Volume versus Validity

Mark Pottenger


With a non-discriminating audience, volume overpowers validity.

"If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing." - (Anatole France or Bertrand Russell, depending on the quote site)

"The soundest argument will produce no more conviction in an empty head than the most superficial declamation; as a feather and a guinea fall with equal velocity in a vacuum." -Charles Caleb Colton, author and clergyman (1780-1832) (quoted on A.Word.A.Day)

I suggest that Gresham's law (Bad money drives out good) applies to ideas. I think we are seeing a form of it in our culture that I have summarized in my opening sentence above. When the majority of the population can't tell real science from snake oil, more snake oil than real science will spread around because snake oil takes much less work to produce than real science.

See wikipedia for Gresham's law and snake oil.

Science and the public in the USA

This link is to a short quiz related to other material below:

Take the quiz before reading this report about scientists, science and the general public:

The small percentage (10%) of the general public getting all quiz answers right is appalling. I didn't see a link for the quiz until after I had looked at a related table in the report, but I think I would have answered all the questions right even without that.

The full report runs almost 100 pages, but the opening overview covers major points.

My local newspaper, which is usually fairly decent about covering science, summarized the whole report in a few paragraphs.

Even though I am an interested layman rather than a working scientist, my opinions agree with the majority of scientists rather than a less-informed public on most questions mentioned in the report. I suspect the difference relates to basic character as much as to education.

Analogies: Is a balloon or a book a better analogy for a container of knowledge? (A hypertext network would be an even better analogy, but I'm trying for easy-to-visualize images here.)

A balloon of knowledge is flexible and grows in volume as knowledge is added. The flexibility can manifest in bulges and depressions in specialized areas of more or less knowledge, and beliefs that are falsified can even shrink parts of the balloon. The larger the volume of a balloon of knowledge, the larger the surface of contact with what is yet to be learned (the currently unknown), so the more you know the more you know you don't know. Anyone can expand the balloon by adding knowledge.

A book of knowledge is fixed. Whatever was published is permanent.

I believe that people with scientific training or a scientific mindset are much more likely to be comfortable with a constantly changing balloon of knowledge and that the unscientific public is more likely to think in terms of a fixed book of knowledge.

Similes: Are important books milestones or millstones?

Books describing major scientific advances are milestones--they advance knowledge and also pave the way for future advances. (E.g., Copernicus proposed a heliocentric model of our Solar System, Kepler added elliptical orbits that fix problems from circles, Newton defined exact equations of motion, and Einstein added refinements to Newton's equations. Darwin described evolution and natural selection and Mendel described genes at almost the same time, and almost a century later Watson & Crick identified DNA as a key molecule in genes.)

Many religious books are millstones--they freeze a system of thought in a version that too many later generations try to maintain literally.

Are the most important books in your life milestones or millstones?

There are different reasons some people fail to absorb new knowledge from modern science:

An illiterate person can't read.

An aliterate person doesn't read.

An uncomprehending person reads without understanding.

A Platonically troglodytic person rejects new knowledge. (See Plato's allegory of the cave.)

Some thinking on topics like this can be illustrated by examples from my years of reading F&SF that values logic and science (as I do). A few examples:

The Marching Morons by C. M. Kornbluth was an early 1950s science fiction cautionary tale about how a technical civilization could fail under the weight of a largely illiterate population. IIRC, the story premise was based on poor genetics, but if you add the large numbers of aliterate, uncomprehending and Platonically troglodytic people in modern America that caution starts to look awfully urgent.

Space Viking by H. Beam Piper was an early 1960s science fiction novel that included discussions of civilizations and barbarians. A memorable (for me) point is that the barbarians that pull down a civilization don't have to come from outside--a culture can develop internal barbarians.

The evils of theocracies are a staple of the science fiction I have read for decades. I see far too much theocratic politics in the daily news for my comfort. The USA was founded by people steeped in Enlightenment ideals and rationality, including the bedrock separation of church and state, yet all too many modern laws are fundamentally religious in origin rather than rational.

The USA was once a land of promise (potential excellence).

Based on the Pew report and many other news items, the USA is becoming a land of premise (assumption leading to conclusion).

Copyright © 2009 Mark Pottenger

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