Friday, 29 April 2011
Thursday, 21 April 2011
Thankfully this didn’t escalate into a Civil war and semesters of hostilities between Skeptics and Sceptics à la the Judean Peoples’ Front/Peoples’ Front of Judea. As you can tell by my spelling, I prefer the hard “k” to the soft “c”. English, with it’s wonderfully ambiguous spelling allows for both. I choose “k” for two reasons; firstly, there’s a risk that the word would be pronounced “Septics” owing to the slender “e” after the “c”, and yes, before you say it, I’ll be the first to admit that this is beyond pedantic, but that’s just my way. Secondly, the word is of Greek origin, Σκεπσις, meaning inquiry or doubt, and due to my classical leanings I prefer to spell Greek words with the Greek “k”, rather than the Roman “c”. The most eagle-eyed among you could argue that by the logic of the second point I ought to spell it “Skeptik”, but that’s far too Germanic looking for my liking. (The German is actually skeptisch, which I’m told is how I pronounce Skeptic after the one that’s one too many)
When the Romans transliterated Greek words into Latin they often used the Latin “c” in place of the Greek kappa. Although in later times the Romans adopted the Greek letters zeta, upsilon and kappa (“zed”, “y” and “k” respectively) for Greek loanwords, “scepticus” would remain as it was, kayless, giving rise to the French sceptique, Spanish escéptico, Italian scettico, and all the renditions in their sister-tongues. Both the OED and the New Oxford American Dictionary list “Skeptic” as the American English spelling, and “Sceptic” as the British English. Look out Ireland, Skeptic Soc are here to steal your “u”s and “s”’s.
In closing, both “skeptic” and “sceptic” are both acceptable, and the Skeptics’ Society elected for the “k”. At the end of the day, it really is a matter of personal preference, but whenever I see the latter spelling, much like with uncapitalised “I”‘s (ih) and unapostrophised “you’re”’s (youré), I’ll mentally pronounce it as “septic” and direct all my loathing towards whatever you’ve written.
Wednesday, 20 April 2011
So just another general information post for you today. It's impossible to understate how great and informative podcasts have become. In the spreading of information of all kinds, skeptical and otherwise, they're becoming a cornerstone of modern life. You could yak on and on about citizen journalism and the death of print and blah blah blah, but they certainly do form a cornerstone of whatever our consumption of media and information is becoming.
If you carry a phone around with you, you almost definitely have a platform to listen to some podcasts right there in your pocket. There are a huge amount of ways to get your home computer to download your podcasts automatically, from iTunes to Juice and a gigantic range in-between. In fact, now that smartphones are getting to the point where downloading podcasts directly becomes easier and easier, there are plenty of apps like Stitcher which let you stream your audio rather than download it.
For the last couple of years I've been listening to upwards of 40 podcasts a week. They keep you highly entertained at work, that's for sure. I do have a hardware question for the community though - my Sony Ericsson XPeria X10 is a great phone, but 6 hours of continuous audio kills the battery - these Android phones just don't make good mp3 players. My previous phone could make it more than 24 hours, playing music the vast majority of that time. But I'm kind of hooked on these smart phones now, so my question for you is, what is the Battery life like on the Blackberry range of phones? If anyone has any experience with them, I'ld appreciate the feedback. My enviromentalist sensibilities discourage me from charging my phone as much as I do.
Anyway, some podcast recommendations for you! If you haven't tried out the podcasting thing, I encourage dipping your toe in the water. Here's some pro-science, rational, skeptical podcasts for you to try. They're generally very entertaining too. Stick them on your phone or mp3 player and try one out on your commute/gym trip/while ironing - they just might change your entertainment habits.
Here's some recent Irish podcasts - local and skeptical:
Dublin SITP's Skeprechauns via RSS.
On DCU FM, Occam's Barbershop.
Just across the water, some great skeptical podcasts from the UK:
From Merseyside Skeptics, Skeptics with a K & InKredulous - very funny!
Righteous Indignation, a weekly podcast about skeptical issues.
And elsewhere, another bunch of podcasts to keep you informed and entertained:
The premiere example of skeptical podcasts, NESS' Skeptics Guide to the Universe.
George Hrab's hugely popular and entertaining Geologic Podcast.
From Australia, The Skeptics Zone - also worth subscribing to their email newsletter.
There are so many more that this is just the tip of the iceberg. But it's an iceberg that's well worth mapping out and investigating for yourself. If you haven't tried listening to podcasts before, you really should give a few a listen. I'll be back soon, hopefully with the results of what I've been looking into.
ps. The Birmingham Skeptics did a nice link page on their blog, which you can find here. We got a line there, as well as linkage to this blog. If you use google reader or some other RSS reader, you should give them a follow, they post good stuff there. If you're on twitter, follow them @Brum_Skeptics. I'm going to push the design of this blog around soon, put up a similar page for us and get a better look and feel to the page, as well as linking in all our members contact details, blogs, etc. If you have a blog and/or twitter account or other site you want highlighted, email galwayskeptics@gmail and I'll add it to the list!
