"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Monday, 28 June 2010

Surprise! More Papal Bull

So the P.O.P.E (Pontiff Opposed to Paedophile Exposure) is upset at the Belgian authority’s raids investigating the child abuse scandal there.
This he calls “deplorable” while still being mealy mouthed about the institutional cover up this child-molesting ring has perpetrated.
There’s little more to say on this obvious hypocrisy except to ask, after all this why would anyone want to be a Catholic?

Friday, 18 June 2010

Time for Obama to support BP

It’s time for Obama and the U.S administration in general to adopt a more levelheaded approach to BP and the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
It may well be the case that there were serious lapses in safety protocols on the rig, leading to the explosion that has released hundreds and thousands of barrels of crude into the gulf. However this is not known and is currently the subject of an internal enquiry by BP. It will no doubt eventually become the subject of independent scrutiny and, probably, criminal investigation when the inevitable litigation machine cranks into full swing.
Unfortunately the American public appears to have prejudged BP in this matter and the U.S administration is way too happy to pander to this prejudice.
Witness the appalling behaviour of the members of the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee during their six hour interrogation of BP CEO Tony Hayward.
Barely a question was asked without snide and sarcastic rhetoric to accompany it and the congressmen present were clearly more interested in playing to the gallery than seeking clarification of BP’s position.
The media and Capitol Hill have bulldozed even the normally sanguine Barack Obama into using “butt kicking” language in reference to the company, and it seems every one is taking this dubious lead from him.
The brute fact is that a massive environmental disaster is still in progress in the gulf. It is not in anyone’s interest, let alone BP’s for this to continue and it is clear that BP is piling as much resource as it can into solving the problem. Shouting and screaming may make the ineffectual U.S politicians feel better, but it will not save one centimetre of coastline, a feat that only the technical expertise of the oil industry has any hope of achieving.
The White House may feel powerless in this situation, and on a practical nuts and bolts level it surely is. Obama has achieved what he could reasonably expect to achieve with the 20 Billion USD escrow fund for compensation from BP. But now is the time to work with the company to facilitate its efforts to solve the problem, and ensure that it is still a viable respected company going forward.
Americans love to make Brits the bad guy, a casual survey of U.S television drama will tell you that. It is probably part of the reason the Congress committee felt so comfortable blatantly insulting Tony Hayward the way they did. It is also possible that they mistook his natural British reserve for “stonewalling”, when in fact he was just honestly presenting the limits of the available information in a factual way. Whatever, they’re not helping the situation. At some point they will have to wake up to the fact that 40% of the company is in U.S shareholder’s hands and that a damaged BP will not play well with their financial situation any more than it will in Britain.
Obama must work now, not to undermine confidence in BP, but to encourage and support their effort in front of the American population. Also while he’s at it, when BP finally succeed in their efforts to stop the leak, make reparation and limit the damage he needs to give them the credit for it. Unfortunately at the moment it seems he is taking the populist line and giving the responsibility to God. If he is going to give some deity the credit for making it better, he should be giving it the blame for causing the disaster in the first place. He should know better than this.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Royal wingnut strikes again

Oh dear! Royal woomeister Prince Charles has been airing is bizarre anti-scientific opinions in public again. Apparently all the world's environmental ills are due to a “deep, inner crisis of the soul”. and it’s Galileo’s fault apparently.
“This imbalance, where mechanistic thinking is so predominant, goes back at least to Galileo’s assertion that there is nothing in nature but quantity and motion.
“This is the view that continues to frame the general perception of the way the world works, and how we fit within the scheme of things."
So Charlie thinks that if we all re-engage with our souls and go in search of Gaia that we will magically reverse the effects of climate change and over exploitation of the planet.
All this rubbish was said at an Islamic centre so no doubt he had a ready audience, but really! Why does he persist in opening his mouth about things he only barely understands?
Fine, a little more respect for the delicate balance of our planet wouldn’t go amiss. But soul and especially religion has nothing to do with it. In fact in the general way of things, religionists in the west are all for exploitation, not stewardship of our resources. It is after all in the Republican camp that you’ll find most of the U.S politicians lobbying for oil drilling rights in Alaska and denying climate change. The oil rich Islamic states even make a national political position out of it.
Remember this is the same guy that thinks homeopathy is a real therapy and that nanotechnology will result in grey goo.
Sorry Charles, but please leave the science to the scientists, who have actual evidence on their side and not vague unfalsifyable beliefs in the soul. Oh, and stop embarrasing yourself in public, it does not do any favours for Britain's image as a scientific nation to have a potential future head of state peddling this sort of new age idiocy.

