Joining the dots with science

I have always liked the story about a Queenslander on all fours groping around under a streetlight in the middle of the night. A policeman happens by and asks him what he is doing. The man replies that he is looking for his car keys and the policeman assists him. The search proves futile and the policeman asks the man if he is sure that this is where he lost them. The man replies, "Heavens no! I lost them over there in the dark, in the bushes, but the light is over here and it's easier to see". Boom, boom.

The tragedy is that this situation is often imitated in real life by us humans, the masters and mistresses of the universe. Let me explain. I was, and still am, frequently given a hard time for being an academic, particularly by people working in organisations where I do most of my research and consulting. The gist of the bagging I get is that we spend too much time thinking about things rather than acting, talk too much, write too much and generally waffle.

This sort of bagging can make you feel like taking your bat and ball and going home, or jumping off the nearest bridge, depending on your state of mind at the time. I am prepared to admit that academics are a weird lot - you only have to go to a university graduation and see us all dressed up in our funny clothes to know this is true. My retort to my friends is that at least we don't make decisions based on a series of dot points in an executive summary. Harrumph!

The pursuit of science is important. Most people would agree with this proposition because clearly science has brought us much. But it is the process of science that really matters because it is a counterpoint to the human predisposition of making assumptions. We are notoriously poor at making decisions based on facts. Rather, we decide action based on the opinions of others we value, the desire for a particular outcome rather than a rational appreciation of what might happen, personal dogma, tenuous belief systems, and stereotyping. Emotion plays an enormous role in determining what we do and we frequently ignore evidence in favour of convenient assumptions. I suspect we are hard wired to take a 'dot point' view rather than read the whole story. And this predisposition is fuelled by the new world order of information obtained in bytes through infotainment, Twitter, YouTube, blogging and SMS: the dumbing down of the world - 'Murdochalisation'.

A 'dot point' view is not contestable. There is no evidence. It is not argued and the logic is invisible - if there is any. Truth is impossible without the possibility of contention. This is the strength of science. It presents argument and evidence. The 'dot point' view is no better than assumption and belief. So, despite all the evidence to the contrary, in our 'dot point' world the climate change sceptics, the proponents of intelligent design, those that claim the world is only 6000 years old, those that believe President Obama is in fact Osama Bin Laden and those that claim we have been infiltrated by a race of reptiles, get traction. Some intelligent people I know are convinced that the Mayan prediction that there is to be a global calamity in December this year and have purchased boats and survival gear to that end.

But let's not get carried away with the big picture stuff. How about the daily assumptions we make about other people, other races, colleagues, our experiences and ourselves that lead us to then act in certain ways? Perhaps we need to be scientists and challenge our beliefs, opinions and values. Those that most need to be banished are those that are noxious to ourselves and to others. Mostly they are based on no real evidence at all.

Dr Stewart Hase is an Adjunct Fellow with Southern Cross University and a consultant psychologist.

You can visit Stewart's blog at http://stewarthase.

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