Month: September 2011

Book Review – Counter Clock World, Philip K. Dick

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While I count Blade Runner as probably my favourite sci-fi film of all time, it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve really become a convert to the twisted worlds of Philip K Dick. I’ve now read quite a few of them and have invariably become engrossed in each one. This latest, Counter Clock World, is no different.

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Are religious people nicer?

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I read this report some time ago and have been stewing on it since.

The writer, Simon Smart, Director of the Centre for Public Christianity, sheepishly quotes a new report which finds that:

On every measurable scale, religious Americans are more generous, more altruistic and more involved in civic life than their secular counterparts.

They are more likely to give blood, money to a homeless person, financial aid to family or friends, a seat to a stranger and to spend time with someone who is ”a bit down”

He also quotes studies/reports in Australia to support the findings.

All well and good, but Simon undoes his report by taking the opportunity to take a swipe at Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, as follows:

But this research is in stark contrast to claims by prominent authors such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. After reading their works, you’d swear that religion makes you immediately abandon rationality to become an inward-looking extremist. What Putnam’s book does at the very least is to bring a bit of balance into the conversation

Simon then reveals that maybe religion is not necessarily a pre-requisite for being a good-guy:

A sobering note for believers is that this study reveals that the content of a person’s belief isn’t what matters so much as their level of involvement in a religious community.

An atheist who comes to church to support her partner will rate as well as any believer on these scores.

So, I ask – if this is what the study reveals, then why make the claim about religion at all? Why the provocative headline?

The comments to this piece are fascinating – all 403 of them. While I haven’t read them all, there’s a strong reaction against the article, generally resentful of the ‘we are good, you are bad’ tone. But hasn’t this always been the way with the faithful? Haven’t they always been holier than thou? Well, maybe not always, given the mayhem strewn throughout the bible and the history of mankind.

A few commenters raised the point that many of the faithful would be doing public services out of the fear of their god – rather than any sort of altruism. And of course, the faithful are also selective of the targets of their ‘kindness’ – gays need not apply, nor women seeking support for an abortion, and so on.

This is a complex area, but for an in-depth discussion, I commend this episode of the excellent Reasonable Doubts podcast. As the show notes describe it:

In this presentation, Dr. Galen, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychology at Grand Valley State University, will consider the root of morality and pro-social behavior. Are we kind and considerate of others because religion creates a set of rules and “commandments” or are these behaviors a natural result of our evolutionary need to live in community? Dr. Galen will also cover related topics such as why humans construct religions and how religion can create prejudicial beliefs and behaviors.

Well worth a listen, to delve beneath the headlines and spin.

The diary of rationalbrain

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Rationalbrain is currently on holiday in Europe for a while, and for this week it’s Amsterdam. While initially I thought I might dig up some euro-pseudo-science about which to rant, I’ve been struck quite unexpectedly by something a little more serious.

No, I don’t mean how s**t the wireless broadband is in this otherwise excellent hotel.

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Mind-body: a question of engineering

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One of the topics I have always been fascinated by is the mind-body problem. Specifically, at what point, and exactly how, does our brain become a ‘mind’.

It is fair to say that this aspect of human development is still a deep mystery – while we can see the developmental path for the physical hardware of the brain, we still don’t seem to have a handle on the mind.  Naturally, this lack of knowledge is pounced upon by the religiati, eager to point out that what I’m referring to is the soul, and it’s god-given.

But as you would expect, no, I don’t buy that.

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Mmmm, oxygen

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Yes, I can just picture Homer Simpson salivating over flavoured oxygen. Fresh on the heels of my rant on detox, here we have another purported cure for the ‘symptoms of life’ – oxygen bars, in which we have the privilege of paying $1 per minute to suck in some flavoured O2. Well, it is Spring I suppose, which we now all know is the best time to detox.

Is there no end to the crappola being foisted upon us from people trying to make a fast buck? At least this article is better researched than the detox nonsense, and actually presents some information from people who, well, knowsomething about the subject, and are not in it for the money. As we might have guessed, the purveyors of this modern miracle claim that:

“oxygen can increase energy, ease hangover headaches and stress, and help combat jet lag”

At least they didn’t claim it would remove toxins. Several experts were consulted:

  • exercise science specialist Associate Professor Aaron Coutts, of the University of Technology, Sydney,
  • Australian Lung Foundation’s respiratory expert Professor Christine McDonald of Austin Hospital in Melbourne
  • The Therapeutic Goods Administration

and they all agreed that there would be either no benefit, or indeed there could be some damage under certain conditions. To counter this, one of the proponents of the therapy is:

“confident of the oxygen bar’s therapeutic benefits, saying that it helped to reduce symptoms of migraine, cold and flu. The main thing is that it really calms a person; it relaxes them. If [people] are really stressed out or they’ve got migraines, 20 minutes on their oxygen machine brings their heart rates down. It’s not just a quick hit.”

Well, as long as this person who is trying to sell me air is ‘confident’, then that’s all the reassurance I need, right? Needless to say, those experts must be shills for ‘big pharma’, who don’t want us to cure our ailments with something as cheap as air – they want us to buy their expensive drugs. I’m onto them, don’t worry. Actually I think I’m more cranky about people who mindlessly buy into this stuff than those trying to make money out of it. At least the latter have some semblance of rationality in their actions.

More detox crap

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You’ve no doubt gathered I’m a fan of The Age as a source of news, but I’m completely mystified about why they persist with some of the ridiculous stuff in the ‘Life and Style’ section. Whereas other sections are generally well researched, the paper is completely credulous in this section.

Why else would they publish a piece of drivel like this.

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