Being an atheist at Christmas.

Every year, around this time, I get a rather itchy case of cognitive dissonance. I'm an atheist enjoying Christmas.

Invariably a friend, who will typically have no religious beliefs themselves, will ask why I celebrate the festival when I'm not religious.

This is the little spiel I reel off in defence to my cloudy thinking:

When I celebrate Christmas I follow a festival that is currently generally considered to be Christian but that at previous times has been Norse, Roman, Greek and Pagan, all the way into prehistory. Like all those people I have co-opted the same festival to represent my own beliefs. Just like all those before me I've stolen and adapted it to suit my own thoughts and my own needs.

Christmas is originally the celebration of the Winter Solstice (21st - 22nd December), which rather than being a day for pagan magic, is simply the peak of winter — the day with the longest night.

When the earth is cold, and dead, when the trees are bare and the Sun can't quite warm your skin, it makes sense to celebrate the warmth you still have on this worst day, knowing it will only get better from here on out.

That warmth is our friends and our family; the new members and the ones we miss.

I think it's foolish to say that an atheist does not need these traditions. I think we need them more. I've a finite, limited time with those I love, and Christmas reminds me of that. Reminds me to make the most of this.

So with all possible respect, whilst we both should join each other on enjoying our decorations, our trees, our winter days and our presents. We should all be hoping for 'Peace and Goodwill to all men.' But, you can keep your tales of Christ in a pig trough, your magic flying super-intelligent creatures, your wise men and your acts of baby genocide. And I'll keep my Christmas alive — just like you will.

Furthermore, Christians might currently own Christmas but at best they are mearly custodians, the temporary baton carriers of a festival that stretches into prehistory. It would preposterous to tell me that I can't connect to the history of our species because a certain fraction of people with certain specific beliefs are, as of yet, refusing to hand over custody to capitalism, scientology, atheism or whatever new group will take it upon themselves next. It doesn't work that way.

No greater proof of this can be more forthcoming than the damnations Christmas receives in the old testament itself.

Before the birth of christ the old testament when to great pains to damn to hell those who celebrated in the old pagan and roman ways as we can read in Jeremiah 10 1-5

1 Hear ye the word which the LORD speaketh unto you, O house of Israel:
2 Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.
3 For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.
4 They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.

The Christmas tree was a pagan and roman celebration of life (it is easy to see how a vivid green tree at the peak of winter would raise the spirits) and as such was a symbol of competeing faiths, and so condemned in the Old Testament.

However in the years that followed as Christianity spread north these people who celebrated in the harshness of winter, were won over and converted to Christianity.

But these people needed this festival in the same way we do today. They couldn't bare to abandon this important gathering of friends and family, so they moved the birth of Christ and made the festival about that so that the important aspects of it could survive. They hid their festival in the trappings of the day.

It might be depressing for Christians today, to see that same process repeating itself, it suggests that Christianity might be on the wane.

But that won't stop it happening.

Other things worth mentioning

9 Lessons and Carols for Godless People is pretty much the celebration for people with similar views to myself. It's wonderful and I cannot recommend it enough. Whilst you might struggle for tickets this close to the event, you can buy a DVD of last years at the equally wonderful Gofasterstripe. I'm off to see it this Tuesday at Bloomsbury.

Tim Minchin is releasing his Christmas single 'White Wine and The Sun' that covers much the same topics, but from the point of view of someone who has Christmas in the middle of summer. I've embedded it below:

I think it is lovely.

Oh, and for those of you who think, 'well fine, just stop calling it christmas, I'm afraid that history doesn't work like that, for example, we don't need to come up with another name for 'saturday', because we don't use the day to worship the greek god or agriculture any more.

Sorry for the saccharin and gooey post today, but normal cynical service will be resumed as soon as possible. Sooner if I get an iPhone for Christmas allowing me to actually blog again.

The REAL Daily Mail Churnalism Generator

Crispian Jago has written a thorough and exhaustive exposé on the state of science journalism as a result of the Goldacre V Drayson debate. HOWEVER I can EXCLUSIVELY REVEAL that the Daily Mail doesn't use hi-tech applications when determining it's science output. As any one with even a MODICUM of sense knows, Windows was created by illegal immigrants as a way to allow child yobs to upload happy slapping videos to youtube for paedophiles to watch. The Daily Mail wouldn't get caught dead using one to deduce the exciting breakthroughs of the day.

Instead I can exclusively reveal THIS is how the Daily Mail investigates it's stories with The Patented Skeptobot Churnalism Generator.

AKA Cause and Effect Dice!

Whats not well know is that in 1998 teh Daily Mail had to invest in geeky D10 dice in an increasingly competitive market.

Anyhow, now that

The Cause Dice

The Effect Dice

An aside, I actually made these yonks ago - before I burnt the hell out of my leg - but Crispians excellent post reminded me about them. Let me know if anyone makes a pair.

Oh and there shouldn't be any issue with the images showing up now because... well maybe you can work it out?

An open letter to Lord Drayson

A brief email I've just sent to Lord Paul Drayson on a minor comment he just made during the excellent debate he had with Ben Goldacre earlier this evening at the Ri. Whilst this topic is funny, the genuine fear I've seen in people means that I must mention it.

Dear Lord Drayson,

Firstly, congratulations with the debate. I think you raised some very valid points. Furthermore, I commend you for reaching out via such debates and twitter.

