Saturday, March 25, 2006

Delusional Thinking

Today I had a letter published in the Lawrence Journal World about Dave Penny and his billboard. I expect to get attacked this letter in which I say:

"I want to thank Dave Penny and his band of anonymous businessmen for providing me as a biologist with one of those “teachable moments” I so love. He provides just the illustration I needed to illustrate the distinction between rational and delusional thinking and between how scientists develop understanding through careful study of the natural world versus how delusional thinkers use rhetorical tricks, out-and-out lies and slick slogans to manipulate public opinion about scientific ideas."

So, to forstall that, perhaps a couple of comments about delusional thinking are in order. First, delusional thinking is not all bad. After all, it is the delusional thinking of the optimist that the glass is half full that keeps hope alive in the face of overwhelming odds. Delusional thinking and belief is simply a failure to accept overwhelming contradictory empirical evidence. We engage in this sort of thinking when we get up in the morning and smile in the face of empircal science which seems to say that the universe has no purpose and is not particularly friendly to me as an individual and besides I am out of coffee.

But delusional thinking becomes bad when it interfers with our ability to adapt to new situations, or recognise and handle aspects of our environment that are important (e.g. evolution and global warming). When delusional thinking becomes dogma rational discourse ceases and we put ourselves in grave danger. Delusional thinking becomes bad when it leads us to harm other people such as the religious fanatic (insert your favorite sect) who thinks that by killing their enemies, he or she will find grace or some sort of heavenly reward.

Delusional thinking can be a force for good. It enables us to hope for the future and plan. Positive delusional thinking is faith and that is a powerful thing to have. But some sorts of delusional thinking may become popular and dangerous dogma, spreading because of the hooks they put in our psyche, but dangerous for us as individuals and as a civilization.


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