Interesting juxtaposition in the US Presidential Election of Sarah Palin’s derogatory statements about science vs. Obama getting the endorsement of high profile scientists.

Palin, in that ‘loveable’ folksy way of hers (see also: George W Bush), decided to ridicule ‘wasteful’ scientific research on things like fruit flies: “You’ve heard about some of these pet projects – they really don’t make a whole lot of sense – and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit-fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.” Since my own wife’s degree project focused on drosophila melanogaster, I’m well-versed in how incredibly useful these little insects are to science, but here’s a fairly scathing rebuttal to Palin.

Meanwhile 76 Nobel prize winners have written a letter endorsing Obama as “a visionary leader” and condemning Bush’s policies.

Also, as if Obama could become any more like Jed Bartlet, here’s a really fascinating speech of his about the role of religion in modern America. I hadn’t previously been aware of this speech but it looks like it was made back in 2006. I can’t help but be reminded of President Bartlet’s rant from The West Wing episode The Midterms (itself gacked from the interwebs) about selective adherence to the Bible to support bigotry. Obama’s speech (in selectively edited form) been seized on to argue that Obama ‘hates’ God, but it’s actually a very even-handed and astonishingly brave thing for a US politician to do. Brave even though he’s not claiming to be an atheist, merely arguing very cogently for separation of Church and State; a fairy uncontroversial view, you’d think1.

Speaking of YouTube, this video of Palin set to piano improv is deeply unfair, but very funny.

1 Bartlet is of course portrayed as a devout Catholic and his rant is not seen as coming into conflict with his beliefs, and there’s no reason Obama could not be a Christian and still make this speech.

But seriously

I’m not about to defend whatever bad taste prank Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross inflicted on Andrew Sachs, but really this whole thing is snowballing quite ridiculously. Apparently Ross has apologised and Sachs is happy with that, but the number of complaints by people outraged on his behalf is still going up — about a radio show that aired nearly a fortnight ago, and which most people complaining have not even heard. Suddenly, eleven days later, there are calls for the two ‘stars’ to resign. Or even for the DG of the BBC to resign. And now we have Gordon Brown and David Cameron weighing in; no doubt in a desperate attempt from both to appear relevant and in touch with the common folk.

My mob-mentality sense is tingling. We’re in one of those horrendous, self-righteous tabloid feedback loops where public opinion and media coverage escalate in lock-step. That’s not to say I like Russell Brand or approve of making offensive phone calls, but seriously folks.

Earth: The Climate Wars

When I discussed Prof Richard Dawkins’s three-part series The Genius of Darwin I was puzzled as to why it merited the word “polemic” in my TV guide, noting that “creationism attempts to refute geological wisdom as surely as it does biological wisdom, but we don’t go around calling [TV geologist] Dr Iain Stewart a polemicist.”

Inevitably, Dr Iain Stewart immediately launched a three-part series (apocalyptically titled Earth: The Climate Wars) that’s as likely to be labelled a polemic as anything Dawkins has produced. Global Warming is, after all, as likely as Evolution to be described in the media as “controversial”. Interestingly, the polemic word doesn’t seem to have been attached to this one. It’s an “investigation”.

To be clear, I don’t regard either series as a polemic. Both are written and presented by individuals who hold a clear view as to the truth of the matter, and both include passionate advocacy of the importance of the issues being debated, but crucially both discuss the relevant ‘controversy’ in some detail and arrive at their determination through dispassionate and thorough (as thorough as the format allows, anyway) examination of the evidence.

Earth: The Climate Wars tackles its subject in three parts: the first details the gradual development of climate theories in the 1960s and 70s, including the now disproven prediction of a “big freeze” and the gradual rise of global warming as a theory. The second deals with the controversy that arose around global warming in the 1990s, examining the changing and contradictory evidence and the opposing arguments before ultimately disproving the objections fairly categorically. The third programme examines attempts to model the Earth’s future climate, and to incorporate increasing evidence that climate change is, if anything, occurring faster than expected.

I found it fascinating. Iain Stewart is an engaging enough presenter and the programmes move at just about the right pace, focussing mainly on the science but to a lesser extent on the personalities and historical account of the discoveries. I knew a lot of the background, but there’s plenty here that I hadn’t heard before, or hadn’t heard in detail. In some respects it’s surprising how long ago the theory of global warming caused by human activity was first proposed, and how readily it was initially accepted. Fascinating, for example, to see Margaret Thatcher talking about the need for urgent action.

