I did something I shouldn’t have during a pandemic. I went on Facebook.
Littered among videos, memes, and updates from family members were the latest takes from a team of epidemiologists, doctors, virologists, and statisticians, keeping me informed on all things COVID-19. Of course, these doctors didn’t actually have MD’s or PhDs, they were a sprinkling of Facebook friends collected over the years.
We are a nation deeply steeped in the Dunning-Kruger effect. High in confidence, low in competence. It’s human nature. When we know a little, we are dangerous. We overestimate our understanding, all the while mixing the complexity that lies underneath the surface. We fool ourselves. And every single one of us is guilty. It’s normal to fall victim to overestimating our understanding.
And that’s why we have science. Contrary to what many of us remember from our schooling years, science isn’t about memorizing the various systems of the body, or reciting the reactions in the Krebs cycle. That’s how we approach science during our early schooling years, but science is actually a method of thinking. A way to work against our natural tendency to overestimate our certainty, to work against our ego and that feel-good hit of dopamine we get for being “right.” Science developed to help us fight these urges that pull us astray. As usual, Carl Sagan put it best, “Science is more than a body of knowledge. It is a way of thinking; a way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility.”
Science IS critical thinking. It’s about trying to prove yourself wrong. If you’ve ever read the writings of Charles Darwin, regardless of what you think of the man, what comes across beautifully is how hard he worked to prove himself wrong. He was on a quest to disprove his own theory. That’s what science is. It’s not about proving ourselves right, it’s about dissecting our views and figuring out how they could be wrong.
As I made my way through posts of Facebook friends whose names I hadn’t heard in a decade, I was struck by a feeling of empathy. Here were people I went to high school or college with who the education system and culture had deeply failed. A small number of people spouting conspiracies on vaccines, microchips, and viruses. It’s easy to condemn or even laugh at such things, but instead I think we should have empathy. It’s a reminder that we failed that person or group who believes that. We failed to teach them how to think critically, to follow the facts, to read and understand scientific literature.