Sunday, 12 December 2010

Evidence-Based Job Seeking

I get several pictures of very attractive young women sent to me every week.

No, I haven’t finally activated my month’s free trial of I am the MD of a company which produces makeup effects and props for film and TV, and we get lots of CVs from graduates.

Either being 22 and female is an intrinsically gorgeous state, or they don’t let mingers into art school. Every candidate I get to see would turn heads rather than stomachs.

The CV thing puzzled me for ages. Then I thought it must be to try and get an edge in what is, admittedly, a male dominated profession. You can’t blame a girl for using everything she’s got. By my age you’re not expected to include a photo with a job application or they might think you’re addled and have confused your resumé with your Meals-on-Wheels application.

But when you’re young and junior, could your appearance weigh more heavily in your favour?

I finally asked a graduate who was working for us. She’d been hired on recommendation, BTW. I didn’t see her CV ‘til she showed it to me and asked for feedback.

It turns out the reason all the CVs all look similar and all include a photograph in the same place is not because they have used Microsoft PimpMySkillsTM. It’s because someone comes in before they finish Uni. to teach a one day course. This person solemnly assures them that a photo is the way employers “will remember you and differentiate your CV from someone else’s.”


A few years ago, at the beginning of the internet explosion, I used to put commercial websites together. At dinner one night, a teacher friend told me excitedly that she’d been on a website course at work and been told a critical piece of information: don’t put the words "child" and "play" in the meta-tags for fear of attracting paedophiles.

Now, spending a whole day teaching web design to naïfs back in the day when it would have taken you all the way up to coffee break – max - to say that you close a tag with a backslash must have left some poor bastard with another three quarters of his consultancy fee to justify. But did he have to scrape the bottom of that particular barrel? He could have spoken to one of my art graduates about designing good user interfaces, for example.

I mean, sometimes you can just tell that someone’s making it up for the sake of something to say, especially if they’re being paid by the hour.

Today, I read an article which has a bearing on the photo issue.

The New York Times has a piece on ‘Beauty Discrimination During a Job Search’ based on a paper ‘Are Good Looking People More Employable?

Ruffle and Shtudiner of Ben-Gurion University noted in their abstract that:

“Job applicants in Europe and in Israel increasingly embed a headshot of themselves in the top corner of their CVs”

So they “sent 5312 CVs in pairs to 2656 advertised job openings.” One of the CV’s had no picture attached - but its compatriot contained a picture of either an attractive man or woman, or a “plain” man or woman.

I’m guessing they’re using the term “plain” in a politically correct way to denote “unattractive” as opposed to “unremarkable”. The terms “minger”, “munter” or “ten-pinter” probably don’t get you cited in the appropriate journals.

The first interesting thing to notice is that there was a difference in results according to whether the CVs were sent to an agency or directly to the potential employers.

Female beauty didn’t seem to matter hugely to agencies, whose ‘no photo’, ‘plain’ and ‘attractive’ rates for women are in a similar ballpark. Not identical, but close.

Male beauty, however, made a big diff to the agencies. If you take the 13.5% ‘no picture’ as a baseline, then being fit gives a man a 7.3% edge, and being frightful reduces his chances by 5.2%. Not nice.

And if the CVs went directly to potential employers?

The results for males look like a slightly squished down version of the ‘agency’ result. ‘Plain’ gives worst results, ‘attractive gives the best and ‘no piccie’ is in the middle. There’s only a 5% difference maximum & minimum values.

So good-looking men always do better when they send a photo. The degree to which their gorgeousness counts just depends on whether they’re going through an agency or not.

If you’re a male and not so easy on the eye, just avoid the visuals.

The interesting results come when we get to ‘potential employers’ and ‘women’.

Ready for this ladies?

‘No piccie’ does best of all. Tagging slightly behind - so slightly that the results could come out differently in repeated study - is the ‘plain’. And nearly 6% behind ‘plain’ is … ‘attractive’.

So if you are stunning and female, don’t send a picture to a potential employer, no matter what the one-day consultant twerp at uni. says.

Ruffle and Shtudiner attribute this skew to the initial CV screening HR department done by people who were usually female, between 24 and 36 and often single.

They go on to conclude that discrimination against attractive women was therefore influenced by envy “when confronted with a young, attractive competitor in the workplace.”

Ouch. What happened to the sisterhood?

In my own business, I’d still actually recommend the photo route for pretty young women. As I said, it’s a male dominated world and we don’t really have formal HR departments. And if you land on my desk I’ll pay more attention to your folio than your fizzog.

But for the corporate sphere, a babe had better wait ‘til she’s hungover before taking the photo or else not send one at all.

There are two substantive issues here for me.

The first and hopefully most obvious point is that it shouldn’t really matter whether you’re a honey or a honey monster. The “employers will remember your CV by your photo” strikes me as one of the most conspicuous outbreaks of bollocks I’ve heard for a while. Photos are to see what you look like, and what you look like shouldn’t matter.

I recently spoke to a US news-reporter who had been displaced in favour of – literally – a beauty-queen-news-reporter. Even if she looked like Jabba the Hut (she doesn’t), would it have affected the journalism?

Secondly, who the hell are these people giving out advice in unis., advice which flies directly in the face of the evidence? Who is paying them and why?

I’ve spoken to several people here in the US (I’m here for a short spell) and they’re taken aback at the thought that photos should be attached to anything other than crime scene reports. But their anti-discrimination attenae are a bit more finely tuned than ours.

They feel, rightly I think, that photos for jobs can be a minefield of prejudice. I bet Ruffle and Shtudiner would agree.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Prostitution Law Reform

This is a guest blogpost from Anthony Burn. Anthony was a lobbyist for the New Zealand Prostitute Collective, which successfully campaigned for a private members bill to be passed into law in NZ in 2003.

Anthony couldn’t make it to Westminster Skeptics in the Pub on 18th October 2010 when Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon and Dr Brooke Magnanti aka 'Belle de Jour' spoke on ‘The Law and Policy of Sex Work’ which I chaired.

(There’s a podcast of the evening here and a New Statesman article by David Allen Green, convenor of Westminster Skeptics, who put the evening together.)

But over a pint or two of Pinot Grigio, Anthony kindly agreed commit his experience to pixels. And here it is:

Jourdemayne asked me to write this article after we had a conversation about the issue of prostitution law reform in the UK. I was excited to hear that some advocates for law reform were basing their proposals on the New Zealand model, a model that I was intimately aware of, having been hired as an advocate and lobbyist for the New Zealand Prostitute Collective, who successfully campaigned for Tim Barnett’s private members bill to be passed into law on June 25th 2003.

My role was to firm up public support for the bill critical to helping Tim lock in members of parliament who had previously supported the bill, but who were now wavering in the face of a ferocious alliance of radical feminists and churches, lead by the Christian lobby group Maxim. Maxim were a thorn in the side of any socially progressive movement in New Zealand, styling their tactics and presentation on American Christian right groups such as Focus on the Family.

The reform bill enjoyed its own broad coalition of support from liberal churches, victim support groups, and a wide array of public health groups. This support was at least as deep as the opposition's, but it was also quieter, and there was a real danger that the only voices the MPs would hear in the decisive three weeks before the final vote was the sky-falling-in stridency of the opposition.

By the time of the final vote, the New Zealand media was identifying the prostitution law reform bill as the most intensely lobbied piece of social legislation since the passage of the homosexuality law reform bill twenty years earlier.

Maxim and their cohorts were very adept at grasping the media megaphone and providing the kind of lurid, exaggerated claims that write their own headlines. My favourite piece of Maxim nonsense was the claim that legalizing prostitution would lead to brothel owners expounding the benefits of prostitution as a career choice at school career days. It should come as a surprise to no one that no school fairs have been visited by brothel owners since the bill passed.

If anything, the radical feminist objection to the bill was even more strident than the religious groups. One memorable moment just before the vote occurred in an interview between Tim and New Zealand television media personality Pam Corkery, a staunch feminist implacably opposed to the bill.

In a memorable exchange Pam accused Tom of authoring the most anti-women piece of legislation in New Zealand's history, and not stopping there, accused Tim of being intrinsically and irredeemably anti-women because he was openly gay. Tim did a very good job of laughing this accusation off, but what puts this exchange in context is that Pam Corkery had made her name championing myriad social causes, including many opposed by Maxim, and had once been a member of parliament for the most left-wing party in New Zealand. In almost any other circumstance Pam and Tim would have been on the same side of an issue, and yet Pam made the nastiest and most personal attack on Tim of the whole campaign.

This underlines the resonance of the emotional associations that prostitution triggers in many people’s minds, drawing together the strangest of bedfellows on the side of the opposition. It should also act as a warning to the UK advocates of reform of the many faceted vehemence they would face in the UK.

A small but noteworthy example of this was Harriet Harman’s support for the Swedish model of prostitution law reform that was also supported by some opponents of the New Zealand bill. The Swedish model was rejected by reform bill advocates because in Sweden it only exacerbated the problems of the current law by criminalizing the clients rather than the sex workers, thereby driving prostitution even further underground and compounding all the ills of the status quo, increasing the instances of unreported rape, rampant drug use, and increased HIV and other STD infections. Far from being a solution it only compounds the problem, yet it has always found favour with some feminists because it targets predominately male clients over female sex workers.

Tim included in his final speech a quote from Dr Basil Donovan, Head of Sydney’s Sexual Health Service:

“With the sole exceptions of the Cultural Revolution in China and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the law surrounding prostitution has no effect in its prevalence. Laws seeking to restrict prostitution merely promote corruption, brutality and sexually transmitted infections”

So how would the world look like to the average UK citizen if a law like this was passed? It would remain virtually unchanged to most of us who do not frequent the sex industry. The only truly viable sign of change in New Zealand for most people was the reduced presence of risqué massage parlour signs since the new law gave local bodies new powers to regulate advertising related to sex work.

But for UK sex workers the world would change dramatically as it did for New Zealand sex workers, and key to that transformation would be the sex workers’ relationship with the state. As Tim said in his comments prefacing the final reading of the bill:

“Under the Bill they (sex workers) will be under a public health umbrella. They will have the opportunity for an employment contract, the certainty of an Occupational Safety and Health Code, a safer-sex focused environment to work in. They will have new protection from a stronger law against coercion. Workers aged under 18 will not be criminalized, but their clients face longer sentences than under current law, with less opportunity to successfully defend themselves”

If there is one key campaign lesson I would immediately draw from the New Zealand experience is that the debate over prostitution reform can be highly emotive, sensational and irrational. Arguments in favour, therefore, have to be ready to provide irresistible case studies embedded into highly compelling emotional narratives to counter the emotional fire storm that comes from the opposition. Though these emotional arguments have to be made, they can and should ultimately be located back in the kind of entirely rational, pragmatic arguments that cemented my own personal support for reform.

An example of how this was effectively deployed in the debate over the bill was when Tim and the Prostitutes Collective provided a key waverer with a highly evocative case study of how the status quo was not working in her own constituency. They brought the MP into direct contact with the victims in that case study with the result that, on the night of the debate, the waverer supported the bill and cited the victims she met as the reason why she changed her mind.

A key emotive argument made on the night in New Zealand was made by Georgina Beyer, the world’s first transsexual MP and previously world’s first transsexual Mayor. Georgina recounted how, in the days when she was still a male prostitute on the streets, she was violently raped by a male client who avoided prosecution because Georgina knew if she approached the police about the rape she also would be prosecuted because of her profession.

Georgina said that voting for the reform bill that night would help put a stop to all the rapes of the Georges and Georginas out there, people who were too afraid to turn in their attackers because of the Victorian 'blame-the-victim' mindset of the current law.

Making resonant, emotive laden arguments for Prostitution Law Reform would be even more critical in a UK context, because prostitution law reform is exactly the kind of emotional political football that red-tops like 'The Sun' love to kick around for maximum shock value.

After Tim read the New Zealand Prostitution Reform bill a final time, a conscious vote was taken, with the bill passing by a single, solitary vote - 60 votes to 59, with one key, brave, abstention by the solitary Muslim MP in the New Zealand parliament.

Since that momentous (and wildly celebratory) night seven years ago, the bill has been law, and it has wrought a positive change in sex worker health, safety, rates of drug use, working conditions, worker benefits, and ability to leave the occupation at will. Needle exchanges and sexual health clinics also report a positive uptake by sex workers since the police no longer provide examples of needles and condoms as the evidence required to prosecute sex workers for their occupation in court.

I hope that the UK advocates for prostitution law reform continue to champion the New Zealand example as the way to remove outdated, biased, largely unenforced law, which leaves real problems untouched and nurtures harm.

I wish them the very best of luck in negotiating the minefield to bring about positive change in the world’s oldest profession, in the very society that brought us the Victorian moral mindset.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Intelligence Squared: Stop Bashing Christians

Intelligence Squared events are always fun. They attract prominent and often witty speakers. This one was no exception.

“Stop bashing Christians: Britain is Becoming an Anti-Christian country” took place in Kensington on November 3rd. The event was actually very well attended given that it was a Bob Crow day. That’s like a bank holiday, but with even less public transport ;-)

Anyhow, the motion was supported by Former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord George Carey, columnist Peter Hitchens and writer Howard Jacobson.

And it was opposed by Geoffrey Robertson QC, Matthew Parris and Benedictine Friar Dom Antony Sutch, who has a career in laconic stand-up if the monk thing doesn’t work out.

At the start of the evening, the vote was: for 275; against 183; undecided 181. Given that the swing vote is the one to win at these things, there was a decisive gain to be had by one side or the other.

George Carey was uninspired; Geoffrey Robertson was charismatic and amusing; Howard Jacobson was polished, funny and indulged in unforgivable levels of sophistry; Matthew Parris was clear and lucid; Peter Hitchens was … well you’ve read his Mail columns; Dom Antony Sutch was reasonable and hilarious. For the purposes of dry-cleaning, does a monk’s habit count as a military uniform or a ballgown? The dry-cleaner was as confused as you are at this moment.

George Carey pointed out that the majority of people in this country are self-declared Christian, but he saw “worrying signs that the Christian faith is being pushed to the margins”.

He went on to cite several recent situations which would be familiar to most people who glance at newspapers or the ‘net. Gary McFarlane, a senior Relate counsellor had been dismissed for refusing to offer sexual guidance to homosexual couples; nurse Shirley Chaplain who was asked to remove her cross at work; Islington Registrar Theresa Davies who refused to conduct same-sex civil partnerships; Owen & Eunice Johns who were disallowed from fostering children because of their religious belief that homosexuality is wrong.

“My concern is that the religious rights of individuals are now being trumped by other rights” he summarised.

Geoffrey Robertson QC opened by saying that the Pope had been “fawned upon by politicians”. He continued that “… the protests were all polite and good humoured with the exception of the sour faced Paisley-ite Protestants from Northern Ireland proving … the only people who are bashing Christians in this country are their fellow Christians”.

He characterised the Synod activity regarding women and gays as “puerile debates” and went on to list many ways in which Christianity, far from being bashed, was actually highly privileged in Britain.

As for Gary McFarlane, who had been cited previously by George Carey (the Archbishop had also given evidence on his behalf), Robertson pointed out that the codes of ethics of both ‘Relate’ and ‘The British Association of Therapists’ disallowed discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. And Gary McFarlane belonged to and was thereby required to adhere to these codes.

“These cases are not bashing Christians” Robertson concluded. “They’re making sure that idiosyncratic and bigoted Christians don’t bash gays and other minorities at the public expense.”

Howard Jacobson started with a hyperbolic list of the putative benefits of Christianity.

“When Christianity … found you, you were warring gangs of troglodytic tree-worshippers for whom spirituality meant dancing around a goat in maxi-dresses … whose highest architectural ambition was the arrangement of big stones in small circles … From that, Christianity refined you into the people who built Ely cathedral, who listened to the music of Purcell & Handel, who spoke a language subtle and profound enough to make possible the plays of Shakespeare … without Christianity … the very temper of the English mind … would be less sophisticated”

While I fully appreciate that Mr. Jacobson’s standpoint was artfully designed to ride on a wave of wit – and he is a droll speaker – the conflation of wit and wisdom was too complete to forgive … or even disentangle.

If we assume that even just fifty percent was intended as fact, it was still tosh. Sorry.

But “… it was the French” who rescued the British from Wode, protested Matthew Parris.

As for goats and maxi-dresses, I’ve written about the insufficiency and impartiality of historical records regarding nature of pre-Christian religious practices in the British Isles here.

And the proposed direct causal relationship between Christianity and complex cultural ephemera is too ridulous to bother rebutting. Let’s just ignore the collapse of empires, the progress of epidemics, climate and economy.

Jacobson reminded us of John Dunne’s: “ … infinitely subtle matrix which makes each of us so implicative in the lives of others that damage is impossible to guage”.

