Monthly Archives: February 2016

Self-treating homoeopaths and self-congratulating skeptics (Will Storr’s The Heretics [US: Unpersuadables], Part 2)

Warning: If you follow the Boots on-line advice about homoeopathy, it could kill you.

Storr devotes one of his most interesting chapters to a group of people that I belong to. He does not like them, and gives good reason for this.


Gemma Hoefkens tells her story

He approaches the topic indirectly, through the story of a woman called Gemma Hoefkens. As Gemma tells it, she had malignant tumours in her brain and spine that were no longer responding to treatment, so she saw no point in staying in hospital, and betook herself home. She recovered, against all expectation, with the help of some little pills she was taking. These pills were homoeopathic Causticum (sodium hydroxide, drain cleaner) at such a low dose that, if it were not for impurities, we could be confident [1] that each pill contained none of the active ingredient whatsoever. Understandably, she attributes her cure to these pills, with unchallengeable conviction, as others in like case might attribute their cure to the intercession of a saint. 14 years on, she is a licensed homoeopath, and has made a video about her experiences.[2]

Homoeopathy is a procedure that cannot possibly work as claimed, because of the facts of physics. It starts with the nonsensical assertion that the cure for a disease is to be found alongside the disease itself. For example, the miasma from lakes (remember this dates back to the eighteenth century) is responsible for the fevers of malaria, but the bark of the willow tree growing by the lake reduces fevers (indeed it does; it contains a substance closely related to aspirin). It proceeds with the grotesque claim that a curative agent is more effective at lower dose. Now it may well be that the effectiveness per mg is greater at lower dosage, so that 20 mg of a drug is less than twice as effective as 10 mg, but you would certainly expect it to be at least equally effective, and probably more. Indeed, dose-effect relationships are one of the ways of testing whether a substance is having any real effect. Finally, homoeopathic remedies are commonly dispensed at what is called C30 concentration. This means that the original curative agent (which as we have seen could be something as bizarre as drain cleaner) is diluted a hundred-fold 30 times. At that rate, not even an ocean-full would have any real hope of containing a single molecule of the original remedy.[1]

Despite its complete lack of scientific credibility, homoeopathy has been a subject of considerable research, which Storr reported on [2] in 2011. And the results are clear.

Homoeopathy works.

In fact, I would have found it very surprising if it did not. By all accounts, UK homoeopathic hospitals are pleasant places to be in. Patients are treated with apparent professionalism by practitioners, many of them with genuine clinical qualifications, who pay attention to them and say that they are treating, not just a disease, but the whole person. At the end, they are prescribed a remedy that the therapist tells them, in all sincerity, has been tailored to their own individual needs. These are the ideal conditions for bringing into play one of the strangest and least understood of all medical phenomena, the placebo effect. Conventional medicine could learn a lot from the homoeopaths.

So do homoeopathic remedies work any better than placebos, dummy pills that never pretend to be anything more than dummy pills, administered under comparable conditions? That is a much more difficult question to answer, especially as it is notoriously difficult to prove a negative. A good study needs to be large enough to produce statistically meaningful results, and must be “double-blind”, meaning that neither the patients, nor the clinicians in contact with them, nor those evaluating each individual patient’s results, know whether the patient has received the “real” treatment or a placebo. Most of the studies that have been conducted on homoeopathy were of poor quality, perhaps because of the small number of suitably qualified researchers with the desire, and the funding, to investigate what seems from the outset to be a lost cause. Pilot studies were regularly not followed up, as one would expect if they failed homeopathy-gettyto yield interesting results. The authoritative Cochrane Reviews has conducted nine metastudies of homoeopathy for various non-threatening conditions (it would obviously be unethical to test it on cancer patients), and report inconsistent but at times weakly positive findings. The consensus seems to be that homoeopathy really does work, but no better than placebo. Just last week, we had an account of the fullest study so far, which looked at 176 studies spread over 68 different health conditions. Excess performance of homoeopathy over placebo plus chance – zero.

This places protesters against homoeopathy in an interesting moral position. On the one hand, homoeopathy competes with more effective treatments for resources. We also know of cases where rejection of conventional treatment in favour of homoeopathy has led to unnecessary deaths, including deaths of children. On the other hand, some patients benefiting from the placebo effect will be left worse off if their faith in the “treatment” is undermined.

After that digression, let me return to Storr’s real subject here, which is not homoeopathy but a group that I actually belong to, Skeptics in the Pub, who meet to discuss, and hear talks about, a range of intellectually interesting topics. Storr says that he is “curious about the Skeptics because, from an outsider’s point of view, their main hobby seems to be not believing in things. Psychics, homoeopathy, chiropractors, ghosts, God…” I think Storr is being rather unfair here; topics recently discussed in my own (Glasgow) group include the effect of prison rates on crime, is talk therapy effective in treating schizophrenia, the origins of life, should we frack (this from a geologist who has made a special study of the topic; the answer is yes, but only if we can generate public confidence in the regulatory procedures), are surveys of happiness meaningful (we had one speaker who said no, a later speaker who said yes), and were women as constrained in Mediaeval Europe as Hollywood would have us believe (probably not). We have critically scrutinised the criminalising of pimps and the shaming of men who use prostitutes, with the help of Belinda Brooks-Gordon, Reader in Psychology and Social Policy at Birkbeck. We have had a talk from Mark Anderson, author of The Geek Manifesto, urging us to agitate for evidence-based policy-making, and we hold hustings before elections. You may notice a certain flavour here; a willingness to bring evidence to bear on complex topics where people have generally made up their minds on woefully inadequate evidence.

But Storr’s main concern was the assembled skeptics’ war on homoeopathy, and why they would bother. He wonders what prompts people to take Gemma’s video, and superpose on it the word “Quack” coming out of her mouth at the beginning of every sentence. Apparently, someone did that. He also wonders at the motivation of those who took part in the “massive homoeopathic overdose” stunt, originally organised by Merseyside Skeptics under the slogan “Homoeopathy, there is nothing in it”, where large numbers of protesters worldwide simultaneously swallowed large numbers of homeopathic Belladonna pills with no effects whatsoever.

