The Greatest Danger of the 21st Century: Gullibility

Surely, at least partial blame for the resurgence in unfounded lack of confidence of scientific evidence must be reserved for the notion of other ways of knowing.

This cocky statement, which is held as close at heart by many as certain religious idols, makes an absurd leap of faith and not only undermines scientific methodology, but clearly demonstrates ignorance of what science is. The best way to explain this is to use an example debate, which should represent probably the oldest argument between God and science; the impact of the spiritual realm on the physical (ie. connection to God, miracles, angel and ghost interference of the natural world etc.)

Scientist: If God(s) and/or spirits exist, then it should, eventually become testable.

Theist: Aha! This is you’re fundamental weakness, my friend, for it doesn’t work like that. For all your mathematics, chemicals and strange assortment of equipment, you may be able to measure, test and understand the physical world around you, yet this is not the same as with the esoteric side of existence. This requires other ways of knowing.

But, of course, this shouldn’t be the end of the argument.

Scientist: But you claim to feel the presence of God. You can He preforms miracles. You have also suggest as to why you believe there to be a benign ghost living within your house.

Theist: Indeed I do.

Science: Well, we should ultimately be able to test some physiological response that cannot be explained by endorphins or some other chemical or impulse release when you say that you feel the presence of God. We should be able to test the validity of miracle where they apparently defying the natural laws of the physical universe in a way that cannot be explained (and this does not include word-of-mouth miracles). We should be able to find definable and otherwise unexplainable phenomena within your house. If the spiritual interact in anyway with the physical, there must be a change in the physical universe that cannot otherwise be explained.

This does not, but the way, refute the heart of religious belief – even when no evidence can be found, it simply concludes that nothing spiritual has noticeable impact on the universe.*

We all know the theist reply to this however: God works in mysterious ways.

This reply is as slippery and nonsensical other ways of knowing. Alas, by and large we accept both as reasonable justifications in lieu of evidence. By conceding on such terms, reason basically hands over a skeleton key to irrationality. When science provides an answer that unsettles belief, the “mystery of God’s ways” or the “other ways” of knowing lead to speculation aimed to accommodate evidence and belief, or outright reject the science.

Another aspect is an unquestionable basic human right to most (if not all) secular science-orientated individuals: the very necessary right for the freedom of speech. Most intelligent people find it difficult to ignore others – I often find myself going to great lengths to discuss the same flawed climate denial arguments over and over again, sometimes writing over a thousand words in a single response, simply because the right to think and say what you feel is so important to me.

Yet, you find by this point, if the other has such a skeleton key in hand or promotes this (rightfully) unguarded side of science to push baseless conspiracies, evidence was left somewhere back down the line and is no longer useful

This is quite clearly what propagators of ideology consider to be the toothless tiger of scientific methodology. It also leads the more benign individuals to question the credibility of science and the more entrepreneurial to exploit with pseudo-science, such as many untested natural therapies.

The only real way forward, as I see it, is a very long and difficult path, which would face incredible resistance.

And to the point

We need to look carefully at exactly how we teach our children. I was lucky, not only to have been brought up in a relaxed Christian household, but also to have had parents that encouraged me to question. It was a frequent occurrence that I got in trouble because I refused to read fiction. One of the most vivid memories that remains with me to this day is once being forced by a teach to remain back in the library while all the other children went out for break-time until I read aloud to her, Possum Magic. It was so much an effort that I remember the pressure building up in me, I remember sweating and wanting to scream – the level of frustration that I felt was unlike anything I had felt up until that point. Yet, I could read many pages on space, rockets, robots, dinosaurs or the environment with easy.

My parents faced this criticism with the reply, “At least he’s reading.” and to this day, they still give me various non-fiction literature as a present every year – some where even useful to me as a uni student.

Of course, some readers will be itching at this point to argue that to talk of education of children, I am in fact applying the same tools as ideology, but this couldn’t be more wrong. In an age of ever increasing availability of information, coupled with the exploited aspect of science coupled above, it must be overwhelmingly obvious that what we largely overlook in schooling is critical analysis of data. Children are naturally sponges for information, but they instinctively lack discrimination of quality – a bullshit meter if you will. This short gain greater focus. From their primary schooling years, ideas should be put forward to them, with the expectation that they will debate over what it means and it’s validity.

In an age where children can type earlier than they write in cursive, where almost any word placed into a search engine can draw contradictory arguments, the real gift is an abundance of information, but the danger is continuing a tradition of varying capacity for critical evaluation.

I may have been the only one chuckling to myself at a spiritual fare at a stand which promises to rid your house of ALL unwanted radiation, but what will the future be like for the coming generations, truly immersed from their birth in the Information Age, if we do not address this deficit in reasoning? Questioning is liberating and expanding as critical awareness is strengthening and empowering. By encouraging this development, we could foster, not only better scientists, but ever more creative and experimental artists. By ignoring it, we risk undermining all the work the enlightenment has done to shift us out of obscurity and into an age where we can think and speak for ourselves. We tend to overlook it, but the enlightenment has done more than provide us technology. It gave us radical thinkers like Mary Wollstonecraft, Abraham Lincoln, David Hume, Albert Einstein and many more who improved the lives and rights of many people since.

It’s clearly an injustice to reason, to ignore all work done to improve clarity and to accept that water retains memory of other molecules that they may have once come into contact with, that a woman should be veiled from head to toe because a male cannot help himself (learn some self control), or that you can “smell yourself better”. The new obscurity is unlimited access to unverified information. We owe our children to provide them with an open mind and a fully functioning bullshit meter.


*I fear that, as there are no clear and definable impressions of a spiritual existence outside the physical universe, that it is highly improbable that there is any. Even if there is, it clearly demonstrates a total disregard for the physical universe which leads me to conclude that one’s short time as they are in life is likely to be wasted if spent largely in devotion to the unknown. If God wished for such devotion, a clear path to such religious enlightenment would be obvious and we wouldn’t have such diverse and mutually intolerant religions. Science wouldn’t continually knock on the doors of belief and ask to have a look around. Some way conclude that the confusion is due to the devil or something similar. However, if one is to believe any doctrine, the devil was created by God. How is it that the devil has been so successful at creating confusion, while God seems to sit back and allow it all to just happen? Surely God would be greater, thus such an entities effect should be further reaching. I know that if I was provided undeniable proof of the existence of God, I would, without flinting, fall into line.

This does not occur, so I must conclude that even if there is anything spiritual, it ignores the physical universe and thus I should instead focus on enjoying my life, understanding it as best I can, being a good friend, teacher to my children and appreciating the gift that is life – my life and the lives of those around me. I am a very moral person; based on my empathy, lust for life, passion for understanding and a deep concern for the well being of my species and the beautiful ecology to which we are tied.

6 thoughts on “The Greatest Danger of the 21st Century: Gullibility

  1. I admit that I have much to learn about many things! I am a simple high school drop out. but there are some things that I am very sure of, because it occupies the realm of basic common sense.

    You don’t have to be a college graduate to understand generally how life moves forward, backward and seemingly stands still.

    It is apparent to me that on the road of life you can attempt to either stand still in the present, move backward into the past, or move forward into the future.

    From the beginning of time this has been the alternatives that people faced and they aligned themselves with one of those alternatives.

    You don’t have to be a college graduate to be able to predict that eventually the people who stand still and compromise with those that want to go back to the way it was in the past, and those that want to move to the opposite direction from the way it was in the past and move forward to a way it will become in the future.
You can predict with scientific certainty that the political center will always compromise so that they can keep everything the same as it presently is. 

    The centrists know, that if they can’t keep those that represent the past and the future apart by compromise, that it would be certain that the opposites of the political spectrum, will clash and what will inevitably happen is a backward movement to the no longer relevant past, or a forward movement to the untested future. 

    Because the past is no longer relevant to the new emerging circumstances, situations and conditions, that exist in our changing environment, and the centrists are out of step with what is happening everywhere in our common environment, it becomes apparent that the moderate political center is destined to be replaced by a new moderate political center, that is more relevant to the constantly changing conditions.

    It becomes apparent that the future can only become the diametric opposite of that what existed in the past.

    It becomes obvious that a new moderate relevant political center will come into being so as to take the place of the old no longer relevant political center.

    The role of this new political center, will be to moderate under the new revolutionary conditions, the relationship between the revolutionary opposite forces of those that want to be more revolutionary, and those that want to become less revolutionary, because the conditions do or do not as yet warrant a drastic change. 

    This is all predictable because it is a repeat of what happened everywhere in history for as long as their has been a recorded history.

For anyone to say that the future cannot be predicted, has to be either not informed or a obsecuritist.


  2. Poor Tim, a common victim of the “reading must be narrative” obsession. As a tutor of students with learning difficulties, I can assure you that for many kids, especially boys, it is really, really hard to find stuff they =want= to read. Spiders, sharks, volcanoes, flags and insects are my favourite topics for disengaged students. The only important thing is that they actually reeead.

    I’m not convinced that it’s necessary to defeat the unreason of religious belief. First and foremost, because the real anti-science stuff is only found in the fundamentalist crazies. If you know any catholics or anglicans, you find that they have not the least difficulty in dealing with evolution, astronomy, geology or any other scientific enterprise. Their beliefs and religious practices they see as entirely divorced from the secular world – they certainly don’t try to convince themselves or anyone else of the bible as history or any of that nonsense. They don’t, and you shouldn’t, link the the two – no matter how silly or irritating you find it. Share any common ground you can find. Keep off the grass of the mutually incomprehensible.

    Treat science as a glacier. The forward movement is massive, undeniable and irresistible. The silly objections of religious or ‘new age’ muddled thinking just finish up as rubble moraine left high and dry as the real deal moves on.


    1. I don’t feel that we need to defeat the unreason of religious belief – in fact, I’m sure we couldn’t do it anyway. “…anti-science stuff is only found in the fundamentalist crazies” – form my experience, they seem to be heavily religious and mostly jump on any anti-science movement to do their best to avoid science shedding light on their beliefs.
      What I should’ve made more clear is that I’m considering public schools – they should give critical analysis of information more focus. We can’t make a difference to those who wish to suppress reason. If we can instil a strong sense of reason in students of public schools, maybe we’d see more perusing schooling further (I hope), but more importantly, we would have great portions of the following generations not saying much of silliness we see in the climate debate and against other sciences. I worry new age nonsense is a reversion – in some cases, under the guise of science. We really must be aware of extra need of a bullshit meter in the Age of Information, and by providing it where we can, hopefully in time, the glacier (to use your metaphor) will grow larger and move in unison. That the evangelicals have a strong voting presences in the US is a terrifying suggestion of future risk.


  3. OK, Tim, now you’ve really hit a nerve.

    A lot of schools / teachers/ fools have been spouting a lot of guff about teaching “critical thinking” and other such notions. This is where cognitive science must be allowed to lead the way.

    What cognitive scientists tell us is that thinking skills or ‘critical thinking’ or analytical thinking or any related buzzwords are all domain dependent. That is, you can’t think about nothing. The best way to get students thinking is to enrich, rather than dumb down, the content of what is taught in schools – in every subject.

    This of course is a huge problem. Because too many schools push teachers to make all lessons ‘engaging’ or ‘lively’ or ‘fun’. Of course school should include these things, but it shouldn’t do them all day every day. Schoolwork is like other work – it just happens to be done by children. Learning to put your head down and just get on with it is an important life skill. Just like making beds and doing dishes.

    My own view is that modern educators underestimate children’s capacity to learn. And especially to learn “stuff”. Eight year olds just love telling you the names of varieties of sharks or motorbikes or clouds or which flag belongs to which country. I know that smart alec 11 year olds can be annoying – but they might as well have real knowledge of something to brag about.

    Off the soapbox for now. Otherwise I’ll write something as long as your post.


    1. I think you and I are more arguing semantics here, Adelady (maybe a failing on my behalf). When I worked for the government, there was nothing worse that all the buzzwords which related to my field that really meant nothing in their context, but sounded great (such as “sustainability”, “efficiency”, or putting “eco” in front of standard words.. etc).. It drove you made hearing all this, when you knew damn well it amounted to nothing and ended with the word becoming near meaningless.

      The point here is that it seems obvious that all forms of information flood us all on the daily basis, with a wide variance in the quality of individual bullshit meters. It’ll only get worst. You’re very right, and I briefly commented as much, that children have a wonderful knack for learning – they’re programmed to be so absorbent, but not to be so discriminate of quality. It’s all good and well to say that it’s up to us to ensure that the quality is good, but it certainly cannot happen with all the sources of information that a child is exposed to.

      Take another example – my son. Now, I don’t get a great deal of time with him.. When I lived with him, he could tell you whatever letter or number (up to 10) that you pointed at, and the name and a feature of any planet you pointed at in a poster (or the hanging mobile) when you pointed to it. This was at 2 and only because of my persistence and enthusiasm. When I assisted with reading in his school, years later, he was very far behind his peers. Everyone told me that it’d all come back, but it didn’t. Because of his mothers household (which encourages too much computer game use and very little interaction) he can out play almost anyone at any given game, but cannot remember a single fact that he asked about and seemed really interested in, by the next time I see him. Plus, I’ve recently learnt that he thinks himself to be a Christian because of what the Librarian told him about Jesus.

      When I pick him up, he can spend the entire trip home (about an hour) recanting about a certain experience of online game play, but is doing so poorly in school that his mother is contemplating putting him into a special assistance school in stead of working with him (now I could write a long post on my frustration here – but for relevance sake, I’ll stop here).

      I agree completely agree with you, that much of the schooling system is failing kids (he also tells me that one of the teachers encourages communication via DS), that they have a wonderful capacity for learning, that care-givers are in many cases are a big part of the problems (every time he’s at ours, we try to treat him as a 10 yr old – to put his head down and help around the house, but he is so babied at his mothers that it’s an endless battle that really never improves) and that they should given the education differently (and that so many new teaching ideas are at best, nice sounding fluff), but part of education should, in the coming generations, include focus on being more discriminate of information: like previous generations were informed about stranger danger, future generation needs to be focused on bullshit danger.

      Then, if they choose religion in part of their life they may be like the religious that you mentioned previously – able to separate their faith from scientific reasoning without the need to devalue science. They should also make better decisions about natural therapies and anti-science movements (such as anti-vaccination, birth control/STD protectio etc). And most importantly, public/political debates such as we’re witnessing over climate science and the theory of evolution would not take such ridiculous paths – especially when it causes paralysis in a time when change in behaviour is desperately required.


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