We have moved a long way from the 1940 and 50’s where nationalism and patriotism drove respect for authority and an almost slavish heed in much of society for those in power and those deemed to have greater knowledge. Thankfully today, such assumed merit in hierarchy is far less common, allowing for more open discussion and a popular increase in science literacy and exercise of critical thinking.
However in online communities the trend also pushes in the opposite direction with semi tutored armchair experts sagely cautioning renowned experts and lifelong professionals in a myriad of fields, deluging them with a tide of amateur advice, accusations, criticism and often sheer contempt. This push back against the authority and the intelligentsia online has created a fertile ground for paranoiac conspiracies, and the growth of pseudo science movements such as the anti vaccination movement and Climate Change Denialists. The law of unintended consequences has flexed its presence as social media and online news and blogs become the dominant sources of information and increasingly usurping traditional media. This somewhat tailored experience allows new media users to be misled in a world that has grown ever more complex and difficult to comprehend.
It’s important to understand that humans, as smart and adaptable as they are, are natural born learning machines, able to assimilate and play with data like no other creature on Earth. Cognitively, we swim in our emerging ideas and possess unparalleled imaginations, which have created the world spanning art and technologies that shape society today. Yet we are also possessed of primitive less developed brain structures and their resulting instincts that are territorial and highly subjective in nature. Instincts that sometimes run at odds with intellectual rigor.
Human history is replete with religious and ideological institutions that claim divine or special knowledge or dogma. Revelatory dogma cannot be dissected objectively or critiqued rationally and is usually self referencing in an ontological loop. We are, at a neurological level, quite vulnerable to the messianic appeal of the revelatory and conspiratorial as they tweak the fear and survival reflexes of the more primitive aspects of our brain.
In this burgeoning technocracy which we live in, there is an alarming distance growing between the average persons comprehension of how the natural world and our civilization functions and how it actually does. Operating a machine or device does not necessarily bestow any understanding of the principles behind it any more than watching a bird fly will automatically reveal subtleties of aerodynamics, geometry and morphable surface textures like feathers. Only education and training allows the mind the internal tools to deduce and synthesize observations into logical structures that can be then tested and verified. At its heart this critical thinking which forms the foundation of both social and hard sciences is skeptical in nature requiring both imagination and perseverance to innovate but also an equal determination to ruthlessly dismantle the same idea to see its failings. To function, this objective view requires a willingness to search for anomalies and flaws in theories and methodology, to see the unusual for what it is rather than simply as ammunition to reinforce existing prejudices or beliefs. Indeed Isaac Asimov once said that the most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” but ‘That’s funny…”
My ignorance is as good as your knowledge
But when visiting the countless forums, comment pages and chat rooms that proliferate online it is easy to see that the creative destruction of objective rigor is so often drowned out by the more partisan politics and factionalism that permeates the same cultural ether. And the endless, ever increasing tide of data pouring from the labs and institutions of science and learning is caught in a tug of war between these various reflections of humanities tribalistic subcultures. This highlights two problems, one of which, Carl Sagan in an interview with Charlie Rose in 1996 captured perfectly. “We’ve arranged a society based on science and technology, in which nobody understands anything about science and technology. And this combustible mixture of ignorance and power, sooner or later, is going to blow up in our faces. Who is running the science and technology in a democracy if the people don’t know anything about it?” If increasing numbers of peoples conceptual framework is distanced from the critical sciences and so many only have, at best, only a peripheral understanding of those sciences which run and develop this world – it begs the question as to how disassociated the debates and discussion our increasingly opinionated populace is having are from actual objective reality.
“We’ve arranged a society based on science and technology, in which nobody understands anything about science and technology. And this combustible mixture of ignorance and power, sooner or later, is going to blow up in our faces. Who is running the science and technology in a democracy if the people don’t know anything about it?”
– Carl Sagan
Poured into this mix comes the data meant to free us from ignorance. Though it seems that this data is often, instead of liberating the human mind, itself enslaved itself to partisan preconception. Perhaps this is in large part because this knowledge is imperfectly understood and its context easily missed. Particularly when expectations of the understanding that science delivers are set so unrealistically. Science pieces things together painstakingly, often revising and remapping as new data comes in. Yet by so many today, even well educated folk this is seen as a weakness, when in reality it is sciences greatest strength. A theory or scientific practice is not necessarily invalidated by flawed data sets or limitations in models as all theories contain such anomalous features. Revising these mistakes or miscalculations does not mandatorily toss the whole idea behind it or force us to completely scrap a model. Indeed the mistakes in theories often lead to a deeper and stronger theoretical understanding which strengthens the theory overall. Yet partisan politics and factionalism drive people to insist on throwing the baby out with the bath water. This damages humanities tools for comprehension of our increasingly complex world.
