Archive for the 'News' Category

Apology to Turing

I’m just going to quote the whole thing.

2009 has been a year of deep reflection – a chance for Britain, as a nation, to commemorate the profound debts we owe to those who came before. A unique combination of anniversaries and events have stirred in us that sense of pride and gratitude which characterise the British experience. Earlier this year I stood with Presidents Sarkozy and Obama to honour the service and the sacrifice of the heroes who stormed the beaches of Normandy 65 years ago. And just last week, we marked the 70 years which have passed since the British government declared its willingness to take up arms against Fascism and declared the outbreak of World War Two. So I am both pleased and proud that, thanks to a coalition of computer scientists, historians and LGBT activists, we have this year a chance to mark and celebrate another contribution to Britain’s fight against the darkness of dictatorship; that of code-breaker Alan Turing.

Turing was a quite brilliant mathematician, most famous for his work on breaking the German Enigma codes. It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of World War Two could well have been very different. He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war. The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely. In 1952, he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ – in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence – and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison – was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later.

Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly. Over the years millions more lived in fear of conviction.

I am proud that those days are gone and that in the last 12 years this government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT community. This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue.

But even more than that, Alan deserves recognition for his contribution to humankind. For those of us born after 1945, into a Europe which is united, democratic and at peace, it is hard to imagine that our continent was once the theatre of mankind’s darkest hour. It is difficult to believe that in living memory, people could become so consumed by hate – by anti-Semitism, by homophobia, by xenophobia and other murderous prejudices – that the gas chambers and crematoria became a piece of the European landscape as surely as the galleries and universities and concert halls which had marked out the European civilisation for hundreds of years. It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe’s history and not Europe’s present.

So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.

Gordon Brown

This is a Good Day.

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Archbishop gets sound-bitten

From the SMH again, UK Archbishop facing calls to resign:

Rowan Williams, spiritual leader of the world’s 77 million Anglicans, faced calls to resign for suggesting the introduction in Britain of some aspects of Islamic law was unavoidable.

The Archbishop of Canterbury tried to quell the storm by denying he had called for Islamic law, known as sharia, to be introduced alongside British law.

In a BBC interview on Thursday, he referred to the use of sharia in some personal or domestic issues, much like orthodox Jews already have their own courts for some matters. Asked if sharia needed to be applied in some cases for community cohesion, Williams said: “It seems unavoidable.”


Archbish Williams has made an appearance on this blog before, when he cast doubt on the factual accuracy of the Christmas story. And, once again, I have mixed feelings.

First things first. I read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel recently, and the negative effect of the practice of Islamic law in refugee communities in the Netherlands is fresh in my mind. Plus, I think that religions in general have a pretty bad track record of defining laws that promote rights and equality, so I don’t see why any religion should have claim to any privileged position to influence law.

However, while I disagree with Williams, there’s a big fat gulf between what he’s saying and people calling for him to resign. Here are a couple of excerpts from the full transcript of the interview (I recommend reading the whole thing):

What a lot of Muslim scholars would say, I think, and I’m no expert on this, is that Sharia is a method rather than a code of law and that where it’s codified in some of the ways that you’ve mentioned in very brutal and inhuman and unjust ways, that’s one particular expression of it which is historically conditioned, not at all what people would want to see as part of the method of trying to make actual the will of God in certain circumstances. So there’s a lot of internal debate within the Islamic community generally about the nature of Sharia and its extent; nobody in their right mind I think would want to see in this country a kind of inhumanity that sometimes appears to be associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states the extreme punishments, the attitudes to women as well.

It’s very important [t]hat you mention there the word ‘choice’; I think it would be quite wrong to say that we could ever licence so to speak a system of law for some community which gave people no right of appeal, no way of exercising the rights that are guaranteed to them as citizens in general…

…as I said earlier, it’s not something that’s absolutely peculiar to Islam. We have orthodox Jewish courts operating in this country legally and in a regulated way because there are modes of dispute resolution and customary provisions which apply there in the light of Talmud. It’s not a new problem, not to mention the issues as I mentioned earlier the questions about how the consciences of Catholics Anglicans and others who have difficulty over issues like abortion are accommodated within the Law; so the whole idea that there are perfectly proper ways in which the law of the land pays respect to custom and community; that’s already there.

