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I saw a Twitter message today that got me thinking. The tweet went along the lines of that if your kid wanted to be a politician you must do everything in your power to dissuade them. You should bribe them out of it if necessary. I can understand where the writer is coming from. Politics is a rough world. It’s a place where lofty ideals often tarnish and shatter in the rough and tumble of power games, bargaining and compromise. The bruising experience of politics leaves many people disillusioned and cynical. It shouldn’t be like this, but it is.

Nevertheless we must pause to consider where we are. We have schools. We have hospitals. We have fire stations and a police force. We eat food and drink water that, most of the time, won’t make us sick. We have rights. We can go to court to protect those rights. We have the right of assembly, press freedom and an electoral system where the powerful have to submit themselves to the wrath of the people who put them there every few years.

We have abolished slavery. We no longer have capital punishment or corporal punishment. Torture, child labour and animal abuse are proscribed.  The voices of women, children, homosexuals, immigrants, atheists, the poor and other marginalised people can no longer be ignored. The society we have today is in many, many respects better than the world our grandparents and their grandparents were born into.

And who, in the end, made it happen? Politicians.

It was politicians who gave people their rights to be heard. It was politicians who argued for child welfare and against slavery. It was politicians who faced tyrannies down and protected our democratic freedoms. It was politicians who wrote the reforms, signed the laws and brought and end to wars. Our society is what it is today because of the work of politicians from our past.

Not all politicians are perfect. Some, indeed, have set back the march of progress and greater freedoms. Many others have little to show for their years of service other than a fat bank account. Yet, some politicians have made a positive difference and those differences have created the society that we have today. The story presented is not an altogether gloomy one.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Society is far from perfect. We still have crime, war, bad health, unnecessary suffering, discrimination, hatred, environmental damage and unconscionable injustice. We have problems in our country that are crying out to be solved. These problems require people of vision. They require people who can look beyond the grubby compromises and roadblocks. They require people who are willing to dedicate their lives to an ideal, mindful that failure awaits at every turn.

In politics, it is not years that make the difference, but decades. We need a cadre of people who are willing to dedicate their lives for a vision. Despite our concerns and our cynicism, we should encourage the most motivated of the upcoming generation to become politicians.

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Ryan Tubridy outdid himself on the Late Late Show last Friday with an interview with a so-called “visionary” from Medjugorje, Vicka Ivanković-Mijatović, who claims to be in daily contact with the Virgin Mary. Mijatović is in Ireland all this week. Earlier on Friday, she spoke to a capacity crowd in the RDS Concert Hall.

The interview was mostly a monologue. Tubridy allowed her to speak freely (and was gently chastised for interrupting her flow at one stage) while she whittled on about how Mary’s dress sense and the occasional cameos of Jesus during her regular encounters. It was mad, delusional, contradictory stuff. If not for the prevalence of Roman Catholicism in Ireland, would Tubridy have been so patient and understanding? Say a woman came on the show to talk about her frequent meetings with polka dotted llamas dressed in bowler hats beseeching people to jump on one leg for a few hours each day, would the reception have been the same? Don’t answer that.

Within her ecstatic rantings, she talked about suffering being a gift. It was here that I lost my composure. The idea that suffering is a “gift” must be one of the most pernicious and cruel canards ever invented by mankind. Suffering is bad enough without someone suggesting that there is some sort of supernatural reason for it.  It implies that somehow, you deserve it. You have done something in your past, or you have thought things that call you out for special treatment at the hands of the Gods. Or perhaps God has some special mission in mind for you, so that you will continually torment yourself to understand what exactly it is you should be doing in your life at a time when you can least afford such vexations. Perhaps if you consider suffering to be a gift, you will therefore be reluctant to lose this gift by seeking medical help or other forms of assistance. Perhaps you will see suffering in loved ones as a “gift”, thereby prolonging their agonies too?

As anyone who has been around suffering long enough will attest, there is nothing at all glorious about it. Far from enriching lives, it wrecks it. It sucks the colour out of existence, leaving people in a perpetually vulnerable, negative, fearful and disordered state. In far too many cases it is capricious. It hits one person, leaving others unaffected. It’s roots may be genetic, age related, accidental or based on factors totally outside your control. It is plain to see that the most deserving of suffering in this life often never get their just desserts while the least deserving may sometimes receive it in spades. Even when suffering is deserved, the resulting effect may be out of all proportion to the severity of the cause. Suffering is not a gift. It’s a crap shoot.

Those who suffer do not need our prayers. They don’t need us to tell us that it happened for a reason. They don’t need to believe that somebody, somewhere singled them out for special treatment. They don’t need the mental torture that comes along with the statement that suffering is a gift. Any god who loved us would not send us such gifts, period. Any reasonable definition of love would never, repeat, NEVER, include torture, but some strains of religious thought have no problem accepting this.

There is no easy solution to suffering in the world. People get sick and die every day. Shit happens to us all, and for some it would fill a Boeing 747 with knobs on. There are reliefs in some situations and in those cases they should be embraced wholeheartedly. People can help and medicine can help and treatments can help and time can help, but there will always be unfortunate exceptions.

What sufferers do not need are the trite, malign rationalisations telling them how lucky they are.

TAM London, 16-17th October

What follows is a summary of how the blogosphere reacted to TAM London this week. It’s quite a mix of views and opinions: some quite serious and critical, some hilarious. I encourage you to take a look at some of the blog entries themselves as you will get a real flavour of what worked and what didn’t work at the event.

We start with Iszi Lawrence (@iszi_lawrence). In her blog entry, she loved Jon Ronson, Alan Moore and Marcus Chown, didn’t quite get the point of Richard Dawkins’ speech (sex with chimps or something) and did NOT like the early start. Photo to prove it as well.

Martin Robbins (@mjrobbins) gives the blow by blow account of activities in The TAM London 2010 Live Blog, including some videos, quotes, twitter comments and links to relevant podcasts.

Crispian Jago (@Crispian_Jago) loved the conference but he had a few nitpicks. He was not a fan of the panel discussion accompanying the Storm video and he was slightly bemused about the point of Melinda Gebbie’s appearance. He also felt that Josie Long was slightly out of her depth. The commenters on Crispian’s blog were largely in agreement on this (except PZ Myers – ppfft).

Dave Gamble (@david_gamble) posted some of the most memorable quotes on his blog and also had something to say about the audience being perceived as great “Champagne Skeptics“. More anon.

Scepticool (@scepticool) in his blog post, The Brilliance and the Problems of Diversity, had a few quibbles about Alan Moore’s and Melinda Gebbie’s role in the proceedings. He loved PZ Myer’s speech and Rhys Morgan’s award.

English Atheist (@EnglishAtheistloved the whole event and wants you to sign his Tiger petition now.

Gimpy (he didn’t actually go to the event itself), found the whole idea of TAM London “expensive, insular and divisive” and accused us attendees of being “Champagne Skeptics”. He wrote that greater JREF involvement would suppress grassroots activism and suspects that the JREF have somewhat malign motives towards the UK Skeptic community. Needless to say, this blog entry received a whole pile of critical feedback, most notably from Martin Robbins who accused him of paranoia and having a distorted and fearful view of what is a very positive and noteworthy movement.

Paul S Jenkins (@PaulSJenkins), writing as An Evil Burnee, wrote 2 blog entries. Paul was very positive about the event, his only grumble being the frugality of the conference pack (I hear ya). Paul noted that perhaps there has been more a move this year towards atheism and informality.

Ben Warsop (@BENWARSOP) weighs in on the good vs dickishness debate between DJ Grothe and PZ Myers and finds little fertile territory in shrillness and combat.

Simon Dunn (@sighdone) came up with ten mind-blowingly provoking things about the event. Since I could not find any eclairs there, I must conclude that he’s the one who ate them all. I have no evidence whatsoever to justify this accusation but since he discovered that magic actually exists he must, therefore, agree with me totally. No takebacks or crossies.

Stevyn Colgan (@Stevyncolgan) loved the meeting and wrote two very comprehensive blog entries about the whole thing. His gripes concerned the expense of the event and the technical problems that frequently bugged the presentations.

