It's Not Anti-Science to Worry About Evidence

One of the frustrations that comes with a new and interesting idea is the large number of people who will tell you that you're actually saying something old and familiar. Most of us heartily dislike changing our minds about anything important, and we're all pretty busy. So a lot of your audience is aching for a reason to put your new wine in some old bottle on the shelf. This week's case in point: Reaction to Jonah Lehrer's recent article on scientific evidence.

Here's what I think that piece is about, and why it's important: Evidence is supposed to be bedrock of science (and of course, since ours is a science-centered society, it's also supposed to be basis for policies and business decisions). We're supposed to debate theories and interpretations, but not the facts themselves. (Fossil dinosaur footprints, for example, exist whether you regard them as proof of the Earth's great age or as a sign that Noah's Ark was really really big.) Look through my telescope, you see a round fuzzy thing in the darkness. Maybe you don't buy my explanation that you're looking at Saturn, but you accept that you see something.

So the typical research paper separates its authors' ideas and theories from the different section where it describes what, exactly, they did to obtain the measurements they are presenting. Those procedures are the telescope. They're supposed to guarantee that something is "really there", causing the results the authors are reporting. Even if that "something" isn't what they expected, even if their theory is wrong, the evidence is there.

In the 1990's, a zoologist told me that he'd been able to use Charles Darwin's notebooks on earthworms for a recent project. Biology had changed a lot in a century, so the modern scientist wasn't interested in the purpose of Darwin's experiments or the ideas that drove them. But the data, the raw evidence itself, had been so well-collected that it could be used for a new purpose.

Lehrer's piece described an anxious sense, noticeable in many different branches of science, that today the evidence section of a lot of research papers isn't as reliable as assumed. The reasons could be psychological, mathematical (statistics packages are powerful and sophisticated, and the sheer amount of data now is huge), and cultural. The question is open. Gracefully, he avoids claiming to know more than he does.

None of this is a claim that about any theories, one way or the other. It's not about whether I'm right when I describe what I think you see in my telescope. It's about whether the telescope is working as well as it should.

So, here is what the piece is not: It's not a claim that there's no such thing as evidence. It's not a claim that we should all believe whatever the hell we want. It doesn't privilege ignorance over science. It does what we science journalists should be doing for our readers: Tell them how research is actually done, so that they can better judge for themselves what "science says." It is a lucid explanation of a real phenomenon, whose point, I think, is that scientists have taken notice because they want science to do better.

That didn't work for some readers this week. Instead, they stretched and twisted the piece until it fit into a familiar old quarrel: Do we have to listen to what scientists say, or can we believe anything we want? Lehrer quoted a few here. Another example: My friend John Horgan, who reacted like a secular version of Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments: "Lehrer's broad-brush critique will no doubt also cheer global-warming deniers, creationists, postmodernists and other pesky challengers of scientific orthodoxy," he wrote, later adding, "the evidence is rock-solid for quantum mechanics, general relativity, the germ theory of infectious disease, the genetic code and many other building blocks of scientific knowledge, which have yielded applications that have transformed our world. There's nothing truthy about a hydrogen bomb."

Now, Horgan's Martha-Stewart-of-science style (this is a Bad Thing, that is a Good Thing) requires that his thumb go either up or down on his subject. To make that work I think he decided that Lehrer's piece was about theories and that he needed to defend them from its heresies.

But it's actually a piece about evidence, which means it gives comfort to no theory over any other: The epistemological jitters it describes will afflict creationists and climate denialists as well as psychologists, evolutionary psychologists and fMRI scanners. Except, I guess, the ones who don't care about evidence at all. But they, by definition, aren't listening. People who do care about science, on the other hand, need have no fear. Lehrer's article is no threat to their "scientific orthodoxy."

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.