Wednesday, 20 June 2012


For some reason I can never quite get over visiting Parliament, despite my slight anarchistic tendencies. So when I heard that June 22nd would see the first ever TEDx event to be held within the Houses of Parliament, I knew that I’d have to be there. After all, it combines AT LEAST THREE of my favourite things in the world: listening to people talk about clever and exciting things, doing a spot of political boggling, and taking a day off work. Plus, all of my previous trips have been to attend the infamous karaoke nights in the Sports & Social, so it’ll be nice to feel like I’m actually engaging in debate about society rather than just getting pissed and singing Madonna really loudly.

I’m a big fan of TEDx events - mainly because I’m a big fan of TED events, but can’t actually afford to go to them. TEDGlobal (being held this year in Edinburgh, around the theme of Radical Openness; and yes, it does look as amazing as that sounds) will set you back a lump sum of $6000. Which, in pounds sterling, amounts to A LOT. And even then you might not manage to get in, as entrance is at TED's "discretion". For a conference focussing on openness, that feels – well, how can I put it? - a tad closed off.

For those of us who hanker after the TED experience without breaking the bank, there are two options. One: watch TED talks online, most of which have been offered freely available for viewing since 2006 under Creative Commons. Or two: attend a TEDx event. TEDx - as I'm sure most skeptical readers know already - was created in the spirit of TED’s mission, “ideas worth spreading”, and is designed to give communities a chance to engage in dialogue and debate at the local level, in a TED-like experience.

The TEDxHousesofParliament event will be based around the theme of ‘Democracy’, and will juxtapose science, poetry, architecture, music, history and law with technology – all in the historical grandeur of Banqueting House and the Houses of Parliament.  Speakers include Rory Stewart MP, Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield, and Robert Rogers, Clerk of the House of Commons, amongst a regular smorgasbord of other writers, scientists, activists, artists, et cetera et cetera.

All in all, the event should be like a great chance to bring public debate and a spot of tech-savvy into the Westminster Bubble - a space which sometimes risks being seen as being a little out-of-touch with the world around it. It’s great to see Parliament making efforts to engage people with the political landscape and the future of democracy (and letting the commoners in through the doors for a change!) and I'm looking forward to the conversations and ideas that should be sparked throughout the day.

If you want to join us, there are still a few tickets left over on the TEDxHOP site, and at £60 a pop (or £40 for students), they'll give you all that TEDesque atmosphere without forcing you to go hungry for a year. Bonus. And If you’re quick, you can get 10% off with this code. 

This Blog Post was written for us by the wonderfully talented Nat Guest (@unfortunatalie).

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The Round-up w/e 17/06/2012

Welcome to the Round-up.

Without pausing for breath, let’s dispense with the preamble and dive straight into this week’s steaming pile of links.

Behavioural tracking and the erosion of personal privacy has increased to a point that worries many people. If you want to see a clear extirpation of the problem, then take a look at this TED talk by Gary Kovacs called Tracking the Trackers." Give it a try yourself. Here’s the link to the Firefox extension Collusion mentioned in the video.

The penguins are revolting: Accounts of unusual sexual activities among penguins, observed a century ago by a member of Captain Scott's polar team, are finally being made public. If the freaky, racy, and sometimes explosive sexual behaviour of species is your bag, then may I recommend a consultation with Dr.Tatiana for the definitive guide to the evolutionary biology of sex.

Come join the slowest-growing religion in the world – Dudeism. The Church of the Latter-Day Dude is a religion inspired by The Big Lebowski, Taoism and more. Free ordination as a minister!  If only I could get my ass off this sofa maaan…

Snakes on a transcendental plane: For Chinese Buddhists, releasing evil animals (hedgehogs!) is supposed to pay karmic dividends. How the resultant plague, death and chaos are deducted from their divi top-up isn’t clear and just where is the magic bronze serpent on a pole kept when you really need it?

