Thursday, 29 November 2007

Christina Odone and freedom of speech

According to Channel 4 news that I've just watched Christina Odone was 'censored' for insulting atheists. Digging a little deeper reveals her on the Today programme (here around 21 mins in) and this from the New Humanist blog. Odone on the Today programme accuses the guy from the Commonwealth Foundation of "your folly in not allowing somebody of faith to speak at a carol service at Christmas".

But it turns out her speech was for the Commonwealth Foundation carol service in partnership with the Fairtrade Foundation, on the topic of 'opportunity for all' and she decided to use this topic to attack atheists and secularists for oppressing religious believers. So they told her that what she wanted to say would offend non-religious believers attending and asked her to read something else by Bertrand Russell instead, and she refused and pulled out.

Clearly her right to free speech has been suppressed by the evil forces of secularism, and it is not at all the case that she tried to subvert a non-denominational event promoting development goals in order to spread her own particular brand of religious victimhood and atheist bashing.

Monday, 26 November 2007

More Blasphemy

Leaving aside that realistically it doesn't look like she has actually violated this silly law, this is another example of blasphemy laws in action:
"A British schoolteacher has been arrested in Sudan accused of insulting Islam's Prophet, after she allowed her pupils to name a teddy bear Muhammad.
The BBC's correspondent Amber Henshaw said Ms Gibbons' punishment could be up to six months in jail, 40 lashes or a fine.
It is seen as an insult to Islam to attempt to make an image of the Prophet Muhammad.
The country's state-controlled Sudanese Media Centre reported that charges were being prepared "under article 125 of the criminal law" which covers insults against faith and religion."

Monday, 19 November 2007

Gone fishing

Away for a week - comments being moderated if and when I get the chance.

I'm back.

Guess where I've been.

Abortion rights in Scotland under threat

From the F Word blog:

"The Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond announced recently that, if he could secure cross-party support for it, a Commission would be set up in Scotland to look into making abortion a devolved issue with a view to decreasing the time limits on abortion.

"Cue the setting up of a new pressure group – Women’s Abortion Rights Scotland – a protest outside the Parliament, two motions tabled by MSPs defending a woman’s right to an abortion, articles in the Scottish media about abortion that, for the first time in what seems like forever, presented the pro-choice side of the argument and not one, but two motions passed at STUC Women’s Congress supporting overwhelmingly a woman’s right to an abortion and condemning the Dunblane comments by O’Brien."

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Revd Joel Edwards joins the Equality and Human Rights Commission

From Mark Vernon:
"The Rev'd Joel Edwards, general director of the Evangelical Alliance, has been appointed to serve as one of the commissioners on the new Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). It is a move that has surprised many since Edwards represents a constituency - including conservative and fundamentalist Christians - that is one of the most rabidly anti-gay in the country."
Mark is somewhat concerned about what this appointment represents as "the EHRC must certainly engage with deniers as it furthers its causes, but not necessarily have them on the board to do so". It isn't clear just what the role of an EHRC commissioner is*, or on what grounds they are recruited. I can see why Mark is concerned but, given the disparate groups the EHRC represents, perhaps it is inevitable that there will be conflicts between them. I think we'll just have to wait and see what the results of this appointment, and the creation of the EHRC will be.


"Under the provisions of the Act in appointing Commissioners the Secretary of State shall:

a. appoint an individual only if the Secretary of State thinks that the individual:
i. has experience or knowledge relating to a relevant matter, or
ii. is suitable for appointment for some other special reason, and

b. have regard to the desirability of the Commissioners together having experience and knowledge relating to the relevant matters (this is defined as discrimination on the grounds of age, disability, gender, gender re-assignment, race, religion or belief, sexual orientation and human rights)."

"Joel Edwards has served on a number of faith, government and public agency advisory groups and is a regular broadcaster for UK and international media. He is the current General Director of the Evangelical Alliance and is Chair of Micah Challenge International and the Churches Media Council. He was a probation officer for 14 years with the Inner London Probation Service before his appointment as the General Secretary for the African and Caribbean Evangelical Alliance in 1988. Joel is an honorary Canon of St Paul's Cathedral and has an honorary doctorate from the University of St Andrews."

Early medical abortions in international waters

Via the f-word blog, an interview with Rebecca Gomperts:

'She is the founder of Women on Waves (WoW), a radical Dutch organisation that sails an "abortion ship" to countries where the procedure is illegal, before taking women out to the safety of international waters to provide terminations...As a doctor, I look at the abortion issue from a health perspective and the fact is that an early abortion is safer than giving birth. That is not meant to promote abortion because if women want to have children it is a risk they are naturally willing to take. However, if they don't want them they should never be forced to take that risk."'

God save the Queen

Via aaronovitch watch I see that the two cartoonists in Spain have been convicted for insulting the royal family:

"Under Spanish law, introduced in 1995, anybody who insults the royal family can face up to two years in prison.

The public prosecutor argued that the cartoon was "clearly degrading and objectively defaming" and was "obviously an attack" against "the honour" of the prince because of "the deliberate and unjustified use of his image, in evident and conscious contempt of the Crown, causing notable hurt to its institutional prestige"."

The ridiculous nature of this sort of special protection from offence ties in rather nicely with my post on the blasphemy law. It also provides Bruschettaboy an opportunity to have a go at the 'Decents' which is always welcome.

