Thursday, March 30, 2006

A One Month Hiatus

This blog will be in suspended animation until May as I will not be able to add any updates. I should still be able to reply to emails but do wait until May unless it is urgent.


Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Science and Truth

Despite my last post here, I am not a particular cynic about science. I am happy for my children to have the MMR jab and unlike Mr Blair, I will say so. I trust scientific medicine over so-called alternative medicine. I have as much time for homoeopathy and Chinese herbs as I have for Galen's humours. I majored in Physics at Oxford and feel I understand what science is and what it isn't.

All of which makes me rather annoyed with people who suggest that the scientific = true actually holds. In common parlance, using the adjective 'scientific' seems to add no end of credibility to a proposition. Advertisers know this well. They are not the only ones to misuse the term. In their new books, Lewis Wolpert and Daniel Dennett have both come up with some just-so stories to explain religion naturalistically. They call their stories 'scientific' to add credibility but in fact there is nothing much scientific about them. Judging by the summaries I have seen they are just interpretations foisted onto a few observations and then extended with a series of non-sequiturs. Just because an explanation is naturalistic, does not make it scientific. A scientific explanation is one that has been subject to tests independent of the observations from which it was derived.

Another abuse of the false 'scientific = true' equation is the treatment of Intelligent Design ("ID") theory. This is often attacked as not science. In fact, it passes almost every test that determines whether something is scientific. The only test it fails is where it stands in the opinion of most other scientists (which is a test that would fail all pioneers). In fact, what people mean when they say that ID is not scientific is that it is wrong. But being wrong is no bar to being scientific.

Part of the reason for widespread public mistrust of science is that scientists have been guilty of overselling their product for too long. Science will not win back credibility until it admits that it is a method and not the truth. It certainly produces reliable objective knowledge but only within a limited sphere. Dennett and Wolpert are guilty of building up further mistrust of science by abusing the term and trying to merge it with metaphysical naturalism.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Cot death and scientific arrogance

Those of you with children will know just how frightening the concept of cot death (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in the US) is. When your new baby wakes you up first thing in the morning with her cries, your reaction is not "Blast, I have to get out of bed" but "Thank God, she survived the night."

Between 1990 and 2000 cot deaths fell by about half in the western world. That is very good news, but the story of why it happened is less well known (old BBC story here). It should be one of the greatest scientific scandals of our age, but somehow science escaped the blame. From 1940 dodgy science was used to advise all mothers to put their babies to sleep on their front. This advice continued until about 1990 and may have killed about 50,000 babies (source UCL Institute of Child Health). In the mid-1990s, the advice changed to putting babies on their backs (the Back to Sleep campaign). The effect was a dramatic and immediate fall in cot deaths.

Now you could say this was a victory for science. But I don't see it like that. For centuries, children had been put to bed on their backs and it was science that caused them to be turned over. Bad science was overturned by good science, but it is almost unbelievable that it took so long. As a matter of fact, my mother put me on my back because she could see the scientific advice flew in the face of common sense. This strikes me as a good example of why we can and should stand up to the arrogance of the scientific professionals. Next time you hear someone lauding the mythical scientific method as the only good and pure way to knowledge, think about 50,000 heart broken couples who lost their babies because they followed the best scientific advice.

And while I'm about it, I wonder why no one has given the Nobel Prize for medicine to the paediatricians who realised what a disaster the advice for babies to sleep on their fronts was. It is undoubtedly the greatest clinical advance in child medicine for fifty years.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Amulet update and Plagiarism

First, another blogger has picked up my discovery (blogged here) that the Orpheus amulet on the cover of Freke and Gandy's Jesus Mysteries is almost certainly a fake. Readers may recall that Freke and Gandy knew of doubts about the amulet's authenticity, but kept quiet and stuck a picture of it on the cover of their book. Now German blocker Melchior Sternfels has tracked down the original German scholarship and will be letting us know what it says. His initial post on the subject is here.

There are lots of reasons not to acknowledge your sources. Sometimes, like in Freke and Gandy's case, it is so you can get away with misrepresenting them. More usually it is to pass an exam without doing the work. Here's an article in the Daily Telegraph by an Oxford student brought on by the university's admission that plagiarism is rife. That students are getting all their information from Wikipedia need hardly surprise us. After all, it is online, so easily copied and pasted. I thought, though, that this becomes less of a problem as you reach more advanced degrees. I was wrong as special boutiques exist for advanced work. But it does get more expensive. An undergraduate essay for your tutorial is quite cheap off the shelf. A masters dissertation costs quite a bit and a PhD must be a fortune.

