Stephen’s Law

13 May

Stephen Law © Calyx Picture AgencyI worry about the crowd at Stephen Law’s philosophical talk last night on Believing Bullshit: how not to get sucked into an intellectual black hole (also the title of his book).

Stephen is keen to provide ‘immunity to indoctrination’ by encouraging more critical thinking. So he took us through possible ways we could have baseless beliefs.

After, he asked us to discuss which of these created the better belief. Answers included peer pressure, repeated soundbites (‘strong and stable’ times 100), generational belief, bigging up the dominant belief and discrediting other belief (fake news), pleasure (a giant dangling carrot), and fear.

No one suggested science and reason, said Stephen, the best way to filter out falsehood.

So the audience either were translating the question as ‘what is more effective at brainwashing people’, ‘this is what we think works best’, or ‘this is how we get people to say they agree, even if they don’t’. Whatever, it sounded a world-weary post-Trump attitude.

Stephen is a missionary for reason. Schools, especially primary schools, he thinks, should teach philosophy. Apparently, schools that have done this (with the help of philosophy charity, SAPERE) have increased their pupils IQ by eight points. It’s a far better method of combating radicalism than getting your own indoctrination in first, he said.

Though it’s not for the faint-hearted teacher, he explained. Truth levels the playing field between teacher and pupil, which is why some teachers use repetition, fear and carrots to instruct and counteract those smart-alec kids. Festival director and host, Matt Holland suggests that debate begins at home when children say ‘But WHY do I have to go to bed?!?’

Stephen admits in his book, religion ‘gets it in the neck’, but also praises modern religious education, calling it a good recruiting ground for philosophy students. Being a former RE teacher, a philosophy and theology graduate and a Christian I agree wholeheartedly with philosophy in primary schools but disagree with his rather narrow American fundamentalist pigeon-holing of religious belief.

I had to bite my tongue through audience questions, because later on I would be taking part in the Think Slam! and my third talk questioned whether the Western scientific method was the highest form of evidence.

But not quite hard enough. Eventually I stuck up my hand and asked, ‘If after critical thinking your children believed in God, how would you react?’ Stephen answered that if that was their conclusion, he would respect it.

Stephen Law appeared at Swindon Arts Centre at Swindon Festival of Literature, 12 May 2017, with his book, Believing Bullshit: how not to get sucked into an intellectual black hole.

Words by Louisa Davison.

Chronicler additional research:

Since June 2015, educational institutions from nursery upwards, have a legal duty – called the ‘Prevent Duty’ – to ‘protect children from radicalisation’. The following excerpt, according to Stephen’s criteria as I understand it, is a double-edged sword – critical thinking is mentioned as a method, but so is the teaching of ‘fundamental British values’, which are defined as democracy, rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance.

“Schools can build pupils’ resilience to radicalisation by providing a safe environment for debating controversial issues and helping them to understand how they can influence and participate in decision-making. Schools are already expected to promote the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils and, within this, fundamental British values. Advice on promoting fundamental British values in schools is available. 

Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) can be an effective way of providing pupils with time to explore sensitive or controversial issues, and equipping them with the knowledge and skills to understand and manage difficult situations. The subject can be used to teach pupils to recognise and manage risk, make safer choices, and recognise when pressure from others threatens their personal safety and wellbeing. They can also develop effective ways of resisting pressures, including knowing when, where and how to get help. Schools can encourage pupils to develop positive character traits through PSHE, such as resilience, determination, self-esteem, and confidence. 

Citizenship helps to provide pupils with the knowledge, skills and understanding to prepare them to play a full and active part in society. It should equip pupils to explore political and social issues critically, to weigh evidence, to debate, and to make reasoned arguments. In Citizenship, pupils learn about democracy, government and how laws are made and upheld. Pupils are also taught about the diverse national, regional, religious and ethnic identities in the United Kingdom and the need for mutual respect and understanding “

This is taken from the Prevent Duty Government departmental advice:

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