Why should you read this:
This post is going to be a little different. I am going to write this one a bit more casually, and that may mean there will be some pg-13 language involved. If you are offended by that type of thing, I apologize in advance. Disclaimer aside, this article is going to cover a pretty broad range. It is not addressing a single small topic, but instead addresses a common argument I run into while discussing science with the public. I will go through that argument bit by bit and talk about some of the flaws, and provide some insights into the scientific method. Prepare yourself for some verbal adventure, and dive right in!
We start this story with you. Not the real you, but the hypothetical You. Got that? Just imagine yourself, but a story version of yourself. A You that is compelled to do what the plot says you are going to do. If ninjas attack the story You, it doesn’t matter what you would do in real life, because the hypothetical You in the story is compelled to do whatever the story says. I think you have it now, so please don’t be offended that I’m going to make story You sound like a total jerk!
You and your friend, a mechanic, are driving to see a movie together. As you drive along, your friend the auto mechanic stops to tell you that he can hear your brakes making a grinding sound, and that the sound means they are completely shot.
He points out with his serious mechanic voice that you are going to ruin your rotors and your calipers if you don’t change the pads by like yesterday! Going on he insists it’s going to cost you tons more money to wait than to simply replace your brake pads now.
You ignore your friend as long as you can. That’s how your brakes always sound, you are sure it is. In fact, you tell your mechanic friend as much. Plus you just changed the brakes! After some insistence by your friend, you agree that there might be an issue, but inform him that it is your car and will do what you want with it.Your friend the mechanic shrugs and drops it, if you don’t want his help you don’t really have to take it.
The next weekend comes rolling around and you are going to see another movie with your other friend, a healthcare professional. As you are walking out the door to leave for the theater, your friend the healthcare professional stops to tell you that you both ought to walk the mile to the theater. It’s only a mile, and the weather is really nice.
“Come on! It’ll be fun! We can stop for a wheat grass and kale juice blend on the way!” your friend suggests.
You can see your car just a few feet away. Maybe if you push your friend just a little closer they won’t notice they have already gotten into the car. You stall, you resist, you complain.
Finally, your friend plays her trump card, and points out what you already suspect she is thinking. “Your physique exhibits all the telltale signs of pre-metabolic syndrome.”
Your friend just said you are fat, and could use the walk. She is absolutely correct, you know she is, but it’s too late. Your indignance has taken over and all you care about is the white hot ball of anger growing inside you.
“By walking and managing your diet more effectively you can easily reverse the course your health is taking and save yourself tens of thousands of dollars plus extend your life by ten to fifteen years,” says your friend.
All you hear are pleas for mercy from the puny human you are about to destroy. Excuses.
Naturally, there is only one course of action, become offended as shit and tell that asshat to mind their own damn business. You are only a fat sack of crap because normal diets and exercise don’t work for you. There are no inherent health benefits to being in shape! Skinny people are unhealthy! It’s more about what type of calories I eat than anything else! Then burn them in the face with the cigarette you are smoking and run away breathlessly…
It is the weekend again. Since all your cool friends that are into cars and saving lives are gone now, you and your computer geek friend are sitting down on your couch to watch a movie on Netflix.
You are fumbling to explain why you can’t get the computer to display on the television as you are very slowly opening the website on your laptop. You apologize and tell him that the movie will just have play on the laptop.
Your friend the computer geek stops to tell you that your computer needs to be fixed and that it could be much, much faster. That’s all he says because he is tired of trying to explain things any more clearly than that. Then, with a tired and world weary face, like a man broken and without hope, he musters the energy to also mention that you are using the wrong browser.
Like lightning has struck, you clutch your computer in your fat sweaty hands, turning it away from the computer geek. Telling him angrily not to change anything because you have it just the way you like it! Sure it takes an hour to start up, but you will just never turn it off. And yes, you absolutely need every single file that you have saved to the desktop. It’s so they don’t get lost! You need twelve antivirus programs running at once because all the internets all be full of badness. You don’t want anything changed, you will just buy a new computer when this one breaks!
Your friend the computer geek’s eyes glaze over. His skin seems to sag with the weight of his weariness. Were those dark circles always what his eyes looked like? Was he always this thin and mummy like? Before you can answer those questions, your friend has withered into a husk and spontaneously burst into flames. He could’nt take your nonsense any longer and simply willed himself back into the ether of the universe.
