Nadine Dorries using flawed logic against humanists

Nadine DorriesYou’ve just got to love Nadine Dorries. The conservative MP for Mid Bedfordshire has been in the sights of people like Tim Ireland for quite awhile now, thanks to her irrational stances on issues such as abortion, and for claiming that her own blog is “70% fiction”.

As a result of Dorries stance on abortion and her position on sex education, New Humanist magazine have included her as a nominee in their annual Bad Faith awards. Naturally, Dorries hasn’t taken too kindly to it, and the other day squeezed out a short post on humanists on her blog:

I am not sure why anyone would admit to being a humanist and part of an organisation which has such extreme views. A humanist recently commented that, not only did he believe that abortion was acceptable right up to the moment of birth, but that termination of a child’s life was acceptable up until the point where the child had the ability to reason, understand and justify life.

At first, it looks like Dorries is basing her opinion on a rather large group of people based on nothing but rumour (and I’m not editorialising, that one quote is about half of the whole blog post). Obviously it’s easy to tell the glaring logical errors Dorries is making at this point, but it gets worse. Dorries felt the need to clarify her position and even name the person in question as the philosopher Peter Singer:

In 1979 he wrote, “Human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons”; therefore, “the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.”

In 1993 he stated that no newborn should be considered a person until 30 days after birth and that the attending physician should kill some disabled babies on the spot.

OK, a few issues here. Firstly, this is Peter Singer we are talking about, it’s very involved and complicated philosophy, it’s not something you can dip your feet into and cherry pick as Dorries has done. I can’t claim to be particular au fait with Singer’s work, although some of you might know that I’ve criticized his stance on animal rights in the past. Second, Dorries says that “a humanist recently commented”, and the most recent citation she comes up with is from 1993. She also tells people they can read more on Singer and directs them to the Christian Research Institute, an evangelical apologetics group. Quite a source!

So far, so much fiction. However, my main beef his her extremely warped thought process. Even if Singer did advocate infanticide, why does that mean that all humanists would agree with him? I find it amazing that Dorries can get away with this stance, because I believe that if she tried it with a religious group she’d be in very hot water. Imagine if she’d said something like this:

How can anyone subscribe to Judaism when Baruch Goldstein was Jewish? He committed a massacre at the Cave of the Patriarchs. It’s scary to think how many people out there hold such extreme views.

Yet when an MP such as Dorries has a go at humanists, no-one bats an eyelid. Perhaps it’s time for us humanists to get just a little bit pissed off?



An unexpected guest at the Merseyside Skeptics Society: Jesus!

Last Thursday, John Walliss from Liverpool Hope University gave a very interesting talk on “end of the world” cults (although I’m pretty sure that’s the wrong word for them). However, the guest of honour was in fact not John, but none other than Jesus Christ himself! In a superb and blatantly obvious piece of pareidolia, the face of our Lord and Saviour appeared in the hair of MSS member Jo Fairburn! Check it out:

jesus on jo

Look on the left, who is that in Jo's hair?

Talking about Ricky Gervais, Twitter and ‘mongs’ on the Pod Delusion

Pod DelusionI’ve made another appearance on the Pod Delusion, this time talking about the return to Twitter of Ricky Gervais. I briefly go over what I consider to be the pros and cons about his reappearance on the Twitter scene. On one hand, he come be a great force for atheism, as he writes very well on the subject, but on the other his behaviour and repeated use of the word ‘mong’ gives many cause for concern.

Sadly, since the podcast went out last Friday, my hopes of reading more insightful articles about religion have been dashed as Ricky Gervais has continued to cause trouble by his incessant use of ‘mong’. I have to say that I for one don’t approve of his actions. The situation has escalated over the last few days, with Deborah Orr and Nicola Clark having their say in the Guardian, the Daily Mail attempting a sensible critique, and most notably fellow comedian Richard Herring having his say.

