Will Mumbo-Jumbo Come Back to Haunt Us?

Dedicated to the 18,901 people, including children, harmed by those not thinking critically.

Goya’s famous painting should be the siren to our sensibilities. “The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters” is written in an effort to engrave it in our conscious. The great Carl Sagan seemed to carry this idea forward, holding the tiny flame of reason forth in the wild-winds of absolutist ideologies: “The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.”

Warnings to us all, yet not easily embraced. Whilst the sirens blare, most do not heed its call. We are like villagers who set up our watchtowers to crumble; who create warning-bells of cloth; and who sleep blindfolded whilst the village burns to cinders.

I am not focused on religion or faith. Perhaps some could be ascribed to the same inherent need that most have for religion or faith; but this affords a different place in our investigations. I am speaking on the vast array of absolute nonsense, which describes itself as “science”, “medicine”, “therapy”, “health”, “philosophy” or some such vagary of truth. My friend, Damian Thompson, dubs these and the language used to deal with it “Counterknowledge”. His (and his punchy writers) excellent website brings howls of consternation and tidbits of admiration, yet never ceases to get people thinking. Damian is fast becoming bullshit’s greatest enema inducer.

Yet, why do we as sceptics (or skeptics – curse Americanese!) seem to offer nothing but negative viewpoints with regards to things that are for “entertainment purposes only“? Isn’t it immoral or wrong to remove something which makes people feel good? It’s not like its hurting anyone!

Wrong.

If you don’t believe bullshit can hurt you, consider this website. Even the seemingly simple things can get us killed. By process of induction – which none other than the great sceptic himself, David Hume, warned us about – we must be wary to blame purely the quack treatment. You’d probably associate Ayuvedic “treatments” as another silly quackery – but… Consider the case of David Flint. “David sought out ayurvedic treatments from (among others) Deepak Chopra. At one point he was told his leukemia was gone. It was not. David died four months later.”

Now, did the treatment kill him? No. But that’s not what we should be concerned about.

What about the now infamous destruction of Myanmar’s economy? The summary on Whatstheharm:

General Ne Win’s astrologer and numerologist told him his lucky number was 9 and he would live to be 90 if he was surrounded by 9s. He reissued the currency in multiples of 9 causing mayhem and new insurgencies. He resigned within a year.

Do we blame astrology for it? No.

But, what we do blame are those who peddle these things, astrology, ayuverdic medicine, Christian science and so on – as actually yielding scientifically positive results. And by that, I mean the notion of the scientific method which,

can teach us nothing else beyond how facts are related to, and conditioned by, each other

In the same paragraph, Einstein writes “It is equally clear that knowledge of what is does not open the door directly to what should be.” It has a nice subtle echoing ring off and of Hume’s Fork:

All objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds …Relations of Ideas, and Matters of Fact. Of the first kind are the sciences of Geometry, Algebra, and Arithmetic; and in short, every affirmation which is either intuitively or demonstratively certain. That the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the square of the two sides, is a proposition which expresses a relation between these figures … Propositions of this kind are discoverable by the mere operation of thought, without dependence on what is anywhere existent in the universe. Though there never were a circle or triangle in nature, the truths demonstrated by Euclid would for ever retain their certainty and evidence.

Matters of fact, which are the second objects of human reason, are not ascertained in the same manner; nor is our evidence of their truth, however great, of a like nature with the foregoing. The contrary of every matter of fact is still possible; because it can never imply a contradiction, and is conceived by the mind with the same facility and distinctness, as if ever so conformable to reality. That the sun will not rise tomorrow is no less intelligible a proposition, and implies no more contradiction than the affirmation, that it will rise. We should in vain, therefore, attempt to demonstrate its falsehood. Were it demonstratively false, it would imply a contradiction, and could never be distinctly conceived by the mind. [emphasis mine]

My apologies for the extensive quotation but, where a better writer can say his or her thoughts, I must give way. In this sense, we must question and attempt falsification (Indeed, such is the basis for Karl Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery). Why then this focus, from matters which we can know and matters which need to be falsified? Why apply this to quackery and snake-oil merchants?

As sceptics we must use the power of reason, the weapon of Ockham, and the open-mindedness of a teetering cup: just open enough not to let the contents spill. But the question arises, again, why should we critique or stand against charlatans?

