Archive for July, 2009

Russell’s Cosmic Teapot

31 July 2009 Comments off

Continuing with the Bertrand Russell theme, here is his excellent illustrative analogy of the burden of proof when it comes to religion and other belief systems:

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the Sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes.

But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

Once you get past the automated, unthinking supposition that any given religious book is immutable fact, it’s easy to see Russell’s point.

This point was then further elaborated upon over 50 years later by Richard Dawkins, in his book A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love (2003):

The reason organised religion merits outright hostility is that, unlike belief in Russell’s teapot, religion is powerful, influential, tax-exempt and systematically passed on to children too young to defend themselves. Children are not compelled to spend their formative years memorising loony books about teapots. Government-subsidised schools don’t exclude children whose parents prefer the wrong shape of teapot. Teapot-believers don’t stone teapot-unbelievers, teapot-apostates, teapot-heretics and teapot-blasphemers to death. Mothers don’t warn their sons off marrying teapot-shiksas whose parents believe in three teapots rather than one. People who put the milk in first don’t kneecap those who put the tea in first.

While I don’t always agree with Dawkins’s approach — I think his behaviour is sometimes counter-productive as it seems to simply raise the hackles of those with opposing viewpoints, discouraging further discourse — I completely agree with his message. That’s also true in the case of the above quotation, as it is also an excellent illustration of Russell’s original premise.

The Ten Commitments

29 July 2009 Comments off

Bertrand Russell‘s ethical and modern replacement for the Ten Commandments (Deut. 5):

  1. Do not lie to yourself.
  2. Do not lie to other people, unless they are exercising tyranny.
  3. When you think it is your duty to inflict pain, scrutinise your reasons closely.
  4. When you desire power, examine yourself carefully as to why you desire it.
  5. When you have power, use it to build up people, not to constrict them.
  6. Do not attempt to live without vanity, since this is impossible, but choose the right audience from which to seek admiration.
  7. Do not think of yourself as separate, wholly self-contained unit.
  8. Be reliable.
  9. Be just.
  10. Be good-natured.

News media legally permitted to lie?

19 July 2009 Comments off

Most you know that I’m not in the US, but what goes on there has a habit of spilling over into the rest of the world. This is particularly true of politics, culture and media…

It appears that the US news media is legally permitted to lie to and has no legal onus to tell the truth to the public, according to that government’s law courts and communications regulatory authority, the FCC. For many people this has been an accepted, if unwritten and cynical, fact for decades, but I wonder how many know that it’s actual fact?

I realise this sounds straight out of one of the Internet’s countless conspiracy theory websites, but this is one of those situations where it’s completely accurate. It started with an article called Fox News gets okay to misinform public, court ruling on CeaseSPIN, a website that states its mission is to seek a return to “more objective, truthful, fair, balanced, relevant and representative news reporting.” (Though the cynic in me wonders if such an animal has ever existed).

The most notable portion of the article says:

On February 14 [2003], a Florida Appeals court ruled there is absolutely nothing illegal about lying, concealing or distorting information by a major press organization… The ruling basically declares it is technically not against any law, rule, or regulation to deliberately lie or distort the news on a television broadcast.

People like Noam Chomsky have been saying this for years, in books such as his Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies, but — if I’m brutally honest — although he’s clearly a brilliant and intelligent man, I’ve often wondered if maybe he was one step away from the puzzle house. However, that opinion was based on the assumption that there was a legal requirement for there to be at least an attempt to tell the truth in the news media. We can all think of examples where the news has got it so wrong as to be laughable, though we normally put such things down to over-eager reporters or not having all the facts. But what if that’s wrong?

Thinking that this article must be incorrect or sensationalised, I looked a little deeper into the facts behind the story. According to a number of online resources, it appears that two former employees of a Fox News-owned TV station in Florida, Jane Akre and Steve Wilson, refused to knowingly include false information in a report about an artificial hormone developed by a multi-national biotech company and they were subsequently fired. Presumably believing that they were wrongfully dismissed and that the station had knowingly broken the law, the couple sued them under Florida’s whistle-blower’s law (among other things).

The pair won their case and, as often seems to be the case with big business, it went to appeal. Amazingly, and although the reasons for the original case seem not to have been contended, the appellant corporation successfully argued that while the FCC had a News Distortion policy, it was only a policy.

