Today's Non Sequitur comes in an arc that revolves around Danae's insistence on writing school reports off the top of her head, with no research, so that, while "a snowstorm disproves global warming" isn't breakthrough mockery material, the overall topic of foolish anti-knowledge is a worthy target.
Particularly at a juncture where the question of whether the quantity of combined fear, ignorance, laziness and stupidity at large in a society has a point where it becomes lethal.
Obviously, it does for individuals, and Wiley's own fondness for "famous last words" tombstone gags is evidence of that.
And of course we've seen it in large groups, where the outcome was far more ghastly, as recalled this week with the Auschwitz remembrances, and from which the lessons are many.
The most disturbing of which is that no matter how many witnesses there are, no matter how clear the factual evidence, and even if you force the collaborators to come and see what their complacency has done, you can't stop people from denying obvious and indisputable facts that do not serve their worldview.
That works both ways, too. Too firm a disbelief is the same as too firm a belief: It simply closes the mind to sensible argument and opens it to stubborn clinging to established ideas, the most foolish of which is certainty.
It's not always about genocide, as Red and Rover notes.
I used to point out the horoscope to classes when I was going through the newspaper with them, because it's got a unique niche in the Truthiness Universe:
People who don't believe in astrology obviously don't believe in the newspaper horoscope.
But people who do believe in astrology do not believe in simple-minded Sun sign astrology and certainly not in those silly columns.
So, I would say, it's the one thing we put in the paper every day that we know is not true.
And, if it was a high school class, I would add "but God help us if we leave it out."
Which is not trivial, because it also applies to the "Is this worth the grief?" question that comes up as you are writing a piece on, say, climate change or why people should vaccinate their children.
"Do I want to take the phone calls from the True Believers?"
Granted, every piece you publish should matter that much.
Also granted, every piece you publish should be bullet-proof, even though you know the angry callers won't be listening to anything you say anyway.
And there is no significant difference between True Believers and True Disbelievers, no point in attempting to reason with either a Biblical fundamentalist or with a radical rationalist.
James Randi is known for an activity in which students are asked for their birth data some time before his appearance, ostensibly so that a professional astrologer can make up an individual horoscope for them.
Then, on the day he speaks, the personalized envelopes are handed out and recipients are told to read their own horoscopes, after which he asks how many feel it was accurate.
The majority of hands go up and he then directs them to exchange papers with the person next to them, whereupon it is revealed that - gasp! - every horoscope is an identical compilation of vague, flattering generalities!
Which would certainly disprove astrology if individualized horoscopes were, indeed, simply longer versions of the nonsensical Sun sign columns in the paper.
Or if the feet sticking out of the other half of the box were, indeed, those of the lady who had just been sawn in half.
This doesn't mean that astrology is real.
It simply means that Randi isn't all that amazing.
I can't believe I haven't told this story here before, but it didn't turn up in a search, though I did come across this piece from last year on public credulity, which has some great quotes.
And today's Barn gives me a chance to expand my views on the Unamazing Randi.
When I was in radio, one of the ad people told me she had a friend who was a psychic, and that I should have her on the show. And, yes, my initial reaction was to wonder if I wanted to take the grief?
I'd have had no problem with a game of "De-pants The Psychic" if the faker had approached me directly, but this was a friend of a coworker. And I had no precedent that would allow me to gracefully turn down the offer.
So we set it up, and, doggone if she didn't show up 15 minutes into the show because of car trouble, which allowed me to ask her why she hadn't let me know ahead of time? She'd never heard that one!
But, as requested, I had brought in a metal object, a large rusty iron key, for her to "read."
She began by saying it had belonged to the respected head of a family, which was true, but, then again, that's how heirlooms get saved. Then she added that he had short legs of which he was self-conscious.
Which was true of my grandfather, but I certainly hadn't mentioned it, or anything about him except that, yes, we respected him, so the "she wheedled it out of you" explanation fails.
Then she got to the key itself, and said, "It's from back East." (We were in Colorado.)
"Well, not that far East," I said, and she insisted that it was from the East and I said, "Well, Michigan is east of here, but go on ..."
She went on, though a little upset that she had been so far off, and said, "It's to some place cold," and I said yes, that it was the key to the elevator that went down into an iron mine.
We chatted a little longer, then took some calls and she helped some people find a little lost jewelry (effectively) and gave out a little personal advice (who knows?).
It turned out to be a lot more interesting than I had expected, and a few days later, I told my folks about it on the phone.
But it wasn't the key to the elevator in Ironwood, they informed me. It was the key to the icehouse in Cornwall, Pa.
Yeah. A cold place on the East Coast.
If nothing else, we'd proven she wasn't a mindreader.
So a little later, as then-wife's keys entered their second week of being lost, I phoned Phyllis for a freebie, and I won't go into details, but after some back-and-forth, she declared that they were "under the sofa cushions, at the end near the closet," which seemed like a dead end because (A) we'd already looked under the sofa cushions and (B) there was no closet at all in the livingroom, much less one near the sofa.
Then one of the boys yelled, "I've got it!" and ran out the door, returning triumphantly moments later with the keys, which had been wedged in the bench seat of the VW camper.
The end next to the closet.
And, no, she didn't know I owned a VW at all, much less a camper. She knew nothing about me: I was on the air when she arrived at the station, I stayed on the air an hour after she left.
A few years later, I emailed all this to the Amazing Randi and asked him, not for an explanation, but simply to respond to the idea that there are things we cannot yet "prove" rationally.
Emphasis on "yet." The History of Science is full of bad explanations followed by better explanations and occasionally by definitive explanations.
Each of them advanced by people who thought at the time that science had now finally figured out the entire universe.
But he did, in fact, have an explanation:
It didn't happen. I am a liar.
And, hey, he should know: Skeptics run into liars all the time.