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Skeptic Fail #2: Manipulation vs Critical Thinking

March 8, 2015

Welcome back to this series that looks at the blind spots and failures that skeptics are especially prone to making.

In Part 1 we saw the well known skeptic Michael Shermer fail to debunk the “law of attraction”, simply because he hadn’t researched the topic enough — before making a silly, self-indulgent video about it.

This post features Dr Shermer again, but in a different role. This time he becomes the victim of a rather frivolous piece of journalistic trickery, and thereby demonstrates the mechanisms that get people sucked into scams like the law of attraction. Critical thinking skills offer limited protection under such conditions.

I am going to highlight this incident because skeptics — including Dr Shermer — tend to underestimate the role that deliberate manipulation plays in popular scams like The Secret. The bad science in that film has been well covered by skeptics, but as far as I know, no professional skeptic or large skeptic organization has commented on the emotionally charged advertising tactics that the film makers employed. And none seem to have noticed the highly manipulative subliminal images in the opening sequences.

27-cScreenshot from The Secret – in ancient Egypt a terrified young priest tries to protect the “secret” for future generations, as soldiers with burning torches run towards him. The flaming figures in the background are part of a fade into the next scene. Images of people burning, as well as sexual images abound.

Furthermore, The Secret built an exploitive relationship with the viewer, by surreptitiously pulling them into the film’s narrative until they became participants themselves in the propagation of the story. As well as being impelled promote the film to their friends (viral marketing), countless people were sucked into entering a highly exploitive personal relationship with one or more of the teachers in it — that was the whole aim of the film.

123The first appearance of James Ray in The Secret – a subliminal image. Four people died while attending his events in 2009.

Professional skeptics overlooked all this because they tend to focus on what they are good at: logical fallacies. This leads to a rather superficial view of human behavior, and an annoying smugness, and most importantly, an impotent response to the most successful popular scam in decades. 

No matter how good your “baloney detector” is, it won’t protect an unsuspecting person from a complicated scam like The Secret that’s specifically designed to deactivate their defenses. It won’t even protect you from a simple con trick…. As Dr Shermer discovers in the exchange below….

The email exchange below, published last year on the Daily Beast website, shows how a trickster mimics a safe situation, and how a person under stress will take greater risks than usual, with less care.

To set the scene, Shermer is under stress because of accusations about him that were circulating in the internet (and which will not be discussed here!!!). He has initiated legal proceedings, but this also requires his own silence, no doubt leaving him feeling defenseless and highly frustrated. He is contacted by a journalist called Ian Murphy:

Dear Mr. Shermer,
I’m writing a story about the recent ugliness in the atheist/skeptic community/movement (last week, and the past two years) for The Progressive, AlterNet, or Salon (not sure yet), and I’m obviously hoping you’ll be gracious enough to answer some questions.
Phone would be best, but I’d settle for email–any way to get your side of things out there.
Regardless, thanks for all you’ve done for the skeptics of the world.

The journalist presents this, basically, as an offer of help from a fan. In effect he is saying I have what you need, and I will serve you. This of course is the promise of every scammer in history.

Shermer politely declines, citing his lawyers and a book he is busy writing. The journalist replies:

I figured as much, but I had to ask! And have fun writing. (One fortunate thing about all this is that your sales will be higher than ever! Look at Paula Deen. Silver lining? Yesh. Sorry. ) Anywho, will you please forward my request to your attorney? Pretty please? A presumptuous thanks! Or awwww. Thanks for your time.

Here are offers of emotional and moral support as well as more clearly submissive signals, softening the persistent request for further attention. Shermer refuses again, and it goes back and forth a bit until the journalist blurts out:

To be honest, I’m not entirely certain what the charge is? You bought a woman drinks, for god’s sake?! What, she felt taken advantage of the next day–years later?–because you’re a charismatic person, memories are dramatizations of someone’s dogma du jour!? The story’s not about the “charge,” whatever that actual is, it’s about skepticism, truly, no?

Here the journalist is modeling the behavior he hopes Shermer will impulsively imitate — trying to get Shermer to respond with the same kind of out-blurting. And it works.

Shermer:

“….I haven’t been charged with anything. An anonymous woman told another anonymous woman to tell PZ Myers that I raped her at some unspecified time in the past at some unspecified conference which was alleged reported to unspecified persons who allegedly covered up whatever it is I allegedly did….”

The journalist responds with some speculation about how he might include those remarks in a story he wants to publish. Shermer, still not smelling any rat-like aromas, tries to assert his authority:

Ian. Stop. Nothing I have written to you can be quoted…

Shermer issues this imperative, having believed the journalist’s submissive behavior from before. And when the journalist persists, he sharpens it:

No, Ian, you cannot “convey the meaning of the emails….”

Shermer still thinks he can assert his authority here, and it only slowly dawns on him that the journalist is no longer being submissive. But by then it’s too late.

Shermer is incredulous and invokes his lawyers, but the journalist knows his legal rights and informs Shermer that he will publish the entire email exchange, which he does. (No dire consequences ensue, beyond some chuckling and some grizzling about journalistic ethics.)

Once the Murphy had gained his trust, it simply did not occur to Shermer that the journalist might not share his goals. Nor, of course, would it be likely occur to anyone else in such circumstances.

But, like many scam victims, had he been psychologically capable of doing even the most basic background check, Shermer probably wouldn’t have fallen for Murphy’s submissive signals. A minute on google, and he would have discovered that Murphy had recently spent a week in jail, in preference to doing 70 hours community service — which he found “boring”. And this was after a “public nuisance” conviction for showing up at an anti-gay Christian rally and interviewing people with a dildo. All this does not exactly fit the profile of the obsequious fan-boy he played for Shermer!

And real scammers don’t pull the plug as swiftly and honestly as Ian Murphy did. Once you have signed the charges to your credit card, they keep it rolling until they have taken everything they can get to.

Posted by Yakaru

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Primal Physics (Lipton meets Sheldrake Part 2)

February 17, 2015

Physics,

says Dr Bruce Lipton,

is the primal science.

Not “primary”, but “primal”. And in Dr Lipton’s hands, primal is exactly what physics becomes — it bubbles up unrelentingly from the chaotic primordeal depths of his unconscious, randomly mixing self-invented physics and New Age trigger words. It can also illicit a primal scream from the listener, proportional in strength to their degree of science literacy.

However, there is something to learn from Dr Bruce here. While Deepak Chopra buries his errors unter an avalanche of meaningless jargon, Lipton’s errors are surprisingly uncomplicated. He is so ignorant that he doesn’t even know he needs to cover his footsteps. The fundamental errors that all New Age anti-physicists make are thus candidly revealed.

And what the physics says is that it’s not the physical reality where the information is. It’s in the field, the invisible stuff, and all of a sudden that jumped me from my mechanical material world idea into entertaining the concept of the invisible forces being more powerful.

So, Lipton thinks that “physical reality” stops where quantum physics starts.

We saw in Part 1 how Rupert Sheldrake doesn’t understand that the simplest laws of chemistry are perfectly good for explaining simple plant growth. For him atoms are inert billiard balls that need a divine intelligence to tell them what to do. For Lipton, the laws of quantum physics explain how this occurs. It’s all there in the physics text books, but the other biologists don’t understand physics. They are “still trapped in the Newtonian materialist reductionist world”. They don’t realize that physicists have “proven that matter doesn’t exist” and that quantum physics is the study of the spiritual realm.

This stupidity leads to a remarkably stupid version of physics, but also to a quite strange version of spirituality as well. They haven’t thought through the implications of this in slightest; nor have their fans.

Yes, quantum physics strikes our everyday understanding of the world as incomprehensibly weird. Yes, ideas about the spiritual realm also strike many as weird. But it does not follow that therefore the laws of quantum physics prove the existence of a spiritual realm. Do Lipton and Sheldrake really want to try this?

Our world view based on our experience of everyday life is ill-suited to conceiving events in the sub-atomic realm. But the language of mathematics can describe them without trouble. The weirdness is a product of the cross-over from mathematical to verbal language, but the mathematical model of it is nonetheless, rock solid (if I can be excused a dreadful metaphor).

Apart from their almost complete ignorance of physics, Lipton and Sheldrake have also failed to ask themselves if they really want to believe in a spirit realm that rigidly obeys mathematical laws.

Surely they must regard spiritual beings as having some independent volition; of being capable of doing something unexpected. But this kind of guided intention is one thing that is by definition absent from events that have been discovered to exist only because of their mathematical predictability.