Jim Christian (@jimchristian) wrote two great entries about the event. He enjoyed the speeches and captured the best moments very well. His only quibble was with the food, which had him nipping over to the local M&S on the second day.  (Day 01 / Day 02)

Trunkman (@TrunkmanUK) starts his review with an enjoyable review of Ghost Stories. I am now intrigued what THAT MOMENT was all about. His review of TAM London is divided into 3 postings where he covers each speaker in turn: how he was pleasantly surprised by Sue Blackmore and Cory Doctorow and awed by Richard Dawkin’s presentation; how he felt the second part of the first day was a bit flat (I agree completely). He also describes the evening show with Jon Ronson and Tim Minchin, and like many he felt it was far too self-congratulatory for his liking. It’s one of the best reviews (warts and all) of the event and I would love to read his thoughts on Day 2.

PadainFain (@PadainFain) doesn’t mince his words in his review. I think a lot of the criticisms are on target. The Green Room, where the speakers were separated from the audience, was brought up as a particular niggle about the event.

Stefano Borini (@forthescience) wrote extensively about the event. He said that the conference this year was perhaps more serious than last year, focusing on the emotional level of skepticism. He captured some of the best quotes from the event and was not a fan of the panel interviews. He also did a great job in capturing the essence of the Grothe / Myers debate.

Dr. Dean Burnett (@garwboy) describes how he tried to pass himself off as Tim Minchin, suspected Richard Dawkins of secretly harbouring an AK47 in his tweeds, uses the “g” word to describe Randi, discovered that the Alpha Course was, well, kind of what he expected it to be and captured defecatively the essence of Ghost Stories.

Snipe also does a review where they describe Alan Moore’s voice as “congealed thunder”. I also note they got the spelling of Crohn’s Disease wrong which makes me feel better – I tweeted it as “Chrome’s Disease” during the meeting myself.

In conclusion, yes, there were tons of niggles and some very pointed criticism, but the general impression is of a very enjoyable, meaningful conference. Roll on TAM London 2011.

Conor Lenihan, junior minister for Education and Science in the Irish government, must be reeling from the storm he found himself in yesterday. After accepting an invitation to launch a book debunking Evolutionary Theory, he was lampooned and ridiculed with a ferocity I have rarely seen on the Internet. Here are a selection of the comments on Twitter.

“Maybe the author told Conor that it was a book about Job Creationism.”

GSheehy

“Ye Minifter for ye Sciencef of ye Kingdom of Prefter John sendf salutationf&wishef of good health to ye Minifter for Alchemy, Mr Lennyhan.”

– janeruffino

“Conor Lenihan may be late for Wednesday’s book launch as he’ll be trying to rake the moon out of the pond with a hoe.”

Charlieconnelly

And these are just the nice ones.

Lenihan says that he is a friend of the author, that he was attending the book launch in a personal capacity and that doing this for constituents is something public representatives often do. (The author’s website advertised his presence as Junior Minister of Education – this was later changed).

Late last night, the author withdrew his invitation, but you would wonder how the minister is feeling today. If he is feeling wronged, that he was subjected to an attack by the media and the intelligensia, he is missing the point. The reason he got such a strong reaction is because of his cluenessness on this issue. He can no more claim “personal capacity” than if he was attending a UKIP friend’s campaign launch at the launch of the Lisbon referendum. On one hand, we have a government that supports the advancement of science, but on the other hand we have a minister tacitly supporting a book which, no matter which way you cut it, is vehemently anti-science right from page 1. The optics here are terrible. Evolution is one of the strongest theories in science, backed up by over a century of solid evidence, and fundamental to diverse studies such as biology, medicine, genetics and geology. Even someone with a rudimentary understanding of science would understand this. Giving a platform to a man whose only argument is “I am too ignorant to understand it, therefore it cannot be true” is just mind-blowing. Whether he realises it or not, it is very embarrassing for our country’s image abroad, not to mention to him personally.

Maybe, Minister, it’s time you stepped down from your position, took some time to read a few books and not just those with big coloured pictures on them.

