Saturday, 30 June 2012

Enjoy the leap second!

Tonight there will be a 'leap second' - a tiny correction to our calendar because the rotation of the Earth is not absolutely constant.  The earth is slowing down - very slowly.

A leap second - picture from here

Tonight there will be an 11:59:60 p.m., just one second after 11:59:59 p.m. and just before 12:00:00 midnight.

In principle that means that we get a lie in tomorrow morning.  Enjoy it while it lasts.  If you are suffering from jet-lag at the moment, this is for you!

Things Chrisitans say, part 22: Evidence all around us!

A weekly series of responses to the things Christians say to atheists, based on the video reproduced here on 30th January 2012.  The aim is to tackle one every weekend, to give both a moderate, polite response to each question ('Piano'), followed by a more forceful rebuttal of the same question ('Forte'). 

The evidence is all around you. Just look at this world.


To our eyes, there are many aspects of the world that combine beauty, majesty and awe inspiring abilities.  Looking at them with interest we all find things that amaze us, whether we are religious or not.

Since we are looking at this world though, why do we only see the amazingly beautiful and complex things and why would you then attribute all of those to God?

I think if you continue to look at the world and ALL of its evidence you might start to see things that disgust and appal you.  The existence of creatures that are infested by incredibly (albeit unwittingly) cruel parasites can't go un-noticed.  The suffering of innocent children who can hardly be blamed for their sins must raise other questions.

So I have to agree with you.  Just look at this world.  After looking at all of it, can you honestly convince yourself that God did the nice bits but not the others?  I don't understand how you could.

Being all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving he allows - no he makes things this way.



This has got to be one of the weakest of all the arguments for the existence of a god, let alone your particular God.  It combines many logical errors into one or two sentences.

First of all, has it ever occurred to you that people all around the world think that their gods were involved in creating the world?  If you claim that these gods are all different manifestations of your God then I would say that there are two possibilities.  Either you are lying to yourself, or you are deluded in your views.  The properties of all these imaginary beings are mutually exclusive.  Other people deride your god just as you disapprove of theirs (if you are honest).  You only think yours is the most likely because . . . he is yours.

Second - when you look at all this world around you, you can hardly fail to be unaware of the problem of suffering.  (See above.)  I feel that the burden of proof is on you if you want us to believe that God didn't do that as well as the nice things.  If you insist on indulging in cherry-picking and then how can you expect anyone to accept your argument as a logical one.

Third - why don't you go and read some books that tell you the answers.  Read with an open and inquiring mind, instead of listening to preachers who generally know nothing about anything useful.  They only know how to use superficially plausible analogies and metaphors to convince those who have not bothered to learn about other points of view.  In fact, most of the congregation will never have taken seriously the concept that other people believe equally strongly in other gods, and they have little training in scientific and rational thinking.  Of course they can be easily convinced. 

But you ARE reading this.  You are different.

Just because you (or they) personally can't believe that the world came to its current state with the intervention of a deity doesn't mean anything.  You can't have bothered to read the opposing point of view.  In this day and age, with such freedom of information flow, you have to admit that this is intellectually lazy.

Isn't it interesting that this song, What a Wonderful World was used as the theme music for the original series of (atheist) Douglas Adams' Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy?  It was not used because the word 'sacred' appeared once in the lyrics, but perhaps because of

I hear babies cry...... I watch them grow 
They'll learn much more.....than I'll never know 
And I think to myself .....what a wonderful world

That doesn't meant that you should stop learning, even though the babies might eventually know more that you ever will.

Last week:   I really don't think your marriage can be considered a real marriage!
Next week: The banana!

Friday, 29 June 2012

Sahara Desert arrives!

Once in a while we in UK get visited by the Sahara Desert - or at least by some of it.  This week, the rain has been particularly dirty.  Its a good job I hadn't just washed the car!

2012 Sahara sand lands on my car - 2000 miles away!
Sahara sand lands on my car - 2000 miles away!
The MetOffice tells us that this happens quite often, but even they admit that this is a particularly good example of the phenomenon.  See the video at their site.

Sahara dust reaches UK this week
Considering how much of the Sahara has arrived here, it is interesting to speculate what the conditions were like there, in order to throw this much dust up into the atmosphere.

And people complain about UK weather!

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Wearing hats in church

Having been brought up in the Anglican tradition, my parents always made it very clear that there was a protocol about who was allowed to wear a hat in church.  Gradually I became aware that for earlier generations it was not so much a case of being allowed, as who was expected to wear them.

Basically ladies wear hats to church and gentlemen take their hats off to go into a church - or even a house.

There are some notable exceptions.

Archbishops take their hats off outdoors but wear them in church.
Bishops and archbishops do wear something on their heads in church, but it appears that they take them off outside and they are not allowed to be ladies.  Their headgear looks like a hat, but it is really a mitre - so perhaps it doesn't count.

Now that I am no longer a Christian I think I know the bible much better than I did when I was one.  In that capacity, I suspect that this is the passage that is used as the basis for the rule.  As usual, it is not completely and unabiguously clear what it really means.

A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.  1 Corinthians 11:7-9

Taking that as the rule (which I find to be disrespectful to my equal female friends) I wonder why it only applies in a church.

Should I think laterally like this?  It might be seen as a total lack of focus (as some of my colleagues appear to think).

I prefer to think of it as a strength.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Profusion of Lego

Sometimes you have to admire the way that people can have fun in science.  It seems that the staff of Scientific American have been following the progress of construction of the ITER tokamak and that they are more-or-less prototyping the assembly of the machine . . . in Lego bricks.

ITER - the way forward as envisaged in lego bricks

Read on about it at this link.

Meanwhile, Europe's flagship machine, which is still the largest and most successful tokamak in the world - state of the art but 30 years old - has already been depicted in Lego.  Or at least a relatively realistic version of the JET control room has been built, with nice pictures of the inside of the machine while a pulse is running.

JET Control Room in Lego - by Fernanda Rimini (source here)

I wouldn't like to speculate about which member of staff is represented by Darth Vader.  I think I ought to keep those thoughts to myself!

Small and surprising note:  Did you know that 'Lego' is a name constructed out of the Danish expression leg godt, meaning 'play well'?

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

The softest down imaginable

It is said (by Sam Harris, in his Letter to a Christian Nation which I wrote about recently) that former leader of North Korea, Kim Il Sung was very demanding about his sleeping arrangements.  He required that his bed should be at exactly 500m above sea level (which must have made him sea-sick if there is much of a tide in N Korea) and that his mattresses be filled with 'the softest down imaginable'.

Kim Il Sung liked a soft bed made of down
from the throats of sparrows.  (Image from here)
Apparently the 'softest down imaginable' comes from the throat of a sparrow.

To fill each mattress, the down of 700,000 sparrows is needed.  Since he had several residences, it would be surprising if the population of sparrows in the country was not somewhat affected.

As Harris goes on to say:

Tyrants who orchestrate genocides, or who happily preside over the starvation of their own people, also tend to be profoundly idiosyncratic men, not champions of reason.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Apologist makes most of the common mistakes

I happened across a twitter user, @MichaelLicona, who wanted to promote his web site of videos about the resurrection of Jesus.  His wikipedia page says that he is a New Testament Scholar and hold a PhD in New Testament Studies.  It turns out that he was fired last year from a university post and lost his appointment as apologetics coordinator for the North American Mission Board last year, after an argument about biblical inerrancy.   Let us set the disagreements of God's followers aside, and look at their other claims though.

I was curious to know what intellectual powers were required for a doctorate from the University of Pretoria.  Just for fun I decided to watch the videos and play 'spot the logical fallacy'.  It soon became clear that the site was there to promote sales of a DVD which promises to give more information.  You would think that he would work hard to present some good stuff in these short trailers if he wanted to be sucessful with his sales.  I don't think he succeeded.  After replying to his tweet politely it is interesting that he unfollowed me. 

The host site is called Apologetics 315, which you can find at the address given at the end in plain text.  I don't want to raise their ratings by making a link.  The specific page is called Ten Myths about the Ressurection.  There are ten videos of about 2 minutes, but the actual useful content of each is more like 30 seconds.  Let's summarise them, and yes, laugh at them!

Myth 1: Contradictions in the Gospels

His pathetic excuses in this episode contained no evidence at all.  He used the 'no credible historian' fallacy which, being a 'New Testament Scholar', he must know to be untrue.  He also claims that the contradictions are easily harmonisable.  You would think he would provide some evidence for such a claim.

I would contest that no credible historian would actually accept the bible as unbiased evidence, especially when no other contemporary historians record anything about the amazing events surrounding Jesus.

The failure of this, the most important argument of the set, undermines all the rest of the videos very effectively.

Myth 2: Pagan Parallels in the Mystery Religions

The pagan parallels of dying a rising mythical figures are not parallels at all, he claims.  Of course most of these were mistaken or the accounts post-date the gospels.  (Really?)  Some of the others were coincidences.  So at least he accepts the existence of these claims.

Who knows whether any contain any truth, but claiming that he has consulted other scholars proves little.  We all know that you can find scholars to make any case that you can think of.

Myth 3: The Fraud Theory

The 'not a single credible' fallacy comes up again, althought this time it is scholars rather than historians.  (The question of whether there is a single credible fact in the NT is never mentioned.)  "The fact that they were prepared to die . . ." and the conversion of Paul prove it all.   As commonly happens, Licona is deliberately pretending that the bible is an undisputed factual account of history.  In fact, the bible contains no facts, but a lot of anecdotes, and quoting it proves nothing at all.

He must know this.  He's an NT scholar!

Myth 4: Hallucinations

He says it is not true that the disciples were so grief-stricken that they hallucinated, but that they really experienced them.  Apparently the mass halucinations in the bible 'show' that its not just anecdotal, and again, Paul's conversion was obvious proof.  Well actually, mass hallucinations do take place and they prove only one thing - that the whole crowd hallucinated.  Usually, when properly investigated, you find that they all hallucinated different things which are mutually inconsistent.

Maybe that is evidence for the bible after all then.  They were certainly successful in disagreeing with each other.

Myth 5: It's a Matter of Faith

By misrepresenting evolution as an analogy, and then comparing scientific evidence with apparent (unsupported) historical evidence, he proves that it is not just a matter of faith.  This is a typical use of analogy to prove things that you can't know!

Myth 6: Apparent Death Theory

The argument that Jesus died on the cross assumes once more that the bible is historical evidence.  He uses Josephus to 'prove' that people were unlikely to survive crucifixion, even if removed while alive.  Then comes the hard sell - order my DVDs within the next 30 minutes and I guarantee that you will get exactly what we promise.

I wonder what happens after 30 minutes then!

He is still neglecting to cover the real question of the huge differences between the accounts in the gospels - and that surprisingly one of them even completely neglects to mention the resurrection!

Myth 7: It Was Merely Legend

All these 'eye-witnesses', the original apostles, show that it was not a legend.  You can't accuse them of lying or hallucinating.  However, whatever he says, eye-witness accounts written down decades later prove nothing.  Memory is modified with time - and the scientific evidence for this is now very strong.  The fact that it is unreliable has famously been demonstrated since the 911 disaster where people were asked for their accounts of the event the day afterwards, and then re-examined several years later.  Their accounts were inconsistent with each other to the extent that many of them could not believe that they had ever made the original statements.

Myth 8: Science Proves that Resurrections Cannot Occur

This Dr of things you can't know now seems to know all about science.  He uses another analogy which singularly fails to convince.  This one is an excellent example of special pleading!

Myth 9: Not Enough Evidence

He begs to differ about whether there is evidence and again makes the mistake of thinking that the bible is evidence.  By making a comparison with the evidence for Caesar Augustus he shows his true hand.  Millions of independent strands of evidence for his existence have been found.  Here is one of them!

Proof! - Yes proof of disingenuous apologist arguments. 
Where is there such good evidence for the existence of Jesus?

Myth 10: Lost Gospels.

The Lost Gospels' different accounts apparently can't be believed.  However, the debate about when the lost gospels were written apparently doesn't apply to the canonical gospels themselves.  Even the earliest of the lost gospels, Thomas, apparently tells nothing about the resurrection and therefore the bible must be true.  Once again - a pathetic argument which neglects the disagreement between the different biblical accounts.

Even the two girls who were sitting in the background didn't last to the end of this charade!

I did see one sensible thing on that site though:

“Apologists cannot be content to depend on borrowed answers. They need to develop answers for themselves. In short, they need to own their answers. Never give an answer to a question that doesn’t satisfy you in the first place.”  - Alister McGrath

On that basis most apologists ought to be a bit quieter!

Should you want to have a laugh too, the two addresses are: and

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Sunday Selection 2

Continuing a new series where there is little additional content from me, but I simply share a few items, new and old, that have pleased me this week.  As almost every week, I see items on the web that I find interesting, amazing or  or amusing.  This disjointed ramble might be on any of my normal topics - or on other topics entirely.  My thanks go to the friends who helped me to find them.

First: Some of the excellent ironic humour from the Jesus and Mo cartoons.

Next: News of the discovery of cave art that is older than any found so far.

Podcast of the week: I have become a big fan of WNYC's Radiolab podcast.  It is clearly very professionally produced but I forgive it for that.  It relies on a narrative style to tell a story in each episode.  As they say

On Radiolab, science meets culture and information sounds like music. Each episode of Radiolab® is an investigation -- a patchwork of people, sounds, stories and experiences centered around One Big Idea. Hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, Radiolab

This week's was called Unravelling Bolero - and even in that title you can see a little clever humour if you know who wrote that music.

Another great podcast: Richard Dawkins' acceptance speech at the British Humanist Association's conference in Cardiff last month, courtesy of the excellent Pod Delusion.

Tweets of the week:

Apathy in the face of religion's schemes and power-grabbing is akin to surrender. @ProfessorIrony

Vatican announced in this era of equal opportunity God will now be ignoring prayers from Atheists as well as Christians.  @GodlessAtheist

Atheist blog post of the week:  The Lady Atheist, in Links of Shame: Religion in the News, provided a few links to news items suggesting that the law is finally catching up with religious criminals, and to other incredible religious news.

Life science of the week:  Ants flowing as a fluid

Controversial theism of the week:  A letter from a Jehovah's Witness mother to her son.  I can't decide whether it is moving or disgusting.

Favorite places: I have seen a few reports from Japan that the water in Osaka Bay has turned pale yellow, supporting fears of an imminent huge earthquake.  This site says:

A similar occurrence took place in 1995, shortly before the Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995, which was responsible for the deaths of more than 7000 people in Kobe and the surrounding vicinity. The area also suffered a large scale fish kill only last week, when several tons of dead sardines inexplicably washed up on the beaches . . .

Osaka Bay changing colour - from Fukushima Diary

Japan - one of my favourite places to visit - doesn't need another disaster.
Small note: My only skepticism about this is that there only seems to be one photo so far.

I hope you enjoyed this random walk through the week.  Your comments and preferences will help me to decide whether this is a good idea or not.

Does Rio +20 matter? YES!

