A lie goes round the world before the truth has put his boots on

(A Terry Pratchett quote, from the Truth, possibly an old saying, possibly invented on the spot.)

A BBC article said that Birmingham City Council has banned atheist websites.

I read this news in my workplace (which seems to randomly ban or allow even this site. There is absolutely no discernable difference in cussword quotient or possible offensiveness between this site on the days when it throws up threatening warning messages that I’ve tried to access a forbidden site and should instantly alert my line manager from the days when it works normally.)

I was shocked. Bloggably shocked, even.

I didn’t – for more than a minute or so – think that Birmingham Council actually wanted to ban atheist sites. The BBC article made it pretty clear it’s some useless off-the-shelf netnanny software that they are using. (In comments on Pharyngula, Cronan, Quidam and Armchair Dissident made excellent points, about the software and way it is set up and used, suggesting that this isn’t a deliberate city council policy, so much as the unthinking use of disturbingly set-up software.)

Well, duh. It’s a local government office. Almost by definition, its software buying decisions are made by people who can’t even use a spreadsheet package. Who are suckers for any sweet-talking sales people on their Preferred Suppliers lists. Who would think it was wildly outside their purchasing remit to pay attention to the details of what the software actually does. And who would rather insert a parking permit into their own left nostril than consult the people who might actually use a program.

But, still, it’s outrageous and the National Secular Society is absolutely right to object to this.

However, tracing the evolution of the reporting of this story in the atheosphere made me aware how easily a news item becomes a myth.

Pharyngula – blogged the story. He had a link to the BBC story but there was no evidence in his text that indicated that this was Birmingham, England.

Some of the 80-odd commenters who responded to this brief reference to a BBC article clearly took it that Pharyngula was talking about Birmingham, Alabama. An easy mistake to make. (I make it in reverse whenever the BBC refers to Birmingham, Alabama.) If I had read the Pharyngula piece without reading the BBC source, I would have automatically assumed this took place in Alabama.

Quintessential Rambling obviously assumed it was Birmingham Alabama and delivered a classic rant then showed an amazingly good grace and regard for the truth by admitting his error. That is my kind of human being.

A fair number of people will now believe that Birmingham, Alabama, has banned atheist websites. That’s fair enough. It’s a mistake based on an error of fact. No blame.

It’s the way that the facts of this incident contribute to a general level of atheist myth-making that disturbs me more. Wouldn’t you expect atheists to be a bit better at processing information than the average moron? Maybe that’s wishful thinking. Well, OK, it is definitely wishful thinking, but I am going to persist with it, in the face of the evidence.

A Richard Harris comment on Pharyngula says:

I bet the feckin’ Submissionists (followers of the prophet Muhammad, piss be upon him) are behind this.

Well, no. That seems like yet another attempt to demonise muslims to me. Is there some knee-jerk hate response that is stirred up every time the word islam is mentioned in any context? Oh, yes, silly me, Of course there is.

Leki is more rational but still manages to throw in a social disorder theme, expressed in terms of religion. S/he strings together a lot of completely disparate incidents to support a characterisation of Birmingham people as almost engaged in some sort of inter-ethnic, inter-religious war.

Birmingham is always in the news for something or another. A few years ago there were riots at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre over a play that depicted a rape in a sikh temple; there have been issues with honour killings; gun crimes have doubled (highest concentration of guns in the UK is Birmingham).
Remember the raid of January 2007? Birmingham police rounded-up a bunch of folks who were planning to kidnap a British soldier (muslim group, muslim soldier). That was big, big news.
I’ve visited Birmingham several times and there is this huge chasm between ethnicities. People are screaming on all sides about what language to teach in schools, how many mosques are allowed per block, whether or not the ‘english’ way of life is disappearing.

Well, yes, Birmingham IS always in the news for something or other. It’s England’s second city. Even the London-centric British media must mention what happens to a few million people every now and again.

Huge chasm between ethnicities? I assume you have never visited a US city? People screaming on all sides about what language to teach in schools, etc? Admit it, this is just made up.

OK, there’s nothing wrong with hyperbole in a blog comment. My point is that a casual reader of Pharyngula – who’s read the comments far enough to realise that a US city hasn’t banned atheist blogs – will be left with a vague, but probably lasting, impression that Birmingham, England, is under siege by extremist mullahs who have banned atheism.

Now, I expect the gutter press to leave this subliminal hate-residue in the back of the minds of its readers. That seems to be what it’s for. Keeping the population in a generalised low-level state of xenophobia, to make it easy to manipulate. It’s hard to understand the rabble-rousing tricks when they crop up in the atheist blogosphere.

There are some real concerns in this Birmingham situation. For instance, it’s disturbing that the effects of decisions made by blocking-software providers – with their own illiberal agendas – can be unthinkingly transmitted to become public policy. These issues are a bit boring. They don’t produce the visceral kick that seems to come with identifying an alien scapegoat. But trying to find out the truth must be the truly “rational” response.

Reasonable doubt

New Scientist presents what it calls a debate about reason. Fond as I am of New Scientist, this debate is just silly.

