June 30, 2010

Today I’m going to take a quick look at a company called Herbalife. In the height of the World Cup, I saw this video about the various top football teams who are supported by the company:

Sound familiar? Herbalife seem very keen to advertise who is using their product more than the evidence it works. There’s a big banner on their website about the fact that they sponsor Barcelona (surely they pay for the privilege so its nothing more than glorified advertising?), and a testimonial from Lionel Messi. The fact that Herbalife sponsors some sports teams doesn’t prove its effectiveness any more than Carlsberg sponsoring Liverpool FC made it a better beer. In fact they seem to think the fact that people use the product is in itself evidence that it works. I’ve spoken to a few people who have used it and some of them used similar arguments, saying the company operates in over 70 countries and it wouldn’t if it didn’t work. Of course the irony is that this argument increases the amount of people using it and so presumably that means the product works better than it did before, because there are more people using it. Who knows?

People across the world believe in astrology, they touch wood and cross their fingers for good luck, they use homeopathy, so the fact that lots of people think it works doesn’t mean it actually does. Bloodletting was a very common medical practice until they actually tested it and discovered that it increased mortality, and the reason it was practiced for so long is because people don’t have an internal placebo control and they can’t blind themselves to bias. That’s why a range of properly constructed randomised controlled trials (RCT) is the best way to determine if a treatment works or not.

Now don’t get me wrong, I understand why companies don’t use RCT’s to show people that it works. It requires explaining something to them which most people find pretty boring, and often requires complicated numbers. It’s much easier (and from a  marketing perspective much more effective) to use crap arguments like testimonials and popularity arguments, just like Powerbalance do. Somewhat paradoxically though, many companies like to use the veneer of science in their advertising. How many times have we seen beauty product adverts claim “7/10 women would recommend to a friend”? Or they’ll use a number like “increases core body strength by 500%!” They’re putting across like they’ve done research because that’s convincing, but it’s not the right kind of research, if they’ve done it at all. However, even if they’re not used for advertising, good quality trials should still be happening, otherwise how does the company itself know that its product works? And they should know that annoying bastards like me (and presumably some potential customers) are going to want to see some good evidence that it works rather than just the flim-flam they use in marketing, so they should be made available.

I visited their website to see if they had any of these studies tucked away somewhere there. There was a section called Our Science, so I went there. There’s actually no science there. What there is is a whole lot of argument from authority. They are very keen on putting letters after people’s names, and they talk about the two scientific centres they have, but there’s no mention of the actual trials or research they do. It all reeks of ‘look who’s doing the research, it must be good’. There are no papers cited on the website as far as I can see.

One of the things some of the people I spoke to about it mentioned was that it’s kind of pricey. They mentioned in particular an appetite suppressant that was recommended and cost £1 per pill, on top of the shakes and things, which is quite a lot. Now this brings me onto another thing, if Herbalife products are indeed effective are they more effective, and more cost-effective, than a balanced diet? I’ll look at that later, but I was interested in how much this stuff costs. I went to their product page and clicked on the first one in the list – Formula 1, and tried to go through the first few stages of the ordering process to check out the prices. Instead it wanted me to fill out a form with my name, telephone number and email (all compulsory fields), and said a Herbalife distributor would be in touch. Now maybe the distributors set their own prices, but you’d think they’d at least have an RRP.

Worryingly, the form also asked me what I’d be interested in discussing with the distributor, but it was phrased “In addition to the Herbalife Business Opportunity, I would also be interested in discussing…” I wasn’t interested in becoming a distributor, and I was kind of confused, thinking the website had sent me to their recruitment page, but no. It seems the website wasn’t targetted towards potential customers, but towards potential distributors, which makes more sense considering most of their testimonials are about people who became distributors and made a bit of money, and they mention the advertising that they do in quite a frank manner.

Still confused, I went to their wiki page. It mentions some conflicts of interest on the part of the the scientists but there isn’t enough information to know if its true, and links to this 2004 article from Forbes, which focuses more on their business practices than their products. It seems distributors are encouraged to shell out for promotional DVD’s, branding products, and buy the products at half price, then selling them on to make a profit. On top of that, if they convince others to become distributors, they earn a commission on the sales that they make. That sounds suspiciously like a pyramid scheme, particularly when you factor in that the website is geared more towards getting new recruits than it is about selling the product. Apparently this is a controversial but legal business practice called Multi-Level Marketing, but it sounds dodgy to me. The Forbes article above claims that the average yearly income among the bottom 87% of the distributors is just $522. The company’s revenue in 2009 was $3.8bn.

But finally through wiki I found some papers, which according to a claim marked ‘dubious’ on wiki, supports claims made by Herbalife advocates. Let’s take a look at them.

The first one – Treyzon et al, 2008 –  was funded by Herbalife and sets out to determine the effect of high protein diets on dieting in obese men and women. It found that weight loss between a standard protein diet and a high protein diet was similar, but that fat loss was higher in the high protein diet group. The second one – Belong Cho et al, 2008 – was very similar and had similar results. I’m no expert on reading scientific papers and can’t really comment if they have adequate controls etc (the sample sizes seem ok, but there’s only single blinding in the first one, which also mentions a placebo control in the abstract, only to neglect to mention it in the main body), but even if they are well-constructed, they don’t really support any claims of efficacy, unless your definition of efficacy is higher fat loss and similar weight loss. It also only deals with obese people, which I’m guessing isn’t the typical consumer of Herbalife. More than that though, it only compares a high protein diet with a standard protein diet, and doesn’t compare different sources of protein, so to me the result isn’t all that surprising. 12 weeks is also a fairly short time, we don’t see what happens when the patients come off these diets – perhaps the high protein group puts weight back on faster.

