Sunday, 26 May 2013

The Sceptic’s Guide To Spotting Bullshit

The internet is packed with bullshit.

There’s a whole range of nonsense to be found, thousands of sites devoted to woo, and entire corners of the web devoted to crack-pottery. In lieu of a more thought-out, extensive post I thought I’d throw together a list of a couple things that can very often be indicators to the fact that the website you’ve stumbled upon is spouting bullshit.


  1. The writer seems to have a serious fetish for the word ‘truth’ and will use it in everything from the title to each and every post.
  2. The words ‘New World Order’, ‘Illuminati’ and/or ‘Jews’ are used in the same sentence.
  3. Info Wars is linked without any trace of sarcasm.
  4. The reader is frequently exonerated to “wake up”, or posts are ended with a call for America/the world to “open their eyes”.
  5. ‘False Flag Operations’ are mentioned and discussed with reckless abandon.
  6. Crude and blurry images with red lines added in MS Paint make up the bulk of the images posted.
  7. Monsanto is viewed as something akin to the Antichrist.
  8. The phrase “wake up sheeple” is used without irony.
  9. Ghandi’s “first they ignore you…” quote is referenced frequently.
  10. Any Youtube videos linked will always have their titles in all-caps. Because nothing says credible like all-caps.
  11. Any text used in an image must be bright red. Because red is a colour that works on anything.
  12. Alex Jones is cited as an expert.

If you guys have any further points you’d like to add to the list, feel free to mention them in the comments.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

The Thick Skin

The internet is a pretty incredible resource.

Chances are that you, reading this post right now, are hundreds, even thousands of miles away from where I sit typing it. Right now, I could open up Skype and be capable of talking to someone on the opposite side of the world to me in real time. Or else I could open up Netflix and stream movies at a rate that would have been considered nigh-impossible a decade ago.

For every silver-lining, however, there's always the cloud.

Because whilst the internet is pretty incredible, it's also full of assholes.

Write a post about movies, and some guy will emerge to tell you that your opinions suck. Write a post about video games, and another guy will pop out of nowhere to tell you that you're terrible at what you do and you should stop. Write a post about religion from an atheistic standpoint, and you'll find several people jumping out the woodwork to tell you that you're going to hell. Write a post about religion from a theistic standpoint, and I'd wager you'll have plenty of folks telling you that you're an ignorant, Bible-thumping fucktard. Talk about how you think homoeopathy has no evidence for it and you'll get labelled a shill for Big Pharma. Point out the faults in a particular conspiracy theory and someone will be there to declare you a narrow-minded fool who can't see the bigger picture.

In short, if you talk about things on the internet it's basically an inevitability that at some point you will have people stop by just to try and fuck with you.

Don't get me wrong, writing a blog can be a very rewarding experience. I've been writing Damned Already for over a year now, and it's been an awesome way to help me figure out how I think about issues and has put me in touch with some very cool internet folks, too. But you've got to be prepared for the less enjoyable parts of putting your thoughts and ideas out into the ether that is the world wide web.

The ability to look past things and weather abuse, otherwise known as having a thick skin, is pretty vital at times when you're writing a blog. The ability to not be put off by some guy appearing just to tell you how much he thinks you suck can help you not to lose your enjoyment of this whole 'typing out your thoughts and ideas and then sticking then on the internet' thing. At the same time, though, it's important to be able to separate assholery from those dispensing useful, if blunt, constructive criticism. You might not like what they have to say, or the way they say it, but sometimes there's a few gems of useful feedback in amongst the sea of shit being spewed at you.

Posting anything on the internet can suck at times. That doesn't change the fact that it can be an extremely rewarding experience too.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

The Joys Of Spring

 By joys, I mean exams.

Which are not in any way, shape or form joyful.

Yes, it's that time of year again where the University makes sure we student things actually learned something this year by testing us on our modules. So I'm currently buried under revision and last minute preparation, because forward planning has never been my strong suit.

As such, updates might be a little slow in the coming weeks. I'll be aiming to post something at least once a week, but that will probably be it for the rest of the month. Once June rolls around I'm free and clear, however, so it'll be business as usual then.

