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Archive for March, 2013

Be Reasonable continues to establish itself as one of my most looked-forward-to podcasts. It still only airs monthly, but I hope it sets the standard for some more similar content in the future.

This latest show was the first one where I was entirely unfamiliar with the fringe claim being examined. It’s about a particularly niche bit of folklore from 12th century England, and one man who’s almost entirely alone in thinking it a true tale of two extra-terrestrial human children visiting our planet. You should hear the full story.

One thing that’s fascinating to analyse, and hear the hosts attempt to unravel, is the way in which minor oddities and gaps in our knowledge are inflated and exaggerated, to make room for massive assumptions and leaps of imagination – while those same gaps and leaps are minimised, and outlandish fantasies are treated as if plausible, even necessary, conclusions from a paucity of evidence.

Here’s the kind of thing I mean: part of the mystery of the origins of these two children who turned up in Suffolk surrounds the language they spoke. It wasn’t recognised by the people in the town where they were brought, and the interviewee, Duncan Lunan, is convinced it was the language of an alien world. One mainstream hypothesis is that the children were speaking Flemish, which is possible given the circumstances, but Lunan dismisses the notion that Flemish wouldn’t have been recognisable to the people in the area at the time.

You can follow his logic, as far as it goes. He’s done his historical research, and it may well be that Flemish should have been familiar to at least some of the people who interacted with the children; it’s a curiosity, an anomaly, something odd, if it apparently wasn’t.

But to resolve this by postulating a far more improbable anomaly, such as human children living on another planet and beaming to Earth through a matter transporter which malfunctioned because of sunspots (as he later discusses), is no solution at all. It’s a perfect example of “Conclusion: Dinosaurs“, and if that’s not the formal name for the logical fallacy at play here then it should be.

I had planned to go into the faulty reasoning exhibited by the subjects of this podcast in more depth, but it’s not really necessary; the claims are so baseless that my rehashing the numerous and obvious refutations wouldn’t particularly add anything. But what’s worth noting is how easy it is to start to forget that fact, when listening to these people talk about things that interest them.

The show’s second guest was Michael Wilmore of the Flat Earth Society, a group dedicated to being about as fantastically and comprehensively wrong in a single field of study as it’s possible to be. The conversation was, on both sides, friendly, charming, informative, lucid, well informed, engaging, and educational.

Michael Wilmore and the others have conclusively demonstrated that, when it comes to examining how people arrive at beliefs so out of kilter with reality, and continue to maintain them in the face of all evidence for quite so long, “they’re crazy” is a wholly inadequate explanation.

The belief systems in question are utterly vacuous. They are based on hot air and undiluted piffle. But these are functioning human beings who’ve got there via an entirely human series of experiences and thought processes. Every bizarre rationalisation or illogical justification they need to use to prop up their tower of bullshit is something we’re all potentially capable of, and all call upon more often than we’d like to admit in the course of making it through another day.

It’s hard to always feel this way. Anyone who follows me on Twitter will know how agitated I get at people daring to have a differing opinion during a certain BBC1 Sunday morning programme. Those people are terrible at believing kooky things.

Or, it’s a format specifically tailored to encourage conflict and argument. And it’s nice to just hear people who believe completely different things, having a chat and trying to understand each other once in a while.

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This Guardian article by Martin Robbins isn’t mainly about the irrationality of religion, but I thought one paragraph was delicious enough to be worth quoting. In a recent poll organised by the Church of England, whose results they subsequently represented in a decidedly misleading fashion:

31% of respondents said they would pray for peace in the world. Given the noticeable absence of world peace, there are only a few ways this plays out. Either nobody has got around to praying yet, in which case people are callous bastards; or God has ignored them all, in which case God is a callous bastard; or prayer doesn’t work, in which case the Christian movement is the equivalent of a town full of people still trying to call the number of their local Papa John’s 2,000 years after it closed down and the phone was disconnected, speaking at the error tone even though nobody has picked up, then spotting a pizza in the supermarket two days later and insisting that it must have arrived by the grace of Papa John’s.

Christians: pick one.

(Martin’s on good form today – read this one about Richard Littlejohn and the problems of press regulation as well.)

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Only a brief one, though, which expands slightly on all the excellent, thorough coverage there’s already been.

Lucy Meadows was a primary school teacher who died this week. It’s thought she took her own life. She’d lived most of her life as Nathan Upton, and had only recently made a public transition to a gender with which she identified.

David Allen Green has posted a good summary of the circumstances, in which he discusses the negative attention the mainstream press had often applied to Lucy Meadows, and to people who fall outside of standard accepted gender norms more generally.

