Genuflect Genuflect Genuflect

May 30th, 2006 5:51 pm | By

The old ‘how do I look in this attitude’ problem again. The old ‘get me, I’m so transgressive’ problem again. Funny how persistent it is.

What chiefly surprised me about last winter’s list was its lack of any humor, any irony. The self-styled most important journal of theory was going to inform us – so it told us – what an objective method revealed about who the most important theorists were in its pages. How? By counting citations to theorists. Behind the rhetoric about discovering “the identity of our journal” lies an implicit assumption: If you’re cited in Critical Inquiry, you’re the best of the best. Sometimes the folks in Chicago get a little pumped…

If we like you you’re the best of the best. Okay, that’s one way of measuring. Possibly not the most self-effacing or non-risible method though.

The authors of the ranking, Anne H. Stevens, an assistant professor of English at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, and Jay W. Williams, Critical Inquiry’s managing editor, note that “Benjamin’s works are cited nonargumentatively,” which I think is a nice way of saying his ideas are just window dressing, not engaged with. That must be why he ranks high as one of the most perfectly citable authors of all, because you can cite him reverently without having to figure out what he said. With Benjamin a citation is the academic equivalent of the purely ritual move, like a ballplayer’s sign of the cross. But the genuflecting to Benjamin points, perhaps, to something hocus-pocus about this whole counting exercise. The essay that accompanies CI’s list crows that the theories featured in the journal “share a tendency to question received wisdom and accept few absolutes or foundations.” Yet this list seems like a monument to CI’s importance.

That, exactly, is what makes my skin crawl about ‘theory’ at its (all too abundant) worst: that dreadful and endemic habit of citing totemic names ‘nonargumentatively’, of using names as window dressing rather than the ideas of the names as something to be engaged with, of citing people reverently without having to figure out what they said, of genuflecting. It’s a great marker for the presence of empty attitudinizing as opposed to real thought or inquiry. That’s why I sometimes, as a reader pointed out last week, criticize the writing of X about Y on the basis of what X said without necessarily having read Y, because it is what X has said about Y, rather than Y, that I’m talking about. It really is possible, in fact it’s pretty easy, to spot nonargumentative citation window dressing when you bump into it. It’s nothing if not obvious.

A Review

May 29th, 2006 8:48 pm | By

Another review. JS sent me the link. It’s…well it’s a good review. It sees the point, for one thing. That’s rewarding. Excuse me for just a second here – this is very cringe-making in a way – but I do want to say something.

In this book, Benson and Stangroom are wide-ranging in their knowledge and in the thinking about what they know, and so the book appears laid out almost like a collection of essays that are connected by the theme described above. Anthropology, evolutionary psychology and sociobiology, feminism, philosophies of various sorts, and the policies of Nazism are all touched on or addressed. Each chapter is interesting in its own right, but the background and source materials are so comprehensive, the reader may need to put in some effort to integrate them and keep the theme in focus. This is not a bad thing — readers usually benefit from adding their own effort.

I love that last thought. Quite independent of any particular book, I love that thought. We had a running argument about exactly that throughout the writing: about how careful to be not to throw anything at readers that might seem too arcane or obscure or academic. The arguments were rather fierce at times. That’s because I worry about leaving out things that are interesting or enriching or thought-provoking or necessary merely because one hypothetical reader somewhere might not have heard of it. I don’t think it’s worth doing that, beyond a certain point – I think it’s worth risking stretching people a little. But JS had a serious point too, which is that it’s not worth risking making people feel stupid. I agree that it’s unkind to make people feel stupid, but I also feel rather strongly that we don’t always read about what we already know backwards and forwards; that if we never read about anything we don’t already know inside out, we never learn anything; and that to some extent people choose to feel stupid instead of feeling stimulated to learn more, and I don’t really want to pander to that. I think it works as a kind of auto-impoverishment. I’m serious. I’ve heard apparently sensible people arguing passionately that such and such book made them feel stupid because it was full of references they didn’t recognize. But why didn’t they feel inspired to learn more, I wondered. I think that ‘feeling stupid’ response is a learned, indeed a political response; it’s rather like the ‘feeling offended’ response to cartoons and paintings and operas and plays and novels. I think it’s somewhat sinister, and I worry about encouraging it. So I was really thrilled to read that ‘readers usually benefit from adding their own effort’. That is exactly what I think, and I think that’s a generous view (I don’t mean I think I’m generous for holding it, I mean I think it’s the generous way to go).

So – what’s on at Folk Life this afternoon?

Socratic Deformation

May 29th, 2006 8:12 pm | By

This review of Rousseau’s Dog is odd.

How silly can clever men be? For anyone on more than nodding acquaintance with university professors, the answer is clear: ‘very silly indeed’. For the fortunate majority denied first-hand experience, this account of the relationship between two of the wisest fools in Christendom will fill the gap.

Well, of course, clever university professors can be extremely silly, especially moderately clever ones who think they’re more than moderately clever, as moderately clever university professors often do, on account of spending several hours every week looking at the upturned faces of dear little undergraduates who know less than they do (see ‘Socratic deformation’ in The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense). But some are sillier than others, and not all are silly. Let’s not get carried away here. Just because clever people can be silly, it doesn’t follow that Hume was as silly as Rousseau.

There are plenty more such good moments in this wonderfully readable account of two very silly men.

That’s a silly concluding sentence on this subject; it’s a lot sillier than anything Hume ever wrote. (Yes, I have; every word.)

Carole Angier is much better. Much less, one might say, silly.

…our authors seek to discover what really happened between Rousseau and Hume, and to adjudicate between them. The debate, as they present it, is between sense and sensibility, rationality and feeling, and they come down on the side of feeling. In the case of Hume, the opposition is simplified. But if, like me, you choose sense, you’ll want to argue with E and E on almost every page.

I do choose sense. Feeling (of course; obviously; indisputably) is essential, but it needs to be checked by rationality. Rousseau wasn’t always terribly good at that, and he certainly wasn’t always generous. Hume was immensely generous to Rousseau, and Rousseau was immensely ungrateful and vindictive in return. There is no contest between the two of them.

It’s the accepted view of Hume they want to challenge: le bon David, universally admired for his decency and serenity. They certainly show that, about these events at least, he was far from serene; and not always decent either…we’d probably all agree that he behaved badly in publicly attacking poor, tormented Rousseau, instead of maintaining a charitable silence. They show that Hume was human. But they go much further than this. They always find the best possible explanation for Rousseau, and the worst possible one for Hume.

The trouble is…wanting to challenge an accepted view is an agenda like any other, and it can cause one to distort the evidence just as any other agenda can. It’s yet another distortion-device that one needs to be careful about.

