Citizen Action Monitor

From an 18th century age of enlightenment to a 21st century age of endarkenment – What went wrong?

Why is no one questioning the rise of new-age nonsense in the name of science?

No 1554 Posted by fw, January 1, 2016

Prof David Colquhoun

Prof David Colquhoun

“The enlightenment was a beautiful thing. People cast aside dogma and authority. They started to think for themselves. Natural science flourished. Understanding of the real world increased. The hegemony of religion slowly declined. Real universities were created and eventually democracy took hold. The modern world was born. Until recently we were making good progress. So what went wrong? The past 30 years or so have been an age of endarkenment. It has been a period in which truth ceased to matter very much, and dogma and irrationality became once more respectable. This matters when people delude themselves into believing that we could be endangered at 45 minutes’ notice by non-existent weapons of mass destruction.”David Colquhoun, The Guardian

The Guardian published David Colquhoun’s article in October 2007. Today, more than 8 years later, it’s more relevant than ever. So relevant, that in April of this year, Andrew Miall, Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (RSC) and University of Toronto professor, published a piece with the same title in the RSC newsletter, Our Society. To read professor Miall’s thoughts on endarkenment, follow the link in the SEE ALSO reference at the end of this post.

In his article, Prof. Colquhoun, a pharmacologist at University College London, speculates on why a return to an age of endarkenment matters. He traces our fall from grace to the bureaucratization and corporatization of science and education. Sadly, he notes, endarkenment now extends to government, universities and schools. Moreover, he says, it is far too dangerous to ignore.

But ignore it we do.

Below is a repost of David’s article, with added subheadings. Alternatively, click on the following linked title to read his original contribution.

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The age of endarkenment by David Colquhoun, The Guardian, October 5, 2007

Why is no one questioning the rise of new-age nonsense in the name of science?

Enlightenment was beautiful – In decline: dogma, authority, religious hegemony. In ascension: science, higher education, democracy

The enlightenment was a beautiful thing. People cast aside dogma and authority. They started to think for themselves. Natural science flourished. Understanding of the real world increased. The hegemony of religion slowly declined. Real universities were created and eventually democracy took hold. The modern world was born. Until recently we were making good progress. So what went wrong?

Endarkenment is ugly – In decline: truth. In ascension: dogma, irrationality, self-delusion

The past 30 years or so have been an age of endarkenment. It has been a period in which truth ceased to matter very much, and dogma and irrationality became once more respectable. This matters when people delude themselves into believing that we could be endangered at 45 minutes’ notice by non-existent weapons of mass destruction.

Irrationality and untruth matters

It matters when reputable accountants delude themselves into thinking that Enron-style accounting is acceptable. It matters when people are deluded into thinking that they will be rewarded in paradise for killing themselves and others. It matters when bishops attribute floods to a deity whose evident vengefulness and malevolence leave one reeling. And it matters when science teachers start to believe that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago.

It matters that the resurgence in magic and superstitious ideas about medicine are poisoning bodies and minds

A minor aspect of the endarkenment has been a resurgence in magical and superstitious ideas about medicine. The existence of homeopaths on the high street won’t usually do too much harm. Their sugar pills contain nothing and they won’t poison your body. The greater danger is that they poison your mind.

It matters when homeopathic wishful thinking supplants truth

It is true that consulting a homeopath could endanger your health if it delays proper diagnosis, or if they recommend sugar pills to prevent malaria, but the real objection is cultural. Homeopaths are a manifestation of a society in which wishful thinking matters more than truth; a society where what I say three times is true and never mind the facts.

It matters when cultural endarkenment corrupts the highest reaches of media, government and universities

If this attitude were restricted to half-educated herbalists and crackpot crystal gazers, perhaps one could shrug it off. But the endarkenment extends to the highest reaches of the media, government and universities. And it corrupts science itself.

It matters when newspapers print nonsensical astrology columns. “Psychic surgery” is not a profession.

Even respectable newspapers still run nonsensical astrology columns and respected members of parliament seem quite unaware of what constitutes evidence. Conservative MP David Tredinnick advocated homeopathic treatment of foot and mouth disease and Lord Hunt, as health minister, referred to ‘psychic surgery’ as a “profession” in a letter written in response to question by a clinical scientist.

It matters when UK Health Dept. changed the rules to permit sale of homeopathic and herbal products without proof of effectiveness

Under the influence of the Department of Health, normally sane pharmacologists on the Medicines and Health Regulatory Authority, which is meant to “ensure the medicines work”, changed the rules to allow homeopathic and herbal products to be labelled with “traditional” uses, while requiring no evidence to be produced that they work.