He spoke to Colin, a software engineer, who had not actually read any studies on homoeopathy, but said he was fascinated by its absurdity. His friend Dominic described homoeopathy as really silly, and looked forward to taking part in the overdose. To what end? To make people aware of just how silly it is. Had he read any scientific studies of homoeopathy? “Not personally”.

Confession time: neither had I, until I read Storr’s book, which did not stop me from expressing my scorn towards it. Scorn that, as you can see from my earlier comments, is now considerably modified. And yet I strongly applaud the overdose stunt. And I feel a mixture of anger and contempt, not against the users of homoeopathic remedies, nor even the sincere believers who call themselves homoeopaths, but against the companies who manufacture (if that is the correct word) these materials, and the High Street pharmacists like Boots who market them, knowing exactly what they are doing. Now that I have finally gotten around to examining the relevant materials, I am appalled.

Boots-Main-LogoIf you follow the Boots on-line advice about homoeopathy, it could kill you. In homely language and reassuring comic sans font, it describes homoeopathic medicines as potent, recommends consulting “a qualified homoeopath or medical practitioner” [my emphasis] regarding “long-standing or more serious illness”, and lists what could in fact be symptoms of life-threatening conditions as suitable for do-it-yourself or homoeopath treatment; the list includes nausea and vomiting, exhaustion, headaches, coughs (including  coughs accompanied by “a stitching pain in the chest and a bursting headache”), diarrhoea and earache.

As Dominic said, homoeopathy might stop people from seeking appropriate medical advice, although he did not know anyone to whom this had actually happened. Not too surprising really; people who visit homoeopaths and people who protest their silliness are unlikely to be on intimate terms. However, Dominic said he saw it as a consumer protection issue. What else did he do about consumer protection? Well, he subscribed to Which, and things like that. Mark, another visitor to the convention, was primarily interested in evolution, which he described as “incredibly easy to understand” (you may remember from Part 1 that Nathan Lo, evolutionary biologist, said the exact opposite). What evidence had he personally studied? Fossils. Had he actually studied fossils? Not personally, but then had anyone studied God personally?

Storr has to agree that the skeptics are right. They are promoting the results of science. And yet he finds their company depressing, and feels that he is not of their tribe. I know exactly what he means. Storr knows that he is wrong, and, as he says, drawn to the wrong. The sceptics are right; so righteously right, alas, that the ones he spoke to did not even need so much as an on-line search to verify their rightness.

As I write, there is a fierce controversy among sceptical and freethinking organisations in America about whether or not it was right to disinvite a certain speaker from a certain meeting in the wake of a certain tweet (update; he has now been undisinvited).[3] The issues are complex, but this did not stop people on both sides from jumping to conclusions and then displaying selectivity bias, hardening of positions when challenged, animosity towards opponents, ad hominem arguments, emotionally laden non sequiturs, distorted perceptions of fact, appeals to group loyalty, and emotional blackmail, just like everybody else. I find this oddly comforting.

the-heretics-978033053586101In other chapters, Storr discusses past life regression therapy, yoga breathing as a panacea, rationalist superstar James Randi and his psychic challenge prize (never even applied for, we are told; but Storr’s investigations show otherwise), imaginary diseases, and… and…

But no point in my simply extending this list. Read the book.

1] A cubic meter of water contains roughly 50,000 moles of water, or 50,000 x 6.022 x 10^23 = (near enough) 3 x 10^28 molecules. Dilute to C30, or one in 10^60, and you will have one of the original water molecules in around 3 x 10^31 cubic meters or 3 x 10^22 cubic kilometers. That’s around a hundred trillion times bigger than the Atlantic Ocean.

2] Storr gives more details in this article. The video is available here.

3] For details, including my own views on the matter, see here

Adapted from an earlier post in 3 Quarks Daily

Will Storr’s The Heretics [US: Unpersuadables], 1: Full Frontal Creationism, and other kinds of unreason

the-heretics-978033053586101Is this book worthy of your time and attention? Yes. But this is not a book review, so much as a conversation with myself, triggered by reading it, and what follows is as much mine as his, especially as I have focused on those chapters that overlap my own concerns. There is no shortage of writings debunking creationism, or homoeopathy, or others covered here, beliefs that fly in the face of massive evidence, and yet this evidence has no effect at all on their believers. Why is this, Storr asks. What is going on? And what makes us think that we ourselves are so different?

Storr starts by telling us of his meeting with John Mackay, a Young Earth creationist, who was talking to an appreciative audience in a small town in Queensland. This seems to have been his first encounter with the full-blooded version of modern creationism, according to which evolution science and old Earth geology are fundamentally unsound, and the Bible is the infallible word of God. At the end of Genesis 1, God speaks of His work as being “very good”. “Very good” must mean no pain, and no death. It follows that tigers and tyrannosaurs coexisted happily with Adam and Eve in Eden, all of them adhering to strictly vegetarian diets, until the Fall went and spoiled everything. And “Tonight, the choice you have to face up to is this – do you put your faith in Darwin, who wasn’t there? Or in God, who was?”


Jurassic Ark theme park activities, Gympie, Australia, where Storr met Mackay. From Creation Research website.

Mackay claims to be able to feel the presence of God. What turned him against evolution, he says, was a biology textbook he was reading as an adolescent, which followed its exposition of evolution with a chapter advocating atheism. Unfortunately, he does not tell us which textbook he was referring to, giving me no way of checking his perspective, although such a chapter would of course be completely out of place in a biology textbook.

Mackay’s audience were universally sympathetic, a fact that Storr observed with bemusement that turned to dismay when, the following Sunday, Mackay mounted the pulpit to deliver a scathing attack on the wickedness of homosexuals and the compromising Churches who countenance their activities.

Mackay speaks proudly of debating with ordinary sane scientists or, as he would call them, evolutionists: “We frequently win public debates… They presume they will be fighting against theologians with no science degrees.” He himself has a degree in geology from Queensland, where he also took a class in genetics. As a teacher in a private school, he was able to promote creationism under the guise of “critical thinking”, comparing the claims of evolution and creationism as he saw them.  He met up with Ken Ham, a kindred spirit, and together they set up the Creation Science Foundation. Mackay was forced out after some bitter infighting, and now directs a relatively small outfit known as Creation Research. The Creation Science Foundation, meantime, has turned into Answers in Genesis, a multi-million organisation based mainly in the US, famous for its Creation Museum and Ark Encounter Theme Park.

I have no doubt of Mackay’s sincerity. His arguments against creationism will be depressingly familiar to anyone who has studied the subject. Didn’t Darwin himself complain about the inadequacy of the fossil record? Why don’t we ever observe intermediate species? What about polystrate fossils, tree trunks that project upwards through different geological layers, supposedly separated from them by huge banks of time?

“The first dinosaurs look like dinosaurs… The last ones look like dinosaurs too. So within that timeframe – even if you did put in a millions of years – they produce their own kind, just as Genesis says.”

Let me invite the reader to respond to Mackay’s arguments, and to answer a question of my own: if your last common ancestor with a flatfish was 430 million years ago, how long ago, roughly, was the last common ancestor of a flatfish and a frog? (Answers at end)

Storr is in no doubt that Mackay is completely misguided. And yet, he says of Mackay and others pursuing the unreasonable,

“There is something noble about their bald defiance of the ordinary, something heroic about the deep outsider-territories that they wilfully inhabit… I feel a kind of kinship with them. I am drawn to the wrong.”

Storr gives us, later, more detail about his own past than I intend to divulge about mine, beyond saying that I too have explored strange places of the mind, and entertained bizarre beliefs.

Later Storr discusses Mackay with Nathan Lo, an Assistant Professor at the University of Sydney, who describes creationism as appealing because very easy to understand, unlike evolution which requires time and thought. Lo dismisses the leaders of the creationist movement as just in it for the money, prompting the kind of observation that makes this book so interesting:

“Nathan Lo and I… see ourselves as the rational ones, the clean-sighted bringers of 21st-century reason. And yet both of us, I have come to believe, are mistaken. We are wrong about the wrong.”

He joins a group who are taking part in a 10-day programme of extremely rigorous meditation. Halfway through, a woman participant starts screaming in distress, but he does nothing to go to her aid. Why not? Excessive obedience to authority. Later, he compares himself to participants in Stanley Milgram’s famous electric shock experiment. Here, subjects were told that they were taking part in an experiment on the effects of punishment on learning, and believed that they were administering electric shocks to the learner, who was in the next room. The subjects obediently administered increasing shocks, even when the person in the next room (an actor) started screaming, and many went all the way up to levels of shock clearly labelled as lethal and not to be used. Then there was the strip-search scam, where a bogus policeman claims be investigating a reported theft, gives a vague description that the management applies to one of the waitresses, and that waitress is then told to strip naked and cavort, kiss the “policeman”, and even submit to spankings, in front of the manager, and her boyfriend acting as chaperone. And does what she is told, with neither manager nor boyfriend raising any questions. And this performance has been repeated in over 70 diners throughout the United States.

Excessive obedience, according to Storr, is but one of the many ways in which our brains differ from the standards of rational judgement that we naïvely believe ourselves to be applying. Notice that I said “differ from”, not “fall short of”. We are evolved animals, and the brain has more investment (if I may so put it) in seeing us survive and prosper in our societies, than in making us aware of objective truth. We are influenced by others, and if enough of our neighbours say so, we will actually come to see one line as being longer than another, even when our eyes plainly tell us that it is not.[1]

That’s the least of it. Storr finds himself forced to confront a much larger question, perhaps the largest question in the whole of philosophy: what really goes on inside our minds (or our brains; for me, as for Storr, these come to much the same thing) and how well does that enable us to cope with reality?

Storr deals with this question in a tightly argued (but, given the difficulty of the subject matter, surprisingly readable) chapter, of which I can do no more than convey the general favour. He quotes from Bruce Wexler’s book, Brain and Culture, which describes the brain and mind as highly plastic and shaping themselves to the environment, until early adulthood. From that stage onwards, the process is reversed, and “much of the [brain] activity is devoted to making the environment conformed to the established structures.” From which Storr draws the unpalatable conclusion:

“Your brain is surprisingly reluctant to change its mind. Rather than going through the difficulties involved in rearranging itself to reflect the truth, it often prefers to fool you. So it distorts. It forgets. It projects. It lies.”

This is true for the brain of the deluded creationist. And Storr’s brain. And yours. And mine. Our brains spend most of their time satisfying themselves that things are as we expect them to be, and spring into action (and denial) when this comfortable belief is disturbed.

Our entire sensory world is a construct. We see in three-colour vision, and our inner worlds are that extent richer than those of a skate, which has no colour vision at all, but poorer in ways we cannot even imagine than those of birds and insects that have up to six separate kinds of colour receptor. So colour is not something in the world, but a construct that we impose on it. Light itself has wavelength, but no colour. (Here Storr seems to me to be making a common philosophical error. When we are seeing normally, our colour vision is causally determined by the wavelengths of light impinging on our eyes, as well as by the way our brains process that information. Colour vision may encode only part of the information out there, and the particular code may be specific to humans, or even to individuals, but that does not invalidate the information obtained. But perhaps this is nitpicking.) Storr goes on to describe our inner world of perceptions as “A vision. A useful guess about what the [external] world might look like, that is built well enough that we are able to negotiate it successfully.” The point is that we do not handle reality, which is far too complex, but the model we make of it. Accuracy beyond what is needed is irrelevant for the serious business of surviving and reproducing, or even harmfully distracting.

Even our emotions are constructs, based on expectation. Depending on your culture, you will when drunk become more convivial, or more aggressive, or more sexually uninhibited, and some of these effects (I trust that no one tested for the last one I mentioned) can even be produced by alcohol-free fake drinks.

