Monthly Archives: February 2007

British Humanist Association follies

I never expect much of The British Humanist Association (BHA), but their opinion poll– well, it almost defies belief in its absurdity. It’s difficult to know where to start with it.

Well, first consider this:

Humanist outlook on life is calculated as those choosing the following three statements:

  • Scientific and other evidence provides the best way to understand the universe
  • Human nature by itself gives us an understanding of what is right and wrong
  • What is right and wrong depends on the effects on people and the consequences for society and the world


First, there are many religious people who would accept that “Scientific and other evidence provides the best way to understand the universe” – they would simply dispute what this tells us, if anything, about origins, etc.

Second, “Human nature by itself gives us an understanding of what is right and wrong”: I can just about make sense of this proposition (though it seems to make redundant a lot of philosophising about ethics – which might be a good thing, coming to think of it), but (a) it is quite possible to be a humanist and think this is nonsense; and (b) it is quite possible to be religious, and think that something like this might be true (if, for example, God has given us such an ability).

Third, “What is right and wrong depends on the effects on people and the consequences for society and the world” – So you’ve got to be some kind of consequentialist to be a humanist (nb. It might appear here that I’m confusing IF and IFF, but actually not so much if you look at how the question is posed and the analysis constructed)? Hilarious.

Okay, so all this is bad enough. But now have a look at how the questions were posed.

I am going to read out some pairs of statements to you. I’d like you to tell me on balance which one in each pair most closely matches your view.

And then, for example:

Scientific and other evidence provides the best way to understand the universe


Religious beliefs are needed for a complete understanding of the universe

My background is in sociology, you know, and I look at this stuff – and frankly it’s horrifying. The questions are pitched as a forced choice, but they are not in any sense mutually exclusive (certainly not in terms of how they will be taken). In the UK, at least, you’re going to catch a lot of religious people in the first category. It’s no good then claiming – ah, these people think science is the best way to understand the universe, they’re really humanist. That’s just an argument by redefinition. A humanist becomes a person who thinks science is the best to understand the universe. Well I think that, and I’m not a humanist.

Also, look at the instructions more carefully:

 Where respondents were unsure, interviewers were allowed to select “Neither” or “Don’t know”, but these options were not presented to respondents and they were encouraged to choose a statement from each set if they could.

That’s ridiculous. You can’t encourage people to answer forced choice questions, and then claim that their answers genuinely represent their opinions (TPM Online interactive activities notwithstanding). You’ll end up with what are called “doorstep opinions” (see, for example: Schuman, H. and Presser, S., “The open and closed question”, American Sociological Review, (1979), 44 692-712).

I could go on, but I won’t. This whole polling exercise was frankly a disaster, and the BHA, should have been embarrassed about it all.

Edit: For a response to my critics, go here.

Don’t call me Dave

I hope I’m not the only one who doesn’t want this blog to be relentlessly serious. This is the first post in the “diversions” category which is intended to provide some light relief.
I was reminded of why this might be a good thing during my Simpsons and Philosophy talk at the Glasgow Aye Right! Festival, which I’ve mentioned before. It was a 90-minute presentation, but I soon realised I needed to take a trip to the bathroom. I told myself I’d be able to hold on, an hour in, the pressure on my bladder was interfering with my concentration. So, during one clip which I hoped was long enough, I exited round the back of the stage a went scouring the service stairwells in search of a toilet. Fortunately, I soon found one, and fortunately again, I did not repeat the possibly apocryphal experience of a the speaker who went to the toilet wearing a radio mic, only to have the whole audience hear him urinate.
I got back and the clip was still running. I’d got away with it. But then I decided I would actually tell everyone where I’d been. Too much information? Maybe, but one point of the talk was that cartoon comedy is the ideal medium for our time because it’s so well suited to showing us how daft we are. We know too much about human nature to kid ourselves we are disembodied intellects who just happen to be in bodies. We are weak, fleshy creatures, and what could illustrate that better than me having to interrupt a philosophical talk to empty my bladder?
So, a bit of frivolity brings us all down to earth, and here’s one example. At the festival I was introduced to the well-known British journalist, Michael Buerk, who said, “You look the spitting image of David Cameron.” Cameron, for those outside the UK, is the leader of the Conservative Party.
I didn’t particularly welcome the comparison, although compared to past claims of looky-likiness (Richard Littlejohn and Martin Jarvis), it could have been worse. But then I discovered that two friends of mine had had the same thought, independently, but not told me. The final insult came when the Herald newspaper, reviewing the talk, wrote that I appeared “bearing an uncanny resemblance to David Cameron.”
I’ve heard about people getting more conservative as they grow older, but this is ridiculous.
The trouble is, I’ve since looked at picture of Cameron, and although I’m no dead ringer, I can see what people are getting at. (This video was recorded at the festival and seems to be of me at my most Cameronseque) Another example of being brought down to earth, which in this context, despite my previous claims, no longer feels terribly good for me.
Me, Martin Jarvis, David Cameron and Richard Littlejohn. No resemblance. None.

Dawkins Thinks Badly (Sometimes)

Well, since Julian has posted about bad thinking, I thought I’d continue with the theme. An argument made by Richard Dawkins has been irritating me these last few months.

He responds to these questions: “I’m an atheist, but people need religion. What are you going to put in its place? How are you going to comfort the bereaved? How are you going to fill the need?” – as follows:

Did you notice the patronizing condescension in the quotations I just listed? You and I, of course, are much too intelligent and well educated to need religion. But ordinary people, hoi polloi, the Orwellian proles, the Huxleian Deltas and Epsilon semi-morons, need religion.