What a stupid name for an important conference.  What does Rio +20 mean?

And it is beginning to look as though we are going to get a stupid, spineless and cowardly outcome from it too, unless real people - you and me - step in and help.   I know there's not much hope of influencing world leaders, but it must be worth a try.

A trillion dollars in tax subsidy to anti-green energy

Until recently, not many of us were aware that fossil fuels get FAR greater subsidies than other greener energy sources.  People criticise subsidies to green energy in absolute ignorance of the real situation.  Finally it is becoming clear that some of those people are shills for the oil companies.

Now it should have become clear to the rest of the population (if they were listening) that the oil companies and their cronies get a trillion dollars per year in tax subsidies.  That's quite a lot isn't it?  It is time to make a change.

A spineless agreement from Rio is worse than no agreement at all.

If you have enjoyed any of the content of Something surprising, please go to, consider the arguments critically and have your say.

Abolish the subsidies!

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Things Christians Say, part 21: Real marriage

A weekly series of responses to the things Christians say to atheists, based on the video reproduced here on 30th January 2012.  The aim is to tackle one every weekend, to give both a moderate, polite response to each question ('Piano'), followed by a more forceful rebuttal of the same question ('Forte'). 

I really don't think your marriage can be considered a real marriage!


I'm quite curious to know why it is that Christians seem to claim the idea of marriage for themselves and try to define it in their own specific ways.  Even if that were acceptable, it has to be recognised that the different Christian traditions have their own ideas, often based on verses from the bible, but still not entirely consistent with each other.

In my own case this claim would not be true anyway, having been married in a Methodist Church.  In fact I always remind people that my late father-in-law married me, but that I didn't marry him.  (He was minister of that church you see!)

However, even if that was not the case, if I had married a Hindu, would my marriage be considered a 'real marriage'?  For many Christians the answer would be yes, since god in some form - maybe not your favourite form -  might have been involved.  What if I had married a Buddhist.  Most Buddhists are strictly atheistic, so are their weddings valid?  They are, at least, religious ceremonies.

Anyway - fortunately your opinion doesn't really matter.  Within the eyes of the real law (not religious law) marriages are quite well defined even if not yet entirely fairly.



Kindly define marriage for me. Is it the usual narrow-minded view of one man and one woman, married in a christian church by a special kind of witch doctor who happens to be ordained into one of the Christian cults that seem to proliferate so easily.  Or does it have to be your own particular cult - which you would probably prefer to be called a denomination?

Might your definition stretch to other religions perhaps?  I'm sure you have noticed that people all around the world get married to each other.  In some traditions polygamy is allowed.  What is your view of that?  And in yet others men are allowed to take child brides.  (Mohamed stretched this point to a point that most of us would consider to be inappropriate.)

I suspect that these forms of marriage are starting to reach a point that you are less comfortable with.  We haven't even started to talk about same-sex unions which you probably regard as being outside the definition of marriage.  But on what basis can you claim that.  As I have already mentioned, marriage comes in many forms that exclude your particular deity.

An entirely secular commitment between two people of either gender would hardly seem to me to be sinful, and your particular opinion doesn't affect me greatly unless it is imposed upon the society that I live in.  Personally I do not ever want to marry another man, but I don't think my own preference have any bearing on the rights of those who do.

Ooh . . . wait a minute.  Your view does seem to be imposed on my society to some extent.  Religions get too great a say in the proper process of government.  I do strongly object to that!

Before I finish, have you noticed that people like to get married in churches for the tradition of it all.  It is not that they believe in friends in the sky, but that it is seen as romantic and their friends and family expect it of them.

But don't delude yourself that they are getting married in church in order to involve God.  Most priests know that that is not the case but they continue to pretend - yes PRETEND -  that it is.

Last week: So - are you a communist too?
Next week:  The evidence is all around you. Just look at this world.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Pretending to know things that you don't know!

During an interesting interview on the new podcast, the Malcontents Gambit (43 minutes that I highly recommend) Peter Boghossian spoke in his usual clear and convincing way.

Discussions on the subject of faith require a clear definition of the terminology, and Boghossian has proposed a solution to this problem, which appears to clarify things rather well.  If you haven't come across Boghossian (and he does suddenly seem to be coming very much to the notice of the rational thinking community now) then you should Google for some of his work or see the links in the previous post.

Peter Boghossian - knowing things that
he can know

His definition of faith is "pretending to know things that you don't know".  Just substituting these words in a sentence often makes an obscure theological or doctrinal question turn into a clearly defined problem with a simple solution.

For example, when asked whether it is possible to have a meaningful and purposeful life without faith, he suggests that the question should be re-phrased by substituting his definition of the word faith.  The question then becomes "Is it possible to have a meaningful and purposeful life without pretending to know things that you don't know".  Surely the answer is then obvious.

Boghossian claims - I think rightly - that there are almost no situations where the word 'faith' needs to be invoked in the English language.  All too often the concept of faith is confused with hope, which is an entirely different thing.  People also tend to use faith as a system of epistemology - i.e. a system for the study of knowledge.  He suggests that the faithful have no right to claim that they have anything to offer on this topic.

When challenged that relying on the scientific method is the same as relying on faith, he quoted a martial arts friend, Matt Thornton, who insists that this is 'like suggesting that abstinence is a sexual position'.

Humanity's technological progress is solely attributable to recognition of the existence of external reality - not a faith.

The 'problem of induction' is often thrown out by proponents of faith.  They suggest that you have to have faith in order to believe that the sun will rise tomorrow.  Going back to the definition of faith helps with this though.  We do know why the sun appears to rise.  It is a simple matter of celestial mechanics and it would be very surprising if this changed overnight.  Faith does not come into the matter.

Truth matters because it enables us to make our lives better, improve life in our communities and promote better justice.  In fact, if you do not value objective truth, then the thing that you are valuing is arbitrary.  That is part of the problem of faith.  Indeed, even just having faith is a form of injustice to yourself.

Antagonistically, but quite sensibly, he criticises people who make claims about what will happen to them after death, and especially about what will happen to him.  He suggests that anyone who tells you that you will go to hell shouldn't be allowed to have any form of adult responsibility.  Maybe they should be allowed to write fiction, but not to do anything where rational decisions are needed.

There are four impediments to rational thought:
1/  Subjectivity and objectivity are too often confused.
2/  The definition of faith is not clear enough, and faith is too often confused with hope.
3/  Confirmation bias plays too large a role.
4/  Belief in belief - people tend to think that it is good to believe in something rather than nothing.

In feedback that he has received so far, he notes that people almost never say "Look, you're wrong and here's why" but almost always they will tell him that the bible says something different.  Almost all the e-mails he receives are an unsophisticated form of confirmation bias.

Amusingly, he also proposed that Gene Roddenberry's eponymous Mr Spock (in Star Trek, as you know) might actually have done damage to the cause of rational thinking.  By making Spock a character who has no emotions, there is a danger of people associating that quality with all rationalists.  Surely that is not something we would want, but setting that desire aside, Michael Schermer's book, The Believing Brain seems to shed light on the issue.  The hypothesis that we make our decisions and develop our beliefs emotionally, and then use our conscious powers to back them up rationally, is now very well supported.

He says that almost every moment of his waking day is spent discussing these things.  Interestingly he makes the surprising and refreshing claim that every single person in the world can be reached by rationality.  Personally he believes that the best way to reach difficult people is to be incredibly blunt and honest with them - as Richard Dawkins is.  He also suggests that you should never allow an argument to be shut down by someone claiming to offended.  As he says, "Your offence means nothing to me".

He finds that evangelical fundamentalists are easier to talk to than mushy moderates.  These are the sort of people that you can have a beer with!

