Birth Announcement: Lauren

A big CONGRATULATIONS!! to trillian from RnR and Ross, who at 9.25 today welcomed their first baby into the world. Lauren weighed in at 10lbs exactly, and Mum and bubs are both doing well. Congratulations to all, and welcome to the new little freethinker!

Take a look at those big chubby cheeks! All together now: Awwwwww.

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Auto-Pygmalion – by Eva Jones

The Auto-Pygmalion and the New Creation

Our reaction to pain defines us. It tells us who we are. Do we suffer it in silence, or lash back? Do we endure it, seek it out, or scramble madly through life trying to avoid it? Is pain a good, a bad, or a morally neutral sensation?

From a purely physical standpoint, this is a relatively easy question to answer. Pain is the body’s warning that something isn’t right; that if you will insist on kicking that table in a fit of temper, you might end up with a broken foot. It’s something you evade, unless there’s a good reason to endure it, like a vaccination at the doctor’s. But emotional pain… that’s an entirely different kettle of fish. One cannot avoid it by living in a community, and one cannot exempt oneself by living outside of that community.

I don’t know what this pain is for, or whether it has the evolutionary advantage of physical pain. But like physical pain, our emotional response to pain, to grief, and to evil and loneliness delineates us, and allows us to carve out our own moral identity.

So, what are we? What does pain tell us about ourselves – and must we listen to it?

This is one of the central questions in the ongoing dialogue between science and religion – especially that argument that deals with the ethical cause and effects of pain. If God exists and created such unhappiness, why would he do so? Is he not supposed to be a loving parent? And if God does not exist, how can we find meaning and fairness in a world that is both directionless and unjust?

How we answer this question defines our approach to the world around us. What are we? Are we Galatea, or are we Pygmalion? The two answers are fundamentally different, and they encompass, in a mythological nutshell, the theist and atheist understanding of pain – and all the evil, and grief, and loneliness that pain entails.

Fittingly, both Galatea and Pygmalion come from the same story, and stand as opposites within that narrative. One creates, the other is created. Pygmalion is a legendary Cypriot figure – one of the finest sculptors that the world has ever seen, but a man who had never been in love. When he began his masterwork, a woman sculpted out of ivory, he created something so beautiful and so realistic that, for the first time, he fell in love with another being – he dresses her, brings her presents, and wishes with all his heart that she were real. He names her Galatea; but Galatea is unresponsive – a cold and empty image of a living woman. Desperate, Pygmalion prays to Venus, the goddess of love. Taking pity on him, Venus brings the statue to life – and every curve that Pygmalion has cut, every rounded plane that he has chiselled and sanded out of chill ivory breathes and lives and laughs – and cries.

C.S. Lewis used the Galatea solution in his approach to the problem of pain. He argued – in his own agony after the death of his wife – that the vivisection-feeling of pain and grief is the stroke of God’s chisel, and that we are the statues of his marvellous creation. That which pains us, horrifies and frightens us, is that which will make us perfect. Should Pygmalion cease to carve because in his uncovering he might hurt the ivory, knowing as he does the glory that ivory contains?

the_hand_refrains_edward_burne_jones

The Hand Refrains - by Edward Burne Jones

If we are Galatea then that pain is necessary, and will serve to make us extraordinary. What an image! To go through life slowly being uncovered; freed from a lesser substance, until finally we transcend the simple materials of our body and, through love, become something far greater than we were before. It’s a comforting idea, if you can make yourself believe in the ability and motives of the Sculptor. There is simply no other way to be Galatea – the statue cannot uncover itself. It is trapped, buried within a greater matrix, and needs outside intervention to emerge. As Galatea we can inflict pain upon ourselves, carve our own flesh, pare down to the bone – but that is not giving meaning to the existence of pain. It is only wallowing in sensation, and doesn’t serve to extricate us from that pain – it can only anchor us more firmly in it. As Galatea, we need a Pygmalion to give meaning to the experience.

But what of Pygmalion? Could we not be him instead, and create rather than be created? If so, what is it that substance we act upon?

To be Pygmalion is the atheist solution, and it hinges upon natural rather than directed creation – the evolutionist rather than the creationist, the self-portrait rather than the watchmaker. Pygmalion creates because he cannot help himself – he does not intend the life that is Galatea, but he exudes her because to do so is for him as natural as breathing. He must create.

