New Year, Old Struggle

We are now into the sixteenth year of the twenty first century, but it’s hard to believe it. Mankind has created the most scientific and technological society that has ever existed on this planet, and yet we are still surrounded by primitive superstition that would stop it dead in its tracks if it can ever get away with it.

Although I was brought up within a religious and superstitious family, I was able to notice after I left school and got out into the big wide world that the religious beliefs, superstition and, frankly, bigotry that I was taught as I was growing up, just didn’t match my own observations. And after several decades of those observations, I conclude that reality, supported by testable and confirmable evidence, is more reliable than (and preferable to) untestable and unconfirmable belief or faith.

Look around you and notice things. While the religious zealots are torturing and killing people, science has landed a spacecraft on a comet half a billion miles from Earth. It’s easier, I’m sure (although I couldn’t do it myself), to kill someone in the name of some god or other than it is to study science for years and do positive things that no amount of prayer will ever achieve.

Is the paranormal real? It’s certainly easier to make excuses for why psi claims don’t actually work than it is to produce the claimed effects. And just as easy to whine that those like me – sceptics – are just nay-saying curmudgeons who are just “desperate to protect their world view.”

Do the quack nostrums of homeopathy, chiropractic, faith healing, reiki and all the rest of the nonsense peddled for profit by (maybe some) well-meaning but unqualified (in scientific terms) practitioners do any real good for people? Someone suffering an ailment might be able to say honestly during such treatment (self-reporting) that they actually “feel better” as they undergo that “treatment,” but that is not the same as actually being cured. Germs and cancers do not disappear as a result of quackery, even if the sufferer has, as they often say, even with the latest medical treatment, “good days and bad days.”

Will your horoscope in the daily newspaper really be accurate today? Or maybe it would be better to pay through the nose for a personalised chart that will give you nothing other than a self-fulfilling prophecy – as long as you interpret it in the way that confirms your expectations and beliefs after the events you think they are predicting.

It could be that you will consult any pro paranormal website or blog that tells you why sceptics are “wrong in their beliefs” but don’t provide any testable evidence for that claim, which is really just sour grapes because the woomeisters have to face the fact that rational, scientifically literate people don’t go along with belief over testable evidence.

I could go on and on about all of the superstitions people prefer over actual reality, but by now if you have read this far, you might be starting to understand my frustration. I am one of those people that the paranormal promoters call, disdainfully, a “materialist!” Even worse than that, I am what they call (gasp, shock-horror) a “pseudosceptic,” one of those rationalists who don’t believe without question the paranormal anecdotes presented to me.

What can I say to it all, except, do you deny that the universe we inhabit does, in fact, have an actual material existence? I have to wonder why, but get no answer to the question, how can the “immaterial” exist for a start off, and how can it affect or interact with, the actual material (real) universe we all live in? Why don’t the physical laws of nature prevail over the immaterial (non-existent) “laws” of, er… the paranormal? In fact, what (physical or non-physical) laws control this immaterial paranormal “energy” or whatever it is? Where is the actual theory of the paranormal? (And when I say theory, I mean “theory” in the scientific sense.)

There is no such theory. A scientific theory can exist only if there is something there that can be shown (with a high degree of probability) to exist. At the moment, as has been going on for over a hundred and fifty years, paranormal investigators are still trying to show that there is anything paranormal going on at all. None of that has been demonstrated conclusively; so far, there is no compelling reason to think any of it is true.

And yet, no one needs any supposedly precognitive ability to just know that the year 2016 is going to be another non-stop tsunami of woo. That will include everything from serious paranormal researchers failing again to prove their claims, to outright frauds bilking the gullible for personal profit. There will also of course be well-meaning but off-beam believers spouting incorrect claims supported by totally wrong assumptions about the nature of, well… nature itself.

I will say this yet again: I do not believe in the existence of the paranormal or the supernatural, but my mind can be changed if anyone can prove the claims they make. However, those claims will have to meet the rigorous standards required by science, which does not mean someone’s heartfelt belief, or a single experiment that no one else can replicate, or an anecdote from some “eminent person of good character,” or any number of ad hoc rationalisations to explain what is maybe anomalous but not necessarily paranormal.

And don’t get me started about conspiracy theories:

 

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Chemtrails?

“Chemtrails for Jesus,” perhaps.

In 2016 we are going to see more TV shows, books, and everything else about UFOs, ghosts, and all manner of irrational nonsense, supported by ignorant people who are willing to subscribe to it all and therefore pay for and perpetuate a kind of mind-numbing, modern-day “opiate for the masses.” Sensible programming about science – the true reality programmes – are (still) going to be side-lined, or given the least prominence because actual reality does not have the same commercial value to TV producers. That’s a shame, but it illustrates the problem.

For the forthcoming year of 2016 CE, I wish all of my readers a Rational New Year and freedom from Bad Thinking, while I continue trying to do my bit to fly the flag of reason. Wish me luck. (No, not luck, it doesn’t work like that… er, no, it really doesn’t; it’s a struggle.)

 

Harry Price: Ghost Hunter (TV Version)

I watched the ITV production of Harry Price: Ghost Hunter that was broadcast on 27th December, but I came away from it with mixed feelings.

Although the production and the acting can hardly be faulted, it seemed to me that apart from the name of the main character, Price, everything else was pure fiction with little to do with Harry Price the person.

I had expected (or hoped) that this drama would have been more of a biography, covering the work of Price over a period of time, but this was a single dramatic portrayal of one alleged case investigated by the eponymous paranormal investigator. Although I have read about Harry Price, there was little – almost nothing – I recognised as factual in this TV show. For more information about the details, I recommend that you read the critique by Tom Ruffles, which gives an excellent outline of the drama itself and the problems with the factual (or not) details.

