My mind casts a rather wide net, piqued by interest in history and politics to cognitive science, psychology and evolution to parenting and consumer culture to music, literature and poetry to personal anecdotes. A casual glance at this blog should reveal this fact. I snorkel the world in search of interesting nuggets of observations and ideas that illuminate the condition of humanity, the universe we live in.
But, I’m a software engineer by profession. When I read articles, reports or papers on genetics or anthropology or cognitive science, I don’t bring domain specific expertise to the reading. Given the limited time, I often don’t read the papers in great detail. Even when I do, I cannot say that I am able to dissect the flaws in the testing methodology, the statistical techniques used to reach the conclusions etc. And even when I read a paper completely, I cannot say that I grok everything in many of the more technical papers. Consider for example, climate science. Climate change denialists attempt to explain away global warming in various ways. One example of this is the theory that global warming is not man made, caused mostly by galactic cosmic rays. In 1997, a Danish physicist Henrik Svensmark proposed that galactic cosmic rays affect cloud formation and a decline in galactic cosmic rays in the recent past has reduced the cloud cover and thus resulted in a warmer world. They downplay the effect of CO2 and humans in creating global warming. The brilliant Skeptical Science website has a summary of the critique against this theory. The essence of the critique is that the correlation between cosmic rays and earth’s temperature breaks down after 1970. But it is hard for a layman such as myself to understand the details of the arguments, let alone agree or disagree with them.
I like to think that I don’t come empty-handed to the table. Like the denizens of Lake Wobegon, I think that I’m above average, can indulge in some critical thinking and have a decent grounding in the current state of the art in science (such as the age of the universe, DNA etc.). For example, I have no hesitation in dismissing creationism as an “-ism” because it violates what I consider a basic tenet of a scientific hypothesis, its ability to be false. As Karl Popper put it, science can never prove anything, it can only disprove. I check for opinions of other experts in the domain to distinguish between what is speculation and what is a fairly well accepted position, what is still immature and what is a quite well established default position. I check to see if the conclusions of a study have been corroborated by other independent investigators, what the sample size used in the study was, how diverse was the sample etc. But, as the WEIRD paper shows us yet again, experts in the field are not above blind spots.
Levels of Understanding
I came across an entry at the blog, The Neuroskeptic (which I often visit), titled “The Mystical Path of Scientific Understanding”. The author talks about the process of reading a scientific paper and a simplified, humorous, but strikingly sensible categorization of gauging one’s level when approaching the paper. Here is a summary of those categories:
- Stage 0: Huh? – You can’t even grok the title of the paper or what it’s supposed to be about.
- Stage 1: Oooh! – You can understand the abstract and the summary, but can’t understand the methods and the technique by which the conclusions were reached.
- Stage 2a: Hmmm – You can judge how strong the conclusions are, the method makes sense.
- Stage 2b: Oh! Interesting – You understand the importance of this research, why the authors chose to conduct this specific study
- Stage 3: Nirvana – You can not only understand why and what the authors did, you can even think of follow-ups, possible problems because of their chosen method, alternative techniques to address the same question etc.
The author states that most politicians and journalists are at Stage 1, which he labels the most dangerous stage because: “a paper could be completely wrong, and you wouldn’t know – yet you know enough to be mislead by it, and to think you understand it”.
In a more recent entry, the author cautions against using this to build ignorance or turn your nose up at science. He writes:
“… the view that science is somehow especially hard to understand, or even that we can’t understand it, so there’s no point in trying. It can lead to the idea that science can’t be very interesting compared to the real world. It leads to questions what good it can do, or whether science can ever answer ‘the big issues’.
When you realize that science is just looking at stuff, you see that those concerns, far from being valid, don’t even make sense.”
P.S: I had this article sitting in my draft queue for over a year.
- Popper’s Philosophy of Science: An interesting and well written collection of articles about the nature of science
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