On which non-sequitur he finished.

Howard Jacobson had mentioned an incident in which Matthew Parris had leapt into the Thames to save a dog. He had attributed the moral motivation for this to the Christian minset.

Parris opened with a reposte:
“I believe, as Christianity and Judaism do not believe, that dogs have souls”.

Parris started by disputing the Christian perspective as the starting point for morality and law. He rejected the divine authority of any rulebook on at least two levels: firstly, the rules in relation to specific issues such as abortion, homosexuality, birth control and so forth; and secondly, the notion that the Christian god ordains human morality.

Christians and non-Christians alike should have an equal say in political ethics he continued.

Paris continued with examples of the way in which religion has not offered the tolerance it now pleads for itself, concluding:
“Their gods care little for your freedom … give them the tolerance they would never give you, but watch them like a hawk and give them not an inch more”

With what may have seemed like whimsy, the chair introduced Peter Hitchens as “a man for whom faith has been a constant feature throughout his life”. Hitchens’ past fervour for international socialism and revolutionary Trotskyism, and his present belief in Anglican Christianity were thus framed as different locations on one continuum.

But I think it was actually an incisive insight.

Several people have developed psychological models of religiosity. They categorise things like whether a person is likely to have transcendental experiences; whether their religious thoughts are likely to permeate other situations in their lives; whether they regard the prime value of religious affiliation as social order.

For Peter Hitchens take a quick look at Extrinsic Religiosity in Allport and Ross’s ‘Religious Orientation Scale’.

Hitchens seems to be, more than a Christian, a believer in belief.
“Many who did not believe in God recognised the social benefits” he said.
“Such people as Matthew [Parris] regard Christianity’s prohibitions too high a price to pay for the great benefits we receive at its hand”, and:
“A nasty new tribal group-think is undermining the faith on which are based a unique ordered liberty of our society: its gentleness, its tolerance, its freedom, its literature, its art, its music … its law and its language”

They are: “those who like to live with its benefits but will not pay its dues”

Dom Antony Sutch is a monk who does not believe that we are becoming a nation of Christian-bashers.
“We’re living in a society that is bashing everybody” he intoned mournfully.

He also made an interesting point not made by others:
“We’re getting to the point where the media have all the headlines and we say “It must be the case”.”

Does the media aggravate these stories? Maybe.

The evening carried a few interesting themes.

The conflation of non-Christian and anti-Christian was addressed. Dom Anthony Sutch pointed out that the new movement:
“… may disagree and argue about certain Christian beliefs, but it is not anti-Christian”

He went onto say: “One of the things that worries me more than anything is Christians getting at other Christians. But if you’re a Christian getting at a Christian, you’re not anti-Christian”.

There was also a certain failure, particularly with George Carey it seemed, to appreciate the degree to which Christianity is already privileged:

The Church of England, said Geoffrey Robertson “.. loves to sit undemocratically at the heart of The Establishment”, enjoying privileges with education and tax laws.
Parliament starts every day with a prayer by an Anglican Chaplain; Church of England courts are paid for by the taxpayer because the Church is established; the monarch is its head and the archbishops are appointed by the Prime Minister; vicars live without paying Council Tax.

There are also twenty-six Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords – all Anglican. Neither did the recent White Paper on Lords reform suggest getting rid of them.

Archbishop Carey defended the Lords Spiritual system to a ripple of laughter. He protested that he had tried to get the RC Bishop of Westminster appointed too but the Vatican had declined.

Matthew Parris was also eloquent on the degree to which Christianity has institutional advantages including exemptions from discriminatory laws in employing staff, and the fact that political party leaders regularly give privileged access to religious believers

“Their real complaint is that they’re not getting their way anymore” he said. “Theirs is the self-pitying whimper of a dog that off its leash in a dominating pack would hound other creatures again without mercy”

Peter Hitchens, on the other hand, believed that the powerful non-Christian movement “seeks itself to be dominant”.

During questions, he went on to offer a chilling warning to us all. They (the new movement):
“… will leave a space … for fundamentalist Islam … where Christianity used to be … that’s where it’s all going”.

This, as though it was indisputable that social ecology has a mandatory niche - the religious niche, which will suck powerfully, destructively & indiscriminately when occupied by a vacuum.

But fervent religiosity is not a mandatory niche, surely – a gap to be plugged with a benign entity to displace a more malignant version?

In fact, Matthew Parris reminded us of what could really lurking in the fringe. And for this, we do not have to turn to our own paranoia but to history:
“Ask Galieo, ask Luther, ask Darwin about intolerance” he said. The Roman Catholic Church was an institution which “… when it could, burnt its critics at the stake, excommunicated intellectual or moral challengers, suppressed or subverted science itself …”

He also quoted John Clare’s ‘Ode to a Fallen Elm’:
‘So thy old shadow must a tyrant be
Bawl freedom loud then oppress the free’

That religion is a secondary construct rather than a primary state was visibly lost on Peter Hitchens and Archbishop Carey. Secularists are not asking for special treatment. They’re asking for a level playing field, without privilege for anyone. Howard Jacobson was inordinately more sophisticated, pleading that, as he put it, “Judeo-Christianity (has) a way of describing us to ourselves”.

Summarising, Geoffrey Robertson said that Britain is becoming a non Christian, but not an anti-Christian society. Dom Anthony Sutch said that society is becoming secular but not intolerant.

And the vote at the end of the evening? The ‘fors’ went from 275 to 216, the 'againsts' went from 183 to 378, and the 'undecideds' were reduced from 181 to 48. That probably means that 133 previously undecided people had swung to the idea that ‘we are not becoming a Christian bashing country’ … and so had 59 voters who had previously thought that we were.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Evolving Darwin Play Set

Look what I got for a pressie!

Darwin evolves from pond slime to a chimpy-looking hominid to a nineteenth century gentleman.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Skeptics in the City of Angels

Business has brought me to LA for a few weeks.

The up-side of going west through eight time zones is that you get up early enough to go for a run. The downside is that by dinnertime, you're slumped with your face in your food.

And speaking of eating: been busy this week, so I just bought a pile of frozen, microwaveable Mexican food. I think it's going to be a while before I can look another chimchanga in the face. Today, I am going to go and buy a vegetable.

Mr Jourdemayne and I once took a very long trip to see a writer. We were too off-schedule to stop for a meal, but had been told there were provisions at the other end. After two hours of greetings and enough rum to launch a Saturn V - all endured without fainting - we were presented with the comestibles.

It was the repast of an eighteenth century central European peasant married to a nail technician from a trailer park in Alabama. There was every kind of salted and preserved meat you can imagine. All seemed to end in 'am': ham, spam ... plus jerky.

And cheese and onion crisps.

And ONE sprig of parsley.

Mr Jourdemayne and I both fixed upon the parsley. Our eyes darted back challengingly to each other, and then that music from 'The Good, The Bad and the Ugly' played in the background.

I might have imagined that last bit.

I was as fast as a cat, but he was a fast as a faster cat. Mr Jourdemayne whipped the parsley away. He took the time to triumphantly roll it around his lips, Ermentrude-like, before sucking it down with a vigorous vacuum that made all our ears pop slightly.

The hostess looked at us resentfully. I think she kept the parsley for dressing. I don't think we were supposed to eat it. The speed with which Mr Jourdemayne ingested the thing, it may actually have been astro-turf parsley. We'll never know.

I like vegetables, and today I'm going to buy one.

But what of last night? I went to see Drinking Skeptically, LA at their usual meetup, and what a friendly bunch of people they are. It's one of the many wonderful things about skepticism, that we can go to so many cities and find friends very easily.

This Brian Hart, assistant organiser and Invesigator with the Independent Investigations Group.

And this is Derek Bartholomaus, who created the Jenny McCarthy Bodycount.

Thanks to everybody for making me feel so welcome. See you all again soon.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Hallowe'en Week

Thank you to everybody who came to say 'Hi' at The Literary and Debating Society at the National University of Ireland on Thursday November 28th. The debating society's motion: 'This House Believes in the Other Side' was defeated.

I also had a wonderful evening at Goldsmiths on Tuesday 26th, where I spoke about 'Demons and Nightmares: Why do People Believe in the Malign Supernatural?' There's an audio version here

And we had a lot of fun at the Westminster Skeptics First Birthday/Hallowe'en Party on November 1st too.

What a great Hallowe'en week!

Sunday, 10 October 2010

The Druid Network

On September 21st, the Charity Commission published its decision in respect of The Druid Network’s application for charitable status.

The ‘yes’ hit the news networks a few days later at the beginning of this month, for example the Telegraph, the BBC and Sky News where it rather uncharitably appeared under their ‘strange news’ category.

The Druid Network is not the extant organisation to represent Druidism, but it’s the only one currently with Charity Status.

This should not be misunderstood as an aspersion upon any Druids or Druidical Institutions though. Other organisations may just not want charitable status. King Arthur Pendragon (I’m guessing he changed his name by deed poll) was reported by the BBC as saying that:

… he would not be seeking charitable status for his own order - the Loyal Arthurian Warband - as it was a political wing and therefore had no need to be recognised as a charity

King Arthur sounds like friendly and self-effacing kind of a bloke to judge from the interviews I’ve read over the years:

I'm Arthur Pendragon and if people want to believe I'm some nutter who thinks he's the reincarnation of King Arthur that's their choice

In fact it’s hard to dislike Druids in general. They seem full of good intentions, keen on environmentalism, rejecting of consumerism as a route to happiness and King Arthur likes cider – all sterling qualities.

They esteem personal revelation on the way to enlightenment, they seem to appreciate the cultivation of knowledge over received dogma and to practice meditation.

If I was forced to choose between one of the Abrahamic faiths and modern Druidry, it’d be a millisecond before I was down the pub with His Majesty.

But King Arthur was also quoted by the BBC as dropping what I regard as the biggest neo-pagan clanger – claiming provenance of his religion from the original Celtic social class of two millennia ago.

We are looking at the indigenous religion of these isles - it's not a new religion but one of the oldest

We actually know very little about the Celtic Druids. Most of the written evidence comes from Julius Caesar’s ‘Commentaries on the Gallic War’.

Caesar’s Gauls had structured societes with a military class and a priestly one, which “is in great honour among them”. The Druids seem to have been in charge of administering justice:

For they determine respecting almost all controversies, public and private; and if any crime has been perpetrated, if murder has been committed, if there be any dispute about an inheritance, if any about boundaries, these same persons decide it; they decree rewards and punishments

Caesar continues that the Druids were knowledgeable about calendars and astronomy and they spent very long periods (twenty years) committing their most sacred doctrines to memory, although they used Greek letters to write upon more mundane matters.

But there was an uncivilised facet to this nation: the Druids practiced human sacrifice.

The nation of all the Gauls is extremely devoted to superstitious rites; and on that account they who are troubled with unusually severe diseases, and they who are engaged in battles and dangers, either sacrifice men as victims, or vow that they will sacrifice them, and employ the Druids as the performers of those sacrifices; because they think that unless the life of a man be offered for the life of a man, the mind of the immortal gods can not be rendered propitious, and they have sacrifices of that kind ordained for national purposes.”

And here is where we get our legend of the Wicker Man, a giant human-shaped container stuffed with live sacrificial victims. They:

… have figures of vast size, the limbs of which formed of osiers they fill with living men, which being set on fire, the men perish enveloped in the flames. They consider that the oblation of such as have been taken in theft, or in robbery, or any other offence, is more acceptable to the immortal gods; but when a supply of that class is wanting, they have recourse to the oblation of even the innocent.

This combination of civilised and uncivilised traits may have been intended demonstrate to the Romans back home that the Gauls were simultaneously a people worth the effort of conquering but also barbaric and in need of Roman cultural influence.

In other words, Caesar’s account has to be regarded as, at least in part, propaganda. Without decent objective verification of the facts, we just don’t know.

Druidic divination by human sacrifice was also described by first century BCE Greek historian Diodorus Siculus:

"There are also certain philosophers and priests surpassingly esteemed, whom they call Druids. They have also soothsayers, who are held in high estimation; and these, by auguries and the sacrifice of victims, foretell future events, and hold the commonalty in complete subjection … when they deliberate on matters of moment, they practise a strange and incredible rite; for, having devoted a man for sacrifice, they strike him with a sword on a part above the diaphragm: the victim having fallen, they augur from his mode of falling, the contortion of his limbs, and the flowing of the blood, what may come to pass, giving credence concerning such things to an ancient and long-standing observance

But we know so little of Diodorus’ life, whether he travelled and whether he gathered his accounts first hand, that it’s fair to draw the more probably conclusion that he worked from documents and may have been repeating hearsay.

Strabo’s ‘Geography’, covering the same subject, writes in such a conspicuously similar fashion that it seems highly likely they were both repeating from the same source. They both mention that Druids had the power to stand between armies and halt hostilities if they thought the fight unjust. And Strabo re-mentions Caesar’s Wicker Man.

Strabo did travel extensively, but he lived from around 63/64 BCE to 24 CE. In other words, he was around twenty years old at the death of Julius Caesar (100 BCE 15 March 44 BCE). His travels and writing post-dated the extirpation of the Druids and the chances of collecting first-hand data (although he may have spoken to old campaigners).

There are other classical sources but we don’t need to go through them exhaustively. Basically, I’m trying to demonstrate that our knowledge of the real, ancient Druids is patchy, propagandist and/or second hand.

I’m not at all upset, by the way, at the notion that they practiced human sacrifice. They may have, they may not have. Iron Age human sacrifice is reasonably well evidenced by corpses such as Tolland Man.

And for those with such a sanctimonous dismissal of other’s murderous practices, the Romans would have done well to remember that Gladiatorial combat probably started at the time of the Punic Wars as a barely glossed human sacrifice, a part of funerary ritual.

The point about Druidic human sacrifice is – we don’t know.

Druids turn up later in Irish folkore. But their role and identities were reduced, by the coming of Christianity, to sorcerers. Druids get a bad rap ‘til the early modern era, at which time we see the buds of a Romantic reinvention.

Modern Druidism has had many players over the centuries: people like antiquarian and proto-archaeologist John Aubrey (1626 – 1697) for whom the ‘Aubrey holes’ of Stonehenge are named; antiquarian, freemason, doctor and vicar William Stukely (1687-1785) and Welsh propagandist, antiquarian and poet Edward Williams (1747 –1826).

So was our nation’s true religion under wraps for all that time, safe in the hands of a few initiates who, continuing the practices of their antecedents, memorised all their sacred knowledge and left no texts?

Did they only emerge when it was safe to do so? Is modern Druidry an authentically original, rather than reinvented, tradition?

Margaret Murray (1863 – 1963) was an Egyptologist who is now mainly remembered for her ‘Witch-Cult Hypothesis’. Her books ‘The Witch Cult in Western Europe’ (1921) and ‘The Gods of the Witches’ (1931) proposed that the ‘Old Religion’ had gone underground but had survived intact. Covens worshipped a horned god and the sacrifice of a ‘Divine King’ figure could be seen in such historical events as the death of William Rufus and Thomas Beckett.

However, Murray’s theories are now very unfashionable and have, to be frank, been thoroughly discredited. She felt that the witch trials of Europe’s sixteenth and seventeenth ‘Great-Witch-Hunt’ era were an attempt by the Christian authorities to extirpate a genuine underground movement.

However, there are alternative, and far better, explanations of the witch hunts. Like so many human dynamics and behaviours, the Witch Hunts are too subtle and complicated for one definitive answer.

But the post-Reformation tension between Catholicism and Protestantism probably had a huge part to play, as did the economic changes of the early-modern era in which traditional means of social support and charity changed.

Where there are highly plausible explanations for one theory and virtually no evidence for another, Occam’s razor must be evoked. Sorry Margaret.

And this, I feel, must go for Druidism too.

Writing to his friend Lord Cecil about a trip to York in 1570, Archbishop Edmund Grindal expressed his dismay about the tenacity of Catholicism in the north of England:

He lamented that holy days and feasts were still celebrated, beads were told and ‘they offer money, eggs etc. at the burial of their dead’”
p 102

Offerings for the dead are undoubtedly a vestigal manifestation of pre-Christian religious practices. Catholicism was, and is, undoubtedly a more magical religion than Protestantism. But this does not mean that the people of whom the Archbishop disapproved were self-consciously practicing anything other than that which they would have called Christianity.

At Easter, I eat a lot of dark chocolate eggs, but that makes me a gannet – not a pagan.

James Frazer, in the Golden Bough (1890) identified traces of the Old Religion all over Europe.

He cites ‘Druidical festivals’ such as the making of ‘need fire’ on Beltane - May Day, a ritual which was regarded as a prophylactic for disease. (‘Need’ fire is ‘new’ fire from first principles rather than from an existing ember.) In Ireland, Frazer recalls that the May Day rituals in which cattle were driven between two need fires had been conducted ‘within living memory’.

