First thought: I should buy this book. Perfect for Father’s Day.

Second thought: what if I turn a page, and there I am? Or somebody like me.

I think I’ll refrain from finding out.

My sympathies to this woman’s recent struggles, but I am reminded why I despise royalty.

“On cue, the sun broke through the showers to shine on her — and the whole world said in unison…it’s lovely to see you too, Kate”

Nope, I didn’t say that at all. It was more like muttering under my breath at the annoying overdose of saccharine and non-news in the news. Fuck off, Kate, and take your annoying kids with you.

Rupert can stop simpering over this one family, too.

(It’s nothing personal, I just get so annoyed at empty propaganda and the excesses of tabloid “journalism”.)

I didn’t expect it, but wow, black widows are incredibly lazy. They find a corner and park their large butts there and don’t move at all, all day long. I know they wander about at night stringing silk all over the place, but otherwise, they’re like sulking teenagers who don’t wanna do nothin’ whenever you look at them. Boring!

Or are they?

I think maybe I haven’t been feeding them right. Yesterday, I caught a small grasshopper in our garden, and I tossed it into the black widow container. It bounced off a couple of strands of silk, and the effect was electric: the widow leapt out of her corner and stood poised in the center, suspended on its web, looking extraordinarily alert. She wasn’t looking directly at the hopper, but was delicately touching multiple lines — you could tell she was poised to sense any motion in her trap.

The moment was tense and dramatic.

The hopper moved. The widow instantly charged at it, tried to use her hind legs to tangle it up, and failed, so she retreated back to her central lookout. The hopper was terrified, and remained motionless for at least 5 minutes, while the spider was also motionless, but alert.

Finally, the hopper took a small step, and the widow surged forward and snared it with more silk. The hopper was kicking frantically, trying to leap away, but was hampered by the strong sticky silk, and every leap tangled it further in all that silk. So much silk. Finally, the black widow gave it one little kiss, and the hopper was almost instantly dead. Then she dragged her prey up to her calm quiet corner and ate.

I’ve been feeding her mealworms all this time. Maybe it’s not the spider that’s boring, but the food I’ve been giving her. The next feeding day is Tuesday, I think I’m going to have to buy a box of crickets.

While we’re at it, can we ban these? (Minneapolitans know what I mean)

I love this idea out of any country other than the US.

Last month this Scottish city — filled with medieval spires and shadowed by the looming castle on the hill said to have inspired the Harry Potter books — made a startlingly modern decision. Edinburgh’s city council voted to ban fossil fuel advertisements on city property, undermining the ability of not only oil companies, but also car manufacturers, airlines and cruise ships, to promote their products. The ban targeted arms manufacturers as well.

Edinburgh is not alone. Amsterdam and Sydney have cracked down on advertisements for fossil fuels and high-emissions products. France also limited the promotion of coal, gas and hydrogen made from fossil fuels. Even the United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres, has joined in, endorsing a ban on fossil fuel ads this month in a speech in New York this month: “Stop the Mad Men from fueling the madness.”

A fantastically potent tactic, I think. It’s not just that the general public will lose a source of misinformation and propaganda for practices that harm the world, but that media will lose an incentive to peddle petroleum products. What would the news be like if mass media were no longer motivated to downplay ideas, like climate change, because big corporations were no longer sensitive to specific kinds of advertisers?

Here in the US I’d also like to see a ban on advertising pharmaceuticals. I don’t watch broadcast television much at all anymore, but one of the reasons is the infuriatingly stupid ads for drugs. Killing car commercials and Ozempic ads would have interesting side effects on the commentary out of the news room.

I decided to go gunning for all the religious kooks who’ve been polluting my mailbox.

Transcript below.

Hey friends…and evangelical fundamentalists–

I’m going to take a moment to save us all a lot of time and effort. I get mail from people who want to persuade me that I should not be an atheist, that that perspective is invalid and that I should really adopt their views on everything. Some of them are quite fervent and sincere; some of them are abusive and obnoxious. They’re all wasting their time. I’m going to list a few flaws in their beliefs and presentation that convince me to quickly reject their opinions. Stop doing these things and maybe I’ll take a little time to consider your ideas!

First and easiest on my list — are you trying to tell me that evolution is false as part of your campaign to convert me to Christianity or Islam? Evolution is a fact. It’s part of the history of our world. We can argue about the details, or about the mechanisms, but when you try to defy all the evidence by claiming the earth is only a few thousand years old, or that humans are not apes, or that there was a world-destroying global flood, all you’re accomplishing is the total destruction of your credibility. Common ancestry is a fact. Descent with modification is a fact. The universe is over 13 billion years old. If we can’t agree on the most straightforward understanding of the evidence for basic material facts, there is no point in discussing more subtle, esoteric interpretations of how the universe works. This is especially true since the conclusions of your holy books, which you are ultimately trying to persuade me to adopt, are in no way contingent on our scientific understanding of nature. Not only does it tell me that you don’t understand the scientific evidence for our material universe, but you don’t have a clue about how to assemble a comprehensible presentation of your position.

