Science viewed as a way of quickly recovering from stupidity

Draft of 2005.08.23 ☛ 2015.03.16

People are dumb. They make mistakes, they mislead themselves, they are merely boundedly rational in a complex world, they think fuzzily, they rely on heuristics that generalize poorly, and they are prone to over-reliance on superstition and maladaptive instincts and pat hackneyed answers. If you want to know something, don’t walk up to an arbitrary person and ask them to figure it out for you.

In reading and complaining about Kevin Chang’s articles on Intelligent Design in the New York Times, it strikes me that what people misunderstand the most about science is this: We as scientists expect people to be wrong, including ourselves. The scientific process is not about finding the truth, but rather noticing and recovering from the stupid mistakes we make, faster and better than anybody else can.

The infrastructure of science, what makes it science, is no more philosophically complicated than that: it’s the transparency, the public statements of hypotheses and results, the checking each other, the arguments, the peer review. It’s not falsifiability and what’s a “theory” or a “fact”, it’s not positive and negative heuristics and research programmes, it’s not atheism and materialist bias in interpreting reality, it’s not logical consequences and induction and deduction or even abduction. Science is all about listening to other people when they tell you you’re full of shit. It’s about saying everything in a framework designed so that other people can check it. And it’s about responding gracefully when they do, inevitably, tell you your shit-levels are a bit high, sorry, revise and resubmit, thank you very much.

That’s the crucial point where ID falls on its face. It surely doesn’t manage to be judged by the same criteria as scientific research on evolution, or its believers would have vast bibliographies of reasonable papers in peer-reviewed journals. Which they do not.

So when you get right down to it, ID’s attempts to evade the scientific community’s steady and consistent stream of invective, calling them vacuous and wrong, is just another way of letting people stay stupid longer.