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Good astronomy – Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy moves to Slate. November 12, 2012

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Astronomy, Culture, Science, Skepticism.
3 comments

For those of us who take a rational and sceptical view of matters the news that Phil Plait’s excellent Bad Astronomy blog is moving to Slate.com is very welcome.

Well worth checking out if you are interested in astronomy, space science and debunking… well… here’s what he has to say about it himself…

Over the years, anyone who loves science will let you know how badly it gets spun, folded, and mutilated. Sometimes it’s the press, sometimes the public, or movies, or politicians—actually, a lot of the time it’s politicians—but there are a lot of misconceptions about science in people’s minds. I started writing about this way back in the early Dawn of the Internet and haven’t been able to stop. 

But it’s not just myths about science that are so aggravating; out-and-out attacks on science are rampant. The main venues of this are politics and religion, and usually some combination of the two. I will not hesitate to call such attacks out when I see them. If you think the Earth is 6,000 years old, if you think global warming is a hoax, if you think vaccines cause autism, then my goal in life is to show you what science and reality have to say about that.

Plait has a book of the same name and it’s a great read and fits in with a body of work that includes Carl Sagan and others. And as someone noted in comments on Slate, just in time to deal with the 2012 apocalypse stuff that is infesting much of the internet. Not a moment too soon.

Labour equality event September 12, 2011

Posted by Tomboktu in Inequality, Labour Party, Other Stuff, Skepticism.
14 comments

Here’s an interesting little challenge. I received an email via the UCD Equal-L list about a Labour Equality event at the weekend. It’s for an panel discussion with Michael D on Friday in Dublin.

The challenge is that given how Labour has performed, I don’t particularly want to promote one of their events. However, some of the speakers on the panel are perfectly capable of laying into the party for its failures in government — in fact, one of them did lay into the government last week in the Irish Independent (here), and another has been a regular critic on her blog (here).

Oh heck. I’ll put it under the fold, so that you have to want to read it in order to see it .

And I’ll use a “skepticism” tag.

That should ease my conscience. :)

(more…)

Minister White, here’s a better idea April 25, 2010

Posted by Tomboktu in Complete nonsense, Fianna Fáil, Human Rights, Minor Left Parties, Rights, Skepticism.
2 comments

I don’t know the motivation behind Minister Mary White’s first substantial decision since she was elevated: to commission assessments of three state bodies with responsibility for equality: the Equality Authority, the Equality Tribunal and the Human Rights Commission, which was reported in the Irish Times at the weekend.

Her motivation might be bad, in that it could be that she, a Green Party minister, rather than Fianna Fáil’s Dermot Ahern, has now taken up the cudgels that he was forced to quietly drop a little over a year ago when he cut the Equality Authority’s budget by 43% and announced ‘efficiencies’ would be introduced through sharing ‘back office functions’. (It would have been interesting to see how that could happen seeing as the Human Rights Commission has the colossal number of one staff who deals with administration and finance, and the Equality Tribunal and Equality Authority’s staff are civil servants in the Department of Justice (and Whatever it is These Days), and their pay-processing and other ‘back office functions’ are already pooled with the Department’s.)

Alternatively, it might be an attempt to kill that earlier plan by using a well-oiled civil service technique against itself: get a review done, but in Minister White’s case, it could be that she intends to stack the review to get the answer she wants rather then the one others have sought. What suggests that possibility is the report that the assessments are to be carried out by academics outside the civil service. However, the Irish Times report makes clear that the external assessments are simply to “prepare the ground for a full-scale review of the bodies”. Is it the case that ‘real’ Ministers or permanent government in the civil service (or both) want the irrelevant shenanigans these bodies get up to stopped, and have duped the knight on a horse from the Green Party to find out for them where the landmines are by sending her out to do the first sortie while they build a tank that will follow behind and trammel all in its path?

May I suggest an alternative, Minister, if you really want to see how we can improve the effectiveness of the equality and human rights systems in the State? Ask your academics from outside the civil service to do an assessment of how effectively each government department has implemented Appendix K of the Revised Regulatory Impact Assessment Guidelines for the proposals it has prepared for the Cabinet. As you and all the key officials will know, Appendix K sets out how a proposal is to be assessed for its impact on poverty.

And ask the academics from outside the civil service to establish how frequently each government department has, as recommended in paragraph 4.48 of the Revised Regulatory Impact Assessment Guidelines, contacted the Equality Division of the Department of Justice or the Equality Authority for assistance in carrying out an assessment of the equality impact of proposals they have placed before government, and how well the proposals have been amended to take account of concerns identified by the Equality Division or the Equality Authority.

