Skepticism

Truth Hertz at QEDCon

Really looking forward to being on this fabulous panel at the fabulous QED conference in fabulous Manchester. Panel on 14th October 2018 Time TBC

QED 2014 Video with Paul Zenon

The fabulous Qed conference happened again this year, to much acclaim. Very happy to work on the intro video again. (Here’s 2013‘s offering). This time Paul Zenon revealed his superstitions. Many of these are particularly inside jokes in the skeptic community, but I hope others are entertained. Fingers crossed.

A Life Examined

Here’s a short essay about my experiences with leukaemia which won a scholarship from the James Randi Educational Foundation in 2010.

http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/swift-blog/1218-a-life-examined.html

QED Conference Video

A collaboration with Mike Hall and Tom Hardwidge of Considered Creative brought about this super fun animation for the opening of the 2013 QED conference. Musically, I wanted to capture the relentless spirit of scientific exploration through the ages, so felt a perpetual motion chord sequence with the instruments changing in line with the ages. 50 points for identifying the sound when Cox throws the LHC switch.

Chuckle Brothers Ouija Board

ChuckleBrotherOuijaBoard.jpg

Your Skeptic Stories

[Editor’s Note: As a precursor to The Amazing Meeting! 9, we have collected a series of stories from readers like you; people who have, through one means or another, discovered skepticism and critical thinking. These stories remind us that we all started somewhere and some of us are still finding our way as skeptics If you are interested in contributing your own story, please submit your piece of around 1000 words to maria (at) randi.org along with a short 2-3 line bio.

Today’s stories comes from one of our regular contributors to the blog, Dr. Milton Mermikides]

 

The Boy Who Stared At Pencils: A Potted Early History of One Man’s Stumble to Skepticism: By Dr. Milton Mermikides

In deference to TAM’s imminent arrival I’ve been invited to pen – or key – a short account of my journey to skepticism. I’ve provided an essay for JREF previously on what I feel is the importance of skepticism so I’ll deal here with a time-line of selected key moments in the first 12 years of my life – a series of micro-epiphanies – which in retrospect held particular importance to my development and interest in skeptical issues. I offer these in the hope that they might ring some bells in the skeptic community, or cause some bells to ring for those on the fence, or at least the bells might play a pretty fine tune.  

 

Age 0: Christening  

For most of my youth I was convinced that I could remember this in some detail: The gold-leaf of the christening bath, the priest’s beard, the prolonged dunking and the feeling of being watched by a group of adults. It was years later when I discovered an old movie with all these elements in place, and the knowledge that I had watched it a number of times in my early years.  

Epiphany: However real it feels, or vividly it is recalled, a memory of an event is no guarantee of its veracity.    

 

Age 5: Assumptions  

Playing outside the house I find a stick and proceed to hit objects with it. Including the back of my dad’s white car. As I do so, I hear my name being called and I look up to see a bird on the fence staring right at me. Stunned, I hit the car again and again the bird calls my name louder, and louder with each firm hit of the stick. Being an aficionado of Dr. Doolittle’s work I am excited by this new field of inter-species communication, and give the car one final terrific whack. At which point my furious dad emerges from the car, now obviously the owner of the voice, and chases me around the garden for attacking his car while ignoring his calls.  

Epiphany: 1) The brain can construct entirely convincing scenarios and explanations in which the conscious mind can happily live, however surreal or false they may be. 2) I’m an idiot.      

 Age 6: Big  

Spending summers in Greece before the advent of light pollution, I used to lie on the beach staring into space on moonless nights. As my eyes became accustomed to the darkness, the stars would multiply until they dissolved into clouds, and when my little brain couldn’t take it any more, clouds of clouds of stars seemed to appear, and to top it all shooting stars, having traveled for millions of years, would flare and burn up across the sky every few minutes while I watched alone reflecting on the enormity of space, the possibilities of alien life and my minute but privileged existence within it.  

