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I would presume that most people are familiar with Ben Goldacre by now, but just in case, here's a quick summary. He's a former doctor, now an epidemiologist. His main field of interest is the way to confirm what studies on health and medicine actually tell us. He's been a big critic of mainstream health and science journalism because such columns not only regularly misleads readers, but quite often brazenly lie to them.

His blog is here.

He's got a book (which I thoroughly recommend).

And here's a nice little article responding to a supporter of homeopathy, just to get you started.
(You'll notice that while the article in the third link starts with a "correction", it's more like a clarification by the journalist it is contesting - since she was writing in the same newspaper.)

Anyway, there's a rather neat video where he zooms through all his research in his normal jolly amusing fashion and, even if you've heard it all before, it's quite cool to hear him say it out loud like this.

However, one "blink and you'll miss it" point that he mentions (something he's said elsewhere before) is that one of earliest known "controlled tests" is actually -no kidding- in the Bible. Goldacre very quickly says "Daniel 1:12". Here's a slightly larger section from that chapter in the Bible:

"Daniel then said to the guard whom the chief official had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, “Please test your servants for ten days: Give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then compare our appearance with that of the young men who eat the royal food, and treat your servants in accordance with what you see.” So he agreed to this and tested them for ten days."

The king insisted that the soldiers be given royal food because he thought it would mean the soldiers were better fed and would be more able soldiers as a result. Daniel, however, reckoned they'd be fitter with simple vegetables and water. Daniel insists that they do a test for 10 days with half the servants (presumably a pretty large number of people) being given just vegetables and water during that time and the other half carrying on with the royal food they were used to. (Daniel turns out to be right.)

Of course, we're not talking about the same systematic and consistent testing that we find in the huge body of modern science, but it's certainly following the same basic principles that good empirical testing requires today. I thought that was quite interesting.

Anyway, the full video is embedded below (with a link underneath in case the video doesn't appear):

(video link)

x-posted to atheism
philosoraptor42: (Default)
I've got a fair range of podcasts I'm following now:

1. Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo Film Reviews
This week the main feature is "Black Swan". I've only just start listening, but they've already done a review for a brand new John Carpenter movie! I am, of course, a big John Carpenter fan. I'd heard about John Carpenter's "The Ward", but with very little marketing I presumed it would probably go straight to DVD. Kermode actually seems to like it, though he doesn't wax lyrical about it.

Mark Kermode is a film reviewer with some very strong opinions and it's recently been claimed that one of his movie rants woke someone from a coma.

2. The News Quiz
The Friday Night comedy news quiz is a great way to feel better about the increasingly depressing news under this coalition government. The voices I recognise most easily are Jeremy Hardy and Sue Perkins. Sandi Toksvig does a great job of presenting the quiz.

3. Film Sack
I discovered these very recently. They like to pick cheesy movies and pick them to pieces. They also have an announcer who reads movie lines in an even cheesier voice than before. It's really really funny. This month's movie is Time Cop. It's actually the only Jean-Claude Van-Damme movie I've ever really enjoyed, but as you'd expect with this sort of movie, the best thing about it is the premise. It's noted early on that time travel is a great way to make money, yet nearly impossible to police. I'll be interested to see what they have to say about this one....

4. The Pod Delusion
Apparently these guys are now affiliated with the British Humanist Association. I haven't really been following these though.

5. Sounds Jewish
Having made four recommendations, it seems wrong not to add one more on and make this a "top five". Sadly we still haven't had a Guardian "Sounds Jewish" podcast this year. The Guardian podcast on Islam known as "Islamophonic" (who did a joint show on the Gaza troubles with "Sounds Jewish") appears to have disappeared entirely (though Riazat Butt is still busily writing religion stuff and caused some rather OTT annoyance for fellow Muslim bloggers with her twitter feed from Hajj).
philosoraptor42: (Default)

I'm very pleased to see that this includes the awesome David Schneider, who I first saw in various projects of Armando Iannucci such as "The Saturday Night Armistice" and "I'm Alan Partridge". (Armando more recently writes and directs "The Thick Of It".)

Another good video from the same guy.
Grey Guy Learns About The New World Order (other guy in the video is a comedian)
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"Get back to Russia!"

That's the phrase used by Eddie Izzard in his stand-up show "Unrepeatable". It's a jokey way of characterising the sort of attitude whereby people presume those who are different ought to be living somewhere else. (In his particular stand up show, he's imagining the comment being made against transvestites. No, that doesn't make any sense. That's the whole point.)

Essentially I don't think there's ever any excuse for pointing to a long-established group of people and telling them to "get back to Russia". Of course, in the case of black people the common phrase has long been "go back to Africa" (though a friend was amused to find herself being told to "go back to London" which was an odd variation for her, not least since she's never lived in London). The case of Helen Thomas recently involved her telling Jewish inhabitants of Israel to go back to Germany or Poland.

