Tag Archives: science

Be your own skeptic; if you can’t become an expert, learn to think like a scientist

We’re in an age of big, politicized science, dirtied by the knowledge that almost everyone will “trust the experts,” and buy 90% of whatever the press publishes as a false consensus in their name, or whatever “scientific” bombshell tickles their fancy. People believe whatever best plays to preconceptions, or their paranoia, fear, contrariness, obedience, need to be reassured, or need to be entertained, and this is well known by those who prepare press releases, agitate for political causes, and collect money for their scientific credentials.

In this age, everyone needs to be a scientific skeptic and stop uncritically trusting claims from sources (big and small, independent and professional) on any contentious issue: evolution, GMO, fracking, climate change & its causation, HIV/AIDS, vaccine risks, you name it.

Some of these many claims will be bourn out by repetitive investigations in time, and some will shown to be fabrications and frauds, many shameful, many politicized, many embarrassing for anyone to believe in hindsight. Some will be designed to bring about a result through fear and even panic—sometimes a result so against the grain that few would otherwise accept it.

That doesn’t make facts, and it’s not proper science.

Proper science isn’t just technical procedure, or institutional respect in academia, or “scientistic” presentation. Science is a way of thinking. Science demands skepticism, above all.

Just one thing to add: how many people who were afraid of Y2K bug scenarios at the time will admit they were wrong to believe as much as they did, and overreact out of fear? (raises hand) I’ve tried to learn from that experience (and others like it that testified to gullibility). I’ve tried to learn how to develop more healthy skepticism, and an understanding of what makes for reliable scientific evidence, substantive argument (true or not), and substantiated information. I highly recommend you do the same.

“How Sausage is Made” and Inquiry into Human Nature

My philosophical investigations, research, and writing in recent years have increasingly reflected an interest in reconsidering “human nature.”

It occurred to me today that the attitude of most people to the subject reminds me of that old saying about “how sausage is made.” Bismarck supposedly compared this to politics, although it probably wasn’t really him who said that the less you know about how laws and sausages are made, the better.

Many people have a similar attitude about this infamous thing called human nature. They have very little interest in examining the considerable and fascinating anthropology and psychology available to them. The less they look into it, the better, they seem to feel. However, they do refer to it frequently, and rely on it constantly, inasmuch as we are all human.

When they refer to unexamined “human nature,” it’s almost always negative. They assume (as people once did about sausages) that what went into it was not very good. There’s a vague assumption that the naughty, nasty bits went in there, a suspicion of Original Sin.

But of course this is based on things like “anecdotal evidence” from personal experience, or picked historical events from the violent, cynical, populous and technological 20th century, which can’t be taken as representative of human nature. Aspects of human nature emerged over hundreds of thousands of years in the Paleolithic, during the evolution of species and subspecies in the genus Homo. (Not to mention millions of years of pre-Homo primates, and mammals.) They aren’t historical developments, and they aren’t something that will necessarily be obvious to someone whose mind they compose. From the inside, we’re a bit too close to this subject to trust our notions, in other words, and our perspectives are more than a bit skewed by the subjective and the recent.

And of course, it’s not true that you’re better off if you don’t know what goes on in politics, even though politicians would prefer it that way. You do want to know, because you will have to deal with it, regardless. The same is true of human nature. Even more so because whatever human nature really is, it’s actually impossible to escape, unlike the consequences of dirty, corrupt politics—which are only very difficult to escape.

We ought to want to know precisely what our nature is. We’re forced to adapt utopian visions of society to it, or fail. It both limits what we personally can do, and facilitates it. We suffer the consequences if we contradict it. We’re forced to work with it regardless of our ignorance, and it’s an impossible job if we’re plagued by misconceptions. And it’s also just possible that our true nature isn’t quite what we’ve been led to believe by so much of the culture on top of it. That would be a wonderful discovery for people to make.

Reformations are needed; admitting we don’t understand ourselves is the beginning

Adapted from a comment I made in a discussion about reforming politics, philosophy, and psychology:

Our various and numerous failures constructed on the premises of understanding ourselves sufficiently will repeat until we admit the basic failure of presuming we understand ourselves (and others; humans) better than we do. This covers philosophy, politics, psychology, neuroscience, and much, much more.

Thus, reformations are needed to incorporate optimized knowledge of “human nature” (universals), and important human variations, from any quarter. So, not only complacency within fields of study is an issue, although it certainly is in many of the blasé treatments of fundamental assumptions, but isolated specialization of fields of study, as I argued in the essay Rising in Walls. For instance, even those involved in some of the best of politics, economics, or history retain the most simplistic knowledge and appreciation of what some of the best of psychology, mythology, evolutionary theory or cultural anthropology can tell them about people—and really see no particular relevance in exploring them.

Both problems come together, for example, in the sorts of neo-evolutionary fields Stephen Jay Gould used to criticize, in which it’s just assumed that complex systems like culture and mind are thoroughly analogous to computers or algorithms or Darwinian inheritance (or whatever the model may be) without nearly enough justification. When 1) nobody’s interested in what different approaches and perspectives can correct, and 2) they affirm their own theoretical models too readily, you get reductionism instead of elegance in your descriptions of humanity.

My focus has shifted considerably to projects explicitly re-examining and re-constructing fundamental assumptions about human beings through a cross-pollinated synthesis, because I can’t see that attempts to work around and with Man (as we must) can have any hope of success if serious errors in conceptualizing humanity are preserved.

In terms of those of us trying to change things, we’re all doing everything the hard way without a more robust synthesis to utilize and to promote, to replace lopsided ones with a wad of selective detail supplemented by a lot of hand-waving and folk notions (probably a more than fair description of what people or a person will typically “look like,” through our own eyes).

R.A. Wilson was one example of a thinker who made an attempt at a cross-pollinated model to slice through some of the nonsense clinging to our ideas about ourselves, but I didn’t consider it adequately informed or theoretically sound—particularly when it deviated from the overall spirit of naturalism inspired by his knowledge of ethology to become too speculative and teleological. There were many problems with it, as well as several advantages (which can be said of all the more interesting personality theories and typologies, and models of the mind I have studied for the past 17 years). He himself expected his models to be obsoleted, so… I think perhaps he would be pleased with what I’ve been working on.

In short, at whatever level of sophistication and complexity, we need a better set of stories to tell ourselves about ourselves—not only less selective, but less superficial, more refined and more intensely questioned, and better informed by descriptions, analogies and metaphors from across promising frontiers of knowledge.