How many pins fit into the head of an angel?

23 Dec

Sometimes I wish I could physically shake the stupid out of society.

It seems that an online poll was conducted last week by an organisation calling themselves the Bible Society and Christian Research (oxymoron). The name itself ought to ring alarm bells as to the neutrality of the survey. Anyway, it “found” that around one in three of people polled believes they have a guardian angel watching over them.

A couple of caveats are in order here. First we have, as I said, the question of the neutrality of the researchers. Without wishing to cast nasturtiums, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to ask what questions were actually asked. As Sir Humphrey Appleby demonstrated, asking the right questions is the key to obtaining the right result:

Their motives  might not be quite as deliberate as that, of course. There is such a thing as confirmation bias,

a tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true.[Note 1][1] As a result, people gather evidence and recall information from memory selectively, and interpret it in a biased way. The biases appear in particular for emotionally significant issues and for established beliefs.

[. . .]

Experiments have repeatedly found that people tend to test hypotheses in a one-sided way, by searching for evidence consistent with the hypothesis they hold at a given time.[5][6] Rather than searching through all the relevant evidence, they ask questions that are phrased so that an affirmative answer supports their hypothesis.[7] They look for the consequences that they would expect if their hypothesis were true, rather than what would happen if it were false.[7] For example, someone who is trying to identify a number using yes/no questions and suspects that the number is 3 might ask, “Is it an odd number?” People prefer this sort of question, called a “positive test”, even when a negative test such as “Is it an even number?” would yield exactly the same information.[8] However, this does not mean that people seek tests that are guaranteed to give a positive answer. In studies where subjects could select either such pseudo-tests or genuinely diagnostic ones, they favored the genuinely diagnostic.[9][10]

This confirmation bias also extends into the beliefs of the people asked. After all, a sample consisting of mostly believers is likely to give a different result to one made up of me.

Next up is the sample size, the actual number of people polled. This isn’t just a nit-picking criticism, as the organisers themselves are concerned about it:

But research organisers warned that the city results are based on small numbers – with just 17 people interviewed from Oxford, 19 from Hull, 39 from Edinburgh and 27 from Plymouth.

It reminds me of a Monty Python sketch, I think it was – I’ll stand correction – which took the result of one person being asked how they intend to vote and then applying it across the country to give a Tory landslide of 100% of Parliamentary seats.

Finally, we have the rather dubious conclusions drawn from the ‘research’.

Canon Dr Ann Holt, Bible Society director of programme, said: “There is plenty of evidence that there are presences in this world beyond the human.

Care to share this “evidence”, Ann? Thought not. Methinks the lady hath watched a bit too much Most Haunted.

Convinced yet? Incidentally, the above video is actually one of two, the second showing Paul “I’ve got a famous brother” Ross reacting live to that scene filmed earlier in the day and which now looks like this:

But to continue:

“The fact that a third of this country believes in angels is a sign of a spiritual need within many of us.

And the fact that perhaps 99% of children believe in the tooth fairy is a sign that they can perceive entities invisible to us grown-ups.

An angel is God’s messenger and the Bible affirms this through the many appearances of angels in different forms.

Darth Vader is Luke’s son father, and Star Wars affirms this through many scenes in different films. What’s the difference?

“It is interesting that Tony Jordan, the writer of the BBC’s Nativity, has chosen to show the angel Gabriel, for example, in conventional human form.”

Ah – the old “you can imagine it, therefore that proves it must be real” argument. I would’ve expected something less feeble from a “Research” society, but then that’s all they have: bald assertions backed up by nothing except a mythological and political document which, frankly, any serious researcher would be embarrassed to admit basing their work on.

Colonel Robert Ingersoll again:

“The old lady who said there must be a devil, else how could they make pictures that looked exactly like him, reasoned like a trained theologian — like a doctor of divinity.”
— Robert Green Ingersoll, from “Superstition” (1898)

I couldn’t put it better myself.

[EDIT: Bugger; of course Darth Vader isn’t Luke’s son – that would throw up all sorts of metaphysical impossibilities, causing the timeline to fold in upon itself catastrophically, setting up cascading resonance patterns which would undoubtedly unravel the fabric of this and all possible universes, leaving nothing but a sea of virtual particles and radiation. And I’d probably get shouted at. So I’ve corrected it before anyone notices.]


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