What I’m Reading – Benedict Jacka’s Alex Verus novels

As I mentioned recently, one thing I want to start writing about on here is (are?) my thoughts on whatever book I’m currently writing. I’m not planning for anything very organised; I don’t have enough free time to commit to a Book Review Wednesday or anything of that sort, and I also expect there will be times when I want to write a lot about a book or series and times when I’m all ‘Meh. I’m reading this thing and it’s kind of not that bad.’ So this will just be a regularish, as-and-when discussion of whatever I find notable/interesting/fantastic/execrable about whatever I’m currently reading/have recently read. Or possibly even stuff I read ages ago but really feel like writing about. You get the idea.

At the time I wrote that post, I was rereading some of Benedict Jacka’s Alex Verus series; I’ve actually moved on to some other stuff since then, but this series is a big favourite of mine so I’m going to go ahead and write about it as planned. This post will be about the series generally, rather than the specific books I was rereading; because there are a lot of interesting points that I want to write about, it has ended up being very long, which I’ve tried to mitigate by throwing in some subheadings at what seemed like vaguely appropriate points. It should, however, be pretty much spoiler-free other than some very general points, so I won’t put it behind a cut.


General stuff about the novels

The Alex Verus novels are, as I’ve said, an urban fantasy series; they’re set in modern-day London. The book titles are all past participles; Fated, Cursed, and so on. The series currently numbers six, but No. 7, Burned, is coming out next month. They are told in first-person narration by the protagonist.

I’ve already mentioned two things that I like about these books; that they’re urban fantasy, and that they describe a world in which a magical subculture exists within the normal-day culture, and all participants take both for granted as part of normal life. A third feature I like is that the mages each have only one specific type of magic that they can use (in the sixth book there’s a mention of someone having two, but this is clearly the exception rather than the rule) and, although they may become incredibly powerful and skilled with anything that can be done with that type of magic, they are limited to whatever type happens to be theirs. This trope of the magical beings having fairly specific limitations on their powers probably has an official name (if so, and if anyone knows it, do please fill me in), but I always think of it as The Goldenrod Effect, after a book I read as a child. The converse, for me, is The Superman Effect, which is the explanation of why Superman comic books held a limited appeal for me in my childhood; sure, they were readable, but it seemed that everything got solved by Superman being able to produce ridiculously unlimited super-everyskill on tap, and even as a nine-year-old I recognised that this wasn’t very good writing. I prefer books in which the protagonists have well-defined and particular abilities and have to figure out how to use these to get the end they want or need to achieve, which may not be altogether obvious. It’s even better when participants have different abilities and have to figure out how to work together, or work round each other’s strengths or weaknesses, and the Alex Verus novels definitely fall into that category.

The magic world is divided into the Light and Dark factions. Dark mages are a nasty lot of self-interested bastards who will do whatever suits them as long as they’re powerful enough to get away with it, and who are primarily interested in being powerful enough to get away with as much as possible. Light mages are…. pretty much the same thing, only with a lot more bureaucracy. For the most part, anyway. There are exceptions who are helpful to the protagonist throughout the series.


Our protagonist and what he can do

Our protagonist, as you have probably guessed from my description of these as ‘the Alex Verus series’, is called Alex Verus. I assumed for the first five books that Verus was his surname, but in Book 6 it was mentioned that it’s actually his mage name; which makes sense, since almost every mage in the book has an obviously-invented name, like Talisid or Deleo. In any case, he normally goes by Alex to his friends (of whom he starts out without very many, for a reason which will become clear later on – he does, however, acquire more as the series goes on).

Alex’s mage ability is divination. That may not be quite the right term for it, since it doesn’t involve doing anything mystical with rabbit entrails, but it’s the one most commonly used throughout the books. Simply enough, what Alex can do is see every possible short-term future of every action he might take and of any actions that anyone around him is planning. This has a lot of interesting possibilities as a plot device, and Jacka does a great job of developing them.