I was also aware of the notorious C4 programme The Great Global Warming Swindle (a “polemic” if ever there was one) for which the channel was censured by Ofcom for misrepresenting the views of its contributers (although since it had caused no “harm” to its viewers Ofcom refused to rule on its scientific accuracy). Dr Stewart briefly touches on that programme and the shockingly inaccurate graphs used to make its case. I’ve read other rebuttals, e.g. badscience.com but it’s still nice to see a belated televised rebuttal. Indeed, this series of programmes, careful, thorough and engaging as they are, make a pleasingly level-headed counterpoint to the very propagandist and even ad hominem nature of the C4 programme. Dr Stewart also used extensive clips from a much earlier 1990 programme from C4 called The Greenhouse Conspiracy which makes you wonder what exactly C4 has against the theory of global warming.

The final programme includes some rather scary evidence of very sudden — in the everyday rather than geological meaning of the word — shifts in global climate in the past. These are sudden “tipping point” temperature shifts of several degrees centigrade occurring within a period of 2 to 5 years, calculated by examining both the thickness and chemical composition of Greenland ice cores1. Coupled with recent evidence about the unprecedented summer retreat of arctic sea ice during the summer, it does make you wonder — although thankfully 2008 didn’t break the record retreat in 20072.

In an age in which (as repeats of Horizon on BBC4 will attest) TV science has been lobotomised to a few health programmes and the occasional theory that Yellowstone park may explode and DOOM US ALL, it’s always welcome to have some real, solid science. Hot on the heels of Dawkins and the recent coverage of the Large Hadron Collider it almost feels like a mini-Renaissance in science programming, even if in each case it was probably the underlying sense of “controversy” driving things forward. I strongly doubt if Earth: The Climate Consensus would have made it to air.

All three episodes are available on BBC iPlayer. The third was probably the weakest, but all are worth a look.

1 The process of dating ice cores back 50,000 years by simply ‘counting the rings’ that represent each winter and summer snowfall is surely as common sense a refutation of creationist dating of the Earth to 6,000 years old as you’re likely to find. That’s assuming geological dating using the precisely known decay rate of multiple radioactive isotopes is wrong — which, wearyingly, is exactly what creationists argue. In fact, that very creationist web page states: “Ultimately, the age of the earth cannot be proven”, a relativist bombshell which makes you wonder why they’re bothering to contest the science at all.

2 I sometimes find myself feeling an unworthy (and criminally stupid) desire to see the Earth meet a spectacular demise. Not just to prove the doubters wrong — although, y’know, that would be some slight consolation for me as the human race faced extinction — but because disasters are cool. That’s why Iain Stewart’s earlier series Earth: The Power of the Planet was interesting: because vast climactic and geological changes have a certain spectacular appeal. Catastrophes and disasters are strangely compelling, like that sensation climbers sometimes report of feeling an urge to hurl themselves into the void. I don’t for a second suggest that I actually want the Earth to be destroyed, but the childish part of me does seem to revel in the concept. People are strange creatures. Or maybe that’s just me.


The moment I started my holidays last Saturday I started coming down with the lurgy. Funny how often that happens. So even though I’m on holiday this week I’m also bunged up and feeling like the back of my throat has been sandpapered (or, occasionally, chiselled). Since I’m not up to much therefore, here are a few things that, in my delirium, I mentally logged as worth telling someone. You be the judge.

The saga of Tom McRae’s website continues. It’s now in Australia. No really.

This story about the MMR vaccine scare on Bad Science is actually an excerpt from Ben Goldacre’s new book. It’s also a fantastically rational account of how irrational the media can be in their quest to sensationalise a story.

Frost/Nixon is a movie that wasn’t on my radar. What were the chances that anyone, let alone Ron Howard, would make a Hollywood movie out of David Frost interviewing Richard Nixon? It’s hard to know what to make of it. The trailer paints the film as a mixture of political drama and David vs Goliath feel-good story, in the general neighbourhood of Charlie Wilson’s War. Michael Sheen looks great as Frost, and Frank Langella seems okayish as Nixon. Other eclectic cast members include Oliver Platt (White House Counsel Oliver Babish on The West Wing) and Matthew “Tom from Spooks” McFadyen. (Plus it has Kevin Bacon in it, so given how ubiquitous Michael Sheen is this should blow the Kevin Bacon game wide open.)

No Heroics is a new sitcom centred around off-duty UK Superheroes. The trailer looks surprisingly okay, albeit sex-obsessed, particularly given that this is airing on that great sitcom purgatory, ITV.

Lastly, what is up with those camera zooms that punctuate Evan Davis’s every sentence at the start of Dragon’s Den? It’s like the camera operator just ate an entire keg of Smarties and can’t calm down.

