Posts Tagged ‘debate’

Humanist January

Wednesday, January 20th, 2016 | Humanism


We saw another good turnout for the January meeting of West Yorkshire Humanists. We initially put out only a dozen or so chairs in a circle. However, we soon had to add more, making for a large and very misshapen circle. Always a good thing of course!

This month was debate night and we discussed a number of issues. The headline debate was ‘can terrorism ever be justified?’ The arguments are complex and myriad once you get into it.

After the meeting we went to The George for a few drinks.


They had alcohol-free cocktails for £2.95. I am not sure anyone had ever ordered them before was there was a lot of confusion about how to make them. However, they tasted good, and we ended up getting a second round.

The leaders debate

Thursday, April 9th, 2015 | Distractions, Religion & Politics, Thoughts

How dull.

Where exactly was the debate? There were a few topics, each candidate then said what they stood for in turn. That isn’t a debate. Has nobody who conceived of this show actually seen a debate or understood what a debate is?

There was a bit of back and forth between the candidates, but nobody really got to the meat of it. There were no real discussions of the advantages or disadvantages of different policies.

Nobody even said that much about their policies. If you didn’t already know what each party stood for, would you have watching that? Think of all the Green policies for example. They were hardly mentioned throughout the two hours.

Two of the candidates are not even fielding candidates in most of the country. According to The Guardian, one of the most popular questions after the debate was “can I vote SNP in England?” The answer is no.

Thus the SNP seemed mainly there to chip in “we’ve already done that” when an English politician put forward a good idea. That should probably be a wake-up call – we do trail Scotland on hospital parking charges, prescription charges and preventing letting agents from charing unscrupulous fees.

The one thing that Nigel Farage got right was that he was the only person saying something different. As person after person trailed out the message “we want immigration and to be part of Europe, but we want tighter controls on it”. Their answers blurred into one. Farage was the only person with something different to say. Is that the debate we wanted? One where Farage, king of the bigots, is the one offering an alternative?

Everyone else was too scared to step out of line. Nick Clegg pushed the boat out by asking the rich to pay “a little bit more.” It would have been far better if Natalie Bennett had at this point screamed “we’re going to make the rich pay loads more!” and Cameron to jam in “I think my friends pay quite enough.” But they didn’t.

In summary then, it felt like a complete waste of my time to watch it. Maybe we would be better to have a two party system with the ghost of John Stuart Mill running one party and Arthur Scargill running the other.

How dare you lie on national TV

Thursday, February 20th, 2014 | Thoughts, Video

I keep coming back to this video:

To my mind, this was a crushing defeat for Vanessa Vine.

I had not formed an opinion on fracking before I saw this video. But after watching this I went away and read the report by the Royal Society. They say that with the correct regulation, it is safe.

In the debate, she puts forward anecdotes and slurs Peter Lilly’s character. This makes for great sound-bites but intellectually means nothing and in fact actually significantly reduces her credibility.

Peter Lilly counters her arguments and provides hard evidence from the Royal Society.

The argument from vested interests does not even stand up either. Peter Lilley is a dick. An absolute shit human being. Here is his voting record. But Vine is unable to make any of these things stick. Meanwhile Lilley correctly points out that Vine does have a vested interest because she is is anti-fossil fuel and lives near a potential fracking site.

The end result of this is that I am siding with a man who owns shares in an oil company. I do not see how that can be considered a win for the anti-fracking side.

Kate Smurthwaite at Leeds Skeptics

Thursday, December 12th, 2013 | Foundation, Humanism

Earlier this month we were lucky to have Kate Smurthwaite visit us to present her show The News at Kate: My Professional Opinion. She is a comedian but also does a lot of work with women’s rights and generally telling stupid people that they are stupid.

Here is a good clip of her doing that on The Big Questions:

Her event was really entertaining and I highly recommend going to see Kate’s show if you get the chance.