One fairly obvious implication of this is that it is virtually impossible to assassinate Alex. When his immediate future contains a bullet/bomb/knife wound, he sees this, and he also sees exactly which way he has to dive or leap or dodge to avoid it. (Unfortunately for him, this all involves him seeing the results of not taking evasive action; in other words, he gets to see just how he would be killed/shredded/mutilated if he doesn’t dodge. The books don’t go into any sort of icky detail about this, but it’s made clear that it happens and that it is somewhat unsettling for our protagonist at times. Still, better than the alternative.) Alex is also great at dodging in fights; which is good, because he frequently finds himself up against people who have the magical ability to drain his life with a touch or to char him to the bone, so he needs to do quite a lot of dodging over the course of the books. He can see what actions will lead to walking into a trap, and avoid those. (For this reason, he’s often called in as a security consultant by other mages when something potentially dangerous is going on; this is where several of the book plots arise from.)

There are less obvious implications, one of which is that he can crack any password. The trick is to look into every possible future of him trying every possible combination of characters; since only one of these will lead to the phone or computer being unlocked, that future will stand out as the only different one amongst the millions of different options of possible passwords, and thus he can fairly easily pick it out and thereby pick out what he types in to lead to that future. He can also run safely in pitch darkness, because he can see exactly which futures will or won’t lead to him tripping and how he has to place his feet to avoid tripping or bumping into things. For this reason, one of his tricks when he wants to escape from people trying to attack him is to use a magical item called a condenser, which is a sort of marble you break to release a temporary fog; he can run through this safely while his enemies are slowed down.


Magical limitations

Because, of course, he has these. Alex can’t see any future resulting from a decision by someone else that hasn’t yet been made. In a situation where chance can play a huge part in the outcome, it’s extremely difficult for him to see ahead; so, while he can see how to dodge his way through a fight from moment to moment, he can’t see ahead of time who’s going to win. Similarly, conversations are normally too unpredictable for him to see how they’ll go, because there are so many different things that the other person might potentially choose to say at each point. (On the other hand, when someone has a specific plan to tell or ask him something, he can see that. There’s one humorous scene when he’s in a hurry to get rid of two persistent customers at the shop that he runs for his day job and does so by simply going back and forth between them, answering every question each one is going to ask before he asks it. He can also save himself the trouble of asking for someone’s name or ID; he looks into the future in which he asks it and sees what the person says/does.)

A  less obvious drawback is that Alex can’t use gate magic, which is the ability to make portals between one place and another. This is a general ability that’s available to anyone in the magic world whose magical speciality is any form of physical stuff; earth, water, fire, whatever. Alex’s isn’t, so of course he can’t make gates. Mages in that category do have the option of using gate stones, which are magical items created and sold by other mages and will let him create a gate between two particular spots; but that only works if he has the right gate stone with him at the right time. (There are a lot of magical items that can do one-off, limited but useful things like this, the aforementioned condenser being another example; Alex tends to leave home with a lot of stuff in his pockets.)


Aaaaand the messy past…

Alex has a somewhat clouded past. Specifically, he used to be apprenticed to a Dark mage. He eventually saw the error of his ways and (with considerable difficulty and trauma) escaped; however, this original ghastly choice on his part has cast a long and complex shadow over his life.

For starters, Light mages don’t really want to associate with someone who has that sort of a past. (Except when they need him for jobs. But they’ll still turn up their noses at him.) The feeling is entirely mutual, by the way; when Alex was on the run from his former master and feeling desperate, he appealed to the Light mages for help, and they didn’t want to get involved. So on the whole Alex doesn’t have a lot of time for them, either. But there is also the unpleasant fact that Alex has done some genuinely bad stuff – and, later in the series, that’s going to come back to bite him, creating a major moral dilemma for him in the process. On top of all that, there’s the very scary question of Richard Drakh, Alex’s former Dark master. Richard disappeared mysteriously not long after Alex’s escape, but Alex has no doubt that at some point he’s going to be back and that he is not going to be happy with Alex for rebelling and jumping ship. Richard is one of those beautifully, chillingly written villains who is unfailingly and impeccably polite, calm, and ready to torture someone to death without a second thought if it’ll suit his purposes; and, while Alex does deal with a few of that ilk over the course of the series to date, he’s terrified of Richard in the way you can only be terrified of someone who scared you at enough of a formative stage in your life to be forever under your skin. So, although Alex tries not to think about it, that’s a very nasty nightmare always looming in his background.


