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“Why oh why didn’t I take the BLUE pill?”

January 3, 2011 Comments off

Flickr CC-BY ninjanoodles

Most of us are familiar with the scene in the fantastic 1999 film, The Matrix, where Cypher and Neo are chatting about their introduction to life outside the matrix via Morpheus’s offer of a choice between the red and blue pills. Cypher laments that he wished he’d taken the blue pill instead, making it clear he’d have preferred to be living a happy fantasy rather than risking everything by fighting against the machines.

One of the great things about Cypher’s character is that you can empathise with him. Nobody can blame him for wanting a simple, easy life — especially as he’s not The One. At that point in the film we all know that he’s just as likely to end up a smudge on the ground as make old bones.

I mention The Matrix because that’s how I’ve been feeling lately. And this is where I may lose you as a reader. Either way, so it goes

Over the last few weeks I’ve been consuming the works of two prolific writers and speakers, both world experts in their fields: Noam Chomsky and the late Howard Zinn. Chomsky (now 82) is regarded by many as “the Einstein” of his field of linguistics and cognition at MIT, though outside the classroom he talks almost exclusively about political science. Zinn was regarded similarly in his field of history at Boston University.

I first encountered Chomsky in the early 2000s via his book Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies [Amazon|UK], a collection of essays and papers focussing mainly on Central American politics and history over the last 40 years. It’s an astounding book that left me truly stunned, wondering about the rest of the world if even half it it was true. He provides full references and consistently avoids a simple answer to, “If the mainstream media is wrong, biased, controlled or corrupt, then where should we turn to get reliable information?” His answer is typically a variation of Ben Goldacre‘s, “I think it’s a bit more complicated than that.” There is no single source, type or medium of reliable, unbiased or uncorrupt information. You need to look at the mainstream, the margins, including sources you may dislike, and analyse what’s going on for yourself.

Damn. I’m going to have to think for myself. And that’s the point.

Zinn is a fairly recent discovery for me, though most people know him via his groundbreaking A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present [Amazon|UK], where he included the viewpoints of non-Europeans in the discovery and conquest of North America. I’ve not yet read it, but I understand that it’s a polarising work, and your reaction to it will depend upon whether or not you’re prepared to revise your views on official history. Interestingly, the FBI kept a large file on him, most notably due to his influence on Martin Luther King, Vietnam anti-war campaigning and the McCarthyist hysteria of the time.

And this is where I think many of Chomsky’s and Zinn’s detractors come from: many seem to regard them as un-American or even traitors. Both authors present alternative versions of recorded history, removing the infantile notion of good (us) versus evil (them), and add insult to that injury by presenting other reasons why such things did or are happening in the first place. It’s not as simple as the official version; it’s not even as simple as the counter-accusations or popular conspiracy theories. It’s a complex mix of power, greed, acquisition, control, domination, influence and coercion, and furthering of interests.

The use of past and present tense is deliberate — these things are still happening. Consider the endless stream of major and minor wars in the 20th and present century, the provision of “foreign aid” weapons and training to brutal and sadistic regimes, the quiet growth of internal enforcement agencies into international intelligence agencies (as has just happened with the DEA), the dismantling of union-protected workplaces that made our workers cheaper than those in some developing countries, and national elections of leaders whose candidates can be differentiated only by their party’s logo. To name a few.

Neither Chomsky nor Zinn pretend to be 100% certain about everything they say. Both admit they may be wrong, and are open to evidence-based correction. Nor should you take it from me as fact, an amateur hack who spends his spare time consuming non-mainstream information, wondering about the world and sharing the occasional thought here whenever I’m not playing computer games or socialising with friends. Use, refine and practise your analytical skills and skepticism to examine what these men say, compare it against what you see, know and/or suspect, read the papers and articles to which they refer, and then judge for yourself.

