Posts Tagged ‘Comment is Free’

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

22/10/2013

SimonSinghSimpsonsHeader

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:

TobleroneLogo

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

FedExLogo

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…  😀

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Simon Singh goes on a book tour. And mentions me in his new book!

15/10/2013

SimonSinghSimpsonsHeader

Way back in February 2010, I posted on science journalist and author Dr Simon Singh’s campaign to have British libel law changed in view of his defence of a legal action brought by The British Chiropractic Association who sued him for libel following publication of a highly critical piece on The Guardian Comment Is Free in April 2008.

My original piece bemoaned that I had signed Singh’s online petition and forwarded it to my local MP only to receive a discouraging reply that while he supported the aims of the campaign, he was not in the habit of supporting “Early Day Motions” as he felt they are a waste of Parliamentary time and taxpayers’ money.  Apparently, they are seldom debated, rarely brought to a vote and require neither recognition nor response from the government.  They are known in Westminster as “parliamentary graffiti” and can cost in excess of £627,000.

Since that post, I did not comment any further on the matter and indeed went on an extended blogging sabbatical shortly thereafter.  However, I forwarded my post to Simon Singh and received a delightful reply.  I post both my email and his reply in the comments section below.   I also followed the case with interest and am glad that my original post was proven wrong.  Firstly, Singh won the libel action in April 2010 when The British Chiropractic Association dropped the case after he was given leave to appeal using the defence of “fair comment”.

Furthermore, in April 2013 Parliament passed the Defamation Act 2013 which should provide more protection for individuals and organisations, including newspapers and broadcasters, which criticise big companies.  The Act also aims to end London’s status as the “libel tourism capital of the World” by stopping cases being taken in London against journalists, academics or individuals who live outside the country, denting the libel tourism industry (but not ending it altogether, as foreigners will still be able to lodge claims in the High Court).

I then received a group email from Simon Singh on 8 October 2013 announcing that he was going on a speaking tour to promote his new book, The Simpsons And Their Mathematical Secrets, and that everyone who had signed his online petition had been mentioned in his new book.  I will be seeing Simon speak at The University of Chester on 21 October 2013 and then hopefully again at Merseyside Skeptics Society – Skeptics In The Pub on 12 December 2013.   A scan of the page in his new book where I am thanked is below; first full name on the bottom line.

Singh Simpsons p 233 CROPPEDAt the time of posting, I am about one third of the way through Singh’s book.  For someone who just barely scrapped a Grade ‘C’ on the lower paper for GCSE Maths and still to this day shudders at the mere sight of numbers, I am finding it a most lucid and humorous journey in equations through one of my all time favourite television shows.  It may not transform me overnight into Good Will Hunting, but it’s a hell of a lot more enjoyable than having SOHCAHTOA drilled into my head at school ever was.

Priest Off!

15/06/2010

(Picture via Unreasonable Faith)

manicstreetpreacher presents the Bairnsfather view of the Catholic Church abuse scandal.

The Internet and Blogosphere have been heaving with all the lurid details of the Catholic Church abuse scandal.  My sober contribution was a lambasting of “The Guardian’s resident moron” (© Jerry Coyne) Andrew Brown’s abysmal Vatican apologia that disgraced Comment is free a few months ago.

I think enough criticism of the Holy See has been published by now.  As the feted World War One cartoonist Bruce Bairnsfather proved, there is a funny side to any situation, no matter how appalling.

Therefore, in the same spirit of satirical smiling through gritted teeth, I present five hilarious alternative takes on the Vatican’s sordid predicament to cheer us all up.

1.  Priest Off!

One spray of this and your little boy will be protected from predatory, hormonally charged, clergymen.

2.  Stained Glass Window FAIL!!!!

Not a FAIL.  The Catholic Church doing what it does best.  (OK, it’s not Catholic.  It’s Episcopalian.  But it may as well be Catholic…)

3.  And it looks like the Vermont Catholic magazine is really telling it like it is…

(Via Unreasonable Faith again)

4.   But enough of this cruel mockery of Pope Benedict XVI.

His Holiness recently issued a little-reported statement vowing to bring priestly pedophilia down to more acceptable levels:

VATICAN CITY—Calling the behavior shameful, sinful, and much more frequent than the Vatican was comfortable with, Pope Benedict XVI vowed this week to bring the widespread pedophilia within the Roman Catholic Church down to a more manageable level.

Addressing thousands gathered at St. Peter’s Square on Easter Sunday, the pontiff offered his “most humble apologies” to abuse victims, and pledged to reduce the total number of molestations by 60 percent over the next five years.

“This is absolutely unacceptable,” Pope Benedict said. “It seems a weakening of faith in God has prevented our priests from exercising moderation when sexually abusing helpless minors.”

“And let me remind our clergy of the holy vows they all took when they entered the priesthood,” he continued. “They should know that they’re only allowed one small child every other month.”