I could stop right there, because that filter that kills all the anti-scientific creationist junk in my inbox obliterates 99% of what these people send me. That percentage will vary — I tend to be a magnet for the anti-evolution cranks, and your reputation may draw in other people. Also, stealth creationists exist, and they may hold back on the overt anti-science stuff, figuring there’ll be time for the radical denigration of science AFTER they’ve brought me over to Jesus or Mohammed.

I should add that the concern here is with evangelicalism, which seems to rot people’s brains from the inside out. A great many Christians and Muslims are perfectly comfortable with the compatibility of their religion with physics and geology and biology, but they aren’t the people who are driven to harass non-believers with their crank beliefs. Face it, the kind of person who bombards strangers with baloney they got from Kent Hovind or Ken Ham or the Discovery Institute isn’t rational or normal.

OK, my second tell that a correspondent is wasting our time: they quote their holy book at me. If I see a mention of the Bible or Quran, I might skim a little further…but if all they’ve got is citations to one holy book or apologists for the same, we’re done. That isn’t particularly persuasive to a non-believer who does not accept the authority of your source, but also…I teach students how to write science papers, and anyone who turned in an essay with a single source cited would fail. I expect some critical assessment of the source, validation of the interpretation from multiple authors and multiple angles. Show me some evidence for a claim outside the sacred dogma. Quoting Second Peter at me to prove that I’m a fool because I do not believe in the authority of Second Peter is not just circular, it tells me that you don’t know of a second source to back up your assertion.

You know, I was just reading an article on nondisjunction in mitotic divisions in embryonic tissue — a narrow, very specific topic that only specialists would care about. It cited 87 sources in a short 9 page paper. I don’t expect that in an informal letter, but ONE source? For a topic with much broader significance, if true? I’m going to dismiss that as pathetically thinly supported.

Related: I’ve seen scientific papers where the only citations are to the authors work, or to the work of others in their lab. Those are also not credible, just like your citation of only one holy book and the prophets and proselytizers of that one religion. Come on, show me that you’ve even considered viewpoints that disagree with you.

The third sign that I need to trash this correspondence: threats. I get so many threats. I’m going to Hell if I don’t believe. Or, alternatively, I’ll go to heaven if accept their belief. Evangelicals often don’t even realize that what they’re offering are nothing but threats and bribes to change my mind, because they’ve so thoroughly absorbed their Manichaean doctrine that they can’t imagine anything but a sharp boundary between paradise and damnation, requiring only a single step to cross it. They think they’re being kind to rescue me from a tiny misstep.

Sometimes it isn’t even a direct threat to me. Instead, the nation as a whole is in great danger because the gays or the commies or the godless liberals are taking over, and we have to support their version of god lest we are all washed away in a deluge of sin and immorality. That is an ineffective line to take with me because a) I don’t accept the concept of sin, and b) some of my best friends are sinners. I’d rather have them take over the nation than you.

The fourth approach that I find unimpressive but at least isn’t founded in hate is the recitation of miracles. The general tone is “ha ha, here’s something you can’t explain with your feeble materialist worldview, therefore God.” It never works.

First, I often CAN explain whatever phenomenon they’re talking about! It might be delusions, it might be cheap magic tricks, it might be psychological errors of perception, it might be the work of con artists. Out-of-body experiences are confabulations, demons are mental illnesses, miracle healings are spontaneous remissions, visions are the products of fevered imaginations, voices in your head are a symptom of schizophrenia. And never underestimate the possibility of con artists! As a general rule of thumb, if you cannot produce a material outcome from your miracle, I don’t have to explain it.

But secondly, there are a million phenomena I cannot explain. Science is all about asking questions and seeking answers, not about having answers for everything right now. Show me a “miracle” I can’t explain, and I’ll shrug and say I don’t know. Not knowing everything is not a flaw in my perspective, it’s the natural state of things. Maybe I’ll turn it around and ask you how you explain it, and what you have done to test your hypothesis. I know what answers I would get: “God” and “baffled look”. The leap from observing a mystery to invocation of an extraordinarily powerful invisible being is so routine that they don’t even think about the evidence for it…or the lack thereof.

Ultimately, what I am looking for is a COHERENT explanation for events, one that doesn’t rely on the whim of a deity, but does provide a testable model for how the world works. By definition, the theistic model allows anything and everything, inshallah, and doesn’t lead to a deeper understanding of the universe. To do that, we need to be skeptical, question everything, and only accept hypotheses that have passed some kind of empirical evaluation. Talk to me when miracles aren’t miracles, but are instead useful consequences of repeatable circumstances.

