Thursday, 31 May 2012

Lie to me, please!

The more I observe people's keenness to believe patent nonsense, the more I realise that the nonsense is less the problem than the desire to be lied to. Whence comes this desire? What could be its roots?

It is noticeable that certain beliefs seem to "go together" in the same individual. By "belief" I mean the act of accepting some idea as entirely true without sufficient evidence to support it. I would add to that the reluctance, or even active resistance, to research the question at all. The sort of alliance of weird beliefs would typically include the following: fringe medicine, conspiracy theories, cryptozoology (it's never cryptobotany, is it?), alien-operated UFOs and alien-created crop circles, psychic powers, ghosts and life after death generally, political movements which are new and sometimes extreme, cult and other whacky beliefs. Oh, and let's not forget Atlantis!

This list is not exhaustive. And many perfectly rational people embrace at least one of them, or find them credible to some degree. But there are many who buy into the whole lot - or most of it. They seem to have a certain "mindset" which is nourished by outlandish concepts. Why? They frequently harbour a deep mistrust of science and conventional medicine (that is, medicine that works).

The question is, what is so appealing about the weird beliefs? Why are they embraced when science and logic are rejected with a sort of visceral spasm? And does it matter?

It seems to me that common threads which run through the whacky are "total answers", certainty and, ironically, the illusory empowerment of those who embrace whatever weird idea is being proposed. It is the promise of certainty which is the most seductive, I think. Being certain removes a deep anxiety in the psyche and history shows that people can place certainty above everything, including morality and even their own survival.

In contrast, what can skepticism offer? Hard work, thoroughness, self-criticism, vigilance, and, of course, uncertainty! Skeptics live in a mental world of questioning and enquiry where there are few simple answers and no total answers. Skeptics enjoy this. However, for those who crave the comfort of certainty, and easy, if ridiculous, answers, this is hardly attractive. Possibly the reason they often react to skeptical challenges with such vituperative fury is that they feel such challenges are fundamental personal attacks, which in a very real sense to them, they are. They feel afraid because the foundation of their mental life is being undermined and the deep anxiety which comes from uncertainty awaits them. Their very world is threatened with destruction. No wonder they get so angry and reject all reason. No wonder they resort to vicious personal attacks on the skeptic.

No wonder they want to be lied to.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

On Wasting Time

On Tuesday, I did nothing useful. In other words I wasted a whole day. Do I regret it? Yes, a little bit. Why do I regret it? Because I am bothered by all the things I could have done, but didn't.

So what did I do exactly? I went to Kensington Gardens, and in particular, Kensington Palace. I was there early, and it was overcast and chilly, but the forecast was "fine and hot". Indeed one could see signs that the sun was doing its best to burn off the cloud layer. Sitting on a bench, I watched idly as the tourists strolled and the joggers jogged. It was nice just sitting there. The palace itself opens its doors at ten. Folks waited, checked their cameras and consulted maps. Cable guys were working steadily away in the grounds, quietly exchanging banter and carefully avoiding bad language. Everyone seemed in a nice mood. It's a pretty place, good to be in.

Ten o'clock was fast approaching and about a dozen tourists gathered at the front door. I intended to go in myself, but sat for a little while longer. I know from experience that it's wise to sit down every possible minute if you want to avoid "tourist's feet"!

When they had disappeared inside, I wandered over and entered the palace. The staff there are good at welcoming people and suggesting what to see, but I knew what I wanted to see, and where it was.

After an hour or so inside, I returned to the garden and sat in the shade, as by now it was getting hot.

The rest of the day was passed in this lazy and quite pointless manner. In and out the palace, sitting outside under a tree on a hot day. Watching other people. Sitting under a tree. Eating a little. Sitting under a tree.

There must be something truly human about sitting under a tree, so, on balance, I'm rather glad I did.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Little Things Mean a Lot

Sometimes there's so much to write about one doesn't know where to begin. These are news-heavy days indeed. Greece, G8, a new French president, and, of course, the Olympic Torch Relay(!)

But let us rather ponder on our prime minister's alleged predilection for playing games on his iPad. According to The Telegraph this week, he spends scary amounts of time playing something called "Fruit Ninja", having apparently exhausted the possibilities of Angry Birds.

Now although I would be disturbed if someone in charge of a country were to spend a lot of their day playing on an iPad, a little downtime devoted to this is okay. But then Angry Birds has a little wit about it. Its premise is deliciously absurd, its physics feasible, its innate humour beyond question. (You can guess, perhaps, I play it myself from time to time.)

You can also guess I tried this Fruit Ninja thingy. You wait for fruit to appear and then slice it with a screen swipe. You get a point. You need to leave the bombs alone, or it's "Game Over". That, as far as I can see, is it. Does our prime minister really spend "scary amounts of time" doing this?!

I thought I had reached the limits of my dislike of this man. But no. This latest revelation has taken these limits to fresh zones and boundaries. Sometimes it's the little things that mean the most.