For me, the biggest problem is that people who might have heard of Harry Price (and many who have not)) will probably come away with a totally wrong idea about the man and his work. Although he was a controversial figure of his day, I don’t think there is much doubt that he was serious in his research into the allegedly paranormal, rather than being the con man he is initially depicted as.

I don’t believe in ghosts or any other aspect of the supposed other-worldly, but I don’t mind if some people want to spend their time properly investigating it; if any of it turns out to be real, that’s OK by me. What does irritate me, though, is that this TV drama is just tagging the name of a real (historical) person on to a piece of pure fiction that could have stood on its own as a one-off fictional drama in its own right.

As Tom Ruffles suggests, this might turn out to be the pilot episode for a future series, but if so, it will do a disservice to Harry Price in particular, and serious paranormal investigation in general.

(Additional note: for some more information about Harry Price, there is a good article about him at The Haunted Museum. Well worth a read.)

A Skeptical Christmas To One And All

I’m a sceptic and an atheist, and yet I’m looking forward to the Christmas and New Year holidays and I intend to enjoy myself, together with my family and friends. But that idea seems a bit odd to some religious people I know: how can an atheist enjoy Christmas – a religious festival; and also isn’t it a bit hypocritical, to boot?

No, not at all. As Christmas comes around, I see it as a time to just relax, having a break from work, and maybe getting into the party spirit. Admittedly, I’m not a youngster any more, and partying in the way young people now do it is not for me. But that doesn’t mean I can’t have fun, or that I am going to put a damper on anyone else’s enjoyment. I won’t be going to any Christmas church services, of course, but I’m also not going to criticise any Christians who do so. We live in a free country (so far, anyway), so I support everyone’s right to follow their religion as they choose. I also expect and hope that people of other religions will respect the right of Christians to go about their celebrations as they have done here for many years. I don’t want to see any Christian celebrations having to be curtailed or stopped in the name of political correctness in case the feelings of other religions are hurt. Cobblers to that idea.

I will, naturally, have to run the gauntlet of some Christians who despise me for not believing the same as they do, or appreciating the fact that I actually support and defend their right to be Christian. It’s just a pity that those Christians, as well as members of other religions, do not have the tolerance to want to allow me to have freedom from religion in the same way they have freedom of religion.

Right now, I’m seeing a lot of holiday spirit in the local High Street – buskers playing Christmas songs; any day now, I’m sure, the Salvation Army will make an appearance as they play the more religious carols, and I even look forward to it. I will also, no doubt, contribute some money in the collection box, as I also regularly do for some of the non-religious causes (the local fire brigade usually have a display that I always contribute to). It’s just a nice atmosphere they all create between themselves, and it works just nicely to make at least the very few short weeks in the run up to a special family day a good time.

At this time of year, there are young children who know little about religion, but who believe in Santa Claus, and hope to receive a reward for being good. That’s not much different from many of their parents, who believe they, too, are going to receive a reward for being good, albeit in some (equally mythical) afterlife. The difference here, though, is that we don’t expect children to believe in a make-believe entity when they grow up. But many adults do that very thing. At least a child can provide evidence for the existence of Santa in the form of presents delivered, but the adults rely on faith that they have to continue with until the day they die.

It is inevitable that children find out and come to terms with the fact that Santa was a comforting fantasy when they were so young. But it’s a tragedy that so many adults can never find out the same truth about whichever god or gods they happen to worship. And there is no shortage of religious people who are happy to tell the members of every other religion that they’ve got their theology wrong (and some are even willing to kill to prove their point).

That’s one of many reasons that I have no religion: I have no reason to harm anyone else in any way just because I believe something different. As it happens, the fact that I have no beliefs is a good enough reason for me to be able to listen to what others have to say, without at all having to hate anyone else for thinking differently.

That’s something I keep in mind always, but especially at this time of year when most people at least seem to be making an effort to be nice to each other. I wish they could do the same all the time.

But Christmas or not, if I happen to meet you, whether it is where I work, or at a bus stop or in a pub or whatever, I will be just the same person you might meet at any time of the year. I will be nice to you; I hope you will be the same to me

Dare I, as an atheist, say it – Merry Christmas to all my readers.

 Santa gets it

(Just joking with the pic.)

Analysing Skeptics?

I’ve often been accused by the believers of “not looking at the evidence” for the existence of psi – or any aspect of the paranormal. That isn’t true; I like to read anything I can come across that purports to provide evidence for anything paranormal whatsoever. I have quite a collection of books on various aspects of what is claimed to be paranormal, and there is a large number of paranormal blogs, websites and twitter accounts I follow.

What I notice, though, is that a huge majority of those sites do not actually provide evidence of anything paranormal; rather, they tend to attack sceptics. And worse, their view of scepticism in general, and sceptics in particular, is so far removed from the reality of the situation that I don’t wonder why the believers are as wrong in their perception of the paranormal as they are when it comes down to their mistaken view of scepticism.

I thought about this when I came across a recent post on Michael Prescott’s blog, cutely titled, Skeptics On The Couch. It’s not the first time I’ve come across a believer giving a “psychological analysis” of what they think goes on in the mind of the average sceptic. More interesting is the fact that Michael Prescott – like many other paranormal proponents – has no qualifications (as far as I can find out) in psychology anyway.

