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October 27, 2011 @ 9:06 pm

Jon Stewart’s Sci-gasm

As a marvelous coincidence, yesterday the Daily Show did an entire episode on the process and pitfalls of science and science communication the exact same week we're working through those issues in my Analytical Reasoning class.


They were focusing on ClimateGate, where climate scientists may have fudged some data, the day before NPR reported a story on the Texas state government censoring a report on the state of Galveston Bay.

Both sides are so "gotcha."  So resistant to evidence.  Jon quoted a study saying that acceptance of global warming has actually declined in the past two years.  Reminds me of an exercise I do with my students.  I ask them (via their clickers) if they are better than average drivers.  On this particular day, 84% claimed to be above average.  They laughed, of course, when I showed the graph, recognizing the impossibility, but it didn't change their individual opinions.  And when I showed them evidence that people their age cause twice as many accidents as other age groups, and asked the question again, 87% said "I'm still above average"!

What this implies is that at some point in the past, sounding right to your neighbors was more likely to keep you alive than actually being right. Hugo Mercier gave a seminar at SUNY Binghamton's Evos Seminar series about this idea.  Stephen Colbert calls it "truthiness," but he didn't invent it (the concept--he did invent the word, and received the credit for it from Merriam-Webster and the American Dialect Society, whatever that is).  For it to be so deeply wired in human responses, it probably wasn't a point, but a long period of time.  We may still be in it.

We'll hit on these issues more tomorrow on the podcast, during the last bit of our conversation with Barbara Oakley.


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