Notes and Comment Blog


Jan 12th, 2006 7:48 pm | By

I listened to the replay of Iqbal Sacranie’s interview on PM yesterday, and it was just as silly and irritating as I expected. He so obviously had nothing relevant to say, he so obviously was simply expressing unthinking dislike, he so obviously was just floundering around looking for rationalizations, it was so obvious how empty they were. Er, they’re harmful, uh, stability, um, society, er, stable, you know, ooh, ah, um – they get diseases! That’s it. They get diseases – that’s scientific, that is. So you see what I mean. It’s obvious. But, er, we have to put up with it, because this is a democracy. But I sure don’t want to! And of course you can see why. It’s obvious. Stability. Harmful. Mutter mutter choke.’ Yes, all very elevating and enlightening.

But. I don’t think it’s a police matter. Sacranie is a damn fool with a narrow mind, but that’s not a police matter either. He ought to wake up and learn to think properly, but I hardly think the police are going to teach him to do that. Not their job, is it. No, that’s our job – his fellow citizens of the world.

His (veiled?) threats against Rushdie are another matter. But those are not why the police were called. But he didn’t utter any threats, not even veiled ones (he said the death penalty was too good for Rushdie, that’s what – not all that veiled). No, his potential crime may have been a violation of section 5 of the Public Order Act. I wasn’t really aware of this act before…it’s rather interesting…

Scotland Yard’s community safety unit, which investigates homophobia and hate crime, is considering whether Sir Iqbal has broken telecommunications laws or the 1986 Public Order Act, which forbids the use of “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress or thereby”.

You guys have an act that forbids the use of insulting words within the hearing of people likely to be caused distress thereby? Holy jumping Jesus! Are you crazy?! Were you all in a coma when that was passed, or what? Didn’t it cross anyone’s mind that those terms might be just ever so slightly broad and sweeping? That they might be just a tiny tiny tiny bit of an impediment to free speech? I mean – don’t you all use words every day, every hour, that are insulting (to something or someone somewhere) enough to cause someone somewhere possible potential distress? And who knows if she’s in earshot or not?! I know I do. I use words of that kind every hour, every moment – they are my life and breath and reason for existing. Imagine my surprise to find that they are illegal.

I must be missing something. There must be some reason this Act isn’t as ridiculous as it looks at first blush. I can’t think of what it is, but there must be. Either that or you were all on an outing to Preston that day, and missed it.

Autonomy v Respect

Jan 12th, 2006 2:33 am | By

Some more on this question of comprehensive v political liberalism, and respect, and what is meant by it. G has been arguing for a more limited reading in comments, but I’m not convinced that the quoted passages fit such a reading.

One may sympathize…without feeling that he understands the type of mutual respect that is required in a pluralistic society. I agree with Rawls: such respect requires (in the public sphere at least) not showing up the claims of religion as damaging, and not adopting a public conception of truth and objectivity according to which such claims are false.

That seems pretty clear to me. Surely she’s not talking about leaving ‘our private differences over comprehensive conceptions of the good out of political discourse and negotiation, and certainly out of political institutions themselves’ there. Isn’t it pretty unequivocal? Such respect requires, at least in the public sphere, not showing up the claims of religion as damaging, and not adopting a public conception of truth and objectivity according to which such claims are false. She doesn’t say ‘in the political sphere at least’ – she says ‘public’. I take that to mean public talking and writing, not purely public political talking and writing – since she says the former and not the latter. Respect requires us not to adopt a public – not political, but public – conception of truth and objectivity according to which the claims of religion are false. Do public sphere and public conception actually mean political sphere and political conception in Rawlsian language? Maybe they do, I don’t know. But the multiculturalism essay was in the Boston Review, which is not a technical journal of philosophy – surely Nussbaum must have intended to use ordinary language there.

The autonomy question – as G said, ‘even this minimal notion of respect has a problem with conceptions of the good that advocate political subordination of others (women, ethnic groups, adherents to other religions, etc.), because respect for individual autonomy is so basic to political liberalism.’ But…

I think it is plausible to read [Okin] as endorsing a form of comprehensive liberalism, in which liberal values of autonomy and dignity pervade the fabric of the body politic…her view resembles the views of John Stuart Mill and Joseph Raz, who see the fostering of personal autonomy in all areas of life as an appropriate goal of the state. Such moral liberals can still recognize the intrinsic worth of religious liberty and thus respect the choices of religious believers – up to a point. But, given their view that autonomous lives are better than hierarchically ordered lives, they are bound to play favorites among the religions, using the state and its persuasive apparatus to wean people away from religions that do not foster personal autonomy – as John Stuart Mill explicitly urges in On Liberty, where he excoriates Calvinism…There can be little doubt that a Millean liberal state will show public disrespect for Calvinism in all sorts of ways and will make frequent pronouncements about human flourishing and human nature that go well beyond the core of the political conception.

So – valuing autonomy will cause the Millean liberal to show public disrespect for Calvinism in all sorts of ways – and surely I’m not reading uncharitably in thinking that Nussbaum is critical of such an outcome. In fact she sounds (to me) unpleasantly like all the would-be censors who are always zipping up and down telling us not to disrespect their cherished beliefs. Very unpleasantly, in fact. This passage (it’s on pages 108-109 of the Okin book) makes me more twitchy every time I read it.

She goes on:

The political liberal, by contrast, begins from the fact of reasonable disagreements in society, and the existence of a reasonable plurality of comprehensive doctrines about the good, prominent among which are the religious conceptions. By calling them reasonable, the political liberal shows respect for them and commits herself to a political course that is as protective of them as it is possible to be, compatibly with a just political structure.

I still don’t see how to read that other than as a condemnation of showing ‘public disrespect’ for religions in public discussions, and as something of a warning about putting autonomy ahead of a certain (rather peculiar) idea of respect.

A Couple of Reviews

Jan 11th, 2006 9:45 pm | By

PZ comments on ‘The Root of All Evil’ at Pharyngula.

Nobody should ever call Dawkins arrogant. On the scale established by American televangelists, by Christians in general, he is a timid model of bashful humility. Pit a man who works for his knowledge, who willingly tests and reviews it continually, against a mob who trusts in revealed knowledge dogmatically, and I’ll tell you who the arrogant ones are.

Well exactly. How it did irritate me, listening to that smug unctuous man telling Dawkins he is arrogant. What a joke! But it works, you know. It works all the time. The Limbaughs and O’Reillys never get enough of that (well they wouldn’t, would they – it works) ploy, calling any failure to submit to religious dogma ‘elitist’ and an ‘attack of people of faith’. So however upside down and backward it is, it just keeps going on and on and on.