Let's hope for more gems like this!

Related posts:
Introduction: Elect the fourth horseman - some candidates!
One from yesterday: Elect the fourth horseman - some candidates!
And from earlier this evening:  Boghossian leads by a mile

Boghossian leads by a mile

I'm not just surprised, but truly amazed at the level of interest in my slightly frivolous post yesterday about electing a putative replacement 4th Horseman as a mark of respect to Christopher Hitchens.  Thanks for all the comments.

Even more amazing was the consensus of opinion.  I feel myself slightly worried now.  To quote a famous author

Whenever you find you are on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect. -- Mark Twain

Even while I was putting together the picture that I featured, I had in mind my own favourite candidate, a relative newcomer to the scene, whose work has been impressing me.  Nothing could have prepared me for the level of agreement in your comments.  I didn't even do much to lead the audience.

You can see from this bar chart what I mean.

Peter Boghossian leads the race - by quite a margin!

Many of my readers might not be familiar with Boghossian's work, but the results suggest that you should expect to see much more of him soon.

Shortly I will post an article about one of his recent interviews, Pretending to know things that you don't know!   Meanwhile here are the links to a couple of his videos. If you are aware of any others, please post links in the comments.

Jesus, the Easter Bunny, and Other Delusions earlier this year.  (35 minutes.)

Faith: Pretending to know things you don't know, May 6th 2012 (37 minutes)

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Elect the fourth horseman - some candidates!

In yesterday's post I introduced the idea that it might be time to 'elect' a new fourth horseman, who who have the tough task of replacing Hitch. It would be difficult.  To quote one of the remaining three:

Hitch had more wit and style than a few civilisations that I could name! -- Sam Harris.

The role might be one like that of Paul in the New Testament - not there at the beginning but amazingly influential in the progress of his cause. 

Who might we have on the candidates list?

Elect the 4th Horseman's substitute

These are the names that I could suggest, listed in strict alphabetical surname order (although not in the same order in this picture).  All of these people have strengths as great as Hitch's, albeit in different areas.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Dan Barker, Peter Boghossian, Jerry Coyne, Brian Dalton (Mr Deity), Matt Dillahunty, Sean Faircloth, Penn Jillette, A C Grayling, Paula Kirby, Lawrence Krauss, Pee Zee Myers, Maryam Namazie, Steve Novella, Aron Ra, James Randi, Michael Schermer, Eugenie Scott, Victor Stenger, Neil deGrasse Tyson.

I'm sure there are many others.  Add your suggestions in the comments, which are allowed to be anonymous if you prefer.

Small note: Nobody called Rebecca is on the list!

Related Posts:
Introduction: Elect the fourth horseman - some candidates!
Initial results of the responses:  Boghossian leads by a mile!
Some of Boghossian's work summarised: Pretending to know things that you don't know!
And one from yesterday: Could anyone ever replace Hitch?

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Could anyone ever replace Hitch?

With the sad demise of Christopher Hitchens last December, I have been wondering whether anyone else might be 'elected' to the honorary position of '4th Horseman of the Apocalypse', joining Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris.  In fact, I have been wondering whether anyone ever could replace him and who might be qualified to decide anyway.  Is it a democratic vote?  Is it another opportunity for the diverse rational community to be split again? (Or are we lucky enough to find that Rebecca Watson is too busy in her other campaigns of self-publicity to bother herself about this one)?

Three remaining 'horseman',
with worthy guest, Ayaan Hirsi Ali from here.
On Sunday I gave you this link to an excellent Youtube video of Ayaan Hirsi Ali on stage with the remaining three 'horsemen' at the 2012 Global Atheist Convention, 13-15th April, in the Melbourne Convention Exhibition Centre.

Although I know I'm not in a position to have any credible effect on this topic, I am going to indulge myself in a little speculation about the possible candidates.  I can only work from my own limited experience, but I will give a 'shout out' to some of the people who have most influenced my thinking over the last couple of years.

That the original horsemen are firmly on my list goes without saying.  If that were not the case I would not be writing this.

What criteria are important in this selection though?
  • Do the existing three have to approve the selection, or indeed make the selection themselves?  (I'm sure they would want to influence the choice).
  • Is it necessary for the 4th horseman to be a man?  (A tricky, potentially divisive question!  I vote for equality, and against positive discrimination.)
  • Do they have to be white?  (Let's hope that is neither a requirement, nor a reason for positive discrimination.)
  • Must they be an English-speaker?  (I think the answer is yes, in this case, but accept that English need not be their first language.)
  • Should the selection be based on their profession or their performance?  (It would be hard to find another well-read polemicist and commentator like Hitch, but all to easy to select another philosopher to join two of the remaining three.  The trouble is that that might tip the balance too far from the real world.)
  • Indeed should we ban scientists and philosophers from consideration, in favour of an unbiased and well-practised communicator? (I hope not.)
  • Do they necessarily have to be an atheist?  (I think the answer is yes, but . . . what do you think?  e.g. the deist, Thomas Paine, could easily have been a candidate if he was still alive.)
  • Or does nobody care?  (Its quite possible!) 
In the next post, Elect the fourth horseman - some candidates, I will venture to suggest the names of some candidates and invite you to suggest others who I ought to find out about.  If nothing else, we might all learn about the work of some of the stars of freethought who we didn't already know.

Related Posts: 
Next post: Elect the fourth horseman - some candidates!  (Huge number of comments with a clear consensus.)
Initial results of the responses:  Boghossian leads by a mile!
Some of Boghossian's work summarised: Pretending to know things that you don't know!

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Creationist makes nearly ALL the common mistakes

If you would like to practise spotting almost all the common mistakes that creationists make when the are speaking about evolution, I recommend you to listen skeptically to an episode of the Discovery Institute's podcast, ID The Future.  On 11th June 2012** there was an interview interview with Dr Ben Carson who kindly provided a lesson in the recitation of persistently regurgitated and easily answered bunkum.

The show notes give some background:

On this episode of ID the Future, host David Boze speaks with Dr. Ben Carson, renowned paediatric neurosurgeon and Darwin doubter. Dr. Carson was recently invited to deliver the commencement speech at Emory University. Unfortunately, upon uncovering his non-allegiance to Darwinian ideology, 500 faculty members and students alike signed a letter in protest of his welcome. Listen in to hear Dr. Carson discuss this ill treatment and why his acute knowledge of the brain has led him to reject Darwinism. Dr. Ben Carson is the Director of the Division of Paediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins. An internationally renowned physician, Dr. Carson has authored over 100 neurosurgical publications, along with three best-selling books, and has been awarded 38 honorary doctorate degrees and dozens of national merit citations. 

Dr Carson might indeed be a renowned neurosurgeon and in that capacity he has my admiration.  However, I think he should also now become renowned for his misunderstanding of the Theory of Evolution, which he pejoratively refers to as 'Darwinism'.

