Month: October 2013

The Great Debate – like god, not so great

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This via PZ Myers site Pharyngula

Many of you who are into the discussion about religion will have picked up that many atheists refuse to debate religious types, mainly because of what has been dubbed the ‘Gish Gallop’ – named after the apologist Duane Gish, who trotted out so many points during his debates that it was impossible to refute them all in a systematic and thorough way. The same tactic is used by cranks of all sorts, especially climate change denialists and alternative medicine proponents, who boil things down to a string of simplistic one-liners, instead of examining the often complex facts (you know, a bit like Australian politics). This then gives the appearance in a live debate that they have won, because the opponent was not able to answer every point, or simply because they ‘seemed’ more knowledgeable.

Here’s a little more background on this phenomenon, which features a nice graphic on ‘debating a christian’.

There are exceptions of course – the guys at Reasonable Doubts engage in debates frequently, but in a more academic setting and format, which tends to keep the gallopers under control.

And then there are the complete mismatches – revisit the Dawkins vs Pell fiasco for a bit of fun, and this great effort by PZ Myers.

But this one will make you chuckle. Recorded just a couple of weeks ago, sociologist and secular humanist Phil Zuckerman WIPED THE FLOOR with historian David Marshall, in a debate on which side provides the greater basis for a society. Zuckerman was so well prepared in comparison to Marshall it was a very lopsided discussion. He relied on sociological studies and global observations, while Marshall seemed to trot out single anecdotes from history, and of course his own personal experience. At times, Marshall seemed to have not been listening, or was simply stumped for what to say next, and had to resort to the time-honoured tactic of asking the moderator to repeat the question in order to buy time.

It’s a bit long, but worth it hear Zuckerman’s well constructed arguments. The only negative for Zuckerman is that he tries a bit too hard to be polite and accommodating. Enjoy.


Gravity is awesome

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Gravity_PosterNo, I’m not referring to that gravity which is ‘just a theory’, but which is nonetheless quite a handy thing.

I’m referring to the movie, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, which I saw about a week ago, but have waited a while for it to sink in. I chose the adjective ‘awesome’ deliberately – I was genuinely awe-struck, and that doesn’t happen very often.

I thought I would pass on some thoughts on the movie, but will try not to give away any spoilers.

The first thing to be said is that the subject matter of this movie once again underlines my contention that reality is way more interesting (and awesome) than the mystical/religious/paranormal/fantasy worlds which many claim to  exist.

But now to the movie itself.

The production values are superb, as is the attention to detail. For once, the creators have actually listened to the boffins, and got the physics right. While it’s a feast for the eyes, it’s certainly not a romanticised or air-brushed telling of a routine mission gone wrong. Rather, it reinforces what a dangerous place space is for humans, and in particular, how many different ways space can kill you. And that’s what makes this movie edge-of-the-seat stuff from beginning to end (ok, they do give you a few minutes at the beginning to get the ‘wow-that-looks-fun’ feeling happening, but that’s it for relaxation I’m afraid).

I do have a few minor gripes however, but they are minor:

1. At one point Bullock has seven minutes to free the entangled chinese capsule, and suddenly appears on the outside, all suited up to begin the work of untangling stuff. I think it would have taken all of that seven minutes to find the suit (which belonged to a departed chinese astronaut), get into it, and make her way to the outside of the craft.

2. When Clooney (in his jet-pack) picks up Bullock, he tows her back using a long tether – which looked about 20m long, ostensibly to get her out of his jets. That’s fair enough, but the resulting dynamics of two bodies whipping around wreckage is unnecessary, and completely foreseeable. This also would have accelerated the depletion of the fuel in the jet-pack, as it fought against the inertia of the other body. And the fuel in the jet-pack turns out to be critical. Why not have Bullock hold onto Clooney front-on? (Like many other women would love to do, including Mrs. rb, given half a chance). This at least would have made them a single body, much easier to control.

3. The close proximity of the ISS and Chinese habitats to the shuttle orbit and location was handy, and necessary to support the dramatic storyline, but  I think that the outcome (without giving away too much), would have been a lot worse in reality.

As I said, these are minor, and don’t really detract from an otherwise excellent film.

For those of you who watch The Movie Show with David and Margaret, I was surprised with David’s comments on the movie. He felt that that a certain scene 3/4 of the way through the movie was somehow silly and inappropriate (when you see it, you’ll know which one I mean). I’m not sure what he was on, but the scene was fine with me – not out of place at all, and completely believable, given the oxygen-starved environment at the time. Was he even paying attention?