There is no universal truth, and I’m not declaring that this is it — but it makes you think. However, if you’re unwilling to have your perception of world history and current events challenged, you may want to choose the blue pill…

Here are some of Noam Chomsky’s works that you might want to look at:

  • An American Addiction [Amazon|UK]
  • Case Studies In Hypocrisy [Amazon|UK]
  • Class War: The Attack On Working People [Amazon|UK]
  • The Clinton Vision: Old Wine, New Bottles [Amazon|UK]
  • The Emerging Framework Of World Power [watch online]
  • For A Free Humanity [Amazon|UK]
  • Free Market Fantasies: Capitalism In The Real World [Amazon|UK]
  • The Imperial Presidency [Amazon|UK]
  • The New War On Terrorism: Fact And Fiction [Amazon|UK]
  • Propaganda And The Public Mind [Amazon|UK]
  • Prospects For Democracy [Amazon|UK]

Here are some of Howard Zinn’s works that you might want to look at:

(I haven’t read or seen all of these yet). Both have released many more works, but I think that will keep you busy for some time.

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Countdown to TAM London

October 15, 2010 Comments off

In about twenty minutes my taxi will arrive to take me to the train station, which with then whisk me into London for the start of TAM London 2010, taking place at the London Metropole Hotel.

To say I’m excited is a bit of an understatement. Last year saw the inaugural TAM London, the first ever Amaz!ng Meeting event to take place outside of the US. It was a resounding success and was attended by people from all around Europe from all walks of life — some of whom were household names. During that weekend I made a number of friends, most of whom I have been in regular contact with ever since. Many of us have subsequently joined or started skeptic groups in our own communities and have become more active in our fields of interest.

This year the event is taking place in a bigger venue, as there are far more people attending, and I’m looking forward to seeing those same friends again this weekend, making new ones, enjoying the talks and performances — particularly the world première of Tim Minchin‘s Storm movie — as well as the chance to chat with and get to know people during the breaks.

If you’re a skeptic, atheist, humanist, secularist, or scientist, then the opportunity to commune meaningfully with like-minded people is not to be underestimated.

After all, who said only the religious get to have a social life and sense of community?

Phil Plait says: Don’t Be a Dick

August 18, 2010 Comments off

There is a certain irony to this post, considering my previous post, but it’s worth my vaguely embarrassed shuffling feet.

As you may be aware, Dr Phil Plait is an astronomer, science blogger, author (most notably Bad Astronomy [Amazon|UK] and Death From The Skies! [Amazon|UK]), public speaker with magnificent on-screen/-stage presence, educator, and also skeptical activist and the former President of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). He’s also recently announced that he has a TV show called Bad Universe — the pilot airs on Sunday, 29 August 2010. Enough of the plugs…

During the recent The Amazing Meeting (TAM) 8 conference in Las Vegas, Phil gave a talk that generated quite a bit of controversy in the blogging world — including from a number of fellow skeptical activists. That itself is becoming increasingly more common, but what is entirely uncommon was the messages of Phil’s talk. You should watch it.

Phil Plait – Don’t Be A Dick (JREF)

You’d need to have been asleep to not have seen how deeply important that message was to Phil. I’d be hard-pressed to recall any speech I’ve seen or heard that is so deeply impassioned, compassionate and humanistic. Everything he says is correct.

It truly is far too easy to mock the viewpoints of those with whom we disagree, to score cheap points, to shout the doctrines or proofs of our own position over others, to be abusive and insulting, to treat others as sub-human or idiots. You may say (as some of the talk’s detractors do) that this is justified in light of what they or those they identify with have done, but the fact remains that if you’re not behaving like a grown-up when discussing these topics, you’re deliberately expending time and effort showing others how smart you are while confirming both that skeptics are dicks and closing that mind to further discussion. I have better things to do with my time.

It’s impressed me deeply enough to see about how I can re-think my approach to the topics I write about. Stay tuned, sports fans.

Let’s begin teaching creationism as science!

July 3, 2010 Comments off

 

Okay, let’s not. Yet still I wait for the furiously-typed refutations to come: typed on keyboards attached to computers, powered by electricity from power plants transmitted from miles away via the Internet over telecommunications infrastructure, by people who managed to avoid the above tragedies, whether by medical advancement or due to vaccinations that provided herd immunity.

Hmm, there’s a theme in the italicised terms. I wonder what it could be? Wait, don’t tell me…

That’s it: SCIENCE! From the Latin word scientia, meaning ‘knowledge.’ (Not ‘anti-religion’ as much church-/temple-/mosque-/Murdoch-sourced propaganda would have you believe).