Also, ask the academics from outside the civil service to establish how frequently each of the government departments have, as recommended in paragraph 4.58 of the Revised Regulatory Impact Assessment Guidelines, contacted the Human Rights Commission for assistance in carrying out an assessment of the human rights impact of proposals they have placed before government, and how well those issues raised in all of those human rights impact assessments have been dealt with in the final proposal. And ask how many ministers (other than Michael McDowell, who did use the system) have referred heads of bills or other proposals to the Human Rights Commission for observations before proceeding with it in the Oireachtas.

Finally, ask the external academics to examine the (public) records on cases taken before the Equality Tribunal to establish the proportion of those cases in which a state body has been found to be in breach of the equality legislation, and how many of those have been Government Departments.

I wonder what ‘back office efficiencies’ that exercise would suggest are needed.

My God! It’s full of stars… or journey to the true centre of the universe with John Waters (and Galileo) in the Irish Times… January 22, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, media, Media and Journalism, Pseudo-Science, Religion, Science, Skepticism, Society.
38 comments

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Okay, this Monday we’re treated by John Waters to a remarkable overview of then Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, and his intriguing relationship with Galileo (incidentally, credit where credit is due, Waters had a rather good piece on Wayne O’Donoghue a week or so back which was both sympathetic and rational albeit that his suggestion that O’Donoghue should just assume a ‘normal’ life was probably unfeasible). But talking about the rational… how’s this?

It was widely reported last week that Pope Benedict cancelled a visit to Rome’s oldest university, La Sapienza, after a number of academics and students accused him of despising science and defending the Inquisition’s condemnation of Galileo.

The Vatican said it was considered opportune to postpone the visit due to a lack of the “prerequisites for a dignified and tranquil welcome” following a sit-in by 50 students and a letter signed by 67 professors, including several allegedly eminent scientists.

The signatories said Benedict’s presence would be “incongruous” because of a speech he made at La Sapienza in 1990, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in which he quoted the judgment of an Austrian philosopher, Paul Feyerabend, that the church’s trial of Galileo was “reasonable and fair”. The letter declared: “These words offend and humiliate us.” This episode is emblematic of our latter-day blogosphere culture in embracing both ideological spite and indifference to truth, manifesting the classic symptoms of a whirlwind created on the internet by neurotics exchanging bites of information by way of stoking each other’s narcissistic obsession with expressing their democratic right to make fools of themselves.

Truth, as I’ve taken some time to demonstrate on these pages, is very much what our correspondent defines it.
As to the rest? Oh sugar, he’s talking about many of us! Well, that’s a tad rude John, play the ball, not the women and men. And, so what? . Such a profoundly mean-spirited statement as regards perhaps the broadest number of people (yet still pitifully small) in human history to engage is telling. Sure, some of it is frivolous, shallow, tedious and self-regarding. But much of it is fascinating, informative and generous.

Anyhow, ever onwards…

His title was The Crisis of Faith in Science, referring not to declining belief among scientists but a wider loss of confidence in the capacity of science to address the core questions of existence.

Far from attacking science, he was highlighting instances in which scientists have questioned the basis of secularism in the modern world. Among his points was that there are implications, other than cosmological ones, arising from Galileo’s discoveries.

Never! Implications other than cosmological? Well, I never. But, then again, that’s not entirely surprising. For example, one might point to how Galileo’s discoveries undercut a considerable portion of the authority of the Church to speak on such matters with any degree of credibility. But… that’s not necessarily what our correspondent means…

[Marxist philosopher Ernst ] Bloch held that Einstein’s revolution meant it was possible to perceive the Earth as fixed and the Sun as mobile. Ratzinger quoted Bloch’s surprising conclusion: “Once the relativity of movement is taken for granted, an ancient human and Christian system of reference has no right to interference in astronomic calculations and their heliocentric simplification; however, it has the right to remain faithful to its method of preserving the Earth in relation to human dignity, and to order the world with regard to what will happen and what has happened in the world.” In other words, once you accept Einstein’s theory, you could reasonably conclude that the Christian worldview should be kept out of astronomy, but Christianity is right to continue seeing the Earth as the moral centre of the cosmos, and placing human dignity at the centre of the creation equation.

