Iron man

My parents married in the late 1960s. There were certain societal norms at the time which, in hindsight, look archaic and inappropriate by today’s standards. One of these was, as a newly married wife, my mother ironed all of the Dead Dad’s shirts every week. In fact, she would launder all his shirts, iron them, hang them on hangers and return them to his wardrobe every week.

I never got the full story from either of them, but at some point in the early 1970s they had a row about her ironing. Perhaps he didn’t quite like the way she was ironing creases into the arms, or maybe he objected to the way she buttoned the collar to the clothes hanger. Or it might have been something as trivial as her having left the ironing board out in the kitchen when he wanted to use the space for something else. But, as a result of that row, for the remaining 35+ years of their marriage, she never ironed anything for him ever again, right up until the day he died. And not even then.

I don’t want to take sides in this dispute. I can’t, because I don’t know what led up to it, what caused that particular flashpoint, and what was said afterwards. But I do reflect that it can’t be healthy to let a spat like this fester for that length of time. Can you identify any arguments like the Live Mum’s and the Dead Dad’s? And are you happy to let them carry on for a third of a century? Or will you do something to resolve it?

Giles Fraser at Westminster Skeptics: a rambling review

Tonight I went to WestSkep, at which Canon Dr Giles Fraser was speaking on “Being suspicious about the Skeptics“. Now my regular readers, yes both of you, will have noted that I prequelled this event in an earlier blog post. In the event, Dr Fraser turned out to be more interesting than I could have anticipated. He’s a very impressive speaker and, despite the audience really wanting to give him a bloody nose at times, he skipped through the questions with the ease of a prize fighter.

A full, nuanced review is beyond my capabilities, even when sober, so here is a collection of random observations and interesting (to me, at least) comments that I collected from the evening. Please note my careful use of scepticism as distinct from skepticism. I mean them to refer to two totally different concepts. Fraser underlined that he understood scepticism well, but was less clear on skepticism, not least because he had never attended an event.

Fraser’s talk started with scepticism proper, ie Descartes. Descartes wanted to know how he knew that he wasn’t a brain in a vat under the supervision of a bad demon. His response was that he knew that he existed because he had thoughts: cogito ergo sum. Fraser observed that Descartes then proved the existence of God in three different ways, all of which ultimately are flawed. Hume was the next great sceptic. Fraser said that Hume found it hard to reconcile his own scepticism with the fact that, on occasion, he liked to go out drinking with his friends and play backgammon with them. Clearly scepticism has its bounds! He then moved on to Cavell, who famously observed that scepticism means you turn those closest to you into strangers.

Fraser then asked us to consider Othello, as a demonstration that there are limits to the situations to which the scientific method can be applied. Othello wanted to know whether Desdemona loved him, and looked for evidence. Unfortunately the best evidence, as with a scientific theory, is that she doesn’t. Othello searched high and low for evidence of her infidelity. And, of course, thanks to Iago’s treachery, he finds it in abundance. Fraser aimed to demonstrate that, in some cases, the evidence based method can be used to control and possess others. In such situations, it is bad.

There were then lots of questions. I won’t attempt to cover them all, but some of the more interesting observations or discussions that followed included:

  • There was a discussion about whether religion or atheism was the better default position. Does religion presume more than atheism or is it vice-versa? Fraser answered that, personally, he uses religion as a receptacle for things he doesn’t know about rather than using it to answer questions or gain knowledge.
  • Someone asked about an ultra-sceptical approach to the world. Does Descartes mean that we need to assume lots of things? Is the concept that there are other people in the pub listening to the talk an assumption, or is it reasonable knowledge? Fraser was unconvinced that such a position can reasonably be considered an assumption.
  • Someone asked whether Othello should have been more sceptical. Wouldn’t that have revealed the plot against him? Here I wish that Fraser had lived up to his talk’s title and been more suspicious. It’s easy for us to laugh at Othello’s lack of scientific method, because we’ve read the whole play and know the terrible conclusion. How do skeptics know that they themselves are truly being sceptical enough when approaching questions about the world?
  • Dr Evan Harris, the self-styled patron saint of the evidence-based method as a means to control others, asked some pointed questions about whether it’s appropriate for religion to be taught in schools.  Amusingly, Fraser agreed with him, noting that religion is taught so badly that it often becomes a “machine for the production of atheists”.
  • David Allen Green asked whether someone who believes in the Christian God is, by definition, an atheist to all the other Gods people believe in. Doesn’t this make Christianity some sort of rounding error in a true atheistic position? Fraser reminded him that this was an early Roman attack on Christianity. It was suggested that Fraser doesn’t believe in the God of the Bible, which Fraser emphatically rejected.
  • Someone asked whether there were some situations in which it would be appropriate to seek evidence for love. However the questioner failed to entirely make his point, coming across as someone who was trying to force the evidence based method into a situation where it didn’t really make sense. Fraser wasn’t trying to define a set of circumstances where EBM is never appropriate, but simply to show that there are some situations where it doesn’t work. Therefore we need to always be suspicious of it. Related to this was a question that sought to get Fraser to define some of his terms better so that there could be a debate on common ground. But Fraser wasn’t having any of it. Defining terms is the sort of whiny crap first year philosophy students like to get up to… usually the sort of first year students who fail to make it into the second year due to their lack of academic rigour.
  • Crispian Jago highlighted the apostle Thomas, who had behaved skeptically in demanding to see Jesus’s wounds and – in Jago’s view – been treated badly by the Church for it. Fraser scoffed at the very idea, noting that Thomas was a saint, quite possibly the highest honour the church can bestow.
  • The strangest question of the night belonged to a young lady who, as well as talking about duck sex, suggested that it was inappropriate to take children to church because it tends to want to instil absolute truths and might constrain their inquisitive minds. As the parent of two young children, both of whom go to Sunday School, I can only presume she has no children of their own. Their Sunday School has never demanded that they accept Bible teachings without question and they ask me thousands of questions every day, just like almost every child does.

