By Jeffrey M. Bowen
Nearly every day we encounter things that just do not make sense. We try to figure out an explanation and usually end up building our preconceptions into a rationale we can accept. All seems to go well until a better explanation comes along, or perhaps disaster occurs, or perplexity hounds us enough to reinvestigate.
Curious encounters can be witnessed face to face, but most often I read about them or find them jumping out of my tv or smart phone. I enjoy these mysteries because they violate expectations, puzzle us, and lead to breakthroughs in learning.
For instance, not long ago at 36,000 feet, I found myself staring at a little screen showing the path of our jet flight from New York to Ireland. Counterintuitively, the plane seemed to be headed directly north to Greenland via Canada. Later, as we looped back toward continental Europe, I remembered we live on a globe where the shortest distance between two points may be over the dome.
On that same flight I was trying to make sense of Stephen Hawking’s “Briefer History of Time.” My wife threatened to disown me if I tried to explain to her one more time why this book told me I would become much younger than she if I left Earth on a spaceship traveling near the speed of light, and then returned while she had been sitting here on earth growing much older than me. Einstein’s theories of relativity blow up many of my personal fallacies with regard to time, light, space and gravity.
All around us are familiar beliefs that contradict the way we think the world should work. When I asked for some illustrations from my facebook friends, they replied as follows: If you want someone to do something, forbid them from doing it; love your enemies; the only thing to fear is fear itself; and the best way to control a skid is to turn in its direction and take your foot off the break.
We love to construct truisms for convenience. Often these are unproven. For instance, we say that leaving the door unlocked will be fine because no one has ever robbed us. Or we tell others they will catch a cold unless they bundle up. Or we overestimate the risk of death by plane crash when compared to a drug overdose.
Science is surprisingly ignored. For example, the practice of injecting someone with a virus to protect against it still prompts some to reject vaccinations. Nor do some consumers believe there is any good reason to heat up milk (pasteurization) when it is meant to be chilled for drinking.
In his book “Science Blind”, Andrew Shtulman describes the ironies of science denial in an age when research particularly about health and climate is geometrically expanding our knowledge. Ideological, religious, and obviously political motivations obscure reality. A dramatic example is our current Presidential administration’s denial of climate warming which has turned the United States into an embarrassing worldwide minority of one.
Schtulman defines intuitive theories as our “untutored explanations for how the world works.” These are best guesses which are better than no theories at all, but they frequently blind and bind us. We refuse to give them up easily because we constantly overestimate the value of what we already own.
Yet there is hope for stubborn doubters. We can begin by ruthlessly deconstructing our biases. We can look beyond our senses and unproven intuitions, and then rebuild knowledge based on reasonable proof. Today’s technology offers abundant data, opinions, and facts. We should let our curious encounters stimulate challenging questions. Young children do this all the time, so why shouldn’t we?
Jeffrey M. Bowen thinks we should pay more attention to science.