Melanie Phillips on pseudoscience and how the world is broken

I’d planned the post in my head. I was going to talk about Richard Dawkins’ new Channel 4 show: The Enemies of Reason. The Telegraph describes it with:

The 66-year-old scientist has investigated a range of gurus and therapists, including faith healers, psychic mediums, angel therapists, “aura photographers”, astrologers, Tarot card readers and water diviners, and concluded that Britain is gripped by “an epidemic of superstitious thinking”.

I was going to predict responses to the show. I reckoned there’d be a couple of types. Comment Is Free might have a few “science is a faith and doesn’t have all the answers and there’s actually something to all this stuff”, and the Guardian itself would have “yes of course it’s all nonsense, but don’t you see that it makes people happy and it’s a bit mean to attack it. Also Richard Dawkins is a fundamentalist and the show would be better presented by someone else”. But I wasn’t quick enough: Melanie Phillips got in there first1.

I know she’s usually a bit, um, extreme, but this is just nuttery of the highest order. And it starts off so well:

In a TV programme to be shown later this month, Dawkins looks at a range of ludicrous therapies and gurus, including faith healers, psychic mediums, ‘angel therapists’, ‘aura photographers’, astrologers and others. Not surprisingly, he is horrified by such widespread irrationality, not to mention an exploitative industry that fleeces people while encouraging them to run away from reality.

He is right to be alarmed. What previously belonged to the province of the quack and the charlatan has become mainstream. The NHS provides funding for shamans, while the NHS Directory for Alternative and Complementary Medicine promotes ‘dowsers’, ‘flower therapists’ and ‘crystal healers’.

She agrees! Wow. I was expecting the first type of response.

Disturbing indeed. But where Dawkins goes wrong[…]

Right, here we go.

But where Dawkins goes wrong is to assume this is all as irrational as believing in God. The truth is that it is the collapse of religious faith that has prompted the rise of such irrationality.

What? Seems like a non-sequitur, but whatever. The collapse of religious faith is to blame for the rise in irrationality? This seems immediately unlikely as much of the irrationality has been around for a long, long time. The murder of Abraham Lincoln prompted massive conspiracy theories. Astrology has been around for centuries. Alternative medicine could only really be seen for what it is once evidence-based medical science came into being, but would seem to be far more in response to that than anything religious. In Britain religious faith is down, but it’s had a massive resurgence in the US, which is also a major stronghold for all types of the irrationality being discussed. So I’m not sure the timeline really works. But let’s see how she backs this up…

We are living in a scientific, largely postreligious age in which faith is presented as unscientific superstition. Yet paradoxically, we have replaced such faith by belief in demonstrable nonsense. It was GK Chesterton who famously quipped that ‘when people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything.’ So it has proved. But how did it happen?

Proof by repeating yourself, apparently. All right then, how did it happen?

The big mistake is to see religion and reason as polar opposites. They are not. In fact, reason is intrinsic to the Judeo-Christian tradition.

The Bible provides a picture of a rational Creator and an orderly universe — which, accordingly, provided the template for the exercise of reason and the development of science.

So, let’s get this straight. The whole world has stopped believing in god, apparently. Everybody sees religion and reason as opposites, so they’ve taken up irrational things in its stead, despite having rejected religion for rational reasons. I’m not really following this. But, anyway, it’s not even true because religion and reason aren’t opposites. We know this because it says so in a magic book, and we should believe anything written in magic books.

Dawkins pours particular scorn on the Biblical miracles which don’t correspond to scientific reality. But religious believers have different ways of regarding those events, with many seeing them as either metaphors or as natural occurrences which were invested with a greater significance.

I wonder if she’s been reading Alister McGrath – he’s always going on about ‘significance’. Still not sure what her point is. Magic book says things happened. Dawkins says they probably didn’t. Melanie Phillips says they didn’t and are of course metaphors. So? Presumably she doesn’t deny all the miracles – virgin births, a child of a god, resurrection etc. etc.? If she denies it all, she has little in common with most Christians I’ve read. She’s using the initially-persuasive idea that the Bible can be interpreted in such a way as to make logical sense. Which still doesn’t mean it’s true, but would be a start. Sam Harris and others would argue that the Bible is such a mess of contradictions that there’s no way to interpret it without simply ignoring the parts you don’t like. But I digress.

The heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition is the belief in the concept of truth, which gives rise to reason. But our postreligious age has proclaimed that there is no such thing as objective truth, only what is ‘true for me’.

Knew we’d get to relativism eventually. Note that Dawkins isn’t mentioned here. Not one of the ‘New Atheists’/’Fundamentalist Atheists’/whatever has any truck with relativism. Nor do the vast majority of scientists, as far as I’m aware. I never understand how people so willing to read Christian theology can be so ignorant of secular philosophy, which pretty much rejects relativism outright. I also strongly doubt that any sizeable percentage of the population think there’s no such thing as objective truth (outside of postmodernism students, anyway), but then I can’t really back that up.

That is because our society won’t put up with anything which gets in the way of ‘what I want’. How we feel about things has become all-important. So reason has been knocked off its perch by emotion, and thinking has been replaced by feelings.

This has meant our society can no longer distinguish between truth and lies by using evidence and logic. And this collapse of objective truth has, in turn, come to undermine science itself which is playing a role for which it is not fitted.

What? Scientists now don’t believe in objective truth, so science doesn’t work any more? What? I’m not a sociologist, but I’m pretty sure all her statements about society are complete nonsense.

When science first developed in the West, it thought of itself merely as a tool to explore the natural world. It did not pour scorn upon religion; indeed, scientists were overwhelmingly religious believers (as many still are).

