On science, and why we should respect it

We’ve all sighed in resignation, spluttered in indignation or rolled our eyes in straight-out derision when someone reveals a belief we find ridiculous, like that chlorophyll supplements are re-energising or that wifi causes cancer. Our dismissal of their crazy notions feels righteous, because, after all, we have science on our side – only fools argue with facts. Science is the one institution that should be wholly trustworthy, based as it is on evidence, on only believing in results we can see and recreate.

How is, it, then, that even in the educated echelons of society, we’re still in constant disputes of how much we can trust science, or which science to trust?

It’s true that science is all about being willing to rewrite the accepted rules if any contrary evidence is found to disprove them, and that there’s been more than one occasion where science hadn’t advanced enough to recognise the dangers in something it touted as perfectly safe, like that time when we thought putting radium in chocolate and makeup was a wonderful idea.

But the idea of people outside the scientific community refusing to believe the testimony of experts is not only ridiculous, but dangerous. Yes, challenging ideas and questioning assumptions is important. Yes, further research may change currently accepted facts. That does not excuse the cherry-picking of what scientific truths you may or may not believe in, a phenomenon becoming all too common in a socio-political culture insistent on allowing everyone their ‘voice’, regardless of qualifications.

Of course, people are generally not consciously trying to promote ‘alternative facts’. Sometimes their misbeliefs are rooted in partially-understood concepts where context or disclaimers have been conveniently forgotten, or their information comes from a source with enough graphs and statistics paired with information written in professional-sounding terms to appear trustworthy, despite not necessarily following appropriate scientific method.

While this isn’t too much of an issue if it’s your neighbour warning you that drinking tea will make you anaemic (it won’t, not by itself) or a single housewife not buying GM food for her family, it can have much wider consequences and become a grave issue. On an individual level, extreme diets founded on inaccurate information, like the Paleo lifestyle, can be personally dangerous, not to mention expensive. GM food is vilified worldwide, potentially undermining the vital role it could play in managing famine and unpredictable harvests. Climate change obviously affects the future of literally every living being, and suffers hugely, just like Tinkerbell, from people not believing in it.

Problems like global warming urgently need to be addressed, and for that they to be acknowledged and funded. When significant proportions of the population, or even just individuals significant in decision-making, do not trust the science and facts laid out before them, these problems do not receive the attention and support necessary for them to be resolved.

Most of us have constant access, grace of the internet, to almost all the knowledge of the human race. Our actions, small though they may seem, can affect our health, the lives of the others, and even the fate of the planet. We need, perhaps now more than ever before, to be encouraging trust in experts and in science. We need to be criticising those who propagate information from unreliable sources or incomplete facts, even if it regards a relatively minor topic, because we cannot allow the belief of inaccurate ideas to become normal. Every time we ignore a qualified scientist so as to interpret information in a way more pleasing to our personal ideologies, we are making it that much easier for dangerous misinformation to become widely believed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Criticism

Criticism is painful, especially if it comes from someone you admire, but it’s still necessary and vital for all our interactions with the each other and the world around us.

We already talk of the need for feedback in the creative process, and have accepted its importance. We do not assume that the wonderful works of art we have are perfect from the moment of their conception. We know that humans are not, as a rule, perfect, that we are ruled by emotion, blinded by perspective, and sometimes just plain lazy or apathetic. Whether it’s self-criticism or another’s efforts, evaluation of our work is a purifying process, making the bad things good and the good things better, maybe even the best.

So, then, if careful and clear analysis of our creative work is so very necessary, why shouldn’t the same apply to every facet of our lives?

One of the most common traps we find in life is the things we love, whether they are people or concepts. Our role models are role models for a reason: we admire and respect them and we want to be like them. We cling to our chosen ideologies because we support them, we agree with them and we want to follow them. And that’s fine – that’s part of being human, and needing to relate to things and have something to pursue in life. But when we’re so caught up in what we believe and read and hear, it gets harder to remember that our role models are not perfect, as much as we might believe and want them to be. Our ideologies may be theoretically unshakeable but life has always made practicalities less clear-cut.

Overzealous fans are the perfect example of a lack of criticism. Any time a celebrity screws up, a certain number of their fans will flock unhesitatingly to their defense, decrying any opposing voices and asserting the virtues of their idol even if it means insulting others and supporting things which they mightn’t otherwise agree with. This behaviour – this brief abandonment of rationality and personal convictions – is precisely why we need to consciously criticise our lives and actions. Criticism is the very process by which we develop our own principles and morals, by examining those of others, those of the people we love, and comparing them with our own experiences, knowledge and emotions.

The same idea holds true for concepts – it’s great to say you support a cause, to enthusiastically align yourself with some new notion that appeals to your sensibilities. But unless you maintain a certain distance from it, you run the risk yet again of becoming a blind follower, an unquestioning devotee to an idea which might be imperfect. The vast majority of things in the world are, so it’s only logical to assume that whatever it is you’re currently enamoured with is in some way problematic.

That’s why we have to be able to criticise everything we encounter – to recognise the flaws and try and work past them. And I do mean everything, from your friends, to your favourite books, to your own fleeting thoughts. Why does your friend think they can say that? Was that chapter necessary to the story? Was that really a rational reaction?

Criticism doesn’t mean forever playing Devil’s advocate, or tossing away anything with some tiny imperfection. It’s merely an acknowledgement of the flaws, a conscious acceptance that allows us to judge with greater impartiality, though as humans we will always be biased, and to continue towards improvement. There are too many philosophies and interpretations of life and scraps of advice and inspiration to count, and many have merit, many are fantastic and hugely significant to various people, but it is unlikely any are utterly perfect. Criticism becomes the tool that lets us take the best bits of all the concepts and credos and manifestos that appeal to us without being dragged down by the issues, the unwanted parts.

Life may be about exploring new things but a good explorer knows not to plunge into a murky, unknown swamp just because the leader of the party did. It’s downright foolish. It has always been dangerous to believe blindly and shut your mind to other ideas, to any opposing beliefs, but never has it been so easy to cherry-pick your media and blinker yourself to the vastly diverse realities of life as it is now with the ubiquity of the internet and its hundred thousand realities. The artificial nature of internet-based groups filled only with people sharing almost identical beliefs is a poor reflection of real life, which, unfortunately, is what we need to be dealing with. If the world really did function according to our personal principles and beliefs, we wouldn’t be having to deal with all the various issues that do exist.

But sadly, these issues are real. The world isn’t made for us, we just try and fit in around it, and things go wrong all the time. At least when we learn to criticise our own part in it, we understand it a little better.