Being Scientifically Minded

08 Feb 2016

Personal Ethics

A recent encounter with a family member caused me to reflect on what it means to be scientifically minded. In this particular conversation, I was confronted with ideas such as “The CERN particle accelerator is causing catastrophic earthquakes”, “A sea monster washed up on the shore of New York and was covered up by the government,” and “There are lizard people living among us in secrecy.”

My reaction to all of these claims were “Bullshit!” but my family member just saw this reaction as evidence that I was too closed-minded to consider such possibilities. She said, “My father, who was a very scientific person, was open to any possibility if it was statistically possible.” This, then, was exactly where our world views didn’t line up. As a being with limited time, I don’t have the luxury of exploring every “possible” hypothesis. I therefore use an internal heuristic to deem what hypotheses are probable, and, based on my interested and my ability to comment on it, then I will invest research into that path. I saw this as being scientifically honest, but she saw it as being closed minded and stubborn.

Though I am still unconvinced that any of these theories warrants any of my attention, I wish I had communicated my position better. A scientifically minded individual cannot be closed minded. He cannot hold any convictions. Presented with evidence, he must be willing to shift his view on any topic, and therefore he shouldn’t present himself in a light that suggests otherwise.

I think of this idea in terms of Bayesian Statistics. If your prior probability is 0, then no amount of data will budge your posterior probability that a hypothesis is true. That’s the danger of conviction.

So, as a man of science, I will make an effort to better portray myself as open to any hypothesis, but also as having standards for what I will occupy my time with, which is different from being certain that a hypothesis cannot be true. An additional frustration I had in dealing with this family member was that she, like so many, saw “current scientific opinions” as the same as “science”, but science is just a process for uncovering the truth (much like its data science counterpart). That’s the true beauty of science: anything is possible, and for science to uncover something which was previously thought to be highly unlikely is it’s greatest strength, not a sign of weakness or a broken system.

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