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.

A Brief History of the Bible (part 2) – by Dean Anderson

Introduction

In my last article, I talked about the history of the Hebrew Bible, from its beginnings in the legends and propaganda of the Canaanites to its eventual form as the holy scriptures (but not a single book) of the Jewish religion. This time, I am going to talk about the New Testament.

Once again, I must stress that I am not attempting to provide any academic scholarship of my own here, merely an overview of current opinion designed to spark interest. As always, there is active debate about much of this, and I would encourage those interested in more detail to read up on the subject further rather than taking what I say as (if you excuse the pun) Gospel.

Part 2: The Writing of the Bible – The New Testament

Unlike the Hebrew Bible, which was written and compiled over a almost a millennium, the vast bulk of the New Testament was written over a much shorter period of time – about a century and a half, from the mid 1st Century to the end of the 2nd Century. Much like the traditions about Moses writing the Torah, there are strong traditions about the writers of the New Testament books. These traditions are usually little more than just tradition, but they are often taken for granted.

One of the biggest questions regarding the New Testament, particularly regarding the Gospels, is that of the nature of Jesus. Was he a real person? If so, how much of the biographical detail in the Gospels is correct? Did he actually say what the writers of the Gospels claim he said? Are the stories of miracles mere exaggerations? Or descriptions of the actions of a successful charlatan and faker? Or merely stories with no basis in historical reality? In truth, many of these questions are now unanswerable. We can only talk in terms of probabilities and possibilities – or in terms of faith, not in terms of proof.

Circa 40 CE: Collected Wisdom sayings

At this time (or slightly later), an individual or group in the vicinity of Galilee writes down the collected sayings and wisdom of one or more itinerant preachers or philosophers. Some of this wisdom has clear influence from the Cynic school of philosophy; other parts are more eschatological in nature – talking about the coming “Kingdom of God”. Whether these sayings were from a single individual or a whole group of teachers is impossible to say, but if they are from a single person then this person is the closest we have to an historical “Jesus” – although we do not, of course, know whether that was actually the person’s name. We no longer have any copies of this document, although the text of the sayings is preserved in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Because this document is inferred to be the source of the sayings in Matthew and Luke, it is called the “Q” document (which stands for “Quelle” – the German for “source”).

Circa 50-60 CE: Paul the letter writer

Meanwhile, a small sect or cult is growing up around the Mediterranean. One prominent member called Paul – who claims to have had some kind of revelatory experience from God – starts writing letters to the heads of the sect in other cities giving them advice, often arguing with them over theological matters, and generally acting as one of the de-facto leaders of what is growing to become a fully fledged religion. The letters written by Paul that we have include those to the groups in Corinth (1 and 2 Corithians – although since 1 Corinthians mentions a previous letter to them these numbers are somewhat misleading), Philippi (Philippians), Ephesus (Ephesians), Galatia (Galatians) and Rome (Romans). These letters – which seem clearly intended to be read aloud to the congregations as teaching aids rather than being personal letters to the leaders of the groups – form the backbone of the New Testament and indeed of Christianity itself.

Interestingly, these letters include none of the sayings associated with Jesus and no indication that Paul knows anything about his life. While there are a few references which may be indicators that Paul is referring to a flesh-and-blood Jesus, there is no indication that he is talking about someone who actually physically lived in Judea a couple of decades ago. Indeed, when he needs to make theological points such as those about dietary laws he ignores Jesus’s explicit teachings on the subject and instead quotes the Hebrew Bible for support for his viewpoints.

This apparent lack of biographical knowledge about Jesus, coupled with similarities between Paul’s rather mystical and spiritual worldview (focussing far more on the “Holy Spirit” than on Jesus’s life) and the spiritual views of his Hellenistic contemporaries (Paul was from Tarsus – in modern day Turkey now, but part of the Hellenistic world at the time) is unusual to say the least. The religion of Paul and his contemporaries has its emphasis on direct divine revelation as a source of truth rather than word-of-mouth news that has passed from eyewitnesses to events and people who have heard Jesus speak. Indeed, the whole preaching career of Jesus seems irrelevant to Paul. Only the spiritual sacrifice is relevant. It is clear that Paul’s religion is a far cry from modern Christianity.