You have no troublesome friends left! You have won the game! As a reward you get yourself some friends with fewer thoughts rattling around their heads.
In each case a person who can, for our purposes, be considered an expert in their field offered up some of that expertise – for free – in an attempt to help you.
They didn’t ask for money. They did it to try to help you live a more problem free life. They were trying to help you in areas where you were making the wrong decisions.
As Humans, this is a sensitive topic.
People do not like being told that they are making incorrect decisions. As humans we love to fall back on the idea that we can, and will, make incorrect decisions if we so choose.
One of the most difficult things to overcome is our inability to parse out correct choices in complex systems which we do not fully understand.
It may be said that many people understand how their cars work in a general sense. Gas goes in and the car moves. Brakes slow the car down. The AC uses more gas (although the reason for this is most probably the result of dark magic). Automobile owners know that there are many things which can break. Just as with their own health however, some will refuse to acknowledge a problem when their car is still running “well enough”.
Anyone who knows what calipers and rotors are knows that worn out brake pads will still function to a point, but their continued use may damage the parts that they interact with. To an individual who understands the mechanics, the system seems simple. To these people there are only right and wrong answers; there is no room for opinion or interpretation of the systematic variables.
Likewise, to anyone who has even a basic understanding of metabolic biochemistry, the claim that normal diets and exercise don’t always work is completely silly.
As a rule, I suggest, when a person who has spent the better part of their life studying a system tells you how that system works, you should just trust them.
And I know what you are going to say, “Oh, pfttt! So called experts! HA! Scientists used to believe the Earth was flat you know! Experts always think that they are right! But they are wrong just as often as the rest of us!”
This is it, this is the thing. This, or some version of this argument is the default response I get from people who do not want to hear that their ideas are demonstrably wrong. Let’s start breaking it down into smaller parts and talking about each part.
First, the flat Earth myth. This misconception, among so many others, is a putrid vine which the academic community has been trying to prune in this country alone for over a century. If you are unaware, the flat Earth myth is the assertion that contemporary scientists and scholars beginning in the middle ages and onward were generally unified in the belief that the Earth consisted of a flat plane suspended in a spherical space through which existed perforations that let through the lights of heaven to make the stars.
To dispel this myth all one must do is basic research. The scholars and authors of the times are most generally noted for adhering to the much earlier Greek theory of a round Earth. A theory which stood up to centuries of mathematical investigation and basic observation.
If this is really the case, then where did the myth come from?
In short it came from two sources, the uneducated and several erroneous opportunists.
The so called “uneducated populace” held onto the idea of a flat earth for millennia. Even after the ancient scholars and mathematicians proved the round earth theory.
It is with a certain irony then that academics endure such a misinformed argument. Besides the uneducated clinging to a less complex and more easily understood system for explaining the universe, there were a string of opportunistic authors and organizations that used the old belief to denigrate the ancients as primitives.
Specifically beginning in the 17th century, the more modern Protestant church accused the Catholics of being “Flat Earthers.” This information was then chronicled in several histories which discussed science and religion. The authors of which were less than credible and employed a large margin of artistic license in their works. Later the founding father Thomas Jefferson made use of the myth to fight against the tyranny of a state sponsored religion.
Then there is the big man himself, Washington Irving. Irving’s A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus gave a compelling, and very false, account of a meeting by the Spanish government¹. One of the false accounts portrayed members of the Spanish government as having raised theological concerns against Columbus’ assertions that the Earth was spherical. The issue of the time was not the shape of the Earth, but rather the size. Academics and mariners alike, in Spain, criticized Columbus’ estimation of the distance between Europe and Japan. Columbus was convinced erroneously that the distance across the Atlantic (remember that the Americas had not yet been discovered and the Pacific was therefore a natural extension of the Atlantic) was shorter than it actually was. The academics and experienced mariners were vocal in the fact that the oceans were much larger than Columbus had calculated. No one doubted that sailing west would eventually lead to the Asias, they simply doubted that Columbus could make it that far across open sea before running out of food and water.
The story then goes that, “As they approached the end of their voyage Columbus’ crews were mutinous for fear of sailing off the edge of the world.” Again, the crew of experienced mariners knew that the Earth was round, better than most perhaps. On the open ocean the round curvature of the Earth is plainly visible to the eye. His crew would not have worried about falling off the edge of the Earth. Rather, by the time Columbus reached the most eastern islands of the Caribbean, his crews were starving and dying of dehydration, just as the academics and skeptical mariners back in Europe had predicted. The crew had trusted in Columbus’ shortened distance calculations. Now starving, they were rightly skeptical of Columbus’ abilities, and were ready to mutiny.
