One god short of an atheist

This is another archival repost originally written for the old blog in november 2007.

“Yes I agree, but this is different. Don’t lump us in with those charlatans!”

Criticise quack miracle cures, irrational superstition, loony pseudoscience, and religion, and you will get in return an example of the comment above. You can see this particularly with Richard Dawkins, due to his high profile. Following The God Delusion and Root Of All Evil he got it from many of the newspaper reviewers and from the “fleas”: “yes, I agree with you on political Islam, American evangelical Christianity, creationism, an interventionist God, Zeus, the virgin birth, and other such obvious nonsense, but my religion is different”. And again following Enemies of Reason: “yes, of course all of that is nonsense, why do you even need to make a programme about it? Nobody takes that nonsense seriously! But [ Ayurvedic medicine / homeopathy / dowsing / ghosts / UFOs / my pet nonsense ] is different, and really is [ supported by evidence / unsuitable for study by double-blind clinical trials / something that scientists might dismiss, but that I know just works ], if only you would keep an open mind!”

I take this as a sign that for most people, the argument is effective: they understand why the scientific approach to understanding the world works, and others fail. The problem is cognitive dissonance: to reconcile this with the fact that they have believed in and invested so much time in some nonsense, they conjure reasons to believe that the argument does not apply to their particular brand of nonsense. It’s not easy to blame people for doing this: after all, we see many very intelligent people doing the same thing. Newton had alchemy, Wallace had spiritualism, Pauling had vitamins. There is a fantastic set of videos of John Maynard Smith on the People’s Archive, in which he talks of how long it took him (and many other scientists, such as JBS Haldane), to escape the grip of soviet-style communism. JMS said: “it’s a reluctance to admit that one has been that wrong — which is a not very honourable attitude.” Something similar to the Soviet treatment of genetics can be seen today with the libertarian treatment of climate change. As Bernard Berenson said: “Consistency requires you to be as ignorant today as you were a year ago.” And this is why science works: science requires you not to cling on to ideas whose time has passed, but to be the first to try and disprove them.

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