Especially when considering the near pathological need so many of us have to be right. Humans chase it like a drug high, any potential promise of understanding already cut short by presupposition and preconception. And it perhaps balances on the difference between ‘being right’ and finding out whatever is right. The difference is what separates science and peer review from the utilitarianism of partisan factionalism. Because in science and in the fundamental wheels that turn existence, it is wonder, questioning, a balance of skeptical openness and most of all a willingness to be wrong which actually opens up the greatest vista of possibilities.
Asimov’s admonition is one much needed in the crowded social dialogue of today and walks hand in hand with the ancient aphorism that ‘a little knowledge’ can be dangerous. Asimov reminds us: “Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”
Cynical culture and knowledge density push many down the rabbit hole.
Yet in the midst of controversy racked debates over Climate Change, Vaccination, and religious conflicts we can see data and information becoming ordinance in these epistemological wars. This leads us to the next problem that exacerbates this entire process of partisan conflict and interpretation of data. Knowledge density – the amount of data needed to truly understand if a theory or idea is actually viable has grown exponentially and as sciences converge and overlap requires even greater investments of time and education than most people possess or have the resources to pursue.
This ‘comprehension gap’ is ubiquitous even amongst scientists who are often painfully aware of the constraints they have upon their own understanding. And seated on its lofty pedestal, factions in society flocked to ‘science’ to verify their own personal truths and found complexity instead of the simple truths they propound to their followers, fans and friends. This emerging disappointment has resulted in a growing distrust of science and driven the rampant growth of cherry picking of data and egregious statistical manipulation. A phenomena that is worsened by the reality that many participants are not aware of this deficit in their own capacity to understand.
An example is an anti-vaccinators skim reading of complex biophysics and molecular data which they do not actually understand, simply in order to parse conclusions and abstracts and graphs for data which might help support their preconceptions. Another is the Climate Denialists tendency to pick individual flaws in a particular IPCC model or toute a study showing declining temperature rise since 1998, while ignoring the still climbing global average temperatures over that same period.
Such conspiracies in the early years of the 21st century are abound, accusing hundreds of thousands of scientists and hundreds of institutions world wide of being involved in elaborate cover ups. Conspiracies that purport that scientists, en masse, are protecting their corporate partners, driving ‘Big Pharma’ profits while vaccines cause autism. Wild claims that Climate change is ‘politically’ manufactured with the scientific communities helping to enable a growth in global authoritarianism.
Certainly corruption exists in all human societal structures. However, science alone of the human organizational arrangements must produce tangible, testable and consistent results or our technologically supported culture would collapse all too quickly. Science and the peer review system have enough checks and balances to curtail such outright corruption far more efficiently than any other system in human history. Peer review globally, incentivises highly competitive scientists to hound out any flaws or frauds in scientific theories and weaknesses in the claims of their peers work. This creates a hugely efficient self-correcting machine of which there is simply no equivalent in any other human organizational system. Yet worrying, a growing percentage of people have qualified support for its institutions and conclusions, some even suggesting science has been completely subverted by politics and money. Certainly, this may in part be due to the laypersons incomplete understanding of the processes by which data and knowledge are advanced by the scientific community.
Carl Sagan in his book “Wonder and Skepticism” captured beautifully the tremendous thoroughness of scientific training and how it reflects in peer review. If you take a look at science in its everyday function, of course you find that scientists run the gamut of human emotions and personalities and character and so on. But there’s one thing that is really striking to the outsider, and that is the gauntlet of criticism that is considered acceptable or even desirable. The poor graduate student at his or her Ph.D. oral exam is subjected to a withering crossfire of questions that sometimes seem hostile or contemptuous; this from the professors who have the candidate’s future in their grasp. The students naturally are nervous; who wouldn’t be? True, they’ve prepared for it for years. But they understand that at that critical moment they really have to be able to answer questions. So in preparing to defend their theses, they must anticipate questions; they have to think, “Where in my thesis is there a weakness that someone else might find — because I sure better find it before they do, because if they find it and I’m not prepared, I’m in deep trouble.”
