Wednesday, June 29, 2011

PZ Myers: A Special think/rant Podcast Guest

On Thursday 30th June at 8PM GMT we'll be speaking to PZ Myers on the podcast (as long as his schedule doesn't change).

This is great news because Trevor and I are big fans of his work/shenanigans and we're sure our listeners will be excited to hear what he has to say on a large number of topics we'll be discussing.

This does raise some concerns about the live stream; I'm expecting a large number of connections and I'm worried about server bandwidth. The P2P Radio application we use should, in theory, support unlimited connections with no impact on us. However if, at any point during the podcast, I suspect that it is impacting our conference call somehow then I will pull the plug on the stream and you'll just have to listen to it on iTunes like everybody else. Everything will probably work out fine, but I'm just apologising in advance. If you do listen live then you can actually help us out by increasing the bandwidth P2P Radio uses for sharing, thus letting more people listen without using up ours.

We've got a bunch of pressing questions for him, but feel free to suggest some more by commenting here or tweeting us @thinkrant and if they're any good we might use some of them.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Myth of Competition - A Rant!

Today the government announces a “shake-up” in Higher Education, promising to give students more choice and “consumer powers”. That’s right folks they are going to bring competition into Higher Education. Again we are being told that competition will deliver a better standard of service and more choice for the consumer - in this case students. If they are planning on bringing competition into higher education, how long will it be before students are faced with prohibitive tuition fees and a two tier education system where the brightest students from poor backgrounds will be consigned to the least impressive universities…? Oh… hang on…
Is anyone able to give an example of where competition has actually succeeded? I work in the deregulated and “open” Energy sector. I use the term open in inverted commas as realistically there is such little difference in the cost of Energy per provider that you may as well stay where you are; that is why when one provider puts their price up, they all do. Not because of an inflated market and companies trying to screw you over, but because they all pay roughly the same for the energy they sell you, and it’s you the consumer who suffers.
What about the railways? Surely there is an example of the success of privatisation and deregulation…? No? That’s right folks we still have to put up with trains that aren’t exactly clean or a joy to travel on, that don’t run on time and due to the private company having to make a profit, are over-priced and I feel, don’t offer value for money. Despite the so called choice I have in a deregulated market I am still stuck with the same rail franchise that is consistently late, on daily basis. So, in what way have I benefited? The same applies with buses, where vital rural services are being stopped because they are not profitable.
How about the Royal Mail? I remember a time when I had two postal deliveries in one day! Now I get one, usually after I have gone to work. So, let me get this right I’m paying more for a service that gives me less? Winner.
For me “competition” usually means a private company offering the least possible service they can for the highest price they can to maintain an healthy profit margin for it’s shareholders and directors. And thereby giving the Government an opportunity to absolve itself of responsibility to its people, under the guise of “choice” being in our interests.

How could "red" Ed be so wrong?

A response to Ed Milliband’s blog
Wow. I’ve not felt such disappointment in a statement by the leader of Labour party since the removal of clause 4. Whilst I agree with a lot of what he has to say in the post regarding the mishandling of the process by the Conservative led Government, I cannot hide my disappointment and dismay at his criticism of striking teachers.
The Labour party which you lead Ed, may very well “be the party of the parent trying to get their children to school, the mother and father who know the value of a day’s education”; and that is very commendable and I share those sentiments. But when spouting rhetoric, don’t forget that those teachers you criticise are parents. Parents who want to be able to provide an education for their children that is consistent, engaging and world class. Who better than a teacher, who strives at the coal face day in, day out to understand the value of a day’s education?
Unfortunately, with the aggressive tone that has been used by this Government, Danny Alexander leading the way, telling us striking is “a colossal mistake” and that this is the best deal the Government will offer “for many years to come”. The teachers and indeed other members of the public sector have been left with very little choice. It is clear from his tone that actually, there will be no negotiation from the Government. Indeed given the fact that the Government has made so many u-turns on policy in recent months, I’m sure they feel they need to dig their heels in somewhere. This would appear to be that spot. We hear them vilifying public servants for wanting to stand up for their rights. This is fundamentally wrong.
The Labour party and it’s leadership should be rallying around our teachers and giving them the support they need, not criticising them for taking the only action they can to protect their rights. I believe the following replaced clause 4 in 1995:
‘The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.’
Before we jump on the populist, poll improving bandwagon, criticising strikes, let us make the difficult decision and remember our roots and heritage and look at that statement above. Let us support our Teachers & civil servants, and make their common endeavour, OUR common endeavour. When we have bankers like Sir Fred Goodwin, who played fast and loose with our money, sitting back and enjoying not only an excellent pension but a golden goodbye payment as well, lets remember the Teachers, tirelessly striving to improve our children’s education.
And a final thought. One of the proposals teachers have before them is for their final salary pension to become an average earnings pension. MP’s currently have final salary provision. Will they loose their final salary pensions in these reforms also? Or is that a little too much like turkeys voting for Christmas.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Episode 36 - Faith Healing Is Bunk

Lots of apologies this week. I must express sincere regret for:

1. The podcast being late; usually it's available only a couple of hours after the show goes out. However, this week I was tired and busy so you've had to wait.
2. Some audio issues have resulted in a slightly lower quality recording and a couple of minutes are missing from the start. Don't worry, you've only missed my comedy introductions for Trevor Williams and, our special guest, Rhys Morgan, who was kind enough to fill in for Steven.
3. The unoriginal episode title; both Trevor and I are feeling a little uncreative this week.

Anyway, it's still a corker. This week we beat up on the faith healers who were taking money from gullible people in a Newsnight investigation, gay (but celibate) priests in the church, Peter Hitchens not understanding the arguments surrounding the right to die, and Rhys discusses some of the current woo before telling about his new skeptical help forums (more info to come).

We hope you enjoy it as much as we did making it. Download it now!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Episode 35 - Listen With A Tissue

This week we had the live show on Friday because Trevor and John were at an alternatively scheduled Skeptics In The Pub on Thursday.

We discuss Philip Davies' "great" idea to have disabled people work for less than the minimum wage, Trevor has another great Catholic story, Gay men getting kicked out of a swimming pool, lesbians being told off for breaking the 10 commandments, Nadine Dorries as a pin-up (holding down vomit), the cost defence of the faith-healing defence and lots of other crazy stuff. In fact, this week has been so crazy that if harold Camping hadn't had a stroke he'd be out claiming it was evidence for the rapture.

And, as the title suggests, there's a sad story in there which may upset some listeners.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Oh Good Grief...

Maybe you saw the recent “Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die” documentary on BBC2. Perhaps you’ve commented on it on some forum somewhere. If you have commented then the chances are you didn’t watch the documentary but have instead been told a comforting lie to bolster your way of thinking.

For those who care and for the far greater number who couldn’t really give a damn let me point out some of the factors missed or glossed over by other commentators.

Suicide is legal in this country.

Seriously. Hasn’t been a crime since the early sixties. You can’t be prosecuted for attempting it (although repeated unsuccessful attempt may push a medical professional to diagnose a case of mental instability).

This is suicide we’re talking about. Suicide by healthy people who are suffering a loss (bereavement, loss of income or position, just been dumped) is commonly attempted but is still not a crime. If life is sacred then why aren’t the religious or the ethically baffled attempting to redress this decision? Is it because you’ve been diverted onto this issue because the ill and infirm represent a trickier body of subjects into whom you can interject your weak arguments?

(Hang on, Trev.  You sound awfully cross about this. Steady on. Some people have perfectly valid views about assisted dying. You shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss them.)





Ok, let’s make this fair. Take out the word “valid” ...


“People might feel undue pressure to end their lives.”

