The Little White Lie of Science



There are many aspects of my job that I rather enjoy, but chief among them are the opportunities I have to educate groups of aspiring scientists. Our director makes a point of interfacing with local universities, giving students opportunities to learn about science on the ground – from actual scientists in a real-world setting.

For the past 5 years, I’ve given a tour and short lecture to the Microbiology class from St. Rose College in Albany. I use the opportunity to give them a real-life perspective on applied microbiology, demonstrating the ways that the techniques they learn every day can be put to use to solve actual problems that affect real people. I also use the time to expound on some of the more general elements of the biological sciences – without being too terribly political or biased. I try, anyhow. I’m only human.

In my most recent tour, I sort of expounded a bit on a topic that has been an interest of mine for a long time – that of the way we sell a science career to the bright and interested.

There is a certain romance, I think, when we talk about scientific work and the possibilities to change the world. No doubt, I wholeheartedly believe that the scientific method is the single most powerful cognitive tool humanity has yet devised, and I will defend that statement to my last. No system has generated so much sheer utility, nor improved the general conditions of so many by any metrics we care to establish. Sanitation? Medicine? You’re welcome for those, because it’s the only reason most of you are actually alive.

We tell people that with the vast powers of science, you can alter the course of history. You can topple nations, changes hearts, annihilate planets, uncover the very fabric of reality itself. That with sufficient examination and dedication, there is nothing beyond the ken of humans. That we can make ourselves like unto the gods that some of us still fear.

We take this romance quite far – nearly to whimsical levels. We venerate the work of great scientists in the same way we venerate stories of the heroes of old – Beowulf and Odysseus and Arthur and every other figure that we’ve built to be “larger than life.” It was Isaac Newton who famously said “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

They’re all about this real.

And this is what begat the little white lie of science.

I talked about the necessity of being wrong, and the way that most people (even scientists) are pretty bad at it. Scientists are probably better, but they’re still far from perfect – and that means everyone else is screwed, basically. And it’s a pretty terrible problem, really. It is empirically demonstrable that the less you actually know, the more you think you know, and are increasingly convinced of being correct.

It gets worse. Dan Kahan, of the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School, has released some really depressing studies (though really really interesting) dealing with public perceptions of scientific issues in the US.

What we find in these and many other studies is the same story: people will accept or reject scientific evidence not on the basis of the evidence itself, but rather on existing cultural norms to which those people adhere. So if your cultural view is that evolution is fake and the Earth is 10,000 years old? Scientific evidence is astonishingly unlikely to convince you. Those who are less scientifically-minded do it more frequently than those who are more scientifically-minded, but the door still swings both ways.

The “little white lie” inherent to science is that empircal evidence collection in the testing of a hypothesis will lead to a well-supported conclusion…that we then accept. We reject our previously-held belief which is obviously wrong, and embrace the new truth.

It’s that last part that sort of underscores the whole thing – that makes it all worth the struggle – and that’s the part that isn’t quite true.

Dammit. I hate being right.

The truth of the matter – and this doesn’t just apply to the sciences – is that it is very nearly impossible to change the strongly-held views of any individual, even with the most rigorous set of facts and reason you can assemble. We simply engage in massive cognitive dissonance and assimilation bias, pick out the information we like, and go with that.

That means you. That means me. That means Professor Hawking. If you don’t believe in climate change, it is literally impossible for me to change your mind. I could throw a stack of research at you, and you will laugh it off because you know for a fact that I am wrong. Likewise, I cannot possibly conceive of evidence that would convince me of the existence of a god. If you showed me some, I’d probably dismiss it, because you can’t possibly be right.

Science will not effect change in the minds of individuals – but that’s not that surprising when we think about the principle of evolution. Evolution does not apply to individual organisms – that’s why the whole “why can’t you evolve a cat into a dog” line you sometimes hear is so laughably wrong – but rather, it applies to populations of those organisms over time. And even then, it’s not talking about radical abandonment of traits  – evolution discusses the frequency with which those traits occur in the population. So, if in 100 years the frequency of the alleles for, say, red hair in humans declines from 17% to 12%? Yup, evolution. Exciting, right?!

This is how the advancement of scientific knowledge actually works. It won’t change your mind, but given enough time and enough people, the population as a whole will shift in a direction that increasingly accepts something which is demonstrated to be factual.

There are no giants in science, nor in the real world. There are no great mythical heroes of power. There are no “amazing breakthroughs that will forever alter everything.” It doesn’t happen. That’s a fiction that we attach to history to make it sexy – giving us all a goal to set. The sad reality is that it’s easier to convince people in the fantastic ability of others to effect sweeping changes than it is to sell them the grey truth of a life of incremental progress.

We venerate scientists like Darwin and Newton and tell everyone about the great strides they made and how indispensable they were. The subtext is simple: “Hey, that could be you some day. Wouldn’t that be awesome?” Truth is, Darwin wasn’t even really Darwin, at least not as amazing as we built him up to be.