Epiphany: 1) Humility and appreciation can emerge from the consideration of the natural world. 2) There is a limit to the imagination and conceptual capacity of the brain.  

 

Age 7: Time  

I am given a book on visions of the future, and my mind is blown by the concept. In the final chapter when the predictions of distant futures are made, I cry when I realize I won’t witness all of what’s to come. My obsession with the nature of time grew, and I mused and was confounded by the concepts of the unstoppable passage of time, the relationship of the self and the present moment and the implications of time-travel. Of course I didn’t have the vocabulary to express these questions and any attempt to do so was met by puzzled looks by and adults friends alike.  

Epiphany: There were fundamental aspects to existence, baffling and fascinating to me, but of no particular interest to almost all around me.  

 

Age 7: Fear  

I’m instructed to get some potatoes from the vegetable rack. I pick up a potato that has sprouted alien growths. I freak out.  

Epiphany: Some fears are irrational.  

 

Age 8: Pencils  
An interest in magic also opened my mind to the concepts and possibilities of psychic power and telekinesis. I was convinced that if I concentrated hard enough I could move objects with my mind. I stared intently for what felt like hours at pencils willing them to roll. Once I could have sworn one twitched, but this might be attributed to the physiological effect of me holding my breath while undertaking this futile practice.  

Epiphany: Just because something feels like it should be possible, it doesn’t make it so.  

 

Age 9: Expectations  

I reach for a glass of Orange Juice, and thirstily guzzle a mouthful. It turns out to be milk.  

Epiphany: Expectations affect experience.      

 

Age 10: Perfection  

I develop a love and aptitude for mathematics after coming top of my class in a test. I enjoy that sound logical reasoning can lead to a solution, and then the veracity of the solution can be tested. Mathematics offer a welcome oasis of logical purity in a logically messy grey world.  

Epiphany: There are areas in life with clearly right (and wrong) answers, regardless of people’s opinions.  

 

Age 11: Small  

My father was a nuclear physicist and I spent over two years of my childhood living near CERN. I walked around the particle accelerator, played on early versions of the Internet, heard terms like quark, charmed, lepton and quantum (used correctly) and gazed at the patterns of subatomic particles in the bubble and gas chambers. I was moved by the beauty of science, and how these clever adults could observe the behaviour of this strange tiny world.  

Epiphany: There is aesthetic beauty, nobility and wondrous surprise in scientific exploration.  

 

Age 12: Suction  

I become interested in the concept of a vacuum after witnessing the falling feather experiment. One quiet afternoon, I suck my lips into a glass tumbler and am interested in the extent to which this process can continue, sucking through the pain. I admire my lips in the mirror, which now have stretched to Donald Duck proportions, and go to the kitchen to share with my family the preliminary results of the experiment. They respond by screaming a range of instructions and questions about my intentions. I am left with an attractive red ring around my mouth for a week.  

Epiphany: 1) Some experiments are best left to experts, and 2 )I’m an idiot.  

 

Age 12: Elephant  

One night I’m left in alone and sneak downstairs to watch TV. I watch a Twilight Zone rerun (the one with the surgery and the reversal of the concept of beauty) and am horrified and transfixed. If this is not enough I then watch the film, The Elephant Man. I am appalled and conflicted by the horrific and unjust cruelty to John Merrick, and ponder if I would be like the kind Doctor or the gawking and cruel public, and I don’t want to know the answer.  

Epiphany: Our natural inclinations are not always our finest.  

 

Age 13: Punishment

A generally able and well-behaved student, I am given my first (and only) detention at school for “using the word allegedly too often” in a Religious Education homework.  

Epiphany: Some subjects are taboo, and some people have no sense of humour.  

 

It’s interesting and instructive to consider our early experiences, I feel that mine they have influenced me greatly, but these days I try to avoid sucking my face into glass tumblers.

 

     
Son of a CERN nuclear physicist, Milton was raised with wide artistic and scientific influences, an eclecticism that remains with him today. He has a BSc from the London School of Economics, a BMus (Berklee College of Music) and a PhD in music (University of Surrey), and holds commendations for his education and charity work. Milton now lives in London (UK) where he enjoys teaching, performing, composing, producing and writing about music. To learn more please visit miltonline.wordpress.com

Trackback(0)

Comments (0)Add Comment

Write comment
You must be logged in to post a comment. Please register if you do not have an account yet.

busy

My latest JREF post – The Boy Who Stared at Pencils. A personal history of a child’s skepticism. That child being me, of course. I need to learn to write better titles.

A mecca of crazy

Once in a while, one comes across a motherlode of crazy rantings on the internet, and this might just take the loony biscuit. “Extinct” Pterosaurs appearing behind the WTC and at Guantanamo Bay, prehistoric nuclear reactors, Salvation instructions, superbly inventive creationist fallacies and more. 

http://www.s8int.com/

Życie zanalizowane – Racjonalista

A Life Examined – translated into polish for the Racjonalista site by Marek Zalinski!

http://www.racjonalista.pl/kk.php/s,1163#

Trebuchet – The Interview. Geo and Milt geek out.

A transcript of Milton Mermikides’ interview with George Hrab on his latest album ‘Trebuchet’
Painstakingly transcribed by Kylie Sturgess.
The hours of audio are here: http://www.geologicpodcast.com/2010/07****Warning geeky musical content ****

[scribd id=51447705 key=key-554x9iw362a5ex8r74p mode=list]

The Nightingale Collaboration

Launch of the Nightingale Collaboration

We will be revealing our plans for the future over the next few months, but today we are announcing a project that everyone can take part in.

Today, the 1st March, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) changed its rules so that members of the public can make complaints about misleading marketing communications on websites.

Until now, the misleading, outrageous and sometimes dangerous claims made on many healthcare websites have been off-limits, but now you can do something about them by submitting your own complaint.

We think it will help the ASA if our supporters focus complaints on one area of healthcare each month, as this will mean they can focus their research and adjudication process. Hopefully, this will enable the ASA to deal with complaints more quickly and effectively.

Hence, at the start of each month we will be announcing a new area of healthcare where we would like you to look for misleading claims on the web, make an ASA complaint and help eradicate misleading claims.

Today, as part of our first project, we want all those concerned about the public being misled to submit complaints against homeopathy websites that make misleading claims, and who therefore offer ineffective treatments, put patients at risk and take considerable amounts of money in exchange for sugar pills.

Our step-by-step guide will make it easy for anyone to submit an ASA complaint. So why not make a difference today by making an ASA complaint against a homeopathy website thereby helping to protect the public?

 

arroworangeTake part in Focus of the Month

arroworangeFind out more about the Nightingale Collaboration

 

To be kept informed of our activities:

arroworangeSign up to our Newsletter to find out when each new project is launched — see the form on the right.

RSSSubscribe to our News and Results feeds, either to your RSS reader or via email.

TwitterFollow us on Twitter.

As of a few seconds ago, Alt-med practitioners can no longer get away with false, misleading or unevidenced health claims. I, as a leukaemia survivor, and also a witness to people suffering at the hands of unscrupulous or delusional alt-med practitioners, think this is a good thing. If you agree please visit the Nightingale Collaboration to take part.

The De-VINE Comedy

Gazooks!

After years of polite (as possible) debate and deflected abuse I’ve been banned from the ‘VINE’ Vaccine Information Network for posting… vaccine information. They now have a ‘new policy’ – apparently inspired by Dr. Sherri Tenpenny (who as it happens has no wiki page) – of deleting anything that doesn’t promote an anti-vaccination strategy however ill-informed or oft-refuted.

