Newtown Festival 2011 - The DM Report

So. My checklist from yesterday's Newtown Festival

  • Disgusted at Newtown Community Chiropractic's utter quackery - check
  • Tell "psychic" to fuck off because you don't give a fuck about his sincerely held but deeply stupid beliefs - check
  • Have argument with creationist; have creationist prematurely declare "victory" halfway through a sentence; call creationist an "arseclown" - check
  • Sing song containing the word "cunt" on the ukulele - check
  •    aaaaaaaaaand.... check
  • Attempt to avoid festival altogether by hitting the pub instead - partial success
  • Catch ukulele band covering "Chocolate Jesus", watch crowd not getting it - check
  • Maintain faith in human race - mostly fail

So, overall? I pretty much wanted to punch the whole park in the face.

There was a constant queue for the "psychics", mostly consisting of hippychicks, who occasionally scowled towards the Sydney Atheists/Western Sydney Freethinkers/Secular Party stand. Counter to stereotype, the "psychics" were mostly men wearing sunglasses. Call me a cynic, but I think they were mostly in it to look down girls' tops while holding their hands and mumbling nonsense. We all love doing it, but most of us don't invent magical powers to do so.

One "psychic" decided it'd be a good idea to come over and offer the girl in the wheelchair a "healing reading - for your MS". Yeah, nice psychic powers there, dickhead. That girl happened to be @tinydalek, who neither has MS nor requires the help of a "psychic". You'd think the Sydney Atheists t-shirt might have been a hint. Or me sitting nearby with a Skepticamp t-shirt. Or Alan and Rachel nearby with Science FTW shirts. Conclusion: psychics are deeply stupid and need to be told explicitly to fuck off. Twice.

The creationist(s) were doing the usual bullshit routine, but this time it was laminated. In positive news, there seemed to be a fairly steady stream of skeptics taking on the fail, which of course meant that the creationist would declare victory at seemingly random intervals, to which the onlookers would double-take. Clearly it was more important for his ego to be validated than to have any kind of grip on reality. The scientologists at least seemed to be absent, but maybe I just didn't spot them.

The "green left" (both People's Front of Judea and Judean People's Front factions) were prominent, all claiming to be the 99%, as was just about everybody else, except apparently me. Mathematically, I don't think they quite have a grip. If they want to be in the 99%, then that logically means that their opposing factions (SPLITTERS) must be in there with them. And that would never happen. If anything, they were about the 10-15%. And I'm being generous there. 

Soymilk* supplies nationwide were put under some serious stress as a black hole of credulous weekend hippieness formed in Camperdown park.

At least twelve youths were taken to the first-aid tent with serious chai latte overdoses.

No-one self-immolated with juggling sticks. Which was a shame.

Newtown Community Chiropractic, the quack's quacks, had a prominent stand promoting infant chiropractic, which is frankly insane. Apparently they lost the Nimrod Weiner about halfway through. I tried to stay away lest the relatively tame interactions I had with the psychics and creationists turned ugly. Oh, and there seemed to be something called a "tantra wagon". If the van's a rockin', come knockin' in about 72 hours. Or something.

The credulity makes me depressed, it really does. And the Hahn Super Dry was $7.50, so I guess I'm also an idiot, at least in part. The only upside was the relatively steady stream of visitors to the atheist stand. And my ukulele playing, obviously.

Next year, I vow, instead, to stay in the pub for the entire day and talk scientific toot. Such as this little gem:

Dan: I really like incense
Me: Yeah, I like them too. They're probably my favourite invertebrates in the phylum arthropoda**. Hexapods for the win!
Dan: Facepalm


* Spanish for "I am Milk"
** not true. I like spiders better. But it was worth it for the joke


posted @ Monday, November 14, 2011 11:16 AM


Comments on this entry:

# re: Newtown Festival 2011 - The DM Report

Left by Jayce at 11/14/2011 11:57 AM
As mentioned over and over again, I am surprised that not only did you go to the Newtown Festival but also that you manage to do so without any bloodshed.

Did you actually pay $7.50 for an inferior beer?

# re: Newtown Festival 2011 - The DM Report

Left by jason at 11/14/2011 12:21 PM
I DID. I paid $7.50 for a fucking Hahn SuperDry. May the Lords of the Hops forgive me.

# re: Newtown Festival 2011 - The DM Report

Left by anonymousType at 11/14/2011 3:24 PM
Ah dude, adsense is being lame, one of your ads is for Psychic services, however this is nicely counter balanced by another for Atheists. I clicked on the Atheists one.

Did you really sing the song with the C word in it? lol

# re: Newtown Festival 2011 - The DM Report

Left by jason at 11/14/2011 3:55 PM
Dude, I *wrote* one of those songs with the C-word in it.

Adsense is always a bit lame on skeptical sites. But that's OK. It's not my money that's being spent on clicks and impressions.

# re: Newtown Festival 2011 - The DM Report

Left by anonymousType at 11/15/2011 9:40 AM
lol, you are the skeptics skeptic my friend. No cow is too sacred.

