Friday, December 30, 2011

Signature in the Cell - Part 1

One Valentine's day a friend dipped his spoon into a bowl of soup and found unexpected resistance. On further investigation he discovered a half-eaten bread roll lurking beneath the broth. With sinking heart he realised the restaurant was reusing crockery without washing to improve the profit margins of the night.

But what to do? Finding an alternative table for two after sunset on February 14th seemed unlikely. He could alert the staff to their error, but his date did not seem the sort to stay in a venue if she knew of such transgressions. His cooking at the time was functional at best - returning to home base would not do. Seeing no other options he smiled, made romantic small-talk, and ate the evidence.

I experienced similar emotions while wading through Signature in the Cell. Despite wishing to stop and having good reasons to do so, I'd made a commitment to review and no honourable avenues of escape presented themselves.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Prabhupada: Hare Krishna's founder on Jews, Africans, Native Americans and Hitler

Earlier this year I enrolled in the National Genographic project. For a reasonable fee they sequenced my Y chromosome and compared the mutations to those found at archaeological digs and isolated tribes worldwide. Using this information they built a map showing my deep genetic ancestry, showing the route taken by a small band of frightened, hairless apes as they left the African savannah, eventually spreading throughout the world and depositing my more recent ancestors in Europe.

It's one of those moments when science can bring you the transcendent, and I still hold dear the bond I share with all my fellow humans so well exemplified by a simple map backed by decades of research. I highly recommend it to all and think it should be compulsory for anyone convicted of racist offences.

But what of Prabhupada? What were the founder of the Hare Krishna's views on racism?

Monday, December 19, 2011

Matthew and Geoff Discuss Evolution and Creationism

Matthew has offered to tell me why he feels creationism is valid. Feel free to follow us in the comments.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Open Letter to Creationists - Why You Should Learn About Evolution

The first evangelist I met was a Catholic missionary to China called Father Michael O'Neill. He was a rebellious sort and spent some time in Chinese police stations. When asked if Ireland had a communist party he replied "Yes! They held their last meeting in a phone box".

Thankfully for his sake the joke did not translate well.

I remember in my eight year old innocence asking him why he had to learn Chinese at all. Surely the simpler approach would be to learn how to say "Jesus died for your sins", and wander the streets with a bell and a loud voice?

I don't recall him laughing, but I'm sure the temptation was there. Instead he explained that he'd spent five years preparing for his first mission. He learned the language, the culture, appropriate ways to eat, interact and discuss beliefs. This was not a case of memorising set answers and proofs but a five year process of intense study. He said that to give people directions to where you are, you need a clear understanding of where they are.

Later, when I read the Bible, I saw a similar message in Luke (24:49) and Acts (1:4). Jesus told his followers not to immediately spread the good word but to wait until they were endued with power from on high. When this power came it was not the power to convert people by touch, or the power to instantly crush any argument or belief, but the power to talk to people in their own language.

If you feel Creationism is a necessary component of Christianity, know that it is in your power to gain a similar gift. You can talk to we Christian and non-Christian 'evolutionists' in our own language with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15) like the apostles did. All you need do is learn about evolution. Feel free to search for counterarguments or refutations, but also look at the material we read, even if you consider it wrong. is an excellent free resource. Your Inner Fish is an entertaining read if you'd like to buy a book on the subject.

Podcast Interview with a Young Earth Creationist

In an earlier post I mentioned I'd offered my services to a young earth Creationist who bemoaned the absence of debate. We met for coffee a fortnight ago and recorded a short interview. Although not swayed in my belief that the earth is older than 10,000 years I quite enjoyed the experience - Anthony's a likeable chap who let me do most of the talking, paid for the tea and biscuits, let me duck a question on the rotation of galaxies and put the whole interview up unedited. We talked for an hour overall, but kept the recorded section to under 15 minutes to maintain interest.

You may like to visit his blog. Alternatively, you might see him on Temple Bar. He attends on some Saturdays and holds a Jesus sign for identification. Do tell him I said hi.

The podcast is available here. The title is "Does science disprove faith?" (Not my choice of title) and includes a longish intro before the interview. If you don't find it, it may have been moved to his archive.

