Friday, December 19, 2008

Promoting Science: The Current Situation

Over the past few days I have been writing a series of posts on promoting science. In those posts I have argued that "supply-side reform" - producing more scientific information and expecting people to simply consume it eagerly - is a weak and ineffective way of promoting science. The only method that will actually have long-term success is demand-side reform. Demand-side reform means using praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to alter desires - to encourage people to want to have scientific literacy and to create in them an aversion to scientific illiteracy.

As it turns out, the proponents of evidence-free thinking have been the master of demand-side reform.

They begin in school, teaching children that a person who does not support a nation "under God" is the equivalent of one who supports rebellion, tyranny, and injustice for all. This ritual creates an emotional desire to be somebody who supports a nation under God, and the same type of aversion to those who do not support a nation "under God" that the child learns to have for those who support rebellion, tyranny, and injustice. Of all of the religious rituals that we have in this country, this gets their most enthusiastic support precisely because it is such an effective tool in the demand-side management of a child's desires.

The same applies to the use of a national motto that says, "If you do not trust in God, you are not one of us." One of the biggest fears of children is being cast as an outsider - of not being "one of us". They have reason to be afraid - children tend to be quite unkind to those that they are taught to think of as "one of them" instead of "one of us". So, again, demand-side management promotes being somebody who trusts in God, and inhibits being somebody who does not trust in God.

Intelligent, science-literate people are geeks, freeks, and elitist. They are inherently immoral - incapable of finding a foundation for their ethics because they cannot find it in the evidence-free methodologies that "the rest of us" use.

The movies and entertainment industry regularly preaches a view in which the scientific and evidence-based thinker is blind and incapable of solving problems. The hero is the person who relies on his or her feelings, faith, or some supernatural force that solves the problem for them before the end of the movie or episode.

In this, I am quite pleased with the way that the CSI shows are breaking through this particular stereotype - giving people a valuable lesson and a set of heros for whom evidence-based thinking is the order of the day, and accomplishes things with a level of certainty that evidence-free thinking simply cannot provide.

No matter how well intellectually (among our system of beliefs) we recognize the virtue of evidence-based thinking, we are still the victims of our culture's demand-side management of our desires. A person with a fear of flying can be given a perfectly sound understanding of how safe airplane flight is when compared to other modes of travel. Yet, he will still feel the fear of taking off. That aversion to flying - however irrational - will continue to motivate his actions. The only way to rid him of the fear of flying is to work on his desires, not his beliefs.

The same with those of us who have learned an aversion to criticizing evidence-free forms of thinking. I can write post after post on how destructive these desires and aversions are - of the benefits of using evidence-based reasoning in policy decisions and the unpleasant consequences of depending on evidence-free thinking. However, the desires and aversions given to us as children will still be there, and still motivate those actions.

The solution is not a better understanding. The solution is to take action to engage in a but of demand-side reform.

The best place to start - at least for those who have a concern for welfare of future generations - is simply not to allow others to inflict the same demand-side manipulation on the next generation of children that the previous generation inflicted on us. It requires paying attention to those rituals that aim at promoting in children a desire for evidence-free thinking and an aversion to evidence-based thinking, and putting an end to those rituals.


-blessed holy socks, the non-perishable-zealot said...

God bless you, my friend, and may the Creator of the Cosmos bestow upon you discernment and wisdom this CHRIST-mass season. Be at peace.

Luke said...

*stands up a pumps fist in the air*

Hear, hear, Alonzo!

Luckily, this is one of those moral things I can do that I also enjoy.

Martin Freedman said...

Hi Kold Kadavar flatline (great if unusual nickname)

Alozno is not recommending getting rid of holidays. Now granted there is a near world-wide holiday on the 25th of December celebrating a birthday, I have looked to see who was born on that day that has provided the greatest positive and/or the least detrimental contribution to humanity. There is only major candidate of course.

Happy NewtonMass to you sir!

Steelman said...

I can see how you're attempting to tie pro-science actions into your Pledge Project, but I think they are different issues; there must be a lot of parents who approve of the teaching of evolution in public schools, but are against the removal of "under God" in the pledge because they see it as vaguely affirming of their religion based moral beliefs.

I'm not saying the Pledge Project is an unworthy endeavor. However, if you're going to concentrate on engendering pro-science interests in school children, I think the pledge issue must remain separate. It throws an emotional wrench in the works for those who compartmentalize their religion away from their science (the majority of non-fundamentalist Protestants and most Catholics).

We are talking about marketing here, right?

As for television shows featuring evidence-based thinking, I grew up watching Columbo, Ellery Queen, McCloud, and other detective shows with my parents. My father is still involved in church, and my mother thinks she's been the recipient of the miraculous healing of the Holy Spirit. Maybe I just got the right mix of experiences and analytical genes, or it's just a generational thing?

At any rate, I read creation stories from around the world, including the one from Genesis, to my kids, as a part of understanding ancient cultures' fascination with supernatural beings. I also share age appropriate books on evolution with them, along with general science material, so they understand the difference between scientific investigation and magic.