The academics of the time were right. They had used basic observation and mathematics to predict the size of the Earth. From this mathematical inevitability they determined the distance from Europe across the Atlantic, across the Americas, and across the Pacific to Japan. A distance which could NEVER have been crossed in a ship of the time. Columbus was on a doomed voyage, the discovery of the Americas was all that saved him and his crews. The instinct of the individual now is to say that Columbus was like a great American hero who took a risk and landed in greatness. If it were up to the academics and so called scientists we would never have discovered the Americas. To this we must only look to the fact that the Americas had been discovered several times before: Viking settlements in Canada, the existence of island cultures, and migration across the Bering Strait. Had Columbus not stumbled blindly to the Americas, the further exploration of far eastern cultures would have led us across the Pacific to the Californian coast. Likewise, an exploration of Scandinavian history would have led us to the coast of Nova Scotia.
The generation of historians following Irving’s account of Columbus were wrong in many of their assertions, citing little fact, and attacking religion with flat earthist accusations. Sadly, the worst offender of this myth’s perpetuation is the American school system. The flat Earth myth, having begun in the 17th century, was completely eradicated among academics by the 1920’s. Enough evidence had been gathered to show irrefutably that nearly every single scholarly author, of the thousand year period which made up the medieval age, affirms the theory of a round Earth. The American school system then adopted a series of texts written by Emma Miller Bolenius, and published in 1919, which said exactly the opposite. The books were elementary level readers, the fourth grade edition² of which reads as follows concerning Columbus:
“…Columbus said to himself: – ‘Why cannot we cross the Atlantic, and so go directly to China?’ There were several reasons why people thought this could not be done. A few believed that the earth was a sphere and could be sailed around. But some said the Atlantic was full of monsters and demons, and other thought that the water at the equator was boiling hot. Columbus was not troubled by any of these fears, but he had no money to provide ships and men for such a voyage.
Then, in her fifth grade edition³, Bolenius actually goes backward from a few people believing the earth to be round, to all people in general thinking that the earth was flat.
“When Columbus lived, people thought that the earth was flat. They believed the Atlantic Ocean to be filled with monsters large enough to devour their ships, and with fearful waterfalls over which their frail vessels would plunge to destruction. Columbus had to fight these foolish beliefs in order to get men to sail with him. He felt sure the earth was round.”
The American school system would include some versions of this historical inaccuracy in their textbooks until the 1960’s.
I, the author, was taught this in public school as late as 1994. I was shown an animated film which described Columbus as the genius who proved a round Earth in a flat Earth dominated world.
So, if we can’t necessarily believe what we are taught then who are these ‘experts’ and why should we believe them?
Recall the argument that we are dissecting, “Oh, pfttt! So called experts! HA! Scientists used to believe the Earth was flat you know! Experts always think that they are right! But they are wrong just as often as the rest of us!”
We have addressed the first portion concerning the flat Earth myth.
The second portion of the argument asserts that “so called experts” are wrong as often as the rest of us, and that this fact invalidates that they are experts. Feeling that experts are generally less than credible is telling of a certain kind of social bias. I have noted a sentiment held by many which asserts that, in spirit, experts are either head in the cloud types who have lost touch with the real world, or are type ‘A’ liars who want nothing but fame and glory at any cost. This sentiment is of course not universal, in fact I believe most people regard scientists and professionals with a certain kind of default respect.
It is not until the information postulated and disseminated from these scholarly individuals is in direct conflict with a deeply fundamental belief system that these negative sentiments start to show.
Ask a few people if they believe the scientists are right in claiming that the Earth is round and you will meet little opposition these days. Most people agree with this scientific fact and so regard the science as valid.
Ask a few people if they believe the scientists are right in claiming that Humans are the product of several billion years of evolution by means of natural selection, and you will start to see cracks forming in the respect that individuals have for scientific experts.
What is an expert, and why are they to be trusted?
If I were to tell you about anything sports related I would be wrong. I could sound very convincing if I wanted to, I’m sure, but I would be wrong at almost every step. I have zero experience with that thing we call sports.
Let’s say you wanted to place a bet.
Would you trust me to give any advice about which team to choose?