Where is the evidence to support this claim? There are several countries in Europe and two states in America that allow assisted dying. There is plenty of data to scour for figures to support that claim. Those figures do not exist.*

People already feel pressure to end their lives and still attempt it in horrific ways, often unsuccessfully. The evidence suggests that this is actually alleviated by the option of suicide being available. The comfort of the possibility of a controlled end with dignity can allow people to choose hospice or palliative care. The existence of Dignitas correlates with an increase in spending in these areas. Switzerland is talking about the difficult subject and everybody wins (a qualified win – sure – but a win nonetheless).

“Life is sacred.”

That’s your opinion. Can you be sure you wouldn’t change your mind if tortured by a degenerative condition for years? Still, even if you are unshakeable that life is sacred – your life still is. Nobody is forcing you to drink the poison. If you are of the opinion that people who disagree with you don’t know any better and should be protected from their ignorance then that is totalitarian thinking and unacceptable.

“If we allow this then where will it end?”

Seriously? Disability activist Liz Carr kept returning to this one and only argument in the after show debate. I was stunned. Disabled people rarely get a voice in the youth-driven, beauty obsessed media. I was appalled to see one of the disabled voices on that show talking out of her arse.

If you have evidence for this “slipping into eugenics” of which you are so fearful then let’s see it. If you don’t then it’s just a slippery slope fallacy and beneath you.

“We should only talk about terminal illnesses and they’re dying soon anyway.”

“Soon” is a very subjective term. And people have been chuffed about the term “weary of life” used to describe 20% of the subjects who die at Dignitas. “Look, there are a few glum teenagers – Goths, probably – who end it all. They would have gone on to discover High School Musical and Jesus if they had lived.”

While that sounds to me more like an argument for suicide let me remind you that suicide is legal here. A ‘leave no mess for my parents/partner/children to clear up’ option is possibly the most debatable of the problems here but it would be allowed here. Enshrined in law. Case closed. Shut up and go home.

The Dignitas deaths described didn’t have a terminal illness. That’s all. In the debate Liz Carr tried to argue that Multiple Sclerosis isn’t terminal. I’m biting my lip not to cuss at Liz because she has usually put the time in to consider these matters but MS not being terminal is a case of semantic pissmouth. “It’s not the noose that’s going to kill you – it’s planet Earth and that pesky gravity that gets the job done.”

Please grow up. 

There are plenty of other conditions that perhaps they didn’t discuss on camera that diminish quality of life. Quality of life is a consideration in this country. It’s a measurable unit used in equations to work out NHS spending policy. Don’t imagine that it’s too ephemeral a notion to define. People are defining it but you know what? If somebody wants to stay alive ... they can. 

At the moment the best way to be allowed to die is to contract something too expensive to treat. Then consent and influence are ignored. That is a cruel reality but then people appear to have great skill in avoiding those.

   I can’t stand anecdotal arguments so I’m not going to enter into it here but I probably will on Friday when we talk about this. This is reposted from my personal blog at with the new title (which has a double meaning - improving the quality of grieving in the UK. See what I did there? See?) and a plea for anybody that disagrees to articulate why without resorting to any of the nonsense described above. Come on, you'd love to see us stumped, wouldn't you?

*The studies done in these countries and states have overwhelmingly shown a positive outcome for all involved. The meta-analyses (which root out poorly controlled studies whether they support or reject a certain outcome and collate the figures to show a larger pool of data) are even more convincing.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Assisted Dying

