Politics and Curiosity.

Dan Kahan, whose work I like a lot, has a fascinating new paper out.

The great advance that Kahan and his coauthors make is to attempt systematically defining and quantifying “curiosity.”  I am not sure if what they are doing is quite right:  enjoying science documentaries, for example, does not mean one is or is not “curious.”  (I’d found some science documentaries to be so pedantic that and assertive of the filmmakers’ own views that they were nearly unwatchable, but good science documentaries point to the facts, then raise questions that follow from them without overtly giving answers, for example).  But a more useful perspective on curiosity comes from how one reacts to an unexpected observation:  a curious person reacts by wondering where the oddity came from and investigating the background thereof; an incurious person starts dismissing the oddity as irrelevant.  The third component of their instrument, the so-called “Information Search Experiment,” however, gets at this angle more directly.

Observe that curiosity is, potentially, at odds with simple scientific knowledge.  On surface of the Earth, the gravitational acceleration is approximately 9.8m/s^2.  There was a physicist  wtih web page dedicated to scientific literacy (that I cannot find!) who had a story about how his lab assistant “discovered” that, under some conditions, the measured gravitational acceleration is much smaller.  While this finding was undoubtedly wrong, there are different approaches with which this could have been dealt with:  the incurious approach is to dismiss it by saying that this simply cannot be, because the right answer is 9.8m/s^2.  The curious approach is to conjecture the consequences that would emerge were the different value of the gravitational acceleration true and investigate whether any one of them also materializes.  The usual approach taken, even by scientifically literate persons, is the former, especially since they know, with very little variance, that the gravitational acceleration has to be 9.8m/s^2.  It is rare to find people who react by taking the latter path, and to the degree that “scientific literacy” means “knowing” that the variance of 9.8m/s^2 being the correct answer is small, it is unsurprising that “scientific literacy” is often actually correlated with closed-mindedness and politically motivated reasoning.  (which Kahan had found in earlier studies)

This does make for an interesting question:  I had mused about why creationism can be a focal point, but the proposition that 1+1 = 3 cannot.  Quite simply, 1+1 = 3 is too settled a question (or rather, ruled out by too-settled consensus) to serve as a focal point, while, for many, evolution is not yet sufficiently settled a question.  To the degree that, on average, social consensus tends to converge to the truth (even if not always the case), overtly false “truisms” cannot serve as focal points indefinitely–even if they might persist far longer than one might expect, precisely because they are so useful as focal points.  But the more accepted truisms are, the more likely that contrary findings–even true ones–are to be dismissed without further question as simply being “abnormal.”  In the example above, the probability that a lab assistant simply made a mistake that led to abnormal finding is simply too high compared to there being an actual discovery.  As such, this is not worth wasting time investigating further, beyond berating the hapless  lab assistant for not knowing what he is supposed to be doing.  However, to the extent that “knowledge” is simply an awareness of the conventions, it systematically underestimates the variance in the reality and discourages curiosity as a waste of time.  This, furthermore, is not without justification as the conventions reflect “established truths” that are very nearly certainly true (i.e. with very little variance.)  When people become too sure of the received wisdom where the true variance is actually quite high, a lot more legitimate discoveries are bound to be tossed out with dismissiveness.(Underestimating variance in the name of the received wisdom is exactly how the great financial meltdowns happen:  to borrow the line from the movie The Big Short, those who defy the conventional wisdom will be ridiculed by being badgered with “are you saying you know more than Alan Greenspan?  Hank Paulson?”  Well, physics progressed because, on some things, some insignificant young man named Albert Einstein knew more than Isaac Newton–before he became the Albert Einstein.  Physicists took the chance that Einstein might actually know more than Newton, rather than dismissing him for his pretensions.  The rest is history.  (NB:  one might say that the structure of physics as a way of thinking probably made this easier:  Einstein was able to show that he might be smarter than Newton because he showed what he did without any obvious mistake using all the proper methodology of physics.  But then, physics established that it is about the right methodology and logic, not about the “results.”  This is, in turn, what bedeviled Galileo:  he might have gotten the answer more right than the contemporary conventional wisdom, in retrospect, in terms of approximating the reality–although he was still more wrong than right overall–but he could not precisely trace the steps that he took to get to his answers because the methodology to do so, quite frankly, did not yet exist–they would be invented by Newton centuries later.)

The real scientific literacy, one might say, should consist of a blend between scientific literacy and curiosity:  knowing where the lack of variance is real and where the lack of variance only reflects the reflected consensus, so to speak.  Is 1+1 =2 really true, or does it seem true because everyone says it is?  I have to confess that I do now know what the best answer to this question is.  On simple questions like 1+1, demonstrating the moving parts may be easy enough.  On more complex questions, it is far easier to simply tell people, “trust us:  X is true because that is true, and we should be trusted because of our fancy credentials that say that we know the truth.”  Perhaps, beyond some level, truth becomes so complex that a clear demonstration of the moving parts may no longer be possible.  If so, this is the only path for even partial “scientific literacy,” especially since simple broad awareness of the social conventions that are approximately right (i.e. right mean, wrong variance) might be more desirable socially than everyone wandering about looking for real answers without finding them.

Unfortunately, this turns “science” back to a question of religion and faith.  Rather than product of scientific investigation doused with suitable amount of skeptical curiosity, “science facts” simply become truisms that are true because “high priests” say so, with the real moving parts consigned to “mysteries of the faith,” with the potential for a great deal of abuse, including the persecution of the heretics, literal or figurative, most of whom may be cranks, but may also include some real insights that happen to deviate from the received wisdom more than it is expected to.  This is, of course, politically motivated reasoning revisited, with the sober implication that we may not be able to separate “politics” and “religion” from “science” easily.



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