Monday, 28 February 2011

Does Science Support Belief In God? Philipse vs Swinburne May 10th

CFI UK and South Place Ethical Society present:

Public Debate

Does Science Support Belief In God?

Prof. Herman Philipse vs Prof. Richard Swinburne

Chair: Stephen Law

Tuesday May 10th, 7-9pm.

Main Hall, Conway Hall, Red Lion Square. Holborn London WC1R 4RL

£3 on the door. £2 students. Free entry to CFI UK friends (i.e. season ticket holders).

An evening with two of the world’s most powerful and respected thinkers from either side of the theism/atheism divide. Topics likely to be addressed include: Does the orderliness of the universe point to a designer? Do discoveries in neuroscience, cosmology and other branches of empirical science reveal evidence of the hand of God?

Richard Swinburne is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy of Religion at the University of Oxford. Over the last 50 years, Prof. Swinburne has established himself as one of world’s foremost philosophers of religion. He is an influential proponent of natural theology, that is, philosophical arguments for the existence of God. Prof. Swinburne’s “Is There A God?” has been translated into 14 languages.

Herman Philipse Is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Utrecht, The Netherlands, and one of the world’s leading atheist thinkers. Philipse’s 1995 Atheist Manifesto was republished in an expanded edition in 2004 with a foreword by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who partly credits the book for her shift from Islam to atheism. Philipse’s forthcoming book "God in the Age of Science? A Critique of Religious Reason" will be published by OUP in 2011/12.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Me vs Peter Atkins on The Limits of Science

Go here for details all the THINK week events in Oxford this week. I am on Thursday night (24th) with Peter Atkins, scientist and atheist, to discuss whether science can answer all our questions. Expect religion to come up!

Peter Atkins and Stephen Law - 'Can science alone answer our questions?'
Feb 24th 2011: 8pm - Friends Meeting House, 43 St Giles

Philosopher Dr. Stephen Law and Professor of Chemistry Peter Atkins will be discussing whether science alone can answer our questions. Entrance is free, and all are welcome.

Here's Atkins in action:

Friday, 18 February 2011

One Leg Shorter Than The Other Miracle

A long standing friend of mine who was "born again" and now a fervent Young Earth Creationist once told me that a turning point for him was a miracle he witnessed performed on him by a pastor. My friend had one leg shorter than the other, but the pastor, through the power of God, caused the short leg to grow.

But then 2 days ago a teenage girl told me that what convinced her of the reality of Jesus where she witnessed a person with one leg shorter than the other receive the same miracle cure.

She also added that she herself has healed, by prayer, the dislocated collar bone of her friend (which I know something about as I have one too - this can only ever be rectified by surgery).

Well, I have only ever been told of a couple of such miracles by friends and acquaintances, and I was struck by the one leg short than the other miracle cropping up twice. Bit of a coincidence I thought. So I surfed the internet and found this very interesting resource. Turns out this is a standard trick employed by "faith healers".

I didn't want to interrogate the girl who thinks she herself performed a miracle on a friend's collar bone. She did say she had photographic evidence of the collar bone before and after. However, I do know that someone with a collar bone dislocated at the outer end rarely has surgery (it's almost always cosmetic and not done on NHS). The person is left with a bone that either stick up and out acutely and visibly, or else disappears entirely, depending on which position you put your shoulder in. I have exactly this condition. I have a strong suspicion that this teenage girl's "patient" is an evangelic con artist with a dislocated collar bone like mine which he/she uses to convince punters that they have "performed a miracle". By rolling their should slightly they can make the dislocation disappear right before your eyes! He/she gets them to take a picture before and after so they have a permanent record of the power of Jesus with which to convince others.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

My plan for destroying the NHS

Suppose I am very very rich, and very very selfish. The NHS annoys me intensely. It costs lots in tax revenue to run, and being very rich, I pay proportionately more of my income on it, and of course far more in terms of hard cash, than almost anyone else. I also resent the fact that my business empire is unable to cash in on providing the services that people would buy from my private businesses if the NHS was not there.

