Sunday, February 07, 2016

Common sense

We can't trust common sense but we can trust science

It's an interesting phenomenon that no one laments his or her lack of rationality. We might complain of having a poor memory, or of being no good at maths, but no one thinks they are irrational.
Worse than this, we all think we're the exemplar of the rational person (go on, admit it) and, if only everyone could see the world as clearly as we do, then all would be well.

Science is not common senseIt's important to realise that science is not about common sense. Nowhere is this more evident than in the worlds of quantum mechanics and relativity, in which our common sense intuitions are hopelessly inadequate to deal with quantum unpredictability and space-time distortions.
But our common sense fails us even in more familiar territory. For centuries, it seemed to people that the Earth could not possibly be moving, and must therefore be at the centre of the universe.
Many students still assume that an object in motion through space must have a constant force acting on it, an idea that contradicts Netwon's first law. Some people think that the Earth has gravity because it spins.
And, to return to my opening comment, some people think that their common sense applied to observations of the weather carries more weight on climate change than the entire body of scientific evidence on the subject.
Science is not the embodiment of individual common sense, it is the exemplar of rational collaboration. These are very different things.
It is not that individual scientists are immune from the cognitive biases and tendencies to fool themselves that we are all subject to. It is rather that the process of science produces the checks and balances that prevent these individual flaws from flourishing as they do in some other areas of human activity.
In science, the highest unit of cognition is not the individual, it is the community of scientific enquiry.
Thinking well is a social skillThat does not mean that individuals are not capable of excellent thinking, nor does it mean no individual is rational. But the extent to which individuals can do this on their own is a function of how well integrated they are with communities of systematic inquiry in the first place. You can't learn to think well by yourself.
In matters of science at least, those who value their common sense over methodological, collaborative investigation imagine themselves to be more free in their thinking, unbound by involvement with the group, but in reality they are tightly bound by their capabilities and perspectives.
Emphasis added by Aaron/ spelling as in the orginal

Similar things were said in a very different way by 

 Hans Rosling:
The best stats you've ever seen

In short, some of my readers, were brought up with very strong preconceptions about knitting.  They call these ideas, "common sense".  These preconceptions from childhood form a system of belief.  I accept science, but I believe very little.  One thing I do believe, is that Han's Rosling's 10 year old presentation is still a good reminder to update one's facts on a regular basis.

In contrast, I knew nothing about hand knitting until the mother of a fellow student in a silver smithing class at the university taught me taught me to knit (circa 45 years ago).  I had been tasked with helping setup a traveling display of knitting tools made by FabergĂ©, and how could I set up an intelligent display if I did not know how the tools were used?  So, I learned to knit, long after I was trained as a scientist.

I am well aware of the childhood preconceptions that I bring to any, and every issue. I always tend to go back to the basic science of the issue, which is what I did learn in childhood.  Since then, Steve Weil, taught me to always go back and check my memory of the science, and what studies on the topic have come out recently.  I love and .  And I recommend, because it is handy.

What my critics miss is that I learned the knitting techniques that my critics use, and I seek better.  I see each advance in knitting that I make; as a step forward on a long path, rather than the end of  a journey.  I report each advance because it is better, not because it is the end of the path. Every day, I hope for insight that will help me become a better knitter.

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