Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Philip Stein watches and Christopher Hitchens

Like many other people may have done, I spent a fair amount of time last Friday reading tributes and listening to the words of Christopher Hitchens after learning of his death. There are so many of his debates on YouTube, you can easily spend hours enjoying his uncompromising style of argument in his distinctive voice. A personal favourite speech of mine is this remarkable one he gave on free speech for example. I also watched a debate I hadn't seen before; this one with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (it is a pretty terrible recording though).

I'd seen Hitch debate with Boteach a couple of times before, and this one seemed a little more friendly and less combative than others. Even so, Hitch is forced at one point to deliver what I am contractually obliged to call a Hitch-slap to Boteach when the Rabbi attempts to blame Hitler and the Nazi's on atheism (around 50 mins into the video). We've all heard that one before of course, but I was amused a couple of days later to read in Daniel Dennett's tribute piece to Hitch: A lesson from Hitch: When rudeness is called for of an earlier occasion of Hitch performing a similar rebuke to the same Rabbi, this time on the very similar and just as wrong claim that Hitler was inspired by Darwin. I don't know if on that occasion Boteach conceded the point, but he did in the video above. It will be interesting to see if he uses the argument in debate again.

To get to the point though: at the end of the debate, Boteach presents Hitch with a Philip Stein watch which was apparently a special watch made for a family-oriented campaign the Rabbi is involved with (and he asks Hitch to also become a patron). I like looking at watches and so I looked up Philip Stein to see what their watches were like (they are beautiful), there are some on Amazon and if I were not cursed with stupid skinny girl wrists and lack a spare £1000+ I would love to get one. So then I went to Philip Stein's website to see what else they had. Unfortunately the catalogue section seems to be broken so I couldn't browse the range, but I did then click on the Frequency Technology section to see what that was all about.

As a skeptic, this section has many claims that sound very familiar, especially if you know about things such as magnetic healing bracelets, Power Balance bands etc and it also has bits reminiscent of Qi, acupuncture etc. For example:

Natural Frequency Technology in Philip Stein watches is based on key frequencies beneficial to life and health, which are embedded on a metal disk found in every Philip Stein watch.
Initially though, it claims to have scientific legitimacy because of a published paper. I haven't read that, nor do I have the scientific credentials to give an opinion (there are plenty of skeptics out there who do of course) but I am certainly very skeptical of the claims being made on that page as they sound very much like nonsense woo-woo I've seen from many other products. Interesting that a high-end (I assume) watch maker would choose to use such techniques to sell four-figure value watches.

What really did irk me though was looking at the Who Wears It section, and finding a photograph of Christopher Hitchens and Shmuley Boteach, obviously taken at the debate described above. Whether or not Hitch agreed to his photo being used to promote the watch brand I do not know, but I doubt very much he would have done so if he were aware of the highly unscientific nature of the claims being made to sell the watches. Oprah Winfrey appears twice on the same page, which probably tells you all you need to know.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

The Eureka moment

This is another of those random brain fart posts where something is rattling around in my head and writing it down helps get rid of it :)

My question is this: has there been a major scientific theory that arose from what is commonly known as a 'eureka moment' that the scientist responsible has then claimed to have been divine revelation? I honestly don't know the answer, but I can't think of any.

I'm assuming that Archimedes (responsible for the original 'eureka') didn't do so as I guess the concept of divine revelation wouldn't have been around in the current form, but there have certainly been plenty of phenomenal scientists that were deeply religious - Isaac Newton is the most obvious probably. Whether or not his famous gravity-inspiring apple/head moment is apocryphal I'm not sure but that would qualify as an extraordinary moment of inspiration, so did he consider it to be divine revelation? What if Einstein had been a devout Christian - would he have claimed one of his famous relativity thought experiments to have been a revealed truth in the religious sense? Today there are proportionately few strongly religious scientists (in comparison the the proportion of the general public), but of those that are have any discovered something revolutionary and claimed it was religiously revealed to them?

So broadly what I want to know is, has there been any significant increase in the knowledge base of humankind that has been claimed to have come from divine revelation? If not (and I would guess not) - why not?

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Prof. Richard Wiseman for The Skeptic Magazine

Finally I can show you this cover illustration for the new issue of The Skeptic Magazine! It's Richard Wiseman who is Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, and famous for many TV appearances and books about the mad things our squishy brains get up to.

The interview in the magazine partly promotes his recent book Paranormality (which is great), so the idea to put him in a Ghostbusters outfit came pretty quickly. I must thank Crispian Jago for his great idea for the actual pose. Really pleased with how this turned out, hope you like it!

