Sunday, October 10, 2010

Why Scooby Doo was the greatest show ever.

When I was growing up, I loved anything 'spooky' like Werewolves, Ghouls, Vampires...especially Vampires. So naturally, I adored Scooby Doo.

As you get older, the awesomeness of Scooby Doo stays with you. It's funny to a 6 year old who likes seeing Shaggy and Scooby get scared and dress in funny costumes. It's funny to a 16 year old, who now gets why Scooby Snacks make everyone so hungry afterward. I'm significantly older than that now, but I still love Scooby Doo and here's why.

Velma. Velma is the ultimate Sceptic. No matter how scary the situation, no matter how much it seems like there really is a ghost haunting the abandoned Amusement Park, she keeps her cool and looks for evidence. Rather than accepting the supernatural explanation right away, she waits and looks for a natural explanation first. She applies her scientific skills and vast knowledge to seek the truth, and she always finds it.

It's not always easy for Velma to get to the truth. She has to deal with co-workers who immediately believe the irrational explanation and over-react, but she always handles them with diplomacy and kindness.

Velma is a great role model for kids, especially young girls who see a smart capable female character, who is rational and loves science. Velma actually wound up working at NASA which my young self thought was especially awesome (I really wanted to be an Astro- Physicist at one point).

If you want your kids to watch a cartoon that encourages critical thinking and looking for natural explanations before automatically accepting supernatural explanations, go for Scooby Doo. And sit down and watch it with them, it's pretty darn awesome.

I also liked Danger Mouse.
Advocatus Diaboli

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Coalition vs NIWA

In today's news is a piece saying that the New Zealand Climate Science Coalition (CSC) is challenging data that the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) has been collecting on temperatures in New Zealand. The CSC is taking NIWA to court over this issue. Which from the beginning, raises the question of why. Why is this issue not being dealt with through normal scientific channels?

The obvious and cynical reason would be to raise the profile of the issue and take it to the court of public opinion. Yes, having a high profile debate on the issue is useful. But this isn't a debate, it's an attempt at scandalizing and discrediting the issue. If the court rules in favour of NIWA, it's a complete non-story. If there's any sort of wiggle room in the ruling at all, that will become the only part publicized. Either way, this is still unlikely to have much of any impact on any scientific research or work.

The basis for the claim seems to be a thesis published by Jim Salinger in 1981. NIWA cites this thesis as being an important source for calculating the relative temperature changes throughout changes in the site of weather monitoring station. But they also say they don't use the methods described in the thesis at all. to compound this, the thesis that is publicly available is difficult to read because of the restricted access to the paper at the university where it's kept.

However, as the methods set out in the thesis aren't used by NIWA by their own assertion, discrediting the paper (as seems quite possible at this stage), wouldn't call into question the temperature data NIWA is basing the warming trend they're reporting.

As per a Parliamentary Question and Answer session on the topic, NIWA was reviewing the data in March. Since some of this data goes back to 1853, it's used internationally. So a review of the information using current methods ensures it's integrity and accuracy.

Research for this was done through Google, looking for information on Salinger's thesis and the information that follows from there. So I'm sure there's plenty more relevant information out there and I'd be happy to have that included or discussed.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Religious Instruction in NZ Public Schools

A topic that is coming up on a lot of blogs today (including Pharyngula) is Religious Instruction classes in QLD teaching children nonsense. If you read the posts and the comments on said posts you can see the outrage and disgust that you would expect by sceptical type people.

I too, share the outrage and disgust. But what was more shocking to me was the people from Australia and New Zealand commenting on this issue who had no idea that this has been going on for years.

Let me explain what Religious Instruction in New Zealand actually is. Australia has a pretty similar system but I'll let Australian bloggers talk about that. Religious Instruction is NOT the same thing as Religious Education. Learning about religion and its influence on art, history, society, whatever is perfectly fine and is part of a well-rounded education. Religious Instruction is not that. It's purpose is to INSTRUCT pupils. Normally some kind of programme involving ethics, moral guidance, why you're a sinner, that kind of thing.

Religious Instruction is technically not legal in public schools, so for half an hour a week schools are allowed to close down so RI can take place. The RI must not be taken by a teacher or school official, so an interested lay-person approved by the school board takes RI. In practicality this means that only Christian volunteers from the Churches Education Commission have the resources and influence to take RI in NZ schools. So it's not even Religious Instruction, it's Christian Instruction.

Now the school is not obliged to have RI but neither are they obliged to inform parents that they do. Many schools inform parents as a courtesy, but some do not. If you do not want your child to take part in RI you must write to the school Principal to request their withdrawal. That's right, they don't have to get your permission to indoctrinate your child, it's implied by you not withdrawing them from a programme you may not know exists.

