Dear Sofia Richmond: Spare us the supernatural nonsense, the Independent's science correspondent tells the 'prophetess' who foresees Judgement Day in a crashing comet

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May I call you Sister Marie Gabriel? From the pious picture in those newspaper advertisements warning us of a cosmic day of judgement, I sense that you would like to be referred to by the religious name you have given yourself. It presumably makes you feel nearer to God than the rest of us.

It is with some difficulty that I write to you because I find it hard to take you at all seriously. However, I feel duty bound because your rantings illustrate what could happen if religious fervour were ever to get the better of scientific rationalism.

You prophesy that the encounter between the fragments of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 (which you insist on calling Halley's Comet) and Jupiter, which begins on Saturday, will be a warning from God that we must stop all kinds of earthly abominations. You say the cosmic flash may even stop all planes and traffic unless certain things are done 'at top speed', including a visit to London by the Pope, the reinstatement of capital punishment and a decision by everyone to 'become pure, holy, angelic saints overnight'.

It would be easy to dismiss such nonsense as the ruminations of a woman who has lost her holy marbles. But I think you are probably closer to the darker crevices of the human psyche than you imagine. Many of your simplistic solutions to the world's problems have, no doubt, been uttered in pubs up and down the land - not to mention churches - and there are people who want to believe that comets are the divine portents of doom.

After all, this has been the explanation for them since they were first recorded by the ancient Babylonians.

You live in a world of simple solutions: we must stop this, stop that because the comet is God's ultimatum. What science demonstrates, however, is that the Universe is far more complicated than we can ever imagine. Your views represent the antithesis of scientific understanding. They are, to paraphrase the Oxford scientist Richard Dawkins, 'viruses of the mind'.

The problem is, people want to believe in your crackpot ideas precisely because they are so simple. I wonder if you believe in evolution. Half of America doesn't and at least one Sunday newspaper here has given prominent coverage to the half-baked idea that Darwin got it all wrong. (The same newspaper does not believe HIV causes Aids.) It's all part of that tendency to throw away what knowledge we have for some other simpler, perhaps supernatural, explanation.

Now that we are approaching the end of the second millennium, I have no doubt that there are others like you who will suddenly find that they, too, have supernatural gifts.

My own prediction is that we can expect a plague of anti-scientific nonsense. It will not be God who saves us from all you mystics and soothsayers, but the rationalism of science. It is, after all, the only thing that separates us today from the abyss of fear and ignorance that was the Dark Ages.

(Photograph omitted)

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