The owner, to his credit, has for years tolerated my dissenting arguments, until now. http://www.facebook.com/pages/Vaccination-Information-Network-VINE/69667273997

VINE is a charming place that also promotes chemtrail conspiracies, homeopathy prophylaxis, germ-theory and HIV-AIDS denialism. I actually don’t have a problem with an open discussion of any ideas -in fact I welcome it – and will change (and historically have changed) my views in the light of better evidence.

In the case of VINE I’ve learned much, much more about vaccination, and the extent of anti-vaccination conviction, and actually in so doing have found the anti-vaccine position to be even weaker than I first thought – but it could have turned out differently.

Now I value debate with a spectrum of opinions, however there are people there all to eager to offer self-satisfied unqualified, incorrect, direct and dangerous medical advice to the vulnerable. Don’t vaccinate. Treat pertussis with homeopathy. Do not fear HIV. Not so nice, and my regret is that those looking for genuine information, unfortunate enough to visit VINE may be vulnerable through confirmation bias and the human brain’s propensity for self-delusion. A shame.

So, in lieu of any compelling arguments they’ve gone for censorship of any dissent, an Us and Them mentality and an echo chamber of misinformation. There’s a word for that:

Cult.

(I rechecked spelling)

Ironically, I think this behaviour actually hurts the movement’s purported – and ostensibly noble – aims of ‘vaccine safety’ relegating it to moon-hoax, AIDS-denialist status, and eventually even an irresponsible media will tire of its blatherings as they become yet more distant from reality.

VINE is a tiny ‘island’ (as it proudly calls itself) of the ‘enlightened’ few, but perhaps this move is representative of the typical life-style of such movements.

1) An attempt to debate the information openly and honestly.

2) When ideas fail to stand up to honest debate, appeal to conspiracy theory.

3) When appeal to conspiracy theory becomes too repetitive and increasingly klunky: Ban all dissent, and draw a line around the enlightened ‘Us’ and the stupid and/or corrupt ‘Them’

As Steve Novella would attest, our brains reward us for any resolution of cognitive dissonance, but I’m careful to be as wary of this as possible and welcome challenge to my pre-existing notions however painful that sometimes is. The enforced separation of a human brain from any possibility of alternative views, is rational suicide. The human brain hunts down with hunger anything that will confirm its pre-existing beliefs and in the absence of a better viewpoint, will gorge on any old junk-food for thought. The owner of VINE is now declaring the satisfaction of banning anyone who doesn’t buy the anti-vax gambits, and I don’t doubt for a moment that he is receiving repeated dopamine hits with each removal of potential dissent.

Ultimately there will always be a market for anti-science propaganda that appeals to emotion and exploits the fallibilities of the mind. It’s inbuilt (Bruce Hood: http://brucemhood.wordpress.com/about-supersense/)

However I predict that this latest anti-vaccination tactic will deepen the conviction of a few but isolate these ideas from a wider public. Ultimately a better thing for public health. And yes, I’m fully aware that I got a dopamine hit when I came up with that potential outcome.

Any comments are, as it happens, welcome here.

Milton Mermikides

(aka Shill, Big Pharma Shill, NWO whore, idiot, sheeple, corrupt, moron, meddler, septic and arrogant scientist)

