Friday, 18 December 2009

Climate change: The challenge to Humanism

Humanists believe in reason, science and compassion. Most humanist moral and political thinking derives fairly directly from the third of these. In climate change, however, we have a political and moral issue that is critical for the whole human race but which derives very directly from science.

In the 40 years that I’ve been a humanist the movement has fought, and continues to fight, a series of struggles over abortion, divorce, sex, euthanasia and religious privilege. In each case we have made an essentially moral argument based on the rights of individuals to make choices about their lives and the lack of authority, by church or state, to overrule those choices. We have used science to support these views – and have generally been lucky in finding that it does support them.

Of course we’ve supported broad campaigns against poverty, slavery, debt and political persecution – but rarely with the same energy that we’ve devoted to our core issues.

Climate change is different. It’s a challenge to the world and a particular challenge to humanism.

Firstly it’s the most important issue we’ve faced since the invention of the atom bomb, and arguably ever. Climate scientists are almost completely agreed that unless we reduce greenhouse gas emissions fast temperatures, and later sea levels, will rise uncontrollably. This will reduce the Earth’s carrying capacity, drive many species into extinction and reduce the human population substantially. 

Secondly, our understanding of climate change comes mainly from science. Literally thousands of scientists have contributed to the work of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); itself probably the largest scientific endeavour ever conducted. Science has been less successful in predicting the human consequences of climate change largely, I think, for fear of being thought to exaggerate. I've addressed these consequences by using scenario planning with markedly pessimistic results.

Thirdly, climate science shows that the problem is due primarily to industrialisation; itself closely associated with science and the Western societies that gave rise to individualism and modern humanism. Science and humanism thus originate in the very processes responsible for the problem. Climate change is a political challenge to Western societies because it threatens those societies and the liberties that they support. It’s also a particular challenge to humanists because we need to show that societies based on our values, reason, science and liberty, can exist without destroying the environment that supports us.

For at least the last 50 years Western society has worshipped continual economic growth driven by ever-increasing personal consumption. This consumption is increasingly driven by a celebrity-obsessed media, an advertising industry whose purpose is to create new 'human wants' and widening inequality. This is obviously unsustainable in the long-term. And it doesn't make people happy - as increasing rates of mental illness show.

Now humanists are, as individuals, rarely obsessed by possessions and consumption. But we are part of a society driven by these things and we have failed, as a movement, to dissociate ourselves from that society or to develop an effective critique. 

Fourthly, it requires long-term international action on a scale unmatched since World War 2. As in that war this will require most people in many countries to forgo products, like cars, and experiences, such as foreign holidays, to which they feel entitled. In the poorest countries people are already dying from the effects of climate change. The required actions conflict with some national goals, such as China’s industrial development, and make the UN’s Millennium Development Goals harder to achieve.

As I write this world leaders are travelling to Copenhagen to negotiate a solution to the problem. The diplomats, scientists and pressure groups have been there for a week – some for much longer. But this is itself a problem. Diplomats are used to negotiation and expect to end every negotiation with a compromise. But you cannot negotiate with the laws of nature. A compromise that fails to cut emissions fast enough will be a failure, delaying but not preventing the climate catastrophe. 

That’s why some humanists, including myself, spent Saturday December 5th marching through London to create a ring around Parliament in The Wave , the UK’s largest ever climate change demonstration. In London there were over 50,000 people, with another 13,000 in Glasgow.

This was not only a very big event it was also very diverse. Organisations present ranged from the establishment – the Co-Op, Women's Institute, WWF and RSPB – through Friends of the Earth, Oxfam and Greenpeace to the Socialist Workers Party. The organisations affiliated to Stop Climate Chaos , the organising committee, claim over eleven million members. That’s far more than have joined ALL the UK’s political parties and, I’d guess, far more than are shareholders in the most environmentally damaging businesses. It’s certainly more than are members of all the UK’s humanist organisations.

This ought to be a humanist concern because it threatens the survival of human civilisation and calls for us to respect the science, exercise compassion and collaborate globally, in a great humanitarian cause.

[This post was originally written for the BHA's Humanist Life website.]

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Campaign Success! David Flint, Humanists4Science, 10 Downing Street Petition - Teach Evolution in Primary Schools

David Flint, Chairman Humanists4Science had 500+ signatures for his No 10 petition:

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to include the teaching of evolution by natural selection in the new national primary curriculum. More details

More details from petition creator

Scientists are agreed that all today’s living organisms have evolved over millions of years from simpler organisms. This evolution is best explained by Darwin’s theory of natural selection and its subsequent refinement. Natural selection is the most powerful tool for understanding living things.
The current draft curriculum includes living things but omits evolution and natural selection. These ideas are needed to lay a foundation for later studies and to help children see their place in the living world and the universe.

Submitted by Mr David Flint – Deadline to sign up by: 18 August 2009 –Signatures: 536
This petition was mentioned in The Times, 20 November 2009.

Humanists4Science and other groups have helped to introduce legislation on 19 November 2009 to make teaching of Evolution compulsory in Primary Schools!

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Humanists4Science welcomes new legislation for the teaching of evolution in primary schools

Humanists4Science welcomes new legislation, introduced today, on primary curriculum reform in England, which introduces compulsory teaching of evolution to ages 5-11 year old children.

Chris Street (pictured) reports that following Humanist4Science July 2009 proposals to the Government, legislation was introduced today (11 November 2009), to make evolution compulsory and explicitly taught to children aged 5-11 years in Primary Schools.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) (19 November 2009) press release states that Evolution will be compulsory in the Primary curriculum from September 2011.

However the Humanists4Science proposal for compulsory teaching of  'The Scientific Method' in Primary Schools, was not taken up.

In July 2009 Chris Street authored the Humanists4Science submission to the Primary Curriculum reform consultation by Jim Rose.

