At the start of the twentieth century, over 40 percent of Americans did not know that the Earth orbits the sun in a year-long cycle (Otto 2016, 224). Another 52 percent did not know that dinosaurs died before the appearance of humans, and 45 percent were unaware that the world is older than 10,000 years. It is unnecessary to mention the equally alarming numbers of people who believe in ghosts, space aliens, paranormal monsters, devil possession, angels, demons, miracles, and so forth (Smith 2010, 22–23).
This mostly scientifically illiterate public seems to lack the necessary skills to distinguish between contending claims to knowledge or differentiate between fact and opinion. We now live in a scary and confusing “post-truth” era of disinformation, “fake news,” “counterknowledge,” “weaponized lies,” conspiracy theories, magical thinking, and irrationalism (see Andersen 2017; Levitin 2016).
Bogus and irrational ideas (beliefs that have been falsified or are unfalsifiable) are thriving and seem to be widely received and accepted. However, tolerating irrationalism and scientific illiteracy poses many dangers. It is dangerous to individual well-being. Numerous people have died because of their trust in sham alternative medical cures, and many others have lost their life savings by believing in psychics and miracle workers (see Bridgstock 2009, 1–3; Coyne 2015, 229–239; Gilovich 1993, 5–6; Hines 2003, 38–41; Schick and Vaughn 2014, 12–13). More than that, acquiescence to irrationalism threatens the well-being of our society (see Mooney and Kirshenbaum 2009; Sharlet 2010). As philosophers Theodor Schick and Lewis Vaughn (2014, 13) have put it: