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Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Stand Up For Critical Thought

It's likely you've heard this popular quote from celebrity astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, "The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."

But is science really just a collection of incontrovertible truths? Or is there more to it than Tyson's clever sound bite?

Science is a method of gathering knowledge. Through the scientific method we collect information about the world around us. Sometimes conclusions about this information change or are challenged as we continue to compile more data and make new observations. Sometimes we are only partway through investigating a subject, or an observation has not yet been investigated at all. Just because there is little or no evidence for something, does not mean we can draw a conclusion that it is false or does not exist. This would be pseudoscience. An ethical skeptic applies a philosophical approach called epochè when this is the case. This means they would suspend judgement on the topic while it has a chance to be investigated via the scientific method. An ethical skeptic asks what step is next, in contrast to a fake skeptic who uses a lack of evidence to dismiss things he or she dislikes while using a flawed methodology to enforce favored conclusions. This does not mean that all of their conclusions are wrong, nor is this an excuse to employ denial of evidence regarding established knowledge like that of evolution or climate change. Critical thinking and skepticism is about how we think not about what we conclude.

It is the fake skeptic's method that is the pseudoscience, not necessarily the conclusion itself although there are examples of where they have been wrong in the past. See the story behind the father of hand washing, Ignaz Semmelweis for a cautionary tale about dismissing an observation before the scientific method can be fully applied. "Doctors are gentlemen, and a gentleman's hands are clean." This chilling quote from one of Dr. Semmelweis' colleagues, Charles Meigs parallels the hubris and incompetence we see demonstrated today, especially regarding some of the misunderstood medical issues of our time.

Plenty of examples of dogmatic conclusions abound in what I've observed as a popular pastime for fake skeptics - list making.

Also available as a mug!

It's vitally important that science literacy be taught to the public, and made as accessible as possible. This is how we move beyond fringe ideas like flat earth and the like, but also how we make progress against serious threats like climate change denial. Saturating people with lists of conclusions, calling them truths, and treating them as dogma is not going to accomplish this. It may make some people feel better about themselves to share or wear things like this, but we must realize that standing up for science is about protecting the integrity of the method, and using it to help others and solve urgent problems.

“There is a conflict in the heart of science between science as a method of inquiry based on reason, evidence, hypothesis, and collective investigation, and science as a belief system, or a world view. And unfortunately the world view aspect of science has come to inhibit and constrict the free inquiry which is the very lifeblood of the scientific endeavor.” – Rupert Sheldrake

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