Archive for April, 2010

First I bitched about the Conservatives and their hung parliament scare-mongering bullshit.

Then, surprisingly, I ended up defending Gordon Brown, for the most part.

Now, as I entirely fail to make this sound like the thrilling climax of an epic Hollywood blockbuster trilogy, it’s the Lib Dems’ turn.

It’s only fair, after all.

Yes, the Liberal Democrats’ latest volley into the final stretch of vote-grabbing is a video titled “I Believe In Fairness”. If you’ve seen any of the leaders’ debates on TV recently, you’ll have heard Nick Clegg regularly bringing up the fact that making things “fair” for people is one of his and his party’s top priorities.

I’m still mulling over why I keep cringeing so much at this. It’s not like I’m against the very concept of fairness, after all – though maybe part of my aversion is that it’s something which is impossible to be against, and therefore doesn’t really mean much when you claim to be in favour of it. It can only be meaningful if you provide some specifics, and lay out what “building a fairer Britain” actually means to you, in practical terms.

And Clegg has done this, to an extent – I watched some of the debate last night, and he was bringing up specific points to do with tax credits and national insurance and so forth. But my compulsive libertarian sensibilities get twitchy about using “fairness” to describe taking away 40% of what some people earn to provide free services and money to the less able, the less qualified, the less hard-working, the less talented, and the otherwise less well-off.

Now, I generally know when to tell my libertarian sensibilities to shut the fuck up and grow some compassion. I’m not against higher tax rates for the rich, or social programs that provide for the poor, and obviously a good deal of it is about providing something that hopefully approximates “fairness” to the many people in the country who aren’t rewarded as much as others for the hard work they do due to circumstances beyond their control.

But it’s rarely as simple to stamp “UNFAIR” over any particular situation as the tabloids would have it. A lot of people are struggling, for many different reasons, and finding a way to address this which makes the most economic and social sense is a lot more complex than just fixating on some imaginary gold standard of “fairness”.

Anyway, I’m supposed to be talking about this video. Which bugs me for a whole different reason.

I don’t object to twee cutesy loveliness in itself. There’s absolutely a place for things to be a bit naff in their heartfelt cliché-ness. That’s fine.

But if something’s meant to persuade me to vote for somebody, and that one political party is better than the others in what they think and what they plan to do, I’d prefer a bit of actual substance. And a lot of this video is vague to the point of meaninglessness.

The enigmatic narrator believes, for instance, in “safer communities”. Safer than what? Safer than they are now? All of them? Aren’t some of them probably safe enough? There’s a picture of a policeman in some sort of weird yellow body-stocking on the screen at this point – what exactly will you be doing with the police that will make communities safer? (You want to watch that kid in the hoodie, for a start. No way that’s a friendly smile. What’s he doing with his hands in his pockets like that? He’s got a knife!)

Next is “improving our transport system”. Again, it’s nice to know that that’s somewhere on your list of priorities, but are any party leaders seriously saying “Nah, we’re fine for buses, trains, roads, and all that transport stuff”? Everyone wants the transport system to be better, but what are you actually going to do? And how much is it going to cost?

I’m not sure what a “Zero-Carbon Britain” is, but I’m not sure I can join you in believing in something so made-up. Yay for reducing emissions, but how are you going to do this in a way that leads to “fairer energy prices” (by which I presume you mean “lower energy prices”)? Aside from a drawing of some giant fans blowing away some smoke, you’re not giving much away here.

“I believe in abolishing tuition fees” is nicely specific, finally, but then it’s quickly back to platitudes like “helping business and our economy grow”. With an image of people in suits sitting round a table and someone pointing at a line graph on the wall, the international symbol for “business”.

Even their stance against Trident, our nuclear program, seems oddly half-hearted and compromised. I thought the basic idea was to get rid of them, but here they believe in “saying no to the like-for-like replacement of Trident missiles”. Does that mean you’ll be getting some different ones in instead, or moving them around a bit to help with the feng shui?

Maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe detailed plans for all these things do exist, but this kind of message is intended to convey a different tone. This is no doubt one of many angles the Lib Dems are taking in their campaign, and perhaps they mean for this video to focus on warm feelings at the expense of cold data, in the same way that Nike commercials just show you how cool professional athletes look wearing the shoes, and don’t go into detail about how well they fit or how owning a pair would actually benefit you. That information’s out there, and they have a good product, but this is just to grab your attention with the shiny so that they can sell it to you.

