Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A personal hell

UPDATE: really rather oddly, since I started writing this blog post, the image I linked to has been removed.  I can still find it here for now but this is an annoyingly miniscule version which you can’t read.  The version of hell it depicts is being forced to have your astrological chart read to you while eating scotch egg crumbs out of Stephen Green’s beard inside the arse-crack of a ginormous Jeremy Clarkson.

But the lack of the image pretty much makes a mockery of the entire post.


What’s your idea of a personal hell?  A search for something completely unrelated (honest) revealed that Viz had managed to document mine in detail.

This might be pretty impenetrable outside the UK.

  1. Viz is a UK magazine which (mostly) parodies children’s comics by aping the style and sometimes the premise of those comics and adding sex, violence and swearing. 
  2. Stephen Green is a fundamentalist Christian and bigot, if that isn’t redundant.  And he’s a He doesn’t care who he hurts in his campaign to prove he’s not gay. He protested against Jerry Springer The Opera, which caused a cancer charity to decline a donation from the production.  The show promised to donate £10 per ticket from one performance of that show, which would have raised about £3000 for the charity. Green’s organisation didn’t like the fact that they were accepting money from a blasphemous production, so they threatened to picket the charity’s centres. To protect its patients from distress, it was forced to decline the money.  There aren’t many levels of being a horrible fucking prick above above that.
  3. Jeremy Clarkson is also a bigot, although not, as far as I know, a Christian one.  He likes to propound racist and ignorant views for effect and occasionally gets people in a lather with what he says.  I’m not really sure why, the man is a living caricature of himself and the embodiment of someone who doesn’t realise that the joke’s been on him all along.  He’s not all bad though: he punched Piers Morgan.
  4. Scotch Eggs are a bewildering concoction of hard-boiled eggs, sausage meat and breadcrumbs, deep fried.  They’re not – as far as anyone knows – Scottish and nobody knows why they were allowed to be invented.

So perhaps you can see why this would be my personal hell.  But I wasn’t brought up to believe in a personal hell.  My parents and teachers all told me that hell was a real place, with actual fire, brimstone and gnashing teeth.  It wasn’t conceptual.  People – and especially me – would actually go there for an actual eternity. It’s an appalling thing to tell children (or anyone) and I agree with Dawkins that it’s child abuse.  Especially given the unbridled glee with which I was told of my undoubted fate.

Actually, perhaps my personal hell is that hell exists and Stephen Green isn’t going there.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Rupert and the God Delusion

This is quite good: http://networkedblogs.com/esGri, although some might consider it not safe for work.

For those who don’t know Rupert Bear, he’s a British anachronism featuring creepy anthropomorphised animals doing extravagantly nonsensical, but above all unutterably dull things.  Rupert is always described as ‘much loved’ but as far as I can tell, nobody on the planet likes it at all.  It has been running since the 20s, which is a mystery to everyone.

The comics are always presented in the same way, four pictures with a stupefyingly bad rhyme under each one, then a couple of paragraphs explaining what was going on, because the pictures and rhymes were of such poor quality that it was impossible to tell otherwise. 

This parody is absolutely bang on.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Semen eggs

What’s the true meaning of Easter?  Well, certainly not this business about bunnies and eggs or – heaven (actually) forbid – fertility.  It’s a lot more sensible and sober than that, as explained on the packaging of a new Easter egg:

We happen to think it's a bit more meaningful than that. That's because billions of people all over the world believe that Jesus died on the cross on Good Friday, then rose again three days later … on Easter Sunday. Actually, many believe that chocolate eggs represent the boulder that sealed his tomb.

Yeah, we’d be pretty stupid to believe all that stuff about bunnies when we have such an obviously true explanation involving people rising from the dead to somehow atone vicariously for the sin of Adam which we all inherit at birth since it’s magically transmitted through semen.  Oh and that eggs somehow conveniently represent stones for no reason other than sinister, aggressive stealing of everyone else’s holidays.

The blurb on the packaging should include the bit about the semen.  Isn’t the semen the most important part, after all?  I think we’d all buy semen eggs since it would certainly glorify god.