There is a review-synopsis of the first show at this new blog, which I see some of you have already found via Pharyngula. I meant to link to it yesterday but [voice rises to shriek] I’ve been busy! But there it is now – with its name derived from Pope, just as (indirectly) B&W’s is.

The naming things is an issue for those that don’t believe there actually is a God or Gods but who don’t want to be seen as going beyond evidence and logic and claiming that there definitely isn’t a God or Gods (if only people would stop thinking atheism means this!), and the arrogance this is seen to entail (for a good little book on atheism, have a look at Julian Baggini’s ‘Atheism: A Very Short Introduction’; it’s cheap and easy to read quickly).

Same here. B&W is cheap and easy to read quickly. I take a lot of pride in that.

Respect One and Respect Two

Jan 10th, 2006 11:25 pm | By

I gather that Brian Leiter is thinking about this subject too.

I am wondering whether any readers know of literature making the case for toleration of religion qua religion. What has struck me in reading the literature is that while religious toleration is often a paradigm case for discussions of toleration, the arguments for it are not specific to religion: arguments from autonomy and well-being would equally well encompass toleration of many other kinds of belief that are not religious in character…What I’m wondering is whether there are other articles that try to argue why religion in particular should be tolerated, arguments that make claims appealing to distinctive features of religious belief and practices. Or as Macklem frames the question: “What is it that distinguished religious beliefs from other beliefs, so as to make them worthy of distinctive, perhaps superior constitutional protection?” That, to my mind, would be an argument for religious toleration.

It looks as if there aren’t very many, and as if those there are aren’t very good. Which won’t surprise us much, I should think. It is apparently just what I’ve been saying for a long time: it’s just an unargued, assumed, longstanding, habitual asymmetry that everyone takes for granted but that doesn’t have much justification. Religion is a special case. Yes, but why? Dunno – it just is.

Let’s consider what Nussbaum says, again. From the earlier comment:

But to claim that freedom of speech promotes truth in metaphysics and morals would be to show disrespect for the idea of reasonable pluralism, and to venture onto a terrain where one is at high risk of showing disrespect to one’s fellow citizens. Mill is totally oblivious to all such considerations. He has none of the delicate regard for other people’s religious doctrines that characterizes the political liberal…In On Liberty he does not hesitate to speak contemptuously of Calvinism as an ‘insidious’ doctrine…One may sympathize…without feeling that he understands the type of mutual respect that is required in a pluralistic society. I agree with Rawls: such respect requires (in the public sphere at least) not showing up the claims of religion as damaging, and not adopting a public conception of truth and objectivity according to which such claims are false.

What does ‘respect’ mean there? What is the mutual respect that is required in a pluralistic society, and that requires us not to show up the claims of religion and not to adopt a conception of truth and objectivity according to which such claims are false?

Respect means at least two different things, I take it. One, it means basic civility, politeness, the right way to treat people; decency, good behavior, not shoving people or spitting on them or calling them rude names. It doesn’t require thinking the people are nice people, or interesting, or right about anything – it doesn’t require any opinion of them at all. That’s not the point. The point is that the default mode for how to treat people, unless they’re approaching you at speed with a sharp sword or trying to take your lunch and eat it themselves, is to be civil. That’s respect one; respect two is quite different. It’s cognitive, and substantive, and involves judgment; it has content, it’s about something, it’s earned in some way. That means it can’t possibly be universal, or automatic, or a default mode for how to treat everyone; or mandated, or expected or demanded. But Nussbaum seems to be demanding respect two in addition to or even instead of respect one. Well, that’s ridiculous. And not only ridiculous, but surely a recipe for mental abdication and vacuity. I don’t see how one could even begin to implement such a program without giving up thinking of any kind. Especially given that last terrifying clause – ‘and not adopting a public conception of truth and objectivity according to which such claims are false’. Eh? Such respect requires us not to adopt a public (B&W is public) idea of truth in which such claims are false and wrong? Well then respect requires us to adopt no conception of truth at all! To just bag the whole idea!

Respect one is a good thing, but Nussbaum’s expansive idea of universal entitlement to respect two and its entailing the non-disagreement with religion, seems to me to be an intellectual nightmare.

With All Due Respect

Jan 10th, 2006 7:37 pm | By

So, a couple of days ago, turning over and over in my mind this much-vexed subject of belief and respect and faith and religion and whether we are or are not allowed (‘allowed’ in the broadest sense, not the most literal one) to criticise them – I re-read an essay of Martha Nussbaum’s that has puzzled me in the past, and behold, it puzzled me all over again.

The essay is packed full of statements that puzzle me – the margins are riddled with question marks. I’ll give just a sample.

Even if one were convinced…that all religion is superstition, and that a comprehensive secular view of the good is correct, we do not show sufficient respect for our fellow citizens when we fail to acknowledge that they reasonably see the good differently…So it is hard to see how we can respect the bearers of such convictions and yet not respect the choices they make to lead traditional religious lives.

We do not show sufficient respect for our fellow citizens when we fail to acknowledge that they reasonably see the good differently? So – we have to acknowledge – in advance, without questioning in particular – that our fellow citizens reasonably see the good differently, in order to show them sufficient respect? That’s an odd idea.

By calling them [comprehensive doctrines about the good – OB] reasonable, the political liberal shows respect for them and commits herself to a political course that is as protective of them as it is possible to be, compatibly with a just political structure.

Well, yes, no doubt. By calling everything that anyone thinks or says ‘reasonable’ one does show respect – but at the price of calling everything that anyone thinks or says ‘reasonable’. The trouble with that idea is that not everything that anyone thinks or says is in fact reasonable. I’ve noticed that on more than one occasion.

Political liberalism [in contrast to comprehensive liberalism; this is a distinction from Rawls – OB], the type of liberalism I would defend, seems to me far more able…to accomodate the very great value of citizens’ religious freedom…by calling the conceptions ‘reasonable,’ it gestures toward the many contributions religions have made, and continue to make, to the goodness of human life.

But why would one want to gesture toward those instead of toward the opposite? Why would one want to gesture toward the contributions rather than toward the diminutions and deprivations, the subtractions and denials, the removals and excisions, the narrowing and stifling and stunting, the frightening and bullying, the dominating and tyrannizing? And then, another question, why would one want to perform such gesturing by calling the conceptions ‘reasonable’ when one in fact thinks they are the very opposite of reasonable? Why should one decide ahead of time, as a matter of principle, to call any conceptions ‘reasonable’? Why doesn’t one rather wait until one has learned what the conceptions are, and thought about them? Why doesn’t one then call them reasonable if they are reasonable and unreasonable if they are not? Why does Nussbaum think we should put the need to ‘respect’ our fellow citizens (and it’s highly debatable whether such an approach even does respect people, but that’s a separate question, which I want to pick at later) ahead of our need to evaluate conceptions on their merits?