The other fail for the Movie show was the failure to acknowledge Aussie astronaut Andy Thomas, who is credited as ‘astronaut adviser’. Given the excellent performances and realism, he has to take a lot of credit.

Overall, a great adventure, well presented.

Your homework: Read Ray Bradbury’s ‘Kaleidescope’, which tells the story of astronauts ejected from an exploding spaceship, and their various conversations as they drift toward their respective fates. Compare and contrast.

A reminder on anti-oxidant supplements – they don’t do what you think they do.

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A while back I did a piece on the anti-oxidant rage, here.

I’m not sure if I’ve tuned them out, or the media has actually gone a bit quiet on anti-oxidant supplementation, but it’s worth reinforcing because we continue to see a whole lot of misinformation and misleading nonsense in the nutrition industry – you know, berries of various sorts, herbs, teas and such. I’m actually surprised there isn’t a brand of cigarettes boasting anti-oxidants.

The point of my original story is that the body is a lot more complicated than the simplistic “anti-oxidant kills free radicals” messages we are given, much like “stop the boats”. In fact, too much anti-oxidant can be harmful.

This post is just an excuse to point you to one of my favourite new online information sources, The Conversation. This is an online magazine with contributors from academia and industry, who have the luxury of being able to write in-depth about issues, rather than just give you slogans. And of course, the articles are written by people who know the material, not journalists interpreting others.

In particular, this piece : Health Check: the untrue story of antioxidants vs free radicals gives us another good potted summary of this potentially very complex issue. It is presented in a very clear and accessible way, so give it a try.

Once again, the bottom line: a balanced diet gives you as many anti-oxidants as the body needs, so don’t waste your money, or risk your health by supplementing them with special foods and concoctions.

Book Review – Religion for Atheists

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Following closely on ‘Letter to a Christian Nation’ which I reviewed recently, I have just read ‘Religion for Atheists’ by Alain de Botton. An interesting juxtaposition really, with Sam Harris thumbing his nose at claims that religion has somehow enriched us, while de Botton in effect says ‘oh yeah?’.

Religion for Atheists took me by surprise. I’d heard a bit about how the author was a bit of an apologist and so on, but I wasn’t prepared for what I was about to read – a load of condescending hogwash.

And though the author maintains he is an atheist, the degree to which he bends over backwards to accommodate religion is worthy of a circus contortionist.

I’m sorry, it’s one long gush about how religion has enriched mankind, how impoverished atheist lives are, and how we would do well to borrow from the traditions of religion; though on those great religious traditions such as genocide, slavery and the inquisition he is mysteriously silent! Cherry-picking anyone? Oh well, you can only squeeze so much into a book, and there was all that gushing to fit in.

The author does accept that neither the religious nor the atheist communities will be happy with the book – the latter feeling outraged at the treatment of religion as though “it deserves to be a continuing touchstone for our yearnings”. No, that wouldn’t outrage me. What outraged me was that this book offered up religion as much more than a touchstone – a much more immodest answer to life, the universe and everything, with apologies to the real Messiah, Douglas Adams, who at least was able to prove his divinity by creating the first ever trilogy consisting of 4 books, and thereby proving his mastery of the fundamental physical principles of the universe.

The author (de Botton, not Adams) divides the book neatly for us into the lessons religion can give, namely, community, kindness, education, tenderness, pessimism, perspective, art, architecture and institutions. I’d like to write a piece on each section, but the book doesn’t deserve the wear and tear on my laptop keyboard that would entail, so I’ll resist the temptation, and focus on some highlights and themes.

Now, a philosopher I’m not, but de Botton seems to obsess about the ego throughout the book, as if it is some evil attribute of mankind which must be squashed at every opportunity.  By extension, he feels that we should know our place in the universe and be humble, yada yada yada. He uses these devices liberally to underline the great gifts religion can bestow upon us.

The discussion about community goes along the lines you would expect – that religion has a lot to teach us about getting together in communities – never mind that people manage to do that just fine without religion. Surprisingly however, he does seem to advocate that breaking out of the norms of social expectations in some sort of (religiously inspired) 15th century Feast of Fools could provide a useful antidote to “the two greatest pressures of secular adult life: having to be rational and having to be faithful”. So, act like an idiot, and shag the neighbours once per year, and job done: pressures dealt with. Back to the office for more rationality and faithfulness. His suggestion has good empirical support in the world of AFL football in Australia, in which we have a tradition of Mad Monday at season’s end. That always ends well. If that’s his understanding of the pressures of modern life, then I’m afraid the whole book is based on a faulty premise.

The section on education is very wide-ranging, but the basic premise is that the content and delivery of secular education is directed at the brain and not the soul. (I do realise that he means ‘soul’ not in the religious sense, but rather that collection of ghostly and ill-defined attributes such as faith, charity, hope and love). He therefore proposes ‘sermons’ instead of ‘lectures’, to answer the key questions of life and getting on with each-other. All laudable – and in a sense I agree, which is why in previous discussions on this blog you’ll see a lot of stuff about the teaching of ethics in primary school. But to be clear, I don’t consider this position to be religious – rather, it’s a humanist one.

His discussion of tenderness is somewhat baffling I must say. The premise is illustrated by a little story of some guy down on his luck, stumbling into a church and gaining comfort from gazing at a picture of the Madonna. He feels that we should learn from religion, and perhaps create secular ‘temples of tenderness’, or other architectural spaces, in which our souls can get a great big hug to make everything ok. Really? We need buildings for that? I always thought that’s what people were for. Perhaps I’m just being naïve.

Now for pessimism. His basic premise here is that religion has always been great at insisting that we, and our relationships, are inherently flawed, and not to expect lasting happiness as a right. Perhaps I missed the aphorism “if you’re pessimistic, you’re never disappointed” in the bible. Well there are probably words to that effect in there, which demonstrates that it’s a secular concept. Written by humans, it’s a mental trick we play on ourselves as protection from disappointment – a bit like me when I started out reading this book.

I’m going to finish on perspective, because I’ve written about art and architecture briefly before here, and this book hasn’t really changed my view on it. And the last section, institutions, frankly bored me.

The section on perspective really annoyed me – it’s all about how religion helps us realise how insignificant we are, and how we should be humble (again, let’s beat that ego into submission, right?). As the author puts it:

Religion is above all a symbol of what exceeds us and an education in the advantages of recognizing our paltriness.

See what I mean about patronising? He accepts that science can also help us to feel paltry – activities such as understanding the size of the cosmos and so on. But his main point is that this feeling is somehow therapeutic, and refers as evidence to Spinoza’s view of the stars that: “It is through their contemplation that the secular are afforded the best chance of experiencing redemptive feelings of awe”. How exactly it is therapeutic or redemptive is not really addressed to my satisfaction.

He also pushes the travails of our biblical friend Job – and how instead of an explanation for his misery, he is offered a reminder that he can never understand some things, some mysteries. On this, De Botton opines:

God’s whirlwind, and the sonorous, sublime words he speaks, excite a pleasing terror in his audience, a sense of how petty are man’s disasters in comparison with the ways of eternity, leaving Job – and the rest of us, perhaps – a little readier to bow to the incomprehensible and morally obscure tragedies that every life entails”.

To use the literary term, what a load of bollocks. His message is to simply accept that you won’t be able to understand some things, and you’ll feel better. Have a cup of tea and lie down. Things will look better in the morning. He goes on to suggest that:

Science should matter to us not only because it helps us to control parts of the world, but also because it shows us things that we will never master.

No. I simply don’t accept such a defeatist and puerile position. So, at what point should we stop trying to master things? He goes further:

Thus we would do well to meditate daily, rather as the religious do on their God, on the 9.5 trillion kilometres which comprise a single light year, or perhaps the luminosity of the largest known start in our galaxy, Eta Carinae, 7,500 light years distant…… {insert more gee-whiz numbers in here…}

OMG. He seems a bit freaked by big numbers, doesn’t he? Does he really think that meditating on the fact that light travels 9.5 x 1012 km in year will bring about some change in our psyche? And surely if he’d heeded his own advice in the previous quote, we would never have understood the implications of the speed of light in the first place.

No, the gee-whiz knowledge he cites is just mundane, but nonetheless a significant accomplishment of mankind, without the necessity to be humble in the process. And rather than consoling us, or somehow encouraging us to be happy with our current state, knowledge serves to make mankind thirst for even more knowledge. And so it should.

I’ll be very interested to see how other people feel about this book, but it’s a thumbs-down from me.

Boats to the node!

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He he he…

Nice one, Jon Kudelka.

boats to the node