The last post was so horrific and upsetting that I felt I had to post something light-hearted to reset the humor networks. Once again that wonderful dim sum of Asian culture, Pink Tentacle have come up with another example of Japanese weirdness. What kind of creature is this?
Is it natural or supernatural? What does it look like to you? And look out for the end.
I was contacted a week ago by the BBC World Service to comment on the findings of a survey conducted by the public theology think tank, Theos. The survey of over 2000 UK residents revealed that on average, 40% believe in ghosts, 70% believe in the human soul, 55% believe in heaven and 27% believe in reincarnation. I don’t know why everyone was so surprised by these figures. I had already predicted them in “SuperSense.” No, I am not psychic. It’s just that people are remarkably consistent when it comes to believing in the supernatural. The last Gallup poll in 2005 revealed similar prevalence of supernatural beliefs, haunted houses (40%), astrology (24%), communication with the dead (27%) and the possibility of witches (13%).
What’s more, there is little evidence that the UK is any more “rational” than our American cousins as I give these percentages in the book. Yes, the UK is more secular than the US where 9 out of 10 people say then believe in God but we are no less susceptible to supernatural beliefs. As GK Chesterton allegedly commented, “When a Man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.”
That does not mean we should throw in the towel and give up on scientific education. Far from it. While supernatural beliefs may be inevitable that does not mean that they are always acceptable. Sometimes beliefs are used to justify cruelty and killings (see my earlier posts on ‘muti’ killings in Africa and the slaughter of albinos for their body parts). Those of you of a strong enough constitution may want to see the horrific and distressing footage of witch-burning in Africa posted on Hemant Metha’s Friendly Atheist site but I warn you it is probably the worst thing you will ever witness. [I am updating this section as the video has already upset a number of you so I suggest you seriously consider whether you should watch it]
I have not posted this link to be morbidly gratuitous, but simply to remind me that supernatural beliefs are not just a trivial interest restricted to black cats and walking under ladders but rather a fundamental component of human behavior that leads people to some of the worst acts imaginable. In SuperSense I discuss other outrages such as the virgin-cure myth and cases of cannibalism that are equally based on supernatural beliefs.
With regard to the murder of elderly tribe members condemned as witches, commentators have accused religion and supernatural belief as being primarily responsible for such acts but I question whether these acts are more to do with poverty and desperation in a lawless society or one that permits such behavior. Attacking the weak and vulnerable is a common terror strategy. In the West, we tend to have short memories when it comes to considering the worst chapter of human genocide in Europe. I wonder whether we would revert to similar practices if our society similarly deteriorated.
So while I think that belief in the supernatural is universal, that does not mean we have to tolerate the crimes against humanity done in its name. But it is better to know the extent of the problem and understand its true nature and origins if you want to prevent such atrocities.
Today, I enjoyed a cheeky little chardonnay in the glorious Somerset countryside. But according to an article yesterday in my favorite paper, “The Guardian,” it should have tasted more like cat pee. Apparently, this weekend is a time of ‘root’ where wines will taste at their worst because they are best drunk only on fruit and flower days. This is the wacky belief of “biodynamics,” where produce is thought to taste better on days according to their position in the astrological calender. Wine tastes better on fruit and flower days and I presume vodka (made from potatoes) tastes better on root days.
According to the proponents of this crazy idea, wine is a living organism and therefore like other living organisms, it is subject to the effects of the lunar cycle. Oh dear… naïve biology, belief in astrology and sympathetic magical reasoning again (and a basic misunderstanding of what wine is!). Still, the wine buyers for both Tesco’s and Marks & Spencer’s apparently believe it, as they only invite critics to taste their wines on fruit and flower days. What’s more is that the Guardian tested the theory for their article and found that five out of seven bottles showed a marked improvement!
Now this is the newspaper that features Ben Goldacre, the skilled critic and scourge of bad science. Ben… you need to have a word with your fellow journalist and tell him about how to design a proper scientific study.
A week ago last monday I was on cloud nine all thanks to Tim McHenry at the Rubin Museum in New York. I was booked to appear as part of their Brainwave series where they put together scientists to talk about the brain with artists who have an interest in such things. The role call for the event was truly awesome with the likes of Tom Wolfe, Paul Simon, Daniel J. Levitin, Paul Rozin, Daniel Goldman, Laurie Anderson, Semir Zeki, Richard E. Nisbett, Lewis Black, R.L. Stine, Joseph LeDoux, Darren Aronofsky, and Alva Noë. These guys are all major players so you can imagine how daunting the evening was, as I was paired up with Literary Prize Winner (twice!) Peter Matthiessen.