Monday, 7 June 2010

On Anne Atkins' thought for the day

I have conflicted feelings about BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day spot. It occupies a handful of minutes during the Today program and I hear it most days on the way to work.
Conflicted feelings, because part of me doesn’t see the point of having a dedicated spot in a current affairs program for religious apologists to tout their opinions, It’s not as if religion doesn’t have enough opportunity to belabour the myth of its own moral superiority. But on the other hand, it is sometimes a rich vein of material to mine for this blog.
Today was one of those times. . .
Anne Atkins, a fairly regular contributor decided to tackle the thorny old issue of the problem of evil. The platform for this was the distress of her son at unexpectedly losing a friend who had died suddenly. He found this inexplicable and was prompted, as would many of us in the circumstances, to ask “why him?”
Anne Atkins then went on to point out, quite reasonably, that many random unpleasant events happen to people all of the time, and that it is human nature to look to find reasons or ascribe blame for those events, when in fact there maybe no justification for doing so.
However she is not arguing that we should not ask “why me?” or “why now?” or “why them?” because some events truly are random, but because implicit in the question is “why has God done this?”
The question of why bad things happen to “good” people has troubled the religious mind for centuries, along with its corollary. But Atkins goes on to state this slightly differently.
Lottery winners don’t ask “why me?” yet this is just as much a random event.
Her conclusion is that we all have a sense of expectation that life is meant to be good, that love (from God) is the default position and that we all know deep down that there is a prescribed order in the world that is designed to nurture us.
However there is more than a little question begging here. What humans define as “good” at an individual level is anything that helps them meet the requirements of their lives. At a basic level this is shelter, food, sex, companionship and status. It is as true for us as it is for the simplest organism and when those needs are fulfilled we are not as stressed as when they are not.
Furthermore if left to their own devices, events are rarely on balance fortuitous for individuals. It is a truism that people “make their own luck” and this is partly because natural entropy will degrade any environment unless some work is put into maintaining it. If we have built a stable, balanced, comfortable life almost any random event that impinges on it is likely to be deleterious which is why we all want a bit of slack in the system; emotional and financial buffers to shield us from the disruption of outside events.
The lottery winner doesn’t ask “why me?” firstly because they know why, dumb luck! Secondly because it is not a threat to their well-being. The victim of disaster may well rant against the unfairness of it all and if they are of a religious bent, may look for reasons in their own lack of piety. But Anne Atkins cannot use this as an argument for God. Bad luck is not the counterpoint to a benevolent creation; it is the inevitable outcome of random events on a life seeking equilibrium.

Friday, 4 June 2010

More science please

The last episode of the excellent BBC program The Story of Science aired this week. The whole series has been a complete delight and left me even surer than ever (if that’s possible) that science is the best and most enthralling way possible of understanding the universe and our place in it.
Ever since the enlightenment, the scientific method has consistently succeeded in getting ever closer to explaining the phenomena we experience around us. It has provided sufficiently accurate models of matter, energy, space and time that we can build rockets, control them with computers and reach distant planets. It has provided explanations of the diversity of life and the information behind it to define our existence on earth and our relationship to every other organism. It allows us to manipulate the genetic code and create organisms suited to our needs. It gives us the means to communicate instantly and effortlessly across continents, with sound, pictures and the written word.
What all of this demonstrates is that science works. The evidence is all around us; everywhere and everyday.
It is all the more surprising then that so many people are anti-science or sceptical of its claims to usefulness. I fail to understand, particularly in the relatively science literate west, how for example, Homeopathy can be such a lucrative business, when its claims can be shown to be totally bogus, with no rational mechanism by which they could be otherwise.
Similarly,the level of belief in creationism found in the U.S, one of the most technologically innovative nations in the world is astounding. When you consider that the same physics that informs their nuclear power industry is the same physics that proves the earth to be 4.5 Billion years old, how do they reconcile a biblical creation with switching the lights on at night?
What was so good about The Story of Science and the Channel 4 program Genius of Britain(also worth watching) was the emphasis on how science is done, the assumptions it makes and the use of the scientific method to attempt to falsify those assumptions. It cast scientists as real people, with real questions to ask about the world, thus overturning the B-movie stereotypical scientist the media still like to portray.
We cannot have enough of this positive portrayal of science and scientists on our screens. My hope is that it will rejuvenate an interest in understanding the world scientifically and encourage more young people to study for science degrees at college.
Not least I hope it will persuade the general public that science is not just dogma, or opinion. It is simply the best method found so far for revealing the truth about the world.