Here is the News

1,800-year-old Roman stone sarcophagi found in Newcastle. That’s not far from us! I learn from this story that they’re apparently building a Great North Museum in Newcastle including antiquities, a planetarium, an interactive model of Hadrian’s Wall, a life-size T-Rex dinosaur skeleton, and special exhibitions from London. This could be very nice for us as it’s not always convenient for us to get down to the British Museum. I’m only amazed that my wife’s normally excellent Archaeology Radar hasn’t tipped us off to this sooner. The website banner appears to feature Egyptians on chariots hunting Dinosaurs, but I’ll assume there’s some artistic licence involved…

Of course if that recent bonkers think tank report was listened to there’d be no point in doing any of this because everyone in the North should just give up on their cities, which are beyond all hope of revival, and move south. This is so patently absurd that it probably isn’t worth getting upset about, but Exhibit A would surely be the fact that any number of Northern cities have already succeeded in transforming themselves and their fortunes into thriving centres of business and culture. Like Newcastle & Gateshead, for example. Sunderland is one of those named by the think tank as “beyond revival” yet — although it’s hardly the largest or most cosmopolitan of cities — in the relatively short time I’ve known it Sunderland has transformed itself from a shipbuilding town to one with a beautiful riverside and coastal area and a strong service industry base (including the University), not to mention the famous Nissan plant. The fact that anyone could seriously suggest otherwise reflects blinkered attitudes to the ‘North’ of England (i.e. anywhere north of the M25) that are quite surreal. It’s the equivalent of saying that the London Dockland area was beyond revival prior to Canary Wharf being built.

And finally…

A sensible, evidence-based story about the British Summer. Will wonders never cease.


I’m greatly enjoying Prof Richard Dawkins’s current C4 series The Genius of Darwin, commemorating the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species. All pretty basic and obvious stuff about evolution perhaps, but I’ve been hoping for some time now (in this world of lowest common denominator science programming) that someone would come along and just Explain This Stuff to a wide audience. Too often TV gravitates towards only the most controversial or biographical aspects of science, or assumes that everyone knows the basics when it’s sadly apparent that everyone doesn’t. It’s nice to see some basic facts set out clearly.

A lot of people seem to find Dawkins abrasive, but he’s generally at his most self-effacing in the series to date, perhaps because this time around its premise rarely seeks to pitch him into direct confrontation with those who oppose his views (unlike previous series The Enemies of Reason and The Root of All Evil?). I don’t find Dawkins particularly arrogant myself, but that’s probably because I agree with him. He makes few concessions, but although I personally might not call a book on religion “The God Delusion” a) my book wouldn’t sell many copies and b) I find it hard to argue with this title as a basic position.

So far the first episode has provided a whistle-stop tour of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, while the second has covered human evolution, and specifically the evolutionary roots of altruism, drawing on Dawkin’s own work in The Selfish Gene. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that humans are ‘designed’ for small family groupings and that much of our behaviour can, for good or ill, be explained by the rules for living in groups writ large. What’s pleasing is how optimistic a view of human nature Dawkins manages to convey even while explaining biological origins of human behaviour that many might find unpalatable. He’s obviously a liberal idealist who finds himself disgusted by the various political and capitalistic practices to which the word “Darwinism” has been metaphorically attached.

Next week it’s back to the shameless creationist-baiting with a (to my mind much-needed) attempt to examine and rebut the attempts of intelligent design to cast doubt on evolution.

My only source of puzzlement about the series is that the C4 website1 describes it as “polemical”, whereas it’s about as polemical as Earth: The Power of the Planet. It’s not an opinion piece, it’s the kind of straightforward explanation of accepted scientific knowledge that used to be commonplace under the banner of Equinox or Horizon . After all creationism attempts to refute geological wisdom as surely as it does biological wisdom, but we don’t go around calling Dr Iain Stewart a polemicist.

1 The C4 website has whacky floating banners that completely screw up the page in Firefox, but seem fine in Internet Explorer. Or rather, the IE tab plugin for Firefox which is about as close to Internet Explorer as I care to get these days.


This is a fantastic dissection of a particularly odious anti-Muslim story in the generally extremely odious Daily Express.

What perhaps shouldn’t surprise me quite as much as it does is that the story has only the slightest resemblance to the truth. The headline (“Sniffer dogs offend Muslims so now bomb search police face restrictions”) is in fact not just a distortion but literally untrue and is disproven by the fine print later in the story.

This stuff really annoys me. Most days I wander past the news stand and see the headlines on the Daily Mail and the Daily Express and feel vaguely amused at how biased they seem to be. All tabloids pander mercilessly to their perceived demographic, after all, whether left wing or right wing.

Sometimes though I do get disheartened by how relentlessly the more right wing publications are brazenly trying to stir up xenophobia and make their reader (some hypothetical middle class, middle aged white person) feel that their way of life is under attack from all sides. For example, during the recent petrol strike (that only minimally disrupted the country) the Express chose big headlines stating “Government says not to panic but FUEL COULD RUN OUT!” To be fair, most of the media became obsessed with seeking out areas where there had been at least some disruption. Most didn’t actively set out to cause panic, however. The Express is particularly fond of headlines that sound like they’ve been screamed by someone experiencing a nervous breakdown. Starting the headline with the word “NOW…” is their preferred means of indicating that this latest indignity is the final straw.

The website linked to above notes some of the more extreme comments to this story, which appear to be made by people who only read the headline. Okay, even the BBC website tends to have comments threads filled with slighty deranged people ranting from their chosen soapbox, but I still find this a little depressing.

I know the Daily Express is an easy target. I know they pander to a readership who already believes these things. I just find them particularly shameless and manipulative, and the one thing that really does aggravate me in journalism is Making Stuff Up.

(Link courtesy of the ever entertaining badscience).


Today is the day on which the fact-free conspiracy theory that Prince Phillip had Diana assassinated (for a plethora of reasons that only exist in Mohamed Al Fayed’s head) finally went up in smoke once and for all. Not that it will stop the conspiracyheads of course, but then conspiracy theories don’t thrive on rigorous public examination anyway. They thrive on half-truths and insinuations that often make a seductive amount of sense until you take a single step backward and remember all the other facts that make them impossible. So, although it will make no difference and I stopped caring about Princess Diana’s death approximately ten years ago, I do think it right to pause briefly and genuflect at the altar of rightheadedness.

In that vein, Charlie Brooker writes hilariously about the so called ‘Brain Gym’ for school-children [via badscience.net].

A rant about human rights

Brigadier: “Well naturally enough the only country that could be trusted with such a role was Great Britain.”
The Doctor: “Well, naturally. I mean, the rest were all foreigners.”
Doctor Who – “Robot”

Depressingly but unsurprisingly, “Britons believe too many people, especially immigrants and asylum seekers, take advantage of the Human Rights Act (HRA), a poll has suggested”.


Just astonishing

Predictable perhaps, but some the comments on this BBC news story about the entirely admirable move to vaccinate girls from 12 to 18 against cervical cancer really do betray both astonishing ignorance about medicine and neolithic head-in-the-sand attitudes to sexuality. The same levels of ignorance were equally in evidence in emails to BBC News 24. I should know better than to look, shouldn’t I?

And I quote:

“It cannott be right to inject cancer into patients”

(no really)

“The money would be better spent on Sex Education not vaccination.”

“Like myself, I will teach my daughter to wait for marriage before sex and this will eliminate problems like stds and pregnancy which also destroys unmarried womens lives and costs taxpayers millions taking care of illegimates. But, on the other hand, if it will save loose women from cancer then it will be ok for them.”

(pragmatism *and* generosity in one package)

“Why do women always get the vast majority of media attention, financial help and medical facilities when it comes to cancer treatment and prevention? The slightest news regarding breast or cervical cancer seems to hit the headlines.”

“It would be very interesting to know how much money was spent developing the vacine. Has an equivalent amount been spent attempting to do the same for prostate cancer – I very much doubt it. When will there be equality for men in health care?”

“one has to question the expenditure of “hundreds of millions” to save 1000 girls each year.”

“I DONT agree with this sexist vacination if males are’nt included”


“This is another great reason to teach your children at home.”

(say whut?)

“Total and utter propaganda to make more money for the pharmacutical companies. FACT is the immune system will stop all diseases”

(because, as we know, no-one ever dies from anything)

“I am against vaccination unless there is evidence showing the disease is contagious, air borne, spread by some sort of interaction. Personally, the idea of pumping children with all sorts of drugs/chemicals (vaccines), I find quite disturbing.”

(I’ve never heard it called “some sort of interaction” before)

…and so it goes on.

Janet is particularly annoyed at the sexism evident in many of the attitudes: women who have sex are ‘loose’ women who have done something wrong; money spent saving women would be better spent elsewhere (e.g. saving men!).

There are a great many rightheaded comments too, pointing out that this is not an issue about promiscuity. Sexually active does not mean promiscuous (and promiscuous does not mean immoral). Anyone who has sex, even once, is likely to be exposed to the virus. As Janet notes, all these concerned mothers must, presumably, have had sex at least once in their lives. That’s all it takes. Vaccinating young doesn’t mean we expect children to have sex young – but it does mean that the’re protected before they first have sex, which evidence suggests is most effective. I’m quite taken by one comment on the website: “The fact that I could get HPV did not make me not have sex, so I doubt the opposite will make people have sex.”

The idea, too that male diseases don’t get attention or funding seems to me to be ludicrous and inaccurate. Hardly surprising since those who are decrying this vaccine seem to be talking from sheer off-top-of-the-head prejudice. And the relative cost of this vaccination is hardly out of scale with other treatments / preventative measures.

