The Rejection of Scientific Reality

A huge number of people are choosing to accept beliefs that are inconsistent with those put forward by science, or that presently lack scientific support. Among these beliefs are the presence of aliens from other worlds on Earth, the possibility of travel backward in time,1 astrology,

1 Based on Einstein's special relativity, it is possible to travel forward in time. As introduced in chapter 4, this possibility occurs because as things travel faster, their clocks tick more slowly as observed by the outside universe. In other words, if you went out in a spacecraft moving at close to the speed of light and then returned to Earth, people here would have aged much more than you. If you had traveled long enough and fast enough, you could come back thousands of years or more later having aged only a few years yourself.

angels, ghosts, demons, creationism, telepathy, extrasensory perception (ESP), magic, channeling and other methods of communicating with the dead, and homeopathic medicine, to name but a few. Accepting any of these alternative realities requires the believer to accept incorrect or unproven beliefs about the natural world.

"But what if I choose to live with my comfortable, if misconceived, beliefs about the natural world? I've done so for years and they haven't hurt me yet."

Once people decide to accept any nonscientific belief, they immediately begin adjusting the way they view the world so as to make it consistent with this new belief. I will work through the implications of two nonscientific beliefs, the presence of aliens on Earth and the use of homeopathic medicine, to show how any new incorrect belief can, in fact, hurt us, even without our knowing it.

Aliens in Our Midst

I enjoyed the movies Men in Black and Independence Day: nice escapism that speculates about different aspects of alien life visiting Earth today, a premise that I categorically reject, by the way. Let's consider what is involved when you actually accept that extraterrestrial aliens are here. In the first place, you must believe that they came from somewhere else, crossing space and arriving undetected by our current technology. The possibility that they are in the solar system undetected is plausible, since we are not actively monitoring all of it.

Since technology is a continually evolving field, I won't argue the possibilities or implications of interstellar travel other than to reiterate one science-related issue: there is no scientific evidence whatever that faster-than-light travel is possible, despite its occurrence in numerous science fiction stories. Indeed, there is very strong scientific evidence that the speed of light is truly the limit to how fast matter can travel. Therefore, it would take many years, more likely centuries or even millennia, for any aliens to reach the Earth. This implies that they almost certainly would come in gigantic spaceships carrying redundant quantities of everything they would need to survive such a long passage. The movie Independence Day had a good representation of such a ship.

If you believe aliens have made the journey, you have almost certainly asked yourself why. The usual explanations are that they have come either for positive reasons (from our point of view), such as sharing their knowledge with us; for neutral reasons, such as documenting life forms on Earth for their databases; or for negative reasons, such as taking raw materials from Earth or taking us as slaves, or worse.

One can rationalize why aliens have not heralded their presence to all humankind in either of the first two cases. Perhaps, for example, they don't think we are ready to know about them or they don't want to affect our cultural development.

If they are here to dominate us, then reasonable strategy dictates that they should either destroy us outright or use the element of surprise to overcome us before we could bring our ever-improving technology to bear against them. The argument that aggressive aliens are secretly studying us before they act doesn't hold any water because there are just too many chances for something to go wrong, enabling us to detect them. If they were here for domination, we would already know it by the destruction they caused. Since this hasn't happened, reason dictates that evil aliens aren't here . . . yet.

So if you believe aliens are here, you have probably decided that they are either just spying on us to learn about us or are waiting benevolently in the wings until we are ready to learn from them. Or you might have a completely different view about how evil aliens might be operating than I do. In any case, accepting the presence of aliens causes your view of the world to be different from mine. Mine does not contain aliens, and therefore I don't have to spend any intellectual energy thinking about them or their consequences.

Ifyou also assume that aliens don't just stay in hidden landing craft (UFOs) but walk among us, then you must always be wondering on some level whether every stranger you meet is actually an alien. As I mentioned above, the chance of their being discovered is nontrivial, considering everything that could go wrong; since none of them have been paraded around, this leads to the question of government cover-up of alien bodies, craft, and artifacts. This conviction among many who believe in UFOs even has a focus, namely the restricted Area 51 in Groom Lake, Nevada.