He also cited recent festivals of the time in Douay & Dunkirk where a giant figures made of osiers (wickerwork) were taken through the street, driven by men enclosed inside them.

But the closest Frazer gets to Murray’s recondite religion is to write:

… that is, among a Celtic people who, situated in a remote corner of Europe and almost completely isolated from foreign influence, had til then conserved their heathenism better perhaps than any other people in the West of Europe

This is far from suggesting that there was a coherent spiritual underground, an authentic and self-conscious maintenance of a two thousand year old tradition.

It’s not a claim that is repeated by ‘The Druid Network’ from what I can gather from their website, which is very sensible of them.

Their founder, Emma Restall Orr was associated with the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids which founded by Ross Nichols in 1972.

There are a several Druidic groups, and the recent history of the movement has a little of the ‘People’s Judean Front’ about it. But then so do most groups & movements, I suppose. I’ve seen it many times, and you probably have too.

Jo Brand said that Wiccan is Old-English for basket-case. I repeat it here because it’s a funny joke and I like Jo Brand.

But I’ll qualify that by reminding you that, frankly, they don’t believe in anything sillier than any other religions, perhaps less silly than many. As I said, just picture me and King Arthur in the pub …

But despite scoring well on the ‘no sillier’ index, should we be granting charitable status to Druids? Or any other religious groups for that matter?

Watch this space for part 2.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

The Changing Face of Anti-Vax

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was a very well-travelled eighteenth century aristocrat whose husband was appointed ambassador to Istanbul. Fortunately for us, she was also a prolific letter writer. Her legacy is still in print today.

Lady Montagu had been scarred badly by a bout of smallpox in her youth. She was fortunate; many who contracted smallpox at the time, like her own brother, died.

So when she found out about a Turkish procedure to safeguard against severe smallpox, she had her son treated. She went on to introduce the habit to some of the upper classes in England, the Royal children among them. This was against considerable resistance from the medical profession of the time, but I’ve written about exactly how useful they were in that era here.

‘Variolation’ is the introduction of a small quantity of the milder of the two forms of smallpox – Variola minor – into a subject. Given that the dose was tiny, that it was of the mild form of the disease and that it may have been administered via a cut in the skin (rather than by inhalation), the effect was to produce antibodies against future infection, but not the full-blown disease.

Edward Jenner later used cowpox pathogens to achieve the same result. Both of these procedures are inoculation – introduction of live pathogens – rather than vaccination which uses ‘dead’, attenuated or partial viruses.

I write ‘dead’ in quotes because I seem to remember that the concept of life as applied to viruses has some considerable philosophical encumberances. It’s fascinating, but we don’t need to worry about it for the purposes of this blogpost.

Smallpox has now been eradicated. It probably exists somewhere in a military laboratory. Let’s hope the custodians are on our side.

Major efforts are being made in polio eradication too and the fight has gone well but for several setbacks, one of which was a conspiracy epidemic in Nigeria where people thought that vaccination made girls sterile. Memes can kill.

In the UK variolation was made illegal in 1840, but that was OK because the same act of Parliament provided for a free vaccine which had been developed since Lady Montagu’s day. In 1853 vaccination of small children became mandatory, and other acts covering other classes of person came in later.

In the late 19th/early 20th century, there were get-out clauses of varying efficacy for those with conscientious objections to vaccination. But by then, they were far less likely to suffer anyway, since they would have benefited from the prophylactic effect of herd immunity – everybody else’s vaccinations.

In the USA in 1905, Jacobson vs Masachusetts reached the Supreme Court where it was determined that states had the authority to impose compulsory vaccination. Sometimes, the rights of the few must submit to the rights of the many.

Which seems to have created quite a backlash at the time. I was in New York a couple of weeks ago and went to a couple of flea markets in the Chelsea district. It’s between the old meatpacking district and Hell’s kitchen. If you don’t think that sounds too salubrious, it wasn’t. Now however, it’s been yuppified and you can buy vintage brass sconces for $275 (They were pretty, but I didn’t).

Instead, I went for a few copies of ‘The Quest’: September 1926, February and April 1927’s editions. ‘The Quest’ had been published in Brooklyn for ten cents a copy, and its mission had been ‘against compulsory vaccination and animal cruelty’.

This really was a niche publication. I’ve Googled it and have had a very hard time finding out much about the magazine or the publisher. But I can tell you that Louis S Siegfried seems to have published at least one other other anti-vax publication (Spivak, John L. The Medical Trust Unmasked: The Story of a Gigantic Conspiracy - Louis S. Siegfried,1929, 1930, 1961 – a first edition seems to go for about USD25) and may have spent some time in jail for his beliefs.

Here is an article he wrote asking ‘Is Vaccination Harmless’.

In the April 1927 pamphlet we read the case of Mrs. Carolyne Burns who refused to have her son vaccinated. The Department of Education had complained that he could not attend school. Mrs Burns said:

“I demand the right of a public school education for my boy and I can’t see why he shouldn’t get it. I object to vaccination and I won’t submit my boy to such a dangerous practice.
It is un-American and unconstitutional to force this pus into the system of a healthy child … the school won’t accept him and I won’t have him vaccinated. What can I do?”

Mrs Burns was found not guilty – although quite how, I’m not sure.

February 1927 has a page on ‘What Physicians say about VACCINATION’, opposite a page which entreats people to ‘Stop Pus Squirting’.

Page 5 covers the furore surrounding a leading article in the Lancet (September 4th and October 9th 1926?) in which a causal link was claimed between death due to encephalomyelitis (inflammation of the brain and spinal-cord) and vaccination.

It’s a fascinating piece of social history. I’ve put a couple of pdfs here so you can read if you’re interested.

The three oft-repeated errors in ‘The Quest’ are argument from authority (there appear to have been plenty of anti-vax doctors willing to write), confusion of correlation with causation and conspiracy theories citing vested interests who were allegedly pushing vaccines for financial gains.

Plus ca change, huh?

I’m not sure whether the vaccinations I received as a child were administered under a legal compulsion. It wouldn’t have made a difference though. My grandmother’s and mother’s generations saw whooping cough, polio and tuberculosis first hand. They couldn’t believe their luck that these conditions and others could be prevented safely and for free.

But it seems we’re now taking our good health for granted. Despite the evidence that vaccinations are safer than outbreaks, anti-vax is on the rise in a generation which has not experienced much epidemic disease.

Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 'Lancet' paper drawing a link between autism and vaccination has been discredited, but large swathes of the confident middle classes – ‘over-Googled people’, as they were described to me at a US vaccination drive recently - are refusing to have their children protected.

I love vintage publications and enjoy reading the voices from history. It's interesting to see that anti-vaxers have gone from being doctors (in Lady Montagu's day), to anti-federal individualists, some with religious interests (early 20th century) to middle-class worriers with benzadrine-type levels of Google usage.

But wouldn't it be nice if the anti-vax message of ‘The Quest’ wasn’t still so current?

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

You Only Get Answers to the Questions You Ask

This simple thought seems too obvious to state, but here we go: the very approach to an issue can dictate the type of result you gain.

Stephen Jay Gould’s elegant essay, ‘Male Nipples and Clitoral Ripples’ provides the perfect illustration. It was first published in ‘Bully for Brontosaurus’ and you’ll never regret buying an SJ Gould. So go on.

The conundrum of the male nipple is insoluble if you ask ‘why?’ They are, after all, they are of no obvious use in males. But start with ‘how?’, and we have the more useful insight that they are specialised sweat glands whose prototypal form was present in males and females before becoming more fully developed in one sex for lactation.

Male and female foetuses develop along similar lines for their first few weeks. Later, hormones start to influence differentiation into male and female. Too late to erase the nipples though. Males are left with vestigal nips with no purpose other than to indicate chill-factor, or delight that Man U has just scored.

Similarly, the Victorian female (and all her daughters, up to the 1960s) was beset with the notion that she needed to have a vaginal orgasm to be ‘mature’. Thanks Freud. After all, the purpose of an orgasm was to provide sexual satisfaction, and proper grown-up sex is penetrative sex with a penis. The function must surely follow the intent. This is the answer to the ‘why?’ question.

Except a lot of women – most actually – think their ‘G’ spot is just south of Narnia on the map, and get their climaxes from their clitorises. Or is that clitori? Who knows? Anyhow …

If you ask ‘how?’ … sort of rerun that thingy with the male nipple. Different types of tissue develop in different ways under the influence of hormones in-uteri to produce morphologically distinct males and females.

