I responded in two immediately previous posts to stories of (or about) mis-representation of science. Most directly in response to Jon Butterworth’s Guardian piece on science crying wolf (or not).

Listening to Dorothy Bishop this morning with Jim Al Khalili on BBC R4 The Life Scientific, we discover she has campaigned against over-hyped scientific reporting – the “Orwell Award for Scientific Journalism”. Ostensibly, for journalists mis-representing science “news”.

Of course, as Jim and Dorothy go on to discuss, it’s not just the journos and their editors egging them on with briefs designed to sell copy. The scientists themselves hype and mis-represent their findings, exaggerated further in press-releases from their institutions and of course. So many applications start with “impact statements” to justify work to managers and funders, who then want to see the evidence reported.

BUT the key point as Dorothy says scientists should not want to attract attention to all their potentially valuable results – not when it’s part of the scientific churn, work in progress or blue-sky research. Sure some potential, contingent work – eg in Jim’s quantum physics – is tremendously exciting to those close to being “in the know” – but that doesn’t make it newsworthy. ie scientists (and journalists) need to be sensitive to different sorts of science and scientific knowledge. Hear Hear.

[Post Note : Interesting take on Science 1.5 – internal publishing for wider science community reviews – before 2.0 “public”-ation of wider public significance.

This is not a journal publication, it’s a “preliminary” measurement, to be presented at conferences. Hence the 1.5 in my title – we are working on 2.0, which is intended for a paper. But it is public, and it is useful to put it out there so it can be discussed by physicists who are not on ATLAS. And it does tell us something new.

From John Butterworth in 2010, but linked in July 2015 LHC news. My sense is no science should make mainstream media news before it’s “Science 4.0”. John, a scientist first, journo second, is OK publishing 1.5, 2.0 stuff, and previews of 3.0 stuff, but journo’s – selling media – should keep out of it. Anyway, I was following-up the “minimum-bias” topic. One of my main scepticisms of LHC work is the “selection” of significant results being biased by what they’re looking for – potentially self-fulfilling.

[And in Minimum Bias 1.0] “But you can’t possibly be truly unbiased.” “This means that what you are measuring is only defined within a theory.”

Not sure if “minimum bias” is really addressing this issue. Interesting admission of selection bias in measurements and results, given the SAS #AllTrials “show me the evidence” campaign, No?]

In the words of Adam Rutherford, Linnaeus was a twat.

Well I’ve got news for Adam; Rutherford is a twat. The standard of BBC science journalism and broadcasting has come to this. Adam previewed and then followed-up after his broadcast of BBC R4 Inside Science with smart-arse quips about no such thing as a species and “Chimps are monkeys, so suck on that.” And a few people picked up on the new “factoid”. Mercifully few so far. 

This is just so much politically motivated bollocks. Science is everything so we can say what we like and you can’t touch us. We don’t really care about the consequences, evolution will take care of things, we’re all dead, ultimately extinct, in the long run. Oh, how we laughed, not.

It’s not news that biological species are not what they appear. Scientifically speaking it’s about choosing your definition(s) and there are plenty to choose from. And, more and more genetic indicators give us more possible definitions, not fewer. And that blurring is compounded by the fact that the genes we are using as indicators are less and less objectively defined the closer we look too. More information equals less definition. Get used to it.

Moreover, choosing definitions is a political act. Always driven by your purpose, and how useful a given definition is to your purpose. This is Modelling 101. Taxonomy 101. Science is no different. Science’s models of life are just that. Models, not real life.

Biological species? Whether you look at inherited aspects at the DNA patterning or expressed physical properties and appearances level, most useful working definitions of species involve gene transfer processes – schoolboy tittering, you know – “shagging”. Jeez, gimme a break BBC.

Reproduction. If two individuals are able to successfully reproduce fertile offspring they must be the same species is how the common definition goes. But there are statistics and time and geographical population movements involved in that success. How many pairs of individuals in the population(s) and how far diverged from common ancestry are those individuals and the population averages, in both time and space. It’s easy to say “if they are able to reproduce”, but much harder to model that success meaningfully, and there are many variations in how that is done too (eg so-called circle species). ie not only are there other bases of definition besides reproductive capability, but even that definition has many variations in how it might be interpreted.

Common shared genes, or genetic content, is all the rage of course – but how much is just a number, the significance of which is chosen with statistical relevance to other numbers. And a common shared-ancestor gives a basis on which to make relative comparisons on shared genetics.

You could say (Taxonomy 101): “we are all members of the class (clade) we share in having a common hierarchical parent” – a common heritage. Using that heritage as the basis for membership of the class (set). In fact every two living things shares a common ancestry with at least one other earlier living thing. It’s as meaningful to say Humans are the same species as Neanderthal as it is meaningless to say Chimps are Monkeys. Oh, you’re 5% Neanderthal, well I’m only 2%. That may tell us something about our different lineages since the ancestor we share with Neanderthals, and thence about evolutionary genetic similarities and differences – ie useful science for explaining and understanding the processes involved.

In the programme, when Adam actually says “Chimps are monkeys” he does briefly qualify it with “kinda, but not really”. This is choosing the species definition in terms of sharing a common parent. And as the expert  @PaoloViscardi points out picking the (remote) common parent as your definition isn’t right, you should always talk just one-level down as the class, or in general taxonomy a more significant “Ur-Class” or “archetype” class. It’s just not useful, outside philosophical ontology, to say everything is a thing – even though it is trivially true in real life too.

All this is lost in the takeaway one-liners. Ultimately every two living individuals – however diverse their current species – share a common parent, a representative of a third extinct species, and one that’s pretty hard to pinpoint in most cases. A useless means of classifying individuals now.

Of course, these problems with the apparent meaningless of species are as nothing compared to narrower human concepts like race, and one reason why we ultimately learn that even with ethnic classifications, it’s about self-identity with groups that matter to us as individuals, not about immediate objective definitions of groups with well-defined boundaries. That’s a fools errand.

We are all monkeys? Yeah, and in the long run we’re all dead.


[Post Note:

Sadly, turning Adam’s “mocking twat” accusation back on himself elicited only the denial and blocking response. Public scientist, in public broadcasting, publishing his opinions and conversations on public social media, in order to promote his media output, can dish it out but not take it apparently.

A couple of ironic tweeted responses to Adam’s reaction. “Capitalist conspiracy theory” particularly hilarious and wide of the mark. Do I not like conspiracy theories. No just the root issue here – the careless “arrogance” of scientific received wisdom.]  

Jon Butterworth in the Grauniad yesterday asks “Has physics cried wolf too often, or do false alarms help build understanding?“.

If you want a working understanding of the universe, which gives you the best chance of health for you and your loved ones, a stable environment to live in and cool gadgets to play with, science is absolutely the best we can do. But that doesn’t mean it is infallible. Particle physicist Brian Cox, much more of a logical positivist than a postmodern relativist, went so far as to say¹

“Science is never right.”

and he’s correct, in the sense that it is always provisional, and is never, or at least never should be, dogmatic.

