Harris’ opening statement is a brilliant description of the basic characteristics of the Almighty creator of the universe adhered to by the vast majority of religious believers. Stick this in your pipe and smoke it, all you sophisticated “scholars” of religion:
We can talk about religion as it is for most people most of the time, or we can talk about what religion could be, or should be. Or perhaps what it is for the tiniest minority of people…
If we talk about consciousness and the laws of nature, we won’t be talking about the God that most of our neighbours believe in, which is a personal god, who hears our prayers and occasionally answers them…
The God that our neighbours believe in is essentially an invisible person. It’s a creator deity, who created the universe to have a relationship with once species of primate. Lucky us!
He’s got galaxy upon galaxy to attend to but he’s especially concerned with what we do, and he’s especially concerned with what we do while naked. He most certainly does not approve of homosexuality. And he has created this cosmos as a vast laboratory in which to test our powers of credulity. And the test is this: Can you believe in this God on bad evidence, which is to say on faith. And if you can you will win an eternity of happiness after you die.
And it’s precisely this sort of god or this sort of scheme that you must believe in if you are to have any kind of future in politics in this country, no matter what your gifts. You could be an unprecedented genius, you could look like George Clooney, you could have a billion dollars and you could have the social skills of Oprah, and you are going nowhere in politics in this country unless you believe in that sort of God.
So we can talk about anything we want – I’m happy to talk about consciousness – but please notice that when we migrate away from the God that is really shaping human events or the God-talk that is really shaping human events in our world at this moment.
Christopher Hitchens has recommended this lecture several times in recent debates. That was all the advice and reassurance I needed to check it out and I was not disappointed.
“The Woody Allen of physics” (as Richard Dawkins dubbed him at the lecture’s end) delivers a wonderfully lucid and humorous account at the Atheist Alliance International conference 2009 of how physics can answer the infernal question posed by religious apologists as to why there is “something” rather than “nothing” for the layman.
Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics. You are all stardust. You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded, because the elements – the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, all the things that matter for evolution and for life – weren’t created at the beginning of time. They were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars, and the only way for them to get into your body is if those stars were kind enough to explode.
So, forget Jesus. The stars died so that you could be here today.
I wish Krauss had been my secondary school physics teacher.
I end my brief blogging sabbatical by posting this superb lecture I saw from the TED podcast a couple of weeks ago.
Vaccine-autism claims, “Frankenfood” bans, the herbal cure craze: all point to the public’s growing fear (and, often, outright denial) of science and reason, says Michael Specter. He warns the trend spells disaster for human progress.
Dawkins is prepared to acknowledge the facts while denying their significance. Neither the Nazis nor the Communists, he affirms, acted because of their atheism. They were simply keen to kill a great many people. Atheism had nothing to do with it. They might well have been Christian Scientists.
In the early days of the German advance into Eastern Europe, before the possibility of Soviet retribution even entered their untroubled imagination, Nazi extermination squads would sweep into villages, and after forcing the villagers to dig their own graves, murder their victims with machine guns. On one such occasion somewhere in Eastern Europe, an SS officer watched languidly, his machine gun cradled, as an elderly and bearded Hasidic Jew laboriously dug what he knew to be his grave.
Standing up straight, he addressed his executioner. “God is watching what you are doing,” he said.
And then he was shot dead.
What Hitler did not believe and what Stalin did not believe and what Mao did not believe and what the SS did not believe and what the Gestapo did not believe and what the NKVD did not believe and what the commissars, functionaries, swaggering executioners, Nazi doctors, Communist Party theoreticians, intellectuals, Brown Shirts, Black Shirts, gauleiters, and a thousand party hacks did not believe was that God was watching what they were doing.
And as far as we can tell, very few of those carrying out the horrors of the twentieth century worried overmuch that God was watching what they were doing either.
That is, after all, the meaning of a secular society.
I can only assume that Berlinski had forgotten about the events of September 11, 2001 when he was writing this passage. This was an outrage carried out by people who were thinking only too much of what heaven would think of them. Hopefully, the more recent events on the Moscow tube will jog his memory.
Appealing to authority and credential inflation are common tactics of creationists and Intelligent Design proponents. Expelled’s host, Ben Stein, went to great lengths to hold out Berlinski as an example of a smart guy who believed in Intelligent Design in order to give it some credibility. However, all Berlinski succeeded in doing was to be a particularly obnoxious and unlikeable character, saying that Richard Dawkins is “a crummy philosopher” and “a little bit of a reptile”.