Our Victorian and early 20th century grandmothers probably suffered unusually compared to everybody else, before and since. After all, without a formidably authoritative, ideologically-driven, guilt-inducing impediment, the simple expedient of “Oy, rub this” has probably sufficed for years. We may not all have a magic button in our vaginas, but contriving sex for female orgasm isn’t that hard with an understanding partner.

So we can see that the ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ questions are of vital importance, because they are often a good indicator of the a-priori assumptions of the questioner: ‘how’ is usually asked by scientists, and ‘why?’ is asked by mystics and magicians. And the answers to the ‘why?’ often create a lot of needless guilt, scapegoating and looking for G-spots.

Peter Tatchell made a Channel 4 documentary ‘The Trouble With The Pope’ to explore the issues surrounding opposition to the Pope’s state visit to the UK in September 2010.

In it, Tatchell discusses with Fiona O’Reilly of ‘Catholic Voices’ the notion that homosexual people suffer with “a strong tendency towards intrinsic moral evil”, as Joseph Ratzinger while Cardinal put it. O’Reilly explained that (45:45):

‘What is the purpose of sex … In the Catholic understanding, sex is ordered to the creation of children and the strengthening of the union between a man and a woman. If that is the starting point, then it makes sense”

And she’s right … if you assume that it really is the starting point.

But I think that we can see from male nipples and clitoral ripples that it isn’t necessarily the starting point, unless you want it to be.

Religion is suffused with the notion that there is a meaning, which is why religious people go looking for it. There is an assumption of purpose. In ‘England’s Child Witches’ I wrote:

‘People in charismatic African churches are not looking for the ‘how’ – they know perfectly well that microbes cause diseases and cars mechanically fail. They are looking for the ‘why’: why me; why not my enemy; why now; why here. It’s a question that empiricism can’t answer without leaving the empty and unsatisfying answer: “shit happens, sometimes more to you than other people”.’

The scientific method is counter-intuitive to human beings. It takes a great deal of education to think that way. Purpose-based explanations, on the other hand, are natural. They come without prompting to children. Our evolutionary history has probably favoured people who can draw meaning from events.

The purpose-based explanation is likely to create a lot of unhelpful false positives (I walked past that tree and fell over, so that tree is probably unlucky). But a false negative would be more dangerous (I ate that lobelia, but the projectile vomiting was probably a coincidence). Wherein lies the relative value of the system.

Some Catholic theologians, including the present Pope, have concluded that gay people are “intrinsically morally evil”.

But they should not kid themselves that they are starting from first principles with their reasoning. By the time they have asked ‘why?’, a preference for mystical thinking has already been settled upon and the conclusions will bear the marks of such a choice.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Protesting the Pope

Spent a great day at Protest the Pope yesterday.

The march progressed via Picadilly from Hyde Park Corner to Downing Street, had an attendance of around 20,000 (figure unconfirmed) and was organised and supported by the British Humanist Association, National Secular Society, Peter Tatchell among many others.

Fox news reported we were led by "gay activists and radical feminists, with some nasty banners" (thanks @zeno001 for the clip), but the BBC was a bit more even-handed.

A distinguished roll of speakers provided us with thoughts and often humour. Johann Hari opened by informing the police that a person complicit in cover-ups of paedophilic abuse was a short distance way and would be easy to arrest.
Richard Dawkins speech is here.

Here are some pictures:

Ben Goldacre

Geoffrey Robertson QC, author of 'The Case of the Pope: Vatican Accountability for Human Rights Abuse'

Richard Dawkins

Johann Hari

I wrote about the culture of the Catholic Church in the wake of the child abuse scandal in Priests, Pederasts & Privilege.

And since I'm not exactly Annie Leibovitz, you may like to look at some superior content from @DaveTheDrummer and Paulo Ferrarini

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Funny Who You Bump Into …

So I got on a plane to attend to a work related matter, thinking that there would be no time for scepticism for a week or two.

But it’s funny who you meet when you least expect to.

I’ve been to more Comicons (San Diego, CA) than I can remember, but that was a while ago. And this was my first DragonCon (Atlanta, GA). It turned out to be a heart-warming collision of the geek universes – fantasy and science – that I hadn’t suspected existed in such a concrete form prior to this.

There was a full-on Skeptic presence with a program including James Randi, D J Groethe, George Hrab, Richard Saunders, Kylie Sturgess, Rebecca Watson and many others. There was a table for Skepchick, the local Skeptics and CFI.

Sorry Rebecca, tried to catch you but kept missing you.

However, I managed to say hello to James Randi twice, and got a piccie.

The sciencey/skeptic vibe wasn’t just propaganda though. Along with all the T-shirts (eg. illustration right) I could see two very practical and humanitarian strands at DragonCon.

One is well established. There have been blood drives at US conventions for a few years. Comicon and DragonCon have a friendly rivalry to see who can collect most of the red stuff.

Comicon’s ‘Robert A Heinlein’ blood drive has collected 8,736 pints of blood over the last 33 years. Attendance this year was at the venue’s capacity of 125,000 and donations were generous.

But they may have been trumped by DragonCon: despite the smaller attendance of 40,000, they had nearly 2,000 units by Sunday afternoon and thought they may be on for this year’s Elizabeth Bathory award.

Actually, I just made that award up, but I think they deserve it. ‘Life South’ is the non-profit blood centre which runs the drive. The blood stays in the tri-state community (Alabama, Georgia and Florida) and is much needed in the summer months when donations usually drop.

Well done guys.

The second strand is newer and also much needed. The ‘Hug Me I’m Vaccinated’ campaign provides free TDAP boosters for against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough). At the same venue there was free HIV testing and next year they plan to add flu jabs.

Whatever scary stories you hear about the cost of American medicine, children’s vaccinations are available for free … if you want them. The government has a large budget allocation for free vaccines and complete vaccination is running at about 85%.

However, the US has suffered as much as the UK from anti-vax propaganda. Jenny McCarthy, Bill Maher (Bill how could you? – you’re so funny, especially about religion) and Oprah have added celebrity momentum to Andrew Wakefield’s discredited theories.

So ‘over-googled people’ think they’re doing their kids a favour by leaving them vulnerable to serious diseases that we could have left in the last century. The US has hot-spots of low vaccination rates and contagious disease outbreaks, such as measles in San Diego in 2008.

‘Hug Me I’m Vaccinated’ is created, run or contributed to by three organisations: The Women Thinking Free Foundation; The Centre for Disease Control and Skepchick.

By half way though Sunday, two hundred vaccinations had been given, such an enthusiastic take-up that the guys thought they may run out.

What a fun Labor Day weekend!

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Theories: Splitting Linguistic Hairs and the Work of Anne Elk (Miss)

The work of Anne Elk (Miss), undoubtedly one of the overlooked intellectual giants of our age, serves to remind us of the importance of theories. And indeed, how anyone can hold one … ahem!

I cannot gainsay Miss Elk’s evident expertise in the area of paleantology since I know nothing of Brontosauruses.

But I was fascinated to hear the ‘T’ word occur yet again in Richard Dawkins’ recent More4 documentary ‘Faith School Menace?

To its credit, Madani High School in Leicester was the only religious school which allowed Dawkins access. But its openess provided a clear example of an oft-repeated error, a linguistic error, which helps millions of people to ignore the fact of evolution.

I think it may be a source of frustration to people starting out in some academic disciplines that the first two-thirds of any subject seem to be given over to redefining perfectly good words in English. The social sciences excel in this trait. I’ve certainly spent glowering and resentful evenings over what I seem to remember calling at the time “a pile of nit-picking wank”.

See how articulate I get when I’m angry?

But when the pique has passed and you’ve cleared up the broken crockery, you’re left with very precise language. It’s truly useful.

My dictionary says that a theory is:

1 a system of rules, procedures and assumptions used to produce a result
2 abstract knowledge or conjecturing
3 a conjectural view or idea: "I have a theory about that"
4 an ideal or hypothetical situation
5 a set of hypotheses related by logical or mathematical arguments to explain a wide variety of connected phenomena in general terms: the theory of relativity
6 a non-technical term for hypothesis

Do you think civilian usage tends towards definition 3? I do. If you used a thesaurus it would, under that circumstance, probably allow substitutions of ‘opinion’, ‘supposition’ or even ‘guess’.