Chris Street of the Humanists4Science group said "this is brilliant news because now children will learn about evolution as early as five years rather than when they are fourteen. I met Desmond Swayne MP on 10 July to discuss teaching evolution in Primary Schools  and he who wrote to Diana Johnson MP (Parliamentary Under Secretary for State for Schools at the DCSF). I think Humanists4Science have had a direct input into successfully changing National Primary School curriculum legislation."

Andrew Copson, BHA Director of Education and Public Affairs, said, ‘It is fantastic to hear final confirmation that, for the first time, evolution will now be included in the national primary curriculum. Evolution is arguably the most important concept underlying the life sciences. That it had not originally been included in the revised primary curriculum was of great concern and we are pleased to see that has now been rectified.’, 19 November 2009, Major reform to curriculum at the heart of a renewed push to drive up standards.
sourceHumanists4Science submission to the Jim Rose Primary Curriculum reform consultation.

Department for Children Schools and Families Press Release

The Department for Children Schools and Families 19 November 2009 Press Release stated that from September 2011 in Primary Schools:-
"Evolution made compulsory and importance of British history confirmed in new areas of learning"

"Schools Minister Vernon Coaker has today confirmed plans to bring in a new curriculum to shake-up primary education – with overwhelming support from pupils, parents, teachers and experts."
"New legislation introduced today on primary curriculum reform in England will drive up education standards across the board. Vernon Coaker confirmed that evolution will become a compulsory part of science education"
"Due to the positive response to Jim Rose’s proposals, few changes were made to the proposed Areas of Learning. However, after consulting with parents, teachers, the science community and other interested parties, pupils will be expected to explicitly cover evolution as part of their learning. Learning about evolution is an important part of science education, and pupils already learn about it at secondary school."

The independent review of the primary curriculum, the first in ten years, was led by educational expert Sir Jim Rose and began in spring 2008. The new legislation is based on his report, which sought the views of teachers, parents, pupils and subject experts and took over a year to complete. The Government accepted Jim Rose’s recommendations in full in April this year. The BHA, Humanists4Science and others commented on his review by 24 July 2009.

  • in the Science, Life and Living sections include:-
    • Charles Darwins’ theory of Evolution by Natural Selection - the single most important idea underlying the life sciences. 
    • how organisms are adapted to their environments and how variation can lead to evolutionary changes.’ 
    • children should understand that, over time, organisms have evolved.
  • the Key Stage 4 curriculum (pg 224) states: -
    • Organisms and health - In their study of science, the following should be covered: 
      • a) organisms are interdependent and adapted to their environments 
      • b) variation within species can lead to evolutionary changes and similarities and differences between species can be measured and classified 
  • Humanists4Science recommend that part of the Key Stage 4 curriculum be included in the later stages of the Primary Curriculum viz. 
    • ‘to apply knowledge and understanding to describe how organisms are adapted to their environments and how variation can lead to evolutionary changes’ 
  • Humanists4Science recommend addition of notes:-
    • L14. to apply knowledge and understanding to describe and explain the structure and function of key human body systems including reproduction 
    • L15. to investigate the structure, function, life cycle and growth of flowering plants and explain how these are linked 
    • L16. to investigate, identify and explain the benefits of micro-organisms and the harm they can cause 
  • Humanists4Science welcome the example of the study of Evolution and Darwin (page 48) included in the report under Cross-curricular studies:-
    • ‘Schools that chose the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth to launch a study of this famous Victorian and his lasting contribution to science included learning about the journeys of the Beagle, mapping the route to the Galapagos Islands and the climate and conditions revealed through the voyage which furnished Darwin with a wealth of evidence for his theory of evolution.‘ 
  • Conclusion: 
    • Humanists4Science consider that Evolution be specifically mentioned in the Primary Curriculum.

Humanists4Science Proposals on Scientific Method.
Humanists4Science proposed (pages 16-17) that the 'scientific method' be included in the Primary curriculum.

We recommended that the scientific and technological curriculum be amended to:-

Pupils develop valuable skills in applying scientific method, that is generating and testing ideas, gathering and making sense of evidence, developing possible solutions, and evaluating processes and outcomes. They learn to distinguish evidence from opinion and communicate their findings in a variety of ways."

"essential knowledge should include "a direct reference to the value of science as a way of finding out true facts.

"addition of "how the scientific method enables us to learn truths about reality". Humanists4Science proposed that key skills, taken together, make up the scientific method. and that  scientific method skills are needed by children to make progress:’

"Conclusion: Humanists4Science consider that Scientific Method be specifically mentioned in the Primary Curriculum."

Submission by Humanists4Science

Who are Humanists4Science?
Humanists4Science (H4S) group is for humanists with an active interest in science. We believe that science is a fundamental part of humanism but also that it should be directed to humane and ethical ends. Science is, in our view, more a method than a body of facts. H4S seek to promote, within the humanist community and beyond, the application of the scientific method to issues of concern to broader society.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Can science remove the death penalty?

Humanists have been opposed to the death penalty for many decades and in most of the world public opinion has moved our way. Most opposition to the death penalty is moral - we think it's wrong. However, people also oppose this penalty because we seem, too often, to execute the wrong person. And here science, specifically forensic science, can make a contribution.

Today's Guardian reports that even in Texas support for the death penalty is declining. Juries are more reluctant to issue death sentences and some prosecutors are less willing to ask for them and Mark White, a former pro-death governor has called for change. According to the Guardian's Chris McGreal these changes are due a stream of cases in which convicted murderers, some on death row, have been shown to be innocent. Nationally there have been nearly 140 such cases.

In most of these cases the new evidence has come from DNA testing. The academic science of life has indeed brought life to some convicts. This science has changed minds that had proven immune to the appeals of compasion. 

This is a point with broad application. Many important moral and political issues have been the subject of excited debate for years, even decades. Some, perhaps, appear settled. But for most people, and especially for humanists, the morality of a personal action or public policy depends on its consequences. Consequences are matters of fact and thus amenable to science. 

