21 October 2012


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This lovely babbling brook runs through the tiny Co Antrim village of Glenoe in the hills above Larne. It leads on to a beautiful waterfall. These are the things you really only find if you're on your bike, and there's no better place to bike than these hills.

03 October 2012

Causeway Calamity for Caleb!

Victory for the forces of reason.
Oh no! The National Trust has reviewed the wording of a controversial (if tiny) section of it explanatory guide to the Giant's Causeway. Following worldwide protests at the apparent appeasement of biblical hyperliteralists, the NT has done the decent thing and altered the section to make it more accurate. It is significant in a number of ways. Firstly, it acknowledges that some people don't accept science. That's fine. Secondly, it does not use the word "creationist" - that's better. Thirdly, it states that people who claim a "young" date for the Causeway do so "often for religious reasons". Again this is correct, although I might have altered that to "exclusively for religious reasons".

This is another major fiasco for creationist groups such as "Answers in Genesis" and the "Caleb Foundation". It joins a list of prominent failures by this small, if enthusiastic, band of pseudoscientific crackpots:

  1. In 2010, Minister Nelson McCausland failed in his efforts to get the Ulster Museum to "reflect a creationist viewpoint". The museum simply ignored him.
  2. The Intelligent Design Creationist pressure group "Truth in Science" sent copies of their highly misleading and error-strewn text "Explore Evolution" to schools throughout the UK in 2009, including Northern Ireland. This was treated with derision by schools, and the Departments of Education in the devolved regions of the UK all emphasised that the curriculum was based on science, not on misrepresentation and religiously inspired pseudoscientific nonsense. Even schools affiliated with churches took the same view. The creationists were left with serious facial egg.
  3. Lisburn City Council in 2007, at the instigation of Councillor Paul Givan of the DUP, wrote to all schools in the Lisburn area demanding they state what provisions they were making for teaching creationism. The schools wrote back, often including clergy members of the Boards of Governors, telling the Council that their schools taught the curriculum, and in science classes, science would be taught, not creationism.
So things are not looking good for the creationists. Despite several members of the notorious Caleb Foundation being in powerful positions in the government of Northern Ireland, people power has held them to account, and prevented the rot from getting too far.

Not that we should be complacent - if our chirpy little creationist pals have taught us anything, it is that they are persistent. Constant vigilance and ridicule are necessary, because, sadly, they have proven time and time again that they are completely immune to scientific reasoning, and the only thing that counts is a naive, rigid, and historically and scientifically absurd adherence to their very narrow and specific interpretation of Genesis Chapter 1.

21 September 2012

Good grief, what has Una been up to now?

Image credit: Pulsetoday.co.uk
 I don't think I've ever suggested to an examination candidate that they should make sure they don't act "overtly gay" in an examination situation, and certainly if I was examining a doctor in a clinical exam setting, I really hope I would not let the doctor's personal mannerisms affect my judgement as to their clinical competence.

But then I'm not a GP. According to Dr Una Coales, high profile former TV doc and former candidate for the presidency of the Royal College of General Practitioners, and current RCGP Council member, the College is a right-wing conservative organisation, and if you want to pass your exams, you need to straighten up, soldier.

Well, if an exam candidate asked me, I would certainly tell them they need to be presentable and professional, as well as courteous, confident - and of course, when it comes down to it, clinically competent. But Una is in some hot water [Daily Mail] because of her comments which appeared in her self-published "Dr Una Coales's MRCGP CSA Book". It makes the twin assertions that "overtly gay" people need to change their mannerisms if they want to pass exams, and that the RCGP is "right wing" - both of these seem entirely wrongheaded. Several punters have weighed in on the matter, including Dr Christian Jessen (presenter of C4's "Embarrassing Bodies") who "wanted to weep" when he read about the issue.

Anyway, the RCGP are looking into things and have issued a statement clarifying that no, they are not homophobic. I'm not entirely sure what all the fuss is about in that there is clearly no actual malice in Una's writings, however ill-advised. You could argue that as a council member of the RCGP she should jolly well know better, and indeed be in a position to change a "right wing conservative" culture in the College if that were actually real (even though Una is the secretary of "Conservative Health", a real right wing conservative lobby group in the health sector - go figure).

However, I'm particularly upset because she advises foreign candidates for the exam to emulate Scottish or Welsh accents in order to neutralise bias, but for some unfathomable reason neglects the beautiful Northern Irish accent, which would certainly allow any prospective candidate not just to pass, but to do so with flying colours. Provided, of course, they can actually do the job and put their patient first, which is, after all, what the highly professional examiners at the RCGP try to assess.

11 September 2012

Photos of Nazareth

Some photos of my recent trip to visit the Nazareth Hospital on the occasion of its 150th Anniversary. Enjoy!

28 August 2012

A very short video about Egyptian Medicine.

Yes - I'm playing with videos. I shot this on the phone just as a quick test to see what it would come out like.Your comments welcome; see if you spot the same things that also annoy me...

26 August 2012

I'm a doctor. I'm a doctor and I want my Moonbase!

Why do the supervillains get to have all the fun? Here we are in 2012, mourning the passing of Neil Armstrong - a legend and a hero to so many of us - and it has been over 40 years since anyone has been on the Moon.

As I mentioned previously, I am a big fan of our ventures into space. I feel that our civilisation has so much to gain by pushing outwards beyond our little planet, out to the Universe at large. I don't just mean psychologically. I'm not just talking about feeding our curiosity for the sake of it (although that has its place). It's more than that. This is about advancing.

I'm a geneticist. I try to diagnose and manage (as best I can) a wide range of genetic disorders affecting adults and children. I try to use my medical skills and the best technology can offer in order to fulfil my duty. Despite being at the cutting edge, we are severely cash-strapped. It's difficult to fund the tests and treatments that our patients need. Although we deal with rare disorders, there are a lot of them. Up to 6% of people will be affected with a rare disorder - that's quite a large demographic - much larger than the slice of the pie given over to, say, severe mental health or multiple sclerosis.

Given this, you might think that I would want research on Large Hadron Colliders and space programmes to be diverted towards rare diseases research, but I don't. I do want more money for rare diseases research, but not at the expense of these other projects. I've already outlined why in The Medical Case For Mars, but there is a general point that I think needs to be made very clear.

It is this. Most of the major enabling advances that have delivered real tangible benefit to health care, and have driven health technology forward have not arisen in the health sector.

Isn't that crazy? But it's true. The science that underpinned MRI scanners would never have been developed if research funds had been diverted from pure physics towards brain disorders. The science behind next-generation DNA sequencers - the technology that is completely revolutionising my field of genetics right now - would never have arisen had it not been for "blue sky" research in the fields of nanofabrication, lasers, high resolution optics (itself based to a large extent on tech developed for satellites) and several other fields that have nothing to do with genetics. Even the structure of DNA was only solved almost 60 years ago by the application of X-ray diffraction techniques that originated in physics labs while the world was struggling to find cures for TB.

