I've been called a "bomb thrower" by City officials and other members of the Powers-That-Be here in Salem, Oregon.
As I said in a blog post last year, I don't see this as an insult. Quite the reverse, in fact.
I've been called a bomb-thrower by folks at City Hall. I guess this is supposed to be an insult. I consider it a compliment.
I'm proud to speak out loud and powerfully when I see stuff going on in Salem that shouldn't be. My goal is to throw truth-bombs that open up minds and demolish barriers to seeing what is happening behind closed doors.
Today I came across some passages in Jerry Coyne's new book, "Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible," that explained why my style of citizen activism is entirely in line with a scientific approach (broadly speaking) to addressing social problems.
Coyne is an evolutionary biologist. He views science as the only way of understanding what is true about the cosmos. Science, of course, isn't practiced only by professional scientists. Here's how he defines it:
What is "known" may sometimes change, so science isn't really a fixed body of knowledge. What remains is what I really see as "science," which is simply a method for understanding how the universe (matter, our bodies and behavior, the cosmos, and so on) actually works. Science is a set of tools, refined over hundreds of years, for getting answers about nature.
...My view of science as a toolkit is what Michael Sheerer meant when he defined science as a collection of methods that produce "a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation." That's as good a definition of science as any, but the best rationale for using those methods came from the renowned and colorful physicist Richard Feynman:
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself -- and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that.
Like everyone, scientists can suffer from confirmation bias, our tendency to pay attention to data that confirm our a priori beliefs and wishes, and to ignore data we don't like. But, like all rational people, we must admit the truth of what Voltaire noted in 1763: "The interest I have in believing in something is not a proof that the something exists."
The doubt and criticality of science are there precisely for the reason Feynman emphasized: to prevent us from believing what we'd like to be true.
I really liked how Coyne described his being thrown into the world of science when he started work on a Ph.D. in evolutionary genetics at Harvard.
It's a rough and tumble world. The goal is to learn what is true, not to make people feel comfortable.
Being scientifically minded (I'm a Ph.D. dropout in Systems Science; completed the coursework, but not the other requirements), what Coyne says below is how I think citizen activism should be carried out.
Public officials, civic leaders, and legislators should engage with concerned citizens in much the same way scientific inquiry is conducted. After all, the goal is the same: to base action and understanding on what is true about the world.
Coyne writes (emphasis added in bold):
Shy and reserved, I felt as if I'd been hurled into a pit of unrelenting negativity. In research seminars, the audience seemed determined to dismantle the credibility of the speaker. Sometimes they wouldn't even wait until the question period after the talk, but would rudely shout out critical questions and comments during the talk itself.
When I thought I had a good idea and tentatively described it to my fellow graduate students, it was picked apart like a flounder on a plate. And when we all discussed science around the big rectangular table in our commons room, the atmosphere was heated and contentious.
Every piece of work, published or otherwise, was scrutinized for problems -- problems that we almost alway found... Eventually, fearful of being criticized, I simply kept my mouth shut and listened. That went on for two years.
But in the end, that listening was my education in science, for I learned that the pervasive doubt and criticality weren't intended as personal attacks, but were actually the essential ingredients in science, used as a form of quality control to uncover the researcher's misconceptions and mistakes.
Like Michelangelo's sculpturing, which he saw as eliminating marble to reveal the statue within, the critical scrutiny of scientific ideas and experiments is designed, by eliminating error, to find the core of truth in an idea. Once I'd learned this, and developed a skin thick enough to engage in the inevitable to-and-fro, I began to enjoy science.
For if you can tolerate the criticality and doubt -- and they're not for everyone -- the process of science yields a joy that no other job confers: the chance to be the first person to find out something new about the universe.