Friday, May 26, 2006

Crucified Orpheus

A quick update on the state of play of the amulet used on the cover of Freke and Gandy's The Jesus Mysteries. Regular readers will remember I discovered that this amulet had been denounced as almost certainly a fake.

Two new bits of information. Firstly, a reader has tracked down some of the German scholarship relating to the amulet and given us a translation of the relevant portion. It's worth reading to get chapter and verse on the matter. Secondly, another reader, who knew Gandy and Freke (and defends them) put my charges to them. Initially, Gandy tried to muddy the waters. I presented the evidence with references and he then admitted that not only had he read the note in his book that said the amulet was probably fake, he had even marked it on his copy.

Only two conclusions are possible from this. Either Freke and Gandy are dishonestly suppressing information that counts against their thesis, or they are too stupid to remember their own research. Either way, everything in their book should be treated with the deepest suspicion and scepticism. On a final amusing note, Gandy was threatening to sue Wikipaedia because my entry there exposed their mistakes/duplicity. After the Da Vinci trial, I'm not sure that conspiracy theorists would be well advised take their case to court.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Free Inquiry

The idea that free inquiry is needed for the advance of science is one of the quainter and more naive myths of the enlightenment. Attached to it is the common misconception that science took off in Europe when the grip of the Church was loosened.

In the academic world there is a newish discipline called the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK for short). SSK made itself deeply unpopular with scientists because it insisted on studying them and not simply assume that they were objective and disinterested. This approach has taken some flack from the usual opponents of 'postmodernism' but it remains important because the questions it asks are good ones. The biggest question is "How do scientists do science?"

Getting back to the question of free inquiry, it was long assumed that if you put a lot of clever people to work without any strictures at all, they will produce something useful. We now realise that they won't. The problem is not that they won't think of anything, it is that they will think of everything with no way of telling the good ideas from the porkers. It's not my area of expertise, but I have long suspected that this was the problem with science in the ancient world - it was just too free and hence could never construct any linear research programmes. There was no authority to decide between Aristotle and Epicureus apart from everybody else's personal opinions.

What you need for science (and what we have today) is a strong, agreed authority responsible for training new scientists within the orthodox citadel and casting out heretics if they stray too far from the paths of righteousness. Thus, creationists, parapsychologists, Brian Josephson and most of the alternative medicine community are branded as heretics and excluded. And jolly good it is too, I say. I completely agree with this modus operandi of science even though, unlike most scientists, I see it for what it is. There is nothing much free about all this inquiry. Science sticks within orthodox methods and assumptions and thrives as a result.

What about the Church? True, this was the authority that once decided on orthodoxy and heresy. That power has now been taken over by science itself where it belongs. But science could only do this when it had already become sufficiently successful to become an authority in its own right. Before that, it sheltered under the authority of the Church and the result was largely benign. Magic, astrology, alchemy and the like were excluded from mainstream science. Theology was kept out of the question by forbidding natural philosophers to talk about it. Realist metaphysics was enforced. All in all, the Church was an excellent step-parent until science could stand on its own two feet. Then, like all adolescents, it started to rebel against its elders. Hopefully, now it is grown up enough to admit that it actually owes them a lot.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Civilization IV

Yes, I admit it. Occasionally, I get a bit addicted to a computer game. The latest is Civilization IV. I've been around since the first incarnation of this game, way back in 1991 and will opine to anyone who listens that Civ 2 was the best by far. But the new version has an interesting dynamic that the previous ones avoided - religion. Now, in Civ 4 you can discover and adopt religions. The manual contains a disclaimer saying that they don't want to offend anyone and, I can say, they haven't offended me. What they have done is produced a neutral opinion of the pros and cons of religion (judging by the game effects) that I found quite interesting.

There are seven religions, including Islam, Christianity, Taoism and Hinduism. They are all treated exactly the same in the game (ie you don't get suicide bombers by adopting Islam or crusaders by being Christian) except they arise roughly in historical order. Nor is there any link between particular religions and nations. I'm currently presiding over a Buddhist England. The Spanish are Jewish which is a nice historical inversion.

