Jun 13, 2017

Mindless Cargos

Purser and Cooper, in an 2014 article for Salon, write:

To this point, one of the few things we can say with certainty about the science of mindfulness is that, at least in its public presentation, it appears to be based more on rhetoric than rigor, having less to do with actual science than it does with sounding “scienc-y.” Like Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness,” it is more that it “feels” like science than that it is science. In many respects, branding mindfulness in the cloak of science is not all that dissimilar to how any new fitness fad, whether it be low-fat diets or some exercise craze, is promoted. Promoters of the latest diet or exercise program are notorious for cherry-picking studies and appealing to the authority of science to bolster their claims, promising that we can shed pounds and dramatically improve our lives in just a few short weeks. Their solutions almost always turn out be short-lived fads.

There is an irony here. The appeal to science for legitimacy and validation is based largely on faith in promises about science, not in science itself. For now, the science of meditation functions mainly as a kind of new mythology, put forth in the belief and with the claim that it is eradicating, or at least superseding, all prior mythology. From this standpoint, the symbolic forms through which Buddhism, like any religion, has traditionally transmitted its meanings and values are mere relics of the unscientific past and, therefore, suspect.

In a 1974 commencement address Richard Feynman said:

In the South Seas there is a Cargo Cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things Cargo Cult Science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.

Carl Sagan in his book The Demon-Haunted World reminded us of the dangers of not teaching or learning how science works:

Pseudoscience is embraced, it might be argued, in exact proportion as real science is misunderstood - except that the language breaks down here. If you've never heard of science (to say nothing of how it works), you can hardly be aware you're embracing pseudoscience. (p.19)

If we teach only the findings and products of science - no matter how useful and even inspiring they may be - without communicating its critical method, how can the average person possibly distinguish science from pseudoscience? Both then are presented as unsupported assertion. (p.26)

Teaching and learning how science and pseudoscience work are important aspects of our lives if we want to understand how the world works.

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1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
Daniel Dennett, Intuition pumps and other tools for thinking.

Valid criticism is doing you a favor. - Carl Sagan