12 July 2011


Stephen Law. Believing Bullshit: How to Not Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole. Prometheus, 2011.

Stephen Law is a philosopher at Heythrop College, University of London, an institution which began life as a Jesuit training college in the 17th century, and provost of the Centre for Inquiry UK which is the sort of grown up version of Centre for Scientific Inquiry, taking on the big boys of organised religion rather than bigfoot and fairground fakers. 🔻
With such a background it is not surprising that many of Law's examples of bullshit and black hole thinking in this book come from the realm of theology.

Many of his examples of black hole thinking can be applied to many of the fields that Magonia is interested in. Law detects eight such types of thinking (with my examples)
Playing the mystery card - Arguments like "there are more things in heaven and earth than in your philosophy", and you can't know for certain that X is not true.
  • But it fits - In other worlds you can martial "evidence" to suit any kind of argument so long as you dodge around enough.
  • Argument from anecdote - How can all these people be wrong, there are mountains of testimony.
  • Pseudo-profundity - Impressive sounding words which mean very little.
  • Nuclear options and relativism- You can't prove anything is true, and what is true for me might not be true for you.
  • Switching between meanings and between literal and metaphorical uses of words.
  • Appeals to personal experience - I know I was abducted by two headed aliens from Blurpo and you can never convince me otherwise.
  • Appeals to emotion - Every time you deny the existence of alien abductions / satanic child abuse / poltergeist rampages you are compounding the suffering of the victims.
  • Control of the mind - Through isolation, control, uncertainty, repetition and emotional control, think of all those survivors groups. 
He provides what he sees as antidotes to such sloppy thinking.

As mentioned above much of this book is related to matters theological and a critique of the idea of a benign interventionist deity (and also the idea of a malevolent interventionist deity.) Of course in this area Law is pushing to a great extent the Prometheus party line, though personally I find his arguments very cogent.

Though this particular example is not used by Law, the most convincing argument against such a deity is what is arguably the most catastrophic single event in modern history, the early death from cancer of Kaiser Frederick of Germany, who had he lived, stood a more than reasonable chance of turning Germany into a rather dull Scandinavian-style constitutional monarchy, and a world without the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the rise of Hitler, the Second World War, the Holocaust, the Gulags and all else which followed from them, the direct and indirect consequences of which were a death toll at a conservative estimate, rivalling the entire current population of the United States and Canada. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson.

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