Yet somehow, it appears that science as the fountain of knowledge has unintentionally created as much confusion, confirmation bias and sensationalistic noise as it hoped to banish in the early optimistic days of the 1950’s. We can certainly blame some of this popular atavistic reaction on the overwhelming volume of information and the growth of knowledge density in the convergent sciences. As the general public, we are often woefully under informed about the rigor and unique success of peer review as opposed to its rare but well publicized delays and failures in preventing errors in the system.
But there are also other factors at play outside of the scientific community itself that are driving this new cynicism. Paralleling and also likely causal to this loss of faith in our scientific institutions is the loss of faith in humanities other governing institutions. A loss of faith in no small part based on the spread of information, education and the growth of the internet, allowing populations to see more than the opinions of corporate run media and government pronouncements.
This has led to a generally and sometimes healthy skepticism of all institutions associated with the capital leverage of corporations and the state power of governments. However, indirectly it has quite possibly led to our distrust of experts in general. An understandable phenomena when trust in ruling institutions and our often oligopolistic corporations is at an all time low throughout most societies.
We all like a good Yarn
Perhaps it is also sciences lack of ability to differentiate itself and its rather poor history of explaining itself. This perhaps alongside often-poor journalism has exacerbated the comprehension gap. After all, scientists are not marketing professionals or entertainers who woo and win peoples minds by means other than rational argument. These arguments, despite burgeoning on the Internet seem to be less successful at building rational consensus than we would hope.
One might suspect that part of this failure to connect science and its understanding with the rest of society is in the way that most people grasp knowledge outside of scientific circles. Narrative is how most people grasp and frame information rather than dry data sets, theoretical equations and statistics, which are the lifeblood of science. It’s why so often anecdotal stories will capture someone’s attention far better than a statistical breakdown or detailed graph. The appeal of human tragedy in child’s fatal or brain damaging adverse reaction to a vaccine will drive so many into the arms of conspiracy ignoring the preponderance of data and evidence supporting vaccination.
So science can easily be subverted by a story based on a ‘convenient truth’. IE powerful absolutist statements like vaccine’s can give your child autism or the latest IPCC model failed to make entirely accurate predictions, ignoring the many accurate predictions it did make. This powerful narrative effect bypasses much of our rational thinking and is difficult to shift once we are emotionally dependent on it being true in our minds. But it can also be solution, in that the same narrative tool can be used to advance objective understanding via tools like Red Map, an Australian science initiative using citizen science participation to show the effects of Climate Change. It does this by telling stories of the species affected by Climate Change. Citizens are encouraged to detail and record sighting of fish or other species caught outside of their waters and document plant and fauna as the Climate changes. They are being enlisted to create a vast narrative how this is impacting on both human and animal communities.
An example is Whale Sharks that are now being now found 200 kilometers further south than normal as their habitats are impacted by warming oceans. How coral reefs and certain species are suffering and or migrating due to human caused ocean acidification. This extends to human stories as well by showing how Bangladeshi rice farmers are being driven from their lands by rising oceans, worsening storm tides and the land degrading salinity they bring. Red Map can tell the stories of Peanut farmers in Australia who have farmed the same land for 50 to 100 years and are now being forced to move off their land as Climate change destroys their ability to grow their chosen crops.
Certainly Red Map and citizen science programs like it herald a growing sophistication and integration with the public in how science collects, formulates and conveys its hard earned understandings. Its seems that science must and is getting better at bridging the narrative gap and making science ‘more real’ for the general population. The tales we tell are viscerally important to us as humans and science will need to accommodate and make use of our hunter gatherer inclination towards ‘storifying’ truths. But it may also be that our culture of ‘getting it right’ with its suppositional underlay may need to gradually shift to ‘finding that right’ whatever that may be. And perhaps the cultural underpinnings of our education programs need to become less about vocational goal setting with its controlled pathways and mapped assumptions and more about ‘discovery and revelation’ through rigorous methodology.
Something which could drive our popular culture of knowledge from its current more utilitarian bent towards a more revelatory process based first on discovery and revealed knowledge creating the foundations of ideas and posing new challenges to existing ideas.