Witch hunts and the weaponisation of moral panic

In his history of European Witch Hunts, historian Norman Cohn traces the history of demonic moral panics and delves “deep into the sociology and social psychology of persecution”. The story he tells is one of gullibility, ignorance and the abuse of power that seems particularly relevant to our outrage-prone hyperconnected age. It is also a lesson on the long term consequences of fuelling moral panics and how cottage industries grow to sustain them.

Infographics of Doom

While the world reels in horror at the latest atrocities committed by Islamic fundamentalists, we should not forget that in the United States brews an ideology that is in many ways far more disturbing. “Dispensational Premillennialism” — a form of evangelicalism thought to be practiced by between five and forty million Americans — teaches that an impending apocalyptic war will bring about the end of the world. After which, Christ will rule the world for a thousand years from his throne in Jerusalem.

Hashtag Mythology

John Waterhouse, Echo and Narcissus

John Waterhouse, Echo and Narcissus

While the world becomes increasingly complex and flooded with exabytes of often contradictory information, our minds are still lumbered with deep rooted “mythic” narrative-based methods of making sense of the it. But today the “myths” or narratives we collectively build are no longer directly connected to our immediate survival, as is the case with, say, the Dreamtime myths of Aborigines. So we are free to pluck information out of this digital abyss, label them “facts” and construct any new mythology we wish with them. Relation to empirical reality is useful, but far from necessary.

Agents of Apophis

The great serpent had no eyes, no ears, indeed no senses at all. All it had was a mouth with which it screamed unendingly into the eternal night of the netherworld. This is how ancient Egyptians imagined the demon Apophis; Lord of Chaos; a malevolent entropy-like force that forever threatened to wear down the mechanisms of the state and bring about the collapse of civilisation. To combat Apophis’ erosive force, the priesthood undertook elaborate daily rituals to ward off the demon, in Temples that were to them engine rooms of cosmic stability, operated by the user interface of word-magic and sacrament.

A story of information entropy

In the late 19th or early 20th century, billions of photons ricocheted off the face of this small boy and through the aperture of an early camera. There, the energy contained in the photons initiated a chemical reaction that burnt his image on a piece of photographic film.

Months or even decades later, this negative was laid down on a rough block of wood next to a series of others, images that presumably had some shared significance. Perhaps this was done by his parents, perhaps by himself in his old age, or even his children or grandchildren, but whoever did so photographed the negatives again, seemingly as some crude method of replication. But while the image itself was saved, its meaning was not.  An unknown span of time later the negative was detached from its original context, and the identity of the boy was lost.

I found this negative-of-negatives amongst hundreds of others in an antiques fair in Old Spitalfields market. A few days later, I placed it on my scanner, where a band of LEDs radiated photons across the image, after which they bounced back through a series of mirrors and lenses onto the scanner’s CMOS sensory array. From there, his face streamed through the microcircuitry of a computer to be rebuilt as a pattern of electricity rippling across a film of liquid crystals. The haunting visage stares now from your device for the first time in perhaps a century. An echo of a life long passed.

The image itself, stored now both on the vast server farms of Google, Facebook and Tumblr, will endure now for an unknown time into the future even if the “original” should perish.  Now part of the exponential abyss of the deep web it will in time be comprehended and scrutinised by future intelligences both human and otherwise. Through advanced facial recognition algorithms and other exotic means of inquiry yet to be devised it will be woven back into an intricate lattice of information that will ultimately span all of human knowledge.

Will it ever be possible for the identity of this boy to be retrieved? Or is his name to be forever lost; worn away by the corrosive forces of information entropy?

East London Folk History

East London Folk History

Chris, for that was his name, got talking about how the East End had been a popular haunt for assorted intelligence agencies since "forever". The most recent escapades of course involved the more notorious guests of the East London Mosque attracting the attention of MI5, Mossad and the CIA. He claims they are absolutely everywhere in Tower Hamlets. "You know how to spot a spook?" he said "...look at his shoes. The rest of him will be dressed normally, but his shoes are always smart."

The Fiction of You: The Self as Social Technology

When I was about five or six years old I plagued my parents with strange questions. One I remember in-particular was “who would I be if I wasn’t me”? Such riddles are not uncommon at this age because it is around this time that children begin to develop – or construct – a rudimentary form of identity. An embryonic Self that will grow into something resembling a final form during puberty and early adulthood. As we age, the foundations of identity sink into the subconscious, their origins lost, becoming so conflated with the notion of consciousness to the point where we can no longer tell them apart.

Q.E.D: The Glastonbury of Thinking

This weekend saw the third annual Q.E.D – the massive end-of-level-boss version of Skeptics in the Pub. A place where scientists, critical thinkers, atheists and other assorted eccentrics assemble in Manchester and sacrifice orphans to the reanimated husk of Darwin. Given this, protester turnout for was lacklustre, composed of a small choir and a couple of chaps with a giant metal cross that had to be trundled about on a tiny bicycle wheel. I’m not entirely sure what they intended to do with it.

The first event I attended was by bubble scientist Helen Czerski; The World of Science Toys. Teaching us, amongst other things, that your blood is green when you cut yourself in deep water because of the red light being absorbed by the upper layers of water. Her experiment on how to demonstrate fluid physics with an egg is definitely going on my repertoire of party pieces. One theme of this talk, echoed later that weekend in Carrie Poppy’s talk on her sleuthing adventures, was that of how skeptics should anecdote. Being a bubble scientist, Helen was commissioned to try and design the ideal champagne flute. The design she proposed was almost identical to the one proposed by champagne expert Philippe Jamesse based solely on experience. Her message was not that we should be credulous, but rather think twice before demanding a peer reviewed study every time someone offers an opinion based on experience.

Afterwards, Dr Brooke Magnanti gave us a talk on her new book The Sex Myth. I knew of Brooke solely through the osmosis of culture. Things like furious Daily Mail headlines and Billie Piper’s depiction of her in The Secret Diary of a Call Girl. With these scant facts to go on, I didn’t know what to expect. To put it simply, her mind is like a laserbeam cutting through taboos, preconceptions and bullshit. She began the talk by diagnosing if any of the audience were sex addicts, based on the criteria of the International Institute of Trauma and Addiction Professionals. The checklist, which had questions such as “are you preoccupied with sexual thoughts” had a ring of L-Ron’s Auditing to it; either that or the bulk of the attendees were sexual degenerates.

In the afternoon, the Is Science the New Religion Panel proved to be quite the circus. You could tell there was a bunfight brewing when Telegraph journalist Brendan O’Neill warned of the dangers of “evidence driven policy” and the tyranny of experts. Had this been a discussion on how useful experts are relative to their fields, an interesting discussion could have been had. We could look to Philip Tetlock’s long term studies of expert predictions, and how economists especially may as well be digging through sheep giblets for all the use they are. Tetlock also showed that expert predictions were better the closer the fields were to measurable, empirical, hard sciences and when predictions were tentative, caveat studded, and open to change in light of new data. But Brendan didn’t seem to be arguing for more or better data, but was rather nostalgic for a time when leadership and government was based on moral certainties and vision, unconstrained by the need for, well, evidence to back it up.

He seemed to inhabit a mirror-world where scientists are on par with the swaggering, power drunk trade unions of the 1970s. An increasingly frustrated Robin Ince tried to explain that if politics is informed by bad science, it is due to fact-foraging career politicians trying to find something to justify their policies to a scientifically naive public. That many politicians are themselves ignorant when it comes to discerning facts from hokum does not help this situation. Unfortunately O’Neill seemed to fall into the same trap, thinking scientists were at fault for the lack of new nuclear reactors, rather than sciency-sounding populist scaremongering from Green and Leftist groups.

To be fair to Brendan it takes some cojones to get on a panel and defend such wooly thinking when your audience’s hobby is picking apart bad arguments. After the audience had facepalmed their way through this strange worldview, no less than Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins both lined up to rubbish his arguments during the Q&A. I was expecting him to throw down a smoke grenade and escape through the window. But no, he soldiered on in spite of evidence to the contrary, which does at least make him consistent.

Another panel featuring Dawkins and Krauss – The God Panel – was cranked up to lulz factor 11 due to inclusion of musician and comedian Mitch Benn. Benn’s attitude on atheist proselytising is that he wouldn’t be going door to door saying “Have you heard the bad news” but wouldn’t sit back and nod politely if the topic of religion cropped up in conversation. Dawkins on the other hand felt that as long as religions had their fingers in the education system and were tormenting children with visions of eternal suffering he couldn’t just let them be.

At one point, Carrie Poppy asked the panel if they thought the Atheist community has taken any missteps. A hush descended on the room as Mitch Benn went there and offered up Atheism Plus. One person clapped but it slowly faded out into awkward chair shuffling silence. It felt as if we were recalling an embarrassing drunken Best Man’s speech that nobody talks about and just try to forget happened. Dawkins added mournefully this was a bit of a blunder, while Lawrence Krauss spoke of US groups smuggling ideological orthodoxy into skepticism. “You’re branded, which is the opposite of what open mined skepticism does, and I think its self destructive”. Mike Hall expressed ambivalence about A+, but mentioned that there is a problem with Atheists thinking they’re the smartest person in the room. The most negative thing – in this reporter’s opinion – that Atheism Plus has done with all this demagoguery, is to make discussions about making the movement more inclusive like walking across a football field of eggshells, and I’d eat my own hat if a single person in attendance was opposed to such ambitions.

On Sunday afternoon, the dashing Adam Rutherford – fresh from a wedding party himself – gave a hungover version of his Creation: The Origin and Future of Life talk. It was nevertheless wonderful, and he discussed a range of life’s origin stories, from pooh-poohing panspermia to new theories on hydrothermal vents. He finished off going into genetic engineering and synthetic biology, showing us a couple of applications that wowed even this nerdy audience. Things like cress that turns purple if it grows above landmines, and blueprints for hypothetical micro-organisms that can assassinate cancer cells. This is sci-fi stuff, and made me want to run into the streets of Manchester and shake people by the shoulders ranting about how amazing science is.

Sunday evening saw Lawrence Krauss headline with his talk A Universe from Nothing. This was epic stuff. The concept of nothing as it relates to physics. Disappearing galaxies in the deep future. That everywhere and nowhere is simultaneously the centre of the universe. The fact that we’re cosmic pollution in a universe that largely is nothing. Even with Lawrence’s accessible and entertaining delivery, it was a message that had to be parsed through the numbed cognitive faculties of people who had indulged in a weekend of partying and late night karaoke. I suppose the brain cells created and destroyed over the course of this weekend will balance out. Nevertheless it was awesome, in the truest sense of the term.

As excellent as all of the above was – not to mention all the other stuff I’ve not got time to mention – Robin Ince’s interview with Dawkins was for me the highlight of the weekend. In the intimate chat he spoke of his love of philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s book The Phenomenon of Man, and how his own early writing was greatly influenced by the Jesuit’s strange ideas and obtuse writing style. He then spoke of the his devastation when reading a review of the book that rubbished it as pretentious nonsense, and how this made him feel like a damned fool. Ultimately however, this evisceration forced him to reassess his position, and ultimately led him to his similarly combative method of engagement with believers.

Towards the end of the interview came an unexpectedly tender moment. It began by discussing the work of evolutionary biologist W.D Hamilton, and his characteristically radical theory of clouds being the extended phenotypes of microorganisms. Afterwards, he started talking about Hamilton’s death and intended funeral arrangements, paraphrasing his wishes to be buried in the Amazon rainforest and consumed by the Coprophanaeus beetle;

“I will leave a sum in my last will for my body to be carried to Brazil and to these forests. It will be laid out in a manner secure against the possums and the vultures just as we make our chickens secure; and this great Coprophanaeus beetle will bury me. They will enter, will bury, will live on my flesh; and in the shape of their children and mine, I will escape death. No worm for me nor sordid fly, I will buzz in the dusk like a huge bumble bee. I will be many, buzz even as a swarm of motorbikes, be borne, body by flying body out into the Brazilian wilderness beneath the stars, lofted under those beautiful and un-fused elytra which we will all hold over our backs. So finally I too will shine like a violet ground beetle under a stone.”

Ultimately, Dawkins continued, it was not possible to fulfil these wishes and he was buried in Wytham Woods in Oxford. However, in allusion to his beloved Coprophanaeus beetles and his raincloud theory, his partner Luisa Bozzi said at his funeral;

Bill. Now your body is lying in the Wytham Woods, but from here you will reach again your beloved forests. You will live not only in a beetle, but in billions of spores of fungi and algae brought by the wind higher up into the troposphere, all of you will form the clouds and wandering across the oceans, will fall down and fly up again and again, till eventually a drop of rain will join you to the water of the flooded forest of the Amazon.

Dawkins was visibly emotional as he spoke, and we were collectively moved at such a beautiful and poetic vision of nature as unveiled through the lens of science. And that, at heart, is what Q.E.D is a celebration of.