Diarrhoea and Aids for Christmas

December 16th, 2009 by Ben Goldacre in africa, bad science, religion | 47 Comments »

image Last year I ran into Ariane Sherine. She had found that no charity would publicly take money from a book written by atheists at Christmas, since Christians give so much money for good work, and they didn’t want to annoy them. Luckily the Terence Higgins Trust stepped up to this bizarre challenge, which is excellent, because Aids is important, and THT do good stuff (especially on education), and they hold the line on evidence and common sense, as witnessed by their immediate response of “yes please” when offered cash. So, support THT, buy it now. There are chapters by Simon le Bon, Charlie Brooker, Richard Dawkins, David Baddiel, AC Grayling, and many many more. My chapter is below, it is about the power of ideas alone to do good and harm, and it is filled with mawkish Christmas cheer. In other news, Manto Tshabala-Msimang – South Africa’s health minister, who presided over that horrific period of institutionalised Aids denialism – has died today. You will have your own thoughts.

The Power of Ideas

Ben Goldacre

I don’t mean to fill your Christmas with AIDS and diarrhoea, but there is something awe-inspiring about the power of ideas alone to do great good, and great evil. Diarrhoea will be our happy ending. AIDS will not.

There are the cheap shots. Africa is filled with miracle-cure peddlers: the Gambian president, Yahya Jammeh, claims he can personally cure HIV, AIDS and asthma using magic and charms. The South African government fell for a cure built around nothing more than industrial solvent.

It’s all too easy to feel smug, and to forget that we have our own cultural idiosyncrasies. There’s compelling evidence, after all, that needle-exchange programmes reduce the spread of HIV, but the strategy has been rejected, time and again, in favour of ‘Just say no.’

And then there is the Church. In May 2009, as I write this chapter, the Congolese Bishops’ Conference have triumphantly announced that they ‘say no to condoms!’ This idiocy – they don’t deserve to be humoured – goes to the heart of the Catholic faith. In March, on his flight to Cameroon, Pope Benedict XVI explained that condoms worsen the AIDS problem, and he has been supported, in the past year alone, by Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia, and Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster. ‘It is quite ridiculous to go on about AIDS in Africa and condoms, and the Catholic Church,’ says O’Connor. ‘I talk to priests who say, “My diocese is flooded with condoms and there is more AIDS because of them.”’

Some have been imaginative in promoting their message. In 2007, Archbishop Francisco Chimoio of Mozambique announced that European condom manufacturers are deliberately infecting condoms with HIV to spread AIDS in Africa. It is estimated that one in six people in Mozambique is HIV positive. Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo of Colombia famously claimed that the HIV virus can pass through tiny holes in the rubber of condoms. ‘The condom is a cork,’ said Bishop Demetrio Fernandez of Spain, ‘and not always effective.’ In 2005 Bishop Elio Sgreccia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, explained that scientific research has never proven that condoms ‘immunise against infection’. He’s right, I suppose. No wonder the Pope has proclaimed that ‘The most effective presence on the front in the battle against HIV/AIDS is in fact the Catholic Church and her institutions.’

Development charities funded by US Christian groups refuse to engage with birth control, and any suggestion of abortion, even in countries where being in control of your own fertility could mean the difference between success and failure in life, is met with a cold, pious stare. These moral principles are so deeply entrenched that under President Bush, the US Presidential Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief insisted that every recipient of international aid money must sign a declaration expressly promising not to have any involvement with sex workers.

Equally, there are heartbreaking tales of Westerners with a whiff of science going into the developing world. Matthias Rath, for example, is a German vitamin-pill salesman, who moved into South Africa five years ago, taking out full-page adverts in national newspapers: ‘The answer to the AIDS epidemic is here,’ he announced. The answer, of course, was a vitamin pill.

He explained that antiretroviral medications were a conspiracy by the pharmaceutical industry to kill patients and make money. ‘Why should South Africans continue to be poisoned?’ he asked.

And he took his ideas to the right place. In South Africa alone, 300,000 people die every year from the virus; that’s one every two minutes. There are 1.2 million AIDS orphans, and more than half of all pregnant women are HIV positive. And South Africa was headed by President Thabo Mbeki, an ‘AIDS dissident’, as they prefer to be known. In the most crucial period of the AIDS epidemic, the South African government variously claimed that HIV was not the cause of AIDS, and that antiretroviral medications were not an effective treatment. They refused to roll out effective antiretroviral medication, they refused to accept gifts of money to give out ARV treatment, and they refused gifts of the pills themselves.

Mbeki’s health minister would appear on television to talk up the risks of antiretroviral medication, and talk down the benefits, promoting garlic and sweet African potato as effective treatments for AIDS. The South African government’s stall at the 2006 World AIDS Conference in Toronto was described by other delegates as ‘the salad stall’, because that’s all it contained. It has been estimated that between 2000 and 2005, around 350,000 people with AIDS died unnecessarily in South Africa as a result of these ideas. That’s quite a death toll, for an idea.

How does this happen? Perhaps AIDS is just too big to think about clearly. Twenty-five million people have died of it so far, three million in the past year, but these figures are so vast that it’s hard to mount an appropriate emotional response to them, if any.

Perhaps the undeniable crimes of the pharmaceutical industry make conspiracy theories about their effective products believable, lending them a kind of poetic truth. They do, after all, adhere to cruel and murderous pricing policies, and only this year, clinical trial regulations were explicitly changed so that clinical trials conducted by American companies on people in the developing world are no longer subject to the same high ethical standards as those conducted on US citizens.

These companies, of course, are not all bad, just as there are many good people in the Catholic Church (the overwhelming majority, I would imagine). And a cheap, single dose of the drug Nevirapine, we should remember, has been shown to reduce the risk of a pregnant mother passing on HIV to her baby by half.

But we are mistaken if we imagine that medicine moves forward through technology. In the past that was probably true: antibiotics, intensive care units – everything we associate with medicine. Now the pace of medical academic discovery has changed, and the power lies with ideas.

So let me tell you about diarrhoea. What are our two biggest weapons against torrential watery stool? One is telling people to wash their hands; it’s been demonstrated that this can halve the spread of diarrhoea, and so it could save a million lives a year. The other is even simpler, and even more powerful: telling people to rehydrate, using water with added sugar and salt. This is new, it has been carefully researched and refined, and despite being a simple idea, which anyone can follow, this meme has caused deaths from diarrhoea to plummet, saving at least fifty million lives since its universal adoption in the 1980s.

We can go higher. A hundred million people died in the last century from smoking. Around a billion are expected to die this century (because the cigarette industry has been so successful in China). But equally, tens of millions of lives will be saved, because Richard Doll and colleagues diligently collected and analysed data on the smoking habits and deaths of a few thousand doctors fifty years ago to pull out just one key fact: smoking kills.

With this idea, with handwashing, with rehydration fluid, and with the methods and principles that gave us these ideas, a small group of softly spoken saints have saved more people than you would meet in a thousand lifetimes.

The royalties from this book will go to Terrence Higgins Trust. I have seen the work they do up close, working in an HIV clinic in South London. THT offer practical support, but the most powerful work they do, to my mind, is in sharing information, destigmatising, informing, preventing infections and improving treatment regimes. Through the application of common sense, wit, compassion and evidence, they save lives. This is the future of medicine.

Oh, and it’s eight teaspoons of sugar and one of salt in a litre of water, if you ever need to know.

Merry Xmas.

From The Atheists Guide to Christmas, £12.99.

I guess you might also enjoy giving someone my book, which is £3.57.

If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

47 Responses

  1. Paul said,

    December 16, 2009 at 5:00 pm

    Ben, a great piece.

    A quick tip for getting more money for the THT.

    Set up an Amazon Affiliate account, and create an affiliate link to the book with that account.

    Each time someone buys the book through the link, the affiliate account gets a cut of the price, which you can then donate to THT.


  2. skyesteve said,

    December 16, 2009 at 5:07 pm


  3. Paul said,

    December 16, 2009 at 5:10 pm

    If you do make that an affiliate link, I will buy the book. Will also donate the same again to the THT for being lovely people with more than an ounce of sense.


  4. muscleman said,

    December 16, 2009 at 6:29 pm

    The idea (and the science behind why it works) of putting sugar (more specifically glucose) in oral rehydration fluid won a Nobel for two people. The story of it is one of the strongest anecdotes that I got from my undergraduate physiology course. So simple, so effective. I will add that if you are not somewhere where the water is clean, boil and cool it before adding the sugar and salt. Cholera kills because the dehydration gets you before your body’s immune system can see off the bacteria and the toxin which it is perfectly able to do so, given the chance.

  5. MrNick said,

    December 16, 2009 at 6:34 pm

    Brilliant as ever.


  6. mikewhit said,

    December 16, 2009 at 6:44 pm

    A friend who worked for MSF said if the glucose was not available per se, you could use water from boiled-up-and-simmered rice instead, for the starch/carbs content.

    Anyone know if this is equivalent or good enough ?

  7. Jerry said,

    December 16, 2009 at 8:58 pm

    £7.78 now on amazon.

    donate your savings directly to www.tht.org.uk/howyoucanhelpus/

  8. Quick2kill said,

    December 16, 2009 at 9:45 pm

    Ben it is great that you are helping fund the THT. However as an atheist and a scientist I am a little uncomfortable with how you are associating yourself with Richard Dawkins, as it undermines the message you make here about making evidence based statements and not misrepresenting science. The yellow part of the book title may be tongue in cheek but Dawkins makes serious statements along these lines which are simply false, for example ” The question of whether there exists a supernatural creator, a God, is one of the most important that we have to answer. I think that it is a scientific question. My answer is no. ” (richarddawkins.net/articles/4047)

    Science cannot address the question of a supernatural being who exists oustide of time and can defy even logic and reason. Science can and has ruled out certain creation myths, but it cannot demonstrate that there is no god. Nor can science demonstrate that the existence of a god is improbable. I am not saying that it is 50:50 either, which is the straw man Dawkins creates, science simply gives no objective probabilistic statement about it. Pretending it does can confuses the public about science.

    A common misconception is that science keeps overthrowing it’s ideas and changing what it states, so that what we say is true today might be false tomorrow, but this is wrong. Science keeps progressing, but very well established knowledge is almost never overturned. For example many people think Newtonian mechanics is wrong and Einstein’s ideas overthrew it. This is wrong, Newtonian mechanics is a good and very well tested description of nature for speeds much less than the speed of light at macroscopic scales which applies today. Einstein suggested it would breaks down when you move out of this regeime and was subsequently proved correct. This does not falsify the vast body of evidence supporting Newtonian mechanics.

    When Dawkins tries to extend science to the point of claiming that god is unlikely based on the theory of evolution he feeds into this basic misunderstanding. We cannot extend sceintific models beyond the empirical evidence base on which they are established and call it fact.

  9. Andy Graham said,

    December 16, 2009 at 11:24 pm

    Erm, in response to the comments of Quick2Kill above, don’t the believers have to offer some evidence? My understanding is that, for most quackery, we require convincing argument for the existence of a phenomenon before we are required to refute it. When someone suggests (again) that they’ve invented a perpetual motion machine we don’t all rush off to find evidence that their machine doesn’t work, we just smile patiently and wait for a demonstration. Once they provide that we roll our sleeves up.

