The maths text book I had when I was 14 had a cartoon and quotation at the beginning of every chapter. The one on the chapter about stats said
Politicians use statistics as a drunk uses a lamp-post, for support rather than illumination.
This is not just the fate of stats of course; many people misuse logic in the same way. The confusing thing is that they don’t realise what they are doing is an abuse of logic. Debates between thinkers and feelers or between sceptics and believers become tedious spirals of cross-purposes and often break down into insult and ad hominem attacks. The only effective way to cut through this is to introduce cognitive dissonance and use the gap created to introduce some logic, which is what happens in the video below:
Logic is highly structured, it follows rules. It is not metaphorical or allegorical and people whose minds work best with metaphor and allegory do not (can not?) follow a logical argument step by step to the inevitable conclusion. Instead they arrive at their conclusion intuitively and then seek out arguments that sound as if they justify and support it. The arguments sound like logic, they use the same language and the same semantic structures as logic, but they are being used in fundamentally different ways.1
When these two approaches meet, you get an impasse.
Don’t wrestle with a pig, you get muddy and the pig enjoys it.
These arguments are un-winnable. If someone validates their beliefs intuitively then they are not going to accept the validity of a logical argument. And vice versa.
What makes this situation even worse is the Dunning-Kruger effect. Put very crudely, this is unconscious incompetence in action. At the lower levels of incompetence, people do not even have the ability to recognise competence in others. Think of David Brent (anti-hero of ‘The Office’, played by Ricky Gervais). He is so inept it is painful, but he doesn’t recognise his own ineptness and he doesn’t recognise the abilities of others who far outshine him. Me too: for example I cannot play chess though I know the moves, and I wouldn’t recognise skillfull chess playing if I saw it, though at least I don’t think that I’m any sort of chess player.
Theramin Trees gives a neat summary of the Dunning-Kruger effect below, and I urge you to watch it:
The thing that I find really odd though, is not the persistent failure of the illogical to acknowledge a good argument when it’s presented.
No, what I find really odd is the persistent attempts to flog the dead horse by those who do understand logic. If someone is not convinced the first time that you say “there’s no evidence base for homoeopathy” then they won’t be convinced the 30th time or the 300th time. Simply doing the same thing again and again won’t work.
As I have said, what does work is introducing cognitive dissonance, which brings us back, as so often, to the power of finding the right question and asking it.
1: I was going to link to the episode of Beyond Belief broadcast on 28th December about Angels, but for some reason it is not available. It was even more barking than the rest of the series, which I rather like in an outside-the-comfort-zone sort of way. The reason I like it is because I listen to so many Sceptical podcasts which lazily make a virtue of scorning believers, and this makes a refreshing change without proselytising on behalf of anyone’s specific imaginary friend.
Richard Bandler, one of the co-founders of NLP, points out rather smugly that the word “generalisation” is just five syllables wrapped around the word “lies”. We all know that generalisations are false, but still we make them. What bugs me immensely about atheists who are anti-religion, rather than those who are just indifferent, is their tendency to see all christians as prejudiced zealots. Takes one to know one, of course. No projection there.
The thing is, there are as many kinds of Christians as there are kinds of people. Yes, some are bigoted, narrow-minded and spiteful, but not all. Not all, at all. There is a specific kind of Christian that I find compelling and attractive; the ones who are intelligent and questioning, funny, socially sensitive, tolerant of others and who quietly get on with making surprisingly substantial changes in the world. I’ve known rather a lot of them and I’d quite like to be one myself. In my dreams. They put me into a cognitive spin because I find the whole premise of Christianity so illogical that I simply don’t understand how anyone with two brain cells and a synapse can find it makes sense. How can anyone so bright be so dumb, I ask myself. They probably feel the same way about me.
When rabid anti-religionists start attacking Christians, I don’t recognise the form of Christianity they attack. I’ve known a few creationists, fundamentalists and people who have a personal relationship with their saviour and lord, and the internet constantly reminds me that they aren’t actually that unusual. I guess in the UK we are blessed with agnosticism and are spared the lunatic excesses of religious tv, evangelism and fundamentalism. I once visited the Bible Society head office in Swindon, though; it was like walking through a toothpaste advertisement made in Stepford.
They say you should never wrestle with a pig: you get muddy and the pig likes it. Put like that, it sounds kinda fun. And that’s the problem. The best responses to bigoted fundamentalists are ridicule and education, and the best responses to powerful bigoted fundamentalists (like the lunatics who’ve been running the asylum in the USA for the last years) are still ridicule and education. But in the US the Scepticism and Sceptical Humanism movements are getting sucked in to point-scoring and pig-wrestling, when it should in fact be poking fun at the pig. And then ambling off and doing something more interesting instead.
