Monday, June 28, 2010

u r doin it rong

I want to express, dear brother in the Episcopate, as well as to all the Bishops of Belgium, my closeness and solidarity in this moment of sadness.

-- Joseph Ratzinger

Perhaps the pope was referring to a particular moment where he became aware of an example of child rape, or when he realised that child rape was institutional in his beloved church?  Possibly he was referring to a moment where he realised that he’d both facilitated and encouraged the covering up of at least hundreds of child rapes spanning decades?  Maybe he was expressing concern for the victims of this systematic abuse or regret for the way his organisation deliberately and consistently blamed those victims for what was done to them.

He’s not, of course.  He’s complaining that the Belgian authorities raided the homes and offices of some clergymen who are suspected of abusing children.

Stefaan De Clerck defended the police action, in a series of TV interviews on Sunday, and said the investigation was legitimate.

But why?  If this were any random suspected paedophile, the public would probably be accusing the police of not doing enough.  The British public seemed entirely happy to draw and quarter Gary Glitter, for example.  But since a church is involved, the country’s Justice Minister has to appear on television to *defend* the actions of the police in investigating the alleged monsters. You know, the thing police are supposed to do.  In a democracy, politicians and heads of state can’t be above the law.  When they claim they are or pass laws to say they’re exempt, that’s a pretty good sign that you no longer live in a democracy. Somehow, the clergy still demand a get out of jail free (literally) card.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican Secretary of State, described the detention of priests "serious and unbelievable".

It’s precisely the treatment anyone else would receive.  Bertone is arguing that clergy should be treated differently (specifically, more leniently) solely because they are clergy.  Nevermind that the fact that they’re clergy is precisely what protected priestly child rapists from the repercussions of their holy rapes in the first place.  We’re supposed to accept and assume that the church will do a good job of policing itself when it has so demonstrably done the worst job in historical memory of doing that so far.  No need to get the filth involved, they’re sorting it themselves, right?  This attitude is what allowed the shameful practice to continue unchallenged for as long as it did. 

Ratzinger, I know you’re pope and all, but I think you might be doing this whole Christian compassion thing a bit wrong.  You should save your sadness for your (church’s) victims, not for the alleged perpetrators.  I understand why you’re sad that the world is finally cottoning on to the egregious harm you’ve been doing all these years, but why, WHY wouldn’t you be sadder still about the thousands of child rapes you’ve endorsed?

The Vatican has summoned the Belgian ambassador to the Holy See to voice its anger at the incident.

Oh has it, indeed?  It has summoned, has it?  It has done no such fucking thing.  It doesn’t get to summon anyone, least of all ambassadors.  If I were the Belgian ambassador to the Holy See, I’d be hammering on the Vatican’s door demanding to be let in to gloat.

Belgium has nothing to apologise about.  It’s the REST OF US who should apologise for not doing the same thing.  And if the Belgian ambassador doesn’t want the job of poking some old idiot in the chest and telling him to fuck off and mind his own business, then it happens that I live right next door to an airport.  I can be in Belgium in an hour, tops.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Are you serious?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an impressive person.  So much so that I’m not even going to link to any material about her.  If you don’t recognise the name, shame on you.  If you haven’t read her books, you are a complete idiot.  Sorry to do something so unfashionable as to have an opinion but here we are: she’s done extraordinary things with astonishing bravery and while anyone is free to criticise her, I’m not sure why anyone would do so unless they were misguided, deluded or BATSHIT INSANE.

So this is interesting. Emma Brockes doesn’t seem to like Ayaan at all and for no particularly good reason, as far as I can tell.

Look at how she’s introduced:

Ayaan Hirsi Ali enters an apartment in New York followed by a bodyguard. The 40-year-old, who for the past six years has been unable to turn up at a venue without it being checked by security, is a writer, polemicist and critic of Islam. She is also a Somali immigrant, a former Muslim, a survivor of child genital mutilation, an exile many times over, a former Dutch MP, a black woman whose language would not, in places, look amiss in a far-right pamphlet, a remarked-upon beauty and a lady-in-peril, identities that lend her as a figurehead to disparate causes and confuse the people she meets.

There are a couple of worries here.  First, the right-wing accusation.  There’s nothing actually wrong with having a right-wing orientation, but it’s rather odd to accuse Ayaan of having such a thing.  Personally, I don’t care what direction her wings point in: she’s reporting what happened to her and criticises the infrastructure that enabled it and continues to enable it.  I can’t work out – and couldn’t care less – whether this is right or left wing.  Right wingedness isn’t automatically wrong, even though I personally dress to the left.

Second, her beauty.  Ayaan is certainly beautiful.  I could look at her all day.  You know what though?  I’d be as enraged at the way she and others have been treated if she were unattractive to me.  Brockes suggests that Ayaan’s beauty is a factor in her being listened to.  Perhaps it is.  Probably that’s a bad thing.  But it’s not Ayaan’s fault for being easy on the eye, it’s everyone else’s fault for acting like that’s an important part of an argument.

Third, and most despicably, the ‘lady-in-peril’ charge.  What’s this supposed to mean?  She’s in peril because she’s made a stance against a horrific, barbaric institution: one that wants to silence her because it threatens their horribleness and barbarism.  Of course this is one of the reasons people listen to her: she has some important things to say because of her experiences.  That is entirely the point. 

"I'm a serious person," she says, frowning, as the photographer suggests various fashion poses, but she is also quietly, almost coyly glamorous, moving around with fawn-like grace. It's a combination that works particularly well on male polemicists of the muscular left, who can't do enough to defend her: her gentle charm, her small wrists, her big eyes – oh, and her brave commitment to Enlightenment values in the face of all that extremism.

This is a bizarre attack and in the spirit of modern journalism, it’s not even clear what is the target.  Ayaan for being appealing and having an important message or the “male polemicists of the muscular left”, which presumably includes me?  Look at the INSANITY of Brockes’ claim that my sympathy toward Ayaan might stem from the circumference of her wrists.  But worse and more insane than that, look at the claim that it stems from her “brave commitment to Enlightenment values in the face of all that extremism.” 

