Monthly Archives: July 2012

Bible in Kiwi schools? For what reason?

The Bible does have a place in New Zealand schools but it must be in a context of criticism and ethical philosophy — not for the indoctrination of minds into a narrow, dogmatic and exclusive viewpoint.

A handful of correspondents to the NZ Herald on this issue have pointed out that religious instruction should cover a range of world religions — what they believe and how their faith is practiced. This is a good platform, and one that flushes the religious fundamentalists out from behind the bushes.

Under the guise of “values education”, Christians seeking to teach the Bible in schools are primarily concerned with bringing ‘sheep’ to Jesus. This is not values education and unnecessary to lead a good moral life. This does, however fall under the category of indoctrination and does not belong in public schools.

Ethical teaching — a good idea

The teaching of ethics is an absolutely fantastic idea. In fact, I would say philosophy generally is under taught in schools and reflection on the ideas of some of the greatest thinkers throughout the ages can only enrich the lives of students who study them.

Philosophy begins where religion ends, just as by analogy chemistry begins where alchemy runs out, and astronomy takes the place of astrology.
Christopher Hitchens, “God is Not Great”

Moral thought existed before the Bible and was even more important after because then it was possible to reflect on whether its ideas had moral weight. This basic requirement of any ideas — that they be critically analysed — was met with resistance when applied to the Bible. Those daring to question religious ideas persecuted and outright murdered by those privileged by Christian beliefs (notably the Catholic Church).

morality is Not the unique domain of religion

…religion gives people bad reasons for acting morally, where good reasons are actually available. We don’t have to believe that a deity wrote one of our books, or that Jesus was born of a virgin, to be moved to help people in need. – Sam Harris, http://www.samharris.org/

Morality is not dictated from on high. Moral progress is possible because of critical reflection on behaviour and the consequences of our actions.

Secular morality is concerned with the suffering of sentient beings out of basic empathy and compassion, not because we are commanded to. This includes the experiences of non-human animals as well. This necessarily requires the understanding of the experiences of others (the basis of empathy) and therefore the acceptance of differences.

The Bible is not a reliable manual on morality because it does not teach understanding; instead it inspires the believer to be incredibly judgemental and conceited (hey, I’m only speaking on behalf of the creator of the universe here). The Bible contains many immoral acts — some by God, others commanded by him. The Bible doesn’t mind slavery, glorifies rape and incest in places and stresses ‘obedience or else’ threats from a supposedly ‘loving’ God.

Hence, the Bible is a ‘pick and choose’ book — the choosing done on the basis of personal opinion using an obvious external; standard of morality. This makes biblical morality a perfect example of the moral relativism that is often claimed of non-religious morality (also evidenced by the fact that different denominations cannot agree on basic doctrines and interpretations).

literature and philosophy are superior to holy books

We have had to ignore the Bible on so many fronts in order to progress passed our innate petty, fearful and xenophobic traits. The following is a short list of areas where we have sought moral and human rights progress only to be confronted by religious opposition:

  • The abolition of slavery
  • Women’s rights and equality
  • Women’s health and sexuality (and therefore the alleviation of poverty and emancipation of women from being male property)
  • Progress away from racism
  • Gay and lesbian rights
  • Environmental concerns and conservation
  • The ethical treatment of animals
  • Treatment of non-believers and rival religions…

Progress in these areas requires ignoring the pronouncements of holy books. Indeed, in the case of the Bible, the above items are either not addressed or it advocates diminishing the rights of others — thereby causing more harm in the process.

In religion there is no mechanism for internal improvement of moral codes. After all, how can you improve on God? The emphasis is on inflexible rule dictation with the presumption of truth not requiring external validation. These have shown to be impediments to scientific and positive social change.

Literature is far better at approaching moral conundrums and dilemmas while philosophy enriches our moral intuitions by questioning beliefs and assessing how actions impact individuals and societies in the real world.

Religion is optional and not necessary to teach people to be virtuous and so belongs in NZ public schools without privilege; requiring the same criticism we apply to all philosophical ideas.

Next post – the finer points of morality and why religions have utterly failed us in that respect.

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Something’s awry with Xocai – Internet thuggery at its worst

In a show of solidarity, bloggers are showing support for a Norwegian blogger who has received personal threats from Xocai Multi-Level Marketing distributors in Norway AND, scarily, his personal details transmitted to the distributor network.

The Skeptic’s Guide to Universe podcast recently reported on this story of internet thuggery on a few Norwegian bloggers that dared criticise the outrageous health claims of a “healthy chocolate” marketed through an MLM network.

The story on the Unfiltered Perception blog reveals the threats levelled at one blogger in particular, in an attempt to silence his valid criticism of the extravagant health claims of Xocai chocolate.

The blogger –  a responsible skeptic who values the truth of his writing – wrote back to the company sending the threats (Sjokoservice – Norge) asking specifically where his story is in error so he could change it to more accurately reflect reality. Such a reasonable request was met with more threats of a lawsuit by Sjokoservice’s American backers (MXI corp); denial of their responsibility to provide relevant information and reports that distributors were engaged in heated discussions on Facebook about what to do about these “untrue and libelous” claims.

The whole time the author of the threatening letters takes the position of ‘we are just reporting this to you, we have no responsibility for what happens next’ despite transmitting the bloggers personal details – including photos of his family members and a Google map of his house – to their 9000 odd distributors.

Hacking Google

Much of this insecurity and bullying surfaces from the fact the blogger’s original stories were highly ranked on Google. Sjokoservice successfully forced one blogger to remove his original 201o story, primarily by contacting the blogger’s place of work, thereby causing him great personal distress.