If we shift Pygmalion into the natural world rather than the studio, and focus on that instinct to exude rather than to orchestrate, we can identify a very different picture. This Pygmalion, like Galatea, has no separate matrix with which to work. As atheists we cannot make men from clay or women from ivory, no matter how many gods and goddesses we pray to. The Pygmalion must use his own body to exude, as Galatea cannot to extricate. Instead of uncovering a body within a sculpted material, Pygmalion creates that material by exuding himself – but this time he does not need Venus as an intermediary. Instead of a human sculptor, we can see Pygmalion as the promise of sculpture, the original material.

Deep in the ocean, we can find deposits of chalk and limestone. Sea level change and tectonic effects may see these deposits become landlocked, where they are used, amongst other things, for art and architecture – including sculpture. These substances are made from the accumulation of billions of tiny plates of calcium carbonate. The plates are exuded by single-celled planktonic organisms; an infinity of tiny Pygmalions who, in the waters about Cyprus as elsewhere, produce sculptures so delicate and elaborate and strong that they last for millennia. The function of these plates – called coccoliths – is not yet completely known. They may be a defence against grazing and infection, a buoyancy mechanism, an ultraviolet filter… There are many theories for their existence, just as there are many theories explaining the artist’s need to create.

If this is the kind of sculptor that Pygmalion really is, then his experience of pain or evil is reflected in what he creates, in the body he exudes. What for the plankton might be changes in water temperature that dissolve the calcium they exude, or the presence of continental sediments that swamp the coccoliths and prevent them from accreting into chalk or limestone, or the collisions with other objects that break or damage their delicate spires, is for Pygmalion the hard knocks of life that affect the sculpture of the self. Perhaps this sculpture will be crushed into pieces, and left to sink into the depths where neither sunlight nor humanity can reach. Or perhaps this sculpture can avoid the existence of pain long enough to become perfect, a sterile, symmetrical shape more like the ivory of Galatea than the vessel of a living body. And perhaps… perhaps the flaws and imperfections of a sculpture that accepts the necessary pain of life and incorporates it – along with the concomitant joys and wonder of existence – will form a figure so human, and so glorious, that it will continue to exist, a memoriam to Pygmalion, for millennia after the statue of Galatea has weathered away.

For this enduring Pygmalion, the atheist Pygmalion, the auto-Pygmalion who has no salty Mediterranean goddess to call upon, the problem of pain is that of transforming a natural, inescapable sensation into a sculptured self-portrait, instead of being the willing material of another whose methods and motivations cannot be explored. For the auto-Pygmalion, pain is what you make of it. For Galatea, you are what pain makes of you.

For the auto-Pygmalion, pain is an essential part of art. For Galatea, pain is the tool of the Artist, but the end product does not include it. There may be more comfort to be gained by trusting the Artist, but I would argue that there is more dignity, more self-respect, and more creativity in trusting to self. If Pygmalion produces Galatea, then his other self, the auto-Pygmalion, produces the cathedrals that she sits in, her amphitheatres, her monuments… and her cemeteries.

Read more of Eva’s posts at her blog.

Review: The da Vinci Machines Exhibition – by Octavia

davinciI’m all for procrastination, so when I saw that Otago Museum (just across the road from my university’s Central Library) was hosting a travelling exhibition on “The da Vinci Machines”, it didn’t take very long for me to find an excuse to ditch the assignment I was working on (due in the next day, naturally) in favour of a little hands-on learning.

Probably best known for his artwork – especially his paintings – Leonardo da Vinci was also a skilled and eclectic inventor. He is quite well known for his interest in flight – models and drawings of helicopters and hang-gliders are in the exhibition – but also included are his lesser-known technological interests: for example, the worm-threaded jack, ball bearings, tanks, hydraulics, under-water equipment, and various types of bridges. Interestingly, in 2006 the Turkish government decided to resurrect da Vinci’s 1502 plan for a bridge across the mouth of the Bosporus – previously, his designs were thought impossible. While it’s true that some of da Vinci’s inventions are impractical, there are some that have been shown to work, and the fascination with his instruments remains.

helicopterIn 1995, a team of academics, historians and scientists got together with a group of Florentine artisans (Teknoart) to recreate life-size and scale models of da Vinci’s inventions. The results were so successful that the family leading the reconstructions – the Niccolai firm – were given the national award “Italia che Lavora” (Italy at Work). Over the past decade, over sixty of these machines – along with informative panels, artwork, and a documentary – have toured the world’s museums.

