Tag Archives: the-times

Make your excuses and leave

The UK is daily seeing revelations of levels of institutional corruption that would have raised eyebrows in Amin’s Uganda. News International seem to have gone for full-scale subversion of any British institution they can get their hands on.

There’s an embarrassment of revelation riches. Scandals are spilling out at a rate that reminds you of the way that a convicted criminal might ask for hundreds of offences to be taken into consideration when he knows he’s going to jail anyway.
As a random instance: The Sun targeting Gordon Brown’s family. Including getting access to his disabled child’s medical records. And even having to invite the buggers to the funeral.
Hacking Brown was not even a well kept secret. It should have been the subject of a court case.

An unexpected ruling by a judge six years ago effectively covered up the chance to publicly expose evidence of the illegal targeting of Gordon Brown, which had been unearthed by a startled team of provincial detectives.
Operation Reproof, by Plymouth police, revealed the first of what became many systematic attempts to gain illegal confidential information on the prime minister and his family, but their findings were suppressed.
The Guardian has now been able to document the facts.
Files buried in police archives detail the discovery of an extraordinary nationwide network of private investigators, whom a corrupt local police officer was feeding with information filched from the police national computer (PNC) (from the Guardian)

Unlike Plymouth Police, the Metropolitan Police were allegedly so entangled in NI’s web of corruption and blackmail that they couldn’t do anything except contribute to the cover-ups.

(Even where NI misbehaviour involved a police detective, Detective Chief Superintendent David Cook, a Crimewatch presenter targetted for daring to investigate the murder of a NI-employed private detective, whose partners – also NI-employed private detectives were suspects. )

You can’t really blame them when it seemed that every member of the British establishment was either cowed or complicit (or, more likely, both.)

Thus, it’s been left to people like comedian Steve Coogan and actor Hugh Grant to mount almost the only serious challenges to the evil empire.

I am pleased to see that the BSkyB bid finally looks unlikely to go through unchallenged. The Murdoch machine has almost brought the BBC to its knees in pursuit of its tv ambitions, so – blameless as Sky channels might be, in terms of hacking dead teenager’s phones – I’d like to see it fail.

Also, it’s nice to see that News Corp investors are finally questioning the company, although it seems a mite hypocritical for institutional investors to insist that Murdoch must have known what his papers were doing. Can investors really have been unaware of the nature of the business they were investing in? If so, I suggest sending them 412 scam letters immediately, because they have money to invest and are naive enough to believe anything.

Ever since Margaret Thatcher signed some Faustian deal with Murdoch, British society has been paying the price. Maybe, as Harriet Harman implied in an interview this week, all UK political parties should get together and ask News Corp “Can we have our country back, please?”

Fibre optic cable to god

I hope the god-of-abraham has a decent internet connection. He seems to have dropped “omnipresence” from his skillset and to have been reduced to logging on to catch up with his latest comments, like us mere mortals.

A good post on the Times religion blog reported on the growth of online prayer sites. Like beliefnet.

I was already baffled enough by prayer. The internet version is incomprehensible to another order of magnitude.

There are lots of tragic situations listed, with set prayers to go with them. (I don’t know if the participants are allowed to put them in their own words or to precis them in a hurry.)

Do these get delivered straight to the-god-of-abraham? Or are people supposed to repeat them aloud or read them silently, or what? (I have a sneaking suspicion that I may have inadvertently “prayed” by reading them online).

Apparently, the site has seen a huge surge in online prayer requests since the economy tanked. Is the divine omniscience failing again? Surely the-god-of-abraham already knows about the economy?

If he was going to spare his devotees from getting poorer, surely he’d have already sorted them. Or, at least, raptured them or something. Don’t tell me he’s doing that bastardy thing again of just helping them out if they really crawl first and tell him how much they love him.

The answer is so obvious. He’s got fibre-optic cable and now he spends all day surfing the net rather than listening to individuals’ hearts. If it’s not on a blog – or at least on twitter – he hasn’t heard it.

The Times post quoted Richard Sloan:

“The prayers on these sites are all prayers for petition, as opposed to prayers of praise, or prayers of wonder…”

In other words they are all celestial begging letters.

Beliefnet reckons Jesus or god or both (I’m mildly confused by which one this is) promised to answer these prayers:

Jesus lays down amazing promises about the power of asking things from God. He promises to answer. You can check out Thursday’s post if you’d like to see a few of those commitments. Bottom line: God puts himself on the line to deliver what we pray for!

God “puts himself on the line”!!! By Ogum! God may even step up to the plate to deliver on these prayers. Count me in, there’s loads of things I’d like to ask for.

No wait, there is small print. “conditions.”

One of which is, bizarrely, that “Jesus makes prayer a corporate matter.”

I am in awe at this 21st century god. He doesn’t just have a net connection. He is also a CEO.

Ah, it seems to mean he answers prayers by volume.

Effective requests come to God as petitions with more than one signature attached.

Look, he’s a busy guy, right? He can’t be expected to pay attention to the fall of a single sparrow or anything, in a world with 6 billion human beings. He needs lots of voices clamouring for him to do something before he’ll bother to put himself on the line. (That’s why your single prayer for the regrowth of your amputated limb failed, fool.)

There were previous conditions: “asking” (Well duh, if you don’t ask, you don’t get. Surely you didn’t think your god was omniscient enough to know that you wouldn’t welcome that bankruptcy?) and “faith.”

Which has a strangely instrumentalist meaning:

Faith as the Bible defines it is an action based on a conviction that something promised with be delivered, even before any evidence appears that it will be so.

Is this a new consumerist adaptation of Christianity? Guaranteed delivery, even if you don’t actually get the thing you ordered.

The god-of-abraham as a giant e-commerce application?

According to the Times,

Worries about the ethics of these sites are further fuelled by the existence of some which charge for intecessionary prayer, offering a ‘call-centre’ style service.

Bang up to the minute, again, god-of-abraham.

What’s the betting that he’s outsourced the whole god business to some Indian call-centre? There must be enough gods in the Hindu pantheon to service the current global demand for divine intervention.

And the god-of-abraham is sunning himself on the beach at some Red Sea resort with a fast internet connection.

