Having finished Michael Strevens book, 'The Knowledge Machine: How Irrationality Created Modern Science," I wanted to close the book on this book, so to speak, by sharing some further ideas about how Strevens' Big Idea applies to us in everyday life.
The Big Idea that makes modern science a highly effective way of generating knowledge is restricting scientific communications -- journal articles, research reports, and the like -- to only empirical evidence.
So if a scientist wants to argue some point, they must do so on the basis of empirical evidence, not on philosophy, religion, personal beliefs, and so on.
In their non-official life, scientists are free to speculate all they want about whatever they want. Only in their official communications are they limited to what Strevens calls the Iron Law -- the Big Idea in his book.
Most of us aren't professional scientists.
However, I think we all would benefit from embracing the wonderful irrationality of modern science when this is appropriate in everyday life.
At first I found it difficult to understand the subtitle of The Knowledge Machine, since I've always considered rationality to be a hallmark of science.
Surely, it is.
But as Strevens discusses, it took a long time for the Iron Law of empirical evidence to take root, because we humans are so addicted to philosophizing, telling stories about our life, finding reasons for why this or that happened that make sense to us.
Giving that up would have seemed crazy to the early Greeks, as to medieval thinkers like Descartes. They wanted to fathom the workings of the entire universe, the cosmos.
Thus to them the scientific method involved grand conceptual schemes, not data-driven empirical evidence. Hence, the seeming irrationality of the Iron Law.
Given the many examples offered up in The Knowledge Machine about how almost obsessive attention to minute detail is how scientific progress usually occurs, I came away convinced that our everyday lives would also benefit from fewer stories in our heads and more empirical facts.
Here's a couple of examples from my own recent life.
Last night I wrote a post for my Salem Political Snark blog about a controversy over Salem's Mayor, Chuck Bennett, failing to assign a progressive city councilor, Jackie Leung, to any City Council committees other than a single spot as an alternate.
Since Leung is a woman of color, quite a few people commented on Facebook that this showed how racist and sexist Bennett is.
They were outraged that Leung had been treated so badly by the Mayor, since other members of the City Council got three, four, five, or six committee assignemts.
At first I shared some of that outrage, but the more I thought about it, the more unlikely it seemed that racism and sexism explained Bennett's behavior.
So I emailed the Mayor, asking him to explain himself.
In other words, I sought some empirical evidence in the form of a reply to my message. That reply turned out to be highly believable. Bennett told me that last year Leung hadn't wanted any committee assignments because she was too busy.
When she failed to respond to a request from the Mayor to list her committee preferences for 2021, he figured that once again she wasn't interested in being assigned to some committees. Yet actually she was.
It turned out, then, that a failure to communicate by Bennett and Leung led to a simple mistake. As far as I can tell, the claims of racism and sexism were just stories people used to explain what the Mayor did.
Here's another more personal example of how a failure to use empirical evidence and attention to detail led to a preventable error.
This morning I got a call from an unknown number on my iPhone that didn't ring, because the caller wasn't in my Contact list. That happens frequently.
I did what I usually do: click on the "phone" icon on the home screen, so by going to Recents, the red "1" (for one call) above the icon would go away.
But after doing this, or at least believing I'd done this, the red "1" was still there. That made me think that perhaps the caller had left a voice mail message, and that message was creating the "1."
Checking Voicemail, I listened to the top message. I couldn't understand all of it, the gist of it being that Amber wanted me, Brian, to call back at _____ Health. When I Googled the phone number, I saw that it belonged to Salem Health Urgent Care.
Which perplexed me, since I haven't been there for quite a few months.
Still, I wanted to find out what Amber wanted. I called the number on the voicemail and found that I was third in line to have my call answered. I listened to annoying music and repeated messages to be patient because my call was important to them for about ten minutes.
Then I was able to talk with someone. "Amber left a message for me," I said. "Is she there?" "No," I was told, "Amber isn't working today."
That led to me being asked my name and date of birth so they could look up my records and try to figure out what Amber wanted. Eventually I was asked a simple question, "What time was the voice mail message left?"
"Well, it was February... oops. February 27, 2020. A year ago. Wow, sorry. Last night I deleted a bunch of old voice mail messages and the one from Amber a long time ago now was at the top. So I thought it was a recent message, having forgotten that I'd deleted other old ones."
The Salem Health Urgent Care person laughed and said that she's done something like that before. That made me feel a bit better, a little less embarrassed.
Now, in retrospect I should have paid more attention to details rather than jumping to the conclusion that today I'd gotten a voice mail message from Salem Health. I'd stared at the message several times, but never noticed the date of the message, since I'd assumed it was from today.
Not a scientific attitude. If I'd gathered more empirical evidence rather than believing the story I'd told myself, I wouldn't have spent time trying to unravel a mystery of my own making.