Florida’s 2nd District Court of Appeals Case 2D01-529 (PDF) concludes with the following statement:

Because the FCC’s news distortion policy is not a “law, rule, or regulation” under section 448.102, Akre has failed to state a claim under the whistle-blower’s statute. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment in her favor and remand for entry of a judgment in favor of [the appellant].

The original ruling was overturned on the basis that the news media outlet had broken no laws, and it didn’t matter whether they were conveying facts or lying through their teeth. In short, this means that there is at least one piece of case law in the US that states that news media has no legal requirement to report anything resembling reality.

The FCC’s Consumer Facts: Complaints About Broadcast Journalism page states:

The FCC is caught in a tug-of-war between two consumer factions: on one side, consumers have urged the FCC to set guidelines to prevent bias or distortion by networks and station licensees or to supervise the gathering, editing, and airing of news and comments; on the other side, consumers fear possible government intimidation or censorship of broadcast news operations.

Is this a classic example of a policy intended to prevent something from occurring actually facilitating it? What if the network or station isn’t one of the good guys?

For anyone who’s watched news networks in the US, UK or Australia (and most likely other countries) — particularly those with 24×7 news coverage — will be familiar with the concept of biased, unfair and unbalanced reporting being a matter of course, particularly when they become politically-aligned. I’ve been cheekily referring to “the news” as “infotainment” for years, but cases such as this make me wonder if I’ve been right all along.

None of this is likely to be news to anyone possessing basic critical thinking skills, but to see it enshrined in law is hideous. I wonder how many other pieces of case law around the world contain such rulings?

If you have examples, please provide citations in the comments.

Categories: media Tags: , , ,

The fundagelical problem with humanism

8 July 2009 Comments off

While reading a friend’s blog post in which he puts down some thoughts about recent events and the subsequent comments from his readers, I was struck by one comment in particular which was a comment to a comment, so to speak. Here is the relevant snippet from Mark’s comment:

Humanist and Utilitarian beliefs existed long before religion and will continue to exist long after religion has disappeared into the annals of ancient history. One does not need a fairy godmother to understand right and wrong.

It’s a perfectly logical comment, as the basic tenets of humanism are universal to the wellbeing of a group or society, and obeisance to or existence of a higher power isn’t a prerequisite (e.g. I love my parents and a god does not need to exist to enable that).

The comment that intrigued me also confused me a little. I’d rather not simply copy and paste it here as it would then be out of context, so here is the link to the comment for you to read in situ.

It appears to me that the commenter considers Humanism to be a world view devoid of morals and values, and quotes from the American Humanist Association‘s Humanist Manifesto II, written in 1973 (the most recent is the Humanist Manifesto III, written in 2003), choosing to combine parts of the 3rd Principle (Ethics) and 6th Principle (The Individual) as follows:

Happiness and the creative realization of human needs and desires, individually and in shared enjoyment, are continuous themes of humanism… individuals should be permitted to express their sexual proclivities and pursue their lifestyles as they desire.

I presume the intent of this is to justify the commenter’s assertion that Humanism is devoid of morals and values, as at face value and out of context this quote may suggest that it is hedonistic and perverted, existing to encourage lascivious behaviour and baser expressions of human activities. I believe the Daily Mail are always looking for journalists…

To provide their proper context, here are these two principles in their entirety (emphasis mine):

THIRD: We affirm that moral values derive their source from human experience. Ethics is autonomous and situational needing no theological or ideological sanction. Ethics stems from human need and interest. To deny this distorts the whole basis of life. Human life has meaning because we create and develop our futures. Happiness and the creative realization of human needs and desires, individually and in shared enjoyment, are continuous themes of humanism. We strive for the good life, here and now. The goal is to pursue life’s enrichment despite debasing forces of vulgarization, commercialization, and dehumanization.

SIXTH: In the area of sexuality, we believe that intolerant attitudes, often cultivated by orthodox religions and puritanical cultures, unduly repress sexual conduct. The right to birth control, abortion, and divorce should be recognized. While we do not approve of exploitive, denigrating forms of sexual expression, neither do we wish to prohibit, by law or social sanction, sexual behavior between consenting adults. The many varieties of sexual exploration should not in themselves be considered “evil.” Without countenancing mindless permissiveness or unbridled promiscuity, a civilized society should be a tolerant one. Short of harming others or compelling them to do likewise, individuals should be permitted to express their sexual proclivities and pursue their lifestyles as they desire. We wish to cultivate the development of a responsible attitude toward sexuality, in which humans are not exploited as sexual objects, and in which intimacy, sensitivity, respect, and honesty in interpersonal relations are encouraged. Moral education for children and adults is an important way of developing awareness and sexual maturity.