To take a few of them with my comments in small text:
  • Darwinians are so closed minded.  Yes that's always an argument that convinces people.
  • In the history of science, people have come up with some 'pretty outlandish things' that have turned out to be wrong.  True but only the evidence will tell us whether evolution is one of them.  I wouldn't put money on it myself.
  • Evolution does not explain the origin of life.  That's true, and well spotted!  his is classic error number one.  It is just as relevant to say that the Theory of Gravitation does not explain the origin of life either.  Evolution doesn't claim to be able to do that.
  • How does anything come out of nothing and how does life evolve from non-life.  Just saying that we don't yet know makes the existence of a designer no more likely.  For example - we do know about self-replicating proteins, called prions, that are not alive themselves but they do replicate.
  • Although 'fully accepting the concept of natural selection' he thinks that it is taking it a little bit too far to claim that it is the foundational pillar of proof that evolution occurs.  Yes - and what does that mean?  This is not an unusual claim.  I think it means that they don't think natural selection goes as far as speciation, so one wonders what use it is after all..
  • Evolutionists [not Darwinists in this case] look at similarities between life forms and infer that they are related, but wouldn't a designer use the same designs if they were successful?  He then uses an analogy - and all analogies are wrong - different models of cars from the same manufacturer share common components.  He says that they have not evolved from each other - which is clearly not true anyway.
  • The human genome is a complex sophisticated coding mechanism.   He then makes an analogy to computer programming with 4 digits instead of 2, which he claims is twice as complex.  In fact it is 4!/2! = 12 times more complex - but hey!  What is a factor of six between friends?  It still explains nothing about the need for a designer - this is the argument from personal incredulity.  [The 4! symbology indicates a factorial = 4x3x2x1]
  • Complexity of the brain is amazing.  To say that it came about randomly doesn't make sense.  Shades of Michael Behe's 747 from a junkyard here - often rebutted.  Randomness is involved, but it is absolutely not the key to natural selection.  Survival is the key.
  • Apparently there are no intermediate species.  No-one has ever found them.  Actually ALL species are intermediate, including our own.  See this Dawkins video for a lovely explanation.
  • A single neuron in the human brain can process 50K interactions per second.  If true, that's a very impressive thing that evolution has developed isn't it.
  • His message to the young scientists in his field is to 'be wise'.  [i.e. don't tell them until you get tenure?]  Is this just 'lying for Jesus'? He was rather careful not to go as far as actually recommending this though.

All in all this interview is remarkable, even compared with the Discovery Institute's usual fair.  The God of the Gaps argument/fallacy is thinly disguised, but visible to anyone who looks at it.

** Beware that the Discovery Institute tends to recycle its podcasts, so you might have heard this a few times before if you enjoy the masochistic experience of listening to ID The future.  It is good practise!

Presidential confusion

Not being a US citizen I can only say that this entertaining contribution, shared on Facebook today, seems to me to be a completely sensible question. Is there a sensible answer?

You might not realise that this caricature of the Mormons is not far from the truth.

Related posts can be found here.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Unsportsmanlike behaviour

Any of my regular readers will probably have noticed that I am not a great fan of sport.

But even I can't be completely oblivious to yesterday's remarkable example of unsportsmanlike behaviour from David Nalbandian in the tennis tournament that precedes Wimbledon, called Queens.  It gives the professionals a chance to play on grass in temperate (moist) England, in advance of the 'real thing'.  Most of them cope well with the challenge, but a few lose their temper.  David Nalbandian was one of these.

OK, he's competitive.  OK, the grass was a bit slippery, and more so at one end of the court than the other.  And OK, he wasn't doing as well as his opponent.  

So he lost his temper and this is what happened.

Not kicking the man, but not caring about him either.

He didn't actually kick the judge himself, but he did kick a board that was in place around his feet, and he kicked it very hard as you can see in this video.  This was the consequence.

Take Nalbandian to court for assault!

For a start I think he was very lucky that the line judge was not a younger and more feisty man.  In the circumstances, many a man would have floored Nalbandian for this (whether right or wrong).  I don't really approve of violence but I think I would have approved of such an action in this case.  It would have served him right, but would have served the victim badly.

Now, ignore the Die Hard movies where people get hurt much more badly but appear not to notice.  Let's face it - that must have HURT!  I think that the line judge should take him to court for his childish actions.  Even famous tennis players have a duty of care to the rest of the people around them, and they must take the consequences, including the time that they have to waste defending themselves.  After all, these line judges are probably volunteering their time free of charge to enable the professional tennis players to make a pretty good living on the circuit.

On top of that, shame on the crowd for booing the umpire for giving the game to the opponent.  (As you can tell, I don't even mind who the opponent was!)  Shame on Nalbandian for his puerile behaviour.  My son plays 14 year olds who have better control than that - along with others who don't.  The latter do not need a role model.

This kind of behaviour is reprehensible and unsportsmanlike.

What's more - that word gets past the 'speeling chequer'!

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Sunday Selection 1 - a new series

This is the first post in a new series where there is little additional content from me, but I simply share a selection of items that have delighted or surprised me this week.  As almost every week, I see items on the web that I find interesting, amazing or amusing.  My thanks go to the friends who helped me to find them.  The selection might be on any of my normal topics - or on other topics entirely.

You will probably find that there is too much here for one visit, so bookmark this page and come back to read a bit more another day.

First: the long awaited video of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Ayaan Hirsi Ali on stage together during the 2012 Global Atheist Convention, 13-15th April, in the Melbourne Convention Exhibition Centre.  Well worth watching the whole hour!

Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and a guest 'horseman', Ayaan Hirsi Ali,
Melbourne 2012, from here.

Next: a candidate horseman himself, Peter Boghossian speaking forthrightly about Jesus, the Easter Bunny, and Other Delusions earlier this year.  (34:50 long.)

The inspirational Peter Boghossian, from here
Podcast of the week: Yhe UK based Pod DelusionThis week's episode, #140, (64 minutes) includes Daniel Dennett giving his take on Alan Turing, former government chief science adviser Sir David King teasing about what really went on behind the scenes of the Iraq war, and Ben Hammersley explaining why technology makes politics difficult. They also tackle Gove’s proposed new curriculum, archiving film for the future and finding out if evangelical christian women really want to go out with Jesus.  As always - a good lively programme.

New podcast of the week: goes to one that I discovered recently.  Considering that it only appears to be on its third episode, it is going amazingly well.  Alan Litchfield's  The Macontent's Gambit claims (and appears to succeed) in  Extolling the Finest in Secular Thought.  Try an episode or two and subscribe to it you like them.  Already he has had some notable and interesting guests including Peter Boghossian, Guy Harris and Victor Stenger.

Physics of the week: the solution to the problem of speeding neutrinos, as I blogged on Monday in Enforcing the cosmic speed limit.

Controversial atheism site of the week: Jesus Never Existed, which you might or might not agree with.

Satire of the week: This article from The Onion:   Capricious God Violently Shakes Ant Farm Day After Bestowing Orange Slices Upon Colony which is highly amusing.

And finally . . . 

Favorite places: a link to a fantastic HD video of Yosemite National Park (only 4 minutes) which brings back memories for me, of visiting one of the most beautiful places in the world in 2008.

Yosemite - one of my favorite places - source here.

As I said, this is the first in a series.  Your comments, visits and preferences will help me to decide whether this experiment is a good idea or not.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Things Christians say, Part 20: Are you a communist too?

A weekly series of responses to the things Christians say to atheists, based on the video reproduced here on 30th January 2012.  The aim is to tackle one every weekend, to give both a moderate, polite response to each question ('Piano'), followed by a more forceful rebuttal of the same question ('Forte'). 

So - are you a communist too?


Why do you connect atheism and communism?  Oh yes - you think Stalin might have acted in the name of atheism.  See last week's post which was mainly about Hitler but refers to other despots towards the end.



I can tell that you are using the word 'communist' in the McCarthy sense, rather than in the kibbutz sense.

Communism in its purest sense was never intended to become totalitarian in the way that it has done in virtually every country that has tried the experiment.  Originally it was intended to be a fair and just system of mutual government in which everyone is treated equally.  In some senses you might say that it succeeded - not through its own altruism - but due to the religiously motivated feudal systems of government that had preceded most of the 'successful' communist revolutions.  However, it is very much on the decline in recent decades - curiously in anti-correlation with the steady worldwide rise in atheism.

