Friday, 31 December 2010


"Irrationally held truths may be more harmful than reasoned errors." - Thomas H. Huxley

Morning Scepticism: Vitamins

With the obesity epidemic and the problems associated with it are a real concern. There are clearly problems with diet. But malnutrition is not one of them. Except in a few rare circumstances taking vitamins is a useless exercise. They do nothing! Yet so much is spent on them. They litter shelves in supermarkets and pharmacies, and there are even stores dedicated to their sale - all of this despite the scientific evidence showing how little they actually do. It seems a simple way to good health, but really it's little more than expensive coloured urine for the perception of doing something right. Whatever problems we have with nutrition in the West, it ain't the lack of it!

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Satisfactory Explanations

The universe didn't always exist, so neither did life. Life is on earth so how did life arise on this planet? One possible answer is that it didn't, that life colonised earth from another world. The collection of hypothesises called panspermia are are possible explanations to the question. Life didn't begin here, it came here would be the answer to the origin of life on earth. But as even a creationist would see, this doesn't actually answer how life arose. It's not a satisfactory explanation, even if its true. Likewise when a creationist says that life was an act of divine creation, it's not a satisfactory explanation. It doesn't tell us how life came about or even a mechanism by which it did. Even if it was all created by an intelligent creator, leaving the story there is like saying life originated outside of earth without adding anything more to it.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Politics Of Failure

The political process is so often lamented, that the parties have become complacent and political rhetoric is in the gutter. We blame the media, we blame human nature and those who manipulate it, we blame ideologues and ideologies. This is taken as a failure of democracy and fosters cynicism, but I think another more important lesson can be drawn from it. While there are certain failures that need addressing from time to time, and there's problems with corruption and incompetency, most of the time things run quite smoothly. The debate over gay marriage for example takes place because those fundamental issues are pretty well taken care of. While it might be some form of distraction, in part it's a reflection of the success of a healthy society.

Though it is a bit of a concern just how polemic and divisive such topics can be. Things are running more smoothly than in any time in history, yet we're almost ready to rip out each other's throat over such issues!

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Respectful Dialogue

It is often said that a respectful dialogue is needed when it comes to contentious issues, and its easy to see why. But can there be a respectful dialogue when there's fundamental dishonesty in the arguments of one side? Creationists might complain that academia is excluding them, but it's hard to feel sympathy when the same people quotemine statements to make them appear to support their position. Likewise, what good does it do to have a respectful dialogue with someone who argues that vaccination is mass-slaughter? That government healthcare means death camps? A respectful dialogue cannot happen when there's such insanity or dishonesty, otherwise it's going to be one side conceding ground to crazy for the sake of appearing tolerant.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Teleological

The Galileo story is one used to highlight the incompatibility between science and religion, or used to show that scientific ideas eventually get adopted into a religious framework over time - depending on your perspective on things. But the dethroning the Earth from the centre of the Cosmos is nothing compared to dethroning our species as the pinnacle of Creation. 150 years after Darwin published his work on the matter and there's still little acceptance of evolution via natural selection in religious circles, at least according to surveys (In the US, the majority see evolution as "God-guided"). Where we are might have challenged Biblical authority, but how we came to be challenges the very role of God. A creator with nothing to do is not really worthy of the title.

But I think another lesson can be taken away from this cultural controversy. The teleological argument is a very powerful argument indeed, and its no wonder that intelligent theists have shifted from the intricacy of the eye to the relative strength of the strong nuclear force.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Organic

Let's say there's something about organic farming that makes for better food. Why can't these processes be isolated and incorporated into other farming processes? Likewise, if there's something harmful about a particular farming process, why can't that be removed or replaced instead of wishing the whole system to go away? This is one of the problems I have with advocates for organic food, it's so often put forward as a false dichotomy between the worst in industrial farming or organic. It's the same with those who seek herbal remedies instead of conventional medicine, if there's actually something in a herb that works then why can't that active ingredient be isolated and incorporated into medicine? It seems its not a clash of efficacy but one of principle, you either accept organic farming practices or you want to poison earth and the people on it with *shudder* chemicals.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Christmas

I hope you have a very merry Christmas, however you choose to celebrate it.

