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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Everything Is Obvious

If I were to put together a college course on Cargo Cults it would be based on five books:

1) Innumeracy (John Allen Paulos)
2) A Drunkards Walk (Leonard Mlodinow)
3) How to Lie With Statistics (Darrel Huff)
4) Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman (Richard Feynman
5) Everything Is Obvious, Once You Know the Answer (Duncan J. Watts)

All of the books describe a lot of what Feynman hopes we all get through the course of our educations:
There is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science. That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school--we never explicitly say what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation.

Book one asks us to evaluate our relationship to math. Book two is a hilarious view into our random lives. Book three is a classic on how statistics are used to tell any story imaginable. Book four is Feynman telling funny stories from the point of view rarely seen. Book five is new so I'll elaborate on why it's on the list.

The author has an education in physics and engineering. As a profession however, he chose Sociology. Although the field has done a poor job of applying the scientific method, the author believes things are turning around. In his book, Watts explores what we think we know (not just sciency subjects) and he asks us to question that reality. We use common sense to decide what to wear to work versus what to wear to the beach. We use common sense to tell us what to do and we don't really question why. In science we are suppose to ask why.

What this course will do is important. Many in the class will be in the process of preparing for the corporate world. Many of those people will pursue science degrees in their quest to start a biotech company or to climb the ladder at Pfizer. They are bullshitters. Science is going to help them sound sciency. The others in the class however will be nice normal people who just want to learn a little and go into the world where they can contribute, go home and live their lives. They all need to know what the tricks are so that the bullshitters are less confident in bullshitting. It may even put a few bullshitters on the straight and narrow path.

After the course, students may a new framework in which to think. In questioning pharmaceutical executives for example, they might find their thinking more in line with common sense. RNAi is a good example. A Nobel Prize was awarded for describing a process that common sense tells us would be the next big drug platform. Drugs interact with molecules that cause disorders. Eliminating those molecules will prevent the molecules from causing the disorder. It's sciency but it's not science. Science is proving the common sense notion of RNAi to be wrong.

In the field of economics we have common sense notions such as giving the wealthy more tax breaks will lead to more jobs. How is that working out for us? The common sense comment I've heard is, "I never got a job from a poor person." True, but by the same logic, we could make that poor person rich and then he would give you a job. The truth lies somewhere else most likely. Jobs are created... how? We don't know. As a leader in the field you must appeal to the majorities common sense to make them think you do have an answer. Tax breaks for the rich is the answer. It's a common sense solution and it hasn't solved the problem.

The term sciency, by the way, is used in the field of Bullshit. Sciency refers to things that seem scientific by virtue of what scientist is speaking and how scientific they appear to be. Bullshit doesn't rely on lies nor the truth. Bullshit relies on whatever needs to be said or done to achieve the goal. Common sense is the foundation of the process. It's just common sense to listen to scientists when they speak of science. If you don't know what you are talking about you can bullshit your way around by sounding sciency.

The Cargo Cult Science course would also go against the grain of common sense knowledge. The five books are about uncommon, yet learnable knowledge. It would be a science course that isn't very sciency. There would be math but it would come in the form of Innumeracy questions like, "how fast does hair grow in miles per hour?" There would be expert guest speakers. The tests would be to distinguish which ones were bullshitters and which ones were actually who they said they were. Unlike science courses, the CCS course would be fun and accessible to all students interested in looking at the world more objectively. It would prepare you for no occupation but it would help everyone do their job better. When the students leave class and go to the next one, maybe they'll raise their hands and ask more questions.

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