Friday 26 April 2013

The Missionary Position Christopher Hitchens - Brum Skeptics Book Group

The book club met in Yorks Bakery to discuss Christopher Hitchens writing about Mother Theresa. 10 people attended and as the book was only 100 pages we had nearly all read the whole book.

Thinking about Mother Theresa most people in the group felt that prior to reading the book they were aware of her, had never thought about her much but knew she was ‘good’. She is famously good- I can remember learning to read from a book detailing her good works.

Christopher Hitchens challenges the myth within national consciousness that she is good on a number of levels:

  1. She claims political neutrality accepting donations from (seemingly) anyone who will donate to her mission.  This neutrality though hides a political element – she has been photographed with some controversial political figures – and as she is famously good lends credence to their political platforms.
  2. She helps the ‘poorest of the poor’ and the ‘lowest of the low’ but she does this by trying to assist them in enduring their suffering- sitting at the bedside of the sick mopping their brows, rather than by trying to bring about structural change that would provide jobs and services to change their condition.
  3. Her position on population control is controversial- she is very much against both contraception and abortion whilst working in countries where resources are struggling to meet the needs of an expanding population. In her Nobel prize acceptance speech she described abortion as the greatest threat to peace.
  4. Her organisation demonstrates an absence of accountability- large amounts of money are raised by her organisation and it isn’t used for the purposes we would expect. It isn’t used to build modern hospital, or to provide medicine; large amounts don’t appear to be used at all and sit untouched in bank accounts. The organisation doesn’t publish accounts demonstrating good stewardship of these funds.     
  5. She is criticised for her missionary zeal- the purpose of her work is for the greater glory of god. Funds are devoted to alter ornaments and nuns have secretly converted the sick on their death beds.

Our conclusions as a group after some wide ranging discussions were slightly unexpected. We felt that within her world view (which we weren’t prepared to accept) she did think she was doing good. If you accept the conceit that heaven exists and noble suffering will gain you entrance then her actions make sense. We felt that she hadn’t been duplicitous about her world view but that ‘we’ had chosen to assume it was something else (although, it did seem slightly hypocritical that she had accepted expensive medical attention when she was ill). In short we accepted that she had done ‘bad’ but not that she was evil.

We discussed charity (the nature of giving, whose benefit is it for- the giver or the receiver) and international development. When looking at international aid we considered its purpose (to help the starving, to ensure politicians enter heaven, to secure British jobs and contracts or to stem migration).

The book itself came in for some criticism. It was very short and a number of areas (such as the structure and function of the organisation) would have benefitted from expansion. Direct quotes from people who had worked with Mother Theresa were used to illustrate points which added weight and life to the book. Christopher Hitchens has fantastic use of language constructing some brilliantly descriptive insults).

We were glad to have read the book, it changed how we saw Mother Theresa and one participant working in international development felt that it would change some aspects of her work.

After the book discussion we adjoined to the pub where we discussed the relative merits of cushions, Iron Man films and the potential existence of Shrewsbury. 

This is the documentary Christopher Hitchens made before writing the book.

This review  was by Jade Quarrell

Wednesday 24 April 2013

The Round-Up – Wks 15 &16

Time to resuscitate the Round-up; stand back nurse!

Welcome back to our weekly collection of link based interestingness. Whilst we’re administering green glowing serum and CPR let us point you towards our forthcoming talks that we lovingly put together to challenge and entertain you.

We produce awesome skeptical DVDs too if you can’t make it to us on the night.

On May 8th, Julia Hyland will be with us Bringing Disease to Life in an interactive talk on medical make up effects. Hopefully, the participants on the night won’t have too awkward a train/bus ride home; and Will Storr will be with us in September to tell us about his Adventures with the Enemies of Science. Those helpful people at The Rationalist Association have been kind enough to turn out a short review of Will's book here. Speakers for June, July, August and September are primed and ready to go so keep checking back here for updates. Oh, and don’t forget our usual monthly book club meet in May too. Here’s a bit more information on the continuing story of Henrietta Lacks as it’s our book club pick.

Just digging around the RA site I’ve come across this excellent collection of graphic-novels-every-humanist-should-read, fortunately your friendly neighbourhood Birmingham skeptic doesn’t have far to go to for a local comic book store. And this I just have to have a copy of – checkout complete – gimme!

What with the death of Margaret Thatcher, the Boston bombings and QED, let’s see what we can pull out of the big news stories from the past week or so:-

This is still languishing on my to-read pile. An excerpt from Hitch 22: That Time Margaret Thatcher Spanked Christopher Hitchens.

Having had my interest piqued by a recent lecture, and with some whisperings of a future talk at Sitp,  here’s a piece on the Boston bombings and the fallibility of memory when gathering eyewitness accounts, accompanied by this article from the Beeb on the unreliability of crowd-sourced material and how internet detectives got it wrong. Here’s another on the Saudi Marathon Man.

The effects of James McCormick's morally bankrupt behaviour.

Properish science now with white coat and glasses and everything: Proof that water has memory; featuring Paul the glass of water.

From the firmament to the earth: When you poop in space, everyone screams & Archaeologists Find a Classic Entrance to Hell.

The number of humanist wedding ceremonies in Scotland will soon overtake the number of Church of Scotland weddings, it has been claimed.

As mentioned by Robin Ince during the recent convention - did anyone complete QED bingo?  Eyes down. Dressed like Who, 42; Elevatorgate, No.8. For your prize of a mini picnic table condiment holder please contact Tulpesh in Sweden.

Creation Mathematicians Demand Equal Time for Biblical Pi in the Classroom.

Icelanders love genealogy, so much so that Engineers at Iceland University have developed an Icelandic app that warns you if your date is a relative; complete with 'Incest Prevention Alarm' feature.

Award winning anti-racism poster becomes national campaign tool.

The DOH tell Andrew Wakefield to go do one, I mean, issued a statement dismissing claims from the discredited doctor. Dean Burnett breaks out the law of misinformation similars.

And the award for the “Most obscene title of a peer-reviewed scientific article” goes to… Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele. (Warning - features some bloody excellent swears)

Two disturbing stories from India: Auctioning virginity off to the highest bidder & Is this what Indian men really believe? Skipping across the Persian Gulf for this outrageous example of the law of retribution.

Distance to Mars in pixels. The return trip is quicker by sidebar.

Want to go to Mars? Dutch organisation Mars One says it will open applications imminently.

Sounds like Scientpoetryology rap: The asteroid belt provides a convenient low-gravity platform for travel to other parts of the “gah-LAX-ee.” And we learn that to outsiders, our solar system is known as “Space Station 33.” It can only be… Hubbard.

Round- up quickies: Dawkins plus Stephen Law = xkcd; Wringing out Water on the ISS - for Science! ; Saudi cycling - now for women and SMOGGM.

The Museum of Mental Health in Salem was Once a ‘Cuckoo’s Nest.' Ah, Juicy Fruit...

Cartoon corner: The corn god.

This is encouraging. China says aims to banish superstition, promote knowledge. This not so much - eyeball scraping. No video? What a relief! As we’re in the bonkers treatment section: Anarchic Teapot’s jaw is floored after viewing the quite charming sounding Massage aux batons, or Chiropractic stick massage. (More swears – and gasps) Hey, why stop at three links - Animal chiropractors say their drugless, non-surgical adjustments are cheaper than vet care.

We’re not out of the crazy woods yet: Deepak Chopra takes offence at the new TED guidelines regarding invites for people who use bad science or pseudoscience in their talks and Taslima Nasreen’s take on ‘Stupid Celebrities’.

Broken dreamcatcher floods Swindon with unresolved anxieties.

Despite remarkable growth, solar and wind power aren’t making a dent in carbon emissions, says a new report from the International Energy Agency.

Since 9/11, voice scientists have been searching for a way to find a person's unique 'voiceprint': The race to fingerprint the human voice.

Adam Rutherford and Steve Jones discuss the origins and future of life, Spidergoat and bible science in this excellent episode of Start the Week. Steve Jones’ book The Serpent’s Promise is out soon, Adam Rutherford’s Creation: The Origin of Life is on the shelves right now. Go get ‘em.

Ben Goldacre gets down and dirty in the link packed What Doctors Don't Know About the Drugs They Prescribe.

Many of the ideas of conspiracy theorists are based on a misunderstanding of science—or a stubborn refusal to acknowledge it. National Geographic runs through the polls, Crispian Jago charts The Truth.