IMG_3387 IMG_3388 IMG_3389 IMG_3390IMG_3389

On humanism, and being positive

Monday, September 10th, 2012 | Humanism

One of the criticisms that has been put forward about humanism is that it always has to be positive. Many aspects of that humanism is there for are simply not positive – it’s an alternative to religion, and religion is a thought controlling, people oppressing, unscientific load of nonsense.

However, as someone who labels myself as a humanist, I think both these statements can be true, and work together well.

Yes, religion is an evil that the world would be better off without. But saying that you can’t tackle this issue with a positive attitude is not only incorrect, but it is also naively counter-productive, even though it may seem intuitive.

The reason is, is that we know by now that, most of the time, arguing with someone’s beliefs only entrenches them further.

I mean, how many people do the believer and atheist camps actually win over to the other side? Almost none. In fact, it’s so rare that when we do, we feel the need to put a spotlight on them and get them to give talks about their conversion, because it almost never happens.

One of the reasons for this, is that arguing your case, even if you’re case is incorrect, actually reinforces your own belief that you must be right. In fact, even for us skeptics, who are aware this is a problem and try to counter against our own biases, it is difficult to avoid.

This has been general knowledge for a long time, but a great example is given in Richard Wiseman’s recent book about captured American soldiers in the Korean War.

During their time in the prison camps, they were often bribed to say or write about how positive communism was, and were encouraged to take part in mock debates in which they argued for communism.

The result – because they undertook the actions of promoting communism, an idea that not only doesn’t work and isn’t fair (in my humble opinion) but was specifically what they were fighting against in said war, they actually started believing what they were saying.

Similarly, when you get someone in a confrontational argument about their beliefs, where it be religion or any other form of ill-founded prejudice, bigotry or simply factually untrue belief, getting them to argue the point is only going to reinforce their belief most of the time, not weaken it.

So what can we take from this?

Firstly, I think it is a mistake for those in the freethought movement who suggest humanism’s approach of being nice and positive with people, is a sign of weakness or that we not as firmant in stopping the evils of blind faith from damaging our society. It isn’t – they’re just going about it in a more rational, scientific way.

Secondly, when considering your attitude, especially when running groups, it is important for it to be informed by this research.

For example, at A-Soc we discussed, on several occasions, the idea of having a debate with the religious societies where we would take the opposite position. IE, we would argue there was a god, while they would argue there wasn’t. Unfortunately, we never followed through with the idea. It is also worth considering what interfaith (sorry, can’t think of a better term) activities can be done between atheist and believer groups that promote an understanding of each others principles, rather than a confrontational nature – which in the end, actually have a reverse effect from what they are intended to have.

A given?

Sunday, July 15th, 2012 | Religion & Politics

In the final of three blog posts I’ve written about the fall out from the recent Steve Moxon event, I wanted to comment on an interesting debate point raised on the Leeds Skeptics Facebook group, where someone claimed that some things we should just accept as true.

There are some things that should be a given in any skeptical society

I’m not making this up. Someone in a Skeptics group genuinely just said that there are some things we should just not question.

Of course, the equality of our fellow human beings is something incredibly important and something that when challenged, we would defend rigorously. But to suggest we should just same some things on faith is a violation of the very definition of skepticism. But more to the point, such an attitude undermines our own argument. Our position is that all our members are equal and we take this position because we’ve reviewed the evidence, and that is the case. To rule out a debate on it entirely is simply unskeptical.

Let us not forget that we have equality today because someone WAS skeptical about the prevailing idea that black people were inferior to white people, or that women didn’t deserve the rights as men did. Thank the god that I do not believe in, that someone had the courage to challenge these ideas that were just held as true at the time, so that today we can have equality.

