Tricks of the Mind

I've always thought that Richard Dawkins was a much better voice for presenting the wonders of science rather than railing against the shortcomings of nonsense, but the first half of his new two-episode TV series, Enemies of Reason - this time tackling superstition and pseudoscience - has nicely set me straight.

There were, though - as there usually are with Dawkins - still a few points where I thought he wasn't getting his point across as well as he could. For example, we started by tackling astrology, which we are told is accepted by more Britons than believe in 'any one god'. As we delved into things, an astrologer told us that the stars and planets don't cause things to happen, but rather signify events. Dawkins responded by saying that he didn't see how they could be signifiers, and I thought yes, quite right. The planets move in a very orderly, regular fashion. It's difficult to accept that the bubbly, surprising mass of events in history and everyday life could be predicted for the next few billion years by the clockwork, repetitious movements of the Solar System. But the astrologer interrupted and said that Dawkins didn't like it because he didn't know how they could be signifiers and that it was a deep mystery as to how it worked. Dawkins agreed and we moved on to the next segment. No, I thought, don't agree with him!

That is exactly the wrong side of the debate to be on. People like astrologers always want to claim the romantic aura of mystery, while at the same time clinging to unsupported superstitions rather than admitting that they don't have any better an understanding of why things happen than the rest of us do. Or to put it another way: when I lose a sock, I don't know where it is or what happened to it. It's a mystery! But an astrologer knows exactly what's going on (or so he or she thinks): the sock has gone missing because Venus is in retrograde - no mystery there! And of course, I've written before about how astrology ignores the countless mysteries of the Solar System in favour of a geocentric system of moving lights in the sky - in fact the line "astrology is an aesthetic affront" is one, to my knowledge, coined by Dawkins.

So no, I don't like letting the astrologer act as if sceptics are balking at a mystery, at not understanding how it works. As Carl Sagan once pointed out: it doesn't matter if we know how it works or not. There are plenty of phenomena we have evidence for, but which we don't understand. What matters is that there is no evidence astrology works, plenty that it does not, and much more contradicting its geocentric world view. In this case we favour mystery over a trite, clockwork, small and oversimplified world view. (Although a discussion of how astrology might work is an interesting way to see just how vague and self-contradictory it is, as Phil Plait demonstrates here.)

But aside from that one niggle, I was surprised to see the rest of show put such a powerful case forward, indeed I now realise that Dawkins ultimately went on to make a similar argument to the one I did above: that superstition is a way of taking refuge from a complicated and apparently random world. He also did a nice job of dispelling a lot of the peculiar prejudices that people seem to acquire about science - for example, pointing out to a post-modernist that science is very much against 'experts' claiming special authority, or relating how scientists came to understand the way that bats 'see' in the dark. The idea that they used sonar was initially very unpopular, it turns out, but it came to be supported by multiple lines of corroborating evidence. Compare to that, Dawkins suggested, the vague and paltry offering of evidence that is supposed to convince us of psychic powers in humans.

Perhaps the best constructed sequence involved everyone's favourite illusionist, Derren Brown (coming soon to American TV screens, I believe). We saw him 'contacting' the dead relatives of his show's audience, and then explaining how he did it. Flash forward to Dawkins attending a spiritualist church, where we saw exactly the same thing happening, only this time everyone was believing it - desperately. Psychics taking advantage of the bereaved is the most often cited evil of superstition, but Dawkins was keen to point out the many other dangers that arise from shoddy thinking, from racist conspiracy theories to unvaccinated children. Acknowledging that verifiable evidence is a better way of perceiving the Universe than personal feeling is the only way to protect ourselves from dangerous lies and untruths, Dawkins concluded. Roll on episode two.


zhoen said...

But then, there is Charles Fort, and all the damned data.

I actually like Dawkins quite a bit, save for his occasional stridency and broad strokes.

Pacian said...

But surely all the damned data falls under the umbrella of evidence and complication rather than a "But then"?

It's only when you start making up things where there are gaps in the data, clinging to ideas contradicted by it, spotting patterns where there are none, or giving certain data more credence than it deserves that the problems arise.