Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Ireland's Blasphemy Law - the next move

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Speaking of Blasphemy Day (see below), Atheist Ireland are using it as a launchpad for their next move against Ireland's absurd new blasphemy law (see Newton Emerson in our current issue for the inside story on that):
"Atheist Ireland is seeking your help today to launch and shape a new long-term campaign with two important aims: to repeal the new Irish blasphemy law and to attain a secular Irish Constitution. Specifically, we are asking you to do three things: send us a message of support, get actively involved in shaping this project, and lobby to persuade Irish politicians to pursue these policies."
You can read the details in full on the Atheist Ireland website, and if you live in Ireland why not get in touch with them and get involved in the campaign?

Blasphemy Day 2009

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Today, September 30th, is International Blasphemy Day, organised by the Center for Inquiry as part of their Campaign for Free Expression:
"Blasphemy Day International is a campaign seeking to establish September 30th as a day to promote free speech and to stand up in a show of solidarity for the freedom to challenge, criticize, and satirize religion without fear of murder, litigation, or reprisal. The event was created as a reaction against those who would seek to take away the right to satirize and criticize a particular set of beliefs that have been given a privileged status over other beliefs."
Now, far be it from us to encourage gratuitous sacrilege and blind, ugly heresy ... ah, go on, give it your best shot by leaving a comment on this post.

And when you're done, read Newton Emerson's column from our current issue, in which he tells the true story behind Ireland's shiny new blasphemy law. After which, you may fancy leaving a second blasphemous comment.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Atheist class wars

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There's been a bit of a debate going on over at the Guardian's Comment is Free Belief section as to whether, to sum things up, atheists are all smug and middle class or not. Basically, their Belief editor Andrew Brown says they are, and have simply replaced sneering at the poor with sneering at believers, while Atheist Bus Campaign creator Ariane Sherine says atheists are actually really nice and class is nothing to do with it at all – they're an inclusive bunch (the sub-head of her piece says "club", although we doubt this was Ariane's choice), and it makes no difference if you're rich or poor.

All of which got us thinking about the history of atheism in this country, particularly that of our own organisation, the Rationalist Association. The Rationalist Press Association, as it was known for much of its history, started as quite the opposite of a smug middle class concern, and we'd like to think that still is not the case. So I wrote a response to the debate - the Guardian didn't go for it, so I may as well put it up here (I'd particularly recommend reading Jonathan Rée's piece on the history of our organisation, if you're interested in learning more).
Ariane Sherine quite rightly lambasts Andrew Brown for his assertion that the “new atheism” is a firmly middle class phenomenon (the poor, you see, simply think "it's all rubbish" – no snobbery apparent there), and suggests that atheism is a club open to all. By “atheists” Ariane presumably means anyone from among the millions of Britons who don’t believe in some form of supernatural deity, so if they were in fact to come together as an organised “club” we’d be looking at quite a varied coalition of people. Suffice to say, it’d be fairly impossible to characterise that club according to the old working/middle/upper class distinctions. So in this sense, the argument over whether British atheists are middle class or not is a fairly futile one.

However, if by British atheism Andrew Brown is referring to the intellectual tradition of secularism and free thought which arose in the 19th century in response to the cultural dominance of the Church, he should perhaps have brushed up on his history before declaring it to be an exclusively middle class concern. Fearless campaigners such as Annie Beasant and the National Secular Society’s founder Charles Bradlaugh (himself a working class boy from the East End) dedicated their lives to challenging the Anglican status-quo in Victorian England, and encouraging the working classes to look beyond the rigid teachings handed down to them by the Church. Beasant and Bradlaugh played a vital role in promoting the use of birth control, having realised the important role it could play in the emancipation of the poor, which earned them both jail sentences in the 1870s (although they were eventually successful in overturning the verdict).

At the same time Charles Watts, a London printer whose father Charles senior had been involved in the founding of the NSS, set about establishing Watts Literary Guide, a periodical dedicated to publishing “literary gossip” of interest to freethinkers. The publishing firm behind this, Watts & Co, would soon become the Rationalist Press Association, which continues today as the Rationalist Association (publisher of New Humanist magazine, the modern incarnation of the Literary Guide). From the end of the 19th century Watts expanded the activities of the RPA to include the publication of books and pamphlets, including the hugely successful and celebrated Thinkers’ Library, a series of cheap reprints which, as Jonathan Rée writes in this history of the RPA, “made the works of sceptical Victorians like Darwin, Huxley, Arnold and Mill available to working people at only sixpence a volume”. If the popularity of the Thinkers’ Library is anything to go by, we can at least surmise that Andrew Brown’s assertion that the poor think "it's all rubbish" did not apply to the working classes in 19th and 20th century Britain.

And as for the 21st century, we know that readership of New Humanist is growing, along with membership of the Rationalist Association, the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society. I’m afraid that at New Humanist we don’t ask new subscribers to indicate their social class when they fill out their subscription form, but what we can tell from the correspondence we receive from readers, as well as the many corners of the UK (and the world) in which they live, is that copies of our magazine do not just end up “in lavatories nicely warmed by Agas”. And neither, I should think, will copies of Ariane’s Atheist's Guide to Christmas.

Vatican on child abuse: other churches are worse than us

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Good to see that the Guardian have picked up on a statement made by the Vatican to the UN human rights council last week on the subject of child abuse. The Holy See was responding to accusations made by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) that it has covered up cases of child abuse involving Catholic priests, with Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society (and representing IHEU) stating that:
"The many thousands of victims of abuse deserve the international community to hold the Vatican to account, something it has been unwilling to do, so far. Both states and children's organisations must unite to pressurise the Vatican to open its files, change its procedures worldwide, and report suspected abusers to civil authorities."
And how did the Vatican respond? By stating that only "somewhere between 1.5% and 5% of the Catholic clergy has been involved in sexual abuse cases" and pointing out that:
"While many speak of child abuse, i.e. pedophilia, it would be more correct to speak of ephebophilia, being a homosexual attraction to adolescent males. Of all priests involved in the abuses, 80 to 90% belong to this sexual orientation minority which is sexually engaged with adolescent boys between the age of 11 and 17 years old."
And having made sure we all have our terminology sorted, the Vatican goes on to use the "other people are at it too" defence, pointing out that sexual abuses have almost been committed by Protestant and Jewish clergy in the United States. The Vatican ends by stating:
"As the Catholic Church has been busy cleaning its own house, it would be good if other institutions and authorities, where the major part of abuses are reported, could do the same and inform the media about it."
Which somehow makes the Vatican less guilty, presumably?

How should we respond to the BNP?

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As the debate continues over the BBC's decision to invite British National Party leader Nick Griffin on to Question Time in October, and cabinet minister and Blackburn MP Jack Straw's subsequent decision to appear in order to debate him, Radio Four last night broadcast regular New Humanist contributor Kenan Malik's new documentary Who's Afraid of the BNP?, in which he explores how Britain should respond to the electoral rise of the far right.

Speaking to campaigners, academics and politicians (from Griffin himself to opponents like Barking and Daghenham MP Margaret Hodge), Malik asks if the BNP should be banned, shunned, or whether it's time to engage with it in proportion to its recent electoral gains.

You can listen to Kenan's documentary now via BBC iPlayer.

Friday, 25 September 2009

A week of humble pie

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Following my mistaken assessment of the AIDS-denial film House of Numbers on last week's Guardian Science podcast, I've done a week of concerted cramming on AIDS-denialism, something I arguably should have done before discussing House of Numbers in public. Anyway this has led me both to be able to provide an answer to the question I posed on Monday (Was I conned by AIDS-denialists? Yes I bloody was) and to contribute a short correction for the next Guardian Science Podcast (at the end is the text of what I said). Before you read it, two final things. First, thanks to the people who posted in the comments of the original post, not everyone (see below) but many of them (you?) who made me feel just a little better about my gaffe by pointing out, as Snout does, that my error was partly a result of explicit tactics by the denialists:
"the issue is not that the film was conceived and funded by individuals connected with "Rethinking AIDS". The issue is that these origins were concealed, while presenting Leung as an independent and impartial investigator "just asking questions"."Rethinkers" have long ago given up any pretense of subjecting their assertions to informed critical assessment by scientists competent in the fields they claim they are critiquing. Their strategy is to directly target the general public using a standard set of rhetorical techniques, argumentoids and misrepresentations."
Having met the filmmaker Brent Leung I can attest to the fact that he vigorously denies being a denialist (is he in denial?) but the simple fact is he made a whole film about the (supposed; manufactured) 'controversy' about whether HIV causes AIDS without once mentioning the phenomena of AIDs-denialism, or that some of his primary infomants had no scientific credibility at all, or that the very people who were evidently helping him with his film are notorious denialists (though to my continued discomfort I didn't recognise this at first viewing).

'Chris' comforted me with this thought:
"'Denial' involves making statements irrespective of the evidence that is available (and which clinical trials have provided in huge abundance). What Caspar has displayed here is the diametrically opposite quality - something which is in line with science itself: he's looked at the facts again, listened to the other side, and taken the opportunity to re-formulate his opinion, in public."
I would say 'bless you' Chris but that would involve a whole other round of apologising so I'll just give you maximum respect!

There are other instructive posts in the comments, in a different way. As you will see if you're brave enough, the forum has become populated with AIDS denialists of various stripes, with a few gallant rationalists trying to hold back the tide of their multiple postings, vituperative language and accusations, refusal to engage in a proper dialogue, well developed persecution mania and exhausting stamina. One such is Snout, who provides what I think is a really important distinction between the different strands of denialism:
"Neither the Duesbergians "HIV is a real retrovirus but cannot cause disease" or the Perthians "HIV does not exist" can ever rethink their positions because this would require them to acknowledge the devastation caused by their respective ideologies, including the public health policy paralysis in South Africa during the Mbeki presidency which cost a conservative estimate of over 300,000 lives. A third major root of AIDS denialism comes from people with HIV/AIDS, or who are at risk, who have become alienated both by the stigma attached to the disease and the difficulties of negotiating with a seemingly monolithic medical and scientific establishment which often speaks an arcane and sometimes impenetrable language.

In simple terms, HIV/AIDS denialism is a result of the first two groups exploiting the alienation of the third. There are other players, including the proponents of "alternative" health care (sometimes with financial motivations) and some out and out nutcases with a variety of odd agendas. The Duesberg-Gallo vendetta is tedious and irrelevant in 2009. The Perthian arguments are pointless and specious for anyone past the late-night undergraduate bull-session phase (hence their internet popularity).

However, the third root of AIDS denialism deserves serious attention, because it highlights the failure of science and reason to communicate to those who need it most."
Well said.

For the record here is a transcript of what I will say on the next Guardian Science Podcast, available from Monday:
On last week’s science podcast I spoke about the film House of Numbers, and said that it did a good job of raising questions around HIV and AIDS and arguably provides a journalistic service. I also said it was not an AIDS-denial film. I have been justifiably criticised for saying this. I was completely wrong. House of Numbers is an AIDS-denial film.

At the time I spoke I had only just watched the film, and took it at face value. Since then I have researched it and met the filmmaker Brent Leung. Now I know that the film’s claim to be an objective exploration of scientific debates within AIDS research is disingenuous. It misrepresents the views of many of the AIDS experts interviewed (14 of whom have complained) and suggests a false equivalence between credible scientists and discredited loons with no evidence to back up their claims. The film certainly raise questions, but they are not scientific questions – there is no serious debate about the existence of the HIV virus, as the film claims, nor is the suggestion that anti-retroviral drugs do more harm than good backed up by evidence.

The real questions it raises are political – what motivates the weird coalition behind AIDS-denialism of which this is such and obvious example? How did the filmmaker fool so many credible scientists into contributing? Who funded this grubby piece of propaganda? House of Numbers is a dangerous disingenuous con-trick, and, briefly, I fell for it in a rather public fashion. I’m doing my penance now by reading Seth Kalichman’s excellent Denying Aids: Conspiracy Theories, Pseudoscience, and Human Tragedy. If you need inoculation against AIDs-denial conspiracy theories I suggest you do the same.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Place those Papal bets...

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Via Times religion correspondent Ruth Gledhill, we learn that bookmakers Paddy Power are offering a set of Pope specials to celebrate his forthcoming visit to the UK. You can place bets on how many people will turn out to see him, when he'll come, how long he'll stay for and who will be the Prime Minister when he comes. Given that reports yesterday were suggesting the visit will take place in September, tipsters here at New Humanist say a double on a September visit at 5/4, with PM David Cameron welcoming him (1/10) could produce a healthy return.

It seems Paddy Power are no strangers to Pope betting, having had a market open on who will be the next Pope ever since Benedict took a tumble and broke his wrist back in July.

Pope Tour 2010: Pontification for the Nation

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We had a bit of fun on Twitter yesterday afternoon following the announcement that Pope Benedict XVI will be coming to the UK in 2010. Deciding that, like all good rock tours (he may well play Wembley Stadium, after all), the Pope's tour will need a snappy title (a la U2's current 360° Tour, the Rolling Stones' A Bigger Bang Tour, etc), we set our Twitter followers the task of coming up with one. To get things started we threw a few out there:
The Pontification for the Nation Tour
The Highway to Heaven Tour
The Faith, Pope and Charity Tour
The Papal Bull in a China Shop Tour
The Communion for the Union Tour
And here are some of the best suggestions we received (Twitter user in brackets):
The Ratzo Roadshow (@Heresy_Corner)
A Bigger Hat Tour (@andyh2o)
The Masses to Masses Tour (@carlhardcastle)
The Immaculate Misconception Tour (@kevinwakley)
Preach the Controversy Tour (@paulmadsen)
The More in Pope than Expectation Tour (@andyh2o)
Roman Holiday Tour (@copwatcher)
The Liturgical Mystery Tour (@Heresy_Corner)
Live Crusade (@MerseyMal)
The Kiss my Ring Tour (@djhanks)
Holypalooza (@facesake)
The Pope-a-Dope Tour (@gavmcdermott)
On top of the tour name game, both @paulwooding1973 and @thesophie raised the issue of what would be on the Pope's tour rider (2 x Holy Water, 12 wafers, amulet of wine, 3 incense sticks and a sceptre, said Wooding), while we had numerous suggestions for support acts (Black Sabbath, Lost Prophets, The Shamen...).