Friday, 24 December 2010


"If the world were truly a rational place, men would ride sidesaddle." - Rita Mae Brown

Morning Scepticism: War On Christmas

Speaking as a militant secularist*, I don't actually have a problem with Christmas. How people want to celebrate the day is up to them, if they choose to celebrate it at all. It's a culturally significant time of year and really does need to be recognised as such. I wonder what this war on Christmas is, because as far as I can tell, the War On Christmas™ is wanting the day as much as possible to be for everyone. This isn't taking away the rights for Christians to celebrate Christmas in whatever way they deem holiest, but to strengthen that by ensuring that one's religion isn't imposed on others.

*and by militant secularist I mean I write a blog

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Bluetooth

When buying a car, there are many things one looks out for. You'd think the main things would be over the car's reliability and TCO. How efficient is the engine? How often does it need servicing? How easy is it to use? Yet somehow these important features don't play a part in advertising. I recently saw one ad that one of its main selling features in the 30 second spot was that the car had bluetooth and could synch with media devices. To me, that's like seeing an advertisement for a house where the emphasis is on the material the kitchen bench is made out of. It might be energy efficient, spacious, well-constructed and in a great area, but it's really important to talk about how good the benches look - perfect for entertaining purposes.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Misinformed

The difference between being uninformed and misinformed is the difference between not knowing about planets and stars and believing the earth is at the centre of the universe. One can rectify being uninformed by learning more on a given topic, being misinformed however pretty much guarantees not being able to recognise good information. After all, how can you determine truth if its measured against perceived truths?

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Drowning Man

If you happen to be walking past a lake and in there you see a drowning man, is it your obligation to help? I'm sure all talk of moral relativism or cultural sensitivity would go out the window in such a scenario, it would almost be unthinkable that there would be anyone out there who would consider such an action as problematic. This is why I think that an isolationist policy for a government is problematic. If there's the capacity to act to save lives and act for a greater good, then it's not really different to the problem of intervening to save the life of someone drowning in a river. Of course killing 20 people and wounding hundreds near a river on the notion of there being a drowning man is a different story.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Experiencing Time

Our experience of time and an objective reference for time are two different things. We can reference a more objective measure like the times around a sun or the number of rotations around the earth, yet subjectively we all know that an hour with friends and an hour waiting pass by differently. As is said, time flies when you're having fun. Perhaps those concerned about longevity should instead of looking at numbers like years focus on leading as boring life as possible, nothing to do and nothing to occupy the time. They might not live longer but it will feel like an eternity!

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Truth By Consensus

When it is said the earth orbits the sun, the fact is so pervasive in our society that to deny it is to deny knowledge itself. Yet when it comes to other facts of this nature that don't have a communal consensus, it's dogmatic to hold them as true no matter how strong the case. The earth can orbit the sun, not because the science says so, but because most people do. But because many people deny evolution, to hold evolution as true is to be labelled dogmatic. Yet the fact that many people don't hold something so well-supported as being true means there's more reason to actively try to educate people on the matter, yet by doing that is to be perceived as being a fundamentalist.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Pascal's Wager

If you do believe and God is real then you go to heaven, and if God isn't real then you get the same as if you believed and God wasn't real. But if God is real and you don't believe, you get hell. It seems fairly reasonable on the face of it, but I wonder how many people would really apply such reasoning in everyday life? Would they, for instance, hand over their wallet to a mugger who claimed to have a gun pointed at their head even if both hands were empty. After all, the consequence for not believing if there really is a gun is paying the ultimate price. The gun might be invisible after all, you can't prove that it's not really there...

