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I have been doing so much writing recently that I have developed some back pain and tennis elbow – I don’t even play tennis. I also have a bit of carpal tunnel pain. Hopefully all this sacrifice should pay off when I finish my latest project. But what to do? I recently read a blog by ORAC and realize I should try the triple woo power of a magnetic copper bracelet with the healing power of Jesus!
The international woo bracelet industry is worth an estimated billion dollars with annual sales of $300,000,000 in the US alone. However, studies of the healing powers of these bracelets have consistently shown no effect other than a placebo. Well dah! Once again the inimitable Randi wrote that such findings are hardly earth shattering. But clearly, a bracelet that combines the Holy Trinity of copper, magnets and Jesus can’t fail me.
What is the Ministry of Defence Hiding?
So far, it has been somewhat of a bumper beginning to 2010 for skeptics in the UK. First bomb dowsing is exposed and banned, then we have the recommendation to remove homeopathy from the National Health Service, Simon Singh’s libel case brought by the British Chiropractor Association is gathering positive momentum (against the bone manipulators!) and today I learned that the Ministry of Defence will destroy reports of UFO sightings in the UK. This move follows up on the decision to shut the British UFO investigation unit and telephone hotline.
Is it due to a drop in reported sightings? On the contrary, sightings have been increasing steadily in recent years according to a former MoD employee who used to work in the UFO unit. It would seem that the MoD are fed up having to respond to Freedom of Information requests from UFO hunters. On the other hand, that might just be the cover story….
I hope this sweeping rationalism does not go too far. Otherwise I will have nothing to blog about. There again, that’s the nature of belief… the more you try to remove it, the stronger it becomes!
Last month I had the honour to chair Richard Dawkins when he gave a talk in Bristol about his new book, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” We exchanged respective signed copies of our books and I have been slowly working my way through his though I have to say I have not yet finished – a million writing deadlines of my own to complete.
But I did want to write a post on the opening to Chapter 2 entitled, “Dogs, Cows and Cabbages.” In it Dawkins, asks the question, “Why is it so difficult for people to accept natural selection,” and he gives the answer, that when I read it, knocked me off my seat – essentialism. If you have not read SuperSense, a large proportion of it addresses this notion that we believe the world is inhabited by essences and that this explains many supernatural beliefs and practices. So you can imagine how gratifying it was to see it pop up in Dawkins’ latest book where he calls its influence, “the dead hand of Plato.”
However, if I had researched SuperSense more thoroughly I would have discovered that essentialism is also the answer given by Ernst Mayr for why people have a problem with natural selection. Mayr points out that since the time of Plato, people have assumed that there is a true identity to reality that cannot necessarily been seen directly. It’s like there is an ideal form for all the things we detect in the world. So there is an essential dog, an essential tree and so forth. All the variation we experience in the world is interpreted as some deviation from an ideal form – a form that is essential. But such a viewpoint is inconsistent with continual change and evolution. Origins of species through natural selection does not fit with the Platonic view and this is a point that I made in the book. You don’t have to teach children this. They naturally assume that all species are essentially different from each other and that’s why they have a problem with accepting Darwin.
Of course, I go further than Dawkins and Mayr in my theory. Essentialism is not just a belief about true identity. It manifests as a supernatural force that can contaminate reality. There is essential evil, essential goodness, essential youth, and indeed I would argue that we essentialize those things we consider unique such as individuals. I argue that an individual’s essence can contaminate an inanimate object or possession – maybe even a signed book. This is one reason why some people don’t want to touch or wear the killer’s cardigan. It also explains why we find the notions of duplication, genetic modification and all manner of procedures that violate the integrity of the individual as abhorrent. We are not necessarily aware of this way of thinking and as I have been at pains to point out, it may operate intuitively, but I think that every child born is still shaking the dead hand of Plato.
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.
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.
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!)
As far as saints go, St Thérèse of Lisieux seems a little bit lame. St Thérèse, who died in 1897 from tuberculosis at the age of 24, is known as the Little Flower of Jesus. She apparently prayed for the conversion of a triple murderer who refused to confess but just before he was guillotined, he grabbed a crucifix from a priest and starting kissing it. That’ll be the miracle then, I guess.
The Roman Catholic Church has decided to send her relics on a tour of Cathedrals round the UK so that the devout can kiss the box that contain her bones as they pray. Frankly, if that’s what lights your candle so be it. But I am more concerned by the report that some of her relics are to be taken into space in 2011 by the US astronaut Ronald Garan. I thought Charles Simonyi urinating on the Russian Cosmonaut launch bus for luck was bad enough. Transporting St Thérèse’s bones into space doesn’t seem appropriate as part of a scientific expedition. What if the bones are cursed? I mean she didn’t exactly stop the guy getting his head chopped off and her bones failed to avert the war in Iraq when they were taken there in 2002. I mean really, relics in space?
