Monday, August 06, 2007

The Gullible Age: Review of 'The Enemies of Reason' by Richard Dawkins on C4 starts 13th August

Richard Dawkins's book The God Delusion sold a million copies. In a new and hilarious onslaught he pits hard science against astrology, tarot, psychics, homeopathy and other 'gullibiligy'

reposted from and here.

by Times Online
Reposted from:

They sang about it back in the 1960s, taking their clothes off on stage and extolling "mystic crystal revelation and the mind's true liberation". Few back then dared hope that their new age would one day be a broad enough church to embrace the heir to the throne and the wife of a prime minister. Cherie Blair has worn Mexican "bio-electric shield" pendants, Prince Charles endorses alternative medicine, and those hallowed shrines of capitalist consumer-ism Selfridges and Harrods host the Psychic Sisters mediums.

Even modern global oil corporations have used dowsers to search for deposits But now Richard Dawkins, the man who told you that God was not only dead but had all along been a bogeyman invented by bogeymen, has levelled his sights at the whole new age caravanserai, including astrologers, spirit mediums, faith healers and homeopathic medicine. Is it high noon for the Age of Aquarius? It is the believers in Aquarius (and Leo and Taurus and Pisces) who attract the first body blow in Dawkins's new Channel 4 series The Enemies of Reason, which begins next week.

Dawkins is horrified that 25% of the British public has some belief in astrology – more than in any one established religion – and that more newspaper column inches are devoted to horoscopes than to science. Leaning back on a sofa in the faded gothic splendour of Oxford's 14th century New College he sighs with something approaching despair: "It belittles our universe. To have astrologers demeaning astronomy by tapping into the spine-tingling wonder of the universe is . . ." he struggles briefly for a word, then finds one and pronounces it with a keen awareness of the irony: "Sacrilegious!"

For Dawkins, of course, science is a religion, at least in the sense that it is something he fiercely believes in, a belief system that insists its dogma stand up to rigorous "double blind" experimental testing and rejects anything that fails. Those who refuse to put their beliefs to any test, he suggests, do so because they instinctively know they will fail. He gives short shrift to the astrologer Neil Spencer's refusal to explain his "art" beyond claiming it to be a "deep dark mystery". He has more sympathy, though only just, for a group of dowsers attempting to find one canister containing water amid 11 containing sand.

The results are no better than the law of averages – or pure guesswork – leaving one woman close to tears, devastated by the apparent disappearance of her powers.

"I don't enjoy dashing people's lifetime careers, but if their careers are based on claims that are simply wrong . . ." he lets the sentence tail off, implying a good dashing is what they deserve. Not that it does much good. In most cases he has discovered both practitioners and believers immediately invent reasons why the experiment was flawed or a fluke to keep their faith. "The forgivingness of the gullible is amazing," he says.

The closest he can come to sympathy is to quote the British-Brazilian Nobel prize winner Peter Medawar's dismissal of the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's confused teaching on evolution: "He can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he took great pains to deceive himself."

But the real scorn, and I can almost detect a tinge of repressed involuntary hatred beneath his unfailingly polite exterior, falls on spirit mediums, whom Dawkins clearly believes to be little better than confidence tricksters feeding on the emotionally insecure or damaged. At a new age "trade fair" featured in the first episode of his series we hear Simon Goodfellow, a Midlands card reader, tell him he should prepare for a change in his life. But hinting at retirement to a man in his sixties is hardly a miracle of divination.

Goodfellow, obviously struggling to find something that strikes a chord with this seemingly mild-mannered elderly gentleman in front of him, tries to get a reaction for "a male relative with a G", possibly who has "served in the armed forces" – again hardly a wild guess for a man of Dawkins's age and class, except that he is barking up the wrong family tree. "No, nobody in my family involved in the military at all," is the glacially polite reply. Goodfellow, obviously wishing he had predicted his own ill-fortune for the day, makes a final stab at a "female with E", only to fail equally abysmally. Dawkins refers to the skilled television illusionist and "mind reader" Derren Brown, a master of "cold reading" (and explaining it afterwards) who takes hints and clues from the person or audience, then plays on the reaction, drawing inferences and using basic psychology so that in many cases the person being "read" provides most of the information.

More often than not the "reader" simply offers a variety of obvious routes for them to go down: when he sees someone fighting emotion or close to tears he can say with phoney sincerity: "I'm sensing tragedy here, a death, maybe quite recent." Dawkins says of the mediums: "These are people making money out of others' grief." He is unwilling to see much moral difference between show business types who perform in front of an audience for profit and the spiritualist leaders who conduct essentially similar "services" in so-called churches.

