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Harmless Cranks?

Entry 1324, on 2011-08-24 at 16:38:27 (Rating 4, Skepticism)

Many skeptics are seen as being a bit too serious, a bit lacking in fun and imagination, and a bit too willing to rant about the harm resulting from various forms of pseudoscience and superstition. And that's a good point, isn't it? After all, what's the harm in believing in the Loch Ness monster, in alien abductions, in creationism, or in the existence of a conspiracy around JFK's assassination, or the 9/11 attacks, or global warming?

Isn't it good to have people who disagree with the majority or official opinion and who have the imagination and originality to look at things differently? Well yes, in a way that is true, but there are a few salient points which I think should be taken into account here.

The first is that believing in something which is clearly untrue is basically harmless until the believer goes on some sort of campaign to try to force other people into taking up those views. Creationists wanting their myths taught in schools as science would be one example. The world needs more scientific and technical professionals and believing that something which has been proven untrue beyond all reasonable doubt does not help produce good graduates in these areas.

People who genuinely believe in literal creationism are probably so prone to fantasy or so tied up with the dogma of their church that they will probably never escape the delusion. So it's pointless trying to help them. But it is important to try to stop the rot spreading to others, at least in a form where it is disguised as science and is being portrayed as a realistic alternative to real theories.

A second point is the existence of the "thin end of the wedge" or "slippery slope" argument. Sometimes this sort of point is made in an invalid way to support a fallacious argument. For example, someone might say: "we shouldn't let our military be involved in peacekeeping missions because the next thing you know they'll be starting a war!" or "Obama shouldn't introduce health reforms because that will lead to America turning to communism".

It's usually obvious when a slippery slope argument has been used to stretch a point to a ridiculous degree, but there are times when it makes a valid point and it shouldn't be automatically rejected. Giving superstition even a foothold in the science classroom is a bad idea for example, because it sets a legal precedent for that to spread. If we let intelligent design in today it could easily be pure creationism tomorrow, and that is a realistic possibility.

If people want to study creationism then they should do it in a phenomenology of religion, mythology, theology, or ancient literature class where it belongs. That's fine because, like other classic literature, it's worth studying in that way. But it isn't science now and it never will be.

There is also the point that people who believe in one absurd theory often believe in others, because these things tend to group together. For example I know a lot of creationists who are also global warming deniers, and a lot of 9/11 conspiracy theorists who also think that using nuclear weapons against what they see as terrorist states is justified, and people who use a lot of natural medicine who also refuse to have their children vaccinated.

So what might be a harmless belief such as creationism (assuming it is privately held and not used to launch a public campaign of misinformation) often goes hand in hand with something which is politically relevant like global warming denial. People vote based on these views and that can be dangerous. Do we really want people with no handle on reality at all deciding who rules a country like the US, because that is partly what's happening.

The final point I should make is that people should be prepared to let go of their beliefs when they are clearly wrong. The inability to change and to admit when you are wrong is a classic symptom of a fantasy prone personality. Sure I agree, nothing is ever proven 100% but it can get pretty close. Having a belief in an alternative theory is fine to begin with: let's have the debate. But when a point is shown to be wrong move on. Don't hold on to ridiculous ideas past the point where they are no longer useful.

Here's just a few of the things which are proven beyond any reasonable doubt and should no longer be seriously debated...

Evolution is undoubtedly true, although details of the exact mechanisms involved will continue to be discovered. Any theory which excludes evolution is false and that includes literal creationism. In fact literal creationism is disproved by so many other areas of science that it is the most pathetic thing anyone in our modern age could really take seriously.

Obama is a US citizen. The paper work is there and the evidence is good enough to draw a reasonable conclusion. Just get over it, OK? And Obama's policies bear about as much resemblance to socialism as Stalin's did to free market economics. If there's something about his proposed reforms you don't like say what it is instead of using unrealistic labels like "socialist".

The buildings destroyed in the 9/11 attack on New York were the victims of the aircraft which hit them and of the debris of those collisions. There's no reason to think there was a controlled demolition because the mechanisms involved have been perfectly well explained by competent engineers without requiring a vast government conspiracy. If there's a simple, well-supported answer to a question why instead support one which requires an incredibly complex conspiracy?

Global warming is happening and there's little doubt that it is primarily caused by human activity. The overall result will be very negative and we do need to do something about it. It will disturb some of the current large corporations who deal with fossil fuel but new industries will replace them and that should be good. Debate the extent or what our response should be to GW but don't pretend it's not happening.

So, in summary, I don't think there is such a thing as a harmless belief in a ridiculous idea and I think the answer is to attack all forms of superstition and false belief, no matter how trivial they seem on the surface, and no matter how much the people involved just seems like harmless cranks.

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