dog shitting Don't look.

We only observe what our biology will allow

On Mexico, Charlie Sheen, pseudoscience and poor Pope Francis

The ubiquitous belief in the supernatural is certainly not unique to Mexico. Our species is in a sense a victim of our big brains: we seek to understand, and when knowledge is unavailable we make things up and call it knowledge.

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We are pattern-seekers, explainers, believers in the idea that everything happens for a reason, every effect has a cause, every problem has a solution, and that justice will be served – in this world or the next.

The fathers of modern epistemology – Hume, Kant and Schopenhauer – produced an impressive body of philosophical work that indubitably demonstrated that objects conform to our knowledge of them, and that because of our very biology, some things will remain forever unknowable to us (what Kant called the “noumenal” to differentiate it from that which is observable and discoverable by humans – the phenomenal).

To illustrate by way of analogy, a beetle might “know” Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude as a comfortable place to build a nest or eat its pages, but because of its biology, it will never be able to know it as the brilliant intellectual work on Mexican society and culture that it is.

And so it is with us – we can only observe what our biology will allow. Of course, unlike the beetle, we have developed a very powerful tool of apprehension called the scientific method. But even this has limitations and is often misunderstood, even by scientists.

Karl Popper showed us that nothing in science is provable through observation and that we cannot indeed even observe causation. But when science is slow in giving us easily digestible answers, we are too easily inclined to grasp for anything that might, even if the answers are spurious.

This is where Mexico comes into play. And Charlie Sheen. And Pope Francis’ much anticipated visit.

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On January 29, 2016, Samir Chachoua, the once-personal physician of Charlie Sheen, paid a visit to HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher. I like Bill. Not only is he funny, but he’s also a skeptic, a believer is the importance of science, and he keeps company with other people I like such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Chachoua recounted his treating of Charlie in Mexico and claimed to have “cured” him of HIV within hours by giving him special goat’s milk. Chachoua’s claims have been thoroughly debunked and he has been exposed as a charlatan, bilking desperately sick but wealthy foreigners from his base in Mexico because he is not licensed to practice medicine in the United States.

Charlie Sheen began taking his antiretroviral medications again on the plane home from Mexico, and has since denounced Chachoua as a quack.

Three things surprise me. First, Charlie Sheen said something intelligible. Second, a person of above-average intelligence with a disciplined mind like Maher could be taken in by such bullshit. And third, Mexico allows snake oil salesmen to operate within the republic with virtual impunity.

The list of Mexican quackery is long. Not only are laws very lax for medical practitioners, but bizarre cures for every ailment are on offer from “doctors” who have been stripped of their licenses in the U.S., Canada or Europe. Part of the problem is regulatory, geographic and economic: laws are much less stringent, a market of wealthy sick people are only a stone’s throw to the north, and Mexican public policy is not exactly shy about attracting foreign revenue flows.

But part is cultural and educational.

With the blending of Mesoamerican and Catholic traditions, Mexico is one of the most superstitious countries in the world (China is the other). Often, these superstitions are silly (e.g. if you stare at a dog while it shits you’ll get a pimple on your eye). Sometimes they are environmentally harmful (e.g. eating rare turtle eggs will make you sexually virulent).

In rural indigenous areas, traditional cures practiced by shamans are mostly harmless, if not given in lieu of proven treatments of western medicine.

But not unlike the otherwise scientifically-minded Bill Maher, licensed medical doctors are not immune to the seduction of pseudoscience. I have a doctor friend who regularly checks her horoscope. Never mind that no astrologist predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall, let alone the economic calamity of 2008, or purchased a winning lottery ticket. Real scientists (astronomers and cosmologists) tell a pretty convincing story that the stars don’t give a shit about us.

Our pediatrician once told me not to let our newborn baby daughter’s face get any direct sunlight when out shopping downtown or she would get sick. Another doctor told me that cold weather causes illness (Inuit living in the Arctic still haven’t gotten the memo).

Why? Because we’re not machines that operate on algorithms: we’re gloopy globs of flesh and bone and nerves with blood coursing through our veins with the same salinity of the oceans from which we came. And scientists are people too – perhaps more aware of, but nonetheless subject to, the cognitive biases inherent in our neurobiology.

I love Mexico (when asked why by exasperated friends I can only say that “it grows on you”), and despite having been accused of being a paid shill for the Mexican government, I’ve been critical of many Mexican policies. One of those policies (or lack thereof) has to do with higher education.

