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Discussion > Green and pleasant land

Yesterday morning Tallbloke said:

The UK is a largely atheist, secular country. If trust in science as the premier purveyor of knowledge is destroyed, what will be left?

Nicholas Hallam seemed to accept the premise and replied:

Tallbloke, some ideology will fill the void. If I were a betting man my money would be on Islam.

And Maurizio Morabito disputed the premise:

The UK is a not a "largely atheist, secular country". Its unofficial anthem is Jerusalem, and its society still very much focused on the last verses

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land

I was struck by a glancing connection with a visit I'd made with my mother to Glastonbury last week and what I'd been thinking about as a result. Mike Jackson felt what I'd said was "Rubbish!" This a space to take up Roger's question in any direction people want to - or none. I really appreciated the question.

Jul 25, 2013 at 7:08 AM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

The meme about “trust in scientists” which you hear repeated everywhere these days comes, not, I think, from comparisons with religion, but from a more banal, secular source, the IPSOS/MORI annual “Who do you trust?” poll, which I saw recently referred to (I think by a thinktank lady on the Emmott/Dorling “Start the Week”) as the “Veracity Index”.
Journalists and politicians are spellbound by it, since they both score in the low teens, whereas scientists and doctors come off well, scoring around 80%. You can put a lot of the fascination with climate science down to politicians and journalists trying to help themselves to some of that trust.
I don’t see why anything need necessarily “fill the void”. That our society has become “destructured” with the decline in the cohesive forces of religious and political belief is a sociological commonplace.
I’ve been thinking about belief as well, as a result of our brush with Lewandowsky and his acolytes. I was struck by the way psychologists gaily announce that they’re conducting surveys into “belief” or “attitudes” without giving the slightest thought to the meanings of the concepts they’re supposedly analysing. “I believe in fairies”, “I believe in European Union”, “I believe in capital punishment”; these are by no means equivalent mental states or activities. We’ve all been giving stick to pollsters and climate change activists over questions like “Do you believe in climate change?” because of the ambiguity of the concept of climate change, but what about the ambiguity of the term “belief?”
As for “trust in scientists” - I’d trust them not to tie me to a bench and stick electrodes in my brain, but not much further.

Jul 25, 2013 at 11:24 PM | Registered Commentergeoffchambers

Thanks Geoff. You of course are uncovering that there were two premises here: one that "the UK is a largely atheist, secular country" and the second that "if trust in science as the premier purveyor of knowledge is destroyed" then this will leave a void that must be filled. Maurizio challenged the first and you have challenged the second. Is that fair?

I was thinking of asking if anyone else on BH has read Douglas Murray's Islamophilia? I enjoyed that, if that's the right word.

Jul 26, 2013 at 5:50 PM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

Of course both premises presuppose voids are there to be filled. It may be worth asking - as Blake does in Jerusalem - what an unfilled void looks like, what name we would give it and what kind of knowledge is exclusive to bearing it.

Jul 26, 2013 at 9:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterPeter S

I wasn’t being too serious, and I imagine Maurizio wasn’t either. This kind of pop sociology is fun, though I think a more serious effort to analyse weird social phenomena like global warming hysteria needs to be done too. The reason I got involved in discussion at
about Mike Hulme’s comment on Ben’s article is that Mike Hulme is pushing for a wider sociological analyis of the climate change question. I agree entirely with johanna’s devastating put downs of Hulme on that thread (“he’s no Max Weber”) but still appreciate that he’s opening a door to discussion that could get very interesting.
I’m not sure Maurizio has it right about “Jerusalem”, and I’m not at all sure what PeterS means about the unfilled void. It starts off with a question about Joseph of Aramathea’s feet, if I remember correctly. I’d always assumed we liked it because it sounds like a hymn, but isn’t. The English like a good religion, as long they don’t have to worship anyone.

