Reading (and occasionally participating in) the controversies that constantly spring up among Facebook friends on subjects like climate science or evolution (or any of the other debates that ultimately end up framed as ‘right vs. left’) leaves me with that strange and uncomfortable feeling of watching a long married couple argue at a dinner party. Their words don’t directly reflect the actual disagreement – they’ve entered into a private language where the substance of the conflict is buried – lost under layers of subtext and history.
Like a couple caught up in an embarrassing public spat, our differences often seem to fall into well-worn patterns – the words of our debates ride on top of the real arguments rather than connecting to the substance deep underneath.
From the perspective of the ‘left’ the right seems maddeningly disconnected: they use ‘facts’ in a way that appears capricious and they seemingly don’t care to research the validity of their sources, as if somehow that’s beside the point. What I get from my ‘right’-leaning friends is that people on the left appear arrogant: they think they’re smarter or superior to everyone on the right and seemingly they have no clue as to how that arrogance affects the way they think – leaving them disconnected from ‘real life’.
I suspect both are partially correct.
The context for this cultural divide may possibly be found in the history of reason itself. The development of human’s ability to think carefully and clearly and to employ a rigorous method for organizing and verifying their thoughts is both more fragile and has a much briefer history than most people realize. Paradoxically that same short-lived and fragile process – which we now refer to as ‘the scientific method’ – has proven to be much more powerful than our culture is currently capable of acknowledging.
First, some history
While it’s clear that humans have been developing a basic set of reasoning abilities over the entirety of our history, for a definition of ‘scientific reasoning’ to have any meaning let’s start the cultural clock when it dawned on us that reason and physical evidence could be used to explain the phenomena and events of the world around us, rather than invoking the gods or some other supernatural means. For most historians this would be around 600 BC with Thales.
The specialized set of abilities that distinguish scientific reasoning from general common sense is the ability to abstract – to systematically distill what is generic about a particular set of circumstances and so be able to apply the principals learned from that special case in a variety of other situations. Historically, the development of this ability is closely linked to (and is most clearly evidenced by) our skills of spatial abstraction. We have gradually been discovering the shape of space that surrounds us. A skill as basic as determining what is ‘near’ and what is ‘far’ is surprisingly difficult – we’re still refining that concept even after over 2,500 years of effort. The history of that refinement has been far from a smooth linear progression.
For instance, the Egyptians were masters of triangulation and used triangles for centuries in land surveys and more famously for pyramid construction with great precision. But they never took the additional step of abstracting out the “idea” of the triangle and discovering the unique properties of the shape itself – for them all triangles were unique. They had ‘rules of thumb’ to be sure, much like a good builder today works out the hip angle of a roof – but no systematic way of dealing with triangles in the abstract and thus no rigorous method for applying a solution found for one set of triangles to a different set.
Within the last 2,000 years, humans have had at best stuttering progress (think of the Dark Ages as a major stutter) in their ability to abstract concepts of space and systematically develop scientific reasoning. Often we have fallen backwards – 2,000 years ago most educated people were aware that the Earth was a sphere – only to have that basic knowledge degraded. For centuries students were given a map of a flat earth with an immense mountain at the North Pole and the Sun making revolutions around the mountain.
And forward again…
It wasn’t until the 16th century when Galileo finally clearly defined the scientific method with it’s systematized approach of observation, hypothesis, mathematical deduction and confirmatory experiment. Finally we had a simple set of rules for clear thinking that many others (importantly, Bacon) had been working on for several hundred years.
Pandora’s Box opens.
This procedure for actually checking the validity of our perceptions had immediate and profound influences on society – it’s impossible to imagine the Industrial Revolution happening without it. From out of that simple method came an outpouring of new invention which vastly extended our ability to observe the universe in both the micro and macro – realms far beyond our normal sense perceptions. In sum total it was culturally overwhelming, and the context for our current conflict was now set: the notorious trial of Galileo by the Catholic church became the first clearly defined battle in a war that we are still fighting.
But this shift in thinking happened some 400-odd years ago – isn’t it all just ancient history? For perspective we need to keep in mind that anatomically modern humans have been around for ~ 200,000 yrs. This epochal shift in the amount and scope of evidence available to us has now existed for all of .2% of human history.
Nature is behaving badly.
This avalanche of new data, combined with a simple and verifiable method to make sense of it, had consequences that were not warmly received, even by those that created it. Scientists soon found that the old explanations for nature’s behavior inherited from countless prior generations (what we usually refer to as ‘common sense’) just weren’t cutting it. And scientists reacted in a manner that wasn’t much different from most folks in their time – they were belligerent and unwilling passengers on this new wave of discovery, clinging to whatever was familiar whenever they could. (At one point the quantum physicist Neils Bohr complained that nature was ‘behaving badly’).
The term ‘precession’ is used in physics to describe actions that appear to move at 90 deg. to the forces involved: you totally intend to go ‘this way’, but somehow magically end up going ‘that way’ (think of a merry-go-round or the Olympic hammer throw). But precession apparently jumped ship, took a sharp right turn, and crossed over into political, economic, and social realms. The seemingly simple scientific method that so innocently began as an elegant and basic codification of clear thinking had unintended consequences – it precessed. Those ‘side effects’ quickly grew in strength and complexity and started pushing reason and clarity all around the playground. The kids doing the pushing flourished as a direct result of the power of the scientific method itself. First the nation states, and later, world corporations expanded their power to the point where they could control what that scientific method was used for. A tool that evolved to satisfy human curiosity has been largely co-opted for the goal of economic gain.
Given the diminished role of ‘pure’ or basic research these days it seems that both scientific reasoning and the ‘scientific method’ that arose from it are still very much a ‘work in progress’. A symbiotic dance is in play – the tools we have created affect our culture and culture in turn affects the way we use and develop those tools.
The advent of the ‘anti-science’ movement among fundamentalist groups in the US is one of those dance steps. It is in part a repeat of the original battle between Galileo and the Church, and now additionally represents a backlash to how frightening and powerful the scientific method has become.
There is a deep and appropriate subconscious fear at play here – that the social and political control mechanisms we have created are completely inadequate to deal with the consequences of our new knowledge. That fear, coupled with the relatively brief time we’ve had as a culture to learn the rules of clear thinking means we have a bumpy road ahead. Add to that our new-found social media which exaggerates the ability of sociopathic individuals to exploit that fear, and we are left with a bad mix.<
So to my friends on the right: Yes, facts do matter. And no, Fox News is not a reliable source of information (which anyone with junior high-school research skills can verify).
To my friends on the left: Yes you are arrogant. The situation is wildly out of control – our tools are progressing much faster than our culture, and your attempts to portray it as otherwise are transparently self-delusional to most folk.
To both: A little humility and compassion and a willingness to do the hard work would go a long way towards starting some meaningful discussions. The only lever we can pull here is the one that controls our attitude.
Acquiring new abilities is never without cost or effort, either individually or for a culture. For some the retreat into the familiar is a preferable path to facing the struggle and un-quantifiable risk of exploring what it means to be human.
Ultimately we have to decide, are we the children of God, or simply arrogant?