Benedict in Britain

September 25, 2010

How times have changed. In 1982 Pope John Paul II received a hero’s welcome on his visit to the UK. The previous Pope, whose doctrinal opinions were in fact very similar to Benedict XVI’s, was an international superstar. The current Pope on the other hand seems to court controversy wherever he goes. Of course the world has changed a lot since 1982; September 11th brought the role of religion under suspicion.  The Vatican has not been immune from this trend. In his five-year stint as Pontiff Benedict has managed to offend Muslims, Jews and Anglicans amongst others. His recent visit to the UK was a case in point. Things started badly in April when there was a leak of a spoof Foreign Office memo suggesting that the Pope bless a gay marriage and open an abortion clinic as part of his official program. There were threats of a citizen’s arrest.  For former agony aunt Clare Rayner Benedict was public enemy number one:

In all my years as a campaigner I have never felt such animus against any individual as I do against this creature

Richard Dawkins also gave a warm welcome:

“Go home to your tinpot Mussolini-concocted principality, and don’t come back.” 

Even Germaine Greer got in on the act:

“Catholic art was once the domain of Titian. Now, we get Susan Boyle”

Of course the Vatican came out with its own take-no-prisoners strategy. Just before the visit Cardinal Walter Kasper called Britain a third-world country. Not to be outdone the Pope compared extreme atheism to Nazism. (This is so intellectually lazy. I hate when people try to settle an argument by bringing the Nazis into it. The idea I suppose is to try to spread guilt by association. The Nazis were in favour of smoking bans, building motorways, and keeping fit. The fact that the Nazis supported these policies does not make them either right or wrong.)

When you analyse an organisation, I think that you need to look at the good and the bad. The Catholic Church can boast many positive aspects. There is a real sense of community, which is now missing from much of society.  They do a lot of amazing charity work and the religion gives many of its believers’ lives a powerful sense of meaning. Let me give you some personal background here. I was raised a Catholic but at the age of 15 I stopped believing. I consider myself an agnostic and have never felt the slightest inclination to go back to Catholicism or become a follower of any other religion. I felt a certain hostility in those days but now I have a more balanced perspective. Dawkins seems to lack this sense of balance:

“Odious as the physical abuse of children by priests undoubtedly is, I suspect that it may do them less lasting damage than the mental abuse of bringing them up Catholic in the first place.”  It is wrong to mix up these two things makes no sense to me. Child abuse is an abomination. But to be exposed to ideas is not in any way comparable. We are bombarded with a lot of opinions ideologies etc as we grow up. Many of them are illogical but ultimately we have to decide for ourselves what we believe. I was by no stretch of the imagination abused in any way growing up as a Catholic. We are not empty vessels who simply absorb propaganda. We often reject those ideas as I was able to do.

Having said that does not mean that Catholics are above criticism because they are a religion. There is a worrying tendency for people to portray themselves as victims. I have never been a fan of the word Islamophobia and I get the impression that we will soon have the term Catholicophobia. I do feel that the tone of the criticism used against Pope Benedict would not be used against an Islamic religious figure. But religions must also be subject to scrutiny. However, I would rather engage in specific criticisms than come out with blanket denunciations.  I gave my opinion about gay rights in a previous post; so now I want to look at two other divisive issues.

The child abuse scandal has been a disaster for the Holy See. Maybe some statistics we see in the media are exaggerated – this is an inevitable fact of life. But this abuse has wrecked far too many lives. These scandals were known about in the 1960s. One solution was suggested by the Rev Gerald Fitzgerald, the head of the Servants of the Holy Paraclete, an order based in New Mexico; he proposed buying an island where priests attracted to men and boys could be segregated. He even made a $5,000 down payment on a Caribbean island. Two priests were sent to check out the island of Tortola, is the largest and most populated of the British Virgin Islands. However this plan was vetoed by the Archbishop of Santa Fe. What I cannot accept is the use of the arcane canon law to deal with priests. These were criminal acts. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the man in charge of parallel system of justice for nearly 25 years.  There were cover-ups and many whistleblowers were treated shamefully. It’s a bad sign when you put the blame on homosexuals, Jewish conspiracies etc. The impression one gets is that the Vatican has been more interested in the reputation of the Church than the suffering of the victims. Now finally we are getting heartfelt apologies but the Pope will ultimately be judged by his actions.

