The top of the slippery slope of woo-woo

Craig Murray, whose revelations on the sinister side of UK foreign policy I strongly commend to you, stands at the top of the slippery slope of “synchronicity”.

I find this worrying, because so much of what he says has the ring of truth because it is grounded in his own knowledge of diplomacy and diligent research, including through his contacts. Unlike most political journalism, which is based on speculation, ideology and wishful thinking.  A slide into woo-woo will inevitably devalue his work.

I have posted to his blog, rather cumbersomely:

I think the ‘order’ you are observing is the ‘availability illusion’.

We are involved – simply by default – in uncounted numbers of events, including all the people who pass us by in the course of a day, the things we see, hear and read, and so on.

Just by chance some of these things are going to be of more significance to us, in the light of our life histories, intentions and dreams. These are the things that we single out as coincidences, when in fact we experience countless coincidences every day, most of them meaningless to us.

To genuinely conclude that the ‘coincidences’ we experience are really significant, we should take into account all these background coincidences and the chances of them happening. That’s what science does.

But quacks, financial frauds, clairvoyants and politicians are well aware that we are prone to this availability illusion – one of the cognitive illusions that arise from the way our brains have evolved – and take full advantage of it.

Or, as EscalanteKid comments, rather more succinctly, on Craig’s post:

“the search after meaning is especially insidious because it always succeeds.”

Creationism in Darwin’s birthplace

The creationists are in town this week in Darwin’s birthplace. I have been out of town myself so could not attend any of the weekday sessions, but I do hope to get to the Saturday lecture, which stars Stephen C. Meyer, one of the founders of the Discovery Insitute, the begetters of the “Intelligent Design” (ID) idea. If I can get there, I’ll report back to the local humanists and comment here.

Interestingly, although the Disco people like to promote ID as a “scientific” theory, without actually doing any science,  the inspiration behind the programme in Shrewsbury appears to be religious, and specifically Christian. The event information (not on line, as far as I can find) says: “We believe there is not one debate but two: one debate about interpretations of the scientific evidence – what has come to be known as Intelligent Design versus random processes – and another between two faith positions: an originally good world which has been in decline as a consequence of human wrongdoing, or an originally simple and amoral world which has been evolving into something more complex and better.” No room allowed here for any other interpretations, apparently, particularly the possibility that you can have a view on evolution that is not a “faith position”.

There is the common straw man version of evolution: “Evolution involves progress “up” the evolutionary tree, each step requiring the addition of information to the genetic code. Random processes do not produce meaningful information.”

If anyone has any information about the weekday presentations, I’d be interested to hear about them.  [bpsdb]

The Atheist Thirteen

I saw this on jdc325’s blog. I dare say few of the bloggers that are participating will have heard of me, but I thought I’d make my own contribution.

Q1. How would you define “atheism”?

I don’t like the word. It’s defined by theists, to imply an opposition to their own point of view, regarded as some kind of standard. My own lack of belief in any god or supernatural power is exactly the same as my lack of belief in fairies, tree-spirits, ghosts or interstellar teapots. What all these have in common (apart, perhaps, from the teapot) is that people have expressed a belief in them, without presenting any evidence at all. But I don’t call myself an ‘afairyist’ or ‘aghostist’.

I guess that, like most people, I could describe myself using various terms. I don’t believe any ontological claim without good evidence – that probably makes me a ‘sceptic’ (note that this is different from denying that something exists, either without evidence or disregarding good evidence). My positive views on morality are probably best described as ‘humanist’. My attitude to discovering what exists is both ‘popperian critical rationalist’ and ‘scientific’. To the (considerable) extent that religious people try to force their beliefs on others, I am a ‘secularist’, that is, someone who thinks that people should be entitled to their beliefs, but that no religion should be an organising principle for society.

Q2. Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?

My parents sent their children to a Congregational Sunday school, but they never showed any evidence of religious belief and I think that was mainly to get us from under their feet on Sunday morning. (This was in the days when children could be trusted to walk a couple of miles by themselves.) And, conveniently, we could collect the ice cream for Sunday lunch from the sweetshop on the way home. I can remember very little of that experience that had anything to do with religion, although I enjoyed the social side of it (including quizzes led by our young teacher instead of bible lessons!) and discussions on all sorts of things, including psychic phenomena. I had a sort of kind of type of vague 60s view of a supernatural being until my late teens. And then it just went.

