Because there’s more to life.

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I see Atheist Ireland have “publicly dissociated” themselves from PZ Myers, the firebrand blogger from Minnesota. It was a long time coming. The spat between Michael Nugent and Myers has been a long running one. It was too much to expect that it would resolve itself amicably.

I used to read Pharyngula quite a bit a few years back but I eventually tired of it. Not because of Myers’ laudable espousal of feminist and minority causes, but simply because he seemed hellbent on finding targets within the atheist movement and pulling the trigger. Sure, there are some real assholes within atheism, but it’s simplistic to divide the world into such extremes of good and evil. Too many people were frozen out who had valid – if sometimes unpopular – contributions to make. Since 2011, the conversation has died away, and for good reason.

Atheist blogging is too much like a civil war these past few years. The useful, engaging, challenging and interesting stuff has been drowned out by emotional rhetoric turned to maximum volume. There is way too much self-righteousness and in-fighting getting in the way of good commentary. The principal take-away is “you should hate this person because of x,y and z”. I can understand why people who espouse humanism over atheism have given up on it entirely. Over time, we have tuned out in droves, finding other places more deserving of our attention.

My feeling is that far too much time has been spent on PZ Myers. He’s not going to apologise in a million years and he’s not going to change. Defamatory and obnoxious he might be, but I’m pretty sure he’s not going to wash off his spots any time soon – whether or not he’s called out on it. He’s taken worse, doled out worse and I’m not sure he cares either way. Ultimately he’s a just a blogger and as such, he’s one voice among many. He’s not the only influence on what is a very large and diverse community of non-religious people in this country. I doubt I’m alone in wishing that we can close the book on this and move on.

Of all the delusions out there, homeopathy is one of the worst. On the surface it seems fairly harmless, but dig deeper and you find that it messes with people’s heads.

Homeopathy is dangerous to your health. Homeopathy is not herbal medicine. It’s not really alternative medicine either, because you can’t really call it medicine at all. Ignoring the last 100 years of medical advances entirely, it’s a mystical, quasi-religious approach to human health that states that substances become potent the more dilute they are. Homeopathic substances are normally so dilute, that not one molecule of the original substance remains in the finished product. Every single homeopathic remedy on their shelves is therefore exactly the same treatment. For every single ailment, you are receiving water dropped onto a sugar tablet.

There is no scientific evidence whatsoever to back up the claims of homeopathy. And yet, millions of people swear by it. So, what is happening? Essentially it’s a trick, exploiting the placebo effect and the fact that most illnesses get better after a time. It goes like this: you go to a homeopath, they spend time talking to you about your problem, they prescribe you a remedy, and after a time you get better. Because you are primed to connect the improvement to the prescribed remedy, the likelihood is that you will think the potion made you better. Other factors – better sleep, more rest, less stress – are discounted in favour of the stated remedy.

To me, the placebo effect is a bit like telling a small child to suck their thumb when they get upset. Thumb sucking can calm a child down very quickly. In the child’s mind it is an immediate solution to their problem. They will report less pain and less distress, depending on the severity. If you are reasonable, you would not prescribe thumb-sucking for a more serious ailment: tooth pain, the measles, or a bad burn, for example. When you are prescribing homeopathy, you are doing exactly that: telling someone to do the adult equivalent of thumb-sucking, despite the severity of the ailment. Homeopaths get away with it because, fortunately, most ailments are not severe. When they are, you hope better advice is listened to.

In a recent discussion on homeopathy, I was asked if I had ever taken gone to a homeopath for treatment, the implication being that if I had never gone to one, I could not possibly comment. This is the equivalent of saying that people who never smoked cannot comment on whether tobacco use is harmful, or that sceptics cannot criticise the Nigerian 419 scam if they have never themselves been defrauded by one. When a philosophy or treatment sounds like bunk, when almost every scientist and most medical professionals say it’s bunk, when there is a long list of people who have been damaged by bad advice from homeopaths, it’s up to the homeopaths to prove it otherwise. Telling us that it’s not up to them – it’s up to us – is ridiculous. Personal anecdote, no matter how honestly felt, is not very useful because we are all subject to bias and manipulation. Objective scientific studies are much better because you can follow a larger number of subjects, you can see how they were constructed and you can control for bias.

