Lee McIntyre: Science deniers and some thoughts

It is interesting to watch and listen to how the views and opinions of others can be developed and shaped by the events around them. The virtual world that many people now occupy is so distorting that it becomes a truth that many fail to be able to pull back from. Never has this been clearer in the growing realms of conspiracy theorists and those seeking to validate their own opinions, that differ from the mainstream view. The alternative universe for logic, rationality and science is now the endless stream of online sites offering any number of affirming materials to fit an individual’s worldview. Even the simplest of abilities, such as reading a book, has now become too long a task for many as a quick 15-minute video tends to give many the complete information required for a concise and impartial opinion. Just imagine if Darwin had the same tools available to him when postulating his theories. He quite possibly would have given up after a few hours as the alternate views become too numerous to argue.

This is of course simplistic and one-sided. For as much as information online may be offering the wrong or negative information to feed those denying certain paradigms, there is also a wealth of information available that backs up the science and the facts. Scientists lack simple language and persuasive arguments have often been pointed out in not helping many facts and truths get out. This is changing though, Michael Shermer is certainly one attempting to make science more accessible to more people. His podcasts feature a vast array of scientists and modern thinkers in a forum that is engaging and easy to understand. He is not alone either. More and more world-renowned academics are turning to podcasts and other accessible mediums to broaden interest in their topics.

Why then, is there still an element that vehemently wants to deny science given the unfettered access that is available? For the majority of the population, this group go unnoticed and/or ignored. But for a good many others, there is a need to debate some of the assertions that are being made as if left alone, appear to show a devolution of human intellect. For example, how can we believe that there still exist people in western societies that think the earth is flat? This is so absurd as bring nothing but laughter to those that hear about flat earth groups. Even the evidence they purport to have been so ridiculous that one would think it is just a joke. But these groups exist.

There is a part of me that would love to let these people and groups with their daft assertions go about their business and for me to stay blissfully ignorant. But I can’t seem to get myself to let sleeping dogs lie. It is easy to spend countless hours of our precious time educating ourselves on all manner of knowledge in the pursuit of a greater understanding of the world around us. Hours, days, weeks, or months spent understanding natural selection and evolution to have someone quote a passage from a religious book to prove their point can make one feel like it is all in vain. The rate of conversion achieved is so small that it would appear any attempt is pointless. So, what is it in us that drives this determination to prove others wrong? Philosophically, this can be seen as the contract between determinism and free will. If individuals have no free will and determinism is true, how can we ever change someone’s mind on these big topics?

The circular model that exists in trying to demonstrate that a personal opinion is incorrect is driven by the need of the instigator in the debate to constantly challenge an existing paradigm so embedded in a person’s psyche it has become an immovable meme. There are books and other resources available these days that take on the science denier and methods that may be adopted to assist someone in doing so. However, the cynic may just consider these as a marketing opportunity to sell books on a current trend. That said, any tool in the armoury can and may be useful.

If flat earthers are one extreme of a conspiracy continuum, then religion, in its many forms, has to be there as well. It is too easy to say that religion is harmless and those that simply practice it quietly should be left alone. No. It is not the best analogy, but some viruses are worse than others too. But they are still bad. This defending of faith and its followers pervades all parts of society now. Recent experience at university has even demonstrated how lecturers will use any means possible to highlight that religion, in this case Islam, is not a problem when it comes to terrorism, and it is the incorrect interpretation of scripture that leads many Muslims to turn to terrorism. Wouldn’t a logical statement be that religion, whatever faith, is wrong and leads to extremism?

Another interesting tactic used by those that espouse many of these beliefs in conspiracies, is that of ad hominem attacks on anyone willing to challenge their belief systems. Is this an example of the fight or flight scenario? Maybe it is easier to attack the character of an individual than to defend your position if your belief system is somewhat unformed or lacks solid details. The other tactic is to just flee. Again, this is the fight or flight example coming into play even though an individual is not at any risk of physical injury.

Reading the context above, it would be easy to think that it is just too hard and so much easier to just mind our own business. But that’s not how the world works. Progress is made through challenging assumptions and being willing to have an open and enquiring mind. Whether personal biases avoid this happening, I do not know. If we go back to a young person setting out on life’s learning journey, there is so much to learn. How information becomes filtered through their brain as rational, logical, and accepted versus irrational, illogical, and unaccepted is difficult to understand as we are all shaped individually. Yes, there can be influencing factors from our family, schooling, and culture it is certainly not unheard of to hear of family disputes over politics and religion.