The main line of the piece is the balance between over and under claiming the significance – or more often potential significance – of reported science. It is one of my recurring complaints – and the reason I’m a fan of Jon – that too many reports are over-hyped (#), for attention-and-budget-claiming reasons, particularly at the speculative boundaries of “known” science.

Cox on the other hand is reprehensible. This constant lip-service to contingency, whilst using this stuff that’s never right to take the piss out of anyone who disagrees. Cynically dishonest egotism of the logical positivist.

“I suppose the most important defect was that nearly all of it was false.”
A J Ayer erstwhile doyen of Logical Positivism.

Anyway, back to Jon and science being the best we can do?

  • Best working understanding of the [physical] universe? – check.
  • Best chance for our health? – check sorta – but medicine is not science (*).
  • Best for a stable environment? – not even close.
  • Best chance for cool gadgets [and even useful technologies]? – check.

2.5 out of 4 for science. Better science than not, but it’s not the best answer to everything.

And back to the issue of hype in science reporting. Clearly news, even of possibilities, is tremendously exciting at the cosmic and quantum boundaries of known science, but of course at these boundaries closest to the unknown, the science is at its most speculative and least accepted by scientific authority beyond the particular specialism.

Saying “science is never right” disingenuously blurs an important distinction. Sure all science is ultimately contingent, even the greatest and longest established knowledge, but there is a difference between science accepted non-contentiously as “knowledge” by scientific authority, and knowledge accepted as valid theory and significant evidence by specialists, but still considered as speculative by wider scientific authority.

Some things “deserve” to be believed, for now, by the non-specialist, as knowledge about the natural world. Others deserve to be recognised as valid theory, scientific work-in-progress, but not as knowledge. The speculative stuff helps build understanding amongst the specialists, but does not contribute directly to wider knowledge. Knowledge is never dogmatic; honest scepticism is the antithesis of dogma. Meanwhile, knowledge is useful stuff we can believe. It is cynical rather than sceptical to treat all science as falling into the same category of contingent knowledge.


Note (*) Using science here as both the biology & chemistry-based knowledge, logic and technologies, and the mathematical and statistical analysis of objective evidence of medical conditions and outcomes, it is these “sciences” that make medicine distinctive, but do not wholly define it. Medicine would be sadly limited without love and the art of caring, not to mention the politics and economics of its organisation and provision. [Note this is quite different for the wider technology and gadget exploitation in society. If the politics is maintained to be free-market, organisation and provision can be driven entirely by objective logic, maths and stats. Customers buy it in numbers, or they don’t. Neither medicine, nor science for that matter, are free-markets, or even wholly objectively scientific.]

[Post Note : (#) Listening to Dorothy Bishop with Jim Al Khalili on BBC R4 The Life Scientific. Scientists (and journalists) need to be sensitive to different sorts of science and scientific knowledge. Hear Hear.]

I was going to say “to all humanists” but you’d have to be something other than human not to be moved by Bonya Ahmed, the person and her story, speaking to a live public audience for the first time last night at the British Humanist Association 2015 Voltaire lecture in London.

“Wife of” murdered atheist blogger Avijit Roy is how most of us will have first come across Bonya, but she is very much all of atheist, secularist, rationalist, humanist thinker, writer and activist in her own person. A full transcription of her talk last night is already available on the English-language version of the Mukto-Mona rational free-thought blogging platform they set up with other Bangaldeshi bloggers. Giving free-thought a voice in the Bangla language was fundamental to their project. But the words of her talk were only the half of it

At pains not to be drawn into simplistic responses to complex questions, she emphasised the historical perspective of all human situations. And whilst thoughtfully researching the philosophical and historical underpinnings, she also emphasised that this had limited value without political action. It takes all of us to do all of this – we each must do our part of the whole. We can’t fight machetes with pens alone. In that striving for careful thought and balanced effective action, I personally couldn’t help but see a fellow-traveller. A fellow-traveller, in my case, in the comfort of a western secular democracy as chair Jim Al-Khalili pointed out. It was all I could do not to participate whilst she was talking.

Whatever the careful content of her messages, the passionate yet slight, unassuming individual shone through. Shining through, you kept having to remind yourself, not just the horrific death of her husband and father of their daughter, an attack in which she too was savagely maimed, not to mention already under treatment for existing cancer, debilitating personal experience few of us could even imagine. Only 4 months after that event the emotion was visible, yet contained, and the humour and humanity only ever one shyly unassuming smile away.

No wonder so many Tweets used awe-struck language. Courageous and inspiring to all of us it seemed. And a spontaneous emotional standing ovation that died only when Jim persuaded her to step down and leave the stage. The effect summed-up in Phil Walder’s tweet:


[Post Note : Video of full event and talk online at BHA You Tube page.]

[Post Note : and some progress thanks to BHA and FCO.]

Interesting post from Morgan Giddings, with a Facebook response from Sabine Hossenfelder:


I have mostly maintained a façade of being that “rational, materialist scientist” most of the time …

… it was always unsettling to think that consciousness is just some byproduct of what is a random universe made up of a bunch of bouncy-balls. I had read Roger Penrose’s books such as The Empror’s New Mind more than a decade before, and that had provided some powerful arguments against this view. But I had put that aside to pursue my “practical” ego-led science career.

I found God, by another name … I found that deep power within me – and within everything.


I think I went down the same rabbit hole but came out in a slightly different place. See, as a theoretical physicist there’s no way to deny we are fundamentally “just” elementary particles and of course there isn’t any such thing as free will. Interestingly, this isn’t entirely incompatible with what you write. In any case, I have been avoiding the topic in my writing. I’ve written about the non-existence of free will several times, and I get a lot of responses from people who are seriously bothered. (And never read far enough to get to the point where I explain it doesnt matter.) In any case, thanks for this interesting blogpost.


Sabine – “as a theoretical physicist there’s no way to deny that we are “just” elementary particles” – of course there are theoretical physicists that have different viewpoints. Read about David Bohm’s work, among MANY other alternative views.

You state with confidence that free will doesn’t exist. When you can actually show me those “particles” you think are so deterministic as to be predictable in the way you think – yes, those same ones like quarks that nobody can actually measure in a deterministic fashion – then you may have some evidence that there’s no freewill.

However, smashing particles together in a collider and then seeing various random blips, and somehow concluding from that that there is no freewill is bogus. There’s still more that we don’t know than we do about those things.

The Seth books are better than any physics book is on this subject. Especially see the Unknown Reality, Volumes I and II by Jane Roberts.

And, yes, it IS incompatible with what I write. I won’t go into why, here. But the absence of free will misses the whole point, entirely.


Morgan: This isn’t the point. To begin with quantum mechanics isn’t deterministic, but that doesn’t mean there is free will. (Atoms decay unpredictably, but if you’d make your decisions in that random fashion you wouldn’t call that free will either.) The relevant point is that we do not know of any example in which a macroscopic (“emergent”) theory comes about in a way that is not fully derivable from the constituents’ theory.