It’s not a “debate” in any usual sense of the word. i.e. There isn’t a premise that is discussed by contributors. NS just seems to have assembled a set of articles that randomly touch on the topic of “reason” at any point. And define the word as meaning whatever suits their argument.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” (Wikipedia: quote from Alice through the Looking Glass)

How do you define reason? With great difficulty. And the articles in this special project issue don’t really start by overtly defining reason at all. This makes it very difficult to agree or disagree with the criticisms as you can’t really be sure at any given point what form of reason they are objecting to.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has a good stab at proving wrong all those of his critics who think he’ s too intellectual to be a church leader. (Toutatis forbid that we even try to imagine how unintellectual his critics must be, if they think that he’s too much of a deep thinker.) His article is entitled “Reason stands against morals and values” but he doesn’t actually put forward that viewpoint, it being too patently silly even for the NS special issue. He meanders through history, cherry-picking definitions as he goes, presents an unsourced redefinition of classical ideas of rationality then blames the nastier aspects of the French revolution on the role of reason, following an argument that boils down to “shaping a moral and humane world requires more than reason” (NS’s summary.)

Well, duh. Unarguable conclusion, but bearing only a passing relationship to the arguments that he presented. A bit like saying that water is not enough to sustain life. It’s not that it’s not true but it can’t be considered a valid attack on drinking water.

In similar, “No shit Sherlock” vein, a neuroscientist (Chris Firth) also points out that there are lots of mental processes that don’t involve the use of reason. “If we had to think logically about everything we did, we’d never do anything at all” Well, yes. And your point is?

His article is entitled “No one actually uses reason” which is, yet again, not borne out by the content and is blatantly falsified by the fact that he is employed as a bloody neuroscientist. If he himself isn’t using reason to earn his wages, then who else could possibly be using it?

What about

I hear “reason”, I see lies
Science is routinely co-opted by governments and corporations to subvert people’s ability to make their own decisions, say sociologist David Miller and linguist Noam Chomsky.

Chomsky’s couple of paragraphs seem to have been co-opted onto the page from a completely different context and say pretty well nothing nothing about alleged flaws in “reason” – indeed he seems to be challenging the triumph of unreason.

Miller is basically talking tosh here. To recognise that science can be distorted and misused is surely not the same as arguing that scientific rationality is inherently easier to misuse than any other area of thinking. If so, the products of reason would be uniquely more dangerous than the products of bigotry or fantasy.

This seems like a chap in dire need of a crash course in Social Theory 101. Power includes the power to define the parameters of our understanding. This has nothing to do with any inherent defect in reason or scientific thought. If Miller is indeed a sociologist, he should be aware that the use/misuse of science is a social and political issue and should be looking for social explanations, in relations of production, the operation of power structures and so on.

(More charitably, this article has the scent of an article written on another altogether different topic, drafted in and slightly reworded to fit into an non-existent debate.)

The next few pieces are just longer-winded ways of saying reason isn’t everything. Or, at least, of appearing to say that truism while actually saying nothing.

The pointlessness crown goes to Mary Midgely, though. She starts with a 1950 quote from Nehru, who said that science would be the key to India’s survival. “The future belongs to science.”

She ignores or skates over the obvious points that: this was a pretty universal idea in the 1950s; that it was a political speech, so can be assumed to have been mainly rhetorical; that it was spoken by the leader of a post-colonial country desperate to modernise; and the words were, in any case, uttered more than half a century ago. She notably ignores the fact that – as it turns out – Nehru was right. The intervening 58 years have indeed been dominated by science.

Instead, she follows this obscure speech (well, previously unknown to me, so I’m treating that as being obscure) with a load of nonsense about reason being the new religion. What? The woman is famous and respected philosopher. I.e, yet another one who gets paid to use reason. But is so poor at it that she can’t put together a remotely coherent argument.

Maybe that is too harsh. At least Midgely is consistent in her use of “reason” to refer to one thing only – scientific rationality – which puts her several steps ahead of some of the other contributors (hang your head in shame, Archbishop.) But, at that point, I have to stop giving her props. Because, the whole worship of reason thing is a complete invention.

Nobody worships reason. If you can find me a church of reason or a pope of rational thought or even a prayer for intercession by the spirit of rationality, then fair enough. Midgeley speaks disparagingly of “scientism.”

It is this exclusiveness that is the trademark of scientism: the belief in the unconditional supremacy of physical science – or of Science with a capital “S” – over all other forms of knowledge

OK then, let’s pretend there is some recognisable science-worship system. What do you call a believer in Scientism? The obvious answer is a Scientist. But, Midgely must have a dictionary, which will tell her that “scientist” means something quite different. There isn’t a word for a believer in scientism, is there? I think you could take that as prima facie evidence that there aren’t any such believers. I can’t say there are none. People will believe anything, after all. Some people believe they will be bodily ascended to heaven while non-believers get cast into hell, ffs. It’s not impossible that there are people who pray to rational thought. Just very, very unlikely.