November 2016 - I and my pals cycled in The Galilee, Northern Israel, to raise money for Nazareth Hospital Paediatric Department. We raised over £50,000 but we could use more! Nazareth is the largest Arab town in Israel; the people are lovely, and the kids are awesome. Nazareth also treats kids in the West Bank of Palestine who have very limited access to healthcare. They need your help! Go to my sponsorship page to find out more and see what you can do! Maybe even join us in 2017..?

27 December 2010

Shane builds a PC out of a Joggler!

Take an old O2 Joggler (cost £50), a freebie USB hub, mouse, Bluetooth keyboard and adapter, a 4 gig USB drive and a download of Ubuntu from StephenFord.org. Et voila! A fully functional Ubuntu PC. Nice!
http://www.stephenford.org/joggler/ - Stephen, you are a genius.

26 December 2010

Santa brings a Kindle

I must have been a very good boy last year; the jolly one in red stuck an Amazon Kindle in my sack, and it's great! Now I can read all those voluminous PDFs that cause such iStrain on my iPhone and a PITA on my PC. And I've got a load of books, including freebies downloaded from Project Gutenberg and Word files and such like. Happy days!

I do now have the Atheists' Guide to Christmas downloaded; some of the contributions are marvellous, some are a bit pants, but as they're all commendably concise, it's a good read by the fireside between courses.

Reading - that's what elevates us above the beasts, folks.

04 December 2010

Kindle bells.

Season's Greetings, Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas and all the rest! Amazon has the "Atheist's Guide to Christmas" reduced to £2.99 for the Kindle edition. And it looks like there is a new edition about to hit the e-shelves too.
Here you'll find uplifting and seasonal offerings from the likes of Ariane Sherine, Richard Dawkins, Derren Brown, Brian Cox and many more.
Christmas is a time for sharing, loving, giving, peace and joy. Spread it around - Christmas is for everyone, and the myths and rituals just add to the fun.

02 December 2010

Windows Live Writer

Well, what do you know – it’s a piece of software that allows you to write blog posts directly on your computer and upload them. How enthralling!

28 November 2010

Relief of Amenhotep III - first attempt

OK, I'm no artist. I started this a couple of years ago, got fed up, left it unfinished and distressed it a bit. Still, I'm happy enough with it as a first effort. It does make me respect the Egyptian sculptors more, though.

We're going to Mars, and we ain't coming back...

Over at the Journal of Cosmology, they have a whole issue dedicated to getting humans on Mars - a fine and laudable goal. Mars is a funky wee planet, and although its atmosphere is extremely tenuous, the surface temperatures forbidding, and a fair bit smaller than Earth, it is at least sufficiently Earth-like for us to consider the possibilities of setting up shop there until we get it properly terraformed (should that be possible).
One problem is that sending astronauts there involves getting them back again - effectively you have to put in place on Mars, from Earth, the infrastructure to launch a mission to Earth. That is a rather tall order.
Step in Paul Davies (Arizona State University, renowned cosmologist, all round good bloke and great thinker, even if he is a little fluffy round the edges on the whole "god" issue) and Dirk Schulze-Makuck (Washington State University, with whom I am less familiar) are proposing that the initial missions should be one-way, with the explicit goal of establishing a foothold for a future self-sustaining Mars-based civilisation. They would be able to carry out a great deal of ground-based research, construction (using materials shipped from Earth), fuel generation, materials development etc, and essentially set the scene for further larger-scale missions.
Of course the disadvantages would be that you would never see Earth and your family ever again (apart from over the data-link with several minutes' delay, or via a telescope), and you wouldn't have access to many healthcare resources, and your lifespan might be reduced as a result. But if such a mission were to be proposed, I don't think they would be lacking in volunteers, and some of them might even make the psych profile. One possibility is to send up veteran astronauts - like in the movie Space Cowboys - because Clint Eastwood and Tommy Lee Cooper are expendable, should anything go wrong... And the older chaps have the life experience and Right Stuff to make it work. No Zimmer frames on Mars, though.
Would you volunteer?

26 November 2010

A proposal for peace in the Middle East?

How do we put the wheels back on this thing?
The son of assassinated former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin has put forward an "Israeli Peace Initiative" proposal in an effort to stimulate the sputtering dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians on the creation of a two-state solution to the ongoing instability in the region. Here is the article in Ha'aretz - what do you think?
Personally, I love Israel and I love Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt (but I've never been to Syria - I hope to go some day), and the prospect of these countries all being at peace with the addition of a free Palestine would be fantastic. Would Israel be able to deliver on the IPI? Would this plan address the concerns of the Palestinians? Would the wider Middle East and Muslim world accept this as a step towards rapprochement with the West? Would this enhance security in the region, or destabilise it further by focusing attention on Iran?

These are difficult questions, but one thing is very certain - the status quo does nothing for Israel, and instead makes its long term survival questionable, and also means it is a rather poor beacon for democracy in the region. The IPI deserves careful consideration as a possible route to a stronger and more relevant Israel and Palestine.

[Hat-tip to Ameinu]

25 November 2010

Michael Behe in Belfast

I had other plans, so didn't go to hear Michael Behe, the "Intelligent Design Theorist" speak at a church in Belfast last night. If you recall, Mike is the chap whose blithe assertions that evolutionary theory could not explain "irreducible complexity" caused such mirth at the 2005 Kitzmiller trial in the USA. He lost the battle in 2005, and the whole comcept of irreducible complexity as a barrier to evolution has been repeatedly and comprehensively debunked - evolution is a complexity generating algorithm, you could say - irreducible complexity is an expected outcome of the process. More recently Mike has been touting the notion that certain multiple changes in genes need to occur simultaneously to avoid the immediate death of an organism, but likewise, not only has he not made his case, he appears unable or unwilling to explain how standard evolutionary theory has a problem with these - instead, like other religious apologists for "Intelligent Design", he prefers a straw man version of evolution lifted pretty much straight out of creationist apologetic tracts.

Still, it's interesting to note that a Catholic who accepts the Earth is 4.67 billion years old and that humans and chimps do in fact have a common ancestor has been invited to preach at the Crescent Church in Belfast. Time was when such a phenomenon would have been regarded as impossible. Maybe miracles do happen.

So did anyone go to hear him? Has he changed his tune? Has he any actual goods this time?

24 November 2010

Egyptology apps for the Apple iPhone

Horus helps Hunefer with the niceties of the Afterlife.
So I love my iPhone, and it loves me. I wish to spice up our relationship a little, so what could be better than trying out an Egyptology app? Except it turns out that there aren't many. There is a hieroglyphic dictionary which I will try out and review in due course, but I have tried the "Book of the Dead" app from the British Museum. And it's actually rather nice - you get a scrollable papyrus (unfortunately not zoomable) of Hunefer's amazing Book of the Dead - the exhibition is currently on in the BM, and you can see how the Egyptians conceptualised the journey through the underworld to the Field of Reeds. It's a bit limited, and I think most people will get through it in 5 minutes, even with minimal Egyptological training.

Have any of you found good apps or software for Egyptological use? There are some Egypt-themed games out there which look pretty rubbish to be honest, but I'm thinking of stuff for actual Egypt-related work & education - raise up the next generation of scribes!

21 November 2010

How to approach contentious issues on this blog

This is just a guide. Feel free to make your own suggestions...

18 November 2010

Homeopathy - just give it up, dipsticks.

Why this post? Well, like Ian over at Irreducible Complexity, I'm starting to get a bit irritated by these comment bot thingies that post inane "hey dude, great post on ur blog. V interesting. Should be more pictures of Taiwanese frog-wrestlers" guff, and then link to some commercial product or a page displaying flexible ladies in varied topological orientations.

But today I got one for some homeopathic website. Now, one might think that the fewer of these, the better, but really. Homeopathy. Your medicine gets stronger the more you dilute it (and succuss it by hitting it off your DFS leatherette sofa). Indeed, it's so dilute, there isn't even a single molecule of the "remedy" (what a silly word) left in the solution. So no matter what the label says, it's JUST WATER.

Ah, says "Doctor" Woomeister, water has *memory*, and can remember what was originally in it.

Like arse it can.

