Science: Why it Rules
Which is a better way of understanding reality: intuition or science?
Here I am, sitting in a coffee shop, the five occupants of the next-door table clearing out. The group consisted of four philosophy majors and a professor engaging them in a discussion about how we can know reality. At least three of the five students supported the notion that intuition is the best way to know about reality, with the professor not entirely committed to saying that science was better, but challenging many of their arguments rather strongly.
I, the eavesdropper, never a part of this discussion will now speak. Three points I’d like to make:
- Reality is the same for everybody, despite what they believe has been revealed to them by their intuition or whatever spiritual guide they rely on.
- A shared understanding of reality goes with democracy like a horse and carriage.
- Intuition isn’t entirely useless… for some things.
There are people, not just philosophy majors (but you’d be more likely to hear this from a philosophy major than an astrophysicist), who say that the best way to understand reality is through intuition. “Feeling” rather than intellectually trying to sort things out and observing the way things behave and drawing conclusions about reality from there. Or, they at least try to claim that scientific observation is no more superior at helping people understand reality than intuition.
I intuitively feel that they are full of it.
But they don’t share the same intuitive feeling. Drats! I guess I’ll have to explain why they’re wrong through observations I’ve made which they can cross-check with their own.
Some examples of reality being the same despite whatever culture you happen to be in:
- Whenever the ISS starts orbitting over a lost tribe in the Amazon rainforest, that intuitively reaches the conclusion that they could never get an object that large that high up, the ISS doesn’t fall out of the sky.
- When you’re in an airplane over the Pacific and you cross the International Date Line (as I have many times because most of my family lives in China), entering the Eastern hemisphere where the spiritualists keep going on about their “different way of knowing”, the airplane does not fall out of the sky.
- When you give the polio vaccine to a girl whose parents believe in traditional Chinese medicine and send her to a third world country the girl fails to contract polio. Don’t give the polio vaccine to a girl whose parents believe in traditional Chinese medicine, give her the same exposure to polio with only a pocketful of herbs, the girl contracts polio.
If anybody would like to challenge that reality is independent of the society you may do so, but I’m going to assume that nobody will have a well-documented study about the ability of airplanes to fly when they cross international boundaries.
Eh… what does reality matter anyway?
Well, despite what the actions of politicians and lawyers (if you happen to be a reality-based practitioner of politics or the law, I appologise) would have you believe, policy-making can be very well-supplemented by a shared understanding of reality. Please consider the following:
Should parents be required to vaccinate their kids?
The answer to this question about policy is reliant upon whether or not a significantly high number of kids will, in reality, suffer from the vaccine. Anybody who briefly persuses a few articles published in respectable, peer-reviewed journals or other scientific literature will know that the overwhelming majority of our data shows that this is false.
So why are there still people upset about having to vaccinate their children? Jenny McCarthy would tell you because it’s what her “mommy instincts” tell her.
My mommy instincts tell me that Jenny McCarthy is full of it.
Teen Skepchick co-author
and over-protective “mother”
Sorry, Ms. McCarthy, but I can neither agree nor disagree with what your mommy instincts tell you because it’s not empirically verifiable. If you want to advance that argument then what’s to say Cassie’s “mommy instincts” are less valid?
Small aside, but we’re all different and there will inevitably be adverse reactions to any sort of medication which is good for the majority of the population. There has been speculation about perhaps in the future customising medication for each individual person, but for now we have to rely on what the bell curve tells us will bring the most net benefit to society. There is a bit of a subjective value judgment here about what would be an acceptable amount of people who suffer from adverse reactions, but my point still stands about this being better than wild guessing.
Now, surprise, but intuition isn’t entirely useless. Despite my many grammatical errors in my posts I still generally write with pretty good English grammar. This is because I’m a native English-speaker and my language ability comes intuitively.
I would probably not write nearly as well if I were to analyse every sentence that I constructed. Can you imagine a blogger going “Okay… subject, adverb, verb, indirect object, preposition, direct object subject, adverb, verb” ad nauseum while they were blogging? The thing of it is, if they write a grammatically improper sentence they can analyse it to find the problem (should there have been a comma in that sentence?).
Intuition is not entirely useless. I wish I could speak Spanish more intuitively rather than having verb conjugation tables run through my head everytime I try to order a fajita at the local Mexican market.
Sometimes intuition and analytical thinking paired with empirical evidence reach the same conclusion. Sometimes. But when intuition gets it wrong, analytical thinking should override that. It’s simply better for us all.