"The Skeptic Digest"
Subject: The Skeptic Digest Volume 21, Issue 4.
Date: March 25th 2009
The Skeptic Digest: Volume 21, Issue 4.
Features -- Little Atoms Podcast -- Events -- Dubious News -- Administrivia
Editorial (Lindsay Kallis and Chris French)
Hits & Misses (Mark Williams)
Skeptic at Large (Wendy M. Grossman)
Skeptical Stats (Mark Williams)
Philosopher's Corner (Julian Baggini)
Through a Glass Darkly (Michael Heap)
Humour: Sprite by Donald Rooum, Cartoons by Tim Pearce
Pictures: Hilary Evans' Paranormal Picture Gallery
Occult London; by Merlin Coverley (Tessa Kendall)
2012: The year of the Mayan prophecy; by Daniel Pinchbeck (Mark Newbrook)
The Paperback Apocalypse: how the Christian Church was left behind; by Robert M Price (Mike Hutton)
Counter-Knowledge: How we surrendered to conspiracy theories, quack medicine, bogus science and fake history; by Damian Thompson (Mark Newbrook)
Jinn from Hyperspace: And other scribblings - both serious and whimsical; by Alan Sokal (Paul Taylor)
Beyond the Hoax: Science, philosophy and culture; by Alan Sokal (Paul Taylor)
Little Atoms Podcast
Little Atoms, the official podcast of The Skeptic magazine, is produced and presented by Neil Denny, Padraig Reidy, Anthony Burn and (very occasionally) Richard Sanderson and broadcast every Friday from 19:00 to 19:30 GMT on Resonance 104.4 FM. It is a show about ideas and each show features a guest from the worlds of science, journalism, politics, academia, human rights or the arts in conversation.
Recent guests have included: Tracey Brown, Stephen Law, Andrew Copson, Nick Cohen, Steve Jones, Jonathan Heawood, Nick Davies.
The latest guests and news can be found here: http://little-atoms.blogspot.com/
while the podcast itself can be found here: http://feeds2.feedburner.com/littleatomspodcast
In addition to the usual line-up of events, it would be worth noting the 3rd and 4th October 2009 in your diaries. The Amazing Meeting! (TAM) is being held in the UK for the first time, in London, later this year. The website http://tamlondon.org/ will go fully live soon, while a Facebook page and Twitter feed (http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=58881253486 and http://twitter.com/tamlondon respectively) are in place to report the latest news.
A complete list of upcoming events is at www.skeptic.org.uk/events
This list includes events from:
Skeptics in the Pub in the UK: www.skeptic.org.uk/pub
Goldsmiths' Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit: www.goldsmtihs.ac.uk/apru
Center for Inquiry, London: http://cfilondon.org
Standing room only
When I first heard of the Atheist Bus Campaign, I was quite amused. Launched back in October, the campaign is essentially a joint venture from the British Humanist Association and Richard Dawkins, attempting to add balance to the religious propaganda which frequently appears on London public transport.
The campaign takes the form of a large red, yellow and pink poster plastered to the side of London’s buses, proudly proclaiming “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
Frankly, the posters are quite tricky to miss but if you don’t live in the capital then you can be forgiven for not having heard of them until now. Despite having exceeded the original £5,500 target (which Dawkins agreed to match, pound for pound) by around £140,000 at the time of writing (*152,000 at the time of circulating this digest email), the original intention was to adorn only 30 buses (of the 8000 vehicles operating on London’s 700 different routes each day) for one month. The campaign has however, become a lot bigger than initially expected. The British Humanist Association released a statement only a few days ago which officially launched the campaign in over 24 other locations and stated the adverts had already run on 800 buses, the London Underground and “two large LCD screens on Oxford Street”.
Now I realise that criticising the first ever atheist advertising campaign is unlikely to be particularly popular, especially when said campaign involves the Patron Saint of Atheism Himself, but to be honest, I don’t understand it.
I like the concept, it’s quaint and catchy; but if the slogan is truly to intended to stop people from worrying about the existence of God, in my opinion it has failed. It’s a great way to catch media attention and to perhaps make atheism a point of discussion but that’s all. I don’t believe anyone will walk away from the poster with a new confidence in the world and I certainly don’t believe it will make anyone question their faith.
While Alpha Course and other religious posters adorn the London transport system forcefully promoting all manner of books, seminars and revivals where God may be discovered, the atheist alternative simply offers a worry-free life, safe in the knowledge that there “probably is no God”. I don’t find that a convincing line and I’m not sure anyone else should either. My views about religion are based on my experiences and upbringing, the company I keep, but importantly also the available evidence. The Bible offers no substantial evidence for belief in a divine creator especially when considered against the available criticism. I won’t proclaim my approach to the topic has ever been neutral but the slogan does nothing to prompt theists to question their beliefs. If anything, the direction to “stop worrying and enjoy your life” is more akin to one of the Ten Commandments.