Now what happens to those children who are withdrawn from the programme? They must be supervised during this time, so what usually happens is the kids withdrawn sit in the library until they can return to class. In my own son's case, they sit in another part of the classroom and just "don't participate in the bible songs and stories". Now do the kids withdrawn suffer any kind of discrimination from the overwhelming majority of participants? Perhaps. I know I thought the kids who weren't allowed to participate in things to do with 'God and stuff' (like the NZ National Anthem) were weird.

As New Zealand becomes more and more multi-cultural and with more and more people identifying as non-religious (statisticsnz ) RI in public schools is outdated and ridiculous. Christianity is being given privilege by being the only religion taught in schools. Why not Islam? Judaism? Wicca? Everything else? The only fair way to resolve the issue is to get rid of Religious Instruction altogether. Replace that half an hour a week with a secular ethics programme. (Note: they are trialing this in Australia much to certain interest groups' horror).

If you are a parent with kids in a NZ public primary school, ask about RI. Ask what the withdrawn kids do in that time. Ask if only Christianity is taught, or if there's a fair representation of all religious beliefs (including areligious beliefs). Volunteer to teach a class about Secular Humanism, Satanism, or the worship of Zeus. You probably won't get far with the school board but who knows? Maybe you'll alert enough parents to the issue and something will change.

My sources for today's rant are: The Human Rights Commission report on Religion in NZ Schools and the NZARH pamphlet on RI in NZ State Primary Schools.
Advocatus Diaboli

Saturday, July 24, 2010

If something isn't going your way, why not pray?

Last week was the first week of semester and I was at the booth for Reason and Science Society helping to entice newcomers over by standing behind the more attractive members of the group and not talking much so they wouldn't be scared off. A conversation sprung up (as they do) about why a certain person, who I shall call Eliza, believed in God. This being Yahweh of course, but any God will suffice during this post. Eliza's reason for believing in God was that God answered his/her prayers. When pushed to give examples we heard this amazing tale, that nearly gave me an aneurysm trying not to laugh.

Apparently Eliza had some teeth problems and was informed that he/she may require extensive dental treatment. Eliza prayed to God asking to not have to have the dental treatment. And lo! Eliza's prayers were answered. No one seemed impressed by this miracle of the modern era (maybe it gets a better reaction at youth group with lots of "Praise his name!" and "Amen" being shouted out), so Eliza shared another testimony of the time he/she was feeling worried about a hockey game and after praying, felt better. Now this sounded weak to even Eliza who then admitted that it may have been psychological. Eliza failed to gain any converts that day AND inspired an Atheist to blog, so -10 Jesus points for Eliza there. He/she's never going to get enough for the hot tub add on in his/her sky mansion at this rate.

Now I don't want you to think that Eliza is stupid or anything. This is just an example of how the human brain is just a bit fail. We tend to remember the hits and forget the misses, so it seems to Eliza that his/her prayers are answered more often than not. This is because of the Confirmation Bias, which is one of the more important cognitive biases we suffer from. If you haven't already, go to wikipedia and read what it is. Go ahead, I'll wait.

So, although it's not unusual for people to think their prayers are answered I still find it bizarre that people do it in the first place. It is the ultimate hubris to think that you can appeal to an omnipotent being and get them to change the universe to suit you. You are essentially saying that you think God got it wrong and you are asking him to change his mind. If God is benevolent and omnipotent he is already doing whatever is best and you yapping to him about it achieves nothing. Unless your God is a petty tyrant who is flattered by the attention or is charged up by prayers like a D&D God, you are wasting your time.

I felt especially annoyed at Eliza, who instead of being happy that he/she lived in a country with dental treatment and could afford to have said treatment, he/she bitched to their deity about not wanting it. If I was Eliza's God I'd be pretty pissed off about the lack of gratitude. Look, if he's not granting the prayers of the children in Africa who just want to not die painfully, what makes you think your pathetic problems are more worthy?

I think I'll allow Mrs Betty Bowers to explain it to us.
Advocatus Diaboli

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

What's a sceptic anyway?

What is a sceptic? What makes someone a sceptic? How do you know if you are one? Aren't sceptics just boring closed minded people? How do I get sceptics to have sex with me? All very good questions, which I will endeavour to answer here:

What is a sceptic?
Basically a sceptic is someone who doesn't believe a claim unless there is evidence to support it. If a friend walked up to you and said "I can fly", most people would ask to see their friend fly before accepting that claim. If you are wise you might go a bit further and check that there are no wires allowing your friend to fake flight. You might even ask an expert in illusions to investigate further before accepting the extraordinary claim of flight.