Finally, finishing as we started, in a now classic account of cocking around with hypodermics, ‘How (not) to communicate new scientific information: a memoir of the famous Brindley lecture.

You’ll be requiring a video then, Apollo 11 in 100 seconds. (Any visual metaphors connected to the above link were completely unintended)

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

Wednesday 10 April 2013

Drying For Freedom

This is happening on 24th of April at the Vic

One of our aims at Birmingham Skeptics is to help support interesting events often around ideas you might not have ever even thought of before. We were contacted about a fantastic opportunity to do just that with the release of “Drying for Freedom”.  In his debut full feature, Steven Lake examines themes of electrical dependence, environmental exploitation and the role of the humble washing line.

"DRYING FOR FREEDOM is a global exploration of the environment, freedom, communities and corporate exploitation, revealing the extent of the challenge we now face. The film includes contributions from Verona, Mississippi, where investigations are underway in a unique clothesline murder case, to Concord, New Hampshire and the home of Alexander Lee the leader of the world's leading clothesline pressure group. It reveals of our electric heritage and events leading up to millions of clothesline bans within US communities where the restrictions of freedom has become an un-environmental way of life.

DRYING FOR FREEDOM is the new environmental battlefield, exploring energy waste, consumer exploitation, restrictions in basic human freedoms and the impact this has on our planet. Our future is hanging on a line!"

The film is a wonderfully engaging debut full feature from UK filmmaker, Steven Lake. The film has won awards for Best Environmental Feature and Best Artistic Response at Climate Week, it has also been officially selected for many film festivals all over the world.

This screening takes place as part of the 'Hanging Out Festival':
"The DRYING FOR FREEDOM HANGING OUT FESTIVAL is a global film festival showcasing the award winning environmental movie Drying For Freedom in venues across planet Earth."

The film will be followed by a talk and Q and A session from the director, Steven Lake.

Here is a link to the Facebook Event:

Drying For Freedom - Official Trailer from White Lantern Film on Vimeo.

This is proudly an associated event to Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub.
Skeptics in the Pub exists to put on thought provoking and entertaining events promoting science and examining the evidence behind ideas.

Tickets are £5 on the door to cover the expenses of the event.

Monday 1 April 2013

The Round-up - Wk13.

Hey kiddies, do you know what time it is? IT'S CLOBBERIN' TIME! (Well, sorta!)

Welcome to the latest woo thumpin’, science lovin’, Round-up. There’s nothing like using a disgruntled and incredulous super-hero to assist in a take-down of irrational nonsense.

First up for a good biffing - one of a series of amusing videos on Homeopathy; lays out the familiar history coupled with an undiluted dose of snark and unfettered use of the word bollocks. This is one creep who just won’t stay down. Let’s tag Steven Novella and bring him into the debate: Debating Homeopathy Part One.

Following T.E.D’s removal of the Sheldrake and Hancock talks from their YouTube channel, news of more unusual presentations announced under the TED banner in California have surfaced - Jerry Coyne picks up the story.

Debating Homeopathy: Seconds out, Part 2.

Still doing your research into Steiner Waldorf Schools after the Andy Lewis talk? Here’s a 3 part series of articles from DC’s improbable science for you to get your teeth into.

Nope! In Australia a preponderance of anecdotes just won’t cut it: Federal Government to crack down on dodgy 'miracle' cures, snake-oil merchants and unproven treatments.

Clerical pants on fire! Church of England commits sins against statistics.

A custom, prevalent in the southern tip of Malawi, is widow cleansing, a traditional practice in which a widow is expected to have unprotected sexual relations (increasing the chance of HIV infection), in order to cleanse herself of a curse. A similar example of superstition and a cultural mind-set trumping common sense can be seen over in Kenya, where a condom advert has been pulled after religious complaints.

With a nod to Rupert Sheldrake’s morphic resonance, dowsing and sticky foil, along with some musings on human temporal asymmetry energy patterns being captured in photographs (yup!); welcome to the mystical world of hi-fi tweakery. Okay – goddammit! I admit it. I did do that thing with crocodile clips and a reef-knot way back in the 1980’s.

Christian Easter egg fails to crack supermarkets despite some backing of the Bishops.