In an article reminiscing on an infamous book review for The New York Times in 1989 where he wrote, “It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that),” Dawkins had this to say about Berlinski:
Are there, then, any examples of anti-evolution poseurs who are not ignorant, stupid or insane, and who might be genuine candidates for the wicked category? I once shared a platform with someone called David Berlinski, who is certainly not ignorant, stupid or insane. He denies that he is a creationist, but claims strong scientific arguments against evolution (which disappointingly turn out to be the same old creationist arguments). Together with the great John Maynard Smith and others, he and I were guest speakers at a debate organized by a prominent Oxford rabbi. Maynard Smith spoke after Berlinski and, not surprisingly, he soon had the audience roaring with laughter as he lampooned Berlinski’s bad arguments. But what amused me was Berlinski’s tactic for dealing with this mocking laughter. He sprang to his feet, held up a reproachful open palm towards the audience, and said (approximately of course, I can’t remember the exact words): “No no! Don’t laugh. Let Maynard Smith have his say! It’s only fair!” Happily, the Oxford audience saw through this tactic of pretending to think the audience were laughing at Maynard Smith rather than with him. And the rabbi, himself a devout creationist, afterwards told me he had been shocked at Berlinski’s duplicity. By itself, this is too trivial an example to deserve the name wicked. But it did make me wonder about Berlinski’s motives. As I said, he is certainly not ignorant, stupid or insane.
After witnessing his performance in Expelled, Dawkins’ assessment of Berlinski is borne out all too well.
Harris raises The Monty Hall Problem. This is an intriguing game of probabilities that appears to be a total affront to common sense. People have it explained to them and they still don’t get it. When it was first published in Parade magazine thousands of people, many with PhDs, wrote in to tell the publishers that the solution was wrong.
Suppose you’re on a game show, and you’re given the choice of three doors: Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats. You pick a door, say Number 1, and the host, who knows what’s behind the doors, opens another door, say Number 3, which has a goat. He then says to you, “Do you want to pick door Number 2?” Is it to your advantage to switch your choice?
Many people think that switching doors will have no effect on increasing your chances of winning the car at all. It will be 50/50.
However, this is incorrect! Switching doors will increase your chances of winning the car to 2/3s!?!?!?!?!
I’m not sure that I understand it completely. Wikipedia has the full story!
Aside from this brain ache, Sam Harris discusses the intriguing contradictions in human morality. An interesting paradox he raises is “Genocide Neglect” as described in this paper by Paul Slovic: the more suffering people that humans are faced with, the less they will care.
Genocides such as those carried out in Rwanda and Cambodia attract minimal attention in the media, whereas the story of Jessica McClure, the 18 month old girl who fell down a well in Midland, Texas in 1987 gained round-the-clock television coverage during her 58 hour rescue and transformed CNN into a fledging cable channel into a global news service provider!
Harris has hit on something depressingly solipsistic about the human moral condition. New Coke backlash anybody?
manicstreetpreacher is delighted to see that his hero of atheism has still got it!
My detractors who chide me for being a mouthpiece for the Four Horsemen should take a look at this and see why I choose to rely on Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens so much.
Questions of good and evil, right and wrong are commonly thought unanswerable by science. But Sam Harris argues that science can – and should – be an authority on moral issues, shaping human values and setting out what constitutes a good life.
manicstreetpreacher salutes democracy in action/ power to the people/ sceptics’ voices being heard etc.
Previously on this blog, I have denounced homeopathy as a bogus pseudo-science, reported on The Merseyside Skeptics Society’s campaign to have it removed from the shelves of Boots following the company’s admission that it had no appreciable effect beyond placebo, and previewed The Big Swallow that demonstrated that it was impossible to “overdose” on homeopathic remedies.
The Big Swallow went ahead on 30 January 2010 at various cities across the country and attracted notices in the national press. Now, The Daily Telegraphreports, along with BBC News that the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology has recommended that the NHS should cease using public money to provide homeopathic remedies.
The Commons Science and Technology Committee said the diluted products were no more effective than placebo – the same as taking a sugar or dummy pill.
Furthermore, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) should not allow labels on homeopathic medicines to carry medical claims, it said.
Estimates on how much the NHS spends on homeopathy vary, with the Society of Homeopaths putting the figure at £4 million a year.
