Monday, April 4, 2011

Scientific training is no cure for irrationality

Some scientists seem to think that a PhD and peer-reviewed publications is proof that they are logical, clear-thinking and rational people not prone to the systematically biased recall and interpretation of evidence that ordinary people are prone to.

I have noticed this smug, almost condescending arrogance several times – and I’m probably guilty of it myself as well (as several experiments show, everyone thinks everyone else is biased but that their own (biased) decision was actually rational). However, I have rarely seen a more beautifully clear instance of this attitude then in the following quote from a recent editorial in “Water, air and soil pollution.” I doubt a parody could have made the point clearer:

Now, some people and special interests continue to propagate misleading information about climate change. They are using all of their newly gained knowledge (on how to fool the public) to enhance their greedy benefits. Once the method of scientific inquiry is understood, and the knowledge of how to evaluate scientific claims is at hand, people are not likely to be swayed or confused by misinformation. Some poorly educated people, on the other hand, will be at the whim of the profiteers, not being able to distinguish a lie from a statement based on scientific data. In fact, the more complex an explanation, the more distasteful it might appear to them. These people do not want to be burdened with factual information that their backgrounds do not prepare them to conceptualize; they want to believe in ideas that require minimal intellectual effort. They are likely to prefer a fairy tale to reality; it's so much nicer (for a while) to think that no serious problems exist. Such people just continue to live in a fantasy world that will dissolve when reality becomes oppressive, just as does a dream fades away after one wakes. Then it will unfortunately be too late to correct the problems that were propagated by ignorance.

There’s a nice discussion of some problems with this attitude amongst climate scientists at DeSmogBlog (where I came across the quote), but to my mind this attitude is also a problem within science: If you believe learning the scientific method is like gaining a superpower, then you can relax and trust almost everything you’ve been taught and everything that is claimed by your peers – as well as everything you believe and all the results you get. Paradoxically, then, it makes you less questioning and cautious, and more consensus-oriented and over-confident, and thus less “rational” (by most meanings of the word). At times, it may be useful to recall that we’re all just domesticated apes.