As atheism becomes more popular, communism is on the
decline as you can see from this Wikimedia picture
Strangely, I don't think I have ever met an atheist who is a communist.  In fairness this is probably because I have never knowingly met a real communist.   I know some eastern Europeans who were probably brought up in a completely non-religious environment but I suppose I have never talked about atheism with most of them.  I do have one Romanian friend who is a firm atheist but in his case I have no knowledge of his views of communism.

In short, the answer is that I am not a communist - not even after the disaster of the last UK election where the option is beginning to look less awful than what we have at the moment!  However, although I don't relish the idea of living under totalitarian communism, I'm not completely certain that Russian people were worse off then than they were under the Tsar, or the Chinese than they were before their revolution.

Last week: Hitler acted in the name of atheism
Next week:  I really don't think your marriage can be considered a real marriage!

Friday, 15 June 2012

Was the science of memetics accidentally created or not?

I wrote a few weeks ago about the interesting event in Oxford where Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett met for a public discussion.

In that talk, the topic of memes occupied a large proportion of the time, and I commented that I was surprised about that.  I had thought that Richard has distanced himself from the idea since inventing it in 1976, but I couldn't remember why I had that impression.  Now I have found the reason why I thought that.

Dawkins and Dennett spent a lot of time discussing memetics

In a document The misunderstanding of memes: Biography of an unscientific object 1976–1999, by Jeremy Trevelyan Burman of York University I found a passage saying:

Dawkins’ intent - contrary to the popular understanding - was never to inaugurate the new science of memetics. That was accidental.  He explained this in an essay published in Time Magazine in 1999:

I am occasionally accused of having backtracked on memes, of having lost heart, pulled in my horns, had second thoughts. The truth is that my first thoughts were more modest than some memeticists might wish. For me the original mission was negative. The word was introduced at the end of a book that otherwise must have seemed entirely devoted to extolling the 'selfish' gene as the be-all and end-all of evolution, the fundamental unit of selection. There was a risk that my readers would misunderstand the message as being necessarily about DNA molecules. . . . This was where the meme came in.

The original meme, in other words, was a rhetorical flourish intended to
clarify a larger argument.

Whether this is a true account or not (and the evidence of my eyes and ears suggests that it is not quite as clear-cut as it is described - or at least it is rather out-of-date), at least my curiosity is now satisfied. 

I wasn't imagining it!

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Mysteries of Christophanies

Was Jesus the son of God, and did he come to die for our sins?  I don't believe so, but most Christians do.

Some Christians also claim that Jesus - yes Jesus -  inspired the Old Testament of the bible even though it was written centuries before his birth.  Some also believe that Jesus even appeared in Old Testament times, and that he manifested himself as and angel or another character.  Examples commonly claimed as 'Christophanies' (as they are called) include the mysterious fourth character in the furnace in the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and the angel that Jacob wrestled with.

A Christophany - the mysterious recognition of the son of god

Their logic is that Jesus is God and that God inspired the writings.  They see nothing illogical in this way of thinking.  The idea does not come from the bible itself as the trinity was only fully developed a few hundred years later.  Some of the blame for the idea of Jesus appearing in the Old Testament can be blamed on Gregory Thaumaturgus who said:

"There is therefore nothing created, nothing greater or less (literally, nothing subject) in the Trinity, nothing superadded, as though it had not existed before, but never been without the Son, nor the Son without the Spirit; and this same Trinity is immutable and unalterable forever"

If these unfounded assumptions are correct and Jesus inspired the writings in the bible, what are we to make of the following two verses?  Being God, he must have known how he would have to die on the cross to redeem sinners

Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin. (Deuteronomy 24:16, NIV)

The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him. (Ezekiel 18:20, NIV)

Apparently Muslims see these verses as confirming their beliefs that Christianity's doctrine of redemption is wrong. They understand these verses to mean that each person can only bear their own sin.  Its not often that you will hear me agreeing with the teachings of Islam, but you can see why they would think this.

The Christian counter-argument seems to be that this is not the case, because both of these verses are referring to a person living under the covenant of the Torah (the Law of Moses). Deuteronomy 24:16 is part of the Torah itself.

Wasn't Jesus living under the Torah then?  He was still a Jew when he died.  And anyway, didn't Jesus say that he had not come to change one jot or tittle of the law?

The more you read of the ancient texts, the more you realise that none of it hangs together.  Redemption is just part of bronze-age scapegoat thinking.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Open-minded homeopaths - I don't think!

Last week in 'Mixing Sciences Badly' I touched on the subject of homeopathy, which is one that I should approach much more often and much more directly.  The article was written as a comment on Richard Dawkins' web site, where it was totally ignored by everyone.  However, posting it here on Something Surprising was a little more successful.  The first comment was made by a Dr Nancy Malik, who is a doctor of nothingness - or should I say of homeopathy, which after all is tantamount to nothing at all.

Being a well educated lady (apparently), I think you would expect a well reasoned scientific or rational response.  Instead, relying on the well known 'argument from authority', she posted a link to her own site, where she listed a few Nobel Laureats who have expressed views that could be taken to be supportive of homeopathic treatment, but should have known better.

I left a comment there.  Surprisingly, she approved my comment on her moderated blog post, and then a few others posted comments there too.  Unsurprisingly, most of the other comments were left by her supporters, and as you can imagine, it didn't take long for someone to comment about skeptics not being open-minded.  One other skeptic, @SkeptiGuy, was permitted to speak.

My later reply has not been approved, and indeed I think I have now been blocked.  Clearly open minds are rarer in the homeopathic community than they would like us to believe.  Therefore, I present my claim for the evidence for my open-mindedness about homeopathy here for your delectation (or derision).  I was sure I had saved what I wrote, but since I can't find it I will have to paraphrase.

Since one of your other correspondents has raised the subject of open-mindedness, I think it is only fair that I explain my position on the subject of homeopathy. 

I have personally observed what I thought to be a cure effected by homeopathic treatment on three separate occasions.  Once it appeared to help my wife, once my young son, and once myself.  I always found it to be a pleasurable experience to visit my homeopath.  She listened carefully to what I had to say, she empathised and she seemed to understand. 

I was quite interested in how the remedies might work and my homeopath even suggested several times that I should consider a change of career to become one myself  I did not dismiss the idea completely out of hand.

My current comments on the topic can hardly be called closed minded in the light of that testimony, can they?

In spite of those experiences, I now realise that the homeopathic remedies could not have been the reason for the three recoveries from illness after all.  'Regression to the mean' is a much more likely explanation.  Doctors know that about half their patients just get better without treatment, and that patients often go to their doctor (or alternative practitioner) at the time when their symptoms are at their worst.  This is why there are so many anecdotes about recoveries that seemingly began from an alternative remedy.

Double blinded tests have shown that homeopathy is no more effective than placebo and nobody has provided any plausible mechanism by which it might be expected to work.  Soon I will come back to this topic.  The 'memory' of water is one of the implausible mechanisms that I am aware of, and I have some views on that subject.  Even at the time when I believed in it, I remember saying that whatever it was, it was not chemistry.

Dr Malik also demonstrates a surprising level of ignorance of the peer review process.  She went on the mention a number of 'peer reviewed' publications.  What I think she means is that these articles were published in journals that require a pre-publication peer review.  At that stage, the science is not studied in the amount of detail that she seems to expect.  It is more a matter of checking for obvious flaws, obvious fraud, or failure to provide enough detail for others to reproduce the study.  Only after the paper is published does the real peer review begin.   If other independent researchers can reproduce the results then that is a very good sign that the results are good.  If they can't, they have the opportunity to say so.  Sadly though, repeatability is one thing that can never be claimed by 'studies' of homeopathy.