General thoughts

All of that, as you can see, makes for a lot of very promising plot devices to work with; and Benedict Jacka’s books live up to that promise. Plots that drag me along from page to page; great characters, including lots of great female/minority characters; excellently-written conversations; plenty of dry humour; and great treatments of important moral themes, such as the ways in which people drift into doing evil by a series of seemingly-rationalisable decisions. This is a brilliant series, and, as you can probably tell, I’m very much looking forward to the imminent publication of the next book.

Yay! Questions!

OK… I know I promised you guys a post on Benedict Jacka’s Alex Verus series, but then Trav found this list of questions for atheists (which Great American Satan has also answered, if you’re interested) and, as I like these question list thingies, I couldn’t resist. Here are my answers to Today Christian’s list of 10 Questions For Atheists.

(Edited to add: Oh, look. Apparently it isn’t their list at all. Apart from the ‘And there is a HELL!’ line in question 3, which the Today Christian author seems to have added, this list comes verbatim from a post by an atheist. The actual author is Robert Neilsen at the Whistling in the Wind blog, who wrote it as a summary of some of the main questions he runs across. And wrote answers. Which Today Christian did not include. Which tells you quite a bit about their morality. Maybe because God didn’t actually tell ’em not to republish other people’s work as their own, they think it’s quite OK? Although even then, surely that ‘shalt not lie’ thing becomes a bit of a problem when you’re claiming that these are questions that atheists cannot answer despite having got them from a post in which an atheist was answering them??)


1.       How Did You Become an Atheist?

I assume this one wasn’t meant to be one of the ‘Some Questions Atheist Cannot Truly and Honestly REALLY Answer!’. Unless the author thinks atheists somehow suffer from amnesia, or something.

Anyway, I’ve already written about this, in a four-part series on my previous blog. Part 1 is about my background in terms of religion, and my early interest in the question. Part 2, which is not that important a part of the series but might be interesting, is about my childhood/adolescent impressions of different religions and why I ended up not joining any. Part 3 tells how I came to consider myself an agnostic, and Part 4 tells how, in response to a key question from the man who would become my husband, I took the step to atheism.


2.       What happens when we die?

If it’s in this society, someone has quite a bit of paperwork to do. Especially if you’re being cremated.


3.       What if you’re wrong? And there is a Heaven? And there is a HELL!

If they’re the versions traditionally preached by Christianity, then a very great many good, decent people will be suffering eternal torture due to not being the officially approved-of religion.


4.       Without God, where do you get your morality from?

Same place you do, I hope – from my understanding that other people have feelings like mine, that they are distressed by pain or harm and have far greater chance for happiness when life’s necessities are available, and that it is therefore far better to aim to help others, or as a minimum to avoid hurting them where feasible. Then there are virtues such as justice, and honesty (which promotes trust), and respect for the rights of others to make decisions about that which affects their own lives and bodies.


5.       If there is no God, can we do what we want? Are we free to murder and rape? While good deeds are unrewarded?

Obviously not; if you try committing murder, you’re likely to find yourself arrested, tried, and imprisoned. The same may apply if you commit rape, although, horribly, we still live in a society where you’re a lot more likely to get away with that if you play your cards right. However, there do seem to be several important further questions that arise from this for the author of this meme:

  • Do you feel that the only thing holding you back from rape or murder is your fear of being sent to hell? If you have other reasons for feeling that rape and murder are wrong (such as, say, the horrendous distress and heartbreak that these actions cause to other people), why should you believe that an atheist wouldn’t also have such reasons?
  • Given that this meme was on a Christian site, there seems to be a high likelihood that you hold the traditional Christian belief that God forgives sins in Jesus’s name, yet sends non-believers to hell. If not, then disregard this question as irrelevant to you; but wouldn’t these beliefs also imply a belief that any murderer or rapist who sincerely asks Jesus for forgiveness would go unpunished in the hereafter, whereas the good deeds of a non-believer would go unrewarded?
  • What about the times when God allegedly commands murder, or explicitly or implicity permits rape? In fact, what is there in the entire Bible to tell us that rape has any moral impact beyond that of using a vagina that was supposed to be reserved for another man’s use?


6.       If there is no god, how does your life have any meaning?

My life has meaning because it’s wonderful. I live in a world filled with good things, and I’m lucky enough to have the health and working senses to be able to enjoy them – music, beautiful sights, delicious food, walks, fascinating books. I do a job I love, which carries the satisfaction of helping others. I have two lovely children. This world is full of people I can get to know and joyful experiences I can have. I’m genuinely baffled by the claim that life is somehow meaningless without a god in it.


7.       Where did the universe come from?

No-one knows for sure at this point, although scientists have many theories. If you’re honestly interested in finding out more about this, you can probably find out quite a lot by googling. Of course, if you’re just asking this as a ‘gotcha’ then that doesn’t apply.


8.       What about miracles? What all the people who claim to have a connection with Jesus? What about those who claim to have seen saints or angels?

Since these stories come from and appear to bolster many different religious traditions, either multiple gods exist, or natural non-god-related explanations exist for such phenomena. I believe in the latter (obviously, or I’d be a polytheist and not an atheist), but neither looks that good for the Christian god.


9.       What’s your view of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris?

My view of Dawkins would require the kind of language I try to avoid using on a blog that’s read by my mother. Hmmm…. let’s go for ‘toerag’.

I don’t know much about the other two. I found Hitchens’ exposé of Mother Theresa useful, and Sam Harris apparently said some dubious stuff about racial profiling, but that’s as far as my knowledge goes.


10.   If there is no God, then why does every society have a religion?

That’s not actually quite true; the Piraha people don’t (unless you count a belief in animal spirits, but that seems to be more akin to a belief in fairies than to religion as we’d understand it). As for the reason most societies have religions, I think it’s because it’s a natural human trait to try to come up with explanations for the world around us, and, when you don’t know anything about cosmology or how evolution or the laws of physics work, it’s natural to start attributing the world’s existence and current form to some kind of nonhuman power or powers. A much better question, I think, is ‘If there is a God who really wants to communicate personally with every single human being and who wants every single human to believe in him and have a relationship from him, why has such a huge proportion of humanity throughout history had no apparent knowledge at all of such a God, instead holding irreconcilably different beliefs such as pantheons or animism?’

There you go. Hope that helped and enjoy your day!

Urban Fantasy

One thing I’m planning to start on here is to write reviews of whatever book/series/author I’m currently reading. Since what I’m reading at the moment is the Alex Verus mage series, an urban fantasy series by Benedict Jacka, I’m planning to start with a post on that; however, it was getting pretty long as I planned it out, and this was partly because it started with an explanation of what urban fantasy actually is and why I love it as a genre. Since this is no doubt a subject I’ll be referring back to, I decided it was worth setting this up as a separate post.

(I am now going to burble on somewhat in trying to express all this, so consider yourself warned.)

Urban fantasy, simply enough, is a term for fantasy set in this world. The converse (as I discovered when I googled ‘urban fantasy’ to make sure I was actually getting the definition right before I started writing posts about it) is high fantasy, which is fantasy set in a fictitious world. They aren’t set-in-stone or exclusive categories, but, as a fantasy fan, I can vouch for them being useful concepts for thinking about fantasy.

Urban fantasy and high fantasy, of course, are both very broad categories which cover a multitude, and genre is only one factor among many that go into making a book good or bad, so I don’t think I could quite come out and say anything as categorical as ‘I prefer urban fantasy’. After all, there are plenty of high fantasy books out there which I love – Terry Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’ series, Mercedes Lackey’s ‘500 Kingdom’ and ‘Valdemar’ series (serieses?), and Tamora Pierce’s various Tortall and Circle series(es), to name some key ones.

What is inherently awesome about urban fantasy, however, is the contrast between the astounding magical stuff that’s going on and the normal, everyday setting within which it takes place. There is just so much potential there for subtle humour and bathos and weirdness and… and messages about what it means to be human. Great fantasy is fantasy in which the characters are believable people whom you could imagine meeting. People dealing with/struggling with/enjoying all the things we know so well in day-to-day life. Friendship, rejection, bureaucracy, profound moral dilemmas, irritations. And a good urban fantasy series can use that backdrop of the magic/normal life contrast to highlight those things, because it shows us that, even if people did have magical powers or vampires to battle or whatnot, they would still be fundamentally people in all their ordinariness and messiness and glory.

Which is, of course, not to say that I’m going to enjoy every urban fantasy automatically, because, again, so much else plays into what makes a book good or bad. The kind of urban fantasy I particularly enjoy (although, again, this is hardly going to be a blanket rule) is the kind in which there’s a magical subculture within the ordinary day-to-day culture that’s around us, which has its own rules and customs in much the same way that normal life does, which the various participants all understand and automatically deal within, just as we do in day-to-day life. So you have this kind of double contrast; the contrast between the weird and fantastical and day-to-day human issues, and the contrast between the magic subculture and, all round it, the normal culture we know – with the characters taking both these cultures for granted in much the same way.

The Alex Verus series are a great example of this. Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series are another, and very nearly ended up being the topic of my first post in this series, but it so happened that last Saturday I was returning some other library books and thought, hmmm, let’s just see if there’s anything by Benedict Jacka on the shelves, and lo and behold there were ‘Taken’ and ‘Chosen’, and some rereading began. So, that series is what I’m reading right now, and thus, if I do get a book review post up any time soon, that’ll be the one I most likely review.

Any other fantasy fans here? Any other fans of anything I’ve mentioned so far?

Is it just me, or is this kind of ironic?

The Come Reason apologetics site has a ‘Posts You May Have Missed’ feature where they tweet past posts; hence, a few days ago, I found a post of theirs entitled Beware The Thought Police Against Religion!

This post was written a couple of years ago in response to the decision of Pasadena Health Department to rescind the offer of the job of head of the Public Health Department to Eric Walsh, after finding some rather concerning sermons that Walsh had preached, recorded, and posted on YouTube. Apparently the beliefs Walsh expressed in these sermons included, among others, that Catholicism, gay acceptance, evolution and rap music were all tools of the devil; that single parents were ruining their children; and that condom distribution was only going to increase AIDS rates. (I found that information, by the way, in this article; the Come Reason post on the subject glosses over the content of the sermons somewhat.) It seems that the Pasadena Health Department, on finding these sermons, seriously questioned Walsh’s ability to provide an effective health service. Can’t think why.

Lenny Esposito (the author of the Come Reason post) lamented what he sees as an attack on free speech, rhetorically demanding ‘When did the First Amendment require an asterisk?’ He doesn’t quite seem to have understood the First Amendment; I looked it up (I’m British, so what I knew about it was ‘something something free speech something something something’) and it turns out that what it actually said was that Congress can’t make laws against freedom of speech or religion, not that nobody is allowed to do anything in response to someone’s speech that might have adverse consequences for that person. So, if the First Amendment did have an asterisk, I guess it would have to be something like this:

Congress shall make no law* respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

*Look, we said that Congress shall make no law. Not that nobody is allowed to take any action whatsoever regarding what a person has said. So read the flippin’ thing properly already, and stop making stuff up that isn’t in there.

I may have to fine-tune the legalese a bit on that one.

(Edited to add: For a much more sensible and well-informed comment on the issues, see Kengi’s comment on this post, just below.)

Anyway, that actually wasn’t the main thing I wanted to say about this post. What struck me was this:

Esposito is lamenting the fact that Walsh, and other people in examples he quotes, are suffering adverse consequences for expressing their beliefs. He sees this as an immoral attack on their rights. But this is a Christian apologetics blog. In other words, Esposito is a vocal member of a religion that believes that God will send you to a torturous hell forever for holding the wrong beliefs. And he believes that this is completely good and moral of God.

I have no doubt that Esposito would have some kind of explanation for this inconsistency. (Because God made the universe and gets to do what he wants with it? Because God isn’t really sending people to hell for their beliefs as such, but just set up a system in which the default is ending up in hell and the only way out happens to be to believe particular things, so that’s quite all right then, isn’t it? Because… oh, I don’t know, you think of one.) But it did strike me as pretty ironic.

In the meantime, good for the Pasadena Health Department. I’d also be pretty darned concerned about the kind of unbiased, compassionate, evidence-based health care that someone with those views was capable of providing.

Why I Don’t Trust The Creationism Movement

There Is Hope For Atheists! At least, Ken Ham at the creationist site Answers in Genesis thinks so. I’m sure you’re all as relieved as I was to hear that.

(A shout out, by the way, to Libby Anne’s post on the subject on her excellent blog Love, Joy, Feminism, without which I would not have found that article. I have not yet reached the strength of stomach required to actually browse AiG in search of reading matter.)

