Monday, August 06, 2007

The stupidity! It burns! (UK edition)

I'm sure it will please my American readers that it's not just in the US that stupidity get its say in the newspapers. The British newspaper Daily Mail has a column by Melanie Phillips that contains so much stupidity that it's worth of the AiG or Discovery Institute

Arrogance, dogma and why science - not faith - is the new enemy of reason

You know that you're off to a bad start when the headline contains an oxymoron. Science is based upon reason, which makes it a little hard for it to be the enemy of reason, unless you presume that the field of science in some weird way is trying to commit suicide - something which takes anthropomorphizing to a new level.

Our most celebrated atheist, the biologist Professor Richard Dawkins, has briefly turned his attention away from bashing people who believe in God.

Someone has obviously not read Dawkins. Dawkins doesn't bash "people who believe in God". He tries to convince them that they are wrong, that all scientific evidence points to the non-existence of God, and that their lives would presumably be better without a delusional belief in God.

He does perhaps bash specific people because of what they do in the name of their gods, but that's not because of their belief, but because of their actions.

Instead, he is about to bash people who subscribe to 'new age' therapies which he says are based on 'irrational superstition'.

Notice that Dawkins doesn't attack the people who subscribe to these superstitions, but instead attack the superstitions. Much like someone would attack the ideas of people they disagree with politically, rather than the people themselves, but with the added benifit of being able to back up his views with evidence (based upon science and reason, those apparently opposed forces).

In a TV programme to be shown later this month, Dawkins looks at a range of ludicrous therapies and gurus, including faith healers, psychic mediums, 'angel therapists', 'aura photographers', astrologers and others.

Not surprisingly, he is horrified by such widespread irrationality, not to mention an exploitative industry that fleeces people while encouraging them to run away from reality. He is right to be alarmed.

What previously belonged to the province of the quack and the charlatan has become mainstream. The NHS provides funding for shamans, while the NHS Directory For Alternative And Complementary Medicine promotes 'dowsers', 'flower therapists' and 'crystal healers'.

Glad to hear that we can agree that it's bad that people believe in irrationality and that people who "fleeces people while encouraging them to run away from reality" should be stopped. Funny enough, I can think of another phenomenom that fits that description - a phenomenom that Dawkins previously has taken on.

Indeed, such therapies aren't the half of it. Millions of us are now eager to believe that the world is controlled by conspiracies of covert forces, for which there is not one shred of evidence because such theories are simply bonkers.

Thus Press articles and TV documentaries seriously advance the belief that the 9/11 attacks on America were orchestrated by the U.S. government itself. Similarly, thousands believe that Princess Diana was murdered at the hands of a conspiracy composed of the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles and MI5.

Bestselling books by the former TV sports presenter David Icke, who has announced he is 'the son of God', argue that Britain will be devastated by tidal waves and earthquakes, and that the world is ruled by a secret group called the 'Global Elite' or 'Illuminati' which was responsible for the Holocaust, the Oklahoma city bombing and 9/11.

Yes, it's true, people tend to believe in vast conspiracies. It's unfortunate, but it seems to be a common trend through history - think of the Jewish conspiracies described in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. They were obviously fake, but too many people were willing to believe them. The Illuminati was thought to be behind the French Revolution by some. Or what about how the godless atheist communists were trying to infiltrate the US, which led to "In God We Trust" being put on the US money?

These trends are not just nutty but sinister. Thousands of cults now combine similar crazy beliefs with programmes to control people's minds and behaviour.

Their techniques include food and sleep deprivation; trance induction through hypnosis or prolonged rhythmical chanting; and 'love bombing', where cult members are bombarded with conditional love which is removed whenever there is a deviation from the dictates of the leader.

I believe the correct word for food deprivation in this context is "fasting".

Disturbing indeed. But where Dawkins goes wrong is to assume this is all as irrational as believing in God. The truth is that it is the collapse of religious faith that has prompted the rise of such irrationality.

Really? Man, this gotta be good. Many of the things she describes sounds quite similar to things that goes on in many Christian sects. [An aside - since religious faith is irrational per definition, I suppose that such irrationality is not included in the irrationality caused by the "collapse of religious faith", or are we dealing with another oxymoron?]

We are living in a scientific, largely post-religious age in which faith is presented as unscientific superstition. Yet paradoxically, we have replaced such faith by belief in demonstrable nonsense.

I think that you'd find that it's only part of the world that lives in a largely post-religious age. Large parts of the world, including (but not limited to) the US, the Middel East, Nothern Africa, Pakistan, India, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Nigeria, and Malaysia, are very much still in the thrall of religion, though to varrying degrees.