Old Scientology News

This is ‘old news’ in 2 senses. (Sense 1) It’s old news because it’s from the the Times of 6 August 2009. (Sense 2) And it’s also really old news because it’s “formerly secret news” from 3 decades ago. The gist of it is:

L Ron Hubbard was a fraud….. No, really. (It is also rumoured the Pope is Catholic. There may be secret files on this.)

The Times filed a Freedom of Information request to access the National Archive files on Scientology. The Department of Health yielded the information on diplomats’ efforts to find out if Hubbard was really a PhD.

(Quick pause to wonder how confusing the government filing system must have been if this item ended up in the Dept of Health.)

Britain’s secret mission to expose Scientology leader as ‘fraud’
The founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, was exposed as a fraud 30 years ago by British diplomats who were investigating his qualifications.
The science-fiction writer, who invented a religion now followed by celebrities such as Tom Cruise, awarded himself a PhD from a sham “diploma mill” college that he had acquired, the diplomats found. …..

Bit of a damp squib. Given the relatively enticing headline, I was hoping for something more shocking than L Ron’s postgraduate qualifications being imaginary. I suppose at that point maybe the claim that

“…L. Ron Hubbard was awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy by Sequoia University on February 10, 1953, in recognition of his outstanding work in the fields of Dianetics and Scientology and that the said degree was recorded with the Department of Education of the State of California,” John McMaster stated.

might have passed for academic support for the idea of the sciencey- sounding Dianetics actually being a science. It’s still hard to imagine a world in which any reasonable person would accept that, even if it turned out to be supported by a PHd or a full professorship or an NVQ Level 1 in Customer Service.

Links to the Times Scientology Archive don’t work today, but this Times link did:

Simpsons producers ‘have a cow’ as Bart lends his voice to Scientologists
Bart Simpson used to be an underachiever and proud of it. These days, it seems, he’s an Operating Thetan VII in the Church of Scientology and proud of that, too.
At least, that is what Scientologists were led to believe this week when they received an automated telephone message featuring the voice of Bart inviting them to the Scientology Flag World Tour, an event being held in Hollywood tomorrow.

Blimey, those Scientologists are real celeb-magnets. Even the voice of a cartoon character – whose defining characteristics are mischievousness and stupidity – is grist to their celeb mill.

Although, it turns out that, in the real world, Bart’s voice belongs to a woman who is an Operating Thetan VII “and therefore an individual who can operate independently of her body” (The Times). Hmm, sorry, did I say “in the real world”?

Well, it seems her body can operate independently of her mind anyway, because

Ms Cartwright, who earns an estimated $400,000 (£280,000) per episode, was recently awarded Scientology’s Patron Laureate Award after reportedly donating $10 million to the organisation

As it happens, I have a Nobel prize from Oak University, awarded for my sterling work in Camillanology. I have produced a rigorous science-filled training plan that will allow dedicated students to gain the mystical power to talk out of their bottoms. And I love cartoons.

Don’t pay out another dollar please, Ms Cartwright until you have checked out the secret system that I was taught by hyper-intelligent entities from the planet Zeta,

While the cat’s away

Ben Goldacre seems to be on holiday. (His most recent post on badscience.net was dated 18 July.) The temporary absence of the scourge of pseudo-science may have given the green light to new levels of absurdity.

The Times Science Editor, no less, wrote that

Women are getting more beautiful
FOR the female half of the population, it may bring a satisfied smile. Scientists have found that evolution is driving women to become ever more beautiful, while men remain as aesthetically unappealing as their caveman ancestors.
The researchers have found beautiful women have more children than their plainer counterparts and that a higher proportion of those children are female. Those daughters, once adult, also tend to be attractive and so repeat the pattern

Now, being in the female half of the population, I’m not showing a satisfied smile. In fact, he only physical expression that you could detect me making would be the Sign language sign for “bullshit”, which a QI repeat showed last week.

(Arms crossed on your chest, with the fingers of one hand making horns and the fingers of the other hand opening and closing as if to drop a load. How beautifully expressive is that?)

If I knew the Sign Language for “ideological and sexist bullshit”, I’d be putting that here instead. But I bet even Steven Fry doesn’t know that one.

“Beautiful” women have more children? Can anyone pretend for one second that there is an objective standard for beauty? Ideals of beauty vary enormously over time and between cultures. Indeed,you wouldn’t find agreement on a common standard between people living a few miles apart. (Certainly not in the city where I live.)

And “having more children”, nay even, having more female children? WTF. That might have been a sign of evolutionary success in the paleolithic, but would surely have depended much more on the capacity to raise children to adulthood than to breed them even then. In modern societies, having a smaller number of offspring is pretty well directly associated with higher levels of education, health and wealth, at the household level, and with economic development, at the social level.

To follow the “logic” of this argument, uglier women would be more reproductively successful in modern society, then, surely?

Quite apart from anything else – because I’m bored with pointing out blatant absurdities in this report – just look around. Opening your eyes on any public street will soon put paid to any idea that good-looking people reproduce more than homely people.

This is the nub of the science bit:

In a study released last week, Markus Jokela, a researcher at the University of Helsinki, found beautiful women had up to 16% more children than their plainer counterparts. He used data gathered in America, in which 1,244 women and 997 men were followed through four decades of life. Their attractiveness was assessed from photographs taken during the study, which also collected data on the number of children they had.

Hmm, that sounds sciencey but, just having numbers in doesn’t make it science. (Pause to remember that “up to 16%” more children can include anything from fewer children right up to 16% more. )

I can’t find this study online, although there are plenty of newmedia refernces to it. The only works I can find with the name of Markus Jokela are apparently legit: a study of childhood risk in the the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and a study of IQ, Socioeconomic Status and Early Death: The US National Longitudinal Survey of Youth in Psychosomatic Medicine.

I’m pretty tempted to let Dr Jokela off the hook here and suggest that the whole beautiful women reproduce more “study” is an obscure internet jokela. One can but hope.

In any case, Ben Goldacre, please stop sunning yourself, and sort this nonsense out.

Mind-reading

I’d barely started to grasp the concept of click-jacking. (And surf-jacking , modem-jacking, car-jacking, rate-jacking etc.)

Now, we also have to worry about “brain-jacking”, according to the Times.

