Saturday, May 26, 2012

Reason and the Universality of Human Rights

In December 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a full list of all 30 articles of which can be found here. The Assembly called upon all member countries to publicize the text of the Declaration and "to cause it to be disseminated, displayed, read and expounded principally in schools and other educational institutions, without distinction based on the political status of countries or territories." In 1976 it was adopted as international law, having been ratified by a sufficient number of nations. It is now perhaps the cornerstone of international political ethics.

It was constructed, of course, as a consequence of the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis during the Second World War, and was based on the reasoning that all human beings are "born fee and equal in dignity and rights" (Article 1). However its wording has been subjected to considerable criticism over a number of years. Proponents of alternative schooling, for example, are against the adoption of "universal elementary education" (Article 26), while organisations such as Amnesty International have argued that there is a need to adopt a right of refusal to kill in times of war (currently not mentioned by the Declaration). Some Muslim countries (such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Sudan) have critisised the UDHR for failing to take the religious context of Islam into account. In 1990 the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI) was adopted by member states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, as an alternative.

The biggest problem has been one of enforcing the terms of the Declaration and reprimanding those who violate them. Implicit in this is the fact that some countries interpret the articles differently to others. However, the UN Security Council has always found it difficult to get its members to come to a consensus where it is necessary to use force. This weakness was exposed in September, 2002, when President George W. Bush brought his case against Iraq to the General Assembly and challenged the UN to take action against Baghdad for failing to disarm. Unable to get the UN Security Council to act, Bush succeeded in securing permission from the US Congress to act against Iraq without UN approval. The American message seemed clear: as a senior administration official put it at the time, "we don't need the Security Council." This could be interpreted as proof that the logic of universal human rights enshrined in the Declaration is flawed, as suggested by author Will Self in this BBC podcast:

Friday, May 25, 2012

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Women in the Film Industry

Following my previous post about sexism in the scientific community, I was reminded of similar stories which have emerged recently about the treatment of women working in the film industry. Many people were angered this year when the shortlist for the Palme d'Or Award at the Cannes Film Festival was announced and no films by female directors were included. The organisers countered that although there were women on the longlist, it wasn't thought that their films merited nomination and that all of the films were judged irrespective of the gender of their director. However, a bit of internet research has revealed to me this is the 63rd time in the festival's 65 year history that all of the nominated directors were male, so perhaps there is a little more to it.

It could be argued that women perhaps make films that don't generally sit well with male-dominated juries. However it is also true that there simply aren't many female directors (or producers). The reasons why women are either reticent to enter the industry or why so few make it into the upper echelons appear to be complex, but are perhaps deeply rooted in our cultural history which demarcates male and female roles. It may also explain why sexism and lack of representation of women could become self-perpetuating in this business.

Hollywood blockbuster movies tend to be targeted directly at a mainly young male audience and this significantly affects how women are portrayed on the big screen. I read about an amazing statistic recently which has become known as the Bechdel Test (after author Allison Bechdel, who came up with it). To pass the test, a film simply has to portray two female characters in one scene, having a meaningful conversation together about anything other than men. It is truly remarkable how many Hollywood movies fail in this respect.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Women in Science

In 1967 Jocelyn Bell was working on her PhD in astrophysics at Cambridge University when she detected a series of radio pulses with a regular period of about 1.3 seconds. At first it was thought that they might be man-made, or even an indication of extra-terrestrial intelligence, but later it was shown that they originated from a type of rotating neutron star which was subsequently dubbed a 'pulsar'.

Despite the fact that her supervisor, Dr. Antony Hewish, was originally sceptical of the pulsar idea (believing the radio waves were terrestrial in origin), and although Bell made the initial discovery and constructed much of the radio telescope and associated equipment herself (over a two year period), when the findings were published she was only listed as the fifth author. Subsequently, in 1974, when the significance of the discovery was fully appreciated, Hewish was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics together with his colleague, Dr. Martin Ryle (the first time it was awarded for an astronomical observation). Bell's contribution was largely ignored and she was excluded from the award.

In recent years this has been seen as a prime example of the struggle that women researchers face to gain recognition in the male-dominated world of academic science. Even at the time, the lack of recognition she received was somewhat controversial. Reknowned astronomer, Sir Fred Hoyle, for example, strongly condemned the Nobel Awards Committee for overlooking her (he was also always critical of the way scientific study was carried out at Cambridge, where he was a student and taught for a time). Bell herself felt she had been snubbed and, in addition, she was later forced out of full time research after the birth of her first child.

She worked hard to overcome the prejudice she perceived, and from 1973 onwards she worked as a tutor, examiner and lecturer at the Open University, in the UK. She was appointed professor in 1991 and went on to work as a visiting professor at Princeton University, becoming President of the Institute of Physics in 2010 (the first woman to hold that position). She is outspoken about the treatment of women in the scientific community and has become a spokesperson for the issue. In the interview below she gives her thoughts on these issues. Interestingly she feels there is a cultural component to the prejudice which is specific to English-speaking countries:


The experiences of Jocelyn Bell were not without precedent, and much is still to be done to achieve true equality in the scientific workplace. The most celebrated, and in some ways the most tragic, case is that of Rosalind Franklin.

While James Watson and Francis Crick were working to elucidate the structure (and, subsequently, the function) of DNA at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, Franklin was doing similar work at King's College, London. Some of her results were given to Crick and Watson without her permission and they used them to build their famous DNA model and win the race to solve perhaps the greatest puzzle in modern science. Crick, Watson and Franklin's supervisor, Maurice Wilkins, were awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology (there is no prize for biology) in 1962, and Franklin's contribution was largely forgotten. She died of ovarian cancer in 1958 as a result of exposure to radiation during her research. Watson was famously dismissive of her in early editions of his book, The Double Helix:A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA (Atheneum, New York, 1968), although he did try to correct this to a degree in later editions. Franklin's story has been portrayed in a number of biographies (most notably Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, by Brenda Maddox, Harper Collins, London, 2002) and in a film, Life Story.

Rosalind Franklin

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


The Scale of the Universe 2 This interactive flash animation was produced in association with NASA ( to show the incredible difference in scale between the smallest objects in the universe (1 yoctometre, or 1x10^-27m, the approximate diameter of a neutrino), and some of the largest (for example the largest observed galaxy, with a diameter of approximately 5 million light years, or 5x10^22m). The human brain has not evolved to comprehend sizes at these extremes, and we can really only associate with those that are close to the size of our own bodies and our immediate surroundings.

You need a more recent version of Adobe Flash Player.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Dawkins on Darwin

In this podcast for the James Randi Educational Foundation, Richard Dawkins discusses his affinity with Charles Darwin and the importance of the theory of evolution by natural selection in modern science. He comments on his ideas of the development of morality in humans through evolutionary principles, which I have posted about previously. He does, of course, also discuss his atheism and views on religious belief.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Pillow Angel

In 2007, the parents of a six year old severely disabled girl from Seattle took the decision to have her sterilised and treated with hormones to prevent her growing into a woman. This left her in a permanent state of pre-pubescence, and small enough for her to be more easily lifted and cared for by her parents.

Many questions in medical ethics concern relatives asking for medical intervention for someone who can't give their own consent. This case has divided opinion. Ashley's parents feel strongly that the treatment will give her the best quality of life. The ethics committee of the Seattle Children's Hospital, where she was treated, carried out a cost-benefit analysis and agreed. Opponents of the treatment feel that since it was effectively unprecedented, this marks the first step on a slippery slope of treatments to make life easier for care-givers at the expense of the dignity of the recipient. Others feel that drastic interventions such as this highlight the lack of support (both financial and medical) that society is prepared to give severely disabled people over the long term.

Whatever your position, its obvious that Ashley belongs to a very loving family who's thoughts are only for her well-being. They have written and blogged extensively about their decision. Ashley has become better known as the 'Pillow Angel'.

Pillow Angel

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Sanal Edamaruku and Indian Blasphemy Laws

In March, 2012, worshipers at the Church of Our lady of Velankanni, a Catholic church in Mumbai, India's financial centre, reported seeing a statue of Jesus on a crucifix with water collecting like tears at its feet. Soon after, hundreds of people began to arrive at the church to see the 'miracle' and collect drops of the water in bottles.

Sanal Edamaruku, author and head of the Indian Rationalist Organisation, was asked to investigate by television channel TV-9. He found that water was building up close to the crucifix from a broken drain, passing up the wall due to capillary action and collecting on the statue. He later reported this during a televised interview and debate. It might be expected that this would have been the end of the matter, but soon afterwards formal complaints were filed against Edamaruku for inciting racial and religious hatred under British colonial-era legislation which obliges the state to punish those who offend the faith of others. Arrest warrants are currently out for him and he faces the prospect of three years in prison if tried and found guilty.

While it does seem to me that his comments did cause offence to believers of the 'miracle', I don't think he set out deliberately to do so, but rather to carry out a rational investigation. It also seems strange that a country like India, founded on secularism, may be prepared to punish one of its citizens under a law on blasphemy. However, you may take the view that there was no need to debunk a phenomenon which was bringing comfort and happiness to a large number of people and, under the letter of the law, he did cause offence regardless of his motives. The application of this law reminds me in some ways of the case of Simon Singh, the science author who was sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) after he critisised their claims of being able to heal a number of childhood illnesses by massage of the spine.

Edamaruku's blog can be found here, and, below, I've posted an article about his story from the Indian newspaper, the Hindu:
  Debunking a Miracle