Rational Thinking

Dara O’Briain tells it like it is

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Dara O’Briain is a comedian and well-known skeptic.  I recently caught up with a stage show he recorded, and thought I would share the 6 or so minute spray in the middle which he gave to all things pseudo-science and religion. Very clever, and very entertaining.


Brain Training – Here’s a better way

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Long-time correspondent Dan Rea recently put in a request for a look at the new industry of Brain Training, citing the example of the Luminosity program.

Before Dan’s email, I hadn’t really thought about it much, although I have heard quite a bit of discussion about it. The first things that brain training conjures up for me are those hokey ads featuring Delta Goodrem and Olivia Newton John with their little gadgets, playing games and claiming it improves their brain.

The second, and more annoying thing is that one of these crowds have appropriated another of science’s words! Luminosity. You know how much I hate it when that happens, so I’m not feeling very charitable towards them, regardless of the merits of the program.

The bottom line, however, is fairly simple to summarise. Brain training by repeating various tasks improves your brain… at doing those tasks. But nothing else. In addition, while a computer may make it more fun, or less arduous, it’s not better than good old pencil and paper.

Yes, brain training, is what we old folks call ‘learning’!

Want to train your brain at chess? Play more chess. Cricket? Play more cricket. Solve little puzzles? Do more puzzles. Golf? Play more golf.(although that last one doesn’t seem to work for me).

And, wow, even the normally credulous Fox News has a reasonably balanced article on this.

But by far the best summary is by Steve Novella on Science Based Medicine. In his no-nonsense article, he reviews the latest studies for us, and summarises the findings far better than I could.

This article is written from the point of view of a journalist who tries it out for themselves – an interesting first-person perspective, but basically the same findings.

So instead of shelling out for these programs, I suggest you pick whatever you want to improve, and just, well, practice.

And here’s an idea – instead of trying to improve your brain, improve your mind by practicing clear thinking – which is what this blog has been on about.  So here’s a good place to start: one of my early posts on sorting fact from fiction. Enjoy.


Speaking of intelligent design…

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As I said a couple of posts ago, given all the flaws in our ‘perfect’ universe, claiming that your god created it all is a massive own goal. This vid sums it up nicely.

MyTelekinesis – I’m converted

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It turns out that I can do telekinesis. Who’d have thought. Inspired by an example by correspondent Viktor, I’ve discovered my inner chi.

Viktor said:

Its intended as a demonstration of psychic ability, not an illusion.
Its about the same thing I’d do if put on the spot.


I realize its not scientific proof, but still food for thought.

So, here’s my breakthrough performance, except that I’ve upped the degree of difficulty: by turning the folds towards me instead of away, and de-cluttering the desk so you can see there are not wires or levers. Also, I’m not much good at sucking, although many my recent correspondents would think I suck bigtime. In addition, I’ve filmed in high def, and made sure to have some nice solid background shapes to enable the viewed to detect any relative movements in the scene. I think that’s as scientific as it gets.

Anyway, sit back and enjoy the mystical stylings of the amazing TheRationalbrain:

Over the coming months I will be honing my skills and attempting more brazen feats of telekinesis, so stay tuned.

And I’ll be emailing Randi my bank account details later today.

The voice of reason – AC Grayling

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Although I have a copy of Grayling’s ‘The Good Book’ on the shelf at home, I haven’t actually dived into it yet (I admit that I find the thickness a bit daunting!).

But I’m now more motivated to start it, after catching a recent episode of The Spirit of Things, which airs on ABC Radio National here, which featured AC Grayling being interviewed about the work. For those unaware, the Spirit of Things is one of those unapologetically religious programs, taking as given all manner of faith-based belief. You may recall my previous writing on this in relation to one Jeremy Begbie, and his ridiculous synthesis of religion and music.

In the Grayling episode, host Rachel Kohn gives the book a fair run, including several readings from it, but unfortunately can’t resist trying to score points in favour of the bible, and trying to minimise Grayling’s arguments. In one example, after discussing the issues of cleverness versus wisdom, there is this exchange:

Rachael Kohn: And may I ask you who you would look up to as the pre-eminent embodiment of a wise man?

