I think the session on using the history of science had a very interesting point (besides looking at history is interesting and that quote-mining to misrepresent your opponent has been going on for a looong time) — that one has to view science in the context of the time, because we always judge information through the optics of what we think is right, and it’s too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that what we know today is absolutely right, when it isn’t — we’ll keep learning more, and finding out some of what we think we know isn’t accurate. It’s easy to scoff at what people thought was true N years ago, but we have the benefit of hindsight. I am reminded of something from James Burke (from The Day the Universe Changed), when someone had made a condescending remark about people thinking the earth was the center of the solar system:
Somebody apparently once went up the the great philosopher Wittgenstein and said “What a lot of morons people back in the Middle Ages must have been to have looked every morning at what’s going on behind me now, the dawn, and to have thought that what they were seeing was the sun going around the Earth, when as every schoolkid knows the Earth goes around the sun and it doesn’t take too many brains to understand that.”
To which Wittgenstein replied, “Yeah, but I wonder what it would have looked like if the Sun had been going around the Earth.”
Point being, of course, is that it would have looked exactly the same.
You see what your knowledge tells you you’re seeing.
What you think the universe is, and how you react to that in everything you do, depends on what you know. And when that knowledge changes, for you, the universe changes. And that is as true for the whole of society as it is for the individual. We all are what we all know today. What we knew yesterday was different, and so were we.
(It’s from the first two minutes of this episode. The whole series is wonderful.)
Put another way, as an example, nobody was likely to come up with relativity as we know it as long as the notion of the ether was ensconced in everyone’s brains. The presence of a medium was the way things were interpreted, up until you couldn’t think about it that way anymore. And there could be something better than relativity out there.
Which leads me to think that perhaps it’s better to view what we know today as being less wrong than what we knew yesterday.
Another bit of insight came from the “It’s all Geek to me” session, where geekdom and snark were discussed. One of the moderators made the observation that geeks (in the world of geeks and non-geeks, i.e. without going into the difference between geeks, nerds, dweebs and dorks, which is shown here) is that geeks place a high value on information. And my observation, as an extension to that, was that geeks aren’t generally offended by being corrected, as opposed to the non-geek world, where pointing out errors is often considered rude. A geek doesn’t take it personally — being in error isn’t a character flaw (an honest mistake is not the same as lying), and in any discussion it’s better to proceed from the truth than from a mistake.
As far as the snark goes, I’ll just say this — I use snark (OMG, stop the internet!). But snark can’t be a substitute for an answer. I say this more in the context of forum discussions than a blog. Scoffing at someone’s ignorance isn’t productive; for any fact or concept, there was a time when each of us didn’t know it, and we all have huge areas of ignorance. So snark — as a first response — kills discussion. It sends inquisitive people away. But for someone who is proudly and willfully ignorant and shows they aren’t interested in honest discussion, I say, “Fire for effect.”
I also heard the science cheerleader talk, and learned about an interesting method of outreach and destroying some misconceptions; having a professional (pro-sports level) cheerleader point out that she has a technical degree shatters some old but tenacious stereotypes. I also heard about Science for Citizens, which allows average Joes and Janes to contribute to science projects (measuring precipitation where you live, taking samples from streams and ponds, and many other activities, which might be an extension of what you do for work or hobby anyway.