Thursday, June 26, 2008

Bird evolutionary tree given a shake by DNA study

  • 19:00 26 June 2008
  • news service
  • Bob Holmes

A new study – the largest analysis of birds to date using modern genetic methods – has turned up numerous surprising relationships that will force biologists to reevaluate much of what they thought they knew about avian evolution.

Until now, this evolutionary history has been something of a mystery, because most modern orders of birds arose in a sudden burst of innovation sometime between 65 and 100 million years ago. This left few intermediate forms to help biologists discern the evolutionary relationships among orders.

"It's one of the last big mysteries of birds – trying to figure out how these orders, which look so cohesive in themselves, are grouped together," says Sushma Reddy, an evolutionary biologist at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, US.

The few genetic comparisons among orders have tended to focus on one or a few genes, and have yielded inconsistent results.

Odd cousins

To resolve this problem, Reddy and her colleagues

sequenced 19 regions of the genome of 169 species of birds – a total of 32,000 DNA "letters" per species – then used the sequences to construct the most robust avian evolutionary tree ever made.

This new tree contains several notable surprises. For example, falcons are more closely related to songbirds than to other hawks and eagles. The closest kin of the diving birds called grebes turn out to be flamingos. And tiny, flashy hummingbirds, according to the new tree, are just a specialised form of nighthawks, whose squat, bulky bodies make them an unlikely cousin.

In fact, the new tree ended up regrouping about a third of all the orders in earlier phylogenies of birds. "That shows you how inconsistent it has been," says Reddy.

Flight of fantasy?

The new tree may have profound implications for our understanding of the major innovations in the evolutionary history of birds, says Joel Cracraft, curator of ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, US.

For example, the new tree puts an order of flying birds, the tinamous, squarely in the midst of the flightless ostriches, emus and kiwis.

If true, this implies either that flightlessness evolved at least twice in this lineage, or else that the tinamous re-evolved flight from a flightless ancestor. "A lot of us actually don't believe their result," says Cracraft, who says that further studies will be needed to resolve the issue.

The new family tree adds a further novel twist by suggesting that the closest relatives of perching birds, or passerines, are parrots. This needs further corroboration but, if true, evolutionary biologists will at last have a firm starting point for understanding the evolution of the perching birds, which are by far the largest and most successful order of birds.

Journal reference: Science (DOI: 1.1126/science.1157704)

Talks Susan Blackmore: Memes and "temes"

TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from those three worlds. is a great resource for videos of conferences

Video: Susan Blackmore studies memes: ideas that replicate themselves from brain to brain like a virus. She makes a bold new argument: Humanity has spawned a new kind of meme, the teme, which spreads itself via technology -- and invents ways to keep itself alive

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

An Interview with Prof. Richard Dawkins

by Nicholas Newman, Oxford Prospect

Interviewed by Nicholas Newman at Dawkins' Oxford home 24 June 2008

Reposted from:

Richard Dawkins is the well known advocate of atheism and rationalism and for his criticism of religion. He holds the Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. I interviewed Richard Dawkins at his Oxford home recently.

Nicholas Newman

As a life long atheist, I find myself almost entirely in agreement with the views expressed in your writings, but nevertheless, it is still possible to see the utility of certain physiological aspects in some religious beliefs or customs. I'm thinking of: Comfort to a soldier about to die, or succour for a mother on the death of her child or belief in the after life of a husband who is mourning the death of his wife? Such comfort or succour would be called upon particularly in cases where no human aid would be available?

Richard Dawkins

Yes, I do see psychological value, if it does have a real value, and I would not wish to be the person who destroys that person's psychological succour. But I would not, however, compromise with my public speaking out in the public forum and writing, but if I was visiting someone who was recently bereaved, I might dissemble somewhat in what I said, but would not do so in when writing a newspaper article.
It is also I think disputable whether it is that comforting, given that people are brought up to fear hell for example.
They might actually be comforted by the lack of religion, depending on their upbringing. Although many of us fear death, I think there is something illogical about it.
As Mark Twain once said "I was dead before I was born without the slightest inconvenience."

Nicholas Newman

Cannot religion, however misguided, also provide a useful social mechanism, irrespective of people's beliefs by reinforcing social discipline by using the power of religious sin to gain reinforce adherence to man made laws? E.g. Thou shall not kill? Of course such beliefs have, throughout history, been used by rulers to enforce their particular forms of governance, or lack of governance.
The best example of this aspect has, perhaps been emperors, kings, and popes claiming they have been appointed by a god?

Richard Dawkins

Yes, the first thing I say about that is that
the religious carrot or stick argument for being good i.e. god will punish you, or reward you, is not a very, in fact, is an ignoble reason for being good.
A moral philosopher could write down a better set of reasons for being good. Being cynical, one could say, people need the carrot and the stick to be good. I told – retold in my book 'The God Delusion' the anecdote by Steven Pinker, when, in 1969, police went on strike in Montreal.

Nicholas Newman

Oh you mean when police officers staged a 16-hour strike in Montreal, which led to a wave of rioting and looting, which was only ended when the army was brought in, because nobody had anything to fear from the Police?

Richard Dawkins

So you might say if God was suddenly abolished, it would be like a police strike; people would go on a rampage of immorality. Yet, it does make me wonder how sincere many of these rioters were; I suspect many would say they were religious. It looks like the real flesh and blood Police acted as a real deterrent. I find that impressive, as a Darwinian I think many of us, do have a built in morality, just like we have sexual desire built into us, from our Darwinian past, we do feel a sense of justice, fairness, empathy and sympathy for people in trouble or suffering.

These are all very powerful emotions, which I am almost sure have nothing to do with religion. Like the grief you feel vicariously when consoling someone who is bereaved or the sense of monstrous injustice one feels for a person who has been framed for a crime that he did not commit. These are all emotions that a naive interpretation that humans are selfish should not be expected and yet it is there, in all of us, whether or not we are religious.

Nicholas Newman

I was asking about the role of religion in reinforcing the laws of society. In respect of your answer it is hard to draw such conclusions from such a short event which took place against a background of serious industrial disputes prior to the Montreal police strike. Surely such rioting would not have continued indefinitely, before the population would have restored order, to ensure the continuation of civil life?

Turning to the next question.
Do you not find it ironic, that many great scientists, well versed in the 'scientific method' still find it possible to maintain their religious beliefs?

Richard Dawkins

I am not sure that this is true today. For me the great watershed would have come with Darwin and I am utterly unmoved by the fact that Newton was religious. Anyone living before Darwin, one might expect to be religious. As for today,
if you find a great scientist who is religious, cross question him and ask if he actually believes in a supernatural intelligence that listens to your prayers and reads your thoughts and forgives your sins. Or whether he is like Einstein, who believed in using quasi religious language to express his feelings for his reverence for the wonders and mysteries of the universe.

Einstein liked to use the word of God to explain his reverence, while I don't. I think today to use God in this sense is confusing, but was less confusing in Einstein's time. But nevertheless, there are a few scientists who are full blown religious in their beliefs and believe in the sense of the Trinity, transubstantiation etc, and I think they are rather few. I think such scientists are an anomaly, I think it must be possible for the human mind to compartmentalize in a way I would find difficult in my head. Though, if I really try, I suspect I would find other ways of compartmentalizing such idea in my brain.

Nicholas Newman

I could not agree more. Though, when I recently interviewed Bjorn Lomborg, Bjorn accepts the reality of climate change, but he questions the proposals put forward by environmentalists with a scientific background, who put forward their solutions as if they were religious dogma, and thereby not subject to vigorous scientific analysis.

