Straw Dogs, a really REALLY poor book

Change of plan

Now, I was going to sort-of take apart the first few pages of this book line-by-line. However, after reading a few more pages – amusing in the same way that watching a car crash unfold on one of those police chase series is – I’ve decided to change that. (Because I’d already written that and I don’t like the fruits of my labour go to waste, I’ve put that part below the fold, just in case someone is curious.) The author, John Gray, just keeps repeating a handful of arguments, based on his wrong assumptions (either deliberately or because of ignorance).

Instead I’ll just point out the three (maybe four) things that are wrong with this book, before admitting that I do share one concern with the author.

1. He misrepresents humanism

Looking for salvation? Really?

Gray somehow has the idea that humanism is a post-Christian Quest For Salvation, preoccupied with liberating humans from the shackles that keep other animals down and aimed at realising some sort of Utopian Paradise On Earth.

Now I’ve read quite a bit about humanism, and by humanist authors – and I’ve never read anything that points towards such a quest, or paradise.

In my experience, to the vast majority of humanists, humanism means living a good, moral life without the need for supernatural beings or religious, dogmatic rules. If I pick up the latest copy of the British Humanist Association magazine, one random staff member says that to her, the most important thing of being a humanist is ‘living a good, rational life without the need for god or superstition’ and she says she supports campaigns ‘to ensure everyone is free from discrimination, on grounds of belief or any other aspect’.

Other items in the magazine cover topics such as protesting the pope’s visit to the UK, comments on homeopathy, reforming the House of Lords, sex & relationship education in the school curriculums, and comments on the government’s plans for religious education. All very much down-to-earth with not a trace of this Quest For Salvation that Gray tries to portray.

It barely needs pointing out that equating the christian salvation – gained after death by entry into an eternal kingdom of heaven and by virtue of adhering to a set of religious rules – can in no way be compared to any humanist endeavour – which would always be aimed at the here and now, with rules flexible by definition, and not aimed at pleasing a non-existent deity but fellow humans (and often animals, which brings me to the next point).

Humans versus animals? Really?

On top of that he portrays humanism as somehow putting humans ‘above’ other animals and creating some ‘conflict’ between them. Again, funny that, but the most staunch defenders of animal rights tend to be humanists and assorted rationalists – correct me if you’ve got evidence to the contrary.

The various world religions all provide handy phrases that put humans above other animals; anyway all of them say it’s OK to eat animals (how about the animals’ right to live?).

In contrast, it is precisely because humanists free themselves from these dogmas ,and they know about Darwin (see below) that they can see animals as related and therefore worth giving rights to.

2. He misrepresents ‘Darwinism’

‘Darwinism’? Really?

To start off grumpy, there still is no such thing as ‘Darwinism’ – just like there is no ‘Galileism’ to describe planetary motion or ‘Einsteinism’ as a synonym for relativity. However it seems it’s increasingly common for people either pro or contra evolution to use this term, so I have to forgive the author formally

‘Darwinism’ is actually meant to provide our lives with meaning? Really?

Unfortunately his use of the term seems deliberate (whereas in everyday use it is just a ‘mimic’, because people pick it up from teh interwebs or their peers), because to Gray, Darwinism is not the scientific theory that explains how lifeforms came to be. Instead it is just another way of looking at the world, giving meaning to our place in it; he makes direct comparisons to Shintoism and animism (to which I shall return in a bit).

I can’t even begin to explain how WRONG that view is. In fact, Darwin’s theory couldn’t be further removed from the mystical hand-waving of these religious worldviews and ‘explanations’ of our place in it all – and ‘after Darwin’ they made no sense anymore – so to lump it in with them shows that the author just doesn’t have a clue.

3. He misrepresents science

It’s not just ‘Darwinism’ he gets wrong, it’s science in general.

Science is EVIL, don't you KNOW!?

Humanism versus science? Really?

This one just has me baffled. I honestly don’t know where he gets the crazy idea from that these two are somehow at odds with each other. Science has always been the main ally, or tool, for humanism in the fight against religion.

(And since Gray tries to portray both humanism and science as faiths, he should even reach the conclusion they are two of a kind :p.)

Science is a faith? What the…?

In another amazing feat of mental acrobatics, gray represents science as a faith, including him using the eternal ‘scientific fundamentalists’ (that is getting sooooo tiring, it having been used by creationists, climate change sceptics, alternative medicine proponents and who else).

Like he does with humanism (see the bit below the fold), he basically redefines science to fit his terms, then proceeds to attack that particular image of science. This is logically called a ‘straw man’ fallacy and I can’t help but think this is weird irony given the title of the book).

He starts off by claiming ‘scientific fundamentalists [note the loaded wording] claim that science is the disinterested pursuit of truth’. I challenge him to find a ‘non-fundamentalist’ scientist to disagree with that. Apparently I’m fundamentalist – because that is indeed what science is.

Then he replaces this with his own arbitrary, straw man definition of science: ‘Among us*, science serves two needs: for hope and censorship’. (*his use of ‘us’ is baffling throughout the book, see also the example below the fold).

Er, hope, well, sure, if you say so, but hope has little to do with the everyday of scientific experiments (aside the hope that they work :p). But censorship, that just cracked me up laughing. The argument from Gray to support that ludicrous claim is hilarious (and later on he gets even more loopy, near with me):

Science alone has the power to silence heretics. (…) It has the power to destroy, or marginalise, independent thinkers. (Think how orthodox medicine reacted to Freud, and orthodox Darwinians [note again the use of loaded words] to Lovelock)

I won’t go into too much detail, but this, as well as the recent climategate scandal, only shows that science is done by human beings. Time has shown Freud to be mostly wrong, scientifically; Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis has in modified form reached considerable acceptance among science, albeit without any of the vagaries like a planetary consciousness that some hippies want to ascribe to Earth). Science itself IS indeed the search for truth; it cares not for the humans and their opinions.

