Archive for the ‘Pseudoscience’ Category

Debate on Evolution –v- Creationism: The Science Guy Bill Nye –v- Ken Ham of Answers In Genesis. Is it too late for Nye to back out?

19/01/2014

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American television’s “The Science Guy”, Bill Nye, is scheduled to debate Evolution versus Creationism Ken Ham, the head of the World’s largest Young Earth Creationist organisation, Answers In Genesis, on Evolution versus Creationism at Ham’s Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky in the US of A on 4 February 2014.  A few years ago, in March 2008, I had the ordeal of sitting through one of Ham’s lectures at the University of Liverpool and recounted the experience just over a year later on Ophelia Benson’s Butterflies & Wheels website:

It was an appalling experience for an atheist to sit through.  My blood boiled, my teeth gnashed and my choice as a non-believer was very much confirmed.  It wasn’t just the scientific ignorance that this man was peddling; he was also selling something far more sinister: right-wing religious bigotry of a distinctly Falwell variety.

In a nutshell, Ham’s line is that the Bible is the unalterable, infallible, unquestionable, literal Word of God. Everything in the Bible happened exactly as it is described, ifs, not buts, no metaphors, no allegories. Seven days means seven days, not a Hebrew term for a long period of time. People must choose between the Bible and human reason.  Clearly Ham is a devotee of Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, who recommended that tearing out your eyes of reason was a prerequisite to being a Christian.

Where scientific evidence and the Bible conflict, the Bible is always to be preferred and evidence must be massaged in order to fit it. According to Ham, we all start with “presuppositions”.  Atheist scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Eugenie Scott start on the presupposition that God does not exist and the Bible is wrong; creationist scientists such as Kurt Wise start with the presupposition that God does exist and the Bible is correct.  The differing conclusions result purely from differing interpretations of the same evidence.

(…)

The truly sinister side to Ham’s theology is that he believes in the cruel Old Testament God (so brilliantly summarised by Richard Dawkins at the beginning of Chapter 2 of The God Delusion) which became apparent in his explanation as to why God allows so much pain and suffering.  Forget theodicy, none of Richard Swinburne’s logical gymnastics for this guy, the reason why there is so much evil in the World is because God is angry with us all.

No, God does not allow evil for its eventual good to the human race.  No, we shouldn’t all have faith and hope for a better future.  Instead, we are all paying for the original sin of Adam and Eve eating that damn apple.  We all instinctively reject God and have been paying for it ever since. We are lucky even to be here in the first place since we are not worthy of our very existence. The only way of saving our miserable souls is to accept good old JC into our hearts. Cue slide of Hitler and Auschwitz victims: this was OUR fault!

Even as I copy and paste those words, I can still summon the rage that I felt in that lecture theatre all those years ago.  Naturally, my heart sank at the news of Bill Nye’s debate against Ham.  Richard Dawkins has stated categorically that he refuses to debate against Creationists as it would give the lay-public the erroneous impression that the scientific fact of evolution was in doubt and there was an issue worth debating.  It would be like a respectable 20th Century historian such Martin Gilbert or Ian Kershaw sharing a platform with David Irving to discuss in earnest whether the Holocaust happened to the nature and extent described by the victims, perpetrators and rescuers, or at all:

Some time in the 1980s when I was on a visit to the United States, a television station wanted to stage a debate between me and a prominent creationist called, I think, Duane P Gish.  I telephoned Stephen Gould for advice.  He was friendly and decisive: “Don’t do it.”  The point is not, he said, whether or not you would ‘win’ the debate.  Winning is not what the creationists realistically aspire to.  For them, it is sufficient that the debate happens at all.  They need the publicity.  We don’t.  To the gullible public which is their natural constituency, it is enough that their man is seen sharing a platform with a real scientist.  “There must be something in creationism, or Dr So-and-So would not have agreed to debate it on equal terms.”  Inevitably, when you turn down the invitation you will be accused of cowardice, or of inability to defend your own beliefs.  But that is better than supplying the creationists with what they crave: the oxygen of respectability in the world of real science.