I think it’s sweet that a church has launched religious Easter eggs.  A cynic like me might consider that it might have been more effective if they’d done it two thousand years earlier, but better late than never as the catholic not-really-proper support of evolution and notpology to Galileo shows us.  But the mirthful atheist in me sees it as another attempt to steal the holiday back, and the lamest attempt ever at that.

I suspect the article is being unfair.  I imagine that a group of Christians decided to put together an Easter egg for charitable purposes and did a pretty decent job about it.  Some people will benefit from the business and that will be awesome.  All very good.

But… is anyone really convinced about it?  If Christians are hell bent on raising money for this purpose, why do they need paying in chocolate?  If they were really concerned about making money for charity, why didn’t they produce an egg that didn’t have a Christian message and donate the proceeds – without crowing about it – to the needy? 

My charitable side thinks they probably wanted to do both, but they certainly misjudged it.  Nobody wants to buy your semen eggs.  Lots of people want to give money to your causes.

If you stop making idiotic belief a condition for giving you money to help people, we might give you more. 

Revlon breaks the laws of physics

There’s a Revlon advert that claims some makeup or other “bends and reflects light”.

The contrast between the idea that a) reflecting light is an impressive feature of a product and b) that BREAKING THE LAWS OF PHYSICS is somehow fairly mundane is round about as appalling as it is hilarious.  If only they could invent clothes that can reflect light, we’ll be in business.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Scientific proof

I’ve been arguing with Maria here about scientific vs mathematical proof. It’s a distinction I think a lot of people get wrong and it can be harmful.  As I claim in the comments, it’s exactly the error creationists exploit when they say evolution is only a theory. It’s also made us unduly timid about making scientific claims. For example it’s made us believe that agnosticism is the only logically defensible position on religion. It’s made us feel that scientific proof is somehow weaker than mathematical proof and – worse – that this is a weakness of science.

I want to try to explain why this isn’t true.

Mathematical and scientific proofs differ because scientific proofs are based on empirical facts.  This makes them provisional.  New evidence could always conceivably overturn what we know now. But this doesn’t mean we can’t be 100% certain of something based on what we know now.  It doesn’t mean that our scientific proofs are weaker than our mathematical ones. 

For example, we can be 100% certain that evolution is true because of the enormous number of interlocking pieces of evidence.  We can be 100% certain even though we know that it’s technically possible (though astoundingly unlikely) that new evidence will appear which forces us to change our minds. 

Confusing scientific and mathematical proofs is a category error which I think has led us to be far too cautious about saying when something is true. It’s become fashionable to emphasise the perceived (but not actual!) weakness of the provisional nature of science, almost apologetically.  Instead, we should be applauding the strength of the scientific method in the face of provisional data.  It has triumphed at incorporating new evidence and sifting out bad conclusions.  Let’s stop apologising for the nature of the universe and acting as though it’s science’s fault!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Small (minded) society?

This guy and many others took over management of a local swimming pool and formed a charity to fund and run it.  They work very hard to raise quite a lot of money every year and have been rightly praised for their efforts.

In Big Society terms, they run a service on behalf of the council, which is therefore getting that service for free because of the charity’s efforts. However, it has decided to make things just that little more difficult for the charity by removing the rate relief the charity previously received.  This costs the charity an extra £1.6k a year.

Is this a damning indictment of the big society?  Well, not really.  It’s a probably idiotic and short-sighted move by the council.  £1600 seems a small price to pay for a free swimming pool in the community, the free hard work of the people who run it and the goodwill that supporting the effort would generate.  I can’t imagine what they were thinking.  Money needs to be saved and councils have a severely difficult gauntlet to run in the face of cuts largely beyond their control, but is saving pocket change really worth losing what seems like a great free service and turning everyone against big society style activities?

This might be a flaw in the Big Society idea.  District Councils seem mysterious, murky things.  I’d argue that most people probably don’t know what they can do if they don’t like their council.  And this process is dominated by party politics for reasons I’ve never quite been able to understand.

