Science: The Facts

Tania Lobrozo’s NPR blog article “Should Scientists Promote Results over Process?” tackles a good question.

Distrust and/or outright hostility to science is close to being a doctrine of faith in America, the post-fact country.  Evolution.  Climate Change. Of course facts don’t go away. They are merely discovered, examined, evaluated, then reexamined, reevaluated, and revised. Alas, this  process is not the way most people want to spend their lives.

As one of the few who does, I worry about any society that rates faith and stalwart belief — and I’m not just talking about religious belief — over observation, experimentation, and the scientific process in all its manifestations. First of all, being absolutely sure of something often bumps up against facts.  For example, blind faith in a certain method of baking bread can be as bad as anything else.  I still remember the yelling from a fine French chef who was visiting a relative here in the high mountains.  Cooking his first meal here, he failed to adjust his recipes to allow for the high altitude, a scientific mistake.  One he never made again.

Unfortunately, too many Americans cling to their mistakes.  For some it’s laziness or politics or plain stupidity.  For a good many though it’s simple ignorance. Ignorance is forgivable and fixable, but too few make an effort to fix their thinking patterns. Too few even realize that thinking is hard work.

Teaching is hard work too, and some educational programs try, but I have strong doubts that many will succeed.  Inequality in schools, inadequate or worn down teachers can’t light intellectual fires.  Plus, since its earliest days, resistance to scientific thinking has been endemic in America — read Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-intellectualism in American Life — and now, in its waning days, good teachers are rarer and rarer.

Hence, here we are with a nation taught to believe in simple answers, and even though the scientific method is actually quite straightforward, it’s not good at providing simple, absolute  answers.  So we are a nation where too few people understand what the scientific process is, how it works, and what its results mean and fewer yet have any tolerance for the glorious ambiguity inherent in the scientific method.  All black or all white. That’s what too many of us want.  Faith is soooo much more attractive with its absolutes.

Absolutes however are the fundamental problem. Philosopher Theodor Adrorno (1903-1969) was correct when he said, “Intolerance of ambiguity is the mark of an authoritarian personality.”

To me, this line of his explains a lot about what’s going on in the United States today.



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