Meeting Richard Dawkins

Well, following the disaster that was getting to his talk and being turned away, it turned out the Italian restaurant we went to was really nice, and that following a couple of beers the entire thing seemed quite funny.  Anyway we managed to finish dinner quick enough to get back to the Oxford Union with enough time to have a drink at the bar and then queue up for the signing session.

Daz said something profound about the need for a rational voice in this day and age, and kept his tongue about the Allied Atheist Alliance, sea otters and Mrs Garrison.  I figured he’d heard it all before so just said thankyou to him for signing his book and asked politely if he would mind posing for a photo.

So here’s a really naff photo from my camera phone of Richard Dawkins and my bodyless head, the only proof of our strange outing to Oxford.

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A Planet Sized Cockup

This evening (Tuesday 14th) Oxford Union were presenting Richard Dawkins reading from and speaking about his new book, ‘The God Delusion’ for which we bought tickets about 6 weeks ago. 

Having travelled for 3 hours, driven approximately 60 miles and dodged crazy on coming traffic on Wantage back roads due to a multi-car fire which closed the A34 North we arrived at the Oxford Union.  Spotting a huge queue of people trying to get in we joined the back only to be told about 10 minutes later that the venue was full and that we, along with the huge queue of people would not be able to get in. So we’re sitting in an Italian restaurant drinking beer and waiting for the signing session, which is in….frack. 15 minutes. So 60 miles, 3 hours and we’re not gonna even meet the guy…grrrrr….

Rant over.

PM speaks on science

Looks like I just can’t keep my thoughts to myself anymore!

Tony Blair in an interview (summary, full text, podcast) with New Scientist tells of his difficulties with science at school and his new found appreciation for it since becoming a political leader.  He talks about his ideas for getting children and business more involved with science across the board and expresses his confidence in the public’s ability to see scientist’s point of view following healthy debates around issues such as stem cell research and GM crops.

But he also dismisses questions on the movement away from rational thought and increases in religious fundamentalism.

In certain areas, we seem to be moving further away from rational thought, whether it’s the rise of fundamentalist religious beliefs or the use of unproven alternative therapies. Do you see any shift in this direction?

I don’t. I think most people today have a rational view about science. My advice for the scientific community would be, fight the battles you need to fight.

He raises as an example homeopathy, saying a battle over that isn’t going to change the world, which may be the case, and he may be right that most people aren’t anti-science, but the problem is, that the people that are have both influence and power in our society.  This lack of understanding is highlighted by the answer to the next question.

One subject that is of great concern to scientists is creationism. There has been a suggestion that creationism is being taught in some British schools. What are your views on this?

His answer?

This can be hugely exaggerated. I’ve visited one of the schools in question and as far as I’m aware they are teaching the curriculum in a normal way. If I notice creationism become the mainstream of the education system in this country then that’s the time to start worrying.

This shows a deep disconnect with the problem at hand; we need only look at the United States to see that.  Their Christian right has so much influence and power that they can continually push creationism into science classrooms across the country despite a constitutional defined separation of church and state.  If it wasn’t for the dedicated teachers, professors and scientists across America fighting this battle I have no doubt that they would have succeeded by now. 

I would normally say "where America goes we are never far behind" but in this case we are leading the way.  There are several schools in the UK that already teach both creationism and evolution in the science class, and as such we cannot accept that this problem is hugely exaggerated.  When we have organisations such as Truth in Science, funded by people like The Discovery Institute who are sending "Information Packs" to every science department in the country pushing bad science, lies and creationism wrapped up in new moniker, we cannot accept that the time to worry is when this becomes mainstream; by the time it becomes mainstream, it will be far too late!

We lost the first battle without even noticing, lets hope we don’t lose the war.

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The wider issue of withheld medical treatment

I am aware that my posts of late have been getting increasingly political in nature, something I didn’t want to do when I started this blog, and I promise to get back to talking about WPF, Vista and how I’m using it soon, but I felt I had to post on this topic.

Whilst traveling into London on Saturday the guy across the isle was reading The Telegraph, and I noticed the headline Mother is denied Pill by Muslim pharmacist.  After reading something that Lindsay and Amanda had posted about on a similar subject, I looked it up.

A Muslim chemist repeatedly refused a mother the "morning after" pill because of his religious beliefs.

Jo-Ann Thomas, a school crossing patrolwoman with two children, was told that even though the item was in stock she should go to her doctor for her supplies.

When she was denied the pill at a Lloyds Pharmacy near her home in Thurcroft, Rotherham, she asked why and says she was told the pharmacist was a "deeply religious Muslim".

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society‘s Head of Professional Ethics, Lyndsey Balmer, replied with

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s Code of Ethics and Standards requires that pharmacists act in the interests of patients and the public.

However, as with other regulators of healthcare professionals, the RPSGB recognises that a pharmacist’s beliefs or personal convictions might prevent him or her from providing a particular professional service (for example the supply of emergency hormonal contraception). Although the code does not compel a pharmacist to provide a service that is contrary to his or her religious or moral beliefs, it does require pharmacists to respect patients’ decisions and beliefs, and to advise them of other ways in which they can access the required service to ensure that their care is not unduly compromised.

If a pharmacist’s beliefs or personal convictions prevent him or her providing a particular service, the pharmacist must not criticise the patient, and either the pharmacist or a member of staff must advise the patient of an alternative source for the service requested.

