Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The scientific mind

Lately, I've come across many instances that reminded me how important it is to teach children (and especially adults) to perceive and make sense of the world in a rather scientific manner. The great thing about science, someone supposedly said on American television, is that it's true whether you believe it or not. And this is especially true of the laws pertaining to the physical world, such as astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, to some extent, and so on.
But my field of expertise lies in the social world. And the scientific character of social research is often still questioned, but in the academia I believe it is widely respected. I've talked before about the TV show "Numbers", in which a brilliant mathematician used equations in order to assess behavior and social patterns. That is possible nowadays. Another great thing about science is it all ties up together.
But getting back to the social sciences, and in my case particularly sociology, I believe one of the best things that can happen to a person is to start seeing the world using the famous sociological imagination. Why is that? Well, first of all, there is a whole new understanding of the world around us. One of the ways sociology makes sense of the world is through social statistics. And let me tell you, there is strength in numbers, literally. A wonderful presentation by Hans Rosling will make the point for me.

Second, and most important, this understanding of the world makes you a better person. It wipes away prejudice. It makes you aware of the factors that shape the lives of a particular group, be them economical or historical and so forth. If only we'd had a better understanding of the social world, I believe a great deal of conflict could have been avoided through the ages. Of course, international relations and critical theory actually maintain that prejudice was only one of the immediate causes or even pretense reasons for wars and genocide, as the power balance was actually at the core of these conflicts. But at the more micro level, in our everyday lives, as women or members of a minority, be it sexual, ethnic or religious, we can very well feel the negative effects of prejudice based on purely ignorant understandings of the world, which can easily be disproved by solid social research.
I don't believe science is opposed to religion or the other way around. I believe some religious people oppose scientific research or the scientific thinking that contradicts their dogma. But, overall, religions have profited widely from scientific discoveries, beginning with the maths architects used for their amazing cathedrals, to audio systems that make the Pope's speech audible to thousands (and millions, by television). Today, the church uses social survey data to better understand its flock. Science, on the other hand, and especially social science, has only profited from religion in terms of knowledge. Studying religion, we are better able to understand how normative systems were formed and maintained, how communities construct the concepts of mutual beliefs and traditions and, among many others, how structures of power operate and thrive.
What is so cool about thinking at least a little like a scientist is that it no longer shatters your world when people contradict you in an argument. Scientists are obsessed with continuously defining the issues they study and assiduously trying to disprove them, after spending a hell of a lot of time bringing arguments in favor of their work. Bringing validity and reliability into your own way of thinking is liberating, helps you understand that attitudes and beliefs need to be based on solid reasoning, but also that better reasoning can make you change your mind. And that's not a bad thing at all. It's how the world evolved, after all.

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