Skip to comments.Internet Forums and Social Dynamics, Part IV: The Problem of Knowledge, or When Doctors Disagree
Posted on 01/22/2012 10:12:12 AM PST by grey_whiskers
This is the fourth of a series of five essays on the Internet and Social Dynamics.
In Internet Forums and Social Dynamics: Part I: Everybody is someone elses weirdo was concerned with the treatment of how internet groups (focusing on Free Republic) dealt with posters (I almost typed posers which on second thought would not have been a bad typo to leave in place) who do not share the prevailing views. The second part, Internet Forums and Social Dynamics: Part II: Snapbacks, was concerned with the psychological reactions when a poster who had been considered safely one of the group is outed, or someone who is in disagreement stretches the boundaries a little too far. And the third installment, The Internet and Social Dynamics, Part III: Getting Back to Basics, or, Don't be so Acidic, was concerned with another form of sociological normalization within internet groups, that of the scope or intellectual level of discourse, rather than ideology. This installment, part IV, will take break from looking at the internet as such, and detour into a bone of contention commonly found on the internet, disputes over which lead to many of the issues discussed earlier: the proper role and use of science, and the problem of knowledge; part V will draw upon this, as well as the earlier topics, and look at the internet holistically, from outside, as it were.
The problem of knowledge (think of Rumsfelds known unknowns and unknown unknowns) has long been a bone of contention on science vs.religion threads; but it has applicability to many other disputes as well, even if not recognized as such. The conflict can be summed by a TV commercial I saw a number of years ago. It began with a caveman, running alone past mountain ranges, over hills and across plains, bearing his precious burden: a primitive brazier fashioned out of stone, containing fire. I remember thinking when I saw this commercial for first time, Oh great, another stupid big-company commercial, I can just predict the voice-over now -- from time immemorial, mans quest for knowledge blah blah blah...which is how our company helps you.' But I was wrong.
Instead of a voice over, the camera stays on the caveman. He brings his gift back to the cave, where he presents his discovery to the shaman (dressed in skins, and wearing a wolfs head). As the messenger looks back and forth brazier and the shaman, expectantly, the shamans face suddenly clouds over, and he barks out Great! But we wanted a *Bud* Light! (in English, that). [*]
(Here is a link to the commercial for those who are interested.)
This ad seems to me to exhibit a number of the beliefs common to educated people in our culture, and not just about cave men; for example, that man has always been moved by the thirst for knowledge; that in days of old, people were moved by a mix of superstition, and superstitious blind obedience to authority; but that this has been supplanted by science, which affords a true accounting of the way the world works; and that science is practiced and led by those who are dispassionately driven by those who are devoted to truth, selflessly devoted to her cause, unlike those shamans and priests of time past who created, kept, and promulgated the myths, partly at the behest of the rich, to keep the masses down, and partly for their own power and prestige.[#] Yes, thats quite a bit to read into one commercial, and people may disagree that it is all implicit; but world-views, like fragrances, are evocative, and quite a bit can come across at a single impression. Rather than merely re-fight the oft-contested ground of science vs. religion, as is seen so often on the internet, Id prefer to throw a curve ball here, and contrast, not science with religion, but the sociological claims of science (think of the old Thomas Dolby song She Blinded Me With Science) as compared to the state of science and knowledge today (on the internet, whats more!)
In order to make this task simpler, lets look at each of the pieces above, one at a time, and see how well they are being fulfilled today, in the modern, sensible, enlightened 21st century CE.
First, let us consider the idea that man has always been moved by the quest for knowledge. Well, I suppose if we consider some elements of the ancient Greeks, that is true; from Archimedes to Zeno and his paradox, and Aristotle and Galen and Hipocrates and Democritus (go atomic theory!). But on the other hand, the knowledge of the Greeks was not always tied to religious belief or ceremony; its fairly hard to argue that that the famous statue of Hercules drunken and urinating marked any signal addition to natural science; nor yet the temple prostitutes in service to Aphrodite. Things have not changed much today that I can see: the starting salary for a professor in the sciences at a major university is usually short of six figures, compared to the salary paid to (say) a football coach, or worse yet, a Hollywood actress. And yet people seem to flock just as much to the actress for her take on world affairs or even on pesticide contamination (What are we doing to our children?!) as they do to true scientists. And to take celebrities word as gospel truth, with no peer review necessary.
As far as science giving a true accounting of the way the world works -- this is a tricky question. Not necessarily on philosophical grounds, but on methodological grounds. We are told that science affords a superior approach to understanding and to explaining the world, for two reasons: first, it is based on observation and experiment (empiricism), and not reliance on authority (scholasticism); second, the process of continued experiment (say, by peer review), and of continually folding in new knowledge, provides an error correction mechanism not present in authority-based methods, where a fixed, idealistic model is given and then sophistry and twisting of data is used to keep the model from failing. ($) But this gives rise to two difficulties, as we shall see.