Friday, 17 December 2010


"There's nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view that I hold dear." - Daniel Dennett

Morning Scepticism: Authority

While anyone theoretically can pick up a book and learn about a particular topic, we are stuck having to rely on experts who have spent decades training and researching that topic. For the most part this is good, because those scientists can push into new territory and see things that can only come with a sufficient understanding. But for us laypeople, we're stuck taking someone's word for it. In this semi-detached state we find ourselves in, we are given a part of the story, something that should be enough to make a compelling case. But in the absence of the knowledge that makes it so compelling, it really shouldn't be surprising that so many people reject particular scientific ideas that don't fit comfortably with them.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: The Child Question

One advantage about being openly homosexual as a youngish adult in a long term relationship has got to be never being asked about when you're planning on having children. Of course homosexuals can and do have children, but the perception of impossibility excludes the question. With a heterosexual relationship will be perceived as possible and even an expectation, even if there are actual impossibilities such as infertility.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Denialism

If there's one book to read this year, it's Michael Specter's - Denialism. But don't take my word for it, watch his presentation at TED and judge for yourself.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Moral Monster

One line of apologetic I occasionally encounter is one of us being morally imperfect, that we have failed to live up to God's standard as laid out in the ten commandments so He has every right to send us to hell. This, I think, is akin to a parent who finds out that their child took a cookie from the cookie jar without asking being punished by getting locked in the basement and brutally tortured for years. It's actually worse than that because hell is an infinite punishment. All we can do is look at extremes like that and ask, what would you think of a parent who did that to a child? Would we call a parent to did that "righteous" as this line of apologetic labels God? Because to me, such behaviour would make a parent a moral monster.

But I hear the objection already, there's a way to avoid such a fate: by believing in the resurrection Jesus as payment. But this doesn't make eternal torture any less morally dubious, it's like the parent locking up and torturing their child unless they pat their belly.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Cancer

Cancer is a disease of mutation, and while certain environmental factors can increase the risk of particular cancers, it's something that can happen to anyone. So while exercise, eating healthy, avoiding too much sun, and not smoking all can reduce the risks of getting cancer, it doesn't eliminate. I think there's a disservice done when cancer is made into a lifestyle disease, it's unrepresentative of what cancer is and it means that people think that cancer is something done to themselves.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Knowing Your Genome

Imagine being born with a hereditary disease that you know you have and puts an absolute upper limit on how long you will live. In that scenario would you wish you didn't know? Yet for those of us who have no known condition, we can have our DNA scanned for key allele variants that could let us know about future problems. And as time goes on, this knowledge will only get better. So the question is do we want to know? Because the knowledge is available, if we choose not to get tested then we could miss something that could help prolong our life. The knowledge could serve as useful, it could just show something unfavourable that can't be treated. Is the bliss of ignorance worth the risk of not knowing something that might actually help to prolong your existence?

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Armchair History

Imagine if someone were to say that Hitler didn't really die during World War II but exiled himself to Iraq where he helped in orchestrating the 1948 invasion of Israel. Sound absurd? Of course it is. We know history isn't in the eye of the storyteller but that there must have been one chain of events, that however imperfect our reconstruction isn't amenable to wild unfounded speculation. We need good evidence to back up such claims, making a "just so" account with nefarious motivations dancing in the mystery of facts lost to time is only going to fictionalise what little we know.

Friday, 10 December 2010


"Doubt is not an agreeable condition, but certainty is an absurd one." - Voltaire

Morning Scepticism: Value

We could all name innovative visionaries whose inventions have changed the way we live. My job wouldn't exist if it weren't for numerous visionaries who paved the way for the necessity of such work. Yet it would be a mistake to think that those visionaries are the only people in society producing anything of value, for those great inventions and innovations would come to naught if there wasn't multiple people working together to allow such innovations to have the chance to even exist. The success of a Bill Gates is really the success of everyone. People really should stop using Atlas Shrugged as they would Hustler, the success of individuals in a society is much more a reflection of the success of the society.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Status Symbols

Apparently there's too much household debt right now, and this obviously is a problem. But we are in a society of rampant consumerism, where the ability to consume is as much about having status symbols as anything else. If you can't afford a status symbol then on the promise of paying more in the future there are plenty who are willing to throw money at you to have it now. In an environment such as this, how can we expect anything else?

