Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Evolution and the origin of life

The whole concept of "evolution" is as plastic as you want it to be. Or as rigid.

Darwinists will say, "You have to be stupid not to believe in evolution." This is naturally intimidating to the general population, who understand evolution to mean, "How we got from nothing to humanity, including abiogenesis."

But then, if you ask a darwinist specifically about abiogenesis, they will say, "Of course not! Evolution is about how life develops having appeared, not how it appeared in the first place." This is just a semantic game - it is a means of using the ignorance of the hearer to win an argument without having to engage in any messy science.

So if somebody says to you, "Only fools don't believe in evolution," ask them right back whether evolution includes abiogenesis. If they say "Yes", then their first statement is wrong, because plenty of evolutionists don't believe that it explains abiogenesis. If they say "No", then tell them that you would be happier to accept what they said about evolution if they could explain abiogenesis.

It also turns out that the evidence for traditional macroevolution by random mutation and natural selection is also not the most convincing. Most phyla spring into the fossil record fully formed, with no apparent antecedents. Some species remain apparently unchanged for tens or hundreds of millions of years. Most phyla spring back out of the fossil record again shortly after they appear.

The only area of evolution where we have good evidence for evolution is microevolution - as was pointed out on Pharyngula a while ago, the first farmer who bred crops or cattle for particular traits believed in microevolution. So you're right - you'd have to be a fool not to believe in evolution. But the implication of that statement - that evolution explains everything, or even for that matter anything significant - is far from the case.

This is where the plastic bit comes in. Because I'm sure that there will be a crowd of darwinists who will now tell me that of course this isn't what they meant, and it is just that they are being misrepresented or misunderstood.


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Lakeshore in Snowdonia

... under Y Garn Posted by Picasa

Perhaps authors should be judges

I used to read a fair amount of science fiction - if you Google my real name, you may even find a reference to a short review of a book by Robert Heinlein I wrote for an SF magazine in the dim and distant past. One of the last SF authors I came across was Orson Scott Card. I only read two of his books - "Ender's Game" and "Speaker for the Dead". At the time, I thought they were pretty good - particularly the second one. I didn't read any other of his books - and on the basis of reviews that there are around, perhaps that was for the best ....

By the way, if you think that science fiction is stuff like Star Wars, then you need to read more. Star Wars and similar tend to be referred to by "true fans" as "Skiffy" - a distortion of the media label "sci fi", which is never used in polite conversation by people who know what they are talking about. Think more "Minority Report", "Bladerunner", "The Matrix".

I read them again last year, and they were mind-blowing. The first thing that amazed me was the theological depth of the characters - not just that Scott Card understood Christian theology, but understood nuances of different branches of it, and the tensions between them. Then there was his prescience of various aspects of technology. It would be fair to say that my "Exiled from GROGGS" handle and much of the content of this blog has been influenced by "Demosthenes" and "Locke", who set out to change the world through "the nets" in Ender's Game. Then there's the viciousness that children are capable of, the philosophical implications of alien species (which are, in a very un-skiffy way, not humanoid and not at all easy to communicate with).

Aaaanyway, the reason for the plug of his books today is that I just came across an essay that he published earlier in January. As with Scott Adams, he has been able to see through the anti-ID bluster from darwinists to the heart of the debate. He is not a creationist - indeed, he has little time for creationism - neither is he likely to make speeches defending ID. But he understands the scientific challenge that ID represents, and also sees quite clearly that the responses thus far from the anti-ID community don't constitute a scientific refutation. In this essay he demonstrates a greater understanding - and a greater humility - than Judge Jones showed in his judgement in the Dover vs Kitzmiller trial. He also proposes an educational agenda which is far more sensible than almost any that have grown out of the American public school system so far.

Hat tip to Panda's Thumb for the heads-up. I wasn't in the least interested in their commentary, though - I've heard it all before, and it's claptrap.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Response to a commenter

Thanks to all who comment. Please pin your flag on my Frappr map if you get time. This is a response to a response to my post on the Horizon programme. There wasn't really room on Haloscan to put this there, so it has a post of its own!
The first is that [irreducible complexity] is not a positive test of design, it is a negative test for evolution. Even supposing for a second that irreducible complexity could be 'proven' (which it hasn't been) then it still would not be a positive proof for design, only a negative proof against evolution.
Okay, then. Let’s accept the truth of your statement, for the sake of argument. Where is this leading? If you are saying that irreducible complexity disproves evolution (which I would understand to be shorthand for random mutation and natural selection), then what is the alternative? Suppose we can disprove evolution. What do you think are the alternatives? It looks to me as though you are objecting to somebody arguing that the refutation of an ateleological position implies a teleology. To me that is simple logic – it is inherent in the meaning of the words. But if you think otherwise, then what do you see as the alternative?
The fact that Behe and Dembski seem to think that irreducible complexity is a sign of design is based on a logically flawed assumption that anything that is not currently and convincingly explained by evolution is therefore design. This is not correct.
What is not correct is your understanding of irreducible complexity – would I be right in saying that you haven’t actually read anything by the proponents of ID, and have only read the misrepresentations by its opponents? You apparently seem to think that irreducible complexity is a kind of “God of the gaps” theory - “We don’t know how it works, so God must have done it.” IC is not that - “God of the details” would be a better characterisation. A system is IC if it consists of multiple components, all of which have to be present for the system to work. An extension of this which kind of flows out of the consideration of the theory is that the significant thing is that the components are also well specified. For example, you could argue that a protein is IC because it consists of a chain of amino acids, many of which are required for it to function. But what is more significant is that the individual components of an IC system should themselves be complex and specified. This is how what Dembski wrote ties into what Behe wrote.

