Tuesday, November 17, 2009

U.S.A. Against Africa

My real job consists of trying to disabuse people of unscientific beliefs, but as the hostess of the New York City Skeptics event I attended this past Saturday noted, the broader purpose of the skeptical movement is to encourage critical thinking in general, rather than just dividing the world into establishment science voices (including many government agencies one shouldn’t always trust) and blatantly nonsensical voices, such as people claiming to “channel” unseen space aliens who give tips on world peace and business success.

There’s nothing I would love more than to teach people to apply reason and basic standards of evidence across the board, instead of just touting a favored checklist of legitimate claims.  Unfortunately, I constantly butt heads with people who can’t be expected to be consistent and intellectually rigorous about this because they don’t really think that holding groundless, superstitious beliefs is a harmful habit (as though we can just flip a light switch and restore people’s rationality the moment they “go too far” and do something blatantly harmful based on faith or fancy, such as abandoning cancer care, even after they’ve been trained their whole lives to adhere to unproven beliefs, indeed to love such beliefs).  I also encounter people, usually more left-leaning, who think that so-called Western forms of rationality (science, mainstream medicine, economics, etc.) ought not to be touted above rival modes of thought from around the developing world, as that would be narrow-minded, chauvinistic, and imperialist.

But every time I encounter people in either of these camps, I remember what a horrible, nightmarish, superstitious continent Africa remains.

I recommend all the people described above who take scientific thinking and rationalism for granted — whether right-leaning faith-fans, left-leaning cultural relativists, or just New Age paranormal I-wanna-believe types who think groundless beliefs are all in good fun — read carefully this article about a woman in Tanzania listening as her daughter’s legs were hacked off because the girl was an albino, and witch doctors to this day love to make good luck potions out of albinos on the otherwise dark continent.

Even a few of the more left-leaning libertarians I know, who ought to be hypersensitive to instances of murder and assault, have half-defended some of today’s more barbarous cultures in private e-mails to me, pointing out, for instance, that the West burned witches centuries ago, just as some parts of Africa occasionally do today.  There is a difference, though: about four hundred years of scientific progress.  Failure to celebrate that difference does not in any way honor our culture’s greatest achievements or aid the victims of other culture’s ongoing shortcomings, which we can only hope will not long endure.

1 comment:

Gerard said...

I really want to field a pro-cannibalism slate of candidates for election one of these days.

The Lighter Side Of Cannibalism