Oh, all right, just a peek, now and then

When you are born you should be presented with a 70-year-diary, every day already filled in, a bright red ribbon tied around the cover. Then, as you work your way through life, you could constantly check where you were up to and what lay ahead. Or perhaps it would be best to leave it closed, the ribbon left done up.

Questionable

Using the blog to put together a book, gradually. If you want to come along for the ride then start below with the Introduction.

INTRODUCTION

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing” (these days more often referred to as the “Dunning-Kruger Effect”) has been the downfall of the human race since there was one, and perhaps earlier. But there is a second syndrome, just as dangerous, which is “a moderate amount of knowledge is misleading”. Then there is contrarianism. These are people who are quite information rich, though not as rich as they think, but who know there is more money to be made in opposing reality than in recognising it. And finally, one that could perhaps be called the Kruger-Dunning effect, in which scientists greatly underestimate how information rich they are because of concerns about how much there is still to know.

The combination of these syndromes has left the human race largely rejecting and disregarding the findings of the scientific method, the only process by which we can reach the truth. It is as if, scientists having invented vaccination, the only method for resisting disease, people had refused to vaccinate their children. Oh, wait, that actually happens….

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is a self-fulfilling fallacy. Some grain of partly understood information makes sufferers confident that they can dismiss, say, evolutionary theory, the Big Bang, climate change, cancer treatments, continental drift, ancient history, the authorship of Shakespeare, and replace them with crackpot ideas that came to them in a moment of inspiration.

The Contrarians are the useful idiots of the world of big corporations and venal politicians. They all have a Galileo complex (as would the Dunning-Krugers if they had heard of him), or pretend to have one. They have learnt that claiming (with 100% certainty) the Earth to be flat (say) will get you more publicity than being just another round Earth clone, and that publicity will see you become a media darling, appearing on screen to provide “balance” (mustn’t just present a biased view that the Earth is round without presenting both equal sides of what obviously must be a debate), and eventually coming to the attention of people with money who have an interest in nit letting the public accept the Earth’s roundness.

The Kruger-Dunning (remember, this is just a name I invented) effect is the result of a kind of Zeno’s paradox in science. The fundamental bedrock of science, which every scientist has drummed into them in the cradle, is that nothing is 100% certain. Every finding has a probability attached to it, ranging from low, where the result doesn’t differ from random, to high (95%) where the chance is very low (ie 5%) that the result is random, to very high (99%). Sometimes even higher in certain kinds of physics experiments, although not in the real world. In other words, just like a Zeno runner who covers half the distance to the finish line, then half of half, then half of a quarter, half of an eighth, but can never cover the last little fraction (only half of it) to complete the course, a scientist can approach certainty in increments, but never reach it.

The result of this philosophy is that scientists constantly, when discussing their results and implications, use words like “may”, “possibly”, “likely”, “probably”. When other scientists hear such words they recognise them as referring to levels of statistical probability, when the general public, journalists, politicians, hear them, they hear “uncertainty”. Consequently non-scientists can be easily convinced that, say, smoking may or may not damage your health, climate change may or may not be real.

But the scientific law that nothing is certain is simply wrong. It would be better expressed as levels of certainty increase over time. When Darwin and Wallace proposed a mechanism (natural selection and geographic isolation) for evolution in 1859 their contemporaries could have said little more (apart from “why didn’t I see that”) than that it was possible. As more and more work was done in coming years to establish genetic mechanisms, fossil sequences, descriptions of new species, comparisons of skeletons and so on, it moved to likely and then probably. Now (and for many years) the theory of evolution is 100% certain, and all work in biological sciences uses it as a firm bedrock on which to investigate details. [Incidentally while it is commonly said that a single anomalous fossil find – a rabbit fossil in Cambrian rocks I think is the example usually given – would disprove the theory of evolution, and therefore you can’t say it is 100% certain, this is simply not true.

Evolution is so well established that such a find (or similar anomaly) would stick out like a sore Panda’s thumb. It would not cause a “rewriting of the science books” (to use that journalism cliche) but instead it would cause a thorough re-investigation of the fossil itself (chemical composition etc) and of the stratum in which it was found. The first suspect would be scientific fraud, a Piltdown Rabbit, but next would come some oddity of the geology that had caused fossil transposition, and finally, if the fossil passed all such tests, there would be a re-examination of the currently accepted phylogenetic sequence. In fact no one is going to find a genuine early rabbit, of course, but much lesser “anomalies” do occur from time to time and result in a new understanding of the time of origin of some group or its late survival. But for that to be the case the new arrangement would have to fit logically into existing frameworks of knowledge.

Similarly, the hypothesis that the Earth moved around the Sun, not vice versa, was originally very unlikely, then possible, now certain. Continental Drift went through the same sequence. So has Climate Change. In all areas of science we know far more now than we don’t know (the possible exception being cosmology where there are still many known unknowns – not least Dark Matter and Dark Energy – but even in this discipline the broad outlines of the structure and history of the universe are certainly known). So instead of pandering to and enabling the Dunning-Krugers and the Contrarians by saying that nothing is certain, and that really, in comparison to how much there is to know we know nothing, nothing, speak firmly, confident that you know a great deal more than they do, and smack down idiotic suggestions based on invincible ignorance.

The syndromes described above are all so straightforward as to need no further discussion. But that brings us to those with a moderate amount of knowledge, and the ill effects that causes can only be illustrated by a series of examples, the discussion of which forms the rest of this book.

Vestiges of evolution

Suppose I had found an ape lying dead upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the ape happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the ape might have always been there. … There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, some ancestors of this ape, who became adapted into the form which we find it actually to answer; adapted by natural selection to become different to other apes including ourselves. Clearly such an ape is evidence of evolution.

Don’t confuse me with the facts

Why the attacks on Science? Same reason as always. Homo sapiens is not a species that lives, like other animal species, in a rational way in a real world (one piece of evidence for this being that other animal species haven’t invented religions).

Our belief systems, the set of things we believe, are derived from a grab-bag of sources: Our parents, siblings, other family members; school (teachers and peer group); church; internet memes; traditional media; “common sense”; anecdotes (our own and others); fiction; rumour; bar room chatter; workplace gossip; health status (mental and physical); etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

Our rat’s nest of beliefs might include – the Earth is flat; the Sun travels around the Earth; ghosts are real; CO2 has no effect on climate; homeopathy can cure cancer; humans are not apes; the Bible and Koran are completely true; Elvis is alive and living with Bigfoot; aliens regularly abduct humans (but not, apparently, other apes); “home schooling” isn’t an oxymoron; my country [x] is the greatest country; prayer works; the universe was created; my race is superior to your race; farmers are environmentalists; the bigger the population of city or country the better; coal is good for us; the Earth is only 6000 years old; acupuncture works; Christ was a real person; the continents are fixed in place; capital punishment is a deterrent; light travels in the ether; humans caused the extinction of the megafauna; fire is good for the environment; astrology works; the resources of the planet are limitless; matter is solid; space and time are independent; species were created; guns don’t kill people; etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

When science tells you that those, and thousands of other unfounded beliefs, are not true, then we reject science and keep our beliefs. And not just reject it but curse it for daring to challenge things we know to be true. Not because we heard it from a friend who heard it from a relative, who saw it on the internet, and anyway it is just commonsense; but because we have investigated it ourselves – once saw a ghost, had successful acupuncture, can see the Sun circling the Earth. So there Mr Scientist, my beliefs are just as good as yours, my religion as good as your science religion. Better really.