So the point is that the components are low probability – they aren’t likely to arise by chance. The likelihood of multiple components being present by chance (Behe) is lower than the universal probability bound (Dembski). Therefore chance is not a reasonable explanation.

This isn’t just my spin on it, by the way – the people who designed the Avida program (for example – see the paper linked in the sidebar of the blog) are no friends of ID, and they understand the argument. Which was why they wrote a paper which celebrated the fact that Avida was able to produce “irreducibly complex” systems – functions which required multiple components to be present before the system expressed itself. Unfortunately, what they failed to demonstrate was that biochemical systems were as simple as the artificial organisms they generated within Avida.
There is another extremely important option which has been left out by the ID proponents and which covers a vast amount of ground - the "We don't know" option (or as I prefer, the "We don't know YET" option).
You are right. It is possible that synthetic pathways will arise which will allow us to understand the precursors of what we now regard as IC systems – they can only be provisionally tagged as IC. In fact, not only does Behe acknowledge that possibility, there is an implicit challenge in his book to people to come up with step-by-step processes that would allow an IC system to arise. It doesn’t have to be the “right” one – obviously over billions of years, we can’t know what the actual right one is. But it does have to be one that works. In the context of the bacterial flagellum, for example, this would involve going further than simply saying, “Well, the TTSS is an obvious precursor” (see below).
I have not yet seen any positive proof of irreducible complexity, I have only seen "known mechanisms of evolution couldn't have done that" - which even if it were true (and it isn't) doesn't prove design.
Actually, as far as I know, there are no known mechanisms of evolution that produce any large scale changes in organisms at any level. The best we have at the moment is the evolution of things such as antifreeze glycoproteins in fish, and minor morphological changes in organisms. Perhaps if you know of known mechanisms of evolution that can do anything evolutionarily useful at all, you could share them with the rest of the world, which is still waiting.
The other major problem with irreducible complexity is that by its very definition it excludes some of the possible ways it could occur.

A quote that I agree with:

Although Professor Behe is adamant in his definition of irreducible complexity when he says a precursor “missing a part is by definition nonfunctional,” what he obviously means is that it will not function in the same way the system functions when all the parts are present. For example in the case of the bacterial flagellum, removal of a part may prevent it from acting as a rotary
motor. However, Professor Behe excludes, by definition, the possibility that a precursor to the bacterial flagellum functioned not as a rotary motor, but in some other way, for example as a secretory system.

This is a huge problem for Behe's irreducibly complexity. If one takes into account not just the possible rotary motor precursors to a bacterial flagellum, but other precursors that had different functions, then you can see that irreducible complexity does not stand up.

By excluding a possible path to reaching irreducible complexity, Behe has rendered it scientifically meaningless.
Actually, you are wrong. Again, you are presenting the typical arguments of opponents of ID. Behe hasn’t excluded “by definition” anything at all. What you are talking about (feel free to contradict me if I am wrong) is the argument that the Type III Secretory System is a precursor to the bacterial flagellum. This paper has already demonstrated the flaws in this hypothesis. To the best of my knowledge, there is no other hypothesis. Which is strange, really - “Darwin’s Black Box” was published about 10 years ago, and it would do a lot for the credibility of darwinist groups if they were able to land one knockout punch against it. But they haven’t. The motive is there. The weapon is there – a whole group of publications who would love to discredit proponents of ID. The opportunity is there. Yet there has been no crime. Doesn’t this tell you something about the real scientific standing of darwinism?
You say that irreducible complexity has not been refuted and I'm afraid you are wrong. It has. And emphatically so. Would you like me to deal with the rest of your 'evidence' as well?
If it has, then I haven’t come across the refutation, and nothing in your comment comes close to a refutation. I spent years looking for refutations of Behe before I became convinced that he had made a case that needed to be answered. Nothing I have seen since has come close to answering it. However, if you would like to “deal with” the rest of the case for ID, go ahead. There are many evolutionist groups who will bless you if you succeed – and if it looks like you can make a good case, I’m sure they’ll send money your way to help with your research as well.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Dr. Seuss, evolutionary biologist

On a world near the sun live two brothers called Vrooms
Who, strangely enough, are built sort of like brooms
And they're stuck all alone up there high in the blue
And so, to kill time, just for something to do
Each one of these fellows takes turn with the other
In sweeping the dust off his world with his brother.

(On Beyond Zebra)
It is conclusive proof of evolution that this planet should apparently just have the one ecological niche, which occupied by species so well adapted in a synergistic relationship. The existence of only one brother would show poor adaption to the environment, since the two brothers have a mutual parasitic dependency on one another which allows them to exercise their designoid function.
(Behavioural adaptation)

Two Biffer-Baum Birds are now building their nest.
They do it each night. And quite often I wonder
How they do this big job without making a blunder.
But that is their problem.
Not yours. And not mine.
The point is: They're going to bed.
And that's fine.

(Dr Seuss's Sleep Book)
As always, the evolution of behaviour represents a challenge to the darwinian model. Dr Seuss shows little tolerance towards the expression of doubt in this area - he has no doubt that there is an evolutionary explanation, even if we don't know what it is.
FLOOB is for Floob-Boober-Bab-Boober-Bubs
Who bounce in the water like blubbery tubs,
They're no good to eat.
You can't cook 'em like steaks.
But they're handy in crossing small oceans and lakes

(On Beyond Zebra)
Floob-Boober-Bab-Boober-Bubs have evidently developed an evolutionary strategy that reduces predation, by virtue of the fact that they aren't palatable. However, their utility as a means for other species to cross small oceans and lakes has ensured their continued presence in the ecosphere despite the lack of obvious role within the food chain.

