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article imageRichard Dawkins and the enemies of reason

By Bart B. Van Bockstaele     Sep 3, 2007 in Lifestyle
Richard Dawkins, world-famous defender of the theory of evolution and author of several popular books, such as his 2006 “The God Delusion”, has created a new documentary, "The Enemies of Reason," to warn us against superstition and alternative health
Oxford Professor Richard Dawkins, whose documentary “The God Delusion” created a world-wide storm and whose book of the same name is a best-seller, is not only a scientist of the highest calibre, but he is first and foremost one of the world’s best educators. He is one of those few people who are capable to explain science in a way even the uneducated can understand, without compromising on scientific validity, a compromise so many would-be popularizers have had to make.
I have just finished watching Richard Dawkins newest documentary, “The Enemies of Reason”, five times, and I am watching it again as I write these lines. I hope we will be able to see it on Canadian television, for this documentary is just as important as “The God Delusion”.
Where “The God Delusion” provides us with a clear and unambiguous explanation of the irrationality and the dangers of religion, “The Enemies of Reason” tells us in no uncertain terms how dangerous other superstitions can be, from astrology to homeopathy.
Although the documentary has not yet been shown on North American networks, as far as I know, we can see the documentary on Google Video in two parts. This is wonderful, but the bad thing is that the public will probably mostly be limited to those who need it the least: people who are already highly interested in the subject, and who need no convincing of the dangers of irrational superstitions. When you watch the program, you must take into account that it was specifically created for the UK, and that many of its assertions are to be seen in a British light.
The first part, “Slaves to superstition,” concentrates on astrology, psychics and dowsing. Professor Dawkins starts by telling us about the advantages science has brought us. He goes on by visiting a New Age Fair where he has his aura photograph taken. The picture is partly covered with coloured spots that, according to the lady he is talking to, are spirit guides, one of which has its arms around him.
According to the professor, a full quarter of the British population claim to believe in astrology. He talks to Neil Spencer, the astrologer of The Observer, in order to find out more. Mr. Spencer is unable to explain astrology, and Professor Dawkins proposes to do a test in which a number of astrological profiles would be made and then distributed at random to other people. If astrology works, most people should be able to identify their own profile. Mr. Spencer flatly refuses, for obvious reasons.
Richard Dawkins goes on to explain the Barnum Effect, named after the American entrepreneur, and he illustrates it with an informal test of horoscopes similar to the one Mr. Spencer refused. Unsurprisingly, the test fails to show any evidence for the truth of astrology.
After that, we see the professor getting a very unconvincing card reading with Simon Goodfellow, a British medium. He then talks to Derren Brown, illusionist and sceptic, who explains how mediums work. The next stop is a spiritualist church. Here, they first have a religious ceremony followed by a séance with medium Craig Hamilton-Parker. Richard Dawkins talks to him and while the man seems sincere, it is clear that he doesn’t have much evidence to support his claims.
In a short story about bats, Professor Dawkins shows how their seemingly paranormal locating capabilities turn out to be a fully explainable phenomenon, based on echolocation. In spite of initial scepticism, evidence became stronger and stronger, until proven to be true. He compares this to dowsing, where testing leads to a disappearance of all evidence. The sincerity of the dowsers is obvious however, and it is quite shocking to see their distress when they are shown they have failed.
Then follows a short piece on superstitious behaviour of gamblers, illustrated by images of the pigeon tests by the behaviourist B.F. Skinner about 60 years ago. Amazingly, certain tests led to what Skinner called “superstitious behaviour” in those pigeons, such as looking over the left shoulder hoping it will produce food.
Satish Kumar is the editor of Resurgence magazine, according to the professor an ecological magazine at the sandal-wearing end of the green movement. Among his fans are the Dalai Lama and Prince Charles. According to Mr. Kumar, the world is made of two elements, one visible, the other invisible or spiritual. He says that a tree and a rock have each a spirit, the tree-ness and the rock-ness. “Isn’t this just about imposing another superstitious false positive?” asks the professor.
Dawkins goes on: “Like priests, mullahs and rabbis, new-age mystics ceaselessly attempt to fill gaps in human understanding with fabricated meaning. Science and rationality are often accused of having a cold, bleak outlook, but why is it bleak to face up to the evidence of what we know?”
And he concludes: “There is real poetry in the real world. Science is the poetry of reality.”
The program ends with a warning about diminishing interest in science, closing university departments, the opportunities and dangers of the Internet, and the dangers of seemingly harmless irrationality.
The second program, “The irrational health service,” starts with mentioning some of the triumphs of scientific medicine, followed by a description of alternative medicine:
“If any remedy is tested under controlled scientific conditions and proved to be effective, it will cease to be alternative and will simply become medicine. So-called alternative medicine either hasn’t been tested or it has failed its tests.”
Professor Dawkins’ journey starts with Elisis Livingstone, a faith healer who runs the Shambhala retreat in Glastonbury. For 140GBP per day, she treats patients, including those with terminal cancer, with a mix of meditation, spiritual healing and the playing of recorded chants. She believes that she can alter the structure of DNA. According to her, humans used to have 12 strands of DNA when they were still living in Atlantis instead of today’s double helix. She claims that her knowledge comes from the Akashic Records, a concept that is well known in theosophy, the movement that was co-founded by the illustrious Madame H.P. Blavatsky. The Akashic Records are only accessible through non-intellectual, spiritual means, that says something about their credibility.
