Richard Dawkins (Photo by Karl Withakay)

Flaws, Courage, and Conviction at CSICon

October 19, 2019

If nothing else, to be a skeptic is to be willing to accept the universe as it is. That’s not the same as being apathetic or content with the status quo, but it does mean that we have to start with the facts as they are, not as we would have them be. So if we are brave enough to try to make a better world, we have to first be brave enough to acknowledge what is true about the world we’re trying to improve.

Courage was the theme of Richard Dawkins’ address on Friday night at CSICon 2019. Dawkins had us look to the example of Charles Darwin and how his earth-shaking revelations about how life develops, and the courage it took to declare that the old ideas about humans being the realization of a deity’s dream were utterly demolished. 

It’s not just that the fact of evolution destroys the illusion of God’s role in our creation, but it introduces all sorts of other, let’s say, quirks and flaws about our species and of life in general. There is no perfect, intentional design to life. It’s a wild and wonderful accident, and courage is required to first confront and then embrace this truth for all it implies.

We should be proud of this understanding. “Pride in science is not hubris,” said Dawkins. Instead, it’s simple realism and the frank admission of what we human creatures don’t yet know.

The presentation by Nathan Lents on humans’ own evolutionary flaws complemented this idea perfectly, as he energetically bounded across the stage, regaling us with tales of how natural selection has really blown it for us. “It’s sloppy, it’s aimless,” he said of evolution. But the good thing is that, as he put it, “the flaws are deeply informative.”

Here’s where the delight comes. Yes, evolution has failed us by screwing up our facial plumbing, a spine that isn’t really ready to hold us up on two feet, or a need for Vitamin C that no other primate needs and can lead us to bleed from our eyes. Way to go, evolution! But understanding these failings can lead us to greater understanding of how to adapt to this world we’re so awkwardly existing in, and how life itself slowly and clumsily keeps changing with the epochs.

So let’s have the courage to acknowledge this. And then laugh about it, because why not? It’s funny. 

And while we are frank in confronting our flaws, we can also be frank about what we do know and what we are, in fact, right about. Joe Schwarcz, who also spoke to us today, is one of my favorite examples of this. Through several media outlets, Schwarcz dismantles pseudoscientific claims with joy and a real sympathy for the people getting bamboozled. His courage is absolutely not about arrogance or hubris, but a wry celebration of both humans’ absurdities, and an infectious enthusiasm for the real science. 

Nick Little (Photo by Karl Withakay)

And look, when you’ve got a plucky nonprofit that wants to take on the biggest retailer on the planet, you need a truckload of courage and conviction, and probably a few other more crass synonyms. That’s what CFI legal director Nick Little came to talk about: our lawsuits against Walmart and CVS over their sale and marketing of homeopathic junk. 

You know Nick means business when he points out that his legal department-of-one budget is $0 trillion. Look out!

Nick framed his explanation of our suit as a David versus Goliath situation, which is undoubtedly is, but it’s also a situation in which we’re aiming at a kind of Achilles heal of healthcare, “the Scientology of medicine,” as Nick called it. Walmart and CVS are gargantuan, but homeopathy, as Nick said, is “really, really, really bullshit.”

A hard truth that Nick pointed out is that democracy simply isn’t equipped to solve a problem like homeopathy. It’s legal to sell it, and it’s not the top priority of any presidential candidate (or gubernatorial, or senatorial, or mayoral, etc., etc.), so leaves litigation as the only avenue to address it. 

This is where it comes back to what Dawkins said about courage. Relying on science and reason gives us the courage of our convictions, a moral courage to say that something that is popular and sold by incredibly powerful entities is, nonetheless, garbage, and needs to be treated as such. “This could be a genuinely nationwide advance in getting pseudoscience off the market,” said Nick. We may not have a trillion-dollar legal budget, but we do have the chutzpah to take our shot.