(There’s a better metaphor than that rattling around in my brain somewhere, but I can’t get at it.)

Anyway. Just an account of my immediate thoughts. I’m still looking for some more good reasons to justify my inclination to vote Lib Dem on Thursday, but this video isn’t really helping.

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So, let’s see if I can match my recent success. (I’m guessing not. I seem to have lost my gift for pith since ranting about the Tories. This one’s quite lengthy.)

Yesterday, Gordon Brown had a chat with a lady he met on the campaign trail, who had some pointed questions for him. The exchange and the fall-out looked like this:

Okay, before any political analysis, one non-partisan thing: Surely saying anything you absolutely don’t want people to hear while you’re wearing a microphone is just dumb.

Maybe it’s just easy for me to say that. I’ve never been miked (mic’ed?) up in my life, so I imagine I’ll be very conscious of it if it ever happens. For anyone who spends much time with microphones attached to them, though, it might be easy to get complacent and drop your guard. So, maybe it’s a slightly unfair criticism. But getting caught saying something because you didn’t realise your microphone was still on does seem like a pretty stupid mistake, especially when it’s only about eight seconds since you were being recorded speaking on camera.

Moving on to the video, the first thing I noticed is that he was arguing with her. Which seems like a bad idea. She didn’t say anything objectionable to begin with, really, just explained why she doesn’t feel happy with the current state of things, regarding local policing in particular. And Gordon was trying to persuade her that she’s wrong. Surely this isn’t the time for that. Surely competent politicking at this point, given the number of cameras pointed at him, would involving reining in the bellicosity as much as possible, listening to what one of your voters has to say, reassuring her of your interest in addressing these concerns, and moving swiftly on.

Whether one crotchety old woman decides not to vote Labour doesn’t actually matter to him in the grand scheme of things right now. He doesn’t need to try extra hard to win her round; he needs to make sure the potentially millions of people watching the news don’t end up thinking he’s a cock.

I don’t think this is cynical, or implies that politics is all about superficial perceptions. One of the best ways not to look like a cock is not to be a cock, after all. It’s just about priorities. I’m not saying he should ignore this woman’s concerns, but trying to mollify her right now in the course of this one conversation isn’t a practical aim.

I mean, at one point she asked him: “How are you going to cut the debt, Gordon?” And while I’m pretty sure I’ve way overstepped any appropriate boundaries already in giving this much political advice to the Prime Minster… I’m pretty sure it’s allowed for you to answer a question like that with an answer like: “Well, that’s a hugely complex issue which we’re giving a lot of thought to and making a number of proposals, but it’s not something I can really summarise in a three-minute impromptu chat with some old baggage who doesn’t know her arse from her ISA.”

Okay, maybe the last bit would divide the electorate in ways he would rather avoid, but you see my point.

Anyway, with regard to the relevant, “bigoted” remarks she made, I was surprised how thin on the ground they were. “You can’t say anything about the immigrants,” was about all she managed, and then asked: “Where are they all flocking from?” of the recent Eastern European immigrants to this country. Gordon dithers a bit, and turns the subject back to education. He makes some coherent points about university and tuition fees; she shakes his hand, they have a brief and friendly chat about her grandkids, and they both move on.

And then while he was driving off in the car afterwards, he’s heard describing the meeting to a professional colleague as a “disaster”, and complains about being set up with “a sort of bigoted woman”. And then the video cuts to some journalists playing that clip to her, and pressing her for an outraged response. (And, later, hassling her to get off her phone when it rings, because they want to keep putting her on the live news, and her personal conversations aren’t interesting to them.) She mostly seemed disappointed that his focus wasn’t more on the questions she was raising about financial issues.

Which seems like a legitimate thing for her to be upset about. She spent a few minutes chatting with the Prime Minster about the local and national political issues that are worrying her, and the only thing he seemed to have taken away from it was that she made a brief comment about immigration, which he’s labelled as “bigoted”. Which might be a rather unfair, presumptuous assessment. After all, she didn’t say that much. It may have been a rather illiberal-sounding question, but for the most part she seemed fairly grounded, and extrapolating that she must a raving xenophobe is certainly premature.