…now that principle that there’s one law for everybody is an important pillar of our social identity as a Western liberal democracy, but I think it’s a misunderstanding to suppose that that means people don’t have other affiliations, other loyalties which shape and dictate how they behave in society and the law needs to take some account of that, so an approach to law which simply said, ‘There is one law for everybody and that is all there is to be said, and anything else that commands your loyalty or your allegiance is completely irrelevant in the processes of the courts’. I think that’s a bit of a danger.

It seems pretty clear that he’s not proposing that the UK set up Islamic ghettos where western law doesn’t apply, which is how it seems to come across in the sound-bite news reports. It’s more like he’s saying that there could be a way, in communities that already internally follow a set of de facto religious laws, to allow that to influence civil law, without overriding anyone’s basic legal rights. Apparently this is already the case with Jewish communities. And he falls short of saying that this should happen; he mostly just says that it should be up for discussion.

I hardly see how people can be calling for his head on a plate over this.

The thing that stands out to me is that the head of the Anglican Church is taking a very big step back and talking about acceptance of standards outside his own religion. It’s almost as if he’s suggesting – shock, horror – that someone else might have a different point of view. He’s very non-partisan about the whole thing – he only talks about the Christian position in passing, by way of comparison; and he ducks the interviewer’s final question:

In the end, do you think that some people might be surprised to hear that a Christian Archbishop is calling for greater consideration of the role of Islamic law?

People may be surprised but I hope that that surprise will be modified when they think about the general question of how the law and religious community, religious principle are best and fruitfully accommodated…

Well, I am surprised. Pleasantly.

Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe people want the head of their church to push for the church’s beliefs and only the church’s beliefs. Maybe people are uncomfortable with the idea that their church’s leader is willing to consider that other people believe differently, and have just as much right to do so.

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From SMH:

Heath Ledger’s family and loved ones have held a private memorial service at a chapel in Los Angeles.

The service took place under heavy security last night at the Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park and Mortuary in a bid to thwart paparazzi and US religious extremists.

Religious groups vowed to picket the memorial because of Ledger’s performance as a gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain.

There are times I wish there was a hell, so people like Fred Phelps could get what they deserve.

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These war euphemisms are getting out of hand

Crown Princess Mary learns resuscitation techniques.


Falling off a building is a miracle

Okay, I know this isn’t the most original observation, but I promise this is the only time I’ll do it… How is it an example of divine providence when two people fall from a building, one dies, and the other only suffers massive injuries?

From the SMH, Miracle man falls 47 floors:

Alcides Moreno, 37, plummeted almost 152 metres in a December 7 scaffolding collapse that killed his brother.

Emphasis mine. Note that his late brother is not named or mentioned for the rest of the article.

Somehow, Moreno lived, and doctors at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Centre announced today that his recovery has been astonishing.

His wife, Rosario Moreno, cried as she thanked the doctors and nurses who kept him alive.

“Thank God for the miracle that we had,” she said. “He keeps telling me that it just wasn’t his time.”

At least it does mention that she thanked the medical staff. Why she then thanks God, who could have stopped it happening altogether, is beyond me.

Dr Herbert Pardes, the hospital’s president, described Moreno’s condition when he arrived for treatment as “a complete disaster”.

Both legs and his right arm and wrist were broken in several places. He had severe injuries to his chest, his abdomen and his spinal column. His brain was bleeding. Everything was bleeding, it seemed.

In those first critical hours, doctors pumped 24 units of donated blood into his body – about twice his entire blood volume.

They gave him plasma and platelets and a drug to stimulate clotting and stop the hemorrhaging. They inserted a catheter into his brain to reduce swelling and cut open his abdomen to relieve pressure on his organs.

“If you are a believer in miracles, this would be one,” said the hospital’s chief of surgery, Dr Philip Barie.

No. A miracle would be if he and his brother had gently drifted to the ground on a beam of light from the sky, and landed unscathed. This is a disaster, with a brief moment of luck where it could have been worse, followed by hours of intense medical treatment. There’s a big difference.

I hope he makes a solid recovery. He obviously has good doctors, if not enough to make up for his incompetent deity.


Spot the irony

There was a story the other day about a pair of British backpackers whose Lotto winnings were nabbed by the newsagency employee who handled their prize claim.

The owner of the newsagency came out with this gem:

“He was a religious person; he went to church twice a week… I know it sounds strange after what has happened, but he was an active member of the church band. He was a well-liked person.”

Who’da thunk it?

(Side question: What’s the “correct” use of apostrophes in “who’da”?)