At your recent talk at the Oxford Literary Festival,
you expressed your sorrow at the popularity of pseudo science at the expense of real science. Would you not agree that much of the blame can be laid at the influential people and writers who dominate the media, and seem even proud that they can boast that they are ignorant of science?

Richard Dawkins

I fully agree there are such people, though I am not sure that the popularity of pseudo science like homeopathy and UFO's can be blamed on them. Are those people interested in pseudo science really influenced by the influential people and writers who dominate the media?

Nicholas Newman

I was thinking of people like Prince Charles, as an exponent of homeopathy for instance.

Richard Dawkins

I certainly believe that if those people who love pseudo science needed an intellectual justification they could find it amongst the literati. Though, I am not sure, but they no doubt foster a kind of climate where such opinion is favoured, and where your opinion is as good as mine. Where questioning of pseudo science is frowned upon.

Nicholas Newman

Why are there so few good communicators of science like you, Jacob Bronowski, Bjorn Lomborg, Carl Sagan and Peter Atkins who have the gift to express clearly the joys of science?

Richard Dawkins

I love there to be more – there are more probably – but many don't bother to leave the comfort of their labatories to express themselves. I wish more would. Perhaps we should think of an inducement to do so. Perhaps the scientific culture should value those who express themselves to lay people.

Nicholas Newman

The trouble is science, unlike the media, has not attracted the people to join the scientific world that are clever persuasive communicators?

Your wife has played an important role in your academic life?

Richard Dawkins

Yes, my wife, Lalla Ward does play an important part in my work. She participates in the production of audio books, and the public talks I give about my work, in fact we act as a double act. I think the audiences like the double act, at least it prevents them going to sleep. She has taught me how to speak in public, read out aloud, and talks to the public. At home she acts as a copy editor who proof reads my work, checks when I repeat myself and makes it a more readable read.

Nicholas Newman

And finally. What is your next book about?

Richard Dawkins

It will be about the evidence for evolution.

Monday, June 23, 2008

'I despise Islamism': Ian McEwan faces backlash over press interview

by Independent

Thanks to Michael Murray for the link.

'I despise Islamism': Ian McEwan faces backlash over press interview

He defends fellow writer Martin Amis against racist charge and condemns religious hardliners

By Peter Popham in Rome and Thais Portilho-Shrimpton

The novelist Ian McEwan has launched an astonishingly strong attack on Islamism, saying that he "despises" it and accusing it of "wanting to create a society that I detest". His words, in an interview with an Italian newspaper, could, in today's febrile legalistic climate, lay him open to being investigated for a "hate crime".

In an interview with Guido Santevecchi, a London correspondent for Corriere della Sera, the Booker-winning novelist said he rarely grants interviews on controversial issues "because I have to be careful to protect my privacy". But he said that
he was glad to leap to the defence of his old friend Martin Amis when the latter's attacks on Muslims brought down charges of racism on his head.
He made an exception of the Islamic issue out of friendship to Amis, and because he shares the latter's strong opinions.

"A dear friend had been called a racist," he said.
"As soon as a writer expresses an opinion against Islamism, immediately someone on the left leaps to his feet and claims that because the majority of Muslims are dark-skinned, he who criticises it is racist.

"This is logically absurd and morally unacceptable. Martin is not a racist. And
I myself despise Islamism, because it wants to create a society that I detest, based on religious belief, on a text, on lack of freedom for women, intolerance towards homosexuality and so on – we know it well."

McEwan – author of On Chesil Beach and the acclaimed Atonement and Enduring Love – has spoken on the issue of Islamism before, telling The New York Times last December: "All religions make very big claims about the world, and it should be possible in an open society to dispute them. It should be possible to say, 'I find some ideas in Islam questionable' without being called a racist."

But his words in the Corriere interview are far stronger, although they do fall short of the invective deployed by Martin Amis. He has said "the Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order", and told The Independent's columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a Muslim, in an open letter:
"Islamism, in most of its manifestations, not only wants to kill me – it wants to kill you."

McEwan's interviewer pointed out that there exist equally hard-line schools of thought within Christianity, for example in the United States.
"I find them equally absurd," McEwan replied. "I don't like these medieval visions of the world according to which God is coming to save the faithful and to damn the others. But those American Christians don't want to kill anyone in my city, that's the difference."

But McEwan's specific irritation is reserved for those who find ideological grounds to condemn his and Amis's views. "When you ask a novelist or a poet about his vision regarding an aspect of the world, you don't get the response of a politician or a sociologist, but even if you don't like what he says you have to accept it, you can't react with defamation. Martin is not a racist, and neither am I."

Elsewhere in the interview McEwan serenely predicted the Balkanisation of the United Kingdom. "Great Britain is an artificial construction of three or four nations. I'm waiting for the Northern Irish to unite with the Irish Republic sooner or later, and also Scotland could go its own way and become independent."

Does the prospect disturb him? "No," he replied, "I think that at this point we should start to reflect on Englishness: this is the country of Shakespeare, of Milton, Newton, Darwin..."

To have your say on this or any other issue visit

Sunday, June 22, 2008

When times are tough, jump around

There is nothing quite like addiction for escaping the drab modern cult of being rational.
People who have never been properly chemically dependent on something tend towards the smug assumption that beating addiction is a matter of reason triumphing over unreason. You know for a fact that smoking will kill you. So every time you smoke, you must be following some irrational urge that could be stubbed out with just a bit more enlightened effort.

The problem, as smokers know, is that the armies of reason and unreason are not ranged in tidy rows ready to do chivalric battle for control of your behaviour. They have spies and fifth columns. When you try to quit, you find that unreason sneaks into the enemy camp in Trojan horses festooned with logic. 'I have not smoked for three days,' you think. 'Everyone says that is the hardest part, so I have proved I am capable of kicking this habit whenever I want. In fact, what better way could there be to demonstrate the completeness of my liberation than by having just one solitary cigarette and then resuming abstention?' Nonsense, of course, but strangely convincing in the thralls of a craving.

People like to think of themselves as little democracies, governed by microcosmic parliaments. Different courses of action are mooted and your reasonable mind goes with the best arguments. But the only way to beat addiction is to declare a state of mental emergency. You decide that not smoking is the law and you send a posse of jack-booted bullyboys to thrash with bars of iron will any thought that even contains the image of smoking, before it becomes fully conscious.

Amazingly, economists have taken a long time to realise that rationality is crippled with infiltration by irrationality. Models of behaviour have generally relied on Homo economicus, the hypothetical one-man democracy who measures his interests reasonably and then pursues them.
But thanks to the work of psychologists in the 1970s, reinforced by neuroscientists today, we know that Homo sapiens likes nothing more than getting one over the hapless economicus, even when it means acting against self-interest.
We are Captain Kirks feeling our way through space, grateful for the counsel of our inner Spocks - 'To have that extra pint instead of going home for an early night is illogical, Captain' - but always ready to overrule them.

A splendid example of the phenomenon is found in statistics published last week showing the biggest single monthly spike in retail sales since records began. It cannot have escaped the nation's notice that the economy is wobbly.

With house prices falling, petrol prices soaring and credit crunching, what, in May 2008, do you think the Great British public did with their dwindling cash reserves?
They blew them on toys. Next month's mortgage repayment went on giant flat-screen TVs, barbecues and iPods. Asda alone shifted 25,000 8ft bouncy castles. The best explanation economists came up with to explain the surge was May's mini-heat wave. The sun makes people optimistic and spendthrift.