First off, I need to make this clear: the term ‘mong’ is still a contraction of ‘mongoloid’, and is still widely understood to be a derogatory term for someone with Down’s Syndrome. Ricky Gervais, and anyone else for that matter, does not have the authority to say otherwise. If it had truly fallen out of use, charities such as Mencap wouldn’t be complaining. On top of that, Gervais does use the term to mean ‘a twonk’, e.g. someone who is stupid, so he’s using it as a derogatory term anyway. Using a word that describes mental illness as a derogatory term is a practise that should have been confined to an 80’s school yard. It’s just as disheartening to hear people use the word ‘gay’ to mean anything they don’t like. It’s childish, crass and completely unnecessary. I for one am against it for these reasons, it’s got nothing to do with being jealous of the success of Gervais, as he would like to think.

So why would Ricky Gervais be so insistent on using the word ‘mong’? The cynic in me thinks that it’s just a cheap ploy to get some attention for his new sitcom, or that he just likes winding people up. Perhaps telling him he can’t do something is like a red rag to a bull, and he’s digging his heels in like a petulant child. Some might argue that he’s putting up a fight against censorship and the old right wing war cry of ‘political correctness gone mad’, but he is no martyr. There is no merit to what he is doing. How is the re-emergence of the word ‘mong’ going to help anyone?


Alright to use the term 'mong'?

I do not consider this to be an issue of censorship. Gervais is free to say ‘mong’ as much as he likes, but in doing so he makes himself less appealing to those who find the word offensive. I also need to spell out that I have no problem with discussing disability, I do not think it should be taboo. For example, Family Guy put out an episode which featured an actress with Down’s syndrome, and the issue was dealt with in a rather frank, albeit strange way. Gervais himself uses a child with Down’s syndrome in the plot of an episode of Extras to great effect.

The most worrying thing about this whole episode for myself is the cavalcade of idiots on Twitter who have decided to defend Gervais by tweeting along the lines of “mong isn’t offensive, you mong” to anyone who says otherwise. It’s a shame because it’s very difficult to perceive such tweets as anything other than a deliberate attempt to cause offense. If you know someone finds a term like ‘mong’ offensive, why would you then use it against them? To teach them a lesson? If Gervais is trying to return the word ‘mong’ to common parlance, he sadly appears to be succeeding.

There are some who think that people like myself are going out of our way to be offended, that we are looking for something to complain about. Not so. I don’t think I need to reiterate my views on why Gervais is wrong to use the word ‘mong’, but one thing I am quite annoyed about is the unfair use of a quote from the great Stephen Fry:

It’s now very common to hear people say “I’m rather offended by that”, as if it gives them certain rights; it’s actually nothing’s simply a whine.

I totally agree that “I find it offensive”, as applied to say, gay marriage or atheism is no argument. There has to something else. As I have said earlier in the case of Ricky Gervais using the term ‘mong’, there certainly is.

Beforehand, I’d always given Gervais a fair amount of leeway when it comes to disablist language. When Gervais said “Is that a mong?” in reference to Susan Boyle in his stand up show Science, I thought little of it. I thought it was to shock, as part and parcel of the arrogant stage persona that Gervais has cultivated over the years for comic effect. However, there is no persona to hide behind on Twitter, and his ugly intentions around the use of the word ‘mong’ are clear for all to see.

NB I won’t be swayed by people saying “I’m 26 and I went to university but I’ve never heard someone use the word ‘mong’ to mean Down’s syndrome”. Sorry, but as a skeptic arguments from ignorance mean nothing to me.

Catch me speaking about the scientific method at Liverpool Cafe Scientifique

This coming Tuesday, October 11th, I’ll be giving my “Scientific Method: Uses and Abuses” talk at Liverpool Cafe Scientifique. It’s held at the Hope Street Hotel, and will be kicking off at 7:30pm. I believe anyone who turns up gets 10% off at the bar!

In the talk I will cover the scientific method itself, various scientific frauds and how they were uncovered. I’ll also talk about how medical treatments are tested with double blinded randomized controlled trials, and how it’s possible to manipulate meaningless data. I’ll need a few volunteers for this, so turn up early if you want to get involved. Hope to see you there!

In support of Project Barnum: see psychics coming!

Project BarnumRecently Project Barnum, a group campaigning against psychics, was launched by RI podcast host Hayley Stevens. I totally agree with the aims of the group, and I’ve signed their petition calling for theatres to consider the evidence and think twice before allowing a psychic to perform at their venue.