I’ve always thought a Hereafter was at least possible, and for a lot of my adult life I’ve considered it to be probable. There’s internal coherence to the Hindu and Buddhist world views, but they fall down when you test some of their underlying assumptions using nasty practical empirical science. (The one world-view that has never made any sense to me whatsoever is paradise, judgement day, heaven and hell). So during my adult life, my position on life after death veered from the conclusion that reincarnation made absolute sense to dragging it along like a comfort blankie while I got on with my real life. I think I even put Buddhist down on the 2001 census. I certainly wasn’t going to put Jedi.
I like Buddhism. I like its practicality. The techniques it teaches, such as meditation, produce real quantifiable changes in the people who practice them. I like the idea of the soul taking several lifetimes to explore different things. I like the idea of karma, that every action has a consequence and that you cannot escape the consequences of your acts. (This is very different from the judgement / punishment view of Christianity, where there is an external deity keeping score. Karma as consequences is more mechanistic and simpler, like a law of nature rather than the whim of a petulant despot). I look around me and I can see karma working on a small scale, and I was comforted by the idea that it worked across lifetimes too. I like the idea that I chose my own parents, that I might get a second chance with lost loves, that I might yet be a mother, that I can catch up next time with what I don’t do this time. I’ll miss Buddhism, but oddly enough I am more interested in it now, not less.
Buddhism, or a Buddhisty theory of reincarnation, provided answers to the questions that I asked, and the aforementioned comfort blankie of course.
Edwards argues simply and fairly clearly that:
there is no credible evidence for reincarnation and even the best cases evaporate into delusion, wishful thinking or fraud under close examination
the mind requires the brain to exist, and consciousness does not survive the death of the brain
Edwards also deals with things like Near Death Experiences, (feelings of warmth, love and total understanding, culturally specific spiritual figure at the end of a tunnel of light, etc); Astral Travel (which he debunks as bunk); remembered past lives, (which never produce information not available in this one), and so on.
Ultimately, of course, it comes down to a matter of belief, but religion is essentially a ritualised version of “here be dragons” and as science maps out more and more of the unknown, the remaining dragons are left balancing on smaller and smaller islands. Edwards argues that the dragon of reincarnation no longer has a foot to stand on. Being an Oriental Dragon, it has no wings and cannot fly. Or that’s my metaphor, and I’m sticking to it.
I am trying to absorb various truths. When I die, I’ll go out like a candle. There are no second chances, if I don’t do it this time then I won’t get to do it at all. The people who I know who’ve died have stopped. And the big one: life really is a bitch and then you really do die.
As well as the truths, I now have all sorts of other questions swirling in my mind. How can morality have merit if it is merely a human artefact? What practical meaning remains to the word “spirituality”? What merit is left in Buddhism if you take out reincarnation? Does this mean the Dalai Lama isn’t cool any more?
Oddly there is one question I am pretty clear on which is why are there no pre-20th century cultures which are entirely irreligious?
It seems clear to me:
that religions provided creation myths and an explanation for why stuff happened and
that religious belief provides just enough of an advantage to individuals and societies in times of crisis for there to have been a very slight selective advantage in a strong religious faith.
Dawkins is such an evangelist for atheism that I rather like the idea of religion providing an evolutionary benefit. It seems highly likely to me that dogs have gods.
At the moment I veer between two contradictory feelings. Sometimes I am shocked by how dramatically the stakes have been raised: as the the saying goes, “there ain’t no justice, just us”. We cannot rely on any external checks and balances to iron out the world’s problems. If we don’t sort it out here and now, then it won’t be sorted out, and that’s not all right. And then I veer towards nihilism: in the long run we are all dead and nothing is remembered. How can justice matter if the victims can neither know nor care?
It is this spinning around which is making me giddy.
Edwards’ book, incidentally, is irritating in a number of ways. It is printed on very odd paper and the whole thing turns into two parallel tubes when you are reading it. It is appallingly badly proof-read, which is unforgivable in a second edition. He promises to discuss various subjects such as childhood prodigies and extremes of talent, but doesn’t, and he fails to discuss Out of Body experiences at all, refering the reader in toto to Susan Blackmore. It is however also fun, witty and sarcastic. I just wish it had been better edited. Or edited at all, really.
I was raised by people of great personal and moral integrity with reasonable intelligence who had no exposure to science or scientific thinking at all. This didn’t stop them having Opinions on things so it is no surprise that they were Flakes one and all. Bless ’em.
Flaky thinking is cozy, it provides comfort blankies such as “everything happens for a reason”or “someone was looking after me that night”. It also provides explanations which appear to be simple and easy to understand: ” stimulating the body’s natural healing processes” or “bright lines of golden energy”.
I’m not going to rip into acupuncture, auric photography, biomagnetic bracelets, biorhythm charts, cranial-sacral therapy, earth energy lines, feng shui, food sensitivity analysis, homoeopathy, osteopathy, reiki or any of the other forms of flakiness which I’ve spent money on in my time. To be honest, I cannot be bothered. Either you consider me to be foolishly narrow-minded because I dismiss them or foolishly forebearing because I don’t critique them and we both have better things to do with our time than argue the point.