It sounds like science fiction, but politicians, lawyers and advertisers are falling over themselves to buy into the latest scientific discovery: brainjacking. Soon our secret desires and not so innocent thoughts could become public knowledge. John Naish investigates an uncomfortable trend (sub-heading to the Times article)

The idea that machines can determine our true thoughts and feelings isn’t just silly (although, on present showing, it certainly seem to be that) but dangerous. It has already been used in several Indian cases that involved serious crimes, despite the opposition of scientists:

Although an Indian government panel of scientists says this technique, Brain Electrical Oscillation Signature profiling (BEOS), should be ignored, its use in India is spreading

I was pretty scathing about lie-detection technology a few weeks ago.

This sparked the researcher Aiden Gregg to put up an elegant defence of his work in the comments here. I was feeling a bit guilty for randomly splattering out knee-jerk scepticism, when his careful research itself couldn’t be held to blame for how it might be misused by people who don’t understand probabilities. But he said this:

However, as an asserted lie detector, the VSA may intimidate benefit claimants into bring more truthful in general. Ironically, this would involve telling a lie to deter lying.

I don’t think that ironically is the right word, here. I think that unethically is more appropriate. (And that’s ignoring the tendency of the innocent to feel guilty in the face of any interrogation and intimidated in the face of prying authority. Although, maybe, deterring as many claimants as possible is the true objective.)

The Indian courts might be able to intimidate the gullible-guilty into thinking that their brains have given them away. This will not work on the less-gullible guilty. The process could even work to give them an unearned apparent veracity.

The process is basically a conjurer’s mind-reading trick, with science-y looking props. If I had access to a million-dollars, so that I could offer a Randi-style million dollar challenge, I’d happily bet myself against a mind-reading machine as being just as likely to tell who was lying. I think I’m quite good at it. I wouldn’t claim more than 85% success rate but nor do the machine-minders.

So, not having a million dollars, I am setting up the “Ned Ludd Memorial Mind-reading Machine-breaking Challenge.” I will give £20 to the first person who can best my truth-detection skills with some new-fangled electrodes-in-skull contraption.

Cow juice

Without being at all convinced this story is true, I can’t resist repeating it…. The Times says that Hindu Nationalists are about to launch a soft drink made from cows’ piss.

In 2001, the RSS and its offshoots – which include the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party – began promoting cow urine as a cure for ailments ranging from liver disease to obesity and even cancer.

The claim is that it will be healthy and cheap.

(Hmm. If the health argument is founded on the likelihood that drinking cow’s piss will cure cancer or liver disease, what is there to say? Obesity is a different matter. It might be hard to keep down any food after you’d forced yourself to swallow a cup of cow’s piss, so maybe you’d lose weight through starvation.

Cheap? Quite possibly, but, as you couldn’t pay most people enough to drink it, charging anything at all seems a doomed marketing strategy.)

He insisted, however, that it would be able to compete with the American cola brands, even with their enormous advertising budgets. “We’re going to give them good competition as our drink is good for mankind,” he said. “We may also think of exporting it.”

Many of the comments on the Times article are surprisingly in favour of the idea. (Do I suspect a comment-based marketing impetus?)

And oh joy! :-D Just when you thought there was at least one area of life that the anti-PC brigade couldn’t spew out their gibberish, one commenter says:

Cow’s urine or anyone’s urine! Never in a thousand years! Yuck!! The world has indeed gone mad. What else will they think about? The politically correct bunch will no doubt embrace it and force it on us. Just wait and see. John Lim, Carlsbad, US

Amazingly, it’s actually easier to get your head round the prospect of drinking cows’ piss than it is to see the tortured logic in that.

Bad science of the day – minority report

There’s a new contender for the Holy Grail object: The Magic Machine that Can Tell Truth from Lies.

On the face of it, this one seems even more useless than the old-style polygraph. It can be beaten by the simple expedient of “answeringquicklywithouthesitation.”.

The Times reported that psychologist Aiden Gregg has developed:

A new lie detector test shows that it takes on average 30% longer to tell a fib than to be honest.

That sounds an impressive test for truth – objective quantifiable, replicable, easy to measure, and so on.

Gregg said he built the test because he suspected that criminals were finding increasing ways to hide their dishonesty. …..
… The psychologist warned that existing lie detectors such as polygraphs – which monitor physiological changes such as blood pressure and body temperature – implicate too many innocent people. (from the Times)

Government funding for security is so reliable in these cash-strapped times for universities. So, in one way, it’s a great idea, from an academic’s perspective.

But I can’t see anything in this report that backs up its claims as a Holy Grail Machine.

The experiments were done in an environment which was not pressured. Completely unlike a real-world instance, subjects would have no reasons to be anxious about telling either lies or truth. However, thinking up experimental “lies” would mean subjects had to take more time than the took to tell non-lies.

If you were an innocent suspect sitting in front of one of these machines, for real, you would be worried about your answers. You might hesitate before saying anything, as you pondered possible implications. On the other hand, if you were guilty but had practised a good story, you could just reel it out. Quickly.

This machine might work for finding out which of a group of scared twelve-year-olds had graffittied the bus stop. (Although, elementary normal investigation skills would surely achieve that more time-effectively and actually produce valid evidence.)

Practised liars are convincing. They can smile and wail and even sob convincingly, witness Karen Matthews’ performances. The time-delay counting machine would never have uncovered what was true or false in what she said. Any innocent mother, in the position that Karen Matthews pretended to be, would not answer normally. She would fail the test, while the sort of person who could lie about such an event to their closest family and friends would probably come across as being truthful.

Flawed as this whole lie-detector machine concept is, you can pretty well guarantee that politicians will NOT welcome it unless they are confident that they can beat it easily.

So, if it does get the government go-ahead after its trials, you can at least be confident that it doesn’t work at all.

Windmill aesthetics

Buildings don’t get much more attractive than traditional windmills. More or less anyone will agree on that. It even comes as a bit of a shock to remember that windmills were industrial structures, not landscape beautification projects.

So, what is it about modern wind turbines that sends some people into a rage? In the Times, Charles Bremner claimed that the French countryside was becoming ugly because of the spread of wind turbines.

Windpower blights “la belle France”

His argument is basically that France doesn’t need the “ugly” windturbines because it has loads of nuclear power. What? Has he ever seen a nuclear power station?

The UK’s only remotely attractive one, as a building, was Trawfyndd – of which the architecture bit of the Guardian showed a flattering photograph a couple of months ago. The photo doesn’t come with the online story but here’s an extract from the text.

