marco_iacoboni's picture
Neuroscientist; Professor of Psychiatry & Biobehavioral Sciences, David Geffen School of Medicine, UCLA; Author, Mirroring People
The eradication of irrational thinking is (not) inevitable (it will require some serious work)

Some time ago I thought that rational, enlightened thinking would eventually eradicate irrational thinking and supernatural beliefs. How could it be otherwise? Scientists and enlightened people have facts and logical arguments on their side, whereas people 'on the other side' have only unprovable beliefs and bad reasoning. I guess I was wrong, way wrong. Thirty years later, irrational thinking and supernatural beliefs are much stronger than they used to be, permeate ours and other societies and it does not seem they will go away any time soon. How is it possible? Shouldn't 'history' always move forward? What went wrong? What can we do to fix this backward movement toward the irrational?

The problem is that science has still a marginal role in our public discourse. Indeed, there are no science books on the New York Times100 Notable Books of the Year list, no science category in theEconomist Books of the Year 2007 and only Oliver Sacks in the New Yorker's list of Books From Our Pages.

Why does science have such a marginal role? I think there is more than one reason. First, scientists tend to confine themselves in well-defined, narrow boundaries. They tend not to claim any wisdom outside the confines of their specialties. By doing so, they marginalize themselves and make it difficult for science to have an impact on their society. It is high time for scientists to step up and claim wisdom outside their specialty.

There are also other ways, however, to have an impact on our society. For instance, by making some changes in scientific practices. In these days, scientific practices are dominated by the 'hypothesis testing' paradigm. While there is nothing wrong with hypothesis testing, it is definitely wrong to confine all science only to hypothesis testing. This approach precludes the study of complex, real world phenomena, the phenomena that are important to people outside academia. It is time to perform more broad-based descriptive studies on issues that are highly relevant to our society.

Another dominant practice in science (definitely in neuroscience, my own field) is to study phenomena from an atemporal perspective. Only the timeless seems to matter to most neuroscientists. Even time itself tends to be studied from this 'platonic ideal' perspective. I guess this approach stems from the general tendency of science to adopt the detached 'view from nowhere,' as Thomas Nagel puts is. If there is one major thing we have learned from modern science, however, is that there is no such thing, there is no 'view from nowhere.' It is time for scientists (especially neuroscientists) to commit to the study of the finite and temporal. The issues that matter 'here and now' are the issues that people relate to.

How should we do all this? One way of disseminating the scientific method in our public discourse is to use the tools and approaches of science to investigate issues that are salient to the general public. In neuroscience, we have now powerful tools that let us do this. We can study how people make decisions and form affiliations not from a timeless perspective, but from the perspective of what is salient 'here and now.' These are the kind of studies that naturally engage people. While they read about these studies, people are more likely to learn scientific facts (even the 'atemporal' ones) and to absorb the scientific method and reasoning. My hope is that by being exposed to and engaged by scientific facts, methods, and reasoning, people will eventually find it difficult to believe unprovable things.