For all that they rage against “Newtonian materialism” they in fact share with Newton a mechanistic view of the spiritual realm. Newton, unable to explain how gravity acted at a distance, proposed God as agent of maintaining the regularity of the planets. It was even proposed at one point that the planets were driven along their course by angels beating their wings. Enchanting as such an image might be, do we really want to condemn angels to this ultimate drudgery throughout the entire universe? Surely when mystics search for some kind of consciousness in the universe, they are looking for irregularities, of the kind that helps us distinguish between a rock that’s being tumbled by the waves and a seashell with some little fellow living inside it.

There is something deeply dissatisfying about a spirit realm that coldly maintains mathematical laws. But this is the only kind of spirituality that can, as far as I can see, possibly be consistent with quantum physics.

I am, of course, leaving out an important detail. This is Primal Physics. Its defining characteristic is the complete absence of math. Remove math, and the door is suddenly kicked open for verbal language to take over. Without math, the same events which previously fitted an exact model, can be transported into the realm of verbal constructs, where they take on the appearance of spiritual occurrences — spooky actions at spooky distances, and all that.

Of course, removing math also removes the quantum physics in its entirety, but the highly prized brand-mark and all the fancy-sounding terminology remain. Freed from the tyranny of mathematically consistent laws, Primal Physics need only obey the laws of grammar.

We are indebted to Dr Bruce for explicating the hidden laws of Primal Physics, a mysterious product which has been promoted since at least the early 1970s by moderately smart people like Fritjof Capra, and horrid foul mouthed gimps like Deepak Chopra. Physicists, still clinging to their unfashionable mathematical concepts remain baffled by the concepts and workings of Primal Physics.

In Part 3, Drs Lipton and Sheldrake will explain scientific method.

Posted by Yakaru

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Everyone has the right to question Islam and draw whatever they want

January 13, 2015

(Somewhat ill-tempered rant below the fold….!!!)

Read the rest of this entry »

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AAAAARRRRRGGGHHHHH: Rupert Sheldrake Meets Bruce Lipton (Part 1)

December 14, 2014

We have already met both Rupert Sheldrake and Bruce Lipton on this site. Both have PhDs in biology. Both present their idle speculations as fact. Both are utterly mystified as to why proper scientists ignore them. And in the following video, titled A Quest Beyond the Limits of the Ordinary, they both meet each other.

How will this go? Are we about to witness an inspiring fusion of groundbreaking new ideas? Or will this be more like an episode of the old MTV cartoon show Beavis and Butthead, only using quantum physics instead of toilet jokes?

bnbBeavis & Butthead not paying attention in high school

The action starts with Sheldrake suggesting that whereas Lipton’s work started at the cellular level and “worked upwards”, Sheldrake’s own work looks from the “top down”.

When I was working in developmental biology I got very interested in “organizing fields” — morphogenetic fields — which organize living systems, as it were, from the top down. 

This morphogenetic field, he informs us, was first postulated by Alexander Gurwitsch in the 1920s. He does not inform us, however, that its only known habitat is a fuzzy area inside his own head — and not in any place where it might influence other living organisms.

What’s more, Sheldrake presents this idea of an organizing field as if it’s radical, and a threat to modern science. But it’s not radical at all. It’s a completely mundane idea. We already know of such “top down” organizing principles — scientists refer to them as the laws of chemistry and physics.

When applied in the life sciences, these laws of chemistry and physics can be used to explain things which Sheldrake finds utterly mystifying. Like this:

If you take, say a hollyhock plant, the leaves, the flowers, the petals, have completely different structures and yet they have the same veins and the same chemicals…

This is basic high school botany. But Sheldrake, the fool, presents it to his audience as if it’s a baffling enigma. He continues:

…So the chemicals alone couldn’t explain it.

Well the chemicals alone do explain it perfectly well. Atoms are not like inert billiard balls rolling around aimlessly, needing an external hyper-physical organizing agent to boss them about. Living organisms are indeed extraordinarily complex, but the chemical processes governing their growth and development are extremely well understood.

What Sheldrake would need is some well documented anomalies that are not well explained by the known laws. But instead, what he offers his audience is the supposedly baffling mystery of how mushrooms grow. 

In hushed awe-struck tones, he describes how mushrooms send their threads out through the soil, and then “when the right moment comes”, the threads grow together and sprout miraculously up into a mushroom.

How on earth did these separate threads know what to do? They’re all [chemically] the same to start with, but some form the cap, some form the gills, some form the stem, some form the membrane at the top. How on earth did these cells know what to do, to harmoniously coordinate with the rest?

It may have baffled Herr Professor Doktor Gurwitsch in the 1920s, but it’s not baffling to anyone today who’s capable of opening a high school botany text. This is all basic — really really basic — botany with a splash of genetics. And Sheldrake has been too busy gawping at mushrooms to realize it.

The focus now shifts to Lipton

Wooly, useless, ignorant, cognitively docile and Prince Charles-like as Rupert Sheldrake is, he’s not as poisonously stupid as his interlocutor, Dr Bruce Lipton. As we have seen elsewhere on this blog, Lipton is a cancer quack who promotes the healing power of analogies.

So what has this got to do with Sheldrake and his non-existent “morphogenetic fields”? Are Lipton and Sheldrake really looking at the same thing from different directions?

I am sorry, but before this can be considered, I must subject the reader to a sudden burst of Lipton talking about his research and half his fucking life story along with it. He regularly subjects his audiences to hours of this. Much of it uses New Age trigger words, so his audience has a kind of dim trance-like feeling that they know what he is talking about — which, I suspect is much more than Lipton has.

Lipton:

I was still stuck in the chemical world and I identified that on the cell membrane there are these structures called receptors and there’s an interesting parallel here and that is that we are made in the image of a cell, actually, so that if I talk about a cell or if I talk about a human we’re still talking about the same thing. So the skin of a cell is very much similar to yours in the sense that it’s a boundary that contains the inside but it also has the ability to read the environment because we have eyes and ears and nose and taste and all these other receptors. Cells have on them the same things but in micro form, in a sense, so they’re reading the environment and the truth is that actually my second grade image when I first saw cells I saw them as sentient beings, I didn’t see them as just moving around in the water. They were, like, the amoeba would go look at something and then back away and then move somewhere else, or the paramecium, and I saw them as people, and it turns out to be that here’s a very interesting relation if, you know, we talk about at some point in regard to fractals, that we are made in the image of the cell. Every function that is in our human body is already present in every cell and anything you can identify in here is in a cell, digestive, nervous, reproductive systems. Every cell has even got an immune system and so the relevance that was really fun for me is that my understanding of the nature of what the cells were reading in their environment, it changed their lives and then I started to recognize this because I was cloning these cells in a petri dish and the simple thing that you’ve learned right away in culturing cells is that sometimes the environment isn’t that good when you culture them and then you put the cells in these cultures and the next thing you know is they’re sick and dying and they don’t look very good, but I found if you take those cultures and then put them into a better environment the cells immediately recover, grow and start to flourish and then all of a sudden it hit me. I said Oh my goodness I realized this, that while we see ourselves as single individual entities that’s a misperception because the living things are cells. We are communities of cells about 50 trillion cells, it’s been suggested, are making us up. Why that’s relevant is that in a simple reality we are like skin covered petri dishes and if we put our petri dishes in a good environment then we flourish and do well and if we put it in a bad environment we start to reflect what was going on in that environment and that we can come back and then get back into a good environment and recover, and why this became important is for me it took the emphasis to understand the nature of health and vitality was to look outside the cell and not look inside the cell which became to me a physical complement of the world. So the cell becomes a complement of its environment and so then the issue is what is that environment and my conventional teaching only left me in the physical world of molecules and atoms and the material world and it was at some point after I left my conventional job that I picked up a book by Heinz Pagels called The Cosmic Code and it was about quantum physics…

Stop!!!

Okay…. Some deep breaths…

It’s over now. You won’t have to read that ever again.

But I would like to pick out some very small portions of it and take a closer look….. 

…..But we can do that next time, in Part 2, okay? 

You may use the comment section if there is anything you need to talk about.

(Part 2 is here.)

Posted by Yakaru

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Spiritual Believers Don’t Understand Science – Part 6: Knowledge v Speculation

November 23, 2014

Scientists have two tendencies that confuse and infuriate believers in modern esoteric spirituality.

