The Age of Hilarious: Reflections on the growing anti-science movement

When I was a kid, my mum had a sure way of finding out what we meant when describing something as “funny”.

“Funny Ha Ha or funny strange?”, she’d ask, and when suitably availed of an answer could turn her attention to following whatever enormously important point kids tend to make. Looking around today however, “funny strange” is thoroughly outdone by the eerie normality with which faith and belief in demonstrable and dangerous fallacies pass us by.

Using “funny” as our proxy description of weirdness, one may consider the present day feverishness with which cognitive bias is clung to, literally hilarious. In what passes for our first generation and more to have lived in the Space Age, there is an abundance of not just unscientific, but viciously anti-scientific beliefs to choose from. So ubiquitous, so easily tolerated, so poorly regulated is this tsunami of irrationality that one cannot miss that we live now in a new age of hilarious ritual and superstition.

In this Age of Hilarious there are some undeniable and durable trends. From hip healers, to AIDS denial, to scheming chiropractors, to cancer cures, to creationist museums to vaccine denial merchants and even the screaming lunacy of the freedom and conspiracy lovers, one enemy glues them together. Science. Without rattling off the volumes of anti-science movements – many of whom claim to be immersed in science – the same thought justification applies. Science is bad, evil, unnatural, open to unwholesome thinking, an unwelcome intruder upon the family, upon motherhood and upon health.

It’s agents are intent on hiding the truth and in exploiting our species. It has destroyed the planet and wants to destroy us. It has permeated so much of our lives that to those worshipping in the Age of Hilarious it’s axiomatic as to how malignant Science is. To use Science – or something tainted with it’s touch – in thinking or in decision making draws mockery and derision is many circles. It is at once corrupt and the vehicle for the corrupt to continue their corruption. Nonsense has become normal to the point where presenting facts earns inane insults. From Pharma shill in citing undeniable facts on vaccination to Zionist or Jew Boy for querying the logic of 9/11 as an inside job.

Yet despite the pointy ends of these beliefs, the hub from which it all comes probably tells us much about human nature. Those who embark on evidence denial often challenge critics or defend their illogical meandering with the unwarranted observation that Science doesn’t know everything… it can be wrong… the universe is infinite… there’s more to discover… I say “unwarranted” criticism, because no-one knows this better than those who understand science. Nothing else adheres to these observations as strict rules but the Scientific method itself.

I tend to hear this challenge more as a plea. Those who deny evidence with little thought hold to an ideology wherein they want to live in a mysterious universe. Alienated by the ordinary and mundane everyday explanations and foregone conclusions in the Age of Hilarious, they have essentially no notion that so much of what we take for granted now, was once never so. Perhaps a total mystery, a brutal fact of nature, an expensive time wasting ritual of ignorance or a serendipitous discovery.

Today there are so many millions living with so much explanation that the human needs for mystery, discovery or the urge to conquer intellectual fulfillment must certainly go unrealised. Is it so unusual then that an instinctive response may be to create the “unknown” or perhaps do this by denying what is known? To use the term conveniently, if we accept that humans have spiritual needs, nothing defines the denial of evidence and advancement of belief via ignorance better than the Creationist/Intelligent Design movement.

Finally the dots linking Science to Satan were joined. The Discovery Institute’s “anti-evolution” Wedge Strategy for “renewal of science and culture” begins with the breath taking lie:

The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built. Its influence can be detected in most, if not all, of the West’s greatest achievements, including representative democracy, human rights, free enterprise, and progress in the arts and sciences.

Apart from it’s beaming intellectual revulsion, what strikes me most about the Wedge Strategy is it’s timing. Ideas from The Enlightenment (1650-1790) helped shape the most famous democratic documents in history. The intellectual forces it released have sustained reason and humanity above many attempts to counter Enlightenment philosophies. Although intellectual resistance began as early as 1800 the Industrial Revolution had already seen science secure it’s place as indispensable. After the two World Wars of the 20th century, then the Cold War, and the control of polio, science and democratic rights eventually opened the way for the quality of life that provided the luxury to be… well, stupid.

