Tough to apply the scientific method to irrational beliefs

Filed under: Hazlehurst |

Ours is a nation whose prosperity has many foundations.
We’re a capitalist democracy with universal, free public primary and secondary education. We have the best system of higher education in the world. We enjoy freedoms that most countries do not — of the press, of assembly, of worship, of speech and of association.
Our legal system, built on the still-remarkable premise of equality under the law, tries to achieve even-handed justice for all, and often does. We have the right to own property and, within limits, to do with it as we please.
But most of all, our prosperity depends, as does that of every advanced country, upon the rigorous application of science.
The fundamental precepts of science make our lives possible. Without the scientific method the modern world could not exist. Imagine a world without powered machinery, without modern medicine, without artificial light, without electricity, without aviation — imagine the Middle Ages.
Our daily lives might be repetitious, but they’re not simple.
The mundane task of driving to work is really an intricate, complex dance, where hundreds of technologies intersect and interact. Literally millions of scientists, living and dead, helped create this extraordinary technological web. And every such contribution was only made possible by the common use of the scientific method.
The scientific method is based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable data. The data collected thereby, whether by observation or experimentation, is used in the formulation and testing of hypotheses. This process, to which every scientist subscribes, is meant to be neutral and unbiased, to produce hypotheses supported by verifiable data. Such hypotheses form the basis of all technologies.
It’s remarkable, then, that scientific illiteracy is so common.
I don’t mean the ordinary ignorance of technology that many of us have, and indeed can scarcely avoid. I know how to operate a computer, and I dimly understand how it works — but I don’t know how data is stored and retrieved, or how words, images and stupid jokes from my friends are displayed on my monitor.
That’s not scientific illiteracy — it’s just stuff that I don’t know.
More troubling are ideologically driven beliefs that have no basis in science. In sharp contrast to the religiously driven anti-scientific beliefs that were common during centuries past (just ask Galileo), today’s anti-science is politically driven.
Think global warming is nonsense? Like the idea of “intelligent design”? Think you’re safer if you have a handgun at home? Think the dangers of cigarette smoking are exaggerated? Think that we can make a real dent in oil imports if we just ignore those pesky environmentalists and drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? You incline to the right.
Think that vaccines cause autism? Hate the idea of nuclear power plants, because they’re intrinsically dangerous, unsafe and expensive? Think that we can replace coal, nuclear and natural gas with wind and solar? Think that organic farming should be universally adopted, and that doing so would boost food production and benefit the environment? You’re a lefty.
These belief structures, which are so closely associated with one’s political leaning, aren’t political.
If you say, as Ron Paul does, that we ought to abolish the Internal Revenue Service, that’s a political hypothesis. Maybe he’s right, maybe not — we can’t test the hypothesis, unless we abolish the IRS and see what happens (I’ll be glad to participate in a pilot experiment, though).
In today’s America, anti-science is just as politicized and just as tribal as our fractious politics, and we shouldn’t expect things to change. By their very nature, irrational beliefs can’t be disproved.
In a famous (and probably apocryphal) anecdote, Capt. Joshua Slocum, the first man to sail alone around the world, was invited to give a speech to the Capetown Flat Earth Society in South Africa.
At the conclusion of his speech, a woman in the audience rose to inform Captain Slocum that he was not sailing around the world, but on the world. The world, she said, is not a globe, but a flat disc, resting upon a giant tortoise.
“I see, Madam,” said Slocum, “but what’s beneath the tortoise?”
“Don’t get smart with me, young man”, she replied, “It’s turtles all the way down!”
John Hazlehurst can be reached at or 227-5861.