Homeopathic Anxiety

Today’s activities by the 10:23 campaign seems to be worrying some homeopaths (see below), I don’t know anything about the bad rating of their site – but even a quick look reveals the usual swathes of misinformation and bad science, so perhaps the poor rating is deserved. There is also a very confused tone to their comment on 10:23 being both worried and unworried – an unsurprising trait considering the logical inconsistency of their cherished beliefs.
I like the statements that the press are interested ‘despite the fact that only 300 people are expected to turn up’ – ‘we hope it is short-lived and not many would turn up’ – so the more people who demonstrate the inefficacy of homeopathy (albeit in a stunt rather than experiment) the more they are concerned? Does the larger sample size scare them?
Re: the press: Why wouldn’t it be interesting for people to know that there is nothing in homeopathy, and 300 people are happily to demonstrate that they value evidence and critical thinking over medical myth? Perfectly news-worthy. How many people would the homeopaths think would constitute a viable story 3,000? 30,000? Homeopathy relies primarily on a lack of public understanding – or interest – in the claimed mechanics of homeopathy, in my own experience I’ve found that when someone releases the common – but false – equation of homeopathy with ‘herbal and ‘natural’ and takes the time to investigate homeopathy’s claims, no further persuasion is needed. Perhaps at some level they realise that they need to rely on the public’s ignorance for the success of homeopathy.
Any homeopaths willing to comment on any of this are most welcome!
And to all those only hundreds of people around the world who downed an entire bottle of homeopathy demonstrating its inefficacy, you have very much been noticed, and appreciated.
From Homeopath Heals 6.2.11
Dear Homeopathy Heals Supporters,
It has been brought to our attention that 35 skeptics have been badly rating the Homeopathy Heals website, causing some people to see a warning when they try to access it!  We are sure this is the work of the skeptics, as apparently they have been doing this to homeopathy websites for at least a year.
We would be grateful if you could counter this by Registering with WOT (Web of Trust) http://www.mywot.com/ and then leaving a positive comment on the link below which relates to the Homeopathy Heals site.  OR you can also click the positive comments at the bottom of the page left by myself and Debby Bruck of Homeopathy World Community to rate the comments higher by clicking the TICK beside them.
WOT rating for homeopathyheals.me.uk
Warning! This site has a poor reputation.
The 1023 Campaign are demonstrating this weekend saying ‘Homeopathy. There is nothing in it’.  We think the press will pick up the story tomorrow, despite the fact that only 300 people are expected to turn up at the Manchester demo.  The demonstrations are taking place around the world and you can see more by typing:  ‘1023 Challenge’ into a search.  Unfortunately this means more bad publicity but we hope it is short lived and that not many will turn up.
Do please check out the Homeopathy Heals website as it is at the top of page 5 of Google right now. www.homeopathyheals.me.uk Obviously with this latest bad publicity, there will be a great number of the public who will want to read about homeopathy, so it is so important they get the right information. The more people who click on it, the higher it will go and by doing this you will lift your own website up the search engines if it is linked. (Please note that the WOT rating will in no way affect your website!)

Real people, real doctors.

Real Doctors, Real People.jpg

A Life Examined

A Life Examined

True Story.

In November 2004, in a particular English human body, in just one of its 100 trillion cells, a very small event took place.

This event was not foretold by any soothsayer, Tarot card, or by the movement of an arbitrary set of stars.  It was not intuited on Oprah, instigated by some external entity or punctured effigy; nor was it justified by any sin in this life or any previous.

And yet it happened.

In one blood cell, specifically a precursor T-cell lymphocyte, one section of chromosome 9 and another from chromosome 22 broke and changed places.

This translocation reordered a sequence of DNA, creating the BCR-ABL fusion protein, in that one cell.

This silent, miniature drama, occurring in a lymphocyte less than 7 micrometres across, a 10th of the width of a human hair, would alter drastically the course of my life.

Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia allows immature lymphoblast cells to multiply exponentially and crowd out the essential function of platelets, red blood cells and white blood cells, so on November 22nd 2004 I, a non-smoking, non-drinking, healthy 33 year old nerd, was isolated in hospital with bruising, shortness of breath, over 400 times the normal level of white blood cells and the intriguing feeling of being about to die.

No crystal, incantation, hand-waving or water with excellent memory skills could help at that point.  Two objectives needed to be met:

1) Stop the growth of leukaemic cells by killing them

2) Prevent objective 1) from killing me

A busy schedule of chemotherapy, radiotherapy, monitoring and strategies to prevent infection was ordered and executed by doctors, consultants, researchers and nurses.  Medical professionals like these, who I soon got to befriend, admire, learn from and entrust with my life, are rarely honoured and often undervalued.  Moreover they are insulted and condemned as close-minded for not hugging the fuzzy blanket of pseudoscience or drinking from the soporific fountain of woo.  And yet, they work on the front line making real differences to real people. Such is the widespread unjust vilification and under-appreciation of reality and science.

