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Paul Hosea ( writes:

The Case For Prejudice

Last night I decided to do an experiment in prejudice. I changed the cat’s litter. I then put a wonderful Hershey’s chocolate bar in the microwave for a few seconds to make it look just about right, and then I set it out to cool. Once it had returned to its original hardness, I placed it in the Cat’s litterbox. Then I moved that litterbox out into the living room in where the rest of my family was calmly listening to the Art Bell show. No one ate the chocolate bar! None of them were able to set aside their prejudice and just taste – or even smell it for a second. Those bigoted Neanderthals just assumed that the chocolate bar was cat crud, simply because it sat in the litterbox. When I tried to point out the truth – they laughed at me. They even demanded that I move the litterbox back to the basement "where it belongs", lest the cat poop (there wasn’t any yet!) stink up the place. When I suggested that someone should, every morning, sniff everything in the litterbox to make sure that there was no chocolate among the cat poop, they laughed at me and suggested I go and see a psychiatrist. They laughed even louder when I picked up the chocolate bar from the litterbox and ate it. These bigots were still not persuaded! One of them said my glorious discovery was simply a fluke, and carried the litterbox back down to the basement. And I still wonder why they don’t pay nearly much attention to what I say as they used to.

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It is often said that while walking in the world of ideas, we need to always listen to others, make no unexamined assumptions, and be persuaded only by evidence. Prejudice is always a bad thing, so we say. This is the creed of the Art Bell show – which hosted a debate between someone who claimed we never went to the moon and another crank who believed we indeed went there but instead found alien cities. He has also hosted folks who believe in an Earth-centered universe. These characters claim, correctly, that there is no way to prove them wrong using observations not "tainted" by the scientific community’s prejudice. Yes, these crazies are even made fun of, ignored, and spat upon by people who have made no effort whatsoever to intelligently examine their claims. But there are very good reasons for this, as we shall see.

Art Bell is wrong. I intend to argue three points. The first is that it is impossible to think scientifically in the real world without using prejudice. The second is that the purpose of education is not to eliminate one’s prejudice, but to teach the mind to use prejudice logically. The third is that the unthinking quest to eliminate prejudice not only cannot work, but does great damage to science and society in general.

Science cannot survive without prejudice. There is simply not enough time to properly investigate every unlikely theory ever proposed, any more than there is time to check out each piece of cat poop in a litterbox, just in case some poor soul dropped some chocolate in there. Why don’t most scientists like to answer questions about the hollow earth, the lock nest monster, or Bigfoot? Because most theories of this type have no substance to them – and it would be a waste of time to prove that to be true with all but a tiny fraction of them.

Every once-in-awhile, someone does have the intuition to find a speck of mint in the pile of manure that theories like those mentioned above represent. But this is very rare. Historically, when an established scientific theory is proven wrong, it is usually proven wrong by the establishment itself. Copernicus showed that Ptolemy was wrong. Einstein showed that Newton’s laws were merely approximations. But Copernicus and Einstein were recognized in their day as experts in their field. Most of their peers believed that heliocentrism and relativity were worthy of respect and investigation. They had "peer review". This is not true of the "Moon Hoax", holocaust denial, most UFO claims, the "Bible Code" and the face on Mars. Such theories come from the cat’s litterbox.

When I say that these theories come from the cat’s literbox, I mean they did not come from thoughtful reflection upon the evidence. They come from people who exploit our culture’s natural suspicion of authority (the Moon Hoax). Or our natural tendency to see things in pictures that really are not there (the "Face on Mars"), Or our unscientific interest in anecdotal evidence (UFO’s), as opposed to hard observations and statistics. They exploit popular ignorance of statistics (the "Bible Code"), and the scientific method. The important common factor in all of the above theories is that they did not arise from reflection upon scientific facts. The nature of the arguments used to support them make this painfully obvious. This does not, in and of itself, mean there is no possibility that any of them could have some truth. An idea is not bad just because most arguments used to support it are bad, or because whoever dreamed it up did so for illogical reasons. But it does justify extreme prejudice against such ideas, and indicates that our scientist’s precious time and money are better spent investigating other things.

It takes skill to recognize what ideas come from the cat’s litterbox and which ones do not – acquiring this skill is what education is all about. Not all ideas that go against the mainstream of science come from the Cat’s literbox. There are a few researchers who believe that oil and gas do not come from decayed biological materials as now is believed, but instead come from newly discovered geological processes occurring deep within the earth. Although most geologists disagree with this theory, they treat its originator with respect and spend real time and money responding to his claims. Intelligent design theory (a broader form of Old-Earth creationism) is another such theory – it is gaining some respect in the scientific community not because most believe it is true, but because its originators have no obvious ideological motives and because the theory does not seem to have a special appeal to the ignorant.

A new scientist, indeed any newly educated person, must learn what kind of ideas to be prejudiced against and what to be open minded towards. He/She must learn the difference between observation and interpretation. One must understand the inherent biases of the culture one inhabits, in my case, the culture of American individualism. The mind has inherent biases in the way it perceives data even apart from culture – uneducated people are always seeing patterns where there are none, and familiar things where they are not. This is why most scientists like math so much – it offers a way to lessen the effects of such inherent biases. One must learn of the use and abuse of statistics, the nature of scientific credentials and the peer review process. And one must know something about the philosophy of science itself, of what possible biases there might be in the scientific community that prevent worthwhile ideas from being investigated. I do think that some of the disrespect shown to Old-Earth creationism by some scientists is a result of a cultural bias against anything that could be interpreted as support for religion. But despite disagreement about specific cases – scientists do agree that it is a waste of time to argue with people, or refute theories, that obviously show no respect for the way science operates.

That is why I, a creationist myself (Albeit an agnostic on the question of the Earth’s or the Universe’s age) do not begrudge the disrespect shown to young-earth creationism by most scientists. The whole creation/evolution debate is filled with ideological venom thrown about by all sides. Most Young-Earth Creationists themselves admit that creationism was created to defend the bible rather than explain observation. And many are even starting to realize that doctrinaire evolutionary theorists such as Dawkins are also arguing more from ideology than from evidence. The above are telltale signals to most scientists that the whole debate is not worth their time. Were this not so, science as we know it could not exist. Young Earth Creationists are in the position of someone who eats chocolate from the cats literbox – they may indeed be correct, but must not blame others scientists for there well-founded prejudice against them.

Ideas dragged out of the "litterbox", such as most of those advanced on the Art Bell show, do society a great deal of harm. They have forced the scientific community to devote resources to unproductive efforts. Unscientific fears have greatly increased the costs and political difficulties associated with building nuclear power plants - a technology that could have eliminated virtually all pollution from power generation by now were it developed as it should be. Theories from the "litterbox" often cause people to avoid using scientifically proven medical treatments, and go instead to the quacks. The "Moon hoax" and ideas like it give ammunition to demagogues who care little for sound science, or for anything except their own advancement. Obviously bad science causes people to throw money into the hands of con artists and crooks like those who claim to have invented a perpetual motion machine. There is many a good idea out there, many of them no doubt opposed to existing theories. But if it comes from the "litterbox" – the chances of an idea being good are slim to none. Keep the litterbox in the basement where it belongs. Keep the kooks on the Art Bell show and out of the mainstream. Don’t eat cat poop. And for heaven’s sake, don’t demand that the scientific community, the government, or the educated public open our mouths and our wallets for it either. Because we’re prejudiced. And narrow –minded. And stubborn. And proud of it.