One hell of a growth spurt

On facing walls in the first room of the current exhibition at the National Gallery of Scotland (Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Art), there are a couple of fine paintings by 16th-century masters.Titian Virgin Child

Titian’s Virgin and Child with St John the Baptist shows a naked infant Christ and a fully grown St John the Baptist, complete with beard and long flowing locks. The swarthy young man is helpfully pointing to a lamb with one hand while stroking the animal with his other.

On the opposite wall is Paris Bordon’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt, which shows the Holy Family, again including a naked infant Christ and yet this time St John the Baptist is also an infant. He is now the child who has yet to grow Bordon Rest Flight Egyptup to become the Baptist. The label describes this charming scene as the “first affectionate meeting” of these cousins, so the picture is clearly meant to be an imagining of an historical event.

Titian himself referred to his fabulous Diana paintings (hanging nearby) as “poesie” (po-e-zi-ay) or fables to distinguish them from history paintings, and Poussin, another devout painter working in Renaissance Italy, was concerned to depict a convincing early Christian setting for his Sacrament of Confirmation (also hanging nearby).

There is little doubt that these painters all believed the biblical scenes they painted had their basis in history. For us, looking at the contradiction visible in the pictures of Titian and Bordon, even if we make some allowance for their differing interpretations of such details as costume, we cannot interpret away the difference in ages of John the Baptist. Logically, one of these images must contain a falsehood. Possibly, they both do.

This is similar to the conclusion we must reach when faced with the vast array of competing and contradictory religious beliefs: they can’t all be true, but they can all be false.


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Cracked: Why Psychiatry Is Doing More Harm Than Good

Dr James Davies at the Conway Hall Ethical Society on 13 April 2014

Why is psychiatry such big business? Why are so many psychiatric drugs prescribed, and why has the number of mental disorders risen from 106 in 1952, to around 370 today? In this talk, Dr James Davies takes us behind the scenes of how the psychiatrist’s bible, the DSM, was actually written — did science drive the construction of new mental disorder categories like ADHD, major depression and Aspergers? – or were less-scientific and unexpected processes at play? Has the rapid medicalization of everyday life been justified, and who is this really helping? His exclusive interviews with the creators of the DSM reveal the answer.

Psychiatric drugs do not do what they say they do on the tin and yet they’re prescribed at a remarkable rate. Psychiatry and the pharmaceutical industry are too close, and has wrongly medicalized more and more people: it is claimed that 1 in 4 of us will suffer from a mental health condition (Davies 2014:1), creating the illusion of a psychiatric epidemic. At the heart of this is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which has expanded faster than any medical manual in history.

There is very little documentary evidence available on how the DSM is put together so he had to speak to the creators of the manual, including Dr Robert Spitzer, one of the most influential psychiatrists of the 20th century, responsible for DSM-III. This came out in 1980 and was by far the most important edition: it established the modern diagnostic system and also vastly expanded the number of disorders.

What was the rationale behind the huge expansion? Were these new disorders discovered in a biological sense? No, only a handful of disorders are known to have a biological cause, and in fact no biological markers have been identified.

We expect psychiatry to work like mainstream medicine, where a name is only given after pathological roots have been discovered in the body. The surprising thing about psychiatry is that it works in completely the opposite way: first, name the disorder even though there may be no biological evidence to support its inclusion, and then look for any pathological roots.

He asked Spitzer: On what grounds do mental disorder make it into the DSM? Apparently, they have “other procedures”: if a large enough number of clinicians felt that a diagnostic concept was useful, if there was a sufficient consensus to recognize a particular disorder, then it could get included.

Davies was astonished by this admission. Agreement does not constitute scientific proof. If a committee of theologians agree that God exists, that does not prove that God exists. In what sense is psychiatric agreement any different?

Professor Paula Caplan was similarly disturbed and decided to scrutinize the research behind the inclusion of one particular disorder, SDPD (self-defeating personality disorder). There was very little, and it was of poor quality.

Spitzer admitted that research was “very limited indeed” and that there were very few disorders whose definition was a result of specific research data. Klein told Davies that they relied on “clinical consensus”: but without data to guide them, how was this consensus reached? Basically, said Klein, “we had a three-hour argument — we eventually decided by a vote, sure, that is how it went.”

Voting isn’t a scientific activity.

Renee Garfinkel gave Davies a concrete aspect of how far down the scale of intellectual respectability she felt these meetings could sometimes fall (30). She quotes one Taskforce member, who suddenly piped up:

“Oh no, no, we can’t include that behaviour as a symptom, because I do that!”

The loudest voices and the strongest personalities usually won out.

DSM-III became an overnight sensation when it was first published (it took six months to catch up with orders). It was bought widely and was a book that changed the lives of tens of millions of people who suddenly found themselves “suffering” from diagnoses contained therein.

Most professionals using the manual did not and still do not know the extent to which biological evidence failed to guide the choices the Taskforce made. In short, most people do not know that it’s all based on the consensus of a group of eight people.

Spitzer admitted:

It was a revolution… We took over because we had the power.

Only eight new mental disorders were introduced in DSM-IV (there were 80 in DSM-III), but this hides the fact that there are 30 in the appendix and there are also many subdivisions, so that the DSM was actually expanded from 292 to 374 disorders.

Dr Allen Frances was the psychiatrist who replaced Spitzer as Chair of the new DSM. According to him, the decisions to include bipolar II, Asperger’s disorder and ADHD “helped promote three false epidemics in psychiatry” (48).

Davies asked Frances how many people he thinks have been wrongly medicalized. Frances replies (49):

“There is no gold standard for psychiatric diagnosis. So it’s impossible to know for sure, but when the diagnosis rates triple over the course of fifteen years, my assumption is that medicalisation is going on.”

For Davies, this was a thunderclap confession.

Frances allowed DSM-III to live on through the next edition: there was already lots of existing medicalizations, and the reason he gave for leaving it in (51):

“In other words, it felt better to stabilise the arbitrary decisions than to create a whole assortment of new ones.”

Davies concludes that the dramatic medicalization of “normal human reactions to the problems of everyday life was allowed to proceed unchecked” (52).

The DSM committee did not actually discover mental disorders, at least not in any traditional scientific sense. Rather, they contrived them, by drawing lines between painful emotional experiences. Mental disorders are also human-made maps, created like astrologers characterizing patterns in the sky as constellations (36).


What does good research look like in psychiatry?

If we reduce the DSM to disorders that are based only on biological markers, e.g. Huntington’s disease or Alzheimer’s, there wouldn’t be much left. DSM represents itself as a more scientific text than it is. On the big topic of what is good research, he’s not really qualified to answer.

Why do these things catch on?

Pharmaceutical marketing has a lot to do with it. One sign of how powerful this marketing is can be judged from the 530,000 copies of DSM sold in six months: it’s not a great read and it’s expensive, but it’s being bought in bulk by the industry and then dispensed to clinicians for free. The manual pathologizes most behaviours, and the rise in childhood disorders is linked to this industry. Unsurprisingly, there’s a reluctance to embrace evidence that meds cause more harm than good. DSM has got out of hand, and it needs to be more modest and scale back on the diagnoses: it should be possible to boil down 370 to 11.

One questioner said it was really useful for her to have a diagnosis of her symptoms.

Davies is not convinced that diagnosis always helps, although he recognizes that putting a name to it can be a relief. There is also the diagnostic effect, which can lead a patient to become fatalistic about their disorder, and to think that it will be with them forever. Too often diagnoses are made on the basis of short assessments. Basically, he thinks we’re over diagnosing.

Psychotropic medication is actually very expensive and comes with both side effects and withdrawal effects. The costs add up to £6–7 bn being spent a year on drugs. Psychotherapies could be cheaper, but there is poor provision in the NHS.

Is there such a thing as an RCT for psychotropic drugs?

Yes, but one problem with trials is that lots of data gets buried. The main regulatory body, the MHRA, is entirely funded and staffed by big pharma, so the tendency is for the regulators to be too lenient and to serve the interests of industry.

Chemical imbalance theory has not been proved by a single piece of evidence since it was first proposed in the 1960s.

By taking the biological route, psychiatry has been the greatest driver of stigma: the best way to challenge stigma is to challenge the biological view. [This is in the sense of medicalizing ``normal'' psychological states; in the sense of discovering biological causes for disorders, psychiatry singularly fails to take the biological view.]

Ritalin can appear to have remarkable effects in treating ADHD, so some are helped by drugs.

There was a comment broadly in agreement from a consultant child psychiatrist who has become disillusioned over the past 10 years, and who barely prescribes medication. There have been very few times when drugs have worked, though ritalin has worked occasionally. He faces dilemmas every day.

The media tend to prefer single-cause explanations and ignore the complexity of multicausal factors.

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Playing the maid’s part

In Richard III, Buckingham advises Richard on how to impress the mayor and citizens (3.7.50):

Play the maid’s part: still answer nay, and take it.

Today, this would be widely interpreted as sexist and the kind of remark made by those UKIP supporters who evaluate a woman’s worth on the basis of whether or not she cleans behind the fridge.

