The new superstitions

We like to think that at some point, we broke away from the past. The past: nasty, brutish, short lives in which ignorance was a constant companion and our only hope was religion, which had us believe we were immortal.

In contrast, we like to think, we’re now enlightened and have risen past that primitive stage and are conquering all of human problems step by step with infallible rationality, and a respect for every being.

A more likely scenario is that if people were deluded then, and we came from them, we’ve just found a new way to be deluded. Some likely points of discussion:

There is increasing concern that most current published research findings are false. The probability that a research claim is true may depend on study power and bias, the number of other studies on the same question, and, importantly, the ratio of true to no relationships among the relationships probed in each scientific field. In this framework, a research finding is less likely to be true when the studies conducted in a field are smaller; when effect sizes are smaller; when there is a greater number and lesser preselection of tested relationships; where there is greater flexibility in designs, definitions, outcomes, and analytical modes; when there is greater financial and other interest and prejudice; and when more teams are involved in a scientific field in chase of statistical significance. Simulations show that for most study designs and settings, it is more likely for a research claim to be false than true. Moreover, for many current scientific fields, claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias. – PLoS Medicine

Science is like our new religion. It’s so hilariously beyond critique that it even got satirized successfully in the video game Portal, where a range of sadistic experiments were justified in the name of science. Politicians bow before it. Normal people fear to criticize it. Scientists wield great power — and reap great profits.

If millions of people want their research to show a certain finding, it probably should. Within five years they’ll have published the book, done the talk show circuit, and maybe even had a movie made about their valiant search for “truth.” At that point, they’re basically retired if they want it, or can lead their own laboratory because they have proven earnings potential.

But just like the Vatican in 1602, the scientific establishment fights back against any accusations that it is anything less than the divine word of truth. In 408 years, maybe the proles will be angry about that, too. They’re too busy now patting themselves on the back for getting rid of superstition, yet there’s a glitch:

“What Americans Really Believe,” a comprehensive new study released by Baylor University yesterday, shows that traditional Christian religion greatly decreases belief in everything from the efficacy of palm readers to the usefulness of astrology. It also shows that the irreligious and the members of more liberal Protestant denominations, far from being resistant to superstition, tend to be much more likely to believe in the paranormal and in pseudoscience than evangelical Christians.

The Gallup Organization, under contract to Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion, asked American adults a series of questions to gauge credulity. Do dreams foretell the future? Did ancient advanced civilizations such as Atlantis exist? Can places be haunted? Is it possible to communicate with the dead? Will creatures like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster someday be discovered by science?

The answers were added up to create an index of belief in occult and the paranormal. While 31% of people who never worship expressed strong belief in these things, only 8% of people who attend a house of worship more than once a week did. – WSJ

Religion, as a unified system of thought, answers questions that most people do not have time or the inclination to answer for themselves. Many also lack the ability. But most fundamentally, they’re busy. Busy having jobs and family, relaxing on weekends with hobbies so they can do it again the next week. They want a reason to trust someone, to trust and revere life, and religion gives it to them.

In place of truly “organized,” meaning logically self-consistent and orderly, religion we get the bugshit crazy superstitions that belong on late-night infomercials and $1 books they sell in dodgy truck stops. Maybe the Mayans did invent television, or Bermuda Triangle swallows souls, but more likely, it’s easy to make drama out of relatively little data. (If UFOs show up here on earth, many of our current “UFOlogists” are in trouble because the truth will not match their overhyped, radical claims.)

So again, in our modern wisdom, we have deposed centuries of learning and replaced it with The National Enquirer on steroids. Brilliant, really.

And then we’ve got a final tidbit here bashing one of our favorite illusions here, which is that more than one group, culture or values system can occupy the same place at the same time and not either (a) exist in conflict or (b) dumb each other down to an average with none of the specialized adaptations of any group intact:

No doubt there’s a strong sentiment at play that if you turn your back on them for five minutes those kooky Germans will be marching in jackboots and stiff uniforms on a banner-festooned Brandenburg Gate to launch the glorious Fourth Reich. Therefore, many might feel, the Germans themselves should have no opinions at all on the conduct of immigrants, assimilation, preservation of German values and the like. And since anyplace, anytime, can turn into Weimar in the 1930’s, multiculturalism is a good thing everywhere as a ready antidote. In this scenario, cynical politicians are forever ‘courting’ and ‘exploiting’ and ‘playing to’ and ‘placating’ eternally immutable and globally indigenous – the oxymoron is intentional – neo-fascist elements in order to scare up a few extra votes when they’re in trouble for incompetence in other matters such as the economy. In The Guardian’s report on Merkel’s speech, the first sentence reads “The German Chancellor has courted anti-immigrant opinion,,,” and goes on to talk about a “lurch to the right to placate that element in her party”.

Victor Hanson Davis once said that we should beware of automatically portraying diversity as an absolute virtue (a kind of categorical imperative in the Kantian phrase). He pointed out that the Nazi forces invading Russia featured plenty of diversity – Ukrainians, Poles, Circassians, Chechens, Muslims and others. One might add that the Soviet occupation of anywhere was always ethnically diverse. I drove around various Russian checkpoints during Moscow’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and was astonished to see ethnic Chechens, Koreans, Central Asians in Russian uniform. Empires are usually diverse and they’re forever invading others. A Greek and a Turk beating up a geriatric German – how’s that for diversity? There is even a kind of Darwinian tinge to the lazy peddling of diversity as the new gospel: it’s a healthy phenomenon in nature and therefore must be good for society. Consider that notion for a moment. Survival of the fittest anyone? The closer you scrutinize the diversity mantra, the more contradictory and muddled it looks. I always wonder: why are we anxious to preserve the culture of Amazonian Indians from enforced diversity and integration and not, say, the culture of France? – Forbes

Every age has its moron mantras, which amount to little more than superstition. What’s superstition?