Okay… now, I’m a tedious old rationalist and materialist. But what on earth is Bloch saying, and why on earth should Ratzinger quote it as if it actually means something? Or rather, sure it’s saying something, but it’s confusing two very different approaches.

“Once the relativity of movement is taken for granted, an ancient human and Christian system of reference has no right to interference in astronomic calculations and their heliocentric simplification; however, it has the right to remain faithful to its method of preserving the Earth in relation to human dignity, and to order the world with regard to what will happen and what has happened in the world.”

An interesting quote, but one which is entirely problematic. The linkage between relativity and a ‘right to remain faithful to its method of preserving the Earth in relation to human dignity’ is – on a rational level – meaningless. These are category errors, and no less so simply because one might put the prefix ‘Marxist’ in front of Bloch’s name. Bloch is making a broad rather diffuse point that is not uninteresting, but it’s not convincing. Yet again there is a blurring, deliberate perhaps, between cosmology in the scientific sense and a worldview generated from a religious perspective. Indeed whether Bloch’s words are as advertised is a different matter, but why does Waters see fit to take his view as of any significance on this matter one way or another? Well, the answer is that he does so because the then Cardinal Ratzinger quoted him.

It was here, somewhat agape, that Ratzinger cited Feyerabend, an agnostic and sceptical Austrian/American philosopher (1924-94).

Ratzinger said: “If both the spheres of conscience are once again clearly distinguished among themselves under their respective methodological profiles, recognising both their limits and their respective rights, then the synthetic judgment of the agnostic-skeptic philosopher P Feyerabend appears much more drastic. He writes: ‘The church at the time of Galileo was much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself, and also took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo’s doctrine. Its verdict against Galileo was rational and just, and revisionism can be legitimised solely for motives of political opportunism.'”

But again, why should we accept Feyerabend (agnostic and all) as being in any particular position to argue the faithfulness to ‘reason’ of the Church as against Galileo (indeed it’s interesting is it not how Waters reifies one sort of expertise or enquiry – that being the useful, but nebulous area of certain aspects of philosophy, over dull old scientific research or expertise as we’ve seen in his railing against those who use tedious statistics which undermine his argument)? Why not actually ask someone who understand the methodologies of reason – and in particular the scientific method, such as it was that Galileo was attempting to work within – such as.. such as… well, y’know, a scientist. Perhaps one who has attempted to deal directly with these issues. But to do that would be to move away from the rather fluffy terrain that the argument is constructed upon, one which tangentially engages with ‘reason’ but only in the limited terms that the argument is formulated and move on to dealing with it in the context of people who know precisely what they are trying to do.

Indeed if we examine what Waters writes we will see that at no point is there an engagement with ‘truth’ or ‘reason’ in any sense that allows us a clear definitions of these terms. Does he mean a process of deduction, the application of logic, empiricism? Any or all? We are left none the wiser. Or rather, we can be fairly clear that this is not at all what he means. Consider the following passage.

From here, Ratzinger moved to the failure of the church to deal correctly with the ethical implications of the Galilean perspective, which, in its wider interpretation, he noted, CF Von Weizsacker had identified as creating a “very direct path” to the atomic bomb. Ratzinger concluded: “It would be absurd, on the basis of these affirmations, to construct a hurried apologetics. The faith does not grow from resentment and the rejection of rationality, but from its fundamental affirmation and from being inscribed in a still greater form of reason.”

I love the idea that the atomic bomb is the logical outcome of Galileo moreso say than being the logical outcome of the first sea dwelling ancestor of ours to flop a flipper onto the sand of some ancient shore and start the long slow crawl that took us to the Moon. It’s so brilliantly absolutist as if all modernity is summed up in that single device (and yes, Des Fennell, has argued something not disconnected from that idea, and no, I don’t buy it either). Why not penicillin? Gameboys? Cinema? The mapping of Mercury which is happening as we speak by a US probe? Could it be that these are insufficiently existential (although for my money the last is pretty existential if one wishes to see a useful purpose for humanity as the – so far – only fully self-aware and reflective aspect of the universe… a notion which as it happens fits right into a rational discourse and perhaps a religious one also). One too might raise an eyebrow at the idea of ‘hurried apologetics’. Just how long would it take? A millennium? Two, perhaps?

But how does that expression of the ‘absurdity’ of an hurried apology (367 years and counting as it was for poor old Galileo when Ratzinger made his speech in 1990) sit with those reprobates who ‘accused him of despising science and defending the Inquisition’s condemnation of Galileo’. Perhaps I’m being foolishly rational here. But at the very least he’s sailing close to the wind in terms of defending that condemnation. No, one could plausibly posit that he’s implicitly defending it.

One wonders though what Waters thinks about the actual Gallileo controversy? Does he know that this wasn’t some arcana with different cosmological (and the beauty of that term in the context of this article is that it diffuses meaning rather than pinpoints it) hypotheses in some sort of genteel dispute but that Galileo was able to prove empirically by observation that the Earth moved around the Sun. That he could point a telescope into the night sky and make these observations, and then make them again, and again, and again. And these observations were replicated by Jesuit astronomers. The Church – beyond the astronomers – was unable to dismiss or demonstrate that they were fundamentally incorrect. This wasn’t theory unsupported by evidence, but this was, in the context of the scientific method of the time, fact. Not belief, but ‘truth’. And that truth (or rather the potential truth based on observation) was directly in contravention of an entirely different sort of ‘truth’ based on a literal reading of the Bible. There’s no ifs and buts in this discussion. That’s it. It’s irrelevant if Galileo’s work did lead to the bomb. It’s entirely irrelevant what is said 367 years later in a lecture. Galileo, using a methodology based in science, imperfect and contradictory as science was at the time, produced evidence based theories which were proven correct and the other sort of ‘truth’ which isn’t truth at all, but simply assertion, wasn’t.

And all the handwaving that Ratzinger does by recourse to Weizsacker and Feyerabend doesn’t alter that one iota.

And here we have it, yet again. Shadow boxing as a substitute for argument. Consider again part of his opening piece…

His title was The Crisis of Faith in Science, referring not to declining belief among scientists but a wider loss of confidence in the capacity of science to address the core questions of existence.

Far from attacking science, he was highlighting instances in which scientists have questioned the basis of secularism in the modern world. Among his points was that there are implications, other than cosmological ones, arising from Galileo’s discoveries.

The problem with these arguments is that who is to say what the ‘core questions of existence’ are? I don’t know? Does anyone? Which means that we get a smorgasbord of complaints and worries and agonised fretting about some sort of ‘meaning’ which seems almost profound until it is examined at close range at which point it merely seems to be a sort of discontent that a religious interpretation of existence has been superseded by something arguably more honest if not approaching the rarified heights of ‘truth’ that our correspondent thinks we should all be herded (and I use that term deliberately) towards.

The universe is fascinating. Cosmology – the real stuff – is an area that any thinking human should consider deeply. There are implications that are profound, issues that are unresolvable, developments that some hardened materialist scientists suggest may point to interesting questions… even if they are unable to provide evidence of answers. It is an area that those of faith can find some comfort in as much as those without find intellectual satisfaction.

But… wouldn’t it be nice to hear something positive, something that doesn’t take the form of yet another attack on people both specific in terms of the scientists and students who quite reasonably find little in Ratzingers words but a sort of apologia for events that were profoundly anti-rational (and let’s not even begin to get into the socio-political reasons why the Inquisition acted the way it did which was for reasons rather more mundane than differing views of cosmology and considerably more rooted in preserving power elites) and general in terms of societies which find that religious interpretations are less and less useful as a means of judging and assessing the world and universe about us. One might find that depressing, or one might find it – as I do – an opportunity for religious thinking to move towards a more fully rigorous relationship with empiricism… as indeed those who have toiled long and hard for the Vatican in the area of astronomy have managed to do which brings me to the last line…

The theme of the pope’s planned address at La Sapienza, incidentally, was: “There is a danger in modern times that man may stop seeking the truth”.

Except let’s not look too closely at the Vatican Observatory, because, surprise, surprise a report in the Independent under the heading “Science bows to theology as the Pope dismantles the Vatican observatory” suggests that:

Science is to make way for diplomacy at the Pope’s summer residence, with the dismantling of the astronomical observatory that has been part of Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome, for more than 75 years. The Pope needs more room to receive diplomats so the telescopes have to go.

The whole observatory is being moved some 10 miles to a nearby disused convent. While: Father Jose G Funes, the present director of the observatory, known as the Specola Vaticana, insisted that there was no sinister significance in the move. “It is not a downgrading of science in the Vatican,” he said. “To remain within the palace would have had only a symbolic significance, whereas where we are going we will be even more comfortable… The Independent notes that… But symbolism is exactly what close watchers of Pope Benedict XVI see in the move: confirmation of the view that he is far less receptive to what scientists – including scientists in dog collars – want to tell him than his recent predecessors. He has, for example, spoken in favour of intelligent design, in flat contradiction of the views of the observatory’s former director.

