Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Age of Unreason

Before I get too far into this narrative, I should divulge that I am a “Baby Boomer”. This is not something I am proud of, as “My Generation” was one of the most spoiled and self-centered generations of all time. The fact that there are innumerable members of the Baby Boom generation who are rational, selfless and modest does not change how history will see the generation as a whole.

Our legacy will be one of self-absorption, greed, obsession with youth and – at the end of our lives – pitiful attempts to shift the blame for our actions and inactions. This latter failing is clearly shown in Billy Joel’s immortal song, “We Didn’t Start the Fire”. It is the story of how T-shirts and bumper stickers failed to have any significant impact on world events.

But I digress.

The 1960’s were often referred to – by the generation we now call the “Baby Boomers” – as the “Age of Aquarius”. This simply shows their appalling sense of reality, since the earliest that astrologers place the dawning of the “Age of Aquarius” is 2150. By then, the “Aquarian generation” will all be dead. Even those who don’t believe in such negative things as “death”.

Astronomers, incidentally, place the beginning of the “Age of Aquarius” at 2600.

In the 1960’s, the Baby Boomers felt that an era of peace and worldwide love was in the offing and that they were the generation that was going to make that a reality. Their beliefs could be summed up by something I found on an astrology site:

“The key phrase for Aquarius is ‘I Know,’ but that knowledge is not a righteous, superior or exclusionary knowledge. It's a sort of wisdom that draws people together, for Aquarians are, above all else, social animals.“

I couldn’t have said it better. So, the Baby Boomers spent their twenties trying various magical means to bring about world peace and brotherly love (or just getting stoned out of their minds) and then got distracted by making a fortune in the stock market, buying loft condos and finding a way to keep from getting old.

However, the magical thinking never left them – and they’ve passed it on to succeeding generations.

So, after centuries of slow but steady progress against the forces of unreason, a single generation is trying to send us back to the Dark Ages. After centuries of scientific progress in medicine, a single generation brings back homeopathy, naturopathy and introduces any number of new variations on shamanism. Crystals, “The Secret” and Quantum Healing are all the result of this steady erosion of critical thinking.

It is this sort of unreason that has led people to make the most absurd statements without any apparent fear of contradiction, since – as the postmodernists tell us – there is no privileged reality. It has reached the point where many people believe that wanting something to be true will make it true. Some examples:

[1] Iran’s nuclear program is much in the news of late and all reports include a comment to the effect that “Iran claims that the nuclear program is solely for power generation”. What I never hear said is that Iran is a net exporter of oil and has an infrastructure that is so dysfunctional that it has to import gasoline.

It seems extremely unlikely that Iran would put the money and effort into something so complicated as nuclear power when it could buy oil-fired power plants for a fraction of the cost. And without stirring up the threat of UN sanctions.

Still, the talking heads and pundits seem to all be of the mind that by not actually saying that Iran’s rationale is full of baloney, they won’t have to face the ugly truth that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is trying to make a nuclear bomb in order to destroy Israel – as he has repeatedly said he was.

[2] Ardent believers in “Intelligent Design” (the belief system formerly known as “Creation Science”) repeatedly claim that their brand of bunkum is a “science”, despite the fact that it has no data to support it (it is, in fact, unfalsifiable and so untestable) and makes no predictions about the universe. Some of the top people in the “ID” world are scientists who should know better. Yet, somehow, they have the conviction that by saying that “ID” is a science that it will become one.

In the end, “Intelligent Design” is not science, not even bad science. It is religion dressed up to look like a science – if the light is bad and you squint a lot. And yet it has a serious following, even among people who call themselves “scientists”.

[3] “Quantum connectedness” continues to be all the rage in the Western world, as demonstrated by the number of people who mindlessly repeat bits of the movie, “What the #$*! Do We Know!?”. People who wouldn’t recognize a wave function if it bit them on the bum splutter on about its collapse by an observer which, so they claim, means that we can create our own reality by thinking it. Or they will wax eloquently about how quantum entanglement shows that we are all connected.

One of the most famous of the quantum-confused is Deepok Chopra, whose many books cash in on the general public’s ability to understand only that quantum physics is strange and seemingly paradoxical. He has repeatedly claimed that he has studied quantum physics, but his writings convince me (and others) that he may have studied it, but he surely hasn’t understood it.

[4] Much of “alternative” medicine encourages people to abandon scientific principles that have brought us in the West to a level of health and longevity that are unrivalled in human history. If we want to see what happens when that happens, we only have to look to those parts of the world where – for economic or philosophical reasons – scientific medicine is unavailable.

Yet, in the midst of the best medical care in the world – now or ever in history – a growing number of people are turning to magic. Whether it’s “quantum healing”, homeopathy, chiropractic, “energy medicine”, “thought field therapy” or any of a thousand others, it’s magic if it invokes unmeasurable “energies” or other undetectable properties.