Superstition is confusing proximate events for cause and effect; it usually happens when something symbolic, or visually/emotionally important, appears near to an event that is economically or socially important.

Basically, it’s our big heads fooling us into thinking the emotional event in our big heads triggers the event in reality. It’s an inversion of cause and effect: we think our emotion caused the event, but really, our emotion is the effect of what the event signifies, like “thank the gods for rain, so now we eat this season!”

Diversity is the latest moron mantra. The United States and Europe threw their last real resources into WWII, and then they botched it, as all democracies do. The war is over; who cares about the cleanup? The “Greatest Generation” ignored the threat of communist revolution, itself an outpouring of the populist revolutions related to the events of 1789 in France, and so the next fifty years were spent in constant low-grade warfare.

At the end of it, America was exhausted as was Europe, and we had built up a dangerous myth of freedom. To our founding fathers, freedom meant a lack of interference by small-minded governments. In the new American dogma, it meant do whatever you want, whenever you want! — as long as you can afford it.

We claimed we were better than the Soviets because we had freedom. The Soviets fell; the dogma remained. And then it became a race to the bottom, because if you wanted to unseat someone in America or Europe, you claimed to offer more “freedom” than they did.

This joined a long narrative of granting “rights” to previously unrepresented groups, assuming that political rights were their only source of power. Did women have power before the vote? Yes, but no one will admit that. Instead, we like to think that we as a society in an ecstasy of enlightenment granted them those rights. See how selfless we are! How different, how altruistic? Not like those shady Sovs.

Diversity was another step in this process, but went radically overboard because of a few things. First, many race riots wracked America from the 1960s to the 1990s. Second, we needed a new reason why we were ahead of our post-Soviet competitors, including Europe.

Finally, we were hoping for an easy answer: who will replenish our people, breeding below replacement levels as they get education, neurosis and dipsomaniac habits and as a result become incompetent at marriage? Who is the next generation of industry, and of warriors, who will help us crush the next enemy? Can’t someone just do it for us?

Into that walked an old and ugly American myth, which is that of the noble savage. It’s both condescending and benevolent. The benevolent part is that we assume anyone outside of white European culture has vast inner wisdom; the ugly part is that we assume this is true because they are simple people (compare to European peasant-worship in the years leading up to 1789) and have held on to animal truths through their simplicity. Add the noble savage myth to the need for a breath of fresh air in a dying civilization, and you have diversity as religion!

These are just a handful of our many illusions. Among others: that we, the people, are not responsible for the leaders we elect or the corporations who sell us wasteful products, because we were manipulated. That we are all the same inside, so the same guy who is our janitor now could be our president. That global warming is our only environmental problem. On and on, South of Heaven.

6 Comments

  1. Lydia says:

    Here is someone who got tired of listening to the folks who say the past was so dreadful and the present is perfect http://thepleasanttimes.blogspot.com/p/www.html

  2. Dolgar says:

    Religion is primitive science, not the reverse. Perhaps we should find another way of phrasing this so that it doesn’t give ammunition to the nonthinkers…?

    But the idea that science is going to cure everything is certainly ridiculous.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/teacherdudebbq2/3515681209/lightbox/

  3. bloop says:

    fantastic post but you need to back this one up: “Did women have power before the vote? Yes, but no one will admit that.” Women were largely oppressed before this, I am not advocating backwards modern feminism, just stating facts. Please explain your reasoning.

  4. Eric says:

    One quick thing here, I only skimmed through it, but I believe the Forbes article actually concurs with you in regards to the danger of blanket acceptance that diversity is always good. I think most people are just perfectly happy staying numb and ignorant to much of reality. When we get 9 billion people in this world, all wired up (as in digitally all tied in with each other) and knuckleheaded, imagine the global “godhead” we will have created? It has the potential to get real interesting. But no reason to ponder the possibilities as you can always download and watch that crazy cool new 3D movie release or spend hours numbing away with that new video game. Who needs reality? We can pump reality out in masses, like an automated factory line spitting out twinkies and ho-hos. Which of course is just what is needed for the future race that has no sense of where it came from. But hey, the paths we are laying now that lead to the future reality is trendy and cool. As long as the factory keeps outputing its various forms of denial enablers, we are all good. Right? Rock on dudes!!??!

  5. Eric says:

    Oh, I just found this link after looking up who Victor Hansen Davis was (he was referenced in the Forbes article.) I really don’t adhere to any specific political affiliation, but I do feel that any opinion that is not politically correct or “nice” gets silenced in our society, and we are going to pay the price for denial. It just appears that way to me:

    http://www.morningliberty.com/2010/06/14/illegal-immigration-8-steps-to-destroy-america-victor-hansen-davis-richard-d-lamm/

  6. Eric says:

    Sorry, I had to clarify, but my last post made me look like I think we are doomed simply because of what the link states. Of course that would be asinine, to read one person’s opinion and then be certain we are doomed. I have no clue if we are doomed, but I certainly don’t think that as a whole we are dealing with reality. Anyway, the link was just a link.

Leave a Reply

41 queries. 0.888 seconds