Would you trust a sports commentator, someone who has spent their entire life steeped in the system?
Would you trust yourself, possibly also vastly knowledgeable of the system?
The answer is that you would more easily trust the sports commentator (or yourself), then trust me. Their knowledge and mastery of the system far exceeds my own.
You may even be concerned that the sports commentators make mistakes constantly. When they try to predict the outcome of a game it seems hardly more than a guess, fifty-fifty at best. The truth is that they do guess, but that “guess” is based upon a lifetime of learning how to make that exact sort of prediction.
Just as a commentator may be wrong about the outcome of a football play, so too may a scientist be wrong about a hypothesis. The failure is unimportant. What is important is that there are many commentators and many scientists working constantly to improve the way that their predictions are made. At this point we must diverge from the sport metaphor.
There is no random guessing involved.
The big idea behind science is to look at the fundamental nature of a system, then use that to better predict the outcome of interactions which have not yet happened.
If we knew absolutely nothing about a car engine and refused to learn about the system which makes it function at a fundamental level, we could never predict or troubleshoot breakdowns.
We might instead attribute some mythos about the nature the automobile to a higher power. Your car stopped working because you ran over that squirrel, or because you were unchristian in your treatment of other drivers.
In reality, unless you drive the chariot of fire that picked up Elijah, God has little interest in your car.
Instead, given certain circumstances, we are able to predict damage to an engine. Whether or not you have experienced an engine seizure due to a lack of lubricant – most drivers know that no oil in your engine means that you will not drive very far today.
It is difficult for some people to understand how anthropogenic climate change will eventually cause catastrophic damage to our civilization. It is easier for those people to imagine a car beginning to fail after several hundred thousand miles of driving. Or a human beginning to die after reaching an old age. We are more accepting of the prediction if we understand the system.
This then is the type of definition that we must apply to experts. They are those individuals, who by means of constant augmentation to their understanding, are able to understand some specific system, so far as that system can be currently understood. They may also work to further the understanding of said system by doing research.
While an expert may make as many mistakes as anyone else, they are not random mistakes.
Each mistake leads to a refinement of the understanding of a system. There is little or no backward movement away from a goal. The expert is driving at the deeper understanding with purpose and resolve.
While this sounds more idealistic than practical, we can entertain a thought experiment which may help.
Imagine you find a very large room with tens of thousands of buttons inside of it. There are no instructions, labels, or signs. At some point you decide to press a button and are delivered a very painful electrical shock. Suddenly you are more wary of pressing another button. Perhaps you press one again just to be sure of what you already expect. You are again electrocuted. How many buttons will you press until you stop? There is no apparent reason to press them, the only result you have seen is pain.
So far, you have been randomly selecting buttons and failing to achieve anything which you might call useful. You have in essence been making random mistakes just as any person might.
If you were very, very determined you might press several more. Perhaps you would even have others press a few buttons. After some years this room would become a curiosity, and without noticing, humanity will have lost track of the buttons which have already been tried. Once or twice a year the room will draw in the curious and they will make random attempts at pressing buttons. There will be no one to record these attempts because it seems unimportant.
How then can the purpose behind this room be determined?
There are two methods. Continue guessing at random until something new happens and then call whoever stumbled across the new thing a hero and a visionary, or begin to form a systematic understanding that will allow you to work toward the goal.
Slowly, anecdotal evidence would begin to build in the historical record. In newspapers and in personal journals details of the room might be written down. Some of this anecdotal evidence may be accurate and some may not be. There is always the possibility that an opportunist would have lied about the function of a button for benefit. Imagine a person who claimed to have received a gold coin after pressing one of the buttons, or receiving a vision from god, or experiencing increased vitality, etc. Weak anecdotal evidence like this would lead to many schemes, myths, and rumors concerning the room of buttons. These ideas and myths would eventually be integrated into the historical record and into the common knowledge that so ruthlessly plagues humanity.
Years in the future, a group of individuals might consult thousands of historical accounts of people who have visited the room of buttons. Realizing that many accounts describe similar events, they may compile a crude database of buttons and their functions. Most accounts may describe painful electric shocks, though some may claim other functions such as the production of a gold coin.
This evidence is difficult to interpret because none of it can be verified. It is all anecdotal, and in terms of credibility is nearly useless.
The group decides that future evidence must be more accurate. The logical progression, therefore, is that the entire room must be mapped, each button being assigned a numerical identifier.
