If you’re going to be contrarian, pick harder targets


Lately I’ve felt twinges of regret for naming my blog “Contrarian,” since the word so frequently connotes sophomoric opposition for the sake of opposing. Thus I was relieved to discover science journalist John Horgan’s delightful piece on the Scientific American website titled: Dear “Skeptics,” Bash Homeopathy and Bigfoot Less, Mammograms and War More:

I’m a science journalist. I don’t celebrate science, I criticize it, because science needs critics more than cheerleaders. I point out gaps between scientific hype and reality. That keeps me busy, because, as you know, most peer-reviewed scientific claims are wrong….

“The Science Delusion” is common among Capital-S Skeptics. You don’t apply your skepticism equally. You are extremely critical of belief in God, ghosts, heaven, ESP, astrology, homeopathy and Bigfoot. You also attack disbelief in global warming, vaccines and genetically modified food.

These beliefs and disbeliefs deserve criticism, but they are what I call “soft targets.” That’s because, for the most part, you’re bashing people outside your tribe, who ignore you. You end up preaching to the converted.

Meanwhile, you neglect what I call hard targets. These are dubious and even harmful claims promoted by major scientists and institutions.

stephen-hawking-net-worth1Horgan goes on to debunk string theory and multiverse theory (theoretical frameworks for physics backed by Stephen Hawking), simulation (a notion advocated by Neil de Grasse Tyson that our universe is a simulation created by super-intelligent aliens), and singularity (the proposition promoted by Google Engineering Director Ray Kurzweil that that “we’re on the verge of digitizing our psyches and uploading them into computers, where we can live forever”).

Turning to medicine, Horgan dismisses the crazy belief that American medicine is the best in the world before challenging the efficacy of mammograms and PSA screening tests, and denouncing the psychiatric profession for transforming itself into Big Pharma’s marketing department.

Finally he attacks some recent scientific bumpf positing that humans are genetically programmed to pursue warfare. War, he argues, is the hardest target of all.

You might also think that religious fanaticism—and especially Muslim fanaticism–is the greatest threat to peace. That’s the claim of religion-bashers like Dawkins, Krauss, Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne and the late, great warmonger Christopher Hitchens.

The United States, I submit, is the greatest threat to peace. Since 9/11, U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan have killed 370,000 people. That includes more than 210,000 civilians, many of them children. These are conservative estimates….

In the last century, prominent scientists spoke out against U.S. militarism and called for the end of war. Scientists like Einstein, Linus Pauling, and the great skeptic Carl Sagan. Where are their successors? Noam Chomsky is still bashing U.S. imperialism, but he’s almost 90. He needs help!

Maybe the reason I’ve always loved bashing homeopathy is that it’s just so darned easy. The much harder task is to look skeptically at beliefs we hold dear. There’s plenty of that in Horgan’s piece. Read the whole thing, and thanks to Alicia Penney for pointing it out.

Note to readers: I have a lengthening backlog of topics for blog posts, including: Newly appointed Nalcor saviour Stan Marshall’s almost certainly bogus claim that he’ll consider scrapping the Muskrat Falls project; a long and revealing interview with the Chronicle-Herald’s much-demonized CEO Mark Lever; a couple of practical suggestions for dialing back wasteful and authoritarian security precautions at airports and the Nova Scotia Legislature; a curious note about highway sign fonts; the media gang-up on anyone who dares suggest the Fort Mac fires should spark action to fight climate change; Nova Scotia’s disappearing gas stations; the refusal of the Minister of Environment and the Chief Medical Officer of Health to enforce restaurant washroom standards; how failure to follow tendering rules led to the McNeil Government’s first financial fiasco; and a skeptical—yes, skeptical—look at the confidence racket by which we establish judicial salaries in Canada. Phew!

I aspire to greater diligence, but the truth is I’m better at dreaming up blog post topics than I am at getting them written. Also, the pay isn’t great here at Contrarian World HQ, and the older I get, the less urgency I detect for the world to receive my opinions. I will try to do better, but you probably have time to duck out for a puff.