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Bursting Bubbles November 22, 2013

Posted by craftlass in beliefs, education, life lessons.
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“It’s not gonna make a difference. I can’t beat them. All I have on my side is facts and science. And people hate facts and science.” – Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope

There. In one tiny part of a scene, the writers of Parks and Recreation captured the core of my frustration with the world.

I’ve written a lot about the wonders of finding like-minded people to talk to, largely thanks to social media and the breaking of geographic barriers. The internet has brought us together and torn us further apart than ever at the same time. While I marvel at finding out I can chat both about Mars and the Bard with a guy who literally had a job where he “drove a car” on Mars, other people are marveling at how awesome it is that they can share their willful ignorance with like-minded people. If I can name thousands of sites to back up my claims, well, they can too. The problem with the easy sharing of information is that the ease of spreading disinformation grows just as rapidly.

It’s so easy to wrap yourself up in bubbles. While it’s an easy joke to say that Republican politicians are in a bubble, as Bill Maher likes to point out most weeks, the truth is, most people swan dive right into one bubble or another. It’s easy to focus solely on information that backs you up.

It’s also really easy to ignore things you don’t agree with. That’s where things get really dangerous.

Remember “dittoheads” as a term? You don’t hear it as much these days, I’m not sure if it’s because Rush Limbaugh finally annoyed even his listeners to the point where they aren’t proudly calling themselves by a name that essentially means, “I let someone else think for me,” or if he just doesn’t have the juice he once had in general. Again, easy to poke fun at Rush and his fans, but it’s no less scary when someone acts that way towards any other persona. I know a guy who quotes Rachel Maddow so consistently that even when he’s making a good point, it’s lost, because he sounds more like a Myna bird than a person expressing his own ideas.

I’m not saying it’s not okay to quote people to back up your arguments. Heck, I quoted a fictional character here! The problem is when the vast majority of your quotes come from a single source, be it your professor or pastor or Fox News or MSNBC or the Bible or the Constitution of the United States.

There is no such thing as a perfect person, document, group, organization, scientific study, government, or work of art. There is no such thing as perfection. And this is coming from a perfectionist.

If you don’t mind my utilizing a little more wisdom gleaned somehow from the land of sitcoms, an older The Big Bang Theory rerun got me thinking recently. For those who don’t watch the show, Leonard (Johnny Galecki) is an experimental physicist who comes from a whole family of overachievers, where being a physicist at a leading institution doesn’t even rank. When his mother comes to visit he promises to take her to see his lab, but as they walk off for the tour he mentions he’s currently duplicating an experiment done by an Italian team. She remarks that she might as well just read the paper by the Italians while Leonard’s roommate (a theoretical physicist) mocks him for his lack of original research. It’s a funny scene that has made me laugh many times, and a fairly accurate portrayal of intellectual snobbery, but in this last viewing I got a little angry. One of the duties of an experimental physicist is to duplicate results found by others. That’s how science works. Without duplication, the first experiment isn’t worth anything. The results could have been a fluke or the result of uncaught human error or even something as unpredictable as an errant breeze might have upset something (depending on the type of research, of course). There is nothing less than noble about being the person who proves the original results are correct and a scientist should know better. Maybe it’s nobler, as you do get less credit.

One of the reasons the Olympics are exciting is that, quite often, the favorite fails to win the gold. When a huge championship is decided by a single event the underdogs actually have a bit of an advantage, because they are not subjected to as much pressure or bugged as much by distractions like giving interviews. That’s why a lot of sports leagues have multi-game playoffs and championships. It’s very likely that an underdog can win a Super Bowl (a single competition) but less likely for an underdog to win a World Series or Stanley Cup (a series of competitions). A single, very-first-to-be-done, experiment is like the Olympics or the Super Bowl, and the only way to find out if the results are good are to repeat, repeat, repeat.

That’s why science works better than any other system of gaining knowledge. It is absolutely imperfect, because it’s done by humans. Science can contradict itself in the short term, but that’s why scientists keep working the problem until the correct answer is found, even if it takes thousands of years to get there. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Scientific studies can be corrupted by the source of funding. That’s okay because it is inevitable, that’s why you need studies repeated by all the sectors from utterly public government programs to private corporations. More data, always more data. Studies can back up any sort of nonsense, until they are repeated by scientists from other organizations with other funding. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Flawed studies have created all sorts of weirdness from diet crazes to the non/less-religious arm of the anti-vaccination movement. We hear the results of flawed studies all the time, which sometimes leads to hilarious contradictions like hearing, “Don’t ever drink alcohol if you want to be healthy!” on the 6 o’clock news and then, “Drink a glass of red wine every day for heart health!” on the 11 o’clock. The repeat attempts rarely make headlines and often disprove those early studies. Sometimes there are signs pointing in different directions for years before the truth is revealed. Science is not glamorous. It’s not for those who crave instant gratification. The media and science are on completely different time tracks.

Part of me would love to work in some form of “pure” scientific research, because I’d love to be contributing to the body of human knowledge, but part of me realizes that I just don’t have the patience. That’s okay, too, it’s just how I formed and I have different skills.

But just because I’m not a scientist and never will be in any academic/professional sense doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t approach everything with a scientific mindset. I need to read, listen to, and watch things I disagree with as well as those I am inclined to agree with. I need to talk to people who challenge my thoughts as they grow into beliefs. I have deep cravings for raw data that I can interpret myself, not just other people’s interpretations (although I’d like to have at least 3 contradictory interpretations by experts, please). I even have sort of a strange(?) habit of coming up with specific questions that I ask everyone I wind up talking to over a period of a few months, just to get the widest possible range of spontaneous conversational answers as I can as someone without a research grant or access to a call center and phone lists, like mini-polling with room for additional comments. Most importantly, I must change my mind when all of the information I’ve collected, from anecdotes to proper scientific data (if available, depending on topic), shows me a different answer than expected. The process never ends. I will most certainly die with more questions than answers in my head, no matter how much I learn or develop deeply-held beliefs across the span of my lifetime. That’s a good thing.

I don’t care what any individual believes, I care how a person approaches knowledge. It’s entirely possible to look at the same data and interpret it differently, because we are always informed by our past experiences. That’s just being human. Refusing to look at data (and the methodologies behind that data), both for and against your position, is choosing to not exercise your greatest strength as the most successful animal on Planet Earth.

We’re all born as scientists in a sense, curious about our bodies, the people we see, and the world around us. We explore and interact and experiment and try the same thing a few times before we learn what hurts and what feels good and what makes our parents angry or makes them laugh. Trial-and-error, the basic principle behind the grander scientific method, is our default in those early years. It’s why babyproofing is a thing. What makes some people lose that sense of wonder and curiosity? What makes some people become followers? Why do some people flatly deny facts that are backed up by the vast majority of research? And why do some people retain all of that curiosity to the point where they’re willing to go deep into jungles or the Arctic or space to look for answers?

If we can find the answers to those particular questions, maybe we’ll care less about what other people think or pushing our own beliefs on others because we’ll all be too busy trying to learn what we ourselves think. That’s my idea of utopia. Not a place where we all believe exactly the same things, but a place where we are open to one simple statement… I may be wrong, but I’m going to do everything I can to find out. A place where people don’t hate facts and science.

Imagine what we could learn…

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