During treatment I was offered, by well-meaning friends and deluded strangers, advice on homeopathy, apricot seeds and mystical intervention.  All of this I politely but firmly refused and ignored. When asked by a family friend, how the homeopathic medicine she left me was helping – which was in fact somewhere deep in the London sewage system presumably collecting some new and pretty intense memories of its own- I truthfully answered that I found “Nothing worked as well”. When a whole church congregation in Greece insisted on praying for me at the time of a particularly important and difficult treatment, I gave them a phony time, date and place at which to aim their psychic energies.  In fact, I directed them to a 2nd division football match of which I had no interest.  A dull, goalless draw, I later discovered. Others were nastier with their advice, a woman, who I did not know, insisted that I saved myself by “accepting Jesus before I crossed over”.  I wrote back politely, thanking her for the top tip, but saying that I would also be checking out the Devil, as my mother always taught me to look both ways before crossing over.

I refused obstinately to appeal to an imaginary higher power, even at the lowest and most precarious moments, of which there were several. I chose to observe and engage with the sharp, hideous, beautiful reality rather than hide behind the veil of cowardly religion.  I’m not particularly brave but simply put, I have no faith, Pascal’s wager doesn’t take my fancy, and I have no aspirations to make it on to some celestial guest-list.

It was deemed a good idea for me to have a full bone marrow transplant: A hard reboot of my blood system, For this, I needed to destroy my existing one with total body irradiation – the most intense allowed, followed by the introduction of donor bone marrow.  To prevent this new immunity system from attacking me, the ‘host’, it is necessary for this donor bone marrow to match my own. (This knowledge was of course gained through medical research, study of Haemotology and from the poor people who succumbed to Blood cancers in our medical records. Not even the most flexible semantic contortionist could gain any relevant knowledge from any sacred text).  When I asked my consultant, a highly respected Haemotology expert, how the new marrow finds it way from a catheter in my vein to my bone marrow, he simply answered “We have no idea – but we are working on it”. A testament to the humility but perseverance of science.

My only sibling, my sister Alexandra, was tested as a match for my blood. Not by psychic cards, divining or the swinging of a crystal but by HLA (Human Leukocyte Antigen) testing. Of course we knew the chances of a match, thanks to our understanding of genetic inheritance.  While waiting for the results I made a point of not hoping or praying for this 1 in 4 chance, in fact I remember as I entered the consultant’s office, I uttered a quiet but clear ‘Fuck you, God’ just to make sure I hadn’t, in the tiniest probability of his existence, inadvertently pleased him.

We matched.

The bone marrow transplant and subsequent recovery although difficult, precarious and complex, worked. And here I am, 4 years on, my blood type is switched from O-positive to O-negative and I have female blood. (In fact the engraftment was tracked by using an X and Y-chromosome dye, and simply counting…) I am healthy, busy and skeptical; science has afforded me a few more precious years to be in this world.

Since my transplant, I have released 4 albums, scored 2 movies, judged the world air guitar championships, written a thesis, played guitar for the Queen of England, laughed until my sides ached, taught hundreds of students, wasted precious time debating with anti-vaxxers and creationists, learned a tiny fraction more about the universe and touched the hem of George Hrab’s suit. Now that’s an objective reality to which I don’t object.

I am in no way special or chosen, my life may not be important in any way other than to my wife, Bridget, my family and close friends. But it is the only one I have, and I am grateful for every second of it.

