Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Brick Testament

In a previous post I mentioned a site that tells bible stories illustrated in lego form.  Here it is.  I think the story of Job here is still my favourite, especially the parts where god lets Satan torture Job:

Satan’s school report: must try harder

Heh.  I’m a little impatient when people try to stack up the number of deaths attributed to religion against those attributed to atheism, not least because nobody can agree on who’s to blame.  Faith-heads, for example, would prefer to chalk up Hitler’s score to atheism while atheists might point out that Hitler appeared to be a lifelong Catholic or at least often invoked god when urging people to horrendous action.  Besides, it’s a bit more complicated than that.  While nobody would suggest Stalin was motivated by religion, it seems quite a stretch to suggest he was motivated by lack of religion, either.  What would that even mean? 

So it’s all highly subjective and I don’t see much point to the exercise anyway. If religion were found to have caused fewer deaths, would this necessarily mark it as a superior morality?  And what if we were somehow able to argue that it did imply a superior morality?  It still wouldn’t make the claims of religion true. 

So I’m unimpressed by these accounting games.  However, over at WEIT, Jerry Coyne has posted about something a little more objective.  According to the bible, how many people did god killl?  He quotes this article, which gives actual numbers where they’re available in the bible and estimated ones where there’s no number.

The results?

Biblical number: 2,476,636

Biblical number plus estimates: 24,634,205

That’s 25 million.  By contrast, as Jerry points out, Satan’s score is…….

Ten. 

The children of Job.  And he only did this with god’s permission as part of a particularly cruel bet to test Job’s faith!

I’m sure these figures have nothing to say about the relative moralities or benefits of god vs the devil, particularly since neither exist.  But I fully expect theologians to tie themselves in knots over this silly question anyway. 

A few years ago I spent far too long reading through a site that had bible chapters illustrated in comic style and I wanted to post it here, but I can’t find it Sad smile

Update: I found it!  I had forgotten that the stories were illustrated in lego, not pictures.  Here’s the story of Job as mentioned above.

Another update: It turns out that I’ve been selling Satan short.  He killed all Job’s servants as well, of which he had “a great number”.  Presumably not tens of millions though.

Just when you think you’re out, they drag you back in again

The debate on accommodationism vs new atheism, like the manufactured debate on creationism vs evolution, won’t end until faith itself does. It flares up in prominent spots of the web at least once a week when the sparks of the last inferno have barely cooled.

If I sound like I’m complaining, let me outline my position.  I don’t mind joining in the debate, although I’m weary of it.  I regret that we’ve been unable to settle it.  These flare-ups generally happen because an accommodationist complains about either a particular atheist’s rude behaviour (more on this shortly) or about atheist bad behaviour in general. 

The latter is a matter of special concern because the accusers rarely – if ever – substantiate their claims.  There are usually a lot of vague references to atheists who’ve screamed in the faces of believers, but nobody ever seems to come up with dates and times, let alone credible witnesses.  I suspect that the majority of the incidents are being manufactured or at least wildly exaggerated, but don’t particularly doubt that at least some accommodationists sincerely believe this is how atheists really tend to behave.  It’s unfortunate and insulting that they they are so keen to cling to anecdotes that happen to match their prejudices.

The former case is more complicated.  The incidents are often verifiably real or at least have some truth about them.  I part company with accommodationists not on the issue of what the accused atheist says, but on the implications of what they say.

Hypothetically, for example, suppose a prominent new atheist criticises the Catholic church’s behaviour over its covering-up and therefore enabling of (at least) many decades of child abuse within its ranks.

A new atheist would say that churches in general or faith-heads in particular are not immune to criticism, especially when they’re bang to rights, as in this case.

An accommodationist might say that faith-heads will see it as an attack on religion itself and therefore be less likely to support causes such as science funding or the battle against teaching creationism in schools.

The former shows a commitment to truth and egalitarianism, with religion receiving no special treatment and every claim and action by any organisation or individual open to equal scrutiny.  It means that the religious can still make whatever incorrect claims about the universe that they like, but that they no longer get to be outraged if others disagree.  It means that religion should no longer be assumed to automatically have a role in the public sphere and that any role they do play should be as open to scrutiny and question as that of any other organisation.

