What everyone knows is usually wrong (about science, say)
Posted by Henry Bauer on 2014/06/11
The insight that the conventional wisdom, “what everyone knows”, is all too often wrong has been expressed innumerable times by various people, as Googling for the source quickly reveals. The phrase even heads Chapter 9 in The Practical Drucker: Applying the Wisdom of the World’s Greatest Management Thinker, by William A. Cohen.
In matters scientific, what everyone “knows” — that is to say, believes — is so often wrong because of entirely mistaken views about what scientific activity actually is and the misguided equating of “science” with truth (Scientism, the Religion of Science).
Pundits hold forth about “scientific literacy” as though that means knowing things like what the most common gas is in the atmosphere, or the most common element in the earth’s crust, etc. etc. etc.; see for example an online quiz by the Christian Science Monitor. But you could get 100% on that sort of quiz and still be entirely ignorant about how reliable science can be or cannot be as a guide to public policy *. Meaningful scientific literacy would comprise a reasonable understanding of the elements of the interdisciplinary field of STS (Science & Technology Studies), particularly familiarity with the history of science (see my Scientific Literacy and Myth of the Scientific Method, University of Illinois Press 1992). That would provide a rudimentary safeguard against accepting and parroting mistaken shibboleths like those exhibited, for instance, by the managers of the prominent “ideas” forum, TED [TED and TEDx reinvent the wheel — and get it all wrong (or, Ignorant punditry about science and pseudo-science)].
But those who pointed to TED’s misunderstandings were no better informed about science. Thus “Deepak Chopra, MD. FACP, Stuart Hameroff, MD, Menas C. Kafatos, Ph.D., Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., and Neil Theise, MD” asserted that “One of modern science’s great strengths is that any questionable finding dies a quick death if it’s invalid. The safeguards are mainly two: Your new finding must be repeatable when other researchers run the same experiments, and peer review by qualified scientists subjects every new finding to microscopic scrutiny” [emphases added].
The most elementary acquaintance with history of science reveals that questionable findings die a quick death only if they contradict a prevailing scientific consensus at the same time as the most incompetent stuff finds acceptance if it fits the current paradigm. “Repeatability” is a common but baseless shibboleth: almost no one even tries to repeat things because there’s no credit for doing so, you don’t get published unless you do something “original”. Published work gets tested not by attempted repetition but because others try to use the conclusions for further research. As for peer review, it is far from “microscopic scrutiny”, it’s merely a way to ensure that publications fit with prevailing beliefs (Richard Horton, Health Wars: On the Global Front Lines of Modern Medicine, New York Review Books, 2003, p. 306).
As yet another example of scientifically illiterate science punditry, a science guru at Slate (“Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death from the Skies!”) found the TED letter “wonderful”.
TED spreads misinformation not only through its seminars, it also publishes books. Evgeny Morozov has demolished the pretensions of that genre in a very funny and acerbic commentary on 3 TED books, prinarily Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization by Parag Khanna and Ayesha Khanna; see The Naked and the TED: “Marketing masquerading as theory, charlatans masquerading as philosophers, a New Age cult masquerading as a university, business masquerading as redemption, slogans masquerading as truths. . . . Much like Glenn Beck’s magic blackboard, it connects everything to everything without saying anything significant about anything. . . .
TED is . . . an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering — a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. . . . ‘ideas worth spreading’ become ‘ideas no footnotes can support.’ . . . . The TED ideal of thought is the ideal of the ‘takeaway’ — the shrinkage of thought for people too busy to think.”
Thomas Frank is also splendidly satirical about the “creativity-promoting” industry and TED’s pretensions: “[TED audiences] think they’re in the presence of something profound when they watch some billionaire give a TED talk”.
Functional scientific literacy means knowing when to trust official pronouncements and when to question them. The lack of such literacy leaves one at the mercy of politically polarized claims about science (e.g. about global warming) and of self-serving advertisements by drug companies, among many other similar dangers.
* Full disclosure: The average reader, we’re told, scores 66%. This Chemistry PhD scored 78% but doesn’t regard any of the 22% missed as a matter for concern, they — like the other 78% —are just trivia to look up if you ever need them — which is in itself extremely unlikely.