George Claassen

'Switch on the baloney detectors'

2005-09-02 09:20

For the sake of mankind it is necessary that reason takes back its rightful place in society.

That science and its evidence reoccupy the centre of our decision-making, that superstition and wishful thinking are abandoned and replaced by rationality.

These words uttered in this column (Where is the evidence?) nearly four months ago, were far too civil, too mild and too soft-spoken.

Indeed, after my column two weeks ago ('Religion is a mental virus') in which I gave attention to scientists' findings about the phenomenon of memes as a means of cultural transmission (of which religion is probably the best example), I believe only a return to rational thinking will save the future existence of human life on this planet.

The often hysterical and irrational reaction by some readers of this column the moment the findings of science are weighed up against superstition, quackery, and irrational belief in all sorts of powerful gods (who some of us believe speak to us or give us signs to do this or that with our lives), made me reconsider my views on how rational thinking could be reintroduced in our lives.

I don't think rational thinking is very high on the list of most humans, although Homo sapiens is the only species we know of on Earth who possesses this faculty.

It's a faculty that has become largely dormant in many people's lives. To think for yourself, to open your mind to the rational findings of science, despite what you have been told by other people, whose stories were told to them by their parents stretching back hundreds, even thousands of years, has indeed become a very rare phenomenon.

Baloney detection kits

The astrophysicist Carl Sagan emphasised that all of us need a baloney detection kit to make a distinction between hogwash and scientifically accepted and proven facts.

Reading through the reams of emails I received after the mental virus column two things have stuck in my mind.

Firstly, many people don't have built-in baloney detection kits. Or if they have them, they don't switch them on to make the alarm go off, warning them that they are being taken for a ride by unscientific, irrational and superstitious con-artists promising them good health, quick wealth and abundance, and everlasting life without suffering and tears.

Secondly, it is astounding how little people know about the findings of science. I have yet to receive a single e-mail of any critic of my columns who has read Darwin firsthand.

Understanding Darwin

Most of them interpret Darwin through the clogged and muddy filters provided to them by the Big Interpreters, always misleading creationists and Intelligent Design proponents.

And those filters only let through lies and distortions about evolution, the origin of life and modern genetics which the Big Interpreters deem fit to tell their adherents.

And repeatedly I get the same old lies thrusted at me, taken from the same websites and same books.

No fresh look at the rational findings of science by getting rid of the filters of non-scientific people.

No baloney detector, no critical thinking, no first-hand reading of Darwin or any of the evolutionary scientists, geneticists, archaeologists, paleontologists, physicists, chemists or any other field of science that have confirmed over and over again that natural selection is the driving force in the development of species.

Einstein's theory of relativity

The great English physicist who confirmed Einstein's general theory of relativity through first-hand observation of a total eclipse of the sun in 1919, sir Arthur Eddington, emphasised that "for the truth of the conclusions of physical science, observation is the supreme Court of Appeal. It does not follow that every item which we confidently accept as physical knowledge has actually been certified by the Court; our confidence is that it would be certified by the Court if it were submitted.

"But it does follow that every item of physical knowledge is of a form which might be submitted to the Court. It must be such that we can specify (although it may be impracticable to carry out) an observational procedure which would decide whether it is true or not.

"Clearly a statement cannot be tested by observation unless it is an assertion about the results of observation. Every item of physical knowledge must therefore be an assertion of what has been or would be the result of carrying out a specified observational procedure."

Reason is indeed becoming an endangered human activity because many people prefer filtered and distorted versions of the truth above first-hand observation.

When will the critics of evolution switch on their baloney detectors and indeed read the works of scientists themselves, those who observe the progress of evolution every day?

Cut out the filters, switch on the baloney detectors. Or rational thinking will perish.

  • George Claassen is science editor of Die Burger, South Africa's largest Afrikaans daily paper.

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

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