Saturday, September 30, 2006

Horoscopes for cows

Yep, there's a news article from India about a university designing horoscopes for cows. When I saw the title of the article in a local newspaper I nearly fell over - but it's not what you think. Turns out the horoscopes have nothing to do with planet positions but instead its about predicting the animals future using DNA analysis. Great article with a misleading title - check it out.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Creationism part deux

Okay, creationism in Islam. Actually I had a tough time finding a lot of material, presumably most Islamic-creationist literature and websites would be in Arabic, which I can’t read, so it might be more prevalent than my English-language searches indicate.

Overall creationism, to the extent that it attacks science or denies evidence in favour of literal interpretation of scripture, does not appear to be too wide spread in the Islamic world. It does exist as there are some groups in Turkey that promote creationism, and I presume the same exists in more fundamentalist nations like Pakistan. But it appears to nowhere near as prevalent as in North America. A quick Google-news search didn’t find any recent articles (looks like everyone is still focusing on the Pope’s recent comments about Islam) so I guess the question is, why isn’t it more prevalent?

What is said about the issue in the Qur’an would be a major factor. While the Qur’an has much that is in common with the Bible (the virgin birth of Jesus for example) it does not go into the level of detail that Genesis does in terms of the creation of the world. The Bible has a detailed series of “A begat B who begat C . . .” and in North America there is a type of creationist called Young Earth Creationists who add up all the begats and thus determined that the maximum age of the Earth is something like 6,000 years, give or take a few thousand. This of course flies in the face of pretty much all of the sciences, as well as history, sociology, and other academic disciplines so YECs are pretty vocal in their anti-science stance. I think you have to go into pretty deep denial to wish away all of the evidence that shows that the Earth is older than 6,000 years - but they do it! Since the Qur’an lacks the detailed lineage in the Biblical Genesis, and I don’t think the Qur’an gives a specific age for the Universe, you don’t see the Islamic equivalent of YECs as there is no specific age to hang your hat on.

Generally Islamic creationism seems to focus on just attacking the theory of evolution, but rather than go into detail I’ll just link to a Wikipedia article on creationism in Islam, a good starting point in case you want to learn more. And of course there is always Talk Origins.

If I get a chance in the future to talk to an Islamic biologist I’ll ask them for their opinion on the issue and how widespread creationism and other anti-science thought exists in various parts of the Islamic world.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


Time for a bit of a rant on creationism. I’m not talking about the belief that a divine being created the universe and all life on it, anyone believing in God/Allah should believe that, I’m talking about people who’s interpretations of scripture are so literal that they deny any evidence that contradicts their interpretations, to the point of trying to undermine scientific research and education. These are the people I have an issue with!

Sadly creationism, or as they like to call it now - intelligent design, appears to be on the upswing in America, or at least the adherent followers are getting more noisy. Part of their tactics is to promote an either-or fallacy that you can’t be Christian and agree with the theory of evolution, that they are somehow mutually exclusive, and that only atheists/pagans/communists etc. ‘believe’ in evolution (believe is in quotes because in truth one doesn‘t believe in scientific theories like a religion - if further evidence comes along that disproves evolution in favour of another theory then science will move to that theory and march onward, not holding my breath that it‘ll happen though). In fact many Christian sects such as most Catholics and Anglicans have no problem with evolution, and many biologists are Christian which does not appear to impact their research into matters such as genetics. But Heaven forbid that a Biblical literalist might think that maybe, just maybe, that any evidence that goes against their beliefs might indicate that their interpretation of scripture is wrong. Heck no! The Bible is inerrant and how they interpret it must be right. If science comes out with evidence to the contrary then in their minds it means science is attacking the Bible itself. There seems to be an underlying arrogance to that.

Let me just say that science does not attempt, nor is it able, to prove or disprove a religion. Things like the existence of God are totally beyond scientific enquiry. Science deals with empirical observation, it can only look at things that is within our power to observe and study. No test of science can study God. The Bible isn’t in danger from science and hundreds of years of scientific study and achievement hasn’t made the world a bunch of roving atheists. Almost all scientists know this.

