Much of the catfight that is happening on the internet centers around science and being responsive to evidence. The story that Science and its generally liberal allies like to put out about it is that scientists (and by proxy liberals) are responsive to evidence. In fact though, anyone who studies the history of science knows that scientists are often the LEAST responsive people to the evidence. Why? Because they LOVE their pet theories. I mean, seriously. Think about it. You devote your whole life to an idea. You cherish it. It’s your baby. And then along comes somebody nobody has ever heard of with some piece of evidence that destroys your theory. Forget that guy! Why should I change my mind and destroy my life’s work just because some new evidence comes along? Way better to fight tooth and nail to rationalize what I already believe and discredit that other guy as a kook!
Max Planck, the legendary physicist, identified this problem 111 years ago when he wrote “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” Max Planck lived through a scientific revolution. He saw the unreasonable behavior of his scientific colleagues, the emotional drama and all the ways in which the humanity of scientists interferes with scientific progress. “Science proceeds one funeral at a time.”
In fact, since memes are now how ideas are communicated, let’s take a look at another one. Ygritte’s now immortal line to Jon Snow in Game of Thrones.
Scientific Revolutions are fought tooth and nail by scientists. Descartes’ supporters fought Newton’s Universal Theory of Gravitation. Max Planck himself both helped usher in quantum physics and then along with Einstein opposed the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics when he was an old man. And then there’s germ theory. Oh, germ theory. That greatest of Scientific Revolutions…that was opposed for decades by powerful doctors and scientists. The degree to which facts don’t win out WITHIN science has countless examples. However, there is one example that has far more viral potential than any other. The story of John Snow. No. Not Jon Snow the bastard of Winterfell. John Snow, the medical doctor who founded epidemiology, the study of epidemics.
Before germ theory, the dominant theory about what caused diseases was the miasmatic theory. Miasma means bad air. In fact, even though this theory has been discredited, its fingerprints are still all over the name of one very famous disease: malaria. Mal means bad in Medieval Italian. Aria means air in Medieval Italian. Medieval Italians believed malaria was caused by bad air. Kind of, guys. It turns out that malaria is caused by air filled with mosquitos that when they bite you spit into your blood and transmit an organism into your blood called a plasmodium. Obvi. Duh! Medieval Italians were sooooooo stupid. How did they not see this?!? Well, for one thing, they couldn’t. Plasmodia aren’t something you can see with the naked eye and Medieval Italians didn’t have microscopes. The miasmatic theory wasn’t a failure of their intelligence. Humanity just hadn’t acquired the tools to gather good enough data to shatter their beliefs. And then along comes Dr. John Snow. In the 1850s, the medical and scientific establishment believed that the cholera epidemics raging across the land were caused by bad air. Charles Dickens’ illustrator, Robert Seymour, made nineteenth century memes to illustrate this problem. Look at those bad smells causing cholera.
John Snow, on the other hand, thought this Miasmatic Theory smelled a bit whiffy. So, he decided to collect some data. Nobody had apparently ever thought to do this which is why it’s usually regarded as the founding event of epidemiology. And here’s what he found. All the cholera cases seemed to be clustered around the Broad Street Pump.
John Snow promptly removed the handle from the pump and the epidemic ended. Yayyyyy!!!
And then John Snow published his findings and he got this reaction…
Turns out though that John Snow did know something. Turns out that the Broad Street Pump was next to a cesspit which had begun to leak another organism you can’t see with the naked eye, vibrio cholerae. What is that?!? It’s a fecal bacteria. Basically, the people who drank from the Broad Street Pump were drinking water with poo germs in it. Yummy!!!
The idea that any humans are impartial in changing their minds in light of evidence is laughable. The idea that scientists are is ridonculous. Scientists are often the LEAST likely to change their minds in light of evidence because they LOVE their pet theories. To his credit, William Farr (who had bitterly opposed John Snow) did change his mind…over a decade later once John Snow was already dead.
And now, it’s time to bring the story of John Snow back to life. As the war over what to believe rages on the internet, let’s not pretend that scientists and PhDs are immune from bias. In fact, let’s remember that they can be MORE biased towards their ideas. So, let’s all discard the idea of human authority. Let’s decide based on the evidence alone. May the best theories win. And to anyone who tries to appeal to intuitions of authority in settling scientific disputes, I say…