Now note that I carefully said “we don’t know any way in which”. This doesn’t mean there is none. (We can discuss this.) But the point is that according to our best present knowledge of the laws of nature there isn’t any such thing as free will. And unless you demonstrate to me exactly in which way you think you can avoid what is a consequence of effective field theory I’m not going to buy anything to the contrary.

Sure, I know there are some physicists who deny this too. It’s kind of interesting in a sense. Also, entirely unnecessary.

PS: I wrote a paper about this at some point here: http://arxiv.org/abs/1202.0720

I’m actually writing another paper about this…

I pick up on the same point of Sabine’s as does Morgan

“there’s no way to deny
we are fundamentally “just” elementary particles and
of course there isn’t any such thing as free will”.

The breathtaking arrogance of the materialist scientist – “we are just …” – “of course there isn’t …” That’s the ego driven error – that given no alternative explanation of the standard model, it’s the world that’s wrong, not the model. And it’s ego-driven because it makes the mistake of seeing “me” and the particles as distinct objects.

Even though Sabine clearly includes the force-exchange particles in that “just elementary particles” claim, it’s the “just” that’s the problem. The world is far more than particles. It’s arrangements and flows of such particles. But since we objectify only the particles, we see the arrangements and flows – dynamic patterns – as “just” properties of the particles. ie it’s “just” the particles we treat as objects of reality. In fact it’s the other way around. The flows, dynamic patterns, are reality, and the particles are the pragmatic objects of our (current) model.

It doesn’t require any “woo” or “super-natural-entities” to see alternative entirely naturalistic ways of looking at reality.

Having denied all but particles and their determinism via laws, even statistically random laws, the materialist physicist is unable to explain subjective consciousness and free-will and therefor must deny the existence of the most basic empirical evidence we have available to us. We and our will.

God by any other name? The pantheistic view is a common solution, since Spinoza, and metaphorically it’s as good as any to explain the “vital” ingredient missing from the dead model, a model without evolving will or purpose, but where these are illusory epiphenomena. This doesn’t mean that the vital agency exists as a separate god-like entity beyond the standard model, it simply confirms the standard model is more fundamentally in error.

The rabbit-hole is the standard model itself.

(I’ll come back with more when I’ve read Sabine’s referenced papers, and with better reference sources – Dennett & Baggini from mainstream philosophy; Pirsig & Rayner scientists who saw the error of their earlier ways; Nagel, Unger, Smolin, Goldstein … and many more.)

[Post Note – looking at Sabine’s paper:

The Free Will Function – Free will from the perspective of a particle physicist. It is argued that it is possible to give operational meaning to free will and the process of making a choice without employing metaphysics.

Of course these examples are arbitrarily constructed and are certainly not meant to describe actual reality. Their purpose is merely to show that it is possible to have a mathematical description of reality that does allow for free will to exist and give operational sense to the act of making a decision in a world that is determined but not deterministic.

Two immediate observations:

“Without employing metaphysics” – possibly just a classical scientist’s aversion to philosophy that is not considered to be scientific. In practice, this says, “without fundamental revision to my existing physics.”

The “arbitrary construction” says it is not really an explanation in terms of existing physics, it is speculative, and doesn’t suggest a testable physical hypothesis (yet). It also places strong reliance on the physical possibility according to mathematics, as if maths were some fundamental test of reality – see Unger & Smolin.

It confirms why I have time for Sabine. She is honestly addressing – attempting to address – the issue, even if she adopts the throwaway denials of received wisdom in her professional field. That’s a tough job. Appreciated.]

In my last post – about the BHA 2015 Conference – I noted that listening to Dr Phil Hammond had put me in mind of Dr James Willis.

Although the former is now more famous than the latter – stand-up entertainer, TV-panelist, etc – they represent two generations of medical doctors warning against the damage being done by successive top-down re-organisations of the National Health Service. Dr Phil’s latest book “Staying Alive – is about exactly that and how personal love and individual evidence-based care can save us, and it. Dr James’ wrote two successful books in the same vein, Friends in Low Places and The Paradox of Progress, both still recommended because clearly the situation hasn’t really changed.

One of James’ targets is the “evidence-based” concept itself – something of a mantra for a certain kind of top-down managerialism, but it’s the classic evidence as bean-counting in situations where not everything that counts can be counted. Their common message is that a large part of the value of health care experienced empirically and personally is down to qualities like love and compassion and …. personal care of the individuals involved – the art of caring. Hard to account for objectively in top-down management target-setting and the like, but clearly most meaningful at the inter-personal work-face encounters – the “low places” of James’ work. As Dick Taverne notes evidence must not be ignored, it must always be taken into account when making decisions, but it is totally wrong to assume such evidence is always of the objectively scientific kind, or to ignore the kind that isn’t. What counts as evidence in ethical and political decision-making?

Anyway, that’s a recurring theme in this blog too, so it was interesting to re-connect with Dr James Willis. As well as his original “Friends in Low Places” web-pages as a vehicle for his books and numerous other articles and references – his The Monster and the Whirlpool (Scylla and Charybdis) keynote to the Royal College of GP’s is a personal favourite – he is now active on both Twitter ( @JARWillis ) and his own “Generally Speaking” blog. But I had forgotten what first created the contact between us.

I note here that Robert Pirsig has been a source of inspiration for me to investigate philosophical grounding of the kind of knowledge that really should count as evidence, the very point of my Psybertron blog. It was of course James’ own reading of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZMM) that first brought him to my attention. Both being people with scientific underpinnings to our professional lives, medicine in James’ case, technology and engineering in mine, we both shrank back at the Zen, hippy lifestyle aspect of Pirsig – too “woo” in the modern rationalist vernacular – and were reluctant late readers of Pirsig. However as James puts it:

“Pirsig convinces, utterly, that in motorcycle maintenance, of all superbly-chosen examples, the art is more fundamental than the science. It’s having the right attitudes that matters. So, we must ask ourselves, how much more must this apply to medicine! How could we ever have been so blind as to think otherwise!”

Perhaps in my case it was perhaps less a case of being blind, as not having any language to get a grip on the issue of art being more fundamental than science, but the effect has been the same. Coincidentally talking with Julian Baggini the evening before hearing Dr Phil Hammond, Pirsig may still fail to “utterly convince” philosophers that he has the metaphysical solution, but it’s clear he has provided many of us with a useful insight.

BHA2015 Conference – Bristol, Grand Hotel, 19 to 21 June 2015 (~400 delegates)
Not detailed notes, just rough for-the-record of my own. Will use some to create constructive feedback.

Friday afternoon started with a so-called “Ethical Jury” list of suggested ethical dilemma topics from which to discuss 2 or 3 in round-tables of 8 or so. Worked as an “ice-breaker” to start conversation with the table of fellow attendees with whom you found yourself thrown together. (Clearly with enormous personal context differences in starting points, pretty random which topic examples were meaningfully discussed and how much progress even agreeing the issues is pretty minimal – except to note that even the simplest stated issues were complex on many levels and connected to all the others.)

