Two stories, no thinking

Two stories, no thinking

Two stories, no thinking

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
Jan. 8 2009 5:00 PM

Two stories, no thinking

What do these two stories have in common?

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

1) The TV channel A&E has greenlit a new unscripted program called "Paranormal Cops", where police moonlight chasing ghosts. This is not a joke. Well, the program is, but the story isn't. The only accurate part of this thing is that they didn't call it a "reality" program.

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2) A woman in Papua New Guinea "was bound and gagged, tied to a log and set ablaze on a pile of tires this week". Why? Probably because she was accused of being a witch. Yes, a witch. There has been a growing number of people in that country who have been tortured and killed because they were suspected of sorcery.

Those two stories don't seem too similar at first blush. One is a frivolous program meant to entertain, the other a deadly serious and shameful act.

But I think they are both shameful (on different levels, but still), and both are driven by ignorance. Ignorance of science, ignorance of logic, ignorance of reality.

There is no credible evidence for the existence of ghosts. None. Zip. Just first-hand testimony, notoriously inaccurate and untrustworthy, and fuzzy pictures either obviously hoaxed or obviously pareidolia. Our all-too-human fear of the dark, bred into us by ten thousand generations of being prey, takes over our rational mind.

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The same with witchcraft; it's our all-too-human ability of linking events together that may not be causally connected. You find a penny, and then you get a raise. Your brain says, finding a penny is good luck! Your neighbor sneezes violently, and your crops fail. Your neighbor is a witch.

Both of these feelings are natural. Both are understandable, and both are powerful motivators. And they're both wrong. We are more than animals, capable of far more than simple stimulus and response. One of our finest aspects is our ability to reason, to check our logic, to make sure our senses aren't trying to fail us. The TV show on A&E will teach thousands of people to trust their senses, to not use reason, to not analyze things logically. It will steer people away from our finest and noblest attributes.

And the other story... that's the extreme consequence of ignoring our ability to reason. When you partially reason, when you only take logic part-way to a conclusion, when you let your desires and your fears rule your thinking rather than the other way around, people get hurt. People die.

These stories are both about ignorance. One may seem relatively harmless, and the other horrifying. But they are linked strongly by their combined willful disdain for logic and reality.

Tip o' the tin foil beanie to Tim Farley for the witch article.