Skepticism Is A Dangerous Business

Why continue? Because we must. Because we have the call. Because it is nobler to fight for rationality without winning than to give up in the face of continued defeats. Because whatever true progress humanity makes is through the rationality of the occasional individual and because any one individual we may win for the cause may do more for humanity than a hundred thousand who hug their superstitions to their breast.
— Isaac Asimov

Miracle_at_Mumbai_churchIt’s an amazing universe we live in. And now is probably the best time to be alive to marvel at the wonders that science is revealing, and the incredibly better lifestyle that we enjoy thanks to the tireless efforts of scientists in all areas of human effort.

It seems to me that the last hundred years or so has been the most fruitful for scientific development, and even in the last fifty years, the advances that have been made are simply incredible. I can remember the days of black and white television (only two channels), and that seemed fantastic enough at the time. But since then, science has delivered everything from space travel to the Internet, not to mention huge advances in medicine, together with the extended life expectancy most of us can now expect almost as a matter of routine.

And yet, despite all of that, there are those who are hell bent on returning us to the dark ages. “Science doesn’t know everything,” is a regular mantra from the proponents of all manner of woo. These people don’t understand that science knows that science doesn’t know everything (which is why we still have it) – but science knows a lot more than they do.

In a certain sense, I don’t really care if some people want to believe nonsense, but I do object to those self-styled “experts” who make claims of paranormal or supernatural activity without evidence. These are the people whose enthusiasm far outweighs their knowledge. These are also the people who are trying to undo everything that science has achieved. These are the people who actively promote ignorance. And they really seem to think that their vacuous claims trump everything that has been discovered about the universe since the Enlightenment.

The advantage these people have at the moment is that they are under no obligation to prove any claim that they make. Even better (for them) if they are called out on their unsubstantiated claims, they merely have to wave the threat of legal action at their critics. But that won’t work much longer. (It won’t work on this blog, either) The UK government has recognised that libel laws need a radical overhaul, and reforms are in the pipeline to protect writers, including bloggers, from spurious threats of legal action.

It’s a pity, though, that the mere threat of legal action is enough to silence many of those who have the temerity to challenge irrational nonsense. At a cost of upwards of £250 per hour to hire a libel lawyer to fight off a bogus claim, it’s easy to see why paranormal charlatans get away with it.

They don’t always get away with it, of course. It was the bully boy tactics of the British Chiropractic Association against the science writer Simon Singh that led to the present reforms, and free speech will be the beneficiary – as it was when the ridiculous blasphemy laws in this country were done away with.

20120410_1_1Still, things could be worse. A lot worse. Right now, an Indian sceptic is facing the possibility of jail because of blasphemy laws in India. It turns out that Sanal Edamaruku, an Indian rationalist, was invited by a TV station to travel to Mumbai to examine a supposed miracle – water dripping from the feet of a crucifix. When he took a close look, however, he found the source of the water – nothing more than a leaking drainpipe. Capillary action transferred the water to the statue, and the excess formed droplets that then dripped from the statue’s feet.

The local Catholic Church weren’t happy with that, and demanded that Sanal retract his findings. When he wouldn’t do that, the clergy contacted the police to invoke blasphemy laws and have him arrested! (Pity they weren’t so fast to call in the police when they knew their priests were raping children)

The stupidity is clear: this event is no miracle; it is just a chance happening without any need to assume divine intervention. And yet the believers won’t face the obvious: whether miracles are real or not, this particular event is not miraculous. But they have to persecute someone who has done no more than point out what should have been obvious to anyone who could have taken a few minutes to take a closer look before proclaiming a supernatural cause for a chance event.

More on that story can be found here.

So, sceptics still have to be wary. Just a few hundred years ago, anyone who claimed paranormal or supernatural abilities could be burned at the stake (more precisely, they just had to be accused of having those powers). Yet nowadays there is a whole paranormal industry dedicated to parting the gullible from their money, and the people who speak out against it – just pointing out that there is no confirmable evidence – are the ones who might face legal sanctions. There’s something wrong there.

But the fight has to go on. It’s difficult to sift the deluded from the out and out frauds, of course, but they are all in the same boat. Claims of the paranormal or supernatural are rife, but not a single example has ever been confirmed. We need a system where those who make paranormal clams are required to show us their evidence, not their legal muscle.

It’s a crazy world where anyone can claim to be a psychic or an expert in matters paranormal and actually get away with it. Protected by law, even. No training, no accredited qualifications – just mumbo jumbo forced on us in newspapers, magazines, books, TV programming and all over the internet. The struggle for rationality is going to go on for a while yet.

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