YES. THAT IS WHAT WE ADMIRE.  IT’S BY DEFINITION AN ADMIRABLE THING.  Are we supposed to dismiss sincerely held views because they are sincerely held?  Well, that’s the sort of attitude this kind of journalism seems to want to encourage.  Bizarre.

It was after fleeing an arranged marriage and settling as an asylum-seeker in the Netherlands that Hirsi Ali converted from Islam to atheism with the kind of zeal that usually powers journeys going the other way.

And well she might.  Whence this idea that embracing atheism with zeal is somehow wrong?  Why can’t we be enthusiastic about unbelief, especially if we’ve been badly treated by the artefacts of religion, as Ayaan certainly has?  It’s really OK for people to be as enthusiastic about non-belief as anyone is about belief and the only people who claim it isn’t are the unbelievers.  Fuck them: they don’t get to tell everyone else what should be important to them and I can and will not buy into this sycophantic rhetoric. Fuck – I say again – them.

She can, she has said, make statements that a white person simply could not: on the "dangers" posed to the West not just by radical but by regular Islam; on the "backward" nature of the religion; on how "terrible" the Koran is; and, in the most startling argument of her new book, Nomad (a follow-up to her best-selling memoir Infidel), how Muslims would do well to learn from Christianity.

The scare quotes are astonishingly, tear-jerkingly, eye-wateringly silly.  The dangers are demonstrably real.  The backwardness is plain: we’re talking about a culture that flogs or kills women for the ‘crime’ of being raped.  I don’t think Ayaan says the Koran is “terrible” but she – rightly – has much to say on the culture of Islam and how terrible that can be.  I don’t see why we need to look much further than Ayaan’s experiences to conclude that muslim women might have something legitimate to complain about. 

The accusation that most irritates her – that the events of her life have left her "traumatised" and an easy pawn for right-wing politicians – is, as she says, a sexist presumption. And yet the suspicion remains: that those convictions one arrives at – and fights hardest for – via fraught personal experience are emotional, not rational, and as such beyond reach of most useful debate.

This is the very definition of terrible journalism and awful argument.  First, if someone really has claimed to be traumatised, then DON’T scare quote it.  But has she really claimed to be traumatised?  Tut.  Second, journalists don’t get to say “defendant says x but let’s completely make up y and talk about it as if it’s true.”  Well they do get to do it, of course.  I can’t stop them.  The only thing that will stop them is conscience, which is plainly and regrettably absent in people like Brockes.

"I'm not being right-wing," she says. "The people who believe themselves to be on the left, and who defend the agents of Islam in the name of tolerance and culture, are being right-wing. Not just right-wing. Extreme right-wing. I don't understand how you can be so upset about the Christian right and just ignore the Islamic right. I'm talking about equality." (She is seeing the right-wing historian Niall Ferguson, whom, she wrote recently in a Dutch magazine, she is "enormously in love with", but won't comment on it today, nor smile at the suggestion that in most people's minds this will instantly reposition her on the political scale.)

She…won’t…smile…at it?  What is that supposed to mean?  It is absolute nonsense and an ad hom attack.  And a non-sequitur.  Brockes’ comment in no way addresses Ayaan’s statement.  Instead, it relies on the phrase ‘right-wing’ and somehow manages to degenerate further into mealy-mouthedness.

The impetus to write Nomad came in 2008, when she visited her dying father at a hospital in London and saw her family for the first time in years. The reunion was short and inadequate and brought about "the horrible feelings that come with death; lots of things that I regret". Primarily that she hadn't spoken to him sooner but also that in what she saw as his internal fight between Western and Islamic principles – he believed in educating his daughter but forced her into a marriage and disowned her when she ran away – the latter won.

This is a deliberate understatement.  Ayaan was forced into marriage.  Let’s reflect on this word ‘forced’ for a while. She ‘ran away’ from a society that insisted she be continually raped because her father said so.

Her critique of Islam as a "moral framework not compatible with the modern Westernised way of living" is rooted in a critique of her family, her father's unbending will and particularly her mother, a woman who she says was pulled apart by the contradictions of maintaining her faith in a modern society and an identity crisis from which Hirsi Ali herself suffered. (She speaks six languages – English, Somali, Arabic, Swahili, Amharic and Dutch.)

This isn’t true.  Her critique is based on the idiocies of that tradition, which happen to be exemplified by her own family.  But so what if it were based on her own family?  I don’t see how that would invalidate her anecdotes.

The subtitle of Nomad is A Personal Journey through the Clash of Civilisations. I ask if she understands why Muslims going about their business are incredibly hurt by these kinds of statements. "But if you compare the reaction of Christians to what is written about Christianity – Richard Dawkins, who's a supporter, says religion is a form of madness – whereby Christians just shrug their shoulders and don't respond. If you compare the way Muslims take offence at perceived insults that are not insults but are just a critical way of looking at their religion, then I start to ask myself, 'Why are Muslims so hypersensitive to criticism and why don't they do anything with it except to respond by denying it or playing the victim?' And I've come to the conclusion it's because of the gradual indoctrination – from parents, teachers – that everything in the Koran is true; Muhammad is infallible, you have to follow his example and defend Islam at all times, at all costs. Instead of going along, as most people are doing now, and saying, 'OK, let's refrain from criticising Islam, let's refrain from calling Islamic terrorism Islamic,' I think we should do the opposite."

So do I.  The only reason I can think of to refrain from criticising all religions, especially Islam, is concern for my personal safety.  Nobody who knows me could possibly think I’m worried about that.  I’m not concerned about shocking people.  I’m concerned about being in charge of which ideals I compromise.  That’s all and that’s why I’m in this skepticism business.

The 11-minute film Hirsi Ali made with Van Gogh, a broadcaster and provocateur who publicly referred to Muslims as "goat-f---ers", was intended to symbolise what they saw as misogyny within Islam. Three months after the film aired on Dutch TV, Van Gogh was murdered in the street by Mohammed Bouyeri, a Dutch-Moroccan who pinned a note to his chest calling for holy war and naming Hirsi Ali as a target.

The suggestion here is that provocation gets what it deserves.  Fair enough; I use words to provoke people, so I expect words in return.  Van Gogh likely felt the same; insinuating that a large group of diverse people fuck goats is not particularly cool, but death seems a somewhat harsh sentence, particularly if it comes from random people instead of due process.  Let’s try to remember who is in the wrong here.

