Episode 231 - of the SGU yesterday, and a listener asked a question about the future of skepticism.
So first, have we gotten more skeptical?
Jay thinks we have, overall. Our science has progressed a great deal. And our ability to get information with the internet is so much more profound now. But the number of people who believe in woo hasn't gone down.
Rebecca is very optimistic. It's not necessarily about the number of people who believe in weird things, but that we are neutering superstitions and myths and turning them from something dangerous into something that is just a pastime for the wealthy.
There's still a tremendous amount of work to go when it comes to dangerous pseudoscience and superstition, but in general we're doing OK. Our scientific knowledge is growing, and will continue to grow into the forseeable future.
Bob can see it going either way. Skepticism has grown by leaps and bounds in the last 20 years or so, but irrational beliefs have also grown. We'll never get rid of superstitious belief, but in the future it could be marginalized to a degree we haven't seen. But it could also totally go nuts, totally descending into superstition. As science gets more and more complicated and technological, I could see people just giving up on it, and treating it like a religion, that it's so complicated that you have your "techno-priests" that nobody can understand. Who knows if they're telling the truth.
Steve sees that there are all kinds of trends overlapping. If you take a long view, there seems to be a general trend towards less superstition and more rationality in human civilization. Let's hope that longterm trend holds up. There is also a shorter term cyclical trend where pseudosciences come and go, not only individually but just in general. There's always going to be a battle to fight, we may marginalize one pseudoscience and two others will take it's place, and we'll have to deal with them as well. Human nature and the need for a sense of transcendence, the need to believe in something, all the pitfalls we all talk about, those are not changing, at least not quickly. At least for the forseeable future, people are people and we're going to have to deal with the inherent irrationality of our species.
Also, if you look at it from another point of view, if you look at the different cultures around the world, some cultures are much more rational than others. Some cultures are so thoroughly steeped in pseudoscience or superstition. What that says is the potential is there for that to happen in just about any culture. They they could descend and really get overwhelmed with superstition.
So while the longterm trends are hopeful, the shorter term trends are always going to come back. Without a group promoting science and trying to keep science connected to the public and to pop culture in general, that there is the risk of what Bob says that science becomes completely detached from popular culture and becomes almost the equivalent of a priesthood. And we could even end up with an incredibly regressive superstitious population.
I think I'm with Steve and Bob, that it really could go either way. I can see the longterm trend for more rationality over human history, but it seems we are currently regressing, at least in America.
It seems to me that there are bastions of rationality in certain cultures right now, but then you have other cultures where pseudoscience and/or superstition are rampant and always have been.
I was thinking that each culture seems to be maturing at their own pace, but that they are all progressing forward, toward more rationality. But that's not really the whole picture, is it? Cultures can certainly regress. Look at America now. I have been reading about the Founding Fathers in Moral Minority by Brooke Allen, and it seems that we had a period of influence of the Enlightenment, but even during that time, priests and pastors tried to foist their particular religion onto society, and to enact laws to further their agenda.
Since then, we've gone through cycles of increasing religiosity. Right now it seems that we are under the thrall of religion and woo in all stripes and colors. Just look at what is popular in the media.
I think we'll get a good look at how the country as a whole is feeling about religion in the upcoming presidential election. The Republicans are hyper-religious at the moment and we'll see if people vote to move us closer to a blatant theocratic police state or not. Hopefully they are marginalizing themselves by their choices in extremist candidates.
I don't think I'm as optimistic as Rebecca, and I don't think woo has been relegated to pastimes for the wealthy. I think it's rampant in our society. In fact, research has been done to show that there is a correlation between lack of control and increased superstition, which is why it seems that people who worry about their next paycheck, the future of their government, if they will be able to afford their medical bills, etc, tend to be more superstitious.
I do want to hope for the best, even though I feel it can go either way. I think the internet is the best tool we have to disseminate skepticism around the globe. Yes, I know it is also used to promote woo and superstition, but it still at least gives everyone the opportunity to get access to science and skepticism, something that hasn't always been the case.
What do you think? What is the future of skepticism in the world?