The diets they were put on consisted of two meal replacements (I’m guessing one of Herbalife’s shakes), with a calorie-controlled lunch. This is also how the programme was described to me by people who have used it. So you’re basically eating very little anyway, so you’re going to lose weight. What’s left for the shakes? Well it’s quite well-known among skeptics (not so well-known amongst the general public, judging by Holland and Barrett’s success) that vitamin supplements don’t really work unless you have a deficiency. The diet plan seems to create a deficiency and then give you supplements to try and treat it, which doesn’t seem to me to be a particularly efficient or sustainable way of doing it. I daresay you could get similar results if you ate 3 small meals consisting of various types of vegetables and legumes, and that would mean you wouldn’t spend the whole day starving, it’d be considerably cheaper (especially since the supplements seem to come in programmes together with other ones) and it’d also be more sustainable so you’re not just crash-dieting.

The Big Question left unanswered

June 21, 2010

John in the comments has pointed out a video on YouTube where the user makes similar points. You can find the two parts here and here.

I wish I could be bothered uploading a picture of myself so you can see how this not sleeping malarkey is taking its toll. But I can’t so you’ll have to imagine it.

I came across a video from the Atheist Media Blog (a great resource where you can find such gems as this redneck hick telling an invisible blonde bigfoot to ‘git’), which was apparently broadcast today on the BBC. The Big Questions is a show where they invite people on to talk about a big question and then it becomes a competition to see which side of the argument can nod most and clap loudest, then they decide they were never going to answer the question in 20 minute debate anyway and agree to disagree, so it’s all a waste of time in the first place. When I was last in the UK it was presented by Nicky Campbell (who I wouldn’t trust to tell me the time, never mind to answer a question that actually mattered), but it seems they’ve either changed or he was on holiday or something so the slightly more bearable Kaye Adams presents this one.

The big question for this week was ‘is there any evidence for God?’ The episode’s about 20 minutes long so here are the two videos, and seeing as arguments presented by various theists were answered so woefully (was Peter Atkins the only atheist there?), I’ll take a bit of a stab at them:

1) Adam Deen’s first argument (first part, 0:48). This is more commonly known as the Kalam Cosmological Argument. Anything that begins to exist has a cause, the universe began to exist, therefore the universe has a cause (and that cause is God). First of all the second premise, that the universe began to exist, is far from settled. There are multiverse theories which I won’t go into, but also if you look at the scientists that actually know a fair bit about the physics behind the Big Bang, even if they do believe in a god, they don’t use the Big Bang as a reason for it.

More widely, however, this is an argument from ignorance. Scientists don’t know what the cause is, so goddidit. As far as explanations go, this is about the worst you can get. We expect an explanation to give us more information about a phenomenon, whereas this just says “X caused the Big Bang, where X is defined as ‘the thing that caused the Big Bang’”, and then they just call X God. It’s replacing one mystery with another, and it doesn’t tell us anything about how the Big Bang happened at all! Ironically that is exactly what he says is the atheist position, that the universe popped into existence ‘as if by magic’! What is a god if not magic? What if the Big Bang was caused by a particle which exists outside of spacetime? Are you willing to concede that your creator god is a particle? Because if so, then I’m a theist. Instead of that, why don’t we just stick with ‘I don’t know’ for the time being, and keep on looking for the answer, instead of pushing a premature answer and obfuscating the search for a real explanation?

2) Adam Deen’s second argument (first part, 1:16). This is the fine tuning argument which I’ve taken a very extensive look at before, go take a read if you have time, I’m fairly sure it’s a solid rebuttal. Obviously I couldn’t reply with all of that on the show but there are 2 points I would make. First of all he says that the universe was fine-tuned for intelligent life, and that therefore there was an intelligence behind the universe. Not only is that a complete non-sequitor, but how is the universe any more fine-tuned for intelligent life than for bacteria? It’s absurd. Secondly it’s ludicrous to assert that the universe is fine-tuned for life when 99.999% of this solar system, never mind the rest of the universe, does not support life! I’ve seen videos of Adam Deen debating before, and he’s been given rebuttals to these two arguments, and he’s still using them. That’s intellectual dishonesty.

3) Kaye Adams’ question (first part, 1:40). Good question, and on a related point made by Hitchens, if you are a theistic evolutionist, you have to believe that for at least the first 90,000 years of our existence or so, God watched the human species suffer, many dying in childbirth, most absolutely terrified of the world around them with all kinds of predators and natural disasters happening which they didn’t understand, and only in the last 6,000 years or so decided to intervene.

4) Adam Deen’s claim about science vs religion (first part, 4:19). No, your lectures are not based on science. Science is a method, not just a bunch of things we know. Your lectures and debating subjects may include nuggets of information that come under the umbrella of science, but it is preposterous to suggest that they are based on science. By the way, you may be familiar with Prof. Atkins’ work but I bet he’s never raised a weapon in the name of atheism.

5) The woman talking about mental illness and religious experience (first part, 6:12). Kaye is quite right to say that none of this is anything to do with the existence of a god, that’s just an effect that a belief can have (if it’s true, that is. The way I remember it, they found that when people spoke to God, the same part of their brain lit up as when people with schizofrenia had visions). Interestingly she mentions several different faiths here, and the effects seem to be consistent no matter what god you’re praying to, which somewhat undermines the suggestion that there is a personal god and that any one of the various faiths has got it right.