After all, if we’re in the right, we shouldn’t be afraid to challenge our own ideas. As I’ve written before, I entertain the idea of cheating on my girlfriend. Why? Because I know I will never do it. I’m secure enough in my relationship, and I know I love her so much, that I can safely consider the possibility without worrying. I know this, because I’ve challenged my own beliefs, and because they still hold true, that only makes them stronger. As Norman summarises…

Not sure how anything can be a ‘given’ in a skeptical society? Surely the point of a skeptical society is that all view points are subjected to a rigorous process of critical analysis, regardless of whether it agrees with our world view or not.

One could argue that it is the very ‘givens’ of our own world views that require even more in depth challenging.

Challenging your beliefs only makes them stronger (or they turn out to be wrong – but I’m as certain as you can be that this won’t turn out to be the case for equality). But perhaps I underestimate how secure people actually are in their beliefs. I mean, are attendees worried that others are going to be won over by bigoted arguments?

Secondly go to the event, witness said MRA speech, and more than likely become angry at the shit he’s spouting. If you decide to argue with him you’d better have the support of the room otherwise you will get shouted down and feel even worse. At the very least you will be sat in your seat seething, possibly feeling upset or unsafe depending on how many other members are agreeing with the speaker.

I’m sure this wasn’t mean this to be in any way offensive, but she did just imply that that everyone else who attends Leeds Skeptics are at best are sexiest bigots who would shout her down if she tried to call someone on sexist nonsense he was spouting, and at worse a bunch of rapists would threaten her safety. Talk about promoting bad gender stereotypes. But it goes on…

What good would come out of it [the event], to balance against the aggressive sexism and racism that we’d almost certainly have to sit through and which would be at best uncomfortable for people who aren’t white males?

Is she seriously suggesting that white males don’t find racism, sexism or any bigotry offensive? It’s incredibly insulting, and sexist (and racist for that matter), but more than that, I think it shows that there is a real need for careful consideration of what we all hold to be true and bring open to the principle of challenging our own ideas.

As I’ve already said, challenging well founded beliefs only makes them stronger.

Controversial speakers

Saturday, July 14th, 2012 | Religion & Politics, Thoughts

In my previous blog post, I wrote about our decision to cancel Steve Moxon’s scheduled talk at Leeds Skeptics. In this blog post, I wanted to explore the wider issues of controversial speakers, and balancing freedom of speech and proper public debate with being an inclusive and welcoming organisation.

In the discussions, someone asked if I would want to attend an event where someone had views that I found offensive. The answer is without a doubt yes. I totally would – and I did – I spent my university years while running Leeds Atheist Society, going to talks run by religious societies where speakers said some very offensive and controversial things.

I wanted to learn about their points of view. To me, they seemed like obviously wrong and bigoted. But how could I say that for sure unless I had heard them out? And if it turned out their views were as shallow as it seemed, I wanted to challenge them on it. To be honest, it never really occurred to me that other skeptics wouldn’t feel the same way.

When I asked my girlfriend about it, she said the same thing. She would have liked Steve to speak, so she could hear him out and challenge the opinions she disagreed with. As Mike points out, how else are we supposed to challenge prejudice?

The only way SITP can come out on top is if the members take him to task; it’s recorded and publicised in order to counteracts any publicity claims he makes himself. It needs to be clear that this is an exercise in critical analysis and the application of skepticism and not a sounding-off platform. That includes the common decency of informing the speaker himself to give himself a chance to pull out should he so wish.

I often try to bring controversial speakers to the group as a springboard for debate, because I have always felt that Skeptics group suffer severely from preaching to the converted. We bring in someone who rubbishes UFOs for a living, and we sit there with our pints and go “ha, ha, ha, there’s no such as UFOs, what idiots for believing in them, isn’t that funny.” Of course, it’s a good laugh for us all, but it is neither thought provoking nor challenging. As Adrian summarises…

At present we have a network of groups like SitP that invite scientists and atheists to speak to other scientists and atheists, and a network of groups like Truth Juice that invite woo-woo merchants to speak to woo-woo sponges. Thus speakers of all types are largely preaching to the converted and very little of any value is actually taking place.