When it comes to deciding a course of action, the contradictory impulses created by cosmic rays and glances at a bank statement do not compete evenly. They do not even come from the same part of our heads. In crude physiological terms, the contest is between our troglodyte selves - the recesses of the brain that haven't evolved in the last 100,000 years - and our modern selves - the bits of the brain where we calmly process data. There is a wealth of research proving that the caveman is adept at clubbing his 21st-century counterpart into submission. Stone Age man buys the HDTV ('Ugg! Shiny!), Digital Age man foots the bill.

Addiction, meanwhile, works by hijacking the primitive brain, making it send out frantic demands for gratification in defiance of what we rationally know to be good for us.

Since unreasonable behaviour (or perhaps we should call it pre-reasonable behaviour) is such an essential part of our being, I find it peculiar how little celebration it gets. In public debate, irrationality is always an insult. The Richard Dawkins school of militant atheism hurls it at clergymen and they, affronted, deny it. Faith, they usually say, offers transcendent truth, above the squalid materialist bickering between reason and instinct.

Or sometimes, like the Rev Dr Joanna Collicutt McGrath, co-author of The Dawkins Delusion, they argue that the human brain is hard-wired by evolution to make order of chaos, to create systems to explain the universe, of which God is the best. So faith, in that view, is either rational or, like the craving for a cigarette, a conspiracy of neurotransmitters which to our gullible consciousness feels rational.

Although science, theology and philosophy have furnished ammunition for arguments on each side, the options haven't changed for a good couple of centuries. On the one hand, irrational behaviour is cowardly surrender, a retreat from scientific truth into the arms of a make-believe Fairy King God. On the other hand, it is a misnomer, a slur by grumpy materialists on the unfathomable wondrousness of divine creation.

If neither the Dawkinsites nor the theists want irrationality on their side, I'll claim it for another, much larger, tribe: godless, confused, inconsistent, in awe of science, aspiring to be swayed only by evidence but often guided by hunch (or, if we're honest with ourselves, prejudice), scornful of organised religion, but capable of stubborn superstition, bumbling through the cosmos trying to be principled, bound to end up sometimes looking stupid - Homo modernus secularis.

This creature is, despite his unpredictability and his struggles with addiction, capable of profound wisdom when at his most irrational. Take the example of last month's spending spree. When the headlines are full of economic doom, when the bills are piling up and the piggy bank rattles near empty, when the future is desperately uncertain, what reaction could be more magnificently human, more inclined to make us celebrate our imperfect species, than the urge to stuff reason and spend our last pennies on an 8ft bouncy castle?

The wisdom of crowds - Wikipedia

emphasis by crabsallover

As online communities spread across the world, Wikipedia's knowledge-sharing can free us from poverty and ignorance

The world is rich with languages and cultures, and because of this some contemporary thinkers doubt the possibility of any genuine collaboration in pursuit of truth. Humans are portrayed as irrational captives to their background and identity, unable to be objective. I do not share this view.

Seven years ago, I founded Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia in which any reasonable person can join us in writing and editing entries on any encyclopedic topic. We are a charitable humanitarian effort to create and distribute a free high-quality encyclopedia to every single person on the planet. Already, we are the biggest, fastest-growing, and most popular general reference work in the world. Wikipedia attracts 683m visitors annually, with more than 10m articles in over 150 languages.

Today, there are around one billion people online. In the next five to 10 years, the next billion people will be joining the great global conversation by coming online to participate in blogs, mailing lists and, of course, Wikipedia itself. If we look beyond the languages of Europe plus Chinese and Japanese, most Wikipedia projects are small but fast growing. Where the German Wikipedia is today, with more than a half million articles, the Hindi and Swahili editions of Wikipedia will be in just a few short years.

If we were to take seriously the ideas of those who view all human activity through a lens of irrationalism and conflict, we would imagine that all of this would be impossible. But my experiences with Wikipedia have given me great optimism – optimism grounded in direct observation of the facts of reality – that

the vast majority of people around the world are comfortable with the idea of working hard to present facts objectively.

From Bangkok to Bogota, people can exchange ideas and share experiences. To the extent that we are thoughtful and reflective, we can learn from the best among us. To the extent that we are committed to reason and the non-initiation of force as fundamental organising principles for a free world, we can come together to create values that would be impossible for people dedicated to eternal class or ethnic conflict.

Some are concerned about the erosion of local culture in the face of a world of hyper-connectivity. But the evidence so far suggests that people everywhere are rational enough for this to take place when it is a good thing, and to not take place when it is a bad thing.

As people become more educated, more in tune with the idea that knowledge is a good thing, they tend to throw out the worst elements of their culture (such as rights violations and ignorant prejudice) and preserve that which has genuine value (such as science and art).

I believe we are already beginning to see the fruits of this change worldwide. China has been widely, and properly, criticised for their extensive censorship of the internet, but it is not the criticism that is causing them to begin to dismantle that censorship. It is rather, I believe and hope, a growing understanding and appreciation for the power of a culture of communication both for prosperity, but also for the valid preservation of what is valuable in local culture.

In an effort to begin to resolve the long-standing Tibetan problem, China has recently committed, in partnership with the Louise T Blouin Foundation, $70m to Tibetan cultural preservation. In my view, this reflects a preliminary but increasing understanding on the part of the Chinese leadership that free expression, particularly of the type fostered by projects such as Wikipedia with a kind focus on a loving effort to share knowledge, will lead to a stronger China.

I hope that they will soon recognise the right of the Chinese-speaking people to assist in explaining China to the world by ending their ban on participation in Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is booming in the languages of the developing world. People are writing in their own languages. This is the opposite of the monolithic culture which would have been the product of a top-down broadcast-oriented media. One important fact about participatory media is that people will participate in their own ways, expressing and preserving the best things that they care about.

I advocate for the value of a universal encyclopedia which is accessible to everyone and which rationally puts forward the basic facts about various arguments and controversies in such a manner that newcomers to an issue can understand what the disagreement is about.

Don't tell me what to think, don't feed me one side of the story; give me actual facts and I will think for myself to decide. And I respect you as a human being enough to return the favour.

Wikipedia tends to be written by people who are significantly more educated than average, by people who are passionate about ideas, about getting it right. This is a good thing. Because thinking is not automatic, the avoidance of bias is not automatic. A ruthless precision in thinking is a great virtue in the project. And you have to bring that kind of precision because, unlike the comfortable writers of a classic top-down encyclopedia, you are likely to be contacted and challenged if you have made a flawed argument or based your conclusion on faulty premises. Such is the virtue of the marketplace of ideas.

On any Wikipedia entry, if you wonder who wrote it and why, you can click on the history tab and see every change made to the article and who made that change. You can visit that person's user page and ask them a question. You can, for the first time, directly engage in the validation of the work before you. Or, just as we are normally too busy to attend jury trials, you can take comfort in the fact that there is a process, a system, a genuine social design behind

the project which seeks to empower and preserve the possibility of improvement when there is an error.

The overall lesson of Wikipedia is one of great humanitarian opportunity and hope. Tyrants and politicians have traditionally divided us and pushed us into war. People have been enslaved and abused in countless horrific ways. Ignorance and poverty, which go hand in hand with totalitarianism and control, continue to be widespread. And yet it turns out that as

we have given a voice to millions of people with a mission to build "the sum of all human knowledge", nearly all of them are able to do so with kindness, compassion, and thoughtfulness.

Genuine collaboration is possible, and comes natural to us. Aristotle defined man as "the rational animal" and he was right. And when we set out in a spirit of genuine inquiry and respect for humanity, we can achieve great things. Each of us, coming to a project like Wikipedia for our own reasons, can help to build something that, I think, shows the promise of the future, our dreams of peace, to be within reach.