That particular round-up notably doesn’t mention a column by Richard Littlejohn, which was published in the Mail last December, but quietly vanished from their online archive in the last few days. Almost as if what they thought they could get away with saying about her while she was alive, suddenly seems grossly insensitive now that she’s dead.

David’s chosen not to focus on Littlejohn in particular, because this diminishes the extent to which numerous other newspaper columnists and editors are guilty of exactly the same cruelty and inhumanity on a regular basis. Also, the Samaritans have been reminding people of their media guidelines for the reporting of suicide, in the wake of some commentators being overly hasty and certain in apportioning a direct causative link, or even absolute blame. Richard Littlejohn may be a terrible human being, but nobody has the authority to reliably declare that he drove anyone to suicide.

Taking one’s own life is rarely, I suspect, a simple decision resulting from an easily comprehensible mindset. Understanding what’s going on in other people’s heads is a challenge at the best of times, let alone when the actions they’re taking are quite so far removed from my own. (I hope that ending your life is a distant and unrelatable premise for all of you reading this, as well. Even if not, I imagine you’re well aware that your demons are your own, and not automatically shared and understood by anyone else who experiences any similar turmoil.) It’s good advice, to avoid being too sweeping in our declarations of what it was that pushed someone we never knew personally over the edge.

But this sensible advice leaves one aspect of the whole unpleasant business not fully addressed.

And that aspect is that Richard Littlejohn is a terrible human being.

I can’t do anything to help Lucy Meadows now. But I can repeat this fact.

I say this without holding Littlejohn the slightest bit culpable for the death of Lucy Meadows. Whether or not his column directly affected her life, or indirectly contributed to a culture of prejudice and othering in which she eventually couldn’t bear to live another day, is not for me to say.

But even if we stipulate that Richard Littlejohn is not responsible for her death – even if Lucy Meadows had managed to live a full and happy life – what he wrote about her would still be loathsome and despicable.

The fact that she took her own life is, of course, the primary tragedy, the one point of real significance. But it’s not the only relevant factor to my assessment of a thousand-word article in a widely read national newspaper, devoted exclusively to demeaning and vilifying a troubled individual who’d done nothing to deserve it.

He asks us to think about “the devastating effect all this is having on those who really matter”, explicitly declaring that Lucy Meadows herself didn’t matter a damn to him. He bewails the primary school children’s being “forced to deal with the news”, as if to give kids a chance to learn about people different from themselves were to inflict on them some form of bereavement or abuse. He calls it “selfish” for her to go back to the same school she used to teach at, rather than moving away just so that her freakish aberration didn’t bother anyone.

This from someone who claims to have “every sympathy” for those who undergo gender realignment surgery. Littlejohn seems to think he’s a compassionate and understanding person, who’s simply standing up against those values being taken too far. When you’re standing up against compassion and understanding because you’ve found someone who doesn’t deserve it, that’s called bullying.

Littlejohn quotes the way teachers discussed things with Mr Upton’s class, and explained that Miss Meadows would be teaching them in the future:

Teachers told them that Mr Upton felt he had been “born with a girl’s brain in a boy’s body” and would henceforth be living as a woman.

If I ever have children, and I find myself discussing transgender people with them, I imagine that might be pretty close to what I say. I think I’d certainly talk about the differences between how you feel inside, and how you look on the outside, the relative importance of each, and the way they can both affect each other – I might use their mother’s tattoos as a familiar example, to talk about your body acting as an adaptable, malleable reflection of your internal self.

I don’t think they’d have too much trouble getting the hang of it. If we’ve raised them well up to that point, and encouraged a basic level of tolerance and acceptance and humanism, then I don’t see why they’d be “worried and confused”, let alone “devastated”. It’s only Littlejohn who still finds it too much to get his head around.

(Exactly the same argument, of course, has been made about openly gay teachers, among members of other professions. I wouldn’t expect a conversation about homosexuality with my kids to last more than five minutes, should the need arise. It’s a lot simpler than many right-wing bigots seem to think.)

The point is: Littlejohn’s article is full of the kind of wilful ignorance that makes the world a worse place, even without laying the death of an innocent teacher at his feet.

The end of the story for Lucy Meadows is awful and saddening. But this article was vile and horrendous on the day it was published, even when she was still trying to forge a new life for herself. You don’t need to wait to find out how the story ends to see that.

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I think religion can help people to be moral.

This may seem to directly contradict what I’ve said before, and which has been repeated at length many times, in many religious debates, for the benefit of religious people who seem to need it repeated many times. But I stand by the familiar secular humanist trope: God is entirely superfluous for morality to exist, and no worthwhile system of ethics can be defined simply in terms of obedience to some more powerfully coercive force.

