It is easy to take for granted that no matter how much we tolerate irrationality, truth will prevail and sanity will win out in the end. The history of civilizations does not bear out this optimism. Without constant vigilance and a willingness to speak out against nonsense, we will be the next major civilization phased out in favor of one more in tune with reality.
For example, it never ceases to amaze me that, of the topics I write about, the one that consistently generates the most reader mail is homeopathy. Very little of it is on my side.
For those not familiar with homeopathy, it is a system based on the idea that if you take a substance that causes a certain problem and dilute it to a preposterous degree, the resulting solution will cure that same problem. For example, if tree pollen causes you to sneeze, a homeopath will take some tree pollen and dilute it so many times that not a single atom of the pollen is left, just plain water. They will then sell you sell this plain water, which contains not a single atom of tree pollen, nor anything else but plain water, as a cure for your sneezing. The great thing is that, thanks to an obscure exception written into consumer protection laws, they get to list the original substance on the label, even though the bottle contains none of it; this really helps with the profit margin. (You might think I'm kidding, but this is seriously the way homeopathy works, and no one denies it. The only thing a professional homeopath would correct about my description is to say that sometimes they dilute with alcohol instead of water, and that you have to do the dilution the right way: Dilute 10-to-1, then knock the bottle on the table, then dilute 10-to-1 again, knock on the table, and repeat, typically between 30 and 50 times, for an overall dilution of 10 to the 30th or 50th power.)
So what I write about homeopathy is, of course, that it's preposterous, nonsensical, and an outright consumer fraud. And this, I am always amazed to see, is controversial. This very blog post will no doubt result in emails telling me I should be more open-minded.
The most serious consequences of belief in homeopathy are largely constrained to the hardcore participants in the delusion, those who use it on serious conditions for which effective treatments exist. These people often suffer needlessly from easily cured problems.
The tragic exceptions are helpless children and pets (yes, pets!) killed, maimed, or tortured to death by their parents' pathological reliance on magical thinking. And homeopathy is just one example of the pervasive and deadly irrationality we've come to accept.
But enumerating the world's many follies is not the job of this humble blog post. My purpose in trashing homeopathy is only to provide a brief demonstration of something that I think is very important. To wit, that people who believe in truth and reason must speak out, and they must be clear and direct. No waffling, no willingness to treat what you know is complete bunk as if it were a respectable alternative viewpoint. In short, no shying away from speaking truth to ignorance.
There is an excellent biography of Al Shanker, the great and controversial teacher-activist, entitled Tough Liberal. It's a marvelous title, because in two words it defines both the man and the malaise of wimpiness that so often afflicts intellectuals and liberals. Shanker is held up as an example of that rarest of birds, a political liberal who could roll with the toughest New York politicians or union thugs and make them look like pansies.
What we need now is a whole generation of Shanker-grade tough guys on the side of science, reason, and all the other things normally advocated by wimps like me.
I don't know why science, the most powerful force on the planet, the discipline that has given us everything from penicillin to the atom bomb to the television that makes every celebrity who they are, has such a hard time defending itself against loudmouthed blowhards who couldn't explain how the microphones they blather into work if their lives depended on it.
But there you have it. With a few shining exceptions, science tends to be advocated by people filled with self-doubt, equivocation, and the common decency to let their opponents speak their piece. These would normally be good things, and maybe some day we can return to talking about truth calmly, but for right now, calm, so far as I can tell, doesn't work. It certainly doesn't work in the popular media where electoral decisions are made.
I've written two books about science for a popular audience (and for the past six years a column for the aptly named Popular Science magazine). Their tone is far less strident than this exaggerated and perhaps over-the-top blog post, but I have made a point of trying not to back off on things like, for example, homeopathy. It's taken time to overcome my natural tendency to be a ninny, but every time the world doesn't end when I get a critical email from someone who is wrong, I grow a little.
Consider this a call to action for all those who stand for truth, justice, and the right of reasonable people to live free from stupid. Don't be cruel to people who don't deserve it, and make absolutely sure you have your facts straight. But don't back down. Tell the truth even if you know some people, even a lot of people, will try to knock you down for it.
You don't have to read much history to realize that things can get very bad very fast when the good citizens choose to remain silent in the face of a belligerent, thuggish minority. So speak up, because lives depend on it, including yours.
In tomorrow's post, I will revert to my normal civil tone and talk about how art and science can work together to create something larger than either alone.
It's only because homeopathy is a fraud that a remedy like this can be sold legally. Possession of any quantity of plutonium is illegal, but that's not a problem for homeopathic plutonium, because "homeopathic" means "there's none of it in there".