    I have never heard Prof. Dawkins argue that evolution disproves the existence of god, though I have heard him argue that it renders god a touch useless. I would probably agree that evolution doesn’t prove the issue one way or another. Mind you, I’d say that the global infant mortality rate (approximately 1 in 20 babies born die in their first year, according to Wikipedia, my poor maths and savage rounding) tips the scales fairly dramaticaly away from a compassionate god. Also, what we know about the mind and it’s function when the brain is damaged would seem to cast doubt on any meaningful life after death. Bottom line, saying science can’t have a say on any question of objective fact (such as “is there a
    god?”) makes me nervous.

  10. Rhoe said,

    December 16, 2009 at 11:38 pm

    Great section, grabbing the book when I can.

    But to Quick2kill… (COUNTER WALL OF TEXT OH NOES)

    Without starting a flamewar,I have to disagree with most of your points. To begin with, I think your entering into an argument you assume he is ignorant in, while taking a position which occupies a decent chunk of The God Delusion, his NOMA section. That being, you see science as being fundamentally a different issue from anything religion has to offer, or at least in principle non-interfering. Without stealing the thunder of a pretty good chapter, the main idea is always that your entering the argument with a specific misconception, the privilege of religious beliefs.

    You’ve seemingly made a gap in your mind where you think its completely okay for a belief in a set of (specific) beliefs that are just not touchable. An example in any other field is patently absurd; if you ask what colour my hair is, my answer is brown. If you then say “I’m afraid not, it has the transcendental property of yellow.” I’m in no way inclined to agree and let you go on your way. Because it ISN’T yellow. It’s brown. I can no more disprove god then disprove my yellow hair. I’m as certain my hair is brown as there is no God; if asked, I say brown without a doubt, not Brown with the acceptably large chance of transcendental yellow. I have no evidence, other then ramblings of the Yellow Cultists, to say otherwise. My point is that are language is not the allowances of “it could be”, we don’t mean “maybe” every time we say yes or no, and we definitely do not make allowances for (pardon my own straw man) wish granting, sky dwelling, murderous omnipotent merciful wizards.

    On the similar note of God existing at all, there’s no evidence. To believe something with such sweeping magical powers, I’m going to need tonnes of proof to believe in him. Instead of getting lots, indeed, instead of getting some, I get none. I get opinions, I get the will of the community, I 1500 year old philosophical theories ridiculous in their own age and useless now.

    On the “common” misconception of science overthrowing ideas (it does), I don’t want to write, since I don’t want to throw up walls of text on such a pretty blog. I’d just like to ask anyone reading this in the future to read somewhat into the concept of Paradigm Shifts and the work on them by Thomas Kuhn.

  11. Quick2kill said,

    December 17, 2009 at 2:14 am

    Hmmm… I think both of the above two posts actually illustrate my point about Dawkins confusing the public about science. And presumably you are both intelligent and want to look at the world from an evidence based perspective, so it is really upsetting. I hope Ben reads them and sees the point.

    I also think you both badly misunderstood what I am saying. I am and atheist. Not only do I not believe in god, I actively believe there is no god. However that belief is not a scientific opinion, one cannot make probablilistic statements about the liklihood of god from science. One can use science to remove reasons for invoking a god or disproving certain specific relions, which make falsified claims but you cannot use it to make blanket statements removing a huge class of untestable hypotheses.

  12. Quick2kill said,

    December 17, 2009 at 2:39 am

    @Andy Graham: quacks make claims which actually violate well tested and understood parts of science and present no coherent model to explain how their effect could be true in light of data. Perpetual motion machines are an example of this. In such cases they have already been proven wrong and any test are just to shut them up or to try and discourage the public from falling for the nonsense.

    Even if the claims don’t actually violate well tested science just postulating some random idea isn’t necessarily going to get scientists to investigate it. They probably want some motivation to select it from all the other equivelent possibilities they could examine. But in that case our lack of interest also doesn’t make it false. However neither does it or some quacks firm belief mean it’s true. We simply don’t know and cannot make statements about it.

    @Rhoe: I didn’t say science was fundamentally a different from religion. If religion makes specific predictions we can test them and falsify it. I am saying unless it makes testable prediction we cannot. Since it is possible to imagine a god which does not violate any current data then we cannot say there is no god. We can say there is no god who created the earth a few thousand years ago, but that is different.

    As for your hair, I’m pretty sure we can test what colour it is ;). So we can use use science to make objective statements about the probability of us getting the data, given the hypothesis that your hair is brown vs the probability given it’s yellow. I think we could be pretty conclusive about it we put in enough effort. We cannot test the hypothesis that god exist outside of time and set up the big bang, sorry but thats just not possible :).

    I know about the idea of Paradigm Shifts and it’s an awful idea that completely misrepresents science. If you really believe in it you are defining science in a way which is shakey and fallible. In that case you can say science disputes the existence of god but that could all change in the next paradigm shift so what is the point? It may not be realtivism but its still pretty bad. If you’re interested in the phillosophy of science, read popper instead, but igrore his fudged Verisimilitude, or even bayesianism, though be aware you going away from objective statements when you bring in priors.

    But w/e please believe that the a progression in science does not mean that everything which proceeded it was nonsense. The evidence was good and the model worked well, it was just a limited description which fails when you extend it. You understand that newtownian mechanics is still taught in schools and universities right, that they used (and still do) newtonian mechanics
    to put people into space.

