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Euphemisms: Brights, Nontheists, Humanists ...

I've tried to like the appellation "Bright" as an alternative to "atheist" but I haven't succeeded. Nor am I fond of "nontheist", "humanist", or other euphemisms. And I'm not much persuaded by the argument that we should avoid "atheist" because we don't speak of "afaryist", "aghostist", etc. I prefer to stick with the old-fashioned "atheist" and "agnostic". The distinction between these two categories isn't rigid and one can oscillate between the two, but I dislike euphemisms.

How strong are chimpanzees?

An article in today's Independent on the problems faced by chimps in Africa as the result of human behaviour repeats the oft-quoted claim that these apes are five times as strong as humans.

I don't know where this comes from. A few months ago I did a search via Google and the only evidence I came up with was a comparison of human and chimp strength made at the Bronx zoo in in 1924. I think myself that it's another urban myth.

"Rational Atheism", by Michael Shermer

The latest issue of Scientific American (19 August 2007) has a good article by Michael Shermer called "Rational Atheism". It talks about recent attacks on religion by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and others, and makes the valid point that purely negative criticisms of religion will never achieve much. What is needed instead is positive championing of science and reason.

Shermer quotes the late Carl Sagan who said: "You can get into a habit of thought in which you enjoy making fun of all those other people who don't see things as clearly as you do. We have to guard carefully against it." And he concludes by saying: "As long as religion does not threaten science and freedom, we should be respectful and tolerant because our freedom to disbelieve is inextricably bound to the freedom of others to believe."

One advocate of atheism who well exemplifies the attitude that Shermer is asking for is Taner Edis. There are reviews of his books on my reviews page.

Pseudo-history, Babylonians, and precession of the equinoxes

Hamlet's Mill, by Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend (1969) is a rambling work which advances the theory that the Babylonians were aware of the precession of the equinoxes and that this led a number of ancient civlizations, for example in ancient India and in Scandinavia, to conceive of the idea of eternal recurrence. There is also the idea, hinted at but not worked out explicitly, that these ancient societies knew things that we had forgotten.

I read this book soon after it came out and it stayed in my mind, becoming linked with the Isma'ilis about whom I wrote in my book The Assassins of Alamut. The Isma'ilis had a notion of repeated cycles, each with its own Adam as founder, and this seemed to connect with the theory advanced in Hamlet's Mill. Later, however, I discovered that the "scholarship" of the authors of this book was suspect and so I deleted all the references to precession.

I did this thanks to email correspondence with Gary D. Thompson, whose excellent website on the history of the constellations is strongly recommended. He has now added an essay on the shortcomings of Hamlet's Mill (The myth of Babylonian knowledge of precession), which is likewise recommended to anyone who, like me, read the book and found it persuasive.

Two challenges to conventional thinking

There have been two challenges to conventional thinking in the past couple of days. One was a report on the BBC Today programme about an EarlyBird study from Southampton. This apparently shows that young children's activity levels at school don't reflect their over-all activity levels during the day, and also shows that the amount of activity they undertake doesn't correlate with their body mass index. One girl who enjoyed competitive long-distance running was found to have the same energy output as another girl who hated running.

If this study is correct (and it is apparently produced by respected researchers) it suggests that the government's attempts to combat childhood obesity are being misdirected. Instead of trying to increase participation in sport they ought to be attacking "junk food". So much for one of the alleged benefits of obtaining the ever more expensive Olympics for London.

The other challenge to received wisdom is a lot more open to question. This was a Channel 4 documentary which wheeled out a number of quite authoritative-seeming climate experts who disagreed with the theory that human activity is responsible for global warming. They did accept that average temperatures are increasing (after a period between 1940 and 1975 when they actually fell) but they believe that this is due to increased solar radiation. Carbon dioxide emissions have a negligible effect, it appears.

In fact, the experts even contested the view that carbon dioxide is an important greenhouse gas. We were shown a graph which purported to prove that although rises in carbon dioxide do correlate with rises in temperature, the temperature rise occurs before the rise in carbon dioxide, which implies that it is temperature that causes the carbon dioxide level to increase rather than the other way round.

I have to say that I sympathize with what some of the participants said about the quasi-religious fervour with which the "green lobby" is pushing its views at present. I've been an enthusiast for controlling carbon dioxide emissions myself, but the "greener than thou" tone of public pronouncements by all sorts of people, from politicians to clergymen, is becoming pretty nauseating.

At the same time I find it hard to believe that so many climate experts who are convinced of the reality of man-made global warming are mistaken. And today's Independent prints a pretty strong rebuttal of the programme. The article points out, for example, that the apparent cooling that took place in the middle of the twentieth century was due to industrial pollutants that filtered out sunlight; the improvement in air quality that has occurred since then has allowed the temperature to rise again.

