Archive for November, 2009

– President Obama’s proclamation for Thanksgiving was unique in that he didn’t mention God, except when quoting George Washington. So, he sort of did bring him up. But still, LifeSiteNews can barely hold back their disdain.

There’s been a lot of bollocks written lately by people angry that non-believers or non-Christians should be daring to join in with the rigmarole of regimented gratitude. I can’t be bothered to go find some of it again and provide links, but it was just more inane rantings on the theme of “shut up, don’t express your opinions, STOP HAVING FUN GUYS” directed mostly at atheists. If anyone’s rebutted all of this any more articulately than me (my own thoughts didn’t really develop beyond “Oh, fuck off“), feel free to link to it in the comments.

– Uganda is making it legal to kill gay people. It’s called the Anti-Homosexuality Bill.

And Rick Warren is apparently fine with this. Yes, that Rick Warren. The one who Barack Obama described as one of the three wisest people he knows, and who delivered the current president’s Inaugural Invocation.

Come on, guy. Give us something. If we just have to keep liking you because you’re a great orator and seem thoughtful and friendly, we’re not going to be any better than those people buying Sarah Palin’s book who have no idea why they like her except that she’s folksy. We appreciate the occasional namecheck for non-believers, but isn’t this kind of bullshit worth denouncing, and isn’t someone like Rick Warren worth publicly distancing yourself from if he won’t?

– Steve Novella is chairman of the recently formed Institute For Science In Medicine. That guy works insanely hard. And I’m impressed with how many other names I recognise from their list of members.

“A bloke cannot marry his brother; it is not right. A woman cannot marry their sister; it is not right. A bloke cannot marry a bloke because it is not right, and a female cannot marry a female because it is not right. I don’t support this.” Australian politics at work, ladies and gentlemen.

These slippery slopes just keep coming back. I really don’t see the connection. From a judicial standpoint, what would need to happen for incest or polygamy to be legal, in any form? What representatives or political leaders would have to vote on what bills, sign what documents, to put something like that into law? And in what ways does that answer change when some other unrelated legislation on gay marriage is passed?

– I’m not crazy about “The [representation of data] that [company or group of individuals alleged to be powerful and motivated by self-interest] doesn’t want you to see!” as a hook, but these are some pretty interesting graphs, which do a lot to undermine the resilient, annoying, and deeply naive idea that all illegal downloading is straightforward theft. Musical artists are making more and more money.

– I chimed in with a discussion on Twitter earlier today about climate change denialism. Jack of Kent seemed to be at its focus for the most part, and he’s just put up a blog on the subject. I was planning to write about this myself tonight, but all that other nonsense up there got in the way, and now it’s late. I’ll try and get it done tomorrow, because I don’t entirely agree with him, and I’d like to try and figure out exactly what it is that I do think about this.

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I used to believe in some wacky stuff.

It didn’t seem all that wacky at the time, of course. When I first started taking an interest in the stuff I was reading online, about people’s religious experiences and psychics and mind readers and dowsing and so on, it sounded fascinating, and wasn’t obviously bullshit at all. I guess I tend to think about things a bit differently now, or maybe there are just more things that I’ve learnt aren’t real in the intervening years.

Anyway, there was a lot of stuff about dowsing that caught my eye, and made it seem like an accessible skill. There was reams of advice and personal experiences people wanted to share, and it sounded like you didn’t need to be whisked away from your cupboard under the stairs to a wizards’ school by a hairy giant in order to be a part of it. It sounded like anyone could join in, and learn to access some spiritual dimension which could provide insight and knowledge from beyond this world.

So I bought a crystal pendulum from a new age shop.

It feels so weird typing that sentence now.

It was cheap, but kinda pretty, and looked a lot like this quartz one. The idea, as described on that page, is to clear your mind and mentally ask a series of yes/no questions, while letting the pendulum hang loosely from your fingers. There are various ways the pendulum might swing – circular motions, clockwise or anticlockwise, back and forth, diagonally – and you can calibrate it with some control questions.

I don’t remember exactly how it went when I tried it, but it would have been something like: “Is my name James?” – and I saw it swing forward and back, so I knew that meant yes. “Is today Wednesday?” – another yes, with the same swinging motion. “Is there a dragon in my room?” – and it swung side to side, meaning no.