Humanists4Science believes that all policy decisions should be based on the best available evidence. We also believe that if the evidence is rubbish the government has a duty to fund research that will produce better evidence. The story of the death penalty shows that this is not only intellectually sound but politically realistic - if very slow!

Thursday, 24 September 2009

How inequality makes people religious

Tom Rees and Gregory Paul have shown that unequal societies have greater religious observance and more social problems than more equal ones. Paul has shown this for developed countries and Rees for a wider sample.

The correlations are far too strong for this to be coincidence – some causal mechanism must be operating – but neither author has been able to identify it with certainty. We can, however, discover the mechanism by setting the issue in a wider context.

That context is provided by sociologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better. Published earlier this year this fascinating book summarises hundreds of research studies. It shows that amongst the rich countries those with less income inequality do better than the rest with respect to community life, mental health, drug abuse, physical health, life expectancy, obesity, education, teenage births, violence, prison population and social mobility. Wow!

Moreover this does not happen because they have fewer poor people – the benefits apply at all income levels.

They also show that inequality is the main CAUSE of this litany of problems – not merely a correlate. This is shown by looking at the persistence of these relationships over decades, the fact that they apply both between countries and between US states and the lack of any plausible mechanism whereby, for instance, murder rates could increase income inequality and the lack of

Perhaps the most interesting element from our point of view is the mechanism they propose whereby inequality creates such problems.

The authors use well-established medical and psychological research to show that low social status is damaging to people’s physical and mental health and to performance on tests of skill. (This is not a uniquely human phenomenon as it’s also been shown in monkeys.) This explains the bad effects on poor and low-status people directly. There are also indirect effects as teenagers from poor areas respond to their sense of inferior status by anxiety about their looks and status, drug use, excessive food consumption, gang membership and demands for ‘respect’. Anorexia, obesity, early pregnancy and violence follow fairly directly.

Religion, of course, provides an alternative response. Teachings about God’s universal love may make low economic status more bearable whilst the support of a believing community helps both psychologically and in practical ways.

High levels of inequality make matters worse by giving almost everyone the sense of having lower income and status than the fat-cat bosses, sportsmen and ‘celebrities’ whose doings fill our papers and screens. Thus in highly unequal societies the bad effects apply to almost everyone – just what the sociological research shows.

In such societies religion is attractive to people at all levels of society as all are exposed to status anxiety. (But the attraction is obviously greater where the anxiety is greater.)

The evidence from The Spirit Level thus suggests strongly that religious observance, like the litany of problems listed above, is driven primarily by inequality.

There is also some evidence for religion as a cause. The US, for instance, scores even worse on several indicators than its inequality would suggest. It is also more religious. Religious beliefs may cause people to despair of attempts to improve society or even to favour policies, such as abstinence-only sex education, that make things worse. It can hardly be coincidence that religious influence on politics, belief in the imminent arrival of the Messiah and abstinence-only sex education are so strong in the USA.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Religion: Lessons from sociology

Those of you who heard Thinking Allowed yesterday will know that H4S member Tom Rees has shown in an academic paper that people in unequal societies are more religious than those in more equal ones, eg Americans are more religious than Swedes. Tom has built a statistical model that explains 60% of the variation in religiosity between countries. Inequality (and not, for instance, affluence) is the most important explanatory factor in this model.

That's academically interesting but what does it mean for humanists?

First, it confirms the humanist view that religion is a social phenomenon. It can be studied by psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists. Tom's research refines the older modernisation theory; that is, the idea that modern ideas and lifestyles undermine religious belief and practice. It shows that this happens because modernisation reduces inequality and, through social security and state medical services, personal insecurity. This links the high level of religious practice in the US with the weakness of its social security, Medicare and Medicaid services. Perhaps that's why fundamentalist US churches are so hostile to 'socialised medicine'!

Now this doesn't disprove the theological claims of religions but it does discredit the idea that the churches show God's working in the world. You would hardly expect God to be less active in Europe than the USA or to have become less active during the 20th century. (Then again, the ways of the Almighty are said to be mysterious ... though mostly by people who think they understand them!)

Second the research also refutes the so-called rational choice theory favoured by some American theorists. This theory claims that people have an innate need for religion and that differences in actual practice reflect differences in the effectiveness of religious organisations in marketing their services. Put crudely, these theorists believe that US churches are more successful than European ones because they are better at marketing. However the research shows that this theory "has no independent power to explain differences in religiosity across this international sample". This is academic-speak for "it's wrong". There is thus no reason to think that people have an innate need for religion (though they clearly have an innate capacity for it).

Third, the research confirms earlier findings that passionate dualism, ie strong belief in God, Hell and the Devil, is correlated with homicide rates. Now Hell and the Devil are violent ideas so it's very likely that it's these beliefs make people more violent, rather than vice versa. The prevalence of passionate dualism explains 25% of the international variation in homicide rates.

So the research shows religion to be a human response to difficult social conditions. Faced with the threats of an unequal society people seek the consolations of religion ('pie in the sky when you die') and the support of a religious community (pie on the table when you get sick). But it's also consistent with the view that religious belief contributes to those threats. Passionate dualism leads to murder whilst the absolutism of religious moralising blocks efforts to improve society. For instance, abstinence-only sex education inspired by American Christians contributes to rates of abortion and sexuallly-transmitted dieases.

In relation to social insecurity, religion is probably as much cause as consolation.

The poverty gap as a cause of religion

Tom Rees, a H4S committee member, was interviewed today by Laurie Taylor on Thinking Allowed, BBC Radio 4. the topic was his recent study on the social causes of religion.

You can listen to it on 'Listen again' (timings from 1.53 to 13.59min):

The episode is also downloadable as a podcast, available here:

For more details of the study, you could read the paper (available online), or even better join our Yahoo group and quiz him directly!

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Darwin, Humanism and Science - James Williams on Creationism in schools

James Williams talks to the Darwin, Humanism and Science day conference (6 Jun 2009) on "Insidious Creationism" and why we should teach children early in their education about geological time and the theory of evolution.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

The Baloney Detection Kit (or Scientific Method Made Simple!)