6) The bishop’s claim that science comes from religious belief (first part, 7:25). The view of a universe with immutable laws that do not change does not come from religious belief at all, it comes from observation. In fact, religionists are the ones who claim that these laws can be broken in the form of miracles! So that claim is complete bullshit. He then waffles about ‘primeval soup’ and doesn’t actually make a point at all.

7) Cristina Odone’s comments about love (first part, 8:37). There is no god-shaped hole. Plenty of atheists lead perfectly fulfilled lives. This is another argument from ignorance. Scientists can’t explain love therefore GOD!! If Cristina Odone can give me some evidence that love is anything other than a chemical and electrical process in the brain and body, that’s something. But just saying that she personally doesn’t believe it can be explained, and that God must be the explanation, is a specific type of argument from ignorance called the argument from personal incredulity.

8) Cristina Odone’s comments about believers being persecuted (second part, 0:06). I’m not one for persecuting anyone, but don’t you think it’s daft that if any other kind of belief were being criticised she’d have no problem with it? Say someone told her that they were abducted by aliens, she’d be the first to laugh at them! She wouldn’t say that the world was intolerant of abductees. She wouldn’t say abductees were being persecuted. Something I find absolutely incredible is that it is Cristina Odone who is putting herself across as the voice of tolerance. This is the woman that will very vocally oppose anything that goes against her precious Catholic dogma. She called Britain’s Best Former MP, Dr Evan Harris, ‘Dr Death’, because he believes science should be the measure of when the cut-off date for abortions is, and because he thinks people should be allowed to die with dignity. She has repeatedly praised the new government’s homophobic Equalities Minister and Home Secretary, Theresa May. At the same time that she’s pretending to be tolerant and respecting other religions, she supports segregating children through faith schools. She is a very vocal member of a church which obstructs granting rights to gay people. She’s a hypocrite, in other words.

9) The blonde woman in the orange cardigan (second part. 0:44). Who says there is a why? The burden of proof is on the one making the claim, not the one disbelieving it, otherwise you’d have to believe everything until it was disproven. When she’s boring the nation with her ‘transformed lives’ story, she’s only talking about Jesus. Adam Deen’s sitting right there, he’s a Muslim and he’ll have similar stories. So will Buddhists, Hindus, Jains and Jews. You can’t all be right, but you can all be wrong. Your transformed lives stories aren’t evidence of anything unless your god personally intervened and you’ve got proof.

10) The psychologist’s question about atheism and agnosticism (second part, 4:11). He has absolutely no idea what atheism or agnosticism means, and he’s not the only one. I hate to keep having to go over definitions, but a lot of people don’t get it. Theism and atheism goes to what you believe, whereas gnosticism and agnosticism goes to what you know. So you can be a gnostic theist if you know a god exists, an agnostic theist if you merely believe a god exists, an agnostic atheist if you don’t believe a god exists, or a gnostic atheist if you know a god doesn’t exist. I’ve never even heard of a gnostic atheist.

11) Faith of an atheist is more than the faith of a believer (second part, 5:40). That’s complete rubbish. Even if you grant his trichotomy, the multiverse is obviously the most likely option. We have experience of one universe, why could there not be others like it? But he thinks the more likely option is a god, something that we can’t examine, we have no experience of, and is, ultimately, a non-explanation anyway, as I said up in number 1.

And then when the guy at the end actually wants to talk about evidence, they cut him off. Brilliant. I think I’ve strained my eyes enough now, hopefully I’ll be able to sleep.

The Pope’s non-apology

March 29, 2010

This has once again turned into a really long post, sorry if it seems a bit daunting. I was also going to discuss the Church’s reaction to the Pope’s alleged involvement in the case of a priest in Wisconsin, but I think I’ll have to leave that for a separate post in a few days.

I have so far been fairly quiet on the question of the abuse of children within the Catholic Church, at least on the blog. When something so horrific happens, there’s not an awful lot that can be said. I don’t think anyone disagrees very much. But there is something that can be looked at a little bit closer, and that’s Pope Palpatine’s  apology, or as I think it’ll be fairly obvious by the end of this post, his non-apology. Fortunately the Telegraph has published the whole piece so we don’t have to rely entirely on news coverage of the apology and the reaction to it, which inevitably only includes the parts which fit with the news agency’s agenda (not that I’m any better, I’m not going to go through it all).

So the Pope actually starts off quite well, he appears to genuinely be concerned and expressing regret for what’s happened. I’m sure that on some sort of level he is concerned, but it’s pretty clear from my reading of his apology that he’s more concerned about the image of the church than genuinely looking for reparation for what members of the church did.

Perseverance and prayer are needed, with great trust in the healing power of God’s grace.

At the same time, I must also express my conviction that, in order to recover from this grievous wound, the Church in Ireland must first acknowledge before the Lord and before others the serious sins committed against defenceless children.

Such an acknowledgement, accompanied by sincere sorrow for the damage caused to these victims and their families, must lead to a concerted effort to ensure the protection of children from similar crimes in the future.

As you take up the challenges of this hour, I ask you to remember “the rock from which you were hewn” (Is 51:1).

Reflect upon the generous, often heroic, contributions made by past generations of Irish men and women to the Church and to humanity as a whole, and let this provide the impetus for honest self-examination and a committed programme of ecclesial and individual renewal.

It is my prayer that, assisted by the intercession of her many saints and purified through penance, the Church in Ireland will overcome the present crisis and become once more a convincing witness to the truth and the goodness of Almighty God, made manifest in his Son Jesus Christ.