Jimmy Wales will be speaking at Technology of Tomorrow 08 on September 30 2008 at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

Discussion of religious questions now banned at UN Human Rights Council by Roy Brown

emphasis by Crabsallover
by Roy Brown, former president of the International Humanist and Ethical Union

The UN Human Rights Council is not allowed to judge religions, according to president Doru Romulus Costea of Romania. Criticism of Sharia law or fatwas is now forbidden.

This ruling follows attempts by the Egyptian and Pakistani delegates at the Council to silence criticism of human rights abuse in the Islamic world.

The representative of the Association for World Education, in a joint statement with the International Humanist and Ethical Union, had denounced the stoning to death of women accused of adultery and of girls being married at the age of nine years old in countries where Sharia law applies.

The speaker, David Littman, was interrupted by no fewer than 16 points of order and the proceedings of the Council were suspended for forty minutes when the Egyptian delegate said that “Islam will not be crucified in this Council” and attempted to force a vote on whether the speaker should be allowed to continue.

On giving his ruling after the break Council President Costea said that the Council

"is not prepared to discuss religious questions and we don’t have to do so". "Declarations must avoid judgments or evaluation about religion. … I promise that next time a speaker judges a religion or a religious law or document, I will interrupt him and pass on to the next speaker".

Litmann, who is also a representative for the World Union of Progressive Judaism, had been threatened before following a statement he made in January in which he had criticized the Hamas rocket attacks on Israel, a matter deemed irrelevant by the Council in the debate condemning Israeli incursions into Gaza. When stopped, Litmann had opined that “there is something rotten in the state of this Council”. For this, the WUPJ had been threatened with expulsion form the UN and its president summoned to appear before the NGO Committee in New York and forced to apologise.

In commenting on Monday’s events at a press conference on Wednesday 18 June, outgoing UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, said:

"It is very concerning in a Council which should be... the guardian of freedom of expression, to see constraints or taboos, or subjects that become taboo for discussion.”
She did not refer specifically to the incident in the Council on Monday but she pointed to treatment of homosexuals in many countries -- prosecuted as criminals in a number of Islamic and some other states -- as "fundamental" to debate on sexual discrimination around the world.
"It is difficult for me to accept that a Council that is the guardian of legality, prevents the presentation of serious analysis or discussion on questions of the evolution of the concept of non-discrimination,"

The affair has resulted in UN agency stories from AFP and ATS on 17 June, and again on 18 June from AFP, ATS, AP, Reuters, with quotes from President Costea, Louise Arbour. American Ambassador Warren Tichenor and Amnesty International.

The following comments on the events of June 16 at have been prepared by David G. Littman, NGO Representative of Association for World Education (AWE) and Roy W. Brown, Representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU).

Shipwreck of the Human Rights Council

At 4:40 pm on June 16, David G. Littman was given the floor by the president of the UN Human Rights Council, to deliver a joint statement for the AWE and IHEU under agenda item 8: Integrating the Human Rights of Women throughout the United nations system.

Within 22 seconds, he was stopped – on a ‘point of order’ – by the delegate of Egypt. The verbatim transcript lasting has been left exactly as it was spoken (less the 40 minute break) and it can be seen and heard on the UN webcast archive
by scrolling down to item 8 and the presentation by AWE..


At the Islamic summit in Mecca in December 2006,

the OIC decided to adopt a policy of zero tolerance against any perceived insults to Islam as part of their overall strategy of advancing the cause of Islam worldwide.
The measures agreed upon included creating an “Observatory” to monitor all reports of “Islamophobia”. Muslims throughout the world were to be encouraged to report any cases of perceived Islamophobia, however trivial. Cases submitted so far, for example, have included Muslims who have received “hostile glances”.

At that summit, two imams from Denmark presented the Danish cartoons (including some they had added themselves) and protests were then organised throughout the Middle East and elsewhere leading to a number of deaths and the burning of the Danish embassy in Beirut.

Plans were also put in place to seek changes in national and international law to provide additional “protection” for Islam. The battlegrounds were to include the European and national parliaments, and the UN, including the Human Rights Council. It was also proposed to move towards the creation of a new Charter of Human Rights in Islam, and the setting up of an Islamic Council of Human Rights to be based not on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but on Sharia law.

Fast forward 16 June 2008.

The Egyptian delegate to the Human Rights Council, Amr Roshdy Hassan, saw an opportunity to wrong-foot the Council by attacking the statement by AWE/IHEU. Egypt had prepared their ground carefully, breaking protocol by arranging to receive advance copies of our statements, and finding in our statement on violence against women exactly what they were looking for. David Littman with whom they had quarrelled in the past was to be the speaker, the statement made explicit reference to Sharia law, whilst the Egyptian complaint was likely to be seen by Western delegates as a further attempt to silence a particularly vocal critic. The OIC however would present the statement as a clear attack on Islam, and by forcing a vote would, in the eyes of the Islamic world, have exposed those who voted in favour of the statement being allowed to continue, as being “anti-Islamic”. In the words of Amr Roshdy Hassan, they “will have to face the consequences”.

In making his case however, Hassan stretched the truth almost beyond breaking point. He claimed that the first paragraph speaks about Egypt and Sharia law. In fact it makes no mention of the Sharia. He claimed that the second paragraph talks about Sudan, Pakistan and Sharia law. It too makes no mention of Sharia.
Unfortunately, none of the other delegates had copies of the statement and were therefore unable to give the lie to these claims.
The implication of the Egyptian complaint is that it is not necessary for Sharia law to be mentioned explicitly.
It is enough that a speaker criticises any human rights abuse sanctioned by the Sharia to be accused of insulting Islam and being forced to stop.
The third and fourth paragraphs of the statement do however mention the Sharia specifically, in connection with the marriage of girls as young as nine years of age, and the stoning of women to death for adultery, in States that apply Sharia law. This was what clearly part of what Egypt had hoped to suppress.

The temperature was raised even further when the Pakistani delegate Imran Ahmed Siddiqui speaking for Pakistan said in another point of order that

the statement “will amount to spreading hatred against certain members of the Council”.

When Hassan, called for a vote, saying he would not see “Islam crucified in the Council”, the President wisely called for a five minute adjournment “in order to seek a better judgement”.

But forty minutes later when proceedings resumed the President’s final ruling was seen to be a complete capitulation to the Egyptian demands. He said: “The Council is not prepared to discuss religious questions and we don’t have to do so. Declarations must avoid judgments or evaluation about religion”.

Egypt and the OIC had achieved a major objective. But their secondary objective - to be able to present Canada, the EU and other Western States as anti-Islamic – that will have to wait for another day.

The full transcript together with the full text of the AWE/IHEU statement is is given below.

Verbatim transcript

United Nations Human Rights Council
8th Session (2 to 18 June 2008). Agenda item 8:
Follow-up and implementation of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action: Integrating the human rights of women throughout the United Nations system (§141)

Proceedings from 16:40 to 18:05, Monday, 16 June 2008

Joint statement by the Association for World Education and the International Humanist and Ethical Union. Speaker: AWE representative David G. Littman.

AWE / IHEU: Mr. President. In the context of integrating the human rights of women throughout the United Nations system, we wish to draw attention to four examples of widespread violence against women that we believe merits far greater attention from the Council.
1. Regarding FGM, we are making available our detailed written statement. [gavel]


President (Ambassador Doru Romulus Costea of Romania): We have a point of order. Egypt, you have the floor Sir.

