Tuesday, 29 December 2009

In the company of woo

I find myself in the company of woo, and as a skeptic it is bringing me some grief.

It's all about homebirth - planning to deliver a baby at home, attended by a midwife, rather than in a hospital.

Deena and I came to homebirth through an examination of the evidence. (Here's a discussion I participated in on the Bad Science forums before Kaia's birth.) We were convinced, by scientific studies and analyses, that planning a home birth here in the UK was at least as safe as planning a hospital birth, given a competent attendant and a handy hospital in the event of complications. So we went for it.

However, many people choose homebirth for less evidence-based reasons. They cite personal intuition, or the "naturalness" of it. Not just as reasons to prefer homebirth, but as evidence of its safety.

At Edinburgh's Pregnancy and Parents Centre (a haven for various types of woo, as well as useful support groups and great toddler activities), when we went to the "home birth support group" to relate our experiences and our evidence-based approach, it was alongside others promoting woo of various flavours as part of their support of homebirth.

A recent post on homebirth at Science-Based Medicine has stirred up an epic-length discussion, with passionate defenders on both sides. I've participated, but fear that just being on the homebirth side has made me, in some people's eyes, an advocate of woo.

This is the problem: I agree with the woo-birthers that homebirth can be safe, but I disagree (passionately, vigorously) about why this is a legitimate position. And the disagreement isn't immaterial. At the homebirth meeting, someone recommended homeopathy to treat post-partem haemorrhage. One of the most serious and potentially life-threatening complications of pregnancy, and she advised drinking high-priced water. That is dangerous advice, and I wish I'd been quick-thinking enough to respond persuasively (rather than sitting like a lump and grinding my teeth).

What is a skeptic to do? On the one hand, having someone agree with me in one breath, and back me up with an appeal to intuition in the next, makes me want to revisit and question my beliefs that much more carefully. (That's something a skeptic should be doing anyway, for all their beliefs, but who has the time?) On the other hand, to adapt Niven's 16th law, "There is no belief so true that one cannot find a fool believing it." Just because someone agrees with you for bad reasons doesn't mean you're wrong. I came to my belief about homebirth on the basis of the science, and I'm determined that only science will dissuade me.

But there's also the whole social side. Just as many of my fellow atheists wrinkle their brows at me when I say I go to church, many skeptics seem to do the same when I talk about homebirth. Atheists often assume that the word "church" is synonymous with supernatural beliefs and submission to a holy text, things that would feel alien in our Unitarian church. Similarly, many skeptics assume that, because it's associated with modern medicine, hospital-based birth is inherently safer.

I'm tempted to close by declaring, evangelist-style, that skeptics must beware of this tendency to take association as evidence. Its association with woo-birthers says nothing about the safety of homebirth; nor does its association with high-tech hospitals demonstrate the superiority of hospital birth.

But perhaps a more humble conclusion is in order. Here goes:

I promise to keep vigilant for evidence that might contradict my current beliefs.
I promise to honestly communicate any changes of position that such evidence might lead me to.
I promise to avoid being swayed by other people's assumptions (whether or not they are skeptics).
I promise to make every effort to pin my beliefs to the evidence, and nothing else.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

More on Free Will

Since my March article about free will, I've learned that my position - that having free will is consistent with a mechanistic model of the universe (with or without quantum uncertainty thrown in) - is known as compatibilism.

I recently read Thomas Pink's book, Free Will: A Very Short Introduction (from the excellent Very Short Introduction series put out by OUP) - and so I now fancy myself knowledgeable enough to connect my own casual ponderings with the great web of philosophy.

The position Mike took in his article is known as scepticism (in the context of free will, a combination of incompatibilism and a belief in causal determinism - not to be confused with other, more general forms of scepticism).

Guess who Pink identifies as the first compatibilist? Here's a quote:
A FREE-MAN, is he, that ... is not hindred to doe what he has a will to ... from the use of the word Free-will, no Liberty can be inferred of the will, desire or inclination, but the Liberty of the man; which consisteth in this, that he finds no stop, in doing what he has the will, desire, or inclination to doe.
The quote is from p65 of Pink's book, and it's by 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

I wouldn't go so far as to call myself a Hobbesian - he wrote about more than just this, and I don't know if the whole of his philosophy would appeal to me. But I tend to agree with this quote.

Note that this passage makes no claims about what it means for someone to "have a will to do" something. One thing I like about compatibilism is that it does not rely on a particular model (deterministic, non-deterministic, etc) of the universe.

See also:

Wikipedia article on Free Will.

Image credit:

Image of Hobbes via this collection. (On the topic of this post, check out this fan comic, inspired by the Calvin and Hobbes scene shown here.)

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Is Saint Andrew's Day controversial?

A few weeks late, I have come across this exchange on the merits of celebrating Saint Andrew's Day on the 30th of November as a national day for Scotland. Saint Andrew was said to have been crucified on an 'X'-shaped cross, which gives us the saltire in the modern Scottish flag (pictured above). His apparent connection with Scotland is that some of his relics were brought here after his death, and so he is considered the patron saint of Scotland.

In the article from the Herald, Gordon Ross (treasurer for the Humanist Society of Scotland) argues that (a) Andrew has no demonstrable connection to Scotland (he's patron saint of many other places as well), (b) it is primarily a religious tradition, which implicitly excludes the many non-Christian people in Scotland, and (c) we have plenty of other days with more genuine merit, to celebrate Scotland as a nation.

Opposing him is Azeem Ibrahim, who argues that religion isn't a serious part of Scottish Saint Andrews Day celebrations, and that the inclusive celebration of Scottish awesomeness is what the day is about.

This seems to me like a microcosm of the perennial Christmas debates in the atheist community. Is it a problem to celebrate on a day that has been connected to beliefs or values that you reject? As someone who grew up with essentially religion-free Christmases, I just can't get worried about it. (For us, it was about family, food, gifts, and games.) I've never seen evidence that celebrating a secular Christmas somehow lends credence to the non-secular version of it.*

I tend to agree with Ibrahim - the same goes for Saint Andrew's Day. While I am aware of the legend behind it, I've never felt that the religious side was particularly important. It's about celebrating this wonderful little nation of (currently) five million people, who have produced so much.** (Including, I should point out, many of the central historical figures and cultural traditions celebrated in my homeland, Canada.)

Humanists and atheists often chastise religious people for being too sensitive about their beliefs. I think this is a great opportunity to show that we mean it. Saint Andrew's Day does not exclude us; it does not demean us. So let's set aside the historical religious basis of the day and enjoy it for what it is now.***

Lang may your lum reek!


* I feel I should point out this post by Cath, in which I learned that even very conservative Christians don't necessarily observe Christmas. This doesn't change the fact that it's historically a religiously-motivated festival, but it does somewhat derail the assumption that Christianity and Christmas necessarily go together.

** I should also acknowledge that Saint Andrew's Day is not a huge thing, even in Scotland. In fact, my main experience of it is the free admission to the castle, and perhaps token acknowledgement in the media. So it's a very different issue in many ways from Christmas. But the parallels are intriguing.

*** Also, I should acknowledge a certain personal bias: Saint Andrew's Day is also my birthday. It's quite nice to be offered free admission to national monuments on your birthday.

Image credit:

Saltire from Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Why should humanists be in chaplaincy?