And every claim based on Christianity which has been tested against science through the ages have turned out to be wrong, which makes it "demonstrable nonsense" in my book. So in other words, belief in demonstrable nonsense has been replace by belief in demonstrable nonsense. Not good, but we're not any worse off than we were before.

It was GK Chesterton who famously quipped that "when people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing - they believe in anything." So it has proved. But how did it happen?

Well, it's a nice quote, but has it really been proven? Skepticism and rationalism is usually not limited to just one area - most people who believe in "everything" are also willing to lend at least some credence to the existence of a divine being - or at least, that's my experience, and it seems to be backed up by data. This 2003 Harris poll, shows that 90% of all Americans believe in a God. So, if irrational belief in "everything" (excluding God I presume) takes a lack of belief in God, at most 10% of all Americans should believe in other stuff. However, the poll shows that 51% of the public believes in ghosts (excluding the Holy Ghost I presume), 31% believes in astrology, and 27% believes in reincarnation.

Apparently it does not take a lack of belief in God to believe in "everything".

The big mistake is to see religion and reason as polar opposites. They are not. In fact, reason is intrinsic to the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Really? Could have fooled me. Virgin birth? Resurrection? Global flood? Divine being? Seven day creation? Any of those things seem reasonable to you?

You might also have heard this quote: "Reason is the enemy of faith". It's by some guy called Martin Luther, who apparently had some importance in the past.

The Bible provides a picture of a rational Creator and an orderly universe - which, accordingly, provided the template for the exercise of reason and the development of science.

Rational creator? In the Bible? Where? I must have missed it somehow. What I read was something about someone creating the universe in seven days, by among things creating light before the stars and the sun (which is a star as we all know).
And let me address the "provided the template for the exercise of reason and the development of science" part. Organized Christianity has historically be opposed to the advancement of science, since it improached on the churches' turf, telling people "the Truth", and replaced it with the evidence so far. Our science owes more to the ancient Greeks, and the Babylonians before that, or to early Islam, than to Christianity. Every advancement science has done, has not happened because of religion, but in spite of religion, as the current state in the US so clearly demonstrates.

Yes, some Christians have been great scientists, but they were scientists while doing science, not Christians. They went were evidence led them, rather than ignore it because it went against something written in an old book. An old book, which among other things, claims that bats are birds.

Dawkins pours particular scorn on the Biblical miracles which don't correspond to scientific reality. But religious believers have different ways of regarding those events, with many seeing them as either metaphors or as natural occurrences which were invested with a greater significance.

It might be that some religious people see it that way, but it's certainly not how the Catholic Church sees them.

The heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition is the belief in the concept of truth, which gives rise to reason. But our postreligious age has proclaimed that there is no such thing as objective truth, only what is "true for me".

No, the Judeo-Christian tradition is the belief in the concept of the Truth, something entirely different from truth. Anything that went against that Truth was tried suppressed, as the oft-refered episode with Galilei demonstrated. Or maybe, we should include something closer to home? How about how William Tyndale was burned on the stake, for the mere act of translating the Bible? Doesn't sound like something that's based upon reason or the search for truth.

Post-modernism has remarkable little to do with science, or how science is conducted. As a matter of fact, when looking at world views, post-modernism and the scientific world view is often considered contrasts.

That is because our society won't put up with anything which gets in the way of 'what I want'. How we feel about things has become all-important. So reason has been knocked off its perch by emotion, and thinking has been replaced by feelings.

Damn those people who only think of what they want instead of thinking of what I want!

If you think that such behavious is unique to these times, I would suggest reading T.H. White's The Age of Scandal, which shows how British people back in the 17th/18th century focused on what they wanted, and seemed rather heavy on feelings rather than thinking.

This has meant our society can no longer distinguish between truth and lies by using evidence and logic. And this collapse of objective truth has, in turn, come to undermine science itself which is playing a role for which it is not fitted.

You mean, truth like saying that there is no evidence for neither a divine being, nor any other supernatural beings? Dawkins did a rather good job of explaining at least the first part of that in his book The God Delusion, but some people seem to be unable to understand it, and instead attack it by spreading a lot of lies about what Dawkins said.

When science first developed in the West, it thought of itself merely as a tool to explore the natural world. It did not pour scorn upon religion; indeed, scientists were overwhelmingly religious believers (as many still are).

The first sentence can be understod two ways, but let me make clear that science did not develop first in the West. The scientific method, as we know it, was formalized in the West, but that happened much later.

