Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Saqib Ali - my new hero

Saqib Ali, an American politician and a Muslim, supports gay marriage. Not personally - it goes against his faith. But he understands that his job as a legislator is to represent his constituents and to uphold democratic values.

In an editorial, Ali says "If I tried to enforce religion by law — as in a theocracy — I would be doing a disservice to my both constituents and to my religion." So, as a legislative policy, he supports extending marriage rights to same-sex couples. He is not subverting his values to those of the society he finds himself in. He is simply finding a path that allows him to stay true to his values, while upholding his responsibility to the people he represents. (There are many ways to oppose gay marriage without making it illegal; just as there are many ways to oppose abortions without making them illegal.)

Thanks to the Friendly Atheist for making me aware of this.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Meditation on the origin of life

In the Cosmic Calendar, the Origin of Life falls somewhere around now.* About three and a half billion years ago, the great abundance of life on Earth began, probably with a single replicating molecule - a precursor to DNA. Every living organism today, from the tiniest bacterium to the largest whale, descends in an unbroken line from that tiny bundle of atoms.

Today, I invite you to consider this:

We still reproduce as single-celled organisms.

Every act of human reproduction involves one cell from each parent. A single cell. For all our wondrous complexity, our bountiful organs and tissues, our towering intellects and tender thoughts ... for all that, we still have to humble ourselves to the level of our distant, millions-of-generations-past ancestors in order to participate in that most ancient, most definitive act of life: reproduction.**


* In fact, the details of this event, including its exact date, are difficult to pin down. The Wikipedia article on abiogenesis gives possible dates ranging from 4.2 billion years ago (bya) to 2.4 bya - that is, 11 September to 29 October. However, today falls somewhere in the middle of the range, just over 3.5 bya. The fact that 28 September is also my daughter's birthday makes me even more prone to contemplating life's origins today.

** Not all multi-cellular organisms are so constrained. Many plants do a significant part of their reproduction by sending out shoots or otherwise cloning themselves, rather than going through the whole one-cell business. Who's superior now, eh?

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Defending Dawkins

I recently came across Bettynoirbettyblanc's blog, and this post in particular, where she discusses her problem with Richard Dawkins. I was composing a response to post in the discussion, but it grew into something a little long for a comment. Here it is, with relevant excerpts from her post.

In the post, Betty discusses her take on Richard Dawkins - a man who, for good or ill, is the first person people think of when atheism is mentioned in Britain, especially in connection with evolution. I encourage you to read what she writes before continuing here, as I will not cover all of what she says, nor present her thoughts in the order she does.
Why do I find him interesting? I just wonder about his dogged obsession with religion and with those that practice it. He is a scientist and yet he seems to spend [much] of his time trying to argue that following a religion is at best ridiculous and at worst positively harmful. I just don’t understand why.
I've read several of Dawkins' books, and I think that this misrepresents him. While I think his tone regarding religion is not particularly helpful, it's worth noting that of the ten popular books he has written, only one is about religion (yes, it's The God Delusion).* Not exactly a dogged obsession. More of an unavoidable side-note for someone in his field who wishes to engage the public.
A whopping 40% of Americans are creationists and Dawkins compares them to holocaust deniers. This is highly offensive. A holocaust denier is someone who twists the facts of the historical record in order to bolster a racist agenda. These people are motivated by their hatred of Jews. The facts do not matter. For a creationist, evolution has not been proven beyond reasonable doubt. There are questions about the theory that they believe have not been adequately answered. They believe the story of creation not in order to further a hate campaign, but as part of a belief system.
While I wouldn't personally choose to compare evolution-deniers to Holocaust-deniers, I understand Dawkins' choice of such an 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. As Betty says, they "twist the facts of the historical record in order to bolster an agenda. ... The facts do not matter." At least that part applies equally well to both sorts of deniers.