However, Shakespeare was not simply reflecting a more sexist culture or relying on an arbitrary prejudice. The aspect of universal human nature he was picking up on is rooted in gamete size dimorphism, a biological fact about our sex cells that happens to have observable consequences for our social behaviour. As Seabright (2012:15) puts it, “every man and woman alive today has emotions and perceptions that are shaped in part by the simple and natural asymmetry between sperm and eggs.”

Here is Buss (2003:45):

Because sex is one of the most valuable reproductive resources women can offer, they have evolved psychological mechanisms that cause them to resist giving it away indiscriminately. Requiring love, sincerity, and kindness is a way of securing a commitment of resources commensurate with the value of the resource that women give to men.Hogarth-Before

William Hogarth illustrates this negotiation in Before, and Daly and Wilson write (1983:114):

There is a basic strategic difference between the sexes that demands that the female be more discriminating in her sexual responsiveness. Consider the consequences for each partner of participating in a bad mating… If a male indulges in such a mating, he wastes some sperm. Sperm are relatively cheap. The loss will not diminish his future reproductive possibilities should a better mate appear tomorrow… The female is in a different situation. The penalty she incurs from a bad mating is likely to be severe. Her great parental investment in each of her potential progeny necessitates that she choose her mate well.

In the natural world, females “are generally more selective in mating than are males” and “sometimes demand nuptial gifts from males in exchange for fertilizations” (135).

In this episode of Down the Line (Series 4, Episode 4), Gary Bellamy joins in the debate, which for him is framed by Stephen Fry getting stick for claiming that men and women were different when it came to s-e-x.

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By Tim Barrow Directed by Mark Thomson Presented by the Royal Lyceum Theatre on 11 April 2014

Union tells the story of the original Union of Scotland and England in 1707 as you’ve never heard it before. Tim Barrow’s play is an energetic and highly theatrical romp through the raucous leaking taverns off the Royal Mile, Kensington Palace and the Scottish Parliament. Union is rich in famous historical figures such as Daniel Defoe and Queen Anne, as well as our great Scottish poet — Allan Ramsay — who finds love in Grace, a prostitute in the bawdy and dangerous world of eighteenth-century Edinburgh.

Two Nations. Like oil and water, they cannot mix.

Union_LyceumEdinburgh is a “hell of a pretty sight if you hold your nose,” says Allan Ramsay, in one of the raucous leaking taverns off the Royal Mile. The poet is consoling Daniel Defoe, who’s coming round with a bloody nose after being welcomed to the city. Being English is bad enough; at least he isn’t Catholic. We already have an impression of Edinburgh as a dangerous world, full of rank smells and drink; when Grace makes her buxom entrance, the bawdy element is added in graphic terms:

He rode me till I bled.

She’s referring to an aristocrat, one of her regulars. Ramsay would also like to be a regular, without having to pay: he writes love poems to prove his feelings for Grace are above the carnal, but she knows he’s still moved by his groin.

As for the politics of the time, “justice remains bound and gagged” and corruption abounds. That doesn’t make Ramsay want to forgo his national identity and cosy up to Westminster, but he doesn’t yet realize that corruption — in the form of buying votes — will lead to exactly that outcome.

Meanwhile, in London there is a succession crisis:

Danish semen struggles in this climate.

This is one of the cleverer lines of the play, with the inflection of the verb disambiguating what might otherwise be heard as a maritime reference.

The court of Queen Anne is in sumptuous contrast to the Edinburgh midden, although the preoccupations with sex and drink and foul language are virtually identical. (There’s plenty of swearing throughout the play, but it’s nowhere near of the standard of Bomber’s Moon: Marlborough’s reference to “fucking Irish cunts” is a bit heavy handed. We’ve got the point that the Irish are not an English lord’s favourite race. For balance, he also thinks Highlanders are barely human.)

In Bomber’s Moon, the foul-mouthed Jimmy had the audience in stitches. Here, at least in the stalls, the Edinburgh audience sat in stony silence. For a play full of bawdy, there were few belly laughs. There were isolated lines, such as Ramsay’s question:

Why wish for a palace when you’ve got Leith?

That got a big laugh, presumably from those lucky enough not to live in Leith.

Holding court is the queen (or so it seems at first), with her confidante Sarah Churchill by her side on the royal sofa. We first see them choosing tea (Chinese, Assam (“tastes like charcoal”), Ceylon (“smells like cat’s piss”)) and teasing the unfortunate salesman, who is made to jig for their amusement. His dancing is not enough to distract them from each other, and they kiss, briefly, a sign of their intimacy. (Sarah’s husband is the warmongering duke of Marlborough, a trigger happy type who shot her hamster when he was “tidying” his desk. He’s of the view that war would be a simpler way of uniting the kingdoms than endless chat in parliament.)

Anne is not much more interested when discussion turns to matters of state, to “the northern bit”:

Can one buy a country?