This was really exciting.

So I decided to test it out properly, and see if I could find out something that I didn’t know, and prove that I was really tapping into some amazing psychic source of power.

I think this is the point where my strategy departed from that of a lot of new age fans.

I got a deck of playing cards and placed one face down in front of me. I didn’t know what card it was, but I held the pendulum over it, and asked yes/no questions to narrow it down. “Is it black?” – no. “Is it red?” – yes. “Is it a picture card?” – no. And so on.

Eventually I narrowed it down to “Is it the five of diamonds?” and got a yes. It had given me a definite answer to everything I asked. It had never contradicted itself. I’d started with absolutely no knowledge or assumptions or preconceptions about the card in front of me, and my pendulum had honed directly in on its identity as the five of diamonds.

I still remember the fluttering in my chest – half excitement and half genuine fear – in the second or two before I turned over the king of clubs.

Aw, crap.

It turns out that there’s a bunch of reasons why people believe in this kind of thing, and post articles to the internet about their powerfully moving personal experiences with it. And these reasons don’t require magic to actually be real.

When I first started looking into it, it didn’t require any particular daftness on my part to take it seriously – it just seemed to be a part of the world. A somewhat secretive, not generally known, exclusive part, but that just made it all the more fun. At the depth at which I explored it at the time, I didn’t find any good reason to suppose that it was all completely fictitious. People were taking it for granted, writing detailed accounts of their achievements, and beginners’ guides to the basic techniques.

But once you start thinking about it more critically, you realise that magic powers aren’t the only explanation. They’re not the best explanation. In fact, they’re not even a very good explanation.

Some people are very keen to find evidence that supports the idea that their dangling crystal can tell them things – so confirmation bias plays a big part in explaining why it’s so widely believed, as well as a host of other logical fallacies. But the ideomotor effect is one of the most persuasive aspects if you don’t know what it is. And it’s the one I’m supposed to be talking about here.

When I was asking myself those questions, I really was trying to hold the pendulum as still as possible. I know I wasn’t deliberately swinging it around to make myself seem like an amazing wizard (“Look, it knows my name!!”), but it’s worth asking: how good am I at holding my hand perfectly still? When I look closely at my outstretched digits as I try to remain motionless, I seem surprisingly wobbly. If I’m going to hold something on a thin and flexible cord or chain, it seems likely that my natural shakiness is going to have some effect.

And it turns out that the pendulum picks up more than just a general jiggle from my unsteady muscles. Let’s say I know a forward-swing means yes, because of my first test question. If I then ask something else which I know, or expect, has the answer yes, then on some level of consciousness I’m going to be imagining getting a forward-swing answer from the pendulum. My hand will then actually twitch, without my being aware of it, to make the pendulum swing forward.

The mental processes to do this can really happen inside your head, without the part where you’re conscious of it. It “bypasses volition”, to be a bit technical (volition being your capacity to do something by your own will).

You can try it easily yourself with any weight on some sort of dangling cord. I’m trying it now with one of the earphones from my mp3 player on its lead, and it’s still quite odd to see. I concentrate on a clockwise spinning motion, and it starts spinning clockwise, even though I’m still trying to hold it as steady as I can.

If you’re thinking that this might be evidence that I was secretly psychic all along, you’re still leaping to a more complicated explanation than is necessary. If I’m not directly touching the cord, or holding it in such a way that my hand movements won’t affect its swing, then it doesn’t respond in the same way. It only moves like this when I have the capacity to be swinging it around unconsciously. The best explanation is that I’m simply moving my hand.

There’s also a common hypnotic trick, where you’re asked to close your eyes and stick your arms out, then vividly imagine a heavy weight in one hand pulling it down, and a balloon tied to the other pulling it up. You focus on the respective feelings of pressure and lightness for a while, and if you’re anything like me, after a couple of minutes you open your eyes and find that you’ve lifted and lowered your hands accordingly by several inches, without being aware of doing it.

The point is, your mind’s good at doing stuff like this without telling you about it.

