Posts Tagged 'skepticism'

“It was a triumph”

On Tuesday 26th October, Ian Ridpath spoke at ‘Skeptics In the Pub’ in Cambridge on the subject of UFOs and common misinterpretations that lead to their being assigned as extraterrestrial. His talk was fantastically successful: the room was rammed, and every feedback form that we received said that the speaker was excellent. While Ian shot to fame over 30 years ago following his investigation and explanation that the Rendlesham Forest incident was not extraterrestrial in origin (his evidence on which I felt was both compelling and complete), on Tuesday he provided up-to-date and relevant examples – quite a contrast to Nick Pope’s beliefs that Ian’s arguments are wide of the mark!

‘Skeptics In The Pub’ is not limited to skeptics; all are welcome to attend. So for me, the real success of the evening was that we had a true believer in the crowd, whom I will call “Steve” as I did not catch his real name. When the crowd was asked at the start if anyone in the audience is a believer, Steve made himself known and sat patiently throughout the entire talk. During the break, he spoke politely to my co-organisers and explained that he had large misgivings about Ian’s theories. He behaved exactly as a civilised person should, despite his contrasting views, and that is something I both appreciate and respect.

The Question & Answer session at the end of the talk provided Steve with an opportunity to voice his views on the subject. (Please be aware that I am writing from memory rather than notes.) His linchpins were firstly the Disclosure Project; and secondly sightings of TR-3B, stating that his friends and family had told him that they worked on UFO-related technologies in the United States. Ian responded that he felt that the Disclosure Project was doomed to failure, but with regard to the latter there was little that he could comment on without evidence from either side.

Steve voiced that Ian’s dismissal of the Disclosure Project was insulting to those behind it and many people were facing jail for what they had said. He unfortunately did not elaborate on this; however, Ian provided the names Sgt Clifford Stone and Gary McKinnon. From his comments, Ian obviously thinks little of Sgt Stone, and I will leave you to investigate him if you wish to find out why this may be the case. Gary McKinnon, who was accused of hacking into the United States military and NASA computers between February 2001 and March 2002, is of course an interesting character, but while it has been established that he did break into the military systems, he has no evidence to show for his troubles.

One interesting and sound point about the Rendlesham Forest incident that Steve made, and that had not been mentioned up to this point during the course of the evening, was that four keys witnesses had visited the landing sight, had seen a craft, and had made a note of the symbols that were on the side of the said craft. Ian responded that there was only one witness, not four, who had claimed that these events had occurred. Also, the notebook detailing the symbols only came to light within the last five years, some 25 years after the incident occurred. He continued that the dates and times in the notebook did not correspond with the witness’s statement (although the witness himself claims this is not true). Ian therefore felt it was reasonable to dismiss this evidence. (As a further point, when I drove Ian to the train station later that evening, he elaborated that the witness claimed the ship was not an alien craft; that he had received messages telepathically, telling him it was actually a ship from the future searching for human DNA, sent to solve their failing gene pool. Interestingly, Ian suggested that this is often overlooked by those who seek UFO evidence.)

During his talk, Ian also mentioned and showed footage of the Phoenix Lights, which he claimed are in fact the result of flares on parachutes used by the military to light up the ground in the dark. Records of the dates, times and locations of these flares being dropped correspond with those of reported sightings. Steve, however, stated that evidence suggests it was laser light, not that of flames. The respectful nodding and polite disagreement from Ian up to this point quickly changed to an adamant disagreement. It took a while for the audience, who were unaware of this theory, to catch up. Once Steve confirmed that the spectroscopic analysis was carried out using a recording, the audience tried to explain the flaws of this method: film or digital recordings do not capture the whole spectrum and instead only record how it is made up from primary colours. This problem is confounded by the fact that television screens only display images in terms of red, green and blue. An example of this problem would be a yellow sodium streetlamp: a recording of it would show it as a mixture of red and green (which, due to limitations in the human eye, is indistinguishable from the actual streetlamp), while spectroscopic analysis of the streetlamp would show just two sharp lines of colour at two different frequencies of yellowish light. There is also the additional problem that laser light has a general property of coherence, which is not replicated in video recording and is also lost over the distances at which the recording is taken. It was at this point that Steve agreeably took his seat at my request, to allow other attendees to ask their questions to Ian. While he was obviously very frustrated and in strong disagreement with the speaker, he never lost his temper, and to this I give him credit.