Next was a Meet the BHA session – by popular request apparently. Not sure best use of time for delegates, since many will already know many. Perhaps more use with 3 or 4 sentences of self-introduction each from the front better that attempt at hot-dating moving desk to desk – at least not without a little more preparation and facilitation.

Evening session started with Julian Baggini – ostensibly showing the value of philosophy by taking basic philosophical questions of real life from the floor as part of a stand-up routine. Actually very good from Julian’s perspective in handling it with entertainment value but slightly let down by mixed audience input, initially not getting the point of the level of questions to make it work. Too many men with their hands up making too complex philosophical points to start with – though the “I have a friend who …. What would philosophy advise” format did catch-on.

Headline was Kate Smurthwaite doing a slightly cut down version of her stand-up show. Excellent performance level; pace, energy and passion. One of the highlights of the conference.

Saturday morning started with Dr Caroline Watt of the Edinburgh Koestler Parapsychology unit standing-in at less than 24 hours notice for Prof Francesca Stavrokopolou‘s advertised talk. Dr Watt gave an accomplished and entertaining talk on aspects of their work on paranormal beliefs that “might be of interest to Humanists”. Ghostbusting myths and creating normal hypotheses to test paranormal claims. Psychic claims, near-death (NDE) experiences and out-of-body (OBE) experiences, ghostly sightings, and so on. Many good psychological and neuro-scientific reasons to understand why people do sincerely believe the impressions they appear to experience. Seeing ghosts driven largely by Paraedolia – the naturally evolved tendency to seek out faces, human and animal forms in our environment. Understanding paranormal claims is part of the science of understanding actual normal psychology and neuro-science.

Next up was Prof Tim Whitmarsh, on his Deep History of Atheism. Despite parts of the delivery being read presumably from his book or prepared lecture based on it, the content was for the most part informative. Apart from a little too materialist / atomist philosophical foundation reading from Democritus onwards, Whitmarsh demonstrably knows his Greek and Roman history of daily life, politics and empire. Clearly details affect the narrative you draw from such history and a 40 minute presentation can only hit the highlights, but the main message was clear enough – the atheism of times where what gods there were, were all too human and not supernaturally powerful – indeed heroes were those humans who fought against the fates and the gods. Blasphemy would have been a meaningless concept. The transition via Mosaic invented interpretation of monotheistic religion, to become dominant as it was promoted for imperial political ends most notably by Constantine. That narrative is well enough established, even if details are up for debate. Perhaps most interesting, after Daedalus and Icarus, Dionysus and Demeter, Belerophon and the rest Whitmarsh did approach a surprising conclusion, that religion probably did have a future, religion redefined with some form of tolerant polytheism, loosely federated across global communities. A conclusion very similar to that of Jonathan Sacks last week.

[The morning closed out with a discussion between the Specialist Sections of the BHA (Young Humanists, Prison Humanists and Defence / Armed-Forces Humanists pastoral support groups and LGBT sections), chaired by Andrew Copson. The afternoon session opened up with The Greater Manchester Humanist Choir renditions of their selection of secular hymns and protest songs.]

The highlight of the weekend entertainment-wise had to be the next session by Dr Phil Hammond, ex-GP, Private-Eye writer, and stand-up comedian. Serious and strongly delivered messages about health and NHS priorities – Love and Clangers, but told with anecdotes that had the audience rolling with laughter and, in my case, unable to laugh for crying. Humanist message, apart from the love obviously, was believing evidence, and not falling for the myths of management. Beautifully done. Reminded me personally very much of the work of Dr James Willis.

Follow that Helen Lewis, Sarah Ditum, and Nimko Ali in conversation on feminism, culture and belief. A tough act to follow and somewhat understated staging (low stage for seated discussion, light, sound and inadequate introductions) but some interesting content – particularly on patriarchal cultural drivers quite independent of their specific religious or racial contexts. The necessary paradox of rejecting any form of segregation whilst nevertheless providing women-only-spaces in such cultures.

Last session of the afternoon was another top-quality stand-up routine from Prof Richard Wiseman. Less uproarious laughter than Dr Phil, more understated self-deprecating meta-jokes, but very cleverly done. A major part of the routine was really about illusions – where Prof Richard has conjuring skills, in fact the main objective was to use known science of sleep and dreams to establish most effective and healthy sleep routines and habits.

[At the Gala Dinner Prof Alice Roberts was awarded British Humanist of the Year. Jim Al Khalili’s introduction to the award struggled to maintain the suspense as Alice’s achievements were already recognised by all and hence well deserving of the award. Most notable in the conversations afterwards, was the highly personal and committed tone of Alice’s acceptance speech – true emotion, very real – moved many of us grumpy old gits. Edinburgh fringe award winning Jay Foreman provided the after dinner entertainment of musical humour.]

The Sunday morning, kicked-off with what was really the only deeply technical session of the weekend from Jim Al Khalili. If you’ve seen the TV programmes and read the book, the new stories of the quantum effects at bio-chemistry levels of life are no longer new. Brave to attempt to present to a mixed, captive, lay audience, but nevertheless both fascinating and, as Jim honestly admits, downright weird. Quantum mechanics just is – trust me I’m the BHA President! Gratifying for me was the reference to the personally inspirational “What is Life” by Erwin Schroedinger – much maligned after WWII thanks to the associations with those with Nazi agendas. Biggest disappointment – Jim mentioned his damned cat, Schroedinger’s that is, after managing to avoid doing so in the TV programmes 😉

The much anticipated interview of Prof Alice Roberts by Samira Ahmed followed, though with time-pressures it ended all too soon as the dialogue started to get interesting. Alice agreeing in response to an audience question, that the future probably depended on collaboration between Humanists and the faith-based churches. They do say, leave your audience wanting more.

To round off what was for the most part an entertaining but much lighter-weight conference than last year’s World Humanist Congress – intellectually and politically – I’m sure neither Alice nor Samira would begrudge ceding the stage to Leo Igwe for our final session. As well as highlighting the inhuman irrationality around beliefs in supernatural witchcraft – mainly against women and largely supported by local the evangelical African churches – Leo was able to make a passionate case for the real value in British humanists actively supporting African humanism. There were local activists and latent sympathisers even if they couldn’t always maintain a visible profile without support, and there were real achievements in setting-up secular schools. Funding and resources to support such activities were essential, and that included follow-up resources. No point funding the building of a secular school as a physical building, only to leave it to the mercy of local extremists to turn it into a madrassa of indoctrination.

Support does work and is a multiplier in the message it gives to encouraging local initiatives.

Thanks to all the BHA staff and volunteers, and the hotel & catering staff for a successful weekend.

I promised a fuller review of Nick Spencer’s “Atheism – The Origin of the Species” when I’d completed it. It’s a rather long review with plenty of spoilers and quotes here, since I’m gutting it for content I find useful, but a recommended read for anyone from Mrs Angry Atheist to Mr Tolerant Apologist and all considered points between. All human life is here, and a witty delivery makes it a good read.

