Thursday, 31 May 2012

Preaching evil

In the UK the BBC publishes a science magazine called Focus, which is normally informative and enjoyable to read; but the April 2012 issue had a very prominent cover story, spelling out in large letters to its readers (mostly young, I  suspect),  that, ‘it is GOOD to be BAD: the scientific secrets of career success, better relationships and good health.’

This reminds me of 1984 by George Orwell, in which the Party claims that ‘good is bad’ etc. See 1984 revisited and collective postmodernism. Like the Party the publishers of this magazine are in effect saying that good and bad do not exist in any absolute, moral sense. They are human constructs and so it would be foolish to obey a non-existent deity if this stops you climbing the ladder to power and wealth. You are the only deity so anything goes.

Opening up the lavishly illustrated magazine one finds a series of short reports over 7 pages, some of which exhort readers to lie, cheat and get angry at work or in trying to attract a partner.  As regards relationships between couples the scientific findings suggest sadistic and masochistic behaviour strengthens them. All this is ‘backed up’ by ‘scientific’ findings.

Even if the findings are ‘scientifically’ substantiated, rather than just selectively assembled from a wide morass of conflicting sociological data to make a sensational collection (the more likely option in my view)  most people in the UK will not need any thoughts from me on the obvious inadvisability of putting out such messages.

As a Christian I see it as evil but even in my four decades of adult agnosticism I would have regarded this as irresponsible and totally wrong headed. It testifies to a society led by people who are increasingly out of touch with the reality from which humanity and the natural world have emerged and who are speeding up social decay and breakdown as well as undermining faith in a rational, creative universe, thereby removing the intellectual milieu  which allowed the peer-reviewed science of the last 400 years in  Protestant Europe and the USA to thrive in a way which the science of the Greeks, Moslems, Babylonians, Egyptians and Chinese could not. (Other branches of Christianity also did not lead to a sustained advancement of science but for different reasons.)

See also

The five-fold threat to science.

Compassion (self- and for others) fosters mental health (Scientific American)

When nice guys finish first (Scientific American)

Trying to resist temptation? Think about God (Scientific American)

Below is an imaginary letter to the editor, written from the standpoint of a secular citizen with no concern about the godlessness of the offending articles.

Dear editor
I have no belief in a divine source of right and wrong; these are human constructs and our conscience is just an illusion, an evolutionary accident, as we ourselves are as a species, and as is the whole universe. In fact I’m puzzled as to why I am even writing this letter given that I live in a meaningless universe.

However, most people will think it a bit odd for a scientific magazine to be presenting their young readers with suggestions for self advancement in their careers through cheating, lying and aggression. No doubt the idea is for the magazine to appear cool, unstuffy and unpaternalistic while stimulating controversy and hence sales; but a small proportion of readers will take this as a license to engage in just this behaviour and many more will be subliminally tipped in that direction.
We know from the butterfly effect in chaos theory that a micro-disturbance in one location in a very large system can have major influences in places very remote from the micro-disturbance. The expression comes from the mathematically derived idea that the flutter of a butterfly can cause a storm on the other side of the world. For example, a tiny speck of dust dropping into a large vat of calm but superheated water causes the whole lot to boil vigorously in one instant.

This applies to the social behaviour of an individual in society as much as to a butterfly in the global weather system. It only requires one wrong action to happen when society is in the wrong state and it could trigger a huge social breakdown beyond our imagination to foresee.

Suppose Mr or Ms X goes into the office after taking on board the Focus article and as a result behaves more aggressively than intended to their boss. A whole chain of events could be set off. The boss is already at the end of his tether under stress from his boss and is no longer able to constrain himself in dealings with those around him. Negative ripples are sent out in all his dealings with others. Some of these ripples of negativity (i.e. mutually destructive behaviour) generate in turn other waves of trouble, and so on exponentially as time passes, until a whole office of 50 people is directly or indirectly affected in some way, and each of those people will act accordingly to propagate more waves of trouble, sometimes as a result of direct meetings but also as a result of telephone calls or twitter or Facebook or email or interactions in their social life beyond work. And each wave of trouble will generate further waves of trouble, and so on – a snowball of trouble from one person reading one article.

Negative behaviour that could ripple out in this way across the social milieu could include cheating at tax, lying about one’s abilities, lying about one’s motives, spreading malicious gossip, suggesting unacceptable business practices to extract more money from the market, introducing planned obsolescence into products, closing down community-centred operations to save on costs, falsifying accounts or making them misleading to potential investors, shareholders, auditors or the inland revenue, or falsifying scientific data to secure a grant or generate media interest.

In fact it needs only one negative influence to have enormous effects in certain situations. Remember this from G. Herbert?

erbrtHerbertFor the want of a nail the shoe was lost
For want of a shoe the horse was lost
For want of a horse the rider was lost
For want of a rider the battle was lost
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.

I am almost inclined to stop attacking religion because it has a role as a policeman in people’s head. Still, one must be true to oneself. Sorry, I forgot, there is no real truth, and in fact sometimes I wonder if I exist since the one who is supposed to have created me does not exist. It’s all a meaningless illusion. So why am I attacking someone else’s illusion? Life gets confusing at times. All I know is that society could get nasty if we abandoned the illusion of right and wrong (or is it an illusion? how can anything be an illusion if there is no reality?).

So you see, Mr Editor, such contributions to your magazine are not a ‘good’ idea (I mean, of course, ‘good’ in the sense of being expedient for human survival).

Humanity be with you

Dick  (call me an evolutionary accident) Snikwad

I suspect that this is the only viewpoint that would carry any weight with the editorial team unless, perhaps, their aim was to stimulate thought and spiritual reformation. After all, I started on the road to Christ after reading Richard Dawkins,  although it is doubtful whether that was his intention.

See also

 John Paul Sartre: not the way to Peace on Earth

Free will rules OK

Are some scientists from the planet Vulcan?

A link to this post will be sent to the editor, who is of course welcome to reply, either via the comments facility below or writing a guest post  for this blog and emailing it to me at