If you listened to my recent podcast with author Guy P. Harrison, then you already know I owe Star Trek fans an apology. Dear Trekkies: I apologize. I’m sorry I referred to Mr. Spock as “Dr.” Spock. It will never happen again. I promise. If I could raise my hand and separate my ring finger from my middle finger in a gesture of sincerity, I would, but I’m physically incapable of the act.
I uttered this unfortunate statement after telling Harrison that our culture’s dim view of skepticism is unjustified. Being rational, logical and skeptical doesn’t mean jettisoning emotions and feelings, as Dr. – excuse me – Mr. Spock does on the popular science fiction television show.
Harrison politely informed me of Spock’s correct title – he happens to be a big fan of the show. As it turns out, Harrison is also a big fan of science and reason, as well. We talked for almost an hour, and he conveyed passion, optimism and enthusiasm for skepticism, science and discovery. He articulately discussed several of the subjects he investigates in his new book, 50 Popular Beliefs That People Think are True. The book is an examination of unusual claims and extraordinary beliefs. Harrison is an award winning writer and the author of Race and Reality: What Everyone Should Know About Our Biological Diversity and 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God.
Skepticism, logic and science are all positive and profoundly optimistic – they give life, Harrison said. They show you what is real and what is not real, and give you the ability to spend your time on what’s important and avoid nonsense. According to Harrison,
I’d rather be Mr. Spock exploring the universe without a smile than I would be some guy sitting in the front row of a Benny Hinn faith-healing service
Harrison said the reason the general public views skepticism negatively is because people see it as a threat – and rightfully so: It’s a threat to what many people may believe, to irrational beliefs and things that aren’t true.
While science helps avoid these incorrect beliefs and dangerous myths, we should also be careful of how we view science, as well. One chapter in his book titled, “All Scientists are Geniuses and Science is Always Right,” ironically deals with an unhealthy reverence for science. Harrison said that during his travels he has heard many people in developing countries elevate science to an unrealistic level. Science is a wonderful, powerful tool, but it is not magic. According to Harrison,
It produces vaccines, it also produces napalm and nuclear bombs. … We have to think clearly about what it is, and make sure we don’t fall into the trap of making it a religion.
Most scientists and non-scientists avoid this trap, but the threat is real, he said.
One of Harrison’s favorite chapters in his book is about Bigfoot, or Sasquatch, a large ape-like creature that is purported to roam forests, mainly in the Pacific Northwest. No good evidence suggests such a creature exists, said Harrison. The animal would require a large, genetically viable population that would most certainly have been observed. Harrison said he enjoyed the topic due to his boy-like fascination with monsters.
If you’re turned on by the idea of monsters, you’ve got a field of study that is waiting for you: It’s called science. Be a biologist. Be a zoologist. Because, guess what, scientists are finding monsters all the time. Go into microbiology, my god, the things that are crawling around in your house right now. The things that are living on you, on your face right now. The little critters in your eyebrows. … We live in a world of monsters, and the majority of them haven’t been discovered yet.
Other topics Harrison discussed from his book were alternative medicine, race as a biological category and intelligence as genetic destiny.
Alternative medicine, or methods that are not evidence based, such as folk medicine, can be extremely dangerous if used instead of reliable evidence-based methods.
A lot of people fall into the trap of believing and using and wasting their money on these things because they don’t think critically. But for many people it is because they have no choice. It’s because of poverty, there’s nothing available to them. They don’t have a good healthcare system around them. That’s very common around the world. People literally die. In the time we’re going to talk in this interview, people will die around the world because they put their trust in alternative medicine over something that might have saved them.
Another chapter with profound implications for humanity is titled, “Biological Races Are Real.” During our talk, Harrison had this to say about the subject of race:
Humanity is not divided up into neat little packages or categories that nature has imposed on us called ‘races.’ This is not the case. We have cultural categories that change across societies, that change over time. … Diversity is real, but these firm boundaries we’ve drawn around us are not, and they cause endless problems.
In his chapter titled “You’re Either Born Smart or You’re Not,” Harrison explores the idea of genetic destiny. It is commonly believed that intelligence is the luck of the draw. It’s not that simple, Harrison said. Millions of children around the world fail to live up to their intellectual potential due to lack of nutrition, health care and education. Many think Mozart and Micheal Jackson are innate geniuses in their chosen craft, but they could very likely have been “made” instead of “born,” due to their upbringing. While variation is real, there is no way to measure potential, we can only measure performance.
We see these people who end up being physics professors, you track back through their life, they didn’t grow up in landfills, sifting through garbage in the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt, trying to make it. They usually had three meals a day and a parent who encouraged them.
Was this all Harrison had to say? No. I swear the man could talk – and I could listen – for hours. His enthusiasm and ability to communicate are remarkable. I guess you’ll just have to read his book, because I’m running out of space.
I guess that’s what I get for being nothing but a lowly blogger and podcaster: too much to say but not enough time or space. Genetic destiny? Perhaps. Either way, there’s just no way to tell.