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Martin Cohen's review of Believing Bullshit

Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked Into an Intellectual Black Hole

21 July 2011 Times Higher Ed Supplement.

Strong whiff of a weak argument

Martin Cohen finds an attack on irrationality worryingly unscientific in its methods

Do you believe in God? Or even wonder if there might be a purpose to the universe? Do you suppose that human consciousness is more than merely chemical changes in "brain states"? Do you think natural selection is a zombie theory or that alternative health remedies can sometimes work?

Then you believe in bullshit. That is the uncompromising message of Stephen Law's new book.

Continues here....

Very weird review as I certainly don't claim, and nor do I believe, that if you believe in God, or wonder if there is a purpose to the universe, then you believe bullshit.

Here's a passage from the introduction:

However, it’s worth emphasizing at the outset that I’m certainly not suggesting that every religious belief system is an Intellectual Black Hole, or that every person of faith is a victim. True, I illustrate how even core mainstream religious beliefs are sometimes promoted and defended by means of strategies covered in this book. But that’s not meant to show that beliefs in question are false, or that they couldn’t be given a proper, robust defense. Just because some religious people choose to defend what they believe by dubious means doesn’t entail that no one can reasonably hold those same beliefs.

Moving on, I don't claim, and nor do I even believe, that consciousness is "chemical changes in brain states". I do not, anywhere in the book, discuss critics of natural selection. And I do not deny, anywhere in the book, that alternative remedies "sometimes work".

And that's just the opening lines of Cohen's review. There's barely a line of the review that's accurate. Extraordinary.

What's really going on here, I wonder?! Might the fact that I am, according to Cohen, a follower of "His Holiness, Richard Dawkins" have coloured Cohen's vision somewhat?


Anonymous said…
This is very depressing, you'd expect better from the THES.

By the way, don't know whether you've looked at the Amazon reviews lately, but Dr Liz Miller posted a terrible review which I objected to, and I still don't understand what her point is after several exchanges. You might like to add your comment.
Stephen Law said…
Yes I saw it and read what you said. Thanks. I thought better of getting involved. I couldn't figure out her point either, if it's any consolation.
Brian said…
Very odd review. Not exactly unbiased was it! I have just moved your book to the top of my Amazon wish list. I will certainly add something to the Amazon reviews when I have read it.
Miles Rind said…
That review really pissed me off, especially the line, "if homeopathic remedies work for some people, then why the censorship?" As I said in a comment that I posted on the site, anybody who can exhibit such defective reasoning is incompetent to review the book.
Mark Shulgasser said…
Martin Cohen remarks:

""Scientists collect data by observation and experiment. They formulate theories to explain what they observe and where possible, subject these theories to tests." Now that's what I call bullshit!"

I'd have to agree. Your desire to replace often beautiful folk beliefs with the crude faith that the "scientific method" is essentially unproblematic is pernicious, and unworthy of a serious philosopher, even in a popular mode. Experimenter bias, flawed peer review, vast commercial corruption and junk science of manifold variety are certainly more dangerous, more prevalent and more evil than the belief in crystals.

I find your work condescending and bullying. One feels that an arrogant upperclassman is showing off
before his juniors. Certainly the terms bullshit, going nuclear and black hole (used metaphorically and sloppily) are are too emotional, not to say malicious, to be used in philosophical argument.

" "Every year, millions of dollars are spent on alternative medicines that, in many cases, don't work." Not like conventional drugs, of course. "

Quite. Turning your guns on unsophisticated targets is perhaps really a smokescreen defense of our culture's dominant object of worship: Scientific Truth, which has steadily been eroding democracy and the environment for the past 50 years at least.

Of course everyone has the right to be frivolous, even pop philosophers. But when, for one instance among many, millions of children with still-developing brains are being drugged on the advice (and often the command) of scientific methodologies I do think it is unethical to continue to promote simplistic faith in a very tired and candy-cane vision of Scientific Method as a pure truth-driven procedure.

I'm surprised that a professional philosopher would cheapen his discipline by pretending that Science remains the simple and salvific concept of the second rank enlightenment philosophers.
Ophelia Benson said…
Ugh. Been there - the completely, wildly inaccurate review.
Stephen Law said…
But Mark, which of these three sentences do you claim is false?

1. Scientists collect data by observation and experiment.

2. Scientists formulate theories to explain what they observe.

3. Where possible, scientists subject these theories to tests.

Perhaps you are thinking, re. 1.: but there is no theory-free observation of data. Well yes, of course. But I don't claim otherwise.