We also hear the argument that research should not take place into rare diseases until the more common diseases have been tackled first, but the proof of the pudding here is that rare diseases very often provide the key critical insights into human biology that allow common diseases to be treated better. The "rare" disorder of familial hypercholesterolaemia allowed us to make the breakthroughs that resulted in treatments for heart disease. Research into "rare" (1/10,000) Huntington's Disease is already having benefits to patients with Alzheimer's disease. Rare forms of cancer are providing clues that allow more common forms of cancer to be treated - these are examples within the health sector, but there are many examples from outside too.

The point I am trying to make here is that our civilisation does not and cannot advance piecemeal. What we gain in one area can often cross-fertilise other areas. If we cut back on research into (say) high energy physics and concentrate everything on finding a cure for (say) muscular dystrophy, we run a very real risk of missing a trick that would allow us to develop a new treatment or investigative modality that might dramatically improve the lot of those patients we are trying to benefit.

I'm going to say this again, in a slightly different way: The critical enabling insights that have allowed most major medical advances in the past century have arisen from studying other things than the diseases they have ultimately come to benefit.

There is a major important big stonking implication from this: SCIENCE MATTERS.

It is not enough to pay lip service to science. We MUST invest in science and in scientific thinking. We need our scientists to think outside the box and across disciplines. We need polymaths. We need jacks of all trades. We need specialists who talk to the jacks. We need entrepreneurs. We need risk-takers. We need a scientifically-literate populace and scientifically-literate politicians. The benefits of research are not just seen in the citation indices of publications, but in the overall raising of that tide of scientific advance that our civilisation floats on. We need geeks. We need the pen-protector white-socked engineers that Neil Armstrong represented, and that all of a sudden people are emerging from the sociology-laced woodwork to belatedly salute.

So, dear readers, in this spirit, I want YOU to help ME change Northern Ireland from the world's perception of a sectarian backwater into a world leader in science. We can do that by making our presence and our attitude known to our politicians. You CAN make a practical difference - click here to see the pledge to send a copy of Mark Henderson's book "The Geek Manifesto" to every MLA in the Northern Ireland Assembly. This is only one small thing - you can think of how YOU would like to make a difference.

Did I say "sectarian backwater"? That is a view the world has of us, but bloody hell - we produced Lord Kelvin. We produced Ernest Walton, John Stewart Bell, Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Frank Pantridge and many other scientists and doctors who have revolutionised the world. Not bad for a wee country of only 1.8 million. We should be up there in the top league, and it's time our politicians realised this.

Now, where's my bloody moonbase?

In Memoriam

Neil Armstrong, 1930-2012 via 1969. Hero of Earth. RIP.

21 August 2012

Tiocfaidh ar Lab! For Science and For Ulster.

Mark Henderson has a vision. That vision is that science and, importantly, the scientific attitude have been neglected in our politics and in society for far too long. Sure, we've made some astonishing advances, but you'd hardly think so when you look at the Members of our Legislative Assembly up in Stormont, or in the political classes across the wider UK & Ireland. Politics is jammed full of humanities graduates who just don't understand the soul of the "geek" or the benefit that can be brought to society if those of us who care about science and skepticism (with a k) get working on proper solutions to the problems of our age.

I've set up a pledge to put a copy of Mark's book "The Geek Manifesto" on the desk of each MLA at Stormont, and I want YOU to help. Look, I even made you a video:

My aim is to ensure that our Assembly is aware that science cannot be sidelined or marginalised or fobbed off with the sort of nonsense we recently encountered from some in relation to the Giant's Causeway, the Ulster Museum or other aspects of our scientific heritage. We, the geeks of Northern Ireland, will rise up to protect our good name as one of the countries in the world with the greatest output of top scientists, from Lord Kelvin in the Victorian era to Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell in our own.

So please have a look at the Pledge, sign it, and join the revolution. This is above politics, it is above the narrow tribalism of our "sectarian divide". Science unites people and drives us forward - not many activities are as positive as that. Furthermore, the potential economic benefits are enormous.

Geek the vote!

20 August 2012

Space science and ground science

Regular readers will know I am a fan of space exploration, and have recently set forth a few points making a medical case for a Mars mission. Just now we hear of a new development in Aerogel technology that shows, as if it needs to be shown again, that developments in technology in general hold out the promise to benefit our lives on this planet and out in the wider realms of space beyond.

Let's keep developing, and keep cross-fertilising, so that developments in disparate fields can influence each other, and drive our tech and our medicine forward. That's what we have been doing for years, and it's what we as an inventive species are getting much better at.

Flexible aerogels - I'm a fan already!

18 August 2012

07 August 2012

The Medical Case for Mars

I'm a Clinical Geneticist. That's a doctor who works in genetic medicine, dealing mainly with lthe diagnosis and management of patients with rare disorders and birth defects. Many of them have conditions you'll never have heard of, and often I'll never have heard of them either until they pitch up in my clinic.

The recent NASA triumph of landing the Curiosity Rover, also known as the Mars Science Laboratory, on the surface of Mars cost $2.5 billion, and many people have remarked upon what could be done in the field of medicine with that sort of money. Actually, it's not that far off what we used to sequence the entire human genome at the end of the last century, and that has kicked off a spectacular revolution in genetic medicine that we're still only scratching the surface of. Think about what we could do if that was diverted into genetic research!

And yet NASA have used all this money to build a rover and send it to another planet. How will this benefit my patients? Isn't it a spectacular waste of money? And what about all those people starving in Africa, or who could be cured or relatively simple diseases, if only we had $2.5 billion to spend on them?

You might therefore be surprised to find me, a doctor who doesn't deal with astronauts or fighter pilots (usually) or extremes of temperature or pressure or endurance, who treats people, not rocks or gullies or ice or asteroids, saying in no uncertain terms that we should push out beyond the bounds of our small planet, and explore the vastness of space.

Yet that is precisely what I will argue. Indeed, I feel very strongly that we should be pushing to land people on Mars, and establish colonies there and elsewhere in the Solar System. We should be putting money into space technology, and stretching the challenges we give our space agencies and their commercial partners.

I will freely admit that part of my motivation stems from the fact that when I was a little boy I had posters of all the Apollo astronauts over my bedroom walls. I was thrilled and inspired by the derring do of the Skylab and Salyut crews, and the probes we sent to other planets and out to Jupiter and beyond. I voraciously read science fiction and imagined what it would be like to sail among the stars, discovering new worlds and new life. I dreamt of giant orbital space colonies, containing thousands of people, drifting on the solar wind out to the moons of Saturn. In my mind's eye I gazed down at the Earth from the craters of the Moon. And that is all very well for a little boy, but here on Earth we have real problems to deal with, and as a doctor I have real patients with very real medical needs.

However, when I look at my patients, I see many of them who would not be alive, were it not for technology either directly or indirectly linked to one of Humankind's Great Projects. The Space Race drove rapid miniaturisation of electrical components, which has totally revolutionised investigative medicine. From endoscopes to imaging technology, many modalities that we take for granted would not have been developed (or at least not developed to the stage where I can access them for my patients in Belfast), had it not been for space. Techniques that we use for monitoring patients in surgery or intensive care were developed and refined by the need to use them in space to monitor astronauts. Image analysis algorithms used to investigate other planets (and our own from orbit) are now used to analyse scans on patients. Lightweight cheap disposable sensors are routinely used in hospital patients to monitor oxygen levels and other biological parameters, and are a direct spin-off, at least in production terms, of technologies that were developed alongside the space programmes.

