Archives for posts with tag: fear

Hundreds of years ago, people believed that the devil lived among them. Fearful people would witness their crops fail, their children get sick and die, their livelihoods destroyed by fire or flooding. They would look around for a cause of such evil. Particular attention would be paid to the convenient scapegoat – perhaps an old women, a stranger from out of town, or a Jew. Maybe these people were heard saying something, or maybe they were seen doing something just before the calamity struck. For the medieval mind, this was all that was needed. The devil was afoot, and because these people had done something suspicious beforehand, they had clearly channeled his evil for their own malevolent purposes.

“Because it happened beforehand, it caused it”. It’s called the’post-hoc fallacy’. Because the witch had cursed an official, she had brought on the sickness. Because the Jew had refused to give a loan to the alderman, he had been responsible for the great fire. It’s nonsense, right? It may have been a coincidence or a distortion of fact, but this, to the medieval mind, was beside the point. It happened before, therefore it caused it, therefore the witch is guilty.

The same medieval thinking persists today, except now its not witches and the devil. It’s vaccines and Big Pharma.

“Because my child received the HPV vaccine and subsequently got sick, the vaccine caused the illness”. The only evidence is a co-incidence, but to a fearful mind, this is enough. Why not other childhood vaccines like TDap, or MenC? Why not a genetic predisposition, or a viral illness? No. It was the witch, or should we say, the HPV vaccine. And the great evil behind it all: Big Pharma.

It’s the job of science to show that there is a correlation between two events. It’s the job of science to find cause amongst hundreds of probable causes. And the scientific results to date are clear: there is no connection between the vaccination and subsequent illnesses. Kids get ill at the same rate, irrespective of whether they have been vaccinated or not.

To the fearful mind, all this evidence is too much. Get away from us with all your studies and numbers and percentages. Let’s just burn the witch and be done with it. Why choose a rational course when ignorance and emotion will do?

Our medieval tale tells us something else. When the cause of the fearful is taken up by officialdom, by well-known celebrities and by politicians on the make, when fear overrides fact as official policy, things quickly get much worse. The fear is legitimised, stifling the voices of reason amid censure and threats. Official sanction permits it to metastatise into other areas of policy, thus multiplying the fear. In the case of HPV, perhaps we will not burn witches, but we will burn away our options, so that a now preventable cancer can continue to wreak damage on young lives.

Politicians, journalists and opinion formers must stand up, not for what’s popular, but what is true, based on the very best science and expertise. Following the route of least resistance and aligning with the fearful is not leadership. It is the opposite of leadership. We’ve seen these patterns before and the chaos they have caused. We cannot afford to repeat them.

I’ve been interested in scepticism since I was a teenager. That’s about 30 years, reading up on science and understanding the boundaries between science and pseudoscience. I have always found the sceptical analysis more compelling, more logical, and profoundly more satisfying than mystical or ideological viewpoints.

More recently, I started blogging about it, talking about it and bringing people together to discuss issues of common interest. Now, though, I’m starting to wonder why I bother.

I mean, it’s ridiculous, isn’t it?

I don’t earn a penny from all this. My blogging and my talks are done for free and the meetings I organise are often run at a loss, with me picking up the tab for any overruns. From speaking to other organisers, it’s all low budget, net loss stuff there too.

Contrast this with the groups who are often the focus of our criticism. Many are in business for themselves, and some are making very tidy sums indeed. They profit primarily from people who are desperate for answers, cures and solutions. For such quests, there will always be a ready market.

Our targets are often well resourced, sometimes able to pay lawyers or launch legal actions at the slightest provocation. Us? We have to take great care, in case we upset the wrong people. We have little recourse should our targets get malicious. After all, we pose a challenge to their income streams, so they will defend themselves with venom, if the truth threatens them too much.

And then there’s the abuse. The constant, gnawing opprobrium designed to hurt. The spamming, the trolling, the dirty tricks. Sceptics I know have had calls made to their employers, FOIA requests made against their work, meetings disrupted, websites attacked. And it’s not always the targets who give us such heat, but their customers and supporters who have become invested in the hogwash peddled by them. 

