Friday, 31 August 2012

More Darwin Fish

One of the most popular posts here at Something Surprising was a silly tale about the Darwin Fish symbols that you sometimes see on people's cars.  A School of Darwin Fish has been visited surprisingly often.

Since that time I have gradually collected other versions of the symbol and although I'm not going to weave a story around them again, here are some for your enjoyment.

T Rex eats fish symbol
T Rex eats fish symbol

Darwin fish - reality bites
Darwin fish - reality bites

Dissecting Darwin Fish
Dissecting Darwin Fish

A shoal of Darwin Fish ideas
A shoal of Darwin Fish ideas

Evidence eats faith fish
Evidence eats faith fish

I'm not sure I dare put one on my own car!

Thursday, 30 August 2012

The Watson inconsistency and the real outrage!

(For background, see the links below)

I have little interest in 'the Rebecca Watson/Skepchick controversy', mainly because I don't care much about her personal opinions.  Unfortunately I do care how these opinions divide the so-called 'atheist community' even if I personally think that to call it a community is something of a misnomer.  I also have a particular aversion to the word Skepchick, and the egregious use of a rising tone at the end of every spoken sentence.

Watson is particularly good at sounding off about things without considering whether her public opinions are consistent with her own public behaviour.

For example, she famously complained about being propositioned by a man in an elevator at a conference, but even her own claim never suggested that she was in any danger.  (The man in question has wisely kept out of the argument.)  Richard Dawkins was drawn into this argument after making a parody of her whinging and regrettably has lost some supporters as a result (although not me).

At other times she herself can hardly be accused of being whiter than white.  A seemingly endless stream of suggestive sounding, innuendo-laden comments come from someone sounding just like her on the SGU podcast, and on her own blog and Youtube videos.  And then there was the matter of her provocative appearance in the Skepchick calendar - in the name of art and protest of course.  When it suits her, she flaunts her femininity.

Now I don't disapprove of any of these behaviours individually, nor do I say that provocative behaviour in any way invites unwanted sexual advances, but I have an uneasy feeling that her behaviours are not exactly consistent with each other.  If I spoke to my female colleagues at work in the way that she speaks, there could be a flurry of complaints.  It is a simple matter of professionalism.  Similarly, my most respected professional female colleagues make progress in life in spite of their femininity - in the sense that they would rightly be outraged if I suggested that they had gained some advantage by being female.

The problem is that being white and male, my opinion does not count for much, but after keeping quiet for so long I feel that I have to say what I think, in response to the ridiculous emergence of Atheism+.

Of course it should go without saying that I agree that it is outrageous for women in atheism and skepticism to be targeted and threatened with rape or murder by some tiny minority of lunatic extremists.  But this isn't a matter of personal opinion.  It is unequivocally a matter of law and order!  Those who threaten violence should be dealt with appropriately by the police and the court system.

Nor do I agree with any form of discrimination, positive or negative, for or against any subset of the human race. 

But it is even more outrageous that this small vocal bunch of atheistic zealots who have their heads too far up their own arses effectively accuse the majority of men of being guilty of all the above.

Isn't it?

See also:
Which Atheism plus is the right one?
Not what you say but how you say it!
Atheism is not a religion, but perhaps Atheism+ IS! 

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Atheism is not a religion, but perhaps Atheism+ IS!

Following on from yesterday's post about the new vile and divisive Atheist+ movement, someone asked the reasonable question "What is the difference between Atheism+ and Secular Humanism?"  From the definition given yesterday there appears to be no big difference.

The charming, respectful and compassionate Richard Carrier says:

The problem with “Secular Humanism” is that it is an umbrella term that includes more than just “Atheists” in the Atheism+ sense: it also includes humanists of other varieties, whom we do not identify with (see related comment). And Secular Humanism as such does not specifically endorse all the elements of Atheism+ but rather a more vague and ambiguous set of values, which we might all agree with, but we happen to embrace more than that, and are less vague about it. Hence, we are Atheists plus. And we are atheists above all because we are principally (just not only) combating religious belief, identifying it (along with secular irrationality as well) as the primary threat to human happiness the world over. This is something that people who self-identify as “Secular Humanist” often don’t endorse or agree with; and even when they do, as many don’t, the label is unclear when adopted, as to which you are. Atheism+ is clear.

And of course he is right on his last point  Atheism+ is clear enough.  It represents exactly those values that we all associate with religious bigots.  I will just whisper one word . . .


and then shout the words of Richard Carrier himself

Reasonableness, compassion, and integrity

All of these are missing from Atheism+.  It reminds me of a religion!

See also:
Which Atheism plus is the right one?
Not what you say but how you say it!

The Watson inconsistency and the real outrage!

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Not what you say but how you say it!

A new movement is appearing in what is sometimes called 'the atheist community' in spite of the fact that it is no more a community than a group of non-stamp-collectors.  Atheism+ is causing quite a stir and it is tempting to wonder what all the fuss is about.

Apparently the movement stands for these values:  
  • Care about social justice,
  • Support women’s rights,
  • Protest racism,
  • Fight homophobia and transphobia,
  • Use critical thinking and skepticism.
Not many of us would disagree with those, although I would personally change the second to say "Support human rights" which, unless I'm mistaken, includes all women and does not discriminate against the often pilloried white, middle aged male demographic.

Richard Carrier goes on - and believe me he really can go on - in a blog post** at Free Thought Blogs, to expand on those values to include
  • Reasonableness, compassion, and integrity
And then in the (frequently offensive and far from compassionate) replies to the comments on that blog post he says:

Do you reject any of the values stated in my article? If so, which ones, and why?
If not, in what way aren’t you a part of Atheism+ movement?
Either you reject some basic human values here, or you are irrationally denying what you are, like someone who said they were sure there was no god but aren’t an atheist. As if they didn’t understand how words work.
So which is it? Are you ... [editorial yawn! I've heard enough.] . . .[basically, with us or against us]
Be honest and say.

OK - I for one will be honest and say.  I don't reject any of those 'basic human values' but I don't want anything to do with Atheism+.

Why not?  You only have to listen to the vituperative outpourings of Richard Carrier and some of his colleagues to realise that compassion is not in their nature at all.

As my mother always told me, "Its not what you say but how you say it!".

More on this topic tomorrow.

See also:
Which Atheism plus is the right one?
Atheism is not a religion, but perhaps Atheism+ IS!
The Watson inconsistency and the real outrage!