In discussing the slogan with another atheist, I was reminded of an exchange between James Randi and Chris French in an interview earlier this year. Towards the end of the interview (which should appear in print in the next issue, and online as a video around the same time), Randi volunteered: “All I want is just to get people thinking. Have them ask questions, have them think about what I have told them. Don’t believe me any more than you believe these other people who make these claims. I’m making a claim too; it may not be true, investigate it, think about it.” French echoed the same sentiment in return, saying: “The bottom line is, just think for yourselves, question everything. Question what I’m telling you and look at the evidence”.
In the spirit of mobilising community members, the RSPCA also issued a statement in October urging the Church to consider and celebrate animals as it places new emphasis on making “Time for God’s Creation”. Seeking to promote awareness of, and a responsible attitude towards, animal suffering, the RSPCA’s press release states “Many people tend to think that animal abuse happens at the hands of just a few, but in truth as a society we need to think far more deeply about how our lifestyle impacts on animals and how we may be, directly or indirectly, permitting suffering”.
The call was timed to coincide with Animal Welfare Sunday (5th October 2008), while the RSPCA also published a “Service for Animal Welfare booklet, written by Professor Linzey, complete with prayers, readings and liturgies”. It would seem that Prof. Linzey is no stranger to animal ethics or religion, either. As employee of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, an Anglican priest, vegetarian and first holder of an academic post in Ethics, Theology and Animal Welfare, he is well suited to his role espousing the ethical lifestyle, a topic which is gaining increasing publicity in recent times.
Despite some questionable practices such as a controversial euthanasia policy (a topic which will be returned to at a later date), People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have for some time approached celebrities sympathetic to their cause, producing campaigns to increase awareness about ethical lifestyles. Ricky Gervais, for instance, has recently written to Gordon Brown asking if his “office be so good as to prod [the Ministry of Defence] with a stick” as they are reluctant to discontinue the use of black bearskin for their Guards’ ceremonial caps. Simon Cowell appeared in a similar campaign stating “If you wouldn’t wear your dog, please don’t wear any fur”. Ironically, single campaigns such as these have a much greater potential for a long-term impact on the attitudes of future generations – Cowell was judged as more famous than either God or the Queen, coming top in a poll of 1600 children under te n.
Few will forget the image of the Vacanti mouse – the unfortunate rodent which, in 1997, received attention from world media due to the ear-shaped cartilage structure artificially created on its back. Since then, there have been developments towards the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos, with the Human Fertility Embryology (HFE) Bill passing its final reading in the House of Commons in October 2008, nearly two years after motions for the outlawing of such embryo research, with a majority of almost two to one.
Although the HFE will permit the creation of three types of hybrid embryo for stem cell research it is, remarkably, not the most striking development in recent times (not to mention the Roman Catholic Church calling for women to be permitted to give birth to human-animal hybrids, according to the Times). Researchers working on a project termed NACHIP at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry have successfully created a neuro-semiconductor interface. In essence, they managed to integrate living mammalian neurons and silicone in a new microchip. Fused to the microchip with proteins found naturally in the brain, electrical signals pass bi-directionally through the neuronal ionic channels. Once refined, the technology could enable the development of much more sophisticated drug screening methodology and, potentially, genetically powered hard discs. It’s perhaps not as sensational as a woman giving birth to a dog but it’s just as interesting.
A shot in the dark
The opportunity to criticise anything children hold dear gives me a warm, fuzzy, glow inside, and nothing epitomises the strict morality advocated by 1950’s childhood legends more than the Lone Ranger. Aside from Silver (who was quite clearly the unsung star of the show), one of the Lone Ranger’s trademarks (or more aptly, gimmicks) was his fashioned silver bullet which, as you’ve probably guessed, is just inaccurate.
The idea that the Lone Ranger could perhaps cast his own bullets or at least acquire them effortlessly simply doesn’t match the reality. Without a high heat resistant graphite mould from which to cast the rounds, it would be almost impossible to heat the silver to its melting point of 962 degrees Celsius to obtain a clean, shiny bullet, a fact Gun World staff discovered when they attempted this. They encountered similar problems when trying to find the correct mix of gunpowder to weight the bullet while maintaining an accurate shot.
The resulting article entitled Lone Ranger, Go Away is a lengthy analysis of their attempts and failures to forge silver bullets with typical tools. In short, if you’re an enthusiast wishing to re-enact scenes from the popular television program (or an assassin looking for a classy calling card), I’d suggest giving up on forging ammunition by campfire and using electrolysis as a method to obtain a silver-plated bullet instead.
Skeptical Digest is written by Mark Williams and e-mailed quarterly alongside published issues of The Skeptic; there may be occasional additional mailings. To subscribe to or leave the digest, visit http://skeptic.org.uk/mail/mail.cgi/list/digest (we do not sell, give away, or rent the e-mailing list)
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