We’ve lost sight of the most important rule in debating science
Ethan Siegel

I can tell you what would convince me as a geologist of a young earth creation: show how radioactive decay could speed up 100,000 times. Not only would you knock the geologic time scale on its ear, you’d have a Nobel Prize and a way to neutralize radioactive waste instantly. That would be good for Physics and Chemistry, Medicine for eliminating a major health risk, Economics and Peace for a whole buncha reasons, and if you write it up nicely enough, maybe Literature. The whole hat trick. But you have to demonstrate it repeatably in the lab under conditions experienced by real rocks and with the actual isotopes used in dating.

So if you believe that race or gender are social constructs, then there should be some evidence that could convince you otherwise. What is it? Come to think of it, I’ve never seen anyone in the social sciences suggest what Karl Popper called a “risky” (one you might actually fail) test of some dearly held social theory. Maybe we should stop calling the social sciences “sciences” until they start practicing refutability.

As for conspiracy theories, I’ve repeatedly asked people to tell me what first hand evidence they have that jets are spraying chemicals (apart from dihydrogen monoxide) or that the government would destroy skyscrapers. Not what they read, or what someone told them, or what they “figured out” or how it “fits together,” but actual first hand experience. Something must have convinced them the world works that way. Now I could see someone who’d been wrongfully imprisoned or had seen rampant falsification of body counts in Vietnam being conspiratorial, but those people don’t seem to be involved. No, conspiracy believers are invariably comfortable, safe people who’ve never faced real want, danger or fear in their lives. Judging from the total responses over many challenges and several years (total = zero) I conclude that no conspiracy believers have a real, first-hand basis for their beliefs.

In some cases it may be petty resentment. My father nursed a lifelong grudge against the Red Cross because they charged for coffee and doughnuts in WWII. But I think the real reason is that people go through their lives using things they did nothing to create, don’t understand and pay a pittance of their real value to get. And it makes them feel vulnerable and insecure. At any moment it could all be taken away and they’d be powerless to do anything.

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