Humanist Perspectives: issue 154: Ways of Knowing

Ways of Knowing
by Bill Broderick

Part One

Scientism is a term that is used by some people to describe what they consider an ‘excessive’ adherence to scientific principles or methodology. It implies making a fetish of science and an attitude similar to that of religious fundamentalism. It has become fashionable in some quarters to point out that there are “other ways of knowing, you know!”

Surprisingly (to me), some humanists have even told me that. I find it surprising because one of the statements in the Declaration of Humanist Principles is that humanists “advocate the use of the scientific method, both as a guide to distinguish fact from fiction and to help develop beneficial and creative uses of science and technology.”

Actually, what other ways of knowing are there? We come into knowledge in three ways:

  1. we are taught the things we should know by our parents, teachers and other authorities;
  2. we receive information from other people by word of mouth, through books and the internet;
  3. we find out for ourselves. Unfortunately for our parents, teachers and other people, they are very often not authorities at all. Also, being human, they are all subject to error.

Science is basically a very systematic way of finding out things about the world or nature for ourselves. Most scientists are very curious. They want to know. Like most other people, they have questions they would like to know the answers to. Unlike most other people, they take the trouble to become very disciplined in searching for answers and questioning carefully every fact or thing that seems to relate to those answers.

While most people like to ask questions, they are usually too intellectually lazy to do the actual work of going out and finding the answers. They prefer to get their answers handed to them ready-formulated. They don’t want to wait years while somebody goes away to try and find an answer. They are impatient with answers that are slow in coming. As a consequence, a lot of the things that people think they know are just plain wrong.

To take just one example, survey after survey on science literacy has shown that many people believe the reason for the seasons is that the Earth is further away from the Sun in winter and closer to the Sun in summer. Actually, distance has little to do with it. The Earth has seasons because it is tilted on its axis relative to the plane of its orbit, which means that, alternately, first one hemisphere is directed sunward, then the other. When tilted in the direction of the Sun, a hemisphere receives more direct light and heat and so experiences summer; six months later when it’s directed away from the Sun, it experiences winter.

Besides not knowing why we have seasons, many people don’t know the difference between an atom and a molecule, a rock and a mineral, or what DNA is. Also, too many of us think genes are something we wear.

When people don’t have any good idea how the world works, they easily fall for ideas that sound logical but aren’t, such as creationism as opposed to evolution. Two surveys at York University found that fully 50% of astronomy and physics students believed in astrology. Belief in such subjects as mind-power, magnetic healing and various forms of pseudoscience, superstition, cults and religions are rife in modern society. In fact, some of the most powerful money-making rackets in the world are based on the propensity of human beings to believe the most patent nonsense and outright lies of charlatans and frauds.

The consensus is shakier in the social sciences; still shakier in the humanities; and in matters such as mystical Eastern cults … there is no consensus at all.

Isaac Asimov, one of the most prolific science writers of the 20th century, once wrote that “…the vast majority of the human race would rather be told that ‘Two and two is five and make no mistake about it,’ than ‘I think it is possible that two and two may be four.’” In the same essay, he expounded on how easy it is to seem bright in certain matters as opposed to actually being bright: “It is easier,” he wrote, “to sound bright in some subjects than in others. It is, for instance, just about impossible to sound bright in mathematics or the physical sciences without actually being bright. The facts, observations and theories are just too well established. There is a firm consensus and you have to know a great deal about that consensus before you can sound bright, and for that you have to be bright.

“The consensus is shakier in the social sciences; still shakier in the humanities; and in matters such as mystical Eastern cults … there is no consensus at all.

“Someone who spouts nonsense in chemistry will be caught at once by any high-school student who knows something about chemistry. Someone who spouts nonsensical literary criticism, however, can be spotted only with difficulty. Indeed, what are the criteria for nonsense in literary criticism? Do you know? Does anyone?

“As for mysticism, hah! Your bluff in this field cannot possibly be called. Make up a chant such as: Toilet tissue, Toilet tissue, Toilet, Toilet, Tissue, Tissue. Tell everybody that this chant repeated 666 times (the number of the beast) will induce inner serenity and cosmic consciousness and you will be believed. Why not? It sounds no worse than anything else in mysticism and you will become a highly respected swami.”

