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Am I entitled to my own science?

  • Published at 11:41 am January 9th, 2021
Photo: Nick Fewings

Why no amount of scientific evidence will convince those who don’t want to be convinced

Spending just a little time on social media brings to attention a problem that has been around for as far back as I can remember. In fact, it seems that this problem was around way before the internet or social media. Isaac Asimov, who lived considerably before universal access to internet and social media websites, once said “...anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’” Asimov said this in connection to what he referred to as a “cult of ignorance” in the USA. However, he could just as well have been talking about social media and newspaper comment threads in 2021.

Essentially, the problem is that in an argument, one side is citing Kant or Chomsky, and the other side is saying that the uncle who lives next door said otherwise. All the erudition of decades, the airtight arguments, the years of reading about what one is speaking of, is insignificant next to the uncle next door. At the core, the other side is saying that their ignorance of the subject, and blind obedience to the uncle next door, is just as valid as years of academic training. Note that I am assuming that the uncle next door, who has remained nameless, is not an intellectual peer of Kant, Locke, or Chomsky.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, it is as if the dial on the above problem has been cranked to maximum. Every day my newsfeed is replete with two types of content. On one side, someone with decades of experience in life sciences research, or the medical profession, or  STEM training in a more broad sense, is posting well-researched, well-cited material on pandemics, health and safety measures, and vaccines. On the other side, someone is commenting how this is all baseless, and they just saw three YouTube videos that say so.

One common refrain of the latter group is that everyone is entitled to their own opinions, something I agree with wholeheartedly. However, we are not entitled to our own facts, let alone our own science. As a teacher of mine once said, it is good to have an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out.

Science does not operate in the realm of opinions. To make a contribution to science, even in the form of a negative result about existing claims, one has to absorb an immense amount of existing knowledge. This involves hours of reading, writing, and even more hours just thinking about what one has read, and what one would like to write. One has to genuinely find logical gaps in the established literature, not just have a gut feeling that something is not the way one would like it to be. Furthermore, the oft-touted virtue of being a layman, who does not use big, complex words, simply does not hold up in the realm of science. The bitter truth is that my ignorance, thinly veiled as a disdain for big words and scholarly work, is not the same as your years of knowledge and practice. We cannot hide behind the shield of using simple language, because in today’s world, there are enough concepts that do call for complex language and big words in order to be spoken of.

Is this really a problem worth talking about, in the midst of all the bigger problems? I feel it is, because this disdain for scholarship and intellectualism leads to situations that then leave us woefully unprepared to face, say, a pandemic. Consider the United States. For many, Donald Trump represents a stand against intellectual snobbishness and an academic mindset. He is the “common man”, if you believe many of his base. And over the last several months, the president of the USA has disregarded scientists, medical doctors, and one could say even basic math, with the same confidence many of us exhibit when dismissing what some philosophers said some hundred years ago. I for one feel that this was all made possible by the culture of anti-intellectualism Asimov alluded to in America in the 80s. What started as mild ridicule for anyone who is articulate, ended with a widespread mandate for someone who takes pride in not reading, and not believing that science knows what it’s talking about. We better understand how to curb this tendency, because the world does not need more people in charge who think they know more from one Google search than experts learnt in a lifetime. 

While the bulk of this responsibility does go to the school system, there is much to be at home too. We need to teach children to question authority, for sure. But they need to do that with substantial knowledge, with forethought. Not question authority simply because they are authority. Not dismiss someone simply because what they are talking about is hard to follow or comprehend. Far be it from me to enshrine respect for authority, but we do need to impart respect for knowledge, training, and rationality. We need to be reminded that education and hard work matters. And it has to start now, in our homes. Disagreement is fine. Doubt is fine. But we must learn and teach that it has to be backed up by hard intellectual work. There is no glory in just dismissing someone for being academically inclined.

Hammad Ali is a PhD student and a lover of fountain pens