Sunday, 17 April 2011
I'm going to make my first post brief. Lacking any real qualifications (yet! There's a psychology degree on the way, if that counts...), I'm not going to try and give answers so much as to ask questions in the hope of stimulating further discussion.
Most of us are less than shy about communicating our skepticism, and rightly so. The threat posed by religious fundamentalism -particularly pertinent in the wake of 9/11- can't go unchecked by a mature and responsible society. Equally, the charlatanry of something like the 'alternative' medicine movement should be intolerable to most of us, given the manner in which it profits by deceiving the sick and the vulnerable.
But how skeptical are you? Is it 'easy' to oppose something as glaringly false to critical minds as homeopathy and crystal healing?
If you haven't already encountered him, it's my pleasure to introduce you to Christopher Hitchens. Best known among skeptics as one of 'The Four Horsemen' of the new atheism published in the last decade (his three distinguished peers being Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett), the range of targets for Hitchens' critiques are somewhat wider. In his career, he has tackled 'untouchables' of the order of Mother Teresa and Bill Clinton; the former on the fast track to sainthood in the Catholic Church, the latter one of the most popular presidents of recent American history.
What Hitchens demonstrates, in choosing such a diverse range of targets for his polemics, is that skeptical thought is more than a collection of scientific facts, it's an entirely different way of thinking. As he points out in his 2001 book, Letters to a Young Contrarian, 'the essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks'. Following logically from this concept, is the scope of our skepticism too narrow? Are areas like economics and politics -inexact sciences if worthy of the name at all- neglected by skeptics?
The second thing I want to draw your attention to, in this post, is the question of how can we communicate skeptical ideas to a wider audience. Though of course the content is the most important aspect of any argument, an effective communicator can bring these ideas to a new audience. I'm probably preaching to the choir on a blogging group for avowed skeptics. Are there more effective ways to communicate, to spread this mode of thinking to a broader audience?
I've linked to a very recent interview with the now cancer-stricken Hitchens. In my opinion, Hitchens is the embodiement of clarity and confidence in communicating skeptical ideas. But I want to hear your thoughts. Can you resist the mellifluous tones of one of our great communicators?
Tuesday, 12 April 2011
Wednesday, 6 April 2011
At least some forty percent of Americans believe that the world was created according to this text, somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago, in spite of radiometric dating of the oldest rocks on earth (indicating how much these rocks have decayed atomically) and microwave background measurements (light travelling through space since the Big Bang) which place the age of the Earth and the Universe respectively at 4.6 billion and 13.7 billion years old. The number of Europeans is considerably lower by most accounts, but still embarrassingly high. In 2006, a poll in the United Kingdom found that twenty-two percent of respondents professed a belief in Creationism, and seventeen percent in Creationism-by-another-name, otherwise known as “Intelligent Design”. Only a little over half of the respondents accepted that Natural Selection was responsible for the development and diversity of life.
There are two important questions here; why do these people believe these things, and is there any merit to their beliefs? The Science in these fields is well established; life originated from organic molecules (although the exact mechanism of abiogenesis has yet to be established or replicated) and then diversified and adapted to survive in an astounding number of ways. The Universe began to expand 13.7 billion years ago, and while what happened before that is unknown to us, we’ve filled a great number of gaps between then and now; Hydrogen clouds formed in the Big Bang coalesced into Stars, and as they died the debris from supernovae formed the heavier elements, which over time, accreted to form planets, you, me, and all life on Earth.
So, while the second question can be answered with an upfront “no” and I’ll elaborate on it later, why on earth do people believe these things? Well, although I hate to take personal experiences into these things, I will state that I have yet to meet a Creationist (out of the three or so I’ve actually discussed this topic with) who actually understood what Natural Selection is. They have a tendency to believe a misconception about Charles Darwin’s 1859 On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection; Usually that they think that the theory states that the complex life we see today sprung into existence ex nihilo. Feel free to take a moment to laugh at that. Creationism proposes that all life sprang into existence from nothing, but because they say “God did it” that makes it less ridiculous in their minds than a misunderstanding of a scientific theory. In essence, they believe that the book proposes a theory of abiogenesis, and this could not be further from the truth. In his lifetime, Darwin only ventured as far as to speculate about the conditions of abiogenesis;
It is often said that all the conditions for the first production of a living organism are present, which could ever have been present. But if (and Oh! what a big if!) we could conceive in some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity, etc., present, that a protein compound was chemically formed ready to undergo still more complex changes, at the present day such matter would be instantly devoured or absorbed, which would not have been the case before living creatures were formed.
