Monday, February 20, 2012

Shooting the Messenger


Last December I watched a BBC round table talk with the 2011 Nobel Prize winners or science. One of the subjects they addressed was the 45% of the American public that is reported to be skeptical about Darwin's theory of evolution. The only real conclusion that the scientists could draw was that those people were not, apparently, happy with the results that science came up with. The scientists also compared the rejection of evolution with the reception of Climate Change - that some people, when confronted with unpleasant conclusions, will reject the methods that led to those conclusions, and shoot the messenger.

Religious people reject evolution and politicians reject climate change, and reject the science that came up with the information. In a powerful way, I think this demonstrates the rectitude of science, since its conclusions are not always universally gratifying. Scientists are not in the business of always telling humanity what it wants to hear.

The Nobel scientists, all men and most of them American, said that the politicians who claim to share this skepticism of their findings are merely pandering to the ignoramuses in America, and that if they were in the same room with them, with no reporters or cameras present, would admit to an acceptance of evolution and climate change.

But a common cause of complaint among the scientists was the treatment of scientific discovery by the media; that the media, which is in the business of selling airtime to advertisers, is not always in the service of the truth - or, in this case, of the facts.

Since their creation, cable television channels like The History Channel, National Geographic Channel and The Discovery Channel have featured programs devoted to pseudo-science - subjects that belong to fantasy fiction, tabloid journalism, or comic books: UFOs, extra-terrestrial visitors to earth, conspiracy theories, ghosts. The number of programs devoted to the 16th-century French author of prophesies Nostradamus alone could justify the creation of a Nostradamus Channel.

Skepticism on these subjects is sometimes introduced to the programs - contrary opinions are occasionally presented. But they are usually overruled, and the cumulative effect of the content is to verify the existence of flying saucers, zombies, and the clairvoyance of Nostradamus.

These programs have no basis in fact whatever, yet they are presented as fact. Rather than legitimize their subjects, the programs undermine the credibility of the networks that present them. Carl Sagan summed up the only possible attitude to such subjects: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." The evidence used to support things like the Lock Ness Monster and Big Foot is utterly insupportable.

I think that the real reason why so many Americans are prepared to believe in such nonsense is due to the powerful anti-intellectual streak in American culture, that mistrusts expertise and is suspicious of rationality. When these TV networks produce programs about alien visitors to earth, they are doing more than simply pandering to ignoramuses. They are also giving credence to their cretinism.

I am certain that the people who produce these programs are doubtful of the existence of the phenomena they examine. They are worse than the politicians who advocate the teaching of "intelligent design" in public schools, simply because they are the ones teaching it.

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