It’s a question that comes up again and again, and the answer is, apparently, yes, and for as little as twenty thousand pounds. As played by Irene Allan (channelling Miranda Richardson’s performance as Queen Elizabeth in Blackadder), the queen is a woman of strong opinions and given to eccentric behaviour, bordering on stark raving mad. Through the gurning and posturing, there is a chink of character we can sympathize with:

Satirists mock my stillborns.

Then, talk of the Act of Union is interrupted by the arrival of a plate of particularly delicious buns.

Back in Scotland, Ramsay has his own question:

How can you join fire and ice?

Kindling his patriotic heat, it would appear, is the Duke of Queensberry, a “Cicero for our times.” Played by Liam Brennan, the duke has two registers: full-bellied bombast or exhausted debauch:

God loves a sinner — look at the riches he left me.

Defoe explains to Ramsay the nature of the soft conquest:

Shall we not tax you?

Ramsay is defiant:

No union, no English dogs.

He doesn’t buy the line that union will bring peace, harmony, prosperity, and will continue a staunch Jacobite.

Although Anne is queen, it’s Sarah who has the upper hand in their friendship:

At Blenheim I await your contrition.

With that she flounces out of court, leaving the queen to try a dalliance with Willy, Master of House. He fails to rise in the social scale, and seems to illustrate Grace’s understanding of the classes:

You can’t move between them.

If the vote later this year goes for independence, then maybe it’ll become more difficult to move between England and Scotland?

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Review of Bomber’s Moon

Bomber’s Moon – Park Theatre, London

“This is unkind,” says Jimmy. “No one deserves this.” As old as Lear and as close to death, the king’s repeated cry of “Never!” becomes “Not old!” as Jimmy rails against the indignities of an ageing body and his confinement in a care home. He knows what it’s like to wake up every morning wondering if it’s to be his last: as a young man he flew in Bomber Command, which suffered the highest casualty rate of the British Armed Forces during World War II. Jimmy was a rear gunner, a “tail-end Charlie” cooped up and shot at by the Luftwaffe high over Germany. Now, alone and vulnerable once again, the bullets may be a memory but the challenge of facing up to mortality remains constant.

There’s nothing funny about being institutionalized or stuck in a gun turret, so it’s something of a surprise that the audience is soon in stitches. This is down to the two actors’ faultless comic timing and William Ivory’s terrific script, performed brilliantly by James Bolam as Jimmy and Steve John Shepherd as David (Jimmy’s nervous new care worker). David’s also new to the profession, and not having the best of first days (he’s just tried feeding porridge to a dead woman). “Better her than me,” says Jimmy, before explaining that “Better him than me” was every airman’s guilty thought on hearing that a mission had failed to return.

David’s not exactly put at ease by Jimmy’s abrasive attitude and colourful language (the old man could teach Malcolm Tucker a thing or two about swearing). He diligently picks up on Jimmy’s wartime experience: “That’s very interesting — would you like to talk about it?” Shepherd delivers this inquiry with the detachment of a corporate analyst, and Bolam’s sceptical expression is withering.

This by-the-book professionalism on the part of David gives way to a more personal side as he opens up about his own life. He’s a recent convert to Christianity, and yet his faith does not seem to help him step away from the sheer drop he feels is all around. Jimmy’s concerned. He’s seen that look before in the eyes of airmen: David is “a man hanging on by his fingernails” — and the “higher power” he believes in is not giving him a hand up. While David would rather see certain events as “signs” from God, Jimmy knows that his survival was pure chance.

Shepherd also plays a third character, Frank, Jimmy’s navigator in the war, who was also a Catholic. His advice to Jimmy was simple: “Get yourself a faith.” After all, so the saying goes, there are no atheists in foxholes. Except that there are, and Jimmy is living proof. Even as he was falling to earth, it wasn’t God’s voice he heard but Cole Porter’s.

All aspects of this production deserve praise. Sound designer Damian Coldwell supplies songs from the 1940s and the shock-and-awe sound effects; designer Laura McEwen has monumental grey metal sheets rising above the plain furnishings of the residential home; lighting designer James Farncombe creates the darkness of a bombing raid lit by cannon fire, and even the rivets on one of the panels cast long shadows, like the shadows cast by the wartime experiences over the lives of those who survived.

For Jimmy, this life is the only one he will ever have, and the suitcases under his bed will not be needed again. The play captures beautifully the poignancy of this transience, which is at the heart of humanism and what sets this character apart from both David and Frank. What brings all three together is love. It seems that we don’t need to live forever to make something wonderful out of the passing show.


Originally written for The Public Reviews.

See also Bomber’s Moon.

