Saturday, April 11, 2009

Oy! Not Again!

There are certain truths in this video, borrowed from A Blog Around the Clock, but I have a few problems.

The first, I think is obvious, with the false dichotomy between believing scientific things and believing supernatural or nonscientific things. The creator mistakes the scientific ideal for how science actually occurs and ignores the fact that many nonscientific ideas are produced with the same intellectual rigor as scientific ones. Many ideas caught on in the scientific community though there was no good evidence for them, such as the multiverse theory. On the other hand, the scholar's study of history, for one example, demands a careful examination of evidence and the willingness to challenge the current paradigmatic interpretation of past events. Nonscientific is here and in too many places used to mean "not based on evidence" or "not intellectually rigorous." This breed of scientism is dangerous at worst and foolish at best.

Secondly, and perhaps most important, is that the standard of demanding evidence before accepting a piece of information is an impossible one and one which would quickly cripple the mind of anyone who attempted it. The complexity of society and the variations in human ability and knowledge demands that we depend on others for information, often without being able to know or examine the evidence for the information they provide.

Our willingness to accept claims we cannot verify is often a practical necessity and is rarely a character flaw. Few people accept anything and everything they're told. Most filter information as well as they can based on what evidence is available to them, what seems right based on what they already know or think they know and a basic "common sense" of the kind of ideas that may need to be further examined. Both good and bad ideas get through the filter, so trust is added to the mix as well. If we trust a person for some reason, be it personal experience or the person's expertise, we accept what they tell us.

This need to trust others to some extent often leads us down false paths and makes us prone to accepting foolish claims or ones that would seem foolish to someone who knows more about X, thinks they have opposing knowledge or simply has a different worldview. But the source of those foolish claims is not always nonscientific or pseudoscientific or supernatural. Sometimes, science or at least a scientist is the culprit.

Whether we like it or not, the man in the white coat is treated with the same deference as the man in the white collar. Many of the studies conducted on people's willingness to blindly follow an authority figure used scientists as the authority figures. And for good reason. We see the man in the white coat as knowing more than we do and having better judgment about many issues.

Considering the scientist's field of expertise, we're usually making a safe bet, although there are many scientists who have used fraud to further their own flawed hypotheses and their authority to have them accepted in the mainstream. Outside of the scientist's field and within circumstances where moral, political or practical decisions must be made, we're often wrong to accept the scientist's authority simply because he's a scientist. His expertise does not apply in these areas and is therefore no reason to trust him implicitly. Yet we do.

Again, this is not a character flaw, nor is it a character flaw to occasionally reject a good idea because it doesn't get through our filters or make sense based on what we think we know to be true. This also is a practical necessity. It can lead us down false paths, but it makes living life possible.

In the end, being closed or open minded in regards to a particular type of information doesn't mean we necessarily have some character flaw. There are limits to the usefulness of both and a practical need for both in varying circumstances. There are also limits to the human brain's potential to have the right attitude towards every possible type of information which we'll encounter in our lives. Trial, error and humility are the best we can do.


Blogger coturnix said...

You are, of course, correct. And you wrote it really well. Thanks.

10:01 PM  
Blogger Melinda Barton said...

No, thank you. I love your blog and usually find far more with which I agree than disagree. It helps that your overall tone is reasonable and therefore helpful rather than counterproductive. Far too many blogs, including mine on occasion, descend into sputtering rage rather than rational assessment.

10:33 AM  

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