‘Pope Nazi’, cognitive bias and intellectual myopia

First of all, seeing as we’re on the topic of bias, I’ll make a disclaimer relating to the content of this post.

Andrew Bolt, whose work is criticised in this post, is a member of my extended family.

I’ve never met him in person, our paths merely having been near misses. But outside of my own family nucleus, his sister’s household is easily the family residence I frequent the most. She’s a good person and her husband, a cousin of mine, is almost a brother to me.

This compromises me in some ways. On occasion, I’ve consciously withdrawn from discussion of his writing, simply because things became too personal. I have an unwillingness to generate any ill-feeling in the family, and that includes Andrew.

I suspect I’d be more excoriating if I didn’t have this association.

When you come to something with different preconceptions, you can’t always be guaranteed to walk away with the same conclusions.

Something to keep in mind when considering what I’m writing here.

‘Pope Nazi’

A prominent atheist at a prominent convention of atheists, using the words ‘Pope’ and ‘Nazi’ in the same sentence, was bound to cause a stir. Independently, both words can provoke preconceived notions that can frame a discussion before one even knows what’s being discussed.

I’ve been going to write a post about the whole ‘Pope Nazi’ affair since earlier this the week when the misquotes first became apparent. Like Andrew, I didn’t go to the convention. In undertaking an analysis of the media reporting of the convention, I’ve relied upon correspondence with a number of convention goers – notes for a book I’m trying to write. Given my methodology, I thought it prudent not to go with first appearances or accounts.

When I first heard of the words ‘Pope’ and ‘Nazi’ being uttered by Dawkins, an account that Barney Zwartz of The Age appeared gob-smacked in response, and having seen this kind of thing happen before, I expected confusion. That’s how I framed the issue in my mind from the outset – those were my expectations.

The emerging response was for a number of journalists to report that Richard Dawkins had called Pope Benedict XVI a Nazi. Tracey Spicer, Barney Zwartz, Melanie Phillips, and importantly, Andrew Bolt, amongst others, reported this as fact. As it turned out, this was wrong.

Andrew, in spite of the evidence of his error, has once again dug in his heels.

How does Andrew swat aside criticism of his mistake this time? In responding to a video of the alleged slur, Andrew expressed incredulity at The Australian Skeptics for not seeing Dawkins ‘sneering’ at Pope Benedict XVI. Going on to say…

“Which only proves that these sceptics aren’t sceptical at all in rushing to believe what suits them best. A sad case of confirmation bias, I’m afraid, but we’ve already seen on Insiders how non-sceptical the Skeptics really are when it comes to their preferred faiths, such as global waming (sic).”

(Andrew Bolt, ‘None so blind as the atheist who will not see‘, 2010)

I’m sure this will go down well with the atheophobes in Andrew’s audience who insist that us Godless types are just rebelling against an apparently self-evident God. (If not the creationists, history and climatology deniers that make up a good portion of Andrew’s audience).

Andrew is being bloody-minded. The video clearly shows Dawkins briefly listing people who are in line for canonisation such as Mary MacKillop, and when he gets to Pope Pius XII, who was controversially elevated to ‘Venerable’ last year, he falters with his name and off-the-cuff, being pressed for an answer, finishes off with ‘Nazi.. whatever…’ after stumbling with ‘Pope…’ The ‘sneer’ is imaginary; ‘cheer’ would seem a more accurate interpretation of the tone from where I’m sitting.

Watch it yourself.

For pity’s sake, being recognised as a saint by the Catholic Church is official recognition that someone is in Heaven – Pope Benedict XVI isn’t even dead yet. How on Earth could Prof. Dawkins be talking about Benedict XVI? He was talking about Pius XII – the WWII Pope who refused to condemn, or officially recognise the genocide even when it was reported to him by his own clergy.

Accurate? There is enough established history to make this a fair off the cuff remark. To go into minutiae over this is to take the remark far too literally.

The best rhetoric? No.

But imperfect delivery of off-the-cuff rhetoric, isn’t want Dawkins is being charged with. Andrew is alleging barbarism!

My interest in all of this is not to defend Richard Dawkins. He’s quite able to do that himself if he feels the need. Being in the process of writing a book about the misrepresentation of atheists (with sections dedicated to how prominent atheists are misrepresented to draw inferences about atheists more generally) my interest should be clear; if I’m defending anyone, I’m defending atheists against misrepresentation.

Andrew, and others, have used the misquote to draw inferences about attendees at the atheist convention.

Interestingly enough, Andrew mentions cognitive bias. Before I even read this tripe from Andrew, I wanted to talk about cognitive bias in relation to the misquote. So let’s talk about cognitive bias.

Cognitive bias

Upon waking on Monday, I found I had a series of tweets directed at me, a friendly challenge for me to defend Prof. Dawkins; which I did at some length (albeit somewhat facetiously). I needed more information before drawing a conclusion. At this point, I didn’t even know which Pope Prof. Dawkins was addressing as ‘Pope… Nazi… Whatever…’.

