National Heritage Board Abdicates Again At Ales Stenar

Bob Lind has yet again managed to get the National Heritage Board to abdicate its responsibility at Ales Stenar, a beautiful 7th century AD burial monument near Ystad in southern Sweden. Bob has self-published odd interpretations of the site that have found no traction among professional archaeologists. He has kept vigil at Ales stenar for decades, lecturing to visitors, ranting at the municipal guides and occasionally attacking them. He has a very large sign on site, next to the National Heritage Board’s, with permission from the County Archaeologist. My colleague Björn Wallebom has criticised this, and the local paper ran a critical article yesterday, quoting myself and others.

In 2007 the National Heritage Board’s representative Ewa Bergdahl said on this subject,

There isn’t just one single truth. This place is so incredibly more complex than previously believed, … You have no privileged position with us just because you do research at a university

And this tiresome old post-modernist anti-science relativism persists at the Board. This time it’s Qaisar Mahmood, my buddy from Leftie and refugee volunteering circles, who says stupid things to the press without the benefit of any archaeological training.

Our responsibility is to present the image we think is right. It would be wrong if we took measures to exclude other images. … We have seen no reason to file a complaint against the County Archaeologist’s decision. We take responsibility for what is ours. Just because we don’t file a complaint it doesn’t mean that we support or open the door to other versions.

—–

Vårt ansvar ligger i att ge den bild vi tycker är rätt. Det är fel om vi skulle gå in och utesluta andra bilder. … Vi har inte sett något behov att överklaga länsstyrelsens beslut. Vi tar ansvar för det som är vårt. Bara för att vi inte överklagar betyder det inte att vi står bakom eller släpper fram andra versioner.

1. The National Heritage Board’s responsibility is to present the image that scientific consensus thinks is right. Nobody else’s. Certainly not its non-archaeological office staff’s.

2. The Board owns this property. Its staff are not taking responsibility for what is theirs.

3. The fact that the Board doesn’t file a complaint does mean that it supports and opens the door to other versions.

4. If someone wanted to post an equally pseudo-scientific sign about Odin that contained hints of extreme-right propaganda, then the Board would not allow it.

5. When the National Heritage Board allows a sign with a discredited interpretation at a high-profile archaeological site that it owns, then it is equivalent to public hospitals allowing faith healers to roam the corridors, tending to patients.

Qaisar, archaeology is a science. I do not get to speak for medicine, Latvian studies or meteorology. You do not get to speak for archaeology. Scholarly consensus is the arbiter of truth in these matters.

Update same day: Qaisar Mahmood and the Board’s Custodian Lars Amreus have responded briefly on Facebook and Twitter to my criticism. If I understand them correctly, their line is that the Board of National Antiquities does not in fact own Ales stenar, they recently handed it over to the National Property Board. This organisation has never made any claim to archaeological authority. And it creates the question, why then does Qaisar Mahmood of National Heritage talk to the press about Ales stenar? As I said, this is an abdication of responsibility.

And another update: Qaisar has given me a long public reply on Fb, and I’ll try to summarise it fairly here. He’s saying that my expectations of what role the National Heritage Board is supposed to play in Swedish archaeology are no longer supported by its directives from the Ministry of Culture. The Board has in fact not abdicated from any position of archaeological authority in the case of Ales stenar. It can’t abdicate, because it no longer makes any claim to such a position. Those are not its orders from our elected officials. I’m sure Qaisar knows what he’s talking about. I just shake my head and wonder, will the real Board of National Antiquities please stand up?

Signage at Ales stenar. Left: two copies of a sign from Ystad municipality and the National Heritage Board. Right: Bob Lind’s signs.

My blogging about Bob’s antics has grown voluminous over the years. Read it all here with a new category tag.

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Skeptical Sir Richard

Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-90)

Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-90)

Yesterday I finished reading the first volume of Sir Richard Burton’s 1855 Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah (in the public domain). Here Burton recounts his travels in the summer of 1853, when he disguised himself as a wandering Persian physician and performed the Muslim pilgrimage. At the time, if a non-Muslim was caught doing this, he would be lucky if he only ended up forcefully circumcised.

Burton is an amazing writer, with a keen eye for detail and fine cynical sense of humour. He comes across as a man without any religion who is nevertheless interested in other people’s religion. This lovely passage from ch. 20 of the 1893 Memorial Edition encapsulates his skeptical attitude.
(The bits about Spiritualism are late insertions by Burton.)

[In Hamzah’s Mosque outside Al-Madinah] It is believed that the souls of martyrs, leaving the habitations of their senseless clay, are fond of sitting together in spiritual converse, and profane eye must not fall upon the scene. What grand pictures these imaginative Arabs see! Conceive the majestic figures of the saints — for the soul with Mohammedans is like the old European spirit, a something immaterial in the shape of the body — with long grey beards, earnest faces, and solemn eyes, reposing beneath the palms, and discussing events now buried in the gloom of a thousand years.

