posted by Gene on Oct 29
Disclaimer: I am aware that no one is perfectly rational, even me. However, it’s much easier to write in absolutes and to include myself as a rational person. The text written below is meant to describe situations in which scientific consensus is not converted to public acceptance or policy, and should not be taken to be a manifesto supporting the creation of classes of human, rational above irrational, with me being king of the rational.
Rational people have many problems. One of them is getting people to listen to them and do the things that will make life better. This is sometimes difficult because the majority of people are irrational, at least with regards to some specific subjects. Probably just in general, but definitely given choice cases.
Since rational people are rational, the way they think is to gather the evidence, examine it, and draw conclusions based on that evidence. Since rational people are people, they then often make the irrational leap to assume other people will do the same. If you make this mistake you would think that if people just had easy access to all the information they would make the rational decision. This, of course, doesn’t happen.
I admit to frequently falling into this mode of thinking. It is a known trap, but one that is difficult to avoid. One tends to assume others will think like one does, and that differences are based off of differences of taste or information. Rational people cannot afford to make that mistake. So what options are there available to us, to pull the irrational our way.
One good option is to rely on different modes of communication, probably provided by different people. Scientists as a population are near 100% rational, at least in their field. They read the papers, do the research, examine the statistics, and form and opinion. When new evidence is present, opinions are adjusted accordingly. All is as it should be. However, scientists are not trained to present this information to non-scientists, aka the irrational masses. It’s not really a scientist’s job to do so, and as such, they are not necessarily any good at it. It would be great if they were, but I think the skill sets are too diverse and rare to expect the majority of the scientific population to be skilled in both. And we can’t rely on the occasional Gould, Segan, or Tyson to do all the work.
That’s why we need middle men. There are lots of people out there who are rational people, really like science the concept, but don’t really enjoy science the school subject. Some of these people have valuable communication and persuasion skills. Some are creative, able to write movies, songs, books, interesting text of all forms. These people need to be conscripted to promote the conclusions of the scientists to the irrational. People with these qualities should be looking for ways to offer their services, and science as an institution should be reforming itself to allow this new relationship to exist. By this I mean there should be works in the public media in promotion of the scientific view of things, and scientific bodies should be working to promote and fund these projects.
These middle men should be given lots of freedom by the scientists. Basically, there should be only one rule and that is strict accuracy in presenting the facts. Then the middle men are free to use their talents to communicate to the irrational in ways they’ll actually understand and care about.
The anti-science movements out there use all kinds of cheap marketing and gimmicky ploys to convince people to think their way. We rational people think they’re a joke, because we’d never fall for it, but there’s a large chunk of the population out there that will, and they’re the one’s we’re fighting for. Essentially, I’m advocating for using the same tools being used against science, for it. At least until such time as we can improve education enough that rational thinking is less of a rarity.
This goes against my instincts. It seems wrong to lower ourselves to the level of our detractors. However, I can think of no other way. Risks are high. Failure an unpleasant option. As such, it seems wise to go with the sure thing.
Democracy is only a good idea if you have something else preventing tiny majorities from bullying large minorities. That’s why we have the court system, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. We rational people need tools to keep the irrational majority at bay, and I think appealing to their irrationality may be our only chance. It might nauseate your idyllic sensibilities, as it does mine, to admit that marketing could be helpful, but when one pragmatically looks at human nature, I think it is the rational conclusion.