The other area controversial area is birth control. I do find it hard to understand the church’s position here. I have never really understood why the rhythm method is good and condoms are bad. I have no problem with abstinence but with the universal human desire to copulate condoms are essential in the fight against AIDS. The policy of the Vatican is wrong but Africa is a complex continent. It is not just a question of Africans blindly obeying Rome’s diktats. (Nor indeed do European Catholics.) There are also Muslim and indigenous traditions that play an important role. Some of the Vatican critics seem to have a view of Africans as blank slates incapable of thinking for themselves. Moreover, the African countries most affected by AIDS have minority Catholic populations.

I think it is really great that we debate these fundamental questions but I feel that the new atheists’ reaction has just become too militant and too aggressive. What is wrong with live and let live?  The reaction to the visit seems a strange way to promote the idea of tolerance. I believe in free speech – I just think there are better ways of expressing disagreement. I don’t think we need this verbal violence – it is counterproductive.

I fear that with this article I will have alienated both atheists and Catholics. But it’s how I see things. I would also like to passionately defend a secular society. It is the glory of such a system that it permits everyone to practise whatever religion they want – or indeed no religion at all. We do not have a Thomas More burning Christians at the stake because they happen to have a bible in English or Catholic priests having to hide in holes because if they are discovered they will be executed.  We now have Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs Buddhists and Scientologists free to practise their respective religions.  We may be having very acrimonious debates but we are living in a golden age of religious tolerance.  That is surely a cause to rejoice.

QI: A selection #6

September 25, 2010

Here is another selection of trivia that I have picked from the QI column in the Telegraph:

A cult in Malaysia worships a giant teapot, as it symbolises “the healing purity of water”.

Mayans thought that crossed eyes were very attractive and would suspend a wax ball from the hair of newborn infants in order to make them cross-eyed. On encountering their descendants, Cortez was shocked that nearly all the high caste Indians he met in the Yucatan (the old Mayan lands) were cross-eyed.

Bees produce honey as a store of food to keep the colony alive through winter and periods when they can’t fly. By managing them in artificial hives, humans have produced the only semi-domesticated insect so far.

In 2007, a team of geneticists at the University of Maryland suggested that early life on Earth might have been purple. Whereas plants now use chlorophyll to harness the sun’s rays, ancient microbes used retinal (a form of vitamin A) to photosynthesise. Retinal is a simpler molecule and easier to produce in a low-oxygen environment such as that of early Earth. It absorbs green light and reflects back red and violet, which would make the microbes appear purple. The team believes microbes using chlorophyll evolved to absorb those red and blue wavelengths that retinal did not use. In the end, the more efficient chlorophyll-using microbes prevailed (which is why plants are green, not purple).

Catherine de’ Medici (1519–89), also known as The Black Queen, was the most powerful woman in Europe for more than 40 years. She made broccoli, artichokes, cauliflower and the fork fashionable and pioneered the wearing of perfume and underwear. Her parties were legendary, not least because of the presence of her 80 ladies-in-waiting. At one memorable feast they served supper topless.

The easiest place to find a new species is in your back garden. The 18th-century naturalist Gilbert White (1720-93) agreed: “All nature is so full, that that district produces the greatest variety which is the most examined.” Beginning in 1971, retired biologist Jennifer Owen catalogued the wildlife in her suburban Leicester garden. After 15 years she published her interim results, which included 533 species of parasitical wasp alone. Fifteen of these had never been recorded in Britain, and four of them were completely new to science. Britain has about 16 million back gardens, each containing more than 4,000 invertebrates (worms, spiders, insects) and about 250 plants. Research from 2002 by Newcastle University included soil micro-organisms and calculated that the average back garden contains 3.5 million species – twice as many as have been identified on the planet.

The language of the revolution, la Liberte and the Academie Française was a minority language in France until well into the 20th century. As well as the big regional language groups: Occitan, Alsatian, Basque, Breton, Francoprovencal, and Flemish (which remain the first languages for up to 10 per cent of the French population today), 19th-century France sustained about 55 major dialects and hundreds of sub-dialects or patois. In 1880, about eight million people spoke French as a first language; 32 million didn’t, and of those that did, fewer than half could write it properly – 53 of the 89 départements were non-French speaking. Even though the Revolution declared war on patois and imposed a département system that undermined the ancient regional identities, the accounts of 19th-century travellers and officials from rural France read more like the adventures of explorers in newly acquired colonies. As late as 1959, an entirely new language was discovered in a Pyrenean village called Aas. Used by local shepherds, it mostly involved ear-splitting whistles, audible up to two miles away but was flexible enough to communicate the salient contents of a newspaper. It was last used in the Second World War to help smuggle refugees into Spain.