Health Minister Mike O’Brien told the committee the spend on homeopathic medicines is £152,000 a year.
The committee said the idea behind homeopathy – of diluting substances to the extent that a solution retains an “imprint” of what was originally dissolved – was implausible.
“We consider the notion that ultra-dilutions can maintain an imprint of substances previously dissolved in them to be scientifically implausible.”…
The report said: “In our view, the systematic reviews and meta-analyses conclusively demonstrate that homeopathic products perform no better than placebos.”
It added: “There has been enough testing of homeopathy and plenty of evidence showing it is not efficacious.”
Liberal Democrat MP Phil Willis, who is chairman of the cross-party committee, said prescribing homeopathy as placebos on the NHS amounted to encouraging doctors to participate in “active deception” of their patients.
He said serious illnesses could be missed while people were on homeopathy.
The potions were “basically sugar pills or Smarties” and patients could be mislead into thinking they were getting better on them, he added.
He continued: “If homeopathy works then the whole of chemistry and physics would have to be overturned.”…
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said: “The Department of Health and Government welcome the publication of the report and will give it, and any recommendations made, full consideration over the coming weeks.
“In the meantime, we would reiterate that we appreciate the strength of feeling both for and against the provision of homeopathy on the National Health Service.
“Our view is that the local NHS and clinicians, rather than Whitehall, are best placed to make decisions on what treatment is appropriate for their patients – this includes complementary or alternative treatments such as homeopathy.”
Full report from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (Download PDF)
In addition, Richard Dawkins has posted this essay on his website calling for readers to write to their MPs in support of the Committee’s recommendations and has devised a Double-Blind placebo-Controlled Randomised Trial (DBCRT) for testing the effectiveness of homeopathy on real patients.
There are discussion threads on the Premier Christian Community Unbelievable?group page and forum where sceptics have vented their anger. I have actually witnessed this piece of trash before (praise be for torrent downloads!) and it’s not exactly an experience that I am looking forward to repeating…
Entire websites have been dedicated to deriding the film and refuting its bogus claims in relation to scientists losing their jobs over supporting Intelligent Design over Darwinism as well as its ridiculous assertion that Darwin was a direct influence in Hitler’s Germany. Eugenie Scott’s Expelled Exposed is probably the best I have come across.
There have even been alternative versions produced by sceptics with subtitles and/or voice over narration correcting the film!
Following the film’s release, some of the atheistic scientists claimed that they had been duped into giving interviews for a film called “Crossroads” which was to be a examination of the clash between science and religion and then had their interviews edited in such a way that would make YouTube’s cassetteboy raise an eyebrow.
What a shoddy, second-rate piece of work. A favourite joke among the film-making community is the ‘Lord Privy Seal’. Amateurs and novices in the making of documentaries can’t resist illustrating every significant word in the commentary by cutting to a picture of it. The Lord Privy Seal is an antiquated title in Britain’s heraldic tradition. The joke imagines a low-grade film director who illustrates it by cutting to a picture of a Lord, then a privy, and then a seal. Mathis’ film is positively barking with Lord Privy Seals. We get an otherwise pointless cut to Nikita Krushchev hammering the table (to illustrate something like ‘emotional outburst’). There are similarly clunking and artless cuts to a guillotine, fist fights, and above all to the Berlin Wall and Nazi gas chambers and concentration camps.
Ben Stein came to my office to interview me about what I was told was a film about “the intersection of science and religion” called Crossroads (yet another deception). I knew something was afoot when his first question to me was on whether or not I think someone should be fired for expressing dissenting views. I pressed Stein for specifics: Who is being fired for what, when and where? In my experience, people are usually fired for reasons having to do with budgetary constraints, incompetence or not fulfilling the terms of a contract. Stein finally asked my opinion on people being fired for endorsing intelligent design. I replied that I know of no instance where such a firing has happened.
In a dreadful PR gaffe by Expelled’s producers, P Z Myers was “expelled” from the premier of the film whose end credits thank him for his participation!
I went to attend a screening of the creationist propaganda movie, Expelled, a few minutes ago. Well, I tried … but I was Expelled! It was kind of weird – I was standing in line, hadn’t even gotten to the point where I had to sign in and show ID, and a policeman pulled me out of line and told me I could not go in. I asked why, of course, and he said that a producer of the film had specifically instructed him that I was not to be allowed to attend. The officer also told me that if I tried to go in, I would be arrested. I assured him that I wasn’t going to cause any trouble.
