The Answer is a Question

Today I heard a Radio National Podcast called “Why Smart People do Stupid things”. In it David Robson (science journalist and author of The Intelligence Trap) describes his exploration of the different ways that intelligent people can fail to make wise decisions. It’s quite a fascinating inquiry and includes a story about how Arthur Conan Doyle was utterly taken in by the photographs of fairies taken by two cheeky school girls using magazine cut-outs and clever lighting. Mr Doyle wrote about Sherlock Holmes – a true master of rationality – and yet in his own life he was unable to summon that same chain of curious thought which might have caused him to doubt the photographs’ authenticity. Robson also talks about a Nobel Chemistry Prize winner (Kary Mullis) who believed astrology was a better predictor of someone’s path in life than psychology or sociology.

According to Mr Robson, it is the more intelligent people in right-wing politics who are most likely to be climate change deniers. People who are confident of their intelligence are less likely to listen to other people and more likely to form their own view points and find ways to support them. Apparently Arthur Conan Doyle was good friends with Harry Houdini who was a skeptic and who desperately tried to convince Doyle that the Cottingley Fairies were a hoax. In response, Doyle wrote an essay attempting to prove that Houdini, himself, was a super natural being who was therefore covering up and protecting the existence of all other supernatural beings.

In our modern society we are encouraged to hear two sides to everything, even if one side is supported by much evidence and the other side is simply an opinion. In fact, I saw a trending article today about a recent episode of Q&A which stood out because it was all scientists and was totally evidence-based. The author made a point of how remarkable this was. In an effort to be “unbiased” we treat science the same as opinion. Our “freedom of speech” has brought us to this peculiar place of double standards. We will not allow Israel Folau to speak his mind about fornicators and adulterers and homosexuals going to Hell (a hell for which there is no evidence) on Twitter. But Alan Jones is given full rights to strongly doubt Climate Change (a sort of living hell for which the evidence is overwhelming) on radio every weekday.

I have a good friend who is, alongside P, perhaps one of the most rational people I know. Every now and then when children may be left behind somehow, we meet up and chat long into the night about all manner of topics. I can always trust S to be calm and considered in every response. Even when I told her of a brilliant comeback by Ricky Gervais to a difficult question about why the scientific theories for the beginning of the Universe are any better than the religious theories, she smiled and said “Science is dictated by social constructs as well.” I was shocked. I met S at Uni where she was deeply into science. She did a PhD and worked in labs for years. I hadn’t expected this response.

But I see two things now. One is that she’s right and that, to some degree, at least the way we reach our scientific theories is dictated by social construct. For example, for years and years, men were the preferred subjects for scientific experiments because their hormonal fluctuations were much less and therefore they were more stable subjects. It is only quite recent that people realized that the male/female hormones might actually effect the reactions of a subject to whatever it was that was being tested. Women’s perceived “instability” was used in many other instances as well.

And my other realization is that by allowing herself to question the very field that rigorously hunts down and then supplies all the evidence, S is being the best kind of scientist of all.

Question everything. It’s the only answeer.

18 thoughts on “The Answer is a Question

    1. But the conclusion still needs to be consistent with the results. If you observe a precipitate, and then conclude you had only solutes, your conclusion is wrong – it contradicts the evidence. You may lose a few marks at school for that, but at school you’re studying science, not doing it. They are different things, just like studying history and making history are different.

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      1. I also had a head of school who, when a senior academic said he didn’t need any teaching training because “I’ve been taught, so I know how to teach” said “I’ve had sex. Lots of times. That doesn’t make me a gynaecologist”. 😀

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      2. Ah, but often results leave the option for many different conclusions. Which is exactly what we see with something like climate change. The big aergument there is not that it *is* happening, but its significance.

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    2. Only if you’ve designed your experiment poorly, Bump. And I don’t think there is a lot of argument about the significance of climate change, scientists have a pretty solid consensus. It’s just the lunatics with vested interests in fossil fuels, like the Aus govt, that are still pretending the science isn’t clear.

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      1. Go look at Trump, or Morrison, they will disagree with you. I think there is very much a difference of opinion. Youmay choose to dismiss them as idiots, but Trump in particular carrieds the weight of 60 million voters.
        And, you only know that your experiment was poorly designed *after* the results are in.

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  1. The greatest strength of science is that falsifiability is at its core. So even though scientists are humans, and science is a social construct, a theory that is based on any social construct can be disproved. Astronomical models with the Earth at the centre were disproved, even though the established religion didn’t like it. Religion and other belief systems don’t have falsifiability – at least until it’s too late and you wake up in hell. Or not.
    Note that nothing can be proved, only disproved – anyone who says science has proved something isn’t a scientist. And that is a strength of science, not a weakness, because it prevents unquestioning belief. We always expect a better model to come along, even if only slightly better.
    And I believe astrology IS damn near as good a predictor to someone’s path as sociology.
    …no, I don’t believe in astrology.

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