The Lower Quote, As If You Didn't Know, Is By Richard Dawkins, Son.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Common Sense

Many years ago when the world was mapped, a couple of people looked at the papers and noticed something interesting. They said (I'm paraphrasing), "Hey, it really looks like South America and Africa fit together sort of like puzzle pieces."

The educated folk likely said something in return like, "Well, it would look like that to unschooled people, but we study this for a living and obviously the continents do not move. We'd feel it, would we not? Come now, let the experts do our jobs, shall we?"

Condescension never was the best way to make a point.

We now know that the "common sense" contingent were correct and the nose-thumbing that ensued when the proof rolled in must have been epic. Situations like this where intelligent, well-read, non-professionals (or just lay persons) have made observations and been right have given way to today where people just assume that they're correct because something seems "common sense" in spite of not just authority speaking, but in the face of (sometimes literal) mountains of evidence to the contrary. This often leads to the Galileo Gambit being used by the underdog.

Ease of understanding seems to be the hinge for discussion on debatable subjects. Take the internet film Zeitgeist as an example. This film spews forth information at a breakneck speed with nary a reference source cited. All it does is make claims that people who don't know any better - and likely won't take the time to research it themselves - will find interesting and, ultimately, convincing.

It's Tower 7, man, that's the key.

Simple ideas can be powerful but make no mistake, common sense can lead us far astray as well. Every time I think of this topic, I'm reminded of an article by P.Z. Myers on Mexican Blind Cavefish. It is a fascinating read that rebuts the sensible assumption that fish who live in the dark don't need to see, therefore evolution selected against eyes, ergo they no longer have eyes. The article states:
Because hedgehog (a symmetry gene) and pax6 (a development gene controlling the eye, jaw, teeth, etc...) are negatively coupled to one another, one can be expanded only at the expense of the other, and what is going on in the blind cavefish is not selection for an economical reduction of the eyes, nor the accidental loss of an organ that has no effect: It is positive selection for a feature (more sensitive jaw and tastebuds) that is only indirectly related to the eyes.
Common sense gone astray, indeed. This explanation is so much more interesting and has so much more depth to it, but it is not something that can be pitched in five seconds. You actually have to listen and pay attention in order to understand.

This idea can be slathered all over so-called "alternative" medicine. So much of "alt.med" can be explained by people who "just know" or think treatment X just "sounds good/right". What's that? There's a tiny amount of mercury in vaccines? Mercury is toxic? Well that can't be good, can it? That's just common sense.

It is an uphill battle we face to talk people away from what seems simple and obvious and towards an answer that is nuanced, subtle, and sometimes messy. Getting the general public to be comfortable with uncertainty and perhaps even (gasp!) changing their minds from time to time with the appearance of new, better evidence would bring forth an intellectual revolution perhaps unseen in history since the Enlightenment.

Not a bad long term goal, eh?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Ontario's Dirty Little Secret

You really should read this article from Humanist Perspective magazine about the ridiculous public funding of Catholic schools in Ontario. It's eye-opening, especially if you live here and are unaware. If you're from elsewhere, just know that at least the Ontario part of Canada isn't as forward or awesome as you might think.

Yet.

Monday, September 20, 2010

End o' Blog Break (Hopefully)

A lot has happened in the time I've taken off from seriously writing on this blog. Frankly, there's been too much to even recap, so I'm going to start anew. I'm even going to start anew with something old in that last night I watched the documentary Flock of Dodos.

I enjoyed this movie and it highlighted one of the main problems with science and scientists dealing with the general public: a lack of communication skills that are at the level of the layperson. I had a personal experience with this gulf, although not in the creation/evolution context. My wife, while dealing with the early breastfeeding stage of our new kid, had to get some medical intervention with milk production. The midwives recommended an herbal remedy in their kindly and personable way, and the doctor recommended a pharmaceutical in his cold and aloof way.

Now, the problem is that when I looked at the evidence for the herbal concoction, it didn't look promising at all. In fact, it seemed not to work at all when properly tested. The pharmaceutical seemed to have much better results and be less prone to being a placebo (or having to deal with the wackaloons at the natural/herbal store who had a printed sheet at the cash regsiter warning of the "dangers" of the flu shot...sigh....). My wife really wanted to believe the midwives because they seemed like they cared for her as a person, but the evidence lay with the zero-personality, you're-just-a-number-to-me doctor.

It reminded me of that scene in Patch Adams where Mitch and "Patch" are talking about being a prick:
Mitch: I will save lives that could have otherwise not been saved. Now, I could be like you and go around laughing and have a good time, ha ha, but I prefer to learn, because the more I learn the more likely I will have the right answer at the crucial moment and save a life. And you say I'm a prick? You say I'm a prick? You know, maybe I am but you ask the average person, when death comes knocking at their door whether they want a prick on their side or some kindergarten teacher who's gonna kiss their ass! Because when that day comes I want the prick and so will you.

Hunter "Patch" Adams: You know, I forget how young you are, Mitch that you think you have to be a prick to get things done and that you actually think that that's a new idea.
It's hard not to see both points of view here. While I don't think that you have to be a "prick" to handle the day to day of being a doctor, you do have to work your butt off and know your stuff. That kind of time committment and work ethic often doesn't lend itself to being a super-personable jokey individual, especially if you're dealing with life-threatening/changing events.

Conversely, scientists and doctors have to get on board with public relations in order to get the average Joe/Jane-on-the-street to understand and appreciate why they should, for example, get a yearly flu shot. If the medical/scientific community doesn't get the importance of this, they will (and are) get quickly out-voiced by ill-informed professional communicators - Bill Maher, Jenny McCarthy, et al. When your doctor and your midwife are telling you opposite information, the patient only sees two professional health-care providers giving differing advice, and the advice that gets followed often depends on who the patient wants to spend their time with and who made them feel good.

Sad but true. It's why naturopathy is so popular despite the sheer lunacy that is espoused by many of these people. I often tell people who ask that it is the same as me knowing nothing about how cars work, so any semi-professional auto enthusiast could very easily pull the wool over my eyes and sell me a flux capaciter. Obviously any mechanic would think I'm a complete rube, but it's not me - you can't be an expert in everything and as such, we have to be dependent on others to take care of us in the areas where we are not up to speed. Choosing which experts to trust in is a skill that we all need to brush up on and scientists/doctors would do well to make it easier for the public to warm up to good science.