By Julien Musolino
Professor of Psychology, Rutgers University
Francis Bacon, one of the fathers of the scientific revolution, warned us in the early 17th century that without the methods and instruments of science, the human mind isn’t perfectly calibrated to deliver truths about the objective world. The mind is full of superstition, imposture, and distorting biases–what Bacon called “Idols of the Mind”—which must be corrected if we want to truly understand the world and avoid fooling ourselves. Three centuries later, the celebrated physicist and Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman elevated Bacon’s insight to the status of a principle.
Science vs. Gut Feelings
The first principle, Feynman explained, “is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Today, these important lessons are too often forgotten in our increasingly anti-scientific culture. Time and again, we are told that if a conclusion about the workings of nature feels right–or wrong–then it must be so. In my previous post on evolution vs. creationism, I wrote about people’s “gut feeling” that human beings cannot possibly have evolved from more modest life forms.
A few years ago, actress Jenny McCarthy was given a national platform to broadcast the thoroughly discredited idea that vaccination causes autism. McCarthy explained that her views were informed by a “little voice” and her “mommy instinct”. Conservative pundits routinely remind their listeners that local low winter temperatures demonstrate that global warming must be a liberal hoax. Some, like Illinois Congressman John Shimkus, have even gone so far as to claim that we shouldn’t worry about global warming because the Bible says that “the Earth will end only when God declares it’s time to be over”. Sadly, the list goes on.
Albert Einstein famously reminded us that:
All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and child-like. And yet, it is the most precious thing we have.
This precious gift can be illustrated using a simple thought experiment (Einstein himself was very fond of such experiments). Imagine that you live in a bucolic small town, somewhere in America’s heartland. You turn on the evening news one day and learn of a heinous murder that was committed in your neighborhood. To make things worse, you are accused of the murder and face the death penalty if found guilty. Critically, however, you did not commit the murder.
You are now given a choice between two juries. Members of the Shimkus Jury would rely on their interpretation of the scripture of their choice, their “gut feelings”, “little voices”, and “good citizen instincts” in order to determine your guilt or innocence. By contrast, members of the Feynman Jury would rely on the best scientific evidence available, try to control for their biases, question their uninformed assumptions, and passionately care about what’s actually true as opposed to what merely “feels” true. On the assumption that you are not suicidal, which jury would you pick? If, like other sane people, you picked the Feynman Jury, then ask yourself why.
Could it be that you know–everyone knows–that science is the best path to objective truth?
Julien Musolino (Rutgers University) Dr. Musolino is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Center for Cognitive Science at Rutgers University. He received his Ph.D. in 1998 from the U. of Maryland and held appointments at the UPenn and Indiana before moving to Rutgers in 2007. Dr. Musolino specializes in the psychology of language and he is the director of the Psycholinguistics Laboratory at Rutgers. More broadly, he has a deep interest in science, its history, and the public understanding of science. He is the author of the popular science book The Soul Fallacy in which he argues that the notion of soul that most people in America believe in corresponds to a set of scientific hypotheses and that modern science gives us reason to believe that human beings do not have souls. You can read more on his website.