I’ve talked about this before. I don’t understand it now any better than I did in June 2004. So I was pleased to note how Barbara Forrest’s contribution to the Kitzmiller comments starts:

One of the greatest gestures of respect for one’s fellow Americans is to tell them the truth. To do otherwise is the height of disrespect.

Well exactly. Surely ‘respecting’ people by firmly deciding in advance to assume that their conceptions are, sight unseen, reasonable, is – no respect at all. It’s just a caucus race, it’s just Lake Wobegon. All have won, all shall have prizes, all conceptions are above average. With respect like that who needs contempt?

Science and Religion

Jan 9th, 2006 10:52 pm | By

If you want to hear some thoroughly silly reactions to Dawkins on God, listen to the latest Saturday Review.

First you get a bit of soundtrack, of the cheery perky dense evangelical telling Dawkins what’s what.

Ted Haggart: ‘We fully embrace the scientific method, as American evangelicals – and we think, as time goes along, as we discover more and more facts, that we’ll learn more and more about how God created the heavens and the earth – ‘

Dawkins points out that the evidence shows the earth to be 4.5 billion years old, Haggart says (perkily, cheerily), ‘You know what you’re doing?’ and explains that he’s paying attention to just part of the scientific community, and that maybe in a hundred years ‘your grandchildren will laugh at you.’

‘You want to bet?’ Dawkins asks, sharpish.

‘Sometimes it’s hard for a human being to study the ear or study the eye and think that happened by accident.’

‘I beg your pardon, did you say “by accident”?’


‘What do you mean “by accident”?

‘That the eye just formed itself somehow.’

‘Who says it did?’

‘Well, some evolutionists say it.’

‘Not a single one that I’ve ever met.’

[Sarcastically wondering]: ‘Really?!’


[More wondering]: ‘Ohh.’

‘You obviously know nothing about evolution.’

‘Or maybe you haven’t met the people I have.’ [laughs] ‘But you see – you do understand – you do understand that this issue right here, of intellectual arrogance, is the reason why, people like you, have a difficult problem with people of faith – ‘

See what I mean? He has a considerable nerve, this Haggart guy, telling Dawkins that he, Dawkins, is arrogant, when he’s just been lecturing him on a subject of which he does obviously know nothing. ‘That the eye just formed itself somehow.’ He has no clue what he’s talking about, but that doesn’t stop him from insisting on his ridiculous point. Isn’t that a tad arrogant?!

Then after the listen, all three guests rant and fume and gibber. George Walden talks about ‘jackboots stamping on the few Christians who are left’ and ‘stamping on the faces of Jews and Catholics’. Then Fay Weldon gets worked up: ‘He had an emotion, which is that science and religion are fundamentally opposed, and he cannot come to terms with the fact that they may not be.’ Walden complains, ‘He doesn’t deal with faith, he deals with religion – and faith is a big serious thing.’ Tom Sutcliffe – he was the only sensible one there – pointed out, ‘His specific point in the first programme is that faith is the problem – the belief in things without as it were physical or substantial evidence is the central problem.’ Then Weldon, outraged, says, ‘Well it’s outrageous, what is he going to put in its place, science?’ ‘Yes!’ says Sutcliffe, slightly exasperated. Weldon is flummoxed. ‘He’s going to look at the stars and say – ‘ [stupid baffled laugh] ‘I mean how is he going to explain them away?’ Then Paul Farley quotes William Burroughs, ‘No job too dirty for a scientist.’ In short it was quite a display of hostility to science and reason on the part of right-on intellectuals. But it does seem (to me anyway!) to bear out the claim that criticism of religion inspires a special intensity of outrage, even among non-believers. And even in the UK.

Resistance is not Futile

Jan 8th, 2006 11:18 pm | By

The Herald on Dawkins on religion on channel 4.

This new two-part documentary, which begins on Channel 4 tomorrow, asserts that there is no safe or defensible middle ground between science and religion, its thesis being that even the moderate followers of Islam, Judaism and Christianity are deluded, defective and potentially dangerous…It is in this capacity that Dawkins travels to various theological flashpoints…challenging a full range of beliefs and their advocates. And for an ambassador, he is not particularly diplomatic. The programme takes its cue from a statement Dawkins made immediately after September 11, 2001: “[Religion is] lethally dangerous nonsense. Let’s now stop being so damned respectful!”

Well, we’ve tried diplomacy, and what has it gotten us? Only more and louder demands. Only an ever-stronger and more entrenched sense of entitlement, to an infinite quantity of respect. So the hell with it.

While Pastor Haggard, for example, may have a point when he counter-accuses Dawkins of “intellectual arrogance” on camera, he does himself no favours by later throwing the film crew out of his Christian-industrial mega-compound.

I don’t think Pastor Haggard does have a point, as a matter of fact. I heard the soundtrack from that particular bit on Saturday Review, and it seems to me Pastor H was the arrogant one. He made a silly pronouncement about evolution – about the eye or the ear evolving ‘by accident’ – which showed he had no understanding of what he was pronouncing about. Dawkins said as much – and Haggard called him arrogant. Well how silly! How completely inane! Yet again – this kind of thing doesn’t fly in other areas, and we know it doesn’t, but as soon as people clutching prayer books turn up, all the rules change. We don’t wander into operating rooms and tell neurosurgeons that it’s really hard to believe they’re going to be able to repair the aneurism that way. We don’t stroll into the pharmacological factory and start querying the recipes. So why does Pastor Haggard think a zoologist is being ‘arrogant’ in telling him he doesn’t understand evolution? Which of them is more likely to know something of the subject? But Pastor H is a godbotherer, so it’s ‘arrogant’ to tell him he’s clueless and confused and ignorant.

Producer Alan Clements will accept credit for the original “uneasy and timely idea” of making a documentary about the apparent “rise of faith and retreat of reason in modern society”. He stands by the finished product 100%. “I think these are important films,” says Clements, “and programmes like this need to be made and watched.”…This is, then, for better or worse, a programme that lets Dawkins be Dawkins. His views, already well known, are expressed here with often electrifying clarity. He deconstructs such “fairy stories” as the assumption of the Virgin Mary with witty, angry and rigorous academic passion.