Religion does not equate to morality. One does not remotely depend on the other. But there can be a positive causal link there.

Ask a humanist about the source of their morals, and they’ll probably mention compassion for other humans as an end in itself – being good for goodness’ sake, and all that. This, for many, is where true morality lies: we don’t need to be told not to murder and rape each other by God to figure out that we just shouldn’t do it. And, conversely, if we are told that, say, homosexuality is somehow inherently evil, then we can look at the plain facts and figure out for ourselves that there’s no moral basis whatever for such an assertion.

But while this is all ethically sound reasoning, it does many religious people a disservice to assume that the motives for their behaviour go no further than the whim of their god. Many of them aren’t so monomaniacally fixated on their divine delusion; they live most of their lives in the real world, and engage with it in the same ways, and for the same reasons, as I do.

I know religious people whose love for their children has nothing to do with their belief that God placed us all on this earth with some deliberate purpose in mind. The humanistic idea of loving people because they deserve it, because it brings about greater happiness and comfort and joy and well-being which are all good things in and of themselves, are precisely what motivate a lot of devout believers in the good they do.

Everyone who understands the inherently good purpose of being a good person, learned it somehow. The experiences in their lives brought them to that point. For some, this journey is kick-started simply by loving parents, and other similar positive influences, who nurture a positive approach to the world. For others, what gets them there is the idea that God wants them to be good to people, and that belief inspires them to find a sincere, innately good compassion for others. They’re not just behaving themselves because they think it’s what God wants; but the idea that God wants this has shaped how they truly feel, prompted them to think about loving their neighbour and realise on their own what a good idea it is.

It doesn’t always work, of course. For some, the divine edict really is the be-all and end-all of moral meaning, and actual care or love for humanity doesn’t enter into their picture of how anyone should behave. Then it’s all about using God’s will to enforce and justify their own prejudices and bigotry, and it all gets rather ugly. It’s largely because of these people that the “Good without God” slogan is still worth repeating; an alarming number of people still don’t get it.

But many roads can lead to love and kindness, and it’s not the most terrible thing in the world if some of those roads aren’t too rational. Good with God deserves a chance, too.

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Here’s something else I’ve not done a great deal of lately: a good old-fashioned dismantling of some bog-standard, classically inane, long-since-refuted-yet-still-infuriatingly-ubiquitous religious piffle.

I suppose it’s important that someone keeps explaining over and over again what a burden of proof is, and why atheists are moral, and all that malarkey, while so many people seem insistent on failing to understand any of it and keep repeating the same tired old shite. Usually, though, I just can’t find the strength.

But I’m getting back into the swing of it for Mehdi Hasan, who was featured in the Lines of Dissent section of the New Statesman a few months ago (the issue edited by Robin Ince and Brian Cox). The density of painfully simple errors and failures of reasoning packed into a relatively short space just begs to be addressed. Ooh, and I’ve just noticed there’s an online version too, so you can read along here.

The first mildly teeth-grinding moment comes from his defense of “faith”. He criticises Richard Dawkins’s characterisation of faith as “belief in something without evidence” as “sheer nonsense”, and goes on:

Are we seriously expected to believe that the likes of Descartes, Kierkegaard, Hegel, Rousseau, Leibniz and Locke were all unthinking or irrational idiots?

If you can find me an instance of Dawkins, or any atheist, making such a harsh judgment on any of the aforementioned thinkers, feel free to let me know in the comments. The fact is, “unthinking or irrational idiots” are Hasan’s words, which he extrapolated from someone’s definition of faith which doesn’t line up with his own.

And while I would dispute that “belief in something without evidence” is unprecedented as a description of faith that believers positively embrace and hold to, it’s fine if Hasan understands it differently. But his understanding is explained as “without proof, but not without evidence”. And frankly, this distinction is inadequately explained.

I don’t know how to interpret “proof” except as something like “evidence sufficiently convincing and voluminous that to withhold acceptance would be empirically unjustifiable”. That could probably be tighter and more pithy; the point is, evidence and proof are not two disparate things. The convincingness of evidence is on a scale; “proof” is what we call the upper end of that scale.

So he seems to be claiming that faith is believing in the truth of propositions for which there is more than zero evidence… but not enough evidence to actually support those propositions convincingly.

It’s like if you were talking to a stranger on the internet, and they tell you they’re actually Michelle Obama. Do you believe them? Well, if you don’t ask for any evidence at all, then you’re an unthinking or irrational idiot if you buy such a story. But say you ask for proof, and she sends you a picture of Michelle Obama which she says she just took on her phone. It’s not proof, exactly – it could be a picture someone just grabbed off the web – but it’s evidence, however weak. Now you’re having faith!

