Friday, August 29, 2008

Carnival of the Africans #1

We promised it, and now you're getting it. The first instalment of the African sceptical and scientific blogger carnival is up over on Ionian Enchantment.

Get your read on!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Death by Satanist Ninja

There has been a very odd news story capturing the focus of the South African middle-class over the last week or so. In a high school close to where I live, a teenager showed up at school one day brandishing a katana. He managed to kill one of his classmates with the sword, and also injured several other people.

Although the details appear to be a little sketchy and various sources report contradictory events, that seems to be the gist of what happened.

It's a tragedy. Some poor kid was murdered. That sucks big time.

But there's more.

Ever since the story first broke about a week ago, the airwaves have been buzzing with all sorts of speculation about what caused it. The consensus of public opinion seems to be that the perpetrator was a Satanist, which was evidenced by the fact that he listened to heavy metal band Slipknot. I've heard some other ideas expressed, along the lines of violence on TV, video games and so on. But the Slipknot Satanist Hypothesis seems to be the most popular.

Let's parse that hypothesis. It appears to consist of several unstated premises, which are as follows:

  1. Slipknot is a Satanist rock band.
  2. Satanists are dangerous and violent people.
  3. Listening to Satanistic music is likely to convert an otherwise normal teenager into a Satanist.
I'll deal with each premise separately.

Slipknot is a Satanist rock band.

In order to evaluate the accuracy of this assertion, we need to understand two separate points:
  1. What kind of a band is Slipknot, and what kind of music do they make?
  2. What is a Satanist?
Slipknot are a heavy metal band. They have cultivated a shocking and somewhat controversial image, including the wearing of grotesque masks. But when asked about their relationship to Satanism, they emphatically deny it.

Although their denial of being Satanists by no means disproves the suggestion, it does at least imply that if they are Satanists, they aren't interested in publicising the fact. And that lends discredit to the idea that their music would contain a strong Satanistic message. Why would they publicise Satanism in their music but then deny it in an interview?

So what is a Satanist? There are two broadly defined groups of people who tend to self-identify as Satanists.

The first is the social organization called the Church of Satan, founded by Anton LaVey. Despite the name, members of the Church are not devil-worshippers. LaVeyan Satanists are atheists with a penchant for theatrics and a particular moral code: "Return good with good and evil with
evil" (a kind of post-hoc version of the Golden Rule). LaVeyan Satanists would not, if they were truly devout, launch an unprovoked attack against anyone. That's not the point.

The other kind of Satanist is the rebellious teenager variety. There's no organized society of these Satanists, but rather isolated kids who have bought into the Satanic Scare propaganda and have embraced it as a way of sticking it to the conservative society they live in. Since there's no moral code or universal ethics guiding these kids, they are unpredictable, and have been reported to hurt themselves or other people.

It should be noted that this variety of Satanist probably isn't a devil worshipper either, although if you spoke to one, they might identify themselves as such. These kids are socially maladapted and design their appearance and behaviour to be shocking to their parents and other authority figures - even their peers.

Based on what we've seen here, I don't think we can support the conclusion that Slipknot are a Satanist band. They probably share some values with most Satanists of both varieties, but their music doesn't carry a Satanistic message, and they don't self-identify as Satanists.

Satanists are dangerous and violent people.

As dictated by their moral code, LaVeyan Satanists are not inherently violent people. Their ethical code dictates that when among nice people, they should be nice. When amongst nasty people, they should be nasty. In other words, their behaviour is a mirror of their surroundings, neither inherently peaceful nor violent.

Rebellious and psychologically troubled teenagers are unpredictable, but also not inherently violent. I'm not a psychiatrist, but having been something of a misfit teen once myself, I think these kids are more likely to hurt themselves than anyone else. Being a social outcast is a hard thing, and more likely to lead to depression than murderous rage.

Based on what we know about both kinds of Satanists, I don't think we can support the conclusion that they are inherently dangerous or violent. I might go so far as to say that you're probably safer in the company of a Satanist than in that of a religious fundamentalist. Satanists aren't suicide bombers, and they don't murder doctors for performing abortions.

Listening to Satanistic music is likely to convert an otherwise normal teenager into a Satanist.

This one is pretty absurd to begin with. It's analogous to claiming that watching Xena: Warrior Princess is likely to convert the viewer into a leather-wearing lesbian. It's rather silly.

I wasn't able to find any peer-reviewed research on the subject. If you guys know of any, please point us to it in the comments.

