Thursday, November 13, 2008

Sceptical Activism and the Prime Directive

In a recent episode of the Geologic Podcast, George was asked a question about how he felt about sceptical activism in contrast to respect for cultural diversity. He immediately equated it to the Prime Directive, and discussed his initial thoughts on it.

This is a thought that has occurred to me as well. I was recently asked to participate in a panel discussion at an SFSA convention on the Prime Directive, so its intricacies are still relatively fresh in my mind.

The Prime Directive is a fictional law in Star Trek that prohibits Starfleet personnel from interfering in any way with members of other cultures. The assumption is that any interference, even if benevolent in intent, could have unforeseeable consequences that could potentially be disastrous.

The motivation for it stems from one of the underlying philosophical tenets that Starfleet adheres to: IDIC - Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. Federation citizens are not permitted to assume that just because their technology is more advanced than other cultures, that they are superior to them in an way. And therefore may not impose their own values upon other cultures, but must rather allow them to develop on their own, in the hope that someday they might greet them as technological equals, and possibly as allies.

While this law makes sense in the context of a world where interstellar travel is easy, and where primitive cultures can exist in effective isolation until they are able to master Warp Drive, how applicable is it to 21st century Earth? And particularly to those of us who wish to advocate and propagate what we think is a superior technology: critical thinking?

In short: do I have the right to try and help a true believer by exposing them to critical thinking? If the believer asks for help, that would be one thing. But that almost never happens... in the vast majority of cases, the believer is happy in their delusions, and doesn't want my "help".

James Randi makes an analogy that sceptical activism is like running into a burning building and carrying some poor resident out over your shoulder. That certainly seems like the right thing to do. But what if that resident doesn't want to be saved? What if they like it in there, and are blindly willing to accept the consequences of remaining inside?

It seems silly that that might be the case, but it does appear to be. True believers seem content to sit comfortably in the blazing inferno, blissfully unaware of the danger they're in. And unwilling to listen to anyone tell them otherwise.

Conversely, a Christian might see my atheism as similarly sitting in the fire of eternal damnation. They're probably wrong, but they don't know that.

I see blogging as something of a compromise. I put content into the ether, and people can find it if they're looking. It's a pretty milquetoast medium though, because it's so passive. I would much rather have a soap-box in the mainstream media - television or radio, where I could actively get my message to a far larger audience. But do I have a right to do that?

Yes, I know that the woo faction don't hesitate to use the media to propagate their nonsense... and to substantial effect. Just as in Star Trek, races that don't adhere to the Prime Directive see no harm in exlploiting technologically less advanced people wherever they find them. But that doesn't make it right. Fighting fire with fire isn't necessarily the ethical choice.

So I find myself in something of a quandry. What do you think?