I was lucky enough to get to hear Stephen Fry speak at one of our graduation ceremonies in the summer. It was a great speech, strong on kindness, lawnmowers and evidence-based knowledge (Stephen Fry Awarded Cardiff University Honorary Fellowship from Cardiff University on Vimeo).
One thing jumped out at me, and caused an alarm bell to ring in my head:
“You know, and I know, there are more and more people out there in the world questioning the benefits of the enlightenment… that is actually under threat at the moment from all quarters… people are questioning the benefits of evidence-based knowledge.”
It is coming from all quarters, whether right-wing religious fundamentalism, or drippy new-age alternative therapy-sim, it’s almost as if ignorance is becoming celebrated – or worse a “right” – which must be protected by law.
And it’s the law which has brought together a powerful campaign by sceptics concerned at Simon Singh’s persecution through the libel courts by the British Chiropractic Association for criticising their promotion of bogus treatments. Concerned that fear of litigation would stifle scientific discourse, the sceptics have found a common voice and from this moment there seems to be a growing awareness and increased activity (if not activism). Or maybe it’s just that I’ve noticed it more.
For example there are “Skeptics in the Pub” groups popping up in towns all over the country – I went to the second meeting of our Cardiff group last week – and the American (ie. wrong) spelling is deliberate. It’s intended to indicate more that a willingness to question comfortable truths, as if there is a movement; and that very question “is there a movement?” was asked at the meeting (no agreement, some felt there was and others were…ahem…sceptical). This is also the question David Allen Green asks in an excellent blog post, answering in the negative for three reasons: firstly that sceptics are naturally disputations (and often tactless), secondly an evidence base is not sufficient for making policy (and often is at odds with policy) and thirdly that scepticism is essentially negative in the sense that it is a check on woolly thinking.
While I am inclined to agree that skepticism is not a movement, it’s that third point, which is essentially about asking questions, which makes me thinking that sceptics (I’ll go back to the English spelling) do have something to unite around. And that’s challenging ignorance. Questions are perhaps the most powerful weapon for doing so.
I saw an interview with Ben Goldacre, the author of Bad Science and skeptic poster-boy, in which he said he wasn’t interested in whether the claims of homeopaths, “nutritionists” or other quacks were the most damaging, and though it sounds a bit callous I’m inclined to agree. Freedom of choice, freedom of speech, these things are important too, and surely the last thing a sceptic would want to accept is being told what is right. What interests Goldacre is the low level of understanding of evidence based medicine, despite the enormous interest the public and the media have in science and health stories. While “Skeptics in the Pub” was a great evening’s entertainment, it was full of the naturally sceptical and so will have done little to further education or the improvement of scientific literacy. Nor will going out that and “putting people right” when they demonstrate their ignorance make people more sceptical. The chances are if you tell someone that there’s no evidence that homeopathic remedies themselves will cure anything, they’ve heard it before and dismissed it. They will do so again. The confrontation may be entertaining and satisfying but it’s probably not very productive.
But asking questions gives people an opportunity to explore their own knowledge, and in framing their answers perhaps to question its basis. It may be that their decision to use a homeopathic remedy or to drink industrial bleach rests on blind faith, and therefore falls into the scope of theology rather than science, in which case argument is pointless anyway. There is an overlap sometimes – I’m fascinated by scientists who believe literally in creation, and I’ve known a couple – as opposed to believing the creation myth contains truths in the sense a story can contain morals. But I don’t believe religious faith and science are incompatible. Where it gets interesting is in the disagreements over whether choices should be based on evidence based knowledge or faith based belief and in the end that’s where personal choice comes in. In the meantime, by keeping asking those (often difficult and challenging) questions, we can make that choice as informed as possible and promote scientific literacy. As Stephen Fry said to those graduates…
“It’s up to us, those of us who believe passionately in the idea truth and seeking for truth and being humble in the face of facts – which is my definition of science… must always go on question and asking questions and never claiming that they know.”