    A huge challenge in model building in science is constructing something which fits all data but does something new, well motivated and makes predictions we can test. We have a model of the world which explains data where we’ve tested, beyond that there an infinite set of possible extensions. However while we are not interested in things which we cannot test they are equivelent possibilities and allcould be true. We might use occams razor to pick a place holder, but ractual;ly distiguishing betyween them is phillosophy not science.

  13. jmckaskle said,

    December 17, 2009 at 6:16 am

    You state that science (by which I believe you mean the scientific method) cannot be used to prove the existence of god because god exists outside of time, logic, and reason. And how do you know this to be the case? And this is the god you don’t believe in? What does it mean to exist outside of time, logic, and reason? That sounds like an empty gesture in place of an argument. If god exists and is involved or was involved at some point in the creation or setting in motion of the universe, is it so unreasonable that some effect of his influence would be detectable?

    What you have done is defined God out of existence. Which is fine. I don’t believe in a non-manifesting, unreasonable, illogical non-being any more than a personal god. But I’m not going around telling people that they can’t prove what indont believe in. That is completely inane.

  14. progjohn said,

    December 17, 2009 at 8:13 am

    @Quick2kill: I don’t think science can even disprove the creationist “universe is a few thousand years old” nonsense, I see no reason a god couldn’t have created a universe part way through expansion with a false fossil record. Seems phenomanally unlikely, but then so does god. I see no reason for science to waste it’s time even considering the subject, anymore than it should try to disprove the tooth fairy.
    On a side issue, I agree with Heinlein that most gods have the manners and morals of a spoiled 5 year old, looking around the earth if there is a god I certainly won’t be worshipping it.

  15. julie oakley said,

    December 17, 2009 at 9:46 am

    @ Andy Graham
    “Mind you, I’d say that the global infant mortality rate (approximately 1 in 20 babies born die in their first year, according to Wikipedia, my poor maths and savage rounding) tips the scales fairly dramaticaly away from a compassionate god.”

    I think a believer in God would point out that you’re assuming that a compassionate god has the same intelligence as human beings. My dog probably questions my compassion when I have him vaccinated.

    @ progjohn

    ‘I see no reason for science to waste it’s time even considering the subject, anymore than it should try to disprove the tooth fairy”

    I agree, and I think that Richard Dawkins does scientists, rationalists and atheists no favours by being so smug and offensive.

  16. Guy said,

    December 17, 2009 at 10:22 am

    Quick2Kill – your statement “When Dawkins tries to extend science to the point of claiming that god is unlikely based on the theory of evolution he feeds into this basic misunderstanding”, sounds incredibly reasonable to me.

    Science is simply a rational approach to the world around us and how we appraise evidence. We understand a huge amount about the complexities of how the world works. To invoke a god without any evidence, is an added complication and therefore very unlikely. That’s all he says.

    He also says it in a less emollient and respectful way than people have argued in the past. Sometimes that grates with me, but then I see the rise of the fundamentalist Christians in US of A and the whole Int Design argument in schools and I think he is not rabid enough.

    So I suppose I agree that scientists, ie people who work in a rational world and expect proof or at least evidence for ideas, should be vocally against religion.

  17. Jessicathejourno said,

    December 17, 2009 at 11:42 am

    “You will have your own thoughts.”

    Classy Ben.

    Rhoe, the NOMA section of The God Delusion was probably the least satisfying part of it, and there were a lot of unsatisfying parts.

    Some new evidence of this is how badly you’ve misunderstood NOMA. NOMA isn’t about different perceptions of physical things, as in your hair example. It’s about, say, the difference between understanding how you get knocked up and understanding why it’s wrong for a married man to knock up a chick who’s not his wife. One of Gould’s arguments with NOMA is that scientific knowledge is not able to teach the sort of morality at play in the second case, and shouldn’t try to.

    Dawkins spent much of the book talking about how educated humanism can encourage coherent social, moral behaviour in a way that would make the role of religion or spirituality as a codifier or educator of morality superfluous. Believing this, he could argue that Gould’s NOMA idea was unnecessary, and probably insincere (also very classy, considering how the recently deceased Gould was no longer in a position to defend his sincerity).

    But his belief is something the creators of South Park were able to effectively argue against in less than an hour of animation. The historical record doesn’t support it either, which was the driving weakness of The God Delusion (and synchronously of Dawkin’s criticism of NOMA as well): Dawkins’ superficial-at-best acquaintance with the magisterium of history shines out on every third page.

    I’m quite sure the reason NOMA annoys people like Dawkins and some of the people on this board is that many religions have very obviously and very violently stomped all over magisteria they didn’t belong in through recorded history. And fair enough. But while that may make many religions bad, it doesn’t make religion useless, and it doesn’t make NOMA wrong.

  18. Roxon said,

    December 17, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    Just got mine in the mail!

    I have only read the first two short stories so far, and to be honest, I thought the first one was crap. Didn’t seem like Byrne had anything to say at all, and didn’t like his style of writing much either. Enjoyed the one from Jenny Colgan though, and am looking forward to enjoying most of the rest 🙂

    To touch the Dawkins thing going on here briefly, I think the problem is that we have as many definitions for the word “god” as we have people. If god manifests himself in the real world in any way at all, the hypotheses for his existence should be testable by scientific means. Most believers happen to believe in such a god, one that not only interacts with the physical world around us, but does it because he genuinely cares of the doings of every living person on the planet.

    I recall Dawkins saying in several debates something about the existence of a creator god being as probable as having transcended pixies living under his garden. These two notions are equally useful. You can’t prove either to be false scientifically. You may not even be able to say anything about their probability, depending on what your definitions of “transcended pixies” and “god” are.

