Can Curiosity Kill The Sciences?

I am in the middle of a series of posts about scientific method, so this seemed very much to the point. especially, how to avoid acting like a Doctor Authority Figure Type (DAFT), while still defending the value of expert evidence over anecdote (and, I would add, over ideology)?

The Grumpy Geophysicist

There’s a book out there that seems to be attracting lots of lightning bolts (Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now!).  GG is not interested in reading or discussing that, per se. It sounds as though logic and empirical observation got confused in there (they are not the same). What got his attention was one of the responses by Ross Douthat of the New York Times, who essentially argues that smugness by those who purport to know better will stifle real science. The nub of the argument is in this quote:

I’m reasonably confident that both of the stranger worlds of my childhood, the prayer services and macrobiotic diet camps, fit his definition of the anti-empirical dark. And therein lies the oddity: If you actually experienced these worlds, and contrasted them with the normal world of high-minded liberal secularism, it was the charismatic-religious and “health food” regions where people were the…

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About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on February 28, 2018, in Philosophy, Politics, Science, Society and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. The natural human impulse is to be sceptical about most things and also to to wary of the tricky quality of human nature. As they sit and have adverts thrown at them all the time and everywhere they mentally bin them all. When the supermarkets put washing powder on sale at a very cheap price in a plain pack , the public largely ignored it.
    Scientists are no different to all other persuaders in the public eye after all don’t many of them work in the food industry or the health service?
    What is special about them surely they are like the rest of us out to earn a living , anxious to get on , open to a good offer.
    If the scientific evidence means making us all more uncomfortable then the level of suspicion rises rapidly. ‘ It’s alright for them with their country retreat and enough money to pay train fares but I have to run a car to get to work .’


  2. Paul,

    Thanks for the reblog. Your question is (as usual) on point. When Douthat idolizes all personal empirical investigations, we either need the whole population to understand all the ways you can fool yourself or we risk descending into a madhouse of conflicting claims based on sloppy pseudoscience (if we aren’t there already). If Pinker (still not reading the book) similarly condemns all questioning of DAFTs, we find knowledge sitting on the shelf, unavailable to influence policy, because people are not so eager to accept unquestionable advice (in no small part because of some bad experiences–ahem, Fukushima, for one–from some experts). How to *convince* instead of merely *argue* is part of this challenge; how to convince without making it your whole life is another part. I’ve found some of the posts at to provide some useful insights as to what does and does not work just as many of your posts have been helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Enlightenment Now is coming up in my queue real soon.


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