Friday, 15 August 2008

Daily Mail Attempts to Vaccinate Against Insanity: Fails

Given the Daily Mail's track record on the vaccines/autism scare - and on logic in general -I admit to being more than a little surprised to see The anti-MMR mothers who are putting us all in danger (11/8/08). In fact, that is an understatement. For an instant, my understanding of the Universe was turned upside-down. If the Daily Mail, last bastion of conservative nonsense, can publish an actually sensible story on vaccines, perhaps I need to start questioning some of my other assumptions?

After a short break in which I confirmed that, yes, gravity still goes down, fire is still hot and that alcohol still makes you drunk - in that order, it's far too dangerous to do it the other way around - and a slightly longer break in which I confirmed that sleep still stops you being tired and coffee helps wake you up I literally sprang into action. Well, I literally sprang - meaning walked - to work, did some work and sprang back, tested the sleep thing again... After only two more confirmations of my sleep/rest theory - watch the stands for imminent publication! - I arrive at where you find me today. Which is apparently on board the derailed train-of-thought express.

Basically, I was shocked. I may need therapy.

The thrust of the article, as you might imagine, is that not vaccinating your children means they might get diseases and that this is bad. There is also an apology, nebulously on behalf of "the media" for blowing the Andrew Wakefield "research" out of all proportion.

The author, Jonathan Myerson, highlights the tendency of mothers of autistic children "to invent paper tigers that are slavering for a bite of [their] precious child."
"The arrogance is stunning, the stupidity is off the scale. But give the mother of a newborn something to fight against and logic is history."
Obviously this isn't true of all mothers, or probably even most, but there is a tendency creeping across from the US to give too much credence to the so-called Fallacy from Motherhood. It is certainly true that when it comes to spotting abnormalities in the behaviour of a child mother probably does, in fact, know best. However, mother probably doesn't have the medical expertise required to establish the cause of the abnormality, be it a fever, weight loss or autism.

Given the number of highly trained doctors and scientists around the world studying the complex neurological condition that is autism, would it not be best to defer to the experts, the medical community when looking to establish a cause?

Goodness me, I thought to myself, that was an oddly refreshing dose of scepticism. Maybe I'll just read a few of the comments to see how the readership of the Mail responded to it. I'll quote a few examples below but I warn you:

Here Be Stupid.
(but not spelling)
"yea well if they came out and admited it was the mercury in the mmr not the vaccine itself that caused autism.. then the rates of immunisation will rise.. but to keep on stonewalling because they dont want to compensate autistic children then the rates will fall... better safe than sorry is the parents feelings on this i have no doubt my autistic daughter was poisoned by mercury"
Which, of course, perfectly tallies with evidence from the US where mercury preservatives were removes form vaccines and autism diagnoses continue to rise...
It also ignores that there is no evidence that ethyl-mercury (as found in vaccines) causes mercury toxicity and that there is no good evidence to even link autism to heavy metal poisoning of any kind.
"Doesn't the author realise that most of the parents who refuse the MMR do know more than him and that is why they steadfastly refuse the triple vaccine. Just because one person's child is ok receiving the jab, that is no guarantee that another child will be unharmed."
Parents refuse the MMR vaccine because they've been frightened into doing so by the media (ie. the Daily Mail) without looking at the evidence.
The fact is that the rate of serious side-effects from most vaccines is in the 1 in a million range, whilst the rate of serious side-effects from the diseases vaccinated against is far higher.

If you want to play spot the logical fallacy I think the two quotes above provide rich pickings.

Also, if I hear one more person on the internet saying "but why do we bother vaccinating against TB when nobody gets it any more?" I might just have to go totally crazy and start believing in nonsense.

For an antidote to this sudden onslaught of stupid, head over to Science Based Medicine where Mark Crislip goes through most of the common diseases we vaccinate against and what the risks are.

Friday, 1 August 2008

Dictionary to Aisle Six Please

Somebody doesn't seem to know the difference between the words "atheism" and "secularism." In addition, Soumaya Gannoushi has also borrowed the current pet-phrase of America's Most Stupid: "militant secularism."
Just what exactly is this militant secularism and even if it existed, would it be something to fear? I imagine that a confrontation with a militant secularist would sound something like:
"You there, with the religion on!"
"Who, me?"
"Yeah you. Just you make sure you practice your religion, or lack thereof, freely without interfering with the human rights of other people, or I'll blow your head off, OK?"
"You heard. And if I, or the state, tries to interfere with those rights of yours you'd better tell me so I can blow them up with some C4 or something."
It doesn't make any sense. People are always going on about how we should fight oppression and the erosion of human rights as if it's a good thing to do. It certainly sounds like a good thing to do. Of course, it's being bigoted and militant if the oppressor happens to be a religious organisation or individual.

Once again, religion responds as the classic school-yard bully. It's happy to interfere with the freedoms of others but cries foul and goes running to teacher if anyone fights back.

It seems to me that some religionists are making a concerted effort to conflate atheism, which they are free to dislike privately if they wish, with secularism, which they should support if they have even two brain cells to rub together on a cold day. By making secularism the enemy they fight the one movement that aims to protect true freedom of religion. Of course, religions seem to love being painted as the persecuted underdog. Just look at how the Catholics respond any time they are even remotely challenged on something. In this case, the willful destruction of a small piece of bread.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Oldsflash: Cardinal not sharpest knife in drawer

Cardinals saying stupid things? that almost never fails to happen...
See here for Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier's take on AIDS prevention.

I quote:
"You expect that because people are hearing from bishops, `You must use a condom', that they will do what the bishops say?

"We have already been preaching all our lives, don't have sex outside of marriage."
If people don't listen to what bishops say, why bother preaching in the first place?
Especially when what you're basically saying is "condoms don't work." The statistics he uses are understood in the context of the AIDS epidemic. Try here for non-Catholicised information.

One of the reasons there are less people living with AIDS in Uganda now is that many of them died. But then I guess he believes they're all living happily in some fictitious paradise now so what does it matter if he spouts this kind of drivel?

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Is this as totally stupid as it sounds?

I only skim-read the following from the Huffington Post for fear of my eyes melting. Does anyone feel brave enough to give it a look and tell me if it really is as bat-shit dumbass crazy as it looks?

What it looks like, is that somewhere in the USA, a government department (or state, or whatever, as I said: skim reading) wants to let idiots define the contraceptive pill as an abortion. In a very real and law-abiding sense. I think I've ranted about similar morons before, but I never thought there was any danger of it coming true.

Totally Overlapping Magisteria

Things have been a little quiet(er) around here for the last few months. This probably has to do with me not posting anything since sometime around the end of the pleistocene. My hopes were briefly piqued when I came across headlines declaring that Margaret Thatcher was to get a state funeral. I had hoped that such headlines could be reserved until she was, you know, dead.
So, instead of a cheerful upbeat blog entry it'll be back to ranting as usual.

Comment is Free, goldmine of nonsensical articles that it is, has not disappointed. Today, we are treated to an article by Mark Vernon grandly entitled The Frontiers of Faith and Knowledge with the equally nonsensical subtitle "So why can't boffins and bishops agree?" Surprisingly we get three words in before the name Templeton is mentioned, although that is only because the first two words are Sir and John.

Let's start with the title shall we?
Faith has frontiers? I think this must be another example of my not understanding the complex and subtle theological concept of faith (something I have been told by actual theologians) because I'm pretty sure faith doesn't have ears, on the front back or sides. For something to have a frontier there surely must be something further on that hasn't been affronted yet. I'm not really sure how this tallys with the "faith"-based approach of simply saying that god did it and that there's a plan and don't think about that because you might discover it's nonsense. (or, much more plausibly, that Satan will make you one of his little wizards...)

It's not really the same as a scientific frontier, where you first see something you don't understand, then form a hypothesis, then test it, then develop your theory. That seems much more eary to me, and possibly more frontal as well.

Leaving the title, and horribly overstretched puns, behind let us move on the "content" of the article. Unusually for a piece in this genre, we get a whole sentence into paragraph 2 before the mandatory Dawkins-bashing occurs. It is mercifully short, however, and is followed by the meat (or fish on if it's a Friday? I forget) of the article in which the author considers the thoughts of past Templeton Prize winners. Apparently "they are, perhaps, illuminating."

So, let us skate onto the icy pond on faulty reasoning and see if we fall in. You never know, that ice might be many metres thick and riddled with polar bears and fur seals. It might.

Prize winner number 1 is Freeman Dyson, famous physicist and advocate of space exploration and colonisation.
"Dyson draws an analogy with one of the central ideas in modern physics, that of complementarity. The best-known example of complementarity is that of the dual nature of light. Depending on how you look at it, you see either particles or waves. Light itself is richer than any one picture we might use to describe it."
This is the usual argument that science cannot yet (or possibly ever) explain the full range of human experience, so religion is required to explain the rest. It handily forgets, however, that religion has not, does not and simply cannot actually explain anything about the Universe at all. Religion exists purely to explain itself, which is not only narcissistic but ultimately self-defeating. That perpetual and frustrating little habit of science to explain things previously blamed on god is, as usual, dealt with by saying the two spheres never overlap.

