Friday, 30 September 2011

40 Days of Treats

The anti-abortion group 40 Days For Life are back outside the offices of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas) in London.

They are saying Hail Marys, displaying models of foetuses and handing out leaflets. This time there is a counter-campaign. Instead of setting up a rival protest or taking on the demonstrators, which could make things even more difficult for women who go to bpas, Carmen d'Cruz and Liz Lutgendorf decided to ignore them completely and focus on the bpas staff. They've organised 40 Days Of Treats for the staff who have to deal with the protesters being outside every day. The plan is for every day the protesters are there, they will take the staff a little treat to show support for them and for the right to choose.

I went in to the bpas offices in Bedford Square, London WC1 today and took them strawberries. I figured that if everyone else is taking them cakes and snacks it might be a good idea to take a healthy treat - we don't want to kill them with kindness.

The leaflet being handed out by the protesters says 'You can stop injustice' on the cover, along with words like homelessness, racism, sexual trafficking and poverty. What's inside has nothing to do with any of this. It's the usual collection of highly emotive language and images plus misinformation of the kind Nadine Dorries is no stranger to.

It talks about the 'preborn' - in the same way that eggs, flour, fat and sugar are precake, perhaps. There is also the usual list of Terrible Things that will happen if you have an abortion, both physical and psychological, along with gory descriptions of abortions. Along the way there is also a quick shot at stem cell research.

The leaflet has an article associating abortion with eugenics and denies that the world is over-populated. This focuses on falling birth-rates in Europe and says that 'far from rapaciously expending resources, developed societies have consistently figured out ways to make fewer resources stretch further'. The fact that this is partly by exploiting the third world where overpopulation, famine and disease are still rife isn't mentioned. The warning about falling European birth rates reads like an alarmist call to repopulate Europe by banning abortion.

They are also against abortion after rape and incest which, they say, makes everything worse for everyone concerned. There's a promo for pre-marital abstinence and lifelong monogamy too.

The logic of many of their arguments defies analysis. They quote 'scientific evidence' that has been repeatedly debunked and give only the skimpiest of sources.

As just one example, the source for 'women who abort are 144% more likely to physically abuse their children' is given only as Acta Pediatrica 2005. This is a monthly journal so that's hardly being transparent. They claim that there are full citations on their London website but if they are there then they're so well hidden even their search facility can't find them.

You can read the research paper here. It's a study of mostly black, low-income women in Baltimore. Its conclusions are 'However, counter to expectations, maternal history of induced abortion was not linked with enhanced risk for neglect after the effects of a number of variables associated with neglect were controlled' and 'the data were gathered in only one geographical locale and the study adopted a retrospective methodology that relied primarily on self-report assessments, which could compromise the integrity of the data gathered as well as the generalizability of the findings. A final limitation pertains to how the abuse and neglect cases were selected'.

This is pretty typical of the way anti-abortion groups misuse research and statistics, as I've written about several times before.

Anyway, on to happier and more cake-based matters.

If you want to join Carmen (left) and Liz (right), the campaign runs until November 6. You can follow 40 Days of Treats on Twitter @40daysoftreats and read the blog for updates. The plan is to spread the campaign to bpas offices in other parts of the UK so you don't have to be in London to join in.

Monday, 19 September 2011

John Gray on science and religion

John Gray's talk on Radio 4's Point of View called Can religion tell us more than science? (transcript here) claims that 'too many atheists miss the point of religion, it's about how we live and not what we believe'.

Gray maintains that 'We tend to assume that religion is a question of what we believe or don't believe'.

Firstly, who is this 'we'? Secondly, don't be patronising by pretending to include yourself and then showing very clearly why you're not one of we.

He blames this assumption on western philosophy (yes, all of it, apparently) and 'the dull debate on atheism'. Again with the patronising. He continues: 'In this view belonging to a religion involves accepting a set of beliefs, which are held before the mind and assessed in terms of the evidence that exists for and against them. Religion is then not fundamentally different from science, both seem like attempt to frame true beliefs about the world'.

Religion is not just that, it's also about morality, among other things. It tells us how to live. Science, on the other hand, makes no attempt to tell us how we should live. Nor is it based on a supernatural world view but on observable evidence. The activity of science is about how to interpret that evidence. Religion decides what the truth is, science attempts to uncover it. So yes, fundamentally different.

Gray likes his generalisations. He lays the blame for the false view of religion partly of the feet of Frazer and his book The Golden Bough, which he says has been 'immensely influential'. He claims it lies behind the assertions of the 'new atheists'.

Many atheists and others know that there are many reasons to belong to a religion, some cultural or social, some historical and some emotional. The majority of people do not objectively analyse their religion or weigh up the relative evidential merits of all of them before plumping for one. Some aspects of religion, like creation, are examined by some believers in an attempt to find evidence and even then, they are trying to justify their beliefs to others, not to themselves. Only a small number of theologians and thinkers actively examine their beliefs as a whole. It's not common practice to weigh up the evidence for the Sermon on the Mount or accepting Jesus as your personal saviour in order to win eternal salvation.

And religions do rest on what we believe - take the Credo, for example, which is Latin for 'I believe' and is followed by a list of things the believer believes in. They don't like it very much if you think it's just words when you're preparing for First Communion. Belief, or dogma, matter very much to the Fathers of the Church. Heresy is about believing the wrong things, so are schism and apostasy. They're not just about doing the wrong thing but believing the wrong thing and then acting on it.

He continues:'the idea that religion is a relic of primitive thinking strikes me as itself incredibly primitive.'

Again, this is not the only or the dominant thought about religion among atheists who he is far too keen to tar with the same brush. The human mind has not evolved a great deal since primitive times. It is not now a sophisticated machine compared with the neolithic brain. One common idea is that religion is a by-product of the way our brains evolved (see Pascal Boyer, for example) - and the way they still function, which is why we still have religion. There are elements of religion that come from early societies which are not relevant today but which still form part of the core beliefs but many of these are to do with identity and difference as much as trying to explain the universe in an animistic or divinely controlled way.

Then he gets to the nub of his argument: 'Practice - ritual, meditation, a way of life - is what counts. What practitioners believe is secondary, if it matters at all.'

This is a little simplistic to say the least. Actions are informed by beliefs. And beliefs do matter to the people who hold them. There are rituals that are performed without conscious analysis of the beliefs that underpin them but that doesn't mean the beliefs themselves are unimportant. One way they matter is in defining the difference between one set of believers and another. Rituals can be comforting, they can bind groups together and they can structure our time but without the beliefs they rest on, they would not have the hold on the mind that they do. And there would be nothing to distinguish them from any other ritual behaviour. He's positing a kind of religion as OCD.

When he says that it's actions that count - what does he mean by 'count'?

Gray then turns to science. 'Scientific inquiry is the best method we have for finding out how the world works, and we know a lot more today than we did in the past. That doesn't mean we have to believe the latest scientific consensus. If we know anything, it's that our current theories will turn out to be riddled with errors. Yet we go on using them until we can come up with something better'.

This is where there is a bit of slippage between his uses of 'belief'. Scientists don't believe a theory, they know that it is either true or that it's the best current approximation of the truth. Non-scientists don't believe theories either, they accept that some expert or other knows what they're doing. Not all our current theories will one day fall apart.

He says: 'If science produces theories that we can use without believing them, religion is a repository of myth.' This is a bit of an odd if...then scenario. Science doesn't produce theories we can use without believing them because no-one believes a theory, they either know it to be true or the current best guess, as I said. So his initial statement is false. Moreover, religion is not a repository of myth to the people who believe it, it's revealed truth except for the half-hearted who just go along for a bit of a sing. And while it contains stories or parables, it also contains instructions on how to behave that rest on the basic tenets. If you don't believe those tenets to begin with, then your actions are empty.

He then says: 'Just as you don't have to believe that a scientific theory is true in order to use it, you don't have to believe a story for it to give meaning to your life.' He's being a bit slippery with his use of 'true' here. Knowing that a scientific theory may be a workable approximation is not the same as knowing that a myth didn't actually happen while containing useful guidance to behaviour or insight into the human mind.

Apparently, 'some of the ancient myths we inherit from religion are far more truthful than the stories the modern world tells about itself'. Well yes, some myths are better than others but this nostalgia, this 'myths aren't what they used to be' approach overlooks the fact that there are also non-religious myths that contain lessons about ourselves. Privileging religious myths without any kind of quality control is fruitless.

Darwin's theory of evolution , he says is 'unlikely to be the final truth'. Who says it is? There have already been plenty of refinements, additions and corrections to it.

He then attacks the 'myth of salvation through science. Many of the people who scoff at religion are sublimely confident that, by using science, humanity can march onwards to a better world'.

There is no such generally held myth. Rational people think that some parts of science can be a useful tool for improving our lives. This is partly based on evidence - medicine and technology have demonstrably improved lives. That the improvements have yet to benefit most of the Third World is not a failure of science but of politics and, in some cases, religion (for example, banning condoms for HIV/AIDS prevention, contraception and so on). Moreover, many scientists are more than aware of the destructive potential of science - nuclear war and global warming for example. They are not singing hymns to the power of science. Gray says that 'it can't save the human species from itself.' as if this were some great insight.

He claims that science is a human invention, just like religion. Yes, they are both the products of the human brain but religion is entirely made up whereas science methodology is based on phenomena. It's a bit like comparing cheese and a pyramid - not a comparison that tells us anything very useful about either.