Humanitie, the quarterly magazine of the Humanist Society of Scotland, has a new issue out. Once again, Mike and I present our rather different perspectives - this time, on the relationship between humanists and chaplaincy. Don't forget to read Mike's column over at his blog.

I was recently asked a question about the place of humanists in chaplaincy life. In a chaplaincy, even an inclusive multi-faith chaplaincy, most people are religious. To what extent is it worthwhile and appropriate for humanists and other non-religious people to seek a place in chaplaincy?

The answer is obvious to me. Clearly, though, some religious people and even many humanists don't see things as I do. So here is my take on it.

First, some background. Our university chaplaincy is very deliberately open to students and staff of "all faiths and none".

My earliest experience with the chaplaincy was when I was first learning and reading about humanism, and coming to realize that it reflected a deep part of my identity. I started looking for like-minded people, for a community to connect with. I had heard of the chaplaincy and its openness to people of no religion. I visited the chaplain and asked if she knew of any humanist groups at the university. She didn't, but she thought it would be wonderful if there were a group. She also pointed me to the Humanist Society of Scotland (HSS), which has an Edinburgh group.

There is a whole story following on from that - of attending an HSS philosophy book group, of meeting another humanist student, of forming a student group with him that has become far more active and successful than I expected - but for now let's look at that first move on my part. Why did I go to the chaplaincy in search of humanists?

First, there was my awareness that the chaplaincy branded itself as inclusive - they reach out not only to religious folks, but to folks like me. Second, for all that some humanists like to distance themselves from religious believers, there is a crucial feature that we share. Humanism is a framework for seeking meaning, for defining an ethical stance, and for sharing inspiration and expressing awe. For most religious people I've talked to, their religion does just the same: it provides meaning, defines ethics, and it is the lens through which inspiration and awe are experienced and shared. Also, perhaps even more importantly, both humanism and religions are identities around which human communities gather. So humanism is to me as religion is to religious folks. Even then, new as I was to humanism, I could see that.

So it seemed obvious that the chaplaincy - a place for religious folks to meet like-minded people, a place for people to go for spiritual counselling, and a place that explicitly included non-religious people in its remit - was the right place to look for humanist groups at the university.

And of course, that answers the question I opened with too. If chaplaincy is an obvious place for a lone humanist to go in search of kindred spirits, then chaplaincy is an obvious place for a humanist group to be connected with so that those lone humanists can find us.

Yes, there is the Internet. Yes, there are other avenues for us to find one another. But that's no reason to shut such an obvious means of connection. Besides, the sort of personal bond that people visiting the chaplaincy tend to seek is not something that can be transmitted through a computer screen.

Of course, there is more to the chaplaincy than just finding folks like yourself. There is also the inter-faith element*. The idea of people of different backgrounds coming together to discover common ground. And I think that's incredibly valuable. It's something that's lacking from a lot of the "culture war" discussions that get headlines. It's important that humanists are involved in that as well.

True, I may think that the other guy's god is imaginary. True, he may think that I'm destined for hell if I don't come to believe as he does. But equally true is the fact that we both value compassion. We both try to buy products whose production doesn't exploit the vulnerable. We both try to act in ways that will preserve the planet for the next generation. We both strongly believe in each other's right to believe as we will.

In my experience, there is no place like a multi-faith chaplaincy for bringing people of different backgrounds together and helping us to realize how much we share. Not just superficial stuff. Deep stuff. Important stuff.**

Stuff we can draw on to make the world a better place, together.

That's why humanists should be involved in chaplaincy, and in other inter-faith endeavours.

Footnotes (not included in the print version):

* Yes, I know, the term inter-faith is problematic for people like us, who consciously set ourselves apart from religious faith. It is also often used in a manner that really does exclude us. But until you can come up with a better term for a meeting of religious and non-religious worldviews, and show that other people will use and understand it, it's better than nothing.

** A Unitarian church may do the same, but I don't have enough experience at one yet to say for sure.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Cosmic Advent

It's that time of year again, when the Cosmic Calendar brings almost daily events to reflect on. Today we see the Cambrian Explosion (about 540 million years ago), and the first vertebrates (around 534 million years ago). See the list of upcoming events in the sidebar on the right for the next 5, or go to the Google Calendar for the whole schedule.

I'm still working out, for myself and my family, how to integrate the Cosmic Calendar into personal holiday traditions. I like the idea of building some sort of advent calendar around these last couple of weeks. How would you go about that? Would you used biologically-themed sweets? Toys? Snappy passages from The Ancestor's Tale?

I'd also like to fill in the blank days - the 20th, 24th, 25th, and 29th. I'm sure things were happening during these periods - every day represents about 37.5 million years of time, after all. But the big-ticket events like the first amphibians, the first birds, etc just haven't happened to fall on those days.

Would you like to participate? Do you have any thoughts for things to include in the Cosmic Calendar? Corrections on the dates I'm using? Other ideas? Please let me know!

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Confession of a born essentialist

We have an innate tendency to psychological essentialism. Bruce Hood articulates this tendency well (see his book Supersense). His most vivid example is the serial-killer's shirt. If you are given a nice shirt - one that fits well and suits your style and wardrobe - and told that it once belonged to a serial killer, how will you react? Most people will avoid the shirt - even avoid touching it. Of course, the shirt contains no "serial-killer essence", but the association sparks something deep our psychology: we want to avoid objects that are associated with bad things.

This was probably hugely adaptive in our evolutionary history: if you avoid touching things that have been handled by, say, a seriously ill person, you are less likely to become infected yourself. It doesn't matter if the reason you avoid them is rooted in an accurate knowledge of the germ theory of disease or an improbable metaphysical notion of guilt-by-association - if it saves your life and is affected by your genes, it will give you a selective advantage over people without the trait, or with a weaker version of the same trait.

Essentialist psychology provides a compelling explanation for why people would believe in certain immaterial properties of matter even if the universe is completely material. Which leads some philosophical naturalists (humanists, atheists, etc) to smugly think that we've risen above the illusion: we see through the illusory sense that our instincts push us into. We aren't tricked into god-belief or imagining a life after death.

Well, it's not that easy.

I was playing with Kaia (my 2-year-old daughter), and she told me that her doll needed a nappy change*. As an expert, I was invited to conduct the procedure. I used a nose tissue to wipe the doll's bottom.

When I went to put the tissue back in my pocket (for future use), I was momentarily overcome by my inner essentialist. I had a strong sense that the tissue was unclean. All simply because of an act of imagination!

I quickly realized what was happening, and put the tissue in my pocket anyway. In fact, once I became conscious of the illusion, it quickly dissipated. Thank goodness for skepticism. I wonder if I would have recovered as quickly if I had not, a few years ago, attended a talk here in Edinburgh given by Bruce Hood.

Have you ever had a "silly essentialist" moment like this? How did you react? How did you feel once you realized what was going on?

