Tag Archives: Confusion

Dawkins is the Devil – lying for jeebus…

Previously I mentioned about how Ruth Gledhill had monumentally missed the point with her TimesOnline blog post about the latest Humanist campaign to try and stop people labelling their children without given them a choice.

It seems Ruth is not the only person who has missed the point (for example Jacqui’s comment on my previous post) but, as is often the case, the commenters on her post really set a new standard. I have tried a few times to leave comments on the Times article, but they never seem to make it past moderation…which makes it even more bizarre that these comments have made it through.

The one which really made me laugh was from Iain Carstairs (posted 0725AM, 21 Nov 09). It begins:

Dawkins is a fanatic, true, but he is a more dangerous one than a religious zealot.

Wow. Call the Whitehouse and MOD. Get all the troops back from Afghanistan and prepare to invade Oxfordshire (or where ever Dawkins is living now). The War on Terror was obviously a mistake (“at last!” I hear you cry) and now we need to begin the War on Thinking. (OK, I agree, this has already been going on for centuries in some places).

Joking aside, this is nonsense. But it continues:

A suicide bomber can kill a small crowd, and hardline Christians have been known to shoot abortionists. The Israelis are steadily dehumanising the Palestinians, and are on their way to exterminating them: with the blessing of the US and the UK of course.

No, seriously? With this in mind (if we think of the WTC and Madrid as being a “small crowd”) then the whole furore about terrorism is nonsense. Sadly, I agree, but for different reasons.

But Dawkins is attempting to remove the spiritual dimension from life. It is as if he is attempting to prise the eyeballs out of a billion sockets, simply because there is no scientific proof of God.

ZOMG!! Oh Noes!11!!!1!1! Dawkins is making people THINK. Evil, pure evil. Torture in fact. Wont anybody think of the children. (and so on)

This is so crazy it almost defies belief (puns intended). This is a common misconception from people who are blinded by their belief – they ignore the true majesty of the universe and the beauty that life demonstrates. Look at the deep field pictures from Hubble for examples. They take this grand beauty of nature and spoil it by creating an invisible puppeteer who controls every action for some unknown, yet unarguably cruel, purpose. This is not allowing people to see the beauty of nature, but a cruel way of blinding them and controlling their actions. It is evil.

After some more of this drivel, Iain finishes with:

Without spirituality, we become Dawkins’ descendants: hoodies, yobs, sociopaths.. the greedy and addicted children of materialism, who make this world a living Hell.

Wow. Lets look at this again. The hoodies, yobs and sociopaths that Iain refers to are not “Dawkin’s descendants” they are growing up in the time of Dawkins. At best their children could be described as Dawkin’s descendants as its only in the last couple of years that Dawkins has been in the public domain.

The children who “terrorise” the communities inhabited by Mail readers (and presumably Times readers) are from families where, on the whole, belief still remains prominent. The vast majority of greedy and addicted materialists are religious.

Lying for Jesus is still lying.

Bad Science and Elections

Now, I am sure every one knows that New Scientist is “pop science” – scientific news processed for laymen. In general this is great as is gives people an insight into the wonders of science without the tedium of years studying. Peer review is great, but only in its place. New Scientist is not the place.

Sometimes, this causes problems.

In this weeks issue, there is an article titled “Read my lips… and my voice, and my face” (online version titled “Software spots the spin in political speeches“) which is (at best) bad science being used for electioneering purposes. On the surface this is nothing more than the old idea that you can tell when people are lying by their gestures and use of language. This is a subject close to my heart and generally falls foul of the greatest of problems – it is sort of true. Body language, eye access, word selection and the like can give you an indicator of lies (for example) but only in the broader context of the persons behaviour.

Take the often cited example of people rubbing their nose when they lie. Yes, some people do this. But most of the time it means the person has an itchy nose and nothing else. The same with eye-access (as highlighted in The Negotiator), but the problem is people are different – not everyone looks the exact same way. Language choice is possibly the worst indicator as this is dictated by your background, education and the like. Simply put, there is no easy way you can use this information as a reliable indicator of deception or misdirection. You need to study the person in a variety of controlled circumstances and build up a pattern of their behaviour.