Look, homeopathy is cretinous rubbish; I do not say that because I "scientifically" know that it *can't* work - I say it because it *doesn't* work. There is nothing in those sugar pills or water drops that has any effect on any disease process that would not similarly be effected by a regular drop of sugar or water given by the same deluded "therapist" who happened to believe (and convince the gullible sap of a patient they have with them) that it is the Real Deal. The data are in; homie loses.

OK? So if you want to pretend that homeopathy is worth more than a derisory fart, first establish that there is an effect to explain in the first place. Then we can dance; until then, don't bother to complain about these meanie scientists who poo-poo your woo, because you ain't got *nothing*.

And stop spamming the world's silly blogs with your dopey ads. It's tiresome.

14 November 2010

Was Adam a real person?

"I'm bringing sexy back."
And is that even a real question? I mean, seriously, is there anyone alive in 2010 who thinks that it is meaningful to consider the historicity of a completely mythical person? We all know that humans evolved from a population of African apes, and there is really no controversy over this, other than in areas of where the population was based, the size of the population, and the various factors that supplied the evolutionary pressures (and the sequence thereof) that led to Us. The basic concept of human evolution as a branch of the Great Apes is scientifically secure. Obviously this means that we can assign pre-scientific stories of human origins to the category of myth, and indeed the book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible is indeed a book of origins myths, hence the name "Genesis". History, genetics, archaeology, paleontology - all have long since comprehensively proven that Genesis is NOT a record of how the world got to be the way it is.

However, bizarrely, some people still cling to the bonkers notion that this is a history book, and that we need to take it literally. People like my old mentor Norman Nevin. As I have mentioned before on this blog, I like and admire Norman a great deal, but this creationism business is simply crazy talk. Far from adducing scientific evidence to support his strange contention that Adam was historical, Norman engages in some jaw-droppingly poor arguments. It is standard creationist fare, and if you really want to see it ripped to shreds, head over to the British Society for Science Education. This has to stop; it is becoming embarrassing.

Blinking cursor of death

You may have noticed a drop-off of activity lately - there is a Reason. My normally-reliable Samsung laptop has resorted to flashing a small blinking cursor at me when I try to boot up, and I can't access either my Windows 7 installation nor my Ubuntu Linux. What's more, I can't even routinely access the System Restore function, so things are pretty bad.
I live-booted from a Linux CD that I have, and that at least gives me access to the files, so they're all backed up. I'm currently running a system restore that I was able to access via the SuperGrub rescue disk that you can download, but that is not a particularly tasty piece of software, and I'm a little dubious that it's going to work. Basically, I think there is a good chance that the beastie is totally banjaxed, and I'm going to have to see if I can get a hold of a fresh Windows 7 install disk and repartition and reformat the entire hard drive and start from scratch.
So there we go - that's an exciting story, isn't it?
Anyone else ever have this, and am I doing the right thing?

And you know, boys & girls, sometimes our lives are a bit like that...

05 November 2010

Thor hammered!

Over at Aardvarchaeology (one of my favourite blogs - I'm lashing the praise around like smarties today, eh?), Martin has an excellent post on the legacy of Mr Con-Tiki, Thor Heyerdahl. Now there is no doubt that Thor could navigate and sail some very rickety and interesting contraptions, but he had some very strange (and since completely debunked) ideas about what all this meant. The peopling of Polynesia from South America? Forget it. Pyramids in Egypt being connected to the Pyramids in the New World? Utter nonsense.

Anyway, you know I'm a sceptic already - go and give Martin some love, won't you?

Misuse of Bayes' Theorem to back up silly things

Over at Common Sense Atheism (one of my favourite blogs, recent posts notwithstanding), the redoubtable and really very clever Mr Luke Muehlausen has recently interviewed the Christian philosopher Lydia McGrew. A while back, Lydia and Tim McGrew (her husband) wrote an article in which they purported to use the mathematical theorem first derived by Bayes to weigh the evidence in favour of the resurrection of Jesus the Nazarene, in an attempt to show that it was extraordinarily *likely* to have occurred.

Regular readers of my blogarooney will have to peel their eyebrows from the ceiling, because given the stories we have in the bible, it does not at first glance appear possible that the McGrews could say such a thing. Yet that is what they argue, and they use a lot of fancy-looking mathematical footwork to show that to be the case.

Gadzooks! (I hear you cry). How in heck can they do that with some very contradictory passages that were only written down several decades after the death of Jesus the Nazarene by people who never even met him, and were not present at the supposed resurrection? And you would be right. At least part of the answer to that question lies in this statement from their article:
Our argument will proceed on the assumption that we have a substantially accurate text of
the four gospels, Acts, and several of the undisputed Pauline epistles (most significantly
Galatians and I Corinthians); that the gospels were written, if not by the authors whose names
they now bear, at least by disciples of Jesus or people who knew those disciples – people who
knew at first hand the details of his life and teaching or people who spoke with those
eyewitnesses – and that the narratives, at least where not explicitly asserting the occurrence of a
miracle, deserve as much credence as similarly attested documents would be accorded if they
reported strictly secular matters.

Now just hang on there a minute, my good man and lady - you are proceeding on some mighty questionable assumptions there! We actually have very very little evidence on which to base such a strong conclusion, and when you take these stories, such as they are, together, it is not at all clear what sort of resurrection we are talking about. At the very best, it seems that the body of Jesus the Nazarene might have gone missing, and in the cognitive dissonance, confusion and grief that followed, certain vulnerable folks claimed to have seen visions of him, and concluded that in some sense he had been "raised" from the dead. That we can make a connection between this sorry state of affairs and an *actual* miraculous resurrection seems rather hopeless.

But why do the McGrews do this? Why do they need to front-load their argument with such a contentious and unsupportable set of assumptions? The answer, it would seem, is that it helps buttress their argument and avoid the sorts of Bayes factors that undermine their conclusions, as long as they declare them and neutralise them up front, rather than factoring them into the argument.

And what constitutes a "similarly attested document"? The external attestation of pretty much anything reported in the gospels is nil (even leaving aside the fact that Matthew and Luke grabbed most of their narrative from the pre-existing gospel of Mark, plus other sources). It's all rather suspicious.

But there is a wider malaise at work here - ever since the dolorous Richard Swinburne let rip his own foray into Bayesian territory, some Theistic Christian apologists (not to be confused with the growing ranks of Atheistic Christians) have leapt on Bayes like squirrels on a Snickers to try to use its seemingly arcane powers of mathematical robustness to splint the legs of their teetering sacred cows, and try to bamboozle poor philosophers (who really have trouble dealing with mathsy things) into thinking that the arguments for ancient imaginary space pixies are a lot stronger than they actually are. But Bayes' Theorem is a wonderful little tool - we use it in Genetics all the time, and it is a common feature of many risk estimation algorithms and programmes. Do not try to fool Bayes - Bayes will find you out!

So things are not going well for the paper so far. In a future post I will proceed a little further into this curious article to see if any nuggets gleam from within the vein, and maybe explain a little more about the remarkable Bayes' Theorem as we go.

Spoiler alert: I will destroy Swinburne and the McGrews in the process, and show beyond reasonable doubt that the resurrection did not, in fact, occur. Sorry to give the game away so early! You're drooling already - I can tell!

02 November 2010

My new favouritest website

is http://www.27bslash6.com. Dr Brambo introduced me to it, and I have been sniggering like a naughty schoolboy all evening. Stop it, Dr Brambo, stop it!

What to do with Jesus when the aliens arrive?

"Is there anyone out there?" was the title of today's lunchtime lecture at St Bartholomew's Church on the Stranmillis Road in Belfast. The lecture was given by the Rector, Dr Ron Elsdon. Ron is a good guy with a keen mind and a love for the quirky. A fully qualified geologist, he has no truck with creationists (which means that he is in my good books), and indeed one of his previous lectures was entitled "Rescuing Genesis from the Creationists", in which he took the view (as most people with anything between their ears at all do) that creationism is bad theology as well as bad science.

