Science is universal

I’ve seen some rather disturbing reports recently that New Zealand is aiming to insert indigenous Mātauranga Māori beliefs into science classes. While there are, no doubt, many important bits of knowledge, there are also many superstitions such as the belief that “Rain happens when the goddess Papatuanuku sheds tears.” This is hardly the first time that unscientific, indigenous knowledge has been pushed in this way nor the first time that science has been, incorrectly, criticised as Western, white or European. In 2016, an infamous video did the rounds, showing a “ScienceMustFall” student at the University of Cape Town claiming that some people could use witchcraft to strike others with lightning. Mythical origin stories which claim that certain groups have always caused problems for those studying human migration in both North America and Australia. Many of these criticisms appear to be rooted in the negative way these communities have historically been treated. What becomes frustrating is that there are many legitimate concerns in those criticisms but the push-back becomes an over-correction which now demands an equal place for unscientific mythology which does not belong in a science classroom.

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Books about fantasy and reality

Two new books, one dealing with fantasy and the other with reality, added to my 2019 Book List.

Cover1Black Leopard Red Wolf (2019) by Marlon James

I originally heard of Black Leopard Red Wolf from a list of books to read in 2019. It sounded pretty cool; a fantasy story with an African setting, magic, shape-shifting and all that good stuff. It delivered in some respects but not in others and there were many odd things about it. It’s the first book in a trilogy but I am still conflicted over whether I will read the later books or not.

The best part of the book is that it’s familiar enough as a fantasy to easily get into it but different enough that it’s always interesting. It draws a lot from various African mythologies and I recognise some of the influences but not others. There are neither elves nor dwarfs but weird creatures that I haven’t seen before; like the impundulu, an anthropomorphic, lightning-shooting, vampiric bird, and omoluzu, strange creatures which attack from the ceilings of buildings.

The most negative part of the book is the way that it is written. I assume it’s a stylistic choice but it’s not one that really works for me. There is little explanation of unfamiliar terms and coarse vulgarity, often for little reason. Beyond that, the grammar is broken in many instances and, more often than not, detracts from, rather than adds to, the narrative. While I can think of many reasons why one would write in such a way, few of them seem to apply here and it takes a lot of getting used to.

cover2The Four Horsemen: The Conversation That Started An Atheist Revolution (2019) by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, Sam Harris & Christopher Hitchens

Although published now in 2019, with a foreword by Stephan Fry and short introductory pieces by the remaining Horsemen, this is merely a transcript of the the only conversation that all four of these minds shared, which took place in 2007. There isn’t much more to it than that.

It is not as deep as any of their books but will at least serve as a reminder of the whole atheism debate and the questions it raised after the events of 11 September 2001 tragically reminded the world that religion could, and still continues, to inspire people to kill for their beliefs. In the conversation, The Horsemen cover questions such as how the universe was created, is there any value to faith, why is evidence important and are some religions simply worse than others.

Other than a reminder, there is little new to be gained here. However, I think it is a great addition to anyone’s library for its historical value. As Penn Jillette’s quote on the back of the book says, “This conversation is as good a place as any to mark the start of the Atheist revolution.” That said, I would recommend watching and listening to the conversation rather than reading it.

2019 Book List

A new year means a new set of books. As in 2017 and 2018, I am recording the books that I read; partly for my own record and partly that it might help someone else find a book that sounds interesting.

24/03/2019 Added Black Leopard Red Wolf and The Four Horsemen: The Conversation That Started An Atheist Revolution.

06/05/2019 Added In A Dog’s World and The Time He Desires.

27/05/2019 Added And Yet… and The Communist Manifesto.

27/09/2019 Added Dissident Signals and A Plea For The Animals

28/12/2019 Added On Anarchism and Anarchism: A Beginner’s Guide

21 Lessons For The 21st Century (2018) by Yuval Noah Harari

Book1I got this one for Christmas. It’s a collection of essays, written by an Israeli historian, covering various topics, including truth, religion, terrorism, equality, war and education. Nearly all of the essays are interesting and raise many questions worth pondering. It’s a lot shorter on answers than questions but it certainly stimulates the mind.

One of the major topics that bothers him is what will happen when big data/AI and biotech combine. He sees the merger of the fields as likely creating an inequality that can’t easily be overcome. He fears that the wealth concentrated in the hands of a few will allow them to modify their biology to be superior while AI and robots will mean that workers are unnecessary making the masses functionally and politically irrelevant. Aside from that there are many other great essays on important topics, such as how the current rise of nationalism is fundamentally incapable of tackling issues like climate change which affect many and require a widespread, co-ordinated response. Continue reading

Review: Magic in the Middle Ages

Magic in the Middle Ages is a Coursera course offered by the Universitat de Barcelona. It is actually the fifth course from Coursera that I have done and the third one done purely for my own interest. I was initially quite excited because of the topic but, since completing it, I have lost a fair bit of enthusiasm. That’s not to say that it is entirely without merit but I think that, currently, it is not taking advantage of the format and could be aimed better for a Coursera audience.