For someone in Dawkins' position - someone who has spent his life working to learn more about our biological origins - it is certainly understandable that he will view creationists as the enemy. He feels passionately about his work. Every one of his books that I have read (even, at times, The God Delusion) bursts with enthusiasm about what we, as a species, have learned about our origins through dogged scientific effort. He has committed his life to this pursuit. He has submitted himself to the scientific community, which tends to be ruthless in its attempts to disprove new ideas, and which only accepts them after repeated failures to disprove them. (One prominent example is the idea introduced in the mid-19th-century that the diversity of species is due to the accumulation of small changes accumulated over time and channelled by natural selection.)

Not only that, but for much of Dawkins' career he has also engaged in the admirable task of sharing this wonder and these discoveries with the public, in his very readable and accessible books of science.

Creationists belittle not only Dawkins' work, but the careful work of hundreds (thousands?) of scientists leading back to Darwin. They belittle it without any good arguments, without any good evidence, and usually with a complete failure to grasp the evidence they're trying to refute.

They are not interested in submitting themselves to the rigours of science. They are not interested in letting the evidence rule on which answer is right. Their actions suggest that they are only interested in convincing everyone that the scientists are wrong (and/or evil) and that we should set science aside in favour of their ideological commitment to a disproven belief. (I'm referring there to young-earth creationism and ID, not religion in general.)
Either he wants people to know about evolution and to ‘convert’ the creationists or he just wants a nice argument to bolster his book sales. I think if it was the former then he would be wise to act in a more conciliatory manner, and watch his language (ie the use of the word ‘ignorant’, I would also like to point out at this point that some of the people I know who are most knowledgeable about evolution are in fact creationists).
While it may not be nice of him to call evolution-deniers "ignorant", it is difficult to see how the term is wrong. The only way to confidently proclaim evolution false is to set aside (deliberately or in ignorance) the entire geological, molecular, geographical, and experimental bodies of evidence that support evolution. Though I'm sure most creationists' motivation for this is simply to carry on believing what they wish to believe, not to promote hate (has Dawkins or anyone else ever claimed that?), that doesn't change the facts. One has to remain ignorant (ie, not knowing of or understanding the evidence) to honestly deny evolution. (I can't say much about the claim that "some of the people [Betty knows] who are most knowledgeable about evolution are in fact creationists". Would they seem knowledgeable to a biologist, or only to someone like Betty who confesses little understanding of or interest in the science behind this "debate"?)
I can’t verify much of what he says because I don’t have access to the research or fully understand the terms and the processes involved. It’s been a long time since I did higher biology and chemistry! I suspect that for most of his vociferous cheerleaders on websites and forums across the globe, this is also the case. Perhaps they don’t wish to seem stupid for questioning?

In this respect, I find his followers similar to those of religious faiths. They are taking what he says at face value because they believe in him. They may well be correct – I don’t know. The argument seems reasonable, but who knows?
Is that a rhetorical question, "who knows?" Because there's an obvious answer. The actual biologists (ie, people who dedicate their lives to understanding this stuff) know. And a good number of them have produced books that Betty and I and any of our readers can understand. 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.

On the other side of the issue, I have read creationist apologists like Lee Strobel and John Blanchard argue for an evolution-denying ideology. They consistently fail to accurately represent the case for evolution, and then inexpertly demolish the straw men they have invented. (I've discussed Blanchard's attempt here. Strobel is being taken apart in exquisite detail by Ebonmuse here.)

So, the supporters of evolution rely on the evidence, occasionally spending some time pointing out the flaws in the deniers' arguments. The deniers of evolution paint caricatures of the evidence, attack the caricatures, and pretend that they're doing science too. They don't do real science: they don't make falsifiable predictions, and they certainly don't do experiments to test them.

When I read Dawkins, I can trust that most of what he says about science is based on the scientific method. He's reporting conclusions that have been carefully tested, which qualified people have tried and failed to disprove. I take what he says at face value because I trust the procedure that has been followed to arrive at those conclusions. When I look further, the people who are qualified to understand the evidence all tend to agree with him.

On the other hand, he clearly isn't speaking as a scientist in many of his comments about religion, and so I don't take them at face value. In fact, I often disagree with him, vocally, in settings where that sets me apart (ie, among other humanists). I'm not treated as stupid for questioning because my humanist acquaintances - like Dawkins, like most atheists and humanists - value questioning. We believe that any claim should be open to question, no matter how popular it is. If the question has nothing to back it up - no evidence to motivate a shift in our beliefs, then we set it aside. But if the questioner has a sound reason for dissenting from popular opinion and solid evidence to back up their dissent, then that dissent spreads.

It was that sort of questioning that led to Darwin's great breakthroughs. It is that sort of questioning that has led to every refinement and revision in the theory of evolution since then. It is that sort of questioning that has driven science for the past few centuries, with countless concrete benefits as proof of the process.

And, although religion is not uniformly anti-knowledge or anti-progress, the opponents of science have almost uniformly been religious.
Worse, I believe his words convert more people to fundamentalist ideas than anything else as they engender a sense of victimhood and persecution amongst those who don’t agree with what he says.
I would object to the use of the term "fundamentalist" here, as it seems completely divorced from any useful definition I've come across. But yes, to the extent that he overstates the religious antipathy to science, and exaggerates the incompatibility of science and religion, he does encourage an unhelpful us-versus-them mentality among atheists, and it's one that I try to combat where I can. There are many, many religious believers who have nothing wrong with atheists or with evolution. Many of them are acquaintances and friends of mine.

Recent centuries and decades have seen a dramatic reduction in institutional discrimination against the non-religious. Keep in mind, however, that "victimhood" is not always an inappropriate feeling. Sometimes you are a victim, and you need to be aware of it. Some laws favouring religious over non-religious belief still remain, even in the enlightened West (even in uber-secular Finland). Dawkins is a scientist, and as Betty says, 40% of Americans deny the evidence that is at the foundation of his field. To the extent that they try to challenge the teaching of that science in schools, and seek to warp people's perceptions of it in universities (for example, see this development), there is a concerted attack on precisely the field of knowledge Dawkins has devoted his life to. It's worth noticing and acknowledging that scientists (and everyone who benefits from their work) are victims of the creationists' campaign of science-denial. That way we can do something constructive to counter it.

I really don't like my first mention of such an apparently pleasant person as Betty to come off so negative and critical. (I enjoyed this post of hers, and this one.) I hope that I have made it clear that Dawkins has by no means a free pass to my credulity, particularly when he talks about religion. Whether that helps encourage her to look deeper into the whole evolution/creation thing is up to her.

I hope Betty will respond to what I've said, either in the comments here or on her own blog post (where I'll point her to this post). And of course, anyone else who agrees or disagrees with either of us is invited to comment too.


* From the same list of publications, using just the titles as a guide, I count no more than 8 of 16 popular articles dealing with religion (at least 11 of the 16 have a scientific slant), and only 3 of 30 academic articles can plausibly be said to be about religion, the remainder being biological. So, out of 56 items listed, no more than 12, or about 21%, are about religion - most of these being popular articles. At least 48, or about 86%, deal primarily or exclusively with science. (Totals exceed 100% because some articles seem to deal with both science and religion. Also note that I think one or two articles appear both in the scientific and the popular list.) Readers can decide whether this amounts to a "dogged obsession with religion". Perhaps the dogged obsession belongs to those apologists who wish to diminish his influence, Dawkins being a well-known and widely-respected public figure.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Quote on love

This quote appeared in a page-a-day calendar recently.
Love doesn't sit there like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all of the time, made new.
I have been unable to verify who the original author is. The page-a-day calendar credits Ursula K. Le Guin, one of my favorite authors, whose style is certainly consistent with the quote. But in trying to find where she said it, I discovered competing attributions of the same quote to Og Mandino. (There's even this page, which attributes it to both, though it credits Le Guin with more variants of it.)

I don't know how to resolve the question. I really wish those sites that deal in quotations would provide more details - where they said it and when, or link to someone who does give those details. After all, I think writers should get appropriate credit for their words. In this case, I suspect one of these two writers quoted the other, and subsequent readers misattributed the words. For what it's worth, my guess is that Mandino is the original, and Le Guin quoted him because she loved the sentiment. That's only based on the fact that he was born earlier (1923 rather than 1929), and has already died (1996), so statistically he may have got around to saying it first.