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Christian rumours about Steve

Yesterday I noticed a hit on this site from someone searching for “steve irwin baptized“. I’ve posted about Steve’s death and have mentioned baptism a couple of times, so the search led here. I didn’t think about it too much at the time.

Today, that search fell into context, when I read in the Sydney Morning Herald about a rumour that Steve became a born-again Christian just weeks before his death. It turns out that this can’t be substantiated, so although we can’t say for sure that it didn’t happen, the claim that it did happen now appears to be on very shaky ground.

This is where we come across an interesting asymmetry in trying to determine what’s true in history. It’s very, very difficult to prove that something didn’t happen. It’s relatively easy to prove, or at least establish beyond reasonable doubt (”proof” in the strict sense is a different matter entirely), that something happened – in this case, a photo of Steve in church, or the statement of a couple of identified eyewitnesses, or a comment from his wife Terri (who apparently is a Christian), would easily satisfy the doubts of most people. But to prove that he wasn’t converted, you’d theoretically need to talk to every single person who could possibly have witnessed it, and establish that none of them saw it happen. Even if you managed to track down the person who started the rumour, and they confirmed that they just made it up, all it would show is that they don’t know that he was converted.

And there’s always the possibility that the rumour didn’t start on purpose – there are any number of ways that someone could falsely believe something like this had happened. For example, someone could have misheard someone else who said they wished Steve Irwin had become a Christian before he died. Rumours can start by accident really, really easily, and they’re hard to disprove once they get going. That’s why skepticism is such a vital skill – it puts the burden of proof in the right place. It would be relatively easy to show that a claim like this is true, but exhaustively difficult to show that it’s false, so in the absence of any evidence beyond “I heard from a friend of a friend of a friend”, we assume by default that it’s false. For now.

In the context of Christianity, this has implications for a lot of things, but from my perspective, the biggest one is the truth of the gospels. A lot of Christians (not all) would say that Jesus’ resurrection was God’s greatest and most convincing miraculous sign, and many would say that this should be sufficient to convince anyone to believe, and that we should never need to ask for another one.

But the only record we have of what happened to Jesus is in the gospels. There’s no external evidence to confirm anything that the gospels say (beyond basic facts like Pilate being governor of Judea). An argument I’ve heard reasonably often to support their accuracy is that they were written within the lifetimes of eyewitnesses, so if they’d written something that wasn’t true, then they wouldn’t have spread, because there would have been enough people around to deny that those things ever happened.

Compare this argument to the activity of the rumour mill within weeks of Steve Irwin’s death, in a society where information has the means to spread more or less instantaneously.

A more specific case is the question of what happened to Jesus’ body if he wasn’t resurrected. The classical argument goes that nobody (disciples, Jews, Romans) had the motive to move the body, therefore none of them did. But this is another case where the burden of proof is in entirely the wrong place – it avoids proving that Jesus did come back to life, and instead attacks a straw-man attempt to prove that he didn’t. This is all the wrong way around.

The story about Steve should show us that the truth is no obstacle to people believing what they want to believe. (Reconciling this statement with my comments in this post about how people come to accept things as fact is left as an exercise to the reader.)


One of the buggers got ‘im

Steve 38,762 – Critters 01

Steve Irwin was killed by a stingray earlier today.

Somehow, it seems disrespectful to take this too seriously. Steve made a name for himself dealing with animals that could kill him. It would be much more of a shame if he’d died of a heart attack at age 94. What more can you ask for than to die in a way that sums up your life?

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No link between prayer and recovery

From a Scientific American article:

The three-year Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP), published in the April 4 American Heart Journal, was the largest-ever attempt to apply scientific methods to measure the influence of prayer on the well-being of another. It examined 1,800 patients undergoing heart-bypass surgery. On the eve of the operations, church groups began two weeks of praying for one set of patients. Each recipient had a praying contingent of about 70, none of whom knew the patient personally. The study found no differences in survival or complication rates compared with those who did not receive prayers.

An interesting quote:

Dean Marek, chief chaplain at the Mayo Clinic, saw the problem as a possible flaw in the study design: “The sense of community was not there. You could call it impersonal prayer rather than intercessory prayer.”

Stopping short of suggesting that the healing power of prayers by friends and family might reside in the personal connections rather than in the prayers, the authors stated that they have no plans for a follow-up study. This one, sponsored largely by the John Templeton Foundation, cost $2.4 million.


Australia through to round 2 of World Cup

Some appalling refereeing; but in the end it doesn’t matter, Australia draw with Croatia 2-2 to go through and play Italy on the 26th.


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