Objective reality exists. Yes, even if it happens to include multiple dimensions and a time that is bendy. The relativists’ argument – as O’Reilly limply tried on Dawkins – that all truth is subjective collapses in on itself.  The logic of expressing the objective truth, that all truth is subjective, is doomed from the start. Yes, there are different beliefs, and interesting questions about determinism, electron clouds and string theory, but ultimately we all live in an objective reality that affects the bodies of the pastor and heretic alike, a truth that still exists no matter what we, or anybody decide about it.  Furthermore, understanding objective reality holds great power.

Which creationist would have the courage of Neil Shubin, pointing at a small area of rock in inhospitable Arctic Canada and making the falsifiable claim that somewhere within it should lie the fossil of a creature no human had seen before? Which psychic has ever made such a clear, accurate and impressive prediction as this – (certainly worth a cool million) – A tetrapod fish in this particular layer of rock in this tiny corner of the globe? And there it lay, undisturbed for 375 million years, patiently waiting, twiddling its newly evolving thumbs, until we evolved to be smart enough to look for it. Yet the intelligent design movement hardly batted an irreducibly complex eyelid.  But a growing number of us do see the wonder, power and beauty of objective reality. Long may it continue, as we learn to shrug off our evolved propensity for delusions, solipsism and self-importance.  The understanding and developments that lie in our future will stagger our already overwhelmed minds.

So as I sit here writing, and sipping my coffee – the caffeine molecules lovingly preventing the docking of sleep-inducing adenosine in my neural receptors, creating a mild but delicious euphoria – I have the privilege of reflecting on my life.

I owe my life to Science – not a divine plan, but that is not why I admire it, nor why I see it as the pinnacle of civilization and evolution.  The scientific method is the only mechanism by which we can circumvent our confirmation biases and propensity for self-delusion and understand our tiny, but truly awesome place in the universe. It is valuable because it simply does not care what results we want from it, it gives us the truth regardless. We have written ourselves out of the equation. The examination of everything: the tides, the stars, bacteria, Stevie Wonder’s groove, photons, blood cells and galaxies, serves to enrich and extend all our lives, in ways that no religion or pseudoscience could begin to dream. Why lower our heads and claim to have easy answers, when we can look up to the skies and tackle the hardest questions?

It is only through this humble but insatiable curiosity, skeptical examination, rational reflection and furtive unweaving, that the rainbow becomes yet more beautiful.

A Further Response

Avoidance

A Response to Crispian Jago

Crispian Jago’s image was overly complicated. Many prefer this:

How Many Get Here

Catholics Sacked in Intelligence Squared

Bridget & I had the pleasure of attending the Intelligent Squared Debate last night. at the Central Methodist Hall in London.

The Motion: The Catholic Church is a Force For Good in The World.

For: Anne Widdecombe & Archbishop Onaiyekan.

Against: Stephen Fry & Christopher Hitchens.

Chair: Zeinab Badawi

Oh what a night, a packed audience were treated to the highs & lows of debate, truly enjoyable.

Fry was impassioned, earnest, charming & powerful. Hitch was annihilating. The Archbishop or ‘Grace’ as he likes to be called floundered badly, and didn’t seem to have access to any pertinent knowledge (such as the Catholic Church’s wealth, charitable donations, basic science & the current UN issues) nor any experience making a point in front of a non-sheepish flock. Widdie had some fight in her, but was surprisingly clueless,and often misrepresented the questions posed to her. For example Hitch presented a ‘summary’ of crimes for which he argued the RCC needed to apologise unreservedly; starting at the crusades & culminating with the present popes actions. Widdecombe said something to the effect of “How telling that he had to go all the way back to the Crusades” completely disregarding all later crimes.She also rolled her eyes in mock boredom at any mention of condoms.

Other low points included the archbishops suggestion that condom use would increase AIDS by promoting promiscuity, (together with Widde’s cherry-picked quotes supporting this stance) My point is this: Given condoms offer at least 99% protection against AIDS infection, this would mean that the provision of condoms must lead to over 100 times more sexual activity for their argument to hold water. I’m not sure the brand of condoms they are referring to, but get me some of those.

