Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Tony Robinson and the Ghosts of Glastonbury: Channel 4, 30th Dec 2008

I was foolishly encouraged to watch a programme on Channel 4 last night about the “investigation” into a Victorian Archaeologist who claimed to have received his guidance from a long dead monk via the medium of automatic writing.

The reason I was initially keen to watch, was that Tony Robinson was accompanied by his own Dana Scully, a Skeptic called Becky McCall. Not sure if anyone else in the Skeptical community has heard of Becky but she was new to me. I’m not sure if the programme’s producer’s simply edited the footage in favour of the woo argument or if Becky didn’t really ask the sceptical questions I wanted her to. The programme therefore seemed biased in propping up the paranormal argument in the face of contrary evidence.

Three key sequences could have presented a more realistic explanation of the phenomenon:

The First was where Tony visited a purveyor of finest quality woo in an attempt to produce some automatic writing, guided by the long dead monk. 95% of the scribbles produced by Tony were completely unintelligible. Even with the guiding hand of the woo artist helping Tony out. But a small subset of the doodles could be vaguely construed as having some relationship to familiar letters, and some of these together hinted at possible words. One of the words determined from the writing session was “Wallace”, although to be fair, I could make out a W shape and a vowel shape followed by a bit of a squiggle. A later telephone conversation between Tony and the programmes researchers unearthed the name “Wallace” in some of the research documents.

This seemingly unlikely coincidence was trumpeted as a strange phenomenon for which no natural explanation was given. Disappointingly the Skeptic could not come up with a valid reason for the coincidence, which made this scant evidence seem even more plausible.

I would have liked the Skeptic to have explained a little about coincidence, probability and how the logic and statistics behind what seem unlikely events are often due to the laws of probability not aligning terribly well with human intuition and expectations. (Dawkins has written at length on this subject). I would have liked the Skeptic to conduct a similar experiment under conditions that are purely random with no suggestion of the paranormal. For Example, an alternative sample of automatic writing or other randomly produced text could be compared against another preselected document of similar size to the research material. If a word from this text could be deciphered and matched with a similar word or name in the preselected document, it would demonstrate how good the human brain is at recognising such patterns and being amazed by the coincidence once seen.

Secondly, Tony Robinson gave a little time to our old friend, Chris French, to provide a rational, logical and natural explanation for the phenomenon of automatic writing. Chris duly provided a valid natural alternative to supernatural guidance. However, even if Chris was given an equal amount of time to present his argument, I believe the programme would still have biased in favour of the supernatural explanation. As I have written before in previous blogs, presenting two sides to an argument, gives the false impression that each alternative has a 50% chance of being true. All of the empirical evidence that I am aware of for this phenomenon supports the argument put forward by Chris French. This was not made clear, and the viewer is left to pick what are presented as two equally valid alternatives.

Thirdly, the automatic writing allegedly assisted by the monk led the Victorian archaeologist to locate further archaeological features close to the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. Again I was disappointed to see that no attempt was made to see how many predictions he had made in total and how many were hits and how many were misses. It seems to me as if he was just playing a huge game of battleships, with the ruined abbey playing the part of the aircraft carrier. Surely all the archaeologist had to do was fire off a few salvos in the squares adjacent to the hit and he’s bound to find something else. To her credit the Skeptic did unearth another prediction from the archaeologist’s automatic writing that suggested another site of archaeological interest. The suggested area was surveyed by the geophysics team, and no archaeology was detected, supporting the hypothesis that he just made a lucky hit with the other location. I would still have liked to know how many predictions he made and how many hits he got, and then compared that to pure chance.

The programme also examined what were believed to be the bones of the monk, although a modern investigation showed no evidence of the wounds inflicted at his death and no way of substantiating the claim that the bones belonged to the monk. One of the bones claimed to be part of the monk was however identified as a medium sized mammal (non human) bone. As one of the words that could be vaguely deciphered from the automatic writing session was “pig”. The programme was allowed to close by reminding us that a pig is in fact a medium sized mammal (Cue the Twighlight Zone Music).

I believe the producers of this programme were desperate to try and present an equally weighted programme between paranormal and scientific explanation. In order to achieve this they had to underplay scientific evidence and big up circumstantial evidence and coincidences to bolster the paranormal argument. In the end all this did was keep the plates of woo spinning for this particular phenomenon, when scientific investigation of the claims could have led to case closed.

Boo Channel 4.

By the way, happy new year to everyone. This time of the year is good for top 10 reviews of the year and in case you haven’t read Rebecca Watson Top 10 Heroes and Villains of 2008, link below:

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Nine Lessons And Carols for Godless People – Bloomsbury Theatre, 19th December 2008

Just because I take a rational and scientific view of the world we live in rather than a religious viewpoint, I don’t see this as a barrier to enjoying this festive time of year. I love the time off work to spend with family and friends, eating, drinking and making merry, and I see no reason to curtail my partying just because I cannot accept the notion of implausible virgin births and other associated incredulous doctrines. This lack of faith has led me on a journey of scientific discovery and enlightenment that has pushed my levels of wonder and awe of the universe far beyond what religion ever achieved for me. I’m therefore very keen to celebrate that wonder, and this time of year seems to be a suitable time to do just that. I imagine the thought process that led Robin Ince to instigating this event must be somewhat similar to my motivation for wanting to attend. We don’t want to be perceived as a bunch of miserable Atheists wanting to take the joy out of Christmas. I for one am happy to maintain our Christian heritage and Culture in a secular way whilst fully embracing the knowledge and understanding that has superseded our religious myths.

So for those who missed last nights Nine Carols and Lessons for Godless People at the Bloomsbury, or for those who just wanted a reminder of what they saw, I have written a review of the evening. NB I wrote this blog for a general audience unlike the more focused clientele on the night so I have to apologise for competing with Cybil Fawlty at times on her specialised subject of the bleeding obvious.

Anyway I bumped into Sid Rodrigues in the Foyer prior to the show who told me that however good I thought this show was going to be, based on last nights feedback I could multiply that tenfold. Well Sid, I’m sorry to say you underestimated; it was even better than that.

During the first half of the show I managed to take a few notes on my phone to help jog my memory on who was performing and the running order. However, at the half time break my wife gave me a load of grief for tapping away on my phone during the show. Apparently it’s rude. Anyway as a result I failed to make any notes during the second half and as a consequence my review will inevitably and unforgivably miss out some of the acts or at best have them in the wrong order. So here’s a summary of the acts, bearing in mind that if your planning to see this show on Sunday night at the Hammersmith Apollo, you may want to stop reading now as the rest of the blog is bound to include a few spoilers.

Carl Sagan
I may not necessarily pick Carl Sagan as my choice for the greatest scientist of the 20th Century, but if I had to pick one person whose passion for science and whose skill in writing and broadcasting did the most to promote the public understanding of science in the 20th century, it would have to be Carl. Sagan is perhaps the only author I have read who is capable of writing poetry that just happens to be about science. In fact, so skilled and passionate was he in promoting the wonders of science and the awesomeness of the universe; he is not overly inconvenienced by his unfortunate death in 1996 in continuing this mission. His presence this evening opened the show with a description of our planet taken from Cosmos. Sagan’s dulcet tones explaining how the small pale blue dot on the screen caught in a ray of sunlight is the only stage on which all events in human history have played out. It’s the nearest thing to being placed in Adams’ Total Perspective Mind Vortex. As Sagan’s voice drifts over us the Mystery Fax Machine Orchestra led by Martin White on the Accordion pipes in with Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra (from 2001 a space odyssey) and we’re off.

Robin Ince
Our compare for this evening welcomes us to his folly and sets the comedy bar at a frighteningly high level for the subsequent acts to follow. Ince is please to be playing to a knowledgeable scientific audience and I think he promises a Heisenberg gag later on and, but I’m uncertain. Ince also notes that he will need to be careful to get his facts right. I therefore don’t feel too much of a pedant in pointing out that his story of Charles Darwin noting a comment from his brother Erasmus on “Survival of the fittest” is fatally flawed in the fact that the quote should be attributed to Herbert Spencer rather than Darwin.

Phil Harris
Our first musical act of the evening required a bit of a sing along, and although the words were simple enough, “Maybe something’s, wrong with me.”, as an audience we failed to raise the rafters and I sure my out of key droning along probably didn’t really help.

Stewart Lee
Although one half of the comedy duo Lee & Herring, Stuart Lee is now very well known as an outspoken atheist and his Jerry Springer Opera has certainly touched a few Christian nerves, much to my amusement. It turns out that we were lucky not to loose Stewart to the other side, after all surely a being as complex and intelligent as Richard Dawkins could not have evolved by chance. This evening Stewart shared with us his thoughts on Pope John Paul II lollipops, and mused on the likely Catholic opinions of licking the face of the Pope on a lolly after his death. And what should the face of the new Pope, Benedict XVI, adorn, well Stewart suggestion was a warning on Bleach bottles.

Phil Jupitus
This is the second time I’ve seen Phil Jupitus this year, the first time was filling in for the late great Ian Dury with the Blockheads. Tonight was somewhat different as Jupitus read us a couple of poems, one of George Stephenson and one on the joy of lying to children at Christmas. Phil freely admitted that reading his freshly written poems is much easier than having to do stand up and remember his lines, but due to the high quality of poems, he’s fully excused.

Simon Singh
Introduced by Robin Ince as his favourite living physicist, Simon Singh was one of one of the best performances on an evening of high standards. Simon Singh latest book “Trick or Treatment” is still wrapped up under my Christmas tree, so I can’t comment on that, but “Big Bang” made a superb job of explaining how we have gained our understanding of the universe, and this was his text for this evening. The Book itself explains how our knowledge has built up, from discovering the earth is round, to discovering the circumference of the earth and that we in fact revolve around the sun, right the way up to expanding universe and big band theory. At each stage of the journey he eloquently shows how we worked it out and built upon our previous understanding to arrive at the complex understanding we have today. This evening, Singh jumps right in at the end of the book to explain how Georges Lemaître predicted the expanding universe theory in 1927 and how it was confirmed by observations ten years later by Edwin Hubble. The main point of Singh talk however was his annoyance at the lyrics to the Katie Melua song “10 Million bicycles”. I have listed Katie Melua’s original lyrics below, with Singh’s corrections underneath.
We are 12 billion light-years from the edge,
That’s a guess — no-one can ever say it’s true,
But I know that I will always be with you
We are 13.7 billion light-years from the edge of the observable universe,
That’s a good estimate with well-defined error bars, Scientists say it’s true, but acknowledge that it may be refined,
And with the available information, I predict that I will always be with you
More amazingly, Simon tells us that Katie actually got in touch with him and recorded a version of the song with Singh’s more accurate lyrics, which he kindly played to us.

Darren Hayman
The singer and guitarist from Indie band Hefner entertained us all with jolly song played on a jolly small ukulele

Ricky Gervais
I had to look this guy up on Wikipedia, but I guess we can’t expect a completely star studded line up. Anyway, it turns out that he’s pretty well known as a result of pigging backing on the success of that deep philosophical muse, Karl Pilkington. You know, the chap with a head like a fucking orange. Anyway, this Gervais fellow admirably entertained those present by testing out some stuff from his new show “Science”. From the extracts given, “Science” bears as much resemblance to its title as its predecessors, “Animals” and “Politics”. But as this was a Christmas show, Gervais showed us one of his previous gifts. A small card explaining that his present was a goat that had been given to an African Family. Gervias’ comic outrage on missing out on his present in lieu of some goat given to people he doesn’t know, was well received be my wife who to her dismay received a Well donated to Africa from one of her friends a few years ago. I assume the look on my wife’s face after receiving this gift was what encouraged her friend to purchase another gift for her a few days later.

After a brief intermission to empty bladders and purchase more beer Robin Ince gave us another short set before introducing what for many, me included, was the main draw of the evening.

Richard Dawkins
Not that we Skeptics accept truth merely on authority, but the first lesson after the intermission was taken from the 6th Gospel of St Richard (Unweaving the rainbow). Prior to this extract however, Dawkins read his article on “Gerin Oil”, which is an anagram of widely available and extremely dangerous drug.

It is of course at this point of the evening that my lack of note taking in the second half lets me down. The remainder is therefore the hazy memories of the next day. Curiously enough later on Chris Addison, assumed as Skeptics and Scientist we would all be taking notes. I gave the wife a hard stare at this point. Anyway, on with the show….

Phil Jeays.
Phil Fucked us all with a jolly child friendly little ditty about the attitude of a dying man on his deathbed. A laudable attitude that I hope to take myself one day, although not yet.

Robyn Hitchcock
Robyn had a little trouble plugging his guitar in. Trying to plug to female connectors together I think, but as he commented at the time, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Josie Long
Josie told as a completely true anecdote relating to David’s Hume’s refusal to have a deathbed conversion. What I liked about this event, is that Josie found no need to fill in such a knowledgeable audience on whom she was talking about.

Jo Neary
For those not bought up in the UK in the 1970’s, Pan People’s dance routines to one of the weeks top pop songs were renowned for their literal translation of lyrics into the medium of dance. Jo took this literal translation one step further with her one woman pan’s person dance version of Harry Nilsson’s “Without You”. The facial expressions and exaggerated mine had the whole family pissing themselves.

Gavin Osborn
Gavin song about his fateful date with one of the curtain twins (Anna Curtain). It all was going swimmingly until he realised there were 3 people in the relationship. Having been involved with the Church during my teenage years I found this masterful song very easy to relate to.

Mark Thomas
After listening to the tales of Mark’s family and upbringing, I’m intrigued to meet his dad, Colin.

Christina Martin.
Christina put the fear of God in us, Oh hang on, not the fear of God, but the fear of something. Anyway she proclaimed herself to be a born again Christian with a captive audience of atheists. Fortunately she turned out be as sane and rational as the rest of the audience, only an awful lot funnier.

Colin Watson – (AKA Waen Shepherd)
Woooo, Yeah. Well actually I don’t remember those beach boyesque hits of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s but his song about a monkey, a blind kid, a shoe and something else was a complete triumph.

Natalie Haynes
After a hilarious routine on her annoyance with parents, I tried not to catch her eye as I had my kids sat on either side of me, they were incidentally finding her routine very amusing too.

Andrew Collins
One of the great Christmas traditions, mused Andrew, is the Christmas Movie, and after inviting the audience to nominate the best secular Christmas film, he went on to proclaim the Poseidon Adventure as the champion and the cause for his conversion to atheism. While the believers hang around in the upturned hull of the ship, awaiting rescue, the non-believers escape through the arse of God. Great Stuff.

Peter Buckley Hill
Peter gave the audience a choice of songs this evening, one about maths or one about Xmas. The audience’s clap-o-meter provided little help in making his mind up so he opted for the Xmas song on account of performing the maths one the previous night. I wanted to hear the maths songs, but was very happy with his choice in the end celebrating all the greats things about X, during this Xmas period.

Ben Goldacre
Ben defends the Rational from the attack by the Woo’s from his regular column in the Guardian and his equivalently named Bad Science Blogs and Book. Ben always takes a strong stance against quackery, alternative medicine and pseudoscience and the dangers they may lead to. This evening was no exception with a poignant and harrowing account of countless thousands of deaths in Africa from Aids due to the suppression of anti HIV drugs in favour of vitamin pills. Ben left the audience reeling with the true cost of the harm that one small piece of bullshit can cause. A tough act for the next comic to follow.

Chris Addison
Familiar to many, including myself as Ollie from BBC’s “The Thick Of It” Chris started off his set with “In the beginning was the word”. This turned to be far more relevant to an enlightened atheist audience than a meaningless bible quote. Chris talked about the importance of language and how the invention of the printing press was the key catalyst in the spreading of knowledge and the precursor to the advances in technology and understanding. So taken in was I, that I failed to notice the time, it was getting quite late by this point but I didn’t realise how late until Chris pointed out that my 10 year old son sat next to me in the front row should be in bed by now.

Tim Minchin
Tim’s 9 minute beat poem about “Storm” an Australian guest at a Dinner Party he attended was an unexpected treat and for me the highlight of the show. The poem itself was sheer genius, with Tim biting his lip throughout the first half of the poem listening to the inane ranting of Sagittarian, Storm and her spiritual and pseudoscientific viewpoint before finally cracking in an abuse of logic and reason. I tried to find a clip on YouTube to share with you all, but I couldn’t find one. If anyone can spot one please forward on to me.

Carl Sagan
Carl Sagan and Martin White’s Orchestra brought the evening to a close. I was hoping Robin would make a final appearance to take a bow on harvest his well-earned standing ovation, but the house lights came on, and we shuffled off into the night.

