Global WarNing

“And God saw all the things he had made, and they were very good…And the Lord God took man and put him into the paradise of pleasure, to dress it and to keep it.” These extracts from Genesis (Douai) remind us that attention to global warming is not merely a practical matter but a moral obligation required by God.

We have discussed the issue on this Blog at a time when global warming was almost an open question. We are left with Trump continuing to remain sceptical, taking the USA out of the Paris Agreement and reversing moves to cut greenhouse gas emissions from coal fire power stations. I was convinced of the threat of global warming when a highly qualified physicist friend, some years ago, took me through the detailed projections and the evidence behind these.

You will all have read at least summaries of the latest UN panel report. It is essential to limit the temperature rise to 1.5̊C to avoid massive and damaging changes across the world. To do this would require changes in our diet, and a large drop in the level of CO2. And that means substantial changes in our lifestyle. There will be huge movements of emigrants from hotter countries, and many would die from drought and coastal flooding. And so on and so forth. While we have already addressed potential changes in our lifestyles, most of them are at no more than an infant stage.

So perhaps we could consider what we must be prepared to do in order to fulfil God’s requirement “to dress it and to keep it.” And are our personal choices enough? Should we be in active crusade to persuade others?

Posted in Bio-ethics, Climate Change, Quentin queries | Tagged | 5 Comments

A word for the wise

Some years ago I was leading a marketing project using large newspaper advertisements soliciting eager responses from the readers. I consulted the experts, and I found that there was an established comprehensive set of rules known to achieve the best results. It covered everything from choice of words to pictures to layout. It was emphasised that the product needed a sponsor of credibility whose photograph appeared prominently. While it was preferable, if expensive, to bribe the goodwill of a well-known person it was sufficient that he or she simply appeared trustable.  So how much weight do we put on appearances?

I start with a study which was published last month on the credibility of accents. It seems that we are less likely to believe an individual who has a foreign accent. Presumably we retain our credulity for those who seem to be like us. Johnnie foreigner is at least slightly suspicious. But then a second factor comes into play: if the foreigner speaks firmly and confidently our trust is restored. Interestingly, the two reactions come from different parts of the brain. But both are rooted in evolution: the first is the danger of the unknown, the second is our inbuilt respect for authority.

While our national habit of placing a speaker in his correct social group has relaxed somewhat in later generations, Professor Honey’s Does Accent Matter still has much to teach us. Older readers will recall the U and non-U fuss, popularised by Nancy Mitford in the 1950s. There was a list of vocabularies distinguishing the bourgeois from the upper classes – as in serviette opposed to napkin. A lady whom I knew well, a descendant of a pre-Conquest family, specialised in working class vocabulary, and exchanged vulgar postcards with her charlady. She warned me as a young man not to marry into the Royal Family, on the grounds that they were German upstarts. However, although I rather fancied Princess Elizabeth, the opportunity never occurred.

In another neck of the woods, appearance plays a large part in politics. There have been several studies – perhaps because they are relatively easy to do and are popular with the newspapers. The political element is important.  Think of Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and Jacob Rees Mogg. While we know many facts about each of these to what extent is our judgment made through the lens of their appearances? I cannot remember a single word of Harold Wilson yet I retain a vivid picture of his face and his physical actions. His appearance drove deeper into my psyche than his values.

My trust in the objectivity of legal judgments was shaken by the account of the Israeli judges whose verdicts were influenced by how long it was since they had had a meal break. And the evidence shows that attractive people are more likely to be found not guilty, more successful in legal claims, and likely to be awarded higher damages and to pay lower damages. If you feel immune to such biases, are you ever inclined to judge individual witnesses on the television news or documentary as soon as they appear, and allow that immediate reaction to affect their credibility?

Height plays its part. I grieve because I am not tall. Another six inches and I might have been a managing director rather than a mere executive. Napoleon and others defied this disadvantage. But it has been noted that the senior officers of large companies have a greater average height than the mass. I put down Montgomery’s somewhat trying behaviour to his sense of physical inferiority.

All this, sadly, starts young. Attractive children are judged as more intelligent and if we encounter children in a scrap we tend to blame the least attractive of the two. And, to round off what could be a very long list, I grew a beard in middle life. I was interested to see how the ladies I knew divided between those who moved away and those who came in closer. However my wife commented that it was like committing adultery without all the hassle. I refrained from asking how she knew – and kept the beard.