Not much of a welcome in the hillside: Swansea measles epidemic - MMR vaccine take-up disappointment. Of course none of this is helped by untrained and influential celebrities spewing antivaccination propaganda.

The real Easter story according to News Thump.

Influencing nineteenth century discussions about the mind, brain and the effects of damage on the personality: The incredible case of Phineas Gage.

Have you ever wondered what goes on inside a cancer Research Lab? Wonder no more as an article posted earlier this month takes us behind the scenes at Birmingham University’s Cancer Research Centre. Make a note of those people’s names; I want to know why we haven’t seen them at Sitp.

Some people with vested interests prefer to ignore or distort evidence, whilst others find ingeniousnew ways to collect it.

Inspired by Crispian Jago’s original Periodic Table of Irrational Nonsense comes the  B3ta image challenge. Not sure why Ben Goldacre’s pictured laying waste to a city, but I quite like it.

What alternative health practitioners might not tell you: Craniosacral Therapy = medical fiction mainly helpful for anything with a subjective end-point; additionally, the therapeutic value of Chiropractic for athletes remains uncertain.

Banning 'gay cure' posters on London buses was not unlawful, a High Court judge ruled on Friday, but suggested two prominent campaigns, one by Stonewall and one by atheist campaigners, should also not have been allowed because of their offensive nature.

Web cartoon time - The Atheist Pig: Miracle Babies.

Combining planetarium production technology with high resolution brain imaging techniques - welcome to Neurodome. Get some serious neuroscience related perks if you contribute to their Kickstarter campaign.

Crowdfunder is an innovative funding platform helping project owners' ideas become realities. However, despite the online interest, this one’s obviously struggling to draw in the funders.

Shoes packed with Atheist tape go walkies in the US. More comments over at Big Think and a reference to Stanley Milgram’s lost letter experiment, to boot!

In this new study (pdf), the correlation between societal success & lack of belief in the supernatural does NOT mean lack of belief leads to success. It does show that societal success does NOT DEPEND on belief in the supernatural.

Zombie nation: Recent research shows how pesky parasites may be affecting the behaviour of up to a reported 40% of the population. More on this subject from our blog archive of 2011, and from friend of Brum Sitp, Peter Harrison, with Can brain-parasites influence human culture on a global level? (2022 blog views to date). Bit late there with the ‘news’ MSN!

Three of my favourite things - Hip-hop, Science and Bruce Lee: Greydon Square: Final Kata. Let your head bob!

Fantastic four: Magic handshake penis stealer shot dead; sex education teacher investigated for saying vagina ; Punxsutawney Phil Groundhog 'indicted' and 21 Weirdly Angry Mail Online Commenters.

We’ve not had a link from Michael Shermer for a while. Let’s rectify that with a piece from Scientific American on the principle of pluralistic Ignorance: How skeptics can break the cycle of false beliefs.

Well I wouldn't have heard it if I hadn't believed it! EVP – capturing thoughts whilst in the air or just natural phenomena such as apophenia or auditory pareidolia?

A bittersweet and profoundly sad article now as an artist documents the decline of his motor and perceptual skills: Self-portraits show artist's descent into Alzheimer’s. Click through for more of the story at NYT.

A Very Powerful Quote Gets The Beautifully Illustrated Treatment It Deserves.

Time to wrap things up, so I’m going to plug a local talk (local to me)first, as Curator of Down House, Annie Kemkaran-Smith, will be in Lichfield at Erasmus Darwin’s House on 2nd May with ‘Charles Darwin at Down House: An Ordinary Life or an Extraordinary Man’. Get your tickets early though as it’s quite a small venue.

Dr Rupert Sheldrake will be with us at Sitp in a matter of days and Hitchens’ The Missionary Position is up for discussion on the 21st at the usual venue. We’re very much looking forward to Bringing Disease to Life in May and some of you may have noticed that we’ve posted up Will Storr for September. Need to know more? Drop by our events page, make a note in your diary and keep an eye on our news feeds.

Right, go grab a handful of triangular chocolate and settle down to a video triple bill: Slightly off topic but still fascinating - book editor turned artist Lee Hongbo: Out of Paper; The mystery of Prince Rupert's Drop and the shocking Tesla Drone.

Enjoy & share (the Round-up, that is, not your chocolate) and have a great week.

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