She reserves her greatest disapproval for intellectuals who, she says, have failed utterly in their responsibility towards non-white women. The decadence of Western feminism is where Hirsi Ali is perhaps strongest. In the book, she attacks Germaine Greer for arguing that female genital mutilation needs to be considered "in context", as part of a "cultural identity" that Western women don't understand.

Quite rightly.  There’s no context in which brutalising a women’s genitals could be considered right.

She calls for a new feminism "that is going to focus on issues faced by non-Western women, because they are the biggest issues. To own your own sexuality, as an adult woman; to choose your own lifestyle; to have access to education [when] what we see in the Muslim world is girls being pulled out of school and married off before they've completed their education. These things, I think, are more basic than the stuff that current feminists are concerning themselves with – like shattering the glass ceiling or finding a balance between work and home life. There was a long article in The New York Times that went on and on about who [in a couple] would load and unload the dishwasher. If you have a career and you're so intelligent, you can work that out. You don't have to have a manifesto. There is feminism that has evolved to a kind of luxury."

She’s right.  There are all sorts of sexism going on and we need to deal with all of them, but we need to prioritise.  The women who are being systematically raped and killed are rather more of a priority than those who aren’t getting paid as much as men.  Both important and enraging, but we prioritise.

Ayaan is an amazing person.  There’s no doubt of that.  But that in itself isn’t a reason to listen to what she says.  Fortunately, she’s intelligent, rational, sympathetic and right.  These really are reasons to listen to her.  Brockes is none of these things and her distortions are pathetic.


Whatever you do, don’t mingle.

I want you to imagine a 2-stoke engine starting.  Have you got that sound in your mind?  A sort of whup-whup-whup escalating to a roar?

That’s my anger at this link, that is.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

More and more and more

What’s left to say?

The Vatican is annoyed that the authorities, while investigating crimes, investigated crimes.

How is it news that the Vatican is angry? It’s never news that, say, some drug lord is angry at being exposed or having assets searched for evidence of known crimes, but the Vatican gets to express indignation and have it faithfully reported by the guffawing press.

If the Vatican cared about child abuse (let me be clear, about preventing it rather than encouraging it) then it would welcome investigations, providing they were legal.  What do they have to complain about?  Zero tolerance? For what, exactly?  For beanspillers. For people trying to do the right thing.  For people trying to protect the innocent.

oh, sharia is being abused

“shari’a provisions are being abused to facilitate the influential persons to do injustice to the poor and vulnerable groups, especially the women, in order to retain or increase their so-called power.”

No, that’s what sharia requires. It’s not an abuse.  ‘Moderates’ are people who sometimes don’t do what they’re told by authority figures because they suspect it might be wrong.  But as I’ve said before, they don’t bother or don’t care or are too scared to actually do something about it.  They must.  Moderates enable extreme behaviour unless they go out of their way to prevent it.  It’s their responsibility to do so if they believe their religion to be peaceful.  Christians who believe you are moderate, I’m talking also to you.

Let me be explicit about what is happening here, just to make the point: women are being raped, then being punished for it.  Not just punished, BRUTALISED.  A practice that was obviously fully endorsed by family and community.  The rapists get off scott free.

This isn’t an abuse of sharia law, it is an enactment of it.

If you’re a muslim, you must tell your peers and your immams about this.  You must do everything you can to stop it happening again.  It’s your responsibility, isn’t it?  Well, isn’t it?

If you’re a christian, you must stop telling people that faith is in and of itself a good thing.  You must stop trying to give the impression that people of faith are by definition – in general – morally better than those without it.  Don’t you see how you’re enabling this barbarism?  Do you *really* believe that the blood isn’t partly on your hands?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Culture shock

There’s something weirdly disturbing about this. It’s a bizarrely specific question and I can’t imagine what could have motivated it.  Some of the answers are quite disturbing too.  A lot seem obsessed with breastfeeding, including one chap who seems to be genuinely terrified that his wife’s tits might still have “white stuff” in them.  Also bemusing is:

If a man is not happy, he would not think of sucking any breasts. It is only a happy man that does that.

I’d have thought it might cheer an unhappy man right up.  It certainly puts a smile on my face.  I’m also struggling to understand how one man apparently manages to sing songs while he’s sucking.

But I think the thing that WEIRDS ME OUT the most is the strange misogynistic vibe as though sex is something you do to rather than with someone.  Or perhaps it’s not misogyny on the part of these individuals, but of their religion/culture, which is presumably Islam.  Women are machines for producing babies.  It’s OK though, because they can be used for a man’s pleasure until they start churning out sprogs.  I think we’re coming close to an understanding of the motivations for asking the question after all. There’s clearly some anxiety about enjoying sex when it is clearly ‘for’ procreation and since breasts have a particular function in child-rearing, there’s some kind of strange conflict.  Or perhaps it’s just squick: there’s an evident preoccupation with the idea of ‘sharing’ parts of a woman’s body with the children.  OMG THERE’S MILK COMING OUT OF THOSE THINGS!!!!ONE!!

But there’s no shortage of strange and disturbing insanity on that site.  The topic this time is “What will make you pour acid on your wife?”

Again, you’ve got to wonder why even ask that question?  I cannot imagine another culture in which anyone would put effort into considering what would be the trigger for their maiming their wife in this bizarrely specific and horrific way.  To be clear: the practice is condemned in the article and thankfully every commenter says they wouldn’t do such a thing under any circumstances.  But there’s also a tacit assumption that whether or not you pour acid on your wife is a matter of personal preference rather than an open-and-shut case of being completely out of the question for anyone, ever, under any circumstance at all. 

There’s also the unsettling impression that infidelity (on the woman’s part, of course) is something that might possibly warrant having acid thrown on her, even though the respondents wouldn’t do this themselves.  Women are property and if they object to being forced into marriage or simply want to fuck someone else, it’s understandable that her husband might decide to maim her, apparently.  Let me put that another way: none of the comments condemn the practice of men pouring acid on their wives in principle and that is what disturbs me.

There is lots more insanity to feast upon, but it’s not all bad.  Some sensible things are said about condoms, although my endorsement is not without reservation.  For example, look at this.  I’ll resist the urge to comment or we’ll be here all day:

“I cannot do it without condom because I have not known her so well as to do that in confidence and trust that she is homely and well trained.”

