Alpha Course Poll Forces Voters Hands

alph_course_pollBy now it’s old news that the UK’s Alpha Course ran a poll asking visitors whether “God” exists, by which they presumably mean their god. It’s also been well reported that atheists got wind of the poll and surfed over in large numbers to vote “No”. It’s not the only Christian Internet campaign to fall on its face recently.

All this is amusing, but doesn’t really tell us much. It certainly doesn’t say anything about the existence or not of any god and it’s only representative of the people who happened to visit their website. I think the BHA took it far too seriously when they responded by saying,

That this poll has revealed such a high number of non-believers, and such a tiny proportion of those who do believe in a god, is really no surprise. This poll only supports what we know already – that most people either do not believe in god or that they simply do not think about the question because it is not relevant to their lives.

The UK does have a relatively high proportion of non-believers, but in every other poll it’s more like 25-35%, not 98% – besides, votes on this poll were not limited to the UK. We might be better off drawing the conclusion that there are a lot of motivated atheists on the Internet who are up for a prank.

Question Phrasing

What I think is worth investigating is the way the question – and in particular the answers – were phrased. It seems to be a clever piece of marketing.

These ads are up on billboards all over the place, but I first saw this ad on a poster outside a church. My reaction was, “Where’s Probably not?”. Or even Maybe, or I don’t know or the Igtheist position, What do you mean by “God”?. I wasn’t expecting them to have the equivalent of the 7-level Dawkins Scale of Belief, but a few more options would’ve been nice. As it stands, the poll only allows for Certain Theists, Agnostic Theists and Strong Atheists. The results aren’t going to be very representative.

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I wondered about this for a while, before slapping myself on the head in realisation. Of course, that’s not the point! The Alpha people were not trying to prove anything with their poll. The results were always intended to be meaningless. They were probably only trying to generate debate around a subject that, in the UK at least, is becoming irrelevant and uninteresting to many people.

Furthermore, I suspect that limiting the options is a tactical choice.

Those who vote Yes or Probably might be persuaded that, having admitted it, they shouldn’t stop there, but take the course and be led into the Alpha brand of Christianity. The rest are left only with the No choice – Strong Atheism – 7 on the scale above. It’s about as far towards the other end of the scale as you can get. A bold position that, in practice few atheists hold. Richard Dawkins, for example, says he’s at 6. The idea being to include an atheistic position that as few people as possible will completely agree with. This presumably in the hope that more people will end up in the Yes/Probably category of potential Alpha delegates. The poll is, after all, advertising and intended to get more people onto the course.

Plus, it helps them to label atheists and agnostics as ridiculous extremists.

Imagine a fiercely nationalistic group asking in a survey, “What should we do about immigrants?” and only providing the options: “Confine them to forced labour camps”, “Send them all home”, or “Give them each a free house and abandon all border controls”. Where is the reasonable, liberal option? Ordinary people answering such a poll would be forced into an extreme position that doesn’t properly represent them. A position which can be ridiculed.

So I expect the non-theists who made up the 98% of voters on the Alpha poll will be labelled by some as “extreme” or “fundamentalist”. However, strong atheists are pretty rare. Few people feel they can actually prove the non-existence of all kinds of deity, especially if we’re talking about the vague and woolly non-interventionist kind.

But rather than go into the philsophical subtleties, it’s simpler to say, “There are no god(s)” or just vote “No”.

Irrational Beliefs As Blind Spots

I’d like to make something clear. I don’t think that religious believers or superstitious people are stupid. Far from it. In fact, contrary to what believers may feel, most atheists don’t think that religious people are stupid. They just think that they’re wrong about one particular thing.

Part of the reason this blog exists is my curiosity with the fact that intelligent people sometimes believe weird things. Intelligence doesn’t seem to be any guarantee that a person will be free of irrational beliefs.

elvis-glassesI’ve debated with people who believe a variety of apparently irrational things, from palmistry to faith healing. By and large the people I disagree with are not stupid, they’re usually pretty intelligent. I’ve even worked with people whom I’d judge to be more technically proficient than myself, only to be shocked to discover that they’re creationists who believe that dinosaurs and humans coexisted. It’s rather a staggering revelation, as if they’d suggested that Elvis was still alive or that photographed orbs were really spirits.