What I was able to find is an awful lot of conjecture. There appear to be equally strong opinions on both sides of the debate. What I found interesting was that those who support the idea that heavy metal music leads to Satanism appeared to be speaking from a position of trying to convert the reader to Christianity, or warning the reader that heavy metal may corrupt their Christian faith.

It's always interesting when an opinion seems to be shared by a group who already have some ideology in common, and those who hold a contrary opinion seem to speak from a diverse array of ideologies. That doesn't prove or disprove either side's argument, but it does raise some questions about how the conclusions are derived.

In the absence of good data and reliable expert opinion, I must rely on my own subjective experience. I used to listen to a lot of heavy metal music. In my early twenties I wore my hair long, dressed in black and frequented heavy metal clubs. I would frequently go straight from a night head-banging at The Doors to church where I taught Sunday School.

I was both a heavy metal listener and a devout Christian. In other words, I don't think that there is any reason to assume strong correlation between heavy metal music and Satanism.

Based on what we know about how people are influenced by the music they hear, I don't think we can support the conclusion that listening to Satanistic music is likely to convert a teenager to Satanism.

So what do we have? We have a hypothesis supported by three basic premises. I've shown that those premises are weak at best, and more likely completely fictional. So then what drives a teenager to kill his peer with a sword?

In the words of Chris Rock: "Whatever happened to crazy?"

Is it not likely that this kid is in severe need of psychiatric help? Mightn't some sort of pathology be responsible for this tragedy? Why must we always point the finger at societal factors, when the cause is just as likely to be internal?

Again, I'm no psychiatrist, but I submit that this kid is just as much a victim of circumstance as the one who wound up at the other end of the sword. He's clearly a sick little boy who needs medical attention. His actions appear, at least to me, to be consistent with those of someone suffering from severe mental illness. Perhaps some kind of psychopathy or sociopathy. Is this not a far more likely explanation?

If we apply Occam's Razor (All things being equal, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one), it seems that my Crazy Hypothesis is a more likely candidate to explain the tragedy. It doesn't rely on several layers of implausible events, but rather on one simple cause, compounded by the failure of the educational and medical systems to identify and treat the condition before this happened (That failure is not unprecedented, and quite likely).

I predict that when police psychologists analyse the boy's history, they will discover a pattern of destructive behaviour, violence and antisocial tendencies leading up to this tragic event. A pattern that should have been spotted by either the child's parents or educators, but for some reason was missed or ignored by both.

Let's not waste our time trying to lay responsibility on foreign musicians, obscure social movements or The Media, but rather focus more on how we can improve our education and medical systems, so that sick children like this can be identified and treated before they hurt anyone.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

I now pronounce you...

As some of you may be aware, Hide and I are getting married soon. In planning the wedding, possibly the most difficult aspect we've encountered so far is finding someone to perform the ceremony.

The difficulty, as you may expect, is that we are not religious: Hide doesn't subscribe to any religious doctrine and I'm an atheist.

In some countries this wouldn't be a problem. In parts of the US we would simply recruit a Justice of the Peace to perform the ceremony. If we lived in Scotland we could contact the Humanist Society for a list of local Humanist Celebrants. But despite South Africa's allegedly very progressive constitution, non-religious people seem to be actively discriminated against here.

According to South African law, we have two options:

  1. Get married in court.
  2. Get married in a church.

The reason that these are the only options is that the only people (other than judges) who are allowed to obtain marriage officer certification from the Department of Home Affairs are members of the clergy of recognised churches. The law is progressive enough to include clergy of just about any religious organisation that has an established presence in South Africa, but stops short of recognising non-religious affiliations.

This is very problematic for us, and presumably for other non-religious couples in South Africa. If we want to be married in a traditional ceremony, but without involving someone's imaginary friend in the equation, we're out of luck. All we can hope for is to find a marriage officer who is either a religious apostate, or liberal enough to be prepared to leave the superstition out of it. And that appears to be no mean feat.

Getting married in court is an absolute last resort for us. It seems silly to have two weddings: one for the friends and family, and a second for the Department of Home Affairs. Why should we have to have two ceremonies when religious people need only one?

And that's not all. For some time now I've been interested in qualifying as a marriage officer myself. It seems only fitting that a Starship Captain (such as I) should be empowered to perform weddings - it's a maritime tradition going back as far as anyone can remember. But since STARFLEET International isn't a religious organisation, that would be impossible as well.

So what can humanists, secularists and atheists do about this sort of thing? How do we go about changing this clearly discriminatory piece of legislation? Seriously. That's not a rhetorical question. How do we do it?

