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.