Monday, August 20, 2007

The Enemies of Reason

Richard Dawkin’s two-parter, The Enemies of Reason, concluded on Channel Four tonight. It was an all-out attack on superstition, dowsers, astrologers, spiritualists and alternative medicine. I should say I hold no brief for anything of that ilk. Most New Age types are actively hostile towards organised religion anyway, preferring their own brands of disorganised religion and preaching the sort of tolerance that is usually intolerant of anything they don’t like. As far as I’m concerned it’s all hokum, but I remember a slightly excitable parish priest I once heard who announced in a sermon that reading your stars in the paper was a high road to hell.

Dawkins is pretty much of one mind with that priest. He is convinced that superstition is not just mad, but actively bad. Quite why was never made clear in his series. All the healers, spiritualists and the rest who appeared on his show were the most harmless little puppies ever to be mugged on screen by a rottweiler. I just couldn’t see what Dawkins was so upset about. It’s not as if the people reading their stars are actively undermining academic astronomy and spiritualists are only in competition with mainstream religion, which Dawkins can’t stand either.

With the second part of the show, on alternative medicine, it looked like he might have a point. It is true that homeopathy gets subsidised by the taxpayer to the tune of a few million a year. I’m not comfortable with this but it is far from the most egregious example of government waste. Most forms of alternative medicine are exclusively in the private sector. People can spend their money as they like. The big problem for Dawkins was actually pointed out on the show by Nicholas Humphrey, who is himself as screaming fanatic of atheism. He is the one who first suggested that a religious upbringing was tantamount to child abuse. In this case, Humphrey was on the side of the angels because he had to admit that alternative therapies often have real benefits. This is down to the placebo effect. But placebos can only work their magic if the patient believes in what the practitioner is doing. Debunk alternative medicine and you loose the benefit.
This left Dawkins looking a bit of a prat. He hadn’t shown that alternative medicine did any harm. Homeopathy just uses water and most other practices have little opportunity to do any damage. He had also had to admit that the patients benefited. So his attack looked less like an assault against irrationality and more like a bad case of personal animosity. I suppose his fans will lap it up, but Dawkins is rapidly turning into a caricature of himself. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: the best thing he could do for the causes he believes in is to stick to explicating science or just shut up.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

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