Friday, 31 August 2007

Sweden regrets free speech

Sweden regrets free speech:

Sweden's embassy in Pakistan has expressed regret over the publication of a cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad in a Swedish newspaper.
The Swedish government had nothing to do with the cartoon. It points this out and states it cannot apologise for the cartoon, but it still "expressed regret that the publication of the cartoons had hurt the feelings of Muslims". Damn those people and their pesky opinions, if only they didn't have them! I wish governments would not feel that as soon as religion is mentioned they have to start scrambling to cover themselves.

BREAKING NEWS: Shakespeare to pwn n00bz! OMG.

"The issue of correctness didn't bother him," says Ms. Paster. "He loved to play with language." As for leet, "He would say, 'Bring it on,' absolutely."

Alright, so maybe it's not exactly breaking news, and Shakespeare didn't actually say it, but but for a few trifling centuries he would have. And that's what counts. Go read about the evolution of leetspeak and how Shakespeare would have loved it here.

(Hat-tip: Language Log)

Thursday, 30 August 2007

The evils of PoMo

Okay, 5 points if anyone can tell me what this research statement has to do with biology. Or even what it means. Or if it's english. And why, why, why did they give him tenure? Anyone?

(Hat-tip Pharyngula)

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Cool Atheist Music 1 - XTC - Dear God

Okay, here's the first in a (hopefully) regular series of cool music with an atheist view point. This a great track from XTC, and there's a Sarah Mclachlan cover floating round somewhere which gives it a different twist, if you can find it. If anyone has any ideas for cool atheist music feel free to contribute, and hopefully this series can become a little more regular!

UPDATE: For other posts in this series, see here.

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Daddy longlegs: door to the past?

Okay, if you're anything like me, this post at Catalogue of Organisms will clear up a lot of confusion over daddy longlegs - it turns out it refers to no less than three separate organisms! I really need to stop treating crane-flies with such respect - I've always thought that they were one of the most poisonous creatures in existence, but their fangs were too small to pierce human skin (Hey, what if they bit you on a cut, okay?). It turns out that not only is this not true, it referred to a different animal in the first place. Anyway, once you've cleared up that confusion, go read Carl Zimmer's post on what daddy longlegs can tell us about the past. Toddle along now.


Okay, I'm somewhat late to the party on this one, but creationist Robert Bowie Johnson Jr. has a website where he insists that ancient Greek art portrays biblical characters as historical figures, and advocates name-calling as a prime method of argument:

It's a simple matter of name-calling—accurate name-calling. Forget the euphemistic terms Darwinist, naturalist, and evolutionist. Call them what they imagine they are: Mutants and Slime-Snake-Monkey-People. Sooner or later, with many of them, the idiotic and unscientific nature of Slime-Snake-Monkeyism will sink in. If they object to being called by these names, all we have to do is ask them why.

Classy. But what really gets me is this paragraph, where he portrays possibly the least ability to see things from the other person's point of view ever:
Did ancient Greek architects, sculptors, painters, and laborers toil for 15 years elevating those magnificent sculptures on the Parthenon, believing all the while that the artistic themes represented nothing more than "myths"? Is that our rationale for building monuments today? Elevating "myths"? Only a moron would answer these questions in the affirmative. And yet the academic and scientific worlds today, abetted by mainstream journalists, continue to assert categorically that ancient sculptors and vase-artists spent their entire working lives portraying nothing more than "myths." Why do they believe this?

No wait. He's right. No-one would do that.

(Hat-tip: Stranger Fruit and Pharyngula)

Monday, 27 August 2007

The Atheist Blogroll

Just a quick post to note I've joined the Atheist Blogroll, and added it to the blog. Look to it on the right for all your atheist blogging needs!

Thursday, 23 August 2007


My nerves always jangle slightly whenever a sneeze is followed by the inevitable "Bless you!". I've always understood the saying was due to to people being worried that, at the point of sneezing, you left your head wide open for a demon to nip in and a quick 'Bless you!' provided a temporary 'force field' that kept the demons at bay for those all important few seconds (what would happen if you were to sneeze with nobody around I don't know - presumably you were demon bait) and, frankly, I feel that as a race we probably should have got over things like an irrational fear of demons crawling up our nose by now.

However, whilst doing some research on this subject on, I've discovered that there are in fact several competing explanations for this custom, the most popular being:

  • The aforementioned demonic possession theory (and a second related theory where the sneeze is the demon being expelled, and the blessing prevents it returning).

  • A belief that the heart stopped at the moment of sneezing, and the blessing might just get you through that moment.

  • An association with the Black Death, where a sneeze indicated an impending demise, so a blessing for your soon to be departed soul probably couldn't hurt.

  • That sneezes were lucky, and the blessing was a congratulation or an attempt to steal some luck for yourself.

  • That it's just a custom, similar to greeting people with the phrase 'Good Morning'.

My argument against blessings for sneezes remains for the first four theories - they're all equally silly and we're all far too grown up to keep on using something based on them. The fifth reason does not seem plausible to me as a reason for the custom to start, though I will admit it seems likely as the reason for its continuation to the present day.