Norman Kember

A new video has been released by the captors of Norman Kember. Don't forget about him, and the other hostages. His family can't.

He was there on behalf of Christian Peacemaker Teams - more detail here. This organisation has nothing to do with the British and US forces - as has been made clear by all sorts of organisations - both Christian and Muslim - who have made representations to groups who might be able to influence the kidnappers. The question is whether the kidnappers are prepared to listen to reason and show compassion - what threat can a 74-year old grandfather really pose to them? - or whether they simply want to appal the rest of the world with acts of callous violence.

Liz has been following this with concern because Norman Kember was one of the lecturers who gave her the opportunity to do an MSc in Medical Physics. It's not often that people who become famous are also people that have had a direct influence in your own life.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Review of BBC "Horizon"

So there we have it – Horizon’s attempt to unravel the Intelligent Design debate.

They didn’t do a bad job, as far as mainstream media go, although they plumped heavily down on the side of the majority opinion in the end. William Dembski, Michael Behe, Steven Meyer and Phil Johnson at least had the opportunity to express their ideas fairly clearly, although they didn’t apparently get the chance to respond to the “refutations” that Kenneth Miller was able to present in the Dover trial and also on the programme. It was also made pretty clear that the analysis of ID proponents, unlike that of creationists, was based on scientific research and analysis, not on scripture, and this fact alone undermined about half the case made against ID in the programme.

Of the three people speaking against ID, Miller (the American one!!) was clearly the most on top of the debate. Richard Dawkins made himself look stupid by saying nothing scientific at all – he is still holding the line that you can win a debate by not arguing (or rather, arguing against straw men, as he did in his own recent showcase programme). And David Attenborough showed his ignorance of the debate by failing to recognise that proponents of ID have little scientific interest in what the Bible says. He also failed to grasp the difference between being able to detect evidence for design (which is what ID proponents say they are doing) – which is a legitimate pursuit in many fields of science – and coming to a conclusion about the means of design. In fact, if it wasn’t for the fact that a pro-evolution programme in the UK pretty much has to have Dawkins and Attenborough, since they are pretty much icons of evolution themselves, the programme makers would have been better leaving their contributions on the editing room floor – they added little to the debate beyond showing that they were out of touch with the issues. Unfortunately, due to the power of television, most viewers will now inevitably think that Dawkins and Attenborough are personally involved in mortal combat with proponents of ID. If only.

The programme used the development of the Dover, PA trial as the framework for the programme. It was well structured, and the issues at stake in the trial were made generally clear. It also managed to avoid some of the mischaracterisations and clichés of the “religion versus science” debate – though it still argued that this was the fundamental dynamic of the debate. It is being made into that by those people opposing ID – but it is a matter of great frustration to people who wish ID to have a hearing that as soon as it is raised, all the anti-ID community put their fingers in their ears and say, “La, la, la. Religion! Religion! I can’t hear you! Religion. La, la, la.”

It certainly looks as though the motivation of the Christian majority of the school board (who had incidentally, for those still trembling in fear of the sweeping to power of a theocracy, been voted out of office by the time of the judgement – a point not made by the programme) had been religious. However, it suggested the change in board policy was more far reaching than it had been – the board were trying to “introduce” a textbook, and to give it “special consideration”, we were told – my understanding is that what the board were trying to do was to have mentioned in class that a book which presented an alternative perspective was in the library.

There were some choice quotes, which were delivered without a hint of apparent irony. For example, David Attenborough said something along the lines of: “The notion that we are masters of our destiny they [i.e. Theists] find abhorrent.” Well, Mr Attenborough, you might like to consider to what extent you are master of your destiny if you believe that you are a gene machine. Do you think that a universe without God can actually care about an entity that calls itself David Attenborough? The very idea of “destiny” - like the idea of “evil” - is borrowed from a universe which is alien to that of neo-darwinism.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Television reviews

The number of times in - well, in memory - that there have been three things that have caught my attention sufficiently on television in one week is zero. This isn't to be mistaken from the: "Well, I'm doing the ironing anyway, so what is there to watch?" syndrome. However, this week is an example.

The Horizon programme on Intelligent Design I have plugged already. I have also hinted about the "Life on Mars" series, which has captured my attention - just what is John Simm's character doing back in the 70's, and how is he going to get back to the present again? - in conjunction with individual episodes that explore the "wrong" and "right" way to go about doing things, as well as social values from the '70's - boy, I'm so glad that it's 30 years ago now! I suspect that he is "changing the past", and this will have an impact on the situation that he was facing in the "present" ("Ah, the old 'assassinating your grandparent' trick!"). But we'll see.

Last night, the BBC offered a programme called (I think) "Facing Disaster". This featured Adrian Edmonson (sometime anarchic comedian) in a very grown-up role as a Russian scientist, investigating the Chernobyl disaster in a drama-documentary reconstruction. It was very well put-together, and although it pointed out the soviet culture of secrecy that had such an awful impact as the disaster unfolded, it also pointed out the straightforward willingness of soviet soldiers and workers to lay down their lives in the most awful circumstances to do what they could to stand in the way of the disaster.

The reconstruction was harrowing - from the first engineers who went to look for the reactor and came back, to the horror of other people in the control room, with radiation burns on their faces. Both Liz and I have science backgrounds; Liz works with radiation - so we got the significance of just about everything that was said and happened. An excellent programme.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Surreal Joke

Q: What do you call a dog that sounds suspiciously like a bird?
A: A tweeter.