Well that’s about it for this review. Almost as long as he evening itself. The only better way I can see of fully expressing the feeling of joy, awe and comedy at this festive time other than “Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People” is to hope that this is merely the inaugural annual “Nine Carols and Lessons for Godless People”. I sincerely hope we can do it again next year, if so can we invite Stephen Fry, David Gilmour and Eddie Izzard. Thanks

20th December 2008

For my 2008 album click here

Monday, 15 December 2008

Room "Fluffy"

I recall that some time ago when the UK’s national treasure, or Stephen Fry, as I believe he is also sometimes called, appeared on Room 101, he suggested a less negative and cantankerous alternative to Room 101. He suggested that Room “Fluffy” would be a good location in which to store the better aspects of life. So having listed my Top 10 items for Room 101 in my previous blog, I now turn my attention to the nicer things in life that I shall place in Room Fluffy.

Apple Macintosh Computers
My first job, back in 1984, was as a computer programmer, programming an Apple IIe micro computer. The Apple IIe had a 6502 chip, the same one used by the BBC Model B microcomputer, making it very similar to program. But I got swept along with the new IBM PC’s that were becoming available at this time and regrettably abandoned Apple until 2007 when I finally convinced myself to replace my latest dead PC with a Mac. Now all the PC’s in the house have been replaced by Mac’s and I’ve turned into an evangelical Mac bore. I don’t miss Ctl-Alt-Del or mucking around in the registry trying to remove spyware or wondering my PC is full of crap and running like a dog. The Mac just works.

BBC Radio 4
Despite whinging about “Thought for the Day”, Radio 4 remains one of the last bastions against the deluge of mindless, dull, banal entertainment. It’s a place where great comedy is born, (The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, The League of Gentleman, Little Britain etc etc) and it’s probably the only remaining public broadcaster in the UK to continue to put out thought provoking broadcasts covering multiple topics including my personal favourites of science and philosophy. There comes a point when the tedious self opinionated disc jockeys, their appalling choice of music, and pointless topics of conversations and telephone call-ins become too much to bear. When you eventually despair of them, try Radio 4.

Podcasts allow me to combine my love of Radio 4 and of Apple Gadgets with a perfect means of accessing the programmes I am interested in at a time that is convenient for me. In addition to some great Radio 4 podcasts, it’s also proved to be a valuable medium for accessing the thoughts of people with whom I share some interests. From my particular perspective, podcasts have enabled me to become more involved and informed on items such as critical thinking science and reason via great podcasts like the SGU, Point of Enquiry, Little Atoms, Skeptoid and Skepticality.

Technology & Gadgets
Like almost everyone in the privileged developed world, I have a small device in my pocket that can convert sound into radio waves that can be beamed up to an artificial satellites orbiting the planet and allow me to speak to someone on the other side of the earth. So what, I’ve got a mobile phone. But if you pause and think about it for a while and its pretty amazing. The technology I carry with me (which are all the by products of good science) would make me seem like I have the powers only attributable to a major deity to my ancestors.

Most people grow out of having to have the hottest curry possible. I didn’t, I just developed a love of spicy food.

Gibson Les Paul & Fender Stratocaster
These two pieces of wood have been the key ingredient in producing the most moving and evocative art I have ever appreciated.
The Gibson Les Paul is of course the weapon of choice for: Martin Barre, Jeff Beck, Chuck Berry, Marc Bolan, Peter Green, Dave Grohl, Steve Hackett, George Harrison, , Steve Jones, Alex Lifeson, John Lennon, Bob Marley, Paul McCartney, Gary Moore, Mike Oldfield, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Carlos Santana, Slash, Eddie Van Halen, Snowy White and Neil Young.
While the Fender Stratocaster is the primary axe for: Ritchie Blackmore, Eric Clapton, The Edge, David Gilmour, Jimi Hendrix, Mark Knopfler and Hank Marvin
Imagine how dull your record collection would be if you omitted the above names.


Science is such a simple and brilliant idea. Instead of making stuff up or claiming to have had a divine inspiration, you use your brain to form an hypothesis, rigorously test your hypothesis using controlled repeatable tests, and get it peer reviewed by unbiased colleagues with no hidden agendas to form an accepted theory. Then, here’s the clever bit, rather than decreeing this theory as the gospel truth, you allow for modifications, tweaks and updates to advance our understanding as new data and evidence become available. Rather than treating Newton’s groundbreaking understanding of gravity as gospel, we allow a patent clerk to refine it a little further, eventually enabling us to accurately track and plot our positions on the earth via satellite navigation. Instead of assuming that we were sneezed out of the nose of the Great Green Arkleseizure, thanks to a ships naturalist who took a nice trip around the Galapagos Islands, we can piece together the origins of our species. And with the help of other great minds we can also understand the origins and age of our planet, galaxy and indeed, Universe by building upon successive knowledge, learning, understanding and theories. Science has enlightened us with the understanding of our origins, taken us to the surface of the moon, and enabled us to live longer. Why are we not all getting excited at what we can achieve next? What breakthrough will we make when we finally get the LHC working? Can we solve world hunger through genetic modification of crops? Can stem cell research provide us with the knowledge to cure many diseases? Of course we need to be careful, but I’m excited to see what science can do for us next rather than be swept along by the tide of pseudoscience and fear of science promoted by ignorance and religions fearful of knowledge and understanding undermining their myths and loosening their grip on our minds.

Douglas Adams
Douglas Noel Adams (DNA) was always very proud of the fact that he was born in Cambridge in 1955, the same date and location Watson and Crick discovered an alternative DNA. Whilst being my favourite author, he is also a very good link to many of the other items I have placed in Room Fluffy. He beat Stephen Fry to be the first UK Apple Mac owner. He premiered his masterpiece (H2G2) on BBC Radio 4. He was a keen musician and fan of Procul Harlem and Pink Floyd, to which there are several references to in the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, and whom he played with briefly on the 1994 tour, and I’m sure he must have had a Les Paul and/or Strat in his collection. He was also an avid technology, gadget and science enthusiast and friend of Richard Dawkins. In fact if it wasn’t for his premature and untimely death in 2001, he would have been first choice for my fantasy dinner party guest list (Hopefully he could have bought David Gilmour, Richard Dawkins and Stephen Fry along with him).

V6, V8 or V12 Engines
It may well be more environmentally friendly to drive around in a small car powered by a lawnmower engine, but bollocks to that. You can’t beat be a good sized engine 3.0 litre V6, minimum. Something that puts a smile on your face when you put your foot down. I’ll Hopefully move up to a V8 or V12 next, so long as we haven’t run out of oil or died of carbon monoxide poisoning. However, if someone can invent an affordable clean equivalent then I’ll give it a go, but the Toyota Prius or Gee Whiz aint it.

TMS (Test Match Special)
There’s nothing better than getting in the car on a glorious summers day and having the car radio tuned to Radio 4 Long Wave (198) to listen to days events unfold. Having the dulcet tones of CMJ, Aggers and Blowers eloquently painting the scene at Lords of the English batsmen deftly picking off a steady stream of runs from the unfortunate tourists.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Crispian's Room 101

It doesn’t really matter that this blog is hardly ever read. I use it as a useful outlet in venting my frustrations and annoyances, as I have reached that age where I can now officially be classed as a grumpy old man. George Orwell’s convenient Room 101 is a suitable abyss in which to cast my current top 10 offenders. I think the format allows us to assume that war, cancer, child abuse and the like are already safely locked away in room 101, leaving me to concentrate on the aggravations peculiar to me. And as this is my blog, and not a TV show, there’s no one to stand in the way of the exit for the following items:

Dumb Down TV
Rather than whinge about how facile soap operas and tedious Saturday night singing or dancing popularity contests are, I choose to simply ignore them, my TV has a wholly serviceable “off” button. I’m perfectly happy to remain in ignorance while others discuss B-Z list celebrities I’ve never heard of, or the unfortunate love affairs of fictional soap characters I don’t recognise. What is annoying however is still treating me as an idiot when I try and watch something a bit more educational. I do not need a recap after every commercial break to bring me back up to speed with what they told me 3 minutes ago. My attention span is not so short that I need to be shown snippets of what’s coming up later in the programme. I accept that different levels of programming are required to cater for all requirements, but try and make some documentaries that assume we’re not complete idiots. On the subject of documentaries, it doesn’t count by making a so called documentary such as “Come and look at this weird/overweight/disabled person”. There called “Freak Shows” not documentaries.

