The Skeptic Canary

The blog of Dr Tom Williamson, atheist, humanist, skeptic and Norwich City fan!

Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

Some Racism on Twitter from Diane Abbott MP

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You may remember a few months ago when I blogged about the vile racist tweets of Liam O’Donoughoe.  Well, the latest piece of racism I’ve spotted comes not from the world of football, but from the account of a Labour MP and member of the shadow cabinet, Diane Abbott.

Dianne Abbott racist tweet

"White people love playing "divide & rule" We should not play their game"

You’ll notice the sweeping ‘white people’ generalisation. It’s accompanied with  ‘#tacticasoldascolonialism’, a contraction of “tactic as old as colonialism”. So, it looks very much like the MP is saying that white people are colonialists who want to divide and rule. To judge any group of people based on their skin colour, as Diane Abbott has done here, is racism, plain and simple. But perhaps I’m being too hasty. Maybe I’ve taken this out of context. Let’s see:Perhaps not. Obviously I can’t speak of much experience with this matter, but it seems that Bim Adewunmi commences by making a quite reasonable tweet about her feelings about certain terms. Then Abbott wields out the ‘divide and conquer’ line. Bim then follows up by commenting that some so called ‘community leaders’ don’t represent the people they are supposed to represent. As an MP, I would have thought Diane Abbott would have been very familiar with that concept! But no, Abbott continues with the idea of ‘solidarity’ being more important than expressing one’s views.

I’d just like to make a couple of points here: firstly, I believe it’s wrong to stop someone voicing valid concerns because you want everyone to ‘pull together’, ‘tow the party line’, or whatever expression you want to use. I find the idea of that to be totally undemocratic. Second (and I know this is an idealistic position), I do get a bit disheartened by talk of different ‘communities’, especially when people like Diane Abbott appear to foster an ‘us versus them’ attitude. Are we not all people?

Anyway, the point of this post is that Diane Abbott has made some racist tweets. I hope the Labour party takes some sort of action.

I also consider it to be a great shame, because before those tweets Abbott was using Twitter to espouse her rationalism in promoting the MMR vaccine. More of that from all MPs would be very welcome.

Incidentally, I’m a paid up Liberal Democrat. I’d be absolutely disgusted if a party member told me I couldn’t say anything about Nick Clegg’s position on tuition fees.

EDIT: Abbott has since apologised. Also, thanks to everyone for pointing out the hashtag!

Written by Tom

January 5th, 2012 at 12:43 am

Posted in politics

Nadine Dorries using flawed logic against humanists

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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?

 

 

Written by Tom

October 26th, 2011 at 2:08 pm

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

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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?

gervais

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 more..it’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.

Written by Tom

October 19th, 2011 at 11:12 pm

Posted in podcasts,politics

Four Lions on Channel 4 tonight

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Four lionsThis evening (Sunday September 4th) Four Lions, the début film from director Chris Morris, gets it first UK screening on Channel 4. The film, which tells the story of four bumbling Jihadists from Sheffield, caused controversy when it was first released in cinemas, and the Daily Mail thinks the screening will cause outrage because it’s so close to the tenth anniversary of the terror attacks of September 11th 2001.

So, what’s the film like? In my considered opinion, it’s excellent. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but the film presents us with five would-be terrorists who span a very wide character spectrum. The leader is Omar, a sharp, quick-witted yet flawed man who speaks fluent Urdu, who sees terrorism as an answer to the evils of Western capitalism. He persuades his brother Waj, who rivals Father Dougal for child-like stupidity, to join his cause, as well as the naive and shy Faisal, who specialises in training explosive crows to fly into buildings. They are backed up by the white convert Assam al-Britani (who everyone calls Barry), an angry hot-head and founder of the Islamic Republic of Tinsley. Later they are joined by the enthusiastic student Hassan, who’s more concerned with getting back on his media studies teacher than righting the wrongs of the world.