As can be seen, when taken in context the 3rd Principle is explaining that morals, values and ethics are based upon self-evidential experience (students of American history should be familiar with the idea of self-evidence, if not the phrase itself) and free from absolutism or dogmatic interpretation. That we know without doubt that we have this life now, but anything beyond that is uncertain and unproven, so to form an ethical framework around words written by men and adhering to them unquestioningly is foolish. And the 6th Principle is explaining sexuality and the universal sexual rights of human beings, again without unquestioning adherence to a framework or dogma.

That this Manifesto has seen four versions shows that Humanism is like science — it adjusts, revises and corrects as necessary. Nothing is absolute. And that frightens the living daylights out of many believers and conservative people.

Unfortunately for them, life and the universe is uncertain, relative and without absolutes. Those responsible for tracking objects from the Kuiper Belt and beyond may tomorrow detect an object on a collision course with earth with an ETA of 2 weeks and after which it’s All Over (if it happens, we won’t get much notice), the leader of a nuclear power may lose the plot and push The Button throwing us all into a nuclear winter, or any number of end-of-the-world scenarios.

Once you understand that not only do you not matter, that your country doesn’t matter, that this planet doesn’t matter to the universe, then you will have some insight into the marvellous thing that is life. Someone once said that before he was born he was a long time dead and after he dies he’ll be a long time dead, so he makes the most of this blink of an eye in which we’re born, grow, live, grow old and die. It also shows why Humanists have such a thirst for life, and why things such as the AHA’s Humanist Manifesto are so necessary.

Whether a god or gods exist is immaterial — and there are logical refutations and arguments that can be used to illustrate why such existence is unlikely at best — as that is not the issue here. There is nothing in human existence to suggest that any of the millions of religious texts on this world weren’t either written by men seeking power or a genuine, primitive attempt to understand the wonders and horrors of the world: fire, lightning, weather systems, the joy of sex, the birth of a child, the death of a mother during childbirth, the untimely diseased death of a child, a volcano burying a city.

We’re born into a world where people with an imaginary friend’s supposed writing dictates not only the way they live their lives but they mandate the same behaviour on to everybody else. What if you’re wrong? Have you considered that possibility seriously for just 5 minutes? I mean really seriously, without falling prey to the inevitable Argument from Incredulity or Argument from Popularity within 30 seconds and snorting your derision. And then extend that and ask how it can possibly be right for your values (immaterial of whether they’re correct or not) to be forced upon others — upon entire nations.

We’re a race that have flown to the Moon, we’ve fired things we’ve made to the very edge of the known Solar System, we’ve worked out empirically the age and size of the universe as we’re able to see it today, and we’ve sequenced our own genetic code and are in the process of decoding half a billion years of post-Cambrian development

And to this day we’re going to war for the same reasons with the same Books that we did back in the Bronze Age. Now tell me again why religion is good but Humanism is bad?

Using Me!: Shall we all be green?

7 July 2009 Comments off

There’s a new post on a friend’s blog that I think you should read. Here’s an excerpt:

New Scientist published a special edition last month all about the environment but specifically about ‘Sustainability’. It’s all very well adopting things that are ‘Green’ but that is not the same thing as ‘Sustainable’. For example using (corn based) bio-diesel is very green but it is absolutely not sustainable because it takes away crops from other markets pushing up the prices of flour, bread, meat and so on.

The rest of the blog can be found here.

Categories: science Tags: ,

Differences of opinion that make you angry

6 July 2009 Comments off

There have been a couple of events over the last week that have given me cause to pause and reflect, and make for an interesting article.

Last week was the Henley Royal Regatta, one of the world’s best known rowing events, that plays merry hell with my daily commute through Henley-on-Thames. So for “regatta week” I take a different route through the equally beautiful Sonning-on-Thames, home of the infamous Uri Geller, over its weak bridge crossing the Thames. This bottleneck causes a queue (i.e. what other countries call a traffic jam) of a mile or so for a couple of hours twice a day. While sitting in this queue and listening to my podcasts, I typically use such time to reflect and enjoy the natural environment in which I’m temporarily stuck, and that includes observing the antics of the cars in front and behind (in my mirror).

