It’s been a while, so I updated the Podcasts & Vodcasts page.
One of my personal heroes, and author of the mind-blowingly brilliant and easily understandable Bad Science, explains what exactly is the placebo effect:
If you are not familiar with Ben Goldacre and/or are interested in finding out more about his work, here are some good places to start:
- His book Bad Science [Amazon|UK].
- His website, blog and forum, also called Bad Science.
- Twitter: @bengoldacre
- His column in The Guardian newspaper
Ben is a magnificent communicator of science, health and logic-related concepts in a manner than can be understood by anyone, and he’s very active in the skeptical scene — including speaking at the inaugural TAM London last October and a recent appearance on Robert Llewellyn‘s often fascinating CarPool video podcast — though seems loathe to label himself as such. (Perhaps he’d prefer we consider that our realms of interest often coincide).
Hat tip to the always awesome PodBlack Cat.
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):
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…
I’d like to start this post with a welcome to those who have found me via The Global Atheist, and to pass my thanks to Doug for adding me to the aggregator. He seemed to find something interesting in my ramblings (and this is one of them), so I hope you do, too. Fingers crossed?
This weekend I attended the marriage of a friend and work colleague near the ancient and amazingly beautiful city of Bath, in south-western England. He is most definitely what many term a New Atheist and his lovely wife is most definitely an evangelical Christian. It makes for some interesting conversations and — as they are both mature, intelligent people — it will mean that they’re never stuck for conversation when a storm knocks out the power. It may also explain why the wedding took place at a beautiful old hotel in a picturesque rural setting, rather than in a church. I felt honoured to have been invited to the actual ceremony, rather than just the reception in the evening — though when invited, I did jokingly ask who had pulled out at the last minute…
Of course all the extended family were in attendance — many of whom were continental Europeans and antipodean, mostly from the bride’s side of the family — so many had at least crossed the Channel to get here, while others had crossed the equator. Parents, step-parents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles — the usual suspects. It made for a marvellously diverse experience with people from various walks of life all united for the common purpose of wishing the Bride and Groom the very best on their promises to each other and themselves. It was, of course, a beautiful day.
It was while sitting down to the post-wedding meal in the early afternoon that I struck up a conversation with a young couple to my left and an older man to my right and — as is probably natural at such occasions — the topic gradually turned to the greater meaning of the day’s ceremony and all three turned out to be remarkably naturalistic in their view of the event. The consensus between we four was that the underlying importance or motivation of the marriage ceremony is predominately to add some kind of “ultimate seal” to the event, to help the newly-obligated couple understand that they have made a promise to one another in the presence of their loved ones and that it’s not something to be taken lightly. I, like everyone else there, hope they have the maturity, flexibility and friendship to grow old together happily.
Later in the evening I was chatting with the same couple and we chatted more about secular world views, and they seemed interested in my views. We discussed the basics of secular humanism, secularism and the problem of religious privilege, soft/weak atheism and its contrast to strong/hard atheism (often characterised as intolerant of religion), the logical reasoning for admitting ignorance as opposed to declaring a position, and so on.
So it took me completely by surprise when he took out a notebook and asked me for a list of books that I’d recommend. After plenty of Guinness — and through the loud music and flashing lights filtering from the next room — this is what I came up with:
- The Demon Haunted World [Amazon|UK] by Carl Sagan. The man is my hero, what can I say? The book presents his genuinely compassionate view of supernaturalism and what it’s meant to mankind.
- Anything and everything else by Carl Sagan — including Contact [Amazon|UK] and especially the Cosmos [Amazon|UK] TV series. All his and Ann Druyan‘s works share the same compassionate, understanding view of the world.
- God is Not Great [Amazon|UK] by Christopher Hitchens. He may be one of the founders of New Atheism as one of The Four Horseman, hold political views that swing as wildly as a large grandfather clock, and get himself beaten up for insulting thugs on their own turf (and here), but the man is undoubtedly one of the best thinkers of our time. That all of his opinions don’t agree with your own is a good thing — I don’t want to read someone whose words I agree from start to finish, as there’s no critical thinking in that.
- The God Delusion [Amazon|UK] by Richard Dawkins. Many religious people consider this worse than Anton LaVey’s contentious work, The Satanic Bible, but I suspect that’s because the former uses provable facts to justify itself and makes absolutely no room for dogma.
- The Selfish Gene [Amazon|UK] by Richard Dawkins. It may be a little hard going on the majority of us who are “bioscience-challenged,” but it is a classic piece of work that helps illustrate how un-you you actually are. Helps put things into perspective when your ego wants to insist that You Are Special — and perhaps you are… just like everyone else.
- The Culture series of novels by Iain M. Banks — I started with Look to Windward [Amazon|UK]. I’m only a few books into the series, but I find it fascinating.
- 1984 [Amazon|UK] by George Orwell. I read this in the year it was set, at the age of 12, and it changed me forever.
- Watchmen [Amazon|UK] by Alan Moore. It shows that even bad people have redeeming qualities and good people have damning qualities, stripping the infantile false dichotomy of Good and Evil People. But of course without such flawed thinking we can’t possibly justify war and capital punishment, so it remains as valid today as ever before.
- 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God [Amazon|UK] by Guy P. Harrison. I’m reading this at the moment, and it’s brilliant.
- The websites of the following organisations:
- There are also the podcasts and vodcasts listed via the link at the top of the page.
Last but not least, have a read of the Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles:
- We are committed to the application of reason and science to the understanding of the universe and to the solving of human problems.
- We deplore efforts to denigrate human intelligence, to seek to explain the world in supernatural terms, and to look outside nature for salvation.
- We believe that scientific discovery and technology can contribute to the betterment of human life.
