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Nov 25 2011

Atheists Talk: Stephen Law on “Believing Bullshit”

Stephen Law (Oxford, England) is a senior lecturer in philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London; provost for the Centre for Inquiry UK; and the editor of Think: Philosophy for Everyone (a journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy). He is the author of numerous books for adults as well as children, including The Greatest Philosophers, Companion Guide to Philosophy, The War for Children’s Minds, and Really, Really Big Questions, among other works. His latest book, for adults, is Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole.

Wacky and ridiculous belief systems abound. Members of the Heaven’s Gate suicide cult believed they were taking a ride to heaven on board a UFO. Muslim suicide bombers expect to be greeted after death by 72 heavenly virgins. And many fundamentalist Christians insist the entire universe is just 6,000 years old.

Of course it’s not only cults and religions that promote bizarre beliefs. Significant numbers of people believe that aliens built the pyramids, that the Holocaust never happened, and that the World Trade Center was brought down by the US government.

How do such ridiculous views succeed in entrenching themselves in the minds of sane, intelligent, college-educated people and turn them into the willing slaves of claptrap? How, in particular, do the true believers manage to convince themselves that they are the rational, reasonable ones and that everyone else is deluded?

Believing Bullshit identifies eight key mechanisms that can transform a set of ideas into a psychological flytrap. Philosopher Stephen Law suggests that, like the black holes of outer space, from which nothing, not even light, can escape, our contemporary cultural landscape contains numerous intellectual black-holes—belief systems constructed in such a way that unwary passers-by can similarly find themselves drawn in. While such self-sealing bubbles of belief will most easily trap the gullible or poorly educated, even the most intelligent and educated of us are potentially vulnerable. Some of the world’s greatest thinkers have fallen in, never to escape.

Listen on Sunday as we discuss the book with Professor Law and try to avoid being bleeped by the engineer.

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1 comment

  1. 1
    opposablethumbs

    His writing is a great way to invite anyone to think critically – got his Philosophy Gym series for kids (and self), and recently snagged a copy of this book for self (and kids).

    He’s a beautiful exemplar of the usefulness and power of philosophy which I (and probably the kids too) would most likely otherwise quietly avoid on the vague and unthought-out assumption that it’s “too rarefied, and a lot of effort”; I love the way he invites the lay reader to consider arguments and habits of thinking that are directly relevant to issues in everyday life. There are some wonderful, accessible science popularisers (Shubin, Dawkins, Cox, Al-Khalili ….); Law is the only writer I’ve come across (in my limited experience, that is) who is doing a fantastic job of popularising philosophy.

    Should be used in Critical Thinking classes in every school!

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