Jul 27, 2013 at 9:46 AM | Registered Commentergeoffchambers

Geoff Chambers " “I believe in fairies”, “I believe in European Union”, “I believe in capital punishment”; these are by no means equivalent mental states or activities." and "but what about the ambiguity of the term “belief?” "

This is a key issue that CAGW promoters need to understand and as a subject, religious belief offers a good model (ha ha) for the problems they face. Compared to other eras and other countries the British are largely atheist depending how you define 'belief'. Belief is the word you use for acting like something is true even though you don't have cast iron proof of it. Does a population who believes that there's a vengeful God, who can condemn you to ever lasting horror, act the way the Brits do? At best we have people who think that judgement day will be based on the British justice system where if you are done for your sins you will receive a pitifully short time in purgatory and get released early because of over crowding. Favours will be offered for those who admit their sins and say that they're sorry to their victims. Presumeably some of those in Heaven will be on day release or be wearing electronic tags.

We Brits don't do precautionary suffering very often anymore.

Then along comes a new Commandment 'thou shalt not emit CO2' and given that most of the first 10 are being broken daily, what hope for number 11?

Jul 27, 2013 at 10:55 AM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

Geoff - For me, Blake asks - through his poem - if he can eat his cake and have it. In other words, if he can fill a void and have it... when having it (or bearing it) is identified as an essential component in arriving at where he wants to be. Making cakes and making Jerusalems might not be so very different... it's what we do with them that counts.

Jul 27, 2013 at 12:32 PM | Unregistered CommenterPeter S

TinyCO2 - "Belief is the word you use for acting like something is true even though you don't have cast iron proof of it."

I think that's a very good description. To believe is to act 'as if' something is true in the absence of knowledge that it is. (Getting other people to act as if something is true - like a terrorist threat, or global warming - is to get them to be more compliant, of course.)

But this leads to an interesting question - in acting 'as if', what are we doing with the unknown (or unknowable)? Do we act as if we know as a defence against the terrors of not knowing? It is as if we know something about the unknown which we are reluctant to admit… like a child's fear of the dark, as a place where it suspects it would meet (or get to know of) something about itself - something it feels to be unsurvivable.

In acting as if the future is catastrophic, what are we robbing that future of? Or, more to the point, what are we robbing ourselves of in the present? What is the impossibility of a 'known future' an attempt to safeguard oneself against (what makes a compliant future preferable to a noncompliant one?) We might wonder if the real catastrophe facing those who believe in global warming is, in fact, their own… after all, a known future is a future not worth staying alive for.

Jul 31, 2013 at 10:23 AM | Unregistered CommenterPeter S

That's very good Peter. Thanks.

Jul 31, 2013 at 3:34 PM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

I never know the answers to Peter’s questions, or even whether they have answers. I recognise them as coming from psychoanalytic thinking, which is anathema to a lot of science-minded Bee-aitch Boys, but is fine with me.
As a pointer to the direction in which PeterS’s questions lead us, it’s worth mentioning that the future in doubt tends to be placed at the horizon of our own (variable) lifespans.
Tallbloke’s original formulation seemed to suggest, over-simply, (but I suppose it was just an offhand remark) that science was filling the slot formerly filled by religion and that loss of faith in science would leave another empty “slot”. Personal belief, and more importantly, the complex social facts which are belief systems, must be more complicated than that.
One thought provoked by PeterS’s questions: if science doesn’t fill the slot left by religion, it has certainly replaced religion and mythology in filling out our understanding of the past and the future - the areas outside our limited personal experience. I’d suggest that faith in science (together with religion, politics, astrology, aesthetics and just about everything else which ever passed through a human mind) is perfectly safe within the confines of personal belief. The belief that our planet is fragile, and under threat from us and only us, is just one more belief system that’s come to settle amongst us. May it find its rightful place in our complex society, alongside numerology and Zoroastrianism.

Jul 31, 2013 at 10:09 PM | Registered Commentergeoffchambers

Did anyone else notice Rachendra Pachauri's use of the iconic 97% in his groundbreaking novel of spirituality Return to Almora? Donna Laframboise has now read the whole 400 pages, voluptuous breasts and all, so you didn't have to. This striking literary depiction of the scientific method at its most rigorous from the head honcho of the IPCC in 2010 sheds direct light on my musings about Glastonbury in the thread that gave rise to this one, as I'm sure the alert reader will see.

