Science is not a philosophy or a spiritual path; it’s a way of behaving in the world.
But since tribalism and polarization have made “alternative facts” a reality of public life, there is something we can learn from science to help us navigate the troubled waters and find a more resilient civic life.
The lesson begins with understanding the right relationship not to knowing but to not knowing. To be blunt, if we want to fight ignorance, we must start with our own.
Last year, I wrote about the dangerous public turn away from expertise. As Tom Nichols wrote in his book The Death of Expertise, we’ve found ourselves in a strange position in which people who know almost nothing about difficult and complicated subjects are righteous in their rejection of others who have spent years studying those very same fields.
For example, Ellen Stofan, former chief NASA scientist, just told me about a heated climate change argument she found herself in with a nonscientist, a Wall Street broker, who refused to believe her explanations about Earth’s atmosphere. It is as if very public displays of no-nothing-ism have become badges of honor.
Since writing that column, I have been asked a number of times to speak on the topic. The people I talk to want to know how we have gotten here and, most importantly, what we can do about it.
To be very clear, expertise is not the same thing as elitism — and that is exactly the point I want to unpack today. The true hallmark of an expert lies not in foot-stomping demands that others bend to their brilliance and authority. Instead, years of hard work navigating the filigreed details of their fields mean these experts understand what they know, what they don’t know and where the burning frontier between them lies.
Real experts know — and are willing to be very clear about — where their ignorance lies. And that is where the lesson science can teach us appears. That is where science can touch the aspirations of a philosophy and spirituality that is about the best in the human spirit.
At its best, science asks us to approach the world with both wonder and humility. Its ethics are a call to absolute honesty about our dialogues with what we find in life. We bring our questions to experience and then lay out what we found as explicitly as we can. In this endeavor, we always cleave closely the difference between what our answers can, and cannot, illuminate about the world and our place in it. That is why I always tell my students that the best answer to a question may be “I don’t know.”
So we must all deal with those who reject the possibility of public facts and public knowing. But instead of showing them just what we know, we can also ask: “What don’t you know?” The certainty that accompanies various forms of denial (a la the Dunning-Kruger effect) may best be countered by asking the denier where the limits of their own knowledge lies.
But even more important is the demonstration we make ourselves of this essential point. What don’t we know about climate change, GMOs, energy systems and vaccines? Seeing this clearly articulates the true value of expertise.
We live in a highly complicated, technological society, and none of us can be experts in everything. We rely on others to deploy their understanding and their best efforts to keep the water clean, airplanes from dropping out of the sky and MRI machines effective at diagnosis. The fact that the water is drinkable in many places, planes do fly and MRIs do work shows us how this project of civilization we’re all wedded to has learned something. Even if it’s not you or me in particular, collectively there are some things we humans now understand.
That achievement in knowing needs defending. It may be counterintuitive, but the best way to mount that defense may begin with admitting our own ignorance.
Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester and author of the upcoming book Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth. His scientific studies are funded by the National Science Foundation, NASA and the Department of Education. You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4.