Are you a married South African secularist? How did you get past this hurdle?

Are you an apostate or liberal marriage officer? Contact me, please!

South African Science and Sceptical Bloggers

Prolific and endlessly talented Sceptiblogger Michael Meadon from Ionian Enchantment contacted me recently with an excellent suggestion: that we and other Sefrican Sceptibloggers try and put together some sort of cohesive community.

I think that's a capital idea! Check out Michael's post on the subject for more details. Watch this space for more!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Stop Manto

She's at it again (still?)

The Minister of Health of South Africa, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, is trying her luck. She has put forward a bill apparently intended to improve the process surrounding the registration and certification of new medicines.

I have to put in my disclaimer here: I'm not an attorney, advocate or judge. I'm not a legal expert at all, and the sum total of my legal training was a course in copyright law at college. What follows is my reasonably well-informed lay interpretation of this piece of proposed legislation. I welcome any opinions or insights more enlightened than my own.

This bill is a pretty detailed document, encompassing a number of seemingly subtle changes to the existing legislation... some of which are potentially beneficial, many of which are very troubling.

I'll start with the good news.

The bill begins by redefining the substances that should be regulated as medicines. The definition has been expanded from only commercial pharmaceuticals to include just about anything about which medical claims are made, including foodstuffs and diagnostic machines.

This is good news because under this bill all quacks are subject to regulation just like real medicine is. Homeopaths, naturopaths, acupuncturists, sangomas, electrodiagnosticians, chiropractors, Danie Krugel, Matthias Rath and all other quacks will need to satisfy the same burden of proof as Adcock Ingram and GSK.

More good news is that efficacy is one of the items specifically listed by which any and all such interventions will be measured. In other words, the person seeking certification for their specific intervention will have to show, to the satisfaction of the registering body, that their gadget or pill does what it claims to do. If their product fails to be certified, they may not advertise it along with those medical claims.

I think this represents a remarkable step forward in consumer protection in our country. The same processes designed to protect the public from dishonest peddlers of pharmaceuticals is to be expanded to encompass anyone who claims that their magic product can cure a rainy day.

But as far as I see it, that's where the good news ends.

One of the primary aims of the bill is to change the whole process by which these products are regulated. It effectively dissolves the Medicines Control Council, and establishes a new office called the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority. This in itself isn't necessarily a bad thing. The problem comes in with how it's organized.

The Chief Executive Officer of the Authority is appointed by, and serves at the pleasure of the Minister of Health. There doesn't appear to be any formal selection process defined, other than an interview between the applicant and the Minister herself. This means that Manto gets to decide, all by herself, who she thinks is the best person for the job. That CEO is then responsible for appointing all staff and committees within the Authority, which means we have a single point of failure for the organization: the CEO. The CEO is accountable only to the Minister, and not to the general public or the scientific community.

It gets worse.

Assuming that by some fluke, Manto appoints a scientifically-minded and intelligent person to the position of Authority CEO, that person is still not the only one to decide if any given intervention should be certified or not. Once the CEO and his minions are ready to certify a given intervention, he must submit it to the Minister who has the right to exercise veto power over the application.

On the surface this may not seem like such a bad thing. Rather err on the side of fewer interventions making it through the process than getting false positives, right? Not so much.

Take this hypothetical situation as an example:

Big Pharma develops an HIV vaccine that has passed a great many clinical trials. The vaccine has demonstrated that it is safe (to within acceptable levels) and effective (also to within acceptable levels). It renders 95% of patients immune to HIV infection with minimal side effects. In other words, it's been proven to be a safe and effective intervention.

The CEO of the Authority is satisfied with the evidence presented along with the application, and approves it, sending it off to the Minister for certification. The Minister, being an ideologically motivated idiot with genocidal tendencies who believes that vegetables are a better treatment for HIV than anti-retrovirals, decides that she doesn't like the idea of an HIV vaccine, and rejects the application - thus sentencing millions of South Africans to a slow and painful death.

One need only run a Google News search on Manto to see that this hypothetical situation is far from unlikely. The fate of South African lives should not be left in the hands of any one person, least of all a stupid politician. (Not all politicians are stupid, but this one is)

The only way of making this approval process even close to effective is by employing a panel of qualified experts from a variety of medical and scientific disciplines, and submitting every request to a consensus-vote by them, not unlike the referee process employed by scientific journals.

Science, and particularly scientific medicine is not a matter of policy, politics or ideology - it is a matter of life and death. Can we, as a developing nation suffering under the weight of this deadly pandemic, stand by and allow these incompetent politicians continue to make decisions about whether our children live or die?