Even if he’d called Pope Benedict XVI ‘Pope Nazi’, I didn’t think it impossible that he was being facetious, or otherwise not actually alleging that Benedict XVI was a Nazi. Improbable, perhaps, but not entirely impossible in my opinion. So I waited for more details.

As events unfolded during the week, new details arose, I was scooped on the early reporting of the ‘Pope Nazi’ misquote by the talented young Jason Ball (who unlike myself, was actually at the event), so my focus shifted towards analysis more focused on how these mistakes could be made, what and who they served, and their consequences. (I’ll still be researching this well after I’ve published this post).

Then Andrew went and plonked himself in the middle of the issue. I’d rather it was someone else.

Before the misquote story broke, in questioning a number of people who attended the convention, something interesting became apparent. The people I questioned were all atheists. They were all non-hostile to Prof. Dawkins. I’m left with the impression that these people were able to receive Dawkins in good faith.

Yet, from memory, all bar one thought Dawkins was talking about Pope Benedict XVI.

Now this sample of people who I interviewed wasn’t large enough to draw reliable inferences about the views of all or even  people at the convention. I don’t pretend to know the distribution of the views of the entire population of convention goers. (It may be informative for future events of this kind to poll attendees on a range of issues – if only to counter media misinformation).

But this doesn’t mean that no implications can be drawn. I think that this exercise shows that it is at least conceivably possible for people to misinterpret these things even with the best of intentions, and even when witnessing them first hand. A group polarisation effect perhaps?

In alerting Andrew to the mistake that he’d made, Ben Pobjie (who Andrew, with some cheek, refers to as ‘reader Ben Pobjie’ – Ben’s a talented writer of satire) wrote:

“Obviously, your opinion is your opinion and I’d never question your right to it, but since it’s pretty clear that you are incorrect about the “Pope Nazi” reference (and having been at the conference myself, I can confirm that your interpretation was incorrect), it would be very gracious of you to publish a correction in your next column.

It’s perfectly understandable you got this wrong, of course, because Prof. Dawkins’s remarks were reported wrongly across the media – but now that you know, I’m assuming you will be keen to correct the misconception.”

(Ben Pobjie, 2010)

As Michael Shermer sometimes likes to point out, we’re all human and we all have biases. The group of convention attendees I questioned makes this quite clear. But what kind of bias?

There is so much exaggeration of what Prof. Dawkins and other ‘New Atheists’ actually say and write out there, it’s not hard to imagine an observer expectancy effect. The critics of Dawkins et. al. coaching people to find offence, hence helping make sure they find it.

The observer expectancy effect is frequently used as an example by skeptics to demonstrate cognitive bias. For example in the case of imagined ‘backmasking‘, instead of telling an audience what is supposedly hidden backwards on an album, you simply play it backwards first, then tell them what to listen for and play it back again. The before and after are markedly different – something that really exposes what’s going on inside your head.

“You can’t miss it when I tell you what’s there.” – Indeed!

In discussion with one of the attendees of the convention who just happens to have psychology qualifications, the idea was floated that Barney Zwartz may have experienced some kind of aural pareidolia that caused him to hear something he expected to hear. Such was the degree of his misquote.

“‘…well, the real theologians like Pope Nazi believe in miracles.”

(Barney Zwartz, 2010)

It’s not even a close approximate of what Dawkins actually said and much, much more than you could reasonably get away with by way of paraphrase.

Barney has had the good sense to retract the misquote, although it’s a little hard to find buried in all the comments. Maybe now that Barney has learnt from this experience, he could interrupt Gerard Henderson’s attempt at schooling Prof. Dawkins, and get Hendo to home-school himself on checking sources.

There are of course other cognitive biases than those I’ve mentioned that could be at work, and I’m in no position to draw strong conclusions. Whatever they may be, the take-home message in all of this is that when you come to something with different preconceptions, you can’t always be guaranteed to walk away with the same conclusions. Which makes it all the more important when making these kinds of accusations, to check your ideas against those of others, check with witnesses and double check your sources.

Intellectual myopia

The one-eyed troll doesn’t like the two-eyed dogma of the ‘Global Waming’ faith! He’ll ‘wam’ you with his staff if you aren’t careful. (Source: Deror).

We all have something of the one-eyed troll inside of us, but I’m not sure as an explanation, that it’s going to be able to get Andrew off the hook for much longer. Since accusing The Young Skeptics of confirmation bias, Andrew has gone on to make a non-retraction, along with a thinly veiled accusation of equivocation levelled at Prof. Dawkins.

“Like many journalists and, I’d guess, many of the audience, I assumed from Richard Dawkins’ slur that he was referring to the German Pope Benedict when he sneered at “Pope Nazi”.

Dawkins now insists he was vilifying another Pope (and also with monstrous unfairness) – and isn’t sorry at all, either, for his playground insult of Senator Steve Fielding…”

(Andrew Bolt, ‘I was wrong: Dawkins is still a barbarian‘, 2010)

You’ll notice that Andrew doesn’t actually state that Prof. Dawkins was calling Pius XII, ‘Pope… Nazi… Whatever…’ Andrew states that ‘Dawkins now insists…’

Now insists? What else has he insisted? There is no sign of Prof. Dawkins actually taking a different position to this, other than some poor quotations.