Science: practical and theoretical.

Last night we laid on a rug outside and watched meteors. The rate was relatively low–at most one every five minutes with some longer lulls–but it was still great. Even the typically light-polluted city skies didn’t spoil the experience; indeed we probably saw as many stars last night as we’re ever likely to from this location, and the view was stunningly beautiful. The weather was absolutely clear for once. A really lovely prelude to my birthday.

Tonight we watched Richard Dawkins’s The Enemies of Reason on Channel 4. Despite agreeing with him in every way that counts I sometimes think that Dawkins is his own worst enemy, since he can come across as a strident, joyless naysayer. His recent polemic on religion fell a little foul of this. Here, although still preaching to the converted, he struck a good balance between singing the praises of reason (and, importantly, defining and demonstrating the beauty and relevance of science in everyday life) and analysing the failings of superstition and pseudoscience. Janet and I stopped the playback several times to debate the issues, but pleasingly there were very few things we raised that Dawkins didn’t himself address at some point in the episode. My only complaint is more of a wish: Derren Brown’s past contributions to debunking psychics and astrology have been so compelling that it would have been nice to see more of him than just a brief interview segment. My TV guide presented this documentary as something of an equal pairing between the two, and it intrigues me to think how much mileage could be gained from seeing Brown demonstrate before our eyes the ease with which apparently impossible phenomena can be faked. Even as it stands though I’m very interested to see part two next week.

The Great Global Warming Muddle

Courtesy of www.badscience.net: I knew C4’s recent “polemic” The Great Global Warming Swindle had been roundly criticised for scientific inaccuracies, but I’m still flabbergasted by the extent to which the film-maker distorted the evidence – take a look at these graphs.

Of course, some scientists are now warning that some claims about the impact of Global Warming exceed what can be purely justified by the evidence. This is perfectly reasonable and indeed the basis on which the scientific community ought to operate, and the online story is fine. However it’s a bit of a shame that BBC News 24’s soundbite approach to the story left the impression that they were casting doubt on global warming itself, not merely the extent of it. (In fact one of the scientists explicitly says in the online version: “I’ve no doubt that global warming is occurring”.) So a story in which scientists warn against confusing the public ends up being itself a cause of confusion. Typical.

The world, hell and handbaskets

The world seems a particularly depressing place at the moment.

My opinion of George Bush could hardly get any lower, but I found this BBC News story fascinating and troubling: George W Bush refusing to enforce laws that he disagrees with. It’s a very high level summary but Bush’s note that he “would not necessarily enforce a ban on torture – the McCain amendment – or a ban on the censoring of government scientists’ findings” boggles the mind if accurate.

Likewise this is hardly encouraging for the cause of freedom: US court backs gay marriage ban. History will hardly look kindly on this aspect of US society, one which President Bush, naturally, supports.

Nor is this very heartening: UN body criticises US on rights, which includes the somewhat stunning statement that “earlier this month, the Bush administration announced that all detainees held by the US military, including those at Guantanamo, were to be treated in line with the minimum standards of the Geneva Conventions.” As if there should have been any question.

And if I can do so without coming across in any way as anti-Israeli (which I’m not) I’d like to state the obvious – that the current military action is resulting in many, many civilian deaths on both sides and it’s therefore only common moral decency – not a political statement – to condemn the conflict and call for a cease fire. There must be other, more proportionate, more targeted and ultimately more successful means of securing your long terms aims than bombing civilians, or bombing people whom you know are surrounded by civilians. That goes for both sides, and I can say without hesitation that I’d condemn anyone, including the UK, engaging in this kind of activity. In the past I’ve defended Tony Blair’s motives (if not his methods) over Iraq, but I’m hard pressed in this situation to see his stance as anything other than cynical and morally reprehensible, despite whatever gentle pressure towards the UN he may be exerting on Bush. Naive rant over.

Content vs Style

I think I’m starting to watch the news on a worryingly meta level, because while I think the government is wholly in the wrong in failing to consider deportation for convicted murderers and rapists from overseas, I still get bothered by the sensationalist and misleading way in which the story is reported. For example this BBC story entirely fails to mention that the prisoners had served their sentences in full, thereby giving the impression that convicted murderers and rapists had somehow been let out onto the streets without punishment. I assume this is because it sounds cooler and more exciting. I do worry that this kind of reporting, with the buzz-words “foreign criminals” all over the place, can only fuel the general anti-immigrant sentiments that seem to be on the rise. This close to a local election it’s potentially incendiary, and can only further the BNP’s ’cause’.

The BBC do redeem themselves with this Q&A, which is a great deal clearer. For example, while all 1023 prisoners should have been considered for deportation, ‘only’ 160 were specifically ordered to be deported. Still a large number, but far from clear on the TV news.