Perhaps you are thinking, re. 2, but scientists don't always test, and they have their biases, etc. But, again, do you suppose I don't know that? And do I deny it? No. In fact I point out that scientists have their biases in the book.

So where, exactly, is my error?

The most you can say is: I am leaving out a lot of detail in this brief sketch. Well, yes, because it's a sketch.

Cohen seems to think I should have mentioned Kuhn and Fayerabend, but I simply beg to differ. I side with Sokal against Fayerabend.

I think, in fact, that Cohen is here making a move related to "the courtier's reply"
Michael Fugate said…
Re: Mark Shulgasser's comment
Could it be that you stepped on the toes of someone who has a blog titled "Astrology Data Points?"
Stephen Law said…
Mark, you say:

"Your desire to replace often beautiful folk beliefs with the crude faith that the "scientific method" is essentially unproblematic is pernicious, and unworthy of a serious philosopher, even in a popular mode. Experimenter bias, flawed peer review, vast commercial corruption and junk science of manifold variety are certainly more dangerous, more prevalent and more evil than the belief in crystals."

Yes, flawed peer review and experimenter bias, etc. are all indeed a bad thing. They are also things that rational and/or scientific scrutiny can and has exposed.

Not all "folk beliefs" are beautiful and harmless, Mark. Many of the less beautiful and more damaging ones - such as that bloodletting works - have been exposed by rational/scientific scrutiny. And in fact that's the only way they could be exposed.
Tony Lloyd said…

I think Mark, (and Martin Cohen) think your characterisation of science is bullshit because they think it has an unspoken 4th statement:

4. And so anything "scientific" is true and anything "unscientific" is bullshit.

"4", of course, is bullshit. But, it isn't implied in your book.

Am I right, Mark? Or is there some other reason for objecting to Stephen’s characterisation of science?
Mark Shulgasser said…
Stephen writes: But Mark, which of these three sentences do you claim is false?

1. Scientists collect data by observation and experiment.

2. Scientists formulate theories to explain what they observe.

3. etc . . . .

----Bullshit is not the same as false. Before claiming a sentence is false I would try to determine what it exactly means, if anything.
If you hold, as you do, that there is no theory-free observation of data, then statement 1 + 2 constitute a circular claim.

It's amusing that your readiest example of science triumphing over ignorance is the instance of bloodletting, since unnecessary phlebotomies, known as lab tests, are a crucial ritual in modern medical mystification. Bloodletting has continued under another name and rationale. The mythic faith that removal of blood is an essential part of the therapeutic process is unchanged.
Stephen Law said…
Mark you say:

"statement 1 + 2 constitute a circular claim."

What is "a circular claim"? Are you perhaps saying that 1 and 2 are logically inconsistent? Why?

You seem to assume I suppose that science must start from an entirely theory-free stance. But I don't suppose that, or even believe it. And I don't assert it either, do I? I have taught undergraduate philosophy classes on the theory-dependent nature of scientific observation, so wouldn't be that naive.

Are you equating blood tests designed to help establish if someone has e.g. anemia, malaria, leukemia, etc, with the medieval practice of blood-letting? Are you suggesting they are equally rational practices, and you find it "amusing" that I fail to realize this?

If so, I find that both amusing and shocking in equal measure!
Stephen Law said…
Perhaps Mark, you think I am suggesting that scientists don't or shouldn't formulate any theories at all until after they have collected data? Then I would be in trouble, given that observation is unavoidably theory-laden.

But I don't assert that either. That's something you have *read into* what I actually say.

When I wrote those two sentences, I did actually put some careful thought into how I wrote them, including thought into the issue of the theory-ladeness of observation. I actually very carefully and deliberately avoided asserting anything that would commit me to observation not being theory laden.

I put more effort into penning a few lines like that than you might suppose. Perhaps the fact that it's succinct and snappy has misled you into supposing it was written quickly and without reflection?
Stephen Law said…
Mark - P.s. Had I written:

FIRST, scientists collect data by observation and experiment. THEN, and only then, do they formulate theories to explain what they observe.

Then you would have had a point. But I didn't write that, did I? In fact I "very carefully and deliberately* didn't write that! So it's irritating when someone comes along and says I did.

Someone's being sloppy here, for sure...
Mark Shulgasser said…
Three replies to my succinct remarks. I'm flattered.
I don't assume that you suppose, or, I think, suggest that you assert. I did believe that your use of numerals indicated an argumentative sequence. Am I to assume then that the ordering of the three statements is arbitrary? Seems to me the three statements are as true of beauticians or accountants, possibly even of dogs and monkeys (or astrologers) as they are of scientists.