In this entertaining and enthusiastic TED video Hans Rosling had a question: Do some religions have a higher birth rate than others -- and how does this affect global population growth? Make sure you stick around for the answer.

Speakers Corner:-

Hmmm…Has it really been nearly two years now since my first Brum Sitp with the fabulous Chris French? More from Chris here where he asks how true to life are the psychics and psychologists in the new movie Red Lights?

Some links now to The British Heart Foundation site where they’ve been talking to BHF council member, and our Alice Roberts, on the importance of science, Darwin and organ donation.

Deborah Hyde (aka Jourdemayne) came to visit us in March with a fascinating talk on The Folklore of Fear. Let’s catch up with the latest accounts of belief in the undead with this new article High Stakes. The content is fairly close to Deborah’s Sitp talk if you missed it.

On the subject of Ridley Scott’s latest cinematic offering, here’s a collection of concerned criticisms regarding the accuracy of the science behind the movie; Ridley Scott’s Prometheus and anti-sciencePrometheus: an archaeological perspective (sort of) and Why ‘Prometheus’ gets it all wrong, and why it matters.

Italy, Greece and Egypt may well disagree with these recent findings: Scientists find new evidence supporting John the Baptist bones theory "The result from the metacarpal hand bone is clearly consistent with someone who lived in the early first century AD.” Well that narrows it down then.

Fossil dating row: Interpreting, dating and naming fossils can be a difficult task even for scientists. Caution – unnecessarily dramatic headline follows.

An article on the convergence of science communication and music is something I’ve been meaning to put together for a while now. Fortunately, some of this has recently been covered  by the helpful and strangely familiar Scicommbobulate blogspot
. Mind if I add a few artists with an atheist twist to that roster Tulpesh? How about Greydon Square and K.I.N.E.T.I.K plus an interesting song from Anthony David? Pick them up at Bandcamp for not many pennies here and here. Stop the vinyl press – this just came in.

Reminiscent of a Viz cartoon strip - Mormons and their sacred underpants: What happens when they whip them off? It’s worth clicking through to the original article for a serious story about a loss of faith.

Described as a provocative blending of the sacred and the comic book profane; Saintly statues get super heroic makeovers, followed by this question: What super hero powers would you ask Jesus to give you?

Posted in the Guardian this week; Edzard Ernst reports on the reluctance of chiropractors to change, in the face of a lost court case, and their continued treatment of children despite a lack of evidence.

Love your smartphone but miss the feel of a real keyboard? Now you can have both thanks to a new tactile touchscreen that morphs to create physical buttons. Looks like a parallel arrangement of sunburn blisters from where I’m sitting.

Fearing that the
ghosts of the departed  would come to torment them, residents of a suburb of Lagos where the Dana airliner crashed in June, have reacted negatively to proposals for the mass burial of unidentified victims in the area.

Here’s some sand back in your face beach bully: New research from scientists at McMaster University reveals exercise-related testosterone and growth hormone do not play an influential role in building muscle after weightlifting, despite conventional wisdom suggesting otherwise.

Scientists are embarking on a mission to capture a 3D image of every ant species known to science. Some additional ants in the scans can be found here – a strange mix of Micro CT with twangy C & W accompaniment.

From the Daily Galaxy - Image of the Day: Evidence of a past universe? Circular patterns in the cosmic microwave background.

As one of those tester type people by day I’m so glad experiments like this fall outside of my remit: Scientists confirm existence of old person smell.

Cataloguing the genetic identity of bacteria, viruses and other organisms that live in intimate contact with us, The Human Microbiome Project reveals largest microbial map.

It’s normally Patrick that has first dibs on the Cephalopod articles; however, I managed to sneak this one  past him. Write your own description for this, I’m not going to go there.

Here’s what we’re up to over the coming months: What's On at Brum Sitp. Come along, we’d love to see you. There is also our social on 26th June at the Old Contemptibles so pop that in your diary too.

