Splenetic memetic

Here’s a sad story I’ve seen repeated on Facebook a couple of times now. Take a moment to read it through. Susan Blackmore was invited to give a lecture on memes to the “Oxford Royale Academy” – which is not, as she points out, anything to do with the University of Oxford but is Oxforddy enough that you would hope a reasonably enlightened, knowledge-seeking audience would turn up. By the end of the gig, 100 of the audience had walked out, claiming to be offended. Outside the hall, afterwards, she was confronted by some of the walkers-out, and “I was angrily told that I’d made them feel ignorant.”

Well, boo-bloody-hoo. I’m with her all the way here. If you don’t like feeling ignorant … don’t be ignorant.

The link above is her own account so we only have her own words to go on.

I called out to some as they left, ‘Can’t you even listen to ideas you disagree with? In Oxford, of all places, you should be open-minded enough to hear alternative views’. But no. They said I needed an open mind. This really got to me, raising painful memories of my early research on psychics and clairvoyants who said, ‘You just don’t have an open mind,’ when my careful experiments showed no psychic powers.

Go Susan. Damn right. In Oxford, of all places, you should be open-minded enough to hear alternative views. What could possibly have gone wrong?

Let’s assume, for the time being, that memetics actually is science – so, we won’t go there. Assume that it is. Still quoting her own words:

“I explained the idea of religions as memeplexes: they package up a set of doctrines, tell believers to learn them, to pass them on, to have faith and not doubt, and they ensure obedience with fearsome threats and ridiculous promises. This I illustrated with images of Christian heaven and hell. Then I read from the Koran “those that have faith and do good works, Allah will admit them to gardens watered by running streams … pearls and bracelets of gold.” “Garments of fire have been prepared for the unbelievers. They shall be lashed with rods of iron.” More walked out.”

A word occurs to me as I read the first line of that quote, and that word is “bollocks”. M’friend Marion independently describes one reason why.

I hasten to add: I can’t deny that what Blackmore describes is a manifestation of some religious beliefs, and a thoroughly vile and unacceptable one at that. And it’s the one that gets the best headlines and makes the best pictures. But if we’re going to be scientific and treat all our data points equally, it’s also very much the exception.

I don’t excuse those who follow their faith mindlessly, even less so when it leads to injuring others. Faith is a force multiplier: put bad into it and it comes out worse; put good into it and it comes out better. But the good – which constitutes the majority of the data – doesn’t get the attention. The minority data might be more visible in society, but then, so are the screaming headlines of the Daily Mail or the Telegraph about immigrants and benefits cheats. Minority data ought not to colour your view of the whole. You certainly shouldn’t go generalising from it.

Blackmore bases her hypothesis on the outlying data rather than the core, and that’s not how you do science. In science, you base your hypothesis on the core data and then test it against the outliers to see if it still holds. If it doesn’t, you revise the hypothesis. Ultimately you end up with a testable and repeatable hypothesis that enables you, or anyone else, to make predictions on the outcome of similar data elsewhere.

Under Blackmore’s hypothesis, taking the given data that I am a Christian who had a reasonably middle of the road CofE upbringing, THEREFORE I must follow a moral code purely on fear of the pains of Hell, accept whatever I am taught unquestioningly, deny evolution because it’s not in the Bible, pour all my money into my church (on fear of Hell, again …)

Funnily enough, I don’t do any of that. And nor do any other Christians I know.

Blackmore’s hypothesis singularly fails to describe the core data. I say again – I don’t excuse the bad behaviour. I’m not going to try and make out that it doesn’t matter because it’s only a minority, or it’s all a long way from here and mostly affects people with darker skin. Any man’s death diminishes me. But I will say that if such behaviour is caused by memes (cf. provisional disclaimer above), then a more useful study might be made of the memes that make the majority of religious people not act in these ways, and perhaps work out ways to tackle the outliers based on that information.

My own hypothesis, based purely on her own account, is that while some people – the vocal ones – may have walked out because they felt offended, most were just turning their backs on the bad science and the speaker’s obvious contempt for them.

It’s rather a shame that she started this way, because then she says she went onto the blasphemous cartoon business. By the end, she says she was getting good questions. I’m sure she was. I would have liked to be there. As it was:

“By the time I arrived at a slide calling religions (Richard’s fault!) ‘Viruses of the mind’, the lecture hall was looking rather empty.”

Richard’s fault? No, ma’am, your fault. At no point (I don’t know this, I have no empirical evidence, but am prepared to bet up to a reasonable financial limit) did St Richard stand over you with a gun and order you to create a slide labelling religions “Viruses of the mind” on pain of death. That was your choice.

(Though I suppose this could be seen as a self-fulfilling validation of the whole meme idea, and your own theories: that somehow freewill is thrown out of the window and memes simply perpetuate mindlessly because, well, they do. [Isn’t it odd, though, how in just about every other field of science, conducting an experiment on humans in which the testees are aware of the nature of the test is immediately invalidated?])

To repeat: in Oxford, of all places, you should be open-minded enough to hear alternative views … Unless, apparently, you have decided well in advance that religion is a load of bunkum and proudly backed this up with sub-sixth form strawman arguments, in which case you end up addressing the Oxford Royale Academy and wondering why everything’s going pear-shaped. Based on the rest of her account, I start to question her “careful experiments”.

So, in conclusion: the lady set out to deliver what purported to be a scientific talk, using lousy data, rubbish hypotheses, and language that could not have been better calculated to display her own preconceptions and insult people who might have been in the audience.

And she complains people didn’t want to stay to listen.

Well, fancy. Religious types, eh?

You’re a star, superstar

In 1572 a new star blazed out in the sky, so bright it could be seen during the day. The astronomer Tycho Brahe described it in his book De Stella Nova, giving us a word we use even today to describe a crappy little Vauxhall. Apparently he caused ripples by proving it lay quite a way beyond the orbit of the moon, which wasn’t officially possible – though even he might have been surprised to know quite how far away it was.

Now, the BBC tells us, astronomers around the world are seeing it again, because light that shot off in the opposite direction is reflecting off clouds of interstellar dust particles and coming back at us.

Is this not utterly astonishing and utterly cool? What an amazing universe we live in.