This is not to say that there aren’t energies or other properties of the universe that we can’t currently detect or measure – not at all. It’s just that if we can’t currently detect or measure them, how can anyone propose that they exist? To echo that infamous movie, “How the #$*! Do They Know!?”. What special power do they have that allows them to know that these energies or other properties exist?

One of the common responses from these folks is that Newton didn’t know about radio waves, even though they existed (from the Sun other natural sources) in his time. True enough, but Newton also didn’t make any hypotheses that required radio waves. That’s the difference.

I could go on, but I won’t. I hope you get the point.

Our society is growing more and more dependent on rationality, science and technology to keep it from collapsing. It’s too late to turn back, now – giving up on reason and returning to magical thinking will cause a human (and probably environmental) catastrophe that would beggar the imagination. And, at the same time, the forces of Unreason encourage us to turn our back on reality in favor of “The Secret” or other such nonsense.

The technology that most people take for granted is far beyond the knowledge of the “average” citizen – not because they can’t understand it, but because they don’t. We run a very real risk of having an increasingly smaller proportion of our population that understands how critical technologies work or – even worse – the principles behind them.

Now is the time to take a stand – to come out on the side of Reason over Unreason, of Science over Magic, of Reality over Fantasy.

Or, we can all sit and meditate on a happier future.



Anonymous james said...

hmmm good intelligent post, but i do believe Newton was more than a little steeped in magical thinking himself.

08 April, 2007 21:09  
Blogger Phil Schwarz said...

"The technology that most people take for granted is far beyond the knowledge of the “average” citizen – not because they can’t understand it, but because they don’t. We run a very real risk of having an increasingly smaller proportion of our population that understands how critical technologies work or – even worse – the principles behind them."

This makes me think of a dark little short story by C.M. Kornbluth from the 1940s, "The Little Black Bag".

-- Phil

09 April, 2007 02:09  
Blogger Club 166 said...

Funny that you posted this. I was on the road this weekend, and had a conversation over lunch with my wife and sister about the rise of scientific illiteracy and magical thinking.

The lack of clear, reasoned thinking based on facts colors a multitude of things in society, and greatly decreases the value of information obtained over the internet, because many viewers can't discern valid info from totally bogus fluff.

09 April, 2007 12:39  
Blogger daedalus2u said...

club 166, I completely agree with you. But that goes for the scientific literature too.

The problem isn't so much that most people don't understand the principles behind the science, but that they put little to no value on that knowledge.

09 April, 2007 18:29  
Anonymous Pine Baroness said...

Well said.

09 April, 2007 20:05  
Blogger Tyler DiPietro said...

Iran’s nuclear program is much in the news of late and all reports include a comment to the effect that “Iran claims that the nuclear program is solely for power generation”. What I never hear said is that Iran is a net exporter of oil and has an infrastructure that is so dysfunctional that it has to import gasoline.

This is actually expected to change soon, with Iran becoming a net importer of oil due to inability (largely related to the very infrastructure problems you mention) to exploit their reserves. That is a serious threat to their influence in the region.

And even so, do you really think that the only plausible rationale behind Iran wanting to have nuclear weapons is that they want to blow up Israel? They could be seeking a deterrent, which would be incredibly rational for a country surrounded by nuclear armed neighbors (i.e., India, Pakistan, and Israel itself). They could also be looking to shore up their negotiating position with Western powers, seeing as it's obvious to everyone outside of the hardline neoconservatives that it worked for North Korea.

14 April, 2007 15:57  
Blogger llewelly said...

Astrology, homeopath, naturopathy, chiropractic, etc, were all growing apace in the 1940s and before (many go back to the 19th century; some go back millenia). I don't understand why you think your generation is any more to blame for this 'age of unreason' than the previous. Nor do I accept that this time is notably less reasonable than 20, 40, 60, or 100 years ago. I do think there is a big difference in awareness of the problem, but it is the awareness, and not the problem, which is new.

14 April, 2007 16:48  
Anonymous griff said...

As a boomer who grew up poor and went to vietnam at 19, I can attest that a lot of the distrust of science and technology is that it was used to horrific affect in that crazy war, and that the "military industrial complex" is real. We grew up first with the specter of nuclear anhililation with the soviets, and then a real hot war, complete with weekly TV images of napalm dropping on villagers in asia.
That is a poor excuse for magical thinking by my generation,(the drugs helped that, no doubt), but it did tend to turn people away from believing science would save us. We thought it may well kill us all. I believe this is a partial explanation, at least.

14 April, 2007 17:20  
Blogger Claudia said...

This makes me think of a dark little short story by C.M. Kornbluth from the 1940s, "The Little Black Bag".