The timing was perfect to have Creationism – later renamed Intelligent Design – introduced as a new scientific area. Or rather, as ancient myths brought to life under the authoritative and credulous banner of Science. Thanks to godless communism and Billy Graham, Pentecostal, Baptist and Evangelical movements were well established. Biblical literalism was (and is) quite absurd but it did not want for believers. At the same time, the space race and the Apollo 11 moon landing succeeded in opening our eyes to new scientific wonders and understanding.

Punctuating this clash, and now forever in history, is the Apollo 8 Christmas Eve broadcast of 1968. The first astronauts to orbit the moon took turns to read from the book of Genesis, sending lunar images back to Earth.

By the time the sexual revolution and self discovery of the 1960’s and 70’s had passed, traditional religion offered cold, boring irrelevance. Confidence in mystery, cosmic wonder and supernatural interference had been blasted with knowledge, understanding and explanation. Faith was no longer a noble virtue. It was the absence of evidence and reason. Rather than a scattering of giant intellects condemning the folly of belief, it was an established widespread fact. Even worse the damage and perversion linked to religions was becomming manifest.

Science continued to do amazing things, spitting out new disciplines and knowledge as computer power took it’s place. Medical science wiped out smallpox in developing nations and extended the human lifespan in developed nations. Alien abductees and spoon benders were being challenged by these chaps known as Skeptics, but it was soon clear a new irrationality had taken root. Suddenly Noah’s Ark was discovered. Then again and again. The Age of Hilarious was upon us.

The ever increasing “natural” alternatives to medicine demanded more respect. Unable to provide evidence to back claims, denial of evidence and attacks on science began. Faith and high risk belief once again offered noble qualities. The alienated could belong. The challenge of ones character that led to such horrors during the middle ages: “How strong is your faith?”, underscored the rising anti-vaccination movement and it’s many “healing” cousins that in truth, do nothing but delay healing.

On another level the lessons learned from Intelligent Design proponents were being employed deftly by both climate change denialists and those with a vested interest in discrediting climate science. Except in this broadband age the change around from acceptance to denial occurred at breath taking speed. They too have their own “science” – a Global Warming Curriculum designed to undermine genuine science. Rather than the Discovery Institute befouling evolution and biology it’s the Heartland Institute generously funding a violent attack on climate science.

These factors aside the sheer numbers of people that now reject climate change, their high priests and the well established conspiracy language used is compelling stuff. Certainly it resonates well with anti-Enlightenment identities like Miranda Devine, products of The Age of Hilarious, who proceed to damage the field of discourse irreparably. So rigid are her anti-climate devotees a great number sprang to her defence when she blamed the London riots on equal rights and same sex union. The woman writes predetermined right wing vengeance, yet “great piece”, “wonderful article”, “blah blah”, flow across Twitter regardless of topic, as she insults critics with her baton of misplaced importance.

There are the Creationists who speak of climate science in the same tone I speak of war crimes. To confuse the mix other enemies of reason accept climate science not because they have the skill to choose a valid source, but because they are beholden to their misconception of “natural”. Yet far from potential allies in managing the fallout from climate change they contribute to delayed action on their own field of play. Destruction of GM crops. Misguided animal rights. Spreading misinformation about vaccination as a means to population control. It’s not smaller healthier and wealthier families they see emerging to bring developing nations out of poverty. It’s “human culling” via vaccine.

A common factor in all beliefs held by enemies of reason in the Age of Hilarious is the misconception of “research” and “conclusion”. We hear this with so many pseudo-scientific endeavours and particularly with climate denial and vaccine denial. People claim to have spent time researching vaccines, for example, only to follow on with the “conclusion” it’s best not to vaccinate their children. Yet whatever they have read has all the accuracy of that which leads others to deny evolution announcing, “If we evolved from monkeys why are there still monkeys around today?”. Or to quote Kent Hovind, he hasn’t seen “a squirrel give birth to a pine cone… a dog give birth to a non dog”.

Vaccine denial relies on the towering ignorance of the over-confident or the thunderous immorality of the callous and cunning. One can accept that it is surely impossible to properly study immunology and that they must trust the scientific consensus. Or alternatively one can crave the nobility of faith, the piety of belief and insist on not being “a sheep”. In truth no amount of reading without evaluation and practice justifies the often heard claims of superior intelligence.

