Monthly Archives: August 2011

King Arthur Loses His Battle to Protect Druid Remains

King Arthur

King Arthur Pendragon (formerly known as John Timothy Rothwell) lost his battle at the High Court today to prevent Sheffield University researchers conducting further research on the cremated remains of at least 40 individuals that were discovered at Stonehenge in 2008. Signing himself into the court register as “Arthur Rex” King Arthur (57) who changed his name by deed pole in 1986  told the judge that the bones were remains of members of the “royal line” or “priest caste” who could have been the “founding fathers of this great nation.” However Mr Justice Wyn Williams refused permission to launch a judicial review action, ruling that there was insufficient grounds that the investigators had acted unreasonably.

I have often wondered how these decisions are arrived at. We know in recent years that museums have had to return the remains of a number of indigenous peoples whose modern day ancestors have requested them back for burial. But what is considered reasonable? Some relics are hundreds of years old. So it can’t be simply time. What happens when national boundaries shift? What does it mean to be British? Many of these issues of origins are steeped in psychological notions of identity which are more to do with narratives, rather than well defined categories and yet people expend a lot of effort and grief over chunks of matter.


Filed under In the News

Renowned Academics Speaking About God

Well I don’t know what I am more flattered by?  Being regarded as a “renowned academic” or being squeezed in between Richard Dawkins and Marvin Minksy – two brilliant thinkers that have had a major impact on my own thinking. If you can’t be bothered with all the other great minds, I’m on around 11:50, but there are some very smart things being said worth listening to.

1. Frank Wilczek, Nobel Laureate in Physics, MIT
2. VS Ramachandran, World-Renowned Neuroscientist, UC San Diego
3. Bruce C. Murray, Caltech Professor Emeritus of Planetary Science
4. Sir Raymond Firth, World-Renowned Anthropologist, LSE
5. Alva Noë, Berkeley Professor of Philosophy
6. Alan Dundes, World Expert in Folklore, Berkeley
7. Massimo Pigliucci, Professor of Philosophy, CUNY
8. Bede Rundle, Oxford Professor of Philosophy
9. Sir Richard Friend, Cambridge Professor of Physics
10. George Lakoff, Berkeley Professor of Linguistics
11. Sir John Sulston, Nobel Laureate in Physiology/Medicine
12. Shelley Kagan, Yale Professor of Philosophy
13. Roy J. Glauber, Nobel Laureate in Physics
14. Lewis Wolpert, Emeritus Professor of Biology, UCL
15. Mahzarin Banaji, Harvard Professor of Social Ethics
16. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Professor of Practical Ethics, Duke University
17. Richard Dawkins, Oxford Evolutionary Biologist
18. Bruce Hood, Professor of Experimental Psychology, Bristol
19. Marvin Minsky, Artificial Intelligence Research Pioneer, MIT
20. Herman Philipse, Professor of Philosophy, Utrecht University
21. Michio Kaku, CUNY Professor of Theoretical Physics
22. Dame Caroline Humphrey, Cambridge Professor of Anthropology
23. Max Tegmark, World-Renowned Cosmologist, MIT
24. David Parkin, Oxford Professor of Anthropology
25. Robert Price, Professor of Theology and Biblical Criticism
26. Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Psychology, Virginia
27. Max Perutz, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry
28. Rodolfo Llinas, Professor of Neuroscience, New York
29. Dan McKenzie, World-Renowned Geophysicist, Cambridge
30. Patricia Churchland, Professor of Philosophy, UC San Diego
31. Sean Carroll, Caltech Theoretical Cosmologist
32. Alexander Vilenkin, World-Renowned Theoretical Physicist
33. PZ Myers, Professor of Biology, Minnesota
34. Haroon Ahmed, Prominent Cambridge Scientist (Microelectronics)
35. David Sloan Wilson, Professor of Biology and Anthropology, SUNY
36. Bart Ehrman, Professor of Religious Studies, UNC
37. Seth Lloyd, Pioneer of Quantum Computing, MIT
38. Dan Brown, Fellow in Organic Chemistry, Cambridge
39. Victor Stenger, Emeritus Professor of Physics and Astronomy, Hawaii
40. Simon Schaffer, Cambridge Professor of the History of Science
41. Saul Perlmutter World-Renowned Astrophysicist, Berkeley
42. Lee Silver, Princeton Professor of Molecular Biology
43. Barry Supple, Emeritus Professor of Economic History, Cambridge
44. Alan Dershowitz, Harvard Professor of Law
45. John Raymond Smythies, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatric Research
46. Chris Hann, Max Planck Institute For Social Anthropology
47. David Gross, Nobel Laureate in Physics
48. Ronald de Sousa, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, Toronto
49. Robert Hinde, Emeritus Professor of Zoology, Cambridge
50. Carolyn Porco, NASA Planetary Scientist


Filed under In the News

Cognitive Sewage

Americans use on average 24 gallons of water each day to flush their toilets—that’s approximately 5.8 billion gallons. Although billions are spent on treating this water to a level that is suitable for drinking less than 10% of recycled water ends up coming out of our taps.  Despite the best efforts of engineers to produce some of the cleanest water on the planet many people are repelled by the thought of drinking water that’s been in our toilets.This reminds of the recent episode when officials decided to empty the Lake Tabor reservoir coz someone took a leak in it.

Carol Nemeroff, a former student of that guru of gross, Paul Rozin, conducted a study of 2,000 people and established that our old friend of magical contagion was the culprit. As she put it, “It is quite difficult to get the cognitive sewage out of the water, even after the real sewage is gone.”

One way to combat contagion beliefs is to pair the thought of recycled water with more natural settings such as imaging it sitting in an underground reservoir. The problem is that Nature can be pretty filthy so you really are better off with the treated sewage.

With so many cities facing a water shortage crisis, it is about time we got over our contamination fears. San Diego is already drinking recycled water because it imports 85% of its water from Northern California and the Colorado River, into which upstream communities like Las Vegas discharge wastewater that is later treated for drinking purposes.

Thank you to those that sent me this item which appeared on this week’s National Public Radio website.


Filed under In the News

Woman Is Eating Her Husband

The season finale of “My Strange Addiction” reports the bizarre case of  26-old-old Casie, a widow who is gradually eating the cremated remains of her husband who died from an asthma attack. While transferring his remains from crematorium box to an urn, she accidentally got some of his ashes on her fingers. Rather than simply wiping her husband off, she decided to lick them. Unfortunately this has developed into a bizarre behaviour of eating the cremated remains which taste of  “rotten eggs, sand and sandpaper.” Apparently Casie is at risk of the chemicals used to embalm her husband which are still present in the ashes but her greatest fear is what to do when he is all gone. She has already consumed 1lb of the ashes in two months and there is only 5lbs left.  Yet another extraordinary example of essentialism. You can read more and see the video here


Filed under Essentialism, Weird Story of the Week

A Bedtime Story

My two good friends and colleagues Paul Bloom and Karen Wynn visited me recently and had a great stay just before heading off to Edinburgh where Paul gave his amazing TED talk on the Origins of Pleasure and essentialism. They had a great time as I showed them the fun of living in the countryside and the joy of flame-throwers and chain-saws. They just don’t have these toys in Yale. Anyway, they sent me the weirdest thank you present. It was a set of pillow cases with “A Bedtime Story” printed on each. The story began,

One day I was walking in the woods when I heard the terrible roar of a monster. It filled me with fear and I ran back to the village to alert the community…

The story goes on about how the community were convinced that there was a monster in the wood and that they had to make sacrifices to the Gods to protect them but no offering seemed to satisfy. Eventually, they went into the woods only to discover that the roar came from a pair of loudspeakers connected to a recorder that had been put there by scientists from the University of Bristol to study their behaviour.

It was a strange story to say the least but I guessed Karen and Paul were referring to my work on supernatural beliefs in an artistic sort of way. They had obviously commissioned some company up in Edinburgh to print up the pillowcases. I was intrigued to learn more about the company. Imagine my surprise to discover the work was actually a famous modern piece by the artist David Shrigley and was in the Tate museum. Here is the story from his website as it appears on the pillowcases.

David Shrigley "A Bedtime Story" 2010

I emailed Karen and told her that I thought that it was weird that David Shrigley had produced this piece of art and that I was mistaken in thinking that it was a story they had composed. Karen replied how more weird of me to think that they would do such a thing in the first place!

I have tried to contact David Shrigley to ask where he got the idea for the story – I am convinced I am implicated. Alas he has not responded but if anyone knows, please contact me. I will sleep much better on these pillowcases knowing!


Filed under General Thoughts