Let’s just say that I spent my money on all of the above, probably thousands of pounds now that I look at the list, but I don’t feel ripped off; every one of them brought me a good 40 minutes of someone’s undivided attention and a nice warm placebo effect. I was lucky; it was a life-style choice not a fearful attempt to ward off cancer. But I wouldn’t spend my money on any of them again.
So what undermined my warm fuzzy view that the word “energy” means something when used metaphorically, that there are forces which cannot be measured by science, and that there is more to life than meets the eye?
Lots of things. Feel free to skip the list and cut to the conclusions at the end of the piece.
I check out the Asthma UK site and realise the approaches described are infinitely more cautious, detailed, rigorous and robust than the approaches of the herbalists I’d instinctively turn to.
My father, with cancer, is dramatically better after a stay in hospital which grants him at least another year of good quality of life.
A crystal healer describes the “lovely warm lines of yellow energy” flowing through her treatment rooms. When I ask her if she can see them she says “no, but Gordon has dowsed them and told me where they are”. The inane warmth in her voice sets my alarm bells ringing.
I have to describe my symptoms to the German pharmacist rather than selecting the herbal tinctures and ointments I’d choose in the UK; I find myself thinking “These German pharmaceuticals are very effective” and then realising that they might work well simply because they are pharmaceuticals and being German has nothing to do with it.
I work for a large petro-chemical company and find that the individuals there are responsible and serious people, and not in fact the spawn of satan who just don’t “get” it.
I acknowledge that the scientists working on GMOs are (a) intelligent and (b) not malicious. I think that they are wrong about genetically modified organisms being good for the planet, but acknowledge that if they are wrong then it’s not because they are stupid.
A friend sends me a link to DHMO.org and I realise just how easy it is to writes spurious science-speak which is manipulative and emotional.
A friend of mine compulsively adds and subtracts numbers to find co-incidences and meanings without noticing that if you manipulate any date enough you can reach the number 7, or 26.
I read something which explains that the phenomena described in all documented near-death experiences (tunnel vision, a distant light, etc) are also consistent with specific forms of neurological shut-down.
I develop an increasing respect for the methodologies in my own field, and by extension for standards’ based methodological approaches in others. In other words, I come to prefer rigorous testing to instinct.
I have a relationship with a statistician.
I come across evidence that a feeling that there a ghostly presence in the room can be reliably triggered by certain localised electro-magnetic phenomenon.
I start a post-grad degree and within a few months become imensely more picky about authorities and references.
Ok. It’s not a particularly impressive list: a lot of it is based on a distaste for poor critical thinking in others which of course doesn’t demonstrate any improvement in my own, the books are pop-science even if the scientists are credible, the rest of it is un-referenced and at this distance in time I have no way of checking where I got the information about near death experiences and ghostly presences from.
But I think that the real epiphany is that I am only entitled to an opinion on subjects where I have some expertise. Guess what – experts really do know better. It’s a matter of knowing my limitations. I cannot bake cakes, design power stations or diagnose illnesses. I have no choice but to delegate those tasks. Generic intelligence is not the same as experience, training or qualifications and this is hard for people, particularly those educated in the social sciences or humanities, to accept.
Not all experts are equal, of course. Gillian McKeith’s “doctorate” is a tad light-weight to say the least, though the woman is undoubtedly sincere. We cannot accept the word of experts unquestioningly. We must continue to challenge and ask the pertinent questions – how did you arrive at that conclusion – how large was your sample-size – how well conducted has your research been – where do you get your funding, and so on. But challenging does work: 20 years of hindsight bias, selective memory, anecdotal evidence and the placebo effect do not equal one double blind controlled trial. Sorry.
Some people argue that science is just as much a matter of belief as religion is. It isn’t of course. I’ve argued that you have to trust the scientists but as Reagan put it you “trust but verify”. You can by definition repeat and test a scientific experiment or demonstration. You cannot test bach flower remedies, post-modernism or god. In fact there’s even a commandment against it.
This of course means that the opinions of true experts whose conclusions are based on testable and repeatable methods vastly outweigh yours and mine. We are entitled to doubts, concerns, worries, uncertainties and even rage, anger and disgust. Those are emotions and emotions are not opinions. We must also remain entitled to challenge – that is what accountability is.
To some extent I do miss the warm fuzziness of flaky thinking, but on the other hand if you acknowledge that real life is unfair, that shit happens, it becomes much easier to deal with. Nastier, but more straight-forward. There are a few flaky things I still adhere to: meditation, NLP and yoga specifically, though I’m not going to defend them here. The only school of “alternative” thought which I have not yet found to be intellectually undermined is the Buddhist approach to re-incarnation. To be honest, I doubt it’s got any validity to it, but does have the merits of being (a) internally consistent and (b) not yet countered by harsh scientific enquiry. However you look at it, the idea that bad things happen to good people for no reason is a nasty one.
I had been going to illustrate this with one of the Cadbury’s Flake ads but I couldn’t find the girl painting a picture in a poppy field in the rain, so I decided to show you this instead which did at least make me laugh.