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Friday, 9 December 2011

Your opinions are worthless!

"Science tells you that your opinion is worthless when confronted with the evidence. That's a difficult thing to learn." (Prof. Brian Cox)

I came across this excellent quotation in a recent New Statesman interview with physicists Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw.  It captures what is, for me, one of the essential features of the scientific mindset: humility.

And it stands in stark comparison with the default mindset of advocates of the otherwise varied collection of pseudo-scientific beliefs, like alternative medicine.

The world is complex and difficult to understand.  The idiosyncrasies of my personal beliefs are unlikely to grasp the truth of some matter.  But, by working within a community of committed colleagues, many of whom I have never and will never meet, and by using methods of testing that have been honed over many years, we might have a chance.

This attitude of humility is rare in our culture of relativism.  The view that everything is subjective, and that everyone's opinions are equally valid infuses many debates.  And while this stance might be valid in questions of value (Eastenders or Coronation Street? Clooney or Pitt?), it is absurd to think they apply to questions of knowledge.

Some things are true (or probably true) and others are not (or probably not).  Science is the most effective way we know of distinguishing between them. And it is not the opinions of individual scientists that determines what counts, but their theories' abilities to survive ruthless and repeated tests.  Scientific theories are those that have survived attempts to kill them.  They might die in the future, of course, but for now they are the best that we know.

An irony is that science is often portrayed as arrogant by its critics.  I have no shadow of a doubt that there are arrogant scientists; they are, on the whole, human.  But science is the epitome of self-effacing modesty.  It really does not matter what I think, or feel, or believe, or 'know' - science says - if this idea does not pass the test, it is out (or, at least, subject to serious reconsideration).

Compare this to the attitude of pseudoscience.  Alternative medicine, conspiracy theories, creationism, spiritualism, and countless other forms of intellectual diarrhoea with which are bombarded are different manifestations of a shared stance: my opinion is the ultimate arbiter.

The fundamental difference between scientifically minded and non-scientifically minded people is that the former think that personal opinions are irrelevant in the pursuit of truth; the latter think they are everything.

If a scientist defended his or her theory with the words 'I don't care what the evidence says, I disagree' he or she would be viewed as an idiot with an unhealthy value of their own importance.  But we hear sentiments like this from advocates of pseudoscience all of the time.  The world is full of people who think that tea, or sugar tablets, or laughter, or aura-tweaking, will cure life-threatening illnesses.  And the lack of evidence in support of their claims is irrelevant, because they know.

In alt-med world, anyone's precious opinions about, say, cancer treatment are as respectable as those of a Professor of Oncology.  Their arrogance is breath-taking as much as it is life-threatening.

So, I offer for your consideration and reflection the splendid quotation by Drs Cox and Forshaw.  Like science itself, it is a candle in the darkness.

1 comment:

Peter Smith Talking Cures said...

Whether I agree with the main thrust if this thread is of little consequence, however when it comes to Scientific medical Evidence I am unable to find enough quality evidence to fill a Pin Head as medical treatments are meant to cure with many millions of people ill, often with multiple illness some caused by the very treatments created to cure. So unless you have some better knowledge of treatment than the world-wide medical profession where using scientific treatments which actually cure instead of as medicine is so good at; burying its successes. Perhaps the it is time a New Candle was lit.