Plus, it was suggested that October 2010 might be a good time for a second wave of the Atheist Bus Campaign – perhaps even an Atheist Pope Mobile Campaign. @atheistcrow kindly mocked up an appropriate photo.

And finally, not everyone was getting excited about Pope Tour 2010. Here's what @ACrispix had to say:
"Not attending the #PopeTour as can't handle papal fanboys saying they were there in '82 and it was so much better."
We'll leave it at that for now. Let's just say we can't wait until next year. If you have any more suggestions, leave them as comments on this post. You can never have too many Pope gags.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Benedict XVI to visit the UK (in a year's time)

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Big news people - the Pope's just announced a UK tour (he does have an album coming out, after all). It's not happening until October 2010, but we're still excited. Of course, it's much bigger news for Catholics, but it will be great for us too. In fact, I'd say it'll be the biggest thing to happen to the New Humanist blog since Sarah Palin became John McCain's running mate.

See you next year, Holy Father.

PS - We've started a little game on Twitter. If U2 are on their 360° Tour, the Rolling Stones have had their A Bigger Bang Tour, Metallica had a World Magnetic Tour, etc, then what's the Pope's UK tour going to be called? We've had lots of suggestions so far - The Immaculate Misconception Tour, The Ratzo Road Show, The Masses to Masses Tour. Get involved - leave a comment here, or tweet with the hashtag #PopeTour.

BHA's complaint against religious ad upheld

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The Advertising Standards Agency has upheld a complaint made by the British Humanist Association against an advert which claimed that a "blessed oil" has the ability to cure life-threatening conditions. The advert, placed on a billboard in Finsbury Park by the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, contained a testimony from a mother, Julia Caro, in which she made the following claim for an oil used in a "holy anointing" session due to be hosted by the church:
"My son was born with a heart problem. After a party he started bleeding from the mouth. I rushed him to hospital and the specialist said he had 16 loose arteries. He went into a coma, his heart stopped and both his lungs collapsed. Doctors and specialists expected him to die. At the UKCG I was given some blessed oil to anoint my son with. Now that his heart and lungs are better I thank the UKCG for all the spiritual support I received."
The ASA's ruling, which you can read in full on their website, states that the ad was in breach of advertising codes in areas relating to substantiation and truthfulness, and expresses a concern that it "could discourage people from seeking essential treatment by implying that the oil had a curative effect".

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

“Mums go to Iceland, Jesus goes to Aldi”, etc...

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As you may know, at New Humanist we love the Church of England's ongoing efforts to appear relevant in 21st century Britain. And this latest attempt by the Bishop of Reading, as part of their Back to Church Sunday initiative, has to rank as one of our all-time favourites:
"How did it come to this, that we have become known as just the Marks and Spencer option when in our heart of hearts we know that Jesus would just as likely be in the queue at Asda or Aldi? That’s so frustrating. Jesus got us started with church simply. Like this: sitting us down in groups on the grass and telling simple stories. Not simplistic. But certainly not complicated. All his first disciples were down-to-earth people who wanted to know what life was all about."
[Thanks to Christina Martin for the headline]

Monday, 21 September 2009

Was I conned by AIDS-denialists?

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I'm trying to figure out if I have fallen victim to a con. I'd love to hear what you think (so feel free to post) once you've heard my side.

It goes like this. Yesterday I chaired a panel discussion at the Cambridge Film Festival called “Science on Screen: Darwin, Denial and Documentary”. The idea was to gather together science-themed films from the festival in a discussion about how (well) science is depicted in documentary and fiction films. The films under discussion were the Darwin-denial film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, an exploration of belief called The Nature of Existence, the Darwin biopic Creation and, most important for this discussion, a film called House of Numbers a documentary about AIDS.

So in preparation I watched all four films last week. On Thursday I was a guest on the Guardian Science Podcast, where I discussed some of the films, as a part of the issue of how we decide who to engage in constructive dialogue, and who are the nutters that are best avoided. You should listen to it so you can follow what comes next. The issue is what I said about House of Numbers - as you will hear I said that it was a film that raised important questions, that I didn't consider it a denial film, and that after watching it I felt I was armed with a greater understanding of issues pertaining to AIDS and HIV and that it had persuaded me to find out more.

Now I have found out more, and the questions that people are asking, and I'm asking myself is: was I conned into taking the film seriously as an insight into a scientific controversy rather than a shoddy, ideologically driven and utterly unscientific piece of AIDs-denial propaganda. I'm asking this both because of what I have found out myself since I did the podcast, and because – I have been lead to understand –there are others out there, including Mr Bad Science himself Ben Goldacre, who not only take the latter position on the film but having heard me on the podcast, think I've let the rationalist side down.

So what have I learned since Thursday?

The first thing that happened when I arrived in Cambridge was that one of the festival organisers told me that he thought the film was a clear example of "AIDs-denial" (we'll get to what that is in a minute), that the festival was going to reject the film but then decided to include it as long as there was discussion about it, that the local hospital had requested that the film not be shown since it misrepresented the science and could, if believed, endanger lives, and that Ben Goldacre himself had similarly argued that the film should not be shown at the festival.

Then I met Brent Leung (that's him in the picture, me in the glasses), the director/presenter of the film, who I was asked to add to the panel. We sat round with the other panellists and discussed some of the issues arising from the film. Then we did the panel discussion, during which time I got a chance to hear Leung defend his film, hear the other panellists (historian Louise Foxcroft and Leonor Sierra from Sense about Science) criticise it in various ways, and members of the audience have their say. I have spent today reading up on the controversy that surrounded the screening of House of Numbers in the US and Googling the experts Leung talked to in the film, in order to try to figure out if the film does indeed count as a credible expose on the heretofore hidden controversy about AIDs numbers, the relationship (if any) between AIDs and HIV and the effectiveness of treatment.

I'm still trying to marshal my thoughts around this issue - some of which are contradictory - so this might not be very coherent but here's the current state of my thinking on the subject, for what it's worth, with a random selection of mitigating factors, new insights, mea culpa(s) and restatements.

First up the podcast. I wish I had been able to raise, alongside what I said, all the reservations I had about the film - in terms of its structure, the sense that it was not reliable or had somehow stacked the decks - as I ended up giving it a kind of endorsement. That was not my intention. Partly this was a consequence of the fact I was comparing it to Expelled, which is such a ludicrous cack-handed piece of propaganda which does not even attempt to discuss actual science. House of Numbers couldn't hep but look better by comparison. But also it is true that the effect of House of Numbers on me was to raise an issue I had not thought much about, in such a way as to provoke a desire to know more.

