In praise of (New) Humanists
Ever since the kind folks at New Humanist decided to put me on their mailing list, my spirits rise when it pops through the letterbox. But the latest issue made me smile more than most.
For starters, the editorial gives prominence to the Simon Singh libel case, in which Simon is being scandalously threatened with a personal libel prosecution by the British Chiropractic Association over an article he wrote in the Guardian calling their treatments ‘bogus’. The absurd ruling in May was that by using this word he was implying that chiropractors foist treatments on patients while knowing them to be inefficacious. No one could defend against such an accusation, for who can prove what chiropractors believe either way? In any event, this is an eccentric interpretation of ‘bogus’, which is used colloquially to mean just what the OED says: ‘not genuine or true’. (The OED presumably throws the spanner in the works by ambiguously appending ‘used in a disapproving manner when deception has been attempted’. But to my mind that seems simply to qualify one particular instance of usage anyway.) The upshot is that Simon stands to lose half a million if he appeals – but he’s bravely decided to do so. As many groups have pointed out, a ruling like this threatens the ability of science writers to say without fear what evidence shows to be true and false. And it’s a threat to free speech more generally, thanks in essence to our stupid libel laws. At least this case is motivating calls to change them. But the behaviour of the BCA is profoundly cowardly. One of the things that became most apparent to me in the cold fusion affair was that genuine scientists don’t use courts to make their case, but evidence.
Elsewhere in the magazine, Brenda Maddox writes movingly of John Maddox’s funeral in April. I think everyone who worked with John was deeply saddened by his death, and the attendance at the celebration of his life at the Royal Institution in June was testament to the respect and affection people held for him. John sometimes drove us crazy at Nature, but I feel immensely privileged to have worked with him, both then and more recently.
In the light of my recent experiences in debating science and religion with Sam Harris (see earlier ad nauseam), the NH‘quiz’ –What Kind of Humanist Are You? – could hardly have seemed more timely. Frankly, it pretty much sums up our debate, and is a lot more fun. Suffice to say that I daresay I check in at somewhere between the categories of ‘Happy’ (‘You just want the world to be a better place. Bless!’) and ‘Hedonist’ (‘You can’t see the point of abstract principles and probably wouldn’t lay down your life for a concept, though you might for a friend’), while Sam does seem to me to qualify fairly and squarely as a ‘Hardline’ (‘You can’t stand mumbo jumbo, ritual, spiritual nonsense of any kind…they’re all just weak-minded pilgrims on the road to easy answers’). It was illuminating in this context to see the comment about New Scientist’s temporary withdrawal of a web story about ‘How to spot a hidden religious agenda’ in a book because of a legal threat (again). The magazine couldn’t explain, while the case was in progress, what was going on. But PZ Myers at Pharyngula was quick to suspect some ‘accommodationism’, saying ‘I hope that the New Scientist isn’t going to be catering to the whims of uninformed nervous nellies’, i.e. creationists and the like. ‘I am troubled’, he wrote, ‘by the apparent knee-jerk retraction of a legitimate article that is critical of creationism simply because there was a complaint.’ Yes, that would be troubling, and we’d be right to criticize it if it happened. But do you get the feeling, as New Humanist clearly did, that there might sometimes be a little jerking of knees in a different camp?
Meanwhile, my review of Fern Elsdon-Baker’s book The Selfish Genius, a critique of Richard Dawkins, in the Sunday Times has caused much gnashing of teeth on richardawkins.net, although it seems that no one who commented there has read the book. (Forgive my ignorance: what is this jargon ‘flea’ that you’ve invented?) Anyway, it’s funny – I’d hoped to give the impression that Dawkins has been a Good Thing for science communication. From what I know, he seems a nice enough chap too. (I always remember a book editor once telling me that, when he told people he’d edited both Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould, they’d often say ‘Oh, I bet Gould is nice, but Dawkins must have been prickly’, whereupon he’d say that it was quite the reverse. And that doesn’t surprise me.) But richarddawkins.net does occasionally take on the worrying tenor of a cult, whereby No Criticism Is Permitted.
Then finally in New Humanist, there is Terry Eagleton. I confess that I struggle to take too seriously anyone who has been known to talk about ‘theory’ as if there has only ever been one theory in the history of the world; and Eagleton does sometimes seem to display the dubious traits of a contrarian. But in the light of recent experiences, I can’t help but smile at his comment that ‘We hold many beliefs that have no unimpeachably rational justification, but are nevertheless reasonable to entertain.’ Not to mention Eagleton’s readiness to admit that ‘there are a lot of simplistic ways of thinking in religion’ and that perhaps Christianity needs to be saved from (many/most?) Christians. You are unlikely to be permitted, Terry, to propose that there are other ways of thinking about Christianity than that ‘God is a kind of chap’, even if you want to call yourself an atheist in the end anyway. (Apparently he doesn’t.) Still, it seems Eagleton and Elsdon-Baker are setting themselves up as far bigger targets of the ‘Hardliners’ than I ever was, so I can hopefully now return to writing about science.