Buddy, Can Youse Paradigm? Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2013-04-17 14:00:00 No comments

The Fascism of Knowing Stuff | Robinince's Blog

There is a gaggle that seems to consider that expertise is an unfair advantage, that all opinions are equal; an idea that people who are experts in climate change, drugs or engineering are given unfair preference just because they spend much of their life studying these things. I do not think it is fascism that heart surgeons seem to have the monopoly of placing hands in a chest cavity and fiddling with an aorta. ... The price of technology, comfort and hopefully greater understanding of the universe and our place in it is an acceptance that we may not know best in all events and common sense, a hammer and a bag of leeches may not get you through it all.

I've seen (non-)thinking of a similar caliber manifest in other circles -- viz., the anti-vaccine movement, which varies from Don't Tell Me How To Practice Science to I Know What I Know And That's That in the spectrum of its arrogance. None of those things are unique to it, either, which makes it all the more depressing to see them manifest in yet another part of our lives.

There has been a lot of work done lately, fascinating stuff all around, about how it is that we know things, both collectively and individually. In the abstract, "how we know stuff" is the bedrock foundation of all science -- a methodology for finding out what's what, and discarding everything that simply isn't so. It's an incremental process, which means we are never in possession of the whole truth at any one time. That can be frustrating to people who are, in their gut, not comfortable with not knowing and demand that their world not simply make sense but have certainty. You can guarantee a degree of consistency, but not the same degrees of certainty, and that drives some people bonkers.

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One of the nasty side effects of such frustration is a disenchantment with science -- and, more specifically, with its human face: the experts, researchers, scientists, and evangelists that speak for such work. If I am dying of an incurable disease, and I hear some expert (who appointed him God, anyway?) bloviating about how such things will be curable in a decade, of course I'm going to feel upset, because it doesn't help me. I'm clearly going to be dead meat long before anything like a cure becomes feasible. This is not the only way such resentment can boil up, but it's one example, and it's rooted in a common human delusion: the idea that something which shows no benefit to us personally, or no immediate benefit -- no benefit that can be demonstrated in the span of a few minutes' time -- is pure fantasy, or worthless, or both.

I suspect the reason some people stubbornly resist the idea of anthropogenic climate change is because they have, as per the quote above, a good deal of emotion invested in the idea that expertise isn't all that it's cracked up to be. If they ditch that, they're left with the very real possibility that those guys are all right and we are all headed for, at the very least, major suffering on a global scale that cannot be ameliorated on anything but a geological timescale, if at all. So why not ignore such things? Nobody likes being told they're doomed.

But maturity of any sort requires gracefully accepting limits. You do not know everything. You cannot know everything. You do not understand the scope and scale on which things work, because your senses and intellect have evolved to help you survive in only the most limited, provincial, and immediate of ways. You are one person among billions, on a single planet in the middle of a universe which manifests at the very best utter indifference to life and at the worst an active hostility to it.

Oh, and you're going to die, too. And odds are you'll never see it coming.

Small wonder most people deal with such things by getting angry and pretending they really do know everything. At least they can convince themselves of that. And all of this can be true without it being a dismal truth; a big part of why we practice science is to make those truths a little less dismal whenever possible.

Sure, science can be practiced as a provincial little thing where we use our smarts to lord it over the people around us. But anyone who can't see that as bad behavior on the part of an individual, and not a shortcoming of science as a discipline, is being juvenile.

I suspect we wouldn't reward such behavior if there wasn't also such an eager and ready market for it.

Tags: dharma science