Michel Gauquelin, a French psychologist, once gave 150 people a ten-page astrological profile of a man who had been executed as a mass murderer. He told them that the horoscope applied to them and asked for their evaluation of its accuracy. Ninety-four percent felt that it accurately described their characters, personal problems and cycles of events in their lives. Needless to say, the innocuous and quite generalized horoscope gave no hint of the man’s true nature or what he would do.

The ‘Barnum Effect’ is named after the circus entrepreneur PT Barnum who used to advertise “I have a little something for everyone.” Briefly stated, it’s simply the tendency of people to take a string of generalities from a fortune teller or similar charlatan that sound somewhat complimentary and which might apply to anybody and apply it to themselves without any critical examination of what is said. It’s a technique that is much used by stage mentalists, astrologers, palm readers, mediums, psychics and others.

Volumes can be and have been written about what science is and isn’t. It is not only the study of particular subjects (i.e., astronomy, chemistry, physics, medicine), it is also the accumulated body of knowledge and theories that have been built up about these subjects. As well, there is applied science and research science. In medicine, for example, some doctors are engaged in treating disease and ill health (that is, applying what is known to the treatment of disease) while others are doing research to try and find more effective treatments or cures for various diseases.

Most of the sciences have developed their own methodologies or procedures, but basically the scientific method is as follows:

  1. Observe
  2. Formulate one or more general hypotheses or explanations to explain what is observed
  3. Postulate what must also be true if a hypothesis is true
  4. Perform a test or experiment to see if any of those things are true.

If a hypothesis appears to be borne out by the results of an experiment, it is possible that the hypothesis is true. That is not the end of the story, however. The experimenter is obliged to publish his or her work so that other scientists working in the field can confirm if the results are valid or not, and also what the results mean. If a hypothesis stands up to confirmation, it may be elevated to the status of a theory. In science, when we speak of the ‘theory of something or other,’ what we are saying is that this was a pretty darn good hypothesis. Theories like Darwin’s theory of evolution and Einstein’s special and general relativity theories have withstood the tests of thousands of researchers and found to be sound.

Science is concerned basically with things that can be observed, probed, measured; that is, with physical things. It is empirical, able to be demonstrated. Science cannot tell us anything about God, spirits, life after death or non-physical realms of existence. There are scientists who believe in such things, but they don’t know anything more about them than anyone else does. So far, no way has been found to demonstrate their existence, so they are not empirical.

Science possesses a certain consistency. What is true in one branch of science does not contradict anything that is true in any other branch of science and often even sheds some light on things in other sciences. If something were found to contradict, that would be grounds for giving it a hard second look. As well, something that is found to be true in one branch of science often has applications in other branches of science.

Contrast this consistency of fact with what we find in the pseudosciences, where nothing has any application or relevance to any other branch of pseudoscience. Astrology sheds no light on palmistry or vice versa. Phrenology tells us nothing about the akashic records or whether our next incarnation will be happy or miserable. Homeopathy has nothing to say about crystal power or therapeutic touch. Card- or tea-leaf reading is useless for understanding our chakras.

In other words, science has practical applications, pseudoscience does not. Astrologers even disagree as to the best way to set up a horoscope. Indian and Chinese astrology differ from each other and from Occidental astrology. When it comes to health, should we practice Fen Shui, have our auras balanced, go to a chiropractor, visit a naturopath, take homeopathic remedies, or go to a therapeutic touch practitioner, an acupuncturist, or maybe a herbalist? Who knows? You pay your money and take your chances.

During the last two hundred years, in the developed parts of the world, science has increased human longevity from three or four decades to seven or eight on average. It has increased the average person’s quality of life tremendously. Through vaccination, a product of modern science, we have all but eliminated childhood diseases like diphtheria, measles, whooping cough and polio, which prior to the 1950s killed children in epidemic proportions or maimed or marked them for life. The revolutions in transportation and communication during this period have transformed the lives of people around the world. And to top it all off, the vast increase in human knowledge and understanding of the world we live in and the amazing universe we inhabit is awe-inspiring in its own right.