Before we start, an observation, there’s a lot of “which came first” debate around when it comes to the the content of religions and their holy books. It’s trivially true that atheism preceded theism – the latter’s a thing believed, a situation that came to be, so clearly the absence preceded the existence. This is also true independent of any debates about whether world views could be characterised as humanist without or within theistic religion. So it makes perfect sense to start a history of atheism after the height of theistic belief. How theistic religious beliefs came to be is itself interesting of course – and coincidentally has been a topic of several talks and conversations recently – but it’s seems wishful thinking to believe pre-theistic belief has much to do with our current state of post-theistic atheism and humanism.

Interestingly one talk at this weekend’s BHA 2015 conference is advertised thus:

The Deep History of Atheism – Prof Tim Whitmarsh
It seems to suit everyone to agree that atheism began with the European enlightenment. The religious can treat it as a symptom of modern decadence; the new atheists can present it as the result of science and progress. But neglecting the deeper origins of atheism not only distorts history, it also denies atheists their roots, and so in a sense their very humanity. (It is, after all, easier to persecute people with no past.) In this talk, Professor Whitmarsh shows that atheism is at least as old as monotheism itself, and was treated as largely unproblematic in the pre-Christian Mediterranean world; it was the Christianisation of the Roman Empire that shunted it off the European mental map.

My point – obviously – atheism is at least as old, if not older than theism …. Both histories are informative, before and after theism; As I said in the intro, the debate over which came first is appears trivial, but it will be interesting to hear what Tim has to say about the nature of the atheism in the context of modern humanists – “their very humanity” – since humanism by any other name also preceded theism. (**)

So, to  Nick Spencer’s book. I already said I consider it an excellent read, brilliant in fact, after just a couple of chapters, and as well as the post 1500 historical content, the selections and witty, laconic turns of phrase make it thoroughly readable. Put me in mind of Gibbon at times. I’ll not repeat the quotes from previously, but take the story up in 1697.

In that year, the 20 year old Thomas Aikenhead was the last person to be hanged for blasphemy in the UK under the 1661 Blasphemy act, enacted the year after restoration of the monarchy. He was certainly “pugnacious and contemptuous” in his criticism of both the old and new testament stories of the Bible though, allegedly going to the gallows with his bible, it’s not clear he was actually atheist; However, quoting from Hunter and Wooton:

“A year before, the [Privy] Council had heard the case of one John Frazer, who made similar claims. An immediate and fulsome recantation saved him from the gallows. Aikenhead had either been less penitent or just one atheist too many.”

But the real point, being the last execution for blasphemy didn’t appear to make him a British martyr. Inns, taverns, coffee houses and restoration drama playhouses were already “dens of unregulated wit, levity, mockery [and worse] that undermined all that was serious and godly” to the puritan. “Theatre became the epitome of practical atheism.”

There follows comparison and contrast of not only the differences but the connections between French and British intellectual contributions through the ensuing periods leading to revolution, centered particularly round Baron D’Holbach’s salon table:

The list of attendees reads like a Who’s Who of eighteenth-century European radical intellectual life. In addition to Diderot there was [D’Alembert, Rousseau, Condorcet, de Condillac … [and more] … Smith, Hume, Gibbon and Wilkes.] Not all these stayed at D’Holbach’s table for very long. Some left quietly …. Others fell out spectacularly … Not all were materialists and not all were atheists, but …. the group shared an antipathy towards Christianity, particularly the authoritarian and royalist form it took in France.

There is the fascinating story of the rise and atheist nature of the various ethical & rationalist unions, societies & associations from Robert Owen’s ultimately unsuccessful 1810’s Benthamite New Lanark Mills project via the South Place Ethical Society and the Rationalist Press Association(*) to the modern-day inheritors of their traditions and agendas.

Relevant philosophical and intellectual movements and schools of thought are also reviewed. So, for example we get another example of Spencer’s turn of phrase rounding off this quote from Owen Chadwick on German scientific materialism:

“[N]othing represents better the temporary phase of popular philosophy which combined the contradiction of lowering man to the dust by showing him to be nothing but another animal, while lifting him to the skies and singing his praises as the ruler of the world.”

It was a sage observation, except for the word temporary.

Echoing sentiments I last read in Rebecca Goldstein’s “Incompleteness – the Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel” Spencer describes Russell’s bewilderment late in life, quoting from his autobiography:

“Having for years cared only for exactness and analysis, [Feeling the unendurable loneliness of the human soul, impenetrable to all except the highest intensity of the sort of love that religious teachers have preached] I found myself filled with semi-mystical feelings about beauty … and a desire almost as profound as that of the Buddha to find some philosophy which should make human life endurable.”

Whilst acknowledging Russell’s support for atheist, secular, rational and ethical projects, I’ve always been baffled at the high regard in which he is held, given that he was philosophically undermined by the first published work of his own student Wittgenstein and totally demolished by Gödel within ten years of publishing Principia Mathematica with Whitehead. Spencer spends further pages on Wittgenstein, and the Vienna Circle that practically worshipped him despite his contempt for them – again all echoed in Goldstein, as is Wittgenstein’s own debt to Spinoza, another of Goldstein’s specialities. [My personal pet theory is that the reason Wittgenstein stepped out of philosophy – before coming back to fix the damage later – was because his Tractatus was always intended as one long joke at Russell’s expense, which was unfortunately taken-up as sincere. Like something straight out of Douglas Adams or Monty Python, but I digress.]

Quoting A J Ayer, who was very influential in popularising the Vienna Circle and Logical Positivism, asked when interviewed late in life what he now thought were the defects of Logical Positivism:

“Well, I suppose the most important defect was that nearly all of it was false.”

Later, bringing us up to date commenting on New Atheism passing its peak, indeed “dying with a whimper […] Richard Dawkins [having] discovered twitter” Spencer quotes the editor of New Humanist (*) in 2013

“Dawkins provided a case study in how not to do [atheism].” Blanket condemnations of religious groups [are] morally dubious [and counter-productive]. Religious believers [are] no less intelligent than non-believers [and no less human, I say]  and secularism [does] not mean excluding religious believers from public life. The tone and arguments could hardly [be] more different from those of the New Atheists.

After a passage highlighting more subtle intellectual contributions to the current atheism debate, highlighting John Gray and Tomas Nagel, Spencer quotes a remark by Simon Blackburn, exemplifying how such atheist “heretics” are predictably “eviscerated” by their more “orthodox” atheist critics: (I cite all four positively in these pages, Gray, Nagel, Spencer and Blackburn.):

“If there were a philosophical Vatican, [Nagel’s] book [Mind and Cosmos] would be a good candidate for being placed on the index [of banned books].”

Spencer’s final observations are true enough that humanism these days – in the sincerest form of flattery – offers naming, marriage, funeral ceremonies, but not before remarking :

Alain de Botton [who pointed the way to a New Atheist church] had suggested “atheists were better stealing from religion than mocking it”.

Religious believers debated whether it was better to be patronised or ridiculed.