Having said that, the overreaction to Gordon Brown’s response was eye-rollingly depressing.

He was on his way somewhere, in the middle of a busy working day barely a week before a major election, when a woman came up to him and started asking him difficult, accusatory questions, while a camera crew filmed it all. He wasn’t expecting it, but out of the blue comes this woman telling him how disappointed she is with him personally, and he knows that everyone in the country will judge him on how he handles it. He answers her questions for several minutes, trying to keep his composure under this abrupt line of questioning and under the scrutiny of the media.

This is probably a more stressful scenario than I’ve ever encountered in my life.

Yes, he should expect to face this kind of thing more than me, since he’s running for so prominent a public office, but he’s entitled to be a little shaken up by suddenly being thrust into a very public confrontation like that. And, based on my own experience of enduring social situations that one finds stressful, I wouldn’t begrudge him the chance to vent about it afterwards.

He was in a private space, speaking privately, to a trusted confidante, in a manner not meant for public ears. He tried to shake off some of the tension and worry that had probably built up during the exchange, by making exasperated noises and complaining about the bigoted woman. I’m not sure if the tape cuts off at that point, or if this particular YouTube clip just stops there, but based on that I’d say he was, if anything, fairly restrained.

If I’d been him, and had somehow held it together throughout such a socially straining encounter, I would have wanted to diffuse some of my own tension too, once I’d got into my car and shut out the world, and retreated momentarily to a safe and private space. And if I’m honest, I might well have used less generous phrases than “some bigoted woman” to describe my feelings of frustration and awkwardness at what had just happened. “Mad old bitch” comes to mind as one example.

And no, that’s not a fair way to describe her at all, but venting like this isn’t supposed to be rational. When my bus gets held up on the way to or from work, I sometimes embark on a lengthy tirade (usually just in my head or under my breath) about how Transport For London is obviously entirely staffed by clueless fucking wankers. I know it’s not, but it would spoil the therapeutic effect to have to admit that at the time.

So I moan and bitch about the horrendous injustice of a simple bus journey from Croydon to Bromley taking nearer seventy-five minutes than forty-five because of some utter dickhead bus-driver, and then I have a cup of tea and feel better.

The point is, what I mutter in between expletives in private moments isn’t representative of how I really think about people most of the time. I have no general pervasive prejudice against bus-drivers. And Gordon Brown probably isn’t actually contemptuous and dismissive of the concerns of ordinary people like whatsherface there. I’m not even close to being cynical enough to think that he genuinely doesn’t care about things like the national debt, or university tuition fees.

What’s wearying about all this is the way the media jumped on it at the first whiff of a potential scandal. Their questions to her were either pointlessly speculative (“Why do you think Gordon Brown said what he said?”) or pointlessly loaded (“Is that what you expect of a politician?”), and they were transparently trying to stir up something they could turn into a story, rather than just reporting on any news that’s already there.

Just as wearying was the way Gordon apparently felt like he had to bow and scrape as much as they demanded in the aftermath. Perhaps sadder still is the notion that, politically speaking, diverting all his attentions away from running the country and toward sucking up to this one woman to apologise for an off-hand comment made in private might actually be the best thing for him to do.

My sympathies are predominantly with the people who see this as a nice fresh angle for creative humour.

Incidentally, the eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that I’ve changed my tune somewhat from a tweet I wrote when I first heard about this. The gist I’d got of it wasn’t quite right, because I hadn’t read or seen much about it yet; I just wanted to join in. So, yes, I’ve been swayed by the facts since then.

A few links to other perspectives before I’m done. The Angry Mob has an interesting take, with some more scrutiny of what the woman actually said. It’s possible her views are genuinely more bigoted than I’ve discussed here, but that seems to me like one of the less pertinent aspects of this whole mess.

Catmachine has some of the same ideas as me, but is less waffley about it.

And finally, Mili is a flocking Eastern European, and I for one am happy to have her. This is worth reading; being a privileged middle-class British native myself, I’d got the whole way through the above rant without considering the place in this fracas of actual immigrants to this country. So, to clarify: whether or not Gillian Duffy is a bigot, or just has some slightly old-fashioned views and chose her words a little carelessly on this particular occasion, the sentiments she deliberately and publicly expressed were offensive to many legitimate citizens of this country. And I’m not okay with that.