Friday, 16 November 2007

Who's worse, the rapist or the victim?

Via political scientist and butterfliesandwheels, from the BBC:

"An appeal court in Saudi Arabia has doubled the number of lashes and added a jail sentence as punishment for a woman who was gang-raped. The victim was initially punished for violating laws on segregation of the sexes - she was in an unrelated man's car at the time of the attack. When she appealed, the judges said she had been attempting to use the media to influence them. The attackers' sentences - originally of up to five years - were doubled...

According to the Arab News newspaper, the 19-year-old woman, who is from Saudi Arabia's Shia minority, was gang-raped 14 times in an attack in the eastern province a year-and-a-half ago. Seven men from the majority Sunni community were found guilty of the rape and sentenced to prison terms ranging from just under a year to five years. But the victim was also punished for violating Saudi Arabia's laws on segregation that forbid unrelated men and women from associating with each other.

She was initially sentenced to 90 lashes for being in the car of a strange man. On appeal, the Arab News reported that the punishment was not reduced but increased to 200 lashes and a six-month prison sentence. The rapists also had their prison terms doubled. But the sentences are still low considering they could have faced the death penalty."

Ah, our wonderful allies in the 'War on Terror', spreading democracy and helping to make the world safe for women everywhere.

Via feminist philosophers and feministe, according to Arab News:

"The woman is charged with being in the company of an unrelated man shortly before she and her companion were brutally gang-raped by seven men, all of whom have been found guilty and sentenced to between two and nine years in prison with lashes for the crime. young men noticed the two in front of a mall and abducted them, took them to a deserted area and raped them both.

Arab News has learned that the young man is not appealing his sentence out of fear that his punishment, if the verdict were upheld, would be increased."

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Alister McGrath III

Following on from previous posts, I found this discussion of Alister McGrath's Dawkins Delusion:
"My only concern is that some liberal theists may skip The God Delusion and go straight to the considerably slimmer volume, The Dawkins Delusion. The only way I could see McGrath’s illusion working is if his readers have not read The God Delusion, and continue not to read it afterwards. I urge anyone who has not read either book, not to bypass Dawkins and go straight to McGrath. And, if you have bypassed Dawkins for McGrath, please go and read The God Delusion. Of course, if you have read The God Delusion but not The Dawkins Delusion, read McGrath’s work, by all means. Personally, I did not find it compelling and cannot offer my recommendation. Not that any atheist has anything to fear from it, I simply think there are better things to do with your time and money."
And a couple more here:
"In DD, McGrath comments: “One obvious response [to GD] would be to write an equally aggressive, inaccurate book…” But to do so would be “pointless and counterproductive, not to mention intellectually dishonest”. (DD, p.xi). Unfortunately, DD is aggressive, inaccurate, and arguably intellectually dishonest. McGrath also notes that to publish a “litany of corrections” to Dawkins would be “catatonically boring” (DD, p.xii). I, however, unapologetically adopt the “litany of corrections” approach, simply because it is good to set McGrath’s scholarly pretensions against the reality, making the contrast as stark as possible. Early versions of this document were criticised for failing to distinguish between different kinds of faults: I had started at the beginning of the book and worked through to the end, noting the problems as I went, and some readers disliked that approach. I have now classified McGrath’s solecisms, giving this review something approaching a helpful structure."
And here and here:
"Alister McGrath (along with his wife and co-author Joanna Collicutt McGrath—but Alister says on page 117 that he did most of the work) has written a book that purports to rebut Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. McGrath’s book is called The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine. “This book, [he] suspect[s], will be read mainly by Christians who want to know what to say to their friends who have read The God Delusion and are wondering if believers really are as perverted, degenerate and unthinking as the book makes them out to be. But it is [his] hope that its readers may include atheists whose minds are not yet locked into a pattern of automatic Dawkinsian reflexes.” (McGrath 15.)"

Revoke the UK blasphemy laws

Via nullifidian a 10 Downing Street petition to revoke the UK's blasphemy laws:
"We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Revoke blasphemy laws in the UK. The fact that blasphemy is still a criminal offence in Britain shows the extent of the lack of religious freedom within this country. Why should someone be punished for speaking against something they have no belief in?"
This makes sense for all secularists, atheists and theists alike, as well as any non-Anglican theists whose own religion is not so protected.

Here's a description of the law:
"Blasphemy (and blasphemous libel) is a common law offence with an unlimited penalty. The content of the current law is obscure and, from the evidence that the Committee has received, is widely misunderstood.
The courts held, more generally, that it was "no longer true that 'Christianity is part of the law of the land'"[140]. The law of blasphemy was thus restricted to protecting the tenets and beliefs of the Church of England, other religions being protected only to the extent that their beliefs overlapped with those of the Church of England.
As to what precisely constitutes a blasphemy, the matter is obscure...From the decided cases it would seem that blasphemy is committed "by anyone who makes public words, pictures or conduct whereby the doctrines, beliefs, institutions, or sacred objects and rituals of the Church of England by law established are denied or scurrilously vilified or there is objectively contumelious, violent or ribald conduct or abuse directed towards the sacred subject in question, likely to shock and outrage the feelings of the general body of Church of England believers in the community". As the Law Commission's view indicates, quite what this means when it comes to applying the law to any given set of facts is difficult to say."