For someone like Moxon to speak to skeptics groups is good for Moxon, since he gets to see that not everyone shares his point of view, and has to listen to people debunking his irrationality, and good for the audience since they learn first-hand what kind of woo-woo there really is out there in British society (and how it is rationalised) and they can practise arguing against it.

Trystan feels the same way…

You mention that there is a difference between a controversial speaker and one who attempts to pass of poorly reasoned views as science, but SitP is a fantastic venue to highlight – specifically during Q and A – what is wrong with the argument being made on scientific grounds. It is a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate skepticism at work.

If certain people at Leeds Skeptics are unhappy that the talk was booked then (a) it doesn’t mean anything and (b) I’m wondering why. I can guess. Most, if not all, SitPs I’ve encountered seem to have an element who feel each event is about having an on side preacher come and speak to the choir, doing all of the skepticism for them. I recall upsetting a gentleman in Oxford because my views on private ownership of land was at odds with his own. It rocked the boat, made him think. Why not seize the opportunity to perform some self-think rather than following group-think?

If anything, the academic-cum-philosophical-cum-skeptical platform should be opened up more for people with views that are groundless and have the potential for harm. Oxford Debating Society did a wonderful job by opening up their doors for Icke to bury himself under a deluge of his own nonsense.

Indeed, while the majority of organisers from local Skeptics groups haven’t commented either way, most of them who have seem to have similar feelings.

I have always thought that the point of a Skeptics event should be to make you think. We’re supposed to be non-dogmatic; and a group of individuals who can think for themselves and challenge ideas. If you don’t agree, that’s fine, it just means you’re not a skeptic by the very definition of the word and are unlikely to find much benefit attending skeptics events.

After all, if we’ve not providing thought provoking and challenging events, what exactly are we doing? Preaching a monthly sermon to you about something you are supposed to accept without question? That isn’t the movement I signed up.

Rather, Skeptics meetings should be a bastion for critical thinking, a place where we aren’t afraid to let bad ideas be proposed every once in a while because we have enough trust in our own critical faculties to be able to tell the difference between a good argument and a bad one. Such events are an ideal time to confront prejudice and show good skepticism in action.

Cancelling Steve Moxon

Friday, July 13th, 2012 | Events, Religion & Politics

This is the first of three blog posts I have coming out regarding the debate points that have been raised recently around inviting controversial speakers to Skeptics events. In my first post, I want to discuss the situation at hand in a little more depth.

At the start of the year, we booked Steve Moxon to speak at Leeds Skeptics, on the topic of “why aren’t there more women in the boardroom?” On Monday, 9 June, we announced that we were cancelling the event.

The decision was reached after we had received a significant amount of concerned messages from people who attend our events, as well as new information being brought to our attention and after review, we eventually concluded that it would not create a positive debate as we had hoped. Here is what the Leeds Skeptics officially said:

After careful consideration, we have decided to cancel Steve Moxon’s upcoming talk. As a Skeptics group we strive to host events that are both interesting and challenging, however, based on feedback from those who attend our events, and new information being brought to our attention, we now believe that it is unlikely that the event would create a healthy and positive debate on the matter.

It was a very tough decision to reach though. On one side, we don’t want people who turn up to our events to be offended, at the same time, we do want to host events on thought provoking subjects and not be limited on topics by those that are on the approved skeptics list.

In the end, the question of censorship was a moot point – even if we did cancel the event, it wasn’t a case that we were censoring anyone – it’s our forum, we can invite who we like, and we ultimately called off the event because Steve would not have been well received, nor would it have created a proper debate on the subject. The subject itself remains as a topic worthy of debate.
After this had all taken place, someone asked if Leeds Skeptics was in the habit of giving radical speakers a platform – the implication being that we didn’t, so we shouldn’t give Steve one.

So, Leeds Skeptics, do you regularly hold events where creationists are given an uninterrupted platform? Do you regularly invite anti-vaxxers to speak at Skeptics in the Pub and blurb their work in the same tone? Isn’t the appropriate form to engage with someone whose views are controversial and that you want to see ripped to shreds a debate, not a lecture?