But, at another level, it doesn't really matter. After all, I share quotes not because I want to connect myself to famous people, nor because I want to help increase their fame. I share them because I find the sentiments valuable - because they reflect or affect my own sentiments.

Anyway, take what lesson you like from this attribution dilemma - the quote itself is wonderful.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Defending Christians

From the Friendly Atheist, I have learned that there is a couple in Liverpool facing criminal charges for saying things that hurt the feelings of a Muslim woman who was staying at their hotel.

According to the Telegraph,

Among the things Mr Vogelenzang, 53, is alleged to have said is that Mohammad was a warlord. His wife, 54, is said to have stated that Muslim dress is a form of bondage for women.

The couple now face fines up up to £2500 each and a criminal record under Section 5 of the Public Order Act (causing harassment, alarm or distress).

Now, I generally don't trust the press's ability (or inclination) to accurately portray events such as these. However, if we assume for the moment that the Telegraph isn't distorting the facts, then this is an abominable application of a (probably) bad law. Sure, statements like those reported above aren't particularly pleasant. But illegal?

According to the paper, the statements were made during a conversation the woman was participating in. She wasn't being harassed; she wasn't being bullied or proselytized. She was engaging in a conversation about her religious beliefs with people who didn't share them. Certainly she should have been prepared for challenging statements?

Anyway, we'll keep an eye on how this pans out. I'd really like to think that this country can learn to set aside or amend bad laws whose only function is to censor honest opinions which harm nobody.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

My definition: Christian

For the second in my running series of personal definitions, I define what I mean by the term "Christian".

Let me preface by reiterating that I'm not trying to produce an authoritative definition, or devalue others' definitions (particularly the definitions that Christians themselves hold). I'm simply letting you know what definition I am normally working with when I call someone "Christian".

So here it is:
I take to be a Christian anyone who uses the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as a guide to leading an ethical life.
In practice, this definition will catch pretty much everyone who self-identifies as Christian. Of course, many "Christians" under this definition will not be considered True Christians by many other "Christians" (if you follow me).

I can live with that.

It also means that "Christians", under my definition, are a varied bunch indeed - Gnostics, Catholics, Fundamentalists, Mormons, Quakers, some Unitarians, and others. So varied, in fact, that I should be very wary of making sweeping generalizations about "all Christians". You'll tell me if I slip up, won't you?

Here are some other definitions on offer for what a Christian is:

OED (access to dictionary not free): "Believing, professing, or belonging to the religion of Christ." (This is pretty vague - depending on how restrictively you define "the religion of Christ", this definition is almost circular.)

Wiktionary: "An individual who seeks to live his or her life according to the principles and values taught by Jesus Christ." (Basically what I said.) and Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary: They each give a range of definitions, including something close to mine.

And of course, I encourage you to explore the discussion of this issue at the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Blasphemy law in Finland!

Helsinki city councillor Jussi Halla-aho has been fined 330 Euros for a blog post [in Finnish, English translation here] in which he criticised the Muslim prophet Mohammed for being a paedophile. While I don't particularly like his tone, it worries me that his prosecution was under an anti-blasphemy law. As far as I can tell, blasphemy tends to mean "someone claims offense due to their religious beliefs". And hurt feelings - even really hurt feelings - are never a good excuse to limit free speech. To anyone who supports blasphemy laws, let me suggest that you look for alternative ways to deal with the matter. Ways that don't involve trampling other people's rights.

Thanks to Friendly Atheist for bringing this item to my attention.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

WHO rejects homeopathy

The WHO has publicly stated that homeopathy is not a good way to treat serious diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV. This is excellent. Placebo and hydration are the only medically-measurable effects that homeopathic "remedies" exhibit, and these are not effective in combating serious diseases. It is encouraging that an international health body like WHO is willing to publicly side with the evidence on this.

Thanks to Steve Novella at Neurologica for this bit of news.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Positively unjust?

The latest issue of Humanitie magazine just arrived in the mail. In this issue, Mike and I discuss our (somewhat different) thoughts on positive discrimination. Make sure to read his thoughts here.

