Sanity Blues

Science is the most powerful tool in the universe, irrespective of whether it is used for good or evil. Yet public interest in ghosts, UFOs, and New Age beliefs is flourishing, so how come scientists are failing to get their message across?
Graham Connor issues a carefully worded comment on currently common perceptions and worries about wonky buildings.

Graham Connor is a physicist by qualification and a builder of spacecraft communications systems by profession. His SF activities principally began as editor of Warwick University's SF Society's zine Fusion (1977), before being involved with the early Hatfield Shoestringcons (1978-81). Through the '80s Graham could be found at a number of conventions manning the film projector, while more recently he showed himself to be a whizz with scissors and paper in laying out the early Concatenations, in-between the more serious business of enjoying Irish stout. I like science. I think the methods and practices are generally effective and produce wonderful results. For me, when science really gets going, it can instil the sort of magical amazement at the universe that I remember from childhood. I do not need any more magic, because the World is already a magical place with wonders beyond belief.

So why do people believe in ghosts and horoscopes, in tea leaves and portents? Worse, why do people believe the X-Files? Do not get me wrong, I like the X-Files. It can be fun and it can be entertaining, which is precisely what it is meant to be. It is not meant to be a coherent and lucid argument about conspiracies in US Government departments to cover the truth about UFOs or other such supposedly controversial factoids. I suspect that belief in nonsense like this is only a fraction of the real problem facing us all. We seem to be abandoning rational thought and the very concept of scientific investigation, and preferring instead a sort of hearsay and anecdotal approach to the verification of what we think of as facts. Science has provided so many astounding ideas and inventions that the existence of video recorders and televisions is mundane. Perhaps the seemingly relentless march of technological progress has reduced our sense of wonder in the technological and the natural and lead us to seek outwards into the great unknown and unknowable.

I hope not. I think instead that the scientists themselves have provided enough ammunition for all of the anti-rationalists to launch a serious if not fatal campaign against the scientific method. The problem has been around for quite a few years. How about free electricity with the advent of nuclear power, or the persistent claims and counterclaims about the link between mad cows' disease and human brain disorders. Some scientists, or politicians or their PR spin doctors, lie to us.

There are so many instances of this that I feel embarrassed about the whole mess. When I hear a statistic being bandied around, I usually try to listen to the wording very carefully, to get the real gist of it. Take smoking for instance. Whilst I would not question the overwhelming evidence on smoking being bad for the health, I question very strongly the way in which new evidence is offered to us. The fact that a person dies of a smoking-related disease does not and never has indicated that the person’s disease was actually caused by smoking. The statement says it all. Despite this, I hear news stories constantly telling me how many people died due to smoking. Rubbish. Nobody can say this, and the fact that some scientists will confirm this causes a certain distrust in me.

It is not surprising then that some people not involved in science, seeing the blatant lies spouting from seemingly well respected members of the scientific community, would resort to a simple position of disbelief. Compare this with the anecdote of Uncle Harry who smoked five hundred cigarettes a day, drank like a fish and still lived until he was two hundred. Why should you trust a scientific spokesman, a breed with a penchant for distorting the truth, when a friend known for many years swears blind that Uncle Harry existed.

The whole World seems to want to abandon rational thought, to abandon the very methods that have proven themselves so valuable in making sense of reality. Christian, Islamic and any other fundamentalisms are bad enough, but for NHS hospitals to have alternative medical approaches on the premises with zero controlled evidence of success (just Uncle Harry) is going just too far. To have a person believe in ghosts and other anecdotal phenomena is also depressing, but when TV programmes take them seriously says more about our collective viewing standards than it does about how likely it is that two women could be abducted by an alien craft, impregnated by dodgy DNA, and have the resulting offspring become viable. Well, it could happen, but in my book they are having a laugh.

There are many things that science can say a great deal about. The proof of a theory is not one of them, unless it is to say that a theory may not be proved scientifically, it may only be disproved: that is how it (science) works. So a scientific pundit saying that ‘everything about Doris Stokes (the purported spiritual medium) is fraudulent’ is himself fraudulent... Or that ‘the universe began with a Big Bang’... Or that ‘the ozone layer is being depleted as a direct result of MacDonalds cartons’... I would agree with each of the statements, but I could not say it was absolute fact. In a purist sense, nothing is. So I beg all fellow scientists and scientific pundits: ‘Be Honest!’ If you are not clear about how much evidence there is for a statement of fact, state that reservation. Because as a community, we have to get the trust of society back, and that trust depends on people being able to believe; in the past they have been let down. If we do not do this, we will all end up with pi being 3, Darwinian evolution being outgunned by Creationist drivel, and very wonky buildings.

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