27 January 2011 (Thursday) - Crackpots

Yesterday I had a rant about how rubbish the arky-ologee club was. I’d actually forgotten that at some time over the last few months I’d mentioned to a colleague that I went to the club, and she expressed some interest. She went to yesterday’s meeting, and today I found myself in the impossible position of apologizing for the club’s piss-poor performance last night.

Following on from a comment I read on Facebook last night, I turned on the i-player and watched an episode of “Horizon.  It would seem that there is a growing disillusionment with the entire concept of “Science” The program featured people from all walks of life who seemed not to believe what the scientific pundits were claiming. Global warming, the HIV virus, the safety of genetically modified food all came under attack, disbelief and scorn. The presenter was asking why science isn’t convincing the public any more.
In the past I’ve often commented that the future never turned out quite how I expected. As a child I saw the moon landings. I’ve seen computers grow from multi-million pound things being the size of a house to cheap things you carry round in your pocket. I’ve seen the amount of TV channels I can get grow from three to a thousand. I’ve seen the excavation of a railway tunnel under the English Channel. I live in an amazingly technological and scientific age. So why is it that the vast majority of humanity is still in thrall to quack medicine and crackpot religions? Seemingly intelligent people in the twenty first century still believe in snake oils and pyramid power.
I have a theory why this might be the case.

Science doesn’t actually know everything. Science is all about trying to explain what’s going on. Take for example the complement system. Complement is a series of chemicals in the mammalian body which are (in broadest terms) involved in defending the body from germs. A textbook on complement from thirty years ago would be three feet thick because back then it was thought that complement did absolutely everything (including making the tea!) Twenty five years ago the textbook got a bit thinner as it was discovered that complement did not actually make the tea. And so, as more was discovered, so the textbook got thinner. Today there’s still a lot not known about complement, but we know more than we did.
Or consider haemophilia A. We know that people with this condition have excessive bruising and they have greatly reduced levels of clotting factor eight in their blood. And we know exactly how all the clotting factors interact to make blood clot. But theory tells us that clotting factor eight isn’t actually that important in the process. The experience of someone with haemophilia A tells a very different story. Again science has a lot to learn.

But human nature doesn’t like the scientific method. Admitting ignorance in the first place, and then admitting that what was once thought to be true is in fact wrong doesn’t sit well with many people. Most people prefer good hard incontrovertible facts. Even if they are being told something which is wrong, people prefer to be told something decisive than the vague wooliness which is often the best that science can come up with.

Take for example Radio Four – seen by many as the Voice of Reason in the UK. At 7.45am (ish) every morning there is a “Thought for the Day” delivered by various theologians. I defy anyone who considers themselves to be a rational person to listen to what the speaker has to say without laughing out loud at the gaping inconsistencies in their logic. Logic and thought doesn’t come into what they are saying. They are presenting stark nonsense as a fact.
But facts are what the public want, regardless of their actual veracity. The public doesn’t want to think, they want to be told. And being told firmly is what they want to hear. Which explains the success of religions (and charismatic politicians…. but that’s one for another time)…..

Having ranted all that, I feel I should point out that my ability to detect archaeological artefacts by dowsing is a valid detection method, and is in no way crackpottery…

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