George Walford: Progress of Reason

We are constantly being told that society as a whole progresses towards ever higher levels of rationality, but some of the revelations occuring in the wake of the American TV-religion scandals go to support a different view. One of the movements involved is ‘PTL’ – variously interpreted as ‘Praise the Lord’ or ‘Pass the Loot’ – and Jerry Falwell, former founder and leader of the Moral Majority, in discussing probable effects of the scandals, has mentioned that before these troubles started the incomes of the churches and church-related charities in America totalled $80 billion. When the American humanist and atheist organisations come to dispose of comparable annual incomes from gifts we shall be prepared to consider the suggestion that religion may be on its way out. (Falwell reported by Malise Ruthven in TLS 29 Jan – 4 Feb 88).

THE PARASTATIC ideology (the ideology of precision), with its inclination towards measurement, has won a respected place, and one consequence is that figures, any figures, tend to be taken seriously. We must plead guilty to having fallen into this fallacy ourselves; we have, for example, accepted unquestioningly the figures officially quoted for the numbers killed in the various modern wars. But J. M. Winter has written The Great War and the British People and Patrick Renshaw, reviewing it in the TLS (15 May 87) reports Winter as finding that the figures given for British military casualities in the First World War are not reliable. Renshaw ascribes to Winter the view that this was caused by ‘a mixture of secrecy, lack of interest and loss of the relevant documents.’ Working backwards from an estimate of male mortality rates in peacetime Winter comes up with the figure of 722,785 military deaths against the official figure of 548,749.

We have long nursed a project for setting numbers of researchers to work on official forecasts – forecasts of population, traffic density, business activity, the standard of living, and so on – checking them against the events. It had not occurred to us that the authorities might be substantially wrong not only about the future but about something as factual as the number of deaths that actually occurred in a fairly recent war.

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THE MAN-EATING shark serves as a model of all that is bad, and motherhood as the paradigm of all goodness. But every issue has another side; if more people had been in favour of the man-eating shark, and fewer had supported motherhood, we would not now have the same population problem.

from Ideological Commentary 33, May 1988.