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Video Games As Art

Are video games art? It's a question of what makes art. Certainly games can be visually and aurally stunning, very artistic in manner. But that does not make art. Certainly games can inspire emotion and wonder. But that does not make art. Certainly games can be intricately designed and crafted down to the tiniest detail. But that does not make art. So are games art? I don't know. But if games aren't art, then art is certainly diminished for not including them!

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Wikileaks

I really do like the idea of Wikileaks, while individual documents may turn out to be problematic the goal of transparency is at least one way to give accountability to those who normally hide them under more noble aims such as "international security". It's important that such bodies exist, because just covering something up is not a good long-term strategy. Just ask the Catholic Church...

Monday, 6 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Ethical Nutrients

Given that time and time again supplements are shown to do nothing, and in some circumstances even be harmful, can a company call itself Ethical Nutrients? Reminded me of a acupuncture shop at a local shopping centre called Miracle Therapy. "It's just the name of the store, I suppose, and no need for truth in advertising. Might as well call a homoeopathic remedy "cancer cure", after all it's just the name of the product.

On the site, the FAQ asks: "Am I Getting Enough Vitamins?" For almost everyone lucky enough to live in an industrialised country the answer is yes.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Crop Circles

At the pub last week I was asked about what I thought of crop circles. I gave the stock standard skeptic reply - there's no evidence of alien craft and plenty of evidence of people with boards pushing down crops. Though one interesting story I mentioned was of stoned wallabies, the intent was to show that sometimes there are unusual explanations that are still down to earth. That explanation seemed to be more captivating than the people with boards, probably for the same reason aliens are. Unusual phenomena it seems needs unusual explanations!

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Lost In Translation

One of my favourite lines from any film is "English motherfucker, do you speak it?" from Pulp Fiction. It got me wondering how one would translate this into a foreign language, to do it literally might miss the meaning. After all "motherfucker" might not have the same connotations in different languages, let alone different cultures. "Englantia, äidinnussija! puhutko sitä?" would be a somewhat literal Finnish translation, but it doesn't pack the punch of the original delivery nor does "fucker of a mother" carry the same profane insult which makes the line so powerful.

"Englantia, kusipää! Puhutko sitä?" was a translation I found on a Finnish subtitle. "Kusipää" translates to "pisshead" but means more like arsehole. If someone called me a pisshead I'd think they're calling me a drunk!

Friday, 3 December 2010


"Teach a man to reason and he'll think for a lifetime" - Phil Plait

Morning Scepticism: Evil

How many truly evil people do you know? Perhaps you could name people who have some disturbing traits, but I'm going to guess that no-one you know is truly evil. I think this is something important to reflect on, when thinking about anything that has to do with agency think about people. I think two things stem from this: first that cartoonish evil is best reserved for comic books, and second if someone does something horrible I'd be willing to bet that its often the case that the horrible action stemmed from an intention to do good. Security measures might seem draconian and malevolent (after all, the government IS spying on its citizens) but I'm betting the reason for it is the perception that doing so would prevent future atrocities. Likewise I think the terrorists aren't evil, but fighting for what they see as the good. Those promoting vaccines and those trying to stop vaccine use are both doing so to protect life, go figure!

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Vaccine Preventable Deaths

The nature of vaccine denial, I think, means that no matter what happens those who are vocally opposed to vaccinations will keep their opposition. There are already deaths associated with vaccine-preventable diseases coming back. The response? It's the drug company's fault for making such a horrible dangerous product, despite all the work done showing those fears are misguided.

Those who are arguing against vaccines aren't horrible people, they believe what they are doing is right. They are good people, and good people don't want children to die. So instead they harrass the parents who have lost a child through vaccine-preventable disease, they blame Big Pharma, and still go on about how dangerous mercury is. To do otherwise would be to admit they've in part fuelled a hysteria that has claimed the lives of those they want to protect. More children will die and that will only strengthen a denialist's resolve.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Presuppositionist Logic

  1. Suppose X is the best worldview.
  2. Competitors to X must have weaknesses that need to be highlighted.
  3. Any stated weaknesses of X must be defended, if possible by showing how views other than X fail to account for them.

  4. Therefore, X is the best worldview.