Isn’t a little clarity on this subject a welcome relief? We hear more than enough mumbling about deep piety and devout faith and pious depth and faithful devoutness – isn’t a little of the other thing useful for clearing our heads?

Dawkins describes all religious faith as “a process of non-thinking”…What, though, does he actually hope to achieve with these programmes, in this country? He must know that audiences will respond according to the polarities of their own faith or lack of it. True believers will be affronted, while the typical, liberal Channel 4 viewer will have their non-belief validated.

No, I don’t think you know that. I don’t think anyone does, or can. It’s likely that many people will be in one of those two categories, but no one knows how many people will think about what is being said, perhaps for the first time in their lives. We do sometimes change our minds about things, we do sometimes listen and hear, we do sometimes take in new ideas and new evidence, we do sometimes see things in a new light. It’s not useful to write that possibility off in advance. One never knows.

“But I think a fairly substantial number of people haven’t really given it a lot of thought, and only vaguely think of themselves as Christian. This programme just might open some eyes to the fact that you don’t have to believe this stuff, that it’s OK to be an atheist. It’s a bit like being gay 30 years ago, when it was necessary to consciously come out of the closet. I’m hoping that I may sway people in that middle category, who might be shaken into thinking about it.”

Just so. It’s not possible to tell what eyes will be opened. (Consider the massive impact Carl Sagan had with ‘Cosmos’. These things happen.)

Television, like the society from which it broadcasts, has found it expedient to display ever greater tolerance, indulgence and relativism in regard to lifestyle choices, particularly matters of faith. For this reason, Dawkins’s eminently reasonable argument may come across as almost radical in its forcefulness. “Yes it will,” he says. “Because you’re simply not allowed to attack someone’s religion. You can attack their politics or their football team, but not their faith. I think it’s very important that this should be seen as complete nonsense. Why shouldn’t people be required to defend their religion?…I think moderate religion makes the world safe for extremists, because children are trained from the cradle to think faith in itself is a good thing. So then when someone says it’s part of their faith to kill people, their actions need no further justification, and are almost respected as such.”

Exactly. We’re constantly bombarded with that silly idea that faith in itself is a good thing. How can we resist except by resisting?

Marginal Comments

Jan 8th, 2006 7:31 pm | By

There are some oddities in this piece on books about how to read Derrida and Marx.

The assumption of Granta’s How to Read series is that readers will go on to read at least some of the works discussed. Including this author in a series of this sort, aimed at a “general reader”, invites an interesting question: should one read Derrida? Is his work important, something with which any intelligent person should be familiar? In the grand scheme of things, perhaps not, but the question is complicated. What might it mean to say that an author is important, not just in a particular field, but for society as a whole?

What, indeed? Surely it’s fairly obvious that one has to figure that out in order to offer a reasonable answer to such a question. Isn’t it? Isn’t a question like ‘is Derrida’s work important?’ one that pretty much demands consideration of what is meant by ‘important’? Doesn’t one have to start by saying ‘Well what are we talking about here? Important to whom? Important for what purpose? Who wants to know?’ Words like ‘important’ are pretty obviously contextual rather than self-evident, aren’t they? Or am I confused.

In How to Read Derrida, Penelope Deutscher, a philosophy professor at Northwestern University in the United States, explains that deconstruction, the idea most closely associated with Derrida, is a way of reading that focuses on hidden contradictions, “deconstructing” the text, and often confounding the intentions of the author. This applies to radical and alternative ideas as well as established ones…To suggest that people should read Derrida, then, is to warn against simplistic or one-sided ideologies, and insist that “things are more complicated than that”.

Okay, but – is Derrida the only writer that’s true of? Are there other people who fit into the sentence ‘to suggest that people should read [__], then, is to warn against simplistic or one-sided ideologies, and insist that “things are more complicated than that”‘? Is Derrida the only writer who has ever warned against simplistic or one-sided ideologies, or pointed out that things are more complicated than that? If he’s not (and I’m hinting that I think he’s not), then is it quite true to say that to suggest that people should read Derrida, then, is to warn against simplistic or one-sided ideologies, and insist that “things are more complicated than that”? If someone – say, Derrida – is only one of many people who have said X, then is it clear that a suggestion that one should read Derrida is a suggestion that X? I’m not sure it is.

But, whatever satisfaction we may derive from Marxism’s power to explain, if Marx’s work is merely another text to be read it loses much of what he intended. For theory to “grip the masses”, as Marx put it, there has to be at least the foundation of a mass movement for it to address. Without such a movement, theory lacks direction, discipline even. Consequently, the obscurity of contemporary philosophy as exemplified by Derrida and his followers is not a purely intellectual phenomenon. Disconnected from political engagement, reading lacks urgency, and how we read, and what, becomes almost arbitrary.

Wait – what? Disconnected from political engagement, reading lacks urgency? It does? Not at my house it doesn’t! Not unless ‘political engagement’ is interpreted almost insanely broadly. Disconnected from engagement of any kind, one might say, reading lacks urgency, but then that’s pretty much a tautology – and there are more kinds of engagement than the political. Lots more. So – I beg to differ.


Jan 7th, 2006 9:52 pm | By

And there’s always dear Madeleine Bunting. How fondly I look back on her musings about how much happier ‘African’ lives are than those in the creepy dreary alienated consumerist West. How the people in the Democratic Republic of Congo must have chuckled if any of them were in a position – what with being so busy starving and being ill and dying and all – to find a Guardian and read her essay.

Conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo is killing 38,000 people each month, says the Lancet medical journal. Most of the deaths are not caused by violence but by malnutrition and preventable diseases after the collapse of health services, the study said. Since the war began in 1998, some 4m people have died, making it the world’s most deadly war since 1945, it said.

Yes but at least they’re not all trivial and consumerist, and that’s what counts. Anyway, she has a stupid piece on religion and ‘atheism’ (her version), taking off from Richard Dawkins’s Channel 4 show on religion as the root of all evil. I haven’t seen the show, so can’t (and won’t! not if it was ever so) comment on Bunting’s take on that. But that still leaves lots to comment on.

His voice is one of the loudest in an increasingly shrill chorus of atheist humanists; something has got them badly rattled…Behind unsubstantiated assertions, sweeping generalisations and random anecdotal evidence, there’s the unmistakable whiff of panic; they fear religion is on the march again.

Well gee, why would we think that, do you suppose? Are we all crazy and delusional and dribbling with paranoia? How could anyone possibly fear that religion is on the march again right now, and how could anyone object if it were?

That lack of empathy also lies behind Dawkins’s reference to a “process of non-thinking called faith”. For thousands of years, religious belief has been accompanied by thought and intellectual discovery, whether Islamic astronomy or the Renaissance. But his contempt is so profound that he can’t be bothered to even find out (in an interview he dismissed Christian theology in exactly these terms).

Yes but the fact that religious belief has been accompanied by thought and intellectual discovery (Bunting accidentally put that well) doesn’t mean that religious belief was useful or helpful or (certainly) causative of that thought and intellectual discovery, it just means it was there at the same time. It could be a correlation rather than a cause. So the fact that the two ways of thinking were sometimes in the same room doesn’t in the least contradict what Dawkins said. And after all, he’s right – ‘faith’ is by definition a process of non-thinking. That’s what the word means. Religious believers will say as much when their guard is down – that faith is not about believing things that are supported by evidence, anyone can do that; faith is about believing without evidence. In other words, non-thinking.

It’s also right for religion to concede ground to science to explain natural processes; but at the same time, science has to concede that despite its huge advances it still cannot answer questions about the nature of the universe – such as whether we are freak chances of evolution in an indifferent cosmos (Dawkins does finally acknowledge this point in the programmes).

Boy I get sick of that trope. It’s not clear that science can’t at least offer a plausible answer to that particular question, and in any case, religion can’t answer it any more than science or anything else can – and probably less. It can’t ‘answer’ such questions because all it does is say what it wants to say, and let it go at that. Excuse me, but that’s not an answer. Religion doesn’t have to check its answers against anything, it doesn’t have to have them peer-reviewed, it doesn’t have to do the maths, it doesn’t have to present them to audiences of restless ambitious rivals eager to show them wrong. It just says. That’s not an answer, that doesn’t count. Whenever people say that, with such an air of bovine triumph, we have some serious non-thinking going on. Because what they mean when they say ‘science can’t and religion can’ is that science can’t because it does have to check, it does have to meet certain criteria, and religion can because it doesn’t – because it doesn’t have to do anything at all other than run off at the mouth. Science ‘can’t’ because reality provides constraints and limitations and requires work, religion ‘can’ because fantasy doesn’t do any of that. So what is so impressive about this ridiculous idea that religion can answer all these deep questions?

Nothing. It’s an imbecilic line of argument, it’s sheer naked emperor. Must try harder, Madders.

Shouting the Loudest

Jan 7th, 2006 9:00 pm | By

The Economist tells us that racism and resentment haven’t gone away, they’ve just gotten more complex. Oh good. Old-fashioned white-on-black racism is old hat; now the happening thing is Caribbean children resenting Somali children and Sikhs resenting Muslims. So much more diverse and multiculti that way.

Kirk Dawes, a black former police officer who now runs a mediation service in Birmingham, commends the way in which the police and the council have purged overt racists from their ranks. But he criticises the way both have relied on “community leaders,” especially those of a fiery type, as interlocutors with ethnic minority groups. “There is a belief that those who shout the loudest can best solve the problems within their community,” Mr Dawes says. Some of those community leaders were prominent in the protests against Asian shopkeepers in October, which later turned violent.

And were based on rumours anyway, and perhaps even worse, were based on a very peculiar, unpleasant, (racist, surely) way of thinking of ‘Asians’ as essentially one body, so that if a few Asians do something, it makes sense to boycott all Asian businesses, or all Asian businesses in a given area. ‘Community leaders’ aren’t always the clearest thinkers around – probably because this community thinking is not a very clear kind of thinking.

Birmingham’s Asians are more pointed in their criticism. The police, they say, were so keen to avoid offending black sensibilities that they allowed the protests to run out of control. They also failed to shut down a pirate radio station that purveyed hostility against Asians. In that, the police may have been following lessons learned in the past. An attempt to silence a similar station in the 1980s had sparked rioting.

There, you see how tricky free speech can be? You can’t win. You try to silence a station and that sparks rioting; you let a station babble away, and that sparks rioting.

If only people would act sane or at least minimally decent of their own volition; but that’s probably too much to hope.


Jan 7th, 2006 6:16 pm | By

I love the hairdresser thing, don’t you?

In a splendid return to form, Demos has silenced rumours that it is all thunk out with a proposal that hairdressers be invited to shape local government policy…”Our research has led us to conclude that hairdressers are the most authentic voice on the high street,” says Demos’s Sam Hinton-Smith, “and that they should be given a formal role in urban policy-making.” Not only that. Hairdressers “act as counsellors and social workers”.

The most authentic voice on the high street – really? More authentic than the voice of the fishmonger? The traffic warden? The shopper for dinner and a newspaper and some lightbulbs and a DVD? The panhandler? The market surveyor? The random pedestrian? The non-random pedestrian? The inebriated teenager? The vomiting inebriated teenager? Who is to say which is more authentic? Who, ah, who?

Already there have been protests from street-cleaners arguing that, being both dirtier and closer to the high street, they have a superior claim to being its “most authentic voice”.

Well exactly. And people who actually lie down in the high street and take little naps are even closer.

How authentic is a dialogue that may be inspired, principally, by a need not to offend the person standing close to your face with a pair of sharp scissors (and a disinclination to spend an hour in awkward silence)? Would the conversation remain so relaxed if clients knew their confidences about boyfriends, shoes and minor operations would be translated, come break time, into a raft of initiatives for the delivery of local services?

Oh, come on. If you look at it in the right way, a dialogue inspired by a need not to offend the person standing close to your face with a pair of sharp scissors is the most authentic kind of dialogue there can possibly be. Very existential, very coalface, very gritty and real and down to brass tacks. Not like all this artificial effete superficial dialogue we have as a matter of choice with people who don’t have sharp things in their hands – that’s for sissies.

If That Girl Picks Up a Book – Kill Her

Jan 6th, 2006 1:54 am | By

Words fail me. Human garbage. Rock bottom.

Suspected Taliban militants have beheaded a headteacher in central Afghanistan, the latest in a string of gruesome attacks on teachers working in schools where girls are taught. Armed men burst into the home of Malim Abdul Habib in Qalat, the capital of restive Zabul province, on Tuesday night. They dragged him into a courtyard and forced his family to watch as they cut off his head, said Ali Khel, a local government spokesman…Hundreds of students attended his funeral yesterday. “Only the Taliban are against our girls being educated,” Mr Khel said.

Well there – that’s why they’re human garbage. They dedicate their lives to preventing girls from getting an education – what a noble goal! What a splendid way for grown men to spend their time – zipping around the countryside with guns murdering teachers who have the gall to teach girls – and making the family watch is a pretty touch, too.

