Very many congratulations are in order to the Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait, who has just been appointed to replace James Randi as President of the James Randi Education Foundation. There is a tradition on occasions like this to drag out the old cliché about how big the shoes are that the new person has to fill. I have been next to both Dr Plait and Mr Randi and I can assure you that the comment is purely metaphorical in this case. Just to prove that Dr Plait has the iron-hard constitution necessary for the job, here is a picture of him and some other people (some not too far from my keyboard at this very moment) attempting suicide by taking massive underdoses of homeopathic pills at a conference a couple of years ago.
Nakedness laid bare (9/8/2008)
For reasons which can be explained by the fact that the friends helping me to pack up the household detritus of many years in preparation for moving house caused my very best tinfoil hat to disappear into a box somewhere in my garage, the Naked Skeptic column that I was going to write for Australasian Science magazine about conspiracy theories ended up being about the lack of progress in pseudomedicine and pseudoscience. There is still a tenuous link, of course, because I mentioned Royal Raymond Rife and everyone knows that it is only because of a conspiracy of physicists, pharmacists and microscope manufacturers that his ideas have been suppressed. You can read the article here.
Silver lining (9/8/2008)
One of the advantages of moving house is that you get to throw away stuff that you thought you needed so you had kept it but you didn't really need it at all. According to official receipts from the local waste disposal depot we have already delivered well over a tonne of stuff to the compactors and landfill, and there is an almost full trailer outside waiting to make another trip. (This does not count the boxes of books and other treasures donated to the Salvation Army, the stuff stored in a neighbour's garage which our daughter might find useful when she moves into her new place, or the many kilograms of junk which topped up the bin for many weeks of normal council rubbish collections. Have I mentioned the things that might find their way to eBay?) Another advantage is that you find things that you really need but forgot you had or could not find. An example of this was a paper I prepared for a university seminar on the philosophy of science in 1988. It starts off by pointing out how disappointing it was that the madness that Martin Gardner was writing about in the early 1950s was still around and thriving thirty years later. Twenty years on again and nothing much has changed. I dusted off the paper, scanned it in and you can read "Fact, Faith and Fiction" here.
Tell us what you really think, Pat. (9/8/2008)
One spot I regularly check on YouTube is the growing collection of anti-religious rants by Pat Condell. Pat has a rather uncompromising attitude to religion, but essentially his position is the same as mine – people can believe whatever they want to as long as they don't try to convert me and don't use their religion as an excuse to cause harm. Here is Pat in full flight:
There are exceptions ... (9/8/2008)
As a member of Amnesty International I am obliged to oppose torture and capital punishment. As a non-religious person I am obliged to reject and oppose the idea of jihad, or holy war. Sometimes, however, my resolve is challenged and I can imagine a condition where I might want to see someone tortured and killed for doing something I don't like. A friend of mine suggested that the video below would "make my day", but it could only do it in the Dirty Harry sense of making me pleased to have the opportunity for violence. People actually paid to see this and didn't walk out after setting the place on fire. I won't say "Enjoy!" How could anyone enjoy this musical piece knowing that the pianist played two wrong notes (at 1min 12sec and 1 min 55sec)? Pure incompetence!
Did you know that fluoride in water is put there as a way for demons to infiltrate into human souls? I didn't know this either, but it must be true because it says "Convincing humans to artificially iodize salt is a great feat of the Ahrimanic beings. He (the human) changes his ability to know his own self.........Fluoride is a halogen. Halogens make it simpler for beings to gain access to the human self and possess it" in a book called Nature Spirits and What They Say: Interviews with Verena Stael Von Holstein by Wolfgang Weirauch. I read about this on the whale.to web site, described by some as not being a repository of information but more like a suppository. (There is even a wonderful page about me there.)
I am currently teaching some deaf people how to use computers and it is a totally new experience for me to work through an interpreter. This has given me an interest in sign language, and the discussion of demonic fluoride led me to another page at whale.to where I was told that "Helen Keller, who developed sign language, was into Theosophy (founded by Satanist Blavatsky), the satanic group that Krishnamurti rejected". This page has lots of pictures of people making satanic hand gestures and signs such as the one at the right. (As if people at a Celine Dion concert aren't cursed enough already.)
In a further case of serendipity, the page about demonic hand signs also has a mention of my old friend, Benny Hinn. Here is what the owner of the whale.to site had to say about Hinn, and it is a good example of the quality of reasoning and writing at the site. (I suppose I could say that I couldn't put it better myself, but I could.) I think it's supposed to be a caption for three images, but I wouldn't want to make any unwarranted assumptions.