It’s here we need the Dunning-Kruger effect. Rational Wiki describe it briefly and in brutal accuracy:

The Dunning-Kruger effect occurs when incompetent people not only fail to realise their incompetence, but consider themselves much more competent than everyone else. Basically – they’re too stupid to know that they’re stupid

Complicating this further is the in-group thinking that accompanies the anti-science crowds. Consider the Chiropractic Association of Australia. The Australian Homeopathic Association. The Australian Vaccination Network and other organised conspiracy movements. All these groups and many more exhibit a lack of any skill to discern the value of information. Ideology and belief is what drives them. Today, claimed intelligence and the accumulation of knowledge do not make for good decision making.

The sheer volume of information means we are better served by developing the skill to choose what sources to trust. Though I imagine for some they are at an extreme disadvantage. The constant urge for intellectual risk in the supposed realm of the unknown, once served by genuine mysteries, is a cognitive detriment. Hearing someone like Meryl Dorey talk, sets off warning bells like reading a scam Nigerian email offering me untold wealth in the worst grammar possible. Yet for others she is the cult figure that completes the circle of irrational belief.

It seems we develop intellectual tools in the absence of any skill to use them. No doubt that goes for all of us and highlights the importance of critical thinking. Vaccine denial appears in many cases to be justified by stories of cognitive dissonance that are resolved to an eventual cognitive bias which is then fed to the point of a splendid Dunning-Kruger effect. Intellectually the inability to use certain tools most often results in failed comprehension. But combined with the inability to gauge risk the anti-vaccine movement is overseeing a resurgence of disease. Consider this comment approved by Meryl Dorey on The Australian Vaccination Network Facebook page.

Inability to understand risk-benefit is a feature of The Age of Hilarious

The developing world is for those of us in the Age of Hilarious much like where a time machine would take us if we went backward and forward to gather information of vaccine preventable disease (VPD). Today, one child dies every 20 seconds from a VPD. Pneumonia and diarrhea are the biggest killers in developing nations whilst these are prevented by Pneumococcal and Rotavirus vaccines. As the AVN’s Judy Wilyman rails against the HPV vaccine, dismissively citing developed nation levels of cervical cancer the reality is 270,000 women die of HPV related causes annually – 85% in developing nations.

The smallpox vaccine saves $1.3 billion annually – 10 times the cost of the original program. Typhoid kills 200-600,000 per year and in developing nations congenital rubella syndrome still claims 90,000 lives annually. The cost to a family of a disabled child or adult often combined with the loss of a mother is to us, incomprehensible. Vaccination allows for improved health and growth. Children go on to attend and finish school. They contribute to family life and when eventually employed raise the family income to levels usually not dreamed of.

The more children vaccinated the more that live and the more that live the less that must be “produced” by parents to compete with the present law of attrition. In countries with high VPD one doesn’t expect to see children grow. Rather one hopes against the odds enough will grow to sustain a bearable quality of life for the family. With vaccination quality of life improves dramatically. Families, villages, districts and even nations can be pulled from poverty.

The GAVI Alliance – previously Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation – fund 97% of pneumococcal vaccination in developing nations. In the last decade they have pushed hepatitis B vaccination in China above that in Australia and placed a virtual halt on liver cancer.

Yet comfortable in their scientifically endowed lives, fully vaccinated as children and content with two kids, vaccine denialists in developed nations insist the reduction in family numbers and misery is planned genocide. They ridicule charities and sabotage attempts to raise money for, or educate about, the success of vaccination in less fortunate nations, as yet free from the Age of Hilarious. Which raises the question: what are they free from?

A typical example is that recently Mia Freedman wrote an article about the self appointed experts of the anti-vaccine movement. Mia shreds the AVN ticking all the boxes about their false “choice”, the farcical name, the pretend expertise… in fact the truth. One quote I like which applies because the benefits of vaccines are irrefutable is, “In fact there aren’t two sides and there is no debate. On one hand there is science and there is no other hand.”

