Unweaving the Rainbow

We’ve been hitting the Anthony Bourdain pretty hard lately. I think we are on season ten of No Reservations now and don’t grow tired of his relentless snarkiness, eagerness to search out that which is different, and keen observation.

Just last night I had finished up an episode and wound up back in iTunes where it suggested a show that I might like: Ancient Aliens. Season seven.

Season fucking seven.

I know that pseudoscience had been increasingly creeping into the mainstream, but I have heretofore been rather successful in avoiding it. I am not sure if this was a conscious effort or a kind of innate defense system against stupid that has guided me in a wide berth around most popular skullduggery. Seeing such balderdash writ large on my Apple TV was simply unsettling. Seven seasons was certainly too much to bear.

And ever since this unfortunate encounter it seems like similar claptrap has been flung in my face from every direction. Now there has never been any shortage of quackery which uses all possible superlatives to sell some sort of snake oil. The internet has only made this easier. Luckily it is just as easy to spot for most people.

What I find truly unsettling is how pseudoscience has somehow been placed at the same level of respectability as actual science. After recovering from the cerebral sucker punch of seeing the recommendation of Ancient Aliens, morbid curiosity got the better of me and I started looking through some “You might also like” suggestions. There I saw UFO Hunters, Finding Bigfoot, and Ghost Hunters rubbing shoulders with Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman, Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking, and Volume 13 of Nova. ALL of which was labeled as nonfiction. One (or more) of these things is not like the other things. One of these thinks just doesn’t belong…

I was utterly distressed at what I thought was an unprecedented assault on critical thinking. Now I am (unfortunately) used to hearing unparalleled levels of willful scientific ignorance from our elected officials since no one expects them to think anyway. They are more like pavlovian lackeys who legislate when their donors ring a bell. I somehow still had faith in the general public however and believed that science would prevail over pseudoscience. I couldn’t believe the scale of my mistaken assumptions.

Though I suppose that it was not long after the initial few mainframes were connected to ARPANET that the first emails were exchanged about how the government was suppressing knowledge of a fiberglass, air-cooled engine that runs on water in oder to protect the petroleum and auto industries. What had before been chain letters sent to you by that uncle who lived in the woods and stockpiled canned foods and ammunition for the imminent UN takeover evolved into anonymous newsgroup postings and emails forwarded ad nauseam. This in turn has become flashing banner ads from disreputable advertising networks and clever social network marketing of “WHAT DOCTORS DON’T WANT YOU TO KNOW!”

Therefore I take some cold comfort in knowing this is not in fact a new trend. Nancy Reagan consulted her horoscope daily after all. I even remember a high school history teacher explaining to us how the Mayans predicted the end of the world in 2012 and that Nostradamus predicted his own death as well as numerous other historic world tragedies. This teacher even showed us a video about the life of Nostradamus. You know the one. The one that has no relation at all to the historical figure and is based on the fabricated 19th century folk tales about Nostradamus instead of on the actual history of his life and achievements. Yeah, this film was presented to us as actual historical fact. At the time I actually believed it. The whole class did with oohs and ahs in amazement at these fictional feats of soothsaying. In retrospect our history teacher was the high school basketball coach, so I suppose he couldn’t have been expected to exert much effort into be a good teacher as well. I now blame the school board for allowing him anywhere near impressionable students more than I do him for being an irresponsible buffoon.

The point is that teaching critical thinking is vitally important to our future success as a society. The effects of this willful gullibility are clearly visible today. People giving their hard-earned money to psychics. People paying for acupuncture, aromatherapy, or homeopathic treatments instead of seeking actual effective medical help. People who believe the earth was actually created in six calendar days (of course on the seventh day He rested) and that answers to all of life’s questions can be found in a three-thousand year old book of lore which has no context and extremely limited relevance in our modern times.

But what harm can be done if a person truly believes? People dying of nearly eradicated childhood illnesses because their parents refuse to vaccinate. Children dying because their parents eschew big pharma/big medicine because they believe that some quackery is “natural.” Scientific progress in general being stymied because we chalk up what we don’t understand to something supernatural. These are not matters of little concern.

But we must respect other people’s beliefs! To paraphrase H. L. Menken: we must respect another person’s beliefs but only in the sense that we respect the fact that his wife is beautiful and his children gifted. My respect certainly stops where someone else’s beliefs do harm to me or to society as a whole.

To bring it back to Ancient Aliens, perhaps the greatest disservice in looking to pseudoscience instead of to science for an answer is the injustice that we do to ourselves. Do we really want to steal away from ancient civilizations the credit for some of the greatest feats of human ingenuity and instead award it to aliens who have never been proven to exist? Just think for a moment about the path that this sets us down. Can’t explain it? Aliens. Something in the sky at night? Aliens. Natural phenomenon that can’t be accounted for? Ghosts. Or maybe aliens too. I will not stand for this intellectual laziness.

Many people would assert that giving up the supernatural or paranormal to explain our world with science removes a certain wonder and magic in our lives. This I do not buy and neither should anyone who thinks with his head but can still feel with his heart. I understand the basic physics of a star, but I still marvel at the beauty of the night sky. And without science I wouldn’t have the knowledge that the light I am seeing is potentially hundreds or thousands of years old which makes me marvel at the sight even more. As Richard Dawkins said, “when we unweave a rainbow, it will not become less wonderful.”

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