Unequivocally Ambiguous

satirical cultural critiques

Populist Remarks on the Way We Discuss Science

by | Jun 3, 2022 | Communication | 0 comments

Thoughts from an “anti-intellectual” on uncomfortable data

We inherit beliefs we hold on to without thinking about where they came from. It is like now-famous buildings. We don’t know where the names came from, we just know them by their name. So the Chrysler building is just the Chrysler building and not a building financed and constructed by Walter Chrysler.

Maybe our unchallenged inherited beliefs result from assimilation, schooling, social modeling, or parenting. Still, they were there when we came into the age of reasoning, and we gladly accepted them as our own.

It is hard not to be inflexible about what we learn the world’s truths to be. No one seems to be more inflexible to me in their beliefs than the scientists and academics of our days.

Do you feel like I’m out of line for questioning extremely smart people who had the money to stay two to three decades pursuing higher education?

Then don’t you fret for one second or lose any sleep, mon frère.

You’ll feel vindicated by the trend to call people like me anti-intellectuals.

I find myself fascinated by the flowery and loose poetic speech used to vilify those who don’t believe in what we believe.

When the Canadian truckers were protesting at the border, the media quickly went from calling them truckers at the beginning of the campaign to calling them neonazis when the strikes were taking longer than expected.

I get it, though. It is hard to be upset at the image truckers conjured — these are the people our logistics and distribution and our entire way of life depend on. Our brains are too dumb to understand that there might be some neonazis among the crowds, so instead is easier to make all of them neonazis.

I believe in science, mind you.

But questioning methods and pointing out when accounts of one should still be part of certain “scientific” conversations are not behaviors the intellectuals of our days can do without losing the privilege of calling themselves an educated person.

Account of One in the Real World

While studying Communication, I assisted with research for my favorite teachers. I thought I’d pursue my master’s in that field. But I had also been in school for seven years because the 120 credits I completed in Colombia did not transfer, and I had to start school again.

When I finally graduated college, I was anxious to keep going with my life. So instead of pursuing more higher education, I pursued riches which led me to seven years of hell, but that’s a different story.

When I was in school, my mentors were social scientists, and I adhered to that framework while working with them. Social scientists are not fond of ethnographers. I liked them, didn’t share a love for ethnography, and turned my nose to those classes.

For those of you who don’t know, ethnography is just a fancy term for bodies of work built around the stories of individuals or the communities they are part of.

Now that I’ve been out of school for fifteen years (and in the real world — a phrase I despised back in college), I can see how valuable those accounts of one are.

Be warned: forget about talking about these accounts with the “scientific-minded.” You will be seen and told you are nothing but an uneducated hack at times.

But the Earth is Still Spinning

When people tell me there is overwhelmingly more science supporting this view or that view, I think of Galileo.

I don’t know if it was one of my teachers or one of Dan Brown’s novels, but someone told me how Galileo was accused of heresy after publishing essays supporting the view that the world revolves around the sun. He was forced to write an apology.

He recanted his thoughts on astronomy and his Copernican views of the universe on the apology. It is said that he wrote in invisible ink that would only reveal itself years later after his death, but “the earth still spins around the sun.”

I can’t find any source that can confirm this, and it seems that what actually happened was that he apologized in public, and on his way out of the room, someone heard him saying, “it spins all the same.”

Galileo was exiled to a villa and died there nine years later.

If you are not Kyrie Irving, you know that earth is not a stationary flat pan.

To think that what Galileo went through doesn’t happen anymore is misguided at best and naive at worst.

Science and its advancement is always a much more intricate web than just science. There is also the politicking that goes along with it. Grants and funds are allocated to the favored teachers. And not many researchers like to pursue controversial research or research that will get them in the hot seat if challenging long-held beliefs of the institution they work for or the disciplines they work in.

Their livelihood is attached to how many studies get green-lighted, how many articles are okayed by their peers, and all of these are tied to their ability to play the pervasive politics of educational institutions and how they are perceived by public opinion.

