Debunking the debunkers

There should be more to scepticism than angry rants about stupid religious people or New Age mysticism.

Ben Pile

Topics Politics

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Responding to the apparent rise and rise of ‘bunk’ – creationism, homeopathy, fad diets and bad science – a new movement of sceptics is mobilising to defend the world against an ‘attack on science’ in public life. But does this army of professional and armchair scientists and philosophers challenge strange ideas about health, the universe and everything to paint a rational picture of the world, or does it sometimes share them?

Writing on his website about a recent article that complained about medical research being dominated by a ‘scientific research paradigm… acting as a fascist structure’, Godfather of scepticism and debunking, James Randi said: ‘If this is indeed serious, it’s an attack on rationality, on the scientific method, on reason, by people who should know better.’ Indeed they should know better, but is not knowing better really an ‘attack on rationality’ or simply irrational? Randi seems to have lost faith in rationalism’s power of explanation and be worried that people lack the ability to make up their own minds. So what is scepticism then?

‘Swoopy’, the presenter of Skeptic Magazine’s podcast, tells us that you are a sceptic ‘if you think that a lot of the things that you see on the TV and the media are just wrong, and if you think that you’re getting the wrong message from pretty much everything all around you and your voice isn’t being heard’. This kind of scepticism seems to owe more to Swoopy and Randi’s personal anxieties and infantile dysphoria than any real threat to the world. After all, it could just as well be the homeopathic practitioner who considers himself voiceless, freethinking, and a victim of the wrong messages in society. The problem seems to be less about the actual substance of certain ideas, and more that the way that minds have been made up is the result of campaigns executed by religious zealots, greedy people, private interest, and even the Republican Party. It’s as though the world’s ills could be explained by the cynical exploitation of the general public’s scientific illiteracy by a network of agendas.

Reducing the world’s problems to a ‘pathology’ of thoughts, schemes to ‘promote science’ through PR and education are seen as the way to ‘immunise’ the public against ideas that are not in their interest. That certainly seems to be how Californians Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell see it. In 2004, they set up the brights movement with the intention of creating a positive label for a ‘worldview free of supernatural or mystical deities, forces, and entities’ and avoiding the stigma attached to atheism in the USA. ‘The time has come for us brights to come out of the closet’ says Daniel Dennet, professor of philosophy and an ‘enthusiastic bright’. ‘As an adult white married male with financial security, I am not in the habit of considering myself a member of any minority in need of protection… But now I’m beginning to feel some heat, and although it’s not uncomfortable yet, I’ve come to realize it’s time to sound the alarm.’ Rather than advancing a positive vision of how the world might be, brights seem to be about appealing for victim status because the world doesn’t recognise their identity, which like ‘gay’ ‘black’ and ‘disabled’ ought to entitle them to ‘a voice’. The brights tell us more about what they don’t believe than what they do believe.

The view of scepticism that emerges is that it feels impotent, is terrified of the world, and lacks trust in other people’s ability to determine their own interests or make their own decisions. The leading thinkers of the loose movement of sceptics end up coming across not as confident individuals who have radical visions about how to use their rationalist outlook to change the world, but rather as timid souls, keen to advance the idea that that world is a dangerous place, made all the more dangerous by ideas themselves.

Bad ideas are surely poison, but the sceptic movement is unable to offer us a great deal of insight as to why people actually swallow them. Instead of attempting to understand why ideas may take purchase in the public from historical, social, or material perspectives, many leading sceptics prefer to explain the take up of bad ideas as the transmission of ‘memes’. According to Susan Blackmore, author of The Meme Machine and former parapsychologist, ‘the self is not the initiator of actions, it does not “have” consciousness, and it does not “do” the deliberating.’ Just as many of today’s social problems such as addiction, violence, and criminality are frequently blamed on genes, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet and Susan Blackmore explain the failure of rationalism and success of religion in metaphysical terms of agents competing for resources in the environment of our collective mind. This idea that the self, its autonomy, and consciousness are illusions allows sceptics to reduce humans to mindless beings which lack an understanding of their own interests and therefore need to be controlled. Such determinism, though, is exactly what creates the ideas that scepticism should want to confront. The idea that ‘units of cultural information’ have their own drives which humans are subject to, is as irrational as the idea that destiny is governed by the configuration of stars, or balances of energy within our bodies, or the visitations of aliens.

The idea that we need to be told what we can believe is a theme throughout the sceptical movement. ‘[W]e are the watchmen who guard against bad ideas in order to discover good ideas, consumer advocates of critical thinking who, through the guidelines of science, establish a mark at which to aim’ writes Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic Magazine, and director of the Skeptics Society.

Far from seeking rationalism, scepticism is increasingly a search for authority. There are no clear ideas about why it is wrong to believe in a god that does not exist, nor why it is wrong to believe that aliens have landed in Area 51, other than it is simply not true, and may therefore give somebody who doesn’t deserve it some kind of authority or influence. In seeking to explain the irrationality of the world, the sceptical movement does little to confront the fears, anxieties, paranoia and sense of powerlessness, which irrational movements seem to gain currency by. It indulges the same fantasies, and the same appeals to external truths to answer existential questions about life, and begs for authority to answer the world’s problems. Where fad diets appeal to our fears about our health, debunkers appeal to the idea that the body is vulnerable, and so the fad is dangerous. Where religious ideas seek existential comfort, scepticism too searches for certainties to explain why we are here. Where bad ideas are used to exert undue influence over our decisions, good ideas also seem to defer to authority.

Where science once sought to explain the natural world, it is now more a tool of introspection. The role of science has been diminished to providing narcissistic comfort from the terrifying nightmares it constructs about how we are bad for ourselves. The president of the Royal Society, Sir Martin Rees places his bets that by the year 2020, either bioterror or bioerror will have caused a single event resulting in the deaths of over a million people and that by the year 2100 the chances of human extinction will be 50/50. Rees can think of more reasons not to do science than reasons why we should. There is little between his alternative visions of the future – tragic apocalypses on the one hand, or mere survival on the other. He is charged with doing science’s PR, but his words look more like blackmail.

When scientific leaders are not brilliant individuals whose insight and learning can fashion a better future, but merely people who project their own insecurities downward, there is little to wonder about why people turn off from science, don’t do physics A-levels, and buy into hocus-pocus to make themselves feel better. It’s open season on making stuff up, and Lord Rees seems to be doing as much of that as Gillian McKeith.

Sceptics and rationalists ought to be taking a look at their own ideas to find out why they fail to find purchase in the public imagination. Putting science and rationalism back on the map is going to take more than PR, angry rants about stupid religious people, or teaching kids that ‘science is cool’. We don’t need a police force to protect us from bad ideas. We just need better ideas.

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Topics Politics


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