Sunday, September 27, 2009

Theoidiocy and other matters

"How religion poisons everything" was the subtitle of a recent Christopher Hitchens book on God. He could equally have said: "How religion turns everyone into idiots." Case in point: Andrew Sullivan, who is otherwise one of the most intelligent and lucid commentators on the blogosphere (and the MSM) today.

It seems to have started here. It continues here, here and here. Click only if you're a masochist -- or if the following excerpt (from here) makes any sense to you:

Yes, resilience is obviously built into our genetics, but my point was the unique ability to transcend suffering, not just endure it. That requires a mind that renders humans uniquely self-conscious, which has led to inquiries into ultimate meaning that, so far as we can tell, no animal experiences in the same way. Many survive suffering - most, in fact. The question is whether it is overcome, rather than endured. For that, something beyond mere physical processes are necessary. Which is where religion has its place.

On a related note, here's an entertaining guide to homoeopathy (thanks to Sunil). Homoeopathy has much in common with religion: rational arguments don't work with true believers, and in particular, it is impossible to answer the claim "but it worked for me!"

There are two caveats I would put, however. First, homoeopathy (and religion) may actually work if you're a believer. The best explanation of homoeopathy I've heard is the following (I previously posted it as a comment here): A colleague of mine claims the following is, roughly, an actual conversation he had with an actual practising (and believing) homoeopath. My friend expressed his skepticism on scientific grounds -- the dilution is so extreme that hardly a molecule or two would be expected to remain, if that. The homoeopath said, "Have you been to a homeopathic doctor?" My friend said yes. "What happened?" "The doctor asked lots of questions and then prescribed me a medicine." "How long did the questioning take?" "It took about 20 minutes and was very detailed." And, according to the homoeopath: "It is the 20 minutes of questioning that is the therapeutic part of homoeopathy. The pill is a placebo. It is just a sugar pill."

Now, placebos can have real effects (Skepdic has a good discussion), so it would not surprise me that homoeopathy (or praying) could help you with some conditions, if you believed in the first place that it could.

The second caveat is that not everything that passes for homoeopathy need actually be homoeopathic (that is, diluted according to Hahnemann's prescriptions). This is especially true in India, but there was also a recent case of a "homeopathic" cold medicine in the US that turned out to contain non-homoeopathic quantities of zinc, with a detrimental effect on the patients' sense of smell. "Alternative" therapies are poorly regulated, all over the world. Caveat emptor.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Why I dislike the BBC's reporting

Nearly every article that the BBC has written about Chandrayaan I that I have seen so far ends with these lines:

But the Indian government's space efforts have not been welcomed by all.
Some critics regard the space programme as a waste of resources in a country where millions still lack basic services.

For example: this article today, and this one, this one and this one earlier.

It is not just that they are repeating the same sentiment again and again: it is precisely the same text, inserted as boilerplate at the end of everything they have ever written about Chandrayaan -- going back to at least October 2008 (when the mission was launched), and perhaps earlier!

And precisely what is the point of such text? Of course "some critics" regard it as a waste of money. "Some critics" think the Apollo landings were faked. "Some critics" believe the earth is flat. In a country of a billion people, and a world of eight billion people, you will always find "some critics" to say anything. Who are those critics? Why not name them, just to let the reader judge their credibility?

Even that should not be too hard: I am sure there are some very respectable people who think Chandrayaan is a waste of money, and will be willing to be quoted as saying so. But the BBC cannot be bothered to go out and look for them. Much easier to just stick this boilerplate at the end of every damn article they write on the subject.

No doubt they think it makes them look "balanced".

Thursday, September 24, 2009

How not to run an online bookstore

The point having been made, and belatedly responded to, this post and its comments are deleted. I wish the bookstore well.