Finally, neither science nor skepticism but may cause some neurological problems if watched more than once; here’s William Shatner’s unique version of Bohemian Rhapsody from his new album Seeking Major Tom. It comes with the skeptical health warning due to it being pure, erm, Shat…

This week’s Round-up was compiled by SitP regular Roy Beddowes.

Monday, 11 June 2012

The Round-up w/e 10/06/2012

Before continuing I’d like to point out than none of the stories in this week’s round-up were obtained by the illegal use of phone hacking or hiring of private investigators. Instead we’ve followed the time honoured journalistic tradition of nicking them from other people’s sites.

We’ll start by remembering the science fiction genius of Ray Bradbury who died last Tuesday aged 91. A great visionary and writer who inspired many people’s interest in space and science.

A bit of self-promotion here for my recent post Is Faith Reasonable? It was interesting to read this piece on Why Science is Hard to Believe shortly after I posted it. Perhaps it just takes too much cognitive effort to be properly rational.

I might not need to be writing too many more posts such as that one anyway. According to Nigel Barber religion only has about another quarter of a century to go. Some statistical support is added to the trend by the lowering religiosity of the Generation Xers as reported by the Friendly Atheist.

While there still are churches though I reckon this would be a fantastic job for an atheist. Although there are other better paid jobs going in the field of made up nonsense as the NHS is looking to pay a sugar pill dispenser.

Did you see the bit about how it has been shown that exercise doesn’t help depression? I saw it all over the place but Martin Robbins uses it to illustrate again how we need to look past the headlines sometimes.

The next section is not for arachnophobes as there have been reports of killer spiders invading a town in Assam, India. Here the Daily Mail reports on the rumours and prints a helpful picture of a large spider even though they don’t know the species that may be involved. A few days later The Hindu prints a more circumspect account although it too has a jolly nice picture of an eight legged beastie. Interesting to note that at least one if not both of the fatalities consulted a witchdoctor before trying science based medicine.

Rodentia neurologica, no, not a Harry Potter spell, but a very cool exercise in mouse brain mapping.

Remember that neutrino experiment that seemed to contradict the theory of special relativity? The one that everyone said was probably wrong? Well it’s now been officially declared wrong so let’s hear no more of it!

How do we feel about fetal genome sequencing?

Dave Watts is a geek and proud of it. What’s more he want’s MP’s to be aware of the importance of evidence-based policy and wants to provide them with their own copy of the Geek Manifesto. You can find out more about him here, and his campaign here.

No matter how much evidence you throw at a destructive myth some just refuse to go away. The supposed link between autism and vaccines is just one example.

The British Chiropractic Association is apparently very good at evidence. They can accurately pick the evidence that suits them every time.

Whilst we’re on the subject of CAM here’s an interesting article by Orac on Reiki for dogs.

Some nice illustrations and graphics next. We start off with some Moore's Laws that you might not be familiar with. Next up is a Wormhole Wanted Poster and finally it’s the return of the Credible Hulk.

This Wednesday is the marvellous Colin Wright at Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub so make sure you put it in your diary. And since you have your diary open another event to note down is this one via our friends at UB:ASH who are hosting the AGM of the National Federation of Student Atheist, Humanist and Secular Societies’. They have Sully O’Sullivan and Ricky Molland doing their controversial and acclaimed act “Kill Your God” which is open to the general public.

And one final plug for friends, Cheltenham Skeptics in the Pub are running a Fringe event for the Cheltenham Science Festival this week. You can find full details of all the fantastic things they have on offer here.

Finally, we’ll round off with this wonderful song thanking all the haters out there. There's a bit of NSFW language in this one so be warned.

This round-up was put together by Patrick Redmond (@paddyrex) helped in no small way be links provided by Roy Beddowes.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Is Faith Reasonable?