The first effect of religion is to make people happier. Building temples and churches puts a smile on everyone's face. When you adopt a policy of having a secular state, then the more different religions you have in your cities, the happier people are. Thus, in the opinion of the game designers, not only is freedom of religion a good thing, but the more of them you have, the better. Without religion, your people will be positively miserable. Less positively, having no state religion is good for science.

In international relations, the effects are what you'd expect. You get on best with countries with the same religion as you. Needless to say, this reflects the real world where the propensity towards keeping the peace among co-religionists is at least as great the desire to go and biff the infidels. The old 'religion causes wars' canard is belied by the number of wars that religion prevents by giving different nations a common cause.

If a religion is founded on your territory, you get significant financial advantages from the pilgrimage potential. You also get the chance to produce some great holy people who are definitely a good thing for your society. Finally, the game allows you to adopt either a pacific or militaristic religious policy. Again, this reflects the reality whereby religion is used to justify many different viewpoints.

In all, I'd say the designers of Civ 4 have made quite a good job of intergrating religion into their game. They have concluded that religion is not only a central part of human history, but also that it was essential to our development in good ways and sometimes, in bad.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The London Library

Academics collect library cards in the same way that compulsive shoppers accumulate credit cards. I have only seven or eight (library cards, not credit cards) but then I'm only a graduate student. My latest is the London Library in St James's Square.

I joined because I needed books at home to complete my PhD thesis that usually only reside on reference shelves. The London Library has a relatively small reference collection and almost everything else is borrowable. They also let you hang onto a book for as long as nobody else wants it, as long as you renew it regularly online. I have been correcting my thesis today and having the books to hand has been extremely useful. Thus, I felt that the London Library deserved a little plug here. It is kitted out like a Gentleman's Club (although it has no restrictions on membership) in a beautiful old building in the heart of clubland. They have a million or more books and presently they are almost doubling their size with a new extension.

There are only two drawbacks. One is a rather hefty membership fee (with no allowances for academics). The other is the metal stacks which can give you a serious electric shock if as you brush against them. But overall, I found it an excellent place to work and fantastic resource.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Who can suffer?

Just before I went up to Cambridge in 2003, my girlfriend (now wife) and I had a celebratory meal to say goodbye to my old flat. I like to cook and decided to do a lobster. Getting hold of a fresh lobster in London meant visiting Borough Market where I met Joe. Joe (who might have been male or female) was sitting on a bed of ice waggling its antennae at passers by. It cost me £25 and weighed around 2 kilograms. For the record, a two kilo lobster will feed four people comfortably. The pair of us just pigged out and still couldn't finish it until the next day.

Joe had to be cooked and I followed the standard advice of popping it in the freezer until the cold had caused it to pass out. Then it was dropped into a big pan of boiling water and never knew what had happened to it. There was no struggle and no indication it had suffered at all.

I'm no sentimentalist about animals, especially the ones I eat. But I do strongly object to unnecessary animal suffering and took steps to ensure that Joe's was kept to a minimum. This is despite many scientists claiming that the lobsters' nervous system is not well enough developed to feel pain. I think that if the animal responds to painful stimuli in the same way as creatures that we know feel pain, then we must assume it does. Even with a lobster, I want to play safe and make a small effort for its sake.

Which brings me to this news story: Foetuses 'cannot experience pain'. Let's hear it for Dr Stuart Derbyshire for the most excruciating and dangerous piece of pseudoscience so far this year. At least the story admits that Derbyshire is linked to pro-abortion pressure groups. If we are supposed to assume that lobsters feel pain, surely it is ridiculous to assert that foetuses do not.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Friday, May 05, 2006

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

Another trashy book (albeit not as trashy as DVC) that I read on holiday was Bryson's breezy survey of modern science. I've enjoyed it, as one can hardly fail to enjoy Bryson's writing. But as a work on science, this is a very, very bad book indeed.