It is not hard to see this as a grey area where new age beliefs and superstitions blend with the old established religions. Have lucky charms and incantations simply supplanted rosaries and Hail Marys? Is there much essential difference between a spiritualist preacher communing with the other side and a priest praying to saints for divine intercession? For Dawkins the traditional religious – or indeed superstitious – defence, that the very concept of belief requires you to make a leap beyond the available evidence, is an insult to human intelligence. But what annoys him most is the people who take chunks of scientific language and blend it into "their own mumbo-jumbo". A woman in Glastonbury (where else?) claimed to have "altered his DNA" back to its original "Atlantean" structure by inserting the "missing triangles".

Dawkins has yet to feel any effect, he says with a smile before adding dismissively: "Of course, it's complete and utter rubbish. DNA is a spiral helix. There are no triangles involved." There is a world-weary incredulity in his voice when he asks me: "Did you see her face? Do you think these people really believe it?" I have to admit that I suspect they do, although faced with Dawkins's searching intellectual gaze, more than one of his interviewees seems forced into what looks suspiciously like a smile of mild embarrassment.

He has not yet caught up with the BBC's imported blockbuster Heroes, in which a twist in DNA in certain individuals brings on mutations that give superpowers, a hugely successful television fantasy piggybacking on what I suggest is a modern trend towards "wistful thinking". "I very much like that science fiction style of imagination which breaks out of the box and imagines things that could be true," he says, but he is no fan of that which takes the science out of the fiction. Obviously not a great television viewer, he also performed the minor miracle of altogether missing The X Files, although he approved of setting the sceptical Agent Scully against the paranormal proselytiser Mulder.

As far as Dawkins is concerned the truth is indeed out there, but too many of us are looking in the wrong direction. I put it to him that his assertion that these unverifiable beliefs "undermine our civilisation" flies in the face of the importance of richness of myth and religious belief to our artistic and cultural inheritance. His answer is straightforward: "I suppose that's an aesthetic judge-ment."

For him there is little more glorious than pure knowledge. "I regard the current backlash against science as a betrayal of the Enlightenment." He deplores the slide in science in British universities. Could it simply be that modern science is too hard for most people, and that superstition and religion have always been a way in which the wonders and vicissitudes of the natural world have been made accessible to the masses? I can see it does not come easy for Dawkins to sympathise with the truly ignorant. "That shouldn't be a licence to lie. The universe doesn't owe us justice," he says. "If people are down on their luck, there's no reason why that should change. There's no reason for people like Hitler and Stalin to get their comeuppance, much as we might like them to. "I shouldn't want people to behave in a particular way on account of a lie, though I expect some politicians would. Tony Benn, for example. I don't think he'd care whether something is true or not – just whether or not it benefits humanity."

I suggest that is more or less classic Marxism, and perhaps where it comes closer to humanism. But this is one area where Dawkins would have more in common with the Romantic poet John Keats's "Beauty is truth, truth beauty", though they might have to argue a bit about the definitions.

A man who holds no truck with established religion is unsurpris-ingly unlikely to have much good to say about Scientology, which purports to use scientific tools such as its controversial "E-meter". "It's purely made-up. It just taps into some 'gullibiligy'. They find some film star or somebody like Tom Cruise or whatever his name is who's thick as two short planks and he becomes a sort of advertisement."

But he has more scorn for the likes of Deepak Cho-pra, the Indian who has written bestsellers with titles such as Quantum Healing, which Dawkins says suggest some spurious linkage between spirituality and cutting edge science. "There is much about quantum theory that sounds almost mystical," he is willing to admit. "Much of it is indeed still plain mystery, but its predictions are stunningly accurate."

What matters is not to use fuzzy references to verifiable scientific theory in order to accrue credibility. Is it also the backlash against science that has delayed appreciation of the true risks of global warming? Dawkins has no doubts about the evidence, and drives a hybrid Toyota Prius, one of the first imported into the country – its dashboard displays are in Japanese – proudly pointing out the indicator that shows when it is running on electric power only. Among the dangers of the revolt against conventional science he cites the widespread rejection of the MMR vaccine after Andrew Wakefield's now discredited report claiming a link to autism.

As Dawkins says: "There might be bad scientists, but that does not mean the methodology of science is bad." For him the acid test is forever and always: "Test it!" This is a principle totally lacking, he charges, at the Royal London Homeopathic hospital, recently refurbished to the tune of £20m, including £10m from the cash-strapped NHS, and with a plaque certifying the endorsement of the Prince of Wales. (His title for episode two of The Enemies of Reason is The Irrational Health Service.) What is undisputed is that homeopathy derived from an early misunderstanding of the principle behind vaccination: that like cures like.