Whereas: The theological conservatism of the Polish pope (John Paul II) cohabited oddly with an enthusiastic acceptance of the findings of science. In a speech in 1996, for instance, he came close to accepting the theory of evolution.

Father Coyne’s (the previous director) tenure did not long outlast the reign of John Paul. When Coyne retired in August 2006, it was rumoured that hostility to intelligent design had been his undoing. Benedict’s rejection of the Enlightenment, and the reign of scientific truth which it ushered in, is well established.

Symbols are powerful. There I would agree with John Waters. But to talk of truth and to act in this way, even for the best of intentions, suggests that there is a fundamental problem.

The continuing efforts, and they’re not restricted to our correspondent, to elide issues of emotion, belief and a sort of starry eyed transcendence with the power of the empirical, rational and scientific and ascribe the authority that those latter methodologies contain in order to support contentions that seem some distance from ‘truth’ are depressing. There is a word for that sort of construct. It’s called a ‘belief’. But while beliefs are not necessarily of any particular harm it really is long past time that this strange effort to gift them that authority was discontinued. Isn’t it?

Meanwhile Pete Baker on Slugger takes a more benign view of this in an interesting piece

The Supreme Being and its Discontents June 25, 2007

Posted by smiffy in Books, Religion, Skepticism.
19 comments

Last Sunday, a little piece of the internet came to Ireland in person. For admirers of Christopher Hitchens, the debate at the Gate theatre between him and John Waters entitled ‘God is not great’, organised as part of the Dublin Writers’ Festival, provided an opportunity to see him in person, rather than relying on Youtube, Google video and downloaded mp3s.

I’m a little ashamed to admit that, for me, bringing my books along to be signed and having bought my tickets as soon as they became available, there was the same ripple of excitement that I used to get going to concerts. It was, I suppose, the web-nerd equivalent of a Morrissey gig. I should really know better.

To the debate itself. Moderated by Brenda Power, the unthinking man’s Olivia O’Leary, it was broadly amicable (disappointingly) consisting of short opening remarks from the protagonists, a longer discussion between the two and a few questions from the audience at the end.

Anyone who has seen any of other debates Hitchens has participated in recently in what seems to be The Anti-Theist World Tour 2007 (here‘s a typical example), or who heard him on Newstalk or, more amusingly, sparring with David Quinn on Today FM prior to the debate, will be familiar with his arguments. Indeed, much of what he said has already been covered by the Unholy Trinity of Dawkins, Grayling and Harris, although Hitchens says it much more eloquently. Essentially, not only is there no God, but the belief in God is itself immoral and causes otherwise good people to do very bad things: anything from the circumcision of infants to flying planes into the World Trade Centre.

Pre-empting the suggestion that without God as some sort of ultimate horizon of truth there can be no objective morality, he presented a challenge to the audience (as he has done on numerous other occasions): give an example of a single moral action or statement coming from a religious person that could not also be made or carried out by an atheist. Examples of those who nobly and selflessly stood up to fascism based on their religious principles doesn’t really hold as a justification of faith, Hitchens argues, unless one is to also accept that the unquestioned sacrifices made by those communists who fought against Hitler in some way justifies Stalinism.

It’s a neat trick on Hitchens’ part, but I think it’s the wrong answer to the question of whether there can morality without God. He’s probably right, to an extent, when he argues that the moral impulse is innate, part of our evolutionary heritage. He’s wrong, though, if he thinks that there can be some sort of objective moral framework which exists outside of subjective experience, as theists would hold. A more correct and more honest response might to be concede that indeed, an atheist position means that we can never truly know what the correct moral action is in the same way that we ‘know’ that 2+2=5. The important addition, however, is that theists can’t have absolute moral knowledge either. It’s no more subjective for me to say “I feel killing is wrong, therefore I choose to believe that it is” than it is for someone to say “God tells me that killing is wrong, therefore it must be”, as the theist still has to choose which ‘God’ to believe in.