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Review of Holy Sh*t

Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing

Melissa Mohr

More bang than buck

Looking for oppljf

Looking for oppljf

If you prefer your swearwords bleeped, then best not judge this book by its cover, since on the inside asterisks appear only as footnote markers. Melissa Mohr holds nothing back, unlike the linguists and lexicographers of previous generations, who would often act as if these words simply didn’t exist. She begins with the last word her own grandmother spoke to her (it wasn’t holy), and then quotes a four-year-old boy’s exclamation: “Well, fuck me, Jesus!”

It’s unlikely that this little boy was swearing in the biblical sense of “calling on God to witness that a person is telling the truth or intending to fulfil a promise.” He was just being very, very naughty. Still, how did we get from swearing as “the foundational act of the Jewish and Christian faiths” to swearing as “bad” language? Mohr addresses this question and much more of sceptical interest in this fascinating history.

Mohr begins in ancient Rome, moves on to the Bible, before ending with with what is – and is not – considered obscene or offensive in the modern world. She’s a linguist, and therefore interested in words wherever they are found, in scripture or in a toilet. Early on, she draws the important distinction between denotation (a word’s “dictionary definition”) and connotation (“a word’s baggage”), and she illustrates the point with an elegant textual analysis of some lewd graffiti on a toilet wall: “You are all fucking nymphomaniacs.” The adjective in this phrase is denotationally redundant (fucking is what nymphomaniacs do) but rich in connotation. Is the author admiring or condemning nymphomaniacs? Who knows!

So powerful is this combination of ambiguity and emotional force that the daddy of all modern swearwords can perform multiple syntactic functions while being essentially meaningless. The word fuck, like God, has more bang than buck. Swearwords, like much contemporary religious language, rely upon delivering an emotional charge in excess of their literal meaning. They can also draw on superstitious thinking: obscene words were once “thought to be magical, with the power to affect the world”.

Today swearing refers to both oaths and obscene words, but “from the earliest Old English texts right to the end of the nineteenth century, the word swearing referred to oaths alone.” During this long period of relative stability there were some significant changes, and the sixteenth century in particular saw a turning point in the history of swearing in English. As Mohr puts it, in her bracing style, “The Holy was declining in power, the Shit gaining it.” As religion became less important in daily life and the fear of supernatural sanction declined (oath-breakers were simply not being struck down regularly enough by God), oaths emptied of religious meaning and began to be replaced by words that packed a similar emotional punch. Modern swearwords such as bollocks and even cunt, which were not obscene in Chaucer’s day, began to acquire the force we now associate with them, a force once reserved for oaths sworn before an all-seeing god.

In the nineteenth century, the church still had enough power to make life difficult for atheists who, for example, wanted to take their seat in parliament or testify in court. Amazingly, atheists were judged incompetent to give evidence because they couldn’t swear an oath before a god they didn’t believe in. That they didn’t believe in God because they proportioned their beliefs to the evidence – precisely what’s required in a court of law – apparently didn’t carry much weight.

A similar daftness was highlighted by Francesca Stavrakoloulou in the Spring issue. According to her, within biblical scholarship believers are sometimes sniffy about their non-believing colleagues, as though atheism renders these scholars incompetent to handle the evidence. Mohr provides her own example of this divisiveness: the “evidence that Yahweh once had co-creators” and even a consort is played down by those biblical scholars “who are invested in the immediate and complete monotheism of the Bible” and who, unsurprisingly, tend to be believers.

Although primarily a linguist and a historian, Mohr is clearly interested in the latest scientific developments and draws upon physiological research and medical science, as well as being properly sceptical of more pseudo-scientific claims, for example, those of psychoanalysis. Discussing Tourette’s Syndrome, she cites “the case of Alice, a child with uncontrollable movements and strange vocalization who had the bad luck to draw a picture of a tower in her psychiatrist’s office in the 1940s.” The diagnosis? Penis envy “explained” why the child swore like a trooper.

One irreligious joy of this book – aside from the filthy language on almost every page – is just how much it’s also a history of the weathering of religion. What was once widely believed is now looked upon with incredulity. There’s a scene in From Dusk Till Dawn, for example, where Harvey Keitel’s character, the lapsed preacher Jacob Fuller, gets his children to swear before God that they’ll take him down when he becomes one of the undead. He really means it, but there’s something unconvincing about his language, and Mohr’s study of swearing helps explain why. We live in an age when biblical oaths are shadows of their former selves, little more than empty words to most people – even to believers, many of whom merely profess their beliefs without actually believing.

For some, Melissa Mohr might be a tad too enthusiastic about her subject. For me, I thoroughly enjoyed following her erudition down often surprising avenues. Swearwords – as well as being “perhaps the best words we have with which to communicate extremes of emotion, both negative and positive” – are something worth celebrating.

