The Flaws of Modern “Thinking”

While waiting for my muse to deliver an idea for a post involving decision theory, I opened Facebook, something I only do every other week or so, and found that my son, a solar physicist, had posted the following grouse (his nomenclature). With his permission and some mild editing, I repeat it here:

A Grouse About Magical Thinking in the Benighted Modern World

By Craig DeForest on Wednesday, August 31, 2011 at 9:17 am

Over the weekend I encountered on Facebook a fellow who earnestly believes that Comet Elenin is likely to cause earthquakes, tidal waves, and the usual end-of-the-world mayhem, because it is coming from deep space and will pass within 0.2 AU of Earth (about 20 million miles). His justification is a mishmash of ideas including Hopi legend, the Mayan calendar, and some weird “electric universe” ideas derived from plasma cosmology. He directed me to an “explanatory” YouTube video that started with a repudiation of the existence of objective reality (“…Remember, as you watch this,” said the announcer, “all that matters is what resonates with you and your beliefs alone,” before predicting Earth will be destroyed by an electrified comet). When I invoked Newtonian mechanics, the statistics of small bodies entering the solar system, and the existence of an objective reality, he called me “closed-minded.”

The Flaws of Modern ThinkingTwo weeks ago, my teenage cousin told me that she will not use her cell phone held up to her head because it can cause cancer and even deposit enough energy to pop corn — she saw it demonstrated on YouTube! My cousin persisted even when dad and I pointed out that the YouTube videos must be a hoax — if five phones ringing could pop corn, then just one phone would heat your brain enough to give you a Hell of a headache. We looked up the World Health Organization’s (negative) meta-study on cell phones and cancer, and dug up a “confession” video by the guy who used special effects to fake the very first phone-popcorn viral video — it was a marketing stunt. She acknowledged her sources were debunked, but held tight to her faith.

Both examples are symptoms of a general failure of our educational system (schools and parenting) to teach scientific reasoning. This failure hurts all of us because science is extremely important.

The Scientific Revolution is the most fruitful human endeavor in all history. In just 20 generations we so mastered the world that all human problems are now political problems: every externally imposed problem can be tackled through the appropriate use of technology, provided we humans organize appropriately (a big proviso!). Put another way: survival questions facing humanity are no longer about whether we will be able to cope with a hostile and changing world, but whether we will be able to organize ourselves sufficiently to mold the world to our will, without destroying it. Effective organization requires either tyranny or a good widespread understanding of how and why science works (maybe both, I do not know — that is a rant for another time). Failing to teach reasoning dooms us to fall into either tyranny or destruction.

Scientific understanding, like a good koan, is deceptively simple. Just two precepts are needed: (1) (paraphrasing Thomas Aquinas) We live in a single world that exists independent of belief and is susceptible to reason; and (2) (misquoting Ronald Reagan) Trust, but verify — i.e. experimentation, not authority, is the ultimate truth test. Human activity guided by those two principles gave us the scientific method that unlocked the atom, put human footprints on the Moon, and created the Internet from scratch in just 400 years. But scientific reasoning is surprisingly difficult and many people (even, notoriously, scientists) have trouble with it.

Both my colleague and my cousin have learned basic scholarship: hear out an argument, even if it disagrees with your preconceptions; learn to understand the language of modern science; manipulate information, perhaps with graphs and equations. But neither has learned to build consistency checks or to trust oneself, one’s reasoning, and experiment outside authority. As a result, their belief systems are like papier-mâché piñatas. Each has only mysticism and a priori received belief on the inside, even though it is dressed up to appear like the edifice of scientific knowledge on the outside.

Unfortunately, even in our modern times our culture builds piñatas far more frequently than not: children are taught to respect authority, and not to reason for themselves. In many cases, this is deliberate: in the more religious segments of our culture, faith in the face of evidence is, incredibly, valued above almost all else, and rational skepticism is actively stamped out. In other cases, the stamping is through neglect rather than deliberate.

Even in less benighted communities, many people never learn to distinguish objective reality from more squishy belief-dependent reality (by definition, fantasy). That distinction is drilled into novice scientists at great length, yet even within the science community we have the hazard of “paradigm traps” that seem to lock in belief in a particular theory. Can we blame folks (like my Facebook colleague) who were never taught how to avoid such traps?

Many societal ills arise from widespread failure to think. Confusing fantasy and reality steers action. If one person chooses (e.g.) to bang pans together to bring back the eclipsed Sun, little harm is done. But if an entire political party forms around economic dogmatism, or around the demonization of scientists, then our whole society risks self-destruction. That has been happening in the US since about 1980 when the faith-based “religious right” became a political force. Now whole generations of voters lack the tools to distinguish logic from flimflam, and that helps tyrants rise to power on a demagogic tide supported by sham arguments. Their sales pitches don’t even have to be consistent, they just, like a piñata, have to appear solid for a moment.

What to do? Teach your kids to think. Encourage fact-checking, reason, and experiment, rather than acceptance of received knowledge. Raise scientists.

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  • Anonymous

    You’re perhaps my favorite writer on lockergnome of all time.

  • Theo Meacock

    well blow me down !

  • Ron Brunton

    Well written and presented. While I fully agree with the importance of science education, its role in public education has been deminished by funding cuts and restricted by political pressures.