Surprisingly, to me anyway, Waters was more impressive than I expected in his opening remarks. In a preview of what we might expect from his forthcoming magnum opus Lapsed Agnostic, he took us on a little autobiographical journey where he told us about his rejection of religious faith earlier in his life, and his recently rediscovered affection for God (to the extent that he prays and attends Mass). Knowing that there are few crackpot theories that Waters hasn’t, in the past, both misunderstood and embraced, it was eye-opening to see him speak rather eloquently on what he claims is an inherent desire within mankind to understand the meaning behind everything around us, and the need for mystery, or (although he didn’t put it this way) the experience of the numinous in our lives. Whatever else, you have to give him his sincerity, even if he does seem at times to be teetering on the brink of madness, and he’s a far less objectionable figure than some of the tarted-up religious conservatives currently writing (the likes of Ronan Mullen, Breda O’Brien and the appalling David Quinn).

However, like so much of what Waters argues, when you try and get to the root of the argument behind all the flashiness, it falls apart. He has a point when he suggests that an exclusively empiricist or ‘scientific’ view of the world is rather limited. For example, while we might understand the evolutionary reasons why people for relationships, or love their children, it doesn’t make the lived experience of those relationships any less valid. Similarly, people will always search for something beyond their own understanding, and ask whether there is a particular significance to their lives or, indeed, to existence itself.

Where he’s wrong, however, is to claim that this someone suggests the existence of a God. The existence of a question (e.g. “Why are we here”) is one thing; what Waters does is extrapolate an answer (“Because of God”) from the question itself, rather than trying to answer the question or, indeed, think about whether the question makes sense at all. He certainly should look at Lewis Wolpert’s Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast, which is far more discrediting to faith itself than anything by Dawkins or Hitchens, as it provides a plausible evolutionary basis for why people ask those kinds of profound questions, rather than tackling the flaws in the answers.

When Waters found himself debating religion itself, he was on much less steady ground. Admittedly, he tried to cover himself at the start by admitting that much of what Hitchens stated was true and that religion (sorry, ‘organised religion’, that great bugbear of the hand-wringing liberal) was responsible for much evil in the world. Indeed, he conceded so much at the start that it was hard to understand what he actually believed in, other than some vague notion of something approaching the concept of ‘God’. You’ll find that this is a common tactic of the smarter theists when dismissing the work of Dawkins or, more recently, Hitchens. They argue that what’s presented is an ignorant caricature of what religion actually is, and lament that such a straw-man version of faith is being debated. Leaving aside the fact that the vast majority of religious adherents don’t actually have the sophisticated understanding of theologians, the best response to this strategy that I’ve seen is the so-called Courtier’s Reply.


Waters’ bravest, or most stupid, move was to suggest that the freedoms we enjoy in Western society are a consequence of our religious, specifically Christian, heritage. Now, he’s right in arguing that we have no way of knowing whether we would be in a better or worse position today if religious belief had never existed; of course, he has no way of knowing it either, so it’s something of a pointless argument. However, when he suggests that those who attack religion are like people in a tree sawing away at the branch they’re sitting on, he’s displaying an amazing ignorance of the history of religion in society. The Catholic Church, the faith to which he subscribes, has consistently opposed every progressive political movement in history and has found itself sympathising or siding with the worst kinds of tyrannies. The liberal freedoms such as freedom of expression which Waters lauds are enjoyed by him despite the actions of the Church, not because of them. As Hitchens put it, he is wearing the medals of his own defeats.

So who won? Well, in one sense I’d have to say Hitchens. His arguments were stronger, he was a better debater and, I think, he broadly had the audience on his side (apart from a few morons during the questions at the end who seem to believe that shouting about ‘your friend George (Bush)’ constitutes a valid argument). Waters, while sincere, descended into incoherence on a number of occasions, although he put up a respectable defence.

On the other hand, there can’t really be any winner. This isn’t an argument that’s ever going to convert anyone, a point which Hitchens concedes, even if Dawkins doesn’t. Religious faith is, by definition, impervious to rational argument so no matter how persuasive the prose, it’s difficult to see how someone whose belief already defy evidence and reason are going to have those beliefs changed.

While the current atheist renaissance is all very enjoyable and the holy texts well worth the reading (Hitchens’ is probably the best – broad, but shallow), it’s worth remembering that this year marks the 80th anniversary of Bertrand Russell’s lecture ‘Why I am not a Christian’ (collected in a book of essays of the same name). Everything you’ve heard Dawkins or Grayling, Harris or Hitchens argue against religious belief is already captured in that short work.

Humanist, all too humanist January 2, 2007

Posted by smiffy in Ethics, Other Stuff, Skepticism.
5 comments

Last night’s Channel 4 documentary The Secret Life of Brian, on the making of and reaction to The Life of Brian, and the repeat of the film itself was a timely and welcome reminder of the importance of free and rational thinking and the dangers (not to mention absurdity) of blind faith. Watching the film again, it’s both shocking and depressing to see how relevant the jokes remain. Indeed, given the current climate of debate around matters of religion, it could well be argued that it’s more pertinent today than it was on its original release.

