The uncomfortable truth

Before you walk away from lockdown and face-first into the coronavirus, we need to discuss the elephant in the room: your uncomfortable relationship with science. 

[This is an edited extract from Tim Noakes: The Quiet Maverick by Daryl Ilbury, available online at leading bookstores and on]

Religion is possibly the single biggest destructive force in the shaping of public opinion towards science, and the chances are it’s not going to go away any time soon. The eminent American biologist Edward O. Wilson, in his influential treatise On Human Nature, says that ‘the predisposition to religious belief is the most complex and powerful force in the human mind and in all probability an ineradicable part of human nature’. He points to the discoveries of bone altars and displays of funeral rites in Neanderthal dwellings as evidence that the belief in spirits may go back as far as over 60,000 years, and references Canadian-American anthropologist Anthony F.C. Wallace who said that since then mankind has produced about 100,000 religions. 

This, of course, would be dismissed by those who think their religion is unique and therefore somehow incontrovertible. In God is Not Great Christopher Hitchens reminds those who anchor their faith in the distinctive tale of a virgin or miraculous birth that human belief has been there before: the Greek demigod Perseus was apparently born when the god Jupiter visited the virgin Danaë as a shower of gold which made her pregnant; the god Buddha was born through the opening in his mother’s flank; Genghis Khan was reportedly born of the virgin daughter of a Mongol king after she awoke one night and found herself bathed in a great light; the Hindu god Krishna was born of the virgin Devaka; the Egyptian god Horus was born of the goddess Isis (but only after she had retrieved all the dismembered body parts of her murdered husband Osiris, except his penis, which was eaten by catfish); the Roman god Mercury was born of the virgin Maia; and the ancient Phrygo-Roman god Attis is often depicted as being born of a virgin mother on, wait for it, December 25th. 

Despite all the corroboration that the current dominant religions are essentially mishmashes of belief systems that have existed over thousands of years; that they imaginatively and creatively metamorphosed through word-of-mouth retellings until they were seized upon by powerful institutions that crafted them for their purposes; that they are open to all manner of interpretations; and that each religion has a myriad offshoots, each of which stakes a claim to authenticity, often delivered with unremitting bloodletting; adherents of a religion will unquestioningly reject the clear evidence of science, and fill its place with an amalgam of cherry-picked wild tales. And yet those same people will gladly embrace all the benefits that science provides, such as medicine and technology.

Adherents of a religion will unquestioningly reject the clear evidence of science, and fill its place with an amalgam of cherry-picked wild tales

We are not born distrustful of science, we are taught it. Like racism, homophobia or any other prejudice, it is the outcome of the opinions or ignorance of parents, teachers and communities, and the complicity of religion in this regard cannot be overemphasised. The shaping of attitudes towards science is not limited to the community-level preaching in churches, temples and mosques, or the propaganda taught in the schools they control, it’s in their continued influence at state level.

This can be overt, as in the control of Iran’s Islamic theologians over the election of their Supreme Leader, the deceptively quaint symbiosis between the British monarchy and the Anglican Church, or the more dissembling claims of separation of church and state in the US while the command ‘In God we trust’ still holds court in their legislative chambers and courtrooms. Or it can be covert – on a subtler level, acquiescence to the dictates of religions lies in the national celebration of religious holidays and the invocation of deities in national anthems, South Africa’s Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika being a case in point.

Yet, science is the only way of accurately understanding our natural world, anything else is make-believe. The unequivocal proof thereof is in the replicable application of science: technology. So much of what we take for granted as part of our modern world has been realised only by using science to understand and thoroughly test the underlying hypotheses. Bolts of lightning, formerly considered portents of doom or the designs of sorcerers, can be recreated in a laboratory. Heavier-than-air craft take to the skies daily because of our clear understanding of pressure differentials produced by the shape of a bird’s wing, not because those aboard all pray to the powers of an omnipotent being.