Full credit to Ron, he played this one with a very straight bat. There is no longer any doubt that there are likely to be many many places in the Universe where life could exist - the extremes under which life can quite happily frolic on our own wee planet demonstrate that the survivable zone is so wide that even in our own solar system there are several areas where life can survive. It is a different question whether those areas would be suitable for life to arise in the first place, and then evolve, but it seems that Goldilocks is a lot less fastidious than we used to think. So much for "fine tuning".

A lot hinges on the infamous Drake Equation (of which I am not a big fan), which is supposed to help us estimate how many civilisations our galaxy might contain, but produces answers so wildly dependent on guesses pre-loaded at the get-go that you might as well just look up and pick a number, any number. Cosmologist Paul Davies reckons that intelligent life is part of a self-organising complexifying principle in the universe; Ron contrasted this with a "random" view of evolution; I didn't quite get the drift of this - no-one thinks evolution is *random* - natural selection imposes a direction, but that direction is local and small-scale. It's only when we look back over large periods of time that we see the journey.

Has u aksepted Jebus into ur heart?
But what of the theological implications? This is where I need to be charitable - in my view, the discovery of alien intelligence (or its discovery of us, yeah?) will hammer the bejibblets out of "rational" theology. It probably won't affect people's belief, because that's not based on reason anyway. But it will cause a serious problem for some theological standpoints, and slap it up them if they can't cope. Ron is not worried, and I think he's right. They're either there or they're not - why should that matter to human religion? Heck, Father Joe Coyne, former Vatican Astronomer, says he'll baptise Zorgon (presumably if Zorgon wants to, and isn't a methane-based lifeform to whom liquid water would be perilous - maybe he could be baptised with liquid nitrogen or something).

Anyway, we'll keep waiting for ET to get our number, and when/if he/she/it does, we'll just have to deal with it. Unless they are cosmic Jehovah's Witnesses or some such. Imagine that knock on the door...

01 November 2010

Northern Lights

I've just finished reading (for the first time) Philip Pullman's "Northern Lights", the first part of the "His Dark Materials" trilogy. I have had this book recommended to me many times, and I love Pullman's writing, ever since "The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ", but I've only just got down to actually reading it. Pullman creates a strangely alien-yet-familiar universe in which people have daemons, animaliform companions, roughly analogous to a soul - a core part of their being. The book was made into a movie, "The Golden Compass", which although it apparently did OK at the box office, wasn't supposed to have been great.

Anyway, forget the movie - just read the book. It is absolutely fantastic, as Lyra Belacqua (the wild-child heroine) and her daemon Pantalaimon race across an alternative Northern Europe to confront an enormous evil and to uncover the mysteries of Dust. I'm just about to start the sequel, "The Subtle Knife", and am looking forward to it enormously. It's all there - loyalty, intrigue, betrayal, philosophy, religion, heresy. A real gem.

31 October 2010

The Billy Goat Gruff Diversion

Sometimes when I'm waxing lyrical on some point that gets my goat (see what I did there?), I am told to pipe down and divert my ire towards some more pressing concern. So, if I'm criticising (say) creationists, someone might say, "There are millions of people starving - why are you complaining about moronic anti-scientists and not doing something about THAT? Surely that is a bigger problem?" And then if we go off and start trying to tackle that, we're accused of not caring enough about AIDS or abused children etc.

A goat yesterday.
The issue is not that these are not all difficult and important problems - what is really happening is that the Billy Goat Gruff strategy is being employed against you, in order to get you to stop criticising whatever you are criticising. It is not because the person really cares about this other issue - it is simply to try to divert the argument to somewhere they are more comfortable. It is a rather dishonest and devious debating strategy (and we've all used it - let's try not to, eh?)

So the next time some eejit comes trip-trapping over my bridge, forget about asking me to wait for the next one - I'll eat this one and the next one too.

30 October 2010

Belief is dead; long live orientation! 2

A link to the Philip Kitcher article: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-5930.2010.00500.x/full - essentially, not all religious people actually *believe* the silly things in their religious fairy tales. That is probably good news, but does raise the question of how we go about interfacing with them constructively.

27 October 2010

WiFi in hotels

Look, it's 2010. Why do hotels still often demand that you PAY for wifi in your room? Instead, they should advertise it as a free service, which would positively make people WANT to come there. OK, maybe put a gigabytage cap on it or something, but come ON, people - get into the info age.

Hat tip to Martin on http://scienceblogs.com/aardvarchaeology - he agrees with me. As do all Right Thinking People. Next time you're in a hotel, leave a comment to the above effect in the guest comments.

19 October 2010

But it's still a toad!

Citizen Cane Toad
Strewth, Sheila, but there's a bonzer lot of Cane Toads around in the Northern Territories & Queensland. They are one of the most ecologically hated invasive species in the world, and they breed like Billy-O. Researchers studying their evolution have been carrying out some interesting experiments [BBC] which appear to verify the "Olympic Village Effect". The paper is published in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology, and (perhaps unsurprisingly) finds that toads at the outer reaches of the invasion range (i.e. the pioneers into new territory) are the fastest hoppers and the fastest reproducers - but this effect is *genetically* heritable - they pass it on to their tadpoles.
What's more, this feature appears to be very common in evolutionary biology when we are dealing with invasive species - it may even be the rule. It's obvious when you think about it - the fastest hoppers are going to be the first to reach a new area, so they'll get busy and colonise it before anyone else comes along. Then at the outer reaches of *that* area, it'll still be populated with the fastest of the fast, so we get a selective pressure at the outer reaches (effectively) for the best hoppers, perhaps at the expense of other adaptations.

Ribbit. Hat tip to Graham.

18 October 2010

Vested interests make idiots out of themselves

Good gracious, the supporters of segregation in the education of children in Northern Ireland really love showing their sectarian colours, after Peter Robinson's suggestion that we really need to take a very hard look at the problems that cause our children to be educated separately. The streams of vitriol that poor Pete has had to face have been impressive. And all for a suggestion that most people think is eminently sensible.

Richard Dawkins was on BBC TalkBack today, and made some very good points; various supporters of segregated Catholic education were on, making some really really rubbish ones. Personally, I am *delighted* that Peter Robinson has lifted the lid on this, much as I disagree with him on other issues.

This morning on the radio, they had interviews with boys from two schools, one "Protestant" and one "Catholic". It was (to me) astonishing how open the Protestant boys were to integration and to putting religious differences behind them for the sake of the next generation, but these poor Catholic kids were trapped into a world where they had to separate themselves from those dangerous ideas that were being promulgated in State schools. It was tragic, and all the more reason to bring the Catholic Sector into the State system.

Here is the offending speech in full. Is Peter turning over a new secular leaf? Bring on the debate!

17 October 2010


For those of us bemused by the "Tea Party" shenanigans in the USA, the beeb has a short piece interviewing a few voters on why they support this seemingly reactionary faction. It's all hyper-weird; apparently some people think Sarah Palin was alright, and that this Very Strange Lady Christine O'Donnell has more than one brain cell.

Check it out: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-11519029

Funny old world.

16 October 2010

Northern Ireland's educational apartheid

This morning I found myself in the interesting and probably unprecedented position of agreeing with our DUP First Minister, Mr Peter Robinson. Northern Ireland has a crazy educational system with two main school sectors, the State sector and the Catholic Maintained sector. The former is open to all, but is mainly Protestant, and the latter, as implied by the name, is controlled by the Catholic church and is overwhelmingly Catholic. Peter Robinson would not be the first to point out that this system is medieval, divisive and hugely expensive. It is also seriously unfair that one religion, i.e. Roman Catholic Christianity, is effectively subsidised in its indoctrination of children.

So is it time to abolish the Catholic Maintained Sector, and bring all the education of children into the State Sector?


There is an Integrated Sector in Northern Ireland education, but it remains small and it is not clear that it should be distinguished from what *all* schools should be doing. Education should be free and fair, should not give advantage to particular religious viewpoints, and should promote co-existence, tolerance, and best practice.

What about religious education? It has been clear for years that RE should not be used as an opportunity for wily proselytisers to win converts, but should be education ABOUT religion. It should discuss a wide variety of religions and belief systems (including atheism and secular humanism of course) in order to teach children what these various beliefs mean, and should be geared towards tolerance in a pluralist society.