So. How am I doing?

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It’s time for bed, but very quickly before I go, a brief run-down of what happened to me today.

I went to work as usual, and decided to post another quick plug to this blog post, which I wrote yesterday, to my followers on Twitter.

A few minutes later, I noticed that it had been re-tweeted by the fantastically talented comedian Marcus Brigstocke, of whom I’ve been a fan for years, and who used the phrase “Best thing I’ve read in a while” to publicise my post to his followers. He also sent a reply message to me personally, describing it as a “blinding bit of writing”.

It was then also re-tweeted by a few hundred more people.

I seemed to have struck something of a chord.

I spent a good few minutes fanning myself, saying things like “lawks-a-mercy”, and being otherwise moved to strange behaviour by such deeply moving flattery.

I acquired about fifty new followers in short order, and did my best to be sociable and interact with some of the people chatting about me and what I’d written. (I’ll reply to the comments on the blog post itself tomorrow.)

I made a comment about being internet famous now, but worried that this kind of famous lasts nearer 15 seconds than 15 minutes, and speculated how I should best capitalise on this fleeting moment of attention. I then embarked on a surreal series of tweets describing my time in the Platinum Members’ Zone for internet celebrities, rubbing shoulders with various other fads. It went like this:

Woohoo, I’m in the Platinum Members’ Zone for internet famous people. My pass expires literally any minute now. Better get mingling!

There’s so many cool people back here. You guys are missing a great party. @chrismeredith, Numa Numa guy says “hallo”.

Keyboard cat?? I’d heard you were dead!

Ack, Star Wars Kid just spilled my drink. Stop waving that damn thing around! Ooh, I found the Pringles. Back in a few, everyone.

Okay, I’m back. And I can see why they drugged that kid at the dentist. He is not a great party guest. Really loud and quite rude.

Look man, whatever your name was, just *chill*. Britney’s not even here. Nobody’s bothering her. She’s fine. Have another daiquiri.

Okay, you do it, then I’ll say the thing…………… YA RLY!! Ha, that was classic. Thanks, I bet you get asked to do that all the time.

Wait, who invited *Hitler* to this thing? And what’s he so angry about? This is really killing the buzz. Maybe it’s time to go.

But I haven’t even met Rick Astley yet! Or danced on treadmills! (Seriously, *Hitler*? What were they thinking?)

Oh no, Keyboard Cat’s coming back over here. Don’t you dare play me off, don’t you- aw, dammit! You vicious, adorable bastard.

Guess the party’s over for me. Thanks for getting me in, though. Wouldn’t have happened without all you guys.

Then I actually got some work done for a bit.

And then I ventured off into London to see Nerina Pallot perform live, who was and is utterly fabulous. I should start going to more live music, because it was a fantastic set, including a surprise and surprisingly charming turn from Diana Vickers.

Then I came back here, and checked out the visitor stats for my blog for today, which looked like this:

And then I went to bed.

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This is going to be off-the-cuff, chaotic, and angry.

I posted this on Twitter earlier, and it got retweeted more than anything else I’ve ever said:

If I want the Lib Dems to win, I’m voting Lib Dem. If you’re so scared of a hung parliament, maybe YOU shouldn’t vote Conservative.

I still don’t know nearly enough about the political system in this country to justify how much I’ve been talking about it lately. I’m not a political blogger, and I’d need to become way more informed before I ever could be, which isn’t all that likely judging by my usual level of interest in such matters. But this is one thing that’s been really annoying me about some of the public discourse lately.

For longer than I’ve been alive, the real race in the general elections in this country has always been between Labour and the Conservatives. It’s always been one of them that was going to win. But for the first time in a while, a third party is polling well, and is in with a non-negligible chance of winning (even if it’s not all that great), and is unquestionably playing a substantial role in our system of government.

This has made a lot of people very unhappy and been widely regarded as a bad move.

In particular, some people want us to be scared of a “hung parliament”, in which no one party gets enough of a majority to “win”, and after all the voting’s done they have to sort it out amongst themselves how they’re going to run the country. Or something. Yes, the First Past the Post system is ridiculous, however limited my understanding.

