Monday, November 30, 2009

50 Voices of Disbelief on 2009 Tree of Knowledge :)

Just saw this on facebook :). Nice.

Members of the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia erect the third annual Tree of Knowledge on the south lawn of the Chester County Courthouse.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Farewell Borders

The bookseller Borders went into administration in the UK today (I assume its operations in other countries are not - yet - affected). I truly regret that this happened. I loved their stores. When they came onto the scene (outside the US that is), I lived in Melbourne. There was a big outcry by the literati and the snobbish published opinion that is alive and kicking in that city. Their big stores would kill small independent booksellers and all that. To be honest, I don't know whether small independent booksellers didn't make it as a result of Borders creating their massive store in Melbourne. I'm not sure I care a great deal, especially given that Borders served customer needs more efficiently. The store was fantastic. The first bookstore I had ever seen that had a coffee shop (yes, sadly Starbucks, but hey). So you'd browse books before deciding whether you'd buy them (try that on Amazon). They organised readings by great authors. Most importantly, they had a breathtaking selection of magazines and newspapers, both Australian as well as international. If you were interested in progressive politics, probably Borders was the only place offering you a huge selection of magazines and papers, both mainstream as well as distinctly warped stuff that I never saw in any other newsagent... I loved the place!

When I went to Glasgow some years later (work again), to my delight I found a superb Borders shop on the high street. Again, a lovely coffee shop inside (mind you, at the time the competition had realised that this brings customers into shops, so they all had them, too), the usual magnificent selection of magazines. The particular Glasgow store was price winning, the building was stunning... it seems it all was too expensive. The photo I include with this blog entry shows the back entrance of the Glasgow store. The idea behind Borders was brilliant to my mind.

RIP Borders.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Preserve the planet, eat fewer animals says... the UK government

Here's a not so new take on the animal ethics debate. What makes it newsworthy is that it is underwritten by the UK government. In a nutshell, the argument is that we should reduce the number of animals we produce in the context of generating food for us. The UK government experts conclude that a 30% reduction should have a significant positive impact on global warming. Here's the gist of the study as reported in today's Evening Standard:

'Scientists behind the report also hope the move will mean a dramatic reduction in the beef, lamb and pork consumed in households across Britain. It is aimed at helping to cut the UK's carbon emissions by 50 per cent by 2030, in line with current targets.

Recent UN figures suggest that meat production is responsible for about 18 per cent of global carbon emissions, including the destruction of forest land for cattle ranching and the production of animal feeds such as soy.

On average, a British person currently eats 50g of protein derived from meat each day - the equivalent of a chicken breast or a lamb chop.

The report, entitled Health and Climate Change and which will be published in The Lancet today, says: "If [a 30 per cent reduction in livestock] translates into reduced meat consumption, the amount of saturated fat consumed would drop sharply, which would have positive effects on health through reductions in heart disease."'

So, even if you don't buy into the argument that we should not force sentient beings (such as higher mammals) unnecessarily (we can live healthier without eating them), there's an argument from environmental necessity and from moral responsibility to leave a livable planet behind for future generations.

In unrelated news, religious folks in Nepal - Hindus, I'm told - have begun their traditional animal massacre whereby about 250,000 (!!!) animals including sheep, goats, cows etc are being slaughtered in a major bloodbath for the purpose of ... well, something with Gods and blablabla.

More Science by Press Release - the wrongly diagnosed PVS patient

I'm sure you've seen it on TV. A man was reportedly misdiagnosed as being in persistent vegetative state (PVS) and ones a brilliant scientist discovered that he wasn't he began communicating with the folks around him. The thing is though, according to the very same media reports he's unable to speak, or move any part of his body (and that includes then, of course, his arm, fingers etc). Well, if you watched the same reporting that I saw you will have seen him writing the story of being trapped in his motionless body on a touchscreen computer. His motionless body (in this case a finger) was kindly guided by a woman who held his hand and tipped the letters on the screen.

Really? How did she know which letter to tip? If the facts that have been reported in the papers and on TV are correct, he would not have been in a position to actually tell the woman in any way which letter to touch on the computer touch screen. Despite this glaring question-mark, swallowed whole by gullible journalists, serious questions remain about the misdiagnosis of patients believed to be in PVS. The doctor who claims to have discovered this misdiagnosis has not actually published any details about the case, so we need to take him on his word as opposed to scientific evidence - hence science by press release. This all matters, because the story in question gains much of its power from the patient's reported recollection (typed kindly by someone else's helping hand) of how life was for his mind trapped but fully conscious in his body.