The Taliban insurgency has taken a brutal twist in the past year with militants avoiding shoot-outs with American troops – which they usually lose – in favour of targeted assassinations of teachers, aid workers and pro-government clerics. Last month gunmen pulled a teacher in Helmand province from his classroom and shot him at the school gate after he ignored orders to stop teaching girls. The violent tactics, which are concentrated in the southern provinces where a British-led Nato force is due to assume control next spring, appear to be working. Nabi Khushal, the director of education in Zabul, told the Associated Press that 100 of the province’s 170 registered schools had been closed over the past two years, mostly in remote areas, due to deteriorating security. Only 8% of the pupils are girls, he said.

100 out of 170. Well how nice. One of the poorest countries on earth, and the schools are closing because men who hate all females are killing people. Spiffy. It’s enough to make you sick.

So Someone has Noticed

Jan 5th, 2006 2:23 am | By

Aha. Natalie Angier and I are on the same page, so to speak.

Among the more irritating consequences of our flagrantly religious society is the special dispensation that mainstream religions receive. We all may talk about religion as a powerful social force, but unlike other similarly powerful institutions, religion is not to be questioned, criticized or mocked. When the singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor ripped apart a photograph of John Paul II to protest what she saw as his overweening power, even the most secular humanists were outraged by her idolatry, and her career has never really recovered.

Not this cookie – I wasn’t outraged. (Well, I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but if I had been, I would have cheered.) John Paul 2 had way too much power and used it to do appalling things.

“Society bends over backward to be accommodating to religious sensibilities but not to other kinds of sensibilities,” says Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and outspoken atheist. “If I say something offensive to religious people, I’ll be universally censured, including by many atheists. But if I say something insulting about Democrats or Republicans or the Green Party, one is allowed to get away with that. Hiding behind the smoke screen of untouchability is something religions have been allowed to get away with for too long.”

Exactly. Me, Angier, and Dawkins – a small club, but a good one. Yes okay you can be in it too.

Do as I Say Not as I Don’t Do

Jan 4th, 2006 8:02 pm | By

Good old Iqbal Sacranie. One can see why the BBC and similar are always so eager to ask the MCB for its opinion on matters to do with ‘the Muslim community’.

Sir Iqbal said of civil partnerships: “This is harmful. It does not augur well in building the very foundations of society – stability, family relationships. And it is something we would certainly not, in any form, encourage the community to be involved in.”

Why? Why doesn’t it?

He said he was guided by the teachings of the Muslim faith, adding that other religions such as Christianity and Judaism held the same stance.

Yes, they do. A cardinal was saying so just the other day. So what? Why should anyone care? Why is that supposed to be a reason? We don’t want religious pseudo-reasons for public policy, we want real reasons, based on actual arguments. But we don’t get them – not from people who think their ‘faith’ is reason enough. That’s because they don’t have any. All they ever manage to come up with is meaningless hand-waving about the family.

Cardinal Keith O’Brien criticised Westminster over civil partnerships and the Scottish Executive over changes to the laws on uncontested divorce…He argued that alternative lifestyles were “undermining values which for generations have been treasured”. The cardinal claimed that the family remained “the basic social unit” to be recognised, protected and promoted as the most vital building block of society. He told his congregation: “When our lawmakers condone and endorse trends in society which are ultimately ruinous of family life we are entitled to question their motivation and condemn their behaviour.”

But why are civil partnerships ultimately ruinous of family life? Why do they not ‘augur well in building the very foundations of society – stability, family relationships’? Why? Because – what – married straight people will look around them and see (how?) that some gay people have civil partnerships, and – what? Be filled with despair and rage and bitterness and a sense of futility, and wonder why they ever bothered, and turn their children over to an orphanage or out onto the streets, and run off to Tahiti and Hoboken respectively, there to become layabouts and pickpockets? Or what? Straight people will contemplate the existence of civil partnerships and decide not to get married themselves because, I mean, after all, it’s obvious – ? Or what? What is the problem? Why does civil partnerships for gay people have any effect on marriage or ‘the family’ whatsoever? Hey – suppose somebody informed us all that, contrary to previous scientific opinion, ostriches and geckoes have formal, legal marriage, just like human marriage, right down to the new dishes and the arguments over who has to wash them. Would that make humans stop getting married and become pirates instead?

Sacranie does make an effort, to cobble together some sort of argument other than ‘because God,’ but he doesn’t do much of a job of it.

Asked if he believed homosexuality was harmful to society, he said: “Certainly it is a practice that in terms of health, in terms of the moral issues that comes along in a society – it is. It is not acceptable.”

The moral issues that comes along in a society. Right. Which ones? Why is it not acceptable? Other than hand-waving?

Not to mention, of course, to revert to the cardinal for a moment, the redolent irony of celibate priests fussing about the family. If you’re in such a sweat about the family, you prosing chump, why don’t you go have one? And if you don’t want to have one, why are you nagging everyone else about the family ‘as the most vital building block of society’? What do you mean by it?

Creeping theocracy, that’s what it is.


Jan 4th, 2006 7:21 pm | By

No, it’s not particularly astonishing that Deborah Lipstadt doesn’t think Iriving should go to prison. Yes she has every reason to find him extremely irritating, but that doesn’t straightforwardly necessarily translate to thinking he ought to be locked up – and it’s a bit stupid to think or pretend to think it does. Don’t we all find countless throngs of people extremely irritating without thinking (except for the odd passing whim) that they ought to be locked up? I know I do.

Lipstadt has spent years exposing the arguments of Nazi sympathisers. She warns historians must “remain ever vigilant” against those who say the Holocaust was a hoax, “so that the precious tools of our trade and our society – truth and reason – can prevail”. The showdown came in January 2000 when she stood accused of libel for describing Irving in a book as “one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial”; he accused her of “vandalising” his legitimacy as an historian. The 32-day trial became a legal debate on the history of the Nazis – and the nature of truth itself.

Which is why truth matters. You can’t sort these disagreements out without figuring out – to the best of everyone’s ability – what the truth is. If truth and reason don’t prevail, you just get competing force. Whoever has the biggest fist wins.

Mr Justice Gray witheringly described Irving as anti-Semitic, racist and a Holocaust denier who had “deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence”.

Why does that ring a bell? Oh yes, Judge Jones – he said the Dover school board played silly games with the evidence too.

However, in the case of the Holocaust, Lipstadt says she recognises a case for laws in the lands that formed the heart of the Third Reich. “Germany and Austria are not so far past the Third Reich. So I can understand that the swastika symbol, Mein Kampf, Holocaust denial, being a neo-Nazi and all the rest have a certain potency there that they would not have in the United States,” she says…Lipstadt says the reason she is generally opposed to outlawing Holocaust denial is not because she fails to recognise how deeply offensive it is but because such laws tend to turn cranks into martyrs.