The conclusion seems to be that religion and science are just two ways of looking at the same thing. The problem is that like many situations where there are two ways to look at something, one of them is right and the other is clearly wrong. I would be a little concerned if a physicist told me that, yes, he believed all the equations about how photons behave but that he also knew them to be banana shaped and to taste like ice-cream.

Anyway, onto winner number two in the Templeton Victory Parade (TM). It's none-other than everyone's favourite priest-scientist John Polkinghorne! Polkinghorne believes that "science only gives a thin notion of God."
You know I think he might be right there. Science also only provides very thin notions of unicorns, fairies and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Can you guess why? I think you know why...

They're all made up!

Science has notions about all sorts of other exciting things that are pretty-well thick enough thank you very much. Our notions do not need thickening. You know what happens when you mix a little water with a lot of cornflour? That's how not-thin many of our notions are. Would you like a steak-knife with those scientific notions? Some of them can be rather meaty.
On the other hand, I think those people over on the religion table would like some straws with their notions.

Do not despair, dear reader, because our author, the cunning devil, has left the best 'til last. Charles Taylor ("arguably the most important philosopher-recipient of the prize?") apparently wrote a book suggesting that in the past we experienced "religious time", which was focused around festivals and such whereas now we run on linear "scientific time."

I'm not really sure what Mr. Taylor is getting at here. On the face of it, he's stating the blindingly obvious. In the past, peasants had really boring lives apart from at Christmas when they could have a goose for dinner and get drunk as a skunk. As a result, they focused their energies into these few occasions. These days we (presumably in the west) have the instant-gratification celebrity culture and so we have no need to focus on specific days.

However, I am at a loss as to how this translates into any meaningful statement about time. Did religious time run at a different speed? Does having a clock actually change the Universe in some meaningful way? I get the impression that something like this is being hinted at but that it is being kept carefully hidden in order to conceal the crazy within.

Taylor also "describes the disturbing affects of every day bumping into people who see the world in radically different ways to your own." He's got a point there. Doctors in psychiatric institutions regularly bump into such people. In there it's called psychosis. Outside the asylum, they call that shit religion.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Common Sense on Have Your Say?

After my recent rant about the anti-vaccination morons on the BBC News Have Your Say site, I thought I'd maintain balance by linking to a discussion that left me feeling quite optimistic.
It's about embryonic stem cell research and there's more common sense there than I woulod ordinarily expect to find on HYS. There are some loonies, but overall I think reason is winning the day.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

I still seem to be living in a stupid country

The latest BBC news Have Your Say is about a proposed scheme for mandatory vaccination of young children. Far too many of the most recommended comments demonstrate the complete ignorance that has been spread in this country by the tabloid media. Knowledge about vaccines, and even basic critical thinking, seems to be almost totally absent from this cross-section of the population. For example:
"...parents who refuse to have the MMR/AUTISM jab..."
Autism jab? So somebody else reads the daily Male, or whatever other filth tabloids were spreading these lies about the MMR vaccine and autism. Studies show that there is no link between the two. This doesn't stop the flourishing movement that aims to spread this misinformation. If, as a result, some of the weaker members of society (young children who may be allergic, for example) catch measles and die I know who I'd blame.
"Vaccines should never become compulsory. I almost died after a diptheria vaccine..."
This is, of course, why the plural of anecdote is not data. We seem to have managed to put vast portions of people through education without giving them any critical faculties whatsoever for examining evidence and thinking rationally. Just because one person might win the lottery every week doesn't mean I have good odds if I buy a ticket.
"No parent should be forced to jab a kiddie. With bad hygiene you could be infecting millions with HIV!"
Yes... Someone has clearly been smoking something a little stronger than their usual crack. Welcome to the land of straw men. Imagine! If all cars were designed to explode, loads of people would die. We should ban cars! Down with the witch-craft of car manufacturing! Off with it's head!
"In the past few decades, as the number of mandatory vaccines has skyrocketed, there has been a corresponding skyrocketing of childhood cancers, including leukemia and brain tumors. Various neurological diseases, autism and immunilogical illnesses have likewise skyrocketed since the proliferation of vaccines. Coincidence?"
Probably, yes.
This is prime vintage nonsense. I had a little look and I couldn't find any credible evidence for the cancer angle. As for the autism/neurological conditions slant, it is a known fact that reporting of such conditions has increased with improved screening and wider ranges of diagnosis. In fact, all of the vaccine/autism "evidence" disappears if you take proper account of increasing diagnoses. So, not only a coincidence, but really a lie as well.
"There is no absolutely proof that vaccinations work. Ever."
This one is a classic. If vaccines don't work, where the hell did smallpox go? Is it behind the fridge? Maybe it's on holiday in the Bahamas? Oh wait, I think I have it. It's living with Hitler in his secret 4th Reich Moonbase on the dark side of the moon isn't it? Makes about as much sense as this.

The suggestion being debated is the introduction of mandatory vaccination linked to child benefits. So the bulk of the objections take the form of "It's 1984 all over again!" The problem is, it's already illegal to kill someone either on purpose or by your own negligence. By not vaccinating your child you still get to rely on the herd immunity from all the other vaccinated children and your kid will probably not catch measles. However, if rates drop low enough (as they have done in some areas) it becomes possible for these diseases to take a hold in the population and spread through the unvaccinated. At this point, all unvaccinated children are at risk.
In addition, those weaker members of sicuety who do not have immunity for one reason or another are also put at increased risk. By not vaccinating, parents risk not only the health of their children but that of others as well. To me, this seems very selfish.
All treatments have side-effects, and in rare cases these will be seriously harmful. However, it seems ot me that this is the much lesser risk. Especially as the vast majority of the purported negative effects of vaccines are entirely fictional.

Friday, 9 May 2008

Pro-Lifers Show Their True Colours

You remember the pro-life crowd, right? The ones who claim that abortion is murder and should be banned at all costs (whilst also killing the occasional living doctor) and protest about it vociferously. Well, one of their groups in the USA has finally demonstrated that what they want is not in fact to do with killing babies, it is entirely to do with taking away women's reproductive choice. We always knew they didn't care about reality, but this?

Apparently using the pill is, in fact, as bad as abortion. Their claim that the contraceptive pill is the same as a chemically induced abortion is totally ridiculous. I always suspected (alright, I always downright assumed) that the main aim of the pro-life lobby was to take away the right for women to have autonomy over their own bodies. At least when i say it now, people won't think I'm a conspiracy theorist.

They also trot out all of the usual overly-emotive arguments, generally talking about "tiny babies" when what they mean is ova. These people even seem to equate unfertilised eggs directly with children, which is kind of scary. How slim is their grasp of reality that a single cell has the same rights as a human being?

Also, I know I haven't posted for ages. I've been busy banging my head against the brick wall of science. It is ever so rewarding sometimes...

Friday, 18 April 2008

They should have seen this coming

The rather useless "Fraudulent Mediums Act" of 1951 is set to be replaced with new legislation being discussed in Parliament soon. The old act pretty much failed, probably because it tried to distinguish a fraudulent medium from a genuine one. It must have been tough, separating out the people who knew it was crap from the true-believers, in fact very few prosecutions were even brought and the vast majority failed.

The new laws will bring all forms of paid-for psychic and mystical services under the Consumer Protection Act. In other words, mediums will have to provide some form of proof that they are contacting dead people and can be held liable for harm resulting from their nonsense. Oddly, the psychics are a little miffed about this. Even more oddly, they waited until after the legislation was announced to submit their petition to 10 Downing Street. I'd have thought the most convinding time would have been, you know, before. They're meant to be psychic after all.

I can see why their pissed off though. If I'd made a career out of defrauding people with my carefully honed cold-reading skills, I'd be pissed off that my cushy little job was going to be "regulated."

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Ono, Here we Go

OK, I'm gonna talk about Expelled again. I'll get the warning in early so you don't feel disappointed.
You see, I wasn't surprised when the producers of Expelled pissed of Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers. I wasn't particularly surprised when their film was so bad that even Fox News slated it. I wasn't even surprised at the monumentally bad way they have handled their PR - although perhaps I should have been with a film that has plainly spent orders of magnitude more on PR than on making a good film. I was, however, pleasantly surprised when I discovered the latest thing they've done.

They've only gone and pissed off Yoko Ono. Some would speculate that this isn't particularly hard to do, and might go on to remind us that she broke up the Beatles. Or allegedly broke up the Beatles, or in fact they broke themselves up. Even amongst secular music lovers her involvement with John Lennon towards the end of the Band's career seems to be regarded as an unholy act, a deadly sin, truly unforgivable.
Now, I would speculate that this is all just a bit melodramatic and a waste of time, but it doesn't matter any more. Because, atheist music lovers, she has a chance to redeem herself of any sin you think she may have committed.

