Sunday, March 24, 2013

When Make Believe Is All That Remains

"Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts."
- Richard Feynman


I've mentioned in a previous post the one of the benefits of being a writer is you get to make stuff up. There is a serious problem, however, when wordsmiths of a different kind resort to making stuff up a tad more often than they should. I'm speaking of the scientists, the government, and the media - the ones who synthesize, distill, and report findings; who direct funding for research and make policies; and who relay information to the masses.

When Canada voted against science I was right there standing up and crying foul. Like many others my initial impulses had me all a Twitter (and a G+ and a Facebook). This is an outrage! Will no one come to the defence of science? At the very root of my anger is my belief that objectivity and truth still exist and not enough people are fighting for them.

I turned almost immediately to Gordon Bonnet, who, along with being a science teacher down in the States, also writes a great blog called Skeptophilia. In a matter of hours he turned around a much less knee-jerk response with the message that data, in of itself, cannot have an agenda. The problem is politicians and media outlets do, and I would assert that out of self-preservation (and the fact that they are human) scientists have one as well. However, the scientific agenda is normally kept in check through critique and review by one's peers. When that process gets handcuffed, well, all bets are off.

"The only thing worse than a blind believer is a seeing denier."
- Neil deGrasse Tyson

A friend with whom I like to debate such matters pointed out that "the human soul is corruptible." Indeed it is, but that's a sociopolitical discussion for another day. He also pointed me to this Maclean's article which happens to be a a very level-headed take on things. The author, Julia Belluz, sums it up by suggesting that scientists raising a stink in the form of 60's style protest aren't doing themselves any favours, and on this I have to agree. 

Everybody involved appears to be approaching it all wrong. I am left to wonder though, if that's the wrong way, what the hell is the right one? As the maxim goes, if insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, then what happens when you've tried every approach you can think of and still nothing changes?

It seems that people on both sides of any argument go though this eclectic transition of approaches. The precise order and length of each one is impossible to determine, but the following popped into my head as a plausible chain of events: 
  • Start with the presentation of pure facts. 
  • If that doesn't work, involve your peers to provide supporting information and try to open a dialog. 
  • If that doesn't work, then compare and contrast opposing ideas in the form of debate. 
  • If that doesn't work, then start removing facts and bring in "expert opinion" and hype. 
  • Finally, if that doesn't work, resort to pure, unadulterated propaganda and rhetoric. 
  • If all else fails simply resort to sarcasm and ridicule (enter social media).  
This is pretty much where we're at right now, and quite frankly I think this tailspin makes a complete mockery of it all and just ends up dragging everyone down to the same subhuman level, leaving slander and lies as the only pieces left on the board.

"The great thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
- Neil deGrasse Tyson

Maybe I'm naive to expect more out of professional conveyors of information, but when it's all reduced down to a contest over who can out crazy who it makes you wonder if the people who make stuff up for a living aren't the sanest group in the whole lot.

Next election I'm voting for a writer.

~ Andrew

5 comments:

  1. Don't forget about my contest! It's easy, it's free, and you could WIN STUFF.

    http://potatochipmath.blogspot.ca/2013/03/one-of-these-facts-is-actually-lie.html

    Wow, reading that back it kind of looks like I just spammed my own blog :)

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  2. When you've tried all that and nothing works, perhaps it's time to start listening to people you disagree with. Approach it from the standpoint that whatever they're saying is true, and try to understand how it's true for them. First, maybe they're right at least about some things; nobody's perfect, so certainly some of what you believe is wrong. Second, a lot of the craziness is in reaction to being marginalized -- how can I get people to pay some attention to my message? So if you start to listen, they can settle down for serious discussion. Third, where they actually are wrong, they'll never realize it from you explaining it to them, which puts you one up on them. But if you keep asking questions -- seeking to understand, not to convince -- they will be forced to explore the holes in their own arguments and may revise their opinions. Your questions are also a clue for them about how you think and what sorts of arguments they can make that can influence you, so that they will start addressing the points you care about. I think it makes for a more productive discussion.

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    1. Hey there Tyler! First, let me thank you for taking the time to read my post and provide such a well thought out comment.

      I believe your suggestions are covered by the 2nd and 3rd bullet points above (though I didn't expand on them in any way in an effort to keep the post short and invite discussion). I completely agree that listening is key and it should be the basis for any good discussion and/or debate. I'm a huge fan of your advice of asking questions. I will be taking this approach more often for sure!

      If you ask me though, when you get right down to it there are just too many arguments going on that are rooted in core philosophical differences. I call it Arguing Evolution With Creationists Syndrome and unfortunately there is no cure.

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  3. As long as humans inhabit the earth, this dynamic (if that's a good use of the word) will remain. Stupidity abounds. Arguments win over no one. The need to be right only exacerbates the opposing viewpoint's "need to be righter." I decided long ago the best I can do is to treat the people and environment around me with love and respect, and hope that, in some way, peace and joy will enter their lives from time to time. My two-cents worth on this topic. :-) --kd

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    1. Thank you for stopping by, reading, and commenting K.D. I would love to follow your lead and resist my "need to be righter", but I have this nagging feeling that if these arguments don't happen, then the ignorance will multiply and critical thinking and logic will be lost forever.

      I'm all on board with the love and respect thing though. The world just needs more of those things in general.

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