We deceive ourselves to protect our expectations without ever realising it. When told that a male applicant for the job of police chief has qualification A, while a female applicant has qualification B, most people will choose A as the more important qualification. Reverse the details, and most people will choose B. Ask them for their reasoning, and they will discuss the finely balanced choice between A and B on its merits, with no mention of gender. From the outside, it is clear that they regard police chief as a man’s kind of job, and pick the criterion that best fits this preconception, but they do not know that this is what they are doing.

We scrutinise arguments attacking our position much more closely, and reject them on much slimmer grounds, than those that support us. And if, in the end and, we cannot avoid the realisation of conflict, we experience the discomfort known as cognitive dissonance. We now have three choices; we can deny that the conflict really exists, or we can change our minds to accommodate the new evidence (the least likely outcome), or we can build a fence round our preconceptions, and hold on to our initial beliefs with more fervour than ever. This helps explain why debates about such topics as creationism, or the reality of global warming, get nowhere, and anyone who has taken part in such a debate will realise how annoyingly the arguments that we direct at the other side merely boomerang. It’s not fair. You just can’t reason with them. The most infuriating thing is that they actually seem to enjoy taking such absurd positions. And, if fMRI results are to be trusted, they don’t merely seem; when we strike a partisan posture, the pleasure centres in our brain light up. We are all, to use it Storr’s expression, “deluded egotists”, and, worst of all, we like it that way.

Storr’s next chapter is about a group of people that I belong to. He does not like them, and gives good reason for this. But that will have to wait for another post.

Appendix: And what about those objections to evolution?


Vogt, C. 1880. Archaeopteryx macrura, an Intermediate Form between Birds and Reptiles. Ibis 4:434-456, via Wikipedia

Yes, Darwin complained of the inadequacy of the fossil record and the lack of intermediate forms, but we have dug up a lot of new information since 1859, when the first edition of The Origin of Species was published. By 1863, in time for the fourth edition, we had the discovery of Archaeopteryx and its identification as intermediate between birds and their reptilian ancestors. In fact, we now know Archaeopteryx to be a great-uncle, rather than a direct ancestor, of modern birds, but that is by comparison with hundreds of other intermediate forms, enabling us to establish a bird family tree rooted among one particular group of dinosaurs, with both extinct and surviving branches. There will always, of course, be missing links in the chain, but the existence of the chain itself is now undeniable. So far from being a criticism of the evolutionary account, Darwin’s complaint should be heralded as an implicit prediction, one that has been amply fulfilled.

Polystrate fossils are the expected results of rapid sedimentation, but so what? At one time there was thought to be a conflict between catastrophism, in which geological processes occurred with terrifying rapidity, and a uniformitarian gradualism according to which they were always slow, but both of these extremes had been abandoned by 1865.

And the time elapsed between the last common ancestor of a flatfish and a frog is exactly the same as the time elapsed since the last common ancestor of a flatfish and you, some 430 million years. If you don’t believe me, go to the Timetree website and check. Your last common ancestor with a frog is somewhat more recent, at around 355 million years before present, and deserves to be called a proto-amphibian because it superficially resembles the frog much more than it resembles you, but you and the frog have both, by definition, been evolving for the same length of time since then. True, the changes in your line of descent have been more dramatic, including the ability to give birth on land, development inside the womb, warmbloodedness, and big brains, but your now extinct reptile-like and lemur-like ancestors are intermediate, not between you and the present-day frog, but between you and that remote proto-amphibian common ancestor. The distinction is important but subtle, part of why evolution is so often misundertood.

As for Mackay’s claim that a dinosaur is a dinosaur is a dinosaur, this can only be based on self-inflicted ignorance. Diplodocus, Triceratops, and Tyrannosaur are at least as obviously different as a cow, a zebra, and a tiger. But for Mackay, these are all small matters, compared with his eternal salvation.

1] This is based on the behaviour of groups of students, asked to judge which of two lines was longer, and how the judgements were influenced by the opinions expressed by stooges pretending to be fellow-subjects. Storr refers to fMRI work suggesting that the students really were persuaded by their supposed colleagues, rather than deciding to go along with them, but as he says much of this kind of work is still highly controversial.

Adapted from an earlier post in 3 Quarks Daily


An affront to democracy; unelected Church nominees sit and vote on Council Education Committees in Scotland (and England)

A question for your Holyrood candidates

I will be asking my Scottish parliamentary candidates how, in their view, Council Education Committees ought to be selected.  Should they simply consist of elected councillors, plus others (e.g. teachers) that they vote to co-opt? If not, what arrangement would the candidate prefer? And readers may also want to ask about this; I would love to hear the candidates’ answers. Why I am asking this strange question? Because of these strange facts:

The scandal


Edinburgh HQ of Church of Scotland, which appoints 33 Committee members

By pre-devolution law, all Council Education Committees must include three individuals nominated by Churches. One nominee is from the Catholic Church, and one from the Church of Scotland. The third is from a religious body selected by the Council, having regard to local demographics. The elected councillors themselves have no further say in the matter, nor do those they represent. Non-believers, and members of any other than the three privileged denominations, need not apply. Nor need experts in curriculum development, child health, social planning, or any other form of worldly expertise.

And just in case any of my English friends are thinking “silly old Scotland again”, did you realise that there are two such nominees on every English Local Authority Education Committee, one Church of England and one Catholic? Presumably the larger number in Scotland reflects the more fractious nature of our ecclesiastical politics:

Churches_of_Scotland_timeline.svg (1)

Education Committees control a larger part of Council budgets than any other Committee. They are the ultimate employers of School Principals and teachers, as well as being represented on senior teacher selection panels.  They decide on the opening and closing of schools and whether a school should be denominational or nondenominational, and control local practice in such matters as religious education, religious observance, and instruction about sex in human relationships.


The Episcopal Church, with 25,000 communicants, was offered 10 places on Committees and has filled 7 of them

The requirement for representatives of religion on these Committees dates back through Acts in 1994 and 1973 to the 1929 reorganisation of local government in Scotland, and the earlier provisions on which it was based. To a time when the formation of the public education system was fresh in the memory, and when the population of Scotland was overwhelmingly religious.*

Almost a century later, none of this is still true. According to the 2011 census figures, the largest single religious category is “None”, while only 54% of the population describe themselves as Christian. These numbers vary greatly from region to region; the legal requirement does not. The 2014 Scottish Government Social Attitudes Survey shows 68 percent of 18-24 -year-olds and 56 percent of 25-39 -year-olds describing themselves as “no religion”. So the Nones are an actual majority in the age cohorts now beginning to send their children to school. And surely no one would claim that the pre-1918 system gives the Churches an inherited right over education. We are talking about children, not property.