Rousseau’s Dog traduces and misinterprets Hume like this throughout. He grounded his moral philosophy on the human capacity for altruism and fellow-feeling, and he practised both in his life. He failed with Rousseau, but so did everyone else. E and E suggest that the encounter with brilliant, unbalanced Rousseau made Hume temporarily unbalanced himself. I fear the same has happened to them.

Funny that it didn’t occur to them that there might have been a reason that Hume was universally admired for his decency and serenity and that people ended up fleeing from Rousseau. Maybe they’re rather silly clever people too.

The Bandura

May 29th, 2006 12:37 am | By

God, what a horrible morning. I spent a couple of hours or so re-writing an article that an editor had re-written, trying to do a delicate balance of keeping what the editor wanted and restoring what I wanted while weaving it all together without big knots showing – which made me get all tense, the way I do. I finally did it to my exigent satisfaction and sent it to the editor, only I didn’t, I somehow sent something else, and the one I had worked on had vanished never to return. Windows wouldn’t find it and Google desktop wouldn’t find it. Oh, my, I was cross. I was too cross and tense even to swear; I just wandered around with my stomach hurting, occasionally yanking on my hair. Then I re-did the article, which was agony, because I kept being completely unable to remember what I’d done and the un-re-edited version kept getting in the way, making my brain freeze. But I finally finished it – having blown most of the day on it, with not nearly enough work done.

By that time I had desk chair fever, so I went out and strolled down the hill to Folk Life. It’s Folk Life this weekend. I go every year; it’s good fun. One of the many benefits of living in this neighbourhood is that it’s just a twenty minute walk down the hill. It wasn’t great this afternoon, but it was okay. I found some Celtic fiddle music, and some zydeco, and let it go at that. Some days are better than others: some days you don’t happen to find just the right things, you turn up just as they end, or they’re already full, or you find a lot of okay things but nothing that raises the hair on the back of your neck. But that’s okay, because other days are great. Yesterday was great. I looked at a program and saw a Ukrainian dance item was starting soon, so rushed off to the Bagley Wright theatre, and a good thing, because I came in for the end of a Bandura duo, which I wouldn’t have known to seek out, but it was enchanting. They did four or five songs in the time I was there. I got slightly lachrymose. I always do. People laugh at me, but I can’t help it. I’m getting lachrymose now, thinking about it. You know how it is – there they are going pluck pluck pluck, with such skill and dedication and joy, and it’s so pretty, and you think O if only people could always do just this, and not the other stuff. Why can’t they. Why don’t all the people who hate each other and kill each other just have big Folk Life festivals every weekend, and play music together, and go pluck pluck pluck, and be happy, and see the point of each other. Sniff, sniff. It was so pretty. The guy was perhaps a novice, he said he couldn’t keep up, but the woman just went like the wind, and filled the place with music, in her Ukrainian blouse and skirt. So that was lovely, and I blew my nose, and ignored the laughter. Then the dancers danced, and the theatre filled up, and everyone screamed and yelled at the end of each dance. It was good.

When it was over everyone went outside and there were some gospel singers on the stage just outside, so I listened to them for awhile. They were good too, even with the churchiness. There was a very punkish young couple sitting on the grass; the guy had those big things through his ear lobes, stretching them out – hollow things the size of the neck of a wine bottle. They had two little girls with them; the bigger one was wearing a Hello kitty sweatshirt. The combination amused me a good deal. Even I shed some of my misanthropy at Folk Life.

But What About…?

May 28th, 2006 3:02 am | By

And here’s an amusing and heart-warming little item. Tom Morris went to the Euston Manifesto launch and gave it ‘the liveblog treatment.’ Ain’t technology grand? So he tells us how it goes – what Nick says, what Norm says, what Eve says, what Shalom Lappin says, what Alan Johnson says. Then he says what someone in the audience says – making me give a snort of laughter in the process:

The first question is about women and feminism – the response was simple: get involved, and look at Ophelia Benson at Butterflies and Wheels.

Yep, that’s a simple response all right, but an elegant kind of simplicity, like a little black T shirt – look at me! Get involved, and look at me. Why not after all?

No but seriously. That was Nick. Paul at told me Nick had said that, and so did Nick. I must say, I find that quite pleasing. I like being someone that people can look at when they wonder why there aren’t more women doing something. I haven’t done any feminist storming of corporate bastions or any becoming a woman head of state or any being the first woman to circumnavigate the globe in an inner tube, but I like being someone women can look at when they wonder why most websites are male things, and now I also get to be someone women can look at when they fuss (as Natasha Walter did in the Guardian on May 2) that Euston seems awfully full of guys. Not that I’m actually inside Euston, but I signed it, despite being (as I told Norm, in my helpful way) perhaps more sharply critical of the present US government and of its ways of choosing its governments than the Manifesto is.

It is odd that there aren’t more women doing this kind of thing though, isn’t it? It seems odd to me. It’s not as if there are any of those barriers there are in other kinds of work. No old boys’ clubs wanting more old boys to feel comfy with, no titty pictures in the locker room, no expectations of coffee-making, no passing over for promotion. So where are they? I don’t know, but until they show up, I’ll try to be exemplary.

Sunny Pickles Inayat

May 28th, 2006 2:49 am | By

Sunny of Pickled Politics has an excellent wrathful comment on Asia House’s cancellation of the M F Husain exhibit because of whining by a group ludicrously called ‘Hindu Human Rights’ (ludicrously because it clearly has a peculiar idea of what human rights are or should be). You go Sunny.

It is surely a bizarre state of affairs that we have reached a point where religious organisations are competing against each other for victim status…You may notice the similarity in language to other self-appointed representatives. Indeed, HHR’s campaign was backed by the supposed representative of British Hindus, the Hindu Forum of Britain, whose spokesperson, Ramesh Kallidai, has trotted out the familiar line that Hindus are being maligned in favour of Muslims and other religious groups.

I do indeed notice the similarity, and intend to say more words about it later on when I have more time. Meanwhile, don’t miss the comments on Sunny’s article; they’re usually not worth reading, but they certainly are this time, because who should drop in to dispute the ‘self-appointed’ aspersion on the MCB but – wait for it – Inayat himself. Well what fun, a chance to see him asked the questions we’re always wanting to ask him (and Sacranie of course) around here, such as why they consider themselves representative of anything. Sunny nails him. It’s great.

“If any strong body of opinion among British Muslims feels that they are not sufficiently represented then they can affiliate to the MCB to correct this” Why should they have to affiliate themselves with the MCB to correct this? And why are all British Muslims not afforded a vote when you claim to speak for them? That other groups are the same is no excuse – since I view each one as unrepresentative. The MCB merely represents a segment of socially conservative Muslims who go to the Mosque regularly. Not all Muslims.

