Monday, December 21, 2009

Say it ain't so, Randi? I don't think it is

Make up your own mind. In this post, James Randi writes about anthropogenic climate change. There are some problems with what he writes. For example, he cites The Petition Project as a reason to doubt scientific consensus.

It isn't. The Petition Project is exceedingly dubious. It's an appeal to authority, which is always a worry and it is an appeal to false authority, which is just plain dishonest. I have scientific qualifications and 15 years of experience working in a scientific field. However, I am not qualified to comment very convincingly on climate change and people would be right to treat any claims I made about the climate with open contempt. Randi's skepticism seems to have deserted him with this post.

There are other concerns. For example:

This ball of hot rock and salt water spins on its axis and rotates about the Sun with the expected regularity, though we're aware that lunar tides, solar wind, galactic space dust and geomagnetic storms have cooled the planet by about one centigrade degree in the past 150 years. The myriad of influences that act upon Earth are so many and so variable -- though not capricious -- that I believe we simply cannot formulate an equation into which we enter variables and come up with an answer

and again:

This a hugely complex set of variables we are trying to reduce to an equation...

It's certainly the case that the climate is complicated. However, Randi's argument is a bit of a straw man. This is what I posted on the JREF site:

This isn't what climate scientists are trying to do. They are trying to understand more about how the climate works, with equations being one of the tools they use to do this. Others include experiments, other types of model, new ways of measuring the climate's properties, observations of different kinds of thing, examination of new data, new ways to examine existing data etc. Predictions about the climate's future are based on lots of different factors put together in lots of different ways and the answer in each case will have error bars. One of the tricks is to learn where these bars are, how big they are and whether we can do anything to reduce them.

To suggest that the aim is to 'reduce' the complex system of the climate to an equation is leading language and an oversimplification. The hope (or rather, one of the hopes) is that better models, better measurements and increasing understanding of all the factors involved will increase our ability to predict the climate's future and our ability to assess how confident we should be of the results.

In other words, it seems on the face of it that Randi has acted a little rashly and has perhaps been a little misguided on this issue. Phil Plait agrees:

Instead of rending my garments over this, I read Randi’s post carefully, and then sent him a note outlining why the Petition Project is a crock, as well as saying that yes, mathematical models of climate are very complex, but that doesn’t change observations indicating the reality of global warming or our role in it.

Unfortunately, a lot of the comments to Randi's post are downright chauvinistic. Many people are claiming disappointment with Randi. Some claim they are planning to withdraw financial support from the JREF on the basis of the post. Some are suggesting that Randi has lost his marbles. Some say he has somehow hurt the cause of skepticism with this post alone (regardless of his lifetime of service to that very cause). This seems an astonishing overreaction. All Randi was really saying is that he is skeptical of the scientific consensus. He's not denying AGW, he's saying he's an amateur and doesn't really know what he's talking about, but that he feels it's worth being skeptical about the consensus.

Now it's clear that Randi was wrong about a number of things and that this isn't his finest hour. His skepticism seems to have misfired. For the most part, this seems to have been due to his ignorance of the science.

Phil Plait educated Randi about some of the issues and Randi responded here.

Personally, I think he cleared up many of the concerns in this post. Others (including some in the comments and PZ Myers) disagree.

But what the hell. The point is that Randi began by saying he didn't really know what he was talking about. He screwed up and was reamed for it. He admitted he was wrong and pointed out that he was sure to be wrong again in the future. It's the feelgood story of the year, isn't it? Well, perhaps not, but it's an everyday story of skepticism. It's an interesting episode and reminds us that although skepticism can be considered a movement, it isn't a dogmatic one. We're all different and we all disagree. I'm not sure why Randi's comments elicited such vitriol and I think it's regrettable. Although we should apply the same standards of skepticism to Randi's writing as to anyone else's, I think he's earned a certain amount of trust and the benefit of some doubt.

Either way, I'm deeply uncomfortable with those - including PZ Myers - who say that Randi has somehow hurt the cause of skepticism. I think the man was just wrong. Give him a break, he's quite old and he's very ill. We all make mistakes and the fact that he's spent a lifetime working for the cause of skepticism doesn't make Randi immune.

Give him a break and give him your money. Whether you agree with Randi's stance or not, the JREF is an excellent cause.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Burning bush

Ophelia Benson has written with distaste about the pope here. If you haven't already subscribed to Butterfies and Wheels, then I'm afraid you are a complete idiot. Sort yourself out, for goodness' sake.

That aside, her post highlights something that frustrates me greatly. In 2001, Ratzinger wrote secret letters to every catholic bishop instructing them to cover up child abuse, specifically sexual abuse. It instructed them to keep any evidence in such cases secret until at least a decade after the victims reached adulthood.

In 2009 the same Ratzinger told us of his outrage and shame in being betrayed by some of his staff in their systematic raping of children for decades.