Monday, January 23, 2006


I was aware of the fact that the "big" hurricane had tracked North roughly up Highway 49 in Mississippi - which was where I spent most of the summer of 1986, at Strong River Camp and Farm, working in the kitchen. I kept meaning to write a short post like this, as one of the small proportion of British people who has ever travelled on Hwy #49.

The owner and camp director at Strong River, Tay Gillespie, was keen to bring European workers to the camp, at least in part to expose American children to people from a greater variety of cultures. Her keenness to open people's eyes also extended to her employees. Beyond the "call of duty", she also got the staff to visit other friends of hers, in their rather splendid houses, and also paid for us to stay over Saturday night in Biloxi and New Orleans. In New Orleans, we took advantage of the (then) lower age at which people could drink, and had Hurricanes in Pat O'Briens (well, I didn't), listened to jazz being played everywhere, went round in groups to avoid being mugged, and had coffee and beignets on a beautiful blue Sunday morning. Katrina has left its mark on almost every place we visited that summer.

Tay has continued to influence me. "Happiness is a path, not a destination" I first heard on her lips. And I first learnt how special it could be to spend time with children (yes, even rich, American children) at the camp - perhaps my younger siblings were just too close to me for me to have learnt this at home.

It was only some time afterwards that I realised how few people who did Camp America got out of the "home counties" of New York State and Pennsylvania.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Why Jedi is a bad religion

(or, How to lose friends and influence people)!

From Star Wars Episode 3:
Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them, do not. Miss them, do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed that is. Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.
Yoda (of course)
In other words, the things that make us human are the very things you need to deny the reality of - love, grief, relationships.

Christianity says that death isn't natural. It has more in common with the profoundly human words of Dylan Thomas:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Christianity says that death isn't the destiny of nature - one day everything will be remade imperishable. It says that we are able to love because God first loved us. The context of this is in relationships between God's people - but in actual fact, Francis Schaeffer argues that the reason relationships are possible at all is because they reflect the nature of our creator. There may be evolutionary explanations of such things, but that's because evolution can "explain" everything - and thus, explains nothing.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Four things

From Jon.

Four Jobs I Have Had:

Washing up in airport restaurant
Working at Strong River Camp in Pinola, Mississippi
Working on tidal modelling software with Posford Duvivier
Working on flight simulator software with Rediffusion

Four Movies I Could Watch Over and Over:

The Lord of the Rings
Minority Report
Annie Hall
The Emperor’s New Groove

Four Books I Could Read Over and Over:

Swallows and Amazons books
Charlie and Lola books
Winnie the Pooh books
Francis A. Schaeffer Trilogy (The God who is There, He is There and He is not Silent, Escape from Reason)

Four Places I Have Lived:

Northolt, UK
Haywards Heath, UK
Cambridge, UK
Caterham, UK

Four TV Shows I Watch:

Well, I don’t, really. I suppose I’ve watched an episode of ...
Life on Mars, which looks quite good. I’ll watch ...
Equinox and ...
Horizon if they are on.
University Challenge, if I have nothing else to do.

Four Places I Have Been On Vacation (thus displaying the American origins of this tag game:

Northeast Italy
The Lake District
Florianópolis, Brazil
Toronto, Canada

Four Websites I Visit Daily (just about):

http://www.careyfamily.co.uk (have to – I’m the administrator)

Four Favourite Foods:

Roast dinner
Simnel cake
Nepali food

Four Places I’d Like To Be Right Now:

Happiness is a path, not a destination.
But ...
The Lake District

Four people to tag:


Last time was hardly a resounding success. So if you read this, and wish to consider yourself tagged, post a comment to that effect!!

Thursday, January 19, 2006

BBC "Horizon" on Intelligent Design

Trailed very briefly this evening was the BBC Horizon program for next Thursday evening, which will be looking at the Intelligent Design controversy. They showed the standard footage of scientists looking casual - the scientists being William Dembski and Michael Behe - and said not much more than to give the subject matter for the programme.

For those who don't know, "Horizon" (BBC) and "Equinox" (Channel 4) are flagship science documentaries, and they aren't afraid to explore controversial areas. A large proportion of other science/nature output is strongly darwinist in perspective - most evenings on British terrestrial TV, at least one programme will make a point of reminding you of how some animal turned into some other animal to deal with some aspect of its environment. It will be interesting to see whether "Horizon" will allow Dembski and Behe to make their case. "New Scientist" didn't.

Horizon is on BBC2 at 9pm next Thursday evening.

NCSE Survey: significant level of ID dissent

The NCSE - their mission "defending the teaching of evolution in public schools" - has a survey that dates back to October 2002, of professors in Ohio. Obviously, given their mission, they present their conclusions as:
science professors in Ohio indicate that the concept of “intelligent design” is viewed by the vast majority of scientists and a clear majority of the public as basically a religious explanation of human origins
What interested me in this survey, though, was the level of dissent. Take the statement:
The concept of “Intelligent Design” is that life and the universe are too complex to have developed without the intervention of a purposeful being or force to guide the development of life. Which of the following do you think best describes “Intelligent Design”?
1. It is strongly supported by scientific evidence -- 2%
2. It is partly supported by scientific evidence -- 5
3. It is not supported at all by scientific evidence -- 90
4. Not Sure -- 3
The focus is inevitably on the 90% result. But notice that between 2 and 10% of university science professors in Ohio, then, believe that the ID position may be supported by scientific evidence. That's between 9 and 46 professors, based on the sample size. And this was before the relatively high profile that ID has had in the last eighteen months or so. On the other hand, it was also before the start of the Inquisition in universities.

Or there's the question:
Do you think the concept of “Intelligent Design” is primarily a religious view?
1. Yes -- 91%
2. No -- 5
3. Not Sure -- 4
That's up to 40 university professors of science out of 460 who don't believe that ID is primarily religious.