And that's not even beginning to get to the massive benefits space technology has had in terms of monitoring and understanding our planet and putting people in touch with each other, allowing rapid sharing of information and research. The fact that we can feed 7 billion people is due in a large extent to our understanding and modelling of our planet from orbit. The fact that we don't feed 7 billion people adequately is down to all the bad things about human nature that space has the potential to lift us above.

In human history there are two major drivers of rapid technological advance. The first is War. The second is a Great Project. If we are to maintain peace on our fragile planet, I fervently hope that the second option is the one we choose to impel our civilisation onwards. If we choose to go to Mars - not because it is easy, to channel JFK, but because it is hard, we will be setting ourselves a tremendous challenge. A challenge to develop technologies to move people vast distances safely, to monitor humans, plants, animals and ecosystems in conditions that are very unfamiliar, to shrink scientific equipment, sensors and other items as much as possible, to learn much much more about human physiology and psychology, and perhaps even to value our beautiful blue planet that bit more, that we may take better care of it. As NASA showed with the Curiosity lander, if we set ourselves a challenge, and rise to it, we can achieve truly wonderful things.

As I look at some of my little patients, who are only alive because we have the spin-off technology to fix their heart defects or their diaphragmatic hernias, or because we were able to monitor them better in the womb, or because our supercomputers were able to analyse their scans, or because we were able to consult in real time with experts on the other side of the planet - as I see those kids, I don't begrudge NASA their $2.5 billion. The technology that put that lander on Mars is going to help people in the future. I can't foresee exactly how, but I know it will. And similarly, an effort by Humanity to reach out beyond our planet and colonise other worlds will yield benefits back here on our Pale Blue Dot.

And do you know what? Many of my little patients have posters of astronauts on their walls too, and they also have dreams of life among the stars.

06 August 2012

Microwaves: they lurk you know.

Click to enlarge. Ding!
I'll be honest - I don't usually expect very much from the Northern Ireland Healthcare Review. But, seriously people, if you are pitching your rag at the cream of the medical establishment in our esteemed Province, at least have the decency not to fill it with total crap.

Like the article to the left. This month's incarnation of the Fastest Diabetic Foot Ulcer Dressing Nurse Practitioner of the Year Award Magazine has a hilarious story on page 63 of how we are dramatically increasing our risk of a lingering death by using a microwave. Perhaps the most surprising statistic in this litany of ripped-off shite is the revelation that 80% of people in Northern Ireland use a microwave. Seriously. What the hell are the other 20% doing? Microwaves are a "lurking danger in your kitchen" (they lurk?) and "ingestion of microwaved food caused a higher percentage of cancerous cells in the blood."

This "research" (which is uncited, and the article doesn't even tell us who wrote this bullshit) is actually largely re-packaged (that's a polite word for "plagiarised" from an  altie website on tripod.com (yes - it still exists!). Interestingly, the website in question, http://healingtools.tripod.com , contains all sorts of warnings as to what will happen to people who misuse their copyright - presumably the wrath of the Lord will be invoked, or some similarly evidence-based smitery.

Be that as it may. Normally the NI Healthcare Review is considered a bit of mindless junk entertainment for Northern Irish medics. It is not usually taken that seriously. You look at it to see your colleagues in silly suits or dresses, holding shapeless bits of glass that are going to end up shoved to the back of the top of a very high cupboard. However, I feel a line has been crossed here. How dare Medical Communications Ltd foist this cobblers on the medical community in Northern Ireland? Why not contact them and let them know how you feel? If medical professionals are being pissed over in this tawdry manner, spare a thought to the quality of the information that the glossy media are pouring down the throats of our patients. It's time to make our voices heard.

03 August 2012

Canyons of Mars - the Kitchen Table Version

Just recorded this on the phone in the kitchen tonight, for those of you who like your music raw, uncut, slightly out of time and key - EXACTLY as it would be if you were on Earth and I was hammering it out on whatever old guitar they let me take to Mars. Except the kitchen may be smaller.

"Canyons of Mars" (C) Shane McKee, 2012. (minor lyric updates 2013)

We work the red ground here - I can't call it earth;
This isn't the soil of the land of my birth.
"We can't bring you back," they said, leaving no doubt we were true pioneers.
In this desolate landscape we're staking our plot,
But dreams still return me to one pale blue dot
Lost in the heavens, whispering echoes of triumph and tears.

But all we can do is step forwards each day,
Because entropy's journey is only one way
From the footprints they left in the Turkana clay,
Walking under the stars I can see from the canyons of Mars.

The next ship from Earth will bring four new recruits -
We'll fit them with visors and helmets and boots,
And we'll set them to work on reactors and rovers and solar arrays.
They'll join the endeavour and never return
To the places and people they loved, and they'll learn
To adjust to their destiny,
Factor it over the course of their days

But all the psychologists can't tell me yet
If it's best to remember or try to forget
How we stood there in Belfast when the sun had long set,
Gazing out at the stars I now see from the canyons of Mars.

Now Sarah and Ravi have just had their kid;
You followed the pregnancy - the whole of Earth did,
Through broadcast and podcast and media storm -
She's the first of her breed.
We're extending the habitat under the ground,
We'll fill it with air and with colour and sound;
And we'll love them and feed them and keep them all warm -
Is that all that they'll need?

Because her generation's the next link in a chain
Stretching out from a planet of forests and rain,
And the one point of reference that can help us explain
Is: we saw those same stars they can see from the canyons of Mars.

But the frail force of gravity won't hold them here
As they look to the heavens with no trace of fear.
And we'll watch them lift off, and then disappear,
As they carry our dreams to the stars from the canyons of Mars.

28 July 2012

The "2001 Code" - Clarke & Kubrick's last puzzle.

I simply cannot believe I never spotted this before. There is a code within 2001 - A Space Odyssey.

Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke were clever chaps - that much is not disputed. Their 1968 movie "2001 - A Space Odyssey" is, 44 years after its creation, still regarded as one of the best science fiction movies ever made. The story hits home at so many levels, yet it was only last night as I was humming tunes over in my head that I realised it contains a secret code. I'm still trying to work it out, but after you've listened to Strauss's "Blue Danube" above, think about this scene in the movie:

Notice anything?

Now play back the Blue Danube, and sing "Daisy Daisy" along over the top. Incredibly, it fits in perfect counterpoint.

Coincidence? I don't think so. What are Clarke and Kubrick trying to tell us?

OK, people, go to it. I have given you the first link in the chain. This is only removing one of the locks of the secret, but now you know that it's there, there are other elements within the movie that you can spot, join the dots, and remove more locks. What is the hidden message that Kubrick and Clarke were trying to convey?

First one to figure it out gets a ride to Jupiter!

22 July 2012

In praise of Creationists.

Creationists are great. Really. Following on from my previous post about the chirpy little Caleb Foundation pretending that the National Trust had "recognised the legitimacy of creationist views", I wondered whether I had been a little harsh. A major creationist fantasy (and they hope by continually making the claim that it will somehow become true) is that there is an ongoing debate within science about "Creation" vs "Evolution". This ties in with the declared "Wedge Strategy" which has been adopted by creationist organisations such as the Discovery Institute in the US, and while the Wedge has arguably had effects in US, it has been a conspicuous flop in the UK and Europe.