Aug 1, 2013 at 2:57 PM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

Richard Drake, did you have to mention Return to Almora? It's one of those things I've put in my mental Icky Stuff Box and sits there along with John Major's affair with Edwina Currie and anyone ever seeing John Prescott naked. Mention it again and I'll have to stick my fingers in my ears and go "la, la, la, not listening".

Aug 1, 2013 at 5:45 PM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

I'm sorry Tiny but Pachauri's use of 97% as a key threshold indicator on a matter of supreme metaphysical importance take precedence over your need for the sick bag. Sometimes we have to suffer for our science :)

Aug 1, 2013 at 5:55 PM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

Geoff - "I never know the answers to Peter’s questions, or even whether they have answers."

Unanswered questions, I suppose, are a good way of keeping open the space where answers go. And, of reminding ourselves the space - or void - exists. In that sense, an unanswered question is like an uneaten cake… allowing us to tolerate and use an appetite - rather than getting rid of it.

In saving things from other people's appetites - whether it be a cake or the World - a person may simply want them to stop reminding him of his own… which, of course, is another attempt at getting rid of it. As is a big, shiny supercomputer conscientiously mashing through climate models to churn out copious product at the other end - the stuff may be loaded with artificial ingredients, be of poor quality and contain zero nutritional value, but it meets a felt need… if that overriding need is to fill - and therefore, cancel out - the void (has data obesity been recognised as a medical condition yet?).

Aug 3, 2013 at 2:03 PM | Unregistered CommenterPeter S

I think it is important to maintain the distinction between "science", the process, and the very human "scientists" who claim to be doing science. To simply invoke the scientist as an unimpeachable authority figure presupposes that they are doing credible science, whether true or not. But unquestioning acceptance is an abdication from having to do your own thinking, and blurs the distinction from religion.

Of course in the real world this always necessary, to a certain limited extent. No human has the time or ability to do otherwise. I think a basic grounding in mathematics is the best insurance policy, and keeps the tools of logic and criticism sharp.

I don't agree here with Maurizio Morabito. To me, Blake's Jerusalem (and Parry's music) is humanistic and inspirational (as are England's clouded hills when not carpeted with white satanic mills). It speaks to what we can achieve, and how far we still have to go.

As an agnostic/atheist from the Dawkins mould, I have no problems sharing that vision with people who profess religious views. For example, D. Roy Spencer's religious beliefs do not appear to make him any less capable as an honest and capable scientist. It took me a good few years in life to reach this general perspective, but I did. If there existed some kind of supreme all-powerful deity/creator then he/she/it could also create the laws of thermodynamics to go along with the universe. I don't take that view, but I don't see it as logically incompatible.

Aug 5, 2013 at 11:51 AM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

Thanks for that liberal approach Michael. Tallbloke originally asked:

If trust in science as the premier purveyor of knowledge is destroyed, what will be left?

My most basic question on reading this was I guess:

What about history?

Although in the original thread I took off in the direction of Glastonbury and its dubious role in first century history (however meaningful some people find the resultant myth) the history of science is a subset that is not unimportant for Bishop Hill, given how often Lysenko and the story of eugenics are mentioned here, not to mention Galileo, Newton, Laplace, Tyndall, Callendar and the rest.

One reason I asked about Douglas Murray's Islamophilia is that one of the areas it points to in its gently mocking way is how Muslim 'scholars' are busy reinterpreting the history of science - and how little these far-fetched musings are criticised by the brave men who are much happier to lay into 'deniers' of the climate kind.

For me there's a similar battle going on for quality history as for quality science, the two are intimately related and each can shed helpful light on the other. Similar but different. It would be good to tease out both aspects. Even before we get on - if we do - to worldviews more broadly.