My interest here is that I do have a degree in psychology, so I look with a jaundiced eye when unqualified people blather on about it. But more than that, the same people usually have no qualifications in any scientific discipline whatsoever, but happily quote various fringe scientists who claim to have provided decisive evidence in favour of various matters paranormal. The same people also express indignation that mainstream science will not accept the “findings” of parapsychology, but they are blissfully unaware that their ignorance of science prevents them from understanding why science doesn’t accept it. It’s one thing to say that some parapsychologists have produced “evidence” that the paranormal is real; it’s another thing to be able to read a scientific paper and actually understand it. It is yet another thing to be able to examine the research paper in question and be able to deconstruct it and explain it in a meaningful way that would be understandable to others – in particular, non-scientists. It’s yet another thing to look at it and say, “He’s got it wrong, and here is why…”

What might be wrong with the methodology or the statistical results of any example of paranormal research? I really don’t think that Michael Prescott is in a position to criticise science or sceptics until he understands science and how it works.

But it’s easy to complain. If you really, really believe something, you might not be able to accept that others don’t. And you might also not be able to support your belief with testable evidence, and you also might not be able to provide falsifiable evidence, and you might not be able to just provide anything substantial of any kind. What you provide might not be scientific at all. If that’s the case, then just stop for a moment and ask yourself why your evidence is criticised.

Michael Prescott assumes that sceptics have a belief system, and that if those beliefs are challenged, then sceptics enter a state of cognitive dissonance – an uncomfortable mental state where two conflicting beliefs are held at the same time, forcing the person to do some mental gymnastics to overcome that dissonance. Therefore, according to Prescott, sceptics have to find ways to dismiss evidence that contradicts their beliefs.

However, Prescott commits the same fallacy as other believers, namely, assuming that scepticism is a belief system. In fact, sceptics are not defending a belief system of any kind; they are challenging those who do have beliefs, to prove their claims. It’s not part of any belief system I have that ghosts don’t exist, but when people claim they do, then the onus is on them to prove it. The claims made by paranormalists contradict what science knows about the laws of nature, and it’s not up to me to disprove those claims. If ghosts do exist, for example, then the believers have to show how it is possible for psychic “energy” to exist without contravening the laws of thermodynamics. If telepathy and the claims made for it are true, then it is up to the believers to demonstrate why the inverse square law doesn’t apply, as it does with, say, radio communication.

After about a hundred and fifty years of what might be described as serious research by parapsychologists, they are still trying to prove that there is anything paranormal going on at all. The research they produce is not accepted by mainstream science for some basic reasons – flawed experimental design, failure to replicate, statistical errors and so on. It is not, as Prescott would have you believe, because scientists and sceptics are protecting their worldview, it is because parapsychological research fails the basic tests of scientific research. And as well as that, there is no theory that underpins paranormal claims.

My own suggestion for the believers, if they want their claims to be accepted, is to produce someone who can perform the paranormal feats they claim to be able to do. Publicly predicting lottery numbers would be one thing, perhaps. Even better, in the light of recent events, would be providing the information that would allow governments to prevent any further terrorist attacks.

But let me head off any objections to that particular suggestion. It would be said by the believers that if any psychic did go to the police with such (specific) information, then he or she would likely be arrested because it is assumed that only inside information could give details of a specific terrorist event.

That’s OK, though, because our psychic could give information about terrorist attacks all over the world – but could one person really know the details of all the daily terrorist attacks that are ongoing? It would be recognised very quickly that a more likely answer to this conundrum is that this psychic is the real thing. That person would go from being an arrested suspect, to the most protected asset in the world. Terrorism would be stopped dead in its tracks. What really happens, of course, is that it is only after a major event – terrorism, earthquake or whatever – that the psychics appear and claim they knew about it beforehand.

But now come the excuses for why it doesn’t happen. We’re told that paranormal abilities are rare and elusive and can’t be called up at will. It doesn’t work in the presence of an unbeliever. A skeptic in the room upsets the psychic vibrations. And the list goes on, and on, and on, but none of the ad hoc excuses presented can be tested or confirmed.

Similarly, there is no limit to the speculation about how paranormal phenomena supposedly occur. Is a ghost or apparition really made of “energy,” as many paranormal pundits say – as if energy is some kind of substance or “stuff”? To say that a ghost or anything else is “made of” energy, is to do no more than to expose one’s total ignorance of physics in particular, and science in general. It’s a belief without (dare I say) substance.

Another ad hoc speculation is quantum physics to “explain” the paranormal. I can’t help wondering why quantum physicists themselves aren’t all over it – if the paranormal exists and really is quantum based.

And so it all goes. The existence of the paranormal is not proven; its promoters have endless excuses for why it doesn’t work when tested under properly controlled conditions; and the ideas about how it supposedly works are nothing more than speculation with no way of testing any of it. Whose belief system is under threat here? The promoters of the paranormal have only beliefs, built on nothing but hope and wishful thinking. It certainly isn’t sceptics who are worried that their supposed beliefs or worldview are going to be seriously challenged any time soon.

As always, the burden of proof is on the person who makes a claim, and is independent of what anyone else believes or disbelieves. If anyone’s belief system is under threat, then it is the belief system of those who already believe in things that simply do not fit in with what is already known about how nature works.

If anyone is suffering from cognitive dissonance, then it must be those who believe the paranormal is real. They are faced with an inability to prove their claims, and the fact that science does not accept any of it (for very good reasons). The way out of their dissonance is to assume their beliefs are true, and to claim that science just wants to maintain a perceived status quo at all costs. The fact that science thrives on new discoveries and would embrace the discovery of a new force of nature (call it psychic energy if you want) seems to escape them.