Most Mexican universities should more appropriately be classified as trade schools. Two years of general liberal education to obtain a four-year bachelor’s degree is almost unheard of. Classes in critical thinking, logic, rhetoric, patterns of mathematical thought? Nope. Rote memorization and scholasticism are the norm, and always have been.

Any course of study within any discipline will be focused solely on that discipline, creating “dumb” experts: OBGYNs who can produce a beautiful ultrasound for the family scrapbook and deliver a baby, but who haven’t the faintest clue about embryology; lawyers who unquestionably believe that law is “science”; production engineers who can cleverly crank out car parts by the millions, but not a cleaner car.

The importance of research is acknowledged in principle but ignored in fact. The best and brightest students with the talent and financial means study abroad and don’t return.

***

I like Pope Francis, but not for the usual reason that he understands the two most pressing issues of world civilization (climate change and wealth inequality). I like him because he is both humble and I suspect, deeply conflicted. As the 266th infallible Vicar of Christ, and scientist himself (título in chemistry), he has acknowledged the incontrovertible truth of evolution by natural selection, the germ theory of disease, and that the Earth is not the center of the universe.

(If he held these ideas only a few hundred years ago he would have been burned at the stake as a heretic, boiled in excrement, or otherwise subjected to the tortures that only brilliantly sick religious imaginations can conjure.) But he must also believe, given the preposterous preachments he is required to recite, that a cracker turns into the body of Christ once inside the mouth of a human, and that Mother Teresa posthumously cured an Indian woman of cancer.

(As it turns out, the road to beatification and canonization is paved with hearsay, and the position of advocatus dioboli has been conveniently eliminated.) And that a zygote is a person with a soul. The mental gymnastics required to square the circles between science and the supernatural must be exhausting.

(If humans are the product of evolution by natural selection, when did the human soul get inserted?) Yet he is doing good work despite of his religion, and not, in my view, because of it.

It must also be difficult to receive so many thousands of mentally, emotionally, and physically infirm Mexicans seeking divine intervention for their plights. Pope John Paul II said of Mexico, “Siempre fiel” (always faithful), which was meant and taken as a supreme compliment.

And Mexico, the most Catholic country in all of the Americas, returned the love – streets and zócalos renamed in honor of a pontiff who appreciated the faith and suffering of a good people. Suffering from bad government, endemic corruption and violence became a badge of honor.

The more one suffers the closer one is to Christ. So Mother Teresa said, and so the Catholic story goes. “Siempre fiel” should have been taken instead as an insult, translated as “always reliable to believe in something without evidence.”

But human suffering is not divine. Suffering detached from a cause is not noble. Suffering is suffering. The answer to end suffering does not lie within pseudoscience, superstition, or any type of unchallengeable dogma. We have the tools of reason and science at our fingertips, yet we refuse to pick them up, often preferring the comfort of ignorance disguised with the false raiment of knowledge.

Superstition and its slightly more sophisticated progeny – religion – were man’s first attempt at understanding, and therefore the worst. Educated people have for centuries stopped believing in spirits, but truly educated people are the minority in Mexico, and indeed around the world.

As I’ve written before, Mexico’s secular government and constitution are quite progressive, and Mexican religious beliefs tend to be based more on cultural tradition and less on the belief in the unassailable truth of a dogma (unlike evangelicals in the U.S.), which somewhat softens the harsh blow of ignorance. But although a milder form of poison, if you will, it is still poison.

Glen Olives Thompson is a professor of North American Law at La Salle University in Chihuahua, a specialist in law and public policy and a regular contributor to Mexico News Daily. Some of his other nonacademic work can be viewed at glenolives.com.

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  • Don Neilson

    Bravo, Glen, bravo.

  • Three score and ten

    Great comments. Thanks. As a minor addendum, I would add that when people believe something to be true, everything they observe will be a confirmation of that belief. They ignore conflicts. This applies to scientists as well who will discount any evidence that conflicts with their premise (based on my personal experience).

    • Glen Olives

      Yes, confirmation bias is strong even among scientists. Thankfully, peer review acts as a gatekeeper, but some things still slip through.

  • Michael Hogan

    “Sexually virulent”? Check your Webster’s on that one, Glen. Otherwise, great essay.

    • Glen Olives

      Not sure what I was thinking (if anything) when I wrote that. Thanks for pointing it out.