That may be changing - as noted by Adam Rutherford, Creationists have succeeded in getting approval to run Free Schools in the UK, and, although they declare they will not teach creationism "as a scientific theory" (this simply to satisfy the inspectors), they will convey a "creationist ethos". No-one, apart from otherwise sensible people like the @thechurchmouse blogger (worth a Twitter follow, seriously), is taken in by this. The goal of creationists is to get their "theory" into public discourse so that, even if it is treated with total derision in scientific circles, the public are somehow conned into thinking that it poses a credible alternative to the scientific view.

Yet... yet... are creationists really all that bad? Yes, they are pseudoscientific fantasists, and their arguments have been trashed over and over again. But could they actually be useful?

I was mulling this over a while back when it hit me that some of the most beautiful pieces of evidence that we have for evolution have been honed and clarified for presentation the general public by scientists precisely because of misguided creationist claims. For example, the fascinating story of human chromosome 2, while well known to scientists, was never really used as a means to teach the public about evolution - until the creationists started to warble about the impossibility of humans and other apes having a common ancestor. Truth be told, this simply reflected their ignorance of basic biology, but once the tatty old gauntlet was thrown down, Ken Miller picked it up, and in some of the best public engagement with science that I've seen in a long time whacked the creationists up and down the street with it, educating the public and making the arcana of molecular biology accessible to a general audience.

He did the same with the bacterial flagellum; others have done likewise with dinosaurs, birds, bacterial flagella, DNA sequences etc - now the general public are (arguably) much better informed on many of these issues than they would be if the creationists hadn't been around.

So next time you see Ken Ham or Billy Dembski bleating on about Intelligent Design or Young Earth Creationism, raise a glass to them for triggering some of the best scientific popularisation that we've seen recently, from real scientists, confirming our common ancestry with other life forms, the age of the universe, the mechanism of formation of the Giant's Causeway and Grand Canyon, etc.

It has been said that God needs the Devil to make him look good; I don't believe in either of those blokes, but there's no doubt that when presented with the tawdry attempt at a simulacrum of science from the creationists, many people see the the Real Thing to be even more wonderful and awesome than perhaps they ordinarily would.

So let's continue to ridicule creationism and poke fun at its proponents. I don't think this reduces us to their level - we don't have to debate them in formal arenas - instead, it shows that despite their protestations, evolutionary biology, geology, cosmology and science in general are so much more nourishing than their misinterpretations of ancient mythology. Thanks, Ken!

04 July 2012

National Trust succumbs to creationist lunacy?

The Giant's Causeway
Oh dear - it looks like I will have to investigate this. The UTV News are reporting that the new Visitor Centre at Northern Ireland's top tourist destination and UNESCO World Heritage Site is giving credence to the ridiculous and antiscientific creationist group, the Caleb Foundation. As everyone knows, the Giant's Causeway is a wonder of the natural world - a landscape of mainly hexagonal basalt columns, formed as an enormous lake of lava cooled about 60 million years ago.

Wallace Thompson is a chirpy wee puppy from this Caleb Foundation outfit, who are basically a Christianist pressure group set up to promote an ugly right-wing version of extreme Calvinism in a society that is actively trying to move on from the sectarianism of its past. He's delighted that the National Trust have included creationist material in the interpretative centre, despite the fact that the Causeway is not mentioned in the Bible at all. Wallace and other creationists feel that the Universe (that's your home, folks) was created about 6000 years ago, because they adopt an astonishingly naive view of Hebrew folklore, and reject the findings of biblical scholars, geologists and biologists alike. On the day when science unveiled the Higgs boson, boyos like Wallace are attempting to drag us into a world of fantasy and dragons.

[UPDATE 6/7/2012]
It has gradually become clear that the National Trust have been somewhat hoodwinked by the Caleb Foundation; it seems that all the NT were trying to do was to be "fair", while maintaining their position that the science behind the Causeway formation is firm. They were simply trying to acknowledge that creationists exist and have the views they do. On the face of it, this seems fair enough. However, what they failed to consider was how the creationists would use this little acknowledgement. It is born of naivety, not of malice.

The Caleb Foundation have used their inclusion to claim that the NT have recognised the "legitimacy" of their views, and therefore that there is a valid "debate" to be had; this allows them to claim that they are THE "umbrella group representing mainstream evangelical Christians", and by extension that Creationism is THE mainstream view of evangelical Christians, rather than the view of a crazy fringe.

The National Trust need to be very very clear on where they go next. They must immediately remove all references to creationist views from the material relating to the Causeway. If, upon review, it is felt that creationist views need a nod, this must be very clearly placed in the "Mythology, Folklore and Legend" section, along with the old stories of Finn MacCool, and alongside my personal favourite of the Giant Lava-secreting Bees. It is quite inappropriate for the National Trust to give the impression that this category of "explanation" is worthy of consideration as an "alternative" to a scientifically valid model.

I am very happy to discuss this with the National Trust if they'd like to get in contact (I'm @shanemuk on Twitter); I would suggest they engage the services of competent scientists who have expertise in dealing with creationists to assist in developing  their materials. Remember, organisations like Caleb are dishonest; they are pushing the Wedge Strategy, in order to foster the illusion that there is a genuine debate ongoing in the scientific field. Don't let them away with this. And, National Trust, we know you are honourable and have nothing but good intent - and that you have developed a world class visitor attraction. Let's work together to bring the wonder and glory of Northern Ireland's amazing geological heritage to  the world.

02 July 2012

What proper doctors have to learn from alternative medicine

Seek the inner centre of the soul within the harmony etc...
 Now settle down before you have a WTFeurysm – I have not gone all soft and altie. It’s still the same old Dr Shaney McKee, hard-nosed rationalist and scoffer-at-quacks, here. I’m not about to tell you that homeopathy or cranial osteopathy are anything other than mumbo-jumbo gobshitery. No. However, I think there are certain features of the “alternative medicine” interaction that real doctors need to have a long hard look at, and then look again at their own practice of medicine, and indeed the whole business of medicine altogether.

And by “business”, I am not talking about the generation of lucre. I’m not talking about soft-soaping gullible punters with sibilant whisperings that they want to hear. I’m not talking about lying to patients. Let’s cut to the quick. Not everything the alties say is complete cobblers. Much is, but some of it’s not. In our rush to apply intervention-looking things to every aspect of our patients’ lives, we’ve come perilously close to pushing the impression that people are only alive because we’re keeping them that way. Doctors hold the keys to life and death, and if we lose them down the back of the sofa, everyone is doomed.

The reality is different. If we lost many modern medicines, but kept things like good nutrition, clean water, sanitation, air quality etc, then probably most people would reach a reasonably ripe and happy old age. Heaven help me from the ministrations of too many doctors. Of course, many of these “non-medical” things owe their value-recognition to medics and their research, so I’m perhaps being a bit cavalier. Nevertheless, here is the deal: the human race survived and flourished for many millennia without modern medicine. The only “medicine” that was available was the purely empiric type; very few people were on regular prescribed treatments (and those that were generally died from them). There are a great many important exceptions to this, and I don’t want to get bogged down in the detail, but bear with me. To get to this stage, a hell of a lot of people had to die – it’s a process called natural selection – but the result is that the human body has evolved to be a reasonably resilient vehicle, even given a rather wide variety of environments.