Many of the graphs shown in the programme were apparently misleading, distorted, or out of date. I have to say that I'm unconvinced by the arguments advanced in this documentary, which seem to be reminiscent in tone of claims made by some scientists who contest the role of HIV as the cause of AIDS. I'm all for iconoclasm, but in this case I think it's the iconoclasts who need knocking off their pedestal

Synaesthesia and ESP

The current issue of The Skeptic has an article on synaesthesia by Marc Tibber, a postdoc research fellow in the field of human perception. As he explains, synaesthesia has always been experienced by a few exceptional people but scientists' attitudes to it have varied widely. There was interest in it at the end of the nineteenth century but for much of the twentieth century it was largely ignored. Today it is once more attracting attention from neurologists.

Tibber finds that there is an analogy here with ESP. Like synaesthesia, ESP has always been accepted as real by many non-scientists but to study it scientifically is barely respectable. But if ESP were shown conclusively to exist its importance would be immense.

There are obvious differences in plausibility between ESP and synaesthesia. In essence, to explain synaesthesia all we need to postulate is the existence of unusual connections within the brain. There is no easy way to explain how transmission of mental phenomena could occur outside the normal sensory pathways. So the difficulty of accepting ESP as real is greater than that of accepting synaesthesia by at least an order of magnitude.

But I agree with Tibber when he says: "Healthy scepticism merely questions that which cannot be demonstrated within the context of existing knowledge. However, the key word is "questions", as opposed to "denies" or "rejects."

Carlos Castaneda

I've long used Carlos Castaneda as a touchstone for assessing people's gullibility. Whenever I come across a book in which Castaneda is cited with a straight face I at once label the author in my mind as naive and uncritical. It's been evident for a long time (from the first appearance of Castaneda in print, really) that the whole Don Juan as shaman business was made up, an elaborate confidence trick.

Last night BBC4 had a documentary on Castaneda (with the obligatory semi-dramatized bits thrown in, naturally) which filled in a few gaps in the story. It appears that there may have been some kind of model for Don Juan although the man in question did not, of course, do any of the things that Don Juan is said by Castaneda to have done and would have decisively rejected his claims. Quite a lot of the Yaqui sage's pseudo-profound remarks appear to have been lifted by Casteneda from older books.

Inevitably, one commentator who liked Casteneda's books said that even if they were not strictly factual they nevertheless contained many pearls of wisdom. This is always said on such occasions; nobody likes to admit they've been fooled.

In later life Castaneda set himself up as a guru and attracted a considerable number of devotees to him, especially female devotees. At the end of his life he was apparently living in a harem with six of these ladies. After his death, from cancer, five of them seem to have committed suicide, although only one body has been found. The sixth is still alive and well and turned up in the programme.

If you didn't see this programme last night, watch out for a repeat; it's worth seeing.

Power of coincidence

I often have the radio on when I'm working on the computer. Surprisingly frequently I hear a word spoken (sometimes a quite unusual one) and simultaneously see it on-screen or am actually typing it at exactly the same moment.

I had a particularly good instance of this today. I heard someone refer to "big brother" just as I was reading a newsgroup item saying: "big brother pays me to cycle".

I attach no sort of esoteric significance to such coincidences, which I'm convinced are simply that - coincidences. But these events bring home to one that claims for the paranormal based on unlikely-seeming juxtapositions of events (such as apparently precognitive dreams) are perhaps not so surprising after all.

Olympic costs double

According to today's Independent, the London Olympics will cost twice as much as originally forecast. Now there's a surprise! Were you one of those who cheered when London won the right to stage this event?

Thomas Nagel and the Religious Temperament

Thomas Nagel has written what amounts to a sequel to the chapter in his book "The Last Word," where he writes about the fear of religion. In the new essay, "Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament," he sets out to discover whether it is possible to find a non-religious answer to what he calls the cosmic question: how can one bring into one's individual life a fuller recognition of one's relation to the universe as a whole?

Many non-believers, Nagel finds, regard this question as unanswerable and probably meaningless, therefore absurd. Their position is what he calls affectless atheism or hard-headed atheism. It is perfectly possible, starting from this position, to take a deep interest in scientific questions about biology and the cosmos, but knowledge of such matters does not translate into an answer to the cosmic question. However, Nagel suggests that it may be possible to formulate what he calls natural teleology, a Platonic but non-religious understanding of our place in the universe.

I discuss the article further here.

A case of purported past life memory

Channel 5 screened a programme last night about Cameron, a small boy in Glasgow who claimed to remember a past life on the island of Barra, off the west coast of Scotland. Cameron said that his father on Barra had been called Shane Robertson and had died "because he didn't look both ways" (a traffic accident?).

We saw the family visit Barra, accompanied by a psychiatrist from the University of Virginia, where research into alleged cases of reincarnation has been conducted for many years. After a good deal of searching they did find a house which fitted the boy's description and which had been used as a holiday home by a family called Robertson in the 1960s or 1970s. They visited the house, which seemed to affect the lad emotionally, and he appeared to say that this was the house he had lived in.

