Monthly Archives: September 2009

A Tragedy of Homeopathetic Ignorance

A tragic case of delusion

A tragic case of delusion

As you will know from reading this blog, I am not a great fan of homeopathy even though I understand why so many people buy into this quackery. And it is so easy to poke fun at this medieval nonsense  but no one should gloat when an innocent child suffers and dies in appalling circumstances that were entirely preventable. It was with true horror and sadness when I learned of a nine-month old infant, Gloria Sam who died because her father, a homeopathy therapist, had neglected to seek medical treatment and instead decided to treat her himself after she developed severe eczema.

The father of Gloria, Thomas Sam and her mother, Manju were both convicted of criminal negligence and jailed for a minimum of 6 years and 4 years respectively in a New South Wales court. The court heard that if Gloria had been given medical treatment just a week before her death she probably would have survived.

My eldest suffered from infantile eczema and to this day has to endure steriods, creams and light treatment. As an infant she had a terrible time and her case was comparatively mild to what can happen when eczema is untreated.

Thomas and Manju wept in court. I don’t think they were being deliberately cruel. It must have been heart-wrenching to listen to their daughter’s agony. I know as I have seen how babies suffer. I also think this case reveals that homeopath practitioners are not necessarily cynical charlatans peddling snake-oil for profit, but truly deluded individuals who believe that their cures and treatments really work. But sometimes, society has to step in and protect the weak and deluded. In this tragic case, I believe it was both the parents and child who needed intervention.

Thanks to Richard Saunders over at the Skeptic zone for bringing this to my attention.


Filed under In the News, supernatural

Viva España

spain-flagBienvenidos a todos mis visitantes españoles. Espero que esté aquí debido a la reciente transmisión televisiva en España, cuando hablé con el inteligente Eduard Punset. Espero que usted compra el libro porque está lleno de historias mucho más interesantes.

Eduard Punset & me outside a Barcelona Romanesque Church

Eduard Punset & me outside a Barcelona Romanesque Church

I really enjoyed my Barcelona visit and interview with Eduard which is broadcast on Spanish television tonight. I hope I don’t upset any Catalan visitors by showing the Spanish flag but I want as wide an audience as possible! BTW Spain is one country that has not yet bought the publishing rights for SuperSense – Come on Amigos… “Por favor compra el libro porque es muy bueno!”

Here is the broadcast link if you missed it!


Filed under book publicity, Television

Why Are Rocks Pointy?

Pointy rocks at Garden of Gods - mind your bum! (photo Ryan Schwartz)Anyone with a young child in the back of the car on a long journey will be familiar with the incessant questions that they can ask. Sometimes it may just be, “Are we there yet?” but for many, a long road trip can be an ideal opportunity for intellectual torture. My youngest could grind you down into submission after a couple of minutes.. “Why are trees green and not blue? How heavy are clouds and why do they float if they weigh something?” On and on and on and on….after a while you give up the will… “BECAUSE THAT’S JUST THE WAY THEY ARE!!!!”

Don’t get me wrong. After all, I am a scientist who studies children but it is quite clear that children seemed compelled to ask questions and find solutions. Sometimes it can get exasperating. “Because that’s just the way they are” is not a satisfactory answer and if you get suckered into starting to give a causal chain of reasoning such as, “Well, trees are green because of the chlorophyll they use to convert sunlight into energy,” well you know what happens next… On and on and on and on

When we don’t give them answers, children generate their own explanations and from their perspective, everything is the way it is for some purpose. Rocks are pointy to stop animals sitting on them. Trees have leaves to provide shade. This is called teleology – giving a functional reason for things that just happen to be the way they are for non-purposeful reasons. In the natural world there are all manner of things that appear complex and designed for a purpose. But that’s not the way the natural world works. It has no purpose and that’s one reason people find it so difficult to understand evolution through natural selection. Adopting the teleological stance that things have been designed purposefully is the intuitive way to think about the world and that’s one reason why children may be so inclined to creationist stories. Most religions (I don’t know if all) have some creationist account about origins usually in the form of God.

This is the point that my colleague Deb Kelemen at Boston University has made in her research. In fact, she calls it “promiscuous teleology” to reflect the pervasive nature of this way of thinking. You might think that once children are provided with non-teleological explanations than education can eradicate these naïve notions. However, in a paper published earlier this year in the prestigious journal “Cognition” she reports how science-educated adults can revert back to giving teleological explanations when forced to answer questions under time pressure. Is this simply the easiest answer to give? It may well be but my hunch that I give in my book is that we never truly abandon childhood ways of interpreting the world and that we have to work to ignore them. And that takes effort which is why putting someone in the spotlight can get them to think like a child again.