Friday, August 08, 2008


"Leverage" is not a verb. It is a noun.

That is all.

Monday, August 04, 2008

More Number Portability Hijinks

In the previous episode, Provider A had invoiced me for a ridiculously large
"penalty fee", and I was awaiting a call from their support people.

The call never came.

On Friday night, I received an automated message from my bank to inform me
that Nashua Mobile (I'm done protecting them) had withdrawn over R4000 from
my account, despite the fact that I told them not to.

I was a little upset.

First thing on Saturday morning I went to the bank and reversed the payment,
after I left a steaming comment on (search for it).

This morning I got en email from someone claiming to work in the office of
the Managing Director of Nashua Mobile. If I was the MD I would be pretty
embarrassed about the spelling and grammar being used on my behalf. But I

This person was about as helpful as everyone else at Nashua Mobile has been
to me lately: not at all. He pretty much continued to treat me like a
naughty child, and didn't provide any evidence supporting his claim. He
tries the old "It's not us, it's the Network Provider" bait and switch, but
I'm not buying it. I'm still with the same network, just a different
middle-man. Why would my network want to punish a loyal and long-standing
subscriber for wanting to switch middle-men?

It would be like Coca-Cola charging me a fine for buying my Coke from Pick
'n Pay instead of Shoprite. It's just plain stupid. Of course it's possible
that MTN really is that stupid, but I think it's more likely that Nashua is
trying to pull a fast one.

I informed him in no uncertain terms that he was to provide me with all the
supporting documentation, as well as the recordings of all the conversations
I've had with his minions over this issue. It's only been about six hours
since then, and no response yet. I guess not everyone checks their email
more than once a day. least of all marketing people in the
telecommunications industry.

As I said, I've lost my patience with this ridiculous situation. Either they
must produce proof that I really am obliged to pay them this amount, or they
must give up.

Lexicon for Debate

One thing I particularly enjoy is having discussions around differences in world-view. It affords me an opportunity to formulate and clarify my own point of view, and also to practice the art of debate. But I've noticed a particular obstacle that tends to get in the way of meaningful discussion, and that is the variable definitions of words.

Discussions of this nature tend to employ a number of words that have similar or related meanings, to the extent that in everyday conversation those words are often used interchangeably. The problem is that the English language (as described by your average dictionary) isn't precise enough to differentiate between some of these complicated concepts reliably.

The result of this tends to be that the participants in the debate end up talking at cross purposes, which is essentially a failure in communication. No meaningful discussion takes place if the two debaters are using different definitions of the same words.

In order to facilitate the most effective and productive debate, it's necessary for the participants to agree on a set of definitions first, so that each may be certain the other understands what they are saying. This almost never happens, since just about everyone assumes that since they have
a language in common, that work has already been done. It hasn't.

What I would like to do here is propose a basic lexicon for these kinds of discussions. I aim to employ this lexicon (or one like it) in my own debates, but what I put forward here is only a guideline - a starting point. Any given discussion or any given debating partner might require some modifications to this list, and that must be discussed and agreed at the outset of any debate. Please feel free to use it yourself and modify it accordingly.

These definitions are based on those that tend to be employed by people in the scientific, sceptical and atheist communities. I like these because they are very specific - much more so than those found in the Oxford Dictionary.

Without further ado, the words:

  • Believe: To hold an opinion that a given idea is true. Belief in an idea is not necessarily dependant on evidence, but it may be informed by it.
  • Faith: To hold a belief without evidence or in spite of evidence to the contrary.
  • Trust: To have a high degree of confidence in the reliability of an idea.
  • Know: To be certain that an idea is true.
  • Theory: An idea that is supported by evidence and makes specific, testable claims which have been validated by experiment and peer review.
  • Hypothesis: A precursor to a theory - an idea that provides some explanatory power to a given phenomenon, along with testable predictions, but may or may not have been validated by evidence yet.
  • Fact: An observed phenomenon.
  • Science: The best system of obtaining knowledge yet discovered. It is performed by generating a hypothesis, testing its claims and collecting evidence. In science the rigour of the process is more important that the conclusions it produces, and all conclusions are perpetually provisional, pending the discovery of contradictory evidence.

Those are the ones I come across most often. There aren't many, but these are some pretty important and complicated concepts. To mix up definitions of these words is to invite miscommunication.

Do you have some suggestions on how to improve these definitions? Can you think of any other words that should be added to this list?