George Claassen

Where is the evidence?

2005-05-06 07:47

George Claassen

Why do people believe weird things? Why is "reason on the retreat, both as an ideal and as a reality", as the British philosopher Roger Scruton wrote shortly before the dawn of the 21st century?

The astrophysicist Carl Sagan always told people who were making extraordinary claims (creationists, intelligent design-propagators, people believing in all sorts of pseudoscientific and supernatural nonsense) that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence".

Richard Dawkins, probably the most astute thinker about evolutionary science around today, emphasised this paradox of science and human gullibility when he delivered his lecture Science and Sensibility at Oxford University in 1998.

It was part of the Sounding the Century series: What will the Twentieth Century leave to its heirs?: "On the one hand our century arguably added as much new knowledge to the human store as all previous centuries put together; while on the other hand the 20th century ended with approximately the same level of supernatural credulity as the 19th, and rather more outright hostility to science," Dawkins said.

Today the heart, soul and fibre of the scientific method as it has developed over the past half a millennium is under severe threat.

The reasons?

Intelligent Design-theorists (ID) are endangering the teaching of science in schools and universities in the USA by their "stealth creationism" or "religious dogma masquerading as science", as emeritus physicist Victor Stenger called it.

The ID movement believes in an intelligent being (read the God of the Christians) as the creator of the universe and tries to get creation science (read religion) introduced into biology syllabi at school as an alternative to Darwin's theory of evolution to explain the origins of life on earth.

They have a political agenda that has reverberated in the halls of the US Senate, and scientists, concentrating on provable evidence in their research, have been slow to react. They are also endangering biology teaching in South African schools.

Pseudoscientific beliefs are rife. People cling to anything that advertisers and marketing managers say can improve their lives and health and mental state, even if not one iota of evidence exists: aromatic oils that can heal all sorts of illnesses; astrology; alternative practices such as homeopathy, aura therapy, reiki, craniosacral therapy; and belief in bridging the divide between life and death by letting a "medium" such as John Edward or Marietta Theunissen take you across the Styx, and thousands of other weird beliefs.

Gullible people have abandoned the faculty of critical thinking. A good example of this was the way in which religious people tried to explain the tsunami of December last year without giving any attention to natural explanations.

There was no hand of any god visible in the tsunami. The only evidence we have is based on true science, that tectonic plate movement caused the disaster.

For the sake of mankind it is necessary that reason take 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.

  • George Claassen, science editor of Die Burger, teaches science and technology journalism at the postgraduate Department of Journalism at the University of Stellenbosch. He is the author of a book on science, Geloof, Bygeloof en Ander Wensdenkery - Hoe Vrees en Vals Hoop Mense Mislei (to appear shortly at Protea Boekhuis).

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