Until then, however, I best get back to reading about British immigration. A truly riveting and cheery subject. Honest.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Religious Themes in Video Games: Receiver

Been slacking off on these of late, so here's the next entry in this series on games that cover the often rather difficult topic of religion.

This one's a recent discovery of mine, and drastically different from the previous games I've discussed. Made in a week as part of an indie game challenge by a small studio called Wolfire, Receiver features some truly unique game mechanics and a covers a fascinating topic.

You see, Receiver is a game that allows you to experience what it's like to be in a cult.


This is a game that takes a very subtle, minimalist approach to story, and I reckon it benefits from it greatly. You find yourself alone in a series of interconnected buildings and apartments with nothing but a handgun, a tape-player and a set of headphones. Scattered throughout this environment are tapes, telling you that you're special, that you have a great potential waiting to be realised. You see, you're what the beings speaking through the tape (oh, I did mention that they say they're from another dimension, right?) call a 'receiver', someone who is capable of hearing their message and has the chance to break free from the control of the Threat, another extra-dimensional race that has enslaved humanity through “media addiction”.

If you succeed in collecting all the tapes, you will become the first human to transcend to another plane of existence. The Threat isn't keen on this, and has released “kill-bots” into the area to murder you before you succeed.

It took me a bit to catch on to what the developers were trying to say with all this, but when the penny dropped it was a hell of a revelation.

Receiver isn't so much a commentary as it is an experience, and that's surprisingly rare in video games of this nature; it doesn't judge one way or the other whether the tapes are telling you a crock of shit or whether you really are a person on the brink of ascending to another dimension, instead just feeding you the information and letting you decide for yourself. It provides an insight into the mind of someone drawn in by a cult, the tantalising possibility that you really are unique in the world, that you have a destiny that will allow you to become greater than all others.

The nature of the gameplay helps to drive this idea forwards; you are alone throughout, with nothing but a voice on a tape-player as contact with other people. The enemies in the game are faceless machines, designed by the Threat to kill enlightened beings such as yourself. Just with this simple choice of design Receiver puts you in the mindset of a cult member, cut off and aloof from others, concerning yourself only with the words of your fellow believers.

The mechanics are a stroke of genius in-and-of themselves, but since that's not really the topic of discussion I won't dwell on them too much. Suffice it to say that I've played a lot of games with aspirations towards a “realistic shooting mechanics”, games that have millions of dollars pumped into their development, and Wolfire has topped them all with Receiver.

Cults are one of the scariest aspects of religion and faith, and so a game that can provide a means to understand those drawn in by such things is a valuable thing indeed. You can grab it on Steam or from Wolfire's website for just $4 at the moment, which is a steal as far as I'm concerned.

The gameplay is unforgiving, to say the least, but Receiver is worth playing just for the experience alone.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Sylvia Browne Told The Mother Of Amanda Berry Her Daughter Was Dead

Louwana Miller will never know that her daughter is alive

Just a quick update today, guys, as I don't have a huge amount to add to this story; I just want to do what little I can to make sure awareness of this spreads.

Sylvia Browne, self-described “spiritual teacher and psychic”, has a long history of having her predictions turn out to be big, steaming crocks of bullshit. And it seems we can tally up yet another to this very long list, because in 2003 Browne told Louwana Miller, the mother of the woman who has recently been found after her disappearance ten years ago, that her daughter was in fact dead.

You can read the transcript of the event in which she told Louwana Miller this lie here. Head's up, though, it's some depressing shit.

News like Amanda Berry and several other missing women being found is always great to hear, which is why having stuff like this blemish it is always so frustrating. What's worse is the fact that Louwana will never know that her daughter is in fact alive and well even after all this time: she passed away due to a heart-failure in 2006. Browne telling her that her daughter was dead changed her, according to Art McCoy; “from that point on, Ms Miller was never the same”.

I cannot express how much it angers me that Browne added further anguish to the final years of this poor woman's life. That's why this story is so damn important, and why I'm so glad that it's gaining so much media attention.