Believing that there are aliens in our midst creates some degree of paranoia that affects how you interact with everyone. To blend in, aliens must either look strikingly like us or be able to disguise themselves fantastically well. If you believe they look like us, then this belief bears on your ideas about how humans developed. The theory of evolution clearly indicates that our present features evolved in response to our environment, and even so, we might very easily have evolved to look completely different than we do. For example, had circumstances been slightly otherwise, we could easily have four legs and four arms, with three fingers on each hand and eyes all around our head. The possibilities are virtually endless—even slightly different environments on the younger Earth would have led to profoundly different "humans." So if you believe aliens look even remotely like us, you must either assume that evolution occurs according to a much narrower set of guidelines than biologists believe it does, allowing creatures evolving even on different worlds to look similar, or conclude that evolution didn't happen and that all life throughout the galaxy was created by God "in His image."

Considering all the alleged alien contacts that occur here each year, it may well be that more than one alien race has arrived from different worlds. If so, are they mutual friends or foes? If they are enemies, then you also have to worry about them tearing up our solar system as they fight each other for dominance. See how complicated your worldview can become when you follow out the implications of a non-scientific belief?

Walka Mile in Another's Shoes

As we each develop our own thought processes, we grow less and less able to appreciate other perspectives on deeply held or intellectually challenging beliefs. It is hard to step out of ourselves and look at the world from different points of view or from different belief systems. Therefore, we often don't know that our ideas are at odds with those of other people.

Sometimes, as when we assume that aliens are here on Earth, the effects of those beliefs are mostly behavioral. That is bad enough, because behaviors based on invalid assumptions are often not in our best interests. They might keep us associating with people we wouldn't otherwise, or keep us away from people or activities that would make our lives richer. Sometimes, as with belief in the validity of astrology, the effects are both behavioral and financial—causing people not only to make different decisions than they would otherwise but also to waste money. This is arguably worse than just missing opportunities to meet interesting people and have interesting experiences, but it is not nearly as bad as the effects of believing in such concepts as homeopathic medicine and faith healing. In such cases, people not only behave differently and waste money but also endanger their lives and the lives of people they love, especially children who may not have any choice in the treatment of their illnesses and injuries.

The Doctor Is Out

Homeopathic medicine asserts that various plants, minerals, and animal-derived compounds taken in very small doses will stimulate a sick person's natural defenses. The word "small" here is crucial. The concentrations of the substances are so small that often they contain only one allegedly medicinal molecule in an entire dose. There have been hundreds of studies, some scientific, some allegedly (but not actually) scientific, others clearly nonscientific, on the efficacy of homeopathic remedies. Aside from the blatantly nonscientific ones, some studies show positive health effects while others show no health effects at all from taking these remedies. Careful examination of the allegedly scientific studies reveals flaws in the ways they were conducted, so their results should not be accepted as scientifically valid.

It is the consensus among mainstream medical practitioners that any positive results from homeopathy are due to the placebo effect, the basic principle of which is that if you believe something is going to happen to you, your state of mind can influence the response of your body. This is, of course, precisely what happens when you take a homeopathic medicine: you believe, hope, or expect that you are taking something beneficial, and this belief starts physical activities within your body that help you heal—sometimes—or enables you to ignore pain or discomfort caused by whatever ails you. Similarly, some researchers studying the placebo effect suspect that the process of taking an inert placebo (thinking that it is actually a medicine) can help some people stimulate their bodies to react more to an illness or injury than they would otherwise.

The problems with homeopathy are, first, that belief in the healing power of a substance can help only some people get better, or at least feel better. It is much less effective than healing aided by medicines that have been shown scientifically to be effective. Therefore, when taking a homeopathic remedy, you have much less chance of healing as well or as quickly as you would by taking an established medicine. Second, homeopathic remedies are expensive; you will get better value for that money by spending it on standard medical care. Third, belief in homeopathy creates doubts about the value and validity of mainstream medicine. This latter point is very important. Since mainstream medicine has been proven significantly more effective than the placebo effect of homeopathy, reliance solely on homeopathic medicine can cause some people to put themselves at greater risk than if they followed strictly standard medical procedures. Much worse than choosing less effective remedies for themselves is withholding effective medical treatment from children or other people incapable of making such decisions for themselves.

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