Thursday, 31 May 2007

is tv violence bad for us - really?

Photo: Webshots

You've probably had discussions about whether on-screen violence has any impact on people's behaviour. But I'm guessing the discussions were inconclusive, because you thought the scientific jury was still out. Yep, me too.

Well, New Scientist magazine has recently reported on the matter, and surprise, the scientific information has been around for 50 years, and getting clearer.

So what is the answer?

"Modern media such as TV and computer games are changing our minds, and the more we are exposed to them the greater the changes. They are making us smart and better at some tasks, but worse at others. And there is no getting away from the fact that on-screen violence fosters off-screen violence."

Looking a bit closer reveals the following:

1. Electronic media, and other technologies, change the way we think, and, ultimately, the way our brains are actually wired. This is natural, and can have both beneficial and detrimental effects.

2. Beneficial effects of TV, video games and computers can include:

  • they can increase our abilities to solve problems and take in information;
  • gaming experience is the best predictor of surgeons' skill at keyhole surgery (more even than the length of training or the amount of experience!);
  • TV can be very educational and increase knowledge more than reading, especially in people of lower IQ.

3. The average US schoolchild will have watched 8,000 murders and 100,000 violent acts on TV before they leave elementary school (generally pre-teenage years). The figures will be way higher if they have access to cable TV, video games or films.

4. The harm caused by TV definitely outweighs the good, and video games are even worse (because they are interactive, and often reward aggressive behaviour). Problems caused can include:

  • the amount of TV watched during childhood correlates with reduced attention spans and loss of sleep;
  • high levels of TV viewing may contribute to verbal and physical aggression, sleep difficulties, obesity and associated long-term health problems, and attention and learning difficulties;
  • double the amount of TV watched in childhood and on average you'll increase the likely occurrence of ADHD (attentional deficit hyperactivity disorder) by a 25%;
  • a university psychologist who has written a book summarising 50 years of research on violence says it is clear that violence on TV has raised the level of violence and aggression in society;
  • the relationship between TV and violence seems to go both ways - watching TV increases violent behaviour and violent people tend to watch more violent programs;
  • it's not just children who are affected, for TV seems to increase aggressive behaviour over time - young adults who watched more TV as teenagers commit more aggressive acts in later life;
  • children have long-term memories of violent acts, which can lead to later imitation, desensitisation or feelings of vulnerability.

Two obvious questions remain.

1. Why don't we do more about it? Some people say that the entertainment industry has fought the public understanding of these conclusions in the same way that the smoking lobby denied the links between smoking and lung cancer. But it may also be that we just don't want to be bothered changing and giving up some parts of our entertainment.

2. What can we do about it? Obviously limit children's, time in front of the TV, especially violent programs (which can include cartoons), but also discuss with children, and keep TVs and computers out of bedrooms. And just maybe we should change our own viewing habits too. For more on this see or

Check out the New Scientist article and editorial from the 21 April 2007 issue (it was late arriving in my local library!).

Sunday, 27 May 2007

only our imagination will bring us home?

Ever wondered what makes things right or wrong? Is it God, or is it what works best, or is there something within each of us that tells us? Do right and wrong change?

Aussie-born Professor Margaret Somerville is founding director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University in Canada, and she recently released a book which addresses some of these questions.

Somerville believes each of us has a set of innate ethical principles, many of which we share with others, built around respect for nature, the natural and life. However she believes that "liberal individualism", which is the dominant value of western culture, is no longer adequate for our brave new world, especially the advances in medical and reproductive technology. She is concerned that in the rush to give adults everything they want (abortion, in vitro fertilisation, genetic engineering, perhaps even "designer children"), we have virtually ignored the rights of children to know, and live in a family with their biological parents.

Photo from Webshots

She argues we need new approaches to ethics, especially reproductive and family ethics, and that ethics be built around recognising the natural as "sacred". She uses the old Aussie phrase "going on the wallaby" (referring to itinerant farm workers living rough in the bush and following wallaby tracks) and says we need to go on a search for new ethics: "We're in a great hot desert and we're looking for something along these trails."

She suggests three basic birth rights: "children's right to know the identity of their biological parents; children's right to both a mother and a father, preferably their own biological parents; and children's right to come into being with genetic origins that have not been tampered with." Thus she believes we should disallow medical technology that puts "our common humanity at risk".

She is wary of a reductionist scientific view of humanity, and encourages us to keep our imaginations open to the "awe and wonder" of things science cannot explain. She believes "science will give us many answers, but only our imagination will bring us home."

I agree that science alone cannot tell us what is right and wrong, but perhaps we need more than imagination. What do you think? Where do you get your ethics from?

