Wednesday 20 April 2011

Creationists, Conspiracy Theorists and Cranks

I have a confession to make. A confession of an addiction. I am addicted to YouTube video debates between creationists and 'evolutionists', between those who believe the literal truth of the Book of Genesis that the world and everything in it was created by God in six days no more than about 6000 years ago and those who subscribe to the conventional scientific account – sometimes termed 'Darwinists', 'atheists' or 'rationalists'. The debate is an unedifying one, but still I can't look away. I can't help myself. There's hours and hours of it on YouTube and after I've watched one clip, I'm straight on to the next. After three or four of these, I feel dirty inside. The Thunderf00t v. Venomfanx confrontation shows how crazily out of hand the argument gets.

[Declaration of religious position from the outset: I am an atheist. I was raised in a not-very-strict, not-especially-spiritual Church of England environment. I was taught to love my fellow human beings and never to judge them. There was very little to disagree with. I liked the music, but as I got older, I decided that I could no longer go to church unhypocritically, not having the belief to justify my presence there. However, I'm pleased to say that questions about the age of the universe or the origins of life never entered into my mind as part of my scepticism, as reading the Bible as literal truth was never part of my religious upbringing. My objections were more of a metaphysical nature, though even the word 'objection' seems too strong. I believed that Christian morality had no need of a supernatural law-giver in order to be applicable, that personal redemption had more validity if it was accomplished through self-examination rather than through benign divine intercession. And I had serious misgivings about the purpose of eternal life.]

On the whole, the 'evolutionists' are more entertaining to watch. They have the job of marshalling logic and evidence against blind faith, which is by no means an easy task. For some of them, this job descends to angry anti-religious diatribe; some take much delight in subjecting the wackiest claims to extensive logical dissection. Once or twice, you will find a reasonably intelligent commentator who attempts to pick apart the different burdens of proof demanded by religious and non-religious approaches and to show how incompatible they are in a non-judgmental way. (I could at this stage mention Dawkins – whose evangelical mission is against religion of every kind, and who freely mixes scientific and moral arguments up in a slapdash way – but I choose not to, as he has made it a point of principal not to debate with creationists, even though he has made a living from scoring easy points off them.)

Among the 'creationists', most are shed-based lunatics, barely able to string a sentence together, let alone an argument. Their repeated appeals to Scripture are boring, and their scientific claims so absurd as to be more annoying than funny. Only a few are really worth watching – mostly professional preachers of one kind or another, and paradoxically because it is not clear whether they really do believe in creationism or if they're just in the business of scamming donations from gullible believers. Honorable mentions go to Ray Comfort (known as 'the banana man') and John Pendleton, who are both religious quacks of the highest order, but the king of them all is (Dr) Kent Hovind*, currently serving a ten-year sentence for tax evasion at the Federal Correctional Institution in Jesup, Georgia. He's a hero of mine. An anti-hero, let's say. Yes, he's a fraud, but he takes dishonesty to remarkable levels of sophistication. He's a pretty entertaining speaker, too, and he has mountains of evidence at his fingertips for the literal interpretation of the Bible. Here's just one of his many online seminars. I recommend watching it in full, late at night in a darkened room with the volume turned up loud.

The task of collecting evidence to support this nonsense is almost, if not more, impressive than the job of refuting it. If Hovind had spent the same amount of time researching a genuine field of science as he has clearly done fabricating proof of Noah's flood, he might have achieved a small amount of usefulness in his colourful but confused life.

There is a certain mindset, which is by no means restricted to American Christians or indeed to religious people anywhere, that will believe an absurd proposition in the face of insuperable odds. In fact, the more contrary evidence the believer is presented with, the greater their conviction that there is a conspiracy to silence them. In the majority of cases, the claims made about the extent of the conspiracy to suppress the so-called 'facts' – about the moon landings, UFOs, 9/11 etc. – are even more grotesque than the claims about the facts themselves.