Now, this doesn’t mean that nobody can dowse anything, or that we’ve proved that Ouija boards are universally a load of crap (yes, the people are just pushing the glass around even if they don’t realise it). But it reminds us the importance of asking the question “Is there a simpler, less Harry Potter explanation?” when we see something we think might be magic.

If I was doing actual magic over my playing card that time, then my skills make Neville Longbottom look like Gandalf. I must really suck at magic. I didn’t even get close to getting the card right. Magic just isn’t a good enough explanation for what happened there. But the idea that my hand wasn’t perfectly still, and made the pendulum swing a little by entirely natural means? Yep, that fits.

But what if I had got it right? What if I had no way of knowing what card I was staring at the back of, and wasn’t being provided the information by any means except the pendulum, and I actually got it right? And it kept happening, consistently?

Well, the ideomotor effect wouldn’t cover that. And I’d be a millionaire.

But it does cover, y’know, every case that’s ever been examined of any kind of dowsing ever. Except the ones that are outright fraud, where there’s conscious deception taking place. But there really doesn’t need to be any malice or dishonesty for people to make magical claims that aren’t based in reality. If you don’t know what the ideomotor effect is, and maybe don’t test out your new idea all that rigorously, and kinda let slide the few occasions where it doesn’t work… then I can imagine this being pretty convincing.

People who do things like dowsing aren’t being stupid or evil. But they are claiming that they can do magic, and it’s a big ask that we should take that at face value without daring to question it any further, even if we don’t doubt their sincerity. It’s the kind of massive claim that we should probably, y’know, check.

And, unfortunately for any aspiring Weasleys out there, natural phenomena like the ideomotor effect provide a better explanation for every instance of “magic” that’s yet been observed. They account perfectly for what’s going on, but the magical explanation fails to explain why the effect always vanishes when studied closely. It just doesn’t work. The five of diamonds was not my card.

Sorry, Hermione. Muggles win.

A more academic and less chatty approach to this topic can be found at The Skeptic’s Dictionary, RationalWiki, SkepticWiki, and all over the place really. Barrett Dorko and Ray Hyman, among others, have written rather more scientifically rigorous documents about the ideomotor effect in action, with examples of experiments in which it’s been seen.

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Or specifically, why I am not an apatheist.

I’m not exactly sure how long the term’s been in common usage (and you know how I feel about doing research), but I’d guess it’s only really taken off since atheism started becoming mainstream. For anyone not quite caught up, “apatheism” is a portmanteau of “apathy” and “theism” (or “atheism”, I suppose), and refers to people who profess not to care whether or not God exists.

Now, I don’t generally have many complaints with apatheists. I’ve been living with one for the better part of a year, and it’s a position which doesn’t naturally give rise to any sort of fundamentalist fervour, so generally we’re cool, apatheists and me. But I’ve decided lately that it’s not a position that I personally identify with.

It’s simple enough to sum up why.

A substantial number of the most popular conceptions of God throughout history and around the world – including probably the all-time numero uno himself – possess, we’re told, both the power and the authority to condemn each of us to eternal suffering, should he will it.

I’m a heroically lazy individual, but even I can’t muster up much apathy on the subject of my being condemned to eternal suffering.

Anyone who’s ever really believed in it can probably back me up on this: Hell is really fucking scary if you actually take it seriously. If I thought there was any remote possibility that I might be screwing things up the way I’m going at the moment, and risking sending myself there by worshipping the wrong god or rejecting the one true path to salvation, I’d want to seriously look into that. I don’t think I’d be able to simply shrug the problem off, or dismiss it as something not really relevant to my life. I’m pretty sure you’d have to be insane not to care about God’s possible existence, or the exact nature of his whims, if you thought that unending torture was genuinely on the cards.

But in general – my flatmate notwithstanding – those apatheists aren’t crazy. And so I don’t think it’s overly presumptuous to suggest that most apatheists do actually maintain some significant religious positions. They’d probably agree, if pushed, that they count their odds of being sent to Hell for eternal punishment after they die to be about as negligible as I do. And that’s not a trivial or careless conclusion; Hell is a culturally ubiquitous concept, described in the holy text of the predominant religion on the planet, held sacred by billions of people. It’s not an obvious nonsense to someone who’s never given the subject a moment’s thought.

