Thursday, 16 August 2007

Richard Dawkins 'Enemies of Reason' - Monday 13th August - Summary


A full quarter of the British population claim to believe in astrology while astrological horoscopes get far more newspaper column inches than science.

Neil Spencer
Richard Dawkins begins his journey by questioning this irrational institution embedded in our culture. He tackles the Observer's astrologer, Neil Spencer [pictured], on how the movement of planets could possibly signify petty developments in our love life or career, and compares the thin pickings of astrology with the real science of astronomy that is revealing the true grandeur of the Cosmos.

The paranormal

Half the British population now claim to believe in paranormal phenomena. Psychics are cluttering our TV schedules, flogging readings on the net and, increasingly, blossoming on our high streets. After garnering tips on psychics' entirely earthly trade secrets from the illusionist Derren Brown, Richard attends a s?ance and confronts the medium, Craig Hamilton-Parker, on the psychological damage his unproven claims may have on bereaved people who desperately want to believe what feels good.

Time and again, the interviewees that Richard Dawkins encounters appeal to personal revelation or second-hand anecdote to justify their belief. Richard Dawkins now explains why this cannot be the basis for rational knowledge. He compares how science unravelled the mystery of echo location in bats in the 1940s through rigorous experiment and mutually supporting results to a paranormal phenomenon such as water divining. Psychic detection of water through dowsing isn't inherently implausible – but, as Richard discovers when he attends a double blind trial supervised by the paranormal investigator Professor Chris French, it never works when a rigorous experiment is conducted.

The evidence for the spirit world or psychic phenomena is simply not robust and repeatable. Rather, it's Will-o'-the-wisp. The more science looks at it, the weaker it becomes.

Tarot card reader

Looking to the past

So why do people still irrationally cling on to unproven beliefs? Richard turns to the origins of superstition in our past. He looks at our pre-disposition to seek pattern in the randomness of nature, a survival mechanism from our distant evolutionary past.

He also explores how our ancestors imbued 'spiritual quality' to inanimate objects – and many people still do, including the New Age guru, Satish Kumar, who argues that a rock or a tree have intrinsic 'spirit'. Richard puts the case for reality that can be observed and tested – the objective wonders that science has revealed.

Once society exalted scientists as heroes. Their insights fuelled tangible progress, from clean water to networked computing, self-evident benefits that we now take for granted.

Richard Dawkins

Yet as science has moved on, it's become more complex and difficult to grasp. It's easier to portray scientists as the people who bring us 'Frankenstein food', pollute the environment or conduct sinister experiments on defenceless little animals.

Prejudice in schools

Dawkins argues that prejudice against science is evident in schools. Physics A' levels have halved in the last 25 years, chemistry fallen by more than a third. University departments are closing all round the country.

He lays the blame with 'relativist' thinkers who have made it fashionable in education to teach students to value private feeling more highly than evidence-based reason.

He challenges the sociologist Steve Fuller who claims the internet is opening up science and evidence and this is no bad thing...


For Richard Dawkins, 'Wikipedia world' presents both great opportunity and huge danger. The impersonal algorithms of internet search engines do not weed out robust evidence from unsourced, uncorroborated assertion. Paranoid conspiracy theories circulate on the web unchallenged, from harmless fun about fake moon landings to downright insidious lies about 9/11 or the highly damaging but ultimately discredited scare over the MMR vaccine. This, argues Dawkins, is where the irrational mindset, the world of private hunches and no respect for evidence, can lead us.

Medicine under attack

Today science is treated with suspicion, perhaps born of fear and even medical advance is challenged by the march of irrational belief.

While we indulge unproven healing 'magic', tried and tested scientific medicine is under attack. Media 'causes celebres' – from side effects to superbugs – have bred widespread cynicism about medical progress.

The danger of devaluing evidence has never been more apparent than when one survey of twelve children wrongly linked MMR vaccine with autism and yet prompted hundreds of thousands of parents to opt their children out of entirely sensible inoculations to ward off dangerous diseases.

Where once there was reason, now there is confusion...

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