Anthony C Grayling: […] For myself, I admire many, many people, many great achievers, creative minds, thinkers. I could range very widely from recent times, people like Einstein and Russell, right the way back through history to David Hume, to Descartes, to Copernicus, to Galileo, to everybody who ventured to think and to use this rather remarkable thing that human beings have which is an insightful, incisive, creative intellect, to understand our world a bit better and to move us forward in making some progress in it.

At this point, Kohn has a dig at him, and then tries to move on quickly:

Rachael Kohn: Well, I must say Einstein and Russell have dubious personal reputations. They may have been brilliant, but there has certainly been a lot of criticism cast on how they behaved in their personal lives. But I know you’re going to be coming to Australia to address the Global Atheist Convention, and this whole movement I suppose has been dubbed in the UK as the kind of ‘God wars’. How do you see it and what sort of message will you be bringing?

Clearly, Grayling wasn’t going to let her get away with it, and responds:

Anthony C Grayling: On the point that you just made about Einstein and Russell there, if we allowed people to go through our (figuratively speaking) rubbish bins, each one of us would not escape whipping, as somebody once said. We’re all human with our failings, and we would admire nobody if we didn’t think that we did them some generous act by looking at the best things that they managed.

In another example she tries to wedge him on the notion of free will:

Rachael Kohn: One of the things that atheists really resist and I would say a lot of religious people too, is the notion of obedience. And right in the Genesis chapter of your secular bible you urge people to do nothing against their will, to covet nothing of anyone else’s, and in so doing they will encounter no resistance and they will be free then to do what they wish and life will be lovely…. Gosh, I can easily see your secular bible being quoted out of context at the way the Bible often is, and people often saying, ‘It says there to do nothing against my will, so I’ll just go ahead and do this.’

Followed by Grayling’s wonderful response:

Anthony C Grayling: You do need, I think, to look at the surrounding verses to put that into context a little bit, because you could just as easily quote St Paul where he says ‘love and do what you will’, which seems to be a kind of a licence for everything. And nobody I think who has any capacity for reflection would want to just take five or six words or a few lines out of context and act on them.

To his credit, Grayling is calm and measured throughout, and the real feature of this interview is his articulate and measured response to all of her questions. In my view, he is easily the most articulate and accessible presenters of the philosophy of non-theism, Dawkins included.

In this brief discussion he clearly demonstrates that is is possible to talk about all the ways to live a good life without any reference to a deity.

Worth a listen for that alone.

The end of the world

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I’m not even sure I should be drawing attention to this, but, as far as I can make out, the world is coming to and end on Dec 21st this year.

How do I know this? Well, all the physics and maths in this article tells us so. Bummer, that’s sure to ruin Christmas.

Before you dust off your bucket list, I should tell you, the link comes from the comments section of an article in New Scientist, posted by one known as Polemos. This guy is a serial pest and trouble-maker, and seems to get his jollies by posting contrarian views on anything and everything. He poses as a polymath, but seems to be a bugger-all-math, for want of a catchier antonym. And don’t be fooled by the wikipedia-like look to the page – it’s not.

In the article, credits are given to ‘The Eschaton’. A cute pseudonym, given the content of the article. According to the real wikipedia, eschatology “…is a part of philosophy concerned with what are believed to be the final events and the ultimate destiny of humanity“. In the case of this article, and almost everything Polemos writes, I prefer to think his pseudonym is based on the morphologically similar word, ‘scatology’, which is, in short, the study of feces. Far more appropriate – I’m sure you’ll agree once you’ve seen the article.

Anyhow, I wasted several valuable minutes scanning the article; I certainly could have used that time better, for example, trimming my toenails or rearranging the icons on my computer desktop.

It’s a great (and probably the most egregious) example of science-babble I’ve ever seen.

OK, he’s attempting to prove that the end of the world is nigh. But the article doesn’t even have a decent introduction and conclusion. This guy might try to sound erudite by pinching someone else’s vocabulary, but he doesn’t know the first thing about writing up science; or any sort of writing for the matter. It’s just like many papers which try to support alternative medicine or other fantasy beliefs – load up with sciencey-sounding words, and heaps of impressive references, and job done.

But full marks for cobbling together so many bits of physics and cosmology.

In conclusion (must practice what I preach), this guy is another looney-tune with too much time on his hands and too few brain cells in the cranium.

Dust that sings

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This is a poetic and sometimes moving look at our place in the universe.

Rational thinkers: enjoy.

Religious types: look away now.