I’ve just had another guest post published over at the marvellous Confessions of a Heretic Husband, on the subject of what I call The Problem of Satan. Please go and check it out, and – if you haven’t already – the rest of the blog, which is on much the same lines as mine.
You may be familiar with Sellar and Yeatman’s wonderful work 1066 and All That, and if you aren’t you should go out and find a copy. It parodies a certain style of history and suggests that we might think we know history, but what we actually remember is a jumbled mishmash of contradictory stories, consisting of half-understood folk accounts of famous events stitched together with fragments of misremembered or invented details that seem to fit.
You may not be surprised to know that this is also true of our understanding of the Bible.
It’s trivial to show that people get very hazy about what’s actually in the Bible – just see how commonly people identify a phrase’s origin as “either Shakespeare or the Bible”, or look at the enormous number of websites addressing this or hosting quizzes asking you to tell the difference. And then there are the phrases and concepts which are constantly thought to be in the Bible, even though they aren’t. Pope Benedict XVI had a good old rant about that.
So what, you say – a lot of those beliefs are common understandings based on tradition, or derived from jokes, or whatever. Which is precisely the point. These ideas are a form of folk tradition, just like the general popular consensus parodied by Sellar and Yeatman that King John was a Bad King, Richard II was an Unbalanced King, and Williamanmary was a Dutch Orange who was a Good King and also a Good Thing.
And so people think the Bible says things it doesn’t, from outright inventions like “God helps those who help themselves” to the apple in the Garden of Eden (the fruit isn’t identified – maybe it was a Dutch Orange), and all the way through to the popular notion of “the antichrist”, a being associated with horns and 666, and apparently formed from many distinct concepts from the Bible.
This gets really interesting in the context of the Gospels, where there may be several different accounts of a particular event, or possibly more than one with passing similarity. These different versions are consistently conflated and harmonised into an apparently unified story that contradicts all of the different accounts in one way or another. The order of events is changed, different people are present, and different things are said and done. Popular accounts of the crucifixion in particular tend towards a hybrid narrative not found in any single Gospel.
One striking example is Jesus being anointed by the woman in Bethany. It’s a well-known story – Jesus is having a meal, when a woman comes along with a huge quantity of expensive perfume and anoints him with it. No one seems bothered, but Judas throws a hissy fit at this outrageous extravagance, runs off and shops Jesus to the authorities. Simple enough, but this account is contradicted by all the Gospels in one way or another.
Matthew and Mark say lots of people objected at the time, Luke says only the host objected, and John has no mention of Judas’s immediate betrayal. They disagree on all the other significant details as well. Matthew and Mark say the woman anointed Jesus’s head, Luke and John say feet. Matthew, Mark and Luke all agree the host was called Simon, but Matthew and Mark call him a leper, while Luke says he was a Pharisee. John, in contrast, says Jesus was visiting the recently not-dead Lazarus.
Only John mentions a name for the woman, calling her Mary. Luke adds an exchange in which Jesus preaches to his host about the importance of gratitude while also complaining that he wasn’t treated like royalty when he arrived. Matthew and Mark appear to have a common origin, but Mark puts a price and a name to the perfume which only otherwise appear in John. Just as with 1066 and All That, these complications are smoothed over to create a new, simpler narrative that ends up as the accepted orthodoxy.
It would be rather fun to rewrite some stories in this style, especially as there are lots of Bad Kings in the Old Testament. Add it to the list of ideas I’d like to explore one day.
Before Mr Jesus went away into the sky to be with the Father, he promised that he would send the air-person-God to help his friends to know what to do. One story says that he also gave people the air-person-God before he went away, but that’s usually ignored.
When the air-person-God arrived, all the first God-liking people started to use different ways of speaking, so that people from all over the world could understand what they were saying. We don’t know whether the God-liking people understood their own words, and we don’t know what they said. I’d like to know whether they were saying the same thing in all those different ways of speaking, but it seems that no one was very interested in that.
The important thing was that speaking in these different ways was meant to show that the air-person-God was helping them to do it. If that was the idea, it could probably have worked better, seeing that some people thought they were drunk. As there were all these people from different places in the area, it would be very strange if no one was able to speak to them without the help of the air-person-God. And it makes me wonder how they knew what the other people were saying about it.
Then one of the God-liking people stood up and told everyone what was going on, and that they had to say sorry and go under the water. He seems to have said this in his own way of speaking, just to the people God liked anyway, so it’s not clear whether God wanted the other people in his group at this point. This is usually seen as the start of a new God-group, because lots of people did what they were told and the new God-group about Mr Jesus started to grow very fast.
Image courtesy of mazupan, used with permission
It’s considered very important to have an open mind. Everyone wants to be considered open-minded, or at least not to be considered closed-minded, which is the ultimate insult to anyone’s intellectual honesty. I’m not about to argue with that – being prepared to be corrected or change your position in response to the evidence is the most basic element of the scientific method – but it’s a phrase that carries a lot of subtext.