The first half of the film is a straight up comedy, with some great one-liners and comedy situations. However, the whole tone of the piece changes at the half way point. From then on, it is challenging for the viewer, who is fed comedy and thought-provoking tragedy in equal measure. No element of terrorism and counter-terrorism is left untouched by Morris, including the police, politicians and the intelligence services.

Sadly for the Daily Mail, the film isn’t nearly as controversial as they would like it to be. It does not make light of terrorism, it puts it in a very human context. The film has nothing specifically to do with 9/11, anyone who goes on the Mail website and complains about this clearly hasn’t seen it.

I think that the perspective on terrorism that Four Lions offers parallels with the huge amount of good that Morris’ Brass Eye paedophile special acheived. Back in 2001, the right wing tabloid press was awash with scare stories about paedophiles, whipping certain members of the population into a mad hysteria. Even innocent doctors weren’t immune from the baying mob, there was even a case of a paediatrician having “PAEDO” daubed on her house. Then the “Paedogeddon” Brass Eye special thundered onto our TV screens and changed all that. It made everyone take a step back, and the paedophile hysteria disappeared pretty much overnight.

One thing Four Lions does not do is glorify terrorism. Who knows, perhaps a would-be terrorist will see this film and be convinced that they are on the wrong path? Anyway, you can judge for yourselves at 9pm, Channel 4 tonight.

Written by Tom

September 4th, 2011 at 10:23 am

Posted in fun stuff,politics

EU funding homeopathy for cows

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Euro cowThe #ten23 hashtag on Twitter is currently full of homeopathy skeptics currently up in arms over a Daily Mail article claiming that the EU are to spend 2 million euro on researching the use of homeopathy in livestock farming. However, rather than being another piece of Mail right-wing euro-bashing, it is in fact true.

Fernando Frias kindly furnished me with a copy of the AGRI commission’s latest budget ammendments, and it’s right there on page 35:

Pilot project — Coordinate resesarch (sic) on the use of homeopathy and phytotherapy in livestock farming

Calls upon the Commission to set up a pilot project to coordinate research on the use of homeopathy and
phytotherapy in livestock farming, in line with the motion for a resolution on antibiotic resistance in
which Parliament called for the use of antibiotics in livestock farming to be reduced and for alternative
methods to be used; such methods include the use of homeopathy and phytotherapy; the pilot project
should involve the collection of data as to what research projects in the field of homeopathy and
phytotherapy have already been set up by the various Member States’ universities and higher education
institutions, and what findings they have made; the pilot project should also investigate whether, and in
what framework, the universities involved cooperate.

Pilot project within the meaning of Article 49(6) of Council Regulation (EC, Euratom) No 1605/2002 of
25 June 2002 on the Financial Regulation applicable to the general budget of the European Communities
(OJ L 248, 16.9.2002, p. 1).

The amendment is justified:

Antibiotic resistance is a growing problem in the EU and worldwide. One problem is the use of antibiotics in
livestock farming. That is why research on alternative methods has to be moved forward, for example
homeopathy and phytotherapy.

A quick glance at the accompanying table confirms that the amendment will cost a cool 2 million euro. It has been tabled by the MEPs Ulrike Rodust and Luis Manuel Capoulas Santos, who are both members of the left wing group of Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats.

It may seem to be a noble idea, to investigate the possibility of reducing the amount of antibiotics given to livestock. So what are the problems here? First off, as myself and the 10:23 campaign have tried to make clear, homeopathy simply doesn’t work beyond placebo. It’s been around for over 200 years, and really doesn’t require any more research into it’s efficacy as far as I’m concerned. Secondly, there is the issue of ethics. If you treat livestock with homeopathy/placebo instead of antibiotics you are denying the livestock a proven treatment, which can lead to the animals suffering for no good reason. Finally of course, there is the issue of cost. 2 million euro is a lot of money to waste, regardless of the state of the global economy.

I think I’ve made myself clear on where I stand here, but I really have to address one other point that cropped up in the Mail article:

Animals cannot benefit from the placebo effect because they won’t realise they have been given the treatment, say critics.

