Book Review: Believing Bullshit by Stephen Law

Book Review: Believing Bullshit by Stephen Law June 1, 2012

I had to read this book because of the subtitle: How Not to Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole. If ever there was an intellectual black hole, it’s my old belief in the Word of Faith.

Not all false beliefs are intellectual black holes. To qualify, a belief must be unreasonable. Reason is the mechanism that allows us to see falsehoods for what they are. If a belief stops people from using logical reasoning to examine it, then it is an intellectual black hole. How can you think against something which disables your powers of thinking?

Stephen Law is senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of London, and he writes that these black holes are virtually impossible to think your way out of. This book is not, as I thought it would be, about how people come to believe these things in the first place. It is about the corrupt ways of thinking that perpetuate these beliefs once they are in place.

Generally, these ways involve faulty logic, which makes the beliefs appear reasonable, when in fact they aren’t. In an clear and entertaining way, Stephen examines these systems of thought and shows why their proponents are not being as logical as they think they are. He doesn’t really deal with things like the Word of Faith, or ACE’s outrageous statement that “Man should never trust his own reasoning, because man’s reasoning is not God’s reasoning.” There’s not a lot of point in arguing about reason with people who deny its validity.

The real reason I love this book is because of the destruction of Creationist arguments. It’s like shooting a fish in a barrel, except satisfying. Numerous other examples are used – alternative medicine also comes in for some heavy shelling. But Law is anxious to point out that the beliefs themselves are not the subject of the attack. It is the illogical systems of thought that sustain them he is criticising. There could, for example, be credible evidence for the efficacy of homeopathy, and Law explains the criteria this would have to meet. The problem is that what is normally advanced as evidence is nothing of the sort.

Anyway, keeping it relevant to this blog, Law has this to say about the teaching of Creationism in schools. This is possibly my favourite paragraph that I’ve read this year, although it packs much greater punch in the context of the chapter it comes from (Chapter 2, “But It Fits!” and The Blunderbuss). To make sense, you have to know that “Dave” is a character in the book used to illustrate illogical thinking (he believes dogs are spies from the planet Venus and can contort any evidence to fit this belief and… you’ll just have to read it online here).

“People often object to the teaching of Young Earth Creationism on the grounds that children should not be taught ludicrous, obvious falsehoods, but that’s not my main objection. My central criticism is this: teaching children that Young Earth Creationism is scientifically respectable involves teaching children to think like Dave. It involves getting them to think in ways that, under other circumstances, might justifiably lead us to suspect the thinker is suffering from some sort of mental illness. By allowing Young Earth Creationism into the classroom, we run not only the risk that children will end up believing ridiculous falsehoods, which is bad enough, but, worse still, that they’ll end up supposing that the kind of warped and convoluted mental gymnastics in which both Dave and Young Earth Creationists engage is actually cogent scientific thinking. We may end up corrupting not just what they think but, more important, how they think.”

To me, this is a supremely powerful argument which must trump all other concerns. Law goes onto explain with wicked accuracy what it’s like to be a Creationist. I remember church meetings where we would all laugh out loud at evolutionists and their preposterous claims. The truth was so obvious that anyone with eyes could see it. Did a monkey give birth to a human? Of course it didn’t! This, says Law, is “The Vision Thing”:

“So effective can “But It Fits!” be in generating the illusion that a theory is overwhelmingly confirmed by the evidence that its defenders may come to think its truth is just obvious for anyone with eyes to see. This may in turn lead them to suspect that those who can’t see its manifest truth must be suffering from something like a perceptual defect.”

Even more interesting is chapter 8, “Pressing Your Buttons,” on the science of brainwashing (as opposed to improbable sci-fi, Manchurian Candidate scenarios), which leads me to think Accelerated Christian Education/ School of Tomorrow could reasonably be labelled brainwashing. But more on that another time, when I’ve researched it further.

As the Open University’s Nigel Warburton says on the back cover, “Sadly, the people who would benefit most from Believing Bullshit are the least likely to read it.” That said, if, like me, you have ever suffered from distorted thinking, or just received a poor education in logic, reasoning, or science, Believing Bullshit represents an extremely entertaining way to make up for lost time.

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