However, I feel I must quickly raise an issue I had with a comment you made at the end of the debate. Just minutes ago, you declared that the media's coverage over whether the LHC could pull the Earth into a black hole was a GOOD thing. You suggest that it got people 'interested' and 'thinking' and that this 'sensationalism' was good for science.

I must strongly disagree. I have a PhD in Physics and as a result, during the course of my work (and in the course of my blog) I have had to explain, comfort and reassure numerous members of the public that they were not under threat from Physicists stepping on the toes of the gods. People have come to me explaining that their children were in tears and couldn't sleep with fear. Whilst we all found it funny, It was not a joke to them.

I might even go further and suggest that you believe that these outrageous statements are justified because deep down no one really took the media's story seriously. In doing so, you are relying on the very same mistrust of the media that you earlier claimed did not exist.

Whilst I do not wish to inflate the importance of this issue, I do feel you should know the pain it caused a small minority of people and the issue this presents for mainstream media. The coverage of the LHC was lacking. I shall be posting this email as an open message on my blog tomorrow.

Best Regards,

Just a comment about the blog, it's NOT dead. My excuse is that I have been suffering from severe 2nd degree burns on my leg and foot and so have been in and out of hospital for FAR TOO LONG now. As I get better the site should come back to life.

6000 years of Uranium

Here's a wonderful out of context clip apparently of Arizona State Senator Sylvia Allen casually mentioning the age of the Earth as she talks about Arizona's plans to mine Uranium.

It's terrifying to think that we've developed the skills to turn Uranium into both energy and bombs but there are still people in charge of things so clueless.

As science progresses we can't just bring some people up to speed with how the world works. We have to bring everyone. Otherwise we get situations like this.

via The Bad Astronomer

Wolfram Alpha is amazing, but it has a fundamental flaw.

Wolfram Alpha is amazing. Go play with it now.

Some people really, really don't get it. They are frustrated that it isn't google, which of course it was never meant to be. If you're not sure what it is then I recommend the (overlong) intro video.

But basically, It's a data engine. A fact machine. It lets you pull and push and manipulate data.

For instance you could compare the mean wage of chiropractors vs journalists in seconds (topical!). Or do some maths. Or do lots of things.

It's some topical data about two professions.

And this is all the info your are given for your 'source'

It's finicky and has plenty of holes in it, but it's only just gone live and it is brilliant. I can't stress that enough.

Now on to why it sucks.

The cultural effects of a 'computational knowledge engine' that can both quantify and manipulate data is huge. But the ability for it to be misused is also huge. We all love wikipeida, but when journalists use it for their primary source of info it gets a little worrying. To offset that Wikipedia has a big list of references at the bottom of every page.

Rather than establish itself as an authority figure (despite the wishes of some of the more 'enthusiastic' admins) Wikipedia works hard to tell you how it knows something to be true, otherwise [citation needed] rears its head.

I don't get that same feeling from Wolfram Alpha. Firstly, the references are tucked away from view in a little pop up window rather than being an inherent part of the page. Secondly, the Primary source for everything I've tried so far is:

Wolfram|Alpha curated data, 2009

Which just isn't good enough. It is setting Alpha up to be an authority figure for data. But this isn't information that Wolfram et al. have discovered and published. This is information that Wolfram has collated.

Now, to be fair, 'background' sources are listed. And whilst they are most likely the true source of the data presented, no single study or report or finding is indicated to be where any specific fact came from. For example Alpha has decided that the UK produces 1.8 billion barrels of oil a day. Has it taken an average of the studies it looked at? Or has it weighted them? It doesn't tell me.

Every piece of data when fed into Alpha should have been tagged with details of where it came from. But it isn't. It's a mind boggling strange omission.

So much so that I can't help but feel this, may possibly, add weight to widespread opinion that Stephen Wolfram is a little bit, erm, arrogant. This letter that Richard Feynman (apparently) wrote to Stephen Wolfram is rather illuminating on the subject. The cynic in me whispers that Alpha wants to be your reference, not your intermediary.

Wolfram|Alpha is an amazing achievement, and one I will use an awful lot. (even if it is just to plot nonsense) Stephen Wolfram should be immensely proud of it.

But I can't help thinking how much more important Alpha would be as a proper research tool if it was a little bit more willing to explain where it learnt to be so clever.

The Skeptic's News Fart Digest #2

Here we go with the second round up of the 'skeptish' news of the last week.

REMEMBER: This material is presented as is. A skeptical interpretation of the material is left to the reader. I haven't read everything I've posted here in detail, so if you take anything here on face value based on it being linked here you've messed up.

  • When invading a country like Iraq it is extremely important to not make it look like a religious war. I mean putting Bible quotes all over your Top Secret reports would send a bad message. So I'm glad Rumsfeld et al. didn't do that.
    And the posters are here.
    and more stuff here.
  • George Carlin on UFO believers VS Religious Believers.
  • The Daily Show on the LHC (thanks Naomi!)
  • Ackward Questions about Jesus from the brilliant Outnumbered. Outnumbered is a bit depressing because by liking it I feel a bit old.
  • Been catching up with Mormanism this week. It see,s to be a bit, er, mental. As this 7minute cartoon will attest.
  • Child won't say 'Amen' so a woman along with One Mind Ministries starve the boy to death thinking that when he resurrects the demon possessing him will be gone.
  • Armando Iannucci sneaks into US state department. Just like how he has sneaked into my heart.
  • No goggles were needed for old chemistry sets. And they are beautiful. Relatedly here are some amazing magazine covers.
  • Who would be a female under islamic law?
  • Remember last week there was a guy who was sued and lost because he was critical of creationism in a science lesson? He's responded to what happened on Salon. I haven't read enough about this to settle my mind one way or the other, but if you have a secular school (which is a good thing) then being critical of religion is the same as promoting it.
  • Church literally being worn away by sin. Religious speech writers must be creaming themselves with tortured metaphor possibilities.
  • Don't shoot the scientists
  • The American Patriot's Bible exists. Hell you can buy it on Amazon.
  • Witch hunts, murder and evil in Papua New Guinea.
  • BNP members don't exist
  • Cardinal Cormac Murphy thinks that I'm not fully human. Well I think he's a big stupid poopy head.


