May Meeting

Thanks to everyone who came to the May meeting, it was great to see you all. It’s fantastic to see the attendance numbers moving upwards, I came away from the meeting feeling really positive. I’ll be uploading a new poster shortly and am in the process of contacting local press.
Onwards and upwards!

So who gets to celebrate Christmas?

There’s been an increasing amount of interest over the years from the more religious parts of our society about celebrating the ‘real’ meaning of Christmas – celebrating the birth of the Christian messiah, Jesus. It’s not uncommon for non-Christians, wanting to partake in the festivities that surround this time of the year, to be confronted with the sentiment that, as non-Christians, it’s not really ‘proper’ for them to join in with the celebrations. But just how strong is the Christian claim to this festival? How much of what we perceive as ‘Christmas’ is overtly Christian in nature and how much is entirely unconnected to religion at all? As secularists, atheists or even Muslim or Hindus, do we have a right to take part or are the complaints by Christians a misguided attempt to claim this time of year for their own?

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Frackin’ heck

Apparently, self-classification as a scientist brings with it some kind of assumption that you know stuff. Despite the fact I’m about as credentialed as Dr Nick from the Simpsons (“Hi everybody!” “Hi Dr. Nick!”) and do as much cutting edge science on a daily basis as Dr Dino and convicted tax fraud, Kent Hovind, people expect you to have a knowledge about stuff beyond the ken of the ‘lay person’, whoever he is.

It’s not that I know things, or even that I do science (in the meaningful sense) on a regular basis. The distinction is that, even as someone who works on the fringes of science and research, it’s about attitude, an attitude towards learning and reading about new things beyond the headlines and sound bites, into the underlying principles. Then, and only then, can an opinion be formed safely.

This isn’t an attitude reserved for scientists though, before I suffer from delusions of grandeur. Anyone who cares about being rational and skeptical could (and should) examine the evidence for any position and at least make an attempt to rationalise their viewpoint before speaking out. On issues like badger culling, GMO’s, embryonic stem cell research and euthanasia; there’s evidence to be read beyond the emotional appeal of fluffy animals, innocent babies and the dubious commercial practices of multi-national biochemical industries.

One issue lately that has become loaded with emotion instead of evidence, in the popular press anyway, is that of fracking. I’m a chemist, and not a very good one at that, not a geologist, so my understanding is limited. However, as a rationalist and skeptic, I felt obligated to read up on the mechanics behind it before formulating an opnion and I felt it only right to share that. Disagree if you want, but please do so after considering the evidence.

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7 Reasons the World Looks Worse Than It Really Is

Disclaimer: Not written by me; taken almost entirely word-for-word from here. Go read it in all it’s glory!

7 Reasons the World Looks Worse Than It Really Is

A billion people have been lifted out of poverty in just the last 20 years. Did you know that? Do you know how it happened? Do you sit around thinking about how wonderful that is?   I don’t. I’m too angry that Comcast tried to charge me for a service call when the reason for the call was a defective Comcast modem. But I suppose that in the course of complaining about the state of the economy, politics, and shitty broadband Internet we should take a moment to notice that we’re living in the glorious golden age of civilization and that life is improving for the species at a dizzying rate not even hippies could have hoped for in their smelliest dreams.   Why do we find it so hard to do that? Well …

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Our Scientifically Illiterate Overlords

There’s been a fair bit in the news in the past few years that shows an alarming tendency of those in power to ignore science when it comes to making policy, preferring instead to pander to illogical and irrational prejudices that they think will gain them votes.

We had the well respected Governmental scientific advisor, David Nutt, who was dismissed for daring to suggest that recreational drugs be classified according to their health risk.

Next we have noted pro-homeopath, Jeremy Hunt, being appointed Health Minister.

We have our heir to the throne, Prince Charles, lobbying government on behalf of his own flapdoodle products.

Now we have this:

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Naturalism: thought or method?

So, in keeping with my personal quest to see the world enlightened, today’s post is about naturalism, what it is and why there’s an important distinction between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism. It’s fair to say that one is fairly well applied, even by those people who don’t realise it, whereas the other is really only applied by Big Thinkers. I’m not a philosopher, nor have I done any studies of those subjects that are even remotely connected to philosophy or epistemology (the study of where knowledge comes from) or anything like that. I’m a scientist, and I like to think I’ve fairly rational thought processes. In explaining all of this, in terms I understand, I’m hoping that other people will understand it better.

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Unbelievable Miracles!

The Unbelievable Podcast, from Premier Christian Radio is often a source of intellectual fun and frolics. The usual format of the show is that some flavour of Christian is in conversation with an Atheist on a particular theme all ably moderated by host Justin Brierly. This week the subject was Miracles with special guest Randal Rouser, special powers, the argument from authority and straw-manning vs John Loftus, special power, the outsider test for faith. I guess if we are giving out the special powers we should assign one to host Justin Brierly. How about the power to be bright enough to attend Oxbridge yet still think that the argument from objective morality has weight. Awesome!
Back to the show. Rauser was arguing that we should be open to the possibility of miracles. He argued that Loftus, by taking the skeptical line was being closed minded. He gave this example of a hypothetical miracle. (Time code 49min 39s)

“Let’s say that Mr Smith can’t pay his rent. He prays, he goes up to his mail box, he need $647 to pay his rent. He opens his mail box, he finds there is $647 there and nobody knew that he needed the money. Can Mr Smith conclude that this was a sign of god’s action answering a prayer? I think certainly so. Is it possible that the money ended up in his mail box by chance? A coincidence? Yeah its possible but the fact that that’s possible doesn’t mean that he can’t concluded that that’s a miracle based on the evidence presented to him. “

Lets set aside the pointlessness of arguing about hypothetical miracles and examine this claim on its face.
First point. I can think of at least one person who knows he needs the money. His landlord. Which seems more likely? His landlord took pity on him but knew he was a proud man who wouldn’t accept charity so slipped the money into his mail box.  Or what about the landlord’s daughter? Either of them seem infinitely more probably than a payout from Jesus.
Even if it is a miracle, how exactly would that work? Does Jesus have a bank account? He draws the money out of the ATM and pop it in an envelope marking it fao Mr Smith? Or does he just magic the money into existence? In that case the money is forged currency. Or perhaps Jesus uses his magic powers to compel someone, the Landlord perhaps, to donate the money to Mr Smith, in that case the money is stolen. No scenario makes sense. Unless Jesus has a proper job and has earned the money himself to give away all other scenarios end in either theft or forgery. This, at bottom, is the problem with all miracles. As soon as you start messing with the laws of physics or the laws of causality all bets are off. Miracles, by their very nature, lead to either contradictions or ethical problems or both. As soon as you allow miracles into your world view you have given up on reality. Stop it Randal Rauser. Stop it now.

Placebos or placenos?

Hello again from your friendly skeptical scientist, attempting to enrich and enliven people’s lives by spreading the knowledge of Science™ and contributing to everyone’s Facts To Amaze People Down The Pub list.

Today I’m going to discuss placebos and the common misconceptions people have about them and how they’re so often abused, even by rational and scientifically minded people. There’s a subtle difference between a true placebo and a simple control, and this is my attempt to explain it.

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