Quite what the effects of a hung parliament would actually be is one of the many things in all this that remains beyond me. But if it’s a natural and unavoidable result of people simply voting for who they want to win, then maybe this adds to the case for serious electoral reform.

What it doesn’t imply is that voting for the Liberal Democrats is irresponsible and dangerous, and that an entire third of the electorate ought to give up on what they actually want for the sake of a nice, comfortable compromise.

The Conservatives are calling a Liberal Democrat vote “a vote for the Hung Parliament Party“, and are full of scary rhetoric as to why this should be feared and avoided.

And it all strikes me as intensely cynical and profoundly unfair, and I can’t sum it up any better than I did in my tweet up there.

There are polls out there in which Nick Clegg is winning this race. It’s by no means a strong or unambiguous lead, but the Lib Dems are not hopeless stragglers these days. People would actually like to see them in power, and they’d vote for it if they thought it could happen.

So it is staggeringly patronising for this substantial swathe of the population to be told that they shouldn’t vote for the party or candidate who they would most like to see win the election, because of the administrative difficulties this will cause. The problems of a hung parliament are a product of the electoral system, and of everybody’s votes in conjunction with each other.

If every Lib Dem vote were counted for the Conservatives, it’d be a landslide. But the same goes the other way. And it really pisses me off (enough to use lots of italics for emphasis) when other people assume that I’m the one who shouldn’t get to have my say for who I want, as if everyone else’s votes were already fixed and immutable and I’m ruining everything by making my own damn decisions.

If you’re terrified of a hung parliament and are desperate to avoid it at all costs, then you can either lobby for electoral reform, or you can be against the concept of people voting honestly. At least be up front about which it is.

…And just as I wonder if I’m done, superior blogger Martin Robbins says some of the things I want to say rather well, and embeds the full Conservative “Hung Parliament Party” video. It’s really, really awful. The video, not Martin’s post. Obviously.

So. Who knows more than I do about hung parliaments? (Hint: It’s quite possibly you. Seriously.)

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Yeah, I’m back, apologies for the sloth. I’ll try and stick to the other six next time.


Yeah, I’m back, apologies for the sloth. I don’t know how he got in here, but he chewed up my internet connection pretty good and then fell asleep on top of the router. There was no shifting him, and the tech support guy wouldn’t touch it until I’d got him out the way.

Anyway. Here are some things.

– I didn’t realise that Everybody Draw Mohammed Day was a thing until too late, but luckily I did happen to include a likeness of the sacred prophet in my last post anyway, just for the hell of it.

– But that was last week. Today is the day that Boobquake is upon us. This one merits a little background, if you’re not familiar. An Iranian cleric made some waves recently by claiming that immodestly dressed women cause earthquakes. Or, the impure thoughts that women give men by dressing revealingly is what causes an increase in tectonic activity. Something stupid like that, anyway.

This is obviously some pretty sexist bullshit, so one intrepid blogging bosom-owner decided to take action. Her suggestion was that for one day – today – women deliberately wear more revealing and immodest clothes than normal, and see how the plates of the Earth’s crust respond. Could the might of female indecorousness truly provoke a boobquake?

It’s a fairly light-hearted bit of fun, but some people don’t like it, even if they’re not demented Muslim clerics. I’m not going to get into the debate about the scientific rigour or feminist implications of this right now, but Maymay has some good ideas. I think trying to get together a whole new movement on the same day was possibly a tactical mistake, but a Femquake sounds like something I could get behind.

Of course, I also had to spend way too much of my work day on Twitter earlier trying to come up with names for what the male equivalent of such an event as a Boobquake would be. The best I could do at short notice was Ballcano.

Also, the Skepchicks talk about breasts.

– There are no inconsistencies in the Bible. And, there are lots of inconsistencies in the Bible. I’m both right!

– Hey, you remember how loads of Catholic priests raped hundreds of children, and the Pope was among those who covered it up? And did you hear about this jokey memo circulated among the British Foreign Office recently, regarding the Pope’s upcoming UK visit, which made some silly suggestions of ways he might like to spend his time here, such as opening an abortion clinic, or performing a duet with the Queen? Those two things, they’re not quite on the same scale, are they? I mean, one of those is proportionately far worse than the other, right? Between the child rape conspiracy and the list of jokes?

Well, Melanie Phillips agrees with you. Um… sort of.