It’s not a completely hands-on exhibition, but large amounts of the machines are able to be played with or operated – in fact, visitors are positively invited to do so. One of the favourites I saw being used was a giant mirrored box, where you can see endless visions of yourself fading into eternity like some hideous nightmare of “What Not To Wear”. Leave the kids at the big bridge made out of sticks, and let them try building their own miniature version – although, my visit makes me think the kids will have to be pretty quick off the mark to be able to steal the models off Dad. There were an awful lot of men squatting in the centre of the floor, trying to build their own bridges! So naturally, I got down and gave it a go as well (it went much easier with two pairs of hands).

tank2

My favourite was the automatic reaping machine. Ostensibly a horse-drawn cart, the cart included four wheeling scythes to cut down the wheat as it moved through the fields. I don’t know how successful such a machine would be, but there seemed such a possibility of mayhem and destruction that this interesting invention moved to the top of my list of da Vinci technology!

Tacky and populist as I am, I couldn’t help but hope to see the codex described in Dan Brown’s The da Vinci Code. For those who haven’t read this piece of best-selling escapism, the codex is a cylindrical container used for transporting secret message. You can access the message by cracking the code on the outside of the cylinder. Admittedly, Brown’s characters took an unconscionable time to do this, but you don’t need to be as thick as they were to appreciate the genius of the device. Alas, it is not included in the exhibition. There is, however, a few reproductions of da Vinci’s famous artwork, including The Last Supper, which was surrounded by a group of elderly women completely ignoring the nearby model of the tank in order to argue about whether Mary Magdalene was present in the painting or not. Thank-you, Mr Brown.

poleThis was a much better way to spend an afternoon than doing an assignment. The exhibit is set up sensibly, with each invention clearly labelled and explained. da Vinci’s own drawings are used to illustrate the intention of the inventor, and similar machines are grouped together so that the differences in design between flying machines or ball bearings or bridges was easy to grasp. The documentary was close to an hour in length, although it was more of a biography than a focussed exploration of his inventions. Visually, this was supplemented with a rotating catalogue of revolving computer graphics placed around the exhibition, showing how each machine was put together and how it was supposed to work. It’s a very well-put together exhibition, and suitable for everyone. One of the most enjoyable things about going was seeing entire family groups (often spanning three generations) all completely engrossed in the machines on offer.

If this exhibition comes to your local science museum, I strongly suggest you go take a look… if only to have a go, like the Turks, at building Leonardo’s bridge.

parachute

Book Review: John Wyndham’s “The Chrysalids” – by Octavia

John Wyndham, The Chrysalids. London: Penguin Books (no date given).

wyndhamJohn Wyndham’s The Chrysalids was one of the seminal books of my childhood. I first read it at about 10, and to this day I still read it every couple of months. There are passages I could probably recite from memory. What fascinated me about this book was partly the setting, and how comfortably it settled with New Zealand’s anti-nuclear policy – in The Chrysalids, the mutated survivors of nuclear war headed towards New Zealand as a relatively pristine haven from the resulting environmental and social catastrophe.

It also introduced me to the idea of a sort of mutation – both biological and cultural. I didn’t recognise it in so many words when I first read the book (at ten years old, genetic mutation and social upheaval as such were still far in the future) but the idea that one sudden event could prompted an explosion within the human body, and the beginnings of a new type of human being… that was fascinating. What was even more fascinating was the way that this new type of human was treated – hunted down by the genetically pure, sterilised, and thrust out into the wilderness. The really creepy thing was that people would suddenly turn on their neighbours. We see this in the real world all the time – the Rwandan genocide is a particularly brutal example of a flash-point being reached, where neighbours are suddenly dehumanised due to social and cultural expectations of “us” and “other”.

If anything, The Chrysalids represented possibility, and that possibility continues to define the book for me: the idea of sudden and drastic genetic change – how it may have occurred in the past, how we have the capability to bring it about today, why we retain that ability, knowing what it can do… and how we would cope with any possible results.

