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I think I was around fifteen years old. The elderly Christian Brother teaching us Religious Studies brought us all downstairs to the video room. The lesson for the day would be a documentary on Our Lady of Garabandal, a supposed “apparition” of Mary somewhere in Spain. The key message from the programme was the Blessed Virgin’s unhappiness with the world. Unless we started saying the Rosary pretty darn quick, terrible unspecified things would happen. No discussion, no criticism. We were expected to accept all of the programme’s premises at face value.

This was a major downside of an Irish Catholic education in the 1980’s. Alongside fairly solid subjects such as maths, science and the foreign languages, we were schooled in rank superstition. This was not educational, it was anti-educational. We left school in possession of a rather toxic mindset: that if a person was wearing the right clothes or had the right prefix before his name, or the right suffix after his name, then you were expected to accept that he was telling the truth, no matter what rubbish he was uttering from his mouth.

I was reminded of this a few days ago when friends of mine were discussing alternative medicine cures for various ailments. There was no analysis, no criticism. The proof was in the anecdote and the anecdote was the gold-standard.

Then there was the hubbub at Knock a few months ago, attracting thousands to witness Joe Coleman muttering nonsense into the middle distance. Many of us might laugh, but it served as a reminder that the Ireland of the moving statues hadn’t gone away, you know.

Pick up any local paper and you will find ads for peddlers of the most outrageous woo, from Chinese medicine to homeopathic treatments to new age crystal remedies. And how could we forget the pyramid schemes and the property bubbles that hit the country over the past few years? It all points a vulnerability common to us all. You might not beat the Irish, but fool us you can, and fool us you do. Every single day.

It’s all quite depressing stuff. If you want to make make a fast buck using nothing but smoke and mirrors, Ireland is as good a place as any to try your hand.

Now, I know that belief in the miraculous, the supernatural and the magical is a worldwide phenomenon. Most societies are steeped in it and it will be with us as long as our species breathe on this planet. Nevertheless, wouldn’t it be good for all of us if our kids were better prepared to accept things more on evidence than on hearsay? Wouldn’t it be better if we were taught how our brains can play tricks on us and how to avoid the more common mistakes? Wouldn’t it benefit us to quickly recognise manipulation by others? Our education system somehow avoided this aspect of our schooling and the results are everywhere to be seen.

The Irish education system, or should I say, the Catholic education system of Ireland (sadly these expressions are synonymous), didn’t dwell too much on such questions, lest we peered too closely at the shaky foundations of Catholicism’s own dogmas and diktats. We were, of course, taught to think critically, but critical thinking had its limits.

I would love to say that the system has improved greatly since I left school and that we are turning out school-leavers who have a much better handle on reality, but I fear that change has been glacially slow. I stand to be corrected in this regard.

It’s another reason why a Catholic education is not necessarily the best education for our schoolchildren. We deserve better. It’s time we got better.

The creationists are right. We need academic freedom. We can’t just have one view, pounded into us by those pesky scientists. Schools and universities must be forced should be allowed to teach alternative views to their students side by side with science. That’s what education is for, isn’t it? We need Academic Freedom in our schools and we need it NOW!

Here are the principal areas that our educators need to focus on right away:

1) The Earth is Flat. When I go outside the door, it’s flat. Even when I climb a mountain (and I did that once) it still looks flat. Even when I go on a plane, (and I’ve done that too), it’s flat. So the earth being flat is a legitimate scientific view and must be taught in science classes alongside the (rolls-eyes) “oblate spheroid” dogma.

2) The Moon, the Sun and all the stars revolve around the Earth. Well, they do, don’t they? All rising in the east and setting in the west just like they are meant to by God. This Copernican stuff doesn’t wash with me, it didn’t wash with countless popes until 1992, and it shouldn’t wash with you either. So let’s teach the controversy and make sure that those Galileans are knocked back in their corner.

3) If waves need water to pass through to splash on us, then there must be a similar medium in which light passes through in space! It’s called Aether and it deserves a shot. Better than that weird quantum electrodynamic stuff (and far more understandable too, IMHO). Down with Quantum Mechanics! BOO! Up with Aether!

4) Now the “scientists” are always drumming up silly ideas like atoms and molecules when there was a perfectly legitimate theory in place before this new fashioned stuff came into play. It was called Phlogiston Theory. A cool name, eh? Every time you burn something, Phlogiston is released! When you burn an every day object: a match or a heretic perhaps, the weight afterwards is less than the weight before, and the difference is Phlogiston. Academic Freedom dictates that we see Phlogiston get equal treatment to chemistry. 

5) Of course medical doctors are always going on and on about saving people with antibiotics and vaccines and using approaches involving “studies” and “evidence” to find a cure, when there are lots and lots of alternative theories with the great advantage that you don’t need to perform any proper studies at all! Much cheaper, no need to learn tough mathematics like statistics and many of them feel nice and tingly. All you need to do with your chosen therapy is to believe that it will work. If it doesn’t, there are lots more to choose from. We have therapies that give dilute water magical healing properties, that control the flow of chi in your body and that shield us from toxins that cause imbalances. Some of the theories conflict with each other completely but hey, you can choose what theory suits you best! All you need is a big wallet and a mind unbridled by critical oversight. 

So let’s put science in it’s place for once and for all! Let’s ensure that every half-baked hypothesis we have ever dreamt up has legitimate pride of place beside scientific views in our schools and colleges. Just because a theory has “weighty evidence” and “a solid scientific consensus” around it, just because it been tested a million times and has never been disproved, doesn’t mean it should be treated any more seriously than its rivals no matter how off-beat and nonsensical they are. So, let’s take a moment and celebrate the great wonder of ignorance. It beats reality anytime.

(Inspired by this article)

I’m giving the final presentation of my thesis to my academic supervisor and second reader today, and then that’s it. It’s all over. I finished my thesis about 2 months ago, so it’s been something of a challenge re-reading it again in preparation for today.

Even though it was a lot of hard work, I enjoyed writing my thesis. I was fortunate in that the subject I chose was very interesting to me. I don’t think too many people have written about my chosen subject before – it’s certainly a first for the academic body I am presenting to. This makes it even more special to me.

Hopefully it will be an interesting day and not too challenging! I’m really looking forward to my graduation day in November.

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