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?
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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.