The swing in the vote was staggering, particular given the presence of some vocal & devoted catholics.

But the real coffin-nail was Widdie arguing that the RCC shouldn’t be judged for crimes in its past, as it was no worse than the prevailing morals of the day. Fine, maybe, but she then tried to argue that the Catholic faith had access to an immutable eternal absolute moral law. Can’t have it both ways. When called on such matters neither defender had any answer, nor it seemed any appreciation of the problem.

If I had the misfortune of debating Fry & Hitchens on this topic (maybe in a terrible dream) the only lifeline would be to apologise unreservedly, but plea that with reform, the power & loyal following of many (I guess) well intentioned minions, is a POTENTIAL force for good in the world. But they didn’t do that at all, and they lost badly, it must have hurt. To drop over half of your supporters in 90 mins of debate is no mean feat, but some source of hope. Just goes to show that a little reason can go a long way, and maybe faith is a little more shakable than I’m led to believe.

So what were the scores, Thomas Moores?

Pre-debate:

For the motion: 678. Against: 1102. Undecided: 346.

Post Debate: For: 268. Against: 1876. Don’t know: 34

The debate will be aired on Nov 7/8 on BBC World. I don’t think I make an appearance despite my best ‘Hmmm’ face.

Anti-vaccination Belief Curves

Hard Science up Yo' Chakra

Hard Science up Yo' Chakra

MMR

Had my post Bone Marrow Translant MMR Vaccine jab today (together with a Polio, tetanus one)

Feel very privileged that I live in an age & place where I can get effective vaccines for ‘free’

Long-live the NHS, Medical research & science-based medicine.

One cannot underestimate how slowly people grasp the value of some scientific advances.  We’re still seeing a 50% belief in creationism in USA, 150 years after the publication of the Origin of the Species, and overwhelming evidence for evolutionary science.  Homeopathy is BIG business, (the belief that say, arsenic when diluted to the point that no molecules are likely to remain, can help eczema.) Astrology appears in practically every newspaper.  Why the backlash against vaccines?

Simply the power of

1) Naturalistic Fallacy

2) Conspiracy Theory & Confirmation bias

And that’s it.

Milt

Amaz!ng

The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) – perhaps the greatest skeptical organization in the world, hold a kinda-annual conference called TAM – The Amaz!ng Metting. Past speakers have included Richard Dawkins, Penn & Teller, James Randi etc. Not big names to all, but big deal to me.

They are holding their first non-US meeting on October 3-4 2009 in…London.

Of course I rushed to buy tickets just 2 hours after the lines opened. But that was too late. Sold out.

So after a TAMtrum, I explored other avenues (begging, hassling, extortion – normal stuff) but to no avail.

However, I came across a scholarship competition, asking for essays (1,500 words max) from students (Check! Thanks to my laziness with PhD) 16 yr and older (Check!! By some margin) and on anything related to skeptical inquiry (CHECK!!!)

Me being me, I started the essay on the day of the deadline. I started at 10am, and had to leave for a friend’s wedding at noon, then straight on to another wedding gig 250 miles away. This was my only chance, and I hadn’t had my eggs or coffee. But I whipped something up and sent it to some dear people for proofreading while I set about my day. The excellent John Gregson took instructions while I drove up to my distant gig, eventually forwarding a pdf to me, which I relayed on to JREF with the last drops of my iPhone battery, and 12 minutes to spare.

Long story short.

I won.

So Bridge & I will be attending, the essay ‘A Life Examined’ will be published at TAM and online, and I will meet some wonderful people as a consequence.

Honoured & thrilled. and also for one grateful for my sloppiness: If I was more organized, I would have bought tickets sooner, If I was more dedicated I would no longer be a student (& ineligible) and if I had the luxury of time to write the essay, my self-doubt would have prevented me from finishing it. Yay for my imperfection.

I will of course tweet (@miltonline) & report back.

m

Menu Title