Saturday, 10 November 2007


Via crookedtimber: Simon Kuper in the FT reviews four books in the 'Eurabia' genre (including 'Londinistan' by our very own Mad Mel). Started by Bat Ye’or, these ideas seem particulalrly popular in the US (presumably because they're further away from Europe and know less about it).

The essential thesis is that Europe is facing a demographic and ideological takeover by those sneaky Muslims who will reduce the rest of us into a state of dhimmitude (a sort of ideological subjugation). Read the whole thing, these views may be bonkers but you will come across them again:
"In the imagined “Eurabia’’, the Muslims are taking over. Europeans aren’t resisting. In fact, it is 1938 again, or in Bawer’s phrase, “Europe’s Weimar moment’’. A keyword of the “Eurabia’’ genre is therefore “appeasement’’ - once of Hitler, now of Muslims. Phillips urges a British-American alliance, as “when they stood shoulder to shoulder against Nazi Germany’’, with the US providing “muscle’’ and Britain “backbone’’. But unfortunately, Britain has gone wobbly. She expects this will prove fatal, because it is correct “at least in part’’ to see “Islam as a successor to Nazism and communism’’. It follows, for all four authors, that another exodus or Holocaust of Europe’s Jews is likely, though Laqueur grants that “by taking a low profile they might be able to survive in the new conditions’’.

Why is Europe supine? (Sorry - the “Eurabia’’ habit of grand rhetorical questions is infectious.) Ye’or has the fullest theory. She explains that something called the “Euro-Arab Dialogue’’ - with a permanent secretariat of 350 members, and a seat in Paris - runs a plot to hand over Europe to the Arabs, and to destroy Israel. “In just thirty years (1973-2003), the Euro-Arab Dialogue has successfully brought about the mutation of European civilization, giving birth to a hybrid culture: Eurabia - as foreseen in 1969 in Cairo by the European Committee for Coordination of Friendship Associations with the Arab World.’’ In her book if nowhere else, the EU has a united foreign policy.
Phillips has a different theory about Britain’s demise. Wonderfully, it unites all the enemies of her journalistic career. Jihad is conquering Britain because intellectuals, transsexuals, judges, Antonio Gramsci, the human-rights brigade, gays who adopt children, etcetera, have destroyed the country’s confidence in its own values. So Phillips’ former employer, The Guardian, is “a virtual mouthpiece for the Muslim Brotherhood’’, while Islamic jihad is “the armed wing of the British left’’.
Its target market seems to be the US. Of the four books only Londonistan seems to have had much circulation in Britain, probably because hardly anybody who actually lives in Europe could take these dystopias seriously. The only way to interest many US readers in Europe’s tame politics is to predict catastrophe. Bawer, for instance, warns of “the end of the West as we know it - and perhaps the beginning of the end of freedom, too’’."

Friday, 9 November 2007

Shake that booty

Saw this study in the news:

"They found those with alluring walks were the furthest away from ovulation. A British expert said the research, featured by New Scientist magazine, supported the idea women disguise their fertility to deter unsuitable partners...The women who were most fertile at the time of the experiment walked with fewer hip movements and with their knees closer together. She now thinks the findings tally with other research suggesting that women want to conceal their ovulation from males other than their chosen partner."
And all the stories seem to be derived from New Scientist:
"This showed a correlation between the way the women walked and their time of the month. The women who were fertile walked with smaller hip movements and with their knees closer together."
Is this the media misrepresenting scientific research? Nope, this is evolutionary psychology! The study is an online pre-publication of Provost et al in Archives of Sexual Behavior (there are some great looking articles in there, like a book review of 'God hates fags'):

"In this study, we found that men responded to the changes in gait women demonstrate across the menstrual cycle. Without knowing the differences between the women they were rating, men were significantly more likely to rate women walkers in their luteal phase as more attractive. This finding contradicts research in face research, where men judge women to be more attractive at times of peak fertility (Roberts et al., 2004).

It is possible that faces and gait present different information because of the intimacy with which the stimulus is viewed. For example, faces can only be seen in a fairly close encounter, whereas gait patterns can be seen from a large distance. If women are trying to protect themselves from sexual assault at times of peak fertility, it would make sense for them to advertise attractiveness on a broad scale when they are not fertile, yet still being attractive to people they choose to be with (i.e., during face-to-face interactions). Thus, it is necessary to investigate how men prone to using sexual violence view the walking stimuli, as well as to test the use of sexual coercion both in and outside of couples across the menstrual cycle, to investigate if unadvertised ovulation is adequately protecting a woman’s reproductive fitness interests."

Yep, women protect themselves against sexual assault at times of peak fertility by getting themselves raped when they aren't fertile - clever girls. Not so clever men, clearly their 'sexy hips' detection module is dysfunctional.

So let's see what the study actually shows.

[Summary to avoid reading this overlong post: despite what the paper itself and the news articles say, although men did rate some gaits as more attractive than others, they actually find that they didn't differ in the attractiveness they assigned to women in their 'more' or 'less fertile' phases, and although there were some poorly characterised differences in gait between the 'more' and 'less fertile' phases, they didn't differ in their hip movements or knee distance].

They looked at first year undergraduates and "women from the community" with 36 off, and 23 on "hormonal birth control":

"A female researcher met the participants, informed them that the study was investigating motion across the menstrual cycle, and obtained their informed consent."
Blinding doesn't appear to be big in evolutionary psychology research, I like to think the students knew exactly what they were trying to show and deliberately fucked up the results.

So they then estimated the phase of these subjects in their menstrual cycle (from date of last period and cycle length):

"NHBC[non-hormonal birth control] women participated during the late follicular phase (high fertility phase; 14–16 days before their next period) or the luteal phase (low fertility phase; 5–7 days before their next period, to limit the influence of pre-menstrual symptoms[***]). Cycle stage was confirmed using salivary ferning"
If you don't know about female menstrual cycles have a look here, basically peak fertility is around five days before ovulation and two days after, the follicular phase is after menstruation and before ovulation so the late phase here is around about ovulation (i.e. peak fertility). The luteal phase follows ovulation and the point here is around a week after ovulation (the luteal phase is normally 14 days long, and the follicular phase is also around 14 days long but varies with cycle length). Salivary ferning is a rather old-fashioned and unreliable technique similar to looking at cervical mucus and is popular in 'natural' family planning. Personally I'd have at least used tests of urinary luteinising hormone (LH) to detect ovulation*. Still, they are likely to have at least vaguely segregated on ovulatory phase.

So then they either recorded the women then and there (if they were in one of the correct menstrual phases, or if they were on 'hormanal birth control'). They got other NHBC women back to take measurements in both menstrual phases. So they recorded 41 body markers and used these to calculate "15 virtual markers corresponding to the major joints in the body". Then they did some complicated maths:

"To reduce the dimensionality of the data, the time series of the virtual markers were decomposed into a Fourier series, and then a principal components analysis was applied to the resulting Fourier representation"
This essentially tried to summarise the data in terms of simple mathematical functions (Fourier analysis) and then to come up with a smaller number of factors that best summarises the larger data set (principal component analysis) potentially discovering hidden structure. They then took this 12 principal component model and used the 12 factors to try and construct an equation that could categorise the women as being in the follicular or luteal phase based on them (discriminant function analysis) (they also compared follicular phase women to women on birth control).

Obviously there is a big risk here of overfitting the data - you've got 12 different factors that can be combined together in any way you want to try and distinguish the two groups - and only data from 19 women to compare the follicular and luteal phases (20 women available to compare follicular and birth control). Ideally you'd go and get another sample of women to test your discriminant function on to see if it can accurately classify them. In this paper they attempt the somewhat less ideal approach of removing one woman from the analysis and fitting an equation to the remaining women, and seeing if the removed woman is then correctly classified. Then they use a Z-test to compare the results of removing each woman in turn to what would be expected by chance (50% misclassified).**:

"The linear discriminant function for NHBC women significantly discriminated women at peak fertility from women in the luteal phase (z = 2.59, p < .01, n = 38). A total of 71% of the walkers were classified correctly.2 79% of the ovulation phase walks were classified correctly (four women were misclassified), and 63% of the luteal phase walks were classified correctly (seven women were misclassified). Only one woman was misclassified in both stages. The linear discriminant function for HBC women and NHBC women in the late follicular phase did not significantly discriminate women of peak fertility from women using hormonal birth control (z = 1.26, p > .05, n = 40), with 40% of women classified correctly with this linear discriminant function."
That is the data from the other women lead to equations that could predict the correct menstrual phase by some combination of the 12 gait-derived factors in 9/19 women (3 misclassified on the follicular phase, 6 on the luteal phase, 1 on both phases). Women on hormonal birth control could not be discriminated from women in the follicular phase by using these 12 factors.

So there is some limited evidence that there might be some differences in the gait between women in the follicular phase of their cycle and women in the luteal phase. But they didn't stop here. They then went on the generate hypothetical extreme women using their disciminant function (see here for an animation):

"Upon visually observing these two walkers, the lateral distance between the knee and ankle joints and the hip movement appeared to be the major differences between fertile and non-fertile women"****
But, when they actually looked at the real (as opposed to hypothetical) data they found no statistically significant difference in these measurements between the follicular and luteal stage women. Now you or I might conclude that the findings of a difference using discriminant functions was a rather slim and unreliable one, but not our intrepid researchers, the real evolutionary psychology is yet to come. But we do have one problem, women using hormonal contraceptives have hormone levels that mimic the luteal phase (remember that diagram?), therefore they ought to differ from follicular phase women if these differences are hormonally driven:

"It is possible that this result was due to fluctuations in personality dimensions of women not using hormonal birth control. For example...perhaps HBC in comparison to NHBC women are more extroverted or agreeable in general, so their gait reflects such traits at all times, but such extroversion or agreeableness is pronounced in NHBC women only during times of peak fertility...It is reasonable to assume that HBC women, in contrast to NHBC women in general, are more open to engaging in sexual relations...NHBC women at peak fertility are more interested in sexual activity, especially with extra-pair partners...Thus, walking patterns may be similar because of the interest in sexual activity of NHBC women at peak fertility and HBC women...However, it may simply be that hormonal levels in HBC women may affect their walk so that they are indistinguishable from NHBC women at peak fertility. Women using hormonal birth control have more circulating sex hormones than NHBC women in their luteal phase, when estrogen begins to drop. These extra-elevated levels of estrogen may affect the muscles and ligaments of the body, and thus women’s gaits "
Hmm, yeah, maybe women on the pill walk like dirty slags, I'm not sure I'd like to speculate. If only we had some way to know if higher levels of oestrogen in women on hormonal contraceptive compared to women in the luteal phase means that women on contraception don't differ from follicular stage women. Maybe, and this is just a hunch, we could compare the women on contraceptives to the luteal phase women, or did that not occur to them?