She could sue the arses off Expelled for a start. You see, over the course of the film they play Imagine, by John Lennon. You might think this would be in some kind of ironic capacity, but from what I've heard, you'd be wrong. It seems that they play the song beside images of wars purportedly caused by "Darwinisn" (which in their minds = Atheism) presumably in order to claim that this is the result of "no religion."

Of course, being the smart business-people they are, the producers of Expelled got permission to use the song. Right?

Her lawyers are apparently "exploring all options," which I hope is lawyer speak for "putting together a cast iron case and demanding all their money off them." I'm always a little wary of the litigation culture, but if it applies to one it applies to all. If the lone file-sharer or school play that uses material without permission gets sued, then so does the film company.

This will, of course, be in addition to the other impending law suits pertaining to the other stuff they nicked from other people's work. I'm starting to wonder if they made any of the film themselves. Of course, all the bits with Ben Stein in are probably theirs and we can't sue them for that.


Friday, 11 April 2008

OK, let's all be aware

Today is the second day of World Homeopathy Awareness Week, which starts on a Thursday for no Earthly reason I can understand. So, since they want us all to be so "aware" of their pseudo-medical, fraudulent, dangerous nonsense I thought I'd help out. After all, it'd be rude not to.

So, I thought I'd start with the British Homeopathic Association since they're, well, in Britain and so am I. They're website contains a helpful FAQ on homeopathy , which will save me a lot of time thinking about what to write. Being the lazy sod that I am, I shall simply run down their questions and answer them as best I can. Kind of like an open-book exam where the open book has all the wrong answers in it.

1. What is Homeopathy?
They say:
"Your homeopath builds up a complete picture of you and prescribes treatment for you as an individual, not simply for your complaint."
Doesn't that sound lovely? They'll make a treatment up just for you. One that takes into account that you're 5'10", slightly overweight, work in sales and support Arsenal. I think I'd rather have the treatment for the complaint please. Of course, what this really means is that they take more time to talk to you than our often-overworked GPs. Placebo effects have been shown to be stronger if you take longer to reassure the patient and make friends with them. Of course, throwing in a few jibes about "Big Pharma" trying to kill you with it's poisons probably won't go astray either.

2. How Does it Work?
I have to tell you, I was really looking forward to this one. In my minds eye there was a detailed description of the mechanism by which water "remembers" a molecule it once saw briefly or how shaking it up makes it remember it even more. After that there would, of course, be a description of the biological effects as tested in vitro and in clinical trials.
They say:
"When you have symptoms of illness, your homeopath will give you a remedy which would produce similar symptoms if taken when you were healthy. Sometimes referred to as treating like with like. But this remedy is given in minute quantities so that it triggers your body's self-healing response without any other ill effect."
So, if I have an inflammation that causes pain and swelling, they will give me a very tiny amount (ie. NONE) of something that would normally cause me pain and swelling. Apparently the body will recognize this pain and swelling agent and respond to it, thus reducing my actual symptoms. Now that all sounds very reasonable doesn't it? yes, yes it does, if you are a yoghurt!
Seriously! I have symptoms that are being caused by something. That something is presumably in my body somewhere causing the initial symptoms. How exactly is adding a little bit to those symptoms meant to help me? (assuming of course that nothing in water can cause symptoms at all) I also get somewhat vexed by people who harp on about the body's "natural healing response" as if it's some mysterious entity when in fact it's an inter-related system of very complex mechanisms all acting on specific threats to the survival of the host.
Also, if I am suffering from cyanide poisoning what do they give me? Oh yes, tiny amounts of cyanide! This would be actively malevolent if it weren't for the fact that what I'd actually get is imaginary amounts of cyanide. No, then it'd just be negligent.

3. Why should I try Homeopathy?
You shouldn't. Let's just get that clear now. Don't waste your money and don't buy into the crap about conventional medicine either.
They say:
" Homeopathic remedies are mainly made from natural materials and have almost no side-effects. They are particularly appealing to people who prefer natural products to conventional drugs, those with chronic conditions, and to parents and others responsible for the care of children."
Where to start? Right, "natural" remedies then. Let us say that there is a tree bark that contains an active ingredient that fights, ooh maybe malaria? Right now we can chew on that bark a lot, or preferably mix it into our cocktails if we're feeling refined. So we may very well avoid malaria because of the quinine we got from the bark. However, if we take the bark, we can extract the pure quinine and then run a trial to see how much is safe and how much we actually need to stop the jungle fever. What we then have are two alternatives.
On the one hand we can chew some bark and probably get some quinine out, along with a bunch of other stuff like beetles, animal droppings, moss, earth and any other drugs that are also in the bark. On the other hand we can have our 100mg of purified quinine, administered in the most efficient manner. Which would you choose?
You see, "natural" just means dirty and uncontrolled. People who prefer natural remedies are just fooling themselves that they're not taking drugs when they are. Dirty drugs. Taking properly controlled and tested medications is not the same as eating too much over-processed homogenised food or too much refined sugar no matter how un-New-Age it might seem.
And as for those responsible for children: Take them to a GP. Seriously, they know quite a bit about what might be wrong. And they can tell you about how things actually work in the actual human body. Do not trust made-up medicine, especially when it comes to your children!

4. What can Homeopathy Treat?
Well, it's done wonders for my insanity recently... And as for my lycanthropy, I'm alright noooow? No, alright, don't give up the day-job. Apparently magic water can treat everything:
"from asthma, rheumatism, arthritis, eczema to more simple cases of cuts and bruises."
Well, let's start with this one. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO TREAT YOUR ASTHMA WITH HOMEOPATHY. Really, modern medicine has had quite a while to develop drugs that alleviate the chronic and acute symptoms of asthma. They're not perfect, but then things so rarely are. Expensive little bottles of water are not going to make your asthma go away!
Homeopathy, like all placebos, can treat some symptoms. It can alleviate pain and a nice long conversation with the "doctor" will do wonders for stress. Any symptoms that can be exacerbated by stress may well decrease as a result. The underlying cause, however, will remain.
I am also intrigued as to how it treats cuts and bruises. Although I can't find anything specific on that. All I will say is that the first thing I think of when I cut myself is not taking drugs of any kind (even pretend ones!). Put a sticking plaster on it and some antiseptic cream!

OK, there's more in the FAQ but it does get rather tiresome so I'll just skip on to:
"A fascinating but as yet unexplained characteristic of homeopathic remedies is that the more dilute a remedy, the more effective it is. For example, a remedy diluted 30 times by a factor of 100 (strength 30C) is much more potent than a 6C remedy, even though it contains less of the original substance."
This is about the most wrong statement homeopaths make. The implication is that less of something does more to me than more of something. So I should be able to get homeopathically drunk for a few pence. Hell, we've got ethanol in the lab here, I'll just dilute that a billion times and down a glass! [Disclaimer, do not drink laboratory chemicals...]
I'd love to see them try to back this bollocks up with any kind of logic. Even some common sense would do. There's a reason chemicals have LD50 numbers on them. (Lethal dosage in 50% of people, rats etc.) Less doesn't kill more, it kills less! It's one of those things we've known about for quite a while. By their standard I should either die or be cured of all ills every time I drink tap water which is probably a 30C dilution of almost every known chemical.

Friday, 4 April 2008

Welcome to the Highlands: Home of... creationism?

Well, I'm a little surprised. Here was me thinking that most of the really dumb religious people were located here in the South. The Press and Journal, however, has proved me wrong with an article proving that, actually, most of the loonies are up north.
It turns out there are cretinists in Inverness, gateway to the Highlands (or whatever the PR material says these days). I always knew that a certain minority of fruit-loops gravitated north, get-away-from-it-allers are a common enough sight in Orkney (where, for the two of you that may not know, I went to school) and we even have our own reasonably crazy monks, but I'd really hoped that the cretinists hadn't made it that far up. The article ends with this little gem:
"Derick Gillies, of the Free Church of Scotland, said there was an unbalanced debate between those believing in creationism and those believing in evolution."
He's right you know. The fact that the cretins get any air-time at all means the debate is already far too unbalanced, away from reality!
Ah well, it's good that they managed to secure a speaker like Dawkins though. You often get the impression that, for the high profile speakers, Edinburgh is as far north as Scotland goes.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Cardinal Keith: Liar, Lunatic or Lord?

Well, it's definitely not option 3 folks. In case you were wondering. The good Cardinal continues to tout the same old arguments about animal/human hybrid embryos undermining the dignity of human life and all that religious stuff, only this time with a twist. This time it's really obvious that he doesn't know what he's talking about.
"You might think I'd object to animal-human hybrid embryos on moral grounds. I do, but it's their bad science I really take exception to"
Can you guess, dear reader, exactly how many examples there are of "bad science" in his article to reassure you that he knoweth of what he speaks? Zero. Not one. He is at pains to explain that he is a science graduate - BSc Science Edinburgh University - yet he fails to present any of the promised scientific arguments.