* I feel I should point out that this wasn't one of those modern imagination-free dolls that actually produce wet nappies.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

DIY spirituality

I think I've mentioned once or twice about humanist spirituality. And I know I've talked about Unitarians a few times. Well, I just read an interesting article, The DIY Spiritual Practice, by Doug Muder, in the UU World magazine. In it, he describes a spiritual practice that he and his wife have evolved over the years. (It was linked from his blog here, so go there to drop him a comment if you like - or dislike - what he says.)
It's not that I don't have a discipline. I do, but it's like so much of what Unitarian Universalists do—my wife Deb and I have cobbled it together for ourselves over a couple of decades.
For those hard-nosed skeptics among you who think that "spiritual practice" is simply a euphemism for rituals reinforcing supernatural beliefs, with no real effect on anything, I strongly recommend you give his article a read. You may not decide to try out his solution, but at least you'll get an idea of a very humanist approach to spirituality and spiritual practice.
So what is this do-it-yourself discipline my wife and I have been practicing for 21 years? The heart of it is very mundane: We talk to each other.
I don't know if Doug and his wife are "religious" (in the sense of believing in some supernatural reality). But the practice that he describes sounds to me like a well-grounded, practical, and enjoyable way to deal with the emotional (and other) issues that arise in daily life, and to appreciate life's events as they come.

What do you think?

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

To what must we aspire, and why?

Well, Marc has done it again. Talking along, making all sort of sense - even wisdom (but don't tell him I said so) - and then completely losing me as he finishes:
Expressions that were once current have gone out of use nowadays. Names, too, that were formerly household words are virtually archaisms today; Camillus, Caeso, Volesus, Dentatus; or a little later, Scipio and Cato; Augustus too, and even Hadrian and Antoninus. All things fade into the storied past, and in a little while are shrouded in oblivion. Even to men whose lives were a blaze of glory this comes to pass; as for the rest, the breath is hardly out of them before, in Homer's words, they are 'lost to sight alike and hearsay'. What, after all, is immortal fame? An empty, hollow thing. To what, then, must we aspire? This, and this alone: the just thought, the unselfish act, the tongue that utters no falsehood, the temper that greets each passing event as something predestined, expected, and emanating from the One source and origin. (Meditations, book 4, paragraph 33)
Okay, I understand that the whole "One source" bit is consistent with the rest - he's not doing a U-turn at the end. But it's unnecessary. Yes, fame and recognition are fleeting. Yes, living for eternal glory is a futile pursuit. Yes, it is enough to aspire to think clearly, do good, and speak truth. And an even temper is certainly something worth cultivating.

But my even temper is not based on a belief in predestiny, in all things coming from a common source. It is simply based on the observation that level-headedness is the most powerful frame of mind from which to advance my understanding and improve my lot and that of my fellow humans.

Anyway, I continue to enjoy my discourse with Marc. We usually agree, and even when we don't we have some fun exploring why not. (I don't think that I've ever changed his mind, but that's not the point.)

Postscript: I have discussed this with Darren, the mutual acquaintance who introduced me to Marc. Darren has spent more time with Marc and his crowd, and was able to cast the "one source" stuff in a light that I find easier to get on board with. I hope to discuss this (or perhaps invite Darren to tell you himself) in the not-too-distant future.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Defending Dawkins (2)

This is a further entry in a back-and-forth between me and bettynoirbettyblanc (henceforth "Betty"), on evolution and Richard Dawkins. It began in this post of hers, to which I responded here. She followed up with a response here. The following will make more sense if you have read those posts first.

Betty, I can certainly understand your dislike of Richard Dawkins. He often neglects to soften his critique of religious ideas (individually and collectively), and it is natural that many religious people feel that he misrepresents them. Some of their complaints - your complaints - are justified.

However, I feel that your response ignores or misses many of the key points I was trying to convey, and exaggerates Dawkins' faults beyond reason.

First, I did not accuse you of denying evolution. You will notice, if you look again at my post, that I direct my criticisms on that point at creationists.The language of your original post leaves plenty of room for people to assume that you are more sympathetic to the creationist perspective than the scientific perspective, but I was (and continue to be) careful not to pigeonhole you unjustly.

You say "I would guard against listening to anyone who claims they are an expert on something just because they have a few ladybird guides on their shelf." You certainly shouldn't believe me, just because I've read some popular science books on evolution. Nor should you even take an expert's opinion as incontrovertible fact. As I said:
These outreach biologists (Dawkins, Gould, Wilson, etc) don't make arguments of the form "I believe this, and I'm and expert so just take my word for it." They make arguments of the form "Here's some evidence. Here's why it supports evolution." With plenty of references to original research so that you can independently verify their claims if you don't trust them.
As for Dawkins' "obsession" with religion - you make a valid point. Much of his online presence seems to be centred around religion. I offered a possible explanation, which is supported by an excerpt from Dawkins' new book - an explanation which you seem to have ignored. I'll reiterate it here, as I think it is important. Dawkins is a biologist, and studies evolution. One of the greatest forces opposing science education is the creationist movement, which undermines the teaching of evolution in schools. By far the most common motivation for this opposition is a particular literal take on the Abramic creation story. Thus, Dawkins is well-motivated to oppose this particular version of religion. He recognizes that it is not the whole of religion. Here are his own words (talking about his new book):
The Archbishop of Canterbury has no problem with evolution, nor does the Pope (give or take the odd wobble over the precise palaeontological juncture when the human soul was injected), nor do educated priests and professors of theology. The Greatest Show on Earth is a book about the positive evidence that evolution is a fact. It is not intended as an anti-religious book. I’ve done that, it’s another T-shirt, this is not the place to wear it again. Bishops and theologians who have attended to the evidence for evolution have given up the struggle against it. Some may do so reluctantly, some, like Richard Harries, enthusiastically, but all except the woefully uninformed are forced to accept the fact of evolution.
Note that he's explicitly stepping out of his role as a critic of religion in this book.

In that same article (I encourage you to read it, so that you can see the context for yourself), Dawkins explains his use of the Holocaust-denier comparison - a comparison that you, Betty, seem particularly offended by. You ask, in your response post, "The Friendly Humanist says this [is] accurate, but says he would not use this analogy himself. Why not? Could it be that comparing creationists to Holocaust deniers is grossly offensive?"

First, you are right: the reason I would not use the analogy is because it is offensive. Holocaust-denial is associated with more than just a denial of historical facts; it is associated (rightly) with an evil political and social ideology. Here is what I said in defense of his analogy:
First, it is accurate inasmuch as both holocaust-deniers and evolution-deniers reject the overwhelming preponderance of evidence in favour of a position that is based entirely on ideology.
A better analogy, which shares this important characteristic while not being so offensive, might be to moon-hoaxers - people who believe that humans have never stepped on the Moon, and that the Apollo landings were an elaborate deceit.

You also suggest that supporters of evolution harbour "smug assumptions which lurk not too far from the surface: ‘we are smart, they are not’ followed by ‘we are European and sophisticated, they are American and primitive’ or ‘we are Western and progressive, they are Middle Eastern or Oriental, and barbaric’."

I can only respond that I have never come across this attitude, either explicitly or implicitly. As I said in my post, the biologists I've read point to the evidence, explain how it was interpreted, and draw their conclusions. The claim, then, is "we have followed the evidence, they have not". Is this smug? Perhaps, but only to the extent that anyone is smug who defends one position based on the evidence, in the knowledge that some people sincerely hold another.

I realize that you are not interested in getting into a debate over evolution, and I don't intend to engage you in one. I am not a biologist, after all, just a fan of science.

For all that I sometimes disagree with the tone (and occasionally the content) of his writings, I feel that you have misrepresented Dawkins in your posts, Betty. He is not a diplomat, but he is not the mean, attention-mongering anti-theist that you make him out to be. He works together with religious people on causes of common interest (as noted in the aforementioned excerpt from his new book). He acknowledges the literary value of the Bible (in The God Delusion). He objected to the title of his BBC documentary, The Root of all Evil, because he recognizes that religion is not the root of all evil.