BTW I am also blogging over at t5m. So drop over there if you have a spare moment.


Filed under Research

May The Farce Be With You

The Guardian reported that Britain’s largest food chain, Tesco’s had been accused of religious discrimination following an incident where Daniel Jones, founder of the religion Jediism was ejected from a store in Bangor, North Wales for failing to remove his Jedi hood. The 23-year-old Jones who founded the religion based on the Star War movies said that he felt humilated and victimized and is considering legal action against Tesco’s.

StarwarsHe has a point. Over 400,000 people listed Jediism as their religion on the 2001 UK census making it more popular as a religion than Scientology. However, Tesco’s hit back saying that Jones, also known by his Jedi name, “Morda Hehol,” had not been banned and that “Jedis are very welcome to shop in our stores although we would ask them to remove their hoods…Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda and Luke Skywalker all appeared hoodless without ever going over to the Dark Side and we are only aware of the Emperor as one who never removed his hood…If Jedi walk around our stores with their hoods on, they’ll miss lots of special offers.”

I guess followers of alternative religion, Great Spaghetti Monster in the Sky, would also be directed to aisle 5 where there is currently a special offer on pasta.

UPDATE: As @kateweb has pointed out on Twitter, I may have to support Morda Hehol’s action against Tesco as the store did not specify which Hoods were banned.


Filed under atheism, In the News

Why There Is No GOD Gene

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I thought that I would make my point though the comic genius of others.

I would add that I don’t agree with everything John Cleese says, as he has made a number of errors about deterministic and probabilistic processes. But genes do build brains and ultimately cultures so the issue is graded rather than categorical. See my earlier blog about genes for language as opposed to genes for Shakespeare. But yes there is no gene for preferring Nicholas Cage movies or coconut ice-cream.


Filed under atheism, In the News

Imaginary Friends & the God Spot

Last week, Canon Lucy Winkett presented BBC Radio 4’s “Thought for the Day.” (For those of you non-Brits, this is a daily 5 minute dose of religion or God Spot that is broadcast on the UK’s largest radio show in the morning). You know that you are starting to make an impact if you get mentioned on this as it is usually an attempt to take some topical event and find religious connections or significance. So I was pleased I guess to get a mention. This is what she said,

Many children have imaginary friends. A little girl I know has a friend called Cilla and she sits at the meal table, goes swimming, is strapped into the back seat of the car and shadows every movement of her life. When I was a young child, I had two imaginary creature friends rather inexplicably called Packet and Beady who went with me everywhere too.

The fact that children often have imaginary friends is evidence for Professor Bruce Hood, a psychologist at Bristol university, of the hard wiring of intuitive belief in human beings. In a report published yesterday, his conclusions are that humans have evolved an instinct for religious belief as part of their strategy for survival. His argument is that children have what he calls a “natural intuitive way of reasoning” and that this intuition is overlaid later by more adult rational approaches. His conclusion is startling – that it’s more natural to believe than not to believe. Disbelief, says another anthropologist from the States, is generally the work of “deliberate effortful work against our natural dispositions”. In an age when scientific research and religious belief are often wrongly characterised as mutually exclusive, this is a fascinating proposition. The mistake would be to use this study as evidence either way of the truth of the existence of God, merely the receptiveness of human beings from birth, to believe in something or someone greater than themselves.

It is only a starting place for believers to know that this instinct to believe may be hard wired. Jews and Christians live by the commandment to love God with all our heart, soul and mind. As a Christian, I’m encouraged therefore to think about what I believe – and logic and reason play an important role. But there is one aspect of this research that is important in developing our understanding of religion – and that’s in the movement from belief to trust. For adults who have engaged their brain with their faith, which is a vital part of religious life, it is not enough to assent intellectually to the existence of God or not.

These are sterile arguments that can never be proved either way. It’s in combining our intellect with our instincts and emotions that will give us a view of life that’s holistic, that honours our humanity in all its complexity and beauty. And we express this not so much in belief but in trust. To live a life that trusts in God is to live a life that’s fulfilled in a way that unites heart, mind and soul. Our instincts are given concrete expression in a life that is whole, that will trust in the love of God and will choose to love others as we learn to love ourselves. This friendship with God is costly, deeply consoling – but, for me, anything but imaginary.

Once again people have used me as a soapbox to proclaim their interpretation and make up research findings that I have never produced. I have never worked on imaginary friends though I know of the work of Majorie Taylor  at the University of Oregon who has produced the best work in this area and a fine summary of the research in her book, “Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them.” Canon Winkett has assumed that I have worked on imaginary friends and used this phenomena as evidence that children are predisposed to believe in God. Well I haven’t. More importantly, Taylor’s work shows that children are aware that their imaginary friends are make believe. But that information was conveniently ignored in Canon Winkett’s thought for the day. Maybe if people did a bit more research and less thinking for the day we would get a better message.


Filed under book publicity, In the News, Radio

Should We Use the ‘C’ Word in a Science Class?

This week I was at the British Science Festival where I was interviewed by the BBC about the resignation of Prof Michael Reiss who was effectively forced out of his post as Education Director at the Royal Society. At the 2008 meeting last year, Prof Michael Reiss suggested that science teachers should be prepared to discuss creationist beliefs in the classroom if asked about them by pupils.

Many scientists think that it is simply unacceptable to use the “c” word in a science class. By even discussing creationism, teachers may be giving it an air of plausibility as an alternative to natural selection. I am not so sure. If anything, it may have been a missed opportunity to address the importance of discussing empirical evidence when evaluating what makes something scientific. This is especially important if the natural inclination in children is towards a creationist stance. Simply ignoring the issue doesn’t make the problem go away.

I would have thought that it must be better to see an argument demolished through reason and evidence than by testimony alone. Creationism is such an easy target that any science teacher could easily dismiss it. There again, people seem to have such a hard time accepting the truth of human evolution through natural selection, then maybe those class hours are better dedicated to fixing this problem. What do you think?

Here’s what I said. I am on 24 mins into the piece.

UPDATE: I spoke to Prof Reiss yesterday as we are on the same advisory panel for the @Bristol Science museum. He confirmed what I suspected, namely that his view has been totally distorted by the press. I thought he was very balanced and not evangelical in the slightest. We must be wary of witch-hunts.


Filed under atheism, In the News, Radio

Miracles Are Real Says Scientist

A leading scientist says that miracles are real. Professor Bruce Hood from the University of Bristol published a report today that proves that the impossible is possible. In his research, Hood found newspapers often print stories that misrepresent ideas. He says he has discovered a new species, sub-editorious that lives off attention grabbing headlines. Today he revealed that he had received an apology in an email from the Sunday Times and an offer to correct inaccuracies in the online version, thus proving that not all journalists are unscrupulous. However, Hood says his theory is based on data from one journalist and so it remains an anecdote. Still that will not stop him claiming that his research proves Richard Dawkins is wrong about the existence of God.

Hmm. maybe I could begin another career.

Thanks to Jonathan Leake for setting the record straight.

UPDATE: The Times is fast becoming my favoured paper as it reported that Prof Hood wore snazzy clothes and was a star at this week’s British Science Festival. Journalists aren’t so bad after all.


Filed under book publicity, In the News

More Cuts at the BBC

Germaine Greer & some bloody apologist!

Germaine Greer & some bloody apologist!

The producers of BBC’s primetime programme “The One Show” were good enough to plug my book last night on the broadcast last night. They had only intended to caption me as “University of Bristol” but I complained that I had trailed all the way down to London at the last minute to record a couple of minutes with Germaine Greer, who was not in the best of moods.

I arrived at 3.30 and met Germaine Greer and the crew having a late lunch in a Greek restaurant near Paddington. Then it was off to Little Venice to shoot a segment by the river. I had suggested that we film in Highgate Cemetery but apparently the budget didn’t stretch that far. Anyway I got into a very large chauffer-driven Mercedes and headed off with Germaine in the front and me in the back. Germaine told me all about her Australian rainforest and the problems with botanists – “They’re so bloody egotistical they name everything after themselves!”

At some point we lost the rest of the crew and the driver left us to try and find them. I suggested to Germaine that we could always run off with the car if he failed to come back. “It’s my bloody lease car” was her steely reply. The rest of the crew finally turned up and Germaine was given the questions that she was to ask me. It was quite clear that they wanted me to say that there is a gene to believe in god.

We started filming and every time I opened my mouth to speak there was some distraction off camera nearby – the old woman on the park bench who huffed when I spoke, the little boy rattling the railings with a stick, the numerous people walking into shot and staring at us and best of all, a bloke probably emptying the latrine of his canal boat.

Anyway, most of what I said was cut and here is what was left in with convenient cuts at critical points.

Serious Germaine

Serious Germaine

Germaine: We come into this world preprogrammed to breathe, to look around us, to feed, but the idea that we might also be preprogrammed to believe in God – well that rather beggars belief.

Pensive Bruce

Pensive Bruce

Bruce: I would say that our brains are programmed to try and understand what causes things to happen in the world and coming up with a supreme being seems to be the most sensible and easy solution [cut]…. that many people make and it is one of the reasons religions have been so successful. [cut]

At times of crisis we seek answers and of course, religion provides many of those answers and people find and take a lot of comfort in that.


