Editorial: Just believe
It seems that anti-science is on the rise, but hopefully we've found the antidote
I’m beginning to get the feeling that popular culture is lining up another attack on science. This season’s look is not the evil scientist stitching together unholy monsters in a mountain lair, but the misguided nerd who has the temerity to think that there is anything that can be gained from research. Don’t these pointy heads with their book-smarts know that it’s far more important to have faith? Thus in the blockbuster Avatar, for example, the cold, calculating scientists with their white coats, numbers and – pah! – facts are contrasted with the heroic Jake, the simple grunt, who needs no books, or knowledge, just his big heart and instincts to carry him through. As the savagely noble natives of Pandora, the Na’vi, tell Jake, only he is able to truly understand them because his “heart is strong”. Now comes another new film, Ondine, posters for which are turning up about town, emblazoned with the slogan “The truth is not what you know. It’s what you believe.” I believe I may give that one a miss.
If all this anti-science is beginning to get you down, this issue of New Humanist should come as a welcome relief. We may be interested in what people believe and why. But we’re a lot keener on those nerds in white coats, in what they know, and how that might inform what they, and we, end up believing. For example, if you want the informed lowdown on extra-terrestrials, Paul Davies reports what we have learned from 50 years of searching for intelligent life in the universe. He’s a physicist, astrobiologist, cosmologist and chair of the SETI post-detection taskgroup – which means he is the man who has to decide what to do should we ever make contact with aliens.
If you’re more concerned with apocalypse scenarios, allow yourself to be enlightened by Lawrence Krauss, one of America’s most eminent scientists. As chair of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, he recently reset the Doomsday Clock, giving us another minute, but writing for New Humanist he lists the myths we need to be aware of if we’re to guard against complacency. Meanwhile, Laurie Taylor has a bruising, far-too-close encounter with the forces of unreason, down on a health farm.
Futuristic predictions may be exciting in the movies – but with the lights on they’re even more scary. The political scientist Eric Kaufmann debunks any secularist hopes that the world is becoming more rational. He tells us how the demographic data point to a more religious world in 2050. Tony Blair’s Faith Foundation is certainly aiming to contribute to that global move, but its director Ruth Turner argues that it has an important role to play in some of the world’s poorest countries, and why even rationalists should support their work.
As we slide into election season, Tony Blair must be delighted to be out of the political limelight this spring. But while all parties are beginning to brace themselves for the big fight, where do they stand on humanist priorities and values? Paul Sims weighs the evidence.
Finally, Sally Feldman brings us down to earth with a jolt when she tackles the messy business of toilets. Not very humanist? Read her piece to have your scepticism challenged about the last taboo.