Looking at the actual video she begins by saying, with her face nice and close to camera: "Get the hell out of Palestine". Now she laughs after this which suggests that she knows she's said something controversial. In the clip I saw it wasn't obvious what had proceeded this, so at that point I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. She's using hyperbole perhaps?

However, having this comment followed up with a very serious-sounding response of "where should they go?"Helen Thomas' response is to suggest Poland or Germany and then finally America or anywhere else..... It's "Get Back To Russia" all over again...

Helen Thomas has put an "apology" on her website, but the apology is as follows (and this is the complete statement, not simply an extract):
“I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians. They do not reflect my heart-felt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance. May that day come soon.”
Now I presume I'm not the only person who considers this apology to be far too vague in regards to her actual comments.

This has led to a recent discussion on ontd_p about whether her sacking from her current job was an unfair reaction to this. The rather interesting end of the Guardian article in the OP is this:
It is one of those rare occasions in which one can see clearly how people in America who are willing to express anti-establishment opinions are demonised, marginalised and finally excluded from public debate.

Did I say "people"? I mean, of course, those who are identified as liberals. Right-wing TV and radio hosts can say what they like, however outrageous. Some iconoclasts are obviously freer than others.
Okay, good point that right-wing goons seem to be able to say what they like without repurcussions, but on the other hand I'm not sure you've thought through the reasons for this properly. When you think about it, this isn't actually much of a criticism of the decision to sack Helen Thomas at all.

Okay think about it. Why are teabaggers able to say obnoxious things? Because they belong to a group where such attitudes are viewed as acceptable. (Though even then, a Nazi-supporter was viewed as having opinions which crossed the line and was actually accused of being there to intentionally discredit the tea party movement. So you see there is a limit.) Other right-wing figures spout their viscious views on Fox News, but while Glenn Beck can happily accuse the President of being a communist, there is also a limit on this news network as to what you can say with the Westboro Baptist Church, for example, being thoroughly condemned. Now, the difference for more liberal sources of information is that they have higher standards for what they are prepared to decry. So essentially what Roy Greenslade at the Guardian and those cheering his comments at ontd_p are doing here is criticising the Hearst newspapers for having high standards.

Naturally there will still be room for Helen Thomas to tout her now rather less liberal viewpoint in places where it is more suited. The question is, are these the places where she will feel comfortable?

Denouncing the liberals for not being bigoted enough reminds me of Pat Condell...
philosoraptor42: (Default)
Ah, the Coens. Don't we love 'em.

My personal favourite Coen movies in the past have been Fargo and The Big Lebowski. Also, rather against the trend, I preferred Burn After Reading to No Country For Old Men. No Country For Old Men seemed to have a very definite story arc for most of the movie and then seemed to just give up on it at the end, while Burn After Reading seemed to be going nowhere for a majority of the movie only to reveal what the movie was really all about at the end. (If that doesn't make sense to you there's a spoiler section at the end where I'll make that a bit clearer.)

Anyway, A Serious Man....

This is definitely now one my top three favourite Coen brothers films of all time and (perhaps because I'm still in afterglow of seeing it for the first time) it may actually be my favourite of all the Coen brothers movies. While I wouldn't advise that you watch the trailer, (after all, you know you are going to watch it, so why risk spoiling the surprise by having them try to sell it to you?) the trailer nevertheless sums up the movie rather perfectly by showing the main character having his head slammed against a wall over and over again. The general gist is that sometimes bad things just happen to you. I'd been given the impression that the main character was rather wishy washy and I was concerned that this might get irritating, but actually he just seems like an ordinary guy. Sure he doesn't take control of his life Bruce Willis style (actually, considering that Bruce Willis is most often depicted as a divorcee and borderline alcoholic perhaps that was a bad example), but he doesn't seem entirely passive.

You've probably heard about the strongly Jewish side of the movie (and if you want to hear more about that side of things, there's a rather awesome Jewish podcast which features an interview with the Coen brothers). The movie opens with the Coen brothers' own Yiddish folk tale about a curse and throughout the movie the main character is given rather odd advice from rabbis. In the end, the movie seems like an examination of the problem of evil and feels very reminiscent of the Biblical story of Job.

Job finds his life in ruins, seemingly as a result of God's own decision. He is told by those around him that it must be a punishment for his sin and he, quite rightly objects to this. But the big issue remains as to why God allows good things to happen to bad people and vice versa. Where's the natural justice? Job is eventually satisfied when God Himself meets him and tells him that humans can never hope to understand the power and majesty of their creator. Job is then given a new family to replace the one that died, lots of land to replace his lost wealth and a long lifespan - so apparently everything is fine. Does Larry Gopnik get any kind of resolution to the injustice he experiences? I'll let you see for yourself...