Benny Hinn, Master Freemason Kenneth Copeland. A False teacher we've warned about for years for numerous false doctrines he's taught including salvation by works which makes him a non-Christian or a pretender Christian from the outset. He and fellow mason Oral Roberts (Richard Roberts, too? we're not sure) share their masonic membership well together. Rodney Howard Browne- The guy from South Africa who started the "Holy Laughter" movement which really caught attention at the "Toronto Blessing" phenomenon after it first began in the spring of 1989 in a small town in New York. He has enjoyed a close association with the likes of Benny Hinn, Oral and Richard Roberts, TBN's Paul and Jan Crouch, Marilyn Hickey, John Wimber and many others similarly involved in the Word of Faith movement.
Getting ready to bring in the sheaves (16/8/2008)
I picked up my local paper this week to find that the fields and farms of Grenfell have been blessed by a local religious leader. She also blessed a duck, but nobody seems to know why. (And who are those small Satanists standing in the background?) You might think that this would arouse my skeptical suspicions about the town, but you would be wrong. On the very same day a major national paper devoted to all things agricultural announced the imminent start of the locust season, and Grenfell has about 100 locust loci. Apparently the dry weather over the last few months has encouraged the horrible little eating machines to get ready to hatch in their billions and the swarming and crop devastation are scheduled to start in about a month. I spoke to a village old-timer at the pub and asked him about the last locust plague and he said "they covered the face of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened; and they did eat every herb of the land, and all the fruit of the trees which the hail had left: and there remained not any green thing in the trees, or in the herbs of the field, through all the land". I wouldn't want to be an oat plant when that starts again. Pretty scary stuff, and just the sort of thing worth praying against. It's not so much the locusts that are worrying people, but apparently a few nights after the locusts come the eldest children in many families get very sick indeed.
Speaking of locusts and other pests ... (16/8/2008)
The advertisement below appeared on the newspaper's web site under the story about blessing the fields. Someone is offering to tell me for free how to become a millionaire and they are paying for newspaper advertising to tell me about this free offer. Would I be considered cynical for suspecting that clicking where it says "Click Here" would take me to a place where someone will be selling a get rich quick scheme which won't be free and the only potential millionaire will be the scam promoter?
Serious research (16/8/2008)
If you thought that Charles Darwin confined his research to evolution then you were wrong. It turns out that he also investigated the relationship between women's hair colour and sex. He discovered that brunettes are more likely than blondes to get married and have babies. I have applied for a grant to do the follow-up research – do blondes have more fun?
Quintessence Nook (16/8/2008)
It's time to revisit the archives of Quintessence of the Loon again. Get ready.
Globe in Transit
There has been a long tradition for parents to hate the music enjoyed by their children. Often they describe it not as music, but as noise. For a long time it was thought that the trends in music represented rebellion against traditions and the creation of a new identity for each generation. Now we know that all of this was guided. It was not just an evolution of musical styles, as, for example, rock growing out of rhythm and blues and then begetting funk and disco. We now know that these changes, particularly in rock music, have been teleological - directed towards a goal. There now seems to be incontrovertible proof that music has been hijacked by aliens and is being used as a means of establishing control. Leo Fender and Les Paul didn't know what they were unleashing when they invented the electric guitar. Or did they? Is it a coincidence that a guitar plectrum is shaped like an alien's head? I think not!
Not everything is as it seems. Is that person next to you on the bus really human? They may look normal, but how would you know? The real problem is not so much that they might not be human, because we all know that the place is fairly riddled with aliens, reptilian shape-shifters and so forth, but what sort of non-human is it? Because of this uncertainty, there is a real danger of treating all non-humans as if they were hostile and only here to probe or govern us. It is good to know, therefore, that there is a class of benign non-humans who are looking out for us. Not only that, but many of them are "multiples" and carry their own reinforcements with them. They also talk of "singletons", but where are the ones that are easy to understand – the simpletons?
Skippers of the World Unite!!!
Imagine the scene. A family is having lunch in the park and suddenly they hear the rhythmic footsteps not of a ballet chorus, not of a platoon of soldiers going about their lawful pursuits, but of a mob of deranged skippers all calling out in unison "left, left, right, right, left, left, right, right". Suddenly the group is upon the family and, realising too late that it is almost impossible to change direction quickly when skipping, they rampage across the picnic, leaving a trail of broken plates and broken dreams. A small child cries, clutching a stomped teddy bear. Elsewhere in the city, motorists are delayed as bridges are blocked by the annual half-skipathon. Outside the state legislature building an angry crowd of skippers demands the introduction of skip-only lanes on highways and the compulsory teaching of skipping in state schools. The police confront the protestors, lock their riot shields together, and advance. Suddenly, one policeman stumbles and catches himself by landing on the same foot twice. The man next to him does the same. Then it spreads. Silence falls across the protesting crowd, then someone starts applauding ..
