Archive for October, 2009

Not about gun licensing

The following is the near-verbatim contents of a letter I recently received. It has been redacted for the privacy of the individuals involved, and cunningly revised. Can you tell what the letter was actually about? (Note: this is an issue that affects British people, and those in some other countries. It will be unfamiliar to Canadians and Americans.) Can you tell what bothers me about it?


To the Legal Occupier,

We’re writing to inform you that we have authorised Enforcement Officers to visit your home. If they find evidence that you own a firearm illegally, they can take your statement under caution in accordance with the relevant criminal law.

We are taking this step because:

  • According to our records, there is no Firearm Licence for this address
  • You must have a Firearm Licence to own a firearm
  • We have tried to contact you about this, but have received no reply

An enforcement visit is the first step in our action to seek prosecution. Please be aware that should your case go to court, your statement can be used as evidence. The maximum penalty is a fine of £XXXX. We take this offence extremely seriously, and catch around 1,000 evaders every day.

We strongly advise that you act to stop our investigation by buying a Firearm Licence. You can do this in minutes by visiting or by calling 08XX XXX XXXX. A licence costs £XXX.XX for a rifle and £XXX.XX for a pistol.

Yours faithfully,

Regional Manager
Scotland East Enforcement Team

If you have recently moved home, please transfer your old Firearm Licence to your new address. You can do this at or by calling 08XX XXX XXXX. Please have your Firearm Licence number to hand.

If you don’t have a firearm, please let us know by calling 08XX XXX XXXX.

How to Pay:

  • Visit to pay by Direct Debit, debit card or credit card.
  • Call 08XX XXX XXXX to pay by Direct Debit, debit card or credit card
  • Go to any PayPoint outlet to pay by cash or debit card.
  • More ways to pay are listed overleaf.

Overleaf, it is finally mentioned that if you, in fact, don’t have a firearm, you can let them know. They will then verify the situation. People who are deemed unable to use a firearm because of infirmity can get a reduced rate or a free licence, depending on circumstances. Payment details and a change of address form take up most of the back side.


A new descendent


Just a quick note to point you to this announcement of the birth of our son a week ago.

We are animals


Erich Vieth at Dangerous Intersection tells us “Why it matters that humans are animals”. An interesting and clear expression of the consequences of our biological and medical understanding of humanity’s place in the pageant of life. The only point I’d strongly quibble with is where he echoes Johnson’s claim that there are no absolute truths. I think most of science, and indeed of human pursuit of understanding, presupposes the existence of absolute truths. It’s probably true that we can never be sure that we have apprehended those truths perfectly, but I think it’s important to act as if they exist nevertheless.

My definition: fundamentalist


[In an effort to make my posts more readable, I’m experimenting here with footnote references in place of in-text links. Please let me know whether this makes things easier or harder to read.]

So far I have defined atheist and Christian. Today, I’d like to tackle another word that gets used by many but whose definition is elusive: fundamentalist.

First, I’d like to explore how the word seems to be used by people. I’ll then get to how I try to use it, and why.

There are three meanings that I have seen the word “fundamentalist” used for.

First, there is the historical origin of the term, to refer to those people who accept the doctrines outlined in the series of essays titled The Fundamentals: A testimony to the truth, published between 1910 and 1915 [1,2,3,4]. This definition would mean that only those Christians who accept these doctrines (creationism, virgin birth of Jesus, the atonement, and others) are true “fundamentalists” – only they hold to those particular fundamentals [3,5,6].

Second, there is the obvious extension to other dogmatic positions. Perhaps anyone who dogmatically accepts a particular set of doctrines as true is a fundamentalist [3,6,7]. This could include some (but not all) members of most major world religions. I think some religions have more of a tendency to this sort of fundamentalism than others. It is also not unreasonable to apply this definition to other beliefs – for example atheism (though I don’t think you’ll find many fundamentalist atheists by this definition) or political ideologies [6,7].

Third, I feel that people are increasingly using the term fundamentalist as a slur – to mean little more than “somebody who passionately believes something that I disagree with” [4,7]. I’ve seen this meaning used by humanists (including myself) to refer quite broadly to a range of conservative Christians; I’ve also seen the term used in this sense by Christians to describe a wide range of atheist writers.

So those are three definitions that are used for the term fundamentalist. I suspect that they represent points on a continuum of meanings, and that some mix of these three definitions is often in people’s minds when using the term. But let’s consider these three definitions in particular.

The first definition, while historically well-motivated, is so narrow that it’s not very useful for general discussion. Very few discussions need to refer specifically and exclusively to the original Fundamentalists, and these could be distinguished by capitalization (as I’ve done in this sentence) or by explicitly referring to The Fundamentals as their statement of belief.

The third definition is neither historically well-motivated nor particularly informative: we have plenty of words to use when we find someone’s position distasteful, and adding one more is unlikely to help us communicate any better. (Yes, I am assuming that the purpose of language is to help people communicate. Call me an optimist.)

