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Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked Into an Intellectual Black Hole

Martin Cohen finds an attack on irrationality worryingly unscientific in its methods

Do you believe in God? Or even wonder if there might be a purpose to the universe? Do you suppose that human consciousness is more than merely chemical changes in "brain states"? Do you think natural selection is a zombie theory or that alternative health remedies can sometimes work?

Then you believe in bullshit. That is the uncompromising message of Stephen Law's new book. This former populariser of philosophy for children now seems more concerned to bring the young up on a diet of strict scientific method. Which he says was invented about 400 years ago and is this: "Scientists collect data by observation and experiment. They formulate theories to explain what they observe and where possible, subject these theories to tests." Now that's what I call bullshit!

There is some small discussion of Karl Popper here, but no space for Thomas Kuhn or Paul Feyerabend or almost anyone else. There is a windy section instead announcing that some claims can be proven by virtue of the meaning of the terms themselves. Take the task of logic-busting the idea that prior to the "creation" of the universe there was no time: "A simple conceptual argument does the trick". This is the argument that actions must presuppose the arrow of time.

Here, Law says, is a case where philosophers can demolish bullshit without needing to find empirical evidence; likewise the incompatibility of an omnipotent, beneficent deity and the existence of evil. This old problem is actually presented 11 times here because this is a book about why the concept of God is, to borrow Nietzsche's term, "noxious", and barely at all a book about critical thinking or philosophical argumentation, as the subtitle seems to be trying to persuade us it might be. Law is one of the militant English atheists, led by His Holiness, Richard Dawkins.

There are, to be fair, some sections on "Pseudo-profundity" and "Piling up the Anecdotes", but as critical thinking it is surpassingly uncritical. Non-scientists, we are told, rely on natural charisma and presentational skills, and use props such as "a particularly brash waistcoat". But scientists are unchallengeable.

Take homeopaths, for example. Law complains that they swap anecdotes with each other about people who got better after taking the little sugar pills. No doubt this happens, yet if homeopathic remedies work for some people, then why the censorship? The remedies, after all, have no side effects. Law, however, will have none of this irrationality: "Every year, millions of dollars are spent on alternative medicines that, in many cases, don't work." Not like conventional drugs, of course.

Law warns against anecdotal evidence but furnishes some of his own. People may die, he says, as a consequence of relying on homeopathic treatment rather than conventional immunisations. There is no footnote, but I recognise this story. An "undercover" BBC reporter once asked homeopaths if they had alternatives to malaria pills. And they did! Scarcely surprising nor, I would say, particularly culpable.

Another irrationality that gets Law's ire is crystal therapy. He records how properly constructed "double-blind" tests of the efficacy of crystals to promote mental well-being found that they did indeed seem to have some sort of positive effect on participants. The catch? The scientists used "fake crystals"! I don't know what the difference is between a fake crystal and a real one, but it seems to me that Law has allowed himself to be sucked into an intellectual black hole, and is now unable to communicate with the rest of the universe. That's a shame, as here and there the book offers flashes of wit and insight.

Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked Into an Intellectual Black Hole

By Stephen Law

Prometheus, 271pp, £16.99

ISBN 9781616144111

Published 19 April 2011

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