    If your god is simply something that sets things into motion, and then sits back doing nothing ever after, yeah, you probably can’t test him but the whole idea isn’t doing us any good either.

  19. skyesteve said,

    December 17, 2009 at 12:23 pm

    I’m not a fan of Gould’s NOMA concept. If religion is a “magisteria” – like, say, science, maths or music – then why does it lead to so much division, so many attempts (by means of force and hideous violence)to force one set of beliefs on another, etc? I don’t see folk kiiling each other in the name of gravity or arithmetic or Mozart. I don’t see musicians trying to force The Beatles onto the music curriculum of every school even though, by common reckoning, they may have been the best “pop” band ever.
    Religion is ultimately about (blind?) faith. And that’s fine by me – believe in what you want to believe in – God’s fine, the tooth fairy, even Santa Claus – but don’t use those beliefs to justify prejudice, hatred and slaughter. And don’t assume that you need to be religious to have a sense or system of morals, ethics, goodness, kindness, justice, peace, etc.
    Frankly, everyone just needs to be more tolerant and take a chill pill. Have a happy festive season (remember in Scotland it’s Hogmanay that really counts!).

  20. Jessicathejourno said,

    December 17, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    Skyesteve, I think the problem with religion as a magisterium is the same problem that comes with any magisterium that codifies moral behaviour.

    The fact that we NEED, as humans, to codify moral behaviour is proof in itself we’re a mess of instincts to act in a way that isn’t ‘up to code’. And as rational and thoughtful animals living in dynamic societies, people born in a society with a moral code they disagree with will often disagree with it violently, and probably be silenced with equal or greater violence.

    Dawkins argues that moral codes based on informed humanism wouldn’t be like that. I’d argue that based on the historical record, that’s an incredibly naive thing to think. It certainly hasn’t happened yet in any societies where religion was consciously supplanted as a moral arbiter by what seemed like informed humanism at the time.

    Whether you think informed humanism would be any better or any worse a moral arbiter than religion is, in all honesty and snideness aside, a matter of faith. In terms of people actually being any nicer to each other than they have through much of recorded history, I think you’ve got the right idea – whether humanists or fairytale apassionatos, everybody needs to take a chill pill.

  21. Teapot said,

    December 17, 2009 at 1:22 pm

    A very nice piece, Ben. It illustrates the point that the big health advances are mostly simple things like this, and general prevention, rather than drugs. Its things like clean drinking water and vaccines that save the most lives, with all the vastly overpriced drugs having much lesser, often largely palliative, effects.

    Please do not feed the trolls.

  22. SimonW said,

    December 17, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    The irony here is that Quick2kill’s views and Dawkin’s appear to be almost indistinguishable. Except Quick2kill wants to extrapolate from one sentence rather than read the book.

    Dawkin’s in TGD is very quick to define the god he is saying is a delusion, and accepts there are unanswerable or unknowable questions.

    It is equally unknowable as to whether I have an invisible, intangible, unicorn in my garage. So unless god makes testable influences in the world, there is no evidence to that anyone has any knowledge of god; thus anyone claiming to probably should be treated as I would be if I pushed the invisible unicorn line more than I do.

  23. skyesteve said,

    December 17, 2009 at 2:04 pm

    @Jessicathejourno – can only speak for myself but I thought the The God Delusion was self-indulgent, turgid and unhelpful and I think you’re right – in terms of upholding moral codes, informed humanism would likely be no better because in the end of the day we’re all individual human beings!

  24. Andy Graham said,

    December 17, 2009 at 2:37 pm


    I disagree that we can’t say anything about a topic from a scientific point of view. I agree that we can’t put “Disproven” in the margin next to “god”, but we can put “no supporting evidence whatsoever”, which is pretty damning in the circumstances. Besides, isn’t god just the ultimite perpetual motion machine?

    @Julie Oakley

    I do not want to become emotive here as it would not be reasonable. However, you just compared “vaccinating a dog” to “creating millions of babies and then allowing them to die within 12 months, often by starvation”. Whatever god’s hidden purpose was there I suspect it would have to be a good of mammoth proportions to outweigh the evil, and that’s only if you believe that goods and evils cancel one another out.

    Now, I suspect that we have once again hijacked Ben’s point. He didn’t seem to be talking about atheism so much as the good/evil of certain ideas, using religion as an excellent and abundant source of evil ideas. I agree with his point.

    I (probably) won’t be responding to further “is there a god?” posts so as not to clog the discussion but feel free to reply to mine and I will, of course, read them and become enraged 😉


    I agree with @skysteve, I didn’t find The God Delusion particularly helpful beyond the first few pages where he exhorts some “agnostics” to out themselves as atheists. I was one of those agnostics.

    Also, @SimonW makes an excellent point about the original @Quick2Kill comment.

  25. elvisionary said,

    December 17, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    Most religions represent a theory about the universe. Surely a major part of science is to evaluate competing theories by assessing the evidence in support of them and assessing their explanatory power? If a theory has no supporting evidence and no explanatory power, and is competing against theories that have supporting evidence and explanatory power, then it is a perfectly scientific approach to be dismissive of the theory.

    Scientific developments over the last two centuries have significantly reduced the explanatory power of religion by providing theories, backed up with evidence, that provide far better explanations for natural phenomena. Whilst definitive proof of such theories may be impossible, there does come a point where the evidence is so strong (and the alternative theories so weak) that for all practical purposes the theory should be seen as proven. In other words, there are different levels of proof – take for example mathematical proof (pure and logical), and contrast it with proof in a criminal court (beyond reasonable doubt). Those who think that science can only make statements about mathematical levels of proof are simply wrong.

