The Edge every year asks top science celebrities a penetrating, yet fun, always fun, question. Last year’s was “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” One of the correspondent was the pontifical Richard Dawkins. A reader (I apologize, but I cannot re-discover who) asked me to comment on Dawkins’s answer.
I use the word “pontifical” in its ordinary sense, incidentally, but also in honor of Dawkin’s aborted attempt to citizen-arrest Pope Benedict when he landed at Heathrow. Thus endeth our first joke.
Now, I know what you’re going to say. Teasing Dawkins is like plucking low hanging fish from a tree or shooting cherries in a barrel and why don’t I pick on somebody my own size? But it’s Friday after a week of bad news (not my own, the world’s), and I say we need some levity.
Dawkins suggested that it would be keen if everybody carried with them knowledge of the double-blind control experiment. He would that ordinary folk “revel in its elegance.” It is well to point out that the folks in Dawkins’s chosen field are strangers to this most useful probatory device, so one wonders how he happened on the idea. But never mind.
If he had stopped there and had not elaborated, I would have had to concede that even a man as mentally beleaguered as Richard Dawkins occasionally utters a sensible truth. Luckily for us, he pushed on.
He began with what he believed were rhetorical questions:
Why do half of all Americans believe in ghosts, three quarters believe in angels, a third believe in astrology, three quarters believe in Hell? Why do a quarter of all Americans and believe that the President of the United States was born outside the country and is therefore ineligible to be President? Why do more than 40 percent of Americans think the universe began after the domestication of the dog?
He asks that we not blame “stupidity” and instead point to lack of knowledge of the double-blind experiment. Problem is, these phenomena are not subject to the DBE. We might be able to talk somebody out of believing in a ghost by showing her that what caused the picture to move was a stiff breeze, but this will do little to dent her harmless belief in spooks. There just is no double-blind test for where The One was born. Angels and hell follow from religious first principles and if one wants to disprove them, one must answer logical argument with logical argument, not with observation.
What DBE would show the universe began (say) more than 10,000 years ago? There is a small chance that a DBE can prove that astrology is un-predictive, but don’t count on it being persuasive.
Dawkins lists benefits of the DBE:
- We would learn not to generalise from anecdotes. It would be bad news for science if we didn’t generalize from anecdotes. Anecdote is the largest generator of scientific inspiration. Experimentation is how we sift the coincidental from the causal.
- We would learn how to assess the likelihood that an apparently important effect might have happened by chance alone. In the Big D’s favor, this error is common (this fallacy underlies the frequentist theory of statistics). Things to not happen by “chance.” Chance does not cause anything. Something caused whatever happened to happen. It is only true that we may not know what the cause was, or that we have misidentified the cause.
- We would learn how extremely difficult it is to eliminate subjective bias, and that subjective bias does not imply dishonesty or venality of any kind. This lesson goes deeper. It has the salutary effect of undermining respect for authority, and respect for personal opinion. Subjective bias does not always imply venality, but it does sometimes. Scientists prevaricate at rates no different than civilians. But I’m with you when you call for climatologists to use the DBE.
His second thought is just preposterous. He wants to use the authority of the DBE to undermine respect for authority. Regular readers of Dawkins will recognize that this is his favorite fallacy.
- We would learn not to be seduced by homeopaths and other quacks and charlatans, who would consequently be put out of business. Dude. Ain’t gonna happen. The human being loves nothing more than being seduced by charlatans, hence Dawkins’s success.
- We would learn critical and sceptical habits of thought more generally, which not only would improve our cognitive toolkit but might save the world. Save the world, forsooth! Never was there a emptier phrase. If you think not, then I challenge you to define exactly what it means. Unless your definition includes words about the Enterprise loosing some photon torpedoes towards a region of space such that a renegade black hole veers off its intended Earth-sucking course, you will have a heavy time of it.