Probability, credulity and credibility (and Dawkins)

Have you ever listened to your local TV News broadcast or read a story in your local paper that deals with a subject that you know about, and been amazed at the inaccuracy of the reporting? I have, which is why I mention it. In fact, more often that not, when I know something about the subject being reported, I will see how incredibly sloppy or just plain wrong the reported news is.

It makes me wonder, what are the chances that these 2 or 3 stories are the only ones being incorrectly reported? Considering that we have first-hand information on perhaps less than 1% of the reported news we listen to or read, couldn’t it be just coincidence that these were also the inaccurate stories? So, what is more probable: that our small, non-random sample of news reporting has coincidently found the handful of badly reported stories, or that our sample challenges the credibility of all news reporting? I am inclined to think that it is more probable to think that most, if not all, news stories are chock full of inaccuracies and just plain false information. At the very least, it challenges my credulity in the news media.

Now, let’s apply this same reasoning to some other non-fiction work, say, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. I freely admit to not being a scientist and I can’t converse intelligently on the specifics of micro-biology or whatever. Dawkins and friends have occasionally accused people like Behe, Dembski and others of misleading non-scientists with their slick presentations. This is to imply, of course, that folks like Dawkins would never stoop to misleading anyone with bad logic or misinformation. But who (aside from other scientists) is to say that this is true? As I said, I’m a relative simpleton, who must decide who to believe based on who appears most credible. Isn’t this the case with most of us?

But, there are some things that I do know, so I can start there. Take dualism, for example, the belief that there is a difference between matter (your brain) and the mind, or between body and soul. I know something of dualism, as I’ve been a dualist my entire life. Most of my friends are dualists. (I also know some duelists, but that’s another matter.) Dawkins begins his discussion of dualism innocently enough, saying that a dualist recognizes a distinction between matter and mind. Then, he accuses dualists (all of them) of believing the mind is a disembodied spirit that could leave the body, that mental illness is demon possession, and that dualists “personify inanimate physical objects at the slightest opportunity, seeing spirits and demons even in waterfalls and clouds.”

If I were completely ignorant of the topic, I might conclude, “dualists are completely wacko,” which, of course, is what Dawkins wishes you to think. However, I personally know of no dualists who believe spirits reside in either waterfalls or clouds. I do believe in spirits, good and evil; however I do not assume that mental illness is necessarily demon possession. Many duallists do not believe in spirits (other than the human mind or spirit). Here, I have to believe that Dawkins is being intentionally inaccurate, as any high school student could easily research and understand the topic, and present a more accurate description.

Dawkins makes similar claims that tax-free money taken in by American churches is “polishing the heels of already well-heeled televangelists.” Having been on a few church boards, I can say without hesitation that none of these churches’ money has gone to any televangelist. Again, this is something quite easy to fact-check. Dawkins’ book is full of such broad brush strokes and inaccuracies. This appears to be typical Dawkins-style rhetoric, which only works if you are totally clueless about the subject matter being discussed; it only takes a bit of knowledge on the topics, and a rudimentary understanding of logic, to recognize them.

So, what do we make of Dawkins? Is he, perhaps, just ignorant of issues of dualism and the workings of American church finances? Is he incredibly sloppy on mundane issues, but suddenly painstakingly accurate when he is explaining the errant arguments of Intelligent Design or the certainty of evolution “by slow, gradual degrees?” Can we therefore excuse these lapses of accuracy and accept as credible his statement that “We can now safely say that the illusion of design in living creatures is just that – an illusion“?

Looking back to my original premise, does that fact that Dawkins is so, shall we say, “inaccurate” with regard to these mundane issues imply the probability that he is also “inaccurate” with regard to more crucial issues? Or, is it just coincidence that he seems to be “inaccurate” with just the issues with which I happen to be knowledgeable?

I cannot, of course, with any logical certainty claim that a few small, white “inaccuracies” prove that he is wrong on any other topic. That would, indeed, be illogical. However, I think the odds certainly place his credibility at risk.

6 thoughts on “Probability, credulity and credibility (and Dawkins)”

  1. Came over here from Cartago Delenda Est.

    Every news story on a subject I’ve known about included inaccuracies. One was even, if only peripherally, about me though it didn’t mention my name. I guess the reporter didn’t know my name and that’s why he or she never contacted me to get my version of the matter being reported. Made it impossible to sue.

