Real scientists as it turns out, are not so much worried about the proliferation of pseudoscience as they are about the filtering of information and ideas; coupled with the totalitarian declaration of what is considered acceptable science and endeavors of study.
Real scientists are not as concerned about the pesky paranormal peddler as they are the pejorative piont-finger pretender.
Each year the online magazine Edge asks a question, central to the overall public conscience. This year Edge has published a summary of the chief concerns expressed by scientists and leading thinkers who influence the cultural zeitgeist in and around science’s social discourse (http://edge.org/annual-question/q2013). A seminal survey queried 151 of the top minds inside and outside of science in order to determine which issues most concern them about the future (The 150 Things the World’s Smartest People Are Afraid Of – Brian Merchant). While I read through these excellent quotes, a dawning realization hit me. The actual scientists in the group, differed dramatically in their concerns about humanity’s future, from the group of those who opine and make commentary about science, but are not scientists themselves. In other words, bio-genetic researchers, physicists, mathematicians, and neuroscientists disagreed with editors, authors, pundits, psychologists and social commentators as to what constituted the principal threats to humanity and our world in the coming age.
“I am worried about who gets to be players in the science game—and who is left out.” –Stephon H. Alexander, physicist cited.
“The illusion of knowledge and understanding” was the challenge cited by Tania Lombrozo, assistant professor of psychology.
“There are known knowns and known unknowns, but what we should be worried about most is the unknown unknowns” declared Gary Marcus, cognitive scientist.
Outstanding. The Penultimate Set Fallacy, and the authorized subject game. This is what concerns scientists. It is not ghost hunters, supplements, people who are wary of GMO foods or worshipers of Ganesha.
I found this simultaneously exhilarating, astounding and confirming all at once. Having employed hundreds of scientists and engineers through the years at various research labs and firms, I have understood this dichotomy for a long while. Scientists are not so dogmatic and ready to jump on the social epistemologist or SSkeptic bandwagon as Michael Shermer or Steven Novella would have you believe. They do tend to keep quiet (see Ignosticism: Ontological Silence) about their thoughts no doubt. However, part of what makes them truly brilliant is that they are for the most part, smart enough to know that we do not know what we do not know. In fact, not knowing, what we do not know, showed up as one of the chief concerns on the part of real scientists (below). Not knowing what we do not know, did not even merit one bark in the kennel of correctness, Social Skepticism. Yet, that ethic is the cornerstone of professional skepticism. I found that very illuminating.
The 2013 Edge Question (and response tally)
“Tell us something that worries you (for scientific reasons), but doesn’t seem to be on the popular radar yet—and why it should be.”
What Concerns Real Scientists (Top 5 Ranking)
- Screening of Information/Control of What is Regarded as Acceptable Science
- Loss of the Individual/Rights
- Loss of Funding/Research
- Virus/Pathogen/Genetic Engineering Threats
- Unknown Unknowns
What Concerns Pretend Scientists (Top 5 Ranking)
- Pseudoscience/Religion Promotion
- Conspiracy Theory/Anti-Big Institution Activism
- Disillusionment/Social Waning
- Stagnation (Social or Technical)
- Social Collapse/Political Ineptness
Number of Real Scientists who agreed with the Pretend Scientists (Top 5)
- Pseudoscience/Religion Promotion 0
- Conspiracy Theory/Anti-Big Institution Activism 0
- Disillusionment/Social Waning 0
- Stagnation (Social or Technical) 1
- Social Collapse/Political Ineptness 2
So 3, out of 151, or 2% of real scientists agree that the pretend pundits have our challenge priorities figured out. What a difference huh? :) SSkeptics concern themselves not so much with what is being said, as much as who is saying it, the politics involved, the social ramifications and the powers that it will threaten. They protect this biased social position with the aura of representative authority of science; a lofty claim to a seat not supported by the scientists themselves. If one reads the SSkeptic materials being foisted and market pushed around the internet, you will find several contentions implied or stated therein, between the one liners, disdain, promotion of personal intellect and brilliant rationale as to why the scientific method is not necessary:
- SSkeptics represent the opinion of science
- Specific subjects are rightly forbidden access to science, no science is needed to conclude this
- All scientists share the opinion of SSkeptics, except for the soon to be ostracized few
Remember, in the Cultivation of Ignorance, the role of the SSkeptic is to pre-filter the observations and ideas which enter the realm of acceptable science. The three claims above are not only unsubstantiated, but are patently false. Scientists, real skeptics, use skeptical thinking as a tool, but this in no way means that pathological SSkeptics represent science. This is like a drunk carpenter boastingly equivocating in a bar that he ‘builds houses;’ when indeed he is simply a part of the machinery which does construction. Nothing could be further from the truth. To a hammer, everything is a nail. To a Social Skeptic, everything is a lie, except what he has authorized. This is wrong method; this is wrong ethics; this ends up in bad science.
Now, is it really as bad as I am making it out to be herein thus far? In a word, yes, actually. But let’s set that social malady aside and focus on some of the more surprising aspects of the study. Some of the good things about the pundit group (science commentators), were that they came up with a much greater variety of concerns about the future. Some with such creativity and insight; 27 total categories of major concern overall, compared to 15 on the part of the scientists. Two pundits cited “men” as the danger, while only 1 cited nuclear war. One scientist cited the ‘need for a fundamental new Physics’ as the greatest worry for the future. Of noteworthy merit was the fact that Michael Shermer did NOT regard pseudoscience as his number one concern about the future. J. Craig Venter, genomic scientist claimed that Nothing worried him, while playwright Richard Foreman said that Everything should worry us.
Finally, Seth Shostak, head of the SETI Institute declared that “Alien Invasion” was his number one concern. Hmmmh…, not sure how to take that one. Ockham’s Razor, and knowing Seth, would dictate that I take that one tongue-in-cheek.
Thanks for the highlighting and summary of the study Brian Merchant and for the outstanding gathering of data by Edge Magazine :)