The intergenerational struggle between science and critical thinking

by David Garofalo

Even within the professional community we think of the scientific method as a noble enterprise designed to get at truth. Experiments and observations are undertaken. Data is gathered and interpreted. Does it support or contradict an idea about the world? In answering this question, critical thinking skills are allegedly brought to bear. This is the picture of science that is framed on the wall. But on close inspection it captures little about the actual day-to-day workings of science. History shows that ideas we form about the world are made compatible with evidence through an intergenerational tug-of-war that brings scientists kicking and screaming toward a new picture of reality.

When Aristarchus used evidence to infer a Sun-centered solar system over 2200 years ago, his writings weren’t even considered worth preserving. It took 80 generations for this idea to take hold, so long that once we got there we called him Copernicus. When Semmelweis produced data showing that obstetricians washing their hands prior to delivering a baby reduced the incidence of fevers and mortality dramatically, his colleagues took offence, locked him up in a mental institution, and went back to delivering babies in the traditional way. It took a generation of dead mothers and the work of Louis Pasteur to generate change. When Maxwell put together the equations that made our modern technological civilization possible, his colleagues ridiculed him as a magician. When Payne-Gaposchkin discovered what most of the universe is made of, her advisor imposed a description of the results as “spurious” so as to avoid stirring up the sensibilities of men who thought the Earth and Sun were made of the same stuff. When Alvarez showed how the dinosaurs went extinct by way of meteor impact, geologists were up in arms about a physicist encroaching on their field of expertise. When Milgrom exposed the dark matter paradigm for its veneer of mathematical respectability, astronomers buried themselves in deep underground caves where they could not hear good arguments. Despite having excluded the entire parameter space predicted for the existence of dark matter by theorists, they emerged decades later from their caves with greater conviction in its existence. When I called out astrophysicists on the incompatibility between their simulations of black holes and observations, they questioned the nobility of my motives and waved their recent checks from the National Science Foundation in my face. When Sarkar showed that the universe is not the same everywhere, it was too late. The Nobel committee had already given its kudos to those who assumed it was. And that's the tip of the iceberg.

The most powerful instinct a flock experiences is collective behavior. The critical thinking needed to advance a paradigm is only allowed to emerge slowly as the pressures to conform ease through generations. As a scientist who uses arguments based on evidence to persuade, worry not by the reaction of your contemporaries, don’t be surprised by their attempts to smother ideas they don’t even understand. Their moves are less interesting scientifically and more so sociologically. The picture you have hanging on the wall belongs there. But like interesting art, it requires some interpretation. The scientific process reveals its powerful nature only as an intergenerational process.

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