The wonderful thing about living in the age of the internet is things people long thought but never dared say have come bursting out on the world. As someone who loves science, I’m glad that all the anti-vaxxers, flat earthers, creationists, global warming deniers and more have come bursting out of the wood work. You have to get these ideas out in the open so you can actually find people who believe these things and help them test their ideas. And while science lovers generally focus on the problem of people who believe things that are a bad fit for the data, there is another problem among science’s supposed allies. Humans who don’t understand science at all and have turned it into petty tribalism over dogma. They put Darwin fish on their cars. They insult people who don’t believe in global warming even when those people actually know more climate science than they do. They pretend as if vaccines NEVER cause injuries rather than viewing them as a calculated risk. And they generally annoy, irritate and alienate the people whose minds science needs to change in order to be effective. With friends like these, science doesn’t need enemies.
I’ve had the privilege over the last few years to interview over 200 of the world’s leading scientists and they are humble, curious and reflective. They also think in a fundamentally different way. Take, for example, Caltech quantum physicist Spiros Michalakis. Earlier this year, Spiros and I had a three-part conversation about the search for The Theory of Everything. Pretty soon though, Spiros corrected me and explained that while the idea of singular answer was great marketing that, in fact, it would be The Theories of Everything. Theories of Everything? How would that work? Well, he explained that by saying that humans truncate and renormalize. I’ve been thinking about both the problem of science as tribalism for a while and how to communicate this concept of “truncate and renormalize” for a while. I realize that the irony is that it comes down to the fact that most of us are flat earthers…most of the time. Honestly, when you’re driving along the road are you thinking about the earth being round. Nope.
What you’re doing here is truncating and renormalizing. You’re truncating (cutting out the rest of the data you know about the earth) and then renormalizing (acting as if there’s all the data there is). Thinking the earth is flat is a good local approximation in the photo above. On the other hand, even self-proclaimed flat earthers wouldn’t think of the earth as flat here. The local topography is what matters.
On the other hand, if we pan out then we’re no longer truncating quite as much. Now, the earth appears round.
Except, of course, as any scientist knows. The earth is not round. It is an imperfect and bumpy oblate spheroid. Round is just humans truncating and renormalizing. We ignore that the earth is squashed at the poles and swollen at the equator even though the data is quite clear and has been known for a very long time. Why then do we scream at flat earthers as unscientific but allow this round earth approximation to get a pass? Because we’re not actually talking about science as a way of thinking here. We’re dealing with symbols of tribal membership.
Human tribalism has always been an issue. It’s an unavoidable issue because of what we now call The Dunbar Number. Human brains are socially intelligent. That’s humanity’s superpower. But there are real limits to how many relationships we can handle. As you know since you’re working on your orange belt, that humans have to stereotype. These sort of easy symbols have always been quick tests for knowing who is with us and who is against us. Flags, jerseys, crosses, stars of David and on and on. There’s no shortage of these symbols.
Christianity and Islam were specifically designed to help counteract tribalism. As you learned in the orange belt, that’s literally the point of the story of the Good Samaritan. And yet, both Christianity and Islam quickly descended back into tribalism. Catholic vs Orthodox. Catholic vs Protestant. Sunni vs Shia. And then countless sects within this. And, of course, it happens in politics too. Humans quickly form teams and struggle to maintain substance in their disagreements. We revert back to petty symbolism.
This tendency was satirized a long time ago by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels. In it, Gulliver meets the people of Lilliput and Blefuscu. They both revere the same prophet and study the same holy book Al Coran…but they’re in bitter conflict. Why? Because the prophet commanded that true believers would eat eggs from the “convenient end.” This then led everybody to completely miss the point of Al Coran and focus on whether people ate their eggs from the big end or the little end.
The #BecauseScience tribe has now reached the exact same point.
Science is about the personal practice of humility, curiosity and self-questioning. It’s not about insulting others or petty tribalism. In fact, like Christianity and Islam, that’s precisely what science evolved to avoid. But if people want to drive the idea that #TeamScience believes the earth is round and not flat, then I’ll use that to teach what science actually is.
Real scientists think the earth is flat, round and a bumpy imperfect oblate spheroid. They pick and choose the mental model that serves the situation.
And that’s exactly how the Theories of Everything will work. There will be different models for the quantum level, the atomic level, the molecular level and so on and so forth. So, let’s be clear, whether you’re a flat earther or someone who goes around insulting flat earthers, you’re making it clear to the world that you don’t understand science. You may have learned all the dogma but you don’t live its principles. And that is very much the same problem that Christianity, Islam and Buddhism find themselves in.