Tonight (monday) is the meeting for Simon Singh's response to the libel ruling against the BCA. In The Penderel's Oak in Holborn, London. I'll be going and reporting back, so say hi.

Jack of Kent's blog is covering it all and the facebook page has details of the event.

Wednesday sees the normal Skeptics in the Pub night. Which looks to be a cracker:

Edzard Ernst's team of 10-15 researchers have tried for the last 15 years to critically evaluate “alternative medicine”. Much of the resulting evidence has now been summarised in the book ‘Trick or Treatment’ by Simon Singh and myself. As it turns out, alternative medicine is more “trick” than “treatment”. In my talk, I will report about some of the often amazing milestones on my long journey toward the truth.

Generation Rescue's Insane Video. Jenny MCarthy and Jim Carrey fight vaccinations and MMR.

Just a quick heads up. Generation Rescue is Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey's anti-vax and autism site.

Watch this video. I've never seen anything, anything like it.

I haven't time to talk about it in depth. And it has left me speechless. It's tragic, sad and insane and I can't give it the response it deserves. But by pimping it here I hope the better qualified BadScienceBloggers will snap it up.

I've heard rumours Oprah is giving McCarthy her own Chat show. Please, please, please, please, please don't be true.

A few highlights for those that can't watch the video:

  • Vaccines contain Mercury, Aluminum, Ether, Antifreeze and Human aborted fetal tissue.
  • Kids eating Dairy & Gluten is the same as them smoking a joint.
  • The Secret works
  • When IranandIraq attacks the brain in turns on Rambo mode and then kids can't think.
OK, i'm taking the last one out of context (not that the context makes it better). But bloody hell.
EDIT: Also I still seem to be having picture issues for some people (but not all). Sorry.

BBC appoints Muslim as head of religious broadcasting: Daily Mail begins the idiocy.

This is Aaqil Ahmed. He is a practising Muslim. And on Monday he was appointed Head of Religious Broadcasting for the BBC. This will be FUN.

Anyone who has ever read the Daily Mail knows that it doesn't like 'the BBC', 'the Muslims', Immigrants, being 'politically correct', and crucially any deviation from a bizarre belief in a cultural Golden age that ran from 1935 to 1955. One where there was NO CRIME, teenagers loved their mothers and we all went to an ENGLISH Church.

So you can imagine the fallout that this will cause in certain circles. Personally I can not WAIT for The Christian Voice's response. They've probably thrown up a lung whilst clasping a copy of the BBC recording of 'Jerry Springer The Opera' to their chest.

Anyway this is the Daily Mails article:

By Stephen Glover. After lots of heartfelt disclaimers that he isn't a racist (which I'm sure he isn't) he then goes on with a few choice comments:

I imagine that having a Methodist preacher at the heart of the BBC was more than it could stomach.

The BBC does not like God, unless perhaps it be a Muslim, Hindu or Sikh version.

And best of all:

At every possible opportunity it will wheel forward one of those professional atheists who are not happy to live silently with their own non-belief but are determined to shove it down everyone else’s throats.

One of the most popular religious stance in the UK (i.e. that of none) being represented in religious programming is balance. Sorry it is lodging in your throat Steveo.

He goes on to blame this appointment on the "secular tide" that is taking over the BBC. Apparently atheists prefer Islam.

For all I know, Mr Ahmed may prove himself remarkably sympathetic to the sensibilities of Christians in his new job. One cannot, however, count on that, and it is interesting that he has said there should be more coverage of Muslim matters in the media.

Will this, on the BBC, be at the expense of an already reduced number of Christian programmes?

In all kinds of ways the publicly funded BBC does not reflect the views of the public it is supposed to serve.

No doubt its secular suits assume that Britain is as anti-Christian as they are. They’re out of touch again. In appointing Aaqil Ahmed they do not simply offend against this country’s Christian heritage and traditions. They also further weaken the hold and authority of the BBC.

I have to put up with lots of religious programming. But I also have to put up with 'My Family,' Horne and Corden' and 'Three Pints of Larger and a Packet of Crisps.' The BBC caters for a bunch of audiences less mentally coherent than myself* but in return I get Outnumbered, Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle and, and...

No sorry. I can't think of an equivalent 'good version' of Three Pints. It's like trying to find the good version of the HIV**.

I have no doubt that a lot of people in the UK do like to think of ourselves as a Christian Nation, but not in any sense that applies to people who are actually religious. If you will allow me a tortured metaphor It's akin to red phone boxes.

Religion, yesterday.

Christianity in England is like a Red Phone Box. We all love the Red Phone box. It is part of our heritage.

But you wont catch us using it unless we really have to. It looks nice as you pass by it, but once you actually get inside a phone box it gets really creepy. Full of dirt and urine and weird sexual promises. But despite the fact we never use them (except when a tourist friend wants you to photograph them in one***) I'm sure we all want them to keep popping up across the landscape. Just don't ask us to pay for them.