And given that Ben Pobjie had already pointed out prior to Andrew’s previous post on the matter, that it was understandable that Andrew could have got this wrong due to the ‘Pope Nazi’ meme spreading across the media, why is Andrew raising the matter as a defence only now? Shouldn’t he have addressed it when he was first made aware of it?

‘But everyone else was doing it, and I knew two posts ago, and I’m not actually retracting it now anyway’ to me, doesn’t exactly evoke the kind of understanding that a proper retraction would. Rather it paints Andrew into a corner – the ‘everyone else was saying the same thing’ defence doesn’t work twice, and now he’s wasted it.

Does he think the line about Senator Fielding serves as some kind of insurance?

For pity’s sake, someone calling an MP more stupid than an earthworm for saying something silly, is hardly big news. It happens all the time. We all do it. What makes Prof. Dawkins’ utterance so special? When Ex-PM Paul Keating lets go with his particular brand of insult, it hardly draws this kind of attention.

I really wish Andrew wouldn’t keep doing this to himself.

~ Bruce

P.S. I’m sure I’ll be ‘wamed’ about a typo or two. It’s 4am here in Adelaide, and I’ve been furiously editing through the wee hours. Hey, it’s a blog, not a book – publish now, clean up later. Need sleep now. 😉

Update (21/03/2010): Andrew has yesterday, in his (alleged) final word on the matter, come around to referring to the ‘Pope… Nazi… whatever’ quote as having to do with Pope Pius XII. It’s been an interesting trek this past week; wrong quote; alleging wrong quote is correct even after being shown evidence; non-retraction with the claim that quote is now supposed to mean what it always meant since the beginning and finally, referring to it correctly as if there had never been any doubt. But with a failed reductio as a cherry on top.

That’s right. If Pius XII is a nazi for not calling the genocide a genocide, then Richard Dawkins is al Qaeda for a point he made at the convention. Namely that if you are too afraid to challenge Islam, then you should at least be honest and do so out of fear, and not pretend to do so out of respect. Of course, Bolt mangles the meaning somewhat, and manages to catch himself in a Godwin.

What would Andrew have us believe? That Islam is rushing across Europe, crushing nations and leaving death camps in its wake?

At any rate, here’s Richard Dawkins, going easy on Islam. Or not. Make up your own mind.

13 thoughts on “‘Pope Nazi’, cognitive bias and intellectual myopia

  1. Don’t you know by now? It’s hard for Bolt to admit when he’s wrong.

    As for the “slur” on Fielding, it’s part and parcel of being a public figure. And it’s not the worst thing Fielding’s been called either.


  2. An excellent analysis, Bruce. This Dawkins thing has really highlighted the inflexibility in Bolt’s views. After it became clear that he was wrong on the facts, he has launched into a series of posts (with UPDATEs) that appear designed to justify the denigration of Dawkins. It looks like he now needs to argue that even though he based his original opinion on facts that turned out to be wrong, his opinion was still right. That’s not a great approach to reasoning for someone who claims to be a sceptic and to understand science.


  3. Being one of the attendees and a self confessed skeptic, this incident was an excellent example of how cognitive biases and experience filters can and do effect eyewitnesses memory and perception. I was about 10 rows from Dawkins and originally thought(right up until the viewing of the tape) that he was referring to good old Ratsy. I wouldn’t have placed money on it but if you’d asked me that’s what I would have said.

    A number of factors contributed to the misperception – alcohol tiredness and the common accusation leveled at ratsy being a nazi(not a belief I hold).

    I find it odd that Bolt thinks that Skeptics think they are immune to bias.

    On an interesting side note Podblack’s talked featured an example of backmasking 🙂


  4. What I found interesting is that I thought at first he meant Benedict – because I’d forgotten about Pius. And because of that, I thought at the time, “That doesn’t make sense, what he just said; he’s misspoken there.”


  5. @Bron – I sometimes wonder how much Andrew’s audience contributes to his sometimes incorrigibility. Can imaging them snapping at him if he strayed too far, or turned 180 on something they were really worked up about.

    @TZ – Thanks. 😉

    @Sean & Ben – At a guess, I reckon those who had been following the issue of sainthood a little closer over the past six months would have had a better chance of getting the quote right when hearing it in person.


  6. Greta article, as usual, Bruce.
    Like Sean I was also there but only 3 rows from Dawkins. I also thought he was referring to ‘Ratzi’ as I didn’t, at the time, know (or remember) about Pious, but did remember that ‘Ratzi’ had been in the Hitler youth. So 2 plus 2 equalled 5.

    However, on first viewing of the video it was plainly obvious that it had to be Pious as Dawkins was talking about people who were in the process of being made saints. Bolt didn’t do himself any favours digging his heals in and refusing to accept his error.

    PS. Pity you didn’t make it to the convention, would have liked to have met you, and I’m sure you would have enjoyed the convention. Perhaps next one, slated for 2012?


  7. Its interesting that this misquote is about all anybody gets to know about the entire convention. If you wanted a strategy to hide the content of the convention from public view this is a good way to do it.


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