I still think the Big Society is right in principle.  One lunatic council doesn’t invalidate the idea.  Councils have to buy into the idea and they might have to be forced to buy into it, especially if this story is typical.

I think this story reinforces my earlier point.  The artefacts of the big society we’ve seen so far are mostly rhetoric. Will councils be punished or rewarded for big society friendliness or lack of it?  Nobody knows.  Is there a way to escalate complaints that small society thinking is hampering people’s efforts?  Nobody knows that either.

This topic frustrates me so much because:

1. I like the idea in principle, providing it’s about removing obstacles for people who want to do stuff in their community rather than saddling communities with burdens.

2. The discussion on it is oddly party politicised and hardly anyone can or will say anything sensible about it.  The idea is probably doomed like the poll tax was doomed; not necessarily because it was a bad idea but because people realised it was something they could complain about.  I’m not particularly defending the poll tax, by the way, I’m just saying that many of the people I knew who complained about it did because they didn’t want to pay it and thought they might be able to get away without doing so.  They were right about that, but I never quite understood the argument that it was automatically less fair than other taxes.  Nobody protests too much about VAT or income tax because you can’t get on with living your life if you don’t pay it.  I think that was the prime motivating force in the poll tax protests and – shamefully – riots.  But my point is that a failure – like this one – in doing Big Society isn’t necessarily a point scored against the idea or against the government.  It might be a bit of evidence that the idea might not work in practice, but not enough to form a conclusion yet.

3. We need assurances that efforts we make will be rewarded.  If I’m going to set up a charity to take control of a service or facility, then I want to be able to negotiate with the council or whoever to get breaks on things like tax over quite long periods of time, with guarantees that they won’t screw me.  I need to know I have the ear of the right person.

4. We need moar.  The idea is potentially good and some of the rhetoric is impressive, but the reason nobody is convinced is that there’s nothing to be convinced about yet, it’s all bullshit.  The NHS reforms ought to be the centre of the Big Society idea, but you don’t often hear them both in the same conversation.  Tell us how it’s all going to work.  I think that’s all we want.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Big Society

For work reasons I’ve been looking at the UK government’s portal at http://www.direct.gov.uk/.  There’s genuinely a lot of really good information on there and it’s genuinely as fascinating as it is hilarious.  For example, did you know that if you want to be a friend to the environment, you shouldn’t get cremated in metal shoes?  Or that it is less environmentally friendly to scatter ashes on the top of a mountain than it is at the bottom?

I’m certain there are good reasons for the government’s web portal to report these things.  They might even be more or less true.  I know that Greenpeace is forever sending me letters about the scourge of metal shoes, for instance. 

But the problem is that it’s hard to find this stuff.  By the time I’m looking for information about funerals, my dad’s corpse will already be in full armour and there won’t be much I can do about it.  I don’t need to know about funerals very often, thankfully, but I might need to know about the other environmental consequences of iron footware. 

And that’s the problem, of course.  The site is fairly well organised, but if you ever need to ask questions of the government, they are likely to be fairly specific.  Can you drill down to this information if you don’t really know what you’re looking for in the first place?

The Big Society is a really good idea in principle.  Giving money and decision-making authority to the people at the coalface instead of nameless bureaucrats is automatically a good idea in principle.  But then you can’t help but remember how corrupt and idiotic everyone is.  Politicians can’t go five minutes with more or less the same expenses system everyone else has without simply buying a moat at taxpayers’ expense.  All council members are the Monopoly fatcat and charities and voluntary organisations are staffed by excellent excellent people who only really care about one thing, often because of survivor guilt.  I’m not certain that this range of individuals is the right one to be governing our interests. 

I’m generalising, of course, and I neither question nor very much care about the motivations of charity and voluntary workers; they do great work and we couldn’t do without them. I wish I were more community-minded myself. But there’s the problem.  Most people are like me.  We care about some stuff but our attention isn’t very strong.  And we’re selfish and ill-informed and often not very bright.  I’m delighted in principle at the idea of my GP having funding to spend locally and in an agile fashion rather than giving that money to a health trust.  But then I remember that my GP is nearly as much of an idiot as I am.