The pope said he was deeply disappointed to learn that the number of children sexually abused by priests was almost 10 times beyond the allowable limit clearly outlined in church doctrine. Admitting for the first time in public that the overindulgent touching of “tender, tender young flesh” had become a full-blown crisis, the Holy Father vowed to implement new reforms to bring the pedophilia rate back down to five children per 1,000 clergy.

“The truth is there will always be a little bit of molestation – it’s simply unavoidable,” Vatican spokesperson Rev. Federico Lombardi said. “But the fact that young boys have gotten much more attractive over the past few decades is no excuse for the blatant defiance of church limits that have been in place for centuries.”

“The majority of priests don’t want to molest kids at all,” he added. “But for those who do, we must make sure they’re doing it at a reasonable rate.”

5.  And have we forgotten already the kind words of forgiveness offered by the previous holder of the keys of St Peter?

In 2002 John Paul II gave absolution to all those irresistibly attractive alter-boys who tempted certain members of the priesthood to break their vows of celibacy:

VATICAN CITY – Calling forgiveness “one of the highest virtues taught to us by Jesus,” Pope John Paul II issued a papal decree Monday absolving priest-molested children of all sin.

“Though grave and terrible sins have been committed, our Lord teaches us to turn the other cheek and forgive those who sin against us,” said the pope, reading a prepared statement from a balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square.   “That is why, despite the terrible wrongs they have committed, the church must move on and forgive these children for their misdeeds.”

“As Jesus said, ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,’” the pope continued.  “We must send a clear message to these hundreds – perhaps thousands – of children whose sinful ways have tempted so many of the church’s servants into lustful violation of their holy vows of celibacy.  The church forgives them for their transgressions and looks upon them not with intolerance, but compassion.”

(…)

Margaret Leahy, 39, a Somerville, MA, homemaker and mother of one of the alleged seducers, expressed relief over the pope’s announcement.

“For months, I feared that my boy – and the dozens of others who committed sinful acts with Father Halloran before he was moved to the safety of another parish to protect him from further temptation at their pre-pubescent hands – was going to Hell for what he’d done,”

Leahy said. “It’s the worst feeling a mother can know. But thanks to the forgiveness of the pope, my long nightmare is finally over.  He was just a boy of 8 at the time.  He didn’t know any better.  Thank you, your Holiness, for giving my poor little Timothy a second chance at redemption.”

If I’m wrong and there is a God, may he bless The Onion

Andrew Brown posts another clanger on Comment is free

13/03/2010

manicstreetpreacher wonders whether this hack can stoop any lower.

US evolutionary biologist and author of Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne, recently described British science and religion journalist Andrew Brown as “The Guardian’s resident moron”.

I have been less than impressed by Brown after his pathetic attack on Sam Harrisobjection to Francis Collins’ appointment as head of the National Institute of Health, culminating in Brown quote-mining Harris’ The End of Faith something rotten to make it look like Harris endorses torture and rendition.  I can only assume that this was a dummy-spitting exercise by Brown to recoup ground from the commenters who lambasted his first piece and rallied in support for Harris.

Now, Brown has not simply scraped the bottom of the barrel, he has removed the base of said wooden container entirely and is tunnelling fast for Australia.  On 11 March 2010, Brown posted this appalling piece on The Guardian: Comment is free arguing that perhaps we are being a tad harsh on all those child sodomising Catholic priests, since the rate of child abuse among the clergy is apparently much lower than other professions.

Pinch yourself to make sure that you’re not having a bad dream:

[T]here is no doubt that a lot of children were damaged for life by priests, and that this was mostly covered up by the hierarchy until recently.  But was the Catholic church unfairly singled out?  Aren’t all children vulnerable to exploitation, especially when they are poor and unwanted?…

The most detailed statistics on child abuse for the Catholic clergy that I can find come from the John Jay Institute’s report drawn up for the American Catholic bishops’ conference.  From this it emerges that the frequency of child abuse among Catholic priests is not remarkable but its pattern is.  Although there are no figures for the number of abusers in the wider population, there are figure for the number of victims.  These vary wildly: the most pessimistic survey finds that 27% of American women and 16% of men had “a history of childhood sexual abuse”; while the the [sic] most optimistic had 12.8% of women and 4.3% of men. Obviously a great deal depends here on the definition of abuse; also on the definition of “childhood”. In some of these surveys it runs up to 18, which is a couple of years above the age of consent in Britain.

Well, if a report has been prepared for the American Catholic Bishops Conference, who are we to argue with it?

The Catholic figures show that between about 4% of priests and deacons serving in the US between 1950 and 2002 had been accused of sexual abuse of someone under 18. In this country, the figure was a 10th of that: 0.4%.  But whereas the victims in the general population are overwhelmingly female, the pattern among American Catholic priests was quite different.  Four out of five of their victims were male.  Most were adolescents: two out of five were 14 or over; 15% were under 10.