Small note:  I was actually planning to buy one of Richard Carrier's books about the Christ Myth theory.  Having read his blog, I have almost been converted back to believing in Jesus!  (Not quite!)

**Smaller note: I refer to but refuse to make this address a hyperlink, as they do not deserve to have their Google ranking increased - however marginally - by my criticism!

Monday, 27 August 2012

Which Atheism plus is the right one?

The new and the old A+ symbol.
The A+ symbol has been used before its recent re-emergence.  The former use was not only benign but positively altruistic.

The new incarnation might be construed as being much less positive than it looks.  Now I am left with a dichotomy.  If I wear my red NBGA tee shirt, will people mistake it for support of the Atheism+ movement?

I don't think I want that.

See also:
Not what you say but how you say it!
Atheism is not a religion, but perhaps Atheism+ IS!
The Watson inconsistency and the real outrage!

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Just another small step

I was sad to hear last night of the death of one of the great heroes of the last century.  That's an odd sensation really, considering that Neil Armstrong was such an unknown hero to most of us.  We knew what he achieved, but since then he has kept out of the limelight very effectively.

The passing of another hero, Neil Armstrong.
The passing of another hero, Neil Armstrong.

I asked two 14 year-olds who Neil Armstrong was.  One of them knew the right answer, but only revealed it after the other said "is he that guy who was on steroids?"

On an even lighter note, read the amusing urban myth about Neil Armstrong and Mr Gorsky here.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Things Christians say, part 30: Life after death

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 can't stand the idea of there being no life after death. That's why I believe in god.


The idea of life after death is one that seems common in most cultures.  Some would claim that this observation reinforces the evidence that it is true.

The main flaw with this argument is that there really is no evidence for the claim at all, so reinforcing nothing gives you the same amount of nothing.

If your faith is mainly based on this then it is fragile indeed.



Just because you would like to believe something comforting, it does not make that something true.  Life after death is something that we can never disprove.  All sorts of urban myths about near death experiences fuel the fire, but there are good neurological explanations for the common experiences now, and they seem far more believable than the idea that the soul can somehow survive without a brain.

Honestly!  Just because ancient peasants who knew virtually nothing about the explanation of the world around them wished to have an afterlife, why should anyone think it is true now?

In fact, I'm developing an idea that the only true atheists are the ones who do not expect to survive their own deaths, and in a day or two I will expand on the idea and link it from here.

Last week:  Why do you hate god?

Friday, 24 August 2012

How many people work here?

When I am asked the question "How many people work here?", my reply depends very much upon the audience.  For various reasons, I would say that this question is not asked nearly often enough.

Very few people immediately get the official answer of "about 500".

Generally my answer is "almost all of them", but . . .

How many people work here?
At least one man working!

. . . sometimes I might say "about half of them".

Some days I actually believe the final answer to be true.  A few are kept very busy (although not always fruitfully) and often they are the people who decline to delegate because they don't trust the people working for them, or because the spirit of empowerment is totally foreign to the ethos of the organisation.

Many, if not most, keep themselves busy in order to avoid being bored, often offering to take on new tasks but unable to do so because their boss falls into the 'very busy' category above.  

A few can be found deliberately avoiding doing anything useful.  Sometimes they get their just deserts.  Just a few years ago a man was bitten by a poisonous snake.  Strangely it was not revealed what he had been doing in an otherwise unoccupied and unused part of the site.  Sunbathing was one of the favorite explanations.

At a previous place of work the following cartoon went the rounds once every few years.

Too many managers
The working ethos!
Sadly not unknown in many medium/large organisations!

It might have been largely true which is very sad and very demotivating.

But at least it was funny.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

What do you call a 'born again' atheist?

Evangelical Christian converts have a name for themselves, and we all have our ideas what it means for them to be 'born again'.

But what is the name for people who regain a sense of rationality and escape from religion - or those who find a cure for the 'virus of religion'?

In the case of Christianity of course the escape is not sufficiently life-threatening (for most) for the expression 'dead again' to seem politically incorrect.  After all, whatever can be born is going to die and so it seems not too inappropriate for the process of the death of faith.

Born again atheist tee-shirt
Born again atheist tee-shirt (from here)

In Islam of course it is a different matter, and although I do know a few Muslim apostates quite well, I think they tend to stay fairly quiet on the matter when they are with their families and those friends who are still Islamic.  Generally they seem quite safe from those who are only 'Islamic' but could find themselves threatened by those who are 'Islamists'.

What other terms might we use?

Many people who no longer believe in the supernatural friend in the sky shy away from the label 'atheist'.  Why label yourself as something that you are not?

I would like to collect phrases that people use to describe themselves, whether serious or humorous.  I'll start off with a few and hope for comments.

I'm a member of the church of Richard Dawkins.

I'm a born-again atheist.

I'm a recovering Christian.

Any more?

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Is this a God you recognise?

Here are some interesting verses from the bible.  They might not have been taught to you at Sunday School.  I wonder why.

Exodus 22:4.  If a burglar is fatally injured during the night it is not murder, but if he breaks in after sunrise and is then fatally injured then it is murder.

II Kings 2:22 - Elishah went to Bethel and was teased by 42 children.  He cursed them and they were all killed by two she-bears who came out of the forest.

Lev. 21:23 - on disabled priests.  No descendant of Aaron (the priests) with a physical defect should approach the alter (and thus profane the sanctuaries).

Judges 11:30:40 - Jepthah, son of Gilead by a prostitute, but brought back to the family in a time of crisis, made a vow with God about killing the first living thing that came out of his door if he defeated the Ammonites.  It was his daughter, and she agreed to go through with it, but she was allowed to wander in the hills for 2 months before he killed her.

2 Samuel 21:1-14 - Famine for three years had apparently been visited on the people because of the 'blood guilt' of Saul who had killed some Gibeonites.  When asked how expiation could be made, they demanded seven of Saul's sons.   Mephibosheth, son of Jonathan, son of Saul was spared because of an oath taken between David and Jonathan, but 7 others were put to death instead.  So much for human rights.

Luke 12:47-48 - Jesus teaches about the beating of slaves but completely neglects to mention that keeping those slaves at all is rather more unethical.

Mark 2:23 - Jesus and his disciples roam around the cornfields plucking ears of corn - surely theft.  This was doubly unlawful as it happened on the Sabbath when they should not have been working at all.  When challenged by the Pharisees (not for theft but because it was the Sabbath) Jesus compared it with David taking 'sacred bread' from the temple.  So that makes it alright?