    Of course the story had a political slant. Poor indigenous people had been left without a doctor to care for them for months and months and months after the previous doctor left following a “personality clash” with one of the indigenous health workers.

    The guy was ten years younger than me, nearly twice my weight, didn’t like women and, after 6 months’ training and 6 months’ experience in practical nursing and very basic diagnostics, wanted to be the one who had the final say re all diagnoses and treatments. One day, at 11.30am, I asked him to arrange transport to hospital for a fellow who appeared to have pneumonia. As far as he was concerned he was on his lunch break. He followed me into the consulting room, bailed me up there and got right into my face, physically, about what he would and would not accept from me. I escaped through the other door. He chased me all the way to the admin section and threatened, very loudly, to sue me for harassment. That was just the last straw after many months of many weirdnesses. I went home a gibbering wreck and, as soon as I found another job that seemed to offer physical safety, I took it. Personality clash? Hardly!

    Dawkins’ thesis is just as political. Wicked, evil, Christians are trying to make him feel guilty. Those people are so powerful and oppressive these days! They must be destroyed so that he can do whatever he likes and never have to even hear of, let alone put up with, any kind of criticism at all.

  2. Now, you should know by now that I am not a “God of the gaps” kind of guy, as I see God everywhere…

    Have a great evening, Mike!

  3. I’m not throwing in with the fact that the points you emphasize are fiction, but I would go with the fact that they are perhaps over-generalizations.

    Good point on the John Mark Ministries site. I don’t think he should have included it in the end notes, because nothing irritates me more than unattributed quotes, although it is fun to see that the site is in the Baptist Top 1000. Kind of indicates how fractious the Christian religions are and how fun it is for each of them to try to undercut the others.

    As far as Dawkins and accuracy, perhaps he is not as precise in sections of this book as he was in his straight science books, such as _Blind Watchmaker_ and _Ancestor’s Tale_ (and you are welcome to take this as an “argument from authority”) but the care and precision he has taken in those books leads me to the conclusion that you have come to the wrong conclusion.

    Many atheists have been waiting for several months for _The Spiritual Brain_ to finally be published. The abstract of the original study was published in 2003 by the MetaNexus project on their website. The study of the Carmelite nuns indicates that yes, there are more than one loci of brain activity for transcendent experiences, but what we wish to see is the way in which Beauregard connects the dots to a conclusion that the “spirit” is separate from the brain. I promise I will pick up a copy, as you have waded through the God Delusion.

    Take courage, man, for as the God in the Gaps shrinks I will be here for you as you cling by your nails to the cliff of faith. 🙂

  4. My point is simply that Dawkins throws fiction in with fact willy-nilly, so where is the “edge” as Michael Behe would say? Does he ever get serious and write like a responsible journalist, not to mention scientist?

    I was also interested to find that in one place he used several quotes from Martin Luther. When I went to his source, I found a website listing numerous quotes out of context, with no references whatsoever. To me, this is beyond sloppy, and just one more clue that Dawkins seems to view accuracy as inconsequential. Personally, I find it hard to use a quote that can’t be verified, without at least making that admission. But, perhaps documentation standards are different at Oxford ;-).

    By the way, you might be interested in an upcoming book, The Spiritual Brain. There’s much in the way of neuroscience that is supporting dualism.

  5. I’ll go back and read the section of dualism, but I don’t think that the point that Dawkins is making is the same as you are presenting. However the idea of dualism is something in even a small manner as you present that is a holdover from such thinking, and makes as much sense to a materialist. So, if your point is that Dawkins claims that all dualists represent animism, I think you missed it. However, I will go back and check that section.

    Now, as to churches donating to evangelists, I know that you have avoided churches which contribute to the big old evangelists and I am curious as to the statistics on how many churches do so before dismissing his point out of hand.

    But we do get to the point that Egnor tries to press, that altruism is more than an abstraction borne out of thought, that it is a “thing” outside of materialist capability to create. This is a dualism that is shrinking with the ability of neurobiologists to trace the physical process of thought development and experience.

    I am so far behind on all my reading and now you make me go back and re-read!

    But here, I do appreciate the fact that you are actually reading the book and reviewing it based on what Dawkins write, which is something that has been so rare in the criticisms. (Google the Courtier’s Reply.)

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