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I've noticed that I've been writing for this magazine for ten years (first article in April 2003) and I thought I might follow the tradition of celebrating decadal anniversaries by looking back to see what, if anything, has been achieved.
That first article was titled "Truth and Fiction", and I suppose that's what I've been writing about ever since. This is a science magazine and science is all about separating truth from fiction. There is a seemingly never-ending stream of fiction and nonsense out there that needs to be examined to see how it differs from reality. This is not a new phenomenon, and the idea of science grew out of a world where knowledge was based on superstition and authority. When everything is understood and there are no unknowns or misconceptions left science will have done its job and can be retired, but we are a very long way from that now.
One perennial problem is that many people don't possess the intellectual tools necessary to evaluate information and come to a correct conclusion. By this I don't meant that they have any intellectual defect, just that they are not equipped to process information in order to come to a correct conclusion so they tend to unquestioningly believe what they are told.
It doesn't take much more arithmetic than a knowledge of geometric progression to see the problems with multi-level marketing or homeopathy, but people are taken in by these things daily. Simple logic says that if four people each claim to have the one and only cure for all forms of cancer with mutually exclusive theories about the cause and treatment then at least three of them must be wrong. The difference between weather and climate should be obvious but they are constantly confused with each other. Electromagnetic radiation does not only come from mobile phones and electricity transmission wires but fills all of space. The probability of winning lotto does not depend on the size of the jackpot prize, and a combination of tickets numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 is just as likely to win as any other set of numbers. Dairy cattle, merino sheep, wheat, canola and sweet corn are genetically-modified organisms which do not occur naturally.
I mentioned superstition and authority above. Superstition still exists in the form of conspiracy theories, where demons and dark, hidden forces control what happens in the world. Unfortunately, once people go down this particular rabbit hole it is often almost impossible to get them back out, and belief in one conspiracy usually leads to uncritical acceptance of other unrelated ones. (I am writing this a few days after bombs went off at the end of the Boston Marathon. I have been told that the bombs were planted by Muslim terrorists (disguised as patriotic militia members) working for the US government in order to distract attention from the anniversary of the enactment of the 2nd Amendment giving citizens the right to arm themselves against the government, and also to reduce possible media coverage of the HAARP weather modification test that caused an earthquake in Iran. Yes - all within the same Internet forum and within a five minute period.)
Reliance on authority is a strange one, where the authorities aren't the majority of scientists but the mavericks and outsiders. Climate change deniers reject the overwhelming volume of evidence (although there is a large political component to their position), Holocaust deniers ignore what almost every historian and death camp survivor says and grasp at minor details, almost the entirety of "alternative" medicine relies on rejection of the work of tens of thousands of researchers and relies instead on research which shows anomalous results but cannot be replicated or on people who claim to have miracle cures that are suppressed by the orthodoxy or on magical beliefs in long-dismissed theories about how the body works.
So has anything changed in the last ten years? In science, it certainly has. When I was writing that first column the Human Genome Project was nearing an end of its mapping of the blueprint for being a human. The Large Hadron Collider has taken us closer to the time of the Big Bang and is showing us tantalising signs that we might soon learn more about the fundamental structure of matter. We came close to the extinction of polio before a setback, but it will happen. And these are just big advances, with thousands more getting little or no publicity. JAMA, NEJM, Nature and Science find new things to publish each week. And children taking the Primary Ethics course in NSW schools are being taught critical thinking.
Am I hopeful that science can continue to chip away at ignorance? I wouldn't waste my time writing this column if I didn't think so. Now for the next ten years.
This article was published as the Naked Skeptic column in the June 2013 edition of Australasian Science
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