Evangelical atheists, he says ' think human life would be vastly improved if only everyone believed as they do, when a little history shows that trying to get everyone to believe the same thing is a recipe for unending conflict.' Historically, when attempts have been made to try and get everyone to believe the same thing, these things have generally not been evidence-based but ideological. Getting everyone to believe that we'd better look after the planet rather than letting it fall apart is not such a bad idea.

Gray concludes that we should 'stop believing in belief' because 'What we believe doesn't in the end matter very much. What matters is how we live'. So if you feel like joining a religion, 'just go into the church, synagogue, mosque or temple and take it from there'. Should you just do what you're told without examining why? Follow the rituals and never mind the theology? Just taking it from there may not do you much good in some religions or denominations if you happen to be female or gay.

Gray is seriously misrepresenting science and all but a handful of the most extreme atheists - who in fact are not very scientific in their approach, lacking an understanding of human nature. But he is also misrepresenting religion, selling it short as deeds not words - and without any kind of assessment of what price you or others may have to pay for that kind of cavalier, mindless approach. Never mind, let's all just sing a hymn together, it'll be a marvellously uplifting, bonding experience. Better still, sing it in Latin so we don't have to worry about what the words mean. He's right that it's how we live that matters, but he's wrong about everything else.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Dorries - Weebles Wobble But They Don't Fall Down

MPs have rejected Nadine Dorries’ bid to change the law on abortion counselling for women by 368 votes to 118.

During the debate, Dorries continued to use discredited ‘facts’, unsubstantiated anecdotes and emotional statements, brushing off challenges from MPs who are also doctors and might be presumed to know what they're talking about.

She portrayed herself as a valiant David struggling alone against the well-funded Goliath of the left-wing media and Abortion Rights. At one point, she even claimed ‘I’m broke’. She allowed interventions from as many supporters as she could, some of them vehemently anti-abortion, despite claiming that she isn't and that the debate wasn't about abortion in principle. She also still persistently denied that any knowledge of how Right To Know are funded.

At one point, Dorries bemoaned the fact that she had lost Cameron's initial support for her amendments. She blamed Dr Evan Harris, saying that he is blackmailing the Prime Minister and the Government. At this point, there was uproar in the House. It will be interesting to see if she dares to repeat this potential libel outside the safety of parliamentary privilege. Stewart Jackson MP described Julian Huppert MP as 'Dr Evan Harris' vicar on earth'. Evan will now grow a moustache to twirl in a fiendish way, with any luck.

She didn't stand unchallenged, however. There were MPs who spoke strongly against her and Diane Abbott said 'this is a shoddy, ill-conceived attempt to present non-facts... the opposite of evidence-based policy making'. So it's not just men who oppose you, Nadine.

Julian Huppert pointed out that the current system works well and that what is needed to reduce abortion numbers is better access to contraception and better SRE (sex education) for both boys and girls. It's not known if Evan was hiding under the seat with his hand up Huppert's back at that point although it might be worth asking Huppert so say 'bottle of beer' as a test.

Health Minister Ann Milton ended the 90 minute debate, commenting ‘the amendments won't work for women’. However, she also said that the Government supports the ‘spirit of amendments’; there will be a consultation and another vote in Parliament – so there is yet more work for campaigners to do.

Dorries has claimed that she ‘won the war’ and will continue the fight both for this and for a reduction of the upper time limit on abortions. Like the Terminator, she will be back. Unlike the Terminator, she won't come back reprogrammed as a good guy. She is relentless and, as she has apparently no political ambition, there is little her party can do to restrain her. Expect her tactics to get even more anecdotal, emotive and evidence-free.

She is also still blaming the LibDems, saying on her blog (with no sense of irony) that ‘politics yesterday was certainly at its dirtiest and most complex’.

The amendments were originally tabled by Dorries and Frank Field MP. He pointed out during the debate that his name had somehow been left off them and added that he would not now be supporting her. Field also said 'We should be more concerned with facts, and less concerned with trying to put our sticky fingers into other people’s souls and pronouncing that they have failed'.

He asked Dorries to drop the amendments but she refused so the House divided.

Members voting in support included Cabinet Ministers Iain Duncan Smith, Liam Fox and Owen Paterson while George Osborne, Nick Clegg, both Milibands, William Hague, Ed Balls and Ken Clarke voted against the amendment. David Cameron was not present. You can read the full division list to see how your MP voted here.

One effect of the anti-abortion lobby is that the other side fall over themselves to say they are not pro-abortion but pro-choice. No one wants to be heard saying abortion is a good thing. But why not? It's not an easy thing, it's not anyone's ambition to have one but, if you need one, it's the only choice. For me, it's a good thing that abortion exists, that it's legal, affordable, safe and relatively freely available. So in that sense, I am pro-abortion in the same way that I am pro assisted dying.