“I know what you’re thinking,” says Dawkins, “This woman is way out. I expected a serious program about the attack on science, and here is Richard Dawkins just picking on an easy target. But, these ideas are not so weird in the irrational world of alternative health, in fact, they’re commonplace.”
After the scene with Elisis Livingstone, Professor Dawkins tells us that one third of the British spend a whopping 1.6 billion GBP a year on this kind of nonsense. We also see him in what I consider one of the most hilarious scenes of the program in which he comes out of a store, trying to remain serious while announcing, “It’s mostly angels.”
Describing some of the benefits of science, he explains how science is now treated with disdain and suspicion, and he gives a well-known but nonetheless very poignant and terrible example: how the hysteria around an erroneous and totally discredited report around the MMR vaccine has led parents to avoid vaccinations. Up to one fifth of British children are now no longer vaccinated against dangerous diseases such as rubella, mumps and measles, leading to epidemics and the first death from measles in 14 years.
“Untested and unverified, yet desperately seeking credibility, alternative remedies follow in the rich traditions of organized religion and set up intricate belief systems. They substitute real science with pseudo-science.”
Richard Dawkins explains how alternologists exploit and distort scientific jargon. He gets a treatment with lighted crystals, and later talks to Dr. Manjir Samanta-Laughton, a former GP turned alternologist, who gives him a wacky explanation about us having black holes in our bodies and that these may correspond to the ancient concept of chakras, spinning in our bodies. When questioned, she defends her theories by saying that there are plenty of people who are now getting interested in these topics and that they are part of our universe.
Dawkins also talks to Deepak Chopra, a man he suspects of exploiting the jargon of quantum physics as plausible sounding hocus-pocus. Incredible as it may sound, the man who claims Michael Jackson, Madonna and Hillary Clinton as followers, comes nothing further than to accuse physicists of hijacking the word quantum and saying that he is about “shifting consciousness”. Whatever that means.
“Welcome to the bizarre world of homeopathy!” says professor Dawkins. He explains the totally bizarre and irrational theories claimed by homeopaths and he goes on to visit the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital. He talks to its clinical director Peter Fisher, a medically trained rheumatologist who first claims that thorough tests have been done, some by himself, who then claims that nobody knows the structure of liquid water (which is correct, it is a liquid, i.e. it has no structure) and that therefore the memory of water claimed by homeopaths has a good chance of being true, only to admit later on that it is all very diffuse and that a serious study must be done.
Professor Dawkins then talks to Michael Baum, Professor Emeritus of Surgery at the University College of London who compares the rigorous testing the drug Herceptin –a life-saving drug-needed to be licensed, with the way that ineffective, irrational remedies are just nodded through. “It makes you weep,” says professor Baum. Professor Baum explains the subjective and unproven efficacy of homeopathy by mentioning that homeopaths are “nice people”.
Richard Dawkins then goes on to explain the placebo effect. He visits a kinesiologist who claims to clear energy blockages in the meridian system, a system she vaguely admits cannot be seen under a microscope. He talks to Nicholas Humphrey, Professor of Psychology at the London School of Economics, who explains that alternologists are very well placed to dish out placebos because of their funny authorities written up on the wall, and that some people may be particularly susceptible to believe in those qualifications.
Professor Humphrey explains that many alternologists may be self-deceiving, and maybe not even that, because they see that their treatments work. He gives the example of Jesus telling a lame man to walk, and that someone who does that would be rather impressed with himself/herself, in spite of it being nothing more than the placebo effect at work.
The documentary finishes by explaining that many alternative healing systems are about cosseting, about making the patient feel like he/she is the centre of attention, about feeling pampered. He talks to Teresa Hale of The Hale Clinic, who first claims that the effects are better than placebo, and then admits that the study she claims to have done, was nothing more than an uncontrolled pilot study, and therefore scientifically totally invalid.
“The idea that ancient equals years of accumulated wisdom is a fallacy,” says professor Dawkins, when talking about Ayurvedic medicine. He finds it ironic that well-moneyed Westerners turn away from medicine towards superseded Hindu magic, while people in India are voting with their feet and turning towards modern medicine. “Resuscitating Ayurveda today is rather like bringing back bleeding with leeches”, complains the professor.
According to Dawkins, in medicine, ancient also means, “developed before we understood the causes of disease, before germ theory.” “It was based on ignorance then, and age makes it no truer. We misguidedly look back towards a Golden Age that never was.” He concludes that modern medicine is the way to go, not alternative medicine.
To finish, the professor gives us some good advice: “We don’t have to follow the herd and buy into trendy, untested health fads. We don’t have to be swayed this way and that by media driven health scares. Instead, we can think independently, be truly open-minded. That means, asking questions, being open to real, corroborated evidence. Reason has liberated us from superstition and given us centuries of progress. We abandon it at our peril.”
It is hard to surpass a masterpiece like "The God Delusion". However, I think that Richard Dawkins has once again created a great work. I would have liked to see some more "mainstream" unproven treatments like acupuncture, massage therapy, meditation and chiropraxis, but I understand that time is limited. After all, this is television, not science class. I have watched both episodes several times and I will watch them again in the future.
I can only hope that professor Dawkins' words do not fall on deaf ears, and I am convinced that his plea for reason can potentially save the lives of many people who would otherwise die thanks to the misinformation and the non-treatment they receive from alternologists.
In all, watching this documentary is not optional. It is a requirement for anyone who claims to be interested in truth, health, reason and science. Please watch it. Whether you are a new age fan or not, you will benefit from it. Oh yes, and if you are a poet or an artist, it could be very interesting as well.
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