There’s that confusion again – in Brendan O’Neill, not in Lipstadt. The point is not, or not just, that Holocaust denial is offensive or even deeply offensive but that it is – possibly – dangerous. I think that’s why Lipstadt used the word ‘potency’. Being a neo-Nazi has a certain potency in Austria, surely, because it is seen as at least threatening as well as offensive. At least threatening, and possibly actually dangerous. Get the labels right.


Jan 4th, 2006 6:29 pm | By

Well, there’s one good thing. Maybe, maybe, maybe, now at last the news media will start calling bribery ‘bribery’ instead of ‘fundraising’ and ‘campaign contributions’. That would help. I don’t know, maybe the Beeb is different, maybe they’ve been calling it bribery at least some of the time all along, but US news media sure haven’t. It’s been driving me stark staring mad for years, hearing NPR reporters blithely referring to fundraising when what they’re talking about is simply solicitation of bribes, and campaign contributions when what they’re talking about is simply monetary payments to powerful elected officials in the expectation of favours in return. The whole incredible shocking disgusting deeply corrupt mess has been treated as normal and routine and therefore okay by our supposedly adversarial, liberal, suspicious, investigative, activist news media. Why? Why? Why? I seriously don’t understand it, and never have.

Surely it must look grotesque from the other side of the pond. We not only elect ignorant buffoons, we elect them by means of endemic bribery! They can’t even get elected without bribery. Everybody knows the equation – we hear it all the time – tv ads are expensive, you can’t get elected without tv ads, so obviously the only possibility for an aspirant to elective office is to demand large sums of money from people who have large sums of money. Gee, what a great system. It means we end up with corporate lobbyists actually writing legislation. [bangs head on desk]

But maybe the Abramoff thing will finally make it so obvious what a cesspool it all is that – oh, who am I trying to kid. No it won’t.

And people wonder why some of us saw some point to Nader. Which is exactly my point. Endemic corruption has become so normalized and routinized that putative liberals and leftists don’t even think it’s a reason not to vote for someone.

Could be a Space Alien

Jan 3rd, 2006 7:20 pm | By

I’ve been reading Judge Jones’s decision. It really is a great read, you know. So I think I will occasionally share selected favourites with you.

Page 25.

The only apparent difference between the argument made by
Paley and the argument for ID, as expressed by defense expert witnesses Behe and
Minnich, is that ID’s “official position” does not acknowledge that the designer is
God. However, as Dr. Haught testified, anyone familiar with Western religious
thought would immediately make the association that the tactically unnamed
designer is God, as the description of the designer in Of Pandas and People
(hereinafter “Pandas”) is a “master intellect,” strongly suggesting a supernatural
deity as opposed to any intelligent actor known to exist in the natural world.

I love that ‘tactically unnamed.’ Also love the bit about ‘any intelligent actor known to exist in the natural world.’ He’s right. ‘Oh gosh let’s see, a master intellect, who designed the universe, who could that be, hmm hmm hmm, it’s right on the tip of my tongue, I just can’t think of the name – ‘

Still 25.

Although proponents of the IDM occasionally suggest that the designer
could be a space alien or a time-traveling cell biologist, no serious alternative to
God as the designer has been proposed by members of the IDM, including
Defendants’ expert witnesses.

No serious alternative. Some very funny ones, but no serious ones. Quite true.

A Couple of Items

Jan 3rd, 2006 6:36 pm | By

So there’s this creationist ‘Zoo Farm’ place in Somerset.

A donkey was led in and the presenter traced a marking on its back. Did we know that the domesticated donkey has a dark cross marked on its back, he asked us casually, whereas the wild donkey doesn’t? Did the cross not remind us that the donkey carried Jesus? In retrospect, I was intrigued by my shock at this mild evangelical interjection, a reaction that reflects a more general antipathy towards creationism. Anthony Bush hopes “to give people permission to believe in God”, by disputing the truth of Darwin’s theories. However, the prospect of a religious world-view having any authority fills non-believers with dread.

Well exactly. And that’s not just some random weird reaction, some vague distaste, some reflex dislike. Non-believers have every reason to be filled with dread at the prospect of a religious world-view having any authority. Because authority is just exactly the very thing that a religious world-view should not have. That’s the heart of the issue, isn’t it. Yes, people are at liberty to believe anything they feel like believing, but no, it does not follow that they therefore have the right to force their belief on anyone else. If religious world-views have authority, that means they are – necessarily – being forced on everyone else. And that just won’t do. You can’t demand that other people believe things for which you can give no other grounds than ‘faith’. You can believe it yourself, but you can’t enforce it on others. To do that, you have to have better grounds than mere ‘faith’ or belief – you have to have evidence. Non-believers do indeed dread world-views that disregard or distort and misrepresent (or outright falsify) evidence in order to coerce people into subscribing to said world-views. There is something in us that profoundly resents that, and experiences it as an insult and intrusion and presumption. That’s because it is.

And so there’s Philip Pullman.

His books have been likened to those of J. R. R. Tolkien, another alumnus, but he scoffs at the notion of any resemblance. “ ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is fundamentally an infantile work,” he said. “Tolkien is not interested in the way grownup, adult human beings interact with each other. He’s interested in maps and plans and languages and codes.”

Yup. Infantile. Very like The Wind in the Willows in a lot of ways, only not as good.

When it comes to “The Chronicles of Narnia,” by C. S. Lewis, Pullman’s antipathy is even more pronounced. Although he likes Lewis’s criticism and quotes it surprisingly often, he considers the fantasy series “morally loathsome.” In a 1998 essay for the Guardian, entitled “The Dark Side of Narnia,” he condemned “the misogyny, the racism, the sado-masochistic relish for violence that permeates the whole cycle.”

I like Lewis’s criticism too, and don’t find it particularly surprising that Pullman quotes it often. It’s too bad Lewis didn’t stick to what he did best.

Insipid Design

Jan 3rd, 2006 2:31 am | By

Well, yes. It’s an obvious thought, isn’t it. One of the first that occurs to us, in fact. If the Designer is so damn intelligent, why aren’t we better? Why isn’t everything? I mean, is this supposed to be optimal? You’re kidding, right?

Far be it from me to kick an idea when it’s down, but I do wonder whether proponents of ID have really thought this through…Because if we were designed by God, it wasn’t on one of His better days.

Yeah you could say that.

Why would an intelligent designer equip each of us with an appendix — an organ whose sole purpose is to become infected and periodically explode? If this was Intelligent Design, then it implies the designer hates us the way many interior designers hate the people who actually live in their creations.