No, the bottom line is that sceptics, and science in general, are not defending any belief system, nor are they afflicted by cognitive dissonance. Personally, I feel no need or desire to disprove the existence of ghosts, telepathy or anything else; my own interest is in trying to get the proponents of the paranormal to actually prove their claims. The fact that they cannot understand science or why they have not proven their case to a reasonable level is something they themselves are unlikely to come to terms with.

The evidence available suggests that the paranormal does not exist, except in the minds of the believers. There are innumerable cognitive biases that people fall prey to, and those biases have been well studied and are quite sufficient to explain why the strong beliefs of the believers can be so resistant to change. Science changes in response to new data and new experimental results, so scientists can’t be justifiably accused of being either closed-minded or defending a particular worldview. The people who are guilty of that are those who spend time promoting paranormal claims, and are unable to understand why those claims are untenable.

In the meantime, I would just point out to them that they know as little about psychology as they do about physics – or any other branch of science. Sceptics aren’t the ones who hold unsupportable beliefs; the paranormalists themselves are the ones who have a belief system and worldview based on faith alone. Unfortunately, the more prominent promoters of woo often have a strong following of other believers who are even more ill-informed than them. So their own belief system is reinforced and further promoted.

It’s just a pity that faith is so easy, while science is so hard. It’s easier to believe, and so hard to know. And even easier, apparently, to psychoanalyse the people who would like to see some convincing evidence.

Former Bishop of Durham calls for Christian Theocracy, As Islamists Call For Sharia, While Atheists Just Want A Peaceful Life

bish of durham exSo, it turns out that a former Bishop of Durham, Dr Tom Wright, reckons that it’s about time democracy was done away with and replaced with theocracy.

As this article from the National Secular Society puts it, the Bish says:

“The whole meaning of God’s kingdom is about the one true God calling time on the world’s wicked empires and setting up a radically different empire instead.”

But we had all that in Britain a few hundred years ago when Catholics and Protestants were in some kind of race with each other to see who could torture, maim and burn the most heretics (i.e., each other, mostly) . And don’t forget – it was Christian “morality” that caused all that suffering for so many people. Maybe the Bishop would like to see a return to that good old fashioned fire and brimstone control that the church could exert over the ordinary people. Even kings came under the control of the church.

Yeah, let’s start burning philosophers and astronomers again. But the Bishop has, whether he likes it or not, been overtaken by the Enlightenment – which he also detests, apparently. Possibly referring to the present refugee and migrant situation, he says:

“The problem is that the West has bought so deeply into the narrative of the Enlightenment and then can’t understand what has gone wrong when the tragedies of this world literally wash up on our shores.”

Bought into the Enlightenment?  As if that is a bad thing? Yes, of course: no theology ever invented by man (they’re all patriarchal, after all) has ever had any use for anyone who could think for themselves; that sort of thing is the biggest danger to any religion, of course.

The only way nowadays that a religion could replace democracy in this country (apart from the constant threats of violent revolution by some Islamic extremists) would be the the paradox of democracy – if enough religiots voted together, then democracy itself could be voted out of existence.

Shariah-4-UK

The (mostly masked) Muslim people (men, not women, of course) in the above picture are using their democratic right to freedom of expression to demand that their right to freedom of expression should be revoked so that they should not be allowed to do what they are now doing – demanding that they should not be allowed to demand the law be changed to stop them demanding what they are demanding. If you can work that out, put your answer in the comments. (It actually comes within the logical fallacy of circular reasoning or, more formally, begging the question. In other words, Bad Thinking.)

Maybe the Bishop would like to see a referendum on the subject. He can’t invoke the power of the church to enforce his version of theocracy, but I wonder if he would be prepared to put his idea to a democratic vote? The population of the UK could have a vote to decide whether we have our present system of government (which is itself far from perfect by any objective measure); a Christian theocracy; an Islamic theocracy; a Hindu theocracy; a [insert a long list of religions here] theocracy; a plutocracy; an oligarchy; even pure anarchy or a new version of the Wild West, where individuals make their own laws which, almost by definition, is pure chaos and lawlessness anyway. In such a scenario, you would be given the right to have all your rights taken away from you! (After that, though, you won’t be able to change your mind again.)

Personally, I’m not taken with the idea that I might (actually would) be tortured and killed in the Bishop’s ideal society just for not believing in his particular god. I find the whole idea unsatisfactory. As an atheist and secularist I think that all religious people should have the right to follow their own religion without interference and that right should be protected by secular law. Similarly, people who have no religious beliefs should have the same rights and protections to not be forced to follow any religion. The only proviso I insist on is that so long as people follow their religion or lack of the same, they cause no harm to any other person.

If you are religious, then by all means bow to and worship whichever god or gods you believe in. I am not going to interfere with your right to do that, but I expect the same courtesy from you: I do not believe in your god or gods; so don’t interfere with my own lack of belief.

For as long as I can stand on my feet, I will defend your right to grovel on your hands and knees.

In the meantime, Bishop Wright can sod off back to the middle ages – where all religions belong. I’ll stick with the Enlightenment, thank you very much.

God’s Law Is Not Above Secular Law

There’s a problem when religious people claim they do not (or should not) have to obey secular laws that go against their religious beliefs. The trouble is that there are so many different religions, each of which conflict with each other on so many different principles, that the only way to have a coherent and stable society within what we nowadays call “multiculturalism” is to have laws that apply to everyone equally, based on common sense, not religious fanaticism.