(First appeared in The Skeptic, Winter 2013, p. 38. See also Looking for oppljf.)

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Review of Religious Experience

Religious Experience

Wayne Proudfoot

Like nailing custard to a wall

A protective strategy

A protective strategy

Few people become religious as a result of reasoned argument, and few are reasoned out of their beliefs, as many sceptics know to their cost. In The Outsider Test for Faith (reviewed in this issue), John Loftus observes that religious experience is “the most psychologically certain basis for believing in a particular religion or divine being.” But what is religious experience, and why can it seem so powerful? By placing religious experience in its historical context and by treating it as a natural phenomenon capable of being studied, Wayne Proudfoot provides some fascinating answers to these questions. Of particular interest to sceptics will be the use of religious experience as “a protective strategy” to block inquiry into religious belief.

Acknowledging the reality and importance of religious experience does not entail endorsing the claims made by the believer. Proudfoot gives the following example: “If someone is afraid of a bear, his fear cannot be accurately described without mentioning the bear. This remains true regardless of whether or not the bear actually exists outside his mind. He may mistakenly perceive a fallen tree trunk on the trail ahead of him as a bear, but his fear is properly described as fear of a bear.” Similarly, fear of vampires does not prove the existence of vampires, and neither does a believer’s experience of God prove the existence of God.

Strength of feeling and sincerity of belief are no guarantees of truth. Witnesses “in a courtroom often testify sincerely regarding what they have seen, only to have evidence introduced that shows them to be wrong.” Intuitions are not self-authenticating but “corrigible beliefs” capable of revision.

These caveats have not of course prevented the religious from exploiting experience, feeling and intuition in support of their particular belief systems, especially in modern era. By the Enlightenment, the scientific revolution was well under way, and sincere believers were increasingly being challenged to justify their beliefs in light of the discoveries of science. Many, including German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), wanted to avoid “conflict between religious doctrine and any new knowledge that might emerge in the course of secular inquiry” (a tall order given the breadth and pace of that inquiry into all areas of knowledge).

According to Proudfoot, “Schleiermacher was the earliest and most systematic proponent of the autonomy of religious experience and of religious judgments and doctrine.” Religion is governed by its own rules, about which science has nothing to say, an idea which predates by a couple of centuries Stephen Jay Gould’s notion of “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA). This separation is remarkably convenient for those holding irrational religious beliefs, especially for those who are also scientifically literate.

The immediacy of religious experience leads many believers into thinking that it’s “not dependent on other cognitions” – a confusion that lies at the heart of Schleiermacher’s programme and which continues to this day (people continue to “see” ghosts, for example, unaware of the power of top-down processing). If “feeling is the deeper source of religion” (as William James put it), then not only can science be sidelined but philosophical and theological formulations also become secondary. Both sceptics and organized religion should be concerned, for different reasons.

In her history of swearing (reviewed in this issue), Melissa Mohr distinguishes between a word’s denotation and its connotation. Swearwords, for example, don’t have to mean very much in order to have an emotional impact. The equivalent for Proudfoot is the placeholder, which “is prescriptive and evocative rather than descriptive or analytical.” For the believer in thrall to a religious experience, the term God is not a proper noun that refers objectively to one being among others: it functions as a placeholder without any representational role. Its “opacity maintains a sense of ineffability.” No wonder tackling religious experience from a sceptical point of view is like nailing custard to a wall.

As Wayne Proudfoot shows in this tremendous book, religious experience “has become the chief strategy for protecting religious beliefs and practices from the possibility of conflict with the conclusions of science.” The attraction for the apologist is clear: this tactic ensures “that the subject’s own explanation of his experience is not contested” – unless, that is, sceptical voices are raised. Just as sceptics do not accept a psychic’s own assessment of her powers of communication, neither should we accept religious claims at face value. And in that particular contest, Proudfoot’s work is of great help.

(First appeared in The Skeptic, Winter 2013, p. 36. See also A protective strategy.)

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Review of The Outsider Test for Faith

The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion Is True

John W. Loftus

Scepticism is a learned virtue

Keeping believers honest

Keeping believers honest

How does a non-Christian become a Christian? More generally, how does a non-X become an X, where X is any religion you care to name? Faith preceding understanding is the usual answer. According to John Loftus, however, with “faith as a foundation anything at all can be believed or denied.” Faith will take you across the boundary separating Christian from non-Christian, but it will also take you across every other conceivable boundary as well.

