Skepticism - the wider issue

By Colm Ryan

In a few years time, there may well be no rhinos left alive. And when I say no rhinos, I do not mean “none left in the wild”. I mean none in the zoos either. The captive animals will have been killed too. The reason for this is an insatiable desire among some people for rhinoceros horn - a material thought by some to possess magical healing powers. It’s really just a mass of keratin - the same substance that your hair and fingernails is made from. There is good money to be made from this trade. International criminals have stopped at nothing: butchering animals all across Asia and Africa, even breaking into museums to steal horns for the black-market. Some say it’s worth more per gram than cocaine. In pursuit of an odious delusion, we are witnessing the imminent extinction in our lifetime, of an animal, variants of which have existed on this planet for 33 million years.

This is what you get when critical thinking is left to one side and blind belief trumps patient scientific inquiry. Where unsupported and uncontested beliefs thrive, dreadful scenarios can play themselves out, right down to the last animal standing.

We don’t have to go as far as the traditional medicine markets of China or Vietnam to find such strange and destructive beliefs. There is a woeful lack of rational thinking all around us. Every day, uncritical and pseudo-critical thinking sends people down fruitless, and sometimes dangerous cul-de-sacs. It has lead to poor decisions, bad investments, unfair treatment of others and unquestioning acceptance of leaders who should never have been given the whiff of power.

Skepticism is often dismissed by critics as an obsession with the weird and outlandish, or a cynical repudiation of personal beliefs that are comforting to many and threatening to no-one. This is missing the point. While individual issues might easily be dismissed in this manner, the wider issue is a lack of critical thinking and an almost systematic undermining of the role of science and the value of evidence throughout society.

As people who value rational thinking, we get exasperated by the alternative medicine industry, not just because the products they advertise are usually useless, but because they have made a virtue out of ignorance. They are more interested in marketing and subjective hearsay than they are in standards of evidence. Their passionately held rationalisations have damaged any kind of sensible discourse on the subject, making it difficult to distinguish valuable therapies from the nonsensical ones, of which there are a great many examples.

We get frustrated by religionists because, while they seek to shine a critical light on everyone and everything, their own beliefs are beyond the pale of honest inquiry. They make a virtue out of unquestioning acceptance of dogma, pretending to all the world that this is a good thing, when it most certainly isn’t.

We despair of elements within the media, who forsake information dissemination for controversy. In their attempts to create debate where the balance of evidence is overwhelmingly on one side, people are lead to the conclusion that all science is simply a matter of opinion. Propaganda, forcefully and passionately delivered, stands in the ascendant while reality based content seems to survive on the margins.

We should also question our current education system, that, while often rigorous with the accuracy of its curriculums, seems to fail in providing so many students a basic underpinning in how to distinguish fact from fantasy, or how to critically assess new information. The products of this failure are all around us.

Of greatest concern are the politicians, who are happy to distort science in order to appeal to their power base. Rather than lead, they follow; allowing popularity to take precedence over scientific discovery. The results can be catastrophic, as much needed legislation from the environment, to healthcare, to basic human rights, are held up, buried, obfuscated and condemned in equal measure. They have done much to trivialise science and make a virtue out of ignorance.

We live in a world where many people are manifestly ill-informed about all sorts of issues. A large section of society is happy to spend their incomes and savings on spurious magical therapies, as if we were still living in the Dark Ages. Others allow unsupported stories to inform their moral philosophy, leading in turn to tacit support for prejudicial and discriminatory actions. Thousands of people believe in wild conspiracy theories, preferring to believe that astronauts didn’t land on the moon, or that the 9/11 bombings were concocted by an elite cabal within the US Government. There is an appetite for denial, whereby tortured analyses, intellectual bottlenecks and special pleadings are expected to be equated with a cool-headed understanding of the evidence. Many others are simply content to allow arguments from authority or other such logical fallacies to inform all their important decisions.

In the light of such a fog of make believe and dissimulation, there is a need for people to fly the flag for rational thinking. Science and scientific thinking needs to be elevated, both as a means to understand the world and also as our best tool to solve the problems of the present and the future. People need to appreciate the value of evidence - correctly gathered and analysed evidence - in making claims about reality. Fantasy and make-believe have their place in society, but not when it comes to policy making and critical decisions about our future.