One question that intrigued me was:
Do you think Ohio high school students should be tested on their knowledge of the concept of “Intelligent Design” in order to graduate?
1. Yes -- 6%
2. No -- 90
3. Not Sure -- 4
Now, I have an ID perspective - that is, I think the evidence is that intelligent input is required in biological and other systems. But I certainly wouldn't expect science undergraduates to be tested on it - at least in part because the density of people who would be able to present what ID is about is so small. So, although I want people to know what ID means and so on, I wouldn't expect undergraduates, let alone high school students, to be tested on ID. However, it would be good if they at least knew that up to 10% of science professors think that there is an alternative to a straight-up darwinian explanation of life.

One more.
Do you use the concept of Intelligent Design in your research?
1. Yes -- 2%
2. No -- 97
Not Sure -- 1
An "overwhelming" number. But so what? They didn't ask the obvious next question - "Do you use the concept of evolution as an explanation of how all life has appeared in your research?" Because most scientists carry out their science with no reference to this. Even most biologists. I don't have the figures to hand, but I bet the proportion of papers - of all scientific disciplines, remember - that make reference to evolution as an explanation of life is small. Here's a strawpoll - let me just check the headlines I've had fed from ScienceDaily. 24 headlines downloaded - 1 relating to evolution - an underwhelming 4%.

It doesn't surprise me that I haven't heard about this before. NCSE can hardly have been encouraged by the fact that even within the scientific heartland, there is a measurable proportion of people who aren't convinced by all the darwinist propaganda.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

More hits

I notice from my sitemeter that somebody from Iraq ended up at my blogsite. This is just a quick reminder of the Frappr button over on the right - I'd love to know who you are and where you are visiting from - even if it's just from over the road. It asks for your name, email address and location - but I'm pretty sure the email address isn't used for anything. I certainly won't use it to hassle you - even if you write rude comments here.

Deflation of telephone prices

When Liz's brother and sister-in-law went to Brazil, we were concerned about how much it would cost even to talk to them. And with good reason - at the time, the BT rate for ringing Brazil was around £1.90 per minute.

Fortunately, we had a cable telephone, so we weren't paying that rate. We were only paying 75p per minute, with NTL - still quite a lot, though, when there were lots of things to catch up on.

Then, within a year or so of them travelling to Brazil, we discovered OneTel. Another step down in cost, to around 20p per minute.

And then we found TeleDiscount - and the price fell to 3p per minute (now 2p, apparently). At this stage, frankly, the cost of a phone call is pretty irrelevant - it costs more for us to call one another on mobile phones within the UK - or, for that matter, to call from landline to mobile phone. When you can talk for an hour for less than £2 - in other words, you can talk on the phone for less than it would cost you to go and see a film - you don't particularly worry about the price of phone calls any more.

However, with Skype, we reach the ultimate - phone calls free on the back of the broadband access that we are paying for anyway. A 45 minute phone call to Brazil - for nothing.

One of the side effects of this is that the further away somebody is, the more time you spend talking to them. I just remembered that I haven't said happy birthday to my sister, who lives 30 miles away ....

Monday, January 16, 2006

"The Virus of Faith"

From the Channel 4 site relating to "Root of all Evil" Part 2.
Physicist and Nobel prizewinner Stephen Weinberg describes religion as an insult to human dignity. 'Without it,' he says, 'you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.' Dawkins agrees. It is more moral, he says, to do good for its own sake than out of fear. Morality, he says, is older than religion, and kindness and generosity are innate in human beings, as they are in other social animals. The irony is that science recognises the majesty and complexity of the universe while religions lead to easy, closed answers.
Once again, how do you decide what is "good" or "evil" if this reality is everything that there is? Dawkins is scandalised that a doctor might be killed because of his or her support for abortion. Why? In what sense is it more evil to kill a doctor than it is to abort fetuses? On what basis has he decided what is good and evil? These are religious categories that are loaded with emotional and social significance, and if he is going to do away with religion, then he needs a new epistemological foundation for them - which he has to justify before using them. Or he needs new words for them that aren't so emotionally and socially manipulative. In terms of basic critical thinking skills, listed here, Dawkins is falling down on at least #2,4,5 and 11.

And incidentally, if Dawkins is going to argue that Christianity justifies the murder of abortion clinic doctors (which I would dispute), then can he please explain why he endorses a worldview that was the basis of the guillotine, the Final Solution and the Killing Fields. In what sense is the ugly face of humanism more acceptable than the ugly face of religious belief?

And also, do we have any evidence that if people reject the idea of religion, they will then "do good for the sake of doing good"? I would suggest the evidence is the opposite - that if people believe that they can get away with something, they will. Here is an account from a trial of what some people allegedly thought they could get away with. What religion are the accused?

Also, if religion is a virus handed down from generation to generation, what is its source? Is it intelligently designed? Is it a mutant? There are various traditional answers. One is the Marxist answer - that it is a tool used by the ruling class to oppress the proletariat. The fact that religious faith has outlasted the opposition of atheistic communism has falsified this claim. One is the Freudian answer - that our belief in God is a projection of our feelings about our own fathers. But this probably says more about Freud's relationship with his own father than about anything else. One is that it is an idealistic projection of our desires and aspirations. But if so, why would we create something that was as profoundly negative and threatening as the idea of hell? One answer is that religion reflects - albeit in a blurred and confusing way - something that is true - that there is a reality that is beyond the boundaries of the humanistic universe. Unsurprisingly, Dawkins doesn't even consider that. "There is no God" - as the fool has said in his heart.