Nick Spencer “Atheists – the Origin of the Species” – a recommended read.


[(*) Declaration of interest: New Humanist is the title owned by the Rationalist Association, also the owner of the legacy of the original Rationalist Press Association of publishers. I’m currently a serving member of the RA board of trustees.]

[(**) Post Note: Whitmarsh arguments are primarily from non-contentious atheism contrasted with the “human” polytheistic gods of Greek and Roman antiquity. His conclusion however is pretty much identical to Jonathan Sacks the other night: In order to fix conflict between monotheistic imperialisms we need a new form of “shared belief” which is polytheistic, federal, inclusive. A redefining of religion. More later.]

So, the same morning Prof Cox attempts to enlighten the perpetually perplexed John Humphrys @BBCR4Today with his pride in being wrong, Forbes highlights the cost of working on only what evidence can demonstrate you know for sure – 7 months loss of Rosetta / Philae data. No coincidence in the banner ad headline EY (the business consultants Ernst and Young) piece is on the need for good judgement about what you might not know for sure.

Being honestly sceptical about the contingency of “known” science and open to new evidence is great for the self-correcting nature of scientific knowledge itself – but being exclusively concerned with hard evidence-based logic is a fetish real life can do without. Being overly cautious where evidence is doubtful – the cautionary principle – is irrational. Don’t ignore hard evidence and watertight logic, but don’t deny decisions we need to make without it, as we must. Ethical and political decision-making – value judgements – should not be reduced to science or the scientific method.

Science is the best method we have – for advancing scientific knowledge of the natural world. That doesn’t make it the best method for making value judgements, or mean we should attempt to replace all value judgements with a scientific model. The aims of a multi-billion space research project may be scientific, but the project is not.

Refreshing piece in New Humanist from scientist Mark Lorch, about whom I know no more that this piece. I could have written the conclusion myself:

Basically, there’s no single logical explanation for why induction works: it just does. Which means I’m left with the belief that induction works without the sound evidence to support it, i.e. I have faith in the scientific method. This realisation made me stop worrying about how people can hold religious faith and scientific beliefs simultaneously. It demonstrated to me that faith and evidence-based beliefs coexist in my mind, so in a way, I am no different from my fellow scientists who have faith in the miracles of theologies. This realisation has made me no more inclined to believe in a god. But it has given me a better understanding of religious beliefs by demonstrating that, without ever realising it, I too have a deeply-seated faith in my own (scientific) belief system.

Naturally it has sprouted a thread of predictable responses. Problem for archetypal scientists is acknowledging the concepts of faith or belief. Notice no-one said “blind-faith” – this is very much eyes-open faith, the best kind. It’s really not difficult to recognise science as a (very good and very powerful) belief system and move on to more important questions and dialogues.

Noticed the expression “Rush to Judgement” in Grauniad Higher Education piece on Tim Hunt’s resignation following the reaction to his ill-judged sexist jokey remarks and equally clumsy apology. Already much twitter backlash to the reaction – few actually wished him ill or wanted him hounded out of his job, on the whole our sisters had great fun poking creative fun at the remarks. It was a silly mistake, point made – but turns out he was effectively forced to resign by his employer UCL.

I’ve long known this expression as the title of lawyer Mark Lane’s original book on the J. F. Kennedy Assassination / Warren Commission Report (*), but felt it might have Shakespearean origins? Well no actually, it was originally recorded concerning the 1800 James Hadfield assassination attempt on George III, used by his defense lawyer Thomas Erskine, then Lord Chancellor.

James Hadfield – knew the name rang a bell; no not the space-station astronaut – when found insane, he became a famous inmate of Bethlem Royal Hospital. [Follow the Wikipedia links.] Recently opened to the public and which we visited earlier this year. Small interconnected world?

[(*) Long-standing fascination of mine; read every book, seen every film or documentary – not because I’ve ever been a conspiracy theorist, but because it is a classic example of how difficult it is to establish what is known – after the event without first-hand experience. Hence Psybertron Asks – “What, why and how do we know?”.]

The evolutionary scientists and philosophers (say, Dawkins & Dennett) seem to be predicting religion is steadily on its way out, quite independently of any immediate ills and conflicts laid at its door, people are finding less reason to believe.

Actually I think they may be wrong, but let’s hold off thinking about what might be meant by religious belief in such a future. Suffice to say for now, [after Nick Spencer] think of scepticism as the antithesis of dogma, rather than as the preferred alternative to faith.

Philosopher, theologian and ex-Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks certainly begs to differ and, interestingly, bases his argument on Darwinian evolution. Listening to him last night at Spectator Events, talking and then answering questions with Andrew Neil, made it two nights in a row I heard the human social evolution story from animism to monotheism by way of Robin Dunbar. However you treat the ideas of an actual Dunbar number being meaningful, and the realities or otherwise of group selection, that story always sounds reasonable and I’ve never found reason to challenge it. And notice it’s an entirely naturalistic view. Let’s call it the “Dunbar Cycle”. The point is if those evolutionary processes and pressures are real, where are they leading now? History is one thing but prediction, especially about the future (as the saying goes) is much less certain.

Sacks picks one line of reasoning that has been central to my agenda here since the start – communication of information. Evolution is fundamentally about transmission and replication of patterns of information, including those patterns of information we use as thinking tools to interpret and manipulate information further. Major revolutions in the Dunbar Cycle are attributable to step changes in communication – physical exploration and movement of peoples, the advent of printing, and now the ubiquity of the internet and social media.

“Of course current violent climate ‘has to do with’ religion
but no point setting one religion against another or against none.”

Long story short, there is a string of tweets (linked below) summarising my highlights of Sacks thesis. Just a couple of the less obvious points I’d like to further record here, before we get to the conclusion.

After psychoanalysing the psychoanalyst, Sacks concludes Freud denied his own sibling guilt, when he placed Oedipus’ maternal relationship at the core of human conflict. Sibling rivalry is the real culprit. The Abrahamic monotheisms are frankly siblings of each other. Their closeness makes the conflicts over differences all the greater.

Secondly, monotheism has evolved dualistically, if that’s not an oxymoron.

“Dualism could be the most murderous doctrine ever thought up by human-beings”

Whatever god is in these religions, it’s one good version set against an evil other. An otherness all too easily transferred to problematic rivals in any context, common enemies counter to internal group cohesion. Sacks sees this as a perversion of what monotheism originally evolved to be, a truly inclusive and receptive – loving – monism.

Again, whatever values of living stem from such a monotheistic monism, and however they are either codified in moral law of that religion, or as transferrable parables in their good books, mass communication has taken the mediation of scholars and shamen and elders, and “authoritative” spokespeople and commentators out of the loop of interpretation. Unmediated freedom of thought and communication  – totally free at point of evaluation – inevitably leads to a subjective form of moral relativism – one thing Neil did take Sacks to task over in the interview.