Its critics argue that the film makes a clear case that HIV doesn't exist, that ART (anti-retroviral treatment) does more harm than good, and that it is poverty that causes AIDS. But I didn't, and don't, think that this is the only conclusion the viewer can reach - perhaps this is because the film is not a particularly effective or well-made piece of propaganda - and I appreciated it for raising these questions (even if they are, as appears the case, not genuine scientific questions or questions which have long-ago been settled in the scientific community). I also liked the way in which the film presented science as a conflicted area, where scientists do not agree with each other, and researchers become wedded to particular perspectives out of a sense of proprietorship, or for reasons of funding or reputation. This is, of course, true (as Dawkins said yesterday) of science as of any other specialist field with money and prestige attached to it. (I am reconsidering this now, see below).

Beyond that I liked the film because it was going to provide a very good case study, alongside Expelled, for a debate about the acceptable limits of questioning scientific orthodoxy, whether we should engage 'denialists', outsiders, cranks etc in discussion or ignore them (might one of them be, as they claim, a new Galileo?), and how we decide who is to be listened to and who ostracised (i.e. I 'liked' the film because it was going to be useful to me).

So what did the panel teach me?

First up, Brent. He is young and confident and just like his film he talks the talk about being 'objective' and dedicated to free speech and having merely stumbled upon a controversy, and wanting people to make up their own mind because lives are at stake and we are not being told the truth, while at the same time leading one to think there is probably a bit more to it than that, and you’d certainly like to find out more. In the debate he held his own, but was very punchy (perhaps the legacy of the vociferous debates he has had in America, but also suggesting an awareness he would be strongly criticised) and fairly unsophisticated. He baulked at a very gentle suggestion that perhaps a more thorough grounding in the philosophy and history of medicine might have deepened his understanding of the subject, and hotly argues that he gave equal screen time to both ‘sides’ of the arguments. He said that even if you removed the interviews with the more controversial figures in the film, what the mainstream scientists said would still lead us to think that AIDS drugs might be doing more harm than good, that the link between HIV and AIDS was not clearly established and that healthy people were bring misdiagnosed.

It was during these exchanges that it dawned on me that what I had at first appreciated about the film – that it throws some light on the fact that science is always partial, riven with contradictions, gets things wrong etc – was in fact somewhat bleeding obvious. The great shocking conspiracy Brent thinks he has uncovered and is waking the world up to could look, from another perspective, like a not very original insight, or even a very dangerous one if shackled to an unconvincing argument about the alternatives (what do the denialists propose?).

Originally I was more sanguine about the film than about Expelled, because Ben Stein’s film is a clear piece of propaganda with the clear ideological aim of undermining the audience’s confidence in evolution and making the case for allowing the teaching of ID in classrooms. It is at first blush much harder to find a clear ideological message, or aim, in House of Numbers. During the discussion I asked Brent several times what he was trying to achieve with the film – what his aim was. His platitudes about informed consent and trying to help the search for a system of testing that makes no mistakes at all sounded naive and unconvincing. But (and I still think this for now) whether it is because the film is not actually very well put together, or because it really wasn’t made, at least initially, strictly as propaganda, I still think it poses questions that encourage the audience to think and seek out more information. If they do that, as I have done, they quite quickly find plenty of evidence to contradict the AIDS-denial claims that critics of the film argue it is supporting. Incidentally, although the panellists were critical of the film for several reasons – including its faux naive Candide-esque narration, its wide-eyed incredulity at the fact that science isn’t right all the time, and its lack of historical and social context – neither Louise nor Leonor felt the film should not have been shown, and believe, I think, that the discussion it triggered was a productive one.

However, if you judge films and film-makers by the company they keep then there was clearly something else going on. Scattered amongst the audience were people who were clearly there because they felt that House of Numbers was a profound film, revealing a scandal at the heart of the AIDS industry which Brent has bravely exposed. One of these people held the floor for a few minutes in a rant which suggested that science is completely flawed, peer review is ineffective, and doctors prescribing ART are practising a form of genocide. There are more of those kinds of people here , and I must say when you hear this kind of swivel-eyed irrationalism from the supporters of the film you have wonder what it is really trying to say.

What I did not know until I read about it here, was the existence of a vociferous AIDS-denial faction in the US, who have rallied around House of Numbers (if not actually funded it – Leung is very reticent about the sources of his funding) and have been waging a campaign in the US to discredit the use of ART, cast doubt on the notion that HIV cases AIDS, and argue that they have been censored. Confusingly, AIDS-denialism does not deny the existence of AIDS per se, but denies that it is the HIV virus that causes AIDS (and also therefore that the way to treat Aids is to treat HIV). One such group is Rethinking Aids, who, according to the Bay Window article cited above, have taken to describing House of Numbers as ‘our film’. And this is hardly surprising, since if you peruse their website you can find a list of supporters that features many of the denialist experts featured in House of Numbers. Looked at in the light of this, House of Numbers actually looks a lot more like Expelled than at first sight – an insidious interweaving of interviews with ‘the establishment’ that makes their position look arrogant or incoherent (or is edited so as to make them appear to agree with the film's thesis) and interviews with ‘expert witnesses’ who turn out to all be representatives of one view (if not organisation) and whose expertise is questionable if not non-existent.

So, where does this leave us, I mean me?

Well, as I said, I regret sounding so upbeat about House of Numbers on the Guardian podcast, and in particular saying it wasn’t a denial film. On the other hand, I stick to what I said about the way in which it opened up a whole lot of interesting questions. It did. Even if the questions it posed about AIDS and HIV, funding, testing etc… are in fact pseudo-questions, in the sense that there is actually no real scientific credibility to them, they were new to me and having seen the film and done the research I know more about this issue than I did before, and I also now know about AIDS-denial. Beyond that the film does an even better job, not consciously and not in what happens on the screen but in relation to itself as a media object, of bringing to the surface a whole set of issues about free speech – how we legitimate challenges to scientific orthodoxy, who gets a place at the debating table – that are of absolute centrality to what we do. I can’t say, therefore, that I’d prefer it didn’t exist, or should be suppressed.

Another series of questions has been kicked up around the phenomena of AIDS-denialism itself. What is it? What are their aims? Who funds it? At the moment I feel a bit like I did when I first came across Adnan Oktar (so we went and found out LINK). I want to know more about Brent Leung, more about the people who support him, more about the logic of AIDS-denial. Is it fuelled by religious fervour (it is as hysterical as the pro-lifers?), by homophobia, by those who have been diagnosed with HIV who ardently wish to believe they are not going to die? (As suggested by this brilliant quote: “What mattered to me as person living with HIV was to be told that HIV did not cause AIDS. That was nice. Of course, it was like printing money when the economy is not doing well. Or pissing in your pants when the weather is too cold. Comforting for a while but disastrous in the long run.” Winstone Zulu, Zambian AIDS Activist and former denialist. From here)

The best thing I’ve come across so far is this excellent New Scientist piece by Jonny Steinberg (see our review of his book about Aids) which not only summarises the deluded AIDS-denial case but outs several of Brent Lueng’s informants: Christine Maggiore, whose AIDS denial Steinberg argues contributed to the death of her daughter, and her own death in December 2008 (something that is not mentioned in the film), and Eleni Papadopulos-Eleopulos from the ‘Perth Institute’, who feels able to appear in court and claim that HIV doesn’t exist on the basis of her scientific qualifications that amount to an undergraduate degree in nuclear physics.

