Berlinski and Hitchens: amazing debate

The late Christopher Hitchens is everywhere on YouTube, ferociously debating those who espouse religions of all types, and in my previous post I said that I avoided watching. This is true, but more because of the sterility of argument rather than a criticism of Hitchens. My having covered in depth the Oxford Union God Debate, it seemed to me that it always seemed to culminate in a Monty Python argument, with each side automatically gainsaying the other. And again this is not necessarily a reflection on the antagonists, but on the matter in hand. There is no proof, only faith. Therefore these debates are merely confrontations between the fundamentalist followers of two beliefs. Atheists might deny theirs is a belief, asserting that it is an absence of belief, but this is wrong. They believe fundamentally that there is no God.

I have little patience with fundamentalism of any sort. Peter Ustinov observed that “Beliefs are what divide people. Doubt unites them.” It is in the exploration of doubt that I believe the search for truth lies. For that reason, I am afraid my knee-jerk instinct when meeting someone’s conviction is to challenge it.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.  W.B.Yeats

Having long given up wasting time watching these debates, I came across David Berlinski being interviewed on Uncommon Knowledge. As a professor of mathematics seeking after truth, he likewise was challenging universally-held convictions wherever he found them. From Darwinism to global warming, he was delightfully dismissive of the paucity of scientific rigour applied; and what I found particularly appealing was that his standpoint was never that of one harbouring opposing beliefs but one with the humility to admit that he did not know the truth but was uneasy with the reasoning of those who claimed they did.

You may imagine therefore the excitement with which I came across this debate.

Hitchens was a very powerful debater, extraordinarily well-read with the instinctive elegance of phrasing thereby osmotically caused, articulate to a fault, more coherent than most, and apparently rock-solid in his atheistic conviction. Berlinski is every bit as well-read with the instinctive elegance of phrasing thereby osmotically caused, articulate to a fault, and more coherent than most. I have seen less evidence of his having done much debating, but his most potent weapon is his doubt: he offers no conviction for Hitchens to attack. Let battle commence…

Almost immediately Berlinski reveals his strength. With the proposition’s being Atheism Poisons Everything, there is no need for Berlinski to defend religion. We all know that huge amounts of evil have been done in the name of religion, but that fact leaves not a scratch on the proposition.

Hard on those heels he brings a smile to my face with an offering from Dr Johnson. The quotation can be paraphrased as, “the science is settled: the debate is over”.  Look back to my third paragraph to see how puckish this is.

Set-piece routines are paradoxically the bits of speeches that most often seem to fail. Berlinski’s button schtick at the end of his opening speech was doing fine till the final bit direct to Hitchens which was lame. Significantly that last was omitted from the transcript of this debate to be found here.

Hitchens knows full well that Berlinski has shown that attacking religion is pointless against this proposition, but what else is he to do? Without that, he is left with trying to prove a negative – a notoriously impossible task. He duly attacks religion and the evils done in its name; he rehashes arguments as to the impossibility of a God; he goes down all the familiar routes; but he is not addressing the unaddressable proposition.

Why did Hitchens agree to this debate without insisting on editing the wording of the proposition? Was his proselytising zeal so great that he could not resist the challenge?  The answer may possibly be found in his closing argument which is very good indeed and goes quite a long way to solving the insoluble problem in the previous paragraph.

Among other arguments he asserts at around 43:45 that the ‘little faction” of atheists with whom he is identified “is adamant for doubt”. Names that he has bandied elsewhere, and therefore presumably also belonging to this little faction, include people like Dawkins and Dennett. He maintains that they all explore uncertainty. In short he is seeking to exculpate them from fundamentalism. It’s a nice try, and it can be seen to be the only argument open to him, but I think he is misguided. People who plaster buses with posters containing puerile atheistic slogans are beyond doubt.

It’s time for me to shut up, and for you to enjoy the debate. I commend it.

David Berlinski – a class act

On 7 September 2010, at the Sheraton Birmingham Hotel in Alabama, the Fixed Point Foundation hosted a debate between Christopher Hitchens and David Berlinski. The motion was Atheism Poisons Everything.

A very effective way of using up a huge amount of time would be to tour YouTube, watching all the debates involving Christopher Hitchens on the subject of religion. So I don’t. But having recently watched David Berlinski on Uncommon Knowledge, being interviewed by my part-namesake, the excellent Peter Robinson, I was intrigued enough to make this an exception. By the way, I commend Uncommon Knowledge.

Larry Taunton occupies a few seconds less than 4 minutes introducing the debate, and Berlinski begins. Immediately a weird thing happens: a woman in the audience suddenly cackles in an insane fashion. Apart from fixing her with a startled and disapproving stare and pausing long enough for it to matter, Berlinski says nothing.

I like  this man. I like his erudition being very evident but somehow understated. I like the rather patrician image with which he cloaks himself, exhibiting suave condescension mixed with an air of faintly dissolute urbanity. It is a strong contrast to Hitchens’ terrier-like attack, and I find it significant that Hitchens seems on this occasion to tone down his bellicosity and unconsciously seems slightly to mirror Berlinski’s style. This may be indicative of his being awe-struck and psychologically dominated. It’s certainly indicative of respect. You don’t see this happen with Hitchens very often.

With my rhetor hat on I like the way Berlinski speaks very quietly, yet expressively, and despite no discernible effort to do so makes every word heard. Though I don’t suppose he has read my book on that subject, he follows all its strictures.

He uses no notes, and I think he is shooting from the hip. You may claim there is no distinction; but reciting a learnt script is not shooting from the hip. He has a turn of phrase burnished by much good reading, and I love the way he throws away his description of Robespierre as being ‘rabid as a bat’.

My only slight concern is that he is much more nervous than he needs to be.  You may notice that it is not till the rebuttals later that his shoulders descend to a relaxed level.

This opening address runs from 3:55 till 15:16.

As I remarked earlier Christopher Hitchens was a serial debater on religion; and he fairly regularly made mincemeat of his opponents – even (whisper it) his brother Peter; but pitting him against Berlinski was an inspired match. This debate was as fascinating as the Oxford Union God debate should have been but wasn’t. Forgive my veering towards cliché, but it generated more light than heat.

I want to examine the debate in depth, and more fully than as a footnote to Berlinski’s opening speech.  I shall return to it in my next posting.

Daniel Dennett should play to his strength

At the Global Atheist Convention, in Melbourne Australia, in April 2012, Daniel Dennett was one of the speakers. Having seen Dennett interviewed, and thereby having felt him to be not one of those faintly hysterical tub-thumpers that can so easily ruin one’s digestion, I was eager – my being a devout doubter – to see whether this talk might contain some new thinking. It was entitled How To Tell You’re an Atheist.

I like the opening. I call it ‘outflanking the subject’, and I commend it in my courses and seminars. For nearly 3 minutes he appears to be discussing something completely different, thus distributing a layer of mystery over the proceedings and inducing curiosity in his audience. When he reveals the link between that and the matter in hand the audience shows its pent-up satisfaction with applause – a full 8 seconds of it (8 seconds is Par for spontaneous applause).

We can’t see a lectern, but it seems clear that when he looks down he is being prompted. Though I’d always prefer a speaker to be not at all dependent upon paper, I have to admit he manages it very well. It all comes across as spontaneous. I like the epistrophe (“…noticed this pattern”) at 4.20.

He proceeds to narrate research he has done with preachers who are secret atheists, so I am unsurprised to hear Dan Barker‘s name cropping up. I can feel myself getting nervous lest his arguments are going to go down the same old weary paths.

He gets from the audience a couple of laughs that are just a little too easy. I remind myself that this is a conference about and for atheism, so he is addressing a very sympathetic crowd, but still audiences don’t laugh that readily unless they’re a little nervous – in need of reassurance.

Dennett feels no such concern. On the contrary, those laughs persuade him to play to the gallery. In order to mock some theist argument, he affects a silly voice. That is a mistake: such devices cheapen the image of the speaker not his opposition. If you are going to play silly voices, you need to be better at it than this. Also subtlety would help.

Just after 18:30 he begins getting a little more serious, and moves into discussing the work of The Clergy Project, a support group for priests who have lost their faith. Apart from that neat opening, this is the best part of the talk so far. Furthermore when he gets back to atheism he covers areas that are less puerile than earlier, and this is a relief.

In fact this talk suddenly gets quite worth while for a time, only collapsing in the final minute when he absurdly asserts that a sense of humour is the exclusive preserve of the non-believer. What is true is that while he may be a fine philosopher, as a comedian he … is a fine philosopher.

Alasdair Macleod needs me.

At a conference entitled Business Strategies Applied to the Changing Economy, organised by VINtmus, there was a talk by Alasdair Macleod on the Latest Trends on Gold.

Macleod represents and typifies my market. I meet his peers all the time. Macleod is a bright, very knowledgeable, articulate authority on his subject. Macleod can be regarded as the personified benchmark of what the British business world considers ‘a good speaker’. Macleod is why I do what I do. Compared to what he could easily be Macleod is lamentable.

