THE ISLAND OF DOUBT
An irregular exploration of the ongoing struggle between the power of rational discourse and the scientific method on one hand, and the forces of superstition and dogma on the other.
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
by Carl Sagan
The Doubter's Companion:
Skeptic Magazine: www.skeptic.com
Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal: www.csicop.org
A poem by Yehuda Amichai:
The Meaning of
the Island of
More Doubtful Blogs
Chris C. Mooney
SciAm Perspectives Panda's Thumb
Other Worthy Blogs
Random Douglas Adams quote
doubting we come to inquiry; and through inquiry we perceive truth.
Undisguised clarity is
easily mistaken for arrogance.
As for evolution, it
happened. Deal with it.
SALMON OF DOUBT
After three days of catchless fishing, while those on either side of you haul in salmon after salmon, it's hard to resist the temptation to start mumbling quiet prayers, beg for a break, or wonder what bad karma you've cast into these waters to justify the coordinated shunning of your efforts by countless lower vertebrates.
You're using the same make and length of rod as your more successful fishing companions, you're throwing the same lure, fishing the same waters, spinning the same lines. What else could explain the discrepancy in catch rates but some vengeful conspiracy of the gods?
I'm ashamed to say that I entertained such thoughts, however briefly, while standing along the upper reaches of the Chilkoot River, entry point to the southeast Alaskan spawning beds of uncounted members of the species Oncorhynchus kisutch. I am also happy to report that my moment of weakness was short-lived. On the fourth day, I finally landed a healthy 12-pound coho, or silver salmon. By the end of my annual fishing pilgrimage to Haines, Alaska, I had diverted five coho from their intended gravel-bed destinies to the secure confines of my freezer.
But my momentary lapse of reason did give me pause. This must be how everyone once thought. Back in the day, when fish and every other living thing were sentient spirits, when gods and monsters patrolled the dark woods and icy waters, when those who had transgressed nature's ways were either denied their spoils or robbed of their souls. Entire cultures were constructed on the foundation of this fictional relationship between our just desserts and our eventual fates.
It only took three days of frustration to push me back to those dark times, to forget the normal distribution of probability that all but guarantees someone's catch will approach zero even while others limit out day after day. Granted, those three days came after last year's week-long shutout. Maybe I can be forgiven for resorting to the pleas of the desperate.
Maybe. And yet it now seems to me that this skin of reason and rationality we have woven since the first stirring of the Enlightenment is often thin and threadbare. How easy it is for even a hard-core skeptic to abandon that which he knows to be reality for fantasy.
There's a controversial little book that came out a couple of years ago called The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes by Dean Hamer, a geneticist who thinks he may have identified a piece of our DNA that increases our susceptibility to supernatural philosophies.
The basic idea is that those groups of early humans who embraced spiritual ideas were more likely to survive, given the organizational strengths and sense of community that religion offered before modern administrative techniques came along. Hamer's critics say he hasn't proved his case, but it sure would explain a lot, including my own little breach of skepticism.
There's the refusal of religions to give up the ghost (so to speak) in the face of 400 years of empiricism. There's the failure of evolution to soundly trump creationism in America. There's the popularity of astrology. And there's Deepak Chopra. If we aren't programmed to believe, how on Earth do explain Deepak Chopra?
This does not excuse those who would undo everything that science and skepticism have done for us. I still have little patience for anyone who appeals to the supernatural when the evidence of the here and now offers a different story. (Science fiction author Robert Sawyer also paints a compelling argument against Hamer's god gene in his alternative-universe Hominids trilogy, in which it is godless Neanderthals, not faithful humans, who come to dominate the Earth.)
But this year's fishing trip was a lesson in humility for me. In the future I will try to be more forgiving of those otherwise reasonable fellow travellers who let slip the occasional concession to karma. After all, releasing a fish before you've caught your limit is a good idea, regardless.