With this in mind, we can return to the New Scientist article. It seems someone has come up with an automated way of monitoring the terminology used, the voice and the facial expressions of politicians to measure how much “spin” there is in their speeches. Amazingly this has not resulted in 100% returns each time. This is how it is described:

The algorithm counts usage of first person nouns – “I” tends to indicate less spin than “we”, for example. It also searches out phrases that offer qualifications or clarifications of more general statements, since speeches that contain few such amendments tend to be high on spin. Finally, increased rates of action verbs such as “go” and “going”, and negatively charged words, such as “hate” and “enemy”, also indicate greater levels of spin. Skillicorn had his software tackle a database of 150 speeches from politicians involved in the 2008 US election race (see diagram).

Now, this strikes me as inherently flawed given that politicians have their speeches written for them by teams of “experts” (who are more than capable of concluding which words mean which things), and are nearly always well coached in delivering them in a manner to “stir” the audience. It strikes me that adding an arbitrary judgement as to what is, or is not, spin gives nothing that even resembles science. In an attempt to dismiss this, Skillicorn (the systems creator) says:

Additionally, [Skillicorn] says, little details count: pronouns such as “we” and “I” are often substituted subconsciously, no matter what is written in the script.

But you have no idea which ones are added by the script writers, which ones are subconcious and you certainly still haven’t proven that using “we” means there is a lot of “spin” in the speech. We still don’t really know what “spin” is – is it a good or bad thing?

The “Headline” results of this study are that Obama’s campaign has more spin than any of the other politicians (+6.7, where 0 is average for a politician) while McCain’s campaign had the lowest (-7.58). It states this supports McCain’s claim to being a “straight talker” (*cough*) and on the surface looks like it is a Republican Political Campaign masquerading as Science. In the articles defence, there is some balance:

So the analysis appears to back up McCain’s claim that he is a “straight talker”. However, for the purposes of political speech-making this may not be an entirely good thing for him. “Obama uses spin in his speeches very well,” says Skillicorn. For example, Obama’s spin level skyrockets when facing problems in the press, such as when Jeremiah Wright, the reverend of his former church, made controversial comments to the press.

Great from a science point of view. We would like to think that the readers of New Scientist are able to accept the idea that spin is a positive force for a politican.

However (and this is supported by a quick scan of the printed media that have picked up on this), the general population are not. We have been indoctrinated by decades of thinking politicians spin is an inherently bad thing. This article has generated several headlines in the free media about Obama being full of spin and McCain being straight talking. Both can translate into political capital. Shame on the New Scientist.

One funny bit which never quite made it into the free-papers is this nugget:

“The voice analysis profile for McCain looks very much like someone who is clinically depressed,” says Pollermann, a psychologist who uses voice analysis software in her work with patients. Previous research on mirror neurons has shown that listening to depressed voices can make others feel depressed themselves, she says.

Well, that pretty much summed up the effect his speeches have on me.

It is during the US Presidential elections that I thank Loki I live in the UK….

Missing the Point?

I was browsing through the Times blogs yesterday and I came across one by John Humphrys (which was actually an extract from “In God We Doubt” about to be published by Hodder & Stoughton) carrying the title “In God we doubt” with the following tagline:

He went looking for God and ended up an angry agnostic – unable to believe but enraged by the arrogance of militant atheists. It’s hard to see the purpose of the world, he says, but don’t blame its evils on religion

As you can see, there was no way I wasn’t going to read this!

Overall, this is a reasonably well written piece. While it isn’t good enough to make me interested in buying the book it may well appeal to some people with wavering faith and the writing style is certainly inoffensive on the whole. John Humphrys is basically explaining how he went from being brought up a good Christian to his faith wavering and finally he “deconverted” to agnosticism. I wont go into the nonsensical idea that “agnosticism” is anything other than a complete wet lettuce of a philosophical idea, which has at its root the basic assumption that God does exist but is insufficiently proven for worship, that is for another day.

There is one, possibly major, problem with the whole piece and (I suspect) the line of reasoning from which it flows. After a lengthy and introspective introduction, Mr Humphrys identifies what he sees as “the attitude of those militant atheists who seem to hold believers in contempt.” (It is interesting that he makes a list of seven points, but again this diversion can wait). His reflection on “militant atheists” produces the following list of characteristics, faults and problems: (These are opinions which “militant atheists” are supposed to hold to)

1. Believers are mostly naive or stupid. Or, at least, they’re not as clever as atheists.

2. The few clever ones are pathetic because they need a crutch to get them through life.

3. They are also pathetic because they can’t accept the finality of death.

4. They have been brainwashed into believing. There is no such thing as a “Christian child”, for instance – just a child whose parents have had her baptised.