    My experience of Dawkins’ writing is that he is actually very precise about this, and it is very harsh to blame him for people’s failure either to read or understand what he is saying. Yes, he asks for it to an extent by going well beyond science in his attacks on religion.

    The idea that science and religion operate in totally separate spheres is patently absurd – I’ll only accept that when religions stop making empirical claims about the universe (God created it, Jesus was resurrected, hell exists, prayer can influence outcomes, etc.). But any religion that makes no empirical claims about the universe is so narrow that it barely represents religion at all – and certainly doesn’t bear any resemblance to the abrahamic religions that dominate our planet.

  26. Quick2kill said,

    December 17, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    @jmckaskle: i said the postulate of a god existing outside of time, ect was unfalsifiable, i didn’t adopt it. there are many other god hypotheses that don’t conflict since there are huge gaps in our understanding of the universe, so one can construct new models out of range of experimental tests with or without god. the latter btw is part of what scientists do.

    @progjohn you are sort of right that we can’t disprove creationist claims (in practice we don’t, we just point out they are not testable scientific hypothesis), the phillosophy of science is a difficult beast but i am not playing those games. above i postulated a god whose influence is outside the range of empirical evidence we have, not one who fakes it all very careful.

    @Guy: your logic is faulty. just because there is no evidence for something, beyond testing does not make it unlikely. that is dawkins huge fallacy. it’s a problem because real science is curious about what nature is like beyond the range of tests we have done so far. toothfairies may seem silly, but e.g currently unobserved extra dimensions do not, at least to many particle physicists.

    @SimonW: He made this statement in many lectures he gave, his qualification that it’s not quite disproven but very improbable is not make it an acceptable scientific statement and whether he intends it or not it is clearly being interpreted as such. you might consider this to be a small issue but given that the logic (e.g. guy) being applied here to justify it would, if correct, make much of scientific research a pointless activity, i respectfully disagree. whether or not he is more careful in his books is irrelevant, senior scientists should not go around making misleading statements about science to sell their books or for any other reason.

  27. Quick2kill said,

    December 17, 2009 at 4:32 pm

    @elvis:I like most of urpost actually but…

    ‘Those who think that science can only make statements about mathematical levels of proof are simply wrong.’ not sure why you say this, however not only is it true, but science can in fact never make such proof. we have theories which have empirical evidence (sometimes overwealming) to support them, not theorems.

    ‘I’ll only accept that when religions stop making empirical claims about the universe (God created it, Jesus was resurrected, hell exists, prayer can influence outcomes, etc.).’
    I didn’t say they necessarily operated in entirely different spheres, but remember in order to scientifically falsify something it shouldn’t just make empirical statements, those statements also need to be actually tested. I don’t want to start discussing what is and what is not the view of established religions (thats for the believers to say) but rational people will stop believing empirical claims from religion when they get falsified, but they may not drop the whole religion, just change interpretation in light of evidence.

  28. julie oakley said,

    December 17, 2009 at 9:19 pm

    @Andy Graham
    Oh gosh you’ve forced me to respond by misrepresenting me. My dog does not have the intellect to understand why I let someone poke a needle into him. A religious believer would say that mere humans do not have the intellect to understand why a compassionate god would allow suffering. THAT is the comparison I’m making.

    I think you’re right too – when you say that informed humanism may not be a better moral arbiter than religion.

  29. bobske said,

    December 17, 2009 at 9:28 pm

    If… if an elephant were a mouse, then everything was possible.
    Let’s say that I show you a match box with some matches inside. Then I put the matchbox behind my back and empty it, in sight of a choosen witness. Showing now the box, I will ask « do you believe there is something inside »… The answer can only be « yes, I believe » or « no, I believe not » or « no idea ». Only the witness can tell what happened and how it happened. If he is honest he will say something else then being a liar.
    Now, what answer will be the truth?
    We can only analyse scientifically the answer of the witness. Only the witness. Nothing else.

  30. thekumquat said,

    December 18, 2009 at 8:16 am

    Running *way* away from the eternal subject of god here – am I the only one surprised and depressed by the fact that most charities refused to accept money from a book by atheists?

    The only time I’ve heard of donations being rejected before was when Maggie’s Cancer Centres refused money frome ‘Jerry Springer the Opera’ after Christian VOice complained, which only made me vow never to give money to Maggie’s. That episode was presented as “CV deprives charity” so it rather backfired.

    Are so many mainstream charities really running scared of the power of Christian Voice, or just assuming that most Christians are like them (even more depressing)?

  31. progjohn said,

    December 18, 2009 at 8:17 am

    I don’t feel that NOMA concept that religion should be left to determine the moral code we live by. Religious moral teachings are a mixture of things I would agree with (thou shalt not kill is a good one, pity there always seems to be room for plenty of exceptions), stuff that may have been useful once but is irrelevant rubbish now (don’t eat pork), and dangerous crap (no birth control).

    I think a rational humanist code, constructed using modern philosophical ideas, and incorporating our scientific understanding of how our world and our minds operate would lead to a much more suitable and useful moral code than any religion can supply. Of course it does beg the question “who defines the code)?”.

  32. Guy said,

    December 18, 2009 at 9:07 am

    Quick2Kill. Arrogant statements like
    “@Guy: your logic is faulty. just because there is no evidence for something, beyond testing does not make it unlikely” aren’t actually an arguement.
    The absence of any evidence of God taking any active part in the world, positive or negative eg I don’t see blasphemers being struck down by lightening bolts or devouts saved from the massacre, means that the existence of a God is unlikely.
    Perhaps you can demonstrate how that logic is faulty. Occam’s razor applies.