Unfortunately, due to time constraints, Steve was not able to finish voicing his viewpoints and opinions. I, for one, believe we need to listen to and discuss a variety of topics such as this when someone is bold enough to attend a Skeptic event. I agree it is frustrating, but personally I have an interest in gaining a deeper insight into and understanding of what people think and why they believe what they do. (Hence, I was disappointed on leaving the venue that another attendee said ‘Thank you for shutting that idiot up’. I never intended to ‘shut anyone up’, rather I just wanted to give everyone a fair chance to ask questions.) I have therefore invited him to submit a talk for Soapbox In The Pub on 8th February 2011, to which I hope many of you will attend, and I hope that if Steve does take up my offer then it is an experience he will find useful.

If you are interested in applying to give one of several 15 minute talks yourself, please do contact me. Details can be found on the Soapbox In The Pub website.

Note: I’ve tried to make this as unbiased as possible and not to present either side’s arguments in too much detail. I would be very interested to read about your own experiences, and hope that you will add them to the comments.


In Defence of Faith

Originally published as Truth and Consolation in the Guardian‘s Comment is Free – Belief section.

When my grandmother, a devout Catholic, faced death she turned to the
only atheist in the room: my father. The cancer had metastasised throughout and she was left blind, in pain and barely able to speak, yet she still found strength to proclaim that “even this is better than oblivion“.

That event was over twenty years ago and it is now roughly ten years since I shed the religious indoctrination of my childhood. Instead, I now run a successful meeting group for sceptics and critical thinking, an environment where atheism is almost ubiquitous. I hoped in such an environment that constructive discussion would always prevail but, as with any tribal belief, there are few within the group who are willing to truly discuss religion out of fear of undermining their social standing. The result is that arguments supporting faith are given the condescending rebuttal that a parent might give to a child’s fanciful stories.

Why, then, defend what I don’t believe in? When a religion demands faith and stipulates that God will never provide evidence of His existence, we have a dilemma. Science is based on the idea of a hypothesis and testing, but there is no clear test to prove or disprove the existence of a god. While a rational thinker will explain that there is no need to invent God to rationalise the existence of intelligent life, there is always an infinitesimal chance that they are wrong. The result for a sceptic is that they should have no issue with discounting God as implausible.

Beyond science, though, there is also the human aspect of faith. The inevitable reality of death haunts the thoughts of many. Science promises no hope of a different outcome and the majority of us will be forgotten a few generations thereafter. For some, faith provides the answers and they are comforted by the hope or belief of a purpose or life after death. I use the word “hope” as, for many, faith is not absolute, which many sceptics fail to appreciate. When a religion is called stupid or irrational, it is those with doubts who suffer and the perceived insults will only alienate them, while those with absolute faith will not be swayed by any amount of logic.

We therefore have to accept that science does not contain answers for that which cannot be measured. Furthermore, it is inappropriate to apply it to such concepts. There are at least some for whom religion provides a hope of answering those questions that science cannot, and in doing so facilitates the enjoyment of life. I therefore question if it is morally right to take away that hope when you cannot provide a suitable alternative.

Should we ignore religion altogether? No, but do not attack it for being without evidence; it is a pointless discussion. Question it, fight it even, when it is used to oppress, control or exert superiority over others. Just do not hurt the individual, the believer who does not want their hopes shattered. Perhaps I am wrong and it is nothing more than the ‘opiate of the people’, but if we want to promote rational and scientific thinking then trying to wage war on God is both pointless and futile. Instead, we should find common ground with those religions which are open to discussion and work to promote that. Many sceptics define themselves on the principle that factual truth is more important than belief. In the experimental laboratory, this is an absolute, letting belief cloud judgement makes science worthless, but in life a simple belief can provide the strength to enjoy the world. I believe the right to enjoyment of life is far more sacred than being right.

In spite of these views, I accept that when my grandmother made that final reflection to my father, her faith provided no comfort. At that point of already having undergone her last rites, it was the atheist she looked to for hope.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

During my PhD as part of my transferable skills training, I was given the opportunity to take a course to develop my presentation skills. The irony, however, was that the individual running it was awful at presenting and did the whole course using PowerPoint slides.

