What Do We Know?

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

[Picture of St Jerome in his Study 1480]IT is a misconception that as one ages one becomes more wise; for it seems to me that as I get older many things I have held as truths are actually false.

I’m not merely talking about Santa Claus, Mohammed or Jesus — I am talking about so much more.  And I am not alone; it seems that there is enough misinformation out there to make a as many as seven series of Stephen Fry’s television programme, “QI” — which deals exclusively in misconceptions.

When I was a child I was reliably informed that the difference between bees and wasps is that bees die after they sting, wasps can sting many times and live. This is completely wrong. I was told that bats are blind (which is why people are said to be “blind as a bat”), but bats can see perfectly well. I was told that a duck’s quack doesn’t echo, lemmings kill themselves by leaping from cliffs, and ostriches hide their heads in the sand instead of running away from danger — all of which is codswallop.

As a young teenager, I was informed that chocolate causes acne and that sugar makes you hyperactive. These are lies.

I[Picture of a drawing of an Ostrich with his head in the sand] cannot remember being told, but I have always accepted things like the “fact” that hair and fingernails continue to grow after you die, that Napoleon was very short, and that Admiral Nelson wore an eye-patch. I accepted the notion that meteorites that landed would be hot and possibly smoking, lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice, that there is such a thing as spontaneous combustion, and that you cannot put metal in a microwave.

Am I alone in believing that humans only use ten per cent of their brains, and that men think about sex every seven seconds on average? What utter tosh!

This is all quite staggering!  Long established facts are turned on their heads, and make me wonder what exactly we do know.  The sad thing is that the internet repeats the mistakes, copies the misconceptions and so searches return the most popular results — not the truth.

Now, it could be that an argument could be made for misconception being unimportant, that it doesn’t matter if bats can see or that bulls are colour-blind and cannot detect a “red rag”.  My view is that while it is true that there are a lot of misconceptions that are  merely “quite interesting” and would be categorised under “amusing trivia”, it is also true that there are more serious misconceptions, ones that lead to misery, suffering and death.

Religion, I have all-too-often been told, is not about scientific proof or facts, but about belief.  In all the myriad forms of Christianity, the common source of belief is one version or another of a book known as the “Bible” or “scripture”.  People swear on a Bible, it is supposed to be the word of God.  People say things like “The Gospel Truth”.

Now, while it is entirely possible to pick faults through any version of the  Bible, that’s not what I want to do here and now. I just want to take a quick look at some popular Bible misconceptions here:

The first one is what Roman Catholics call “The Immaculate Conception”.  If you asked about this, the most likely response would be that it refers to the miracle of Mary getting pregnant while remaining a virgin, that the birth of Jesus was a “virgin birth”.  Now, I am not saying that Mary was not a virgin or that this was not a virgin birth — that is a matter of belief — however, if you read the Bible properly, you will see that the immaculate conception does not refer to this event at all.  Instead it refers to the birth of Mary herself! It is the Roman Catholic belief that Mary was born without “Original Sin”.

[Picture of Traditional Christmas 3 Magi on camels]Continuing with Christmas, nowhere does it state in the Bible that there were three wise men, or three magi. There were wise men/ kings or magi — but their number is not given, there could have been 40 of them! It also doesn’t say that they arrived on the day of birth, for example in Matthew 2.11, they seem to have met Jesus as a two-year old toddler!

OK, I know that you might think that these are not really dangerous, and are more “quite interesting” amusing nuggets of information, but I can assure you, dear reader, blood has been shed on these and other matters — this is exactly the sort of thing that subdivides Christianity and creates denominations and factions.

[Picture fo poster for Naturally Seletced review - darwin]Presently, in the USA, there are what-is-known as “Fundamentalist” Protestant Christian churches that are pretty extreme (not to be confused with “normal” Christians).  One topic that seems to ignite a lot of anger is about education.  Terms such as Creationism and Evolution are used, or should that be “misused”.

There is a lot of confusion about Darwin and the Theory of Evolution. Quite why people think this theory states that human beings evolved from apes is amazing; it categorically does NOT state that man evolved from apes/ chimps (note that apes, chimps and monkeys are interchangeable terms for this argument)!  Evolution does not address the origins of life, rather it presupposes that there is life, and instead takes to do with the adaptation of life forms to their changing environment.

It doesn’t follow that an evolving species is getting better, or more complex, it merely states that for a particular environment, particular adaptations are better suited or better fits (and in extreme cases only the best fits will survive). Chimps and apes have evolved just as man has evolved, we share a genetic ancestor, but we did not develop from them, we developed alongside them.

However, fundamental US Protestant Christians hold the belief that Evolution is in opposition to the Bible. They believe that the scientific theory is an hypothesis (they do not understand the proper definition of the word, “Theory”, and suppose that it has room for doubt or error), that it states that man evolved from the ape.

These fundamentalists do not seem to have read Darwin.  However, you’d think they would have read — or at least started reading — the Bible.

[Picture of Fresco Eve getting Apple]Genesis is at the start of the Bible, and is where the conflict with Darwin’s evolution exists. For some unknown reason, everyone thinks that there was an apple involved — yet there is no mention of apple, just forbidden fruit, and most Jewish scholars reckon that a fig is more likely.  it certainly seems that people do not like to read, nor to check sources.

I do not know anyone who understands what exactly “Democracy” is.  There is so much misinformation out there, it is quite staggering.

When I was young I was told that we were all going to die by the year 2000.  It would be either because we would run out of oil and food due to over population or else due to Nuclear fall out from the war between the USSR and the USA.

Now it’s terrorism, global warming, and economic melt-down.

We know nothing really.  We are told what to think, what to believe.  Countries change their names, wars break out, people die. We have no idea why, not really — not until the historians of the victors tell us what happened.

I would consider this article to be a success if I have communicated enough healthy doubt about what we think we know.  I hope I have shown that from bumble bee stings to evolution, we’re told the same lies again and again, and the internet multiplies the problem. The only thing we can do before getting on our high-horse to defend some absolute truth, is to check the source material, and be prepared for a few surprises along the way!

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