It goes without saying that the Christian ethics crowd has happily exploited this case for its own agenda. Wesley J Smith who can be relied on to twist facts according to whatever it is that suits his employer's (neocon 'non-partisan' yet happily creationist 'think tank' Discovery Institute) ideological agenda declared that training permitted the patient to begin typing - well, according to the same evidence that he and I have access to, this is patently untrue. Catholic bioethics writers were all too happy to accept the story at face value because it suited their ideological interests. The less said the better.

Science by press release (and family video, in this case) is not a good thing, no matter what ideological side you happen to be on!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Civilisation: 1 - Jamaica: 0 - Beenie Man concerts cancelled

Latest result in the ongoing match between Jamaica and civilisation. We won, Jamaica lost. Here from a circular Peter Tatchell just posted:

Beenie Man concerts axed in Australia & NZ

Big Day Out organisers faced storm of protest

Tour cancellation sends warning to all murder music singers

Beenie Man incited the murder of lesbians and gays

London, UK - 16 November 2009

All of Beenie Man's Australian and New Zealand concert dates have been cancelled. This follows protests by gay rights groups, including the Australian Coalition for Equality. It also follows representations to the tour organisers by Peter Tatchell of OutRage!, acting on behalf of the international Stop Murder Music campaign.

"These concert cancellations will hit Beenie Man hard in the pocket. He has lost tens of thousands of dollars. The success of this campaign sends a warning message to all murder music artists: inciting homophobic violence will cost you money. You will lose out big time," said Mr Tatchell.

Beenie Man had been scheduled to perform in January 2010 at Big Day Out concerts in the Australian cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth and in the New Zealand city of Auckland.

The organisers have now confirmed that he will not be in the concert line-up:

For more information about the concert cancellations in Australia, contact Big Day Out organiser, Susan Forrester, in Melbourne: 00 613 9820 4677 and

Ms Forrester contacted Peter Tatchell of the gay rights group OutRage! seeking his advice on whether to go ahead with the Beenie Man booking.

Mr Tatchell replied to her, urging Big Day Out to cancel Beenie Man's concerts. He wrote to Ms Forrester as follows:

"Beenie Man is clearly unrepentant. He has never apologised for urging the killing of gay people. In fact, he put out a statement and hit song called 'I no apologise'. You would not consider hosting Beenie Man if he was a white racist singer who had called for the murder of black people. You would dump him. There should be no double standards when it comes to singers who incite homophobic violence," wrote Mr Tatchell.

"Beenie Man is one of Jamaica's leading reggae stars. He has had hit tunes which incite the murder of lesbians and gay men. It is a tragedy that he has not used his undoubted musical talent to promote the true reggae message of justice, harmony, peace and love.

"Although Beenie Man made an agreement to cease his murder music, he has since reneged and denounced the agreement. He went on to release a song: 'I no apologise,'" confirmed Mr Tatchell.

In his hit tune Damn, Beenie Man sings: "I'm dreaming of a new Jamaica, come to execute all the queers."

Another of his popular recordings, Bad Man Chi Chi Man (Bad Man Queer Man), instructs listeners to kill gay DJs and boasts that people would gladly go to jail for killing a queer:

"If yuh nuh chi chi (queer) man wave yuh right hand and (NO!!!) / If yuh nuh lesbian wave yuh right hand and (NO!!!) / Some bwoy will go a jail fi kill man tun bad man chi chi man!!! / Tell mi, sumfest it should a be a showdown / Yuh seem to run off a stage like a clown (Kill Dem DJ!!!)".

Chi Chi Man is a very offensive Jamaican patois homophobic slang insult, equivalent to the insulting words queer, poof and faggot.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Promises, promises, promises - when will Rupert Murdoch DO as opposed to promise

Rupert Murdoch, proprietor of right-wing propaganda outlets such as the SUN and New York Post newspapers, and not to forget Fox 'News' promised the world that he would remove content from these and his other media from google. I think that's excellent news.

There is always the risk that accidentally I click a link found on google news and suddenly find myself on a New International site, thereby being inadvertently subjected to News Corp propaganda as opposed to actual news. If Rupert was to remove this challenge in order to charge (laughter) for access to his agitprop, he would do the world a BIG favour. Please Rupert, go for it...