The idea that animals cannot experience the placebo effect is total nonsense, for two reasons. Animals can respond to attention, the placebo effect isn’t just about taking pills. Also, it isn’t the farm animal that judges whether they are benefiting from a treatment, it’s the farmer. The farmer is very much open to a kind of ‘secondary’ placebo effect, where he or she believes that their animals are getting better because they have seen them treated. Hopefully that’s that silly notion put to bed!


 

Written by Tom

September 1st, 2011 at 12:42 pm

Posted in homeopathy,politics

The referendum on AV approaches

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Here in the UK, we are being given an historic opportunity to vote in a referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) this Thursday, May 5th. It will decide how our MPs are elected in future, and the result will determine whether they are elected with AV or if First Past The Post (FPTP) is retained. As I’ve explained in a previous post, I am very much in favour of adopting AV over FPTP, so in this article I’ll try and address a few important issues that I’ve seen.

A really stupid thing to do

Do NOT do this. I repeat, do NOT do this.

First off, I need to address a potential problem from a few people who want the Single Transferable Vote (STV) instead. Personally, I would prefer STV to AV, but this is not a choice on offer. There is a Facebook group recommending that people write in “STV” on their ballot papers. I cannot stress how stupidly naive this action is. Such papers would be regarded as ‘spoiled’ and not counted, which would only serve to decrease the number of ‘Yes’ votes and therefore help to ‘No’ campaign.

Some would make the argument that voting ‘No’ on Thursday will somehow further the cause of STV. It won’t. A ‘No’ result on Thursday will not be interpreted as ‘People voted against AV so they must want STV’, it will be spun as an endorsement of FPTP, which will kill off any thought of future referendums. If we get a ‘Yes’ vote, it will show the politicians that there is appetite for voting reform in the UK, and it could be a stepping stone for further reform in the future.

Second, the nature of the referendum means that the ‘Yes’ camp needs all the votes it can get, whereas the ‘No’ campaign can win just by encouraging people to stay away. So, by doing any of the following, you are inadvertently supporting the ‘No’ cause:

  • Staying at home
  • Spoiling your paper
  • Writing ‘STV’ (or anything else) on your paper (see above)
  • Trying to be funny and putting a ’1′ instead of a cross on your paper

To get a ‘Yes’ result, we need as many people to vote as possible. It’s very rare that we, the British public, get a chance to vote in a referendum (the last one was to keep EEC membership back in 1975), so make use of the opportunity and vote!

Written by Tom

May 3rd, 2011 at 12:58 pm

Posted in campaigns,politics

Lib Dem councillor promoting homeopathy and ear candling in Manchester

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This Saturday morning (April 2nd) sees a Holistic Health Fair come to the Levenshulme Inspire Centre in south Manchester. A variety of bunkum will be on show, including reiki, ear candling, and of course, homeopathy.

Homeopathy needs no introduction from myself (I’ve already given my take on it here) but I’ve not mentioned reiki or ear candling before. Reiki is a form of alternative medicine that is literally hand-waving. Reiki practitioners use the palms of their hands to transfer healing energy (ki) onto their patients, supposedly. Needless to say, a 2008 systematic review from Edzard Ernst concluded that “the evidence is insufficient to suggest that reiki is an effective treatment for any condition”.

Ear candling

What's wrong with this picture?

So, onto ear candling. This really is one of those alternative ‘treatments’ that defies belief. During an ear candling treatment, the patient lies on their side and a hollow candle is placed vertically over their ear canal. The candle is then lit and allowed to burn. At the end of the treatment, the patient is shown the contents of the burnt out candle so they can see how many ‘impurities’ have been removed from their ear. Unsurprisingly, these impurities are just residue from the candle itself! The practise of ear candling is pretty dangerous too, the hot wax can drip into the patient’s ear and cause damage. There is also the issue of the name. One manufacturer in particular, Biosun, refers to them as “Hopi” ear candles. It won’t surprise you to hear that there is no evidence that the Hopi tribe (who can be found in Arizona) have ever used ear candles.

