How to Win Friends and Influence Jerks on Facebook
In which we use the scientific method to have better conversations
Have you heard? We’re orbiting Jupiter now. The hardest thing we’ve ever done, they say. But we did it. Sent a spacecraft billions of miles and predicted its arrival time by the second. That requires understanding the universe as it exists. That requires seeking explanations for how the universe works. And in fact, that quest for good explanations is the basic regulating principle of science.
But don’t take my word for it. Take Professor David Deutsch’s:
“The quest for good explanations is the basic regulating principle of science.”1
Of course, that’s not a new idea. It’s a 17th century idea. An Enlightenment idea. The idea that the quest for knowledge is the search for better explanations. And it’s something we should all keep in mind not just with regard to Juno and natural science, but as we try to understand the world through the lens of the internet — which is what we’re doing on this whirling dervish of diatribes and tribalism, even if sometimes we forget that we are.
The brow-raising profundity of “seek better explanations” is that it implies that the way we currently see the world probably contains errors. Which implies that we can never be “right”, we can only be “less wrong”. So when we read the news — about Brexit, or about Trump, or about weapons grade Kardashians — we have a choice: we can seek better explanations, or we can seek to justify beliefs. Brexit voters are old and stupid. Gun owners are militant and stupid. Bernie supporters are idealistic and stupid. These are ways of justifying beliefs.2
And these ideas feel good. But they don’t require you to seek a better explanation. They require only that you continue believing your current one.3 They allow you to insulate yourself from facing evidence that you may be, in fact, mistaken about what is really happening in the physical world. Which allows you to fool yourself and protect yourself against change. You can’t find a better explanation when you fool yourself. You can’t have a better explanation without change.
This is, in a rhetorical nutshell, the scientific method. But there’s one other part to it. If we seek better explanations, and if we admit that our current explanations contain errors, then we must welcome and encourage criticism and debate. Criticism and debate create change. Change allows for progress. Progress is things like Juno. And progress is what happens when we all, together, on the internet, have discussions about our future and choose to listen to the other side.
If I call somebody stupid, they probably won’t change. Which implies: Maybe I should change first.
1. From The Beginning of Infinity, a brilliant and beautiful book about the scientific method and the future of human ideas, and the inspiration for this brief essay.
3. “I’m not stupid, but the other side is.”