Madani High School’s headmaster, Dr Mohammed Mukadam said to Dawkins (24:05):

“None of the reports that I have read says that evolution is a scientific fact. Just says there is a scientific theory which says evolution is there”

Which is why, I suppose, all sixty of the year ten students came to the conclusion that the Koran was filling in the missing bits.

But scientific usage of the word ‘theory’ is different. A theory can also be a fact. A scientific theory is derived from empirical data, contains concepts and testable rules, is good at predicting and is disprovable.

A scientific hypothesis is a tentative theory. It’s more in line with ‘theory’ as used by Dr. Mukadam - definition 6 in the list.

It’s a shame the word ‘theory’ covers such a wide gamut in English, because it leads to a lot of misunderstanding in relation to the theory of evolution. Which is a fact.

That’s my theory. It is mine and belongs to me and and I own it and what it is too. Ahem!

Friday, 13 August 2010

Friday the Thirteenth

“Some mathematicians believe that numbers were invented by human beings, others, equally competent, believe that numbers have a sufficiently independent existence of their own and are merely observed by sufficiently intelligent mortals”
E T Bell
The Magic of Numbers

‘The Magic of Numbers’ is still available today. Amazon bills it as:

“a stimulating account of the origins of mathematical thought and the development of numerical theory”


“… exploring the ways in which "number magic" has influenced the development of religion, philosophy, science and mathematics”

These days, Bell’s quote may find agreement among physicists and scientists. We can create models of the universe – things which we can’t possibly see or experience directly – with the aid of mathematics. And these models reflect real occurrences and relationships of objects and forces.

I’ve used the royal ‘we’. I actually mean ‘people a lot clever than me’. The highest end of mathematics and theoretical physics is an exclusive club. We all benefit from satellites in space but not many of us could get them there or make them work when they’d arrived. We may all one day benefit from String Theory, but it probably wouldn’t bankrupt you to buy a drink for each of the people who *really* understand it.

Numerology is an older concept of how numbers underpin the universe. As alchemy is to chemistry, it may have been the first steps in what has become a (very different) modern discipline.

Numerology is a system of magical thinking, a fairly basic magical concept, based on the idea that something can be expressed numerically, even reduced to its most basic identity - by numbers.

The idea was probably given extra traction by the Hebrew writing system which had no separate letters and numbers, so alphabetical symbols could stand for numbers too. Thus, it was easy to translate a name or word into a numerical version to examine its ‘hidden’ characteristics.

By this method, Jourdemayne becomes:
1 + 7 + 6 + 2 + 4 + 5 +4 + 1 + 1 + 5 + 5 = 41
4 + 1 = 5

The letters reduce to numerically to five and the word contains more fives than any other number than one (also five).

Fives are restless, live on their nerves and fascinated by the bizarre and unusual.

Don’t know what they mean.

The dark side of a five nature may also manifest as excess, debauchery or perversion.

It’s a nice idea, but work’s a bit demanding at the moment and I’d rather get the sleep.

Anyhow, like other magical systems, numerology can provide an insight into human cognitive patterns and reflect the preferences of specific cultures.

So now that it’s Friday the thirteenth, it seems the time to go over why this day seems to have such a bad rep.

Numerologists work the significance of numbers out from philosophical precepts and then cite examples as evidence.

There are some numbers which are always going to be significant to human beings.

We have ten sets of digits and toes which may account for the popularity of base 10. However, with the rise of computing, the usefulness of binary has become more apparent. I keep a hexadecimal chart next to me to specifiy web colours, for example.

There are seven orifices in the male human body. The eighth, in women, is the one through which new life emerges. So it is easy to consider eight as a female number and for it to be associated with change or rebirth.

These rationales are based on biological constants.

In addition, we are the inheritors of middle-eastern religious traditions so other patterns that emerge reflect that.

Two is bad because it is the first to split from one – the devil from god. Remember that this notion seems indisputable only to monotheistic religions such as Judaism and Catholicism. If we were the cultural inheritors of dualism - the philosophy that opposites are dynamic tension, evident in religions like Catharism and Mithraism – modern European numerologists may not have disliked the number 2 so much.

If we start with the idea that two is bad, we can go searching for evidence: in Noah’s ark the ‘unclean’ beasts went in two by two, for example (the ‘clean’ ones went in, in sevens). For thoughts on how beasts get to be ‘clean’ or ‘unclean’ see this.

The first human to be created was Adam. Eve was the second and she precipitated The Fall. So the first woman was a separation from the perfection of one and the cause of all the trouble.

Told you this was culturally specific reasoning.

Four is doubly female: (2+2 and 2x2) … so you can guess this isn’t going to be good.

Four is solidity: four points are needed to construct a three-dimensional object, a tetrahedron. After that come the cultural preferences and taxonomies: there are four weeks in a month, four seasons, four phases of the moon, four elements in classical physics, four humours in classical medicine, four cardinal points, menstruation once every four weeks.

This means it’s earth-bound and practical.

“Sweat, misery and defeat are the lot of man on earth and the lot of 4-people in numerology” says one of my books on one of its less jolly pages.

So getting to thirteen … 1 + 3 = 4. Oh dear.

Thirteen reduces to a very unlucky number. So you know the drill by now: use your cultural biases to work out a rationale, then go looking for supporting evidence in appropriately authoritative tomes -

Thirteen is a supernumerary number. Twelve is perfect; it (reduces to three 2 + 1) – the number of the Trinity. Twelve is complete – twelve signs of the zodiac, twelve months of the year, twelve disciples. The twelve months of the year is a fudge BTW: the Babylonians has a sneaky extra one to account for the thirteen lunar cycles in a year. The thirteenth at the Last Supper was Judas and we all know what happened to him.

Thirteen becomes the Death card in the tarot. But cussedly, it’s not such a bad card. It’s about rebirth and new opportunities, moving on.

That’s thirteen. What about Friday?

The Sumerians based their calendar on the moon’s phases with a few extra days after the 4 x 7 when the moon isn’t visible. At the end of every 7 day cycle, there was a day which was sacred and evil simultaneously.

This is probably where our Sabbath comes from – an uncanny day on which it is best to be fairly inactive in order to avoid the danger which is about.

This sycratic confusion of ‘powerful & potentially malign’ with ‘holy & in need of reverence’ is a common idea in magical thought. Powerful supernatural beings are often called by kindly names in an attempt to charm them and to avoid evoking the creature itself. As Robert Kirk wrote, fairies were referred to euphemistically because “… the Irish usually bless all they fear harm of”.

Names can be hazardous hyperlinks, potential shortcuts to entities themselves.

This the fairies were ‘The Good People’, ‘The Honest Folk’, ‘The Little Folk’, ‘The Gentry’ and more. The Devil went by ‘Auld Clootie’, ‘Auld Scratch’ or ‘Auld Hornie’ in Scotland, ‘Grime’, ‘Grim’, ‘Old Harry’, ‘Old Nick’, ‘The Old Gentleman’ and many others in England. Hecate, the powerful and fearsome godess of witches was called ‘The Good Goddess’ and also in Greece the Furies were called the ‘Eumenides’, which means ‘The Kindly Ones’.

Even Harry Potter’s friends and associates are too nervous to say the name of the dark magician ‘Voldemort’!

But back to Friday: Friday is ruled by Freya the Nordic goddess of love, war and death. Not an intuitive grouping for us, but there we go. She has occasionally been rebranded as a witch, which might account for the uncanniness of her day.

Jesus was crucified on a Friday.

And Chaucer in the ‘Nun's Priest's Tale’, the tale of Chauntecleer the proud rooster and Reynnard the fox, writes that: “And on a Friday fell all this mischance”.

So that’s pretty clear then. There are sound reasons for believing Friday the thirteenth to be unlucky.

But the thing about fear of Friday the Thirteenth is that it doesn’t seem to figure much before the nineteenth century. If the day really was unlucky, you’d think that knowledge would be a human constant. And in some Mediterranean countries, like Greece and Spain, it is Tuesday the thirteenth which is thought unlucky.

I have no certain explanation for the rise of the superstition then, but a couple of ideas.

The first one is that there are plenty of ideas in the collective conscious which are not explicitly stated. Perhaps the nineteenth century was the first time that Friday the Thirteenth was noted and written down.

The second one, and more likely, is that the nineteenth century saw a Renaissance of occult thought and activity with participants such as Eliphas Levi, S L MacGregor Mathers, Helena Blavatsky and August Strindberg, and societies like the Theosophical Society and The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

Perhaps Friday the Thirteenth is a manifestation of nineteenth century nouveau occult numerological ramblings.

