“Is that a fact?” “They say that…” “I heard that…” Just listen in on a few conversations around the water cooler and it won’t be long before one of these phrases rings out. After all, this is the Communication Age. We are connected through cell phones, radio, TV, and, of course, the web. We talk, we tweet, we link, we text, we “Facebook.” We are informed. But in many cases, unfortunately, we are also misinformed.
We suffer from information overload. Just Google a subject and within a second, you can be flooded with a million references. It is therefore more important than ever to be able to analyze those references and know how to separate sense from nonsense. And that’s where learning about science comes in. Information has to be scrutinized in the light of what is already known. But learning must be coupled with critical thinking. Confucius said it very well: “Learning without thought is labor lost; thought without learning is perilous.”
The University of Google is well stocked with information, but its students are left to flounder when it comes to determining whether that information is reliable. Accounts of miraculous cancer cures, the rants of anti-vaccine activists, the exploits of fake psychics (is there any other kind?) and the claims of various alternative healers may sound very seductive, but stand to lose their luster in the light of scientific education. It would, however, be incorrect to suggest that education is the vaccine against folly. The annals of history are replete with examples of educated people who have succumbed to nonsense. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a physician by training, believed in fairies and in communicating with the dead. Curiously, he was the creator of Sherlock Holmes, who was a logician extraordinaire and eschewed such silliness.
Indeed, it was Holmes who reminded us that, “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories instead of theories to suit facts.” These days, those of us who follow Holmes’ dictum and put evidence-based science on a pedestal often get criticized for challenging claims we consider to be unscientific. “They laughed at Galileo,” the promoters of such claims say, “and at Columbus, and at the Wright Brothers.” But, as Carl Sagan pointed out, the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They also laughed at Bozo the Clown. The four distinguished speakers featured at this year’s Trottier Public Science Symposium are sure to be entertaining but their message about going beyond the headlines will be a serious one.