Pseudoscience & Superstition
Many people say, “What’s the harm in x” where x can be various forms of Alternative Medicine, Paranormal /Supernatural beliefs, Pseudoscience, Superstitions or pseudo-religions. Well there’s shed loads of documented cases where irrational beliefs in such nonsense has caused immense misery, suffering and death not to mention the untold deaths, war and terror sponsored by major religions. The following website is a catalogue of specific examples of “What the harm is”. I wont attempt to list particular examples here, but please check out the following link:. Where my beef really lies with Pseudoscience and superstition (In addition to the physical harm listed on the above link), is the deluded worldview and fantasies it cultures in those it takes in. I’ve got nothing against fantasy, in fact I love a bit of Tolkien, but when ones fantasies cross over to the real world, delusions paranoia and irrational behaviour will follow. I despair when I hear of someone who has read some twaddle like the “DaVinci Code” and as a result has become disillusioned in mainstream religion only to turn to new age nonsense or paganism because the culture we propagate promotes supernatural explanations over science, reason and modern enlightenment. I suppose ultimately what I want to send into room 101 are the unscrupulous charlatans, conmen and TV producers who prey on the gullible people seeking love, health, lost ones and wealth by unnatural means. But I also feel frustration with those who are so eager to accept a supernatural or pseudoscientific explanation when a perfectly natural explanation can inevitably be sought once we have equipped ourselves with the knowledge to do so. Please don’t go to an astrologer or psychic to determine you future, make your own future. Don’t pray that you children don’t get polio or measles, inoculate them. Don’t go to a homeopath or faith healer to cure your cancer, get chemotherapy. There was a time when we all had no alternative to religion and superstition to answer our questions and give us solace; it was called the Dark Ages. Why are so many hell bent on returning to these pre-enlightened times? If I could recommend just one book to put pseudoscience and superstition in its place, I would choose “The Demon Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan”.

"Thought for the Day"
Shame on the BBC for allowing irrational faith based communities to hijack their flagship news programme with their archaic, inane and irrelevant ranting. Why is bigotry, hypocrisy and self delusion given such a prominent soap box in a secular and enlightened country at the start of the 21st century. I don’t have to scan past episodes for a particularly nauseating example of such piffle, I’ll just use today’s hot air as a typical illustration. Today’s miscreant was a Muslim, but my annoyance is not directed at this particular delusion any more than any of the others given the platform of Thought for the Day to preach their drivel. The speaker today complained about the dangers of being drawn into virtual computer worlds such as “Second Life” and the escapism sought by sad individuals who are detached from reality. A religious person was complaining about the dangers of rejecting reality and truth in favour of being drawn into an imagined false reality. Hello?

Bad Grammar
I can tolerate regional accents, but there’s no excuse for not being able to construct a sentence with the correct syntax and semantics even if you come from Yorkshire. I went to see my wife’s bank account manager last week, (They wanted to see if they had any additional services they could sell us), and I spent the whole time biting my lip in attempt not to correct her grammar. She managed to get in several double negatives such as “I ain’t done nuffink” to which I have to resist the temptation of saying “Then if you haven’t done nothing, logically you must have done something”. Her most frequent annoyance however was her complete lack of understanding of tenses, when she used sentences such as. “I done him a favour” or “She come in her last week”. Arghhh. I accept that my grammar may be less than perfect, but I think I get the basics right. (I suspect that’s an invitation to receive comments on all of my grammatical errors in my blog). I am left with the inescapable conclusion that my Bank want me to think our accounts are being managed by retards?

Faith Schools
Of course I think the world would be a much nicer place without vast swathes of the population being indoctrinated into unchallengeable and incompatible beliefs systems based on pre enlightened wisdom and comparably barbaric morality. Such beliefs will inevitably lead to hatred, prejudice, injustice and war. But I can’t just vanquish religion as a whole to room 101, it forms part of our cultural heritage and has inspired great art, music, architecture and in its more benign forms provide comfort and solace to its followers. Banning religion to room 101 would obviously be no more effective than trying to ban alcohol or drugs, if a desire for it persists, its existence will flourish regardless. I’m also not terribly keen on loosing many of our traditions, holidays, ceremonies and buildings, but I do think these things can be maintained, but kept detached and impotent of their original intent. I very much enjoy visiting ancient Egyptian and Greek temples despite the fact that the deity’s they where constructed in honour of have now fully passed into mythology. I’d be happy to visit great Cathedrals and Churches, Mosques, Temples and Synagogues with a similar perspective to their relevance today whilst appreciating their architecture and cultural heritage. The key to a more enlightened populace, free from such dangerous superstition and faith is surely education and discovery rather than mandated dictation of any particular viewpoint. Such incredulous beliefs embedded in all religions could surely only take root in the furtive minds of the young. So instead of blindly indoctrinating children with the random beliefs of their parents, can we not equip them with empirical knowledge and the tools of critical thinking and the scientific method to allow them to form their own conclusions based on a critical review of the facts and evidence. One of the biggest hurdles I see to this philosophy in the UK, is the spread of faith schools who are free to preach their particularly dogmas and delusions. I don’t want my children to have Intelligent Design or Creationism presented to them as an alternative theory to evolution any more than I want them to have Alchemy taught as an alternative to Chemistry, Astrology and an alternative to Astronomy or Magic as an alternative to Physics. The UK has a great tradition of Catholic and Church of England schools with fine academic achievements. In a multi cultural society such us ours we should not be creating more faith schools for alternative belief systems, but converting existing faith schools to secular schools whilst maintaining and improving high academic standards and following an approved national curriculum based on established reason rather than historical myths.

TV Dinners

One of the most detestable excuses I frequently hear is “I work all day and don’t have time to prepare a proper meal with fresh ingredients”. I see no valid excuse for constantly troughing on individual salty microwavable mush whilst sat in the lounge glazed over by Eastenders. You may argue that my wife is fortunate enough to not have to work and therefore has the time to prepare a meal that can be enjoyed around the family dinner table when I get home from work. But when we we’re both working we still found time to do it. It’s simply a matter of priorities. Why do so many of us Brits place such a low importance on the family dinner table, it almost makes me want to be French. Well not quite.

Chav Suits
I’m sure that those that choose to wear pink velour track suits would view my rather nice Harris Tweed Jacket with equal contempt. But why do you need to wear a track suit when the only exercise you’re doing is sitting on the sofa, watching Tricia and eating crisps.

Cheap Chicken
When I was younger, I seem to recall that Chicken was more expensive and a bit of treat you wouldn’t expect more than once a week at best. We now live in a culture where chicken is so cheap it can be an everyday meal or snack. The consequences are of course born by the multitude of unfortunate and poorly treated animals cramped into vast barns for their short insignificant lives. I’m not an animal rights activist and I fully support the use of animal research to further scientific understanding and provide huge advantages in medical research and I’m perfectly happy to eat meat in many of its delicious forms, but I’m not prepared to unnecessarily abuse the animal before I eat it. I get immensely frustrated by people who will happily eat a chicken nuggets made from the beaks and arseholes of ill treated birds, but then balk at the prospect of eating a freshly shot rabbit that has lead a wild and natural life. (up until the point it was shot). If you can’t stomach the fluffy bunny whose guts you’ve seen spilled, then don’t eat the processed meat in the nice clean packaging just because the reality has been hidden. The consequence of “happy meat” will of course be increased cost, but if this means we can’t afford it everyday, then so be it.

Crap Music
This is one of my favourite topics to bleat on about, and I’ve whinged at length on the topic on the music page of my web site ( If you’ve read my music page, you will be familiar with my despair in the popularisation of superficial music based on commercial formulas manipulated by business people catering for preferences in image and dance moves over musicianship and originality. I suspect I’m passionate about the subject because I’m passionate about good music, to me it has the power to provoke emotions unreachable in me by other forms of art. People often counter my arguments by saying that it’s simply a matter of taste, “Led Zeppelin are not better than Boyzone, that’s just your personal preference.” I say hogwash to that hypothesis. I dislike particular music not because of its genre or my personal taste, but because it’s simply poor music. Consider a two dimensional matrix containing the full set of artists, groups, composers and all contributors to the collective of music. Imagine the matrix has a number of columns representing all genres and subtypes of music. There are columns for Rock, Pop, Country, Blues, R&B, Dance, Techno, Opera, Classical, Ballet, Jazz, Hip Hop, Rap etc etc. Each column will inevitably contain good and bad music, original, intelligent, genre defining music and palpable dirge. The varying quality in music in each column is represented by the rows, with the top rows reserved for the quality music, gradually moving down the rows with reducing musical quality, being careful not to confuse current popularity with quality. For Example if you looked at the Pop column, you may see the Beatles somewhere near the top and Bros much lower down. I chose Bros as a semi random example of something lower down in the Pop column, because enough time has elapsed for the sedimentation process to allow the dregs to settle into their rightful place. The clouded perception of many contemporary eyes may need time to reach a valid evaluation of new arrivals. My sedimentation analogy also applies to this missed cream that gradually rises to the top. Nick Drake would be a good example of an artist whose merit and reputation have gradually only come to the fore over time. In order to rebuke the argument of what I perceive as crap music simply not fitting in with my particular tastes, I like to think that I make an effort to cast my musical net horizontally across the top of the imaginary matrix. As opposed to selecting individual columns based on personal preference of styles, as I believe many do. Hence the celebrity status wannabes of Saturday Night TV talent shows rarely, if ever, make it into my net for the simple reason that they’re crap.