Gray makes this mistake even more grotesquely a bit further on, but first I’ll continue the quote of this bit, where Gray explains what he means by censorship:

In fact, science … by censoring thinkers who stray too far from current orthodoxies it preserves the comforting illusion of a single established worldview.

Excuse me while I HAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAWHAAWHAHAHAA HAH oh stop I’m dying HAHAHAHA WHAHAHAHa oh fuck man that’s hilarious.

To quote Dara O’Briain:

Science doesn’t know everything. And it knows that it doesn’t know everything – otherwise it had stopped.

We, the scientists, know what we do know, too. Everything that is ‘too far from current orthodoxies’ [...trying not to get annoyed by all these loaded words] is wrong, because we know it’s wrong. It may be very free-thinking and unorthodox to propose that the sun is made of orange ice cream… but you’d be wrong.

Fortunately for me, Gray goes on to flat-out contradict himself only a couple of pages later, when he writes

According to … Popper, a theory is scientific only in so far as it is falsifiable, and should be given up as soon as it has been falsified. By this standard, the theories of Darwin and Einstein should never have been accepted. When they were first advanced, each of them was at odds with some available evidence.

Never mind that he is factually wrong again at several points  – where were these theories at odds with available evidence? Plus he doesn’t get the concept of falsifiability – but he doesn’t see that a few pages earlier, he complained that thinkers that stray too far from current orthodoxies are censored by science. Now he complains… that they weren’t.

John Gray is a very confused man.

Science is determined by rhetorical skills? Really?

Even funnier, and another occasion of mixing ‘science’ (objective increasing truth) with ‘scientists’ (subjective human beings), is in between these passages, when he tries to argue that science is really based in irrationality. I’m getting bored with debunking all his crap, so I’ll give that pass whilst saying that THAT IS WRONG, and go straight to this:

Galileo did not win in his campaign for Copernican astronomy because he conformed to any precept of ‘scientific method’ [oh god I can't let this one pass either – that would be because in these days that concept had yet to be developed – oh why do I even bother, it's like shoving shit with my bare hands]. (…) he prevailed because of his persuasive skill – and because he wrote in Italian.

Galileo won out not because he had the best arguments but because he was able to represent the new astronomy as part of a coming trend in society.

Wow.

Just WOW.

It may just have slightly helped in the very short time span around the emergence of this theory that he was a savvy writer, but apart from that… his theory survived because it was correct, full stop.

Galileo could have been the best persuader in Earth’s history, but if he’d argued that the Sun went around Jupiter in a square orbit, he’d not have won for longer than, I don’t know – well actually I think he wouldn’t have won at any time.

Gray seems to buy into the nowadays oft-heard idea that science somehow calls for ‘equal representation’ and that the best ideas then win not because they are true, but because the majority of people agree with one theory or the other. This, of course, is getting the horse behind the cart.

4. He supports some vague form of animism

Throughout the book he keeps giving nods to animism, that vague hippie belief that We Are All One, or something, but I’m getting a bit bored with all the debunking, so I’ll just throw up my hands here and say ‘whatever’.

Summary please, Marcel?

Well, funnily I do agree with the author on the points where he considers humans dangerous and destructive animals, and to some extent I agree that it will be difficult to save our planet from all sorts of self-inflicted disaster.

However, why he specifically picks on humanism and science is beyond me; it’s science that have been warning against overpopulation, global warming, energy crises and suchlike disasters for decades; and it’s non-scientist humans, overwhelmingly non-humanists too, that have been deaf to these calls.

On top of all that it’s difficult to take a book and its message serious when it gets so many of its facts and premises so amazingly wrong.

The author, John Gray, knows fuck-all about either humanism, science or ‘Darwinism’ and that shows on every page (multiple times) yet he pretends he does. He has clearly done his ‘research’ in a very blinkered manner, only reading these sources that confirmed his preconceived notion of what he wanted to conclude (I’m sure his intended audience will be just as preoccupied and will swallow this crap hook, line, and sinker). These are all pretty cardinal sins in what pretends to be a non-fictional book, but because of these errors would better be classified under fiction (I just realise that indeed, it was in the religion section, so Brighton Library has got that right).

Avoid this piece of subsubstandard writing, it’s really not worth it, apart from having a laugh.

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Opinion | Opinie 19/01/2010

The world would be a better place if…

…everyone would read Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond.

It is such a good book, I can’t find words to praise it.

In brief, the book sets out to explain why “western culture” is so dominant, to the extent that it allowed “the West” to colonise most of the rest of the world.

The book is a treasure trove of useful information as well as a great story, to the point of being a page-turner of popular science!

I want to give a quote or two but there’s just so much to choose from :s. Plus the good quotes are too long. Well, I’ll try to be brief – and if you’re interested you can always borrow the book off me! (or buy it, seven quid at the time of writing, they’ll be the best seven quid you’ve spent in a long time)

One chapter has the intriguing title Zebras, Unhappy Marriages and the Anna Karenina principle and starts off by stating “Domesticable animals are all alike; every undomesticable animal is undomesticable in its own way.”

“Germs thus acquired ultimately from domestic animals played decisive roles in the European conquests of Native Americans, Australians, South Africans, and Pacific islanders.”

“(The) faster spread of Eurasian agriculture, compared to that of Native American and sub-Saharan agriculture, played a role in the more rapid diffusion of Eurasian writing, metallurgy, technology, and empires.”

(these probably enigmatic statements are explained in detail, of course)

I could probably get a statement like that off of every single page of GG&S, it really is that packed with information. I’ll stop here however.