Look at the message he’s putting across here, he’s saying “yes, the Church has done some bad things, but try not to think about that, think about faith and the good we’ve done in the past, think about the Bible, and most importantly pray, prayer will make it all better.” He does it again further on in the letter:

With this Letter, I wish to exhort all of you, as God’s people in Ireland, to reflect on the wounds inflicted on Christ’s body, the sometimes painful remedies needed to bind and heal them, and the need for unity, charity and mutual support in the long-term process of restoration and ecclesial renewal.

“What’s a nice-sounding way of saying ‘please don’t stop coming to mass and leaving money in our coffers’? Oh I know, we’ll call it ‘unity, charity and mutual support.’” It’s even more obvious later in the letter when he’s addressing the victims of abuse and their families (I won’t reproduce it all here so for context you should read it within the whole piece):

I pray that, by drawing nearer to Christ and by participating in the life of his Church – a Church purified by penance and renewed in pastoral charity – you will come to rediscover Christ’s infinite love for each one of you.

Purified by penance? How about purifying the Church (‘Purifying’ – I like how he seems to imply this is the only blemish on an otherwise spotless Church. HIV? What’s that?)  by kicking out the pedo priests and making sure they end up in jail? There’s a similar bit of poetic bullshit when he addresses the young people of Ireland:

We are all scandalised by the sins and failures of some of the Church’s members, particularly those who were chosen especially to guide and serve young people.

But it is in the Church that you will find Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and for ever (cf. Heb 13:8).

He loves you and he has offered himself on the cross for you.

Seek a personal relationship with him within the communion of his Church, for he will never betray your trust!

He alone can satisfy your deepest longings and give your lives their fullest meaning by directing them to the service of others.

Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus and his goodness, and shelter the flame of faith in your heart.

“Yeah, we’ve harboured paedophiles, but look at the little baby Jesus!” Would someone who is genuinely trying to make reparations for what his organisation has done say all this? I think the only reason they’re even admitting what’s happened is because it’s already out in public and denying it would be a bad PR move. Remember that in the past, cases of abuse were frequently blamed on homosexuals within the church, and pointing at other religious groups as if to say ‘but they did it too’. The Church seems intent on saving face and deflecting blame above all else.

He then goes on to describe the long history of the Church in Ireland, as if to say that there’s a lot more to the Church than just this and that this is just a short episode that can soon be passed in the long scheme of things. I have a problem with that, we have no way of knowing just how long this has been going on, it could be that the abuse of children, both physical and sexual, has been going on throughout this whole long history. Indeed physical abuse certainly has been happening for a long time if you include corporal punishment. I think it’s naive to consider paedophilia and child abuse to be purely modern phenomena. He also includes this chunk of Catholic history in Ireland:

From the sixteenth century on, Catholics in Ireland endured a long period of persecution, during which they struggled to keep the flame of faith alive in dangerous and difficult circumstances.

Saint Oliver Plunkett, the martyred Archbishop of Armagh, is the most famous example of a host of courageous sons and daughters of Ireland who were willing to lay down their lives out of fidelity to the Gospel.

Again, do you see what he’s doing? “Look at these role models!” he’s saying, “They stuck with the Church through thick and thin, they went through a lot worse than this!” This little history class he’s giving is completely irrelevant to the issue at hand; it is pure PR. No mention of the Troubles by the way, this selective history lesson paints a perfect and persecuted picture of Catholicism in Ireland.

In almost every family in Ireland, there has been someone – a son or a daughter, an aunt or an uncle – who has given his or her life to the Church.

Irish families rightly esteem and cherish their loved ones who have dedicated their lives to Christ, sharing the gift of faith with others, and putting that faith into action in loving service of God and neighbour.

I think this is something of an inaccurate portrayal of the Catholic Church – they’re trying to make out like this is an organic, grass-roots organisation rather than the top-down hierarchy that it really is. The Church does not make itself accountable to its members. It’s almost like he’s trying to spread the blame out by saying that this is an organisation made up of the people of Ireland; they’re all part of the Church so this is their problem too. That is (in part) true, but it is shifting the focus of the blame away from the Vatican, and ignores the role played by the Church hierarchy in covering-up the abuse cases.

The next part is sickeningly obvious, and I’m surprised it got missed by the BBC article where I first heard about the apology letter:

In recent decades, however, the Church in your country has had to confront new and serious challenges to the faith arising from the rapid transformation and secularisation of Irish society.

Fast-paced social change has occurred, often adversely affecting people’s traditional adherence to Catholic teaching and values.

All too often, the sacramental and devotional practices that sustain faith and enable it to grow, such as frequent confession, daily prayer and annual retreats, were neglected.

Significant too was the tendency during this period, also on the part of priests and religious, to adopt ways of thinking and assessing secular realities without sufficient reference to the Gospel.

How dare he? How fucking dare he blame secular forces for something that happened under his and his predecessors’ own most holy noses? Don’t forget that much of this abuse happened at a time when the Catholic Church was deeply embedded into Irish society and politics, and that it is only now in more secular times, when the grip of the Church has loosened somewhat, that some of the truth has finally managed to come out. There is again this assumption that the abuse has only been going on relatively recently.