Why then, does an interest manifest itself in an individual that looks to determine why we are here and what point is there to it all? What can be seen from the above is a discussion on searching for a logical truth based on science and not faith. The dismissal of religion as an answer for life’s big question only seems to end up bringing up more questions than answers. Existentialism is one favoured philosophy for me as it posits that we will never understand why we are here and that we should just accept our life and get on with it. Although on many levels I agree with this view, even more so when younger, there is also something else tugging at me when it comes to a broader meaning of existence. Maybe the marching of time means an answer is needed to make one feel fulfilled and there has been some point to it all. But are these all connected? Is taking on religion, conspiracy theorists, anti-science and just general stupidity and means to an end in understanding the meaning of life? Possibly. I think there is a connection in it is giving life some meaning, even though many would say there is no point in it. If you can leave the world and have had at least some influence on people and how they think, hopefully for the better, then this must be worth doing. Or at least one would hope so.

When you look through history at the renowned polymaths that existed and how they managed to take multiple and varied disciplines and synthesise them into a logic that helped move the world forward in regard to invention, art, politics, or prose. The ability to move between different disciplines the way many of these people have is something we mere mortals can only look on with awe. Yet, there is still a multitude of great thinkers and doers who aren’t classed as polymaths but have still made astounding changes to the world. Alas, with no prospect of meeting the dizzying heights of these remarkable individuals, the question of why bother comes back. Even at their most basic level is it possible for a human to switch off their enquiring mind? History would say not. It appears that we are predestined to challenge and question what we see around us. But then this circular argument leads us back to why do those that follow a religion lack this level of enquiry. They may do so in their other passions, hobbies, and work. But something so fundamental as questioning their belief in an unseen deity, meanwhile often dismissing the deities of others, appears to allude them.

I admit that I often look at others who seem unfazed and unconcerned about life’s big question with some admiration. It would be easy to be patronising and condescending to these individuals for not taking more of an interest in what life is all about. It is not fair either to assume that they are all blissfully ignorant. Maybe they just do not care. What is hard though, for those searching for answers to these and other questions, is to just turn off any enquiry. If someone is inquisitive by nature, then it needs to be encouraged as it would in a child. Seekers of answers are what drives humanity to improve and develop. Or at least we would like to think so. Try as I might, I just seem unable to stop this enquiry on all sorts of topics. This ends up leading to a chain of questions that results in new topics and thoughts being explored. All of which can be quite detrimental to the expense budget if you enjoy owning books and are not in the habit of being a public library user.

Where does scepticism sit with this though? As much as being inquisitive is a blessing, is scepticism also a healthy pastime. Though the two disciplines can sit together well, scepticism is probably more prone to lead individuals down the wrong path of enquiry if they fail to adequately explore and research topics. A theist can well be sceptical of an atheist agenda or assertions and may be well versed in their chosen religious text but that does not lead them to a conclusion about a god or a belief that involves scientific facts. This too can apply to the conspiracy theorist. The flat earth believer can be sceptical too of advice to the contrary. Only evidence that backs up their beliefs will be filtered through, and any contrary view dismissed.

Anyone that has come across the work that James Randi did in exposing multiple different fraudsters, charlatans and people who thought they had special gifts or powers, cannot but wonder what else can be shown to mislead people. Not that we all can be as gifted as Randi in his understanding of the intricacies of deception people use, we can keep an open mind that not everything in front of us is true, even if it is not just a sleight of hand magic act.

However, modern scepticism is something that is working hard to change some of the accepted paradigms we are now seeing throughout society. The United States is probably the biggest exporter of falsehoods in the western world. From critical race theory to hard-line creationists, there seems to be an abundance of ‘new’ truths being espoused that are being adopted in the mainstream with very little logical questioning being carried out. A case in point is the recent 1619 Project that has grown legs into almost an accepted belief about slavery in the US and the damage done by it. No reasonable person will deny that slavery was an abhorrent practice and thankfully it was done away with in most parts of the world. But wouldn’t a reasonable person also look deeper at the claims being made by the 1619 Project for their voracity and whether they are even correct? It is being criticised by many historians for its inaccuracies, yet it still gains support in many other areas. This is just one example. The damage being done by the ongoing battle of the races in the US is also gaining support elsewhere. BLM protests were not just limited to the US, for example.

We can all take responsibility when it comes to being open to the truth. What we are seeing more and more though, is the shift to a post truth world were people will just dig their heels in and not let any other reason get through their suit of armour. As Mulder claimed in the X-Files, the truth is out there. But which truth and what truth shall I believe is more the cry these days?

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warren coppard

Interested in history, culture, business and the pursuit of knowledge