22 November 2015

Scientific Method and The Better Angels of Our Nature

Posted by Dan Satterfield


If you spent several years at a large university with foreign students, or more than a few nights outside of North America (riding a tour bus with friends and neighbors does not count), then chances are the last couple of weeks have been very unsettling. You no longer think that the ugly history of the 20th century could never again happen, and you may fear that history is indeed repeating itself.  Talk of registering people who belong to certain religions, and denying a place of safety to poor refugees, is the sordid history of the last century. Norman Cousins was right when he said that “History is a vast early warning system”. I think the alarm went off, and many Americans just rolled over and hit the snooze button.

Screen Shot 2015-11-22 at 12.03.11 AMAn American citizen was blocked from boarding a plane in Chicago this week because he can speak Arabic. When he was finally allowed on (after calling the police) some of the passengers demanded he open the white box in his hand, so he did, and took out and shared his baklava with them as well. Still others have been taken off flights solely because of their ethnic background, and if you have a business named after the Egyptian sun-god Isis, trust me, get a security camera (as someone in Colorado discovered the hard way).

Dr. Marshall Shepherd at the Univ. of Georgia, a great champion of science, posted something last week that has stuck in my mind:  “You can remove hate and bigotry from your Facebook page, but unfortunately, you cannot remove it from people’s hearts.” This is true, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have compassion for these people. We may not want them on our social media (or want to associate with them more than is absolutely necessary), but we should remember that the bigotry is a result of fear. It doesn’t excuse it, but that’s where it comes from.

Science teaches one to rely on data versus anecdotal evidence, and it warns us to not dismiss data because it conflicts with our worldview (confirmation bias). Good critical thinking skills teach us to value fact and data over feelings and emotion, but most people do exactly the opposite. It may very well be wired into our DNA from our ancient days on the African Savannah, where many of life’s most valuable lessons were fatal and rarely passed on. 

The opportunity to spend quality time around people from many other cultures and beliefs is the hidden advantage to an education, and it’s something that those who’ve not had the experience know little of. The same can be said of travel, and the sad fact is that most Americans don’t have a passport. This has lead to the sharp and scary divide we’ve seen this week, and it’s why a lot of us have fewer friends now on social media than we did two week ago (and are not at all unhappy about it).

Compassion, however, doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility to point out the data that says you’re more likely to be killed by a drunk/inattentive  driver (or lightning bolts), than by a poor refugee from a war-torn Hell-on-Earth. Our own humanity, and the lessons of history demand it of us. It’s a valuable lesson that comes directly from scientific method not a history book. It’s the history books that warn us about the consequences of staying quiet. I’ve never been one to stay silent in the face of injustice or bigotry, and I’m filled with gladness to see a lot of my friends have not been silent either. 

It may not be popular to stand up for what is right, and Frederick Douglas was spot on when he said “Men do not love those who remind us of our sins”.

I’ll take the chance.