This is vile, but whether it is more vile than the record of any other profession is not obvious.  The concentration on boys makes the Catholic pattern of abuse stand out; what makes it so shocking is that parents trusted their children with priests.  They stood in for the parents.  But this isn’t all that different from the pattern in the wider world, either, where the vast majority of abuse comes from within families.  The other point that makes the Catholic abuse is that it is nowadays very widely reported.  It may be the best reported crime in the world: that, too tends to skew perceptions.

I’ll agree with Brown there.  Yes, it is extremely vile.  But there my support ends.  His post is an exercise in “Yeah, but what about…”.  Road traffic deaths kill far more people every year than deliberate homicide, so let’s get the police to withdraw all personnel and resources from investigating murders and get them to devote all their time and effort ensuring that motorists wear their seat beats and drive under the speed limits, shall we?

So why the concentration on Catholic priests and brothers?  Perhaps I am unduly cynical, but I believe that all institutions attempt to cover up institutional wrongdoing although the Roman Catholic church has had a higher opinion of itself than most, and thus a greater tendency to lie about these things.  Because it is an extremely authoritarian institution at least within the hierarchy, it is also one where there were few checks and balances on the misbehaviour of the powerful.  The scandal has been loudest and most damaging in Ireland, because it came along just at the moment when the church was losing its power over society at large, and where it was no longer able to cover up what had happened, but still willing to try.  Much the same is true in the diocese of Boston which was bankrupted by the scandal.

Perhaps I am being unduly cynical, but I think we are entitled to demand a higher standard of moral behaviour from institutions and individuals whose alleged purpose is to uphold and enforce those of us mere mortals who do not have a one-to-one with The Big Surveillance Camera In The Sky.

Rabbi David Wolpe raised this objection in a debate against Christopher Hitchens: the public is more shocked and the criticism more vitriolic when a clergyman falls into error.  Hitch’s reply was that he is not shocked at all.  The Catholic Church preaches that women are vessels of temptation, insists on celibacy, makes sex a matter of guilt and shame and comprises an all male priesthood that is based on sexual repression.  What is going to happen to the children under the care of those people?   No need to act surprised.  The Church wasn’t surprised at all.  They knew it was going on all the time which is why they covered up for it.

Hitchens’ comments are at the beginning of this tape.

And regardless of whether the abuse itself has been exaggerated or blown out of proportion in the media, there is no playing down the deliberate covering-up of the scandal by the Vatican, of which the present pope, Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger, played a pivotal role by issuing a Vatican edict in 2001 while  a cardinal ordering Catholic bishops and priests were not to cooperate with the police on pain of excommunication.  Only last Tuesday (9 March 2010) the BBC’s Newsnight reported on the case of Bill Carney was named as one of the worst cases in Dublin’s Catholic diocese in the Murphy Report into clerical abuse in Ireland.  However, for the last 10 years Carney has been free to live quietly in Britain and is now hiding out in the Canary Islands.

Brown’s insulting apologia concludes thus:

Certainly the safeguards against paedophilia in the priesthood are now among the tightest in the world.  That won’t stop a steady trickle of scandals; but I think that objectively your child is less likely to be abused by a Catholic or Anglican priest in the west today than by the members of almost any other profession.

Well, that’s a relief.  I’m sure that all those children and families whose lives have been ruined by the abuse and subsequent covering up by the Vatican will be consoled no end by the knowledge that it could have been worse if they were looked after by doctors and lawyers.

Brown’s vile wipe was ripped to shreds by its own commenters, and justly so.  Why does this appalling man continue to be published in the national dailies?

UPDATE 14 MARCH 2010

As I expected, Jerry Coyne has commented on Brown’s piece on his blog with typical rhetorical fire:

It’s a disgusting and self-serving piece of faitheistic tripe, and its underlying message is this: those people who attack the Catholic church for systematic child abuse are really anti-Catholic bigots.  After all, claims Brown, the Church was no worse than other abusers…

I beg to differ with Brown’s implicit conclusion.  The concentration on Catholic priests and brothers comes from the shocking institutionalization of that abuse: the consistent efforts of Church officials, who knew full well about the abuse, to cover it up and, sometimes, simply transfer abusers to new places.  Yes, other professions sometimes cover up child abuse, but not, I think, on such a massive scale.  I am not aware of this kind of cover-up being endemic to American public schools, for example.

And what Brown fails to grasp is that the abuse is doubly shocking because it was committed by those priests to whom parents not only entrusted their children, but entrusted them to inculcate in those children a sense of morality.  The outrage comes from seeing that those who were supposed to serve as role models – as paragons of morality – systematically abused that trust in the most heinous ways.  And perhaps the Church’s ridiculous policy of celibacy contributed to this abuse.

Fortunately, Brown’s commenters – as usual – take him apart.  It must be disheartening for the Resident Moron to watch, week after week, as his readers chew his tuchus to pieces.  Maybe the Guardian keeps him on because his continuing idiocy promotes traffic on their website.  But really, how can a reputable paper tolerate such witless garbage?  Do the editors have any notion of what should pass for decent commentary?

Nice one, Jerry.  The words “asshole”, “new” and “rip” spring to mind.