Wednesday Soapbox: Ideology and Skepticism

This is the second in a series of weekly opinion pieces by various members of the Belfast Skeptics. If you have an opinion to share or just want to rant about something, email us and we’ll have a chat.

Certain things are easy to be skeptical about – bogus health claims, UFO’s, psychics etc. But when it comes to personal politics, we are all under the impression that our own views are the most rational and reasoned approach to any given topic. After a brief flirtation with the Liberal Democrats in my late teens, I went to university and became your typical lefty student involved with the Anti Nazi League, Anti Poll Tax, Animal Rights and Environmental movements. I’m still broadly left wing but hope that my beliefs are more driven by reason than hippy idealism. To look at me as a student, the word “hippy” wouldn’t have been far from your lips but I’ve never really liked the hippy label.

I think it really only applies to a specific time at the end of the 60’s and start of the 70’s when people were really motivated by radical social upheaval – the backdrop of Vietnam and the emergence of a distinctly new type of youth culture providing the impetus for genuine change. But as the hippies grew up and went on to create multi-national ice cream companies, they left behind this legacy of a vague group of wishy washy individuals trying to meld some deeply held revolutionary convictions with a pick and mix eastern mysticism. Maybe I’m being too harsh, as they have also left us a legacy of sexual liberation and a wider acceptance of alternative lifestyles which many of us benefit from today.

But it’s the emphasis on “spirituality” in the environmental movement that I want to focus on here, and I’m afraid the hippies must take some of the blame. The environmental movement has some important messages to get across and I don’t think it does itself any favours by aligning itself with the shamans and mystics. Don’t get me wrong; there are a lot of clear-thinking rational people in the environmental movement -particularly working in the area of climate science but this seems to me slightly at odds with the “Mother Earth” approach.

A couple of years ago The Guardian ran an article bemoaning the decline of spirituality in the environmental movement. Here are a couple of quotes:

The hippies were fond of speaking of Gaia, Mother Earth, as a living organism. But as the environmental debate eventually reached the ears of politicians and scientists, it moved away from talk of spirituality and began to concentrate solely on a rational, scientific analysis of the effects of climate change.

“Look at what realists have done for us. They have led us to war and climate change, poverty on an unimaginable scale, and wholesale ecological destruction. Half of humanity goes to bed hungry because of all the realistic leaders in the world. I tell people who call me ‘unrealistic’ to show me what their realism has done. Realism is an outdated, overplayed and wholly exaggerated concept.”

– Satish Kumar

“Realists” seems to be a very broad category of people to blame for all the worlds ills. Anyway, this was my response:

The implication here seems to be that if you aren’t “spiritual” then you don’t truly understand the needs of the planet.

I’m more of a rationalist, and at the same time as understanding the need for respecting the planet and moving towards a less consumer based society, I would also be sceptical of this wishy washy spiritualism that supposedly gives certain “enlightened” people a direct line to the earth’s “energies”.

Your spirituality may give you a sense of personal fulfilment and motivate you as a steward for the planet, but that doesn’t mean that the non-spiritual are any less capable.

I acknowledge that some spiritual leaders have some wise things to say about the planet, but I don’t get this reverence for spiritual wisdom above reason and evidence.

Some writers such as Alastair Mcintosh make important points about the relationship between small communities and large corporations but then go and spoil it with references to pagan Christianity. But maybe I’m wrong, maybe these are the kinds of ideas that people feel they can invest in. Maybe the “Mother Earth” idea is a necessary narrative device to get people to take an interest in the planet and it’s survival. But in my experience it’s the preachy “mother earth” types that put people off environmentalism. I still get portrayed as a bit of an “eco-warrior” at work, just because I cycle in and do the recycling.

If I started to tell my colleagues that they needed to be at one with the planet I’d be laughed out of the office, but start talking about the top speed and range of the new generation of electric cars and their ears prick up. In reality change is only going to come with innovation and development in eco technology combined with a move away from an oil based economy which will be driven by cheaper alternatives becoming more readily available. Even though I am convinced by the ethical arguments for reducing our carbon foot print now – most people are only going to change their habits when it saves them money.

One final word on Climate “skeptics”. They have taken our word and soiled it. We need to take it back, and the only way we can do that is by proving the validity of our claims and by re-imagining the earth mother narrative in a secular context.

A Letter to QED

This letter was originally featured on ‘Just Skeptics‘, the podcast by the Greater Manchester Skeptics. Conor was a guest on episode 17, which you can find here. I’d recommend listening to it on the podcast as opposed to reading the letter, as then you get the dulcet tones of my voice.