Despite Christian Scientists believing that a child’s fever, headaches and stiffness of the neck emanate from that child’s impure thoughts, modern medicine’s understanding of germ theory, and the technology it has produced, means we can do a simple test for meningitis, and if that is proved the case, treat the child with antibiotics. Of course the parents would probably disagree, refuse medication in accordance with their beliefs, and let the child die in excruciating pain while they stand beside his or her bed, their heads bowed in deference to the imaginary. In his book The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan explains this with typical eloquence: ‘Microbiology and meteorology now explain what only a few centuries ago was considered sufficient cause to burn women to death.’

‘Microbiology and meteorology now explain what only a few centuries ago was considered sufficient cause to burn women to death.’

And that’s what frustrates scientists. Despite all of the evidence from science that we happily embrace in technology, popular superstitions, religious beliefs and the mistrust of science continues.

Here’s a quick test. Which of the following is a recognised branch of science: astrology, telepathy, dianetics, three-cycle biorhythms, precognition, numerology, phrenology, telekinesis and homeopathy? It is of course a trick question. They are all forms of pseudoscience; as such they present themselves as consistent with all the conventions of scientific research (complete with impressive, sciencey-sounding names), but in fact fail miserably when confronted with the rigours of qualified scientific enquiry. 

So how is it possible that even people living in developed countries with a good-quality education and who have been exposed to the joys of science believe in such highly illogical and scientifically unproven rubbish as astrology, numerology and homeopathy? There are several reasons (and these may sound a little familiar): because it is part of their culture, an ancestral ‘wisdom’ passed down over hundreds of years through various forms including word of mouth by so-called leaders; and because part of that same culture is to not question the authority of these leaders.

Many of these pseudoscientific lines of thought have their roots in pre-scientific thinking, but have remained in our culture because they are attractive and can be used to weave wonderful stories that capture our imagination (‘you’re going to meet a tall, dark and handsome stranger’). But because they are non-scientific, and therefore malleable, these ancient beliefs can also be shaped and wielded by charlatans, who then use them to lead people in dangerous directions. 

What about the new pseudoscience that continually works its way into our world? What about the laughable fads like ‘The Secret’ or the more sinister movements like Intelligent Design? Why is it that seemingly rational people get drawn into their vortex like birds sucked into an aeroplane engine? Because people don’t examine what’s before them, and, despite being blessed with an incredibly developed brain, they don’t think critically. They believe, unquestioningly, anything that’s dressed up like science, and they are attracted to confident and charismatic people who tell them that something works. That’s why critical thinking is the difference between thinking someone’s a prophet and knowing they’re a charlatan. 

Science doesn’t know everything; if it did it would stop

There’s another reason why pseudoscience exists: science doesn’t know everything. If it did, in the words of my favourite comedian and fellow sceptic Dara Ó Briain, it would stop. Pseudoscience continually points to the absence of knowledge as an invitation to be creative with the truth. It’s a little like finding a dropped pen at a crime scene and accordingly arresting any accountant selected randomly from the phone book.

Carl Sagan wrote in The Demon-Haunted World, ‘Scientists are used to struggling with Nature, who may surrender her secrets reluctantly but who fights fair.’ What he means is that in the vastness of the natural world, there’s still a lot we don’t know, but if we examine it methodically and, importantly, critically, we will get to understand it; however, if we cut corners or misrepresent it, we will pay dearly.

The result of this failure in science to rush in and answer fundamental questions about the world around us has left a lot still to be discovered. And that’s exciting. But it has a downside. If the scope of scientific enquiry – from quarks to quasars and everything around and in-between – was an ocean, what we currently know would only be a single, albeit wonderfully equipped, lifeboat, and pseudoscience would be the flotsam that desperate, unthinking people cling to. It would be brightly coloured but dangerous flotsam with hidden sharp edges, and unfortunately there’d be a lot of it.

[This is an edited extract from Tim Noakes: The Quiet Maverick by Daryl Ilbury, available online at leading bookstores and on]