Yes, that is what I sound like. Some feedback would be great - it's easy to write blog posts with reference materials to hand, but somewhat harder to do these things on the spot.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Prabhupada: Hare Krishna's founder in his own words

In an earlier article I discussed how many Hare Krishnas have a rather unusual view of cosmology. They believe the moon to be larger than the sun and some 800,000 miles more distant. One of the supporting quotes I provided included the line
"I’m sure that devotees who are more erudite than a mere woman can come up with much better citations..."

and I was asked offline if I could elaborate on sexism in the organisation. (Emphasis in the above quote is mine.)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Hare Krishnas and the faked moon landing

I sometimes encounter beliefs that are so outlandish as to be immune to parody. Take Hare Krishnas and the moon landing. has a lengthy pseudoscientific article on why they feel the moon landing was faked, and a shorter example of poor maths directed at the same goal. I've met moon landing deniers. Some of them can make a superficially compelling case by referring to the tension of the cold war and the pressure to outdo the Russians, but ultimately they fall down under the weight of scientific facts. Still, you can have a conversation with them. I've known them to change their views.

But it turns out it is not doubts about moon landing footage or radiation levels that cause their dubiousness. Krishna Consciousness' founding dates all the way back to the mid 1960's when His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (henceforth Prabhupada, I don't want to get RSI retyping that title) formed the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. He had some interesting views on cosmology which are thoroughly defended by here. An excerpt:
"The Vedic account of our planetary system is already researched, concluded, and perfect. TheVedas state that the moon is 800,000 miles farther from the earth than the sun. Therefore, even if we accept the modern calculation of 93 million miles as the distance from the earth to the sun, how could the “astronauts” have traveled to the moon–a distance of almost 94 million miles–in only 91 hours (the alleged elapsed time of the Apollo 11 moon trip)? This would require an average speed of more than one million miles per hour for the spacecraft, a patently impossible feat by even the space scientists’ calculations."

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

I've got the Power(Shell) - how to connect Google Insights and Excel

It is almost certain that you will find the below crushingly uninteresting. In an earlier post I used a PowerShell script to pull the year on year stats for certain search terms, add the results to a spreadsheet, then draw a line graph to show change over time.

Here is the script. I'm a believer in 'good enough' coding. This was written for a short-term project (it assumes, for instance, that the year will always be 2011) for my own use only. It works, but there are areas in which it could be improved. Feel free to use it and ask questions in the comments, but please don't assume it's my finest work.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Boost your book sales through Krishna consciousness

"Are you from Dublin by any chance?"
I was stopped on Grafton Street by a book salesman with an English accent who was making the rather safe bet that those walking on Grafton Street during rush hour were likely to be Dublin natives. I responded in the affirmative, noting hints of shaved head under a warm hoddie.

"Tell me - do you ever get stressed?"

As a rule I dislike it when salespeople and street preachers ask me questions to which they already know the answer. It's a very obvious tactic known as the Yes-set Close. I answered that I had, once, been stressed.

"And are you a thinking man?"

It seemed this was likely to go on for some time. I confirmed that, on occasion, my neurons fire. The light was poor but by this time I'd spotted the telltale tilak of a Hare Krishna on his forehead.

"I used to get stressed when I studied Economics at Cambridge University." he continued, perhaps a little too eager to boast of his studies for a man devoted to the renunciation of the self, "but this book really helped me."

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Porn, Rape, Hamza Tzortzis and Statistical Analysis Part 2

Last month I wrote a review of Hamza Tzortis' article entitled 'Do Liberal Societies Facilitate Rape via the Legalisation of Pornography?' As a member of a liberal society I took a dim view of this. It's worth reading before going further.

I brought my article to Hamza's attention for his comment. In fairness to Hamza, he read this post, describing it as 'quite thorough', and we discussed for a few FaceBook posts. As always he was polite. I've met him in person and cannot fault his manners or eloquence. He wondered if the figures on Google Insights could have been caused by increased liberalisation or materialism in Muslim countries. He said that rising property prices meant people were marrying later in life, forced to live with their parents for longer and that this could be the cause. This was an off-the-cuff hypothesis on his part, I don't mean to represent it as an entrenched position.

How can we check for this?

Friday, December 2, 2011

Age of the earth - seeing the wood for the trees

Last Saturday I had a chat with Anthony from He's a young earth creationist, putting a maximum age of the earth at about 10,000 years but believing the real figure to be closer to 7,000. He's a pleasant, polite and interesting chap and while we disagree profoundly on the fundamental nature of the planet we both inhabit I found I quite enjoyed the chat. He'll be making a podcast available at some point in the future (to be announced), but in the meantime I'll be running a series of articles on the age of the earth and how we know it. I'm going for shorter articles, hopefully one a day.