The tradition continued into the early nuclear age with the appointment of Basil Spence, architect of Coventry cathedral, to design Trawsfynydd in Wales. Like Scott, Spence went down the route of unabashed monumentality to reflect the awesome technology at work within. Never mind that his 20-storey monoliths in the middle of Snowdonia stuck out like a pair of sore thumbs. At the time of Trawsfynydd’s construction, in 1959, this treatment was entirely appropriate: symbolically, nuclear power was one of the few things that told Britain it was still Great. That triumphalism would soon fade, as the implications of the Windscale fire in 1957 became apparent, and environmental and peace movements started to campaign against nuclear.
One need only look at the industrial-looking nuclear eyesores built in the 1970s and 80s, such as Hartlepool or Dungeness, to see the change. Having furnished Britain with some of the ugliest buildings ever seen, British Energy took a renewed concern in the appearance of Sizewell B in the 90s.

Note, “Ugliest buikdings ever seen.”

You can see a selection of postcard views of nuclear carbon-friendly power plants on an odd site that google found, and you’d have to admit that, despite the stunning landscapes they are set in, the kindest description of them would be “darkly foreboding.”

OK, the concepts of beauty and ugliness are relative and individual. Let’s assume that those elegant wind turbine blades are uglier as huge concrete slab monolithic powerplants in the eyes of some beholders.

Pretend that a miraculous new way of generating energy (from fusion or electrolytic transformation or any star-trekky energy source you can imagine) has been discovered. So, the working life of a wind turbine is over. What happens to it? You just take it down. I think that’s it. (You might cause some localised pollution by dropping it in landfill. Pretty small beer compared to what we dump every day, but still, I’m trying to be fair.)

Not quite as easy to take down all the carbon-neutral new nuclear power plants is it? You need a decade or more for decommissioning. You’d still have to protect it to within an inch of its life (from accidents and terrorists) for that time. Then you’d just have to store and guard the materials for, oh I don’t know, a few thousand years.

Or, let’s assume that the star-trek energy breakthrough doesn’t happen. The turbines just spin around, collecting energy that – as far as I can tell, on recent form – is increasing, if anything. They break and can get replaced. The land, sea and air around them are as clean, or otherwise, as they would be in the absence of a turbine.

There is no reason, except aesthetics, for not siting them in the centre of big cities. If they break, they just break. They don’t go critical.

A really unlucky person might find that a broken one landed on their head. This doesn’t quite compare with Chernobyl.

(There’s a REALLY ugly power generator picture – of the post-explosion Chernobyl plant - on the Wikipedia page. I didn’t pasted it here because I’m baffled by the fair use clause.)

Imagining for one minute that you share the aesthetic sensibilities of Charles Bremner and the couple of French aristocrats he reported, it’s still a very small price to pay.

Holiness

Rachel Sylvester, wrote in the Times that “There’s a god-shaped hole in Westminster” I assumed this meant that Thor had crash landed outside the House of Commons or, at the least, that artistic roadworkers had scooped out a reverse statue of Pan from the pavements of the Royal Borough.

Disappointingly, not so. Rachel Sylvester just thinks that our politicians are too godless.

Certainly, politicians find it easier to “come out” as atheists than to profess that they have a religious faith. Nick Clegg, David Miliband and George Osborne have all said recently that they do not believe in God – something that would be unthinkable in the United States, where presidential candidates compete to win over religious voters……
……. the favourite book for politicians on holiday last year was The God Delusion.

Well, yes, of course they find it easier to say they are atheists, rather than to call their own credulity and mental health into question, by claiming to believe in an imaginary friend. They want us to vote for them surely.

(I am distracted again by exactly how Rachel Sylvester knows what politicians’ favourite holiday reading was. I mean, I’d like to believe that it was the God Delusion but I fear that falls into the category of “made-up stuff”.)

The creeping secularisation of politics was one of the factors that pushed Ruth Kelly, a devout Roman Catholic, into resigning her Cabinet position. …….
She was also disturbed by the way in which her membership of Opus Dei was seen as something weird and even rather dangerous; and she disliked the way in which Mr Blair’s Christianity was mocked during the war in Iraq.

“Creeping secularisation” suggests some stealthy process in which the religious underpinnings of British government are being progressively undermined. Nonsense. Religion plays a bigger part in public discourse now than it has before in my lifetime. If anything, Blair let ideas of “religion” and “faith” intrude into UK politics in ways that were relatively novel.

Ruth Kelly’s membership of Opus Dei may indeed have been seen as something weird. Because it is.

(Although I doubt anyone had heard of her before she resigned, let alone knew that she was member of of Opus Dei, a Catholic society not normally associated with the politics of the Labour Party, old or new.)

Blair’s Christianity “mocked during the war in Iraq”. What? What on earth are you talking about? Blair was unpopular because of the war, true enough. What did his avowed Christianity have to do with that war? Or did he think he was secretly acting for Rowan Williams or the Pope? I can’t believe that either of them would thank him for it.

He was mocked for his commitment to “faith”, fair enough. Indeed, his commitment to his “faith” was so great that he pretended to be an Anglican until he left power, then immediately “converted” to Catholicism. It’s quite hard to see this as a deep and abiding commitment to anything.

Plus, if he was indeed mocked, it must have only been in the House of Commons, which boosts my faltering trust in the judgment of MPs. Most British voters are not interested in a politician’s religion, even though Ms Sylvester seems to think that we need politicians to proclaim imaginary solutions to give us the optimism to deal with crises:

It is ironic that politicians in this country have abandoned belief – at the very moment that the people need hope.

What? This rhetoric is bilge. Have politicians all abandoned belief? No such luck. All of a sudden? No. Do people need “hope” now particularly, as opposed to any other time? Obviously not. Do people get “hope” as a result of politicians believing in sky fairies? Too silly to answer.

Have your hate

I suspect the Twat-O-Tron has been at work on the BBC’s Have Your Say (HYS) pages once more. One of todays “discussion” topics is Should immigration be cut because of the downturn? As you can imagine, this sort of thing really does bring the spiteful, uneducated, masses out of the dark, hate-filled world they normally hide in.