It seems this kind of weird belief coupled with intelligence is not unusual. I’m sure there are many more examples, but two spring to mind. Isaac Newton, one of the brightest minds in the history of science, spent less than half his time on the physics for which we remember him, the remainder of his efforts being devoted to Biblical study and alchemy. In more recent times, Larry Wall, the inventor of the programming language Perl, is reputed to be highly religious.

[As an aside, Rules 1 & 2 describing how Perl development takes place have an uncanny religious undertone, in my opinion.]

All of which makes me wonder – are these people not as smart as they seem, or are they right in their weird beliefs?  Is it me who is lacking something between the ears?

In considering why even intelligent people believe weird things, Michael Shermer concludes,

Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.

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I suspect he’s right about that, but it raises further questions. Such as why smart people are taken in by “non-smart reasons” in the first place?

After Googling this subject it seems I may have missed the point. Intelligence is thought to be independent of rationality. Intelligent people can be irrational or not, likewise the less intelligent. For example, Kurt Kleiner examines Professor Keith Stanovich’s take on rationality and intelligence:

“[Stanovich] proposes a whole range of cognitive abilities and dispositions independent of intelligence that have at least as much to do with whether we think and behave rationally. In other words, you can be intelligent without being rational. And you can be a rational thinker without being especially intelligent.”

I’ve long thought that there are many functions of the brain which are outside of the traditional definition of intelligence. Physical co-ordination, the ability to understand and reproduce melodies and rhythms, social skills, observation skills, emotional control, personal motivation and probably many more. I don’t want to get into whether or not we should broaden the definition of intelligence to include these things. What I take from this is that rationality appears to be yet another aspect of the brain’s unrecognised work.

Pirate_eyepatch180I’m reminded of a guy I knew at school who was usually top of the class in all subjects. Certainly he was a gifted scientist and quite competent with languages. Anyone would’ve said the guy had a good brain. What was surprising was watching him try to play tennis. He could barely hit the ball – even when it was thrown slowly towards him. Apart from making the rest of us feel better about our mediocre academics, this shows how people with generally highly effective brains can have blind spots in their mental abilities. Similarly, other people might be tone-deaf , socially awkward or like me, slow with numbers. In the more obvious and severe cases these “blind spots” are diagnosed and given names such as Dyslexia or Asperger syndrome, but the gaps in people’s abilities are no less real for the lack of scientific names.

As you’ve probably guessed, I think that irrational beliefs such as religion, superstition or pseudoscience can be considered blind spots in a person’s thinking in the same way that having “two left feet” or never getting the joke can be. These things are independent of intelligence as it is usually defined.

I guess the next question is whether these blind spots are innate or something that can be developed or reduced. Some of us are probably innately more rational than others, automatically looking for all possible explanations. And perhaps certain irrational ideas are accepted at such a young age that they’re not given much critical thought. Nevertheless, critical thinking is something which can be improved with practice, so there’s still hope for those of us who don’t naturally think of all the alternatives.

I faired only slightly better than average on rationality tests recently, so it’s something I plan to work on.

Evidence Yes, But Evidence For What?

shoesDuring my catch-up reading I came across an observation made some time ago by Deacon Duncan at Evangelical Realism that got me thinking.

This is the old superstition vs. science dilemma, the fellow who says shoes are made by elves in a hollow tree, and then cites the existence of shoes as evidence that elves are real.

Phrased like that it is easy to see the error in the reasoning. Yes, shoes could be evidence of elves, but there are other, less fantastic, possibilities and we should consider these first. When the example is elves, most people will be willing to look critically at the claim and see through it. Those with a sense of irony and a knowledge of rhyming slang may even describe it as “Cobblers“!

Nevertheless, this kind of fallacy appears surprisingly regularly. For example, consider the patterns sometimes found in fields, known as crop circles. Often these can only be fully appreciated from the air and seem to describe the shape of some kind of complex craft. While some crop circles are created by people making no unusual claims about them, others are claimed as evidence of alien visitors. In my view it’s far more likely to be evidence of mischievous earthlings.

When a patient improves after having taken some previously untested treatment or medicine, is that evidence that the treatment is working or that their immune system is doing its job? In cases like these it can be hard to tell, so thorough clinical trials are needed, involving more than one patient, placebo controls, etc.

Similarly, the creationist website, allaboutcrreation.org makes this popular claim:

Where is the proof of God? If we’re willing to open our eyes, we’ll see the fingerprints of God all around us and all throughout us. Our very existence proves the existence of a Creator God.

270px-CropCircleWI’m sure most of us have seen religious people point to a beautiful flower and say, “There! That’s evidence that God exists!”. Again, this could be evidence of a great many things, including the symbiotic relationship between flowering plants and insects which are attracted by bright colours and floral scents. The fact that we as humans think that the flower is beautiful may be evidence that we are adapted to appreciate a fertile ecosystem and the fruits that it can bring.

Even the Bible has some of this kind of gargantuan jump, in reverse from what they are trying to establish – the existence of a god, to a piece of alleged evidence, as in Romans 1:20:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

I think that verse could be rephrased to be clearer about the leap of logic it’s making. Anyone care to make a suggestion?

In all cases it seems we are in danger of leaping to a conclusion that is not necessarily the cause of the evidence we’re seeing. The solution is perhaps to imagine several possible causes and try to understand why we should prefer one over the others.

What Does Atheism Offer That Belief In God Can’t?

in-person_questionIt seems that atheism is puzzling to believers. Demian Farnworth recently interviewed Hemant Mehta and in the following comments asked him,

What does atheism offer that belief in God can’t?

I certainly admire the approach of asking non-believers what they think, rather than guessing. Many of us lose track of the number of times we’ve been accused of only being atheists so we can act immorally or “do what we like“.

So what is so great about atheism?

Certainly there are genuine benefits to being an atheist. They’re not just obvious things like being able to cut your hair when you want, or getting a lie in on Sundays. Plenty of writers have already listed some more important advantages. Here’s a selection that I particularly liked.

From Adam Lee:

Being an atheist means you’re free to form your own opinions, rather than having your outlook colored by a belief system that tells you what you should think.

Being an atheist means you don’t have to think of yourself as a sinful wretch who can never do anything right.

From Dave Hitt:

Atheism, by itself, frees up a lot of time that would otherwise be wasted in worship… It provides great freedom and at the same time great responsibility – while I can now do things without worrying if they’ll annoy some nasty sky-daddy, I also know that the results of my actions are my responsibility – I can’t blame it on “sin.”

The wrong kind of question

The benefits of atheism – what it offers – seem rather irrelevant. Likewise if it causes inconveniences to non-believers, that shouldn’t affect a person’s willingness to call themselves an atheist. The important thing is whether or not it is correct. Again, other people have already said some great things about the advantages of atheism.

On atheism.about.com Austin Cline says,

This is rather an odd question — shouldn’t the primary concern be with whether or not any gods really do exist? Shouldn’t the truth of this question be the focus of our attention, and not any personal advantage or disadvantage which we might get by taking one position or the other?

On asktheatheists.com, logicel asks,

Christians are atheistic towards all gods except theirs; atheists just go one god further. Why not also pose the question of what are the advantages of Christians not believing in other god(s)?

While Erik_PK’s answer I could not have put better myself.

I think this is a strange question, as it implies that religious belief is a bit like buying a new car – you look at the available accessories, compare gas mileage, and then figure out which one works best for you. Each person has their own idea of what’s important to them, so there are lots of opinions on what’s best.

But matters of existence are questions of fact rather than questions of opinion. They are not decided by what we would like to be true, but rather by what is true…

clogsDemian’s question makes me wonder how he and other believers think. Did they choose their belief based on what it offers? Did they “shop around” for a belief-system with the most benefits – a nice bunch of people, a reasonable moral code, plenty of religious holidays and a pleasant-sounding afterlife?

None of those things should matter. To be honest if I found a religion that provided sufficient evidence that it was true, I’d believe it. I wouldn’t care if it required me to wear wooden shoes, eat only vegetables and walk on all fours every Tuesday. Conversely, if a set of beliefs are false, then it doesn’t matter how many virgins believers could spend eternity with.

I’ve generally given believers the benefit of the doubt and assumed that they genuinely think their belief-system is correct. Certain questions from believers however, make me wonder if I’ve been right about that. For example, when a believer tried to convince me to join their religion by seriously suggesting Pascal’s Wager, I do wonder if it was the evidence or the fear of going to hell that convinced them. When asked for their reasons for believing, several believers have told me, “I find it comforting”. I’ve no doubt many believers genuinely think they’ve got it right, but suggesting “comfort” as a reason to believe suggests that veracity is a secondary concern.

Apart from the quotes above I’m speaking for myself here. Simply put, all atheism “offers” me is that it’s true. No doubt many believers feel the same about their beliefs. Atheism seems to me to be the only reasonable position. I don’t need it to offer me anything else, I have the rest of my life for that – my family, friends, sports, nature, humanism, sometimes even my job – offer me things to make life interesting. I see atheism more as a simple fact of life, like the sky being blue or the Earth being round.

I’d love to hear what others think about this, believers and non-believers. How important are the benefits your beliefs bring or claim to bring? How much does it matter to you whether what you believe is true?

Being A Curious Skeptic

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The thoughtful Christian blogger Demian Farnworth asked me recently,

…what do you hope to get out of talking to me? I’m seriously curious.

Which is a fair question. I’ve been asked similar things by other believers. I’m sure I’m not the only atheist who has been told to ask God to open their spiritual eyes. I know I’m not the only person who spent years trying this and got nothing but their own thoughts (aside:  If God actually opened your eyes it might be somewhat more shocking).

I spend a fair bit of time commenting on other people’s blogs. Often I think believers are unsure if I’ve come to mock and argue or whether I really want to know all about their beliefs. Am I just arguing for the sake of argument? Do I want to change their minds? Am I genuinely willing to change my mind? Why do I get into these debates?

For the sake of argument

I don’t actually like heated arguments. So I try to stick to the Socratic method, asking questions to help me understand and reveal flaws in other people’s arguments.

Changing other people’s minds

Yes, I admit I’d like to change people’s minds. Doesn’t everyone? Most of the beliefs I discuss here and on other blogs I consider to be mistaken. I feel an instinctive desire to put people right, educate them if possible. Whether they’ve said that atheists have no morals or that testimonials are a good indication of truth I’d at least like to encourage them to think a little more critically about their beliefs. Although some believers have expressed shock that atheists might want to convince people that they’re right, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to make a case for what you believe and express your opinion. Others can do the same, maybe we’ll all learn something.

I know many non-religious people think it’s unrealistic to try to de-convert believers by debating with them. Believers seem impervious to reason. In many cases, I’m sure that’s true, but there’s also clear evidence that atheist and humanist writing on the web can have a positive influence on readers’ thinking. Perhaps my blog and comments haven’t yet changed anyone’s mind or pointed them in the right direction, but it is something I aspire to. Somebody said that false beliefs lead to bad decisions, which is one reason I try to find out what is true and help others do the same.

Changing my mind

I am absolutely willing to change my mind. If I see that there is good evidence of something I have no choice but to change my mind. For example, let’s say I see a specific prediction made by a psychic looking at a human hand. Something that could not have been influenced or come about by chance like, “In three weeks time an asteroid will crash outside your house causing you to spill leek and potato soup on your trousers”. I’ve already changed my mind about palmistry once, I’d have to do so again if the evidence was there. The same is true of religion. If believers can provide me with satisfactory answers to the many gaping holes and paradoxical illogicalities in their religion and provide me with some reasonable evidence, I’d be happy to reconsider. Alternatively, if a god or gods show up in an unambiguous way making it clear which religion they represent (an intricate flower could represent any religion or none), then I’d be a believer.

Yes I’d have to admit that I was wrong, but I think it would be worth it to then be right. I wonder if the people I debate with would say the same?

cat_curiousThat said, I’m reasonably confident that I’m right about philosophical naturalism. I’d say I’m about as certain that there are no gods nor genuine psychic fortune tellers as I am that the Earth orbits the sun. Not 100% certain by any means, but pretty close. I don’t expect to see amputated limbs regrow before my eyes or orbs of light behaving intelligently, but I’m keeping my eyes open. Keeping your eyes open is the reasonable thing to do and in the long run is more likely to lead you to the truth than grabbing an idea and sticking to it unquestioningly. Being skeptical means being open-minded as well as critical.

Curiosity

However, the main reason I get into philosophical debates online is my curiosity.

I’m curious to learn about the diversity of people’s beliefs and how they justify them. I’m curious about the psychology of apparently healthy, intelligent people who believe things which seem ridiculous to me. How do they do it? Imagine you met a regular-seeming person who genuinely believed that the Earth was flat. Wouldn’t that make you slightly curious about what goes on in their head to make that work? How could they manage it with all the evidence to the contrary?

I don’t know if this is an unusual fascination, maybe it’s just me. Either way, I want to know what people believe and why. The more illogical the belief and the more mentally normal the believer, the more interesting it is.

Cosmic designer – simpler or easier to understand?

Cosmology is hard to get your head around. So is evolution. For a start the time-scales involved are mind blowing for even the smartest creatures with a mere 80-odd years to get their heads around it. Frankly, it’s humbling to consider.

I think this might be part of the reason why some people end up believing creation stories with a simpler narrative structure. We like stories. Our whole culture is based on stories. They’re easy to remember and pass on. Much easier to follow than, “Big bang, abiogenesis, evolution”. Much more satisfying than, “I don’t know”.

But are creation myths actually simpler? Consider, if you will, the following analogy.

Why do sub-atomic particles hang around together?

Let’s say we’re wondering why it is that protons and neutrons stick together in the nucleus of an atom, while electrons orbit much further out. For the sake of argument let’s pretend that we genuinely don’t know why this happens. We could suggest a few hypotheses. For example,

  1. The particles are held together or repelled by some kind of forces, like gravity or magnetism.
  2. The neutrons and protons stick together because they are friendly to each other, but the electrons are unfriendly, so they keep further away.

For now I’m not concerned with which hypothesis is closer to the truth, so all you eager physicists can put your hands down. I’m interested in which hypothesis is simpler. The reason I am considering this is because of Ockam’s Razor which suggests that simpler explanations should be preferred.

“entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity”

At first glance, hypothesis one is far from simple to me. I’m not a physicist and I don’t have a thorough understanding of sub-atomic particle and forces. However, in my experience, gravity doesn’t repel objects and only has a small effect on lightweight objects. Secondly magnetism only affects certain metallic materials like iron, and this sub-atomic effect occurs in all atoms, not just iron.

The second hypothesis however, I get completely. I could tell my friends about it over a drink and I’m sure they’d get it too. Surely that makes it simpler. Wouldn’t Ockam approve?

In one sense, perhaps.

The trouble with hypothesis two as an explanation for why neutrons and protons stick together is that we need to assume a whole raft of things to make it work. We need to assume that sub-atomic particles have desires and feelings, personalities even. We need to assume a whole new level of complexity to explain these personalities and apparent conciousness on such a minute scale. Suddenly this explanation is looking anything but simple. As a result we’ve added more complexity to the problem. There are even more explanations needed than before. That doesn’t mean it isn’t true, but an extraordinary claim like hypothesis two would need a lot of evidence to back it up.

As it turns out, we can explain the motion of the electron in terms of the electromagnetic force. The discovery of the residual strong force allows us to understand how the nucleus of an atom staying together. It’s not child’s play by any means (in fact if any real physicists would like to refine my crude understanding please do so below!), but it does mean we don’t have to invent a whole new field of sub-atomic psychology to account for it.

Who designed the designer?

hubble-deep-space-clipThis seems relevant to the argument from design which uses the apparent design of living things or the universe to infer the existence of a designer. Believers say that all the order and complexity in the world seems unlikely to have come about by chance. So they infer the existence of an intelligent being who brought it about intentionally with some great purpose in mind.

Unfortunately the thinking stops there; for some reason they don’t wonder at how the complexity of this intelligent being came about? Such a hypothetical being, with purpose, intent, goals and obviously huge power is quite a complex thing. At least as complex as the universe it is alleged to have created. So the intelligent designer hypothesis doesn’t explain anything, it only adds to the complexity. I’m sure he can’t have been the first, but Richard Dawkins expresses this more succinctly as “Who designed the designer?”.

In the general case, a hypothesis or theory can be said to be powerful or useful according to what it explains versus what it has to assume in order to work. This observation was reported in the context of evolution by Dawkins recently, so I recommend his article on the explanatory power of theories.

(Hat-tip to the Friendly Atheist).

Many apparently simple theories demand large numbers of additional, complex assumptions. We should be careful not to confuse the ease of understanding something with its simplicity. Being easy to understand does not make something more likely to be true.

Religion Causing Offence

fool_hath_said_posterI came across an offensive advertisement on my way to work recently. It was put there by the Trinitarian Bible Society. I’ve seen a variety of other Bible verses in their adverts, but the one pictured to the right caught my eye.

