I recently joined a Facebook group that is an anechoic chamber, so that I could have more fiery and meaningful discussions than the samey agreement and self-congratulatory nature of my regular feed.
And it just so happened that one of the first posts I saw was on my expert subject of body modification. And it had the type of responses you might see in the feed of someone more straight-laced than I… it reminded me of a conversation I had with my bestie the other week. We were out for a stroll to the tattoo studio (by some amazing coincidence), and after discussing the more mainstream mods, we moved in to the realm of The Jobstopper. We’re both heavily into body modification, and we both have respectable office jobs. Some employers are really twitchy about anything out-of-the-ordinary appearance wise, but we have been lucky in finding workplaces that are a little more accepting. Their appreciation of diversity allows us to be ourselves, and to be devoted to our careers (I feel more loyal to my employer because they accept me as I am). And, our conversation went something like this:
BESTIE: I’m thinking about sub-dermal implants; the piercer had some amazing ones!
ME: Yeah, it’s something I’ve thought about too, but I’m not sure what I’d get, so maybe one for the future.
BESTIE: How about some horns? [Aside: if you’re wondering what this is about, false horns can be created by sliding a silicone “horn” into a pocket made under the skin. It’s then stitched up and bandaged, and in a few weeks you have some nicely healed horns.]
ME: Honestly, I think that’s going a bit far. I mean my employer has put up with a lot from me, appearance-wise. I can just imagine the conversation now: “Look, Science Lady, when we took you on, we were aware of the visible tattoos, and the facial piercings, which seem to have grown in number. And the blue hair, well, we were a bit taken aback by that; but we thought, hey, it’s just one of those quirky things. But this – horns for f@ck’s sake! Horns! Did you even think about how this is going to look to clients? Seriously, it’s your body and all, but if you don’t come in tomorrow with a tail implant to match then we’re going to have to make this a disciplinary matter.”
This is what I use for my signature blue hair, after application of copious amounts of bleach.
A while back, I posted about UK immigration policy (this was pre-Brexit, before Brexit was a twinkle in Boris Johnson’s eye, even) and I mooted the idea that our government might be steering the UK towards a lower, and hopefully sustainable, population with a correspondingly smaller economy. Well, recent events suggest that this could be a possibility.
I attended an event held by GMSS, on “Misrepresenting Reality” – a critique of the information provided by the Leave campaign (most of which turned out to be lies and/or appeals to nostalgia). Well, I say attended, what I mean is that I missed the whole talk but snuck in during the extended Q&A (hey, I have a demanding job).
One of the questions asked of the speaker (who is a Professor in European Law, so they know their stuff) was whether they had heard any good arguments in support of Brexit. They said no, but there was one possibility that no-one has mentioned – that Brexit would result in the UK’s population and economy reducing in size and resulting in a smaller, sustainable nation with comfortable living standards but no aspirations to be anything greater.
Personally, I don’t think that would be a good thing, but it would be an argument that actually held some water, in comparison to jingoistic ranting and slogans painted on buses. It seems that there are decisions happening as to where our country is headed. I see it as being in one of two broad directions:
Economic growth, high population, high output – We aim to keep producing, innovating, and competing as a first-world player. We take an active role on the world stage, with diplomatic and military influence and an international outlook. In order for this to happen, our infrastructure and population need to consistently grow, and we have to be able to maintain this growth against competitor nations who may have an advantage in terms of efficiency in terms of production and labour costs (I’m looking at you, China and India). High immigration is necessary to bolster the population, due to the below-replacement birth rate of indigenous Brits.
Declining economy, low population, low output – we accept that other countries will overtake us, and we make the decision to go quietly. We reduce our population by curbing immigration, and continuing with policies designed to discourage people from having large families. We maintain a decent quality of life by relying more on our own industries, with some overseas trade in specialised products and services. We maintain a foothold in international politics, but our role is far less significant. The capacity of our armed services is whittled down even further and take a more ceremonial and/or peacekeeping role.
You may decide that you prefer one or other of those options, or neither, or you might not have any strong feelings on it. But one thing we do know is that this was not the Brexit Britain we were promised. We’re not going to bring The Empire back – and I’m sure there will be many disappointed Leavers who feel they got sold a pup.
Here we are with another example of skeptics making thinking errors that they’d pick up on if someone else did it. However this is a bit more than just a failure of logic – it’s also a distortion of the original term. While words can and do change meaning, it doesn’t mean that we can appropriate a phrase and twist it to mean whatever we feel like. We get all pissy when “deniers” are referred to as “skeptics”, so let’s not be hypocrites as well, eh?
However, this phrase is really doing the rounds on the internet at the moment, applied to anyone who is prepared to step outside of their comfort zone and find common ground with those who are different. A significant part of the problem is hostility to religious folk, something written about here, by Hayley Is A Ghost. And the atheist community’s favourite example of such “loony left” behaviour is the Goldsmith’s LGBT Society’s support of the University’s Islamic Society.