And yet this letter shows that he knew what was happening and permitted it to continue. It shows that he cared more about the church than its claimed ideals. It shows that the self-styled spiritual leader of billions puts the safety of children below the safety of rapist priests.

As much as this raises a red mist, it isn't what I'm frustrated about. I very much hope that the people abused can gain a voice and gain justice.

My complaint is toward catholics who allowed this to happen. And accomodationists, of course, who seem to want to curb comments like this that portray religion in a negative light. Religion itself does a perfectly good job of that and I couldn't possibly put it in a worse light than it's already in.

Catholics: the pope isn't in charge of your religion, you are. You decide what you believe, which evidence you want to cherry pick and which bits of the bible you want to act on. Don't you?

Well, don't you?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Don't believe me about the BBC's dogmatic and idiotic stance on there being two sides to everything?

Death to Myers

Well, that might be a little extreme, but he stole my joke about the death of Oral Roberts. He said (here):

I guess Oral Roberts didn't meet his fundraising quota this year, because god has finally pink-slipped the old fraud.

My emphasis.

It might be good that PZ pipped me because the joke doesn't seem to work outside the US anyway. Nobody here in the UK seems to know who Oral Roberts was.

You're in for a treat:

He was an evil puke, I'm afraid. This is his most famous obscenity (from the wikipedia link above):

Roberts' fundraising was controversial. In January 1987, during a fundraising drive, Roberts announced to a television audience that unless he raised $8 million by that March, God would "call him home." Some were fearful that he was referring to suicide, given the impassioned pleas and tears that accompanied his statement. He raised $9.1 million.

Not controversial, just plain old-fashioned evil. Very, very many of the tax-free dollars he sucked up from the gullible were spent on himself. That's a hateful way to live.

Hey, that's a real story

This is particularly devoid of content:

Some archaeologists have found a burial shroud. Nice work, but not the sort of thing the public at large is likely to be interested in. However, it was found in Jerusalem and dates from "The Time of Jesus!", which is presumably a technical term archaeologists use.

The Turin Shroud, on the other hand, does not date from The Land of J sorry The Time of Jesus. There are all sorts of stories about Jesus' shroud and countless other relics dating from the Middle Ages and many fake relics were constructed at that time. Not entirely surprisingly, radiocarbon dating puts the (Turin) shroud bang smack in the 13th-14th century.

The BBC isn't interested in this, of course. It would break the already bewilderingly tenuous 'link' between the Turin Shroud and this new find, which was already weaker than a kitten that has been off it's milk.

The BBC is anxious to point out that some people believe it's Jesus' shroud while others believe it isn't, which implies these beliefs are equally valid. They are not. One is based on nothing at all, one is based on actually dating and otherwise analysing the shroud, using techniques that are known to work to within known error tolerances.

This is the bit that galls me:

Tests 20 years ago dated the fabric to the Middle Ages, but believers say the cloth, which bears the imprint of a man's face, is an authentic image of Christ.

But? BUT? Surely this should read:

Tests 20 years ago dated the fabric to the Middle Ages and believers say the cloth, which bears the imprint of a man's face, is an authentic image of Christ.

There's no but. The fact that some people claim idiotic things about the shroud doesn't cast the least doubt on its properly established date using radiocarbon dating. says there's an imprint of a man's face? It's suddenly an imprint? I would call it more of a....daub.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Alpha Xray

It's often said that hell was invented to keep people in line. The threat of eternal torment keeps people on the straight and narrow: a stick to go with the carrot of eternal life. I've no doubt that there's some truth in this: I know people who are genuinely terrified of going to hell and I have every reason to suspect that it modifies their behaviour. But I've always found it a bit weird. If I believed in a perfect afterlife - I mean really believed - I wouldn't need threats. I'd do everything I could to get there. I can say this with confidence because for me to believe in heaven, I'd need to have incontrovertible evidence. I'd know that heaven existed and how to get there. It surprises me that so many people who claim to believe in heaven 100% seem to emphasise the idea of hell so much when they talk to people.

All that aside, I think there's another reason hell was invented. It's makes a good excuse to convert people to believe what you believe. It's needed. Humans tend to have a strong desire to have others think the same way they do, but they also seem to have a resistance to forcing others to do so. It doesn't always seem that way, but look at the prevalence of religious 'accomodationism' at the moment. Accomodationists are non-religious people who get upset when atheists mock religion or even when they publically proclaim their atheism. They seem to feel that we shouldn't rock the boat and people's beliefs are their own business. Ironically, of course, accomodationists often tell atheists what they ought to believe, but my point is that they seem to be motivated by a reluctance to tell people what to think. When there's a reason to modify people's behaviour, however, we have no such qualms. We tell our children not to do dangerous things, for example. We teach scientists how to think about evidence and use logic and so on.

So perhaps this is what the idea of hell is for. A belief in heaven would seem to be sufficient to ensure spreading of the word. If you believed in heaven, why wouldn't you want to tell people about it so they can go too? But is it enough to make someone actively try to convert people? For most people, I suspect not. Trying to convert someone must be quite an uncomfortable experience for both parties and people tend to resist situations like that. Certainly, it makes you wonder why Jehova's Witnesses seem so keen to convert everyone, when they believe that there are only 144,000 places in heaven. You'd think they'd want to keep it quiet. But add the threat of hell in and it makes it easier to overcome that uncomfortable feeling. It makes it feel like you're doing it for their benefit, rather than yours. It's an appeal to the empathy that the non psychopathic among us share.

Well, it's just a hypothesis and a lengthy digression. It was prompted by an unpleasant experience I had today. I drove past the school in our village today and there was a sign up advertising The Alpha Course. I suspect that for my wife, the journey took a turn for the worse from that point. My blood, tears and piss were all boiling.

Let me tell you about the alpha course. You might have seen their posters. They read "Does God exist?" and there are three tick boxes marked "Yes", "No" and "Probably". Not "Maybe", or "Possibly" or "Probably not": it's a pretty loaded question. Comically, atheists have been 'vandalising' these posters by ticking the 'No' box and rather less comically, someone was arrested for doing this.

Anyway, the alpha course masquerades as an open-minded, skeptical organisation, which seeks merely to discuss the existence of god. In reality, it is a sinister organisation which uses psychological techniques to convert people to a quite narrow version of christianity. Needless to say, it is quite a fundamentalist view which is quite concerned about 'curing' homosexuality and making sure people can't have abortions and everything else you'd expect. It has been widely criticised by the religious and irreligious alike for its narrow views, it's non-inclusive stance and its out and out batshit creepiness. There's a review of it here, which makes for interesting reading.

The alpha course is more than spreading the god delusion, which would be bad enough. It's creepy brainwashing and the idea that a school would endorse brainwashing by hiring out it's premises to these whackjobs is a disturbing one.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Even I can't tell whether I'm making this up

Read this. READ IT.

There's a new law in Oklahoma forcing women seeking an abortion to disclose lots of personal information which will be posted on an official website. Plainly, this is intended to shame women into not having the abortion. The information they'll have to reveal includes:

• Age.
• Race.
• Marital status.
• Education levels.
• Number of previous pregnancies and abortions.
• The nature of the relationship with the father.
• The reason for the abortion.
• The area where the abortion was performed.

There are any number of reasons why this is horrific. There are practical ones, such as the fact that this data could easily be enough to identify someone. General privacy concerns aside, there are enough nutjobs out there to make this downright dangerous. The fact that you can’t determine for certain who the woman is just makes this worse. Vague information could just end up with more people being targeted. Your average murderous fanatic isn’t likely to care too much about checking their facts.

There are also ideological objections. The invasion of privacy this law represents is abominable. People are being singled out for public humiliation (and danger) because a minority of misogynistic retards believe they have a monopoly on morality.

But there’s a more sickening objection still. Oklahoma is treating women as less than human because they happen to be pregnant. What women want or need is no longer significant. The rights of the foetus are everything and her rights are nothing. Her sex life is suddenly everyone’s business, as are her reasons for wanting an abortion.

This is an attitude so alien to me that it’s hard to know even where to begin trying to understand it. Perhaps I don’t even want to understand it. But believe it or not, it could be worse.

Last month a judge struck down a state law requiring a doctor about to perform an abortion to carry out an ultrasound with the screen positioned in front of the mother and to then describe the developing limbs and organs of the foetus. The woman could not be forced to look at the screen but would have no choice but to listen to the doctor's description. The law required that the ultrasound be carried out vaginally if the pregnancy was in its early stages in order to get a clear picture. Rape victims were not exempted.

This law was defeated only on a technicality.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


Reverend Archie Coates thinks that Brighton is the most godless city in Britain and it's inhabitants seem pretty pleased about it. Check out the poll, which currently stands at:

Is Reverend Archie Coates right to repeat the description of Brighton as "Godless"?

yes, and it's good he intends to help change this: 3%

no, it has its troubles but it is generally a good place: 2%

being described as Godless is a compliment: 95%

To be fair, this story was featured on Pharingula, which will certainly have skewed the results, but the third option was already at 72% before it was Pharyngulised.

There's a sinister taste to this story, however. It's hard not to speculate that Reverend Archie uses the term 'godless' as a euphemism for 'homosexual'. Well, he can do this if he wants. It's a free country and I'll defend Reverend Archie's right to say pretty much whatever he likes, however ignorant and distasteful. What bothers me is the fact that if he is talking about homosexuality, he's so weasely about it. He's telling people that they are filthy sinners and abominations in the eyes of god who will burn in hell throughout all eternity, but he won't say it out loud in case someone tells him off.

Talk about having the courage of your convictions. I hope I'm wrong about Reverend Archie because this leaves a nasty taste in my mouth.