Contrast all of the foregoing with the last 150 years of psychic research, which so far has failed to give us any kind of benefit. We don’t even have reliable evidence that psychic phenomena even exist. There are plenty of cases of researchers who have convinced themselves that it does but their evidence has failed to convince mainstream science. We have plenty of cases of convinced clients of psychics, mediums and astrologers who feel that their ‘reading’ describes them perfectly. But how many of these worthies have used their vaunted abilities to forewarn people of natural or other disasters, such as the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami or 9/11 or the Oklahoma City bombing, the Hindenburg crash, the sinking of the Titanic, or any number of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods and typhoons? How many missing people have the psychics succeeded in finding? Many offer their services, so many in fact that they make a nuisance of themselves to police services across America, but no missing people are ever located that way.

Part Two

Science depends for its success on uncompromising honesty. Even scientists sometimes fall into the trap of self-deception, of wanting something to be true to the point where they ignore disconfirming evidence. If it’s difficult for trained scientists, think how much more difficult it is for the rest of us.

Shortly after the end of the war in Europe, I read an article in one of the Toronto newspapers about a man who claimed he could zap clouds out of the sky. He had put on a public demonstration that the reporter attended and sure enough, he made clouds disappear before the eyes of the assembled crowd. The reporter was impressed.

Being a young impressionable teenager at the time, I thought that was pretty neat. I wondered if I could do it too. I chose a day when there were lots of nice white, fluffy, fair-weather clouds around and went to work. The technique was to fix one’s gaze on a cloud and will it to disappear. I picked out a rather small one, gave it my best eagle-eyed stare, and sure enough, within just a few seconds, I could see that it was thinning. Within three minutes that cloud was history.

“Wow! I thought, this is pretty powerful stuff.” I turned my attention to another. Five minutes later it was gone. And so it went, cloud after cloud. After awhile, I wondered what would happen if I just picked out a cloud and, without looking at it, willed it to disappear. I tried that too. It worked just as well. In fact, it began to sink in that maybe my ‘willing’ had nothing to do with what was happening. I made mental note of the clouds and their positions, even drew a rough sketch, then went into the house for a few minutes. When I came back out, the chosen cloud was gone. And others too. Clouds of the type I thought I was zapping, I concluded, are very short-lived phenomena and don’t last more than a few minutes.

Children can do science too. A nine-year old Loveland, Colorado, schoolgirl, Emily Rosa, designed and carried out an experiment to test the abilities of therapeutic touch practitioners. A total of 21 practitioners were tested during two separate occasions in 1996 and 97, the object being to see if the practitioners could detect Emily’s ‘energy field.’ The set-up was simplicity itself; the practitioners seated themselves at a table and put their hands, palms up, through two holes in the bottom of a cardboard screen. Their arms were covered with a towel so they couldn’t peek. Then, sitting behind the screen, Emily put one of her hands over one of the practitioner’s hands, which one being determined by a coin toss, and the practitioner had to say which hand Emily had covered. Out of 280 trials, they were correct only 122 times, less than chance.

Needless to say, Emily concluded that they could not detect her energy field. Since detection and manipulation of a patient’s energy field is what therapeutic touch is all about, it seems reasonable to concluded that it probably is not effective. The experiment and its results were published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), April 1, 1997. Anticipating criticism, which wasn’t long in coming, then JAMA editor George Lundberg stated, “Age doesn’t matter. All we care about is good science. This was good science.”

It should come as no surprise that Emily’s TT practitioners couldn’t detect her energy field; there’s a very high probability that she doesn’t have one. Neither does anyone else. At least, such a field has never been detected by the methods of modern science and technology.

On November 8, 1996, another test was conducted, this one for the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). The Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking (PhACT) tested a California woman for her ability to detect the human energy field. Two subjects were used, a healthy man and an arthritic woman. Also, two different tests were conducted, one an open test where the TT practitioner was able to see the subjects, and a second one where she could not. In the open test, she was correct 20 out of 20 times. In the closed test, she was correct 11 out of 20 times, a purely chance result.

Why, then, do TT practitioners think the human energy field exists?

The answer is simple enough: they’ve been taught that it does. TT’s inventors, Dolores Krieger, R.N., PhD. and Dora Kuntz, were both involved in Theosophy, which is itself saturated with Eastern mystical religious beliefs and healing systems. Chi, the so-called ‘vital life force,’ is an important component of such belief systems and is found in acupuncture as well. It’s the old story of unquestioning reliance on authority that ruled the intellectual world for thousands of years until the development of modern science.

Another system where belief in authority is very strong is homeopathy. Homeopathic treatment is founded on the notion that ‘like cures like;’ that is, that something that makes us ill or does us harm in quantities that we can see, feel, taste and work with, can cure us when ingested in ridiculously dilute doses. Homeopathic remedies are so diluted that it is highly unlikely that a single molecule of the active ingredient will be present. Not to worry, though. The theory is that the water retains a ‘memory’ of the active ingredient and will therefore work its wonders. In fact, the more dilute the homeopathic solution, the more powerful and effective it is supposed to be.

One does not have to be a scientist to see the fallacy behind homeopathy. One only has to know that nothing else in nature is stronger for being weaker. Why, then, do homeopathic practitioners believe this outlandish idea? Answer: because their founder Dr Samuel Hahnemann (1755–1843) and their textbooks told them so.

Homeopathic remedies have been called the ‘world’s best placebos.’ Under tightly controlled, double-blinded, clinical testing conditions where patients don’t know whether they’re getting a placebo or the real thing, no difference has been detected in the response of people receiving the two treatments. Also, 85% of all human ailments are self-limiting; that is, they get better without any treatment at all. When our headache, backache, or whatever improves, it’s a common error to credit the treatment or medicine we just took rather than the natural healing system of our own body.

First: there are no sacred truths; all assumptions must be critically examined; arguments from authority are worthless.

Part of the attraction of occultism, mysticism, superstition, religion and magic is the ‘wow factor.’ Human beings are intrigued by mystery. But there is plenty of mystery in science too, and wonder and awe. Truth is always stranger or more wonderful than fiction. It takes not much more effort to study science than it takes to study pseudoscience. The payoff, however, is infinitely greater.

Carl Sagan, in his book Cosmos (1980), wrote: “There is no other species on Earth that does science. It is, so far, entirely a human invention, evolved by natural selection in the cerebral cortex for one simple reason: it works. It is not perfect. It can be misused. It is only a tool. But it is by far the best tool we have, self-correcting, on-going, applicable to everything. It has two rules. First: there are no sacred truths; all assumptions must be critically examined; arguments from authority are worthless. Second: whatever is inconsistent with the facts must be discarded or revised. We must understand the Cosmos as it is and not confuse how it is with how we wish it to be.”

That is the issue in a nutshell: understanding things as they are, not confusing them with how we wish them to be. Without that understanding, we are out of touch with nature and the world we live in and we are out of touch with what is possibly the greatest intellectual and philosophical revolution in the history of humankind.

There are consequences for our neglect of science. Besides practicing worthless procedures on uninformed people, the chiropractors, naturopaths, homeopaths, etc., often disseminate bad information. Parents are advised to subject their children to spinal manipulation for such things as ear infections, asthma and just plain maintenance of health, something that even some chiropractors have condemned along with many pediatricians. Even worse, parents are being advised that vaccination and flu shots are dangerous, that they contain formaldehyde, neurotoxins and other substances that can cause cancer or brain damage, that spinal adjustments and naturopathic medicines are much better for them. And worse still, that infectious diseases are good for them because they toughen the immune system.

As well, those who shunt science aside and place their reliance on the efficacy of prayer and faith in God also endanger themselves and their children. In the spring of 1999, the family of 13-year old Tyrell Dueck rejected conventional cancer treatment in favour of prayer and alternative medicine treatments at a clinic in Tijuana, Mexico. Tyrell came home after a two-week course of treatment, all smiles as he stepped off the plane. Three months later, at the end of June, he was dead.

Maybe he would still have died even with the conventional treatment. But doctors at the time held out hope that the treatment would probably be successful.

I don’t want to be unkind to people who genuinely and sincerely believe things that aren’t so, but I really do feel that life would be much better for all of us if we could get on a common wavelength based on reality rather than make believe. We have so many serious problems to solve and science will be the main means that we will use to solve those problems. In fact, for things like pollution, global warming, the continuing population explosion, the global food crisis, new sources of energy and replacements for fossil fuels, science is the only means that can help us. We are risking irreparable harm to the world we live in, to the other life-forms with which we share our planet, and of course to ourselves, because too many of us do not understand enough science to have a clue what we are doing. Witness the Walkerton, Ontario, tragedy of 2001 where the two people in charge of the town’s water supply didn’t even know that E.coli can be fatal.

Today’s intellectual climate disparages science and its accomplishments, and raises the very, very real danger that our institutions of higher learning may become infected with pseudoscience and false learning. York University, for example, was the scene of a seven-year attempt on the part of the Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College (CMCC) to buy its way into a merger, bringing with them $25 million. The merger had been strongly supported by York’s senate and administration. Over the years it was vigorously opposed only by a few members of York’s science faculty on the grounds that chiropractic was an unproven methodology with no formal clinical studies to back up its claims of efficacy (many people endorse chiropractic but personal testimony does not count as scientific evidence). When Atkinson College finally signified its opposition to the merger as well, the proposal was killed.

Elsewhere, many teaching hospitals have been conducting courses in a procedure called therapeutic touch (TT) for years. Schools of chiropractic, homeopathy, naturopathy, acupuncture, herbal medicine and other questionable practices, are finding ready homes. A college of astrology has even received accreditation in the USA. In both the USA and Canada, as well as other countries, even while health systems are seriously stressed for want of funds, governments are shelling out tax dollars by the billions to pay for what is euphemistically called complementary medical treatments and for the development of complementary medicine. Whatever happened to the old restrictions against practicing medicine without a license?

In an article York University Rejects Chiropractic College, published in The Ontario Skeptic (Summer 2001), with versions in Skeptical Inquirer (January–February 2002) and several other venues, Michael de Robertis, professor of physics and astronomy at York University, had this to say following the failed merger attempt by CMCC: “It is important to note that while this marks the end of the York chiropractic campaign, a much larger and more important battle lies ahead, a battle in which we are all called to participate. Can there be any doubt that cash-strapped, post-secondary institutions will be wooed in the near future by major alternative medicine colleges-homeopathic, naturopathic, acupuncture, holistic, shiatsu and chiropractic? ‘Have money, seek legitimacy. Are you for sale?’ And the moment the first university succumbs to this temptation, society will have taken a fork in the road that leads away from enlightenment.”

I believe that modern civilization is at a crossroads and that there are signs that it may be beginning to break down. After more than two hundred years of what we call the Enlightenment, we have attained a degree of freedom and democracy that has never before existed on Earth. Through the rise of irrationality, as represented by the religious right and every kind of pseudoscience and disdain for science, for facts and the integrity of our institutions of higher learning, we are undermining our concepts of democracy, of social justice, of law and the foundations of our human rights and freedoms. As humanists, we cannot let it happen.

British philosopher William K Clifford published an essay in 1877 entitled The Ethics of Belief in which he wrote what has come down to us as Clifford’s Dictum: “It is wrong always, everywhere and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

“It is wrong always, everywhere and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

In Skepticism and Animal Faith (1923) George Santayana gave us a similar thought: “Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer.” For far too long, we have allowed Hollywood, the media and the forces of superstition and ignorance, to shape our cultures and our attitudes. We humanists and rationalists can start by repudiating and rejecting for ourselves all forms of superstition and pseudoscience and by paying more than lip service to the one thing that makes us truly human: our ability to reason.

There are a very limited number of ways of really knowing. Apart from science, none of the ways discussed in this article can be considered even remotely reliable-unless you’re prepared to accept revelation, tradition, authority, fallible opinion, superstition and magic as pathways to knowledge.

Other ways of knowing, indeed!

Bill Broderick is a retired federal public servant with a strong interest in nature and science. A life-long amateur astronomer, he observes the universe at large and also the humanist scene, from his own home-built observatory near Belleville, Ontario.

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