Germaine: Does religion have a social function?

Bruce: Well its been around for a very long time, as far back as we can trace there is evidence of religion so something about it seems to be very persistent. [cut] I think it is because religion builds upon these natural ways of interpreting the world that supernatural belief is so prevalent.

The next section was completely cut

Germaine: Is there a God gene?

Bruce: That question doesn’t make any sense. Religions are culturally constructed and transmit by story-telling. Genes do build brains and I think that our brains are predisposed to believing in the supernatural but that’s like saying there is a gene for Shakespeare because there are genes for acquiring language.

The rest of the piece had others responding to the proposition that we are programmed to believe in God including philosopher AC Grayling and Michael Reiss, the former Director of Education for the Royal Society who was forced to resign. I am not going to comment on their remarks as I guess they were also heavily edited but I know that AC Grayling and I do not disagree about where the content of religious beliefs come from – that must be from what others tell us. But as I have been at pains to point out in the book – all religions are supernatural beliefs but not all supernatural beliefs are religious. And some supernatural beliefs are entirely personal such as superstitious rituals.

So it was cut here, cut there and generally cut to make a simple nature versus nurture argument that every science student is taught is a completely nonsensical way to understand biological development. Is it the case that people cannot understand the complexity of the issues or is it more the case that they are less newsworthy?

Anyway, the cuts I take most exception to are those imposed on the BBC. They made me travel 2nd class off-peak so I had a good two-hour wait at Paddington before I could board a train home with a valid ticket. They wouldn’t do that to Jonathan Ross.


Filed under atheism, book publicity, In the News, Television

I never said…..Update

Well, what did I expect? A fair representation in the press and a balanced view from commentators? Come off it. Whenever, religion comes up, people lose all sense of reason and impartiality.  This is why I wanted to construct a theory that addresses secular supernatural beliefs to avoid the problems of focusing just on religion. However, bloggers and commentators have completely misunderstood my position and the ideas I am proposing about the origins and prevalence of supernatural beliefs because of the recent press articles.

A couple of things. First, most of the articles in the press are based on the original article in The Sunday Times by Jonathan Leake and Andrew Sniderman. Jonathan did have the courtesy to phone me on Friday afternoon to talk about the piece. He had not read the book but had a copy of SuperSense sent to him. I thought I made my position relatively clear as we discussed the evidence and studies that indicate that we are born with brains to seek out patterns and infer hidden mechanisms, forces and entities. That does not make me either religious or a religious apologist. For example, if there is a gene for psychopathic killers that does not make it morally acceptable.

I talked about the early emergence of mind body dualism and how it relates to the notion of an after-life and my particular research interest, psychological essentialism. I said that I thought many supernatural beliefs had a natural origin in the way children reason about the world and that while story-telling was one way of transmitting beliefs, in many instances cultural stories reflected notions that were intuitively plausible to children. In fact, I categorically said that religions were cultural constructs as Richard Dawkins had proposed. Where I differ from Dawkins (and again this is very clear in the book) is the likelihood of removing supernatural beliefs through education but this is an empirical question that is not yet resolved. I also think that we need to understand individuals differences. Belief formation is not simply hard-wired or indoctrination.  To use Ben Goldacre’s dictum, “I think you’ll find it more complicated than that”

Jonathan thanked me and said that he would run the piece past me on Saturday for my approval. He didn’t.

As Saturday night passed, I thought that they had probably decided to drop the piece as it did not fit with the simple “Born to Believe in God” angle that he wanted to push when we initially spoke.  So imagine my horror to read the title of the piece in the Sunday Times. In fact, when you read the actual piece it does have me saying that beliefs are much more complex than either nature of nurture (to use that completely unsatisfactory dichotomy that is the mark of naive reasoning so favoured by journalists). And there were factual errors. I have not done a study on atheism and moral contamination beliefs about hypothetical organ transplantation though I daresay that all people irrespective of their religious persuasion would show the same effects that we found in groups of students. Still it was printed as a study on atheism.

The problem was compounded the following day with pieces in “The Daily Mail” and “The Daily Telegraph” regurgitating new versions of the story with added insertions. And so on…. like Chinese whispers the story has become distorted with individuals adding their own interpretations and agendas.

So before you start putting words in my mouth, judging me or the ideas I am putting forward, then please read the book. I think that it is relatively clear what I am saying.

UPDATE: Tim Lambert just posted a criticism of Jonathan Leake but I have to say that Jonathan was very quick to respond to my initial complaint back when this was first posted and an updated article was posted online. So I have no complaint (esp as I understand that it was probably the sub-editor who came up with the headline!)


Filed under atheism, In the News