I was all ready to deliver a column arguing against “positive discrimination”.

I was going to argue that the solution to discrimination is not counter-discrimination. Two wrongs don’t make a right. I would point out that even the people supposedly helped by it are, really, just being patronised: “You can’t get this job on merit, so we’ll give you a hand up because of your sex/race/etc.”

I’d have pointed out that the statistics you run across in the media about pay gaps and hiring biases are probably rife with holes. For example, the workers at my daughter’s nursery are almost all women. Does this imply discrimination against male nursery workers? More likely, it’s simply a consequence of free choice: more women than men choose to be nursery workers (for whatever reason). Trying to “equalize” this with quotas would devalue the choices those women and men are freely making.

I was even ready to loftily concede that there are situations of extreme, institutional discrimination where positive discrimination as a temporary counterbalance – as part of a wider program promoting education and social change – might be justifiable as a lesser evil.

And of course, I would have generously acknowledged my potential conflict of interest on this issue: I am a white man. I hate the idea of being passed over for a job in favour of a less-qualified candidate because of my sex or race (what “positive discrimination” means to many people).

But then, at Deena’s suggestion, I started looking into what programs actually exist here, and my righteous indignation vanished.

Because, you see, so-called “positive discrimination” is illegal in Britain. Existing human rights legislation, and the proposed new Equality Bill, specifically prohibit the hiring or promoting of one job candidate over another on the basis of sex or race – or any other protected category, such as sexual orientation, religion, and age.

What is promoted is “positive action”. An employer can encourage under-represented categories of people to apply for a job or promotion; an agency can target disadvantaged groups in promoting training courses. This means things like advertising in media that target these segments of the population, or using language in job adverts that encourages them to apply. (“Women and minorities welcome!”, for example.)

While people might argue about the effectiveness of such measures, it seems clear that positive action hardly constitutes inappropriate discrimination against “dispreferred groups” (such as white male columnists). In fact, it seems to be just the level at which opponents of “positive discrimination” (like me) suggest we should be channelling our efforts.

I think we probably do still have low-level discrimination (both conscious and unconscious) in our society, and it needs combating. Even accounting for self-selection and shortcomings of popular statistics, some unfairness does exist. I have plenty of loved ones in “disadvantaged” groups – women, older people, people with mental health problems, etc. So, in addition to my above-mentioned interest, I have a strong personal interest in trying to make our employment landscape fair.

So I say, keep positive discrimination illegal, and keep positive action around.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Talk Like a Pirate Day

Talk Like a Pirate Day is almost upon us. Marrrk your calendar: September 19, this Saturrrday. Arrr you ready for it? Thanks to that old salty dog, the Fiendly Arrrtheist, for makin' me awarrre of this. Arrr.

(What do ya say, me mateys? Be I ready for Talk Like a Pirate Day?)

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Guest thoughts

Last week, I had a conversation at the university chaplaincy with a couple of the honorary chaplains. As always, I enjoyed learning about different people's backgrounds, and the beliefs that inspire and motivate them, and of course I also enjoyed sharing my own perspective.

One of them, Richard Frazer, showed us a "Practical Ballad" he had written. It was inspired by an event at the chaplaincy, which he describes below. I liked the ballad, and invited him to share it on this blog. Here are his thoughts, followed by the ballad itself.

I attach my practical ballad: it is not at all poetic, but as I said, the University Chaplaincy has arranged these multi faith public conversations and this one was about the state of the global economy following the global financial meltdown of 2008.

The speakers represented a range of world faiths and none and their perspectives were wide ranging, though all, it seemed to me, were saying similar things which had something to do with justice for the poor and justice for the earth. The only person who seemed out of step was the professor of economics!

What struck me most profoundly was that each faith tradition was contributing something very deep and special to the discourse. One tradition reminds us of the importance of knowing what it is you are spending money on, another asks us to consider whether an investment is pure self indulgence, or is there a social element? It leads me to the conclusion that our way into a viable future depends upon us laying aside dogma and replacing it with the pooling of the world’s great wisdom traditions, alongside our best science. None of this threatens our traditions unless we think that the well being of our particular faith tradition depends on holding on to power and the exclusive right to be right.