As anticipated, Dawkins has said precisely the sort of things that he was expected to. He does nothing for the "public understanding of science" - despite that being the nature of his professorship - in fact, he apparently pays no attention at all to scientific debates about the place of religion. (Did anybody hear him mention "NOMA"?) He offers no new insights on the issue of religion, makes no interesting points beyond the sort of thing that a Christian student in university would have to deal with during a mission week - just with the addition of a few tens of thousands of pounds production costs - and made no serious attempt to establish whether there might be a thoughtful response. Nice one, professor. I think it was Denyse O'Leary who said in the past that she could get most Christians to believe in evolution - if only Richard Dawkins would shut up. Perhaps if he talks much longer, he'll end up converting most non-Christians to something other than humanism.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Talitha Cumi

I was moved (again!) by Amanda's post. It reminded me of a poem I have in a book ....
Lazarus was heavy but she, little sister,
When he spoke to her softly in the common speech
She sat up beckoned by his little finger
Puzzled to be present at so important a levée.

They gave her milk to drink in her usual bowl.
Her lip took a white moustache. She made
Crumbs on the counterpane thoughtfully breaking bread.

From "Talitha Cumi", Noel Connor & Others, Bloodaxe 1983

Why do I find this so moving? I think it is probably because the story of Jairus's daughter is one of the most moving in the whole Bible. Here is a dad who is distraught because there is nothing he can do to save his little girl - even though he is prepared to give up all his credibility in the eyes of the world to fetch Jesus - a dad who has to wait, desperate to move on whilst Jesus deals with compassion and gentleness with a woman who is considered perpetually unclean because of her illness. And as they get near home, he is told that after all this, it is too late.

But not too late for Jesus.

I've known various children who have died - probably as many as I have known young adults - though none that I was terribly close to. I can echo Theoden's words in the film of "The Lord of the Rings" - "No parent should have to bury their own child." - a quote in turn picked up from a mother in the Troubles of Northern Ireland - which, to close the circle, was one of the influences for the book containing the poem I quoted. The fact that Jesus was able to turn that awfulness back is reason enough on its own for people to put their faith in him.

But what moved me about this poem was the mundanity of it - the fact that whilst Jesus is working with the cosmic forces of life and death, the parents are told to give the girl something to eat - and, in this poem, she drinks and eats, just like all children do - fascinated by her senses, as all children are. Life, childhood, sensation are so precious and beautiful, so fleeting.

The Hokey Cokey (or Pokey)

One of the defining televisual moments of last year for me was seeing Bill Bailey doing the Hokey Cokey in German, in the musical/interpretive style of the art band Kraftwerk (with assistance). I had thought it was the most profound interpretation of this song possible, until the following was referenced on "Word of Mouth" on Radio 4 tonight.

It is from the Washington Post Style Invitational contest that asked readers to submit "instructions" for something, written in the style of a famous person. The winning entry was The Hokey Pokey (as written by William Shakespeare).
O proud left foot, that ventures quick within
Then soon upon a backward journey lithe.
Anon, once more the gesture, then begin:
Command sinistral pedestal to writhe.
Commence thou then the fervid Hokey-Poke,
A mad gyration, hips in wanton swirl.
To spin! A wilde release from Heavens yoke.
Blessed dervish! Surely canst go, girl.
The Hoke, the poke -- banish now thy doubt
Verily, I say, 'tis what it's all about.
-- by "William Shakespeare"
This was apparently discovered by Jeff Brechlin, Maryland, and submitted by Katherine St. John.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

"Root of all Evil?" review

See also here and here.

I didn't watch Richard Dawkins. There wouldn't be much point in me offering my opinions here, anyway - you don't need to read many of my posts to work out what I am likely to have thought of it. Instead, here's a few thoughts from Joe Joseph's reviews in "The Times" - which I couldn't find on the Times Online site.

... Dawkins, one of our smartest scientists, masks his disgust for religion and those who believe in it the way Jordan masks her cleavage...

[Dawkins] challenged cartoon opponents - an American evangelical Christian and an Islamic fundamentalist who trilled about "soldiers of Allah" .... You didn't necessarily have to disagree with Dawkins about God's existence to wish that he had picked meatier adversaries.

... If a scientist is happily allowed to believe something else that is wrong simply because he knows no better, to what extent might Christians, or Muslims or Jews be allowed a similar licence? What makes one kind of false belief honourable and another not?

... Might it not have been interesting for him to take his argument to a religious scientist ... just to see where the debate led?
So it's not only Christians who found the exercise somewhat unsatisfactory.

Incidentally, Dawkins has refused to engage in debate with creationists (under which heading he would presumably also include proponents of Intelligent Design) on the pretext that he doesn't want to give them credibility. There are many amongst the creationist/ID community that believe that he simply couldn't come up with answers. His choice of less than challenging examples will have done little to dispel that impression.

Monday, January 09, 2006

From the "Respect" party...

... heard on Radio 4, explaining why George Galloway's presence in the "Celebrity Big Brother" household wouldn't make any difference to his constituency.
Well, on lots of votes, if you are a single MP, you have very little influence over the outcome.
That is exactly the justification used by people who don't bother to cast a vote in the election.

So that about wraps it up for democracy, then.

Do it yourself. On second thoughts ....

This is fun.

Unless you work for the Health and Safety Executive.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Dawkins, deconstructionism and evil

"That programme is starting tomorrow," I said to Liz.

"What programme's that, then?" she replied.

"The one where Dawkins talks about religion being the root of all evil."

"But if religion is the root of all evil, then how does he know what is evil?"

Good question.