The bureaucracy is there for a reason.  It watches the watchmen.  It fulfils functions that are necessary and which we can’t just pretend we don’t need.  If a charity takes over some aspects of our medical care because it’s better that way, who is looking after our privacy?  If a private company begins a meals on wheels service, how do we know it isn’t cooking the vulnerable?

The problem with The Big Society is that bureaucracy is still needed, it just needs to be more thoughtfully deployed.  And the government has said nothing about how this is going to be done.  It’s said nothing about how to turn ought – as in ought to be accountable – into is.

I have my hands full looking into how privacy might be maintained in the big society.  There are lots of other problems.  But the government hasn’t done anything to reassure us that it’s in hand. 

Bring on the big society.  Devolve responsibility and authority.  Give us a reason to do a good job looking after what we care about.  But make it realistic.  Tell us how we’ll be supported if we do it.  Tell us how we’ll be punished if we fail.  And tell us what guarantees we’re trading for supposed autonomy.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011



Christian Rudder searched the OK Cupid database for correlations that would answer the question:

What questions are easy to bring up, yet correlate to the deeper, unspeakable, issues people actually care about?

For example, according to the OK Cupid database, if you want to know if someone will have sex on the first date, the single most indicative thing to ask them is “do you like beer?”  If they do, you’re in.  If you want to know whether your date has long-term potential, ask them whether they like horror movies, whether they’ve travelled round another country alone or if they think it would be fun to chuck it all and live on a boat.  32% of successful couples covered by the data who met on OK Cupid agreed on all three questions,

It’s written in a funny and tongue in cheek style.  The author isn’t taking it particularly seriously, just reporting on what the stats say.  It’s interesting and it’s fun.

But then we get to stats that correlate religion with writing proficiency level.  The results are not surprising: atheists score higher.  In general, the more serious a person’s religious beliefs, the worse their writing is.

Again, it’s interesting and fun.

Now check out the comments.  They are jam packed with religious people saying how intelligent they are and therefore the statistics are wrong.  Leaving aside the irony, it’s interesting that they don’t dispute any of the other correlations, just the one they don’t like.  One person doesn’t dispute the correlation but says it somehow isn’t true anyway.  When someone offers a perfectly reasonable explanation for why the correlation might exist, this person answers “How can you make a valid point when you are writing in incomplete sentences?” (the person made a typo).  Obviously, the idea of the correlation struck a very raw nerve.

I expect this is because it deals with two deeply personal parts of their character: religion and intelligence.

I’ve often found that the subject of intelligence is somewhat taboo.  It’s fine to mention that you can run faster than another person or better at football, but it’s frowned upon to say you’re more intelligent than someone else, even if you are.  My feeling is that this is because our intelligence is so closely wrapped up with who we are.  If someone were no longer able to run, they’d still feel like the same person.  But if they were to lose some of her mental faculties, they probably wouldn’t feel like the same person.  Perhaps they wouldn’t be the same person. 

That’s just a guess, of course.  Anyway, it’s a fun article and some of the comments are hilarious.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The bad kind of atheist

PZ has an interesting post about the types of atheist he dislikes.  I see where he’s coming from and agree with him for the most part, but I also have some sympathy with all the categories and I can’t summon the energy to hate them. There’s another closely-related category he doesn’t mention, however, and I really hate those guys.

Dictionary atheists

I understand the appeal of understating the values and causes of atheism.  We argue that religions are silly because they are not based on reason, so it’s nice to have a reasonable argument of our own.  We don’t want our atheism to seem like an emotional response.  However, I’m largely with PZ on this one.  I don’t want my atheism to seem without conviction or passion.  Some of the most painful arguments I’ve had with my parents over my atheism have been difficult precisely because they didn’t take my atheism seriously.  They saw it as a phase I was likely to get over.  If I’d taken a more passionate stance at the time (as I would now), they might have questioned my reasoning, but they would not have questioned my conviction.

Babies are all atheists or I'm an atheist by default, because I was raised without religion.