The role of the Church nominees is real, not ceremonial. According to the Church of Scotland itself, they hold the balance of power in 19 of Scotland’s 32 Education Committees, so that in an actual majority of Councils, the wishes of the controlling party or coalition can be overridden if these nominees side with the opposition. Given, moreover, the admirably conversational tone of much Scottish politics, their influence will not be limited to such formal occasions. And from time to time they represent the Council on teacher selection panels.

Why this matters

Space does not permit full elaboration of the case for abolition of these privileged positions, so the following incomplete summary must suffice:

The arrangement violates human rights. It excludes nonbelievers, and followers of any belief system other than the three represented, from equal participation in the process of government

It is anti-democratic. It places part of the machinery of government under the influence of individuals in whose appointment the electorate has no say. The point here is not that these individuals are religious; so indeed many elected councillors. It is that they are unelected. They sit and vote on the most important of all local authority committees, having completely bypassed the democratic process

It assumes a consensus in favour of religion that no longer exists. Nonbelievers are now the single largest group in Scotland, and an actual majority among the young

It restricts the ability of elected Councillors to co-opt individuals of their own choosing, since both law and common sense require that the Committees have a majority of elected members

It has proved difficult if not impossible to follow in practice. Freedom of Information request found that, as of July 2015, seven councils had failed to fill all positions; one (Orkney) had appointed no religious representatives; eight had filled the third Church Representative position by newspaper advertisements that had attracted only one applicant; one representative had nominated himself when asked to consult with colleagues; and for these or other reasons, in 18 out of 32 councils the process had clearly proved defective.


The Rev. David Fraser’s church quotes experts 99.9% sure that they have found Noah’s Ark (this, from his Church’s web site, is just a scale model). The Rev. David Fraser, who sits,unelected, on Clackmannanshire’s Education Committee, believes (see website) that “The vast majority of those dying are entering hell.”

It gives power to unelected individuals with extreme and unrepresentative views. I blogged on this in 2013, and the situation has not changed. The haphazard procedures described above make it easy for extreme Churches to gain the right to nominate a representative. Thus, from the limited information available on Church websites, we know that there are at least six representatives of Churches (in Clackmannanshire, Highland, Inverclyde, Na h-Eileanan Siar, North Ayrshire and Souh Lanarkshire) who believe that the prescribed Earth and Life Sciences syllabus is a pack of lies, the same number believing in the literal physical eternal punishment of those who reject Jesus, and one who believes in the curing of physical ailments by laying on of hands. For the nominees of these Churches, holding these extreme views becomes a job requirement for Education Committee membership, despite the science content of the Curriculum and the educational goals of tolerance and inclusiveness

It risks placing teachers and school management teams in an impossible position. I know of cases where a six-day creationist is simultaneously a member of school chaplaincy teams, and of the Education Committee overseeing these same schools. Consider the dilemma of a science teacher who may wish to confront him

It gives double representation to specific privileged viewpoints. If a concern arises related to the special interests of one particular religious group, constituents belonging to that group can appeal, both to their own council members, and to the relevant Church nominee

Finally, it gives the Councils an unwanted and unwarranted voice in the internal affairs of religion itself. They are forced to nominate one from the numerous religious organisations in their area, at the expense of all the others. And in the event of schism within a Church, for which there is precedent, they would be required to choose between rival claimants.

The simple remedy

A one-paragraph Act, revoking one clause of the existing legislation, is all that is needed to remove the offending requirement. If the elected councillors still wished to co-opt representatives of Churches, or the public chose to elect them to office, they would, of course, be free to do so. But imposed Church nominees on Education Committees are an indefensible anachronism, incompatible with the realities and aspirations of a modern democratic Scotland. It is time for them to go.


Adapted from my op-ed in The Scotsman, which attracted this comment:

It’s a simple argument. Council education committees currently have unelected special interest members, this a legacy quid pro quo from when the churches handed over their schools to be run by the state. The issue should not be that these members are religious but that they have not been elected. Only those who have been elected should have voting rights.

* Parallel legislation regarding England specifies two representatives of religion, one from the Church of England and the other from the Catholic Church; the difference between England and Scotland presumably reflects the more fractious nature of religion in Scotland; the 1929 Act was presumably drafted just before the (partial) healing of the Great Disruption that had split the Church of Scotland since 1843.

Church of Scotland offices by Kim Traynor via Wikipedia under Creative Commons licence. Committee membership as of September 2015, from FoI responses by Councils. Church history diagram by Hogweard via Wikipedia, public domain; click to enlarge or see here for full scale view. St Mary’s cathedral Church, Edinburgh, by Finlay McWalter via Wikipedia under GNU licence; church membership figures for Episcopalians as of 2013, from Church Times

An open letter to Scotland’s Green Party: this will not do


From poster for Prof Shipton’s talk (see below)

I write as a scientist, with strong Green sympathies, who has been warning against the dangers of global warming for decades, and has published on the subject. I am impressed that you, alone among political parties, are aware that growth-based policies are unsustainable if they imply increasing exploitation of limited resources, and that the only purpose of growth, and economic policy in general, is to increase well-being.

 I am, however, dismayed that you say: “Scotland can ban fracking once and for all. The scientific evidence is compelling” [your emphasis]

This is not what I hear from the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering. Nor is it what I heard (at Glasgow Skeptics in the Pub) from an acknowledged local expert, Zoe Shipton, Professor of Geological Engineering in the Department of Civil Engineering at Strathclyde University, who was involved in drafting this report.

Environmental regulation in Scotland (and indeed in the rest of what we still call the United Kingdom) is much tighter than it is in the US, and so it should be. If you think that, nonetheless, regulation is inadequate, you should be arguing about the specifics, and would attract widespread public attention by doing so. If you are arguing that we should not be fracking because fracked gas is a fossil fuel, I would remind you that per unit of energy, gas generates considerably less CO2 than coal, or even North Sea oil. Thus refraining from fracking means more CO2, not less. If you can produce a policy that would leave us completely free from fossil fuel use by the time that fracking would have paid off, I would be delighted to learn of it.

Meantime, unless you can produce evidence for your claim that there is compelling [sic] scientific evidence for a ban on fracking, I will be forced much against my will to the melancholy conclusion that you are not interested in distinguishing between genuine science-based policy-making, and the greenwash of anti-scientific Luddism.

This is an expanded version of a message sent to the Scottish Green Party, in response to their campaign materials

Appendix: key findings, verbatim and complete, from Royal Society Final report on shale gas extraction

“The key findings of this review were:

  • The health, safety and environmental risks can be managed effectively in the UK. Operational best practices must be implemented and enforced through strong regulation.
  • Fracture propagation is an unlikely cause of contamination. The risk of fractures propagating to reach overlying aquifers is very low provided that shale gas extraction takes place at depths of many hundreds of metres or several kilometres. Even if fractures reached overlying aquifers, the necessary pressure conditions for contaminants to flow are very unlikely to be met given the UK’s shale gas hydrogeological environments.
  • Well integrity is the highest priority. More likely causes of possible contamination include faulty wells. The UK’s unique well examination scheme was set up so that independent, specialist experts could review the design of every offshore well. This scheme must be made fit for purpose for onshore activities.
  • Robust monitoring is vital. Monitoring should be carried out before, during and after shale gas operations to detect methane and other contaminants in groundwater and potential leakages of methane and other gases into the atmosphere.
  • An Environmental Risk Assessment (ERA) should be mandatory. Every shale gas operation should assess risks across the entire lifecycle of operations, from water use through to the disposal of wastes and the abandonment of wells.
  • Seismic risks are low. Seismicity should be included in the ERA.Seismicity induced by hydraulic fracturing is likely to be of smaller magnitude than the UK’s largest natural seismic events and those induced by coal mining
  • Water requirements can be managed sustainably. Water use is already regulated by the Environment Agency. Integrated operational practices, such as recycling and reusing wastewaters where possible, would help to minimise water requirements further. Options for disposing of wastes should be planned from the outset. Should any onshore disposal wells be necessary in the UK, their construction, regulation and siting would need further consideration.
  • Regulation must be fit for purpose. Attention must be paid to the way in which risks scale up should a future shale gas industry develop nationwide. Regulatory co-ordination and capacity must be maintained.
  • Policymaking would benefit from further research. The carbon footprint of shale gas extraction needs further research. Further benefit would also be derived from research into the public acceptability of shale gas extraction and use in the context of the UK’s energy, climate and economic policies.”

Even on his birthday, don’t say Darwin unless you mean it


From Darwin’s Notebook B, 1837

How Darwin’s name is taken in vain, with mini-reviews of some of the worst offenders

Don’t say Darwin unless you mean it. Above all, don’t say “Darwin” when you mean “evolution”. It’s like saying “Dalton” when you mean atoms. Our understanding of atoms has moved on enormously since Dalton’s time, and our understanding of evolution has moved on similarly since Darwin’s. Neither of them knew, or could have known, the first thing regarding what they were talking about, and both would be delighted at how thoroughly their own work has been superseded. (Dalton of course deserves further discussion in his own right, which I will be providing in a few weeks time.)


From John Dalton’s A New System of Chemical Philosophy (1808)

Imagine if a lot of people decided that atomic theory was against their religion. We would see a parallel world of sacred science, in which molecules were “intelligently constructed”, and real chemistry would be referred to as Daltonism, or possibly, these days, neo-Daltonism. The scientific dissidents from Daltonism would invoke Dalton’s name on every possible occasion, and draw attention to the many inadequacies of atomic theory as he presented it in 1808. Dalton didn’t know anything about the forces that hold atoms together, which depend on electrons and quantum mechanics. In fact, he didn’t even know about electrons. He was muddled about the difference between a molecule of hydrogen and an atom of hydrogen. He thought that the simplest compound between two different elements A and B would have the formula AB, so that water must be HO, not H2O. And of course he knew nothing about the origin of atoms, a problem not solved until the 1950s, over a century after his death. Obvious nonsense, the lot of it!

Darwin was ignorant of transitional fossils, and in words still quoted by creationists deplored their absence as the greatest objection to his theory. He was equally ignorant about the origin of biological novelty, which comes from mutating genes. In fact, he didn’t even know about genes. And because he did not realise that inheritance occurred through genes, he could not explain why favourable variations were not simply diluted out. It would be decades after his death before we could even speculate coherently about the origins of life, and despite tantalising clues it remains a largely unsolved problem. But despite this, we have learnt an enormous amount since the publication of On The Origin of Species, and everything that we have learnt is consistent with, indeed requires, the key concepts of evolution and common descent.

ExploreEvolutionSo why is discussion of evolution still saturated with Darwin’s name? In part, I think, because that’s the way his opponents want it. By identifying evolution with Darwin, they continue to breathe life into the controversies of the mid-19th century. At the same time, it helps them pretend that modern biology is just one individual’s point of view, rather than a mature science based on the work of thousands of investigators. Very recently, creationists have taken to invoking Darwin himself for their cause, in such titles as Darwin’s Doubt and Darwin Strikes Back. This is an extremely powerful rhetorical tool; if Darwin was puzzled by [whatever], is that not a puzzle to us “Darwinists”? Closely related is the device of presenting creationism under the guise of even-handed debate, as when a creationist pseudo-textbook (which mentions Darwin on almost every page, but not in the index) calls itself Explore Evolution; the arguments for and against neo-Darwinism, or in the list below, where a creationist comic goes by the name, What’s Darwin got to do with it? A friendly discussion …

And while we’re on the subject of unhelpful language, don’t say “theory of evolution” when you mean the well-established facts of historical and continuing change over time, and of common ancestry. And if you find yourself in the position of explaining the difference between a scientific theory (coherent intellectual structure developed to explain a range of observations), and the use of the word “theory” in everyday use (provisional hypothesis), you have blundered into a morass. Back out again.