Last night, the BBC broadcast a documentary on what I thought would be assisted suicide. One of the things this programme taught me is that, actually it’s assisted dying. Now this may seem like semantics to you, but I think it’s important to make the distinction, suicide has a lot of negative connotations which I believe we need to move away from in order to have a grown up debate on the subject. The documentary, presented by author Terry Pratchett, made it clear that the decision which those who wanted to die took, was a clear, cognizant and ultimately, personal choice. These people had chosen to die, with their families around them and with dignity.
Assisted dying is a very emotive subject. Maybe on the one hand it is through centuries of religious conditioning that we believe in the sanctity of life. Or as human beings we have an inbuilt will to survive, like any other animal and to take our own life seems to be an anathema. For those in favour of assisted dying it’s about an individuals right to determine the course of their own life.
Here’s my review of the programme. I missed the opening few minutes, but filling in the gaps, I guess that Terry Pratchett (TP) explained his situation, that he is pro assisted dying, and is himself suffering from a degenerative and incurable disorder in Alzheimers. It seems that the programme was a way for him to look at the choices available to him, should he chose to end his own life, before his condition causes him to deteriorate and leaves him unable to make his own choice.
I picked the programme up with TP meeting with the Smedleys. Peter was an ex hotelier living in Guernsey and suffered from Motor Neuron disease, which affects muscles, eventually leading to difficulties with breathing, speaking and swallowing. Peter seemed to be reasonably healthy, but was fully aware of what was awaiting him in the future. With this knowledge, he had discussed with his wife and had decided that the best option for him was to attend the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland and end his life, in the way he felt was appropriate. His wife, although not 100% comfortable with the decision supported her husband in his decision.
We also met Andrew Colgan, who suffered from M.S. a disease where the average life expectancy of suffers is 5-10 years. Andrew had already tried to commit suicide twice, and had survived. He felt that Dignitas was his best choice, and despite his familys wishes decided to travel to Zurich to die.
In between Peter and Andrew’s stories was that of a London Cabbie, who also suffered from M.N.D., but who had opted for hospice treatment. He was typical London boy and wanted to fight to the bitter end, his attitude was “lets have another throw of the dice”. Later in the Newsnight debate that followed, the Bishop of Exeter told of his support of the hospice movement and the right to “live with dignity”.
The programme followed both Peter & Andrew to Zurich and their last few days. It was highly emotional viewing, although both men showed extraordinary courage and fortitude, it was the attitudes of their families that struck me the most. Andrew’s mother tells TP, that whilst she wants to spend more time with her son, that it is her “selfish” desire and she has to let her son decide. And Peter’s wife holding his hand as he died, still not 100% comfortable with her husbands decision, but respecting his right to choose.
In all honesty, I have to admit that I was already in favour of assisted dying, and this programme reinforced my opinions that people must have the right to choose especially when faced with such difficult circumstances.
Detractors of assisted dying use some of the following arguments to dissuade us from having the choice to determine our own futures. The former Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, said in response to the programme it “was propaganda on one side.” And “life is a gift and has infinite value”. The bishop was not the only one to accuse the programme of propaganda, several other pro life charities voiced their concerns as well. In response to the accusations of propaganda, well to some extent they are correct, we are left in no doubt at the end of the programme what the mindset of TP is. However, throughout the programme it was shown, time and again that this was those peoples choice. And importantly, that there is another way. It was interesting to see in Dignitas’ offices the number of folders of people who have been there, but who have not taken up the option of assisted dying. Maybe they feel comfortable that they are provided for should their conditions become such that death is their only option, or actually deciding that like the cabbie, they want another roll of the dice.
In terms of life being a gift and having infinite value, well, I disagree on that first point. A gift is something that brings joy and happiness to the recipient. All life is precious, and should be treated as such, and who better to make that decision than the person living it. Life is not a gift when you are stuck in a bed, unable to feed yourself, wash yourself, and control your bodily functions. Life is not a gift when those whom you love so very dearly visit you, and you can’t remember who they are, when you can’t even recognise them.
I respect the rights of those people to die in a hospice, and agree with the Bishop of Exeter, that we must invest more in hospice and palliative care for those who are terminal or who can no longer look after themselves. The hospice movement is a vital part of the care system in the UK and it needs investment in order for it to continue to flourish. That should not detract though, from the right of someone who wishes to die to do that. If I can choose to end my life in a hospice, surely I should have the right choose to end my life, at a time and place of my choosing.
The documentary, as I have mentioned, was followed by a Newsnight debate. Well, frankly, this is where I found myself getting quite angry. Particularly at Liz Carr, a comedienne and campaigner for rights for those with disabilities. I found her arguments to be extremely flawed and actually felt that she had no real grasp of the situation being debated. She frequently espoused the view that if we had assisted dying in the UK that the disabled would be running scared from their own families who would put them down. That because of the financial crisis people wouldn’t want the burden of caring for someone. As a disabled campaigner, I of course expect her argue vociferously for rights for disabled people. However, it seemed to me that she completely disregarded the rights of those who are terminally or incurably ill. I found it truly awful that she has such a low opinion of humanity! That we live in a society desperate to do away with cripples to free up bed space and funds for those who need them. There will always be people who are nefarious and will try to “off” family members for an inheritance – history is littered with them.
There was a slightly disturbing element to the documentary though. Apparently, 21% of the people who chose to end their lives in Dignitas, do so because they are “weary of life”, not because they have an incurable or terminal illness. This was something that the film makers did not go into a great deal of detail about. I hope, and expect that the law has legislated for such persons so that all other avenues are explored and appropriate counselling has been given before they are allowed to terminate their own life.
In the UK, this is where Parliament really has to step up. We need good legislation that protects people from the greedy and malicious and that stops the abuse of the system. The current system of turning a blind eye will only suffice so far. How will current legislation react if I took one of my parents to Dignitas, because it was their choice, but my brother disagreed and forced the police to enact the law and prosecute me?
If Liz really paid attention to the programme she would have learnt 2 things. 1) The Swiss have legislation that requires doctors to assess the state, both physical and mental, of the person requesting assistance and 2) that you can only use the services of Dignitas if you are able to administer the drugs yourself. They cannot be administered for you by a medical professional, family member or anyone else. Right up to the point you take the lethal dose of Barbiturates, you can say no.
In summation, I am fully supportive of the campaign to bring assisted dying to the United Kingdom. It seems to me a basic human right that I have determination as far as my life is concerned, indeed, it is enshrined in the European convention of Human rights. It seems somewhat sick to me that in a society where it is wrong to leave an animal in a state of suffering, where it is acceptable to “put an animal to sleep” in order to end it’s suffering; that we cannot grant that right to our fellow humans, that we have to insist on prolonging their suffering because of the “Sanctity of life”. Dying is part of the cycle of life and we need to break this last taboo and start having open and honest debate in the UK about assisted dying, I see this programme as a good starting place.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Episode 34 - Bashing The (Arch)Bishop

