“Do you know which is the most venomous spider?” he asks to room.
It’s nearly midday and I’m one of the members of the crowd undertaking the senior first aid course. It is a diverse group from all sections of the large company.
The coordinator of the class smiles in the silence.
“The daddy long legged spider?” someone asks tentatively.
“Yes,” he answers happily and a mild chatter erupts.
I place my hand up and as soon as I’ve caught the coordinator’s eye, I reply, “That’s not true…”
“Of course, the fangs are too small for them to be a threat,” he interrupts me.
“No,” I insist, “they can bite you if they want to, but they are only mildly venomous to humans. Mythbusters even looked into it, bringing in an expert on…”
“Mythbusters…” he chortles back, again interrupting me.
With the mild laughter that follows, I give up. It is, after all, not an argument worth having. From a first aid point of view, it doesn’t matter if the species is venomous but cannot bite or isn’t that venomous but can bite.
But it remains an episode in my life I often replay in my mind over and over again.
With my pursuit for scientific accuracy which has over the past two years compelled me to write, I have of course read numerous studies on the fallibilities of our natural abilities to reason. We are innately drawn to conclusions that may hold little to no weight due to a whole host of reasons. At the far end of the spectrum, such as the very large or the very small, our perception of the universe falls down completely and we simply cannot rely on our common sense at all.
As there have been very many excellent communicators who know this field many folds better than myself who have previously written on the subject, I won’t delve too much into it here.
Instead, I wish to focus on part of the problem that I feel is most easily addressed on a large scale. It’s the disproportional weight we give to personal experience.
In the above situation, clearly the coordinator had never heard from a trusted research facility that the results of many experiments from numerous research teams had conclusively confirmed the high potency of the species venom. No body of research has, after all, found that conclusion to be true and no communicator with a genuine understanding of the science has written general articles to that effect.
He had, not unlike the rest of the group, heard the same meme over and over again from countless individuals within his boarder network. It wasn’t confirmed by evidence, but solely by testimony of many trusted individuals.
On the other hand, Mythbusters is pop media. It’s entertainment. It doesn’t matter that they do give a loose insight to scientific methodology and do at least attempt to draw on relevant knowledge bases and standardised testing techniques to draw their conclusions. Arguably they do this without adequate repetition (being my strongest criticism of their technique). However it is first and foremost entertainment and so shouldn’t be bogged down by the stringencies of real science.
It’s not enough to disregard it solely on being media, however, because every single one of us will give weight to testimonies delivered by trusted media presenters. It is disregarded, just as science is when the conclusions are uncomfortable or otherwise challenge our perception of the world, because scientific certainty seems at large to be less credible than the testimony of personal experience.
Even scientific “fact” can never truly be 100%, but can get so close it’s simply preposterous to refute it. Think, for instance, the “fact” that the Earth is round or that the solar system spins around a central sun – in such cases the body of evidence is overwhelming. The same could be said about speciation and the evolution of transient forms of life over the history of this planet, the life supporting heat trapping properties of CO2 or the success of broad scale vaccination to limit the rate of infection transfer. These “facts” are not refuted by compelling contrary evidence, but ultimately by the limitations of personal experience.
We instinctive put too much weight in our perception of the world when it’s clearly not instinctive to tackle genetics over geological timeframes, the physical properties of tiny compounds that we cannot physically sense or the rate of mortality over multiple generations due to diseases that many of us haven’t seen in our life time. Collectively sharing this perception ultimately acts as confirmation.
I don’t believe that we are well trained in our schooling years to be critically minded. There should be greater emphasis on creativity and also genuine scepticism (as opposed to the “sceptics” around nowadays who claim to be unconvinced by various scientific conclusions) in the education process.
In short, children should be taught to develop a strong “BS meter” so as they are able to critically analyse not only new information but also its source. Creativity is just as essential as it leads to the realisation of the diversity of perception and how wonderful that can be (thinking now of many brilliant works of art) but also how separate it can be from the evidence base weeded out through science.
If we are to be truly living in an age of enlightenment, we must reduce the confidence we have in our own experiences and be more critically minded with information. Of course, we cannot disregard our personal experiences as meaningless – as it has been essential for our survival as a species – but rather acknowledge the inherent weaknesses in our common sense so that we can establish our certainty on stronger evidence.
As it stands, some outlets seem able to convince the view of almost anything, which has led to a growing hatred of science. Such behaviour is pre-enlightened bigotry absurdly attempting to side itself with great minds, especially Galileo. Today, the term “sceptic” is thrown around far more often that it is genuinely applied. This really needs to change if we are to be truly prosperous and improve the average standard of living of our species across the globe.
There is nothing wrong in not knowing something, but there is a fatale flaw in believing we can reach the pinnacle of our social potential swayed so easily by unsubstantiated memes.