- We believe in an open and pluralistic society and that democracy is the best guarantee of protecting human rights from authoritarian elites and repressive majorities.
- We are committed to the principle of the separation of church and state.
- We cultivate the arts of negotiation and compromise as a means of resolving differences and achieving mutual understanding.
- We are concerned with securing justice and fairness in society and with eliminating discrimination and intolerance.
- We believe in supporting the disadvantaged and the handicapped so that they will be able to help themselves.
- We attempt to transcend divisive parochial loyalties based on race, religion, gender, nationality, creed, class, sexual orientation, or ethnicity, and strive to work together for the common good of humanity.
- We want to protect and enhance the earth, to preserve it for future generations, and to avoid inflicting needless suffering on other species.
- We believe in enjoying life here and now and in developing our creative talents to their fullest.
- We believe in the cultivation of moral excellence.
- We respect the right to privacy. Mature adults should be allowed to fulfill their aspirations, to express their sexual preferences, to exercise reproductive freedom, to have access to comprehensive and informed health-care, and to die with dignity.
- We believe in the common moral decencies: altruism, integrity, honesty, truthfulness, responsibility. Humanist ethics is amenable to critical, rational guidance. There are normative standards that we discover together. Moral principles are tested by their consequences.
- We are deeply concerned with the moral education of our children. We want to nourish reason and compassion.
- We are engaged by the arts no less than by the sciences.
- We are citizens of the universe and are excited by discoveries still to be made in the cosmos.
- We are skeptical of untested claims to knowledge, and we are open to novel ideas and seek new departures in our thinking.
- We affirm humanism as a realistic alternative to theologies of despair and ideologies of violence and as a source of rich personal significance and genuine satisfaction in the service to others.
- We believe in optimism rather than pessimism, hope rather than despair, learning in the place of dogma, truth instead of ignorance, joy rather than guilt or sin, tolerance in the place of fear, love instead of hatred, compassion over selfishness, beauty instead of ugliness, and reason rather than blind faith or irrationality.
- We believe in the fullest realization of the best and noblest that we are capable of as human beings.
I expect some atheists — and of course theists and deists who find their way here — will disagree with what I’ve said, both in this post and previous ones (please feel free to read through the archive), but I cannot reconcile the concept of belief, or even emphatic or ardent disbelief, with logical reality. While at university some of my peers jokingly nicknamed me Data — the android from Star Trek: The Next Generation — and I then (as now) considered it a sideways compliment, as the character was all about logic and intellectual honesty, and that series of Star Trek was the poster-child of and introduction to the concepts of humanism for millions of people. Sure, I have countless flaws in every aspect of my life, but I try to improve this blink of existence called my life and to help others (and nature) where I can. And I think that’s all any of us can really do.
But I do what I do for humanity, not to try to earn a place in an afterlife. That is, I think, what humanism is all about.
My daily commute is about 50 minutes each way – giving me over 8 hours of listening time each week – so rather than listen to the same music each day or listen to one-eyed opinion radio, I prefer to listen to podcasts on topics that interest me.
As I often get asked what podcasts/vodcasts* I subscribe to, I thought I’d provide my current list — last updated 16 April 2009:
Podcasts (audio only):
- 4 Feet Running: Friends in Fo Rivva (*ahem*), who podcast their runs together.
- Archaeology Channel
- Astronomy Cast: I love astronomy and, well, Pamela’s voice… ’nuff said.
- The Atheist Experience: Cable access show by the ACA in Austin, Texas. (New).
- Binge Thinking History
- Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History
- Dr Karl’s Science on Mornings: Dr Karl covers great “citizen science” topics.
- Freelance Radio: Self employment tips.
- Geologic: The maestro and comedian, George Hrab, speaks! (New).
- Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing
- The History Network (Military)
- Humanist Network News: Occasional humanism news.
- I Should Be Writing: Writing tips, etc.
- Inside Oxford Science: Feeds the knowledge monster.
- The Jodcast: Jodrell Bank Observatory’s own podcast.
- Naked Archaeology
- Naked Scientists: Feeds the knowledge monster.
- New Humanist: Another infrequent podcast, but normally worth it.
- The Non-Prophets: Atheist radio show by loud, opinionated people. Reminds me of home!
- Podrunner: Contiguous running music – each episode has a set BPM.
- Point of Inquiry
- Reasonable Doubts
- The Skeptic Zone: Australian podcast for science and reason.
- Skepticality: Official podcast of Skeptic Magazine.
- Skeptics’ Guide 5X5: 5 minutes on a skeptical topic.
- Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: A frankly brilliant skeptical podcast.
- Skeptoid: Covers a skeptical topic each episode.
- Slacker Astronomy
- Survival Guide to Writing Fantasy
- Thinking Allowed: Interesting topics discussed and analysed.
- World Archaeology News
- Writing Excuses: Fantastic show by SF&F authors on how they approach their work.
- The Writing Show
Vodcasts (video or combined):
- After the Flag: The official MotoGP summary show.
- BBC Sky at Night Magazine
- Diggnation: The week’s top Digg articles.
- Drawing Tutorials Online
- J.C. Hutchins: One of my two favourite podcast authors.
- Scott Sigler: The other of my two favourite podcast authors.
- Tiki Bar TV: Occasional bizarre but clever cocktail recipe show.
The list above changes periodically as I discover new shows or existing shows turn out to be low quality, irrelevant to my interests or just simply go to that podcast site in the sky. ;)
I also listen to/watch a number of others at work, but these are my main subscriptions.
So what interesting podcasts do you listen to?
* If you’ve been living under a rock, a podcast is a periodic MP3 ‘show’ and a vodcast is a periodic video ‘show’ – both usually via an RSS feed, and obained via visiting the show’s website, an RSS reader or using podcatcher software such as iTunes.