Richard Dawkins usually goes through a repetoire of facial twitches and stern looks when he makes a TV programme. Last night, in the first episode of The Enemies of Reason on Channel 4, he had more reason than usual to express dismay and shock, but he managed to keep calm. Maybe he is mellowing out? I don’t think so. I guess he had been in training for weeks beforehand, to interview the crackpots and looneys without giving everything away with frowns and disgusted facial expressions.
That he managed to interview so many of them at all surprised me. They must have known who he was and that he only intended to dismiss their beliefs (everything from horoscopes and astrology, to mediumship and spiritualism). But they probably were either confident in their beliefs or were following the adage that no publicity is bad publicity.
At one point, he was a guest at a scientifically-organised, double-blind test of dowsing. None of the dowsers scored any higher than chance. Most of them shrugged off the test as a gimmick. But one poor woman was reduced to incredulity and tears. She clearly had had her precious illusions completely shattered by her failure in the test. Actually, my heart went out to her. She seemed so upset at her failure that her belief in her ‘gift’ was obviously genuine. I regard genuine people with illusory beliefs as eccentric, or harmless. This woman’s dowsing gift gave her a feeling of being special; a sense of connection with the natural world. It seemed harsh on her to have that illusion shattered. (Harsh on a personal level – but I agree with Dawkins that it is right to have it tested scientifically).
His attack on astrology consisted mainly of citing the psychological phenomenon called The Barnum Effect. It is a well-known and very well confirmed theory, that offering people random personality descriptions produces a suspiciously high self-identification rate. In other words, more people than you’d expect by chance say that some randomly chosen text refers to themselves quite accurately. Another way to put it, is that people are gullible. The effect produces distortions that astrologers cleverly exploit.
I remember once having a quite funny conversation with a woman who was convinced that astrology was scientifically valid. She posited the notion that planets changed behaviour via the differential effect of gravity on different types of brain, although she was hazy on the details. When I queried the possibility that the cyclical movements of planets placed millions of miles from the earth could have any conceivable effect on Capricorns or Geminis, she countered that the moon’s gravity caused the tides, so why would not Jupiter and Saturn’s gravity cause changes in humans? Nothing I said could dissuade her. But I remember that my main despair was not at her incredible beliefs but that I didn’t have the words to change her mind. I felt like I was using plyers to shift a rock. I felt undereducated myself.
Dawkins is a tonic. He doesn’t face these problems when put on the spot by the average faith healer or spiritualist. He knows what to say and he is efficient and accurate in what he says. Oh how I’d love to have had him by my side all those years back!