Am I too harsh? Consider. This speech is really important.  It’s a serious alarm call, projecting all manner of frightening scenarios. You could be forgiven for not noticing, because you have to concentrate very hard to stay awake. If you want to know the degree to which this ‘good speaker’ is gripping his audience, listen to the coughing. He is boring them silly, yet they would deny it. To a man they would class him a good speaker. They know no better: the market has been lulled into assuming that this is as good as people can reasonably be expected to get.

Ye Gods! In four hours I could transform him beyond recognition, merely by tapping into and liberating his existing talent. Macleod has far more personality than we are seeing, and his audience could receive the benefit of it without his losing one jot of his dignity or authority.

Let’s run through a few specifics…

  • He partially deprecates his subject matter. In normal life this may come across as seemly modesty, but here it’s a mistake.
  • He’s reading. I would tear that paper away from him. He doesn’t need it. If the audience is receiving hard copy of the slides, do they get the script also? If so he needs his script even less. Why duplicate what they are anyway going to read? Will they bother to read it, if they stayed awake enough to hear him say it? Much better to shoot from the hip an admitted slightly different version (made deliberately provocative with strategic though harmless omissions). Then they’ll read it!
  • He’s reading. I would tear that paper away from him. The words are coming off the page, in through his eyes, and out through his mouth with far less cerebral processing en route than if he were shooting from the hip. He reads more expressively than most, but not as expressively as he’d say it spontaneously.
  • He’s reading. I would tear that paper away from him. If his eyes really fixed and engaged that audience, the coughing would diminish.
  • He’s reading. I would tear that paper away from him. Forced to learn how to structure material in a way that made mind-mapping easy, he would simultaneously make the material more digestible and memorable for the audience. And he’d sound – and be – spontaneous. The coughing would disappear.

The frustrating thing is that I suspect he has received some training. He does a few key things right, like laying out his stall at the beginning, but he needs to learn how to construct his material much better than that. There are individual sentences in there that should grab every audience member by the throat, but instead just get swept away in the coughing. He needs to learn how to do away with paper, He needs to be shown how much better he can easily be. He needs me.

If he gets to read this, he might feel aggrieved at being thus singled out for slating when he is actually better than many. If any trainee of mine, reading this, happens to know him: give him my number. I’ll offer him an opportunity to be very glad he came up here on this blog today…

Dambisa Moyo and freedom

In June 2013 in Edinburgh, Scotland, Dambisa Moyo delivered a TED Talk entitled Is China the new idol for emerging economies.

Ted talks, though of mixed quality, usually offer good food for thought. Not knowing therefore how much I would wear my rhetor hat for this one, I settled down, notepad in hand.

When Ted boasts talks from the ‘world’s leading thinkers’ is it asking too much for competent sound engineers? When first we hear Moyo, we simultaneously hear threatened howl-round. There should have been a thorough sound-level-check before the audience was admitted, and anyway there are clip-on microphones these days whose range is so short that the wearer can stand close in front of a speaker without problems. Failing that, all the engineer can do is play the volume control; and we can hear that happening for the first few seconds. I would condemn them with the word, “Amateurs”, except that amateurs are more conscientious than that.

Ted speakers tend to shoot from the hip, and Moyo is no exception. Nevertheless she feels to me a little over-rehearsed. I suspect that she is not fully confident of her own ability to keep oriented and keep speaking, and therefore has practised till she can deliver this in her sleep. I’m being a little picky, because it’s all emerging smoothly and with enough vocal expression, but I just do not feel we are watching the real woman. My impression is that there is a more interesting and engaging person hiding in there.

The talk is mildly provocative, but what bothers me is that her entire argument is predicated on a widespread assumption that opinions are things to be imposed. People today seem to think that if you approve of something it automatically follows that you believe it should be compulsory, and that if you disapprove you want it banned. Whatever became of freedom?

Moyo tells us that, for some, economic freedom is more important than political freedom. Yes, I am sure she is right, but so what? She goes on to point out that the authoritarian political system in China has worked economic marvels. Good.

I would enjoy an argument about her assertion that economic growth is a pre-requisite for democracy. Also I itch to tell her that the term ‘state capitalism’ is as contradictory as ‘hot snow’. But that is merely terminology: my main problem is with her supposed East/West Schism.

She tells us that the West can either ‘compete’ or ‘co-operate’ with the East. We can either “go around the world, pushing an agenda of private capitalism…” or we can allow the East to adopt a political system that suits them. I call the latter course ‘minding our own business’. I can have perfectly good relations with my neighbour without wanting to dictate the colour he paints his kitchen.

