Science angst: On hunter-gatherers and science

(with a nod to Carl Sagan)

Why are people so afraid of science? Or are they?

As a scientist, or, in fact, as a curious human being, I cannot but notice that science is treated differently from other aspects of life. To give just one example, a car mechanic can point towards his experience and track record when talking to an insisting client. The client may not completely understand what has to be done, and has to trust the mechanic. The scientist, however, is asked to explain, say, quantum field theory or the inner workings of the brain, in a minute or two.

Please let that sink in for a minute or two before you continue.

algebra-cartoon (Comic found here.)

At school the almost stereotypical question is: «What do I do with this? I won’t need science (or maths) for the rest of my life!» I always found that attitude rather extraordinarily weird, but that is not the point now. Rather, wallow in the reality that this has a page on Wikipedia. Or what about climate change? Even if you don’t want to believe the vast majority of people working on it, why would you not want to make life easier on your children by leaving a more gentle Earth to live on? I mean, that is the gist of the discussion, right, that global warming is not man-made?

To come back to our example above, where are the conspiracies claiming that all car mechanics are shills for Big Car, who could repair your vehicle to a point where you wouldn’t have to come back – wait, the analogy breaks down here, but you presumably know what I mean. On the surface, at least, it does not make sense to single out science like this, since it means that there is downright animosity towards it.

Where would such animosity come from in the first place?

You see, there is evidence for science[1] to be an intrinsic part of who we are. Consider the following example, which was (hopefully with permission) borrowed from Carl Sagan’s book “The demon haunted world”. The idea is to think about how a bunch of non-civilized[2] hunters set about getting their prey. They will have to examine the evidence in front of them, perhaps a track of footprints made by some eatable animal, in order to deduce the time at which the animal made the track, where it may be now and many other things. And please don’t flatter yourselves thinking that this is straightforward. When you depend on hunting for food, you will learn from careful observation and deduction how animals tend to behave under which circumstances. The tracks may lead one place, but based on your experience you may be rather sure that the animal would have taken one path over another. You would take evidence and combine it with thought and memory. You would end up knowing to as great a probability as possible whether this particular animal is in reach, whether it is worth the chase. Why would people start hating such a line of thought once the expressions “experiment” and “observation” are part of the sentence?


When your life depends on it you learn that your senses alone can fool you, big time. Yet, we are also born stubborn. The probably somewhat inconvenient truth is that it is so difficult for us to admit we are wrong or, alternatively, getting the feeling that we are not sufficiently clever to understand the big talk around us, that many of us retreat into our own heads and build a thick wall around ourselves. In order to enter, another person will have to guess and agree with what we think is true. When we find like-minded people we collaborate more or less consciously to build what was dubbed «Echo Chambers» built on «Alternative Facts»[3].

Yet, there aren’t really any excuses. Simply look at the example of the hunters again. The application of Alternative Facts would lead to the starvation of the hunters and their families waiting for them to come back with food.

But wait: The situation is different nowadays, you say? Healthy skepsis of science is only to be encouraged.

Healthy skepsis, yes. Who gives the word “healthy” its meaning from case to case?

Listen, I cannot completely get rid of the hunch that the real difference between now and then lies only, and utterly, in the time scales applied and the number of people concerned.

Now read this:  Two sides of reality

[1] The method of trying to figure out reality, which we describe with this word.

[2] Whatever that means.

[3] And no, these are not internet phenomena. Think about it. Have you ever wondered what a «proud nation» really is?

2MNiqx7k_400x400Alexander is a physicist, teacher and storyteller. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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