There’s been some debate in the skeptical community on whether petitioning theatres to stop hosting psychics and mediums is the right thing to do. Deborah Hyde, editor in chief at The Skeptic Magazine, has argued that it’s illiberal to “restrict information or services” and that it’s “a proposal to suppress the distribution of a certain worldview”. I couldn’t disagree more.

On that first point, it’s important to realise that true psychic abilities, especially talking to the dead, are impossible. Therefore, anyone who charges money and gives out what both they and their customer genuinely consider to be messages from dead relatives, is committing fraud, plain and simple. Now I would describe myself as a liberal, that doesn’t mean I support letting anyone do what they want when they want at any time. In my opinion, it’s not illiberal to protect people from fraud.

Secondly, I find the idea of “suppressing the distribution of a certain worldview” to be a bit of an odd point. I’m more used to hearing the term “worldview” from creationist circles, where the phrase “only in your worldview!” is trotted out to dismiss the theory of evolution. I can’t see how it’s justifiable to protect a fraudulent act by describing it as a “worldview”.

Michael Marshall of the Merseyside Skeptics does a great job in spelling out the case against psychics on Deborah Hyde’s blog, and Mike Hall has written an excellent piece, pointing out the parallels between Project Barnum and the 10:23 campaign against homeopathy.

As far as I’m aware, Project Barnum was brought to life following allegations of fraud against Sally Morgan, when someone claimed to see her being fed information through an ear piece during a show in Dublin. Now, I can’t say whether the allegations are true or not, and as a skeptic I’m aware that anecdotal evidence is the worst kind of evidence, and everyone is innocent until proven guilty. I believe that something like Project Barnum is long overdue, but if the Sally Morgan incident is a good catalyst for it, then so be it.

So, what are my issues with psychics? I’m aware that it’s quite a broad church, so for simplicities sake I’ll stick to the supposed ability to communicate with the dead. Now, I’m hoping that this is one of those situations where I don’t have to explain how ridiculous this concept is. Either way, no one has ever demonstrated a genuine ability to talk to the deceased under controlled conditions. If they could, it would turn our understand of nature on it’s head, and the psychic in question could easily walk away with $1 million from James Randi. As it is, we can safely conclude that the ability to talk to the dead is an impossibility of fantastic proportions, and anyone charging money for it is a fraud.

Although psychic abilities are either impossible or incredibly unlikely, it is possible to employ trickery to give the illusion of psychic abilities. I’ve no problems with people like Derren Brown using techniques like cold reading in his stage shows, as he makes it clear that it is a magic trick. I believe that cold reading can almost be an art form, and it can take it’s place in any magic show. It’s only when people claim it as a genuine skill that I have a problem with.

So what is “cold reading”? It’s a series of techniques that can be used to convince someone that the reader knows much more about them they actually do. The following clip of Sally Morgan shows her making a huge and pretty funny basic error, but it also shows a very simple attempt at cold reading:

She starts off with the word “barn”. Although that sounds quite specific, it is in fact ironically the beginning of several “Barnum statements” (statements which at first glance look pretty specific, but under scrutiny  they can apply to many people). A barn would mean something to anyone that has ever worked on a farm, anyone who has ever visited a farm, anyone who has seen a film with a barn in it etc etc. She then tries to cast the net wider by expanding it to the names “Bernard” and “Barnard”. Finally, she tries to get the subject to do the work by taking the form of a distressed puppy and asking “Why would he say that?”. So, in those short seconds she exhibits three techniques of cold reading: a Barnum statement, casting a wide net, and attempting to get the subject to do the work. Classic cold reading that anyone can do with some training.

Joe Power

Joe Power

Of course, I couldn’t write about cold reading without mentioning that great friend of the Merseyside Skeptics Society, the man who pops to the toilet, the man who can’t sense child abductors even if he stands next to them, the man who calls skeptics paedophiles, “Psychic” Joe Power. He’s a medium from Liverpool, who made a total fool of himself on “Derren Brown Investigates”. The show includes a detailed explanation of the techniques of cold reading, and I can highly recommend it to anyone who’s keen to know how psychics commit their fraud. It’s available on 4od.

In conclusion, I’m supporting Project Barnum as I believe something needs to be done about psychics.