By comparing the new map with the results from the historical database they might attempt to rule out some buttons which they can be sure have already been pressed.
They are now incapable of random mistakes. Every mistake made now is a data point, one fewer unknown button. The group can work toward a goal even if that goal is not yet understood.
In this way we are able to determine scientific systems which will help us to make predictions about our world.
Let us assume that the group of people investigating the room of buttons are, after years of effort, successful in pressing every single button. The results are recorded in detail, as are the methods by which they determined that they had not missed any.
They found that every single button simply electrocutes the crap out of you. They do not know why, but they are fairly certain that every single button exists for this reason only.
The group then tells the world what they have found, that all of the buttons in the mysterious room induce the same electric shock and that nothing special happens when they are pushed.
Many people do not care since the room was useless in the first place, they will see the entire investigation as a waste of time and effort.
Some will simply not believe them because they have heard plenty of stories and read plenty of anecdotal accounts of people who pressed the right button at one point or another in time and were rewarded, some of these people will believe that the group is lying about their results to garner renown because others have done so in the past.
Others still will believe the results and will integrate the knowledge into their understanding of the world.
How can the results of this group possibly be trusted?
Someone else has to verify their results. Another unrelated group must go to the room and spend years pressing the same buttons in the same fashion until they are all again pressed. Only then can the results be trusted. Right? Just to be safe many other groups run the same tests and are faced with the same results. Now the results are considered valid and are generally held to be true. The many groups of people now studying the buttons call this understanding of what the buttons do, The Theory of Electric Buttons.
The understanding of what the buttons do is seemingly complete.
In this way we build scientific principle out of myth.
Now suppose an aspiring individual realizes that the buttons may be far more complex than was previously thought. What if a combination of buttons must be pressed? What if there is a sequence that does something special? Perhaps the individuals expanding this new line of thought might call their work Sequentialism or Combinatorics. They would still be studying the Theory of Electric Buttons, but would now have a subfocus.
Would this new theory negate the original findings?
The answer is no, it does not negate the previous findings. Since the original study clearly lays out the methods by which the results were determined, we know with utter confidence that only single button presses were used. This means that any new theory is simply the logical successor of the original. The older Theory of Electric Buttons may in years to come prove less and less relevant, but it will not become invalid simply because a new theory is postulated.
Supposing that the researchers discovered the exact number of buttons to be 50,000 then how do we figure out the sequence required to do something new?
There is no way to determine how long a sequence need be, nor if a sequence even exists that will produce some new result.
If the sequence were never to use a button twice, included every single button, and a scientist could push one button every second twenty four hours a day, it would take him more than three hundred years to try every combination.
The people of this hypothetical world could spend lifetimes exploring this single mystery.
These people are the experts. The scientists who dedicate their lives to the endless task of discovery.
In our reality, science is working every day to confront uncertainty in the same basic way. We now have the knowledge required to make assumptions about the world around us at an unprecedented level of complexity. Every single day the system that we have imagined to explain the universe grows more complex, and at the same time more simple. When the system is better understood, predictions are simple and easy to make, even when the system is complex.
It is clear why scientific thinking is important. It is not only more accurate than anecdotal evidence and common knowledge, but it is also, by its very nature, more honest than anything else. Science is not magic. It is not glamorous. There are no clerics, no hidden truths. Science is done every day by regular people. People who make it possible for your doctor to treat you when you’re sick. People who make it possible to grow enough food for the world. People who make it possible to breathe the air after ten thousand years of pollution. People who wake up every day and insist that we will be better than we have been. There is no room for willful ignorance. There is no room for arrogant or selfish nonsense. There is no help coming from an all powerful hand. Humanity is responsible for its own future. Each and every one of us can choose be part of the group that helps. Or, we can choose to be a part of the group that longs for power through ignorance, or looks gleefully to death as an escape to an imaginary wonderland. Our time here is finite, and I would urge everyone to use theirs wisely. I personally will spend mine finding beauty in exploring the unknown.
1. Irving, Washington. “Chapter IV.” A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. London: John Murray, 1828. 73-81. Print. – Download PDF
2. Bolenius, Emma Miller., and Mabel Betsy. Hill. The Boys’ and Girls’ Readers: Fourth Reader. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1919. 90-96. Print. – Download PDF
3. Bolenius, Emma Miller. The Boys’ and Girls’ Readers: Fifth Reader. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1919. 113-19. Print. – Download PDF