How is it possible that every well-spoken charlatan who expresses obvious nonsense in public immediately gathers followers? It‘s nothing new, certainly older than the internet. I’m talking about homeopaths who claim that a solution, diluted 10100 (i.e. a one followed by 100 zeroes) times, is still ‘active’. About anti-vaxxers that keep on believing that their children will become autistic from standard vaccinations, or could get nano trackers in their blood. About climate deniers. About people who think they can feel electromagnetic radiation at GHz frequencies, are afraid to hold their cell phone near their head and stay metres away from the microwave oven. About people who travel to faraway places to have their tumour removed by touch of hand. About half of the Americans who take from Trump that facial masks are not necessary against Covid-19. About Dutch self-proclaimed virus-madmen.
Such people believe things that don't contribute to their own health or to that of their loved ones and are often even harmful. Sometimes they are desperately ill, but most of the time they are healthy and seemingly have their wits about them.
They apparently lack a good nonsense filter for incoming information, and they distrust science. TU Delft should want to do something about this. But how and when? Where does this distrust come from, and how do you teach people to think logically and critically, so that they can distinguish sense from nonsense?
‘Maybe we can teach our children to think scientifically in the empirical sense?’
At college, people are too old to be cured of superstition (that's a pity, because I know various TU staff, including scientists, whom I must count as members of the problem group). Every successful religion has discovered that basic ideas have to be spoon-fed very early in order to be properly incorporated, and must then be confirmed life-long.
So in all cases of superstition, primary education has flagrantly failed.
Starting with atoms, molecules and quantified radiation in kindergarten seems like a bridge too far. But maybe we can teach our children to think scientifically in the empirical sense? If, in the group discussion on Monday morning, a child claims that it suffers from Wi-Fi radiation, could the teacher, together with the whole group, devise and carry out an experiment to test that claim? Not trying to convey the knowledge itself, but the way of thinking and operating? Once you have learned to think like that, you also have the desired nonsense filter in place, you gain confidence in empirical science, and you learn that science is neither a faith, nor an opinion, but mainly verified, acquired knowledge.
This approach seems feasible to me. A university like TU Delft could offer to teach future elementary school teachers how to do that. Using current examples, as I mentioned a few above. Perhaps there are superstitious people among the future teachers for whom it is not yet too late. And we can build a charlatan-proof community.
Dr Menno Blaauw is IMS manager at the Reactor Institute, after 20 years as a scientist there. He is also a member of the Work’s Council.