It's reminiscent of the approach taken by deconstructionists. They argue that the meaning of a text can't be established on the basis of the intentions of the author, but only on the basis of the interpretive community. So a book means, not as Alice the speaker said about words, "what I want it to mean", but what the reader wants it to mean.

However, these deconstructionists have written books and papers themselves. I choose to interpret Derrida's "Writing and Difference" as an ironic book, actually making the point that meaning has to be found in the intention of the author, not in the interpretation placed on it by the reader. In fact, given that Derrida would presumably have been really cross that I interpreted his text in this way, I believe I can rest my case.

Well, that about wraps it up for postmodernism, then.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

The (current) last word on Dover vs Kitzmiller

Just in case anybody is still interested (I know this blog is still syndicated through a GROGGS-linked feed, and some of the people there might be interested in an ID response to the counter-ID flagwaving in some of the threads), a response to the outcome of the ID trial in Dover, PA from Discovery Institute can be found here. The questions addressed in this response are:

Is Judge Jones an activist judge?

Did Judge Jones read the evidence submitted to him in the Dover trial?

Did Judge Jones accurately describe the content and early versions of the ID textbook Of Pandas and People?

Are the newsmedia reinventing Judge Jones as a conservative Republican?

Taxing times

This article, in the Times on Thursday, by Camilla Cavendish trotted out some familiar arguments against aspects of the aviation industry. Whilst I agree with some of her comments (for example, relating to the lobbying power of airlines – even the most die-hard socialist is likely to prefer a business-class seat to an economy-class one – the BAA monopoly of London airports, and her concern about the fact that whilst carbon emissions across the UK should be reducing, the aviation industry is moving in the other direction), too much of the article was poorly thought out for it to pass without comment.
If Gordon Brown taxed aircraft fuel at the same rate as petrol for cars, he would raise a cool £9 billion for the Exchequer.
Before everyone breaks into cheerful grins at the thought of taking loads of filthy lucre from the evil capitalists who run airlines, it might be worth considering that the amount of money made by airlines is relatively small. In world terms, the United Kingdom may be unique in having an airline industry that has fairly consistently made a profit over the last five years – the industry worldwide has lost billions.

What this narrow margin means is that any increase in cost has to be passed on directly to the consumer – the airlines simply don't make enough money, and fuel is too large a proportion of their costs, for them to absorb an increase in costs of even a tenth of this amount. So, as Cavendish implies, but doesn't openly state, this £9 billion would come from the consumers – that is, the people who buy the tickets – that is us.

Now, does the population as a whole have £9 billion spare to spend? Of course not. This equates to another 3-4p on the basic rate of income tax – hardly a minor fiscal adjustment. So the £9 billion that would be raised through this tax would be lost to the Exchequer, industry and tourism through other means. You don't get £9 billion from nowhere – somebody, somewhere ends up paying it. And it won't be the government or the airlines.

It sounds fantastic – a whole industry ripe to face a swingeing tax increase. And it is. The Chancellor did significant damage to the pensions industry when he changed the tax structure a few years ago – I hope that he is sensible enough to realise that sudden, large changes in taxation policy tend to have substantial, unpredictable secondary effects. And, to be quite honest, given the way in which tax levels have risen under this government and how little we have seen for it, I am sceptical of the ability of the government to do something useful with yet another £9 billion.
[The Chancellor] smiles on airlines that pay no VAT, fuel duty or climate change levy.
It may be true that airlines don't pay these taxes. However, they do pay Airline Passenger Duty. This isn't anything like the amount that would be paid if it was scrapped and replaced by fuel duty at the levels charged on road fuel – in 2003, according to a quick search on the internet, APD amounted to a mere £1 billion. But this is a tax that you don't have to pay on a rail ticket. Oh, and rail tickets tend to be more expensive than air tickets. Oh, and if that isn't enough, the government is putting quite a lot of taxpayers' money into subsidising the rail network as well. Oh, and whereas the average airfare has fallen in absolute terms – let alone real terms – over the last five years, the average rail fare has risen by substantially more than the rate of inflation.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying, “scrap the rail network”. But the airlines exist as things stand as companies, taking relatively small amounts of money for their shareholders, and yet employing significant numbers of people, paying taxes as businesses, paying tax and National Insurance as employers, and not being subsidised. They contribute to the economy. The rail network, which is basically the alternative, is costing the country a fortune, and most people think we are getting very little back for our money.
The difficulty of negotiating international tax agreements is real, but not as insurmountable as it is convenient for politicians to pretend.
This is a bold sentence. However, the fact of the matter is that attempts to reach any agreement on even a European scale, let alone a global scale, almost always fail, tripped over by vested interests. This happened with Kyoto, the European budget, and the World Trade Organisation. It seems unlikely that new negotiations are going to achieve a wider level of consensus than any agreement which we already have.
No matter that those who live around airports are locked into homes blighted by noise and pollution. Their disadvantage apparently cannot compare with that of those who might be deprived of a cut-price trip.
This is a manipulative paragraph that can be challenged at various points. Firstly, there aren't many people who have lived in areas blighted by airports from before the airports had a significant environmental impact. People who have moved into an area knowing that there is an airport there can hardly then grumble about it. They presumably weren't forced to move there.

Secondly, the noise and pollution impact of most airports and airliners has reduced over the last decade, due to improvements in technology.

Thirdly, many people who live around airports are actually happy to be there. The airport brings employment, investment and income to the local area.

Fourthly, a democracy is supposed to allow majority representation whilst protecting the interests of the minority. If 50,000 people live around an airport and are being inconvenienced by its presence, should their opinions override those of the millions of users of the airport? And yet, in the case of many UK airports, great lengths are gone to for the sake of the welfare of local residents. And the government isn't even allowed to think about the possibility of building a new airport somewhere else, where it might inconvenience fewer people.