It is not hard to identify the lessons here. The Latin behind ‘attraction’ translates as ‘to be drawn towards’. So by definition we respond appropriately. And there is some basis for this: as you would expect attractive people have a higher level of success. Good symmetry is a sign of good health and good physical capacity. Much of this is related to evolution: a good guide but not infallible. It can lead to injustices. And it works both ways: some years ago I agreed to fund the training of a nurse in India. Of course I did the proper checks but what really settled my mind was her beautiful handwriting. I have no regrets.


Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Uncategorized | Tagged | 8 Comments

Down With God

Occasionally on the Internet I find myself reading a discussion on the characteristics of religious people. Since few of the contributors are themselves religious we would not expect them to be flattering. Of course such criticisms do not apply to my own readers so our knickers can remain untwisted. However It does no harm to review such ideas, if only to warn us to give good examples to the secular world.

It is well established that human beings, from an early age, find solace in religious or cultic beliefs. We seem to be programmed with the question ‘what’s it all about?’, and we are likely to find an answer in some kind of supernatural explanation from, say, the simple idea of fate right up to the concept of an infinite God.

This is likely to involve relating to a group who believe the same answer and have built a lifestyle around it. And there is good evidence that such a life tends to be happier and healthier than those without a belief. We might want to claim that this need for the ultimate answer is not an outcome of evolution but in itself constitutes evidence for God’s existence. Bernard Shaw, however, said “The fact that a believer is happier than a sceptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.”

Unsurprisingly the unbeliever thinks that this is just intellectually lazy. We would rather conjure up an answer to life which can neither be proved nor disproved since hard evidence is lacking. Moreover, unlike many ordinary beliefs, we are obliged to bring others into the fold. History tells us that believers not only disapprove of non believers, they are inclined to condemn and punish them. We only have to look at Christianity in its several forms, to say nothing of Islam, to see this in action.

Here are a few quotes to review:
“It is always better to have no ideas than false ones; to believe nothing, than to believe what is wrong.”
Thomas Jefferson (1788)

“The most detestable wickedness, the most horrid cruelties, and the greatest miseries, that have afflicted the human race have had their origin in this thing called revelation, or revealed religion.”
Thomas Paine (1795)

“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”
Friedrich Nietzsche (1882)

“Scepticism is the highest of duties; blind faith the one unpardonable sin.”
Thomas Huxley (1907)

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
Richard Dawkins (2006)

Posted in Advocatus Diaboli, Church and Society, Philosophy | 12 Comments

What the secular world can teach

It must be approaching 50 years since my eldest son accused me of not being like other fathers. His criticism was “Other fathers answer their children’s questions, you only ask me what I think.” I would maintain that my response was not a concealment of my ignorance but a belief that people should be encouraged to do their own thinking and their own research. Nowadays that same son is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and one of our leading Romano-British historians. He knows a lot about research.

I had learnt the lesson several years before. During my two years National Service I found myself, at the age of 19, commanding a large army transport company in Austria. I simply didn’t know where to begin. My driving licence was only four months old. I had to establish myself as a leader, and the army required me to take responsibility for all the company’s activities. Added to that was the problem that I had non-commissioned officers who had worked in transport throughout their careers. I had no choice other than to rely on their knowledge and their sense of responsibility while being clear that, ultimately, I was entirely in charge.

I did not know that at that time changes were taking place in the approaches to management in business. The existing assumption was that workers only responded to reward or punishment. But the realisation was growing that workers who were given greater personal responsibility for their activities contributed more. They achieved this through the personal satisfaction and pride in what they were doing. While the application of this approach had to be tailored to the tasks in hand, it gradually became clear over the next decades that the new approach was considerably more effective.

It sometimes proved more difficult to reform well established businesses. The senior members had achieved their rank through the old system. And it had worked for them. It was difficult to accept the idea of passing increasing responsibility to their inferiors. And, arguably, the seniors had achieved their rank through their success in applying the stick and carrot approach. Sometimes their defence was to accept the idea but to introduce a facsimile version. There would be much talk of staff communication but in practice it had little influence. They might even boast about the importance of staff views and set up staff advisory committees. But in practice nothing of substance changed. Essentially it was necessary for the seniors themselves to believe in the new approach and to be enthusiastic to find ways to promote it.