Q3. How would you describe “Intelligent Design”, using only one word?

ID stands for Intellectual Dishonesty (sorry, those are two words). There seem to be no more than maybe one or two dozen people actively promoting ID, and they do this through subverting education and the law and doing PR stunts. They do no science. The aim is just to present to the public the image of a scientific controversy, with the apparent ultimate goal of suppressing the real science. Most of them seem to know this. Behind it most of the people involved really seem to be creationists.

Q4. What scientific endeavour really excites you?

I perhaps ought to say ‘chemistry’, as it was the field of my first degree and PhD, but I sometimes wish I’d been a geologist. I think the discovery of earth history is one of the most interesting topics in science. Philosophers of science seem to ignore it and have a distorted view of science through thinking of physics and science as more or less the same thing.

Q5. If you could change one thing about the “atheist community”, what would it be and why?

For a short time I followed some of the groups that called themselves ‘Brights’ but I was very put off by their attitudes to others.

Q6. If your child came up to you and said “I’m joining the clergy”, what would be your first response?

I’d be very surprised. But what he does is his choice.

Q7. What’s your favourite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?

All the arguments for the existence of God, whatever their merit, are really irrelevant to the real world. People do not practice ‘faith’ or believe in ‘God’ – they practice specific religions, which make very specific assertions about what their god is and what he wants from humans: he was crucified and rose again, he wants you to fast every year and to pray five times a day, or not to work on a Saturday. As far as I know, no theologian has ever been able to make that leap by argument from ‘God’ to any specific god that people really believe in. There is only one argument that really matters in religion, and that is ‘my revelation is better than your revelation’. It is at root the most stunningly self-centred attitude.

In organised religion, this is backed up by force and ultimately violence: ‘God’ threatens retribution if you don’t behave as he wishes, but since he unaccountably fails to do this, it must be enforced by old men, often with beards. And, if that doesn’t work, the young men will come and get you on their behalf.

Q8. What’s your most “controversial” (as far as general attitudes amongst other atheists goes) viewpoint?

I don’t know.

Q9. Of the “Four Horsemen” (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is your favourite, and why?

I have not read most of these. I’ve read most of Dawkins’s God Delusion, but the arguments have not really changed since I read Bertrand Russell on the same things as a youth. Where Dawkins scores is in being (mostly) right and writing it so well. (Dennett is still waiting to be read.)

Q10. If you could convince just one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?

I would like to think that one need not be concerned about convincing people to abandon their beliefs, only to convince them not to force the beliefs on other people. However, in view of my answer (7) above, I am not sure that is possible – because of the nature of theistic belief, anyone who believes something different, even another theistic doctrine, will always be a threat and a source of ‘offence’. So, in that case, convincing just one theist, any one, coul be regarded as an improvement in the human condition.

The other three items are to invite other bloggers to do the same. I don’t feel able to do that.

The Wem ghost: a tall tale develops

Over a decade ago (in the days before blogs) I wrote a short web page debunking the Wem ‘ghost’ photograph, which had been taken the previous year and had begun to appear on web sites.

This photograph is a very striking picture, apparently of a young girl standing at the top of the stairs leading into a burning building. However, it does not take much close investigation to see that the picture is not of a young girl, and therefore likely not a ghost.

The ‘head’ is in front of the railings, and there is no body apparent, but if there is one, it must be way back behind the railings and inside the doorway at the top of the steps. So the ‘ghost’, if it is one, is shaped something like the front end of a giraffe.

From time to time I amuse myself by googling to see how the ‘Wem ghost’ meme is spreading on the Web. It took a few years before it really began to spread beyond the personal home page that started it and a handful of specialist ‘ghost’ sites. But now the story is all over the place,although I notice that many of the sites simply rip off the text of others, just as they rip off the copyright photograph that started it. There are not many sites where the photograph is given any critical analysis at all.

What is interesting is that the legend is starting to grow whenever the story is retold.  The fire that destroyed the old timber houses of the town in 1677, was, according to legend, caused by a young girl’s carelessness with a candle. The bloggers have now created new details to enhance the photograph: now she supposedly died in the 1677 fire or haunted the Town hall before it burned (although she had no connection with the building, which was built two and a half centuries after her life). The modern technology of the blog is being used to spread tall tales of a most old-fashioned kind.