Kim DavisThe latest example of religious bigotry is the case of Kim Davis, a Kentucky court clerk who has recently been jailed for refusing to issue marriage licences to gay couples. According to the four-times married Christian, who had twins as a result of an adulterous affair, gay marriage is not in accordance with God’s definition of marriage. (There’s another Christian who has obviously not read the Bible, or at least believes that she is entitled to interpret it selectively enough to fit her own particular prejudices.)

When you get down to it, though, it doesn’t matter what your views are about gay people, you are under an obligation to obey the law. Your religious beliefs are neither here nor there, but at least in a western democracy anyone can form a movement to change any existing laws. In fact, that is exactly what happened here with regard to homosexuality. Here in the UK, I can remember when homosexuality was a criminal offence that could result in jail time for anyone who was found out to be gay. Prosecution was what happened to one of my intellectual heroes, Alan Turing, who subsequently committed suicide because of the scandal. (Turing could have been jailed, but he accepted “chemical castration” as an alternative to prison time.)

The same principle also led to the possibility that people in very high (and not so high) places could be open to blackmail if their sexual orientation were to be made public. That too also had some very public consequences for some individuals, but also for national security. As far as I know, Turing was never a security risk himself, but OK, if his work (that helped to end WWII) had been compromised by the threat of blackmail, then he would have been considered a big security risk. If homosexuality had been legal then as it is now, then so what if he was a homosexual? If I were working right now  in a high security government post and some blackmailer were to threaten to “out” me as a heterosexual, well… it just wouldn’t work, would it? The very idea would be laughable.

It’s much better now that gay people can just be part of the community; after all, anyone should be able to do whatever they want to do with only one proviso: that what anyone does causes no harm to others. That sounds reasonable to me.

I believe in and support religious freedom, even though I am an atheist and I do not believe in the existence of any gods. There are thousands of religions, and here in the UK, there is a more than fair spread of them. Having said that, however, I have met some religious people who have tried to hurt me and my family just because I am not “a person of faith.” What is it with these people? Religious people (who actually hate people of other religions), hate even more those people who do not have “faith,” which by definition is a belief without any evidence whatsoever. (If you have the answer to that one, then please let me know.) Also, of course, believing things without evidence – and especially in the face of contradictory evidence – is called “delusion.”

But yet again, we have a Christian who believes she is being persecuted because of her religious beliefs, when in fact she is in trouble for refusing to carry out the job she is paid to do. Like so many others, she thinks that “God’s laws” are above man-made laws. She is, of course, wrong. Her interpretation of her god’s laws just happen to contradict the actual law, as well as other people’s interpretation of their god’s laws, so we also get the regular situation where Muslims, for example, refuse to allow pork or alcohol through the supermarket checkouts they are operating. The reality of the situation seems to be that the religious are upset because they think they are being discriminated against because they are not allowed to discriminate against others.

When you think about it for a moment, there are so many different interpretations of so many different religious laws, that we would live in a totally chaotic society if there were no central laws to keep order. I wonder how many people of different religions think their religious freedom is under attack because they aren’t allowed to burn witches, or kill apostates, or carry out stonings, beheadings, amputations and all the rest of it that is going on around the world right now? Then again, no religion is known for toleration; it’s a pity toleration has to be enforced by (secular) law.

It’s about time that religious people just accepted the fact that in a secular  democracy they have the right to follow their religion without interference (they aren’t going to be executed by the state for following their religion, after all), but at the same time, they have an obligation to allow others their own freedoms – whether they like it or not, and no, they are not being persecuted, they are merely being required by law to act like civilised people in a civilised society.

When you get down to it, there are thousands of religions, and many of them are represented in this country. If we want a coherent society where everyone can live together in some kind of peaceful co-existence, then there has to be a system of laws that do not prefer one religion over another, and which restrict what people are allowed to do to either promote or defend their religious beliefs. The same applies to atheists like me – I want the right to not be religious, without being attacked because I don’t believe the same way as some other people. I don’t mind if others want to pray to their imaginary god (and let’s be honest here: I am not alone as an atheist claiming that the religious are worshipping an imaginary god; every religious person believes that the people of every other religion are worshipping an imaginary god or gods. In a very real way, every religious person is convinced that the gods of the various other religions just don’t exist; in that sense, everyone on Earth is united. No one believes that the other fellow’s religion is true. For every god that is claimed to be real there is an overwhelming majority of people who think they are wrong, ergo, there is no god. Maybe.).

I wonder what would happen if I lived in America as a heterosexual atheist, and applied to Kim Davis for a licence to marry a woman, say another heterosexual atheist. Would she feel justified in refusing a licence to me because I don’t believe in her particular god? Or could I insist that I would accept a licence only from an atheist clerk? Or could I quote the Bible as a justification that in the eyes of God she herself is an adulteress, having been married four times (so far) and is therefore unfit for her post and should be put to death according to biblical law? And what if I insisted and incited other people to do that? Obviously I should be arrested if I were serious, but I’m a reasonable and rational thinker, so it ain’t really gonna happen, is it? All I can do is look at the whole sorry mess and shake my head as I ponder the irrationality of religion dividing humanity rather than uniting it – as so many of the religious claim to be trying to do.

If you have read this far, you might be starting to understand why I think that all religions are just magnets for bigots, and if they weren’t bigots before they got religion, then they certainly become so once they accept it – from the youngest possible age if they were born into it.

I’m an atheist. I don’t need religion to tell me it’s wrong to kill, steal, lie or do anything else that causes harm to any other person. Those principles were in place thousands of years before the Abrahamic religions existed, and they existed in prehistoric societies just because it was a sensible way to make those societies exist peacefully. No gods are required to have an orderly and peaceful existence. It is the belief in gods that divides people and buggers it all up for everyone – every time.

