Narendra Dabholkar murdered for being a skeptic
I must confess I did not know who Narendra Dabholkar was, but I should have. Today I learned that this man was executed by assassins most likely because of his outspoken criticism of superstition in India. Dabholkar was at the forefront of a long-running campaign to ban superstitious religious practices by getting the state of Maharashtra to pass an anti black-magic bill. He died on Tuesday after being shot by two gunmen riding a motorcycle.
According to Michael Shermer on Twitter, he was the Indian equivalent of James Randi, offering 500,000 rupees (£5,000) to any spiritualist who could successfully summon spirits. The licence plate of the attackers was noted but as yet, nothing has been done. One wonders whether anything will in a country where superstitious practices are very prevalent.
Of course, we have had our own religiously motivated murders in the West so maybe we should not be too surprised. Still it is shocking, when someone is killed for simply asking those to verify their claims. This leads me back to consider activism against believers. I see that Dave Mabus has started up his activities again leaving his deranged comments here as well as emailing me and many other prominent skeptics again – BOOM… those who get the messages will get the joke. Still, how do we protect ourselves from the deluded who become dangerous. Dabholkar’s death reminds us not to become complacent.
UPDATE: We have just learned that there has been a call for a strike in protest at the killing. One hopes that this goes ahead.
New Update: It has just been announced that the Government has passed the anti-magic bill that Dabholkar had fought to get passed. I guess that is a comfort to those he left behind.
It has been a while since I last blogged but it’s not because I did not have anything to say but rather there has been too much happening. I was abroad touring most of April and have yet to write up my account of China and S. Korea as well as Sweden. I hope to get to them soon as I have some interesting insights.
Then there was the outcome of the trial of Jim McCormick, the businessman who sold dowsing rods as bomb detectors on the day of my return to the UK. There is still more to come from that story over the coming months as Gary Bolton and others face the wrath of the law.
In the meantime, it has been exam period so that has been busy. I have also been fitting in a bit of TV here and there but increasingly I am finding that I have to turn down invitations – which is a good thing I guess. One thing I did do this week was Dara O’Briain’s Science Club – a popular BBC2 science show which was a great laugh. I will post nearer the broadcast date but here is a picture of me with this giant of a man – he really is – I look like his glove puppet in this picture
I have just finished marking the final year exam papers for my undergraduate and aside from some project students and admin, I am nearly the completion of the 2012/13 academic year.
So what of next year? Well I am finally taking that sabbatical fellowship I was awarded last year by my wonderful University who have been incredibly supportive in my activities. I doubt another institution would have been so good – how many workers get to say that about their employers? I really cannot say how much I enjoy being at Bristol.
Even though I could just sit about on my backside, the reality is that I will be working harder than ever. I have a new book published by Penguin which is currently going through the edit stage but due out in the summer of 2014. I also have a controversial new grant starting in September which I will tell you more about then. There are various other seeds that have been planted but the one thing that I am most excited about is that I am making an independent documentary based on the content of “SuperSense” that will be filmed over the course of the next year. These are definitely unchartered waters but after years, I am finally been given the opportunity to do something that I want.
So hopefully I will be able to keep you posted with updates of the various events along the way – if I get the time.
The Most Amazing Thing in the Universe
This time last year, I was presenting the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, “Meet Your Brain”that were filmed for the BBC. It was a major life event that took four months of preparation. One of the major hurdles was coming up with demonstrations that would work well for a young audience. To my surprise this was a lot harder than I imagined as there were not that many “off-the-shelf” examples to illustrate the basic principles of neuroscience that we teach our students.
In the end, we came up with three shows-worth of material and demonstrations that went down really well (excellent ratings by the TV pundits & over 4 million viewers). It seems like a distant memory now that I have returned to day job as an academic but I must confess I miss the spotlight and attention that the Christmas Lectures generate.
One legacy is that we have created a free online resource based around the content of the three lectures called “The Brain Bank.” This has all been down to an amazing amount of hard work by my longtime collaborator and friend, Dr. Natalia Gjersoe.
It contains video clips, demonstrations, images and Q&A discussions all aimed at a teenage audience. There are three sections that deal with architecture, functions and the social brain. It is especially good for UK teachers as it explains difficult concepts and tells you which part of the school’s curriculum each of the points cover but it has international appeal. After all, brains are pretty much the same wherever you are!
