EDITORIAL: The Strange Persistence of Dubious Ideas


EDITORIAL: The Strange Persistence of Dubious Ideas

The best estimate is that something close to 200,000 needless deaths have occurred as a result of what is politely called “vaccine hesitancy,” while, as one study shows, an unvaccinated adult is an astonishing 33 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than a boosted one.

The best estimate is that something close to 200,000 needless deaths have occurred as a result of what is politely called “vaccine hesitancy,” while, as one study shows, an unvaccinated adult is an astonishing 33 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than a boosted one.

1 : Vaccine ‘Hesitancy’

The best estimate is that something close to 200,000 needless deaths have occurred as a result of what is politely called “vaccine hesitancy,” while, as one study shows, an unvaccinated adult is an astonishing 33 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than a boosted one.
~Adam Gopnik, the Globe and Mail, May, 2022


There is strong evidence that, in regard to the protection of human lives, vaccination is the most significant development in all of medical history (with the possible exception of improvements in sanitation). In the United States alone, deaths from diphtheria, measles, mumps, whooping cough, polio, rubella and smallpox have declined by close to 100%. In the case of whooping cough, as one example, this means about 16,000 fewer deaths per year. For polio, as another example, it would be about 6,000. For just these two diseases then, in the United States, about 22,000 deaths (mostly of children) are prevented every year — prevented by vaccinations. That’s 220,000 over 10 years – over 2 million over 100 years. That’s a lot of children saved, and it is only a small percentage of the number saved around the world, and from other preventable diseases as well.And those are just the deaths.1

Photo by Marc Nozell

I remember the fear I lived with as a child as friends and classmates were carried off to hospital with one of these terrible diseases. Some who returned were maimed for life; others never returned at all. The human heartache and sorrow caused by these diseases, and prevented for so many more because of vaccinations, is difficult to comprehend.

Surely no serious idea in human history has been more thoroughly debunked than the multifarious ones that constitute the lexicon of the anti-vaxxers. But here we are. Millions of people – friends, neighbours, radical skeptics, self-appointed arbiters of scientific discoveries – all manner of people – oppose COVID vaccinations and, to the extent they are successful in their pernicious quest, condemn gullible followers to needless illness and death. It is similar to other such oppositional movements that have accompanied other life-saving vaccine discoveries.

Why does this happen? Some experiments have shown that rats, when overcrowded, develop self-destructive tendencies; maybe the anti-vaxxers are exhibiting an instinctive form of population control. Maybe it’s an intentional action taken by population jeremiahs. Maybe some are spooked by conspiracy theorists who use the internet to spew their poison. Maybe they think they are sending a warning designed to save the world from some menace the rest of us cannot see. Maybe it is just a morbid fear of needles. Whatever the actual sources of this insanity, people are dying because of it.

The anti-vaxxers are not just reviving a dubious idea, they are reviving an insidious and very harmful one. They have blood on their hands.

2: Psychic Phenomena

As a young scientist in the 60s and 70s I railed against the very common belief in psychic phenomena such as telepathy (mindreading), clairvoyance (contacting the dead), psychokinesis (moving objects with one’s mind) psychic healing (paranormal curing of illness) and precognition (seeing the future). It was a lonely pursuit. I was working at a small college in the town of Nanaimo, British Columbia when I found an antagonist in Stanley Burke, retired host of the CBC National news. Burke had purchased a local newspaper and started writing editorials about how psychics were of great assistance to the police and how “hardened” law enforcement officers would never be fooled by fakes. I challenged these ideas, and others of similar ilk, and Burke responded with howls of outrage, and on it went for some months.

A young philosopher at the College, Dale Beyerstein, joined the struggle, but still nobody seemed to care much about the irrationality in our midst. Dale and I also tackled the prevalence of horoscope readings in newspapers, and we even went after Simon Fraser University for publishing an uncritical article about “psychic archeology.” The latter did elicit some expressions of concern from SFU faculty, but also an aggressive response in defense of the original article. It all fizzled out in Nanaimo, although Dale went on to become one of BC’s, and Canada’s, best-known debunkers of irrational beliefs. (Still at it, Dale has an article in the next issue of HP.)

At the time the whole thing seemed like a lost cause – but then there were two signs of real progress. In the mid-70s, an American organization later called The Center for Inquiry began to publish a magazine called the Skeptical Inquirer which contained critical articles about all sorts of paranormal phenomena. I was astonished and thrilled.