“The fool has said in his heart, There is no God.”

That’s not an argument for the existence of a god. It’s not even a statement of belief. It’s an insult. An ad hominem attack – something intended to sully an opponent’s character and by association, their opinions. That is, unless this is intended as an isolated story about one particular fool with no wider context. In which case it’s hard to see why the Trinitarians are so keen to let hapless commuters know about it. As it is, the idea seems to be to tell passers by that “Atheists are fools and well, you’re not a fool, are you?”. Trying to convince people to agree with you by insulting those who disagree is only slightly better than telling them they’ll suffer eternal torment for disagreeing.

Faced with this I considered writing a letter of complaint to the advertising company. I can imagine the outrage if someone put up an advert with the equivalent slogan, “The idiot has told himself there is a god”. Thinking about it later it I realised I was overreacting. I don’t have a right not to be offended. No one does. No one has the right to veto something simply because they find it offensive. For one thing what people find offensive is subjective, so to outlaw the causing of offence would be something of a blank cheque.

The parallels with the reactions to recent atheist advertising are predictably the next section of this post. The bus adverts paid for by public donations to the Atheist Campaign are now on the streets of the UK. As the amount raised was in excess of what was expected, a series of “tube card” adverts, like the one below, are also being shown on the London Underground.

I don’t think there’s anything inherently offensive about the statement on the card shown nor the other freethinker quotes that were used. However as I agree with the sentiments in this case it’s hard for me to judge whether they would offend people. According to Ariane Sherine, who came up with the idea, the email response she’s received has been almost all positive. With the exception of a few extreme examples, I think most religious people in the UK would support atheists’ right to free speech even if they find it offensive. Some have even said that they welcome the debate.

So I’m not going to follow the great British tradition of writing a stiff letter (presumably on cardboard?) to complain about being called a fool.

Free speech is there to protect offensive speech and controversial ideas, as Greta Christina wrote when she was offended recently:

“What Buckley failed to realize is something blindingly obvious, something many, many people have said before me: We don’t need the First Amendment to protect the radical assertion that puppies are cute and apple pie is delicious. We don’t need the First Amendment to protect popular speech. We need the First Amendment to protect unpopular speech.”

It doesn’t matter how offensive the eye of the beholder finds someone else’s opinion. If some belief system’s representatives put up adverts saying “All those who disagree are hopelessly stupid and criminally insane” they should still be allowed. I don’t think it would help their cause much, however. There are plenty of good reasons not to offend people when you communicate – it can backfire and create hostility and turn the offender into the bad guy – and I’m certainly not convinced by a religious group who thinks that one of their best arguments is to call atheists fools. I think it’s pathetic, but I support their right to say it.

Testimonials and Research

If you visit the website of any pseudo-scientific practitioner one thing almost always displayed is a list of testimonials – effusive endorsements from previous clients. For example, here’s an extract from the website of Cynde Van Vleet, a Tellington T Touch practitioner from California:

My experience with Cynde and her TTouch work has been nothing but wonderful, rewarding, and informative.  Cynde is a most gentle  and intuitive animal lover who conducts herself professionally at all times, yet exudes warmth and kindness as well.  I have great respect and admiration for Cynde and the work she does with animals. Her knowledge of TTouch and the world of dogs is impressive, and I have learned a lot from her in our brief history together…

Similarly, here’s an example from alleged psychic Philena Bruce’s website:

“I came to Philena when I was in a very dark place. Through her patience, guidance and gentleness, I genuinely left feeling hopeful. She held me together emotionally and spiritually throughout this time. She lit the candle in my mind and let my spirit guide me to light. She has a wonderful personality and in my heart I know our paths were meant to cross.”
K.K., London, Project Manager

In most cases testimonials are intended to establish the credibility of the practitioner. In Philena’s case, the long list she provides also pushes the “entertainment only” disclaimer – which all psychics in the UK are now legally obliged to put on their literature – far out of the view of the casual visitor.

But are testimonials useful? Can we use them to work out how effective a treatment of practitioner is? Should we as consumers pay any attention to testimonials?

The most obvious problem with most testimonials, especially those you might find on websites, is with authenticity. It doesn’t take a huge amount of imagination to make up your own testimonials and in most cases it would be difficult to prove that they were fake. However, I doubt many of the testimonials I have seen have been faked. It seems more likely that they came from customers who were genuinely pleased with the service. I’ve no doubt that they have plenty of satisfied customers – I’ve met some of them.