So, as the more astute of you may already have guessed, I’m opting for the second definition:

A fundamentalist is someone who dogmatically holds to a set of beliefs as true. (As opposed to tentatively holding to beliefs and being willing to revise those beliefs in the face of opposing evidence.) 

This definition covers a wide enough range of beliefs to be relevant in general conversation, while remaining specific enough to be informative. For example, I know some Christians who are fundamentalists under this definition, and others who are not. I don’t know any atheist whose position could be called fundamentalist in this way, but I’m fairly sure that some must exist. I know some very woo-oriented people whose positions are fundamentalist (the conspiracy-theory approach to anti-vax, for example), but I’ve also known people who seem to be honestly willing to follow the evidence. (These latter are generally now non-woo, simply because the evidence always points in another direction.)

Can you think of people with fundamentalist attitudes in other areas of life? With non-fundamentalist attitudes who might be branded fundamentalist? Is there a belief, community, or identity that you think is inherently fundamentalist? Inherently non-fundamentalist? Let us know in the comments.

Now, I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep on saying it: I’m not trying to impose a definition on others. I am a linguist (and so an expert of sorts), but language (like science, and like truth itself) does not get handed down from authorities. Nor are the meanings of words decided by some noble democratic process. Meaning in language emerges by a sort of quasi-Darwinian selection, in which people participate only semi-consciously – a sort of mob-consciousness. Meanings that fit the speaker’s and the listener’s purposes are propagated; meanings that do not fit are not propagated.

[1] Online text of The Fundamentals
[2] Wikipedia entry on The Fundamentals
[3] Wiktionary definition of fundamentalist
[4] Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance essay on the term fundamentalism
[5] definition of fundamentalist
[6] Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary definition of fundamentalist
[7] Wikipedia entry on fundamentalism
[8] Oxford English Dictionary definition of fundamentalist (access not free)

Logic puzzles


My online gaming world just got much more interesting.

And much more geeky.

I’ve learned about The Hardest Logic Puzzle Ever. Awesome.

And, in the same vein (but less superlative), here’s a site full of Knights and Knaves puzzles (Knights can only tell the truth, Knaves can only lie, and you can only ask yes-no questions. Can you tell which is which?)

Here’s another logic puzzle site I frequent. It doesn’t have story-based puzzles, but it does have plenty of sudokus and other interesting grid-based logic puzzles.

(Thanks to commenter Berenike for pointing me to Agent Intellect, who links to the above games here. Agent Intellect’s blog is intriguing in its own right too.)

A transitory Yes


From A Room With a View, via my friend Gareth, comes this quote:

Then make my boy think like us. Make him realise that by the side of the everlasting Why there is a Yes—a transitory Yes, if you like, but a Yes.

Go and read Gareth’s thoughts on this. I would provide my own commentary, but it would amount to something similar. Better to read it in his own well-crafted prose.

(I also encourage you to browse around his blog. Gareth is in full force at the moment, with frequent tasty morsels showing up these past couple of weeks.)

I have an idea …


At work, I recently came across an amazing resource: CiteULike. It’s a free website where you can build up a list of citations. I use it to manage the long list of papers and books I read and cite as a researcher. I can label citations, like I label blog entries on this site, according to common themes.

It also has social features: sharing citations between users, getting automated recommendations based on common research interests. And there are Groups.

Which gives me an idea.

There are loads of skeptical blogs out there. There are the science-based parenting folks (such as SBP themselves, Rational Moms), the science-based medicine gang (SBM, Ben Goldacre, etc), and of course the general skeptics (Bruce Hood, Massimo Pigliucci, Richard Wiseman, and loads more).

These blogs often bring up new or interesting research that bears on our lives – as parents, as users (and taxpaying supporters) of health care, and just as people trying to navigate the modern world. But finding a particular study that I remember reading about on some skeptical blog can be a real pain.

So it occurs to me – why not set up a group, or a set of groups, on CiteULike, where skeptics could post scientific articles of interest to the community? You can put notes on each article – for example, pointing to reviews on skeptical blogs. You can talk about the articles (and the body of evidence around given topics, like acupuncture or spanking) in forums. You can associate informative tags with articles. Or you can simply hang out and see what other people have dug up. The resource could be used by bloggers who like to check original research, and also by skeptical consumers of new and traditional media claims.

It’s not something I can do on my own. I don’t have the time or the expertise to dig up all the relevant papers.

So this is a call to all you skeptics out there who have a little bit of time or expertise. Are you willing to help get things started?

I’ve taken the first step: I’ve created a CiteULike group, Skeptical Parenting, to pilot this idea. I chose parenting partly because that’s where I am closest to having some substantive expertise, and partly because my second child is due to arrive any day now.