Why doesn’t the Christian (who is also a non-Muslim, a non-Hindu, etc.) take a leap of faith to any one of the hundreds of other religions on offer? Because believers operate a double standard: when they “criticize the faiths they reject, they use reason and science to do so”; when thinking about their own religion and its extraordinary claims of miracles, the same burden of proof is suddenly nowhere to be seen.

In place of this self-serving and selective scepticism, Loftus advocates reasonable scepticism in the form of the Outsider Test for Faith, for which the believer adopts the perspective of an outsider. It’s a tough sell, because Loftus is in effect asking believers to switch off their beliefs and become apostates for the duration of the test. Instead of “knowing” that their religion is the truth, they must begin by presuming its falsity. However, for those believers who want “to rationally test their faith” Loftus thinks the OTF is the only option.

Loftus recognizes the importance of religious experience, which offers the believer “the most psychologically certain basis for believing in a particular religion or divine being.” Who needs evidence “when you have an experience?” Experience, however, is no guarantee of truth: for that, “believers need a test – an objective non-double-standard, self-diagnostic test”. (For more on the power of religious experience, see my review of Proudfoot’s book in this issue.)

The Outsider Test for Faith could easily have been called the Sceptical Test for Faith. At its core is an informed scepticism, which “adopts the methodological-naturalist viewpoint” and which seeks a natural explanation for the origins of a given religion, its holy books and its miracle claims. This kind of scepticism “demands sufficient evidence before concluding a religion is true” and it disallows any faith in the religion under investigation: the informed sceptic cannot “leap over the lack of evidence by punting to faith.”

In making his case, Loftus appeals to the “religious diversity thesis” (put simply, your parents and your birthplace determine your religion) and the “religious dependency thesis” (“religious faith is causally dependent on brain processes, cultural conditions, and irrational thinking patterns”).

A crucial part of any rational test is dealing with the evidence, but it matters enormously whether the available evidence is approached “through the eyes of faith, as an insider, or with the eyes of skepticism, as an outsider, a nonbeliever.” The wide diversity of opinion about the most important religious questions testifies to how the same evidence can be interpreted in multiple and contradictory ways. Loftus want us “to see the OTF as a solution to the problem of religious diversity, a problem that needs a solution.”

(Loftus is referring to the diversity of religions around the world, but a similar diversity can be seen within the world of biblical scholarship, where, according to Richard Carrier in Proving History, “Jesus scholars continue multiplying contradictory pictures of Jesus… yet not all can be true.”)

Sceptics will love the idea that scepticism “is a learned virtue” and appreciate its use as a filter “to strain out the bad ideas, leaving us with the good ones.” The religious may prick up their ears at words like virtue and good but they will find the emphasis on scientific reasoning far more challenging. Even some non-believers will baulk at what is often scornfully dismissed as scientism (according to Loftus, “science is the only game in town”). Hardest to swallow for mainstream believers will be the “b” word. Loftus delivers a brutal message: Want to know whether you’ve been brainwashed by your particular religious culture? The OTF is the only way to find out!

Those believers who bristle at the idea that “faith is always unreasonable” should remember that they “reject the faiths of other religions precisely because they are faith-based.” The outsider test highlights this double standard for all to see. Whether or not believers care enough about truth to take the test remains to be seen. Since sceptics do care about the truth, the OTF is another valuable tool in our intellectual armoury. It’s the only way believers can be kept “honest regarding their own faith.”

(First appeared in The Skeptic, Winter 2013, pp. 35–36. See also Keeping believers honest.)

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The Ethics of Neuromarketing

Dr David Lewis at the Conway Hall Ethical Society on 6 April 2014

Science has made a dramatic leap from the lab — and the effects on us are phenomenal. This is the expert inside story on how companies and brands are using the new mind sciences to find out why we buy and how our rapidly evolving understanding of the brain plays into the advertising, marketing and retailing industry. In a hyper-competitive market, organizations are delving deep into our brains to detect the hidden triggers that persuade people to consume. The “father of neuromarketing” Dr David Lewis goes behind the scenes of the “persuasion industry” to reveal the powerful tools and techniques, technologies and psychologies seeking consumers to buy more – often without them consciously realizing it.

As a neuropsychologist, he tries to understand our behaviour in terms of what the brain is doing. As a raconteur, he can’t help inserting little stories to illustrate a point. Our brains are incredibly complex but the one thing they can’t do is feel pain, so patients are often conscious during brain surgery. Once, a short-tempered neurosurgeon was having a bad day at the office, and blurted out:

Isn’t anybody on my side?

The patient piped up:

You can count on me, sir.

We all buy things on impulse, even houses. Do we have free choice, or are there covert strategies that persuade us to buy things we don’t really want? Of course there are, but the history of subliminal messages has its own hoaxes. James McDonald Vicary was a market researcher who published a famous study in 1957, in which he claimed that subliminal messages — e.g. “Thirsty? Drink Coke” — could be flashed at cinema audiences and increase sales. There was no data to justify the claim and he later admitted the whole thing had been made up to help shore up his failing agency.