What makes someone a sceptic?
There are very few people who would believe their friend could fly just because they said they could. We would require some kind of evidence. In that regard, we're all sceptical to an extent. Interpreting the evidence and deciding if it supports the claim can actually be pretty difficult. Learning about fair experimental procedures and data analysis takes a bit of time and effort. Many sceptics take this time because a)it's fun and b)you get benefits from not falling for false claims. Future posts will discuss how to develop your sceptic-fu.

It is important to note that sceptics may not automatically accept a claim, but once the evidence is clear they should accept the conclusion the evidence leads to. This is what separates sceptics from denialists. Denialists dismiss a claim despite the evidence, a sceptic doesn't accept a claim unless there is evidence. This does mean new evidence can and should change your mind. It's best not to take arguments with a sceptic personally as they're not personally attached to their 'beliefs' so are a little more callous about them than non-sceptics.

How do I know if I'm a Sceptic?
Well, if you want some proof before you believe stuff people tell you, that's it. You're a Sceptic. Congratulations! If you want to be good at Scepticism, it takes a bit more. But trust me, it's worth learning about. (Hopefully, you didn't accept that based on my word or you haven't learned anything).

Aren't Sceptics just boring close-minded people?
Scepticism isn't about being close-minded. The opposite is in fact true. A Sceptic should be open-minded. They also should be sceptical about those new ideas and not accept them as true until the evidence is taken into account. Be warned though, Sceptics have often heard the same claims many times and some may get a bit impatient about hearing them again. If you want to challenge a Sceptic, it is advisable to do so with new evidence instead of the same tired old arguments.

As for being boring, well, I guess the term 'boring' is subjective. I haven't measured the 'boringness' level of a representative sample of sceptics so I can't say for sure but I am pretty sceptical that they are more or less boring than any other subgroup (see what I did there).

How do I get Sceptics to have sex with me?
I'd suggest being honest and not trying to use pick up lines or asking what their sign is. Perhaps "Hey, would you like to have sex with me?" might work. Just make sure you try it on a large enough sample size before you reject the approach.

Advocatus Diaboli

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Happy Franz Boas Day!

July 9th marks the day that Franz Boas was born. In the tradition of Darwin Day and Ada Lovelace Day I'd like to start a day to celebrate the life and works of Franz Boas and also Social Science in general. Social Science contributes to the body of scientific knowledge and can make positive impacts on people's lives. With Social Science we learn about ourselves as people and as scientists. Social Science allows us to improve the way we do science in general and should be celebrated just as much as the so called hard-sciences.

Franz Boas is known as 'The Father of American Anthropology' because of his influence on modern Anthropology. His original doctorate was in physics and he believed strongly in applying the scientific method to Anthropology. This approach completely changed Anthropology for the better. Previously, cultural studies were not rigorously conducted and they relied on interpretations of anecdotal experience.

Boas is also famous for his activism in fighting racism and cultural bias in science. Biological Anthropology in Boas' time was very much focused on categorising people into racial groups. Boas argued that differences between groups were mostly social, not biological and that science was being used to perpetuate racism when it should be being used to reduce it. Boas also opened up opportunities for women in science and his most (in)famous pupils were women. Anthropology was a new frontier without the old boys club of other disciplines, which gave women a chance to get involved right from the start.

So, this July 9th think of Boas. Or next July 9th, since by time you read this it will be over.

If you'd like to comment, I'd like to hear about a something in Social Science you really like. Or maybe you could share a scientist that inspires you and you think deserves a 'day'.
Advocatus Diaboli

Welcome to Sceptics NZ

If you're reading this, you're probably one of the 5 people I know. (Hi guys). This blog is intended to be a place to talk about issues in sceptism (with a c) from a New Zealand perspective. As much I love blogs like Skepchick, The Friendly Atheist and Blag Hag, the American sceptical experience is not the same for us down under. New Zealand has a unique and interesting history and our sceptical issues are also unique and interesting.

There's some great people who are willing to contribute to this blog, each with their own areas of interest so hopefully visits to this blog will be varied and interesting no matter what your flavour of sceptism is. If you wish to contribute please email us at and let us know. More contributers means less work for me.

Since I'm new to this blogging thing, it will take me a while to work out the features and get everything more pretty and less geocities homepage-looking. This is just the intro post, so don't get disappointed yet. Please feel free to comment, discussions are the best part of blogging. We don't have any plans to moderate comments yet, but this might bite us in the bum in the future so that may change. Spammers of course, will be removed without mercy.

Hope you enjoy the blog!
Advocatus Diaboli