It seems he is also most vexed by the fact that embryo research "may" or "might" produce results. This is odd behaviour for one so scientifically literate as any scientist knows that the outcome of their research is not a foregone conclusion. One can never say "my research will do the following," that would be bad science.

Apparently a survey has also shown that 67% of the British population oppose the creation of animal/human hybrids. I can't find any evidence for this opinion poll anywhere. What I did find, however, was a Guardian piece from 2007, describing the consultation process for the HFEB as follows:
"The consultation, a £150,000, three-month mix of opinion polls, public meetings and debates, found participants were initially cautious of merging animal and human material, but became more positive. "When further factual information was provided and further discussion took place, the majority of participants became more at ease with the idea," the HFEA's report says."
So perhaps the Cardinal's opinion poll is taken from the Journal of Knee-Jerk Religious Reactions in the Face of Incomplete Knowledge. Ah, that most respected of totally made up science journals.

It seems to me that religious leaders have been aware of this Bill, and the consultation surrounding it, for some time. It seems that they waited until now because they were hopeful that the Lords might deal with it quietly. Since the Lords haven't capitulated, they have decided to try and drum up the most vocal minority they can.

Thousands upon thousands of people marched in opposition to the war in Iraq. If the government is to maintain consistency it most certainly should avoid changing its mind over a few thousand postcards from poorly informed parishioners and the dishonest ravings of a few Cardinals.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Do you have a burning need to be really pissed off?

I seem to. It's somewhat akin to a hobby for me. I also find it great stress relief to get really pissed off about things. I also find the smell of people being Wrong on the Internet irresistible.
I also find that a frustration shared is a frustration-made-much-more-fun-in-a-nefarious-kind-of-way. That certainly doesn't have any kind of ring to it. I'm quite busy with this whole science thing right now so I'll admit that this post is kind of a filler. So here goes:

Anyone heard of Vox Day? I don't remember if I mentioned him before but he is a sort of ultra-religious, ultra-right-wing and ultra-bigoted blogger who styles himself a "forensic atheologist" whatever the hell that's supposed to be. You can find his blog here if you really must. What follows is a simply a list of quotes intended to give you a little taster of why his blog might piss me off:
"As with the universities, the influx of women into science is having the observable result of degrading its quality." - Blog 31/3/08

"I note that I am a global warming skeptic myself. Greenland is still colder now than it was when Norse settlers were raising crops there in the eleventh century. So I don’t see why a return to those temperatures should present a problem." - The Irrational Atheist p. 46
" occurs to me that since atheists are disproporationately prone to social autism, it's not hard to understand why so many of them have such a difficult time understanding why they are disliked so intensely by such a wide variety of people." -Blog 30/3/08
"The curse of women is their eternal desire for control, coupled with a total aversion to responsibility." - Blog 21/2/08
"I'm not particularly into biology, but I've never bought into the "science" that oil is nothing but squished dinosaurs and sufficiently fermented ferns." - Blog 2/2/08
"And before the gay apologists bring up the ubiquitous and demonstrably false claim that pederasty has no connection with homosexuality..." - Blog 12/10/07
"Homosexuality is not immoral. Okay. So, how about theft, is theft all right now? Or drinking blood, I'm particularly interested to know if blood-drinking is no longer to be considered immoral. I assume rape is fine, of course." - Blog 16/3/07
(Discussing Hilary Clinton's statement that homosexuality was not immoral.)

In addition to this, the European Union is the "Fourth Reich", and his links to Sam Harris' blog and the Richard Dawkins Foundation are labeled "My Bitch" and "My Other Bitch" respectively. Oh yes, and Barak Obama is "the Magic Negro."
OK, my brain has now melted, but I thought I'd just get this in so that yours could melt too. Vox Day has to be amongst the most objectionable people I have come across on the internet.

Normal service (if such a thing exists) may, one day, be resumed.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Expelled Exposed

Just a quick one. Everyone else out there in the real skeptical blogosphere (as opposed to this quiet backwater) is posting links to this website:

Expelled Exposed

It is a site devoted to collecting material relevant to what is actually going on with the IDiots and the cretinists. I'll post something longer later on, I'm just wading through some stuff on pseudo-medicine at the moment. Oh, and some actual science work too!

Sunday, 23 March 2008

BBC News: Have Your Say about the HFEB

In general, I am quite impressed looking through the most recomended comments on the BBC News HYS page about the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. Most of the top comments are along the lines of:
"How dare he comment on issues that are obviously above his intellectual capabilities. Leave the science to the scientists." - Tariq, London
"If people wish to engage in debate on this issue, they should at least try to construct a rational argument. Empty rhetoric along the lines of 'it's sick', or references to religious beliefs offer nothing to the debate." - Bella, Glasgow
I find this quite pleasing to be honest. Unfortunately I'm fairly sure MPs don't bother reading HYS so I guess we still have to write to them ot let them know we're not all religious lunatics. sadly, you will also still run across things like:
"I agree with the Cardinal, this is a step too far. An embryo contains blood cells, kidney cells, and nerve cells, if it has nerve cells, doesn't that mean that it can feel pain?"
which pretty much sums up the lack of knowledge on the part of the opposition. Fourteen day old embryos do not have any differentiation of cells. That is kind of the point. The cells are more useful before they have differentiated.

The prize for most random highly recommended comment has to go, however, to this gem:
"And do we really want to allow Science to change the course of Human evolution? Imagine if they switched on a Gene in every new born baby that made them super intelligent. Then imagine if they made a mistake and turned on the Serial Killer gene instead."
Yes, my considered argument against this piece of legislation is that something else that I have just made up on the spot is really really bad, therefore the legislation must also be bad. And we should also ban chocolate because being run over really hurts.

I thought I'd just leave the names off the stupid comments. After all, there's no need to rub it in.

Oh yes, and something fairly hilarious has happened involving Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers and Ben Stein's ridiculous (and apparently also really badly put together) Expelled documentary. It's covered in detail over at Pharyngula (Just scroll odwn til you see the word Exand at the RDF so I won't bother going into any detail now.

Friday, 21 March 2008

Newsflash: Catholics still incredibly hypocritical

Oh look, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, another Catholic Church leader has found out about the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. Apparently the experiments proposed in the bill will be of "Frankenstein proportions" which just goes to show that he probably hasn't read the thing either. I know being uneducated and scientifically illiterate is still considered a virtue in the Catholic Church, but seriously.
And I quote:
"This Bill represents a monstrous attack on human rights, human dignity and human life."
What really really makes me angry is that this is the same "human dignity" that the Catholics are promoting when they spread lies about HIV and contraceptives in Africa, when they cover up abuse of children by their clergy and when they oppose legalising abortion when statistics show that it is a major factor in determining the rights and quality of life of women in a given country.
"I can say that the government has no mandate for these changes: they were not in any election manifesto, nor do they enjoy widespread public support."
What a stupid thing to say. If every little thing the government intended to do had to be put in a manifesto ahead of time I think we'd be wasting a lot more time writing manifestos and not actually getting things done. Also, he cannot know whether they enjoy public support or not. Certainly the only evidence he has that there is public opposition is from a few thousand credulous idiots in the Passion for Life movement. None of whom have read the bill either!

I'm fairly hopeful that Gordon Brown isn't going to listen to this stupid little man. However, a small part of me is concerned that the P4Lers and their ilk are getting more and more publicity. Oddly, none of them advocate actually reading the bill, or even the summary documents. They'd much rather just rain self-righteous ignorance and religous protestations down form on high with no thought for the actual benefits of the Bill and only dogma to guide them.

Of course, we all know that the stuff about genetics isn't what really bothers the Catholics. It all just coem sback to the fact that it clarifies in law the rights of homsexual couples to seek fertility treatment. After all, nothing bothers them more than what those gays are up to.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Sins Ain't What They Used to Be

Those pesky Catholics! You turn your back for a second and they're messing about with things again... After a normal, every-day, run-of-the-mill training week aimed at encouraging more people to confess regularly - because everybody loves telling an old (alleged) paedophile their darkest secrets - an archbishop (Gianfranco Girotti if you must know) announces an updated list of deadly sins. It seems there are still seven of them - why break with tradition after all? - but they are rather different form their predecessors.
Well, I'm sure you're all waiting with baited breath so without further ado, here are the winners:
  1. Environmental Pollution
  2. Genetic Manipulation
  3. Accumulating Excessive Wealth
  4. Inflicting Poverty
  5. Drug Trafficking and Consumption
  6. Morally Debatable Experiments
  7. Violation of Fundamental Rights of Human Nature
So there you have it. Much of the bad stuff I'd be concerned about would be covered by no. 7 there. Although what rights of human nature are I have no idea. Human nature is always blamed for bad stuff as well as praised for good. So who is doing the violating? I'm sure there'll be lots of complicated theological explanatory notes that nobody can understand...

I also like that they've covered science in there twice, under "genetic experiments" and again under "morally debatable experiments". Debatable? So any experiment that is in a grey area is right out? Because if you're being strict that might include a hell of a lot of science. You know, all that stuff that ethics committees spend their time thinking about. Clinical trials for example. For those life-saving drugs. And, of course, both of these would cover embryonic stem-cell research so the HFEB is doubly slapped by that one.

I wonder if genetic manipulation of animals is allowed but not of humans? I'll have to wait for those handy notes before I decide whether or not to eat those GM foods - because this would be another reason for me to take it up in a big way, what with me being contrary like that.

And also, the Catholic Church says "Don't do Drugs" or you're going to hell, first class and no refunds. You hear? What about drugs that are allowed in some countries but not others? what about Christ's Blood? Or is that OK because it has transubstantiated (is that a verb?) before you drink it? They'd best be careful.

The environmental pollution one is heartening, although everyone pollutes to some extent so there might need to be a lot of confessing. Since that was the point of the training week, however, I can see how they decided to include it. "Hmmm, let's include even more stuff people do on a daily basis, that way they're sinning 24/7!"

And then there's the ones about wealth. I guess a specific definition of wealth would be required. And then a short trip to the Vatican's accounts department for an investigation into "unnecessary wealth".

Anywho, I may blog again about this if I find more on it. You have been warned.

Friday, 7 March 2008

You Can Say What You Like About Jesus!

No really. Be my guest. As of a couple of days ago there is no blasphemy law in the UK! The house of Lords has decided that it's a bit of a silly idea in a country where people now so many different kinds of rubbish they'd all have to be blaspheming against someone. Anyway, it gave special status to the Church of England, that most inoffensive of institutions - more tea vicar? And perhaps another choir boy?

Now, I know they never really enforced it anyway because that would be kind of dumb, and probably in contravention of all sorts of other European and British laws, but it's nice to have that ridiculous law removed from the books anyway. Symbolic gestures can be important too. Not only does this give us atheists the right to say what we like about Jesus, but all those delusional people can say what they like too.

Maybe he was a paedophile? Maybe he was a murderer, or a rapist? Maybe he was just a really bad man trying to con a bunch of people? Or... gasp... maybe he didn't sodding exist in the first place? The very existence of such a law was laughable anyway, as if insulting a made-up dead guy could do anyone any harm. For that matter, insulting real dead guys doesn't really do anybody any harm.

Ah well, when this law is officially removed - apparently some monarch or other has to officially 'approve' it - we can all take to the streets and blaspheme to our hearts' content. Savour it. If anyone tries to stop you, remind them that it's not as if there's a law against it.

Friday, 29 February 2008

Why do We Still Have Theologians?

Whilst dredging through the numerous - and very repetitive - stream of books published in response to The God Delusion (by Richard Dawkins, in case anybody has managed not to hear about it by now) I come across one particular argument quite frequently. It basically runs thus:
"Dawkins only ever deals with the easily refutable arguments. No theologian worth his salt uses those arguments any more."
The complaint is that Dawkins only deals with outdated or simplistic arguments for the existence of god(s), such as the ontological argument, the argument from design and Pascal's Wager. The theologians cry foul, claiming that they have newer, better arguments and that Dawkins is shooting at straw men. A couple of issues arise from this complaint that, certainly to me at least, reveal problems with the whole concept of theology.

1. The disconnect between what theologians believe and what normal people believe

My experience is that most "theists on the street" - warning, anecdotal evidence alert! - who have stopped to think about the existence of god(s) at all will convince themselves with one of the aforementioned easily refutable arguments, or with something equally simplistic.
Theologians, however, have much more complicated looking arguments that talk about god(s) in much more abstract terms. Often these arguments resemble the cosmological "first cause" argument. Even if the first cause argument weren't crap (which it is), the only thing it claims to prove is the existence of a being of indeterminate origin, nature and power who flicked a switch at the start of the Universe.
Many of the theologians' other arguments run along similar lines. What they "prove" bears very little resemblance to what the person on the street believes. The theologian will then, with dubious logic, show how this nebulous "first causer" (or whatever) is in fact the Christian god (or Muslim, Jewish, Hindu etc.).

2. Theology is totally self-justifying
The only arguments in favour of theology as a discipline are theological in nature. Theology exists to investigate a phenomenon the theologians tell us only they can correctly define. Over the centuries they have created and perpetuated their own little reality within which they perform their "investigations", which generally amount to nothing more than empty philosophical ravings. They talk about concepts like god(s) and the afterlife for which we have no proof. In fact, one of the chief jobs of the theologian is to ensure that the definitions of these concepts remain conveniently outside the sphere of scientific enquiry.
If theologians examined the societal effects of god-belief they would more properly be called anthropologists or historians. If they examined its effect on individuals they might be psychologists or neuro-scientists. There is no rational element of religion that cannot be explored within genuine academic disciplines. This leaves the irrational stuff; the province of the theologian.

It seems to me that theology exists only to perpetuate itself. Why not just let the philosophers, anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, psychologists and neuro-scientists get on with exploring why we believe and how? In fact, science and philosophy are much better equipped (ie. with open minds) to answer the questions posed by theology in a rational fashion.

For reference, books I have ploughed through include God's Undertaker - Has Science Buried God? by John Lennox, The Dawkins Delusion and Dawkins' God by Alistair McGrath, The Irrational Atheist by Vox Day and Darwin's Angel by John Cornwell.

Friday, 22 February 2008

Peer Review Evil says Torygraph

The Torygraph newspaper, last bastion of conservative common sense - or whatever they're calling it these days - had an article the other day entitled "Peer review: the myth of the noble scientist" in which the Vice Chancellor of the University of Buckingham*, Terence Kealey, puts forward the myth that scientists are noble creatures - we're not - and suggests that the peer-review process is fatally flawed.

He begins with this little snippet of wisdom:
"One day coffee is bad for us, then it's good, then it's bad again. The generous explanation for these see-saws is that science is always developing our understanding. But there is a more sinister concern: fraud."
What? The reason that the public gets the impression that coffee or red wine or sweeteners are bad for us one week and geed the next is because the media insists on combing recent science papers for any slight suggestion of the above and publishing stories with headlines like "Shock News: Coffee Cures Alzheimers!" or similar. This idea that the scientific community is see-sawing back and forth is false. Published papers may conflict, but the truly scientific approach is to weigh all of the evidence and come to a conclusion, not wave your hands in the air and scream "fraud!"

It is true that fraud exists in the scientific community, as it does pretty much anywhere you find humans. One of the jobs of the peer-review process is to minimise the impact of fraudulent claims, even if it cannot directly test for them. Also, outside of peer-review, the scientific community is very good at picking up fraudulent claims. However, these processes take time - just as with everything else in the gradualist methodology of science - as Jan Hendrik Schön proved by getting more than 25 papers out and winning several awards before being picked up for manufacturing data on a monumental scale.
"The myth is that science is the noble search for truth. The reality is that scientists are selfish. In the old days, scientists often published secretly to safeguard - and profit from - their discoveries."
Science is the search for truth. It's nobility is surely dependent on the participants who are, as we are well aware, only human. Of course there are selfish scientists, fraudulent scientists, incompetent scientists and so on. They are ordinary people. However, their job requires them to be able to defend their work against critics and the community in which they work is strongly meritocratic, requiring a certain selfishness in order to survive. This said, there are many scientists who are perfectly capable of working in large groups and sharing information and I have benefitted from several willing to give up their time and energy to provide assistance that does not benefit their own research.

Kealey goes on to explain that peer-review creates a "closed club" that can block extraordinary or unexpected findings and allows "unscrupulous" reviewers to steal the ideas they read in review papers. I know this is only anecdotal but nobody in my office can remember an incident of a peer-reviewer stealing ideas from review papers. It would probably require a conspiracy of reviewers in order for that to occur.

Science may be somewhat of a closed club, but I see that as a requirement for it to maintain its credibility. Kealey says we should open up science publishing and allow everyone to publish their own papers but I think this would be horribly damaging to the edifice of science. Suddenly any old creationist nutjob could publish their papers about how God did it and the public (and the media) would have no way of telling how reliable the research was. We'd just be giving undue credibility to pseudoscientific nonsense.

The peer-review process may have flaws (it is slow and it may occasionally disallow "ground-breaking" papers) but it is about the best system we could have. It allows for some measure of fraud detection. It ensures that the wildest claims must be backed up with evidence. It may often swing towards the status quo but then extraordinary claims do require extraordinary evidence. Leakey should consider what science would be like if we removed peer-review: unrealiable and often meaningless.

*As I understand it, the University of Buckingham is a private university founded in the 1970s as an arts college. I cannot find an entry for it on the Times league tables available to me. It has the dubious honour of being "the only private University in the United Kingdom".

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Just a Block of Wood? Er, yes it is.

I just happened to be dabbling in the fascinating stream of news being generated daily by Christian Today - your one stop source for the information you really need, so long as that information is to do with cardinals or ministers having podcasts - when I saw the words "embryology bill" in the Top Stories section. Well me being me, never one to risk missing something I can rant about, I had a little read.

It turns out the Lawyers Christian Fellowship - who believe in "witnessing to the legal profession by speaking the good news of Christ" - has released a new "viral" marketing scheme intended to make people oppose the HFE Bill. You can watch it here on YouTube if you like. I wouldn't really bother though as I'm about to describe it to you anyway.

The video consists of a man chainsawing a block of wood into the shape of a foetus and ends with the words "just a block of wood?" and a link to the Passion for Life campaign website. Am I supposed to watch this and have the revelation that the block of wood is, in fact, not a block of wood? Am I meant to come to the striking revelation that just by making something foetus shaped you can in fact make it into an actual human person? Would it then be wrong of me to 'kill' this block of wood? I don't get it. In fact, just today at lunch I made my mashed potato into the shape of a foetus and then devoured it, thus presumably making me guilty of murder.

Of course I don't believe that abortion is murder so I guess I'm not really guilty of anything, but I am in their eyes. Honestly! Not just a block of wood? No, it's just a block of wood that bears a striking resemblance to a foetus. So what? This viral marketing lark doesn't often make sense to me. Sometimes the videos are funny or clever but most of the time it's like this one. It won't have any effect on an already rational person because it is just a sodding block of wood no matter how much you write "it's a baby" on it!

In addition to this, they're lawyers! I know that's not a very logical argument - all right, not at all a logical argument - but their job is to defend or prosecute a case regardless of the actual guilt or innocence of those involved. They are often paid to defend the indefensible. Maybe Christian lawyers always only defend the innocent and prosecute the guilty, I just don't think it's likely.

In other news, the Atheist Society have set up a Facebook group in opposition to the Passion for Life group. We currently lag behind by about 1,000 members but we're new so give us time. I urge anyone who uses Facebook to look up "Passion for Reason: Supporting the HFE Bill" and join. Also, if you read the information on the bill and agree with it, write to your MP (in the UK, obviously) saying so. The Passion for Lifers are doing this and it'd be a shame for any MPs to get the wrong idea.
Finally, there's a petition on 10 Downing Street's e-petition scheme about it too. I know they always ignore these petitions but do it anyway. It can't do any harm after all.

I leave you with this quote from Christian Today:
"We want people to remember that the life of a human being, made in the image of God, is incredibly precious and that this reality must inform what legislation should and what it should not permit."
I'm glad their views only apply to those people made in the image of God. Us godless heathens can presumably get on with our lives safe in a society who's laws are unmolested by religious nonsense...

Friday, 15 February 2008

Cartooning: The New High Risk Job

Remember those Danish cartoons from a while back? The ones of Muhammad? The ones that weren't really all that good? In fact some of them were rubbish. Not, however, rubbish enough to warrant violent protests and attacks on Danish embassies. But then, some scamp from one of the more extremist groups had added a few images of his own to really get the critical juices flowing.

So it's all understandable really. Someone publishes a non-flattering image of a man who allegedly lived hundreds of years ago and claimed to be inspired by God and of course the first thing you think of is "I must go and burn down an embassy, or at least a flag." (Although I have nothing against flag burning per se, if it makes you feel better go for it!)

Now, I'd have completely misunderstood what was going on if it wasn't for the moderates, who weighed in to explain things. Apparently, the poor muslims were complaining that they were being depicted as violent and extremist. It was a complete coincidence, then, that their complaint took the form of a violent and extreme protest and anyway we shouldn't have provoked them in the first place should we? I mean, we crazy liberals in the west should know better than to have a free press and a passable record on freedom of speech. Silly us.

And now it turns out that there was an (alleged) plot to murder one of the cartoonists involved. As I said, the pictures weren't all that good, but they weren't that bad. After all, if publishing crap was a good enough reason to have someone killed, we'd have got rid of Jeffrey Archer years ago.

The Danish media response has been to reprint the cartoons again. Which I think is fun for two reasons.
  1. We can see if the original cartoons provoke the same response without the later additions. It appears that so far the response has been somewhere between muted and non-existent.
  2. If they keep on poking the wasps' nest with sticks maybe they'll provoke another reaction that'll be even more fun for muslim PR to deal with. Or, he said a little too optimistically, they'll get used to criticism and stop reacting so badly.
A spokesman for the London Mosque and Islamic Cultural Centre said the following:
"They are humiliating and racist. Muslims love the Prophet more than anyone - even their own families - and have a very strong belief that he is the messenger of God."
I don't see how the cartoons are racist. For one, they are targeting a religion. Also, nobody seems to have stood up and suggested that the only reason they find the cartoons humiliating and offensive is that their religion tells them that they should. I am also more than a little concerned when anyone says something like "we love X imaginary religious figure more than our own families." In which case I feel sorry for those families. It seems to me that the cartoons make a point about the disconnect between the moderates preaching peace and the extremists practicing violence.

People should have the right to believe whatever nonsense they want in private. However, people should also have the right to criticise those beliefs just as they can a political or philosophical belief. There should be no special protection for religious beliefs. There should certainly be no excuse for a violent response. It seems to me that in order for religions to get rid of their extremists, the moderates have to refuse to defend their indefensible actions. And with Islam, there just isn't enough of that happening.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Divine IVF

I was perusing the websites of some of the pro-life Christian type groups who are opposing the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill (HFEB) and I became increasingly aware of two things. The first, slightly more serious thing, is that they are very good at casually misrepresenting the facts in order to foment a sense of panic amongst the general public. They know, after all, that most people aren't going to go and read a 150 page piece of potential future legislation, so they are free to say things that, whilst not always technically incorrect, are easy to misunderstand. The human-animal hybrid thing is one good example.

The second, less serious thing, is that many of these Christian groups are also opposed to IVF because it does not follow "God's law" or because it creates surplus embryos that are not implanted. However, it strikes me that the foundation of the Christian faith is an act of alleged celestial fertility treatment.
God, too impatient to wait or to arrange a more practical scenario, has a fling with an engaged woman, magicking a foetus out of just one set of DNA, - perhaps an example of early cloning in action - and then high-tails it back to heaven, leaving his angels to take the role of Jeremy Kyle and make all parties take a 'lie detector' test before... Oh wait, no, he leaves them to patiently explain to Mary and Joseph that he - God - couldn't wait any longer and just had to get his cosmic rocks off with the first woman who rode past on a donkey, and that it's absolutely fine if they get married because they didn't actually 'do it' they just, you know, had a bit of a fondle behind the ox-sheds and she's still a virgin, honest.
I mean, he's supposed to be omnipotent! Surely you set the happy couple up in a palatial abode with hot and cold running slaves (they like those in the bible, especially stoned) and then sit them down and patiently explain things to them, in order to be sure that the parenting needs of the future messiah are properly met. Otherwise, you're clearly not considering the "need for a father" and anyway, God isn't human so isn't Jesus also a kind of human hybrid himself? Although perhaps a celestial-human hybrid rather than an animal one. Given that the Bible has no information about this we should probably turn to a more reliable reference. I believe that the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game covers the topic in much greater detail and probably with a similar level of historicity...

Friday, 8 February 2008

Muslims for the Ethical Treatment of MRSA

Now, I'm not normally one to quote the Torygraph, but it seems that there has been a slight culture clash between the cultures of Islam and medical hygiene. It seems that a few muslim medical students have been refusing to roll up their sleeves and scrub up properly in line with hygiene regulations designed to reduce the spread of infections. You know, like MRSA. That most friendly fluffy antibiotic resistant bacterium that just loves to kill people in hospitals.

The Islamic Medical Association had this to say:
"No practising Muslim woman - doctor, medical student, nurse or patient - should be forced to bare her arms below the elbow"
You know what? They're right, because any doctor who refuses to do this on such preposterous grounds should be sacked. Simple as that. Apparently they have the right to modesty. Well I suspect the patient has the right to live. How did that little quote go anyway?
First, do no harm.
So, when the potential students roll up, just give them a questionnaire:
  1. Will you follow the hygiene laws, put in place to stop patients dying?
  2. Will you treat people, even when they have diseases your religion says are sinful?
  3. Will you, in fact, apply science based medicine to all of your cases?
If you answered 'no' to any of the above questions, please sod off. I hear there are many fine places in made up subjects like theology that might suit you better.

An Archbishop Says What?

Although I have to say I wasn't entirely surprised to read the latest piece of drivel to dribble out of our friendly local primate - Are CofE types primates like the Catholics? Ah who cares, he is a primate either way. Apparently we need to adopt some aspects of sharia law in the UK in order to make our muslim friends feel at home.

You know what? No we oughtn't. In fact, we shouldn't just oughtn't, we should damn well complain, although probably in a very polite British sort of a way. After all, he is only an archbishop, and nobody really listens to him any more. Except maybe those dratted Christians, and there's quite a few of them...

Obviously, he is careful to make sure that he doesn't want any of the "extreme" elements like stonings and reductions in women's rights. What he wants is, apparently, all the good fluffy bits of sharia law that don't hurt anyone's civil liberties. Although which bits of sharia law those might be, I'm not too sure. To be honest, it's not even the extremity (or lack thereof) of the laws that matters here, it's the fact that having parallel systems of laws for different religions is a really stupid idea.

We shouldn't change our laws "to make other people feel at home here." Either they were born here or they emigrated here, and they can abide by the laws of this country - and enjoy the right to have them changed by the due democratic process. If the latter, I would suspect that some of them are escaping the brutality of sharia law as practiced in some countries. How much more at home do we make those people feel by introducing it?

Also, is it not odd to imagine a system whereby one is asked one's religious preference before going to court? It seems to me that as an atheist I might benefit from being able to unscrupulously choose whichever system is most beneficial to me at the time. They wouldn't be allowed to deny me the right after all. This country is effectively - and should be officially - a secular state. The law should not recognise religion as an excuse to be treated differently just as it should not be discriminate against people for their religion.

Finally, would it not cost the state a whole bunch more money to have multiple systems of law functioning side by side? That's not really relevant I guess as the main thing we need to do here is make sure we don't end up back in the sodding dark ages trying people on the basis of their religious beliefs.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

A Week Without Posting? Dear oh Dear.

It appears that I have been neglecting my (self-appointed) duties, but I was out of town - as I believe they say in that quaint rural colony across the Atlantic - doing science. They don't have the internet in forn parts so I was also away from the blogosphere. Ignore those people who try to tell you it's a blogodisc that is actually flat, because it's not. It might, in fact, be banana or maybe donut shaped but it sure as hell ain't flat.

So, on to business. There are a couple of things in my head that are itching to be blogged about right now, but I need to give them some more thought. One is the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill (HFEB) or, more specifically, the pro-life opposition to it. Sadly, some of the stupidest opposition is on Facebook so I'm not going to link to it here. Suffice to say, one of their chief concerns is the creation of
"Animal-Human Hybrids..." (Cue pipe organ solo. Take it away Tarquin!)
complete with sinister capital letters as if to suggest that scientists will be creating a half duck, half man tomorrow.

Most of the opposition comes from the anti-abortion lobby because the bill also outlines the ethical and sensible use of embryonic stem-cells by science. You know, that science with the potential to help those with crippling and debilitating medical conditions?

Some of the opposition also comes form the anti-gay-marriage crowd as the Bill also proposes altering birth certificates to allow for same-sex couples, or as they put it
"Removing the Need for a Father..." (The organ solo should still be going.)
Yes, that's right, we're going to exterminate all men! Mwahahaha! Oh wait, we're not. We're just liberalising laws about parenthood in an increasingly secular society.

Others are working on more reasoned type arguments based on closer reading of the literature on this. I'm going to stick to ranting as it's easier, and I have my own "literature" to read. Once I've sponged my melted brains off the floor I hope to provide a rant-based review of The Irrational Atheist by Vox Day. The pseudonym pretty much sums up the author being both arrogant (The voice of God? Pull the other one, it's got little flying pigs dangling on it) and using a pun at the same time. Now that's multitasking!

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Why Use YouTube When You Can Use GodTube?

Well, because YouTube has all of the same crap that GodTube has, along with some videos that are actually good. Just by typing the word "creation" into the search function (I know, why would any sane person do that?) I found the following little "educational" piece by a cretinist named Charley.
The scariest thing about the video is that this Charley fellow says that he lectures high school kids. Those poor bastards. What did they ever do to deserve that?

Anywho, the video serves as reasonable evidence that, whatever religious leaders say, there are plenty of people out there believing this nonsense. So, because I'm twiddling my thumbs waiting for the free online publication of the latest anti-atheism book, I'm going to summarise his arguments below:

Charley has four problems with evolution. The best thing about them is that they are even more simplistic than the normal, more "sophisticated" cretinist arguments.

1. The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics says that things don't get more complex so life can't have evolved.
If this was an episode of QI there'd be alarms going off very loudly right about now. This is about the least sophisticated cretinist argument, and any high-school level physics student can refute it. The claim is that the 2nd law states that life could not increase in complexity (a reduction of entropy) over time as entropy can only increase or stay the same.
The 2nd law of thermodynamics, ladies and gentlemen:

In an isolated system, a process can only occur if it increases the total entropy of the system.
Many have pointed this out before me, including Dave Gorman, but Charley's version is particularly fun because of the example he gives.
"A battery goes from charged to discharged. It does not recharge itself."
And quite right too. But let's say we connect the battery to a large external power source, say a fusion reactor for example. What happens then? Oh yeah, it recharges at the expense of the increasing entropy in the fusion reactor.
Now let's imagine for a second that the Earth has its own enormous fusion reactor, just hanging there in space and showering us with vast amounts of energy for free. What an unusual world that would be. Imagine looking up one morning and seeing a huge, fiery ball of energy just hanging there in the sky. There would surely be chaos! Panic in the streets! Headlines reading "Humanity Flees in Face of Fiery Hell-Sphere!"

2. There are gaps in the fossil record.
That's pretty much it. As with the other cretinists he requires that we are able to dig up a fossil of every single animal that ever lived on this planet. Only then would they stop harping on about the fact that there are no intermediate fossils between this and that already discovered intermediate fossil.

3. There is no known mechanism for Evolution to occur.
Oh yeah, he said it. Apparently DNA is just there for show. Also:
"Mutations are damaging the information not increasing it."
"Dogs do not change into cats, because the information for the cat is not in the dog."
Do I need to even say anything after these quotes? Except that much of the genome of dogs and cats is shared. Oh, and I was sure I read about single genes being able to activate the expression of features in animals that normally don't have those features...

4. The mounting evidence that the Earth is not four and a half billion years old.
He's right here. I think the current estimate is more like 4.54 billion. Although I can't help the niggling doubt that he wants to move the estimate in the other direction...

I know, it's like shooting fish in a barrel. Really big fish in a really small barrel. I just couldn't resist. I'll try not to do the easy ones too much more. I'll probably fail though.

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Cretinism Coming to the UK

Ken Ham, president of lucrative US Young Earth Cretinism propaganda machine Answers in Genesis, is coming to the UK on another speaking tour. It turns out he's been here before and I just didn't notice. It would be quite easy not to notice as they don't make much of a song and dance about these tours in the mainstream media.

For those people who may not have heard of Ken Ham, he is from Australia - a country that seems to produce more than its fair share of cretinists - and he used to be part of the Institute for Creation Research, the same organisation that gave us Duane The-Fossils-Still-Say-No! Gish. He is obviously a very "good" Christian and describes his wife as "very submissive" as though this is a good thing. Who the hell wants a submissive wife? Where's the fun in that? Unless of course you - and she - are into that sort of thing... Nudge nudge, wink wink, a nod's as good as a wink to a blind bat, say no more etc.

Answers in Genesis is, of course, the illustrious institution that brought lucky old Kentucky the $27-million Creation Museum: 60,000 square feet of animatronic dinosaurs making nice with humans with a medievally themed gift shop at the end. I can only assume the theme is intended to be a nostalgia trip for those cretinists who miss a good burning at the stake.

Obviously Ham's view are controversial, although not with actual scientists. That controversy ended a long time ago. The cretinists lost, they continue to lose and yet they refuse to admit it. No, Ham's views are, of course, controversial with the old earth cretinists who don't understand how he can ignore so much data about the age of the Earth, whilst they quietly sweep evidence for evolution under the nearest unfeasibly large rug.

So, Ken the cretinist is coming to Leicester on April the 3rd 2008, presumably to peddle the same old crap as usual about magic and how the entire edifice of science is deluded and wrong. I'd also like to note that there seems to be a cretinism conference in Wales from the 28th to the 30th of January 2008, although they seem to want £130 just for attending. This is a price I'm fairly sure I'm not willing to pay just for inevitably being thrown out at some point for setting off the brain scanner.

On a side note, I'm becoming increasingly aware that there might be more cretinists in the UK thn I had first hoped. They seem to pop up everywhere and I've even met a few, although they were in the University's christian union, an organisation I might feel the urge to blog about later on.

Monday, 28 January 2008

Cosmic Conflation: Evolution, Abiogenesis and the Big Bang

I have now now watched more creationist propaganda - and responses thereto - on the internet than is medically recommended. Doctors now recommend that you aren't exposed to more than 300 mC (milicretins) of creationism per day. Some even consider this level too high as experiments with monkeys have shown that an acute dosage of as little as 600 mC can be fatal to other monkeys in the vicinity. Breaks of at least 24 hours are recommended between repeated doses, although these can be reduced with sufficient exposure to the sceptical literature. Some recent studies even suggest a link between exposure to creationism and autism rates in the US, however they have yet to demonstrate a mechanism to explain their simplistic correlation equals causation arguments.

Anyway, pointlessly length introductions aside, todays story is about one of the most infuriating aspects of the creationism/ID crowd: The conflation of evolution, abiogenesis and the big bang into one big mega-theory against which they then argue. Oddly enough, it's quite easy to shoot down a theory that tries to account for both the early inflation of the Universe following the Big Bang and the development of the bacterial flagellar motor.
I will now attempt to summarise each of these three areas below, relying on little more than a physics degree, an inquiring mind, my undergraduate dissertation and some stuff that I read. If you'd like to try this at home, you can substitute some sticky-backed-plastic and a Styrofoam cup for the physics degree and any issue of New Scientist for the dissertation.
[Disclaimer A: The following huge sections of text can be avoided by anyone who knows this stuff already. Alternatively, those people can read it and point out my fundamental mistakes.]

The body of theories that make up evolutionary science is vast, varied and complex, somewhat like the phenomena it attempts do describe. However, the basic Darwinian model is relatively easy to explain and serves well enough as a demonstration.
[Disclaimer B: There really is a lot more to it than this. Science has had nearly 150 years to modify its theories since On the Origin of Species was published in 1859.]
  • Given infinite resources, populations of organisms tend grow exponentially
  • There are only finite resources on the planet
Under these circumstances, organisms have no choice but to compete for the limited resources available.
  • Organisms reproduce by duplicating their genes in future generations
  • Mutations can be introduced by errors in gene replication or by radiation
The combination of reproduction and mutation leads to variation. Even very infrequent mutations will lead to some degree of variation within a species. We can therefore say that:
  • There is competition amongst organisms for limited resources
  • Variation will occur in a population simply by mutation
Variation plus Competition equals Natural Selection.

Organisms with mutations that are detrimental to their survival are less likely to live long enough to reproduce, whilst those with beneficial mutations will be able to do so, and might even be able to do so more than their counterparts. Thus, beneficial genes will tend to be duplicated more than detrimental ones.

All you need now is time. This process does not need to proceed quickly. It is not in any great hurry. Life has had at least 3.4 billion years (3,400,000,000) in which to develop to its current state.

Importantly, evolutionary theory does not currently make any claims about the initial emergence of life. It only describes its subsequent development. The ultimate origin of life is known as:

Abiogenesis is literally the formation of life from non-life. Theories of this kind describe possible ways for simple common molecules - such as water, methane etc. - to develop into the more complex molecules required for life, and subsequently into life itself.

To begin with, there is no single accepted theory for abiogenesis. Since we have virtually no evidence about what chemical processes were going on in the distant past, we can only speculate as to how life might have started to live. However, we can make models and develop likely ways in which this could have occurred, and we can perform limited experiments in the lab. The problem is that we do know that life had a whole planet and a very very long time in which to develop. These parameters do not lend themselves to lab experiments.
What we do know:
  • Water was liquid on the surface of the earth around 4.4 billion years ago
  • Evidence for biological processes exists as far back as 3.4 billion years
  • Eukaryotes (the lineage from which we descend) existed up to 2.7 billion years ago
This rough estimation gives life a billion years in which to first develop. By anyone's estimation this is a really long time.

Creationists always claim that the chances of life occurring spontaneously are extremely remote. They arbitrarily set the probability at something like 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (that's 27 zeros) to one, so let's run with that as our base probability for the cosmic lottery shall we?
Let's assume that for the first step of abiogenesis to occur, we need a cubic metre of water and a year. This is probably overly generous. Given the the billion years and the 1.37 billion cubic kilometres of water that we have to play with, that means we get to buy 1,370,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 cosmic lottery tickets. Now, this doesn't prove anything but it does serve to illustrate the sheer quantity of time and resources involved. It also demonstrates that any trained monkey can make up stupid probabilities. (ook)

However, whilst probability doesn't stop abiogenesis form occurring in the first place it does make it very difficult to test experimentally. You could make a chamber in which to replicate the conditions of the early Earth and die before you saw anything like abiogenesis. So how do we test the many theories that exist to explain the emergence of life on Earth?

We may not need to. In order to crush the creationist arument, the theory only needs to be plausible enough. In fact, the current body of theory is certainly plausible enough that a little trimming with Ockham's Razor will be all that is required.

For those interested in a more robust test of the theories I think the answer lies in computer simulations. Computer modeling of the world around us is improving every year and computers themselves are getting more powerful every year. I don't think we're at that point yet, but it seems plausible that it will eventually be financially viable to run a simulation of the basic chemical processes involved and just keep tweaking the parameters a little until something exciting happens. We can then check those parameters against what we believe the early Earth was like. If we're really lucky, we might even get a prediction to test by going and looking at some really old rocks.
The formation of life, however, has fairly little do do with the formation of the Universe as explained by:

The Big Bang
I'm not going to go into this at length except to say that the Big Bang model says nothing about the formation of life on Earth. It's like comparing the Milky Way galaxy to a badger. Whilst one couldn't form without the existence of the other, they have very little to say to each other.

Proceeding from some basic assumptions, the Big Bang attempts to explain how the Universe has developed over its 13.7 billion year lifespan. It states that the Universe began as a singularity and that is has been expanding ever since. It describes the timeline over which quarks and gluons formed protons and neutrons, the emergence of electrons and how these various particles subsequently combined to form Hydrogen. The hydrogen collapses to form stars, which turn Hydrogen into heavier elements and then explode, scattering these elements across the Universe. From these building blocks new stars and planets can form.

So, what the Big Bang model can tell us is how the Universe progressed from being very dense and very hot, to being much more tenuous and cool. Within this framework, better understood theories like gravitation do the work of forming the stars and so on. The Big Bang model is just that: a model. A model well supported by observation, but relying more heavily on mathematics nonetheless. The proof or disproof of Big Bang theory bears no relevance to the theories of evolutionary science. If we suddenly discover tomorrow that the Big Bang model is all wrong, evolution will keep plodding along regardless and abiogenesis will still have had to happen for evolution to be there in the first place.

So that's basically it. Three different theories, proceeding from different sets of assumptions. However, the creationists will tend to call all of these evolution. You see, for them "evolution" just means "anything that disagrees with my assumption that god did it."
I do seem to have rambled on a lot and I'm sure many of you (say maybe three out of all four of you) already know all this stuff anyway. That's OK, I think I disclaimered it sufficiently in compliance with blog safety rules.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

And Now For Something Completely Different

Ghost photography.
I'm not quite sure where i came across it, but the Daily Mail (purveyor of meaningless gibberish to the masses since 1896) has a short article on its website about a ghostly face appearing in somebody's photo. Surely this confirms, once and for all, that respectable journalism is not listed amongst the Mail's strengths. Surely they have fact-checking to make sure that there are, you know, facts in their articles? Well never fear, dear reader, for they have the answers!
The Ghost Research Society has been collecting so-called “hauntings” since 1977 and you can view hundreds of ghoulish photos on their website
I was impressed to see the words "so-called" in there. That at least suggests a bare minimum of scepticism. However, I was not pleased that I now found myself compelled to visit the website. It was almost as if psychic forces beyond my control compelled me to do it...

And suddenly I was searching ghost photography archives across the internet. I don't know how it happened your honour. All I do know is that there are too many people not sufficiently able to operate their cameras that they interpret any reflected, over-exposed or out-of-focus parts of their pictures as "ghostly". Such people often comment that they didn't notice anything odd while taking the photo but that once they got it developed or opened it on the computer they saw these anomalies. You know what? There was something odd happening while you took the photo. You gave your camera to a monkey! And if that wasn't the case, would you mind putting your brain back in when you "interpret" your images? Thank you so much.

Now, I believe that I am basically proficient with a camera. I can fiddle with the settings and I won't run away if you use words like ISO and aperture. If I point the camera thing (In my case a Nikon D50) at another thing and press the little button, and I remember to remove the little opaque circley thing form the front first, I tend to get an image that I would describe as "adequate." However, sometimes bits of the image are overexposed, or blurry, or perhaps the animal moved during the exposure. Maybe there's some flare from a particularly bright light, or maybe the photographer had a higher than normal blood alcohol level and the camera wasn't exactly on a firm footing. Whatever the anomaly is, I can usually guess what caused it in the final image.

These ghost hunter types, however, can't. The site linked to by the Daily Mail (I've reached my quota, if I say it again I have to hand my eternal soul to Satan and all his little wizards) is actually about the most sceptical one I've visited. Most of the rest are full of galleries of images taken by the terminally incredulous, or in some cases by people who were, presumably, undergoing a seizure of some kind at the time. The word ghost is applied willy-nilly (I have still to discover how exactly one performs an action in the style of willy-nilly) to all sorts of lens flares and shadows with all the credulous fervour of a Westboro Baptist watching an episode of Will and Grace.

[Which reminds me, somewhat parenthetically, of this post over on Pharyngula about Heath Ledger. Aaaargh!]