Of course, he remains an atheist. He has reasons for his position, and he shares them in books and articles. He makes money from his writing. You are free to continue to dislike him for this or any reason. You are even free to be skeptical of evolution if you are so inclined. But I implore you, if you do read anything he writes, to do so with a more sympathetic eye. Give him the benefit of the doubt. He may disappoint you in places, but I think it will be far less frequently than you expect.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Homeopathy at Boots: an open letter

In a move reminiscent of the very successful Australian Skeptics open letter to pharmacists, the Merseyside Skeptics Society has issued an open letter to Boots pharmacies.

This is in the wake of a parliamentary subcommittee meeting on the status and labelling of homeopathic remedies sold in pharmacies ("chemists" in this country). If you have time, check out the transcript here - a long but interesting read. (Thanks to Mike for the heads-up.) Here's Ben Goldacre's summary, as one of the people who gave evidence at the meeting.Link
Boots sells homeopathic products. By association, it lends medical authority to these products - which have been demonstrated, so far as good research is able to demonstrate, to be medically indistinguishable from placebos. That is, they are not real medicine, and do not replace real medicine. The will not protect you from malaria; they will not protect you from H1N1. They won't even cure your headache. If your headache does get better after homeopathy, there are three much more likely explanations: (1) it was a random coincidence (unsatisfying, but sometimes the world works that way), (2) it was going to get better anyway (you can't tell this from a single case, but a large study of many people could), or (3) your belief in the treatment had a real effect on your malady (a very cool possibility - see Ben Goldacre's book Bad Science for more, or go read his blog).

Though they sell them, the Boots representative who spoke to the committee admitted that homeopathic treatments have no good evidence supporting their effectiveness in dealing with any health complaint. His best argument for selling homeopathy comes out in this excerpt from the start of the transcript:

Mr Bennett: We do indeed sell them and there is certainly a consumer demand for those products.

Q4 Chairman: I did not ask you that question. I said do they work beyond the placebo effect?

Mr Bennett: I have no evidence before me to suggest that they are efficacious, and we look very much for the evidence to support that, and so I am unable to give you a yes or no answer to that question.

Q5 Chairman: You sell them but you do not believe they are efficacious?

Mr Bennett: It is about consumer choice for us. A large number of our consumers actually do believe they are efficacious, but they are licensed medicinal products and, therefore, we believe it is right to make them available.

Q6 Chairman: But as a company you do not believe that they necessarily are?

Mr Bennett: We do not disbelieve either. It is an evidence issue.

They don't have good evidence that they work, but people want to spend money on them. This is a disgustingly cynical attitude toward the public, and toward Boots pharmacists' own responsibility as front-line dispensers of medicine.

I include the open letter below. I will also be contacting Boots. If you are interested in this issue, I encourage you to do the same.

An Open Letter to Alliance Boots

The Boots brand is synonymous with health care in the United Kingdom. Your website speaks proudly about your role as a health care provider and your commitment to deliver exceptional patient care. For many people, you are their first resource for medical advice; and their chosen dispensary for prescription and non-prescription medicines. The British public trusts Boots.

However, in evidence given recently to the Commons Science and Technology Committee, you admitted that you do not believe homeopathy to be efficacious. Despite this, homeopathic products are offered for sale in Boots pharmacies – many of them bearing the trusted Boots brand.

Not only is this two-hundred-year-old pseudo-therapy implausible, it is scientifically absurd. The purported mechanisms of action fly in the face of our understanding of chemistry, physics, pharmacology and physiology. As you are aware, the best and most rigorous scientific research concludes that homeopathy offers no therapeutic effect beyond placebo, but you continue to sell these products regardless because “customers believe they work”. Is this the standard you set for yourselves?

The majority of people do not have the time or inclination to check whether the scientific literature supports the claims of efficacy made by products such as homeopathy. We trust brands such as Boots to check the facts for us, to provide sound medical advice that is in our interest and supply only those products with a demonstrable medical benefit.

We don’t expect to find products on the shelf at our local pharmacy which do not work.

Not only are these products ineffective, they can also be dangerous. Patients may delay seeking proper medical assistance because they believe homeopathy can treat their condition. Until recently, the Boots website even went so far as to tell patients that “after taking a homeopathic medicine your symptoms may become slightly worse,” and that this is “a sign that the body’s natural energies have started to counteract the illness”. Advice such as this directly encourages patients to wait before seeking real medical attention, even when their condition deteriorates.

We call upon Boots to withdraw all homeopathic products from your shelves. You should not be involved in the sale of ineffective products, because your customers trust you to do what is right for their health. Surely you agree that your commitment to excellent patient care is better served by supplying only those products whose claims can be substantiated by rigorous scientific research? Or do you really believe that Boots should be in the business of selling placebos to the sick and the injured?

The support lent by Boots to this quack therapy contributes directly to its acceptance as a valid medical treatment by the British public, acceptance it does not warrant and support it does not deserve. Please do the right thing, and remove this bogus therapy from your shelves.

Yours sincerely,
Merseyside Skeptics Society


Other blogs and websites have noted this, including Skepchick, The Not Quite So Friendly Humanist, Bruce Hood, Bad Science, A Glasgow Skeptic, RichardDawkins.net, Bad Homeopathy, and New Humanist.

Also, various newspapers have picked up on Boots' strange position: The Telegraph, Daily Express, Daily Mail, Guardian (and Ben Goldacre again, and their liveblog of the meeting), Times, and Mirror.

Feel free to comment and link to any I've missed.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Secular double entendre

(Note to my religious readers: The following is not intended as an attack on religious belief, but I can foresee some sensitivities being nettled nevertheless. If you'd rather avoid being offended, feel free to stop reading now.)

I was just watching a video at the Friendly Atheist, promoting the Secular Student Alliance (SSA). It's the American version of our National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS) - a nationwide organization aimed at building communities of secular students (atheists, agnostics, etc) at universities, colleges, and schools. Here's the video:

Now, I know this will reveal my linguistic geekiness in its fullest degree, but the line that stuck out most to me was this:
[We believe] that science and reason lead to more reliable knowledge than faith.
Why, you ask? Syntacticians in the audience will already see where I'm going. There are, in fact, two high-probability, grammatical ways to parse this sentence in English.

The one that was intended could be paraphrased as so:
We believe that science and reason lead to more reliable knowledge than faith does.
Here's the alternative reading:
We believe that science and reason lead to more reliable knowledge than to faith.
Okay, so the second reading doesn't works quite so well. But, both readings are consistent with the general outlook of atheists and humanists. We trust science and reason above faith* as paths to reliable knowledge, and we think that science and reason lead us to knowledge rather than leading us to faith.

Oh, and hooray for SSA and AHS - go check them out if you're a student!


* It is worth noting that this all uses the meaning of "faith" used by most humanists, which could most succinctly be expressed as "belief that does not rely on evidence". Many religious people use different definitions. I think I may need to add another post to my series on definitions.

Sunday, 29 November 2009


Several things have come through my blog reader that I want to comment on, but none require a post of their own. So here you are:

Celebrating Darwin. Still? Again? It doesn't really matter. Here's a well-produced video giving the history of life in brief, narrated by David Attenborough. Delightful to watch.