One of the most remarkable people I ever met was crop circle expert Lucy Pringle. She deserves a blog post all to herself. Her resistance to the idea that the patterns that appear in fields are produced by men wielding planks – in spite of the plank-wielding men themselves claiming responsibility – is extraordinary. I became exasperated by her apparently willing blindness to the plank-wielding facts and her baseless speculation that gave gullible leverage to any account, no matter how bizarre, apart from the clear, rational one. We argued, but our arguments turned out to be just as futile as those between creationists and evolutionists. We both came away accusing the other of being narrow-minded and stubborn.

On the whole, the arrogance of such self-righteous fantasists is more depressing than inspiring. Yet in spite of this, I still cannot help but feel a mischievous admiration for those who, with the heroism of Don Quixote, defend their delusion in the face of every fact. The ones without an obvious religious or political motivation are all the more fascinating.
Another of my favourite fantasists is Iman Wilkens, the author of a magnificent book called Where Troy Once Stood (Rider/Century Hutchinson, London, 1990; 5th revised edition published by, Amsterdam 2009). Over more than 400 pages packed with bogus etymology and duff archaeology, it explains that the epic poems of Homer – the Odyssey and the Iliad – describe real historical events, and that these events took place in Cambridgeshire. Sadly, it's impossible to get hold of for less than £40. While I was at university at Cambridge, I recommended it to Classics Department Library. It represents a first-class illustration of how, if you fervently want to believe something, you will never be short of evidence to support your belief.

This brings me to Anatoly Fomenko. He believes that the entirety of world history is a fabrication, almost the nec plus ultra of conspiracy theories.

It's spectacular stuff, and I want to know more. Where do you begin refuting a theory like this? As in the creationism debate, the rebuttal is not easy, which is what makes it so interesting. The extent of the bullshit is almost too great to shovel. In the words of theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli, it's 'not even wrong'.

To counteract my unenlightening YouTube viewing, I've started reading the works of Charles Fort for the first time. Unlike the Forteans who have borrowed his name, Charles Fort appears to be a sceptical rationalist rather than a credulous believer. Although he often states that the scientific community covers up accounts of mysterious events that contradict the status quo, he posits no global conspiracy against truth-tellers, only a human tendency to normalize data. And he resolutely offers no alternative theories, except in mischief, to throw his readers off the scent, which is a worthy end in itself. His target is the hubris of proof itself. For Fort, conspiracy theorists are guilty of the same lazy generalizations that scientists are. 'Supposing', as opposed to 'believing' is not just a more creative way to go about life, it represents a more truthful engagement with the nature of reality.

I really do wish I could 'believe', as the cranks do, and to have the sort of mind flexible enough to distort everything to fit my own worldview. How nice to be so certain of things. How incredibly comforting it must be to go through life with every fact supporting your thesis. It would be like being a baby, with everyone cooing over you and looking after you, having no responsibilities and enduring no challenges. But we must grow up and become independent, and come to terms with the chaotic confusion of signs and meanings that surround us. But with the evidence so up for grabs, as Fort teaches, it does make me wonder where proof ends and faith begins. One of the things that's so fascinating about Kent Hovind and other 'creation scientists' is their lack of awareness of that distinction. And what about people who hold 'unshakable' political convictions? How can I say for certain that the things I myself hold to be true aren't simply self-reinforced fictions of convenience? We should do our best to interrogate ourselves towards 'supposition', rather than 'belief'.

Amen. Now back to YouTube.

* Hovind's doctorate was awarded by the non-accredited Patriot University in Colorado Springs.

Sunday 17 April 2011

Blue Pigs

Big and small are relative terms, as anyone who has read Gulliver's Travels will tell you. But even in England, the countryside is big. Very big. Londoners like me feel their eyeball muscles exercising in unaccustomed ways as they focus on massive distant hills for the first time in months. Also, the countryside contains much fewer things. In the city, you are bombarded every second with logos, signs, warnings, adverts, dangers and enticements, whereas in the countryside all you will see for miles will be a hill, a dry-stone wall, some trees and a lot of sky.

