Pop culture

This one is about Australian politics. International readers may ignore it.

There has been a lot of media and internet hype and fun had about the silly and unfair Australian government and its abortion of a budget in which the poor, the unemployed and the future of our nation, students, are unfairly targeted while the rich are “penalised to the extent of having to maybe cut back on their fine wine purchases a bit. Yes, John Oliver had fun pointing out the idiocy perpetrated by Tony Abbott, but this is not about fairness, or rather, this is about justice (and fair behaviour that is just).

Our government, which came in as an ideological hard line government (voters who say now “I didn’t expect this” have no excuse; it was all flagged years back, and you ignored it), has refused to increase taxation upon those who can best afford to contribute to the Common wealth they exploit. It permits the very rich to save on taxation by allowing them to use superannuation funds, which were designed to provide the less-well-off a retirement income, and to use the purchase of housing they do not intend to live in (“negative gearing”), as taxation breaks. Hence, all the so-called deficit in government spending, which could be recouped directly by abolishing both measures, is foregone.

It has refused to cut the vast amount of government aid to the least deserving of all our economic activities – mining – to the tune of at least $4.5 billion per annum. It has, however, cut subsidies to employee-heavy industries like manufacturing, with a loss of tens of thousands of jobs.

It has made the cost of getting an education, which was made the prerequisite for every career over the past twenty years, so high that only the well-off can now get one. This takes us beyond the days before education was made free by the Whitlam government in the 1970s, because at least then there was an extensive merit-based scholarship scheme run by the government. Now there is none, unless the universities offer a few. And vocational training is now offered by shonky private operators whose primary interest is getting federal money, not actually, you know, teaching students how to do stuff.

It has made the cost of just going to the doctor a choice between medical treatment and food for the least well-off. A $7 copayment doesn’t seem much until you realise that those with long term illnesses must go to the doctor, get tests, have x-rays, etc., literally dozens of times a month, blowing out the cost to them to hundreds of dollars that, as chronically ill people, they probably cannot cover. It also increased the cost of pharmaceuticals for all.

It has told the most vulnerable – young people – they must somehow get by for six months of every year without any unemployment benefits if they can’t find a job (see above, loss of jobs) or study (see above, cost of education). Kids who for no fault of their own cannot find any work must live on the streets. The kids who have any kind of mental illness will be the most harmed, as they are the most vulnerable. These are the kids who cannot manipulate the rather nasty bureaucratic barriers to getting help.

This is not how a wealthy and democratic nation behaves. This is not how a decent society behaves. So we have to ask: why are we behaving this way?

Partly we do so because this is how the media (run largely by Murdoch, because a past Labor government piked out from preventing media monopolies) tells us to behave. Daily there are overblown stories about how the unemployed are ”rorting” the system (shades of Reagan’s fictional “welfare queen”), so that the employed, who have no unemployed family members, are given permission to hate the unemployed.

Partly we do so because the identifiable groups who most need help are the groups our politicians slyly point towards without using overtly racist language: aborigines, refugees, and the underclass of the “not of English ancestry”. Australia is a deeply and ubiquitously racist country, but we do it shamefacedly, without admitting that we are racists. Our politicians (on both sides) have played this race card again and again; so often in fact that we do not even realise we are being racist when we say “turn back the boats” of “illegal” refugees (no refugee is illegal; and the language is deliberate).

So we now have a society that treats the poor and vulnerable worse than we did in the days of paternalism and institutionalisation. We don’t even provide medical care for refugees in our concentration camps. What. The. Fuck.

This happened slowly, with the willing cooperation of both sides of politics. The once-progressive Labor party became a corporatist economic party. Corporate interests have no concern for people; they care only about profits, and we have seen increasingly immoral behaviours by corporations in Australia as they test the water and wait for the backlash, which, not forthcoming, encourages them to act even worse. Our banks are the leaders, taking fees where no service or cost is incurred.