But he was aware that the science of his era was not nearly able to tackle such an immense question. Natural Selection, often known as Evolution, is the process by which life adapts and changes over time. The theory doesn’t cover the origin of life, but rather the origin of the immense diversity of life. Darwin, and the co-discoverer of the theory, Alfred Wallace came to their conclusions after years of hard work, travel and observation of diverse forms of life. So, how did the author(s) of Genesis come to the conclusions which they came to? Divine revelation? Pshaw.
In all probability, Genesis was the product of an earlier Oral tradition, perhaps even several different traditions, which I have no doubt is related to the stories of contemporary societies in the Near-East. In a strange move for a monotheistic religion, God has an unusual habit of referring to himself in the first-person-plural ( Let us make man in our image, after our likeness ). Earlier in the narrative, the term Elohim “Gods”, is used to refer to God, but later he undergoes a name change to the more familiar name Yahweh. Interestingly, the Canaanites, another Semitic society had in their pantheon two deities, also known as Yahweh and El. Perhaps the story was a synthesis of several earlier narratives, and when it was codified the scribes decided to be mumpsimuses and not alter the polytheistic references. The Story of Adam and Eve bears a remarkable similarity to Mesopotamian Epic He who saw the Deep, or Gilgamesh which recounts the story of the wild man Enkidu, who after having sex with a Temple-prostitute, is feared by the animals he once hunted with, and said to be wise and “like a god”. Sound familiar? If you read the Epic of Gilgamesh, you’ll see that the chances of the Bible being either Holy Writ or divinely inspired are somewhere between “slim” and “none”.
Taking a moment to justify my earlier “no”, it’s plain to see that these archaic beliefs hold no merit. We have developed numerous theories which account for much that was unknown to us in the Bronze Age, and if new evidence comes to light, contradicting earlier evidence, (Rabbits in the Precambrian, or the like) then we’ll change our theories to suit the new facts, once again illustrating the difference between Science and Religion; Science has no holy unalterable text, no divine laws, science is the pursuit of knowledge, religion is the pursuit of fantasy. Essentially these people reject reality because they’re kept in the dark, either by parents, teachers, preachers, themselves, or a combination of the four, and don’t even know what the facts are. Anyone who has looked at the “arguments” against Natural Selection will see that they’re entirely based on a misconception of the theory, one of the most hilarious being “Well then why have we never seen a monkey give birth to a man?”. Aquinas would be proud.
Tuesday, 5 April 2011
I'm glad to see page view numbers are picking up for our group blogging experiment here for Galway Skeptics. It's really important to me in any group I'm part of to get word out about what I/they do and let people know that there's no secrecy or in-group nonsense going on. A blog is a nice way to get the word out and let people know what we're thinking about.
I'm currently involved in looking into something I'm *highly* skeptical about but I haven't got all the details I want to share with you yet. Suffice to say it involves the not-so-hallowed halls of Irish Academia and Homeopathy and other nonsense. Hopefully I'll have more details for you by the time my next posting day rolls around.
Anyway, one of my main worries at the moment is this linkage of a certain brand of Swine Flu vaccine with an onset of Narcolepsy in younger patients. There's a lot of news on it about at the moment, so I won't tire you with details you can easily find on google if it does interest you. It's one of those media storms that has so many facets that you could spend a hundred years unpicking the inferences of all the different takes on it. Luckily, it comes down to 2 straight facts to take away -
1. There are side-effect free H1N1 vaccines from other companies that we can rely on instead.
2. There is no denying that the idea of developing narcolepsy is terrible, especially in the case of children & young adults, but the idea of a flu pandemic killing thousands of that same cohort would be worse, right?
A possible third take away is that if you're a large pharmaceutical company and there's even an outside chance that your vaccine may give people some kind of side effect, don't give it a Sci-Fi/Horror Tabloid-Frenzy-Friendly name like "Pandemrix". Seriously, it sounds like something marketed by the Umbrella Corporation.
Back in two weeks with something more thought out!
Monday, 4 April 2011
Also don't forget to spread the word to any who are interested in Skepticism in the west of Ireland. You can jump onto our Facebook Page to stay in touch.
And we're still looking for you guys to sign on to the group blogging effort here on the blog! (no pressure!) :D
Saturday, 2 April 2011
Our slots are slowly filling up:
Monday - Admin post from galwayskeptics@gmail
Tuesday - donalfall
Thursday - Charles Doyle
Friday, 1 April 2011
What a great day for Skepticism!
Why, you ask? Is it because Galway Skeptics in the Pub finally has its own blog? (Thanks @donalfall) Or perhaps because said blog is fortunate enough to have me as one of its contributors?
Nope, nothing so vain, thankfully. Rather, it is because today is April 1st, widely celebrated as April Fools’ Day around the world. It’s the one day when even the most credulous of people will, upon reading or hearing just about any story, advertisement or article, think; “Is this really true?”
Now if only people applied the same thinking all year round.