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Atul Gawande and the Mistrust of Science

Continuing on with Commencement Season, Atul Gawande gave an address to the students of Cal Tech last Friday, delivering a message to future scientists, but one that applies equally to all of us as thinkers:

“Even more than what you think, how you think matters.”

Gawande addresses the current growing mistrust of “scientific authority” — the thought that because science creaks along one mistake at a time, that it isn't to be trusted. The misunderstanding of what scientific thinking is and how it works is at the root of much problematic ideology, and it's up to those who do understand it to promote its virtues.

It's important to realize that scientists, singular, are as fallible as the rest of us. Thinking otherwise only sets you up for a disappointment. The point of science is the collective, the forward advance of the hive, not the bee. It's sort of a sausage-making factory when seen up close, but when you pull back the view, it looks like a beautifully humming engine, steadily giving us more and more information about ourselves and the world around us. Science is, above all, a method of thought. A way of figuring out what's true and what we're just fooling ourselves about.

So explains Gawande:

Few working scientists can give a ground-up explanation of the phenomenon they study; they rely on information and techniques borrowed from other scientists. Knowledge and the virtues of the scientific orientation live far more in the community than the individual. When we talk of a “scientific community,” we are pointing to something critical: that advanced science is a social enterprise, characterized by an intricate division of cognitive labor. Individual scientists, no less than the quacks, can be famously bull-headed, overly enamored of pet theories, dismissive of new evidence, and heedless of their fallibility. (Hence Max Planck’s observation that science advances one funeral at a time.) But as a community endeavor, it is beautifully self-correcting.

Beautifully organized, however, it is not. Seen up close, the scientific community—with its muddled peer-review process, badly written journal articles, subtly contemptuous letters to the editor, overtly contemptuous subreddit threads, and pompous pronouncements of the academy— looks like a rickety vehicle for getting to truth. Yet the hive mind swarms ever forward. It now advances knowledge in almost every realm of existence—even the humanities, where neuroscience and computerization are shaping understanding of everything from free will to how art and literature have evolved over time.

He echoes Steven Pinker in the thought that science, traditionally left to the realm of discovering “physical” reality, is now making great inroads into what might have previously been considered philosophy, by exploring why and how our minds work the way they do. This can only be accomplished by deep critical thinking across a broad range of disciplines, and by the dual attack of specialists uncovering highly specific nuggets and great synthesizers able to suss out meaning from the big pile of facts.

The whole speech is worth a read and reflection, but Gawande's conclusion is particularly poignant for an educated individual in a Republic:

The mistake, then, is to believe that the educational credentials you get today give you any special authority on truth. What you have gained is far more important: an understanding of what real truth-seeking looks like. It is the effort not of a single person but of a group of people—the bigger the better—pursuing ideas with curiosity, inquisitiveness, openness, and discipline. As scientists, in other words.

Even more than what you think, how you think matters. The stakes for understanding this could not be higher than they are today, because we are not just battling for what it means to be scientists. We are battling for what it means to be citizens.

Still Interested? Read the rest, and read a few other of this year's commencements by Nassim Taleb and Gary Taubes. Or read about E.O. Wilson, the great Harvard biologist, and what he thought it took to become a great scientist. (Hint: The same stuff it takes for anyone to become a great critical thinker.)