One last thing I really detest finding in my mailbox: mindreaders. You know the type: they tell you that everyone has a god-shaped hole in their heart, or that all humans are hardwired to seek god, and therefore they know deep-down that I actually believe in their god already. No. Humans throughout our history have been looking for explanations for phenomena in the environment — we are pattern seeking animals. If we can’t find a pattern that fits, we tend to invent one, and god is just a one-size fits all stop-gap explanation that people have stuffed into the lacunae in their understanding of the world. I’ve never found deities to be satisfying. I do find people who try to tell me what I really think to be irritating.

So, a shorter summary of the advice I’m giving to evangelists:

  1. Don’t build your case on tearing down science. I’m more sympathetic to those who see complementarity between science and faith (sympathy, but I still disagree.)
  2. Don’t use your holy book to justify your holy book. External sources are essential.

  3. Threats and bribes don’t work at all, especially when I think your Hell is imaginary and that a promise that is only going to cashed after I’m dead is not appealing.

  4. Miracles don’t impress. They’re nothing to me but mysteries that need closer examination and critical evaluation, not direct springboards to god-belief.

  5. When I say what I am, that I’m an atheist, believe me. I’ll return the favor by accepting that you actually sincerely believe in your goofy mythology.

When I tell you that you can’t use what you consider the most valuable tools in your arsenal of evangelical tactics, you’re probably feeling that I’m demanding that you disarm yourself and strip naked before you can bother me with your conversion script. Sorry not sorry. If making you uncomfortably aware of how ridiculous your arguments are prevents you from pestering me, I have acheived my goal.

Also, you know that there are a lot of Christians and Muslims who are comfortable and content in their faith and never feel the urge to annoy atheists with bad arguments, right? You can be a believer and lack a need to justify yourself with pseudoscience. Try it.

Look, here’s a bunch of people who support me on patreon, at Patreon.com/pzmyers. There are a bunch more who read freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula. The transcript of this video, and the video itself, will also be posted at both places. You can feel free to comment below, or at the blog, or on patreon — you can disagree all you want. But if you try to use any of the 5 tactics I listed, know that I’ll be rolling my eyes and might even make a rude, snide comment.

From the Richard Dawkins Foundation Newsletter. Subscribe here. Hello! Fundamental human rights—especially our right to free expression—don’t typically flourish under theocratic regimes. Science is a powerful tool for stripping theocrats of their power; when people understand the evidence-based explanations for how the world works, they no longer need the religious version. And when they see concrete …

Marie Stopes

If the internet has a favourite argument, it can be summed up in four words – that whoever is against one’s own opinion must be on the “wrong side of history”. The argument’s main strength seems to be its versatility. It can be (and often is) deployed on issues ranging from how we tackle the climate crisis to the correct approach to helping children with gender dysphoria; from eating meat to Black Lives Matter; from abortion rights to the nuances, or lack thereof, of the Israel–Hamas conflict.

Let’s pause for a second. Is an imagined future audience really the best judge of our actions today? One clue as to the many problems inherent in this approach comes from a 2019 panel assessment by Vox, which asked a range of experts – including historians, scientists and philosophers – what actions today are likely to be looked on with shame or horror in 50 years. The social psychologist Melanie Joy argued that more and more people will wonder why we ever ate meat, given the cruelty to sentient, intelligent animals necessary for such a practice. Given increasing rates of vegetarianism and veganism, such a suggestion seems relatively uncontroversial.

Other suggestions, however, were more likely to divide your average liberal audience. Ethicist Karen Swallow Prior, for example, suggested that in 50 years, voluntary abortions (those where the mother’s life is not in danger, or other narrow exemptions) would be morally unthinkable. She pointed to probable future ease of access to reliable contraception, and advances in imagery that, she said, would show that even early-stage foetuses had distinct human characteristics. “The average progressive would object vehemently, of course,” noted Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian at the time. “But who’s to say Prior is wrong?” The point the assessment highlighted is that we simply do not know, based on the assumptions of today, how societies of the future will think.

In the here and now, it’s a fairly mainstream view among historians that the “wrong side of history” argument is at best facile, and a fallacy that shows a profound lack of understanding of the real work of historians. But we should go further: as a rhetorical device, the “wrong side of history” is amoral, it’s a cul-de-sac – and it’s also oddly dehumanising.

The problem with "Whig history"

First, let’s deal with objections from the discipline of history. The relevant concept is “Whig history”, a long out-of-fashion school whose adherents regard history as a story of gradual progress. Strictly speaking, the Whig school of history referred to scholars during the late 19th and early 20th centuries who reframed history as a journey towards British parliamentary democracy. But the term is also applied more broadly – it would be Whig history, for example, to talk about the history of scientific discovery as a direct path towards our supposedly enlightened era, were we to assume that our current understanding of the world is a “correct” one. (The history of science instead suggests that our understanding of the world is constantly evolving, and will continue to do so).

