You hear it all the time - the plaintiff bleat of the bewildered common man - ‘I don’t know what to think - they change their minds all the time!’ Generally it’s in response to the latest puff from the media or newspapers on the subject of health. (I say health here as it’s cogent to this site, but it applies equally to all of the complex issues that is the human condition).
You know the drill:
‘Cancer caused by/cured by’.
‘This superfood will cure (insert malady)’.
‘Gene therapy will...in the next ten years...’
So who do you believe?
Well generally it doesn’t really come to that. What happens is that if the matter chimes with you then you wearily move allegiance until the next paradigm shift has to be taken into account. More often than than not it will be accommodated with dull acceptance as your critical faculty has been blunted by constant bombardment.
For you are in the hands of the experts and you trust them don’t you?
Because you had (I emphasise the ‘had’ here) very little choice.
For so many years now anybody with an issue they might have a problem with was just about stymied when it came to expanding knowledge on that particular subject. It took a lot of grit and determination, a lot of courage and a dogged endurance to track down the books; that’s right, books, to winkle out what might be needed. That generally required many hours in the reference library.
As just a rather mundane example of this I can give you an example relating to just an experience of mine. I was presented with a dispute, which would have cost me £50,000 has I chosen to roll over. It had been presented to me as self evident from the point of the other partie's expert who used the word ‘clearly’ a lot. Cutting a long (two years) story short I did the reference library thing and the other party got £450.
What’s different now?
The hours and pain I went through gathering the information through centuries old methodology I could now access in an hour on the web. What’s more I can check and verify if that information is correct by turning to the relevant research papers and the veracity of their authors. I can also try to balance my expectations by looking at the opposite point of view which tends to temper over enthusiasm.
Nowadays any new book to hit the market concerning any aspect of science has to have a massive index and reference source, as the targeted audience are invariably intelligent, curious and informed. So if you are trying to present an old idea dressed up in new clothes you’d better be able to show where your new data is coming from or you will be dismissed as just one more sloppy researcher who is still trying to convince the people that the emperor is wearing new clothes.
What’s really great is that the system is a self limiting loop, as anyone can put forth an argument and it will stand or fall on it merits, for no matter how passionate on individual is on any subject it will be subject to peer review, and those peers will be the common man armed with intellect and a computer!
Nowadays people visiting their doctor are better able to enter the surgery if not fully informed then certainly informed enough to make the discussion a two way affair. The day is coming when a younger generation of patients approaching a younger generation of doctors will not be greeted with an inner groan of ‘Not another bloody internet expert.’
People want certainty, and with certainty there is no need for thinking or questioning. Example?
How many people one day say to themselves:
‘There must be more to life than this - I think I need a religion.’ Then, with due diligence, they start on a long journey; examining the merits of every faith that appeals to them before deciding on the one that best suits them. Some may make that long journey, most just adopt the certainty of their parents and they then defend their belief with the inherited certainty of those parents!
Here’s another example of trammelled thinking:
One Sunday a husband, having seen his wife preparing the usual lamb roast in the usual way. Curious, he asks her, ‘Why do you break the leg bone before putting the joint in the roasting tray?’ She answers: ‘Because my mother always did.’ The husband ‘phones his mother in law and asks the same question. She replies, ‘Because my roasting tray was too small to get it in whole.’
In the same vein, how many of us still put a little cross on the bottom of a brussels sprout? Doesn’t make a ha’porth of difference but lots of people do it !
It’s the same with science. How many scientists, having spent a career defending and bolstering a self evident truth, which eventually will crumble in the face of new evidence would hold their hands up and say:
‘I was wrong!’
Not many I’d guess, after all, they’re only human!
I had intended to carry on in this vein, but the stuff I wanted to cover I’ve already posted on the Ronald Krouss discussion, have a look there if you’d like to read it.