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Pfizer is at it again

I am reproducing a news wire from AP that I came across today. Watch out for the publication of the analysis in the New England Journal of Medicine. As ever Pfizer is the culprit. No wonder they are busy sponsoring ever more bioethics positions... unsurprisingly there are also happy takers among universities. I sometimes wonder whether there is any kind of cash that they would not take! Interesting that Pfizer's spin doctors would describe the peer reviewed publication in the leading medical journal as unable to pass the threshold of 'credible scientific research'. Clearly the reviewers and lawyers the journal employed to determine the value of the report thought differently.

First, here are the findings from the abstract of the report: 'We examined reporting practices for trials of gabapentin funded by Pfizer and Warner-Lambert's subsidiary, Parke-Davis (hereafter referred to as Pfizer and Parke-Davis) for off-label indications (prophylaxis against migraine and treatment of bipolar disorders, neuropathic pain, and nociceptive pain), comparing internal company documents with published reports. Results We identified 20 clinical trials for which internal documents were available from Pfizer and Parke-Davis; of these trials, 12 were reported in publications. For 8 of the 12 reported trials, the primary outcome defined in the published report differed from that described in the protocol. Sources of disagreement included the introduction of a new primary outcome (in the case of 6 trials), failure to distinguish between primary and secondary outcomes (2 trials), relegation of primary outcomes to secondary outcomes (2 trials), and failure to report one or more protocol-defined primary outcomes (5 trials). Trials that presented findings that were not significant (P≥0.05) for the protocol-defined primary outcome in the internal documents either were not reported in full or were reported with a changed primary outcome. The primary outcome was changed in the case of 5 of 8 published trials for which statistically significant differences favoring gabapentin were reported. Of the 21 primary outcomes described in the protocols of the published trials, 6 were not reported at all and 4 were reported as secondary outcomes. Of 28 primary outcomes described in the published reports, 12 were newly introduced.'

Here the AP summary as well as the usual talking head one-liners toward the end, exasperation and all...

'Analysis of a dozen published studies testing possible new uses for a Pfizer Inc. epilepsy drug found that reporting of the results was often misleading, indicating the medicine worked better than internal company documents showed.

According to the report, when a company-funded study's primary finding wasn't favorable, that result was usually buried and something else positive was highlighted, without disclosing the switch.

The documents used in the review were obtained by lawyers suing Pfizer for refunds on prescriptions paid for by insurers and consumers. The lawyers, who are seeking class action status for the cases, claim Pfizer concealed evidence the epilepsy drug Neurontin didn't work for those unapproved uses, including nerve pain, migraines and bipolar disorder.

One of the report's authors is an expert witness for the plaintiffs; another has received fees from the lawyers.

Pfizer disputes the report's conclusions, saying the company never "attempted to mislead the medical community about the effectiveness" of the drug for certain uses.

"We believe the review suffers from significant bias, insufficient data, poor methodology, and cannot pass the threshold of credible scientific research," Pfizer said in a statement.

The report, by researchers at the University of California at San Francisco and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, comes two months after Pfizer was fined a record $2.3 billion — including an unprecedented $1.2 billion criminal fine — for illegally marketing other blockbuster drugs.

The report appears in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine.

Dr. Sidney Wolfe, head of health research at consumer group Public Citizen, called it the first comprehensive look "at studies in which a company and people working for it so maliciously manipulated the data to make a drug look more effective than it actually was."

"In every instance, the published article made the drug look better than it would have," said Wolfe, a member of the Food and Drug Administration's drug safety advisory committee. "This results in harm."

Neurontin was approved by the FDA a decade ago for treating seizures and later for pain caused by shingles — but not for other conditions. Its potential side effects include suicidal tendencies and depression.

While doctors can prescribe drugs for unapproved, or off-label uses, drug companies are legally barred from promoting their products for such uses. Drugmakers often test drugs for additional conditions and publicize the results. But they don't always seek approval for those new uses, particularly if the new findings aren't convincing.

Experts believe most Neurontin sales were for off-label uses — the ones in the reviewed studies. Sales peaked at $2.7 billion in 2004, when Pfizer paid $430 million in government fines to settle allegations it improperly marketed the epilepsy drug for unapproved uses. By last year, Neurontin sales fell to $387 million due to cheaper generic versions sold as gabapentin.

For the new review, the researchers examined 20 patient studies funded by New York-based Pfizer and its Parke-Davis unit on use of Neurontin for preventing migraines or treating nerve pain or bipolar disorder. The studies were published in medical journals or presented at conferences, mostly over the last decade.

In eight of the 12 published studies, the main outcome listed in internal documents differs from the one later given in the published report. In half the cases, a new primary outcome was substituted and in others, the original main outcome was instead reported as a secondary measure or wasn't disclosed at all.