  • Dan Tucker

    Great writing, Glen! I would love to take one of your classes sometime. . . . But, I´m old, not interested in being a lawyer and live a long way away. . . . sigh. . . . just keep writing! Cheers!

    • Glen Olives

      Thanks Dan. If I had a do over, I wouldn’t go to law school again, that’s for sure.

  • Güerito

    The Polish poet/philosopher Karl Wojtyla (John Paul II) published an Encyclical in 1998 entitled “Faith and Reason,” in which he discussed some of these issues. He agreed with Eric Voegelin about the dangers in falling for “certain untruth” (scientism) over “uncertain truth” (an openess to reality).

    You spend some time discussing epistemology and the limits of human reasoning, so I thought you might like the idea of “uncertain truth,” probably the best we can do.

  • Richlittle

    I agree with most of what was written here, however, I do take exception to what is being taught in Mexican schools as being somehow different from the educations received in ‘any and all ‘neoliberal driven countries’. It’s the same in the US, as here. I read a book of essays by teachers at all levels of education, written about 30 years ago. Even then, three tier education was the construct. Schools and monies for the poor districts, the middle class and the wealthy were as different as night & day. One group taught critical thinking, nuance and creativity. Another taught mindless rote memorization; the ability [and desire] to perform mundane, repetitive tasks (as in blue-collar work). Another essentially taught as little as possible, with virtually no funds, sort of a pipeline to prison attitude. You can guess which is which… That was thirty years ago! These days, it even worse. Almost NO government today wants people capable of ‘thinking’. In that light, Mexico is no different from any other and the US model of privatization and further dumbing-down, while enriching the elites with public funds is right on track in Mexico.

    As for the Pope, jaja, very close to what I ‘believe’. Then again, belief? What the hell is that?
    Keep ’em comin’.

    Most
    Mexican universities should more appropriately be classified as trade
    schools. Two years of general liberal education to obtain a four-year
    bachelor’s degree is almost unheard of. Classes in critical thinking,
    logic, rhetoric, patterns of mathematical thought? Nope. Rote
    memorization and scholasticism are the norm, and always have been. – See
    more at:
    http://mexiconewsdaily.com/opinion/we-only-observe-what-our-biology-will-allow/?utm_source=Mexico+News+Daily&utm_campaign=01b1e3bad9-February+13&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_f1536a3787-01b1e3bad9-349473005#sthash.k5o9dz5k.dpuf
    Most
    Mexican universities should more appropriately be classified as trade
    schools. Two years of general liberal education to obtain a four-year
    bachelor’s degree is almost unheard of. Classes in critical thinking,
    logic, rhetoric, patterns of mathematical thought? Nope. Rote
    memorization and scholasticism are the norm, and always have been. – See
    more at:
    http://mexiconewsdaily.com/opinion/we-only-observe-what-our-biology-will-allow/?utm_source=Mexico+News+Daily&utm_campaign=01b1e3bad9-February+13&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_f1536a3787-01b1e3bad9-349473005#sthash.k5o9dz5k.dpuf

    • Glen Olives

      As usual, all good points.

  • James Smith

    Speaking of “quackery”…….

  • carolyn

    Since you have a superior vocabulary to all the rest of us (and don’t have a copy editor), you should probably look up the word “virulent.”

    • James Smith

      They would love this goof at Berkely or Harvard.

      • Cool Hand Luke

        This is scary Jimmy but I agree with you!

        • James Smith

          There may b e some hope for you yet!:-)

    • Glen Olives

      Got me. Reminds me of the time I wrote “dessert” instead of “desert” and nobody caught it. But thanks for pointing out this somewhat embarrassing mistake.

  • PintorEnMexico

    Well done Glen! I love your foursome of skeptics. I would add to them Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great) and Michael Shermer (How We Believe).

    When I came out as atheist I used your same phrase to describe the internal war I was fighting over faith. The “mental gymnastics” I was employing to square faith with the obvious was exhausting and I set it down.

    I am sick of religion getting a free pass in society. I believe all religions are deserving of ridicule. When religion is rightfully lampooned, it holds up the first amendment’s clause re: “free exercise of religion” while ignoring “freedom of speech.” If god is so great s/he/it can handle the heat. I can’t deny that historically religion has been a civilizing force in our development but in the era of suitcase bombs, I agree with the skeptics when they say that religion is the single greatest threat to civilization on the planet.

    • Glen Olives

      Thanks, and I sure miss Hitch.

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