BlackBoxBut back to Darwin. You can see what I mean if you just look at the names of the books written by the enemies of scientific biology, from Darwin’s Doubt (Meyer, 2013) back to Darwin’s Black Box (Behe, 1996) and beyond. There are other examples, such as The Darwin Conspiracy (Roy Davies, 2006), which portrays Darwin as a plagiarist, and, while checking its details, I discovered an even more lurid book of the same name by John Darnton, which portrays him as a murderer. To be fair, Darnton does not pretend that he is writing anything other than fiction, although surely he was writing with half an eye on the creationist market.

To further test my idea, I went online to, and typed “Darwin” and “Darwinism” in the search window (I regularly search on Amazon, but prefer to buy from The Book Depository or Wordery). Here are some of the books by creationists that I came up with; a lot of the names were all too familiar, but I never realized that Rick Santorum had actually got his name on a book.  There were also references to  “materialist neo-Darwinism”, but since I don’t pretend to know what a “materialist” is, and whether I or for that matter Darwin would qualify, I decided to let those ones go.

Darwin's DoubtGod vs. Darwin: The Logical Supremacy of Intelligent Design Creationism Over Evolution (M. S. King, 2015): “Ever since its inception, the edifice of Evolutionary Darwinism has rested upon a foundation of sand, propped up solely by media hype, public ignorance and extreme intellectual bullying.”

Darwin’s Doubt (Meyer, 2013) For the fashioning of this phrase in the creationist quote mine, see here. For Donald Prothero‘s devastating review of the book, see here.

Dehumanization: A Product of Darwinism (David Campbell, 2012)

The Dark Side of Charles Darwin (Jerry Bergman, 2011) Blurb: “A single man stands behind the greatest deception in history.”

Evolution by Intelligent Design: Debate is Over – Darwinism is Extinct (Gabor Lingauer, 2011)

The Deniable Darwin and Other Essays (David Berlinski, 2010; I have written about Berlinski here)

What Darwin Got Wrong (Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, 2010) Apparently based on confusion between mutation, source of novelty, and selection, imposer of value.

The Darwin Myth: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin (Benjamin Wiker, 2009) 

Exposing Darwinism’s Weakest Link: Why Evolution Can’t Explain Human Existence (Kenneth Poppe, 2008)

Explore Evolution: The Arguments For and Against NeoDarwinism, (Stephen C. Meyer, Scott Minnich, Jonathan Moneymaker and Paul A. Nelson, 2007; this fraudulently misnamed creationist pseudo-texbook is discussed further here)

Darwin’s Plantation: Evolution’s Racist Roots (Ken Ham and A. Charles Ware, 2007)

The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism (Michael Behe, 2007; since Behe clearly believes that biological complexity is the work of a designer who operates independently of natural laws, I include him as a creationist, although he would deny this)

DarwinDayDarwin Day In America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science  John G. West, 2007)

Doubts About Darwin: A History of Intelligent Design (Thomas Woodward, 2007)

Darwin’s Nemesis: Phillip Johnson and the Intelligent Design Movement (William A. Dembski and Rick Santorum, 2006)

Darwin Strikes Back: Defending the Science of Intelligent Design (Thomas Woodward and William Dembski , 2006)

The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design (Jonathan Wells, 2006)

Reclaiming Science from Darwinism: A Clear Understanding of Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design, (Kenneth Poppe, 2006)

The Naked Emperor: Darwinism Exposed (Antony Latham, 2005)

Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing (William A. Dembski, 2004)

What Darwin Didn’t Know: A Doctor Dissects the Theory of Evolution (Geoffrey Simmons, 2004) Blurb: What Darwin Didn’t Know shows the human body to be a marvelous system constructed by an infinitely wise Designer.

darwinismDesignDarwinism, Design and Public Education (John Angus Campbell and Stephen C. Meyer, 2003) Blurb: if science education is to be other than state-sponsored propaganda, a distinction must be drawn between empirical science and materialist philosophy.

Darwinism and the Rise of Degenerate Science (Paul Back, 2003) Blurb: many of the constructs of evolution are based on fantasies devoid of scientific credibility.

The Collapse of Darwinism: Or The Rise of a Realist Theory of Life (Graeme D. Snooks, 2003)

Human Devolution: A Vedic Alternative to Darwin’s Theory (Michael A. Cremo, 2003)

The Case Against Darwin: Why the Evidence Should Be Examined (James Perloff, 2002)

Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists (Benjamin Wiker and William Dembski (Jul 12, 2002) Abortion. Euthanasia. Infanticide. Sexual promiscuity. And it’s all Darwin’s fault.

Darwinism Under The Microscope: How recent scientific evidence points to divine design (James P. Gills, 2002)

Darwin’s God: Evolution and the Problem of Evil (Cornelius G. Hunter, 2002) It’s just an excuse for atheism.

Darwin’s Demise (Md. Comninellis Nicholas and Joe White, 2001)

Shattering the Myths of Darwinism (Richard Milton, 2000)

WhatsDarwinGotWhat’s Darwin Got to Do with It?: A Friendly Discussion About Evolution (between a bright young creationist and a stuffy stooge; Robert C. Newman, John L. Wiester and Janet Moneymaker, 2000)

Darwinism Defeated? (J. I. Packer, Phillip E. Johnson and Denis O. Lamoureux, 1999) (Lamoureux says no, by the way)

Evolution Deceit: The Scientific Collapse of Darwinism (Harun Yahya and Mustapha Ahmad, 1999)

Tornado in a Junkyard: The Relentless Myth of Darwinism (James Perloff, 1999)

Darwin’s Leap of Faith: Exposing the False Religion of Evolution (John Ankerberg and John Weldon, 1998)

Darwin’s Enigma (Luther Sunderland, 1998) Blurb: No legitimate fossil evidence exists that shows one species changing into another

Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds (Phillip E. Johnson, 1997)

Darwin’s Black Box (Michael Behe, 1996)

In the Minds of Men: Darwin and the New World Order (Ian T. Taylor, 1996) Blurb: Creation Moments is pleased to bring you what has been hailed as the classic work on the creation-evolution issue!

