When at a dinner party or other social gathering, someone will invariably start spouting some nonsense about how their eczema was cured by acupuncture or how much spiritualism has helped them resolve their personal issues. I have a terrible habit, I confess, of not leaving well alone. I know I should resist but I can’t. I just have to get involved. Is it conceit on my part because I want to set people straight, or am I just concerned that the world is plunging headlong into an abyss of superstition, scientific ignorance and conspiracy theory?
Whatever the reason, at some point I won’t be able to stop myself launching into a thinly-veiled attack on the absurdity of irrational and ill-informed opinion. It's veiled because I’m conscious of the fact that most people hold their personal beliefs – no matter how misguided – very dear, and they’re easily offended by full-frontal attacks by rationalists. In spite of this however I’m not able to resist the temptation to assert that, for instance, reflexology is fatuous nonsense, aliens don't make crop circles and 911 wasn’t a Bush-led conspiracy.
I know we humans are fragile, credulous and emotionally stunted creatures, but I think that’s precisely why I’m so contemptuous of our species. Over the centuries, thanks to ruinous religious dogma, we’ve been made to believe that we’re the superior beings, above the beasts, and somehow able to shed our baser instincts because we’re civilised. Well that’s horse shit to begin with. If we’re so bloody superior, why is it that we’re utterly reliant on pseudoscientific claptrap to cope with our day?
Taking people down a peg is what I like to do, particularly the sanctimonious holier-than-thou ones. People who hang on to the myth that we are somehow in touch with a ‘higher’ consciousness or in tune with a universal truth that is beyond the ken of mere animals or able to commune with a paranormal world, are those whose anthropocentric view of the universe is what keeps populations poor, keeps prejudices alive, and maintains ignorance as our staple diet.
What really pisses me off though is when you’re having a discussion with someone, and that someone suddenly realises that their ‘sacred cow’ appears to be under threat by common sense. When evidence deserts them and all the hand-waving in the world has no effect, they resort to the lowest form of artifice to defend themselves. When science or reason shatters their argument, they employ the predictable (and in my view cowardly) denialist tactic of saying, “well, science can’t answer everything” - as if that’s an end to it!
What they don’t realise is that the well-armed critical thinker has come prepared for the low blow in the nether regions. The attacker is absolutely right – science can’t answer everything. In fact, science has barely scratched the surface of knowledge about the universe. But what a stupid accusation - "science can’t answer everything". If science could answer everything then there’d be no need for science. Why bother searching for the truth when you already know all the answers?
However, it’s worth pointing out to the antagonist that,
“because we do not currently have an adequate explanation for a phenomenon does not mean that it is forever unexplainable, or that it therefore defies the laws of nature or requires a paranormal explanation.”*
After delivering this return punch you may feel that this would be an end to the matter. But no - the true believer has one more low-blow to deliver - a remark as predictable as the first. That is “well, science is just another belief system – why is yours any better than mine?”
At this point, my withering glance should be enough to melt steel. It’s the kind of remark you’d forgive a five-year-old for, but hearing it from a supposedly educated adult is more then mere flesh and blood can stand. My barely disguised misanthropy rises to the surface and I know the whole human race is going to hell in a hand basket.
Now, let’s clear the stage before continuing. Science is a methodology, not a belief system. What’s the difference? Well for the purpose of this discussion, science is a discipline almost entirely dependent on the gathering of evidence and postulation of theories. It exists on shifting sands; if new and better research contradicts old evidence, then that evidence is thrown out or modified to accommodate the new results. Science abhors contradiction; it strives only for truth and an explanation of the natural world. It confers to itself no moral superiority, and discovery of an answer to a vexed question is its own reward.
A belief system on the other hand is immutable. One might even say it’s the opposite of science, because it maintains its stance in spite of all evidence against it. An evangelical Christian may believe that every word in the Bible is true (even though paradoxically the book is full of contradictions). No matter what rational argument says or what scientific evidence is put forward, the adherent's dogged belief rejects everything thrown at it. What's more, religion and other belief systems tend to assume the moral high ground – they’re right, ergo everyone else is wrong.
Science couldn’t function like this. Its existence rests entirely on its ability to validate its own findings. There’s no question of protecting its own interests; if the findings are wrong, they're chucked out.
A pedant might argue that science has to ‘believe’ in its findings; but such quibbling is disingenuous. Many words in the English language have different shades of meaning – ‘belief’ in the case of religion refers to the unyielding arrogance in the ‘certainty’ of knowledge about the supernatural, contrary to all empirical wisdom. ‘Belief’ in the usual sense refers to an understanding that things are the way they are until shown otherwise. So it is with science. If scientists ‘believe’ in the evidence they find, then that belief only lasts as long as the evidence stands up to scrutiny.
True believers rarely modify their viewpoint, whether it’s belief in religion, alien visitation, the spirit world or acupuncture. Their attacks on the scientific method are nothing more than puny strategems, defending a weak and vulnerable position - that is, one of uncensored belief.
Before closing, let me turn on religion one more time; specifically upon the argument that what science can’t explain must necessarily be the unique preserve of a higher power. To any evangelical Christian parent, the next time your young child denies breaking your favourite vase, claiming it's a mystery (even though he was flailing around the room moments before with a broom in his hand), I’d be inclined to accept what he says. His faith-driven parent, dismissive of more prosaic 'scientific' explanations, must accept that the breakage must have been miraculous and therefore caused by God!
* from The Skeptics Guide to The Universe – The Top 20 Logical Fallacies - http://www.theskepticsguide.org/resources/logicalfallacies.aspx
Like most of us I find it irresistible to express my opinions on the world. I do it on this blog site as a way of archiving my thoughts. The articles are basically rants, diatribes if you will, attacking ignorance, stupidity and laziness. But I hope it offers suggestions to the merely misguided in society, those who, through no fault of their own, believe in nonsense or behave in ways contrary to the normal flow - they just need to be shown the right path. Feel free to comment...
Now, if we’re all sitting comfortably, let’s begin...