Radio 4, please note.


May 27th, 2006 5:31 pm | By

It was Freud’s 150th the other day. Prospect looks in on the birthday boy.

[Janet] Malcolm was not one of psychoanalysis’s detractors. Far from discrediting it, her aim had been to distinguish charlatanism from genuine practice. But American psychoanalysis had by that time reached its baroque period, and was ripe for pillorying. A decade later, the Berkeley English professor Frederick Crews delivered the coup-de-grâce in the New York Review of Books with an essay which still stands as one of the most unflinching executions to have been performed on Freudian practice, theory and scientific pretensions.

I still have fond memories of the fuss that essay kicked up. That and the Sokal hoax made the mid-nineties a pleasant time to be alive.

But as a feature of public health in this country, psychoanalysis in its pure form is almost non-existent. It is hard to argue that such an uneconomic method, which makes such conditional claims for what it can achieve, should play much of a part in the big problems facing the NHS in treating mental illness. So we are left with a vague impression that, while the practice is impractical, the theory still contains a blueprint of how the mind works. Perhaps Freud was similar to Darwin (whom he admired), providing a model which would later be refined by scientific developments. In fact, the better analogy may be with Marx (whom he did not admire) – hugely influential in the 20th century, but with little evidence for his “scientific” theories.

But of course that one little word ‘influential’ opens up a huge yawning gap through which people can (and do) drive great honking 18-wheelers of rhetorical verisimilitude. Or to put it slightly less metaphorically, fans of Freud (like fans of other eloquent and persuasive but evidence-impoverished theorists) like to use the word ‘influential’ in a tricky way, to smuggle claims of, how shall I put it, of having gotten something right for their chosen theorists past people who are willing to confuse ‘influential’ with ‘right’. But influential is different from right. Tim LaHaye is exceedingly influential, but he’s not right. This of course is the point Linklater is making with the Marx analogy.

What we know for certain is that most of the brain is not conscious; but this does not mean that the subconscious pathways of cognitive science amount to the same dynamic region of conflicting desires that Freud postulated. It simply tells us the obvious, that the brain conducts most of its operations without our being aware of them. The non-conscious mind may even have turned out to be less of a mystery than the conscious one. It is consciousness that cognitive scientists find hardest to locate rather than what lies beneath it.

But consciousness, as cognitive behaviour therapy has found, is a lot easier and more productive to work with. Thoughts influence (there’s that word again) mood, and thoughts and mood can be changed – and there’s not even any call to develop a fixation on the therapist. It’s less spooky and disconcerting and exciting than psychoanalysis, and much more helpful. Oh well. Many happy returns, Herr Professor Doktor.

The Struggle Continues

May 26th, 2006 8:15 pm | By

A little more on the question of skepticism and complacency and how and whether it is possible to have one without the other. What I think is that it could well (of course) be that we are all complacent around here, but that JS’s account of his special powers experience and our reception of it doesn’t really show that. I don’t think it can show that, in the nature of the case. Something else might show that, but I don’t think this particular offering does. I think the reason it can’t is the one I’ve already indicated, as have others: there are too many perfectly legitimate reasons to be skeptical of it and too few legitimate reasons to be credulous about it for it to count as a symptom of complacency that we made some skeptical points. One of the biggest objections, as both Ian and Nicholas pointed out in comments, is to the reliance on the sense of conviction beforehand, combined with getting the answer right. It seems to me so obvious and so likely that getting the answer right would instantly work retroactively to intensify the sense of conviction beforehand, that I think it would be far more complacent to ignore that possibility than it is to take it into account. In short, I don’t see why it is more complacent of us to question that than it is of JS to rely on it. He has a witness, of course, as he points out, but the witness can’t be a witness to the intensity of his conviction beforehand. The intensity of conviction and the witness are thus two completely separate items of corroboration or attempted corroboration, and the one can’t strengthen the other. I think JS has been using them, perhaps implicitly, to corroborate each other, but they can’t.

So I don’t see where the complacency comes in, and I’m curious about it. But it’s occurred to me that JS may be doing a sort of test run, or perhaps more like a training run. It has to do with what he said in the HERO interview

I’m not comfortable with consensus, so I think if it turned out that the kinds of views that B&W advocates became mainstream and taken-for-granted, then I’d have to adopt alternative positions. This isn’t just bloody-minded contrarianism; I think there is value in dialectical engagement. It inoculates against the possibility of a smug complacency over our truth-claims.

It may be that he’s treating B&W as a place in the world where in fact the kinds of views it advocates have become mainstream and taken-for-granted, with the result that he has had to adopt alternative positions – ‘adopt’, remember, in the sense of argue for, or perform, or make a case for, as opposed to actually believing in. So – the whole exercise may have been an exercise in adopting alternative positions in order to inoculate us against smug complacency over our truth-claims. The trouble is, I think it would have done the job a lot better if he’d had a more convincing case; if he’d had a case where we would have had fewer objections to make. I still take the point that his account could be exactly right, and that something rare and difficult to research did happen, and that it is a bad thing if naturalistic methods can’t find that sort of thing out; but I also still don’t see what the alternative is, if we’re not simply to start believing anything and everything.

Carl Sagan has an apposite comment in ‘The Burden of Skepticism’:

It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you’re in deep trouble.

If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) But every now and then, maybe once in a hundred cases, a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you are too much in the habit of being skeptical about everything, you are going to miss or resent it, and either way you will be standing in the way of understanding and progress.

On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful ideas from the worthless ones. If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost, because then, it seems to me, no ideas have any validity at all.

Those two modes of thought are, I would say, not just in some tension, but in a great deal of tension. So – la lutte continue. The simultaneous, tense struggle against both complacency and credulity. Aux armes, citoyens!


May 26th, 2006 6:49 pm | By

Here’s a little information. Amazon says, irritatingly, that Why Truth Matters is ‘usually dispatched within 5 to 8 weeks’ – but it doesn’t mean it. The publisher looked into it and discovered that Amazon has an automated system whereby if they temporarily run out of copies of a book (because of a sudden spike in sales, for instance) their system automatically reverts to 5-8 weeks, even if they have an arrangement with the publisher that supplies them directly so that they get new supplies in 24 hours. No amount of pleading from the publishers, apparently, can shift this odd and unhelpful way of doing things. Well, thanks! Discourage customers, why don’t you! So the point is, it’s not really going to be 5 weeks before they send copies, it’s going to be the usual few days, or just one day. Ignore them when they say it will be fifteen years.

Where’s Canute?

May 25th, 2006 5:35 pm | By

No thanks, no more religious politics, we’ve had more than enough, in fact we’re likely to be sick on the carpet any minute now.