Anyway, onto the main event:

"A total of 43 men in an introductory psychology course participated in this study for course credit."

Ah, psychology students, where would we be without them? So they got them too look at point-light displays using the 15 virtual joint markers:

"We told the participants that they would see point-light walkers of women on the screen, and their task would be to rate the attractiveness of the walkers on a 6-point Likert-like scale"
So what did they find?

"Late follicular walks had a similar attractiveness level (M = 3.66, SD = .5) as walks recorded in the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle (M = 3.56, SD = .5) when compared with a paired t-test"
No?! I thought men preferred the less fertile women? Well what they do next is either clever, or stupid, depending on your point of view. So basically, they assign each woman a 'degree' of menstrual cycle based on walk. That is they used the discriminant function to transform menstrual phase into a continuous variable ("menstrual cycle stage z-score"). Then they fitted various models relating "menstrual cycle stage z-score" to the attractiveness rating z-score to try and squeeze out a result. All you need to know is that eventually they managed to fit a model** that suggested that the more luteal-like the walk, the higher the rated attractiveness - and we have to bear in mind that the relationship is between the discriminant function score and the attractiveness rating - there are no real life measures of ovulation being used here - and there is an obvious caveat that extreme data points could be skewing all the results (which are pretty tenuous here) such that one woman had a weird sexy walk in one menstrual phase that drove the discriminant function (it's not like these women were blinded as to which menstrual phase they were in or the aims of the study!):
"Each SD of menstrual cycle score increase resulted in a 0.08 increase in the z-score of attractiveness rating, meaning lower perceived attractiveness"
So, when you look at gait scores 3 standard deviations from the mean, values so extreme that only .13% of scores would be more extreme than this, then the difference in attractiveness score would be .24 (41% of scores would be more extreme than .24 of a standard deviation). That is, the relationship is rather a weak one.

So the conclusion is that this isn't a completetely stupid paper, the use of statistics is puzzling (but that isn't what I intended to go into here), but the findings are a lot less exciting that the press, and even the paper makes out. We've got some evidence that women's gaits may vary in some poorly characterised way with menstrual cycle. We have some further evidence that if you try and find a way to use gait to generate a mathematical function to discriminate between women in the follicular and luteal phases of the menstrual cycle then men rate those gaits that score very highly on this discriminant function as being more attractive than gaits that score very low. Anything is else is pretty much just evolutionary psychology just-so stories. Remember, if they had found that women had 'sexier' gaits when in the 'fertile' follicular phase they would have declared it further evidence for women unconsciously signalling they were ready to breed - but instead they found the opposite, and yet they've got a bizarre theory that women are trying to look sexy when not ovulating to conceal when they're fertile. It doesn't take the most insightful evolutionary biologist to notice the evolutionary problem here - once you're broadcasting to the men what stage in your menstrual cycle you're in, why would they continue to find the non-fertile gait attractive?

*Interestingly they cite Guida et al claiming that it shows 78% of women in their most fertile period have salivary ferning. The paper actually found that "Urinary LH...yielded a 100%...correlation...with the ultrasonographic diagnosis of ovulation" but that "The salivary ferning test had a 36.8% simultaneous correlation with ovulation but had a high percentage (58.7%) of uninterpretable pattern."

**Note that there are all kinds of assumptions that underlie the statistical approaches used in this paper, and the authors are not at all clear about whether they have tested to see if these assumptions are true.

***I haven't talked about premenstrual symptoms but it should be obvious that these are present in women 5-7 days before their period before I even make the point that the cyclical symptoms with menstruation do not necessarily follow the simple lay belief in 'PMT', occurring only in the days running up to the period, but can in fact present throughout the cycle.

****Note this line from the news article:
"The women who were most fertile at the time of the experiment walked with fewer hip movements and with their knees closer together."
LIAR LIAR PANTS ON FIRE! That's what your disciminant function predicted was the case for the most extreme hypothetical values of your discriminant function. You didn't actually find any difference between the 'fertile' (follicular phase) women and the other women on those measures. And you have absolutely no evidence whatsoever that those women with the most extreme score on the discriminant function were more fertile!

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Habermas and Flew

Gary Habermas reviews Antony Flew's book 'There is a God'. There's not much more meat to any of the arguments as presented here than reported by Mark Vernon. But this perhaps gives a flavour of how bad it is:

""A Pilgrimage of Reason" (chapter 4), is the initial contribution to this section. In this essay, Flew chiefly makes the crucial point that his approach to God's existence has been philosophical, not scientific. As he notes, "My critics responded by triumphantly announcing that I had not read a particular paper in a scientific journal or followed a brand-new development relating to abiogenesis." But in so doing, "they missed the whole point." Flew's conversion was due to philosophical arguments, not scientific ones: "To think at this level is to think as a philosopher. And, at the risk of sounding immodest, I must say that this is properly the job of philosophers, not of the scientists as scientists"
Chapter 7 ("How Did Life Go Live?") continues what Flew insists is a philosophical rather than a scientific discussion of items that are relevant to God's existence. He discusses at least three chief issues: how there can be fully materialistic explanations for the emergence of life, the problem of reproduction at the very beginning, and DNA. Although science has not concluded these matters either, they are answering questions that are different from the philosophical issues that Flew is addressing (129). Flew concludes by agreeing with George Wald that, "The only satisfactory explanation for the origin of such รข€˜end-directed, self replicating' life as we see on earth is an infinitely intelligent Mind" (132)."