The latter shows a commitment to a narrower and (seemingly) more immediately pragmatic, yet political goal.  An example  of such a goal is the laudable one of defending educational systems against creationists.  Accommodationists argue that we need the religious on our side if we’re going to pull this off, so we should play nicely with them.  We should grant special privilege to religion in numerous acts of positive discrimination, because to do otherwise is to piss off the faith-heads, which might harm the cause.

I think the accommodationists are wrong for several reasons.

First, there’s no evidence at all that they’re right and that being outspoken about atheism isn’t helping.

Second, not everyone has the same cause or the same goals.  Being told pursue my own goals because they might harm someone else’s in some undefined way, unsupported by evidence, is a bit rich and moreso when it’s applied across the board to a very large group of people who are – after all – mostly just trying to speak up about their atheism.

Third, I find it unlikely indeed that pandering is a worthwhile and effective long-term strategy.  The entire problem – the entire reason that accommodationists think we need to pander in the first place - is that faith-heads have become used to it.  They expect undue respect because they’ve got away with it for so long.  They – and no other group – can play the outrage card when they hear something they don’t like, precisely because, like spoiled children, it’s worked for them in the past.  Pandering for short-term gain seems very likely to store up problems for the future.  It’s like paying an extortionist running a protection racket: at the very best, you’re buying time at increasingly hefty cost.

Fourth, although I understand the demands of political expedience in the real world, when it comes to science, a commitment to truth has to stand out as by far the most important thing.  We can’t pretend that science and religion are compatible, because to do so would be to admit truth isn’t important.  Science is about finding out what’s true – or at least, what seems right now to be true – about the universe.  Religion is about preserving through faith and ignorance what you’ve already decided to be true.  Different standards of evidence and rigour are needed for each and so the two are not compatible.  Pretending they are drastically reduces science’s message and ultimately its power to explain.  It pretends that there are different types of truth and that powerful organisations with long histories (especially long histories of violence and/or outrage) get to dictate what is true to very large numbers of people while demanding that those truths not be criticised by anyone else.

The debate comes down to the fact that faith-heads consider criticism that would be fair – even necessary - in any other sphere as an attack.  If we continue to allow them this expectation that critics remain silent, we’ll never, ever hear the end of it.  Any potential gains in short-term political goals – especially since there’s no evidence accommodation achieves this anyway – isn’t worth the cost.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Pope’s Easter speech (erm, 2007, hey, topical)

Well I’m already late with this and I’m having difficulty (as time presses) digging out the English translation of the text of his 2011 speech, but I found with some disgust his speech from 2007.

Here it is, from Fox News of all places.

There’s lots I’d like to say about his certainty over the details of the resurrection and even the particular emotions of those reputably present, but there are bigger fish to fry.

We may all be tempted by the disbelief of Thomas. Suffering, evil, injustice, death, especially when it strikes the innocent such as children who are victims of war and terrorism, of sickness and hunger, does not all of this put our faith to the test?

It ought to. It’s not compatible with a loving and caring god and no amount of prevaricating about the bush will make it so.

Paradoxically the disbelief of Thomas is most valuable to us in these cases because it helps to purify all false concepts of God and leads us to discover his true face: the face of a God who, in Christ, has taken upon himself the wounds of injured humanity.

The wounds…..inflicted by god in the first place?  And the wounds he continues to inflict, regardless of Jesus’ supposed vicarious sacrifice?  We can see the true face of your god, alright, just as we can see your presto-chango non-sequitur.

Ratzi tortures a rather poor metaphor over everlasting flames and gnashing teeth.  Thomas, you see, doubted that Jesus had sprung back to life, possibly due to the fact that the idea is absurd.  But when he saw the risen Christ with his own eyes – and especially when he touched the nail holes – he was convinced.  All well and good.  Win for skepticism.  But Ratzi equates the wounds of Jesus with the wounds of all humanity, meaning that the suffering of the majority of people in the world should convince us of the benevolence of god.

This doctrine is as monstrous as it is ridiculous.  All Ratzi’s done is wrap the problem of theodicy in some spongy language he expects nobody to pick at.  Sorry, Ratzi, but this is the Internet.  You’re on our turf now.

He goes on to list some calamities, although I’m not sure why.  We’re already aware of them and Ratzi doesn’t bring any further insight or – heaven forbid – promise of actual aid, given his church’s vast wealth. 

