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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.

TAM London, 16-17th OctoberI spent the weekend in Edgware Road at the TAM London 2010 event.  What a blast! This blog can only give the most cursory summary of the meeting, but I’ll try to pick out some of my highlights.

One of the real highlights for me was the very first speaker, Sue Blackmore. She had an out of body experience in college, leading her to dedicate 20 years of her life to finding conclusive evidence for ESP and paranormal phenomena. Unfortunately, though her work covered everything from Smarties to IRA bombings to Tarot readings, things didn’t turn out quite the way she expected. Her story is one of the most interesting and varied tales I have ever heard. It is a true tale of science, where repeated experimentation lead her to change cherished world views, forcing her to admit that her initial convictions were wrong. If only more people would adopt such an approach in everyday life.

Another highlight was Richard Dawkins. His speech was a tour de force, where he showed that Evolution is capable of providing key insights into such varied disciplines as human anthropology, geology, philosophy, geography, cosmology, politics, mathematics, computer science, engineering, cosmology, linguistics and the history of ideas, to mention a few. Dawkins’ presentation was expansive and poetic, presenting quite a different dimension to Dawkins’ often negative public perception. A pity some of his more strident critics were not there to see his lecture.

Adam Rutherford’s talk on the Alpha Course was delightfully irreverent and funny. He lampooned the methods used by the Alpha Course leaders and questioned their over-reliance on tales such as The Narnia Chronicles and The Lord of the Rings (“it’s boring and slightly racist. It’s a tale about walking’). Rutherford finished his talk flatly stating his revulsion to the Alpha Course’s homophobic views.

Another memorable moment was the talk with James Randi, as he recalled his origins as a skeptic and his battles with Peter Popoff and Yuri Geller. The room went silent as he recounted how Popoff and his wife operated – taking money from the vulnerable while laughing at them in the most vicious way. Randi, the figurehead of the modern skeptical movement, is 82 years old, yet he is still well capable of holding an audience in the palm of his hand.

Just after Randi’s talk two prizes were announced for outstanding achievement in skepticism. Ben Goldacre won one of the prizes, but it was the second winner who brought down the house. The prize was given to Rhys Morgan, 15 years old, who had the temerity to confront and publicly expose the makers of an industrial bleach being flogged off as a “cure” for Crohn’s Disease. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

I enjoyed Marcus Chown’s lecture on 10 bonkers things about the Universe. There was a great “pictorial interlude” beforehand and afterwards (I’m a sucker for astronomical images) and Marcus proceeded to bring us on a tour of the cosmos and the arcane world of atoms, black holes and multiverses. Arguably nothing that many in the audience had not heard before, but entertainingly delivered nonetheless and a lecture that should be essential on the outreach circuit.

The second day was also a day where the skeptical movement itself was put under the microscope: what we are about, what we are not about, and the level of “dickishness” appropriate within the movement. The two most powerful contributions were from DJ Grothe and PZ Myers. While their styles might differ, both saw skepticism as a force for good in the world – at the heart of the skeptical movements are shared principles and moral values, a way of looking at the world using science as a tool to winnow the wheat from the chaff, as it were. Grothe warned about zealotry within skepticism, saying that being right is not enough, you have to be good about being right too. PZ phrased this sentiment somewhat differently – “Be the best dick you can be”.

There was far more to this discussion than I could describe here, and similar views were brought up by Stephen Fry in his videotaped interview with Tim Minchin. Fry, with his natural humor, depth and sensitivity, is one of the greatest assets the Skeptical movement has. His response upon being doorstepped by an evangelist preacher got a great laugh: “Tell God to send better people”.

Media matters were also a large part of TAM London, with contributions from Graham Linehan, Cory Doctorow and a panel of commentators including Martin Robbins, Kate Russell and Gia Milinovich. Doctorow talked about copyright reform, comparing the digital media wars to the situation in the fashion industry and the database industry and pointing out that many within “old media” come from industries that once bordered on illegality themselves. “Yesterday’s pirates are always today’s admirals”, as he put it. Linehan talked about the amazing impact of Twitter and took us on a quick tour of some of the web’s nooks and crannies, unwittingly creating a dangerous movement where it looked as if we would suspend the rest of the conference schedule to watch YouTube baby videos on the big screen.

There were wildcards too. Andy Nyman talked about his show Ghost Stories; Karen James talked about the HMS Beagle project; Melinda Gebbie talked about female comic book porn (or is it art? or both?) and Alan Moore brought us on a poetic tour through the town of Northampton. He also gave us his theory of the Big Bang happening in 1927. Moore has broadly left comic book writing behind him in order to focus on underground magazines and new projects.

If I had one criticism, it is the UK-centricity of the event. The event attracted a considerable number of skeptics from all across Europe, yet the discussion at times felt exclusive. Proceeds for the event also were given to promote skepticism in the UK, which is an opportunity lost in my view, at least until TAM events become commonplace across the rest of the continent.

Organisation has greatly improved since the first TAM London event but the venue was still not quite perfect. I felt the auditorium format worked better last year as it made the conference much more intimate. People at the back of the room this year were at a disadvantage. The stage seemed light years away and the video displays were inadequate.

In summary I have to say that TAM London 2010 lived up to expectations. It was a barrage to the senses, a magical mystery tour (in the skeptical sense of that word) and an electrically charged coming together of some of the brightest people I could ever have the fortune to meet. Roll on 2011.

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.

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