However, we should keep in mind that testimonials are highly selective. They give us no indication of the percentage of customers who were satisfied with the service. Those who were not pleased with the service may not have given any report. They may have felt foolish for having tried it, so rather than write a negative testimonial, they may forget about it and get on with their lives. Even if they did write to complain, surely no one attempting to establish their credibility is going to publish their views. I’ve visited the personal websites of quite a few spiritual healers, fortune tellers and other sellers of pseudo-science, but I have yet to see a single negative testimonial. I think it unlikely that no customer has ever been dissatisfied with the services any of them provided.

How about if we independently collected testimonials from every customer who visited a particular therapist or fortune teller? Even then, we still wouldn’t be able to say with any certainty whether on not they had genuine abilities. We might be able to tell that they were friendly, professional, helpful and so on, but judging whether the treatment worked is something else. It has been well documented that people are more likely to judge something to have been a success once they have invested substantially in it – whether emotionally or financially. I suspect this is why payment or gift-giving always has to be part of the process of Reiki. Perhaps on some subconscious level people say to themselves:

“I’ve paid more than my weekly grocery bill for this treatment. Only a fool would do that for something which doesn’t work. I know I’m not a fool, so it must have worked!”

This effect is brilliantly explained in Carol Tarvis and Elliot Aronson’s book, Mistakes Were Made.

It seems testimonials are a pretty unreliable guide to whether a medical treatment is effective or whether a psychic prediction is accurate. Certainly they are a very poor substitute for research. They are a selective form of anecdotal evidence.

So why do they get used at all? I think there are several reasons.

Firstly, there are times when use of a testimonial is valid. It’s not just treatments with dubious efficacy that print praise from former clients. Testimonials are commonplace in all sorts of marketing – child carers, home builders, restaurants and so on.

In any situation where the customer is in a position to judge whether the service or treatment was effective a testimonial can be useful. For example, if the testimonial relates to a novel, film or restaurant, then the aim is entertainment and the customer is best qualified to say whether they have been entertained.

Secondly, testimonials are easy to understand. A clinical trial is not something that most people are willing to wade through. Doing so takes considerable effort and even an intelligent reader might not be able to judge the strength of the research.

Thirdly, testimonials are easy. All you need is a few satisfied customers to say you’re warm and friendly. A full research project is beyond the means of most independent therapists.

Lastly, testimonials are human. What other people tell us is how we gain most of our information, so it feels quite natural to read what other people say about a service or therapy.

None of these are especially good reasons to trust testimonials.

Mircoscope and clipboardPharmaceutical companies have to put all their products through clinical trials before they can be marketed. I don’t think that other treatments should be subjected to any lesser scrutiny.

In an ideal world each therapists’ techniques would be independently evaluated with something akin to clinical trials, before an official regulator’s endorsement could be given. The next best thing would be for their methods to be independently reviewed and researched to discover whether they can work. However, the money to do this research has to come from somewhere, perhaps a jointly-funded regulatory body whose research and methods are made public.

Alternative therapists have told me that clinical trials are biased and corrupt due to the companies pursuit of profit above all else. There have certainly been some cases where this is true and there’s a case for improving accountability and publication of medical research in general. However, I imagine the situation would be much worse if the pharmaceutical industry could validate new medicines simply by gathering testimonials.

I’ve also been told that using testimonials instead of research is acceptable for alternative treatments because laying your hands on someone or reading their palm doesn’t have harmful side-effects that ingested medicines can. However, the purpose of clinical trials is twofold; to ensure there are no dangerous side-effects and to ensure the treatment is effective. Giving someone an ineffective treatment – even for free – is irresponsible and dangerous in itself.

[BPSDB]

Truth vs Comfort

While considering the beliefs of eccentrics like Garvan in his post “Right Not To Think“, yunshui recently questioned whether it would be morally right in every case to change the minds of those who believe falsehoods.

Most, like Garvan, have entwined religion so inextricably into their psyche that no amount of evidence or argument will ever convince them of their fallacy, but if one could unravel and break the faith-wire wrapped around their minds, would that be a kind thing to do?

