Something that has struck me recently is that the anti-science movement is gaining significant inroads into pop culture with the advent of web 2.0. When the internet first started taking off (ie. was reported in USA Today) the group think was that the internet would make everything smarter; collective intelligence is better than individual intelligence. But what I’ve seen instead is that collective intelligence makes some things smarter and makes a whole lot of things a whole lot dumber.
Take the global warming “debate.” Do you know how many countless hours lay people spend muddling the issue of global warming on the internet? That linked thread isn’t even a big one but it contains all of the anti-science, anti-reason, jingoism that pretty much every online “discussion” about any topic will have. Sure, if you read every post you will find a few seconds of reasoned debate just as you would expect in any bell curve but taken as a whole, there’s a lot of dumb in there, and the dumb literally overwhelms the smart.
Sometimes this “collective dumb” is actually routinized and formalized, as in wikipedia, where controversial facts can be forcibly rejected by the collective dumb and stupid ideas can be forced to sit next to the smart ones as if they both have equal weight. This is an American cultural phenomena I think, we have some kind of bizarre and contradictory notion that America is both the land of the rugged individualist and that everyone is equal. Thus, when NASA scientist James Hansen was asked to appear on NPR a few years ago he said sure, until they said they needed to have him co-host the show with a global warming denier “to provide balance.” He refused because, and I hate to tell you this but you need to know, every opinion isn’t equal. Every voice isn’t equally worthy of air time. Presenting every side to a “controversial” topic is actually unfair, unless the only goal is to hear from everyone or make them feel like they are important.
It’s gotten so bad over the last few years that I swear if web 2.0 was around when Newton first tried to describe gravity people would deny its existence with the same arguments that they use to deny global warming and evolution; “I have thousands of scientists who signed a petition that says they don’t believe in gravity!” Ugh.
And now we have people who see the next level of computing (the cloud) as the thing that will destroy the very fundaments of things like science and scientific method. Wired magazine (which I stopped having routed to my desk because it’s essentially “geek porn”) published an article called “The End of Theory.”
Rather than pick the whole article apart (mainly because someone better informed about the topic already has) I just want to give you a quote that I found so obviously ridiculous that only the magazine’s editor-in-chief could have written it and had it published. Talking about human behavior he claims that with enough data we can simply apply algorithms to human behavior and tease out the important stuff.
Who knows why people do what they do? The point is they do it, and we can track and measure it with unprecedented fidelity. With enough data, the numbers speak for themselves.
The idea that we don’t need to know why or how something works is pretty funny if you think about. Why does thalidamide work? WHO KNOWS? It just does!
Yay, it’s science 2.0.