Oh go on then, I tell a lie.  After a long paragraph detailing various horrible things, Ratzi does offer us a crumb of comfort:

Zimbabwe is in the grip of a grievous crisis and for this reason the Bishops of that country in a recent document indicated prayer and a shared commitment for the common good as the only way forward.

Prayer is the only way forward.  So some bishops wrote a document about it.  It seems to me that organisations like the Red Cross manage to find another way forward, writing fewer self-aggrandising documents and doing more, you know, actually helping people.

This is the sort of turgid mess that needs a masterful summing up.  Here's Ratzi’s:

In fact, by his rising the Lord has not taken away suffering and evil from the world but has vanquished them at their roots by the superabundance of his grace.

So….are people still suffering or not?  Hands up everyone who doesn’t live in a solid gold palace.  The rest of us fortunate to live in the affluent West might like to hold up the hands of children too weak to do it themselves or the stumps of people who’ve had them cut off. I freely admit I’m on a high-horse here and it’s not as though I do everything I could to help the less fortunate.  But at least I don’t fucking glorify in their suffering because it makes me feel better about myself, which is what the Vicar of Christ on Earth plainly advocates.

He has countered the arrogance of evil with the supremacy of his love. He has left us the love that does not fear death, as the way to peace and joy.

And yet there’s still suffering, not very much peace and – for many (again, those not living in golden pointy hats) – a lifelong lack of joy.  So what has god done to ‘counter’ the evils the pope is so studious to mention?  The problems are still going on, the evil is unabated, the people are still suffering. 

But that’s OK, because the suffering of people we’ll never meet tells us how good god really is because….of….Jesus’….wounds…..in a book….

You see that, right?

Monday, April 25, 2011

The pope has the biggest candle

Look, it’s fucking enormous.  Never mind those crappy birthday candles you faithful leave in churches for the dead people you cared about in the misguided hope that it will somehow pay for slightly less brutal treatment at the hands of an invisible monster after they’re dead, the pope’s candle is the BIGGEST CANDLE OF ALL TIME, proving that he is considerably more pious and closer to god than you are.  Frankly, you should all be ashamed of yourselves.

Naming the religious

It find it occasionally aggravating that there is no accepted single-word term for religious people.  We say ‘religious people’ or ‘the religious’ or (most mawkish of all) ‘people of faith’.   Whereas the rest of us are just ‘atheists’.  I expect this is because for most of human history – at least while we’ve have languages – religiosity of one kind or another was the default so we didn’t need a term for it. 

It’s gratifying that we now do, but history has left us without an appropriate word.  People have tried to address this situation.  Richard Dawkins, for example, has used the perfectly good ‘faith-heads’ (technically two words, of course, but it scans like a single one), which is both admirably expressive and concise.  Unsurprisingly, of course, many faith-heads have objected to the term as an insult, but I really can’t understand why.  Don’t they think faith is a good thing?  I wouldn’t object in the slightest if someone called me a reason-head because I think reason is a virtue.  What’s to complain about?  And what’s to complain about with ‘faith-head’?  And yet it’s not considered polite and no doubt many atheists would disapprove of the tone.

Well since everyone considers me impolite anyway I’m going to stick with faith-heads until something better comes along.  I usually won’t mean it as an insult.  Probably.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

I told myself I wasn’t going to cry

Christopher Hitchens couldn’t speak at the American Atheist convention due to illness, so he wrote them a letter.

The ball is in your court, religious people.  Tell us again how there are no atheists in foxholes and that atheists are all hitlers-in-waiting.  Tell us again how the most profound emotional responses come from wishful thinking and lies rather than the plain and obvious truth.  Tell us how stripping away the falsehoods robs us of humanity, when Christopher’s letter seems to embody the most noble characteristics a human could hope ever to possess.

Dear fellow-unbelievers,

    Nothing would have kept me from joining you except the loss of my voice (at least my speaking voice) which in turn is due to a long argument I am currently having with the specter of death. Nobody ever wins this argument, though there are some solid points to be made while the discussion goes on. I have found, as the enemy becomes more familiar, that all the special pleading for salvation, redemption and supernatural deliverance appears even more hollow and artificial to me than it did before. I hope to help defend and pass on the lessons of this for many years to come, but for now I have found my trust better placed in two things: the skill and principle of advanced medical science, and the comradeship of innumerable friends and family, all of them immune to the false consolations of religion. It is these forces among others which will speed the day when humanity emancipates itself from the mind-forged manacles of servility and superstitition. It is our innate solidarity, and not some despotism of the sky, which is the source of our morality and our sense of decency. 