But what really surprised me was the age the custom can be dated back to. It is mentioned by Pliny in his Natural History (77 A.D.) and by Apuleius in The Golden Ass (150 A.D.). The mention in Pliny is telling: "Why is it that we salute a person when he sneezes?". So, as far back as 2000 years ago people were already puzzled by the custom - meaning that any use it may originally have been thought to have was already a relict. Over 2000 years seems a long time for a custom to hang around for when people have no good reason to do it, but I'm guessing its endurance so far puts paid to my wishes for it to die out soon. Still, the next time you bless someone for sneezing (if you must), at least you know you are participating in a tradition handed down for thousands of years despite its pointlessness. Lucky old you.

Now why didn't I think of this?

Tea brewing uncertainties look like being over for ever, thanks to SUCK UK. Their MyCuppa Mugs have a colour guide around the rim, allowing you to specify exactly how hideously strong/pathetically weak you want your tea. A fantastic idea, but it should be extended - I look forward to the day I can walk into a cafe, pick a colour off a poster behind the till, and say: "I'll have a Milky British Classic please." Then, truly, mankind will be able to progress no further.

Okay, this is cool

The BBC reports that an outbreak of virtual disease in World of Warcraft could be used to study how people react to outbreaks of infectious disease. If only I hadn't canceled my account, I could be online right now getting some phat lewtz doing some serious research!

Morals and Meanings

The Atheocracy gets it right commenting on Zeemy's assertion that claiming theists are moral only because God told them to be is a straw man. When theists* stop claiming atheists have no reason to be moral, atheists will stop having a reason to believe that theists are only good because God tells them to be. Similarly, when theists stop claiming atheists have purposeless existences with no meaning in their lives, I'll stop thinking that theists who claim that are mindless automatons incapable of imbuing anything they do with meaning if their life depended on it, and requiring an external force to tell them what to do.

*I realise that this does not apply to all theists by any stretch of the imagination. But it's still an argument put forward by a significant number.

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Why Parsimony?

Let’s kick things off with an old philosophical argument, first put forward by Descartes in ‘Meditationes de prima philosophia’, and now updated into a more modern form. Here it is:

The Brain in a Vat (BIV) Argument:

(1) It is possible that I am in fact a BIV, kept there by a mad scientist who systematically deceives me about the truth of most of what I believe, feeding me my perceptions of the external world through cables attached to my brain.
(2) It is impossible for me to definitely rule out the possibility that I am a BIV.
(3) If I cannot know that I am not a BIV, then my beliefs about an external, non-mental reality cannot constitute knowledge.


Conclusion: My beliefs about an external, non-mental reality do not constitute knowledge.

In other words: logically we have no proof that there is any external reality whatsoever – the only thing that we can ever know for sure is that we personally exist (Cogito ergo sum and all that). Now let’s add in another argument, the problem of induction, which states that there is no logical reason for supposing the past is a good guide to the future.

You would think that conclusive proof that no one can be certain there is an external world out there, and that even if there is one we can’t in fact draw any conclusions on it based on previous experience, would present a problem. To the best of my knowledge however, despite the logical impeccability of these arguments, no one actually lives in a manner consistent with them. People do not sit on chairs as gibbering wrecks, afraid to move in case the world spontaneously explodes – neither do people confidently walk out in front of buses because they cannot possibly have any knowledge that doing so will be harmful.

So, how do most of us get through the day? Well, most of us simply ignore these problems: we implicitly trust the evidence of our senses, and in a nice piece of circular reasoning, figure that if reasoning based on past experience has always worked in our past experience, it will work in the future. We will continue to act in a manner consistent with, and make predictions about, a genuine external reality, even after it is shown to us that there is no possible good reason to do so. The answer to getting through the day seems to be faith - a belief, not resting on logical proof or material evidence, that not only is there a) a genuine external world present outside of our minds, but b) our past experience is a good guide to the future. I’ll repeat – these are beliefs that we have no good reason to believe, and yet everyone acts as if they do believe them.

So we all rely on faith to some extent, but by its very nature it is a difficult thing to judge. How much faith should we have? We’ve made the step to believing there is an external world out there, having no reason to do so. Why then draw the line there? What about fairies? Or teapots in orbit outside of Mars? Or in fact anything anyone may choose to mention? After all, the cognitive step is the same. There is no more evidence for the first statement than any of the others. This is a problem if we want to have any hope at all of discriminating true knowledge from false.

For my part, the answer lies in the principle of parsimony – "Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity." If we postulate the minimum necessary principle to make contact with the outside world – the principle that it does indeed exist - and that in addition we can use the past as a good guide to the future, then all other possible claims can be investigated using only these two unsupported beliefs. The scientific method can then be applied, and a reasoned conclusion reached on any other statements we may care to make regarding the external world, say that fairies are real, or that objects accelerate with F=ma. Thus through parsimony there is the luxury of allowing oneself an outside world to relate to and make predictive claims about, whilst retaining the right to examine any further claims with a sceptical eye, keeping, as the saying goes, “an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.”

Which is nice.


Welcome to Principles of Parsimony. I'm a grad student in London, and this blog is going to contain thoughts on science, religion (or lack thereof), and, well, anything I feel like really. It is my blog after all. In case you're wondering, the guy on the top right of the title is William of Ockham, inventor of Ockham's Razor, or the law of parsimony.