Would You Believe It?

by Steve Mason

We make some of our greatest gains
when we see old things in new ways

Here's a thought: Half of what people in any given time/place believe to be true is, in fact, false. Just go back to England in the 1800's, or Hawaii in the 1600's, or Egypt when they were still building pyramids, and think about all the nonsense that was generally accepted as part of the real world. It's only natural that 21st Century Americans should look askance at those times and places as being hopelessly ignorant. Witches were burned at the stake, virgins were tossed into volcanoes, mountaintops housed the gods, and mermaids were swimming just beneath the waves. Pretty dumb huh!

Now here's another thought: If a whole slew of truly preposterous notions were considered gospel in the past, why would one assume the same isn't true in the present? In just the past century, masturbation caused insanity, circles made in wheat fields were attempts at alien communication, and the moon landings were a hoax. OK ... so that last one was only a fringe belief, but what about all those adults who would, 40 years later, suddenly recall being molested as children? The fact is, I may have been overly generous when I said that only half of what's believed is just so much twaddle.

Humans have a tendency - no - more like an overwhelming need, to fill in the blanks. Making sense of things (even if it turns out to be nonsense) is probably in our genes. The cat, on the other hand, can watch me draw water from a white thing in the center of the kitchen, and then put it in a big box to the left and make ice, or a little box to the right and make steam. Big deal - where's my chicken gizzards? That's why I sometimes think cats are smarter than people. Imagine an Australian aborigine being presented with a refrigerator freezer and a microwave oven for the first time. Huge gaps in his knowledge would make any understanding of the big box and the little box impossible. Cooling pipes and heating circuits would be so far beyond his comprehension that one or more gods would have to be called upon to fill in the blanks. Only then, with the microwave god and the refrigerator god snug in their respective boxes, could he finally relax.

People are born to see the unknown as threatening - which is not necessarily a bad thing. Those cavemen who did not blithely wander into caves were apt to have significantly fewer run-ins with cave bears than those who did. Hence mankind's terror of not knowing; hence mankind's penchant to take complex questions and fabricate simple, but wrong, answers. Ask presidential candidates what they plan to do about the Arabs and the Jews. The one who says I don't know is the one who just dropped out of the race. He is also the only one telling the truth. Similarly, ask them about poverty and crime. They will each have an answer, but the smart money will bet on poverty and crime being around in spades four years later. Far worse than not knowing, it would seem, is admitting not knowing. But even worse than that is changing your mind. This is tantamount to saying what you believed then was wrong but what you believe now is right. Who's going to believe that?

Late night comedy shows have a ball with Man-in-the-Street interviews - with good reason. Ask the assistant manager of a convenience store if he thinks the President is melocotic and he'll give you an answer. The fact that "melocotic" is a made-up word won't deter him one iota. Pit him against a lawn service technician who disagrees and there will be bloody combat before one or the other admits to being in the dark. Of course, I purposely picked low-end individuals because those who are young and/or less well educated can be expected to have greater gaps in their knowledge. However, I might just as well have used two Nobel Laureates locked in verbal combat over global warming. This illustrates the extent of the problem. Even the best brains are not above sloppy thinking. In a recent survey, a full third of the scientists questioned admitted to, at one time or another, having fudged their results to better fit their hypothesis. Keep in mind that one third admitted it. How many knowingly lied or unknowingly favored their bias? The bottom line supports my original premise - that half of what we believe just ain't so.

The scientific method is arguably the finest achievement of Man. You start with a growing understanding of some phenomenon. You proceed until predictions can be made. Then you go still further until some degree of control is achieved. Only then can you express a reasonable degree of confidence. All of this is measured mathematically and subjected to peer review. When something works better, it replaces what previously worked best. No fuss; no muss; no loss of face - a beautiful theory is demolished by an ugly fact. So my question is: Why not replace religion (gaps in knowledge filled in by god) with the scientific method?

Look At It This Way

The sad truth is that modern Man isn't modern at all. Eliminate technology and today's Survivor on the television show suddenly bears a striking resemblance to yesterday's survivor on the African savanna. So too, the followers of Jesus fight the followers of Allah in much the same way the Cave Bear clan fought the Cave Lion clan. In fact, Man hasn't progressed as a species in tens of thousands of years. Only when he starts showing evidence for what he thinks instead of fighting for what he believes will there be a true renaissance for all Mankind.

You may contact the author at DrSBMason@aol.com

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