Ms Cavendish raises some important points in this article. Unfortunately, these are outweighed by misrepresentation, one-sided analysis, and a failure to think through the implications of what she is saying. Important debates need more rigour and better information than this.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Proposed additions to Web Wanderer 6.0

Harry Wright III, Chief Communications Officer of Bigsoft Corporation, today announced extensions to their industry standard browser. An additional "Creationism" filter will be incorporated, to restrict access to websites that endorse theories of origins other than darwinism.

"Following the judgement in the Dover vs Kitzmiller Intelligent Design trial," said Wright, "it has become apparent that creationists are intent on overturning the American constitution, by encouraging schoolchildren to consider the possibility that time and chance isn't sufficient to explain the origin of all life. This innovation will allow public schools to ensure that their pupils don't unwittingly find themselves facing charges of treason."

The new filter, like the existing filters for nudity, sex, language and violence, will have different levels, which can be controlled by the computer administrator. At its least restrictive, it will simply block access to websites of organisations which have tried to get creationism into schools, or which have the word GENESIS in their URL. At its most restrictive, it will block access to any website which has expressed doubt about any aspect of darwinism, and possibly any that haven't made their position clear, just to be on the safe side.

"We are also aware of the fact that Richard Dawkins considers that people who teach their children to doubt darwinism are child abusers," said Wright. "We have no doubt that parents will be relieved that they will be able to let their children use the internet without them unwittingly exposing themselves to such disturbing material. We dread to think how unsettling it might be for a child to discover that some people might think that life isn't entirely devoid of ultimate meaning and significance."

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

ID commentary from Arizona

This article, from the Arizona Republic, provides helpful commentary on the Dover vs Kitzmiller trial.

Especially for those people who are behaving as though because a US federal judge says something, it must be true.
... In the course of a desultory opinion, he found that there was no difference between creationism and intelligent design. Moreover, based upon the extensive expertise he professes to have acquired in the course of a six-week trial, he defined science and determined that the scientific claims of intelligent design were invalid, neither of which are exactly legal questions best decided by a single lawyer.

Jones actually ruled on the nature of theology as well. He determined that evolution "in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator." That's not necessarily so. Much of evolutionary teaching contends that life on Earth is the accidental and unplanned result of exclusively natural processes. That precludes life on Earth being the willed outcome of a Creator.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The voice of reason

Picked up from The Daily Telegraph - thanks to Alan for the pointer.
Science must destroy religion

Our fear of provoking religious hatred has rendered us incapable of criticising ideas that are now patently absurd and increasingly maladaptive. It has also obliged us to lie to ourselves about the compatibility between religious faith and scientific rationality.

In the spirit of religious tolerance, most scientists keep silent when they should be blasting the hideous fantasies of a prior age with all the facts at their disposal.

Sam Harris, University of California, Los Angeles
Some (contradictory) thoughts, in no particular order.

1) I hadn't noticed any particular reluctance to criticise ideas that are incompatible with a naturalistic perspective. The closest to tolerance from mainstream science, as far as I know, was Gould's perspective in "Rocks of Ages", which basically said that religion could be tolerated as long as every religious statement and perspective was relegated to the private arena.

2) "Most scientists keep silent when they should be blasting the hideous fantasies of a prior age with all the facts at their disposal." Rather strongly worded, but it would be good to see Darwin's Theory dealt with in this way.

3) Odd to see that, in the old "battle between science and religion", "science" is now quite clearly the intolerant one that is unable to brook dissent.

Incidentally, if religion is to be done away with, who will take the place of religious communities in humanitarian activities?

Monday, January 02, 2006

US Evangelical Christians and the environment

I understand from Radio 4 that Evangelical Christians in the US are, at some stage this year, going to make a pronouncement on the environment. So just in case any of them stop by here (and I know a few do, from time to time), can I offer some thoughts?

I am conscious of the opinions of some people in the US - that the whole global warming thing is regarded as a kind of anti-US conspiracy, to hit their industries. On the other hand, people outside the US are staggered at the fact that (for example) in Phoenix, Arizona, which has arguably amongst the most days of hot sunshine of any city in the developed world, just about every house still has a massive tumble dryer. They also take a dim view of the fact that there is a very close relationship between people who economically have a vested interest in the continuing growth in carbon production (i.e. the oil industry) and the US government.

The scientific evidence relating to global warming is verging on the irrefutable. We have seen glaciers retreating, polar ice regions melting, and winter ice cover not so extensive, highest Caribbean Sea temperatures, record length and unusual severity of the hurricane season ... and so on. These are only the measures that have made it into the media.

All of these things ought to give us pause for thought. However, from a Christian perspective, the actual facts of the matter are practically irrelevant. The motivation for Christians isn't so much this, as the fact that as humans, we are supposed to be stewards of God's creation. God gave humans authority to care for the earth, and on the basis that authority and responsibility ought to be linked, we are likely to be held to account for how we have used what God has given us. And yes, that includes Christians. In fact, it is most binding upon God's people.

A kind of "environmental hyper-Calvinism" - "Well, God made the world and cares about the world, so there's nothing I can do that will make any difference" - is a denial of Christian responsibility - in the same way as hyper-Calvinism ("God has chosen who he is going to save, so I don't need to tell anybody") is a distortion of the gospel. Christians should not be wasteful of what God has given them - should be concerned for their neighbours - should recognise that they will be accountable for their behaviour. And Christians in the US have a voice that can still influence the direction of their nation.

If you have a chance to influence this discussion, then please try and detach the debate from the politics and reground it in the Bible.