Empirical Thinking

Sunday, November 8th, 2009

The empirical style of thinking is a minority taste, John Derbyshire reminds us:

The ordinary modes of human thinking are magical, religious, social, and personal. We want our wishes to come true; we want the universe to care about us; we want the approval of those around us; we want to get even with that s.o.b who insulted us at the last tribal council. For most people, wanting to know the cold truth about the world is way, way down the list.

Scientific objectivity is a freakish, unnatural, and unpopular mode of thought, restricted to small cliques whom the generality of citizens regard with dislike and mistrust. Just as religious thinking emerges naturally and effortlessly from the everyday workings of the human brain, so scientific thinking has to struggle against the grain of our mental natures. There is a modest literature on this topic: Lewis Wolpert’s The Unnatural Nature of Science (2000) and Alan Cromer’s Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science (1995) are the books known to me, though I’m sure there are more. There is fiction, too: in Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s 1960 sci-fi bestseller A Canticle for Leibowitz, the scientists are hunted down and killed… then later declared saints by the Catholic Church.

When the magical (I wish this to be so: therefore it is so!) and the religious (We are all one! Brotherhood of man! The universe loves us!) and the social (This is what all good citizens believe! If you believe otherwise you are a BAD PERSON!) and the personal (That bastard didn’t show me the respect I’m entitled to!) all come together, the mighty psychic forces unleashed can be irresistible — ask Larry Summers or James Watson.

The greatest obstacle to calm, rational, evidence-based thinking about human nature, is human nature. Pessimism doesn’t come easily. You have to struggle your way towards it.

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