I'd like to thank Anthony for the opportunity. I'd also like to thank his friend Jim for buying the tea and biscuits.

Anyway, on to the article:

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Test of Faith - Laying a Fleece

"If you pray to God, He'll give you a sign."
David Wilkerson passed away earlier this year. He was 79 and was involved in a fatal car accident. There's a slim chance you recognise the name; if so it's most likely as the author of "The Cross and the Switchblade", a bestselling true story of his decision to leave a comfortable rural parish to minister to drug addicts and gang members in inner city New York.

It's a good read and by all accounts he did excellent work with good intentions and self-sacrifice. Critics may point to one false prophecy, but this pales in comparison to his positive contributions. It is not my intention to criticise the chap. I mention him by name because in his book I found an excellent example of a test for God I'm often advised to try.

This goes back to Gideon in the Old Testament. An angel told him to marshal troops to attack Midianite invaders, using miraculous fire to prove the pedigree of their message. Gideon was a skeptical chap and asked for more proof. He said in prayer that he would lay out a fleece, and if the morning dew made it damp while keeping the surrounding ground dry he would take this as a sign of God's will. The following morning his woollen wear was damp and the surrounding ground dry. 

Showing a good grasp of experimental design, he tried the converse and prayed that on the following night a second fleece would be left dry while the surrounding ground would become damp with dew. Again, the sheepskin test was passed. Thus convinced, Gideon and God chose the three hundred finest warriors by means of a drinking competition and killed 120,000 Midianite soldiers. [Judges, chapters six through eight]

Sorry, I'm jumping around a little here. David Wilkerson wanted to be sure leaving his rural parish for New York gangland was the right decision, so he also laid a fleece before the Lord. In his case he said an appropriate sign would be raising exactly the right amount of cash to start his mission.

There are many Christians who disagree with this approach. They make a reasonable case, and if you count yourself among them I offer no counter argument. You may enjoy the rest of the article as a curiosity, but the remainder doesn't apply to you. If, on the other hand, you are in favour of laying fleeces, I'd like your help.

How do we design a fair experiment? I'd rather not go to battle against the Midianites on this one. I don't possess a fleece and I've no desire to visit the more undesirable areas of New York. The three most common criticisms I've encountered when I've tried this test are:

  • You may have been asking God to do something that was not in His plan
  • Your test is far too strict and precise
  • You could have been insincere in your prayer
With this I turn to a book on experimental design. (Snake Oil Science by R Barker Bausell - excellent read.) Barker Bausell states that when designing experiments, we should "accept as significant any differences between groups that would occur by chance alone less than 5 percent of the time." This is the standard convention used when investigating medical cures, educational approaches, or anything else amenable to experimental investigation.

What is the simplest test we can devise? I quote one below, discussing a hypothetical test of a coin that is thought to land on heads more often than tails:
Using our definition of statistical significance, this would mean that if you flipped your coin five times and it came up heads five times in a row, then your purchase should be regarded as an indicator of your financial acumen[...] Why? Because the probability of flipping a heads on the first trial would be ½ or 0.50, the probability of flipping two heads on the first two attempts would be ½ × ½ = 0.25, that of flipping three heads out of three tries would be 0.125, the chance of obtaining four heads in four attempts would be 0.0625, and the probability of getting five heads on the first five attempts would be ½ × ½ × ½ × ½ × ½ × = 0.03125! Because this number is under 0.05, it meets our criterion of statistical significance.
If it is valid to devise tests of this nature I see no reason why a coin toss could negatively affect any divine plan, so hopefully that counters objection number one. The test is no more strict or precise than any other experiment, hopefully countering objection two. On objection number three, how do we control for my sincerity? I feel I've tried this test with sincerity on several occasions but I understand why you might not be ready to take me at my word. I'll even acknowledge the risk that I'm deceiving myself, however small.

I may be insincere. But if you're a Christian, believe in laying fleeces, and have read this far you're likely sincere in your faith. Here's what I propose. We have a brief Skype conversation. You make a sincere prayer that God reveals himself to me through the experiment outlined above, show both sides of the coin and flip it five times. If you're right I'll publish the video - I get a thousand hits a month so you'll reach many atheists. To contact me just comment below and we'll set something up. I check comments daily.

If you're normally in favour of asking for a sign but find yourself unwilling to try this, I'm interested in hearing more from you. Please consider commenting below.