Brown was an important colour for Hitler. The early Nazi paramilitary organisation, the Sturmabteilung, or “storm troopers”, wore brown uniforms and were known as “the Brownshirts”. The Nazi party HQ in Munich was called The Brown House, and Hitler slept under a brown quilt embroidered with a swastika and wore brown satin pyjamas and a brown silk dressing gown.

There are no known poisonous spiders but all spiders are venomous. It’s an important distinction: something’s “poisonous” when you bite it – and it’s “venomous” when it bites you. Some toxic arachnids have set up home here thanks to the increasingly warm weather.

The most toxic animals of all are box jellyfish, responsible for more than 5,500 deaths in the past 50 years. One species, Carukia barnesi, is transparent, the size of a peanut and covered in stinging cells. The venom causes a massive release of the fight-or-flight hormone noradrenalin, so victims often “panic” to death. Those who survive may suffer “Irukandji syndrome”, experiencing intense pain, nausea and a feeling of impending doom. It is named after an aboriginal tribe whose folklore tells of a terrible illness that struck people who swam in the sea.

The most famous of all financial “bubbles”, in which the stock of the South Seas Company rose from £100 to £1,000 per share in less than six months in 1720. The speculation was based on the belief that the countries of South America were filled with gold and jewels just ripe for the plunder. When the company directors started surreptitiously selling their shares, the bubble burst and thousands of investors were bankrupted.

Jungle is the densest part of a rainforest, the part that contains the most life. The word “jungle” comes from Sanskrit jangala, meaning “uncultivated land”. Only six per cent of the Earth is jungle, but more than half of all species live there.

The ”aquatic ape hypothesis’’ suggests that eight million years ago an ancestor of modern humans lived a semi-aquatic lifestyle based on foraging for food in shallow waters. Fur not being an effective insulator in water, we lost ours, replacing it, as other aquatic mammals have, with relatively high levels of body fat. One attractive feature of this hypothesis is that it explains why we retained hair on top of our heads, particularly in females. Because we would have taken refuge from predators by wading deep into the water, our head hair would have given babies something to hold onto.

The Professor’s cube is a 5 x 5 x 5 version of Rubik’s cube (which is 3 x 3 x 3). It has 150 coloured squares. The world record for solving a Rubik’s cube is 7.08 seconds, held by 21-year-old Dutchman Erik Akkersdik, who has solved the puzzle with his feet in just 90 seconds.

In the fourth century BC, the most feared squad of the Theban army was made up of 150 homo-sexual couples. They were called the Sacred Band of Thebes, and were established by Gorgidas in 378-BC. His romantic idea was that lovers would fight more fiercely at each other’s sides than strangers. This notion proved highly successful until the Battle of Chaeronea (338-BC) when the Athenian-Theban army was overrun by Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great.

Bolivia boasts the world’s largest salt desert, the Salar de Uyuni, which covers 4,085 square miles at an altitude of 12,500ft. Since 1995 it has also featured the Salt Palace and Spa, the world’s only salt hotel.

The French eat about 4,000 tons of frogs’ legs a year, equivalent to 60-80 million frogs. Since edible frogs are now a protected species in France, frogs’ legs are imported from Indonesia. Frog-eating isn’t the origin of the “frog” nickname. It was first used by the British about the Dutch, our implacable enemies in the 17th century. Presumably, they were termed “frogs” because they lived on marshland. When we resumed our traditional hostilities with the French in the 18th century, the insult “frog” was transferred across.

My media week 26/09/10

September 25, 2010

As you know I have an ebook and it’s probably my favourite gadget but there is a time and a place for everything as this video shows.

i09 has this interesting piece: Six scientists tell us about the most accurate science fiction in their fields.

On Thinking Allowed Laurie Taylor examines the future of capitalism with Anatole Kaletsky and Ha-Joon Chang. He also talks to Pulitzer prize winning writer Mariylnne Robinson about the tension between religion and science.



September 19, 2010

Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol or morphine or idealism. Carl Gustav Jung 


I didn’t decide to drink myself to death. It is a result of alcoholism. George Best




In a previous post, Welcome to the Psychosphere, I referred to the increasing use of the term addict so that it could apply to almost any human activity.  I thought that it would be a good idea to examine this question in greater depth.