As for bloodletting vs. diagnostic phlebotomy, I was drawing attention to the fact that many doctors deplore today's proliferation of unnecessary tests, including blood tests, that this issue is far more pressing at this moment than bloodletting, and that the ritual of the blood test is part of the hocus-pocus that makes the clinical experience therapeutic.
Brian said…
Re: Mark Shulgasser's comment.
Sounds like a load of Taurus to me.
Stephen Law said…
Right, you've misunderstood, as I thought.
Stephen Law said…
What's really annoying about this, Mark, is the way I take care to express myself in such a way as not to commit myself to something, and then some twat with intellectual pretensions comes in, shooting from the hip, accuses me of saying the thing I took pains not to say, and then accuses me of being a crude and unsophisticated thinker.

The irony.
Mark Shulgasser said…
Are you going nuclear or what? As a popularizer, Stephen, you must be able to clear up my uneducated misunderstanding, as I think it might be shared by much of your intended audience. You're getting all gnomic. And peevish.

Allow me to apologize for perceived insults, but as an author who boldly offends in his very title you ought to have a thicker skin. At this stage, recourse to emotionalism is inappropriate.

My principal point remain unaddressed. I will recast it. You seem to be rehashing a seventeenth century battle unwilling to see that the target has moved close to 180 degrees.

Superstition once legitimized a crushing social system of privilege, hypocrisy, bureaucracy and cruelty. All these bad things, however, are not directly related to superstition; they are the inevitable accoutrements of great power. And at the moment the great power is Science.

I hope you won't read into this anything that I have carefully and deliberately avoided asserting.
Stephen Law said…
Right, well at least you are acknowledging you have misunderstood me.

But now you criticise me for not writing about how scientific orthodoxy can be oppressive and back vested interests.

The book simply promotes science/reason as methods, these being the methods that reveal when both alternative *and* mainstream medicines, etc. don't work, when *even mainstream scientists* have conducted flawed peer review, have been misled by bias, etc. i.e. the very things you complain about re orthodox scientific opinion.

Can mainstream science be hijacked by big pharma companies, etc? Yes obviously. But only by suppressing and/or corrupting rational and scientific inquiry.

So, your criticisms of this book are off-target, and confused.
Stephen Law said…
Put it like this - a big pharma company might force damaging drugs down children in the name of "science", but that doesn't mean the company is actually properly employing the scientific method, does it?

It doesn't follow that you should indeed blame the scientific method, which can actually reveal that the drugs don't work, are indeed damaging, etc.

I do not attempt to defend any particular scientific theory or any particular medicine in the book. I merely defend and promote the scientific method, as I described it.

So what's wrong with that method? You have not actually said.
Matt said…
I am a philosophy student from the states and I have a problem with the claim in the front of your book.

Although you shy away from directly implying that believe in God is bullshit, surely you can see that the connection is there. The only other option is if they carry that belief by processes other than the ones listed in your book. Although that is possible, you have fairly clearly shown the inconstancy in the most mainstream, common ways that people justify belief in God.

The more sophisticated arguments ("sophisticated" in this case only means more complicated) are merely the simple arguments with more words.

Even recent arguments from the likes of WLC concerning his "sensus divinitatus," which he claims works, are missing a critical piece that is central to all arguments. namely, prescriptiveness. Once his evidence is made private, it is no longer an argument for God's existence, rather it is now an argument for him to believe in God. Fine. But that says nothing to the truth or falsity of the existence of God.

I only use that example to show that even the more modern theology really has nothing to offer in the way of reasonable argument on it's side.

It's a very fine line to walk, I understand, when writing a book of that nature, but I'm surprised to see you shy away from the conclusion like that...
Stephen Law said…
Hi Matt

Well in other places I don't shy away at all from saying that theism is false. See my humanism book. Hardly pulls its punches.

But to show theism is false, I would need to run arguments targeting theism, and that's a whole different project. The aim here is different - it's to get people to realize that they are employing bullshit techniques. Many religious people do, of course. But then so do some atheists, actually.

I am also aware that if the book is presented as an attack on the content of religious belief (which it isn't), many religious people won't read it, and I'd like them to.
Mark Shulgasser said…
First let me say that you are free, as you know, simply to drop this discussion. I don't want to be characterized as an annoyance, and I have a feeling it is going nowhere.