We became acclimatised to behaviours and policies that a few decades earlier would have been rejected even by conservatives as fascist. Basically, we live now in a fascist culture, where corporations and governments act without concern for real people, in favour of abstractions like “nation” or “the economy”.

There is some hope, in the rise of minor parties. Even the Palmer United Party is better than the conservatives or Labor, because at least Palmer recognises that the “budget emergency” is bullshit, and that the extreme measures in the recent budget are acts of ideological bastardry. The major parties represent only the interests of the “big end of town” (and have done, in my view, since 1980), and some people are waking up to this. But unless Labor stands firm and blocks the budget – the whole budget, not just the bits they personally wouldn’t have put in – it makes no difference. The corporatists have won. We now live, if we can live, at their pleasure. It’s the new feudalism.

This is unjust. The reason it is unjust has to do with the best (and in my view only viable) definition of justice, by John Rawls. A just law or policy is one that is framed without reference to a knowledge of one’s own position in society. According to Rawls, you must draw a “veil of ignorance” over yourself when drafting policies. You mustn’t make laws that favour your own. This government, however, is doing nothing else. All the beneficiaries of this government’s policies (and only most of the beneficiaries of the previous government) are the well-off, the high income earners and the investors. They know themselves and make policies to serve their own interests. That is why it is unjust to do these things.

When faced with an unjust government and society, there are few options. Peaceful protest will go only as far as those in power permit, and at least two state governments have legislated to remove the rights of protest when it doesn’t suit government (Victoria and Queensland). This repressive behaviour has only one outcome: riots. If people are not permitted to protest, and protests are ignored, violence will result. I don’t like it, and I don’t condone it, but it is inevitable. If they don’t back down, there will be riots in Australia before the end of this year, I warrant.

In March I joined a spontaneous protest (March in March) at which over a quarter of a million Australians protested across the nation. It was barely even mentioned by the media, and when it was they focused on a few extremists. Abbott even joked about it. When you ignore that much of the population, you can expect bad results. In public relations we are told one letter equals 100 attitudes. Even supposing one attendee represented only two oppositions, that’s nearly 1 in 28 voters. Assume each protester represented ten objectors, and you have 1 in 7. Objections in the polls to these policies, however, run at over 50% (58% in yesterday’s poll). When more than one in two voters hate what you are doing, attention must be paid.

How it will work out I cannot say. I hate how my country has abandoned the decency of the sixties and the principles of a fair and just society. I don’t know if any other countries outside Scandinavia are any better, but that’s besides the point: I want my country to be one I can be proud of, as I used to be when I was a youth, even during the Vietnam era.

[Morality and Evolution 1 2 3 4 5 6 7]

If we agree that morality enhances fitness, because it enables cooperation, several questions arise: what sort of fitness enhancement does it provide and to what? In short, what is the selection process tracking? To say that morality provides a foundation for social cohesion and the consequent benefits that accrue is not enough. We have to be exact about it.

I think that there are several levels of context in which selection tracks fitness in moral contexts, and several kinds of thing that are fitness-enhanced. I will call these levels 0 to 4.

Level 0: Primate society

Level 0 is the prehuman PSSS (Primate Standard Social Structure). Here individuals compete for mating and resources for reproduction, such as food, territory, shelter, etc. They do this by pairwise competition, using positive signals (grooming, permitting mating access, resource sharing) and negative signals (the primate threat stare, stature raising, and acts of violence). This raises the genetic fitness of the individuals who succeed in attaining group membership. Individual groups may flourish as well if cooperation is well managed and effective norms are enforced. Consequently, the fitness bearers are individuals and their reproductive lineages, and groups, insofar as they are sorted out through mean fitness, competitively with other groups. Transmission of this is largely done via genes and niche construction. However, there is evidence of cultural transmission among primates, and so mimetic (behaviour-copying) channels of transmission of norms are also likely.