But actually a real vaccine stimulates the body's own immune system to fight the disease. What makes homeopathy so truly absurd in Dawkins's inexorable logic is the idea that a substance becomes more powerful the more it is diluted. The idea, widely believed though totally unproven, is that water retains a "memory" of the molecule, though if it did he points out – as the people of Gloucester might nowadays bear in mind – it would also "remember" the salt, mud and urine it once contained. He cites the statistical probability that "one molecule in every litre of water drunk once passed through the bladder of Oliver Cromwell". Hardly reassuring for royalists.

"I say to doctors who use homeopathy: if you can identify this you'd have discovered a whole new force in physics. Either there is no effect, in which case you shouldn't be charging people money, or there is an effect, in which case you should prove it and win the Nobel prize."

The fact that homeopathic doctors and patients do claim there is a benefit he puts down to the human body's power to restore itself when given the psychological boost of someone else's concentrated concern and attention: the average half hour to an hour, rather than the typical eight-minute NHS GP consultation. "There was a time when old-fash-ioned family doctors used to hand out placebos but now they aren't allowed to because it's against medical ethics. Now it's only the homeopaths who are allowed to benefit from the placebo effect.

"Homeopathy started out about 200 years ago at a time when conventional medicine was considerably more dangerous. At least they weren't applying leeches." Dawkins insists that phenomena including religion, myths, superstition and science need to be seen in their historical context. He quotes the science fiction author Arthur C Clarke's Third Law, "any significantly advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic".

"But you can't simply reverse that and say that because it calls itself magic now it must be future science."

He admits that applied science can be a process of trial and error, but insists that recognising the error is what makes the difference. His own hope would be that in 500 years' time science will have advanced as far as it has in the past 500.

When I suggest that fundamental- ism in Islam – the culture that ironically kept scientific advance alive in the Middle Ages – and a revival of creationism among Christians could turn all that on his head, he closes his eyes and says with deep feeling: "A nightmare!"

The creationists can prepare for a rocky ride from Dawkins the year after next, which will be the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth and 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. "It's going to be a big Darwin year," he says with undisguised relish.

Dawkins doesn't want to ban religion – "as long as it's done between consenting adults in private", he adds only half jokingly.

His ambition is to make people in the 21st century appreciate the world that modern science has given them, rather than rejecting it at the same time as taking its benefits for granted.

"I'm interested in consciousness- raising. In the same way that femi- nists now wouldn't get worked up any more about the phrase 'one woman, one vote', because they've already made us think about the issue."

He can certainly claim to have done that. His atheist treatise The God Delusion, now out in paper- back, has already sold more than 1m copies globally, though he admits he hadn't thought of the possibility that a few people might have bought it to burn it.

He was bemused at one Christian journalist's attempt to maintain that he secretly did harbour a belief in a supreme being. "I might have used the word 'God' in the same way Einstein did when he said 'God doesn't play dice': what he meant was that the universe couldn't be different. He was arguing against Heisen- berg's uncertainty principle." It was one of the few arguments in which science eventually came down against Einstein.

Richard Dawkins can accept people's longing for "something else" – miracles or an afterlife. He just wishes they would look in the proper places. "There is a certain nobility about facing up to the truth. There is something wonderful about understanding!"

Perhaps it's what God gave us a brain for. Oh, dear . . .

The medium who found Dawkins's father on the far side

When Dawkins consulted a medium who has appeared on daytime television and charges £50 for instant phone readings she said she could hear or see his father "on the other side".

He did his best not to look surprised as she continued: "I'm aware of your father stood right behind you. "On a spiritual level he wasn't the most openest man with his thoughts and his feelings. Ummm, I kind of want to say that I do love you and I do care – but that wouldn't have been his character." (Or that of many middle-class father figures of his generation, a sceptic might have said.)

But Dawkins let her continue. "I'm aware that you don't have you dad's photograph out" – it was true, he didn't – "so I'm a little bit concerned why. So I'm going to ask you: why don't you have it out?" Dawkins had a bombshell ready: "Well, he might be aware that I don't have it out because he comes to the house about once a week." "Oh, he's still here," she said, adding after a few seconds: "I don't feel it's working."

"Is that because you thought my father is dead and discovered that he's still alive?"

"No, nothing to do with that. I don't know."

She commented later: "As a clairvoyant you're only as good as the client."

The Enemies Of Reason starts on Channel 4 on August 13

No comments:

Post a Comment