One of the big problems about debates around AIDS is that, as Louise Foxcroft noted to me, there is a tendency to answer arguments you don’t agree by ‘lobbing dead babies’. Both sides claim to be saving lives with what they are saying, and imply the opposing view are wasting them. That said I must say that I feel chastened by the statistic provided by Steinberg that Thabo Mbeki's adoption of the denialist argument and consequent antipathy to allowing ART in South Africa has reliably been estimated to have resulted in 365,000 premature deaths in that country. Though the arguments about scientific orthodoxy and the limits of free speech are interesting and valid, those issues do somewhat pale in comparison with such a number.

So, for the record, I now think that House of Numbers is a poor piece of work. As science it is hopeless, and hopelessly compromised by its (mis)use of ‘experts’ and misrepresentations of the debate (fourteen of the scientifically credible interviewees have signed a letter claiming that they were mislead or misrepresented by the film) as well as more generally by its lack of depth, context and style. It is an AIDS-denial film, in that it is entirely congruent with, and draws on the argument and resources of, the AIDS-denial movement (however much the film's director and producer dispute this). This does not mean that everything it says is wrong, or that AIDS treatment is perfect or could not be improved. I’m still glad I saw it and would defend the right of everyone else too, but I think it deserves and should be met by a vigorous response from those who know the area well.

Meanwhile, I’m going to get Seth Kalichman’s book Denying AIDs to make sure that I don’t make the same mistake again. Oh yeah and Ben, next time I'll make sure to read your columns every week. D'oh.

So there’s the story. Please do post a comment if you feel moved to. .

Tesco uses the Star Wars defence against Jedi discrimination accusations

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Say what you like about Tesco, but there's no denying their legal team possess a sense of humour. When Daniel Jones, founder of International Church of Jediism, accused the supermarket giant of religious discrimination after he was told to remove his Jedi hood during a trip to a Bangor branch, here's how they responded:
"He hasn't been banned. Jedis are very welcome to shop in our stores although we would ask them to remove their hoods.

"Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda and Luke Skywalker all appeared hoodless without ever going over to the Dark Side and we are only aware of the Emperor as one who never removed his hood.

"If Jedi walk around our stores with their hoods on, they'll miss lots of special offers."

Brilliant. Just brilliant.

Friday, 18 September 2009

James Hemming Essay Prize 2010

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Earlier this year New Humanist, along with the British Humanist Association and the South Place Ethical Society, awarded the inaugural James Hemming Essay Prize, in memory of the leading British humanist Sir James Hemming, who died in 2007 at the age of 98. The winner was Alex Mace of Ripley St Thomas CE High School, with 2nd and 3rd prizes going to Sam Dennis of Cockermouth School and Joshua Brown of University College School. All the markers were hugely impressed by the quality of the winning entries, which you can read online at the Essay Prize website.

We're now inviting entries for the 2010 competition, under the following question:

'Tolerance, good temper and sympathy - they are what matter really.' (E M Forster, What I Believe, 1939). Discuss.

In 1939 the famous humanist, novelist and essayist E M Forster wrote in his essay, What I Believe, 'Tolerance, good temper and sympathy - they are what matter really, and if the human race is not to collapse they must come to the front before long.' What do you think he meant? Do you agree with him or not? Why?

Entries will be accepted from any student at a UK school or college studying for AS or A2 levels or qualifications at the same level (eg intermediate 1, intermediate 2, higher, advanced higher etc) who will not have passed his or her 19th birthday by 26th March 2010.

The James Hemming Essay Prize awards are:

1st Prize £1000
2nd Prize £500
3rd Prize £250
Prize winners will receive their awards in London in July/August 2010. The prize money is provided by the South Place Ethical Society. Prize winners will also receive books from the British Humanist Association and a year's subscription to New Humanist. The prize winner's college or school will receive books from the British Humanist Association and a free online subscription to New Humanist.

Essays, of no more than 1,500 words, are to be submitted by 26 March 2010, along with a completed entry form (full details and form download at the Prize website).

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Watching Expelled: a live blog

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This may seem a little old to American readers, but Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, Ben Stein's widely ridiculed pro-ID documentary, never made it to these shores. So I'm only just watching it this afternoon in preparation for a debate on science and film that we're hosting at the Cambridge Film Festival on Sunday. For added entertainment, I've decided to blog my thoughts as I watch, so here we go...

Final verdict - Just read some of what I've written below. I don't think any kind of summary is needed. It's the stupidest thing I've ever seen. I can only thank, err, God that the 97mins of my life just used up by Ben Stein were part of a working day, and not my own free time.

THE END

1:36:35 - They can take your jobs, they can send you nasty emails, but they can never take your FREEEEDOOOM!

1:36:02 - Now the Wall's coming down to the sound of The Killers. It's glorious, it's triumphant, believe in ID people, BELIEVE!

1:35:35 - Ben says "no lie can live forever"...

1:34:50 - Footage of the Berlin Wall coming down. Watch out evolution...

1:33:49 - Back to Ben's lecture on how freedom has been removed from science, interspersed with a Reagan speech in front of the Berlin Wall.

1:33:21 - We could find God through science, if we had the freedom to go there. Unfortunately people like Dawkins won't let us...

1:32:42 - Ben asks Dawkins if he believes in "any God, anywhere". When Dawkins says no, Ben seems to take this as having won the whole argument...

1:31:26 - Dawkins offers an explanation for what Intelligent Design could plausibly mean. Ben says this is Dawkins legitimising ID...

1:30:28 - Dawkins doesn't know where the first self-replicating molecule came from. Therefore God exists...

1:28:40 - Finally Dawkins's true crime is revealed - he's "spoiling it" for people by saying God doesn't exist...

1:27:09 - As Dawkins sits having make-up applied, our hero Ben makes his way slowly towards his lair in a black cab for the final showdown...

1:23:50 - There's that Berlin Wall analogy again...

1:22:36 - The Smithsonian Institution wouldn't let Ben Stein and a bunch of people with cameras barge in unannounced. Therefore it is part of a massive Darwinian conspiracy to destroy free speech and the American Dream...

1:21:49 - The "Darwinian establishment" is massive and entrenched. Like the Soviet Union was...

1:21:30 - Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is under threat from Darwinists. By expelling ID, they are destroying freedom, destroying the American dream...

1:20::30 - The Berlin Wall again. It was erected to keep ideas out...

1:19:58 - Now Ben's at the Natural History Museum staring Darwin's statue in the face. Darwin, how could you do this to the world?

1:17:17 - It's all getting too much for our hero Ben. He needs "time to think". So he flies to England and visits Down House...

1:16:22 - Yep, now we're on to euthanasia and abortion. It's all because of Darwin...

