The New Yorker recently published a commencement address given by Atul Gawande here, which speaks to the larger impact of scientific thinking on our culture. It’s a really excellent speech and I recommend reading it in full.
Science is a collective endeavor – beyond the scientists who are actually doing the research, the rest of us in the lay community have a responsibility to science as well. Seeking out correct information, employing the scientific mindset, seeking to think up educated questions about everything, etc. is critical to healthy academic, economic, social, and political environments. We’ve seen how far a healthy, scientific culture can take us all, as Gawande says, allowing us “…to nearly double our lifespan during the past century, to increase our global abundance, and to deepen our understanding of the nature of the universe”. Gawande speaks to a decreased level of trust in the scientific community and prepares the graduates to go out and defend science and the scientific mindset. But I want to speak to what may be causing this decreased level of trust in the scientific community and I’m not sure it will be a surprise to anyone.
The internet, and the increased general abundance of “information”, has allowed us to build echo chambers for ourselves, the complete antithesis of what would be considered a scientific mindset. To paraphrase Gawande, a scientific mindset is an open mind, gathering information repetitively and testing expectations against that information, with the understanding that no knowledge is ever concrete. But our self-made echo chambers provide us with only one kind of information, leading us to believe that the knowledge we gained is actually completely true – after all, it’s so well supported! No longer are we asked to test our expectations in this new age; instead we are assured we are all experts in the matter at hand. When we can be self-assured experts, what need have we for the scientific community? Why place our trust in studies we didn’t conduct, studies that we, the experts, don’t agree with?
There’s an important distinction I need to make here between safe spaces and echo chambers. I’m not against safe spaces, areas (virtual or physical) that allow an individual to explore at their own pace some kind of trauma, injustice, or aspect of their being through personal expression without fear of harassment, persecution, violence, discrimination, or hate speech. Typically, safe spaces are created for individuals of a minority/oppressed group or those who have suffered unusual trauma such as rape, war, etc. Safe spaces are often used to help individuals come to terms with who they are or experiences they’ve faced; they provide support to people who are marginalized and in need often because the rest of the world is not supportive. This last point is key because it tells us that the people in the safe space are already receiving the alternate view to the safe space in their everyday lives and are thus not isolated from it.
Can a safe space become an echo chamber? Certainly, just as any community can. But they are not designed to be that way – just like a session with a counselor or support group would not automatically be considered an echo chamber (how angry would the public be if a counselor told a patient to ‘go kill themself’ because of a trauma they experienced? Intuitively, we understand people need whole-hearted support at times, with no opportunity for harassment!). All these avenues – safe spaces, counseling sessions, support groups – are simply places for people to work on being their best self without fear of being harmed, harassed, or discriminated against. People talking with others like them about experiences only relevant to them (for example,a group of plant biologists meeting to talk about sugar maple trees) is not the issue here; it’s when those communities decide to begin passing judgments on the world while ignoring factual evidence that we get in trouble.
Unlike what Gawande seems to suggest, this is a larger issue than just combating each individual non-believer in the scientific community. The internet is a new tool that we still haven’t learned how to use effectively, and it’s being used as a weapon of war against the scientific mindset through echo chambers and by perpetuating a culture where we don’t examine our sources carefully. Our culture surrounding internet usage needs to shift from mindless sharing, clicking, and liking to really thorough and informed questioning of what is put in front of us and who is creating and sharing content. Only when we all rededicate ourselves to employing the scientific mindset on the internet will we see the cultural shift necessary to bring back a much-needed communal trust in science.