I'm offering prints of this illustration for sale, they will be A3 size and cost £15 inc p&p. Click below to buy through PayPal:

Saturday, 16 July 2011

With great wealth comes great responsibilty

I was struck last night by the incongruity of two main news stories last night (ignoring the hacking scandal) - one was that the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) had taken donations of around £15 million this week to help with the terrible drought that has hit Somalia. The other was a couple in Ayrshire winning £161 million on a Euromillions lottery (the huge figure was due to several rollovers).

It's hard to compare those to things and not think there's something wrong about it. In the interview with the lucky couple, they mentioned the usual lottery-winner tropes - taking care of family, doing a bit of travelling and maybe(!) a new car. In normal circumstances I wouldn't give that a second thought but this time it did make me wonder if they really had any clue what they now have. But then the husband said something else: "The next steps are going to be the most difficult... with great wealth comes great responsibility".

I have nothing against them by the way. I'm jealous of course - who wouldn't be? They never have to worry about not having money again, I'd love to be in that situation. Good luck to them. And I obviously have no idea what they are going to do with their colossal wealth. But they could, at a stroke, donate four times what the rest of the country has donated to help saves lives in Somalia and still have £100 million left over. I noticed this morning that the government is pledging £52 million to the disaster. This couple could match that themselves and not even notice.

If I had won that money, being aware of the situation in Somalia, I can't see how I wouldn't donate a figure like that immediately. It'd feel morally wrong somehow not to. I'd be one the phone to the DEC asking how much they needed. When you win a figure like that, out of the blue, what difference would it make to me if it had been £61 million rather than £161 million? I'd never spend the lower figure in my lifetime, so why not give £100 million to somewhere that needs it?

But this got me wondering about the lottery itself and how it works. For the National Lottery, a Saturday jackpot is (I think) something like £8-£10 million and a Wednesday one a few million. That's enough, isn't it? Would anyone winning a jackpot like that think "well, it's not £100 million is it?". So why do we have rollovers?

Here's what I think should happen. Ban rollovers. If no-one wins the jackpot for a particular draw, that money goes to the DEC. And next week the jackpot is the usual figure. However, according to Wikipedia: "Rollover draws are a common occurrence, happening once every few draws, although a "treble rollover" is much less common, having happened only rarely. A new rule, introduced on 10 February 2011, now allows rollovers to accumulate to four consecutive draws, which means that quadruple rollover jackpots may occur in future." So maybe the money going to the DEC should only happen for double-rollovers. I don't know. The point is, I don't see why anyone needs to win the kind of obscene figures that can arise with rollovers, double-rollovers, etc. There's probably some obscure legal reason why this can't be done, but if not - why not? Would anyone seriously complain if a rolled-over weekly jackpot was donated to the DEC instead of piled onto the next week's jackpot?

There always seems to be a natural disaster occurring somewhere in the world that needs organisations like the DEC to find money for. Would it not be great if every now and then they got a few million quid without having to do anything? It wouldn't have to go to them of course, I'm just using them as a current example. And banning rollovers is just one option - maybe rollovers are allowed but a cap is put on the maximum jackpot before the excess gets donated. £15-£20 million maybe?

The more I think about it, the more pointless it seems to me to allow lottery prizes to reach such ludicrous amounts. If great responsibility does indeed come with great wealth, I'd rather that responsibility was passed to organisations that know how to deal with it rather than being randomly dumped onto a person or persons who probably don't.

Donate to the DEC here.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Skeptical Squares bespoke skeptic t-shirts!

Ok skeptics and skeptic fans, here's an offer for you - how would you like a potentially almost nearly unique* 'Skeptical Squares' t-shirt? Where you can choose nine of your very favourite Skeptic Top Trumps caricatures to be on it? (there are about 72 caricatures in total now.)

Thanks to the miracle of modern technology this dream is now possible. No, it's not magic it's SCIENCE ;)

All you need do is choose the nine skeptics you want from the collection of Skeptic Top Trumps cards which can be found here or here.

Then e-mail me ( with your choices and I will put the shirt design together and upload it to my RedBubble page and e-mail you the link to your very own design. You can then choose size, colour and style of t-shirt (or hoodie if you are a hoodie-wearer) and place your order. The price for a t-shirt will be £16.55 (a round £20 inc UK p&p I think).

(The pic above is my example - the skeptics are (clockwise from top left): Simon Singh, Rebecca Watson, David Colquhoun, Simon Perry, Tracy King, Jon Ronson, Sid Rodrigues, Iszi Lawrence and Crispian Jago in't middle)

*not literally unique or course. Unless only you orders your specific combination. There are 3 bazillion possible combinations. Maybe.

(I would also add - please don't e-mail me to make a design for you if you aren't going to order as it does take a little time to put it together. Ta!)

Monday, 16 May 2011

'Many Worlds' melon-twisting

I'm reading an excellent book called The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos by Brian Greene at the moment. Now I've read a lot of popular science books about physics and cosmology but none have so completely baked my noodle as this one!