May I first take the liberty of pointing out that the picture presented of science is itself an idealized model? This is because in many cases, after a new development, or in the cases of softer sciences, there is a paucity of data, or of clean data: and so there is not a smooth, even development of a model, unambiguous, and shining clear and bright from the fog; instead, there are multiple competing models, and a competition among various scientists to promote their model or their computer program or secure their funding. And there is also the problem of stealing credit or even of outright falsification of data. Examples of these (just in passing) include the argument over who actually discovered HIV; feuds over the proper credit for the discovery/enunciation of the DNA double helix; allegations of fraudulent data against Nobel Prize winners; arguments over the origins of the human race (out of Africa vs. multiple centers); and out-and-out fraud in sociology and even cardiac research at Harvard. In other words, within science, there are two sources of difficulty: emerging fields, in which there is not a consensus; and fraud and competition. So what? the reader may ask. This sounds like nothing more than sour grapes like you might read from UFO fanatics, or the Institute for Creation Research. Science is not perfect, but it is still infinitely far ahead of anything else; and even the examples given show that science can find and correct its errors, which is more than anyone else is doing. Yes, thats true, as far as it goes; unfortunately, it doesnt go quite far enough, simply because those best prepared to assess problematic cases are themselves already scientists. What happens to the poor layperson, who has neither his own grants, nor his own lab[+], who doesnt know who to trust? It may be true that we know now, that heliobacter pylorii is the pathogen implicated in gastric ulcers. However, for a long time, everyone *knew* (including all the top medical doctors) that this was nonsense: ulcers were due to internal processes within the human body gone awry. The very, ahem, authoritative medical sources were themselves incorrect: and because they themselves were relying solely on authority, while still assuming and proclaiming the mantle of science.
However, even the above doesnt cover the entire scope of the problem -- which is that even if science *is* self-correcting, the process takes time. And in the meantime, people listen to whatever the state of the art is at the moment, and then walk away convinced that they know the right answer : even if the right answer changes on them in the meantime and they go on their merry way, seeing no need to revisit the subject.
Unfortunately, this problem has been compounded by another recent technological innovation: the Internet. It is said that the lie travels halfway around the world before the truth gets started. Unfortunately, this is not only true of lies anymore, but also of rumors, exaggerations, misunderstandings, and egotistical ravings supported by blue-ribbon government panels. Let us consider a specific example, the subject of healthy eating and the role of vitamins, fats, carbohydrates, and exercise in health.
Lets look at a number of claims which are out there, all of which have their backers, all of whom claim scientific authority for their validity:
The takeaway from this is, first, that science does (if actually done) lead to accurate explanations of physical phenomena, but only over time, and there is no hard-and-fast guarantee that scientific consensus (no matter how authoritatively endorsed) is actually true (as Feynmann said, "...if it doesnt agree with experiment, its wrong."); and unfortunately, a lot of people rely on hearsay, or outmoded material, or poorly-constructed experiments, or worse; and all of these things help to leave a God-awful mess behind when a layperson is trying to decide what science says.
So, thanks for the light of knowledge, but we wanted a BUD light!
[*] There were a whole series of these commercials, involving everything from a Richard Simmons lookalike frantically searching for a reflector for his girl on the beach, to poodles and a flaming hoop.
[#] Can you say "Global Warming?" I knew you could.
[$] There is room here by the way for interesting historical based musing on this point. Look at the gyrations undergone by those arguing for a geocentric based universe to account for increasingly complex motion of planetary bodies; and once again, consider the gyrations of those who wish to stake their reputations (and fortunes!) on anthropogenic global warming.
[+] The meteoric rise of technology and of its use within much of science is a mixed blessing: it is unquestionably good because it allows science to proceed at a much faster pace, and to solve questions previously unapproachable; but it comes with the serious side effects that much of science is now outside of the realm of the tinkerer or the amateur, and has become so specialized that real peer review -- independent replication and testing by those with no vested interest in the outcome -- is much more rare.
I’ll bet it flops.
Let me sum up what I gleaned: there is a difference between a hypothesis, postulate, theory, and law. Be sure to ask your local scientist which he is promoting and know the difference. Data is not knowledge. And science is messy and if anyone says it isn’t then they are looking for a handout or selling something.
Oh, and a lot of “smart” people are REALLY stuck on themselves and can’t take/won’t allow criticism.
caveat emptor holds true even in science.
But science is not often sold as that, more often it is sold as the *one* place that the layperson can let their guard down.
More's the pity.
Watch it Bud!
Constructive criticism cheerfully accepted.
Snarky criticism mournfully accepted.
Thank you so much for your insightful essay-post, dear grey_whiskers!
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