As Carl Sagan said "There is a lot of baloney out there". What is the Baloney Detection Kit? It's the scientific method.. or just science!
Credit to Carl Sagan who originally developed the Baloney Detection Kit in his book 'The Demon Haunted World".

Over 300 comments on

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The Baloney Detection Kit (on RDF TV)

June 2009
With a sea of information coming at us from all directions, how do we sift out the misinformation and bogus claims, and get to the truth? Michael Shermer, Publisher ofSkeptic magazine, lays out a “Baloney Detection Kit” — ten questions we should ask when encountering a claim.


  1. How reliable is the source of the claim?
  2. Does the source make similar claims?
  3. Have the claims been verified by somebody else?
  4. Does this fit with the way the world works?
  5. Has anyone tried to disprove the claim?
  6. Where does the preponderance of evidence point?
  7. Is the claimant playing by the rules of science?
  8. Is the claimant providing positive evidence?
  9. Does the new theory account for as many phenomena as the old theory?
  10. Are personal beliefs driving the claim?


This is the first video by RDFTV.
Presented by The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science
Directed by Josh Timonen
Copyright © 2009 Upper Branch Productions, Inc.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Darwin, Humanism and Science - A C Grayling

Darwin, Humanism and Science - A C Grayling, 3 June 2009 conference.

my Random notes: Relationship between Science and Humanism
  • What can science do for an understanding of  the central humanist concerns? (1’25”)
  • humanism tries to get a good understanding of human nature - natural sciences and social sciences (psychology and sociology) should help us (3' 30")
  • science is the best epistemology (4' 05")
  • don't base your thinking on authority, ancient texts or priests (5')
  • CP Snow - the 2 cultures - science could solve population increase, nuclear bombs problems, scientific literacy and applications of science via technology, widening gulf in 1950s between arts / humanities and science. (6'-10')
  • among the best and most important things that have said are the scientific things (12'15")
  • there should not be just two cultures (humanities and arts) - there should be just one (12'30")
  • the general population has become even for distant from the scientific outlook - the gap in 2009 between science and the arts and humanities is even wider than it was 50 years ago in CP Snows (16'45")
  • as humanists we should be alert to is that the scientific way of thinking, this mindset is of the greatest importance for society (17')
  • scientific attitude for humanists - science does not give us proof and certainty  not one thing in Nature magazine is absolutely right (John Maddox) - contrasts with neat stories of Christianity 19'
  • new evidence refines understanding, open ended, adjusted, refuted, mindset - commitment to rationality (21')
  • different methodology with religions - authority, closed (22')
  • evolution of religions - were 'science' and technology millennia ago eg winds, tides, sacrifice virgins (23')
  • its an evolutionary advantage that children should be credulous (26')
  • better empirical evidence for the tooth fairy than god! (26')
  • rational proportioning (hence rationality) of the claims you make to the supporting evidence (28')
  • so few religions are left (but noisy and dangerous) - 1000s of gods have vaporised in the light of knowledge and reasoning (28')
  • scientific styles of thought as happened in The Enlightenment - we today are the phenotype of the 18th century Enlightenment  - help us to think about the good things in society (29')
  • human nature and human understanding - evolutionary theory & psychology (30')
  • neurosciences - philosophy of mind - oxytocin - Patricia Churchland (31')
  • reductionism - emotions - need for love (33')
  • relation of science to humanism - sciences can give info on human nature - natural science is the greatest achievement of humanity - how to think better, not a reductive enterprise, will not take away aethestics (34')
  • greater chance of progress than with our religious history (36')

Monday, 22 June 2009

TAKE ACTION by 24 July 2009! Consultation on the new Primary Curriculum in England: Science and evolution!

source: British Humanist Association e-bulletin, 22 June 2009 & BHA site.

What is the issue?

In January 2008 the Government commissioned a review looking at both the organisation and content of the National Curriculum taught in primary schools in England. The review was lead by Sir Jim Rose. His final report was published on 30 April 2009.

The changes that have been proposed by the Rose Review have now been put out to public consultation. The consultation is being conducted by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA). The public consultation will run until 24 July 2009, after which point the Government will consider how to proceed.

BHA position

The BHA broadly welcomes the proposed new curriculum. However, we have particular concerns regarding the new ‘scientific and technological understanding’ area of learning, which is one of six new ‘areas of learning’ that have been put forward as the new structure of the curriculum.

Our main concern is that the ‘scientific and technological understanding’ area of learning makes no requirement for pupils to learn about and investigate the concepts of natural selection and evolution. We believe that the theory of evolution – arguably the single most important idea underlying the life sciences today – must be included in the primary curriculum.

The wealth of new educational resources on evolution available for children of primary school age demonstrates their ability to grasp the simpler concepts associated with it, and a basic understanding of evolution will help lay the foundation for a surer scientific understanding later on in children’s school life.

With 2009 being the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, the omission of evolution from the curriculum of primary schools is scandalous.

What can be done?

Please write to your MP, urging them to support the inclusion of natural selection and evolution in the primary curriculum. You can use our online facility to email your MP directly at

Please also make a submission to the QCA’s public consultation, which you can do by downloading the consultation questionnaire online at

You can read the BHA's own response to the consultation at

Here the BHA not only make more detailed comments about other weakness in ‘scientific and technological understanding’, but also in some of the other areas of learning. If you agree with the BHA's comments in these other areas then please do consider responding to these sections of the consultation as well.

If you are a teacher, please explore the possibility of your school making a response to the consultation to urge for the changes we are looking for.

If you are a member of a political party, you can write to the education contact or spokesperson of your party to urge them to support the changes we are seeking. For Labour, this is Rt Hon. Ed Balls MP on, for Conservatives this is Michael Gove MP on, for Liberal Democrats this is David Laws on

Please do all the above insofar as you are in a position to do so.