Egypt:[Amr Roshdy Hassan] Thank you, Mr. President. Mr. President, I have a copy of this statement by the speaker1. It is identical to the one made in December2, to which I made five points of order, to which you ruled…that you warned the speaker in December that this would be the last warning. The first paragraph, you talk about Egypt and the Sharia law3. In the second paragraph you talk about Sudan, Pakistan and the Sharia law4. The third and fourth paragraphs are on the Sharia law. So I don’t know what is the point of making him continue his statement while we know it will be objective [sic] and while we know that the president made a ruling on the same statement in December5. If we have no time to come on something new, then we shouldn’t speak. Thank you”

President: Thank you. I have a… Do I see any other requests from the floor on this matter? Pakistan, you have the floor.

Pakistan: [Imran Ahmed Siddiqui] Thank you very much Mr. President. Mr. President, the voices which we hear in this Council and the issues they raise are not unfamiliar. There is an agenda behind it and you have already given a ruling on the discussion of Sharia law in this Council6. We have strong objections on any discussion, any direct or indirect discussion, any out of context, selective discussion on the Sharia law in this Council. I would therefore request the president to exercise his judgement and authority and request the speaker not to touch issues which have already been debarred from discussion in this Council. Thank you very much, Sir.

President: The distinguished representative of Slovenia

Slovenia: Thank you Mr. President. I would remind both colleagues from Egypt and from Pakistan, this is a separate Council session. Any NGO representative has the right to make a statement within the merits of the agenda item under discussion. We see the statement being made pertaining within the purview of the agenda item and we don’t see grounds for any restricting censorship in that respect. I thank you Mr. President.

President: Thank you. Distinguished representative of Egypt

Egypt: Mr. President, through you Sir, please Sir, I would humbly and kindly ask my colleague from Slovenia to reconsider. What we are talking now about is not about the right of NGOs to speak but about the Sharia law and whether it is admissible to discuss it in this Council. I appeal to my colleague from Slovenia not to accept any discussion of the Sharia law in this Council because it will not happen. And we will not take this lightly. This is not about NGOs participation in the Council. Before the speaker… before that, one spoke as freely as we want on sexual orientation, gays and lesbians, yes, because they see it under the VDPA (Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action) and they have been touching on the VDPA and nobody objected. This is not about NGOs and their participation in the Council. This is about the Sharia law. So I appeal to our colleagues not to get us there because we will stay there and it’s a good omen that we have these beautiful machines with us here because we will need them. [While concluding, he waves the small ‘voting’ machine in the air, triumphantly.] Thank you.

President: Thank you. I don’t see requests. [He looks up and sees a delegate signalling for the floor. We cannot see who it is on the video – perhaps Iran, which is not a member]. You do not have the right of point of order Sir, you are not a member of the Council, with all due respect… Pakistan.

Pakistan: Mr. President, very respectfully I would like to state again that this is not the forum to discuss religious sensitivity. It will amount to spreading hatred against certain members of the Council. I mean, it has happened before also that selective discussions were raised in the Council to demonise a particular group. So we would again request you to please use your authority to bar any such discussion again, at the Council. Thank you very much.

President: I think that we are going downwards on quite a slippery slope here. Personally, I see two issues. One is whether we should or not discuss religious issue in a debate under the Vienna Declaration. Two is whether we shall exercise a sort of pre-emptive move against statements that may be, or may not be heard in this room… Canada.

Canada: Thank you Mr. President. We are having a general debate on the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. The issues that are being raised here fall entirely within the scope of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. They concern rights. We consider it entirely appropriate that the NGO in question be permitted to continue. If we were, all of us, to not repeat anything that we had said before in a Council session, the sessions would be an awful lot shorter than they actually are. Thank you, Mr. President.

President: Egypt and then Slovenia.

Egypt: Mr. President, I am not speculating. I have a copy of this statement. I have listened carefully to the first paragraph. I did not interrupt. I tell you it was clear that the copy that I have in my hand. I am telling my colleagues from Canada and Slovenia so that everyone will bear the consequences, that this statement is about the Sharia law. I don’t want anybody to say that they didn’t know in advance. I have a copy here. If anybody doesn’t believe me they can take a look at the statement. This statement will not be read in this Council without a vote. Thank you.

President: I would very kindly suggest that we sort of take a break. And come back in five minutes, in order to seek a better judgement. This meeting is suspended. [gavel].


[About 40 minutes later the meeting continued.]

President: Thank you for your understanding. We will resume and I will…there was also another request for the right of a…for a point of order that I have inadvertently missed. The delegation of Iran, you have the floor, Sir. [Iran is not a member of the Council]


Iran: Thank you Mr President. Actually I requested the floor for raising the point of order in support of what has been said by Egypt and by Pakistan, but apparently it was not acceptable so that was all. Thank you.

President: Thank you. Well, I hereby say that it was accepted and this is why I said I inadvertently missed it. I apologise to you for this procedural faux pas. Ladies and gentlemen, no need to hide behind whatever, so I will just ask your attention. Let me recall that before we suspended this meeting I made a remark and that remark has two points. One of the points was a warning on what the debate in this Council should not – repeat, should not – slip into. I warned, and I think I am in agreement with all of you here, that this Council is not prepared to discuss matters…religious matters in depth. Consequently we should not do it. I would like to recall what I said in a previous session, and it is in our record, on the 13th of March. “As long as a statement…made with restraint from making a judgement, or evaluation of a particular set of legislation, which is not in the point of our discussion, the speaker may continue.” It was among… within a circumstance that was quite similar as the same in which we are today. Having said that, I will give back the floor to the representative of the NGO in question, with the understanding that as long as the statement will restrain from making a judgement or evaluation of any particular set of legislation which is, indeed, not the point of our discussion, this statement may continue. Distinguished representative of Egypt, you have the floor.

Egypt: Thank you, Mr. President. Now you have made your ruling we will listen attentively to the statement. At the first attempt to link any bad practices to a certain religion, in any way, we will reply to your ruling. Thank you.

President [showing indignation]: Thank you… May I say for the record as well, that I was in much more comfortable positions …in this chair … than this position … when … a statement of mine is challenged point blank…Thank you. You have the floor, Sir.


AWE / IHEU: Thank you very much, Mr. President. Regarding FGM, our detailed written statement discusses the reasons why 96% of Egyptian women are still subjected to FGM despite State legislation in 1997 outlawing the practice. “Almost 90% of the female population in the north of Sudan undergo FGM which, in many cases, is practised in its most extreme form known as infibulation” – we are quoting from the Report by the Special Rapporteur Halima Warzazi. UNICEF figures indicate that over 3 million young girls are mutilated each year in 32 countries, 29 of which are Member States of the OIC. We believe that only a fatwa from Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Sayyad Tantawi – replacing the ambiguous fatwas of 1949, 1951 and 1981 – will change this barbaric, criminal practice, which is now growing even in Europe. [Gavel – the president then gives the floor to Egypt for a point of order]


Egypt: Mr President, with all due respect I would like to challenge your ruling and according to rule 115 we should proceed to a vote now. This is an attempt to raise a bad traditional practice to Islam. Sheikh [of] Al-Azar is the president of the largest and the biggest and the oldest Islamic university in the world. This is not the understanding we had when you allowed this speaker to continue. I am afraid I will have no other option but to challenge your ruling regardless of the result of the challenge…of the rule [jabbing right forefinger on the desk].

President: I am sorry. I didn’t understand the last part.

Egypt: My last part, Sir, is that is regardless of the result of the vote, I couldn’t care less if I will win or lose this vote. My point is that Islam will not be crucified in this Council. That’s why we are challenging this ruling, and the result of the vote will be indicative to what all delegations think on this issue and it will be a matter of discussion later between the OIC and the other… our colleagues from other groups. Thank you.