But the BBC shouldn't be making shows for the express purpose of allowing Stephen Glover et al. to flick past them on a sunday morning before watching Shipwrecked.

Let it make shows for the people who actually believe in these weird things. Not the 'culturally religious'. Oh and if Stephen Gover really wants balance in the programming he needs to get the Beeb to employ a secular agnostic as its head.

* I was talking about 'CBeebies' what did you think I was talking about? Shame on you.
** Almost did a PIN number.
*** This part of the tortured metaphor represents weddings. I told you it was tortured.

The Skeptic's News Fart Digest #1

Welcome to the first News Fart Digest collecting all the interesting skeptical nonsense I stumbled upon in the last 7 days.

It's just an idea I'm trying on for the next 4 weeks to see how it goes. Let me know what you think.

Oh and one last thing, don't assume that just because something has been linked here that it is true, or it's opinions supported. The volume of links means that I've not had time or inclination to properly vet them. So treat them skeptically and pipe up in the comments if you find anything interesting.

Anyhow, link dump ahoy.

  • A 'Martian Skull' has been found on Mars by 'UFO spotters' or so claims the Telegraph. It seems some people were pissing about in a forum somewhere and they've been turned into an Silly Story for the Telegraph. Sans references to obscure anything of worth.

  • Daily Mail Commentors freak the hell out when a pop-sci article informs them that their ancestors were once black.

  • I get countless emails asking to see masked Mexican wrestlers like Renegado and Mr. Tempest looking at an image of the Virgin Mary emblazoned onto a griddle. Well your prayers have been answered.

  • Harvesting the power of prayer. By putting dynamos in prayer wheels.

  • The Catholic churches works hard to promote Dan 'The famous man looked at the red cup' Brown's Demons and Angels Movie by getting in a huff about it.

  • Jonathan Myerson trots out the 'If you have nothing to hide you've nothing to fear' idiocy like it even looks like a valid argument. And that's before you realise he's talking about DNA, a database of which would produce massive amounts of false positives. On the flip side here is AC Grayling being a bit more sensible.

  • Chris Matthews interviews Republican Mike Pence on Evolution and Science. "Do you believe in Evolution?" leads to 5 minutes of squirming. How do you pretend to be pro-science when you try to appease religious fundamentalists?

  • Nine month old girl dies when parent only treat her eczema with homeopathy. Tragic. Important to note that the Dad was a homeopath. It is too easy to get the impression that homeopaths are quacks and con artists. But it is more complicated than that - he truly believed in what he preached. And we must bare that in mind when we interact with CAM.

  • The View (basically an American version of 'Loose Women') once again makes you fear for humanity. The 'pretend there is a debate' argument from IDers is really working.

  • Jokes about atheists. Oooh you been served dude.

  • Pilots sit inside the heads of giant iron birds and fly them through the sky.
    Which is awesome.
    Pilots wear cool uniforms whilst sleeping with attractive people all around the world.
    Which is awesome.
    Pilots tell the 'voluntary' ID card scheme to bugger off. Which is awesome.
    Ergo - Pilots are awesome.

The pilots' union has protested to ministers that the £18m scheme cannot be regarded as voluntary when they are being told they will not qualify for an "airside pass" without them: "ID cards will have absolutely no value as far as security is concerned. This is nothing other than coercion and promises that ID cards would be voluntary have been broken," Jim McAuslan, Balpa general secretary, has told ministers. "We will resist."'

  • Teenager successfully sues teacher for criticising creationism.

  • America's young are giving up on organised religion.

  • Pope Benedict XVI, who you may remember for being at the heart of the global cover up of child abuse before he levelled up to pope, has talked in the middle east warning them about the misuse of religion.
    I mean I pretty much agree with what he said but the words Pot, Kettle and Black keep popping in my head...

"Some assert that religion is necessarily a cause of division in our world and so they argue that the lesser attention given to religion in the public sphere the better," he said.
"Certainly, the contradiction of tensions and divisions between the followers of different religious traditions, sadly, cannot be denied.
"However, is it not also the case that often it is the ideological manipulation of religion, sometimes for political ends, that is the real catalyst for tension and division, and at times even violence in society


How you read ties into how you use your body. The SNARC effect is
fascinating stuff.

A damn great article: "Diet and health. What can you believe: or does
bacon kill you?"

A student edits wikipedia to show that the mainstream media use it as a
primary source of info.
But I can talk, I'm posting this here without fact checking it.


Simon SIngh's libel case with the British ASSociation of Chiropractors (BAC) hasn't been going very well and he has been found guilty. Basically because he used the word 'Bogus.' Bill & Ted would be livid. This Bad Science Forum thread is probably the easiest way to link to all that is going on.


This weeks links were borrowed, stolen, repatriated, consumed, perpetuated
and regurgitated from:
General Surfing/Twitterers/Twatters/Ben Goldacre/Reddit/Bad Science Blogs/
High Weirdness Newswire...

A mind blowing example of Poe's Law: It's like Brass Eye....ON ACID!

The Rational Wiki defines Poe's Law as follows:

Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of Fundamentalism that SOMEONE won't mistake for the real thing.

Of course it works both ways, often I stumble over religious material so insane that I believe it to be parody, but which is, in fact, genuine. For example here are some church websites. I should warn you that they are both visual and noisy. But it still won't prepare you for what you are about to see. They are amazingly awesome.

After watching all these I'm so stoked I could fight a bear. I genuinely think they are amazing. They all seem to have been produced by SharperFX who specialise in making websites. Websites for insane churches.

