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The real reason for ignorance

25 January 2015

Ages ago (almost five years now, goodness me), I wrote a post on why religious people are less intelligent. Even though aware that it was a controversial subject, I wanted to explore the matter since there were some statistics supporting this view and I was genuinely curious as to the possible cause of it.

At the time, it was a mere folly, a purely academic thought experiment. But lately the issue with religiosity and stupidity has taken on a more sinister tone. The recent debate on what’s science and what should be taught in schools – especially in the US – has made me want to revisit this subject.

This is hence a continuation post.

What is science?

Science is knowledge. It’s what we’ve collectively learned though studies and experiments. And even though the results of scientific research might sometimes feel like magic (“How can we even know that?”) it is always – without exceptions – based on testable hypotheses. This means that if I make a claim that pigs can fly, anyone with the means can test that claim by dropping pigs from an elevated position and check if they indeed take to the air. (Don’t, though.) Which makes it science.

“Wheeeeeee!”

“Wheeeeeee!”

If, on the other hand, I claim that an invisible all-together powerful being could make pigs fly as a miracle – but only if it felt like it – it doesn’t make the claim testable. How could we test if that was true? We can’t possibly know what the whims of said invisible being are, if it indeed existed, and therefore cannot test if it could make pigs fly by miraculous powers. Which makes it not science but personal/religious belief.

Here it might be good to make the point that even though all scientific claims are testable, some are only testable in theory and not in practice. For instance, Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity (that matter bends space and therefore also light) was not practically testable until a few years after its conception, when a solar eclipse studied by Arthur Eddington in 1919 made it possible to measure the apparent position of stars close to the edge of the sun. As predicted by Einstein’s theory, they moved slightly closer to the sun’s surface as it passed in front of them, confirming that the matter of the sun had bent the space around it, causing the light from the stars to distort and make them look like they moved. If they hadn’t, it would have disproved the theory. This experiment convinced a large number of physicists that the theory of general relativity must be correct. The point here is that until we can either confirm or disprove something, it stays in the realm of ideas and hypotheses and won’t usually be widely accepted as a scientific fact (i.e. a theory).

The actual photograph that confirmed Einstein's theory of general relativity, taken by Eddington in 1919.

The actual photograph that confirmed Einstein’s theory of general relativity, taken by Eddington in 1919.

So, although science is knowledge, it’s not perfect, finished or complete. We’ve asked questions about phenomenons and come up with explanations that seem to answer those questions. But those explanations might later be revised and potentially replaced with better ones, that explain the phenomenon in more detail or on several new levels.

And what’s not 

By the same method we can then confidently state what’s not science. To refer to the debate hinted to in the introduction (as to whether evolution or creationism – or both – should be taught in schools), we can now say that whilst evolution is a scientific theory that makes testable claims and predictions*, creationism is not. Rather, it states that everything we see around us is down to the obscure goals and whims of an untouchable and invisible magical creator, which essentially means that we can’t know anything about anything. This makes all the claims made by creationism un-testable and therefore it’s not science. If creationism is to be taught in schools, it should certainly not be done so as a science and definitely not as an alternative to a widely accepted scientific theory. (In fact, if we want some competition for the current theory of evolution through natural selection, we should choose some other scientific theory, like Lamarckian evolution.)

It might look like science, but it's just a trick to fool the kids.

It might look like science, but it’s just a trick to fool the kids.

Scientific progress is a measurement of our collective level of knowledge of the world around us. Religious belief, on the other hand, is – well… a belief. It’s what a person choose to believe to be true, not from any conclusive tests or analysing facts and data, but from personal conviction. The two have very different purposes and can’t be compared and shouldn’t be mixed.

Dissonance

So, with this background check on what’s knowledge and what’s belief all over with, why do people choose to not accept facts supported by overwhelming and convincing evidence? Is it stupidity, ignorance or something else entirely?

Looking back at the issue with teaching science in schools, it seems that it not all sciences that are deemed evil. Chemistry is fine. Maths is great. Physics is just dandy, as long as we stay away from that worrying cosmology stuff. And biology would be a perfect example of god’s amazing work, had we not contaminated it with that horrible evolutionary thinking.

That warm glowing feeling of knowing that someone cares.

That warm glowing feeling of knowing that someone cares.

You might notice a pattern here: science is fine, unless it threatens our sense of self-worth and importance. Religions tend to focus on making the horrible and scary understandable and safe. It makes us feel loved and important, regardless of what life throws at us.

And this must be why the concept of evolution and cosmology are so threatening. They promote the notion that not only are we not that important as individuals, but we’re not even automatically the most important species on the planet. And our planet is but one out of billions upon billions of other planets in our galaxy. And there are billions upon billions of galaxies in our universe. That sure is a proper mental take-down.

It's all relative.

It’s all relative.

Could it then be, that religious people aren’t actually inherently less intelligent, but merely not thinking enough? That, if you have religious inclinations, you feel uncomfortable using the analytic parts of your brain? After all, analysing things could well result in troublesome realisations and end up with some very uncomfortable cognitive dissonance.

Religious freedom

One of the main arguments for teaching religious beliefs as science in schools is the concept of religious freedom. It states that anyone is entitled to believe in what they want, and since it’s got the word ‘freedom’ in it, it must be a good thing. It would allow me to believe that we’re all ghosts, living our fake lives in an unreal world made from wishes and regrets from a different set of creatures all together (who all live in a REAL real world). And that whatever we do in this life doesn’t matter, because it’s not real. So if I inadvertently run someone over, it’s no big deal. Those people weren’t really real anyway. In fact, I could go on a killing spree and it wouldn’t make any difference at all. All that matters is what happens in that other REAL real world.

And suddenly there’s a problem. Once I let my personal religious beliefs affect those around me, I actually use my religious freedom to take away their freedom. Surely that’s not what we mean by wanting everyone be free to believe what they want?

Suddenly, that warm glowing feeling is gone.

Suddenly, that warm glowing feeling is gone.

Here we can of course add all forms of religious fundamentalism (be it Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh or whatever you want): people who believe exactly what their holy scriptures say and violently act in accordance to that. But I believe the problem is deeper than that. By letting our personal religious beliefs affect not only ourselves but the people around us, we create a society not only of ignorance but of prejudice and unacceptance as well.

Curiosity is key

To summarise: I have no problem with religion in itself, if it’s used as a personal way of coping with the – sometimes horrible – conditions of daily life. We can all do with a little comfort now and again and whatever mental coping mechanisms we deploy to feel a little better (as long as it’s not hurting anyone else) is ok in my book.

What I do have a problem with is when people use religion as a method of limiting personal freedom and curiosity. That makes me sad. And when I think about children being brought up in such an environment, I get angry. To me, that’s equal to chaining up a child in a cellar and only feeding it through a slot in the door. It beggars belief how anyone would want to systematically punish inquisitive behaviours in order to end up with a child with no inclination to ask any questions. Those children will grow up believing that you can’t know anything about anything and so there’s no point in asking…

Good job on the unknowledge test!

Good job on the unknowledge test!

We should instead embrace our analytical powers. Celebrate curiosity. Ask questions. Look things up. Form opinions. Agree or disagree. We have an amazingly powerful brain between our ears that can solve incredibly complex problems. Not using it should be the only sin.

And if our children ask us a question we can’t answer, instead of just telling them some nonsense** to shut them up, let’s try to find the answer together. If we can’t find one or if we don’t understand it, we should be honest about it. We should not shut down attempts to learn. Keep them curious and thirsty for knowledge.

After all, we sure are going to need curious people…

 

* Testable claims by our modern theory of evolution are legion and I cannot list them all, but will mention a couple: 1) We predict that organisms with high complexity will occur later in the timeline of Earth’s history and that less complex organisms will occur earlier. This has been uniformly confirmed by palaeontological studies. There are no elephants to be found in the Precambrian eon, for instance. 2) We predict that there should be “middle forms” between two species, or groups of species, if evidence suggest that they are related. Again, this has been confirmed numerous times, both in the case of the lineage of the horse and in the relationship between birds and reptiles, and fish and amphibians. Over all, not a single piece of evidence has ever been discovered that contradicts or falsify the theory of evolution.

** Christianity: the belief that you can live forever by symbolically eating the flesh of a cosmic zombie, who is his own father, and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master so that he can remove an evil force from your soul which exists because some rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Andrew Lawrence permalink
    25 January 2015 15:59

    I have a theory that whenever there is a shift in the zeitgeist about something, in this case the move towards secularism, as the zeitgeist move more to the left of centre, the outliers remaining on the heavy right of centre become increasingly critical and resistant to the movement. an increase in the public awareness of the dichotomy indicates that a change is occurring. if the movement is successful, resistance builds and builds in it’s ferocity until it can no longer fight off the movement, at which point it is rather like a dam bursting, and the outliers are drowned in the torrent. when the dust settles the new position of the zeitgeist will be accepted as the new centre, and outliers will be found on both sides of the centre, at normal statistical frequencies but will only become noticed by the public if the zeitgeist begins to shift again.

    Applying that to this situation, i think that the current efforts to get creationism off the ground, or anti science in the classrooms, is an effort by the religious outliers, who have been galvanized into action by the shifting of the zeitgeist to that of a more secular civilization. it’s a desperate attempt to protect their world view from change, and stem the tide, or put their finger in the hole-in-the-dam that is science and scientific discovery.

    I for one look forward to the bursting of this dam.

    Like

    • 25 January 2015 16:16

      Yes, that would indeed be a favourable outcome. And perhaps that’s what actually happening now. But another, more social-economical explanation would be that poverty promotes belief in paranormal phenomena. According to that theory, the people below the poverty line – or at least with limited probability of social success – would be inclined to lean towards an all-mighty father-figure, who will make sure everything will be alright in the end (if not in this life, at least in the next). If that’s the situation, the only way to get away from religious anti-knowledge sentiments would be to eradicate poverty by introducing social welfare systems. We can see the effect of just those kind of systems in Scandinavia, where poverty is more or less completely gone. As a result, Scandinavia is now one of the most secular regions in the world.

      Like

  2. 26 January 2015 07:51

    I have things to say but my brain’s scattery and I know if I don’t comment I will UTTERLY forget to in the future, because let’s be honest, my brain’s always scattery.

    I think my belief in something – without the need to put a name on it – and just trying as hard as I can to be kind (to others, and, I have learned more recently, to myself) gets me through…and if that’s religion, so be it, and if that’s just whatever I need to keep my head up in a world that seems to be increasingly going off the rails…well, I’ll take it.

    I also very much think that there’s nothing more dangerous than doing something hateful because you think God (Allah, Yahweh, Flying Spaghetti Monster, what have you) wants you to do so. I have to wonder if those people have actually read – and actually understood – the text they’re supposedly representing. For example: sure, there are a couple of places in the Bible saying homosexuality is immoral…but I’m pretty sure there are quite a few *more* saying things such as “love your neighbor” and “whatever you do to the least of my people, that you do unto me” and “judge not, lest ye be judged” and “let he among you without sin cast the first stone.” And that’s where stupidity and stubbornness come in, in my opinion – “I am afraid of TEH EVIL GAYZ! How can I be bigoted against them without looking like an ass? I KNOW! I WILL SAY THE BIBLE TOLD ME TO DO SO!”

    For someone with a scattery brain, I am ranting. Good post, Science Fellow.

    Like

    • 26 January 2015 08:27

      Thank you!

      Yes, that’s precisely my point: if one use personal beliefs (religious or otherwise) to be a better human being and help oneself through the rigmarole of daily life, then that’s a Good Thing.

      It’s not until, as you mentioned, we start to allow ourselves to harm those around us that beliefs become dangerous. And it more than just gunning down innocent people or blow them up. It’s on a more mundane level; in intolerance, ignorance and personal persecution.

      The main problem with organised religion is that it’s not terribly well organised. And more often than not based on obscure translated-to-death-and-back texts that are ripe for misinterpretation. So if people feel inclined to believe something specific, they will find support for their view in their holy scriptures somewhere.

      Like

  3. 26 January 2015 10:49

    It’s sad to think it’s taken 2,000 years to get to the point where we realise that we can ask the questions and there are answers outstanding.

    Like

    • 26 January 2015 19:41

      Well, some of us anyway. It seems as if this post has caused a few hurt feelings. I got drawn into some Facebook flame-war with someone who wants to believe humans lived next to dinosaurs, evolution can’t be a scientific theory and that Einstein was wrong about this whole relativity nonsense.

      Finally – results! 🙂

      Like

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