My event was sold out and so it was going to be a capacity audience. But what to do and say? Tim and his team were great. He said he wanted magic, intellectual enlightenment and resounding applause. Unfortunately, I had left my bag of tricks in the hotel but remembered a couple of easy ones that always leave most of the audience baffled. But he wanted it all in under 7 mins and it was not clear what Peter was going to say.
As it was, Peter let me do my thing and the evening settled into an enjoyable hour of discussion and mostly questions from the audience. For that hour, I felt a glimpse of what it is like to be the centre of attention of a group of people genuinely interested in what I had to say. But before I let this event go to my head, let me tell you about the episode just before I went on. I was sitting in the front row awaiting to be introduced when this NY lady sat down behind me and then turned to the next guest. “Oh, I thought that this was Steven Pinker tonight. Do you know who this Bruce Hood guy is as I have never heard of him. Is he any good? I was really hoping to see Steven Pinker!” I guess I still have a fair way to go.
So, I turned round to her and said that I had heard that he was marvelous. Of course, when I got up onto stage the penny dropped. Thankfully the lady appeared at the book signing after the event saying how wonderful the evening was and bought a signed copy…so it was worth the mistaken identity.
All things considered, the evening was really a great success and I cannot wait to do something like it again. To top everything off, Tim honored me with a Buddhist shawl which now has pride of place among my SuperSense souvenirs.
Finally, home and working through the emails. But of course, there is one thing pre-occupying my mind – did anyone listen to me and more importantly want to know more about SuperSense by ordering the book? I am not so sure. My experience in Borders bookstore on Thursday in downtown Boston was a bit disheartening as there were not many people there waiting for me and most of those where clearly just sitting in the comfy seats to while away the time. Indeed, when I launched into my presentation (without any AV), some got up and walked away. Only one kindly couple bought the book. The rest just shuffled away and dispersed. Now that was crushing especially since I had such a fabulous reception at the Rubin Museum in New York (Buddha bless you Tim- I’ll post that one next). But back to Boston as all was not lost. The following day I went on Tom Ashbrook’s NPR show “On Point.”I had a blast. Tom was brilliant – smart, fast, engaged, insightful, inquisitive and what’s more, a huge following. I had no idea that the show attracts 1 million listeners and when we starting talking about Dawkins and Dennett who Tom had had on the show, I realized I was batting in the major league. I was wired and didn’t want to stop. You can listen to the recording here. Thanks Tom & Pien (producer) for having me…. oh and I am sure that it is no supernatural coincidence that my Amazon ranking went skyhigh after the broadcast and I am still receiving emails from Tom’s listeners.
Now if only they had scheduled the Borders Bookstore appearance after the On Point appearance, I think I may have sold a few more books. But thank you Borders for giving me a slot anyway.
Ok… not so much a post of content but just to let you know that I am having a ball promoting SuperSense. Last night, I did the Greater Boston show with Emily Rooney which went pretty well I hope. For those of you who missed the show then you can watch an archived recording here. I have to say that the mother of the girl who died after a binge drinking bout was really sweet and kind. Barney Frank was a grumpy bump. I don’t think he likes doing media stuff but then why was he on the show?
Anyway, just finished the briefest interview with shock-jock “Mancow.” That was not so good as they gave me no lead in and I was unsure if I was on the air. It probably would not have made any difference anyway as there was no time to get into discussion. I have to admit that despite the fact that I don’t share his values, DJs like Mancow and Howard Stern are performing an amazing ability to shift rapidly between topics on their shows. Actually, I think the same can also be said for Emily Rooney. They have to be able to extract the essence from each guest.
I have book signing round the corner from me in the Borders in downtown Boston at 1pm. I popped in yesterday and was delighted to see that they have got it on display. Not sure how I am going to work the crowd (that’s a joke BTW) but if you are around, please pop down and say hello.
I only have one more day left and then I catch the 7pm flight from Boston to London on Friday and get back to sleepy Somerset on Saturday. What a journey. I will reflect on this next week and maybe give you my opinions as well as a few pearls of wisdom for any of you out there thinking about writing a book.
Gotta go, the Andrew Krystal Show up there in Nova Scotia calling in 5 minutes.
Here is a recording of yesterday’s show on NPR with Bill Lehrer