Dangerous ways of thinking …

Posted on February 16, 2011


Jenny: ” During an argument someone said I suffered from  ‘ideological immunity’…. what’s that.”

Peter: ” It means you don’t believe anything.”

Professor Wiggly: ” Not really Peter. Just as our biological system maintains an immune system to protect us from dangerous germs, some experts propose that we also have a mental immune system to protect us from dangerous ways of thinking. Jay Snelson says ‘The history of the creation and disclosure of scientific ideas shows us that the more important, profound, and revolutionary a new idea, the more likely educated, intelligent, successful adults will resist understanding and accepting those new ideas.’ Also, Marvin Minsky, one of the fathers of Artificial Intelligence, says we protect ourselves from dangerous ideas. Such Ideas may be right or wrong, but if they threaten our  trusted beliefs we ignore or fight against them. We reject  ideas that threaten our mental and emotional stability or health.  Minsky believes that most of our mind-brain is devoted to such protective action, that our protective ideological immune system is vital in maintaining our mental and physical health. Dangerous ideas – right or wrong – are those that threaten a trusted network of beliefs. For example telling a young mother that she has incurable lung cancer threatens her whole way of life, her self-image, her children, he daily behavior, her social network everything! So unless she already has suspicions she ‘can’t afford’ – mentally or emotionally – to accept the bad news. Her mental immune system swings into action, she goes through a period of denial. Similarly telling a man that he may lose his job threatens his very foundations, his psychological immune system swings into action – he spends time in denial. Similarly scientific beliefs are protected by an ideological immune system – a trusted scientific theory is not displaced by a few inconvenient facts. As Einstein acknowledged he wouldn’t give up a good theory in the face of some negative evidence.”

Peter: “So how do scientist change their minds?”

Professor Wiggly: ” Slowly! It often takes years. First think of science as a large institution, and like all institution it’s organized in a hierarchy – with people at the top  – University department heads, journal editors, government and private granting agencies who decide which scientists get hired, which get promoted, which get grants, which get awards. At any given time there are hit parade scientific theories and methods, and scientists who belief those popular theories and practice those methods are the ones who get hired, promoted and rewarded. If you like you can think of the scientific institution as having an ideological immune system that defends it against dangerous or deviant ideas and people. That’s why scientific institutions, like any large well manage institution change slowly.”

Jenny: “So how does the scientific institution with its trusted theories and methods every change?”

– Professor Wiggly: “Jay Snelson claims that change happens in two steps. First some scientists discover a new ‘truth’ or ‘fact’ and second it needs a champion to sell it – to presumably break through science’s ideological immune system’s defenses. I think this ia a neat but grossly oversimplified answer. It takes a great deal of time and energy to dismantle an established institution and it’s established network of people and loyalties – those at the top must retire or die, then their carefully chosen and groomed replacement take over and support old priorities. Meanwhile it takes times and energy to start building new institutions – attracting the necessary people and resources – to construct and refine emerging trusted theories and methods.”

Jenny: “So if you think of science as a multinational corporation with its ideological immune system, with it trusted network of idea, methods, people, ideas  and an  associated ideological immunity system designed to identify and reject dangerous ideas you get a more realistic picture of how modern science works?”

Peter: ” Yeah – like modern drug companies – protecting their pet patents and hiring their own scientists to sing from the corporate song book.”

Professor Wiggly: “If you want to learn more about how science goes about constructing and defending its theories Google Kuhn and Ken Gergen. But the general idea is that trusted  scientific beliefs and models, like trusted political, economic and religious beliefs, not only help their true ‘believers’ make decisions, but serve as ideological immune systems, protecting their believers from dangerous or contrary beliefs and information. As pointed out by Karl Popper, scientists like Republicans and Democrats, cherry pick evidence supporting their theory, and ignore or sweep negative evidence under the scientific rug. If your intereting in scientific cherry picking Google ‘the scandal of induction.”

Posted in: Sciencing