Irrationality and Science – May 13, 2020
“In science it often happens that scientists say, “You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,” and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.”
– Dr. Carl Sagan, keynote address at CSICOP conference (1987)
I particularly like the quote above as it speaks to the open-mindedness of science. If there’s evidence and supporting data, scientists are capable of changing their minds. It also acknowledges our human nature – changing our minds can be hard work. Yet, it must be done for us to progress as a species. History has shown that human beings are not naturally wired for logic. Irrationality seems to be a default state, for multiple reasons. Take the example of the theory of general relativity, published in the early 1900s. It faced a lot of opposition, as it was seen as a threat to the established order, there was widespread social and political unrest at the time, and, of course, there were elements of opposition due to religious beliefs and anti-Semitism.
Somehow, despite it being the 21st century, irrationality still finds a way – the most recent in the form of our response to COVID-19. Trump claimed that it would just miraculously go away here in the US, when now our number stands at nearly 84,000 dead. Often times when people don’t like what science tells them, they resort to conspiracy theories, mudslinging and pseudoscience.
Superstitions can be seen as an “insurance policy” of sorts (e.g., believing in God, just in case). Unrealistic optimism or an illusion of personal control can offer psychological benefits in times of stress (S. Taylor, UCLA). But science is powerful because it operates using empirically verifiable evidence – this evidence and data can literally save lives. To fight this viral threat, we must dissipate the fog of wishful thinking – that we can just have things go back to normal. We must make wise choices based on what the data show us or face consequences. If ever there is a time to look to science, it is now.