Of course, like all magical thinking, these ideas reveal more about human factory-installed software and cultural biases than about the world in an objective sense.

That’s why it’s important to understand and appreciate the importance of the cultural biases which may predetermine thought patterns. These, in some ways, are the most potentially dangerous as they most easily go under the radar.

Not that all magical thinking is wrong or useless, but it often is.

However evolution has favoured those who look for patterns - and some of those causal relationships that we intuitively posit actually exist and help us to survive. Some false positives (I can see god’s face in the clouds) are less dangerous than some false negatives (I didn’t see that tiger’s face in the forest).

It’s a numbers game.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

England’s Child Witches

The spirit is hiding in the children … the fire burns brightly, the spirit of witchcraft
South London Church, 2010

Those who visit regularly will know that I’m interested in contemporary manifestations of African witchcraft belief.

I wrote about witch hunts centring on children in Nigeria, after an award-winning ‘Dispatches’ which followed the work of child-welfare campaigner Gary Foxcroft. ‘Saving Africa’s Witch Children’ can be seen here.

I also wrote about attacks on children in magical rituals in Uganda after reports on the BBC’s ‘Newsnight’ and ‘Crossing Continents’ by Tim Whewall. While I disputed the statistics implied in Whewall’s ‘Newsnight’ piece, I don’t doubt that there is a widespread belief in the efficacy of witchcraft in Uganda and that some children have been harmed.

Now, there has been another ‘Dispatches’ production, concerning the witch-related religious practices taking place in African churches in the UK – specifically London.

‘Britain’s Witch Children’ followed an undercover journalist psuedonymously named ‘Buki’ (23, passing for 15) whose ‘mother’ is seeking spiritual assistance after her daughter has become argumentative following a holiday back to Africa.

‘Buki’ and her mother went to three churches and found diagnoses of possession or witchcraft in all cases, and very quickly.

Spiritual assistance against witchcraft does not come cheap. The pastors do not seem to publish a scale of charges, but encourage people to give what they can. When offered £170, one church gave ‘Buki’ access to an open and communal session, upon which attendance she was expected to pay more.

“… some people give one thousand pounds. It’s for God, not for us …” explained one pastor.

The deliverances varied from intimidating ranting in rooms to large services where adults threw themselves to the floor, vomited, spat and screamed. The documentary makers noted that there were no child protection officers present, and the fear on children’s faces was clear to see.

This isn’t just about psychological abuse of children – although that would be bad enough.

Victoria Climbie was abused and killed in the belief that she was possessed. The Metropolitan Police’s ‘Project Violet’ was set up to explore cases of child abuse connected to spiritual beliefs. So far, some parents have been prosecuted, but no pastors.

The whole thing must be a difficult balancing act. As Mor Dioum of the Victoria Climbie Foundation pointed out:
“People in those positions of responsibility do not want to be seen as policing culture or religion, or … accused of being racist”

That same issue had been raised about Victoria Climbie by Neil Garnham QC, Counsel to the Inquiry into her death.

Reasons for belief in witchcraft are many and complex. I believe at least one to be the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, which can be inferred from historical witch trial accounts from Strasbourg to ‘Salem. I’ve written about sleep paralysis and supernatural belief here.

“… what do you normally see in your dreams … if there is a spirit fighting you it can come in the form of a dream … do you ever see someone trying to molest you in your dream … or sleep with you? …” asked Pastor James of ‘Buki’.

In case we simply ascribe witch belief to immense stupidity or naivete, it’s also worth remembering that magical beliefs are a natural state for human beings. We need educating into the empiric.

To recap from ‘Nigeria’s Witch Children’ regarding witch hunts in Europe:

“… the natural assumption would be that witch hunts belong to eras with magical religious traditions, rigid social strata, simple technology, agrarian economies and pre-Renaissance thought patterns … In actual fact, large scale witch hunts in Europe were a phenomenon of the Reformation.”

In the early modern era, traditional power relationships, social structures and economic models were changing. It produced dislocation and unsettled psyches, some a little paranoid, in need of certainty.

So where people are uncertain, isolated or economically disadvantaged – such as being part of a new immigrant population – it isn’t surprising to find supernatural rituals aimed at manipulating events in the real world. And there is also more likely to be a dependence on established and recognisable forms of authority, such as pastors.

People in charismatic African churches are not looking for the ‘how’ – they know perfectly well that microbes cause diseases and cars mechanically fail. They are looking for the ‘why’: why me; why not my enemy; why now; why here. It’s a question that empiricism can’t answer without leaving the empty and unsatisfying answer:
“shit happens, sometimes more to you than other people”.

So what about ideas for constructive interventions?

I’ll reiterate my position, stated in each of the previous African witch blogposts: I don’t think it’s constructive in the short term to simply challenge supernatural beliefs. For people who hold these worldviews, the truth of their convictions is self-evident.

It’s ethically dubious, and in any case impossible, to legislate on thought and belief. Previous attempts have ended in mass murder for believing that matter and earthly life were instrinsically evil (see the Albigensian Crusade), and life-long house arrest for believing that the earth orbited around the sun (see Galileo).

As prosperity and certainty enter a life, dependence on supernatural explanations tend to leave.

Interventions must be aimed at actual acts. To this end, several African states have enacted laws which make it illegal to denounce children as witches.

The Child Rights Act of Nigeria:

“… prescribes up to 15 years’ imprisonment without the option of a fine, or both, for offenders in child stigmatisation, accusation of witchcraft or torture cases. It empowers the government to seal off premises of any organisation used to perpetrate child abuse”

In ‘Nigeria’s Witch Children’, I wrote:

“In the short term I believe that the single most important intervention would be to aggressively target professional witch hunters. Witch hunts employ specialists who, for obvious reasons, ensure that the hunt is self-begetting. Inquisitors in Europe have their counterparts in modern Nigeria, pastors who specialise in finding witch children and performing rituals to denature them – for a price. Stopping witch hunters would not stop accusations of sorcery nor fix Nigeria’s social and economic problems, but it may confine the issue of sorcery back to local levels.”

It’s hard to know how cynical the pastors are: whether they believe in any part of the supernatural scheme they are paid so well to manipulate. But their integrity is immaterial: they are the most critical level at which an intervention can and must be aimed.

Oddly enough, a new law against accusations of child witchcraft may have been unnecessary if the old ones hadn’t been superceded.

The Witchcraft Act of 1735 reversed the presumptions of its predecessors, that witchcraft did exist and could cause real harm. Instead, it provided for penalties for those who pretended to have such powers. They were treated as con-artists.

That was superceded in 1951 by the Fraudulent Mediums Act which covered much the same ground. This Act, in turn, was superceded by European consumer directives.

These two required that psychic services must be declared as being for ‘entertainment purposes’.

But here’s where we give religion the respect that other forms of magic don’t get. Can you imagine communion billed as ‘for entertainment purposes only’? Yet in some strands of Christianity, transubstantiation – the change of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ – is accepted as real.

Charismatic churches are getting in under the umbrella of respectability conferred by more established organisations.

So here’s another idea, but one that would be very controversial and would probably prove impossible to institute: the removal of charitable status from religious organisations.

Many religious organisations do real and good charitable work, such as providing crèches and Mums’ clubs, safety schemes for victims of domestic abuse, support for substance abusers, food for the homeless etc.

But these strands should be completely separated – managerially and financially - from the primary mission of providing a centre for people of like-minded metaphysical notions. I’ve no objection to people worshipping – I simply think they should do it at their own expense.

It may sound complicated – it isn’t. Plenty of businesses separate their accounts and activities into discreet entities. One company may own and carry a mortgage on the premises, another owned by the same directors rent the space and manufacture goods in it, perhaps even another market and distribute the goods.

If we could tease the ‘inculcation’ strand from the ‘good works’ strand of religious institutions, it would be a good thing for society at large and would favour those religious organisations who really do outreach to others.

And I emphatically do not propose that ‘exorcism’ should count as charitable work for the purpose of tax relief.

What is the moral justification, after all, for giving tax breaks to an organisation which is characterised solely by its insistence on utterly unprovable postulates? It’s an historical oddity, and would be untenable if we were to invent the system from first principles today. We must end the idea, enshrined in our tax structure, that holding supernatural beliefs is necessarily virtuous.

In this model, the Salvation Army would do very well (a great worship to social work ratio) and some witch-accusing churches, I venture, would do very badly indeed.