Problem sorted. Can we all now get behind this campaign and have our children educated together without regard for the beliefs of their parents? Can we dismantle Northern Ireland's educational apartheid?
[If you agree, please "Like" this using the Facebook button below].

15 October 2010

More on the "Centre for Intelligent Design"...

This from the Guardian. It's a bit old, but it's informative. I remain hideously embarrassed by my former colleague's involvement in this ridiculous enterprise.

As if the association with the discredited Discovery Institute in the US was not bad enough, we are left with the matter of its funding via Guernsey. Does this indicate that the C4ID have something to hide? Maybe it's something to do with tax? Or is there a specific backer that the C4ID wishes not to make public? It's all rather odd. Or not, if you understand the creationist mindset.

14 October 2010

The Great Lisburn Creationism Debacle, 2007

The recent launch of the "Centre for Intelligent Design" in Glasgow calls to mind the ill-fated attempt by a little-known DUP politico, Mr Paul Givan of Lisburn City Council (now an MLA), to harrass schools in the Lisburn area to teach creationism in their science classes.

When I heard this was up for discussion, I wrote the following to the Council, and it was read out in the chamber:
Dear Mr Givan,
My writing to you has been prompted by recent press coverage of a motion you have reportedly arranged to be presented to Lisburn City Council. You have made some comments in relation to the teaching of science in secondary and grammar schools in the Lisburn City Area, and are quoted as saying: "I have asked the Council to write to local schools encouraging them to give equality of treatment to other theories of the origins of life and how the earth came into existence". Elsewhere you have suggested that such "alternative theories" include "Creation and Intelligent Design". You even state that you "believe science points to creation". I regard these reports as alarming, and the proposed intrusion of the Council into these matters of education to be unacceptable and detrimental to the future of science education in Northern Ireland (not just Lisburn). It is also damaging to the reputation of Northern Ireland itself. That is why I am copying this to other members of Lisburn City Council, as well as to the Minister for Education, Ms Ruane. This is in no way prejudicial to the actions of the heads of the various schools, the vast majority of whom would, I have no doubt, stick such a letter as you propose straight in the waste recycling.

I am a Consultant Clinical Geneticist working at Belfast City Hospital. My job involves dealing with individuals and families affected with genetic disorders. In addition, I am involved in the teaching of Genetics to undergraduate medical students at Queen's University Belfast. My daily work involves close work with the science underpinning human biology. The scientific evidence for evolution is not in doubt. Not remotely. An understanding and appreciation of the science of human evolution is critical to the understanding and practice of medicine, and indeed the vast reams of data that have been gathered as part of the Genome Projects have produced a huge resource, which has allowed us to further confirm the basic facts of
evolution (for example, the relationships between the main species of Great Apes, including humans), as well as to refine our models of precisely how that evolution has occurred, and how we might approach some of the clinical problems that this throws up (including the microbial evolution that led to MRSA and HIV, and potentially maladaptive traits, such as diabetes).

I have checked your brief resumé on the DUP website, and I see no evidence of any scientific qualifications whatsoever, so I am presuming that your belief that science somehow "points to creation" - by which I am assuming you mean Creationism/Intelligent Design (Cre/ID) - is based on mistaken information you have picked up from sources to which you erroneously attach some scientific authority, rather than an assessment of any actual evidence. I would wish to inform you that your perception that Cre/ID represents some sort of alternative to science is misplaced. As you are no doubt aware, the encroachments of Cre/ID activists in the USA has been met by stiff opposition from the scientific community, as well as much-deserved ridicule from the general public and the judiciary. Likewise, in the UK, the efforts of the anti-evolution pressure group "Truth in Science" have either been ridiculed or ignored in the main.

If by "equality of treatment" you mean subjecting Cre/ID notions to evidential testing irrespective of whatever meaning you read into ancient texts, then the good news for you is that the testing has already been performed; the verdict is in, and Cre/ID has already been consigned to the scientific trash can (maybe you didn't get Mr Darwin's memo). If you really want further research to be carried out, you should write to the university research departments with specific proposals on testing your ideas. If you come up with any evidence that you can get published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, you can come back to the schools at that point.

Targeting schools in the manner you propose is the wrong move for a scientist, and I would suggest that rather than seeking to encourage children to adopt an open mind and an evidence-based approach to science and the world, you are actually trying to squeeze in a narrow and false fundamentalist religious agenda that will damage the education and the scientific careers of the kids of Lisburn City, and waste valuable time that should be spent teaching them real science in a curriculum that is already stretched.

Perhaps I am being unfair in picking on you, when your party colleagues Mr Mervyn Storey and Mr David Simpson have tried and failed in similar ruses. You have nevertheless raised your head above the parapet, and therefore should not be too surprised to draw a wee bit of fire. However, I feel that you deserve a second chance here. You have not properly assessed the evidence, and you have made a mistake. The Earth is not 6000 years old (or 10,000 or 100,000), and the Book of Genesis does not contain scientific information relating to origins. "Intelligent Design Creationism" is not science, but is a religious pseudoscience being promoted by special-interest groups, in the teeth of all the scientific evidence (and, it is fair to say, in the teeth of the majority of theological opinion too). If you have any doubts about this, please read the attached document which is a summary of
the judgement in the "Kitzmiller case", in which Cre/ID pseudoscientists tried to weasel their nonsense into the school curriculum in Dover, Pennsylvania. It makes very interesting reading (and is rather amusing in places).

I therefore urge you do do three things. One is to withdraw this silly motion. The second is to read the "Kitzmiller" document. The third is to actually look at the science, instead of the pop-trash produced by the pseudoscientists of the "Discovery Institute", "Truth in Science" and "Answers In Genesis". Maybe you could enrol in a part-time degree course in evolutionary biology. The children of Lisburn City and Northern Ireland in general deserve a proper education in science, as in other subjects. They deserve to enter the next phase of their lives (University for many) with minds that know how to learn, rather than to parrot idiotic dogma. The
population of Northern Ireland needs scientists and doctors who can properly assess evidence and make the right decisions. That means teaching science in science classes, and leaving the teaching of the various old creation mythologies to classes devoted to comparative religion and ancient history.

Yours sincerely,

Looking back on it, that was perhaps a little confrontational and aggressive (shrill? too long?), but what the heck? It is not as if these people are being honest or up-front, and is it really necessary to cut slack to chappies who are at the very best misguided?
Alternatively, perhaps a more conciliatory approach could be tried? Should I have offered to go and give evidence to the council? I rather think not. After my little salvo, I was contacted by the Deputy Mayor (at the time), Mr Ronnie Crawford (UUP). It was clear that creationist "misunderstanding" was not limited to the knuckle-draggers of the DUP, but extended a little further into Unionism. Paul (who I'm sure is a very nice young chap) was just the stooge being manipulated by his political masters. Several other Lisburn politicians contacted me to thank me for my input, and to say that they agreed entirely.
But what was funny about all this was that the schools of Lisburn wrote back to the Council, and basically told them in no uncertain terms where they could stick their creationism. And these were schools run by churches, or with clergy on their boards of governors!
So, having failed in the schools, failed with the Ulster Museum, and failed with the Giant's Causeway Centre, the creationist pressurisers have upped sticks for Bonny Scotland. Hopefully they will meet the same ridicule and resistance that the good people have Ulster have given them.

Note to the good people of Lisburn City (and Northern Ireland): it's your vote - use it wisely.

10 October 2010

Science and Religion are incompatible

At least Jerry Coyne seems to think so.

And I agree.

I will be returning very shortly to voice some thoughts about my much-respected former mentor's setting up of an "Intelligent Design" centre in Glasgow. Why, Norman, why? Can't we sit down and I can explain to you where you are wrong? Why this silliness?

06 October 2010

This is my church?

Over at Irreducible Complexity, Ian has an intriguing post, "This is my church", where he sets out his ideal Sunday morning church experience. Coffee, chat, a bit of education, breakout groups - it all seems very congenial. Maybe it'll catch on?

Compare and contrast with the Church of Jesus Christ Atheist, and see how you get on.

05 October 2010

Screw you, Benny!

The Vatican's reaction to Prof Robert Edwards' Nobel Prize is wholly inappropriate. This medieval corrupt organisation needs to reform or be removed, as they show themselves incapable of intelligent comment. Which is why they are getting none here. We should end the automatic respect given to these people and their mythical magical space pixie.