Level 1 is the human standard social structure. This is not a question of implementations of social structures, because I consider it very likely that humans have a vast array of actual social organisation, and nothing will be all that universal, but instead a matter of the inherited dispositions to acquire local social norms. One is not born with the Golden Rule, for example, but if that rule is the norm of the postnatal society, as the individual matures, they will tend to acquire that norm just because it is the local norm. This, however, will compete with other dispositions – to acquire mating opportunities through social popularity and resource acquisition, for example. Individually, we “learn” a number of competing exigencies, and instrumentally attempt to satisfy them as best we can. This is a tradeoff, so moral rules (like Kant’s proscription of ever lying) will be treated in a casuistic fashion, to offer the best outcome the agent considers it can achieve (and of course, success at that will be determined post hoc).

Level 1: Human dispositions

In level 1 morality, one acquires the rules of society in an undetermined fashion; one does not learn from experience that the Golden Rule works, but only that others think it is worthwhile. We tend to use shortcut heuristics to acquire social knowledge (see Gigerenzer’s work) because we cannot construct that knowledge by induction, nor even by abduction. Because we have these inborn rules some stimuli and not others are more salient to us, and we construct our generalisations from these stimuli and not others. Consequently, the emotional contexts of responses by other agents (such as family or friends) will tend to carry more weight when we construct our moral framework than objective reportage of what works.

This means that we should be careful of thinking that moral rules are simple summaries of past success-acquisition. Moreover, while we may construct some of our moral generalisations, given that we (and not the other primates) are symbol users, much of it will be passed on to us verbally or by demonstration (mimesis), and this relies heavily therefore upon our inherited capacities to learn and process language and copy behaviours, with correction. Such learning “scaffolds” human development and socialisation. A feral child will not learn social norms properly past the age at which such basic cognitive resources develop.

We tend in this context to give greater weight to kin than to strangers, and so our rules will tend to guard the family in proportion to the relatedness of the individuals. Kin-tracking is directly related to inclusive fitness. In this context, nepotism and xenophobia are Goods.

Level 2: After the Neolithic Transition

Level 2 is what I call the Post-Transitional context. Once populations exceed working memory constraints for tracking reciprocal altruism, abstract indicators of social commitment (and hence trustworthiness for reciprocal benefits) must be called into play. Social divisions arise in terms of class, division of labor and skill, and ethnicity, and so these indicators, which I call “tribal markers”, apply. Instead of tracking hundreds or thousands of individual, one merely has to track these indicators as instances of class, and societies tend to have only a few such classes. Note: I do not mean the sociological sense of class as a measure of wealth or power, here, but the more logical sense. Nevertheless, these classes are arrayed in terms of high status to low status, and there may be more than one set of hierarchies in play, complicating the simultaneous judgements individuals must make upon encountering a representative of these classes. For example, a Scot was lower in status than an Englishman in the colonial era, but a Scottish aristocrat had a higher status than an English wheelwright, not matter how superior the latter thought their nation.

Now the rules are driven by cultural norms and institutions that serve the overall interests of urban societies. The fitness bearer is the urban society itself, and the social benefit is social cohesion that permits the high status classes to benefit most. Around this time, warrior classes arise (“equestrians”, “knights”), and their interests are served by their being part of, or rewarded by, the highest status classes. This division of political and economic power is seen very early on, in the appearance of distinct early Neolithic architecture that is clearly the residences and forts of a ruling class, around 10,000 BCE to 3000BCE. Where the ordinary folk had round houses in Anatolia, for example, we start to see rectangular floor plans and much larger buildings.

Consequently, we see moralities that are fiercely in favour of the local settlement: gods are local, rituals are local, and loyalty to the state and the rejection of betrayal becomes institutionalised. Religions arise around this time (meaning, a sacerdotal division of a priestly class or vocation). Since this period is pre-literate in the main, the transmission of the rules is by symbolic communication and force majeure. The fitness bearers are the classes themselves (and in particular the high status individuals within the class – status hierarchies apply within as well as between, classes), and when a class that has the highest status is overthrown (as in the Hyksos taking over from the prior rulers of Egypt), there is a period of major restructuring of fitness of the classes.

Level 3: Imperial ethics

Once states come into being, much of the ethics has to do with the gaining and maintaining of cooperation, and the punishment of defection, at the state level. When nearly homogenous states, ethnically, start to cover greater ethnic diversity (and that will include religious diversity, diversity of taboos and rituals, diversity of economic and ecological contexts and behaviours, etc.) that becomes difficult, and so ethics for the state will be invented. Patriotism will replace ethnic loyalty. Following the law will replace following village custom. The pre-eminence of the ruling class becomes a moral question: kings and their families must be regarded with awe and strict protocols.

Imperial ethics are superstructures of urban ethics, and they can be more ephemeral even within a series of generations of a single dynasty; but usually they are simpler and more long-lived than most ethics, because being simpler they are more easily adapted to local and transitory circumstances. Imperial ethics can even survive a revolution, as they did in the Soviet case – all that changed were the ruling class attributes.

The fitness bearers here are the imperial institutions, and (usually) families that head up these institutions. Imperial ethics are primate social dominance behaviours writ large, very large indeed. Consequently, when empires fall or are revolutionised, the ethics do not need much revision. Transmission of imperial ethics is done through literary and institutional modes, of course, but also tends to have a strong monumental aspect – norms are enforced by stelae or other monuments with inscriptions.

Level 4: Industrial ethics

You might, if that sort of terminology pleases you, call this Colonial ethics. To have industry is, of necessity, to have a cheap labour pool and cheap raw materials, and so it must be colonial. [By the way, I do not think we are any distance at all from being colonial; so there simply is not yet any post-colonialism except in some special cases, and not enough of them to form postcolonial ethics.]

Colonial or Industrial ethics are the first truly universal ethics, in that all must attend to the structures of the industrial age, irrespective of class, ethnicity, or physical prowess. This, of course, does not mean all equally benefit from industrial ethics, of course. Dominant families, groups and tribes continue to benefit most.

Industrial ethics are largely consquentialist. What counts is the outcome for the interest-bearers (continued production, wealth acquisition, stability of the workforce, etc.), and as the interest-bearers become multinational in scope, so too do they undercut the ethics of empires.

Who benefits

So the question as to when ethics is fitness enhancing depends on what level or type of ethics we are discussing, who or what the fitness bearers are, and the scope and context of the type of fitness. What is fit in, say, Transitional contexts (for example, the tribalisms of some European regions where family defeats national interests) will be very different for fitness in industrial situations, and it is my opinion (note: not well thought out belief!) that most ethic conflicts occur when these different levels conflict; otherwise, ethical rules tend to settle out stably when the social context is itself stable. Village ethics, for instance, do not change much unless extra-village conflicts occur.

I may do several more in this series to draw it all together. Then again, I may not…

I have done quite a lot of blogging under this heading lately so I thought it might be useful to get all the posts used in order:

On beliefs

On religion
On the arguments
On science and religion

Concluding posts

Many other posts from this blog have been used in the book manuscript, and this is not the order in which they will appear, but you can find your way around from here.

[This is the final section of the book. I will return to the section on neurobiology and religion later.]

The backfire effect

If science is to be communicated to the wider community in a way that will change how people think, then it would seem an obvious idea to look at the actual science of communication itself. A type of psychological research is into motivated reasoning, which seeks to understand how it is that people respond to challenges to their beliefs, and it has some surprising and counterintuitive results for us here.

When people are reasoning about things they are motivated strongly to defend, it turns out that evidence to the contrary will typically not reduce their confidence in these beliefs, but in fact cause them to strengthen their beliefs against the evidence. This is known as the “backfire effect”. This is why when conspiracy theorists are presented with strong evidence that, yes, the 9/11 terrorists did cause the collapse of the World Trade Centre, they double down and respond that the counter evidence is itself part of the conspiracy to hide the government’s involvement. It is why when study after study shows that vaccines do not cause autism, or that humans are causing global warming, those who are motivated to defend these ideas increase, rather than decrease, their certitude in those claims. It is why, when no weapons of mass destruction are found in Iraq or connections between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda shown to exist, supporters of the Bush administration still think that Bush was right to invade and there was a connection between 9/11 and Iraq. As philosopher Jonathon Haidt noted (2001),

Research in social cognition also indicates that people often behave like “intuitive lawyers” rather than “intuitive scientists”

who argue in favour of their previously-chosen position rather than investigating it to find out what is right.

It cannot be that people will never change their minds, so what is going on? The theory of motivated reasoning suggests that the function of reasoning is not to find the truth, but to give reasons for what it is that we otherwise want to believe (Mooney 2011). It implies that what really matters is how people feel about beliefs, not what they critically think. In short, the rationalist is wrong. That is, they are wrong about why people use reason, not about the importance of good reasoning.

A recent paper by Mercier and Sperber (2010) argues that the “function” (I always air quote the word function, because there are a multitude of functions for anything, and which one you are most interested in tells the hearer more about you than about the thing you are talking about) of reason is to convince people, not to find the right things to believe. In short, the rhetorical aspect of reasoning is what we first evolved to employ, not the rational and logical aspect.

This must affect how we communicate science to the wider community, and how the community receives that message. Let me use an analogy: suppose you have a criminal element in your neighbourhood. You seek to remove or otherwise deal with that criminal element, so you enact through your local legislative body some harsh anticrime laws. You might expect that crime would drop, but instead it rises, and the criminal acts become more violent and extreme. It turns out that “law and order” campaigns are counterproductive, because all they do it strengthen the motivations of both law and crime doers. It effectively ramps up the tension and hence the violence (Beckett 1999). This is sometimes called the Untouchables Effect:

Malone: You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way! [The Untouchables, 1987]

Now the reasonable response would be to remove the tension and deflate the intensity of the game, for example by disarming the police so that the criminals no longer need to carry weapons. Instead, our tendency is to up the ante each time, ramping up the cost of the game until it becomes very serious indeed, and a kind of war breaks out between gangs and the police. It would also be reasonable to address the underlying social reasons for crime, such as a lack of access to basic resources and fair treatment, but again, in law and order arms races, the exact opposite happens.

This is exactly analogous to the ways in which those who are proscience and those who are anti-science, whether for religious or other reasons, behave. Instead of taking a slow, measured and agreeable approach, our initial tendency is to confront aggressively, and the outcome is not that one side or the other gives way in the face of force majeure but that they both entrench themselves in increasingly malign positions. That is the Chicago way.

This leads to a tragedy of the commons. Each individual actor in this struggle seeks to maximise their own return on cognitive investment (and the reasons have to do with social status), but when all act this way, we end up with a highly polarised negative-sum outcome. Everybody loses when science and political and religious motives are at odds. We end up with anti-science becoming a test of moral purity in some quarters, and thus we stop vaccinating, dealing with the environment, and going into space. A reasonable mind would see this as a problem to be solved, not a mere fact of life.

When communicating to somebody, it is obvious that we must take the audience with us, rather than force feed them at a speed they cannot absorb, and when the audience has prior expectations that run counter to the message, you must gently deconstruct those expectations. Otherwise, you end up reinforcing the motivated reasoning that got you into this mess.

Science communication is not, I believe, the solution to our anti-science social problem. This has to do with the nature of mass media, rather than any failings of science communicators, so let me discuss this a little.

Marshall McLuhan said that the medium is the message, and then failed to give that any real definition or sense. Here is my take on it. Broadcast media, meaning any kind of “publishing abroad”, as they used to call it, where something is written, said or done once, and then sent to many readers or viewers simultaneously, as a medium has some limitations. Since the audience is targeted at the lowest common denominator for the size of audience that is sought, it follows that broadcast media are generally quite information poor. This is equally if not more true of the internet media. A common tag is “tl;dr” – “too long; didn’t read”. Quite apart from the (questionable) claim that reading on a screen is less effective than reading on a physical copy, there is simply so much on the internet that if you want a large audience, you have to make the material bite-size and straightforward.

