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Demystification of Knowledge

December 4, 2012

When UFC first started, competitors from a wide variety of martial arts entered in hopes of winning. Every style from Sumo, to boxing to jujitsu were represented. Back then, no one really knew what would happen, as these styles hadn’t ever faced one another in a systematic way. The first fights were often brutal and strange, with fighters unsure of how exactly to approach dealing with their opponents, but after a few years, everyone settled into a pattern: learn some Muay Thai, learn some jujitsu, and if you’ve got some time, study a few other styles as well to round yourself out. If someone claimed to have some ultimate style, they had an opportunity to prove it by getting in the ring and winning a match. If someone refused to fight, everyone knew they were all talk. That attitude, that system takes something which had previously be shrouded in secrecy and mysticism – martial arts – and over the course of a few years clearly and publicly separates the wheat from the chaff.

The study of how we know things is called epistemology, of which martial arts tournaments are just one branch. The scientific method is a foundational pillar of modern society. It is like “the ring” for explanations for how the world works. A theory “fights it out” with experiments, and either survives or is defeated. A scientist refusing to subject their theory to trials is like a martial artist who claims to be the best, but has never actually gotten into a fight. What separates modern medicine from the bloodletting of old is not their intelligence or dedication, but its ability to do randomized controlled experiments. When pharmaceutical companies don’t publish their data, you should be worried too, because they aren’t letting people see their record. While I believe in global warming, I have to admit that climate scientists make me awfully nervous when they hide or falsify their data. Real scientists publish their data, their tests, and their full results. Real scientists don’t complain when someone tries to replicate their results. Charlatans hide all of those things.

The internet has been a great boon to the world by providing access to previously locked up knowledge. Obscure ideas and papers can be accessed at the touch of a button. But perhaps the biggest advantage of the internet over previous media is its ability to take ideas and subject them to brutal, diverse, and wide spectrumed criticism. If you have a theory, and you write it up in a blog or article, there are often immediately lots of people from various disciplines who do their best to take it down, especially if you are famous or have a good following. The internet is probably the best medium for avoiding groupthink. There will always be someone out there who disagrees with everyone, but in the meantime, the best ideas get refined and expanded and the worst ideas are torn apart.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Locke permalink
    December 4, 2012 3:27 pm

    You’re optimistic if you think it’s the scientific method that serves as “the ring” for explanations.

    • December 4, 2012 5:44 pm

      It’s maybe not *the* ring, but it’s a ring. Theories really do get “knocked out” by experimentation. Do you think there’s a better ring?

      There was a article I read awhile back that was like “scientists don’t really create rigorous experiments” and they fudge numbers, etc etc. I get all those critiques, but I think that over time, experimentation is a pretty good way to push us toward the truth. Even in the social sciences, after 1989, people pretty much said “yeah, Communism doesn’t work”.

      • Locke permalink
        December 4, 2012 9:54 pm

        “better” in a “the way things ought to be” sense? No, I like the scientific method best too. But is it the tool that the rest of humanity actually uses to explain how the world works? Not hardly

  2. December 4, 2012 9:59 pm

    Gotcha. I agree, actually. Most people don’t use it, but most people don’t have to. Specialization of labor incentivizes people NOT to understand 99% of the things that go on around them. And mundane observation serves most people pretty well.

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