Matt 21: 1-5 - Jesus' disciples took a donkey and its foal, apparently in order to fulfil a prophecy in some strange way.

Genesis 19 - The story of Lot's wife being turned into a pillar of salt is preceded by the mob wanting to rape the angels who visited Lot's family to tell them that they would be saved.   Lot offered his daughters to the mob instead.  Following the mineralisation of Lot's wife, his daughters got Lot drunk and slept with him and had his children.

Judges 19:20-30 - Rather similar to the story of Lot, two women are handed over to be raped by the mob who had initially wanted to rape the visiting men.  After being ill-treated all night, one of the women, a concubine, was cut into 12 pieces.

Proverbs 21:3 - God doesn't want sacrifices, but justice for the poor.  There is not much evidence of this elsewhere!

Psalm 14:1 - The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.
but Matt 5:22 - . . . whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.

Given these parts of the bible that seem to be mentioned rather rarely in sermons and readings in churches, do we get a better impression of the character of God?  He is said to be the source of all morality, but somehow he seems a little deficient in the areas of mercy, equality, sense of humour, and human rights.

Thank goodness he is imaginary!

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

A bubble of helium for the SGU

You might not know that the moon has an atmosphere, and you could be forgiven for that because we are nearly always told that that is the case.

However, it has a very thin atmosphere which is detectable with very sensitive instruments.  This week's episode #370 of the podcast The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe reported a story about a new observation from one of the satellites that is currently orbiting the moon.  Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter's LAMP spectrometer detects helium in Moon's atmosphere is an article describing the findings.

The surprising thing about this was not the finding of helium, but that the panel was not able to understand where this helium would come from.  The podcast is generally excellent and I learn a lot from it.  If you are not a regular listener then I would recommend it to you very strongly.  (I know a few people have abandoned it recently because of the unholy row started by Rebecca Watson, but I still listen to it.  I must admit that this week's episode was more to my liking because I found none of the panel members annoying!) 

However, like many great science podcasts, SGU lacks adequate input from anyone who understands the physical sciences adequately, and time after time they miss something really obvious.

Someone else, Brad the Barbarian, beat me to the answer on the SGU forum but that's not unusual since I usually don't get the podcast download until the Saturday or Sunday after the Wednesday release.  He explained that helium is the result of alpha decay of radioactive isotopes.  I'll add a little more detail.

This process happens on the earth too, and it keeps the concentration of helium in the air fairly constant at a few parts per million.  Yes, as they said on the show, helium escapes relatively easily from the atmosphere because it is so light that it can reach escape velocity, but it is constantly being topped up from below, albeit rather slowly.

Helium - light enough to escape
Helium - light enough to escape

One of the best illustrations of this is the observation that helium is a major inconvenience to the industries that drill for natural gas.  In some fields the natural gas contains more than 20% helium.  Helium is inert and does not burn, and if the helium is not removed it has a very detrimental effect on the calorific value, and therefore the economic value of the gas that they wish to sell. 

Fortunately this is where we get most of our industrial helium from.  The unwanted contaminant has value in itself.   At the moment there is a world shortage which is causing some inconvenience. 

The helium collects in natural gas reservoirs for the same reason that the natural gas collects.  Above the oil field there is a rock layer that is impervious to gases, so they collect as a kind of bubble.  By drilling through the top of the bubble the gas is allowed out.

The helium comes from a specific type of radioactive decay of elements in the rocks below - namely alpha decay.  Some elements decay into others releasing an alpha particle.  An alpha particle only needs to collect two electrons from the environment to become a helium atom, and electrons are very easy to find if you have a positive attitude - or should I say a positive charge.

Incidentally, for the SGU panel there was a clue.  The instrument that measured this property of the moon's atmosphere is known by the acronym LAMP.  The A in that acronym is 'Alpha'.

See also:
A Skeptic's Guide to Helium
Helium-3. The precious little sister of helium-4.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Have you found Jesus?

Just an amusingly subtle cartoon today.

Have you found Jesus cartoon
Have you found Jesus cartoon

Sunday, 19 August 2012

21 Questions for Muslims

Following on from the popular post 21 Questions for Christians, here is a set of questions for Muslims.  You might recognise some of the questions from the previous post, but they apply here just as well.

Ask you about Islam? OK I will!
Ask you about Islam? OK I will!

  1. If you had to choose which comes first, Islam or the laws of the state, what is the role of sharia in a non-Islamic country, and which law takes precedence? And do Muslims have to opt in or opt out?
  2. Are you allowed to ask questions about Islam and if not, how can you ever learn about anything?  ("O ye who believe! Ask not questions about things which if made plain to you, may cause you trouble. Some people before you did ask such questions, and on that account lost their faith." (Surah 5:101-102). )
  3. Is the Qu'ran literally true and infallible?  It is so ambiguous that it is hard to argue this, but many of you do attempt to.
  4. Which verses and surah of the Qu'ran are abrogated?  If you made this clear then it would be . . . well . . . clear! 
  5. In your mosque, in what roles would it be acceptable for women to participate on an equal footing with men?
  6. What does Islam teach about homosexuality, and what are the consequences for the participants?
  7. What does Islam teach about apostasy, and what are the consequences for those who attempt to leave Islam?
  8. What do you know about the pagan origins of the black stone of the Ka'ba?  In the bible, written long before Islam was invented, Acts 19:35 mentions the goddess Diana/Artemis and a meteorite.  Does this sound familiar?
  9. Does hell exist, so that merciful Allah can torture us for ever?
  10. Did humans and apes evolve from a common ancestor?
  11. If Jesus was really rescued from the cross by an angel, wouldn't someone else have mentioned it long before the Qu'ran was written?
  12. How old is the world? (just roughly)
  13. If Allah created the universe just for us, why did he waste so much effort on the other stars and galaxies which we can never hope to reach?
  14. At what moment is the soul created?  (If at conception, please explain what happens to mono-zygotic twins.)
  15. If Islam is a religion of peace, why is there so much talk of jihad?  The inner struggle is different, as you well know, and if you use this argument then you are indulging in taqiyya again!
  16. How often have you personally used taqiyyah - lying for Islam - in your dealing with non-Muslims?
  17. If women are equal in Islam, why is it that all the spokesmen are men,and yet the most noticeable women are the apostates? (like Ayaan Hirsi Ali)
  18. If women are equal in Islam, why does the word of one man count as much as the word of two women?
  19. You probably know that progress in science was led by Islamic scholars for centuries.  Why did that progress falter and die? (If you doubt that it died, then see here.)
  20. Do you really believe in flying horses that can see in the dark?

