“Ms. Information”

If you do not understand or appreciate the scientific method, I suggest starting with Cosmos, an accessible overview of some cool ideas about our universe based on science (and some great graphics and visualizations).  I think I get it, having a background in computer science, which also lets me play in math, modeling, statistics, and engineering, each to some degree.

But my main interest these days is education, and most recently I have appreciated (and tried to leverage positively) the power of emotion in learning, and even in memory.  It makes sense — most of the deep ideas or clearest old memories I have were associated with an experience that triggered an emotion.  With new ideas, it is often the feeling of shock/awe when an assumption is shown false that corresponds (and thus new learning occurs).  I am sure my brother clearly remembers well the night he knocked all of my dad’s teeth out — they were false, no harm save my brother’s emotional state at that time.

This observation also warns us to be careful of emotions, as they can impact judgement.  And here’s the recent example, Ms. Jenny McCarthy and her mission regarding vaccines and autism.  For all her good intentions (and the road to hell is paved with a few I have heard), the results have been disastrous.  Most disturbingly, this situation propagates because of the damage done to the beliefs of so many who go with their gut and trust a spokesperson with no clinical background over an enormous amount of scientific evidence to the contrary, including the retraction of the original linking study.  Sadly, many people will suffer (e.g., measles outbreaks) even if they did vaccinate.

Richard Feynman, one of my heroes, proposed the citizen scientist, that people should have enough background to use critical thinking to evaluate evidence, and to sift through the firehose of information now available and separate wheat from chaff.

But there exists another negative consequence to “Ms. Information”‘s actions over the years — the amount of effort from qualified scientists and advocates to convince people to let go of their previous belief. That energy might be better used to understand real issues and push our knowledge frontier forward.

Yes, this is all similar to climate change denying, but that will not emerge for some time, so we’re cool — right?

I hope Ms. McCarthy retains this new learning.  Perhaps she might consider getting out of the way, or pointing to actual experts.

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