Image from True Belief Comics

This was the title of an event organised by Church Central and Oasis Church. I’d been invited by my friend who was the main speaker of the night, Jonny Mellor. The format was to listen to short talks on whether faith is reasonable, eat some food and ask questions. It was a very good event and I enjoyed it thoroughly.  Jonny is a charismatic guy in both senses of the word and I’ll try to put down some of his arguments here with some of my ideas.

Apologies to Jonny if I miss out or misrepresent some of his points, I’m working from scraps of paper I borrowed on the night and scrawled rough thoughts upon. But I’ll point him in the way of this post and he can always comment. To be fair to him, he was covering a wide range of ideas in a very short time so he couldn’t be as nuanced as I know he can be. He expressed these ideas much more fully than I am allowing for here. Hopefully the two of us will be recording a discussion for the currently dormant Birmingham Skeptics Podcast sometime in July. The nub of his main points are in bold italics.

There are aspects of science that can’t be proven but scientists continue as if they are true and base their work around them. There are then at least some elements of science that are comparable to faith and are therefore not superior in terms of being more reasonable.

His examples of this are the proposed existence of dark matter and the Higgs Boson particle. He states that both of these phenomena are required by scientists to make sense of the universe, but neither of them can be proven or observed, like God. 
This argument totally misrepresents the scientific view.

The examples might be considered by many scientists to be the best current explanation of observable phenomena but they aren’t sitting back and writing them down in sacred text books that can never be altered. The Large Hadron Collider isn’t a vast technological temple to the glory of an immutable scientific deity. It is an experiment that might, amongst the mass of data it produces, indicate the existence of the Higgs and place that piece into the jigsaw of the standard model. But what if they don’t find it, what if they find indications of a totally different explanation for mass and matter? Well then we will be living through a scientific paradigm change and most scientists will be thrilled and not dismayed at this. The same holds true for the existence or not of dark matter, it is the best current explanation that a large number of scientists accept at this point in time, but that might well change.

If you think of science as being similar to religion then you might think that it imposes its laws upon the world. But it isn’t and it doesn’t. So-called scientific laws have been tested and tend to get called that because we know that trial after trial they will give us the same result. That’s why your aeroplane tends to lift off the ground and your house doesn’t drift off into outer space. Science doesn’t demand that you accept these laws; you are welcome to test them yourself. In fact we all do and we live with them every second of every day. Some of the experiments require a bit of extra equipment, we can’t all have our own rockets or colliders, and at this point science can leave a lot of us behind. But no matter what one scientist is doing, there are a host of others trying to copy them or reading their reports looking for the mistakes. Science doesn’t work on blind acceptance and unquestioning orthodoxy it works on peer review and evidence.

You can take any so-called scientific law or theory and you can devise some process by which you can prove it isn’t true. You can define some set of criteria that if fulfilled or unfulfilled will show that the theory fails. If faith is the same as science, what are the experiments that we can use, how shall we falsify God?

Our experience shows us that all things have an origin and a cause and therefore the universe and humankind must have a cause. The simplest and most logical explanation for the first cause is God.

This is a reiteration of the cosmological argument and cosmology is a good arena for Jonny as many of the scientific edges are blurred. Like most, if not all, arguments in this sphere it has been echoed again and again. Jonny is a clever man with a background in philosophy and theology, he knows his stuff here.

The first standard counter is to ask who caused God? This doesn’t work if you’ve accepted as true the initial term of the argument “first cause”; as by definition it is then first and therefore needs no cause in itself. But I don’t really see why you need to accept that as it is a philosophical construct and not based on any observation of reality. As far as I am concerned asking who created God is a totally valid question.

There is also the problem that it is too simplistic to compare the circumstances of the origin of the universe with those in the present. To say that because our universe behaves in this way now it must have done so back then, and infer from that the existence of a deity is not in itself logical or reasonable.

Jonny points out that the scientific “belief” in the big bang doesn’t make sense as there is no explanation of what caused it and scientists therefore have faith in their explanations.  As with the initial argument, scientists don’t have to have faith and do what they can to test their theories, to gather evidence. They can't explain the origin of the universe as science has limits, but that doesn’t mean we need to create a metaphysical entity that has no cause in itself to be the ultimate cause and then call that the most logical argument.

