tim: A person with multicolored hair holding a sign that says "Binaries Are For Computers" with rainbow-colored letters (binaries)
Tim Chevalier ([personal profile] tim) wrote2017-01-26 10:57 pm
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The failure of skepticism

Elsewhere, I wrote this bit of dialogue:

Skeptics: (also movement atheists) "Social science is stupid because it doesn't have the same evidentiary standards that physics does. Browbeating people about how they should learn more about physics and math will save us all."
Fascists: *quietly and skillfully use techniques from psychology, sociology, and political science to obliterate the trust most of the public used to have in scientists to collect and disseminate knowledge accurately*
Skeptics: "None of this would be a problem if people just understood science better."

It's hard to just leave it at that. The skeptic and atheist movements have failed to strengthen public trust in science because people who invest themselves in these movements (as opposed to skeptics and atheists, who are a diverse group) refuse to recognize that that trust is even necessary. They think they can browbeat or shame people into accepting the value of the scientific method. Calling people "stupid" may be satisfying, but it's ineffective: not because it hurts people's feelings, but because the people you're trying to reach literally don't care whether you think they're stupid. If you want to shame anybody, you need to understand what does and doesn't make them feel ashamed. People who lack basic confidence that scientific modes of thinking are useful for understanding the world don't care what scientists think about them.

At this point, people might ask a number of questions:

Why does it matter if people trust science? Science: it works, bitches, whether or not anybody believes in it.

It's true that science works whether or not anybody believes in it. However, as another xkcd comic points out, when there is no intersection between people who value science, and people who control the funding that scientists need in order to produce new research, the truth that "science just works" is of rather academic relevance. The military-industrial complex has always been very interested in funding computer science research because there's something in it for them: they like machines that make the process of killing people more efficient. That's convenient when you're working on robotics or artificial intelligence, but inconvenient when you're studying climate change, a truth whose recognition has little short-term economic value (and which poses a threat to many people's economic interests.)

Why do I need to persuade anybody? Isn't this tone policing? Aren't you always saying that telling people "you're alienating potential allies" is unproductive?

If you want people to give you power or money, you have two options: take it, or ask for it. Social movements for minority rights are (in my opinion) more effectively framed as "take it". You can't, indeed, convince someone that your life matters when they believe their socioeconomic position to depend on your life not mattering.

Scientists, however, are not a group marginalized based on identity. Scientists will be the first ones to tell you that it's in your interests to accept that vaccines, computers, cars, and other products of technology that would not be possible without basic scientific research are useful. Science has something to offer.

There is no counter-argument to "I don't believe you when you say you deserve to exist" -- you can't bargain without a bargaining chip. There is one for "I don't believe you when you say that you can use the scientific method to understand the world": show the results. Your kid not dying of polio is a pretty strong bargaining chip. How do you show people that it matters that scientific consensus says that the benefits of vaccines overwhelmingly outweigh the risks? That's where persuasion comes in.

But people should just know.

You feelings about what people should do, along with $6.99, will buy you a pour-over. If you like science so much, can't you observe what something actually is rather than how you think it should be?

To believe anything to be true that you did not learn through direct, empirical observation, you need to have confidence that someone else learned it through direct, empirical observation and that they are telling you the truth when they say that they did. It's only been a few centuries since science started gaining cognitive authority (that quality that causes people to recognize when people are operating based on the scientific method, and inclines people to believe those people are telling the truth) -- before that, only religion compelled people so. The cognitive authority that science has gained can also be lost. That's a social problem.

If we're truly becoming a world where every individual only believes what they've observed directly, we are on the road to ruin in the fast lane. No single individual can personally prove for themselves that humans are causing climate change. Even if you're a climate scientist, accepting that climate change is real requires trusting a body of work done by other people. Scientists trust each others' work because there are social processes in place (like peer review) that provide a basis for that trust. We are rapidly losing whatever confidence in scientific consensus previously existed outside the scientific community. The so-called "hard sciences" don't have the answers to how to make people believe science is real in the first place. To understand what went wrong and how to fix it, you need to look to philosophy, political science, psychology, and sociology (start with the concept of dismediation and chase pointers from there.)

Well, if they don't understand science, fuck 'em, I'll be over here doing science.

Let's be real here, if you are active in the "skeptic movement" or "atheist movement", you're probably not a scientist so much as a science fanfic writer. Scientists generally don't have time for that kind of thing. So, if you are already in the business of social or political change, why not learn from people who have extensively studied social and political change, rather than reinventing the wheel with corners?

Sociology and psychology aren't real sciences. You can't do experiments or prove things the same way you can in physics.

It's true that the way evidence, hypotheses, theories, and experiments work in the social sciences isn't the same as the way those concepts work in physics or biology. It's also true that astronomy (usually considered a hard science), like social science, is based on observation and the ability to do controlled experiments is limited (ethics boards keep you from doing certain things to people, the laws of physics keep you from doing certain things to planets.) Modes of knowledge aren't automatically invalid because they're observational rather than experimental. Besides which, do you prefer not having any understanding of how people and cultures work over a flawed understanding of how they work? Sounds anti-intellectual, but ok.

Fascists have succeeded in taking over the US because a few people have studied hard and made use of the knowledge that the fields of sociology, psychology, political science, history, and philosophy have produced. They've used it to manipulate people into believing that bad things are good and good things are bad. Nonetheless, they've used that knowledge skillfully and effectively, whereas out of some misguided sense of purism, many people who strongly identify as skeptics, as rational, and/or as interested in hard science refuse to touch those fields at all for fear of contamination by science that is insufficiently hard. And they've succeeded at their goal of seizing power. Social science: it works, bitches.

This is, by the way, why fascists put a lot of effort into trying to corrupt or persuade intellectuals -- these days, especially intellectuals whose primary training is in science, technology, or engineering (such people easily fall for false equivalences like, "If you try to exclude fascists from the community, aren't you just as bigoted as people who try to exclude Black people?") -- to do the work of conferring legitimacy onto fascism. Whether you're speaking at a computer science conference or just trolling messageboards, the more intellectual types you can recruit to your side and the more communities you can infiltrate, the more cognitive authority you can steal and the more power you can grab.

Some intellectuals refuse to be persuaded, which is why fascist states like the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia murdered people who had more than a basic level of education. Intellectuals have only one use to fascists, because fascists only care about one thing: getting power by any means necessary. An intellectual who won't help fascists take power is an intellectual who is an obstacle to fascism and must be destroyed.
yam: Cartoon mad science version of me. (Default)

[personal profile] yam 2017-01-27 06:19 pm (UTC)(link)
Let's be real here, if you are active in the "skeptic movement" or "atheist movement", you're probably not a scientist so much as a science fanfic writer.

juli: hill, guardrail, bright blue sky (Default)

[personal profile] juli 2017-01-27 06:36 pm (UTC)(link)
Let's be real here, if you are active in the "skeptic movement" or "atheist movement", you're probably not a scientist so much as a science fanfic writer.

Maybe fanfic reader? Or maybe even person-who-thinks-of-themselves-as-reading-fanfic-even-though-they-actually-don't-bother. Like, the sort of person who doesn't contribute to or even follow the main discussion, but has an opinion on every topic in the off-topic group. Reddit being the off-topic group for the whole world.
rone: (Default)

[personal profile] rone 2017-02-10 01:35 am (UTC)(link)
I think you'll find this article goes well with what you've written.