The next step is up to you. Here is what I ask of anyone who is interested:

  • Join me as a member of the group, or start another group. “Paranormal Research”, “Science-Based Medicine Users” – whatever you’re most into as a skeptic. If you start another group, let us know in the comments here. (Do a search on CiteULike before starting the group to make sure someone hasn’t already started one.)
  • Blog about this yourself – not many people read my blog, but some of you have very widely-read blogs. The more people read about this idea, the sooner we’ll reach a sustainable number of participants.
  • Tell your friends. We don’t all have blogs, but we all have skeptical acquaintances on- and off-line that we can share cool new ideas with.
  • Comment here, so I know that I’m not just talking to myself.

I think we could build this into a really valuable resource. What do you think?

Entitled to our own opinions


From his book Looking in the Distance (pages 101-102), here is Richard Holloway on the intersection of religion and science (emphasis mine):

It is embarrassing when theologians try to conflate the Christian story with the current scientific narrative; and it is a mistake, however understandable, when scientists try to disprove the Christian story as though it were just another set of outdated scientific claims. The scientific attack on Christianity is excusable, however, because fundamentalist groups insist on marketing Christianity as a science rather than as myth. While we are all entitled to our own opinions, we are not entitled to our own facts, which is why scientists cannot avoid getting drawn into the quagmire of the science versus religion debate.

That last sentence contains the real money quote for me here:

While we are all entitled to our own opinions, we are not entitled to our own facts.

This is why scientists and fans of science get so het up when people deny things like the well-established and exhaustively-tested effectiveness and safety of vaccines, or the copious and consistent evidence for evolution.

Ten random beliefs meme


I love a good meme, and once again Ken of C. Orthodoxy has passed on a zinger. Here are the rules, from the meme’s originator, Clayboy:

Post a collection of 10 things you believe, ethical, philosophical or theological. You choose how much to connect them or make them coherent: do you want people to know where you belong, or do you want to mix and match to keep them guessing? I encourage you not to aim for a totally coherent credal statement of faith, and I also encourage you to put one or two in about controversial topics.

Let’s see…

  1. I believe that ultimate truths may be within our reach as a species, but absolute certainty is not.
  2. I believe there is a lot of potential value in symbols and stories, and that religions make better use of this value than humanist communities and individuals tend to. (I also believe that their power can make symbols and stories dangerous if used irresponsibly.)
  3. I believe that claims about what is physically true are of a different sort to claims about what is good or moral. The former are simple facts, independent of perspective, existing with or without observers. The latter are at least relative to (and so dependent on) our nature as a social species. They are not, however, relative to our personal whims and desires.
  4. I believe that scientific skepticism is a healthy and appropriate attitude to any belief that people want to persuade me of.
  5. I believe that a person’s actions are more important than their beliefs. Beliefs are mainly important to the extent that they inform and motivate actions. (I also believe that a shocking number of people spend more time rationalizing actions that clash with their beliefs than they spend trying to tailor their actions to their beliefs.)
  6. I believe that powdered cheese is one of the most pernicious evils of modern society, followed closely by processed cheese slices and liquid cheese.
  7. I believe that questions of good and evil are properly independent of questions of the existence of any god. (I believe that the ethical framework I try to follow would be equally valid whether or not a god exists.)
  8. I believe that consciousness is a product of physical processes in my brain and body.
  9. I believe that consciousness is the most important thing in the universe.
  10. I believe we must always accept the possibility that we might be wrong, but that we should not live in fear of it happening. (This one is cribbed shamelessly from Ken, because it suits me so well.)
  11. I believe that every cell in my body is a direct descendent of some primordial replicator that appeared on Earth around 3.5 billion years ago.
  12. I believe that free software (and Linux in particular) is a woefully under-experienced joy in the world.
  13. I believe that my wife is beautiful and my daughter is smart (and vice versa).
  14. I believe that, like James McGrath, I need to learn about counting to ten.

I’m reluctant to tag people, but if you choose to pick up this meme, please post a link in the comments.

Language rant by proxy


There is a rant that I used to share with any willing audience when I was an undergraduate student in Calgary, inspired by my burgeoning knowledge of how language works, and how different that is from the opinions spouted by language mavens.

I learned, through the brave confidence of a few close friends, that it was becoming a bit tedious to hear this rant over and over again – despite the inherent and unquestionable validity of its content, of course.

So I am delighted to point you to Gareth’s blog*, where he has essentially channelled my rant from past years and a continent away. (Though, I confess, I never did come up with as clever and apt an analogy as he does with the clothing thing.)

The basic thesis: issues of right and wrong in language use are, pretty much always, relative.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that most linguists would accept Gareth’s position as pretty obvious. But there are vast swathes of people (even intelligent people who think about language a lot) who think very differently. Let’s hope his lucid prose will sway some of them.

[Update 2012: Gareth’s blog sadly no longer exists. I won’t delete this post, but I’m afraid without Gareth’s content it loses much of its point.]