Bloggers have rallied and now the mainstream media in Norway has taken to the story. To remedy this, Xocai distributors appear to have gone on the offensive. Take look at the web search results below for the search term “Xocai threats” (below). It seems that distributors have hijacked website names in order to redirect attention to their marketing nonsense:

Xocai marketing plastered over Google.

Xocai marketing replicated on numerous sites using other website’s names. A cynical attempt to smother legitimate criticism of their products. Page after page of these search results shows the same story (including every state of the US represented).

Here’s a URL example: http://badscienceblogs.info/2012/07/03/xocai-threatens-nasty-chocolate-in-vermont-with-healthy-chocolate/

Notice that http://www.badscienceblogs.net/ and Xocai critical blogger Jaycueaitch have their names represented in the URL that direct to these pro-Xocai spam blogs.

It is quite ingenious in its desperation but one simply needs to create a domain name, setup a free WordPress install and hey presto – spam Google search filters with your nonsense (load it with keywords like “threats” to redirect attention away from stories about the Xocai threats).

This is a piece of work – the extreme measures these purveyors (or “artisans”) of natural and alternative health will go to in order to protect their bank accounts. It doesn’t surprise me – the insecurity of the Xocai powers-that-be is valid and this spam blogging and hijacking of website names is a desparate attempt to rectify a situation that could have been avoided if they didn’t make extravagant claims in the first place.

Higgs discovery a victory for endeavour of science

It might not seem like it to many, but the seeming discovery of the Higgs Boson is a shining example of the triumph of the scientific method.

It was only in 1897 that J.J. Thomson discovered electrons. That in itself was an amazing achievement because it gave us the missing piece required to harness electricity on a new level. Computer technology could not have advanced without knowing intimately how electrical current flows and circuits work.

That discovery was 115 years ago. Since then, scientific research into the nature of atoms and associated physical properties (electromagnetism, the photoelectric effect, quantum effects…) has accelerated at an incredible rate. We’ve split the atom and, while that knowledge was co-opted to support the worst of human traits (war and hatred), we’ve learned a tremendous amount about how to better our lot.

Fast forward to today, we find ourselves on the brink (not there just yet) of a monumental discovery that stands atop that massive mountain of 115 years of scientific progress. It seems we have discovered the elusive particle — theorised by Peter Higgs in the 1960s — that fleshes out some missing pieces in the standard model of particle physics.

For more on the Higgs Boson, read about it at the CERN website.

Despite the fact that science at this level is a bit abstract, even to those who study particle physics, the real message in the discovery of the Higgs Boson is the triumph of the scientific endeavour.

Modelling – the essence of science

As mentioned, Peter Higgs predicted that this particle must exist in order to flesh out the standard model of particle physics back in the 60s. But what do we mean by “model” and why is it important?

Science is really about model building — data is collected and a model constructed to explain the data. The model is then used to make predictions about future as yet unobserved phenomenon. New experiments are built from these predictions.

A robust model — one that maps very precisely to reality will survive this testing process intact and strengthened by the fact the predictions were validated.

But to be a scientifically valid prediction it must be risky. This is one variable that separates science from pseudoscience. The Higgs Boson was a risky prediction — the prediction carried with it a precise energy level in which it could exist.

The standard model now explains a great deal with a stunning level of precision. It doesn’t explain everything we see and therefore pieces are missing. Scientists thrive on this mystery (it gives them a job after all). They continue to chip away at the coalface in order to develop more accurate models for what we observe.

certainty And uncertainty

LHC collision.

A typical candidate event including two high-energy photons whose energy (depicted by red towers) is measured in the CMS electromagnetic calorimeter. The yellow lines are the measured tracks of other particles produced in the collision. The pale blue volume shows the CMS crystal calorimeter barrel.

Certainty in science is taken very seriously — in fact it is another variable that separates science from pseudoscience and mere speculation.

The precision required to measure particles that are in existence for fractions of a second is astonishing. The level of certainty can therefore be calculated to many decimal places.

At this early stage — just days after the CERN announcement — scientists are being very careful about what this discovery means. Certainty is prized in science and assigning certainty to a proposition is taken very seriously.

As an example, here are some of the quotes scientists have made regarding the recent Higgs Boson announcement:

  • “I can confirm that a particle has been discovered that is consistent with the Higgs boson theory.”
  • The result is still preliminary, but “it’s very strong and very solid”.

Much like the seeming “faster than light neutrinos” finding from CERN last year, scientists are skeptical and will look at the data every which way they can to propose new experiments and collect new data. The discovery of a new fundamental particle is very rare — especially particles theorised 45 years ago.

Leave “God” out of this

It is profoundly annoying and frustrating to see the media latch so firmly on to the “God Particle” meme. It makes a good soundbite, probably pisses of scientists and religious folk and serves no real purpose in educating people about particle physics and the significance of this new discovery.

It isn’t surprising that the media hook into the inherent controversial element to a scientific discovery that will change the way we view reality.

Conclusion

Let’s look at this discovery for what it is — a monumental discovery; a giant leap forward in our understanding of the fabric that makes up our universe. Another piece in the jigsaw puzzle of reality and another chunk taken out of our collective ignorance. These are all good things.

Many people have claimed that the Large Hadron Collider is an unjustified expense; that we are better off putting those billions of dollars towards more worthy causes.

But science is about the triumph of human curiosity, intelligence and desire to better our existence. This latest discovery, Higgs Boson or otherwise, justifies the expense many times over.

Doing basic science and answering fundamental scientific questions always leads to leaps forward as a species. Who knows how much this new discovery will lead to our collective human progress?