One is their apparently unshakable certainty about some matters.

The other is their tendency to suddenly declare I don’t know or We don’t know when challenged on some question.

The first horrifies believers because it looks like fanatical dogmatism. The only other people in history to appear so certain of their rightness were the inquisitors. The second looks like a pathetic back-down, making their initial show of certainty appear all the more laughable.

Scientist: Evolution is a fact. Humans evolved from earlier hominids. Believer: Oh? Well how did life start? Scientist: We don’t know exactly. Believer: HA! Science doesn’t know everything. Well I do know how it started. You see, you are infinite consciousness that is embodied in the space-time continuum through a process of quantum entanglement and non-local events…

The spiritual believer thinks that the scientist’s hubris has been exposed by their dogged questioning. It’s even quite fashionable for academics to join in with this misunderstanding. They are, however, unaware that science involves some methodological steps that spiritual people are loath to even contemplate — namely, scientists clearly distinguish between established knowledge and speculation. 

But they don’t do this in a black and white manner. Rather they differentiate gradations on a kind of sliding scale of certainty.

fadeFact — quite certain —  probable  — quite likely —  possible — unknown

Good science places each fact, piece of data, and idea somewhere along this scale, ranging from strong certainty to unknown validity. Certainty is represented here as dark, implying the weight added by repeated verification. Nevertheless, the lighter, more speculative end is where the most interesting and important scientific work occurs. 

Scientific knowledge is not there for scientists to passively sit on while smugly dismissing people’s spiritual beliefs. Rather, it forms both the theoretical foundation and the conceptual tools for scientific research. It is the platform from which scientific advancement arises. It consists not merely of facts but also theoretical ideas that have been confirmed and verified so many times that it would simply be a waste of time to re-test them. There is no need, for example, to re-test the chemical composition of water, or whether it might perhaps flow uphill. One can simply get on with planning the irrigation program.

The Problem

Spiritual teachers really do not like that dark end of the scale at all. They don’t like the boundaries it sets. They don’t like the way that those who are ignorant of its contents can be excluded from scientific discourse. They don’t like it when scientists mention facts that conflict with spiritual teachings. All their teachings — all of them — belong way up in the light, speculative end of the scale. And that factual knowledge stuff down the dark end sets considerable limits and prerequisites for speculation. They don’t like it at all. It hurts their ego and is bad for business.

But they do like the instant credibility that science is granted, and they want a bit of it for themselves. So they imitate scientific language and method. They make up their own rigged but official looking studies, designed “to prove” their pet theories. They plunder the language of science with the same kind of rapacity with which they plunder Hindu philosophy and indigenous cultures, for fancy sounding words and exotic concepts to distort and filter through their marketing department.

Spiritual teachers are ignorant both of the content as well as the sheer quantity of knowledge is down the dark end of the scale. They don’t realize how often their own teachings replicate well establish scientific knowledge of phenomena that have long been explained, and processes that have long been mastered. When challenged, portray their superfluous or spurious ideas as legitimate speculation (“we’re just saying keep an open mind, give the new paradigm a chance”). But thanks to their ignorance (or blinkered ideology) their work does not build on any factual basis and is therefore rendered utterly useless.

Louise Hay, for example, behaves as if our knowledge of human physiology is still in the state it was during the time of Christ. She drags her readers down into believing that what goes on under the skin is a vast inexplicable and unexplored mystery, where the demons and angels of negative and positive thoughts prowl. In fact science today is well equipped to check all of her unsupported assertions. Don’t expect to hear this from her though.

Science has of course advanced spectacularly during the last few centuries. But the only advances in spirituality have been improvements in marketing and packaging. Spiritual teachers want scientific status, but they don’t want the trouble that honest inquiry, fact checking and criticism bring. All I can do is suggest to their fans that they underline the speculations in the literature that their favorite teacher produces, and then go back and run another line through it if the teacher presented it as fact. If anything is left over, insert the necessary qualifying terms — perhaps, maybe, hypothetically, etc — into the factual statements of their favorite teachers, and see how it sounds.

Previous posts in this series (I’ve altered the title a little since it started) can be found here.

Posted by Yakaru

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What if Homeopathy Really Worked?

September 22, 2014

Here is a thought experiment about what might happen if homeopathy suddenly started returning positive results in research studies.

Of course, homeopaths claim that such results already exist, but, as the only thing homeopaths have ever tested positive for is rigging or misinterpreting studies, I will ignore them. (I have already looked into Dana Ullman’s “150 positive studies”, and found it was more like zero. And in Europe, homeopaths are lobbying the EU to exempt them from normal medical testing standards yet still grant them full medical status. Anyone who wants to claim that homeopathy is indeed proven can start by convincing these lobbyists that it’s safe to stop.)

Maybe the fairest starting point for our thought experiment would be to base it on a claim made by a well recognized homeopathic organization. How about the American National Center for Homeopathy….

In regular medicine, if you, let’s say, stop taking your high blood pressure medication, at a certain point you can be sure your blood pressure is going to go up, because there’s not actually any real healing that has happened. With homeopathy you can expect your body to actually heal.

So here’s our hypothetical scenario — taken directly from the NCH:

A study on blood high pressure returns positive results for homeopathic treatment.

Let’s go through this step by step. How was our study conducted and what is the homeopathic remedy for high blood pressure?

A quick check of a few websites reveals at least one thing that is surprisingly sensible, namely that many homeopaths also recommend dietary measures, regular exercise and stress management. (At least they have learned something from the “allopathic” medicine they so despise!) So these can also be included in the study:

homeopathy + related health measures for one group, and a (non-homeopathic) placebo + related health measures for the control group.

But before we go further, there’s another complication that must be considered. Homeopathy, it is often claimed, must be individually diagnosed, case by case. Merely testing a single remedy the same way as one might test aspirin will result in a false negative for homeopathy because it “doesn’t work like that”. This is often used as an excuse for negative results, or to claim that homeopathy “can’t be tested”. But in fact this can easily be built in to the study. It just means that we need to add a step wherein patients are diagnosed and a suitable treatment prescribed. Read the rest of this entry »

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Why does the Left oppose criticism of religion?

August 17, 2014

It seems to me that the political left has generally got its thinking about religion badly muddled. Too often people on the left adopt the role of religious apologist, both attacking critics of religion and defending religion itself. I think they have misunderstood the nature of religious criticism; misunderstood the aim of religious criticism (namely a secular state in this case); and probably misunderstood the nature of religion itself along with it.

… 

It is indeed necessary when criticizing religion to emphasize that freedom of religion is a basic human right. It’s abhorrent, stupid and self-defeating to see all Muslims as potential terrorists. But the left seems to be so fearful of even appearing to make this mistake, that it ascribes any negative aspects of religion to fanatics alone, as if their religion had little or nothing to do with it.

This approach stifles an important debate about secularism: the separation of religion from the power of the state.

Such a broad accusation like the one I make here is in danger of being too vague, so for the sake of clarity and brevity I’ll focus on one example of what I’m talking about.

This article from Jonathan Freedland, a senior editor at the Guardian newspaper, deals with the Islamo-fascist group ISIS, (now calling itself the Islamic State). The headline and sub-heading explain Freedland’s intentions:

This Islamic State nightmare is not a holy war but an unholy mess

It isn’t religious zeal but the collapse of state power that makes the clash in Iraq feel like a return to the dark ages

It is a typical and convoluted piece of religious apologetics from the Guardian. And typical for the left in being swift to blame all conflict in the Middle East on the US and neo-colonialism, while denying that religion plays any role much at all. Rather than making excuses here, they should step back for a moment and look at the phenomenon of religion as a whole.

All the main religions of the world are a system of ideas that grant special status to some people, and negate the rights of others. While the majority of religious believers may not always abuse the powers their system implicitly grants them, it is still a readymade system that can be swiftly utilized by those who seek power over others

The sudden rise of ISIS is an obvious example of this. Cutting off hands, stoning adulterers, declaring war on Shiites, Jews and Infidels… Although their success has clearly been enabled by a power vacuum, they are religious in character from start to finish.  

Freedland, however, sees it differently:

Yet neat though it is to see return to holy war as the motif of our age, it might be wrongAccording to Toby Dodge [scholar of Iraqi politics], what’s driving IS, or at least making its phenomenal success possible, is not pre-modern religious zeal so much as a pre-modern absence of state power.

Let’s look a little more closely at the wording here. First, he implicitly accuses critics of religion (“enlightenment types” as he calls them) of resorting to “neat” or simplistic explanations. Well, in what way is an openly declared Jihad not a holy war? And the insistence on the term “pre-modern” is also rather curious. Who is Freedland targeting for criticism here? As if these “enlightenment types” are rushing to write off the whole of Islam a mere relic from the dark ages. As if criticism of religion amounts to nothing more.  Also, why not refer to “religious fanaticism” instead of “pre-modern religious zeal”?

But most importantly, it’s a false dichotomy. There is no reason for it to be either religious “zeal” or the break down of the state that has brought about the rise of ISIS. Could it be any more obvious that it’s both? But the whole point of the article to deny the obvious. 

And there is no reason why the collapse of law and order is necessarily “pre-modern” either, so why insist on it? We may find out when we read further:

The state structures of both Iraq and Syria have all but collapsed. The result is a power vacuum of a kind that would have been recognised in the lawless Europe of seven or eight centuries ago – and which IS has exploited with the ruthless discipline of those long ago baronial warlords who turned themselves into European princes.

Such is the fear of sounding like a bigot when discussing Islamic fanaticism that ISIS must be compared to “baronial warlords who turned themselves into European princes.” Why “European” specifically? Why not Chinese? Or, for heaven’s sake, the old imperial warlords of the Caliphate, who ISIS are so keen to emulate in word and deed?

And why specifically “lawless Europe of seven or eight centuries ago”? Doesn’t a more recent analogy spring to mind? Like pre-Nazi Germany, with German society standing for Iraq and Syria, and Nazism for ISIS.  The similarities and differences would be revealing if Freedland or Dodge would allow them. 

Nazism was hate-driven, with a racial/religious hierarchy built in to its ideology. The same with the ideology of ISIS. Both of course are deeply anti-semitic and equally committed to the obliteration of their rivals as well as their enemies.

One important difference, however, is that ISIS comes complete with a highly detailed and ferociously strict set of pre-installed rules to govern every aspect of the daily lives of its subjects, carried over directly from the Koran. It was a bit different with Nazism. While being broadly determined by Christian anti-semitism, Nazism was in fact rather vague about most matters of public policy, especially at the start. Hitler often decided policy disputes by letting the various factions fight it out for a while and then simply back the strongest, subordinating policy to political expediency. This would be unthinkable for the ISIS leadership. All the rules are already there in the Koran (more or less), commanded by God, and rolled up and ready to go. This fact is too uncomfortable and inconvenient for Freedland and most of the left. The totalitarian nature of these rules needs to be criticized and openly condemned, regardless of whether or not the left deems Muslims likely to enforce them or not.

The point of all this is not for people like me to smugly gloat over the “pre-modern-ness” of Muslims, as Freedland seems to think. There is an important argument to be had here, about the separation of religion and state. I don’t care how “moderate” or trustworthy any member of any religion is. The most effective way to prevent the spread of ISIS and their followers is to close their door to state power and nail it shut with clearly worded legislation.

There would be no need to decide who is moderate and who not. How absurd. But it would mean reducing the powers of all those who have gained it by virtue of their religion. The only religious “moderates” who are upset by this idea are the ones who are in power (permanently installed in England’s House of Lords, for example), or who benefit in other ways (the state-collected Church Tax in Germany, for example). And of course it would anger those groups who are not currently thus privileged but would like to be — like religious fanatics, for example! 

The left has failed to comprehend this and has thus ceded important ground in the struggle for civil rights. And, incidentally, once you agree to grant “moderate” religious institutions a hand in government, you have simultaneously granted yourself the power to decide what a “moderate” is – a back door to the very kind of neo-colonial arrogance the left is trying to avoid.

Update 18 Aug ’14: Perhaps I should have referred to “many in the secular left” rather than just “the left”. I do know that not every single person on the left shares the perspective of Freedland, but I didn’t feel the need to add other examples because I’m not “accusing” the left holding such views — many hold them quite openly, especially at the Guardian. I am simply arguing with those who do hold such views, and arguing that we can avoid looking like bigots by focusing on separation of religion and state, for all religion. That also allows us to avoid getting tangled up in the question “Is it religion or politics” like Freedland does. If it happens in public and affects others, it’s politics. Religion is often politics.

Posted by Yakaru

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