Around the same time magician James Randi began to come into prominence for his exposing of psychic frauds. These people, Randi would say, might really be psychic, but I can do everything they do using simple magic tricks. Randi wrote many books and articles, performed in countless venues, and he alone provided enough evidence to discredit all claims of psychic events.

The battle is won, I thought. Who could continue to believe this unscientific nonsense after such thorough debunking. Then a 2001 Gallup poll (like other such polls) showed that 50% of all Americans believe in Extrasensory Perception. Responses to questions about other beliefs were similarly depressing. Forty-two percent believe houses can be haunted.Stanley Burke decisively lost all of the battles Dale and I had with him, by any unbiased standard of good sense and rationality, but the la la land or craziness that Burke inhabited continued on undiminished, whatever Dale and I had to say, and oblivious even to the stacks of evidence produced by the Center for Inquiry.

3: Guns

American problems eventually become Canadian ones

The second amendment of the US Constitution states that:

“A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”

The meaning of this phrase has been debated endlessly in the US, but the vastly greater number of deaths by shooting in the US compared to any other country suggest that something has gone drastically wrong with the access Americans have to weapons, including assault weapons designed to kill large numbers of people as quickly as possible. In 2020, over 45,000 Americans died from gun-related injuries.

This peacetime carnage, exacerbated by mass shootings that are happening about twice a day now in the US, far exceeds that in any other country. The need to take some sort of control of this madness has long been evident, but the gun lobby, diligently and loyally supported by the Republican party, has successfully blocked any sort of wide-ranging Federal regulation.

I sometimes wonder how far the radical Second Amendment people would go in supporting public access to weapons. Assault rifles, readily available to anyone in the US over 18 years of age, are sophisticated, rapid fire, vicious killing machines.The repeated and continuing use of these weapons on innocent people, including young children, and the huge gap between what is happening in the US and in other countries, would seem to demand at least some moderate new safeguards for weapon accessibility. But despite the heartbreaking cries of despair from the people, and especially the families of the murdered, and most especially from the parents of the dead children, little if any corrective action is taken.

Why is such an evident need for legislation being ignored in the US, when most Americans clearly see the need? It is because a minority of Americans hold disproportionate power over the legislative process? This minority, many of whom are white supremacists thinking they must preserve and restore whiteness to America — this pernicious and ignorant minority, will stop at nothing, including civil war, to get their way. That is why they need their assault weapons.

4: Extremism

I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.
~Barry Goldwater

We are vulnerable to extreme thinking because it almost always contains a germ of truth. Goldwater played to an American audience conditioned to the Constitutional notion of “liberty and justice for all’ and disinclined to consider nuances and subtleties in the actual deployment of these ideas This can very easily lead us down a rabbit hole of confused and exaggerated fears and irrational thought: not that the germ of truth in regard to individual liberty is wrong, but that the extrapolations of it are baloney. It is a lesson, for a great many people, too late for the learnin’.

Let us consider some of the ideas that are currently dividing society. Liberty in regard to gun ownership, already discussed, is a prime example of the extremism problem. Extreme advocates want no restrictions on the possession of armaments – presumably they would welcome the public acquisition of tactical nuclear weapons, if such a thing were on the table (which it might eventually be). What is the germ of truth here? It is that personal freedom can be a good thing. The full reality of it, though, is that it becomes a social disaster if taken too far.

Abortion is another of the divisive issues of our times and again is based upon an extreme ideology – that full personhood is created at the moment of conception. On this thinking a woman, even as soon as the morning after, is guilty of murder if she deliberately loses the nascent child, no matter what her circumstances and wherewithal to make a commitment to carry the child for nine months and possibly raise it to adulthood. no matter who the father was or the circumstances of conception.

Extremists hold rigidly to this idea of banning abortions, except in many cases where a family member of their own, or a girlfriend, “gets into trouble.” That seems to have a moderating effect.

And then there is wokism. This movement arose from concerns about systemic racism and social injustice, not bad starting points for any social movement. Tyler Cowen of the Bloomberg Press refers to positive and negative sides of the matter:

By wokism, I refer to a movement that, on the positive side, is highly aware of racism and social injustice, and is galvanized toward raising awareness. On the negative side, it can be preachy, alienating, overly concerned with symbols, and self-righteous.

