Sci-gasm Podcast

The age of information pushes us to ignorance, but it doesn’t have to

In the age of limitless knowledge, we’ve decided to opt for ignorance. I don’t blame us, we recoil at the sheer weight of it. But there is a way to escape this information overload.

 

 

The three R’s – reading, writing, and arithmetic – are the foundations of a basic skills-oriented education program in most educational facilities. However, in an age where almost everyone has instant access to incredible amounts of information, it can be just as easy to be overwhelmed by it – or as it is affectionately known, “information overload”. This has changed the way in which we comprehend and process information.

Gone are the days for most when they would open up their favourite morning paper and read about the news. Nowadays we have a variety of sources to which we can further enhance our understanding of current events. At first glance, this is a good thing. More variety in the way news is delivered means major media outlets wielding less influence on society. The downside? For every Snopes and The Conversation there’s a Breitbart or an Infowars, and with each of these sites, it is solely up to the individual reader to determine the amount of truth given to them by the source.

So why then are there only three R’s? What about “Rationality”? I, like most, would argue that we place a limit on harnessing the human intellect when we engage in the three R’s without rationality. I believe that a rational mind does not just appear in an individual, but rather is developed through scepticism, critical thinking and most importantly, admitting one is wrong in light of new and valid evidence. All of these are promoted, as well as celebrated by the scientific endeavour.

Our current understanding of the scientific method has undoubtedly been the biggest influence on modern society. It enabled us to develop the transistor and create devices that Newton, Aristotle or Archimedes could have only ever dreamed about; and better yet, they can fit in the palm of your hand! I imagine a mind like Einstein, Darwin or Curie could have had access to the limitless information that scientists have today. This is by no means a dig at the amazing minds pushing the forefront of science in this day and age. Science has pushed so far forward that our understanding of the universe is far stranger and complicated than one as little back as 100 years ago could ever fathom. However, this means that we must respect and value the processes that led society to this point. To quote Spider-Man in the August 1962 issue:

“With great power there must also come great responsibility.”

What good is reading a news article and having access to almost every single “bit” of information if it cannot be met with a certain level of scepticism, and a high level of comprehension? These are the cognitive tools that allow us as individuals to form opinions on issues – or better yet, know that we need to understand specific issues in greater detail to inform our decisions and hold a respectable position.

Imagine the countless lives that may have been saved if everyone based their decisions on the best available evidence. For example, if a politician’s speech, a decision of a nation to go to war, or even a mother weighing up the evidence as to whether to get their child vaccinated, were assessed with scepticism, critical thinking and self-regulatory judgement? Although purely speculative, it is easy to imagine that we would be much further progressed as a society. Some might argue that we might have just dug our heels into the ground and demanded more and more evidence. This is where the definition of scepticism starts to become blurry.

Often cynicism can be confused with scepticism. In short, a sceptic will change their mind in light of new evidence, a cynic will always assume the worst, and evidence has no bearing on their position, and no one does it better than the anti-vaccine movement.

Even after countless large-scale epidemiological surveys and lab tests there still exists cynicism from the anti-vaxx movement. Some common statements often said are “All the scientists are just in the pocket of Big Pharma”, or as Robert DeNiro said on the TODAY Show, “Let’s just find out the truth” – even though the most informed and educated persons in immunology (such as Prof Paul Offit) and most current and respectable research would say that we are already informed enough to make safe and beneficial decisions. It is this ignorance (sprinkled with cynicism) demonstrated by DiNero that is passed off as scepticism, and it has allowed science denial to appear as a valid opponent to the scientific consensus on many issues.

So how do we address this issue? We must go and do what rational thinkers should do: head the best available evidence.

One of the best ways to achieve rationality is through critical thinking. First, let’s define critical thinking. Critical thinking is reflective and reasonable thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do. Unsurprisingly, teaching critical thinking to students can have a positive impact on their lives and the decisions that they make.

 

A sceptic will change their mind in light of new evidence, a cynic will always assume the worst, and evidence has no bearing on their position.

 

If our educational institutions are to further critical thinking competence of students and assist in the development of rational thinking graduates, it must give them the opportunity to treat rationality like they would any of the three other Rs, through observation, imitation, practice and finally reflection. Sci-gasm recently had Lawrence Krauss on the show and we were discussing how, in an age of limitless information and easy access to it, can we as a society be facing the problems we are today?

One could have easily thought that as a 21st-century civilisation we would’ve easily cleared these hurdles. Lawrence highlighted, what looking back was a very obvious response: “The trouble is we’ve got more information, but more misinformation… the web doesn’t tell you what’s good and what’s bad.” Meaning we have to be capable of judging fact from fiction.

We interviewed Professor Brian Nosek, who authored a paper that has caused a stir, not only the psychological field but the entire scientific community. Professor Nosek’s research showed that over 60% of psychology papers could not be replicated. This means that there was a very big reliability problem in psychological research that needed to be addressed. This has encouraged many other scientific disciplines to conduct similar projects assessing the reliability of their own field of science.

Hang on! Science is based around being able to repeat an experiment. If your results cannot be repeated, then there are major flaws in your study and original conclusions. We questioned whether this has led Professor Nosek to lose faith in his field and the way in which scientific research is conducted. He highlighted that it was only through the use of the scientific method that his team was able to expose the flaw in the experiments of so many psychology studies. This is the cornerstone to developing an opinion and also developing as an honest person being able to admit when you are wrong. It is with the scientific method and all that it brings to the table that we can assist in the development of a rational thinking society.

Not everyone is an anti-vaxxer or a flat earther, and everybody exhibits ignorance about something (with some individual’s ignorance being glaringly more obvious than others). There are some things that the scientific method may never be able to explain, for example, why you like a certain painting that others think is worthless and other subjective issues. We are merely just animals responding to our environment and the information provided to us. Some will come to one conclusion and others may come to another. We as a society must demand that critical thinking and evidence-based policy drive the actions of those in power and that their decisions are informed and truthful; not just what we want to hear.

This would be the rational thing to do.

 

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