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More of a 'How' Rather than 'Why' but Still an Excellent Debunker's Guide
on 11 September 2011
C. P. Snow once wrote that the sciences and the arts represented `two cultures.' He missed out a third culture: belief in pseudoscience and other confusions.
The United States epitomises these three cultures: it publishes the largest number of cited scientific papers on the planet, its liberal arts colleges are world-class but vast numbers of Americans still believe in creationism, as many as 40 per cent according to one Gallup poll in December 2010.
Michael Shermer, a well-known American sceptic, has his work cut out for him. He surveys a range of bizarre beliefs, such as alien abductions and near-death experiences, to creationism and Holocaust denial.
In dealing with accounts of the fantastic and paranormal, Shermer holds David Hume's foolproof maxim foremost in mind:
`[N]o testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish ... `
Thus you cannot disprove a claim such as a man rose from the dead 2000 years ago or that aliens have abducted millions of Americans. But given what we know about the world - i.e. that when a man dies, he stays dead, and that faster-than-light space travel is ruled out by the laws of physics - it would be unwise to accept either belief. Therefore it's reasonable to surmise that the person making such a claim seeks to deceive, or has been deceived.
The demand to disprove an extraordinary claim is an example of an ad ignorantium fallacy, i.e. if you cannot disprove a claim then it must be true. This is one fallacy among 25 others that Shermer describes that underpin belief in weird things. There are others: the fallacy that the minority view must necessarily be the right one, the fallacy that a coincidence proves a cause, and such like that underpin those who accept weird beliefs.
Shermer's tone is informed by Spinoza's admonishment, not to ridicule but to understand why people hold strange beliefs. He gives his subjects their due, setting out the arguments of creationists and Holocaust deniers before turning to refute them. His style is a lot less showy than Hitchens or Dawkins but loses nothing on account of that.
I found Shermer's chapters on pseudoscience (i.e. creationism) and pseudohistory (Holocaust denial) especially penetrating critiques of both movements. But what is the difference between pseudoscience and real science? Science is dedicated to formulating hypotheses that can be tested against data. Even the most robust theory is tentative. It could be invalidated by fresh data. Compare that with creationism, which anchors its authority in the inerrancy of scripture. Its foundational premise is therefore beyond argument or dispute.
Science looks for naturalistic explanations behind phenomena but by definition supernatural explanations, posited from outside nature, cannot be assessed, tested or measured. So for instance it is averred that the `irreducible complexity' of the eye can only be `explained' by positing the existence of a supernatural designer. Not only can this not be demonstrated (it relies ultimately on the ad ignorantium fallacy as its foundation) but science can demonstrate, with real world examples, the evolution of the eye, in part by the existence of a plethora of eyes at various stages of developments among various species.
Shermer is right to bracket Holocaust denial with creationist science. Just as evolution is proved by the convergence of evidence from geology, paleontology, botany, zoology and other scientific disciplines, the fact of the Holocaust is proved by the convergence of various strands of evidence. Deniers tend to concentrate on weaknesses in their opponents' explanations, seize on disagreements among scholars and quote these out of context, focussing on what we do not know rather than what we do. Falsifying one detail (such as soap being made out of human fat) is held to falsify all other details. But the fact of the Holocaust does not rely on the veracity of a single claim - it relies on over a dozen strands of evidence converging on one conclusion: it happened.
The laws of science do not rule out a claim that the Holocaust never happened. But the evidence as it stands supports the claim and makes it a strongly credible one, stronger than the claims of those who seek to deny it. The question is not whether you can disprove or prove beyond all reasonable doubt, but whether the quality of evidence adduced stacks up for or against a claim. History cannot be described as a hard science per se but it involves formulating hypotheses that are then tested against the data.
Where perhaps the book is weaker is the modest attention given to answering the question why people believe weird things. It's more than a `how' than a `why' people at arrive at bizarre beliefs. For Shermer it's a combination of confirmation bias (the tendency of human beings to look for evidence to confirm a view they have already accepted independently of any evidence to support it) and attribution bias (the tendency to attribute the basis of your beliefs to reason, and hence rational, but the beliefs of others to emotion, hence irrational). But can't this be said of all beliefs? Certainly not in the case of science or history properly practised, whereby the process of peer review minimises bias even if it cannot eliminate it altogether.
Scepticism is not nihilism. It is about assessing the degree to which claims can be supported by evidence. It is a positive exercise in helping us make well-founded statements of truth about the world in which we live. I thoroughly commend this book to anyone who takes this exercise seriously.