It's religion time, folks (30/8/2008)
Over the last two weeks I seem to have been spending an inordinate amount of time listening to people talking about religion. It started on Saturday night when Professor Victor Stenger spoke at a dinner put on by Australian Skeptics in Sydney. Professor Stenger's latest book is and his talk was based on what he says in the book. I don't actually believe that science has shown anything about God, as the argument seems to be that if God exists then there would be some evidence, but there isn't so he doesn't. This is very much like the argument for the non-existence of Bigfoot and is more like sophistry than science, but it will have to do until something better comes along. We have been waiting a long time for that to happen, as can be seen from what Pythagoras wrote in Essay on the Gods about two-and-a-half millennia ago:
About the gods I have no means of knowing either that they exist or that they do not exist or what they are to look at. Many things prevent my knowing. Among others, the fact that they are never seen.
(The night ended well. I came across someone haranguing Professor Stenger about how child pornography can be art. I expressed a negative opinion about the
pornographer artist in question, and my comment caused the person to explode into mouth-foaming indignation. Strangely, he didn't say anything to me but had a delayed reaction and confronted another member of the committee of Australian Skeptics Inc on the way out of the venue. This was followed by an hysterical email to the committee whining about the organisation of the event and the disgraceful behaviour of the President and the suppression of the freedom of speech of artists who just wanted to display the sensuality and sexuality of children. I can't please everyone, and sometimes it is just too much fun not to please someone. And I still don't like people who take nude photographs of very young children with the stated aim of demonstrating how sensual such images can be.)
The next event also involved Professor Stenger. It was the fourth in the Intelligence Squared debate series, with the title "We'd be better off without religion". You can watch the debate below (courtesy of the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper). Skeptics were a little surprised to hear that Professor Ian Plimer would be speaking in favour of religion as he is a well-known campaigner against the mental illness of creationism. He started off with what looked like an appeal to the anthropic principle (even coming dangerously close to Intelligent Design) but soon descended into a polemic against believers in climate change, so perhaps his major contribution to the debate was to demonstrate that skeptics can be just as muddle-headed as true believers.
One of the debate speakers, Professor John Lennox, reappeared a couple of nights later to present a talk based on his book God's Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?. While this might appear from the title to be something supporting Vic Stenger's scientific dismissal of God it is in fact quite the opposite and apparently shows that science completely supports the existence of God. The book is on my "will be read real soon now" pile so I can't comment on it, and I didn't make it to the talk so I can't comment on that either. I think I could make a reasonable guess at how it went.
Friday saw a private lunch with John Lennox and Michael Shermer organised as a collaboration between, inter alia, Australian Skeptics Inc and the Centre for Public Christianity. I believe that this is a pristine example of what is referred to as "strange bedfellows". I had to give my invitation away due to a subsequent prior engagement, but all reports are that it went well. Professor Lennox and Dr Shermer backed up for a public forum later in the day and again anecdotal evidence is that everything went well and peacefully.
The big event with Professor Lennox and Michael Shermer was again a public debate, this time with the topic "Does God Exist?" Several hundred people turned up for this (with skeptics and atheists definitely in the minority) and a good and civilised time was had by all. At the end of the debate two people admitted that what had been said had made them change their minds about the existence of God, but as one went one way and the other the other the night could not be considered a recruiting or proselytising success for either side. I consider myself lucky that I live in a country where a topic like this can be publicly discussed and where proponents of both sides are treated with politeness and respect. You can download a recording of the debate here, or listen to it with the player below.
Speaking of Bigfoot ... (30/8/2008)
Wasn't that a farce? Someone recovers a Bigfoot body and only manages to get one blurry photograph of something furry inside a freezer. The media goes bananas (or whatever native fruit that Bigfoot eats), the discoverers run for cover, nobody manages to get another picture, and it all turns out to be either a hoax or a joke. Well, it always was and always is and always will be.
News Flash: I have captured a Yowie, Australia's own mystic beast. Unfortunately the battery in my camera was flat so the only photograph I could get was taken using my mobile phone. It shows the Yowie in my laundry tub. Oops! it looks like I took the picture too soon, before my wife had actually put the Yowie carcass in the tub. Unfortunately, the phone battery then ran out so I couldn't get another picture. By the time everything had been recharged Cody The Religion Hating Dog had eaten the body. But I really had a dead Yowie in my laundry. Really, I did. Why don't you believe me? Send money.
He writes! You should read! (30/8/2008)
The latest edition of the excellent Australasian Science magazine is on the newsstands, complete with a column by me about the stagnation of thought and ideas in the quackery industry. It starts off by saying:
There are still people alive today who were born before Felix Hoffmann invented aspirin, so almost the entire history of modern medicine has happened in their lifetimes. My parents were born before the discovery of penicillin and before anything was known about the biology or reproduction of viruses. I can remember the first successful heart transplant, and in my children's lifetime we have beaten smallpox and now have polio staggering on the ropes. We now know the location of every gene in the human genome and we routinely talk about the genetic origin of diseases, but it is only just over fifty years since Watson and Crick showed us how DNA replicates itself.
Make a difference (30/8/2008)
It's time once again for Amnesty International Australia's annual fund raising raffle. You can get your tickets from the AI web site.
Then there's the Olympic Games ... (30/8/2008)