Shadows on the Wall

Today is one of those Fridays where I feel particularly apathetic about working.  Since I have been waiting for the weekend to arrive since Monday, that goal seems maddeningly close enough for me to justify slacking. So it was with less enthusiasm than usual that I checked the many mundane email alerts that materialize in my inbox with banal regularity. I was intrigued by the title of one article, Shadows on the Wall, featured in Genome Biology this week, and preceded to read the Comment they published with this title. What began as a haphazard click of a link turned into a riveting read and soon I was captivated by the subtle analogy and beautiful way this author laid bare our social shortcomings in science and politics. While I would encourage everyone to read this piece, I want to highlight some of my favorite passages here. But first, I want to explain the analogy that this author weaves his commentary around, that is also the title’s namesake.

The author brings up a puzzle posed by Plato about a group of theoretical individuals who were born in a cave and never knew the world outside existed. However, they could see the shadows cast on the wall by the world outside the cave passing, but wrongly believed these shadows to be real, rather than reflections of the true world beyond the walls they call home. The puzzle part of this story comes when these people venture outside the cave, and try to cope with the unreality of their reality. Would they not first believe life outside the cave to be trickery? And even if they come to believe and know the truth, how would they explain this to their fellow cave dwellers convincingly without the others’ anger and violence?

The author muses that:

“…there are many things about our current situation that cause me to wonder whether a lot of people haven’t been looking at shadows on the wall and mistaking them for reality. It seems to be particularly true in American politics and economics. For example, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, many Americans believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim (he isn’t) and that the Obama Administration was responsible for the financial crisis (it wasn’t; it hadn’t even been elected yet) – and the number who believe these things is actually increasing. And before you put this down to closet bigotry (which some of it may be), let me remind you that over 75% of my fellow countrymen believe in angels and less than 50% believe in evolution, even though the first do not represent reality and the second does. Perhaps the greatest success of the right wing in the United States is having convinced most middle- and lower-class Americans that their own happiness and material well-being depend on unregulated capitalism, even though all examples of that unfettered beast known to date have been characterized chiefly by its feasting on those same Americans.”

His ideas are dramatic, and briefly touch on an issue that has puzzled me for some time. Why, despite mountains of evidence as he calls it, do people refuse to acknowledge that some things they believe are wrong? How does one continually attempt to rationalize ideas so ridiculous, without maintaining a shred of skepticism? Being gullible is one thing, but refusing to revise one’s opinion despite new evidence is simple stubborn laziness. There is no one who maintains that an individual has to believe something without question, so why do so many people practice this devastating behavior? Well, I believe that these days, it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish truth and lies in politics and the media for the simple reason that there are more and more half truths out there. It is so hard sometimes to continually practice skepticism in a world that is constantly presenting different interpretations of the same thing, sometimes it is easier to place your trust in one entity and let them tell you their version of the truth. As the author notes that:

”Declining standards of education – and the creeping hegemony of the religious right over local schools – is one reason for this, but a bigger reason is that it is very easy nowadays to spend your entire life, figuratively speaking, looking at the same comforting set of shadows, without ever having to turn and face the world outside the cave. Ideologically driven cable ‘news’ channels, which claim to be ‘fair and balanced’ but are actually neither, make it possible for people to derive all their information from a source that never challenges their view of the world, and the same is true of the plethora of biased internet ‘information’ sites.

And woe betide the individual who tries to convince his or her fellow citizens that what they have been looking at are nothing but shadows on the wall.

So what happens when refusing to compromise one’s beliefs actually has consequences? Cropping up in scientific journals everywhere, and even in such universally distinguished journals as Nature and Science, are editorials about the devastating effect our denial is already having on scientific progress and discovery, but most of all, implementing change. The process of social change has always been a slow one, but our failure to cope with such things as Global Warming and species extinctions may actually affect the world in which we live (shocker) and impair our ability to live in the only space available to us. He generalizes by saying:

“Scientific progress depends on constant challenges to our notion of what reality is. The moment we believe something is completely understood, we lose the drive to explore. At the turn of the century, many physicists believed that classical physics had provided a complete description of the world; all that was necessary to do henceforth was to measure things to ever increasing precision. The mavericks who challenged that assumption eventually discovered quantum mechanics, but until people became convinced that the new physics gave a more accurate description of reality these pioneers were ignored or reviled. This is why Max Planck, in a famous remark aimed at his own detractors, said, ‘Truth never triumphs, but its opponents eventually die.’

Unfortunately, sometimes we can’t simply wait for the opponents to die before we can usher in a generation of change. Or, as those in the current administration have experienced, promising change can be also be devastating because you fall victim to expectations much higher than practicality allows, in which case all subsequent achievements are marginalized. I suppose the moral of all this banter is that as with everything, there is a middle ground that should be accepted rather than ignored. As the author eloquently explains,

“… many new ideas really are wrong, but it’s when we start to assume that any new idea must be wrong because it doesn’t fit into what we are certain is right that we become obstacles to progress. Skepticism is a good thing, and extraordinary claims really do require extraordinary evidence, but the most exciting time in science is when paradigms fall, shibboleths become signs of stodginess, and everything is up for grabs.”   (-Petsko GA: Shadows on the wall. Genome Biology 2010, 11:136.
Petsko Genome Biology 2010, 11:13)

I believe that there are many things in this world that require curiosity, and those include the paradigms we sometimes hold to as truths. I also believe in courage of conviction and do not scorn those with strong opinions, as long as they retain that conviction with evidential support. I also think it is okay to revise one’s opinion as new facts come to light-although this characteristic has been called untrustworthy and fickle. That’s just silly. When did we stop asking questions about our lives?  I think this journal and many others are right to question the reasons behind the distrust of science by the general public and ask the big questions, like, WHY?

Read the full article here: http://genomebiology.com/2010/11/9/136

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