I am a Scientist


Like most people I guess, I get irritated by folk who are wrong. But unlike most people, I actually don’t mind so much when I am.

Perhaps that’s because I believe in a ‘Bayesian brain’. Mash up all the facts, data and experience you have (however little) and come up with a probabilistic answer. That’s certainly how my mind works.

Of course we all live trapped in our own heads. So what seems common sense to me, absolutely may not to other people. Different experiences, different world views, different data.

As a recently deceased US Senator said:

“Sir, you are entitled your own opinions, but not your own facts.”

But what are facts anyway? Just a combination of data, theory and interpretation.

If someone says something I disagree with, generally speaking, I’ll have a quick go at saying so – and what I think. If pushed, I’ll point out the flaws in their position, if they are obvious.

But except in the most extreme or important situations, I’ll generally leave it after one or two tries. Experience tells; people don’t change their minds easily.

One of the weaknesses in a Bayesian approach is similar to the ‘ethical’ problem I used to have as a Utilitarian. The balance of probabilities, like the balance of morality, isn’t easy to explain or justify to people of principle and belief.

Most of the calls we make are analogue not digital. They are ‘probably’ not ‘binary’. So I’ve learnt, in the main, to simplify what I’m thinking when it comes to persuading. In the art of human persuasion, a single strong argument trumps several reasons.

And this cuts us to the chase. Why is it so hard to reason with people? Because most of human existence was in the pre-scientific era. Belief, superstition and commandment drove most people’s thoughts and deeds.

And a quote I read from the late great populariser of science, Carl Sagan, sums up the difference:

In science it often happens that scientists say, “You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken.” And then they would actually change their minds and you would never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.

I am a scientist.

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