Which brings me to the point where I think we could learn from the alties. In alternative medicine there is a great emphasis on allowing the body to “heal itself”. This is not surprising, given that most alternative medicines don’t contain anything that is actually likely to combat whatever disease process it’s being prescribed for. However, let’s be realistic. The human organism has many mechanisms that act together to maintain a certain equilibrium, and in most people, given reasonable supportive care, and barring nasty accidents, infections, cancers etc., this equilibrium will be sustained over a considerable period of time, say 70 years (the threescore years and ten of biblical allusion). For wetware, that’s really not bad at all. Many patients go to see an alternative medicine practitioner who tells them nice things they want to hear, does precisely nothing for them, then they feel a bit better, and hey presto, equilibrium restores itself (as evolution has effectively programmed it to do), and the patient thinks it was the alternative medicine that did the trick.

Of course there is something hugely unethical about this, as well as the huge fees some alternative practitioners charge, as well as their frequent discouragement of patients to attend real doctors when they have a real problem. But there is something in the interaction that proper doctors need to be aware of. I’m not saying that it is not the exact same interaction that many people would love to have with their doctors, and doctors would love to have with their patients, but the National Health Service is configured to make that seem the exception rather than the rule. Those exceptions are often extremely therapeutic, but it seems that they are insufficiently valued.

As doctors, we very frequently diagnose “disorders” that require “treatments” to put the body back on track, and then maintenance treatments to keep it on that track (the track generally being within a range of parameters that we’ve decided are normal for a 25 year-old male). And as our patients get older, their disorders of different systems require treatments that work via different mechanisms on various parts of our physiology, and it becomes less and less clear exactly what point in physiological Hilbert space the patients should (and even “should” is a loaded term) occupy. Take the octogenarians being admitted to British hospitals, and have a look at the multiplicity of medications we have them on – surely not all of these are contributing to their longevity or bon santé?

Perhaps – and I offer this somewhat tentatively – we need to take a step back. Instead of treating every damn thing, and putting people on maintenance medication to keep them “healthy” (as if the only thing standing between them and the grave is our drug cabinet), should we not adopt a general philosophy of supporting the body as it restores its own equilibrium? It sounds almost vomit-inducingly New-Age; I can hear the tinkle of crystals and wind-chimes already. And of course I am being spectacularly over-simplistic. I’m also attacking a gross straw man – most doctors are perfectly aware of this, and we do try to de-medicalise our patients where possible. Furthermore, for my rhetorical point, I am glossing over the very many harms alternative medicine can do. I am very much aware of this.

But in the face of endless marketing pressure from Big Pharma and haranguing from patients and pressure from government seeking adherence to proxy indicators of health, should we not be open with the public and with each other? We are searching for that Island of Calm where the patient is at ease within their own body, and where we rely a little bit more on the Harmony of Nature to do work its healing magic. After all, it has spent the last 4 billion years ruthlessly pruning failure out of the genepool in myriad rather messy ways, so we the survivors must have something going for us.

30 June 2012

One Way to Mars?

I wrote this little ditty this week, and recorded it on my phone last night. I've been a fan of space exploration since I was a small child (no news there), and back at the age of 10, if you'd told me that there would be no-one on Mars, or even the moon, when I would be 42, I'd have assumed civilisation was doomed.

Here's the deal - getting to Mars, while challenging, is relatively straightforward. Getting home on the other hand is pretty darned tricky, since you have to bring everything with you on the trip to effectively launch a full space mission from your destination. Not trivial.

To that end, some people have been exploring the notion of "One Way to Mars", i.e. sending a manned mission where return to Earth is not in the plan. Volunteers would be going to go to Mars to spend the rest of their lives there - possibly without the prospect of old age, with a high probability of relatively early death through medical problems (even if the radiation doesn't get 'em), habitat systems failure, accidents, and any number of additional hazards that might crop up in forty years (let's say) on the Martian surface.

Pretty scary, since most people harbour at least some longing for Earth and to see their family again. Worth it? Undoubtedly there would be many volunteers, but could they stick the pace? Perhaps the bet isn't so bad, because if a "colony" was going and building infrastructure for (say) 10 years, perhaps the ability to return the original colonists (should they wish to go back) would grow. Maybe the "One Way to Mars" option wouldn't be such a problem after all, especially if we launched several of them over the course of (say) a decade. The potential for this is better now than ever before, thanks to the entry onto the stage of companies like SpaceX, who are making great strides in opening up the Final Frontier.

Anyway, this song is dedicated to that pioneering urge, in the hope that maybe some day we will indeed build a home in the canyons of Mars.

17 June 2012

Nigel the Lamarck Fish

The only way is up. Baby.
I just realised my Lamarck Fish - Nigel - hasn't ever had a post of its own on the blog. That is now rectified.

A brief history - back in 2007, Inkling Magazine ran a wee competition to find a new "Darwin Fish" emblem, and this was my entry. Designed entirely by mouse on MSPaint (you can hardly tell, can you?), it didn't win - curse you, PZ Myers! - but it did get an honourable mention on the New Scientist Short Sharp Science blog.

And then someone seems to have adapted it for CafePress... I still think my version is better. (Note: I don't know whether the CafePress version is a descendant, or an example of convergent evolution - can happen! I don't endorse it though - Nigel has no legs - that's part of the point!).

Anyway, I'll get to work putting out a massive merchandising line, based on the adventures of Nigel the Lamarck Fish, and let you all know how that turns out.

I think Nigel has certain Van Goghian qualities, don't you think?

Ethics and Genetics

Should we??
Poor old @TheSlicer. It seems I have trodden on some gnarly old toes by not according them the veneration to which they are entitled, having been stuck under the top end of the table of a Research Ethics Committee for a number of years. Apparently I have been evasive in addressing a "simple" question about where we draw the line in ethical matters to do with Genetics. You can read my initial post and some of the fascinating discussion here and please do take a moment to watch the short video piece I did for 4thought.tv here.

So here is my understanding of what Slicer wants to ask me: "You said there are limits to what we should permit in relation to Designer Babies - what are those limits?"

Firstly, let me be very clear as to the context of the 4thought.tv piece. The topic under discussion was the selection of IVF embryos for the purposes of a/ avoiding major genetic disease and b/ acting as a donor for existing children to treat (or even cure) their genetic disease. This process involves creating quite a number of embryos, most of which will (statistically) be unsuitable to be reimplanted into the womb in order to proceed to an established pregnancy. This discussion was not about changing the genetic state of any of these embryos - merely selecting from a wider pool than is normally available. Here, in 2012, this is what the term "Designer Babies" means. Not a great term, but there you go.