Aug 8, 2013 at 2:13 PM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

I found this from Roger Scruton helpful just now in giving historic context to the absurdities that are not only tolerated but jealously protected from mockery both in climatism and Islamism:

The freedom to entertain and express opinions, however offensive to others, has been regarded since Locke in the 17th Century as the pre-condition of a political society. This freedom was enshrined in the US constitution, defended in the face of the Victorian moralists by John Stuart Mill, and upheld in our time by my dissident friends. We take this freedom so much for granted that we regard it as the default position of humanity - the position to which we return, if all oppressive powers are removed from us. But my experience of communist Europe convinced me of the opposite. Orthodoxy, conformity and the hounding of the dissident define the default position of mankind, and there is no reason to think that democracies are any different in this respect from Islamic theocracies or one-party totalitarian states.

Of course, the opinions that are suppressed change from one form of society to another, as do the methods of suppression. But we should be clear that to guarantee freedom of opinion goes against the grain of social life, and imposes risks that people may be reluctant to take. For in criticising orthodoxy, you are not just questioning a belief - you are threatening the social order that has been built on it. Also, orthodoxies are the more fiercely protected the more vulnerable they are.

Both those principles are surely obvious from the reaction of Islamists to criticisms directed at their religion. Just as it was in the wars of religion that ravaged Europe in the 17th Century, it is precisely what is most absurd that is most protected. And critics are not treated merely as people with an intellectual difficulty. They are a threat, the enemies of society and, for the believer, the enemies of God. So it was too under communism, in which a system of government had been built on theories that may have looked plausible in the early days of the industrial revolution but which in the post-war economy of Europe were palpably ridiculous. For that very reason it was the greatest heresy to criticise them.

So true freedom of expression is never the status quo. But with writings like this we can do better. And perhaps the state broadcaster that published them could reflect on the implications.

Aug 11, 2013 at 2:58 PM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

Richard Drake
I didn’t like to admit that I didn’t get the connection (Aug 1st) between Pachauri’s 97%, voluptuous breasts and Glastonbury. Is that Glastonbury of the druid mysticism or Glastonbury of loud music in the mud?
Also, I refuse to get into discussions of Islam, -phobic, or -philiac. Look where it got Dawkins with his silly pop-music-chart comment on Nobel prizes.
Scruton doesn’t seem much better with his comparisons with seventeenth century wars of religion and the death of the Soviet Union (not of communism). Look at any vast belief system (eg Christianity) and it’s obvious that it doesn’t just pop its clogs one day, leaving a space for another. Christianity was declared officially dead at the French revolution; a hundred years later it was alive and kicking with the cult of Joan of Arc. Another century on, it’s still providing an army of decent people with a sense of social justice, who are far more active for good than me and any of the atheists I know. It’s not over till it’s over.
Belief in science is not going to wither just because a few chancers are proved to have stretched the truth a bit - even if the stretching goes on for decades with the support of our governments. The climate scandal might even awaken a new interest in science - it has with me.

Aug 11, 2013 at 6:46 PM | Registered Commentergeoffchambers

Geoff, I agree with you that science isn't going to disappear but I think it is taking a hit right now so I think the concerns of someone like Jonathan Jones are real and well-judged. Tallbloke's question was perhaps overstated but I think it was valuable.

On Glastonbury I quote from Wikipedia no less:

The legend also says that as a child, Jesus had visited Glastonbury along with Joseph. The legend probably was encouraged during the medieval period when religious relics and pilgrimages were profitable business for abbeys. William Blake mentioned the legend in a poem that became a popular hymn, "Jerusalem" (see And did those feet in ancient time).

Having visited the place recently I was thinking about this aspect and about the need to do decent history or else we'll end up believing any such junk. But I was also conscious of those who would argue that all that matters are the good feelings such a 'sacred place' engenders. That was the link with Pachauri's 97%.

Tacitus is one of the Rome's most respected historians so his passing mention of Christ and his execution - and the independent corroboration of other fragments of the traditional story from other trusted non-Christian witnesses - is a completely different ball game from the above. And with the person of Pachauri comes junk science to join junk history (and junk literature, as I trust Donna to have judged, so we don't have to.)

What helped me in Scruton was different I think from what you rejected: that suppression of criticism of orthodoxy is the norm, all the more so when the orthodoxy is patently absurd. I hadn't heard that put so clearly.