A Practical Ballad


Don’t buy a thing you know nothing about,

That applies to unknown debt bought by the banks

That turns out to be toxic and worthless,

And to the ill considered, impulse item you grab on the way out of Tesco,

A thing you invariably do not need.

Does the investment you plan to make have any social element?

Will it better the world, or better only you,

And maybe damage a child or two?

Reflect again before you buy.

The true cost

In lives and land blighted,

In animal misery and the earth’s scarring would break your heart.

Surely, your prosperity does not have to depend on endless growth,

For on this planet, growth cannot be endless.

If you just cherish more the things you have,

The people you have and hold,

The beauty and craftsmanship of delightful things,

You will be rich in a new kind of way.

Let’s have economies that mirror evolution,

Change and constant adaptation,

Not policies that declare “use it all up, over live and exhaust it all”.

Justifying your actions because,

“it’s within the rules” is just a way to abdicate personal moral responsibility –

Mr Member of Parliament.

If armaments and drugs are the world’s two biggest industries,

Doesn’t that tell us about humanity’s dis – ease?

Science is telling us the world is one organic whole – Gaia.

So let’s live and work and make one whole thing of this earth

And all its people, its places and its diversity.

Learn to disagree without being divisive,

To embrace difference without being threatened.

We will need all our human powers for good,

Not one brand of ideology, to fashion the wisdom of survival.

And let us not build a society based on debt.

Let’s rediscover productive work, because, right now,

We are stealing our children’s future,

Selling it in the present,

And calling it gross domestic product.

Gross, it certainly is.

You can learn more about Rev. Dr. Richard Frazer at the Chaplaincy website, or on his own website, where he has also posted this ballad.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Turing apology

A few days ago, I pointed out a petition calling for a posthumous apology to Alan Turing for his disgraceful treatment by the British government when it became known that he was gay.

Well, Gordon Brown has delivered. He has issued what seems to me to be a very frank apology, acknowledging not only Turing's significant contributions to computing and to the outcome of the Second World War, but also the injustice of his treatment at the hands of the country he had served so well.

As of this moment, there are 31070 signatures on the online petition. (I assume the petition is closed, now that its aim is achieved, but cannot find a clear statement to that effect.)

Here is the full text of the Prime Minister's statement:

2009 has been a year of deep reflection – a chance for Britain, as a nation, to commemorate the profound debts we owe to those who came before. A unique combination of anniversaries and events have stirred in us that sense of pride and gratitude which characterise the British experience. Earlier this year I stood with Presidents Sarkozy and Obama to honour the service and the sacrifice of the heroes who stormed the beaches of Normandy 65 years ago. And just last week, we marked the 70 years which have passed since the British government declared its willingness to take up arms against Fascism and declared the outbreak of World War Two. So I am both pleased and proud that, thanks to a coalition of computer scientists, historians and LGBT activists, we have this year a chance to mark and celebrate another contribution to Britain’s fight against the darkness of dictatorship; that of code-breaker Alan Turing.

Turing was a quite brilliant mathematician, most famous for his work on breaking the German Enigma codes. It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of World War Two could well have been very different. He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war. The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely. In 1952, he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ – in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence – and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison - was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later.

Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can't put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly. Over the years millions more lived in fear of conviction.

I am proud that those days are gone and that in the last 12 years this government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT community. This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue.

But even more than that, Alan deserves recognition for his contribution to humankind. For those of us born after 1945, into a Europe which is united, democratic and at peace, it is hard to imagine that our continent was once the theatre of mankind’s darkest hour. It is difficult to believe that in living memory, people could become so consumed by hate – by anti-Semitism, by homophobia, by xenophobia and other murderous prejudices – that the gas chambers and crematoria became a piece of the European landscape as surely as the galleries and universities and concert halls which had marked out the European civilisation for hundreds of years. It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe’s history and not Europe’s present.

So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.

Gordon Brown
Well done, Mr Brown.