Being raised in a non-religious family, The Chrysalids was my first real experience of the depths to which religion could be twisted to justify the inexplicable – and understandable. How many could stand up against the need to find meaning after nuclear catastrophe, when scientific knowledge is lost and religion appears to provide a means of protection and escape – if only one can conform enough? This fear of difference and nonconformity – biological and intellectual – and the wholesale rooting out of these perceived spiritual imperfections is chilling. The child David’s dream about his father sacrificing his six-toed friend, Sophie, as he sacrificed a mutant calf is chilling, not just for the cruelty but for the indifference.

We all stood looking at her, and waiting. Presently she started to run from one person to another, imploring them to help her, but none of them moved, and none of their faces had any expression. My father started to walk towards her, the knife shining in his hand. Sophie grew frantic; she flitted from one unmoving person to another, tears running down her face …. He raised his other hand high, and as he swept it down the knife flashed in the light of the rising sun, just as it had flashed when he cut the calf’s throat… (28)

As horrible as this childish dream is, however, if pales to the later realisation of Sophie’s life as an adult – mutilated, sterilised, and thrust out into the radioactive Fringes as a child, as an adult still living there as the lover of a mutated spider-man who would throw her over in an instant for a woman who could give him children. (It appears that only the women were sterilised – male Blasphemies escaped that fate.) In her instinctive emotional understanding and her knowledge of her own limitations she despairs: wisdom banished to the wilderness.

Wyndham is careful enough to emphasise the horror of this war-induced dystopia in two different ways. He refuses to make the dystopian community of Waknuk and its surrounds a homogenous set of people. David is exposed to the worst of it, as his father Joseph is a true and unrelenting bigot who is happy to crush his own family in the name of faith. Indirectly, this exposure also allows David to find the humanity in others – in his Aunt Harriet (who drowns her mutated infant and herself to escape having to give up her baby) he sees the possibility of an adult figure prioritising love over religion and its mandated conformity. As he ages, he sees more individuals who think this way, but they are always individuals – there is never the possibility of a community of the dispossessed. Purity of species overrides purity of heart, but even those entrusted with preserving the former can be decent enough to preserve some of the latter. The Inspector who condemns Sophie comforts David more than his father does.

The growing claustrophobia felt by David and his telepathic friends is real and immediate. Despite their abilities, they are powerless in a world of rigid power structures, where governments and individuals take pride in the power of being a true Norm. This takes its toll on them, who would share in that power without truly meriting it by the standards of their own community. They are betrayed by one of their own (and Anne is to be pitied as much as Sophie and Harriet), tortured, killed, and their leader left behind in anonymity as they escape to Zealand, where the new species is growing. As the most ordinary of the Chrysalids, David is the pivotal figure. He is neither as powerful as his little sister Petra, as practical as his lover Rosalind, or as intelligent as Michael. All David has comes from his genetic makeup – his psychic abilities, his growing realisation of difference, and his legacy from his father. David is everyman as he wishes he could be. He is us.

It is that identification, that ordinariness, which provides the subtlest and most horrifying part of the book. For when the escaping Chrysalids are rescued by the Zealand airship, the pursuing Norms are killed – and the Zealander shows no remorse. Her evolutionary rationale for the destruction of inferior species is shocking – especially as the reader is left with no alternative but to accept that the Norms are inferior, and that in the coming struggle – far into the future, to be sure – they should lose, whether they are neighbours or not. In effect, the Zealanders are really no different to the Norms – they aim to preserve their species above all else. Both sides have privileged power above ethics – with some justification. But is some enough? David, who is like us ordinary in his extraordinariness, may dislike the reasoning of his new friend and may think fondly of some of his former family, but he is on his way to a new family, a new community, and his place in it promises to be as secure as his father’s is within the old. In effect, he has escaped his father only to take his place.

Genetics will out, one way or another.

Nutwatch – by Queen of Swords

Hi everyone, and welcome to another issue of the Nutwatch! Spring is in the air, so today’s subject is an appropriately flowery website. One problem with trying to frighten people into Christianity is that the scare tactics can easily slop over into melodrama, and this website shoots itself in the foot when it tries to tackle drug use, alcohol, sex and the inevitable consequence of all these. Grab yourself a drink or a joint – or just grab yourself – because this week’s Nutwatch unravels

Believers’ Web

Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive
When we claim atheists soon will grieve, when we trot out “Adam and Steve”,
Or we say women must conceive, ‘cause that’s the Queen’s personal peeve.

