One of my first forays into science communication was an opinion piece I wrote for the Christchurch Press. It was around the time that Janet Moses’ family were being prosecuted for her death as a result of her so-called “exorcism”. I thought I would post it here for those who might be interested.
The Dangers of Superstition and Pseudoscience (written June 2009)
The death of Janet Moses is a terrible example of what can happen when superstition and irrationality replace critical thinking and science. Her death at the hands of apparently loving but truly misguided family members is tragic. In Australia, the recent prosecution of the parents of a nine month old who died after her parents chose to use only homeopathic remedies to treat her eczema further highlights the dangers of superstition and pseudoscience.
One cannot help but wonder how pseudoscientific ideas such as homeopathy, exorcisms, psychics, channelling and astrology, to name but a few, survive in this modern world. My own opinion is that a lot of it boils down to two key factors — a poor understanding of science and a desire not to take responsibility for one’s own life.
A basic understanding of science readily disposes of the irrational propositions of pseudoscience. Basic chemistry and biology tell us that the ultra-dilute solutions used in homeopathy could not possibly work. Basic physics and biology tell us that human ‘energy fields’ are not manipulated by crystals, magnets or needles. Basic psychology tells us that those who ‘speak to the dead’ are just very good at reading people, making general statements and in some cases, doing sneaky background checks on people. Has anyone ever wondered why after so many episodes of ‘Sensing Murder’ not one arrest has been made?
Pseudoscience and superstition allow us to abdicate responsibility for our own lives and actions. If ones’ love life is not successful then why work on your communication skills or change your deodorant when you can blame your horoscope. It may be much easier to blame life’s problems on imaginary external causes, but unless one identifies and deals with the real causes, little personal progress will be made.
Some might suggest that superstition and pseudoscience is harmless, however, there are many examples where they have devastating consequences. In Nigeria, the misfortunes of families have been blamed on child ‘witches’ who are tortured and exiled from their communities. In the United States and the UK, communities are already reaping the sad legacy of misinformed anti-vaccine campaigners as cases of measles, mumps and whooping cough rise. Lives are lost worldwide when homeopaths and vitamin advocates convince patients that their concoctions can replace conventional medicines and provide cures for everything from eczema to AIDS.
Pseudoscience not only has the potential to cause harm physically it also weakens our intellectual integrity. Would we seriously want leaders who consulted astrologers when making decisions? Or exorcisms inflicted on the mentally ill? Can we allow our science classes to be corrupted by the inclusion of creation ‘science’?
Criticisms of superstition and pseudoscience may be interpreted as attacks on religion and/or culture. This is not the case. It is my belief that religious and cultural beliefs provide important societal and psychological benefits. However, when those beliefs defy what we know about the world around us, they need to be challenged. By all means teach religious studies in schools but let’s be up front about it, not sneak it into science class. Let us respect other cultures but not to the point where we condone ill-treatment of women and minorities.