Please copy any submissions you make or correspondence you enter into on this subject to Paul Pettinger at the BHA ( or by post to British Humanist Association, 1 Gower Street, London WC1E 6HD).

Monday, 15 June 2009

Science trumps Theology!

Edmund Standing at has posted a great article on the how the religious (Rowan Williams et al) claim that the 'New Atheists' are apparently misrepresenting religion.

Edmund Standing does a good job of summarising Christianity in 10 minutes - as AC Grayling said could be done (at the 6 June BHA 'Darwin, Humanism & Science conference).

The article has been blogged at Richard Dawkins (with 500+ comments), HASSNERS and Stephen Law.

'Theology turns the scientific method which we have followed since the Enlightenment upon its head. Where scientific research may start with a reasonable proposition based on prior evidence (a hypothesis) and then examine further data to see if this proposition is factually accurate, or may simply lead to the discovery of data which no-one had previously predicted, theology starts with the acceptance of ideas that have no factual basis or for which the evidence is appallingly weak and proudly proclaims acceptance of these ideas on the basis of 'faith' as a virtue, and then goes on to attempt to make these a priori beliefs appear intelligible and rational. In other words, the 'results' of theology have been arrived at before study to confirm them has taken place. The theologian does not approach the basic tenets of Christian faith as possible truths to be tested for logical consistency; he or she instead begins with the conclusion that a series of internally incoherent, pre-scientific, and fantastic 'beliefs' derived from 'faith' are true, and then attempts to dress these beliefs up in the clothes of intellectual credibility. Theology is not in this sense a proper academic pursuit, but is instead the attempt to mask superstition in a fog of pseudo-intellectual verbiage.'

Philosophy versus science?

Science and philosophy have sometimes seemed opposed. In fact science and philosophy are complementary. Often it is philosophy’s role to set questions and explain methods; science’s to apply the methods and answer the questions.

Science is sometimes seen as no more than a collection of facts and theories. But we owe to philosophers, notably Karl Popper, the realisation that science is above all else a method. It is the best method yet found by which we protect ourselves from error in our understanding of the world.
In truth natural selection did not so much make us great thinkers as great survivors. Our mental capacities, no less than our physical ones, are optimised for survival in the conditions that formed us. They therefore include a number of cognitive biases that helped our ancestors to avoid being eaten but which make it difficult for us to think clearly.

The scientific method, including the use of mathematics and logic, insists that we suspect our intuitions and that we test them by observation and experiment. This insistence is, of course, applicable to every factual claim, including those of theologians, alternative therapists, politicians and marketers.

But science is, of course, also a set of facts and theories. Both are often extraordinary. Science provides us with facts about the early moments of the universe and about the many strange and beautiful things in its current vast extent. It provides us too with facts about very small things – from sub-atomic particles to bacteria and cells. It reveals the amazing variety and complexity of living things.

But above all science provide us with explanations. With, that is, general theories that explain a vast range of phenomena from the motions of planets to the reactions of molecules. And these are preferable to the speculations of theologians and philosophers, or the prejudices of laymen, because they have survived rigorous testing. They are not mere opinion. These theories are, at best, wide-ranging, elegant and profound. They produce surprises as well as explaining the commonplace. It’s for this reason that I agree with Prof. A C Grayling’s remark last Saturday that science is “humanity’s greatest achievement”.

It’s often said that science cannot tell us what to do. Apologists for religion often suggest that this is a weakness. This is not the place to examine their own claims to moral and practical insight.

We are all faced with periodic needs to make morally difficult decisions. Humanists, like others, generally rely on their feelings and the advice of those they respect. But some of us would like to have a solid basis for these decisions and we look to the work of moral philosophers to at least clarify the issues. Philosophers can, indeed, bring clarity to complex issues; it’s what they do. In practice decisions often depend on basic moral principles, which humanists often share with others, and on our understanding of the facts. Specifically of the likely consequences of our actions.

But here we are back to science! For establishing facts and the likely consequences of actions are, at least when we try to take a general view, just what science does. Thus we see why Prof. Jonathan Glover, the notable moral philosopher, said in last year’s BHA Bentham lecture, that science could offer more than philosophy in resolving difficult moral problems.

Science rarely tackles morally significant issues because scientists often do not see how they could contribute (and perhaps because they fear the criticisms that would follow if they did). Yet humanists in particular need science’s contribution.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Darwin and the Naked Apes

Here's a light-hearted celebration of this year's birthday boy. Who said the Germans were solemn?

Monday, 8 June 2009

Humanists4Science at Cheltenham Science Festival 6-7 June

Humanists4Science attended the British Humanist Association stand at Cheltenham Science on 7 June and discussed H4S with dozens of visitors to the Festival.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Humanists4Science at BHA Conference: Darwin, Humanism & Science

Four committee members & at least one member of Humanists4Science attended the British Humanist Association "Darwin, Humanism & Science" Conference on 6 June 2009. We distributed 450 leaflets about H4S. At the pre-prandial drink before the dinner I sat next to Richard Dawkins and showed him the H4S A5 flyer. He said 'thanks'.

Richard Dawkins was presented with a BHA award for ‘work in promoting reason and science worldwide’ at the dinner. He gave a hilarious rendition of a conversation between Jeeves and Bertie Worster about the atheist bus campaign; an abbreviated version of this contribution to Ariane Sherine book 'The Atheists Guide to Christmas'.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Annual Darwin Day Lecture Feb 12, 2009,3929,n,n

British Humanist Association - Professor Sir David King

Richard Dawkins introduces the British Humanist Association's annual Darwin Day Lecture February 12, 2009.

Former chief scientific advisor to the government, Professor Sir David King, asks "Can British science rise to the challenges of the twenty-first century?"

Richard Dawkins introduces Sir David saying "It was his misfortune, I suppose, to be a leader of world scientific policy, including with respect to climate change and global warming, during a time when the world's most powerful nation was presided over by the most scientifically unenlightened President in living memory. Or from before that.