In this movie you can expect the same quirkiness that was found in The Big Lewbowski and the theme is quite similar too. In the centre of the story you have a character to whom a variety of things happen and in the end finds themselves wondering "why is this happening to me?" Movie critic Mark Kermode compares this with Kevin Smith's Clerks with its regular refrain of "I'm not even supposed to be here today". In that sense, A Serious Man is perhaps rather closer to Clerks in that it doesn't pepper the story with rich philanthropists, promiscuous trophy wives, protentious artists and nihilists, choosing instead to keep things firmly rooted in ordinary life.

As per usual, I am trying to avoid giving away too much about the movie, but to sum up there were very few moments in the movie where I wasn't in stiches with laughter and this is very possibly the best movie I have seen this year.
Read more... )
philosoraptor42: (Default)

A case has recently gone to the UK supreme court that a school called the Jewish Free School (JFS) uses racial discrimination in its selection procedure. The BHA have intervened in support of the prosecutors, insisting that racial discrimination should never be accepted, even with religious reasons involved. Interestingly, this turns out to be a result of the idiocy of Jonathan Sacks again.

The child's father was Jewish and the mother converted to Judaism. As such, the child has a Jewish mother and is eligible. The mother is a practicing Jew and the whole family attend synagogue so there is no reason to dismiss on the grounds of religious observance. Nevertheless, the Chief Rabbi ruled that the mother did not truly count as Jewish because she converted via a Masorti synagogue. Jonathan Sacks apparently doesn't count Masorti conversions and thus by the same reckoning the child does not count as Jewish either. The obsession over the place where the mother converted rather than both her and her son's religious conviction makes this a clear case of selection based on racial rather than religious grounds.

Also rather cool, Accord Chair, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain declared: “This is a defining moment. For too long state-funded faith schools have had a free hand to discriminate. This will be a big first step towards creating faith schools that serve the community around them, not just themselves.”

(Oddly it seems that the intro to the interview with Andrew Copson was quite biased in favour of Benjamin "at the cutting edge of fighting assimilation" Perl's side of the argument. It claimed that the idea that admitting a Jewish boy with a devoted Jewish convert mother was devastating to the Jewish community. Wtf? )

(Via BHA)

(Via Ekklesia)

philosoraptor42: (Default)

Lord Sacks blamed Europe's falling birth rate on a culture of "consumerism and instant gratification". He said the continent was "dying" and accused its citizens of not being prepared for parenthood's "sacrifices".

The 61-year-old, who took his seat in the Lords last week, said: "Wherever you turn today - Jewish, Christian or Muslim - the more religious the community, the larger on average are their families.

"The major assault on religion today comes from the neo-Darwinians."Read more... )

(Full article here)

This article seems like a combination of:
"ZOMG religious people are turning into atheists/heathens/heartless materialists!/ Won't anyone think of the foetuses!"
"ZOMG the Muslim immigrants are taking over"
and finally
"ZOMG why aren't more Jews using my Beth Din court on which my whole status as Chief Rabbi depends. Is there no decent sense of morality in the world anymore?"

(Via ontd political)

x-posted to atheism

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This is my previous extra-long confused post, re-cut to make more sense and be FAR more readable:

Baroness Warsi and the National Secular Society

The BHA recently criticised comments by two prominent political figures: Tony Blair (for whom I feel no explanation is required) and Baroness Warsi (whose comments can be found here). Baroness Warsi is a Muslim politician in the Conservative party.

The National Secular Society quoted Baroness Warsi's description of "state multiculturalism" where she defines it as follows:
"Firstly, when we as Conservatives talk about multiculturalism we are not talking about the building of temples, or synagogues or mosques in any neighbourhood. For us that is religious pluralism and it is a defining British characteristic that began with the non-conformists.

"For me, state multiculturalism, as I like to define it is forcing Britain’s diverse communities to still define themselves as different, patronisingly special and tempting them to compete against each other for public funds."
The National Secular Society then respond by saying:
"We have been saying this for the past ten years. So far so good."
Sorry, but no it's not bloody good! Why the hell shouldn't religious groups compete for public funds just like everyone else? It's actually in this criticism of "state multiculturalism" that Baroness Warsi's criticism of secularism is most clear and obvious. She doesn't think that religious groups should compete against each other along with all the other stances vying for public attention. Instead she thinks religions should be granted priveledges by default.

Both are united against "state multiculturalism" - whatever the hell that is.

So where did the term 'state multiculturalism' come from?

Read more... )

Problems with the Conservatives' critique of 'state multiculturalism'

Read more... )
What should the National Secular Society have praised Baroness Warsi for saying?

Read more... )

Baroness Warsi's absurd examples of persecution. (The bit the National Secular Society were absolutely right about.)

Read more... )
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The Times has reported on the new "Centre for Muslim-Jewish Relations" opening in Cambridge. However, the article headline randomly switches the order of the religions in question to Jewish-Muslim. Of course we can see why the newspaper might want to make Muslim less prominent in the title. After all, we wouldn't want anyone to get confused with another report on potential terrorist activity(!).

Anyway the odd choice of headline doesn't take anything away from the news being reported. However, I found my brow ruffling itself even more as the following was stated within the article:

Dr Kessler told The Times: “As far as I know, there is no centre that is examining the encounter between Muslims and Jews."

Perhaps this a horrible misquote, but I know for a fact that my university had a course specifically studying religious violence (and that includes the Middle East conflict between Muslims and Jews) and a quick google search throws up plenty of examples of courses concerning this encounter. Nevertheless, what might actually be unique about this centre is that it isn't seen as necessary to throw Christianity into the mix.

In searching for more information on the centre I accidentally found myself on the page for their sister institution, the "Centre for Jewish-Christian relations". The masters courses are listed as follows:

  • M909: Jewish-Christian Relations: Their Foundations and Relevance to Contemporary Society
  • M805: Jewish and Christian Biblical Interpretation
  • M808: Christian and Jewish Responses to the Holocaust
  • M809: Land of Promise and Conflict: Challenges for Interfaith Understanding

  • Having become quite confused that none of the courses seemed to have Islam mentioned in their titles, I then realised that I was on the wrong page. However, I presumed that the courses at the Muslim-Jewish centre would have a pretty similar gist to them. Here's what I discovered:

    Core module 1:
    Islam and Muslim Perceptions of the ‘Other’

    Core module 2: Judaism and Jewish Perceptions of the ‘Other’

    Core module 3:
    Muslim-Jewish Encounters: Challenges for Inter-Faith Dialogue

    Perhaps it's not surprising that there is no course on the 'foundations and relevance of the Muslim-Jewish encounter to contemporary society' when we so often hear of Muslims who feel disenfranchised by western society, while Jews who want to be separate from the community at large have had no trouble setting up their own communities to allow for this. The large Muslim population in Britain is a fairly new arrival and talking about its relevance to contemporary society would inevitably involve a discussion of Muslim relations to Christianity, not Judaism.

    However it is somewhat puzzling to see that Jewish and Muslim scriptural interpretation have to be studied in separate courses. Muslims do, after all, consider the Old Testament to be part of their scripture. Certainly Muslim texts go beyond Jewish scripture, but than again so do Christian texts, and it is also true that many Jewish texts are not recognised by Christians. It seems odd that this separation seems necessary in a Muslim-Jewish course when it was not seen as necessary in a Jewish-Christian course. Do they not trust their students not to bicker? Are limits being placed on these academic studies out of fear of unrest in the lecture hall?

    No course about the holocaust for this new centre, but is it not a central point for any discussion concerning anti-semitism? During the Danish cartoon scandal weren't anti-semitic Muslims claiming that there was bias towards Jews because no one had printed a cartoon satirising the holocaust. (As if making fun of an event where thousands of Jews were made into an under-class and then massacred was equivalent to drawing a religious figure in an uncompromising situation.) Perhaps this obsession with the holocaust by anti-semitic Muslims is seen as unworthy of consideration (especially since it was an event Muslims were not actively involved with). Or perhaps the issue is that the answers here are all too obvious. Israel is seen as trading off on the holocaust for free reign to excuse any of their current actions, and the contemporary actions they are excusing tend to be to the detriment of Muslim Palestinians. But does this not mean that the central focus of conflict between Muslims and Jews is precisely this issue of the state of Israel?

    Perhaps just as the first two courses were a split-up version of 'scriptural interpretation' course, this third course is a combination of 'responses to the holocaust' and 'challenges to inter-faith understanding' courses. The central point for Muslim-Jewish relations is not the holocaust, but rather the state of Israel. The third course manages to soften the blow of dealing with the controversial issue of the state of Israel by comparing it to a period where Muslim-Jewish relations were a great deal more stable: medieval Andalusia (Muslim-Spain). But  modern Israel and medieval Andalusia are not regarded equally. Apparently the course will be "including areas of divergence such as the impact of the Israel-Palestine conflict".

    According to Varsity, the Cambridge Student Newspaper:
    The Centre's curriculum will include an examination of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, phenomena both currently hitting the national and international news.

    But if they seriously want to study such things maybe they should not be so afraid of dealing with the central controversial subject matter. It has clearly been a very good thing to force Christians to recognise the full meaning of the 'holocaust' and the history of Christian anti-semitism exemplified in central Christian figures like Martin Luther. This new course on Muslim-Jewish relations seems to be unwilling to force its students to truly embrace the full controversy of the issues and students wishing to seriously engage with the controversies will have to work in spite of the courses' focus, rather than being guided through the controversial issues by those courses as they ought to be.


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