The creationists’ tactic – which, for that matter, runs right across the religious apologetic board – is to duck their responsibility to provide any evidence for their claims and do their worst to discredit atheist scientists personally so their flock has a (wholly arbitrary) reason to discount their opinion and not worry about what they have said against religious faith.  I seriously think that “Ad Hominem” and “Dirty Debating Tactics” are taught as core modules on theology and apologetics courses the World over, from Sunday school to Christian universities.

Dawkins was the victim of covert creationist propaganda in when 1997 he unwittingly allowed an Australian creationist film crew into his Oxford home.  The interviewer’s question, “Can you give an example of a genetic mutation, or an evolutionary process, which can be seen to increase the information in the genome?” was a question that only a creationist would ask.  Dawkins tumbled to the fact that they were creationists, paused to think about how to deal with the situation and then asked them to stop filming.  He eventually continued with the interview after they pleaded with him on the basis that they had come from the other side of the World.

When the tape was published, Dawkins eventually discovered that the creationists had spliced the tape together to make it look like his was stumped by their question, asked them to stop filming while he considered his answer and then ducked the question and answered a completely different question.  Dawkins gave his own account of the interview and why he paused and asked them to stop filming within the pages of A Devil’s Chaplin.  Australian writer for The Skeptic, Barry Williams, published this exposé of the episode after Dawkins contacted the magazine to investigate the incident in a bid to protect his professional reputation.

The evolution side have been pretty unanimous in their condemnation of the Nye/Ham debate.  American biologist, blogger and author of Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne, has commented on the debate here and here (the second post contains this useful interview with Nye on CNN giving his reasons for taking part in the debate) predicting that “it might not end well.”

Dan Arel writing on Richard Dawkins Foundation has summed up the situation rather well:

I honestly think it would be fantastic to see Nye destroy Ham, but will that do any good?  Suddenly a little known figure outside of his circles, Ham will be thrust into the spotlight, reaching impressionable youths around the world, and as great as it would be to see him taken down, the risks of him winning are greater.

The American people are not going to dissect Nye’s credentials to accept such a debate and if he goes down, he will take down a lot of hard work in science with him.  If the American people, who are already weary of science and already disown the idea of evolution as quickly as possible, see who in their minds is a top scientist lose to a creationist, we will have taken steps backwards in time.

The risk versus reward in this scenario is not worth it. Nye is putting a lot at risk and he is not the man to do so.

Creationism is a worthless and uneducated position to hold in our modern society and Nye is about to treat it as an equal, debatable “controversy”.

I hope Nye proves us all wrong on the 4th of February.  But eternal-pessimist-glass-is-always-half-empty-atheist that I am, I am bracing myself for the worst.

Simon Singh lectures at The University of Chester, 21 October 2013

22/10/2013

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I recently posted about Simon Singh’s kind thanks to me in his latest book, The Simpsons And Their Mathematical Secrets.  I saw Simon lecture on his book at The University of Chester last night at 7:30pm, Monday, 21 October 2013.

And here’s a picture of me with him:

MSP and Simon Singh

And here’s a scan of his autograph in my copy of The Simpsons:

SinghSimpsonsAutograph

The lecture itself covered many of the points that were in Singh’s book, which I have now finished and highly recommend whether you are a maths PhD or a numerical incompetent like your humble servant.

However, Simon started off with a few nifty observations at the beginning of his talk that were not in the book.  The Toblerone logo has a bear hidden in the mountain as the original makers of the chocolate were based in the Germany city of Bern (or Berne) whose symbol is the bear:

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Likewise, Parcel delivery company FedEx’s logo has an arrow between the ‘E’ and the ‘X’:

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And finally Amazon’s logo has its arrow going from ‘A’ to ‘Z’ to signify that they too are a parcel delivery company:

AmazonLogo

At the end of the main talk, I asked Simon whether any complimentary alternative medicines (“CAM”) are ever effective at anything beyond the placebo effect and “regression to the mean”; for example, does chiropractic actually do anything to ease back pain?