Dear QED,

It’s hard to believe it’s over. It seems just yesterday that I was giddily dreaming of this romantic weekend away in Manchester. Just you, me and a few hundred sceptics. I’d heard about you first on a podcast, then other people chimed in with how great you were going to be. I booked my tickets early and got the hotel and flights sorted – the thrill of the chase sped my credit card transactions. I only told my parents about you a few weeks ago; I admit I was a little nervous about how they would react. They know all about my “activities” in Belfast, but this, this would be different. This was a weekend away, just for you QED. They reacted well, as they always do; “We only want the best for you, Conor”, “As long as you’re happy, we’ll love you no matter what”.

In the build-up to the fated weekend, my excitement grew. There were going to be so many good times! Such ideas that I couldn’t imagine, such fun! I arose early on the Friday, expectation over-whelming my tiredness. We took a taxi to the bus, a bus to the plane and a train to the hotel. The Ramada hotel; the red letters beckoned to us as we turned the corner onto Portland St. Eventually I plucked up the courage and sought out the crowd, diving into the bosom of QED – the bar. It was thrilling, refreshing and welcoming. So many critical thinkers in one room, surely this was just a dream, surely I would soon wake up! I admit, I didn’t behave like a perfect gentleman. I drank, swore and misused the hash-tag on Twitter, all of which I paid for on the Saturday morning with a guilty conscience. QED, you could easily have rejected me, ignored me or politely blocked me from the free wifi. But no, you were kind and gentle. You gave me the time to recover, then embraced me into the queezy warmth of the main hall for Bruce Hood. I’ll admit it wasn’t easy hearing about blowing up teddy bears – but sacrifices must be made. I struggled on. Saturday continued in a blur of the Reaching Out Reasonably panel, the paranormal panel, the Inkredulous podcast recording, Chris Atkins and Chris French. Scarily enough, I’m pretty sure Chris French was trying to brainwash us; he played ‘Stairway to Heaven’ backwards during his talk. He later spoke to me about false memories… or maybe he didn’t. Anyway, QED, you gave us breaks and time for mingling. I appreciated that. Then, it was the chance to hear from the king of skeptics, the big kahuna, the brain behind the person behind the voice: Steve Novella. Ah, what a guy. Don’t worry though, my dear QED, I wouldn’t stray from you. Having said that, you didn’t make it easy, you certainly gave me some tough choices. Time travel or podcasts? Skeptics in the pub workshop or juggling? The choices are in the past and I know I can’t change them, mostly because I didn’t go to the time travel talk. Saturday finished with the comedy loveliness of Helen Keane and Matt Parker, as well as the one and only George Hrab, who was once disqualified from an egg-and-spoon race for bending the spoon.

Sunday kicked-off with a delicious sugar and homeopathy overdose, with Wendy Grossman benefiting from the sugar-high and placebo effect. Therein followed the choice between Simon Singh and Chris Atkins. You wicked, wicked demon QED. I shall forgive you though, for then you provided us with Jon Ronson. After his talk, I’m pretty worried about being a psychopath. Or living with a psychopath. Or upsetting a psychopath. Nearing the end of the weekend, I went to the skeptics in the pub workshop, apparently missing the fantastic Colin Wright juggling and doing maths. Never mind. The ceremony closed with Eugenie Scott, whose words of summation of evolution brought a tear to quite a few eyes.

I know that, for me, you were just a holiday romance. For others, you were a labour of love, months of dedication. Not having you in my life will be a brief sense of mourning, but it will pass. For others, the end of this relationship may take a greater toll.

You’ve changed my outlook on life. I’ve learned so many lessons from you: Don’t pretend to be crazy to avoid a prison sentence; don’t believe anything your brain tells you and if you run really, really fast you’ll go forward in time.

So here’s to you QED. So long and thanks for all the belladonna.

Wednesday Soapbox: Exercise is Evil

This is the first in a series of weekly opinion pieces by various members of the Belfast Skeptics. If you have an opinion to share or just want to rant about something, email us and we’ll have a chat.

I’ll be honest with you; I don’t do ‘exercise’. Frankly, I barely do ‘movement’ at all. Still thin, but only because this comically lankly cadaver (my body) offers bountiful room to savour roasts gone by.

Now, I know this kind of lifestyle is bad. I do! Like most people, however, the mere notion of going to a gym, a place where your muscles go to work and your brain goes to die, gives me hives, headaches and heartburn. Possibly incontinence. Who knows, I’m knocking on a bit.

Little did I know, however, that you can achieve all those ailments (and many, many more!) by actually going to one of the bloody places. And that includes incontinence! Yes, dear reader, word on the street is (or, at least, in the personal universe of writers at The Sun) the gym is a place of terrible hardship beyond just making your muscles ache.

10 reasons to avoid the gym” is a fascinating article which asks that, although the gym may get you fit, “do you ever think how much you could save by staying on the couch?” Glad to see the Health section of The Sun and I are on the same page.

Along with headaches, heartburn, hives and incontinence, other lurking threats include chronic farting, runny noses and, wait for it, the dreaded EAR POPPING. Let’s kick this off with PT inside CRC 028something; most of the ‘threats’ in the gym come from that most lethal of all activities known as ‘living’. Let’s take farting. Apparently, “each time you contract the muscles around your internal organs you risk letting one loose”. This, then, doubles as a reason of why you should avoid doing anything, anywhere, ever. WHAT a tragedy.

They say moving after having dairy will make your nose gush Niagara style. So before you crack open a white chocolate Magnum, you’d better be sat down with nothing to do for a while.

Hives is a fun one, too. Apparently, some people ARE allergic to exercise. It’s a good job kids don’t read newspapers, because that’d be the FIRST reason I’d give to avoid cross-country, I can tell you.

Another problem with the gym, allegedly, is the time it takes to get there. They therefore suggest you “Go for a run outdoors, instead”. Well hang on, now, Mr. The Sun Health section. According to you lot, if I go for a run outdoors, I’ll end up exposing unwitting members of the general public to a farting, nose running, weeing machine.

ALL those ‘problems’ with the gym and they ignore the biggest one of all; that the gym is unrelentingly boring. Despite that, the only conclusion I can draw about what I should do, exercise-wise, is to continue doing absolutely nothing. A victory well earned, I feel.

Belfast Skeptics in the Pub – Rebecca O’Neill

In March, we are lucky enough to be welcoming Rebecca O’Neill from the Dublin Skeptics in the Pub to speak at Belfast Skeptics in the Pub. Rebecca will be giving a talk entitled ‘Confessions of a Health Food Store Worker’. This talk will cover the three years that she spent working in a health food shop, the experiences she had there and how it turned her from a believer in to a skeptic.

You can find out more about the Dublin Skeptics in the Pub here!

If this is your first event, read our helpful ‘Being nice to newbies’ policy here – but don’t worry, you can just turn up and we won’t bite. If you’ve been to events before, we’d really appreciate some feedback.

The Eventbrite page is here, so register there please to give us an idea of the number of people who will turn up. The Facebook event page can be found here.

The event is taking place upstairs in the Club Room in the Parlour bar, out in the University Area of Belfast (map). It’ll take place on Thursday the 10th March from 19:30 sharp. There were a few people standing last time, so arrive early (7pm onwards) to make sure you get a seat!

Follow-Up to Colin Johnston’s talk

Thank you to everyone who came to our last talk, Colin Johnston from the Armagh Planetarium talking about UFOlogy. The talk was our most successful to date, with 35 people attending and several people standing. We’re sorry that people were left standing, we genuinely didn’t expect that many people to be at our third speaker! Next month we’ll make sure to move the tables and chairs further in to the room, have some more chairs and also leaving more room for standing space at the back of the room. Colin mentioned a number of books and websites during his talk, which are included below. If you were there, we’d love to get some feedback from you. Don’t forget to sign up to the newsletter, just on the right on this page. Do it now!

  • Cohen, Jack and Stewart, Ian, Evolving the Alien (NB: the paperback edition is called What does a Martian look like?), Ebury Press, 2002
  • Conway Morris, Simon, Life’s Solution, Cambridge University Press, 2003
  • Webb, Stephen, Where is everybody? Springer, 2002
  • Peebles, Curtis, Watch the skies! Berkley, 1995
  • Clarke, David and Roberts, Andy, Flying Saucerers, Alternative Albion, 2007
  • Clarke, David and Roberts, Andy, Out of the Shadows: UFOs, the Establishment and Official Cover Up, Piatkus Books, 2002

Nice to Newbies Policy

Inspired by the Skeptics in the Pub workshop at the QED Convention in Manchester (there will inevitably be a blog post about that, as it was brilliant), we’ve decided to adopt a policy to help first-time attendees of Belfast Skeptics in the Pub. This means we will hopefully help people feel more welcome to the first (and subsequent) events. If it’s your first time at a Belfast Skeptics’ event and you’re nervous about turning up on your own, then you should feel free to contact us, either by leaving a comment below, leaving a post on Facebook, Tweeting us, or emailing us. We’ll get back to you with the name of a person who will be there on the evening to chat to you and introduce you to other people. It’s not that we bite, it’s just that some people feel nervous about new groups. We want to get as many new faces along to our skeptics in the pub events as possible, so if you have friends that you want to invite along, feel free.

February Update

Just a brief update to share some news for everyone. A few of us are away to QEDCon this weekend in Manchester – read about it here. Tickets aren’t on sale any more, but check back next week for more info. Or follow us on Twitter – @belfastskeptics. We’ll try and post updates from the convention. Our next event is Colin Johnston from the Armagh Planetarium talking about UFOs and IFOs in Belfast and Northern Ireland. That’ll be great – check here for more details (Facebook event page here). Also, we’ll have a newsletter going out next week – sign up here if you aren’t on our list yet. Finally, we’ll have a new series of posts by guest authors coming in the next week or two. They’ll cover a variety of topics, with the aim of acting as a springboard for debate.

Hope to see you at our next event,

Conor, Phil and Alana