For a few weeks I’ve been thinking about writing a separate blog about how to think like a scientist. I get frustrated listening to partisans butcher both scientific issues and other issues with natural cognitive distortions like oversimplification, overgeneralization, and black and white thinking. People rarely appreciate being challenged about those, of course. Everyone thinks their own opinions are so correct. It would be so much better if it generally were understood what it means to think well, beyond how so many people can identify ad hominem attacks and straw man arguments, correctly or not.
The thing is that thinking like a scientist is very straightforward:
1) Use good data
2) Use good arguments
3) Consider all possibilities
Is there anything else? I’m not sure there is. It can take a lot of technical expertise to do those few things well, but is there something else? I can’t think of it. That technical expertise is important. One argument that creationists use throws out all techniques that measure the age of things as greater than several thousand years. Such arguments rarely appreciate just how many radioisotope techniques there are, not just carbon dating, or how many less specific indicators there are for the age of things, such as how long it takes for tectonic plates to move or volcanoes to change a landscape as much as they have, on top of even older sedimentary rocks no less.
It takes more than a little stab at a little bit of the data to think like a good scientist. You have to make sense out of all of it. This has been the great Achilles heel of philosophers who worked for thousands of years to be very good at arguments, but were terrible at premises. If you do arguments well, but data poorly, it’s just garbage in, garbage out. The scientific revolution found a way around that. That is its greatness.
So why is so much of society still resistant to the scientific revolution? In some sense science is very natural for us. We believe what we see. Yet we also find ways to believe what we want to believe, and in that, we are not at all natural scientists. People don’t want to consider all data, all arguments, and all possibilities. They only want to look at what helps their beliefs.
I’ve thought of detailing that about global warming. A nice starting point came out recently in the IPCC report on global warming, one that estimates the likelihood of human activity being the cause at over 90%. So how do skeptics attack that? They make ad hominem attacks. If they do get to any specifics, it’s something like Antarctica being less affected than one might think, as the report mentions. OK, but how about the rest of it, that CO2 levels in the atmosphere have gone up almost 40% in recent centuries, that the unvarying turn upward of global temperatures is unprecedented, even though prehistoric temperatures did vary quite a bit? It’s a very simple story, even though it’s uncertain how dangerous or expensive it will be to humanity. What’s so hard about getting the simple story straight, then being stubborn about what to do in response if one wants?
I’m not sure about that. Why do people insist on manipulating facts instead of just sticking to where things really are just a matter of opinion? I don’t know. It’s something about control. The way it relates to thinking like a scientist is easy. People don’t want to look at all possibilities. They want certainty, and not just any certainty. It has to be an acceptable certainty, true or not. That’s it. That’s what people would have to change if they want to think like scientists. They can’t be so certain. They could be certain about some things, but not everything.
It’s a simple way to go to think like a scientist. I fell in love with it as a teenager, looking at all the wonderful things science knew then. Science knows even more now, and is on an unshakeable track to learn more, such as with the genetics revolution. Yet many people prefer to think naturally than think like a scientist, with whatever blinders their partisanship tells them to wear.
It’s a simple problem. Again and again the answer is that people don’t look at all the facts, all the arguments, and all the possibilities. I’ve decided not to do a blog where I just point out example after example of that. Maybe it’s something that’s needed, but I’ll leave that to others. Partly that’s because there’s an example of this that scientists don’t look at much. It’s how atheist scientists go after religion, because they’re so sure religion is all superstition.
PZ Myers is one. Yesterday he went after the staff of a Florida school because they prayed after hours using prayer oil on students’ desks. Ed Brayton did so a few hours earlier. Myers uses the following words: “stupid”, “lunatics”, “deranged” “…you are a disgrace, a confused and deluded kook, and you are screwing up. Get help. Your delusions are affecting your performance and your life,” “because they use the excuse that it is ‘religion’ everyone backs off, gets all deferential, and pretends they aren't dealing with a team of quacks, clowns, and slow-witted, thoughtless incompetents,” “I say fire the lot of them,” and “Jebus. Magic goop. Prancing, chanting shamans. If the kids do poorly on the test, we know the reason: idiots running the classrooms. This is what religion does, it rips up your brain and infuses it with credulity and sloppy thinking.”
Well he did say “if the kids do poorly”. It’s not as though he’s completely prejudiced about the situation. It’s amazing how some people can diagnose others at a distance. The mental health professions should look into this ability.
Brayton is more restrained, calling this attempt at “divine cheating” “perverse” and alluding to someone having a “screw loose”.
How many atheist scientists are there who don’t think that religious people are idiots and insane? I don’t, but I’m not an atheist. Some might say that means I don’t think like a scientist. They might add a fourth feature to thinking like a scientist, which is to have contempt for any notion of a reality beyond the physical universe. Of course, they would make exceptions for believing in parallel universes or other speculation that involves neither spirits nor God.
What is the objective evidence that religious people are idiots and insane? I suppose some are. I suppose some scientists are if one can stretch the definition of “idiot” to mean habitually saying and doing things that don’t make sense. Maybe even PZ Myers would admit he’s not thinking like a scientist with that rant. So why do it?
Now I’ve never used prayer oil. I’ve only rarely said intercessory prayers. I’ve prayed them as they come to me. I don’t know if any ever helped anyone. I don’t know that there ever has been a physical miracle in response to prayer. I do know that some remarkable mental things have happened to me following prayer. Long-standing resentments have gone. I have prayed for direction, strength and hope and gotten exactly that. Who’s to say that God can’t help children in school be less distracted for a test, just because some who believe in Him ask for His help? Myers and Brayton don’t make scientific arguments to the contrary. They just ridicule the idea.
It’s a free country. Those who choose to ridicule whatever possibility they don’t like will continue to do so, from any place in the political and religious spectra. And some people like this will continue to boast how much they believe in truth, science, whatever. It’s a lie. I know how a good scientist thinks. He or she thinks with those three features I wrote down above. If someone has better criteria, it would be interesting for me to read them. Exploring all possibilities has paid off for me before. I know partisans don’t like to do that. I’m not sure what besides partisanship would make people resist looking at all the possibilities. Not even idiocy or insanity explains that.