We’ve all lost friends over our scepticism. Nobody likes being told they might be wrong, but often there’s no easy way to say it. No matter how polite and sensitive we try to be, relationships will never be quite the same afterwards. You don’t win friends by bursting their precious balloons.

And there’s the research, the poring over websites to find the flaws, the searching through studies to get more definitive answers, trying to be as correct and as well informed as possible. And what for? To engage in pointless conversations with people who could never be convinced anyway? Frequently, it feels more like work than fun. Often, it feels like wading through treacle.

Then there’s the endless nature of it all. Despite decades of thorough debunking, creationism and homeopathy are still going strong; as is global warming denial. The only things we can reasonably expect are new members to this ghastly choir: such as the gluten-free craze and anti-chemical fad. No matter how well you do on day 1, you’ll be having exactly the same arguments on day 2, and indeed, day 10,000.

What do we get from it? Why do we do it? It’s not for the money, for sure. Neither is it because arguments with opponents leave us with a warm, happy feeling. Many of us suffer from depression and anxiety, so it’s not as if it’s even that great for our mental health. For good reason, a lot of people have moved on, as over time, it can just get too much.

Perhaps we do it because we are passionately interested in the raw truth and concerned about people being taken for a ride. More so, we worry, that if it were not for people like us, nobody would be holding up a mirror to these people; exposing the quacks, ideologues and charlatans for the damage they cause. Without active scepticism, I often wonder if it’s the destiny of this culture to be eventually swallowed by a tsunami of ideological bullshit. 

I’m not sure what I am looking for from writing about this. Maybe a better understanding perhaps, or at least an acknowledgement that this lonely, tiring work is in some way worth the effort.

Or maybe I just need a hug. Hugs are nice.

I’ve been reading Dan Dennett’s book “Breaking the Spell” on and off this last month. It’s given me a new perspective on religion and the religious experience that I had not sufficiently appreciated before. (Dennett’s style is different to Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris in that he tries less to expose the logical inconsistencies of religion and more to understand why people would carry out such devotion to a deity or deities. It’s a challenging book for religous people, but not necessarily an offensive one).

So here’s my take. Religion thrives because it fits many of our basic human desires like a custom-made glove. Our desire for understanding the world around us. Our desire for protection in an uncertain world.  Our desire for hope, despite all that might happen to us. Our desire to be thought of as special. Our desire to make an impact in someone else’s life. Religion has co-evolved with us, becoming more sophisticated as our culture has developed. It provides the feedback mechanisms many of us so desperately crave for. It has a flexibility inherent in it, so that different people will find answers that suit their specific preferences, cultures and ages.

In the end, maybe it’s all about love. People are inspired to do great things because of love. Love is all about abandoning one’s critical faculties, about commitment to someone or something, about sacrifice in the face of something bigger than oneself. Viewed from the outside it makes little sense, but for the person affected it’s a wonderful, uplifting, comforting experience. Love is vulnerable to manipulation, and in the extreme, people can be motivated to carry out the most appalling acts because of love. Love is blind, as they say.

Many commentators focus on the fear factor: the “believe this or else” sentiment. The “do that and you’ll go to Hell” sentiment. They assume that this is core to the religious experience. I’m not so sure. I think it might be more peripheral. I would even go to the extent that if people believe in a god purely because they are afraid of the consequences of not believing, then they haven’t quite grasped the religious experience. They may not even be religious at all. Telling someone that there are grave consequences to a simple transgression is far too ephemeral a reason on which to base a complete belief system. Our large prison population, for example, tells us that fear of getting sent down is a poor motive in preventing crime. So why should it be more successful in the case of belief? Fear, within the religious context, seems to be something that has more to do with organisational control than with religious belief. Religion plus fear is a powerful (and potentially destructive) force, but religion itself is not about fear.

These are my thoughts on the subject for what they are worth. I’d love to hear from you on this.

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