The problem is obvious. Whether or not the proposition is patronizing or condescending is entirely irrelevant to whether it is true. This kind of mixing up of moral sensibility and truth-claims is exactly what Dawkins has previously railed against when talking about things like dialectical biology.

Morever, the proposition that some people are more likely to need the comfort of religion than others is not unreasonable. Some people are more prone to depression than others; to anxiety than others; some people have more cognitive resources than others; some people have more tragedy in their lives than others; some people find death more terrifying than others; ad infinitum.

Message to Dawkins: If you want to take on religion, then there is something to be said for taking on the best versions of the arguments that can be made in its favour, not the worst versions.

I’m stupid, and so are you

You don’t need to be the world’s greatest psychologist to predict that telling your audience they’re all stupid is not the best way of endearing yourself to them. Still, I thought it might be a provocative way of getting their attention, and since I included myself among the ranks of the dim, perhaps they wouldn’t be offended after all.
When I tried this at the Aye Write! book festival yesterday I was careful to apply the lessons learned at the first running of the workshop, at London’s Hayward Gallery a few weeks ago. The workshop was tied in with the book Do You Think What You Think You Think? which Jeremy Stangroom and I wrote together. In London, three members of the audience were very indignant about my accusations of stupidity, for the good reason that they thought intelligence was not just about logic, and when I got talking, most of what I discussed was about was the human tendency to thinking illogically.
I happily conceded the point, but with some reservations. It’s clearly true that good thinking requires more than just a firm grasp of logic, but logic is more important to most types of good thinking than many allow. Put simply (perhaps too simply), logic is simply the working through of the implications of accepting that it nonsense to assert both that something is true and that it is false at the same time. Of course, many statements are partially true and partially false, or appear to be contradictory. But embracing literal paradox is the last resort, and when people clearly contradict themselves, everyone can see that this is a sign something is wrong. Indeed, when politicians do it, we jump on them and accuse them of hypocrisy.
So in Glasgow I got the caveats in early and that was probably why the vocal resistance in London was absent north of the border.
I still find it odd, however, that claims for human stupidity are ever controversial. The evidence of our irrationality is all over the place. By coincidence, Nicholas Lezard, in yesterday’s Guardian, recommended a 1982 book by Stuart Sutherland called Irrationality, which is full of examples of how badly we think.
My other talk at Aye Write!, on the philosophy of the Simpsons, is full of other such reminders. The Simpsons constantly mocks the pretensions of the human race to greatness. Everyone is satirised, whatever their intelligence or status. In one episode, the Mensa group gets to run Springfield and the result of their “enlightened” rational rule is disastrous. (Comic Book Guy: “Inspired by the most logical race in the galaxy, the Vulcans, breeding will be permitted once every seven years. For many of you this will mean much less breeding, for me, much much more.”)
But then maybe the series contains another clue as to why we don’t like to be criticised for illogicality: not being fully logic is what makes us feel human, and in The Simpsons it is the failings of the characters which make them lovable. Most would agree with the lyrics of that nauseating Dean Friedman song: “We can thank our lucky stars that we’re not as bright as we’d like to think we are.”
Well I’m not thankful for my stupidity, but nor am I going to deny it. It’s a bit like drug addiction: the first step to recovery is to accept you have a problem. So here goes: “My name is Julian Baggini and I’m not very clever.” It sounds like the kind of thing Socrates might of said – in a Simpsons episode, that is.

Kindergarten Kant

Much has been made of a study from Scotland about how teaching kids philosophy has boosted their IQ, emotional intelligence, self-confidence and probably credit rating too. (I’ve written about it at the Guardian’s Comment is Free blog and also talked about in on Radio Four’s Open Book.)
We’ve reported on philosophy for children many times over the years in TPM, dedicating one issue’s forum to the subject. So long-term TPM readers will be familiar with the health-warnings that should come attached to these claims.
First, it is not clear that these studies have proper control groups. Usually, comparisons are made between kids who get the philosophy programme and those who don’t. But just as medical trials require a ‘placebo’ group, so these studies are not conclusive unless we can compare what happens if you give children a fun new philosophy programme and if you give them something else exciting and new, such as cross-stitching workshops. This matters, because the boosts may not be the result of anything specifically philosophical at all, but merely the result of children being reinvigorated by something novel and fun.
Second, it’s a moot pint whether the philosophy for children classes should be described as philosophy anyway. They tend to be very good exercises in group debate which do indeed touch on important philosophical issues. But you certainly can’t jump from the finding that this is good for you to the conclusion that curling up and reading Kant is. What went on in the Clackmannanshire classrooms was very different to what goes on in university philosophy departments.
But perhaps my biggest concern is that in our enthusiasm to embrace good news about philosophy, we end up selling it on the basis of its instrumental benefits. Philosophy then becomes something to do, not because big questions bug us, but because it will make us cleverer and more socially adjusted. (Surely not something that a philosophy degree helps with.) It’s like the claims that philosophy makes you happier. Maybe it does, though on balance I doubt it. But even if it does, philosophy’s primary goal is truth, or the nearest thing to truth we’ve got, not subjective feelings of well-being.
That’s why I’m only giving two cheers for philosophy for kids. After all, it’s not very philosophical to abandon all scepticism in the face of impressive claims.
By the way, some of you may know that I’ve been quite anti-blogging in the past, so you may be curious to know why I’ve changed my mind. If you are, I may tell you at a later date. In the meantime, if anyone is in Glasgow on Saturday (24th), it would be great to see you at one of the events I’m doing at the Aye Write! Book festival.