He was somewhat surprised when a tsunami of outrage fell on him — the “most alarming invention since Mr Gatling invented his gun” — since it was felt that the unscrupulous could use this technique to sell political parties.

Lewis started out as a medical doctor and became a clinical psychologist with an interest in neuroscience. Back then, behaviourism still ruled: Skinner taught that the brain was a black box processing the stimulus and producing the response. That ignored the most interesting part, and Skinnerians made many bold and worrying claims, such as the idea that we could programme children through operant conditioning to be anything we wanted.

Richard Caton demonstrated that the brain was an electrical organ as far back as 1875, and Hans Berger developed ECG in the early 20th century.

There are references to advertising in the ancient world, and in 1759 Samuel Johnson wrote a critique. In 1901 Dill Scott applied psychology to advertising in the hope of making it more effective. Initially, it was all about Freudian ideas, which were seen as powerful, then the Freudians were kicked out and behaviourists became all the rage.

Soon, the cynicism of advertisers was made explicit, as in this quote:

The words don’t matter, friend, it’s feeling that counts. You got to make that hog believe you got something that hog wants.

In The Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard gave his famous reaction to this kind of manipulation.


The trouble with market research is that people don’t think how they feel, they don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say.

So, we need to lift the hood on the black box, and probe the subconscious to see what’s really going. Most brain activity is unconscious — consciousness is the tip of the iceberg — and therefore neuroscience is meant to be look under the surface and into the depths below. Still, the new buzz phrase — neuromarketing — is a silly term.

The main technologies used are:

  • EEG
  • MEG
  • fMRI
  • Eye-tracking (widely used to gather data)
  • Biometrics
  • Facial/emotional recognition
  • IAT (implicit association testing)


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Sending a clear message

One of the most striking (literally and figuratively) objects in the current Vikings exhibition at the British Museum is “Axe head with cross” — which is the head of an axe incorporating the sign of the cross. It dates from 950 to 1000 CE, and comes from Stenstugu in Gotland, Sweden. The label explains that it “would have sent a clear message of religious affiliation, while still being an effective weapon.” Clear and direct indeed: straight through the skull bone and into the brain is certainly one way of delivering the Gospel into the heads of recalcitrant pagans.

The label continues:

Weapons like this are a reminder that the adoption of Christianity did not lessen the Vikings’ enthusiasm for war.

But surely Christianity is all about bringing peace on earth and goodwill to all men (and women)? Well, that sentiment wasn’t uppermost in the minds of the several Christian Viking kings who died on the battlefield, presumably after inflicting a few life-changing or life-ending injuries to numberless soldiers.

In The Now Show (20.07.07), Marcus Brigstock puts this question to the followers of the three Abrahamic religions, to the Muslims, Christians and Jews:

Just a little thing really but when you’ve finished smashing up the world and blowing each other to bits and demanding special privileges while you do it, do you think the rest of us could have our planet back?

Then he develops the following magnificent rant:

There must be something written in the special books you so enjoy referring to that tells you it’s all right to behave like precious petulant pugnacious pricks. It’s mainly the extremists obviously, but not exclusively, there’s a lot of mainstreamers as well. Muslims: listen up my beardy and veily friends, calm down, stop blowing stuff up. Christians: stop pretending you’re celibate as a coverup for being a gay or a nonce. And why is it that all of these faiths claim to be peaceful, when even a fleeting glance at the history of warfare will tell you otherwise? The relationship between religion and warfare is very similar to that between Ant and Dec: you could have one without the other but what would be the point?

In “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next” by the Manic Street Preachers, James Dean Bradfield lays a heavy stress on the final syllable of pacifist, which sums up the way many dominant religions have kept the peace. In Secular values, not religion, make us a tolerant society, Oliver Kamm asks:

How often have you heard someone described as a person of deep religious convictions and for this to be meant as a criticism?

This is because religions typically have a lethal assumption in common: that faith is a virtue. Religious affiliation may be less divisive in Western societies than it was 300 years ago (although see the category on divisiveness), but this is “not because believers have lately had a divine revelation about the need to live in peace with others and respect their human rights”:

It’s because liberal, secular values have tamed religion as a source of conflict. It isn’t the Bible or the Koran that has made Western societies democratic and tolerant. It’s the idea, encapsulated in Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, that what people believe is irrelevant to public office.

If Kamm is right that the “decline of religious observance in modern democratic societies is an important civilising influence” then this category on warmongering will, sadly, not be short of entries.

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