Hopefully the first (slightly bizarre) example to spring to my mind helps demonstrate that it’s not a meaningful distinction Hasan’s making here. Is belief in God supported by the facts, or not? If so, you don’t need faith. If not, you’re not justified in that belief, and faith isn’t going to help you.

Then he goes onto the “absence of evidence” trope, and comes out with this:

I can’t prove God but you can’t disprove him. The only non-faith-based position is that of the agnostic.

Oy.

First, I think Mehdi Hasan just confessed to being agnostic on the subject of leprechauns, dragons, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, 9/11 conspiracies, alien abductions, Islamic creationism, Ganesh, crop circles, and the fact that I control the tides with my big toe. It’s the only non-faith-based position, after all. Unless he thinks he can disprove any of the above, which I’d be interested to see.

Secondly, the truism is seriously misleading. Absence of evidence can in fact be evidence of absence – if the particular absent evidence is something you would have expected to be present, if the phenomenon in question was real.

Example: there’s a decisive lack of evidence supporting the claim that there’s an elephant under my bed. This lack of evidence does, in fact, fairly conclusively suggest that no such elephant exists. I would go so far as to say that it “proves” it, to my satisfaction.

It doesn’t always work. Just because we’ve never found convincing evidence of alien life in the universe, for instance, doesn’t mean it’s not out there. This is because some models of reality in which alien life exists are entirely compatible with our continued ignorance of them. Whereas with the elephant under my bed, you’d have to come up with all sorts of excuses and amendments and provisos (it’s a special breed of tiny elephant, which is also a very good hider, and so on) for it to be possibly true, given the lack of evidence.

So if atheists assert that the lack of evidence for God is indicative of his non-existence, this isn’t by definition irrational. Some formulations of the God hypothesis aren’t explicitly contradicted by our observations of the world – but these tend not to be testable, or positively supported by any evidence either, so they’re not very interesting (see: deism). Other times, a particular interventionist God is actively refuted by the evidence. And yes, absence of evidence can itself constitute evidence in this regard, in some cases. (And yes, I do really mean “refuted”. I’m almost positive.)

Hasan cites multiverse theory as an aspect of science which can’t be proved, and requires faith. But you’ll notice he has to go to an extreme corner of niche physics, which is highly controversial and not uncritically accepted in its own field, to find such an example. When a theory is supported by mountains of evidence, science recognises that and no faith is required. The theory of evolution, for example, has been “proved” to the satisfaction of every credible biologist around. Its truth is asserted confidently, because it’s so firmly supported by data. It may be that multiverse theory isn’t similarly supported, and yet some scientists have some sort of “faith” in it, believing in its truth beyond what’s supported by the currently available evidence. If this is the case, then that’s not a good thing, as Hasan himself strongly implies.

He then seems to think that an argument for the existence of God, such as the cosmological argument (which doesn’t even mention God, incidentally, only concluding that “the universe has a cause”), is supposed to score some sort of points “whether you agree with it or not”. Which is odd, because I don’t see many atheists denying that appeals to reason to support God exist at all. We’re just not convinced by them. Do an immense number of bad arguments sum up to one good one?

Here’s a perfectly valid logical syllogism:

1. If pie is delicious, I am a world darts champion.
2. Pie is delicious.
3. Therefore, I am a world darts champion.

And yet people remain unconvinced. My prowess at throwing a pointy thing at a flat thing just isn’t taken seriously. Odd, that.

He then brings up Anthony Flew, an atheist who prominently converted to some kind of theistic belief a few years ago, and says:

To pretend that Flew, of all people, arrived at such a belief blindly, without thinking it through, “without evidence”, is plain silly.

Which is another rather tedious appeal to authority. The fact that somebody who wrote some learned books on a subject now believes a particular claim doesn’t demonstrate that there’s any evidence for that claim. You know what would demonstrate that there’s some evidence? Demonstrating the evidence. I don’t care how smart and supposedly thoughtful Anthony Flew is; if he hasn’t got a convincing line of reasoning leading to his conclusion, then I’ll call him out for being irrational just as I would anyone else.

Hasan’s closing paragraph brings him back to the title of the piece:

In short, most of us who believe in God do so not because we are irrational, incurious or immature but because He is the best answer to the question posed by Leibniz more than 300 years ago: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

No he’s not. I’ve got a better answer. One that’s more intellectually honest and more conducive to the genuine progress of discovery and rigorous questioning of our understanding of things. Want to hear it?

Ask me the question.

I don’t know.

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