The course aims to teach students about magic in the middle ages, this includes how magic was perceived, different magical practices and the treatment of magic in both Christianity and Islam. As with most of these courses, it primarily consists of a series of short video lectures followed by a multiple choice quiz each week. There are also two short essays in this course which are judged by your peers. Continue reading

My Viennese library

It’s not nearly as impressive as what I had back in Cape Town (Books were too big and heavy to take with me.) but it’s slowly growing.

My Viennese library

My Viennese library

I got I Wish I’d Made You Angry Earlier for free! During the introductory talk by the campus librarian, he gave us a short challenge to complete and the person that found the answer first would get a book. (In the end I believe he actually gave away two books because the replies were so close together.) It was just a simple task to look up the number that specified where the book could be found in the library. The library, and a nearby research lab, is named after Max Perutz, who was born in Austria, making the book a suitable prize.

I only got Faith Vs Fact a few days ago but I’m quite excited. It was actually almost 3 weeks later than Amazon originally promised but I’ll try to forgive them for that. It’s Jerry Coyne’s latest book after Why Evolution Is True. It, obviously, deals with the methodological incompatibility of science and religion. Someone can be both religious and a scientist but that doesn’t mean the ideas are compatible. There are also, for example, judges that take bribes; but that doesn’t mean that that’s compatible with being a judge. Since I’ve been reading his blog (He insists it’s not a blog.) for years and other pieces on the topic, I doubt there will be much new. Still, it should be interesting and it’s nice to have everything succinctly put together.

Quicklinks: Animals and religion

You might recall that, last year, I spoke about some free on-line educational tools I was dabbling with. I now want to recommend that anyone who has some sort of contact with animals, whether through work, having a pet or just eating meat, take the Animal Behaviour and Welfare course offered by The University of Edinburgh. I found it to be very engaging and an excellent introduction into a subject which affects most of us. It’s a welfare approach so sometimes it has its flaws, seeking to maximise welfare when one might rather stop the practice altogether, but it is science-based and doesn’t push a specific view. For example, they mention that cats kept indoors will be safer and have medical care but have welfare concerns about boredom and lack of choice. Stray animals benefit from free choices but have welfare challenges like being attacked by humans. In addition, there is a lot of extra information available. I didn’t have the time to go through it all but aside from the standard lectures there are extra recorded interviews and Google Hangouts as well as links to books and scientific articles which could be of interest.

At the end of last year, I stopped following Pharyngula, which had been one of my original inspirations for blogging, because I no longer considered PZ Myers to be a good model for rational thought. I felt kinda satisfied to now read that Atheist Ireland has (more symbolically than anything else) publicly dissociated from him. Their complaint is largely based on his “hurtful and dehumanising, hateful and violent, unjust and defamatory rhetoric.” It’s hard to fault them there. He always was less polite than many other writers but there are times when that can be justified and other times when it’s extraneous. His usage was mostly belonged to the latter category.

Lastly, a member of Mensa South Africa posted a link to this infographic on the group’s Facebook feed. It lists 439 topics where Bible verses contradict one another. In places it will no doubt be argued that it’s just semantics and interpretation but others are clear-cut contradictions. For example, regarding the death of Judas, Matthew 27:5 says:

So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.

While Acts 1:18 says:

With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out.

If not free speech then what?

Free speech is absolutely vital for the sort of society in which I wish to live. I want a society where ideas can be freely exchanged, where they are judged on their merits alone and not on who supports or derides them. If we do not have freedom of speech then there can not even be debate on any other issue. This is something I’ve tried to defend throughout the history of this blog, whether it was calling out France for outlawing opinions, the UK for arresting people for harmlessly expressing their views or just arguing against offence being something we should be protected from. Now I need to do it again. Continue reading


It’s been a long time since I’ve posted but that’s been due a particular busy time with me returning to Vienna, needing to find a place to live, starting the PhD course and, with terrible timing, falling sick. All that has left little time or energy to blog but I’ve had a breather today and will toss out a couple of links.

One of the biggest stories while I’ve been inactive was the Charlie Hebdo attack and later supermarket hostage drama. To do something different I’ve decided to post two links about positive Muslim activities regarding the attacks. Malian Muslim Lassana Bathily, who worked at the Jewish supermarket that was attacked, hid six people in the freezers during the hostage situation as well as escaping the building to inform police what was happening inside. Last I heard there was talk of awarding him French citizenship for his bravery. On imgur there is a collection of heartening cartoons from Arab newspapers expressing support for Charlie Hebdo.

In less heartening news there is an example of sexism from a Jewish newspaper that Photoshopped all the women out of a Charlie Hebdo rally photo. In Ireland we have the simultaneously depressing and funny “Sounds of Sodomy” sitation.

And, just so we don’t end on a low note, here is a collection of animals that are benefiting from prosthetics.