No, not me – this is my brief response to a post by Stephen Bond.

There are some valid points in his article for the sceptical skeptic, but as is often the case with polemic writing there is a lot of cherry-picking, generalisation and reliance on ecological fallacy.

He makes the point that most Muslim women don’t wear burkhas, but he then misses the point that any community is shaped by all of its members, not just a handful of highly visible (or visibly invisible) individuals. This applies to skeptics as well – the famous, loud and/or obnoxious are more visible, but they do not represent the whole.

I did toy with the idea of dissociating myself with skepticism a year or so ago, for several of the reasons stated by Stephen. Fortunately I discussed this with my friend and colleague James and we decided to do something a bit more positive, which led to us setting up PubSci and later Hackney Skeptics with Alice. These events are more focussed on science and socialising than bashing people we don’t agree with.

I think it’s a shame that Stephen has embraced the typical polemic style adopted by skeptics for his piece, as I think that style is one of the most damaging tools used in modern skepticism. It lacks nuance and is fundamentally unhelpful when trying to encourage consideration of a different perspective and it can alienate those with more moderate views.

In my opinion, polemic needs to be dropped if skepticism is to avoid becoming an echo chamber populated by a smug and mouthy minority.

Steampunk confetti gun

You may well have seen some of this already on Youtube, but I thought I’d do a brief post about my new ‘toy’ – a steampunk confetti gun:

I made this with help from my good friend Graham over a couple of weekends and it was remarkably straightforward.

The barrel and mechanism housing are made from some old vacuum-cleaner tubing and a large washer, the stock is from an old air-rifle and the mountings were all hand made from bits of copper roofing strip that I bent into shape and attached with nuts and bolts, plus some old metal decorative plates I picked up in a junk shop.

The working mechanism is fairly simple, it is an electrical circuit powered from a glow-stick power source that runs through a switch (that makes the trigger) and into a glow-plug  normally used for starting model aircraft engines. The earth return runs out through the bolt that attaches the mechanism housing and trigger-guard to the stock.

The attachment between the working section housing and the barrel is simply a push-fitting, which makes the canon a partial breach-loader, allowing the flash cotton charge that propels the confetti to  be loaded in a way that means it will be ignited by the glow-plug. When the cotton catches it burns incredibly quickly, creating a rapid expansion in the base of the barrel, forcing out the wadding and confetti (see video below).

Now I should say that for the purposes of the video I also used flash tissue, which is slower to ignite than the cotton, meaning that it doesn’t flare up until just after it leaves the gun, giving a spectacular flash of orange fire (or green fire if I use my specially treated paper).

I hope to take the gun along to White Mischief at the weekend, so I may need to swap the flash tissue for tinfoil to avoid setting anyone’s hair on fire, but the burst of confetti will hopefully be enough to celebrate Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in style!

Namibian Jumping-weasel

I thought I’d pen a quick post about an interesting specimen that I discovered the other day:

It’s a species I’d not heard about before and I was intrigued to discover a bit more about it.

It’s a Namibian Jumping-weasel Mustela jocuverus (Primus, 1881) which is a small mustelid native to Namibia and Botswana. It is very similar in habits to other Weasels and Stoats, but it has a very special adaptation – it jumps.

Now other mustelids also jump as part of their hunting technique, as can be seen in this video clip:

But this mustelid hunts in arid desert conditions and it has little cover from vegetation, making it more dependent on high speed bounding to overtake its prey of small rodents, which it quickly overpowers with a bite to the back of the neck from those impressive canines.

Happy April!

Friday mystery object #141

This week I’ve been rather swamped with co-organising the Natural Science Collections Association conference, so I haven’t had much time to think of a good mystery object from the Horniman’s collections. However, here is a nice (if somewhat distinctive) specimen from the excellent Grant Museum of Zoology for you to identify:


Any idea what it is?

You can put your comments below and I’ll do my best to respond, as the opportunity arises. Best of luck!

Cardinal complains that ‘gays have too much fun for marriage’

Following new government plans for gay marriage, Catholic commentators have crawled out of the woodwork to bitch and moan to anyone who’ll listen, despite the fact that marriage has been around for far longer than the Catholic Church and it has only taken on a strongly religious context after the Church spotted the money-making opportunities in the 12th Century.

Cardinal Keith O’Brien called the plans a “grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right” and went on to say that “It would create a society which deliberately chooses to deprive a child of either a mother or a father“. (N.B. O’Brien’s claims about gay marriage breaching human rights stem from a misinterpretation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

O’Brien’s comments were described as “a bit rich” by Paolo Viscardi, who went on to say “The need for both a father and mother is a biological one that ends with conception. Further, a human right is only meaningful when enforceable, yet the loss of a parent or parents is impossible to prevent in many instances, thereby making the ‘right’ for a child to have both a mother and father meaningless”.

Viscardi went on to say “There is no reason to suppose that a loving same-sex couple would fail in their care of children – indeed I believe they would do a far better job than, for example, a Catholic orphanage. O’Brien should check John 8:7. Members of the Catholic clergy have committed a host of human rights abuses against children and such abuse has been endemic in parts of the Catholic Church. O’Brien may have apologised for such abuses in the past, but to claim that the loving union of a same-sex couple is an abuse of human rights twists the meaning of that section of the Declaration of Human Rights and it throws the self-deluded sense of sexual morality held by the Catholic clergy into stark relief.”


Cardinal Jack Hackett

*Notably, more priests have stepped up to condemn gay marriage than have gone on record condemning child abuse by members of the Catholic clergy. The Irish Cardinal Jack Hackett, suggested that this was because many priests believe that “Sex is a sin unless it is intended to bring forth new life in the agonies of the woman as God intended. By abusing children the Catholic clergy are teaching them that sex is a dirty business that causes great suffering.”

Cardinal Jack Hackett finished by saying “Gays have too much fun to get married. Marriage is not about having fun, it’s about having babies and being miserable for the glory of God“.

*N.B. This last section may not be entirely true, but it paraphrases the jist of several arguments I’ve heard in the past.

If you disagree with the Catholic Church’s stance on gay marriage, and if you live in the UK, perhaps you would like to sign the Coalition For Equal Marriage’s petition to show your support.