Dawkins and Myers recorded this conversation immediately after the film’s premier, to which Dawkins successfully gained access.
Dawkins’ website and videotaping guru, Josh Timonen, spliced together this wonderful parody which plays upon Expelled’s bogus editing of presenter Ben Stein’s interview with Dawkins at the end of the film.
This is the main reason I am going and should make for good blog fodder. I have one or two awkward questions prepared to make the ID supporters sweat, although I’m not giving them away before the event!
Speaking in favour of ID areProf Steve Fuller and Dr Alastair Noble.
I am particularly looking forward to hearing what Alastair Noble has to say. The former Inspector of Schools recently posted an essay on The Guardian Comment is Free arguing that “Intelligent Design should not excluded [sic] from the study of origins” and that he was “disturbed that proposals for science education are based on near-complete ignorance of intelligent design.” The commenters on the original post ripped it to shreds as did those over at RichardDawkins.net. Evil Burnee Paul S Jenkins denounced it as “creationist twaddle”:
I am disturbed that a former science teacher and schools inspector should propose the teaching of non-science in a science class. “Near-complete ignorance” is pretty much the most anyone can know about intelligent design, because there’s nothing there. And scientific truth is not a matter of public popularity – even if every last British citizen thought creationism was true, that would not make it so.
Steve Fuller is an interesting character. Born in America, he now lectures in sociology at the University of Warwick this side of the pond. He claims to be a secularist but with “sympathies” towards Christian ideology. Fuller notoriously upped sticks to Dover, Pennsylvania to testify on behalf of the Intelligent Design side in the Kitzmiller –v- Dover District P A “Intelligent Design” trial in 2005 without telling his university. When parents and students found out what he was up to, the university was inundated with angry letters and emails demanding that Fuller not be allowed anywhere near the students!
I’m looking forward to seeing Susan Blackmore. I haven’t read any of her books yet, but I know she is strongly opposed to religion and pseudo-science. In her debate against Christian theologian Alister McGrath at Bristol University in 2007 she gives some insightful comments regarding her journey from earnest believer in the paranormal to die-hard sceptic. Her book on the topic is In Search of the Light: The Adventures of a Parapsychologist. I referenced her work on UFO encounters in my write-up of Prof Chris French’s lecture for The Merseyside Skeptics Society last year.
I also found this interesting talk on memes that Blackmore gave at TED a few years ago.
I’m also seeing Blackmore this Monday (22 February 2010) giving a lecture on “Are religions dangerous memes?” at Plymouth University. It may well get an epic MSP blog post of its own if it’s good!
Second screening and debate
Due to overwhelming demand, Premier have organised a second screening and debate of the film immediately after the first. At the time of publication, there were tickets still going. The details are as follows:
Saturday, 27 February 2010, 6:30pm
Sir Alexander Fleming Lecture Theatre
Imperial College London
South Kensington Campus
Guest speakers include Dr Alastair Noble (Former Inspector of Schools) and Dr Vij Sodera (Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons) who advocate Intelligent Design and Prof Keith Fox (Biology, Southampton University) and Dr Thomas Dixon (History of Science, Queen Mary London University) who advocate Darwinian Evolution.
I was sorely tempted to book in for round two, but I will have to pass since I will be accompanied by a non-militant atheist blogger friend who will no doubt be diverted by the call of the pub after round one. And Fuller and Noble are the two I’m really after…
Fuller rambles on about how ID deserves to be given a fair hearing as an “alternative theory” without ever explaining why it is any more credible than Flying Spaghetti Monsterism. He plays the sympathy card by portraying the IDers in the Dover trial as the underdogs struggling against the well-funded evil empire of evolutionary biology. OK, why don’t you join the fight of those brave Flat Earthers desperately attempting to have their “alternative theory” of the shape of the globe taught to the little darlings?
I wound up ID proponent William Dembski whose blog Uncommon Descent posted tworesponses to my piece deriding his debate against atheist embryologist Lewis Wolpert. See also my counter-response to Dembski’s accusations of being a member of the Rat Pack and Darwin not quite getting the “complexities” of the cell.
I’ll come clean and admit that I have read little if any original Intelligent Design material. Much of my knowledge of ID has come from reading it second or third hand from atheist scientists. NOVA’s documentary on the Kitzmiller –v- Dover P A “Intelligent Design” trial is well worth seeing.
