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.


Daniel said…
I really like your point about people not being aware that science has actually set out to *settle* many of the questions people have, and how that can enrich their lives.

About your other point, it took me a long time but I figured out that most of the time when people get together and talk in a group in a light social context the real subject is the group itself, its dynamics and vibe. Ideas are just decoration, or just the playing pieces with which the game is played. Their truth value is almost irrelevent, their ability to delight and intrigue is all. And if I am paying too much attention to the idea content I am usually deaf to the vibe.

I'm getting better at working in that mode - keeping my mouth shut when I know a fact that will deflate the balloon of the conversation, even adding in my own claims I can't really support but that are fun - but my best strategy I think is just steering the group away from factual conversation, at which most people (including me on say political topics) are pretty much floundering, and towards subjective experiences and emotions, which most sociable people are really good at talking about and enjoy more anyway.
Jim Davies said…
That's an excellent point, Daniel, and I had to mull over this for a while before I responded to it.

I also appreciate that conversation is, for a lot of people, a lot of the time, a social bonding mechanism, and I respect that to an extent. (proof: I read Men are From Mars...)

You mentioned the "light social context" which reminds me that conversation is not just for one thing. It has multiple uses, just like reading. Sometimes I read for pure pleasure, sometimes for infomation, other times for inspiration, sometimes to be emotinoally moved. Similarly with conversation, sometimes I just want to connect with someone, sometimes I'm giving direction or commands, and sometimes I'm trying to figure something out with someone else.

To me these are all legitimate uses of spoken language, but each has its own acceptable behaviours and unacceptable behaviours.

For example, when I'm involved in a social bonding conversation, I talk about what's happening to me and my feelings about those events, for the most part. And I too try to steer the conversation away from matters of fact or even scientific theory. Others, however, will bring up matters of science during a social bonding conversation.

When people do this, I feel they are trying to sneak in their views in the context of a polite conversation. For example, someone might relate a personal story, and I'm being all sympathetic, and then come out with some ridiculous political or prejudicial statement to wrap it all up. I feel social pressure to just let it slide, but I feel that doing that gives them validation for a view that's incorrect, so I call them on it. For example, my landlord in Kingston told me his daughter didn't get into Queen's University. I sympathized with him. Then he said it wasn't fair that foreigners got to go when his daughter, from a taxpaying family, did not. He asked me point blank: "It's not fair, right?"

I realize this makes me a less-than-ideal conversation partner for light, social contexts.

Sorry, world. If you want to talk warm and fuzzy with me I'm good with that but don't bring up the science.
Daniel said…
We're on the same page here, and you pointed out a phenomenon that bothers me too: people trying to pull you into their belief system by using social pressure in the moment. Like in your example, you're connecting, and then they suddenly take a left turn into the realm of political opinions or believes about the world and expect you will follow them there, without any additional evidence. And then sometimes it turns out that was the plan all along, which is a form of extreme bad manners that evangelizing christians are particularly guilty of (and me too probably)

Even in these egregious cases, I think arguing facts is a trap, and if the real purpose of the encounter - no matter how rudely ignored - is to socialize then I figure it is upon me to slither out of that as gracefully as possible without saying anything that goes against my values or showing disrespect to the other persons' (no matter how illconsidered they are). I'll bet that's what you did in that situation in fact.

Something my friend Matt used to tell me to say: (imagine this brisk and sarcastic, followed by an immediate subject change) "It's a difficult issue; thoughtful people may disagree"
Daniel said…
Or was it "reasonable people may differ"...

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