On ‘The Science’ and dedication to reality

Alan Jacobs:

There are many reasons why millions of America don’t trust The Science, including belligerence and ignorance, but if you ask me, I would say that the most important reason is illustrated by the stories above: Scientists are sometimes untrustworthy. If they want to rebuild our trust in them, then they should start with three steps:

1. Practice the self-critical introspection that would enable them to perceive that, because they are human beings, there are some things they very much want to believe and some things they very much want to disbelieve;

2. Acknowledge those preferences in public;

3. Show that they are taking concrete steps to guard themselves against motivated reasoning and confirmation bias.

One of the most transformative concepts I’ve encountered is from M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled. He talks about four pillars of good self-discipline, one of which is “dedication to reality.” (The others: accept responsibility, balancing, and delayed gratification.)

Peck uses map-making as a metaphor for how we build and understand reality:

We are not born with maps; we have to make them, and the making requires effort. The more effort we make to appreciate and perceive reality, the larger and more accurate our maps will be.

This effort is really hard work. It means sustained, resilient dedication to updating our maps. But/therefore:

What happens when one has striven long and hard to develop a working view of the world, a seemingly useful, workable map, and then is confronted with new information suggesting that that view is wrong and the map needs to be largely redrawn? The painful effort required seems frightening, almost overwhelming. What we do more often than not, and usually unconsciously, is to ignore the new information.

This happens to everyone, not just scientists. Motivated reasoning and confirmation bias are baked into human psychology, which is why they’re so hard to overcome. Hence:

A life of total dedication to the truth also means a life of willingness to be personally challenged. The only way that we can be certain that our map of reality is valid is to expose it to the criticism and challenge of other map-makers.

Which, again: really hard.

Peck’s metaphor is based on the legacy medium of printed maps but arguably remains even more applicable today, given how Google Maps and the like allow for real-time updates and helpful added layers of useful information like traffic flow, accidents, construction slowdowns, bike paths, and so on.

Similarly, thanks to the internet, it’s never been easier to encounter new information that either confirms or clashes with one’s existing map of reality.

So the challenge remains: what to do with that information?

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