Now that's all very well, but Slicer is wanting to broaden this to incorporate a different sort of scenario - he wants to know about changing the genetic status of embryos. I've said there are limits, and I have no problem in saying that at the moment, I am very much not in favour of altering the germline of embryos - in effect creating genetically modified humans. Is this a set-in-stone ethical principle - that we should never alter the germline of humans? No it's not. My opposition to modifying the human germline is based on the dangers posed, given our current technology and understanding of genetics, and the fact that it is nearly always unnecessary - simple pre-implantation can nearly always do the required job. But if someone comes up with a great plan, and reasons why these objections should be set aside, I would look at their proposal.

And this goes back to the point I raised on the other thread, which is that morality and ethics are about helping humans make better decisions. That's what they're for. There are no timeless categories of "ethical" or "unethical" - these are labels we attach to decisions, based on the axioms we front-load our system with. But those axioms are not unchallengeable, and need checking. Very often they are heuristics, and even when they are very good heuristics, they need to be unpacked before we resort to a knee-jerk decision. But I digress.

So I've mentioned that I think a decision to use genetic technology to alter the human germline would qualify as unethical. Briefly, my reasoning is that the dangers associated with this (and I explicitly include potential social dangers, like creating a perceived "genetic underclass", regardless of how real the actual "underclassiness" of such a group would be) outweigh the potential benefits right here right now. I refuse to legislate for the future, because this is about helping us make decisions, not wag the finger.

But Slicer might want to accuse me of unnecessarily broadening the debate - what if we simply used selection to "enhance" the genepool itself. This would not alter any particular germline, but would leave an effect for the future. And here he might have a point. Is there a slippery slope towards selecting for babies with certain hair colour or eye colour or "intelligence" (whatever that is - this is 2012, and we haven't a bloody clue what genes are involved here) or pro-social behaviour or what have you? Would this be unethical?

Well, here's the problem. Let's suppose Slicey (or anyone) came up with a proposal to "enhance" the human race by selecting embryos, or even by selective breeding (I think someone tried this a few decades ago - I vaguely recall the whole project came to a sticky end for reasons other than its scientific vapidity) - Shaney is sitting on the Research Ethics Committee and is trying to make a determination as to whether this project should be allowed to proceed.

There are a number of problems. Firstly, I would not like to be told by a researcher of Slicey's stature who I should mate with (or not) - I am quite capable of making my own decisions in this arena, thank you very much. Secondly, the criteria that Slicey regards as desirable may not match my criteria. I'm a shortarse dark-haired dark-eyed dark(ish)-skinned chappie - not exactly the Aryan ideal - and my ideas for what might constitute a worthwhile goal for directed human evolution is perhaps different from Slicey's (although better guitarists - we would agree on that). Thirdly, I am not at all clear on how Slicey plans to measure the desired characteristic, either at the genetic level (in the embryos he wants to play with) or in the phenotypic outworkings of that in the population.

Fourthly, the old law of unintended consequences kicks in here - if these features were so brilliant, why has evolution not equipped us with them already? Perhaps you can (at a population level) have too much of a good thing. What if you selected for gene variant ZIPPY1.c.18302C>T, which is associated with high intelligence (I have made this up, repeat, I have made this up), only to find that in combination with BUNGLE2.c.937A>G it causes severe autism?

Number 5 (our list is by no means exhaustive - we're just trying to throw Slicey a few morsels to wrap his maw around): if we're looking to make changes to the genepool as a genepool (rather than just trying to do the best for our kids, and let  the genepool look after itself), we already know from evolution that these things tend to take quite a long time when compared with the lifetimes of individuals. It's pretty likely that technology and proclivities will have changed by the time we arrive at our "goal", even if that goal is well defined - and I'm not sure that Slicey can even do that.

And then to close off with a number 6: one of the strengths of the human species as it sits right now, with this rather diverse (although in comparison with other species, still quite restricted) genepool is that we are potentially prepared for a change in our environmental circumstances which may not be foreseen. Usually this means disease. The old and discredited notion of eugenics necessarily involves further restriction on the genepool, which is potentially a bad thing for "the species", as variants that might have conferred resistance to the threat may have been removed by well-meaning (!) but misguided eugenic inheritors of the mantle of Slicey (in his role as proposing this).

So there you go, just for starters - a few real actual solid reasons why I, in my decision-making role as President of the World, would turn down Slicey's nefarious proposal, and if you want, you can distil those down to specific ethical principles which are drummed into every medical student.

Modern genetic technology gives us great power, but with great power should come great insight into the fact that we're still only scratching the surface, and the ramifications of going off half-cocked on some crazy genepoolscaping exercise suggest that we would all be a lot better off if we limit "designing our babies" to significant medical conditions, and not mere preference. This may end up being a bit too wishy-washy for some people who prefer a rule-based methodology, but I suggest that this approach is how we have to tackle difficult ethical scenarios thrown up by inexorable medical advance. I have to deal with patients, issues and decisions like these at the sharp end - I don't have the luxury of sitting in a committee with a rubber stamp, rolling back on the heuristics of the past.

04 June 2012

Back to #Israel

I've been playing with Strava [ http://www.strava.com ] lately, and have discovered how to upload my old XML files from my Nokia N810 that I recorded while doing the Nazareth Cycle Ride in 2009. Here's the final section from Ginnosar to Nazareth - unfortunately my batteries died before Nazareth itself, but this captures most of the ride.

03 June 2012

shanemuk shared an Instagram photo with you

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"Olympic torch relay"

The Instagram Team

27 May 2012

Red Brae descent

On a sunny day, there is nowhere better than up the Carrickfergus hills on the bike.

Bike ride: Lough Mourne Loop

Check it out on Strava - 17.5 miles of fun:

25 May 2012

Bioinformatics for Clinicians

I have just returned from the idyllic campus of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in the delightful Cambridgeshire hamlet of Hinxton. Being in such hallowed surroundings, and hob-nobbing with my wonderful colleagues in this extaordinary genetics adventure, I have to say I felt a little embarrassed at my lack of knowledge of the world of modern bioinformatics.

Here we are, up to our necks in the largest and most exciting research project of its kind to date - the Deciphering Developmental Disorders (DDD) Project - and many of us clinicians are not even close to coming to grips with the tools of the trade. We're emerging into the world of genome analysis, with next generation sequencing generating gigabytes of valuable information, yet most doctors in Genetic Medicine don't have the skills to unpack and analyse these data. I'm not suggesting that genetic doctors need to become super-duper bioinformaticians, but I think we do need to do some work to at least communicate meaningfully with the (very clever and lovely) scientists who are turning our dreams into reality.

So, dear readers, what bioinformatics tools do you feel would be helpful for clinicians, and have you any proposals as to how we upskill the jobbing Genetic Medic in handling Big Data? Please leave some comments to let me know, and I'll try to collate your thoughts. Thanks in advance!

09 May 2012

Wonderful Things

Great to see Howard Carter pitch up on today's Google Doodle. Egyptology reclaiming the mainstream!

08 May 2012

Should we be allowed to design our babies?

I say yes - within limits. Check it out: http://www.4thought.tv/themes/should-we-be-allowed-to-design-our-babies/shane-mckee?autoplay=true with a big hat tip to the very nice folks at Waddell Media and 4thought.tv. The other films in this series are definitely worth a watch.

13 April 2012

Latest #TLUD action

This little beauty just keeps giving! For passive TLUDs (top-lit up draught stoves with no fan for forced air) it really helps to have a nice long chimney. This gives the gases space to burn, and draws both primary and secondary air nicely through the apparatus.

