face of the planet in one go, I'm sure anyone who studied under him are now reviewing their degree certificates for legal anomalies as we speak.

Seriously, aren't Americans embarrassed by such views? why aren't the American press and American comedians hounding and ridiculing these people day in and day out, is it because they are hiding behind the veil of "faith"?

One thing is for sure, from the perspective of the scientific community they are making a laughing stock of a (once?) great scientific nation.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


One of my favourite excursions with the kids is to visit the "Jurassic coast" in Dorset, this is a designated world heritage area of the southern coast of the UK, it's called the Jurassic coast because of the rich Jurassic fossils that you find there.

Here are a couple of examples of fossils that we found on our last outing.

First up we have a classic Ammonite, lovely spiral shape and to get an idea of scale I made the photograph on lined paper where the larger squares are 1cm, these little critters were around between 400 and 65 million years ago, going extinct around the same time as the dinosaurs did.

Next is our star find, this insignificant looking disc is a vertebrae from a large marine reptile called an Ichthyosaur, roughly 200 million years old. It is pleasing because it is quite rare to find one that isn't squashed.

Ichthyosaurs looked a lot like modern dolphins but were not fish nor mammals, they were reptiles that had become adapted to a life in the sea much like animals like whales and dolphins are today. A complete Ichthyosaur would look like this:

So the little bone that we found would have come from the backbone, probably near the end of it's spine or from a small animal.

Aporkalypse now!

Well it's official, swine flu is a pandemic, load up the shot gun, fill the cellar with beans and start hoarding! Waitrose here I come...

Islamic “education”

I am beginning to suspect that there is a "stupid gene" that correlates with religiosity, seriously, someone needs to do that research. My idiocy antenna was drawn to this little story in London today about a chap called Iftickhar Ahmad of the London School of Islamics who accused the British educational system of "cultural fascism", I know what you are thinking, surely this must be a joke, unfortunately it seems not.

Mr Ahmad sent out an email entitled "Muslim Children and Sex education" in response to claims that certain "religious" parents had removed their children from a school in London because they disapproved of certain "themes" being taught; let's take a look at what he thinks.

Simply to secure a decent moral upbringing for their children … Rather than filling the heads of impressionable boys and girls with fatuous drivel about gay penguins, schools should be ashamed of the fact that they are sending children out into the world barely able to read, write and add up properly. Muslim children are leaving schools without learning their cultural roots and linguistic skills.

Ok, first mistake, there is no such thing as a "Muslim child", only a child of Muslim parents, not a great start, anyway moving on.

Are UK parents really faced with a choice between literacy and gay penguins?

Let's look at the facts, the literacy rate in the UK is >99%, i.e. at least 99 out of 100 children leave school knowing how to read and write, not too shabby. For comparison the literacy rate of Pakistan an Islamic country (and presumably a "moral" one in Mr Ahmad's eyes?) is only 49%, Somalia, another Islamic country only 37%, Afghanistan 28%, not so good, perhaps Islam is what is truly opposite literacy?

As for gay penguins, I would dearly love to see the text book on that, but as for homosexuality in nature well that is just something biologists like to call REALITY, a technical term that Mr Ahmad is clearly unfamiliar with.

He goes on to say,

This latest episode should be a wakeup call for Muslim parents. Muslim parents MUST explain our moral standards to schools and be prepared to take steps to protect our children's morals and values from a growing agenda to impose liberal values upon them. This is an eye-opening for those Muslim parents who keep on sending their children to state schools to be mis-educated and de-educated by non-Muslim monolingual teachers.

What moral standard is Mr Ahmad referring to here? perhaps he is referring to ones in Muslim theocracies that allow women to be treated as property, homosexuals to be hung, dishonoured girls to be stoned to death, people to be killed for leaving Islam, death threats to be imposed on foreign authors for writing books, burning people to death for publishing cartoons etc. It can't be those because they are all against the law in this country, can anyone see the obvious problem here?

Mr Ahmad clearly fell asleep one day and woke up in the wrong society, the wrong country and in the wrong century, how inconvenient.

So what is Mr Ahmad's solution to his woes? Oh yes that bastion of the religious intolerant; educational apartheid. He says,

State schools where Muslim children are in majority must be designated as Muslim community schools employing bilingual Muslim teachers to act as role models for pupils during their developmental periods.

Unfortunately our own Conservative party appears to support Mr Ahmad, always keen to blur the distinctions between their brains and their backsides the shadow schools secretary and conservative MP Michael Grove recently said to the Yorkshire post that his party would welcome the creation of new religious schools and accepted that the policy could lead to an increase in Islamic state schools being funded in areas of West Yorkshire. Apparently he also said that this blatant support for the segregation of children "wouldn't lead to further segregation", WTF?

I wonder if he's thinking about adopting the Somali or the Pakistani model?

Simon Singh is innocent!

I am tracking this story with interest lately, the respected science writer Simon Singh is being prosecuted for libel by the BAC (British Chiropractic Association) because he had the temerity to say in a Guardian article that chiropractic treatment for ear infection was "bogus". Simon has already been found guilty of libel and is now appealing against this ridiculous accusation, the ranks of the scientific good and great are only just waking up to what this case means in the wider context of freedom of speech, the forces of the rational are assembling to support him (here).

In 2008, the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) announced that its members could help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying. The case for chiropractic practitioners treating anything other than sore backs is BOGUS, there is no evidence, what Singh is saying is not libel it is FACT, if that upsets the hucksters represented by this shabby organisation then tough shit!

Libel laws have no place in science; science works by looking at evidence and criticising ideas, if it is not free to do that then we will all lose something very important, our right to reality!

It is high time that our libel laws were overhauled, Britain is a laughing stock of the civilised world, our antiquated policies regarding libel mean that any bloated Arab oil sheik, dodgy Russian oligarch or friend of Saddam can take a "libel holiday" chez nous simply by stuffing fistfuls of pound notes into the hands of libel lawyers in order to silence their critics. Even in the Commons, MPs have railed against the absurdity of a legal system which forced a Danish newspaper to pay £100,000 for criticising the shady financial practices of the Icelandic bank Kaupthing, which duly collapsed six months later along with the rest of the Icelandic economy.

I would urge anyone who feels as strongly as I do on this to boycott their Chiropractor, let them know about this, and write to the BCA as I have done making the position clear. In an interesting turn of events the McTimoney Association (a British chiropractic group) has sent out an email to its members urging them to immediately shut down all of their websites, why?, because of the Simon Singh fracas people are becoming aware that chiropractors are making claims for treatment that CANNOT be substantiated with research.

So these people are trying to cover their tracks, desperately trying to make the quackery "go away" as fast as they can, sounds like an admission of guilt to me.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Knocking at my door

After hearing so much about swine flu and watching the inevitable spread of the virus around the world it is finally knocking at my door, this story in the telegraph reports that the Emmbrook junior school will be shut for 7 days as the disease was detected in a child returning from America, although my own kids don't go to this school (thankfully) it is only a mile from my house and therefore probably only a matter of time.

Fortunately this strain of flu has turned out to be not quite as serious as people initially thought it might be and with antivirals seems to be less of a problem than the normal seasonal variety. Even so, such a close call is a sobering thought and a reflection of the power of natural selection in honing nasty bugs!

Is that a knife in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?

A nice example of a practical application of AI (artificial intelligence) software here, a portable microwave scanner can be pointed at a suspect at distance, and a rapid analysis of the signals bouncing back can be used to determine if the person is carrying a concealed gun or a knife.

The computing power required to do this is significant, and this kind of thing is only just now becoming feasible (cost and size wise) with recent advances in the commercialisation of multi-processor hardware and suitable software written specifically to take advantage of it.

AI and computing to do this kind of thing is what my company is focused on at the moment. For those who haven't come across it before a neural network in software typically works by modelling the way the human brain functions, in that lots of "neurons" or separate processing nodes act in unison to take a set of inputs and "convert" them into an answer. The cool thing about neural nets is that they are capable of learning in the sense that the same network of "virtual" neurons can be "trained" to solve many different problems. I use this kind of technology to help develop software to match a set of interests that a person or company might have (i.e. news about my competitors) with freely available information on the internet, the idea being that the system can provide "surveillance", its kind of like having your own private detective sniffing around and picking up useful and interesting information for you 24X7 with no effort on your part (that's the theory anyway!)

Should we deport Gary McKinnon?

Here is an interesting story that has been bubbling along for a while now; Gary McKinnon is a computer whiz who was prosecuted back in 2002 for hacking into US defence systems. The kinds of systems that he hacked into included US Navy, NASA, US Government etc. apparently some 97 separate systems were breached, the US government claims that Gary caused half a million pounds worth of damage, and want him extradited to the USA to face trial and up to 70 years in jail. He recently appealed against a decision by a UK court to send him to the USA and the BBC covered the story again today here.

Of course, this kind of behaviour cannot be condoned and some form of punishment is certainly due, even Gary himself admits his guilt and has apologised, he claims that his activities were not malicious, he is not a spy and was involved in a somewhat childish "game" intended to sniff out UFO stories. Gary also suffers from Asperger's syndrome; this is a form of autism that affects the sufferer's ability to have normal social interactions, understandably sufferers often gravitate to activities like computing and hacking in particular because of the intensity of thought required and the lack of any need to communicate with other people in order to become good at it.

The question that this case raises for me is not one of guilt, I have no doubt that he did it, the issue for me is should he be extradited? Interesting even Human rights campaigner Terry Waite (the chap who was held hostage in the Lebanon for years) is in favour of dropping the case, citing "harmless" motives and an "irrational obsession" driven by his medical condition, the argument seems persuasive.

In the grand scheme of things this amount of money is not that significant, especially now when we compare it with the goings on in the financial services arena, health is a factor, should we be sending sick people abroad to face jail sentences? All these things are mitigating factors in this but the main point of principal for me is where this crime occurred, surely this is a crime that was committed on UK soil by a UK citizen, why then can the punishment not be determined by a UK court and actioned here in the UK? Compare this with the Bernard Madoff case, where a US citizen conned people out of $65 Billion around the world, plenty of people in the UK lost money and I suspect the sums involved far exceed that claimed in the McKinnon case and yet there is no talk of extraditing him from the US to the city of London, perhaps there is some underlying legal principal that I am not aware of in play here but it all seems a little one sided to me.

Faith in faith schools

Just before we get onto faith schools, I have to make a little comment about recent political events. Predictably a bunch of labour politicians last night demonstrated that "spinectamies" are still compulsory in order to enter government in this country, believe it or not Gordon Brown is still in charge this morning, "oy vey" sums it up for me.

Anyway, I feel the need to get back onto more solid ground, fortunately the Catholics have provided such an opportunity (as they do); this time the new Archbishop of Westminster is sounding off about faith schools with some predictably paranoid, inaccurate and narrow minded comments. A report of the comments he made at the University of London can be seen here in the telegraph and since stupid ideas seem to be the vogue recently lets look at some of Vince's ideas in a little more detail.

"Schools of a religious character are upfront, overt and very reasoned about the values that shape the education. Whereas I think often those that would claim to be neutral are covert in the values that they present to the children."

The schools themselves are clearly upfront about it once the children are behind closed doors; please be honest Mr Nichols, the main purpose of a religious school is to promote the interests of that religion and to ensure the continuance and growth of it by indoctrinating the next generation in the dogma. Why else would they exist and why else focus on children? It is disingenuous of the Archbishop to claim, as he does, that there is some grander purpose when such a purpose would by definition be free of the narrow interests of one single version superstitious belief. Then he steps onto firmer ground for the Catholic clergy, fear, he is trying to imply that there are mysterious secular figures lurking in the background covertly corrupting the values of kids, what a crock, the secular view is that comparative religion should be taught consistently, transparently and in EVERY school, I really wish people like this would address reality and explain why they object to this approach instead of inventing straw men to argue against.

"Schools are the places where such virtue is generated or where it is neglected."

What virtues are we talking about here, honesty, transparency and ethical behaviour or the Catholic virtues as demonstrated in schools around the world over the last 35 years i.e. secrecy, immorality, violence, perversion and dishonesty, I would love to ask this man why he thinks his organisation is in any way qualified to teach virtues to children, evidence? track record?

"In effect what is happening is that the patterns of the market are flooding over all aspects of life and we are finding ourselves considered as nothing more than consumers and suppliers."

Children should be consumers of dogma, supplied by one of the market leaders, would be the way I read this.

"Catholic schools have a crucial role to play in creating a society founded on values such as honesty, justice, compassion and courage."

  • Honesty – like admitting people in your organisation are perverted criminals
  • Justice – like coughing up decent compensation for victims of systemic torture
  • Compassion – like treating victims of abuse with dignity and humanity
  • Courage – like having the courage to admit the truth

I would love to see some evidence that these schools are actually providing such values, from the outside it looks a lot like they are failing to do so.

The Archbishop has led the Catholic Church's battle to maintain the freedom of faith schools. In 2006, as chairman of the Catholic Education Service, he provoked anger among ministers when he won his campaign against quotas for faith schools, forcing Alan Johnson, then Education Secretary, to back down over proposals to require them to accept more pupils from non-faith backgrounds.

One mans freedom is another mans tyranny; this is the politics of walled communities and razor wire, a philosophy of segregation, us and them, regardless of whether we believe the mythology of any particular section of society what are we saying about our confidence and security that we feel the need to put our children into little labelled boxes. Must we think of children as Catholic children or Muslim children, isn't this kind of indoctrination tantamount to child abuse?

How would history look back on us if we implemented such segregation along any other social fault line, for example, politics, Labour schools and Conservative schools anyone? how about sport, MUFC university or the Chelsea FC academy of science, even more relevant to the events at the weekend perhaps we should consider segregation along ethnic lines, black schools and white schools, the possibilities are endless.

In my opinion schools should be representative of society and our society is diverse, why prepare children for anything else, lets hope it stays that way.

Monday, June 08, 2009

You need to be a certain age to get this one..

It's not often I make a purely political comment on this blog, I try to stick to a core subject area that I know something about, in the case of the European election results yesterday I feel the urge to react. So, nothing to do with science, atheism or any of my normal soapbox subjects, just a sense of resignation and disbelief.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Bad Reason #10 – It’s too incredible

This is the final article in my series of 10 bad reasons to reject evolution, this post deals with the objection that "I find it too incredible to believe".

After reading 1-9, is it still possible to make this claim?

I suppose some people may well do just that, I call this the argument from "personal incredulity" or in other words, I can't personally understand it so it can't be true. Well, people should be free to choose ignorance if they wish, it is their loss. We are privileged to live in an age when we can stand on the shoulders of the intellectual giants that preceded us, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Planck et al, we know so much about how our universe works, how our planet works and how life itself works, incredibly the rate of acquisition of knowledge is still increasing.

We can embrace reality, seek it out, wonder in it even be inspired by it or we can deny it and retreat into the shallow waters of our own minds the choice is ours.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

I like the cut of Obama’s jib

Scanning the headlines today there are a lot of stories about the D-day landings, an important anniversary for our little island and for other nations around the world. I was particularly struck by the speech that Obama gave (watch it here) a couple of things he said stood out for me and inspired me with some hope for the future.

There were two particular thoughts that encouraged me, firstly the comment he made about the concept of truth, he said that we live in a world of competing beliefs and claims about what is true, religions, governments and cultures etc. he went on to say that the 2nd world war provided a cause that united humanity and he implied that the cause was "true" because of that. This may not seem significant, but from my perspective this is very significant. When I contrast what Obama said today with what I imagine someone like Bush would say (and has said in the past) I am hopeful that the zeitgeist of the last 10 years may finally be changing. The critical thing for me is the emphasis and positioning of the concepts here, of course, I may be reading too much into his words but what I heard Obama say was that religions and cultures compete, their beliefs are simply claims about the truth and that no one has a monopoly, what is really true is human solidarity, when we rally around humanity and put aside the claims of things like religion then we are capable of great things and of defeating great evils. Imagine what someone like Bush would have said (if he could actually string a whole sentence together of course), perhaps something like "by the grace of God the soldiers overcame stupendous odds, knowing that right was on their side" etc. Of course this is hypothetical because Bush was not there and did not speak but based on previous speeches I am applying a little artistic license to make my point. The point I am making is more a question, do we place all Gods or any Gods, all culture or any culture above humanity and live divided, or is it better to use human solidarity as the one thing that can binds us all together.

The second sentence that pleased me was toward the end when he said that the allied forces we "made up of men of all faiths and men of no faith", this is really important and the second prominent speech that I have heard him use these words. It sends an important message to religious people, particularly in the USA, the message says having no faith is OK, it is a valid position to hold, I would go so far as to say his implication is that no faith is an equally valid position to hold. The context and setting that he said these words too was significant, the "no Atheists in fox holes" brigade show up everywhere, especially in the USA showing great arrogance and ignorance, my own Granddad was there, he felt the fear and witnessed the horrors, he played his part in 1944, getting injured for his trouble, he did all that willingly for the sake of human solidarity, without the need for supernatural authority.

Who should we throw in jail?

I read a harrowing story today; in Australia a little 9 month old girl died unnecessarily from chronic eczema (an easily treatable skin condition) and secondary infection bought on by her parents who refused to treat her with proper medicine. The two people involved were believers in Homeopathy; this is where active chemicals are diluted in water to an essentially infinite degree. It is perhaps the most ridiculous of all "alternative" medicines, since it clearly cannot work, does not work and has been tested repeatedly and shown to be useless. For those who ask, "What's the harm", you should direct your question the two parents in the story whose 9 month old baby suffered and died because of their beliefs. And suffer she did. The accounts of the paediatricians who tried too late to help little Gloria Thomas are simply harrowing.

In many ways I don't care how the parents choose to treat their own conditions, they are adults and make their own choices, the crime here is that they inflicted their beliefs on a child whom they were supposed to protect. When I first read this I felt that they had been rightly convicted by a court and felt satisfied that these people will have up to 25 years in jail to consider their convictions. However, upon reflection another question presented itself, are the Thomas parents the only people who should pay for this crime?

What about the people that fostered the culture and environment that caused these people to believe the things that they did, the people who told them that this nonsense works, the ones who encourage and profit from it, are they not culpable in some way?

Before we all get too smug that this happened in Australia, you may be interested to know that Homoeopathy is practised here in the UK, even from NHS funds, over 55,000 people a year are treated using it.

This made me think of the famous quote from Edmund Burke, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."

Friday, June 05, 2009

Bad Reason #9 – It’s just a theory

This is the ninth article in my series of 10 bad reasons to reject evolution, this post deals with the objection that "Evolution is just a theory, not a fact".

Well evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world's data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts don't go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein's theory of gravitation replaced Newton's in this century, but apples didn't suspend themselves in mid-air, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from ape-like ancestors whether they did so by Darwin's proposed mechanism or by some other yet to be discovered.

Moreover, "fact" doesn't mean "absolute certainty"; there's no such thing in an exciting and complex world. The final proofs of logic and mathematics flow deductively from stated premises and achieve certainty only because they are not about the empirical world. Biologists make no claim for perpetual truth, though creationists often do (and then attack science falsely for a style of argument that they themselves favour). In science "fact" can only mean "confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent." I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.

So this objection is no more than an epic failure to understand the scientific method and to appreciate the difference between facts and theories, the following quote is from H. J. Muller and sums this up far better than I could.

The honest scientist, like the philosopher, will tell you that nothing whatever can be or has been proved with fully 100% certainty, not even that you or I exist, nor anyone except himself, since he might be dreaming the whole thing. Thus there is no sharp line between speculation, hypothesis, theory, principle, and fact, but only a difference along a sliding scale, in the degree of probability of the idea. When we say a thing is a fact, then, we only mean that its probability is an extremely high one: so high that we are not bothered by doubt about it and are ready to act accordingly. Now in this use of the term fact, the only proper one, evolution is a fact. For the evidence in favour of it is as voluminous, diverse, and convincing as in the case of any other well established fact of science concerning the existence of things that cannot be directly seen, such as atoms, neutrons, or solar gravitation.

So enormous, ramifying, and consistent has the evidence for evolution become that if anyone could now disprove it, I should have my conception of the orderliness of the universe so shaken as to lead me to doubt even my own existence. If you like, then, I will grant you that in an absolute sense evolution is not a fact, or rather, that it is no more a fact than that you are hearing or reading these words.

- H. J. Muller, "One Hundred Years without Darwin Are Enough" School Science and Mathematics 59, 304-305. (1959) reprinted in Evolution versus Creationism op cit.

Another common misconception among the choirs of objectors is that evolution can't explain the origin of life and that somehow this straw man argument somehow discredits what it does explain perfectly adequately i.e. how simple life becomes complex life without the need for a "designer". Again an argument from ignorance, evolution as a theory does not address itself to the origins of life no more than the germ theory of disease addresses why apples fall from trees. There are however scientific theories that address the origins of life from non-animate matter, they fall under the heading of Abiogenesis.

Bad Reason #8 – How does evolution know?

This is the eighth article in my series of 10 bad reasons to reject evolution, this post deals with the objection that "How does evolution know to create such specialised animals".

This objection is probably the least common one I hear however it is probably the best and most considered question of all, a good question in fact. The root of the problem is founded in human nature, our own evolution has conditioned us to look for causality in things, we are consummate tool makers, it is one of the things that separates us from the vast majority of other animals, along with other primates our large brains have given us the ability to reason, we look at an event or physical phenomenon in nature and reason "why did that happen", we look at a coconut and reason that if we hit it hard enough with a rock it is going to open. Of course, all of this reasoning is happening in our brains and not in the real world, the reasoning whilst fabulously useful from an evolutionary perspective is not limited by the real world.

The logical extension of this mode of thinking is that we project this desire for causality into nature, unfortunately early humans would not have known why things like floods, lightening, famine, crop failure, death etc. occur but we do know that our own actions cause things to happen, we kill animals, we plant crops, we build houses etc. So a logical and seemingly sensible rationalisation could be to invent in our heads a human-like agent that causes natural events to occur, for example Thor sending lightening bolts to indicate his displeasure or God sending a plague upon a city to punish the inhabitants for sin, to primitive man this must have slated his desire to "explain" nature, we know now of course that these inventions explain nothing.

Modern science since the enlightenment has found the real explanations for things like lightening, floods, disease, death, famine etc. but even though we understand all these natural events in intimate detail people still have the "old" desires hard wired into their brains through indoctrination and cultural influences; science is hard work, to appreciate it you need to study and understand concepts beyond everyday reckoning, people therefore seek simple non-explanations that can be consumed without effort, this need is satisfied by religion among other things.

So why do animals look so fine-tuned to the environment, well the answer to that is not an intuitive one, in fact you could say that it is counter-intuitive. The animals aren't created fine tuned TO the environment they are naturally fine tuned BY the environment, there is no need for supernatural causation from above, natural selection works to deliver what we see around us with ease. Richard Dawkins has a nice analogy for this that I like to use, imagine you see a man standing on top of a shear 1000ft cliff, you wonder to yourself, how did he get there?, it's too steep to climb and too high to jump, he must be an angel, this is analogous to the non-Darwinian explanation of nature. The Darwinian view would be to look behind the mountain and see the gradual incline at the back leading up to the cliff face on the other side, this is analogous to the unimaginable vastness of geological time. So, we don't have a sudden creation of complex animals we have a gradual, step by step increment starting at the bottom of the incline (simple life forms) leading to the heights that modern species have reached today at the top of the incline and looking out over the cliff.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Oranjepan; the image we spoke about

How could we possibly be related...

MMR and freedom

Another quick interruption from my evolution series (look out for the last 3 posts very soon) however I felt compelled to comment on the flurry of MMR related stories and opinions being stirred up at the moment in the UK. Attention has peaked today because of an announcement from the former chairman of the BMA (British Medical Association) sir Sandy Macara that he believes that MMR jabs should be made compulsory. This announcement has provoked the usual round of indignation from people claiming it would be a restriction of their freedoms, they are perfectly entitled to their view of course but I don't think such a narrow view represents the whole story.

If I am honest, I can see both sides to this one, anything to do with children and risk (perceived or real) is tricky, but if the decision were mine I would fall with the BMA, the theme of this post is to look at why.

Looking at this from the perspective of the anti-MMR lobby we can see the following concerns,

  • Scientific claims of risk that are not believed
  • Ignorance and confusion about the actual evidence
  • A lack of concern for others that might be affected by the chosen course of action.
  • A concerted effort to transform the campaign into a freedom issue from purely a medical one.

I can completely sympathise with parents who feel that fear of the unknown in relation to their own children, I have two children and I have also felt that same fear, I still had them both vaccinated at the earliest opportunity though, why did I do that?.

I am a scientist and I tend to evaluate things using a rational, evidence based approach, I look at evidence (pro's and con's), I weigh up the odds, read papers and articles, listen to experts, gauge opinion and come to a decision; I'm not suggesting that everyone should be like me (perish the thought) but the way in which people tackle the process of deciding is often instrumental in the success of the outcome of that decision, it is a fact of history that taking a rational approach demonstrably delivers better results than anything else.

For other parents who may be thinking about this here are the questions I asked myself and a brief description of how I arrived at the conclusion I did, a successful one.

What evidence would show that MMR causes autism, does that evidence exist?

Simple logic would suggest that if MMR had any impact on autism rates then if we look at historical autism rates and compare current autism rates then we should see an increase. These numbers are available on the internet from reputable sources, and the answer is a resounding no change.

What are the odds of bad things happening to my children if they don't have the MMR?

You hear people saying "well I won't have it just to be on the safe side", this is horribly flawed thinking, you need to evaluate both sides of an argument to determine the answer, so I looked at the effects of measles, mumps and rubella, the mortality rates of those diseases and I found that the number of children that used to die or be seriously handicapped far exceeded the number of cases of problems with the MMR which was statistically irrelevant in comparison, clearly not having it is far more dangerous.

How many experts say it's a good thing vs. how many say it's a bad thing?

When I looked there was almost unanimous agreement among the doctors and scientists that MMR is safe; however there was one prominent dissenting voice, that of Dr Andrew Wakefield who claimed in 1998 that there was a link between MMR and autism, this is very unusual, things that are suspect usually have a much broader degree of dissent, Wakefield was in statistical terms what we call an "outlier" an anomaly, clearly not to be ignored, but certainly not to be believed at face value. When we see outliers in science it usually means more investigation is required and 99 times out of 100 means that the data is wrong or a mistake has been made. As it turns out Mr Wakefield was a fraud, his results were fabricated because he was embittered after his theory that measles virus caused Crohn's disease was scorned, he was actually seeking to discredit MMR.

What choices do I have and are they demonstrably better?

Were there any choices, could I immunise my kids a different (safer) way? Well, there was the option of having separate injections, again the figures showed clearly that doing it this way had no benefit over the single version whatsoever, in fact they show that doing it this way is slightly less reliable. Then there are the practicalities, why have 6 injections when you can have 2, if you have ever taken a small child to the clinic to have this done you will know how distressing it can be.

What about the sad stories of cases of autism, do they have any credence?

I would be the first to concede that sometimes greed gets the better of drug companies; there are many documented examples of exploitation and lies regarding companies that wish to make vast profits from selling medicine. Looking at the stories around this we see a familiar pattern parents claiming that their child was diagnosed with autism "around" the time that the MMR was given. What question could we ask to evaluate this evidence? clearly we need to look at the history again; does typical age of diagnosis of autism correlate with the age of administering MMR? The answer is a resounding yes, this is the precise age that autistic children are diagnosed anyway, the probability that we are looking at a coincidence is very high, the probability that there is a causal link very low.

If the worst happened would it have an adverse effect on anyone else?

This was the clincher for me, what would happen if my child caught measles, would anyone else be put in harms way because of my actions? The answer was an unequivocal yes. Any parent knows that at a nursery school older children mix with younger children, what would be the effect of my child catching measles and passing it onto a younger child (not yet old enough for the MMR); potentially catastrophic is the plan truth of it. Even today, in countries that don't use the MMR (primarily 3rd world countries in Africa and elsewhere) there are 30,000,000 cases and over 900,000 deaths (figures from the WHO), just let that sink in, nearly a million preventable deaths.

So where does this leave everyone? Clearly some people in the UK do not take a rational approach when evaluating these kinds of things, that's a choice they are free to make; however there are sometimes serious consequences. The following chart shows the number of measles cases plotted by year, it speaks for itself.

The WHO (World Health Organisation) had hoped that measles could be completely eradicated by 2010. That hope has now been dashed, as we witness a huge increase in cases of these ancient, yet entirely conquerable enemies.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Bad Reason #7 Do we know how old fossils are?

This is the seventh article in my series of 10 bad reasons to reject evolution, this post deals with the objection that "They can't possibly know how old all these fossils are".

Since the mid 19th century, palaeontologists have searched the world for fossils. In the past 150 years they have not found a single fossil that Darwin's theory would not have expected, and several that it predicted. New discoveries have filled in the gaps, and shown us in unimaginable detail the shape of the great 'tree of life'. All this work has not led to a single unexpected find, such as a human fossil from the time of the dinosaurs.

So how do we date these finds?

It was discovered in the early 1900s that certain naturally occurring chemicals in rocks were radioactive, this means that they slowly decay or change over time into other chemicals. The rate of change can be measured and is constant for particular substances. Therefore if you know that A decays into B then all you need to do is measure the quantity of B and you can calculate the age of the rock.

So, this objection is based on ignorance, you often hear people saying, "oh but carbon-14 dating isn't reliable for dating fossils" and they would be right. Their error is that most fossils are not actually dated using C14 techniques at all.

Scientists use different chemicals for absolute dating:

The best-known absolute dating technique is carbon-14 dating, which archaeologists prefer to use. However, the half-life of carbon-14 is only 5730 years, so the method cannot be used for materials older than about 70,000 years which is why it is seldom used for older and more important fossils.

Radiometric dating involves the use of isotope series, such as rubidium/strontium, thorium/lead, potassium/argon, argon/argon, or uranium/lead, all of which have very long half-lives, ranging from 0.7 to 48.6 billion years. Subtle differences in the relative proportions of the two isotopes can give good dates for rocks of any age.

Scientists can check their accuracy by using different isotopes and cross checking the results.

The first radiometric dates, generated about 1920, showed that the Earth was hundreds of millions, or billions, of years old. Since then, geologists have made many tens of thousands of radiometric age determinations, and they have refined the earlier estimates. A key point is that it is no longer necessary simply to accept one chemical determination of a rock's age. Age estimates can be cross-tested by using different isotope pairs. Results from different techniques, often measured in rival labs, continually confirm each other, interestingly the range of error can also be calculated, and is more often than not less than 1%.

Bad reason #6 Are we monkeys?

This is the sixth article in my series of 10 bad reasons to reject evolution, this post deals with the objection that "If we evolved from monkeys, how come there are still monkeys".

This one is a very common misconception, an argument from ignorance; the missing piece of information in the brain of the objector here is that no one claims we did evolve from monkeys! This is another straw man argument that was coined by ignorant people around the time that Darwin first published the origin and again publicised by the "creationists" in order to attempt to ridicule evolution by appealing to people's vanity (i.e. I'm no ape! etc.)

There is also an implied misunderstanding of how evolution happens, it is the assumption that it is a chain, one species evolving into another at which point the prior species disappears, this is not how it works.

The process of evolution is a branching tree or more accurately a bush not a chain, species split and go off in different directions, sometimes the original line remains, and sometimes not. Sometimes an entire group of animals becomes extinct and another takes up the niche that it once occupied, for example dinosaurs and mammals.

Humans share a common ancestor with apes, we didn't evolve from modern monkeys, it would be true to say that we are cousins of apes and the DNA evidence proves that, it is probably also fair to say that if we could see the animal that existed at the branch point between apes and humans it would almost certainly look "ape-like" but more importantly it would also have human characteristics too.

Bad reason #5 – Its too complex for mere “chance”

This is the fifth article in my series of 10 bad reasons to reject evolution, this post deals with the objection that "The human body is too complex to have come about by chance".

You hear this objection in many forms, generally it is sweeping and incredulous in tone, for example you get assertions like "but nature is so wonderful, it can't have possibly got here by accident" or "look at the human eye, you can't tell me that was created by random forces" etc. This is an argument that I like to call the argument from personal incredulity, i.e. I can't personally see how it could have happened therefore God did it, and it is also an argument from ignorance.

There is no (serious) student of evolution on the planet that would claim any animal or plant "came about by chance", this is a complete straw man, evolution is a theory which explains how complexity arose from simple life forms via a process of tiny incremental change those changes were guided by one of the most powerful non-random forces known to us, natural selection. This force is ruthless, uncompromising and utterly transparent, if you are "unfit" for your environment you die and do not pass on your genes to the next generation, it is as simple and clear cut as that.

Another mistake that religious people often make is to think of nature in a beautiful fluffy (puppy like) context, i.e. take the best parts and claim (on behalf of God) credit for those parts. How often have you heard a religious person say in prayer, oh god thank you for the beautiful flowers and the wonderful abundance of nature (or some such baloney) If they are right and God did make everything then he also made the Aids virus and the liver fluke, he also hand crafted the intricate workings of the African worm that burrows into the eyes balls of small children rendering them blind. Of course every rational person clearly sees that natural selection is the only true explanation for all of this (good and bad) , creatures have been sculpted over time by purely natural forces with no guiding hand, back and forth, gradually increasing in complexity and specialisation, delivering the "appearance" of design over a mind numbingly large 3.5+ billion years.

So, are we perfect examples of design, could we honestly say that we are made in the image of a "perfect" being?

Let's look at 10 things that are legacies of our own evolutionary heritage in our own bodies, these are features that can only have one of two explanations, either God is crap at design, or we evolved.

1. Goose Bumps -Humans get goose bumps when they are cold, frightened, angry, or in awe. Many other creatures get goose bumps for the same reason, for example this is why a cat or dog's hair stands on end and the cause behind a porcupine's quills raising. In cold situations, the rising hair traps air between the hairs and skin, creating insulation and warmth. In response to fear, goose bumps make an animal appear larger - hopefully scaring away the enemy. Humans no longer benefit from goose bumps and they are simply left over from our past when we were not clothed and needed to scare our own natural enemies. Natural selection removed the thick hair but left behind the mechanism for controlling it.

2. Jacobsons Organ - Jacobson's organ is a fascinating part of animal anatomy and it tells us a lot about our own sexual history. The organ is in the nose and it is a special "smell" organ which detects pheromones (the chemical that triggers sexual desire, alarm, or information about food trails). It is this organ that allows some animals to track others for sex and to know of potential dangers. Humans are born with the Jacobson's organ, but in early development its abilities dwindle to a point that it is useless. Once upon a time, humans would have used this organ to locate mates when communication was not possible. Single's evenings, chat rooms, and bars have now taken its place in the process of human mate-seeking.

3. Junk DNA -While many of the hangovers from our "devolved" past are visible or physical, this is not true for all. Humans have structures in their genetic make-up that were once used to produces enzymes to process vitamin C (it is called L-gulonolactone oxidase). Most other animals have this functioning DNA but at some point in our history, a mutation disbled the gene - whilst leaving behind its remnants as junk DNA. This particular junk DNA indicates a common ancestry with other species on earth, so it is particularly interesting.

4. Extra Ear Muscles - Also known as the extrinsic ear muscles, the auriculares muscles are used by animals to swivel and manipulate their ears (independently of their head) in order to focus their hearing on particular sounds. Humans still have the muscles that we would once have used for the very same reason - but our muscles are now so feeble that all they can do is give our ears a little wiggle. The use of these muscles in cats is very visible (as they can nearly turn their ears completely backwards) - particularly when they are stalking a bird and need to make the smallest movements possible so as to not frighten its future meal.

5. Plantaris Muscle -The plantaris muscle is used by animals in gripping and manipulating objects with their feet - something you see with apes who seem to be able to use their feet as well as their hands. Humans have this muscle as well, but it is now so underdeveloped that it is often taken out by doctors when they need tissue for reconstruction in other parts of the body. The muscle is so unimportant to the human body that 9% of humans are now born without it.

6. Wisdom Teeth - Early humans ate a lot of plants - and they needed to eat them quickly enough that they could eat a sufficient amount in one day to get all of the nutrients they needed. For this reason, we had an extra set of molars to make the larger mouth more productive. This was particularly essential as the body lacked the ability to sufficiently digest cellulose. As evolution made its selections, our diets changed, our jaws grew appropriately smaller, and our third molars became unnecessary. Some human populations have now all but completely stopped growing wisdom teeth, while others have almost 100% likelihood of developing them.

7. Third Eyelid - If you watch a cat blink, you will see a white membrane cross its eye - that is called its third eyelid. It is quite a rare thing in mammals, but common in birds, reptiles, and fish. Humans have a remnant (but non-working) third eyelid (you can see it in the picture above). It has become quite small in humans, but some populations have more visible portions than others. There is only one known species of primate that still has a functioning third eyelid, and that is the Calabar angwantibo (closely related to lorises) which lives in West Africa.

8. Darwins Point -Darwin's point is found in the majority of mammals, and humans are no exception. It is most likely used to help focus sounds in animals, but it no longer has a function in humans. Only 10.4% of the human population still has this visible left-over mark of our past, but it is possible that a much larger number of people carry the gene that produces it as it does not always cause the ear tubercle to appear. The point (shown in the picture above) is a small thick nodule at the junction of the upper and middle sections of the ear.

9. Coccyx -The coccyx is the remnant of what was once a human tail. Over time we lost the need for a tail (as tree swinging was replaced by hanging out at the local water hole grunting Neanderthal gossip), but we did not lose the need for the coccyx: it now functions as a support structure for various muscles and a support for a person when he sits down and leans back. The coccyx also supports the position of the anus.

10. Appendix -The appendix has no known use in modern humans and is often removed when it becomes infected. While its original use is still speculated on, most scientists agree with Darwin's suggestion that it once helped to process the cellulose found in the leaf-rich diet that we once had. Over the course of evolution, as our diet has changed, the appendix became less useful. What is particularly interesting is that many evolutionary theorists believe that natural selection (while removing all of the abilities of the appendix) selects larger appendices because they are less likely to become inflamed and diseased. So unlike the little toe, which may eventually vanish and is equally useless, the appendix is likely to stay with us for a long time - just hanging around doing nothing.

Disingenuous R’US

Just one more bit of Catholic bashing before I get back to the much more enlightening and honest subject of evolution, I couldn't help see this snippet from a recent edition BBC1's The Big Questions during which Father John Owen made the following statement (please note that this person is actually communications officer for the archdiocese of Cardiff) with reference to the recent report on systemic child abuse by Catholics in Ireland and the Ryan Report.

These matters are so ghastly that people don't want to look at them; they can't believe these things are taking place within the orbit of a Christian church, perversion of Christianity.

So far so good you would think, but then he cannot resist, decades of indoctrination and apologetics have corrupted his mind, eliminating his rational faculties and reducing him to a mindless robot, he added,

Let me tell you of course before you go too far, most of the offences are being committed by homosexuals.

Just let that one sink in for a while, and then also think about the £30,000 pounds of OUR licence payer's money that the BBC is paying out to the Muslim council of Britain because former Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore made a comment about the MCB not being willing to condemn the killing and kidnapping of British soldiers overseas (which they don't!). As my old English literature teacher used to say, "Compare and contrast".

How is it that the Catholics seem to be able to spot a correlation between homosexuality and child abuse but not Catholicism and child abuse when statistically the latter is much more relevant?

The “faith” delusion

I thought I would take a quick break from my evolution series (look out for the next one soon!) to comment on a big US story that broke recently. The story is a pitiful tale of delusion and violence, a doctor (George Tiller) was gunned down whilst attending a church, he died of his injuries and leaves behind a wife and family. This sad tale might be seemingly all too familiar, a tale of gun crime in modern America perhaps; except that Dr Tiller ran an abortion clinic that offered late term terminations to women in Kansas. This is not the first attempt on Mr Tiller's life and it is almost certain that this crime is (quite unbelievably in the 21st century) a direct result of ancient literature.

Rather than drill into the rights and wrongs of late term abortion (although in this case these operations were only performed when the life of the mother was at risk) I thought I would take a look at the response of the Christians, the so called "pro life" campaigners (although clearly the definition of "life" is flexible), here are a sprinkling that I found (some random ones from twitter).

Commenting on Dr. Tiller's death, Mr. Leach said, "To call this a crime is too simplistic." He added, "There is Christian scripture that would support this."

Randall Terry said, George Tiller was a mass-murderer. We grieve for him that he did not have time to properly prepare his soul to face God.

George Tiller the baby killer was shot dead this morning. God bless the gunmen who hopefully won't be caught.

Hmm, I know it's wrong, but I feel like the Late-Term Abortion Doctor George Tiller, got what was he deserved.

Rev Rusty Thomas said: He died the way he lived. His was a bloody death.

I guess Obama the Messiah can't resurrect Tiller the baby killer.

Clearly in any large society of people, statistically, you will get lunatics and fundamentalists that are simply mentally ill, but in this case we seem to have an entire sub-culture of hate fuelled by a delusion, this delusion is more commonly called "faith", a belief that what it says in a 2000 year old book are the words of the creator of the universe when there is not a single scrap of evidence suggesting it is true. I would have more sympathy if these people actually followed ALL the words in their magic book, but predictably they are hypocrites, cherry picking the parts that suit them and discarding those that don't, for example you don't see many of these people casting off all their worldly goods or stoning each other to death for working on the Sabbath or coveting their next door neighbours SUV. Unluckily for Dr Tiller this particular passage was apparently and seemingly randomly, one that these particular "Christians" think is true.

Moderate religious people and those who haven't really thought about it much often respond to Atheist protestation with puzzlement, why bother, why get upset over something you don't believe in, leave them to their religion, live and let live, what harm can it do etc, well here in a small way we see the harm, what more is there to say?

The strongest conclusion I can draw from it is that religion fails to provide a reasonable framework for morality, since it is so easily and regularly subverted to rationalize evil, it is time that rational people stand up and be counted and "faith" is openly criticised for what it really is, delusion.