Welcome to the Believersweb.org. Our goal is to be a blessing to you by sharing Bible based articles, sermons and sermon outlines, book reviews and other helps for your Christian walk.

We just added a tool

His name is David Wilkerson.

that allows users to list the last documents that have been posted…

Watch this space for updates as to our progress.

Last Update April 28, 2006

I think you’d have a lot more fun watching actual space, if you want to see anything happen. But what makes Believers’ Web so entertaining are the over-the-top articles that do a good job of Nutwatching themselves. One of them is in the Testimony section, though it’s actually a tall tale of drug addiction causing evolutionary regression.

George had been missing for three days.

He’d been picked up by a gang of Romans and their leader, Pontius “P-Dog” Pilate.

It was at a dance that one of his friends put a “joint” of marijuana in his hand and told him to drag on it… The smoke swirled through his head. In five minutes he was dancing like a demon

On a more serious note, the author has confused marijuana with speed. Perhaps he was afraid that if he read about them, he would run out and beg the nearest drug dealer for a fix, just like how teenagers never even dream about fornication until they take sex ed classes.

he forgot his problems – he even forgot about God.

Dancing -> drug use -> atheism -> crime -> Darwinism (that’s coming up, folks)

The next day he wanted to try it again. Big thrill “great kick – really packed a wallop. This time it chased away the blues. That night he was deathly sick – head throbbing, vomiting – he had to have another joint of “grass.”

What, he had a headache and nausea after one joint? Did he use actual grass that was soaked in pesticides? Or did he make a mistake and roll up some Astroturf instead?

This was the first step toward a life of addiction.

He became addicted to headaches and nausea.

[The pusher] pulled out a small cellophane bag containing a fraction of an ounce of pure, white heroin. “Just sniff it up your nose,” he was told.

I imagine that if the author ever tried to sniff anything up his nose, he would need to suspend the Baggie from the end of a ten-foot pole.

“You’ll stay high for two days.”

The pusher could not compete with other pushers selling drugs that had shorter highs. He was soon out of business. He became a televangelist.

When [George] first saw them “drilling” with the needle he was upset. It was his turn – but he chickened out. A friend drilled him. It knocked him out. When he awoke – he sat “goofing” for two hours.

I so don’t want to know what “goofing” is. But I’m guessing that the friend injected him with a sedative, stole the pure heroine, cut it and made a profit on it (since the pusher was out of business).

It was soon costing a lot each day to keep him high. He could no longer borrow as he owed everyone in the neighborhood. He began to work “angles.” He sold all his clothes at the pawn shop.

He had to join a nudist colony, but hey, anything for drugs.

After his first mainline injection, he knew he was hooked for life.

Wow, you the man, George. Most addicts tell themselves that they can stop at any time. This guy faced the facts.

He began to mug, break into apartments, steal, hold up taxi cabs – all for money to get drugs. He lost 30 pounds and was nothing but skin and bones.

Good thing he sold all his clothes then – they would never have fitted him.

At this very moment the police were investigating complaints of a terrible odor coming from the roof top of a tenement house on Prospect Avenue, Bronx, New York. Three officers nearly fainted at the sight.

For years, the tenants had been dumping Chick tracts, copies of The Watchtower and little green bibles in that spot. The pile had grown… and festered… and become sentient.

George was lying on the roof top just left of the stairwell, dead.

That explains the fainting. Cops in New York never see dead people.

He had been dead for three days, he was naked and his body had turned as black as a burnt cork. Most horrifying of all, were the gruesome features of his face. The once handsome face took on the perfect image of an ape.

Man, if only he had taken more drugs. He might have had the face of a small shrew-like creature, or even a primitive fish. The Missing Stink would have been the missing link, all by himself.

It was late that same night when his mother was called to the morgue to identify him. The funeral will long be remembered.

Because the minister referred to him as Koko?

His body was wrapped in asbestos

The drugs turned him into the Human Torch.

with only his face showing. The sealed casket had a glass covered oval cut in the top to enable narcotics agents to view the remains.

Why did they need to view the remains? If he had sold his body for drugs, would they parade the Vice Squad past his coffin?

Young drug addicts were fled past the casket and told, “This is how it ends.” Ladies fainted

They were probably in the NYPD.

