If you cherry-pick scientific truths to serve cultural, economic, religious or political objectives, you undermine the foundations of an informed democracy.
Objective truths exist outside of your perception of reality, such as the value of pi; E = mc²; Earth’s rate of rotation; and that carbon dioxide and methane are greenhouse gases. These statements can be verified by anybody, at any time, and at any place. And they are true, whether or not you believe in them.
Meanwhile, personal truths are what you may hold dear, but have no real way of convincing others who disagree, except by heated argument, coercion or by force. These are the foundations of most people’s opinions.
The quest for knowledge must begin with humility: that is, with a keen awareness of our limitations. None of us possess a God’s-eye view of the world. None of us can be “objective” in any meaningful sense of the word. Everything we know is known from a particular point of view. That’s true even of the most successful method for aggregating knowledge—modern science. After all, a scientific hypothesis is a point of view.
So we are immediately confronted with a problem of selection. There are an infinite number of facts present in the world, and they can be described from an infinite number of perspectives. Which facts are important enough to merit our attention, and under which aspect?
So the “believe the science” chorus gives the credentialed mavericks no notice unless it’s to defame them. Apparently, under the believers’ model of science, truth comes down from a secular Mount Sinai (Mount Science?) thanks to a set of anointed scientists, and those declarations are not to be questioned. The dissenters can be ignored because they are outside the elect. How did the elect achieve its exalted station? Often, but not always, it was through the political process: for example, appointment to a government agency or the awarding of prestigious grants. It may be that a scientist simply has won the adoration of the progressive intelligentsia because his or her views align easily with a particular policy agenda.
These statements reflect a real problem of vaccine advocacy. Proponents of the vaccine are unwilling or unable to understand the thinking of vaccine skeptics — or even admit that skeptics may be thinking at all. Their attempts to answer skepticism or understand it end up poisoned by condescension, and end up reinforcing it.
This podcast explores the potential cognitive and developmental issues that air pollution can have. The best part of this episode though gets into the very clever methods the researchers employ to find natural “experiments”.
Before listening to selections from this episode it might be interesting to ask students to design a hypothetical experiment to evaluate whether the hypothesis explored in this episode is true and then listen to some of the actual methods employed to then examine why those choices were made.
Of particular interest was a research study discussed around the 26 minute mark in which a government policy in China provided an excellent “natural experiment” to help think about the impact of air pollution. Part of evaluating this topic could also be a discuss of ethics in experimentation when kids ultimately decide that a good experiment would be to pollute the environment of one group and not another to see what happens.
Air pollution is estimated to cause 7 million deaths a year and cost the global economy nearly $3 trillion. But is the true cost even higher? Stephen Dubner explores the links between pollution and cognitive function, and enlists two fellow Freakonomics Radio Network hosts in a homegrown experiment.
This is a rich topic that raises lots of questions worth discussing in the knowledge and knower unit. I’m posting a few of the stories here but will put together lessons around this topic next school year.
But the goal of journalism shouldn’t be to craft the most culturally sensitive or partisan narrative. The goal of journalism is to seek the truth. The consequences of telling the truth should be secondary to getting the truth out there in the first place, even if it makes the Trump administration or Republican Senators look good or the Chinese government look bad.
Good journalism, like good science, should follow evidence, not narratives. It should pay as much heed to intelligent gadflies as it does to eminent authorities. And it should never treat honest disagreement as moral heresy.
The Media’s Lab Leak Debacle Shows Why Banning ‘Misinformation’ Is a Terrible Idea: How a debate about COVID-19’s origins exposed a dangerous hubris
But Facebook’s concession that the lab leak story it once viewed as demonstrably false is actually possibly true should put to rest the idea that banning or regulating misinformation should be a chief public policy goal.
It’s one thing to discuss, debate, and correct wrong ideas, and both tech companies and media have roles to play in fostering healthy public dialogue. But Team Blue’s recent obsession with rendering unsayable anything that clashes with its preferred narrative is the height of hubris. The conversation should not be closed by the government and its yes-men in journalism, in tech, or even in public health.
Short passage from a larger documentary, “Return to Eden,” which is worth watching in its entirety. Starts at: 1:32:04.
From the description:
When Natural and human interests impinge on each other and over-regulation disturbs our biological balance. important questions arise. Do we belong to nature or does nature belongs to us? A thought-provoking story in which documentary maker Marijn Poels explores the human urge to control our climate, security and preferably the other. Balancing on a razor-thin line between regulation and manipulation. When technology reigns supreme and common sense vaporizes through the test of time, humanity is on the brink of becoming the tool. Miles away from the collective panic, fear and chaos, there is hope, inspiration and reconnection.
Philosopher Karl Popper famously asked how to tell the two apart. His answer—falsifiability—hasn’t aged well, but the effort lives on.
Jettisoning falsifiability won’t solve our initial problem, however: demarcation is simply inevitable. Scientists have finite time and therefore must select which topics are worth working on and which are not: this implies some kind of demarcation. Indeed, there seems to be a broad consensus about which doctrines count as fringe, although debate remains about gray areas.
Attached are some passages from the book, Cribsheet by Emily Oster, an economist who wrote a data-driven guide to parenting. I put together some interesting passages from the introduction and from one of the chapters that does a nice job contextualizing the concepts of data driven decision making, what a good study is, the limits of those studies, and the ultimate uncertainty of all the knowledge produced using data.
Meaningful connections to constructing knowledge and data collection in the human sciences (particularly economics), natural sciences, and cognitive biases. Also deals well with problems of sorting out the differences between correlation and causation.
Generally great book for parenting, not just for its TOK connections.
How can you identify a good study? This is a hard question. Some things you can see directly. Certain approaches are better than others – randomized trials, for example, are usually more compelling than other designs. Large studies tend, on average, to be better. More studies confirming the same thing tends to increase confidence, although not always – sometimes they all have the same biases in their results
For a century, critics of all political stripes have challenged the role of science in society. Repairing distrust today requires confronting those arguments head on.
Arguments over science underlie some of our most divisive and consequential policy debates. From climate change to fracking, abortion to genetically modified foods—and much else besides—contemporary political battles generate disputes over the legitimacy of scientific theories, methodologies, institutions, concepts, and even facts. In this context, scholars, citizens, and policymakers must think carefully about science and its cultural and political ramifications. The prevailing views on these matters will significantly determine our future—and perhaps even our survival as a species. And to understand why science is so widely distrusted in the United States, it is essential to understand how that attitude has arisen.