Friday, May 30, 2008

Simple or true? - Botswana Guardian

There’s a big difference between an idea that is simple and one that can be expressed simply. Although scientists often describe a theory as “elegant” that doesn’t always mean that it’s easy to understand. Famously Richard Feynman said of quantum theory that if you think you understand it, then you clearly don’t understand it.

The trouble is that people often fall victim to theories and ideas that are just simple and no more. Theories that sound truly simple but are simply untrue.

The principle behind homeopathy for instance can be expressed very simply. A disorder can be treated with a tiny dose of the thing that caused it. Acupuncture can be “explained” by saying that it promotes the free flow of “chi” around your body to enhance your energy balance. Reflexology says that there are pathways between the soles of your feet and every organ of your body. Fiddling with your feet can therefore heal those other parts that are ill. All of these ideas can be expressed very simply, in no more than a sentence or two.

But simplicity is not the same as truth.

Every genuinely scientific study of homeopathy, acupuncture and reflexology shows that they are nonsense. They do nothing real. Any improvement can be traced back to the placebo effect.

If you want a real understanding of how health can be promoted and illness overcome then you have to do more than just come out with ignorant platitudes, you need to do some thinking. Real thinking. With your brain.

Real thought, real science and real knowledge are the sworn enemies of superstition, magical thinking and all the New Age lunacy that we see around us. They are also the enemies of prejudice in whatever form it shows it’s ugly face.

In a letter I wrote recently to the Guardian I mentioned that I resented being accused of being like a member of the Ku Klux Klan, the nasty, bigoted and profoundly racist hate group in the USA. This accusation was made because I had stood up for science, medicine and rationalism. During this letter I mentioned in passing that I was the “father of a Jewish son”.

Perhaps someone can explain to me the logic behind the comment in Bugalo Chilume’s tirade the following week when, referring to me, he used the phrase “In Israel, Harriman’s homeland”?

For the record, I’m not Israeli and neither am I Jewish. Similarly I’ve been to Italy but I’m not a Catholic. I’ve been to the Far East but I’m not a Buddhist. I’ve read many articles by Chilume but I’m still sane.

The real danger we face in the world today is the epidemic of nonsense. The nonsense of AIDS denial is killing people. The nonsense of global warming denial is threatening to kill our grandchildren. The nonsense of xenophobic hatred as a cover for gross criminality is killing people in South Africa.

I can be the father of a Jew without being Israeli. I can be white and, on a good day, a fairly good person. Chilume can be logical but he seems to choose not to be so.