Being divisive because of belief in any any gods is Bad Thinking; accommodating others whatever their beliefs if they cause no harm to anyone else is better thinking.

Grabbing The Mane Chance

CecilYou must have heard about Cecil the lion – killed by a dentist from Minnesota – news of which made many people down in the mouth. (I’m not biased against dentists, by the way; I look forward to going to see my own dentist, as it happens: for a busy person like me, it seems to be the only chance I get for a sit-down nowadays.)

Anyway, it’s bad enough that anyone thinks a good holiday is not complete without killing one of the most majestic creatures on the planet. But this dentist was not exactly putting himself in any danger by going on an organised hunt, so he isn’t any kind of hero. There is, however, a world-wide outcry about it and I suspect he’s having second thoughts now (hindsight is not as good as foresight, though).

But things get worse: the psychics have started cashing in. Well, one psychic at least, Karen Anderson, “animal communicator”, who would have you believe that she has “connected with Cecil the lion in the afterlife and has his final words for humanity.”

Get a load of this drivel from her Facebook page, where she announces that Cecil told her:

“Let not the actions of these few men defeat us or allow darkness to enter our hearts. If we do then we become one of them. Raise your vibration and allow this energy to move us forward. What happened does not need to be discussed as it is what it is. Take heart my child, I am finer than ever, grander than before as no one can take our purity, our truth or our soul. Ever. I am here. Be strong and speak for all the others who suffer needlessly to satisfy human greed. Bring Light and Love and we will rise above this.”

It must be good luck that Cecil spoke or thought in English rather than any of the indigenous African languages – or just “Lion”. (E.g., “Roar, growl, roar”.)

If you believe that load of old tosh, then you can hire her to contact any pets you might have had in the past, and it will cost you only $149 for thirty minutes on the phone.

But maybe there is some kind of connection between “psychic animal communicators” and lions; psychics and lions are both predators, after all. At least lions prey for survival, whereas psychics prey for monetary profit from gullible believers. No doubt the publicity generated for Anderson with her 1,500 “likes” on FB will boost her income, although I would have felt (slightly) less disdain towards her if she were advertising that she would be donating a substantial percentage of her increased income towards animal conservation in Africa.

No, there isn’t much good coming out of this whole sorry mess, unless the publicity coming from it can raise awareness of the need for conservation – not just of lions in Africa, but the bigger issue of conservation in general, including our own survival as a species in the face of major environmental concerns – pollution, global warming – in fact everything that conservative climate change denialists seem to hold dear.

In summary, a rich dentist thought is would be fun to spend thousands of dollars going on a holiday where he could kill a lion with no physical danger whatsoever to himself; a supposed psychic has jumped on the bandwagon and gained worldwide publicity for her business; a lion is dead. Who wins in a situation like this? The animal is dead, the dentist is being hounded, the psychic is cashing in.

Oh. The psychic wins. That’s who wins. A psychic sits on the sidelines and then just moves in to take advantage of the opportunity that presents itself. Just like your average predator, or, more accurately in this case, your average parasite, as it happens.

To be honest, this story is just one of many that I come across and shake my head at. It might be more significant to me right now just because our pet cat was old and ill, and I am the one who had the job of taking it to the vet this week to have it “put to sleep,” as it is euphemistically called. In reality, I took it to its death; it didn’t know what was about to happen to it, but in law it seems that if I knowingly allowed it to suffer unnecessarily, then I might be open to criminal charges of animal cruelty. Strange, isn’t it, that a rich dentist from Minnesota can pay for the pleasure of killing a cat, but I could face possible prosecution for not arranging to do the same, albeit without any pleasure whatsoever? (Yes, I realise the circumstances are not the same, but I hope you can understand what I am getting at. There is a difference between causing unnecessary suffering to an animal, and ending an animal’s unnecessary suffering.)

Some People Don’t Like Science

Promoters of the paranormal, the supernatural, quack medicine and every other off-the-wall claim all seem to dislike science, and as far as I have discovered, there are two main reasons they offer:

  • Reason 1: Science is dogmatic and unchanging. (That’s why it won’t accept “new” ideas like the existence of the paranormal.)
  • Reason 2: Science is always changing. (Science doesn’t really know very much; if it knew about the world, then it wouldn’t need to accept new ideas.)

You might see a contradiction there, but the woomeisters don’t seem to notice it.

Science doesn’t accept the paranormal as real, of course, because it is mostly untestable, and many of its claims have been soundly refuted anyway. The burden of proof is on those who make claims for the paranormal, but even those parapsychologists who think they have proven its existence have only demonstrated that they have, at best, observed something anomalistic. It doesn’t follow that there is some kind of psychic energy at work.

On the whole, parapsychology has no theory that can be tested or exploited, and that is why science rejects it. Speculation about some alleged mysterious force that cannot be be detected or measured objectively is simply not scientific. And because it isn’t scientific, it cannot become part of science.

Answering the two points above, I would say this to the paranormalists:

Make your mind up. If science were as dogmatic as the believers in the paranormal, then no scientific progress would be made. Science changes in response to new discoveries; it formulates new theories to account for the new facts it discovers; it modifies old theories to accommodate new findings; sometimes it discards old theories altogether when they are discovered to be wrong (even though the old ideas “worked” quite well within the old framework). You can hardly accuse science of being dogmatic at the same time you accuse it of always changing.

The paranormalists are the people who are dogmatic. They hang on to the idea of “psychic energy,” for example. They can’t demonstrate this force that they believe exists within (or even outside of) the universe, and they just make excuses for their failures. That’s why it can’t become part of science.

Try this thought experiment:

I claim that electricity is real. So I invite you to my home where I claim that I can merely flick a switch and the whole of my living room will be bathed in light. So you come around one evening at about dusk, just as the daylight is receding and the moment of truth comes: I confidently flick the switch, and… nothing happens!

What do I do? If I tell you that it failed because the vibrations aren’t right, or that, as an unbeliever, you have disrupted the “power” (as it were), or if I told you that electricity is a rare and elusive occurrence that can’t be called up at will, or if I gave you any number of excuses equivalent to the excuses given by the woomeisters when their claims fail objective tests, you might be rather sceptical, dare I say, about the claims I have made.

Then again, I might ask you to wait while I replace the light bulb, because it could have burnt out. If that didn’t work, I might check the consumer unit and replace the fuse or reset the circuit breaker. If that didn’t work, then I might check the switch itself for a loose connection. And so on. In other words, I could go through a logical process to identify and then correct the problem, after which I would throw the switch and prove to you conclusively that my claim about electric light is true. Not only would I have proven my claim, but I would also have demonstrated that there is an underlying (testable) theory of electricity. I would not be making a claim I could not prove, and I would also not just be making excuses for failure.

The believers, and their heroes (those high profile parapsychologists who cannot get their research published in reputable scientific journals), complain that science somehow just “shuts them out” because of its intransigence and dogma. They laud their most prominent researchers (that they like to describe as mavericks), and complain bitterly that it is scientific dogma that will not allow them onto the scientific stage.

On the other hand, scientists (and sceptics) regard some of those paranormal researchers not as mavericks, but as cranks. Can it really be true that the whole of science is wrong, as opposed to woomeisters who cannot demonstrate the simplest claim they make, about a force they cannot present, and which when it fails (as it always does when properly tested), can only be accounted for by excuses they cannot prove, either?

Over many years, I have met people who claim to have various psychic abilities. Some of those people are even members of the Spiritualist religion and claim to be able to contact the dead. But their claims always fail. Unlike my example from the reality-based world of a claim I might make about electricity, their own claims never hold up. Those claims always fail objective tests, and excuses just won’t do.

Ask a clairvoyant to tell you what next week’s lottery numbers will be (I know that’s a cliche nowadays, but cliches gain that status because they tend to be based on truth). The answer is always along the lines of: “It doesn’t work like that.” So you won’t get the lottery numbers, but your clairvoyant will not be winning the lottery next week either, as he or she did not last week, this week or anytime in the near future. (I’m not discounting the possibility that your average psychic couldn’t win the lottery just by pure chance, but to be credible in a claim that it was their psychic powers that did it, it would have to be repeatable, and that’s another reason why you can’t accept a single, dumb-luck outcome as evidence of anything paranormal).

The bottom line is really straightforward: Science is not dogmatic; science changes in response to new discoveries. And that’s the way it should be. It’s why science advances, and parapsychology doesn’t. 

All the paranormal people have to do is to prove their claims. Right now, science does not accept the paranormal is real, but that will change if the paranormalists prove what they claim, without making excuses for constant failures. If any paranormal researcher makes a true breakthrough and demonstrates conclusively that any aspect of the paranormal is real, will they complain if science “changes” its “dogmatic” viewpoint and accepts it? We’re into Nobel Prize territory here, after all, so any scientist will be interested in proving the existence of some hitherto undiscovered law of nature.

The claim that science is dogmatic but always changing is a logical contradiction; it is also bad thinking, as well as simply a case of sour grapes.

Personally, as a supporter and defender of science over superstition, I find it rather satisfying and reassuring to know that there are many examples of science being forced to re-evaluate itself when something has come along to upset the apple cart, so to speak. Yes, some of science’s hypotheses and theories have had to be amended; sometimes they have had to be discarded altogether. Over time, however, science is not kidding itself that it “knows everything.” Science leaves that claim to the woomeisters and the religious.

For the benefit of those who believe that science is dogmatic, at the same time as they believe science is always changing, I offer this advice to keep in mind as they pursue their research:

Arse elbow illustration 3

Learn that distinction and you’re on your way to understanding what science is all about.

The Poison Of Religion

Raif Badawi pic from the BBC

In January this year (2015) Saudi Blogger Raif Badawi received the first fifty of one thousand lashes he was sentenced to by the Saudi Arabian “justice” system for being disrespectful to Islam. He had also been sentenced to ten years in prison and a fine, although it goes without saying that he is unlikely to survive such a flogging – even if it is to be carried out in stages, supposedly giving him time to recover sufficiently enough for the full sentence to be administered.

And while this is going on, Saudi Arabia is – unbelievably – actually on the UN’s Human Rights Council!

There has, of course, been an international outcry over the barbarism that is being inflicted on a man who had the courage to speak out in favour of the freedoms we enjoy in civilised western countries, where we can think freely and even criticise the status quo. But in an Islamic state like Saudi, independent thought and expression of dissenting beliefs can invite horrendous punishment and even death. And this is the 21st century!

The sentence of another fifty lashes has been postponed numerous times since January, giving some hope that the Saudi authorities might have been giving the case further consideration, and possibly even been willing to give in to the worldwide pressure to revise the sentence imposed on Raif. Unfortunately, as the BBC reports, the Saudi regime has confirmed that the original sentence of 1,000 lashes and ten years jail will be carried out.

To their shame, western governments aren’t really making as much of a fuss as they could, or should, nor will they as long as they are so eager to buy Saudi oil, and equally eager to sell them arms. Not only that, but the newly-elected Conservative Party government in Britain has promised to repeal the Human Rights Act that protects every citizen in the UK from the same medieval barbarism that leaves every person in Islamic countries in fear of the ominous rap on the door in the middle of the night. Or just the wrath of an ignorant lynch mob at any time of the day.