Science has provided a lot of insights into the causes and effects of addiction. One important area of investigation is whether some people have a genetic predisposition towards addiction. There is most definitely not a single addiction gene; susceptibility to addiction is the result of many interacting genes. Addictionologists have theorized that some people may have deficiencies in their brain reward systems. I have been on the web looking up some of the experiments carried out by scientists, a lot of which involve mice (their reward pathways functions in much the same way I as humans). I found a really informative page produced by the Genetic Science Learning Center at the University of Utah. Here are some of the things I learned:

  • Increased expression of the Mpdz gene results in mice experiencing less severe withdrawal symptoms from sedative-hypnotic drugs such as barbiturates.
  • Mice with low levels of neuropeptide Y drink more alcohol, whereas those with higher levels tend to abstain.
  • Non-smokers are more likely than smokers to carry a protective gene, CYP2A6, which causes them to feel more nausea and dizziness from smoking.
  • Alcoholism is rare in people with two copies of the ALDH*2 gene variation.

But genetics does not equal destiny and environment also plays a vital role.

Science has also advanced rapidly in what happens in addicts’ brains. Drugs change brain chemistry, which causes behaviour to change. fMRIs and PET scans have enabled investigators to pinpoint what goes wrong in the brain of an addict. They are developing a more detailed understanding of how deeply and completely addiction can affect the brain, hijacking memory-making processes and exploiting emotions. Maybe with this knowledge, scientists will be able to design new drugs that will prevent addicts relapsing. But until that happens we need to look at other solutions

Alcoholics Anonymous, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, is undoubtedly the most famous organisation that deals with addiction. The man responsible was a drunken stockbroker named Bill Wilson. He was undergoing treatment at the Towns Hospital, an upmarket detox centre, where he had already stayed unsuccessfully on a number of occasions. His Wall Street career had been destroyed and he was deep in debt. Lying in a hospital bed, still heavily under the influence of belladonna, in desperation Wilson, called out:

“If there is a God, let Him show Himself!  I am ready to do anything. Anything!”

Then according to AA lore, white light filled the hospital room, as God revealed himself. Wilson, who until this experience had been an agnostic, would never drink again.

He went on to write a book Alcoholics Anonymous, now better known as the Big Book. At the heart of the book were the famous 12 steps:

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.

2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

The rest as they say is history. The organisation, which was non-profit had an ethos that would be described as open-source, anyone could start a meeting based on the 12 steps. There was no centralised quality control. Nobody was told you have to do it this way. This has been one of its great strengths.

They have been highly successful; they claim a membership of more than two million. AA have popularised the disease theory of alcoholism, which also seems to be the current mainstream scientific and medical consensus, although this is still the subject of debate. A more difficult question is its effectiveness, where I have seen estimates, which range from 5% to 75%. It is an area which is notoriously difficult to measure. In general it is very difficult to go dry no matter what method you use.

Alcoholics Anonymous has spawned a whole series of spin-offs. A quick glance at Wikipedia and you will see Gamblers Anonymous, Debtors Anonymous, Food Addicts Anonymous, Workaholics Anonymous Clutterers Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous and even Pagans in Recovery. I’m rather sceptical about the transfer of the model of addiction to behaviour.

For example I remember seeing a story about tanning addiction. This is one those typical newspaper scare stories which come with those typical questions looking for signs that you may be addicted: Do you feel guilty about how much you tan? Have you tried to cut back but failed? Have you missed important activities because you chose to tan instead? The conclusion is that up to 39% of tanners are tanning addicts.

The massive growth of addiction is a very worrying phenomenon. We are told of the progressive nature of these diseases. The message is if you think you have a problem, then indeed you do. If you say you are not an addict, then you are in denial. 

But ultimately there must be personal responsibility. We have to know our limits. I use the internet a lot, maybe too much but I do not consider myself an addict. When I go on holiday I normally have a break for a month and I feel fine. I have often wondered if I could stop drinking tea and coffee. I have never tried. I have always been wary of getting hooked on drugs or alcohol because I think I would find it very hard to get off. I have a curious relationship with alcohol – I love the effects but I hate the taste. Maybe it’s genetic. I really do admire those people who are able to get off drugs or alcohol but I’m not sure I would be able to do it. So I prefer to be cautious. I think the overuse of the term addiction is very dangerous – it makes us feel like passive victims. Almost every human activity is being pathologised. In the face of this barrage a healthy dose of scepticism is surely the best antidote.