– strong men were shaken –

– weak men were stirred –

but the drug addicts were unmoved. Their minds were long since hardened to the truth.

This is a true story. I know the minister who buried him. Teenager – hear this – NOW! At the end of every sensual pleasure is a casket.

Dracula’s coming for you, teenagers! And just like in any good slasher movie, he’ll rise from his casket to kill off the ones who are having sex!

Editor’s Note: This tract was written in the early 1960’s, but the events are as true today as they were back then. Drugs are still shattering homes and lives. Trusting in Jesus is the only way to overcome them.

I was wondering why anyone would assume that what people believed in the 1960’s (pot turns you into a maniac!) is still accurate today. Then I realized that to fundamentalists, what people believed six thousand years ago is still accurate today, as long as those people got their beliefs into the bible. Another testimony is the story of a nameless alcoholic, which is told here.

He didn’t want to be a wallflower. He wanted to sow his wild oats. He got too big for Sunday School.

You are never too big for Sunday School. Even when you’re in your forties or fifties, you’re welcome to squeeze behind a kiddie-sized desk and share some special moments with the little ones.

He listened to an atheistic, evolutionist, college professor educated beyond his intellegence.

Um, editor? Major missed opportunity there. If you had said “educated beyond her intelligence”, you could have killed four unclean birds with one stone, rather than three.

“The Bible? Full of fairy tales. Read Tom Paine instead. Or Robert Ingersoll. Or Eleanor Roosevelt. Or Harry Emerson Fosdick. Or sex books.”

Or all of them. One of the benefits of being non-fundamentalist – you never feel that you can only read the bible and books supporting the bible. You can treat a library as a literary buffet, rather than as an a la carte menu where you only ever get to order one type of dish. And you don’t have to worry that reading the wrong kind of book is the first step on the slippery slope to

Hell

The wicked angels and wicked men are both locked up today in Hell…

This explains why Satan supposedly roams around the world causing trouble.

When the Sinner(One who has not accepted Jesus Christ as Savior & Lord) dies today, he, in his spiritial form, Goes to Hell to remain there until the Second Resurrection when his old body will be raised full of Sin, Disease, and Corruption.

What does the “Disease” part mean? If you die healthy, does God give you an STD to punish you after death?

He will enter that body again and stand in it before the Great White Throne of God. God is the Judge.

Actually, he’s the Prosecutor, the Judge, the Jury and the Executioner. He’s an entire John Grisham collection in one pretty package. But he’s still more active in this article than he is in the next one, where it’s clear that his hands are tied until Christians speak out on his behalf against

X-rated movies

Talk to your pastor, those in your Church, your friends, city officials . . . anyone who will listen . . . and try to arouse them to become concerned about this terrible X-rated movie racket…

I’m sorry. You lost me at “arouse”, when I imagined concerned Christians doing the Dance of the Seven Veils for city officials – all in the name of stopping porn, of course.

Picket the theaters showing these X-rated movies . . . . MAKE YOUR STAND. Let your Church know . . . let your city . . . your community know that YOU are on God’s side

God sounds like Theoden in The Lord of the Rings; he seems to be waiting passively for some mighty Christian warriors to save him and his people. Only when your community knows that YOU are on God’s side will the purveyors of smut tremble. Uncle Sam God needs YOU!

. . and that you want the showing of these filthy, obscene, X-rated sex movies . . . to be STOPPED.

Done, as long as you rip the Song of Solomon out of every bible. The phobia of sex leads to more Freudian slips in the article on prayer, where David Wilkerson writes,

If you have ignored the Holy Spirit’s wooings to draw you to the secret closet for intimacy, then you have taken the first step toward hardness of heart.

Where to start? David Wilkerson supposedly converted hardened (oh good grief, now I’m doing it too) gang members to Christianity. Everything I’ve read from him, though, sounds like preaching to a particularly humorless choir, one which isn’t likely to giggle or even crack a smile when the pastor talks about tender moments in the closet with a woo-fixated Holy Spirit. Just as Believers’ Web hasn’t been updated in two years, the tone of the articles hints at a mindset firmly fixed in the 1960s and uninterested in moving beyond that. Lead us not into education, and protect us from reality, for thine is the bible, the website and the closet, for ever and ever, amen.

Till next time, everyone!