During the lecture Sir David, who advised the government for seven years during Tony Blair's premiership, says the invasion of Iraq will be remembered as "the first resource war of the twenty-first century". Sir David focuses on a "carousel of challenges", including food production, climate change, biodiversity, health and education, energy security and supply, water resource and conflict and terrorism.

At the end, Dawkins calls the lecture "an exhibition of the scientific mind at full stretch, scientific intelligence ranging over millions of years, ranging over all the important problems that face humanity."

Friday, 15 May 2009

A religion of love?

Religious apologists such as Prince Charles often say that Christianity is "a religion of love". A recent survey by the Pew Research Center makes this claim look pretty sick.

A survey of 742 Americans last month found that 49% think it is 'often or sometimes justified to torture terrorist suspects to obtain important information'. In fact the situation is worse than that since only 25% think that it's never justified. (So much for 'western values'!)

Religion does make a difference but unfortunately for its apologists it's the wrong way. The proportion saying torture is often or sometimes justified are:
  • 54% of those attending services weekly
  • 51% of those attending monthly or less often
  • 42% of those attending seldom or never.
In truth, religion may not be the real issue here. The big difference is really between Republicans (64% of whom support torture) and Democrats (only 36% of whom do so). American Christianity has to be seen as a social not an intellectual phenomenon. American Republicans go to church to affirm their support for tradition and support torture because they expect to benefit from it through US political and commercial dominance.

OK, it's probably more complicated than that. Americans probably have several other reasons for supporting torture such as support for state authority which is a positive value for conservatives but not for liberals.

What it's not is evidence that religion - even a religion allegedly based on the Sermon on the Mount - makes society better. Plainly, if it has any effect it is to make it worse.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

The Biology of Belief at Sam Harris's Reason Project

In collaboration with colleagues at USC and UCLA, Sam Harris is completing a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study of religious faith, using both atheists and committed Christians as subjects to elucidate the 'Biology of Belief'.

More on this topic at Tom Rees Epiphenom.

Related Articles:

Harris, S., Sheth, S.A., Cohen, M.S. (2008). Functional neuroimaging of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty. Annals of Neurology, 63(2), 141-147.

Sacks, O. & J. Hirsch. (2008). A Neurology of Belief Annals of Neurology, 63(2), 129-130.

Van Biema, D. (2008). My Nose, My Brain, My Faith. Time. (Jan. 10).

Van Biema, D. (2007). What Your Brain Looks Like on Faith. Time. (Dec. 14).

Shermer, M. (2008). Adam's Maxim and Spinoza's Conjecture. Scientific American. (March).

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Quack remedies spread by virtue of being useless

Mark Tanaka hypothesis to explain the persistence in use of medical quackery is that people simply copy the treatments used by other sick people. Since quackery treatments will be used for a longer time than proven remedies, the quackery treatments will tend to be copied more often than the proven remedies.

However James Holland Jones says that this hypothesis may not be the whole story. People use
language to communicate to others whether a treatment is actually working so one would expect the quackery treatments not to be taken up as often as proven remedies.

Eating a vulture won't clear a bad case of syphilis nor will a drink made of rotting snakes treat leprosy, but these and other bogus medical treatments spread precisely because they don't work. That's the counterintuitive finding of a mathematical model of medical quackery.

Ineffective treatments don't cure an illness, so sufferers demonstrate them to more people than those who recovery quickly after taking real medicines.

"The assumption is that when people pick up treatments to try, they're basically observing other people," says Mark Tanaka, a mathematical biologist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, who led the study. "People don't necessarily know that what somebody is trying is going to work."

The World Health Organization is demanding better proof that folk medicines work before they can be approved. And the Malaysian government has rejected more than a third of the 25,000 applications to register traditional medicines it has received because the treatments are ineffective or dangerous.

Despite these efforts, quack medicine persists around the world. Some Nigerians treat malaria with witchcraft, a South African health minister recently claimed that garlic and beetroot treat HIV, and western health stores brim with unproven treatments for almost any disease imaginable. For instance St John's wort does nothing for attention deficit hyperactive disorder in children, a recent placebo-controlled trial concluded.

Contagious treatments

To understand why these quack medical treatments persist in the face of better proven remedies, Tanaka applied mathematical models used to measure evolutionary fitness to medical treatments.

His model accounted for factors including the rate of conversion to a treatment, the effectiveness of a treatment, the rate at which people abandon a treatment, the odds of recovering naturally, and the chances of dying. The model starts with a single person demonstrating a treatment – rubbish or not – and measures how many people are influenced to go on to give the treatment a try.

Under a wide range of conditions, quack treatments garnered more converts than proven hypothetical medicines that offer quicker recovery, Tanaka found. "The very fact that they don't work mean that people that use them stay sick longer" and demonstrate a treatment to more people, he says.

Bad treatments don't always win out. Recurring diseases are more likely to promote effective treatments than rare diseases because repeated demonstration weeds out bad treatments, Tanaka found.

'Just ask'

But is this model valid in cultures where evidence-based medicine predominates, and government groups such as the US Food and Drug Administration vet most medical treatments?

Tanaka thinks so, pointing to the popularity of alternative medicines and the debate over the effectiveness of FDA-approved drugs. "In many situations people will just observe and copy anyway, regardless what the official information is," he says.

And in some cases, one peer-reviewed study may conclude that a drug works, while another shows it doesn't. "Even where there is a bit of clinical research, we don't really know yet whether at lot of medicines are effective," he says.

"I think it's an interesting idea. It's quite clever", James Holland Jones, a biological anthropologist at Stanford University in California, says of the model. However, language allows people to vet unproven remedies without trying them, he adds – that is, you can just ask if a treatment was effective. "You don't necessarily have to copy everything."

Journal reference: PLoS-ONE (DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0005192.s001)

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Challenges to Intelligent Design

The proponents of Creationism and Intelligent Design are fond of issuing challenges to Evolution. So here are six questions for them.

