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

This is the third 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.

Preliminaries

First you guess. Don’t laugh, this is the most important step. Then you compute the consequences. Compare the consequences to experience. If it disagrees with experience, the guess is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t matter how beautiful your guess is or how smart you are or what your name is. If it disagrees with experience, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.

– Feynman

This short book addresses an increasingly desperate situation: the near universal state of scientific illiteracy among virtually all Americans. This state of profound ignorance of what science is and how it works is especially prevalent among those think themselves highly educated. Scientific illiteracy is complete among those who say they ‘believe’ or ‘trust’ or, especially, ‘effing love’ science.

To anyone with an even modest grasp of what science IS,such claims are embarrassing. If the truth of the previous sentence isn’t instantly clear, this book is for you.

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

– Aristotle

The first step is the hardest: to intelligently evaluate a claim made in the name of science, one must exercise the intellectual and emotional discipline needed to suspend all emotions and political feelings. Put another way: we should want to know what a thing is before speculating on why people feel and act the way they do about it.

The typical practice, seen everywhere, is to FIRST consider the politics of the source of the supposed ‘science’: was it stated by a politician or public servant or journalist who shares my political persuasion? Is it the position of the political party I identify with? Then it is trustworthy. If from someone of whose politics I disapprove? It is, by that fact alone, judged untrustworthy. Everyone has seen this; almost everyone has done this.

We humans are also very much prone to fear. We very prudently want to know about any danger we should avoid, and fear is the natural reaction to danger. Unfortunately, we humans are also very bad at assessing risk. Another thing everyone has seen, often in the mirror, is someone who will worry about minor risks while ignoring major ones. We see people – or are people – who won’t taste the cookie dough because it has raw egg in it, but will drive 85 on the freeway or ride our bike without a helmet or carry around way too much weight. We’ve done those last things most of our lives, and no longer even think about it; but we just heard about the (microscopic) danger from raw eggs, so that requires action. Fear will cause us to underestimate familiar risks and overestimate novel risks.

For the past 50 years, if not longer, we have been daily assaulted by claims that the science says we’re all going to die from a variety of ever-changing causes if we don’t promptly act NOW. These claims are framed to make us as frightened as possible. The hedging and restraint that are the hallmark of most good science are omitted when the claim is proclaimed – our doom is certain in a way that nothing else in the future is certain. Don’t fall for it. Do not be afraid; at least, suspend that fear until you’ve got a good grasp on the evidence.

What I’m here calling political beliefs are actually something much more basic, as discussed in the previous chapter: we all want to belong. We all must pay attention to what the other people in our peer group or tribe say, because the risk of being an outcast is felt to be too high. Our need to belong is a fundamental trait of our species, more fundamental than any love of science or, indeed, truth, and so it is only natural that we check with our group’s beliefs before forming our own,

This need to belong, while hardly a bad thing in and of itself, can lead us far astray, if not balanced against a love for truth. We spend 12, 16, or more years in school, where we’re much more likely to get into trouble for failing to conform to the group than we are for failing to learn anything. After years of such training, we tend to see the world as this place where authority figures decide and transmit to us what we ought to believe. All that’s left to us is identifying the correct authority figures – and they are eager to tell us who they are. There is no shortage of people vying for that job.

This habit of picking a team or a tribe and then using that tribe’s beliefs to filter what is allowed to be considered THE science has a name: Lysenkoism. Don’t follow Lysenko, that’s not a happy story.

When you express passionate belief in ‘the science’ which you have not independently worked to understand, it’s not just that you are parroting your chosen authority figures, it’s that all you are capable of is parroting your chosen authority figures.

You can think for yourself. Try it, you may like it. This book is intended to help.

It’s not going to be easy to find the courage to swim past the emotional bait and risk defying your tribe. I can only say, after K in Men in Black: “Oh yeah, it’s worth it… if you’re strong enough!” In order to understand science, or, indeed, in order to understand anything of any complexity, you have to want to understand it. It’s work, but it’s worth it. The alternative is to allow yourself to be blindly lead. History, especially modern history, is largely the tragic stories of people who imagine themselves the best educated, most enlightened, most moral people ever swallowing whole whatever their leaders tells them and whatever their peers profess to believe. We like to imagine it’s only stupid rubes who fell for the obvious (to us) manipulations of the tyrants and ideologues of the last couple centuries, when the sad truth is that it was the cream of society, the professors and professionals, the doctors and lawyers, who were always in the lead in accepting whatever they were told to accept. The more your position in society depends on the good opinions of those around you, the more susceptible you are to the wiles of the snake-oil salesman, who will always strive to hold exactly the position of respect needed for his scam to work. Alas! Historical illiteracy is nearly as complete as scientific illiteracy.

What is needed, and what this book aims to supply, are a few basic principles, a few rules of thumb, as it were, to help us laymen sift through the incessant, shrill claims made in the name of science. Science is not, and never has been, about trusting scientists. Science has always been about evaluating evidence. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.

Science is a way to teach how something gets to be known, what is not known, to what extent things are known (for nothing is known absolutely), how to handle doubt and uncertainty, what the rules of evidence are, how to think about things so that judgments can be made, how to distinguish truth from fraud, and from show.

– Feynman

Author: Joseph Moore

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

One thought on “The Layman’s Guide to Understanding Science: How Not to be a Gullible Rabbit. Preliminaries”

  1. Mostly good. The conversational tone appeals to me.

    Who is your audience? How young do you want to go? Depending on the answer you might need some rewrites. Both the Dresden Files and Mr. Trump’s tweets are reliably at the 5th-6th grade level, so you can do a lot within that constraint.

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