Now obviously we have to be careful not to fall into the trap that some have with Dawkins (saying that he cannot possibly talk about God without becoming an expert in theology), so I don't want to claim that Flew needs to have become an expert in molecular biology, but I think it is at the very least as equally a scientific as a philosophical argument to claim that the origins of self-replicating life cannot have a materialistic explanation, and I'd really like to see how you can disprove it philosophically, without recourse to science. Just what is this science-free philosophical argument that shows that life and self-replication could not have arisen by physical materialistic means? How is it not a scientific question whether, as a matter of fact, life or self-replication arose, or presumably could arise, in the environment of the primordial Earth?

Monday, 5 November 2007

Abortion and women's health

An interesting thought struck me when reflecting on this amusing segment of the Commons abortion report that I've commented on before:
'“...if you compare women who keep their pregnancy with those who have an induced abortion, those who have an induced abortion are more likely to get breast cancer later on”...However, if you look at the rates of cancer between women who have had an abortion and those who have not had children, the effect disappears.'
When thinking about this odd view that women must be prevented from having abortions because carrying a child to term will reduce their incidence of breast cancer another set of figures came to mind. Maternal mortality from abortion in the UK is something like 1:200,000, whereas deaths from pregnancy are maybe 1:30,000. So it looks like compulsory termination of pregnancy is the only way forward.

Foetal viability

Rebecca, in the comments to the last post, points out this interesting article in the Times about foetal viability:

"Couples who have difficulties conceiving can seek fertility treatment. At the same time, contraception is freely available to couples who want sex without producing a baby. Can this be right? As a society we value babies so much that we are prepared to allow - and fund - IVF. So how can we sanction - and fund - the deliberate prevention of babies being conceived? We can't have it both ways. Contraception should be banned.
You should therefore be baffled at the prevailing official view that the time limit for abortion should depend on the age at which premature babies can be saved. Some campaigners are calling for the abortion limit to be cut from 24 weeks to 20 weeks because an increasing proportion of babies born before 24 weeks' gestation can survive. Dawn Primarolo, the Health Minister, argues that survival rates for babies born at less than 24 weeks remain very poor, and therefore the abortion limit should be kept as it is. While she disagrees with the campaigners about the facts regarding the survival of premature babies, she has not questioned the notion that the abortion limit should be reduced when medical advances lead to a substantial improvement in the viability of premature babies.

This is nonsensical. The capacity of medicine to save a premature but much wanted baby is a completely separate matter from whether or not a woman should be permitted to abort a viable but unwanted pregnancy. In so far as ethics should determine a time limit on abortion, the relevant question is at what stage, if at all, a foetus should be regarded as a person, and in particular the extent to which it has a developed brain and can experience emotions. The state of ncubator technology cannot answer that question, any more than progress in IVF technology should determine whether contraception should be permitted."

Sunny Anand

I see Sunny Anand has joined the anti-abortionists in pushing the laughable lie that he has been silenced by the scientific and medical establishment over his 'evidence' that foetuses feel pain at an early age. Here he is in today's Times:
"The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists responded to the Dispatches programme on abortion, stating it was “unaware of the work of Dr Anand”. On October 23 the RCOG received 13 published articles referring to my work on foetal pain; 12 of these were published before the closing date for submissions to the Science and Technology Committee. Yet, it refers only to one article that appeared in October after the deadline.

The RCOG view ignores the development of foetal sensory processing, functional subplate zone (below the cerebral cortex), and sub-cortical mechanisms of consciousness that support foetal memory and learning. Three key flaws beleaguer their scientific rationale to rule out foetal pain.


Secondly, foetal pain does not engage the same structures as those activated by adult pain. The foetus is not a “little adult” — foetal pain is mediated by mechanisms unique from adults. Thirdly, it ignores clinical data that ablation or stimulation of the sensory cortex does not alter adult pain perception, whereas thalamic ablation or stimulation does. The foetal thalamus develops in the second trimester, well before the cortex. If the sensory cortex is not essential for adult pain, why is foetal pain held to that standard?..."

I've dealt with this before but it is worth noting that he is either woefully ignorant of the scientific literature, or being deliberately misleading. Note his claim that "foetal pain is mediated by mechanisms unique from adults" yet he has absolutely no evidence showing this to be the case, and all his work on pain is in the pain felt by newborns, not foetuses at 24 weeks or earlier. He claims that "ablation or stimulation of the sensory cortex does not alter adult pain perception" willfully glossing over the fact that there are plenty of cortical areas where ablation or stimulation will alter pain perception (primary somatosensory cortex is, as the name implies, primarily concerned with the sense of touch rather than pain, and it is stimulation/ablation of this cortex that doesn't alter pain perception much).