The problems are two-fold. Firstly, it doesn't contain much science. It is mainly a good example of the history of science genre I call "How about that and here's another thing." Bryson is most interested in writing about all those weird and wacky boffin types and their amazing discoveries. His vision of the history of science is the traditional march of true knowledge. There is no real history here, just a lot of anecdotes (many of which are fictional) strung together to make us feel good about science.

But this attention to history is no bad thing, because it means there less of Bryson failing to explain science to his readers. The conceit of the book is Bryson, a layman who knows nothing about science, informing his equally ignorant readers. If this sounds like the blind leading the insane, then that is because it is. Read this book and you will learn nothing about science except a few factoids and an impression that it is so difficult that scientists must be real swell guys. I realised this when I asked my Dad after he had read the book if I could test him. No, he said, he didn't know any more than when he started.

Added to this is an editor who can't seem to tell the difference between million and billion, controversy given as fact and the rather obvious materialistic bias of the author. In the chapter on the Big Bang, Bryson admits the universe is fine-tuned and lets Martin Rees have his say on there being an infinite number of universes. But there is no room for the rather more obvious solution to fine-tuning, that the universe was created deliberately. Why not talk to Polkinghorne?

Thus, most readers will leave this book thinking even less critically than when they started. It won't help them evaluate the next health scare. It won't help them understand the differences between science and religion. It won't educate them on the limits of science. It will just give them a warm feeling inside about people who wear white coats.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Back from Australia

This blog has been quiet for a month as I have been on holiday in Western Australia. That allowed me to do plenty of reading and I'd like to share my thoughts on a few of the books I've looked at.

First up is the Da Vinci Code. I am a bad flyer and so have a strict policy to read only mindless books on aeroplanes. DVC certainly fits the bill but I also found myself defending it in some ways.
First the bad news. I was stunned by how badly written it was. Awful beyond words. It reads like a primary school project by Jeffrey Archer. Of course, everyone says it is badly written but, like the taste of John Locke's pineapple, it is something you can only really comprehend by experiencing it. It is also lazily edited and has a few howling continuity errors. Still, who cares? This is the literary equivalent to a Big Mac. Junk fiction. It has no nutritional value at all but slips down easily enough.

What about the bogus history? It is true that Brown puts a notice upfront saying that the Priory of Zion exists and that his various descriptions of art and places are accurate. These things are untrue. So is most of what the novel says about Opus Dei (who have no monks and didn't rescue the Vatican from bankruptcy). So is almost everything that Brown tells us about early Christianity. I must say that I really have no problem with Brown doing this. He is writing a trashy novel and injecting a bit of verisimilitude into his work is a standard ploy. We all enjoyed The Day of the Jackal a lot more because Frederick Forsyth went to such an effort to make his hokum seem real. So did Jack Higgins in The Eagle has Landed. So indeed, did the not-so-trashy Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose. With the possible exception of the last of these titles, no one believed a word of them. Sadly, Eco did manage to reinforce some prejudices about the Middle Ages but then subverted his readers' expectations so successfully that we have to forgive him.

So Brown's tricks are standard tricks of the trade. He is not even terribly good at it. So why, oh why does anybody believe anything in his book? This is not Brown's fault. It's widespread public stupidity. Bryan Appleyard, in the Sunday Times this week, summed up my views on the whole Magdalene conspiracy when he said of Michael Baigent's latest:

Nothing in this book need concern grown-ups. It will appeal to conspiracy theorists and militant secularists -? well, to thick ones with no friends -? but it leaves me cold: in my experience, almost all conspiracies are just cock-ups in fancy dress. So, in short, don'?t read this book, but, if you must, do what I did, remove the cover and keep your hand over the spine. People might see, and you don'?t want them to think you'?re an idiot with nothing better to do.

Next time someone aks you if something in the DVC is true (or worse tells you it is), don't waste your time explaining the truth. Simply express utter distain. Hopefully, that will shame them into realising that the pages of pulp fiction is not the place to find history or anything else of value.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.