If we were to review the hegemony of the Church in the light of this, we might find some interesting parallels. Historically of course the Church has operated through a hierarchical system and has found it necessary to apply its teaching and its laws as beyond question. The rôle of the laity historically has been to pray and obey. Yet, publicly and firmly, it emphasises the principle of subsidiarity: that decisions should always lie at the lowest practicable level. While there has certainly been progress towards this over the last 100 years, subsidiarity remains an ideal rather than a practical course of action. Enthusiasm to recognise the witness of the laity is not a characteristic.

Defenders of the historical Church have a strong defence. They point out that the claims of Revelation can only be known through authority and that the hierarchy alone are the guardian of its truths. Similarly, while the moral law may require the application of reason, its protection and definition remains the duty of the hierarchy. Even at the parochial level willingness to respond to the wishes of parishioners varies from place to place. Fortunately my own parish is a model of how things should be.

I raise this topic because I believe that the Church is at a vital turning point. We see the problems at the highest level where the tensions between a remarkable pope and his own officials are continually in the news. And, more dramatically, the gross nature of the handling of sexual abuse in Catholic institutions is an open scandal, and has been for decades. If you wonder about the outcome you only need to look at the recent degradation of the Church in Ireland. But if we focus on these scandals alone (although swift action is needed here) we miss the most important point. We must look at the whole way the Church approaches its mission. No, we are not a form of secular business; we are the people of God. But secular business has much to teach us about leadership and community. Strictly, I did not need to write this column. I could simply have suggested that you revisited Paul’s teaching on the interdependence of the Church (1 Cor 12). It’s all there.

(Some small changes in the published version.)

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society | 11 Comments

Is God fair?

Two questions: are you an attractive person? And, do you vote Conservative or Labour? You may think the questions are not related, but they are. Studies have shown (always a good phrase) that attractive people tend to move to the political right, while the ugly mugs tend to the left. The theory behind this is that attractive people have more social interaction, have better relations with schoolteachers, are more credible, have more useful contacts, and have a higher self confidence to support their resolve for achievement.

And there’s more to it than that. Standing in the dock you have a better chance to be found not guilty; in a civil case you are more likely to win and to get higher damages. The attractive child is less likely to be seen as the aggressor in a squabble, and more likely to be seen as intelligent. Go for a job interview and you have a better chance of being chosen. And so it goes on. You may think that appearances shouldn’t matter, but in fact they do. You may think that you do not judge by appearances but most of us do just that. And the final danger is that we are usually not aware of this bias, we like to think we are being fair.

Of course this is only a tendency, it’s easy enough to pick out attractive socialists or plain jane right-wingers – but nevertheless it makes a difference, and a difference which can follow us throughout our lives. Since I live in between socialism and toryism, but belong to neither, I must assume that my own attractiveness level is also somewhere in the middle.

It faces us again with the same old question: is God fair? Why are some people born with disadvantages, while others leave the starting line with a spurt. Why was I born in the leafy suburbs when I might have been born in so many countries where decent life and reasonable security is impossible – we hear about them every time we turn on the wireless.

Do I feel guilty about this? Not really, my guilt lies in my failure to use my natural advantages sufficiently to help those who are without them.

Posted in Quentin queries | 20 Comments

How do we get out of this fix?

This week I am reproducing (with permission) a leading article from the Catholic Herald of 31 August. As I had something to do with the initial drafting, it certainly expresses my view. But it may not express yours. So this is an opportunity to discuss the whole ‘abuse’ situation. How did we get to this? How do we get out of it?

“The grand jury report into Catholic clergy sexual abuse in six dioceses in Pennsylvania should shock but should not surprise. There have been many such reports on the US and elsewhere. Perhaps the most detailed is the Australian Royal Commission in 1917, following five year’s work. There are telling similarities. A commentator (New York Post) described some of the incidents in Pennsylvania as reading like scenes from a Marquis de Sade’s novel. Another, in the Washington Post, declared that the Church “has proved itself incapable of self-investigation and self-policing.”

It is this last issue which we need to address. Bishop Egan of Portsmouth has written to Pope Francis proposing a major synod on the life and ministry of the clergy. It would include the laity and other experts familiar with the whole area. It would be concerned with the rule of life of clergy, accountability and supervision. He goes on to note the lack of ministerial assessment and supervision between the diocese and the ordained. We wonder how many diocesan bishops have had the managerial training and experience needed by senior executives elsewhere.