– And lastly, if you don’t want to read an article titled The Truth About Cocaine Vaginas, then I don’t even know you, man.

– Last-minute addendum: I know at least one person reading this was expecting to read something outrageous about interior design. I hope you learned something today about setting your sights too high.

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Geek the vote.

Dr Petra has a very nifty guide for how to spot PR-based research. That is, purportedly scientific research which has actually been commissioned and funded by a private interest, specifically to provide seemingly scientifically legitimate support for their PR campaign. This kind of easily digestible but misleading survey is much more likely [citation needed] to appear in most tabloids than actual research done by scientists; it’s worth knowing what it looks like so that you can ignore it.

– PZ Myers has some simple questions for Francis Collins. Well, they’re Larry Moran’s questions, actually, but they’re all very simple. They all start with “Is there any evidence…”, and are directed at a series of claims made by Francis Collins.

Collins has done some fine science in his time, and I don’t think there’s much to disdain about his work with the Human Genome Project, but I can’t decide whether hearing him talk on the compatibility of religion and science is bewildering or just sad. He describes the history of the universe, through its billions of years of expansion and cooling, its millions of years of cumulative evolutionary processes, and so forth, entirely in line with the current scientific consensus, but then inexplicably throws in a load of stuff for God to do along the way, attributing acts to him where absolutely no agency is required.

The “mechanism of evolution” was apparently part of God’s plan from the start, rather than something that just follows logically from the existence of imperfectly replicating entities. His plan also “included human beings”, something that completely goes against evolutionary theory, which states that the random genetic variations which survive and propagate are determined by environmental factors, and there is no ultimate or long-term “goal” towards which evolution is striving. All the God stuff is just carelessly shoe-horned in there, with no regard to the fact that it’s completely unnecessary.

It’s clear that Collins needs to find room for his idea of God in his scientific worldview somewhere, but it’s entirely unconvincing. As Larry says, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence, at any stage in the history of the universe, that God’s intervention is as crucial as claimed. Even if it doesn’t directly contradict the scientific narrative for our history, it throws the principles of scientific skepticism straight out the window if you’re allowed to make things up like this and wedge them in however it suits you.

You know, I just noticed that I’ve been referring to the guy I disagree with by his surname, and the people whose message I approve of by their first names (or initials). I wonder if that’s meaningful. Or just an irrelevant linguistic quirk.

– Lastly, with a hat-tip to the Sceptical Letter Writer and Wikipedia, here’s a picture of the prophet Muhammad that Trey Parker and Matt Stone weren’t allowed to air on recent episodes of South Park:

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So I know I’m late, but I’m going to try wading into something that’s caused some internal controversy amongst skeptics lately.

Even though Richard Dawkins is not planning to arrest the Pope, he and Christopher Hitchens have been discussing with human rights lawyers an “initiative… to mount a legal challenge to the Pope’s proposed visit to Britain“. Hitchens has written a number of articles for Slate recently, describing the extent of Ratzinger’s complicity in the cover-up of numerous cases of the sexual abuse of children. Among many other recent developments, a 1985 letter from then-Cardinal Ratzinger, instructing the church in how to respond to accusations of such abuse, clearly shows him putting the church’s reputation ahead of the well-being of children left in the care of rapists.

It seems basically clear and unambiguous that any regular corporation would likely be torn apart by such levels of scandal, and have its reputation left genuinely in tatters. The fact that the Pope himself has been among those to have acted reprehensibly does not seem to be in doubt, among anyone worth listening to. The disagreement is over the question of whether Dawkins’ and Hitchens’ legal approach against the Pope is appropriate or useful, or whether a response that does the most good wouldn’t look very different from what we’re seeing here.

My opinion is a somewhat uncertain mishmash of the views expressed by Rebecca Watson, Phil Plait, and PZ Myers, and a useful focus point, for trying to unravel exactly what I think, is the recurring question:

Is this “a skeptical cause”?

And I don’t really think there’s a straight answer. There’s been discussion around whether Dawkins, for instance, has been “wearing his skeptical hat” in this campaign, or is acting solely as an individual. But the skeptical movement isn’t any formal organisation with its name in a fancy font on the letterhead, so I’m not sure I see the distinction.