It's commonplace on BH to say that some of climate orthodoxy is absurd. It's also pretty common for some to say that this absurdity is the absurdity of all belief. In putting history forward as another important 'purveyor of knowledge' I'm looking for a complementary defence against the worst forms of absurdity. My own view is that we need good science and good history or else our culture will implode.

But that feeling is also I'm sure place-dependent. I live in south east London just round the south circular from Woolwich where Lee Rigby was hacked to death (and I used quite often to walk around those streets as a result of someone I know well living nearby, which made the 'what ifs' more powerful). And then today one reads this:

Harry and Amelia were the most popular first names for babies in England and Wales in 2012 - taking the top spots for the second year running.

Riley was a new addition to the top 10, while Muhammad was the favourite name for boys born in London.

My local Greek-owned takeaway just felt it had to put up the Halal-meat-only sign, like so many others in our capital. I groaned when I saw it. Many of those who contribute to Bishop Hill won't feel this way about a far away country of which they know little. But like Chamberlain my belief is that they will soon find out, unless a renewal of truth in its broadest sense comes to our rescue.

Aug 12, 2013 at 3:11 PM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

It is very difficult to learn much more from history than most of us learn about human nature as a child. International politics more closely resembles the modern playground than Elizabethan intrigue or biblical machinations.

We are beset by problems and solutions that are unique to our era. The reason for our political desert is because nobody has a model for how to deal with our issues. Already a powerful source of change, the media is giving way to the internet. Power is being devolved at a rate never seen before. We follow trends and then slip away with ease. There is little loyalty or commitment to causes. Science is no longer the mystery it once was. Most of us feel able to criticide some part of it. As climate science is finding, credibility is an ephemeral concept. You're only as good as your last theorm.

It is both scary and exhilarating.

Aug 12, 2013 at 3:42 PM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

Tiny CO2

International politics more closely resembles the modern playground than Elizabethan intrigue or biblical machinations.
Where’s the difference? International politics = the modern playground = Elizabethan intrigue = biblical machinations. The beauty of history is that it teaches us that what “most of us learn about human nature as a child” is often spot on.

The rest of your comment I find pretty brilliant. Especially the word “criticide”.

The point about history is that it recounts what humans have experienced. Climate science wants to improve on that with an account of the world independent of human experience, except it needs man-made thermometers, or Mann-imagined proxies, to do it.

The first IPCC report contained the famous up and down temperature graph by Lamb, based on the work of historians like Emmanuel Leroy Ladurie, who combed monastery archives for dates of grape harvests etc, in order to construct his monumental “Histoire du climat depuis l'an mil”.

In a recent work, an interview which provides a potted version of his History of Climate, Leroy Ladurie pays tribute to the work of Mann and Jones (which contradicts his findings without even mentioning them). Instead of defendng his findings, he accepts without question that the width of treerings in the Rockies takes precedence over the observations of human beings in Europe. This surrender of historians before the superior wisdom of science is a significant symptom of what’s gone wrong in our society, I think.

Aug 12, 2013 at 10:51 PM | Registered Commentergeoffchambers

LOL, Would that Mann’s work falls to criticide.

I agree history has an important role but actually, reconstructing past temperatures using grape harvest records is probably as scientific as tree ring proxies. The honest amateur was sadly giving way to the arrogant professional.

But take CAGW if it was real. While there were cases of dramatic climate change in the past, civilisations failed to weather them. They didn’t have the tools or knowledge we have now. Would history save us? Or would skills learnt in the past 50 years serve us better? While we are always at risk of civilisation collapse, it probably wouldn’t happen in the same way it did for say the ancient Egyptians. Modern dissipation might look a lot like the fall of Rome but what could that teach us about internet porn? The answer to nearly all of civilisations ills was a strong leader. What can history teach us about getting one now?

There are always good things to learn from the past but only a talented historian can see where links might be drawn. For most of us the situations will have long since sped past before we recognise there were useful parallels. The teachings of Machiavelli or Sun Tzu are only useful if you absorb them and adapt them for modern engagements.

Aug 12, 2013 at 11:32 PM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2