Queen of Swords

Review: An Evening with James Randi and Friends – by Don Alhambra

It’s not often that I get really excited. But when I saw a link to this event (organised by Skeptics in the Pub) on the Bad Science blog, and saw who was going to be speaking, I was instantly hooked. The effect that some of these people have had on my life is really immense. And I got to go and see them all talk at a major skeptical event in London on April 19th! Unfortunately, despite posting the news on various web forums as soon as I could, tickets sold out before many people were aware of the event. I ended up going with my girlfriend and two good friends, and this review takes their opinions into account as well.

One of the first things I noticed when we arrived was that it was a pretty young crowd – which does give me some hope for the future of skepticism in the UK, though it could equally be argued that rebellion against the establishment (in the form of superstition in this case) is not atypical of young people. Either way, the age range of the room was decidedly slanted towards the under-30s. And the room itself was in the beautiful Conway Hall, home of the South Place Ethical Society since 1929.

The event opened at 6:30 sharp with our genial host Richard Wiseman. I’ve seen Wiseman before, at a skeptical event in Dublin in 2005. He used to be a magician, and is now a professor of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. Along the way held such luminary positions as chief scientific advisor on the huge outdoor experiments on Tomorrow’s World, a sadly discontinued TV programme I’m sure UK readers will be all too familiar with. Tonight Wiseman was on top form, and acting as compère he took us through some interesting psychology and magic. One of the things I’d seen him talk about before but that I still find fascinating is how a combination of eye gaze and movement of the body can be so effective at making people look where he wants you to look. Being a magician truly requires being a bit of a psychologist.

Chris French, professor of anomalistic psychology at Goldsmith’s University in London, was the first main speaker. As part of his work, French investigates psychic claims in a rigorous scientific fashion. His presentation mainly focused on how skepticism in the UK is becoming more and more popular; he listed many skeptical groups whose membership has grown hugely even in the past few years, which made me not entirely give up hope that the young crowd present at the event was not a transient thing.

Following French, Simon Singh got up to talk next. I’d seen him before too, at the same event where I saw Wiseman. Singh has written several popular science books, the most recent being The Big Bang which explored not just the science but the history of how the science was done and how the concept of the Big Bang was actually created. In his presentation, Singh explained the science behind much of this, including the story of how the evidence for the background microwave radiation necessary to support the theory was found completely by accident by some researchers at Jodrell Bank, not at all connected to the theoreticians who came up with the idea. Scientific serendipity is a wonderful thing.

I was very excited about the next speaker. Ben Goldacre is a medical doctor and journalist whose Bad Science website and blog is one of my daily staples, and is also where, as astute readers will note, I found out about the event in the first place. Goldacre did not disappoint, as he launched into a massively interesting talk covering, among other things, the placebo effect. The placebo effect is deeply mysterious, and we know so little about how it works. We do know that even when someone is explicitly told they are getting a placebo, it still works! We know that red pills work better as stimulants than blue pills, and we know that the environment in which the pills are given, as in how much attention is paid to the patient, itself has an effect on how well the pills work. Fascinating stuff, I thought.

One thing Goldacre said made me pause, and I’ll come back to this later. He pointed out that the people we often oppose as skeptics, those entrepreneurs who prey upon the gullible and less skeptical members of society (like vitamin pill manufacturers, antivaccinationists, etc.), have a lot of money and are not afraid at all to wave lawyers around to make the point that skepticism cuts into their livelihood. “We can never win,” he opined, “but we can have a damn good time trying.”

The final speaker in the first half was someone I have deep and intense respect for, and whose work has changed the course of my life. Susan Blackmore is a former parapsychologist who has written several books exploring meme theory and the nature of consciousness, and it was one of these books (The Meme Machine) that I read during the course of my physics degree and that was one of the triggers that made me want to study psychology instead. Many of the ideas in that book have shaped my thoughts about free will, the sense of self and how the brain might work. I owe her a great debt, because now I am working in an exciting research field where I get to explore some of these very questions.

In her talk, Blackmore spoke of how she became interested in the paranormal and her own journey to skepticism. As an Oxford undergraduate she had an intense out-of-body experience that she was utterly unable to explain. This convinced her of the reality of the paranormal and she set about getting into psychical research in order to, as she puts it, “prove all those close-minded scientists wrong.” But the more research she did, the more she came to realise that there was no evidence whatsoever for any paranormal claims, and as a scientist she had to follow the evidence. I have huge admiration for someone who can change their entire worldview based on the evidence – I don’t know if I could do it myself, but it’s one of the reasons I respect Blackmore very much.

