Holidays are fine things. They provide an opportunity to rest, and (if you are so inclined) to reflect. As a result of experience during my most recent break, I’m currently reflecting on whether my disdain for woo makes me useful, or just rude and intolerant.
Here’s my dilemma. Throughout the last few months, I’ve heard no end of pronouncements that I would consider pseudoscience. In some cases, I’ve been able to refrain from comment, but in most, I feel the need to respond. As a result, I’ve been called “aggressive” and a “bigot”. Are they right? Should I be keeping my mouth shut?
Let’s start with my justification for my actions. I feel that if someone makes a pronouncement as part of a conversation, it is open to comment/query/challenge/debate. For instance, if I were to state that “the 2013 All Blacks are the greatest rugby side in history”, I would expect find myself engaged in a conversation about such. Life would be terribly boring if every positive statement were met with a chorus of “I agree” followed by silence. I may be odd (I don’t think I am), but I feel like life is richer for the investigation of differences.
In my experience, this approach is generally how conversations proceed. Someone will make a statement and others will respond. Some will say “Yes, I’ve heard that too”. Others will enquire “That’s interesting. How does that work?” Still others will respond with “Actually, I’ve heard the opposite.” And in some cases, you will hear “that’s not true because…” I would have thought that these are all valid responses to statements. In most cases, they are met without the slightest upset. However, there are some topics for which this generally accepted mode of discourse is (apparently) inappropriate.
So why is it okay for someone to claim that everyone born during a particular time of the year will share characteristics with others born at a similar time of the year, but not okay for me to respond by pointing out that astrology was debunked decades ago, and besides, the orientation of the earth to the stars has changed since the Babylonians invented horoscopes? Surely, when you make a statement as ludicrous as “your star sign means you will be vain”, that statement is open to challenge?
This, for me, is the double standard. It’s considered polite to make a claim (no matter how outlandish), but not polite to challenge that claim. Let’s try one recent example. At a recent meal, a friend made the statement that (I’ll paraphrase) “There are big holes in evolution, there is another scientific movement called intelligent design that isn’t Christian. It should be taught as an alternative theory. If you don’t teach children these things, you will raise a generation of closed-minded people.” I was shocked. I had not realised that Intelligent Design had yet found a foothold in New Zealand. In my mind, that kind of statement can’t go unchallenged. For one, it demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of the basic principles of evolution, science, and epistemology, not to mention a mistaken understanding of who is proposing intelligent design and why. For two, it’s measurably harmful. In the US, where intelligent design is at its strongest, a 2009 Pew Poll showed that 31% of the public believed that the world is 6000 years old, while 22% believe in some form of Intelligent design. Compare this with scientists, of whom only 2% believe in young earth creationism and only 8% believe in intelligent design. Unsurprisingly, 87% of scientists accept evolution as the best explanation.
To counter the claim, I employed the standard refutations of the tired and hackneyed Christian Apologetics: Intelligent Design has no explanatory power; it is demonstrably Christian in its origin; if it were a serious theory, its proponents would be using the scientific peer review process to understand its truth (or otherwise). And for this, I get labelled a bigot.
Here’s the thing. You can believe whatever you like. I respect and will advocate for your right to do so. However, that does not mean I have to respect what you believe. All beliefs are not equal, and it is not valid to suggest that something is valid simply because someone believes it.
And this is where things get difficult. My position seems (to me) to be an entirely fair and logical position, but it’s painted as reactionary and rude. Am I wrong? Is it wrong to value tangible, testable evidence?
To flip it on its head, why is it rude for me to walk up to you and tell you that homeopathy is a fraud, but not rude for you to walk up to me to tell me how Arnica will heal my bruising? Is there a difference? Why do we privilege positive claims?