This photo was taken by me yesterday at an anti-vaccine rally in Steinbach where the message was that we should not give in to fear.
A reliance on reason, evidence, analysis and critical thinking is the hallmark of Enlightenment thinking and its progeny—science. Science is reason refined. Science is not perfect nor is it the only way to understand the world, but it is certainly the best. That does not detract from the arts and other disciplines. It adds to it.
The historian David Wooton reminded us how much the thinking of people has changed since 1600, the approximate time when the Enlightenment began. He said that in 1600 the educated Englishman believed the following:
“He believes witches can summon up storms that sink ships.
He believes in werewolves, although there happen not to be any in England—he knows they are found in Belgium…He believes Circe really did turn Odysseus’s crew into pigs. He believes mice are spontaneously generated in piles of straw. He believes in contemporary magicians…He has seen a unicorn’s horn, but not a unicorn.
He believes that a murdered body will bleed in the presence of the murderer. He believes that there is an ointment which, if rubbed on a dagger which caused a wound, will cure the wound. He believes that the shape, colour and texture of a plant can be a clue to how it will work as a medicine because God designed nature to be interpreted by mankind. He believes that it is possible to turn base metal into gold, although he doubts that anyone nows how to do it. He believes that nature abhors a vacuum. He believes the rainbow is a sign from God and that comets portend evil. He believes that dreams predict the future, if we now how to interpret them. He believes, of course, that the earth stands still and the sun and stars turn around the earth once every twenty-four hours.”
Steven Pinker in his book Enlightenment Now pointed out that within 150 years of the Enlightenment starting the ordinary educated Englishman no longer believed any of those things. That, when you think about it, is an astonishing achievement in a remarkably short period of time. That really is a revolution. And that is what the Enlightenment and science brought to us, and that is not an insignificant achievement. Pinker goes farther when he says, “It was an escape not just from ignorance, but from terror.” That is an achievement we should shout about. We should celebrate it. It is a magnificent accomplishment. This achievement allowed the world to escape from unreason. As Robert Scott a sociologist said, until then “the belief that an external force controlled daily life contributed a kind of collective paranoia.” Escaping the forces of unreasonable fears is vastly important, and we don’t think about that often enough. We have not escaped all unreasonable fears, and that is regrettable, but to escape so many, is magnificent. Science allowed us to escape what R.A. Scott called “the hobgoblins of fear.”
Everywhere until then people were paralyzed by those hobgoblins of fear that were ushered in by superstition and irrational thinking. So, people thought the sea was filled with monsters, forests with scary predators, thieves, ogres demons, and witches. Everyday activities were governed by the belief in omens, portents of danger, and scary thoughts. It was difficult to carry on ordinary life under such circumstances.
The vaccine rebels keep harping that we should not be controlled by fear. I agree entirely with them on this point. But their way is not the way to do that. In fact, I would suggest, they are actually giving in to fear. If we listen to them they will bring us back to those hobgoblins. More on that later.
In times of pandemic we need science more than ever to escape the hobgoblins of fear. We need to turn from paranoia to the light. That is what enlightenment is all about. That is exactly what the anti-vaxxers don’t understand.