In the past, declaring yourself an atheist was pretty much equivalent to getting executed, so it cannot be said for sure how many scientists in the past were religious in nature [this is something that Hitchens explains quite well in his book God Is Not Great], but even if that's true, it doesn't really change anything. The evidence (or rather lack of it) points to there being no divine beings.

In modern times, however, science has given rise to 'scientism', the belief that science can answer all the questions of human existence. This is not so.

Science cannot explain the origin of the universe. Yet it now presumes to do so and as a result it has descended into irrationality.

It's true that science cannot explain the origin of the universe, yet, but it provides us with the tools for doing so eventually. Unlike, say, religion, which just presumes an origin, and ignores all evidence to the contrary.

The most conspicuous example of this is provided by Dawkins himself, who breaks the rules of scientific evidence by seeking to claim that Darwin's theory of evolution - which sought to explain how complex organisms evolved through random natural selection - also accounts for the origin of life itself.

There is no evidence for this whatever and no logic to it. After all, if people say God could not have created the universe because this gives rise to the question "Who created God?", it follows that if scientists say the universe started with a big bang, this prompts the further question "What created the bang?"

The "Who created God" question is raised when people claim that something as complex as the universe could not exist without a creator, since such a creator would be even more complex, and thus, by the same reasoning demand a creator. So, people are not saying that a god could not have created the universe (though we say that there is no evidence that a god has done so), but they are saying that that particular argument for a "god-did-it" solution would create the need for an infinite chain of creators.

Regarding the big bang, the cause and what preceded it, are things that science is actually trying to address. Unlike religion, science is not affraid of following the chain of reasoning, and go where it leads (yes, a bang would quite reasonably be expected to have a cause). These questions might never be answered in a satisfying way, but unless we try to find out, we'll never know.

Indeed, if the origin of life were truly spontaneous, this would constitute what religious people would call a miracle. Accordingly, this claim in itself resembles not so much science as the superstition that Dawkins derides.

What does "truly spontaneous" mean?

Life started on Earth some 3 to 4 billion years ago, and has developed since then. Experiments have shown that life can start through a chemical process under the conditions Earth provided back then. During the creation of life, there were a number of stages. TalkOrigins has a good article on it, which also addresses the common creationist claim that life is too statistically inprobable.

Moreover, since science essentially takes us wherever the evidence leads, the findings of more than 50 years of DNA research - which have revealed the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce life - have thrown into doubt the theory that life emerged spontaneously in a random universe.

Maybe it has "thrown into doubt the theory that life emerged spontaneously in a random universe", but the scientists working in the field generally don't seem to have reached the same conclusion. Also, what "arrangements which are needed to produce life" have beem revealed through DNA research?

These findings have given rise to a school of scientists promoting the theory of Intelligent Design, which suggests that some force embodying purpose and foresight lay behind the origin of the universe.

No. What gave rise to the school of "scientists" was the court rulings against teaching Creationism in schools in the US.

The reason why the word "scientists" is in scare quotes, is that the Intelligent Design movement is nearly entirely non-scientific, which is why people like Behe, Dembski, and Wells keep getting used - they are the only ones who can give ID any kind of scientific veneer, even though they haven't done any research for decades.

While this theory is, of course, open to vigorous counter-argument, people such as Prof Dawkins and others have gone to great lengths to stop it being advanced at all, on the grounds that it denies scientific evidence such as the fossil record and is therefore worthless.

What theory? Intelligent design is entirely contentless, and cannot be considered a theory, even in the mundane sense of the word. We have asked again and again to see the actual hypothesis of Intelligent Design, but so far we have only seen flawed (often reused) arguments against evolution.

Dawkins, and the rest of us, don't have any problem with Intelligent Design being advanced, when they provide any science. As a matter of fact, many of us have repeatedly asked for the Intelligent Design advocates to send in their scientific findings to scientific journals for peer-review. So far, the few things we have seen, have been substandard, and unsuited for publication.

What Dawkins, and the rest of us, oppose, is teaching Intelligent Design as science. It's not. It's not even pseudo-science, which tries to use science to its ends. Rather it's anti-science, which has the goal of undermining science, and science education, in the (hidden) name of religion.

Yet distinguished scientists have been hounded and their careers jeopardised for arguing that the fossil record has got a giant hole in it. Some 570 million years ago, in a period known as the Cambrian Explosion, most forms of complex animal life emerged seemingly without any evolutionary trail.

We have several good fossils from the end of the 70-80 million long period, which shows us something about how they developed. However, perhaps unsurprisingly, Philips doesn't quite understand what "complex" means in this context. The type of organisms that developed during the Cambrian Explosion are not the ones that leaves very big fossils. Oh, and of course, there are plenty of evolutionary trails. Repeating creationist and neo-creationist claims don't make them right.