Friday, June 18, 2010


We were initially surprised that our co-authored book, Unscientific America, was so strongly attacked for observing that scientists should strive to improve their skills at public communication–and that this probably includes not alienating potential religious allies or mainstream America.

What? Wait? What? This is an astonishing non-sequitur.  There’s a whole bunch of issues involved with the charge that scientists in general can do better at communication.  I think we certainly have plenty to learn, but it’s the ‘should’ part that bothers me: it’s a complicated issue and doesn’t deserve to be reduced to ‘should’.  That’s one issue.  To follow this with the claim that better communication “probably includes not alienating potential religious allies or mainstream America.” is highly disingenuous, trotted out as though it were an obvious conclusion of the dubious requirement for better science communication. 


But it gets much, much worse.

But in a sense, the attacks made a kind of sense. Mostly, they came from those for whom this advice ran contrary to their particular project of denouncing much of America and the world for alleged ignorance and superstition–the New Atheists.

This piles consternation on top of astonishment.  It’s news to me that we New Atheists have any such project and it seems as though Mooney is using the claim as a rhetorical excuse to put everyone who disagrees with him into a box. It leaves him free to move the goalposts, which is the very hallmark of a specious argument.

Extra brilliantness for “America and the world”, by the way.

What will any parent do?

If they wanted to kill their daughter, that’s okay. But they shouldn’t have killed our boy.

This is a horror.  It must be treated with the utmost intolerance and disrespect.  It cannot and must not be allowed to continue.  We shrug our shoulders and blame it on extremists as though extremists appear from nowhere.  Extremism is as legitimate a form of religion as any other and we don’t get to associate religion with the warm and fuzzy weak-tea-drinking meek-and-mild types and pretend that the batshit crazy ones are doing it wrong.

The moderate religious and the irreligious accomodationists enable this kind of behaviour by not attacking it constantly and relentlessly.  This is a mystery to me: I rage against scientists who are credulous or who fake results or otherwise fail to live up to science’s ideals.  I want to make science better by helping in my small way to weed out the crazy and unethical.  I do this when I review papers that don’t live up to their claims and when I write about nonsense masquerading as science or about scientists who say silly things.  I do this because I love science and I’m proud of it.  I want it to be genuinely better, not to whitewash the ugly bits.  Better out than in.

The religious seem to have a different approach.  They can usually be relied upon to vaguely condemn extreme acts carried out in the name of religion but they never accept that behaviour as a consequence of religion.  If Islam, for example, is a religion of peace, why don’t the many peaceful Muslims do more to ostracise the violent ones?  Why don’t peaceful Imams discredit and discourage the ones that prescribe violence?  Why don’t the many tolerant Christians rail against the homophobic ones?  Why don’t the more sensible ones put more effort into ridiculing Young Earthers?  Why aren’t Catholics more enraged about the widespread systematic raping of children by priests?

And why don’t friends and neighbours, holy men (and they’re always men) and ‘community leaders’ (also usually men) utterly condemn honour killings?  Why isn’t the Muslim world so outraged by this case that the world’s media and the web in particular isn’t completely on fire with condemnation? 

We must vilify people who do this kind of thing because they are villains.  We must be especially diligent in policing our own groups and we must air our dirty laundry in public. 

Immortal jellyfish overlords

There’s a species of jellyfish, Turritopsis nutricula, which is potentially biologically immortal.  Even when sexually mature it can revert to it’s polyp stage and then mature back into an adult again, apparently indefinitely.  Which is kind of cool.

As far as we know, this is unique in the animal kingdom. It’s interesting to speculate how it might have evolved, especially since most Turritopsis in the wild are eaten in their plankton stage without having reverted to the polyp form.  Puzzling.

It is also ridiculously beautiful.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Apology or stealth attack?

I’m in two minds about this.  Karl Giberson has long considered himself as an enemy of the New Atheists and recently wrote this rather patronising piece where he accused us of not “playing well with others”.  He – falsely – accuses Jerry Coyne of “having raked Brown University cell biologist Ken Miller and me over the coals in The New Republic for our claims that Christians can unapologetically embrace science.”  In fact, Coyne was very polite and civil in his post.  He attacked their ideas, but he did not attack the people.  In contrast, Giberson attacks the New Atheist on a personal level, calling us “intellectual bullies” and, famously, “profoundly un-American”.  Naturally, I’m not concerned with being labelled un-American, but the sentiment is not a pleasant one, even for non-Americans: he’s talking about the concepts of freedom and liberty and a suggestion that I might oppose either is offensive.  He also tosses around some strawmen with some abandon:

What sort of atheist complains that a fellow citizen doing world-class science must abandon his or her religion to be a good scientist?

Well, no sort of atheist, as far as I’m aware.  I’ve never heard anyone say this.  We know perfectly well that some good scientists are religious.  It doesn’t particularly surprise us and it doesn’t really concern us unless their religion directly conflicts with their science, at which point they would presumably become a bad scientist.  For example, if a geologist were to claim that the earth is 6000 years old, then she would not be a good geologist.  What we New Atheists actually say is that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible, not that good scientists can’t be religious.  This is rather different.  Religion and science are incompatible because they make contradictory claims about the world.  There’s nothing to stop anyone – scientist or otherwise – of embracing contradictions and it’s clear that some do.

The New Atheists need to learn how to play in the sandbox.  Giberson ends with the patronising sentiment that “The New Atheists need to learn how to play in the sandbox.”  This is just another demand that we we ‘respect’ the religious for no better reason than their beliefs in silly things.  And by ‘respect’ Giberson means that we shouldn’t laugh at those beliefs or pick them apart with our pesky logic.

So it was a surprise when Giberson followed that piece with this one, where he apologises for Lying for Jesus. On the face of it, it’s an astonishing revelation:

Dennett has accused me of being a "faith fibber," a term applied to religious critics of the New Atheists who, in their enthusiasm to vilify non-believers, distort the truth. This is an ironic charge, since religious believers generally claim to be speaking from a higher moral ground. "Faith fibbers like Giberson," Dennett wrote, "are polluting the media with their misrepresentations of the New Atheism."