So I think it makes sense to suggest that an actual disregard for the subject isn’t what most people mean when they call themselves apatheists. They may not have expended much effort in forming the opinions they have, but they’ve considered the matter far enough that it doesn’t need to trouble them any further. They’ve decided that the dire consequences often heralded by God’s self-appointed spokesmen are so unlikely that they can be ignored. Beyond that, who cares?

Well… still me, actually.

Obviously a great deal of the first bit does apply to me, too. I’ve rejected the possibility of God in any form that I might need to worry about, and don’t generally let the fiddly philosophical details bother me beyond that. But I still undoubtedly take an interest in much of the related discussion (my recent inactivity on this blog notwithstanding). I emphatically do give a shit, not so much about what can or can’t be conclusively disproved or vaguely hypothesised about some supreme being, but about the implications of people’s responses to the question “Is there a God?”

Clearly, there are battles here that I think are worth fighting, even if God himself isn’t my opponent. Religious fanaticism is one of the most damaging forces in today’s world, and I really think that a broader understanding of science, and skepticism, and humanism, and the kind of reality-based thinking that leads people to disbelieve in God, would be more beneficial to our species than just about anything else. While there are still people stoning witches to death, rationalising their own hate and prejudice as being that of an almighty creator, and telling millions of their followers that condoms are making the African AIDS crisis worse, I can’t be apathetic on this.

For those who can, it may be largely a case of picking your battles. Of the people in Africa not dying of AIDS, for instance, there are plenty of them busy starving to death instead. If you’re directly trying to combat famine by helping to feed people, then your faith or that of your colleagues probably isn’t much of an issue, and whether or not someone’s wearing a crucifix in a hospital in Kansas might not seem all that pertinent.

I can’t possibly tell what’s the most useful thing for me to be doing, on those fleeting occasions when I give some thought to the notion of doing something good. But this is something I can do. It feels like my fight. It ain’t nothin’. So there’s really not much about the question of God’s existence that I truly don’t care about.

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– In this video, an Episcopal bishop describes religion as being “in the guilt-producing, control business”, and says that Hell is not real. I guess Jesus was pretty inconsistent on that point. I love the look on the interviewer’s face the first couple of times the camera cuts to him. (via Derren Brown)

A great interview about scientific skepticism with Steve Novella.

– Some new celebrities have been bringing the crazy lately, which is always fun. Adam Baldwin isn’t as wacked-out as all that, but there’s been some fun right-wing nuttiness on his feed lately, and some good links about how global warming’s a total crock. Nothing spectacularly Jayne-worthy, though. (Edit 27/11/09: There’s hints of anti-evolutionism cropping up. It’s minor so far, but could get very funny.)

But Jim Corr is really something else. I’ve owned a couple of this guy’s albums for years. Well, a couple of albums by a band his young hot sisters were in and where he was occasionally seen hanging around hoping to be noticed as well. And he’s got all the conspiracy crazy you could hope for. The New World Order, 9/11, more global warming denial, swine flu vaccines, chemtrails… Oh, and he also has a link to another site called “What Really Happened”. Given my blog’s usual hit rate, I can statistically expect about 0.03 of the people who read this to react in the same way as me: by hearing Richard Herring‘s voice in their head saying “What reeeaaaaaalllly happened” and being greatly amused.

– And now the meaty part. The New Humanist provide a round-up of a recent parliamentary investigation into the evidence behind homeopathy, which heard evidence from people like Ben Goldacre and Edzard Ernst. Attention has been drawn lately to UK pharmacy chain Boots, with regard to their cavalier approach to marketing homeopathic remedies. And by “cavalier” I mean they admit to caring more about whether they can make money off something than whether it actually works as medicine.

There is certainly a consumer demand for these products… I have no evidence to suggest they are efficacious.

That’ll be Paul Bennett, their professional standards director. This all kinda sucks. Their defence seems to be that all they’re doing is selling customers the things they want to buy. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard drug dealers on street corners defending what they do in much the same way. It’s not really a comparable situation, of course – it’s much, much harder to overdose on a homeopathic solution than, say, heroin – but it may help highlight why this doesn’t really work as a defence.