      That essential sense of decency is outraged every day. Our theocratic enemy is in plain view. Protean in form, it extends from the overt menace of nuclear-armed mullahs to the insidious campaigns to have stultifying pseudo-science taught in American schools. But in the past few years, there have been heartening signs of a genuine and spontaneous resistance to this sinister nonsense: a resistance which repudiates the right of bullies and tyrants to make the absurd claim that they have god on their side. To have had a small part in this resistance has been the greatest honor of my lifetime: the pattern and original of all dictatorship is the surrender of reason to absolutism and the abandonment of critical, objective inquiry. The cheap name for this lethal delusion is religion, and we must learn new ways of combating it in the public sphere, just as we have learned to free ourselves of it in private. 

    Our weapons are the ironic mind against the literal: the open mind against the credulous; the courageous pursuit of truth against the fearful and abject forces who would set limits to investigation (and who stupidly claim that we already have all the truth we need). Perhaps above all, we affirm life over the cults of death and human sacrifice and are afraid, not of inevitable death, but rather of a human life that is cramped and distorted by the pathetic need to offer mindless adulation, or the dismal belief that the laws of nature respond to wailings and incantations. 

       As the heirs of a secular revolution, American atheists have a special responsibility to defend and uphold the Constitution that patrols the boundary between Church and State. This, too, is an honor and a privilege. Believe me when I say that I am present with you, even if not corporeally (and only metaphorically in spirit...) Resolve to build up Mr Jefferson's wall of separation. And don't keep the faith.

    Sincerely

Christopher Hitchens

Christopher, I’m not entitled – and nor would I want - to pray or to wish, but I can hope that we have a few more decades of your insolence, insight and integrity.

Nice work

http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2223

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

More Scottaddamsness

I hope I’m not luridly reporting on the meltdown of an unfortunate.  I’d rather believe I’m disapproving of a self-absorbed anti-science apologist for woo who should most certainly know better.  We’ll see how that works out.

Scott Adams has erected a defence of sorts for his recent sockpuppetry.  It’s remarkable in a few respects.

Did you see the reports of my scandalous behavior on the Internet? The headlines say "Scott Adams Caught Defending Himself Anonymously on Metafilter!" The stories go on to explain that I was posting under the name PlannedChaos and pretending to be the only person in the world who doesn't hate me. According to the wise and fair denizens of the Internet, this behavior is proof that I am a thin-skinned, troll, asshole, dick, fame-whore, ego maniac, douche nozzle, misogynist. That list might sound bad to you, but keep in mind that I was starting from a pretty low base, so I think my reputation is trending up.

I hate to act like an armchair psychologist, but the first part of this flakery seems to blame random collections of Other People for something Adams himself did.  The second part strawmans the judgement he’s received for his unsavoury behaviour: the people who found that behaviour to be shit were ‘denizens’, setting themselves up as arbiters of ‘wisdom’ and ‘fairness’.  That’s not what happened.  What happened was that people reacted to what they perceived as dickery. They were reasonably pissed off by a self-indulgent liar.  The third part lumps in a lot of recent accusations against Adams as though they were reactions to this post.  The most notable example is ‘misogynist’.  Sorry, Scott, we’re calling you a misogynist because you demonstrated yourself to be such before the sock puppetry came to light.  You don’t get to pretend that all the accusations against your character are the result of this one article.  Did you think nobody would notice?

As a general rule, you can't trust anyone who has a conflict of interest. Conflict of interest is like a prison that locks in both the truth and the lies. One workaround for that problem is to change the messenger. That's where an alias comes in handy. When you remove the appearance of conflict of interest, it allows others to listen to the evidence without judging.

This is uncomfortable indeed.  By using an alias, Adams is pretending he doesn’t have a conflict of interest when actually he does.  He calls this a ‘workaround’.  Working around what? Working around the truth, of course. 

If his pseudonym had offered excellent insights then he might have had a point, but since its arguments boiled down to Scott Adams being a genius and therefore right, I think he might have blown any sympathy for this already dubious argument.