Instead of giants, progress is made by stacking regular people on top of each other, and periodically throwing a cloak on top of one of them. The guy whose head sticks up is lauded as a hero, and we call him a giant – ignoring the fact that he is supported by the increments of 10000 people before him.

So there you have it. Don’t go into science because you want to smash the world’s shell, or figure out the thing that’s going to revolutionize particle physics – because it literally doesn’t exist. We make that up to sucker you in and share the misery of our existence.

No, go into science because you give a shit, and  you want to engage in an enterprise that will, eventually, improve the lives of others.

If you’re lucky, maybe someone 50 years down the road will finally look at your life’s work and say, “Hey, there might be something to that.” 200 years later, you might be a dragonslayer or something.

On the Necessity of Being Wrong

Yeah, I’m sure you’re smarter than this guy.

I’ve been wrong before. Sure, not terribly often – but it happens to the best of us. I do my best to face my wrongness, abandon the incorrect belief, and learn from my mistake.

I have noticed, however, that most people seem to fear being wrong. There is a tendency to cling tenaciously – even irrationally – to a belief that is demonstrated to be wrong in some capacity. There have been studies about this phenomenon; humans will go to great lengths to maintain a belief that they identify as essential, to the point of ignoring the cognitive dissonace that evidence may cause and simply making a snap assessment.

Perhaps I have an advantage as a scientist – I’ve been trained to analyze and challenge “knowledge,” and I put that skill to use every single day of my life. Still, although scientists in general may have a better rate of rejecting a belief that is demonstrated to be “wrong,” we still don’t do it perfectly. We are, after all, only human.

In fact, humans by and large tend to make decisions without actually thinking, and then rationalize those decisions later. Yes, even you. Even me. Even Dr. Hawking.

So perhaps this is an instinctive response to our attempts to create social currency; being “right” creates value for us in the eyes of others. If we’re demonstrated to be wrong, that social value must decrease, right? In order for us to maintain our social value – and thus guarantee our continued survival in that social group – we will ignore being “wrong” in favor of fitting in. Maintaining our social homeostasis.

But then we run into this problem – if we go to great lengths to always be “right” by ignoring information that is valid but contradictory, we will eventually go crazy. We’ll ignore reality in favor of our delusion of “rightness.”

Reality? Who needs that? Shit’s boring.

And this is why it’s so goddamn important to be wrong. The lines we usually hear are things like, “Oh, it’s OK to be wrong,” or “There’s nothing to be ashamed of,” or “Just get back on the horse!”

The problem is that all of these statements are rooted in an assumption of negativity – in order to be valid, the statements must start with an assumption that we all perceive being wrong as a bad thing, and then those statements proceed to tell you how that’s wrong. Which we know is bad.

Do you see the issue with that approach?

I say that being wrong isn’t a thing we endure; it’s a thing that is in and of itself good. You should want to be wrong. It’s desirable. You should stand up and proudly declare your wrongness. Shout it from the rooftops. Wear a giant red “W” on your chest.

Why? Because it means that you have a new thing to learn. It means that you can continue your journey of discovery. Exercise your intellectual muscle. Trim the fat of ignorance.

And fundamentally, it means that you’re human. The most likely shared experience we will have is that of being wrong and dealing with the ramifications – remember that we all make snap decisions without full consideration, so the odds are good that we’ll be wrong. The odds are that everyone will be wrong – and we can share our experiences in that regard.

You’ll probably be wrong way the hell more often than you’ll be right. And that’s a good thing, because that’s how we learn.

If you point out how someone else is wrong, you’re actually doing them a favor. They were going to do things with incorrect information! It would have been wasted effort! Now they can learn new things!

Obviously, there are ways to do it tactfully – don’t be a dick about it. But nobody – nobody – should be afraid of being wrong, or of pointing out to someone that they are wrong.

Trust me, it’s not like this most of the time

I’m not saying that you should go out of your way to make mistakes – sometimes, being wrong can have disastrous consequences. A doctor who misdiagnoses a tumor can kill you. A cop who shoots the wrong guy has robbed an innocent person of life unjustly. An intelligence report that contains a mistake can start a multi-year war.

Our brains often turn small instances of being wrong into massive ordeals – even if the actual ramifications of being wrong would be small, we will tend to exaggerate those things to help support our desire to be right.

The vast majority of the time, though, our being wrong is primarily of consequence to us and us alone. If someone forces me to admit to being wrong, it just involves me admitting that I might not know everything that I thought I do.

I don’t do it perfectly. Nobody does. But that’s the mentality we should have when approaching being “right” or “wrong.”

And besides, if you were just right all the time, life would get boring pretty quickly. We wouldn’t need to explore, and so we’d never have a reason to leave the house. We’d become isolated. Withdrawn. Antisocial. And eventually, in a cruel irony, our social value would be reduced to zero.

So get out there and dare to be wrong – you might learn something new.