Five influential female authors

Here's an internet/blogging meme coming via Ken at C. Orthodoxy. It asks us, as the post title says, to name five female authors that have been influential to us.

As the father of a precocious almost-two-year-old girl, I make sure to celebrate female excellence as much as possible in order to counterbalance the undeniable tendency, here and now, for there to be more men than women in prominent positions - politically, socially, economically, and culturally.

So here goes: five awesome writers who happen to be women.*

Ursula K. Le Guin. Every book of hers that I've read has moved, delighted, and surprised me. She wrote The Dispossessed, the best argument for an egalitarian, property-free, anarchist society that I've come across (it's a novel). She wrote the Earthsea books, easily equal to Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter series (both of which I love) for epic awesomeness and tender humanness. She wrote an excellent version of Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching. (Here's one of the verses from it, which I quoted from here.) There are more, but I think I'll let you discover them for yourself. Le Guin's influence has been to show me that bold ideas don't preclude humble values like compassion and human vulnerability. Most of the science fiction I read growing up (and there was a lot - I was that kind of kid) was written by men from a particular era. At the risk of sounding sexist, it shows. Action, adventure, sex, but not much quiet humanity. Le Guin taught me that, even in genres like science fiction and fantasy, even when your characters include hermaphroditic psychics living on a planet of snow and ice or powerful wizards who can command the elements with arcane words, there is space for a fully human narrative. (There are male authors who I would rank close to her in this regard, but none quite as good at it, and anyway this post isn't about them.)

Gloria Borden and Katherine Harris. I'm listing these two together, because they are co-authors (along with Lawrence Raphael) of the Speech Science Primer**, my first textbook in phonetics - the physical science of speech. I am now at the end of a PhD in phonetics, with a dissertation approved and bound (nice thick tome) that adds a little to the sum of human knowledge. Although the main credit for my education goes to all the in-person teachers I've had (several of whom were women), I have to acknowledge that this well-presented and understandable textbook gave me a level of understanding and confidence in the field that helped cement my choice, leading me into an exciting field of scientific discovery.

Marjorie Tew. We humanists pride ourselves on following the evidence. We make a big deal of the fact that modern medicine is generally evidence-based (as opposed to most types of alternative "medicine", which are either evidence-free or based on very fallible types of evidence, such as anecdote). Tew, a statistician, followed a line of evidence in a surprising direction, and relates the story and the evidence in her book Safer Childbirth? (the question mark is in the title). In it, she presents a compelling empirical case that, in modern industrialised nations, giving birth in a hospital is not safer than giving birth at home. (For anyone interested, I related some key details of her arguments a couple of years ago in this thread at the Bad Science forums.) Her book was a large part of what persuaded Deena and me to plan a homebirth with Kaia. We are planning the same for baby #2 (due in a few short weeks). Again, there were other influences, but Tew's approach and her arguments were an important factor in our decision.

Julia Sweeney (and here). Okay, so this may be stretching the definition of "author" a bit. I know Julie Sweeney through the audio version of two of her monologues: In the Family Way, and Letting Go of God. They are basically books, just in a different medium. Sort of. Anyway, it's my blog, so I can choose whoever I want. Julia Sweeney's main influence on me is through the religious monologue, Letting Go of God. In it, she recounts her journey from being a contented Catholic, through reading the Bible, encountering doubt, wrestling with it, trying out different ideas, and eventually coming out a contented atheist. It's a fun listen. It's also valuable because whenever she elicits laughs, they are primarily directed at her - or at ideas she entertained, or thoughts she had. Not at other people, not in a sneering "I'm better than you" way.

It is, I think, the gentlest way I have ever encountered for someone to outline why she doesn't believe in God. Let someone laugh with you, at you, and you cease to be a threatening figure, an enemy. You become simply human, and it's much easier to try to sympathise with someone who's simply human than someone who is speaking as a scientist, or as a philosopher (or, perhaps, as a blogger). Goodness knows I have nothing like Julia Sweeney's talent for humour, but whenever I think about engaging a religious believer in discussion about topics we differ on, I think of Julia Sweeney and her approach. I think she has helped me become a more friendly humanist.