On Thursday I noticed the driver of the car behind had that distinctly fundagelical look about him: immaculate goatee and hair, short-sleeved buttoned shirt, oversized car, mirror shades, and gleaming teeth and plastic smile (I’ve been to the US and I’m from Australia, so I know the archetype). I saw his attention fix on my Atheist Bus Campaign sticker (available online):

Atheist Bus Campaign car sticker

He leaned forward to peer at the large text and said a few words, then lifted his sunglasses to read the smaller text and I watched as his face started to go purple and he began gesticulating and shouting to nobody, and I honestly thought that he was going to get out of his car and have a go at me. But for the traffic inching forward shortly after, he may well have done. That would have been interesting.

Last night I watched a show on Channel 4 called Revelations: Muslim School, part 2 of an 8 part series on religion’s impact on the UK, covering the lives of two young schoolgirls in a Muslim faith school. Knowing most of my friends are unaware of what happens in a non-Christian faith school, I sent out a notification on Twitter. I recommend anyone watches it — particularly if you don’t know a great deal about “everyday Islam” in the UK, as it’s remarkably neutral for a British TV documentary, and I felt the children and people portrayed in the show were representative of British Muslims with its heavy Asian influence (post-colonial immigration, etc).

My tweet was noticed by a PhD student in Sheffield, Ruth, who invited me to participate in a post-screening discussion on a website forum. Aside from Ruth and me, those present seemed to consist of a fellow humanist, a non-practising (“default”) Christian, a man who began with “Open disclosure here: I’m a Southern Baptist, proud and true” (or along those lines), and one or two others who lurked. The 60-90 minutes that followed were quite interesting, and I was happy to participate to assist in PhD research, most of which involved answering questions about what we thought of the show, concepts within it, how it was presented, any perceptions of bias or preferences for or against its approach, how we’d like to see it done differently, etc.

What I found amusing was how the Baptist kept trying to steer to conversation into opinions on Muslims, reverting to familiar cultural and religious ad hominems. Invariably we’d ignore the attempt and continue with the conversation, but he persisted for the better part of an hour. He did contribute to the discussion occasionally, but seemed more intent on getting everyone to agree with his opinions on things like the hijab: to him it was extremism — until I reminded him that mainstream Christianity required female head-covering in church until quite recently.

However, in some ways he’s right. The furore over wearing hijab is indicative of a dangerous fundamentalism in Islam, where strict adherence to the letter of the Book is of paramount importance. But he wouldn’t have been able to see that this is essentially no different to dangerous Christian fundamentalism, with some sects becoming ultra-patriarchal, women not speaking in church (1 Corinthians 14:34-35) or covering heads (1 Corinthians 11), or wars and foreign policy decisions when such people become national leaders, etc. Both lead to literal interpretations and cherry-picking of the worst parts of their respective Books, and actively discourage inquiry, investigation and understanding, and advocating Bronze Age knowledge and practises in favour of current knowledge. And in the case of those two religions in particular, they’re replete with awful, violent acts.

For the rest of us, we may not all have agreed with each others’ opinions, but we were able to play together nicely. And that’s what makes for great discussion and debate: differing opinion and the maturity to respect another’s position.

Both of these recent events reminded me of Bertrand Russell’s essay An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish, and this paragraph from it in particular (emphasis mine):

If, like most of mankind, you have passionate convictions on many such matters, there are ways in which you can make yourself aware of your own bias. If an opinion contrary to your own makes you angry, that is a sign that you are subconsciously aware of having no good reason for thinking as you do. If some one maintains that two and two are five, or that Iceland is on the equator, you feel pity rather than anger, unless you know so little of arithmetic or geography that his opinion shakes your own contrary conviction. The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way. Persecution is used in theology, not in arithmetic, because in arithmetic there is knowledge, but in theology there is only opinion. So whenever you find yourself getting angry about a difference of opinion, be on your guard; you will probably find, on examination, that your belief is going beyond what the evidence warrants.

Lastly, one of my company’s salespeople is a Pakistani-British Muslim who, despite being raised Muslim, has chosen to live pragmatically. He may go to mosque some Fridays for Jumu’ah, but all other aspects of at least his professional life are almost indistinguishable from any secular person (I’m not sure if he drinks alcohol or eats pork, nor is it any of my business): he doesn’t let his religion interfere with what he’s paid to do. For that he has my respect.

