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Commentary: Clear Thinking and the Forces of Unreason

Comment and Opinion

Kendrick Frazier

Volume 26.2, March / April 2002

There is a new need for rationality and reason-as well as courage and resoluteness-in defense of freedom and democracy and the highest values of civilization. Since September 11 the world has changed, and a previous pop culture of superficiality, self-absorption, self-indulgence, and self-satisfaction has gone out the window with it. A several-decades period of relative innocence and naïveté has ended. Things are serious now, and we need all our wits about us. Intelligence and wisdom are called for. Clear thinking is in; fuzzy thinking is out-it is dangerous to all. We have seen evil, and there was nothing abstract about it. We must face it. We suddenly need to know more than what the latest pop celebrity is wearing, or who has the fastest computer chip, or who’s got the latest great idea for instantaneous riches. We need to know about the world around us. We need to understand history, geography, culture, international politics, languages that virtually no one in the West speaks, and, yes, religion too. We suddenly need to know a lot about microbiology and how to combat the spread of agents of biological warfare. Learning and reading are suddenly in. Those involved in national security and arms control had long been saying it is still a dangerous world out there, but their warnings had fallen on mostly deaf ears. We were too distracted with living the good life. Now, suddenly, no one is distracted.

Much the same could be said for those of us toiling on behalf of science and reason and scientific skepticism. Paul Kurtz and CSICOP and many others in the skeptical movement have regularly been chided over the years for even raising the possibility that forces of unreason could actually threaten our modern democratic world, that opponents of reason, rationality, critical thinking, freedom, tolerance, openness, learning, and personal human and intellectual dignity might actually gain such a foothold as to be a threat to us all. I don't think anyone is saying that anymore.

We have long advocated not just good science but an open, scientific outlook-a viewpoint that values an open-mindedness to new ideas, a determination to let facts and evidence rather than wishes and preconceptions and ideology shape our judgments, skepticism toward assertions unsupported by good evidence, wide open debate and communication and publication, and the application of critical analysis and judgment at every step of the process.

Much of what we have critiqued has come under the rubric of the paranormal, of fringe science, of pseudoscience, of bogus science. Science is my passion, and all these represent anti-science or counter-science manifestations that confuse, taint, misdirect, delude, distract us all-but the believers most of all-from what the real world is all about. We no longer can indulge such distractions.

I think in the short term at least we are going to see less nonsense. Psychic abilities failed to warn us of the September 11 attacks, and now it should be clear to all but the most committed or muddle-headed that such powers just don't exist. The attacks were soon followed by bogus Nostradamus “predictions” and other inevitable clap-trap, but those were quickly countered by anti-hoax, urban legend Web sites and frequent media stories debunking the BS and giving the true facts. The new real world has less tolerance for pretense. When the first anthrax attacks came, people turned to modern medicine, not unfounded remedies. As Bob Park of the American Physical Society pointed out in his “What’s New” electronic newsletter, “Fortunately those exposed to anthrax are being diagnosed and treated with the very latest scientific medicine. They are not being treated with homeopathy, acupuncture, touch therapy, magnets, reflexology, crystals, chelation, craniosacral therapy, echinacea, aromatherapy, or yohimbe bark. And no one is complaining.”

Yes, shameless promoters emerged claiming that certain herbal remedies, even homeopathy, might help against anthrax. Yeah, sure! I will give those claims credence when the first person with a confirmed diagnosis of anthrax rejects any application of antibiotics and insists on taking herbs or homeopathy, as the only treatment, instead of (not in addition to) modern antibiotics. That’s the criterion we must hold that claim to.

So I think we now have, if only for a short time, a new era of no-nonsense. People know they have no choice but to confront the real world directly, on its own terms. There is no escape into a trivial, pretend world of nonexistent woo-woo.

I also want to offer a few words about the future of scientific skepticism and what might be called the modern skeptical movement. We celebrated our twenty-fifth anniversary this year. We are far from perfect and we have occasionally made mistakes, but I think CSICOP and the many scientists, psychologists, scholars, writers, and investigators worldwide who make up the movement have done, all in all, a remarkable job of defending science and scientific inquiry. They have critically examined virtually every important case asserting powers or forces “unknown to science.” They have helped educate the public and the media about what good science is all about. And they have helped keep alive, amid a media-driven frenzy of uncritical popular acceptance of outlandish nonsense plus postmodernist-driven obscurantism in too many parts of academia, the true scientific spirit toward claims of knowledge.

In my own twenty-fifth anniversary essays in the Skeptical Inquirer this past year (May/June and July August 2001), I made a number of recommendations for how to keep scientific skepticism strong, vital, and relevant for the twenty-first century. I'll mention only a few here:

And now I'll add two more that I didn't mention in those essays:

The influence of both CSICOP and the Skeptical Inquirer has been significant. Both are widely referenced in scientific and scholarly publications as well as the popular media. CSICOP’s media outreach efforts provide responsible, authoritative scientific information and experts to media worldwide.

The controversy and media and public interest that accompanied our founding still surround almost everything we do. I believe that maintaining close ties to the values of science and scientific inquiry has guided us through and around the worst thickets and pitfalls.

In my view, our reputation for commitment to scientific skepticism, reason and rationality, critical thinking, and scientific integrity is stronger than ever. That serves us well. It serves science well. And serves the public well.

As we find ourselves in the early stages of a period of human history riddled with fearful new perils we hoped we would never have to face, our battles for clear, realistic thinking and against the forces of unreason-wherever they manifest themselves-are more important and more relevant today than ever before.

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Kendrick Frazier is editor of the Skeptical Inquirer and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is editor of several anthologies, including Science Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience.