Monthly Archives: February 2014

Nye Eats Ham

Picture source - Answers In Genesis

Like many other people, I was wary of the idea of Bill Nye (The Science Guy) engaging in a public debate about evolution with Ken Ham (Creationist, and founder of Answers In Genesis).

Public debates like this certainly don’t resolve important issues, and usually each side claims “victory” anyway. No doubt the creationists who viewed it will think that Ham came out on top, but it doesn’t really matter what they – or   Nye’s supporters – think. The big question is whether either participant was able to sway those viewers who watched the debate without any firmly held beliefs either way.

Overall, I think that Nye won this one hands down. His strategy was to explain science – what it is, and how scientists find out and verify the knowledge they accumulate, using examples and illustrations. And he also underlined the point that America’s prominence economically depends on its ability to stay at the forefront of scientific discovery.

Ham’s strategy, on the other hand, can be summarised as : “God did it.” The Bible says it, he believes it, that settles it. He offered no science himself, but let’s face it – “creation science” is a self-contradictory term anyway. For Ham, there are no mysteries – all you need to know is, God did it – which is not actually an illustration of one’s knowledge, but an illustration of one’s ignorance. It explains exactly nothing.

For me, though, there was one key point that brought the whole debate into sharp focus. This was at the end of the debate when Nye and Ham were taking questions from the audience. The question – for both men – was breathtakingly simple: “What would change your mind?”

Believers in religion and the paranormal always accuse scientists and sceptics of being closed-minded – so firmly entrenched in their beliefs that they are just not going to admit that they might be wrong. But now Ham was put to that test and failed miserably.

Ham answered first and was visibly flustered. Asked what would change his mind, he put his faith first, and confirmed what everyone knew anyway: there is absolutely nothing that will change his mind. Ham’s own closed-mindedness was put on display for all to see.

Nye, however, was in no doubt: (confirmable) evidence will change his mind. It’s what scientists do every day. They do not hold on rigidly to cherished beliefs when contradictory evidence arises – they embrace it and investigate it. And when you think about it, how could science have made such huge advances if it was not willing to change in the light of new discoveries?

America is a leader in science, but that is despite religion, not because of it. The Constitution requires separation of church and state, and for that reason religion in the form of creationism is not allowed to be taught in American state-funded classrooms. If creationism ever were allowed into science classes, then Americans can kiss their scientific lead goodbye.

Bill Nye did a first class job and deserves to be lauded for it.

The South Shields Poltergeist – TV Documentary Even More Dire Than The Book

20140118_113858-1When The South Shields Poltergeist was published in 20o8 it came in for heavy criticism from the outset. The book was written by Mike Hallowell and Darren Ritson, described  on Mike Hallowell’s website by veteran paranormal writer Guy Lyon Playfair as two “dedicated amateurs.” But dedicated or not, the result was a totally unconvincing account of an alleged poltergeist haunting in an otherwise normal household. [The link or its contents might change later, but I have a copy of the page to resolve any disputes about its contents that might arise later.]

Most of the criticism the authors faced when the book was published (apart from the fact that it was utter tosh) was the fact that they have not publicly released any of the evidence they say they have that would support what they believe to  be a genuine case of paranormal activity. Among the many excuses they made for not publicising their evidence was the claim that to do so might compromise the possibility of having a TV documentary made if a producer could not have access to evidence that had not been used elsewhere. (The authors also lambasted their critics for criticising them without examining their evidence, oblivious to the fact that they would not let anyone else see it anyway, except fellow believers who also would not – or were not allowed to – release it into the public domain.)

Well, things might change now because a Canadian company has produced a “documentary” that features the eponymous spirit, and you can see it online at this link. (Until recently it could not be viewed from the UK unless one went through a proxy server, but the link appears to be working now – at least as I write this.) So now that their long hoped for documentary has been made, perhaps Mike and Darren will be releasing their long awaited confirmation of a genuine poltergeist event?

Personally, I think there’s a better chance of Myleene Klass turning up at Mike’s front door wearing nothing but baby oil and a smile, asking, “How about it, big boy?” (At least there is no doubt that Myleene exists, so the possibility is there, however remote that possibility might be.)

The documentary itself deals with three alleged poltergeist hauntings, including the South Shields case. It’s embarrassing to watch, however, because the standard techniques of the woo documentary makers are clear to see. For example, dramatic reconstructions that bear no resemblance to reality are the norm in this sort of show, and anyone who has read the actual book will realise that there is no similarity between the photographs of the house portrayed in the book, and the overly dramatic and sinister portrayal of the house in the documentary.

It appears that none of the authors’ original “evidence” has been used anyway, and especially not the absurd “bottle footage” that Mike had removed from the internet after it came in for so much laughter and derision, even from people who believe in the paranormal.

There is, however, some sceptical input from Chris French, who says that the most likely explanation for events like this can be hoaxes, misperceptions of events and so on. But later, the host of the show, Darryll Walsh asks what the scientific evidence says about it all – but does he return to Chris French or go to any other scientist? No, of course not; his first “scientific analyst” is Guy Lyon Playfair, non-scientist, who reckons it must be real (he’s been writing about the paranormal for decades, after all, so you just have to take his word for it.).

The other “scientific” answer from a non-scientist comes from Alan Murdie, a British barrister who is also chairman of The Ghost Club Of Great Britain. Unfortunately, like his commentary here, he presents his case in the manner of a lawyer defending a client he knows to be guilty. No doubt the believers will lap it all up. [I have a copy of that page, too, just in case.]

Obviously, neither the book nor this pathetic excuse for a documentary has a believability level that has drawn the serious (like, it’s real) attention of any reputable news organisations – the BBC, for instance – or any genuinely scientific organisation. It’s one for the seriously dedicated believer who doesn’t have the time or the inclination to be weighed down with the burden of thinking for him or herself.

But I like to be optimistic about things, so the fact that the long-awaited documentary has now materialised, as it were, means that perhaps now is the time that Mike and Darren will release all that evidence they say they have, and prepare to be invited to present their findings at the Royal Institution, followed by the presentation of their joint Nobel Prize for discovering a hitherto unknown force of nature that  goes beyond – or even explains – the quantum physics that the most brilliant minds on Earth have been struggling with for over a hundred years.

(No, I don’t think so, either.)

(The woo brigade are always claiming “quantum” this, “quantum” that, after all, despite the fact that no quantum physicist would entertain such nonsense for a moment. Even if there are any scientists familiar with quantum physics who believe in the paranormal and think it can be explained by subatomic phenomena, not one of them has provided evidence, proof or even a mathematical foundation for such claims.)

But the documentary is now out, and with the help of my sceptical powers (that I have vowed to use only for good), I predict that the authors of this bedtime story will still find excuses for not showing us the evidence.

The book’s hype says that this is one of the most disturbing books you will ever read. That might be true for the uncritical believers, but for the rest of us, it’s just a bit disturbing that there are that many credulous people around to spend the money that keeps this sort of nonsense in vogue. As for the “documentary,” I can see the authors’ fans wetting themselves in fear, while everyone else is wetting themselves with laughter.

In the UK, like many other countries, it is a legal requirement that all children receive at least a basic education, but it’s not a legal requirement that anyone has to learn anything. The ones that don’t are the people that keep this nonsense alive because of bad thinking.