Darwinism, Science or Philosophy? (Phillip E. Johnson et al., 1994)

Darwin on Trial (Phillip E. Johnson, 1991)

Darwinism : The Refutation of a Myth (Soren Lovtrup, 1987)

And so on, all the way back to The Refutation of Darwinism: And the Converse Theory of Development; Based Exclusively Upon Darwin’s Facts (T Warren O’Neill, 1879)

A shorter version of this post appeared here in June 2013

Removing Bishops from the House of Lords; Government response to petition

Bishops provide an important independent voice and spiritual insight into the work of the Upper House and while they make no claims to direct representation, they seek to be a voice for all people of faiths. The House of Lords also contains a number of other senior faith representatives.

I signed this petition to the Westminster Government:

Remove Church of England Bishops from the House of Lords

With the publication of the Church of England’s intention to sanction the US Episcopal Church over the latter’s sympathetic stance towards equal marriage, the C of E is quite out of step with UK Law and indeed common humanity. Thus we feel strongly these bishops have no place in our government.

Since the petition attracted some 13,000 signatures, more than the 10,000 signature threshold, the Government had to respond:

 Government response


Rituals in the Lords date back centuries

Changes to the composition of the House of Lords, including Church of England Bishops, are important but, given the very full programme of other constitutional changes, are not a priority at present.

The Government has no plans to remove the Church of England Bishops from the House of Lords.

The Government considers that the relationship between the Church and the State in England is an important part of the constitutional framework that has evolved over centuries. As senior members of the established Church of England, 26 bishops are appointed to the House of Lords. Bishops provide an important independent voice and spiritual insight into the work of the Upper House and while they make no claims to direct representation, they seek to be a voice for all people of faiths. The House of Lords also contains a number of other senior faith representatives.

People have a right to conduct their lives in accordance with their faith insofar as this does not unlawfully interfere with the rights of others and it is important to strike a fair balance between religious freedom of expression and the rights of, for example, lesbian, gay and bisexual people not to be discriminated against. Therefore, the law protects the rights of both these groups. The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, which received Royal Assent on 17 July 2013, extends marriage to same sex couples in England and Wales, while protecting and promoting religious freedom.

Cabinet Office

So there we have it. While the 26 Lords Spiritual are from the Church of England, other faiths are also represented in the Lords, so there isn’t really a problem. The faithless, of course, do not need representation. And while nine bishops voted to block same-sex marriage, with five others abstaining, they lost out on that occasion, so what are we complaining about?

You will find the Church of England’s discussion of the Lords debate here. We will shortly be meeting arguments similar to those used by the Westminster Cabinet Office in a different context.

Image of the Lords from BBC News

100 Years of Drift, Part 3: the invention of Pangaea

The invention of Pangaea. And why the Appalachians continue in Scotland

The Mountain Mystery

wegener pipe outdoorsIn today’s blog post, we continue our story of the development of the theory of continental drift – an idea which just celebrated its 100th birthday. Before Alfred Wegener’s 1915 book on contintents in motion, a few others had the idea, yet no one had developed it as thoroughly. In Part 1 of this series, we covered a bit of Alfred Wegener’s early life and some of his initial work. Yesterday, we showed how fossils and palaeoclimate figured into his continental drift theory. Today, we continue with Wegener by looking at his idea in a little detail.

On Saturday, January 6, 1912, Wegener presented a lecture that unveiled his hypothesis of a supercontinent and the idea that it fractured into our modern continents. He gave his talk to the German Geological Society at the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt.  Probably no one in attendance believed his notion – they…

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100 Years of Drift, Part 2: the evidence mounts

The evidence mounts: glacial striations, coal in Antarctica, and the distribution of dinosaurs (and others)

The Mountain Mystery

It’s been 100 years since Alfred Wegener proposed his idea of continental drift. Today’s blog continues the story we began yesterday – the tale of Wegener’s life and the development of his grand idea of mobile continents. This time, we’ll look at the significance of fossils and climate and how these contributed to the drift theory. 

By 1900, most geologists and biologists accepted Darwin’s description of species evolution. Darwin noted that the offspring of various creatures, isolated from each other and exposed to different environments, evolve into quite different beings with the passage of time. For example, bison arose on the American plains while the wildebeest fills a similar ecological niche in Africa. Both form huge herds, mostly survive by grazing (eating grass and seeds), but also by a little browsing (munching on the odd shrub). Both animals have manes, wild beards, and both look like trouble.

2 beasts

But you would…

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100 Years of Drift, Part 1: from meteorology to moving continents

Wegener is not the only scientist for whom meteorology has been the starting point on the path to other major discoveries. It influenced Dalton’s thinking in the development of atomic theory, while writing computer programs for meteorology was Paul Crutzen’s first step towards discovering how CFCs were destroying the ozone layer.

Wegener himself gets a supporting role in the admirable Horrible Science book (reviewed here), Evolve or Die.

The Mountain Mystery

Alfred Wegener, in Greenland, 1930Alfred Wegener, in Greenland, 1930  (photo by Fritz Loewe)

Fifty years ago, we finally figured out why the Earth has mountains. But one hundred years ago, Alfred Wegener had already offered an explanation – it took those extra 50 years for his grand idea to catch on. The continents, Wegener said, wander about. They bump into each other. Accidents cause mountains.

Yea, it’s been a hundred years since Wegener first wrote about continental displacement. A few other people had similar notions earlier. In the 1600s, Francis Bacon speculated that the southern hemisphere’s continents were arranged “like an opening blossom.” Some say Bacon was wondering if they had drifted from an original supercontinent, though Bacon never really said that.

In the 1800s, a few notable geologists (particularly Antonio Snider-Pelligrini, in France, and Richard Owen, in the USA) claimed that the continents were mobile. But their cases weren’t as compelling…

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