Thursday, April 20, 2017

Incoming lengthy philosophical rant

There was a video going around on Facebook that I decided I wanted to comment on, and I just kind of went on a tear. For archival purposes, and possibly to reach a wider audience, I'm reposting the whole rant here:

It certainly seems like there used to be more public pride in America's role as a leader in scientific and technological innovation. We've won wars because of it. We became the biggest economic powerhouse on the planet because of it. The world's brightest minds flocked to the US because they knew they could come here and thrive.

Has the massive divide just always been there and I didn't notice it as much before? Or has the anti-intellectual agenda grown stronger because the internet age has made it easier to spread misinformation and gather like-minded people to the battle against progress and prosperity?
This is really the only answer that makes sense to me, that for a lot of people in positions of political and economic power, they feel they will benefit more from a general public that is generally less informed and more distrusting of the intellectual "establishment" (i.e. more gullible to the charismatic charlatans and snake-oil salesmen of the world).

I will never claim to have all the answers. (Anyone who does is probably trying to sell you something) I just know I'd rather maintain a general skepticism and be open to evidence than actively disregard the people actually spending time and money conducting research to learn the truth about our world.

Being a scientist or other authority figure doesn't mean you're right about everything, but it does mean you've spent your career studying something that I've spent maybe a few minutes reading about online. I've no business assuming I know more than a climatologist does about the climate, than a microbiologist or geneticist does about GMOs, or than an immunologist does about vaccines. If I think their claims are false, the burden of proof falls on me. It's up to me to locate inconsistencies in their data or find more overwhelming concrete evidence. If I'm not willing to do that or can only find minimal evidence with questionable veracity, then at a certain point I have to accept that I can't disprove the claim, and should therefore accept it until more compelling evidence comes along.

And no, just finding one or two isolated studies that disagree with the claim won't cut it. The whole point of the scientific method is that claims have to pass peer review. A single study whose findings can't be replicated elsewhere is evidence of a fluke or a compromised study. Retracted papers don't get retracted because they are "controversial", they're retracted because they couldn't be replicated, contained evidence of tampering, or were outright proven wrong.

And for God's sake, please set your personal incredulity aside when making decisions. If something just "feels wrong" or "doesn't pass the sniff test", that is an indication it may be deserving of further scrutiny, not a magical psychic power you have to detect bullshit. People deceive us all the time, and we all think we're better at catching it than we actually are. There's almost always more to the story, and making up your mind on the basis of a "feeling" and some incomplete information rarely leads you down the right path.

Anyway... I'm sure I'm just shouting into the void at this point, but I thought it might be beneficial for me at least to try to organize my thoughts a bit on this subject. For what it's worth, I don't believe America is getting dumber, but we all have the capacity to be pretty gullible, and snake-oil salesmen are getting bigger and better soap-boxes to shout from all the time.

Questioning the establishment isn't good enough anymore. If you don't want to be taken for a ride, you need to question everything.

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