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A Little Knowledge Is A Dangerous Thing

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Posted by Mario Dovalina on July 21, 2001 00:09:23 UTC

An interesting mental tactic I've noticed used by many people in the world is something I call selectively heterogenous reality, for lack of a better term. People will accept a certain line of thought insofar as it provides them with answers they want to hear: once a logical process reaches a point where a follower of that logic find the implications distasteful, he or she will "cut off" his understanding of that logic at that point, and replace it with another, more palatable philosophy. Though it may make for smoother world views, when you extend many people's various belief systems to their logical limit, you will often find self-contradictory opinions.

To use a particularly extreme example, I know someone who claims that it is impossible for the earth to be 4.6 billion years old because of the shrinkage rate of the sun. He said (though I'm not sure of the claim's validity) that we have measured the shrinking of the sun to be approxamately a five foot/day loss of diameter. (an average from 1700 to now) He claimed that since the sun's diameter was decreased 5 feet per day for the last 300 years, 4.6 billion years ago the diameter of the sun would have been about 1.5 billion miles in diameter (i.e. several astronomical units) so the earth's location would be located inside the sun, in which case it's unlikely life could ever have developed here.

This person used science to the extent that it reinforced his chosen fundamentalist beliefs. He accepted the scientific study of the sun but denied other, equally scientific claims on the age of the earth.

More importantly, he ignored simple logic that invalidated his opinion. For example, non-linear decay (just because the Mississippi River receded 2 feet today doesn't mean it will be 8 feet long in a few centuries,) simple geometry (if you take a small and large sphere, and cut an inch of depth off of each one's surface, the larger of the two would lose much more volume) and astronomy (the matter that formed the sun didn't just "appear," it collected gradually.)

I don't mean this to be an anti-theistic message. This was an extreme example, but we all do this to a certain extent, and I'm as guilty as any. But the first step in solving a problem is recognizing it exists. Whenever you defend fundamentalism with science but deny the implications of that science, or defend science with biblical passages but deny the implications of those passages, think about what you're doing. This isn't an advocation of closed minded pure-science or closed minded pure-religion, but it is a generally useful thing to notice inconsistencies in your beliefs.

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