Historian Herbert Butterfield, who coined the term “Whig history” in a 1931 polemic, summarised the problem thus: “it studies the past with reference to the present”, towards a goal of delivering “drama and apparent moral clarity”.

To call upon the moral force of imagined future historians is, then, to fall into the trap of Whig history – to see the purpose of the discipline as delivering a thumbs-up and thumbs-down on different historical figures, depending on their alignment to present-day social norms and whether they contributed to what we currently see as “progress” towards a better future.

History resists categorisation

Reality is almost never so kind nor so simple. For example, Marie Stopes was hailed for much of the 20th century as a pioneer of women’s reproductive rights and autonomy, having opened during her lifetime a network of clinics offering contraception and other health advice to women who wanted it. However, like many liberal intellectuals of her time, Stopes was an avowed eugenicist, and these beliefs clearly motivated the aspects of her work that we today see as “good”. The modern-day continuation of her organisation, wrestling with this legacy, has all but dropped their association with her name – changing from Marie Stopes International to MSI Reproductive Choices in 2020.

History tends to be stubbornly resistant to easy categorisation on any issue, whether it is currently in favour or not. Public opinion in the UK is now firmly in favour of gay rights and protections against discrimination, after a difficult and decades-long campaign by activists. But we know from the lessons of the past that we cannot rely on this support, or bet against backsliding – in reality, history is not a straightforward march towards inevitable “improvement”. Growing tolerance and even acceptance of homosexuality during the 1970s and 1980s was rapidly reversed at the onset of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, for example.

Meanwhile, modern praise of that era of gay rights activism has to be tempered with the inconvenient (and often ignored) fact that the movement was hijacked by so-called paedophile “rights” activists. The notorious “Paedophile Information Exchange”, which called for the abolition of the age of consent, was tolerated within the National Council for Civil Liberties from the 1970s until 1983.

Other issues bounce around in ways that are even more difficult to contend with if you’re trying to build a coherent narrative. Many early Zionists who were not Jews, but who believed in the creation of a Jewish state nonetheless, were antisemites. For them, one of the policy’s main merits was the relocation of Jewish populations away from their own countries. The horrors of the Holocaust obviously changed the political calculus and the coalition of support for the creation of a state of Israel, which was achieved by the partition of the British-occupied territory of Palestine, in a similar manner to the partition of India, and the forced displacement of Palestinians. Jews with weak historical links to the region moved to the new Israeli state, where they were joined by others fleeing nearby Muslim-majority countries, exacerbating tensions.

The Arab-Israeli war of 1948, in which virtually all of Israel’s neighbours invaded the nascent state, set the tenor for decades of moral ambiguity. Israel, having been at war with its neighbours since its traumatic inception, was determined to have defensible borders. Its mission to secure those would go on to stoke animosities, one wrong leading to another in a cycle that has never stopped, including by occupying ever larger portions of Palestine’s land, usually illegally and indefensibly.

Israel suffered an attack on 7 October last year that would prompt counter-action from virtually any democratic nation, just as 9/11 provoked the invasion of Afghanistan, which was widely supported at the time by the American public. However, Israel has been so brutal in its response that world opinion – as reflected in the UN and its votes on the issue – is lined up squarely against its actions. If anything should be a caution against the idea of clear good-versus-evil historical narratives, it should be Israel. Yet with relentless confidence, the “wrong side of history” argument is wheeled out ad infinitum.

The purpose of the argument

To think about why it’s such an apparently satisfying approach to debate, we shouldn’t look at history itself, but instead look at what the argument does for the esteem of the person making it. Anyone who has had a row at work or at a family dinner knows the phenomenon of playing it back in your mind for hours, with it going better for us at each repetition. Why couldn’t we think of the perfect riposte in the moment? How great would it have been if we’d actually managed to say that to their face?

Arguments that we have in our head are consistently more satisfying than the ones we have in reality. Our opponents are generally better informed than we would like them to be, have counter-arguments we haven’t considered, and are rarely the two-dimensional caricature we could so easily beat.

A common counter to that in a public debating forum is to engage in the trick referred to as “playing to the gallery”, or “playing for the cheap seats” – a trick that can reliably be seen by tuning in to even a few short minutes of BBC Question Time, and one that works across any issue.

Let’s imagine the debate at hand is homelessness. An opposition politician has noted there have been significant increases in rough sleeping and families in short-term accommodation, and that government spending has dropped. A minister has been given a chance to respond, and talks about homelessness being a complex issue tied to substance abuse, domestic violence and other issues the government is working to tackle.