When it comes to scientific studies, homeopathy scores very poorly. At least 12 major reviews, examining hundreds of studies, have all concluded that it is not effective and that it does not provide any benefits beyond placebo. Homeopaths like to cite the Swiss Study, but as you will see from this linkthis link and this link, the Swiss report is not without significant objections. David Shaw, of the University of Glasgow, has called it a case study of research misconduct, concluding that it was “scientifically, logically and ethically flawed”.

Homeopaths have been known to advertise treatments for measles, AIDS, autism and cancer. Many homeopaths are avowedly anti-vaccine. There are homeopaths in West Africa right now who believe that their magic pills are curing Ebola.

You know what? This madness needs to stop.

STPATS1

Wishing you all a happy St Patrick’s Day, wherever you are.

Every time I come out to California, I feel a need to travel down to the Pacific Coast Highway between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz. It’s wonderful. The yellow cliffs, the long beaches, the sea fog close to the shore and the huge breakers. It’s a magical place. Here are some photos I took yesterday.

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via GraphJam

via GraphJam

Over the past month, media of all hues has been awash with commentary on the upcoming Marriage Referendum. By and large, it’s been a one sided debate. Most commentators I have seen are firmly pro-marriage equality. They are facing off against a much smaller No campaign dominated, in the main, by oddballs.

The rhetoric of the No campaigners is dominated by conservative religious doctrines and anti-gay fear mongering that would seem more at home in the 1970’s. With their talk of cancer rates, marrying your granny and allowing homosexuals to marry (so long as it’s the opposite sex) the only good they are doing is to expose themselves as bigots. They do no justice to their cause. Ironically, they may even be recruiting sergeants to the Yes camp – forcing people who would not ordinarily vote to cast their ballots.

In my opinion, the crank commentators are not the problem. I expect that the referendum outcome will be a solid Yes, however I also suspect that somewhere between 25% and 35% of the population will vote No – a depressingly high statistic given the paucity of charisma and rational arguments from the anti-amendment side.

No, the real battle is not against the extremists. The group the Yes campaign need to pay most attention to is the unaffected, the smug and the unconcerned.

Put it this way: there are still a lot of people in Ireland who are not knowingly familiar with LGBT people. Where they have gay friends, they may not be aware they are gay. To them, homosexual issues have no real relevance to their lives. Their views on homosexuality will, of course, depend on the person, but in many cases I suspect it may be informed by nothing more than lazy prejudices – that two men kissing is ‘yucky’, or that homosexual sex is gross, or we didn’t have any of that when we were growing up, or something of that ilk. And that’s about as much thought as they will have put into these issues. Because of the lives they lead and the friendship networks they have, marriage equality is a non-issue.

I suspect this is quite a large cohort of people. They will go to the polls and vote No, not because the Catholic bishops told them to, or because the Iona Institute had some fantastically compelling arguments, but because they would prefer their world to stay the same.

The real battle is against the smug. It will be a difficult job to change many of these mindsets in the run up to the vote, but appealing towards greater acceptance of different walks of life will help. A positive approach that promotes tolerance and common justice may be more persuasive than constantly chasing the extremists around the pages of social media.

I travelled back to Singapore last week – a welcome change from the bitter cold of Cork in January. While it was mainly a work visit, I got a chance to do some sightseeing.

Singapore Apartments

Singapore is a tiny island, not much bigger than metropolitan Dublin; but it packs a population of over 5 million people. Because land is not an option, people build upwards. Thousands of apartments dot the landscape. The racial mixture in each block is carefully managed to promote harmony amongst the resident ethnic populations.

Singapore Gardens by the Bay

There are a lot of tourist attractions, particularly around the Marina Bay area. The Gardens by the Bay, shown above, is particularly spectacular at night, with stunning colours and a laser light show illuminating the park.

Singapore Botanic

We did not go to these gardens; instead we went to the Singapore Botanic Gardens. It’s a gem. I’d love to have spent a few days there. The National Orchid Garden is a must-see. Here are a few examples of the flowers on display.

The Orchard Road area has some interesting street art and artistic gems. Here’s a piece that particularly impressed me. At a distance it looks like a large urn, but when you look closer, the whole vessel is made from just 4 letters. Very clever.

