There is nothing more perilous to human progress and the growth of knowledge than spiritual, philosophical, or religious principles that are packaged up and presented as “fact” — under the guise of science. The practice is most terrifying because its presentation is so often seductive and subtle. But make no mistake about it: pseudoscience is dangerous and destructive. In fact, I wouldn’t hesitate to compare it with pestilence, poverty, and even war — when considering its pernicious consequences.
Perhaps nothing in modern history offers a more vivid example than the film What the Bleep Do We Know? and its sequel, Down the Rabbit Hole (here’s a thoroughly scathing and well-deserved appraisal of the former). Both movies are little more than a collection of absurd theories justified by everything from pop-psychology to subatomic physics. But despite the films’ lofty claims of adhering to scientific “fact” — coupled with a slick presentation — they are riddled with inaccuracies, nonsense, and fraud. They embody, in toto, the noxious essence of pseudoscience and its manifestation as a disturbing and sinister modern zeitgeist.
I submit next the proverbial first cousins to the What the Bleep films. They are two books written by a woman named Rhonda Byrne: The Secret and The Power. Both of these embarrassing tomes were, unfortunately, best-sellers — which again proves how terrifying this phenomenon of pseudoscience can be. The author claims with great enthusiasm to be elucidating from a position of science. But nothing could be further from the truth. Some people might be interested in a more detailed and consummate commentary on the absurdity Byrne’s conclusions — from the New York Times.
Pseudoscience is by no means a new development. Since the dawn of time, human beings have been interpreting (and trying to solve) the mysteries of the universe using all measures of absurdities. Ancient Egyptians believed wearing makeup prevented evil from entering one’s eyes. The Romans believed phallic symbols could coax evil spirits to leave the body. Blood-letting was the most common “cure” for just about every disease imaginable — across innumerable cultures the world over — for almost 2000 years. And in Elizabethan England, people believed that certain illnesses could be avoided by eating the hair from between a black sheep’s hind legs.
These practices sound ridiculous to most of us, but similar foolishness persists to this day. One glaring example comes directly from one of the aforementioned films: What the Bleep Do We Know. The movie extols the expertise of a woman named JZ Knight. Her credentials? She claims to have a direct connection to a 35,000-year-old warrior named “Ramtha” who channels his wisdom to the modern world through Ms. Knight. It should be noted Ms. Knight is the only person who can actually “hear” Ramtha. But that’s a mere trivial detail, and it certainly hasn’t prevented Knight from collecting vast sums of money from her followers in exchange for a conversation with Ramtha. Indeed, Knight’s special relationship with this ancient warrior earned her a starring role in a major motion picture…
All of this is, no doubt, as comical to the more rational among you as it is to me — that is, until you realize the profound effect people like Knight and the film What the Bleep Do We Know are having on seemingly rational people around the world. These are the very modes of thinking that led to movements like Christian Science, in which people refuse to participate in modern medical practices — often to their peril. Some of the more cynical among you might chuckle and hand it over to Darwin, pointing out that people ignorant enough to eschew the very medicines that might lead to their salvation may very well deserve their fate. Perhaps the world would be better off if the proponents of such ideas failed to procreate as a result of their folly…
But cynical joke doesn’t seem quite so funny when we start to talk about the implications pseudoscience has on children. Perhaps the most profound example in recent history — and one that still persists, despite having been irrefutably debunked — is the movement against childhood vaccines.
It was started by a British doctor named Andrew Wakefield — based on research claiming to reveal a direct link between autism and modern vaccines. Wakefield’s following grew quickly and gained the support of many celebrities like Jenny McCarthy. A few years ago, however, Wakefield’s research was exposed as fraudulent, and he was stripped of his medical license as a result. Nevertheless, his core following, including McCarthy, continues to decry the evils of vaccines — demanding parents, civic groups, medical agencies, and governments everywhere stop inoculating children from deadly diseases.
Yet another example of the horrific consequences of pseudoscience: the preposterous war against genetically modified foods. For many years, farmers have been genetically altering crops so that they might resist disease, thereby increasing yields. The practice has been a huge success, expanding global food quantities, while dramatically reducing the need for pesticides. There has never been any evidence to suggest that these modifications cause any harm in human beings. Indeed, the changes amount to nothing more than an acceleration of what nature has done for billions of years anyway; scientists are merely manually selecting genes for superior performance.
And yet, because of terror-driven, pseudoscientific mania, huge numbers of people have taken the untenable stance that “something” is wrong with genetically modified foods. Crops have been attacked and purposely destroyed. Farmers, geneticists, and even their families have received death threats. Why? Because they are helping eliminate human starvation through higher yields and lower costs, increasing nutrition in our foods, as well as mitigating the use of pesticides in the plants we eat.
Enough is enough. Pseudoscience is a disease, and it must be stopped. We must find ways to expose fear-mongering authority figures who refuse to procure evidence for their vacuous claims. But even more importantly, we must become skeptics, ourselves. There is no excuse for blindly clinging to any belief that has no evidentiary basis in reality.