Read and Listen

The Neuroskeptic has a great post tucked away in the archives about the Galileo Gambit, which is, in his words, “when people with unpopular ideas compare themselves to Galileo with the implication that, like him, they’re being persecuted for their unorthodox views but that they will eventually be proved right.”

Arguing for the unpopular view that “if most scientists believe something you probably should believe it, just because scientists say so,” he invokes some common instances of people thinking and acting like they know stuff when they clearly don’t, and in fact clearly couldn’t. Deniers of climate change are a great example of people who choose to scoff at the vast majority of climate scientists, apparently without acknowledging that climate scientists are the only people who are actually qualified to come to a conclusion about climate change. The psychological processes that would lead someone to deny climate change despite the fact that they have no basis for coming to a conclusion about it are complex and puzzling, especially since this tendency is so ubiquitous. (Cornell psychologists Kruger and Dunning have a theory – incompetent individuals lack what cognitive psychologists call metacognition, the ability to evaluate one’s own performance.) “Unless you are a professional climate scientist (or whatever), or an amateur with an unhealthy amount of spare time,” Neuroskeptic points out, “the chances are that you just don’t know enough to come to an informed conclusion.”

In a recent episode of CSI, Grissom explains to his gullible disciples why a string of cases were linked together, apparently coincidentally:

String theory is the theory of everything. Quantum mechanics tells us about the very small. The theory of relativity explains the immense. String theory ties it all together. It proposes that atomic particles are made up of infinitesimal vibrating loops of energy, or strings. Each string vibrates at its own frequency, like on a violin, producing notes, and these notes make up everything in the universe. These strings have been combining and recombining ever since the Big Bang. So the connections between our victims, or any of us, are not that extraordinary.

The problem with this passage isn’t necessarily his characterization of string theory, which could probably be, on some vastly simplified level, defensible as a pop characterization of the theory. The problem is his use of the theory to explain the coincidence of his cases, where as a matter of fact the coincidence of his cases has nothing whatsoever to do with string theory. Theoretical physics isn’t philosophy. Gerard ‘t Hooft, a physicist at the University of Ultrecht, put together a list of subjects you need to master in order to know what you’re talking about when you talk about string theory:

# Languages
# Primary Mathematics
# Classical Mechanics
# Optics
# Statistical Mechanics and Thermodynamics
# Electronics
# Electromagnetism
# Quantum Mechanics
# Atoms and Molecules
# Solid State Physics
# Nuclear Physics
# Plasma Physics
# Advanced Mathematics
# Special Relativity
# Advanced Quantum Mechanics
# Phenomenology
# General Relativity
# Quantum Field Theory
# Superstring Theory

The point being, if you don’t have a PhD in theoretical physics, you can’t really talk about string theory with any remote degree of accuracy. The same holds true for a lot of other disciplines that laypeople talk about all the time, notably psychology, economics, and statistics.

The increasing breadth and complexity of modern science has made it largely inaccessible to amateurs and laypeople. For that reason, we rely on other people’s word every day, when we read the newspaper or watch the news or, at another level, when we read journal articles and attend lectures. Its unavoidable. What we can do, though, to a reasonable degree, is evaluate the word that we’re taking from these people based on how qualified they are to come to the conclusions they come to. (Journalists, for instance, rarely have any expertise about anything they write about.) As NS says, if we’re going to take someone’s word, we might as well take the word of an expert, or better, a huge group of experts who agree with one another.

I bring this up now because my recent post about Mindful Education raised this issue in my mind. Both Ken Kavenagh and Ryan, who responded at length to my post agreeing with Kavenagh, have taken an unpopular view that goes against the empirical, verifiable knowledge of hundreds of psychologists and educators. It’s not clear why Kavenagh and Ryan consider themselves to be more knowledgeable about the subject of mindful meditation than these hundreds of experts are, considering that the experts are the ones who have actually researched mindful meditation and are qualified to come to a conclusion about it. What I was trying to get at in the last paragraph of my reply to Ryan is that, as NS says, “if thousands of intelligent people freely discuss something and reach a certain conclusion, that in itself is evidence (although not proof) that what they conclude is true.” While obviously skepticism is a desirable intellectual trait, assuming your own expertise on the basis of a few articles you’ve read here and there is a weird and counterproductive tendency that people enact all the time. (Including me! I can’t pretend to be innocent of this phenomenon.)

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2 responses to “Read and Listen

  1. Hello! 🙂
    Thanks for the kind comments. Like the Gerard’t Hooft bit – a similiar list could be made for most academic topics.

    The only thing I’d be careful about is this :

    “Deniers of climate change are a great example of people who choose to scoff at the vast majority of climate scientists, apparently without acknowledging that climate scientists are the only people who are actually qualified to come to a conclusion about climate change.”

    I think it’s important to realise that *formal* qualifications is not what I’m talking about… You can have a degree in biology and know very little about any of it. You can have a PhD in biology and know very little about most of it.

    Becoming an expert on a topic is not a matter of qualifications but of time and dedication, I think. Also, it’s important to actually *do* research on it, not just read about it.

  2. mackereleconomics

    Yeah, I agree. At best, a PhD is a minimum qualification for expertise in the sciences (social sciences included), but obviously if you specialize in stream ecology you’re not going to know that much about molecular phylogenetics, and so on. Thanks for the clarification.

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