2011 : WHAT SCIENTIFIC CONCEPT WOULD IMPROVE EVERYBODY'S COGNITIVE TOOLKIT?

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Physicist, MIT; Researcher, Precision Cosmology; Scientific Director, Foundational Questions Institute
Scientific Concept

I think the scientific concept that would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit the most is "scientific concept".

Despite spectacular success in research, I feel that our global scientific community has been nothing short of a spectacular failure when it comes to educating the public. Haitians burned 12 "witches" in 2010. In the US, recent polls show that 39% consider astrology scientific, and 40% believe that our human species is less than 10,000 years old. If everyone understood the concept of "scientific concept", these percentages would be zero.

Moreover, the world would be a better place, since people with a scientific lifestyle, basing their decisions on correct information, maximize their chances of success. By making rational buying and voting decisions, they also strengthen the scientific approach to decision-making in companies, organizations and governments.

Why have we scientists failed so miserably? I think the answers lie mainly in psychology, sociology and economics.

A scientific lifestyle requires a scientific approach to both gatherininformation and using information, and both have their pitfalls.

You're clearly more likely to make the right choice if you're aware of the full spectrum of arguments before making your mind up, yet there are many reasons why people don't get such complete information. Many lack access to it (3% of Afghans have internet, and in a 2010 poll, 92% didn't know about the 9/11 attacks). 

Many are too swamped with obligations and distractions to seek it. Many seek information only from sources that confirm their preconceptions. The most valuable information can be hard to find even for those who are online and uncensored, buried in an unscientific media avalanche.

Then there's what we do with the information we have. The core of a scientific lifestyle is to change your mind when faced with information that disagrees with your views, avoiding intellectual inertia, yet many laud leaders stubbornly sticking to their views as "strong". The great physicist Richard Feynman hailed "distrust of experts" as a cornerstone of science, yet herd mentality and blind faith in authority figures is widespread. Logic forms the basis of scientific reasoning, yet wishful thinking, irrational fears and other cognitive biases often dominate decisions.

So what can we do to promote a scientific lifestyle?

The obvious answer is improving education. In some countries, having even the most rudimentary education would be a major improvement (less than half of all Pakistanis can read). By undercutting fundamentalism and intolerance, it would curtail violence and war.

By empowering women, it would curb poverty and the population explosion. However, even countries that offer everybody education can make major improvements.

 All too often, schools resemble museums, reflecting the past rather than shaping the future. The curriculum should shift from one watered down by consensus and lobbying to skills our century needs, for relationships, health, contraception, time management, critical thinking and recognizing propaganda. For youngsters, learning a global language and typing should trump long division and writing cursive. In the internet age, my own role as a classroom teacher has changed. I'm no longer needed as a conduit of information, which my students can simply download on their own. Rather, my key role is inspiring a scientific lifestyle, curiosity and desire to learn more.

Now let's get to the most interesting question: how can we really make a scientific lifestyle take root and flourish? 

Reasonable people have been making similar arguments for better education since long before I was in diapers, yet rather than improving, education and adherence to a scientific lifestyle is arguably deteriorating further in many countries, including the US. Why? Clearly because there are powerful forces pushing back in the opposite direction, and they are pushing more effectively. Corporations concerned that a better understanding of certain scientific issues would harm their profits have an incentive to muddy the waters, as do fringe religious groups concerned that questioning their pseudoscientific claims would erode their power.

So what can we do? The first thing we scientists need to do is get off our high horses, admit that our persuasive strategies have failed, and develop a better strategy. We have the advantage of having the better arguments, but the anti-scientific coalition has the advantage of better funding.

However, and this is painfully ironic, it is also more scientifically organized! If a company wants to change public opinion to increase their profits, it deploys scientific and highly effective marketing tools. What do people believe today? What do we want them to believe tomorrow? Which of their fears,  insecurities, hopes and other emotions can we take advantage of? What's the most cost-effective way of changing their mind? Plan a campaign. Launch. Done.

Is the message oversimplified or misleading? Does it unfairly discredit the competition? That's par for the course when marketing the latest smartphone or cigarette, so it would be naive to think that the code of conduct should be any different when this coalition fights science.

Yet we scientists are often painfully naive, deluding ourselves that just because we think we have the moral high ground, we can somehow defeat this corporate-fundamentalist coalition by using obsolete unscientific strategies. Based of what scientific argument wil it make a hoot of a difference if we grumble "we won't stoop that low" and "people need to change" in faculty lunch rooms and recite statistics to journalists? 

We scientists have basically been saying "tanks are unethical, so let's fight tanks with swords".

To teach people what a scientific concept is and how a scientific lifestyle will improve their lives, we need to go about it scientifically:

We need new science advocacy organizations which use all the same scientific marketing and fundraising tools as the anti-scientific coalition.
We'll need to use many of the tools that make scientists cringe, from ads and lobbying to focus groups that identify the most effective sound bites.
We won't need to stoop all the way down to intellectual dishonesty, however. Because in this battle, we have the most powerful weapon of all on our side: the facts.