The biggest and best audience reaction will inevitably go to the pundit the show cuts to next, who will generally know very little about the issue, but who will offer up a great one-liner: “I wonder why we’re spending £100 billion on Trident when that money could end homelessness for ever 30 times over”, or “Even a 1 per cent tax on billionaires would be enough to end homelessness with money left over.”

If there wasn’t an audience present, these sorts of lines would elicit nothing more than an eyeroll, as they don’t actually engage with the issues at hand. But with an audience present, to disagree with the statement is to endorse billionaires or nukes over homeless families. The only viable response is a polite silence.

An audience like God

The “wrong side of history” brings an idealised audience to every debate. By implication, they are from a future that is better than our world today, giving their wise judgment as to who from our present not just had the right opinions but also the right motivations. In a strange way, future historians are invoked here in the same way that societies traditionally invoked God. There is a presence that you cannot see or feel but whose judgment you should care about, and deeply. It has the benefit of greater knowledge than mere mortals, and the rhetorical benefit of being silent and intangible – who are you to reject its verdict?

Additionally, an appeal to the “wrong side of history” comes with baggage that can be helpful for someone wanting to stigmatise those with whom they are disagreeing. There is an implied suggestion that people holding the bad opinion in question will rank among those remembered hatefully by history. Such people tend to have records mostly defined by their body counts: when we think of the wrong side of history for the 20th century, most of us would think of the heads of totalitarian states who killed millions – Hitler, Mao, Stalin, North Korea’s Kim dynasty and the like. I don’t have to explicitly say that my opponent ranks among those names, but if that’s the inference you make, well, that’s up to you.

Audiences change everything, and this holds true even when they are imagined or invoked rather than actually present. Almost all of us have (or used to have) a friend who was delightful one-on-one – interested, engaging, funny, good conversation, but entirely different when part of a group. Perhaps they monopolise the conversation, perform anecdotes everyone has heard before, or even throw hurtful jibes for the amusement of the pack.

Invoking the imagined future as an audience makes that change of dynamic possible even in policy debates. Rather than try to convince your interlocuter of the merits of your argument, you appeal to history, imagining they will see the obvious stupidity, or worse, of your opponents. The act of debate is transformed into the performance of debate, and in that transformation all hope of actual engagement is lost.

It's today that matters

Appealing to the future is akin to invoking an imagined past – yet with the latter it is usually how rights are lost, not won. Donald Trump made the case that there was an American Golden Age to which he could return the nation – he could “Make America Great Again”. Brexit appealed to British nostalgia with “take back control”, but has yet to deliver either the economic growth or the control over borders and immigration that were promised. Reactionary arguments cast us, in the present day, as the audience looking back on history – and rule that it is those in more recent years who had lost their way. Referencing an imagined past to change the present has been highlighted by multiple scholars of fascism, including Hannah Arendt and Umberto Eco, as core to that political philosophy. Why should we imagine that those in the future would use the past any more ethically than we do today?

To achieve change, we need to win over people who are alive and engaged in the present day. The history of successful movements shows us that winning people over tends to work better than trying to shame people into silence or submission.

For years, for instance, movements calling for gay marriage tried to argue from the side of human rights, or social justice – but the evidence seems to show that the arguments that eventually moved the dial were those that simply appealed to fairness. The gay couple on your street do similar jobs to you, have a similar income and live in a similar house. Why can’t they get married like you can?

History is a lousy judge. Our understanding of history changes all the time, but even our approach to what makes for good history changes too. To suggest there is a single view on history in our multi-polar world is a nonsense. We live in the present-day world of “alternative facts”, “fake news”, “information operations” and “false flags”. Almost one in five Americans believe some variant of the QAnon conspiracy – which at its original core held that Hillary Clinton was the leader of a global Satanic paedophile ring. Any mass killing will now immediately be swamped by allegations that it has been staged.

When we can’t even agree on the simple facts of world events while the evidence is still current, we are hardly likely to be able to rely on history, even if doing so were desirable. In reality, calls to history serve only to entrench our demands, to suggest that there is no need to win over those with whom we disagree, because they will be condemned in the future.

Instead of invoking history, we need to engage in making it. That starts by dropping the rhetoric, and sticking to the here and now.

This article is from New Humanist's summer 2024 issue. Subscribe now.

Freud's famous couch, draped in cushions and carpets

There is a painting of the late Peter Higgs, the Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist, that hangs in a science building at the University of Edinburgh. It shows him staring out with a pencil in his shirt pocket. He’d told the artist Ken Currie that he only needed a pencil and paper for his work.

Currie spent time with Higgs in his Edinburgh flat, and told me in 2014 about Higgs’s extensive collection of vinyl records and “all sorts of books on painters which I noticed were arranged in alphabetical order”. He continued: “You go into his apartment in Edinburgh and it’s all very 70s retro stuff, there are all these lamps hanging over formica tables, and he’s got this amazing sound system but it’s a real sort of vintage job ... so it’s like going back in time.”

