Category Archives: Religion

Giles Fraser at Westminster Skeptics

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Thoughts on Dr Giles Fraser at Westminster Skeptics:

He is a great speaker. It’s easy to see why he rose to the position of Canon of St Pauls.

His talk was roughly based around the idea that an evidence-based approach was not helpful in the case of romantic love.

He needs to spend some quality time with the works of Karl Popper on the nature of evidence and the scientific method. Descartes is all very well but there has actually been significant work done since then.

Othello is interesting, but as a work of fiction he doesn’t even rise to the status of anecdote. If you are trying to convince a room full of skeptics that evidence-based reasoning isn’t always helpful it would be nice if you presented some .. I don’t know .. evidence?

Love was repeatedly conflated with monogamy. With a group as diverse as the Westiminster Skeptics I bet not everyone would agree with that assertion. Except the assertion was never even properly made. Giles repeatedly admitted that he refused to define what Love even was. If we can’t even define the limits of what we are talking about then no useful discussion can occur.

It was a very good talk and the resulting discussion was one of the feistiest I’ve heard at #westskep but ultimately his refusal to define what he wanted to talk about moved him towards the usual kind of clumsy apologetics we’ve all heard before. A sort of loosely philosophical brand of special pleading.

This episode brought to you by the letter ‘beer’ and the number ‘too damn late’.

TAM London Day One

The Amazing Meeting London (TAMLondon) kicked off today. My day started off at the back of a queue outside the Mermaid Theater in Blackfriars. Things started off badly for me as I spent most of my queuing time on my trusty Nokia E71 logged into Merlin removing a recalcitrant compute node from the job scheduling system.

All of TAM takes place in the main auditorium of the Mermaid which comfortably seats all ~600 delegates. First up on stage was Brian Cox to talk about the Large Hadron Collider and the scientific questions it is designed to answer. Although what his talk was really about was politician’s tin ear for the fundamental goals of basic science. This lead to a brief (but thoroughly deserved) shoeing for the shambolic STFC. Whenever I listen to Brian Cox I feel like I understand particle physics. This feeling usual lasts as long as it takes me to forget what a lepton is (i.e not very long).

Jon Ronson gave an entertaining account of his adventure at Bohemian Grove and some anecdotes about the people in his book The Men Who Stare at Goats. If you have read his books and seen his documentaries you probably know most of this already. This was lots of fun, but could have done with more David Icke reptile anecdotes.

Simon Singh rounded off the morning session with an update on his progress in the libel suit that the British Chiropracters Association brought against him. He outlined the gross unfairness of the English Libel system pointing out that not only is the burden of proof on the defendant, but it is 140 times more expensive to defend a libel suit in England that it is in most of the rest of Europe. The rapturous reception Singh recieved from the TAMLondon crowd shows that many skeptics share his disgust with English Libel law. As an added bonus superstar legal-blogger Jack Of Kent spoke from the audience.

Lunch was nice and I took the opportunity to wander around St Pauls. I lived in London for six and half years and managed never to visit it.

The glamorous Ariane Sherine lead off the afternoon session with a behind the scenes look at the Atheist Bus Campaign. This might have been usefully subtitled ‘Accidental Atheist Activism’. This section brought up the usual skeptics vs atheists debate which passed without rancor.
Ben Goldacre’s barnstorming presentation on the failures of science journalism was the highlight of the day for me. In particular Goldacre’s Law: ‘There is no piece of fuckwittery so stupid that I can’t find at least one Doctor or PhD to defend it to the death’. It almost goes without saying that Goldacre holds the current TAMLondon record for most profanities in a single presentation. This Brigstockian performance was punctuated by vehement applause from the audience on several occasions.

As a special treat James Randi joined us by skype. While I was disappointed that Randi couldn’t be here in person I’m glad he is listening to his physicians. Hearing Randi reminisce about the highlights of his career was a pleasure.

Drawing proceedings to a close Phil Plait presented Simon Singh with a JREF award in recognition of his on-going legal battle with the BCA.

Now that day one is at an end I must mention Richard Wiseman’s MC’ing, which has been a delight throughout. He is a genuinely funny stage presence and I was nearly in tears with laughter during his ‘teatowel into chicken’ trick.

TAMLondon day one has been more fun a barrel full of monkeys. My only wish is that tomorrow there will be a copy of ’59 seconds’ left so that I can purchase it and read it on the train back to Cardiff.

Creationism Stalking the Land

I was disturbed to read the following letter in this week's Private Eye.

    Your reviewer of Richard Dawkin's latest literary fantasy The Ancestor's Tale
(Eye 1118) was correct to point out the religious aspects of Dawkin's effusions. Evolutionism is certainly more a faith than a science. There is still no fossil evidence. Recent advances in molecular science have shown the incredible and irreducible complexity of cell structure and programmed information that rules out any evolutionary progression. Evolutionists now cite cell mutations as a possible means of evolution – yet in all mutations studied  genetic information is always observed to be lost. i.e. what what we observe taking place is actually the opposite of evolution. Discerning Eye readers not yet taken in by this false religious belief will wish to investigate the following more scientifically-balanced books: Evolution: A Theory in Crisis by Michael Denton or Darwins's Black Box by Michael Behe.
George Gorniak

Obviously I'm not having a go at the Eye for printing this letter since it is evidence that they are giving all their readers, no matter
how  loopy, a right to reply. This is a good thing and speaks well of the Eye. No, I'm disturbed because I thought these kinds of
fundamentalist nut-cases only existed in hell-holes like Alabama not within our own green and pleasant land.

This letter encompasses all the Creationist greatest hits. lets enumerate and discuss for fun and profit.

  1. Evolutionism, this is a favourite straw man of the Creationists. Claim that anyone who espouses evolution is actually a
    religious nut just like them. Just to clear this up repeat after me, There is no such thing as Evolutionism. There is a scientific theory
    known as Evolution by natural selection which talks about how species evolve. The exact details of this theory are still the subject of
    massive amounts of research. Want to know more about evolutionary theory?
  2. No Fossil Evidence, this one's so wrong it's almost funny. There is in fact an overwhelmingly huge amount of fossil evidence. I can only assume this is one of those repeat something often enough and people will believe you kind of deals.
  3. Information is always lost,  this is a riff on the old tune of evolution is in contravention of the second law of
    thermodynamics. To start off I'll point out that contrary to what the author claims evolution has often been convincingly demonstrated in the petri dish. This EMBO report has a useful section entitled Evolution in the Laboratory. Anyway evolution doesn't break the 2nd law of thermodynamics although
    it clearly breaks the fragile little minds of Cretinists. Talk Origins address this in their massively helpful FAQ.
  4. There are scientific alternatives, particularly insidious is the suggestion that there are serious scientists with alternative
    explanations. Having read the Behe book I know this is not so (in case you are interested it was bought for me by my creationist grandmother). These are usually variations on the theme "God did it" clouded by some badly mis-informed pseudo science and careful avoidance of using the word God. For your edification here is a careful dismanteling of Behe's empty box. The evolution in crisis book was new to me so I had to look around for almost thirty seconds before a could find an answer.

After Blair happily started funding schools that teach creationism I am worried that this sort of thing may start becoming more common here in blighty. The only thing you can do about ignorance is to correct it when you see it.