The authors cited some limitations to their review, including not knowing who made the changes.

"We cannot be certain that selective reporting was a decision made by employees of Pfizer and Parke-Davis, since the authors of the published reports included nonemployees," the researchers wrote.

Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics, called the report "one of the most ethically disturbing papers I've read in some time" and "an indication that people have been playing fast and loose with studies," particularly industry ones.

Caplan said the FDA should have the power to audit industry drug studies. Wolfe said there should be bigger fines and jail terms for manipulating study data, plus tougher rules for studies being published in journals.

Medical journals in recent years have required that studies be listed on a federal Web site,, to be eligible for publication. That move was made partly to make it harder for industry to hide studies on products that don't pan out and only publish those with good results. The study descriptions also list their primary and secondary outcomes.

Pfizer said it now has 1,245 company-sponsored studies listed on the Web site.

Friday, November 06, 2009

something light for the weekend

courtesy of the huffington post

Stand up, stand up, against Jesus

Civility has its uses, but we should not be afraid of satire and mockery as weapons against religious power

The question: Is there an atheist schism?

Religious teachings promise us much — eternal life, spiritual salvation, moral direction, and a deeper understanding of reality. It all sounds good, but these teachings are also onerous in their demands. If they can't deliver on what they promise, it would be well to clear that up. Put bluntly, are the teachings of any religion actually true or not? Do they have any rational support? It's hard to see what questions could be more important. Surely the claims of religion — of all religions — merit scrutiny from every angle, whether historical, philosophical, scientific, or any other.

Contrary to many expectations in the 1970s, or even the 1990s, religion has not faded away, even in the Western democracies, and we still see intense activism from religious lobbies. Even now, one religion or another opposes abortion rights, most contraceptive technologies, and therapeutic cloning research. Various churches and sects condemn many harmless, pleasurable sexual activities that adults can reasonably enjoy. As a result, these are frowned upon, if not prohibited outright, in many parts of the world, indeed people lose their lives because of them. Most religious organisations reject dying patients' requests to end their lives as they see fit. Even in relatively secular countries, such as the UK, Canada, and Australia, governments pander blatantly to Christian moral concerns as the protection of religiously motivated refusals to provide medical professional services demonstrates.

In a different world, the merits, or otherwise, of religious teachings might be discussed more dispassionately. In that world, some of us who criticise religion itself might be content to argue that the church (and the mosque, and all the other religious architecture that sprouts across the landscape) should be kept separate from the state. Unfortunately, however, we don't live in that world.

When religion claims authority in the political sphere, it is unsurprising — and totally justifiable — that atheists and skeptics question the source of this authority. If religious organisations or their leaders claim to speak on behalf of a god, it is fair to ask whether the god concerned really makes the claims that are communicated on its behalf. Does this god even exist? Where is the evidence? And even if this being does exist, why, exactly, should its wishes be translated into law?

In many situations, it is better to be civil, as Paul Kurtz has pointed out, but satire and mockery have traditionally had a legitimate place whenever absurd ideas are joined to power and privilege. Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire often used mockery to show the absurdity of ideological stances — including religious ones — that were considered sacrosanct. Mockery is one way of saying that a view does not deserve to be taken seriously. Religious views are fair game if one can also show, on a more serious level, why the view in question does indeed not deserve serious respect.

Perhaps some rationalist or humanist organisations, such as Kurtz's venerable Center for Inquiry, do have good reason to maintain a scholarly and dignified brand image. But there is also room for the younger, brasher atheists whom Kurtz inaccurately brands as "fundamentalists", and, in any event, there is a world of difference between appropriate civility and keeping quiet.
In the US, unfortunately, some atheists appear to have concluded that even civil and thoughtful criticism of supposedly "moderate" religion (i.e., almost anything that does not dispute evolutionary theory) should be discouraged.

These "accommodationist" atheists tend to be focused on science advocacy, particularly the teaching of evolution in public schools. In seeking public support for their positions, they think it prudent to take the various American demographics as they are. Since they want to sell evolutionary science to very large numbers of pious Americans, the last thing they want is to see it linked with atheism.

Once you think in that way, from a kind of marketing perspective, it can take over your approach to what you think you ought to say. Sincerity goes out the window, and everything must be "framed" to please the audience. We doubt that this strategy can work.

Religion cannot be eradicated — that is not a realistic goal — but the many problems with religious dogma can and should be highlighted. As atheists, we should state clearly that no religion has any rational warrant, and that many churches and sects promote cruelty, ignorance, and civil rights abuses.

