Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Enemies of Reason

Last night on Channel 4 Richard Dawkins treated us to another oasis of reason in the desert of modern superstition and delusion. This time his target was not organised religion, but irrational belief systems such as astrology, New Age mysticism, clairvoyance, tarot, alternative health remedies and dowsing. Many non-believers will consider these things to be harmless nonsense, but Dawkins points out that some have considerable following (a quarter of the British population claim to believe in astrology), and argues that not only do they impoverish the mind but that their lack of respect for reason and evidence actually restricts human progress and allows extremist theories to go unchallenged.

The programme had some priceless moments, such as when a clairvoyant claimed that Dawkins's grandmother had many cats, only to be told that she hated cats, and the sight of dowsers (in a controlled experiment) making excuses for their failure to find water any more often than pure chance would dictate. You would have thought that, presented with such evidence, the dowsers would have realised that dowsing was nonsense, but I suppose that is the point - they steadfastly refuse to accept reason and evidence.

Interestingly, Dawkins also argues that prejudice against science is evident in schools, blaming 'relativist' thinkers who have "made it fashionable in education to teach students to value private feeling more highly than evidence-based reason". I couldn't agree more. Science has given us terrific advances in our knowledge which have led to us leading longer, healthier and more fulfilled lives, yet we seem to treat it with the sort of take-it-for-granted contempt that a teenager may have for his or her elders.

I have myself come across the argument "there must be something else", from people rational enough to disregard religion, but not able to completely throw away the 'comforter' of superstition. My answer comprises two questions:
  • Why must there be something else? I'm not saying there isn't, but I require some evidence before I'll accept that there is; and
  • What more do you want? In last night's programme Dawkins exhorted viewers to do something I think too few people do: look up into a clear night sky and glimpse a tiny fraction of what is out there - how can anyone seeing that say they want more?

3 comments:

  1. Excellent post!

    I also thoroughly enjoyed watching it. I felt his style was slighltly less confrontational this time, probably a good thing!

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  2. Wish I'd seen this. I've just finished reading Hitchens "God is Not Great" which I suspect you might also find compelling reading. Although it is highly confrontational even down to the deliberately provocative title (I'm quite sure that the hardback with its very large title emblazoned across the front is self-conssciously designed to be challenging, I had more than one raised eyebrow on the tube whilst clutching this)

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  3. bdj: Thanks. He often looked too bemused to be confrontational!

    anonymous: I've read Hitchens's book, and did find it compelling reading!

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