An important difference between the late 1970s and now, though, is that while religious groups (of whatever profession) are just as keen to protest in support of their right never to have the most ludicrous tenets of their faith challenged or ridiculed, today those who reject superstition and dogma appear to be far more willing to stand up publicly and make their case. The massive success of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and other, similar works, as well as a recent ICM poll in the UK showing a significant majority, to a greater or lesser extent, opposed to religion, points to a large constituency who are not only ‘lapsed’ from whatever religious background they hail from (if any) but are specifically opposed to it.

Which is why last week’s story about the Humanist Association of Ireland’s complaint (sub req’d)that the forum for dialogue between the State and religious groups hasn’t yet been established is so depressing.

I’ll put my cards on the table. I hate the Humanists. Not all humanists, to be sure. While I don’t particularly like the term (although it’s better than ‘Brights’), plenty of people worldwide use it in place of atheist (or anti-theist, if you want to be all Hari/Hitchens about it). Indeed, the magazine of the UK-based Rationalist Association, The New Humanist, can be fantastic, and well worth a read if you can get hold of it. No, it’s the particular Humanist organisation in Ireland which have been cluttering up the letters page of the Irish Times for years that tend to get under my skin. And last week’s story confirmed my distaste.

One would imagine that being a humanist might necessitate a distaste for all irrational, faith-based beliefs and a certain loyalty to logic and evidence-based argument. In particular, one would hope that a humanist (of all people) would reject the popular position that humanism, or atheism, was just another faith-position, no better or worse than any other: a kind of epistemological relativism. This being the case, one might think that the ‘humanist’ position on the proposed system of dialogue with religious groups should be to reject the entire concept. Why should what are, in effect, irrational superstitions be granted this kind of privileged access to government and who decides which cult gets a seat round the table, and which is rejected?

But no. The HAI appears to welcome this proposal, and is primarily concerned with ensuring that it gets its moment of glory. What’s worrying is the description in the story of the forum as being between the State and “representatives of people of faith and no faith in Ireland”. I consider myself a person of no faith, but I’m damned if I believe that Justin Keating or Dick Spicer represent me.

This is typical of the HAI, which appears to be less an organisation of freethinkers, than a group of people who’d desperately like to be religious, or to have a religious identity, but can’t quite get over the hurdle of not believing in God (perhaps they’ve never heard of the Unitarians. Or the Church of the Sub-genius). A quick look at their website is quite revealing. Helpfully, for those who aren’t members of a Church, but are fond of a party, the HAI has designed nice little ceremonies for things, including New Life, Joining Lives and Celebrating Life (Baptism, Wedding and Funeral, to be less Newgrange about it). All are as contrived and ridiculous as the worst excesses of so-called ‘Celtic Spirituality’, but I’m particularly taken with the ‘Joining Lives’ ceremony:

When two people decide to get married or to share their lives, they will want to show their commitment to each other in their own way. In a humanist ceremony a couple can express their ideals and aspirations among their family and friends, in words that are totally sincere and right for them.

A more naïve person might think that all this is covered in the civil marriage ceremony anyway, but the registry office on Lower Grand Canal Street doesn’t provide a nice little Humanist certificate like the HAI does, nor does it provide an accredited Humanist officiant (I wonder if Dick Spicer gets to sit beside the mother of the bride at the top table at Humanist wedding receptions).

Apparently there’s a also little credo for Humanists. Among the various platitudes, we are informed that

We attempt to transcend any divisive parochial loyalties based on race, religion, gender, nationality, creed, class, sexual orientation or ethnicity, and strive to work together for the common good of humanity

as well as the fact that

We are engaged by the arts no less than by the sciences

Oh, and finally

We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

Okay, not that last one, but you get the point, I hope. Maybe I’m missing something, but isn’t there a rather startling contradiction between, on the one hand, emphasising the importance of free thought and, on the other, providing a little catechism of beliefs (for those too stupid or lazy to do their free-thinking for themselves).

While it’s easy, then, to see The Life of Brian as an attack on religious faith, the real target is somewhat wider. If it’s a choice between lazy non-thought which involves a superhuman entity which controls the world and lazy non-thought which doesn’t, I’ll take the former. But over both I’ll take questioning things myself and trying not to rely on the crutch of groupthink, religious or otherwise.