Check out reviews of Somerville's "The Ethical Imagination: journeys of the human spirit" in the Sydney Morning Herald,, The Other Librarian, or read about the original lectures which led to the book in the McGill Reporter.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

prepare to be amazed

Check out the amazing 3-D artwork of pavement artist Julian Beever. His chalk pictures are drawn so that they appear 3-dimensional when viewed from the correct angle. In this photo (copyright and used with Julian's permission) the man, I presume the artist, is standing on one of his pavement pictures - you can still see the paving slabs.

Julian has been around for a while, but I have only recently come across his work, so I'm guessing others may not have seen these pictures either. Check out his website, or go direct to some of his best works including:

Monday, 21 May 2007

religion wars

It wasn't so long ago that religion was a subject you didn't discuss - it was a private matter. It was also boring - who would want to talk about that? But in the last few years God is very much back on the agenda, with a number of high profile and militant atheists publishing virulently anti-God books (as others have noted), and regular articles about religion in newspapers and magazines.

And so last weekend in the Sydney Morning Herald there was an essay by Christopher Hitchens (originally published in, in advance of his forthcoming book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Hitchens does not attempt to disprove God, although he briefly indicates his view that there are four reasons to disbelieve:

  • it "wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos";
  • it combines "the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism" [the view that the self is all that can be known to exist] - I'm afraid I can't understand what he is getting at here;
  • "it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression"; and
  • "it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking."

But after this brief, and unargued, opening, most of the essay is a diatribe against what he dislikes about religion, including .....

  • "Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago". Religion is "man-made", it is "vanity" to think we are part of a divine plan and accordingly he mocks the idea of prayer.
  • Religion cannot be reconciled with modern science, and so requires repeated modification as new discoveries are made. "How many needless assumptions must be made and how much contortion is required to receive every new insight of science and manipulate it so as to 'fit' with the revealed words of ancient man-made deities."
  • He criticises believers for their "stupidity" and "pride", and describes church attendance as gathering "every seven days to grovel and wallow in our unworthiness".
  • "Religion poisons everthing". "Religion has caused innumerable people not just to conduct themselves no better than others but to award themselves permission to behave in ways that would make a brothel-keeper or an ethnic cleanser raise an eyebrow."

Interestingly, in another section of the same newspaper there was a report on a survey of church attendance in Australia. In two articles, Linda Morris reported:

  • attendance at "mainstream denominational churches" still appears to be declining while Pentecostal church attendance is still growing;
  • up to one third of all churchgoers are "recent recruits", indicating that many people, especially young people, are still moving from unbelief to faith, with many moving on to train for ministry; and
  • new recruits, and churches generally, seem to be fired by a new commitment to "help their communities and do charity work".

Then in today's SMH, Rachel Kohn has a column in which she argues that the high profile atheists like Richard Dawkins, Michel Onfray and Christopher Hitchens (though he is not mentioned specifically) have misrepresented the facts. Her main points:

  • Atheists put their trust science and scientists to build a brave new world. However, referring to historian Michael Burleigh's book Sacred Causes, she discusses the atrocities of Nazi Germany, Stalinist Eastern Europe and Mao's China and warns of "the readiness of 'rational' scientific types to help mad regimes to deliver untold suffering to millions".
  • Michel Onfray portrays religion as "a litany of horrors, from superstitious beliefs to organised oppression, while believers are compelled by infantilism, hallucination and a fear of death", but Kohn argues: "his caricatures make it hard to imagine that religious organisations could provide the network of socially responsible services to the public that they do or produce the army of volunteers who lend a hand to the needy."
  • Richard Dawkins may deride "people waving their hands and singing 'praise Jesus'" as irrational, but she points out that "if Germany in 1933 had been invaded by people in prayer singing 'praise Jesus' instead of Nazis in jackboots it would not have presided over the worst mass killing in history."

It seems likely that militant atheism will continue to press the point, and that our western culture will become more critical of those who believe their religious or spiritual beliefs are actually true. At the same time, it seems that people are tiring of the dogmatism of science which appears to lead to dehumanising view of life, so perhaps "softer" spirituality and religion presented in more sensitive ways have an easier future.

It is notable that most of the arguments (from both sides) in the articles referred to above are based on how believers behave, and whether the end result has a good or bad effect on society (for more on this, see road tests). For me, as for Dawkins, the most important question is "what is the truth?", but I'm inclined to think that argument will not be how the matter will be settled.

I can't help thinking that the future of christianity in western culture will depend more on whether believers can demonstrate that their way is loving, caring, serving. That's the challenge!

Friday, 18 May 2007

are people getting better?

It's a topic most of us have discussed at some time or other - is the world getting to be a better place or are we going downhill?