50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology

September 19, 2010

The media bombards us with claims about human psychology. How do we distinguish science from pseudoscience? Last year Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio and Barry L. Beyerstein published 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behaviour to help us in this task. Here are their fifty myths:

1 Most people use only 10% of their brain power

2 Some people are left-brained, others are right-brained

3 Extrasensory perception is a well-established scientific phenomenon

4 Visual perceptions are accompanied by tiny emissions from the eyes

5 Subliminal messages can persuade people to purchase products

6 Playing Mozart’s music to infants boosts their intelligence

7 Adolescence is inevitably a time of psychological turmoil

8 Most people experience a midlife crisis in their 40s or early 50s

9 Old age is typically associated with increased dissatisfaction and senility

10 When dying, people pass through a universal series of psychological stages

11 Human memory works like a tape recorder or video camera, and accurately records the events we’ve experienced

12 Hypnosis is useful for retrieving memories of forgotten events

13 Individuals commonly repress the memories of traumatic experiences

14 Most people with amnesia forget all details of their earlier lives

15 Intelligence tests are biased against certain groups of people

16 If you’re unsure of your answer when taking a test, it’s best to stick with your initial hunch

17 The defining feature of dyslexia is reversing letters

18 Students learn best when teaching styles are matched to their learning styles

19 Hypnosis is a unique “trance” state that differs in kind from wakefulness

20 Researchers have demonstrated that dreams possess symbolic meaning

21 Individuals can learn information, like new languages, while asleep

22 During “out-of-body” experiences, people’s consciousness leaves their bodies

23 The polygraph (“lie detector”) test is an accurate means of detecting dishonesty

24 Happiness is determined mostly by our external circumstances

25 Ulcers are caused primarily or entirely by stress

26 A positive attitude can stave off cancer

27 Opposites attract: we are most romantically attracted to people who differ from us

28 There’s safety in numbers: the more people present at an emergency, the greater the chance that someone will intervene

29 Men and women communicate in completely different ways

30 It’s better to express anger openly to others than to hold it in

31 Raising children similarly leads to similarities in their adult personalities

32 The fact that a trait is heritable means we can’t change it

33 Low self-esteem is a major cause of psychological problems

34 Most people who were sexually abused in childhood develop severe personality disturbances in adulthood

35 People’s responses to inkblots tell us a great deal about their personalities

36 Our handwriting reveals our personality traits

37 Psychiatric labels cause harm by stigmatizing people

38 Only deeply depressed people commit suicide

39 People with schizophrenia have multiple personalities

40 Adult children of alcoholics display a distinct profile of symptoms

41 There’s recently been a massive epidemic of infantile autism

42 Psychiatric hospital admissions and crimes increase during full moons

43 Most mentally ill people are violent

44 Criminal profiling is helpful in solving cases

45 A large proportion of criminals successfully use the insanity defence

46 Virtually all people who confess to a crime are guilty of it

47 Expert judgment and intuition are the best means of making clinical decisions

48 Abstinence is the only realistic treatment goal for alcoholics

49 All effective psychotherapies force people to confront the “root” causes of their problems in childhood

50 Electroconvulsive “shock” therapy is a physically dangerous and brutal treatment

My media week 19/09/10

September 19, 2010

The always controversial Spiked dedicated a number or articles attacking the hostility to the pope’s visit from secularists. In The White Atheists’ Burden: save the savages Brendan O’Neill argues that blaming the pope for spreading AIDS in Africa is based on  colonial-style prejudices. And Frank Furedi criticises the Crusade against the pope: an Inquisition-in-Reverse. The rest of the articles are here.

 In Wired David Dobbs looks at an interesting variation on the famous trolley problem involving race: Kill Whitey. It’s the Right Thing to Do.

NPR’S Talk of the Nation looked at how autists fare as they grow older: Making The World Work For Adults With Autism

On Radio 3’s Night Waves Philip Dodd, one of my favourite interviewers, has an extended conversation with Tony Blair. The former Labour leader has just published his much anticipated memoir, “A Journey” and Dodd grills him about his attitudes to politics, money, socialism, his faith, his personal qualities and his reflections on his time at number 10 now that he has been out of office for three years.