Boots are the major pharmacy chain in this country. They sell a lot of medicines and similar products. Whenever I’m running low on toothpaste or painkillers, they’re generally where I go. I’m sure most of the stuff on their shelves is perfectly legit, but this means that there’s an implicit endorsement when they start flogging homeopathic crap as well. It gives these remedies and the claims they make significant credibility, to a degree really not merited by the scientific evidence of their efficacy.

The New Humanist article closes with a quote from the chairman of the British Association of Homeopathic Manufacturers, who asks:

If these products don’t work beyond the placebo effect, why do people keep buying them?

They don’t give an answer, but I assume this was because it’s too stupid a question to be worth bothering with. Here’s my answer anyway:

If these products don’t work beyond the placebo effect, then people keep buying them because of the damn placebo effect.

People aren’t doing clinical trials on this stuff in their own homes, they’re just drinking the water and noticing that they sometimes get better.

I have a follow-up question too: If these products do work beyond the placebo effect, why do large, well controlled clinical trials keep failing to detect any such effect?

For more detailed information on homeopathy being shite, click here.

That’ll do, except to wish a very happy contrived and regimented gratitude day, to all my trans-Atlantic turkey-munching friends.

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Well, I’m healthy enough to be annoyed, so I guess that’s something.

I found this news story this morning, and skimmed it briefly, but didn’t pay a great deal of attention, and I was at work so I didn’t watch the accompanying video clip. It was a slightly unsettling piece about some guy who’d been in a coma for years, decades even, and apparently turned out to have been conscious but paralysed the entire time.

An idea that makes you shudder that much is bound to make for a great hook. It’s pretty scary to think of, being trapped in your own body but unable to move or communicate in any way, still awake but helpless as everyone assumes that you’re essentially asleep, unconscious, or braindead. It was unnerving, but I wasn’t in a mood to take a particular interest in it. I wondered briefly about just how much of a recovery he’d made, what state he was in now, whether he’d really been talking at length about his ordeal, and how he’d retained anything resembling sanity after living through such a trauma as constant and complete immobility for more than twenty years, and then I got on with some filing.

Well, the skeptical blogosphere brought the same story back to my attention later in the day, and I took a little more notice this time.

Turns out it’s almost certainly complete bullshit.

The coma guy isn’t actually any more awake or conscious or active than he ever was. If you can watch the video in that BBC article, you’ll see the method by which he’s been “communicating” about what he’s experienced over the years. (If it won’t let you see it because you’re not in the UK, have a YouTube link). See where that woman holds his hand and moves her hand with his as his finger presses those buttons? The bit where, if you didn’t know what was going on, you’d be forgiven for thinking that she was just using the guy’s fingers to press the buttons herself, and she should really stop doing that as it’s in rather poor taste?


This is called “Facilitated Communication”, and no solid evidence has yet been found to demonstrate that it’s anything more than utter, utter bollocks. And people have looked for the evidence where it ought to be, and still come up short. This is one of those times where an absence of evidence really is pretty good evidence of absence.

I’m going to prioritise FC for a full Skeptictionary entry, but you can get a reasonable gist by just watching it in action. It’s in worryingly common use with autistic children, and involves the “facilitator” providing “support” to a subject, allowing them to type their thoughts on a keyboard in a way they would otherwise be unable to.

Except there’s no evidence that it does that. And it really ought to look dubious to you from the outset. For one thing, that guy’s typing fast. He’s barely even looking at the keyboard, but he’s able to make little micro-movements with his hand (consistent with total paralysis, remember) at such a rate, and with such precision, that the woman holding his hand can feel exactly where he’s trying to point and hit the right keys several times a second. That’s really impressive. I think I’d have trouble matching that kind of speed with just my finger, and I’m a professional typist who’s not even in a coma.

I also hope it’s occurred to you how easy it should be to test something like this. You may also have noticed that the “facilitator” has her attention fully on the screen the entire time she’s helping the guy type. What would happen if she couldn’t see where he was typing, but he could? Or if a question was written down and shown only to him, not her? Would it still work? It ought to, right? Why not give that a try?

The heroically amazing Randi has written about this, and recounted some of his experiences testing FC with autistic children some years ago. The phenomenon failed every test of authenticity put to it, and it seems to be exactly the same thing going on in this new story.