However, the answer to this question is yes. We have previously invited speakers from the Zeitgeist Movement and We Are Change. They’re both good examples of when we have invited controversial speakers, with views at odds with those of most Skeptics, backed up with some very questionable science. Naturally, they were both taken to task in the Q&A.

That said, they are tame compared to the kind of events that Leeds Atheist Society puts on. They regularly give an uninterrupted platform to members of the religious community, who often have strong and open views against women and homosexuals. I remember one of the Reason Week debates was opened by the Islamic speaker making the following joke.

50 years ago homosexuality was a crime, today it’s accepted, in 50 years time it will probably be compulsory.

He got booed for it. So he should, it’s rare that you hear something that offensive said in public. But there was no question as to whether we should be challenging this kind of bigotry – of course we should be. That was in the context of debate, but through the interfaith talks, it’s more normal for a religious speaker at LAS to get an uninterrupted platform where they can say what they like without rebuttal. I’ve never heard of anything avoiding such events because of the controversial things the religious speaker had to say – we’re there to learn, and to challenge prejudice.

At no point throughout any of these events could it ever have been implied that they were legitimising such speakers, associating themselves with such with such groups or providing a platform for such detestable views. As Skeptics, we’re here to challenge ideas – that is the definition of skepticism.

I have more to say on such speakers, and will discuss that in my next blog post, but I hope the above helps to elucidate the thought process we went through.

Humanism: The National Scene

Sunday, March 11th, 2012 | Humanism

Last Thursday, I headed down to the Humanist Society of West Yorkshire to see Dan Bye, council member of the National Secular Society, present a talk on Humanism: The National Scene.

I saw Dan speaking last year at Leeds Atheist Society on faith schools and it was a great talk. Thursday was no less interesting, with Dan giving an excellent overview of the non-religious movement in the UK and reminding us that we actually have it better now than we ever have had in our lifetimes. Religion is shrinking and public debate is on the rise.

Debate at Nottingham Trent

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012 | Religion & Politics

Recently, I attended a debate at Nottingham Trent University, as part of their Islamic Society’s Discover Islam Week.

The event itself was held in a lecture theatre in the Newton Building, which reminds me a lot of the building that holds the student union at University of Bradford – very new money, wide open spaces, etc.

There was a clear division between the sexes in the room – the front eight rows were reserved for males, and the back three reserved for females. They even had separate entrances too – to the point where we were about to go in the top entrance, but had to turn around at the door and go round the building lobby and down some stairs to go in the bottom entrance instead.

As ever with such events, people are going to be walking out of the room with the exact same views as they walked into the room, so decided a slightly different tact was necessary.

I was asked to speak first, which seemed very strange for a debate in which I was the opposition, but it fitted in quite well with what I had written, so I thought I would just roll with it. My speech focused less on rebutting the proposition, which was nothing more than the cosmological argument anyway, and more about offering an alternative explanation for religion.

Unfortunately, not being a philosopher, the rebuttals I did do against the argument were not overly eloquent – though I did get in the core points that it was a case of special pleading, identity of the first cause and attacking the idea that infinite doesn’t exist, though not being able to accurately put why Hilbert had been misquoted let my argument down.

Never the less, it was always going to be a tough task going into the lion’s den if you will, so I was only a little disappointed with my performance.

I also found it rather strange that they finished the event with a video from Siria. Not not a humanitarian appeal which I presumed it would be when they first announced they would be showing a video. Rather, it was footage from a mass rally in which a speaker was telling the gathered mass how Allah would crush their enemies as people chanted his name. I’m relucant to envoke Godwin’s Law and describe it to something that would not be out of place at a Goebbels rally, but then I would only be returning the favour ;).

In any case, I was an enjoyable event and I would like to thank Nottingham Trent University Islamic Society for their hospitality.