Sunday, August 19, 2007

So how many of these practitioners are crooks?

Two years after challenging a selection of religious fundamentalists to justify
their beliefs in Channel 4’s The Root of All Evil,Richard Dawkins – “Darwin’s rottweiler” – is growling again. This time, in The Enemies of Reason, he takes on the wider penumbra of the paranormal, New Age mystical mumbo-jumbo, and the often expensive spiritual services that bring succour to the sucker.
His targets include astrologers, psychics, dowsers, homoeopaths and a woman called Elisis Livingstone who claims that in our Atlantean past we all had 12 strands of DNA rather than two. If the thought of being ten strands short bothers you, Livingstone claims she can restore them.
What makes Oxford University’s Professor of the Public Understanding of Science different from most sceptics, rationalists and humanists is that he won’t let this stuff lie. If someone claims that they can “channel” the spirits of the dead or alleviate the symptoms of some horrible incurable disease by pointing beams of coloured light at your chakras, Dawkins does not want to dismiss it as harmless fun. He wants to know how they claim to do it and what hard evidence they can produce to show that the effects they say they produce actually occur.
So how many of these practitioners are crooks? “The psychics, I think, mostly are,” he says. “But with one spiritualist I couldn’t make out if he was a charlatan or not. It’s possible that they sort of know that they’re cold-reading, but they still think it’s the spirits channelling through them.”
However, the water diviners were “genuinely sincere”. In a rather touching sequence a group of dowsers agree to submit to a double-blind trial. Their success rate in finding water was about what you would expect by chance. “In some cases they were devastated that they couldn’t do it under those conditions.”
And what of the more bizarre medical beliefs, such as the Atlantean DNA strands?“I think there’s a kind of mind that is so devoid of realism that they’re prepared to believe essentially anything,” he says.
His patience appears particularly stretched by Neil Spencer, The Observer’s astrologer, who argues that he would not subject his work to scientific tests because the aim of the testing would be to cause “mischief”.
Dawkins can’t hide his frustration at people’s gullibility. “The science of astronomy is so mind-shatteringly elegant and beautiful and inspiring, that this is demeaning and shallow and a betrayal of what it is to be human, when the human species has achieved so much in understanding the universe.” (from Times)

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