Who designed human parasites such as the tape worm?
Nature includes many kinds of human parasite from bacteria to round worms. David Attenborough has refered to "... a little boy sitting on the banks of a river in west Africa who has a worm boring through his eyeball, turning him blind before he's five years old."

Many parasites, like that one, cause severe and debilitating diseases. Why would a merciful God do this to us?

And if God did not design them who did? (And why did God let them do it?)

Parasites are no surprise to evolutionists. Parasitism is just another way to make a living.

Why did God design bats?
Bats are flying mammals and, as flying creatures, rather less successful than birds. If God wanted a nocturnal flying creature what's wrong with owls? Why take a design optimised for life on the ground and modify it for flight?

Come to that why did he design dolphins, whales, penguins and ostriches? What does a ground dwelling biped need with wings?

Evolution easily explains these weird creatures. Evolution is a bodger not a designer. It is hugely ingenious but has no foresight at all.

Why did God design 350,000 species of beetle?
Clearly God LIKES beetles - perhaps they show his image - but why so many kinds? Really a few hundred would seem enough.

Evolution explains why each ecological niche can produce a separate species. Many niches lead to many species. Clear it is. Elegant it's not!

Why do fish that live in the dark have eyes?
There are many species of fish that live in caves and never see light. Most of these species have eyes. Poor eyes but nonetheless eyes. Why did God bother to give them eyes?

Another non-problem for evolution. They have eyes because their ancestors saw light. Evolution
often leaves loose ends.

Why did God take so long to produce humans if that was his real purpose?
The Earth is about 4, 500 million years old whilst humans only appeared within the last 100,000 or so (depending what you count as human). Of course no one would expect God to be impatient but why waste 150 million years on dinosaurs? Did he change his mind?

Evolution is a slow process and has no end in view. We may see humans as its greatest achievement but evolution doesn't care.

Why do unborn humans have tails, gill sacs and full body hair?
These traits are discussed in any decent medical textbook though they don't occur at the same time. Anyone who's seen a premature baby will have seen the body hair. Why bother to create structures that are then lost?

Evolutionists know that nature works with what it finds. It created humans from hairy apes. And if we trace our ancestry back far enough we find - surprise! - fish!

Intelligent design cannot answer these questions or thousands like them. Yet they are easy to understand as the result of evolution.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

National Science and Engineering Week - British Science Association

BHAScience is not the only organisation with a new name! British Association for the Advancement of Science ('the BA') is now known as British Science Association. They have a new logo too - or should that be called a rorschach inkblot test?!

6-15 March 2009 is National Science and Engineering Week with apparently thousands of events running in schools, museums, shopping centres and even pubs throughout the UK.

I searched for 'Dorset' and discovered an amazing society on my doorstep - BOURNEMOUTH NATURAL SCIENCE SOCIETY with a talk 'How on Earth did Life Start' on 10 March.

What amazing events can you find in your area during
National Science and Engineering Week?

Saturday, 14 March 2009

GOD IN THE LAB, London Sat. 21st March - one day event by Center for Inquiry

GOD IN THE LAB, Sat. 21st March - book now!

Location: Conway Hall. 25 Red Lion Square WC1R 4LR,London

Details: Center for Inquiry, London meeting next Saturday 21 March 2009.

Description: A day with some of the World's leading scientific researchers into faith, many from Oxford University. We'll be looking at hearing voices, possession, etc. What goes on the brain of someone hearing voices? Come and see the MRI scans. Is religious belief hard-wired into us? Yes, says one of our scientists, and provides the empirical evidence.

One of our speakers was recently featured in NEW SCIENTIST magazine: Born believers: How your brain creates God.

A unique opportunity to hear and question those working at the cutting edge of this growing field of scientific research. Presented by CFI London and the Ethical Society.

To book, send a cheque payable to “Centre for Inquiry London” to: Executive Director Suresh Lalvani, Centre for Inquiry London, at the above address (Include names of all those coming). Alternatively pay by PAYPAL. Use the “Support CFI UK” button at and follow the instructions. Or just show up! £10 or £5 concessions.

Start Time: 10:30 (for 11.00)
End Time: 16:00

Friday, 13 March 2009

Belief and the brain's 'God spot'

source:,3650,n,n with Comments (87+)

Reposted from:

Scientists say they have located the parts of the brain that control religious faith. And the research proves, they contend, that belief in a higher power is an evolutionary asset that helps human survival. Steve Connor reports

A belief in God is deeply embedded in the human brain, which is programmed for religious experiences, according to a study that analyses why religion is a universal human feature that has encompassed all cultures throughout history.

Scientists searching for the neural "God spot", which is supposed to control religious belief, believe that there is not just one but several areas of the brain that form the biological foundations of religious belief.
The researchers said their findings support the idea that the brain has evolved to be sensitive to any form of belief that improves the chances of survival, which could explain why a belief in God and the supernatural became so widespread in human evolutionary history.
"Religious belief and behaviour are a hallmark of human life, with no accepted animal equivalent, and found in all cultures," said Professor Jordan Grafman (Biography), from the US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, near Washington. "Our results are unique in demonstrating that specific components of religious belief are mediated by well-known brain networks, and they support contemporary psychological theories that ground religious belief within evolutionary-adaptive cognitive functions."

Scientists are divided on whether religious belief has a biological basis. Some evolutionary theorists have suggested that Darwinian natural selection may have put a premium on individuals if they were able to use religious belief to survive hardships that may have overwhelmed those with no religious convictions. Others have suggested that religious belief is a side effect of a wider trait in the human brain to search for coherent beliefs about the outside world. Religion and the belief in God, they argue, are just a manifestation of this intrinsic, biological phenomenon that makes the human brain so intelligent and adaptable.

The latest study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, involved analysing the brains of volunteers, who had been asked to think about religious and moral problems and questions. For the analysis, the researchers used a functional magnetic-resonance imaging machine, which can identify the most energetically-active regions of the brain.