As for the meat of the story, it clearly merits headline reporting, and is clearly a monumental cock-up on the part of the government – or at least an administrative and managerial cock-up on the part of the various departments. As to how serious it is beyond the political ramifications, it depends where you stand on criminals who have served their sentence. If a murderer has served their time, is it jeopardising the public safety to let them out onto the streets? In some cases yes, in some no, and it doesn’t really matter if they are a UK national or not. Someone who is not a citizen of the UK and abuses the country’s laws should probably be sent home on the principle of abuse of trust and hospitality, but they’re still no more or less of a threat than any other ex-offender.

I feel more strongly about cases where reoffending is more likely such as rape or paedophilia. Thankfully this is one of the factors considered as part of deportations. While I don’t feel that deportation is an automatic answer (otherwise: Hey! Let’s deport all criminals!), it’s common sense that any measures should be at least as stringent as those which would apply to a UK national. Releasing a sex offender without any attempt to monitor them is therefore rather stupid by any standards. (Although I’m unclear whether this is, in fact, what happened. Which is another problem with the reporting.)

There are of course other factors. Some of the criminals had not committed serious crimes (41 were burglars). Some may have family here. Some may face a threat to life and limb if returned to their home country. All this must be weighed against their having committed a crime in the UK, and deportation is not automatic for very sensible reasons.

Ultimately this is a serious issue which deserves serious, informed reporting – reporting which studiously avoids the implication that these dirty forriners just want to murder us in our beds. And they could be living among you right now.


Got up early this morning. We sat and drank coffee and watched the end of the Jon Pertwee Doctor Who story “Carnival of Monsters” on UK Gold+1. Very creaky production values but quite entertaining, and a very civilised way to start the day.

Then we flicked over to the Heaven and Earth Show on BBC1, which was staging a small ‘debate’ between a Creationist, a Christian, and Geneticist Steve Jones. *bangs head on desk* It may take me several hours to stop ranting.

It was your typical example of the Creationist planting a few choice seeds of doubt over evolution which, while absolutely unscientific, are impossible to refute in an interview sound-bite. And since the Creationist only has to create specious doubt while the scientist has to summarise and prove the entire theory of evolution in one sentence, it’s really a no-win situation. Thankfully the CofE representative agreed that Creationism doesn’t belong in the science classroom, and Steve Jones chose to step back and argue that belief in divinity and the soul are not inherently incompatible with evolution.

Nonetheless, the Creationist was allowed to get away with all the usual tricks: saying that science is just another “competing” theory equal to any other, that “science” is interpreted through the context of our culture and so is not objective fact, that evolution is science’s version of a “Just So” story (oh the irony!), and this recent favourite – which I still don’t understand – that the mechanism for evolution by genetic mutation is apparently unupported by any evidence (!) and that evolution requires the spontaneous creation of genetic complexity out of nowhere. Apparently. Indeed, although the creationist admitted to not knowing much about genetics, well-informed people had told him that antibiotic-resistant viruses actually have less genetic complexity and therefore don’t prove evolution! I’m no expert myself, but I’m staggered that anyone can fundamentally (or wilfully) not understand the process of natural selection and mutation to this extent. Am I missing something that makes this whole ‘genetic complexity’ argument even remotely logical?

What really annoys me is that Creationists are always pitched against geneticists, yet Creationism by definition refutes not just evolution but also most other branches of science. After all, to say that the Earth and human life are only thousands of years old is contradicted by the evidence of plate tectonics, geology and erosion, radioactive decay and carbon dating, the stratification of fossils and other biological material in a geological context, cosmology and microwave background radiation from the big bang etc. etc. You can’t just cherry-pick evolution as being false without invalidating more or less every other branch of science.

Sigh. Why do I even get sucked in by these things?

Godless heathens

Hey, I’m part of a distrusted minority. Finally! It may even give other minority groups something to be pleased about, relatively speaking, since: ‘From a telephone sampling of more than 2,000 households, university researchers found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society.”‘

Perhaps it’s hardly surprising that strongly religious people distrust atheists. At some fundamental level you’d almost expect it, though it needn’t necessarily be the case. To be honest I’m perfectly happy with the notion that people with equally strong – if opposing – religious beliefs have more in common with each other than with atheists. It’s all about the way you view the world and your place within it, and religions do indeed have a great deal in common on that level.

I do wonder, though, whether this result isn’t influenced by other factors. Atheism is also one of those forgotten minority groups (and how sad that it’s a minority!) in that there’s no sense that denigrating atheists is discriminatory in any way; no sense of guilt at having transgressed a cultural boundary. People will tend to be honest about their feelings towards atheists where perhaps they would not towards Muslims.