The hope in question, it seems, is that creationists may yet manage to persuade us to give up the ‘evolutionary ideas’ in which we have been ‘indoctrinated’ and turn to Christianity instead. (Ken Ham is one of those people whose worldview holds Christianity and evolution to be incompatible, hence the either-or.) What gave Ham this hope, or at least what inspired him to write this article about it, was apparently an encounter with a woman called Donna who, according to her testimony, actually did convert from atheism and ‘evolutionary ideas’ to Christianity after hearing one of his lectures back in 1993. Donna is quoted as saying:

I was a die-hard evolutionist, completely convinced that the fossil finds in Olduvai Gorge supported the “evidence” that we evolved from less-complicated, early hominid creatures, like the so-called “Lucy”.

To keep a long story short: I attended a Creation Seminar at Cedarville College [now Cedarville University], sat in rapt attention as Ken Ham told me “the rest of the story,” and I realized that all of the fossil finds I believed supported evolution were, in all cases, misinterpreted. I was blown away! So, learning the truth about evolution preceded my realizing that God was real (after all!) and that the Bible was His Word. I became a creationist before I became a believer in Christ.

She then went on to convert to Christianity and spend a blissful life reading the Bible, listening to Christian music, and raising two God-fearing daughters, one of whom went on to marry a pastor. All thanks to Ken Ham’s creationism (and Jesus, of course), natch.

So, this story (the bit I quoted in italics, not the rest) reminded me of something that happened when I was still in medical school.

I was at a student discussion group run by a fundamentalist Christian couple, the remit of which was to discuss controversial issues from a primarily Christian perspective. I wasn’t a Christian and had absolutely no desire whatsoever to become one, but I was a lonely, insecure introvert with limited social skills and a desperate desire to feel part of a tribe, so every year at Freshers’ Fair I would sign up for any group that sounded even vaguely interesting, and the group was happy to accept my sign-up. (You know… reading that over, I bet they really were.) Besides, this was pre-Internet; I didn’t have that many other opportunities to have heated discussions about controversial issues.

So, a few weeks in, we ended up doing the topic of creationism vs. evolution. And the people running it showed us a video about why we should believe creationism. The narrator told us about all the reasons why, despite all scientific claims to the contrary, the Earth could not possibly be any more than a few thousand years old and therefore there was no chance that the diversity of life that exists today could have developed through evolution. I watched and listened to the explanations of why radioactive dating was hopelessly unreliable, of how research had demonstrated that neutrino flux would destroy any shreds of reliability that radioactive dating retained, of how the Earth’s magnetic field would have been far too strong thousands of years ago for the Earth to have held together in those days. It was well-presented, logically argued, persuasive, compelling. It sounded extremely convincing.

Weeeeeeell…. except for the fact that believing this video would mean believing that scientists – a bunch of extremely clever people with a whole lot of degrees and PhDs and scientific knowledge to their credit – had somehow all, every last one, collectively missed the existence of all this apparently unarguably persuasive evidence. Somehow, that bit didn’t really seem very convincing at all.

Something just wasn’t adding up right here. I decided I really wanted to find out what the other side of this story was, and that I wanted to reserve judgement till then.

This was, as I said, in pre-Internet days, so it wasn’t all that easy. On the plus side, however, I did have access to both a major city centre library and a university library where I could read journals. I was (am) also obsessively persistent. I plugged away over the week, ferreting out what bits of information I could on the topic; and in due course my search led me to the Journal of Geological Education 1982, vol 30, issue 1.

The Journal of Geological Education 1982; 30(1) was an issue devoted entirely to debunking Young Earth Creationist claims. And oh, what a delight it was to find. It covered every single point the video had covered and then some, and it did it beautifully. It explained, in ways that I as a non-geologist could follow with reasonable ease, exactly how and where each of their claims was wrong. The claim about the neutrinos. The claim about the Earth’s magnetic field. The claim about the cosmic dust. The claim about the misdated Hawaiian volcano. Every last point that that video had raised was in there and was deliciously debunked.

It was fantastic reading. I blessed the authors who’d written it (which was rather ironic of me, come to think of it). I was hugely grateful to them for putting so much time and effort into spelling out why all these plausible-sounding creationist claims were such utter rubbish.

