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

Splutter!

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

Or:

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.

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