science

Scientific Literacy Could Save The World

I love science. I think it’s very possibly the greatest thing since… well… probably fire. I don’t think we’d have gotten very far without fire, although dogs might be a very close second.

I am also an avid fan of rational thinking, which is not something we come by real well naturally, though we think we do. I definitely think that our kids and subsequent  generations would benefit greatly from classes right off the bat on rational thinking, how to question, what is evidence and logical fallacies. I don’t want to teach people what to think, but I do think it’s damn important to teach people, especially children how to think. That said, let’s take a moment of silence for the scientific badass and overall genius known as Carl Sagan.

“We live in a society absolutely dependent on science and technology and yet have cleverly arranged things so that almost no one understand science and technology. That’s a clear prescription for disaster.”
– Carl Sagan

This is far too true, and not only do people not understand it, but they don’t understand scientific thinking either, and that’s where I want to hone in on right now.

A lot of people don’t realize that we aren’t exactly grand at thinking logically, rationally and with regard to what evidence really is. The human brain isn’t set up with the innate ability to think that way. Which is probably why people get pissed when your response is “That is an awesome story, but that’s still not evidence.”

“In science it often happens that scientists say, “you know, that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,” and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from then again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.”
– Carl Sagan

There are a couple of key points in there. “because they are human and change is sometimes painful.” and “I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.” I would take that last one a step further and say it doesn’t happen very often in every day life either.

We like to hold on to our beliefs. It’s a very human thing. Whether they come from something we figured out on our own, or information that we’ve learned from one authority figure or another, we like to hold onto that precious information, and your mind works to keep hold of it to a  baffling degree, the core of which is called cognitive dissonance.

I have a confession I’m not proud of. I was a pseudoscientific extraordinaire for a while in my life. Anti-GMO, big pharma conspiracy, chemtrails, even so far as dipping my toe into the anti-vax acid pool. Things like this happen to too many people. How many conspiracy theorists do you know? How many conspiracies do you believe in? This is just the more visible part of it though. There are all sorts of things that are flatly untrue that we believe because of a lack of scientific thinking or understanding.

There are certain ways that our brains are hardwired for fallacious thinking. There’s a reason that the logical fallacy list is so long and that the Dunning-Kruger effect happens. It’s not by chance that we see faces in things that don’t have faces, like chairs, vehicles, bathroom fixtures and clouds, or that we hear things like a phone ringing when the water is running, they’re both products of an amazing effect of the mind called pareidolia. All of these things can cause ridiculous, and sometimes dangerous things like this very surprised building (note the building isn’t dangerous):

surprised_building

This rather concerned church:

concerned_church

This eternally suspicious house:

suspicious_house

And there are just some places where Jesus is not meant to be found:

jesus_dog

Now, all of those are amusing, but our inability to think scientifically right off the bat, and not learning how to think in school creates some dangerous problems, like the anti-vaccination movement that we are currently facing. It stems directly from a lack of scientific knowledge and an inability to think scientifically.

Just one more time, I’m going to beat you with the Sagan stick:

Science is much more than a body of knowledge. It is a way of thinking. This is central to its success. Science invites us to let the facts in, even when they don’t conform to our preconceptions. It counsels us to carry alternative hypotheses in our heads and see which ones best match the facts. It urges on us a fine balance between no-holds-barred openness to new ideas, however heretical, and the most rigorous skeptical scrutiny of everything – new ideas and established wisdom. We need wide appreciation of this kind of thinking. It works. It’s an essential tool for a democracy in an age of change. Our task is not just to train more scientists but also to deepen public understanding of science.”
– Carl Sagan

Thinking scientifically and critically on a consistent basis, with everything in your life isn’t easy, but it’s wonderful. It seems odd if you don’t understand the thought process. I question everything, and it drives people nuts. I won’t take anecdote as data anymore, and people feel hurt, because I don’t believe what they are saying off the bat. It’s a whole different form of thinking that takes some getting used to, but it helps create better informed opinions in every single facet of your life.

Science and scientific thinking are not evil. They are not good either. Inherently, they are tools, nothing more. You can use a hammer to build a house, or smash someone’s face in. In the same way, you can use science to create vaccines… and the atom bomb.

That may well be the biggest mistake that people make in the initial hurdle in their fear of science and the scientific way of critically thinking is that they think of it as a moral entity. It’s just simply not. It is an inherently moral-less, non-living tool. There’s a reason ethics boards exist! They are the ones you go to when thinking about the morality of how you are using your scientific tools.

Scientists are not science, they practice science, they live science, they utilize it inside and outside their research but they are not science. Scientists are people, living, breathing, loving, hating, good, evil, wonderful, terrible people, just like any other human. So please, don’t conflate the two.

At the end of the day, we are a world populous of great apes with an ability for language and amazing thinking abilities. We are on a quest for intelligence, but will not continue to really rise as a whole in how intelligent we are and how intelligently we process information until we can admit how bad we are at thinking rationally, and be willing to change it.

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