The letter is very long and I can’t go through it all with a fine toothcomb, but as I was reading through I was struck by a sense of disgust. Throughout every section the Pope appears to pay lip-service to the idea of justice and reconciliation, but it’s buried deep in flowery language about God’s mercy and talking about how prayer will be the solution. Only in the part addressed to the abusers of children does he speak about coming forward and admitting what they as individuals have done. Even then, however, he speaks of atonement “By offering prayers and penances for those you have wronged.” No civil authorities, no jailtime, no real justice by any means. So it was with some relief that I came to the last section, where Palpatine declares:

I now wish to propose to you some concrete initiatives to address the situation.

Brilliant! Unfortunately I assumed ‘concrete’ would refer to something material or specific, something that would actually bring about justice, but in reality his “initiatives to address the situation” just consist of more prayer and a proposed ‘Apostolic Visitation’ to Ireland.

Don’t believe me? Don’t believe that God’s own representative on Earth would propose such a dispairingly inadequate solution? Go ahead, read it. It’s the section at the end entitled “To all the faithful of Ireland.” All he proposes is devoting Lent and Friday penances to praying for the renewal of the Church, going to confession more often, paying more attention to Eucharistic adoration, a nationwide Mission, and this Apostolic Visitation. His solution is to stick with the Church then, basically. His reason for writing this letter is to try and keep people in the Church. Not justice, not reparation. “Please forgive the Church and keep giving us money.”

Now let’s look at what isn’t here. He does not at all acknowledge the role played by the Church hierarchy and the Vatican (and it seems, the Pope himself) in the cover-up of the abuse. Whenever there is a veiled reference to the cover-up, it’s obfuscated in vague expressions like “there was a well-intentioned but misguided tendency to avoid penal approaches to canonically irregular situations“, where he doesn’t say who avoided penal approaches, or “misplaced concern for the reputation of the Church and the avoidance of scandal, resulting in failure to apply existing canonical penalties“, where he acts as if the only reason it happened was because someone didn’t do what the Vatican said. He is blaming the grass-roots of the Church, in other words.

He also does not call for any definitive action, even though he tells the bishops that “only decisive action carried out with complete honesty and transparency will restore the respect and good will of the Irish people towards the Church to which we have consecrated our lives.” No clue as to what that decisive action should be, though. A swing and a miss.

He does not call for resignations of any bishops. This is particularly alarming in the case of Sean Brady, the leader of the Church in Ireland. Back in 1975 he was personally involved in a case where the victims of sexual abuse were made to sign oaths of silence. Despite having said in the recent past that if he found out his actions had led to the abuse of more children, he would resign, he has refused to resign over this revelation, claiming that he will only resign if asked to do so by the Pope. Palpatine, on the other hand, seems to have a policy of not sacking people, but merely accepting resignations. Catch 22.

He also only refers to the cases in Ireland, and doesn’t seem to acknowledge that the abuse has happened in the Church across the world. Why does he not do this? Because the only thing linking the Church in all these different countries is the Vatican, and he doesn’t want to draw attention to the Vatican’s role in the abuse. That would imply that the problem is endemic and therefore much bigger than the image he wants to put across.

So I hope by the end of this long post that you’re convinced this apology was actually not really an apology, but a way for the Church to try and save face and push blame away from the Vatican. It’s a shame that this apology has been swallowed whole by so many, because I think if more people just went and read it, they’d realise how inadequate it is too.

And me? Well I’m ashamed I was ever involved in such a disgusting institution.

Simplicity, complexity, and chaos

January 23, 2010

I just watched a BBC documentary about Chaos Theory presented by Jim Al-Khalili, and it was superb. Beautifully shot, thought-provoking, informative, and with a brilliant soundtrack, it’s not one to be missed. I had to wait a while for it to make it onto YouTube but it went up last week on the AtheistPlanetBlog channel, which has a lot of other very interesting videos, not necessarily anything to do with atheism. Anyway here’s the first part:

There are 6 parts (just shy of an hour long altogether), and it moves from Turing, through to Belousov, Lorenze, and Mandelbrot, among many others. I really do recommend it.

When I was watching this, I came to a very suddent realisation that this documentary, and other programmes like it, are the reason we need the BBC. Can you see ITV or another major commercial channel funding a programme like that? The primary goal of such companies is to make money through ratings, not to make great programming. The majority of the British TV audience wouldn’t give that programme a second look, they’d hear the word ‘theory’ and turn it off as boring scienceystuff. Even look at the niche science channels, a lot of it is dry and stuffy, and another lot of it is just about blowing things up, or they’re just glorified freak shows. The well thought-out programmes don’t get the exposure they should. This is something of a change of heart for me. Not really seeing the point in preserving something just for the sake of preserving it, in the past I’ve said that if the fine arts can’t support themselves, then they should be allowed to die. Obviously I wouldn’t take such a position when talking about something as important as science, that if it doesn’t make money it shouldn’t happen, and this documentary’s given me the opportunity to reconsider my position on other things as well. We need this kind of thing to inspire the next generation of scientists and artists.

A related point is that it demonstrates a fallacy often committed by creationists trying to discredit the theory of evolution. They’ll say that it led to eugenics, and ultimately to ethnic cleansing. This is incorrect on two points. Firstly, eugenics is based on a misunderstanding of the theory of evolution by natural selection, which clearly demonstrates that in the case of a natural disaster or something similar, one of the best ways to ensure the survival of the species is to maintain genetic diversity in the species, that way the species is more adaptable to new environments. Secondly, even if that were true, it is fallacious to disbelieve a scientific theory because you don’t like its consequences. But the more general point, related to the BBC, is that just because we know that natural selection happens in nature and has led to the point we’re at now, that does not mean we must accept it as an ideology. We don’t have to see it as a good way to organise a society. We can protect things that otherwise would not survive in the free market economy.

So yes, watch the documentary.


November 25, 2009

This weekend I went to visit a friend in Madrid, and whilst we were there we went to see Agora, the film with Rachel Weisch that I’d seen adverts for, but I didn’t have any idea what it was about (it’s weird when you don’t watch TV, you see all these billboards and adverts on buses, but all they have is their name and who’s in it. Without the trailer you have no idea what it’s about and most of the time they looks ridiculously crap). Anyway it turns out it’s about the library at Alexandria. Cool!

**Spoilers will be throughout this post alongside my thoughts, if you want to go see it, go and do so before reading this**

Anyway so the film opens by explaining that in the fourth century the Library wasn’t only a great store of knowledge, but that it was also surrounded by religious debate, and the opening scene marks a debate between a Christian and what they refer to as pagans, by which it means believers in the Roman gods. The Christian proves that he’s correct with a ‘miracle’ when he walks across the fiery coals without being hurt, and then his mates throw the pagan into the coals and of course he is burnt. Several characters see this as proof of Christianity. I don’t think I need to debunk that, but I was struck by how petty this god seems to be, to intervene to help a man cross some coals, but not intervening to prevent all kinds of suffering that no doubt were happening at this point in history. People were still dying in huge numbers during childbirth!

Anyway so one day the Christians start mocking the pagan gods, throwing rotten fruit at the statues. As a response to this insult, the pagans, so famous for their rational thought, decide to go on a killing spree, and quite a pathetic one at that. They surround the group of unarmed Christians with swords, but managed to get turned away and take many injuries. The Christians force them back into the Library, and they close the gates and are trapped inside.

I was very much reminded of a verse from the Bible, funnily enough. In Judges 6, Gideon breaks the altar of Baal and when the citizens of the town call for his head for doing it, his father says, “Are you going to plead Baal’s cause? Are you trying to save him? Whoever fights for him shall be put to death by morning! If Baal really is a god, he can defend himself when someone breaks down his altar.” Indeed. Why gods need people to defend them is beyond me.

So this pathetic, but tragically deadly religious bickering reaches a stalemate, both sides wanting blood. The Christian Emperor Theodosius decrees that the pagans will be pardoned, but that the library is to be given to the Christians to do whatever they want. So the Christians come in, destroy all the statues and burn all the ‘pagan’ works in the Library. This page seems to agree with the story, but with a small addition, the pagans had already been kicked out of their temples by the Romans, and then the Christians put up the statues in a church by way of mocking them, and that’s when the riot started. So the pagans aren’t a problem anymore, we now have the Jews and the Christians living side by side.

Not for long. In the film, the Christians go to the theatre on the Sabbath and throw stones at the Jews there. There’s a line where one of the Jews says that they couldn’t defend themselves because it was the Sabbath and that would be work. I suspect the director’s taking a bit of a poke at the idea of the Sabbath here. The Jews retaliate, and we’re in the same situation, with the Roman prefect trying to keep the peace between the two groups. It’s just so petty, and it’s still happening now, with religious fundamentalists still waging wars against each other.

Anyway the interesting thing is that throughout all of this we have the philosopher Hypatia, nominally a pagan, but she doesn’t really refer to ‘the gods’ at all. She’s been pondering whether the sun orbits the earth or vice versa, discovers that both are possible, but comes to the problem that we’re further away from the sun in the winter. She’s a friend of the prefect, who becomes unpopular because he takes advice from this woman (albeit probably the most intelligent woman of her time), which is against the teachings of Paul as we know. Perhaps yet another dig at modern-day religious beliefs on the part of the director? So Hypatia’s literally just discovered the shape of the ellipse in the orbit, by some strange method involving dividing the sun into two parts, and seeing that the sum distance between them doesn’t change, which seems really strange considering she knows there’s only one sun. But I digress. Hypatia gets kidnapped by the Christians, taken to a church where they want to skin her alive. But one of the Christians, a former slave of Hypatia, says to stone her instead, and when they go to gather stones, he suffocates her out of mercy, while she stares at the ellipse shape made by the shadow of the sun through a hole in the ceiling. Nice feel-good ending.

But the message of this film seems clear, and I’m surprised that Christians in the US haven’t announced a boycott on this one as well (I suppose their pastors didn’t notice it so they had noone to think for them). We have religious groups fighting amongst each other, each essentially looking no less pathetic than the others. They claim to have these deep, very important beliefs, but actually in practice these beliefs don’t achieve anything but destruction. The main victims of this destruction are Hypatia as a woman and as someone accused of godlessness, and also science and the progress of the human race. It’s just such a pity that the world has changed so little between now and then. Still now we have the threat of armageddon with nuclear weapons in the hands of religious fanatics, we have religious groups holding back the progress of research into potentially life-saving science, and we still have women and atheists being oppressed in many parts of the world by religious groups. Religionists take note, many of your views seem as pathetic to me as the views of the characters will to you.

Skepticamp 2009

August 7, 2009

We had an excellent night at the Edinburgh Skepticamp 2009. The two Alexes gave presentations on statistical fallacies and paranormal investigations, respectively, whilst someone I’d never met before called Terry spoke about how best to win over the believers, and I concentrated on alternative medicine with homoeopathy being the main focus.

It was the last Q&A section that started the most vigorous debate, where we were speaking about whether it would be easier to win over a fundamentalist or a moderate believer, with all of the speakers up on stage. One man stood up and asked the question “What’s wrong with being a believer?” to which someone on stage replied that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong (depending on what you mean by ‘wrong’), as long as it doesn’t affect other things. The man agreed, but continued with the sentence “it’s wrong for religionists to force their beliefs on others, just as it’s wrong for skepticism to be forced on others”.

This struck me as rather curious because he was comparing two very different things, religion being a set of dogmatic beliefs, and science and skepticism being a method best suited to acquiring the truth. So I said so and he replied that, for example, ‘evolutionism’ was a belief that we were forcing on others. Somehow then we got into a discussion about the evidence for evolution and established that although it’s not a fact, it’s about as close to a fact as we have in science. But this man maintained that since it is not a fact it should not be forced onto others.

I struggle to see what his point was. Was he seriously suggesting that it’s just as morally wrong to teach a child about evolution, with all the evidence in favour of it, as to teach the child about creationism which has no evidence for it whatsoever? It’s obviously more wrong to ‘force’ a lie onto someone than a truth, and although we can’t possibly know for sure whether something is true, that’s not to say that all beliefs are equally valid. We can put them in order of what is more likely to be true, based on the available evidence, and we do know that some claims cannot be true based on the current evidence.

But that’s missing the larger point that skeptics don’t force their beliefs on others! Skepticism is about criticising other people’s beliefs and claims, picking them apart and saying “this is unlikely to be true because A, B, C.” We may then propose another belief that is better supported by the evidence, but skeptics would be more than happy to defend their beliefs from critical argument, if only because at the end of the process we’ll be one step closer to the truth! It’s all about the free interchange of ideas, something that skepticism and science do well, because they are always changing, and something that dogmatic belief systems like religion do very badly, since they don’t change at all.

I’m reminded of this video that PZ Myers posted on Pharyngula this week of Wendy Wright from American Women Concerned for America or something. I only watched the first part because I’m short on time right now, but that’s enough to see that she’s asking for a ridiculously high level of evidence for evolution (her version of evidence is ‘if you can’t put it in my hand, it’s not evidence’), whilst allowing her own beliefs to slip completely under the skepticism radar. Take a look, here’s the first part and I’m sure you can find the rest of them.

Rock on, Corrie!

April 16, 2009

I went home over Easter (sorry for not posting but I didn’t take my laptop with me), and spent a while (which I’ll never get back) watching Coronation Street with my mum, who watches it regularly. One of the storylines was about an Easter service at the local church with a pet blessing afterwards. Here’s more or less how it goes…

A kid and his dad are putting the rabbit away in the garden. The nice old bag from next door compliments the rabbit and the hutch which the dad built, and after a conversation tells them about the pet blessing which they could take the rabbit to if they wanted. She thinks it’s a good harmless way of getting more people to go to church, even if it is just a novelty. Later the kid, his dad, his turkey-necked grandmother and narky (but surprisingly funny) old bag great grandmother, as well as the rabbit, are getting ready to go to church, when this scene happened, and my new hero Ken Barlow spoke out about the kid being indoctrinated, and after the service tried to teach him about humanism, albeit somewhat badly.

I didn’t think about it that much at the time, but apparently a load of fuddy duddies have complained! Seemingly, they called what he said “anti-Christian”, and said it was a disgrace to air such a thing on the holiest day of the year. (As I’m sure I’ve blogged before, theologically it may be the most significant day of the year, but in practice it takes second place to Christmas in terms of observance). 23 people complained to OfCom, the broadcasting watchdog, and 100 complained directly to ITV!

I fail to see how this is greatly offensive, as one viewer put it. When else are they going to run a religious storyline like this, just at any time of the year? It’s entirely appropriate to screen this storyline (alongside another one about the girl over the road becoming a Born Again, I might add) on one of the few days when attendance at church spikes. That’s when a non-Christian would be likely to go to church! At this time of year religion is also fresh in some people’s minds. I think some people need better things to do with their lives.

So if you want to speak up in favour of these comments, feel free to contact ITV with your views.


April 5, 2009

Last night the Humanists went to watch Religulous, Bill Maher’s documentary about religious belief. If you haven’t heard about it, here’s the trailer:

We all thoroughly enjoyed it and it was very funny. Actually a lot of the laughs weren’t even at the expense of religious belief. So for example when some truckers in a chapel put their hands on Bill to pray for him when he was leaving, he walked away and said “Hey! Where’s my wallet?”, and after a conversation about hallucination, he told the cannabis-worshipping Dutch guy that his hair was on fire, and he shat himself. Brilliant. Some of the  best parts were when someone said something stupid or ironic and he just sat in silence, like in the trailer where the senator for Arkansas says “well, you don’t need to take an IQ test to get into Congress”, or when Ken Ham said “Well, he is God. Are you God?” as if he’d won some big point, and Bill just shook his head and quietly said no.

Now I’ve heard a lot of people saying that it was biased, that it only dealt with the craziest beliefs, that it didn’t poke fun at atheists too (‘Schindler’s List’ didn’t show the Nazi side of the story either, so what?), and I agree! The whole thing was slanted against religious belief, it was obviously edited to make the people he was interviewing look more stupid, but it’s a comedy documentary about how ridiculous religious belief is! It’s kind of in the title! Besides, you can’t deny that some of the things those people said, no matter how they were edited or what context they were in, were ridiculously stupid. Things like “I’m gonna go up to heaven and come back on a white horse!”, or ‘No, it wasn’t in here, Mohammed kept the winged horse outside in the courtyard!’, or that the Messiah was going to come, raise people on the Mount of Olives from the dead, hop over a wall and go through the Golden Gates. WTF?!

Anyone out there, especially theists, I encourage you to go and see it. Maybe it’ll show you a glimpse of how ridiculous some of your beliefs seem to people on the other side of the fence, people who don’t just make some of their beliefs immune to scrutiny or evidence, just because it comes under the label of ‘religion’ or ‘faith’. Maybe you can laugh when he pokes fun at a different religion, but remember that they’ll be doing the same thing to you too.

At one point Bill seemed to be making the point that lots of religious people will happily laugh at beliefs like Mormonism and Scientology saying they’re stupid, but they need to take a look in the mirror! Compared to the daftness of their own religious beliefs, Mormonism and Scientology are only a tiny bit more stupid. I sketched a quick chart, hopefully it’ll come out ok.


(You may ask why I don’t think Islam is as stupid as the other Abrahamic religions. Well this isn’t exactly to scale, I think it’s less less stupid than Scientology is more stupid [if you can follow that], but at least we are more certain that Muhammed existed than we are Jesus did.)

So yeah, go see it.

The AHS Launch

February 24, 2009

I fully intended to write this as soon as I got back from London, but one thing and another have stacked up and I’m doing this to take a break from essaying. It’s a relief to write my own opinion on something I care about instead of just the opinion that will get me marks on something boring.

So on Thursday, Andre and I travelled down to London to represent the Humanist Society at the official launch of the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies at Conway Hall, home of the Ethical Society. The AHS is the umbrella union we were talking about creating a year ago in order to share ideas and resources with all the other irreligious societies around the UK. We held the inaugural conference in David Hume Tower over the summer, and Stuart and Greg attended the second conference in Leeds. It was a superb venue, and one that the AHS will be able to use again for other big events in the future.

The launch itself was attended by such prominent figures such as Richard Dawkins, AC Grayling, Polly Toynbee and Maryam Namazie. I already had Dawkins sign my copy of Unweaving the Rainbow at the Edinburgh Science Festival last year, but that’s who most of the others were really excited about. Instead I got a nice message in my copy of AC Grayling’s Against All Gods.

Each of the speakers gave really supportive messages of the idea for the AHS and encouraged us to work as an ideas factory for the movement as a whole. Dawkins also spoke about how evangelical religious organisations did not belong on university campuses as they poisoned minds and disrupted education. Perhaps more importantly, he said that the AHS would be well place to apply for funding from the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. Apparently this was a particularly difficult charity to set up, and at one point he needed to clarify to the government what benefits science and reason bring to society, as opposed to religious groups which have no problem.

In any case it was good to finally meet the people I’ve been corresponding with over the internet for some time. We’re thinking the next conference should be in Warwick, but we’ll see. Keep your eyes peeled for media coverage (although a lot of it has already passed – we got a 2 page spread in the Independent and a fair bit of coverage on BBC Radio). More information at:




Be prepared for another post soon as I’ll crave procrastination and this is at least mildly useful.

Occupation update

February 14, 2009

Still here at George Square Theatre. At the moment we’re watching a film called Sands of Sorrow. It’s kind of boring so I thought I’d blog instead.

So today I spent most of the day outside speaking to non-student protestors. There’s a frustrating situation where the university is refusing to allow anyon who’s not a member of the university into the building. This means we have people showing up outside to show us support and join the occupation, realising they can’t do very much and moving on. It’s also freezing outside so people inside are reluctant to come out. That said we’ve had a core group of people coming to our stall outside to help us hand out flyers, and generally just to have a chat. I’ve been sitting outside each evening and the dedication of some people is astounding.

Last night after I blogged a group of musicians came and played us some brilliant original music, and then we had a really long meeting to discuss the university’s response, which they’d said was final. Again using the consensus decisionmaking process (something I’m really glad I’ve been introduced to), we decided that we’d done everything we could with this occupation, and acknowledged that we had achieved a lot of our aims. Those that we hadn’t achieved, or those that we thought we could achieve more with, it’s perhaps more feasible to act upon them through the normal channels, or through further demonstration in the future. For example the university thinks it would be unethical to “deny access” to graduate job opportunities at companies making arms used by Israel by banning them from careers fairs. Of course this argument doesn’t stand up at all, they’re not denying access, the access to the jobs is still there through normal channels. All banning them would do is stop the university indirectly condoning their actions. But we can better act against this by demonstrating at the careers fairs and working through EUSA. I think the majority of us knew it was time to leave.

Seeing as the university administration is not around during the weekend (particularly Melvyn Cornish and Tim O’Shea), we decided that we would leave on Monday morning before lectures start. In the meantime we’ve been using the space to try to mobilise more support, hold workshops, screen films and hold lectures, in order to keep momentum and create a group which is ready and willing to hold the university to account over what it’s agreed to do.

As part of this we held a demonstration outside the front of the building, attended by just short of 100 people in total. To start with, a choir called Protest in Harmony came and sang some protest songs. This was the best thing I’ve ever heard, with lyrics like [paraphrasing] “the Venezuelans sent the Israeli ambassador home, for its flagrant disregard of international rules” (which was apparently taken straight from a newspaper article), but set to choral, hymn-like music. It was phenomenal, and got a lot of people outside who probably wouldn’t have otherwise been arsed. Then the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign showed up (who have also been great, they’re obviously very used to speaking publicly and one of their members, Mick, has MC’d both of these demonstrations, which helped it go a lot smoother) and we got a demonstration going. Several people spoke out, and we got a lot of signatures on our petition.

So things are going well.


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