Truth, stardust and comfort blankies

We should be able to do it now. We should be able rise above superstition, supposition and woolly thinking. We have arrived at the once-in-a-species chance to combine wisdom with knowledge and transcend both.

For the first time in our history we have the data. We really do know things. We have researchers and academics finding things out and publishing them as if their jobs depended on it.

We are also joining the gaps between these pieces of knowledge to some extent. Climatologists train as mathematicians and physicists first, but climatology also draws on the skills of botanists and archaeologists and palaeontologists and zoologists and lepidopterists and… well you get the idea. Not just climatology. Bristol University provides a taught Masters in Archaeology for the Screen Media. The list of connected specialities is huge.

And finally, we have methodologies. There were many seminal innovations in the 20th century: the internal combustion engine, flight, digital computing, penicillin, genocide, but the one without which none of the others would have had any effect is the development of methodologies. It was the development and application of manufacturing processes which enabled the Model T to roll out of the factories in Detroit in its hundreds of thousands. It was the development of a methodology for genocide which meant that six in every eight European Jews were killed in the 1940s.

The relevant methodologies though are the ones for generating information, for finding hard data and separating it out from theory, hypothesis and speculation. So, not only do we know stuff, we have reliable ways of sorting out true stuff and sifting out the plausible stuff, putative stuff, speculative stuff and down right wishful thing.

The ostrich-eye view

However we have not outgrown our comfort blankie. We prefer the warm cosiness of superstition and woolly thinking to the hard realities which face us and – and this is the really unforgivable thing – we tell ourselves we are looking at the evidence and drawing our own conclusions. We are doing nothing of the sort. We lie.

There are examples of this all the time. I once heard a taxi driver saying “75% of all cars on the road are red: if you think about it, it’s true”. The fact that he had failed to look through his windscreen and see that three in four cars are not in fact red was worrying enough. But the fact that he thought he had gone through a verification step pushed me off my mental cliff. What on earth did he think he was doing when he ‘thought about it’? What did ‘thinking about it’ mean to him?

This happens in commercial environments too. I recently distracted a meeting for five minutes by trying to understand if the statement “20% of balls are blue” meant “20 balls in every 100 are blue”, or if it meant “each ball is pie-bald and has a blue patch covering 20% of it”. Eventually the person I was asking the question of snarled “it’s just an expression” and I had to bite my tongue not to reply “no it’s not an expression, it’s a number”. I paraphrase, but I still say he was talking bollocks.

It is this intellectual laziness and moral cowardice that enables intelligent, educated and otherwise thoughtful people to believe in medieavalisms such as astrology or crystal healing or spiritualism or tarot cards. It’s incredibly simple to demonstrate astrology – just run the thing backwards. Collect data on people’s personalities and the events of their lives, and get an astrologer to tell you where the stars were when each person was born. You could limit them to a specific year if you felt generous. If astrology works, you should be able to run it backwards as well as forwards. You could take the same approach for tarot readings. If homoeopathy has more than just the placebo effect, then it should be demonstrable. It isn’t, and one has to conclude that it doesn’t.

Actually, homoeopathy is a case in point. The less a person engages with the methods and concepts of evidence based-medicine, or experimental and evidence-based science for that matter, the more likely they are to accept homoeopathy on trust. (Mind you, the only evidence I have for this is anecdotal and my argument is deductive – but this proves my point – we can now validate and categorise both the data we use and the conclusions we draw from it). What is worrying though is that the reasonably well-educated and predominantly middle class patients of homoeopaths believe that their faith in homoeopathy is worth as much or more than the evidence-based practice of medicine, despite the fact that medical science actually is curing more people year on year and this information is readily available. There’s none so blind as those who won’t see.

Stepping up to the line

By contrast, one of the most fascinating programmes on British radio at the moment is In our Time with Melvyn Bragg. Lord Bragg made his name in literature, humanities and the arts; he is nobody’s fool and no kind of intellectual slouch. However, he struggles with some pretty simple mathematical and scientific concepts whenever the subject is outside his own cultured fields. Fair play to him, he tackles the subjects and tackles them well. But it is astonishing to hear someone as polymathic as Bragg flounder in the midst of really very simple science. And then one realises just how innumerate and scientifically illiterate even the most educated and cultured of us are and – even more worryingly – that this is not seen as any kind of problem.

Almost half a century ago C P Snow argued that someone who does not understand the second law of thermodynamics is as uneducated and uncultured as someone who hasn’t read Shakespeare. He also says “if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language.”

The madness of crowds

On top of that, we don’t get it. We all feel entitled to an opinion in this democratic age. Like the taxi driver, we do not realise that we cannot think. We all feel that our opinion on – for example – evolution is as valid as the next person, even if the next person is a geneticist or an anthropologist or a palaeontologist and we aren’t. In fairness, the failure is in our education system where people are encouraged to ‘think for themselves’ without being taught how to think critically or being given the basic tools of analysis. This is the downside of democracy. We dumb down to our lowest common denominator. I am not going to argue against democracy: as Amyarta Sen points out, it is the only demonstrable safeguard against famine for a start.

Looking further up the slippery pole, we glimpse our leaders, chosen by us mainly from graduates who studied humanities or social science or business or law. It is not just that they are ignorant. The thing that gives me the great big hairy heebee-jeebies is that they believe that they are ‘informed’ and that being intelligent is enough. They do not accept that some subjects are too technical, too specialised or just plain too hard for the lay person, no matter how intelligent, to grasp, and that some things simply cannot be paraphrased. We are being led by people who just don’t get it, and who don’t actually know that there is stuff to get.