Yet, there is a lot of content even if there is not much information in broadcast media, so what is it all doing? I believe it is doing one thing only: manipulating attitudes. Broadcast media makes you feel good or bad about things. So the best outcome of good science communication in broadcast media has to do with manipulating the attitudes of the readers and viewers to feel positively disposed towards science. And if you can make people feel good about it, you can make people feel bad about it, as the anti-vaccination and global warming “skeptics” demonstrate. The techniques of manipulation are the message, even when the topic is science.

So when we engage in public debate about science, we are either trying to manipulate attitudes, or we are shouting into the wind. And I think that it is not a virtue to manipulate anyone. Instead, you should express yourself so that a reasonable and honest hearer can follow where your argument leads, even if they end up not agreeing with you. Motivated reasoning is deflated when you treat people with respect and civility, or at least, more so than with any other technique of public debate. It is not infallible.

When motivated reasoning backfires, though, and civility fails, then the strategic issue moves from “convincing others about science” to “preventing others from blocking science and science education”. And this means that one need not be so civil (although I would suggest civility is always the right starting point). However, when we are considering advocacy roles, I do not see why those who are pro-science, even when they are religious believers, must be excluded from active engagement in science. Those who are anti-science may very well be treated in a hostile manner if civility fails, but why treat the pro-science religious believers that way?

So I think that the prohibitive advocacy form of non-accommodationism is a bad strategy, and that we should encourage rather than discourage the involvement of religious believers in science advocacy. And this is purely a political decision. There are few if any philosophical aspects to this: we know that religions that are not empirically testable are compatible with science, and we know that one can believe in scientific ideas and religious ideas when there is no conflict. Our decision to encourage the religious to advocate for science is about raising the knowledge temperature of a society so that decisions are made upon good rather than bad ideas.

Consequently, adopting the exclusionary view that some of the more extreme new atheists have advocated indirectly is counterproductive. If you exclude religious belief from inside the scientific arena, you will find this backfires, and makes science less, not more, influential in society, while at the same time setting up conditions in which anti-science becomes identified with religious belief. And given that religious belief in never going to disappear, this is just stupid behaviour.


Throughout this book I have argued for a kind of accommodationist perspective. Let me summarise it now.

It is my view that science and religion can be mutually consistent so long as it is religion that accommodates science, and not science that accommodates religion. It is also my view that religions have always done this to some extent. It is not my concern to suggest how this may be done, since that is for believers to decide. It will not be all that easy, but it can be done, so long as the religion manages to make their beliefs independent of empirical data.

I do not think that science and religion are at war, and in my historical survey, I find that what happens is that science battles science, with some sides being represented by religious figures and institutions. I note some exceptions to this, particularly with respect to the brain and the mind. Here, more than anywhere else, I think religion has trouble with science.

I argue that if we exclude religious believers from science advocacy, we run the risk of increasing the motivated reasoning that will exclude science from general social policy and the community, to our combined detriment.

Arguments against religion in science do not depend upon scientific arguments or evidence, as no such arguments of evidence against religion exist. Only by adopting a philosophical stance, such as the belief that religion must function like a scientific theory of explanation, or that the probabilities of science favour philosophical positions like atheism, can this be made out. When atheists argue against religion on scientific grounds, either they are arguing against empirically sensitive beliefs, which ought to be science in any case, or they are arguing in a philosophical, and thus unscientific, manner. I don’t mean by this that their conclusions are unscientific, but that the arguments are. They aren’t scientific arguments, but rather they are philosophical arguments that use science as the context in which they are delivered.

Science is neither atheistic nor religious. It is neither an apology for a socioeconomic status quo, nor an argument for a revolution. Consider the scientific claim that global warming is human-caused. This, if established (and I think that it has been established), doesn’t give us a course of action. For that to be derived, we also need the ethical value that we should avoid global warming because of its consequences for us and the environment. This ethical value is not itself scientific. It is a philosophical value.