I really hope it gets used and inspires the next generation of brain scientists.
A couple of months back, the European Commission spent over £80,000 on a video to encourage more girls to take up science. A just cause but an atrocious video, I am sure you will agree.
It looks like it was made by Berlusconi and it would be funny if they were not deadly serious. It caused a major outcry and in response, the ‘girls’ in my department decided they could do better with a budget of £7.66. What do you think?
Did I mention I work in the best department in the world?
I just saw this pop up on my Twitter feed from Derren Brown about a US magician who was set alight by the host of TV show in the Domican Republic. Here is a link to the article and details are still very sketchy but apparently, the host ignited a liquid that is used to exorcise witches, and threw it over the head of US magician Wayne Houchin.
Wayne suffered severe burns and is currently in hospital though he has just Tweeted that he may not be permanently scarred. Doesn’t matter, he could have been killed. This is such a strange attack as the host seems to offer assistance but we are assured that this was not a stunt to get publicity. Derren Brown tweets that the host set fire to Wayne to rid him of evil spirits. It doesn’t look like a stunt and so reminds me of the blog I wrote about modern beliefs in witches and the horrific examples of witch burning in Africa as shown in this distressing footage. WARNING – NSFL . So it is not just, primitive, uneducated natives in Africa who don’t know better (BTW I am being deliberately facetious!) but also Westernized, presumably well-educated TV presenters.
Here is another blog that provides more details and a translation of the statement released after the attack.
Apologies for my absence but I have been working on a new book which has a December delivery date. It is due out next year and to be published by Penguin. That will be five books since 2009 (two academic, SuperSense, The Self Illusion & the new one) I am also blogging over at the Huffington Post and Psychology Today and it is the start of the academic year so I have all the teaching as well so as you can imagine, it is difficult to find the time.
Excuses, excuses. Anyway, I thought I would tell you about children’s sentimental toys as there is a growing interest in this. Journalist Laura Wexler interviewed me for a forthcoming article she is writing for The New Republic magazine about adults’ attachment objects. I have also been contacted by an artist, Susan Swartzberg, who has started a remarkable project called “The Honey Project” to collect stories and images of adult’s attachment object. She has created a Facebook page about it and you can visit the Honey Project wonderful website that looks fab. If you have one of these object please visit.
Of course, I covered sentimental objects in SuperSense and continue to research this fascinating aspect of child development. Do you remember the photograph of the wanted poster in the book? Well here is another.
In July this summer The Daily Mail reported this story of the Swedish police who have posted a similar wanted poster for a child’s missing teddy bear on their official Facebook page. Immediately the police force was criticised by some who thought they should be dealing with more important issues. In defense the police replied, ” The article above was written by an off-duty policeman, so the cost to us was zero. If we, through two minutes’ work, can help her get her friend back, we’d say it’s good prioritizing, don’t you think?”
Here is my talk from TAM 2012 where I talk about the basic premise of The Self Illusion.
If you read some of the comments (which I know an author never should) there are some complaints that this sounds a bit like the teachings of Buddha – well duh! I make this point almost at the very beginning of The Self Illusion but when you only have 30 mins to give a talk and you have been told to make it even shorter because of scheduling problems, then you don’t have time to give a full account.
More importantly, I wanted to squeeze in a mention of the dowsing bomb detectors story as the perpetrators of this shameful activity were scheduled to appear in court that very morning in London. An officer from Avon & Somerset police kindly called me last night to inform me that the gang were due back in court on October 18th but they fully expected the case to be prosecuted in the spring. I knew that of course, because of the tireless efforts of Techowiz & Peter Robinson who have been keeping informed of events. Watch this space as they say.
The atrocity committed last sunday in Afghanistan where Sgt Robert Bales allegedly murdered 16 incident civilians, of whom nine were children, is destined to be become one of the worst acts of senseless brutality in recent years. Of course, more have been killed in various incidences such as the suicide car bombs but there is something so shocking about a senior officer, a married father with two children of his own, losing control and going on a bloody rampage.