And finally, question 21 which is the most important of all:

If you are a moderate Muslim who claims that Islam is the religion of peace, why do you not publicly call out the extremists?

It would be easy for you to do this but you don't seem to do it nearly often enough. 

Sunday Selection news

For the last two months, I have been collecting items that have interested me during the week and posting them here as my Sunday Selection.  A few people have commented that they like it, but it has not turned out to be as popular as most of the other posts.

From now on I've decided to do this via Something Surprising's Facebook page, and probably to spread them throughout the week.  You will find various new posts including this one which I found on a (new to me) blog called Nuts and Reasons.  I recommend you to pay it a visit for a selection of interesting posts.

This is athlete Jonathan Edwards talking about his loss of faith.  So many of us have had the same experience haven't we?

You can see the Facebook page without logging in, and indeed without even having a Facebook account, so don't let a dislike of Facebook prevent you from visiting.

Click on this link to go to the Facebook page 

That means that you can expect a regular post here on Sundays again.  Tonight's post will be 21 Questions for Muslims, which is a follow-on from a recent popular post 21 Questions for Christians.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Things Christians say, part 29: Why do you hate God?

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'). 

Why do you hate God?


Do you hate fairies?  Do you hate Zeus, Thor, Mithra, or Osiris?

I rather suspect that the answer is that you are simply indifferent to the concepts of fairies or of other gods than your own.

And that is how atheists feel about them too.  The only difference between you and an atheist is that the atheist takes it one god further than you do. 

In order to be an atheist, we simply don't believe in gods who intervene in the natural world.

There might be another term for someone who hates God and although I can't currently think what that word might be, I do know that 'atheist' is not the one. 



You might think that someone who does hate God is likely to be an atheist too.  To reply to that assertion I would simply say that you need to think a bit harder about what you are saying.  How can you hate something that you do not believe in?

If you hate god you are not an atheist!
If you hate god you are not an atheist!
(Image from here)

I'm not going to ask the same question as above about your feelings toward Allah or Baal as many Christians seem to reserve a special dark place in their hearts for those particular deities.  I assert that this hatred actually demonstrates that you do believe in them and regard them as being a significant threat to your own religion.

I think you would be partly right about the threat, but wrong to believe in their existence.  It is not that it is necessary to believe in any of the deities involved, but the religions that follow other gods tend not to be favourable towards yours.  As such, human religiosity is its own enemy.  I wonder whether any wars have ever been fought over religion! (By the way, as you might have guessed, I only wonder ironically!)

Last week:  There are no contradictions in the bible.
Next week:  I can't stand the idea of there being no life after death. That's why I believe in god.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Russian Repression

Russian punk bunk 'Pussy Riot' were sentenced to 2 years in jail, for criticising Putin in the form of a prayer.  Just think about it.  The new democracy of Russia didn't take long to descend into a mafia style organisation where criticism of the godfather is not permitted.

Repression of Pussy Riot
Fighting Russian repression all around the world,
with symbolic balaclavas.

Worldwide protests were never going to make a difference of course.  Russia is too preoccupied with its own importance and the independence of its judiciary must be in question.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

ID - not even a theory

Creationists dress up their wacky beliefs in a variety of ways.  'Intelligent Design' (ID) is one that has been quite popular in recent years, but in USA it was clearly recognised in the Kitzmiller vs Dover trial that is not a legitimate science.  In the findings of the court you can read:

After a searching review of the record and applicable caselaw, we find that while ID arguments may be true, a proposition on which the Court takes no position, ID is not science.

Nevertheless, ID is still heralded by supposedly 'respected' organisations like the Discovery Institute, (deliberately not linked from here as it might make them feel more important).  But even they are going to have to change terminology just as they changed the name of their Center for Science and Culture from its original name of Center for Renewal of Science and Culture (CRSC).  The word 'renewal' in that context must have give the game away!

Just listen to their podcast, 'ID The Future', a few times to hear what I mean.  You will find it a good way to exercise your skills at spotting logical fallacies in seemingly reasonable arguments and exorcise any credibility that you might lend to their point of view.

ID - not even a theory
Intelligent Design. Not even a theory!
ID is not a theory.  It is not even worthy of the name hypothesis!  It is not science, but merely another form of religious dogma dressed up as some sort of science to confuse the gullible.  It is a blanket non-explanation which only leads to regression to the further question of 'who designed the designer?'

Watch out for the next incarnation of creationism and be ready to treat it in the same way.  There are already signs of the way it might go.   We hear whining about how ID is ignored by the scientific press, and claims of discrimination against their pet ideas. We hear them asking for the teaching of the (non-existent) controversy.  I think we can tell that they are developing a new approach to replace the tired idea of Intelligent Design - although they will continue to promote the ID smokescreen in parallel.

Another blog, The Sensuous Curmudgeon, seems to share my amusement and my desire to ridicule the work of the Discovery Institute.  Have a look at this entertaining article for the New Theory of Improvident Design.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

What a lot of hot air!

For a change, the hot air that I am talking about does not come from the mouth of a religious apologist, but it is contained in the hundreds of hot air balloons seen in this surprising photo taken by one of my colleagues and published here with his permission.

Hundreds of hot air balloons - a lot of hot air!

He snapped this spectacle at a ballooning event in Belgium in 2011.

Did you know that the air inside a typical hot air balloon weighs about 1 tonne?  You might ask why it still flies. 

The answer is that the cold air that it displaces is even heavier.  Yes - air weighs more that you might expect.  When the balloon is hovering at a steady height, the light, hot air inside plus the weight of the balloon and passengers is exactly the same as the weight of the cold air that it displaces.

To go up, the pilot makes the air in the balloon a little hotter (and therefore lighter), and to go down she allows it to cool a little.  The trick with going down is to avoid doing it too fast, and being able to get back almost to the balance point just before hitting the ground.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Empirical confusion - a lesson about faith based claims

One day recently I was listening to a radio programme where two people were being interviewed.  The subject hardly matters, except that it serves to illustrate a point that applies equally well to the way that people think about faith in god(s).