(Thanks to Mike, the Not Quite So Friendly Humanist, for sharing this video.)

Solar System on one page. Also along the lines of enjoying the natural world. Or, in this case, worlds: a webpage where you can see all the planets (plus Pluto). They are to scale for size, but also for mean distance from the Sun. Try it out.

If you're having difficulty finding the planets in all the black, here's a little trick: after the "/" at the end of the URL, add "#mars", or "#neptune", and it'll zoom to that planet. But that does kind of defeat the purpose: you're supposed to become aware of the vast, vast spaces between the planets.

(Thanks to Phil, the Bad Astronomer, for the link.)

Abolish the Canadian monarch? Here's Canadian humanist and activist Justin Trottier with his take on the fact that the nominal Canadian head of state is not Canadian, and is also the head of one particular religious sect. I tend to agree with him - there is no good reason to retain the monarchy, though perhaps not yet sufficient reason against it to go to the trouble of writing them out of our laws.

Beautiful impermanence. I close this grab-bag with a delightful "sermon" from Daylight Atheism, in which we are encouraged to reflect upon impermanence as autumn surrounds us*. He contrasts the humanist acceptance of our impermanence with the inborn yearning we all have - reflected so frequently in religious beliefs - to deny our own deaths. While I'm not generally interested in contrasting humanism with religious beliefs, I think the contrast here is poignant. Particularly as the humanist position, in following the evidence of the world around us, draws us away from our primitive desires for immortality. It encourages us, in a real sense, to grow up.

Okay, this one could have used its own post. For now, I refer you to this pair of posts (in that order) by Dale McGowan, about discussing mortality with his kids. And this more recent one, about the problem of awesome people being mortal too.

[Edit to add link to the Daylight Atheism post, which I unaccountably forgot to do at first.]

* Excluding Canada and other northern regions, where winter has already firmly displaced fall, and the whole southern hemisphere, being on the other side of the seasonal see-saw.

Thursday, 26 November 2009


I would like to introduce you to a hero of mine. His name is Robert Lang.

Robert Lang folds paper. He folds paper into birds. He folds paper into insects. He folds paper into insanely complex and improbably forms.

And that is enough to earn him my admiration (as an amateur folder myself).

But what really rockets him into the ranks of hero is his polymath tendencies. What he has done with his origami outside the traditional world of paper folding.

He has developed mathematical models of origami. His scientific approach has advanced the art to the point that most of the new forms created today would have been impossible half a century ago. But more than that, he has consulted on scientific and engineering projects, bringing the art of folding into space telescopes, car safety, and other areas.

He has given a TED talk; he has been featured in National Geographic.

Robert Lang inspires me. Not only is he an excellent origami artist - something I aspire to in a vague and occasional way. He has also managed to combine various interests of his into a unified and revolutionary whole - something I yearn for in an definite, persistent way.

As someone with a variety of disparate interests (experimental phonetics, computer programming, writing, parenting, humanist spirituality), I would love to bring some of them together, so that I am not always forced to choose to spend time on one at the expense of others.

So much for why I admire Robert Lang. But what does it mean for someone to be a hero?

Robert Lang has at least two attributes that make him a hero for me: he does something I would like to be able to do myself, and he inspires me to actually try to achieve it.

Unicorn familyIt's not necessarily origami - as I said, origami is an interest of mine, but not necessarily a passion. (Though I do have Lang's book, Origami Design Secrets, from which I hope to learn how to design my own origami figures.) I don't mean to emulate him completely. But he inspires me to try my own brand of originality, my own synthesis of disparate interests. For the moment, it's an attempt to bring my programming interest into my academic phonetic research. I also have a project on the go bringing programming and humanist spirituality together (stay tuned).

Related to this, being my hero does not mean Lang seems infallible, or even super-human, to me. Of course he is just another person. But that's part of the inspiration: there is no great divide between the kind of person I am and the kind of person he is. I can do amazing things, just like he does.

I suppose that I might more accurately call Lang a role-model. But that has a slightly antiseptic ring to me. A role model sounds like someone your parents expose you to in an attempt to influence you.

A hero - that's someone you choose for yourself.

Photo credits:

Portrait of Lang with life-sized origami people from Lang's website.

Image of origami unicorns by Timothy Mills. Models folded by me, from a design in Origami Step by Step, by Robert Hardin, who credits it to Patricia Crawford.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

On Friendliness and Humanism

I am very self-conscious. When I read an atheist talking about "accommodationists" (for example, here), I get the feeling they would include me in that group, because I'm the Friendly Humanist - that is, I make some effort to get along with folks whose worldview diverges from my own. And when I read a theist talking about atheist dogmatism (for example, here), I feel that they're attacking my position, because I'm an atheist too.

Of course, most such passages are written by people who have never heard of me personally, so I know it's not personal. And it's possible that if the authors read my blog they would assert that I clearly don't fall into the category of weak-willed accommodationist on the one hand and dogmatic atheist on the other. Nevertheless, I often feel a bit like a mule - neither horses nor donkeys feel that I'm quite one of them. Ah well, I can live with that.

I brand myself as the Friendly Humanist for several reasons. It's an effort to counterbalance a tendency among some humanists to take cheap potshots at easy targets, often with no good purpose in mind and with very counterproductive effects. It's a reminder to myself not to use this blog simply as a platform for rants.

And it's an olive branch to those who are often placed in opposition to humanists: committed believers in a god or gods, or in some undefined "other" beyond the physical world, or in non-scientific, "alternative" medicine. I want to tell them, through the blog name and also through my writing, that I will listen to them and try to understand their position.

But the blog is called the Friendly Humanist, and so I also strive to uphold humanist values in my writing. I do not shy away from criticizing harmful actions - whether they are motivated by harmful intent or not, and whether they are based in religious belief or not. There is often a right answer and a wrong answer to questions about how the world is, and finding the right answer is a valuable endeavour.

I don't think these two goals - being friendly and being a humanist - are incompatible. But there are times when, in order to act with integrity, I must risk being perceived as unfriendly.

I suspect that my recent series on John Blanchard's book Does God Believe in Atheists? (beginning here) was such a case (on the basis of the only comment anyone posted to it). I stand by my review, but I invite anyone's thoughts if they think there's a way I could have put the case without being as dismissive of Blanchard.

There have been other times, and I'm sure there will be more in the future.

I am curious: do you, faithful readers, feel that I live up to my self-chosen title? Am I really all that friendly? Am I true to the principles of Humanism?

Friday, 20 November 2009

Christians against sectarianism

I wrote just the other day about the new humanist ad campaign - this time directed at combating sectarianism.

I'm delighted to report that the campaign is drawing support not only from other humanists, but also from religious people. The Evangelical Alliance has put out a press release in support of the ads' message:
Justin Thacker, Head of Theology at the Evangelical Alliance said: "It is great to see that the Humanists are now agreeing that children have to make their own decisions about faith.

"Evangelicals do not believe that God has any grandchildren, only children. You are not a Christian simply because your parents are. Every child or adult has to make up their own minds about the reality of God.
Thanks to Dale for pointing out this welcome source of agreement with the humanist campaign. Like him, I was unable to find any mainstream media noting this support - only religious publications like Christianity Today and Ekklesia. Not to demean those publications - I simply mean to point out that, in the interest of controversy, the mainstream media has once again missed an important part of the story: they seem to have latched onto the frothing and uninformed reaction of a fundamentalist Irish minister, who doesn't seem to have read the ads, and certainly hasn't read the background information.