We were walking from Long Preston to Settle, a journey of about 4 miles along the south-western edge of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Passing near a couple of farms, the footpath needed some navigation. I was showing off, as usual, making myself out to be far more adept with a map and compass than I really am. At one point, we clearly missed the right route, as we found ourselves deposited at the edge of a muddy field. We tiptoed across it, knowing we'd gone wrong, and headed over the gate at the far corner.

In the next field we had clearly come to a dead end, as the gate was tied firmly shut. An enclosure in the corner held a dozen or so pigs with distinctive white bands around their middles. We admired the pigs for a few minutes, before we noticed the farmer come riding up on his quadbike. 'You two look like you need help.' he said. He was a magnificent Yorkshireman, in full regalia: cloth cap, waterproof parka over tweed jacket, and a barely comprehensible accent. And he put the word 't', meaning 'the', in places where you wouldn't expect to find it.

'See that t'oak up at t'top? The t'path leads up just above t'there. Y'can't see it from where we are, but there's t'a wall, leads across round t'neighbours. There's a t'blue clapperboard barn, aim for that.'
'I knew we'd gone wrong when we got to that ploughed field.'
'Ploughed? That's pigs.'

Of course it was pigs. They don't grow crops in this part of the world, and even if they did the field wouldn't be ploughed at this time of year. What an idiotic thing to say. Oh, just shoot me, I thought. I clearly have such a lamentably poor understanding of country life, that my trespassing over your land can only be reckless and damaging. No wonder farmers hate ramblers. Just pull out your shotgun and shoot the trespasser. You have every right. I know you have a shotgun.

At that point, three boys aged between about eight and twelve came scampering down the hill from the farmhouse, all wearing enormous wellies.

'My boys'll show you.' And he kindly (but without smiling) let us climb over his gate to take a short-cut across his back lawn. We made our way tentatively onwards, having only understood 50 per cent of his directions, but congratulating ourselves on having discovered an Authentic Yorkshireman, which we ticked off our List of Things to See in Yorkshire.

We'd actually only been about 100 yards away from where we needed to be, but we'd been lost. In London, if you are 100 yards from where you need to be, you are not lost. But in the countryside a mistake of that magnitude means potentially back-tracking for the best part of a mile. The scale of the landscape gives you the false impression that you can be approximate in your navigation, that, for example, so long as you carry on in a reasonably straight line along a particular valley you will reach the town at the end. Not so. You need to pay very close attention to every feature along the way, particularly the gradient, to ensure you're on the right path. Realising this made the ultra-assiduous documentation of the hills by walkers like Wainwright and others more understandable. The importance of taking note of little details against a vast and unchanging backdrop produces one of those disparities of scale that forces the mind in two different directions at once. That's what is inspiring.

We had a bite of lunch in Settle, then did the slightly arduous but rewarding walk over Attermire Scar to Malham. At The Lister Arms in Malham, looking for the number of a cab company to take us back to Long Preston, we found a flyer advertising the Blue Pig Company. There's a pretty good value restaurant in Settle, called simply Ravenous. We'd eaten there the previous evening, and seen 'Yorkshire Blue Pig Black Pudding' on the menu as a starter. It was Dani who made the connection. We'd assumed at the time that 'Blue Pig' was the name of the breed, but now it was obvious that it was the name of the company based at Mearbeck Farm. The pigs we'd seen earlier in the day when we got lost had a blueish tint to them, but they weren't just the same breed of pigs as were for sale in black pudding form. They were exactly the same pigs from the same place: a cross, according to the website, between a Gloucester Old Spot and a Saddle Back. And there also on the website was a photo of Anthony Bradley, the Yorkshireman who helped us on our way, the latest in five generations of Bradleys farming at Mearbeck, and his sons may be the sixth. Small world.

We put in an online order for some pork belly, black pudding and sausages from him, by way of a thank you.