Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Why I Storm the Ivory Tower

One of the primary reasons I rail against believers in the supernatural is that I'm not fond of how hard they work to mentally isolate themselves from the world. I looked up the definition of "Ivory Tower" over at Merriam-Webster Online, and I think they picked out an excellent word to describe the attitude:
1: an impractical often escapist attitude marked by aloof lack of concern with or interest in practical matters or urgent problems
If you've been directed here by one of my readers, please pay close attention so that you can understand the attitudes common to skeptics, or at least those I know, rather than rely on the stereotypes you hear of:

1. Mystery: Many of the believers I've encountered treat mysteries like shiny baubles to be stared and gaped at. Awareness of things labeled "mysteries" is treated like collections to compare against others, like us geeks do with TV series, movies, and comics. They see nothing else to do with them. For a skeptic like me, a real mystery is an opportunity. Science has been steadily charting the universe. A mystery means there is uncharted territory to explore, examine, and understand. Idle, escapist speculation can be fun, but in the case of science, it's a reversal of the Decemberween Present Effect: When we do solve it, the answer is very often more amazing and profound than we could imagine. The universe kept getting bigger and bigger. Stars used to be tiny windows in the sky dome. Now we know they're distant suns that could have whole other worlds orbiting them. For us, science is an amazing, humbling experience.

2. Humility: Science has little tolerance for ego. We may celebrate many luminaries who saw something others didn't notice, but we can't treat them like the heroes of fiction: The universe of the real world doesn't exist specifically for the "main characters" to do heroic things in. Einstein deserves kudos for his research into relativity, but he was no infallible Marty Stu: His reluctance to accept the "messiness" of quantum mechanics caused plenty of problems for him in his later years. Even someone as great as Einstein is fallible and biased. That's why the authority rests in evidence, not individuals. It doesn't matter how high your IQ is, or how many letters you can write after your name. You still need good evidence to back you up, not a sense of self-importance.

3. The Galileo Gambit: There's no shortage of people who are perfectly intelligent but wrong about something. One easy form of escapism from that fact is to blame others for a lack of acceptance. It's often a compelling narrative: Everyone loves an underdog and roots for their success against seemingly impossible odds. Unfortunately, the universe doesn't operate according to the Rule of Drama. The scientific method is also intended to make that sort of suppression hard to pull off: Anyone is supposed to be able to replicate an experiment, and such a conspiracy would require that every scientist in the relevant field be in on it. It takes a special kind of cynicism and ego to wield that broad a brush. Sometimes people just need to accept at least the possibility they could be wrong and address legitimate criticisms.

4. People get hurt: All too often, especially with the topic of psychics, I'm treated like a wet blanket intruding on harmless, escapist fun. And they tell me this in the comments on articles about psychics wasting police resources in the search for a missing child or psychics who charge exorbitant rates for their non-services. The life of a missing person and the life savings of some innocent, if somewhat gullible, person are very real. Having a little innocent fun with a penny fortune-telling machine is one thing. Gambling a person's well being on unproven methods is another. Aside from more quantifiable damage, there's all sorts of emotional harm that can be done: There are plenty of "psychics" of the con artist variety who live by betraying people's trust in them. I want people to be sensible about who they trust: Trust is supposed to be earned, and no simple magic trick should act as a cheap shortcut to your heart.


MWchase said...

Speaking as somebody with a genius-level IQ...

People with genius-level IQs can do and say really stupid things.

Going to try and illustrate your point about mysteries with some stuff that's come up in my program hobbyism: the ndarray object in numpy: it is really good for n-dimensional arrays, because that's what it's for. Now, either we can answer the question of why it's better than some alternatives either with "Because, that's why.", or we can look at the underlying implementation (All There In The Manual), which explains that an ndarray's contents are laid out linearly in memory, and the "shape" of the array determines "strides", one per dimension, which index the array arbitrarily by dimension, with uniform lookup time and the ability to get sliced views! If I didn't need my hands for typing and such, I'd be flailing my arms at the awesomeness!

(Note that I have a somewhat scattershot knowledge of CS. Reading the manual has convinced me that I should take a class sometime.)

Shadowen said...

Just agreeing with the first two lines of MWchase's point.

Heck, if you've read Harry Potter, there's a nice take on it. One of the smartest characters in the series notes that people who are much cleverer than other people still make mistakes, and their mistakes tend to be proportionally bigger because they're smarter.

(I don't think I'm genius-level IQ, tho'. Just agreeing.)