President: All right. Let me have a look at what I have said and also have a look at what the speaker has just read.


[Meeting halted briefly and then resumed. The floor then given to Germany for a point of order.]

Germany: Mr. President, I would kindly, through you, ask the Egyptian delegation and its representative if I did understand in his last intervention…he seemed to have said, and I quote, and I apologise if I did not understand this correctly – my understanding was, quote: “Islam will not be crucified in this Council”. And I would like this statement confirmed and if it is confirmed I would ask you, Mr. President, whether you consider this appropriate with regard to the question of mentioning religion and its symbols?

President: Thank you. Before giving the floor to the Egyptian… distinguished…Egyptian delegate, I would kindly ask everybody … to take a deep breath. [light laughter]. Let’s try and get back to our normal mode, to our decent and reasonable approach of topics that are sensitive, sure [?]. Distinguished delegate of Egypt, you have the floor, Sir.

Egypt: Mr. President, abiding by the first and the second rulings you’ve made which are not different, in my opinion, I would ask to delete any references to the fatwa of Sheikh Al-Azhar [Grand Sheikh Sayyad Tantawi] and to delete all references to Sheikh Al-Azhar from this paragraph and from the official records of the meeting. Thank you.


[The president again gives the floor to the NGO speaker]

AWE / IHEU: “The Government of Pakistan vigorously condemns the practice of so-called ‘Honour Killings’ and that such actions do not find any place in our religion or law.” – this is a quotation from President Mussharaf on 28 April 2000. Yet this murderous practice seems to be on the increase in Pakistan and elsewhere – even in Europe in certain communities. It must be criminalised and the law strictly applied.
The stoning of women for alleged adultery still occurs regularly in Iran, Sudan and other countries. In Iran, they are buried up to their waists in pits and blunt stones are used thereby increasing their agony in death.
The marriage age for girls in Iran remains at 9 years old. In the year 2000, the Iranian Parliament attempted to increase the age to 14 but the law was overturned by the Council of Guardians. Last week … [The President recognized a point of order]


Iran: Thank you Mr President. With all respect to your rule and to yourself, Mr. President, the statement and the references made by this speaker in this statement is false and has nothing to do with the realities in my country. I just wanted, for the record… he said that…“the stoning of women for adultery still occurs regularly in Iran” – it’s not true, it is completely false, and is out of the question. Thank you.

President: Thank you. I thought you were asking the floor for a point of order, Sir, and it would have been granted to you. I think that what you said amounts to a right of reply – which is still a right you can exercise, if you request it, at the end of the consideration of this item. So I just wanted to highlight this situation to you. Cuba raises a point of order.

Cuba: Point of order in Spanish. [No translation on the webcast of this point of order.This is an unofficial translation.]
I’m not going to refer to the contents of what this gentleman said. In the first place, we are exposed to bad practices, which lead to stopping the procedures of the Commission [Council].
Also to the suspension of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action by this NGO, and
the introduction of item 4 issues of the Agenda [“country situations.”] I think he is off the agenda item [8] and its subject. He must stop his intervention. Please interrupt him and make him utilise item 4 which will come up in the September session [of the Council].
suggested that the matters under discussion should have been raised under item 4 of the agenda, and referred to the AWE speaker as having caused another NGO (meaning WUPJ) to lose its accreditation to the UN. In fact, although Cuba, representing the Non-Aligned Movement, had attempted to have WUPJ’s accreditation revoked, they had failed 10 days before]

President: Thank you. Before going on with the list of points of order, may I recall that a similar debate occurred in this Council some time ago and then we emphasised that in approaching item 8 which is the implementation of the Vienna Declaration and its programme of Action, we may refer to the way in which various rights in these documents are implemented – because this is what we are doing. Having said that, we cannot refer to these implementations in abstract. We agreed that it may be exemplified. So from this point of view, we have heard in this statement so far, two or three examples which would – to my reading – not qualify this statement as an item 4 statement. It is not a country situation. We have two requests of rights of…of points of order, Slovenia and Jordan. Slovenia.

Slovenia: Thank you very much, Mr. President. First I would like to clarify that the EU agrees with your ruling, that you have made, and I would also like to make clear that the EU is not linking in any way FGM with any religion or for that matter with Islam. Just for clarification, I would like to say this very clearly in this Council with regard to the last point of order we have heard, we again agree with the explanation you have just provided that, indeed, statements can be exemplified as long as they are linked to the agenda item at hand, and I would also like to reiterate that we are going to listen very carefully, with attention and with respect to any explanation that any delegation may wish to offer in replying to the statement being made or any other statements being made in the form of right of reply. I thank you very much.


(The webcast gives no intervention by Jordan, although Jordan did speak, but continues with the NGO speaker).

AWE / IHEU: Thank you Mr. President. Integrating the human rights of women throughout the United Nations System is part of item 8 under paragraph 140 [141]. I will conclude Sir.
Last week, Nobel Peace prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, speaking in Geneva, denounced the fact that in Iran a girl is considered an adult and liable to punishment, even execution at 9 and a boy at 15. She rejects the concept of cultural relativism, as does the French Secretary of State for Urban Affairs, Fadela Amara, who recently strongly criticised the ruling of a French judge in Lille for annulling a marriage between two Muslims because the girl lied about her virginity in the marriage contract. Ms. Amara rightly called this aberration – and I quote – “a real fatwa against the emancipation [first gavel] and the liberty of women. [second gavel]. Thank you Mr. President. I was quoting a Minister in France.


President: Your time is up, Sir.


[The meeting closed at 18:05. Duration: 85 minutes, including 40 minute suspension]


1. This text should not have been made available to any delegate before being presented. Speakers are asked to provides 25 copies for the secretariat (interpreters, etc.), which are not intended for delegates.
2 It is not. None of the statements delivered by the speaker in December 2007 were on this subject.
3 He may have confused the dates. Perhaps on January 24 when speaking for the WUPJ on Hamas and advised to stop by the president; or on March 26 when speaking for the AWE when he was interrupted on a ‘point of order’ five times (3 times by Egypt, once by Palestine, once by Iran) when speaking on a different subject.
4 Sharia law is not mentioned in this paragraph. (See below)
5 Nor in this paragraph.
6 The ruling that he is referring to was made on 13 March when the same Pakistani representative raised a point of order in a statement on behalf of IHEU by Roy Brown. He said: “It is an insult to our faith to discuss Sharia law in this forum”. The President on that occasion did not prohibit discussion of the Sharia, but said that as long as the speaker refrains from making evaluative judgements of any system of law, he may continue”..

Below is the text handed to the Council Secretariat prior to the speech, which was delivered more or less entirely by the speaker
[Passages in bold italics and brackets were ‘deleted’ after the warning from the president]

Mr President

In the context of integrating the human rights of women throughout the United Nations System, we wish to draw attention to four examples of widespread violence against women that we believe merit far greater attention from the Council.

1. Regarding FGM, we are making available our detailed written statement (*) The 1st interruption by the delegate of Egypt occurred here; 15 points of order followed, 7 by Egypt, and 11 replies from the president. [E/CN.4/Sub.2/2005/NGO/27: Background on “Traditional or Customary Practices” /Female Genital Mutilation and the Arabic text (& translations), certified by Al-Azhar University, the authoritative source for the Shafi’i school of Sunni law, widely adhered to in Egypt] which discusses the reasons why 96% of Egyptian women are still subjected to FGM despite State legislation in 1997 outlawing the practice [Sara Corbett, “A Cutting Tradition”, NYT, Sunday Magazine, 20 Jan. 2008].