1:15:46 - Darwinism led to Nazism, and will lead to similar things again. In fact, it's already happening. Just look at euthanasia and abortion...

1:14:53 - Hitler thought he was doing good. Because of Darwin...

1:14:42 - There is good, and there is evil, and evil can be rationalised as science...

1:14:12 - Hitler wasn't insane. He had "imbibed some very wrong ideas". Any guesses which ideas those were?

1:11:06: Here's historian Richard Weikhart telling us how Darwin caused Hitler. No mention of his Discovery Institute connections...

1:10:16 - Still with the Nazis...

1:08:43 - Being shown around a Nazi eugenics facility. Shred your copy of On the Origin of Species right now...

1:07:00 - The Nazis practised eugenics. Therefore Intelligent Design should be taught in school...

1:06:25 - You don't have to be a Nazi to be a Darwinist, but you have to be a Darwinist to be a Nazi...

1:05:47 - Hitler time! "The correspondence between Darwinian ideas and Nazi ideas leap from the page" in Mein Kampf...

1:05:13 - Ben tries to imagine a world without religion. All he sees is Stalin waving.

1:04:59 - PZ dreams of a world without religion. Just like... you guessed it... the Soviets! Or are they the Nazis...

1:03:04 - So, Darwinism does lead to atheism, and anyone who says it doesn't is a liar...

1:02:42 - And Dawkins's.

1:02:21 - Science also eroded PZ's faith. Damn you, science...

1:02:07 - Darwinism is tragic. Dr Will Provine, historian of science at Cornell University, has a brain tumour, but because of evolution he doesn't believe in life after death.

1:00:53 - If you believe evolution, you can't believe in human free will...

59:41 - "A disturbing glimpse into where Darwinism can lead..." says Stein, in a scary voice...

59:15 - Darwinism leads to atheism leads to no meaning leads to no ethics

58:57 - Shot of Nazis burning stuff...

58:09 - And here's Steve Fuller - didn't we let Grayling loose on him too?

57:26 - Here's John Polkinghorne now - didn't we let Grayling loose on him once?

56:35 - Dawkins is a "smart guy" but "a bit of a reptile"....

55:41 - McGrath talking about Dawkins, over the top of a shot of Stalin...

55:32 - But now he's in Oxford talking to Alister McGrath. Turns out there's no conflict between religion and science...

54:24 - Shots of marching soldiers. Could be Nazis, could be Soviets. Evolutionists have turned the fight against ID into a religious war...

51:23 - A shot of Checkpoint Charlie, for some reason...

49:37 - Even journos are conspiring against ID'ers...

48:05 - Evolutionists want to trick mainstream Christians into thinking there is no incompatibility between science and religion. But look, Dawkins says there is an incompatibility. It's a trap!....

45:50 - Scientists are afraid of any aspect of evolution being questioned, for fear that it will all unravel. Which makes them just like the Wizard of Oz...

45:20 - You can't question the paradigm, yeah...

43:21 - Oops, confused them with Soviets again. Because they forbade East Germans to think for themselves. Scientists have erected an intellectual Berlin Wall to keep out ID. Strang verboten...

43:01 - Mentioning ID is described as strang verboten - and here are the Nazis, right on cue...

40:54 - Long and detailed animation about how complex cells are... clearly means they need a designer...

39:05 - Turns out cells are more complicated than Darwin knew them to be in the 1850s. Come on Ben, we want Nazis, not cells. Where are all the Nazis?

37:23 - Take a theory like Directed Panspermia, talk about it over some dodgy '50s sci-fi footage, and you've demolished evolutionary theory in seconds...

35:26 - It's "inconceivable" that life could have emerged "in some step by step way"....

33:29 - Primordial soup looks like a bubbling pot of mud...

33:12 - It says so in some documentary, so clearly it's what all Darwinists think

33:00 - Darwinists think life was created by lightening...

32:02 - Darwin should have written a book called Species Change Over Time. That would have been fine...

30:50 - Here's that Dawkins fella again. Did you know he's an atheist? That's right, an atheist...

23:59 - Ben doesn't want to see any credibility in ID, he thinks it's "reheated creationism"....

22:37 - At a "scientific meeting" after "3 or 4 beers", most scientists will admit there are problems with evolution

20:16 - The Discovery Institute is in no way religious. Honest...

18:39 - Found the offices. Their staff look surprised to see cameras. Ben seems surprised by how small their offices are. He was expecting the Pentagon, apparently... (from the NH office, their offices look pretty big)

18:40 -
New York now - seems no one knows where the Discovery Institute's offices are...

15:53 - Oh, here are Dawkins, PZ and Dennett again. They think ID is silly, don't you know?

15:33 - Intelligent Design is being "suppressed in a systematic and ruthless fashion"

14.57 - Some pro-ID scientists are afraid to show their faces, for fear of reprisals. So they're shown only in silhouette, like victims on Crimewatch....

13:08 - Oh look, here's that scene from Planet of the Apes where they hose down Heston. Do you see what Darwinism leads to? Well, do you? You damn dirty apes...

12:26 - No, seriously, no one is safe...

11:22 - No one is safe from the "Darwinist wrath".

10:12 - It's an academic witch-hunt - mention ID and you're out...

7:37 - Speaking out in support of ID is viewed in the same light as terrorism. You are treated as an "intellectual terrorist".

7:12 - Scientists complaining about ID is the same as Khrushchev disrupting the UN in 1960...

6:32 - Free speech = the right to publish pseudoscience in a scientific journal....

5:02 - If we'd had Dawkins et al in the 60s, there would have been no moon landings, no civil rights movement....

4:32 - Why's he involving Martin Luther King?

4:06 - Here's Ben Stein - he's delivering a lecture that could save the world. He's fighting for free speech, the future of America, I feel like I'm watching Independence Day...

3:05 - Sinister black and white footage of the Berlin Wall cuts straight to Dawkins, Dennett and PZ denouncing ID.... scientific orthodoxy collapsing before my very eyes....

1:45 - Sorry, my mistake, they're Soviets building the Berlin Wall...

0:40 - Oh look, some Nazis, doing sinister Nazi things...

A first look at Creation

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This coming Sunday, we're hosting a debate at the Cambridge Film Festival on the subject of "Science on Screen" – "What are, or should be, the ethics of putting scientific debate on screen? Is there any evidence that film can depict science accurately?" One of the films that we'll be discussing is Creation, the big-budget Charles Darwin biopic starring Paul Bettany, which comes out in the UK in a week's time (if you're in the US though, it seems you're out of luck - the word is that a Darwin flick is "too controversial" for your eyes).

So, to ensure we'd seen the film in time for the debate, we had a little editorial outing (you could call it a general humanist outing - we bumped into several colleagues from the BHA there too) last night to the Science Museum for a special preview showing hosted by Nature magazine. The screening was in the museum's impressive Imax cinema, although the film iself wasn't in Imax (Darwin may have been a hero, but surely we must all admit he was no Batman), and several members of the film's production crew, including director Jon Amiel, and the Darwin family were present.