5. They have been bullied into believing.

6. If we don’t wipe out religious belief by next Thursday week, civilisation as we know it is doomed.

7. Trust me: I’m an atheist. I make no apology if I have oversimplified their views with that little list: it’s what they do to believers all the time.

After sharing his earth shattering wisdom the reader is further encouraged to discover each point in detail. It is here that I largely gave up on any hope for him. The explanations and rebuttals follow, now with my rebuttal of his rebuttal…

1. This is so clearly untrue it’s barely worth bothering with. Richard Dawkins, in his bestselling The God Delusion, was reduced to producing a “study” by Mensa that purported to show an inverse relationship between intelligence and belief. He also claimed that only a very few members of the Royal Society believe in a personal god. So what? Some believers are undoubtedly stupid (witness the creationists) but I’ve met one or two atheists I wouldn’t trust to change a lightbulb.

In his first sentence he gets it spot on, but possibly not in the way he thinks and despite his scorn for this it is his first point and he goes to great lengths to try and dismiss it. The reality of the matter is no “militant atheist” I know really thinks all theists are dumb and I would be interested in seeing the published information to support this idea. There are very intelligent and well educated theists – this goes without saying – and equally there are retarded atheists. Here, Humphrys has created a strawman and then attacked it. He tried to demolish it with an appeal to ridicule but, come the crunch, he failed. Nothing in what he writes actually says anything relevant to the point he tries to address so I suspect this is actually proof some atheists are dumb.

The strawman used by Humphrys reads that atheists think theists are “mostly” dumb or not as clever as atheists. Nothing that he writes contradicts this idea, except the appeal to ridicule at the beginning – and if it really is so clearly untrue, why address it first and foremost? If he strongly thinks it is false, then why is he using phrases like “reduced to using a ‘study’” (with sneer quotes)? Strawmen are wonderful things, but they need to be used properly…

2. Don’t we all? Some use booze rather than the Bible. It doesn’t prove anything about either.

Here he continues the strawman and again says nothing. I am not sure what point he is trying to make here. Does he mean to imply that religious belief is “good” because some people need alcohol to get through the day? Is he saying that the Bible (or what ever religious belief) is nothing but a crutch for people with problems and then claiming it doesn’t prove the original (yet strawman) argument he presented? If so, he is sadly mistaken.

After what he must feel was a rapier-like strike with the first point, Mr Humphrys descends into meaningless, pointless sentences like point 2. I am sure, somewhere, it means something but reading it on the Times Blog is baffling. He has no means of dismissing the claimed idea, for example with point 2 he does not even attempt to explain why intelligent theists are not simply clinging to their belief like an alcoholic clings to their bottle, he just says (an intellectually lazy) “so what.” For example:

3. Maybe, but it doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Count the number of atheists in the foxholes or the cancer wards.

Again, he has no point other than a strawman. He has no way of dismissing or even disagreeing with it and finally he trots out the old stalwart of the theist case – Atheists in Foxholes. Now, anyone who has read “God Is Not Great” will know that Christopher Hitchens is indeed someone who has been an atheist under fire, as have I and many, many other people I know. In all honesty, I know more people who have been an atheist in a foxhole than a theist.

But even if we assume the claim is correct, it leaves open the argument that the gods the theists are worshipping are somewhat neglectful. Surely they should be caring for their believers more than unbelievers, so why is it so many of the faithful are made to suffer…?

4. True, and many children reject it when they get older. But many others stay with it.

This leaves me with a massive “eh?” So what? He agrees with the militant atheist claim, so what is his point?

5. This is also true in many cases but you can’t actually bully someone into believing – just into pretending to believe.

Mr Humphrys is misrepresenting the “militant atheists” claim here so that he can simply add a rebuttal in the form of a twist. Obviously he is thinks it is ok for religions to bully people into observing their practices because, deep down, the person doesn’t believe in them. Madness.

6. Of course the mad mullahs are dangerous and extreme Islamism is a threat to be taken seriously. But we’ve survived monotheist religion for 4,000 years or so, and I can think of one or two other things that are a greater threat to civilisation.

It seems his liberalised anglican upbringing is showing here. Fundamentalist Islam is, indeed, dangerous in the short term violence aspect but the reality is no amount of terrorist attacks can destroy civilised democracy. Yes, people may die but then people die every day. The destruction of civil liberties that is following the fear of Islam provides a more long-term worry. The destruction of education being forced upon the west by Fundamentalist Christianity is more likely to do long-term harm to our societies ability to exist than people with semtex strapped to their chests. (Even “liberal” Holland is suffering – for example). The “harm” caused by religion is not always exemplified by planes flying into towers – think of the oppression of homosexuals, the subjugation of women, caste systems, refusal of medical treatment for minors etc.

Also, I am not sure his history is up to speed either. While Judaism may have been around for 4000 years, it is certainly a lot shorter period of time in which monotheistic death cults have been dominant on a global scale – let alone people who get their orders from the voice in their head god having access to nuclear weapons.

7. Why? For those of us who are neither believers nor atheists it can be very difficult. Doubters are left in the deeply unsatisfactory position of finding the existence of God unprovable and implausible, and the comfort of faith unachievable. But at the same time we find the reality of belief undeniable.

Again, we have the illusion of a middle ground which is more reasoned, more acceptable, than the non-belief of Atheism. This middle ground has been largely created by theists who seek to undermine the idea that atheism can exist. It is not logical to have no opinion on the subject unless you have given it no thought. I am confused by the concept of finding the existence of god implausible but the reality of belief undeniable. Working through what passes for logic is giving me a head ache but I will try:

Mr Humphrys is asserting he is an agnostic because he finds the existence of god implausible but the reality that people “believe” in god is undeniable so he can’t think of himself as an atheist.

Did I get it right?

It has that wonderful ring of being “true” but it isn’t. Just because lots of other people “believe” something with all their hearts does not mean it is true. For centuries people believed that the Earth was the centre of the solar system, that the solar system was the universe, that stars were ancient warriors, that the gods sat on top of Mount Olympus and interfered with mankind and so on. Not one of these things were true and all the belief in the world will not overturn that.

It strikes me that, although Mr Humphrys describes himself as an “agnostic” and ridicules the idea that children are indoctrinated into religious beliefs, he is suffering from this indoctrination. He (I assume) will certainly agree that lightning is not the result of Zeus’ anger, that Neptune does not control the oceans and Loki is not spreading global mischief. He (again, I assume) will agree that there is a continent across the ocean from Europe, that the Chinese are not devils, that elves do not live in woods, dwarves do not mine gold in the Norse mountains, faeries do not steal Irish children and the tooth fairy is not responsible for the coin under the pillow.

All of these things have at some point been believed to be true by people over the world. All of them. They all have as much evidence for existing as the Christian God. If the existence of belief is proof of existence, then they exist. The existence of the things I mentioned is implausible and unlikely, but this seems not to matter to Mr Humphrys.

I find myself wondering if he really does doubt the existence of god.

On a final note, and getting back to the subject of this diatribe, Mr Humphrys closes with:

As for the fanatics – religious or secular – history suggests they succeed only to the extent that we allow ourselves to be defeated by our own irrational fear. For every fanatic there are countless ordinary, decent people who believe in their own version of a benevolent God and wish no harm to anyone. Many of them regard it as their duty to try to make the world a better place. It is too easy to blame the evils of the world on belief in God. In the end, if we make a mess of things, we shall have ourselves to blame – not religion and not God. After all, he doesn’t exist. Does he?

While I actually agree with the first part of this (and this is why I feel the “fear of Islam” is more worrying than the effects of actual terrorism), he finishes it up by missing the point completely. I know of no atheists who blame god for the world’s troubles. The blame has, at times, been placed on religion which, despite the assertion he closes with, is something he seems to be agreeing with. The people are making a mess of things. They are making a mess of it under the idea that they are working to a higher power and worldly suffering will be followed by a reward in the afterlife. This is the result of religion not secularism.

(I will leave looking at Giles Fraser to others for now but if you have spare time read the comments, they are priceless – even Fr Brian Storey pops up!)

[tags]John Humphrys, Humphrys, Religion, Belief, Christianity, Faith, Delusion, God, Bible, Logic, Fallacy, Strawman, Appeal To Ridicule, Philosophy, Society, Culture, Understanding, Times Online, Logical Fallacy, Confusion, Islam, Monotheism, History, Agnostic, Atheist, Militant Atheist, In God We Doubt, Book[/tags]