How many times have you been eating in a restaurant on Holiday in Europe or America only to hear a loud and whinging Yorkshire accent complaining about the foreign food or outrageous prices. Being a cricket fan, I follow the fortunes of my adopted county (Hampshire), but the cricket team I really support is whichever one is playing Yorkshire. Fortunately there’s a suitable icon that deftly represents the self opinionated and boorish Yorkshire mentality and their cricket team. I would therefore like to surrender him into room 101. In you go Geoffrey.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Debating Woo-Woo

Many rationalist take the stance that its not worth publicly arguing with believers as it gives nonsensical arguments an air of credibility by acknowledging that the matter is worthy of debate. I believe Richard Dawkins for one, cites this as one of his main reason for not concerning him self with such debates with creationists. I believe the other main reason is the likelihood of being unscrupulously edited and cut to misrepresent his argument. At first glance this seems irritating and frustrating to refuse to debate even though you hold all of the key facts and evidence required to fully slam dunk an argument and allow the public to reach a rational conclusion. But instead have to sit back and face the jibing taunts of the believers who claim that you are afraid to debate them.

The media claim that they like to represent the spectrum of viewpoints and political opinions. Therefore, in the UK we would expect to see equal amounts of time made available to representatives from each of the 3 major political parties. This in principle shows an unbiased viewpoint. The manifesto and proposals of each party will have certain supporters and who’s to say who’s right and who’s wrong, it’s therefore up to the media to provide equal unbiased reporting of each viewpoint to allow the public to form an opinion on their stance. This is fine when we are presented with potentially valid alternatives. However, when the media extend this philosophy to other matters such as supernatural phenomenon, alternative medicine, pseudo science and creationism/ID, the unbiased intention breaks down as the alternative viewpoints expressed are often of massively varying validity. If a widely accepted peer reviewed theory backed up with substantial and valid evidence is challenged by a believer who merely prefers a supernatural explanation for the phenomenon, then we cannot assume the same level of validity for his argument. However by presenting the argument in the media with one person representing the agreed scientific consensus and one person representing an unsubstantiated fantasy, the media automatically give the false impression that there is a 50/50 split in the validity of both positions by fairly granting equal time to both advocates. Even if the representative of the agreed scientific consensus successfully presents an incontrovertible argument significant members of the public will none the less be swayed by the preposterous alternatives because a respectable news channel or newspaper has given them the opportunity to air they’re views, or perhaps because of the celebrity status of its representative or shared beliefs or religious convictions in common with the representative.

In the UK the media do not extend the courtesy of allowing equal political debate time to the Monster Raving Looney party. Despite the fact that this is a “valid” political party, there are no cries of unfairness when the BBC does not allow the same amount of coverage for representatives of this party to present their manifestos and views. I suspect that this is because no one takes the Monster Raving Looney party seriously, and would therefore not expect it to be given an equal weighting. Indeed if it were given an equal weighting I imagine that there would be complaints of time wasting rather than focusing on valid debates. This suggests that the answer to the conundrum of ensuring the media do not cow-tow to the believers wishing to air their delusions and engage in pointless debates between established principles, is to ensure the opposing viewpoint is widely understood as nonsense. While the established viewpoint should be promoted and spread with rational education (and of course revised an updated in the light of credible evidence to the contrary), what is the validity in simply publicly ridiculing and deriding irrational beliefs to the extent that the public would view any such debate as a joke. Is there a sliding scale of things we can ridicule? The majority of us seem happy to deride flat earthers and UFO abductees, but what about young earth creationists, psychics, astrologers, dowsers, new age nutters, regression therapists, homeopaths and alternative medicine advocates, can the enlightened show no sympathy with such ideas and publicly treat these topics which such contempt and ridicule that the notion of an equal footing debate is something the media could not take seriously.

Having just re-read the above thoughts, I feel somewhat uncomfortable with my conclusions. As a person who likes to encourage the scientific principle to advance the truth, why am I advocating childish name calling rather than serious debate?

Monday, 3 November 2008

Donald R. Prothero: Evolution – What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters

This book presents a sheer cliff face of overwhelming evidence all consistently backing up Darwin’s great theory. The book begins by explaining the scientific method and how a hypothesis is peer reviewed, tested and supported by incontrovertible evidence in order to form an accepted theory such as gravity or evolution. Having defined the scientific method and contrasted it with the dogmatic authoritative method of the Intelligent Designers / Creationist, Prothero then sets off on a whistle stop tour of the fossil record. At each point he identifies the key fossils and explains the relevance and importance of each fossil. My favourite thing about the book is however his writing style and his incessant ability to point out the Creationists misconceptions, ignorance and in many cases out right lies. He shows the arguments given by the creationists and then explains why they are wrong, or how they have misquoted a piece of science or taken something out of context by panning the camera back to show the full context. Prothero’s frustration with the ignorance, and dishonest spin of the creationist is evident throughout, and as I went through the pages learning of the ever growing fossil record I began to share his frustration. The only possible way in which you could read this book, and still believe in creationism is to totally reject logic, reason and crushing evidence and the only thing powerful enough to contradict that is blind indoctrinated faith.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Neil Shubin: Your Inner Fish

This book does not ream off the vast mountain of fossil evidence included in Prothero’s “Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters”, but it does shine a light on some other interesting facts in the origin of the human body. Shubin is probably most noticeable for his discovery of the “Tiktalik” fossil that is a perfect intermediate fossil between fish and the first land animals. Shubin’s greatest asset however in this book is not his discovery of this land mark fossil itself but more his anecdotes of everyday life from undergraduate to fossil hunter extraordinaire. His often witty and informative little stories of endless summers and serendipitous finds give a great insight into the life of a palaeontologist. Shubin explains the methods for selecting the best locations to search for fossils from specific dates. With the bounty of these discoveries Shubin then clearly shows the gradual changes in the fossil record such as the bones of the fish jaw which over time form the lower mammalian jaw and the bones of the inner ear. By tracing this gradual transformation Shubin shows the rationale behind many designs of the human body that you would surely design different if you were a deity with a blank sheet of paper. Shubin concludes by listing a few afflictions that trouble many of us from piles to cancer and shows how these are consequences of our evolution.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Steven Pinker: The Stuff of Thought:: Language as a Window into Human Nature

Having just read this book I can’t help but feel that the Hobbit Haired Professor is brainier than an extra large slice of brain pie with lashing of Tesco’s finest extra creamy brain sauce. Pinker eloquently demonstrates how the evolution of a language and its syntax are derived from our instinctive human nature. Pinker shows how we have subconsciously created categories for verbs based on various attributes that unbeknownst to us have determined how we construct the syntax of our language. This allow us to instinctively define rules for when we can use certain verbs in certain contexts and when their usage will just not sound right. In subsequent chapters he goes on to explore why we have fashions in names for our children and what determines the rise and fall of those fashions. My favourite chapter however has to be where Pinker delves into our most seedy swear words to uncover how and why each language defines a certain set of taboo words, how the perceived potency of those words can vary over time and how and why we incorporate them into our vocabulary. Throughout the book Pinker peppers his writing with cartoons, quotations and examples, many of which were familiar to me from watching far too much Monty Python. If watching banal TV soaps and talent shows rots your brain (As I suspect it does), this book is the perfect antidote.

Friday, 17 October 2008

The view from Mount Improbable

This blog is not about the 3-4 billion year journey that my genes and their ancestors have taken to get me to, what our species arrogantly consider, the top of Mount Improbable. Professor Dawkins has already eloquently written that book. This blog is about my personal journey to understanding how I reached the summit and a look back down at the path I trod.

My initial attraction to Christianity and my subsequent “decline” into atheism have been gradual journeys. No blinding light was seen either on my road to Damascus or in the pages of Darwin. On my journey to an honest appreciation of the universe through the best endeavours of science’s current comprehension, I have found one thing very easy. The acceptance of evidence based on sound, proven theories like, evolution, the age of the earth, astronomy and fossil records that appear to be at odds with traditional biblical texts. I guess this was because I always felt uneasy about either having to metaphorically reinterpret vast swathes of the bible to fit in with our current knowledge or simply dismiss what we have learnt since the days when the bible was written in favour of clinging to that original definition of the world. As a Christian I always feared that an understanding of science and critical thinking could undermine my faith, so like, I suspect, many others, I tried to just ignore it. When my dissatisfaction with biblical answers and my curiosity for understanding grew too strong, I was forced to stop ignoring it, investigate it, study it and eventually embrace it. The gradually increasing weight of the scientific evidence (as I read more science books) eventually stretched my faith too far, ultimately causing it to snap. I can now look back and wonder why I resisted letting go of my faith. Understanding why I eventually let go may help us to enable others to follow.