Obviously an alias can be used for evil just as easily as it can be used to clear up simple factual matters. A hammer can be used to build a porch or it can be used to crush your neighbor's skull. Don't hate the tool.

As far as I can tell, the alias didn’t clear up factual matters so much as defend Adams’ ego, but let’s look at his analogy anyway.  A hammer can be used for various types of hammering.  An alias can only be used for lying about who you are.  These don’t seem like the same things.

Now Adams starts to froth.  He complains about how ‘rumours’ are damaging.  True enough.  This seems to be justification enough – to Adams - to invoke a sock puppet to pretend someone else is lionising him.  But the ‘rumours’ are just straightforward depictions of what Adams actually said.  I don’t see what he has to complain about.

Then he says:

This week for example, I'm the target of Men's Rights advocates, Feminists, and one bearded taint who is leading an anti-creationist movement. What do those folks have in common? In each case they are using the same strategy. They take out of context something I've written, present it to the lazy Internet media who doesn't check context, and use it to demonize me to gain publicity for their respective causes. That's how advocates get free publicity. They find a celebrity to target.

Do I need to comment on this?  What people are actually doing is reporting verbatim what Scott Adams said and commenting on it.  Adams implies some kind of conspiracy as a deflection of his foolishness.  He’s goading us and when we respond he’ll pretend yet again that he was only joking.

He goes on forever.  Read it here.  It’s classic crackpot stuff.  But whatever’s wrong is just a joke.  And if you’re angry, you didn’t get the joke.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Slash Christ

When most people hear about a work of art they don’t like the sound of, they don’t go to see it.  When Christians don’t like art, they slash it with knives.

Imagine the horror of a world where the religious are allowed to be in charge.

Monday, April 18, 2011

In a way, it’s gratifying

Ah, the disingenuous language of the Daily Mail.  I keep meaning to write a little script that deletes all unnecessarily pejorative words in Mail articles.  It should be a standard Firefox plugin.  In the meantime, I’ll have to resort to comic sans for phrases the Mail uses.

This time, they are once again banging on about people being banned from displaying crosses.

BANNED!

We don’t know the ins and outs of this story because if there’s one thing the Mail isn’t concerned with, it’s telling the actual story.  But apparently some guy was told not to have an 8 inch cross on his company van dashboard, despite the fact that his boss had a picture of a young Che Guevara on his office wall.

They even have a picture of it:

Look, a picture of Che Guevara.

George Cary, as he’s very much wont to do, has been quick to defend the banned guy who is facing the sack, in the most dishonest way he possibly can:

Lord Carey said last night: ‘It’s outrageous that anyone cannot display a small palm cross. This is political correctness gone mad once more.

‘If Muslims and Sikhs can display symbols of their faiths, such as wearing headscarves and turbans, then surely Christians should be allowed to display a cross.

Well put like that, the complaint sounds reasonable.  And needless to say, Ann Widdecombe has chimed in with similar sentiments:

It’s one rule for Christians and another rule for followers of any other religion.

But it isn’t, of course.  As the Mail itself reports:

However on Christmas Eve last year WDH changed company policy, banning all personal effects in company vehicles.

As silly as such a rule probably is, it isn’t discriminatory.  Turbans and headscarves don’t seem to fall into the same category as a bloody great cross on the dashboard because they are part of a person’s dress.  If a person were banned from wearing a cross around their neck when turbans were OK – and assuming there was no outright ban on jewellery – then there would certainly be cause for complaint. 

But this didn’t happen.  As is almost always found to be the case in these instances, some rule which does not discriminate in the least against any or all religion has been enforced (often pointlessly) with the result that someone can’t display some gewgaw or other in the way they subsequently decide they want to.  It seems as though Mr Atkinson could wear a cross around his neck if he wanted to.  He just can’t display it on his dashboard any more than he could display a football scarf.  This is not religious prejudice or even prejudice against religion.

The employer clarifies:

It is permissible for WDH employees to display, within the spirit of the Act, religious artefacts and other personal possessions on their desks and themselves.

Could that be any more clear? 

Carey doesn’t care.  He doesn’t want rules to apply to everyone, he wants Christians to get special rules that nobody else has.  And he’s prepared to be as dishonest as he needs to be to bring that goal about.