Maybe it depends on our basis for judging. But one good way to judge is surely how people treat each other. So, are we treating each other better or worse than people did generations, or even centuries ago?

In an article in the Sydney Morning Herald recently, Steven Pinker pulls together some evidence that suggests that, overall, we're less violent than we used to be.

  • It seems we murder each other much less than we used to centuries ago - in European countries at least. For example, the homicide rate in England has fallen from 24 per 100,000 in the 14th century to 0.6 in the mid 20th century, an enormous change.
  • The twentieth century, which included the regimes of Stalin, Hitler, Mao Xedong and Pol Pot plus two World Wars, certainly led to more deaths (perhaps 130 million) than in any previous century (for details, see this reference). However it isn't clear whether this is true if the calculation is done as a percentage of the world's population at the time. Certainly Pinker claims that the death rates from conflict were much higher in tribal societies than in the 20th century.

In other ways, Pinker argues we have become much more humane worldwide, especially in western societies. He lists cruelty for entertainment, human sacrifice, slavery, conquest, genocide, torture, political assassination and rape in war as examples of behaviours that are much less prevalent than they were centuries ago.

It isn't clear what is happening here. Are we becoming more humane? Do stable nations create conditions where people are safer and better off, and so peace is simply advantageous? Or is it just a matter of the "global village" enlarging our perspective of who is "one of us"?

It would nice to think we are becoming more ethical, but I can't help feeling that while there is a welcome improvement in aggressive behaviour, we have become more selfish in other ways (e.g. see my previous post, personal peace and affluence).

Sunday, 13 May 2007

look up at the skies!

Nebulae are enormous cosmic clouds of dust or gas. Astronomers often modify the colours in their photographs of nebulae to facilitate their analysis, but producing amazing images in the process.

Here are some photos of nebulae, courtesy of NASA.

Butterfly nebula

Great nebula

Reflection nebula

Cone nebula

Does there have to be a reason for everything?

Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!”
Gerard Manley Hopkins, "God's Grandeur"

Saturday, 12 May 2007

mate vs mate - the sequel

When I posted about Richard Dawkins and Alister McGrath on April 5, I said that "I'm only aware of one occasion when the two have discussed their very different views". But now, the sequel!

I have become aware of another recent discussion at The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival on March 26 this year, and available for download as two MP3 files from TimesOnline.

In a moderated discussion that was very much controlled, the two were able to exchange only brief comments. To begin, Dawkins outlined his views that the existence of God is very much a scientific question, that it is highly unlikely that God exists, and that religion has done a lot of harm. McGrath countered with some brief criticisms and a quote from US sceptic Michael Shermer to the effect that for every evil committed by religion there are 10,000 acts of kindness, and that much good is done in the name of religion. Dawkins agreed, surprisingly in light of his previous statements.

The ensuing discussion covered whether religion can answer any questions better than science, where we get our ethics from, reasons for belief, miracles and different religions. I can't say I found it all that enlightening - it was too short - but it was interesting to hear them speak. Dawkins pressed his points more, whereas McGrath tended to speak more generally

Who was the winner? Well it wasn't a debate, but Dawkins came over better - he was polite, more succinct and direct, and mostly knew what he wanted to say. McGrath was also polite, but sometimes wordy and indirect. The format didn't allow many matters to be contested, so Dawkins got away with a common but fallacious definition of faith and some broad, unsupported statements about religion not having any answers. McGrath avoided making such bald statements, but at the cost of taking longer to say less. I still think McGrath is one of Dawkins' most effective critics, but this "debate" did not illustrate that.

Listen for yourself by downloading both MP3 files. But probably reading their comments on the internet will be more informative - e.g. Dawkins and McGrath.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

science & god

I have only just come across this.

Late last year, Time magazine published parts of a discussion between famed atheist and biologist, Richard Dawkins, and christian biologist, Francis Collins. Dawkins is a professor at Oxford University and is the author of many books, including recent best-seller The God Delusion. Collins is the head of the National Human Genome Research Institute in the US where he has headed a 2,400-scientist team that has mapped the 3 billion biochemical letters of our genetic blueprint, and author of the best selling book The Language of God.

Two scientists with impeccable credentials, two totally opposite beliefs about God.

The discussion covered such matters as whether religious faith is compatible with science, in particular evolution (Collins is an evolutionist); whether the occurrence of a universe 'fine-tuned' for life is best explained by God, or a natural explanation; the resurrection of Jesus; the origin of our moral sense; and the ethics of human stem cell research (which Colllins supports).

Comments on the discussion have tended to label it a "debate" and make judgments on the "winner". Even sceptics admit that Collins came over as the more pleasant, but believe Dawkins "won" the intellectual debate.

But I don't see it that way. It wasn't a debate, just a discussion (for example, neither scientist got to choose the topics - they were each asked specific questions - so criticisms of either for not proving their (dis)belief in God miss the point). I felt both explained their views clearly and that Collins did not lose anything in comparison.

Such a brief discussions can never be more than rudimentary, but on three matters, I felt Collins was quite convincing.

  1. He is living proof that a top scientist can also believe in God. It seems silly to say otherwise.
  2. On the question of the design of the universe, Dawkins' two options of either the "multiverse" (the theory that there are literally zillions of universes, and we were the one in a zillion that had the right conditions for life) or alternatively that perhaps "these six constants are not free to vary. Some unified theory will eventually show that they are as locked in as the circumference and the diameter of a circle" still do not convince me.
  3. I thought Collins demonstrated an approach to ethics more in accordance with what we generally experience and believe than did Dawkins.

But you can check it out for yourself. Read excerpts of the debate from Time magazine, a review by an atheist and by a christian. You may also like to read about recent interviews with both men.

Sunday, 6 May 2007

the flabby country?

We Aussies tend to think it is other countries that eat too many Big Macs and become supersized, but a new study shows alarming obesity trends in Australia.


A 20-year study of 5000 young people has shown that:

  • in 1985, when they were children, 9% were overweight and 1.5% were obese;
  • in 2005, when they were in their 20s and 30s, 40% of men and 20% of women were overweight, and 13% of both genders were obese;
  • boys who were obese as children are 5 times more likely to be obese at age 30 than healthy weight boys; for girls, the risk is 9 times.

Experts conclude that hormonal changes, poor diet, lack of exercise (partly caused by increased computer usage) and increased consumption of fast foods may all be contributing causes to this alarming trend.

The study was carried out by Professor Alison Venn from the Hobart-based Menzies Research Institute, and seems to show that adolescence is the key period of life where excessive weight gain occurs. However the figures may illustrate an increasing problem in society that just happens to be occurring in adolescence in this particular generation.

Researchers have found that obesity is a major factor in other health matters. for example, 90% of Type II diabetes is preventable if people maintain a healthy weight.

But what should be done? Obviously most of us need to be self disciplined enough to change our lazy eating and exercise habits. But this is unlikely to be enough.

Research in the UK, reported in "in touch", indicates that trying to change individual behaviour across society is not very effective. Far better is to try to change "patterns of food production, marketing, and social norms of consumption" by improving the availability of affordable and nutitious food, making it easier and safer for people to walk for exercise, and finding some way to reduce the availability of junk food in locations where it is not necessary, and its aggressive promotion for profit (popcorn in movie theatres anyone?). Jamie Oliver's crusade for better school food in the UK showed us some of this.

So obesity is not just a problem for individuals, especially parents. Politicians and society need to begin to address our "‘obesogenic environment’, where consumption (of food and many other things) is promoted as the pathway to prosperity, health and a happy life, but actually drains our prosperity into avoidable health care expenses, threatens our health and wellbeing, and shortens our lives." We need to think a little harder about what life and happiness are really all about.

Read more from the Sydney Morning Herald, ABC Radio and "in touch".

Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth .......
We're idiots, babe. It's a wonder we can even feed ourselves.
Bob Dylan, "Idiot Wind", 1974

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

is there life "out there"?

Artist's impression of another exoplanet (NASA) - I don't have a picture of Gliese 581C I can use.

Most people have wondered sometime about whether there is any intelligent life "out there" in the universe. (Some wonder whether there is intelligent life on earth, but that's another story!) Even if there is, it is unlikely we will ever know, because the universe is so vast and electronic communication, travelling at the speed of light, can take hundreds of years to reach us, even from relatively nearby parts of our galaxy.

So there is special interest when an exoplanet (a planet not in our solar system) is discovered relatively close to us. If scientists are able to determine its distance from its sun, it is possible to calculate its surface temperature and therefore the possibility that water may exist in liquid form, one necessary condition for life as we know it.

As reported in Astronomy magazine, a recent discovery is an exoplanet orbiting the star Gliese 581, which at 20.5 light years away is among the 100 closest stars to earth. Gliese 581 is a "red dwarf", smaller and cooler than our sun. The exoplanet, the third to be discovered in this system, is only one and a half times bigger than earth, is 14 times closer to its sun, which it orbits every 13 days, and could contain liquid water. It is considered to be the most similar to earth of any of the 100 or so exoplanets discovered so far.

Is there life out there? Some believe it is likely that there are many planets supporting life in the billions of galaxies we know about, others believe the number will be small, perhaps even that we are alone. It is unlikely that Gliese 581C (the name of the exoplanet) will contain life, but it is sure to be on the list for futher investigation.