There is little I can do as an individual to help this man whose “crime” is nothing more than speaking reasonably. All I can do is add my own voice to the many others who are speaking out and hope that eventually it might make a difference. Add your voice too, if you cherish – and want to keep – the freedom to think for yourself.

In the UK and other western countries, everyone has freedom of conscience, and that includes the freedom to follow any religion without hindrance, as well as the freedom to follow no religion at all. That’s the way it should be, but it doesn’t happen in any country where politics and theocracy are so intertwined that they become, in fact, the same thing.

Religion, as the late Christopher Hitchens pointed out, poisons everything.

Enfield – Making A Paranormal Drama Out Of A Crisis (Maybe)

I watched the recent three-part TV drama, The Enfield Haunting, and I thought I might as well add my own review and analysis to the many that have already been presented.

The drama, based on Guy Lyon Playfair’s book, This House Is Haunted, was transmitted on Sky Living over three weeks. Starring Matthew Macfadyen as Guy Lyon Playfair and Timothy Spall as Maurice Grosse (the two main parapsychological investigators), the story was based on what was described as “real events” that occurred during an alleged poltergeist haunting that was investigated by Playfair and Grosse during the 1970s in a modest suburban home in Enfield, London.

Even as a sceptic myself, I have no problem with a good ghost yarn. And this was good – very good. The writing, the acting and everything else about it was superb. The drama of the situation was particularly enhanced by the attention to detail, especially with regard to the way a typical 1970s home might be decorated, although the fashionable colour schemes people liked in those days (browns, orange) would be out of place in anyone’s home nowadays. I remember that fashion in decor quite well, so it struck a chord with me, and it was easy to imagine myself being back in that era; it added to the overall effect for me. For a younger person used to modern light airy pastel decoration, I’m sure it would have added a certain ominous feel to it all, particularly given the careful application of lighting and shadow in the production, the effect no doubt used to enhance the overall sense of the sinister.

I won’t criticise the drama itself, although there are other aspects of the whole thing that I found rather troubling. First of all, it was promoted as being “based on real events.” Some people might dispute that. The original book, This House Is Haunted, came in for lots of criticism from sceptics (and still does, not surprisingly). The existence of poltergeists – like the existence of ghosts and other paranormal claims – is certainly not proven, but the danger of this type of drama is that it lends a faux legitimacy to it. It’s the same psychological process in action that affects a lady I know who once told me that psychics solve crimes (they don’t, of course), and it must be true because she has seen the “documentaries” on TV and she really thinks (as she told me in all seriousness) “They couldn’t put it on the telly if it wasn’t true!”

Perhaps many of the believing viewers of this drama have a similar mind-set. The claim that the story is “based on real events” might just translate in their own minds into the idea that it must be true because the TV people have actually made it into a TV drama (and “they couldn’t put it on the telly if it weren’t true”, could they?)

The programme is listed at the IMBD, and some of the comments are interesting; in particular, one commenter says, “I feel like the show has given me the belief in ghosts…” Maybe that’s someone who had no beliefs about the paranormal one way or another before he watched the series, but if that’s the case, then here is a new convert to the woo mind-set. And of course the existing believers will just have their beliefs confirmed and even reinforced.

I don’t have a link handy, but I know that Guy Lyon Playfair himself – the author of the original book – has complained that some of the drama contained events that did not happen. This combination of events being invented for dramatic purposes, together with the story being advertised as being based on “real events” gives an undeserved legitimacy to a story that is controversial, to say the least, but certainly not proven.

It’s bad enough that TV schedules are overflowing with pseudo-documentaries about alleged “ancient aliens,” UFOs, ghost-hunting capers filmed with night-vision cameras and all the rest of it without this sort of programme adding to the plethora of paranormal propaganda that airs non-stop on the seemingly unlimited number of TV channels available nowadays.

There’s a difference between a drama based on known and confirmed historical events, and a drama based on unconfirmed, but sensational, claims. The Enfield poltergeist case is one person’s personal account of alleged happenings that do not comport with what empirical scientific investigation has told us about the world we live in and the universe around us. It’s just not the same as something from history (even recent history) where the overall story and chain of events is known and not disputed, but which needs a dramatist’s talent to flesh out what might have happened behind the scenes, so to speak. OK, even that writer’s particular interpretation might be disputed, but that approach can be thought-provoking as well as controversial without anyone doubting that the events dramatised actually happened.

I have watched and enjoyed many dramatisations of historical events – from very old history to very modern history – and thought them to be intellectually stimulating and, to say the least, providing “food for thought.” They are the kind of programming that make it worthwhile to be a person with an inbuilt curiosity about what goes on in the world and what might make people do what they do. Human nature in action, dramatised in a way that one might or might not agree with, but at least the best drama makes you stop and think.

Although this particular dramatisation was good (even compelling) TV, it did not do anything to promote what the world really needs – thinking people. To paraphrase Carl Sagan (very loosely, in my own words): we live in a technological world where hardly anyone understands it; we’re finished if so many people are going to spend their lives believing so much claptrap when we actually need more people who will be interested in reality.

CARL-SAGAN-007

Entertainment is OK, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that modern society is heavily dependent on science and technology. Some of the best science fiction has inspired many of today’s scientists to do what they are now doing, and I would argue that TV should produce more science-based fiction rather than woo-based fiction. However good a drama might be in its own right, I think there’s a case to be made for TV producers to keep a firm eye on what is real.