What Ghosts Have To Do With Epistemology

When I lived in San Diego, I used to play racquetball at the 24 hours fitness on Balboa Avenue off the 805N.

A group of us would wait until 11 PM, when the lights to the courts were free, to play. There were always enough people to fill the three courts.

Afterward, a few of us would stay behind and talk.

I had a friend who graduated in History and then became a lawyer. He would be considered loquacious or someone who won’t shut up by his admission. I was happy to talk to him. It was the first time I ever met someone with an eidetic memory. Listening to him was always fascinating, and every night, the stories were new except for two stories that managed to make it into several of his tales.

One was reciting the poem the man who wasn’t there.

The second one is a story about a man convinced he was a ghost.

When he realized rationalizing with the man was never going to work, his therapist asked, “what is one thing you think ghosts can’t do?”

The man thought and answered, “Ghosts can’t bleed.”

So the therapist took out a blade and drew a small incision in the man’s hand, and, as expected, blood started bubbling out of the incision.

The patient looked in disbelief at his hands, and after a few seconds of looking back and forth between his hand and his therapist, he finally shouted, “Would you look at that? I guess ghosts CAN bleed!”

Some scientists think like this.

Everything that fits their model is sound, and everything that doesn’t is a mere coincidence, an outlier, the work of a charlatan or a snake oil salesman. Nothing that is said against the pre-existing framework is ever taken seriously until the evidence proves the system outright wrong. Then somehow, their model still managed to explain it, but pedestrians didn’t understand it. “That’s the danger of laypeople trying to read or talk about science.”

Why wouldn’t they do that?

Because we are all trying to reduce uncertainty in this chaotic world, no one really enjoys a good case of cognitive dissonance without at least attempting to rationalize it away.

Black Swans Are Still a Myth

I cringe at the idea of referencing Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan theory.

While I was in real estate development, everybody fashioned themselves as a financial guru who would predict the next recession.

I would go to one of these seminars and workshops, and since 2009, everybody has been predicting how the next housing bubble collapse was inevitable. We are still waiting for a similar collapse.

People keep missing the point that the bubble didn’t happen because of housing supply or demand, or the pricing of those houses. In part, it happened because of the loose requirements around subprime mortgages and the over-exposure of every fund in the world to the toxic tranches of these assets.

But, hey, I’m not a guru so don’t listen to me.

But NNT’s theory is still sound.

Just because we haven’t seen something happen doesn’t mean that it won’t happen. The lack of research in certain areas shouldn’t be used as evidence to disqualify new ideas, concepts, or personal accounts.

For example, the idea of vitamins or supplements has been disqualified for a long time. It still is discredited by many people. When studies and suggestions were coming up on antioxidants, this research was dismissed as nothing more than quackery. The same for the anti-cancer qualities of green tea or berries. Now, a quick walk through the aisles of Costco before you get to the registers, and you will see CoQ10, Quercetin, Epigallocatechin gallate, and Alpha Lipoic Acid on display.

Because now it is doctor-approved, then it is also manufacturing approved, and we can all jump on board, so you can get yourself a bottle in Costco that will contain enough supply to will last your family three generations.

But before it was doctor-approved, it was yet another scam meant to deceive people.

Trading One god For Another

It is frustrating when people don’t listen to us. But the burden of proof, or the obligation to prove one’s assertion, remains with those introducing science. Scientists and academics can throw a tantrum when they are challenged by people that don’t understand their findings and they should also be flexible enough to be open to the idea that they could be wrong like all humans are from time to time — a white coat doesn’t make you a god, a white beard does.

We complain about the extreme polarization of every single issue we discuss and we want to blame populism and anti-intellectualism. But what about silofication of knowledge? — this idea that only a handful of chosen people can really speak about anything at all.

The blindness with which we pursue science is akin to how we revered god in the Dark Ages.

Maybe Galileo wouldn’t be vilified and forced into exile these days. But maybe he would, as a scientist, have the power to vilify and force Father Vincenzo Maculani da Firenzuola into exile or, at least, he would try to cancel him.

Leaving poor Vincenzo no other option than to become a televangelist.

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