Anti-intellectual worship of weak “mysteries”

One of the strangest manifestations of irrationality is a surprisingly common anti-curiosity trope, often coughed up by weak-minded fools when their pet theories are threatened by facts and evidence. It’s anti-intellectualism from the left flank, from New Age flakes, drumming circle philosophers, and anyone actually attracted to a “guru.” I encounter it several times per year in my life as a vocal critic of quackery. Here are some common forms:

Except there’s usually some spelling mistakes, and the “mysterious” things they are referring to are invariably bland, tired urban myths and superstitions: crystal skulls, astrology, holographic bracelets, etc, all the not-actually-a-mystery mysteries. One of the classic examples is the bumblebee thing: first they trot out the myth that the flight of the bumblebee is “impossible according to modern science”; and then, when you try to explain that scientists actually got a good handle on the bumblebee thing decades ago, many will pass on the opportunity find out how bumblebees fly and sagely declare instead that they “want some things to stay mysterious.”

Really? Bumblebees are less cool because we know the physics? And who wants fraudulent miracle cure bracelets to “stay mysterious”? The attitude is at its most alarmingly idiotic when the “mystery” being defended is the truth about snake oil. I most recently encountered this variant in a discussion about the alleged healing power of crystals.

What aggravates me most about these mouth breathers is that they have me pegged as “anti-mystery” and poorly endowed in the awe-and-wonder department, when it’s exactly the opposite. That’s not how skeptics are at all, that’s not how we tick or how we roll. There is not the slightest danger that we will ever run out of things to be fascinated by, no matter how much we learn. Talk about the biggest non-problem ever! What a bizarre “argument” against curiosity and learning.

What they are really complaining about, of course, is that sometimes our pesky curiosity and education leads directly to an understanding that their beliefs are simply wrong. They don’t want us harshing their buzz with any actual knowledge of how things work.

used with permission from xckd

“There is so much to learn, there is not a second to lose.”

— Bryce Courtenay, The Power of One

“Science — knowledge — only adds to the excitement, the mystery, and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”

— Richard Feynman

“Because science carries us toward an understanding of how the world is, rather than how we wish it to be, its findings may not in all cases be immediately comprehensible or satisfying. It may take a little work to restructure our mindsets. Some of science is very simple. When it gets complicated, that’s usually because the world is complicated – or because we’re complicated. When we shy away from it because it seems too difficult (or because we’ve been taught so poorly), we surrender the ability to take charge of our future.”

— Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark