Snake-Oil Society

I want to take this opportunity to express my deepest concern and respect for the admirable and courageous people of Japan. I trust that we will help them to the best of our ability .

.   .   .   .   .   .

“It’s true that Americans believe a lot of nonsense,” my friend says. “But you’re not going to change anyone’s mind; and besides, most of the crap people believe is harmless, isn’t it? So why let it bother you?”

Not having time for an extended discussion, I let it go with an evasive reply along the lines of how, as a lifelong student and sometime practitioner of psychology, I have always been interested in the dark side of human nature. At best that was only a partial answer to a deceptively complex question that continues to haunt me. So here I’ll try to exorcise it with a serious and detailed answer.

First of all, he’s quite right to say that believing minds are not going to be changed – not by reasoned arguments, and not by facts. In a recent series of studies, researchers presented people with solid evidence that refuted their mistaken beliefs. The result: exposure to the disconfirming facts actually strengthened their commitment to their beliefs! Be sure to read this, and then chalk up another Pyrrhic victory for human nature.

Those studies and other evidence suggest there is a strong human tendency to protect beliefs, to reject or rationalize unwelcome arguments and facts that would otherwise be persuasive. This is the direct opposite of evidence-based critical thinking, which clearly does not come naturally but requires training and discipline. But where outside of a few departments in universities are students going to receive such training?

(Here’s a radical idea: Why not begin teaching critical thinking in elementary school? It could be justified as part of a much-needed course in science and scientific method. Other than reading and basic math, is there anything more important in today’s world than an appreciation of what science is, how it works, and how it affects every facet of our lives? But I digress.)

As for the kindly notion that most false beliefs are harmless, they’re not – not for the people holding them, not for society as a whole. My friend seemed to be implying that time spent worrying about widespread false beliefs would be better spent thinking about personal concerns closer to home. Kind of reminds me of the cliche, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”

Well, serenity certainly has it’s place – it’s good to be reminded when you’re obsessing about things you can’t control at the expense of things you can; but like so much ancient and contemporary “wisdom,” that simplistic saying only sounds like the last word on the subject. In a democratic society, concern about a wide range of issues is necessary and healthy. Except for this crucial caveat: Citizens must be receptive to reason and factual evidence. Otherwise, concern can easily be exploited and transformed into misguided ideology (Tea Party, anyone?). Jefferson famously said, “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” He might equally well have put it this way: Whenever the people are misinformed, they cannot be trusted with their own government. Sometimes I look around and get the impression that misinformation, and disinformation, have never been more prevalent.

So I am both intrigued by and deeply concerned about rampant false beliefs and their widespread consequences for individuals and the social fabric. That’s why I frequently discuss and write about this issue, as do many others who belong to a growing modern skeptical movement based on reason and science. We are all doing our part in various ways to try to understand, combat, and raise consciousness about the pernicious effects of widely held irrational beliefs. If weird beliefs and belief systems were isolated and limited, then they might be mostly harmless, as my friend suggested. But that is not the case: the body politic is infected with a spreading and dangerous contagion of irrationality. Nothing less than that.

There are three major institutions infected with bizarre nonsense that I would like to discuss in this and future columns – religion, politics, and medicine. The first two are obviously intertwined in a coordinated, symbiotic relationship that has far-reaching and very disturbing consequences. All three areas demand the most serious, concerted, and urgent action.

In this column I’ll deal with religion. Here we’re looking at about 40 percent of the U.S. population who are certain that the earth – no, make that the entire cosmos – was created in six days a mere four- to ten-thousand years ago. Just consider the magnitude of that error! The universe has been proven to be nearly 14 billion years old and the earth has been circling the sun for some 4.5 billion years. But that poses no problem for the fundagelical mind: You see, their god not only created Adam and Eve as adults, he also created the universe and the earth with “the appearance of age.” As for the fossils, he organized them in their respective strata to make us mere mortals think that the earth is many orders of magnitude older than it really is. Why would he do that? They dunno, and they don’t care – the Bible says so, and that’s all they need. Besides, it’s sinful to question God’s inscrutable reasons. And all will soon be revealed according to The Plan. By the way, another wacko fundamentalist interpretation of the fossils is that they were deposited in the strata during the great flood. That’s right, while the ark cruised along on the surface carrying all the animals, the flood sorted out the unlucky ones in conformity to evolutionary theory.

And we’re supposed to respect religion.

Yeah, whatever. As stupid as all this sounds, it’s a real and menacing nightmare right here in the heart of “the most advanced, most powerful nation on earth.” These deluded morons are deadly serious; they own the Republican Party; and they’re busy rewriting U.S history textbooks to support their contention that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation. They use Thomas Jefferson’s “endowed by their creator” phrase in the Declaration of Independence as evidence of the founders’ theocratic intentions. Talk about deceit – Thomas Jefferson was the greatest and most vocal advocate for separation of church and state!

And wherever right-wing revisionists have power (Hello, Texas!) they are also busy revising science curricula to conform to their provably false dogmas. Historical and scientific facts are mere annoyances to the twisted minds of ideologues, who have no qualms about the virtue of lying for Jesus. But mostly they really and truly believe all this ludicrous nonsense, often with such fervor that they would be willing to die for it. They positively long for the rapture, which their Holy Scripture assures them is imminent. Then they will be transported to that blissful place where they won’t have to deal with all those abominable homosexuals, abortionists, atheists, and immoral liberals. All those miscreants are destined to burn in hell anyway, along with the gazillions of people down through the ages who did not accept the fundies' version of Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

Meanwhile, Americans are electing these people to public offices at all levels, from school boards to Congress. Consider Representative John Shimkus (R - IL), who wanted to be chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee. Speaking before a House Energy Subcommittee in 2009, Rep. Shimkus quoted the Book of Genesis to support the Republican position that there is no need for climate legislation:

I believe that is the infallible word of God, and that's the way it is going to be for his creation. The earth will end only when God declares its time to be over. Man will not destroy this earth. This earth will not be destroyed by a flood.

More real-world consequences are easy to find. A recent survey of high school biology teachers showed how effective the religious right’s disinformation and intimidation tactics have been: only 28 percent teach evolution according to standards, while 13 percent are avowed creationists. The remaining “cautious 60 percent” wish to avoid controversy and neither endorse evolution nor unscientific creationist alternatives.

This deserves to be put in perspective. Evolution stands as one of the most robust of all scientific theories. Over a time span of 150 years, there have been countless observations that might have falsified evolutionary theory. Yet in all that time there has not been a single discovery that is inconsistent with the theory. No fossil rabbits in the precambrian rocks, no contradictory molecular evidence, nothing. Every piece of data confirms the reality – the fact – of evolution. It is in fact one of the great triumphs of scientific method, and it is simply perverse to deny it. Yet in the United States the religious-right denialists have persuaded the majority of citizens that evolution is “just a theory” that doesn’t adequately explain the diversity of life on earth. Only in America.

The political right is waging the same kind of concerted disinformation warfare against climate-change science, with comparable success and even higher stakes. More on that coming soon.

And so it goes with the right wing’s relentless religious and political war against science/reality – deny, demean, deceive. Bully and intimidate. They really have no choice if they want their agenda to prevail, because reality is biased against them. Unfortunately, they use those tactics very effectively as part of their orchestrated, media-driven culture war. The “vast, right-wing conspiracy” is alive and well.

Next time more incredible nonsense and a few suggestions for how the reality-based community can begin to fight back. (Hint: Some semblance of leadership would help.)

If it’s not too late.