Charlatans and predators like Sylvia Browne deserve to be held accountable for their failures and wrong-doings. I hope that something good can come out of this extremely sad story.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

This Week in Atheism, Religion and Scepticism – 05/05/2013


It's not often you get to hear good news coming out from the 'ex-gay' movement (the guys who claim that homosexuality is some sort of illness curable by Jesus, or what have you), so this story is one I'm happy to be writing about. John Paulk, the poster boy for this particularly noxious movement and founder of the Love Won Out ministry, has issued a formal statement revealing that he is still gay and denouncing the idea of gay reparative therapy. His statement doesn't pull any punches: Paulk seems keen to distance himself from the movement he was once so closely associated with and is quoted as saying “I do not believe that reparative therapy changes sexual orientation; in fact, it does great harm to many people.”

To come out like this, to admit you were wrong about something you once defined yourself by so strongly, takes a lot of courage, so hats off to Mister Paulk. Gay reparative advocates will be going full damage control on this one, but this revelation has struck a serious blow to their credibility.

Not that they had much to begin with.


If only all friends were as awesome as the one featured in this story. Alexis Smith is suing the Northwest Rankin High School on behalf of a friend, whose age means that she has to sue through someone who is legally an adult. The school, through the influence of a large evangelical Baptist Church called Pinelake that has managed to gain a lot of sway in the Rankin County School District, brought about an assembly that What Would JT Do? describes:

“The school did not tell students in advance what the purpose of the assemblies were, nor did it allow them to opt out. All three assemblies consisted of the same Christian video and presentation. The focus of the assembly was how the students could find “hope” in Jesus, since they couldn’t find hope elsewhere... One senior recorded the entire assembly on a cellphone. Faculty and parents stood by the door to the room where the assembly was held, preventing students from leaving. Several students actually did try to leave, and were told to sit back down by the school’s truancy officer. The assemblies all ended with a group prayer.”

Fans of the United States constitution might currently be gesticulating wildly at the First Amendment and making angry noises, and you'd be damn right to do so. Hence why it's awesome that more people are beginning to take a stand on this issue. Religious groups have no grounds to pull this sort of stunt, and so the more people call them out and challenge them on it the less likely they are to attempt it.

Kudos to the unnamed student for raising this important issue, and major kudos to Smith for being so willing to stand by a friend when they need support. This sort of action makes a difference.


The libel suit against author and scientist Simon Singh by the British Chiropractic Association has become the stuff of legend amongst sceptics the world over; the BCA's attempts to silence criticism through legislation backfired massively and led to a huge surge of support for Singh that ultimately trigger a change in the libel laws of Britain. It was a great example of reason and evidence stepping into the arena with pseudoscience, and even Britain's shitty libel laws couldn't help the proponents of nonsense.

But I don't think everybody realises just how massive a gamble Singh took when he decided to fight this case. Fortunately Nick Cohen of The Spectator does, and he can tell you all about it in this article. It contains extracts from Cohen's You Can't Read This Book, which sums up the whole thing brilliantly so I'll just go ahead and quote it here:

After hearing the judge’s ruling, Singh’s friends, his lawyers and everyone else who had his best interests at heart advised him to get out of the madhouse of the law while he still could. He had already risked £100,000 of his own money. If he fought the case, it would obsess his every waking moment for a year, possibly longer, and he could lose ten times that amount if the verdict went against him. Even if he won, he would still lose, because another peculiarity of the English law is that the victor cannot recoup his full costs. It was as if the judiciary had put Singh in a devil’s version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?...

...No one would have blamed him for backing down. There would have been no dishonour in withdrawing from the fray. Thousands of publishers and writers in England and beyond have looked at the cost and biases of the English law and thought surrender the only option. Singh said that if he were a twenty-five-year-old with no money he would have apologised. But his bestselling books had given him financial independence. He resolved to refuse to put his name to a lie by authorising an apology. He knew what his enemies would do with it. Ernst and Singh had spent years investigating alternative medicine. No potential patient would spend more than a few days doing the same. If he apologised, chiropractic therapists would wave his retraction at potential patients, and say that Singh had admitted that their philosophy was not gibberish, and their claims to treat children were not bogus. As shamefully, an apology would also make Singh complicit in silencing other journalists, scientists and editors, who would think hard before challenging alternative therapists after seeing how the law had forced him to retract.”