Michael Kazin cites the historian D.G. Hart’s argument that religion is “inherently useful in solving social problems because it yields moral guidelines that inevitably generate both a concern for justice and the welfare of all people.”

Susan Jacoby takes that ludicrous remark down, but I want to do some taking down too. Religion yields moral guidelines that inevitably generate a concern for the welfare of all people? Meaning a concern for the welfare of all people here on this earth as opposed to in God’s pretty summerhouse? How does that explain the caste system then? Or persecution of witches? Or the institutionalized inequality of the middle ages and well after? Or does concern for the welfare just mean a worried look and a furrowed brow now and then, and nothing else?

The limited, and often conflicting, definitions of welfare promulgated by various religions were very much on the minds of the framers of the Constitution when they deliberately omitted any mention of God from the document and instead ceded supreme authority to “We the People.” The framers did not write, as they might have, “we the people under God” – a phrase that would have prevented angry debates in state ratifying conventions over the Constitution’s unprecedented failure to acknowledge a divinity as the source of governmental power.

They didn’t write that, but you’d never know it to hear a lot of people talk now. And it keeps getting worse.

Americans have always been a predominantly Christian people (overwhelmingly so at the time the Constitution was written), but the founders established a secular central government. Today, religious conservatives are wreaking havoc with that glorious paradox, and they are aided by liberals intimidated by the vilification of secularists over the past twenty-five years. Still worse, many liberals have thrown in the towel and accepted the right-wing premise that there can be no morality, and no exposition of moral issues in the public square, without reference to religion.

They’ve thrown in the towel and the bathmat and the shower curtain and the bathroom door. They have surrendered, man. I’m getting way impatient waiting for the tide to turn.


May 25th, 2006 4:53 pm | By

Then again, JS has clarified his point a little, and it does seem like a point worth making.

…the kind of naturalistic worldview that most
materialists embrace, and the scientific methodology that goes with it,
rules out of court my kind of experience as a datum to be explained.
Therefore, if my kinds of experiences do exist, and if they also have
naturalistic explanations, they’re never going to be discovered, because the
“it must be a coincidence because it could be a coincidence” response or the
“ah but the testimony is necessarily suspect” response are both

Again, I thought that was common knowledge – but maybe I was wrong to think that. I thought it was common knowledge that the inadmissability of personal experience rules a lot of important material out of court, just as literal legal standards rule a lot of genuine evidence out of court. I thought it was common knowledge that science errs on the side of caution and that that necessarily closes off a lot of important, interesting, and perhaps valid evidence. Anyway, as JS says, it’s not something to take lightly. No, it’s not. There should be research on weird stuff like his experience. I thought there was, but I don’t know that for a fact.

Meanwhile here’s the FT making his point for him.

Peer review is a bulwark against cranks, crooks and incompetents. But too much reliance on peer review carries its own dangers. Every profession defines its own concept of excellence in inward-looking ways. Successful academics learn how to trigger the buttons that win the approval of referees…A further step down a well defined road wins easier acceptance than a deviation from the beaten track…Big advances come through the paradigm shifts and peer review makes this difficult. The line between the crank and the genius is sometimes a fine one and may only be apparent after time has elapsed.

It’s interesting that Matt Ridley said much the same thing in his contribution to the Kitzmiller article here.

There is one sentence that troubles me…: `Repeatedly in this trial, Plaintiffs’ scientific experts testified that the theory of evolution represents good science, is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community…’ My concern is…about scientific consensus. In this case I find it absolutely right that the overhwelming nature of the consensus should count against creationism. But there have been plenty of other times when I have been on the other side of the argument and seen what Madison called the despotism of the majority as a bad argument. On climate change, for example, I used to argue fervently that the early estimates of its likely extent were exaggerated, that the sceptics raising doubts should be heard and answered rather than vilified. Yet this minority was frankly `bullied’ with ad hominem arguments. Again, the reaction of many environmental scientists to Bjørn Lomborg’s splendid and thought-provoking book was to pour scorn rather than assemble counter evidence. Scientists are no better at coping with disagreement than anybody else.

So what’s the difference? I agree with the scientific consensus sometimes but not always, but I do not do so because it is is a consensus. Science does not work that way or Newton, Harvey, Darwin and Wegener would all have been voted into oblivion. Science must allow for minority views. Intelligent Design is wrong because it is dishonest, not because it is outvoted.

Consensus blocks new discovery, they both point out. Okay. We’ll try to guard against that.


May 25th, 2006 2:42 pm | By

The discussion of special powers seems to have ended, but it raised some interesting epistemic issues, at least I think so; so I’ve thought about them a little more. I think there was a basic, unresolvable problem at the center of the discussion in that JS’s experience was (naturally enough) very convincing to him, but (also naturally enough) not at all convincing to anyone else except perhaps me, and not all that convincing even to me. I think JS didn’t make enough allowance for the fact that there was simply no reason at all for B&W readers to take his account at face value – although he seemed to have made allowance for that, in that he said he’d expect readers to be skeptical; but then he also seemed not to have, in that he called readers’ replies complacent and the outcome predictable. (‘Predictable’ is a tricky word. It can be just straightforwardly descriptive – or it can be a pejorative. Perhaps it was just predictable in a factual, neutral sense that readers would ask skeptical questions about JS’ account; then again perhaps it was predictable in the sense of tediously unimaginative.) To put it another way, I think he’s making a reasonable and interesting point, but I think the account of the weird experience doesn’t have the argumentative force that he appears to think it does or should. It is, as I said, somewhat more convincing to me than it has any reason to be to other readers, merely because I know him and thus know that he’s not, for instance, some giggling hacker playing a joke. On the other hand, knowing him undercuts my willingness and ability to be convinced as well as aiding it, because he has told me of so many jokes of his that rely on sustained deception. And that’s his doing, not mine! So charges of complacency are misplaced.

So, to a couple of specific questions.

But it is a lovely example of precisely the kind of complacency about explanations that I think is a worry where you have a whole load of people who are committed to more or less the same worldview that people are so keen to explain away this stuff by invoking coincidence, when it seems perfectly possible that there might be other mechanisms at work that we either don’t yet understand, or that we understand but will always be epistemologically in the dark about in these situations (e.g., the possibility that you’ve both seen a magazine cover).

But why is that complacency rather than just good practice? Or, what is the difference? Why isn’t it reasonable, rather than complacent, to consider what seems to be the most plausible explanation first? We do that all the time (so in that sense I suppose one could say it’s complacent, but since it also gets the job done, who cares? I mean, maybe it’s complacent to brush one’s hair with a hairbrush rather than with a sock, but it does save time and effort). When we can’t find our wallets, we don’t instantly leap to the conclusion that a space alien came in and stole it to buy linoleum for the chateau in Perth Amboy, do we. We try the more likely scenarios first, and only then check out the space alien possibility. Sure, sometimes routine and habit prevent us from looking for and finding more thrilling possibilities, but the more thrilling possibility isn’t always the epistemically best one.

The thing is though that this is precisely the explaining away that I both expect, and think is undesirable. Basically, it’s a move that relies on the fact that one can never have direct access to the content of other people’s minds, in order to render said contents inadmissible as data in scientific explanation…But if one automatically retreats to those positions in order to explain away phenomena that are troubling for the naturalistic worldview, then that simply confirms the charge that motivates this posting.

Yes and no. Or yes but it can’t be helped. Because the alternative is just plain dumb credulity – for everyone except the person or people who experienced it. As I said Tuesday, I just don’t see any way around that. Since we can’t have direct access to the content of other people’s minds, and we know that, we can’t refuse to entertain the possibility that people who tell stories of Weird Experiences are wrong or joking or lying or misremembering or exaggerating or distorting or all those. If you make it a rule to refuse to entertain such possibilities, you find yourself buying all these bridges you don’t want and don’t have room for. There’s no way (that I can see) to get past that. I get that it was overwhelmingly convincing to JS, and I do find that interesting, and I don’t dismiss the idea that it was some rare natural phenomenon that hasn’t been mapped yet; but I can’t just decide to be as convinced as he is. That would be fatuous. It was his experience, it wasn’t anyone else’s. It’s just a fact of life that X’s experience is not as convincing to any not-X as it is to X. So I consider it unfair to call it explaining away, or a move, or automatically retreating. I just don’t see what else sane people can be expected to do, other than beam happily and throw their brains out the window for the squirrels to eat.

I said this on the subject in comments on Tuesday, and I still think it’s right: “There’s an interesting issue here, because the trouble is, this business of being skeptical and cautious about accepting personal testimony on blind faith is both a valid methodological rule and an evasive tactic. It can be either or both at any given time, and there doesn’t really seem to be anything that can be done about that. That’s true in courtrooms too. Evidence can be entirely true and still be ruled out as hearsay. Objections can be (and are) evasive tactics but still raise valid points. I take myself to be not automatically dismissing your account in order to avoid questioning naturalistic views, I take myself to be raising perfectly valid objections to accepting your account on faith – but of course the upshot is the same (except that in fact I do believe your account, but that’s for largely non-epistemic reasons).”

So I don’t think it’s complacent to be more skeptical of someone else’s experience than the person who had the experience is, and I don’t think it’s complacent or (reprehensibly) predictable to ask searching questions about it. I think if we did anything else we might as well forget the whole thing, re-name this site ‘The Bide-a-wee Home for New Age Woollies’, and talk nothing but nonsense from now until curtain-time.


May 24th, 2006 11:25 pm | By

Rhetoric. Funny how quickly people reach for it. Well, no it’s not, because it works, but you’d think people would have a little shame. But they don’t.

This ‘trustee and spokesman for the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health’ for instance. He’s not shy about it.

The row was stirred last night when the Prince of Wales made a groundbreaking speech to the World Health Assembly in Geneva, outlining his philosophy of holistic care to an audience of the world’s health ministers. He urged every country to develop a plan for integrating conventional and alternative medicine. “Many of today’s complementary therapies are rooted in ancient traditions that intuitively understood the need to maintain balance and harmony with our minds, bodies and the natural world,” he said. The prince argued that in “the ceaseless rush to modernise … many beneficial approaches, which have been tried and tested and have shown themselves to be effective, have been cast aside because they are deemed to be ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘irrelevant’ to today’s needs”.

His ‘philosophy’ of holistic care – meaning what? His woolly idea that it’s a good thing? Based on what? His training in medicine or biology or pathology or immunology or microbiology? No? His training in architecture? His training in botany? No? What, then? It’s kind of funny (I think) that no one bothers to ask! Not even the damn Guardian. If the Guardian can’t be bothered to ask, who is going to ask? The Guardian just said he made a ‘groundbreaking speech’ – there’s some rhetoric for you right there, before we even get to his spokesman fella. Why doesn’t anyone care that some guy who has no expert knowledge of a technical subject at all gets up at the World Health Assembly and tells the world’s health ministers what’s what? Why don’t they mind? Why do they think it’s okay that someone with zero training and zero expertise considers himself entitled and qualified to make a speech of that kind in that place to those people? I would really like to know.

Back to his spokesman.

If you look at them, they are surgeons, a pathologist, and none of them represent any GPs or anyone in primary care. It seems to me odd that these clinical barons should be telling those of us who have to deal with daily human suffering what to do. It is almost like some protectionist guild. They have a slightly old-fashioned view.

Well that won’t do. Old-fashioned? Away with it. Oh but wasn’t the Prince just saying…’many beneficial approaches, which have been tried and tested and have shown themselves to be effective, have been cast aside because they are deemed to be ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘irrelevant’ to today’s needs’? Yes, but never mind. Let’s not be slavish and sycophantic here. What we have to do here instead is cast these pesky interfering doctor types as ‘barons’ and a ‘protectionist guild’. They’re exclusive, that’s what it is! They’re excluding people. They’re barons, with a guild, and they’re excluding all the nice amateur doctors who want to help everyone. Terrible thing.

Dr Peter Fisher of the Royal London Homoeopathic Hospital also spoke up; he ‘described the letter as an attempt to introduce a form of “medical apartheid” into the NHS.’ There you go! Barons in a guild are attempting to introduce apartheid. Those bastards! Those exclusive, excluding, border-patrolling, complacent, elitist bastards. It’s an outrage.

More on Hirsi Ali

May 24th, 2006 7:50 pm | By

Hitchens doesn’t agree with that Ian Buruma piece on Hirsi Ali I commented on the other day.

Ian Buruma said that Ayaan Hirsi Ali ought to have spoken out more for those who had been denied asylum in the Netherlands…This point doesn’t seem to me to carry much weight. If she had become the spokeswoman for other refugees, her own story of making a partially false application could (and would) have been used against her even more. Instead, she pointed out that many perfectly legal immigrants to Holland were trying to import dictatorship rather than flee from it, and for this she attracted lethal hatred…Hirsi Ali calls for a pluralist democracy where all opinion is protected but where the law does not – in the name of some pseudo-tolerance – permit genital mutilation, “honor” killing, and forced marriage.

There’s one very bizarre remark in this Observer article, a remark about the tv documentary that (apparently) prompted Verdonk to revoke Hirsi Ali’s citizenship:

The fact that she had lied was well-known, retorted Hirsi Ali, making the point that was she was fleeing a forced marriage. Not so, said van Dongen, using testimony from her brother and husband to allege that the marriage was not made under compulsion.

