Monthly Archives: February 2015

The Persistence of Pseudoscience

good-science-bad-science

For a long time, from the days of the ancient Greeks to the advent of modern medicine in the early 19th century, physicians believed in the four humors that governed the human body: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood. Medical cures, so mocked by Moliere in his comedies, consisted mostly in purging and bloodletting. This was not based on any evidence and we know now that it did more harm than good. With advances in chemistry, alchemy disappeared completely. In other areas we have not moved ahead at the same rate. Astronomy has made great strides with the perfection of the telescope and remarkably sensitive electronic image sensors and yet astrology is flourishing also. People read their horoscopes which rely on the position of the sun and stars in the Zodiac and many believe in them. (Ronald Reagan was a devotee during his Presidency)

Psychology has emerged as a distinct experiment-based discipline divorced from philosophy. Yet parapsychology persists. It concerns itself with clairvoyance, precognition, telepathy and near-death experiences. To return to medicine, homeopathy is the belief that the substance that causes the symptoms can be used to cure the symptoms. But then it argues that diluting that substance reinforces its potency.

Often pseudoscience hides behind scientific sounding names. Deepak Chopra’s “quantum healing” relies on the body’s self-correcting and self-healing capacities. It sounds impressive but also a little arcane. The explanation is vague like that of the Delphic Oracles that can apply to many situations, depending on personal interpretation.

The most recent manifestation of the anti-scientific attitude is the mobilization against the vaccination of children. Some parents suddenly decided that vaccination was harmful and are putting their children at risk of illnesses that were thought to have been conquered. At the same time they are endangering the health of other children. Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey affirms that parents’ rights allow them to do this. And now Rand Paul has jumped into the fray announcing that he “has heard of children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.” Are they vying for the know-nothings’ vote or could it be that they sincerely adhere to these notions?

Some people believe in numerology or creatures like the Yeti or Loch Ness monster. It all depends on your suggestibility. Rational reasons are mixed with superstition and they are often hard to disentangle. I know many persons who believe in Qi, the Chinese concept that says that vital energy circulates around the body. Jeopardy contestants often bring lucky charms to the contest. It probably boosts their confidence and allows them to perform better. Auto-suggestion and self-hypnosis may be at work here and may account for any benefits derived from belief.

Science however, relies on experiments that can be replicated and verified and on peer evaluation. It starts with a hypothesis and if that hypothesis cannot be independently confirmed, then no matter how alluring and beguiling it appears it needs to be modified or discarded.

To Me, This Is Total Evil

Female Palestinian suicide bombers attend a news conference in Gaza

On our television screens we have recently seen ordinary looking individuals matter-of- factly informing us that they will behead persons they do not even know. Their faces are covered in black. Their eyes are vacant. But these are not deformed monsters or extraterrestrials. Such persons live among us. Most recently, these messengers of Allah plunged us several centuries down into the Middle Ages when heretics were burned at the stake.

This is not killing out of fear or necessity or for profit. To me this is total evil. Fanatics are ruthlessly enforcing religious doctrines like blasphemy and apostasy. This is behavior that intelligent human beings abandoned and left behind long ago. This heinous ideology is spreading and metastasizing like an epidemic, infecting more and more people and we do not seem to know how to counter it.

I believe we were wrong in not more widely publishing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons for which journalists have died. We should have published these cartoons en masse to present a united front against this creeping ideology but we seem to have lost our moorings when it comes to what should be tolerated and what should not. In the name of tolerance we accept behavior that should be condemned.

We are retreating from asserting our beliefs and convictions just as Galileo was forced to retreat from his scientific observations because the Church ordered him to do so.

Some people like Sam Harris go even further in defending freedom of speech. He believes that Germany should not have enacted laws against holocaust denial because such statements should be answered by discourse not by legislation.

Some disenchanted Western recruits to Jihadism have started to preach a message of integration and are trying to dissuade young people who feel rejected and marginalized from falling prey to brainwashing and alluring promises of a noble martyrdom It is a good beginning. We should find more ways to persuade these young people that there are better goals to achieve. For an interesting example of this, take a look at Average Mohamed.

Your comments are encouraged and greatly appreciated.