“Almost 90% of the female population in the north of Sudan undergo FGM which, in many cases, is practised in its most extreme form known as infibulation” – we are quoting from the Report of Special Rapporteur Halima Warzazi [E/CN.4/Sub.2/2004/41, §24]. UNICEF figures indicate that over 3 million young girls are mutilated each year in 32 countries, 29 of which are Member States of the OIC. We believe that only a fatwa from Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Sayyad Tantawi – replacing the ambiguous fatwas of 1949, 1951 and 1981 – will change this barbaric, criminal practice, which is now growing even in Europe.

2. The number of “honour killings” is on the increase, worldwide. Ten years ago in 1998, there were a reported 300 cases of honour killings in one province of Pakistan alone [Mufti Ziauddin “Status of Court Cases for Murdered Women; and BBC film, Home programme, 8 April 2000.] On 28 April 2000, President Musharraf declared that “The Government of Pakistan vigorously condemns the practice of so-called ‘Honour Killings’ and that such actions do not find any place in our religion or law.” Yet this murderous practice seems to be on the increase in Pakistan and elsewhere – even in Europe in certain communities. It must be criminalised and the law strictly applied.

3. The stoning of women for alleged adultery still occurs regularly in Iran, Sudan and other [Muslim] countries [that apply Shari’a law]. In Iran, they are buried up to their waists in pits and [by law] blunt stones are used thereby increasing their agony in death.

4. The marriage age for girls in Iran remains at 9 years [based on Shari’a law]. In the year 2000, the Iranian Parliament attempted to increase the age to 14 but the law was overturned by the Council of Guardians, [claiming Quaranic justification] [“Islamic scholars have put a lot of efforts into these laws.”– “Iran Bill to End Marriage at 9. Guardian Consent Still Needed”, IHT, 10 August 2000] Last week, Noble Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi, speaking in Geneva, denounced the fact that in Iran a girl is considered an adult and liable to punishment, even execution at 9, and a boy at 15. [Le Temps, 10 June 2008]. She rejects the concept of cultural relativism, as does the French Secretary of State for Urban Affairs, Fadela Amara, who recently strongly criticised the ruling of a French judge in Lille for annulling a marriage between two Muslims because the girl lied about her virginity in the marriage contract. Ms. Amara rightly called this aberration “a real fatwa against the emancipation and liberty of women.” [Steven Erlanger, “Muslim minister tackles French suburbs: Blunt talker refuses to accept ‘injustices’”, Int. Herald Tribune, 14-15 June 2008]

Thank you Mr. President.

19 June 2008

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Jihad against free speech at United Nations human rights body

Woman follows in footsteps of religious leaders to address EU parliament

read report
listen to report

A historic precedent was set at the European parliament today. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom Religion or Belief, Mrs Asma Jahangir, addressed the European Parliament, much as religious leaders such as the Pope and the Grand Mufti of Syria have done.

Sophie in’t Veld MEP, Chair of the European Parliament Working Party for the Separation of Religion and Politics, said: "I welcome the European Parliament’s invitation to Mrs Jahangir. The religious leaders who have addressed the European Parliament have all been men, and so are not representative of their religious groups, far less of the population as a whole.

"They have not been asked to answer questions, hardly the open dialogue envisaged by the Treaty of Lisbon.

"It is essential that the European Parliament, and indeed all parliaments, remain secular institutions. Mrs Jahangir has bravely defended those of all religions and none to believe as they wish. This invitation to her goes some small way to redress the worrying drift away from secularity by the EU institutions.

"With this invitation, the European Parliament shows that intercultural dialogue should be inclusive and representative for Europe as a whole, and provide a broad platform for religious, secular and humanist voices alike."

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the (UK) National Secular Society, added: “Mrs Jahangir is a woman of great vision, integrity and courage. I hope that the Parliament listens to and heeds her sage words. Religious leaders tend to be much more extreme in their views than their flocks, which are rapidly diminishing in size in most parts of Europe. Religious leaders therefore represent the views of only a tiny minority of the European population yet are given disproportionate prominence in the European Parliament and Council of Europe.

Why reading should not be believing

The best thing about this job is you have an excuse to read the Daily Mail every day: but sometimes, out of the corner of my eye, I worry that it might infect me. We are all biased by the information we expose ourselves to, through our friends, our reading, and our choices in life.

I think science coverage is pretty poor, and a lot of it is plainly wrong.

Gary Schwitzer used to be a journalist, but now he has turned to quantitative analyses of journalism, and this month he published an analysis of 500 health articles from mainstream media in the US. The results were dismal.

Only 35% of stories were rated satisfactory for whether the journalist had "discussed the study methodology and the quality of the evidence": because in the media, as you will have noticed, science is about absolute truth statements from arbitrary authority figures in white coats, rather than clear descriptions of studies and the reasons why people draw conclusions from them.

Only 28% adequately covered benefits, and only 33% adequately covered harms. Articles routinely failed to give any useful quantitative information in absolute terms, preferring unhelpful eye-catchers like "50% higher" instead.

Was this new? No. The same thing has been shown in Canada and Australia, and in the US almost a decade ago. Does it matter? Yes. Regardless of what they say in surveys about trusting doctors and priests, and despising hacks, in reality, people listen to journalists. This is not idle speculation.

A 2005 study in the Medical Journal of Australia looked at the impact of Kylie Minogue's breasts on mammogram bookings. They rose by 40% during the two-week publicity peak, and six weeks later they were still up by a third. The increase among previously unscreened women in the 40-69 year age group was 101%. These surges were unprecedented.

Am I cherry picking? A systematic review from the Cochrane Collaboration found five studies looking at the use of specific health interventions before and after media coverage of specific stories, and each found that favourable publicity was associated with greater use, and unfavourable with lower.

And it's not just the public: medical practice is influenced by the media too. Coverage of a flesh-eating bacteria outbreak led to a massive increase in group A streptococcus screening in one accident and emergency department (from 55 to 103 per 1,000 visits).

But even academics are influenced by media coverage: a seminal paper from the New England Journal of Medicine in 1991 said that if a study was covered by The New York Times it was significantly more likely to be cited by other academic papers. But for three months large parts of the NYT went on strike. The journalists wrote stories about academic research which never saw the light of day. The research saw no increase in citations. People read newspapers.

Despite everything we think we know, their contents seep in, we believe them to be true, and we act upon them.

· Please send your bad science to

Welfare shouldn't be left to 'faith groups'

The government is trying to get religious bodies involved in the provision of services. In doing so, they're ignoring the lessons of history

Last week, the prime minister opened the doors of 10 Downing Street to a group representing "people of faith" and announced that the New Labour was moving into "new and exciting territory" as it pulls religion closer to the centre of political power.

Gordon Brown thanked the faith leaders profusely for the many projects they run that help disadvantaged people. "We're here to celebrate local projects that make such a difference, led by people of faith: changing the world, transforming communities and having an enormous ripple effect across the country", he said.

Indeed, many church organisations do carry out wonderful work with hard-to-reach people and they should be applauded for their efforts. But should they receive public money to do it? Surely the very definition of charitable work is that it is done and financed from the pockets of people of goodwill, not by the taxpayer.

More importantly, should these "faith groups" be invited to take on even more social and welfare work that has traditionally been done by secular local authorities and central government?

The Downing Street meeting came soon after the publication of a Church of England-commissioned report, Moral, But No Compass, that complained that "faith based welfare" was not appreciated by the government and that the Church of England must be given large amounts of money and a lot more influence immediately.

The Downing Street event, (a coincidence of course) marked the launch of a Labour consultation exclusively with faith groups, entitled Believing for a Better Britain, run by the government's new "faiths taskforce", chaired by Alun Michael MP.