Obviously, examining the evidence without fixed preconceptions – with an open mind – is a fundamental part of science. But when was the last time you heard a scientist pleading for someone to keep an open mind? Maybe it happens sometimes, but I can’t remember a single example. I find that very interesting.
The people who tend to put the most emphasis on people keeping an open mind are a different group entirely. They’re the conspiracy theorists, the woo-mongers and the like, people who ironically tend to be very, very certain of the truth of their chosen beliefs. Nevertheless, this poses a curious problem – if an open mind is such a good thing, as it is, what should we conclude from the fact that it’s generally advocated by fringe groups with wacky beliefs, and not mainstream scientists?
The answer becomes a little clearer when the question’s reframed slightly: Why would you appeal to someone to keep an open mind? Clearly, because the evidence isn’t sufficient to convince on its own. If there was good reason to believe something to be true based on the evidence, only an imbecile would neglect that to make an appeal which encourages people not to reach a firm conclusion. As the legal adage goes:
If you have the law, hammer the law. If you have the facts, hammer the facts. If you have neither the law nor the facts, hammer the table
If I wanted to persuade a flat-earther that the world really is round, I could appeal to the easily observable curvature of the Earth, photos from space, people who’ve circumnavigated the globe and webcams demonstrating that it can be night in one place and day in another. And that’s just for starters. What I wouldn’t do is plead for them to keep an open mind.
Scientists rarely if ever appeal for people to open their minds, not just because an open mind is the most basic of assumptions, as self-evident as breathing, but also because having an open mind is only part of the answer. The point of having an open mind is to ensure that you’re not clinging dogmatically to a position which isn’t supported by the evidence, but that still requires the evidence to make it work.
Having an open mind is a good thing, all else being equal, but perversely, if someone’s encouraging you to keep an open mind, it’s probably a good reason to be suspicious of their claims. In this context, an insistence on having an open mind most likely means that there’s no decent evidence to support their position, and what’s more, they know it.
It’s Eurovision time again, that special time of year when cheese is on the menu all over Europe. If you don’t watch it, and especially the semi-finals where so many memorably bad acts go out, you’re missing out on either a massive celebration of Europop or a hilarious parade of some of the most awful songs ever, depending on your perspective. I usually view it as about half and half, but it’s never dull.
Interestingly, though, a straw poll suggests that the first thing most people think of in connection with Eurovision is political voting. “They all vote for their mates” is the general gist of the popular belief, concluding that the entire process is both corrupt and pointless, as well as implying that we are entirely innocent of such favouritism. Even allowing for a certain amount of humour and hyperbole, this reveals an impressive range of cognitive biases.
Given that the near neighbours who are most often accused of always voting for each other tend to be those who have very strong historic reasons for being rather antagonistic towards each other, it should be obvious that there’s more going on here than a simple arrangement to swap votes between friends, even without noting that there have been 13 different winners in the last 13 years.
There are clear reasons why there might be patterns of neighbouring countries voting for each other, as demonstrated by our typical interest in Ireland’s song. Countries in the same region generally like the same sort of music, and take a special interest in each other’s entries, in much the same way as football supporters always want to know how their local rivals did.
Strangely, even as a rivalry this interest can be a significant advantage in a contest of about 25 songs, based on positive votes for an absolute favourite. To get votes, a song has to stand out from the others. Quality and a catchy tune are helpful, but the most important thing is to stick in the mind. People taking an interest, even a moderately hostile one, is likely to help any song.
As well as local interest, there’s a possible mechanism for some degree of bias in the use of telephone voting. Countries aren’t allowed to vote for their own song, but in regions where there’s been significant upheaval and/or border changes in recent years, there may be a lot of people who are able to vote for “their” country, the one they identify with, because they now live in a different country. This was a substantial influence when voting was entirely through telephone polls, but juries now provide a little more balance.
Another factor that can cause assumptions of bias and collusion is the growing trend of marketing songs very heavily in certain areas in the months before the contest. To anyone who’s hearing a song for the first time, it might seem like an unremarkable example of Europop, but to those who have been listening, singing along and dancing to it for weeks, it’s far more than that. It isn’t necessary to invoke politics or even taste to explain the popularity of a song you personally don’t find particularly special.
Most of all, there are our old friends selection bias and confirmation bias. Selection bias first, and this is something I sometimes still do myself. Each country’s ten favourite songs are read out in ascending order, from tenth through to first. So by the time each top choice is announced, nine countries have been eliminated from the pool and there’s often a single song from the remainder that’s pretty clearly scoring better in the contest so far than the others.
At this point, it’s very easy to say that obviously, Lithuania will give top marks to Latvia, for example. It looks impressive when you’re right, and whenever the association between the countries tallies with your expectations it will be taken as confirmation. But the deck’s heavily stacked in your favour, as any other likely candidates (assuming a back-scratching vote) will probably have been named already to rule them out.