  33. kim said,

    December 18, 2009 at 9:59 am

    @thekumquat: “Running *way* away from the eternal subject of god here – am I the only one surprised and depressed by the fact that most charities refused to accept money from a book by atheists?”

    Yes, I was surprised too. Is it really the case that Christians would stop giving money to a particular charity if that charity accepted money from atheists. I mean, it’s not very Christian, is it? Perhaps the charities were being over-cautious. I hope so.

  34. Quick2kill said,

    December 18, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    @Guy: Sorry if I sounded arrogant, I was trying to shorten the reply, didn’t intend the tone. Occam’s razor is a principle we use, it doesn’t mean the other possibilities are less likely. You cannot give an objective probabilistic distinction between two theories which make the same the testable predictions. I’ll stop obsessively replying to every comment now :).

  35. Andy Graham said,

    December 18, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    @Julie Oakley

    I apologise for not being clearer. I understood your original analogy and I disagree with it. However, in my argument I muffed a couple of steps so I will try it again.

    In your analogy, your dog is hurt by a vaccination because it is painful and so he suffers. However, the suffering is worth it because he is subsequently immune from a disease which otherwise might make him unwell. He is unable to understand this because he is a dog.

    Here’s what’s wrong with the analogy:

    The fact that babies die is not better for the babies themselves, nor is it better for their parents. Thus, dead babies differ from your analogy since those who suffer are not the same as those who benefit. On this point, unless we accept that it is not beneficial for babies and parents to suffer we need to question whether we should ever intervene in death or illness since surely it must always be “for the best” for that person “in a way that we can’t understand”. On the other hand, if it is true that it is not better for them and it’s just better for the rest of us then we have the moral problem of whether we should be happy to benefit from all the dead babies.

    I think this makes it clear that your analogy needs some work. However, in the hope of avoiding a further analogy (perhaps one about a fat man and some other people on alternate train tracks), here is a better argument..

    You contend that “mere humans do not have the intellect to understand why a compassionate god would allow suffering”. There are two statements here.

    1) There exists a reason, A, which has convinced god that he must allow suffering.
    2) There do not exist any humans who can understand A.

    Statement 1) means that we need to ask god what A is, because no one else would know. God is notoriously silent on this (and any other) issue, and so A appears to be unknowable. Point 2) means that no human can possibly understand A even if he knew what it was. Thus, A is doubly unknowable because if I am human and I am told A, it can’t convince me of god’s reasoning because I can’t possibly understand A.

    Your contention is therefore, by definition, untestable (by humans) and impossible to disprove. On the contention itself, science and logic are necessarily silent because there is nothing which can be said about something which is untestable, other than it is untestable. Here are some more untestable statements which, as I understand your argument, are equally impossible to disprove:

    God got drunk and created humanity. Waking up the next morning, the other gods laughed at god for creating people to worship him (I mean, come on!) and for daring to call himself “god” like he’s the only one or something. God is a vengeful god (there’s some “evidence” for this in the bible) but he is a coward and afraid of the other gods. Blaming humanity for his embarrassment. he sets about torturing humanity for the rest of time by killing their babies and creating that plastic packaging which hurts your hands to open and is impervious to scissors.

    or how about…

    A number of different gods got together and earnestly, with good intentions, created humanity. Then they left us to it.


    Billions of years ago stars and planets formed from giant dust clouds. On one of the planets, after many many years of it not happening, life happened (it had to sooner or later). Many years later some of the life, called humanity, was walking around and said “I wonder what this life thing is all about then?” and he created god as a convenient, if unimaginative, one-size-fits-all explanation.

    Hang on, that last one might just be testable.

    Once again, apologies for clogging.

  36. pv said,

    December 18, 2009 at 11:24 pm

    I see this has been derailed into an argument about Richard Dawkins. Well done Quick2kill. You wouldn’t like Bertrand Russell then and, judging from your evidence-free statements thus far, he was a much clearer thinker than you.
    I will defend Dawkins and be bold enough to say that nothing you’ve written about him is actually true. It is somewhat ironic that it was Dawkins who coined the word “meme”. The not infrequent bashing of Richard Dawkins for words, attitudes and behaviour that cannot be demonstrated in any substantial way is a “meme”. A bit like God is a “meme” – the product of providential people.

    But back to the subject. Money for the Terrence Higgins Trust. Fantastic!

  37. jameskildare said,

    December 19, 2009 at 3:51 pm

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  38. Lise said,

    December 20, 2009 at 12:23 am

    I think that while most peoples knowledge of science here is obvious, some peoples knowledge of the English language is lacking. Belief, according to the OED, is a firmly held opinion about something which cannot be proven – therefore any talk of proving or disproving the existence of God. Of course, the same applies to rather a lot of theoretical quantum physics.

    There are also basic misunderstandings about History and the Catholic Churchs’ position on contraception and abortion. The talk about a compassionate God is irrelevant as humans were ‘created’ with free-will. Most of the myths to do with direct intervention were linked to particular Historical events or created by rabbis to explain or codify behaviour. Predestination and direct intervention were invented by Reformers to differentiate the ‘Elect’ and exclude everyone else – particularly Catholics by the way. And the Church view is that sex should take place within a loving committed and exclusive relationship where children are not viewed as an inconvenience to be got rid of and where life is sacrosanct under any conditions. If it is wrong to take a life once, it is wrong at any time and sophistry is not accepted. The fact the world does not live up to this is not the Churchs’ fault and anyone who professes to Christianity should live this way. The Church also spends more than any other organisation on aid in Africa without the previous strings – this isnt the 19th century any more.