There's some coverage of the abortion debate and Anand's role on the Ministry of Truth blog, Anand even makes an appearance.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Trolley Problem

I was prompted to reflect on personal morality by this Sci-Phi post in the Philosphers' Magazine:
"Imagine that there are five hospital patients who urgently need organ transplants. If a healthy man walks in, should the doctors use his organs to save the other five, thus sacrificing the man’s life? For most people the instant response would be: no. Now imagine that a runaway trolley is about to plough into five workers standing on the track. There is a fork in the track, and throwing a switch could divert the train down the other line, where there is only one worker. The same question: should we sacrifice the one worker for the sake of the five? In this case, most people will again have an almost instant response: yes.
How is it that we are able to react so quickly and with such certainty to moral questions of this type? According to the psychologist Marc Hauser, it is because we are born with an innate moral faculty, analogous to our language faculty."
It's an interesting article, but ignoring that it rather throws into relief what I think is a fundamental conundrum I find in my own personal morality. These are variants on the 'Trolley Problem'.

I like to think that I follow a broadly utilitarian philosophy (with some modifications) but this little moral conundrum is the one that challenges that. Like most other people I reject the former choice, and accept the latter - but how do I justify that? Of course I can appeal to practical concerns* (I don't think as a matter of fact that it is likely that all five would survive the transplants, and even those that do will not survive for that long before rejection, and they may have survived a reasonable period without transplantation anyway, and, of course, we could just cannibalise one of the five to transplant to the others), but that is not engaging with the meat of the argument. I don't have an answer, and it is a little troubling.

*I think that this line of argument is more promising when considering a similar (and real) dilemma (often attributed to Peter Singer) about how much money we should give in charity to save lives.

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Rowan Williams and the 'New Atheists'

Butterfliesandwheels has an article by Edmund Standing that tackles Rowan Williams's attack on the 'New Atheists':
"When believers pick up Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, we may feel as we turn the pages: 'This is not it. Whatever the religion being attacked here, it's not actually what I believe in,'...The religious believer says that moral integrity, self-introspection, honesty and trust are styles of living that connect with the character of an eternal and free agency, the agency most religions call God. Agree or disagree, but I would say to critics, at least grasp that that is being talked about. Often the atheist seems to be talking about something else."
I've noticed the rise of this 'New Atheist' tag, which seems pretty misplaced given that the likes of Dawkins of Dennett have been saying this sort of thing for years, and there's little new or different to previous generations of atheists (I'm rather a fan of Mackie's 'The Miracle of Theism' myself). It seems that the coverage and the theistic backlash are the only aspects that can be considered novel.

In summary Standing concludes:
"No, Dr Williams, the atheist is not 'talking about something else', but the very beliefs you proclaim to be true. Dressing up Christian ideas about God in language such as 'an eternal and free agency' is nothing but the creation of a smokescreen of meaningless jargon in an attempt to make superstition appear sophisticated....Have Dawkins, Hitchens, and numerous other atheist thinkers grossly misrepresented Christianity? Can Christian believers justifiably claim that the religion they find written of by such thinkers is something other than the one they at least pay lip service to? No, and no, again. Must Dawkins and others undertake an arduous trawling through centuries of theological waffle in order to reject religious belief? Absolutely not."

Friday, 2 November 2007

Antony Flew

Mark Vernon reads 'There is a God' by Antony Flew (with a similar post on Comment is Free), I predict that the late conversion (or rather "wholly rational discovery of the divine") of this formerly atheist philospher will get the sort of play that Alister McGrath and John Cornwell have.

There's nothing new here, but it is worth seeing how thin it sounds (obviously we only have Mark Vernon's summary to go on, but, as usual, I won't be reading it unless it looks like there are any interesting or novel arguments).

Apparently the 'free will defence' is sufficient rhetort to the 'juvenile' problem of evil, which may well be true for a non-Christian, possibly deist, like Flew, and he no longer has some, fairly esoteric, objections such as "being an actor without a body". Interestingly Vernon says that Flew believes the burden of evidence falls on atheism:

"It is up to atheists to explain how various things like life, consciousness and existence itself could come about. There are no satisfactory theses for these genesis issues...Moreover there is good reason to think that they simply lie outside the remit of science. (For example, if the genesis of the universe is the product of quantum laws you still have to ask about the origin of the laws; plus quantum genesis presumes a pre-existing quantum field so begs the question of how that originated.)"
Now I'm not a big fan of mysterious handwaving about consciousness so I'll ignore that hot potato for the moment, but I'm far from convinced that the infinite regression of causality ('but what caused the big bang?' etc) in any way shifts the burden of proof onto atheists. It doesn't seem like positing an uncaused God (or whatever) is any better an argument than asserting an uncaused anything else.

Flew then goes on to make some arguments for the existence of god from design:
"discussion of matters like fine-tuning will be familiar to those who have read in the field of popular cosmology. He rejects the multiverse response to fine tuning since it explains nothing, merely arguing that everything is possible. In addition, two further problems follow. First, and more fundamentally, saying everything is possible says nothing about why everything is possible in the multiverse. Second, the multiverse is a massively complex proposal. Intelligence behind the fine-tuning, the laws and the existence of the universe is far simpler."
I confess I'm not fan of multiverse theorising, it seems fairly contentless, but then that's the same reason why I'm unimpressed by probabilistic reasoning about cosmological constants since this just seems like plucking figures out of the air too, how does he know that this value of this constant in this mathematical relationship is unlikely, what is he comparing it to, where is the well developed physical theory that underlies such a judgement? But I guess I have less of a knockdown argument against that one, other than the anthropic principle, which is not irrelevant, but perhaps a little over used when the real problem is that the question is pretty meaningless at our current level of physical knowledge.

On evolution and abiogenesis he is just bonkers:

"The current biological theories to account for the origins of life are also examined. In short, Flew finds them unconvincing since, first they require the universe to have existed for far, far longer than it has (by many, many factors of ten); second they still don’t explain how life can have emerged from lifeless matter: how mindless matter can produce life with intrinsic ends and self-replicating tendencies is the serious philosophical question."
Not sure how Flew manages to calculate probabilities on various biochemical propositions for the origin of life, and from someone cautioning against applying intentional labels to matter* his claim that mindless matter oughtn't to be able to self-replicate betrays a spectacular lack of knowledge about molecular biology and biochemistry. Even a cursory aquaintance with prions or RNA make it abundantly clear how something can have a structure which causes elements in its environment to form that same structure, and thus allows self-replication and therefore evolution**:

"Flew also points out that even if a scientist produced life in a test tube, for example, that would not change his mind since the question would still be whence the life (not just the mix of chemicals)."
You what? Is he seriously proposing vitalism? A magic non-physical force animates all things that are 'alive' (whatever 'alive' is supposed to mean, are viruses?) I'm not sure most Catholics or any other theist groups would subscribe to that view!

I'm interested that Flew claims to be a deist, because it seems that he adheres to a very particular meaning of deism, that is, of rejection of revelation and scripture in favour of reason, because, although I presume that he rejects recent intervention in human affairs, it seems that he is far from believing in a mere creator of the universe, rather his God seems to have a hand in the origins of life on Earth some 10 billion years later.***

In conclusion Vernon's opinion of it:

"As to whether I, as an agnostic, find Flew’s design argument for the existence of God convincing, I think I find it impressive rather than conclusive. It is a profound challenge to atheism, but keeps me as a religiously-inclined agnostic."

*Vernon says that Flew says "a gene cannot be selfish and since moral causes incline humans genes also cannot determine their actions" which sounds remarkably like Mary Midgley's gross misunderstanding of Dawkins selfish gene concept, "Gene-juggling".

**It seems that Flew may actually be an outright creationist:

"It has emerged that 12 prominent academics wrote to Tony Blair and Alan Johnson, the education secretary, last month arguing that ID [intelligent design] should be taught as part of science on the national curriculum. They included Antony Flew, formerly professor of philosophy at Reading University..." [The Times]
Although Vernon says (in his Comment is Free article):
"Incidentally, Intelligent Design, as advocated by conservative evangelicals, is not addressed head-on in There is a God. I suspect Flew wouldn't have much time for it as an alternative to Darwinism: divine intelligence, for him, is an issue where natural selection falls short, notably at the origins of life."
***Vernon says in the comments on his blog that:
"Flew is committed to God as 'perfect goodness' (that's the formula he affirms) for reasons of ancient Greek theology. If God is being itself - indeed best referred to as Being rather than God - and the pinnacle of being is goodness and/or beauty - as both Plato and Aristotle thought (it is just that Aristotle did not conceive of it in relation to Forms) - then God must be perfect goodness. It doesn't follow that the world is good, of course, it only sharing in Being to a degree; or that God communicates with the world - something that Aristotle discounted when he said it was ridiculous to think that people could be friends with God. Humans can contemplate God though, as Aristotle taught at the end of Nico Ethics."
Which seems to suggest to me (I've never studied ancient philosophy) something along the lines of St. Anselm's ontological argument. Combined with the cosmological and teleological arguments above this gives him the whole set. It is interesting that rather than simply thinking that the balance of evidence on some scientific matters (e.g. the big bang, evolution) have shifted to favour the existence of God he has now also adopted a whole collection of unrelated arguments. This rather confirms my view that the atheism/theism distinction is a somewhat bistable continuum where once you are drawn somewhat to one side or the other you begin to interpret the evidence in that framework and are driven further and further towards that side.

The NY Times has an article on Flew, his book, and his conversion
"As he himself conceded, he had not written his book. “This is really Roy’s doing,” he said, before I had even figured out a polite way to ask. “He showed it to me, and I said O.K. I’m too old for this kind of work!” When I asked Varghese, he freely admitted that the book was his idea and that he had done all the original writing for it. But he made the book sound like more of a joint effort — slightly more, anyway. “There was stuff he had written before, and some of that was adapted to this,” Varghese said. “There is stuff he’d written to me in correspondence, and I organized a lot of it. And I had interviews with him. So those three elements went into it. Oh, and I exposed him to certain authors and got his views on them. We pulled it together. And then to make it more reader-friendly, HarperCollins had a more popular author go through it.”...To believe that Flew has been exploited is not to conclude that his exploiters acted with malice. If Flew in his dotage was a bit gullible, Varghese had a gullibility of his own. An autodidact with no academic credentials, Varghese was clearly thrilled to be taken seriously by an Oxford-trained philosopher; it may never have occurred to him that so educated a mind could be in decline. Habermas, too, speaks of Flew with a genuine reverence and seems proud of the friendship."
It all sounds a bit sad really, perhaps we've been denied masterful arguments for the existence of God that Flew would have written if he'd been able, perhaps his conversion was based on the rather thin gruel that it sounds like the book contains, and perhaps none of this is his work at all, I guess we'll never know.