Simon replied that the majority of the evidence and medical opinion is stacked against CAM, but there is some evidence that they have some effect: meditation can relieve anxiety and chiropractic can be as effective at relieving back pain as other more conventional medical interventions such as physiotherapy.  He mentioned that he updated the paperback edition to Trick or Treatment? co-authored with Edzard Ernst to include new research that the Alexander technique has some positive effect in treating and preventing back pain.

Most amusingly, Edzard Ernst is a professor in complimentary alternative medicine; however, he does support it outright.  When this stance enraged the CAM community who though he should axiomatically be on their side, Ernst replied that if he was a qualified toxicologist, that would hardly make him obliged to be in favour of toxins!

Simon mentioned that the current bane of his life in this area is the fairly new magazine What Doctors Don’t Tell You.  They seem to be the “9/11 Troofers” of the medical profession telling the lay public that medical science is a big conspiracy, that tried and trust remedies are actually killing scores of patients and we would all be better off visiting our homeopaths instead of our GPs.

The writers of this pseudo-scientific rag have already threatened to sue Singh for voicing his concerns.  I listened to the opening segment of this edition of Radio 4’s “Inside Health” featuring the magazine’s editor Lynne McTaggart and was pretty appalled by her biased and unsupported claims.  This website also has some hilarious  photoshopped versions of the magazine’s front cover, which make the skeptic’s point crystal clear such as:

WhatDoctorsDontTellYouREALANDSKIT

Now to gear up for Lawrence Krausslecture at Liverpool University tonight…  😀

Derren Brown: Messiah

26/04/2010

After watching this, manicstreetpreacher wonders why all religious people think that their prophet or saviour is the only genuine one in an ocean of mountebanks, charlatans and frauds.  Must be why they call it faith.

I recently re-watched the YouTube videos on my post “Refuting William Lane Craig’s five ‘arguments’ for the existence of God” and in video three, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the narrator recommends watching this programme (RichardDawkins.net / Wikipedia) by British illusionist and arch-sceptic Derren Brown (Homepage / Wikipedia) first broadcast in 2005 as he tours America assuming various false identities convincing supposed experts in the supernatural that he has special powers.

Brown pretends to five separate sets of people that he is respectively a psychic, an evangelical preacher capable of instantly converting hardened atheists, a survivor of alien abduction who can now tell a person’s medical history by touching them, the inventor of a machine that can record people’s dreams and a clairvoyant who is able to talk to people beyond the grave.  In each of the scenarios Brown aims for these people to endorse him publically as the real deal, but if they ask him directly whether he is faking it, he will own up to them.  None of them asked whether this was a con and indeed all swallowed it hook, line and sinker.

Like James Randi, Brown is a self-confessed sceptic of the paranormal and admits that he uses hypnotism, cold-reading and various other behavioural manipulation techniques to get his spectacular results from his subjects.  Only sporadically does he reveal his secrets and I very much recommend his full uncut interview with Richard Dawkins filmed for The Enemies of Reason for a backstage look at cold-reading.

YouTube playlist

YouGoogle Part 3 of 6 (since irritatingly at the time of publication, YouTube Part 3 and only Part 3 was blocked with the message “This video contains content from Channel 4, who has blocked it in your country on copyright grounds”?!)

I post these videos to make the point that the miraculous deeds of Jesus and countless other “messiahs” can easily be replicated by sceptics using mind tricks on gullible and credulous people; effectively mental sleight of hand.  If you are reading minds, contacting the dead or bending metal objects using magic powers, you’re doing it the hard way.

So why do people believe that any of them are genuine?

Michael Specter at TED 2010: The danger of science denial

24/04/2010

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.

