This is a big topic, and we fear that we are woefully inadequate to deal with it — but we’ll attempt it anyway. Our question is: Why are Pope Francis’ remarks to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences about evolution and the Big Bang such big news?
Really, that’s our question. There are no biologists or astronomers who, upon hearing of the Pope’s statements, thought: “Ah, now I can go on with my work.” But the press is all aflutter. The implication is that the Pope has declared science to be valid. But we already knew that it was, so although it’s nice to hear that the Catholic Church will continue to be congenial to science, what’s the big deal? We think the press frenzy reflects only the thinking of journalists.
Most people don’t know what to think — about anything — so the Pope’s opinion is a big deal for them. They were born with the ability to think for themselves, but it was never developed. As a result, they adopt the conclusions of those they regard as their intellectual superiors — parents, teachers, politicians, preachers, and other pundits. They also accept the opinions of certain institutions they have been taught are worthy of respect: their church, their government — even the UN. A large number actually adopt the opinions of show business celebrities. Our point is that most people get their opinions from second-hand sources. It’s rare when someone is informed, reaches his own conclusions, and is entirely comfortable doing so.
The typical non-thinker lives in a fog of uncertainty about virtually everything, taking comfort in adopting the conclusions of others — which he will dogmatically defend with memorized phrases on every occasion. But that kind of certainty is an illusion. No one can learn about anything of importance by relying on the opinions of other people — and certainly not by relying on people like journalists or preachers. Those “authorities” may be opinionated, but what do they really know of the topics on which they expound?
If a big announcement is made by a noted science research lab, you could read their paper, review their data, and decide for yourself if their conclusions are justified. But if the Pope (or some other authority) makes an announcement about something, there’s nothing to review. It’s a done deal. And most people get their opinions from such sources.
Everyone understands that you can’t become an athlete by reading about it, or by hearing lectures. You need to actually do it. Yes, you need instructors, but only as a guide to your own active participation. It’s similar to the way a toddler is taught to walk. But what most people don’t understand is that, as with walking, so it is with thinking. You have to learn to actually do it. You can’t allow others to do your thinking for you, and then merely adopt their conclusions. That’s not thinking — it’s tribalism. You don’t really have an opinion, you’re only adopting one so you can blend in.
What’s required for people to learn how to do their own thinking? For the hard sciences (physics, astronomy, chemistry, etc.), and for subjects like engineering, math and logic, the topics themselves teach the student to follow the arguments and to arrive at the inevitable conclusions. The subject matter compels the student to do his own thinking. But what about other topics? That’s where second-hand opinions seem to abound.
Wikipedia describes the perceived differences between Hard science and soft science. The hard sciences produce solid, verifiable results, and routinely abandon discredited ideas. There’s no room for personal opinions that disagree with the data. But the soft sciences — often called the social sciences — are less rigorous. Nothing in the soft sciences ever really seems to be discredited. No matter how often certain political and economic ideas fail in practice, they never fade away. It’s all a matter of popular opinion.
So what’s to be done about the soft sciences? How do we teach people to think? All we can come up with is the Socratic method of instruction, which challenges a student to defend his answers. It’s an excellent technique, but it requires excellent teachers — an uncommon commodity.
But wait — the authoritarians (religious or otherwise) will complain: If there’s no authority, if everyone does his own thinking, the result will be chaos! Really? Is science chaotic? Mathematics? Engineering? No, they’re not. But in each of those activities, people are doing their own thinking. No authoritarian approval is required.
It seems to us that chaos reigns only in those areas where people don’t think for themselves, and defer to authority instead.
So how shall we end this essay? Our points are these: (1) We need to do a much better job than we’re doing of getting people to do their own thinking; and (2) while we appreciate the Pope’s remarks about science, we don’t think they’re worth all the fuss that’s being made over them.
Copyright © 2014. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.