Overall it was an interesting discussion, and Fraser acquitted himself well. As with other SITP discussions, I found the debate didn’t answer the title of the talk, which was a bit frustrating. I’d have liked him to turn the focus on skepticism a bit more. Skepticism, for me, is ultimately deficient because it fails to recognise that it is a view of the world that operates on a reduced instruction set (ie the EBM). This fundamental axiom of skepticism is never justified, yet it is used to exclude other ways of arranging the world such as religion.

Furthermore, skepticism is an inadequate way of resolving real problems in the world. OK, so EBM tells us that vaccination doesn’t cause autism. But does that, in itself, justify the mass-vaccination of billions of people against their will? No, skepticism cannot help us answer questions of this sort. Raised this evening was the issue of eugenics, which can be easily justified on scientific grounds but is intolerable under even the most basic ethical frameworks. Another example might be global warming, where it makes sense to avoid it, but not at any cost. To answer these questions, we need to recognise that they are typically resolved in the social, political and emotional arenas. They cannot be answered using science alone. It would have been provocative, for sure, but Dr Fraser didn’t really do enough this evening to explain why we should be suspicious of the skeptics.

Other reflections on tonight’s talk: serious and not-so-serious.

Marabou storks and autism

Marabou stork nightmares is a terrifying book by Irvine Welsh. It tells the story of Roy Strang, who has constructed a fantasy world around Marabou storks, in order to protect himself from the horror of the appalling things he has done. In the end, it isn’t enough and his past catches up with him. The woman he raped finds him, and then castrates and murders him.

Earlier today, I was chatting to an American friend of mine, S, whom I know through online gaming. I’ve known her for nearly eight years. In that time, S fell in love with a Swede, moved to live with him there and has had a son. She loves her boy, with all the passion and feeling that really only a mother can. That’s plain to see. Her son has severe autism and learning difficulties. He suffers from several allergies, including wheat and dairy. And, because S knows and loves her son, she can pinpoint the precise day that he went from being an “ordinary” boy to the child he is today.

It’s the day that he went to get his vaccinations.

Now, I’m aware that the finest scientific minds in the country, if not the world, have tested the vaccines-autism link and have been unable to find anything. I respect the scientific method. However, I also respect S’s opinion. Reconciling the two isn’t easy. However, the scientific method at its best can only say “we have currently discovered no evidence that there is a link between vaccination and autism”. Empiricism will always be susceptible to as-yet-unperceived causal links that, because we don’t know about them, we simply don’t think to test. We may not even know how to test them.

So you must believe me when I say that there is little that makes me angrier than people glibly claiming that S is in any way irrational or is undertaking quackery when she expresses her view that it’s at least reasonable to suspect the vaccinations as a contributory factor. You have lost your basic humanity if you argue this way. Skepticism doesn’t permit you to abandon your responsibilities towards other people. And if I catch a skeptic abusing S or any other grieving mother, you will find your scientific method protecting you about as much as the marabou storks saved Roy Strang. There’s a lot more to life than science, and that wider world demands that you treat your fellow, irrational unscientific brothers and sisters with a little basic respect.

Stories about parental relationships

The Day of the Dead Dad rapidly approaches. And, to get you in the mood, I have two stories for you about the nature of parental relationships.

For some time, I’ve been listening to a variety of podcasts. Some are non-fiction, such as the excellent Freakonomics podcast, Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time and NPR’s Planet Money. But all work and no play makes Fr Adam a dull boy, so I mix it up with some fiction. And one of the fiction podcasts I listen to is Escape Pod, which serves up science fiction stories.

Now, to be honest, Escape Pod is a bit hit and miss. Their stories are narrated rather than enacted. In other words, it’s a person reading a story rather than a piece of radio theatre. That makes listening more difficult, as you have to listen to every word in case it is salient. It can also stray a little bit into science fantasy for my liking. And some of the stories are very long. One recently was over 90 minutes, which is a pretty long time investment.

However, when Escape Pod gets it right, it gets it right. And two recent stories knocked me off my feet. Curiously, they both deal with the relationship between generations.

The Paper Menagerie describes a Chinese immigrant to the US who is particularly skilled with origami. But her son finds her Chinese ways embarrassing and begs her to be more American. The story charts his path towards realising how foolish he was.