I would fain be hard upon this superstition, but shame prevents. When in Nottingham, eggs may not be carried out after sunset; when Ireland hears Banshees, or apparitional old women, with streaming hair, and dressed in blue mantles; when Scotland sees a shroud about a person, showing his approaching death; when France has her loup-garous, revenants, and poules du Vendredi Saint (i.e. hens hatched on Good Friday supposed to change color every year): as long as the Holy Coat cures devotees at Trèves, Madonnas wink at Rimini, San Januario melts at Naples, and Addolorate and Estatiche make converts to hysteria at Rome — whilst the Virgin manifests herself to children on the Alps, whilst Germany sends forth Psychography, whilst Europe, the civilised, the enlightened, the sceptical, dotes over clairvoyance and table-turning, and whilst even hard-headed America believes in “mediums,” in “snail-telegraphs,” and “spirit-rappings,” [* In fairness I must confess to believing in the reality of these phenomena, but not in their “spiritual” origin.] — I must hold the men of Al-Madinah to be as wise, and their superstition to be as respectable as that of others.

An energetic man after my taste, and a writer I shall return to.

2014 Enlightener & Deceiver Awards

Last spring I stepped down from the chair and the editorial board of the Swedish Skeptics, but I remain an enthusiastic member of the association and we have a really strong executive board these days. Now they have announced the Swedish Skeptics’ annual awards for 2014.

The Enlightener of the Year award is given to Viralgranskaren, “The Viral Investigator”, a column in the Swedish version of the free subway newspaper Metro. Here journalists Jack Werner, Linnéa Jonjons och Åsa Larsson investigate claims that go viral on the social media: everything from fake celebrity deaths to racist propaganda and food safety alarmism. “The Viral Investigator also gives its readers practical advice about how they can become better investigators, and about the tell-tale signs to identify stories that are probably fake.” In November Werner, Jonjons and Larsson received The Swedish Grand Journalism Prize for Innovator of the Year.

The Deceiver of the Year anti-award is given to one of the country’s main morning TV news shows, TV4 Nyhetsmorgon. They have “repeatedly aired pseudoscientific and false claims, dealing among other topics with psychology, psychiatry, medicine and veterinary medicine”.

Download Dawkins’ God Delusion In Arabic For Free

Bassam Al-Baghdady (@Al_Baghdady on Twitter) is a Swedish film writer. He’s translated Richard Dawkins’ 2006 best-seller The God Delusion into Arabic. Bassam tells me the file may be disseminated freely, so go ahead and download Dawkins’ God Delusion in Arabic for free! وهم الاله بقلم ريتشارد دوكنز.

Two disclaimers, though.

1. Despite numerous contact efforts over many weeks, I haven’t received any response from Richard Dawkins or his staff when I’ve asked for permission to put the book up for download. The reason that I am going ahead anyway is that there is no official Arabic translation of the book that I could recommend people to buy. If Dawkins or his staff get in touch with me and ask me to take the file down, I will do so swiftly.

2. I don’t know Arabic. For all I know, the file may actually contain the script of the third season of Seinfeld. But I trust Bassam and I will be interested to receive comments on his translation.

Critical Thinking Training Makes Kids Smart And Also Atheist

I’m weeks late to the party here. If you pay attention to atheist issues you’ve probably heard that a recent major meta-study* concludes that at the population level, atheists are a bit smarter than religious folks (mainly Protestant Americans and English in this case). Not dramatically so, but in a statistically significant way. The difference persists even if you control for gender and education level. This means that if you look only at poorly educated people, the unbelievers are a bit smarter, and likewise if you look only at highly educated people, or women, or men. Here are some thoughts about this.

Intelligence is, to the extent that it is measurable, caused by both genetics and environment. Take a pair of twins and give one good nutrition, care and education – and withhold all this from the other twin. Then the first twin will score better at IQ tests than her sister. On the other hand, kids with smart parents tend to grow up smarter than other people even if they are separated from their parents at birth. The new study documents a drop-off in the difference in intelligence between atheists and believers after higher education. Atheists are still smarter, but the difference shrinks. That is very telling to me.

I don’t think having atheist beliefs makes you smarter. Nor does being smart make you more likely to become an atheist. The study’s authors suggest that the main explanation for the difference is that “intelligent people do not accept beliefs not subject to empirical tests or evidence”. This is almost certainly the wrong explanation. It may be an observational truth, but it is not a causal explanation.

Here’s how I think it works. It has to do not only with the amount of education controlled for by the study, but with the content of your early indoctrination and later education – specifically, whether you are encouraged to think critically or not.

By definition, religious upbringing and education teaches acceptance of some scriptural authority. Not only on ethical issues, but on matters of fact, such as “Is there a god and what’s her name?”. This is why religious affiliation runs so strongly in families, communities and cultures. There are an awful lot of Hindus in the world, for instance, but geographically and culturally they are sharply delimited. This religion’s success has nothing to do with smart people in India looking over the global options and picking the best one. It is due to everybody in that area, smart or stupid, being indoctrinated in the readily available and culturally accepted default faith. Religious people often attend religious schools and universities.

Non-religious upbringing and education, on the other hand, tends to be equally big on the ethics but more critical and open on factual issues. My kids, for instance, often get the reply “Can you guess?” when they ask their dad questions. This, I believe, gives a child’s intelligence a big push. The fact that this correlates with atheism is simply an epiphenomenon. If taught critical thinking, kids become more intelligent and also happen to be less open to accepting untestable or empirically false religious beliefs. Critical thinking training makes kids a bit smarter – and also atheist.

* Zuckerman, M.; Silberman, J. & Hall, J.A. 2013. The Relation Between Intelligence and Religiosity: A Meta-Analysis and Some Proposed Explanations. Personality and Social Psychology Review, Aug. 6, 2013.

I was inspired to write this blog entry by the discussion on episode #100 of the excellent Skeptikerpodden podcast. Congrats guys, keep up the good work!