Theory Gang
13. Certainty and the End of Science w/Heather Heying

13. Certainty and the End of Science w/Heather Heying


This episode was an unexpected delight. I had no idea how much I’d end up liking Heather. Of course, I don’t see eye-to-eye with her about everything, but it sure seemed as though we agreed on a lot in this episode. As someone people tend to find disagreeable from afar, maybe I feel a kinship with her. People want to ascribe nasty characteristics to people who ask a lot of questions…

I think my big realization in this episode is that I need to get used the idea that asking questions will unsettle a good chunk of people because the search for answers is going to disturb our environment. I KNOW this cognitively, but I saw myself in Heather and specifically saw why people don’t like us, or what we do: people aren’t comfortable when someone starts digging around their feet. Even if the ground seems shaky, and we know something is wrong, no one wants the foundation that they stand on to fall out beneath them. The difference between scientists and non-scientists is that scientists would rather dig than stand around and guess what’s going on - even if that means making people uncomfortable.

Speaking of discomfort, one of the biggest topics of this episode was on being wrong. I think one thesis on this could easily be that our culture of narcissism creates an environment where we are terrified of being wrong. This culture produces shallow curiosity, if any, which allows us to make bold claims but doesn’t require us to have the courage to dig up enough evidence or specificity to support them. A lot of us are not good at self-criticism. Maybe we think evaluating our ideas would shatter the facade of certainty that we have created - it would - and that’s good, but we end up making loose claims that could never be tested or fully supported. I think Karl Popper would agree that this is a way of “inoculating” ourselves against being wrong.

Wolfgang Pauli quote: That's not right. That's not even wrong.

It seems we want the big claim for cheap. The issue is that there are some claims so big that no matter how much intellectual capital we spend, only trial and error over time will bring us closer to the truth. The bigger the guess and the bigger the buy-in, the bigger the consequences. I suppose it all boils down to the old ECREE situation: don’t write checks your ass can’t cash.

but why does err anger us?

When we make big claims, especially ones that are time sensitive and require large-scale compliance - we should demand better evidence and we must think for ourselves. Then, if we’re wrong, at least we can say, we’ve done our due diligence. And this is what I appreciate about Heather. She’s willing to dig deep and be wrong.

I could say more, and probably will another time.

Another thing to look out for in this episode is a general feeling I had while recording: Heather has a warmth to her that really radiates when she talks about her fieldwork and education. Talking with her brought me back to a time when I felt such a passion for discovery and science. I wonder if you’ll feel it too. Either way, I hope you enjoy this episode. I sure did.

0:00 Introduction

02:32  Heather’s goal: helping people think for themselves

10:06 On Being Wrong

14:34 The end of science: when ScienceTM is viewed as an authority

16:23 Unlikely scientific allies and misalignments: Hillsdale College vs UATX

21:28 What’s missing from science education

24:45 Misanthropy and modern scientific education

26:40 How could we improve science education in or outside the university setting? Big Nerve Question!

32:05 How metrics kill serendipity and “the vibe”

44:01 Heather’s advice for young Heather 

46:23 Lab vs fieldwork

50:21 The consilience of diversity

51:57  Heather’s passions and potential next project

57:56 What science fiction get’s wrong

1:00:08 Getting spaghettified by the critics (or ourselves)

1:05:35 On certainty

1:07:43 Terrain theory and Bayesian reasoning

1:15:41 Philosophy in science - a priori or a experimenti?

1:25:43 First principles of biology: What is worth observing?

This episode is possible with support from ya’ll (thank you), and also BigNerve. Big Nerve is pushing hard on getting thinkers funded and recognized. You should be one of those thinkers. To enter my idea tournament, win money AND help me answer some really tough questions head over there to put your thoughts in on this episode’s question:

How could we change science education to uphold the values of trial and error and critical evaluation of evidence?

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