We can easily understand the wish of a bishop to avoid scandal, to care for the sinner, and to live ever hopefully that he will repent and never sin again. And even if this is so for some individuals, we surely have by now the evidence that this is quite inadequate. The abuse of children is a grave crime. We know how children can be seriously damaged not just at the time of the offence but throughout their lives. We also know that the tendency to commit this crime is deep in the psychology of the offender. Whatever the proposed synod concludes, it must rule that such crimes, known outside the Confessional, should be reported to the police for investigation without delay. And that those in authority who seek concealment of the offender, irrespective of motive, should be treated as accessories.”

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Quentin queries, Uncategorized | Tagged | 46 Comments

The patterns of the brain

No, I do not intend to write about Brexit, but I am interested in the process of decision we had to undertake before the referendum. I wanted to make an intelligent choice but all I was getting was acres of conflicting opinions from soi-disant experts. In the end, and not until the day of voting, I made the choice which I thought would most benefit my grandchildren. This was an important decision but it reminds us that we all make decisions every day and several times a day.

How does our brain cope? It maximises its capacity to process information through a very efficient strategy: first, by recognizing new information which is important and by filtering out information which is unimportant; second, by comparing the new information with patterns already in the brain. These stored patterns provide our pre-packaged judgments, responses and attitudes: for example, our recognition of the characteristics of certain types of people or useful ways of behaving in particular situations. Some of these patterns appear to be common to human beings, and have probably developed through the needs of evolution; others have been developed through personal experience and others through genes. Throughout life we continue to tailor our own individual patterns as we encounter new situations.

While the brain needs to work this way, the method has its problems. Some of the inherited patterns are no longer appropriate for modern life, and there is no guarantee that the patterns we have developed ourselves are correct or correctly applied. Fortunately the rational human brain is able to override the patterns and check them for objective accuracy. But to do this we have to recognize that there is a pattern at work, and that we need time to think more deeply.

For example, how could our decisions concerning the opposite sex be affected by our patterns? We might start off with evolution: we inherit patterns which have developed over countless of years. Then we have a lifetime of living with the opposite sex – from our parents, our siblings, to our day to day observations and relationships.

Take the following list: Englishmen, Jews, Irishmen, homosexuals, Italians, West Indians, Muslims, atheists, Catholic Herald columnists. We may find that each of those groupings suggests characteristics – good and bad – to our pre-packaged minds. And this suggests that our judgments about members of the group we encounter are affected by our expectations. But stereotyping goes far beyond such well-defined groups; it could cover tall men, attractive blondes, university graduates, adolescents, homosexuals, musicians – and so on. We hold in our minds assumptions about scores of groupings which provide a starting pattern against which we make judgments about the individuals we meet.

Psychologists have field days about all this. For example many different studies have shown that we are more strongly motivated to avoid loss compared with an opportunity to make a gain. A recent study demonstrates that stimulating a part of the brain substantially increases the tendency to avoid loss or to escape dangers. We must assume that our level of fear, written into our brains, has proved important for survival. But it often leads to bad judgments.

So the world is divided into the great mass of people and the relatively few who take care to learn their own patterns. These are also likely to be good persuaders. This is because effective persuasion relies on our presenting the case in terms of the target’s internal patterns rather than our own. Then we are three quarters way there. For instance, when I wanted to get my wife to agree to a domestic change I was more successful when I spoke of the children’s needs rather than my own. No doubt she did the equivalent to me but my fond belief that I was always rational allowed me to ignore my existing patterns.

I once had a boss whose preeminent pattern appeared to be getting his name in the papers. When I presented a new strategy his acceptance depended on the probability of this outcome rather than the quality of the idea. But there was a penalty: he took the credit for beneficial changes rather than me. I have described before how those who wear spectacles are credited on average with twelve extra IQ points. Or that taller men have better chances of promotion than their shorter brothers.

And last, but by no means least, we are strongly influenced by the groups within which we naturally move. As a result of evolution, groups who were united in their values prospered though their corporate strength. And so today we are inclined to agree with the values of our companions. Pick up your newspaper any day and you will see the damage which is caused by internal discord within societies, and even within the Church.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, evolution, Moral judgment, Neuroscience | 1 Comment