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.


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