However, I asked you to explain further and relieve me of my misunderstanding. That you have not done. The subtle purpose of your three statements being exactly what they are, still escapes me. The earlier version of the sentences were quite disturbing to Martin Cohen as well, so perhaps the point is worth your rehashing for us both. I believe I asked if those statements could also apply to beauticians or monkeys. You thought that was irrelevant and insisted on a true or false answer from me. That's where I fudged.

The second point is not something I have just "now" thrown up at you but was made in my very first post.

You ask me 'So what's wrong with that method?" Well, I'm not pretending to be an original thinker. Feyerabend, of course, and Nancy Cartwright follows up on him well. There is no method. It's a myth and a hypostatization. Or maybe a platonic ideal, whatever. Every discipline creates its own procedures, evolves and discards them, according to the nature of the problems, etc.
Science is just the logical methodical groping of intelligence and curiousity in the world, has no more shape than water. If quantification is the unifying presence among all studies called scientific, the misunderstanding of the meaning of probability is the omnipresent achilles heel. But the idea that there is this thing called Method that has some privileged connection to Truth, Goodness and Progress strikes me as irrational, religious, even cult-like: the dominant faith of our time, and most of the followers are, of course, blind. Interestingly, the doctors are still the priesthood, most of them fervent believers.

You're being a real sport.
Stephen Law said…
"The subtle purpose of your three statements being exactly what they are, still escapes me."

Well they are all true statements about what scientists do. You have not denied they are true.

"I believe I asked if those statements could also apply to beauticians or monkeys."

Possibly or possibly not but irrelevant as those three statements were not supposed to provide sufficient conditions for the "scientific method". I go onto sketch out quite a bit more about it. Cohen missed that stuff out, of course. Hence he has misled you. Not I.
Stephen Law said…
Mark, let me ask you: what is wrong with the scientific method as I sketched it out it? Why shouldn't we apply it? What should we use instead in determining which medicines work and which don't, say?

As you don't even know how I sketched out the scientific method, yet, having not read that section, but just two sentences extracted by Cohen, I understand that's a problem for you. Do you want to see the rest?
Mak Shulgasser said…
Well, I suppose I must, though it will certainly be over my head, no? Anyway I'm going to kindle your text and curl up with it, then send you shame-faced apologies.


O do please send me the birthday. And honesty! No fooling around . . . . philosophers wouldn't do that.
Anonymous said…
"Although procedures vary from one field of inquiry to another, identifiable features distinguish scientific inquiry from other methods of obtaining knowledge." - Wikipedia

Science is much more than "the logical methodical groping of intelligence and curiousity in the world", and it does indeed have a definite form. Theologians also make use of logic, but their gropings don't lead to technologies which actually work.
Stephen Law said…
I tell you what has surprised me somewhat. Although the book is provocatively titled, it is written in a fairly measured and qualified way, and certainly doesn't go round saying all religion is bullshit, etc. It's actually fairly polite, I thought. But it has provoked some very strong emotional reactions, and insults, from people.

I am thinking, perhaps unfairly, that Dawkins is onto something with his "virus of the mind" idea. In effect, I am installing anti-viral software. The virus gets very aggressive when it detects what's going on, immediately takes command of the subject and sends out a warning message to other infectees not to expose themselves to the contents of the book - even telling barefaced fibs about it in order to prevent the virus being attacked in others.

It's as if Cohen has been taken over by a mind-bot. His review is so weird, it's almost like it's not him that's writing it, but the virus itself.

If so, then I forgive him.
David Evans said…
I enjoyed your book greatly. I was, though, surprised that so much of it was concerned with theistic religion. I think some theists (of whom I am not one), seeing their beliefs associated again and again with the word "bullshit", might miss your careful qualifications and simply feel attacked.
Matt said…
I'll tell you what did it, professor. It's the little graph near the end where you actually visually demonstrate which of your "black holes" are used to support which crazy ideas, with Fundamentalist Christianity listed at the bottom.

That is an EXTREMELY strong visual "assault" (if you will), on religious people. Even when I, a rather devout atheist and philosophy student, saw that, I was slightly taken back. It's extremely powerful.

Stephen Law said…
You have a point David. Trouble is religion has been around so long, has had such resources available to it, that it just does tend to provide many of the best examples. So it would have been odd not to include a lot of religious examples. But I can see that might lead people to jump to the conclusion that I think all religion is, necessarily, bullshit.

Matt - yes the chart is kind of powerful, I agree.
Anonymous said…
Martin Cohen responded to Stephen's complaint in detail eventually on the Times Higher site - and asked Stephen to post his side of the argument here. But Stephen's gone on hoiday - like Rebekah B at the NoW!

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