But still – to distrust atheists on principle – as if they were a homogenous group defined solely by their scepticism about the Almighty – indicates some fundamental assumptions which go hand in hand with distrust of science. It’s that feeling that scepticism is the same as believing in nothing or having no moral values. The feeling that to demand scientific evidence for belief is to be contrary and closed-minded. That’s more worrying to me.

I’m also struck by those minority groups mentioned in the quote; particularly their incredible diversity. They are all regarded as “other” by some kind of majority definition, but they share almost nothing else in common. That implictly says a lot about the very limited definition of social normality used by the people participating in the poll (or possibly by those conducting it, depending on how the quotations were phrased.) It’s sad that there’s any question of whether minority groups share a vision of society in common with other people: after all, any group is composed of individuals with their own beliefs, people who are not solely or even mainly defined by some arbitrary notion of “minority”. And if there is any sense that those groups don’t agree with the mainstream vision of society, it’s almost certainly because that society treats them with suspicion and intolerance and seeks to disenfranchise them. So standing up for your rights leads you to be seen as a threatening outsider: talk about a vicious circle.

All of which is just the tip of the iceberg of a very complex issue, but there’s nothing like a ridiculous poll to get your brain working.

Take me out to the Black, and shoot me

Oh my god. I’m older than Nathan Fillion. I’m not sure why this upsets me, but it does.

In other news, I’m not Tony Blair’s biggest fan but surely this is a complete non-story. It’s been all over News 24 today. It seems to me like a classic example of the press arbitrarily deciding that something trivial is ‘news’ simply because it’s pure pundit fodder.

The news. Or lack of it.

For the last couple of nights BBC News has been covering the new licensing laws, and I’m very conflicted.

I have nothing of great import to say about the laws themselves: 24 hour opening is strange and unnecessary. The far more common ‘extra few hours’ aren’t going to destroy civilisation as we know it. It’ll probably mean slightly more of the same: the people whose sole motivation is to drink continuously while screaming the odd monosyllable into their friend’s ear will continue to do so, only for longer. They may get more smashed and do more damage to their bodies, which is sad but ultimately their own decision. More importantly there may be a bit more violence, or there may be the same rate of violence going on for longer, or the pressure point of chucking out time may be alleviated, reducing conflict overall. Who knows? Not me. And certainly not the Government or most of the commentators.

However, since Thursday night reporters have been staking out every major drinking spot in the UK, positively desperate for trouble to break out. When trouble didn’t break out on Thursday, they blamed the cold weather and turned their attention to the weekend. Their reports are full of images of the police arresting people – perfectly fine in a general article about drinking problems, but all-but-irrelevant in an article about the problems of extended drinking hours, since these arrests were all before the normal chucking-out time. They have no bearing on the story and only serve, vaguely, to reinforce the “sexy” reason for the journalist being there, which is that extended drinking hours are bad. Maybe.

The news commentators also seem fixated on a couple of ideas that baffle me. One is that normal chucking out time is 11 p.m., when in fact many revelers in my experience simply move on to nightclubs which don’t spill out onto the streets until 2 a.m. or thereabouts. The other is that underage access to alcohol is somehow the same story as pubs being open at 3 a.m. It’s woolly sensationalist reporting, presented without context, and the pesky lack of evidence is just a minor impediment.

This wasn’t limited to the drinking story yesterday. The headline “Rape case collapses as woman admits that she can’t remember whether she consented to sex” implies that the stupid woman was wasting police time (especially that word “admits”, beloved of journalists as a means of introducing drama while appearing to be impartial.) However the actual substance of the story implies that there are deeply ingrained sexist attitudes about rape in the legal system. The context seems a long way from the headline – a security guard is supposed to escort a paralytic woman home, but instead (at the very least) has sex with a semi-conscious woman and leaves her lying in a corridor. It’s deeply ironic therefore that the headline trades off the same sexist attitudes that the story seeks to highlight.

Or how about “a million” calls to Jobcentres going unanswered. Sounds terrible, but… over what period? Out of how many calls? How does that compare to other similar call centres? Without context, what does this tell me except that “a million” is a nice round number?

I know it’s a tough job to appear impartial while conveying news in an interesting fashion, but if they must look for the most dramatic angle on their story, they need to be very careful that they’re not editorialising instead of reporting.

For the purpose of full disclosure it should be noted that your correspondent is on his third bottle of Leffe…

Shock and awe

From weyoun_one:

Not content with asserting that the bombers are all scrounging asylum seekers recently, the Daily Express has managed to plumb further depths with their front page assertion that the Human Rights Act should be scrapped in order to remove its unreasonable restriction on hurling prisoners down flights of stairs, or something along those lines.