It describes the many different theories around that involve parallel universes of some type or another (there are nine I think now) - some are not difficult to understand, some are mind-boggling in their scale but still make some sort of sense (string theory ones mainly, which still sound to me almost like mathematical fairy-tales) but the one I have reached now is really wild - the 'Many Worlds' interpretation of quantum mechanics.

I was familiar with the idea, which was invented by Hugh Everett III in the mid fifties (there is a great documentary out there following his son, E from the band Eels, finding out about his father and his ideas - highly recommend that). Basically what it says is that when a quantum event with various possible outcomes happens, rather than just one of the possible outcomes occurring and becoming 'reality', they all happen, each one forking off into another reality, another universe. Sort of.

Imagine a physicist in a lab with an experiment ready to measure the position of a single electron. Now according to the predictions of quantum theory this electron has (for example) 90% probability of being in one position and 10% probability of being in a second position. If the physicist performs the experiment enough times they will find those probabilities to match up extremely accurately with theory (quantum electrodynamics is the most successful theory in science in that respect). Here's where it gets weird.

'Many Worlds' theory says that both these possible outcomes occur, they just 'split' off into different realities, both as real as the other, neither one being the one 'real' universe. The physicist who finds the electron in one place is just as real as the physicist who finds it in the other. But if both outcomes occur, where does the probability factor go? Does it make any sense to say one outcome is more likely than the other when they both happen anyway? Everett suggested probability comes in after the event in the subjective experience of each person - but that just seems to me to mean the probabilities have no objective reality to them.

This is a really bizarre thing to get your head around when you start to think about it. From that example, I began thinking along these lines: say the physicist performs his experiment repeatedly, stopping when the electron appears in the more likely position, but repeating it again if it appears in the less likely one. Now remember - both outcomes occur - so each time the experiment is performed the electron will appear in the least likely position (regardless of how unlikely it is - say it's a 1 in a million chance) and a physicist will see that, and then perform it again. If you extend this on and on, you end up with a physicist who will have seen a huge number of one in a million chances happen, one after the other - and that's not an unlikely event, according to the theory that will happen.

How would this physicist react? His experiments will show that quantum theory, in his reality at least, doesn't match up with experiment. In theory, given a certain series of events (that will happen, remember) science in a reality that continually diverges along these lines might come up with a whole different quantum theory that does explain the results they see. Would that theory be wrong?

Keep going with this thought and you then ask the question - what if our reality is that one? One where a staggeringly unlikely set of events (according to one version of quantum theory) has and continues to happen and so we've come up with our own versions of theories to fit what we see. If all outcomes of quantum events occur, and someone in some version of reality sees them (regardless of what we think the probabilities are) then there will be countless realities with countless different results of series of experiments which lead to countless theories to explain them. We may be just one of them and our theories may no more be 'right' then any other out there in the 'Many Worlds' multiverse.

It twists your melon, doesn't it? I don't know if my thinking there fits with what the theory says, it quite probably doesn't, but it is always fun to go off on a train of thought like that :)

EDIT: I forgot to mention an absolutely excellent SF novel by Greg Egan called Quarantine. One of my favourites. He takes similar quantum ideas and suggests that our brains naturally have the function of unconsciously 'collapsing the waveform' which chooses one of a number of outcomes of an uncertain event to be real. Then he comes up with the idea that someone might be able to control that collapse - basically they can exist in and can in some way perceive all of the 'many worlds' and then pick which one they want to become 'reality'. It's a stunning book, and that is just the tip of the iceberg of amazing ideas in it. Get it, read it. ;)

Friday, 6 May 2011

'Christian' morality

One of the first posts I made on this blog was regarding the theologian Douglas Wilson and things he said in the documentary film 'Collision' with Christopher Hitchens. Basically from what he said in that film it seemed his answer to the Euthyphro dilemma was what we consider morally good is so because it is commanded by God. Fullstop, end of discussion.

Now another fairly well known and respected theologian has said the same, and has gone even further. What William Lane Craig has to say in this article just shocks me and beggars belief. Please do go and read it to see what I mean.

Basically he is saying that God created the moral laws we have to follow, but God himself is not bound by those laws. Actually more than that, he is saying anything God decides to do, or demands anyone to do, is by definition a moral act. Hence Willian Lane Craig is able to believe and voice the opinion that murdering children is absolutely fine if it is what God wants to happen. This is a mainstream Christian theologian who has only recently had high profile debates with Sam Harris and physicist Lawrence Krauss.

Time after time I hear criticism levelled at Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchen, Sam Harris et al for attacking a caricature of religion, the worst fundamentalism rather than the kind of religion the majority follow. These cases of Douglas Wilson and William Lane Craig show that to be false. But let's say the criticism is true, and most believers don't agree with what these two say. I hope that's true, to be honest - and I also think most people who would say they were Christian (certainly in the UK) would think of what Jesus taught as the moral part of their religion, inasmuch as they think much about it at all. Given that, where are the criticisms of such horrendous beliefs from 'moderate' Christians?

Also, what can someone like William Lane Craig say when a devout Muslim (to refer to an obvious example here), who is a certain about his faith and as educated about his religion as WLC is about his, decides it is God (or Allah's) will and therefore a moral thing to do (a moral obligation in fact) to fly an airliner full of innocent people into a skyscraper, killing thousands? What can WLC say to that, other than they believe in the wrong god? He used that very line to answer a similar question from the audience in his debate with Sam Harris.

Do theologians like WLC realise that if they had been born into an Islamic culture, chances are they would be Muslim? Do they realise that they reject other religions for exactly the same reasons that their religion is rejected by others? Do they realise that schizophrenia is commonly related to hyper-religiosity? If a mentally ill person believes they are right to murder hundreds of people because God willed it they are taken out of society and treated. If a perfectly normal 'sophisticated' theologian says if God commands it, it is moral - that doesn't seem to raise an eyebrow outside of critics of religion. Staggering.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Sam Harris talk in Oxford 12/4/2011

I was very fortunate to be able to see Sam Harris talk last night in Oxford about his new book, The Moral Landscape. It was really interesting and thought-provoking. I've yet to read the book (it'll be dropping through my letter box any day now) but basically his contention is that the widely held idea that science can say nothing about moral issues is an illusion. His arguments are very persuasive and also make perfect sense to me.

The Pod Delusion has the talk here.

Sam is well known to be one of the 'Four Horsemen' who for the last few years have been writing books and giving talks and generally being very vocal with their criticisms of religion (the others are Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens). I don't know how much of this new book continues that attack on religion, certainly his talk (and recent debate with William Lane Craig) points out very effectively how our morality does not come from a deity. But he's been getting as much criticism about his ideas from philosophers as from religious apologists. I'm not versed in philosophy to any degree so I'm looking forward to trying to grasp his arguments and the arguments of those who find fault in his reasoning.

I think the first time Sam gave a talk on these new ideas was at TED 2010 - you can watch that talk here:

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Charles Darwin for the BCSE

Here's a new Charles Darwin piece - I did this for the team at the British Centre for Science Education, a professional group dedicated to promoting and defending science education in the UK, particularly from creationists. It's something I feel strongly about and support. For more info on the BCSE, here is their website and blog. Hopefully soon this artwork will be available on t-shirts, mugs etc - I'll post all the details as and when that gets going!

This piece was a lot of fun to do, normally I find painting hair a bit of a chore but this time it brought the whole thing to life (probably because there is so much of it!). I kept most of the painting pretty loose and had fun with the colours. As well as the sign (which the BCSE guys will ad various slogans to to promote their activities), Charlie boy is holding a first edition copy of On The Origin If Species in his other hand.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Rupert and the God Delusion

Bit of fun done with skeptic blogger Crispian Jago - here's the front cover, head over to Crispian's blog to check out the whole thing!

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

A hypothetical...

There have been a couple of well publicised instances of people working in nurseries that have been found to have been abusing children there. Hard to imagine a more horrendous situation for parents.

But imagine if these instances had turned out to be only the tip of the iceberg. Imagine that, say, they were working for a hypothetical national (or international) nursery franchise. Then imagine that the management of this company had found out about the abuse these people were involved in. What would you expect them to do?

Imagine that the management kept the abuse secret from the authorities and simply moved the employees to another nursery in another part of the country (or even another country). And then these people continued abusing children. What would your reaction be if that were true?

Then imagine that this case wasn't a one off. Imagine that it occurred regularly, and had been for decades. Imagine the management knew about many abusers, and had protected them all from the authorities. For decades. What would your reaction be if that were true?

Say the police finally discovered evidence of this and asked the company to give them it's internal documents about these people and it's handling of them. Imagine that this company refused to hand over it's documents and refused cooperate with the police.

Can you imagine what the public reaction to a situation like that would be? How would you feel knowing that an institution trusted with caring for young children had acted in that way?

(In case it wasn't completely obvious what I was getting at here, this news should clear it up for you: The Vatican warned Irish bishops not to report abuse.)

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Woo Fighters

Their latest album cover. Ahem. ;)

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

A question I should probably be able to answer...

That's the frustrating thing (well, one of them) about learning physics, science etc - coming up with a question that you know you really should be able to answer. I think the solution is to keep reading. Or ask someone cleverer! Yes :)

So what I am stuck on is this - relativity says that there is no universal measure of time, that it's dependent on relative motion. A photon of light, moving through space at the speed of light, won't experience any time as it moves.

But science has measured the age of the universe to be 13.73 billion years. Given the effect of relativity, would an alien being in another galaxy zooming away from us at some great speed measure the same age for the universe? How does relativity affect the measurement of that age?