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219. Gathering together (IX)

My reaction upon meeting a skeptic is the immediate desire to assert that the virgin birth literally happened, UFOs are based in Antarctica, and that fairies live at the bottom of my garden. I must assert these ideas to the skeptic; and I feel, at base, the skeptic wants to hear these things asserted—it is part of why he is a skeptic. I know many of you feel the same way, and the reason stems from the hypocrisy of the skeptics; they are deeply religious people who assert they have no religion. Religious fanatics—whether Christian or Muslim—at least acknowledge that they are religious; and self-knowledge saves us from arrogance.

The skeptic is a different beast from the sceptical scientist, the skeptic—sometimes a scientist, sometimes a vain and clueless journalist like Christopher Hitchens—has a definite commitment to science as a single repository of all knowledge; it is “good”, not itself a scientific category. This position cannot be sustained scientifically, for from a scientific view we are a species evolved to propagate our genes in response to environmental pressures: there is no reason why our reason should be able to explain everything, anymore than an oyster should be able to do advanced mathematics.

Yet the skeptic has put his faith in science, and from this position builds his social identity around his skepticism; he creates an in-group to defend, another unscientific endeavour. His enemy is those people who propagate “woo”—the “bad people”, I suppose. Indeed, part of the in-group identity is to write “skeptic” with a “k”; it is more special, more Gothic, than mere “scepticism”. Do not confuse “scepticism” with “a skeptic”—one is an attitude, the other an ideology.

Crop circles used to be “a thing”, as we say online, about two decades ago; the fuss has dissipated, so let us consider these cereal traces. The skeptics immediately made their own circles to demonstrate that man could easily make a crop circle, no UFOs required. The exercise was pointless, for it is obvious that a man can make a crop circle. All that happened was that circle enthusiasts mistook the circles made by the skeptics for the real McCoy. A more sceptical approach would have been to hire a private detective and offer a cash reward to find the people who made the crop circles; perhaps this was done eventually, but the first thing the skeptics did was add to the legend. A Jungian would say that the crop circles represent mandalas; examples of ancient geometry that are pleasing to humans. The skeptics wanted to make their own, not to refute the believers but to give expression to their souls.

Confident physicists created elaborate theoretical models—perfectly logical and grounded in science—to explain the circles, although the simplest explanation would be people mucking about in fields for a lark; for an academic scientist, without common sense, this possibility was not as pleasing as a theory that involved vortices, electricity, and plasma. At one point, there was talk of funding from universities to study the circles; hopefully this did not happen, because entire careers would have been built on incentivised empty speculation of a highly recondite nature without ever arriving at an answer—the primary activity of academia in all fields.

So far, no conclusive view has been reached; it is difficult to prove a negative, and to catch a few young farmers crop circling does not demonstrate that all circles are the products of man. As we have seen with Covid-19, it is easy to spin theories that are supported by logic, reason, and peer-reviewed evidence but that have almost no explanatory value; and our religious relationship to science makes it difficult to push back against these ideas. The view that we have somehow become more rational and empirical is a chimera; it is as easy to write compelling fantasy with the laws as physics as with the chakras; the “woo” is also logical, as all good stories are.

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