Dennett's charge, and a subsequent civil email exchange with him, got me thinking about the discourse on religious belief that currently heats up the blogosphere. As I reflect on the various exchanges, I see no evidence that religious believers are standing on any higher moral ground. The vilification of the New Atheists is accompanied by caricature, hyperbole, misprepresentation and a distinct lack of charity.

He gives some examples of Lying for Jesus including one of his own: comparing Richard Dawkins to a "museum piece that becomes ever more interesting because, while everything else moves forward and changes, it remains the same."

He follows with admissions of doing similar things to Jerry Coyne, Sam Harris, PZ Myers and “countless others.”

He closes with an edifying remark: “Confession, they say, is good for the soul. So Dan [Dennet], I was a faith fibber. Sorry about that.”

On the face of it, this seems like a perfectly sincere apology and my first instinct was to be impressed.  It’s hard for any of us to abandon a position we’ve invested heavily with, let alone to admit we were wrong for investing so much in the first place.  However, there’s something about this passage that makes it hard to accept as an apology:

But back to my point: Christians have rules, which presumably are still in force on the Internet: One of the best known is "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you." And yet the rule that many Christians seem to follow when they lay their hands on their keyboards is quite different: "Ridicule your enemies; misrepresent those who hate you; caricature and malign those that mistreat you."

Wait a cotton-picking minute…. pray for those who mistreat you?  The New Atheists haven’t mistreated Giberson or – for the most part – religious people in general.  We have mocked their beliefs and some of their actions that are based on them.  We’ve argued and cajoled.  We’ve pointed out flaws and silliness.  We’ve refused to respect the frequent demands that we ‘respect’ religion by not laughing at it, loudly and in public.  It seems that Giberson feels this constitutes mistreatment.  Again, we have the implicit assumption that religion must get special treatment that nothing else does.  Even those of us who don’t believe that religion deserves special treatment are expected to afford it anyway.  We’re expected to shut up and smile when you say nonsensical things.  If we do disagree, we’re expected to adopt a respectful tone and bend over backwards to appease you.  Refusal to bow to these crazy and frankly offensive demands is not mistreatment.

Think also about “Love your enemies”.  We are not your enemies, Giberson.  We don’t agree with your beliefs, but we don’t mind that you hold them.  We didn’t declare you an enemy, you declared us your enemy because we lack that all-important unearned respect for your crazy beliefs.

“Do good to those who hate you.”  We don’t hate you, Giberson.  We ridicule your religious beliefs and we roll our eyes at your accomodationist stance, but we bear little or no ill will towards you personally, even though you’ve insulted us (and even though you later admitted that those insults were unfair). I don’t think New Atheists in general even hate your views or the fact that you hold them.  Such a thing would be rather perverse.

There’s a danger I’m being churlish here.  Perhaps Giberson has simply been carried away by his own rhetoric.  He might just have meant that his faith fibbing was hardly in keeping with what he feels the Christian message to be.  But I can’t help but feel that it is Giberson and his like who have created the conflict with their demands that we respect their views whether we want to or not.  Is his apology an attempt to regain the moral high ground?  By appearing to apologise for some mild name-calling, is he really just trying to show that he has risen above the rude and sneering tone of we New Atheists?  I’m reserving judgement for now.

Is it wrong to enjoy this a little?

Probably, but being right isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. 

I understand that the statue probably meant a lot to a lot of people and I don’t enjoy their distress, but I do find the intrusive, bullying nature of these giant Jesus statues distasteful and for that reason, I’m glad it’s gone.  Also, of course, the ironing is delicious.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

More BBC Breakfast science ineptitude

The very next day after this, Breakfast interviewed the one-time TV presenter Gail Porter, who lost her hair five years ago for reasons that don't seem to be well understood.  She said a few astonishing things, abetted by the Breakfast presenters.  For example:

1. She attributes the reason her hair is growing back to the fact that she's fallen in love.  Bless and you never know....but she *doesn't* know.  She's making a random claim for no good reason.

2. She also, confusingly, attributes her hair re-growth to the fact that she rubs a mixture of olive and avocado oil into her scalp every night.  She's been doing this for five years, her hair has only just started to grow back, yet she still seems to think the oil is responsible.  Maybe it just takes five years to work.  Incidentally, she’s been rubbing the same mixture on the rest of her body too because she has decided for no reason that it keeps her skin looking young.  Interestingly, excess hair hasn’t begun to grow on the rest of her body.

3. She had a few bits of hair growing in patches, so understandably she shaved her head.  After five years, she stopped shaving her head for some reason and….her hair grew back all over.  It kind of makes me wonder whether she could have done this earlier.  No sniping about that; it would be a real shame if she’d missed out on having hair because she didn’t realise it was growing back after all. But there’s a possibly blithering act of credulous stupidity in deciding that stopping shaving her head just happened to coincide with her hair growing back.  I doubt it was that simple, but that’s how she reported it on Breakfast and the thought that she might have looked at her hair one day, thought it looked a bit thicker, decided to give it a few weeks and then suddenly realised that it was growing back seems to fit her MO.

4. Some clips were shown of a documentary she made when her hair first fell out.  It was sad: there was a clip of her doctor saying that her hair probably wouldn’t grow back and she cried because this was the first time it had really hit home.  Sad.  But when the clip had finished, she went on to criticise the doctor for….well….as far as I can tell for giving her an accurate prognosis, which turned out to be wrong.  The attitude was very definitely one of scientists and doctors plainly not knowing what they are talking about (after all, one doctor was wrong about one thing even though his prognosis was entirely the right one to make. 

And the Breakfast presenters lapped it up.  They didn’t challenge her on anything at all.  It’s sad.  It’s inadequate. It’s anti-science and almost desperately so.  It’s probably giving false hope to other people in that situation and it’s harmful.  No biscuit.

Monday, June 14, 2010


Perhaps you’ve heard of Derek Acorah.  He is a particularly fake medium inexplicably allowed on British television.  I should be clear what I mean here: all mediums are fake but some are deliberately fake and others seem just deluded. The record seems to show that Acorah is among the former camp.  He can sue me if he likes, but before he does he might like to explain why he hasn’t even applied for the JREF Million.  Derek, sorry if you have applied and I missed you on the list.  There are a lot to search through.  I’m not sorry for calling you a fraud though.  Because you’re a fraud.  You fraud.  Naturally I’ll backtrack like you yourself have on several occasions if you actually do sue me, because I don’t have the resources to defend yourself.  So you’ll…uh….win.  I guess.  And you’ll know I’m calling you a fraud because, as it says on your site: you are:

Derek Acorah is, without question, the number one television psychic in the UK, bridging the gap between the niche cult shows to mainstream talk shows which rely on personality and the ability to capture the imagination.

So….can you see dead people then or what?

As a result of Derek's sincerity and enthusiastic delivery, Derek has achieved international acclaim with television, radio and personal appearances across the United Kingdom, Europe, the Middle East, New Zealand and the USA. Derek has also conducted telephone consultations for people as far south as India, Australia and New Zealand.

So….can you hear dead people then or what?

You see where I’m going here.  Derek doesn’t say on his own official site what his magical powers actually are.  But he does have plenty of links you can click to give him money to exercise the skills he doesn’t say he has and he has a tiny disclaimer which states that whatever you give him money for, it is for entertainment purposes only, which is why he will probably win if he sues me for calling him a fraud.

Anyway, instead of doing work, I ended up watching a show featuring the fraud Derek Acorah.  Do you know what?  I didn’t even think to write down what the show was.  I like to think I’m more thorough than that but it turns out I’m not.  I think I was too excited about analysing his not particularly skilful cold-reading techniques and burbling out a post about it.  But frankly, who the fuck cares?  It could be any show featuring Acorah.  Not one of the ones he was sacked from for lying, of course, one of the ones he’s currently employed by.

This is how it went down.  There’s an audience and Acorah leaps in front of the camera and then….  (this was done as it happened, so expect corrections as the text progresses)

He starts by mentioning an audience member's departed soul by name.  it is presented as though he knows the name by unnatural means but there are like four cuts. It looks like Max fucking Headroom.

Already.  In the first eight seconds or so of the show.  You’d think he’d just be saying hello and psychically zeroing in on people who need his help.  Why would he need to cut so much material.  It’s almost as if he didn’t get any hits at first and wouldn’t have looked very psychic at all on the telly until he hit a particular mark.

He starts by focussing on a particular person in the audience and talking about that person’s dead acquaintance.  We aren’t treated to a picture of the audience member (I’m going to call the audience member ‘the mark’) yet, which is interesting.

He points out how old the recently dead person (I’m gonna call this dead chap ‘the corpse’) was.

He says how old the recently dead person (the corpse) was.  Well, with a decade's worth of error bar.  After looking at the offspring of the departed and guessing their ages.  And having never yet specified who the corpse was.  It would be child’s play to look at 40 year old marks and tell them they know someone in their 60s who had died.  It wouldn’t be a surprise if it were their father or mother.  Or grandad or grandma.  Or aunt or…  Well you get the idea.  Acorah never says who the actual corpse is.  All the information is supplied by the mark, as we’ll see.

Acorah talks about this corpse having cancer, specifically - as it seems - cancer in his body. He waves his hand all over his own body as if to specify where the cancer – in this not-specified-person – was.  Well, it’s a fairly safe bet that the cancer was in his body.  Where is it likely to be?  Well in a male, in the lower portions of the torso.  Another safe bet.

But Acorah predicted cancer, right?  Well, it almost seems so from the show, but there are so many cuts….we don’t know whether Acorah picked out someone in the audience and told them things about their loved ones or whether he shotgunned.  Certainly he seemed to be staring at a woman in the audience when he began then later he was plainly talking to a man about the specific cancer, but I’m not sure what I can make out of that.  Could just be editing. But it’s a fairly safe bet that cancer is the culprit in any death.  One in three.  It’s either that or heart failure.  And with heart failure you can’t lose since cause of death is always, when it comes down to it, your heart not beating any more.  But remember that the audience is full of people who have come to hear about a dead loved-one’s current activities.  They all know someone dead.  Every single one of them will know someone who has died from cancer.  Or had cancer and then died.

Anyway, Acorah finds someone who has a relative who died of cancer.  He predicts what kind of cancer it was by waving his hands over every single part of his body until someone says stop.  To be fair, he mentions that it might be bowel cancer, but when it turns out later to have been stomach cancer, he counts two inexplicable things as hits: first, the fact that the cancer might have been in the person’s body and second that bowel cancer is the same as stomach cancer.

This is all assuming that the mark didn’t tell Acorah beforehand that he had a relative who died of cancer.  We don’t know, but it was a safe bet either way.  Interestingly, there was no gasp from the audience when cancer in the region of the lower torso was mentioned.  I strongly suspect that the mark told Acorah that that’s where the problem was.

Acorah then makes the amazing statement that the deceased might have lost a bit of weight before he died.  Not a great leap of faith for someone with cancer, especially if it was in the bowel area.  Would a medical doctor mention weight loss when talking about the death of a cancer patient?  No.  Because she'd know that weight loss is associated with that illness and she'd know that it was likely explained to the family as a symptom in the early stages and it would not be worth mentioning when discussing it later, especially after the person had died.  It would be like establishing that someone had a cold and then pointing out that they sneezed.

A second later, it turns out that it wasn't the bowels, it was the stomach.  Acorah doesn't say this, of course, someone in the audience does. And it turns out I've given Acorah too much credit: he seemed to be staring intently at a particular person in the audience as though he was speaking specifically to her.  And there were some shots of a woman reacting to what he said.  And then suddenly there's this bloke in a completely different part of the audience VOLUNTEERING information about  stomach cancer, which Acorah seizes upon.

More cuts.  Cuts cuts cuts.

Then Acorah says - almost unbelievably - that he's not making any claims about the next thing he's going to say.  He says he's just asking for information.  Then he asks whether the corpse was a fun-loving guy.  As he asks it, he grins and makes a big deal of eye contact.  Cut to someone nodding and saying yes.  Well it seems relevant at this point to ask who wouldn't love fun.  Does anyone hate fun?  Or do they find fun fun?  And who would want to say on television of a beloved relative that he was a miserable bastard and they're glad he's dead?  Before you answer, remember that I'm not going to go on television to say that sort of thing.  Because nobody would ask. But the point is that Acorah is pandering to his audience.  He’s making his guesses seem more true by saying things that seem quite specific but are actually true of everyone.

