Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Newsweek Magazine - interview

I just did an interview for Newsweek magazine (based in New York), which should come out in next month or so. The theme was bullshit. Creationism came up.

Playing at Cowley Road Carnival

This coming Sunday (3rd July), in South Park in Oxford. We, the Heavy Dexters, are doing a short set about 5.20pm. I shall be playing the drums!

Monday, 27 June 2011

The lie that the Tories are marketizing the NHS to "reduce costs" and make it "more efficient"

Tory plans to marketize the NHS are supposedly justified by data. E.g. data showing that when doctors are made independent financial agents free to buy services from whoever they like on behalf of patients, costs are driven down. But the truth is this is just another "private good, public bad" myth.

In particular, the evidence actually suggests that this kind of marketization is not a money saver. In fact the evidence strongly suggests that it's inefficient. As this research by McKinsey confirms. Go here for report in the Huffington post.

Of course Lansley must know all this. He's seen the evidence. Ben Goldacre has previously pointed it out how Lansley twists those facts and evidence to make his case.

Last week we saw that the government had overstated the failings of the NHS by using dodgy figures (to be precise, they used misleading static figures instead of time trends). We saw that the health secretary Andrew Lansley's repeated claim that his reforms are justified by evidence was untrue: the evidence doesn't show that his price-based competition improves outcomes (if anything it makes things worse); and the evidence also doesn't show that GP consortiums improve outcomes (unless you cherry-pick only the positive findings).

It's OK if your reforms aren't supported by existing evidence: you just shouldn't claim that they are.

Now Lansley's junior minister, Paul Burstow, has kindly responded via the Guardian's letters page, repeating the same mistakes again, only more clumsily. I find this, in all seriousness, genuinely frightening from a minister.

But Lansley continues to repeat the fib. Why?

My earlier post "My Plan to destroy the NHS".

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Edzard Ernst retires. Depressing story....

THE article on Edzard Ernst.

Research Intelligence - Alternative outcomes
By Paul Jump

As the first professor of complementary medicine retires, he recalls a rough ride. Paul Jump reports

Edzard Ernst admits he is pleased to be retiring as professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter - although his departure will be welcomed even more avidly by the numerous enemies he has made during his 18 years of subjecting complementary and alternative medicine (Cam) to scientific scrutiny.

The 63-year-old officially retired at the end of last month after producing well over 1,000 papers assessing the evidence for the efficacy of alternative treatments.

But although his outspoken conclusion is that only about 5 per cent of such treatments are "solidly based on positive evidence", he admitted in an interview with Times Higher Education that he had started out as a "friend" of Cam.

His first job after graduating from medical school was in Germany's only homeopathic hospital, the Hospital for Natural Healing in Munich, where he was so impressed by the efficacy of some treatments that he continued to practise them "on and off" during his subsequent rise through the medical establishment.

That rise culminated with his appointment in 1990 as chair of the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Vienna, where he had 120 people working under him. But his abiding interest in Cam convinced him to apply to become the world's first professor of complementary medicine when he saw the Exeter position advertised in 1993.

The £1.5 million to fund the position had been donated by construction magnate and Cam supporter Sir Maurice Laing. But although the philanthropist, with whom Professor Ernst became "good friends" before his death in 2008, was happy for him to subject Cam to rigorous analysis, practitioners remained opposed to his sceptical approach - despite the 700 invited lectures Professor Ernst gave on the scientific method.

"It looks to them as if we are always trying to disprove their beliefs. And in a way we are, because we are scientists. They understand alternative medicine as alternative to science, so to apply science to their field is quite upsetting for most of them," he said.

Continues here.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The faith healers who claim they can cure cancer

by Anna Adams and Meirion Jones
BBC Newsnight website

A group of faith healers who claim they have miracle cures for cancer and HIV have been condemned as "irresponsible, even criminal" by a professor of complementary medicine, following a BBC Newsnight investigation.

The group of healers, collectively known as ThetaHealing, claim that their technique - which focuses on thought and prayer - can teach people to use their natural intuition and "brain wave cycle" to "create instantaneous physical and emotional healing."

ThetaHealing have about 600 practitioners in the UK who charge up to £100 per session.

But the healers' claims have been called "criminal" and "not supported by any kind of evidence" by Edzard Ernst, Professor of Complementary Medicine at the University of Exeter, whose unit not only carry out their own studies but also assess those done by other researchers.

Continues here.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Field Guide to Bullshit

From New Scientist - interview by Alison George with me on my new book Believing Bullshit.

How do people defend their beliefs in bizarre conspiracy theories or the power of crystals? Philosopher Stephen Law has tips for spotting their strategies

You describe your new book, Believing Bullshit, as a guide to avoid getting sucked into "intellectual black holes". What are they?

Intellectual black holes are belief systems that draw people in and hold them captive so they become willing slaves of claptrap. Belief in homeopathy, psychic powers, alien abductions - these are examples of intellectual black holes. As you approach them, you need to be on your guard because if you get sucked in, it can be extremely difficult to think your way clear again.

But isn't one person's claptrap another's truth?

There's a belief system about water to which we all sign up: it freezes at 0 °C and boils at 100 °C. We are powerfully wedded to this but that doesn't make it an intellectual black hole. That's because these beliefs are genuinely reasonable. Beliefs at the core of intellectual black holes, however, aren't reasonable. They merely appear so to those trapped inside.

You identify some strategies people use to defend black hole beliefs. Tell me about one of them - "playing the mystery card"?

This involves appealing to mystery to get out of intellectual hot water when someone is, say, propounding paranormal beliefs. They might say something like: "Ah, but this is beyond the ability of science and reason to decide. You, Mr Clever Dick Scientist, are guilty of scientism, of assuming science can answer every question." This is often followed by that quote from Shakespeare's Hamlet: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy". When you hear that, alarm bells should go off.

Continues here.

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN: only 2 of 51 Miss America contestants support evolution taught in schools

Go here for article: Miss USA Pageant Winner One of Two Contestants to Back Evolution.

By Philip Yam

I admit, the only time I even notice beauty pageants is when one of the contestants flubs a response and video of the embarrassing moment makes the YouTube rounds.

This time, though, I'm taking notice because of a cogent answer, one that could be seen as a victory for science. Tanya Somanader of Think Progress recounts in her excellent blog post an answer given by 21-year-old Alyssa Campanella, a self-described science geek who won the Miss USA competition last night.

Responding to the question of whether evolution should be taught in schools, Campanella affirmed her position on evolution and its rightful place in the classroom. She and Miss Massachusetts, Alida D’Angona, were the only two of the 51 contestants to back Darwin.

Continues, with video clips, here.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Drumming tonight, Burcot

Playing drums with the jazz funk outfit The Heavy Dexters tonight from 9pm at Chequers pub, Burcot (nr. Oxford and Abingdon). Postcode OX14 3DP.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Pseudo-profundity - from "Believing Bullshit"

Here's a sample chpt from my new book. I have posted previous drafts here before of course.


Some marketing, religious, and lifestyle gurus have genuinely profound insights to offer. Others spout little more than pseudo-profundity. Pseudo-profundity is the art of sounding profound while talking tosh. Unlike the art of actually being profound, the art of sounding profound is not particularly difficult to master. As we’ll see, there are certain basic recipes that can produce fairly convincing results – good enough to convince others, and perhaps even yourself, that you have gained some sort of profound insight into the human condition.

If you want to achieve the status of a guru it helps to have some natural charisma and presentational skills. Sincerity, empathy, or at least the ability to fake them, can be useful. Props also help. Try wearing a loincloth, a fez, or, in a business setting, a particularly brash waistcoat. But even without the aid of such natural talents or paraphernalia, anyone can produce deep- and meaningful-sounding pronouncements if they are prepared to follow a few simple recipes.

State the obvious

To begin with, try pointing out the blindingly obvious. Only do it i-n-c-r-e-d-i-b-l-y s-l-o-w-l-y and with an air of superior wisdom. The technique works best if your pronouncements focus on one of life’s big themes, such as love, money and death. So, for example:

We were all children once
Money can’t buy you love
Death is unavoidable

State the obvious in a sufficiently earnest way, perhaps following up with a pregnant pause, and you may find others begin to nod in agreement, perhaps murmering “Yes, how very true that is”.

Contradict yourself

A second technique is to select words with opposite or incompatible meanings and cryptically combine them in what appears to be a straightforward contradiction. Here are a few examples:

Sanity is just another kind of madness
Life is a often a form of death
The ordinary is extraordinary

Such sentences are interpretable in all sorts of ways and can easily appear profound. In George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, two of the three slogans of the Party have this character:

War is peace
Freedom is slavery
Ignorance is strength

If you’re an aspiring guru, why not produce your own contradictory remarks? The great beauty of such comments is that they make your audience do the work for you. Their meaning is not for you, the guru, to say – it’s for your followers to figure out. Just sit back, adopt a sage-like expression, and let them do the intellectual labour.

The thought that contradiction is a mark of profundity sometimes crops up in a religious context. Non-believers will suppose contradictions within a religious doctrine reveal that it contains falsehoods. The faithful are likely to take the same contradictions as a mark of profundity. Contradictions have other advantages too. A series of simple, unambiguous claims is easy to refute. Not so a series of such cryptic remarks. So, if you’re planning to start your own religion and want to say things that will both appear profound and also be invulnerable to criticism, try making a series of contradictory pronouncements. Assert, but then deny. For example, say that your particular god is. And yet, he is not. Your god is everything, and yet nothing. He is one, and yet he is many. He is good. But then again he isn’t.

None of this is to say that such seemingly contradictory remarks can’t convey something genuinely profound. They can certainly be thought-provoking (even Orwell’s poisonous examples – I bet you can find some sort of truth in all of them). But, given the formulaic way contradictions can be used to generate pseudo-profundity, it’s wise not to be too easily impressed.


Another recipe for generating pseudo-profundity, identified by the philosopher Daniel Dennett , is the deepity. A deepity involves saying something with two meanings – one trivially true, the other profound-sounding but false or nonsensical. Dennett illustrates with:

Love is just a word

On one reading, this sentence is about the word “love” (though notice that, if the sentence is about the word, then it really ought to appear quotation marks). The word “love” is indeed just a word, as are the words “steel” and “concrete”. So, on this reading, the sentence is trivially true. On the other reading, the sentence is about not the word “love”, but love itself – that which the word “love” refers to. Love is often defined as a feeling or emotion. Love may even, arguably, be an illusion. But the one thing it definitely isn’t is a word. So on this second reading, “Love is just a word” is obviously false.

Deepities trade on the ambiguities between such readings. It’s the ambiguity that generates the “Oh wow!” response, that makes people gasp, “Golly, yes, actually love is just a word, isn’t it?!”, as if they have suddenly been struck by something terribly profound.


Here’s a particularly effective way of generating pseudo-profundity. First, take some trite observation about the human condition, such as:

• life is often surprising
• people often feel there’s something missing from their lives
• we should appreciate things while we can
• we should make the most of the opportunities we get

Then, wrap your chosen trite observation in an analogy. I call the result a trite-nalogy. “Life is like a….” provides one popular template. Here are a few examples I quickly found on the internet:

My momma always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get. (Forest Gump)

Life is like a taxi. The meter just keeps a-ticking whether you are getting somewhere or just standing still. (Lou Erickson)

Life is a grindstone. Whether it grinds us down or polishes us up depends on us. (Thomas L. Holdcroft)

Life is like a coin. You can spend it any way you wish, but you only spend it once. (Lillian Dickson)

The result can often be terribly deep-sounding.

Sermons and homilies sometimes involve trite-nalogies. Alan Bennett produced a hilarious spoof in his sketch “The Sermon” (which Bennett delivered while wearing a dog collar):

Life, you know, is rather like opening a tin of sardines. We are all of us looking for the key. And I wonder how many of you here tonight have wasted years of your lives looking behind the kitchen dressers of this life for that key. I know I have. Others think they’ve found the key, don’t they? They roll back the lid of the sardine tin of life. They reveal the sardines, the riches of life, therein, and they get them out, and they enjoy them. But, you know, there’s always a little bit in the corner you can’t get out. I wonder is there a little bit in the corner of your life? I know there is in mine!

The author Douglas Adams, no doubt irritated by such “Life is like a ….” pseudo-profundities, produced his own surreal version:

Life... is like a grapefruit. It's orange and squishy, and has a few pips in it, and some folks have half a one for breakfast.

Parables, too, are sometimes trite-nalogies. Take this example:

The young man was at the end of his rope. Seeing no way out, he dropped to his knees in prayer. "Lord, I can't go on," he said. "I have too heavy a cross to bear." The Lord replied, "My son, if you can't bear its weight, just place your cross inside this room. Then open another door and pick any cross you wish." The man was filled with relief. "Thank you, Lord," he sighed, and did as he was told. As he looked around the room he saw many different crosses; some so large the tops were not visible. Then he spotted a tiny cross leaning against a far wall. "I'd like that one, Lord," he whispered. And the Lord replied, "My son, that's the cross you brought in."

Take the important but obvious truth that we often over-estimate our own woes and fail to realize how serious are the problems of others, draw an analogy with carrying heavy crosses, and voila - you’re profound! In this example, the pseudo-profundity also serves to distract the listener’s attention way from more troubling questions, such as: Why does God insist on loading people with such horrendous burdens in the first place?

Use jargon

Whether you’re a business guru, life-style consultant or mystic, introducing some jargon can further enhance the illusion of profundity. Here is a common trick. Make up some words that appear to have meanings similar to those of certain well-known terms, but that differ in some never-fully-explained way. For example, don’t talk about people being sad or happy, but about them having “negative or positive attitudinal orientations”.

Next, translate some truisms into your new vocabulary. Take the trite observation that happy people tend to make other people feel happier. That can be recast as “positive attitudinal orientations have high transferability”.

It also helps to adopt the vocabulary of “forces”, “energies” and “balances”. The use of these words will suggest that you have discovered some deep power that can be harnessed and utilized by others. That will make it much easier to persuade them that they may seriously miss out if they don’t sign up to one of your seminars.

So, if you’re a marketing guru, try running seminars on “Harnessing Positive Attitudinal Energies Within the Retail Environment”. If some smart-Alec is brave enough to put up his hand at one of your seminars and ask exactly what a “positive attitudinal energy” is, just define it using other bits of your jargon. That way, you’ll never have to explain what any of your gibberish means. Yet the several truisms around which all your jargon has been wrapped will generate the illusion that you must really be on to something, even if your listeners cannot fully grasp what it is. So you’ll leave them anxious to hear more.

Adding some scientific jargon or references can be particularly useful in lending your ramblings further fake authority and gravitas. Many purveyors of pseudo-profundity have learned the insight expressed by the great 19th Century scientist James Clerk Maxwell that such

is the respect paid to science that the most absurd opinions may become current, provided they are expressed in language, the sound of which recalls some well-known scientific phrase.

References to quantum mechanics are particularly popular among peddlers of pseudo-scientific claptrap. Quantum mechanics is widely supposed to make weird claims, and hardly anyone understands it, so if you start spouting references to it in support of your own bizarre teachings, people will assume you must be very clever and probably won’t realize that you are, in fact, just bullshitting. So perhaps, if you’re feeling ambitious, put on another seminar entitled “Positive Attitudinal Energies And Quantum Mechanics”.

Post-modern pseudo-profundity

Sadly, some corners of the academia are dominated by intellectuals whose writing amounts to little than pseudo-profundity. Strip away the academic jargon and pseudo-scientific references from their impressive-sounding pronouncements and you’ll find there’s precious little left.

Those thinkers often referred to as “post-modern” include more than their fair share of such jargon-fuelled poseurs. So easy is it, in fact, to produce convincing-looking post-modern gobbledegook that a wag called Andrew Bulhak constructed a computer programme that will write you your own “post-modern” essay, complete with references. For the Postmodern Essay Generator, go to:


I just did and received an essay that begins:

The primary theme of Cameron’s model of neostructural Marxism is the common ground between society and culture. Sontag’s analysis of Debordist situation states that society has objective value. However, Marx promotes the use of Marxist socialism to analyse class. Debordist situation holds that the goal of the observer is deconstruction. Therefore, the subject is interpolated into a neostructural Marxism that includes art as a paradox. Several materialisms concerning semanticist subdialectic theory may be found.

This may be nonsense, but it makes scarcely less sense than the real thing. Possibly more. Consider this example from the French intellectual Félix Guattari:

We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential, multi-dimensional machinic catalysis. The symmetry of scale, the transversality, the pathic non-discursive character of their expansion: all these dimensions remove us from the logic of the excluded middle and reinforce us in our dismissal of the ontological binarism we criticised previously. A machinic assemblage, through its diverse components, extracts its consistency by crossing ontological thresholds, non-linear thresholds of irreversibility, ontological and phylogenetic thresholds, creative thresholds of heterogenesis and autopoiesis.

In 1997, Alan Sokal, a professor of physics at New York University (eminently qualified to comment on the use of scientific terminology) irritated by the way in which some post-modern writers were borrowing terms and theories from physics and applying them in a nonsensical way, published, along with his colleague Jean Bricmont, the book Intellectual Impostures. Impostures carefully and often hilariously exposes the scientific-jargon fuelled nonsense of various intellectuals writing in this vein. About the longer passage from which the Guattari quotation is taken, Sokal and Bricmont, say that it is the:

most brilliant mélange of scientific, pseudo-scientific and philosophical jargon that we have ever encountered; only a genius could have written it.

Intellectual Impostures followed the “Sokal Hoax” in 1996. Sokal submitted to the fashionable U.S. post-modern journal Social Text an essay packed full of pretentious sounding, pseudo-scientific claptrap. The editors of Social Text, unable to distinguish total claptrap from profundity, published it. After all, Sokal’s “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” seemed to make as much sense as other papers they published. The publication of “Transgressing the Boundaries” became an “Emperor’s New Clothes” moment for the style of philosophy published by the journal. Social Text became a laughing stock.

About Jean Baudrillard’s work, which is full of references to chaos theory, quantum mechanics, non-Euclidean geometries, and so on, Sokal and Bricmont write:

In summary, one finds in Baudrillard's works a profusion of scientific terms, used with total disregard for their meaning and, above all, in a context where they are manifestly irrelevant. Whether or not one interprets them as metaphors, it is hard to see what role they could play, except to give an appearance of profundity to trite observations about sociology or history. Moreover, the scientific terminology is mixed up with a non-scientific vocabulary that is employed with equal sloppiness. When all is said and done, one wonders what would be left of Baudrillard's thought if the verbal veneer covering it were stripped away.

I include this quotation from Sokal and Bricmont because it nicely summarize what might be said about pseudo-profundity more generally – pseudo-profundity consists of a thin mixture of the trite, the nonsensical and/or the obviously false, whipped up into an impressive-looking linguistic soufflé. Prick it with a fork, let out the hot air, and you’ll find there’s little left. Certainly nothing worth eating.

In defence of Guattari, Baudrillard, et al, some might say that Sokal and Bricmont have misunderstood what these writers are trying to do. Such post-modern thinkers are themselves engaging in game playing and spoofery. So the joke is really on Sokal and Bricmont.