As it happens, it was about the effects of tobacco advertising.  This is not a subject that I find particularly interesting, but it is one that others have strong feelings about, and I could summarise the two sides of the discussion as follows: 
  • One of the protagonists in the debate was arguing that advertising attracts new people into smoking. Her argument was very much faith based.  It was simply obvious to her that this was true, and she found it impossible to accept any aspects of the opposing view.
  • Her opponent was making the point that advertising was demonstrably unsuccessful at converting people to smoking, but that it was much more successful at redistributing the market share between different brands of tobacco.  Smokers of one brand could be converted to another brand much more easily than non-smokers.  He said that he based his claim on empirical evidence.
Now I'm not going to try to judge the merits of the two arguments.  I'm not a smoker and never have been.  The point that annoyed me was that the faith-based claim was allowed a lot more air time then the evidence-based claim.  The poor guy only had to start a sentence and the interviewer (John Humphrys I think) would immediately interrupt him with another question.  It annoyed me that we were not able to hear enough about the evidence to enable us to form our own opinions.

A little later I was expressing my opinion - my outrage - about it, as sometimes I do!  I was very surprised by the reaction that I received, although in retrospect I shouldn't have been!

I was told - believe it or not - that the guy with the empirical evidence had come across as arrogant and unyielding.  The reason for this was simply that he had used the expression "empirical evidence".

Now I think you can see the parallel that I am drawing.  Those who believe in gods take the faith-based approach and they are sometimes frightened away from even considering the opposite viewpoint because of empirical evidence.  There are at least two aspects to this.
  • First, I have noticed that even intelligent and well qualified people misunderstand the term.  Empirical evidence is not just another faith claim.  It is evidence that has actually been measured, and brings you to a conclusion without having to rely on inference or deduction.  Even if it might later turn out to be wrong, it should not be ignored.  Surely it must at least be useful unless it is shown not to be true by further measurements.
  • Second, if you take the attitude in life that all claims are equally valid, as many do, then the presence or absence of evidence is not of much importance.  This is why such a way of thinking is fundamentally flawed.
The net result is that those who argue with the certainty that comes from putting the effort into detailed analysis of a topic are trumped by those who just know the truth in their hearts.  This very effectively demonstrates that rationality is not the primary trait of the human mind, as mentioned last week in my review of Michael Schermer's book, The Believing Brain.

Wisest words from Bertrand Russell
The wisest words from Bertrand Russell

The words of of one of the greatest philosophers of modern times spring to mind (as you can hear at this link)

When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only "what are the facts, and what is the truth that the facts bear out?" Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe or by what you think would have benificent social effects if it were believed, but look only and solely at what are the facts. -- Bertrand Russell 

Shouldn't this be our crusade as rationalists?

Monday, 13 August 2012

What UK homeopaths do not want you to know

Having been fleeced by homeopaths in my more believing past (to the value of a few hundred pounds in total), and having been banned from a notable web homeopath's web site for asking perfectly polite questions, I feel that I have an axe to grind.

A few weeks ago the following letter was published on Andy Lewis's excellent site The Quackometer.

As Andy points out, The Society of Homeopaths seems rather keen that you do not see this.  Therefore I feel that it is my moral duty to defy their wishes and reproduce the letter that they sent out to their members, explaining how they have been lobbying for an exclusion to the new law that is being introduced all around Europe.  It seems that the Department of Health has re-assured them a little, but fortunately government departments are not at liberty to issue warrants to break the law, and complaints are very likely to be upheld.

Society meets ministerial team

Dear xxxxxxxx,

Thank you for your continued support with the consolidation and review of the medicines act 1968 MP Letter writing campaign.

As you know, the Society and partners have been working extremely hard behind the scenes to represent members and their best interests in this matter, including taking a leading role on engagement with the Government.

On Wednesday of this week the current campaign resulted in a meeting between our representatives and the Ministerial team from the Department of Health.

The good news is that the Department of Health continues to be in favour of patient choice and access to homeopathy as it currently stands and recognises the potential impact to patients, practitioners and homeopathic pharmacies of any changes to the way the Act is enforced.

Although during the meeting it was discussed that Section 10 would not be part of the consolidation process it was highlighted that current levels of enforcement of the act would continue in the way it has done for the past 40 years and therefore would not seek to restrict the current homeopathic provision/access routes.

To amend Section 10 it would require a unique consultation process and could therefore not form part of the consolidation process.

The Society, together with partners will continue to engage with the relevant Ministers. When the review has continued through the legislative process the Minister has offered to meet with us again to review the situation.

Nearly every MP has now been contacted and I would like to thank those members that have written to and in some cases visited their MPs to highlight the relevant issues.

Parliament is due to recess on the 17th July and we will keep you fully abreast of the situation and let you know of any further action and next steps needed in due course.

In the interim thank you for your continued support

Best regards

Phil Edmonds
Society of Homeopaths

Please note this email is intended for Society Members only and we would kindly ask for this email not to be re-produced.

I would like to think that homeopathy is in for a rough time over the next few months.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Sunday Selection 8

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: An interview with Bertrand Russell.  It is not very long but it is his message to the people of the future.

Podcast of the week: Skeptics with a K, episode 78.  You might love or hate the style of this podcast, but I'm a keen listener.  The three presenters from the Merseyside Skeptics Society have a certain laddish charm and they have a knack for finding interesting topics.  Sometimes they start into a story that appears somewhat tangential (as in the surprisingly disgusting one about clearing out a cupboard in this episode), but don't give up too early!  They always conclude with an interesting learning point.  In this episode they also celebrate the legal difficulties that are being experienced by homeopaths in UK this year, and I was glad to hear that 2 of the 3 presenters were also not great fans of the Olympics.

Quote of the week: 
“When Muslim parents hate their host culture so much that they will kill a child who seems to embrace it, then they are guilty of intolerance – the kind that non-Muslims are wary of showing, lest they be branded racist, or bigoted.” 
Wow! Something sensible from Cristina Odone, in the Telegraph

Tweet of the week:
If the Bible was a good morality guide, we'd not need the Declaration of Human Rights. Humanity: Higher morals than God since 1948. #Atheism from @CrispySea

Atheist news of the week:  How Christopher Hitchens fell out with Gore Vidal

Exciting science of the week: The landing of Curiosity, the new rover on Mars was much more exciting than anything that the Olympics had to offer.  Amazingly, this picture was snapped by another satellite that was orbiting Mars.

Curiosity snapped on its chute, descending to Mars.

See the pictures that it is collecting every day at this link.  I'm sure that there is a lot of good stuff to come from this amazing project!