Sadly, I have to say I was unimpressed by the film, which traces Darwin's inner turmoil as he set about writing On the Origin of Species. Central to the plot is the conflict between his wife Emma's (played by Jennifer Connelly) strong Christian faith and Darwin's own loss of faith in the face of the implications of his ideas. Unfortunately, the frequent references to this felt clumsy, with the development of Darwin's theory accompanied at every turn by a "but what about God?" moment. This is at its most absurd near the beginning, when we see Thomas Huxley (played in a truly bulldog-esque manner by Toby Jones) excitedly informing Darwin that he's about to kill God.

Throughout the film we see Darwin, whose health is failing, haunted by this conflict between religion and science, as well as by the death of his beloved daughter Annie (Martha West) eight years earlier, an event which is also shown to have played a role in his gradual loss of faith. Unfortunately, the film has Darwin quite literally haunted by Annie, who pops up in the room with irritating frequency as he attempts to get his magnum opus down on page.

This (in my view mishandled) attempt to inject some drama into the story of the writing of The Origin of Species ties in nicely with the debate we're hosting on Sunday, particularly the question of whether film can depict science accurately. Frankly, there's not much in the way of science on display in Creation, but could that be because real science (as opposed to exciting science fiction) isn't particularly dramatic? The Origin of Species may be one of the most important books ever written, but if the makers of Creation had tried to accurately depict Darwin's experiences writing it, we'd probably just be left with two hours of Paul Bettany sitting at a desk writing.

Alongside Creation, we'll be discussing three more films on Sunday – House of Numbers, which questions the relationship between HIV and AIDS (see a NY Times review here), The Nature of Existence and the notorious pro-Intelligent Design documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. I'm actually about to watch Expelled now (something I've been waiting for ever since it came out in the US last year), so I may well blog my thoughts later this afternoon.

Sunday's debate, Science on Screen, takes place at 4.30pm at the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge. It's being chaired by our editor, Caspar Melville, and features a panel including Leonro Sierra, of Sense about Science, and medical historian Louise Foxcroft, author of The Making of Addiction and Hot Flushes, Cold Science: The History of Modern Menopause. If you would like to come along, it's free, but you need to book your places in advance.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Humanist religion, again

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That nice Dave Belden over at Tikkun magazine has paid me the compliment of disagreeing with a piece I wrote for the Guardian's Comment is Free site, in which I argue against Dave's notion that humanists need to organise themselves like religious communities, have services, rituals, build a community that sort of thing. Dave thinks I am too individualistic and we will never heal the world if we can't build a strong 'base'. He may well be right.

His perspective, I think, would be that being a humanist implies a desire to improve the world - for humans and other animals - it's a commitment to a kind of activist attitude. (This is well expressed in Tikkun's strapline, they want to 'mend, repair and transform the world'). I wonder if my own humanism isn't more of the "I don't believe in God, I'm fascinated by what humans have done, do and might be capable of (good and bad), I want more peace and love, less war and greed, but life is short and full of sorrow (and plenty of laughs), most human endeavours and ambitions are fragile and misguided, if not ludicrous, and much harm is done by those with grand visions, so I don't want to join a movement, any movement, and I will choose my friends and confreres from the weird and (often) wacky individuals I gather to myself, for possibly perverse and certainly unexamined reasons, along the way," sort. Not a very snappy slogan, I grant you, but my own. I admire those with the courage to believe they can change the world and the drive to try - but they scare me too. So, good luck with your humanist religion, Dave, but include me out.

What about you?

"If you think I am expecting 6 year olds to understand Radioisotope dating, you are very strange!"

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If it's seemed a little quiet on this blog lately, that's because I've been on holiday for a couple of weeks. Just before I left, I published my piece on my visit to Noah's Ark Zoo Farm, the creationist zoo on the outskirts of Bristol. When I was writing it back in late August, I emailed some questions to the zoo's owner, Anthony Bush, who came back to tell me he was too busy dealing with record visitor numbers to answer them.

But on checking through my holiday email backlog this morning, I found a message from Bush from earlier this month saying that "As the school holidays are just about over (far beyond, in attendance, any I have experienced here before) I can now find a few minutes to answer some of your questions about Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm." So, by way of an update to my original piece, here are my questions and his full answers.