02 October 2010

Cdesign proponentsist in Belfast.


Michael Behe actually is a proper scientist, but it's surprising he is still banging on about "irreducible complexity". Look, it is NOT evidence for "intelligent design"! So everyone come along and give him a warm welcome to scientific Belfast. Note this event takes place in a church which has previously hosted many creationist events. Don't let that put you off.

Hat tip: P.

30 September 2010

Learn Arabic!


An excellent resource for learning real colloquial Arabic. Especially Levantine. Yes, I know I've mentioned it before, but another plug won't hurt...

Sent from my iPhone

29 September 2010

Show me the mummy!

Face of Takabuti (from BBC)
I don't think I blogged on this before, but the BBC recently re-ran the documentary "Show me the Mummy", featuring Takabuti, one of the most famous women in Belfast. She is the Ulster Museum's fascinating Egyptian mummy, dating from the 25th Dynasty in the 8th century BCE. Generations of visitors to the museum have got to know her, and in the BBC documentary, a team of experts piece together her life and death, as well as the story of how she ended up in Belfast as one of the star exhibits in the newly-refurbished Ulster Museum. She is well worth a visit, and very well preserved. Her sarcophagus is fantastic, and there are several other nice Egyptian exhibits, although some of the labelling is a tad inaccurate. The museum itself is one of Belfast's top attractions, and the redevelopment is amazing.

Beyond God and atheism: Why I am a 'possibilian' - New Scientist - New Scientist

Sounds like atheism to me, just under a different name. Someone should tell him... http://feeds.newscientist.com/c/749/f/10897/s/e295d87/l/0L0Snewscientist0N0Carticle0Cmg20A7277950B30A0A0Ebeyond0Egod0Eand0Eatheism0Ewhy0Ei0Eam0Ea0Epossibilian0Bhtml0DDCMP0FOTC0Erss0Gnsref0Fonline0Enews/story01.htm

Sent from my iPhone

28 September 2010

Pure Indulgence?

Look, it's instant coffee. It's not too bad, but to merit "Pure Indulgence" it would need to be a MochaChocaLatte Nutmeg and Marshmallow Slurpskrieg with a flake and strawberry jam on top, served in a gold flagon in a bubbly bath by breathless nymphs.

27 September 2010

Terry Eagleton on Richard Dawkins [FAIL]

Terry Eagleton is some dude who fancies himself as a philosopher. This is what he actually wrote in a 2006 review of Dawkins' "The God Delusion":
Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.

Allow me to make a little tweak.
Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Unicorns, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.

There. Fixed it for ya, Terry!

26 September 2010

Why "Intelligent Design" is a load of old soap

In one of the comments on another of my scintillating posts, I have been not exacly *accused* of misrepresenting intelligent design (creationism in a cheap tuxedo), but the suggestion has at least been made that I have perhaps been using a definition that doesn't quite gel with what the beastie actually is.

So what IS "intelligent design"? What better place to find a definition than http://www.intelligentdesign.org ? It would seem a good place to look, and here is their definition:
Intelligent design refers to a scientific research program as well as a community of scientists, philosophers and other scholars who seek evidence of design in nature. The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection. Through the study and analysis of a system's components, a design theorist is able to determine whether various natural structures are the product of chance, natural law, intelligent design, or some combination thereof. Such research is conducted by observing the types of information produced when intelligent agents act. Scientists then seek to find objects which have those same types of informational properties which we commonly know come from intelligence. Intelligent design has applied these scientific methods to detect design in irreducibly complex biological structures, the complex and specified information content in DNA, the life-sustaining physical architecture of the universe, and the geologically rapid origin of biological diversity in the fossil record during the Cambrian explosion approximately 530 million years ago.
OK - it's as clumsy a definition as you are ever likely to see. It's a "scientific research program"? And it's carried out by a bunch of johnnies who refer to themselves as "scientists, philosophers and engineers" and they seek evidence for design in nature. What kind of design? Oh - *intelligent* design of course. So it's an activity undertaken by some punters with a pre-defined search objective, i.e. to find design, rather than look at how things might have come about. If your critical thinking hackles are not starting to rise by now, they should.

But I get ahead of myself. What is the *definition* of ID? There it is up there - certain features of living organisms and the universe are "best explained" by an intelligent cause. So they're starting with their conclusion, and trying to make the data fit. Hey ho, that's fine. But there are some problems - not least of which is that there is no evidence for such an intelligent cause, and the history of explaining hard-to-explain phenomena by invoking an intelligent cause not otherwise in evidence has not been a happy one. Lightning, epilepsy, the apparent movements of celestial bodies etc. All perfectly natural, no pixies required.

So our doughty chaps have some examples, you might think? The Cambrian Radiation? No need to invoke intelligence there. Just biology. DNA? No evidence of intelligence - just evolution! The universe itself? Hardly. The invocation of the Fine Tuning argument as evidence for an intelligent cause is hardly convincing. So exactly what HAVE these people produced apart from comment pieces? Where is their research? Where are their papers published in the scientific literature? Where is the EVIDENCE for an intelligence having designed our universe and life within it?

It simply is not there. ID is a crock.

Of course the fact that ID is nonsense does not necessarily *disprove* the gods. But as a "research program" or "intellectual exercise" it is a dead duck, and has been comprehensively refuted by real scientists.

Happy Sunday!

First of all, thanks everyone for the vote of confidence in the new design template. I think it's nice, although I can't seem to alter the appearance of the comments log, so apologies if that is a bit less readable than I would like.

Secondly, happy Sunday! A lot of people go to church on Sunday - if that's your thing, enjoy (I am writing to the Prime Minister with proposals to statutorily require all churches to display a notice saying "For Entertainment Purposes Only" like they do with psychics). If you're fed up with church, do something more constructive instead. Go out on your bike (it's a nice day, but starting to feel a bit chillier). Or take a drive up the coast (Northern Ireland, for my international visitors, has one of the most spectacular coastal drives in Europe - forget the South of France or Southern California - try North Antrim instead). Or wrap up warm and go for a walk in the Mourne Mountains. Or just chill and potter around in your garden and get ready to grow some bear-repelling courgettes next year.

Or if all that relaxation is too much for you, have three kids and spend every waking moment running around after them, getting yapped at and whinged at and shouted at and breaking up fights and fixing things they've broken etc etc.

And if you live on the Carrick side of Greenisland Station Road, remember that tomorrow is grey bin day.

24 September 2010

Lisburn City Council take note!

No creationism or "intelligent design" to be taught as science in British schools. End of.

You never know when you might need one...

My wife was complaining this year that every time I went out to the garden I would return with arms full of courgettes. So we've had courgettes with pretty much every meal for the past three months, and she's sick of 'em. But now I can tell her that they have many more uses than simply as a foodstuff. You can use them to battle off bears! See? I would hesitate to make claims that are too grandiose, but we haven't seen any bears around here lately, so they must be working.

20 September 2010

Irrefutable proof of Intelligent Design

Intelligent Design is the theory that certain features of biological organisms are so complex that they cannot be explained by mere evolution, and instead, therefore, were designed by an intelligent being, therefore God therefore Jesus. So far it has been ripped to shreds by scientists, and its fans, known affectionately as "cdesign proponentsists", have made a miserable and bedraggled bunch of intellectual washouts.

But no more!

Who can forget the hit Channel 4 show "Inside Nature's Giants", where the dissection of a giraffe showed the circuitous and ridiculously un-intelligent route taken by the giraffe's recurrent laryngeal nerve? Yet Mister Dawkins smartypants will be laughing on the other side of his face when he reads this, because the giraffe's neck is the ULTIMATE example of Intelligent Design and divine Fine Tuning.

It is very simple. If the giraffe's head was even ONE THOUSANDTH of a MILLIMETRE further away from its body, its neck would be TOO SHORT and its head would simply fall off!

Therefore it is clear that an intelligent designer must have perfectly FINE TUNED the length of the giraffe's neck to match the distance of the head from the body PRECISELY. If the neck is 2 metres long, and a thousandth of a millimetre is therefore half a MILLIONTH of the distance involved - the chance of EVOLUTION doing this by CHANCE is therefore less than one in TWO MILLION.