When Frank Swain presented at Westminster Skeptics last week, I had high hopes for his talk as I certainly have concerns about some of the motives within the Skeptics community, for example that skeptics seem to meet at events just to pat each other on the back. I had heard that Frank is an engaging speaker, and I expected a constructive critique of what we can do better in terms of reaching out to the public. I was disappointed with his talk and had little to get excited about: I am not so bold as to say that he is a poor public speaker (in fact, I believe the contrary is true) but he was highly critical, confrontational, and only in a few places did he provide any direction on what we can do to improve. It stank of a talk that was not about providing tools and engaging the community but simply to cause a stir.

My concerns started as Frank implied that the Skeptics community is a homogeneous set of ideas and beliefs, yet he refused to define exactly what the Skeptics community is and weaselled his way out of explaining several other strong points. Vibes of the mainstream media tactics employed in the recent story on the oral contraceptives in 11-year-old girls rang throughout his talk. Frank seems to have very personal ideas of what engagement is and what is the singular way of progressing the movement: the 10:23 Campaign, for example, was always a protest aimed at Boots and their continued endorsement and sale of homeopathic remedies, but his view is that it was not an engagement. Even if this were the case, in my opinion this does not mean that 10:23 did not educate or achieve something (I will not dwell on this point for long as it has been covered well elsewhere).

In November 2009, I launched ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ (SITP) in Cambridge. The major aim of the group is to bring people together to gain a greater understanding of the world, to promote critical thinking, while engaging the non-university population in the hope of bridging the town-gown divide. Holding the talks in a pub, rather than a lecture theatre, is one of the attractions of the group to our target audience. Due to the sterling work of Simon Singh when we launched, our main press engagement was through BBC Radio Cambridgeshire. We never tried hard to pull in the Skeptics crowd; they found us by themselves.

At the talks themselves, we may at times be guilty of preaching to the crowd, but SITP is an engagement activity on some level. Considering that I have never been to another SITP meeting, I came up with the format for the Cambridge group with no prior knowledge as to how the other groups were presented. Looking at other Outreach projects within Cambridge, I found there was a hole that needed to be filled.

Despite Frank’s attempts to debate the field as a whole, skepticism has a wide range of active supporters; therefore, you cannot critique a casual blogger in the same way as you would the achievements of Evan Harris, who campaigned for many causes in Parliament. The implied result is to tar a group in Cambridge (which works in conjunction with a world-leading university’s Communication Office and alongside some other amazing societies such as Triple Helix, Café Scientific or Pugwash Society) with the same brush as someone who writes a blog in the corner of the web. This is not unfair, it is nonsensical, and is about as valid as saying that those who blog about and attend football matches are Premier League footballer players. (That is not to say that you do not need both.)

My feelings on the subject as a whole are that there is not really a Skeptic community or movement yet. Skepticism is a way of thinking. For many, it is hobby more than protest, which is a great thing. For me, SITP was never about skepticism; it was about letting others and myself gain access to topics that we would just love to hear about. I am not a skeptic or hobbyist but a full-time research scientist. At work, I use critical thinking and reasoning. When I go the pub, I am just interested to hear other people’s opinions, and that is exactly what you get at the SITP talks: opinion, not fact. They are always interesting and you never know what might inspire people.

The beauty of skepticism is that it is never going to be a singular idea. It does not force people to agree, rather it is a way of thinking and working with information. Skepticism and critical thinking is the basis of not just science and maths but the arts too: I have fond memories of GCSE History lessons involving discussions based on both fact and opinion. While every university has an Outreach department, while people work in school engagement or communication, then skepticism will keep growing.

Here is my solution to what you you should be doing. Create engaging activities, blogs or websites. Do not necessarily make them about skepticism, but do incorporate it. Have your own agenda, do not follow that of others for the sake of it. SITP is a wonderful brand but do not rely on it, there are plenty of other things to be done. If you are successful, you may get noticed, but do not expect thanks or money.

I will end on this point: if Frank’s talk had really covered the points well and engaged us, we would have learnt from it and currently be planning what we could do better. It is a shame as, even though he had some important points that we really need to take notice of, he just failed to communicate them.