There's A Better Way (To Think)
I read a lot of science magazines in my spare time. The books I like to read the most are popular science books, with a few technical science books thrown in there. I've been doing this for years. In addition, my job is to be a scientist.
Needless to say, I know about a lot of studies. And since I'm in AI and Cognitive Science, I end up reading about a lot of studies about people. This is great, because, it turns out, people are the subject people most like to talk about. I end up having a lot to contribute to conversations.
However, this can be a problem.
The problem is that most people don't read about studies at all. I'm sure you've talked to people like this-- hell, you might be a person like this: the stuff you read, the stuff you watch just doesn't mention scientific studies.
What will happen is someone will bring up an interesting topic for conversation, expecting people to weigh in with their opinions and talk about it, but I mention a study that basically settles the issue. Sometimes people are delighted, but sometimes I get the impression they feel I've brought a machine gun to a fist fight: as though it's bad manners to mention the studies because the intention was to bring up a conversation topic. It's not fair to bring in science-- all they have are opinions, rumours, arguments and anecdotes. The way I see it, we shouldn't debate a settled issue; there are plenty of unsettled ones to chat about.
It's even worse when someone says something that's flat-out untrue, like that the SAT is biased against certain minorities. Once someone said that human beings are the only animals who kill when they don't need to. I know that cats, both wild and domestic, stalk more than they pounce, pounce more than they kill, and kill more than they eat. My bringing this up was met with irritation. Granted, I can be less than perfectly tactful when I mention these things; it gets under my skin when people spout untrue common wisdom. But still!
But you don't have to be a genius to know about scientific studies. Psychology Today and Discover magazines are written for the public. They're very readable and full of reports on actual scientific studies. Much of what I bring up in these conversations can be found in these magazines which can be found in any magazine shop.
Even when people read they often read opinions, editorials, and I sometimes get the feeling they just don't know that there's a better way to get at knowledge than through argumentation. And if you don't know anything about how studies are done, you have very little imagination about what studies can be done.
For example, I've heard people rhetorically ask "well, how can you measure happiness?" as though the very idea of it is patently ridiculous. It seems to me that if they spent a few minutes trying to think of how you could measure happiness they could think of some pretty good ideas, like, say, asking people how happy they are.
It's not a perfect measure, but it's better than throwing up our hands and giving up. Don't we all, every couple of days, ask someone we care about how they are? And not in the polite way as a greeting, but really to know? And don't we take what they say basically at face value when they say "I'm kind of depressed today" or "I'm feeling great!"? That's a rough measure of happiness.
It's my opinion that most people don't really understand how science can answer many of the questions they have about the world, and lack the imagination to think of how the studies could be done. This results in their not ever looking to science for the answers to these questions. There's a better way to think, to know. I marvel at the idea of the quality of conversation this world could enjoy if more people were aware of this.
Of course, that's just my opinion. It should be tested.