Asking James Randi: What do so many people have against science?

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James Randi has a passion for poking holes in pseudoscience. We speak highly of science and reason, but when it comes to their own stupid beliefs, people are seldom reasonable. For most of us at some point, pseudoscience rules the mind.


For instance, how many people who consider themselves sensible and above superstition eagerly buy into claims of the paranormal? Parapsychology shows up on some university curricula, and the CIA/DIA funded programs for 15 years under the umbrella “Stargate” operation, so there must be something to it, mustn’t there? Atlantis, crystal healing, and extraterrestrials in Mesoamerica all have enduring appeal. College-educated adults believe their gut rather than the science that says vaccinations don’t cause autism.

When it comes to life’s most complex questions, why do so many otherwise intelligent individuals substitute feelings and belief for fact and cold, hard reason? 

Like the dark side of the Force, mysticism gives us quick and easy answers. Our brains are designed to pull patterns from chaos, to see order where none exists, and then to give preference to evidence that supports our biases. This isn’t just a problem of the religious believers so many “rationalists” mock; it stalks even the most hallowed halls of academia (and, apparently, the CIA).

And the public eats it up. 

Written By: Joseph Cotto
continue to source article at communities.washingtontimes.com

35 COMMENTS

  1. ” The public wants easy answers, and those are supplied by a press largely educated in the humanities rather than in science. “

    This is why I love Randy. He knows to cut through the BS and call spades, spades!For myself, the secular creationists and relativists in academia are the true enemies of rationality. The creatards hoist themselves onto the petards of their own stupidity but those woo merchants in academia can fool many. And yet these people, who could not tell you how salt dissolves in water, are willing to tell scientists were they have gone wrong.You are scientifically literate or face being illiterate.

  2. Cotto: Many people fear that science is answering too many questions too quickly. What is your opinion of this idea?
    I would have answered…..”Try to keep up with the group.  Your life may depend on it.”
     

  3. I don’t really understand the argument that people educated in the humanities are, because of that, not the best people to report on science. You don’t need to have a degree in a science to understand the scientific method or, more importantly, to apply a rigorous standard to the sources you refer to as a journalist. And how specific should a science journalist’s education be? Should there be astrophysics journalists?

    A lack of education in a specific field (whether it’s science, economics, history, visual arts etc. etc.) is a problem not when a person is reporting on that field, but when they are expected to offer criticism or opinion. And even then, the scientific method is so simple and powerful that a lay person should be able to use it to puncture “bad science”, just as well as an expert in the relevant scientific field. The best people to report on any thing are the best reporters, not the people who know the most about that thing.

    The real problem is a general lack of general education on the scientific method, not a shortage of science-trained science journalists.

  4.  Actually I do. One wonders if you are familiar with this saying. To have one’s scheme turn against one, exploding in one’s face, so to speak, is what I said. I suggest you check your Webster’s Dictionary, 11 Collegiate. You will find both petard and the saying these.

  5. I guess it just bothers me that there would be a blanket statement made about journalism on scientific matters by humanities-trained reporters. You’re right, relativism may be a problem in the humanities, but it’s one that would be largely solved by better general education in science, which would produce a reading population that was capable of detecting and rejecting poor quality science journalism, thereby reducing it.

    I just don’t agree that formal science education (beyond the beautifully parsimonious and straightforward scientific method, which should be taught to everyone, science is just the memorisation of knowledge like any other discipline) is needed for accurate, scrupulous reporting on science. 

  6.   ” ….science is just the memorisation of knowledge like any other discipline) “

    Spoken as one who has never taken Chem 101A!!

    True, the method is the thing everyone can learn. Unfortunately science classes are of two types; specialist and non-specialist. Having taken both I can say the latter certainly teaches little in the way of the method science uses and people could profit from.

  7. You’ll have to enlighten me on the “Chem 101A” reference, Neodarwinian. And hopefully people don’t misinterpret your quoting of me, which could imply that there was no more to science than to rote-learning the bible. Here it is in full:

    “…(beyond the beautifully parsimonious and straightforward scientific method, which should be taught to everyone, science is just the memorisation of knowledge like any other discipline)…”

  8. At the London (Randi) Amazing Meeting in 2010 Richard Dawkins made an eloquent case for evolutionary theory to take the place of classics in schools.  To ensure we continue to enjoy an educated population, we need to include the teaching of science for everyone, and Darwin’s great idea combined with the evidence that now supports it (see The Greatest Show On Earth) would, according to Richard, make a superb vehicle for getting over most basic aspects of science, together with an appreciation of the scientific method.

    Of course, replacing classical education may mean fewer people who know the origins of the word ‘petard’ (it’s from the French for an explosive and shares its sense with pêter — to fart — and petillant to describe gassy water) but it just might result in a population more immune to what Randi long ago christened ‘woo’: blind acceptance of pseudoscientific nonsense.

  9. I dind´t know too much about James Randi, but his work seems worth of merit.

    There´s no real use to convince people that believe in another laws of “spirituality” (and consider themselves intelligent), but programmes like this are a real shame, it is mentioned that psychics like Brian Robertson and Simon James participate in police investigation of crime, and that they have room in the academic world.

    http://joana-morais.blogspot.c

    And no police investigator would come to tell the public that police investigation doesn´t use such methods, that would be useful.

  10. Let´s make just a small paragraph here, Darwin´s naturalism influenced a lot humanities, psychology for instances is becoming each time a  more rigorous science based on a naturalistic explanation of the mind, August Comte proclaimed a positivism that excludes the supernatural from sciences. 
     I accept Randi´s argument, scientists should write themselves more articles in the newspapersperhaps, but journalists are supposed to have some expertise in communication, and they should know how to communicate others ideas also, perhaps better would be a scientist having to commmunicate his work, of course, but I can assure you that not all are good at the job (even Carl Sagan was not thought to be good at communicating science by his colleagues, I guess).
    A “strange” question is made here:

    “Across the world, billions rely on faith just to get them through the day. Said faith might be in the divine, another person, or a social construct. What are your opinions about the concept of faith in general?”

    It reminds me that, due to a lack of knowledge of what maybe “religion” (studied in humanities) that made someone write on a “science blog” about Richard Dawkins, that RD is becoming religion, the author doesns´t deserve any crebility of course, but he is writing on a “science blog”, perhaps if he had a better knowledge on humanities he wouldn´t have said that,

  11.  

    Jabarkis
    You’ll have to enlighten me on the “Chem 101A”

    Course Chapter 1, paragraph 01 sub-section A .

    Science taught properly (as with theorems in maths) there should be understanding of the underlying structures, reasoning, and methodology -  not just memorising superficial details.

  12. Jabarkis,
    The issue here (to me) is that when reporting on some science issues, a non-scientist can get by with common sense and a working knowledge of the scientific method.  However, and this is crucial, when dealing with cutting edge, current breakthroughs, a synthesis of the previous research and the current breakthrough is necessary to communicate the big picture.

    The reporter has a responsibility to inform the reader (not misinform) and in a rush to be first writers have abandoned being right.  They no longer fact check (see the recent tragedy in Sandy Hook for “journalistic errors made in a rush to be first”).  But, more importantly, as far as science goes, they are not even equipped to do the job properly.

    As a corollary, I am a scientist.  I specialize in what you would call general biological knowledge with an emphasis on genetics and microbiology.  I would not feel comfortable reporting on string theory and it’s implications for electron movement through graphene.  

  13. I’ve seen this man perform, he’s brilliant and very funny. In one act he invites two strapping blokes up on stage who test a rope by tugging at it as hard as they can, and then with great care tie him in to a chair with his hands bound behind his back.

    They then step a few paces down stage away from him, and before they’ve even turned round to face him again he’s stretching out his arms pointing to either side of the stage and asking the two chaps to go and stand there.

    The audience go wild!

    I’ve also seen him debunk a guy claiming to move objects by thought alone. Randi then demonstrates that it’s a trick by doing it himself and explaining how he did it.

    Great fun.

  14. Randi is asked fairly broad (and I would say asinine) questions here. 

    He replies with equally broad answers.

    The interview has a feel of someone being door-stepped, or occurring on a rapid walk between meetings, ‘Mr Randi… Mr Randi… Can I ask you a few questions?’  ‘If you can keep up, Son… I’ve a train to catch!’

    Most journalist I’ve known were either specialists in their subject, history, geopolitics, science etc’, (and loved their job/career/calling) or were newsroom hacks who wouldn’t know how to spell the word ‘humanities’, but could very quickly put you in contact with someone who did – for a price.

    Hacks, those taught in newsrooms, knew their job was to add value to a story – usually as fast as they could, and usually of the monetary variety.

    I both hated and loved newsrooms for they were full of the greatest sceptics and cynics you could ever meet. 

    Watching a newsroom throw together an astrology column (as Randi himself used to do) for a closing print deadline was a joy to behold.

    Of course it was the story that mattered – the column inches – not the truth.

    Those days are more or less behind us and, for better or worse – and I believe it’s better, much better, we are now all journalists.

    Never has science been expounded to so many, by so many, and in so many ways, as it is now.

    And not by specialist scientists, either – those well known masters of communication who could no more apply their own methodology to anything outside of their own speciality than fart strawberry’s – but by people like all of you, on this site, and many others, who insist on reason, and rationality, and understanding.

    People who know ‘how’ to think – not just what to think.

    And therein lies your answer as regards to the weight we give to the classics, to science, to both critical and empirical understanding and analysis.

    For being taught ‘how’ to think will always triumph over being taught ‘what’ to think.

    Anvil.

  15.  

    dws2468:
    Maybe they should teach the kids to say a prayer for all the starving kids who don’t have any food. Then, when it is obvious the prayer didn’t work, maybe they should stop.

    Yup. They could do that in science class!

    Anvil.

  16.  ” …(beyond the beautifully parsimonious and straightforward scientific
    method, which should be taught to everyone, science is just the
    memorisation of knowledge like any other discipline)…” “

    No.

    The chem 101 reference is in opposition to this. When you first enter this class you are told, and I quote, ” chemistry is problem solving. ” Not memorization and much more than the scientific method, though if you do not have the method down you will have much trouble solving the problems. Much of science is this way and that is why it teaches you to think, not what to think.

    Same in biology. I have seen young people come out of their chemistry sections thinking they can memorize biological processes and then failing the course. In biology one must ” be ” the process to learn the process.

  17. The problem solving point is a good and fair one, and I’ll add that to my definition of what disciplines in general include, in one form or another. I know that law, the humanities, even learning another language, all involve problem solving of one sort or another, even if it’s not on a physical/mechanical level as it would be in many fields of science.

    And I wonder how much the additional problem solving skills required in, say, Chem 101, would help in the accurate and clear reporting of science by journalists? I suspect that humanities-style problem solving (in the fields I referred to in the first paragraph), tempered by sound knowledge of scientific generalities, might actually better equip a reporter, whose medium is words, not substances.

  18.  Perhaps, but the point of the problem solving to to learn how to think not what to think.

    In any discipline problems can be proposed and then solved, thus learning how to think.

    Still, one wonders. I recently took English 1A to brush up on compositional skills. My teacher stood in front of the entire class ( context not remembered ) and said ( I paraphrase ) ” We just don’t know where the Native Americans came from. They could of come from Japan, or the moon, we just don’t know. ” I assume she was kow towing to certain Native American beliefs about their origins being in place, but as we have a rich understanding of Native American origins her statement was totally incoherent.

    This is what I really mean about the journalist Randy was speaking of. When you get four years of this sort of thing my English teacher was blathering on about it is a wonder you can think at all.

    This type of nonsense has to be unlearned before one can begin learning. This is not just my pet peeve but has initiated several books on the subject. Such as Higher Superstitions and Intellectual Impostures which deal with this type of academic ideology gone wild.

    One hopes these lessons have been learned in the humanities and that this sorry era can be put behind us as we certainly need the press and writers in general to not only get it right but to teach it right.

  19. I don’t think anything I wrote suggested that problem solving was NOT helpful in learning how to think. I was merely suggesting that the kinds of problem solving you do in humanities might be more relevant to journalism. I really believe that there are different kinds of problem solving skill, and they are developed by practice. The skills needed to solve a physical problem (like working with chemical compounds) are very different from those needed to solve a problem with, say, grammar or rhetorical tone. 

    Regarding education, and your rather worrying Native Americans anecdote, I guess the thing to be avoided is relativism (or saying “one claim/guess/supposition is as good as another, even where there is evidence bearing on the matter”), a position bolstered by the post-modernist assertion that perception affects, or even IS, truth.

    This will get kind of off-topic, so forgive me: I wonder how and why some people (especially of my generation and younger, who have been exposed to the wave of relativism and post-modernism in their formal education) are NOT relativists? A related question is why so many people in the generation that is doing the educating ARE relativists. Is it the result of a particular moment in their educational experience? A psychological tendency produced by genes? Hmm…

    I’ll have to ask my journalist friend about post-modernism/relativism in his courses at university. 

  20.  ” I wonder how and why
    some people (especially of my generation and younger, who have been
    exposed to the wave of relativism and post-modernism in their formal
    education) are NOT relativists? A related question is why so many people
    in the generation that is doing the educating ARE relativists. Is it
    the result of a particular moment in their educational experience? “

    An ideological commitment?

    I do not know the answer here and I do not remember the cause being given in anything I have read. Hopefully it is a generational thing that is soon passing into oblivion. Relativism and post modernism surely have been exposed as the frauds they are since the 90′s so I would think they have little credability with anyone but the ” true believer. “

    I do remember going to college a long time ago and my English teacher then taught compositional skills and reading skills plus critical thinking in reading without the ideological baggage. So Po Mo and relativism caught me by surprise when I returned to school as an older man. I had to backtrack in my reading to become informed about this phenomenon. I tried to read Foucault, Lacan and a few other to see what they were talking about but with little to no success.

  21.  

     
    Neodarwinian –
    I do not know the answer here and I do not remember the cause being
    given in anything I have read. Hopefully it is a generational thing that
    is soon passing into oblivion. Relativism and post modernism surely
    have been exposed as the frauds they are since the 90′s so I would think
    they have little credability with anyone but the ” true believer. ”

    In debunking postmodernism, this little scientific test went a long way!

    http://www.elsewhere.org/pomo/

    Be sure to look at the paragraph at the bottom of the page!

  22. The human mind with it’s power of imagination and creativity also jumping to conclusions that comfort it.  But also as I think Richard.D has said on more than one occasion many failures of the education systems around the world, a tendancy to concentrate on those more academically inclined at the expense of those less so as well those less able to afford it.  Evan those of us fortunate not to have been brainwashed by religion in childhood go through adolescent struggles and can easily grasp at straws if offered by appealing persuasive sources.  It is also not easy to contemplate an infinite cosmos nor to survive financially in our current system which surely helps people become susceptible to easier fairytale ideas. So in my humble opinion, much more should be spent on education for those who find science a struggle ie..de-elitise it as much as possible. 

    While I’m here, because I missed the chance a year or two ago when I joined this forum I hope nobody minds me saying ‘Merry Mythmas’ for yesterday.  

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