Oh, from her brother and husband! The ‘husband’ she went to the Netherlands to avoid marrying. Oh, well then, clearly they’re telling the truth about her, because, being her brother and husband, they couldn’t possibly be doing anything else. The reporter making that remark could have interjected just a little note of caution, I’d have thought.

Homa has set up a petition. It has lots of signers one is happy to join – Homa, Maryam, Irshad Manji, June Callwood, Caroline Fourest; Anne Zelensky, Présidente de la Ligue du Droit des femmes; Mohan Ashtakala, Publisher, The Himalayan News; Michel Virard, President, Association Humaniste du Québec,Canada; and lots more. It may make Hirsi Ali feel that bit more welcome over here, if nothing else.

Some Remarks

May 23rd, 2006 6:48 pm | By

Let’s just look at a few comments.

From Flemming Rose:

Dictatorships in the Middle East and radical imams have adopted the jargon of the European left, calling the cartoons racist and Islamophobic. When Westerners criticize their lack of civil liberties and the oppression of women, they say we behave like imperialists. They have adopted the rhetoric and turned it against us…Yet multiculturalism that has all too often become mere cultural relativism is an indefensible proposition that often justifies reactionary and oppressive practices. Giving the same weight to the illiberal values of conservative Islam as to the liberal traditions of the European Enlightenment will, in time, destroy the very things that make Europe such a desirable target for migration.

From a review of Todd Gitlin’s new book:

Todd Gitlin, a founder in the early 1960s of the radical Students for a Democratic Society and now a professor at Columbia University, is appalled by the obscurantism of the academic left…The left, he argues, took a wrong turn when it abandoned knowledge as its guiding light on the grounds that knowledge, as argued by theorists like Michael Foucault and Edward Said, was merely a masked form of power, and illegitimate power at that…Gitlin recounts a conversation with a committed feminist who, like her fellow postmodernists, thought, as did the premodern scholastics, that there was no reality other than that constituted by “discourse.” For the postmodernists who dominate many of our humanities departments, it is as if the scientific revolution never occurred. “The category of ‘lived experience’ was, from her point of view, an atavistic concealment; what one ‘lived’ was constituted by a discourse that had no more – or less – standing than any other system of discourse.” When asked, the feminist was unable to provide a reasoned justification for her own commitments. They could only be asserted as a matter of power and will.

Well – peachy. Since feminists tend to have less power than, say, guys wielding machetes or truck-antenna whips or AK-47s, that’s not a great position to find oneself in. It’s also vacuous, and lazy.

But her problem was more than personal. If, as Michel Foucault told the Berkeley faculty in 1983, “There is no universal criterion which permits us to say, this category of power relations are bad and those are good,” then there is no way to prefer a liberal society to fascism, communism, or Islamism. What that means, by extension, is that, as in the 1930s, many leftists either sympathize with an authoritarian alternative to liberalism or have a hard time explaining why a liberal society should be defended against its enemies.

Or both.

From an article on the Euston Manifesto:

There are cracks in the façade of European leftism that should give us all some hope…Perhaps the most noticeable fissure in the masonry of group-think is a new initiative promoted by old British leftist Norman Geras, who supports the war in Iraq and democratization in the Middle East. Together with a young columnist named Nick Cohen, Geras is leading a new movement dubbed the Euston Manifesto…

That made me snort with laughter when I read it. Hang on! Norm isn’t all that old, and Nick isn’t all that young. It’s not as if Norm is ninety and Nick is seven; it’s not even as if Norm is eighty and Nick is twenty. Get a grip.

The sudden success of the British initiative suggests that there is an untapped vein of rational progressivism in Europe. It is looking for a way to throw off the stifling blanket of doctrinaire thinking that always labels Israel and America the enemy, forgives oppressive and even murderous behavior in minority communities under the relativistic guise of multiculturalism, and excuses terrorism as the only weapon of “resistance” available to the oppressed…But, with a rising generation willing to wake up and rethink some of the received rigidities, there’s reason for hope.

It’s not really a generation thing, that I can see. There are plenty of young multicultis, and plenty of ancient creaking universalists, so this isn’t yet another round of hip new cohort overthrows dreary old windbags. Oldies can be clever, yoof can be damn silly. Relevance, m’lud.

I’ve Got Special Powers

May 22nd, 2006 7:15 pm | By

Right, this is Jerry – I’m briefly hijacking Ophelia’s space. I kind of said that I would write about my Special Powers, so here goes. (I ought to say that I don’t for a moment believe in Special Powers, but there is a point to this.)

I’ve had three bizarre “psychic” type experiences in my life; two of which I think are explicable, one of which is a lot more difficult to explain.

The first occurred when I was 11. I was in a car pulling a massive caravan; it was being driven by my father. We had just gone over one of the Alpine mountain passes, and we were driving down into Italy. What happened next was very odd. I found myself absolutely terrified for no easily discernible reason; almost crying with terror. I kept saying to my father that he had to slow down, he was going too fast. He slowed down – probably from 60 miles an hour to 50 (the speed limit, I think, for towing a caravan). But I still kept on at him, that it was too fast, that he had to go slower. By this point, he was a bit freaked out – as was my mother – so he slowed down some more (just to mollify me). But it still felt to me that the car was careering along way too fast to be towing a caravan. So I kept on at him. I can remember him getting annoyed – because by this point we were probably travelling only about 40 miles an hour – but my mother kind of said, look, just slow down until Jerry feels better (or something like that). And he did slow down, so we were probably only travelling at about 30 miles an hour when the front right tyre exploded. Caravans have a tendency to snake; I think if it had happened at 60 miles an hour, we would probably have plunged off the side of the mountain into a ravine, but as it was my father just about got the car under control, and we kind of juddered to a halt by the side of the road.

So that was quite strange, but easily explicable I think.

The second strange thing happened about fifteen years ago. I had a dream that I was playing basketball. I hadn’t played basketball for ten years (I was forced to play once or twice at school). I have no interest in basketball. I don’t know anything about it. And so on. I remembered the dream because in it I threw the ball and dislocated my shoulder (my shoulder dislocates a lot – an old soccer injury). I woke instantly and checked my shoulder. So I had committed the dream to memory. The next morning I went to teach a private student at his house. I’d never been there before. When I was teaching him, he asked whether I wanted a game of badminton after the lesson (he knew I played racket sports). I said sure, why not. But I wasn’t expecting the game. It hadn’t been planned. We went to the Sports Centre. He had got changed at his home, but he’d lent me clothes and shoes, and I got changed in the Centre changing rooms. He went on ahead. Anyway, I walked out of the changing rooms, and onto where I thought the courts were. As I came in through the door, he threw me a basketball, so there I was standing on a basketball court for the first time in twenty years, holding a basketball (the badminton courts hadn’t yet been set up), the morning after the only dream I have ever had about basketball, a dream in which I threw the ball, and dislocated my shoulder. I think I just said: “Fuck, I dreamt about this last night. I’m not throwing this ball.”

