Monday, August 17, 2009

Wash your hands before blogging

On this blog I often talk about skepticism. But what actually does this mean? Beyond the statistics, the science and the logic, what is it that defines us as skeptics? What is the driving force behind our community of pedants?

The answer is simple. When you get right down to it, modern skepticism is about hygiene.

Bear with me here...

Why do we wash our hands? Because there are tiny self-replicators called bacteria and viruses that can infest them. These bugs eat the nutrients on our hands, and given half a chance will take a bite out of the hand itself. They are harmful.

They also spread rapidly. When we perform the various acts of hygiene - using a tissue when sneezing, washing our hands after using the loo, cleaning up after our dog - we aren't just protecting ourselves. We're protecting those around us. Washing your hands makes you safer, sure, but it also helps slow the spread of disease through your community.

Why do we apply skeptical principles to our thoughts? Because there are tiny little self-replicators that can infest them. We call these replicators "memes", by analogy to biological genes. A meme is simply a bit of information that can "copy" itself from one human mind to another. It could be an email hoax, a news story, a technique for producing origami boats, a poem, or even a blog post.

Some of these memes are useful; some are harmful. Memes can encourage you to feed the homeless, or to give all your money to scammers. In general, memes that correspond well with reality are less likely to cause harm. Truth is usually better than falsehood.

When we pick up biological diseases, we have a responsibility to ourself and others to limit the damage those germs can cause. When we pick up memes from others, or when we pass our memes on, we have a similar responsibility to ensure that they are realistic. We must use the disinfectant of rationality, the soap of science and the hot water of critical evaluation to ensure that no-one will be injured or killed because we infected them with a dangerous untruth.

This explains some of the distaste that scientists and skeptics sometimes show towards people who believe in UFOs, homeopathy, psychics, creationism, conspiracy theories... and gods. It's not the beliefs that disturb us; rather, it is the lack of intellectual caution that these beliefs demonstrate.

In general, these believers have not bothered to "wash their hands". They have not attempted to protect themselves from bad memes, and they happily pass on their mental plagues to others. These people are walking around with unwashed minds, ready to transmit all sorts of potentially-harmful diseases.

It's unhelpful. It's dangerous. And it's certainly not hygienic.

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