There is, without question, an extremist side to wokism, a side that is appalling and ultimately self-destructive. I recall early days in the movement, before it became wokism, when two nit wit members of the English department in a college where I worked successfully blocked a visit from a respected speaker who was going to talk about the idea of a “just war.” For most people who give the matter any thought, this is a perplexing topic that deserves serious consideration. War is terrible, but what about Hitler? What about Putin? But for our two English instructors, war was simply bad, and suggesting otherwise or discussing exceptions “might confuse our students.” Sigh.

Wokism of course prospered in later years with extreme levels of censorship on campuses and in public discourse – so bad that some claimed that freedom of thought and other products of the Enlightenment were in real danger. But these liberal ideas are not so fragile and will survive this latest affront, as they have survived so many anti-intellectual fads of the past.

The animating ideas behind this movement – racial and social justice, are important ones, and the trouble with attacks on wokism is that these animating ideas, crucial for a maturing and just society, are lost in the vitriol aimed at the extreme elements of the wokist culture. The real danger is the need to address racism and social injustice. The wokist extremists give all progressive movements a bad name. In the US, Republican strategists delight in every public expression of the idea of “defund the police”; these strategists seem to understand what the wokist extremists do not: that tainting progressivism with extreme ideologies will shift public opinion to the right.

I should add that aiding in this malign influence are attacks on extreme wokism –at least, those attacks that do not acknowledge the legitimate roots of the movement. There are real and important issues of racial and social justice that must be dealt with, and dismissing a movement because of its extremists runs the risk of blocking needed social change. We must try to avoid being influenced by extremists from either side.

5: Racial and Ethnic Prejudice

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that
~Martin Luther King Jr.

Like many others, I thought that discrimination against people whose skin colour is not “white” was on its way out with the apparent success, in the 1960s, of the American civil rights movement. The signing of civil rights legislation by a President from the South, Lyndon Johnson, seemed to signal that America, and then the world, would begin to move beyond the banal idea of racial superiority and start treating all people with the respect and dignity they deserve as fellow human beings. Then Donald Trump came along – a racist who missed, or never understood, the message – and unleashed a snarling pack of like-minded bigots who now threaten the stability of civilised society.

And who would have thought that after the Holocaust antisemitism would come back with a vengeance. Scapegoated for centuries, Jews are still being persecuted, in spite of their enormous, disproportionate, contribution to human civilization.

These distressing developments seem to prove that that in the dark recesses of the human mind there remains an insecurity, a fear, that drives hatred and persecution of the other. Perhaps it has tribal roots.But ,whatever it is, it has not yet been expunged and will not be so very soon. 

6: God

Religion is something left over from the infancy of our intelligence, it will fade away as we adopt reason and science as our guidelines.
~Bertrand Russel

Russel describes the fond hope of most atheists. But religious faith seems to be more resilient than he expected.

Before Darwin the origin of life on earth was a great mystery – how could such a complex natural world exist without the intervention of some superior power? Societies, seeking explanations, developed a great variety of creation myths which led to a similar variety of beliefs in some sort of supernatural power and, accordingly, different belief systems and religious rituals.

Then Darwin came along and presented an alternative possibility for the complexity of life on earth: evolution. This did not prove there is no God, but it revolutionized scientific thinking by providing a natural explanation for creation, rather than a supernatural one. Masses of evidence poured in to support the idea of evolution, while churches either went into defensive mode in regard to their supernatural beliefs or attempted to somehow accommodate the new ideas. Maybe evolution was God’s way of creating a variety of life on earth. Maybe God brought in the first form of life and let the others evolve from that.

But a creation idea now existed in which God was no longer necessary.

To those of us of a sceptical frame of mind, this likely was enough to confirm our doubts about the existence of any God. After all there have been thousands of claims about some supernatural entity, most of which are contradictory. Could one actually be true? I suppose so, although it seems very unlikely.

So why does religion persist? One answer is in Ian Johnston’s essay in this issue of Humanist Perspectives. For some, it is not the actuality of the doctrine they follow (for who with certainty can say that any particular doctrine is wrong). It is the actuality of the religious experience that has meaning for them. And that is real.

So, for a humanist, God is indeed a dubious idea. But we should not wonder about why it persists. It gives meaning to many human lives.