If Chris Morris was to create a Brass Eye Episode about these churches, his parody would be interchangeable with the real thing and no one, on either side, could tell.

And that kinda makes me happy.

(via reddit)

Dutch news piece on Biblicaly Correct (B.C.) Tours

So a German Dutch speaking film crew went to film a B.C. Tour. The very first part is in German Dutch (or at least I think it is germa it is if you are ignorant) but afterwards we are good to go.

I last talked about this lot here. It's depressing to be reminded they still exist. I think it is significant to note that an organisation that promotes complex 'science' like this and gets worldwide attention has a web site that looks like this:

'Win every argument' indeed.

(This post was also a sneaky test of the site - hopefully, the images, embeds and text are now all hunky dory - please let me know if you are still having problems)

Skeptobot is being a bit funny when it comes to pictures

The site's imagehosting has gone a bit screwy. So I'll be using this update to fix it.

As way of apology here should be an image that I made using this billboard generator - which is a staggeringly great tool to satirise this farcical bit of propaganda.

I'm using some new blogging software which up till now has been great. If it is working you should be able to click through the thumbnail above to see the full sized image.

Update: A google around seems to suggest that this is a problem that has been causing trouble for a number of picasa users. Hopefully it will correct itself in due course.


This was sent to me by the wonderful Dr A & it is ace.

Of course you might say that he's arguing against a straw man, but I don't really think that is the point. A wonderful primer on how skeptical thinking doesn't mean close-mindedness.

But actually means you are 50s intellectual man hunk. Or something.

New Project - 'Hello. Do you believe in God?'

In which I ask strangers 'Hello. Do you believe in God?' and post what they reply.

I got the idea when an internet chum showed me a website that acts as a chat room for one on one chats with strangers (which sounds creepy when you write it down). I kinda like it because it's anonymous, and no one else is listening, which helps to lead to interesting answers.

I haven't excluded, censored or altered any. Even the ones where I come across like an Idiot with a My-First-Dvorak-Keyboard, so there is a certain amount of wheat vs chaff going on.

I'll give you two examples. Firstly:

And then to lower the tone:

The rest are here. Hope you like them.

US Congressman John Shimkus on Global Warming - God's got our back.

Republican John Shimkus is member of the United States House of Representatives. On the March 25th hearing of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment he said this:

Poor Illinois.

Highlights are at 1:44 where he discusses the "Theological Debate" about whether this is a "Carbon starved planet." Personally, I would pay to see a debate of Bishops, Imams and Cardinals huddled over their holy texts deducing God's fate for carbon.

But the best bit, which we really need to grasp onto as a flicker of rational light, is the woman's smirk at 0:24.

If it wasn't for that, this video could reduce you to tears.

The Daily Mail links White on White violence to Scary Muslims.

I wasn't going to post this, as it is outside the remit of Skeptobot but it's really annoying me. Basically a 15 year old white teenager in her army cadet uniform gets attacked by a white woman and a white man of no stated religion.

Nevertheless the Daily Mail has done its upmost to link this horrible event to Daily Mail Brand Muslim Extremists.

The headline reads "Teen army cadets in uniform targeted by vicious thugs" and is followed up by a picture or Muslims protesting. It's only at the very end of the article you discover this has nothing to do with the people in the picture. After most people will probably have clicked away.

A case can be made that I'm overstating here, but It's just more (circumstantial) evidence why we can't have a civil discussion about our military actions and religion. One of the reasons it is so hard to criticise Islam without appearing like a racist dick is because the Daily Mail and the like take every opportunity to turn complex shades gray into sellable chunks of black and white with Muslims as the cartoon grade evil baddies.

To be fare there is no reason why the white attackers couldn't be Muslim. I just make the assumption they weren't because then the Mails story would probably been about how Islam is corrupting the Good Honest White People That Won The War.

Maybe one day the Daily Mail will actually commission an article about why our military actions have lead people of all skin and hair colour, who believe differing (but equally stupid) things to reprehensible acts of violence. But I doubt it.

Currently Simulcra obsessed.

Jesus on toast. Jesus in a sink. Jesus on a moth. I've become obsessed with simulacra again. Or more specifically Pareidolia.

This is collated and mixed by the wonderful, brilliant, superb Everything is Terrible.

It's a classic example of when a joke goes on too long it and it becomes funny. Except again and again for a full 6 minutes.

To continue my indulgence here are some favourites easily obtained ones I've found (click the thumbnails to biggify):

1) Cheesus

2) Treesus

3) Cheesus II: Death of Cheesus

4) Cookisus

5) Pizzsus? Burntsus. I dunno.

6) And finally, Dogsus (Click the thumbnail to obtain context - kinda NSFW if you realise what your looking at. Oh and also a photoshop - but too good not to post).

Elephant-shaped Ganesh growth cured my ills according to the laziest journalist ever.

This guy is Sam Lal. As far as I can tell he is a 60 year old manager of a Manhattan uniform company, who likes gardening. He hurt his back lifting a box, and was in pain for 3½ months, then he got better. Thanks to a MIRACLE!

The New York Daily News - a daily newspaper with circulation of ~650,000, making it the fifth most popular paper in the USA - breathlessly reported that the:

Elephant-shaped Ganesh growth cured my ills, Queens man says

yep, in their amazing article. Sam claims that the flowers are an 'incarnation' of the elephant headed hindu god Ganesh and that

"This formation came to heal my illness"

WOW! Go God Go! Still the journalist, Nicholas Hirshon, is a professional and knows that extraordinary claims need extraordinaty evidence, so he contacted the 'Experts' at the Queens Botanical Garden:

[The] Experts identified the plant as a member of the amaranth family... Horticulturalists at the garden have never seen an amaranth take an elephant-like shape, garden spokesman Tim Heimerle said.

"For it to have that long trunk like this is not a natural thing," he said.

So this miracle is pretty much confirmed right‽*

I mean the expert did say that right‽

That it wasn't natural‽ Really‽‽

I mean if, for example, one was to buy a packet of the seeds it wouldn't mention it on the packet would it‽

Would it‽

Would it‽


So yeah, apparently miracles cost $3.29 a packet... The shop page goes on:

The reason it's called Elephant Head is that the deep-red bloom grows quite large (36-40") with a long (18-24") protuberance that looks like an elephant's trunk.

It's an example of simulacra that's been given a lot of weight by a believer. That's fair enough, and at least it's prettier than Jesus-In-Toast or Allah-In-Tomato. But it would appear that neither the journalist, nor the 'Expert' even bothered to use google before racing to spread the miracle to 650,000 people. That's if the 'Expert' was even contacted. Or quoted fairly.

Journalist Fail. Expert Fail.

Tut tut.

* ‽ is an interrobang. My new favourite thing. What sums up skepticism better‽ I propse it to be our new official symbol.

Important: This post is entirely thanks to the Wonderful Mimi who let me know about this wonderfully poor piece of journalism, and let me turn it into an article here. It was Mimi who worked out the non-miracle, so she's officially better than New York Journalists and Botanical Experts. You should visit her link by the way, she sells things she makes by hand and they are lovely.

Fighting Badscience on the internet? Add to your Skepto-utility belt.

This site wants to be placed on your bookmark bar asap. Multiple times when dealing with badscience and the like you'll get the authors quickly removing the incriminating evidence. MyLifeMyID being a good example.

Normally you'll have to download a copy of the page and then re-host it yourself (opening yourself up to copyright infringement claims) But BackupURL seems to cut out the middleman. Simply paste your chosen URL in and it will spit out the address of a newly made cached version that will be immune to any Orwellian tampering.

I've just this minute stumbled across the site so I've no idea about their reliability in the long term, but as an additional tool to your activism it can hardly hurt. I would still do the old print-screen and webpage saving just to be sure though.

Forgive me if this is old news to some, but I've only just heard about it.

Professor Carmella's Psychic Studio

You might want to be sitting down for this as it is pretty exciting, a flyer just came through my door from Professor Carmella! Woohoo! What wonders await us dear readers!? Follow me into the exciting world of Professor Carmella...

First there is an awesome palm reading guide - FOR FREE!

Did you know that each finger print on your grubby heathen hands represents 'orator', 'optimist' 'impulsive', 'clergy' and 'will'? Well now you do! The bottom part of your middle finger? That's agriculture. Obviously. It all makes so much sense now, thanks to the wonderful Professor Carmella! But wait there is more...

Professor Carmella has their own Professor Psychic Studio! They are superior to all psychics! Hell, Professor Carmella can destroy witchcraft. Not mitigate. Not undo. DESTROY. Prof Carm is awesome.

And more importantly 100% RESULTS GUARANTEED!

I've hidden the phone numbers out of a sense of decency. But what should I do readers? On one hand I think it's harmless. On the other hand I'm pretty worried that someone in my neighbourhood helps people troubled by witchcraft and claims to cure illness. I'm very tempted to them ring up...

Tedious excuses and housekeeping

Firstly, sorry for the lack of posts. Without going into it, lets just say family matters took precedence. That and science and medicine and the people who devote themselves to those pursuits are all wonderful. But enough of that, I've used the time away to make a few changes. So many in fact that I'm going to use bullet points to try and make it more impressive than it really is...

  • I've a Twitter Feed located here. Yeah, yeah, I know, but still, why not? With varying levels of success it currently; re-tweets The News Fart (aka Del.ici.ous - which is better and older than twitter), advertises new posts on Skeptobot (a horrible twitter sin) and features random musing and cries for help from yours truly. Why not follow it? Huh? The last inane post will be in the side bar to act like a temptress or to ward you off.

  • I've changed the site's layout. It's now pushing the wonderful Gill Sans font, which is like Helvetica, but less snobbish and hasn't had a documentary made about it. You might not have Gill Sans installed (it's only present by default on OS X) so in that case you'll have to make do with Helvetica, or even Verdana. Sorry but you've only yourself to blame. Also I don't have a Windows machine so if there are any problems of XP/Vista do let me know. Though I've already had some feedback so I think it should be fine.

  • Against my better judgement and whilst feeling very dirty, I've put a PayPal tip jar on the site because a very kind person asked if they could buy me a pint over the internet. I honestly expect this never to be used so please don't feel obliged. Especially when much more deserving sites exist (as the side bar attests). That said, It would guilt me into posting more. Also if anyone wants to buy me a pint at the Skeptic in the Pub meets (Roger!) then go right ahead.

  • Remember that great post I was talking about? It's going on hold for a while. The pressure of it (especially at the moment) put me off posting anything - so I'll just wait for it to fall naturally once things have calmed down.

  • Finally my vanity has lead me to throw away my secret identity. The site is no longer anonymous. Stalkers can work out who I am quite easily now despite choosing the most obfuscating mugshot I possible could. I feel it will make me choose my words more carefully and hopefully improve this place.