And of course, any vote will either be added to a mountain of evidence of political voting, or simply disregarded. We remember the times when Croatia gave their top vote to Bosnia-Herzegovina’s folk-style nose flutes, but not when Sweden surprisingly awarded 12 points to Malta, because one fits the pattern and the other doesn’t. Classic confirmation bias.
These factors do have an influence at the margins, and all things being equal it’s handy to have a few votes you can rely on, but it’s not the conscious back-scratching conspiracy of popular myth, and given the scale of the contest, it’s rarely going to decide who wins. More important is to have a song that’s distinctive, and particularly that isn’t tapping into the same genre as several other entries, like the usual bandwagon-jumping imitations of the previous year’s winner.
I could explain the flaws in that approach with reference to game theory, but that would be a whole different subject.
God is very concerned about what we do, and wants to make sure that we do some things that he likes, and especially that we don’t do things he doesn’t like. When we don’t do what God wants, it’s called ‘sin‘. Sometimes, these are things that almost everyone agrees that people shouldn’t do, and sometimes they’re things that most people don’t see a problem with. But God says they’re bad anyway, and that’s all that matters.
When the first people were made, they never did bad things, so everything was fine. Then one day, they did a bad thing by eating from a tree, which meant that they were always going to do bad things and so were all the rest of us. That doesn’t make sense to me, but they were told to do it by a talking ground-animal, so maybe that explains it.
Some things that God doesn’t like are done all the time and no one seems to care. People keep and even eat animals that aren’t clean, and they wear clothes that are made of different things. Some things, like killing people, are done quite a lot and everyone agrees that they’re bad things except when they’re not. When people call something ‘sin‘, it usually means they don’t like it and don’t want to think about it. God might not even have said that it’s definitely bad.
When you do things that are bad, the Big Book of God says that it’s like being dead, and that it makes us a long way away from God. The Big Book also says that we’re all as bad as each other, and a long way from God. But we should try to do what God wants, even though we can’t manage it and we still get in trouble for having the wrong thoughts. The important thing is to try. Then it’s okay as long as we say sorry and mean it.
Image courtesy of intruso4, used with permission
I don’t think there is such a thing as a patron saint of the gullible (as there’s one for the internet, it might be unnecessary duplication), but if there were, Thomas should be right at the head of the queue.
Strictly speaking, it would probably be more precise to call him the patron saint of easy marks, but however it’s phrased, it probably strikes you as unfair. After all, Thomas was the one disciple who’s named as being dubious of what the others told him about the resurrection. It was an outrageous claim, and he was justifiably cautious. If anything, shouldn’t he be associated with scepticism?
But consider what happens next. John’s gospel says that he met Jesus and instantly changed his mind, going from 0 to credulous in the blink of an eye. His previous justifiable disbelief was forgotten in a single moment of astonishment, and he became a true believer. He even seems from John’s account to have turned down an open invitation to verify that the person in front of him – who apparently materialised in a locked room – was real. Hardly a poster child for careful, cautious investigation.
There’s a sense in which this is possibly harsh on Thomas, as we have little idea how others reacted, but there’s a reason why I bring this up – his behaviour is typical of a certain sort of convert, the kind of person who seems to apply critical thinking consistently up to a certain point, but drops everything and changes their opinion completely as soon as they personally experience something they can’t instantly explain.
It’s so common that it’s become a cliché – I never used to believe in UFOs until I saw one myself, I used to be an atheist until I felt God’s love, and so on. These solipsistic sceptics had previously heard endless testimonies from people who believed in their latest flavour of woo, but rejected it all because they knew that our feelings and senses are unreliable. Then as soon as they themselves get a funny feeling or see something unusual, they become enthusiastic converts.
Contrary to appearances, this isn’t a sign of careful scepticism or critical thinking – you don’t get credit for an instant reaction of disbelief to everything you’re told, and in the end, Thomas did absolutely nothing to verify the facts. For all his talk, his instant, immediate reaction was to believe that his perception and interpretation were both entirely accurate. Even if they were, that wouldn’t make his behaviour sensible or rational, it would just mean he got lucky.
His previous doubt doesn’t make his sudden belief any more reliable, it just means he’s more confident in it. Despite his headlong rush to believe, it would seem to him that he thought about it rationally, and he would confidently claim not to have been fooled in some way. What’s the betting that Thomas’s own account would have been along the lines of all those other stories of former doubters, now converted to their particular cause? “I used to doubt, but then I saw the light.”
No, sorry. Previous doubts don’t mean anything if there’s no evidence of scepticism or critical thinking in your conversion. If anything, it makes you more likely to be fooled, out of a misplaced confidence in your own critical faculties. Frauds and charlatans love people like Thomas, because they have a misplaced confidence in their ability to question what they’re told, and will believe all sorts of things rather than admit that they could have been fooled.
Richard Feynman put it best: “The first rule is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”