And when you consider that this is the case for EVERY giraffe, and indeed every creature on the planet with a neck, the chances are even smaller, which means that evolution cannot explain it!

Therefore God Therefore Jesus.

Thank you.

19 September 2010

Chow down on some sin, baby!

Things have come to a pretty pass when religious practice is regarded as sensible, but generally this only applies when it is contrasted with something even more bizarre. So Presbyterians cod themselves that because they're not as wacky as Mormons (for instance), they must be pretty much OK. It's the Billy Goat Gruff approach to religion, which I think I'm going to have to blog about over at the Church of Jesus Christ Atheist at some point.

Anyway, back in 1906, over a century ago, the last Sin Eater was buried. No, not Sinnita, but a SIN EATER. Richard Munslow was paid to eat bread and wine over the corpse of a deceased person, in the wacky belief that sins could be transferred to another, and thereby atonement made, and the soul of the deceased could enter heaven.

What a load of superstitious cobblers!

Entirely like the wacky belief that sins can be transferred to another, and thereby atonement made, as in the death of Jesus the Nazarene. So who is calling whom wacky? This is the thing about belief-based religions - the defect is in the thought processes, not the particular beliefs themselves. In that respect, the Billy Goat Gruffs are all pretty similar.

18 September 2010

Holy shit - well held, that man!


A four year old boy was playing on an escalator in a shopping centre in Turkey before being carried to the top and falling off. Fortunately, a sharp-eyed retailer spotted the impending disaster, and caught the wee chap as he fell from something like thirty feet.

The lesson here? Look out for each other, folks. Sometimes it can make all the difference.

The footage of the incident is startling. Happily no-one was hurt.

I'm Spartacus!

Oh noes - it's a fake pope! How will we tell the difference?

15 September 2010

What hope for the pope?

...when he is surrounded by morons such as Cardinal Walter Kasper? Walter recently described arriving in the UK at Heathrow airport as like landing in a "Third World" country. In what has to rank as one of the most inept excuses in history, a Vatican spokesperson claimed this was because of the UK's multiculturalism. In other words, Walter wasn't referring to the bustling frenetic activity of the airport, he was simply being racist. Which makes it OK then.

He also seems to be perturbed that the UK is in the grip of a "new and aggressive atheism." Well, I've got news for you, Wally: YES IT IS.

Sure, there is still a lot of rampant simpleton superstition around - witness the fawning dignitaries queuing up to dribble platitudes over Walter's boss. Not as many as the ticketmeisters had hoped for, but a fair few of them all the same.

Yep, the UK is certainly becoming a more secular society, and the traditional deference displayed to the agents of various myth-pushing institutions is disappearing. Years ago, Walter could have come out with his crazy mush and no-one would have said anything, but this is a new era, and people are not afraid to tell him where to stick it. Or his boss. So three cheers for rampant secularism! It gives him the freedom to say what he wants, the imams to say what they want, and Richard Dawkins to say what he wants. If that causes Walter a problem, that's too bad. That's the way we do things nowadays in this third world backwater.

12 September 2010

Brian's back! Wonders of the Solar System

[Image copyright BBC]
Professor Brian Cox has come to be (deservedly) one of the most prominent media scientists over the past wee while. For those of you who missed the excellent "Wonders of the Solar System" first time around, it's back on BBC iPlayer (and BBC2 on Sunday evenings). Brian's enthusiasm is highly infectious, and his wee jaunts across the planet make you feel that you're travelling there yourself. Enjoy!

Applying bioinformatics to the bible

As I think everyone knows (or should know), the Gospels of Matthew and Luke used the gospel of Mark as one of their sources, plus some other material. Over at Irreducible Complexity (a great blog), Ian has an analysis of shared material across the synoptic gospels (as they are called), and I've commented on this before. At the time it struck me that a powerful way of analysing this material might be to approach it from the bioinformatic angle, and use the dot-plot technique to compare the source material.

Well, it's been done! John Lee (working at MIT at the time) has compared the gospels of Mark and Luke using this technique, and it makes for mighty interesting reading. Here's part of the skinny (excuse the clumsy screen grab!).
So what you're seeing is Mark on the X axis and Luke on the Y, and the dots indicate regions of high similarity shared between the gospels. See those diagonal lines? They indicate regions of very high similarity, and in fact show where Luke has derived his material virtually entirely from Mark (or ur-Mark or a slightly younger neo-Mark).

Now, I reckon you could do this for all the gospels, or even the whole bible. It would be interesting to see what would be thrown up, although I doubt it'll tell us much that we don't already know. For more information on what we do already know (pre dot-plot of course), I would strongly recommend Robin Lane Fox's excellent resource "The Unauthorised Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible". If you can read that and remain an inerrantist, there is something VERY wrong with your brain. Or you don't really care about the truth.


A recent story about a large whale skeleton found in the Thames reminded me of this bad boy that normally sits in my study. My dad found this and several other bones on a beach in Donegal several years ago. This bone is the atlas, the first cervical vertebra. Those big ovals either side are the articular surfaces that interface with the base of the skull. The spinal cord goes down the big hole in the middle.

11 September 2010

Belated Shana Tova...

Yep, sorry folks - to all my Jewish friends, a very belated welcome to the New Year! I hope it's a good one, and you guys (and all my Palestinian friends too), sort that mess out, will you? Please?
Have a look at what these guys are doing: http://www.ameinu.net/
Picture from Ameinu.net

Faith Schools Menace - no question mark.

The UDA target Richard Dawkins
I've finally got round to watching Richard Dawkins' programme "Faith Schools Menace" on Channel 4. It's really rather good, and quite persuasive. I would probably class myself among those who thinks Richard writes better than he presents or interviews, but I thought this was a good demonstration of the disasters we are setting ourselves up for if we allow religions to control the education of our children.
I still don't think Richard quite "gets" Northern Ireland; the majority of the State schools are really very secular, although this can't be said for the Catholic Maintained Sector. Furthermore, the divisions in our society don't stem so much from the educational sector as from the home environment. That said, it is crazy that so many people insist that their children have segregated education, and the spokesmen from the Orange Order and the Catholic Maintained Sector were positively sinister. Choices in education are, apparently, a fundamental parental human right - and the children don't matter at all. That seems to be the message.
Children do need to be educated together; they do need to learn about religions other than those of their parents. Perhaps then more of them will realise that religion itself, generically, is false. That we owe no allegiance to mythical space pixies and messiahs, but to each other.
May that day roll on.

01 September 2010

Terraforming Earth

Looking for a home
Earth is a nice planet. In comparison to any others we know about. Yet many environments are rather hostile, and knowing how to change that could provide us with the secrets to making places like Mars habitable for humans - or even how to avert some of the ecological disasters here on Earth. PZ has a post on the Pleistocene "re-wilding" of areas of the Mid-West US, together with reintroduction of megafauna, such as cloned or re-bred mammoths. Cool as that might be (and I would love to see the mammoths return, oh yes), it's not a solution to the problem of building real complex ecosystems.

Yet, on Ascension Island in the Atlantic, a largely barren cinder, a legacy of the truly great minds of Charles Darwin, Joseph Hooker and others continues to take shape - an artificial ecosystem that is being primed with plants, and largely left to just get on with the job of bootstrapping itself. The BBC reports that over the past 150 years, cloud forest has become established on the highest peak of Ascension, involving purely imported species, shipped in over the decades by the Royal Navy. And it seems to be working - an ecosystem is steadily emerging from the barren wilderness and finding its own way of sustaining itself.

And this is making people turn their thoughts to Mars, the desert planet. Could something similar be done there? I will admit that as a small boy I used to think about this sort of thing. After watching Carl Sagan's "Cosmos", I imagined shipping millions of little clear plastic containers to Mars, loaded with seeds, nutrient and anti-freeze, to germinate, eventually break their containers, and start populating the barren red wastelands with greenery. Liberate the water, heat and thicken the atmosphere, and turn the desert to jungle.