This won’t wash. As Richard Dawkins points out in his review of Intellectual Imposteurs, if Sokal and Bricmont’s targets

are only joking around, why do they react with such shrieks of dismay when somebody plays a joke at their expense. The genesis of Intellectual Impostures was a brilliant hoax perpetrated by Alan Sokal, and the stunning success of his coup was not greeted with the chuckles of delight that one might have hoped for after such a feat of deconstructive game playing. Apparently, when you've become the establishment, it ceases to be funny when somebody punctures the established bag of wind.

Dealing with pseudo-profundity

Hopefully, this brief sketch of some of the ways pseudo-profundity can be generated will help you spot it more effectively. If you find yourself on the receiving end of such blather, how should you respond? How can we best reveal pseudo-profundity for what it is?

Pseudo-profundity’s greatest enemy is clarity. One of the most effective methods of disarming it is to translate what is said into clear, plain English. Say, “Right, so you are saying…” and proceed to jot down in clear, unambiguous prose on back of an envelope precisely what they do mean. Such a translation will typically reveal that what was said one of three things: (i) an obvious falsehood, (ii) nonsense, or (iii) a truism.

However, combating pseudo-profundity is rarely quite as easy as that. Those who spout it are often aware, at some level, that clarity is likely to unmask them, and will probably resist your attempts to rephrase what they mean in clear and unambiguous terms. They will almost certainly accuse you of a crude misunderstanding (see Moving The Goalposts). Of course, they still won’t explain clearly what they do mean. They’ll just keep giving you the run around by changing the subject, erecting smokescreens, accusing you of further misunderstandings, and so on. For this reason, the unmasking of pseudo-profundity typically requires both time and patience.

Mockery and satire can have a role to play, as Allan Bennett’s “The Sermon” and the Post-modern Essay Generator illustrate. The Hans Christian Anderson story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” ends with much hilarity when the small boy points out that the Emperor is wearing no clothes at all. The public’s laughter at the Emperor parading about naked finally breaks the spell that the charlatan weavers had, in effect, cast over them all. Laughter can similarly help break the spell that pseudo-profundity casts over us. A little satire may help us recognize that we have been taken in by someone spouting little more than truisms, falsehoods or nonsense dressed up as profundity. That is why those who spout pseudo-profundity often strongly discourage satire and mockery – taking enormous, exaggerated offence at it.

There is an important caveat when it comes to the use of humour, however. Obviously, any belief – even a genuinely profound belief – can be mocked. I’m not suggesting mockery should replace clear, rigorous criticism of the sort I have attempted to provide here. No one should be encouraged to abandon a belief just because people laugh at it. But, because of its ability to help break the spell that pseudo-profundity casts over its victims, allowing us to entertain for a moment or two the thought that perhaps we have been somewhat gullible or foolish, a little mockery can form an appropriate part of a response. Mockery is both useful and appropriate if we can show that it is deserved.

New Scientist interview

Interview in this week's New Scientist on Believing Bullshit here. This interview enraged one homeopath so much they immediately fired off a one star amazon review and posted here too (as "treejag" on June 13th).

PS books purchased on amazon.co.uk should be with you pretty quickly as their stock arrives about today.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Mark Vernon comments on bullshit

Mark Vernon has realized my book Believing Bullshit might of some relevance to him. I've asked him to read it and comment.... He posts here.

There's a double page spread in New Scientist this week on me and the book, by the way...

Friday, 10 June 2011

Playing tonight

I will be playing drums in jazz outfit at the Broad Face pub in Abingdon tonight (Friday) from 9.30-ish

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Debate videos

One of a series of videos in which I debate Andreas Hamza Tzortzis over an hour or two on "Islam or Atheism" at De Montford University. They were a very good-natured and friendly crowd and made me feel very welcome, even though (obviously) not many were atheists. You need to turn it up to hear their questions. Click through for other installments.

Nightwaves programme tomorrow

I will talking about my new book, Believing Bullshit, tomorrow night (Wednesday) on Nightwaves programme, BBC Radio 3, from 10pm. With Nick Cohen.

POSTSCRIPT 11.33pm on bus home. That didn't go too well. Nick kept calling me Matthew and I got flummoxed by left field Rumsfeld question.