Acorah then repeats the loss of body weight shtick.  It's already been counted as a hit, so he milks it by mentioning it yet again, even though the subject has been changed.  The mark confirms this again and adds the information - completely unprompted - that the man in question died within a month of being diagnosed.  Now wait a cotton-picking minute.  If you knew someone who had died from cancer (and chances are you do) and someone asked whether they had lost weight toward the end, chances are you wouldn't say "yes, he died within a month of being diagnosed and lost lots of weight".  That middle part is not relevant information so why is the person saying it?  Well, I don't know, but my suspicion is that Acorah spoke to him before the broadcast (or during the cuts) and associated these sorts of thing together as a means of soliciting additional information.  Just a guess. For example, he might have said “now here’s a commercial break: when we come back, the mark will tell us how…..” and so on.

Acorah then asks whether one of the corpse’s family members have moved - he makes an expansive gesture - and finishes " some direction".  Almost as though he's shotgunning.  Let's think about how the mark could have answered.  Of course, if he hadn’t, Acorah could have picked on someone else, easily.  He could have said "yes, my mother moved one door down the street."  He could have said "yes, my mother (or brother or neighbour or friend or someone we didn't really know) moved miles away."  Or he could have described a lifestyle change that one of these people made.  They'd all have seemed like hits.  As it happened, a family member did move 100 miles away.  Acorah gets his hit.  What does he do with it?  He says the corpse is aware of this and has 'made visitations' (does this mean 'has visited'?) to the new home.  The mark nods and smiles and says that yes, they were very close.  He notably does not say that the supposedly visited person can't get any housework done due to ghosts cluttering the place up.  This is a typical kind of vicarious win for people like Acorah: no prediction has actually been made, has it? the vague 'someone moved/changed" statement was turned into a particular family member having moved BY THE PUNTER, NOT BY ACORAH and in the audience's minds this was turned into a positive ghost manifestation based solely on the mark's statement that the dead guy and the family member 'were close'.  NO MENTION WAS EVER MADE of that family member believing she was contacted by the dead person.  It wasn't even implied.  Something was implied to have happened when it did not.  A classic cold reading technique.

Acorah then seems to be speaking to nobody - presumably his spirit guide.  Then he asks the mark a question: has there been talk of a pregnancy in the family? And he makes an expansive gesture as if to suggest that 'family' could mean more or less anyone.  Note: he doesn't ask whether anyone is pregnant or even whether the dead guy knew about it or was involved with it in any way.  He *asks* whether there has been *talk* of a pregnancy somewhere within an extended version of whatever 'family' might mean to that particular person under that particular circumstance.  The mark is amazed.  Yes, his sister has recently had a baby.  Where does Acorah go with this?  Nowhere.  He takes his hit and moves on.

Then he changes the subject completely.  Guided, he says, by the corpse.  He asks whether the audience member is thinking about changes in his life.  Let me make a prediction: are you, the reader, thinking about making some changes?  Has there ever been a time when you *haven't* thought about moving house or changing job or partner or image?  Have you ever thought of parting your hair on the other side or buying different deodorant?  Have you ever thought that you'd like a Mac instead of a PC or that you'd like to learn the piano? It would be difficult indeed to get a miss from this gambit and let's be clear:Acorah has COMPLETELY CHANGED THE SUBJECT.  He is no longer able to trade off the dubious 'hits' he's already made, but the transition is such that the mark doesn't notice this.

Acorah then asks whether there's a bit of hesitation about this supposed change.  Duh, another obvious hit.  We don't change things lightly.  Uncle Peter (and it is suddenly Uncle Peter), as it happens, fully supports the change.  Without *ever* specifying what that change *is*.  It's never even brought up.

Acorah finishes by saying that dead uncle peter will make the decision work for the best - oddly, whatever decision is made - and so the resident idiot doesn't have to worry.  He does an extensive passive aggressive signoff, getting the mark to say "OK" several times as though to endorse the predictions.


Surly Amy and other skeptical chicks

Things to buy!

Everyone should buy one because they seem to enrage Graham. I have this one:

which he can't quite cope with and I have one like this:

which I suspect he will cope with even more badly. I also really like this one:

although I don't think I could wear anything heart-shaped.

There are two good causes here: promoting critical thinking and enraging Graham. Even if you don't know Graham, I think you'll agree it's worth it. I yearn for a world where everyone has one except him, just to see what happens. And a world without zinc of course.

Nobody hasn't commented on my i-doubt-it pendant and it always leads to a discussion about critical thinking. Surly Amy does brilliant work and you can find more of her wisdom here:

If you're not reading skepchick already, of course, then I have this to say to you: you are a complete idiot.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Priests will stop raping children if people respect them more

Vatican investigators to Ireland appointed by Pope Benedict XVI are to clamp down on liberal secular opinion in an intensive drive to re-impose traditional respect for clergy, according to informed sources in the Catholic Church.

Where to start.  These are the people who are to investigate the widespread child abuse and longstanding cover ups that have become the very hallmark of the catholic church.  The thing that’s enabled the church to get away with this behaviour for so long is exactly the unearned respect demanded of and – bizarrely – given to the priesthood.  So there solution is to encourage more of this? 

And in what way do they get to ‘clamp down’ on this anyway?  Are they going to force respect?  Who gives them this authority?  Who do they think they are?

And perhaps even more importantly, why does nobody find it strange that the church is once again BLAMING THE VICTIMS?  The problem here isn’t the ordinary Irish Catholics, respectful or otherwise.  It is the church who systematically raped children for decades and routinely covered it up, putting still more of their captive children at risk.  They don’t get to blame this on a lack of ‘traditional’ values in people who didn’t commit those rapes and cover ups.

If you needed any more proof that the church doesn’t care about its victims and has no particular intention of changing or making things right, then look no further.  More respect for priests makes it easier for them to cover up their crimes.  Which means that fewer rapes will be reported.  Which is basically the same thing as not doing the rapes in the first place, right?   Right?

The BBC guffaws its way through another ‘science’ report

The Breakfast programme this morning has a story on this place: a scientific facility that shoots very bright light at stuff so we can look at very small things like molecules in detail.  Unfortunately, the tone of the story is the familiar head-shaking i-don’t-understand-what-these-boffins-are-talking-about one we’ve all come to expect from the BBC.  They don’t adopt this tone when there’s a story about politics or sport or anything else, but when there’s a science story, there’s an immediate ironic note in the voices and metaphorical eye-rollings at all these crazy, obsessive scientists and their sums.

Is it too much to ask that the BBC hire someone who is actually passionate about science to report on science issues?  Is it too much to ask that the presenters demonstrate a willingness to become less ignorant?  The BBC is funded by a tax on the people who happen to live in the UK.  If we’re going to keep on pretending that this is justified, surely we should expect the BBC to educate and enlighten us as well as entertain.  It should tell us that we can aspire to learn more about the world rather than celebrating ignorance.

Wait, what?

Why did god make Noah build the ark?  Couldn’t he just have MAGIC’D it into existence?  Better still, couldn’t he have just voodood all the bad people away without any need for a flood in the first place?  It seems a crazily inefficient way to go about things.

Of course, we rather need to ask why he allowed people to be bad in the first place.  If the answer is to be “free will” then we’re not really much further forward.  Give people free will then punish them when they exercise it?  It seems capricious at best but the more parsimonious explanation is just plain incompetence.  Why don’t biblical literalists ask themselves questions like this?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Charles Windsor is a credulous fuckwit

The world’s environmental problems are all down to Galileo, apparently.  You see, Galileo said that there’s nothing in nature but quantity and motion, therefore the world is ending.  You see the logic, right?  What, you don’t?

Well what Galileo said turned everyone into rampant consumers who hate the world and everything in it, according to Windsor.  But I’m just exaggerating, right? Ah:

“As a result [of what Galileo wrote], Nature has been completely objectified — ‘She’ has become an ‘it’ — and we are persuaded to concentrate on the material aspect of reality that fits within Galileo’s scheme.”

                           -- Charles Tiberius Windsor

This is plain and obvious batshit insanity.  Not one part of it is supported by evidence.  I get what he’s trying to say: we need to care more about the Earth.  I wholeheartedly agree.  It’s a global and individual disgrace that we can’t collectively get our shit together and stop breaking the world.  But what does Windsor suggest we do about the problem?  Well….we should have a bit more respect for souls.  That should fix it.  This moron has – against my wishes – a ready-to-roll platform for whatever views he’d like to express.  Nobody else in the world has such a platform as a birthright. Some people earn the right to be listened to due to having something to say that is not stupendously and blitheringly idiotic, but it is entirely obvious that Windsor is not one of them. What does Windsor do with this unique platform?  Bleat.  He fucking bleats.

How long can we allow this guffawing imbecile offspring of an increasingly embarrassing parasitic germline to command headlines just for being idiotic?  He's scapegoating secularism while pretending that different religions aren't fundamentally incompatible, even though he thinks all religions other than Christianity are wrong. 

As a nation, we’re impoverished by these royal dickheads, figuratively and literally.  Why can’t we just stop pretending they matter?  Why can’t we just stop pretending that everyone else isn’t laughing at us?

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

It’s hard to know what to say

Two young women – girls really – who were beaten brutally for attempting to flee their rapists.  Words have officially failed me so I’ll leave it to Ophelia.

“On Saturday, at the Women for Afghan Women shelter, at a secret location in Kabul, there were four fugitive child brides. All had been beaten, and most wept as they recounted their experiences.”

Yes I daresay they did.

US law and the ten commandments

Phil Plait has a post about whether the 10 commandments are really the basis for American law, as so many people misguidedly claim.  The verdict?  Nah.  Not even a little bit.  The notion falls badly at the first fence and things don’t get much better.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Heaven and Hell

A good discussion by PZ Myers on heaven and hell.  Like PZ, I’ve always found the ideas deeply suspicious, even when I wasn’t really old enough to know how batshit insane they clearly are.  The clincher for me was the realisation that my parents say they believe that I’m going to hell and they don’t care.  They don’t make the slightest attempt to convert me from my unbelieving ways so I can avoid all of eternity in torment.

What does this say about them, me or our relationship?  Well, they could genuinely not care, of course.  Or they could care but know that trying to convert me is futile.  Or they could be hoping for a presto-changeo deathbed conversion.  Or they could care but strongly believe that I have to make my own path and if that leads to hell, they shouldn’t interfere.  Or just possibly, they might not really buy the whole hell business.

The latter seems the most likely to me.  I’m pretty certain that if I believed my children were going to burn in hell for eternity, I’d do something about it.  I’d devote my life to making sure it didn’t happen.  I wouldn’t do anything else.  I wouldn’t be able to live with myself knowing I might have been able to do something to prevent their everlasting torture.  I don’t even have children and the very thought of it – even though I don’t have the slightest belief in hell – is genuinely upsetting.  The notion that I could shrug and tell myself “well, it’s their choice” is entirely beyond me.  I couldn’t do it. I doubt anyone could, if they really, really believed in hell.

I suspect this is yet another piece of cognitive dissonance that the religious are forced to contend with.  I don’t think my parents have given much thought to the ideas of heaven and hell, probably because at some level they suspect that the whole business is nonsense. But religion comes as a package.  You only get the smooth with the rough and the comfort they claim religion gives them is only available if you believe all the weird and logically untenable stuff.  So best not to question it.

Or they might hate me and secretly delight in the thought of the devil having his way with the red hot poker, who can say?

Thursday, June 03, 2010

plus ça change

Ben Goldacre on Martin Gardner and the fact that nothing in the world of pseudoscience has really changed since his (Gardner’s) excellent 1952 book Fads and Fallacies.

Some of the comments point out that not only are all the scams detailed in that book (and in Randi’s later Flim-Flam) still hugely popular, but even some of the same con artists continue to do the rounds.  Fortunately, it seems like Uri Geller has vanished in a puff of his own self-importance in recent years, but there is no shortage of others to take his place.

When are we going to grow up?

Good stuff

Wednesday, June 02, 2010


Review of Andrew Wakefield's book. Disquieting.

EDIT: btw Harriet Hall, who wrote that article, is one of the very best people you will find.