Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Reaction to the First Episode of Dawkins' "The Enemy of Reason"

The first episode of Richard Dawkins' "The Enemy of Reason" aired last night in the UK. There are already a lot of comments and reviews on it. Yet, there appears to be a theme through several of the reviews.

The first one came from spike-online.com:

In debunking astrology, Dawkins adopted a tone of ‘this will be big news for you, sunshine’, as if the average TV viewer is a complete dunce who had previously believed everything he read in his horoscope. Dawkins’ revelation that astrology is impossible to prove, and that the predictions published in newspapers don’t, you know, have any real bearing on your day-to-day life, would only be shocking to a five-year-old.

When he conducted a random survey of Londoners, asking them to outline their sun sign’s characteristics, we were meant to see how the idiot public has internalised today’s rampant mysticism. Wrong. What Dawkins failed to see is that most respondents were giggling as they said things like: ‘I’m a Leo. I’m meant to spend too much money but possess leadership skills.’ They weren’t actually taking it seriously, instead laughing as they listed their star sign’s endearingly daft character traits. Many of the respondents said that horoscopes are a load of nonsense.

This one from The Telegraph simply appears say that it is pointless to try to change these people who believe in such crackpottery:

More inconclusive were his encounters with the likes of astrologer Neil Spencer and Satish Kumar, editor of the New Age journal Resurgence, who in the face of his ultra-rational assault simply pointed out that they didn’t view or judge the world by the same rules as he did. Whereupon all Dawkins could do was repeat his mantra that without evidence there can be no proof.

“It all sounds very poetic, but it is not reality,” he declared.

Well, maybe not to you, Prof, but patently it was reality to them. And no amount of empirical evidence, blind trials or appealing to logic was ever going to make a jot of difference to them.

In other words, most of these underestimate what the public believes, and the impact it has on how decisions are made.

It may be an eye-opener for these people (especially that chap on spiked-online) to read the National Science Foundation recent report on the public's perception and understanding of science. In particular, read the section on pseudoscience that would be relevant to European as well:

Belief in pseudoscience is relatively widespread.[32] For example, at least a quarter of the U.S. population believes in astrology, i.e., that the position of the stars and planets can affect people's lives. Although the majority (56 percent) of those queried in the 2001 NSF survey said that astrology is "not at all scientific," 9 percent said it is "very scientific" and 31 percent thought it is "sort of scientific" (figure 7-8 figure and appendix table 7-5 Microsoft Excel icon).

Belief in astrology is more prevalent in Europe, where 53 percent of those surveyed thought it is "rather scientific" and only a minority (39 percent) said it is not at all scientific (European Commission 2001). Europeans were more likely to say that astrology is scientific than to say the same about economics: only 42 percent of those surveyed thought that economics was scientific. Disciplines most likely to be considered scientific by Europeans were medicine (93 percent), physics (90 percent), biology (88 percent), astronomy (78 percent), mathematics (72 percent), and psychology (65 percent). History (33 percent) was at the bottom of the list. (Comparable U.S. data on the various disciplines do not exist.)

So no, denying that ".... the average TV viewer is a complete dunce who had previously believed everything he read in his horoscope..." is contrary to the best statistics that we have, and certainly for those in Europe.

The report further highlights many misconception and further consequences for a public that actually believe in such things. So while it appears that many of these things are "entertainment" and harmless, even the few that actually believe in such things can cause a lot of damage if they happen to be in power or can seduce enough of the public to further their ignorance.

This is no laughing matter.


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