The two key reasons I came up with for initially defending my faith have now turned into two of the key reasons why I utterly reject it. The two reasons are “Fear” and “Morality”. In the remainder of this blog I shall attempt to explain why these two elements have changed their polarity from attracting to repelling my faith.

Firstly, Fear. Death can be a frightening thing and the only conceivable way of appeasing that fear that I could see as a child was the hope in an afterlife. A genuine fear of death or burning in hell could send you straight into the open arms your nearest clergyman. Freeing my mind of the attractive fantasy of heaven was therefore something I wasn’t initially keen on doing. So what I have I gained by abandoning this fairytale that has reversed my fear? Well, I can now see threatening children with a non existent hell for the child abuse that is, I can feel honesty with myself for not disingenuously forcing myself to believe in the ridiculous but best of all, I can feel a sense of wonder in the only precious life I will ever have. This new perspective and appreciation of my mortality encourages me to make the most of my opportunity on this earth, to try and understand it, preserve it, to travel it (if that doesn’t contradict the previous wish) and watch my children grow up in it. This life is not just a shallow waiting room for next.

Secondly, Morality. Another reason I was attracted to the Church was because of the fine upstanding pillars of the community it contained and the sense of honourable morality I believed it created and imbued. I’m not now claiming that religion is immoral (although you could argue that fundamentalist religion is), I’ve just come to appreciate that religion is not the source of our morality and it would thrive perfectly well and indeed blossom without religion. I now see how religious morality was founded by piggy backing onto the human morality of the times when it was written down. Our modern morality has (mostly) advanced since the days of the Old Testament when we were advised to stone people and cut off their hands for inconsequential offences. On the whole, we’re more liberal than the Inquisitors who tortured and burned those whose strict dogmas did not align with theirs, we’ve abolished slavery and we are overturning the female subservience mandated by many holy texts. If religion got its morale’s directly from God then surely it would transcend the morale’s of the time by pre-empting our post-biblical morality and even beyond. The human race had evolved enough morality by the time of Moses to have some sound thoughts on murder and theft that have made their way into the Ten Commandments. All very laudable, but if we were writing them today we might leave out the stuff about coveting your neighbours house, or megalomaniacal claims to have no other god in favour of saying something about rape or child abuse. In fact, in addition to not being the source of morality, religion positively lags behind the secular humanist morale zeitgeist led by godless liberals. As religion is still playing morale catch-up on matters such as homosexuality and female equality I can no longer see it as a positive attribute of faith.

So here I am, atop Mount Improbable surveying the world in its splendour, and I can’t help but feeling a little evangelical about sharing my vantage point. I mentioned earlier that the small crack of doubt in my faith was filled by a tiny droplet of science that eventually expanded and cracked my faith to its foundation. The best way I see of sharing our vantage point is by ensuring enough drops of science are out there to seep into the multitude of cracks that must surely exist. I see this being achieved by the promotion of science education in schools and on TV. When I was a kid, the public perception of science got men to the moon and built supersonic passenger planes, now it puts nasty chemicals in our food and experiments with nice fluffy animals. Lets reignite the public enthusiasm for science and all it can for us. The abolition of faith schools promoting myths and superstitions would help too.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

A Day in the Life: Monday 13th October 2008

Woken up by the dulcet tones of Evan Davis on the “Today” programme as the radio alarm clock clicks over to 6am. The wife always has to comment on how bizarre looking he is whenever we se him on “Dragon’s Den”. Anyway you don’t have to look at the ugly old bugger on Radio 4. I lay in bed for 20 minutes to see how the economy is likely to fair this morning after the governments latest attempts to bolster the failing and ever more timid banks. Sounds quite positive, perhaps the shares might fair a little better today.

Drove to the car park next to the station in order to catch the 6:52 train. The car park is virtually empty at this time of the morning apart from 4 or 5 cars, so it’s always a tadge frustrating when someone has already nabbed my preferred space. I like the end space as it gives me a little extra room with my particularly wide car. So why does some silly git in a little Corsa insist on parking there? He could park in one of the normal annoyingly small spaces and still get his doors open. Fortunately, I get there first today and claim the end spot. I suspect however, if I drove a small car, I would feel equal contempt for those annoying people in their unnecessarily large gas guzzlers.

Train leaves Basingstoke dead on time. I remember making constant jokes at the expense of British Rail’s inability to have a train on time, but I have to admit they regularly seem to be on time these days. It was rather cosy on the train this morning as the heating seems to be on full blast, but presumably they are unable to turn in down and someone complains so the ticket inspect decides to open the window and cause a howling gale to blow in my face for the remainder of the journey, thus foiling my plans for a little morning doze. I decide to make use of the time by listening to my favourite weekly Podcast from the “Skeptics Guide to the Universe”. They were interviewing PZ Myers today (he of the famous Pharyangula blogs on

Arrive at Waterloo on time today, the train can sometimes wait outside the station for 3-4 minutes, presumably waiting for the platform to clear. Anyway this means I get into Waterloo in time to catch the overland train from Waterloo East to London Bridge.

Arrived at the office, checked my email and BBC news website before settling down to my mornings work. I’ve just set up a new test tool to manage the test cases, scripts and results for the CAD2010 project, so I spent the morning putting a backup procedure in place to automatically run a small script I wrote to backup my data. Punctuated my mornings work with a quick walk down the road to Prêt-a-Manger for my morning Latte and a check on the share prices. Documented the new backup procedure and then went to the gym.

Hopped on to my preferred cross trainer and plugged myself into the TV. Ran for 50 minutes and burnt 620 calories, whilst rather embarrassing watching “Bargain Hunt” and the 1 o’clock news to hear Robert Peston’s analysis of the markets so far today. A quick trip to Prêt again for some lunch as the wife didn’t make me any sandwiches this morning.

Spent the afternoon importing, reviewing and approving test scripts into the new tool for the CTAK Enhancements project.

Train from London Bridge back to Waterloo in time to catch the 16:50 train from Waterloo and get my preferred seat. Facing backwards, as the evening sun can blind you facing forwards, in the aisle seat, so I can get out easily at Basingstoke without being hemmed in and in the table seats as they have more leg room. As usual there’s some people who obviously don’t normally take the train, trying to claim two seats by sprawling their coats and bags across the seat next to them. The train is always full to standing room only, so they’ll have to move them sooner or later. As I get older and grumpier I’m taking more delight in asking them if the seat next to them is free and getting them to move their stuff. I Managed to read a chapter of my book before my eyes get too heavy. My train book is currently “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” by Daniel Dennett, an American Philosopher and professor of Cognitive Studies at Tufts University.

Miraculously come out of my slumber just as we pull into Basingstoke Station. I’m not sure how I always manage to do that. So far I haven’t managed to fall asleep and wake up at Yeovil Junction. I was considering moving to the opposite seat as the lady who normally has the window seat opposite also gets out at Basingstoke. Perhaps if I sat next to her, and I fell asleep, she would have to wake me up to get out herself. Then again, I would have the problem of the sun in my eyes. I might adopt this tactic if my ability to wake up in time starts to fail me.

Arrived home. Need to feed the dog first as he greets me with a few acrobatic leaps to indicate the fact that he wants his dinner

Have to have dinner early on Monday night, as Peter has to be at cubs by 18:30 and we need to eat before he goes. I have to pick him up tonight which is rather annoying because tonight is the London Skeptics in the pub meeting (2nd Monday of the Month) and I have to miss it. Bit of shame as they have a mad creationist speaking this evening and I wanted to ensure he was asked some suitably probing questions. Never mind, Peter only has a few weeks of cubs left which should free up my Monday nights.

Peter’s off to cubs and Victoria and India are preparing for Guides, which gives me a chance to check my email, unwrap and latest parcel from Amazon and ensure my iTunes library and Record Database are nicely up to date.

Pick the boy up from cubs. He’s in a rather excellent mood as he was presented with a trophy for winning the circuit orienteering competition at the weekend. He’s got an hour before bedtime, so we spend some father/son time together watching TV. I give him the choice of two programmes I recorded earlier, James May’s Bright Ideas or Mythbusters. He chooses Mythbusters which fits in well because Victoria gets really annoyed with it so watching it while she’s at Guides seems like a cunning plan.

