Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Scientific Thinking Is Unnatural

Dr. Orzel is right in his assertion that everyone is capable of figuring things out, but it seems to me that's only half of what constitutes "scientific thinking". What do we make of people who are capable of cooking without a recipe, or doing a crossword puzzle, or repairing a car, but still believe in angels or UFOs or that the Earth was poofed into existence 6000 years ago? These people have all the cognitive machinery which Dr. Orzel outlines in his post while, at the same time, believing things which are clearly unscientific.

My contention is that "thinking scientifically" involves not only the practical application of knowledge but also the rejection of non-scientific concepts. The Romans and Egyptians engaged in some tremendous feats of practical (and not so practical) engineering, but they also left their intellectual descendants with encumbering, pre-scientific baggage such as Galenic medicine. It wasn't until the Enlightenment started rejecting received wisdom, supernatural explanations, and religious dogma (which were often one in the same) that we really started to make progress in terms of the development of modern science.

The human brain is a truly amazing piece of machinery, but in some ways it's ill-suited for science. It's vulnerable to epistemic entrenchment, has all sorts of cognitive biases, and is susceptible to an endless list of logical fallacies. Recognizing and compensating for these shortcomings requires, in the very least, the cultivation of a consistently skeptical mindset. In that regard scientific thinking is a learned, rather than innate, behavior.

So Dr. Orzel's analogies are fine as far as they go, but they don't address one of the major requirements of scientific thinking i.e. the willingness to change your opinion in the face of new information. Finding a better bearnaise recipe doesn't mean that you have to reevaluate your relationship to the universe; discovering that humans are hairy apes of no special merit on a ball of rock hurtling through empty space, on the other hand, may require you to do so. Scientific thinking requires that you accept the latter, however unpleasant it may be, because of the weight of evidence. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I say that scientific thinking is unnatural, because the bulk of humanity simply refuses to do so.

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