Thursday, January 04, 2007

How We Fight Baloney

In a gladdening demonstration of federal intelligence, the FTC hit four marketers of weight-loss pills with $25 million in fines for falsely advertised health benefits. In a Houston Chronicle article, FTC Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras is reported to have said, "Testimonials from individuals are not a substitute for science ... And that's what Americans need to understand." This sounds pretty good, but I'm not exactly cheering. How is it that worthless products remain in stores as long as manufacturers admit their medicinal impotence? Shouldn't there be some public mechanism by which snake-oil salesmen are booed from the marketplace, even if their sham is technically legal?

In another news item -- I'll explain how these are related -- a petition was submitted last month to the British PM "to make it illegal to indoctrinate or define children by religion before the age of 16." Richard Dawkins signed the petition but later asked that his name be struck from the roll after he read a fuller description:
In order to encourage free thinking, children should not be subjected to any regular religious teaching or be allowed to be defined as belonging to a particular religious group based on the views of their parents or guardians. At the age of 16, as with other laws, they would then be considered old enough and educated enough to form their own opinion and follow any particular religion (or none at all) through free thought.
Though Dawkins is quick with a mea culpa for not having read more carefully, his involvement has been jumped upon by critics in the ID community and self-designated paladins defending religion from rabid secularists. No surprise!

So, how are quack therapies like religious inculcation? Both problems require a solution in the form of cultural pressure instead of legal force.

If we are serious in our collective effort to expunge as much as possible the irrational from the public space, shame sure is a savvy tactic. Embarrassment is by far a more effective motivator than federal intervention or philosophical rigor:
"The final test of truth is ridicule. Very few religious dogmas have ever faced it and survived." -H. L. Mencken
Though it is of course necessary to be both legally correct and philosophically sound! Dawkins identifies his campaign as one of consciousness-raising; Sam Harris in The End of Faith asked that we become "conversationally intolerant" of religious -- and by extension -- irrational beliefs. I think James Randi sounds a similar clarion call: that individuals find the courage to confront flim-flam, baloney, and the propagation of dangerous norms anywhere we see them. His weekly SWIFT newsletter is a handbook for identifying the enemy and his critical commentary is a training manual for dispatching it.

Whether our chief personal concern is with dogmatic religion, malfeasant drug-peddlers, wonky politicos, or any other threat to civic health, the fight against baloney might begin with a sense of humor. Wherever the absurd takes sanctuary, let us laugh in its face. It's difficult to take seriously what has been exposed as incredibly, indefensibly, mind-numbingly ridiculous. E.g. immaculate conception; intelligent design; natural cures; or political piety.

[This post is modified from a letter sent to James Randi]

1 comment:

Ed said...

Off the top of my head, I think it is not the state's decision as to whether or not a parent can raise their child in the faith of his or her choosing. Parenting via legislation just seems like a terrible idea to me.
However, I agree that it is the responsibility of good citizens to stop the less-skeptical amongst us from being taken advantage of from any direction. This includes everything from fake weight-loss pills to evangelical policital leaders. We all need to be critical, and even if parents baptize, circumcise or otherswise indoctrinate their children from birth, this does not absolve the cultural obligaiton to educate and empower children.