And finally . . .

Favourite places: Mars (Is this cheating?) 

This image, from here, shows how Curiosity landed there this week.

Curiosity's surprising landing on Mars (from here).

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Things Christians Say, part 28: No contradictions in the bible

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'). 

There are no contradictions in the bible.


It is often said that there are no contradictions in the bible.  Even to the casual observer, this seems not to be true and it is surprising to observe the verbal gymnastics that people employ in order to prove their claims.

In fact, the more you look at the details the less true the claim appears to be.  I happened across this excellent diagram recently.  The image at the top identifies in the white histogram columns the number of apparent contradictions in each book of the bible, Old Testament and New.  The red lines show the connections between the claimed contradictions.  The text below the diagram gives the questions and the references of the verses involved.  I think you might find it worthy of a little study. 

Contradictions in the bible - reduced scale.
Find the original diagram at this link.
You won't be able to read the text on that reduced version but you can find the full resolution diagram at this link.(8 Mbytes)



Looking at the diagram above, notice also that the New Testament is a hotbed of 'self-inconsistency'.  You can see that from the high concentration of red links to the right hand end of the picture. 

This is in spite of its 'questionable' provenance.  By that I mean, of course, the way that the contents of the cannon of the bible were cherry-picked from the available works to make what was intended to be a consistent story.  Wouldn't you think that the experts who agreed the contents of the bible might have been a little more careful?

Ultimately the resolutions of these contradictions are not important to those of us who are no longer Christians.  They appear to me to be a very considerable headache to those who wish us to believe in the inerrant truth of their bible.

Last week:  Atheists just don't want to be held accountable for their own actions
Next week:  Why do you hate god?

Friday, 10 August 2012

2012's English Crop Circles

The (modern) English summer tradition of abstract art in the fields might have been affected by the poor weather.  One of the benefits of the cool wet season that we have had is that the harvest is only now being taken in, so the crop circle season has been longer than usual.  I'm not certain that the the yield for 2012 has been of a particularly notable quality though.

The web site Temporary Temples has several excellent galleries of some quite fascinating patterns including this picture of one of this year's more impressive crop of circles.

Follow the link to Temporary Temples
for an impressive array of photos by Steve Alexander.

Whether you happen to believe that these are the work of aliens or not, you can still enjoy wondering how some of the designs were implemented in a field on a dark night by a few folks with ropes and stomping boards (or indeed by bored alien visitors if you prefer).

This one is of the classic six point symmetry that (apparently) is easily set out, but some of the features of the inner triangle are quite subtle.  It turns out that it was made in two phases, as you can see at this link, on Crop Circle Connector, which is another site with many photos from different photographers.

Follow my label 'Cereology' for the series of posts from last year.  Here are direct links to a couple of them.

Out Crop Formation

Cornucopia for Cereologists

Thursday, 9 August 2012

The Believable Michael Schermer

Having read Victor Stenger's (slightly too mathematical) book, The Fallacy of Fine Tuning while on holiday last week (see here, here and Stenger 1: God 0), I moved on to another book that I had been eagerly anticipating for more than a year since hearing the author being interviewed on the podcast, Skepticality.  In June 2011, I posted an article called Faithful genius - a contradiction? in which I mentioned the book

This time (unlike last week) I was not inundated with equations, and quite quickly I read the 344 pages of Michael Schermer's The Believing Brain.

The Believing Brain - Schermer
The Believing Brain - Schermer

This fascinating volume distills much of the knowledge that you gain from reading around the subjects of skepticism and neuroscience, but it distills it nicely into a very digestible form, mixing entertaining narrative with the latest research findings and dropping in a good measure of humour on the way.  For example, he mentions seeing a car bumper sticker which said:

Militant Agnostic: I don't know and you don't either!

and George Gamow's famous limerick

There was a young fellow from Trinity
Who took the square root of infinity
   But the number of digits
       Gave him the fidgets;
He dropped maths and took up Divinity.

The key (serious) message from the book will be familiar to many of us. For everyone it seems to be true that beliefs come first, and explanations follow.  The more intelligent a person is the better they are at justifying their beliefs, but their intelligence does little or nothing to help them in the selection of those beliefs.  He mentioned what he referred to as Spinoza's Conjecture:

Belief comes quickly and naturally, skepticism is slow and unnatural, and most people have a low tolerance for ambiguity.

How can you argue with that observation?

One of the main highlights for me is Chapter 12 Confirmations of Belief.  It deserves to go down in history as a companion to Carl Sagan's famous chapter The Fine Art of Baloney Detection in his 1996 book Demon Haunted World (which obviously influenced Schermer's writings).  This chapter is a very thorough review of 34 distinct types of bias and a few other techniques that we all use to justify our beliefs.  Many of them are familiar, and you will remember times when you experienced them. but almost everyone will spot some new ones in there.

It was interesting to see that Schermer touched on the topic of fine tuning (p324) and made a mention of Victor Stenger.  By now he has probably read Stenger's new book, but at the time of writing he referred to the fine tuning problem as, in his opinion "the best argument that theists have for the existence of God".  (He left us with the impression that it was only the best of a bad set though.)  The following pages suggest that even last year he did not rate the probability to be very high, and I am sure that he will revise this part of the book in the event that it goes to a second edition.  Nevertheless, real-life stories about beliefs like this are the life blood of this book, and without them it would not be so firmly established as a realistic and convincing treatise.   

There is so much more to this book that I can only recommend you to buy and read it. 

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Tracks on the moon

You may have heard rumours that the American astonauts never landed on the moon.  Certainly some of the stories are convincing at first sight.  Distrusting governments a little, as many of us do, it is tempting to believe that there is no smoke without fire.  At one time I found some of the arguments more convincing than others.  Pictures like this seem like obvious fakes.

Moon landing hoax - crosshairs and flag
Crosshairs hidden behind a flapping flag - allegedly!

As time goes on though, it become increasingly surprising that nobody has spoken out about the apparent fraud.  OK - they might have been 'silenced'.  But all of them?  How many people would have had to know what was going on to perpetrate fraud on that scale.  Surely someone with nothing to lose would have spoken out by now.

Besides that, nobody could possibly believe that the launch of all those Saturn 5 rockets was faked.  And launching a machine of that sort of size into orbit must have been one of the hardest aspects of the missions.