Scriptural literalists set themselves up for confrontation with science because of their inflexibility. Once they believe something due to their interpretation of scripture it is difficult for them to accept any evidence to the contrary. How do many of them deal with it if evidence appears? Denial is one way, grand conspiracies about scientists trying to undermine Christianity is another, taking quotes from famous scientists out of context is a favourite, or blatantly lying about scientific concepts to undermine science can occur sometimes as well.

So I’ll segway into one of my favourite websites, Talk Origins. Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the theory of evolution, false claims made by creationists, and other material on the war between science and religious dogma. The What’s New section is always worth checking out periodically - I especially love the summary of the monthly feedback, but if you ever come across creationist claims against evolution this is the first place you should go to investigate the truth behind the claim.

That said if you have access to a good library and are really interested in the topic be sure to check out the original source material. Talk Origins is good about listing references for their information. I sometimes get concerned when in internet forum debates people post things along the lines of “Talk Origins says this therefore it must be true”. That’s not ideal from a critical thinking perspective and I doubt the people who manage Talk Origins want their website to be seen as some kind of gospel. Part of being a good skeptic is a willingness to check sources even when you agree with what is being said.

What about creationism in Islam? I’ll get to that tomorrow . . .

Friday, September 22, 2006

Happy Ramadan!

Well Ramadan just started, one lunar month where the Muslims fast during the day, pray more often and have banquets/feasts at night. Because the start of Ramadan depends on when the Moon (in a certain phaase) is sighted locals can't give an exact date for when it starts - best they can do is +/- 1 day.

So we figured it would start on Saturday night so a bunch of people from work all met up at a bar around 8pm and just as I got there the bar announced that Ramadan had started, therefore no more drinks could be served. None. Zero. No more alcohol for the next 28 days. So my co-workers that had arrived a few minutes earlier managed were holding on to the last beer that they were gonna get at this bar. I tried calling the others who hadn't arrived yet to warn them but they didn't believe me! They thought I was just joking so showed up anyway. Surprise, no more liquor!

We called around and found one bar that was serving for one more hour so it was a mad dash to get there before they closed up. In the end we all got one or two drinks so the evening wasn't a total wash. Looks like parties at compounds if anyone wants drinks now.

Because during Ramadan Muslims are required to fast during the day (no food, no water, nothing) the Government has strict rules in place. No restaurants can be open, no eating in public (including in your car while driving). I've heard hotels keep a room out-of-sight open so that guests can eat something but otherwise their restaurants are closed. Even at the office we can't eat lunch at our desks, but the boss said that from 12-1 we could eat in one of the meeting rooms. I have to figure out what to bring for lunch now - I always ate out but since nothing is open I can't do that anymore. Oh well, just another interesting thing about life in the Gulf.

On the plus side our working hours are reduced during Ramadan. I get to go home at 3pm for the next month instead of 5. Yay!!

Ramadan Kareem everyone! (I hope I got that right).

Friday, September 15, 2006

Science behind the veil

I just happened to catch this interesting article in the local paper. I think it paints an interesting contrast in what many in the West think of the Middle East, and how it actually can be. A westerner would generally not expect the physics teachers to be women in abayas. Yes, women in Qatar are allowed to work.

I'm glad that Qatar appears to be taking science education seriously. It makes sense since most jobs are occuring in science and engineering (such as construction and petrochemical) that's where young Qataris should be focusing their educational efforts. A Qatari who gets a chemical engineering degree is all but guaranteed a nice job with one of the many petroleum companies.

Now people have to keep in mind that what happens in Qatar does not necessarily represent what happens everywhere else in the region. Saudi Arabia is right next door and while I've never been there it is definately a different world from Qatar. A lot more conservative, a lot greater wealth discrepancy between the rich and the poor. Bahrain, even though it is right next door, is also very different. Bahrain is a lot more relaxed than Qatar: lots of bars and nightclubs, locals can buy alcohol, pork is available at markets, and there appears to be a lot of young asian girls hanging out in the bars (even Lonely Planet notes that prostitution is big there).

Three countries, all muslimm, three very different societies.

[update 27 November 2011 -- pork is now available in Qatar, see my post of that date]

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Away on business

I leave tomorrow for a business trip to Bahrain. I'll be back in a couple of days with updates.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Bermuda gets through relatively unscathed

Looks like Hurricane Florence was a Category 1 storm and so Bermuda didn't suffer a lot of damage (unlike Fabian in 2003, which was Category 3). Some friends have already emailed to say that they're fine and while the power will be out for some of them for a day or two the storm wasn't too bad.

Bermuda enforces strict building codes, all homes are made of cement block and the walls have to be at least 8 inches thick, so while hurricanes can do damage to a roof or windows, the homes themselves are usually fine. Why doesn't the US do this in places like Florida?? (Hmmmm, I'll leave this as a rant for sometime in the future)

So if anyone else from Bermuda is reading this please send me an email so that I know you're okay.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Critical Thinking News

Apparantly a geologist in India said he developed a model that would predict earthquakes and that it predicted the 2004 Indonesian quake. So as a good scientist he let his model and data be reviewed by other scientists so that the predictions could be independently verified and tested, right? Nah, instead lets tell a bunch of people in India that a Mag 7+ quake is going to hit their area and destroy everything. I think you can figure out
what happened next. Idiot.

This is why good scientists let their theories and models be peer reviewed and independently verified before making rash statements to the public. I hope someone takes Mr. Vetkanathan to task for the problems he caused. I also hope that he will now rethink the usefulness of his model and let it be tested by others, but I'm not holding my breath. He was even so bold as to predict the earthquake to the nearest minute so I'm sure he'll find some excuse for why his wonderful model didn't work.

Hurricane Florence

It looks like Hurricane Florence is going to hit Bermuda tomorrow!

I used to live in Bermuda and was there when Hurricane Fabian hit in 2003. Not a pleasant experience. I was lucky as my house was dug into the bottom of a hill which offered excellent protection from southerly winds - exactly the direction the hurricane's winds came from. Those on the island whose homes faced south were not so fortunate - most of those homes had broken windows and roof damage. Still too close to call which direction with winds will come from with Florence. Hurricanes spins counterclockwise so if the center of the storm goes west of Bermuda (like Fabian) the winds will be from the south, if the center of the storm is east of Bermuda the winds will be from the north.

If any of my friends in Bermuda are reading this good luck, and please take precautions to ensure your safety. Arrange an alternate location to wait out the storm in case the winds will not be in your favour. Hopefully Florence will be milder than Fabian.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Critical thinking news

There are a few English language dailies in Doha, the one I usually read is Gulf Times. The paper sometimes has articles regarding some part of the world where superstitions are causing problems so from time to time I'll link to a story that highlights why education in critical thinking is important.

Today's news: Food poisoning thought to be the curse of a god.

Don't snicker too much, it wasn't all that long ago that North America was gripped with that "Satanic Cults" hysteria, remember?

The Amazing Meeting

Every year there is a big skeptic convention in Las Vegas called "The Amazing Meeting" (TAM), hosted by the James Randi Educational Foundation ( I've been to the last two and had a awesome time, it is great to meet other skeptics, scientists and critical thinkers from around the world and listen to the various speakers. The speakers are generally top notch - last year had Murray Gell-Mann, Penn & Teller, Michael Shermer, the guys from MythBusters (including Kari), and many more. It's not all about the lectures though, I also attended a TAM poker tournament, a couple of parties, a visit to Red Rocks, and a brief trip to the Gun Store to fire off some weapons.

I'm planning to go to this upcoming one as well, if you're interested in skepticism or critical thinking you should think about going too. Go to the JREF website or to find out more. If you're a little strapped for cash they also have a scholarship program, funded by donations from attendees, to pay for the conference fees. I think last year the fund helped 41 people!

I've still got to work out my schedule so I'm not 100% sure that I'll be there but if there's a chance that I can make it I will, it is that much fun.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Psychics, astrologer and magicians, oh my!

One day I was reading something, I don’t recall if it was an article in a magazine or something from an internet forum, about yet another so-called “psychic” in the US who made a bunch of vague waffling predictions on some crime - predictions which turned out to be wrong (not that something minor like that will stop them from continuing their career as a psychic I’m sure). And it dawned on me . . .

I had yet to see any ad or storefront for a psychic/astrologer/palm reader etc in Qatar.

That struck me as odd as the capital, Doha, has at least 400,000 people in it, many of whom are from India where astrology is rampant. A lot of people here are also pretty well off financially - the kind of people psychics and fortune-tellers love to try to get as clients. Yet I couldn’t recall any advertising for fortune-telling services.