Snow post today

Yeah, I'm trying to do weekly updates now - every monday. But it's snowing so the time I was going to spend writing this is going to be spent making a snowman instead. Not even sorry about that.

As I've said though - the next post is great.

Tim Michin's Storm - About your inner skeptical rage.

Just leaving the house, but noticed from Tim Minchin's twitter stream that he's put 'Storm' up. Which despite being a 9 minute beat poem is really bloody excellent. If you've visited this site, then I'm pretty certain you'll find this little story of social awkwardness a little close to the bone.

Sorry about that last post again....

The Media on 'Sex when young gives you prostate cancer'

Warning: Only just this second noticed this and it has annoyed me into knocking-this-out very quickly, so if the maths is off, it's totally my fault. Please pick me up on it. This post will also include lots of euphemisms for sexy-time.
Update I: Said 'colon' when meant 'prostate' cancer. As I said I'm not a (medical) doctor. Fixed now. Though my shame remains.

Update II: There are, rather elementary, flaws in this post - but the overall point just about holds - though lots of timbering is more statistically significant than my first, quick guesstimate (it's not just the increase in risk, it's the duration of that increase).  See the comments. 
The BBC, The Press Association, A Canadian site I've never heard of and an Italian site called AGI news are all reporting that increased amounts of genitalia-wrestling when between 20 and 30 increases your risk of Prostate Cancer.

Fuck!! Sex is awesome isn't it!? Things we love being bad for us always makes for a depressing story, which is of course a good story for the media peeps. 

Saying that the BBC story is quite good actually, pointing out that the sample size is too small and so on, but the others are worse. The Italian one starts like so:
Sexual abstinence, besides opening the gates to paradise, also seems to prolong the lives of men.
That's a neutral point of view if every I saw one. But more importantly not a single one of these articles mentions the increase in terms of the quantitative risk of getting the disease (aka the natural frequency, or in this case how many people per 100,000 will get prostate cancer every year). As we will see is kind of a big deal. I've had a spare ten minutes so I've just guesstimated what that would be. 

So lets ignore the very small sample size. Lets ignore the complexity of comparing the rate men masturbate. Lets ignore the fact that people who have more sex might do lots of other things to excess too (like drugs and rock and roll) so the idea that it is specifically sex isn't necessarily true (though they make sensible sounding hormonal claims to my non-biologist ears). Anyhow lets ignore all that and take the worst values we can find.

For about 400 cancer stricken men 40% had lots of bump-and-grind.
For about 400 cancer free men 32% had lots of chummy-time-sex-wees.

So you might think that means your chance of getting Prostate Cancer increases by 20% by plunging-your-oats to excess. Which sounds quite scary until you realise that's only a 20% increase over the natural frequency of getting the disease in the first place. 

And from a quick google  117 in every 100,000 men get prostate cancer in a year. (according to UK Cancer Research - oh and I chose the largest value I could find - because if your doing a quick guesstimate you may as well go conservative).

Which means that at maximum if everyone had lots and lots of how's-your-father, then the number getting prostate cancer would increase from 117 in every 100,000 to 140 in every 100,000.

Or to put it another way by having lots of hide-the-sausage your chance of catching prostate cancer skyrockets from 0.116% to a absolutely no less scary 0.140%. A massive 0.024% increase! QUICK TO CELIBACY! Never shall my loins mingle again!

Remember this isn't to do with the legitimacy of the science involved. This is purely an issue about the way it has been reported. For this, my friends, is how the media turns non-scary medical research into scary everything-you-love-kills-you stories. I know it may come over a little pedantic to say this, but a lot of people would have read this today and felt guilty over a natural part of their lives, and the media hid the values that might have reassured them that the sex is so fucking worth it in order to make it scarier.

Unless your making a horror film why would you want to make peoples lives scarier than needed? Is circulation really that important to you? Is it too much to ask for you to report the risks in a way we can easily judge it?

(Oh, and if you are thinking I only wrote this because I've just read Ben Goldacre's book - you would be right)

Richard Dawkins and Derren Brown have a natter

So this is a good month and a half old, but I haven't seen it so I'm posting it here regardless. It's an hour long, and repeats itself often enough (as all interviews whose final destination is to be chopped into soundbites tend to do) but it is great stuff non the less.

I'm posting this because I'm currently reading Trick of the Mind by Mr Brown and so far it's very good. A skeptical book by a magician is always an interesting read if only for the pub tricks you'll pick up.

Sorry for the quick, cheap post - but I'm trying to get something up every Monday - so that will obviously lead to (even) lower standards. Saying that, next mondays post is awesome.

Do you know Wikipedia doesn't have an entry for Gullible?

Click the link if you don't believe me.

*Waits a few seconds*

Did you? 

The "Hey, did you know gullible isn't in the dictionary?" joke has been going around since time immemorial so I'm guessing the majority of you wonderful, skeptical readers knew the game I was up to and so didn't click that link. 

If that is the case, please click the link. I'll wait.

Moral: we should never rely on our healthy skepticism when simple and easy tests are available. 
Disclaimer: Someone could easily make a Gullible page now to ruin all this. Especially if you are reading this in a few days time. But as it stands I love this little post-modern curmudgeonly waste of your time. And like a broken escalator the worst this little game can become is stairs. 

The Top 11 'skeptish' things I didn't mention in 2008

Hello again! Long time no see. How have you been?

Phew. Shall we, at last, get started again?

I've missed so many little bits and bobs over the last couple of months that I think I need a quick summary post to get them all out of my system so we can start a fresh. And we might as well call it a count down, because people pretend to like those in the new year. I'm far to lazy to put it in a specific order mind. Anyway lets get cracking....

11) The Mirror has got into INVESTIGATIONS

There is nothing in this link that I don't love. The photo of Penman & Sommerlad. The names Penman & Sommerlad. The font. The article and especially the comments. More please Mr Mirror. Seriously.

10) There have been some amazing pictures of the Earth published.

Number 5 is especially amazing. The best picture of fractals in nature ever. Maybe.

9) Apparently we spend £3.5 billion a year on 'Fake Psychics & Bogus Lotteries'

Or at least it says so here - I wonder what we spend on the genuine articles.

8) The New Humanist made some God Top Trumps

Whats to say? They got in trouble for one of the cards. I'll let you guess which.

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I've always enjoyed mixing Religious humour with Top Trumps humour.

7) Anonymous are still alive

One year of protesting Scientology. Fair play to them. Especially as the 'rest' of anonymous now hates them. Oh and recently it appears that Scientology has been trying to ban people for protesting near their buildings because they are HIV positive. Which is nice.

6) China's internet 'spin doctors'

China pays people to post on blogs and websites to attempt to influence public opinion. Lovely. I really think that a huge part of school education needs to be about evaluating evidence and sources. As the cost to publish falls the need to be able to critically appraise that material increases. Especially as governments, companies and so on can benefit so greatly from influencing our opinions. I've been thinking quite a bit about this recently as it seems from my logs that a school is using parts of this site in their education on 'Society and Religion' - and I can't decide if thats a good thing or not.

5) Ben Goldacre's written a book about Bad Science.

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Who would have thought it? I read this over xmas and it was great. Changed my opinion on the way to best handle the kind of topics Skeptobot covers - so you might notice a few changes here. A mini review might pop up at some point - or this might suffice.

Either way you should buy it this very second.

4) Defiling the Eucharist is worse than genocide

It would appear that whilst any old Bishop can forgive murder or genocide if you defile the Eucharist (aka mistreat a rubbish piece of bread) then only Mr Pope himself can forgive you. To be fair that is a little bit of exaggeration of it all. They are being pedantic rather than actually compiling a top ten crimes list. But it is another example of the Catholic church being completely unaware of the hypocrisy of itself.

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That leg room reminds you of Jesus on his Donkey doesn't it?

3) 9 Christmas Carols for Godless people was on in that there London.

And it was terrific, with an incredibley impressive line up: Stewart Lee, Phill Jupitus, Mark Thomas, Natalie Haynes, Chris 'in the thick of it' Addison, Ben Goldacre, Christina Martin, Simon Singh, Josie Long, Jo Neary, Ricky Gervais, Richard Dawkins, Tim Minchin, Darren Hayman, Robyn Hitchcock, Andrew Collins and on and on. For £15. Wonderful stuff. Makes you realise that our gang is bigger than you think.

2) Our Civil Liberties are going down the pan.

"The Home Office has quietly adopted a new plan to allow police across Britain routinely [and remotely] hack into people’s personal computers without a warrant." says the Telegraph. So without a warrant they will be able to access the content of all e-mails, web-browsing habits and instant messaging. Which is outrageous. And insane. The internet black box database continues. As does ID cards and the ID database. It is madness.

What is worse is that these ridiculously dangerous databases may be farmed out to private companies

Thankfully we still have NO2ID and MySociety fighting for us. But we still need to help too. So it looks like this will still be a feature of Skeptobot in 2009. Great.

1) A load of buses proclaim there is 'probably no God'.

This is splendid. A scheme to raise money for a bus or two to have an advert for doubt (as a response to a chrisitan advert saying you were going to hell) rasied £135,000 and so 800 buses are now rolling around in London and the rest of the UK.

The response has varied a lot. Most positive, like this wonderful take by Stephen Tomkins:
In fact, speaking as one myself, I think it shows quite a cheek for Christians to make a fuss about this. We've spent decades covering public places with verses from the Bible, and posters promising that if you let Jesus into your life everything will be all right for ever.

Then as soon as the opposition get the money together to do the same thing we're outraged, and think that God is as cross as we are.

Personally, I think that if God is anything like as big and clever as we claim he is, he can probably take it.
Whilst some doesn't make much sense, like this guy who refused to drive buses with the advert on. That settled down so now he doesn't have to drive those buses unless no other buses are available. Which is an entertaining precedent to set. Please, if any bus drivers are reading thi refuse to drive any bus which has an offensive advert on it. Despite that being a good 90% of buses. Or at the very least refuse to drive buses with religious adverts on it. If just for the giggles.

The most insane response has of course come from Christian Voice (who you will remember throwing their toys out of the pram over Jerry Springer the Opera). The head, Stephen Green, has complained to the Advertising Standards Agency saying the adverts break the ASA's codes on substantiation and truthfulness. Which of course could lead to the ASA ruling that there is probably no god in what could turn out to be the biggest footbullet of all time.

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Richard Dawkins, pleased with himself, yesterday.

The cynical might say it helped that Ariane Sherine (who ran the project and is in the picture above) is tremendously attractive. Even more cynical people might say that I only wrote that to mention how tremendously attractive she is. They would be right.


Phew, all done. Right thats all the stuff I can think of right now. So I feel I've got a fresh slate to approach 2009 with. I hope you'll hang around.

P.S. I like the term 'skeptish' as in things that are not necessarily skeptical, but of interest to skeptics.