The actual spadework on the consultation will be done by Malcolm Duncan of the Faithworks movement. This, you will remember, was set up by the Rev Steve Chalke to ensure that religious organisations play a big role in welfare provision,
and get lots of lovely public money to spend on their organisations.
Since then Faithworks has become more or less an arm of the government.

Malcolm Duncan, leader of Faithworks, aims to use the consultation "to hear first-hand the concerns of faith communities and those motivated by their beliefs, in order to reflect those concerns in the next manifesto."

Duncan will be, of course, impeccably objective. He tells us that:

People of faith are making a vital contribution to the United Kingdom. It is impossible to talk about community cohesion, joined up service delivery or strong and sustainable partnerships without understanding this. By acknowledging the distinctiveness of different faith groups, we are also able to harness their commonality. As the consultation with people of faith and belief gets under way, I am committed to ensuring that the listening process is honest, open and accountable. As the Labour party listens more closely to people of faith and belief, my hope is that it will discover again the amazing contribution of people of faith and belief.

So, it isn't as though Duncan has decided the outcome of the consultation in advance, or anything, is it? And no self-respecting taxpayer would begrudge the hundreds of thousands of pounds that it will cost to run this exercise in futility, the results of which are probably already written and at the printers.

Oh and look – here comes our old friend Stephen Timms MP, vice chair of the Labour party "with responsibility for faith".

Eh? Haven't we got a faith taskforce chair already in the shape of Alun Michael? Oh well, it seems we now have two Labour politicians for "faith". After all, there are so many "people of faith" in this country, that we really need two representatives to give them whatever they ask for … er, that is to say, look after their interests, don't we?

Timms also reassures us that the "faith consultation" is in no way the foregone conclusion and complete waste of time, money and effort that it seems to be. "This consultation gives us a tremendous opportunity to listen more closely to people whose starting point is faith", he says. "Far from being a narrow path of discourse, it opens a highway for Labour to listen and speak with those who are committed to making a collective difference in society and are determined to be a source of good. Under Malcolm Duncan's independent leadership, the consultation process will be a vital contributor to how Labour develops its policies and approach to working with people of faith."

Well, there we are then. A completely objective and open-minded consultation will be headed by the man with most to gain from coming out with a positive response about "the faith communities".

Duncan is a decent chap, and he means well. But he is pushing the country into something we are all going to live to regret. And most people seem completely unaware it's going on. Far from asking the "faith communities" whether they would like another great big chunk of money and privilege (naturally they think they deserve nothing less), this consultation ought to be opened up to the whole country. In the end, it's our money they're dishing out to the discriminators and proselytisers, but no one asked the punter in the street whether it should happen.

Faith-based welfare? Are the churches going to be permitted to do to hospitals and social services what they have done to schools? To turn them into hotbeds of injustice, favouritism, prejudice, discrimination and separation? Sectarian old-folks homes anyone? Catholic-only adoption services? Sikh-only housing associations? Muslim-only probation services?

We know where faith-based welfare leads. We've seen it in operation in Ireland and Scotland where we ended up with the Magdalene asylums. We have seen it in operation in Australia where it led to generations of aboriginal children being stolen from their families by the churches. And now the same thing has happened in Canada where the government apologised this week for handing over the children of the indigenous people to various church organisations in order for them to be "Christianised". All over the world, priests are on trial for grotesquely abusing children put in their care in the belief that faith-based welfare was automatically trustworthy and safe. In the US where faith-based welfare is institutionalised, it leads to unfettered bigotry that increasingly ends in acrimonious and distressing court cases.

The Bishop of Carlisle has already made clear that he does not wish to see any regulation of church welfare provision.

Duncan will tell us that it is different now. But is it? His Faithworks programme has come up with a charter that it asks its member organisations to sign. It expects them to promise not to discriminate against their staff on grounds of religion and not to restrict their services only to people they approve of.

All that is fine, but what about those religious groups that have not, and will not, sign the charter? The ones who constantly mewl about wanting to be exempted from human rights and equality legislation? Duncan, with his good intentions, is opening the door to the maniacs as well as the good guys.

But far more tragically, the government is aiding and abetting this without consulting anyone but those with a vested interest.

Where are the secularist Labour MPs in all this? Why aren't they as noisy and demanding as their Christian counterparts? Why don't they speak up for the unconsulted in all this and protest about what is happening?

Could it be that they support Brown's plan to divest the government of its social responsibilities? Does it imagine that it is OK to cast us to the wolves of religious charity that will, as soon as they are established, start to abuse their authority?

Christian charities should also realise that they risk putting their "ethos" at risk if they throw in their lot with the government. They may find themselves regulated in ways that they do not like, and then we have confrontations such as the one currently being engaged in by Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor. Last week he announced that he intends to defy the recently-introduced equality law and continue to discriminate against gay couples who want to access Catholic adoption services. The cardinal does not need to wait for any consultation to end. He obviously regards himself above the civil law.

We will have to see whether the courts – and Brown – agree with him. If they do, then the results of faith-based welfare will be bleak.

Kitchen Science at SCIENCE OXFORD

June 19, 2008 ·

From the Humanist Family Network yahoo group

Science in the Kitchen

A Family Event

at Science Oxford

Friday 29th August

10.30am – 12.30pm

booking form:

Opening Launch of Center for Inquiry London

NB. Stephen Law has accepted post to lead CfI in London.

February 4, 2008

Held at Conway Hall, London on 18th January 2008, CFI London's inaugural event proved very successful with leading lights from the British and American academic, skeptical, secular and humanist communities speaking and participating in discussions. Nearly 150 people attended the day and evening event, and included delegates from the British Isles, Scandanavia, Eastern and Western Europe and the US.

The theme of the Inaugural Conference was "Secularism in the Multicultural Society: The Civil Limits of Tolerance". The audience widely appreciated the contributions of speakers Joseph Hoffmann, Norman Bacrac, Paul Kurtz, Simon Glendinning, Norman Solomon, Daphne Hampson, Mark Vernon, Stephen Law, Azar Majedi, Julian Baggini, Ibn Warraq, Nigel Warburton, Peter Cave, and D.J. Grothe. The event which started at 11.00 am ended eleven hours later after a lively question and answer section undertaken by Professor Richard Dawkins who is the Honorary Chairman of CFI London's Advisory Board.

Also very well received was the South Place Ethical Society (SPES) event on 20th January at Conway Hall at which CFI representatives spoke. Ibn Warraq spoke on ‘The Origins of the Koran' and Professor Paul Kurtz spoke on ‘Secular Alternatives to Religion'. Over 100 delegates attended and participated in lively discussions throughout the day.

Several of the delegates to the above events have expressed their interest in further CFI London events and have indicated they wish to be involved with CFI London, and a number have expressed interested in volunteering.

Suresh Lalvani
Executive Director
Center for Inquiry London
2nd February 2008

Pharyngula is a great science blog by atheist PZ Myers.

by Point of Inquiry

PZ Myers is a biologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris and the author of Pharyngula, the most heavily-trafficked science blog online.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, P.Z. Myers explains the purpose and impact of his blog, and whether his priority is to advance science education or atheism.

He talks about what he sees as his roles in the scientific community and the atheist movement, and how related these roles are.

He explores the relationship between science and atheism, and argues that the more a public learns science, the likelier it is that they will become atheistic. And he talks about where a science educator's atheism fits in the classroom.

He also addresses the position of leading scientific organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academies of Science regarding evolution being compatible with religious belief, and their use of religious scientists as spokespeople, and he assesses their motivations and strategies to advance science to a largely religious American public.

Download the mp3 podcast