Anyway, it’s bad enough that this event exists in the first place, but what makes it even worse is the fact that it is being plugged by local Liberal Democrat councillor Simon Ashley. I’ve been a long-term supporter of the Lib Dems, so it’s sad to hear that there is a non-skeptical “it worked for me” woo merchant amongst their midst.

As far as I’m aware it’s free, so if you intend to go you can reply on their facebook page. Sadly I can’t make it, not because I can’t be bothered to get up and get to Manchester for 10am on a Saturday, but because it clashes with the return to 6 music of Adam and Joe (yay!).

EDIT: Hat-top to @janisbennion

Written by Tom

March 30th, 2011 at 8:31 pm

Embarassingly bad arguments from the “No to AV” camp on BBC News

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May 5th could be a monumentous day for British politics. As part of the deal which brought us the Con-Dem coalition, the country will go to the polls to vote in a referendum on adopting the Alternative Vote (AV) system for electing MPs. Currently, the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system is used, in which the candidate with the most votes wins.

At first glance, FPTP looks fair enough. However, it’s often the case that the winning candidate scoops less than 50% of the vote, and the returned candidate therefore trots off to parliament with a mandate from less than half of the turnout. AV seeks to redress this problem.

It’s a fairly simple solution. Rather than just putting a cross next a candidate, the voter lists the candidates in order of preference. If one candidate has more than 50% of the 1st preference votes, then fine, they win. However, if no candiate reaches this threshold, then the candidate with the least 1st preference votes is eliminated and their 2nd preferences transfered to the remaining candidates. This process continues until someone has over 50% of the votes.

The arguments for the AV system are plentiful. It’s not perfect by any means, but it does give a more accurate representation of the will of the electorate. It works particularly well for “split” votes. Say, for the sake of argument, there exists a constituency with three candidates, two right wing and one left wing. The electorate votes 60% right wing and 40% left wing. Under FPTP, the left wing candidate receives 40% of the vote and is elected, while the two right wing candidates receive 35% and 25% respectively. Clearly this is unfair, as the majority of voters voted for a right wing candidate. Under the AV system, the second right wing candidate is eliminated and their votes passed on to the first, meaning the first right wing candidate romps home with over 60% of the vote.

For me, nothing represents how unfair FPTP is than this graph from the last general election (courtesy of allaboutchris.co.uk):

Votes by percent and seatsHow is it in any way fair that the third largest political party in the UK gets 23% of the votes in an election, yet gets less than 9% of the seats in parliament? Small wonder that the Liberal Democrats want AV!

So, it’s my firm opinion that AV is much fairer and therefore much better than FPTP, so I’m supporting Yes to Fair Votes. However, what about the other side? Is there a case for voting “No” in the referendum? A “No to AV” campaign does exist, and Matthew Elliot, the director of the campaign, has written an opinion piece for the BBC News website.

According to Elliot, the case against AV can be boiled down to a few key points: cost, the Lib Dems being made kingmakers, and politicians clamouring for votes:

At a total cost of £250m…

Yes, elections are expensive. Adding an extra element to get a fairer election would cost more money. But what price representative democracy? If you are going to argue along the lines of cost, why not turn this country into a military dictatorship and dispense with elections altogether? That would be far cheaper!

After each general election, the UK would face a Hung Parliament and we would have to wait patiently while the Lib Dems played one party off against the other behind closed doors.

Of course, there is no guarantee of this scenario after every election, but if that is what the electorate votes for, then that is what the electorate gets. I really don’t see how disenfranchisement to avoid a hung parliament is in any way justifiable.

Instead of MPs that take a principled stand, AV would create a legion of bland politicians that would tell you whatever you wanted to hear and ditch their promises at the first sign of trouble.

And how would this be any different to how politicians behave now?

Amazingly, this opinion piece doesn’t even attempt to deal with fairness or the will of the electorate. It’s just a series of non sequiturs, and it just sounds a bit desperate to me. In short, vote “Yes” to AV in May!

Written by Tom

March 8th, 2011 at 2:16 pm

Posted in politics