Leading Horses to Water
Ancient Greeks began the way of
thinking originally known as natural philosophy but which we now call
science. Science emerged as we know it during the Renaissance, in
an age dominated by fear, superstition, injustice, and brutality.
In other words, pretty much like the present. These musings are
aimed at explaining how science works, and how science can serve even
nonscientists in their efforts to make sense of the world. I can
try to explain things but it’s up to you to decide whether or not you
wish to drink from these waters.
#31 - What Am I Hoping to Accomplish Here?
American Heathen: aired: 16 March 2013
I find myself wanting to return to the issue of why people should
invest a portion of their time in learning about science. In a previous essay,
I mentioned the value of scientific and mathematical methods for
problem-solving. It’s virtually certain that very few people, if
any, have suddenly taken an interest in science as a result of that
essay. Can I realistically hope to change anyone’s mind about the
value of learning science with these essays? It seems rather
unlikely that I could be very successful at changing people’s attitudes
in any essay posted here.
So what am I hoping to accomplish? I look at the irrational
nonsense that comes from the mouths of politicians and pseudo-pundits
when discussing matters where science is involved, such as the
creationism vs. evolution “debate” or the “controversy” regarding global climate change
– and I despair. The chatter in the media swirls about in random
eddies that mostly manage to miss the basic elements of a logical,
scientific argument. Some people jabber on endlessly without
saying much that has any scientific basis, and many people nod their
heads in agreement with what amounts to pure nonsense, unable to tell
science from hogwash. Is there any way I can hope to change that
substantially? Probably not.
It’s widely believed that scientists operate from a position of cold,
dispassionate objectivity, collecting facts rather like someone
collecting arrowheads in a wilderness. Science is supposedly
constructed from these factual “discoveries” as if we were assembling
those arrowheads in a display case and that display somehow would
represent science. A collection of facts is not science!!
Science just isn’t done this way.
It’s not done by people who are totally “objective” in their
approach. Objectivity is way overrated as a viewpoint, and likely
is never characteristic of any real human being. We’re all biased
in our perspectives, scientists and non-scientists alike. The
mindset that puts scientists in a different class from non-scientists
is a virtually universal acceptance (among scientists) of the principle
that we’re not discovering truths – rather, we’re investigating ideas
that we’ve created in our heads, but in a way that seeks to disprove
them! We scientists try to remain skeptical regarding our own
ideas (and those of others, of course), and we try to find evidence -
not to support our ideas, but to determine which ideas can survive a
rigorous test. If the idea can’t be tested, it’s not yet science.
Unlike many other modes of thought, science is intimately aware of its
failures and limitations. When ideas have successfully negotiated
many difficult challenges - and part of the art of science is to dream
up new and innovative ways to test our ideas in such a way that those
ideas could actually fail those tests - then we can apply them in the
real world. New scientific ideas like the Higgs boson
become useful only to the extent that they fit the evidence. If
new evidence accumulates to the point where current ideas are becoming
suspect, new ideas must be developed to fit the new evidence, and the
preceding ideas must be discarded, not matter how much we might cherish
How many modes of thought do you know where the most basic ideas are at
most considered provisional? How many disciplines other than
science have no sacred ideas and accept no arguments by
authority? The compelling aspect of science is that this
seemingly fragile and constantly-changing way to think about the
natural world has helped us put men on the Moon, to cure many
heretofore incurable diseases, to connect the world in a network of
technological capability, to understand how stars work, to probe into
the deepest depths of space and also to the unimaginably strange world
of the very small where quantum physics operates, and so on.
We’ve come a long way in the few hundred years that science as we know
it has been operating.
Among other things, it’s now an established scientific fact that
clueless people are quite unlikely to realize they’re clueless.
This has been tested and fits the evidence! Brainwashed people
don’t know they’ve been brainwashed. Therefore, they dispute
vigorously anything that might shatter their delusions and illusions –
they sound like this.
It’s definitely possible that my “reality” can differ from that of
someone else, but we scientists aren’t free to substitute just any version of “reality” – we’re duty bound to make our understanding of reality as consistent with evidence as possible.
If there’s no evidence to support some version of reality, then we must
decline to accept that as even provisional truth. Without
evidence, it’s most likely nothing more than a product of someone’s
imagination – or, possibly, an idea that would allow the originator to
control the lives of others for personal gain.
The essential key to a science-based worldview is that science makes no claim to absolute truth.
Anyone who claims to speak for a deity, to be a deity (!), or to be in
possession of absolute truth is certain to be a deceiver, consciously
nor not. The deluded and brainwashed followers of irrational
worldviews are fed a steady stream of assurances from their leaders
that those leaders know
exactly what is good for them, encouraging them to accept the magic
without question. Many have been indoctrinated by their parents
to become slaves to a system that has no logical or rational basis, and
have been threatened with terrible punishment should they stray from
the rest of the flock, and tempted by the promise of an eternal life of
bliss in return for their loyalty.
Accepting as truth something for which there’s no credible evidence can
be thought of as “magical thinking” and adherents to a magical version
of reality are evidently entirely free to pursue that to whatever ends
they choose, without any constraint to match real-world evidence.
Such a worldview is inherently dangerous to the rest of the world that
doesn’t accept that particular “reality”. That danger is apparent
to anyone who follows the news. If magical thinking can’t be
validated by credible evidence, then to what extent can actions based on those thoughts be justified?
The validity of such actions must be accepted on faith (i.e., without
evidence), and anytime the ideas upon which those actions are based are
questioned, the magical thinkers eschew logic, evidence and reason in
their defense. Mysterious ways, indeed!
I have no hopes for “converting” magical thinkers. Perhaps a few
will eventually have their moment of doubt that ultimately will cause
them to reject that belief system. Such a moment would almost
certainly not be motivated by my
words, but rather by their own experiences. Most magical thinkers
won’t stray from their magical thinking, preferring the false security
and empty comfort of their irrational worldview. So why am I
going through all this?
Learning the ways of science is a very helpful path to enlightenment,
even if you have no intention of being a scientist
yourself. Science breaks the chains of magical thinking and
shows people how to think for themselves and how to form their own
conclusions about the world. Science provides one with ways to
recognize illogical and erroneous arguments. Science seeks to
replace ignorance with verifiable understanding, not articles of
faith. But science also has a genuine humility, fueled by a deep,
understanding of its limitations and our limitations as its
practitioners. Finally, science retains a sense of mystery and
wonder at what science doesn’t know. Rediscover the joy of
learning as much as possible about our world and how it works!
is not a religion but rather a tool for those who wish to think for
themselves about the natural world. Its primary characteristic is
its willingness to entertain questions from those who wish to obtain