There are many more variations to the cosmological argument, all with counters and counters to the counters. For me it’s not an argument likely to change minds as there is nothing tangible on either side that will convince people away from their starting point. It’s an interesting philosophical diversion though and a quick search on Google will throw up lots more information on it.

Without an absolute deity there can be no objective morality. If we have made up the rules that we live by, why do we need to obey them, why can’t we just do what we want including rape and murder? 
This is the argument from morality and is the one that Jonny puts forward with the most passion. It is also the one that gets me the closest to feeling angry. He doesn’t deny that it is possible for atheists to live what appears to be a moral life, but he fails to understand why they should, where the “ought” imperative comes from.

He cites the Nuremberg Trials where the appeal to a higher law was used to overcome the defence that the accused had been following the legal mandates in effect during the rule of Hitler. This apparently shows that we acknowledge in our being a divine law and sense of justice that must come from an external deity. It can’t have evolved as evolution is about the survival of the fittest and taking what you want whereas morality is protecting others and being just.

Where to begin? Evolution is not about survival of the fittest it is about the eventual survival of some random mutations that give a benefit to the possessor and are therefore continued and spread. This can and does often involve traits that promote cooperation and mutual protection; at a cellular level let alone amongst complex organisms such as ourselves. Human beings as a species are much more successful as a society and societies are much more successful when they have rules. Those rules form over long periods of time and in the days of magic and superstition how much better if those rules were backed up by an invisible being that would punish transgression?

I find much of the language of religion to be dishonest in this sphere. Christians talk of their God as loving and just, but these words don’t mean the same as we understand them. Morality for them can’t be about how we act as actions are nothing in themselves. An atheist can live a selfless life helping their fellow human being and it will ultimately mean nothing to certain types of Christians, for without faith God will still damn them to eternal punishment come judgment time. How is that just, how is that loving?

There is no need for an objective morality, we live and are formed as part of a society that instils in us a code of conduct, a sense of right and wrong. We don’t need the threat of hell to know that rape is wrong. If we were raised in a different society where rape and murder were considered fine we would think that way. Look hard enough through time and across the globe and you will find societal variations of moral codes and imperatives. It is unlikely that you will find many that outright condone murder and rape, but perhaps that proves how poor a survival trait for any society that would be. I might be replacing the moral impositions of a deity with the programming of a society here but so what, does that make it less valid? I can think about my actions, I can understand why I act this way, I know that it works and I don’t need God to tell me it is right.

There is a stark contrast between the harsh moral legislature of the Old Testament and that of the New. The change in religious tone is the change in a society reflected in its God, not the other way round. The codification of these moral injunctions may once have served a purpose for binding a people together but it surely now acts to separate us and to tether us to ideals that were set down hundreds if not thousands of years ago when the experiences and needs were very different to ours.

I don’t want to give the idea that this, or any other of the arguments used are simplistic and stupid. They’ve exercised theologians, philosophers and people in pubs for centuries and will continue to do so. This is already an overly long blog post but I could easily have stretched any of these points on for another few thousand words. I doubt that anything that I’ve said here has changed anybody’s minds and that tends to be the case with this kind of argument.

I’m not sure if the initial question should have been “Is Faith Rational?” rather than reasonable. It’s a semantic point perhaps but worth a thought. I can reasonably expect people from certain backgrounds and circumstances to have faith, but that doesn’t make it rational. I have as much respect, perhaps more in some ways, for those that don’t bother to try and justify their faith in rational terms. Faith is that which requires no proof, something that bypasses logic and mundane experience. It’s a step into the supernatural and if you take it, for whatever reason, you relinquish in part any claim to full rationality. 

This blog post was written by Patrick Redmond (@paddyrex).

Sunday, 3 June 2012

The Round-up w/e 03/06/2012

It’s the Royal Round-up Jubilee special and we’ve got more links for you than Mr T’s favourite necklace. Royalist, republican or just couldn’t care less about the monarchy hopefully you’ll find something for your distraction and edification on this page. However, if you do want an opinion then look no further than Crispian Jago.

Let’s have a couple of animal stories. We begin with a discussion about medical dogs and then move on to some whisker twitching cute science with climbing dormice.

An interesting article on how different aspects of fundamentalism and belief convert people to atheism and agnosticism.

I recently wrote an piece about autism research and part of my day job involves socially integrating young adults with autism. This needs understanding on all sides and I’ve therefore got mixed feelings about posts such as this that identify “weirdos” amongst us.

I’m always in awe of the skeptics that work in India. Here’s a guy that possibly saved a whole load of believers from poisoning and ends up being threatened with prison for his efforts.

A quick follow up on the gay superhero story from last week as the original Green Lantern defeats One Million Moms.

Holiday season is coming up and there’s nothing more pleasant than walking down the beach picking up unusual and pretty rocks. That is if they don’t set yourpants on fire.

Interesting atheistic Turing test by Leah Libresco.

Our old friend David Colqhoun has been tackling the College of Medicine, Dr Michael Dixon and the power of the placebo over at Improbable Science.

Faith in God can apparently act as an anti-venom. Oh wait, no it can’t.

Another bit of Sagan here as Eric McDonald explores the Stridency and Sensitivity of Carl Sagan.

There’s another skeptical controversy on the go centred on the blog post of Rebecca Watson about why she’s not attending TAM. To be honest it's probably much more complicated as these things usually are but if you’re interested you can track back through the links, do a bit of searching and make up your own mind. One thing that has intrigued me is that some are billing it as a split in the “skeptical community”. My own view on the existence of that entity is very similar to that espoused by Hayley Stevens.

Maybe we should hand our fiscal economic policy over to Captain Picard. Sure he probably knows little about 21st Century economics, but he looks way cooler than Osborne. Paul Krugman examines the link between science fiction and economics.

Steven Novella reassures us that the conspiracy theories of chemical induced zombification are just that. But he would say that, wouldn’t he.  Then again he is backed somewhat by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) who have felt moved by recent horrific events to deny that the zombie holocaust is upon us.

Skeptic North takes an evidence based look at the phenomenon of fishy feet pedicures. (That’s pedicures of feet using fish not that the feet are fishy, though I suppose they might be.)

A few round-ups ago we had the physics behind how the Incredible Hulk jumps. Now we have a lovely anatomical drawing for you comic fans out there. Keeping with the science based art theme some fantastic Da Vinci style images of Cern.

For all you music loving chemists out there it’s time to update Tom’s song as there are a couple of newly named elements on the block.

Remember Harold Camping who predicted the Rapture and got it wrong, twice? Religion Dispatches takes a look at what some of his followers are doing a year on.

Next Thursday sees a transit of Venus, a useful and important astronomical event. If you want to find out more about it from the experts the Guardian is providing you with your very own set for an hour. Well, you have to share but it’s still jolly nice of them.

We’ll probably run a more full blog post in the near future about Skeptics on the Fringe, but for now look up all the great line up of speakers and events they have just announced.

One of our regular attendees, Rich Wiltshir, gave us this blog post on the Gish Gallop. We love to receive guest posts and are happy to consider anything that falls within the broad remit of scepticism and science.

Don’t forget that we have Colin Wright and the Mathematics of Juggling in just over a week, that one will be brilliant so don’t miss it. There is still time to apply for a speaker slot in the open mic night and to put our Skeptics in the Pub Quiz in your diary.

Last round-up we finished with the first commercial space flight to dock with the ISS and this week we end with another space travel debut and the first tent in space.

The blog post was put together by me Patrick Redmond (@paddyrex) with the help of links provided by Roy Beddowes. Any opinions expressed are my own.