This is a particular problem for Islam, which has not yet had its “30 years war” to settle once and for all which internal differences to leave behind. 9/11 was one of the symptoms of suppressed conflict, but the war itself has started with the “Arab spring” and the Islamic civil war is now playing out around us. Despite the speed-of-light communications, you’d need to be an optimist, said Neil, to predict Islam reaching its “Westphalia” deal anytime soon. In fact despite highlighting the accelerated pace of (potential) evolution, Sacks himself saw this as something that will take “a generation” to reach a conclusion. [Something very reminiscent here of Thomas Kuhn and Kondratiev cycles of change in science, technology, economy and society.]

Sacks’ prediction that truly monotheistic religion will be the conclusion – some totem against which to nail our flags of value. Whether it’s called a religion, and whether it features anything recognisable as a supernatural god is of course moot. So far as “we” will need a recognisable set of values, however captured from best available interpretation and maintained conservatively as “moderator rods” in the reactionary cut and thrust of democratic freedoms of thought, expression and action – I agree already.


I’ve been intending to dive into this Tim Hunt debacle, but the twitter storm is moving too fast for me to get a word in, so this is just a holding post – no extended argument here (yet).

Science needs women? Doh!

Which century are we in? Which geological period is Hunt in? All human endeavours need women in positions of equal opportunity to participate – and even that is a thinly disguised historical insult to our sisters.

For me this is not (just) a question of equality of freedoms but one of necessary diversity. We must “admit variety” to quote E. M. Forster on democratic freedom. Evolution demands it, and I’m not talking sexual reproduction. Women bring a “differently better” set of skills to the party, any party, the only party in town in fact. Life.

Vive la difference, as I may have mentioned. Jeez!

We different humans need each other.


[Post Note : I warned at the start of this post it was a quickie – a specific point I needed to make without deeper analysis – reacting to the twitterstorm that has since led to his resignation – sadly.

Love is such a tricky non-PC topic in professional or otherwise-to-be-taken-seriously contexts – even trickier when you are talking genders or sexuality in the first place – but if we can get over ourselves, love really is the most important thing in life bar none. Hunt did in fact just make a mistake. Yes his views on gender were probably of his time, and yes his attempt at humour was clumsy and misguided – and sadly his apology was no less clumsy – but either way, all he did was make a mistake.

Did he really need to be pilloried into a resignation?

A wonderful piece here from Sarah Bell – “Perhaps the answer is simply love?” – rather than falling in love being an awkward “emotional problem”.

A theme here: “What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding“.]

I’m reading and “reviewing” a lot, though if you’ve been following me closely over the years, the reviews are for my benefit not yours – to capture contributions to my own story. There’s a trope or meme that I often find myself reading something I wish I’d written – believe I could have written – and, after I’ve gutted the content for new angles, my review reduces to “Excellent, a recommended read” – and seriously, if you don’t already buy where I’m coming from, that’s always a serious recommendation.

It’s not that I’m selecting reads for reinforcement of my existing arguments. Far from it. I know my own mind, and I know it “prejudices” my reading – that’s just being honest. The scary thing is, whether I’m reading (boringly) predictably or (hopefully) sceptically, my mantra of “nothing new under the sun; ’twas ever thus” keeps emerging. Rabid opponents in the public eye seem barely a fag-paper apart when it comes down to it.

The Dick Taverne I’ve just read and reviewed last night, is a case in point. Excellent. Another way of saying what I believe I’m already trying to say, so obviously I recommend you read him.

However having finished Taverne, I picked-up Nick Spencer’s “Atheists, the Origin of the Specieswhere I left off almost exactly a month ago. I was reading Taverne because it was the book group recommendation of a group of like minds, and the name rang a bell. I’m reading Spencer for a pretty random sequence of causes. Following up on my interest in Sheldrake I just happened to find myself at Theos, and noticed the witty title, related to my interest – in evolved rationality.

Spencer’s book is “Excellent” also – think I may already have said that – but in fact it’s more than that, it’s “Brilliant”. Lots to agree with of course, but excellent witty turns of phrase, laconic understatement, and despite covering enlightenment history, where I consider myself pretty well read these days, lots of new stuff – both historical narrative and enlightened literary quotes and sources to follow-up. Brilliant and, need I say, recommended.

Not quite finished reading it, but I’ll do a fuller “review” when I’m done, though it probably exemplifies another meme, one where I could have more notes than original text by the time I’m done.

Interesting bedouin boy to world’s no.1 entrepreneur story, that instantly put me in mind of the kids fleeing Timbuktu and Samira Ahmed’s allure of the desert.

All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did. (T. E. Lawrence)

It’s a wonderful world. The TEL quote was in my mind since yesterday when Branson posted his top 10 quotes on the subject of dreams which didn’t include my personal favourite.

I’m reading “The March of Unreason – Science, Democracy and the New Fundamentalism” because it’s the book selected by Central London Humanists book group for July. The name sounded familiar – it is the Dick Taverne of UK Labour / Independent / Lib-Dem politics fame, currently in The Lords. I’m reading the 2006/7 paperback edition where he reinforces in the preface that the book is primarily political and expressing his disappointment that response to its original 2005 publication focussed almost exclusively on the science aspects.

[Post note : Update on the book club event.]

Yes, a major part of his thesis is a demand for evidence-based decision-making, and reminding us that it was no coincidence that the rise of both science and democratic freedoms went hand in hand with the enlightenment. They co-evolved from the same rational thinking. Skeptical critical considerations as a better alternative to authoritarian religious dogma. Better because the human progress achieved since then is self-evident. But, there’s a but.

There is a strong counter-balancing message that early readers missed.

Taverne is very explicitly not arguing for evidence as exclusively necessary for all decisions, nor that evidential considerations are necessarily scientific – objectively repeatable and amenable to simple logical argument. Science itself is far more than that anyway – more subtly creative – but ethical and political decisions even more so. Available evidence must not be ignored and in a free democratic society reasoning must be open to challenge and criticism, but ethical political decisions – what should “we” do – depend on far more human values and judgments than are necessarily backed entirely by the evidence and objective methods.

Of course he is making the first part of the argument. A defence of science under attack from cynical, rather than truly sceptical, suspicion – the eco-warrrior, the anti-you-name-it mentality. A loss of faith in scientific claims made by technology-based business interests for example, superstitious cynical conspiracy theory dogma rather than healthy scepticism and a tendency to ignore, discount or dismiss actual evidence to the contrary. The dead-hand of the precautionary principle – a pessimism too far. And post-9/11 a significant part of that is the more dangerous rise of more fundamental religious dogma, terrorist or otherwise counter to individual freedoms. So far, so much in common with many other post-9/11 writers. I share his frustration that the “pro-science and freedoms” audience is missing the other half of the story – we’re trying to keeping the sceptics honest by also pointing out the dangers of their own unwittingly cynical dogmas.

Something wonderfully ironic about Lewis Wolpert’s wishful contribution to the cover blurb:

“An excellent defence of science”

Wake up and smell the coffee Lewis. “Defence” of science as an objective is dogma, not sceptical critical thinking. Wolpert has been a target of mine before. Guessing Wolpert was part of the disappointment Taverne refers to in his updated preface.