Dorey went berserk, summoned her flying monkeys and actually had them writing to Mia “from the other side”. The attacks were typical. “What a bl**dy parasitic moron journalist!” commented one. Her article was likened to eugenics, she was a moron, and idiot. She was an ignorant douchebag, rude, self-righteous, uneducated and hateful…. One can only imagine the emails out of the public eye.

Mia tweeted:

To which Dorey shot back “What threats? How about listening to parents of vaccine damaged kids to learn about the other side if (sic) vaccination? YES-2 sides!”. Which is terribly ironic as many have asked to see these crowds of vaccine damaged children that Dorey so liberally exploits. At the same time anyone presenting evidence was banned and their posts deleted – as usual. One member managed to remain leaving:

Mia writes engaging articles with compassion, empathy and humour. Many, many commenters on MM disagree with her position on many issues but as long as they’re not abusive, the comments stay. That’s why she has such a vast audience. You should try it, Meryl. You might find your audience grows instead of shrinking away and hiding on closed websites and Facebook pages.

And (to the author of the above Facebook comment – but not in response to that comment):

… why are you being so mean? You do realise that lots of people – genuinely curious people – will come to this page after reading Mia’s column? If I were you I’d be using the traffic to make a reasoned argument in a friendly forum. Mocking and insulting a well loved and popular writer (even if you disagree with her) is not doing your cause any good.

All in all it continued on for some time. I was riveted at how far the antivaccination movement – or is it just Dorey’s mob – had fallen. I could not find any arguments or attempts at discourse beyond vicious, wailing ad hominem abuse. Dorey wrote her usual scathing personal reply seeming to latch onto two sentences that distort Mia’s intent:

I’m certainly not suggesting we become a flock of sheep or suspend critical thought. But I don’t need to ‘do my research’ before I vaccinate.

Dorey used this to accuse her of being a sheep proffering, “Well duh! If you don’t do your research first Mia, may I suggest you open wide and say baaaaaaaaaa!”

But the full paragraph is clearer:

I’m certainly not suggesting we become a flock of sheep or suspend critical thought. But I don’t need to ‘do my research’ before I vaccinate. Or before I accept that the earth is round and that gravity exists. Scientists far smarter than me have already done that research and the verdict is unanimous, thanks.

Therein lies the impact of Mia’s article. Cries of “I’ve done my research” just don’t cut it with something as irrefutable as vaccination. From a safety viewpoint, it is open to abuse and argument less than regulation of the aviation industry. I would also argue, one needs the skill to discern a reputable source rather than embarking on piecemeal “research”. And in this Age of Hilarious it’s plain that Meryl Dorey is a source of dangerous nonsense.

To top it off Dorey made her seventh appearance on Friday at Conspiracy Central Airwaves aka Fairdinkum Radio. I’ve snipped 3 minutes of grabs below [or MP3 here]. It opens with Leon Pittard criticising science and the “technocracy” we’re moving into. It continues with Big Pharma terror then Dorey attacking Mia Freedman who “is a product of the governments health policy [which is] everyone must vaccinate and we need to fear and hate those who don’t do it”. That’s right dear reader – that’s government policy according to Dorey. Just like racism she contends.

Despite knowing the pertussis vaccine gives dubious immunity and no vaccine is infallible Dorey can’t seem to grasp Mia’s argument that an unvaccinated child is a risk to all Australians, vaccinated or not. Meryl should read this post from a mother whose vaccinated daughter caught pertussis from an unvaccinated child and three months later, “is prone to chest infections, pneumonia, and more susceptible to viruses and Influenza.”

In the same program Dorey again repeats the myth that no children died of pertussis in the ten years to 2009. Reasonable Hank deals with it splendidly. Why she keeps insulting her hosts and listeners like this I don’t really know, only to politely assume it’s linked to the pitfalls of cognitive bias above. Between 1993 – 2008, 16 children under 12 months died from pertussis. Dorey is well aware of this. And so her cult-like cycle of bald faced untruths continues.

French atheist, philosopher and author, Michel Onfray suggests the coming century will be the century of religion. He is probably right, but exactly what form the religions will take and what passes for belief and faith might be hard to recognise by it’s end. Consider Scientology for a salient example.

Whatever the case it seems that for a number of reasons from human psychology, to arrogance to simple power and profit the Age of Hilarious will persist for a while yet.

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