I’ve been nominated by Belana and Quinie to list 7 things most people don’t know about me.

Gosh – this is a tough one. Rummaging through the trash of my memories and proclivities, it’s quite a challenge to come up with one thing, let alone seven. Anyhoo, here goes.

1) I hate parsnips. Hate, hate, hate. I’ve never liked them. As a child I also hated mushrooms, carrots and pickled beetroot, but I managed to control my disgust mechanisms. I will eat them without any concerns that I might be poisoned. But parsnips? NEVER.

2) I’m not much of a music fan, but I have a wide range of musical tastes. My music collection is full of songs that I have gleaned from Shazam and Internet radio stations. It’s mixture of samba, rap, female vocals, country and classical. Recent downloads include Missy Elliot, The Chemical Brothers, Florence and the Machine and Miserere Mei. Random as hell.

3) History is my thing, these days. I’m currently reading about the Battle of Waterloo. Other books in my collection include an abridged history of Russia, an abridged history of World War I, the story of Europe after World War II and Jesus Interrupted by Bart Ehrman.

4) I don’t do enough reading these days, so I often listen to podcasts on my way to work. My favourite podcasts are This American Life, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe and 99% Invisible. I also listen to the BBC History Extra podcast and RTE’s history podcast. Not Dan Carlin though. Man, you need lots of time for that.

5) For years I was involved with H2G2, a crazy yet fascinating online community loosely associated with Douglas Adams. My moniker is/was Woodpigeon. I wrote around 30 guide entries on all sorts of random subjects. I drifted away after a while, when real life got in the way and social media came of age. It was fun and I made a lot of great friends, but what a time sink.

6) Ok, this is going to sound hugely nerdy, but I’d love to have the time to properly figure out the mechanics of solid objects. I’d love to be able to develop my own simple physics engine, and understand the principles behind it, where two dimensional objects rotate and move around subject to various different forces and impacts. I’m almost embarrassed telling you that one.

7) Have I changed my mind recently about something I once strongly believed? Yes, actually. I used to be a fervent believer in the Myers Briggs Type Indicator test – you know, ESTP and INTJ etc. Well, it turns out that it’s complete bunkum. Neither Myers nor Briggs had much of a basis for the underlying philosophy of the MBTI and there are much sounder tests of personality around.

That’s seven things. You can wake up now!

I was about 13 years old when I came out to my dad. I’m sure he had known it for years already and had probably prepared for the worst. He must often have wondered what he did wrong to have a son like me. He had his dreams, but alas, those aspirations would never be fulfilled.

He had to face the truth. I was utterly useless at hurling.

Now, it wasn’t all bad, because I was equally rubbish at football, tennis or golf. In fact, almost all sports eluded me. For a man of sport, in a county where the ability to play hurling was more important than winning the Nobel Prize or landing on the Moon, his first son was an unfortunate freak of nature.

The thing was, my dad was exceptionally good at sport. In his youth, he played Minor hurling for Kilkenny (which made him a minor god in the locality). He loved nothing better than to go to a game, or watch a match on the TV. I remember going to many matches with him during my childhood – and being bored out of my wits – while he savoured every puck of the ball. There was no-one quite like my dad to read a game and explain how a team won or lost. For me, it was just a mass of confusion.

In my teens, he encouraged me to take up golf. Surprisingly, I loved it. I was never much good at it, of course, but I enjoyed the game and I enjoyed being with him. We both loved ideas, so in between shots, we debated endlessly with each other – science, politics, religion, current affairs: you name it. In a time when I was learning how to be an adult, these games brought us both together.

That’s one of my memories of dad. He passed away ten years ago this month, after a long illness that slowly sucked any quality of life away from him. I miss those games of golf. I miss going with him to hurling games listening him talk about the tactics, the heroes and the mistakes. Most of all, I miss him.

Now, with sons of my own – all of whom, incomprehensibly, are very talented sports players – I feel that an important part of him has been passed on. It’s a nice feeling.

I only started watching Game of Thrones a few months ago. Having finally brought myself up to date, I am converted. Here are some of the reasons why. Lots of spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it, my apologies.