I think people make this argument to demonstrate that nobody is born religious, which is itself an excellent point.  I don’t have a problem with it.  It’s true that my atheist as it exists today is based on a lot of experience, argument and changing attitudes.  It’s far from my default setting.  But the argument as I see it is more that it kinda should be the default setting.  There shouldn’t be people trying to program gods into us, and that’s a point that can’t be made often enough.

The "I believe in no gods/I lack belief in gods" debate.

I agree that the pedantic guys can be tedious.  Yes. We KNOW. We’re just not that interested.  But I understand the position.  The argument that out-and-out atheism is as dogmatic a position as theism can be persuasive.  There’s no way to prove gods don’t exist, so believing there aren’t any is a position of faith.  Therefore, the only logically tenable position is agnosticism.  The problem with this argument is that every single thing we see in the universe screams at us that there are no gods and the stories of religions are demonstrably false and lacking in ambition. 

I used to be quite careful about saying that I was technically agnostic but identified as an atheist.  I’m sure the only thing this achieved was to bore people.  My position now is that I’m 100% atheist.  I have no reason to believe in gods and loads of reasons not to.  If evidence turned up, I’d change my mind – I’m not an idiot – but I am perfectly sure that there’s not the slightest chance of that happening. And I don’t even know what such evidence would look like anyway.

But I don’t think my former position was unreasonable, just not particularly helpful.  Slaving yourself to technicalities in an argument doesn’t really get anyone anywhere.

Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.

I’m a little uncomfortable with this argument, but I think that’s just because it sounds so pompous rather than because I disagree with the statement or its tone.  Religion is the sort of thing that can motivate large numbers of people to coordinate their activities to achieve some atrocity like 9/11.  In fact I don’t know of anything other than promises of an afterlife and divine favour plus the feeling of unity that comes from shared faith in a ridiculous story that could lead to this kind of motivation.  Atheist suicide bombers?  I certainly wouldn’t rule it out.  Atheists are as susceptible as anyone else to emotional or political motivations.  But religion certainly makes it a lot easier, especially if coordinated effort and huge numbers of deaths are involved.

I don’t dislike the argument, other than it’s pomposity.

"I just believe in one less god than you do"

I’ve no problem with this argument at all.  I don’t think it implies, as PZ suggests, a logical process of comparing and rejecting gods.  I think it points out that there are lots of other putative gods and it’s absurd that a person happens to believe in just one, especially if they haven’t gone through the process of comparison, which almost nobody has.  Many people see their religion as the default position, with a vague awareness that there are other religions.  A lot don’t really believe in atheists.  Reminding people that they believe in a particular god because they were brought up in that religion can be instructive.  It’s a very different argument from PZ’s hypothetical one:

Would you be swayed if someone pointed out that you disbelieve astrology, homeopathy, tarot, witchcraft, and palmistry, and he has simply gone one step further than you, and also disbelieves in evolution?

The answer is easy: there’s no good reason to disbelieve evolution, but every reason to disbelieve the others.  The same is not true of religions.

Default atheists

This is my category.  The atheists I really hate are the ones who haven’t thought about it at all.  They genuinely don’t know what there reasons for being an atheism are and they don’t care.  There are two main reasons I hate these guys. The first is largely emotional: as I said, when I was growing up, nobody took my atheism seriously. I think my parents probably still think it’s something I’ll grow out of. The most enragingly condescending thing one person can say to another is that they will change their mind on their deathbed and this was used liberally whenever I made a point my parents couldn’t answer.  Atheism is a big and important part of my life and if you don’t take it seriously, I’m insulted.  Mock my position if you like, but don’t think for an instant that it’s not a serious, painstakingly-thought-out one.  And if you’re an atheist, frankly you should know better.

Second, atheism is hard for some people.  Mine certainly caused rifts in my family, but it’s nothing compared to some of the horror stories I’ve heard.  For many people, atheism is a position that requires enormous conviction and strength of character.  I don’t begrudge anyone for having it easy, but we part company if they assume that everyone else has it similarly easy or they lack sympathy for those who don’t.