The live stream failed us this week. Just as well we didn't promote it as much as we usualyy do on Facebook and Twitter.

This week we discuss the arch-bish's comments on the current government, reiki healers being put in hospitals, catholic clergy reviewing books, rear of the year, Dolly The Dog, A C Grayling's super-university and What We're Doing This Weekend.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Episode 33 - Dogmatic Dawkins

I knew the episode title would get your attention! But it's not simply a stunt because we do actually discuss Dawkins and dogmatism.

This episode is all about religion. Trevor wanted to give it the title "Shadowboxing: Two atheists take on God ...who they don't believe in ... so it's 2 against 0. Apart from when Trev's blood sugar has a wibble then it's 1 1/2 against 0. Who will win the piece of Dawkins toast?" I liked his title a lot, but its verboseness combined with the fact I let him win Guess The Year by default was too much for iTunes to bear.

Anyway, we discuss a range of topics: the harm of moderate religion, the after-life, sophisticated theology, denial of objective truth and solipsism, dogmatic and militant atheism, mocking religion, miracles, whether skeptics can also be believers and a lot of other stuff in between.

Download it now! It comes with an extra 15 minutes of bonus material, just so you get more value for money.

Trevor also mentions a very funny and true cartoon: If God Were A Car.

Thanks to Chris 'Mitch' Mitchell for the awesome Dawkins Toast image