They found that people of different religious persuasions and beliefs, as well as atheists, all tended to use the same electrical circuits in the brain to solve a perceived moral conundrum – and the same circuits were used when religiously-inclined people dealt with issues related to God.

The study found that several areas of the brain are involved in religious belief, one within the frontal lobes of the cortex – which are unique to humans – and another in the more evolutionary-ancient regions deeper inside the brain, which humans share with apes and other primates, Professor Grafman said.

"There is nothing unique about religious belief in these brain structures. Religion doesn't have a 'God spot' as such, instead it's embedded in a whole range of other belief systems in the brain that we use everyday," Professor Grafman said.

The search for the God spot has in the past led scientists to many different regions of the brain. An early contender was the brain's temporal lobe, a large section of the brain that sits over each ear, because temporal-lobe epileptics suffering seizures in these regions frequently report having intense religious experiences. One of the principal exponents of this idea was Vilayanur Ramachandran, from the University of California, San Diego, who asked several of his patients with temporal-lobe epilepsy to listen to a mixture of religious, sexual and neutral words while measuring their levels of arousal and emotional reactions. Religious words elicited an unusually high response in these patients.

This work was followed by a study where scientists tried to stimulate the temporal lobes with a rotating magnetic field produced by a "God helmet". Michael Persinger, from Laurentian University in Ontario, found that he could artificially create the experience of religious feelings – the helmet's wearer reports being in the presence of a spirit or having a profound feeling of cosmic bliss.

Dr Persinger said that about eight in every 10 volunteers report quasi-religious feelings when wearing his helmet. However, when Professor Richard Dawkins, an evolutionist and renowned atheist, wore it during the making of a BBC documentary, he famously failed to find God, saying that the helmet only affected his breathing and his limbs.

Other studies of people taking part in Buddhist meditation suggested the parietal lobes at the upper back region of the brain were involved in controlling religious belief, in particular the mystical elements that gave people a feeling of being on a higher plane during prayer.

Andrew Newberg, from the University of Pennsylvania, injected radioactive isotope into Buddhists at the point at which they achieved meditative nirvana. Using a special camera, he captured the distribution of the tracer in the brain, which led the researchers to identify the parietal lobes as playing a key role during this transcendental state.

Professor Grafman was more interested in how people coped with everyday moral and religious questions. He said that the latest study, published today, suggests the brain is inherently sensitive to believing in almost anything if there are grounds for doing so, but when there is a mystery about something, the same neural machinery is co-opted in the formulation of religious belief.

"When we have incomplete knowledge of the world around us, it offers us the opportunities to believe in God. When we don't have a scientific explanation for something, we tend to rely on supernatural explanations," said Professor Grafman, who believes in God. "Maybe obeying supernatural forces that we had no knowledge of made it easier for religious forms of belief to emerge."

Tom Rees, H4S member has reviewed this research at Epiphenom.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Television - curse of society!

The decline in US ‘social capital’
It isn’t what you know but who you know.” – trad.

Robert Putnam, sociology professor at Harvard, has shown that the US’s social capital, ie the value of the relationships between people, peaked around 1960 and has been in steady decline ever since. He has a LOT of evidence for this, published in 2000 as Bowling Alone and on the web at

His analysis, again very thorough, shows that this is a bad thing. It is damaging to educational performance, child welfare, public safety and prosperity, health, happiness and democracy.

There are several causes, the largest of which is responsible for about 40% of the decline. That cause is television. At risk of gross over-simplification Putnam says that because it is so easy people watch TV rather than going out to meet people and thus making or reinforcing those inter-personal relationships that are the essence of social capital.

He also finds that some kinds of TV programme are more harmful than others. The worst are soap operas and reality TV shows, the least are news and documentary programmes. He does not suggest a reason for this yet I find it intriguing.

Perhaps these are just the most compelling – I will not say ‘best’ – shows.

The psychological roots of the problem

But I think there’s another and more interesting reason. What distinguishes the best from the worst kinds of programme is the importance of on-screen characters. Soap operas and reality TV programmes are about characters rather than, say, plot, location or ideas. And the programme makers try to make their audiences care about these characters; to think of them as real people. (This is easier on reality TV shows because the characters are real people even if acting strangely.)

And here’s why this matters.

Commonsense suggests and a variety of studies confirm that people have a finite capacity for tracking personal relationships. Prof. Robin Dunbar of Oxford, a humanist scientist, has estimated this at 150. Doubtless there is individual variation (and the exact number does not matter). This number reflects the importance of social relationships within hunter-gatherer bands in our evolution.

People tend to treat media images of people as if they were real people. Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass of Stanford have shown this in repeated experiments – published as The Media Equation. This rather perverse fact reflects the fact that our minds evolved in a period in which the only things that looked like people were, in fact, people. Therefore on-screen characters will occupy some of their brains’ finite capacity for tracking personal relationships. The effect will presumably be greatest for on-screen characters who appear regularly and that exhibit their relationships with other on-screen characters. The effect will therefore be particularly great for soap operas and least for news, documentaries and music. It will be greater for TV than for cinema.

Therefore people who watch a lot of reality TV and soap operas will have less available capacity for managing relationships with real people. This will be especially acute for soap operas because they have a lot of characters. (60 in Coronation Street.)

Therefore watching TV, especially soap operas, undermines real personal relationships, especially in those who watch most frequently and regularly. That’s pretty much what Putnam found.

What follows?

Many conclusions might be drawn from this analysis. I think the links between sociology, psychology and our evolutionary history make it inherently interesting and possibly significant. However, I won’t claim to be unbiased!

However, the most important conclusions concern the effect of television (and do not depend on my sortie into evolutionary psychology!).

  • First, TV is damaging our society. Social conservatives have claimed this since it first appeared – turns out they were right.
  • Second, the increasing richness of TV (colour, larger screens, more channels and longer hours) is probably making this worse.
  • Third, we should avoid watching soap operas – and make sure our children don’t see them either.