You’ve been running the zoo farm for 10 years now – why did you set it up? What are your aims?
I had been a dairy farmer for 35 years; bought my farm from my landlord and diversified into cereals and a tourist attraction. I hoped to put a mainly townsfolk public in touch with where their food came from, and we called it Noah’s Ark, not Bushes Farm or something more traditional, because I wanted to give people scientific permission to believe in God. Noah and his Ark was the best known story in the world; was it a myth, was it a one year flood as the Creationists said, or was it something else? I felt the science (as well as the Bible, Girgamesh Epic et al) was pointing somewhere more radical. There is a time when geologists are agreed that the whole world was under water, or nearly so, the Hadean/Archaean boundary; known to astronomers in respect of Mars as the Noachian, and coinciding with the Late Heavy Bombardment of asteroids whose effect we see best on the moon but also throughout the solar system. The explanation of the sedimentary rocks and their fossils seems to fit a story of Recolonisation after a wipe-out, better than a story of origins. See www.earthhistory.org.uk, which this zoo sponsors as our contribution to research.
Your scientific views differ greatly both from those of evolutionary biologists and from the better-known American creationists? How did you formulate your views, and what makes them more viable than other explanations?
I went on a geology field trip and saw some examples in the field that convinced me that the Creationists were wrong, and were hanging on to a 6,000 BC creation to avoid criticism by other “Bible believers”, who seemed to be trapped by a literal, but not Hebrew, reading of the Genesis genealogies, rather than the rest of the Bible; and their Flood had to last 5 months, which was not like the Biblical one. Furthermore the empirical age of rocks while needing quite a lot of thousands of years to form, should not be assigned the millions of years that they were being given. Radioisotope dating of igneous rocks was the reason for the millions of years, but there appeared to be serious contradictions. When I queried this, some geologists went quiet and said they needed to pass exams, so it was unwise to question such things. Both views seemed wrong, but dissent was scoffed at or ridiculed, rather than argued. (This has just been repeated in this Sink the Ark campaign). It is for scientific reasons, not religious ones that we introduce the paradigm.
What do you hope people will take away from a visit to the zoo? Is it your intention to change their views on evolution?
I have 14 grandchildren and want them and thousands of visitors to have a brilliant day out; full of fun and full of interest in the animals. I really want people to find out about the details of animal taxonomy, habits, communication and environment, and to interact with as many animals as possible to discover how friendly as well as amazing they are. Zoos do not usually do much of this. Darwinists seem to be ignoring differences to try and point out similarities; so many of the marvels of the natural world go un-noticed. We have had Animal Shows from Year 1, pointing out these details. Evolution is everywhere, so yes, I want people to see that it is taking place, but no, there are limits to it in the fossil record and in life.
Your marketing material makes very little of your stance on creation and evolution – other than the name “Noah’s Ark”, it’s not hugely obvious that the zoo has a religious angle. Is this intentional? If so, why are you not more explicit about your zoo’s philosophy?
I don’t consider we do have a hugely obvious religious angle. My wife and I are Christians. I hate people being bullied into either belief or disbelief. Most farmers of my age are quite religious; we lived through WW2, when the King called the nation to prayer on 14 occasions; everyone was on their knees at some time in that war, and all of us were thankful for deliverance from the Nazis. Why should I abandon God when times get good? We can’t advertise ourselves as “Christian” as that word could mean Spanish Inquisition Catholic Christian, Northern Ireland violent Protestant Christian, or any of lots of wonderful people in between, so what does it mean? (as I told the Church Times interviewer, but she did not publish it all in the very brief summary there was room for)? Why do not other zoos call themselves atheist? It is obvious when you read the displays what the editorial stance is of Bristol Zoo or @Bristol (which closed). Why don’t some zoos say ”come here and we will tell you that apes are man’s closest relative”? Because they know they will lose customers who disagree with them! We however, would like to be in dialogue with people who disagree with us. I think from next year we will probably put on our leaflet that we discuss evolution and creation, on our list of activities. But as you know it is a very small part of what we devote 100 acres to.
In the information on educational visits on your website, there is no mention of your zoo’s creationist perspective. Why is this?
In our KS 1, 2, 3 & 4 workshops we do not talk about God, because that is not part of the National Curriculum. What is a “creationist perspective”? We have three displays summarising Darwinism, but also including two younger Earth views alongside. We are probably the only place, let alone zoo, that allows each view to be represented. I know Christians of each persuasion, and would like intelligent debate here. So should you!
When I visited, I was struck by the fact that a great deal of the information on your creation plus evolution theory is on the walls surrounding the rainbow slide? Why is this? Have you deliberately placed these in an area popular with children?
It is there because parents are supervising their children and are bored, so are ready to look at something. It has to be moderately worded, or, like @Bristol the other way round, it will put people off. If you think I am expecting 6 year olds to understand Radioisotope dating, you are very strange! The displays invite discussion. Some of them need a good background in geology to fully appreciate. I think I have answered all queries ever emailed to me (or my staff have), but I am shocked at the rudeness of the Sink the Ark correspondents. I don’t mind strong criticism, but not “fuck you”; “keep your juvenile points to yourself”; “what a bunch of shit”; “there is NO evidence whatsoever for the bullshit you try to pass off as fact”; to quote some very recent ones. That is hardly constructive dialogue! I hope you will discourage the rant against religion, masquerading as science which seems to be the hallmark of humanists from Richard Dawkins website at the moment, Paul.
Lastly, you are a member of the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA), but I understand you were not able to become a member of the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums (EAZA). What difficulties have you had with joining organisations like this, and how do you go about addressing the differences of opinion involved?
We joined BIAZA because I have always belonged to the NFU, and have served as Chairman at Branch, Group, and County level. Committees are essential for moving politically forward. Politicians need consensus to do anything, so stake-holders need to agree, before they ask politicians. BIAZA is the zoo equivalent. I am a consensus man, and hope I see all sides, especially yours Paul! I have been discussing Darwinism with Atheists for over 50 years. In the '50s almost no one believed it! It has gained ground, but it is not because of its science that it has done this. Churchill’s axiom “better jaw, jaw, than war, war” has got to be the way forward. I hope some are talking to EAZA on our behalf. They need us as much as BIAZA does.

I hope you can see I am taking you seriously Paul and would be delighted for further dialogue. Our paradigm is radical, but may, as Galileo’s did, take many years for people to take seriously. Scientists can be obstinate (can’t we all be), especially when they have written papers on a subject.

With best wishes

Anthony Bush, Owner/CEO, Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Unmasking Harun Yahya

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A few weeks ago I was giving a talk on secularism to some senior Malaysian civil servants. One of them told me that there was no clash between Islam and science, since the Koran had already talked about the Big Bang, and anyway didn't I know that evolution was just a myth. The next day he forwarded me some links to the 'proof' - they took me to the website of Harun Yahya, named apparently without irony "An Invitation to Truth".

Now you and I know that this guy, who claims to have refuted Darwin and got Dawkins banned in Turkey, is a crank but he seems to be becoming ever more prominent as justification for those who want to deny science. We have been investigating him for the past few months, to find out who he really is and how he manages to fund his pseudoscience. It's a great story involving sex cults, God-complexes and Versace suits. All is revealed in the new issue: Read Sex, flies and videotape.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Oh come all ye faithless The return of Nine Lessons

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15 September Update: Richard Dawkins to guest on Saturday 19 December.

14 September update
Truly Nine lessons is the gift that keeps on giving. Here are the latest names added to the bill: Richard Wiseman ('quirkologist') [15 and 19 Dec], Shappi Khorsandi (comic and author) [15 Dec only], Natalie Haynes (brilliant stand-up and writer) [17 and 18 Dec], Jo Neary (oddball humourist) [15, 16, 17 and 19 Dec], Johnny Ball ( think of a number!)[15, 16 and 17 Dec] and Alan Moore (creator of cult comics The Watchmen and V for Vendetta) [16 Dec only].

11 Sept update
: Special guests just added: John Otway (uncategorisable punk-folk madman, legendary live performer) [all shows except 19 Dec], Brian Cox (he was in D:Ream, but now he's made up for it by becoming a particle physicist and finding out how the universe works at CERN) [15 and 16 Dec only] and... cue drum roll... Barry Cryer (legend, he wrote jokes for Tommy Cooper ya know) with Ronnie Golden [15, 16 and 19 Dec only]. More guest will be announced Monday. Tickets, by the way, are selling fast, I think Fri and Sat are sold out already, so move quick if you want to come.

Monday 7 Sept
Okay peeps - I've just come back from lunch with Robin Ince (that's him in the pic) and had a sneaky peek of the line-up for our rational Xmas jamboree Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People. Some really mouth-watering acts. It's a lot to take in so we thought we'd give it to you in bite-size chunks... here's the starter. The following are confirmed performers for every night of the five-day run (15-19 December 2009, Bloomsbury Theatre, London).
Richard Herring (he of the widely-acclaimed show at Edinburgh which ISN't racist, Brian Logan take note); Chris Addison (star of In The Thick of It, and excellent stand-up somewhat reminisicent of your favourite physics teacher only with better jumpers); Josie Long (uncategorisable, charming stand-up comic); Simon Singh (will he be talking about chiropractic?); Ben Goldacre (Bad Science guy); Robyn Hitchcock (the singer songwriter's singer-songwriter); Gavin Osborn (the comedy song-writer whose songs are actually funny, and musical); Martin White's Mystery Fax Machine Chamber Orchestra (NB fax machines sold seperately) all wrangled by your angrily genial host Robin Ince.

This is just for starters, we'll be announcing more names and special guests on Thursday and in the next few weeks. I can't tell you the names yet but I think you'll recognise one or two.

Tickets are already going fast so bag yours on the Bloomsbury website. You don't want to miss out.