Some of the 20th century’s greatest thinkers – Higgs, Freud, Einstein – reveal so much to us through the objects that surrounded them. Higgs’s passion for music and ordered thinking is apparent through his alphabetised collection. The lack of concern for updating his interior suggests a focus on what’s going on in his mind, rather than material possessions. There is a joy to knowing he waited 47 years for his theory to be verified by the Large Hadron Collider, but lived to see it and secure his Nobel Prize.

Another example is Hawking. Roger Highfield, whose book Stephen Hawking: Genius at Work explored the objects in the physicist’s Cambridge University office, described the contents as the biographical equivalent of the Rosetta Stone. It revealed not just his scientific papers, but also his determination, embodied in his last wheelchair, and his love of fame and jokes. The office held mementoes from filming with the likes of Monty Python and scientific bets signed with his thumbnail – revealing his playful self. Two model trains – the Mallard and the Flying Scotsman – are a sweet reminder of his childhood passion.

Not far from the heavy traffic of one of the main arterial roads into London, you can step inside the mind of Sigmund Freud. He lived the last year of his life in an elegant house and garden in Maresfield Gardens in Hampstead – now a museum.

Already 81 when he moved there, Freud’s travel documents are framed in the hallway; a reminder of his escape as a Jewish intellectual from Vienna after the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938.

Thanks to the help of loyal friends and supporters, who negotiated the Nazis’ cruel bureaucracy and exit “taxes”, his possessions survived too: his London study transplanted his Viennese world, complete with his famous consulting couch. It is filled with the objects that inspired him and featured in many of his theories about interpreting dreams, taboos and the unconscious mind. There are hundreds of Ancient Egyptian antiques, which led to his final and controversial work, Moses and Monotheism. On the bookshelves I also noticed the works of Edgar Allen Poe – a writer who delved into our darkest dreams and whose invention of modern detective fiction surely found a parallel in Freud’s development of psychoanalysis.

It is deeply moving that all this survived, when so many Jewish people, including Freud’s own sisters, were annihilated in the Holocaust; the richness of their own inner lives and possessions stolen or destroyed.

Like Freud and Higgs, Albert Einstein’s was a mind that thrived on art and fiction. He too escaped the Nazis, but he headed for the US. When he died there in 1955 he left his entire library and possessions – more than 82,000 objects – to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, which he had helped to found.

The objects have been boxed in a warehouse for decades awaiting a permanent home, which is now finally under construction. Architect Daniel Libeskind has designed the Albert Einstein House at the Hebrew University to welcome academic researchers and visitors alike. The twisted cube reaches out as if to the stars, and is based on Einstein’s own mathematical work and general theory of relativity.

“What a human being!” Libeskind told me. “He fought for peace, for human rights ... He had books on art and philosophy ... Everything was in in his mind and imagination.” Like Higgs, Einstein loved music, notably J. S. Bach, a musician whose mathematical patterns are admired today, but only a third of whose compositions survive.

The possessions of these men matter not for their monetary worth, but for what they reveal about their creative thinking, and about the dance between art and science that has so enriched the modern world.

This article is from New Humanist's summer 2024 issue. Subscribe now.

Somebody cleans a surface using antibacterial spray

We’re becoming more allergic to things. It is estimated that the global incidence of food allergy rose from around 3 per cent of the population in 1960 to around 7 per cent in 2018. More patients are ending up in hospitals, too. Between 2013 and 2019, the number of admissions for children in England due to anaphylaxis, a severe reaction to allergies, rose by 72 per cent.

Why is this happening? One popular theory is that we live in a more hygienic society and so we’re not exposed to as many microbes. It was first put forward in 1989 when researcher David Strachan conducted a study of large families. He saw that the youngest children had much lower rates of allergic disease and hypothesised that this was because their siblings were bringing bacteria and viruses home.

Now scientists led by Liam O’Mahony at University College Cork in Ireland have tested the theory, using babies born during the pandemic. Would the extra sanitisation lead to these Covid babies developing more allergies?

They analysed the DNA of microbes coming from the gut of babies born during the pandemic and compared that microbiome load with samples from babies born before the lockdowns and social isolation. They also used a type of modelling to find out what factors, such as environment and diet, influenced the growth of these bacteria in the first year of life. Finally, they looked at whether there were any links between these changes in gut bacteria and allergic diseases.

The results, published in the journal Allergy, showed that even after strict social distancing measures, the gut microbiome of pandemic babies was similar to that of children born before the pandemic. In fact, Covid babies had more Bifidobacteria, a type of healthy bacteria that helps digest fibre and prevent infections. These bacteria were strongly associated with fewer food allergies.