When reading in the traditional order – with the Gospels first and then Paul’s letters – is seems obvious that Paul is talking about the person that one has just been reading about the life of. When read in chronological order, though, where Paul’s letters come first without the Gospels having “set the scene” the ambiguity and lack of reference to any biographical details of his Christ are much more apparent.

His apparent ignorance of the biographical details of Jesus’s life is one of the main points of support that proponents of the “Jesus Myth” theory (the theory – albeit a minority one – that there was no historical Jesus and that Christianity started as a purely spiritual religion) have.

Circa 65-80CE: The first Gospel

Around this time, someone in an unknown location wrote the Gospel of Mark. It is not known where this person lived, but given the abysmal knowledge of Palestinian geography displayed by the routes that the author claims Jesus took at various times he clearly didn’t live there.

The anonymous author of the Gospel (the name “Mark” is just tradition) talks of a human Jesus who walked around Galilee, and is the earliest work we have that provides such biographical additions to the story. By writing this Gospel, the author has combined the spiritual Christ of Paul’s religion with a story of a local teacher giving out wisdom similar to that collected in the Q document.

Interestingly, we seem to see a development in theology here. Although Mark gives Jesus an explicitly earthly existence, he gives no details about his life before his baptism and preaching career, and the baptism scene itself implies that he only becomes special and becomes the Son of God at that point when the spirit descends (in the form of a dove) into him. This seems to indicate that the author’s beliefs were those of an Adoptionist (a belief – later declared heresy – that Jesus was God’s son only by adoption, and not by divine conception and virgin birth).

Similarly, originally the Gospel of Mark ends with no resurrection and no post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. It has Jesus cry out on the cross and “give up the spirit” (the spirit that descended into him at his baptism) and then die and get buried. Again, this fits more with the theology of Paul’s more spiritual religion than with modern Christianity.

It seems to be a development from Paul’s purely (or almost purely) spiritual theology where there is no biography for a human Jesus and it is not entirely clear whether Paul even believed that there was one, into a theology where a purely spiritual Christ descends into a purely human Jesus at his baptism and then leaves as it experiences his death.

Whether Mark thought he was writing about a real person, or whether his story of Jesus was supposed to be didactic allegory in nature rather than historical biography, we cannot tell. Similarly, if he was talking about the Q teacher, it is not clear whether he believed this teacher to be the person that Paul’s Son of God was based on or whether he was consciously combining the two traditions – Paul’s spiritual (and possibly human) Christ and Q’s teacher – into one like a modern New Ager combining Native American Shamanism and European Tarot to produce an amalgam which satisfies them spiritually.

Circa 80-120 CE: More Gospels and theological development

Within a couple of decades of Mark’s Gospel being written, we get to the writing of another couple of Gospels – those of Matthew and Luke. Again, these names are only traditional, the works themselves are anonymous.

These both clearly base themselves on Mark’s gospel, but both add many extra sayings and teachings to Jesus from the Q document. Since the Q document does not contain context for much of the teachings – only the sayings themselves – both authors add their own contexts which are sometimes mutually exclusive and involve Jesus making the same speech in multiple places.

By this stage, the Son-of-God-as-a-human theology has become well established, regardless of whether the first Christians believed that – and both Gospels add two important elements to the Jesus story: they both provide a story of a divine impregnation and virgin birth (an essential element in most saviour stories), although unsurprisingly (since both of them are writing about a century after the alleged events) both of them give mutually contradictory dates for this, and rather than just end on an empty tomb, both give stories of Jesus rising from the dead and appearing to various people.

Circa 90-200CE: Internecine squabbling and pseudoepigraphy

By now, the Christian church is getting well established, although there is a wide variety of beliefs ranging from the purely spiritual Docetists who believe that there was no human Jesus, just an illusion of one (by now the Gospels have been around long enough that even those believing in a purely spiritual Christ seem to accept that there at least appeared to be a human Jesus) through to Adoptionists at the other side believing a purely human Jesus and a separate spiritual Christ.

As the religion grows, there is much squabbling between the various groups – the writings of the early Church Fathers such as Irenaeus are testament to that. All the groups are trying to claim that they are the True Christians and that the others are all deluded at best and evil at worst (just like many of today’s groups still do, of course).

In order to support their claims, many of these groups either edit existing scriptures to match their theology (such as the insertion of 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 – the famous “Unequally Yoked” passage – into one of Paul’s letters) or simply writing new letters and claiming them to be authentic.

