Tibimet Cogitate (Think For Yourself)

Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe ... till we come to a hard bottom ... which we call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake ... below freshet and frost and fire, a place where you might found a wall or state, or set a lamp-post safely .
Thoreau, in Walden:

I understand that 50% of the people in the world are dumber than the other half, by definition. But I'm suspicious it's actually more than that.

Still, there's nothing wrong with being dumb or naive or uneducated. If you're honest.

If you're honest, you start with, "I don't know." And you can stop there. It's okay not to know. And you don't have to make stuff up if you don't. We used to do that to explain things like thunder and death, and it didn't work too well. Lightning still killed people even though we prayed to Thor to stop.

Then, as now, you could say, "I want to find out why." And some people did.

If, after trying hard, thinking for yourself and not taking other people's word for it, you still don't know, then--if you're honest--you'll admit, "I still don't know." And you can stop there. It really is okay.

But if you're curious and have the stamina, you' ll say, "I'm gonna keep trying until I find out. Maybe I will, and maybe I won't. But I'll try." And some people do.

If you aren't curious, or don't have the stamina--and you're honest--you'll say, "I don't know and I just can't find out;  but I'm okay with that." But not too many people do that. An awful lot of people just make things up.

But, fortunately, lots of curious people have spent lots of energy to find answers to a lots of things for lots of years. They've even looked for answers to how best to look for answers, and how to know if you have the right one.

The method people adopted and refined works so well that we've been able to figure out why things fall when you drop them, and why clouds make loud sparks, and why north is that way, and why grass is green and grows, and why we get sick. We've even figured out why distant galaxies are where they are, why your skin is the color that it is, and how you can split atoms to make electricity. We don't have all the answers, but that's okay. We're working on it.

This method of finding things out, and all we've learned using that method, all we've done with the knowledge we've gained, is the best method we've found. It's not based on authority or dogma, it's based on the fact that some people always think the answers we have are not the complete answer. And that's a good thing, unless your just gripe and don't try to find a better answer. Fortunately, honest people try to come up with better answers, and they test their ideas and explain them to as many knowledgeable people as possible and argue and refine and retest and adopt and reject. Other, fundamentally dishonest people, just claim they have a better answer, argue with everyone else's answer, but won't make the effort to provide an alternative.

There really are people that claim the world is flat, we're the center of the universe, men didn't land on the moon, the US government arranged 9/11, the Nazis really didn't kill all that many Jews, and Allah not Jesus is God (or vice versus).

If you think you have a better answer, you should try to prove it. In fact, if you think you have a better method for arriving at the truth about the way things work then, by all means, you should try to prove that!

But if you're not smart enough to understand the answers other people have come up with using the best method available, or if you're smart enough but too lazy to learn the answer, then the best answer is just be honest and say, "I don't know." And shut up.

The theory of evolution, for example, isn't something you believe or not. It's something you understand or not. The same is true for the theory of relativity and the theory of electromagnetism. The same method was used to find the answer to all three--and lots of other facts about the way things work. You can't disagree with one without disagreeing with all of them. Unless you're dishonest, of course.

Maybe Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman said it best in his 1974 Caltech commencement address:

It's a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty--a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid--not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you've eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked--to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can--if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong--to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. . . .

In summary, the idea is to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another. . . .

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself--and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you've not fooled yourself, it's easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.


For more along these lines, Harvard Professor Steven Pinker has written 'In defense of dangerous ideas'. And so has lawyer Timothy Sandefur.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Il semble que vous soyez un expert dans ce domaine, vos remarques sont tres interessantes, merci.

- Daniel