Category Archives: Science

The scientific community, the state of science in our culture.

Open Mindedness

I have been thinking about, and writing about open mindedness quite a bit today, including a post at Forging Soul, and three comments at Penelope Trunk’s homeschooling blog. I decided to go ahead and put those comments together here, even though I would recommend checking out the original thread in it’s entirety here.

The first comment asks how far open-mindedness should reach:

Great points, especially the idea that listening to your kid helps them learn to think properly. If you never let your kid actually *ride* a bicycle they will never be much of a bicyclist. By the same token, many people think–and think most deeply–mainly by talking to others. This can be true even with introverts who, due to their intensely subjective focus, can find other people to stimulate new lines of thought.

I wondered if you would hit what I consider the ultimate test of open-mindedness: currently held scientific paradigms.

Evolution is one of those. It is incorrect to say that evolution is true. It is the best explanation we currently have. It is the consensus until a scientific revolution expands upon or overturns the current paradigm. Evolution has lasted a good while. Most likely it will be overturned in the sense that newtonian physics was overturned, by gaining a deeper understanding into the exceptions and anomalies (very large and very small and very fast in the case of newtonian physics–that spawned quantum theory and relativity). Is science, in any area, ever done? To me, no one who would answer that in the affirmative is a real scientist. Science can be settled, as newtonian physics was before it was upended by the two main fields within physics, but science–by definition–is never incontrovertible.

IF…even the bedrock of evolution can be understood as needing refinement and possibly even overturning someday, then one is in a much better position of open-mindedness to question far shakier paradigms. An example of this is questioning medical providers, who claim the mantle of science but must be examined with rigor. When you look at what it took to get doctors to start washing their hands, you see this is no science, and it never has been. It has a scientific aura, but the business of medicine is at best an art. And any art depends on the quality of the artist. There tend to be fewer good artists than poor ones at any given point.

Climate science, social sciences? Now we’re into areas so grey, so political and politicized that I believe a mindset a little beyond open-mindedness, and into downright skepticism is appropriate. Doubt first. These are also the most likely scientific areas for ideologues to promote as incontrovertible.

I note your link to defines open-mindedness as an intellectual virtue. Virtues are something that need to be cultivated. There are seeds of virtue in the hearts and minds of all children, but these seeds need conditions suitable for their growth and fruition. I believe the optimum conditions for the childhood development of all virtues is a healthy loving family. In home-schooling the family is given full force. It’s no guarantee but it is a big step in the right direction if you want to see your kids develop virtues like open-mindedness.

Then, I responded to a comment about statements by Bill Nye that it is morally wrong to teach religious ideas that conflict with science:

A person who set out to reap an avalanche of anti-science sentiment could do no better than to condemn people for exercising their constitutional right to religion, to essentially term them child-abusers. Patronizing such people is not helping either.

I suppose trying to use the power of the state to limit this inalienable right might be even better for creating hostility toward science and scientists.

In short, Bill Nye is not doing science any favors with this kind of talk. It is the same freedom of belief that allows science to exist at all, that allows people to believe as their conscience guides them. Undermining that precious freedom is a step backward into darkness, not progress.

To the extent science is true, it will win people over by being true, over time, without coercion. Bigotry and tyranny do not become good things, even when they are practiced in the name of science.

So I agree, Adam, learning to disagree with civility–to agree to disagree–is a valuable lesson at any age. It’s funny how many people value an open mind so highly, right up until the moment someone disagrees with something they hold dear.

And finally, I tried to sum up my thoughts after having reflected on the 20 some comments that had accumulated this morning:

Adam, I will grant you that everything I have ever said in my life has been arguably “somewhat false” :) I only aim for having some nugget or essence of useful truth! A hard enough target.

I’m heartened by the civility of the discourse here, when as I’m sure you have seen, even a totally unrelated science blog post or youtube video can erupt almost instantly into the most imbecilic and infantile name-calling arguments between various kinds of true believers.

Your comments, and those of Redrock, Nonnie, and Daniel all have shown nuance, consideration and restraint that indicates what I think is an admirable openness of mind. In so doing, I believe you show yourselves to be true friends of science, and a productive part of the long term social process of science slowly “settling.”

I thought Cindy and Coleen, for their part, did a good job of reflecting the fact that to have religious beliefs that might seem to encroach on scientific domains is neither the end of the world, nor the downfall of society. I happen to believe in a supreme consciousness, so I sympathize with the efforts all such believers must go through to function in a modern technological society. It is a rigor that atheists like Bill Nye are spared, since–for them–there is nothing to reconcile. That rigor, that wrestling of heart and mind and struggle to resolve facts and beliefs and the heightened awareness of differences it brings, is something that gives great value to the viewpoints of many religious people–and I wish more secularists saw that value and made use of it to enrich themselves.

Our family switched a while back from watching television together to reading classics aloud (something I heartily evangelize for!) and my son started reading Sun Tzu’s Art of War aloud today. It seems to me that Sun Tzu felt the fundamental principle of war is deception. Deception allows you to bring about bad judgement in your opponent. And by controlling deception, one can guide which bad decisions your opponent makes, and thus win.

And it occurred to me that the somewhat less-studied Art of Peace has a similar fundamental principle: honesty.

For me, honesty starts with this realization, that Socrates and I suspect even Carl Sagan would heartily endorse: we do not know as much as we’d like to. Nor probably even half as much as we think we do. Nor a fraction of what we will one day. Being honest with ourselves consists of being willing to consider things we disagree with and reach rich, sophisticated answers, or sometimes break through to the simplest answers, rather than carry around a stock of straw-men that we can project on everyone who has a different point of view or belief from us.

I am sensitive to this also because I’ve been a homeschooler. An unschooler in fact. Just one of many unconventional beliefs I have strongly held. I’ve spent half my life fighting for my right to evaluate the merits as my ability allows and live based upon the conclusions I reach, such as they are. I do not require others to agree with me, just give me room to explore for myself. I’ll listen to your arguments, just don’t take for granted that I hold my opinion due to ignorance or mental incapacity, since you simply do not know that.

As I said, this discussion has been pretty encouraging. Perhaps none of us has as much to fear as we might be led to believe by the overwhelming prominence of the most strident percent or two of the internet that seems to dominate so much traffic on these subjects.

Red shift questions

My sense is that red shift is on pretty solid ground, but the questions do exist and some are interesting. If there is an error in our understanding of red shift it would deeply change our corresponding sense of the universe.

If the universe is expanding, redshifts should show a continuous range of values. Instead, however, they are “quantized,” i.e., they tend to be multiples of certain basic units, the main ones (expressed as velocities) being 72.4 km/s and 37.5 km/s. This phenomenon, says Arp, “is so unexpected that conventional astronomy has never been able to accept it, in spite of the overwhelming observational evidence” (p. 195). He suggests that redshift quantization could be due to episodes of matter creation taking place at regular intervals.


Medical science

The problem is that physicians don’t know what they’re doing. That is how David Eddy, MD, PhD, a healthcare economist and senior advisor for health policy and management for Kaiser Permanente, put the problem in a Business Week cover story about how much of healthcare delivery is not based on science. Plenty of proof backs up Eddy’s glib-sounding remark.

via Health Care Myth Busters: Is There a High Degree of Scientific Certainty in Modern Medicine?: Scientific American.