Indeed, during this period there are myriad Gospels (including: Gospel of John – the only other one included in the Bible, Gospel of the Egyptians, Gospel of Truth, Gospel of Mary, Gospel of Judas, Gospel of the Saviour, and many others) epistles (including: James, 1-3 John, 1-2 Peter, Jude, 1-2 Timothy, and Titus – all of which are included in the Bible, and many others) and apocalypses (including: Apocalypse of John – included in the bible as “Revelation”, Apocalypse of Paul, two Apocalypses of Peter and two Apocalypse of James) none of which are by who they claim to be by and all of which are attempting to push the theology of one group or other as the theology of the founders of the religion.

200CE-400CE: Less writing, more arguing

Although there is still the occasional new book written, such as the blatantly fake “Acts of Pilate”, by now it is getting harder to pass off new books as being authentic. However, many of the earlier fakes have been around for so long that it is no longer clear (if it ever was) which books are fakes and which are genuine.

By this stage, the conflicts between the competing sects of Christianity are more political than theological, and this culminates in the Nicene Creed in 323CE (followed by the Constantinople Creed in 381CE) which officially defined which subset of Christianity would be considered orthodox and which subsets (i.e. all others) would be considered heretical.

At the start of this period, there was no fixed canon – people simply disagreed over which of the books written over the past couple of hundred years were genuine and/or authoritative. We have little information about how quickly a single canonical set was agreed on, but within three years of the Constantinople Creed Damasus’s Latin Vulgate Bible was first produced, and that contained the standard list of 27 books that we are familiar with today. In 405, Pope Innocent I ratified this canon of 27 books officially.

Next Month:

Next month I will discuss the translations of the Bible, and how the Bibles we have today are related to the ancient texts.

So you want to be a Scientist? – by Octavia

IT’S LIFE, JIM, BUT NOT AS WE KNOW IT…

Okay, so it’s not likely that Mr. Spock is going to turn up sending messages to our computers, moaning (in a very restrained and sexy way) about stone knives and bear skins. We can dream, though…

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) does more than dream. It’s actively looking for Mr. Spock and his non-humanoid we-don’t-need-to-break-out-the-latex-noses-this-time cousins. (Think Horta.) There’s a fuckload of stars out there, and we’re discovering planets circling round more and more of them all the time. The more there are, the higher chance we have of finding out that we’re not – to mix SF metaphors – the only bags of mostly water out there. (Horta excepted.) The chances of coming across them, though, are highly increased if we are actively looking.

SETI uses radio telescopes to scan the sky for narrow bandwidth radio signals. This is based on the idea that aliens out there looking for life with their own version of the SETI programme are likely to do it in the most logical efficient way possible – concentrating power into one very narrow frequency range not only saves on power (Spock’s blood is green for a good reason, you know) but also makes it more likely that the creatures on the other end of the signal can fish it out of al the background noise. This type of radio signal doesn’t occur naturally, so if it’s out there are we haven’t made it, then something else has.

Analysing all that data is like looking for a tribble in a toy store. Previous SETI projects used large supercomuters, until in 1995 a bright spark called David Gedye thought he could sucker a whole lot of folks like us into doing said analysis for them. In effect, internet-connected home computers would download raw data, and analyse it in screensaver mode. Whenever the computer is needed again, the analysis is put on hold until the human computer hauls itself out to the big scary world of the outdoors and leaves the machine to get on with it.

SETI@home is a particularly good example of “So You Want To Be A Scientist (With No Effort Whatsoever)” as it doesn’t require the slightest bit of mental effort on behalf of the researcher (yes, take the fancy title. It’s all the reward you’ll get until your computer finds Uhura and convinces her to do a naked fan dance for you). All you need to do is follow the easy instructions to download the software to your computer, and then you can leave the house and get blind drunk in the knowledge that, by tearing yourself away from Kirk/Janeway time-travel fanfic porn, you’re sacrificing yourself to science. Go, you! You virtuous thing, you.

http://setiathome.berkeley.edu/

Watercolours – by judanne

It's Home

It's Home

Rural Apex

Rural Apex

Yi's Backyard

Yi's Backyard

evangelisttop

Evangelist

Evangelist