Bare Bones Biology 063 – Power of Ignorance

There’s nothing wrong with ignorance, you know. People get all het up about that word, ignorant. Ignorance has nothing to do with how smart you are. It simply says you don’t know something. Every creature on earth is ignorant about some things, actually most things. Einstein was somewhat ignorant about ecology. Why not? He was a physicist. Physics is not ecology. Einstein spent much of his time thinking and learning about physics; and he did not run around trying to convince people that he knew about things he didn’t know about. He knew what he knew, but the thing that made him so smart is that he also knew what he didn’t know.

I was thinking about ignorance and reading a peer-reviewed research study that was done by Justin Kruger and David Dunning at Cornell University.

I’ll quote their conclusion, leaving out just a few words:

“People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities . . , in part, because people who are unskilled . . . suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it. … Several analyses linked this miscalibration to deficits in metacognitive skill, or the capacity to distinguish accuracy from error. Paradoxically, improving the skills of participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities.”

Well, I’m always suspicious of people who use big words when they could make better sense using ordinary words, but these people certainly understand what the words mean, and their methods and statistics, and also a long list of references, all hold up well, so I’m pretty sure their results are accurate. The bottom line is — the best way to grow your competence is to be very clear about what you know and, more importantly, what you do not know. Or as I say it, the best way to grow your personal power is to know the difference between the facts, the lies, the opinions, and self-serving poppycock. People respect knowledge more than recycled blather. Would you hire an engineer who doesn’t know the difference between a slide rule and a calculator?

So I thought it was really interesting — that same day, I received copies of an article in The Economist. The editorial and the article clearly review many of the problems that we humans face in our ecosystem today. And they use all the right catch phrases. Resilience for example:

“. . . it is possible to add to the planet’s resilience, often through simple and piecemeal actions, if they are well thought through.”

But apparently they don’t understand the relationship between resilience and the numbers of species in an ecosystem, because they also stated that half the earth’s species are going extinct. And they did not mention that we are almost entirely ignorant of the functions that most of those species perform to maintain the resilience of the ecosystem. So – given our enormous ignorance, I don’t understand how they plan to carefully think through a method of improving resilience while at the same time extincting half the earth’s species. Would you hire these people to engineer the future of the earth ecosystem that provides your air, food, water and work – literally your life?

And if we revert to commonsense, there is an idea they did not even consider. Wouldn’t it be safer, easier and less abusive to humans and the living earth ecosystem to remove the cause of all those problems? The common root cause that lies behind all these problems – and anyone can do the math — is excessive growth. But the implications of this fact are not seriously considered anywhere in the article.

Bare Bones Biology 063 – Power of Ignorance
KEOS FM, 89.1, Bryan, TX
Download audio later this week from http://www.BareBonesBiology.com

If you believe you are doing a good thing and someone else believes you are doing a bad thing — do you have the responsibility to investigate your own belief to see if there is any hard evidence one way or the other?

Or at least define what you both mean when you say “good” “bad.”

Or are we only responsible to ourselves?

BareBonesBiology004-Transcript

The Power of Science

The great power of science is that it lets us spend our time doing things that are more useful than fighting about our personal opinions. We can use the elegant immutable facts of life to make technologies, and then we can use the technologies to do something good that we otherwise couldn’t do.

But is that what we usually choose to do? More often, after we have powerful technologies, our heads swell up until we believe our power is the same as wisdom and our opinions are the same as facts. Now that’s just silly, but that’s what some people think. And then we start to fight, we call it debating, about whose opinion is more important. And by that time we are in more trouble than we were before we had the power. Nobody’s opinion is as powerful as an immutable fact, because we can not change the facts.

A fact is a reality that never changes. The most important thing we need to know about science — it’s a method to figure out what is the difference between a fact and an opinion. And it does this by physical measurements. Science is the study of measurable facts using the scientific method. The whole point of the scientific method is to prevent personal opinions from influencing our evaluation of the measurable facts.

An opinion is not any of these things. We do have the power to change our opinions, and in my opinion we should consider our opinions with great care, first on the basis of the facts we must deal with and then on the basis of good choices that reflect our positive human values.

Fighting over facts is like those gorgeous fighting fish that have long trailing fins and all sorts of colors from red to blue, and they live in little aquaria. One fish lives on each side and they are divided by a pane of glass. Apparently the fish believe they are more powerful than the glass, because they never stop fighting to get through the glass so they can tear each other to shreds. They spend their whole lives doing this, and then they die.

That’s very romantic, and I suppose it’s fun if you like nothing else more than you like fighting, or if you think winning is more important than anything else in the world. I don’t. My goal is to do good without causing harm, and I think winning is mostly a way to hurt other people while pretending you did something good, because whenever you win, everyone else loses. And that makes them mad. Pretty soon everyone is mad at everyone else, and looking for something to fight about, even if it doesn’t make any sense, acting just like a bunch of pea-brained fighting fish and never accomplishing anything more useful than proving we can do something better than somebody else can do it. Well, everyone can do something better than someone else, so what does that prove? It’s just silly.

I can accomplish my goal better if I know the difference between the things we know to be facts, and the things we know are not facts, and the things we don’t know. So science is about facts. Technology is also about facts, but technology is not science. Technology uses scientific facts to make things to sell or to use. It’s too bad so many people are confused about this, because the difference is as big as the difference between God and man. God made the unchanging facts. We use science to study the facts. We use technology to make things to play with.

It’s no different from a chimpanzee using a stick to dig food out of a hole. God made the tree, the chimpanzee broke it into a stick to use for a technology, but the chimpanzee did not make the tree and he cannot change the way trees are made. Neither science nor technology can change the facts, but science can help us to understand them, and technology can help us to do good things without causing harm.

Or not. Our job is to choose.

Slides Number Three and Four

In our study of the Ecosystem at the HPJC retreat.

03 Our Tools-Facts Understood
Real facts are the foundation of real solutions. I am presenting here very basic well established biological facts about what the ecosystem requires for its survival. There is no point debating facts that are as well understood as those I will describe, because we can’t change them. Better to debate our own behaviors in response to the facts.

04 Our Tools-Opinions Under Discussion
It is extremely important that we discuss our opinions about these facts so that we can grow and benefit from the wisdom of the community.

“It’s only when we use (these tools) to act on our deepest beliefs to change unjust policies that exploit the powerless, only when we challenge entrenched power holders who fail to address the root causes of disparities, and only when we endeavor to change hearts, especially our own hearts, to impart dignity for all, that we are advancing peace and justice.” Cheryl Crozier, HPJC

“I really believe that people need to step back and examine these (economic and environmental) issues a little bit so we stop treating symptoms . . . and get to the root causes.” Helena Norberg-Hodge, ISEC

The trick is to find out good facts about the root causes. A movie (Ancient Futures) that is distributed by ISEC, provides one of the best studies of historical facts that I have seen.

I sat down to write “Bare Bones Ecology” when I realized to my horror that the biological facts about how the ecosystem functions are generally not available from our usual sources of information.