Tag Archives: Atul Gawande

Atul Gawande on the mistrust of science

The New Yorker published Atul Gawande’s commencement address at the California Institute of Technology. He calls upon the graduates to defend science from pseudo science. I don’t think he’s really defending science so much as basic reasoning. He writes:

To defend those beliefs, few dismiss the authority of science. They dismiss the authority of the scientific community. People don’t argue back by claiming divine authority anymore. They argue back by claiming to have the truer scientific authority. It can make matters incredibly confusing. You have to be able to recognize the difference between claims of science and those of pseudoscience.

Science’s defenders have identified five hallmark moves of pseudoscientists. They argue that the scientific consensus emerges from a conspiracy to suppress dissenting views. They produce fake experts, who have views contrary to established knowledge but do not actually have a credible scientific track record. They cherry-pick the data and papers that challenge the dominant view as a means of discrediting an entire field. They deploy false analogies and other logical fallacies. And they set impossible expectations of research: when scientists produce one level of certainty, the pseudoscientists insist they achieve another.

To be precise, all five of those moves are logical fallacies–well most of them anyway. And this speaks to the broader point–it’s not just science, but basic reasoning that he’s defending. The trouble is, however, that the enemies, as it were, of reason take themselves to be its defenders. In fact, calling them out on their sorry reasoning, as Gawande has just done, is, as Gawande notes, not advisable:

The challenge of what to do about this—how to defend science as a more valid approach to explaining the world—has actually been addressed by science itself. Scientists have done experiments. In 2011, two Australian researchers compiled many of the findings in “The Debunking Handbook.” The results are sobering. The evidence is that rebutting bad science doesn’t work; in fact, it commonly backfires. Describing facts that contradict an unscientific belief actually spreads familiarity with the belief and strengthens the conviction of believers. That’s just the way the brain operates; misinformation sticks, in part because it gets incorporated into a person’s mental model of how the world works. Stripping out the misinformation therefore fails, because it threatens to leave a painful gap in that mental model—or no model at all.

To put this another way. Science teaches you a lot of truths and techniques that don’t matter to people who most need them. Invoking these truths and techniques not only does not convince them, it makes it worse. By analogy, the truths and techniques of critical thinking 101 don’t matter to the people who most need them and invoking them only serves to make matters worse.

Read the rest of Gawande’s piece.  At least he’s optimistic.