You can only gaze in awe at a publication which makes Hitler look like a man who never quite decided where he stood on immigration. And devoting the remainder of their front page to a story about Diana pregnancy conspiracy theories displays an almost sublime lack of self awareness.


Seen on a newsstand, today’s Daily Express front page headline is:


Although it’s somewhat difficult for me to believe that this isn’t a spoof, I suppose it’s better than what they probably would have liked to print:


Trouble is, of course, that since a few of the bombers *are* asylum seekers, now all asylum seekers will be tarred with the same very large brush. The fact that these particular asylum seekers arrived with their families at the ages of 12 and 14, and that those families have condemned their actions, appears to be neither here nor there as far as the press is concerned. (It’s tough to imagine the headline “Murderer was middle-class white man”. Because even where it’s true, it isn’t deemed to be a newsworthy distinction to make.)

In contrast, today’s Independent has this reassuringly sober account, in which a strangely small number of bombers appear to be spongeing asylum seekers:

“Three of the 7 July bombers were British-born, of Pakistani origin, and the fourth was a Jamaica-born Briton. None of the killers had committed serious criminal offences, although one had been investigated by MI5 for association with a terror suspect.

Details of the second cell shows they come from Somalia and Eritrea but have lived legally in the UK for more than 10 years. Links are emerging between the two groups, but it is far from certain that they knew of each other.”

Meanwhile the BBC summarises what’s known about them so far.


My jaw actually dropped when I saw this story about Michael Howard warning of race riots. Without blushing.

What he’s doing of course is trying to gain implicit acceptance for the idea there are no controls on immigration at present, which is plainly not the case. I’m sure there’s room for improvement, but that doesn’t mean there are no controls, and it doesn’t mean that a PR-friendly cap on numbers is the best way of achieving control. In fact, it’s about the bluntest instrument imaginable, since it tackles only the number of immigrants and makes no distinction between them in terms of the economic benefit they bring, their willingenss to contribute to society, or the moral imperative to help people living in fear of their lives.

The idea that race riots are fuelled by having too many immigrants is so simplistic and insulting as to defy belief. Race riots are not caused by having too many immigrants in our country, or indeed by having too many people from different ethnic backgrounds in our country (which is not the same thing). They’re caused by intolerance and fear. They’re caused by treating groups of people as caricatures instead of individual human beings.

The only way in which controlled immigration (i.e. *more* controlled immigration) can reduce race riots is if you assume that: a) that all immigrants are non white, b) Britain is a white mono-culture and other races are a disruptive outside influence, c) if people have an irrational fear you should pander to it instead of dispelling it, and d) the best way to stop people suffering racism is to keep them out of the racists’ country. Surely a case of blaming the victims rather than the criminals?

Reassuring people about strict immigration controls is not the way to tackle race riots or community relations. Implying that we can only take so many of these strange foreigners, you know, without sacrificing our way of life is not the way to tackle race riots. Implying that, by the way, immigrants might be murdering, lazy, lying opportunists who are here to take our jobs and kill us in our sleep is not the way to tackle race riots.

The way to tackle race riots is to encourage people to embrace the simple reality that Britain is multi-cultural. It also coudn’t hurt to encourage them to respect one another, to explain that immigration is a tiny issue compared to most that face our country, and to calmly reassure people that things are being done to keep criminals out of the country, but there are just as many criminals who were born here and we have to tackle them too.

I wish Labour and the Lib Dems were doing those things with more conviction, therefore.


So the Conservatives have managed to put themselves further to the Right on Immigration than New Labour; no mean feat. It’s now set to be a central issue of the Tories’ election campaign. While they preach reasonableness and practicality, I’m left feeling very uncomfortable about the idealogy that lies behind this. Michael Howard says “we cannot take them all“, which seems to me to be the epitome of a straw man argument. Who ever said we were going to “take them all”? But if we’re going to decide who to take and who not to take, shouldn’t it be on other grounds than an arbitrary quota designed to look appealing in an election manifesto?

Continue reading “Ranting”


Lest anyone doubt that the UK Independence Party is composed of strange, grumpy old men who want the country to be just like it was when they were growing up, one UKIP MEP has just decided that equal rights for women is bad and makes them unemployable.

Apparently, some small businessmen are so sexist that they won’t employ women just in case they get pregnant, and that means that we shouldn’t have any employment rights for women at all. Talk about your classic case of conclusions first, rationalisation second…

It’s apparently irrelevant that maternity rights have done far, far more good than bad. We don’t want any of this crazy sex discrimination law. And while we’re at it, let’s chuck out all of that downright, well, “european” race discrimination law, equal pay law, disability discrimination law, human rights law, and employment protection. That stuff that’s transformed our working lives for the better over the last 30 years. It’s all much too Belgian. UKIP said so.