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Scorning Science, and the Fear of Doubt

I meant to post this a couple of months ago, but better late than never. The anti-science movement in America: yeah, it’s a problem.

Indeed, it is a very frustrating problem, and this is, I think, one of the reasons that the Regenesis television series I just finished watching was so engaging for me: time and again, the characters run into the social/cultural problem of people either being scientifically illiterate, or anti-science, or science-phobic. The utter frustration of a number of characters on the show–but especially David Sangström–was one of those things that made the show so relatable to so many people who, whether they are scientists or just interested in science and supporters of that great odyssey of learning, feel when looking at the world as it is.

A physicist I knew once told me that people, once they inquired as to his profession and heard what it was, we instantly distrustful of him. Mind, he was living in Texas, but the comment disturbed me. I can understand people being leery of certain areas of science: personally, I think we need to be very careful about what we mess about with, and how. But it seems to me most of the problems in that area are tied up with business, profits, and science-for-hire, and ironically the same people who would distrust a physicist or biochemist would be very respectful of, say, a businessperson or CEO.

The other day in class, we were discussing critical thinking, rigor and integrity, conscience and compromise. The issue of doubt came up, and I praised it to no end, noting how a thinking person must, to be rigorous, harbor at least a kernel of doubt for every idea presented to him or her–in theory, if not in everyday practice. This is not to say one must doubt all historical facts, of course: I’m not suggesting people should be doubting that the Holocaust happened, for example.

But I think people ought to reserve the right to doubt whatever received truth is presented to them, as a rule. Explanations of how and why it happened, explanations of human nature derived from it, explanations of who is at fault, are all things that often get taken for granted.

And, I said, “Anyone who tells you he has all the answers is someone you should recognize probably doesn’t know how to doubt critically; if you cannot doubt critically, you cannot think critically.”

And, I said, “The wonderful thing about science is how saturated it is with doubt. Tests, experiments, repeating tests, seeing if you get the same results; overturning theories and models of the universe when new information comes it. Scientists aren’t perfect, but science itself is a sort of system of constructive doubt. And it’s the one system we have where doubt is built-in, unavoidable, and part of the fundamental procedural training.” Well, I said it in other words, but you get the idea. (I’m compressing it here.)

And that, I think, is the obvious reason so many revile science: it uses doubt to good effect, thereby threatening those whose interests lie in the suppression and vilification of doubt.

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