Why don't we all help spread the word? Let's make it clear that this is an issue that can and does resonate with many segments of society, not just with the nonreligious.

Some science news

In a recent issue of Psychological Science (to which I am subscribed), three of the five research articles were on topics that I thought would be interesting to a general audience.

(I'm afraid the links are only to abstracts - you need to be an APS member or browse from a university which has a subscription in order to see the full article. If you think this is unfair, or contrary to the scientific spirit of open inquiry, I agree. See here or here for some discussion of the issue of open-access academic publishing.)

I should open with a warning: none of these articles is in my field of expertise, so my interpretation of the results and their applicability to life in general may be inaccurate. But I think some extrapolation is warranted.


First, there's an article examining how we decide which side we'll go on when we approach an oncoming pedestrian on the sidewalk. Apparently, we use the direction their looking in as a cue to which side they'll go on, and we choose the other side. Not life-changing, I know, but interesting.

Now for the caveat: this is a single scientific study, and as such was very limited scope. Gaze direction was the only cue they looked at. Body language, social conventions (such as "always pass on the left"), and other factors may also influence how such encounters are resolved.

Nevertheless, next time I'm unsure which side to pass someone on, I'll consciously fix my gaze on one side and go that way, to see if that helps avoid that awkward mambo of mutual indecision.

Affirmation and persuasion

Second, there's one about how self-affirmation affects our attention to persuasive messages. Moderate drinkers who participated in a self-affirmation exercise (in this case, writing about one of their best traits) were more likely than the control group to attend to threatening aspects of an article about the dangers of moderate to heavy drinking.

They did not find the same effect in heavy drinkers. Also, they just measured attention. That is, they did not follow up to see if the affirmation group changed their behaviour as a result of their increased attention.

However, I can remember several times when I've tuned out a message because it seemed mainly to be trying to persuade me out of some belief or activity I was attached to. Perhaps if I were to engage in some sort of affirmation, I would be more able and willing to hear such messages through. If the message contains a good reason to change, then my increased attention might enable me to take that reason on board. If not, then I'll still be free to reject the message - but I'll do it because of the content and not because it's threatening to me.

Self-restraint and Impulsive Behaviour

Third, there's an article examining the connection between perceived self-restraint and actual impulsive behaviour. Briefly, if we think that we have great self-restraint, then we are more likely to put ourselves in situations which will test us, and ultimately we are more likely to engage in impulsive behaviour.

I'm not sure how broadly this can be extrapolated, but the "moral" that I draw from this study is that I should try to avoid overconfidence when it comes to my vices. The most pernicious of these, for me, is a desire to remain connected to the Internet. If I need to pay attention to something else (parenting, say, or dealing with bills), then an open laptop on the table is a bad idea.


I love science. I love cosmology, biology, physics, chemistry - the whole bunch. Every science I've come across has something to inspire awe, wonder, and delight. But nothing beats psychology for churning out knowledge with direct relevance to the way we live our lives.

Deena and I recently bought Richard Wiseman's new book, 59 Seconds, which promises to be a delicious exploration of just this sort of thing. A science-based self-help book. Awesome.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Campaign against sectarianism

I recently shared some brief thoughts about sectarian education ("faith schools") in the UK. I've now learned of a follow-up to the hugely popular atheist bus campaign.

The British Humanist Association is launching the "Atheist Billboard Campaign". An interesting twist is that (contrary to what many kneejerk commentators are likely to declare), the billboards do not promote atheism at all.

Accompanying a picture of two unbearably cute kids jumping joyfully (left) is the text:

"Please don't label me. Let me grow up and choose for myself."

Another version (right) says:

"No faith schools. Yes you can donate today."

Yes, I suppose "No faith schools" may sound, to some ears, like a promotion of atheism, or at least an attack on religion. It's not - and the campaign is clear in that it's against sectarianism, not against religion in general. However you feel about it, the idea appears to enjoy popular support. A poll by Accord reports that 57% of people in the UK feel that faith schools undermine community cohesion. A four-year-old poll reported in the Guardian reports '64% agreeing that "the government should not be funding faith schools of any kind".'

Now look at the text in the background of the ad (it's clearest in the big version, which I've included at the bottom of this post). Clearly among the labels that we should avoid (according to the ad) are "agnostic child", "atheist child", and "humanist child".

If you agree with this message - that children should not be labelled according to the beliefs of their parents, and that faith schools should not be publicly funded, go donate to the campaign here or here. If you disagree, or aren't sure, go learn more.

And, as always, please let me know what you think.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Marc on temperance

I quite like this stoic advice from my good friend Marc (Meditations, book 4, paragraph 22):
Never allow yourself to be swept off your feet; when an impulse stirs, see first that it will meet the claims of justice; when an impression forms, assure yourself first of its certainty.
This sounds like fine and noble advice. But I also get the impression that, to many of the more fiery folks I know, Marc's words might seem to limit the human experience. Am I simply getting old, or are these words truly as wise as they seem?

Photo credit:

Image of Marc from the movie Gladiator, via this site. (Actually, this is of an actor playing Marc. My friend has never had his photograph taken; he's kind of old-fashioned that way.)

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Persuasion without communication?

Dale McGowan has an excellent series of posts underway at his Meming of Life blog. In particular, these two on "siloing" have caught my attention: "Silos" and "Unsilos". In them, he discusses our tendency as humans to build communities of like-thinking people around ourselves so much that we cut ourselves off from people who disagree, becoming unable to communicate and empathise with them.

I do it as much as anyone else, and I'm quite conscious of it.

Which is why (among other things) I read several blogs written from well outside my own particular silo.

Which is why I came across this very interesting idea - almost a blog-meme - from Jim at Quodlibeta:
What three books would you recommend to people who disagree with your religious beliefs, whatever they are, and why?
(Note that Jim got the idea from a political blog - clearly the concept applies to any kind of silo.)

Now, my recent experience of trying out a book recommended by a thoughtful religious friend was somewhat disappointing. (I discuss it in a series of posts starting here.) But the idea of trying to reach across communities of thought appeals to me, so I clicked through from my reader to check out the comments.

The first comment jumped out at me for two reasons.

One, it recommends "John Earman's Hume's Abject Failure: The Argument Against Miracles - To finally blast Hume's argument to oblivion." Hume's thoughts on miracles have seemed like pretty basic common sense to me, ever since I first read them (here):
"... no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish ... When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened."
I think this is a common element in many skeptics' rejection of religious claims. So it's probably worth my time to check out Earman's book - just in case Hume's argument does have a fatal hole that only an 'outsider' might notice.

And the other thing that jumped out at me from this comment was the following recommendation:
Anything from Nietzsche - To show the only viable alternative.
In the context of the post, this probably means either the only viable alternative to Christianity or to belief in some god more generally. My immediate reaction was to turn off. Nietzsche as the only alternative to theism? Obviously, this person isn't interested in understanding me, so why should I try to understand him.

But, remembering Dale's thoughts about siloing, I realized that someone else's insensitivity is not an excuse for me to shut down discussion. So I think I will have a look at Nietzsche. I also (gently, I hope) pointed out how that comment sounded from my perspective.

Also, with care (given my rebuke of the Nietzsche idea), I offered my choices of books. I reproduce my comments here for your consideration:


A fascinating challenge. I don't tend to try to persuade people, but I am very interested in helping people to understand my position.

To that end, I would include a good book on humanism, such as Richard Norman's On Humanism.

If my interlocutor didn't accept evolution, I would be tempted to include Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale. (I recommend it even to people who accept evolution, because it's an awesome pilgrimage through the details of our biological history.) However, I suspect that just the author's name would be a roadblock to persuasion. So I'd probably try something by Carl Sagan (Demon-Haunted World) instead.

And I'd recommend a practical book on skeptical thinking, which is more important to me in terms of persuading others than religious belief or non-belief, though the two are of course related. Probably Ben Goldacre's Bad Science.


Okay, now you give it a try. What three books would you recommend to someone in a different silo, and why? Have you read the books I mention? Did they persuade you of anything? Why or why not?

Friday, 6 November 2009

Sectarian education in UK

Here's one from the vaults - a post I composed, then set aside and forgot about. [Edit: As originally posted, the following text implies that Accord was launched in September 2009. It was September 2008.]

Living in the UK, I am often lulled by the generally sensible nature of the people into thinking that the whole country is run sensibly.

One thing that occasionally snaps me out of that is the thoroughly non-secular nature of government here. One of the two legislative houses, the House of Lords, is not elected. It's not even appointed by elected officials. And in that house, 26 of the 746 seats are reserved for officials from the state religion. Not a large proportion - about 3%. But still, how can even this be considered reasonable in a modern democracy? (I'll leave aside the fact that the nominal head of state - the monarch - is also the nominal head of the church. If she were to try to exercise any real power in either capacity, I expect she'd be in real trouble.)

In addition to this, the government seems to be encouraging more and more sectarian division by allowing religions to set up separate schools for their own sets of believers. Remember, this is a nation that only a couple of decades ago was embroiled in the quaintly-named "Troubles" - a violent sectarian strife involving terrorists and police actions and lasting inter-religious frictions.

Fortunately, it is not just non-religious Canadian residents here who think this is foolish. My friend This Humanist has pointed me to a coalition of various religious and non-religious individuals and groups campaigning for British children to be educated in an inclusive rather than divisive way.

Check out the Accord Coalition, launched on September 1st [2008]. This should be an important issue for all parents, and for anyone who expects to be affected by the generation being educated now. Will they be taught alongside children from different faith backgrounds, learning to cooperate despite differences? Or will they learn that the appropriate way to deal with differences is to stay well away from anyone unlike themselves? What lessons do you want tomorrow's decision-makers to learn?

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Healthy newsreading

Very closely connected with humanism is scientific skepticism. I doubt there are many (secular) humanists who wouldn't also identify with the skeptical movement, exemplified in popular science blogs like Bad Science, podcasts like the Skeptics Guide to the Universe, and books by folks like Simon Singh.

Keep in mind, I'm not talking skepticism as in "kneejerk doubt". I'm talking skepticism as in "I'll believe it if you show me good evidence" - the definition most self-described skeptics would give. Much of skepticism involves learning how to tell good evidence from bad evidence.

One of the greatest day-to-day benefits of being a skeptic is having the skills to filter the claims we're exposed to. Particularly those that get uncritically spread by journalists (and by friends and family). To that end, in addition to recommending the above sources, I'd like to pass on an article that was passed on by Ben Goldacre at Bad Science:

How to read articles about health, by Dr Alicia White
The most important rule to remember: “Don’t automatically believe the headline”.
Of course, there's much more - read the full article to see what else she has to say. Skeptics will already be familiar with her points, but other people may find them useful. Pass on the link, or download and print off the PDF and pass that out.

I'll take this opportunity to point out that it is simple little strategies like the ones Dr White outlines that make up most of scientific literacy. People often tell me that they would never be able to understand things like quantum physics, evolution, or acoustics, because they're not scientifically trained.

Rubbish. The only barrier to most people understanding the key points of any science is lack of interest.*

And, when it comes to health, that's a rather strange barrier to erect around yourself. What possible excuse could anyone have for cultivating disinterest in their own well-being? (I know, I know - whole psychological schools of thought are devoted to answering this question.)

Anyway, enjoy the article.


* Okay, that was a very strong claim. But I stand by it, with one caveat: one must have a teacher (or book) with some competence to communicate the science.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Not about gun licensing

The following is the near-verbatim contents of a letter I recently received. It has been redacted for the privacy of the individuals involved, and cunningly revised. Can you tell what the letter was actually about? (Note: this is an issue that affects British people, and those in some other countries. It will be unfamiliar to Canadians and Americans.) Can you tell what bothers me about it?


To the Legal Occupier,

We're writing to inform you that we have authorised Enforcement Officers to visit your home. If they find evidence that you own a firearm illegally, they can take your statement under caution in accordance with the relevant criminal law.

We are taking this step because:

  • According to our records, there is no Firearm Licence for this address
  • You must have a Firearm Licence to own a firearm
  • We have tried to contact you about this, but have received no reply

An enforcement visit is the first step in our action to seek prosecution. Please be aware that should your case go to court, your statement can be used as evidence. The maximum penalty is a fine of £XXXX. We take this offence extremely seriously, and catch around 1,000 evaders every day.

We strongly advise that you act to stop our investigation by buying a Firearm Licence. You can do this in minutes by visiting www.firearmlicensing.co.uk or by calling 08XX XXX XXXX. A licence costs £XXX.XX for a rifle and £XXX.XX for a pistol.

Yours faithfully,

Regional Manager
Scotland East Enforcement Team

If you have recently moved home, please transfer your old Firearm Licence to your new address. You can do this at www.firearmlicensing.co.uk/moving or by calling 08XX XXX XXXX. Please have your Firearm Licence number to hand.

If you don't have a firearm, please let us know by calling 08XX XXX XXXX.

How to Pay:
  • Visit www.firearmlicensing.co.uk to pay by Direct Debit, debit card or credit card.
  • Call 08XX XXX XXXX to pay by Direct Debit, debit card or credit card
  • Go to any PayPoint outlet to pay by cash or debit card.
  • More ways to pay are listed overleaf.
Overleaf, it is finally mentioned that if you, in fact, don't have a firearm, you can let them know. They will then verify the situation. People who are deemed unable to use a firearm because of infirmity can get a reduced rate or a free licence, depending on circumstances. Payment details and a change of address form take up most of the back side.

Friday, 23 October 2009

A new descendent

Just a quick note to point you to this announcement of the birth of our son a week ago.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

We are animals

Erich Vieth at Dangerous Intersection tells us "Why it matters that humans are animals". An interesting and clear expression of the consequences of our biological and medical understanding of humanity's place in the pageant of life. The only point I'd strongly quibble with is where he echoes Johnson's claim that there are no absolute truths. I think most of science, and indeed of human pursuit of understanding, presupposes the existence of absolute truths. It's probably true that we can never be sure that we have apprehended those truths perfectly, but I think it's important to act as if they exist nevertheless.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

My definition: fundamentalist

[In an effort to make my posts more readable, I'm experimenting here with footnote references in place of in-text links. Please let me know whether this makes things easier or harder to read.]

So far I have defined atheist and Christian. Today, I'd like to tackle another word that gets used by many but whose definition is elusive: fundamentalist.

First, I'd like to explore how the word seems to be used by people. I'll then get to how I try to use it, and why.

There are three meanings that I have seen the word "fundamentalist" used for.

First, there is the historical origin of the term, to refer to those people who accept the doctrines outlined in the series of essays titled The Fundamentals: A testimony to the truth, published between 1910 and 1915 [1,2,3,4]. This definition would mean that only those Christians who accept these doctrines (creationism, virgin birth of Jesus, the atonement, and others) are true "fundamentalists" - only they hold to those particular fundamentals [3,5,6].

Second, there is the obvious extension to other dogmatic positions. Perhaps anyone who dogmatically accepts a particular set of doctrines as true is a fundamentalist [3,6,7]. This could include some (but not all) members of most major world religions. I think some religions have more of a tendency to this sort of fundamentalism than others. It is also not unreasonable to apply this definition to other beliefs - for example atheism (though I don't think you'll find many fundamentalist atheists by this definition) or political ideologies [6,7].

Third, I feel that people are increasingly using the term fundamentalist as a slur - to mean little more than "somebody who passionately believes something that I disagree with" [4,7]. I've seen this meaning used by humanists (including myself) to refer quite broadly to a range of conservative Christians; I've also seen the term used in this sense by Christians to describe a wide range of atheist writers.

So those are three definitions that are used for the term fundamentalist. I suspect that they represent points on a continuum of meanings, and that some mix of these three definitions is often in people's minds when using the term. But let's consider these three definitions in particular.

The first definition, while historically well-motivated, is so narrow that it's not very useful for general discussion. Very few discussions need to refer specifically and exclusively to the original Fundamentalists, and these could be distinguished by capitalization (as I've done in this sentence) or by explicitly referring to The Fundamentals as their statement of belief.

The third definition is neither historically well-motivated nor particularly informative: we have plenty of words to use when we find someone's position distasteful, and adding one more is unlikely to help us communicate any better. (Yes, I am assuming that the purpose of language is to help people communicate. Call me an optimist.)

So, as the more astute of you may already have guessed, I'm opting for the second definition:
A fundamentalist is someone who dogmatically holds to a set of beliefs as true. (As opposed to tentatively holding to beliefs and being willing to revise those beliefs in the face of opposing evidence.)
This definition covers a wide enough range of beliefs to be relevant in general conversation, while remaining specific enough to be informative. For example, I know some Christians who are fundamentalists under this definition, and others who are not. I don't know any atheist whose position could be called fundamentalist in this way, but I'm fairly sure that some must exist. I know some very woo-oriented people whose positions are fundamentalist (the conspiracy-theory approach to anti-vax, for example), but I've also known people who seem to be honestly willing to follow the evidence. (These latter are generally now non-woo, simply because the evidence always points in another direction.)

Can you think of people with fundamentalist attitudes in other areas of life? With non-fundamentalist attitudes who might be branded fundamentalist? Is there a belief, community, or identity that you think is inherently fundamentalist? Inherently non-fundamentalist? Let us know in the comments.

Now, I've said it before, and I'll keep on saying it: I'm not trying to impose a definition on others. I am a linguist (and so an expert of sorts), but language (like science, and like truth itself) does not get handed down from authorities. Nor are the meanings of words decided by some noble democratic process. Meaning in language emerges by a sort of quasi-Darwinian selection, in which people participate only semi-consciously - a sort of mob-consciousness. Meanings that fit the speaker's and the listener's purposes are propagated; meanings that do not fit are not propagated.

[1] Online text of The Fundamentals
[2] Wikipedia entry on The Fundamentals
[3] Wiktionary definition of fundamentalist
[4] Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance essay on the term fundamentalism
[5] Dictionary.com definition of fundamentalist
[6] Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary definition of fundamentalist
[7] Wikipedia entry on fundamentalism
[8] Oxford English Dictionary definition of fundamentalist (access not free)

Monday, 12 October 2009

Logic puzzles

My online gaming world just got much more interesting.

And much more geeky.

I've learned about The Hardest Logic Puzzle Ever. Awesome.

And, in the same vein (but less superlative), here's a site full of Knights and Knaves puzzles (Knights can only tell the truth, Knaves can only lie, and you can only ask yes-no questions. Can you tell which is which?)

Here's another logic puzzle site I frequent. It doesn't have story-based puzzles, but it does have plenty of sudokus and other interesting grid-based logic puzzles.

(Thanks to commenter Berenike for pointing me to Agent Intellect, who links to the above games here. Agent Intellect's blog is intriguing in its own right too.)

Saturday, 10 October 2009

A transitory Yes

From A Room With a View, via my friend Gareth, comes this quote:
Then make my boy think like us. Make him realise that by the side of the everlasting Why there is a Yes—a transitory Yes, if you like, but a Yes.
Go and read Gareth's thoughts on this. I would provide my own commentary, but it would amount to something similar. Better to read it in his own well-crafted prose.

(I also encourage you to browse around his blog. Gareth is in full force at the moment, with frequent tasty morsels showing up these past couple of weeks.)

Thursday, 8 October 2009

I have an idea ...

At work, I recently came across an amazing resource: CiteULike. It's a free website where you can build up a list of citations. I use it to manage the long list of papers and books I read and cite as a researcher. I can label citations, like I label blog entries on this site, according to common themes.

It also has social features: sharing citations between users, getting automated recommendations based on common research interests. And there are Groups.

Which gives me an idea.

There are loads of skeptical blogs out there. There are the science-based parenting folks (such as SBP themselves, Rational Moms), the science-based medicine gang (SBM, Ben Goldacre, etc), and of course the general skeptics (Bruce Hood, Massimo Pigliucci, Richard Wiseman, and loads more).

These blogs often bring up new or interesting research that bears on our lives - as parents, as users (and taxpaying supporters) of health care, and just as people trying to navigate the modern world. But finding a particular study that I remember reading about on some skeptical blog can be a real pain.

So it occurs to me - why not set up a group, or a set of groups, on CiteULike, where skeptics could post scientific articles of interest to the community? You can put notes on each article - for example, pointing to reviews on skeptical blogs. You can talk about the articles (and the body of evidence around given topics, like acupuncture or spanking) in forums. You can associate informative tags with articles. Or you can simply hang out and see what other people have dug up. The resource could be used by bloggers who like to check original research, and also by skeptical consumers of new and traditional media claims.

It's not something I can do on my own. I don't have the time or the expertise to dig up all the relevant papers.

So this is a call to all you skeptics out there who have a little bit of time or expertise. Are you willing to help get things started?

I've taken the first step: I've created a CiteULike group, Skeptical Parenting, to pilot this idea. I chose parenting partly because that's where I am closest to having some substantive expertise, and partly because my second child is due to arrive any day now.

The next step is up to you. Here is what I ask of anyone who is interested:
  • Join me as a member of the group, or start another group. "Paranormal Research", "Science-Based Medicine Users" - whatever you're most into as a skeptic. If you start another group, let us know in the comments here. (Do a search on CiteULike before starting the group to make sure someone hasn't already started one.)
  • Blog about this yourself - not many people read my blog, but some of you have very widely-read blogs. The more people read about this idea, the sooner we'll reach a sustainable number of participants.
  • Tell your friends. We don't all have blogs, but we all have skeptical acquaintances on- and off-line that we can share cool new ideas with.
  • Comment here, so I know that I'm not just talking to myself.
I think we could build this into a really valuable resource. What do you think?