(And I wasn’t oblivious to the implications of them having done so. After all, these were sciencey people running a science journal, so they no doubt had all sorts of far more important and interesting things to write about than hopelessly failed science and the ways in which it had hopelessly failed. And yet they had felt the need to devote an entire issue to it. Why, it was almost as if… no, surely not… almost as if Creationists were really renowned for insisting on spreading utter misinformation to the point where they were making a major nuisance of themselves!)

Anyway, I made careful notes, typed them up, and took them with me to the next week’s meeting, where I somewhat diffidently informed the group that before we got started I had been reading about the things we’d been told last week and thought I had better let them know what I’d found out. I went through each point in turn and explained to them the things I’d learned about why all the claims we’d heard were in fact known to be completely and hopelessly inaccurate.

After I’d finished, there was a short silence while everyone tried to figure out what to say next. The man in charge eventually said “Right. Well, that was… very good, and obviously we’d have to ask you for your references for everything you’ve just said…”

“Journal of Geological Education 1982, volume 30,” I chirped brightly, best Helpful Mode on. “On the _____ floor in the ______ library. Around [details of roughly where on the shelves I’d found the issue located].”

“Ah… yes. Thanks. We’ll… look into that. Thank you.”

And we moved on to discuss whatever that week’s issue was and let the matter drop. I have no idea whether that incident made any lasting difference to the worldview of anyone there. But it is nonetheless satisfying to know that at least that was one time when creationists didn’t get away with spreading their lies unopposed.

Meanwhile, my take-home message from that incident was, of course, that Creationism is not a movement that can be trusted to give accurate or reliable information about anything. Sadly, nothing that I have learned about them since then has ever done anything to disprove this.


All of which leaves me with the thought that, if this story about Donna is actually true (and I do take the point of the commenters on Libby Anne’s article that it may not be), then what happened was that she had the same first reaction as I had, but not the second. She had the “Wow, I never heard all this before and it sounds so plausible! There must be something to it!” reaction, but not the “But how could every scientist have somehow missed this? This doesn’t make sense. Better check this out further.” Instead, she looked for further answers from the very group that was – unbeknownst to her – feeding her misinformation, rather than checking the accuracy what they had to say.

(Which is, unfortunately, a very normal human reaction; so much so that it has a name, confirmation bias. Our natural tendency as humans is to look for information that supports what we already believe to be right, rather than actively searching for the existence of information that might potentially prove us wrong. I escaped that tendency on this occasion, but there have been many other times in my life when I fell into the confirmation bias trap and wasn’t too proud of myself later when I realised. Although, mind you, while Donna ended up believing Creationism, I’ve ended up an atheist skeptic with my very own FreeThoughtBlogs platform, so I guess I must have done something right somewhere along the way.)

Hello there, everyone…

Yes, indeed… I am yet another of the large new influx of bloggers that Pharyngula has just been telling you about. And this is very exciting and quite scary for me, because, while I have been blogging for almost ten years now on one site or another, they’ve always been the kind of tuppenny-ha’penny personal blogs that people occasionally stumble across when they’re googling something. And, suddenly, here I am on a very public platform doing the metaphorical Internet equivalent of worrying about how silly my voice sounds over the microphone.

If you clicked on this blog then you probably want to know a bit about me, so here you are: My name is Sarah and I’m a 45-year-old GP living in England with one husband and two children. I’m a skeptic, a humanist, a feminist, and an atheist, and I love debunking myths when I can find the time to do so. I also love reading, and I’m a big fan of fantasy: Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series (most of his non-Discworld books actually aren’t all that), Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series, Diane Duane’s Young Wizard series, Mercedes Lackey’s 500 Kingdoms and most of her Valdemar books, and probably several others.

In case you’re interested, here are some of my previous blogs:

Good Enough Mum: a general one about my life, in practice mostly about my life as a mum.

Thoughts From An Atheist: some writings of mine on religion and on the not having of it.

Parenting Myths, Parenting Facts: a few things I’ve written debunking some of the latest dogmas around parenting practice. For those who are interested in that sort of thing.

I’m also about to be late for dinner, so that should do for now. I’m thrilled to be here and look forward to posting more and getting to know people.