Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Snopes - a website everyone should use

Ever wonder if that "missing kid" email you received is true? Or if that shocking picture a friend forwarded is real or a photoshop job? The website to find out, and one of my favourite websites, is Snopes (www.snopes.com). Chances are that chain email or picture is already there, with an investigation to see if it is true or not. It is also a neat site for just surfing around the various lists of urban legends that they investigated (recent one: Hillary Clinton is not named after Sir Edmund Hillary of Mt. Everest fame). Back when I worked in Bermuda I would have to use snopes at least one a month to debunk some email circulating around the office.

So go to snopes, look around, then bookmark it and visit it everytime you wonder if an email or piece of trivia is on the level. You won't regret it.

Monday, October 30, 2006


Got back from Istanbul - what a great city! Temperature was comfortable, the sights were amazing (especially the Topapki Palace and the Hagia Sophia) and the food was good. Met some Irish folk in my hotel who were working in Saudi Arabia and we hung out together as one big group. One of them used to work in Istanbul so he spoke Turkish, which helped a lot. He also knew great restaurants to go to. Being Irish lots of drinking was also a must.

If you're ever in Istanbul be sure to try raki, a local drink similar to sambuca, and to do the ferry ride up the Bosphorous.

For those of you on my pictures distribution list I'll send the pics across in the next week or so. The pictures will show things better than I could describe them.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

On Vacation

I'm off tomorrow morning for 4 days in Istanbul. I'll post about it once I return. That is, if I'm not bloated from eating too much Turkish Delight (which I love).


During Ramadan a Muslim is not allowed to eat or drink anything throught the day so the meal to break the fast, called Iftar, is pretty important. Some Iftars can range from simple meals with family up to extravagant multi-hour banquets.

The local hotels all offer Iftar buffets and I got to check two out at the Intercontinental Hotel and at the Ritz Carleton. Both decorated their seating area like a uber-decked out Arabian tent (the Ritz was actually in a ballroom while the Intercon had set up a large pavillion on the beach). The decor was stunning with tapestries, rugs, ornate furniture etc. Both had lovely buffets with both Western and Arabic cuisine, as well as a shawarma station, but the Ritz went one step further with a pasta station, tempura station, and ice-cream station. There was so much food I couldn't even try everything.

Afterward I kicked back with a sheesha, also known in the West as a hookah. Sheesha smoking uses flavoured-tobaccos and while it is not something I wound not want to do often (it is still smoking tobacco and little better than smoking cigarettes) it does add embience to the setting. I tried mango-flavoured tobacco, grape, and apple. Mango had almost no flavour but the grape and apple were great. At both places it wasn't long before the "tent" got pretty smoky as over half the guests were smoking sheeshas.

It's a shame that currently Ramadan is in the hotter summer months. I think anyone visiting the region would have a wonderful time at an Iftar buffet but since the weather is too hot for touring around and seeing the sights (and all the restaurants are closed all day for Ramadan) tourists have limited options for things to do.

What's up with blogger.com?

Geez, I'm finally able to access the blog again. For some strange reason I couldn't log on for the last few days. It might have something to do with the computers at my compound's computer room; since everyone at the compound uses them they probably have a ton of junk on them affecting the performance. I'll see how it goes over the next few days.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Scientific Apologetics - part 1A

I took a quick look through the 27-page response to Qur'anic Embryology and most of the cited work is internet and usenet postings, as opposed to published research. Not that published research is needed to debunk proof like a sculpted piece of gum resembles an embryo. If anyone can find out more about the Needham and Needbeer paper let me know.

Interestingly enough the debunking of the Quran'ic Embryology paper also references a website, www.answering-islam.org, that apparantly has more articles challenging other "Science in the Qur'an" arguements - but my service provider will not allow me to access that website! Qatar has only one service provider and they block sites that are contentious, which usually means pornographic. I guess some sites critical of Islam are also blocked. When I go on vacation next I'll make sure to check this site out. Just on principle you should too! If my service provider won't let me look at it then it's must have something interesting on it. I think I'll tell everyone at the Bad Astronomy forum about it as well just so it gets more traffic.

That website again: www.answering-islam.org

Anyway much of the embryo debate seems to hinge on Professor Keith L. Moore and some statements and research he did back in the 1980s. The Needham paper cites a reference that apparantly Dr. Moore did not convert to Islam himself, which would be odd given that the Brief Illustrated Guide to Understanding Islam almost completely relies on his work for the embryo argument, so I wonder if anyone knows the full story. Apparantly he used to teach at the University of Toronto but I don't know if he is still there, and quick search of the UofT website wasn't helpful. If you know more about this please let me know.

Animal Shelters

First some sad news, the other day a coworker's cat got run over by a car. It was originally a scrawny stray that she started feeding and it soon won her heart, within a month she was taking it to the vet for checkups, got it a collar, and let it come into her condo. The cat gained weight, stopped being scared of people, and turend out to be a nice, friendly, happy cat. But one evening it climbed over a wall and went out to the street where a car hit it. My coworker was devastated. She takes some solace in that at least the cat's last few months were happy ones.

Coincidentally the next morning the Qatar Natural History Group, of which I'm a member, did a trip to the Qatar Animal Welfare Society (www.qaws.org) where we helped walk the many dogs they had at the shelter. I was surprised that there would be many dogs given that Muslims consider dogs unclean and tend not to have them as pets, but there were about 20 of them. Most of them were Salukis or Saluki-crosses, Salukis being one of the only breeds of dog that Arabs use. One of the people at the shelter told me that medium or large dogs are hard to find homes for since most foreigners live in apartments or condos. Small dogs usually get adopted within a few days. QAWS also has cats, a donkey (?) and a castrated bull (?!?). I get the feeling that the bull will be there for a while.

So if you want something to cheer you up, go to www.qaws.org click on Adopt, then Success Stories, for letters from people who adopted animals from the shelter and found themselves with a wonderful pet.

If you're thinking of getting a pet, please adopt one from an animal shelter rather than a pet store. And if you live in Qatar, please consider adopting one of their wonderful dogs or cats.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Critical Thinking News

Looks like Saudi Arabia is trying to crack down on astrology with an Imam declaring it "forbidden and is considered a form of magic".

I also liked the following: "Believing that a certain star can be the cause of happiness or misfortune is a superstition from the pre-Islamic age...," Hear, hear.

I just wish they wanted to ban it because astrology is nonsense, not because it is some kind of magic. It is not magical because there is nothing to it. Astrology doesn't work.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Scientific Apologetics - part 1

Firstly, I found a online version of the book that I was handed A Brief Illustrated Guide to the Understanding of Islam. You can find it at this website. The booklet is 74 pages of which only the last 30 actually discusses general concepts of islam, the beginning 40 pages focuses on the evidence "for the truth of islam".

So Chapter 1: "The Scientific Miracles in the Holy Qur'an" (isn't 'scientific miracle' a misnomer?)

We start off with the Qur'an discussing human embryonic development. This focuses on the following statement in the Qur'an (Surah 23:12-14)

"We created man from an extract of clay. Then We made him as a drop in a place of settlement, firmly fixed. Then We made the drop in to an alaqah (leech, suspended thing, and blood clot), then We made the alaqah into a mudghah (chewed substance)."

So what's the connection to human embryonic development? In summary, booklet claims:
1) at a certain stage of development the human embryo resembles a leech
2) It is suspended in the womb of the mother
3) the external appearance of the embryo and its sacs is similar to that of a blood clot
4) (here's my favourite) if you take a piece of gum and chew it, the gum will look similar to an embryo in the mudghah stage. (complete with pictures comparing an embryo to a scuplted piece of gum with one set of teeth imprints to look like a spinal cord).

There is also a few quotes from Professor Keith L. Moore "one of the world's most prominent scientists in the fields of anatomy and embryology" supporting the idea that the Qur'an is the Word of God, I presume based on the above information.