# re: Newtown Festival 2011 - The DM Report

Left by Dan Buzzard at 11/16/2011 1:05 PM
Upsetting psychics, that's what I call activism.

# re: Newtown Festival 2011 - The DM Report

Left by Jason at 11/16/2011 1:17 PM
It's possible I was more upset than the psychic, actually. He seemed fairly oblivious to what he was doing.

Which might be ironic. I dunno.

# re: Newtown Festival 2011 - The DM Report

Left by John at 11/27/2011 11:41 AM
The funniest "skit" I saw at the festival was when 2 atheist (no connection with the Sydney Athiests)scientists got into a discussion with the creationists. At some moment one of the atheists moved closer to the creationist display, the creationist moved away, and not long after some of the Sydney Atheists came over for a bit of oh-so-sidesplittingly-funny-let's-give-it-to-the-creationist type of activity. As atheists often do, they didn't listen to the argument, but jumped on the quiet logical deduction that one person was closer to the creationist board and therefore that person must be the creationist and began to assail him with all sorts of never-heard-before questions. Protests from both the non-Sydney Atheist and the creationist that the questions were directed at the wrong person were met with deaf ears. That was funny, though when it eventually (and do I mean eeevvvveeennnnttttuuuaaalllly!) dawned on the SA he was a knucklehead he strangely didn't see the funny side.

I can only guess the type of guy who thinks sophomore puns and humour is REALLY funny wouldn't.

# re: Newtown Festival 2011 - The DM Report

Left by Jason at 11/27/2011 12:42 PM
Amazing how things can look so different from two different perspectives, isn't it, John?

# re: Newtown Festival 2011 - The DM Report

Left by Jason at 11/27/2011 1:11 PM
Perhaps if I were to outline what happened leading up to me calling "the creationist" an arseclown, that might put some perspective on the matter.

"The creationist", after a whole pack of nonsense, asked "the atheists" to give an example of a complex system that "looks designed" but in fact isn't.

Recognising this for what it was - a baited line - I refused to play the game. Everything in nature that looks designed actually isn't. I wasn't going to cite an example, especially not something obvious like "the eye", which "the creationist" would have pre-prepared counter-attacks for. That's boring.

Eventually, another atheist cited the topic of shoal/flock behaviour in birds and fish, a seemingly complex behaviour but one which arises from only three very simple rules - it can be easily modelled on a computer.

I was about to start explaining the "emergent behaviour from three simple rules" when "the creationist" - and we all know it was you, John - declared victory. Halfway through the answer, without an explanation of exactly why this behaviour is an example of emergent, undirected nature, without waiting to see what this implied. Without a rebuttal, or an explanation.

I didn't even get to explain Langton's Ant, which is a demonstration of fundamental emergent principles.

He declared "victory". Right there and then.

This was a clear sign that the question had in fact been dishonest, and that the creationist hadn't in fact been seeking an answer, but an opportunity to attempt a rhetorical coup d'etat.

This, of course, is the very acme of intellectual dishonesty - asking a loaded question merely as a tool to twist the conversation and not as a genuine question.

At that point, it was abundantly clear that the creationist was simply out to score points and had no interest in facts, truth or evidence, and was merely looking for the dopamine hit of "winning an argument", whether or not that hit came with facts attached or not. It probably felt good to him, but the fact remains that "the creationist" was just a dopamine junkie, ready to act dishonestly to get his next hit.

So obviously, with that made clear, there was no point in even being there any longer.

Sorry to disappoint, but I'm not interested in playing games like that. I've got better things to do.

# re: Newtown Festival 2011 - The DM Report

Left by Marc at 12/2/2011 6:38 AM
Hi Jason,

Before you arrived I had thrown up a question asking for an example from nature in which complexity of the same order as that found in DNA arises from chance processes. Your friend mentioned crystals and I replied that apart from its form being a property of the underlying atomic structure, crystals are not really that complex.

Then you threw up the swarming patterns of bird flocks and fish shoals. I am not quite sure how this satisfies the demands of my question. You've managed to capture the essential algorithms of certain living creatures' movements, and transfer them to a computer program. You claim the movement is complex but arises from simple algorithms. Your point is exactly what? I hope that it isn't supposed to demonstrate the chance evolution of life?

# re: Newtown Festival 2011 - The DM Report

Left by Jason at 12/2/2011 11:40 AM
First of all, Marc, that's not the question as asked.

Had you in fact used the words "an example from nature in which complexity of the same order as that found in DNA arises from chance processes", then I'm pretty sure crystals and bird flocking would not have come up in response.

However, let's imagine you did in fact ask that. Well, first up, the question is extremely problematic - for a few reasons.

1. "complexity of the same order". How exactly are you measuring complexity here? There isn't a commonly-agreed measure of 'complexity', therefore the question is already a source of ambiguity which you would of course attempt to exploit. Some discussion of complexity measures can be found here:

Complexity - and its measures - is also a phenomenally complex area highly unsuited to ad-hoc debate.

2. In specifying DNA as the benchmark molecule against which to measure this nebulous 'complexity' of yours, you're actually setting an artificially high benchmark, and suggesting a biochemical strawman.

There is no suggestion that DNA arose from chance processes. None whatsoever. DNA is merely the most common unit of heredity around today, but in fact arose from earlier self-replicating molecules and emphatically not, as you seem to suggest, "arising from a chance process".

There's a new-ish website called which goes a long way to explaining this chain of small steps from very basic self-organising molecules to the extreme complexity of DNA over billions of years by small steps.

So this question is in fact a set of goalposts that are not only movable but collosally far away. I call cheat.

-- cont'd

# re: Newtown Festival 2011 - The DM Report

Left by Jason at 12/2/2011 11:41 AM
Anyway, the question is in fact fairly useless as it stands. It's just a molecular re-hash of the old "tornado in a junkyard" chestnut with some intersting nuances.

I also take exception with your phrasing in "the chance evolution of life". Evolution is the opposite of chance. Evolution takes enormous numbers of randomly-influenced events and selects from them, producing order. EVOLUTION IS NOT A CHANCE PROCESS. Mutation, generally, is a chance process, not evolution. This should be well known, but creationists persist in this absurd line. I'm not going for it.

Now, as for emergent processes from simple rules, well, that's really no biggie. You just need the capacity to visualise the scaling up of said rules from a molecular level to the level of the cell, to the level of the organ, to the level of the organism. For instance:

Rhodopsin, the light-sensing protein in your eye, does one thing. It changes its shape when hit by light, then flips back. It does this via isomerisation of the 11-cis-retinal chromophore. One simple rule - a molecule changes shape when hit by light. Other systems can then react to this, cascading to a cellular level, then an organ level, then to the organism, culminating in, eventually, a man reflexively flinching as a shadow passes the edge of his vision, and narrowly avoiding being hit in the head by a coconut.

In essence, one simple rule leads, inevitably, to the sense we call vision.

Humans happen to have four other 'opsins' giving us colour vision, but it's quite easy to see that an organism possessin only one opsin (and a means to react to its shape change) would have an advantage over an organism without - since it can sense potential predation events - and would therefore be placed to out-compete it. That's all you need - one protein and a means to react to its state change. The rest is done by the continuous iterations of thousands of generations passing around their chosen unit of heredity, be that DNA, RNA or some other unspecified molecule or molecules.

Simple rules leading to greater complexity.

Of course, biological examples tend to be messy, because there are so many interlocking systems - and using them in debates with creationists just leads to a game of whack-a-mole as the creationist flips from question to question like a fractious three-year-old asking "what about this protein?" or "what about that nerve bundle?" or "are we there yet?" or "can I have a wee-wee?". It's tedious and I don't wish to get involved in it.

-- cont'd

# re: Newtown Festival 2011 - The DM Report

Left by Jason at 12/2/2011 11:41 AM
So let's look at a specific example of simple rules leading to order - order being a form of complexity in and of itself.

Langton's Ant operates on two simple rules.

- If I'm on a black square, turn 90 degrees left
- If I'm on a white square, turn 90 degrees right

and carries out one action

- move forward, and flip the colour of the square being vacated

This example uses yellow and grey, and formulates the action as a rule, but that's OK. makes no difference to the demonstration:

If that one won't load for you, try this one

The ant, after an initial chaotic period always ends up building an ordered "pathway" off into the distance - order arising from simple rules - even with obstacles. Mathematically, this is what is going on in biological systems, just much more complex. And the more factors which are added in, the more difficult it becomes to predict the eventual outcome of the system - think about the three-body problem and multiply the interacting factors a few thousand times.

Still, there is no mathematical restriction on order arising from an initially chaotic system. Remember, "order" and "complexity" have specific meanings in chaos, information theory and, importantly, biology.

Now, this brings us to another problem in your post

"apart from its form being a property of the underlying atomic structure, crystals are not really that complex."

Funny that. Because to a chemist, the structure of DNA is a crystal. Watson and Crick et al did their pioneering work on its structure using x-ray crystallography techniques

And, of course, the structure of DNA conforms to the underlying atomic structure of its constituent components. If it didn't, it'd fall apart in rather short order. In fact, there's some very interesting work around the place on DNA crystals and how they fit into evolutionary models (both biological and bio-chemical) and indeed how their properties can be used for a form of computing

Now, would you prefer to chat about a talking snake, or are you done?

# re: Newtown Festival 2011 - The DM Report

Left by nick andrew at 12/3/2011 12:01 AM
I was the mentioned friend, and I think Jason's memory of the line of questioning is more accurate than Marc's.

Marc's reply was essentially "we know how that's done". It's a non-sequitur, if things which look like they are designed (but aren't) are obviously not designed if we know how they occur, but other things which look like they designed must have been designed by GAWD because we don't know how they occurred.

Once again the creationist position fails by being composed of either evidence-free philosophical musings or misrepresentation of what evolution actually is, and does.

As for mistaking an atheist arguing with the creationist (John's earlier comment), we had walked into an argument in full swing. It was noisy there, and I couldn't catch most of what was being said, and whatever it was didn't sound like it was being well-argued.
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