Chapter 4: How to Point and Laugh at Irrational Nonsense

“Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions.”
Thomas Jefferson

It might be helpful at this point to pause for a while and tell you a little more about my general philosophy as this is going to become relevant as to how I approach my illness. A few years ago I gave a number of talks to various “Skeptics in the Pub” groups across the UK, and I was also kindly invited to give the Dorset Humanists' 2013 Darwin Day lecture. The subject of the lecture, and indeed the other talks was “How To Point and Laugh at Irrational Nonsense”. If you allow me to explain a little more about this talk, it may hopefully provide some useful context. Bear with.

A damn good idea can quite easily withstand a little scrutiny. If it fails to do so then it’s probably not such a damn good idea after all and either needs a bit of refinement or a jolly good rethink. Sometimes for ideological or cultural reasons people get terribly attached to a particular idea that on rational reflection, is at best, a bit silly. Of course I have no objections to people believing in silly ideas. I for instance maintain the somewhat controversial belief that 180 gram vinyl sounds a damn sight better than 320kbps MP3, whatever fluffs your pigeon. I do however have a problem when people try and protect silly ideas, or indeed any idea from valid criticism by the use of laws (such as blaspheming laws), censorship, claiming offence or persecution and of course, good old fashioned terror. I’m also not terribly keen on indoctrinating children into one specific silly idea before they have the faculties to critically appraise those ideas, which is of course precisely the reason why holders of those beliefs are so anxious to take advantage on this credulous window of opportunity. When it comes to religious beliefs at least, it's surely far better to unbiasedly tell children about lots of different silly ideas to put them into better context.

I am not however in the business of criticising believers of such ideas, just the beliefs themselves. Many people have become so dependent on silly beliefs that those beliefs become a crutch they must lean on. If so, I have no desire to go around callously kicking away the crutches of believers, I just want to put an end to the state sponsored crippling of children that strives to ensure that they will grow up to need the same crutches as their parents.

Religion is of course not the only silly belief I am referring to here. I have in fact gone to a great deal of trouble by classifying silly beliefs into four main categories that fit rather neatly onto a Venn Diagram. You’re welcome.

I’m not going to go into all of these beliefs here. Waving a shitty stick at such ideas is the sole purpose of my other blog; they are all however as stupendously silly as each other. The point of my talk however was that none of these ideas should be beyond question in order to spare the sensibilities of their subscribers. And there are many ways in which they can be questioned.  The best mechanism we have to question these ideas is the scientific method. It’s not perfect, it certainly doesn’t have all the answers, or indeed claim to have all the answers but it is a proven toolkit for hypothesising, testing and verifying jolly good ideas. All the ideas on the Venn diagram above are on the diagram precisely because they have failed that testing and verification process. Sorry but there it is.

It seems to me that the reasons why such ideas and beliefs still doggedly persist is that because the scientific method is not the method most of us adopt in order to sanction our beliefs. We prefer to trust our own perceived personal experiences, our gut instincts and the authoritative opinions of our exalted betters. Most of us don’t read the meta analysis of the double blinded, randomised clinical trials that prove homeopathy to be bunkum. We do however hear a charming yarn about how our neighbour was feeling a bit peaky, took a homeopathic remedy and, as luck would have it, felt much better the following week. Such uncontrolled anecdotes and outlying single data points seems to hold much more sway to many of us than that the combined analysis of coordinated and appraised trials.

It seems that science, although great at winnowing the most likely truth from a large body of data, is completely shite at convincing people of the practical upshot. Silly beliefs on the other hand have much better PR.  Many also have centuries of culture and tradition and even state sponsorship propping them up. My talk therefore suggested that ideas that have been falsified by the scientific method could, and should be communicated by a variety of different methods, and my chosen method is taking the piss, or in order to make it sound slightly more credible, satire.  

I have read many serious polemics that carefully analyse and critique biblical wisdom. However, reading such volumes of philosophy and popular science, was not the root of my conversion to a more rational and evidenced viewpoint. The absurdity of say, Catholicism for example, was made clearly apparent to me many years earlier not by Daniel Dennett or Christopher Hitchens but by Dave Allen and, even though no one suspected it, Monty Python.

I think the same principles of satire and derision can be applied to all forms of nonsense to try and emphasise its inherent absurdity. We often become blind to much irrational nonsense due to the familiarity of the context in which it is presented. I therefore their like to juxtapose that context to help re-stress the incongruity of certain notions. For example, “Karma Kanics”, my imagined alternative new age vehicle well running centre, offers many services beyond mainstream garages who seem to have very little time for their customers and focus solely on the specific mechanical faults in your vehicle. My new age vehicle well running centre takes a far more holistic approach to your car’s well running by using more traditional and natural repair techniques that will enhance your vehicles whole engine, body and petroleum spirit. Typical therapies offered include:

·      Drive Shaft Manipulation
Many Alt-Mach practitioners believe that most faults in the car are caused by cardan-subluxations, where one or more couplings in the drive shaft move out of position. Firm manipulation of the drive shaft can help to free these blockages and allow the free flow of innate torque throughout the whole car.

·      Torsion Healing
Fully trained Torsion Masters go through several levels of attunements and are able to channel a car’s torsion by mystically waving spanners over the bonnet and restoring the engine's cosmic balance and harmony.

·      Tyreology
A variety of mechanical faults can be fixed by massaging the correct points of the car’s tyres. Various zones on each tyre mirror separate engine components. For example, massaging the inner tread of the driver’s rear-side tyre can clear blockages in the carburettor.

·      Exhaust Candling
Exhaust candling involves inserting a hollow candle into the car’s exhaust pipe with the external end lit. The process works by the candle flame creating a negative pressure that encourages carbon monoxide and other toxins in the car to be expelled through the exhaust and naturally detoxify the engine.

·      Anti Service
Regular car servicing is promoted by the shills of “Big Garage” as a supposed method of reducing breakdowns. In reality, regular servicing of your car simply pumps it full of toxic oil and brake fluid and feeds the profits of conventional garages. Some studies have also shown a link between new car servicing and incorrect valve clearance.

Farcical as the above mechanical therapies may sound we tend not to notice so much when we apply them to ourselves and refer to them as: Chiropractic, Reiki, Reflexology, Ear Candling and Anti Vaccination – yet they are equally bogus.

As I lie awake in the darkened Downton ward contemplating the results of my CT scan, I have some comfort. Thankfully the truly marvellous British National Health Service that is looking after me tends not to deal overly in prayer, magic spells, reflexology, crystals or healing hands, but instead uses the best medical interventions known to science. It will be interesting to see if I am able to maintain my Weltanschauung when my results come in.

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