Although Taverne refers to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as one of the great “bad” books of its time, “unconvincing philosophically” (in his end notes) he uses a quote exactly as used by Pirsig, to illustrate that there is nothing exclusive to science about the rational process:

“When the cause of a vehicle breakdown is uncertain,
a good mechanic will gather the facts,
formulate a theory and
carry out tests to see if it stands up,
quite unconsciously acting as any good scientist would.”

In summarising his conclusions, Taverne says:

“The argument of this book is not only that arguments which are evidence-based are valid but that we should never ignore evidence where it is relevant. Even where it is relevant I do not argue that evidence is all that matters.

For example, a wise philosopher …. [might argue] …. there is also a value judgement to be made about the deeper quality of life, which cannot be based on a verifiable or falsifiable proposition.

My main purpose therefore has not been to make exaggerated claims about the scope for applying scientific method, but to wage war [specifically] on those who ignore evidence.”

This focus does leave unasked some questions about what counts as valid evidence beyond the scope of objective science, but the deadlock breaker is free democracy. “Criticism and adaptability are the characteristics of societies that are free and prosperous.” Taverne states before quoting E. M. Forster, as several other recent reads have done:

“Two cheers for democracy.
One because it admits variety.
Two because it permits criticism.”

I think it’s key that Forster suggests two rather than the customary three cheers. The downside being the imperfection of democracy – echoed in the famous Churchillian quote. Ethical and political decisions in a free democracy can never be perfectly captured in verifiable evidence and logical propositions. I’m tempted to offer my own favourite quotation on that from Marianne Jones:

Too Blue for Logic.

My axioms were so clean-hewn,
The joins of ‘thus’ and ‘therefore’ neat
But, I admit
Life would not fit
Between straight lines
And all the cornflowers said was ‘blue,’
All summer long, so blue.
So when the sea came in and with one wave
Threatened to wash my edifice away –
I let it.

Though we all need to let go the delusion that science is the answer to everything – everything important in real life – we nevertheless ignore evidence at our peril. Taverne concludes, lest there be any doubt:

Modern liberal democracy gives more people the chance of a good life than ever before.
This would not be possible without the contribution of science.

A good read, and a great wealth of examples I’ve barely hinted at in terms of the perversions of scientific scepticism reinforced by ignorance of evidence by campaigning pressure groups and the dismissal of value judgments not reducible to science alone.


[Post Note : here a recent and topical example of where irrational anti-nuclear prejudice massively undermined the value of a very expensive research project – the Rosetta / Philae comet lander mission.]

Went to see Timbuktu at short notice yesterday at the MeetUp suggestion of the London Black Atheists.

Wonderfully understated and slow-paced, but beautifully shot, and ultimately we are left somewhat confused, with unresolved ambiguity. The history of today; we can’t yet know the outcome.


‘Timbuktu’ is a poignant and mesmerising film, a modern tragedy and defiant song of a nation in peril. Abderrahmane Sissako’s wonderfully human take on the fundamentalist occupation of Mali is not to be missed!


Abderrahmane Sissako is a world class film director & this is one of his best.


[Spoilers warning, if you’ve not seen it.]

There are so many cameos from characters not individually developed, that you suspect there must be a 4 hour director’s cut lying on the floor somewhere. And no heroic Hollywood ending despite the excellent cinematic qualities and no shortage of candidates for the starring role: The driver, the neighbour’s son / daughter’s friend. All of these put me in mind of A Thousand Splendid Suns though they never really progress beyond the opening scenes in their home village. Rather than a heroic epic we get a few days / weeks in the life.

I suspect there were more lines and scenes intended as gags than were actually elicited on the night, but with the impending brutalities preying on our thoughts, few of us were looking for laughs. There were for example, multilingual confusions creating some comically weak translations between characters and their interpreters and a running cell-phone gag, of “Your Arabic is very bad, please speak French / English / Tuareg / Local tribal language”. The only occasion actually creating the laughs being the Barça vs Real debate and the French connection with their world cup win relying on bribes to fellow FIFA members. Topical anywhere in the world.

The romantic idyll of village life could indeed have been anywhere in the world – normal people making a living, raising their kids – but with an ethnic melting pot of many different Africans and plot twists hanging on inter-personal misunderstandings. Actual location was Mauritania standing in for southern Mali but evocative of marginal desert life anywhere. The central family tragedy was itself a misunderstanding in the telling from son to father to neighbour – a handbags at sunset fight-scene ended by the accidental fatal shooting. Interestingly, a very benign take on Sharia – for which read “accepted local custom and practice” vs illiterate “word of god” usurped and voiced by the bad guy imposters. The vast majority of the local converts being unconvinced and reluctant in the incomprehensible inhumanity of their adopted mission. Most of the brutal acts were left largely to the imagination – I’ll not record any more spoilers – but enough terror in the insinuated threats and palpable fear to lead the viewer. More than enough in fact – the final scenes leaving us in fearful tension, but with hope eternal for the fates of the 12 year-olds running from the scene. History yet to happen and – the point of the film – a history we can therefore yet influence.

Several unresolved points in the editing – the western visitor with his personal medical supplies, the cloth-wrapped object (cell-phone?) in the wife’s hand as she dismounted from the pillion, and sufficiently threatening to the extremists that they fatally opened fire? Much is confusion.

But in all very effective. The scene that stole the show for me – the game of football without a ball. A snapshot of a much more complex tale, with many back-stories and possible futures. It is (not) written. Recommended.

[Post Note : Interesting this should turn up the following morning. And this too.]

I’m missing the sell-out talk by Peter Singer promoting his latest “The Most Good You Can Do” this evening at Conway hall, due to switching to attend a screening of Timbuktu at Institute Français / Cine Lumiere (more on which later, but a new group of people to interact with as well as the film itself).

I was expecting to find Singer’s rational position too extreme for my taste, based on the advance blurb, but wanted to hear his arguments – I’ll just have to read his book. Coincidentally, already had feedback from his lunchtime presentation at RSA today that kinda reinforced my (clearly admitted) prejudice.

Anyway, an important debate none-the-less. Thanks to twitter, no shortage of input. Not least this NY Review of Books review by John Gray, and Singer’s own letter in response. I share the frustration of many with Gray’s overly pessimistic negativity, but can’t fault his basic arguments, so I shall read both with interest.


[Post notes : Made the right call there. Consistent with feedback from the earlier talk today, if the video recording was anything to go by, the Peter Singer talk at Conway Hall / London Thinks appears to have been excruciating.

Moving on. Timbuktu on the other hand was wonderful.]

Not yet read the Paul Mason / Grauniad article where this originated yet, a classic case of a picture tells ….

Media preview

Of course, depending on your political agenda, exactly which story those words tell is entirely optional. Must read the article, but Paul Mason is very much focussed on the Greek perspective of “Grexit” these days.

Or “Graccident” as I heard the accidental exit coined this morning?