To my mind, whether helping to de-convert someone is moral or not depends on the consequences of de-conversion for him and others. I think we can only guess at what they might be. If it was guaranteed to make him a happier and more tolerant person (as it does many people), then I’d say yes, of course.

But what extreme measures would be required to convert a devout and apparently deranged believer? Thoroughly educating them about the irrationality of their beliefs? Surrounding them by a community of non-believers? Isolating them from any religious influence? I suspect that in many cases a person’s beliefs are so deeply ingrained that the methods required to change their minds would be so extreme as to be immoral in themselves, never mind what the outcome might be.

Then again perhaps yunshui is thinking more along the lines of a thought-experiment. What if Garvan had grown up in a friendly, supportive and non-religious environment. What if he’d never heard of Jesus? What kind of person would he be? Again, I think we can only speculate.

It seems intuitively true that the world would be a better place if everyone believed only what was true. False beliefs lead people to bad decisions. That is why we should care about what people believe. But perhaps there are cases where delusions are helpful or at least have some beneficial effects. The superstitious rituals carried out by people in risky situations, such as gathering honey while dangling from a cliff, can make them feel safe when they’re not. That can have advantages and disadvantages.

One argument is to let people believe whatever makes them happy and not to challenge it. For instance, if they really need to go deep sea fishing in a small wooden boat or hunt wilderbeast so that their family can eat, then they might as well be made to feel comfortable while taking such huge risks. On the other hand, someone who has performed a meaningless ritual may be recklessly emboldened by the thought that they’ve done something useful to protect themselves. Far better that they are cautious and forced to look for practical ways to minimise the risk. For a start they could look at the weather before setting off.

But getting back to religious beliefs, in the majority of cases I see no reason not to question and challenge apparently false beliefs. Indeed, I think we all have a responsibility to work out what is true and to educate others as best we can.

However, in cases of religious mania (or at least extreme eccentricity) the results could be unpredictable and possibly detrimental. As yunshui points out, psychologists have considered this question already.

Many delusional patients actually need their strange beliefs in order to function, so removing the framework of their worldview can be unproductive and even dangerous.

So was Colonel Jessep right when he said, “You can’t handle the truth!”?  Those who’ve changed their minds in favour of atheism often report feelings of freedom and happiness as a result. However, de-conversion can be a traumatic process, even for those on a fairly even keel.

For those with a delusion related to mental illness the answer is more complicated and as a layperson I’d defer to the opinions of the psychologists involved.

An Atheist Meme

I was tagged recently by Lynet, so I thought I’d share a few details of my beliefs and how they’ve changed.

Can you remember the day that you officially became an atheist?

No, it was a gradual progression. I became bored and frustrated with the lack of answers from the church youth group I attended and drifted out of it, still probably more agnostic than atheist.

Do you remember the day you officially became an agnostic?

I suspect I was always a bit agnostic, although there was a time I would’ve certainly described myself as a Christian. I could possibly have been described as a social Christian.

How about the last time you spoke or prayed to God with actual thought that someone was listening?

Probably in my early teens, mostly motivated by personal anxiety. When I was younger I remember praying every day. I never got any answers but I certainly thought someone was listening.

Did anger towards God or religion help cause you to be an atheist or agnostic?

I don’t think I was exactly angry at God, but I was frustrated and fed up with vague religious lectures. I was also appalled and perplexed by the injustice of divine judgement.

Were you agnostic towards ghosts, even after you became an atheist?

Only recently have I become properly sceptical about ghosts, when I was previously agnostic about them. This attitude didn’t seem to change at the same time as my religious beliefs. I guess I hadn’t got around to questioning those ideas properly. If people mentioned ghostly experiences I wouldn’t be sure what to think. I suppose I found ghosts exciting and liked to entertain some belief in them for that reason. These days I’d have no hesitation is saying, “Show me the evidence” and “No a smudge or speck on a photo is not evidence”.

Do you want to be wrong?

Partly.

On the one hand, I’m pretty glad that the world isn’t being watched over by a deity who allows great tragedies to occur without lifting a finger or judges people for making an honest mistake regarding their beliefs.

On the other hand, I would certainly like to live forever. The common ideas of heaven are quite weird and nonsensical and often sound like the kind of blissful tedium that would make a sane person long for oblivion, but I think a lot of people would like to live forever. I guess that’s the biggest part of religion’s marketing hype.