Right so the appendix is kind of like a cook or server spitting in your soup. That and one or two other glitches I can think of. Backs, colons, cholesterol, knees. And if we asked giraffes or hummingbirds or snakes or worms, they might have a few items to throw into the pot too. Maybe snakes and worms would actually like to have arms and legs, you know? Ever thought of that? No, neither did the oh so clever designer, either, apparently. Unless it did, and witheld them to be mean.

Remember, if we are the products of an Intelligent Design, there’s no excuse for such design flaws. It would be like buying a new car and finding out someone had forgotten to include brakes. I wouldn’t call that Intelligent Design.

Well, exactly. I wrote an essay for TPM Online a couple of years ago that says much the same thing.

It’s all such a ramshackly arrangement, really. Who set this up? A little more imagination wouldn’t have been a bad idea. Some bigger thinking. Quite a lot more generosity, scope, long-term planning wouldn’t have come amiss. Following things through, realizing implications, seeing where all these pathetic contrivances were going to lead – you’d think that would be part of the job, quite frankly. To be brutally honest, one wonders if whoever did this even had an engineering degree. Degree, hell, one wonders if the poor bungler ever even took a single class. Maybe it was an eight o’clock, is that it? Sleep too attractive, so the result is we have to put up with these ridiculous bodies that break so easily, that get stiff and slow and then stop altogether, that ooze and drip all sorts of foul smelly liquids, that have to be fueled every few hours and turned completely off for nearly a third of every day, that get too cold or too hot, tired or sick, frightened or sad, angry or deranged? That come with throats that get sore, lungs that fill with fluid, guts that malfunction, teeth that rot and crack? And of course there’s no warranty. In short, one or two design flaws, wouldn’t you say? Rather obvious design flaws? I mean, what were they doing? Working with their eyes shut? Did they not test the product? Did they just slap something together and then ship without even checking it, or what? It’s not as if these things are subtle, or hard to detect. It’s not as if they don’t show up right away, is it.

I even mentioned the car without brakes. (Well it is an obvious example, isn’t it, so that’s not surprising.)

It is hard not to get exasperated. It’s all so obvious. A child could have noticed. (Maybe it is a child?) It’s not just the bodies, though they’re bad enough, it’s so many other things too. This place we’re given to live, for instance –

I mean, it has such potential. Don’t get me wrong. Of course I realize that, I’m not stupid, I’m not blind, I know about the good bits. I’ve stood and marveled at the oceans with the best of them. Sunsets, stars, mountains, waterfalls, flowers, fruit – all lovely, yes, I know. I admire it all as much as anyone. But so what? Does that mean the not-so-good parts are not a problem? Do we usually think about things that way? ‘Well this shirt is a lovely colour so I really don’t mind that it’s full of holes. This car has excellent tires so it’s okay that the brakes don’t work.’ No I don’t think so, I think we want all the parts to work, thank you very much, not just some of them. Is that so much to ask?

And why can’t we fly? And live forever, but hibernate for awhile when we get bored? And make some kind of electric ray shoot out of our heads so that all the cell phones within a quarter of a mile would stop working? And if we wanted not to have hair on some particular part of our bodies where there was hair, just decide not to have it there and be done with it? And go deaf whenever we wanted to, and stop being deaf whenever we wanted to do that? And have a filter so that we would hear what we wanted to hear and not hear what we didn’t want to hear? And live underwater if we feel like it? And see in the dark? And be invisible? And have our own climate control dial built into the backs of our hands?

Intelligent designer ha. Just ha. Inattentive designer. Inept designer. Inclined to do sloppy work designer. In for a nasty shock if it expects me to give it a round of applause designer.

Black Swans and Ivory Bills

Jan 1st, 2006 11:11 pm | By

Did you listen to Gene Sparling telling the story of seeing the Ivory Bill? Do, if you haven’t – it’s a real treat. Apart from anything else he’s funny as hell, in a marvelously relaxed leisurely drawling way. I first heard it by accident, I turned the radio on at random and in the middle, so didn’t know what it was at first, some guy talking about being out in the woods and what a remarkable place it was, I wasn’t paying much attention until he started talking about a bird – and then when he said ‘I thought “that’s the biggest pileated woodpecker I’ve ever seen”‘ I was galvanized and began paying very close attention indeed.

And it’s not just a good story, it’s also interesting epistemologically. It’s kind of a black swan story, kind of a story about falsification, and the difficulty or impossibility of being sure of a negative. It’s about the fact we’ve talked about here more than once: the fact that not having found X does not necessarily mean there is no X to find. It could mean that, but it could just mean you haven’t found it. And it can be very very difficult to know which.

Because Sparling wouldn’t let himself think he’d seen what he suspected he’d seen, at first – in fact for quite awhile. Why? Because he didn’t want to be ridiculed as a loony, a Big foot finder, an alien abduction believer. And he thought he couldn’t have seen what he thought he’d seen. But actually, on consideration, the possibility that it was what he thought it might be except that it couldn’t be (because Ivory bills are extinct, he said solemnly, they’ve been extinct my whole life) is really not nearly as far-fetched as either Big foot or alien abductions. And Big foot, in turn, is not as far-fetched as alien abductions. So there’s a scale of far-fetchedness here: 1, 2, 3.

Here’s why the Ivory Bill possibility is not in Big foot territory, at least in my view. 1) It was last seen in the ’40s, which is only six decades ago – not a very long time. 2) There are some swampy hard-to-navigate places in its old range where people wouldn’t have seen it if it had been there. Those two things are enough, really. Not to make it likely that it wasn’t extinct after all, but to make it not absurd. As Sparling was persuaded. The only mention he made of the bird he saw at first was a posting to a message board of his canoe club, where it was his custom to post notes on trips. He said he’d seen a very odd pileated woodpecker, which was very large, and had the black and white colouring on his wings reversed. People in the know would know what that meant – but he didn’t say it in so many words. And that’s all he said and all he intended to say – but another canoe club person emailed him and said ‘Gene, you have to do some research on this, you have a responsibility.’ So he did. And what’s interesting is that the research told him what he hadn’t known: that the bird’s known range included Arkansas, where Sparling had seen his bird; he had thought it didn’t, that the range was in Texas but not Arkansas. Once he learned that, the possibility seemed less outlandish – so he went ahead and risked being seen as a wacko.

But there it is, you see. No one had seen an Ivory Bill since the ’40s – but there were Ivory Bills there, all the same. No one knew there were, but there were nevertheless. That’s how it is.