Was that the one with the medical kit from the future, that could be used by any moron?

14 April, 2007 18:18  
Blogger Prometheus said...


To be sure, homeopathy, astrology, chiropractic and naturopathy all existed prior to the birth of the "baby boomer" generation. Most of them predated the 1900's. My point is that the "baby boomer" generation is responsible for the increase of unreason.

Prior to the "baby boomers", the forces of unreason were steadily being forced back - into the corners, into the shadows. People who advocated homeopathy or other such nonsense would have been laughed at. Now they charge people to come and listen to them rant and rave about "crytal power", unseen energies and whatnot.

To rephrase Billy Joel: "We didn't start the nonsense, but we built it up, fed it and pay to keep it going."


I suspect that you are correct in your assessment of the underlying reason for the baby boomer aversion to science. However, it seems that hasn't kept us from using cell phones, computers and asking for the most advanced medical technology.

I find it supremely ironic that I received last week a spam e-mail from an organization advocating a return to "...simpler, less technological ways of life."


I believe that is the story - I read it in my youth and loved it.

Mr. Dipietro,

I make no conclusions about whether Iran is justified or unjustified in its attempts to obtain nuclear weapons.

I do point out that Iran's president has repeatedly stated that he desires to wipe Israel off the face of the map - a task for which nuclear weapons are well-suited. His other reasons for wanting nuclear weapons have not been so clearly articulated.

My point in bringing up Iran's nuclear program was not to examine Iran's motives or justifications, but to explore why the "news media" seem so reluctant to address - let alone challenge - an obvious flaw in Iran's stated reasons for their nuclear program (i.e. power generation).

Your point about their faltering infrastructure only serves to underscore my point - Iran could improve its power generation capacity far more by taking a fraction of the money they are spending on their nuclear program and using it to improve their infrastructure.

Any explanations why the news media don't want to address this issue - other than the ones I have already mentioned?


15 April, 2007 11:52  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

An entire cohort filled with self-loathing?! Not again!

What's up with the hatred for your g-g-g-generation?

Do you really think you are the first generation to question itself like this? O.k., you are the first to publish your navel gazing so widely, but that is more of a technological innovation than anything else.

Seriously, dude, cut yourself and your peers some slack.

Your friend, Mary

15 April, 2007 19:51  
Blogger Prometheus said...

I have received a number of comments about the Iranian nuclear program (not a major part of this post, I might add) that remark on how the Iranian president has been misquoted or how unlikely it is that Iran will ever contruct a nuclear weapon or how justified they might be in wanting nuclear weapons, etc., etc....

Lovely. And informative. I'm sure that there is a 'blog for that sort of material - this isn't that 'blog.

My point was - and remains - that:

[1] Iran claims that they are pursuing their nuclear program in order to generate power.

[2] This is - at best - an extremely expensive and complicated way to generate power.

[3] Iran is an oil producing and exporting country - it has a ready source of fossil fuel for power generation.

[4] The money, time and effort expended on their nuclear program would generate more power in a shorter time if it were directed toward non-nuclear power generation (even wind or solar power would be faster and cheaper).

[5] And here's the MAJOR point: nobody in the news media seems willing to "call them" on this inconsistency.

That's the point - not whether Iran is or is not trying to make a nuclear weapon (personally, I think they are), but why the news media - and most public figures - are so reluctant to say "Hey, Iran's reasons for pursuing a nuclear program just don't make sense. Is it possible that they're lying?"

So, to all the people who would like to debate about whether Iran is or is not building "the bomb", I direct you to another 'blog where this discussion is more on topic.

For those who would like to discuss the reluctance of the media (and much of the general population) to face reality when it doesn't fit their world view, you're in the right place.

Thank you for your attention.


16 April, 2007 11:31  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amen! I don't have any problem with people believing any fool thing they like-but don't get all righteous when I snigger and call bullshit.

16 April, 2007 17:18  
Anonymous Dunc said...

Interesting post... Do you have any hypotheses as to where this magical thinking originated?

Personally, I think there may be something to the observation that the Boomers were the first generation to grow up in a media environment saturated with psychologically manipulative advertising... Given that the core mission of the advertising industry is to inculcate magical thinking, I think it's an idea worth considering.

17 April, 2007 05:56  
Blogger Prometheus said...


That's a pretty good hypothesis. I also think that at least a part of it was the usual rejection of parental values (which happens in every generation). Since the parent of the Baby Boomers were raised in the Depression and came to adulthood during WW II, their values were pragmatism, hard work, conformity and reality.

Naturally, their children (the Boomers) went 180 degrees out from that - fantasy, easy living, individuality and wishful thinking. Not all bad, to be sure, but not a pattern for facing (or recognizing) reality.


17 April, 2007 08:53  

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