CULTURAL PRISM: The tragedy of scientific ignorance

Shirking scientific research and failing to implement methodologies derived from it leads to mediocrity.

January 26, 2017 20:09
A scientist prepares protein samples for analysis in a lab

A scientist prepares protein samples for analysis in a lab at the Institute of Cancer Research in Sutton. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Why do things float on board the International Space Station? If, like many others, you answer “Because there is no gravity in space,” you are wrong.

Sir Isaac Newton discovered back in 1687 that the attracting force between objects is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between their centers.

Four-hundred kilometers above earth, gravity is only about 10% less than on Earth’s surface. So there certainly is gravity up there, and the station is falling. It never impacts because at its horizontal velocity of over 28,000 kilometers per hour, it curves downward in sync with the planet’s curvature, in an endless free fall.

Since acceleration is independent of mass, as demonstrated by Galileo Galilei in 1589, everything aboard the station is falling together, making it look as if things inside are floating.

Isn’t it odd that we don’t know basic scientific facts discovered ages ago? Scientific research – the stubborn and sometimes Sisyphean quest for revealing the secrets of nature – not only produces better smartphones, it is essential to our very existence as we look back to reveal the origins of the universe, and into the future in order to protect and sustain our planet.

The iterative “scientific method” of hypothesizing, experimenting, analyzing and concluding, along with the constant scrutiny by peers, render human knowledge cumulative and progressive. Scientific theories, unlike just “theories,” are not speculative, gut-feeling ideas, but rigorously challenged explanations.

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is no less real than the theory of gravitational force, as mountains of evidence has shown, and the current estimate of the age of the universe is 13.8 billion years, regardless of religious beliefs.

We still know so little about our world. What has already been discovered is not widely known.

And what is known is not always implemented. What makes us so ignorant? Some of the culprits are the media, which use science as just another form of entertainment, pushing pseudo-science and inflating or dumbing-down real science. The fact that Israeli media outlets regularly quote British tabloids on “scientific” issues says it all. “Now it’s scientific!” is a common headline, usually preceding humorous anecdotes. The media also tend to portray any scientific advancement as a single stroke of genius rather than the painstaking, incremental process it really is.

Our society admires singers, athletes, movie stars and brave soldiers, not scientists. Schools teach figures and facts, and not enough active inquiring and experimenting. Children are told that math and science are important, but are not given a real appreciation for their practicality, so they mostly relate to these subjects as senseless burdens.

Schools also lack sufficient labs and scientific instruments to blow kids’ minds and inspire them.

It isn’t only natural sciences.

Our ignorance spans the many practical fields of social sciences and comes at a great cost, for we keep reinventing the wheel and making the same foolish mistakes.

Social psychologist Geert Hofstede’s groundbreaking research on cross-culture and organizational culture offers valuable insight that can be used to improve international collaboration. Yet when I enthusiastically attempt to present his model of cultural dimensions during workshops, attendees usually urge me to “skip theory and go to practical tools.”

The work on rationality and decision-making by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky has helped us understand the limitations of heuristic intuition and granted us the ability to predict and correct cognitive bias. Apparently we are lousy statisticians when relying on hunches.

The more we understand human limitations, the more we can mitigate our shortcomings.

Shirking this kind of research and failing to implement methodologies derived from it leads to mediocrity in much of what we do.

This is particularly important in high-risk areas. Aviation is a good example of transformed organizational culture, but too many other fields are still slow to adapt. The medical community is significantly improving, but still has a way to go with preventing wrong-site, wrong-procedure and wrong-patient procedures, minimizing health-care-associated infections, incorporating decision support systems and nurturing effective teamwork, lesson-learned implementation and culturally competent treatment.

With so much research on management, it is disappointing that many leaders still act on pure instinct and ego, leading to unsatisfied employees and poor results. For decades, researchers have been improving screening and hiring procedures, aiming to eliminate discrimination and bias. Yet shockingly, in many organizations, including national agencies, the process is conducted by unqualified personnel using no validated methods.

Disregarding science is destructive on a personal and organizational level. But anti-science sentiments by political leaders is devastating on a global scale.

Examples? Relating to climate change as a “hoax,” spreading unfounded conspiracy theories on vaccines, cutting funding to scientific research and appointing unqualified people to chair scientific committees.

People tend to ignore scientific evidence that contradicts their beliefs, but it’s about time we matured and rejected things that lack any shred of scientific evidence. Mediums do not communicate with spirits. Astrology and iridology are nonsense.

No-touch therapies that involve waving hands over patients rely on no more than the placebo effect and emotional manipulation.

And while we’re at it, rabbis and priests are spiritual leaders and do not possess the power to predict or influence the future.

Not everything that scientists say is true, of course, an example being Galileo’s wrong assertion that a pendulum’s period is constant, whatever the amplitude.

Scientists are often wrong, but the scientific method ensures that we continue to broaden our understanding.

It is wise to be on the lookout for unintentional or deliberate bias, and even fraudulent research. Conflicts of interest obscure real science, especially when profitability is the driving force. But we cannot allow such cases to instill a false notion that all science is subjective and debatable.

Scientists are pioneers of new frontiers on behalf of all mankind.

Some have spent entire lives unveiling nature’s secrets.

We should have more appreciation for their efforts, and we must keep up with and make use of the valuable knowledge and tools they give us.

The writer is founder of Cross-Cultural Strategies Ltd.

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