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Tuesday, March 15, 2005 | Ah, the things we could learn from people who think, and the things we miss because we refuse to think. George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” Sam Rayburn gave us the more pragmatic “To get along, go along.”

A look at the past suggests most of us will follow Rayburn’s dictum. It’s a confusing world out there and folks generally opt for the easy answer. There is comfort in easy answers. Believing in them puts you in the majority. Then, if we collectively repeat egregious mistakes from the past and things go completely to hell, the blame is spread around among a lot of people who can say, “Hey, everybody said it was so.”

Does anybody have a problem with such sloppy thinking? Sure, they do, and I can give you a list of more than a hundred San Diegans who refuse to accept something just because “everybody says it’s so.”

They would be the members of the San Diego Association for Rational Inquiry, located at www.sdari.org

But just what is this scientific method? I asked that of Barbara Hemmingsen, professor emeritus of microbiology at San Diego State University. She gave me some criteria. First you come up with an idea. At this point it’s merely a hypothesis, then the scientific method demands you try to prove your hypothesis wrong. If it meets every test you pass it on to someone else who is knowledgeable in the field. That person then tries to prove the idea wrong. If he can’t, you publish the idea and let the entire world take a shot at it. If it fails any test – a hypothesis or theory – it has to be withdrawn or modified. That’s why scientists believe in evolution and relativity. They have met every conceivable test.

When was the last time you heard of soothsayers John Edward, James Van Praagh or Sylvia Brown testing their claims of clairvoyance in such a manner? Indeed when is the last time you heard a theologian try to prove anything without interjecting the idea of faith in there somewhere. Remember that the next time a faith healer tells you to throw away your pills and rely on his hand-waving while calling down the powers of the universe to cure you.

SDARI has been around since 1996. I joined early on and have served variously as president, program chair and enthusiastic member. We have made special awards to media members for serious thinking and for specious thinking. Letters of congratulations go out to reporters who manage to look askance at claims presented without any sort of proof. Awards for credulous thinking go to those who report claptrap with scarcely a disclaimer.

Our president, Richard Uhrich, recently appeared on Channel 10 to provide a bit of balance to a “news” show about exorcists. I once appeared on Channel 4 (the Padres’ channel) trying to hold up the light of reason to a Carlsbad woman’s claims that she could think real hard and learn what someone, somewhere far off, was thinking.

Roseanne (Barr, et al) had me on her nationally syndicated TV talk show and gave me a few seconds to provide balance to a guy who for an hour held forth claims that he had been abducted and painfully seduced by aliens some 150 times. Perhaps not too painfully though. He didn’t remember the encounters until he was hypnotized.

Mostly though, SDARI considers itself an educational group. We have monthly meetings with speakers on subjects ranging from the Museum of Hoaxes, to unidentified flying objects, to stem cell research, to earth warming, to therapeutic touching, to intelligent design. Our speakers range from world renowned scientists to local folks who have some special knowledge about paranormal claims and rational thinking.

While we have lots of top flight scientists as members, we’re not all educated in the discipline. Take me for example: My highest formal education was at a tiny school in northern Indiana, and that was more than 50 years ago. My understanding of the world has changed a tremendous amount in this last half-century, and you can’t imagine how much of that came after I started following SDARI’s motto: Dare to think.

I recommend thinking to everybody.

Keith Taylor can often be seen at a SDARI meeting at 7 p.m. on the fourth Sunday of the month at the Joyce Beers Center in Hillcrest.

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