The Layman’s Guide to Understanding Science: How Not to be a Gullible Rabbit. Taming the Beast

This is the second of three preliminary chapters before we get to the meat of things. I organized this on the fly, so I’m not in love with there being three chapters, in effect, before Chapter 1. This can be cleaned up later.

Taming the Beast

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.

– Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize winning physicist and legendary Cal Tech teacher

We humans – you, me, everybody – have some limitations and predilections we need to overcome, or they will rule us. In the words of Agent K in Men In Black:

The person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and you know it!”

If we are to be that smart person, we need to find a way to separate ourselves out from the dumb, panicky, dangerous herd we belong to, at least for as long as it takes to consider an idea or proposal. If we can’t or won’t do this, we are not free. We will be slaves to the opinions and emotions of other people.

Most of us are more or less reasonable and open-minded when talking with people one on one. But no matter how vehemently we deny it, few of us can resist the pressure to conform to our peers. While we – you, me, everybody – may flatter ourselves that we’re oh so open-minded, educated, and fair, the evidence suggests that’s not quite true. After reading this book, I hope you start listening for the dead giveaways that you are being told to conform to your tribe rather than look at evidence and listen to argument. Conforming is easy, and gets you a pat on the back and gold star; thinking things through for yourself is hard, and is unlikely to make you any friends within your tribe.

Since this is a book about science, let’s frame this up in terms of Darwinismi: The environment in which our ancestors evolved was tribal. Not one of our ancestors survived and reproduced without the cooperation of others of our ancestors. Therefore, Natural Selection has hard-wired into our DNA a desperate need for a tribe, simply because those without a tribe had little if any chance of reproducing, and thus, in the cruel world of Darwin, ceased to be ancestors to anybody.

Right after breathing and eating, our next most important drive as humans is to belong, to be in a tribe. That’s where we grew up, where we will find a mate, where we find those who will defend us. It is thus completely natural and to be expected that, when an unfamiliar idea slouches into view, our first instinct is to look to the people on our right and left and see what our tribe thinks, and accept that view. Why risk our standing in the tribe over something as abstract as an idea?

And it is, instinctually, the smart thing to do. We need our tribe – being without it is a terrifying prospect. By comparison, truth is most definitely an acquired taste – but it is essential for our thriving in the real world that we acquire it. Watch a group of dogs sometimes. They regularly perform little rituals to reestablish and confirm their membership and standing in their little pack, everything from tail wagging to butt-sniffing to rolling over to show their throats. Then watch people. You think all our little social rituals aren’t as based in instinct as what you see your dog do around other dogs?

The trouble begins when someone we instinctively identify as a member of our tribe wants us to do something. They could present careful arguments and attempt to persuade us – but that’s both uncertain and time-consuming, and besides the point, from their perspective. They want us to do something, not just to win an argument.

So your first lesson here, the first sign something is up, is when someone first assumes a position of tribal authority, and then tells you that to do, repeat, and believe what they tell you are requirements to remain in the tribe. To do otherwise is to belong to the stupid, evil tribe. That’s what almost all demands that you ‘believe’ or ‘follow’ the science boil down to.

That’s simply not how science works. Every study is call for criticism; every finding is conditional, often highly so. Every strong claim in science got strong by withstanding open, vigorous criticism. I mention this, because, of course, the next step for the snake oil salesman is to tell you you’re a stupid, evil person (in so many words) if you even listen to those who might disagree with him. In practice, it’s remarkable how open real science is to criticism. That willingness to consider critics is the glory of science. On the other hand, it’s common, these days, for people who disagree with some policy claim to be accused of being anti-science and to get shut out of public discussions, even if they are PhDs, Nobel prize winners, and otherwise experts. We live in interesting times.

Keep in mind that scientists are people, too, and can only approximate the required levels of honesty and openness that doing science demands. When science works, it’s often the fear of being exposed by their peers more than anything else that enforces whatever honesty there is in any given field. I’m a big fanboy of a number of scientists – Feynman and Darwin are in my personal Hall of Fame – but that doesn’t mean I’m blind to the problems we fallible humans, most definitely including me, are prone to.

Below, I’ll explain what science is, how it works, and how you and I as laymen are not, usually, at the mercy of experts when it comes to science. If you know how it works, it becomes easy to spot the fraud and bullying. The hard part is going to be standing up to your tribe. But it’s worth it, and essential to the creation and maintenance of a free society.

Endnote:

iAnd, being a Darwinian account, it will be a Just-So story. I love Darwin, I really do, but Darwinism is the one science in which any old likely story is accepted as proven, even if there’s little if any chance it could ever be observed or tested. In this case, I – and the many, many others who have made essentially the same argument – have no way of observing the behavior of our ancestors, nor can we devise an experiment that might confirm this lovely theory. Yet, to quote Plato: it is so beautiful that something like it must be true.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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