Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Smart People, Strange Ideas

By Peter Bowditch

Even people who are rational about most matters can hold opinions that aren’t supported by science or even common sense.

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When Michael Shermer revised his book Why People Believe Weird Things for its second edition, he added a chapter titled “Why Smart People Believe Weird Things”. His point was that even people who are quite competent and rational in their thinking about most matters can hold opinions or beliefs that are not supported by science, logic or even common sense.

The usual example of this is religious scientists who manage to comfortably believe in miracles and supernatural beings. I’m with Stephen Jay Gould on this – religion and science are different, and faith is about belief without evidence. My concern here is people who are selective about the science they accept.

Many of my skeptical friends can be quite scathing in their criticism of television programs like CSI for the way they mis­represent the reality or the practice of science. Simultaneously, these people are great fans of science fiction shows in which the laws of the universe can be comfortable ignored and the ability of scientists comes very close to miraculous. This isn’t normally a problem, but occasionally they seem to confuse fiction and reality.

The specific example I’ve seen recently is that the colonisation of Mars became a real possibility when Elon Musk’s SpaceX organisation managed to recover a booster rocket. I thoroughly enjoyed Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and I think...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.