Til you run out of cake and eat it too

I’m glad I got burned,

Think of all the things we learned

For the people who are still alive


You can probably guess who, in my mind, the ideal scientist is.

In the Portal game, you go up against GLaDOS – an amoral AI who’s obsessed with scientific experimentation. You’re a human test subject in her sadistic and cruel tests.

After breaking the constraints of the experiment, you kill her and (briefly) escape to the surface above the research facility.

GLaDOS is thrilled by this.

Escaping and killing her was supposed to be impossible. Doing it is a new result! Science advances on the backs of unexpected outcomes – this certainly qualifies.

A mere human would resent being murdered, no matter how revolutionary it is.

Compared to fictitious AIs, humans fall short of science.

We do that with all ideals, really.

But we can do better.

In fact, ‘doing better’ is such a low bar.

Thinking scientifically, not in terms of science’s brand, is a test most folks fail.

How many times have you seen this:

Person A: “Scientists say it’s X. If you disagree, you’re obviously a moron fundie illiterate stupid ugly anti-science lunatic who’d believe anything.”

Person B: “New evidence came in and X is wrong.”

Person A: “Well of course. Science updates on evidence all the time!”

Not quite, pendo.

You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

Science is built on uncertainty. Idiots treat this as a weakness (“I know God created the world 37 minutes ago whereas you only suspect evolution is real!!!”) rather than a strength (“huh, it turns out our ideas from Aristotle about motion were wrong – at least we know better now!”)

But it’s not the same uncertainty across the board.

There’s a huge difference between Settled Science and the Opinions of Scientists.

Settled Science has low uncertainty. It’s never none, because no idea is above questioning, but it requires enormous work to challenge it.

Opinions of Scientists are better than random opinions, but are easily challenged by logic and experience – even from laypeople.

Frontier Science is somewhere in the middle. There are many questions, few of which are the right ones to ask. There’s a lot of data, but no one knows how accurate or comprehensive any of it is yet. You’re up to your armpits in conclusions, but who knows which are valid?

You can’t be certain about any of it, including which parts to be the most uncertain about.

There are no shortcuts here. There are no easy answers. Even if you’re a scientist working in the field, it’s a struggle.

But that’s no invitation to give up.

If you say it’s all uncertain so you can believe whatever you want, you’re an idiot. You can’t pick and choose the truth. You still have to follow the evidence. With the same breath, you can’t point to something a scientist said and day, “behold the truth!”

Where do you start?

By figuring out what kind of science something is.

Treating Settled Science as opinion leads away from reality.

Treating Opinions of Scientists as proven truth leads away from reality.

The best you can do, as a layperson or a scientist, is to figure out how uncertain you should be.

Anecdote interlude

This sounds obvious.

If you’re unwise, you’re scoffing and saying, “yeah, yeah, I do that…”

You’re not GLaDOS – you get this wrong.

Even scientists, who are trained to think critically, get this wrong.

I studied science at university. One of the courses was on scientific thinking. An exam for it had a question like this:

A friend of yours has a migraine. On the advice of a salesperson, they take a tonic purely made of crushed beetles. Their migraine vanishes over the next half hour. Choose the best explanation:

  1. The tonic cured the migraine
  2. The tonic had no effect and they would have gotten better either way
  3. It’s not likely that the tonic did anything, but you can’t be sure until you run proper controlled tests.

I smiled to myself, happy for the easy question. I put down C and moved on.

Later, I got the exam sheet back. The lecturer marked my answer as wrong and marked B as the correct answer.

I challenged this, pointing out that C was basically the scientific method with an educated guess in front.

They said I was ignorant and naïve – the sort of person who believes in crystal healing and nonsense. After all, a crushed beetle tonic obviously isn’t real medicine.

Yeah, yeah, I know – hashtag not all scientists. Not even most scientists. But plenty don’t understand how science works at all. To them, it’s just a job… one that they’re not very good at.

Would you believe this scientist’s opinion – or even their research – with the same certainty that the Earth orbits the Sun?

End anecdote.

Anyway, this post isn’t anti-science – it’s science, pure and simple. If you unthinkingly believe some research, it’s as dumb as unthinkingly doubting it. If you downplay or exaggerate something’s uncertainty, you drift from the truth.

When someone tells you something is based on the latest science, that tells you little. Until you know what sort of science that is, you don’t know how confidently to believe that.

Either way, questioning the science – especially after it’s been filtered through politicians into policy – isn’t a deviation from reason and sanity.

Just the opposite.

Speaking of ways of elevating your thinking:

Your own thoughts or beliefs don’t have to get in your way.

Neuroplasticity is Settled Science. Folks used to think your brain was fixed at birth or at a very young age. Now we know that it can change.

Not only can it change, but you can control how it changes.

There are many ways to do this.

I say, use hypnosis – it’s awesome.

Sign up for a session with me:


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