  • Ken Weinkauf

    My grandfather used to say, “Stop and think.” He was a big advocate for taking things slowly, not reacting, and making informed decisions arrived at by his great mind. His tutelage has been with me my whole life and now that I am as old as he was when he said it to me, I say it to my grandchildren. And so the cycle continues…

  • Barry Etheridge

    “Both examples are symptoms of a general failure of our educational system (schools and parenting) to teach scientific reasoning. ”

    Sadly I feel your equation of science teaching with the propagation of scientific reasoning is itself ‘irrational’. Studies have shown again and again that even science graduates are not necessarily any better at the application of reason to their observations and experience than anyone else.

    The truth is that ‘irrationality’ has served us well as a species in the evolutionary stakes at least in so far as it encourages a ‘better safe than sorry’ attitude. It is not for nothing that the enduring image of ‘rationality’ in our society is the ‘mad scientist’ as the benefits of rational thinking only appear to be the devising of ever more subtle yet efficient way of killing others, ourselves, and the planet.

    Human beings will always be Kirk and not Spock, reactors not thinkers, and the failure of ‘rational’ and ‘logical’ people to recognise that serves only to make them more ‘alien’, suspicious and dangerous. Irritating as it may be the fact is that nobody was ever injured by NOT using a piece of equipment that emits electromagnetic radiation and, no matter how safe science may deem cellphone technology, you simply can’t get safer than that!

    So I’m afraid that I simply cannot accept your thesis that anything unusual or different “has been happening in the US since about 1980″ which is merely special pleading on your part for the promotion of science over arts as far as I can see. Emotion and bandwagoning always has been the prime mover in politics amongst the electorate and always will be whether every man woman and child is steeped in scientific thinking or not.

    And, whether you like it or not this is as true of scientists themselves as any other group. I’m sure it is comforting (to say nothing of self-aggrandising) to depict the debates over Darwin’s theories or global warming (to quote but two of a thousand such arguments) as ‘right’ against ‘wrong’, ‘intelligence’ against ‘ignorance’ and so on but this is a blatant lie. One only has to view the current rationalist ‘hero’ Richard Dawkins in action disparaging the work of Stephen Jay Gould or go back to the vile personal attacks of Newton on Hooke to see that there is nothing especially ‘rational’ about the conduct of science however indisputable the results may turn out to be.

    In an age where most scientific ‘breakthroughs’ are now largely mythological in nature (the Higgs Boson, dark matter etc. which ‘have to be there’ to validate our models even though there may never be any physical evidence for their existence whatsoever) science is teetering on the edge of becoming a parody of itself and we can hardly blame ordinary people for being less than convinced that it’s even vaguely relevant to everyday life.

    When all is said and done, if a piano is falling on your head, the logical thing to do is run like hell not calculate its acceleration due to gravity (taking into account air resistance, of course) and whether it was initially high enough to reach terminal velocity!

  • Bernhard Muller

    I think you are at least a century too late in your appraisal of when the widespread failure of “scientifically based” thinking occurred. I refer to Marx and his ideas about economics. They have been tried multiple times and always failed. And, as you say, today we have political parties that continue to push Marxian ideas against all evidence of their not working.

  • Craig DeForest

    @Barry, you may have missed my original point, which is that scientific reasoning is *not* commonly taught as part of any curriculum at present. As for 1980, I was referring to the alliance between the Republican party and the “religious right” to secure Reagan’s election, which profoundly changed the policies of that party (Why, for example, should everything be subject to deregulation except how women treat their own reproductive systems? The laissez-faire market dogma is at least motivated by traditional economic conservatism; the hyper-regulation of individuals is the opposite of laissez-faire politics.) I do not mean to judge the positions, here, merely to highlight the inconsistency of the dogma. That inconsistency is a historical accident of a particular set of strategic decisions that made the Reagan-era Republican party so successful.

    And, of course, I’m in full agreement with you about how scientists comport themselves — though I only mentioned it in passing in the original note. What is amazing is that the system of scientific inquiry works so demonstrably well despite the foibles of its practitioners.

    @Bernhard, I believe you may be arguing about a political strawman. Nobody (in a position to do anything about it) is advocating anything like Marxism in America these days. The American political mainstream in 2010 would have appeared reactionary in 1970, and still appears so compared to the mainstream throughout the rest of Western civilization. Nevertheless, limited socialism (lowercase “s”) appears, despite our dogma, to be working just fine in Europe and in Canada — 12 counterexamples to “always failed”, if you like. A few weeks ago I heard Glen Beck musing about how great it would be if America were more like the 1950s, when nuclear families were the norm and the middle class was strong. But during the 1950s the New Deal was just reaching its full strength, and the corporate income tax rate was around 70%. Of course U.S. corporations were also entering the most prosperous economic period in history. I mention these things to point out that socialist policies regulating laissez-faire economics are not just stupid — they appear to frequently coincide with a large, thriving middle class and economic growth — something that many of us would like to preserve.

    Anyway, my beef is about lack of critical reasoning, not particularly about politics — except that one political party, in particular, seems to reject critical reasoning out-of-hand when it is inconvenient. I have no tolerance for “know-nothings”, and neither should you.

  • Bernhard Muller

    @Craig. We clearly have areas of agreement and areas of disagreement.

    Agreement: we do not teach our children critical thinking skills, or any semblance of the scientific method. I have taught at the post doctoral level at a major university, and have been amazed at the lack of understanding/knowledge/use of the scientific method in my students. Of course, the fault must lie with the preparation they have received in prior years.

    Disagreement: this is, clearly, a side issue. But I do not think the socialist/collectivist system in Europe is working terribly well at present; and many countries have backed off from some of their more collectivist policies. I don’t see Europe as a good counter argument to my “collectivism fails” thesis. And, when it suits them, the Democrats also ignore facts. If you wish, I will list instances, but I won’t’ do it now as that is not the thrust of this thread.