Again, I think this one is easily explicable.

But the third strange thing I don’t think is easily explicable. I was on an overnight flight back from the States, and my partner – Cheryl – and I had been messing around with that twenty questions game (yes, we’re very boring). In our version, one of us would think of a famous person, then the other one had twenty questions (Yes/No responses) to work out who the person was. Anyway, this went on for about half an hour before we began to get bored, and I said: Right, you know that I have psychic powers, we’ll play one last time, and I’ll just get the person without asking any questions. Cheryl, of course, thought this not very likely. But then, I had an incredibly strange experience; I just *knew* the answer. I get, of course, that nobody reading this will believe that I “knew” the answer, to which I can only reply – you didn’t have the experience. Anyway, I said to Cheryl something like, “I know who you’re thinking of, but I don’t know the name”. She said: “Yeah right”. And I said – “It’s that woman, in the 1920s, she was involved in partitioning up the middle east, or Iraq, or something like that”. Anyway, that was the right answer, Cheryl had been thinking of Gertrude Bell (Wikipedia has an entry on her). Cheryl pretty much looked like she’d been hit by a truck. She actually looked scared. Because: a) I have no particular interest in the Middle East; b) We’ve never discussed Middle Eastern history; c) Cheryl was not reading about Middle Eastern history (though she is interested in Iran, which it turned out is how she knew about Gertrude Bell); d) We had been on holiday, so we hadn’t been watching news stories about Iraq or anything else to do with the Middle East (and indeed, this would have been before the invasion of Iraq); e) I didn’t even know that I knew about Gertrude Bell – indeed, I’m not sure I did know about her; f) Just the weirdness of the way I’d got it right – I had told Cheryl I would get it right, I guessed the correct person, but didn’t know her name (I mean, you’d have thought I’d at least have guessed at someone whose name I did know”); and so on, and so forth.

I don’t have an explanation for this last one. The first weird experience – I think I had picked up on some imbalance in the way the car was running – because of the dodgy tyre – and my subconscious did the rest. The second weird thing – just a coincidence (though a hell of a coincidence given that the dream appeared like a warning; but nevertheless, a coincidence). The third one – no, it’s not a coincidence. The nature of the experience was such that the simple conjunction of Cheryl having chosen Gertrude Bell, and my having guessed Gertrude Bell, isn’t really what’s at stake. What’s at stake is the fact that the experience itself was verdical. In that sense, this experience had a different quality than the first two weird experiences. For the coincidence theory to work, what has to be explained is the conjunction between the already highly unlikely proposition that I would have guessed Gertrude Bell at all, the fact that my partner had chosen Gertrude Bell, and the fact that this all occurred with my having in advance said that I knew the correct answer, and with that “knowledge” having been gained in the context of a kind of experience I hadn’t had before and haven’t had since. It wasn’t a coincidence.

Ophelia and I started talking about this stuff because I was trying to illustrate the importance of dissent. I was trying to make two points: (a) Naturalistic explanations are strengthened to the extent that they are able to meet the kind of challenge that my experience throws up, but you’re much less likely to get this kind of challenge if everybody is committed, in a taken-for-granted manner, to the efficacy of naturalistic explanations (in this instance, it would mean that likely there would be no attention paid to the nature of the experience [because that allows the coincidence explanation into play; or the half-coincidence, half-knowledge of partner, explanation]); (b) Don’t underestimate the power of certain kinds of experiences; if people have “experiences” of God that are as apparently veridical as my Gertrude Bell experience, I understand why they’re not convinced by the arguments of atheists.


May 21st, 2006 11:45 pm | By

Correspondents in or from the Netherlands have written to me on the subject of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Views differ. I admire her in many ways, myself – but that doesn’t entail thinking she’s beyond criticism. So I was glad to see this piece by Ian Buruma; it seems fair. (I say ‘seems’ only because I don’t know nearly enough about Dutch politics to judge. I have to take his word for what he’s saying – but I see little reason not to.)

In the name of the Enlightenment, she would do battle against the new counter-Enlightenment, and she found allies among a variety of conservative intellectuals and politicians – and some former leftists, too – who were convinced that multiculturalism had failed, that the Dutch were timid, even cowardly, in the face of the Muslim challenge and that a tough line had to be taken. Rita Verdonk was only a particularly extreme and unimaginative exponent of this new mood…It was she who sent back vulnerable refugees to places like Syria and Congo. It was under her watch that asylum seekers were put in prison cells after a fire had consumed their temporary shelter and killed 11 at the Amsterdam airport. She was the one who decided to send a family back to Iraq because they had finessed their stories, even though human rights experts had warned that they would be in great danger…In this context, Ms. Hirsi Ali’s earlier remarks about the “terror” of “political correctness” have an unfortunate ring. It would have been better if she had taken this opportunity to speak up for the people who face the same problem that she did, of trying to move to a free European country, because their lives are stunted at home for social, political or economic reasons. By all means let us support Ayaan Hirsi Ali now, but spare a thought also for the nameless people sent back to terrible places in the name of a hard line to which she herself has contributed.

There’s more than one kind of tough line. Resisting cultural relativism is one thing, sending refugees back to Syria and Congo is another. So spare a thought.


May 21st, 2006 10:22 pm | By

Julian on the Simpsons. I’m sure he’s right, but I’ve never quite managed to get into it. I realize I ought to, and I feel as if I ought to – not in a moral sense, obviously, but in the sense that I’m sure I’m missing something worth not missing – but usually when I try, I find it irksome; I find I’m forcing myself to keep watching, as a duty, as if it were medicinal, at which I always get impatient and switch to something I like better. Though I also have an ongoing intention to do better some day.

