criticism · science · stuff

How about a little patience?

I, like a lot of people, have been following Brian Cox’s show Wonders of the Universe. And I, like a lot of people, have really enjoyed it. The enthusiasm he has for his subject is infectious and his ability to reduce complex principles into language that the layperson can understand is invaluable. There is, however, one small thing about him that has annoyed me and it can be summed up using a word that he has taken to using an awful lot in his tweets. Nobber.

I love science. In the pursuit of truth, knowledge and understanding the empirical scientific method is, in all cases where it can be applied, the best tool we have. And this is the thing about science I love the most. For all the technological advancements, the years it has added to my life expectancy, the things it reveals about the gigantic universe or the unfathomably tiny atoms that make us up, the thing that excites me the most is the simplest principles by which it operates. That hypotheses must be demonstrated in experiment, and that all knowledge remains subject to scrutiny and criticism so that if ever our understanding is shown to be wrong we can adjust.

This is, by my mind, one of the most incredible aspects of science. It insists upon humility. Truth is, as a history of philosophy has shown, a slippery beast. This implicit acknowledgment of our own fallibility allows us to slowly climb away from ignorance and toward knowledge. We need a tool like the scientific method because our own intuitions are so often flawed. It is the reason why we once thought the sun moved around us. It is the reason Nostradamus’s prophecies might seem accurate. And sure, a lot of seemingly irrational behavior continues today. It is the reason that we all think we are of above average intelligence. People spend a fortune on alternative medicines with no evidence that they work. People get concerned about the effects of the moon coming a little closer to us than normal. People worry about Mayan prophecies. To think rationally and logically often involves overcoming our own inherent irrationality.

I wouldn’t say our minds are flawed, but perhaps they are not calibrated for the world we live in. My favourite example of this is in this video. So while I am happy to have not only the scientific method, but also a world of scientists figuring out all the really hard stuff for me so that my understanding of the world can be expanded, it is not so hard to understand why people can cling onto beliefs and ideas that seem utterly stupid. Where we see those ideas and beliefs I think there is value in challenging them, in pointing out the evidence to the contrary. There is also a huge amount of value in doing so in a respectful way. Aggressively attacking peoples beliefs doesn’t tend to be a good way of getting them to see the error of their views. The word ‘nobber’, as Brian Cox has taken to using to describe people with such irrational beliefs, is not a great opening gambit. Sure, a lot of the ideas these people are expressing are pretty outlandish. The world ending in 2012, the supermoon causing disasters, homeopathy, all of these are scientifically disprovable. But when you open by calling someone a nobber they won’t be too receptive to the evidence.

I do also know that the people who hold these views can be fairly aggressive and dismissive themselves. My call for respectful language in all argument goes both ways.

I’m not saying, by the way, that it is Brian Cox’s responsibility to sit down all the irrational thinkers he encounters and slowly and patiently talk them through the scientific evidence. I’m also fairly sure that the people who follow Brian on twitter already agree with him, so his ‘nobber’ tweets probably don’t have a lot of reach outside his own group of fans. But science can be hard to understand, and the scientific method can, at times, provide conclusions that seem totally counter-intuitive. And that doesn’t even take into account the more frustrating cases of people just deciding to believe what they want to believe.

So, by way of a conclusion; the world isn’t going to end in 2012, the supermoon didn’t cause any disasters and homeopathy is no more effective than placebo. I am free to point all that out to anyone who disagrees but there is absolutely no value whatsoever in insulting them.

Interestingly enough it was Brian Cox that demonstrated some of these ideas extremely succinctly in his televised lecture over Christmas wherein he pointed out the in-built impartiality of the scientific method in a way that was calmly delivered and inclusive. So if it sounds like I don’t like Brian, that’s not the case at all. I just wish he’d stop calling people nobbers. Even if it did make me laugh the first time I read it.

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