Here’s a summary of what happened:
The SU’s Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society invited Maryam Namazie to give a presentation. Some members of the Islamic Society were unhappy about this and attended the talk with the intention of interrupting her and preventing her from speaking. With SUs being what they are, and student bodies being willing to support the oppressed, reports of what happened were misrepresented as the event being discriminatory to Muslims, and many people were outraged about it (which would have been a fair response if that was what actually happened). Other student societies who campaign for social justice stood in solidarity with the Islamic Society, because they saw an alignment of principles. And this is where it started to go really, really wrong.
Now, the LGBT & Feminist Societies aren’t populated by idiots. These are educated, if idealistic, young adults standing up for human rights in spite of the knowledge that Islam isn’t totally OK with women and The Gays. It was the problem of perceived oppression that was the issue. It’s something that many of us would do if we believed that people were being unjustly treated, even if we don’t personally share all the values of the group we seek to assist.
In keeping with their behaviour at Namazie’s talk, the Islamic Society then behaved in a not-entirely-honourable fashion:
It was rather amusing to see this clash of cultures played out in the Twittersphere, but I never thought of it as anything more than an awkward misjudgement of the character of others. The LGBT and Feminist Societies acted in good faith, and perhaps naively, expected others to do so as well. Anyone with half a brain knows that #notallmuslims are like this, and it should have just ended as an unfortunate incident that hopefully teaches us to be more aware of others’ motivations. But no! Never ones to miss an anti-theist bandwagon, it really captured the imagination of the skeptical movement, and not to be discriminatory in their nature, they then aimed their mockery at SUs as well as Islam – in particular any of the left-leaning societies (this is a weird thing, most skeptics I know are left-of-centre, yet right-wing ideas are very popular if they push the right buttons. Maybe we’re not sceptical enough).
One thing I heard was that they were like “turkeys voting for Christmas”, and that Skeptical Trump Card, The Regressive Left (booooooooooooooooooooo!). Well, at the time, I felt quite off about it, but it wasn’t clear enough in my mind to articulate my opposition to it. But the popularity of this idea grew, and it got more tiresome with every minute. And so, here’s some commentary from the recent #womensmarch:
It featured heavily on my timeline, and, well, I’m not one to let these things slide:
This person, commenting elsewhere, summed up how I feel about the whole debacle:
I decided to educate myself on the identity of woman in the picture, with the US flag headscarf. Her name is Munira Ahmed, and she intended the image to demonstrate that she, as a Muslim, is as American as anyone else. And it’s an important point: Muslims are as diverse as just about any population you can think of. The caricature of Muslims perpetuated by the New Atheist Movement is horribly simplistic and creates division. We can’t say with any integrity that we will not support those women who look different from us, or those who are oppressed by our country’s actions. And what about Muslim women who do feel oppressed by the headscarf? Do we support them, but only as long as they take it off when in our presence? Of course it is possible to hold both beliefs: that Muslims are human beings who we should care about, and that the headscarf can be a tool of female oppression. That doesn’t seem so regressive to me.
Valentine’s Day is coming up, and because I don’t subscribe to the “I don’t need a special day to show my love for my partner” / “it’s numerology” / “I’m a heartless cynic” fad, I’m going to recommend some of my science-themed products for you to buy! I may also add that I enjoy earning money, so if you wanted to show your love for me by purchasing my stuff, that would be wonderful.
First up, is my Periodic Table merch. If you get creative, there’s a lot you can do with chemical symbols. How about trying some of these?
Or, how about these? As well as the object of your affection, you might also love science and maths. And what do we need for love? Oxytocin! Although it’s not strictly true to say that that’s all you need.
There are more Valentines gifts available at my Hallowe’en In January shop, if a more metaphysical vibe is what you’re after.
One thing that pretty much everyone can agree on is that 2016 has been universally shite. All the best celebs have died, we voted for Brexit, and Donald Trump was elected President. I’m almost convinced that there could be a God after all, due to 2016 looking like an elaborate practical joke contrived by a mischievous overlord. And that’s just a brief summary of all the terrible things that happened last year up until the beginning of November (I’ve probably missed a few, so much bad shit went down last year). Also, these are things that were of note in the white, middle-class, Western world. That’s just the frame of reference that I have. Things might have looked a lot rosier in other cultures (every cloud, etc).
On 12th November, Twitter user @christhebarker created a Sgt. Pepper-themed montage of all those that 2016 had stolen from us (although 2016 really wasn’t done by this point). Hover over the picture for more info about those in the image.