That is not to say that all homeopaths are charlatans.  I think many of them really believe in it, and they are caring people who believe that they are helping.

Only a few of them are money grabbers who actively or passively cause suffering and death in patients who could have been treated effectively by real medicine.  And remember the words of Tim Minchin - "There is a name for alternative medicine that works.  It is called . . . 'medicine'!"

Dr Malik and her contributors are free to engage in an uncensored and open-minded discussion here if they like.  However, I doubt that any of them are sufficiently open-minded to face the possibility that they might be deluded.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Writing to a Christian nation

For the first time in as long as I can remember, I just read a whole book in one day.  My recent previous record was to complete Richard Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth in fewer than 72 hours, and I am still amazed that I managed that.  Christopher Hitchens' God is not Great did not take much more time, but Daniel Dennett's excellent books always seem to take longer.  My education would not be complete if I failed to read more of the work of the 'fourth horseman'.

This was not a long book - 91 small pages - but it was by an author who I haven't always found to be interesting.  It had also taken me a long time to buy it because it seemed to me to be rather expensive in terms of pence per page, (or cents per page if you are not in UK).

However . . .  in terms of brilliant ideas and amazing information per pound (or dollar or page), this book can have few competitors.

You might have guessed by now that I am talking about Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris.  I have seen Sam speaking with Richard Dawkins in Oxford and quite enjoyed it, and I had read his book The End of Faith quite early in my journey into atheism, but neither of those experiences prepared me for this small volume which contains almost everything that you would ever need to read on the subject.

It is quite complete, very concise, and although he claims that it is "a product of failure" I think he has more than made up for that fault.  As Roger Penrose's review says:

"Sam Harris's elegant little book is most refreshing and a wonderful source of ammunition for those who, like me, hold no religious doctrine.  Yet I have some sympathy also with those who might be worried by his uncompromising stance.  Read it and form your own view, but do not ignore its message"

I can only agree with that.  It takes no prisoners.  It is direct and forthright . . . and right!

Another big surprise came late in the book when Harris started to speak about Islam.  Starting on page 83 (in my copy) he addresses many of the same points that I raised in my recent post Should intelligent people fear Islamism?  The fact that his words were so close to thing I had written was honestly a surprise.  I can only guess that I had unwittingly learned some of his opinions, but forgotten where they came from.


Update 2012-06-16 - here is a Youtube version of the audiobook for your delectation!

Small note: To those of you who might still be put off by the price - as it is definitely a little more expensive than you might expect - I can only recommend Amazon's amazing second-hand service.  Sorry Sam.  You deserve to benefit from my pleasure.  I hope this blog post goes a small way towards making up for my typical ex-Yorkshire thrift!

Monday, 11 June 2012

Enforcing the cosmic speed limit

Last year there was a huge fuss in the media over a rather surprising measurement of the speed of neutrinos as they travelled from CERN to the Gran Sasso laboratory in Italy.  The results seemed to indicate that the particles were travelling faster than what we believe to be the 'ultimate speed limit' - the speed of light.

Physicists were skeptical of the results (which is both part of their job description and a jolly good thing for a scientist to exhibit), but that is not to say that they were not also a little excited about the possibility of some new physics.  After all, this is exactly the sort of thing that we are all waiting for - something surprising to help us to explain the universe a little better.

I blogged about the way that people quizzed me at the time and about the various versions of the same question, dressed up as a statement.  "So! Physics is wrong then!" in 'Not so fast with the neutrino mystery'.

Sadly, this week it has been announced that (at least in this case) physics is not as wrong as people had made out.  In a press release from CERN last Friday, they state:

“Although this result isn’t as exciting as some would have liked,” said Sergio Bertolucci, “it is what we all expected deep down. The story captured the public imagination, and has given people the opportunity to see the scientific method in action – an unexpected result was put up for scrutiny, thoroughly investigated and resolved in part thanks to collaboration between normally competing experiments. That’s how science moves forward.”

The error was “attributed to a faulty element of the experiment’s fibreoptic timing system.”  That was one of the two possible causes that had been identified when I last wrote on this subject.

The good side of the story is that the general public have gained an unusual insight into the way that science progresses, and few people find this to be a disadvantage.

The sad side of the story is that a scientist, Antonio Ereditato - spokesperson of the Opera experiment - thought it was appropriate to resign from his post in March.  Of course public money has been lost in this experiment, but it has to be remembered that the only person who never made any mistakes never made anything at all.

The strange thing about the story is that is has not become a big story.  Evidently physics is only newsworthy when it seems to be wrong (or else I haven't noticed it when it was mentioned by the media this weekend).

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Should intelligent people fear Islamism?

This was written by @plasma_engineer of the Something Surprising blog for a guest appearance on the Australian blog, Attempting to Make Sense, by Martin Pribble.

The culture of Islam is ever-more obvious in Western societies, and it is often thought that one of the strengths of these societies is the tolerance of beliefs held by other people.  Not all countries have constitutional rights to the freedom of expression of our views, but even in those, like UK, that lack a formal constitution, most people pride themselves that they welcome all cultures into a cosmopolitan melting-pot where we will all benefit from each others' strengths.  I have never had the opportunity to visit Australia, but I suspect that our countries both face similar challenges from the encroachment of Islam and I would like to examine a range of views on the subject and encourage you to question your own opinions critically - as I have done with mine.

Within these cultures, a small minority of people fail to recognise any of the potential benefits to society.  These people are typically labelled as being on the far right from a political point of view.  Their views are often based around thinly disguised racism.  According to them, all immigrants are bad by definition, they take our jobs and they live on state benefits.  Any tolerance of other cultures is seen as an invasion of the local traditions.  For these fascistic factions, no good can come of it.

I am glad to say that most rational, intelligent, 'thinking', people would strongly decline to associate themselves with this intolerant attitude.  We pride ourselves in our inclusiveness and even if we do not wish to get involved in other cultures, at least we recognise other approaches to life as being part of 'the big picture'.  We congratulate ourselves on our multi-cultural values and criticise anyone who speaks out against them.  Islamophobia we cry!  Live and let live!  Don't be such a racist bigot!

However, I think it would be intellectually honest to question our readiness to jump to this conclusion.  Is it good for society to act without thinking, to label people as right-wing activists without thought?  We can find ourselves swept onto the band-wagon of disapproval of intolerance.  Once on board, there is little doubt that we rightly fear the opinions of our politically-correct friends and neighbours if we try to get off again.

Just for the sake of discussion I am going to lean off the band-wagon and put one foot (hesitantly) back on the ground.  I will try to explore the rationality of the subject, starting with a few observations that I have made over the last few years since I became an atheist.  I understand the risks of making that statement too, but let's start anyway, being absolutely clear that the following discussion is NOT about race but about a religion.  To set a context, we should also note that several European nations have already enacted laws that are seen to be anti-Islamic and their societies demonstrate divisions on the subject.  So far these discussions have not spread as prolifically to the English-speaking countries of the world, but perhaps it is time to begin.

If my observations are reliable, (and they might not be!), I think most religious people would probably respect Islam - at least to an extent.  The ability of all religions to regard other totally incompatible faiths as being more honourable than a total lack of faith in any deity is one of the great mysteries of life (for me at least).  I think lack of faith is seen as a huge danger by anyone who professes a faith, and that they carry this to the extent that believers will always trust other believers before they trust atheists.  The inconsistency of this attitude is one of the cornerstones of my atheism, but it brings a level of sympathy and support from society at large to what is supposed to be an oppressed minority.

