Jim Zeeben: End is near for age of reason

Maybe I’m paranoid. Maybe not. But it seems to me there’s a growing cabal of people who want to convince me that everything I think I know is a lie.

It’s the zeitgeist some suggest means the end of the age of enlightenment. It’s a heady idea, this notion that the eminence of sound reasoning has been usurped by emotion-based arguments. We see this in everything from the growth of fundamentalist zealotry and neo-conspiracy theories to the rise of pseudo-science.

On Tuesday, listening to a call in show on CBC Radio, I was reminded of commentary that accompanied the recent publication of Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground, by National Post columnist Jonathon Kay.

The book itself has almost taken a back seat to the reaction of the fanatics whom the book reveals.

But more about Kay and his book in a bit.

First, the call-in show featured a cancer researcher responding to listeners commenting about news that the World Health Organization had just released a statement saying cell phone use might have a correlation to cancer. This has long been the intuitive belief of people who note that it’s unnatural for humans to hold a device that emits radiation so close to their head. I’m sure people had similar concerns about radio waves when bedside clock radios first became popular.

The WHO was clear that there is no new evidence or study, just a decision to continue to look at the issue. And while there is no definitive link between mobile phone usage and cancer rates, there is no shortage of unscientific reports that suggest such a link exists and will eventually be proven. Unfortunately that has led some of the more fervent faithful to decide they need to save the unwitting masses by sharing deeply held beliefs about the dangers of radio frequency electric fields.

I’m not a scientist though I have tremendous admiration for those with the patience and discipline to take an empirical view of the world. I also know from experience that scientists are usually a thoughtful bunch who don’t like to take definitive stances on anything. After all, the more we learn, the more there is to learn. But, in my opinion, there’s more to fear from fear-mongering than there is from a device that has transformed the world. The Arab spring and the ongoing democratization of China would not be happening without widespread mobile devices.

Back to the CBC: Canadian Cancer Society senior researcher Mary McBride was tenderly diplomatic in clarifying what’s known from what’s been suggested. McBride gently rebuked unproven assertions while trying to explain the science behind some of the urban legends and misinformation that pop up during lazy web searches.

McBride has stood up for science before on this issue and felt the wrath of those who genuinely fear wireless technology. They’ve accused the cancer society of being influenced by donations received from mobile phone companies and suggested McBride’s credentials were overstated. She had been incorrectly given the title of Dr. on the society’s website, something she claimed she corrected when made aware of the error.

What’s lost in most conversations is that evidence strongly suggests any threat is relative. That nice bit of sunshine dappling our baby’s face is a known carcinogen. As is the caffeine in that cuppa tea you’re enjoying while reading the paper.

Low level radiation might be in the same category but there’s nothing right now that says that’s definitely the case. I’m confounded why this is so hard for some otherwise sane people to accept.

But it’s this type of selective understanding of the world that has raised questions about the death of the age of reason. We no longer have to wade through a variety of opinions in order to learn about the world. If the newspaper or the local newscast has a story we don’t agree with, there are plenty of alternatives that offer nothing more than what we want to hear. Of course, we get nothing more.

In Kay’s book, he writes about his experiences with people who are convinced that the attack on the World Trade Centre towers was really a government plot to destabilize the world, or some version of that mythos. If you know someone who sides with this camp you know the frustration of trying to have a rational conversation about the subject. Any evidence that might deflate their beliefs is inadmissible because, one way or another, it’s tainted. The same standard never applies to the believer’s conjecture or theories they espouse.

They have created a dogma that is being bought into by people searching for simple explanations to complicated subjects.

We’ve seen what happens when humanity lets belief trump reason.

Claiming you know the truth is only evidence you really don’t.

Jim Zeeben, editor of the

Saanich News, can be reached at

editor@saanichnews.com

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