It is still too early to know and I guess that this blog is yet another example of premature speculation, but I was preparing a lecture on “The Self Illusion” where I discuss the case of Charles Whitman, the Texas sniper. For 96 minutes on a hot summer’s afternoon in 1966, Whitman killed students on the University of Texas campus at Austen before he was eventually shot dead by police. What makes his rampage so unusual was that Whitman believed that he was not thinking rationally and that there was something making him commit the murders. He wrote in his suicide note,
“I don’t quite understand what it is that compels me to type this letter. Perhaps it is to leave some vague reason for the actions I have recently performed. I don’t really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I can’t recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts. These thoughts constantly recur and it requires a tremendous mental effort to concentrate on useful and progressive tasks…… After my death I wish that an autopsy would be performed on me to see if there is any visible physical disorder.”
And there was. His autopsy revealed a tumour in his limbic system that would have been consistent with rage and sudden mood swings. Other cases, I talk about in the book, include a pedophile who was discovered to have a tumor in his frontal lobes that would have impaired his impulse control. When the tumor was removed – his sexual perversion abated. However, when he started taking a sexual interest in children two years later, a brain scan revealed that his tumor had returned.
The lawyers acting for Sgt Robert Bales have begun to piece together a defense claiming that he was suffering from brain damage following a head injury that he sustained on a tour of duty in Iraq. It is not clear whether this will turn out to be correct. It may be that no such pathological evidence will show up in scans or neurophysiological measures. Even if there is some physical evidence of a disorder, will that make him less culpable? I expect most of us would regard brain damage as mitigating circumstances but what of others who suddenly lose control? Are they any less guilty? These are difficult questions about neuroethics but I doubt that any explanation is going to satisfy the Afghan people’s demand for justice.
I am generally a fairly liberal guy when it comes to religion. People believe all sorts of weird nonsense and fantasies but so long as they keep their beliefs to themselves and do not impose upon others then what’s the harm? Well, of course, that the problem, isn’t it? Especially when those others are not capable of making their own decisions about what to believe and practice.
So I was both shocked and saddened to hear about the death of an infant boy last September who contracted herpes after his circumcision by a rabbi using the ultra-Orthodox ritual known as metzizah b’ peh where the rabbi removes blood from the wound with his mouth. Where was this medieval ritual performed? Can you believe it took place in Brooklyn Hospital, New York? It’s unclear who performed the circumcision but it is not the first time infants have contracted herpes in this bizarre ritual. In 2004, three infants circumcised by Rabbi Yitzchok Fischer were determined to have contracted herpes, city officials said. In 2005, there was another infant death following this practice.
I am all for the importance of tradition as Topol would say, but enough is enough. No doubt the parents are distraught at losing their child but this ritual needs to be criminalized. Needless to say, the rabbi who is responsible for this is beyond contempt. He must have known that he had herpes at some point and he also must of known of the risk. I can’t really see any justification for allowing this practice to continue.
It has been sometime since I posted a blog rather than simply a link to some article or media clip related the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. The lectures were a great success with some of the best audience viewing figures both for the lectures and for BBC Four over the festive period. In fact, the lectures are being broadcast again next week on BBC2 which generally has a much larger audience, though with a time slot of 11.20pm, I doubt there will be many families staying up to watch. That said, it is the first time the Xmas lectures have been re-broadcast and everyone involved has been delighted.
So now I am receiving lots of emails, lots of enquiries and a few criticisms. Why did I dumb it down? Why did I not have more female scientists? How can I possibly say on national television that supernatural powers do not exist? People are interested in my opinion.
Today the Guardian newspaper asked me to write a commentary on the reports of the Italian captain who abandoned his ship before the passengers and generally behaved in a way that most would regard as cowardly. I was not there. I do not know this captain. I simply pointed out that if he panicked (and it sounds as if he did) then it is not too surprising that he was unable to control his urge to flee. That’s the definition of panic. I simply stated that panic is difficult to reign in with reason.
I agreed to write the commentary so that readers could reflect upon what they would do in the same situation. I have a book coming out on “The Self Illusion” – the narrative we all generate about who we are. Most of us have beliefs about how we would react but my point is that these beliefs are part of the self story we tell ourselves which may or may not match up to reality.
Anyway, the commentary has attracted a lot of mixed opinions. Most of the negative criticisms seem to think that I am condoning his actions. I am not. But it does make me question whether it is wise to place one’s self in the public light to face the brunt of criticism and focus of prejudices and grievances.
The trouble is that when you become a public figure, you become fair game. Guess I was asking for it.