Candles in the dark
Science has been compared to lighting candles in the dark. Every time we make a discovery it is as if we have lit another candle and dispelled just that little bit more of the darkness.
I like this analogy; it fits in well with how I think of the world we live in. While I would love to have the answers to all the questions in life, I am content to accept that many things are still undiscovered and will remain so at least for the duration of my lifetime. In time, we will certainly find answers to these. That is one approach. Another approach is to explain these away using pseudo-science and other unsubstantiated and even unprovable means. It is as if gaps in our knowledge are not acceptable and we need to fill these gaps in any way possible. Now, more than ever, we have an abundance of theories to explain phenomena without providing a shred of evidence. Conspiracy theories abound.
Are quack theories a recent phenomenon or is that something that we have always had? This question bears some thought. Until the age of the Internet and the worldwide web (WWW), the ability for people to express themselves was fairly limited. One could express their views via:
Books: for books to be published, they would need to be accepted by a publishing house and edited to ensure that there was some degree of validation of their content. It was not (and is still not) in the interests of publishers to be associated with debatable and disputable content. The barrier to entry for publishing books was quite high and the process of doing so would result in a reasonable amount of due diligence being performed prior to publication. This meant that only a very small percentage of people would have been able to express their views via books they had authored.
Magazines: while magazines may not have the publishing scrutiny that was afforded to books there was still a degree of discretion that went into the selection of publishable content. Magazines did facilitate a greater opportunity for the general public to submit articles and opinions but again did not provide a medium for the masses to articulate their views.
Newspapers: the content in newspapers is highly curated and subject to a higher degree of scrutiny. Newspapers allowed the general public to submit opinion pieces or letters to the editor, some of which would get selected for publication. The discretion to publish rested solely with the editorial team, however.
Film: the domain of only a very few, those who could afford to finance and produce such content. A significant degree of determination and financial backing would be required in order to go through the process of releasing a film.
Radio: radio provided a medium for views to be expressed over the airwaves. As with other media, the views presented on the radio would be those of the select few who were chosen as radio jockeys. Certain radio segments would allow listeners to call in and provide their opinions. Again, not everyone could do so and these opinions would be rather ephemeral, disappearing into the ether the moment they were expressed.
In short, in order to be given a platform to expound one's ideas or views, one had to be known and generally accepted to be accomplished in the particular field. You would have had to be an accredited journalist, scientist, engineer, doctor or some other professional who was recognised as being authoritative in their knowledge. It would have been diffcult for a man (or a woman) in the street to easily promote their way of thinking; there was simply no easy way to reach the masses.
Getting back to the question of quack theories, it is clear that one cannot rule out their presence in past years. The fact that few such theories saw the light of day can be attributed to the difficulty of publication. That does not rule out their existence.
The age of information overload and misinformation
The ubiquity of the Internet has today given everyone a platform, from toddlers promoting toys on YouTube to distinguished scientists publishing the results of their research. It is almost as if we have taken democracy to the next level, universal information suffrage on steroids. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily, but it does pose challenges.
Even though I am a strong believer in the concept of democracy, I sometimes question it: does the vote of a young, inexperienced and impressionable 18-year old have the same value as that of a 65-year-old retired magistrate? The question is not whether both have a right to vote; that is a given. The question is the value of a vote. That's a rhetorical question but worth pondering.
Never cease questioning
With so many opinions, views, theories, "facts" and alternative facts out there, how do we determine what is true? Clearly, this is not a question that I am able to answer. However, the point of this particular blog post and a lot of other posts yet-to-come is to pose questions and not necessarily provide enlightened answers. As I stated earlier in this post, we may not have all the answers, but there's nothing stopping us from having all the questions.
In the next post, I will visit the concept of truth. Till then, stay safe.