There are harmful consequences to real people in the real world if the views of churches and sects are enshrined in law or given undue social deference - the acceptance even in liberal secular societies of conscientious objection as a legitimate reason for health care professionals and even civil servants to refuse to provide professional services to certain citizens is a case in point. For these reasons it is important that we should speak out and publicly contest the special authority that is accorded, all too often, to pontiffs, imams, priests, and presbyters. Religious leaders are not our moral leaders, much as they clamour to be, and however much the politicians flatter them. These spiritual emperors have no clothes, and we shouldn't flinch from saying so.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Bizarre commentary by Jamaican literature prof on violent lyrics

I'm sure many of you have heard about how homophobic Jamaica is, all the way up to the murder of gays and lesbians. Part of the responsibility for this, it has been suggested by some, are antigay violent lyrics by local artists calling in their songs for the murder of gays and lesbians. Here's the take of a local academic arguing that gays and lesbians who call for such artists' concerts to be canceled and boycotted are 'pathological'. Check out her take on the issue first, and then read my commentary below. Turns out to be the case that she attended the latest CD launch of the artist who called in past lyrics for the murder of gay people. I sent the below reply to the newspaper that published her OpEd; realistically you won't see my riposte there, though. Jamaican public debate is sufficiently incestuous to prevent that from happening. -

To whom it may concern:

Professor Cooper's editorial, well-intentioned and unusually considerate (by Jamaican standards) doesn't add up. She complains essentially that a Jamaican singer whose repertoire included a song calling for the killing of gay people is still subjected to boycott campaigns by gays and lesbians in other countries. She calls such campaigns 'perverse'. Cooper considers the offending song's lyrics 'infamous', however anyone not wanting the singer to perform in their neighbourhood is acting under a 'particularly perverse pathology'. Really, is my attempt at keeping such artists out of my country sick, Professor Cooper? So, our Jamaican artist sings infamous songs, while those who would be at the receiving end of his murderous art are sick (aka pathological). Nice touch professor, truly a well-balanced statement. You should be safe in homophobic Jamaica (whatever that means these days).

What reasons has Professor Cooper on offer for her take on the issue?

Well, for starters, she points out that our artist hero hasn't sung the song in question for awhile and launched recently a CD hoping it would be bought by amongst others gays, lesbians, and - guess what - even slim people. Let me just say that to the best of my knowledge, he has not yet apologized and retracted the song in question. That a more market savvy performer tries to increase market share is understandable, but surely shouldn't be seen as evidence for a changed mind set.

Comes the professor's next reason: the US based ACLU is defending the artist's 'right' to perform. The ACLU, of course, also defends the KKK's right to propagate its racist views in public. It's the result of a particularly silly bit of US Constitution that puts virtually no limits on speech acts, unlike any other country in the world. You could not make such statements anywhere in Europe (neither the Jamaican artist's 'lyrics' nor the KKKs racist rabble-rousing). The result is that such societies are more cohesive and peaceful than the USA.

And another lost-case type argument from our literary professor. She claims, citing an unsubstantiated statement from an ACLU activist, that there is no causal evidence that hate speech calling for violence against minority groups leads to such violence. There is an obvious reason for this: actions usually have multiple causes, some conscious, others unconscious. We do know that propaganda works; why it shouldn't work in a pathologically homophobic place such as Jamaica remains a mystery to me. Gay people have experienced time and again spikes in anti-gay violence following high-profile homophobic statements by artists or politicians and the like. Equally, many minority ethnic people in Britain were deeply incensed when the BBC permitted recently the BNP leader Nick Griffin to speak on a program. They pointed out that the mainstreaming of racism will undoubtedly lead to an increase in racist violence. I wonder whether Professor Cooper fully appreciates the implications of her feeble attempt at denying the link between homophobic statements calling for violence against gays and lesbians and the occurrence of such violence.

Her last unsubstantiated claim is that fans potentially engaging in homophobic violence would not do so after dancing to artists' tunes encouraging them to kills gays and lesbians. Is she seriously suggesting that there might be people out there who were considering killing gays and lesbians and then these folks get prevented from doing this because they attend a concert with an artists calling on them to go through with their tentative plans? What can I say, this surely is a breathtaking empirical claim without any basis in fact.

So, there you go, now you know why us folks outside your island go out of our way to have your violence and art kept where it belongs, namely on your island - as your problem, not ours. Let Buju apologize for this song and we will welcome him with open arms.