But after that, we needed to add another whole damn row, because 2016 is a right bastard, apparently:
Is 2016 all that unusual? Yes and No. The number of celebrity deaths, international incidents, wars, and other human-induced clusterfucks is no more than in any other year, proportionally. But as I said at the start, the events that have caught our attention have been skewed to the Western middle-class span of interests, and so it looks like we’ve been particularly hard done by this year. And there are other confounding factors. Think about when we started to define people as “celebrities” by modern standards – it was around the time that television really took off, from the 1950s. People who made their name in early TV are well into old age now, and those household figures who have become so familiar are just like any of us, mere mortals. So this might be the start of a wave of well-known figures dying off. Which would make 2016 seem less exceptional in a few years from now.
Some of those celebrity deaths have been of relatively young people – Carrie Fisher, Prince, George Michael, David Bowie – but even though most of us will make it into old age, there is a sizeable minority of any population that is just unlucky and dies young. I know people who’ve died in their 20s, 30s and 40s. All of these deaths are tragedies, but they’re not as unusual as we think.
And even if 2016 is a statistical blip (which it probably isn’t), such is the nature of chance. If all deaths occurred at a uniform rate, then THAT would be unusual. So whatever it is; more celebrities getting to an older age, more people being recognised as celebrities, better media reporting, whatever – we are just going to have to accept that Shit Happens. And 2016 was really shit, wasn’t it.
“The God Of The Gaps” is something I hear mentioned a lot in skeptical circles. The concept is that because it has taken humans many thousands of years to develop the scientific knowledge we now collectively hold, that religion was used as a placeholder while we caught up with the facts. But I can see numerous problems with this idea – which, as I discovered while researching this article, never originally meant what skeptics take it to mean nowadays. It was actually a term used by Christian theologians to caution against the type of argument in which believers would say “well, science can’t explain this, therefore God”. And that’s actually a pretty smart argument – if you’re a person of power within the Christian religion (or any religion), things are going to get awkward when your evidence for God’s existence is progressively overturned by advances in science.
There is a gap in understanding of some aspect of the natural world.
Therefore the cause must be supernatural.
But this is a huge simplification, nay, thinking error, in terms of what’s actually happening in the minds of believers.
Categorising the argument this way is useful for understanding the history and philosophy of religion and science, as we can see the pattern of questioning and rejecting religion during the enlightenment years of scientific inquiry & discovery. This is an important part of history that we must understand & record, but we mustn’t make the error of thinking it was a well-executed plan. We can look back and observe the changes, and learn from how the knowledge spread. But to conflate the evolution of human learning 200 years ago with the reasons that people choose faith over reason today, doesn’t make any sense. It is effectively a post hoc, ergo propter hoc argument on our part.
1. While there are some unknowns about many areas of science, we know enough about the scientific origins of just about everything now to only have gaps that would accommodate a vanishingly tiny god. There are many religious sects that keep their adherents ignorant, precisely because of the risk of them abandoning their faith if they were to hear of alternative explanations. There are no more significant gaps.
2. A common mistake skeptics make is to assume that other, ordinary, people make choices based on logic and reason. Trying to “debunk” faith with science is like arguing with the archetypal chess-playing pigeon. It is completely pointless. Both sides leave the discussion thinking that they’ve “won”, having achieved nothing. Faith in anything is just that: faith. And faith occurs independent of any knowledge to the contrary. It is powerful, illogical, and rooted in emotional needs. The devout are able to hold their strong beliefs in a world of information because of cognitive dissonance. The gaps may get smaller, but the faith does not contract in turn.
3. Not only is it a mistake to think that one can argue on a rational basis with a fundamentalist, but it is to fall into a trap from which one cannot escape. To think that the deeply religious are less intelligent than the rest of us is naive and dangerous. Our religious debating opponent is not stupid – they are well-practised in arguing against attacks on their beliefs, and one useful tactic is to play it coy, to let us believe we have the upper hand, and then pull the rug from under our feet. Arguing against belief with science will never be successful. If someone is to leave their faith, they must arrive at that conclusion by themselves.
To summarise, The God Of The Gaps Fallacy Fallacy is one argument we really need to drop. We’ve been arguing this point for decades and have gained no ground. If anything, it’s made the faithful even more firm in their convictions. And it reinforces the stereotype of the hard-hearted, uncaring, dogmatic atheist. We need to stop picking fights that we’ll never win. It’s not a betrayal of principles; we spend much of our time firming them up and confirming our convictions anyway! If the faithful can hold such stock in their stories in the event of conflicting evidence, why can’t we trust in what we know to be fact?
This post isn’t about global Armageddon, so I’m sorry to disappoint if that was what you were looking for. No, this is about my adventures on New Year’s Eve, in one of the closest “cutting it so fine as to be graphene-thick” moments I’ve ever had.
My OCD got the better of me, and I was stuck in a loop of complete inertia. I needed to complete my chores to perfection, but knew that it wasn’t possible. And so I collapsed into a mess of mental compulsions and avoidance.
