Why science is less suitable for closed minds

Published: March 11, 2019 1:17:32 AM

The central difference between the scientist and the dummy is the openness to the possibility of being wrong, and that is why science is, indeed, a humbling experience, and is less suitable for closed minds with strong pre-convictions.

Why people who are ignorant on a matter often have the strongest opinion on the same?

By Subrato Banerjee & Nandini Sharma

We all fall somewhere on the spectrum between two extremes—‘scientists’ and ‘dummies’. The scientist is someone who progressively reasons his/her own way to his/her realities, testing the survival ability of each idea that emerges in the journey of learning. To the scientist, thus, the process of learning/unlearning is a matter of an enjoyable continuum, where each emerging idea, no matter how fleeting or inconsequential, is celebrated.

A scientist, therefore, like a child, delights in the very act of exploring and discovering. When a baby begins to crawl, its brain is still trying to make sense of the space around him. This study of space already makes it a geographer. When the child gains experience, and analyses its own past events (when I wasn’t careful, I fell!), it becomes a historian.

The dummy is someone who has outgrown this process of understanding through enquiry and questioning, because it can be painful (I fell, it hurt … I understood gravity!). He prefers the light to come to him in a flash, thereby skipping the continuum, and making way for the love for the binary. This explains my choice for the word ‘dummy’, which is often used (without any negative or positive connotation) in the disciplines of mathematical sciences (including in the areas of probability statistics, and econometrics) to formally mean something that is meant to assume exactly (and strictly) two possibilities (such as day-night, male-female, yes-no, before-after, etc).

To the dummy, the scientist appears to be mentally juggling his reasons, perpetually caught in a state of abulia, and is therefore disliked when quick action is of the essence (which, to be fair, has a Darwinian advantage). To a scientist, a dummy may appear to be suffering from the Dunning-Kruger syndrome, where the latter vehemently holds on to his/her opinion, believing to be true (if not the best) and stonewalling any criticism.

When the dummy wants to know when exactly an embryo becomes human, the scientist has no answer. A scientist remains comfortable in dealing with continuum and doesn’t feel the need to have a strong opinion on even those matters that personally interest him. At every stage of learning, he relishes his ability to question his own existing beliefs, only to arrive at progressively better answers through higher and higher forms of reasoning. This openness to the possibility of being wrong, in turn, weakens the strength of his opinion. On any matter, therefore, it is the scientist who has a weaker opinion precisely because he iteratively questions, thinks and reasons hard, in comparison with the dummy. Ironically, therefore, the one with the stronger opinion is also the one who has thought less on the matter. This may explain one of Richard Dawkins’ famous lemmas which states that “the fury with which untenable beliefs are defended is inversely proportional to their defensibility.” The very process of reasoning prevents the scientist from forming strong opinion.

Dummies of our society have burned innocent women believing (with certainty) that they were witches; fervently held on to the belief that earth is flat, and even blown themselves up to defend and honour their beliefs. History is replete with such examples, where “decisive” leaders have unleashed havoc on the innocent because they were too darned confident of their beliefs. One can’t help but wish that they had stepped back to question their own actions like the scientists (I have been wrong before, I could be wrong again!) before acting blindly. Stephen Hawking, who died exactly a year ago, would share such a wish. To quote Bertrand Russell: “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”

The central difference between the scientist and the dummy is, therefore, the openness to the possibility of being wrong, and that is why science is, indeed, a humbling experience, and is less suitable for closed minds with strong pre-convictions. Our innate Darwinian tendencies will lead us to make this world an unpleasant place (for example, by questioning the idea that those severely disabled should be eliminated from the game of survival), but our scientific intelligence is capable enough of overriding such tendencies. We want to point that light (knowledge) is pointless without vision (i.e. the ability to process it). More importantly, vision can still help one get around in the absence of light (some species of bats and snakes being literal examples of this), but light without vision could be dangerous. Therefore, to those who “blindly” pursue light, we say, “let there be light … but only in addition to vision!”

(Banerjee is a behavioural economist, Queensland University of Technology, and an honorary fellow at the University of Melbourne (Australia India Institute). Sharma is a development professional specialising in public policy and governance)

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