That’s why it surprised me this morning when he walked into the office and asked if the Peugeot in the carpark was mine, and then commented on the Atheist Bus Campaign sticker. I was pleased that he was able to joke about it, laughing how he’d “never be able to get away with that at the mosque on Fridays” and was non-confrontational about it despite much of the anti-atheist publicity and rhetoric that has flowed from self-appointed “religious authorities” since the Campaign started.

Only one of my fellow team members seems to dislike my take on religion, but then he’s the one who thinks life on earth was deliberately seeded by aliens as an experiment. So I’m crushed by his disfavour, as you might well imagine…

Equatorial delight

3 July 2009 Comments off

After looking again through the boxes that my new tripod/mount came in, I stupidly realised that I actually had all the parts. That tricky foam packing with its little nooks and crannies!

So naturally I put the whole thing together and stood back to admire it sturdy heftiness, before remembering that I had a Baader solar filter I still hadn’t tried and astronomical sunset doesn’t occur until almost 21:30 local. Seemed like a good opportunity for a twofer, so I attached my 5″ OTA for the first time and took the it outside onto the front porch, where the sun was still well above my local horizon.

Attaching the solar filter was easy. It slid over the end where the dust cap goes, preventing unfiltered sunlight from entering the OTA, and fastens with 3 grub screws to ensure it doesn’t come loose. After I had done this I looked into the eyepiece socket (without an eyepiece) and pointed the scope at the sun until the view became brilliant, then attached the 25mm wide angle eyepiece and was rewarded with a lovely off-white image of the entire sun in the field of view. I tried the other eyepieces, though didn’t bother with the 2X Barlow, and used the fine-adjustment RA/Dec knobs on the mount to scan the edge and surface of the sun. Never look at the sun directly.

Unfortunately, the surface of the sun wasn’t particularly interesting because:

  • We’re in the sun’s 11 year solar minima cycle — and this cycle is particularly deep and quiescent — so there aren’t many sunspots to be seen.
  • Correspondingly, there isn’t a great deal of solar flare activity to be seen. Which is good news for the astronauts in low earth orbit.
  • The wavelengths of light seen via a solar filter provide a white image with little contrast. This can be addressed with an appropriate filter… that I don’t currently have.

What I did see was the sun up close and safely (that in itself is noteworthy) and I did see its boiling surface, particularly at the edge. Some of it would have been due to earth’s atmosphere, but there was enough there to make it enjoyable.

So the next immediate challenges are to learn how to use the equatorial mount correctly (despite inheriting an inexpensive one when I was a teenager, I never learned how to set it up properly), including the formidable setting circles, and to make the most of the plentiful summer sunlight by getting a filter that will enable more detail to be seen.

This is fun!

Categories: science Tags:

A new tripod for a world of difference

2 July 2009 Comments off

Celestron CG5 Mount

Posts have been few and far between lately due to being extremely busy with study (adult university distance courses take up a lot of time!), work and other things.

Over the weekend I managed to win an eBay auction for a telescope mount and tripod that I realised I’ve needed for some time: a Celestron CG5 equatorial mount on a “bomb-proof” tripod. It’s essentially what you see to the left, but without the computer and automatic tracking motor.

This became necessary because the motorised mount that came with my telescope is clearly not up to the task of reliably tracking objects — even after deciphering the instructions, carefully levelling the mount base and zeroing the unit, the drift is quite noticeable and requires regular, fiddly adjustment — and astrophotography requires either a fully-computerised AltAz mount that can track an object with pinpoint accuracy, or any level of equatorial mount. Trying to finely-adjust a motor-controlled AltAz mount to track an object is like using an Etch-A-Sketch: bearable for visual viewing, but astrophotography is out of the question. Even a cheap equatorial can track an object easily, providing the gears don’t have too much play in them and the unit is correctly configured.

A barn door mount for a camera would have done the trick, too, but I want to reap the benefits of an equatorial mount via the telescope’s eyepiece, too.

So today I have taken delivery of what appears to be 2/3 of the new mount and tripod assembly, with the joys of eBay meaning multiple packages. It’s definitely a solid, sturdy unit and I can see why the seller stated the need for something “lighter and more portable” — you wouldn’t want to carry this around to your local astronomy society’s evenings.

So once I’ve received all the parts and had a chance to test it out, I’ll post back with some pictures for your stargazing delight…

Categories: science Tags: