Progress in science requires suspension of disbelief
Posted by Henry Bauer on 2010/04/29
Jon Meacham’s review of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (New York Times Book Review, 4 April 2010, 14-5) contained these thought-provoking sentences:
Faith requires a willing suspension of disbelief.
But that is a different thing from the suspension of reason.
Dogmatic atheists, who are typically also dogmatic scientific materialists, disbelieve anything that they do not know how to explain in straightforward terms within the limits of contemporary scientific knowledge; and they describe as irrational anyone who confesses a belief, a faith, that appears incompatible with their own scientistic world-view. There are, however, many religious people who happen also to be competent scientists and who have written cogently about the compatibility of reason and religious faith — Kenneth Miller, say, or John Polkinghorne. They manage to be rational about their faith and about other matters while suspending the scientistic dismissal of anything that doesn’t seem to fit the current mainstream scientific consensus — which they, being historically informed as well as intelligent, understand to be tentative and temporary, as all scientific knowledge is.
The epithets of irrational and unscientific are hurled not only at religious believers, of course, but also against people who study such unproven topics as extrasensory perception or the possible existence of UFOs or Loch Ness monsters or yetis, and also against those of us who deny that HIV causes AIDS. But it is we who are the rational ones, because we are informed by history in the knowledge that scientific mainstream consensuses have always changed; and we understand that it is absurd to treat opposing a consensus as automatically wrong.
It becomes wearisome to continue to recall examples, which are legion, of counter-mainstream contentions that turned out to win the later day:
— The Earth DOES move.
— There ARE disease-causing germs, and it’s good to wash your hands before delivering a baby.
— Energy DOES travel in discrete quanta.
— The supposedly mythical Kraken DOES exist: it’s the giant squid.
— Children ARE, in unfortunate numbers, physically maltreated by their parents or caretakers.
— Rocks DO fall from the skies.
— Ulcers ARE caused by bacteria.
— Kuru and mad-cow diseases are NOT caused by “slow viruses”.
— Acupuncture sometimes works, and NOT via the placebo response.
— “Civilized” folk, not only Australian aborigines, ARE likely to suffer when subjected to bone-pointing or the like.
— And innumerable others.
It is irrational to hold that any contemporary belief held by some majority of researchers is automatically true. It is irrational and uninformed to criticize people just because they disagree with a mainstream consensus. The devil is always in the details, and those who wish to support any mainstream consensus can only do so rationally by invoking the specific evidence that is supposed to support that consensus.
It is rational to take seriously evidence that seems to contradict any given mainstream consensus.
Of course, that a mainstream consensus is almost bound to be wrong over the long haul — that’s how science and human understanding progress, after all — does not make it automatically or demonstrably wrong in the short run, just because some phenomena remain inexplicable. But it is irrational to exclude the possibility whereas it is rational to explore the evidence pro and con.
In the case of HIV/AIDS, the evidence pro is thin at best, which is why, plausibly, the HIV/AIDS dogmatists and their groupies persistently fail to cite it and resort to name-calling and reiteration of :everyone knows”, “no one doubts”, “hundreds of thousands of papers”, etc.
On the other hand, the evidence con is copious and strong.
So the rational ones are the Duesbergs, the Perthians, the Lauritsens, the Culshaws, and the many others of that ilk.
The irrational ones are the Faucis, Gallos, and their groupies, who attempt to explain away contradiction after contradiction:
— vaccines that enhance instead of countering “infection”;
— antiretroviral drugs that cannot kill their supposed target when they are present in microbicides;
— putative retroviruses that mutate to the extent that there is no prototype or archetype while maintaining pathogenicity;
— a sexually transmitted agent that brings enormous epidemics while being almost impossible to transmit via sexual intercourse;
— an infectious agent that cannot survive for long outside physiological conditions and yet is said able to produce epidemics via unsterilized needles in regions where the agent’s prevalence is minuscule;
— an agent transmitted via breast milk, but not if babies are fed exclusively with breast milk. And so on and so forth.