So I skimmed the newspaper classifieds, then the yellow pages, to find them. You know what - I found none. Not one. So I did a cursory google search on “astrology Doha”, “astrology Qatar”, “psychic Qatar” and so on. While I could find a few astrology and similar websites I couldn’t find a practitioner who was actually in the country (although I did find a Reiki healer). Apparently there either aren’t any fortune tellers advertising their trade here, or they are fairly discreet about it.

Care to guess why? That’s because under Islam fortune telling is forbidden. I had to do some internet searching on this but apparently sections of the Qur’an address this, like surah 27:65 which states Say: None in the heavens and the earth knows the unseen except Allah, nor can they perceive when they shall be resurrected, which many Muslims interpret to mean that since only God knows that which is unseen, you can’t know the future since it implies that you know the mind of God. So under Islamic thinking psychics, astrologers, and other assorted fortune tellers generally fall into one of three categories:

1) con artists;
2) deluded; or
3) practicing sorcery (a big no-no in Islam)

I guess this tends to discourage Arabs who were thinking of becoming a “psychic detective”. In some ways this is a North American skeptic’s dream - a country where tarot card readers, psychics and other assorted woos do not operate because it‘s against the law! Wow!

Now, I don’t buy for a minute that no one here in Qatar is practicing fortune-telling. A lot of people here aren’t Muslim and I’m sure that there are some astrologers working underground amongst the Indian community. You can also get satellite TV here, including the standard fare of psychic nonsense from the West including ads for psychic phone lines. But wouldn’t it be nice if the West would start taking psychic scam artists more seriously and start cracking down?

Sadly I’m not sure if this is really a plus about Qatar that I’m comfortable with. Is cracking down on fortune-telling due to religious reasons really a win for critical thinking? I think it would be a lot better if these laws were enacted because the populace knew that psychics didn’t really predict the future, maybe even going so far as to force anyone claiming to be a psychic to undergo controlled testing to prove their claims. Stopping psychics because they are ‘practicing sorcery’ just lends credence to the notion that sorcery is real, hardly an ideal solution from my point of view.

Anyway, I think I’ll try to do a bit more digging on this, to see just what the laws in Qatar are in relation to fortune-telling. A recent arrest for practicing sorcery looks like it was on fraud charges rather than sorcery, which is encouraging (story here:, but there may be fortune-telling laws on the books. Once I find out more I’ll post it up.

And so it begins . . .

So, why exactly am I doing this blog?

I moved to Qatar a few months ago and it surprised me how it was nothing like I had expected. English is widely spoken, women can work and drive cars, and most of the non-Arab women do not wear abayas (the long black clothing that covers them head to toe), instead wearing jeans and t-shirts or whatever. No one has cared that I am not Muslim, no one has stopped me in the street to 'convert' me, damn me for my Western-heathen ways, or tell me that they dislike America/the West/whatever. It's been pretty mellow actually.

I'm a skeptic as well as an armchair scientist (i.e. I read science magazines and webarticles) and I've wondered about how it works here in an Shar'ia country. Right now in America there is an increasing amount of anti-science, whether it be the push for creationism/intelligent design in schools, new age mumbo-jumbo clogging the TV airwaves, anti-vaccination hoopla, or quack medical products like HeadOn getting more and more recognition in the minds of the consumer. Do things like this make inroads here in Qatar? Do they have some other old superstitions that we aren't familiar with in the West? How does Islam mesh with critical thinking and science? I hope over time to find out.

I will also use this blog to discuss, and hopefully debunk, some common misconceptions about the Middle East and Islam that, perhaps thanks to Western media, are widespread in the West. The Islamic world is big and involves many, many different nations. How people live under Islam differs from place to place so one can't just paint sweeping generalizations about Islamic Nations as those generalizations just won't apply in a lot of countries. Algeria is not the same as Egypt, Egypt is very different from Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia is nothing like Lebanon, and so on. Life in Qatar is nothing like, say, Afghanistan yet it surprised me how many people I've talked to figured it would be. Hopefully over time readers of this blog will see the differences.

If there is anything specific that you want to know about life in Qatar, or science and research here, let me know and I'll see what I can find out. I do requests! :)