Thus concluded the first half. In the interval I was privileged to talk to Blackmore for a minute or so and thank her for inspiring me. I think she looked gratified! I also got to chat to Goldacre and watch his face when I turned up next to him wearing a Bad Science t-shirt. He was so impressed he took several pictures. I only live to bring joy into people’s lives, really…

The second half of the evening was dedicated to James Randi. Now I didn’t actually know much about Randi’s work, other than that he was a famous skeptic and magician who offered a million dollars to anyone who could prove, in a fair test, that they had some sort of paranormal ability. Randi is getting on a bit now, but he appears to be as sharp as ever, and incidentally has a wonderful beard worthy of Darwin! He spoke to us to begin with about what it means to be a conjurer – the most honest profession in the world, as he says, because it’s the only one where you know up front that you are being fooled. The conjurer comes on stage and says “I am going to trick you”, and you enjoy that very much.

In fact he tricked us quite impressively himself, as he moved away from the microphone half way through to demonstrate that it wasn’t even switched on, as he was using a radio mike. But of course everyone in the room just assumed that he was using the mike. And he also took off his glasses, and remarked that they actually didn’t have any frames in them, before pulling the real glasses out of his coat. Nobody had noticed, of course. And the point that Randi was making is that: no matter how skeptical you are, no matter how distrustful of information from various sources, your entire worldview is still based on assumptions, and they can easily be manipulated by a practiced hand.

Randi finished with a couple of videos from the Tonight show with Johnny Carson, one showing the classic moment where he exposed evangelical preacher Peter Popoff by demonstrating that he was having instructions whispered into his ear by his wife the whole time; and one showing Randi performing ‘surgery’ on a willing volunteer to expose the fraudulent practice of fake surgeons in the Philippines who exploit desperate people by pretending to heal them. And he echoed the refrain that Goldacre had spoken earlier, which was that we can never win, and cited as examples that fact that Popoff made huge amounts of money last year, 20 years after being exposed on the Tonight show, and that all the phone calls to the show about the surgery clip had been the same question: where can I get one of those surgeons?

I thought the evening had been fantastic, but discussing it with my friends afterwards raised a few questions. It was a shame that there was no time for a Q&A session, for example. And all of the speakers spoke very well and were very interesting, but the amount of actual content in the talks was not particularly high. As one of my friends remarked, it almost came across as a back-slapping “aren’t we smarter than those credulous believers” type of gathering. I’m not sure I agree, but I do think that this is an important point that cannot be overstated. As Randi himself stated, we are not immune to being fooled ourselves! Although the need for community in skepticism is no different to the need for community in any group of people who believe similar things, I don’t think it should overshadow the great benefits that skepticism can bring – and if we are seen as being too cliquish and dismissive, then it very well might drive away the very people we want to attract.

Useful links

Skeptics in the Pub: http://www.skeptic.org.uk/pub/
Conway Hall: http://www.conwayhall.org.uk/
Chris French: http://www.goldsmiths.ac.uk/psychology/staff/french.php
Richard Wiseman: http://www.richardwiseman.com/
Simon Singh: http://www.simonsingh.net/
Susan Blackmore: http://www.susanblackmore.co.uk/
Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science website: http://www.badscience.net
James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF): http://www.randi.org/

Kept Himself to Himself – by j. mills

The police stood at the Gates of Heaven, bored.
The neighbours had complained about the mess.
In the weeds beyond there lay a rusty sword,
Not flaming, but illegal nonetheless.

D.I. Briggs arrived and gave the nod.
Keen cops pulled out the new pneumatic ram.
Briggs looked, and waved them back: the Gates of God
Were wedged open by the carcass of a lamb.

They waded through the ferns and past the shed.
The house itself was old but nothing grand.
They found God stiff and rotting in his bed,
The video remote still in his hand.

“Poor old sod,” sighed Briggs, “the third this week.”
Wearily he wrote down all the facts:
“The furniture is old, the floorboards creak,
The video machine is Betamax.”

They left the place to weeds and rotten fruit.
Nothing but the ghost of God moves there.
The fate of the estate lies in dispute:
They say there was a son, but God knows where.