I had been invited to a close friend’s New Year’s party, and there are certain expectations that one will be present at the required time. Well I tried to hard to leave my pit of procrastination, and finally summoned the energy at 2330. I got in a taxi at 2337, and had a lovely chat with my driver, who was quite pleased that I’d chosen him, as my route took him to near his home – so he could look in on his family just after 12 (I love beautiful coincidences like this). Trouble is, neither him nor my friend live particularly near to me, so this was literally going to be a race against the clock.
Let’s just say that the driver got me there rather, ahem, efficiently. I wasn’t keeping my eye on the speed, but it felt an awful lot like the 88 mph needed to transport me to the correct dimension to wish a happy new year to my mates. Regular text updates on my location were sent en route, and Google’s ETA fluctuated between 2359 and 0002. I was going to miss it.
But no. I rang ahead as we turned on to my friend’s road, and I was greeted at the front door with a glass of prosecco and ushered in to the kitchen just in time for the obligatory snog and Auld Lang Syne. 2358. Two minutes to midnight.
I was out on Christmas Eve, heading over to The Boy’s flat for takeaway, wine, and nerdery, and I was Absolutely Bloody Fuming to have witnessed a transgression of the Highway Code that I felt I Should Do Something. If you’ve ever been in the car with me, you’ll know that my expectations of other drivers are exacting, and that my driving style is akin to that of Kenneth Noye.
I was using a pedestrian crossing, and waiting for the green man to appear as I had been instructed to do in my early years, and as We Should All Do (Rules 7 to 25 of the Highway Code). The much-awaited green man revealed himself, traffic approaching the crossing stopped, and about 30 of us (I live in the city centre; there’s rarely a time when it is not busy) stepped out, to continue our business on the other side.
Out of nowhere, a Deliveroo driver on a scooter shot through the red light, which had been that way for a good five seconds. He performed an emergency stop, but still hit someone, with whom he remonstrated for a minute or so before getting back on his round (so, fortunately, it wasn’t a serious collision). I was incensed that a fellow road user could be so inconsiderate and downright dangerous, so I put my Good Citizen Hat on and recorded the vehicle’s registration number. I was all ready to report it to the local fuzz and the Council’s licensing authority, but then I Calmed The F*ck Down, gained some perspective, and decided to conveniently erase what I had seen from my memory.
See, I know that a) it’s not easy working in the Gig Economy, and b) that gentlemen will be lucky to be earning the minimum wage, let alone a living one. Did I really want to get him into trouble and plunge him into an even worse state of poverty? Even worse, he probably needs to risk his life and license in order to complete all the drops he needs to, to put food on the table.
And a bigger question, to which I do not know the answer – is it ethical for me to use services like Deliveroo and Uber, where it has been well-documented that their workers are getting a substandard deal? I mean, people do want to work for these companies, and without this questionable means of running a business, those people would be without jobs. But in using their services, I’m helping to keep things the way they are. We could have even had the same driver for our takeaway that night. At least we left them a tip – seriously, everyone, look after your delivery and taxi drivers. They do a difficult and poorly-paid job, and they are the grease that keeps society’s wheels turning.
It’s complicated, and I don’t know what the answer is. While I can stay informed on consumer & human rights issues, there is only so much I can actually do to reduce harm. Hell, living in the West, you’re still shitting on someone else even if you go off-grid and live in a sodding yurt. How about we start a conversation in the comments?
I’ve been struggling with keeping on top of my research of late; my health’s not been brilliant, and I’ve had a lot of projects to get done in the run up to the end of the year. I only officially handed in my end-of-year-one report the Monday before Christmas (it was a whole three years in the making), and I was worried that I might drop out, but also really sick of the whole damn thing. While my ability to get the job done has been massively impacted by external factors, I found the literature review component of my studies to be a real drag. I know how important it is to assess the present state of research and knowledge, so that I will have a firm foundation upon which to build. But I really wanted to skip that bit and jump into the independent research stage!
Honestly, I don’t know if anyone else is quite as excited about transferring into the second year of a Ph.D as me, but I’m sure that with this level of new-found enthusiasm, nothing could possibly go wrong (extremities crossed!). And now the fun stuff really starts. And I’ve had a few very exciting things happen to keep my interest buoyed:
I submitted abstracts to two more conferences, and so far have had one accepted;
I’m assembling the structure of my first research paper;
And I published a referenceable work and created my first, proper, academic research profile!
If you’re a seasoned academic, you’ll see that these are just baby steps. I am a curious toddler in a world full of adults. But my childlike excitement for novelty is my gift – I’m in awe of what’s been achieved before me, and of what I can achieve in my research career.
You can find my ResearchGate profile here, and my first published work (originally created in June 2016) here.