I understand why Moyo feels this point needs making. The West has become a dreadful (and dreadfully pious!) busybody, seems intent on relinquishing free capitalism in favour of a creeping authoritarianism, and it has spawned an assumption that this is a natural process. There was that quotation from Ronald Reagan about the workings of government –

If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.

If the West genuinely believes in freedom, a good way to show it would be by returning freedom to its own people and by accepting the diversity of other people’s opinions.

Milton Friedman discusses humaneness.

Even though he has been dead for eight years, the teachings of Milton Friedman live on as robustly as ever, either directly through his books or indirectly through the works of his students.  He was mentor to the great Thomas Sowell, who continues to publish books like the excellent Intellectuals and Society.

The Free to Choose Network, which is lead by Robert Chitester, the man who probably did more than anyone to promote Friedman to the world at large, and which is named after Friedman’s landmark TV series and book of the same name, keeps his memory and teaching alive. Indeed we have the network to thank that this speech, which he delivered at Cornell University in (I think) 1978, is available to us.

Almost immediately Friedman commits an error.  In the first few seconds he tells an overt gag. All my trainees have been taught that – and why – this is almost guaranteed to fail (I’ll spare you the why). As a visiting celebrity professor, addressing a roomful of awestruck students, he’s packing a shed-load of ethos and could get at this stage a positive reaction from almost anything he said or did; yet listen to how agonisingly slow the reluctant laugh builds despite his working hard to stoke up the process by smiling benignly at the audience. There is a right way and there is a wrong way to introduce a piece of early humour, and this is the wrong way.

That horror dispensed with, he is now into his own territory. He lays out his stall very clearly and launches into his arguments.

Yet something is preventing him from concentrating on the matter in hand. Look how often in the first six minutes or so he loses his own track, stumbles, corrects himself, etc. I find myself searching for an explanation. I see no other symptoms of nervous stress, but something is preying on his mind and getting in the way of smooth thought.

At any rate from around the six-minute mark the gears stop grinding and then he gets properly into his stride.

I have quite often in this blog used the metaphor of aeroplane flight. The take-off and landing are the difficult and dangerous bits; the main body of the flight tends to look after itself. I remain puzzled as to why it took so long for Friedman on this occasion to climb to cruising altitude. Perhaps it was that ghastly opening!

If I remove my rhetor hat my only puzzlement concerning his actual message is that all his arguments and case histories were crystal clear when he made them. We now have nearly forty more years of experience and data proving him right, yet still governments – egged on by intellectuals – continue down their ovine path, making the same appalling mistakes.

We either need to question their motives, or we need to re-examine the definition of the word ‘intellectual’. Perhaps ‘intellectuals’ are merely people who might have read a book or two but otherwise are not bright enough to be called anything else.

Ian Josephs and a can of worms

Every so often, readers of this blog contact me to suggest that I should look at certain speeches. They do so for a range of reasons. Usually they are interested in what I think of the speaker, but sometimes it’s something else. This is something else.

Ian Josephs has a blog of a very different kind to this. He works to help parents who he claims to have had their children forcibly snatched from them by the UK authorities. When I first looked at this speech, I also looked at other speeches he had made and other people speaking on the same subject. I found that I could choose to cover speeches by a TV Agony Aunt, a Member of Parliament, a columnist on a national broadsheet newspaper and many others besides. Nevertheless I returned to Josephs and the speech to which I had originally been referred.

An interesting feature of Party Political Conferences is the way you sometimes see, sandwiched between the smooth, polished, urbane parliamentarians, a firebrand from out in the real world making a speech that is far more engaging than that of those parliamentarians. There’s a lesson there. Passion can trump huge amounts of technique.

In my training, if I find I am working with one who has natural passion I tamper as little as possible. I would rather produce a flawed diamond than a polished rock.

Ian Josephs has flaws. His microphone technique could use a little work. The structure of  his material is a little clunky. I could bore you with more such criticisms, but he won’t bore you. I was intrigued but not completely surprised when he announced that he used to sound off on Speakers’ Corner.

[Speakers’ Corner, for overseas readers, is an area in Hyde Park, London, where people simply stand – sometimes on a box – and sound off on a subject of their choice. They are heckled and laughed at and have to develop courage, loud voices and thick skins. When I lived in London I regarded it as possibly the best free entertainment in town.]

Josephs knows how to build the metaphorical bridge from the platform to the audience, and welcomes any audience members who cross it by asking questions while he is in full flow. He works his audience very effectively, but if you get fed up with the endless questions there are those links in the second paragraph above that will take you to others being passionate on the same subject.

I invite you to watch, listen and then act according to your instinct. If you are interested there is a European Parliament Petition on the subject here.