Sunday, October 12, 2014

Fellow Liberals: Please Ditch the Hippie-Dippie Pseudoscience

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We liberals* like to think of ourselves as the pro-science side of the political spectrum. And we aren't totally wrong about that. After all, we don't scoff at the vast majority of climate scientists; telling them they're making it all up and we know better. We don't push to have creationism taught in public schools. We don't have bumper stickers that say, "The Big Bang Theory: God Said It, and BANG! It Happened." We don't build creation museums with taxpayer money, we don't say "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" and we never say women were created from man's rib. We also don't have blind faith in the power of free markets to cure all societal ills.

But if we think we're immune to woolly, pseudoscientific thinking, we're fooling ourselves. How often do you see a liberal friend shaking their head at creationism, and then going off to check their horoscope? How often do you see liberals buying dubious alternative treatments, taking part in trendy "cleanses", or even talking about the magic powers of crystals and auras? Do you know liberal antivaxxers? Liberals with starry-eyed views of nature as a benevolent mother goddess, despite the fact that nature made arsenic, liver flukes, and polio? I know people who do all these things, and I really, really wish they would stop.

Why? First, as liberals, it absolutely kills our credibility. If you're scoffing at people who say the earth is 6,000 years old, and then turning around and fretting about Mercury being in retrograde, then you're throwing stones from a glass house. Conservatives think of liberals as soft-headed, and this gives them all the ammunition they could ask for. We might as well gift wrap it and say, "Merry Christmas!"

Second--and I know this is controversial--what's actually true really matters. Despite what the postmoderny types say (and don't get me started on them), there is a real world, and it's important that we try to match our beliefs to it as closely as possible. That's a very hard thing to do, because the human mind is incredibly error-prone. We sense only tiny slivers of the vast universe around us, and we tend to see patterns that aren't there. The list of logical fallacies and psychological biases we're prone to would take up many pages. Science and logic help us defeat these tendencies. They give us a way to test our biases and preconceptions, to see if they hold up. Oftentimes, they don't. The earth turned out not to be flat, or at the center of the universe. Ancient myths of human origins turned out to be wrong. The constellations turned out to be random patterns among stars that only seem connected when viewed from earth. And the stars turned out to be so far away that their light can take many human lifetimes to reach us. And that's all OK, because the universe turned out to be grander and more surprising than we ever imagined.

However, science has never given us any reason to think the universe is about us. All these eons and light years probably weren't put in place for a bunch of egotistical apes on one tiny planet among trillions. That's what most subscribers to pseudoscience--creationism as well as astrology--can't seem to accept.

Lots of my fellow liberals disagree with me when I say it's bad to believe things that aren't true, or for which you have no evidence. "What's the harm?" they ask. It's a good question, and here's my answer: What was the harm when the Book of Genesis led generations of people to believe that women were created from men to be a "helper", and were responsible for original sin and the fall from grace? Did any bad things happen because of that false belief? If you tour the bathhouses in Hot Springs, Arkansas, you can see tubs where sick people were once immersed in mercury. They thought it was good for them. Did that belief do any harm? What's the harm when people refuse to vaccinate their children, and diseases like mumps and whooping cough threaten to make a comeback? Did it do any harm that people in this country once believed blacks were an inferior race, and best suited to slavery?

Beliefs matter, because people act on them. False beliefs have probably caused as much suffering as any force on earth. When it comes to senseless destruction, earthquakes, hurricanes, and disease have nothing on human delusion.

"But astrology/past lives/crystals/homepathy aren't like racism and sexism," people will say. "They aren't that harmful." Well, maybe, and maybe not. If someone dies because they try to treat cancer with homeopathic remedies, where the active ingredient has been diluted into non-existence, that is, in fact, harmful. And consider astrology; probably the most common pseudoscience among liberals. What if some powerful person makes bad decisions based on horoscopes that have no basis in fact? Nancy Reagan used to consult horoscopes all the time. What if Ronnie had gotten into it too (maybe he did, for all I know), and made bad decisions about nuclear strikes after consulting an astrologer? I think it's safe to say the results could have been rather harmful.

Of course, Reagan wasn't a liberal (he also believed in the literal truth of the Book of Revelation, apparently) but my point is that liberals can't exactly claim the high ground when it comes to science and critical thinking if they're subscribing to pseudoscience themselves. Many conservatives also get into pseudoscience, but things like astrology and other New Age ideas are much more common among liberals. And that really needs to stop. It's embarrassing. We liberals pride ourselves on having soft hearts, and that's a good thing. But having a soft heart doesn't mean you have to have a soft head, too.


I actually don't like calling myself a liberal, because I don't want to lock myself into one way of thinking. I'm not a doctrinaire liberal, but I'm a whole lot more of a liberal than a conservative.