In a way, it’s gratifying.  The top (and ex-top) brass of the CoE seem to have resigned themselves to the fact that nobody really cares what they say any more, so they’ve got into bed with the likes of the Daily Mail and spout knowingly lying quotes, which they lend to deliberately misleading articles.  You don’t hear from them very much otherwise.

Their days are numbered and they know it.

Oh Dear, Scott

I wrote some time ago about the unpleasantness and cowardice of Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert.  I aired my disappointment that someone I’d respected for years was revealed as a self-absorbed fool when he started blogging. 

His standard MO is:

  • Say something foolish
  • Insist that anyone who disagreed with him was an idiot
  • Claim he was only joking or was playing devil’s advocate

He refuses to learn about the subjects he writes about – surely the mark of a crackpot – claiming that he doesn’t need to.  He has espoused on creationism, on imagined flaws in evolution, on the big bang being intelligent (where his stupidity really outdid itself) and on western males being discriminated against.

When someone tells him why he was wrong, he and his readers accuse them of missing the point or of failing the humour test: of not realising that Adams makes up crackpot theories to provoke people into angry responses, which he finds amusing.  This claim would be a lot more credible if he and his readers didn’t take what he writes so damned seriously; if his arguments weren’t simple-minded rehashings of standard creationist canards; and if he didn’t view knowledge of a subject as disqualifying someone from raising a valid objection.

It turns out that Adams has been leaving comments on message boards under a pseudonym, posing as his own fan.

It’s embarrassing stuff.  He likes to argue with his critics by pointing out that he’s a ‘certified genius’.  His response is predictable: if we were smarter, we’d have been onto his little ‘joke’ from the start.  We’re the fools for taking someone at their word when there was no reason at all not to.

I'm sorry I peed in your cesspool. For what it's worth, the smart people were on to me after the first post. That made it funnier.

If Adams is to be taken at his word, then he’s like a child who tells a deliberate but plausible mistruth then finds it hysterical when people believe it.  But I don’t buy this.  Adams thinks he’s the smartest person in every room.  He thinks he’s smart enough that he doesn’t need to know anything about a subject in order to overturn the work of people who’ve spent their whole careers studying it.

If you have to tell people you’re a genius, you probably aren’t and if you have to defend yourself with a sock puppet (and especially if the defence is “he’s a genius so you’re wrong”) then you probably know you have something to hide.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Clamping the clergy

In the UK, people can get married either by the state or by the clergy.  Both types of marriage have equal status and are functionally equivalent.  However – until now – the process of clerical marriage has had (surprise) privileges that state marriage has not.  Clerics haven’t had to perform some of the checks that the state has to ensure that the wedding isn’t an immigration ploy.  This seems to have led to criminals targeting church weddings as vehicles for dodgy immigration.  Power corrupts, of course, and it’s not surprising that vicars are as susceptible as anyone else.  Note, by the way, the following from that article:

In the four years to 2005, he married just 13 couples. But between July 2005 and July 2009 the number of ceremonies leapt 30-fold.

Jurors were told the ceremonies involved couples who produced rings that did not fit, couples who could not speak the same language, and several people who would request to marry one person one week and the next week decide to marry someone else.

It was also apparent that, of the hundreds of people who married, all seemed to live in the streets surrounding the parish church, with 90 couples registered as living in one road alone.

In some instances there were several brides and grooms claiming to live in the same house and jurors were told that most of those involved in the marriages had given false addresses.

Two years after the surge in ceremonies Brown was summoned to meet the Archdeacon of Hastings and Lewes, Philip Jones, and questioned about them. He stopped for a short period. Then, apparently satisfied, the Church of England hierarchy allowed him to continue the weddings, which bolstered the ailing finances at his church.

And yet the vicar took the fall, with the church hierarchy that enabled it left unquestioned.  It seems that the church knew that Brown was engaged in illegal activities……and didn’t really care.  Sound familiar?

The law is now being changed to level the playing field.  This is excellent news: there is no reason at all why any church should have different rules or increased opportunities for corruption.

BBC Breakfast has just interviewed the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds to explain the changes to the law.  It was a curious interview.  He tried to pretend that the changes were the Church’s idea, when in fact it’s a law being forced on it, whether it likes the idea or not. 

But the thing that really stood out was that the bishop was concerned about crimes against marriage, not against the law!  He wasn’t concerned with illegal immigration or the trafficking of people, but he was adamant that the concept of marriage (and he was clear to point out that this had to be between a man and a woman) should be protected.  This also sounds familiar: suffering is not important, people don’t need to be protected, dogma and the institution of the church does.

‘Un-scientific’: am I being cynical?

Magazine news shows like the BBC’s Breakfast have always relied on haranguing people in the street to demand wildly opposing opinions, apparently for no better reason than to fill dead air.  Recently, some of these shows have been qualifying these segments by calling them ‘very unscientific’.  They’ll introduce the topic then say “now we join our reporter for a very unscientific survey”

On the face of it, this seems like quite a good thing.  A handful of people’s opinions doesn’t tell us anything of significance, especially if they are chosen for entertainment value, to show extremes of opinion or for the sake of some misguided notion of ‘balance’.

But there’s something not quite right here.  The audience doesn’t really know the difference between a ‘scientific’ and an ‘unscientific’ survey.  It understands that the cherry-picked quotes from random people are exactly that.  I’ve never noticed the slightest implication by mainstream TV news that such polls had any value above human interest and I don’t know anyone who takes them seriously.

So why point out that the polls are unscientific?  It has all the hallmarks of a BBC guideline that doesn’t really make much sense.  In my more cynical moments I wonder whether it might even be a ploy: by describing a poll as ‘unscientific’, news agencies might paradoxically associate the poll with science in the audience’s minds.  By being modest about their claims, might they add some spurious legitimacy to the poll that might not otherwise exist?  Or perhaps it might foster a them-and-us attitude: those fancy-nancy scientists might cock their snoots at this, but it’s what We The People think.  It reminds me of Brass Eye’s “there’s no real evidence for it, but it is scientific fact.” 

Perhaps I’m being cynical and the BBC is actually trying to be honest and helpful, but I doubt labelling a poll as unscientific will achieve that.  It might be better to say that the poll doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of the nation or that the quotes have been chosen to illustrate extremes.

Better still, of course, they could just stop asking random people’s opinions about things they don’t really understand.  If the poll is unscientific, why conduct it in the first place?

Friday, April 01, 2011

That book. No, not that one.

At the top of the New York Times nonfiction bestsellers list, having sold 1.5m copies, is “Heaven is Real” by Todd Burpo, with Lynn Vincent (Thomas Nelson, $16.99.) A boy’s encounter with Jesus and the angels.

Read that again: nonfiction.  Then look at the Amazon blurb:

A young boy emerges from life-saving surgery with remarkable stories of his visit to heaven.

Heaven Is for Real is the true story of the four-year old son of a small town Nebraska pastor who during emergency surgery slips from consciousness and enters heaven. He survives and begins talking about being able to look down and see the doctor operating and his dad praying in the waiting room. The family didn't know what to believe but soon the evidence was clear.

Colton said he met his miscarried sister, whom no one had told him about, and his great grandfather who died 30 years before Colton was born, then shared impossible-to-know details about each. He describes the horse that only Jesus could ride, about how "reaaally big" God and his chair are, and how the Holy Spirit "shoots down power" from heaven to help us.

Examples of this impossible-to-know information include his description of Jesus as having stigmata and various winged creatures marauding around heaven.  He couldn’t have known any of these details, his father – a pastor – insists.  Yes, it is quite inconceivable that the son of pastor could never have been exposed to pictures of Jesus or Angels.  Another impossible-to-know detail was that he saw his grandfather, who he’d never met.  Perhaps it’s just me, but I’m not convinced a child needs to meet a grandfather in order to deduce he must have existed.  The story that has really convinced everyone, of course, is that he met his miscarried sister, about whom he’d never been told.  But kids pick things up.  As an entirely trivial example, my 3 year old nephew got a sort of shaggy rubber ball for Christmas.  I remarked once to someone that it looked like a bacterium and a couple of hours later he was asking his grandma where his bacterium was.  Are we really to believe that a kid wouldn’t pick up on a important and traumatic period of its parents lives?

Worst example of pareidolia ever?

A woman has seen Allah in a potato:

What?  You can’t see it?  This is how Allah is written in Arabic:

See, it’s perfectly obvious now.

At least they had the decency to categorise it under ‘weird news’, although ‘credulous idiocy’ might have been more appropriate.