Imagine the following scenario. Two guys are walking down the street, in different cities. Guy A has two PhDs, one in quantum physics with a focus on dimensionality dynamics, the other in astrophysics with a focus on relativistic aspects of gravity and black holes. She has published dozens of peer reviewed papers on both topics and is a brilliant mathematician. Guy B never took a physics class but yesterday he finished reading large parts of The Elegant Universe. Suddenly, at the same moment, they each have an idea (they do not have the same idea … they have different ideas) about how to unify quantum level and cosmic level dynamics.
(A slightly revised repost. See this for extensive comments on the original 2009 posting.)
For reasons that I’ll leave out of this thought experiment (because I can’t think of any) the two of them … Guy A and Guy B … become the sole denizens of a short list of possible keynote speakers at the International Union of Physicists Congress, a major meeting held every five years, and that everybody who is anybody in the field goes to. Both guys spent weeks developing the idea they had at the beginning of this parable and are ready and willing to spend an hour regaling the gathering with their thoughts and conclusions.
You are a tax-paying American Citizen and it turns out that the expenses associated with the keynote speaker for this important gathering of scientists are covered by a grant form the National Science Foundation. Including the speaker’s fee, travel expenses, etc., American Taxpayers are about to spend $15,000 on this talk.
You get to vote for who gives the talk. Guy A vs. Guy B. Which would you pick, given the information provided so far? Obviously, you are not being asked to decide between the two ideas on the basis of their content. You are simply being asked to bet on which is likely more correct, or at least, less wrong, based only on what you are being given here. Some people might call this making a heuristic decision rather than a logical decision. That’s partly true, but a sharp distinction between the two overlooks the fact that within the hard science itself much is heuristic.
There are ways in which I could have formulated this parable, leaving out the fact that it was a talk and making it, say, people making comments on a blog post, and other features where the negatives of a bad decision are reduced. It does not matter that this is a “theory of everything” being discussed, it could be some other set of ideas. Or I could have shifted the nature of the setting from something important-seeming but also esoteric to something more day-to-day, like which guy’s theory gets taught in the AP High School physics class. How would these shifts in context change your decision as to which person’s theory you’d want to hear, if you could only chose one? What if you, an IT manager or English teacher (or some other non-physicist) could choose to hear both, and after you heard both you were not sure which was more likely correct but had to vote in a non-binding poll about it … which would you pick as more likely to be correct? Which would you pick as more valid, or would you say that both are somehow equally valid?
You’ve heard of the arguments about “argument from authority.” Argument from authority is the assertion that a particular idea is valid specifically because an arbitrary label of authority is linked to the person (or institution) making the argument. The arbitrary linkage of authority to a person or thing does not, in fact, validate or improve the rationality or accuracy of an argument put forth by that person or thing. Argument from authority (defined as such) is invalid.
But, we often see the “argument from authority” argument used to squash arguments that are not really arguments from authority. In the scenario given above, there is a difference between Guy A and Guy B that strongly indicates that Guy A’s ideas are potentially worth listening to, while Guy B’s are not. If we needed to pick between the two, especially at some cost, we’d pick A. Also, if we could, with little cost, hear both but still wanted to pick between the two (just for the fun of it) we’d be better off going with Guy A. It is possible that you don’t agree with what I just said. If you don’t, please indicate in the comments why I’m wrong. Just remember, though. I went to Harvard.
Now, please consider an entirely different issue (and when I say “entirely different” I mean “connected in a way that may not be immediately clear”). consider how decisions are made about how to do things in education. Like what to teach in an American classroom about evolution, or how to manage field trips or how to schedule lunches and classrooms. Whatever. How should such decisions be made? By a single authority in Washington DC? By the state that the school is in? By the district, or the individual school? Or the teacher?
There is a strong feeling in US civics as well as among those interested in education that the more local the decision is made, the better the decision will be. This is probably true in many areas. I remember years back when my father was involved in fights over regulation and public housing, and he showed me a project in Arizona and a project he was doing in New York … each adapted to local conditions of climate, urban setting, etc. to optimize the use of resources for heating and cooling, and each project disallowed by Federal Housing Authority regulations written by people who apparently lived in Virginia and had no clue as to how to build a building in a cold climate or a hot climate. Local conditions were not accounted for by those regulations, but local conditions mattered a lot.
On the other hand, is it really the case that there is a local way to teach evolution? Well, yes…. I have a colleague who is totally into everybody teaching evolution by using, in part, studies of diversity of ants in the school yard. Which is great and I love that program. But I know of schools that have no dirt in the yard, and if they do, it is considered unsafe to dig in. I know of schools in habitats where the real diversity is not in ants but in some other organism. So evolution + looking for stuff outside + diversity = good pedagogy, but not necessarily with ants. So, a combination of nationally or internationally conceived and executed programs and local adaptation works.
There are people who argue that the decision of whether evolution is a valid set of theories or should be taught along side creationism, etc, should be a local one. Why? The “logical” reason to think this is that the more local the decision the better it is. Which, I am trying to point out here, is a fallacy. The “real” reason people try to push that idea is that it is politically easier to intimidate, cajole, convince, and trick people into doing what you want them to do if you get secretly organized first, then appear on the scene unexpectedly in a small group or polity, then push for what you want and get it in place before anyone at a larger geographical scale knows what you are up to. And this approach exploits the widespread (but incorrect) belief that “local control” is better.
So what do Guy A and Guy B and local control have to do with each other? Well for one thing, with respect to any issue, as you go from cosmopolitan to local, the number of Guy A’s available goes down, but you don’t run out of Guy B’s until you get to a very small number. Every week in the United states numerous local level actions or ordinances are invalidated by courts because they are unconstitutional. Only a small percentage of state and an even smaller percentage of national laws are struck down by courts. Scale matters in different ways for different things. A thousand committees may come up with a hundred good ideas while one committee may be useless. But there is no need for the forty thousand public high schools in the US to come up with their own list of key facts in teaching evolution, especially when the process of doing so leaves open the possibility of a political fight each time.
I see a version of local empowerment and the demand that each individual’s opinion … a kind of democratization of point of view … in denialist movements. When Pat Buchanan insisted to Andrea Mitchel the other day on MSNBC that “We don’t happen to accept this evidence … global warming is not proven to us” he meant, by “us,” not some group of climate scientists but rather members of a political movement that claims popularism (even though it is owned by the financial elite) known as the Republican Party. He was referring to the Teabaggers. I think if you asked the average Teabagger, “Is your opinion on global warming as valid as some MIT professor of climate studies?” the Teabagger would say “Yes it is, dammit!” and if you asked why you would hear a populist strum and draw of one kind or another. But the Teabagger would be wrong.
The ways in which this is embodied among denialists varies. The “Mommy Instinct” empowers individual women, if they are mommies, to know as much as the AMA about what is medically good for their child. Home schoolers know that they understand both the contents and the pedagogy of all of the subjects taught in school better than anyone else. “Fooled me once, fooled me twice” references to Malthusian arm waving on this very blog appeal to a personal sense of having been put upon as a reason why one might be correct about the complexities of climate modeling. And so on.
Perhaps people tend to trust the members of their own tribes more than they trust outsiders with more evidence. Perhaps denialism is even simpler than that: Perhaps people get some idea at one point in their lives and can’t bear to see it challenged. Perhaps “knowing” (believing, feeling strongly) that something is or is not true can be a matter of trust. The difference between a denialist and a skeptic may end the end be a difference between well placed trust and misplaced trust. How does one know whom to trust?