BUT, the public loves the NHS, even many Tories are fond of it, and to propose scrapping it would provoke howls of outrage. Plus there's no evidence I can marshal that the public would get a better service if it were provided by the private sector - rather the opposite in fact.

What would I do? Here's what I would do.

First, I'd ensure a team of expert PR run the Tory party - people adept at twisting facts, spinning, and indeed telling bare face lies and getting away with it. And I'd have my private health companies etc. fund them generously.

Next, once elected, I'd get them to introduce phase one: the introduction of a market system in which GP's buy services from NHS hospitals, or anyone else, based on variable price, etc. This can still be called "NHS" because it's still free at the point of use. This would all be justified by lies about how the evidence shows it's more efficient, etc.

This new system allows e.g. my private pharma and health care companies to cherry pick the services that are lucrative and compete with existing hospitals without having to provide the expensive back up necessary when things go wrong (that's all dumped on the old hospitals), offer loss leaders to pull in the more lucrative patients, etc.

What next? At this point I'd get the Tory spinners to start talking about how the NHS is "increasingly unaffordable" (what with the aging population, advances in expensive medical treatment, etc.). I'd have this phrase repeated endlessly in the media, in a mantra like way, until it becomes part of the zeitgeist. It will take time. Eventually, this "problem" will be felt to require a "radical solution".

Once the Tories are back in power, I'd have my PR men talk about the "unfairness" of preventing people from adding their own funds towards what the state is providing to buy a service they would prefer. After all, this increases "choice" and "freedom" and so must be a good thing. And it would bring increased funds into the health care system as a whole. Surely a good thing. Then - the all-important phase two - top ups would be introduced (despite not being on the Tory manifesto on which they were elected). For any ailment you can now choose from a range of treatments at different cost, only some of which the state will fully fund (the cheaper ones). It's your option to make up the shortfall and go for the more expensive treatment among those offered you by your GP. You have that "freedom". Lucky you.

If it's felt this sudden introduction of across the board top ups won't wash with the public, top ups could instead be introduced gradually (the policy already exist for some cancer drugs and could be e.g. extended to more drugs, then all drugs, then to some medical procedures, and so on))

Of course, the plebs will be told the NHS is still, and will always be, there providing necessary services for all. But the "increasing unaffordability" point will be used to justify a "necessary realism" about what, precisely, the state can ultimately fund. This will be used to justify the growing top up system.

Phase three: state funding is then reduced more and more. Topping up becomes more and more unavoidable if you want half decent medical treatment. More and more people take out health insurance to cover differing levels of top up, and so more and more have less and less of an emotional stake in protecting what's left of state-funded treatment. There's less and less resistance to further cuts.

Rich people like me cash in on the boom in health insurance. I'm now making enormous profits on both sides of the equation - supplying pharma and medical services, and supplying insurance services. And I am now paying less and less tax too.

Eventually, state funded treatment will be a third-world-level rump relied on by perhaps just the poorest third of the population. Fuck em. My wealth has increased astronomically.

Well, that's what I would do. Of course it couldn't be done in one go. It would require several Tory terms, probably with some Labour periods intervening, so I'd have to make sure that whatever is achieved at each stage is very hard to undo.

Of course this is a nightmare scenario. Hopefully it's not the path on which we are actually embarked. I'm probably just being paranoid. But every now and then it crosses my mind. After all, what I called phase one is just being completed.

If this is really where we are headed, then expect to hear lots more about the "problem" of "increasing unaffordability" that requires "tough" and "radical" solutions. Then, later - probably not in this parliament, and probably not from mainstream Tories to begin with, but from e.g. self-styled mavericks writing in The Spectator - some hints that a general top up policy might be part of the solution. At the very least, expect recommendations that top ups be introduced for a wider range of drugs, etc. But you won't hear this from ministers until phase one is complete, as that might give the game away.

POST SCRIPT. I just googled "NHS top up payments" and found quite a lot on the Labour introduced cancer drug top up policy. Including this from Janet Daley at The Telegraph - go here. Daley is exactly the sort of person I had in mind when I mentioned "self-styled mavericks".

Monday, 14 February 2011

"We're not advocating reforms for the sake of ideology". Health Minister Paul Burstow

Ben Goldacre has been looking at the claims of Government ministers that the evidence supports the case for their radical reforms of the NHS. John Burstow responded to Goldacres first article by writing a letter to the Guardain to which Goldacre just responded.

Here's what Goldacre says:


Last week we saw that the government had overstated the failings of the NHS by using dodgy figures (to be precise, they used misleading static figures instead of time trends). We saw that the health secretary Andrew Lansley's repeated claim that his reforms are justified by evidence was untrue: the evidence doesn't show that his price-based competition improves outcomes (if anything it makes things worse); and the evidence also doesn't show that GP consortiums improve outcomes (unless you cherry-pick only the positive findings).

It's OK if your reforms aren't supported by existing evidence: you just shouldn't claim that they are.

Now Lansley's junior minister, Paul Burstow, has kindly responded via the Guardian's letters page, repeating the same mistakes again, only more clumsily. I find this, in all seriousness, genuinely frightening from a minister, so I'll explain how he does it.

The government initially claimed that UK heart attack death rates were twice as bad as France. This was an overstatement: they are, but following recent interventions, the gap is closing so rapidly that on current trends it will have disappeared entirely by 2012. In response, Burstow cites a 2008 paper by McKee and Nolte which he says "concluded that the UK had one of the worst rates of mortality amenable to healthcare among rich nations".

Burstow either misunderstands or misrepresents this very simple and brief paper. It is a study explicitly looking at time trends, not static figures, and it once again finds that comparing 2003 with 1998, the UK still had fairly high rates of avoidable mortality, but these were falling faster than in all but one of the other 18 industrialised countries they examined. Meanwhile in the US, avoidable mortality improved at a disastrously slow pace, although they spent more money.

This is a paper showing the success of the NHS, and the fact that we are discussing such a huge improvement in avoidable mortality from Labour's first term in government is not my choosing: this is the paper that was cited by the Tory minister as evidence, bizarrely, of the NHS's recent failures.

Next Burstow says I "overlooked the impact assessment we published alongside the health and social care bill, where we present a thorough analysis of the evidence for and against our plans … studies show that GP fundholding and practice-based commissioning delivered shorter waits and fewer referrals to hospitals for patients".

You won't be surprised to hear studies show no such thing. If anything they show the opposite. Goldacre continues here. The article contains a link to Burstow's letter.

Gove's education reforms are similarly based on dodgy use of PISA stats.


"Last week we discovered that we had fallen from 4th to 14th in the international league tables for science; 7th to 17th for reading, and 8th to 24th for maths.

How does the secretary of state explain how we were in the top 10 for all these subjects when the children sitting the tests had the majority of their education under a Conservative government, but had fallen down the rankings, relegated to the second division, when those sitting the tests had all their education under a Labour government."
Michael Gove, shadow children's secretary, House of Commons,11 December 2007

As FactCheck at Channel 4 news points out: "the researchers from the OECD say that the results do not show any evidence of a real decline in standards." "...So a man of Gove's legendary intelligence really has no excuse for trotting out these obviously misleading stats one more time." Go here. Gove's use of stats etc. to support Swedish style free schools also involves manipulation of data (e.g. ignoring recent poor Swedish performance, ignoring the performance of Finland).

Of course Labour could also use stats and evidence misleadingingly - e.g. those weapons of mass destruction.

Tories are wheeling in major reforms in health and education not because the evidence clearly supports such reforms, but because they are ideologically committed to such reforms. "We're not advocating reform for the sake of ideology" says Burstow in his response to Goldacre. Right.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Ken Ham educates some kids about dinosaurs etc.

Ken Ham, perhaps the world's leading creationist nutcase, educates some school children about dinosaurs, fossils, and so on. Not sure I'd call it "brain washing", but it is, er, a little worrying!

Ken's pop quizz starts: Ken: "Next time someone says 'millions of years ago', what do you say?" Chorus: "Were you there?" It's worth playing a few times just to hear properly what they've been so well-trained by Ken to say.

An evangelical church, which intends to teach creationism as part of its science curriculum, has submitted a proposal to open a free school in Nottinghamshire.

The Everyday Champions Church in Newark handed its plans to open a 625-pupil secondary school in the area to the Department for Education last week.

The application came just a day before the DfE held its first free school conference, where education secretary Michael Gove said applications from creationist groups would be considered, with each judged on its individual merits.

According to the church, the Everyday Champions Academy will possess a "Christian ethos that permeates everything that happens throughout the school".

The church states that it believes the Bible is an "accurate" depiction of God's word, and that God is the "creator of all things".
(from TES)

Friday, 11 February 2011

Gig in Haddenham

I will be playing with the Heavy Dexters at the Rose and Thistle, Haddenham (between Oxford and Aylesbury), Saturday night (12th Feb), at their Valentine's night dinner and dance. Bookings from 7. Band 9-11. £24.50 including 3 course dinner, wine, etc. To book call Roger on 07762-947577.

6 Station Road Haddenham, Bucks HP17 8AJ.

Monday, 7 February 2011

The strange case of Dave

Dave believes dogs are spies from the planet Venus. He views any canine with great suspicion, for he believes they are here from Venus to do reconnaissance work. Dogs, Dave supposes, secretly send their reports back to Venus, where the rest of their fiendishly cunning alien species are meticulously planning their invasion of the earth. Their spaceships will shortly arrive from Venus to enslave the human race and take over the world. Unsurprisingly, Dave’s friends think he has a screw loose and try to convince him that dogs are comparatively benign pets, not cunning alien spies. Here’s a typical example of how their conversations with Dave go:

DAVE: It’s only a matter of weeks now! The spaceships willarrive and then you’ll wish you’d listened to me. We mustact now—let the government know!
MARY: Look, Dave, dogs are pretty obviously not space invaders, they’re just dumb pets. Dogs can’t even speak, for goodness sake, let alone communicate with Venus!
DAVE: They can speak—they just choose to hide their linguistic ability from us. They wait till we leave the roomqbefore they talk to each other.
PETE: But Venus is a dead planet, Dave. It’s horrifically hotqand swathed in clouds of acid. Nothing could live there, certainly not a dog!
DAVE: Dogs don’t live on the surface of Venus, you fool—they live below, in deep underground bunkers.
MARY: But then how do earth-bound dogs communicate with their allies on Venus? I’ve got a dog, and I’ve never found an alien transmitter hidden in his basket.
DAVE: They don’t use technology we can observe. Their transmitters are hidden inside their brains!
MARY: But Pete is a vet, and he’s X-rayed several dog’s heads, and he’s never found anything in there!
PETE: In fact, I once chopped up a dog’s brain in veterinary school—let me assure you, Dave, there was no transmitter in there!
DAVE: You’re assuming their transmitters would be recognizable as such. They are actually made of organic material indistinguishable from brain stuff. That’s why they
don’t show up on X-rays. This is advanced alien technology, remember—of course we cannot detect it!
MARY: But we don’t detect any weird signals being directed
at Venus from the earth.
DAVE: Of course, we don’t—like I said, remember, this is advanced alien technology beyond our limited understanding!
PETE: How do dogs fly spaceships? They don’t even have hands. So they can’t hold things like steering wheels and joysticks.
DAVE: Really, Pete. Think about it. You are assuming that their spacecraft will be designed to be operated by human hands. Obviously they won’t. They’ll be designed to be maneuvered by a dog’s limbs, mouth, tongue, and so on.

You can see how this conversation might continue ad nauseum.Mary and Pete can keep coming up with evidence against Dave’s belief that dogs are Venusian spies. But, given sufficient ingenuity,Dave can always salvage his core theory. He can continually adjust and develop it so that it continues to “fit” the evidence.


Clearly, Dave’s theory about dogs is not well confirmed by the available evidence. The first moral we can extract from this example is that, whatever is required in order for a theory to be well confirmed, rather more is required than achieving mere consistency with that evidence.

As Dave illustrates, any belief, no matter how ludicrous, can be made consistent with the available evidence, given a little patience and ingenuity. Believe that the earth is flat, that the moon is made of cheese, that the World Trade Center was brought down by the US government, or that George W. Bush is really Elvis Presley in disguise? All these theories can be endlessly adjusted and developed so that they remain consistent with the available evidence. Yet they are obviously not well confirmed. The claim that Young Earth Creationism is at least as well confirmed as its scientific rivals relies crucially on what we might call the “fit” model of confirmation. According to the “fit”
model, confirmation is all about “fitting” the evidence. But more is required for genuine confirmation than mere “fit,” which any theory, no matter how absurd, can in principle achieve.


Free schools to teach creationism

Everyday Champions Church set to be latest in line of faith-based founders

[Source TES here.]

An evangelical church, which intends to teach creationism as part of its science curriculum, has submitted a proposal to open a free school in Nottinghamshire.

The Everyday Champions Church in Newark handed its plans to open a 625-pupil secondary school in the area to the Department for Education last week.

The application came just a day before the DfE held its first free school conference, where education secretary Michael Gove said applications from creationist groups would be considered, with each judged on its individual merits.

According to the church, the Everyday Champions Academy will possess a "Christian ethos that permeates everything that happens throughout the school".

The church states that it believes the Bible is an "accurate" depiction of God's word, and that God is the "creator of all things".

Continues at TES.

Here's my view about the teaching of Young Earth Creationism in schools, from forthcoming book Belieiving Bullshit:

Young Earth Creationism has been, and continues to be, taught in schools. Often this is done covertly (I know of two British schools where Young Earth Creationism has been taught by a science teacher without the knowledge or permission of the school or other members of staff—and one was one of Britain’s leading independent schools). Obviously I object to Young Earth Creationism being taught in schools as a rival to orthodox scientific theories. People often object to the teaching of Young Earth Creationism on the grounds that children should not be taught ludicrous, obvious falsehoods. That’s not my main objection. My central criticism is this: teaching children that Young Earth Creationism is scientifically respectable involves teaching children to think like Dave. It involves getting them to think in ways that, under other circumstances, might justifiably lead us to suspect the thinker is suffering from some sort of mental illness. By allowing Young Earth Creationism into the classroom, we run not only the risk that children will end up believing ridiculous falsehoods, which is bad enough, but, worse still, that that they’ll end up supposing that the kind of warped and convoluted mental gymnastics in which Young Earth Creationists engage is actually cogent scientific thinking. We may end up corrupting not just what they think, but more importantly, how they think.

Friday, 4 February 2011

For Good Reason

For Good Reason, produced by D.J. Grothe, President of the James Randi Educational Foundation, is a podcast download worth listening to. Some good stuff....

Go to

Joe Nickel is a hero of mine, and always entertaining. Possibly I'll be on shortly (!)

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Myself and Alister McGrath on radio

I am on Premier Christian Radio this coming Saturday 2.30pm talking with Prof. Alister McGrath about his new book on the "New Atheism". His book is called "Why God Won't Go Away: Engaging With The New Atheism". Justin Brierley presents. Very interesting discussion. It will also be available as a podcast. I'll make links available.

It's the "Unbelievable" programme.

PS Direct link to the podcast is now here. Also on itunes as a download - search "brierley unbelievable" for the page. The entry is "Unbelievable? 5th Feb - Alister McGrath and Stephen Law".