As always, a second-rate politician has found a topic they can grand-stand on, which appeals to the base instincts of the public:

The economic downturn will mean fewer people from outside the European Union are allowed to live and work in Britain, the UK Immigration Minister Phil Woolas has suggested.
Mr Woolas told the Times newspaper that in times of economic difficulty, racial stereotyping gets stronger so jobs should go primarily to those who live here.
He said when people were losing their jobs, immigration had become an extremely thorny issue.
Mr Woolas said the government would not allow the population to go up to 70 million.

I doubt more than a handful of people outside his constituency had heard of Mr Woolas before this, but he has achieved his goal. His “inspiring” comments have drawn quite a bit of attention to him.

Predictably, at the time of writing anyway, the weight of comments on HYS is in support of this madness. It seems that people have an arbitrary idea of what means someone is “British” enough to be here. On its own, this is bizarre enough but it seems there is a new version of logic available to these people. Each of these seem to fall into a theme.

The first is made up from people who are slightly misled:

UK Government must respond to the changing economic situation by making drastic cuts in the non EU workers coming to work and live in UK.With recession knocking on our doors resulting in job losses and increase in unemployment it will be folley to allow the immigration at the present level. Immigration must be restricted to needed skilled workers only. [By the miracle of irony, this comment was from "Mohan Lal Ramchandani, Westhoughton, United Kingdom"]

Non-EU migrant workers are, despite scare-mongering stories, few and far between in the UK. There are already regulations in place to restrict this migration to skilled workers, which is why the non-EU migrants tend to be in highly specialised professions (Doctors for example). Now, as with all things, the jobs are open to everyone – if British doctors are either unable to take the job, or unwilling to work at the market rate, then why on Odin’s Earth shouldn’t non-EU immigrants do the work?

Worryingly for non-xenophobic lunatics, the jobs lost in the recession are always certainly going to hit “British” workers before they hit migrants; the migrants are already paid peanuts. This will provide an arsenal of madness for the xenophobes and it is worrying that the Immigration Minister didn’t think before he spoke. Well done HM Government.

The next category is the weird, irrelevant, analogy:

At last. Well done for your comments hear. This country could easily be swamped by immigration. The world population is spiralling out of control.
In the Ciaro area for example, there are more than 1.5 million every year, and there is no way enough jobs can be created, despite Egypt’s economic growth.
Rubbish just piles up in the streets, alongside dead animals and roaming packs of unempoyed young men. A worrying vision for a future UK city? [Phil, Enfield]

Typo’s aside, this madness. I have been Cairo and it looked very different to that. However, even if “Phil” was 100% accurate it carries a huge so what. London is not Cairo. The differences are immense, even if UK councils have gone down the road of less and less frequent rubbish collection…

The inevitable empty rant also has its place:

I just cant express my anger at the way in which New Labour have allowed immigration to run riot over the last 11 years in only 500 words.
To announce a cap on immigration now, after the NHS and almost every other public body in the country have been saying for years that they cant cope with the current influx beggars belief, and I just dont believe that they will have the strength to stand up to the namby pamby lefties who put the needs of foreigners before those of brits.
Shut the door today [Downingstreet Mole, Leominster, United Kingdom]

Basically, this is someone who is just plain angry. They don’t really have anything to say and there is no coherent argument. They just wanted to rant about leftwingers. Well done them. Oddly, and sadly for the tabloids, most immigrant workers don’t put pressure on the NHS. People who are earning less than minimum wage aren’t really in a position to take a few days off sick. People who are here, living 30 to a house, dont make a huge dent in the NHS dentistry budget. Yes, a small percentage do use the health service but most don’t. They cant afford to.

Conspiracy theorists have to get their oar in:

please remember we live on an island, and not a very big island at that.
tony blairs government idea of a multicultral country is and was flawed from the outset forgetting history and the fact this little island is not big enough for too many people to live on safely.
the only reason the government invited so many in was to gain supportand ultimately engineer staying in power longer, ignoring indiginous minorities infavour of incoming peoples.
it has to stop now.[delminister, truro, United Kingdom]

Well, this is odd. There are quite a few which have made this claim (or a variation thereof). It strikes me as odd, because Labour’s managed to get in power while a Conservative government held the seat. So, did Labour have a secret load of migrants to vote for them or is this just nonsense? Equally weird, migrants dont get to vote… Truly, the world of HYS is bizarre.

Staying with the madness we get this:

Everyone I speak to from the UK complains about immigration.
The Government ignores what the population of the UK wants. A stop to it.
For this reason alone, regardless of any supposed economic benefits, it should be stopped.[Will de Beest, Spain]

(Spain! Ha). Basically this implies that the government shouldn’t mind about the benefits or costs of a policy, but should just do what ever the subset of the population this nutcase talks to want. Wow. Wouldn’t that lead to a Utopia.

“What are you going to say to the employer who is desperate to fill a job, but can’t find anyone suitable in the European economic area?”
Keith Best, chief executive, Immigration Advisory Service
Is this for real? – is this guy seriously suggesting that there are jobs out there that can not be filled by anyone from within the EU, let alone this country?
If that is the case then maybe the employer should take his business elsewhere.[Graham Duncan, United Kingdom]

Erm, yes. That is what Keith Best is saying, If the employer can’t find some one from the EU he takes his business elsewhere and employs from outside the EU. It is a shame that (on HYS) British-loving seems to mean the same as idiot. This is a milder version where a poor sense of history has conspired to create the idiocy:

We were once a proud nation at peace with itself and common sense lived here it was so good everyone else wanted to live here.
Our grandfathers had worked hard and sacrificed much to make this county Great but immigration reversed all that. Broke, and under shortsighted leadership we have given away more than we could afford.
Should immigration be cut YES, in all honesty it should have been stopped years ago. [Tom J-P[, Byfleet]

There isn’t really all that much I can say to that, other than no.

The comments continue to be a mix of racist, mad or just daft, although having just refreshed them I see there is some balance there now. The oddest part is that people are in favour of immigration laws (which will only affect non-EU migrants) because they want to reduce the number of EU migrants. It really is that stupid.

Worryingly (for the UK) it does show how stupid our electorate is, and how easily they can be misdirected by a slightly cunning politician. I really do think that democracy doesn’t work – most people are too thick.

Ironically, if we did institute a system where people who could barely read or write English were deported, we’d be stuck as most of them (using HYS as my non-scientific, non-representative sample) would have been born here…

Medjugorje apparitions

At the same time that the Archbishop of Canterbury is boosting the claims of one religious “miracle” site – accepting “visions of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes as historical fact”, the Pope is trying to put a stop to another, at Medjugorje. (Please don’t make me spell it again.) What’s the difference between Lourdes and Medjugorje?

According to Simon Caldwell, in the Spectator, the “the world-famous pilgrimage site (Medjugorje) may soon be exposed as a fraud.” The Pope’s opposition to it seems to be a factor. (H/t The Times)

A Yugoslav priest, Father Vlasic, got a nun pregnant and sent her to Germany, promising to follow and marry her. (A promise that he had no intention of keeping.) He replied to her anxious letters with typical religious bullshit. However, her landlord read the letters and sent them to the Vatican.

Six years later Father Vlasic is ‘spiritual leader’ of six children who say the Virgin Mary appears to them daily in Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina. But the local bishop is having none of it. The priest writes to Pope John Paul II to say that Satan is working through the bishop and to request direct intervention against him. But, worse luck, the Vatican official with copies of his love letters takes an interest in the case and sends them to the bishop in question.
Disgraced, the priest then heads for Italy where, with a new mistress, he sets up a mixed-sex religious community devoted to the apparitions and continues to party like a bad dog for the next 17 years until the Vatican official who ruined everything for him becomes Pope Benedict XVI.(from the Spectator)

Then, unsurprisingly, the shit begins to hit the fan for Father Vlasic…..

He is in big trouble, accused of heresy, schism and sexual immorality ‘aggravated by mystical motivations’, as well as ‘the diffusion of dubious doctrine, manipulation of consciences, suspect mysticism and disobedience towards legitimately issued orders’

The Spectator article suggests that this about more than just dealing with one shady character.

By striking at Vlasic, the Pope is aiming a killer blow at the Medjugorje phenomenon itself.
Why would Benedict want to do this? Perhaps because the claims are not true.

That sounds as good a reason as any, were it not for the fact that false claims don’t normally cause religions much stress. How could religion survive, if it suddenly became too scrupulous about making up stories?

There’s more to the story than simple “truth”, including a lot of Bosnia-Herzogovina political jiggery-pokery. (If you want detail, read the Spectator link. There’s a limit to how much this can be paraphrased and I’m already pushing it.)

In the early days of the apparitions, Our Lady was not only partisan on the Herzegovina question but preoccupied by it and described the rebels as saints. One of them, Father Iveca Vego, soon made a nun pregnant. Was he having an affair at the time his sanctity was declared? The local bishop, Pavao Zanic, was convinced that Vlasic was puppet-master to the seers and a principal source of the messages imparted by the apparitions.

However, Medjugorje is now such an international money spinner that the Catholic Church is finding it very difficult to dismantle. All its attacks are being misinterpreted and the pilgrim dollars are still flooding in.

All the evidence indicates that the phenomenon is a calculated and cynical con. Medjugorje has grown wealthy and it is no coincidence that so have the seers.

Hmm. How unsurprised am I? They got rich from a get-rich-quick scam? Maybe God just decided they’d be freer to have daily visions if they didn’t have to fret about not having plasma TVs and BMWs.

Libby Purves linked to various Catholic and Orthodox sites with opinions about Medjugorje. Many of the sites blame the phenomenon on the devil.

A priest with the charmingly Medieval name of Father Malachi is reported as having said:

“I think Medjugorje is a Satanic hoax.”

(Ratzinger, Malachi? Was there a Catholic competition for the best Hammer Horror Tribute name? The winner got to be Pope?)

“It is a phenomenon which is absolutely diabolical, around which revolve many underground interests. Holy Mother Church, the only one able to pronounce, through the mouth of the Bishop of Mostar, has already said publicly, and officially, that the Madonna has never appeared at Medjugorje and that this whole sham is the work of the demon.” (from a link picked at random from the page full of links on Unity Publishing.)

So, while the Medjugorje believers think that Mary made a personal visit, many of their opponents think that demons intervened directly in the world.

The rest of us would just see greedy bastards. Who can, of course, only carry out their scams in the context of belief that daily supernatural intervention in the world is perfectly likely. It’s the churches that give these scams any plausibility.

All the same, it’s good to see the Catholic Church making efforts to stop at least one fraud.

Dumb Belief

Alun posted an excellent link as a comment on heather’s last post. This pointed to an article by Jamie Whyte on the Times Online. Now I am a big fan of Jamie Whyte, so it goes without saying the article is interesting, well written and possibly informative.

The basic crux of it is that people who profess to believe don’t actually believe – rather they go through the motions and pretend to have FAITH in what ever sky faerie they think is the correct one. Jamie argues that, if people really did believe, they would have to act on their crackpottery, but as most people just go about their daily lives in the same manner as an atheist, what belief is there really out there?

As I largely agree with Jamie Whyte on this topic, I won’t go into it any further – however there are some comments on the Times article that really cannot be ignored. :-)

Take this nugget:

I’m a Catholic. My election vote always goes to the candidate most likely to vote for policies that will save unborn lives. Issues such as health care, education and housing are of little significance if the right to life is not accorded to all human beings at all stages of development.

Julia, Manchester, UK

First off, I have to say “Liar, liar pants on fire” as I very, very much doubt this is from someone who lives in the UK. The terminology used is very much American and relates to US political issues. Lying for Jesus is still lying and this is just a pointless lie as teh intarweb is truly global – who cares where you come from?

More interestingly, from an angry atheist point of view, is the perverted world view it expresses.

“Julia” will base her choices on a government based on how it treats an unborn life. She cares not how badly people who are currently alive are treated, it is the unborn life that means more. Who cares if people are starving to death, dying of hypothermia or falling down with all manner of communicable diseases as long as no fetus is aborted.

How can that not be wrong? (The cynic in me puts this down to a distorted form of capitalism – they actually only want more babies so they have more people to subjugate and take money from).

Moving on, we hit the tired old drivel one comes to expect from poorly educated theists:

First, just because someone calls themself a Christian, does not mean that they are in fact a Christian, Second, do you ‘believe’ or do you ‘wish’ that this column actually has any meaning?….since under an Atheistic world view, we are all here by chance and have no purpose or meaning.
John, USA

I don’t mean to be rude to any American readers, but this strikes me as really being from an American. It is no argument. It is some one who doesn’t understand atheism (at least we have Religious Education classes) and is so brainwashed by Southern Baptism they can;t comprehend an alternative. I am a touch confused where the “meaning” came from – I am sure Jamie Whyte doesn’t care if “John” thinks the column has meaning – although obviously it had enough to get John to respond….