Even if this is a real effect, you would (because you’re a smart person, I can tell) expect coma guy to be happy to comply with some basic tests of his abilities. Surely he can imagine more clearly than anyone the horrors of having someone trying to speak for you, and making fraudulent or delusional claims to have special powers to communicate with you, while you are helpless to contradict them or deny it. And you can’t deny this possibility unless you’re a raving ideologue. Of course someone could pick up a coma patient’s hand, use their fingers to type, and claim to be facilitating their communication. I bet it’s really, really easy. Why would you not ask more questions to make sure that that isn’t what’s really going on?

If you’re a grieving mother desperate to believe that your child is still with you, then there are a number of acceptable answers to that question, but if you’re a medical professional or a news-gathering organisation then there’s no excuse.

I’m running out of steam, but this is genuinely pissing me off. I’m yet to see even a token skeptical comment in any of the mainstream reporting on this, despite its obvious implausibility. Gah. Well, at least I’m writing again.

Edit 26/11/09: And before too long, Orac’s all over this.

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I’m not dead!

I feel fine!

I feel… Well, no, I don’t feel great. Bleh. Recovering after a week of ick. Need a comfier chair. Wouldn’t mind a more waterproof ceiling. Too lazy to write much. I just about have the energy to plug the latest Skeptics’ Circle blog carnival. Not least because the host totally plays favourites with me. Even if I am just being used so that he can get to Hugh Laurie. (It makes sense in context.) Go look, there’s a lot of fun-sounding posts up there, some of which I aspire to actually read when I’m feeling less lethargic.

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So, Carrie Prejean’s been in the news again lately. I’m not desperately interested in why, but having reminded myself of why I’ve heard of her in the first place, I wanted to try articulating some thoughts.

I wrote something in my other blog yesterday about this, which might be funny, but it was a bit rushed, and by the end of it I’ve more or less lost track of what I was supposed to be satirising. But I think the point I was trying to make, initially, was that what she said doesn’t seem to be much of a big deal, the furore it caused seems way overblown, and a lot of people on the liberal, progressive, “compassionate” side of things could really do with backing off.

Here’s the actual quote when she was asked about the state legalisation of same-sex marriage:

Well I think it’s great that Americans are able to choose one or the other. Um, we live in a land that you can choose same sex marriage or opposite marriage and, you know what, in my country and in, in my family, I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anybody out there. But that’s how I was raised and that’s how I think that it should be between a man and a woman.


Okay, I know that was some pretty radically inflammatory rhetoric there, but let’s all take a breath. Obviously this kind of hate-mongering needs to be responded to firmly and mercilessly, but there’s no need to sink to her deplorable level of, um… hoping not to offend anybody by expressing a personal opinion and supporting people’s freedom of choice.

Yeah. Actually I still see no good reason why I should have heard of this person.

I mean, the entire first two declarations are about choice being good. And even when she talks about being in favour of marriage being only between straight couples, it’s couched in the most gentle, careful, unintrusive way you could ask for. It’s how things are “in her family”, implying that it’s a personal thing which she’s keen not to seem like she’s imposing on anyone else. She’s not claiming absolute authority. It’s how she was raised, and how she thinks it should be, but she’s also aware that this might offend people who disagree – and she doesn’t vilify those people as immoral purveyors of depravity, but implicitly apologises for any offense she might be causing them by expressing her opinion in response to a direct question.

Does anyone else think that this basically seems mostly okay? I mean, I do disagree with her, but I disagree with a lot of my friends on a number of things, and so long as nobody gets too zealous about it, it needn’t be the cause of much drama. And she really wasn’t being fanatical here. I have no idea of her broader views on homosexuality; maybe she’s all in favour of gay people generally, but just didn’t bring that up at that exact moment. But a lot of people in America agree with her about gay marriage, and a whole lot of them aren’t nearly so tactful or considerate in telling the world precisely how they feel about gay people.

Carrie Prejean looked to me like someone who’s essentially compassionate and good-natured to people, doesn’t wish anybody any particular ill, is broadly tolerant, and is just a bit behind the times in this one regard, or holding onto some religious notions of morality with a slightly unhealthy fervour. There are far worse things you can say about a genuinely intolerant and spiteful bigot than that.