While some like Dawkins may argue that science makes religion ridiculous, or like Stenger that it shows that it is false, this is neither the implication of science alone, nor is it historically sustainable. What is being argued for in such cases is not science as such, but atheism or positivism. This is of course fine, and within the rights of those who argue, but it is misleading to call this arguing for science. These are philosophical arguments for a philosophical position regarding science. And to say they are implied by science is disingenuous and at best bad philosophy.

On the other hand, the attempts by religious writers to claim science for themselves is equally disingenuous. Ranging from the complete disavowal of any and all science that does not match the prior conclusions drawn (often with great straining) from scripture, to the surreptitious view that a certain philosophical reading of science will support some religious metaphysics, this is the abuse of reason and science. Science doesn’t support Buddhism, nor does it support Christianity, nor the Kabbalah, nor any other fashionable religious view.

A more sophisticated attack upon the philosophical autonomy of science is that of Alvin Plantinga and others, who argue that there is a special kind of science where human reason is subjugated to religion, and so only that sort of science (Plantinga calls it “Augustinian” science) is acceptable to Christians. In this approach, one can use miraculous explanations in science when theology dictates it. I hope I don’t have to argue here against this. The onus is on the theist to justify in a secular context whatever they wish to do under the rubric of “science”; and in ways non- believers can accept, or else it isn’t science; it is theology and only theology. They can think whatever they wish to think as Christians; if it isn’t secular, it isn’t science. If they believe faith supervises reason, that is fine. Nobody else has to. And yet science works very well – just as well as for believers – in the absence of that belief, so perhaps that belief is of no consequence when doing science.

To return to the atheist critics of religion in science, the same argument applies to them. They may believe that faith is excluded by reason and science, and yet science works very well – just as well as for nonbelievers – in the absence of that belief too. In short, science is philosophically neutral.

And this is the take-home message of this book. Science isn’t religion or anti- religion. Religion isn’t science, nor is atheism. All these conceptual entities and social groups are what they are, and they aren’t science. Nothing useful is served by mixing them.

In the end, science matters because the more we know about the world we all inhabit, religious or not, the better we can make our way through it. If our society needs to include the religious in the scientific enterprise, then we should do that, so long, and only so long, as that does not cause science to become corrupted or the servant of social masters.

I have not been a friend to religion in this book; but neither have I been a friend to exclusivism. I haven’t tried to reconcile religion with science for the simple reason that I am not religious, and it is their duty, not mine, to do so. Nor have I tried to show that religion must be excluded from science, because it is my view that this is just wrong. Instead, I have argued for a principled accommodation of religion to science: believe whatever you like, but don’t believe that science is anything else but the best way to know the world around us.


Beckett, K. (1999). Making Crime Pay: Law and Order in Contemporary American Politics. New York, Oxford University Press.

Haidt, J. (2001). “The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment.” Psychological Review 108: 814-834.

Mercier, H. and D. Sperber (2010). “Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Vol. 34, No. 2, pp. 57-74, 2011.

Mooney, C. (2011). The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science. Mother Jones.

[This is the penultimate chapter. I can’t be bothered trying to get the references or footnotes included in the posts, so you’ll have to wait for the book. Some of this has appeared on the blog before in less well written form, so don’t worry about the deja vu]

All religious systems, it is confessed, are subject to great and insuperable difficulties. Each disputant triumphs in his turn; while he carries on an offensive war, and exposes the absurdities, barbarities, and pernicious tenets of his antagonist. But all of them, on the whole, prepare a complete triumph for the Sceptic; who tells them, that no system ought ever to be embraced with regard to such subjects: For this plain reason, that no absurdity ought ever to be assented to with regard to any subject. A total suspense of judgement is here our only reasonable resource. [Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, VIII]

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There are many kinds of undue and harmful discrimination in modern society, all of which collectively tend to privilege a few. Women are treated with less respect and given fewer opportunities than men; heterosexuality is privileged over “deviant” forms of sexual identity and the alphabet community (currently LGBT and variants) has fewer rights than the heteronormative community; racial discrimination is rife in places like Australia, America, India, Malaysia, China, and so on; ethnic nationalism is on the rise worldwide; and mental illnesses are consistently caricatured in the general community; religious and freethinkers are considered less than human; and the poor are treated as moral failures and a burden on society. I sometimes think that if you removed all the discriminated classes of people from society, you’d be left with a dozen or so individuals. Worldwide.