Honey I shrunk my mind…or the unusual joy of pseudo-science. August 31, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in H.P. Lovecraft, Pseudo-Science, Science, Science Fiction, Skepticism, Uncategorized.
6 comments

Put something about pseudo-science in front of me and I’ll read it avidly. UFO’s, ancient civilisations, paranormal phenomena, I love ‘em all and believe not a word. Partly it’s because it would be great if there were real evidence of contact with aliens, partly because there’s a sort of allure about ancient knowledge, partly because it’s always interesting to discover what people believe in and why. The psychology of belief and (seeming) experience is remarkable. Maybe it’s also because science is at its best when it’s tested . No methodological framework is beyond testing, but it has to be said science seems to hold up fairly well.

Anyhow I like to flatter myself that I’ve heard it all, evidence that the moon landings were a hoax, evidence of alien activities on the moon and Mars, alien landings, the Nephilim as progenitors of civilisation (actually that one is great because if you have even a nodding acquaintance to the Fields of the Nephilim you can use them as the soundtrack to your browsing – ignoring the Lovecraftian nonsense on the second and third albums, like you base your lyrics on an invented mythos by a writer of early 20th century horror, natch!).

But no. I was wrong, I really haven’t heard it all.

Ever heard of the Expanding Earth hypothesis? I hadn’t until about a week ago. That’s the one where people have looked at the shape of the continents and decided that while they interlock quite well, it requires an Earth some 40% smaller in order for them to interlock perfectly. And the added bonus is an even more intriguing theory. That gravity was once much lesser than it is now and that was what allowed the dinosaurs to grow to such great sizes because as any fule kno’s they couldn’t possibly have stood upright under the prevailing gravity.

Exciting stuff I think you’ll agree. There are unfortunately problems of course. Foremost amongst them is the slight inconvenience that there is no evidence that the Earth has expanded. For example such expansion would have seriously impacted on the orbit of the Moon and so we could hope to see some evidence there. The motive force behind such an expansion doesn’t appear to exist. Nor do we see any evidence that other planets expand in such a fashion.

The gravity problem is even greater. A better argument could be made that for the gravity to be lower in the past the Earth would need to be larger and therefore we live on a shrinking Earth! I won’t even go into the biology of just why most scientists in the field are reasonably content that dinosaurs could stand up on their own (usually) four feet.

Earlier this year I was at a talk about themes in science fiction and fantasy where a guy called James P Hogan who has had a career as a fairly successful writer of mainstream SF, was part of a panel talking about mythological creatures. He brought it around to his favourite issue which is that of ‘catastrophist’ theory, basically the idea that there have been cataclysmic events on Earth and in the Solar System within historical time. Some of these are attributed to Venus being a sort of comet expelled by Saturn or Jupiter in the last 3000 years or so (much of this was first suggested by Immanuel Velikovsky, a Russian emigre in the US) which blundered about the inner solar system causing amongst other events, the Biblical plagues, floods, earthquakes, and sundry other unpleasant events. For more see here.
He too believes in the lower gravity/bigger dinosaur hypothesis. But wait…that’s not all. He believes that science is trammelled by adherence to an orthodoxy perpetuated by scientists too blinkered to look outside their own narrow disciplines and afraid of fitting the facts to their theories.
My problem with all of this is that, as with the expanding earth concept, it’s very much a case of look at the facts then attempt to find the most extreme, albeit (and this is significant) entertaining and conceptually extravagant, possible cause to explain them.

Hogan is a pleasant character and clearly extremely intelligent, so it’s difficult to understand quite why he believes this stuff. However a visit to his website suggests that he’s shifting into darker territory since he now proclaims his belief in the ‘theories’ of those who cast doubt on the veracity of the Holocaust such as Arthur Butz and Mark Weber and he says that ‘…I find their case more scholarly, scientific, and convincing than what the history written by the victors says. So I suppose that expressing such skepticism makes me a guilty party too.’

Hogan, who is basically a libertarian and absolutely not an anti-semite, is presumably coming at this from the position of a free-thinking slayer of scientific shibboleths and perhaps a belief in freedom of speech. Well and good, or no, not so well and good. It’s hard not to feel that too great a detachment from the tedious old mainstream can lead intellectually to some very unusual places indeed.

Unfortunately there’s more than a trace of the old GK Chesterton saw ‘When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing—they believe in anything.’

Substitute a sensible scepticism for God…and – well – you get the idea.

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