And The Homecoming is about an estranged son who seeks reconciliation with his parents. Mur Lafferty, who created Escape Pod and hosts this episode, said that Mike Resnick, the author of the story, tends to make her cry and did so again with this story. I don’t regard myself as nearly so sentimental. There was no way he was going to make me cry. But, at the end of the story, I found myself wandering up Kingsway bawling my eyes out.

Neither is particularly long, and if you don’t fancy listening to the podcasts, you can read the stories in full on the website instead.

Skeptical atheism, religion and politeness

It’s long been a concern of mine about the skeptics movement that some skeptics find themselves unable to behave civilly when confronted with religious people. So it’s with some interest that I see that David Allen Green has published a civility and inclusion policy that seeks to address the very real problem that some skeptics seem to believe themselves so infused with their quasi-religious fervour that, quite literally, anything goes. Even the essential moral obligation to treat fellow human beings with dignity.

I coin the term ‘skeptical atheism’ as the form of atheism which aggressively seeks to put down religion, often in disparaging, rude terms, rather than the mere expression of personal disbelief in God. God is often a great comfort to people at critical points of their lives. To deny that, even in kind terms, would be improper. To do so in the strident, carping tones of the skeptical atheist is totally unacceptable.

From a personal point of view, I ended up at religion as a result of the study of science. I found that there were simply too many questions that science was unable to answer. This is inevitable given its narrow instruction set, which insists that experiments must be reproducible. Science also tends to be more comfortable with theories and hypotheses that support the existing literature rather than contradict it, even when the possibility must always exist that the existing literature is flawed. Therefore science doesn’t build in a linear fashion, but lurches forward in a series of catastrophic revolutions.

Demand for reproducibility and an absence of wonder in the scientific literature means that religion is excluded almost by definition. Unfortunately, skeptical thought falsely treats the lack of need for religion as proof that it doesn’t exist. But we know that this line of reasoning must be false, due to the nature of knowledge acquisition itself. Descartes acknowledged that, from first principles, the only thing you can know is that, because you think, you exist. Beyond that, you’re having to take things on faith. You must trust that your eyes aren’t deceiving you, that your memory isn’t flawed or being tampered with, and that scientific laws and constants don’t vary. Worse than that, so much of the body of scientific knowledge is built upon experiments that most skeptics have never observed and – indeed – don’t actually understand. Ultimately their argument becomes that they trust [insert your favourite celebrity skeptic here] more than they trust a religious leader. While you could construct some arguments from first principles as to why this might be desirable, it’s certainly not qualitatively different, as skeptical atheists seem to believe.

Some of these issues may get aired on Monday June 25, when Canon Dr Giles Fraser, formerly of St Paul’s Cathedral and now of St Mary Newington, presents at Westminster Skeptics on the subject “Being suspicious about the Skeptics.” I urge you all to attend. And it will be a very significant and potentially serious test of Green’s civility policy. It’s only a few weeks old; let’s hope it can have a long and happy life.

A terrible joke

Noah is loading up the animals onto the ark. There are elephants, giraffes, smaller mammals, worms and every kind of insect imaginable. The line stretches for miles! As they’re loading on, Noah turns to his wife and asks her if she has counted the animals yet. “Not yet, dear,” she tells him.

Noah goes back to helping load up the animals. But a few minutes later, he asks again, “Have you counted all the animals yet?” “No, not yet. We still have animals to load on. Be patient.”

But after loading on some of the spiders, Noah goes back to his wife. “My dear, did you count all the animals yet?”

Noah’s wife flips. “You still haven’t loaded all the animals on,” she says. “And, I told you. Don’t you remember?”

She pauses, before continuing…

“I sum what you did last, Noah!”

Day of the Dead Dad

On 17 June, we celebrate Father’s Day in the UK.

Three days beforehand, the Church of the Dead Dad celebrates the anniversary of the Dead Dad’s death.

In honour of both these special days, I’m announcing a Day of the Dead Dad spectacular right here on this blog.

What does it mean? Well, I’m welcoming guest posts about your dead Dad. I’m welcoming links to your posts about your dead Dad. I’m welcoming links to your favourite posts about somebody else’s dead Dad. I’ll even welcome guest posts or links to posts about your live Dad if they’re really sickly.

I started writing this blog as homage to my father after he died last year. I didn’t know it at the time but I missed and grieved him terribly and writing about death and him in a carefree, irreverent style helped me a lot. I commend writing-as-therapy to you too.

If you’d like to contribute something here, tell me about your amazing writing elsewhere or you just want to call me names, you can e-mail me at adam@cotdd.org.uk.

A dream

I dreamed about the Dead Dad last night. My elder daughter and I were helping out at an outdoor military history exhibition. Then I saw him, and went to get my daughter to go see him.

He was in his military ‘dress’ uniform, which was odd. While he was in the army for a short period after the war, due to conscription, it wasn’t exactly the most vital part of his life, even though he himself did describe it as the moment in which he realised he could be successful at something.

My daughter walked up to him, only to find out it was someone else. Then we saw the real him in the distance, so we ran up to him… just as I woke up.