They concluded that the healthy development of the baby’s gut seemed to be much more influenced by breastfeeding and other factors. In the end, extra hygiene may not be as harmful as we once thought.

This article is from New Humanist's summer 2024 issue. Subscribe now.

A pile of jeans

Blue jeans are not green. The crux of the environmental problem lies in indigo, the dye responsible for denim’s characteristic colour. Unlike most dyes, indigo is insoluble in water, necessitating a complex process to adhere it to fabric. This involves chemically reducing the dye to a water-soluble, colourless form that can be absorbed by cotton. Once exposed to air, the indigo reverts to its insoluble, vibrant blue state. This transformation requires substantial volumes of water – around 100 litres per pair of jeans – and a cocktail of harsh chemicals.

The environmental toll is compounded in developing countries, where much of the world’s denim is produced, leading to pollution and rivers tainted with the unmistakable blue of indigo runoff.

In pursuit of more sustainable methods, Ditte Hededam Welner and her team at the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability, Technical University of Denmark, have introduced a groundbreaking approach. Their research focuses on indican, a precursor to indigo that dissolves in water. Indican can be directly applied to fabric and transforms into indigo upon exposure to sunlight or artificial light sources, minimising the use of water and toxic substances.

The high cost of producing indican has previously limited its viability as a substitute. But now Welner’s team has developed an engineered enzyme capable of efficiently producing it. However, significant obstacles remain. Scaling up indican production to meet global demand presents logistical and economic challenges. And the technology does not fully resolve the denim industry’s broader environmental impacts.

A staggering amount of water – over 3,000 litres – is estimated to be consumed in the production of a single pair of jeans, from cotton cultivation through to the finishing processes. While this latest breakthrough improves the process, water use is still significant.

So if you’re wanting to dress ethically, you might want to skip the double denim – or perhaps you could buy your jeans and jacket second-hand.

This article is from New Humanist's summer 2024 issue. Subscribe now.

Ice rafts on Europa

I’ve just watched the first episode of 3 Body Problem, a show that has made me ponder anew the question of extra-terrestrial life. If alien life does exist, where would it develop? You may have heard of the explorations through the Mars Curiosity Rover mission, but do you know that Jupiter’s moon may also be a contender?

With a rocky base, a water-ice surface and a thin, mostly oxygen atmosphere, Europa is already promising. Even better, scientists believe there is a high chance that the icy moon also harbours a saltwater ocean that is twice the size of Earth’s.

Water indicates environments where life can form, hence the excitement. But the ocean is below an icy shell, which could seal it off from crucial energy sources at the surface. This leads us to ask: how thick is the ice?

In a recent paper published in Science Advances, a team of planetary scientists have answered this question, using data and images captured by Nasa’s Galileo spacecraft of a special form of impact crater on Europa. Known as multi-ring basins, the formation of these features depends on how heat is transferred through the ice, as well as how thick the ice is. Using software to simulate the structure of the basins, the team found a match when the conditions were set with ice that was at least 20 km thick.

More promisingly, their study also worked out that the ice shell is made up of a 6–8 km outer conductive layer on top of a warm, convective layer. This significant convective layer would allow water and gas to circulate, meaning that Europa’s ocean is more likely to be a hospitable environment for alien life.

However, astrobiologists need more information to determine whether life could be supported below the moon’s icy surface. It’s only a few months until Nasa launches its Europa Clipper spacecraft on 10 October, but we’ll have to wait until 2030 before the spacecraft arrives on Jupiter’s moon.

In the meantime, there are always television shows and the joys of science fiction.

This article is from New Humanist's summer 2024 issue. Subscribe now.

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From the Richard Dawkins Foundation Newsletter. Subscribe here. Hello! The UK’s National Health Service recently released The Cass Review, an independent report intended “to make recommendations on how to improve NHS gender identity services, and ensure that children and young people who are questioning their gender identity or experiencing gender dysphoria receive a high standard of …
This thread has been created for thoughtful, rational discussion on subjects for which there are not currently any dedicated threads. Please note that our Comment Policy applies as usual. There is a link to this at the foot of the page. If you would like to refer back to previous open discussion threads, the most …

Two quick bits of news from me.

blogcoverFirst, my new book on how learning magic promotes wellbeing is out very soon. It’s called Magic Your Mind Happy, and I am very excited because it provides a new perspective on magic. I will be doing lots of events to promote the book and it’s available to pre-order here.

Second, I have invented a new optical illusion! Well, to be more accurate, a new variant on a known illusion. The Beuchet Chair is one of my favourite illusions and involves a person appearing to be much smaller than they are. Invented by Jean Beuchet in the 1960s, it relies upon forced perspective created by chair legs that are close to the observer, and a large chair seat further away.

IMG_5468I have come up with a variant. This one centres around a plinth rather than a chair. The legs of the original chair are replaced by two pieces of hinged cardboard (these can easily be cut from foamboard and hinged with tape), and the large seat and back of the chair are replaced with a piece of cloth.

The hinged screen forms the base of the plinth and is positioned in front of the photographer, and the cloth appears to form the top of the plinth and is placed on the floor behind the screen. To help to create a sense of continuity between the large cloth and the plinth, two small pieces of matching cloth are draped along the top of the screens. The front and side panels of the screen help to conceal the front and left edge of the cloth, and make lining up the photograph much easier than in the original illusion.

IMG_5515This entire set up can be constructed in a short space of time, is quick to set up, and folds flat after use. Because of this, it’s ideal for those wanting to create a convincing version of this classic illusion that is easy and cost effective to build, assemble, move, and store. I hope that you like it.

From the Richard Dawkins Foundation Newsletter. Subscribe here. Hello! Confronting the kinds of problems that the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science was created to address—such as the spread of anti-science attitudes and the intrusion of religious beliefs on the rights and freedoms of nonbelievers—requires us to utilize many different tools. Language may be foremost …

Hi there,

I am delighted to say that I am back performing at the Edinburgh Magic Festival this year.

First, on the 28th December I will be exploring the strange world of illusion, mystery and magic in a show called MIND MAGIC. This will involve showing some of the best optical illusions in the world, revealing whether paranormal phenomena really exist, showing how we can all achieve the impossible, explaining how to transform a tea towel into a chicken, and much more. All the info is here.

Then, on the 28th and 29th December, I am presenting a new and experimental show about the invention of magic. This will be an intimate affair for a small number of people. It will examine how magicians create magic, and explore the mind and work of a magical genius who created the world’s greatest card trick. Info here.

So, if you are around, please come along, and fun will be had!

Some exciting news from me! I have just written my first book for children.

It uses magic to teach youngsters a range of essential life skills, including social skills, confidence, creativity, lateral thinking and much much more. Readers will learn how to perform lots of seemingly impossible feats, including how to defy gravity, read minds, pluck coins from thin air, and predict the future. Most important of all, these tricks have been carefully chosen to help boost mental wellbeing and resilience. It’s fun, it’s easy, it’s magic!

I am delighted to say that Magic Your Mind Happy will be published by Wren and Rook in May 2024, and is available to preorder now here.


check, 1, 2…is this thing on? hi everyone! it’s been a while.

CoverHigh

Two quick bits of news.

First, The Royal Society have kindly given me the prestigious David Attenborough Award. This is a lifetime achievement award for my work promoting psychology and critical thinking, and focuses on my research combatting pseudo-science and examining the psychology of magic. Previous recipients include Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam and Professor Alice Roberts, and I will give an award lecture about my work in August 2024.

Second, I have a new academic magic book out! It is part of the well-known Arts For Health series and reviews work examining how watching and learning magic is good for your wellbeing, including how it boosts confidence, social skills, dexterity, curiosity and much more. It was lots of fun to write and also includes interviews key practitioners, including Richard McDougall (Breathe Magic), Julie Eng (Magicana), Mario the Maker Magician (USA), David Brookhouse (UK), David Gore and Marian Williamson (College of Magic), and Tom Verner (Magicians Without Borders).  More details here.

Richard-Wisemans-On-Your-Mind-1080x1080

I am delighted to say that the second series of our On Your Mind podcast has launched today!!

Each week, science journalist Marnie Chesterton and I will explore aspects of the human psyche, including astrology, how the clothes we wear influence our thoughts, attraction, friendship, dreaming, mind control and much much more.  We will also be joined by some special guests as we attempt to answer all of your questions about psychology. The first series reached No.1 in Apple Podcast’s Science charts, and so we hope that you can join us. 

Our first episode looks at creativity and explores how to have good ideas and whether children are more creative than adults. You can listen here.

Someone contacted me hoping to find young atheists who might be interested in being part of a new series. I’m not particularly interested in having my mug on TV, but I would love to have some great personalities represent atheism on the show, so I offered to repost his email on my blog: My name […]
All throughout my youth, I dreamed of becoming a writer. I wrote all the time, about everything. I watched TV shows and ranted along with the curmudgeons on Television Without Pity about what each show did wrong, convincing myself that I could do a better job. I flew to America with a dream in my […]
A friend linked me to this. I was a sobbing mess within the first minute. I sometimes wonder why I feel such a strong kinship to the LGBT community, and I think it’s because I’ve been through the same thing that many of them have. So I watched this video and I cried, because, as […]
UPDATE #1: I got my domain back! Many thanks to Kurtis for the pleasant surprise: So I stumbled upon your blog, really liked what I saw, read that you had drama with the domain name owner, bought it, and forwarded it here. It should work again in a matter of seconds. I am an atheist […]
@davorg / Monday 17 June 2024 12:08 UTC