    In saying that as a Catholic I do not agree with everything about the Church and I symaphise with those whose lives are out of their control (although I’m 100% on taking a life being wrong, no matter how convenient). And as a scientist I think the only way we can understand the universe is through Science, through testing. I dont think these are mutually exclusive. To me the energy of the universe is God; the order underlying chaos theory (Maths being the most perfect Science) is God; the sheer wealth of coincidence, chance and randomness required for there not to be a God points in the direction of it. The personification is just to let our tiny human minds comprehend it. And I think anyone who dismisses any belief out of hand just because it isnt theirs closes their mind to the possibilities in an infinite universe!

    Merry Christmas!

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  40. mikewhit said,

    December 22, 2009 at 2:43 pm

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  41. MarkHW said,

    December 27, 2009 at 10:42 am

    What makes it so difficult to engage with Christianity as it is actually understood by at least some people who believe it? I know there are Christians who do who make absurd, illogical and unhelpful claims – but so do many atheists and agnostics. Rather than simply knock down silly Theistic claims that see God as a magical ‘fairy at the bottom of the garden’ why not ask instead what is it that is actually believed by many of us? Wouldn’t this be the fairer ‘scientific’ approach? I share so much of this website’s views about science and indeed bad Christian claims. But I’m a Christian as well and remain curious as to why it is assumed that I have to hold the irrational and evil views you ascribe to me. Having said that I’m equally curious why some Christians are so reluctant to engage with science and are so unfair in their treatment of Dawkins and co – so perhaps that is the answer to my initial question. Can we call a truce and try to be fair to each other and genuinely seek to understand what is being said by those we disagree with?

  42. md1364 said,

    December 27, 2009 at 1:16 pm

    Let’s not get confused here and blame the concept of a merciful god with blatant human greed and inaction. One understanding of god is the embodiment of everything that is high and noble about humanity so the argument we, as the human race, allow through inaction and greed so many children to die can be somehow laid at gods door is totally meaningless. If a higher intelligence had been manifest at the crossrads when decisions are made perhaps the overpopulation caused by the ‘sexual revolution’ might have been reined in somewhat. The ‘problems’ that we face as a race are of our making and trying to blame the non-existence of god is, at best, childish.

  43. heavens said,

    December 30, 2009 at 1:14 am

    > being in control of your own fertility could mean the difference between success and failure in life

    Ben, if your “success” requires you to kill a morally significant human, then you are already a failure — just not the kind of failure that can be identified by looking into your bank account. Public policy folks heavily promote materialistic outcomes, but ignore compassion, caring, perseverance, and other virtues. Having fewer children, or having only children of the “right” kind, might make a person materially wealthier, but wealth is not the only possible definition of “success in life.” Treating children like they’re optional (and even disposable) things, rather than humans, does not make us better, more noble, or ultimately more successful. It’s true that people have been aborting pregnancies and killing infants (especially girls) for thousands of years, but this doesn’t make that behavior *good*.

  44. heavens said,

    December 30, 2009 at 1:35 am

    About Christians in charitable organizations:

    I’ve been working with an AIDS-related charity for about a dozen years now. AIDS-related charities in my area get two kinds of adult volunteers and donors:

    * GLB (very rarely TQ) people (and their parents or older siblings) that know a gay man with AIDS and/or who died from AIDS, and

    * Active/church-going Christians.

    If the atheist contingent wants to have an impact on these charities, they might try showing up, or at least getting out their checkbooks. Straight atheist men are typically the least generous donors, especially for human service work.

    It happens that I haven’t ever encountered anyone that would refuse donations from any (legal) source, but I could easily imagine an organization not wanting to alienate a significant fraction of their donor base by giving a substantial advertisement to a group that might offend their donor base for a relatively small donation. Losing even 5% of your reliable donors for a one-time gift is generally a poor trade.

  45. MacMcC said,

    January 3, 2010 at 10:49 am

    Suely a good part of Dawkins’ point about the non-existence of god lies in the multiplicity of gods that need to be believed in if the faith of the faithful has any meaning. Maybe – though it seems unlikely – one religion is true, but in their mutually exclusive way they can’t all be. Occam’s razor suggests that it is more likely that none of them is true than that any one of them is.

  46. jws said,

    January 10, 2010 at 9:08 pm

    I realise this is a bit of a late comment, but I’ve just read the article. I am a great fan of “Bad Science”, and I am so pleased that there is someone I can trust to make true statements based on actual research, so that I don’t have to do it. I am also no supporter of the attitude of the “US Christian Groups” to birth control, condoms, and sex workers as mentioned above.

    The paragraph says “Development charities funded by US Christian groups…”. Certainly it does not say “All development charities…”, but neither does it say “Some (or even Most) development charities…” For better or worse, I took it to mean “all”.

    But I recently heard a talk given by a former employee of WorldVision, the US-based world’s largest Christian-based development charity. The way he spoke certainly suggested that they were not that kind of organisation. I found this information about their work with sex workers in India: www.worldvision.org.uk/server.php?show=nav.2357 and this sponsor form that is very clear about their distribution of condoms: www.bugonline.org/upload/pdf/sponsor_form.pdf

    My disappointment is not so much that “All” development charities funded by US Christian Groups have been tarred with the same brush, but more that, had I not heard the talk by the WorldVision employee, I would have been misled by what Ben Goldacre wrote. And if I would have been misled once, then, sadly, I will now have to be “twice shy”.

  47. joey89924 said,

    November 16, 2012 at 2:40 am

    We might use occams razor to pick a place holder, but ractual;ly distiguishing betyween them is phillosophy not science.