I’m pretty sure I know why I find it irksome, too: it’s so ugly, and the animation is so bad. I’m pretty sure that’s the only thing that stands in the way. (What the hell else would it be? I’ve seen it enough to know I like the content.) I’m sorry, I can’t help it, I just get tired of looking at Homer’s face and Marge’s hair, very quickly. Almost instantly. I’m sure the ugliness is part of the joke, but the joke palls just as fast as the ugliness does, which is pretty much immediately. I can’t help it. I grew up on Warner Brothers cartoons; they’re part of my syntax, my grammar, my earliest mental furniture. Sub-Warner level animation has just never done it for me – it always has to compete with the Warner template, and it can’t do it. Rocky and Bullwinkle could be very funny (they were kind of a premonition of Jerry and Kramer, come to think of it), but man the drawing and animation were crap. Hanna-Barbera were just synoymous with bad animation. So I have this block about the Simpsons. Sad, isn’t it. (Imagine if all editions of Alice came with very ugly, crude illustrations on every page – and there were no plain editions in existence. That would be too bad. On the other hand I have a cartoon edition [yes, really] of Lear [complete text], and it’s brilliant, I love it. But I can’t learn to love Homer. I’m sorry.)

The Celestial Cop

May 21st, 2006 6:23 pm | By

The rabbi has a point. Or part of one anyway.

…the notion that there is no higher authority than nature is precisely what enables people like Mr. Kuklinski – and the vast majority of the killers, rapists and thieves who populate the nightly news. No, no, of course that is not to say that most atheists engage in amoral or unethical behavior. What it is to say, though, is that atheism qua atheism presents no compelling objection to such behavior – nor, for that matter, any convincing defense of the very concepts of ethics and morality themselves.

Well, first of all, that’s a somewhat tricksy claim, because of course ‘atheism qua atheism’ presents no anything about behavior, since opinions on behavior are not what atheism is. Neither is theism, in and of itself; it’s the superstructure that gets built up on top of it – or, to put it another way, the nature of the deity that people decide to believe in; the way people choose to describe the deity they have decided to believe in, rather than their belief that a deity of some sort does exist, that provide the opinions on behavior and the defense of morality. So it’s no good claiming that theists get to assume that the moral views are inherent in the theism while they are not inherent in atheism; in fact they’re inherent in neither. But just for the sake of argument, let’s let him get away with that. Let’s be generous. And having given him that we might as well let him have the ‘compelling objection’ and the ‘convincing defense’ claims – even though he really chose the wrong adjectives there. He should have chosen something like irrefutable, or decisive, or absolute, or knock-down, because if he meant that atheists are unable to work up a compelling or convincing superstructure of moral ideas, as opposed to an irrefutable one, in the absence of a deity, I think that’s just a silly claim, with mountains of historical evidence (to say nothing of other kinds) to contradict it. But never mind; let him have that too. Let’s look farther.

To a true atheist, there can be no more ultimate meaning to good and bad actions than to good or bad weather; no more import to right and wrong than to right and left. To be sure, rationales might be conceived for establishing societal norms, but social contracts are practical tools, not moral imperatives; they are, in the end, artificial. Only an acknowledgement of the Creator can impart true meaning to human life, placing it on a plane above that of mosquitoes.

Of course. Of course social contracts are in the end artificial – but what the rabbi unaccountably fails to notice is that so is what he is saying. It’s exactly as artificial. He’s arguing that theism is a good thing because it compels us to be good – rather than because it’s true. He’s giving a (very old and very familiar) consequentialist argument for the social utility of religion and theist belief. And there is much truth in what he says, but that certainly doesn’t make the whole set-up any less artificial, does it. In fact what’s funny about what the rabbi says (and about these arguments in general, and the way they keep cropping up) is that it could actually undermine religious belief. People could read it and think a little bit and recognize that the rabbi is making a consequentialist argument, which could imply that he doesn’t actually believe in the moral guarantor in the sky himself – oops. Totter, shake, tremble, fall. Consequentialist arguments for actual belief in the real existence of a deity are a tad self-undermining – that’s why one is not supposed to make them in front of the servants. Cicero and Polybius both pointed that out a longish time ago. Oh well – better luck next time, rabbi.

Update: as Don pointed out, PZ has a great post on the rabbi’s thoughts at Pharyngula.


May 20th, 2006 9:49 pm | By

How do people manage to believe strange things? One way is simply to conclude that they have Special Powers, of course; but apart from that? Skeptical Inquirer discusses it via a review of Susan Clancy’s Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens.

…no one wakes up in the morning with a full-blown abduction experience. Sometimes, the experience is created and molded from the starting point of a dream or hypnogogic/hypnopompic hallucination experienced during sleep paralysis. Other times, it starts with just a vague feeling that something had happened that needs to be explained. According to Clancy, all of the abductees she studied “had sought out books, movies, researchers, and hypnotists in an effort to understand the things that were troubling them” (143). Since sleep paralysis and its related hallucinations are almost unknown to the general public, the real explanation is not available. Thus, when someone who has had such an experience reads one of the books touting the reality of alien abductions or hears such claims on television or elsewhere, it seems the only explanation available.

Up to a point. I always wonder why people don’t ask themselves why the aliens drop in only when the dropped in on have just woken up from sound sleep. Why don’t they knock on the door at 3 in the afternoon and ask for lemonade? Why don’t they show up at noon and help make lunch? Why don’t they show up right after dinner and pass the mints? Why don’t they show up when everyone for miles around is wide awake and alert and dressed and walking around and thinking straight? Eh? Why is it always when people are lying there in fetid heaps wondering what woke them oh it’s an alien? You would think they’d wonder. Not, maybe, if it were something only a little bit strange, something absurd but not physically impossible – (I have to say that because I once had an auditory hallucination after being woken up at 3 a.m., and I didn’t realize it was a hallucination until years later, reading about hypnogogic sleep. But what I heard wasn’t aliens, or god rehearsing a speech, or The Great Unicorn humming a tune. It was odd, even socially impossible, but not supernatural.) – but if it were aliens? Barney and Betty aliens, mashed potato aliens, sperm-head aliens? I would think that would make people look a little harder for other explanations. But then of course some do; it’s just that others don’t. That’s not all that surprising. It’s a big world.

In chapter 5, “Who gets abducted?”, she reports the results of her own research on dozens of abductees, whom she interviewed and gave psychological tests. In general, these people are quite normal. They are certainly, with an exception or two, not “crazy,” as so many first suspect upon hearing their tales. They are, however, more imaginative, creative, and fantasy-prone than the general population.

Sure. It’s not at all about being crazy, I should think, it’s about being credulous, uncritical, mentally passive. All of which are natural! Those are pretty much default mode; it takes learning to be the other thing. Skepticism and caution and logic, poking at inferences, realizing the difference between correlation and causation – all those are learned behaviour. Lots of people never do learn it. And there are masses of influences teaching the opposite.

It may surprise you to know that my co-author has Special Powers. He’s been telling me about them lately. He was considering telling you about them too, but he may have decided not to profane the mysteries. He has a faint hope that telling me about his Special Powers will convince me that he is by definition always right about everything, but I have roundly assured him that it won’t. I defeated him in argument six times earlier today; he was merely too stiff-necked to concede as much.