Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Clifford Longley "silly", says friend

The other day I wrote about the remarkable behaviour of the "distinguished" Catholic commentator Clifford Longley in cutting and pasting an article from a religious website and submitting it to the Advertising Standards Authority in a protest against the Atheist Bus Campaign. I found it "scarcely credible that such a supposedly intelligent, learned - and undoubtedly experienced - commentator should have imagined that his lazy act of plagiarism wouldn't be found out. Or that the journalistic standards of this old-school writer should have been so lax." I also pointed out that the quotes used in Longley's complaint misrepresented the views of prominent scientists.

Longley was far from alone in complaining about the slogan "There's probably no God" - at last count there were almost a hundred submissions to the ASA. And Stephen Green - described memorably as a "godsend to atheists" by Steve Hill on CIF - has so far got most of the publicity, presumably because he lends so much support to the idea that the ad's detractors are all comedy fundamentalists. Longley, though, had the kind of profile that might just have led to the ASA taking him seriously - which is why the ASA received a communication the other day from the Heresiarch pointing out both the ill-thought-out basis of his complaint and the inaccurate quotations from scientists including Stephen Hawking and Paul Davies that it contained. (See update below.) But if Longley has more innate credibility than Stephen Green, he also has rather more to lose - which is why he must be feeling particularly foolish to find that his complaint unravelled so quickly. Or at least he should.

Today Andrew Brown - the Guardian columnist who first broke the news about Longley's involvement in the anti-bus mass complaint - provides some more background information about the complaint. Brown, who describes himself as a friend of Longley's for more than 20 years, and was one of several journalists Longley contacted in an effort to publicise his complaint, writes that:

His defence is that the quotes are genuine even if he did not collect them and he that he never claimed to have collected them himself. It didn't seem to him the important thing about them. Some of them he had in his own library, or could remember reading; others were new to him, but all seemed germane to his general point, that there are distinguished scientists who take the strong anthropic principle seriously as evidence for design in the universe. This was the point he wanted to make to the ASA, which offers a web form for complaints on its web site into which he cut and pasted what he had found.

This is rather a strange defence, given that it was not merely the (selectively edited) quotes from scientists that he lifted from the web, but also the linking passages which were apparently the work of "Rabbi Mordechai Steinman and Dr. Gerald Schroeder", and that he saw no need to alert the ASA to his source. If nothing else, it is discourteous to the article's authors - and has more than a touch of the "dodgy dossier" about it. Brown adds that Longley "didn't feel he was working to journalistic standards, so he didn't tell" his fellow journalist what he had done - nor did it occur to Brown to wonder.

I shall leave aside this rather generous interpretation of "journalistic standards" - although the Heresiarch knows from personal experience how sentences from blog posts and the like sometimes find their way unattributed into newspaper articles. Clearly, no blame should attach to Andrew Brown for not querying Longley's methods, any more than we should hold it against Ruth Gledhill of the Times or the Telegraph's George Pitcher, the latter of whom wrote admiringly of Longley's "comprehensive and well-argued" remarks. They have all of them been duped. Indeed, were it not for sharp-eyed, pesky commenters on all three blogs Longley would probably have got away with it. But did Longley not consider that a formal complaint to a body empowered to demand the removal of advertisements found to be in contravention of its code ought to require more, rather than less, punctiliousness and accuracy than a normal piece of journalistic hackery?

And what of Longley's carelessness in his treatment of the sources? Says Brown,

In his defence, I would say that he has not spent much time on the web, and was ignorant of the long history of viciously argued warfare over creation and evolution on there and of the habit of judging content by the site on which it appears.

Right, so the old buffer is unaware that not everything on the Interweb is of equal validity. Let's hope he doesn't stray onto any 9/11 troofer sites in the wee small hours, or he may end up reporting the BBC to Ofcom for assuming that Al Quaeda had something to do with the attack on the Twin Towers.

On the other hand, he does take seriously the anthropic principle and he believes that his own beliefs about God are probable in the light of the scientific evidence, although that is not what led him to them.

If Longley took the Anthropic Principle seriously he would realise that it not an argument for the existence of God, and that most forms of it are merely re-statements of the obvious fact that if the universe wasn't capable of supporting life we wouldn't be here. But then if he took the scientists whose quotes he was using seriously he would take the time to find out what they had actually said - and meant - rather than relying on the selective quotations of others. He might even have discovered for himself that one of the scientists quoted, "Dr Dennis Scania", did not in fact exist. It isn't clear from Brown's piece whether Longley has withdrawn his complaint or apologised to the scientists concerned. He sounds unrepentant, though.

Andrew Brown's blog now features a long contribution from Jonathan West, who like the Heresiarch has complained to the ASA about Longley - but, unlike the Heresiarch has also gone to the trouble of attempting to contact the scientists involved. He struck gold with Dr David Deutsch - a noted theoretical physicist and computer scientist at Oxford - who "was rather amused by the whole business" and offered his actual thoughts on the "fine-tuning" of the universe:

I do not believe that the 'fine-tuning' of physical constants provides any sort of argument for the existence of God or anything else supernatural. That is because if the constants had been set intentionally by supernatural entities, then the intentions of those entities must themselves have been at least as 'fine-tuned' when they set the constants, and that fine-tuning would remain unexplained. Hence that supernatural hypothesis does not even address the fine-tuning problem, let alone solve it.

More generally arguing for supernatural explanations on the grounds that the current scientific explanation for something or other is flawed or lacking is always a mistake. There are two main reasons for that. One is that there are always unsolved problems. But they get solved. Science continues to make progress even (or especially) after making great discoveries, because the discoveries themselves reveal further problems. Therefore the existence of an unsolved problem in physics is not evidence for a supernatural explanation any more than the existence of an unsolved crime is evidence that a ghost committed it.

The second reason is that supernatural explanations are always empty explanations. That is to say, 'the gods did it' is invariably a bad explanation because, as you can see, to invoke that explanation I didn't even have to say what it is they did. It could 'explain' anything whatsoever and hence actually explains nothing.

Thank you Jonathan. And bravo Dr Deutsch.

Brown admits that his friend "has been silly" not to write his own complaint. He also comments, surely correctly, that "It's not clear to me that the ASA is the right body to decide what questions we should be asking." Indeed: it is this, even more than the plagiarising of a dubious Internet source, that proves Longley's "silliness". It should be obvious to anyone - and I hope it will be obvious to the ASA - that the legend "There's probably no God" is a statement of opinion, not one of scientific fact, and that it requires no more justification than the fact that the advert's creators and sponsors agree with it. Nor is the ASA the proper place to pursue a polemical argument which a "distinguished commentator" like Longley ought to be able to make in print. Or is no-one publishing him nowadays? The whole thing smacks of a publicity stunt, as frivolous as Stephen Green's recent complaint about a comedy sketch.

As many people have pointed out, the "row" has had the happy consequence of garnering even more publicity for the campaign - and sensible believers have welcomed the opportunity for discussion and debate that it brings. In comparison, the "distinguished" Clifford Longley, clinging forlornly to out-of-context quotations from scientists he never troubled to consult, deserves everything he gets.


I have now received a reply from Michael Todd of the Advertising Standards Authority. This is what he says:

Thank you for your e-mail. We do welcome feedback such as yours. The ASA has received a number of complaints about this advert and are currently assessing whether there is cause to launch a formal investigation.

With regards to statements in religious/atheist ads, the ASA does not arbitrate between conflicting ideologies and, if marketers are obviously expressing opinions about their beliefs, the ASA is unlikely to intervene unless marcoms mislead or offend. If we decide to launch an investigation, rest assured that we will seek advice from relevant professionals where necessary.

My guess is that they'll pass on this one.


Dead Yeti said...

Therefore the existence of an unsolved problem in physics is not evidence for a supernatural explanation any more than the existence of an unsolved crime is evidence that a ghost committed it.

That quote is going in the arsenal for when battling god of gaps arguments

Edwin said...

marcoms is a new term for me, maybe others so -


I do like the ASA comment 'We welcome your feedback' - sounds like the Barbie Tour guide in ToyStory 2 but also possibly how a community of minor deities would respond to a query!

Anonymous said...

Dr Dennis Scania

Is it just me or are Dennis and Scania both types of buses?


Anonymous said...

Sorry both types of bus


The Heresiarch said...

I thought Dennis was a fire engine. But yes, you appear to be right. But given that the rogue quote was circulating on the Web long before the ABC was even conceived, what is this evidence for? The cosmic Joker? Surely as great an improbability as God - and yet the evidence is all around us, in hidden messages like this.

valdemar squelch said...

If a proof of God is offered by Dr Mercedes Routemaster I may be convinced.

quisquose said...

Dawkinsites visitor here.

Great story, and a great blog to bookmark.

felix said...

It makes me sad to be repeatedly and quite constantly confirmed in my observation that theists taking part in the so-called controversy take little care in checking their sources for quote mining. Given the benefit of the doubt, Longley probably wasn't aware of the quite common quote mangling employed in supporting weak, construed and badly supported arguments for faith-based positions.
For some time a few years ago, I was a form anti-theist. Since then, I've learned a lot and found that many theists take care constructing good arguments and ask great questions sometimes, and that more than a few atheists use weak arguments from and against scripture, sometimes from badly researched sources. But I have also learned that it is not at all prejudicial to presume that a quote from a distinguished scientist appearing in a 'pro-faith' piece apparently supporting an opinion of 'scientific weakness' or 'evidentially supported faith' is taken out of context, contains omissions (often not shown), is shortened, sometimes completely fabricated, and generally reflects quite the opposite of what the scientist's opinion actually is.
This is common from the simple amateur apologist to official websites of the Catholic Church.
I wonder, as this form of disingenuity is evidentially systematic in spreading the same false quotes throughout a scene of people copying from each other in obvious intellectual lazyness, and as it is openly visible and well-known to skeptics, why do they keep on doing it. They are discrediting their own work and denigrating the very dignity of faith they want to defend.
Some authors of mendaciousness are likely just in it to line their pockets, as it is obviously much easier to compile and sell books of apologetics and construed 'evidence for the right faith' than to work with diligent research, personal in-depth background knowledge and proper peer review. Are those authors who try to make an honest case not aware of the sleaze that surrounds them? Or are they just too afraid that they might have nothing after all if they applied more critical thinking?

quisquose said...

Interesting comment felix.

My opinion is that it's all about wishful thinking. As soon as wishful thinking is involved, critical thinking flies out of the window.

My atheism is nothing to do with wanting to be an atheist, I simply do not accept, I cannot accept, the claim that there is a god. That is not to say that I would not accept the claim if new evidence emerged to substantiate it.

The problem arises does it not, when somebody has made his/her mind up about a claim? Be it the existence of god, the 'truth' about 9/11 or I'm really glad my mum and dad had me circumcised. The delusional thinking is dependant on convincing others that there are rational reasons for those beliefs.


apashiol said...

Another Dawkinsite reader here. Just wanted to good stuff. Glad to have found you and will we visiting in the future.

Anonymous said...

Common sense, easy writing style, and in a field that is frequently abused by creationists...

Do we have a new horseman here?

I mean, think about it, a biologist (Dawkins), a member of the press (Hitchens), a philosopher (Dennet) and now a physicist who can talk sense (Deustch.)

Harris I always thought of as being the weakest of the four.

UK Expat said...


For my money, Harris would be the strongest debater of the (original) four.

Aquaria said...

It makes me sad to be repeatedly and quite constantly confirmed in my observation that theists taking part in the so-called controversy take little care in checking their sources for quote mining.

If they're not above quote-mining the book they consider most sacred, why wouldn't they stoop to quote-mining everything else?

Anonymous said...

Dennis did make Lorries, when I was a boy,pre-war.