Knowing and Excitement in Society

Warren Kinston 9. December 2012 14:00

We all want to know reality. But have we become too dependent on scientific knowing? 

knowing reality - knowing and excitement

The sad truth of science is that the best it can be is less wrong. But as we live our everyday lives, being less wrong can be not good enough. 

Don’t get me wrong: for knowing, being less wrong is wonderful—it is a great advance. But living is more than knowing. Living is loving, it’s committing, it's creating, it’s telling it how it is. It is acting without knowing.  

In modern society, we often want to know and science is ready to pour out a torrent of facts and theories that are now 'established'. We all know that theories change. But facts also change. 

I came across a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine (136, 888-895, 2002) in the area of hepatitis and cirrhosis which found that it takes about 45 years for half of the knowledge in these fields to be overturned. But which half? Like radioactive decay, it is probably unknowable in advance.

Mathematics, which is not fact-based does not change much. It simply grows.

Science develops by endless falsification. And yet it is never possible to test all the hypotheses. So, with a scientific hat on, you must realize that no-one knows how it is! Knowledge grows, certainly. Yet most research findings either go nowhere or are falsified in time. Science functions with a long time scale of years, decades or even centuries. But we often want to know by tomorrow or next week. We cannot have twenty divorces as we seek to build a family. Or twenty children as we learn how to be a parent. Life’s too short. Our biology doesn’t permit it. 

But there’s more than biology here. We have come to value instant gratification, and why shouldn’t that apply to getting knowledge? And if getting knowledge has to come from scientific inquiry, then we will simply assert that we 'now' know X or Y.

When we look at human life at the community or societal level, then things are even more depressing on the knowing front. Groups decide what values count and what is real. If we confront that, the group turns on us. Viciously. This is why two opposing political parties can look at the exactly the same data and come up with opposite prescriptions using the same academic discipline, economics, for support.

The same applies to science. Everyone now «knows» there are black holes. But are there? It’s actually a theory. If there are black holes, then the laws of physics don’t apply there. But these are the laws of physics that everyone «knows» are true. How can that be?  If you want a more realistic account of science see the books of Brian Clegg, an entertaining popular science author who is comfortable to tell it how it is. Avoid like the plague those cheerleaders for the pulp-science that fills blogs, entertains TED audiences and sells books.

An article about Jonah Lehrer, one of these disgraced cheerleaders, explains it well: "the scientific fields that are the most exciting to today’s writers—neuroscience, evolutionary biology, behavioral economics—are fashionable despite, or perhaps because of, their newness, which makes breakthrough findings both thrilling and unreliable. In these fields, in which shiny new insights so rarely pan out (my emphasis), every popularizer must be, almost by definition, a huckster."

The media downplays knowing from literature, from personal experience, from the wise. It ignores the intrinsic uncertainty of science. So it doesn’t matter how often scientists announce another discovery of the “bleeding obvious”, or the latest finding that “turns everything we know upside-down”, it is a triumph. But a triumph of values—not a triumph of knowing.  

Scientists have responded to the social environment. Whatever their scientific ethos says, as individuals they too are subject to the craving for celebrity. Unfortunately for the rest of us, the weaker the scientist the stronger the craving. A recent study revealed that the amount of spin in abstracts is increasing, and the use of press releases with even more spin is correspondingly exploding. 

Attention is celebrity is money: so why not make outrageous claims and create excitement. Politicians with their fingers on the money button respond to what is in the public eye too, so it ends up encouraging fraud

Can a media announcement that tells an exciting story about a 'scientific breakthrough' be disproved? The work to challenge much less disprove such claims is quite beyond the average reader. Reputable scientists see what is going on but lack the time or inclination to get involved (unless they are personally affected).

Are journalists capable of being responsible? I have been contributing recently to a website whose editor-in-chief tells visitors that they will get knowledge from the “cutting-edge of science”. But this is to have succumbed to the spin of scientism as explained in the above quote. It encourages journalistic preference for the sensational and tempts scientists to feed the press accordingly. I, like others who genuinely carry the banner of scientific inquiry, feel disturbed and helpless.

I suppose the editor is trying to whip up excitement.  Perhaps his job depends on the number of visitors he can attract. So what’s a bit of untruth between friends?  It’s all in a good cause, isn’t it?

But excitement is intrinsically dangerous. One might almost say evil, in the sense of it being a tempting lesser good.  If science has any value, i.e. if dispassionate rational validated knowing has any value, then it would seem to follow as night follows day that excitement, being neither dispassionate nor rational nor validated nor about knowing, exists in another world.

Excitement is a mood and an emotion. If you are watching an exciting film, it is enjoyable and you are safe. So excitement is not itself bad. After all, it is an essential element in sexuality—but we all know that has its dangers.

As a mood, excitement colours our thinking and perception. As an emotion it is a signal. Excitement drives out sober reflection, leads to impulsive behaviour, and tempts surrender to the generator. So for the provoker, like our hard-working editor, excitement is an instrument of power and self-interest. For your own good of course!

If we seek to be rational, we do not suppress excitement, but see it for what it is, and then we adjust how we think and perceive accordingly—as best we can.

Excitement is part of a magic world. Genuine scientists can and should be excited by their work and discipline. Excitement keeps them going despite regular failures, errors, rejections. But imbue science-for-public-consumption with excitement and you have a magic brew in which science is a value and not an activity. The goal of TED popularizers of science is about enchanting (and getting the next booking), not about leaving people wiser and better.

The triumph of excitement over genuine knowing reflects the immaturity of our society. Fortunately, as each of us becomes aware of what is going on, society matures.

Join me in this effort within THEE.



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Warren Kinston is the creator of the THEE-Online website as an open forum for the further discovery and development of THEE. He writes this blog as an escape valve for the excitement and frustrations of the work. More info here.

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