So Simon Singh fought the case, even with the looming threat of losing and having the pants sued off him by the BCA. And he won; the outpouring of support for his cause and condemnation for the despicable attempts at censorship by the BCA was massive. Their attempts to justify their beliefs were torn apart by bloggers and medical journals. Petitions in support of Singh and against the libel laws were launched. Over 500 separate complaints against chiropractors within one 24-hour period, and that later rose to a quarter of all British chiropractors. In short, it was a catastrofuck for every chiropractor in the UK; as one of them put it, “suing Simon was worse than any Streisand effect and chiropractors know itand can do nothing about it.”

Singh seems like a pretty modest man; from the way Cohen describes it he's not keen to be put on a pedestal. Nonetheless he stood his ground and fought a case most would have run from, and in doing so helped change the laws of Britain for the better, so I agree with Nick Cohen in saying he does deserve all the praise he gets for this case.

That's all for this week in Atheism, Religion and Scepticism, folks. See you next time.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Does Religion Poison Everything?

Let's start with a disclaimer.

I'm a big, big fan of the Hitch.

Books like God Is Not Great were sources of information and inspiration to me when I first came to identify as a non-believer, far more so than any works by Dawkins or even Dennett, so it's safe to say that the late and great Christopher Hitchens remains someone I admire to this day. I'm not keen on hero worship, but he'd be a strong candidate if I was. I sure as shit didn't agree with a lot of his politics, but I greatly respected his willingness to speak up on matters he considered important, and to hold to his beliefs even when they made him unpopular.

So yes, big fan of the Hitch, love his work, miss his insights on matters.

I still cannot help but disagree with him on one of his major arguments, however.

What I'm referring to is this idea put forward in the very subtitle of God Is Not Great, “religion poisons everything” (unless you live in the UK like me, in which case the subtitle had to be changed to “the case against religion”, likely due to the bullshit libel laws of the time). You might say that this was just a catchy little phrasing used to garner attention to the book, but it comes up frequently throughout and is referenced in many of his speeches (which are master-classes in oratory skill, by the by, and you should watch as many as you can get your hands on).

Hitchens liked to cause a stir, to trigger debate and discussion, and this could partly account for what he was trying to achieve with this statement. But I do believe that he thought there was merit in this idea of religion as the source of the world's problems and issues.

Yet the tutor for my dissertation this year (writing on the topic of non-belief in early twentieth century Britain), a man I have come to admire and respect considerably, who has aided me time and time again and provided considerable support with what was a difficult task to complete, is a deeply religious man. He holds convictions that are completely different my own, but this did in no way poison the rapport we built up over the last year or the help me gave to me; if anything my dissertation benefited from it, for he offered a different insight onto the matters being discussed, something that I could never hope to provide.

Religion causes problems, yes. I don't think anyone could look at some of the events occurring across the globe today and come to any other conclusion. Does it cause all the world's problems, though?

No, it doesn't.

Christopher Hitchens was on to something with this idea of religion poisoning everything; I just think he needed to go a step further. Ignorance is what we should all be concerned by, whether we are religious or not, for it is the root cause of many of the world's current predicaments. Religion can indeed be considered an off-shoot of ignorance, but not always. To say that religion has had absolutely nothing of value to contribute to the world would be an over-statement so massive you'd be able to see it from orbit; the great Islamic nations of the Middle Ages helped to preserve texts of antiquity, and anyone who sees nothing beautiful or inspiring about a centuries-old Cathedral, steeped in history and a monument to ages past, needs to have their heads examined.

This isn't a criticism of Hitchens, and I am not another parasite in the guise of a commentator scuttling out from the shadows now that he is unable to retort to leech of his reputation and memory. This is merely a disagreement. I'd like to think that atheists are capable of respectfully disagreeing with one another, of debating matters that are important to us all.

We can disagree about things but still respect one another, and that's exactly how I feel about Hitchens on this topic.