11 April 2012

Book RV: God’s Gunslinger Runs Out of Ammo, Tries Hurling Turnips

[Amazon pic of cover -
visit above link to see book]

I gave John Lennox’s previous book “God’s Undertaker” afairly positive review, because although he ultimately fails in his objective of showing that belief in the gods remains a respectable intellectual position, at least he made an effort in putting forth the very best arguments that theists had to offer in the Religion vs Atheism debate. In truth, the arguments were the best of a bad lot, so I was hoping that in “Gunning for God” Lennox would up his game a bit, and perhaps take things to a more interesting level.

Sadly, it seems there is no game to up. “Gunning” is a much worse book than “Undertaker” for a number of reasons. The declared objective is to take on the “Four Horsemen of New Atheism” as they have sometimes been called, and to provide an argument for Christianity. The “Four Horsemen” epithet gets Lennox in something of a comedy fluster; aware of the allusion in Revelation he priggishly fails to see the joke. Our doughty and doubty renegades are (or were, as one of their number is sadly no longer with us) Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Dan Dennett and Sam Harris. In the middle of the last decade their books unleashed a publishing phenomenon that placed outright assertive atheism centre stage, and a slightly more conciliatory version on the sides of Britain’s buses. Lennox wants to shine up his Deputy’s badge and ride these varmints out of town.

Chapter 1 commences the embarrassment: apparently in order for “Naturalism” (by which he means the usual atheistic position that there is no supernatural realm beyond the universe, and what we have is all that there “is”) to work, we need to presuppose a god. I don’t propose to go over the many philosophical reasons why Lennox is talking nonsense here, and Lennox doesn’t address the arguments in any substantive fashion. Quotes from people he disagrees with (that’s our New Atheists of course) are generally very short, usually out of context, and there is no attempt to analyse their meaning. Often they are hopelessly inappropriate, for example (in a subsequent chapter) accusing Hitchens of being “foolish” for his flourish: “Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith.” The last refuge of the poor philosopher is always the Oxford English Dictionary, so off Lennox trots to try a little dance whereby the word “faith” ends up being the cornerstone of science. Sadly, all this involves is a crude sophist equivalent of the old ball-under-the-cups trick that’s not fooling anyone.

Chapters 2 and 3 are no better. Several of our Horsemen (and other commentators, whether they believe in the gods or not) have criticised religion on the basis of the many atrocities committed in its name. Rather than address this issue, Lennox tries on the old switcheroo, by trying to exonerate “true” religion and pin the blame on atheism. I have some sympathy for him in respect of some criticisms of religious violence being over the top, but he cannot deny that religion has been responsible for a great deal of evil in the world – heck, even Jesus said so. So what he does instead is claim that even when religious people carried out atrocities, “whatever these evil men were by label or background, they were atheists in practice.” This is a pretty appalling thing to say, as he merrily daubs more whitewash on the sepulchres.

In Chapter 4, Lennox tries to take on the question of the origin of morality. The foregoing should give a taste of what to expect, and, yes, it’s a train wreck. Our New Atheists are unable to make moral statements, because to do so requires a theistic position as a base. You can’t derive an “ought” from an “is” (perfectly true), and since science can only deal with ises, it has nothing to say about oughts. Several people might agree with him on this, including me, but Lennox makes no effort to unpick exactly what morality itself is. Moreover, he completely ignores the vast reams of research into the neuroscience of morality, as well as the fact that behaviours that we might call “moral” are found in related species, such as chimps and gorillas. This lapse in scholarship is nothing less than astonishing, given that Richard Dawkins’ first major foray into the publishing world was “The Selfish Gene”, and deals with these issues extensively. But Lennox is not interested in finding stuff out – that might confuse his audience. Gotta stay on-message.

And on we go with what is essentially a crude and graceless fundamentalist Christian apologetic that does major injustice to the bible, philosophy, history and science alike. Lennox squirms to exonerate the god of the Old Testament from commanding genocide against the Canaanite tribes, loftily suggesting that the Israelites were oh so enlightened in their conduct of war, and that women and children were to be spared rapacious slaughter. Sadly, this is outright nonsense as the biblical descriptions of the conflicts of the Israelites (historically dubious though they are) clearly show divinely sanctioned massacre of women and children and even livestock. Evidently they deserved it because it is OK to kill the children of people who engage in child sacrifice.

The wheels really come off Lennox’s ramshackle wagon over the issue of justice. Atheism, you see, is deficient because it denies that injustices suffered in this life will be rectified in the next (obviously). He fails to recognise that under his own fundamentalist viewpoint, they’re not going to be corrected in the next life either – your two possibilities are heaven or hell, and the basis for going to one or the other is not the balance of justice/injustice you’ve ended up with in this life, but your acceptance or otherwise of this salvation business. So the injustices you suffer here are actually taken from you, assumed by god, and you as the wronged party are left with nothing whatsoever – not even the right to say that you personally have a claim. What kind of justice is that? Sadly (or perhaps not), our plucky author doesn’t even go there, so whether Jesus’ horrible death works as an atonement for this daylight robbery really doesn’t even come into the picture.

Do I need to go on? Unfortunately I do, because the next topic (after having a go at Hume’s classic work on miracles) is a risibly ad hoc defence of the alleged resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion. For the record, I do think Jesus existed, that he was crucified, and that after his death a story arose suggesting that he had somehow “risen”. Lennox takes this, and attempts to cobble together a case that a resurrection actually happened. This is brave, given that we have precisely no eyewitness accounts of the resurrection event or the resurrected Christ (no, the vision of Saul Paulus on the road to Damascus does not count); the gospels, even when they come from the same source, are contradictory and were only written several decades after the alleged event by people who were not there. With the resurrection and other miracles, Lennox just can’t get his head around the point that what we have now in the 21st century CE, and what the writers of the New Testament had in the late 1st and early 2nd centuries, is not miracles, but stories of miracles. Stories of miracles are ubiquitous in every culture worldwide. Many Muslims believe that Mohammed made a mystical journey to Jerusalem one night on a flying human-headed horse. Enough said.

We are told by Lennox that the New Atheists have avoided trying to deal with the resurrection myth. Our Four Horsemen in general haven’t gone there in detail, but many other atheist and agnostic (and even theistic) authors have picked it over, revealing that our “modern” view of a physical resurrection is not supported by the biblical texts. If Lennox really wanted to deal with this issue, he could have had a crack at Bart Ehrman or Robert Price, but he doesn’t. Indeed, he might even suggest that his readers go back and check the biblical texts for themselves, but that would endanger his project, if Christians actually started reading the bible off-piste. So we’re left with a mess. It’s not that miracles and resurrections are physically impossible (who cares?) – it’s that they are not supported by evidence that they actually happened, rather than just being stories.

And that effectively sums up this entire book. Poorly researched, poorly argued, hopelessly naïve with regard to science and the philosophy of naturalism, arguably slanderous of atheists, and not even particularly biblically literate. If God is relying on cowpokes like Lennox to cover his back as he dashes across the street from the saloon to the sheriff’s station, he really is screwed. But times have arguably moved on from Dodge City. The work of the New Atheists is (I would suggest) largely done for Phase One. Arguing against – or for – the existence of the gods/“God”/whatever is pretty pointless, because none of this tackles our human situation. It is not, as Lennox moans, a problem of “sin” – it is a problem of the way we work as a primate species whose brain has evolved the smarts much faster than the rest of our nature has had a chance to catch up with.

We are, suggest authors such as Alain de Botton, left with something in our psychology which religions have over the millennia, perhaps unwittingly, learnt to deal with reasonably well. Vanilla Atheism may be unable to cope with this puzzle (even if atheism happens to be true in the factual sense), so once we’ve decided that there actually aren’t any gods (at least not of the type who are that interested in saving or damning us), where we go next should be to take the good things (if we can find them) from religion and apply them to secular life. I’m not sure that’s the best approach. Perhaps a more straightforward and subversive solution is for atheists to simply go back to church, reimagine all those “god” references as referring to concepts that we humans have invented, and seek to carve out a space for honest and assertive unbelief alongside our friends and neighbours who may hold different views. Maybe Atheism 2.0 and Christianity 2.0 can meet, not in a shootout, but in constructive dialogue, and the days of the tired old gunslingers will be gone.

26 March 2012

It's #TLUD time again.

Breaking out the #biochar generator from its long winter hibernation, and the Beast roars back to life!

06 March 2012

Iran and the Bomb

So Bibi Netanyahu is in the USA rattling sabres and scaring old ladies
about the prospect of Iran developing a nuclear weapon. He (and the
international community) regard this as potentially a Bad Thing. In
this he is not wrong. For what it's worth, many people regard Israel
having nuclear weapons as a Bad Thing - indeed, nuclear weapons in
general occupy a somewhat dubious ethical zone. But that's not the
debate I'm interested in. I would rather face a world in which a
nuclear conflagration in the Middle East is something that doesn't

But here is the deal. No matter what the USA and Israel do, the
Iranian nuclear programme is very likely to proceed. They have a
number of very capable scientists and engineers, and even if Israel or
America launch pre-emptive strikes, that is only likely to slow the
process to a point where it is resumed with heavily increased vigour -
ironically virtually assuring the outcome that Israel and the West
don't want. On the other hand, if no strikes are launched, progress
towards a weapon will continue. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

So what is Bibi playing at, other than a fairly predictable rousing of
the usual rabble and trying to deflect worldwide attention from
ongoing illegal settlement expansion in Palestinian territory? Maybe
that's indeed all he is doing, aware that he can't change events,
whether Israel acts or not. However, perhaps it is time to make more
serious efforts to try a different way. The development of the Iranian
nuke is a given, if we continue in the current path. It is a product
of the ongoing enmity between Iran and the West. Maybe we need to be
exploring closer relations, finding a way to influence Iran from a
more friendly standpoint. Governments and Zeitgeists change; perhaps
it is not too late for Iran. Maybe they need a bit of space to move
back from the brink, but can't bear to lose face. Should we be
approaching them with softer overtures?

Or is this hopelessly naive? I suspect it probably is. In any event,
these are scary times in the Middle East, and the mood music is not
good. Comments welcome.

01 March 2012

Evolution disproved! Creationism wins!

"We reviewed the evidence and there was no evidence for anything
between Torosaurus and Triceratops." -

Yes, I'm just kidding. I'm not turning into a fruitbat
"baraminologist". There is a new paper in the ongoing dispute between
paleontologists as to whether Triceratops, everyone's favourite horned
herbivore, was in fact a juvenile form of the slightly less well-known
but somewhat similar Torosaurus. Whatever, they are clearly very
closely evolutionarily related, like African & Indian elephants, or
humans & chimps. I can't really comment, but if Triceratops is baby,
daddy must have been a pretty intimidating critter. Pass the popcorn.

22 February 2012

Redefining Marriage

The evangelical fundamentalists are at it again. As a society we have grown up quite a lot - and we still have a long way to go. One of the greatest achievements of modern civilisation is the discovery of the principle of equality, even if the implementation of that remains somewhat short of ideal.

I am very happily married to my wonderful wife, and I wouldn't want it any other way. I'm a very fortunate man to have found the woman with whom I want to spend the rest of my life, and we've been blessed (if that's the right word for an atheist to use) with three marvellous children. I am a big fan of marriage - when it works, it is a brilliant thing. I would wish for everyone to experience the joy and challenges that go along with it.

And that includes same-sex couples.

If same-sex couples are allowed to marry (and why shouldn't they?), they (at least the lucky ones) have the chance to experience the same joy of finding their life partner and building their family and identity around themselves as a couple, on the same footing as everyone else. It's only right.

However, as you might expect, some people are not happy. Writing in the Daily Mail a couple of days ago (where else), former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey was quite clear that allowing same-sex couples to marry would be the undoing of our civilisation. Ooooh, get her.
Look out! Britain's stability is crumbling,
according to Lord Carey.
Those dangerous lesbians!

And of course the other religious punters have weighed in also. I'm sorry, but I really can't see society collapsing if we allow people who love each other to get married. If anything, it will strengthen our society, and I very much welcome the prospect for the sake of my gay friends.

However one of the funniest arguments that the religious homophobes have in their pathetic argument is this. I laughed, sort of. You may not, if you're not familiar with the theology here, but trust me..

Marriage, they state, has always been defined as between a man and a woman. Any other definition undermines marriage, fabric of society etc etc yawn. If you change the definition, you weaken the whole concept. The imagery and the concept of marriage are inviolable, unalterable, and inapplicable to any other situation. It's not much of an argument, but, sadly for Lord Carey and his pals, it turns out that Christianity has already redefined marriage away from man/woman.

In Christian theology, the union between Christ and the Church is a marriage. Jesus is frequently referred to as "the bridegroom" and the Church as the "bride", and it's pretty obvious that since Jesus was male and many members of the church are male, it's a same-sex union. However, it's not that that's the point - the redefinition is the point. Some Christians seem quite happy to redefine marriage when it suits them.

It's worth mentioning as an aside that Jesus is never referred to as the bride, and the church the bridegroom - there seems to be a certain amount of sexism there, and that shows up the anachronism that is the pond Carey is ribbiting from. What lies behind these latest fulminations from the loony fringe is not concern for the stability of society or families, but simple homophobia. In modern marriages, we expect and insist on a partnership between equals, not dominion of one partner over another. I don't expect my wife, for example, to "obey" me, and nor does society. So, wow, look - Christians have already redefined marriage, and society has not collapsed.

It's fair to say that the nay-sayers do not represent all Christians - many Christians have fully embraced equality in the area of sexual orientation and gender identity. Indeed, it's far more likely that by including same-sex couples in the category that we (generously) allow to get married, we are strengthening marriage.

We should abandon the hypocrisy of Lord Carey and shadowy bigoted pressure groups like the "Coalition for Marriage". If Jesus can marry churches, we can allow men to marry men and women to marry women if they are so inclined. The world won't fall in. If we want to reinforce the stability of our society and the families within it, we do that by supporting people who want to be together and by setting an example to our children of loving one another and showing respect to all (even crazy religious loonies).