People lose money, lives, health and gain suffering, debilitation and overall a nuanced view of life. There is much beauty in the scientific world, in the materialistic “mundane” potentially evidence-based world we sceptics live in. We are proud to defend reason and fight for truth. We do not accept things as a given, but judge them according to their claims and whether they live up to them.

Even now, one might dismiss this ideological notion. Where does our complacency come from? I believe, it comes from scepticism itself. As AC Grayling, in his book Scepticism and the Possibility of Knowledge, says:

The sceptic, in other words, has adopted the habiliments of relativism. Relativism, indeed, is the ultimate form of scepticism, because it challenges us to justify, as a whole, the scheme within which mundane judgments get their content and have their life.

Grayling is focused on the subtler pretext of philosophical implementations of scepticism. But, we can for our use perhaps extend this to our view of adopting strategies that we would otherwise think idiotic! The position of the stars, moon and planets can tell us something about your personality, your future, your life, your beloved? Hogwash. By looking at the lines and marks of your palm, we can tell everything about you. Further hogwash. These beautiful cards each represent an aspect of you. We can try detect your angel-guide, who is with you and protecting you… And so the list grows, like weeds blocking out the little flame. Wouldn’t we all love Ockham’s Razor to slice them down?

I recall a parable of Schopenhauer’s: “A rose always has thorns, but a thorn does not always have a rose.” Indeed, some idiotic schemes in the past may have led the way to beneficence. But now, we understand the methodologies to test whether the claims are true. We can say whether these crystals work. We can test astrology, as has been done many times.

We disprove these things – to a great degree – but people continue to use them, listen to the advice of “sages” who know nothing about medicine or nutrition (need I remind anyone of Patrick Holford?), and ignore our warnings. Niall Ferguson also questioned this, in his treatise on the evil of the 20th century. He says, in The War of the World: “Megalomaniacs may order men to invade Russia, but why do the men obey?”

And I think it is our horrid past of relativism. The paradox of being sceptical of the sceptics: How can you know it doesn’t work for them? Maybe their ancient art of x, y, or z, does work for them, but your scientific/materialist/Western/colonialist view is simply arrogant if you think it’s better.

Well I think its high time we do away with this silly notion. I think it’s high time we actually “stick our noses in” and point out the man behind the curtain. I think it’s time we continue to fight against the purveyors of Counterknowledge and bullshit. To quote Ibn Warraq on the notion of interfering with “alien” or other cultures:

The British intervened in the affairs of an alien culture and abolished the ancient tradition of suttee, whereby a widow had to throw herself on the funeral pyre of her husband. This must be considered a step forward in the lot of the women and the moral progress of mankind.

Some intelligent critics might say it was not better at all to intervene. The woman might face scorn, rejection and so on for not performing suttee. Thus her life is actually worse – but I say, it’s life nonetheless. The potential is snuffed out by the fires of her husband’s pyre. But I’d be interested as always for responses to any of the claims I make.

It seems then, that our natural past in leaving the “natives to their native traditions” or the savages to their savage views, is now long dead. We have means of repeating objectively verifiable data in the world. We can get to the truth, in a way that can benefit our fellow man. One might hasten to call it truth and Truth – but I don’t really care what you call that which is repeatable and demonstrable to everyone.

Claims of the charlatans are not true. And we should not be treating or paying for something which is packaged as true, but which demonstrably is not.

These charlatans and the snake-oil merchants and the quack-doctors and the bullshit merchants, need to come under the gaze of those who care about humanity. We need to stop allowing people to think Tarot readings are true in the same way Einstein’s prediction’s were true; we need to alert them to the better, broader world which awaits their grasp. This is not arrogance and I don’t mean us to charge into every person’s house who gazes into a crystal ball; or rob every one who loves relaxing with acupuncture. I simply mean we should not be afraid to point out the green man, with the smoke, making the giant head. We, as sceptics, do this for the benefit of all. Indeed, I would love nothing more than for there to be psychic powers that heal. How great would it be to utilise it … for science and medicine! It would just become another scientific method. Therefore, even those who are “against” science because they believe in psychic powers, etc. can benefit from helping to galvanise their position in the light of reason and science.

For that light is the light of all good. All the good that can shine humanity’s happiness forward. We are a young species, but we are a growing one. Every hand should be used to raise that flame of reason a little higher. It can only shed its light on us all.