It matters when Tony Blair created religiously divided schools run by lunatic fringe of religious zealots

Tony Blair himself created religiously divided schools at a time when that has never been more obviously foolish, and he defended in the House of Commons, schools run by “young-earth’ creationists”, the lunatic fringe of religious zealots. The Blairs’ fascination with pendulum wavers, crystals and other new-age nonsense is well known. When their elders set examples like that, is it any surprise that more than 30% of students in the UK now say they believe in creationism and intelligent design? As the biologist Steve Jones has pointed out so trenchantly, this makes it hard to teach them science at all.

It matters when universities award bachelor of science degrees in subjects that are anti-science to their core

Homeopaths and herbalists may be anti-science but they are not nearly as worrying as universities who try to justify the awarding of bachelor of science degrees in subjects that are anti-science to their core. The University of Bedfordshire accredited a foundation degree course in nutritional therapy, at the Institute of Optimum Nutrition (IoN). The give-away is the term “nutritional therapy”. Such therapists can claim, with next to no evidence, that changing your diet, and buying from them a lot of expensive “supplements”, will cure almost any disease. The IoN was founded in 1984 by Patrick Holford, whose qualification in nutrition is a diploma awarded by this institute in 1995. His advocacy of vitamin C as better than conventional drugs to treat Aids is truly scary. The documents that relate to this accreditation are mind-boggling. One of the recommended books for the course, on “Energy Medicine” has been reviewed by the Skeptic magazine thus: “This book masquerades as science, but it amounts to little more than speculation and polemic in support of a preconceived belief.”

It matters when teaching quality committees grant accreditation for courses without assessing truth value of content

The report of the university’s Teaching Quality and Enhancement Committee (May 24th 2004) looks terribly official, with at least three “quality assurance” people in attendance. But the minutes show that they discussed almost everything about the course apart from the one thing that really matters, the truth of what was being taught. The accreditation was granted. It’s true that the QAA criticized the university for this, but only because they failed to tick a box, not because of the content of the course. The University of Central Lancashire’s justification for its BSc in homeopathic medicine consists of 49 pages of what the late, great Ted Wragg might have called “world-class meaningless bollocks”. All the buzzwords are there: “multi-disciplinary delivery”, “formative and summative assessment”, log books and schedules. But there is not a single word about the fact that the course is devoted to a totally discredited early 19th century view of medicine, not a word about truth and falsehood.

Has it become politically incorrect to question things like this?

What’s going on? – Science and education have been bureaucratized and corporatized

These examples, and many like them, result, I believe, from the bureaucratization and corporatization of science and education. Power has gradually ebbed away from the people who do the research and teaching, and become centralized in the hands of people who do neither.

The sad thing is that the intentions are good. Taxpayers have every right to expect that their money is well spent, and students have every right to expect that a university will teach them well. How, then, have we ended up with attempts to deliver these things that do more harm than good?

“Enormous harm has been done to science by valuing quantity over quality, short-termism over originality and, at the extremes, fraud over honesty.”

One reason is that the bureaucrats who impose these schemes have no interest in data. They don’t do randomized tests, or even run pilot schemes, on their educational or management theories because, like an old-fashioned clinician, they just know they are right. Enormous harm has been done to science by valuing quantity over quality, short-termism over originality and, at the extremes, fraud over honesty.

Science, left to itself, and run by scientists, has created much of the world we live in. It has self-correcting mechanisms built in, so that mistakes, and the occasional bit of fraud, are soon eliminated. Corporatization has meant that, increasingly, you are not responsible to your conscience, just to your line manager. The result of this, I fear, is a decrease in honesty, and in the long run, inevitably, a decrease in quality and originality.

Sadly, endarkenment now extends to parliament, universities and schools, and is far too dangerous to ignore

If all we had to worry about was a few potty homeopaths and astrologers, it might be better to shrug, and get on with some real science. But now the endarkenment extends to parliament, universities and schools, it is far too dangerous to ignore.

David Colquhoun is a pharmacologist at University College London who writes the Improbable Science blog and website, where you can find more details on the issues discussed above

SEE ALSO

The Age of Endarkenment by Andrew Miall, University of Toronto, November, 2014 — In his article — Global Warming, the subjugation of Science and the trend to “Science Lite” by W. K. Hocking, Western University, Wayne Hocking deplores the trend to “science lite” that he fears has taken over the debate about climate change. I suggest that this is but a part of a much broader problem, characterized by an anti-science attitude amongst much of our political leadership, an overly simplistic approach to science in the media, and a loss of trust in science amongst a large segment of the general public. To read more, click on the above linked titles…

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