Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Back of the envelope epistemology

It's no secret that I've been righteously perturbed by the recent ascendancy of unreason. That's likely what's inspired me to read Galileo's Dialogue, Bertrand Russell, Hawking, and other heavy duty jive lately. (Or, as Pogo responded, when asked to say something heavy, "Fourteen ton of bituminous coal.")

But after pondering the deep questions, I think the explanation for the unpopularity of the scientific worldview these days, and the political triumph of denialism and irrationality, is not that hard to see. Scientific knowledge has three main features that make it hard to sell.

1) As Al Gore says, it's inconvenient. It takes no account of what you want to hear. It doesn't matter whether it's comforting, whether it compels you to take difficult or unpleasant actions, whether it could undermine your profits or destroy all your dreams and plans. It is what it is. It can be inconvenient, and it can be cold.

2) It isn't easy, especially at the borders where new understanding is being mined from the hard rock of reality. Scientific conclusions depend on long, hard chains of inference. It depends on fitting together complicated structures of evidence of various kinds, from various sources. Nobody really understands more than a bit of it in depth, and even understanding a good portion of it with shallow breadth is a chore. It's just a whole lot easier to read it in an old book.

3) Scientific conclusions, again especially out toward the mine face, are not final. It's damn hard to give up your cherished beliefs, and they don't have to be religious. Witness the furor over the demotion of Pluto, and that wasn't even about facts or theories, just a label. The scientific world view requires an open mind and constant willingness to revise one's understanding. That's often uncomfortable, even for scientists, who can get dug in on an error as badly as anyone.

But right now, with the really big problems we have, it's absolutely imperative that more people meet the challenge of learning, critical thinking, and keeping an open mind. Everything that matters to us depends on it, however burdensome it may seem. And in the end, it doesn't have to be -- it's exciting and gratifying. We just have to sell it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

When I was growing up, post WWII, our statements about ourselves celebrated our pragmatic, 'do what works' mindset that 'won' WWII.
There was a distinct rejection of theory in favor of the results that were achieved. (Sounds a bit like science, doesn't it? Theory is fine, but facts trump it.)
What happened?