Generic culture is framed by the media and political classes in such a way that these which form a majority in society are pictured as exceptions instead, and so most people find a way to ignore their own deviance and pretend or aspire to being “normal”. Much ink has been used on the topic, so I won’t belabour the point. But I would like to note a kind of discrimination that is rarely if ever discussed even by those who advocate for equal rights in the other cases. It is ageism, and I want to also point out a form of it that is not usually talked about even when ageism is.

Ageism is general thought to be discrimination against those who are old. I have certainly suffered from this: despite my academic achievements, I do not even get invited to interview for jobs, because I got my doctorate at 48, rather than 28, since I studied while working full time and raising a family. Hence it took me 24 years from my entering tertiary education (at 24; I was kicked out of high school, long story) to getting my PhD. I was lucky enough to get a postdoctoral fellowship with the estimable Paul Griffiths, who saw past my age, but since then I have not been so lucky. And I am one of the luckier ones. The number of people who are unemployed in their 50s, who are unable to get regular or even any work is rising. In Australia alone, there are over 140,000 unemployed older people who do not qualify for the aged pension, and even if they get it, cannot live on just that income.

But that is not what I want to discuss now. Despite it being my condition, it is one of two kinds of ageism. The other is ageism against young people. Recently the British minister for employment, Esther McVay, said that young people do not want to work and are unwilling to turn up on time. In short, it is their fault.

In an interview with the Mail, she admitted that young Britons are less prepared for the world of work than foreign migrants and need to learn the basics, such as turning up on time.

But she insisted that those who want to work hard can succeed if they are prepared to learn the ropes and ‘be realistic’ about their abilities.

The most recent figures revealed that 941,000 people aged between 16 and 24 are out of work, while 282,000 under-25s have been jobless for a year or more, the highest level since 1993.

Miss McVey, 46, vowed that tackling youth unemployment will be her ‘top priority’ but said that those looking for work have to be prepared to get a foot on the ladder before expanding their horizons.

Asked if they should be prepared to take ‘entry-level jobs’, she said: ‘Absolutely. You could be working at Costa. But in a couple of years’ time you might say, “I’d like to manage the area” or might even want to run a hotel in Dubai.’

Last year, more than 1,700 people applied for eight jobs at a new Costa Coffee shop in Nottingham, which paid between £6.10 and £10 an hour.

But the minister said many young people have unrealistic expectations about what jobs entail, and it is only when they start do they realise it can take years to become proficient.

She said: ‘Everybody says, “That’s what I want to do,” but I think you’ve got to realise the hours, the years [needed] to be able to do that job. When you see your first piece of work and compare it with who you want to be, all of a sudden you realise what skills you don’t have.’ [Where else? The Daily Fail]

One wonders if there are 941,000 jobs at coffee shops in the UK. Similar comments are made in Australia, where youth unemployment is 50%, although it seems that widespread attacks upon the young themselves is yet to begin. Moreover, there are often comments about how badly young people behave: they are portrayed as violent, rude, criminal and unprincipled. I can safely say, having been involved in education for around the past ten years, and seeing young people (under their mid-20s) give me seats when I was on crutches the year before last, when fit young business types would raise their newspapers as they sat in the disabled seats on trams to pretend they hadn’t seen me. I believe that young people today are exemplary human beings most of the time (subject to the 95:95 rule), and generally behave much better than their elders-but-not-betters. If I have any criticisms of the young, it is that they are too nice. A bit of bolshevism wouldn’t go astray. But that’s not their fault. They have been encultured to behave and toe the line.

Any sentence that begins with “Young people of today” and does not end with something like “are fantastic human beings” indicates that the speaker is a perfect prat, one of the “normal” privileged. And they are the problem, not the youth.