Now I suppose you can argue that the pharmacist did fulfill this obligation by recommending she see her doctor, but given the crucial time requirements of EC, and the usual time it takes to get an appointment to see a GP, you have to ask yourself, at what point do personal beliefs and convictions actually become harmful to others?  Quite frankly I think it is reprehensible that the Royal Pharmaceutical Society and, if the above quote is to believed, other healthcare regulators allow those that they regulate to abscond from duty based on belief, when that duty is the provision of care to society.

Amanda puts it neatly when comparing this scenario to a diabetic using insulin.

In terms of actual use, hormonal contraception reminds me most of insulin. Insulin was invented to deal with an inborn medical issue that could, in theory, be controlled through abstemious behavior [but] if you suggested to a diabetic that eating a sandwich was wildly irresponsible, as if they aren’t demonstrating responsibility by measuring their blood sugar and dosing themselves with insulin, you’d rightly be called an asshole. And probably crazy.

I can’t even imagine what would happen if a sourpuss pharmacist refused to give out insulin prescriptions under the theory that he thinks that the people getting them just want to eat too much.

Although she’s coming at this from a different angle it’s still a valid point for my argument – that no healthcare worker should be protected because of belief (or any other reason) when they refuse to do their job – but why limit this to a discussion about woman’s and sexual health care?  Shouldn’t everyone be entitled to expect their health care professionals to deliver no matter what?

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The God Delusion

I don’t think Richard Dawkins’ latest furore into popular fiction is aimed at me.  Reading it seems a little like he is preaching to the converted, and to be brutally honest it’s almost condescending, but I think that is almost the point.  One of the exercises that you’ll see Amanda over at Pandagon partaking in regularly is the use of the Regender Engine; taking highly sexist quotes, articles and comments and regendering them in an effort to show how hypocritical they are.  If you do this with Richard’s new book, replacing every reference to ‘God’ with ‘Tooth Fairy’ or any other mythical or mystical being you’ll get the general gist of how he feels about religion and the people who push it.

Through 10 chapters he slowly guides you on a journey laying out history, fallacy and fact, he expertly explains to the layperson some intricate fundamentals of biology, cosmology and statistics, rendering each and every argument for the existence of a Supreme Being void whilst he does.  The book centres on the existence of a supreme being, a creator, a personal god who cares for the individual, who answers prayers and punishes sin being, in fact, the ultimate regress.  In essence, who created the creator?  If abiogenesis, evolution, intelligence and consciousness are so remarkable and complex that they cannot possibly have occurred by ‘chance’ and must have been created or designed, then the creator or designer must be so incredibly complex in a way that is so far beyond what we know and understand that must it not too also have had a creator?  With this established he neatly shows how biology, cosmology and statistics can indeed explain our existence, and that this in no way belittles our lives, or removes from us our morality but instils great purpose. 

I’ve been asking for quite some time why, if life is so precious and remarkable, we waste so much of it with our heads in the sand, worshiping a god who almost certainly does not exist when there is so much to discover?  Next time you watch a sunset, do not bask in the glow of God’s glory, but marvel at the fact that we live on a lump of rock, billions of years old, travelling at 108,000 km/h, around a giant fusion reactor that is one of 10 billion stars in our galaxy among 10 billion galaxies in the cosmos.  Tell me this is not more incredible, wondrous and inspiring than a personal god whose main concern is what the population of this tiny part of the universe does with their reproductive organs?

Read this book and not only will you find yourself able to counter every argument for the existence of a personal god or ‘intelligent designer’ with well thought out, logical, and factually correct assertions, but you will hopefully experience a raising of your consciousness such that you will never need rely on religion again.  It is unlikely to convince the hardcore believers, but those who are wavering but just didn’t "know that they could" embrace atheism as a way of living will find this the final push.

As a final note, it’s worth reading just for the numerous references to his wife Lalla Ward, who I had a huge crush on when I was younger, oh and the fact that PZ Myers gets his own mention!

More Casualties in the War On Physics

The current government’s policy of getting as many school leavers as possible into higher education along with ministers introducing an internal market into universities has claimed it’s latest victim; the University of Reading is planning to close it’s physics department

In a statement released to the press last Thursday (20 mins before staff and students were told) the ‘Senior Management Board’ (read beancounters) proposed that the "Department of Physics recruit no further students after the present year’s intake in October 2006." and that the "Department closes no later than July 2010".

As a graduate of that very department I find the news quite shocking, especially as I am friends with current students and staff, but I cannot say that I am surprised.  There is a discrepancy between the government’s targets of getting 50% of sixth form students into higher education and the distribution of those extra pupils, when university life is sold as either one constant party or a requirement for future success it is no surprise that we are seeing a rise in numbers for arts degrees with 5 hours a week of lectures at the expense of exceptionally hard, 26 hour a week courses such as physics and chemistry.

The Institute of Physics’ science director, Peter Main, puts it succinctly.

"Funding follows student numbers and so the future of Britain’s science base rests on the university choices of sixth-formers. In addition, laboratory-based subjects are not adequately funded.

"The government has to realise that its aspirations for science … will not happen unless they look again at how university departments are funded; the current model disadvantages laboratory-based subjects, especially physics".

And the chief executive, Robert Kirby-Harris;

"Contrary to many reports, physics is not a declining discipline; undergraduate numbers have increased over the last few years – although not in line with the overall increase in university student numbers.

"[C]losing a department now would seem to be short-sighted and sends out the wrong messages".

Universities are infamously bureaucratic institutions that hemorrhage cash on a vast scale and given that last Christmas, according to staff members, a long running campus wide research program to find out which departments were viable, deemed that physics was essential to the running of the university, is it possible that this new turn of events IS just a short-sighted, as well as cynical, attempt by the campus administration to concentrate on the cash cow that is the arts and humanities departments at the expense of future British physicists?