Eircom today announced that they would start monitoring their customers’ internet traffic in order to detect and report illegal file sharing activity. Repeated accusations of file sharing will see the offending accounts being cancelled. There are benefits and disadvantages to Eircom.

The benefits are that this action will bring illegal filesharing to an end. The people using illegal filesharing software will see the error of their ways and everyone will henceforth pay the going price for downloading music.

Oh, wait. NO THEY WON’T.

The downloaders will simply go somewhere else, using more secure software, less easily detected by the IRMA snoops.

The disadvantages are that Eircom will lose customers. Lots and lots of customers. Filesharers will surely go. One might be tempted to say good riddance, except for the fact that they are all paying monthly subscriptions that pay the wages of Eircom employees. Not only that, but innocent customers will also leave, when they start getting nastygrams from Eircom accusing them of something they didn’t do. Paying customers will feel the brunt of their children’s misbehaviour, hacker attacks where their modems are not adequately secured and false-positives from the IRMA sniffing software itself. Oh boy. Talk radio is going to have a field day. The bad press will therefore lead to even more customers refusing to renew their subscriptions.

This is a bad call by Eircom, and I’m surprised they haven’t gone all the way to the European Court with this. They have a legitimate safe-harbour defense (should motorway owners be responsible for the actions of motorists on their roads?), and yet they caved in to a special interest at the first hurdle.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present you Eircom: the great corporate suicide story of the decade.

Update: Dick Doyle from IRMA has said that they could potentially provide Eircom with “thousands of IP addresses”. Let’s substitute the words “IP addresses” with “permanently lost customers“. Eircom must be ecstatic about that wonderful prognosis.

I have rarely witnessed such passion and venom as currently besets the ongoing debate on climate change. It seems as if everyone has a view. Surprisingly for me, a very large section of opinion makers are firmly on the No side of the argument. They believe global warming is bunk.

Sifting through the rhetoric, it seems that many commentators see climate change as the ultimate liberal conspiracy. According to this viewpoint, 1990 saw an end to Communism but instead of throwing away the placards, the socialists threw their lot in with the new cause célèbre: environmentalism. Twenty years on and our leaders are in Copenhagen, addled by decades of left wing fear-mongering. They will willingly throw away any chance of future prosperity on a mirage, a dream that will never happen. It’s an understandable argument, but it misses a key point. The protesters don’t matter. The politics doesn’t matter. All that matters in this debate is the science.

I’m not a huge fan of militant activism, because activists often jump to huge conclusions based on relatively few facts. Activists have got many things wrong in the past, which leads to the conclusion that just because you are passionate about something doesn’t make you right. The corollary is also true, however. Passion in itself doesn’t make you wrong either.

Another view is that Climate Change is just one big bandwagon, upon which many people, who don’t understand the science, have crept aboard. This is quite true, but for the same reasons as above it is also irrelevant to the debate. The fact that it is a bandwagon issue doesn’t make it implicitly untrue.

The only thing that matters in this debate is the quality of the science. Climate scientists from many different fields, using multiple lines of evidence, sophisticated measuring devices, supercomputers, myriads of data points and complex statistical models, have paintakingly arrived at a conclusion that the world is warming and that a significant part of that warming is man made. If you want to argue this, you need to argue the science. This is not at all easy, which is why so few people in this debate, on both sides of the argument, are qualified to talk about it at all. Right now, there is plenty of heat, but very little light.

So, unless I hear that there is a reasonable alternative theory that addresses the data and the multiple lines of evidence in a coherent way but yields a contrary outcome, I will stay with the consensus view. Ultimately, scientists are reasonable people. It’s not normally in their interest or their nature to reject the evidence in favour of political dogma. Talk of a conspiracy among scientists is unlikely in the extreme.

The Greatest Show on Earth

I’m currently reading Richard Dawkins’ latest book “The Greatest Show on Earth“. The premise of the book is simple. Dawkins presents the case for evolution in the face of those who fervently believe that is it isn’t so. His thesis uses the metaphor of a crime scene to tie together all the clues, and Dawkins comprehensively shows that there is only one suspect in town – evolution.

The evidence for evolution is overwhelming, with numerous sources such as comparative anatomy, molecular biology, fossil evidence and continental drift, all pointing to evolution through natural selection as the only reasonable explanation for the complexity and diversity of life on Earth. Evolution has even been witnessed in numerous laboratory experiments. Dawkins leaves no stone unturned in presenting the case for evolution. It’s delivered with the enthusiasm of a child, the simplicity of a teacher and the forcefulness of a barrister who knows he has an open-and-shut case on his hands.

I can’t praise Dawkins’ book highly enough. It’s full of fascinating digressions and factoids and it takes the reader on a rollercoaster trip through space and time as it presents the evidence, often in considerable detail. I don’t personally believe it will matter a jot to the beliefs of ardent creationists, but to the interested layman it will help to explain how intellectually bankrupt their beliefs are.

It was with this frame of mind that I read the transcripts of the Richard Dawkins interview on the Late Late Show (a top chat show on Irish television). I was astounded. As most people know, Dawkins authored a best-selling book on religion in 2006 called The God Delusion. It was a full frontal attack on religion, calling out the nonsense within and attempting to put religion under the microscope and into the sphere of public debate. Ryan Tubridy, the Late Late Show host, interviewed Dawkins a few times about it on radio and it always lead to some lively back-and-forth battles between Dawkins and his detractors. That was in 2006 and 2007. Now in 2009, Dawkins has published a new book on an altogether different subject, yet Tubridy could not resist the temptation to bring the discourse back to his atheism, and to inject sensationalism wherever possible – (“So what is the Vatican then? Toy Town?”, “Do you see God as believable as the Easter Bunny?”, etc.). None of these issues are discussed in Dawkins’ latest book, leading me to the conclusion that Ryan Tubridy didn’t even bother to read it.

Personally, I loved Dawkins’ clear, no nonsense answers but I couldn’t help feeling that, on Tubridy’s part, it was an opportunity missed. Is Richard Dawkins so one-dimensional that the only issue worth talking to him about is his atheism? Dawkins has much to say on the subject of evolution and why it is so important that we understand it. He is deeply passionate about science education, about the philosophy of science, about the promotion of science, about legal challenges to science, about critical thinking. In brief, we could have learned something but instead we were treated to a charade, deliberately intended to scandalise the Irish churchgoing public. This is a huge pity. By conflating Dawkins’ views on evolution with his atheism in this way, Ryan Tubridy may have muddied the waters concerning evolution, a topic that is critical to understand as we rehabilitate science and technology within the Irish education system.

“The Greatest Show on Earth” is only controversial if you are a creationist who has been vaccinated from reality. For the rest of us, it’s a rollicking good read on a vitally relevant subject.

Image via Uniform Velocity

Image via Uniform Velocity

According to the Irish Times today, 42% of men in Ireland never use sun protection.

This is madness. We shouldn’t take the sun for granted. It is a killer, as 5,000 Irish people are finding out each year. All it takes is one small mole on your body to go a different colour or shape, and you could be in big trouble. Once a cancerous mole reaches the lower layers of the skin, the cancer can quickly spread around the body, virtually guaranteeing your early demise.

Most of us Irish have the wrong skin. It’s doesn’t tan, it burns. It’s replete with vulnerable moles and other blemishes. And, after prolonged exposure, it can kill you.

The answer? Stay out of the sun as much as possible and wear high factor sunscreen. Oh yeah, and have someone check out the moles on your skin. You might thank them one day for saving your life.

Simon Singh

Some of you may have seen the “Support Simon Singh” banner on my blog.

So, what’s the issue?

Simon is a highly respected author and journalist in the UK, who has produced some of the best science books in the last decade: Fermat’s Last Theorem, The Code Book, Big Bang etc. Well, it so happens that Simon wrote an article in The Guardian that was very critical of the British Chiropractic Association. The BCA, a group of out-and-out quacks, decided to sue him personally. It so happens that the British libel laws are framed in favour of the accuser, so Singh has found himself having to defend his article in the courts. A recent preliminary hearing ruled against him, and thus a battle royal has commenced within the UK and around the world to get Britain to revise its libel laws.

The issue is this. In Britain, if you accuse someone of libel, it is up to them to prove that they are innocent. The burden of proof is on the accused, not the accuser. This is a complete perversion of natural justice and in other times it would have gone by another name: a witch hunt. In almost every other country, the accuser must prove beyond reasonable doubt that they were libeled.

This is a core freedom of speech issue. Singh was using the public media to highlight an issue of intense public interest, and instead of presenting the alternative case, the BCA sent in the lawyers. They were too chickenshit to debate the issue in public.

Irish legislators should take note! Ireland’s libel laws are just as bad as Britain’s. Actually, they are even worse. At least Britain isn’t trying to fine people 100,000 euros for blasphemy.

(For more information on this case, click on the banner image).

Update: For a hilarious retelling of this tale in Monty Pythonese, check out Crispian Jago’s blog.

Under the collar

For me, one of the most memorable moments in the movie “Schindler’s List” is when well dressed officials began to set up tables, open up their journals, prepare their inkwells and process the lives of human beings as if they were just commodities to be dispensed with like jam, cake and toilet rolls. All that mattered was the system. Everyone involved was a cog, with a defined role, and dare you not deviate from the actions assigned to you.

This image has come into my mind as we in Ireland learn about the atrocities committed on children by members of the Catholic Church during the 1930’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s inside “Industrial Schools” – special institutions set up to deal with poor children. And “deal with them” they did, through a regime of mental, physical, emotional and sexual abuse. 

We have been hearing about clerical child abuse for nearly two decades now in Ireland, but what is truly shocking from the Ryan report is the sheer scale of the problem. It’s a cast of thousands, if not tens of thousands. At the core were the abusers, running into the hundreds. But it didn’t stop there. Many people in high places kept quiet while these thugs did whatever they wished. What were the colleagues, the managers, the principals, the school inspectors, the civil servants, the police, the priests, the judges, the bishops and the politicians doing during this time? What did they know? What did they try to hide? This is the scandal.

There was a system in place. Clinical, effective, and unconscionably evil. This system sought to protect its own integrity above everything else, with little thought to those in its charge. This system resolutely defended the very antithesis of what it set itself up to achieve. They talked about love, but they dealt in cruelty. They talked about hope, but they only brought despair. They talked about caring, but they left a trail of broken people in their wake.

In the case of the Christian Brothers or the Sisters of Mercy, although the time for real accountability has long gone, it’s time they sold all their properties to the state to compensate the abuse victims and got off the stage. They leave behind a shameful legacy and thousands of damaged lives. They should forego their role in the education of the young, or the treatment of the sick. That’s the state’s job, not the job of the religious, who preach love and caring while keeping their dark criminal secrets under lock and key. It’s sickening that any institution, having committed so much evil during their tenure, could have any remaining authority in Irish public life. 

But by and large, it’s all a footnote. These orders started hemorrhaging staff forty years ago. Even when I was in school, you would have been considered half-mad to even contemplate joining the Christian Brothers or the nuns.  What remains, by and large, is a handful of septuagenarians and octogenarians in retirement homes. Most of the real criminals are long dead – saved from the debt they clearly should have repaid in their lifetimes. The bigger issue is the degree to which the authorities collaborated together, and how such collaborations should be identified, exposed and struck down whenever they occur.

For markets to work, there are strict anti-collaboration laws between suppliers, enforceable by harsh penalties. A similar situation applies to the management of the vulnerable. The managers and the regulators must never collaborate. They must never make allowances for each other. Where power rests with just one group, abuses will happen.We need to ensure that all systems of for managing the young, the sick, the elderly and the disabled are more transparent and accountable. We need systems whereby wrongdoing can be corrected quickly for the sake of those who depend on the services of that system. Bad teachers can still get protection from management and from Trade Unions, and from lax inspection regimes. So too can bad nurses, bad doctors, bad police, bad managers and bad civil servants. Even when you take the Catholic Church out of the equation, there is plenty of reason to believe that this generational disease in Irish public life will go on and on.

This link on Paddy Doyle’s website will tell you all you need to know about how much the Church and the State colluded together. It’s shameful and disgusting. 

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