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How Do I Know?

- Thursday, April 30, 2015

The scientific method, for those who understand this paradigm, has been a fundamental force in how we know what we know, and how we continue to further our understanding of the universe. There is a strong and pervasive, faith-based opposition to this paradigm in The United States. Despite this, thanks to modern information technology, scientific understanding continues to grow.

In The United States, we have a reputation for being science-ignorant. However, as the proliferation of scientific information and publicly available research continues, as well as through the increasing influence of the skepticism and rational thought cultural movement, the line between anti-science and pro-science is shifting us closer to the entrance of Plato’s cave. If you look at the Pew findings on evolution broken down by demographic, you see that acceptance of evolution increases significantly the younger the demographic. At 65 and older, 49% accept evolution, ages 50-64 is 59%, ages 30-49 is 60%, and ages 18-29 is 68%[1]. That is a percentage jump of nearly one fifth between two generations.

photo by Scott Frank   Darwin’s theory of evolution, a refining of a long-standing concept, hit deep into the heart of the ego of the divine man and woman. I speculate that many who were initially repulsed by the notion of humans having evolved from primate ancestors were heavily influenced by the notion they were raised on that man was higher than the so-called beasts of the field. I still hear this reaction echoed in evolution deniers today. Others, I presume, simply resist anything that could refute their holy scriptures. This is why, as Asimov said, Darwin worked, “fourteen years gathering evidence for a theory he himself must have been convinced was correct from the beginning.”[2] Thankfully, the number given by Pew for adults who deny evolution is a minority 33%. It can be safely predicted that this figure will continue to shrink, when we look again at the age demographic breakdown. Still, the number is large enough to be statistically significant, and therefore how Darwin’s work and the scientific method presently shape America is split. To some of us, it is a cornerstone work which fundamentally underlines our view of ourselves and our origins. To the others, it is anathema.

Charles Darwin   Just as Darwin’s On The Origin of Species and Newton’s Opticks lit the fuses of monumental paradigm shifts in the science world, so now has the skeptic community, with the help of the internet, begun a cultural shift into the science world. Kuhn said, “Acquisition of a paradigm and of the more esoteric type of research it permits is a sign of maturity in the development of any given scientific field,”[3] and it is true as well in cultural movements as firmer grasps of scientific concepts become more and more accessible to the layman.

My own objectivity was something I learned, not a trait I was born with. I was not raised too religiously, but in my teens I was very attracted to it. I grew superstitious, biased, ideologically convicted, and fantasy-oriented escapist. In my mid-twenties, I began questioning everything I had adapted into my world view in my teens. I discovered Aristotle, Plato, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and the “New Atheist” movement. This fundamentally changed how I sought out and assessed information. As I entered my thirties, I began reading about neurology and how the brain processes sensory information and creates the simulation we experience as reality. This birthed in me a new hunger.

photo by Scott Frank   The more I learn, the more fascinated I become. I have trained myself to avoid cognitive dissonance and evidence denialism. I regularly debate to keep my ideas in check, fresh, and defensible. The last monument to fall in my knowledge base was the organic-Genetically modified organism (GMO) topic. I used to be a very vocal proponent of organic produce, as well as the obligatory opponent of GMO, despite evidence to the contrary of my ideology. When challenged on this topic, I spent hours revisiting the research, the peer reviews to the research, and meta-analyses. I had no base for that belief and I had to accept it. A very well-known science advocate, Bill Nye, recently underwent that very same transition of idea, prompted by a debate on an open interview (an “Ask Me Anything,” or AMA, session) on the web community Reddit[4]. It is intellectually painful to tear down a long held belief, but if the belief is proven to be wrong, one would be doing oneself a disservice to maintain it.

It is crucial to not let the concrete of ideas dry. It must remain wet and able to be reshaped. It needs creativity. It needs to have, as Asimov wrote, “and attitude that creativity is a permissible activity”[2]; but more than permissible, it must sit just shy of compulsory! Once the concrete dries, the mind lies still and unyielding, and nothing shy of a jackhammer will break it. We all know that is not fun.

1. Pew. “Public’s Views on Human Evolution.” Pew Research Center. 30 Dec. 2013. Web. 1 Mar. 2015. <http://www.pewforum.org/2013/12/30/publics-views-on-human-evolution/>.

2. Asimov, Isaac. “Those Crazy Ideas.” Inquiry: Questioning, Reading, Writing, Second Edition. Ed. Lynn Z. Bloom, Edward M. White, with Shane Borrowman. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004. 142-51. Print.

3. Kuhn, Thomas S. “How Can We Explain What We Know?” Inquiry: Questioning, Reading, Writing, Second Edition. Ed. Lynn Z. Bloom, Edward M. White, with Shane Borrowman.  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004. 35-47. Print.

4. Kloor, Keith. “Bill Nye Had a Fixed View on GMOs. Then Something Happened.” CollideaScape. Discovery, 1 Mar. 2015. Web. 1 Mar. 2015. <http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/collideascape/2015/03/02/bill-nye-fixed-view-gmos-something-happened/>.

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