Victoria and India get back from Guides, so after putting the kids to bed we get a couple of hours to ourselves, which I shan’t elaborate on in this blog.

Just time to read a few chapters of my bedtime book. I’m currently reading “Your Inner Fish” by Neil Shubin, a palaeontologist famous for his discovery of the Tiktalik fossil which nicely fills the previous fossil gap between fish and amphibians/reptiles.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

I Skeptic

As much as I enjoyed the “God Delusion” and found its arguments incontrovertible, it’s not my favourite of Dawkins’ books. I’m not a scientist, (well I’m a computer scientist, but that doesn’t count as I don’t get to wear a white coat). I do however have an interest in championing logic, critical thinking and reason over superstition , pseudo science and general woo woo which I suspect stems from my emergent curiosity in real science. Hence my preference for Dawkins books like “The Selfish Gene” and the “Blind Watchmaker” that provide a logical and scientific explanation for the world around us. In addition to giving me a logical perspective on the ludicrousness of religion, reading science books has additionally promoted my interest in the absurdity of other popular beliefs that fly in the face of science and reason.

I suspect that these beliefs and myths are promoted by media keen to serve a public who view science as boring and elitist. However in a year when the Phoenix Lander has successfully touched down on the surface of an alien planet and we have built a gigantic Hadron Collider that will be capable of simulating the conditions moments after the big bang, incredulously most people still find Victoria Beckham's new hair do more news worthy. Anyway my thirst for the latest scientific news as opposed to celebrity hair fashions led me into the world of Skepticism were are a number of jolly useful resources like the SGU, Skepticality, Point of Enquiry, Skeptoid and JREF podcasts have helped to keep me informed. Not to mention the monthly speakers at the Skeptics in the Pub (London is my nearest).

In my previous post I argued in favour of boldly and publicly declaring myself as an Atheist. In this post I wanted to explore the pros and cons associated with declaring myself as a Skeptic. (NB I have deliberately used the American spelling as I believe it is more representative of the Skeptic movement than the English word sceptic.) Logically I should apply the same arguments to the word “Skeptic” as I did to the word “Atheist” and therefore reach the same logical conclusion that I should wear my Skeptic badge with pride. But I have two issues with the identifier “Skeptic”.

Firstly, although the term is widely understood within the Skeptical community, I fear that the word is more ambiguous in the community at large due to the literal definition of the word. As an example, a visitor recently spotted a copy of Michael Shermer’s Skeptic magazine in my lounge and asked if I had made a ‘U’ turn on my Darwinist views. On further questioning, it turns out that she equated the word Skeptic with the things she was personally sceptical of, which in her case, sadly, included the theory of evolution. I found this rather worrying, because to me the whole point of Skeptisim from my perspective is to support and promote those theories with overwhelming scientific evidence and investigate logical and reasonable explanations for phenomenon that are attributed to the supernatural. Therefore, do other people confuse the meaning of the Skeptic movement based on their personal beliefs, for example do they consider themselves as Skeptics of modern medicine and prefer to entrust their health to mumbo jumbo or treatments with the magical word “natural” in the title. If so this is a complete reversal to the Skeptical movement’s viewpoint on this topic.

Secondly, I’ve also received comments that as a Skeptic I must be very “closed minded”. Again this is in my opinion a complete reversal of the truth. Although I don’t believe that little green men are buzzing the planet and sticking their shiny probe up the unsuspecting hairy arse of a farmer in Ohio, if sound scientific evidence where produced to confirm the existence of extra terrestrial life, that would be the most exciting news story I’ve every heard, and most welcomed. Compare this with the stance of the blind faith believers when asked how they would respond to irrefutable evidence that disproved their faith, and in every example I’ve heard they would not be prepared to concede their previous stance and cling on to their delusions regardless of evidence to the contrary. And apparently I'm the closed minded one!

I’m not proposing a name change, just voicing some issues I have encountered with the term Skeptic, and was wondering if others have experienced the same problem. I’ll continue to take advantage of the great Skeptic resources available, but I may have to be careful to qualify my stance when using the label outside of the Skeptic Village. Perhaps the growth of the Skeptical community will help it grow into a synonym for critical thinking,, reason and scientific advancement rather than just a bunch of miserable doubters and debunkers.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Should I call myself an Atheist?

Whilst listening to an old interview with Neil De Grasse Tyson on the “Point of Enquiry” Podcast the other day I felt myself pondering Neil’s comments on the pro’s and cons of identifying ones self as an Atheist. Neil made a very good point that it’s far better to advertise yourself by what you are, as opposed to what you are not. The example he gave, is that as a non golfer he doesn’t feel the need to identify himself as an agolfer, so as a non theist why bother identifying yourself as an atheist. My immediate thoughts were that this sounds like a reasonable and convincing stance, so why does it sit slightly uneasily with me. Having pondered it for a while I think it’s due to am imperfect analogy. This is because the majority of the worlds population are not golfer’s, and it’s not considered a key attribute that governs many aspects of peoples lives that must be treated with respect. Hence there’s no need to disassociate oneself from it if it just doesn’t happen to fluff your pigeon. If golf was treated in the same way by society as religion then when you check in at the casualty department for some treatment you may well be asked if you prefer a sand wedge to a 9 iron when completing your admission form (I’m not a golfer either so I apologise if my metaphor is not quite logical). If I where asked such a silly question by the triage nurse I would feel the need to qualify the fact that I was not in fact a golfer and that I find the question pointless and irrelevant. If the majority of the worlds population were atheists and religion were not afforded its sacred untouchability, then I think Neil’s metaphor would stand and I would agree with him and see no reason to declare my atheism as it would be the default point of view. We could then leave the onus on the deluded to come out of the closet instead.So why do I think it’s important to stand up and be counted as an Atheist? I suspect that, in Britain at least, despite opinion polls, I am not actually in the minority. I suspect that non believers frequently allow themselves to be counted among the faithful due to reasons of religious disinterest and maintenance of their culture heritage. For example, if religion pays no part in your daily life and the triage nurse asked you for your religion on the admission form, how many non believers just say “Christian”, as the quick and easy answer. They were christened as a Christian and they live in a “Christian Country” they may not be practising, but they enjoy the Christmas holidays and certainly don’t want to be identified as a Muslim or a Jew, ergo Christian is the simple harmless answer. Perhaps similar views are received in response to opinion polls as the percentage of Christian’s in this country does not equate with Church attendance statistics.But why use the word “Atheist” when it has such negative connotations, in fact some might even mistakenly associate the word with amorality or less pleasant human characteristics. I suspect this might be the primary incentive for Dan Dennnet to champion the term “Brights”. I quite like the term “Bright” but it does sound a little condescending, perhaps I secretly like that, it almost says “Science too difficult? Never mind, try religion”. So how about “Secularist”, “Humanist” or even “Agnostic”? I don’t object to any of those terms (although I find Agnostic a little too non comitial). However, I think words can be perceived differently over a period of time (Not only does the word “Gay” have a primarily different meaning these days, its starting to loose any stigma associated with it). Might it not also be a good idea to clean up the word “Atheist” by more popular usage of the word, by not being afraid of the term and by allowing it to be associated with genuine, caring and morale people like us.So assuming atheists are more numerous than polls suggest and we can rightly feel proud of such a label, what’s the value in promoting it? One (of many possible) answers could be that it seems as though religious pressure groups are trying (and achieving) to change our secular government (For example the spread of faith schools with the ability to teach their preferred creation myths as science and other such lobbying that prevents the spread of science and progress that leads to a better quality of life for us all). Perhaps by making it clearer that the majority of the population are intelligent caring and rational human beings that have no truck with an outdated dogmatic view of the world, then religious lobbying may be less successful.In short, support the out campaign, wear you atheists T Shirts with pride and raise the profile.

Saturday, 16 February 2008

Richard Dawkins: The Blind Watchmaker

One of the hardest things to accept about evolution is the element of random chance that seems so improbably unlikely to have ended up in us. Fred Hoyle describes it as akin to a hurricane blowing through a junk yard and forming a Boeing 747 by pure chance. Although there is no chance or luck whatsover in the proces of natural selection, there is an element of randomness in the mutation of genes. Dawkins takes this chance and breaks it down by explaining the probabilities and the essential element of building on successive small steps rather then just single impossibly unlikely chance events. I saw a programme on TV last week that reminded me of how this seemingly impossible chance works. It was a show called “The System” by Derren Brown in which he provided a full proof guaranteed way for one lucky punter to always win on the horses. The programme followed her fortunes through 5 successive incredible wins until she had enough confidence and belief in his system to gamble several thousand pounds (which she didn’t have) on the final race. The system worked by initially selecting hundreds of possible punters, dividing them into groups without any knowledge of the other people and giving each group a different horse in the race. The people in the group given the horse that actually won the race were then further split and each new group given a different horse in the next race and so on. Eventually you end up with one person who had to win all of the races. From the perspective of this lucky person in the group it must have indeed looked like pure chance could not have got her into this situation and that “The System” must indeed work. Without the knowledge of all the other failures it provided her with the faith she needed to believe in the system. Dawkins explains evolution by natural selection in much the same way. We are all the lucky lady who made it through and won all those successive races, not because of some divine guidance, not because of complete random chance, but through cumulative successive small pieces of chance over evolutionary time at the expense of those countless millions who took the alternative paths and disappeared from our knowledge.

Sam Harris: The End of Faith

A no holes barred examination of the consequences of blind unquestioning faith. Harris shows how the fundamentalist is happy to kill himself, you and me, not because he is mad, insane or uneducated, but purely because he truly believes in the literal interpretation of his holy text. Harris provides a wake up call to how religious tolerance and the taboo in challenging the validity of a persons faith leads to moderate religious communities that are the breeding grounds for terror and atrocities. The more people that read this book the better.

Lewis Wolpert: Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast

The White Queen told Alice that when she was younger she managed to believe in six impossible things before breakfast. Alice replies that one can’t possibly believe in impossible things which seems perfectly reasonable. So what is the psychological reason why the human mind can believe in angels, astrology, touching wood, not walking under ladders and alien abductions when there is no credible evidence to support such ideas. I find it much more interesting reading about why would be believe in such nonsense rather than delving in to minds of the delusional people who do believe it.

Daniel C. Dennett: Breaking The Spell

As a philosopher Dennett provides a valuable insight in to how and why we have ended up with the religious beliefs we have and why we cling on to them against what I suspect most of us know is our better judgement. “Breaking the Spell” is more sympathetic to the religious believers than Dawkins is in “The God Delusion”, but he draws the same negative conclusion on the value of faith based beliefs.

Richard Dawkins: The Selfish Gene

This book explains the driving force behind evolution by providing a gene centric view of the process. To me, the whole theory of evolution works perfectly when driven by the unconscious goals of individual genes to replicate and form vessels in which to exploit their environment

Simon Singh - Big Bang

What I like about this book is that it explains how we know what we know. It starts from the first ancient discoveries about the diameter of the earth and the distance to the sun and how we calculated it and proceeds through the history of scientific discoveries clearly explaining how we built upon this initial understanding and arrived at the complex view we have of the universe and its origins today.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Life, The Universe and Everything

As a child I was always intrigued by the ultimate question, the one phrased by the late Douglas Adams as “Life, the Universe and Everything”. I tried to make sense of why I was who I was and why and how the world and the universe is here in the first place. I think many adults get this curiosity in the universe beaten out of them and learn to just accept things for what they are, but I remain fascinated on the subject. For a number of years I happily relied on religion to answer these questions. However by delving deeper into the answers presented by religion and attending Alpha courses I found that the whole fabric and credibility of this answer just fell apart under scrutiny and I was left with the underlying need to make a leap of faith that I was unable to convince myself to make. Since then I have been reading a lot of science books and actively trying to expand my knowledge and understanding of the world we live in. I’m sure many of my fine Christian friends, whom I love dearly, will mourn what they will no doubt see as the loss of my faith, but I see it more as waking up to the wonder and natural beauty of the world around me previously hidden by my religious blinkers.

As a software engineer learning my trade in the early eighties, I learnt how to program computers and spent ages composing complex code and algorithms to do the seemingly simple task of just moving a basic object across the screen. My son now plays High Definition computer games with 3D graphics and multiple interactive characters and he thinks nothing of it. Having an understanding of programming allows me to understand the incredible feat of software engineering required to achieve what he just takes for granted. I think that this provides a good analogy to how many people view the world in which they live, they become blasé to the wonders of it and devote their attentions to other more mundane pursuits. Religion does little to unearth the complex programming of the world as it provides the simple premise of creation as an answer to all that we see and hear around us. When religion says that the world and its inhabitants were just created by God it seems rather like ignoring the incredible complexity and truth behind how things really work. Apart from begging the obvious question of where did God from in the first place, religion encourages us to place are heads in the sand and ignore this natural beauty, wonder and complexity of the universe for fear of dislodging the incredulous beliefs lodged into our brains as susceptible children.

Not only does science provides more logical answers backed up by evidence, but it supplies more fascinating answers that ultimately make me more appreciative of the series of seemingly impossibly unlikely events that culminated in me writing these thoughts down. A very basic understanding of evolutionary theory, plate tectonics, quantum mechanics and the expanding universe to name but a few completely blows ancient myths out of the water.

I can appreciate the origin of these myths. If I lived 3 or 4 thousand years ago with no modern knowledge, I’m sure that like the 18th Century theologian and Christian apologists, William Paley, I would draw the obvious conclusion that a complex object like myself must surely have been designed by some sort of sentient powerful deity. I suspect that I would also have assumed that the earth was flat (How could it be otherwise when I’d surely fall of the bottom if it were round). I think I’d also believe that the earth was at the centre of the universe and the sun, moon and stars revolved around the recently created earth as you can clearly see them moving around us and feel that the earth is standing perfectly still. Fortunately I live in a more enlightened time when these obvious assumptions can be proved to be utterly wrong.

So where does all this knowledge and the countless other tomes of incredible human understanding leave God. It seems to me like there are 3 alternatives.

Firstly you could take a fundamentalist viewpoint and completely deny this knowledge and stick to the literal truth of your preferred holy text (Most probably dependant upon the particular flavour of religion chance inflicted upon your parents) in the face of the overwhelming evidence. This must be a very safe place to be, deep behind your high wall of blind faith insulated from the real world and encouraged and spurred on by the community around you that fuels the delusion and provides solace and hope in an after world where you will be proved right. Unfortunately we are all well too aware of the consequences of religious fundamentalism in the 21st century and Islam should not be singled out as the problem religion. Imagine a leader of the free world, who believes in creationism and the literal truth of the book of revelations and that we are close to the glorious day when the sins of the world will all be destroyed and the faithful few will take their rightful place in heaven. Now imagine this guy has the power to press the big red button to bring all these things to pass. I find that much scarier than anything we have seen so far.
The second alternative, I see has been described as “God in the Gaps”. In other words we can use God for a simple catch all situation for all the things science has yet to explain. The problem is that as our scientific understanding expands the gaps are squeezed out. Although most religious communities eventually concede to scientific fact they do tend to lag behind, hanging on to their literal truths until they become completely at odds with modern culture and need to interpret them instead as metaphors. For example I think most Christians, thankfully, would not now recommend the death penalty for adultery as mandated in both Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22, and have more recently started to accept women’s equal place in society (others still need to catch up on this one), but the Christian Church still have a bit of catching up to do with its views on homosexuality. This perpetual updating of the interpretations of the holy texts smacks to be of a set of man made rules reflecting the local culture of its day rather than a divine revelation that remains completely relevant across time and space. I suspect that the attractive feature of this moderate form of religion lies in the fact that science hasn’t yet answered everything, we still do not know what happened before the big bang, why the rules of physics are like goldilocks porridge (not to hot, not too cold, but just right for life on this remarkable planet). Surely this must be the realm of God, a benign God who set up the rules of the universe, who wound it up and set us on our merry way. But why do we need to fill the gaps in our expanding knowledge with supernatural phenomenon when we can see that the gaps are slowly being understood by supplying completely natural answers. Surely these gaps will eventually disappear and those hiding in them will be forced to return to the religious fundamentalist view or abandon their faith completely.

My third alternative is that we accept what we have learnt so far, we stand on the shoulders of the giants who have given us this remarkable understanding and we strive to fill the remaining gaps without resorting to demons, ghosts and fairies. We’ve put Zeus, Thor, Pan, Horus, Odin, Neptune, Mercury, Athena and countless other Gods to bed, let’s free the minds of our children to be able to graciously retire the last of our iron age myths rather than infecting the next generation with a powerful meme that like other viruses has evolved an effective way of surviving and replicating itself.

Amway, I seem to have veered off somewhat from my intended topic on the marvels of scientific discoveries. So I’ve added a few links on the right hand side to some fine books that I feel have contributing to my increased understanding, appreciation and wonder in life, the universe and everything.