Oh, for crying out loud. Yes, Newton was religious. With the information he had, it made sense. Before the theory of evolution came along it was pretty damned hard to see any other explanation. But now, with the evidence we have, religious belief is undoubtedly irrational. If Newton were around today, it’s reasonable to think he wouldn’t be religious.

In modern times, however, science has given rise to ’scientism’, the belief that science can answer all the questions of human existence. This is not so. Science cannot explain the origin of the universe. Yet it now presumes to do so and as a result it has descended into irrationality.

No it doesn’t. That’s just not true. There are plenty of questions on which science hands over to philosophy. There are incredibly speculative ideas as to how the universe started, sure, but nobody with scientific credibility claims to have actually explained it. I don’t think it’s necessarily a question outside of science, though. We just don’t know. Presumably she doesn’t mean ‘how the universe started’, she means ‘why there’s something rather than nothing’, but the same applies.

The most conspicuous example of this is provided by Dawkins himself, who breaks the rules of scientific evidence by seeking to claim that Darwin’s theory of evolution — which sought to explain how complex organisms evolved through random natural selection — also accounts for the origin of life itself.

No he doesn’t. This is also completely false. In fact he specifically says that evolution doesn’t account for that. Biochemistry is investigating that particular problem. It depends what she means by ‘the origin of life’, of course. Does she mean consciousness? Cells? Things that evolve?

There is no evidence for this whatever and no logic to it. After all, if people say God could not have created the universe because this gives rise to the question ‘Who created God?’, it follows that if scientists say the universe started with a big bang, this prompts the further question ‘What created the bang?’ Indeed, if the origin of life were truly spontaneous, this would constitute what religious people would call a miracle. Accordingly, this claim in itself resembles not so much science as the superstition that Dawkins derides.

I’m not sure she isn’t confusing the origin of the universe with the origin of life, but whatever. It might be that the origin of life is extremely unlikely – indeed, it seems that it took millions and millions of years for (presumably) one chance event to occur – but that’s not ‘spontaneous’ any more than the weather is ‘spontaneous’.

Moreover, since science essentially takes us wherever the evidence leads, the findings of more than 50 years of DNA research — which have revealed the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce life — have thrown into doubt the theory that life emerged spontaneously in a random universe.

Uh oh. She’s not going to…she wouldn’t, would she?

These findings have given rise to a school of scientists promoting the theory of Intelligent Design, which suggests that some force embodying purpose and foresight lay behind the origin of the universe.

She did. I don’t believe it.

While this theory is, of course, open to vigorous counter-argument, people such as Prof Dawkins and others have gone to great lengths to stop it being advanced at all, on the grounds that it denies scientific evidence such as the fossil record and is therefore worthless.

A bit, but not really. The problem with intelligent design is that it’s not science. It makes no predictions. It has no causal mechanisms. It hinges completely on the idea that if evolution is wrong, god must have done it. It occupies the infinite space of crap-I-made-up-ness. I could say that the process of evolution is actually controlled by an intelligent and incredibly tiny bumblebee named Gordon. It’s possible, but a) if evolutionary theory is wrong, it doesn’t mean Gordon is real, and b) until I can provide any kind of experiment that would provide a different outcome for evolution vs. Gordon’s Design, how can we know? There are an infinite number of things that could be true, and we believe what the evidence suggests and nothing more. The reason scientists and rational thinkers have tried to stop intelligent design progressing is that it has no substance.

Yet distinguished scientists have been hounded and their careers jeopardised for arguing that the fossil record has got a giant hole in it. Some 570 million years ago, in a period known as the Cambrian Explosion, most forms of complex animal life emerged seemingly without any evolutionary trail. These scientists argue that only ‘rational agents’ could have possessed the ability to design and organise such complex systems.

Oh, man. There are any number of books which explain the Cambrian explosion. It’s actually really, really cool. I’m surprised she didn’t bring up punctuated equilibrium, but then she has just claimed all scientists are incapable of performing science. I like how she mentions the Cambrian problem, then tries to get out of it:

Whether or not they are right (and I don’t know), their scientific argument about the absence of evidence to support the claim that life spontaneously created itself is being stifled — on the totally perverse grounds that this argument does not conform to the rules of science which require evidence to support a theory.

There is no such claim, so their argument is bogus. You don’t need to be a scientist to understand this point.

As a result of such arrogance, the West — the crucible of reason — is turning the clock back to a pre-modern age of obscurantism, dogma and secular witch-hunts. Far from upholding reason, science itself has become unreasonable.

And thus, the whole of science is now ‘unreasonable’ because of, even from her viewpoint, a spat limited to evolutionary theory.

So when Prof Dawkins fulminates against ‘new age’ irrationality, it is the image of pots and kettles that comes irresistibly to mind.

Aha! I knew it!

So: the world went all rational and rejected religion. Religion, though, is secretly rational, and people are therefore rejecting rationality. So they now believe in all sorts of crap. This breaks science, because all scientists no longer believe in objective truth and think they can explain everything without using any kind of logic. This results in heroic evolution-deniers being silenced by conspiracies. Yes, looking at this evidence it does seem like religious belief lends itself to rational thinking. Also, Richard Dawkins is wrong about everything, and the program would better be presented by someone else.

I know it was fish in a barrel. I know I probably shouldn’t pay attention to such nonsense. But it was an incredibly annoying fish.

  1. I wrote all the below before showing the article to my girlfriend, who said ‘yeah, it’s Melanie Phillips’. Which is a fair point. But as it’s written I might as well publish 🙂 []