In quick succession we find:

Atheism is the state religion of a decaying culture; the new British state religion. Your column of atheism has every sign of a religious argument. (Religion: “that which is of ultimate importance.”)
Could you imagine a Christian getting a platform such as the one you have; never happen in UK.
kris, Pass,

No, I don’t get it either. I am sure the Church of England, the Church of Scotland, The Church of Wales and the Church of Ireland have their own views on our “state religion” – given that the figure head of the state is head of the Church of England, I could only dream of a day when Atheism was a “state religion” – even if it did contort the brain trying to explain how “atheism” can be a religion. As for the last sentence, the mind boggles. The Times alone has four times as many Christian columnists as atheists ones. There is even a whole section of the Times blogs for “faith” blogs. Sorry kris, but you fail.

It seems Americans just can’t stay away from English newspapers lately:

Why do you care?
Why does it irritate and anger you so much?
Why is it necessary to attack Christianity?
Because you are not sure.
There’s a part of you that wants to believe and you won’t allow it.
That’s very sad.
Roy, Vermont, USA

Erm, no. Why do western Atheists care about, and attack, the insane spreading of Christianity – well, simply because it directly affects our lives. Laws are passed based on Christian doctrine. Taxes are taken from hard working atheists to fund crackpot theists. Both are good reasons to care about Christianity in politics. Still, the ideal counter argument is why, “Roy,” do you care about what an Atheist says? Is it because part of you is not sure? For a BELIEVER that has to hurt. That really is sad.

Next we stray into very volatile territory:

I’m an agnostic and I think unborn children should be protected. It’s not about a soul, it’s the knowledge that once a life has started there is no difference between destroying it ten weeks or ten years later. Interestingly, the foetuses killed in Omagh are included in the tally of those murdered.
Paul Williams, London, UK

“Agnostic” – well, I have commented on that line of weak thinking in the past, but then again Santa may be real, no one has totally proven he isn’t.

Without straying too far into the abortion debate, this has a bit of a flaw. Basically put, it is not an argument against abortion, it is one against all form of contraception – along with being against eating meat, euthanasia etc. In itself these may be fine ideas and some people do agree with them but it is not an “anti-abortion” argument. The question still remains – when does “life” begin. The Omagh death tally is just an irrelevance.

From the almost-arguments we get the predictable Godwining of the thread:

Kant’s Enlightenment could have been his reaction to an overbearingly strict religious upbringing.Despite its “civilizing”
commentary, Kant himself rprtdly delighted at the news of the
French Revolution.Murderous atheistic Communism/Nazism were the major global effects of Enlightenment philosophy.
Joan Moira Peters, Whangarei UK Citizen, temp o/seas in New Zealand

Yada, yada, nonsense. This is such nonsense that I hope anyone reading this blog wont need me to explain.

Things start to go downhill here:

But it’s not just Christians who don’t follow through. Determinists continue to talk as if they were “free” to judge the validity of an argument. And atheists aren’t always the self-interested hedonists one might expect from believers in a meaningless universe with only a darwinian moral compass!
JS, Glasgow, UK

Nope. I am lost. I am not sure of the point trying to be made here and part of me thinks it could be somewhat tongue in cheek, although any reference to “Darwinian” annoys me.

With that, then, I will end my search though the comments. I strongly suggest you take a look and remember the comments read from the bottom of the list up. Some are interesting, some are annoying and lots are just plain crazy!

Church and school

Churchgoing is associated with teenagers getting higher grades, according to a study cited in Ecumenical News International and discussed in the Times. On first consideration, this seems a bit counter-intuitive, given the preponderance of non-believers in the higher academic world and all those flattering studies that suggest that atheists are generally more intelligent and educated than believers.

The findings suggest that it’s whether the student actually attends church rather than whether s/he has any religious belief that has an impact.

The study suggested four reasons church-going teens tend to have more success at school.
One of these is that they have regular contact with adults from various generations, who serve as role models. Another reason is that the young people’s parents are more likely to communicate with their friends’ parents. Other factors at play are that teenagers who attend church develop friendships there with peers who have similar norms and values, and they are also more likely to take part in extracurricular activities. (from the ENI site)

I haven’t seen the data, only the reports, so I’m not challenging their figures or even their suggested explanations.

But there are some alternative ways of looking at this evidence.

Most crucially, it seems to me to be confusing correlation with causation.

i.e. On average, kids who go to church get better grades. Even, if it’s true, this doesn’t imply either one causes the other.

At an individual level, isn’t it likely that teenagers with a greater tendency to conform are more willing to do what their parents want – both in terms of doing their schoolwork and church attendance? So the good grades and the willingness to go to church might both just be manifestations of a general willingness to please adults.

Like brushing their teeth at bedtime. Which may also turn out to be positively correlated with good school attendance and good grades.

The implications that church-attenders are more involved in the community would seem to apply mostly to people who live in cohesive “communities” in which – especially in countries such as the USA – church attendance is pretty much the norm. Questions I would like to ask would be about the localities that the researchers looked at. Villages, towns, cities, slums, suburbs? Incomes? Family stability?

I can think of quite a few questions about this study. But the one that really nags at me is the use of the concept of “good grades.” Good grades are not necessarily indicators of real learning, or even of an academic capacity.

The research might suggest that many schools encourage conformity, rather than independent thought, and penalise those kids who show a troublesome desire to think for themselves (by refusing to go to church, for example.) Hence, more church-non-attenders drop out or put minimal effort into their schoolwork.

Dawkins on Darwin

Richard Dawkins is presenting a short Channel 4 series on Darwin. It’s mostly pretty damn good. It’s clear and enthusiastic and really enjoyable. I was really pleased to see that Dawkins opposes the faux-evolutionary nonsense that is used to justify predatory capitalism.

However, I’ve got to put in a couple of gripes, just to stop this blog being suspected of mere sycophancy:

Why does he keep referring to Darwinism? There is no Darwinism. Dawkins must be getting too many trolls and, absent-mindedly, paying attention to them.

