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Since I started Cork Skeptics, I have had some feedback that “people were getting concerned about me”, as if that they thought I was going to be the next Jim Corr, or something. Oy vey.

So let me be very clear.

  • I don’t believe that UFO’s (in terms of aliens) exist or have ever visited us. The vast majority of sightings are explicable.
  • I am skeptical of most alternative medicine and alternative medical therapies.
  • I think Astrology is a load of rubbish.
  • I think the anti-vaccine people have very little to support their arguments and that they are putting children and vulnerable adults at risk.
  • Homeopathy is too dilute to have any effect. Save your money.
  • I don’t believe in an afterlife, ghosts, apparitions or spiritualism.
  • I don’t believe that there are great conspiracies “out there”. In fact, most of them stink to high heaven. Incompetence explains far more and we’re not that great at keeping secrets.
  • I don’t believe that prayer or meditation has any external effect whatsoever.
  • I don’t believe people can predict the future (above and beyond the use of mathematical algorithms for forecasting), or that they can read minds or any of the other stuff so-called psychics claim to be able to do.
  • I don’t believe that dowsing works. Look up the “ideomotor effect”.
  • I don’t believe that the climate skeptics / deniers have any way proven their case. The evidence is weighted on the side of man-made global warming, and yes, we should be concerned.
  • Creationism? Don’t get me started. It’s delusional. It would be a complete joke except for the fact that a large section of people in the most powerful country in the world accept it on faith. That’s worrying.

There’s plenty more where that comes from.

What do I believe?

  • I accept that the evidence for evolution is overwhelming.
  • I accept that modern medicine has provided us with truly incredible breakthroughs: vaccination, antibiotics, anti-rejection drugs, to name but a few.
  • I believe that human psychology explains a great deal about how we all can be fooled and mislead, and how otherwise intelligent people can be lead down rat-holes.
  • I am not cynical about people. Most people are honest and earnest in our work, our interests and our dreams for the future. I believe that people have been capable of extraordinary achievements and that such events should be celebrated, not derided.
  • I believe we all make mistakes. Mistakes give us an opportunity to learn something new.
  • There are not “two sides of the story” when it comes to established facts. Flat Earth theory is not “an alternative viewpoint”. It’s just plain wrong. Ditto most alt-med, creationism, etc.
  • I think we could all do with a course in critical thinking and a better understanding of logical fallacies.
  • I am willing to be proven wrong.
  • I think we should learn more about probability and statistics. One in a million chances, hell, one in a billion chances will occur, given a big enough population size.
  • I am passionate about education. It should never stop. We always have something to learn.
  • I accept that our knowledge of many things is woefully incomplete. We have a lot more to understand and hopefully, some day we will get there. I would like to see Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s cured in the morning. There is so much we just don’t know, and it’s tragic. I am comforted however, in knowing that there are people out there who have dedicated their careers to solving these terrible problems.

So bottom line? I am fully behind that apparently humdrum, but often surprising and beautiful thing we call reality. If people are getting concerned about that, well, I’m not sure what else I can say.

It’s a common story with astronomy enthusiasts. You are at a party or with friends when a friend introduces you as a person having an interest in astrology. You smile politely and gently correct them, but in the back of your mind you realise that they didn’t really get it. After all your explaining, you still expect to be called “the horoscope guy” later on. To many people, astrology and astronomy are different sides of the same coin.

Indeed, on a very superficial level, astronomy and astrology are quite similar. They are both concerned with the stars and planets, they both have very ancient pedigrees and are accompanied by a vast body of literature. Both astrology and astronomy are highly prominent in modern culture as any newspaper or magazine will attest. They both deal with future predictions and people involved in a professional level take their expertise very seriously.

However the astronomical and astrological camps are very, very different, and it is very rare to find an astronomer who has any regard for astrology whatsoever. (The opposie is probably not the case, but astrologers don’t particularly like astronomers so much). So what is wrong? Is it a case of snobbishness from the astronomical community? Professional rivalry perhaps? Or a conspiracy theory against the hard-working astrologers?

The answer is somewhat different. Fundamentally, astronomy and astrology are quite different philosophically.

Astronomy is a scientific philosophy. Astronomy is based primarily on the evidence, the facts. Beliefs about what these facts mean come second. All beliefs are tested and if they fail the tests, they are rejected. If they pass all the tests they are accepted as true, or at least provisionally true until new evidence becomes available. In this way, astronomy has been very successful in changing what were once strongly cherished beliefs – the belief that the sun and the planets revolved around the Earth, for instance, or the belief that the universe was timeless, even that time itself was somehow outside of the universe; all these ideas have perished as better data and better knowledge came on the scene.

Not so with astrology. With astrology, the beliefs themselves come first, with facts and evidence coming a poor second place. One of the strongest beliefs in astrology is that the stars and planets affect us in all sorts of ways. They guide our personalities, our moods and our fortunes in life. Now, this is a testable proposition and yet no evidence has ever been found to back up these claims. Furthermore, it is not a particularly plausible proposition given the enormous distances between astronomical bodies and ourselves on Earth and the lack of any coherent mechanism that would link the position and movement of the planets with the human psyche. The basic beliefs behind astrology therefore are magical, miraculous – somehow outside the realm of normal experience and scientific understanding.

Yet the beliefs persist. Plenty of people will tell you that astrology works. As proof they will often claim direct personal experience. The charts indicated that something would happen, and it did – exactly as described. The horoscopes gave a reading of their personalities with breathtaking accuracy. How could this happen?

The answer lies, not so much with the effectiveness of astrology, but with how our brains work. Most of us realise our brains are not perfect, but far less people understand how deep those imperfections extend. We are subject to all sorts of biases. We tend to assign undue significance to ideas we agree with while ignoring contrary ideas. We seek purpose and causality where it does not exist. We forget quickly and what we remember may often be very different from what actually happened. We are highly prone to suggestion. Professional magicians use such weaknesses against us to good (and profitable) use.

It’s not just astrology that is subject to such biases. Bias is commonplace throughout all human experience – politics, business, management, relationships, you name it. Science too. What makes the sciences different however are the extensive set of techniques that are used to eliminate bias. Controls, randomisation, blinding, sampling and peer review are examples. Such techniques, while seemingly arcane, are quite rational and logical in reality. They tend to make the process less subjective and any results tend to have greater weight, particularly if they can be repeated in a number of different settings.

The difference between astronomy and astrology highlights an important difference between science and pseudoscience. One area is founded on facts and evidence, the other is founded on beliefs. There are many fields of endeavour that are based on a set of implausible or untestable beliefs. Homeopathy, for instance, uses a belief that a tiny amount of material can cure chronic complaints and that the more dilute you make the solution, the more powerful the remedy will be. It’s over 200 years since Homeopathy originated, yet homeopaths have never properly challenged these founding beliefs. They assume them to be true and move on from there. In any field of study, when the founding beliefs are deemed to be too precious to be properly challenged, you should be very wary indeed.

I’ve been reading Dan Dennett’s book “Breaking the Spell” on and off this last month. It’s given me a new perspective on religion and the religious experience that I had not sufficiently appreciated before. (Dennett’s style is different to Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris in that he tries less to expose the logical inconsistencies of religion and more to understand why people would carry out such devotion to a deity or deities. It’s a challenging book for religous people, but not necessarily an offensive one).

So here’s my take. Religion thrives because it fits many of our basic human desires like a custom-made glove. Our desire for understanding the world around us. Our desire for protection in an uncertain world.  Our desire for hope, despite all that might happen to us. Our desire to be thought of as special. Our desire to make an impact in someone else’s life. Religion has co-evolved with us, becoming more sophisticated as our culture has developed. It provides the feedback mechanisms many of us so desperately crave for. It has a flexibility inherent in it, so that different people will find answers that suit their specific preferences, cultures and ages.

In the end, maybe it’s all about love. People are inspired to do great things because of love. Love is all about abandoning one’s critical faculties, about commitment to someone or something, about sacrifice in the face of something bigger than oneself. Viewed from the outside it makes little sense, but for the person affected it’s a wonderful, uplifting, comforting experience. Love is vulnerable to manipulation, and in the extreme, people can be motivated to carry out the most appalling acts because of love. Love is blind, as they say.

Many commentators focus on the fear factor: the “believe this or else” sentiment. The “do that and you’ll go to Hell” sentiment. They assume that this is core to the religious experience. I’m not so sure. I think it might be more peripheral. I would even go to the extent that if people believe in a god purely because they are afraid of the consequences of not believing, then they haven’t quite grasped the religious experience. They may not even be religious at all. Telling someone that there are grave consequences to a simple transgression is far too ephemeral a reason on which to base a complete belief system. Our large prison population, for example, tells us that fear of getting sent down is a poor motive in preventing crime. So why should it be more successful in the case of belief? Fear, within the religious context, seems to be something that has more to do with organisational control than with religious belief. Religion plus fear is a powerful (and potentially destructive) force, but religion itself is not about fear.

These are my thoughts on the subject for what they are worth. I’d love to hear from you on this.

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