The scandal has perhaps received even greater or more enthusiastic play among skeptics than society at large, because being critical of the Catholic Church constitutes a greater portion of our day-to-day leisure activities. But there’s nothing about children being sexually abused that ought to only interest skeptics. Everyone ought to be outraged and acting on this. If they’re not, then maybe it’ll fall to Dawkins and his fans to lead the charge, but not because it’s in any way a skeptical cause, or the responsibility of skeptics in particular. He’s not supporting this legal initiative as a representative of the skeptical movement so much as the “people appropriately outraged by child rape” movement. That’s a pretty inclusive movement.

Phil is keen to emphasise how “very delicate and very important” the role of skepticism is in this whole thing, and how carefully skeptics must tread if we don’t want to alienate potential allies. Many non-skeptics, believers, religious people, and even Catholics are surely plenty humanistic enough to be as appalled by child abuse as the rest of us, and would want any organisation to be investigated and censured appropriately if such serious accusations are made against it. The fear is that they’ll be put off this if it means having to join sides with that godless heathen Dawkins.

PZ is less concerned about tact, so long as we’re not devolving into irrationally screaming for blood, and continue to make appropriate criticism through valid channels. And Rebecca called bullshit on a number of more cynical interpretations of the situation, such as that most people would need to be gently coaxed into taking a stand against child rape, and are liable to get defensive and start justifying sexual assault on minors if they’re expected to agree with an atheist. (Also, the skeptical movement can go fuck itself.)

And, well, they’re all kinda right. Not compromising a message for an important cause that we have every right to be involved in sounds good to me. So does trying to get people on our side through methods that don’t involve being a dick.

As Rebecca points out, there aren’t really any prominent Catholic figureheads doing much to bring some accountability to their own organisation. If there were, I don’t doubt for a second that Dawkins would be happy to cheer them on. But right now, anyone not all that sympathetic to the skeptical movement who wants to take a stand against the Catholic church’s cover-ups of child abuse might just have to deal with finding themselves on the same side of an argument as Richard Dawkins. Sorry, but while he’s the only guy publicly saying this stuff, them’s the breaks. It behooves us exactly as much as ever not to be obnoxious and put people off wanting anything to do with us, but I don’t see any need to go out of our way to be conciliatory.

In particular, the people who are actually getting angry at Dawkins simply baffle me, and are probably the kind of people who there’s just no talking to. There’s a much more worthy target for righteous indignation, in the priests who molested children. Dawkins’ aim has been to try and achieve some sort of justice for those children. You might not think much of the way he’s going about it, or rate his chances of success – qualified lawyer Jack of Kent, for instance, thinks that any such legal process should take a very different route from that which Dawkins advocates – but this is a strategical point meriting some serious but amicable debate. How is it possibly worth, as I’ve seen a lot of people do, redirecting onto Dawkins any of the venom and fury that ought to be reserved for the organisation which fucking raped children and covered it up?

So, to sum up: I absolutely think skeptics should be getting involved in this, calling for justice as loudly as necessary. So should history teachers. And surgeons. And insurance analysts. And people who run cake shops. And everyone else. Right now, it seems to be predominantly skeptics who are doing it. And until anyone else brings a louder voice, that’s just going to have to be okay.

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Not only is a Lib Dem government the most popular option; it is the one that frightens voters far less than any other option.

I know that this just one of many sets of survey results, which all say wildly differing things, and that YouGov in particular may have been doing some push polling recently. But results like these should really be telling us now that the Liberal Democrats are actually a serious political force in this country.

It’s hard to really take that on board and incorporate it into the way we think. It’s been such a long-standing paradigm, becoming essentially a part of our national culture, that the Lib Dems are the hopelessly trailing third-place political party, who get to make whatever crowd-pleasing middle-of-the-road promises they want because they’re never actually going to be in power and have to make good on any of them. And it’s basically complete nonsense.

Unfortunately, as self-fulfilling prophecies go, it might not be possible to shake it off completely in the next couple of weeks. The chances of a Lib Dem government still seem slim – but this seems to be much more because nobody thinks it could happen, than because it couldn’t actually happen.

When asked: “How would you vote if thought LibDems ‘had a significant chance of winning the election nationally’?”, 49% said they’d vote Lib Dem. Seriously. Detailed YouGov stats here (PDF link).

