Category Archives: Television

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

Ectoplasm Smells Like Seamen

unexplained-v2Last night, Channel 4 began broadcasting a 3-part series, “Unexplained,” presented by the loveable Tony Robinson. I am a huge Blackadder fan and these guys are comedy geniuses in my opinion. However, I know this series will annoy me. The first episode, “The Blitz Witch” was based on Helen Duncan, the last person to be jailed under the Witchcraft Act of 1735 for her reputed psychic revelations during WWII. The second, “The Ghosts of Glastonbury,” will investigate antiquarian Frederick Bligh Bond who claimed that his excavations of Glastonbury Abbey were guided by communications with dead monks. The final episode, “The Medieval Reincarnation,” looks at a group of Bath residents who recounted past life dreams to a local psychiatrist in the 1960’s.

The series already annoys me for a number of reasons. In addition to all the analysis based on hearsay, Tony will take part in pseudoscientific studies of psychic ability, past-life regression, séances and automatic writing. These are all discredited and yet presented in a framework that suggests they are possible.

 “Unexplained” perpetuates the belief that there is something real going on by confusing the public with the veneer of the scientific credibility. In last night’s episode, Robinson latched on to every piece of ‘evidence’ where possible. Moreover the production team deliberately misled the audience. They began by going over again the well-hashed episode where Helen Duncan claimed to materialize the ghost of a dead seaman from HMS Barham before news of the ship’s destruction was made public. The truth was that not all hands were lost and in fact it was common knowledge that the ship had been sunk. The Admiralty had already sent condolesence letters to relatives before the séance took place.

duncan_spiritFaced with the fact that the sinking of HMS Barham had not been a secret, the TV audience was left with two more clinchers. One was from the last surviving person to attend one of Duncan’s séances who described the  medium’s materialized ectoplasm – the spiritual snot that is supposed to exude from various orifices. The witness was a very elegant, demure and well-spoken old lady so you can imagine my shock when she revealed that the ectoplasm ‘smelt rather like semen!’  Maybe she meant seamen? 

The second conclusive piece of testimonial evidence came from an authority figure. At another séance in Edinburgh in 1941, Duncan revealed that HMS Hood had been sunk by the Bismark to no other than Brigadier Roy Firebrace before word had reached the Naval Office. Clearly this was no gullible believer. However, the TV production company failed to tell the viewing audience that Firebrace was already a major spiritualist at the time and went on to set up his own movement.

Nevertheless, Robinson concluded that the case of Helen Duncan was one of a ‘mixed medium,’ someone who may have used daft gimmicks like ventriloquist’s dummies or linen ‘ectoplasm’ but undoubtedly she was someone with a gift hounded by the authorities for her abilities … Give me strength. 

The number one reason people believe in the supernatural is because they have experienced something they cannot explain. If people are inclined by their supersense to such beliefs in the first place, then it is all the more easier for them to accept the supernatural. But let’s not bring pseudoscientific made-for-tv investigation into the picture if it is going to be used to present an unscientific conclusion.

“Unexplained” was partly produced by a Bristol-based company responsible for the series “Time Team” where Tony gallivants enthusiastically around the country with a team of archaeologists speed-dating digs in the course of 3 days. When Time Team first appeared, it used to annoy the hell out of serious archaeologists but they had to admit after the third or fourth series, that its huge success with the general public led to a popularizing of archaeology. It is about to broadcast series 16 in 2009! Let’s hope that “unexplained” does not increase applications to join psychic societies. 

UPDATE: Just in case you think that I am being mean, see what the reviews say

Tony Robinson and the Blitz Witch

IT SOUNDS like a rival series to the Harry Potter books: Tony Robinson and the Blitz Witch (and its sequels over the next few nights: TR and the Ghosts of Glastonbury, TR and the Medieval Reincarnation, TR and the Mystery of the Missing Acting Career). But unfortunately the Time Team man’s new series is less thrilling than that and with less scientific rigour.

Robinson has become a sort of professionally interested person these days, presenting all sorts of documentaries, usually history-related, and making them accessible through his apparently genuine fascination. But this hokey programme about the case of the wartime medium Helen Duncan didn’t convince me that he actually cared about the subject. Which was fair enough, because it was daft. Andrea Mullaney “The Scotsman”

Tony Robinson and the Ghosts of Glastonbury was another exercise in credulity, him and Becky McCall doing their feeble Mulder and Scully act, this time over some simple-minded stuff about automatic writing and dead monk spirit guides offering archaeological advice. I wondered whether any of the academic institutions that have awarded Robinson honorary degrees for his services to archaeology might consider withdrawing them, or at least issuing statements dissociating themselves from this wilful stupidity. Robert Hanks “The Independent”


Filed under supernatural, Television

Bush Shoes for Christmas

I am all excited for tomorrow as I am hoping that Santa will have brought me a pair of Baydan Shoes Model 271. Yes, that’s right, these are the infamous Bush shoes hurled at the president in one of the most ridiculous and funniest moments in this whole sad episode.