 

Hat tip: LOLgod

Stand up and be counted: it’s ‘A’ Week on Facebook!

March 28, 2010 Comments off

Many people who either cannot see evidence for the existence of gods or are convinced that gods do not exist (there’s a difference) keep to themselves and never speak of it, watching in bemusement as their loved ones structure their twenty-first century lives according to the words of pre-scientific Bronze Age nomads and shepherds.

Or perhaps they haven’t given much thought to their position on the supernatural — or are frightened for one reason or another — so when asked their beliefs, they’ll write or say the same thing as their family. In some cases this can be an act of self-preservation, as much of the world does not enjoy religious freedom (yet) and can be punished severely. However, for most in the West this normally revolves around our relationships with family, friends and colleagues.

Wherever you live, the unfortunate result of this passive acquiescence is that governments and organisations with a strong religious ideology are then able to claim that the percentage of religious believers is far higher than is actually true (this can be skewed further by families with a domineering religious parent, or parents who take their babies to be christened or equivalent). Religious Tolerance states that, as of 2000, one-third of the world’s population is Christian, 19.6% is Muslim, 13.4% is Hindu, 12.7% are non-religious, and has atheism at 2.5%. They state that non-religious includes those with “no formal, organized religion include agnostics, freethinkers, humanists, secularists, etc” but clearly consider atheists to be a separate category. I think this is misguided at best — I consider myself a Secular Humanist (i.e. humanist), which is very much an atheist world view. One could also say that non-theists (i.e. all those without religion) are 15.2% of the world population, and thus the third-largest group, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate, either.

So with all these statistical fun and games taking place from the school classroom to the highest seats of government power, isn’t it time we stood up to be counted?

Funny you should ask! Next week is the start of the ‘A’ Week on Facebook campaign (29 March to 6 April, 2010), hence the scarlet letter ‘A’ image at the top of this post. From the campaign’s front page:

Good without God? Imagine Facebook with ‘A’s all across the site showing the world is full of people who are ‘good without God‘ and don’t need religion to influence their lives. Imagine the awareness we can raise during ‘A’ Week On Facebook if 1,000s of people take part. Imagine… you can be a part of making a difference…

Details on how to go about joining this campaign can be found at its website:

‘A’ Week on Facebook

Simply follow the recommended steps, then you’re good to go!

In the past I’ve been reticent to connect myself with groups such as the Out Campaign, as I consider many of them to be too aggressive to otherwise normal people who just happen to believe in a sky fairy. However, in this case I think the value of a worldwide Facebook atheist awareness campaign outweighs any differences I may have. So those who know me on Facebook can see that my profile picture is now showing the scarlet letter in support of the campaign.

Perhaps this will put paid to the oft-quoted fallacy that atheists are a tiny but vocal minority.

I hope you’ll consider joining the campaign, and look forward to a week of increasing the general public’s awareness of atheists and atheism by showing that:

  • It’s okay to be atheist
  • It’s okay to let others know you’re atheist
  • We’re not all aggressive iconoclasts
  • We don’t hate everyone
  • We’re not all “angry at God” or “punishing God” for something
  • Not all of us reached this point after a traumatic event
  • Not all of us insist your unexplained events are hallucination or mental illness

For most of us, atheism is simply a logical process held up to the light and examined critically.

Creationism is… still a lie

March 7, 2010 Comments off

My love for the game of Portal is well documented along with my love for Still Alive, Jonathan Coulton‘s fantastic ending song to that game.

Now imagine my surprise and delight to discover that someone has taken Still Alive and turned it into a brilliant science education and anti-Creationism video:

Still a Lie (Portal, Still Alive parody)

How cool is that? It made me laugh, I can tell you. My congratulations to the mixer/masher from whose mind this sprung.

Fortunately, the video shouldn’t be taken down anytime soon, as JoCo releases his works under the Creative Commons BY-NC 3.0 licence (as stated on his downloads page).

There’s probably… an animated image

February 20, 2010 Comments off

More gold from the rather scary and creative mind of Crispian Jago. These things needed clearing up, after all!