The Geography

I was originally attracted to Game of Thrones when I discovered that southern Westeros was just a slightly modified, upturned and greatly enlarged version of the island of Ireland. King’s Landing is Galway, Casterly Rock is Dublin, and Oldtown is Belfast. Sort of.

There are also interesting similarities with Britain, with King’s Landing not so different, geographically, to London; and Lannister and Stark not echoing Lancaster and York. The Great Wall is clearly a nod in the direction of Hadrian’s Wall, just south of the Scottish borders.

Imprinted over this is a greater European picture. Game of Thrones is set in a region far greater than the UK and Ireland, reaching all the way from Scandinavia to North Africa. You can see traces of cultures throughout the series. The primary focus is English, with Northern and Southern accents plainly evident. Dorne is Spain and Essos is Middle Eastern.

The History

The Game of Thrones borrows nearly everything from the Middle Ages. These were violent times, and nothing is left to the imagination. The castles and keeps are from that period, as is the weaponry and clothing. The tortures, murders and battles are brutally medieval and fights for supremacy are truly Machiavellian.

While the North is a gloomy, dreary place, full of capricious attacks and Viking rampages, Kings Landing is altogether more Byzantine. The slave-kingdoms of the East echo an Islamic caliphate, with “Khaleesi” Daenerys married to the Khan of a Mongol-like horde. The celibate Night Watch watchers are a semi-religious cast: monks of a bygone age.

The Characters

The landscape and historical setting is greatly enhanced by its cast of heroes, pawns and villains. Foremost among them is Tyrion Lannister, played by Peter Dinklage. Tyrion is wonderful – delightfully intelligent, cunning, debauched, humorous and empathic, while suffering damaging abuse and ridicule often from those closest to him. You can’t help but root for him.

Empathy with the misfits and marginalised is a common theme throughout the series. The girl Arya, who would be a boy; Brienne of Tarth, a grown up in the same vein; Bran the crippled boy on his mission to the north; the devious eunuch Varys; John Snow, the illegitimate son of Ned Stark – none of these are minor roles.

Then there are the shades of light and dark. While there are a few unredeemable monsters, many characters are more complex. Few heroes are whiter than white. Catelyn Stark’s treatment of John Snow is one example, as are the motivations of Littlefinger and Sansa Stark in the last series – both people stepping outside their assigned characters when events demand it.

The Stories

The older I get, the more I detest the straightforward story, because nothing in life is straightforward. Most of the time, it’s all incidental mayhem. The creators of Game of Thrones capture this perfectly. There is often an aimlessness about the journeys and unexpected tragedies are alarmingly commonplace.

But the stories, as they are, are compelling. John Snow’s seduction by Ygritte and his subsequent betrayal is heartbreaking, as is Ned Stark’s treatment by Cersei and Joffrey. Tyrion competently defends Kings Landing only to be disgraced by his father. The comeuppance of Theon Greyjoy, a man deserving of his fate, is almost too much to bear.

And you think the stories are going in a certain direction when – BAM – they turn into something altogether more ghastly. The Red Wedding, anyone?

A link to today?

Many science fiction and fantasy stories tell us more about today than they do about the times they were written. Game of Thrones is no different. It’s a modern tale in that it speaks to contemporary gender roles, despite an official insistence (by the likes of Tywin Lannister) on traditionalism. Arya and Brienne want more as women in a largely patriarchal culture. Homosexual relationships are seen as normal, if still somewhat secretive.

Ravens and the little birds of Lord Varys serve as a rudimentary Internet, and Varys’ character speaks to achievement by merit as opposed to noble background.

Unlike the Lord of the Rings, there is less racism. There is bad and good in all cultures. This is clearest with the Wildlings, as they flee from the terror to their north. The Night Watch acknowledge them as humans like themselves, with the misfortune of living on the wrong side of the Wall.

There is also an interplay between religion and atheism taking place that mirrors the outside world. Stanis Baratheon represents a world of religious fanaticism while other characters are more agnostic in their outlook. This, of course, is not an issue of this age alone, but in a world threatened by ISIS and Islamist fanaticism it rings a bitter note.

Final note?

I cannot wait until the start of series 5. I just can’t.

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