Now, small boys know even less about ecosystems than the adults they turn into (I think - that may be a contentious point), and nowadays I can see a few obstacles to that. Such as the sheer tenuousness of the Martian atmosphere, and the great difficulties anticipated in getting plants to bloom.

But to heck with Mars - we should be doing more on EARTH, and this is where PZ hits the nail on the head. We need to return vast tracts of the surface of our planet to a proper wilderness state. Not a managed wilderness - but a proper wilderness, devoid of people. We (I would suggest) need to get used to the idea that we humans can live on our part, and let the other part act as our Gaian reservoir, our buffer. Not build roads or railways through it, not use it as eco-tourist destinations, but just leave it the heck alone - let evolution get on with the job.

Then we can put our cloned mammoths in the zoo, and we might even be able to squeeze a bit more time out of our civilisation before the whole project goes tits up.

31 August 2010

More Lough-Lapping Lamentation

Hey - I just found out that a bunch of folks did the Lap the Lough on Sunday in support of the EMMS. And I didn't know, so didn't get the chance to say hello. Ah well - maybe next year, and this time I'll keep my ear closer to the ground.

30 August 2010

Pretty pictures in the Synoptics!

Ian's analysis of synoptic similarities
Over at Irreducible Complexity (a jolly fine blog - I would highly recommend it), Ian has been busy - perhaps this is why we haven't heard from him in a while, but I hope the hiatus was a blip... He has done a cross-comparison between the three synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke. As everyone knows, these gospels are the first three, and contain a huge amount of shared material. We know that none of them were written by eye-witnesses to the events they describe in the life of Jesus the Nazarene, but it is very likely that Matthew and Luke created their gospels by starting with Mark (the most ancient, dating to about 40 years after Jesus died), and working in other material, plus their own bits and bobs. Over subsequent centuries, various scribes and copyists altered some of the material in all three, and we ended up with what we have today.
What Ian has done here (best read the post, of course!) is to compare when Matthew, Mark and Luke agree on specific Greek words in their shared stories about Jesus; this might indicate a shared source. The analysis is interesting, as you can see - it confirms a huge degree of interdependence.
Still, I think it's missing something. What we need is a co-analysis of where the various stories appear, and if there is any sign of deliberate alteration or correction of a more primitive text. For example, most scholars agree that Mark came first (or at least most of it), as its Greek is a bit "countrified"; Luke and Matthew spoke better Greek (both were evidently living in the Hellenistic world, not the Aramaic-steeped wilds of Palestine), and therefore corrected and sanitised Mark in a reverse process of that which Mark Twain used to reflect the dialogue of Huckleberry Finn.
I'm sure this has been done before, but one set of techniques which could be very helpful in sorting these things out would be to use some of the tools of modern bioinformatics, when we search and compare the genomes of different species to infer their evolutionary relationships. I'm going to toddle off to have a wee think about this, and may report back...

29 August 2010

28 August 2010

BBC dumb and dumber and dumberer...

BBC health correspondents catch a
few rays while dreaming up headlines
What in tarnation is the Beeb trying to do these days? Hot on the heels of some really silly comments in an article on evolutionary biology comes the startling news that "Food pipe cancer doubles in men".

Food pipe cancer.

FOOD PIPE cancer??

It's OESOPHAGEAL cancer, people! Even "cancer of the gullet" would be preferable. But "food pipe"? Please for damn sake halt this descent into verbal infantility. Oesophageal cancer is a very very serious disease; at the very least, the population of the UK needs to know what the oesophagus is, and the factors that cause this cancer.

I suppose in other news we will have oral cancer replaced by "cake hole cancer"? Lung cancer by "cancer of the oxygen exchange organs"? Stomach cancer is bad enough - most people regard any cancer between the "food pipe" and the "poo pipe" as "stomach cancer" - this needs to change.

Come on, BBC, sort it out! You're supposed to be leading the field, not grazing in it.

26 August 2010

Research Governance Blues

So here I am, waiting to fly home, after a very interesting meeting in London to do with a large genetics research project we're collectively trying to get off the ground (so am I - my plane is over an hour delayed). Who would have thought that the process of getting research approved could be so difficult, so byzantine, so seemingly obtuse? After hours of discussing SSIs, CLRNs, MRECs and LRECs, I think I understand even less than I did before.

HOWEVER, this has instilled in me a deep and rigid determination to get this thing sorted. It will happen - it may be difficult, it will certainly involve a lot of work, but sometimes when you see that the mountain is high, and legions of gerbils are arrayed in your path, the only thing to do is get out the strimmer and start slicing through them.

Or die trying.

BBC Science hack is daft as a rock - oh my golly golly gosh!

Seriously, I expect more from the BBC than this. I'm a taxpayer and a licence payer. I'm a doctor and I want my sausages. But Howard Falcon-Lang, a science reporter for the BBC, has reported a piece entitled: Space is the final frontier for evolution, study claims. He kicks off with this rather incendiary statement:
"Charles Darwin may have been wrong when he argued that competition was the major driving force of evolution.

He imagined a world in which organisms battled for supremacy and only the fittest survived."

So I'm only two sentences into the article, and the only thing I can deduce is that Howard Falcon-Lang has not got the slightest clue about Darwin, and not the foggiest notion about evolutionary theory.

Essentially, the article is about a paper that has found that one of the most significant factors determining the amount of biodiversity that arises in an ecosystem is the actual amount of room (or opportunity) for the species to evolve into - effectively, the number of available niches. This is not controversial, but the paper is a nice demonstration of how species can radiate out to fill several niches that suddenly become available, whether by the extinction of big old critters like dinosaurs, or by colonising virgin territory. It's nice work, and a good demonstration of the power of evolution.

Indeed, it shows that Darwin was right.

But we knew that.

Someone should tell Howard.

Unless Howard is not responsible for those initial sentences, which were instead introduced by a sub-editor? In which case he should find that sub-editor and rip them a new one.

Otherwise the article is fine. There.

25 August 2010

'Hell' as an invention of the church

I *like* Bishop John Selby Spong. A courageous, individual and coherent thinker. I disagree on a few minor points, but this is what it's all about.

Check out this video on YouTube:


Sent from my iPhone

24 August 2010

Homeopathy posters removed

Unauthorised posters promoting quackery have been removed from the postgraduate centre noticeboards in Belfast City Hospital. Hospitals should be places of healing, not pandering to New Age crystal-hugging woo.

Was Bes the god of Down Syndrome in Ancient Egypt?

This is a little poster I prepared for the British Human Genetics Conference in 2009. I have this hunch - dare I call it a hypothesis? - that Ancient Egyptians would have recognised Down Syndrome in people born with this condition, and may have made a connection between them and the god Bes. Bes was an interesting god - a dwarf god with a leonine aspect. He was very popular in the domestic setting, but lacked a formal cult centre during most of Egyptian history. Theophoric names mentioning Bes are relatively uncommon, despite Egypt being awash with Bes amulets and statuettes. Have a look at the poster; let me know what you think. Also, if you come across any Bes names or (even better!) Down Syndrome mummies, I would love to get my hands on some data.


Sent from my iPhone

23 August 2010

Bad Science

Every now and again I post a short book review on AnswersInGenes, and every now and again I don't. For example, I know at least one reader who is itching to hear my review of "Should Christians Embrace Evolution?", even though he knows I'm going to trash it and make mean comparisons to "Should Christians Embrace Gravity?" or "Should Christians Embrace Telephones?" Facts are facts, whether they cause you the theowobbles or not. Big boys don't cry about such things. But I merely throw this out by way of a teaser. I *will* review that book. Some day.

But not today. Today I would like to draw the attention of whatever readers manage to dodge the tumbleweed and jangle their spurs down the dusty main street of this ornery ghost town to the supremely brilliant book "Bad Science" by the fantastic Dr Ben Goldacre. In a joyous, but nonetheless rigorous and meticulously researched, romp through the world of alternative medicine and similar pseudoscientific nonsense, Ben comprehensively debunks the likes of "Dr" Gillian McKeith, the former darling of the stool-gazing media, whose qualifications and claims do not stand up to the remotest scrutiny. That should be enough in and of itself, but no. There's more.

