Thursday, 30 June 2011

Prophecy Fails, Atheists Laugh, But Faith Wins Again.

By Francis O'Regan

I was in the office just after the failure of Harold Camping’s latest end of the world prediction and I was having a good laugh with one of my spiritual opposites; one of the office's committed Christians. We were laughing about Harold Camping, the former civil engineer who controls the US based Family Network of Christian Radio stations who had been telling his millions of loyal listeners that the world would end on May 21st 2011. These followers put up at least 2,000 billboards around the United States warning of the Judgement Day.

So me, as the office Atheist, and him, as a child of Christ, were on the same side for once. Now we do love a good discussion anyway, but he was laughing at

Saturday, 25 June 2011

It’s a Kind of Magic!

A blog post by Patrick Redmond

I am nought but a pattern recognising monkey. Skeptics know all too well how easily we can be fooled. How our brains, albeit it the pinnacle of primate evolution, are not in fact faultless processors of cognitive and sensory information, but more akin to a ZX81 linked up to a £15 digital camera from down the market and an old ear trumpet. Just to get by and handle everything that’s thrown at it, your brain takes a whole load of shortcuts and is susceptible to many different forms of manipulation and persuasion from society, individuals and our own imagination.

When I first wandered into the skeptical arena I noticed two distinct strands that compliment and contribute to the sphere, science and magic. I’m not sure if skeptics are allowed to have heroes or raise people on too high a pedestal, but if I was to take a very unscientific straw poll asking people to name the two most prominent figures associated with the movement, you would get Carl Sagan and James Randi right up at the top, a scientist and a magician.

 Both disciplines bring their own tools to bear in the fight against pseudoscience and the promotion of critical thinking. Scientists can push forward our knowledge by uncovering the secrets that the universe holds through leaps of imagination backed up by trial and data, but what about magicians what can they do? They are the people best placed to challenge those frauds that take advantage of our natural disposition to be fooled. From Houdini’s debunking of self proclaimed psychics up to Randi’s interactions with such people as Peter Popoff and would-be claimants of the $1,000,000 Challenge, supporting the old adage, about setting a thief to catch a thief.

This is great for me as I love science and I love magic so getting involved in something that incorporates both is brilliant.  In Sleights of Mind, neuroscientists Steve Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde turn the scientific scrutiny of their profession onto the mechanisms and art of the magician. They show how an understanding of how the brain works can illuminate the practice of magic and indeed vice versa. How magicians exploit the gaps and glitches in the functioning of the human brain and can actually point us towards interesting roads of study and exploration.

This is a great book that is a whole lot of fun to read. You also get the idea that it was a whole lot of fun to research and write, have a look at their website later. This isn’t a throw away topic for this couple and if you listen to their interview on our podcast you can hear just how serious they are about this and their work in sensory illusions too. They immerse themselves in magic and meet some of the greatest living magicians in the world in their quest, including James the Amazing Randi himself who has no problem in seeing the potential of what they are doing.

The book does explain some of the secrets behind the tricks but you don’t have to read those bits if you don’t want to as they are marked out with spoiler alerts; I know you will though. The explanations are often linked to references for videos on the Internet, demonstrating the tricks described. The great thing is that even when you know how it’s done, you can still get fooled. Rather than detracting from the mystery, for me at least, it heightened the appreciation of what I was seeing, or in most cases not seeing. I enjoyed the book immensely as it was simultaneously entertaining and enlightening. It provides insights and explanations that are fun and surprisingly practical. For instance I no longer feel guilty for not noticing my wife has changed her top and I think I understand why I left the butter in the washing machine. I also might be prepared for the next person to phone up asking me to switch energy providers or help them shift $1,000,000 from Nigeria.

I’ll leave you with a video of Apollo Robbins,one of the magicians that they work with, for your entertainment. Watch how he pulls his victim's attention all over the place like he has it on a piece of string. Then for your further pleasure listen to my conversation with the authors here and buy the book here.

 Patrick Redmond - Born in Stoke and moved the vast distance to live in Birmingham. He is one of the organisers of Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Image Consciousness

A Blog Post by Patrick Redmond

 This was going to be a simple blog post promoting my recent interview with the author of the Jesus and Mo comic on our podcast. My original plan was to reproduce an example of the strip on the site, but if you scan down the page you’ll see that this hasn’t happened, and I’m finding myself increasingly annoyed by this fact. The reason ties in with the whole controversy over depicting Mohammed, although the cartoon in question claims to show a body double of Mohammed in a tongue in cheek circumvention of the issue.

When I mentioned my plan to some people there was a little intake of breath and a look of uncertainty. Imprinted on their minds are the scenes of Muslims marching down streets bearing placards calling for the beheading of cartoonists that satirise Islam. There was concern that it might not be the wisest thing to do, that there may be implications for families  and so I’ve not done it. But this really really irks me. And so with some shame, along with such luminaries as the producers of South Park

Saturday, 4 June 2011

John Baskerville (1706-1775) Dandy, Spy, Printer, Atheist?

By Francis O'Regan

There has been a long history of skeptical thought and enquiry in Birmingham. One of those thinkers was a Birmingham entrepreneur called John Baskerville who is most famous for the publishing house he set up in later life and for his work on designing new fonts and dies for use in his press. He is less celebrated for his objection to revealed religion.

I like John Baskerville. I can see him now, resting against the bar at the back of our Skeptics in the Pub meeting room in the Victoria, one hand holding a pint while the other toys with the gold lace on his red waistcoat. I think he would have been ready with a barbed but insightful comment rounded off with a quote from Voltaire.  Our fellow skeptic was born in 1706 in the village of Wolverley, nr. Kidderminster where it's believed he may have gone to the Grammar School. By the time of his death in 1775 he had