So there you have it. Five women whose writing (or similar creative output) has influenced me. One author of fiction, three scientists, and a performer/autobiographer.

The five women I've talked about above have influenced me, but their influence pales next to that of the women I know and have known in person - family, friends, colleagues, teachers.

Also, though I celebrate these women and their influence on me, I do it because of what they have done, not just because they are women. I hope that, as she grows up, Kaia will find inspiration and perhaps role-models in women like these, but also in men who write influential, inspiring, interesting, or great things. Or even humble things that nevertheless make our world better.

* I couldn't find photos for all five, so I've decided to leave this post image-free. You can see some of them by following the links provided.

** I'm linking to Amazon's listing of the 3rd edition of the Speech Science Primer, which is the one I used. There are more recent editions that you should look at if you are considering buying the book: speech science is a dynamic field, and some of what they had to say in 1994 is out of date now.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Marc on opinion

So I was hanging out with my friend Marc again, and he had this to say about opinion (Meditations, book 3, paragraph 9):

Treat with respect the power you have to form an opinion. By it alone can the helmsman within you avoid forming opinions that are at variance with nature and with the constitution of a reasonable being.

Now, this far, I was on board. I was nodding along with Marc. We can't help forming opinions; they are very useful in navigating the myriad choices around us. And yet, to paraphrase another pal of mine, Lao, "opinion is the barren flower of the Way" (from Tao Te Ching #38). Once we form an opinion, it's hard to unform or revise it, even in the face of good evidence. So we need to be careful in forming opinions in the first place.

So anyway, I'm nodding away, then Marc goes on like this:

From it you may look to attain circumspection, good relations with your fellow-men, and conformity with the will of heaven.

Good relations with fellow men - okay. (Marc has a very sexist bent to him, I'm afraid, but it's easy enough to add "and women" or to substitute "fellow people" when listening to him.) But what about this "conformity with the will of heaven" bit?

Well, okay, I understand that Marc believes in the existence of gods. He says so very explicitly now and then. But it's jarring to be listening to something that fits my own position so well, and then hear something about the "will of heaven" thrown in as part of the same thought.

I like Marc, so ultimately I'm not too bothered by the odd literal reference to "gods" or "heaven"; I can just focus on the valuable part of what he's saying, and set aside the stuff I don't accept.

But what about when I'm talking to someone else, or reading someone else's writing, where I don't have that easy relationship with the person? This aesthetic aversion to casual god-talk could make it more difficult for me to hear the positive value in what they're saying.

Do you notice a similar tendency in yourself? Do you see it as a problem? How do you deal with it? Let me know.

Image credits:

Emblem of Stoicism created by DT Strain - see this blog post for an explanation of the elements in the symbol.

Yin and Yang symbol (associated with Taoism) from Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Call for apology to Turing

This is a story of a national hero who was censured by his country and died alone on account of love.

Alan Turing was a key figure in the early years of computer development, before the Second World War. During the war, he was a key figure in the British team that decrypted the German Enigma cipher. Their contributions gave the Allies a pivotal advantage over their adversaries.

He was prosecuted for "gross indecency" because he'd had consensual sex with another man in the privacy of his own home. His work with the British intelligence service was over, and he was given the choice between chemical castration or prison. He chose the hormone treatment. Two years later, he committed suicide. He was 41 years old.

The last word the British government had to say about him was that his private actions, harming nobody, merited ruining his life.

Turing was a very prominent individual; I am sure that many other lives, both prominent and not, were needlessly ruined by this shameful law (happily repealed across Britain by the late 1970s).

There is now a call for the British government to apologise for its treatment of Turing. Given that an apology would be very easy to issue, would cost little and harm nobody, I think it is worth doing.

If you are a British resident and think this is worth two minutes of your time, please go sign the petition.

Also, let me know what you think of this sort of apology. Is it worthwhile? Is it a waste of time? Is is otherwise inappropriate? What consequences do you think such an apology would have, in terms of people's actions and their attitudes?

Photo credit:

Alan Turing photo, author unknown. Photo was found at Ally Action, among a list of prominent individuals and events in the history of gay rights.