George Claassen

'Science cannot be stopped'

2005-07-15 09:03

Real life is sometimes stranger than fiction, yet fiction quite often provides more accessible insight and clarity about human behaviour than scientists can hope to achieve.

The reason is that scientists too regularly forget how to tell the exciting story of their discoveries in laymen's terms.

The sometimes astonishing, even downright rude and uninformed reaction by some readers of this column, who absolutely refuse to believe in reason and scientific findings and rather prefer to continue their faith in pseudoscientific nonsense, has led me to the world of fiction to emphasise the importance of reason in our lives.

We are the only species on Earth possessing the faculty of reason, yet it is the most under-utilised tool and mechanism in our armour to keep superstition and other absurdities at bay.

In Goethe's Faust Mephistopheles disguises himself in Faust's academic attire so that he could answer the questions of a fawning student whom Faust refuses to speak to.

Strange beliefs

Mephistopheles's muttered advice reminds me of all the people still believing in astrology, homeopathy, auras around us that "influence" our moods and actions, telepathy, telekinese, bleeding statues, spoon benders, telephone calls from the dead, abduction by extraterrestrials, numerology, the prophecies of Nostradamus or any other so-called prophet, Big Foot, reiki, people recovering their hidden past lives, comets that can influence our lives, energy fields through which "experts" can heal others, prophets who can cure the blind, deaf and ill, UFO-believers (read Carl Sagan's The Demon-haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark for a more comprehensive list of strange beliefs).

Scoff at all knowledge and despise
Reason and science, those flowers of mankind.
Let the father of all lies
With dazzling necromancy make you blind,
Then I'll have you unconditionally.
(the translation is that of Carlyle F MacIntyre).

People simply do not believe in accidents when something happens to them.

They must find an obscure reason why it happened to them and quite often give their religious fancy the blame ("it's God's will," is the most often heard explanation), although they have no evidence of it.

The philosopher David Hume said, "In proportion as any man's course of life is governed by accident, we always find that he increases in superstition".

A recent example of this mindset of rejection of scientific findings because it clashes with our pre-conceived beliefs, occurred when scientists from the Digital Evolution Laboratory at Michigan State University in East Lansing used a software programme called Avida to simulate Darwin's evolutionary theory.

Darwin's theory

In a fascinating article, "Testing Darwin", in the February 2005 edition of Discover, Carl Zimmer writes that Avida "makes it possible to watch the random mutation and natural selection of digital organisms unfold over millions of generations. In the process, it is beginning to shed light on some of the biggest questions of evolution."

One of the age-old arguments against evolution is that a complex system such as the human eye or ear could not have evolved from simpler precursors.

"To test Darwin's idea that complex systems evolve from simpler precursors, the Avida team set up rewards for simpler operations and bigger rewards for more complex ones.

The researchers set up an experiment in which organisms replicate for 16 000 generations. They then repeated the experiment 50 times", writes Zimmer, whose brilliant book, Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, is one of the best ever written on the subject.

"Avida beat the odds. In 23 of the 50 trials, evolution produced organisms that could carry out the equals operation."

After the Avida researchers, that included biologists, published their findings, creationists tried their utmost to discredit the scientific findings.

One can understand their fears: the Avida results proved once and for all that their arguments that life was designed by an intelligent designer because complex things like the eye could never have evolved, were wrong.

"What we show is that there are irreducibly complex things and they can evolve," one of the scientists, Chris Adami of Caltech, told Zimmer.

His article - and for that matter his book - should be read by every person still clinging to their absurd anti-evolution propagations, despite the evidence scientists produce for evolution every day.

"Inspect every piece of pseudoscience and you will find a security blanket, a thumb to suck, a skirt to hold," wrote one of the most prolific science writers, Isaac Asimov.

Science cannot be stopped, not by superstition, not by fear, not by creationists and pseudoscientists readily providing the security blankets, the thumbs to suck, and the skirts of creationism and unscientific therapies and beliefs to hold on.

It is time reason reclaims its rightful place in human endeavours. Without it, ignorance reigns. Or are we not living in the 21st century?

  • George Claassen is science editor of Die Burger and teaches science journalism at the graduate school of journalism of the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa.

    Send your comments to George or discuss this column now in our debating forum.

    Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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