It would be sad if the conspiracy theories were true wouldn't it?  Photos like this might help to restore your faith, if you ever doubted the veracity of the moon landings.  Over the next few years it would be surprising if we don't get many more pieces of evidence like this, as other countries succeed in putting probes into lunar orbit, with ever increasing camera resolution, and ever more reason to wish to embarrass USA in the event that the tracks are not where they are supposed to be.

Apollo 12 landing site
Tracks left on the moon by Apollo 12.

You can get pictures of all the landing sites, taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter at this amazing web site.  e.g.  Apollo 11, Apollo 12Apollo 14Apollo 15Apollo 16Apollo 17.

The moon hoax conspiracy theorists would have had a field day if someone had photographed the landing point for Apollo 13! 

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

21 Questions for Christians

Christianity is 'a broad church' you know.

In fact, I venture to suggest that it is so broad that you probably don't know two Christians who would answer these twenty questions in exactly the same way as each other.
  1. Can you (are you allowed to) contact God directly or do you need a priest to intercede for you?
  2. What is the correct method of baptism, and at what age is it appropriate to baptise?
  3. Is the future of the world predestined, or do you really have free will?  If so, how do you square this with your god's alleged omniscience?
  4. When people 'speak in tongues', is it the holy spirit that is talking, or do you suspect that they are possessed by a demon?
  5. What are your views regarding purgatory, an afterlife and personal resurrection?
  6. Is it enough to accept Jesus into your heart, or do good works count for anything?
  7. Is the bible literally true and infallible?  It is so ambiguous that it is hard to argue this, but many of you do attempt to.
  8. In your church, in what roles would it be acceptable for women to participate on an equal footing with men?
  9. At the Eucharist, does the bread and wine represent the body and blood, or does it literally become the body and blood?
  10. To what extent should Mary, the mother of Jesus, be venerated?
  11. Is it acceptable to worship other spirits (as many 'members' of African churches do)?
  12. What does your church teach about homosexuality?
  13. When will Jesus return for the second coming, and how do you explain your answer considering the original idea that he would return within the lifetime of some of the people living at the time?
  14. Should priests live a life of chastity?
  15. Does hell exist, so that merciful god can torture us for ever?
  16. What are your expectations about the end of the world (and do you take the endless stream of such prophecies seriously or casually dismiss them)?
  17. Will people of other faiths have any hope of salvation (even if they have never heard of Jesus)?
  18. How old is the world?
  19. If God created the universe just for us, why did he waste so much effort on the other stars and galaxies which we can never hope to reach?
  20. At what moment is the soul created?  (If at conception, please explain what happens to mono-zygotic twins.)
I haven't even mentioned the classic questions about suffering, the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus etc.  Nor did I mention much in the way of theology.  These are mainly about doctrine - the stuff that isn't specified in that bible that apparently contains all the answers.

It must be very confusing for anyone who is tempted to convert, when doctrine is so diverse.  If, as I strongly suspect, any two Christians are not able to agree with each other on these points, how can a convert possibly know which Christian cult to join? 

And now the 21st question emerges from my observation that Christians who find it hard to answer the difficult doctrinal questions often brush them off as being unimportant.  Meanwhile they often indulge in irrationally cuddly ecumenism and even reason that any religion is (in general terms) better than no religion.  To them, I would ask question 21:

If these things are not important to you, what does it actually mean to call yourself a practising Christian?

Update: See the related post, 21 Questions for Muslims on 18th August 2012

Monday, 6 August 2012

Stenger 1 : God 0

Today I am continuing (and completing) my commentary on contents of Victor Stenger's challenging but excellent book The Fallacy of Fine Tuning.  You can find the first two posts here and here.  He referred to the list of 34 quantities that he plans to refute.  (You can see them at this link.)

You might be surprised that the universe's ability to support life may have been affected by the way that stars produce carbon in just the right quantities.  Carbon atoms are produced by combining the particles from the nuclei of three helium atoms.  This is done in the nuclear furnaces of the stars, but therein lies a problem.  Two helium-4 nuclei might collide and fuse to create a beryllium-8 nucleus quite often but it is very unlikely indeed that three heliums will collide at exactly the same moment to make carbon-12 in one step.  In fact the process goes in two steps, with the second step being the fusion of beryllium and helium ions to make carbon.

The problem is that beryllium-8 is VERY unstable, (lasting for only for a thousand million millionth of a second), so it is surprising that it lasts long enough to combine with another helium.  The fine tuners claim that the existence of a particular excited state of carbon makes the reaction very much easier because of a phenomenon known as a resonance, and physicists agree.  However, they say that the energy of this resonance has to be exactly the value that we find, or else it will not work.  There is no need to understand the details because Stenger explains that it is not true to claim that the numbers have to be so accurately defined.  Going through detailed mathematical explanations he shows that the energy of the excited carbon could have been anywhere in quite a wide range - including the value that is observed.

One of the interesting aspects of the whole saga is that carbon combines further with helium, and that in doing so it creates oxygen-16, which is also critical for life of the form that we know.  It is just as well that this reaction doesn't happen too easily or there would be no carbon left.  But this brings us to another point.

Who can say that in an alternate universe with different physical constants it might not be possible for life to be based on a different chemistry.   The claim that it can only be based on the chemistry that we have in our universe is sometimes known as carbon chauvinism!   Life might flourish with a different form of tuning. 

I should also say that Stenger took care not to rely on the concept of a multiverse in order to refute fine tuning arguments.  He managed it quite well enough by using evidence from the one universe that we know about.

I'm not going to cover any of the other interesting aspects of the book in any detail here, but he mentions the poor arguments using probability, and spends a lot of time on the first instants of the universe.  Fine tuners often take a sample sentence from Steven Hawking's book, A Brief History of Time out of context, rather than reading the full explanation about how it would lead inevitably to much of the claimed fine tuning of the universe's expansion rate.  

Stenger also mentions the good reasons for some of the other fine tuning claims, such as why we should not expect there to be different numbers of protons and electrons (to a very high accuracy). 

In conclusion I would say that he covered the subject very thoroughly, sometimes using more mathematics than I wanted to see, but that it is easy to get a lot out of the book without a full understanding of the maths.

As he points out, in order to refute claims of fine tuning arguments he does not actually have to give any reasons for his claims, but only to show that a wide range of parameters could lead to a universe that supports life.

I think he succeeds!

Stenger 1 : God 0!

Gold medal for Curiosity

The Curiosity rover has landed successfully on Mars.  Its more exciting than the Olympics!  This is how it did it.

Curiosity lands on Mars - gold medal!
First view of Martian surface from Curiosity

More new from here!

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Curiosity about Mars

Within the next few hours, NASA's latest mission to Mars will either succeed gloriously or fail horribly, as the 900kg 'Curiosity' rover attempts to land on the red planet.

Missions to Mars have been notoriously difficult and it is a surprising fact that the Soviet Union, for all its success with missions to Venus, never successfully landed a functioning craft on Mars or its moons.  (Strictly speaking, Mars3 functioned for 20 seconds in 1971 before 'disappearing'.)  Even in recent years more missions seem to have failed than succeeded.  The British rover called Beagle was lost on landing, the Russian probe Phobos Grunt never left earth orbit, and crashed ignominiously back to earth.  Not many years ago an American Mars mission with a forgotten name was lost (allegedly) because different parts of the project were working in different units, (metres and feet).

Even as recently as 16th July, NASA revealed that it might have difficulty getting the Odyssey satellite into the best position to observe the landing of Curiosity, building the tension further by making Earth-bound observers wait a little longer for the news, good or bad.

However, the omens are improving, with NASA's two little rovers still exploring the surface of Mars.  Spirit and Opportunity have been notable successes, with the latter just passing 3000 Martian days (sols) of operation, covering 21 miles.

Even the results from Viking 1 and Viking 2 - exciting memories from the 1970s when space was still the final frontier - are being examined again to try to decide whether they show signs of microbial life.  What we would have given in 1976 to see images of the quality available free to all of us today!

Curiosity, nearing the surface.

Shortly the huge new rover, Curiosity, will descend to the surface, as you can see on the almost incredible video feature on Sunday Selection 3.

Curiosity's final descent

Hopefully the final stage of the descent involves being lowered on cables by a rocket powered mother ship.

One thing is more or less certain.  Curiosity will reach the Martian surface.

We can only hope that it will reach it intact and that it will last as long as its recent predecessors.

Morning update:  It made it successfully!

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Things Christians say, part 27: Accountable for your own actions

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'). 

Atheists just don't want to be held accountable for their own actions


Did you really say that?  Would you like a moment to reconsider?



When Christians start to say things like this you just know that they are reaching the point of desperation.  Finally there is compelling evidence that they are opening their mouths and putting their foot straight in!

Just think about what has been said.  Somehow it is the atheists who reject the concept of a father-figure in the sky that are accused of not making themselves accountable by that very action.  By rejecting gods we are actually taking upon ourselves the responsibility for our own actions and we are holding ourselves accountable in this life.

For us atheists, there is no more running away from accountability by claiming that God told us to do things.  We also tend to believe that it is important to be held to account in this life, not just in a fictitious after-life.

Why is this important?  Well, for a start ask the high officials in the Vatican that question.  They are not making any of the offenders in the Catholic Church accountable for for their crimes (whether they be against children, the poor or wealthy financial investors).  Somehow that church makes its own bronze age beliefs a reason to defy the secular authorities who would take legal action against the criminals that the Vatican is protecting.

How can anyone defend such outrageous behaviour?

Only by invoking God can that be achieved!

Last week: All the evidence you need is right here in the bible.
Next week: There are no contradictions in the bible

Friday, 3 August 2012

Exposing finely tuned fallacies

Yesterday I started to describe the contents of Victor Stenger's challenging book The Fallacy of Fine Tuning and referred to the list of 34 quantities that he plans to refute.  (You can see them at this link.)

Stenger starts out with several excellent lines of reasoning.

First he points out that all the models produced by physicists are man-made and that they do not necessarily claim to contain any ultimate truths about the universe.  They are just the best efforts available at the moment to explain the observations that are made by experimentalists, and the best test of their value is to see whether they are able to predict things that have not been tested yet.  All the best theories can claim to do this, and the ones that are shown to be wrong are not forgotten but generally they are discarded when better models are developed which approximate to reality a bit better.

All today's physics models are based on principles that are used throughout the science.  He spends some time explaining that conservation of momentum, angular momentum (or spin) and electrical charge are three of the underlying assumptions in physics.  He spend several pages show in mathematics how the special relativity can be applied a lower speeds, deriving familiar classical physics from the more complex models of the last century.  He also describes how physics requires that the same answer is reached, whatever the point of view of the observer.

I did mention that his reasoning gets complicated didn't I?  Still - with a little persistence I succeeded in skipping over the mathematics and got back to the words without feeling too depressed at my own inadequacy and I think you could do the same if you are equally allergic to maths.

Stenger then goes on to explain that many of the 'fine tuned' quantities are not independent of each other.  Proponents of claims of 'fine tuning' seem to think that they can vary one quantity but leave all the others unchanged, even though they might be co-dependent.

Then he describes some of the quantities that are defined arbitrarily on the basis of the scales of units that we have chosen.  As such, if we preferred to make the units for the constants simpler, we could set some of them arbitrarily to a value of 1.  For example, physics will still work as well if you set the speed of light to be 1, the Gravitational Constant to be 1 and Planck's Constant to be 1. If you do this, the answers you get by solving the equations will not be in units that we recognise, but they will still be correct and meaningful.

He further points out that gravity is not a real force in the same sense that a centrifugal force is not real.  It is useful to use it to describe the way the universe works from one point of view, but it is an emergent property of the distortion of space time rather that a force of the same type as magnetism or electro-static forces.  Then he moves on to attack one of the favorite fallacies of many scientific writers, who claim that gravity is a very weak force compared with electrostatics.  He does it like this.

'Fine tuners' take the example of a hydrogen atom to prove their point.  They say that the gravitational attraction between a proton and an electron is negligible compared with the force arising from their electrical charge.  For some reason they suggest that all natural forces really ought to be of comparable magnitude if they were the result of a natural origin, but in fact they are different by 39 orders of magnitude.  (Heaven alone knows why they think this!)

Stenger argues that they have no justification for choosing a system containing a proton and an electron.  A proton is not even a fundamental particle, after all.  He suggests that these particles have not been chosen arbitrarily but just to prove a fallacy, and that if you used a quantity known as the Planck mass as your starting point the whole argument would fall apart.  He argues that the Planck mass is the only non-arbitrary unit of mass.  Whether that is a reasonable claim or not, it does at least undermine the assertion that gravity is a weak force.

Next time you fall over, try telling yourself how weak gravity is!

So you see, the whole topic of fine tuning is a battle of words and equations.  There will be one more post on the subject soon.