Anyway, the dean of Northampton Cathedral Canon Udris said of Thérèse, “One of her characteristics was to break down walls. ”
That could be handy as her bones are due to visit Her Majesty’s Prison Wormwood Scrubs in October.
I think this sketch says it all.
Seven Years Bad Luck?
One of the most common superstitions is related to tempting fate – you know the one where others turn round and say, “Why did you say that? Now we are never going to get there on time!” That’s why is it consider ill-mannered to compliment newborn babies in various cultures for fear of jinxing. Why is this? Why are we reluctant to comment on how well things are going? Jane Risen and Tom Gilovich recently published an intriguing investigation of this superstition where students were told about two potential scenarios. Jon has applied to the prestigious Stanford and is awaiting his decision letter. His mother who is confident that he will get in sends him a Stanford t-shirt. Participants then read either one of these two endings to the story:
Jon wears it while he’s waiting for the decision from Stanford, thereby tempting fate (gods are angered).
Jon stuffs the t-shirt in the drawer, not tempting fate (gods are mollified).
When asked to rate Jon’s chances of getting accepted to Standford, participants were significantly less likely to say that he would get in if he wore the t-shirt. Why is this? Students know that wearing a t-shirt does not influence the outcome. Risen and Gilovich think that these scenarios trigger automatic intuitive processes that focus on negative outcomes. (They found that giving participants a secondary task that occupies the rational suppression of intuition led to more superstition as I have previously reported).
Negative outcomes are more accessible than positive ones in our mind and we are particularly biased to remember instances were we flout the “don’t tempt fate” convention and things go wrong. This in turn reinforces the strength of the belief in fate. Once a given superstition gains some acceptance in a social group, no matter how arbitrary (don’t break mirrors, don’t walk under a ladder, don’t comment on success), the thought of flaunting it makes the prospect of a negative outcome seem especially negative and especially likely.
This is a great paper and of course is more grist to my mill that our SuperSense is a collection of intuitively based processes that generate supernatural beliefs. However, Risen and Gilovich have elucidated how these beliefs operate in the individual and their paper explains why arbitrary superstitions transmit culturally. My only difference would be that most of these beliefs are not arbitrary but rather share commonalities that emerge as part of normal child development.
Tim Burton's Take on Chinese Minghun
A couple of weeks ago I was in London to film a brief interview with a production company making a documentary for Channel Four about a man who exhumes bodies for a living. It was a really awkward interview as the first question posed to me was, “So why is the body important?” As I stumbled through the questions I realized that there are all manner of beliefs about the corpse that vary from culture to culture. I mentioned the Zoroastrian tradition of leaving the corpse on the mountain side to be consumed by the elements. The Mexican “El Día de los Muertos” (Day of the Dead) where they celebrate the deceased and even some cultures where the corpse is exhumed for a day of celebration. I even got a mention of the funereal cannibalism that was practiced by the South American Wari tribe up until the 1950’s where deceased relatives were cooked and eaten. In short there is no end to the weird beliefs concerning how we treat the dead but in each instance very few cultures simply treat the body as flesh and bone.
We learn this week that a grieving father in China paid graver-robbers to dig up the body of a teenage girl who recently committed suicide for failing to pass her university entrance exams. He had just lost his son and he wanted a “ghost bride” for him in the afterlife. This practice known as “minghun” reflects a widespread belief that an unmarried life is an incomplete one – even in death. A marriage ceremony is performed and the two corpses are buried together. In China, young girls are often sold for weddings and even death is no bar to selling one’s own daughter. Parents of a dead daughter often regard the money received in selling her for minghun as recompense for the dowry that they did not receive in her lifetime, while also posthumously elevating their child’s place. This practice reminds me of Jesse Bering’s work with pre-school children that I discuss in SuperSense where they reason that although a puppet mouse might be dead inside the belly of an alligator, it still has a mental life because the after-life is such a powerful assumption.
Although minghun has officially been banned it still goes on in rural communities leading to grave-robbing. One problem is the lack of suitable ghost brides. Last year, a Chinese gang were arrested for murdering young women to supply the need for minghun. Once again, we are reminded that not all beliefs are benign.
“The Exhumer” will be broadcast on Channel Four in July.