Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Critical thinking and the nature of science

There is a history of authoritative pronouncements by scientists. In the case of British and American geneticists, these led to the promulgation, particularly in the USA, of rather harsh eugenics (forced sterilization and restricted immigration) laws.

Similarly, there have been claims that educational interventions cannot and should not be used to address sociopolitical and biological inequities (see this link.

Most recently, there has been lots of borderline hysterical discussion about the dangers of global warming, and the need to commit substantial resources to the effort to avoid it reviewed here.

There is a recent post by Freeman Dyson on the need for clarity and balance in these discussion, that is, the need for a critical analysis of what the predictions are based on, what our certainty is in the models used, what the interventions will cost, what their likelihood of producing the desired effects will be, what benefits may in fact come from warming, what programs will suffer from the diversion of resources, and what immediate benefits could be attained with such resources.

This approach, of teaching science and science-based policy decisions through a rational and explicit analysis of assumptions, observation, predictions, confidence levels, and the costs of action and inaction, would go far to break down the illusion of scientific authoritarianism (black and white/right and wrong), and make science more accessible to a wider audience.

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