Irrational Scientists

Overcoming Bias has a good article about scientists holding unscientific beliefs outside the lab. The gist of it is, if a scientist throws out science when he leaves work, does he really understand what it’s for and how it works?

Why? Well, suppose that an apprentice shepherd is laboriously trained to count sheep, as they pass in and out of a fold. Thus the shepherd knows when all the sheep have left, and when all the sheep have returned. Then you give the shepherd a few apples, and say: “How many apples?” But the shepherd stares at you blankly, because they weren’t trained to count apples – just sheep. You would probably suspect that the shepherd didn’t understand counting very well.

(HT Pharyngula.)

One thought on “Irrational Scientists”

  1. From the article:

    when they go home, they take off the lab coat and relax with some comfortable nonsense.

    And I answer, “more power to them!” Constant evaluation and consideration and deconstruction is not relaxing, nor, I posit, does it provide for the kind of mental free-association (which is likened to “sloppy thinking”) that oft leads to an “Eureka!” moment. In my mind it’s akin to the exceedlingly talented auto mechanic that drives the biggest POS in the parking lot. They’ll work masterpieces of engineering to keep you and others on the road but they’d prefer to spend their downtime doing something else.

    The author’s tone in this article smacks of hubris in that the apparent assumption is it is known why scientists might go to the mental carnival when they step out of the lab, the reason being because they have not fully embraced a “scientific lifestyle” and enrobed their entire existence in it’s folds. Speaking with authority of another person’s motivations is not an activity with a high rate of success. Perhaps the scientist is maintaining a degree of detatchment while engaging in the brain frippery for the purpose of identifying their biases so they can be better addressed once in the lab. Perhaps the scientist realizes with the clarifying filter of pragmatism that their behavoir is alienating to others, and they have no desire to be socially ostracized. Maybe they feel that it is healthy to turn off the deconstruction and sample something at a visceral level for the enjoyment that might bring.

    And yes, that does make me wonder if I can trust that scientist’s opinions even in their own field

    Which, as has been stated in other places, is a good thing. Doubt makes us question what is in front of us and encourages critical thinking. If the scientist is allowing personal, non-scientific bias to affect the study, the vetting process itself will suss that out and present it for reevaluation. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.


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