Goddammit, people. Why can’t we all just vote for who we want to win? If everyone not backing the candidate who we’re told has the majority just doesn’t bother, because they assume everyone else on their side will do the same thing, then of course we’ll never get anywhere. But if everyone takes the radical approach of just voting for who they want to win, then we might just have a chance of electing the guy most people want to see in power.

To hell with strategy. Vote for someone worth it. Or, don’t vote at all – I don’t have the energy to go into a full rant on that right now, but that’s also entirely your prerogative. The genius that is Tim Minchin posted a series of tweets the other day, espousing a system of compulsory voting, as I believe is in place in Australia, where you’re legally required to cast a ballot and are fined if you fail to attend to your civic duty. I profoundly disagree with this; opting out of the whole process is one of those basic rights that I get very twitchy about anyone deciding they want to take away from me, whether or not I plan to exercise it. Encouraging involvement and combating voter apathy are important and worthy aims, but I can’t abide that kind of coercive method of doing so. Maybe there’s a full rant there for another time.

Mind you, even if the Lib Dems got a popular majority of the vote, they could still end up being screwed by the First Past the Post system. What the hell’s up with that, anyway? Haven’t there been perfectly good ways of making Proportional Representation work for years now?

To lighten the mood briefly before I close: Kent Hovind is still a loon. This time he’s positing a hypothetical conversation between himself and Ardipithecus ramidus. The guy still writes like an eight-year-old. You don’t even need to consider the inanity of his arguments; just the style of prose is cringeingly childish. (Hat-tip to PZ.)

Actually, that didn’t lighten the mood at all. Damn, and I don’t have any other links to hand. But I need to find something, so I don’t go to bed in a bad mood. Umm… Okay, you know what? It’s time to break out the laughing babies.

Much better. Night night.

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I’m trying to live by the principle that no idea is too ridiculous to be worth following through with.

And, well, this was an idea I had. And it’s not something I’ve seen done already. So, here it is. Click the images for full-size versions, but hopefully they’ll appear more or less readable below, unless my HTML suck surpasses even my own expectations.

If you need context, hi, welcome to the internet.

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– Lucia de Berk is officially not a serial killer. No, I’d never heard of her all throughout the six years she’s already spent in prison for what was almost certainly a non-existent crime, but the background to this story is truly horrible.

– There was some interesting scientific research done lately into the connection between cell division and the circadian clock (sort of an internal clock that regulates your body’s unconscious activities over the course of 24 hours) in mice. They put an experimental group of mice and a control group into environments where it was light for 12 hours of the day, then dark for 12 hours. The experimental group also got an hour of bright light, in the middle of the usually dark period. The scientists then measured what effect these hour-long blocks of light during “night-time” had had on the mice’s RNA – whether certain genes had been activated or deactivated.

Unfortunately, I forget where I first read this story, but it caught my attention because of a conversation I’d overheard between two colleagues at work earlier, about a Daily Mail article describing how going to the toilet in the middle of the night can give you cancer.

If you don’t see the connection between those two things, then congratulations, you’re smarter than people who write for the Daily Mail.

None of the scientific data cited made any reference to going to the toilet, and didn’t even involve research on humans, as has been amply clarified. There is a connection to cancer, in that chronic light exposure during night-time may thrown some animals’ circadian clocks off-balance, disrupting the regulation of their cell division, and “cancer is, essentially, unregulated cell division”. But that’s it.

It’s not the most powerful or obvious reminder I’ve seen of just how free the tabloids are to utterly mislead their readers, probably not by a long way. But it’s one of the most recent, and it’s always worth noting quite how wrong they can get things. They read “changes in activity in RNA genes in mice subjected to an hour of bright light during night hours”, and printed “Switching the light on to go to the toilet in the middle of the night could give you cancer”.

That goes beyond providing a helpful real-world analogy enabling people to better understand complex scientific jargon, and way beyond drawing practical conclusions from specific and esoteric experimental results. You have to be wilfully or self-deludedly putting factual objectivity and balance aside in favour of sensationalism to create something so distorted.

The Daily Mail are leading the charge into a world where I simply will not trust any news I didn’t read on Twitter.

– And finally, let’s end on something completely insane. I think I’m slightly too appalled to laugh, but that will no doubt vary with my mood.

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