Friday, September 12, 2008

A taxonomy of believers and unbelievers

Hilary Mantel wrote a great book review in the London Review of Books earlier this year. She's a great writer, and this article really perfectly articulates some of my feelings on today's great culture wars between believers and unbelievers. As she makes clear, there are both credulous fools and dogmatic fundamentalists in the camp of "rationality" - although they tend not to have the murderous power of the credulous fools and dogmatic fundamentalists in the ranks of the religious.

Similar pathologies of incredulity and dogmatic forms of skepticism also fuel the cultic movements around 9/11 Truth, the New World Order, the Israel Lobby and other modern myths. And, of course, the internet, with its extraordinary ability to circulate lies, has fuelled these pathologies.

Most recently, we have seen these phenomena attached to the figure of Sarah Palin, who the internet rumour circulation machine has wrongly branded as a Creationist and a book-banner - lies generated by dogmatic "rationalists" and swallowed by the incredulous faithful in their camp. (Much as even more far-fetched untruths have been circulated about Obama's secret Islamic identity, for example, by the dogmatists in the other camp.)

Anyway, here are the bits I liked the best:

It’s the people cringing from their scientific illiteracy who buy Stephen Hawking books they can’t read, as if having them on the shelf will make the knowledge rub off; they snap up tracts on atheism, too, to show that if they’re ignorant they’re at least rational.
[...]
A third category, ‘mystery-mongers’, are ‘fundamentally unscientific’. They don’t really want explanations. What they are sceptical about is the scientific consensus. Broadly, they are out for fun, at the expense of the establishment; but perhaps we should put in this category those who get little pleasure and much pain from paranoid ideas about how the world works: simmering psychosis finds a ready vocabulary in pseudoscience. Among the most angry, hostile and sceptical people of all are those who are about to divorce from the general consensus of how the world works, because they are convinced that a big secret about the cosmos is being kept from them by a conspiracy among their friends.

Then there is another category, the large and familiar category of ‘scoffers’. Scoffers begin by assuming that anomalous phenomena are invalid. They are mentally rigid and doctrinaire, and insist that science – that wilting flower – is under threat from those who are not as good as they are at critical thinking. Though commonly elitist in their assumptions, they present themselves as stout defenders of the public interest, standing between the great unwashed and the army of charlatans out to make fools of them. They idealise scientific procedures and what they take to be the scientific mindset, claiming that scientists are pure because they work from a position of ignorance to a position of knowledge; really, of course, they work from a position of expectation. The crudity of public discourse means that the mystery-mongers and the scoffers get all the attention.
[...]
The internet has so vastly increased the potency of urban legends, so quickened the circulation of rumours, that we may soon be the most deluded generation ever born. It seems strange that some scientists are so angry with the sacred books of old-time religions, when so many challenges to rationality are generated by half-understood, miscommunicated information, much of it masquerading as science, available online and in the press.
[...]
it’s debatable which set of people do more damage in society – the credulous, or the dogmatic. The worst case is that they get together: keen believers enthralled by doctrinaire fanatics.

2 comments:

NeoConstant said...

BobFromBrockley,

Great post. The modern myths are fascinating to watch in all their gruesome paranoia. What a great leveler the internet has been. While more mini-cults and conspiracies are able to grow, no one can seem to dominate.

Would Jesus or Mohammad have had any luck in an internet age? I doubt it. But they likely would have had very well read blogs...

bob said...

I can imagine Mohammed as a blogger, but I somehow can't imagine Jesus as one!