One thing works in favour of the honest. Plagiarisers are, by their very nature, lazy bastards. Hence, catching them is not as hard as you might think. I once googled on the Library of Alexandria to update my research. I found someone who had lifted my article wholesale for a school project that they had then put on the internet. Very stupid. I emailed them and I could sense the panic dripping off the reply. University tutors just need to familiarise themselves with Wikipedia and Google. With Wiki, they can amend the article themselves to lay traps for the unwary. By making the article especially relevant to the subject at hand, they might lure the plagiarists. Spicing it with a couple of obscure deliberate mistakes and you can catch them red handed.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Is environmentalism a Religion

It is rare to read anything on global warming that gives you facts and reasons rather than hot air. For this reason, I was very pleased to read a long article in this week's Spectator magazine by Lord Lawson, the ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer. (You can read the article here for free if you register but it will only be around for a week).

This blog is not the place to debate global warming but I found the last paragraph especially interesting:

It is, I suspect, no accident that it is in Europe that climate change absolutism has found the most fertile soil. For it is Europe that has become the most secular society in the world, where the traditional religions have the weakest popular hold. Yet people still feel the need for the comfort and higher values that religion can provide; and it is the quasi-religion of green alarmism and what has been termed global salvationism of which the climate change issue is the most striking example, but by no means the only one which has filled the vacuum, with reasoned questioning of its mantras regarded as a form of blasphemy. But that can be no basis for rational policy-making.

A similar point about the close connection between environmentalism and religion was made by Bryan Appleyard in his book Understanding the Present. I am suspicious of anthropological explanations for religion but it does seem to be a basic human need. And like all needs it can be quenched in the short term by junk alternatives. Food is a real need that can be met by a Big Mac. We all have a sex drive and that can be sated with pornography. Good nutricious food or a loving monogamous relationship are (almost everyone agrees) better than the junk alternatives. But they are also harder work. We should therefore not be surprised that as Europe turns away from the hard, narrow road of real Christianity, it has started to binge on the easy alternatives like environmentalism, consumerism and celebrity worship.

That is not to say that the environment is not an important issue. In fact, it is far to important to be left to environmentalists.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Media stoked rows

I must apologise to readers for not saying anything about the "Blair talks to God" row that briefly flared over the weekend. Indeed, some people may have been under the impression that this was a story of some significance, given the attention the BBC was paying to it. However, as everyone now knows, what Blair actually said was completely unobjectionable. The fuss was caused not by his words, but by the BBC trying to generate publicity for its own television programme. The Beeb have recently brought Michael Parkinson, the king of chat, over from ITV at vast expense and badly need to justify the cost. Hence, their generation of artificial controversy where none should exist. In the end, we got a load of village atheists making fools of themselves and proving that they never check the evidence before spouting off (if you really care, you can read some comment by them here). I was particularly amused by the National Secular Society representative on BBC News 24.

Last night, we witnessed a bit more media fuelled hysteria on Channel 4 as Rod Liddle, actually quite a fine journalist, went looking for trouble at three schools run by Christian second hand car dealer (a contradiction in terms surely!) Reg Vardy. Despite his efforts, Rod failed to show that the schools were indoctrinating kids. Instead, we found that they taught evolution as they were supposed to be but that some teachers were brave enough to admit they didn't believe in it. I would disagree with these teachers but Liddle (who entertainingly lost his cool during an interview) seemed to imply that being a creationist should disqualify you from teaching. Now that would be bigotry. The show was actually quite a good advertisement for the school, showing neatly dressed kids sitting quietly in lessons getting excellent exam results. The school's tough approach to discipline did mean that some disruptive kids had been excluded. We met a couple and one couldn't help feeling that their exclusion was a further plus point for the school.

Britain is a notoriously irreligous country. But now secularists are beginning to worry that they are not going to have it so easy for much longer. I welcome an increase of religious sensibility and hope that we are seeing some sort of revival in Christianity as well as Islam in the UK. If that is the case, we can expect to see more ranting from the anti-religious. Eventually, though, they might learn that rants alone are not enough to win arguments.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.