However, I do believe that responsible government requires our winsome elected leaders take and act on the professional advice of specialists even if we don’t like it. Interestingly Thatcher was the political leader in the 1980s most alert to the challenges of climate change. She was a scientist and understood the methodology, even if it had been decades since she’d actually done any chemistry.

Our bad

We are failing the great moral test of our times and retreating into the comfort of a new mediaevalism, surrounding ourselves with ideology and doctrine and the warm and righteous certainties of fundamentalism. We have the chance to rise above all this, to step into reality and claim our inheritance as intelligent and wise children of the stars.

Instead we are sitting in the dust, looking for comfort by casting runes, and that will bring about the ruin us all.

10 responses to “Truth, stardust and comfort blankies

  1. I am often confronted by my lack of knowledge, particularly in the sciences (since I moved to an entirely arts-based education after GCSEs, despite excellent science grades). Thankfully, I am aware that there are these gaping holes in my knowledge, and although I have opinions, I do indeed have to acknowledge that my friends who work in the pharmaceutical industry (for example) will have better-informed opinions on science things than me.

    How I wish I knew more. And how I wish I didn’t so often fall into the ostrich-eye view trap that you speak of. I spend so much time watching ill-informed students pretend greater knowledge than they actually have, so I really shouldn’t do it myself. I sometimes do, though. 😦

    Thanks for an interesting thing to think about. David

  2. I have to say that I don’t blame democracy, I blame the 60s and its effect on the education system. The whole thing about ‘let’s stop rote learning and the culture of faliure and allow everyone to express themselves’.

    There are some things you have to learn by rote, if you don’t set the bar high enough and drive for it nobody progresses and frankly, who cares what you think unless you can express yourself in a well ordered grammatically correct argument backed up by proper application of the basic facts is what I say.

    It’s not every country that worships – or allows their youth the soft option of – the specialisation in the liberal arts either.

  3. wow this was a very interesting piece Aphra. You take a look at a topic area in which many others don’t really look into which is great, giving us another view and something else to think about.

    Great job, and oh great blog by the way.

    P.S: Thanks for the blogroll link, I find your blog very interesting also. I just added yours to my links section on my blog πŸ™‚

  4. This is very well written. I often ruminate on the lack of thinking methodologies in science and elsewhere. These skills (being able to recognize useful information and draw meaningful connections) are especially important given that we must always make decisions based on incomplete or imperfect knowledge. Unfortunately, hard logic has become a step-daughter to flippant speculation. Glad to see someone challenging that!

  5. Thank you all for taking the time to read and for taking the time to comment.

    David – you are sitting in the middle of a library! Can’t you take some of the journals home for the evening? A lot of what I think about science’s role I’ve got from reading the BMJ, a journal where even the advertisements are fully referenced using footnotes rather than Harvard referencing to really make the point. You’d be surprised how accessable some journals are. And then there’s always popular science books – but pick your scientist carefully. Dawkins and Feynemann and Hawking are good. It’s a matter of mind-set as well as yer actual knowledge.

    Sol, you are right, “we” in this context means “Europeans and American’s I’ve come across”. If non-Western nations are teaching their children to be realists, then that encourages me.

    Justin, thanks for stopping by, thanks for the compliments, and thanks for the link.

    Estrogenius, you are right, science is about how we handle uncertainties, which is something I don’t really say. Bugger.

    There was a brief discussion about teaching science on The Learning Zone on R4 today. (First broadcast on the 26th June).

    Thanks, all.


  6. The problem with being in the middle of a library is the huge amount of material available. I do regularly borrow books (though not journals,as that is a tad naughty) on various subjects, but probably not diversely enough. I’m away from the Library of Doom this week, but maybe I should start some sort of reading routine. Find things out about something I am completely ignorant of rather than reading further into my favourite subject areas. But where to start? Too much information at my fingertips!

    Hmm, I do have electronic access to BMJ, a title I often have to photocopy for other libraries. I think I may have to trot off to investigate…

  7. I think the other problem is that we do rather have this rather snobbish attitude in favour of ‘academic’ subjects when it comes to education. Our ‘trades’ training is so appalling because we think it’s only what you do if you aren’t intelligent enough for Shakespeare. I think the problem with a lot of science – especially engineering, say, is that it comes uncomfortably close to something a gentleman wouldn’t sully his brain with.

  8. Such a vague word engineering isn’t it. It now encompasses everything from the fellow down the local garage covered in grease from under a car, through the chap in a machine shop turning out parts on a lathe to people in bunny suits putting together a satellite to blast into orbit.

  9. David, I am a born dilletante, so I love reading other people’s trade press. It just happens that I get to see the BMJ rather often.

    Hi Phil, good to see you drop by. That wide range of possible meanings has always been the difficulty with the word “engineer”, hasn’t it. And now we have software engineers and database architects and all sorts of other hybrid things.

    Sol, you are right about the snobbishness around engineering. The Greeks’ intellectual failure was that they saw practical experimentation as manual, (ie menial), work and something that only slaves would do – so they tried to work it out from first principals. If you do that, you end up with great mathematicians who think that eyes give out invisible seeing rays which reflect the image back to the original eye.

    The Enlightenment was possible because, in the 17th and 18th centuries, doing practical experiments was suddenly fashionable and members of the Royal Society cut up dogs to see how their hearts worked. But as a result we moved away from alchemy towards chemistry, and all sorts of things become possible.

    I guess the snobs liked science just so long as it could be successfully done by amateurs, but by the end of the 19th C you had to be a professional to be able to make a contribution to the field.

    Thanks all, for commenting. You’ve expanded my thinking.


  10. Just thought you’d like to know that I have actually been embarking on a journey into the scary reaches of cosmology and the like. I’ve posted an incoherent ramble about it and linked back to this post, which I hope is OK with you. πŸ™‚

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