Back in Glasgow they tracked down a woman who was a member of the Robertson family and who had spent time in the house as a young girl. However, there was no one called Shane Robertson in the family and no one had died in a traffic accident so far as she knew. The psychiatrist suggested that discrepancies of this kind could be explained by the superimposition of memories from more than one past lifetime, which seems like a get-out clause to me.

The programme was better than TV investigations of the paranormal often are but inevitably many questions remain. There is always the suspicion that the story has been tidied up to make it more dramatic. We were told that there was little if any possibility that Cameron could have heard about Barra from TV or conversations, but this seems difficult to exclude. Nothing was said about Cameron's this-life father, but could the fact that he was no longer at home have triggered a fantasy in the lad?

The fact remains that there are many cases on record of purported memories of past lives, some of them surprisingly convincing. Not all have occurred in societies that traditionally believe in reincarnation. But the ever-increasing evidence that consciousness depends essentially on the brain makes reincarnation very difficult to accept. For a critical discussion of the whole subject, see Reincarnation: a critical examination, by Paul Edwards.

I certainly hope there is no such thing as reincarnation. The prospects for humanity are not such as to make one wish to come back in the future. If a belief in reincarnation ever became widespread, however, it might do quite a lot to stimulate genuine efforts to stem global warming.

It must be true because it's been around for so long

There is a widespread notion that if a treatment has been around for a long time, for example traditional acupuncture, homeopathy, herbal medicine, that automatically means it must work. Hardly any forms of CAM make a virtue of being new. Those that are not really ancient often claim to have roots in ancient traditions and to be rediscoveries of lost or forgotten knowledge.

Even within medicine, this idea doesn't stand up to criticism. Think of blood-letting, which was practised for many centuries yet was useless or actively harmful.

More generally, there are plenty of baseless systems of ideas that are sanctified by long tradition. Astrology is an obvious example. But my favourite comes from ancient Mesopotamia, where decisions of state, such as whether to go to war, were based on the inspection of livers of sacrificial animals.

Models of livers have been found that are marked out in squares containing symbols to show what they indicate prognostically. This system was in use for millennia and there were the equivalent of university chairs in the "science". So much for the validity of long-standing belief.

Liver model

Rageh Omar and the miracles of Jesus

BBC2 has just finished broacasting a semi-dramatised series of three programmes about the miracles of Jesus, presented by Rageh Omar. He is a BBC reporter, probably best known for his coverage from Baghdad of the second Iraq war, whose participation will probably have lent the series a degree of authority in the minds of some viewers which I don't think it deserved.

In the series we saw sketchy reconstructions of various miracles (healing, the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus walking on water and stilling the storm, for example). The culmination of the series was the resurrection, followed by the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples, with a tailpiece about Paul and his interpretation of Christianity. The subsequent success of Christianity was represented as the greatest miracle of all.

Throughout, Omar paid lip service to doubt by saying "We can't know for certain what really happened, but ...". He said repeatedly that he wasn't mainly interested in trying to establish the reality of the miracles but rather in deciding what they meant to Jesus's followers and even, quite ambitiously, to Jesus himself. It soon became clear that what he was moving towards was the claim that Jesus was divine, and that this is what his disciples came to believe.

Of course, if the miracles didn't really occur their evidential value for the divinity of Jesus is nil, but Omar didn't discuss this, nor did he consider the possibility that the miracles were invented by Christians precisely in order to justify the claims they were making for Jesus.

The series begged so many questions that it's hard to know where to begin. What we didn't get was any acknowledgement of the uncertainties that have arisen as the result of modern textual criticism of the New Testament. To take just one example: the account of the resurrection was presented as if all the gospel writers agreed about what happened. This is manifestly not so. Nor was there any hint that the earliest version of Mark's gospel does not mention the resurrection at all; the verses that do mention it briefly are thought to be a later addition (see Misquoting Jesus, by Bart D.Ehrman). Indeed, the programme even seemed to assume, naively, that Mark's gospel was really written by Mark, something hardly any scholars believe today.

As for the claim that the early Christians all agreed about the divinity of Jesus, this is a long way from the truth. There was a huge variety of views about Jesus in the early years; on this, see Lost Christianities, by Bart D. Ehrman.

I found this a deeply unsatisfactory series. It was evidently Christian propaganda masquerading as objective inquiry. I looked for the credits at the end and found that it had been made in collaboration with Jerusalem Productions. So I went to their website where I found that their stated aim is "to support radio and television programmes which will be broadcast outside designated religious slots and which will appeal to those who do not have an active religious commitment." This explains the tone of the series, of course.

The web page for Jerusalem Productions also tells us that they were responsible for "The Monastery", an earlier series that followed a group of men who spent 40 days and nights in retreat at Worth Abbey in Sussex. That had a propaganda element too, but it was more honestly acknowledged than it was in the present case.