And you can say most of them about Perez Hilton, who responded to Prejean’s comments by calling her a bitch, then took that back and said he’d meant to call her a cunt.

Not helping, guy.

Seriously, what do you expect people who aren’t currently on your side to do, if anyone stepping even slightly out of line of the accepted way of things is going to be treated like such an abomination? Don’t the odds of winning people over dwindle rapidly to zero if all anyone sees of your side of the argument is you being a dick and hurling abuse at everyone not already with you? And isn’t that, y’know, exactly what you’re pissed at them for in the first place?

I’m not saying calling out genuine homophobes and bigots isn’t justified and important, but have a little perspective. Sure, Fred Phelps can fuck off and die, we don’t want him. But there are also a lot of people out there generally in agreement with your progressivism, who haven’t quite come all the way over to your side but agree with you on a lot of things, and it’s worth not alienating them. Both strategically, because they might be swayed further one day, and because it’s a dick move in its own right.

Apparently she’s gone properly wacked-out lately and has said and done a few more things genuinely worthy of scorn and derision. I haven’t seen her Larry King interview, and I don’t think I want to wade into all that now, but I do wonder if maybe she wouldn’t have retreated to the safety of crazyland quite so much if the liberal, progressive, tolerant world hadn’t seemed quite so uninviting.

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This is my Skeptictionary entry on the whole Mayan calendar 2012 apocalypse idea.

So, according to some, the Mayans believed that…

Actually, you know what? I’m just going to wait this one out. In just over three years, the point’ll be moot, and I think I’ll save myself the effort. It’s not going to happen, people.

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Just a quick review before I go and do stuff. Spoilerific bits have been rot13‘d.

So it was a fun movie. It’s a fairly heavily fictionalised account of recent paranormal research conducted by the US military, as documented by Jon Ronson in his book of the same name. I enjoyed it, though I did wonder how much some bits of it would work if you’re not already familiar with the story, and following the bits you remember from the book.

Some of the bits they did keep faithful to may have suffered in the transition. For some reason, I didn’t find the whole routine about cebivqvat n “fgebat cflpuvp qvfvapragvir” gb nggnpx (ol fgnoovat fbzrbar va gur arpx) as funny when George Clooney’s character is being all intense and sincere about it, as when Jon’s talked about that himself, either in person or in print.

And the ending sort of seemed inexpertly tacked on for little more reason than that they needed a grand finale, a big happy Hollywood ending conclusion scene, which supposedly resolves things and brings everything to a head and such. (Chggvat gur YFQ va gur jngre ng gur pnzc, V zrna, abg gur npghny svany fubg jurer ur ehaf guebhtu gur jnyy. V jnf jvyyvat gb tvir gurz gung nf n engure avpr ivfhny zbzrag.) I can see why they needed to end the main narrative somehow, as I don’t remember the book having anything similar, but I didn’t particularly buy it.

And this really is going to be brief, because now I have to go do sport.

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Carl Sagan was completely awesome.

There’s a lot of people talking all over the internet today about how they wouldn’t be a part of the skeptical movement if it weren’t for him. There might not even be a skeptical movement comparable to what exists today if not for Sagan’s influence.

I imagine he’s a big part of the reason I’m so involved in it too, but only indirectly. Aside from being fairly indifferent to the film based on his book Contact, I was fairly late to the party on this front. I think it was only last year I read The Demon-Haunted World, after being told so often what a vital part of the skeptics’ library it was by so many scientists and critical thinkers I’d come to admire. I’ve still only seen a few brief clips of Cosmos online.

But goddamn, that guy was awesome.

Today would have been his 75th birthday. He died in 1996. In his absence, we’re calling it Carl Sagan Day. Phil Plait’s been talking about how that’s going here.

He was a great writer, a wonderful speaker, and an insurpassably inspirational presence. Watching him talk is like drinking a liquified warm fuzzy. I don’t even know what that means, but listen to him explaining the universe for a while and maybe you’ll get some idea what I’m on about.

Pale blue dot.

The 4th dimension.

A glorious dawn.

And because I’m not good at straightforward, non-ironic sincerity, here’s a funny video about a pigeon.

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