These scientists argue that only 'rational agents' could have possessed the ability to design and organise such complex systems.

Unfortunately they haven't actually bothered to provide us with any evidence for rational agents. Nor that someone designed and organized those systems. The rest of us go with evolution, where there is an explanaition, backed up with plenty of evidence (including those fossils from the Cambrian Explosion) to back it up.

Whether or not they are right (and I don't know), their scientific argument about the absence of evidence to support the claim that life spontaneously created itself is being stifled - on the totally perverse grounds that this argument does not conform to the rules of science which require evidence to support a theory.

Sorry? Is this some kind of parody? Are you seriously saying that requiring evidence to support a theory is "perverse"?
What the hell have you been smoking?

Given the fact that you've heard about their ideas, even though you live on a different continent, it would seem to me that their claims are not being stifled. Their "scientific arguments" are perhaps, given none of the rest of us have seen them, but this must be their own doing, since it doesn't reach the rest of us. What they publish is certainly not scientific, nor can it barely be called arguments.

If you are unsure about whether they are right or not, then educate yourself. Find out what they say, and look up the evidence against they arguments. TalkOrigins has an entire list of Creationist claims that they debunk, exactly so people like you can educate yourself. So far, you haven't presented anything that hasn't been said, and debunked, a thousand times before.

As a result of such arrogance, the West - the crucible of reason - is turning the clock back to a pre-modern age of obscurantism, dogma and secular witch-hunts.

Far from upholding reason, science itself has become unreasonable. So when Prof Dawkins fulminates against 'new age' irrationality, it is the image of pots and kettles that comes irresistibly to mind.

Yes, because demanding that people have evidence for their claims, and that only science is taught in the classrooms, is the same as witchhunts.

Intelligent Design have had their chance to provide the evidence for the science behind the claims they made, but as one of their leading scientists said, it is only science if you expand the defintion so broadly that it would include astrology.

Update: Anthony Cox also has a good take-down of Phillips.

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Anonymous SLC said...

Re Dawkins

"The most conspicuous example of this is provided by Dawkins himself, who breaks the rules of scientific evidence by seeking to claim that Darwin's theory of evolution - which sought to explain how complex organisms evolved through random natural selection - also accounts for the origin of life itself."

I think that Ms. Phillips should be challenged to provide evidence for this statement. To my knowledge, Prof. Dawkins claims no such thing, nor does any other biologist in the world. This only demonstrates the total ignorance of the subject matter on the part of Ms. Phillips.

August 06, 2007 9:29 PM  
Blogger Kaethe said...

Ms. Phillips is a piece of work. Amazing that she can sneer at everything except "Judeo-Christian" tradition, and not see the contradiction.

It seems to me that all believing Christians I know fall into two loose groups: the fundamentalist believers in a literally true Bible, who also seem to believe that NASA has verified many of the least likely miracles; and the rationalists, who believe that their God formed the heavens and the earth, but in a metaphorical seven days, setting out evolution to finish the job, in which case, why bother to believe in a god anyway?

I just don't get it, either way, it all looks like crazy to me.

Nice fisking, Kristjan.

August 07, 2007 3:55 PM  
Blogger Rich said...

For some reason there are only 4 comments to the Philips article several days after publication. Are the people who gatekeep comments swampted? I'm guessing.

August 07, 2007 6:32 PM  
Blogger Kristjan Wager said...

slc, that paragraph had me wondering what she was smoking as well, but since she doesn't source the claim, I ignored it for some of the many other errors.

August 07, 2007 11:45 PM  
Anonymous Rob the Lurker FCD BMWCCA said...

I'm sure it will please my American readers...

It doesn't please this Yank. I was hoping there would be signs of intelligence somewhere out there (beyond the US border).

August 08, 2007 4:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"This has meant our society can no longer distinguish between truth and lies by using evidence and logic. And this collapse of objective truth has, in turn, come to undermine science itself which is playing a role for which it is not fitted."

At which point my brain said "Enough!", and then imploded.

August 08, 2007 9:17 AM  
Anonymous SLC said...

Re Kristjan Wager

I can't speak for outside USA issues but here in the US, the problem is that most people don't know the difference between evolution and origins and consequently conflate the two. Obviously, this is a problem not confined to the US.

August 10, 2007 4:12 PM  
Anonymous Jef said...

I was so disturbed after reading Ms Phillips article I commented and it was never posted. After reading the posted ones, obviously the editors are looking for a balance of opinionated comments, where for the most part factual is out and pompous and stuffy rules.

August 12, 2007 6:26 PM  

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