A Turkish company claim to make them and have taken on an extra 100 staff to cope with the demand for the black polyurethane-soled footwear. “Between the day of the incident and 1pm today we have received orders totalling 370,000 pairs,” Mr Turk (I kid you not)  told AFP news agency. Normally the company sells only 15,000 pairs a year of that particular model, he added.

However, the brother of the journalist “shoe –ter” denies this. “It’s all nonsense. These people want to exploit what my brother did,” he said. “The Syrians claim the shoes were made in Syria and the Turks say they made them. Some say he bought them in Egypt. But, as far as I know, he bought them in Baghdad and they were made in Iraq.”

Why shoes? Well if you did not know, throwing shoes at someone is a major insult in the Middle East. How odd until you remember that we used to throw shoes at people leaving on a journey for good luck. Hence the origin of tying shoes and cans to the departing carriage of newly-weds. How quaint that these old customs still survive today.

Me. I don’t believe in any of this stuff. But I still want to wear a pair of Bush shoes… oops.. that’s sympathetic magical reasoning again… damn my supersense.


Filed under In the News, Television

Religion v Science v Supernatural

Last night’s final episode of “The Genius of Charles Darwin,” dealt with the rise of fundamental Christian belief in the West and the clash between creationism and natural selection. Once again, Richard Dawkins championed the cause of reason and evidence in deciding truth about the origins of species against a sea of believers who persisted in various biblical versions or denials.

At one point, Dawkins was aghast that science teachers did not feel it their duty to dissuade pupils of their creationist beliefs and we had a cringe-worthy segment where he interviewed a science teacher who maintained that the world was less than 10,000 years old. Dawkins was exasperated. On the other hand, I sympathize with the teachers; especially those that have to face the threats from families and school governors. Also, just teaching and engaging kids is hard enough, let alone getting them to overcome their intuitive bias that natural selection must be wrong. These are the natural biases that form part of a supersense that there is purpose, order and design in the world. We need to abandon or suppress these  if we are to accept non-intuitive models of the world and I think that this intuitive thinking is one of the reasons why religious accounts are acceptable to so many.

I have also just been sent an on-line article featuring forthcoming studies of beliefs among US college students, which again highlights the prevalence of supernatural beliefs among highly educated individuals. I have asked for preprints of the studies cited and will report back when I have had a chance to read them but the emerging story seems to be the same point made by G.K. Chesterton, “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing, they will believe in anything.”

There is a widespread assumption that education and science training in particular will eradicate the prevalence of supernatural belief in the modern era. Richard Dawkins is spear-heading the neo-atheist movement to make this change come about. Although Darwin himself wrote that he thought that humans would eventually change their mindset about the origins of species, I am much more pessimistic. The various polls and studies and the sheer opposition to scientific explanations simply reflects the deep-seated, almost intractable, nature of belief. Is indoctrination solely responsible for this state of affairs? I don’t think so. Culture and religions may simply resonate with human inclinations. And where did these inclinations come from? 

I am not advocating that we give up trying, but we have to be realistic about the nature of the opposition to scientific models of the world and how strong those convictions can be.



Filed under atheism, Research, Television

Dawkins on Darwin – Does Richard Have a SuperSense?

I am enjoying Richard Dawkins’ latest TV series, “The Genius of Charles Darwin” currently broadcast on UK’s Channel 4. I am sure it will rally the atheists and rile the religious.

images1Not only is Dawkins celebrating the brilliance of Darwin and the power and elegance of Natural Selection to explain the origins of species, he looks like he is using the series as a platform to batter the believers again. Good luck to him. They are not easily dissuaded by argument or evidence.

However, there was one moment in Monday’s episode that I simply had to comment on. Dawkins went to London’s Natural History Museum that still house some of the original specimens documented and labelled by Darwin.

As he sat down to examine the collection, Dawkin’s said, “”This is a very weird feeling… these are Darwins original specimens!” 

He then picked up one pigeon and described how it differed from another.

“This one has been re-labelled but this one has been written in Darwin’s original hand”

At that point Dawkins held up the label to the camera in a lingering shot that I suppose the producers wanted to evoke a moment of awe and reverence.

One thing is clear. Dawkins is a passionate man and clearly has conviction in his advocacy of atheism and rejection of supernaturalism. But I wonder if he, like many others, feels an emotional connection to others through the objects they once handled in the same way the religious covet a relic?

I hope he does. It would make him seem more human to many.

Thanks Alice for bringing this to my attention.


Filed under Essentialism, Television