OK I finally put my finger on what bothered me so much about the Scientific American writer who was so appalled at the "unscientific" assumptions made by economists, when really all the guy meant was that the assumptions were false.
I've noticed a trend--particularly in the Intelligent Design debates--for scientists to sort of wash their hands of any responsibility for whether what they're saying is actually true. Instead, it sometimes seems to me as if they're covering their butts, and they sound like neocon defenses of the Iraq invasion. "Hey, don't blame me if our dating of that dinosaur skeleton turns out to be wrong. That is the best hypothesis we have at the moment. It passed the peer-review process. If a critic out there really had a crushing point, he would have published it in a journal."
Now folks, please don't bite my head off. Of course there are a lot of differences between the two, not the least of which is that I endorse the vetting process in the natural sciences, as opposed to the Defense Department.
But even so, I will do armchair psychoanalysis and say that some people who are attracted to the natural sciences (or a fortiori, mathematics) are afraid of being wrong. And so a field where success is pretty objective, and where you can follow the rulebook and always be able to justify what you did, appeals to that kind of person.
On the other hand, the people who disdain science are quite sure they're right, and don't even see the need to constantly check their conclusions against outside evidence. So they could be attracted to fields, especially artistic ones, where there are not as many objective measures of inherent quality. In a sense, I think that's why artists are the most courageous of people, because there's really nothing official that tells us it's better to own a Picasso than a Callahan.
I hope it's clear here that I'm not choosing sides. I'm neither criticizing nor praising natural scientists or artists. I'm just reflecting on what types of personalities would be drawn to the different fields, and how that might explain some of their stereotypical strengths and weaknesses.
One last illustration: In the climate change debate, the proponents of the "consensus" view are very reassured that so many other smart scientists agree with them. I don't think they're just saying it to convince the public; I think they constantly repeat that so in case they're wrong, they have tons of company.
On the other hand, the yahoos who call up Glenn Beck to rip on Gore don't care if they're the only ones who see it like it is.
And then to tie these observations into a comment on the end result: I think the consensus scientists are basically wrong, while the talk radio callers are basically right. The scientists are very precise in their inaccuracy; they are all on-script and all understand very well the list of reasons for the IPCC view. However by always checking on what everyone else thinks, on the rare occasion when the consensus turns out to be wrong, then it becomes difficult to change. It can get locked in, with thousands of scientists all analyzing the heck out of the wrong spot for the answer.
In contrast, the blowhards don't get their details right, and lots of times make idiosyncratic, invalid arguments. But because they are each starting from scratch, they are all looking in the general direction of the right answer. Each person is limited and so doesn't describe it well, but he's in the ballpark.
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