Demolishing the bogus claims of outright quackery like homeopathy and Andrew Wakefield's atrocious MMR vaccine hoax, Ben cuts like a knife through rancid butter. But it is not just a debunking mission - along the way you learn about things like the placebo effect (profoundly misunderstood by the public), regression to the mean, and other sources of bias that scientists are very much aware of, but charlatans love to use to con the public.

This is one of those books where you come out the other end *smarter* than when you started - and that is always a good thing. I can't recommend it highly enough.

22 August 2010

I'm lapping the Lough...

Next Sunday (29th) I'll be joining hundreds of other cyclists to circumpedallate the largest freshwater lake in the British Isles, Lough Neagh. 87 miles, so it's not a killer, but I've been a bit slack in my training lately, so it's a challenge.

For the uninitiated, Lough Neagh is pretty big. It's twice the size of the Sea of Galilee, and the third largest lake in Europe, after Lake Geneva and Lake Constance. We have a wee boat down at Kinnego Marina near Lurgan, and on the rare occasions we can dump the kids and head out for a sail, it's marvellous. Lough Neagh is a haven for bird life (and flies). But this time I'll be cycling, not sailing.

I haven't been raising any sponsorship for this run, largely because I've been rather busy, but if you feel inspired to the root of your very soul by the thought of hundreds of punters moving in an orderly circuit of our national treasure, I would like you to consider donating to Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) and help them get badly-needed relief to the people of Pakistan who have been hit so badly by the recent floods - as well as to other very needy people around the world.

The other thing I would love people to do is to THINK for themselves. Try to identify one belief or opinion that you hold on the basis of *authority* - that someone has told you to think or believe, or that you've maybe read somewhere. Ask yourself: "is this TRUE?" Ask: "If I didn't have this particular authority telling me this is true, would I have any basis for believing it?", and: "Suppose my authority is *wrong* - how could I check whether it is *really* true?"

Freethought. It won't cost you anything but the fundamental underpinnings of your worldview. And "faith" and "sincerity" are dirt cheap anyway. It takes effort and bravery to subject your own beliefs to scrutiny and revision.

Oh, and I think there may be some places left on the bike ride - sign up and come along!

17 August 2010

Theodicy. Sorted.

For centuries, theologians have wrestled with the central problem of their odd assumption of a benevolent god - why is there so much *death* in the world? Why would a loving god create a world in which everything *died*, often in pretty horrible ways? What could such a designer have been *thinking* of? Explanations such as "original sin" have been proposed, but have been dismissed as philosophically infantile. A slightly more grown-up (but still utterly flawed) proposal has been to regard evil as the consequence of free will - if death didn't happen, our free will would be impaired. That makes no sense at all, and again most philosophers regard it as silly.

But now I will reveal the answer. Why all the death?

Answer: SEX, SEX, SEX.

God must simply *love* sex. Lots and lots and lots of sex. Bat sex, whale sex, ragworm sex, crab sex, duck sex, cheeky monkey sex. Lemming sex, octopus sex, snail sex, caddis-fly sex. The animal kingdom is tripping over itself with the kinkiest, wildest, wettest, hairiest, horniest, craziest sex you could ever imagine. Some birds do it while they are flying; in some spider species, the female eats the male after sex. Some nematode worms practically envelop each other during sex, while some frogs display spectacular acts of acrobatics to fertilise their spawn. No need to go on. No need to over-egg the pudding.

God made death to clear the stage for a gigantic explosion of critters gettin' it on. A benevolent god, who wants his creatures to shag the living daylights out of each other. Which he can (presumably) watch from on high.

And thereby theism is rescued. I wonder why Cecil Frances Alexander didn't include sex in "All Things Bright and Beautiful"?

15 August 2010

What the heck is this? [Marine biology]

So we're walking along the beach at Jordanstown, minding our own business, when one of the kids gets swallowed whole by this critter. It's about 20cm long (that's a 5 pence piece there to give you some scale), has dozens of fleshy little undulating legs; you can see it's segmented, and when bothered, it exudes a milky liquid, which I presume is either some sort of repellent, or possibly worm sexy stuff (whatever turns 'em on, I guess).

OK, that's enough clues - who's going to identify the beast?

14 August 2010

Inherit the Wind

Last night I had the fun experience of going to Queen's Film Theatre in Belfast to watch the famous epic "Inherit the Wind", and to discuss the film and its implications afterwards in a panel discussion.

It's a great movie, based on a play of the same name, itself loosely based on the 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial", where a schoolteacher was brought to trial for teaching evolution in Tennessee, in contravention of a crazy law that prohibited it. The facts of the case are somewhat different in the play and in real life, but the movie iconicised the dramatic conflict between science and religious fundamentalism.
After the film I participated in a panel discussion with Rev Scott Peddie and Prof Norman Nevin. We had a very amicable and (I hope) entertaining discussion, expertly chaired by William Crawley of the BBC (who put the film series together of which this was part). I never know whether minds are changed by debates or panel discussions, but we had a lot of fun, and I'm wondering if someone is going to make a similar film around the 2005 Kitzmiller trial, which in many ways would make for excellent drama fodder in its own right. I do think that ITW held up creationism and biblical literalism/inerrancy to very appropriate ridicule; it deserves a wide audience.

11 August 2010

Update! 5th Force nomenclature revised

Hot on the heels (and up the sides and over the seat of your car and on your trousers) of the breaking news story on the discovery of the 5th fundamental force of nature, the International Physical Union, the governing body of physicists worldwide, has revised the name of the fundamental particles that carry the 5th force from "shitons" to "steptons".

"We're really very excited about this", commented Prof Helga Hundscheisse, Nobel laureate, and head of the IPU committee that recommended the change.

08 August 2010

Breaking News: 5th fundamental force of Nature discovered!

Up until now, scientists have been of the view that there are four fundamental forces in Nature - gravity (the weakest of these, but the most significant over long distances, electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force which holds protons and neutrons together in the nucleus of an atom, and the strong nuclear force which holds these particles themselves together internally.

Now, after many experiments in the idyllic Irish countryside, a team of Very Clever Scientists announces the discovery of the FIFTH FORCE (F5). It is a moment that will echo through the hallowed halls of science, and will generate Nobel Prizes aplenty. The discovery of the F5 promises faster computing, cheaper access to outer space, time travel, and possibly cleaner footwear.

What is F5?

The Fifth Force is one of the most irresistible forces of nature - it is the force generated between a dog turd and the shoes of any small children within close proximity. Parents have known for years that when they take their small kids out for a walk, if there is a dog turd anywhere nearby, the child WILL stand in it, and WILL tramp it into your car or into the house. F5 works in an unusual way - although the child's mass and the turd's mass are very different (usually), the child is attracted towards the turd, rather than the turd towards the child. The asymmetry may be explained by the generation of a force-field around the turd that has an absolute reference frame, yet keeps pace with the earth's rotation and other factors that may influence the location of the turd. This may have implications for Einsteinian relativity, and has already been used in a prototype zero-energy engine, comprising a small child strapped into a harness, dangled 2 feet away from a dog turd (at foot level), in much the same way as a donkey/carrot/cart arrangement. Researchers are working on a vertical version which may show anti-gravity effects, allowing easier access to space, although how the field performs in an accelerating reference frame has yet to be established.

To explain the activity of this force, physicists have had to postulate the existence of force carriers, which are referred to as shitons. A fresh dog turd emits many more shitons than an old one, although even the white chalky turds still emit an appreciable number, and give rise to a statistically higher rate of child-stepping-into than, say, a dummy rubber decoy.

An interesting phenomenon that arises from this is that once the dog turd has been stepped in, the field dissipates for that child's foot, but the resultant relaxation of the field means that when the child enters a car or the house, the shitons mediate an attraction to every available surface, so the turd gets spread far and wide before the smell is noticed. Adults' trousers appear to be particularly vulnerable.

In prospective experiments, another unusual phenomenon has been demonstrated - the louder and more insistently an adult alerts a child to the presence of a dog turd, the greater the attractive force between the small child's foot and the turd seems to be, reaching near infinity with more anguished warnings.

Despite these stunning successes, team leader Dr Shane McKee has announced that he does not wish to renew his research grant, and wishes to leave further research to up-and-coming scientists. "I'm too old for this shite," he said.