Resisting the Dark Side

This post was stimulated by Stephen Curry’s excellent article on the angry response to pseudoscience on his blog at Occam’s Typewriter. I originally posted this as a comment on that post. I’ll edit this post to add some links and more background shortly.

Yoda

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

It is always tempting to escalate the argument when you disagree with someone, and that’s often when reasoning starts to go out of the window. You start by attacking the speaker, rather than what they’re saying. You distort their argument, creating a straw man etc. We’ve all been in the receiving end of this, and if we’re honest we’ve all felt at least the urge to go on the attack this way. It is a human failing, and science gives us the tools to resist it – using evidence instead. But apart from the reasoning errors the angry approach leads to, it is very unpersuasive. Whoever changed their mind in this kind of argument? I suppose ad hominem attacks and straw men are useful for persuading on lookers, but if you actually want to change the mind of the person your debating, then Carl Sagan’s approach (discussed in Stephen’s post) is the only way.

Carl Sagan: so many clips to choose from. This one explains why Science has to persuade other people. He is not immune to the urge to deride others beliefs, but he does understand the danger: “Certainly. I’ve even sometimes heard, to my retrospective dismay, that unpleasant tone in my own voice”.

One more point. What we call pseudoscience and superstition are beliefs founded on an imaginative urge to make sense of the world, leading us to see patterns and meaning sometimes where there is none. This imagination, while it can be misleading, also plays a vital role in science, because only by imagining the possible (i.e., possible alternatives to what we now think) can we look for and perhaps find it. It must have taken an enormous leap of imagination to go from classical to quantum mechanics, and the newer ideas must at the time have seemed crazy. Likewise evolution was an extremely challenging idea when it was first put forward. Sagan himself was an enthusiastic supporter of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence at a time when most scientists thought the idea of aliens crackers. Although there’s been little new evidence* to change our mind since then, the idea that we are alone in the universe is now regarded as implausible. So one generation’s pseudoscience can become the next generation’s science, and we need to resist the temptation to reject the very idea that our current understanding is the only way to think.

*People will point to the discovery of new extremophiles and earth-based eco-systems as evidence – these discoveries shouldn’t have been too earth-shattering, but the preconception that (effectively) life would only exist where we had already looked was unimaginative, in my view.

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