TED link

RichardDawkins.net page

Common Sense Atheism page

Michael Specter’s homepage

Michael Specter’s Wikipedia page

Michael Specter: Authors@Google

Richard Dawkins on David Berlinski

09/04/2010

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manicstreetpreacher presents the damning verdict on a pseudo-intellectual by a genuine one.

Further to my recent series of posts on the Intelligent Design creationist propaganda piece Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, Mike Godfrey over at God3’s Blog quotes one of the film’s participants, David Berlinski.  In his response to the New Atheism, The Devil’s Delusion, Berlinski, a supposedly secular Jew, writes on the crimes of so-called atheist totalitarianisms in the 20th century:

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.

Premier Christian Media’s screening of ‘Expelled’: From Darwin to Hitler?

21/03/2010

Part Four of my analysis of Premier Christian Media’s screening and debate of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed examines the film’s claim that Darwin’s theory directly inspired Hitler and 20th century eugenics.

The final quarter of the film makes the outrageous allegation that Darwin’s work directly inspired Hitler and eugenics.   The host, Ben Stein, visits Darwin’s former home of Down House in Kent and his memorial at the London Natural History Museum.  He visits the Dachau concentration camp and Hadamar Clinic where he interviews the tour guide Uta George and Richard Weikart, Discovery Institute research fellow and author of From Darwin to Hitler.

I haven’t read Weikart’s book, but I listened to this lecture and was distinctly underwhelmed by the tenuous links made between the ancient idea of eugenics and Darwin’s theory.  Darwinism describes a scientific process for which there is ample evidence.  Whether we like its moral implication is irrelevant and Weikart is guilty of the naturalistic fallacy; confusing “what is” with “what ought to be”.  Weikart’s arguments rely heavily on some disgraceful quote-mining of Darwin’s work, more of which below.

Weikart also ignores a wealth of other social, economic and indeed religious factors that resulted in the rise of Nazism.  For excellent refutations of his thesis, I came across his radio debate against atheist Professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University, Hector Avalos, as well as Avalos’ extensive blog posts on Debunking Christianity here and here.

Towards the end of Expelled, Stein reads out the following passage which is often quoted by creationists from The Descent of Man, first published in 1871:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated.  We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination.  We build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick, thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind.  No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.  Hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

However, the passage in full shows that Darwin was deeply compassionate to the handicapped and was not in favour of any euthanasia programme:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health.  We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment.  There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox.  Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind.  No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.  It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused.  Nor could we check our sympathy, if so urged by hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.  The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with a certain and great present evil.

There are several other passages from Darwin that creationists mine in their attempts to show that he was immoral, but reveal quite the opposite when read in their true context.  In the post-screening debate (at 43 minutes on the podcast) I asked the panel a question that drew their attention to this distortion, adding that while Darwin was about as racist as anyone else in Victorian England, he was a passionate abolitionist of the slave trade.  Surprisingly, my comments drew nods of agreement from Steve Fuller.  I also added that I have read Hitler’s Mein Kampf for myself.  It contains not one reference of Darwin, evolution or natural selection, but talks rather a lot about his faith in Heaven and the Almighty as well as his theological hero, Martin Luther.

Alastair Noble made noises about how Darwin influenced Stalin.  This claim is straight off the Answers in Genesis website and was repeated by David Robertson in our second debate on Premier’s Unbelievable? last year.  The truth is that Stalin rejected Darwinism in favour of Lamarckism which lead to Lysenko’s insane programme to grow giant vegetables and deliver multiple harvests in one year, leading to the starvation of millions:

Mendeleyev’s “periodic system of elements” clearly shows how very important in the history of nature is the emergence of qualitative changes out of quantitative changes. The same thing is shown in biology by the theory of neo-Lamarckism, to which neo-Darwinism is yielding place.

– Stalin 1906, 304

Steve Fuller replied that Mein Kampf discussed “selection”.  However, Hitler was referring to artificial selection which humans have known about for centuries.  Dog breeding and pigeon fancying have more responsibility for Hitler than On the Origin of the Species.

There is widespread confusion over Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection and “Social Darwinism”, which was coined by the Protestant anthropologist Herbert Spencer, who also came up with the term “survival of the fittest”.  Although still tarring Darwin’s good name, Hitler’s ethic is better described as “Social Darwinist”.

Irritatingly, many respectable scientists and historians have linked Darwin to Nazi Germany.  Sir Arthur Keith is often quoted by creationists as writing in Evolution & Ethics (1946) that Hitler was an evolutionist and was trying to create Darwin’s utopia based on the principles of eugenics, though Keith never showed which parts of Origins inspired Hitler.  Laurence Rees’ otherwise excellent study of the Final Solution, Auschwitz, was tarnished somewhat with the assertion that the Nazis’ ideology was “expressly Darwinian”, again without citing any primary sources in support.

The full original title of On the Origin of Species is infamously “Or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life”.  Again, creationists have argued that this is clear evidence that Darwin was in favour of a brutal struggle for survival where the strong would crush the weak.  However, as Richard Dawkins explained following the film’s release in an “Open Letter to a victim of Ben Stein’s lying propaganda”:

Darwin was using the word “race” in a very different sense from ours.  It is totally clear, if you read past the title to the book itself, that a “favoured race” meant something like “that set of individuals who possess a certain favoured genetic mutation” (although Darwin would not have used that language because he did not have our modern concept of a genetic mutation).

The Anti-Defamation League, an American Jewish pressure group dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism, issued the following statement against Expelled which is the first and last word against anyone claiming that Darwinism is in any way a link to eugenics or Social Darwinism:

The film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed misappropriates the Holocaust and its imagery as a part of its political effort to discredit the scientific community which rejects so-called intelligent design theory.

Hitler did not need Darwin to devise his heinous plan to exterminate the Jewish people and Darwin and evolutionary theory cannot explain Hitler’s genocidal madness.

Using the Holocaust in order to tarnish those who promote the theory of evolution is outrageous and trivializes the complex factors that led to the mass extermination of European Jewry.

Steve Fuller also argued that people who support the teaching of evolution also support abortion and euthanasia on the grounds that it will lead to a better version of humanity.  Again, I found this claim deeply offensive.  I have recently written that I am pro-choice on the grounds that the alternative is worse.  Abortion should be the last option.  Prevention is better than cure.  The answer is increased access to contraception and education as to its proper use.  I am not in favour of abortion because it is a quick and convenient method of wiping out Down’s Syndrome.

I can think of no better way to end these posts than with this compilation by YouTube auteur, Thunderf00t, that features Stein on a Christian TV network shortly after Expelled’s release making the appalling claim that “science leads to killing people”, juxtaposed with his own delusional fantasies about America needing to start World War Three in order to protect itself against Iran and North Korea.

P Z Myers couldn’t have phrased it any better:

What a vile little man.  I sincerely hope that his career is dead now … and that the rest of his life will be spent eking out speaking fees at Christian fundamentalist conventions, before audiences who will cheer him while dreaming of the day the Jews are exterminated or converted, bringing on Armageddon.

Right on, brother.

Now, a “call to arms” (in the strictly metaphorical, non-jihadist sense of the term) to all atheists, rationalists, humanists, secularists and everyone else who cares about truth in science and a proper education of school children which is free from religious dogma and presupposition: Let’s go to work.

Premier Christian Media’s screening of ‘Expelled’: Conspiracy? Cover-up? Expulsion?

21/03/2010

Part Two of my analysis of Premier Christian Media’s screening and debate of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed examines whether “Big Science” is suppressing the theory of Intelligent Design.

The film presents six ID proponents who claim that they lost their jobs and/ or university tenure for entertaining thoughts that involved an intelligent creator due to the evil atheistic evolutionary science elite.  However, this is a mere smoke and mirrors ploy by the ID crowd.  Scratching below the propaganda shows that the supposedly expelled scientists either did not loss their positions at all, or lost them for legitimate reasons.

Expelled alleges that Richard Sternberg lost his position at the Smithsonian Institute and the National Institute of Health at the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NIH) after publishing a paper by Dr Stephen C Meyer of the Discovery Institute which mentioned Intelligent Design as a possible explanation of the origins of life on Earth in the peer-reviewed journal, Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington.  Stein says that Sternberg was “terrorised” and his life was “nearly ruined” following the incident that probed deeply into his religious views.

Nevertheless, this article from Skeptic magazine, as well as Sternberg’s page on Expelled Exposed, shows that Sternberg had in fact deliberately by-passed the publication process of the PBSW and went behind the backs of his colleagues by sneaking in Meyer’s shoddy paper which had previously been reviewed by scientists and had its claims firmly rejected.

Sternberg was in fact an unpaid associate – not an employee – at the Smithosian Institution (as opposed to “Institute”; Expelled doesn’t even get the names correct of those it libels!).  After the Meyer incident, Sternberg remained an employee of NIH and his unpaid position at the Smithsonian was extended in 2006, although he has not shown up there in years.  At no time was any aspect of his pay or working conditions at NIH affected.  He was never even disciplined for legitimate violations of PBSW or Smithsonian policy.  It is difficult to see how his life “was nearly ruined” when nothing serious happened to him.

This is a typical creationist tactic: to give the false impression that evolutionary scientists are dogmatically opposed to new ideas.  The film sets up a false impression of two opposing viewpoints, when in fact there are many, many differing interpretations of the evidence.  Just witness the heated disagreements between Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould over whether evolution happened gradually or in fits and starts.

During debate following the first screening Susan Blackmore, psychologist, atheist and expert on Meme Theory reminisced about when she was convinced that paranormal forces were real following her own “out of body” experience.  She pursued the possibility obsessively in the face of her detractors, but had to accept that her experience was neurologically induced after many painful years of facing the evidence, or indeed the lack of evidence.

Keith Fox, a theistic evolutionary biologist from Southampton University also hauled the film up on its bogus portrayal of science as atheistic and that many devout Christians have no trouble reconciling their faith with Darwin.

Contrary to the impression of theists, scientists do not religiously adhere to Darwinian evolution.  If you demanded fifty grand from the editor of Nature to pay for a peer-reviewed paper that falsified evolution or amended it significantly, he would probably give it to you in used twenties.  Physicist Victor Stenger summed it up best during his debate against Christian apologist William Lane Craig in 2003:

Most scientists share my view.  Are we being too sceptical?  Are we being dogmatically unwilling to entertain the possibility of a personal creator God?  I don’t think so.

There are many examples in the history of science that demonstrate its willingness accept ideas that challenge conventional wisdom.  But the data must require it.  In the early twentieth century the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics revolutionised some our most basic concepts about the nature of reality.

I think most scientists would be thrilled if evidence were founded for previously undetected materials and forces.  Think of all the funding opportunities that would open up.  I would come out of retirement.

But even if that were to happen, I doubt that the world that was then being uncovered would bear any resemblance to the fantasies from the childhood of humanity that constitute traditional religious belief.

Amen.

For further edification regarding the true stories behind the other five “expelled”, see the following pages on Expelled Exposed:

Guillermo Gonzalez: The Discovery Institute co-author of The Privileged Planet didn’t have such a stellar career after all and his output in recent years fell short of the tough requirements for tenure at American Universities.

Caroline Crocker: Never mind “mentioning” Intelligent Design in one of her classes, Crocker received multiple complaints from students at George Mason University for teaching demonstrably false creationist material.  But she was never even fired for clear breaches of academic and contractual obligations and there is no evidence that she was “blacklisted” from other institutions.

Robert Marks: Robert Marks’ “Evolutionary Informatics Laboratory” website – touting intelligent design – was originally hosted on a Baylor University server. Concerned that the material on the website misleadingly suggested a connection between the intelligent design material and Baylor, administrators temporarily shut the website down while discussing the issue with Marks and his lawyer. Baylor was willing to continue hosting the website subject to a number of conditions (including the inclusion of a disclaimer and the removal of the misleading term “laboratory”), but Marks and Baylor were unable to come to terms. The site is currently hosted by a third-party provider.

Pamela Winnick: No evidence was presented in Expelled that Winnick was blacklisted as a journalist, and there’s evidence to the contrary.  She may have been criticised for her shoddy journalism or for advocating bad science – Jeffrey Shallit describes her book as “not a fair, reliable, or objective look at the battles between science and religion,” for example – but it is insupportable and absurd to characterise such criticism as blacklisting.

Michael Egnor: The Alliance for Science, a citizen’s group in Virginia, sponsored an essay contest for high school students on the topic “Why I would want my doctor to have studied evolution”, to highlight the important role of evolution in the medical sciences.  Egnor posted an essay on an intelligent design blog in response, claiming that evolution was irrelevant to medicine.  This was more a statement of Egnor’s ignorance about evolution than a reflection on evolution’s place in medicine.

The next post will ask whether Intelligent Design has any genuine merit as a scientific theory.

Homeopathy is a waste of NHS money says House of Commons Committee on Science and Technology

26/02/2010

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 Telegraph reports, 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.

From the Telegraph:

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.

Preview: Premier Christian Media screens and debates ‘Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed’, 27 February 2010

21/02/2010

manicstreetpreacher gears up for attending his next live debate on religion.

Next weekend I will be attending Premier Christian Media’s screening of the loathsome piece of creationist propaganda, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.  Details are as follows:

Saturday, 27 February 2010, 2:30pm

Sir Alexander Fleming Lecture Theatre
Imperial College London
South Kensington Campus
Exhibition Road
London
SW7 2AZ

Phone: 08456 52 52 52

Google Maps
Imperial College South Kensington Campus Map (download PDF)

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.

Richard Dawkins:

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.

Michael Shermer:

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.

Post-screening debate

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 are Prof 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!

Be sure to read Fuller’s hilarious exchanges with British atheist philosopher A C Grayling over Grayling’s damning review of Fuller’s Dissent Over Descent.  Grayling’s counter-reply to Fuller’s indignant response to his review contained this all-time classic which I have quoted myself on at least one occasion:

Steve Fuller complains, as do all authors whose books are panned, that I did not read his book properly (or at all).  Alas, I did.

Speaking against ID are Keith Fox, Professor of Biology at Southampton University and Chair of Christians in Science and Susan Blackmore, Visiting Professor of Psychology & Memetics, University of Plymouth.

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
Exhibition Road
London
SW7 2AZ

Phone: 08456 52 52 52

Google Maps
Imperial College South Kensington Campus Map (download PDF)

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…

Recent Unbelievable? debates on Intelligent Design

DJ Justin Brierley has done a few shows on ID over the past few months.

Steve Fuller -v- Thomas Dixon: “Do we need God to do Science?” 5 February 2010

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?

Stephen C Meyer -v- Peter Atkins: “Expelled The Movie” 16 January 2010

Meyer can’t mention the title of his new piece of ID propaganda, Signature in the Cell, enough.  Canadian computer science professor Jeffrey Shallit skilfully deals with Myers’ “bogus information theory” as well as the “dishonesty factor”.  Akins is his usual gleeful belligerent-bordering-on-sheer-rude self!

William Dembski -v- Lewis Wolpert: “Intelligent Design” 2 January 2010

I wound up ID proponent William Dembski whose blog Uncommon Descent posted two responses 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?

The Big Swallow: 30 January 2010

20/01/2010

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 (press@1023.org.uk)

See also the thread on RichardDawkins.net, as well as this article on The Daily Telegraph website:

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”.