Beautiful Islamic art - image from here
 Even by voicing any concerns about the situation I know that there is a risk of being branded as a right-wing reactionary.  The problem is that I feel a little bit frightened of Islam.  I have spent a couple of years reading around the subject, and the more I read, the worse it gets.  More to the point I am becoming alarmed by increasing Islamism and all that it represents.  That is not the same as a fear of Muslims, and indeed I have Muslim friends and sometimes debate with them.  But I am left with a lingering concern about the extent to which moderate Islam enables and protects global Islamism.

It would be easy to get carried away with this line of thinking.  Last year I asked a well known lady in the atheist community about her views of the contribution of Pat Condell, whose Youtube video channel regularly points out the dangers of Islamisation, in very graphic detail.  Although I was unable to say exactly why, I was concerned about believing his rhetoric.  I had a suspicion that he was making a valid point but I felt a little nervous about the way he expresses his views, and would be reluctant to support his campaign publicly for fear of being branded a bigot.  My friend confirmed that she did not like his 'frothing-at-the-mouth hatred'.  To an extent I agreed with her.

A year on, with much more knowledge of Islam and a great wariness of conspiracy theories in general, I wonder whether I am being rational in those views.  If Condell is telling us the truth - and I have little reason to doubt that - then I wonder why the rest of society is burying its collective head in the sand and pretending that there is no threat.  Still feeling nervous of supporting his approach, I wonder whether there is any evidence that we can trust?

If you look around the internet you can soon find rational-sounding campaigns that present the 'evils' of Islam in gory detail.  Their abundance is not a measure of their veracity, but if you try to find counter-arguments you realise that the quality of the pro-Islamic view is very much inferior from a logical point of view.  It is like arguing with creationists and proponents of Intelligent Design.  Their plentiful arguments sound plausible until you scratch the surface and find that science and reason usually provide better explanations, even if they are not perfect.  Let's consider a few of the most common perceived threats from Islam.

Radical preachers are allowed to propagate hate-speech - spitting hatred in their campaigns against the infidels.  They say one thing in Arabic and another in English - and famous leaders like Arafat were often caught out in this deception.  We read about radicalised youths in inner-city mosques, Al-Qaeda training camps, and the oppression of women who are forced to wear black sacks to disguise their femininity.  We read of 'honour killings' and female genital mutilation, and that the word of a man is worth the same as that of two women.  We read of barbaric stonings in Islamic countries, often for relatively minor offences.  We know that animals are slaughtered in inhumane iron-age rituals and it seems that much of the 'spare' meat finds its way to retail outlets, unlabelled but surely illegal.  We know that our legal systems are often powerless to deal with any of these immoralities and criminal acts, even in our own countries, because the Islamic community closes ranks to protect the righteous-guilty.  We hear that virtually no prosecutions are ever brought to court.  Then we read that Sharia courts are being set up in our cities, in parallel with our 'real' legal systems and we might wonder why they are necessary.  This has all led to the existence of campaigns like 'One Law for All', led by the indefatigable Mariam Namazie.

Conspiracy theories and scare stories abound, and maybe that is all they are!  Surely you should set your mind at rest and should not be worried about them!  Or are they based on a kernel of truth? 

At this point I will just digress to quote George Bernard Shaw, who said "The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it".  Sadly, I am one of the people accused of this cynicism, and although my own logic is often flawed, I do seem to notice things that are happening around me in my own simplistic but observant way. 

Adopting that approach, I would hope that Islam itself could bring me an answer.

Faced with all those allegations, you would think that moderate Islam could unite to issue a sustained (and it must be sustained) public formal denial of all that is seen to be dangerous about the 'religion of peace'.  The only problem is that it has not happened.  Naturally this is made more difficult because Islam has no equivalent of a Pope or Archbishop of Canterbury who is empowered to speak on behalf of the whole faith, but it has rarely been reported that moderate Islam fully supports the rule of the law, except in a few rare and specific cases which can be explained shortly. 

It seems that Islamic leaders must not be seen to criticise other Muslims, whether they are criminals or not.  (Let us note a similarity to the activities of the Vatican, but leave this point for another discussion.)  Islam might be split into factions, and those factions might be prepared to indulge in war against each other, but Sunni, Sufi and Wahabbi are definitely united against the infidels.  Each of these traditions, particularly Saudi Arabian Wahabbi Islam, seem to be supporting efforts to spread their nonsense around the whole world with huge amounts of money.  There are Islamic schools in UK which teach the children the 'science of the Qu'ran' - for example that salt water and fresh water do not mix, and that the Theory of Evolution is an infidel lie.  In the 21st century this is surely not acceptable in a civilised world.  It is not fair on the children who still have human rights - whatever their parents' religion.

We also have to contend with two concepts that we might find distasteful in non-Islamic society.  It is well attested that Islam allows Muslims to lie in certain specific situations, without those lies being counted against the perpetrators.  There are at least two forms.

Taqiyya - mainly lying to further the causes of Islam or to save the life of a Muslim.  Techniques of distraction and accusations of Islamophobia are easy to spot when you have had a little practice.  Quoting Islamic scripture while neglecting to mention that about half of the Qu'ran's verses are 'abrogated' is another. I have noticed that Muslim friends are very well practised at taqiyyah, with or without realising it.

Kitman - more a case of lying by omission, for example neglecting to mention that the Islamic community quietly resists secular government and law.

Armed with these hints about taqiyya and kitman, we are left with a further dilemma.  We are dealing with a religion of more than 1 billion adherents who believe that it is their mission to indulge in jihad - holy war - in its various forms - to take over the world.  Lying to the infidels in order to achieve domination is considered to be honourable.  When the whole world has been taken over, Islam really will be the religion of peace.  Islamic leaders rarely deny this except by using the techniques of taqiyyah and kitman, and now we are left in an argument of ever-decreasing circles, and two very big questions.

Can we trust Islam?  Is creeping Islamism really a threat to the free world?

The answers are not obvious, but it is perfectly clear that we owe it to ourselves at least to consider the problem with all seriousness. Being aware of the risk of being labelled as an islamophobe, or being accused of 'prejudice', I would point out that a phobia is an 'irrational fear' and I feel that my fear is very rational.

As for prejudice - we are all prejudiced one way or another.  I feel that prejudiced views are likely to be founded - at least to an extent - on the actions of others rather than a notion that is formed purely with our own minds but we have to be wary of our cognitive biases.

Drawing to a conclusion, I think you will infer that I have formed an opinion that the spreading of Islam must be resisted, peacefully but strongly.  I hope that this discussion has give pause for thought.  I suggest that the very least we should require in the countries that are not yet Islamic, is that all the people in all the communities should obey one law - namely the law of the land - not one religious law.

To quote Maryam Namazie:

"Open dialogue is the key to a healthy, cohesive society, but some fear the disruptive, dangerous potential of truly free speech."

Surely Maryam has a point and I think I agree with virtually everything she says.  Free speech might be the one thing that keeps our societies the way they are.  Without free speech we are destined to return to the Dark Ages whether due to Islam or another global threat.  Or will the increasing flow of information through the internet undermine all religious systems to be point where they collapse from within, before it's too late?

While we still have freedom of speech we should question moderate Islam directly with closed questions that must be answered with a direct Yes or No.  Whenever you get the opportunity to ask direct questions I advise you to do so.  Watch out for duplicitous replies and do not allow yourself to be diverted to a different question that is more easily fudged.  That is perhaps the only way to avoid being misled by lies for Allah.

Relying solely on hope might not be enough.