How clever people can be foolish

Which is correct?: A. People drown by breathing in water. B. People drown by holding their breath under water.

Confronted with such a question, the vast majority of people would know that A was the correct answer.

Indeed, most people would know that water in the lungs is proof of death by drowning but that lack of it is proof of death prior to a body being immersed in water.

Now consider the following anecdote, seared on my memory for reasons that will quickly become apparent:

It was a conference at the London School of Economics in the early years of the new century on evolutionary psychology, chaired by the leading sociologist, Prof Lord Giddens, to which I had been invited along with the great and the good of the Darwinian and sociological worlds.

In the course of an extempore comment, I pointed out that, although people indisputably have free will, the free will we have is limited to choosing from menus of options ultimately drawn up by our genes.

I gave the example of suicide, making the obvious point that, although people can kill themselves by refusing food or drink, no one has ever committed suicide by holding their breath!

But at this point a well-known and very eminent professor of biology and neurobiology leapt to his feet and excitedly asked the audience “Whether Dr Badcock has ever heard of suicide by drowning?” A thunder of raucous laughter was immediately followed by hearty applause—and stunned silence on my part. The assembled intellectual elite of Darwinism and social science appeared to believe that people drown by holding their breath, and that my comment was completely laughable. In other words, they had ticked B above! But how could this be possible? How could an elite audience of intellectuals with an average IQ well above 100, chaired by a member of the House of Lords and led by an influential professor, be so confused in its thinking? Continue reading

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