I'm not a biologist, though I do have a bachelor's degree in chemistry, and debunking is going to take a lot of work & research. Getting up to speed on the embryology claims alone might be tough. I figured I'd have to post this up on some skeptic bulletin boards, and maybe search talkorigins.org, to see if others could help out.

But low and behold someone has already done the work for me. A 27-page response titled "Quranic Embryology". It is an interesting read that counters a lot of the claims . . .

. . but then my joy on seeing this work turned a bit down. I'm going to have to spend some time checking the sources to see that it is on the level. Key givaway: the authors were Dr. Yusuf Needham and Dr. Butrus Needbeer. Needham and Needbeer!? Yeah, I'm sure that's their real names. Not suprisingly googling these names didn't turn up much else on them aside from this article. I figure these are just pennames but it does throw some suspicion on the work so a follow-up to the sources is definately needed.

I'll do some fact checking and let you know what I come up with. Meanwhile the Needbeer article is still worth checking out.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Scientific Apologetics

The other day I was handed an interesting booklet titled A Brief Illustrated Guide to Islam, which I found somewhat amusing because only a part of it is dedicated to explaining Islam. Instead much of it discusses the “Scientific Proof of the Qur’an”, basically pointing out things in the Qur’an that agree with current research, or the views of one or two scientists, and from this concluding that this is proof that the Qur’an is divine. I refer to such arguments as ‘scientific apologetics’, using science to try to support a faith-based position.

I don’t really have a problem with religion and religious beliefs. Most of humanity needs belief in a greater power to make their lives meaningful. Yes some people are atheists but I’m pretty sure that being an atheist isn’t for everyone. For many the comfort of religious belief is truly helpful. But when said religious beliefs try to cross the faith/science boundary that we run into problems.

Generally when someone uses scientific apologetics they open themselves up to a few problems:

1) Science cannot prove/disprove the divine. Science deals with empirical observations and evidence and is unable to answer questions relating to God/Allah/gods. Many scientists themselves are religious – since science does not investigate matters of faith or the divine generally there is no contradiction in someone having religious beliefs yet practicing science. Having a passage from scripture resemble some empirical observation or scientific hypothesis does not prove divinity any more than if some passage does not conform to a hypothesis disproves divinity. Scientific apologetics does not appear to realize this concept, which brings us to . . .

If one proposes that scripture agreeing with science = proof of divinity, does that mean if an item is found in the scripture that disagrees with science that it is now proven that the scripture is not divine? No believer in a particular religion would accept the latter of course. But you can’t have your cake and eat it to: agrees = divine, not agrees = also divine? Heads I win, tails you lose!

2) What if other scriptures from other religions also have passages that agree with science, does that mean they all must be divine? People using scientific apologetics tend to focus on their own religion and not apply the same methods to other religious books. As we’ll see over the next few posts, many religions (Christian, Islam, Hindu) have all sorts of things in their works that ‘agree’ with science. So if a Christian uses science to ‘prove’ that the Bible is true, they should also agree that the Hindu scriptures are true for the same reason. (They wouldn’t of course but it creates a logical inconsistency: why should one believe in Book X because it ‘agrees’ with science but not Book Y?)

3) Just because some passage or part of a scripture can be interpreted to agree with science does not de facto mean that everything in the scripture must therefore be correct and true. That is a logical fallacy, I think it’s analogous to a doctor looking at your ear and finding that since it is free of disease concluding that your whole body must be free of disease! It also runs into problems with #1 above. Some diehard believers try to get around this by accepting research that supports their scriptural interpretations while excluding anything that opposes it (and if it’s someone like a young-earth creationist, or a geocentrist, there’s a heck of a lot of research and evidence to ignore).

So that’s just some things to bear in mind as I spend the next few weeks going over the claims made in this Islamic booklet, as well as some claims made in other scriptures. It’ll be neat, I swear.