There is also some justice in Libby Purves’ argument that Dawkins has set up too simple a choice between believing in evolution and believing in god(s). In the first programme, he addressed a collection of school students who had been led to believe that accepting evolution ran counter to the religions they were brought up in. So, they didn’t believe in it. He showed them some clear evidence and some of them felt obliged to question their faith. Libby Purves argued that this was a bit of a false example, as there are huge numbers of god-believers who accept the evidence for evolution.

Dawkins’s response seems a bit lame to me.

She goes on to say, “OK, he is provoked, as we all are, by nutters. But most believers are not creationists.” I expect it’s true that the few believers Libby Purves meets over canapés are not creationists. But “most believers”? Most believers in Bradford? The Scottish Highlands? Pakistan? Indonesia? The Arab world? South America? Indeed, North America? Polls suggest that more than 40 per cent of the British population are creationists. For the subset who call themselves believers, the figure must be considerably more than 50 per cent. Please don’t say “most people”, when what you really mean is Islington and Hampstead Garden Suburb.

Well, stop there Dawkins. “Polls suggest..” What polls? Please don’t say “polls suggest” when what you are really presenting sounds like made up numbers.

Most people know bugger all about evolution, let alone have views on it.

But, assuming that Libby Purves is talking about the UK, most people that I know who have any views on evolution take it for granted. In fact, I have never knowingly come across an outspoken creationist. And I certainly don’t live in Islington or Hampstead. Nor would I recognise a canape if it leaped off a silver salver and bit me on the nose. In fact, as a non-Islington-resident prole, I sort of resent the implication that proles are stupider than the rich.

Anglicans and Catholics don’t have any problem with the theory of evolution, for a start. So the mainstream UK religions aren’t encouraging people to doubt it. South America? Big place. Mostly Catholic, so I assume that evolution is generally accepted there.

What’s left? Basically North America and Islam. I don’t know enough about the many shades of Islam to judge on this one, although I am pretty confident that most muslims are as unknowing and uninterested in evlutionary theory as most other people. I do think I know that North America is bursting with people who don’t understand accept evolution.

I have to agree with Libby Purves when she said “OK, he is provoked, as we all are, by nutters.” I completely agree with Dawkins that there more than enough of these idiots and that they have to be opposed. But, I don’t think it’s always wise to help them talk up their anti-science madness by presenting a false dichotomy between accepting science and believing in deities. It’s accepting the terms of reference of the creationists, their idea that there is a “debate” between ID and evolution.

This “debate” can only benefit the nutters. Scientists don’t have to accommodate the creation myths of the vikings or the yoruba by constantly “debating” whether evolution or the mixture of fire and ice or the formation of dry land from water is true. (In fact, these myths seem far more logical and metaphorically “true” than the middle eastern creation myths.) Why waste too much time and effort challenging the myths that come from the middle east?

Still, whines over. Bloody good tv overall, to be honest.

Brown crap

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has a guest spot in the Times in which he continues to argue for 42-day detention without trial. Even the headings take your breath away.

42-day detention; a fair solution
The complexity of today’s terrorist plots means the Government needs more powers

“A fair solution”? I detect a new and specialist use of the word “fair.” It obviously isn’t going to be “fair” to any falsely accused suspects. So, it’s hard to see who is meant to benefit from this concern for even-handedness.

“Solution”? Solution to which problem, exactly? To the problem of detecting active terrorists? Clearly not, that is an intelligence and policing issue. How will these activities be made any more effective by capturing random people, when there is no evidence against them, and and waiting for them to crack? The text claims that it’s fair to the police because it takes ages to root through computer files.

Oh, ffs. Are terrorists really so stupid that they write all their plots down in Word documents and store them on their PCs. Let’s assume, for a moment, that is the case. It wouldn’t take a criminal mastermind to decide to stop doing that, the very first time such evidence got any of them arrested.

It certainly can’t be a “solution” to the problem of their being alienated groups of people with the will to commit terrorist acts. As far as I can see, it’s actually a quick way to manufacture terrorists. Every falsely detained person will mean more and more people become alienated from UK society.

“More powers”? That is, powers that go beyond ubiquitous video surveillance, monitoring every email message and phone call, ID cards and photographing almost every journey? Would it it even be possible to come up with many more “powers” short of plugging our brains into a national monitoring system and modelling policing on Minority Report?

Brown says:

Britain has lived with terrorist threats for decades. But I am under no illusion that today’s threats are different in their scale and nature from anything we have faced before. Today in Britain there are at least 2,000 terrorist suspects, 200 networks or cells and 30 active plots.

Yes, Britain has lived with terrorist threats for decades. Not just threats. Major terrorist actions. So, when Briown says, he is “under no illusion that today’s threats are different,” I first assume that he means that he realises that the current “TWAT” is not really different from the Irish bombing campaigns. (Which were addressed without a 1984-style social transformation. And were ended through concessions and negotiation. And provided the example of how internment served to consolidate support for PIRA… A lesson that the current government seems willfully determine don ignoring )

No such luck. He is really saying – in the face of English grammar – that he is under that very illusion.

Then the numbers. They really annoy me, these “30 active plots” and “200 terror networks”. I have mentioned these spurious statistics before. The very specific numbers have been going the rounds for the best part of a year.

Are we to assume, then, that our police are so stupid that they KNOW there are 30 active plots and they can’t do anything about them? They KNOW about 200 terror networks and they somehow can’t gather the evidence to stop them? What on earth would we be paying these people for?

This is not just nonsense. It insults both the competence of our police and the intelligence of the public.

Brown has apparently started phoning up the public, getting ever more desperate in his attempts to capture the Daily Mail vote, after catastrophic Labour results in the local elections.

This Times guest column appears as his response to an imminent Commons revolt that could put a stop to the 42-day detention plan. Brown has been criticised by friends of the increasingly repellent Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, for not supporting her on the issue.
He is trying to pull in the big guns – the fearful Great British Public – to put the fear into any members of the Parliamentary Labour Party who are going to do the decent thing in next week’s vote.

I say to those with legitimate concerns about civil liberties: look at these practical safeguards against arbitrary treatment. With these protections in place, I believe Parliament should take the right decision for national security.

This would be rather more convincing if there weren’t examples of exactly how well the “protections in place” work, such as in the cases of the student and university staff member and the forbidden manual downloaded from a US government site.