Beyond belief

21.03.2013

Unreason, like the poor, will always be with us. But why does quackery survive when science is making life better?

Published March 2013 by Michael Hanlon

We live, we like to think, in a reasoning age, if not always a reasonable one. Over the past century we have seen spectacular advances in our understanding of the universe. We now have a fairly coherent, if incomplete, picture of how our planet came into being, its age and place in the cosmos, and how the physical world works. We, clever monkeys that we are, understand the processes that lead to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and the factors that influence climate and weather. We have seen the rise of molecular biology and major improvements in public health and medicine, giving billions of people longer, healthier lives [...]

But of course it is not that simple. As the ideals and technological spin-offs of the Enlightenment make our world ever more unified, unreason continues to flourish. This is something that many thinkers find to be as puzzling as it is distasteful [...]

It is hard to become a molecular biologist, or a doctor, or an engineer. Yet it is relatively easy to grasp the ‘precautionary principle’ — the belief that, in the absence of scientific proof that something is harmless, we must assume that it is harmful. But, as Lewis Wolpert, professor of cell and developmental biology at University College London, has pointed out, this addled creed would have led early humanity to ban both fire and the wheel.

The full article is available here