Nevertheless, I listened with interest to all of Justin’s shows with an open mind and was decidedly underwhelmed by the ID proponents. I simply could not see a separate line of scientific reasoning emerge. All they were attempting to do was to pick holes in Darwinism and fill the gaps with ID, which of course explains nothing because you only put the explanation back another stage since you then have to ask how that from that intelligence arose and so on.
A depressing feature of the creationist movement is to distort scientific facts and misrepresent the true views of evolutionary scientists. In this sense, I found Intelligent Design to be very similar. It is creationism at the level of the cell, or as one commenter on Premier Christian Community eloquently put it: godofthegapswrappedupinaminoacids.
This may not be the question that I’ll ask the ID supporters on the debate panel, but since the screening and debate of Expelled is being held in a venue named after Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin and a truly brilliant man whose work has saved the lives of countless millions and contributed immeasurably to the advancement of science, would humanity really be any worse off if the Intelligent Design movement disappeared tomorrow?
manicstreetpreacher is looking forward to “overdosing” on placebos in two weeks!
A few weeks ago I reported on The Merseyside Skeptics Society’s involvement with the 10:23 Campaign to put pressure on Alliance Boots to withdraw sales of homeopathic remedies following an incredible admission by Paul Bennett, professional standards director for Boots, to the Commons Science and Technology Committee in November 2009 that the company knows full well that the “treatment” has no appreciable effect, but they continue to stock it simply because customers buy it.
If homeopathy has any effect whatsoever, theoretically, it should be possible to “overdose” on it. To prove beyond doubt that this is not the case, the 10:23 Campaign – so called after the level of dilution that most homeopathic practitioners use in their potions – will be staging a series of swallowing events outside Boots stores in several cities throughout the UK at 10:23am on 30 January 2010: Edinburgh, Manchester, Bristol, Liverpool, Glasgow, Birmingham, Southampton and London, with sympathy protests in Australia, Canada and the United States.
At 10:23am on January 30th, more than three hundred homeopathy sceptics nationwide will be taking part in a mass homeopathic “overdose” in protest at Boots’ continued endorsement and sale of homeopathic remedies, and to raise public awareness about the fact that homeopathic remedies have nothing in them.
Sceptics and consumer rights activists will publicly swallow an entire bottle of homeopathic “pillules” to demonstrate that these “’remedies”, prepared according to a long-discredited 18th century ritual, are nothing but sugar pills.
The protest will raise public awareness about the reality of homeopathy, and put further pressure on Boots to live up to its responsibilities as the “scientist on the high street” and stop selling treatments which do not work.
If you want to get involved with the event, contact your nearest skeptics in the pub organisation. National press enquiries should be directed to Martin Robbins (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Martin Robbins, a spokesman for the society, said: “The remedies themselves may not be directly harmful, but there is a real danger in misleading customers into thinking that homeopathy is somehow equivalent to real medicine.
“Patients may believe that they are treating themselves or their children adequately, and delay seeking appropriate treatment; or they may receive dangerous advice after consulting with homeopaths rather than their GPs.”
He added: “The ‘overdose’ is a dramatic way of demonstrating to the public that these remedies have literally nothing in them. If eating an entire box of homeopathic sleeping pills fails to send one person to sleep, then how on Earth can their sale be justified?”
The group expects at least 300 people to take part. I hope to be at the London “overdose”.
manicstreetpreacher is pleased to report that NonStampCollector has done it again!
At the end of last year, I compiled the best of Aussie YouTube genius, NonStampCollector. I am thrilled that the turning of the new decade has only enhanced his satirical skills when it comes to all things theocratus lunaticras. Watch the video below which reconstructs a typical creationist interview with an atheist evolutionary scientist. P Z Myers has described it as “Every creationist argument I’ve ever had” and the video has also been posted on RichardDawkins.net.
The clip is based on P Z Myer’s infamous radio debate in 2008 against Discovery Institute hack Geoffrey Simmons: someone with doctoral qualifications who didn’t know the scientific meaning of the word theory, and used it as a pejorative. Quite a few elements of the script clearly came from that exchange (whales, ignorance, etc.). See the relevant threads on Pharyngula and RichardDawkins.net: apparently there was a thread briefly posted on William Dembski’s blog Uncommon Descent where the commenters handed the debate to Myers, even though they disagreed with his point of view!