Science Is Just Applied Common Sense
Seriously, it's not as hard as it looks.
Talk to scientists for any length of time and one of the first complaints you'll hear from them is the dismal state of public understanding of science. Scratch at that sentiment a bit, and you'll find what you'd expect - disappointment at anti-mRNA transfection sentiment, frustration at popular disbelief in the wrath of the carbon goddess, the growing prevalence of Flat Eartherism. Establishment scientists have a certain way of seeing the world, including certain beliefs they regard as more or less beyond question; they're very invested in those beliefs, and they petulantly demand that the rest of us shut up and trust, believe, and follow The Science. Not doing so hurts their feelings.
As evidence for that, I can just point to the fact that you'll almost never hear scientists complain that other popular delusions persist, for instance: race is only skin deep; anything boys can do girls can do better; saturated fats are bad for the heart. Most scientists you'll meet continue believing those, too.
Nevertheless, broadly speaking they have a point: the average person's understanding of the broad strokes of how (we think) the world works is remarkably poor. I've met people who aren't totally clear on whether the Sun goes around the Earth or if it's the other way around; people who don't understand the difference between stars and planets; people who have only the vaguest sense of the age of the Earth or the age of the cosmos; people who think whales are fish; and so on.
It would be really easy to just throw up your hands and blame it on MPAI, and there's obviously a certain truth to that given both the realities of normal distributions and the sad state of the educational system. However, some of the people I've met who believe really absurd things or, somewhat more worryingly, simply don't know things that I would have thought to be common knowledge in the Internet-enabled 21st century, are not stupid people, at all. They went to school. They hold down good jobs. Brilliant they might not be, but they're literate and minimally numerate. They can function in a high-tech modern society. So why don't they have any idea what's going on around them?
Luc Koch had an interesting piece that hit the nail on the head, When Common Sense Trumps Science. To a degree I'm probably just going to end up rephrasing a lot of his remarks, but who knows, maybe I'll luck out and say something original.
When you look at the popular scientific press, you tend to see two kinds of stories.
The least exciting type, which never gets attention except as an object of mockery, is "Scientists prove something everyone knew all along". That's the kind of story where scientists do a massive longitudinal study of millions of people and conclude that, indeed, children are generally shorter than adults.
The other type, which tends to get more eyeballs, follows the template "Scientists discover something completely unexpected that surprises everyone!"
Now, I have as much appreciation for the sheer ecstatic joy of genuine discovery as the next guy. In the course of my professional career I've had quite a few moments where I've known that I'm the first human to have seen something, or to have understood something, and on a planet that's been mapped and fenced off to the degree that ours has, where everything is owned space and virtually anywhere you can go you'll see signs that many others have been there before you ... well, it's quite a feeling, let me tell you.
The problem, though, is that this framing subtly communicates something really destructive. If scientists are surprised, well then you'll be surprised too, right? And if you're surprised, if it's unexpected, it sort of follows that you, puny little human with your pathetic scrap of skull-meat, could never even hope to wrap your head around what us galaxy-brained scientists have discovered.
In other words, it reinforces what I've found to be a very popular misapprehension about the nature of science: that science always trumps common sense.
I blame Einstein for this. That old fraud'scomplex mathematical theory, in which space and time switch back and forth and gravity is a result of matter somehow bending the structure of space and time, is for a lot of people, myself included, really hard to wrap their heads around. It seems to completely violate our most basic assumptions about how the world works. Since Einstein has become more or less synonymous with big-brained science, it's led to this idea that science and common sense are mutually exclusive.
This is a complete mischaracterization of how science actually works. The truth is that science is nothing more than applied common sense. That's it. That's the secret. It's that simple. All the fancy scientific philosophy about paradigm shifts and falsificationism, all that stuff about the scientific method, all of it is just an elaboration that obscures this simple truth. There is no difference whatsoever between common sense and science.
Scientists have exactly the same brains everyone else does. As such they use exactly the same cognitive processes as any other hominid. Where they differ is that they tend to be a bit smarter than average, meaning they learn a bit faster and retain a bit more of what they learn; and in that they have specialized training. In practice, that training is really a process of acclimation to certain facets of reality - the inside of a cell, the environment around a supermassive black hole, the geological processes of the Earth's mantle - that humans either can't go to physically or simply don't often visit.
It's no accident that scientific fields that study aspects of reality closer to human experience - sociologists, say - are much, much less likely to come across "amazing findings that totally violate common sense", and far, far more likely to report back with, "yep, basically what everyone has known since the Stone Age." The only reason that some scientific results seem to violate common sense is that they come from fields formed around the study of phenomena that are completely alien. Like, what exactly does your (untrained, unacclimated) common sense tell you should happen in the deep interior of star? It doesn't even know where to start.
Once one's knowledge base has been built up to include a reasonable overview of the sorts of phenomena one is likely to find at a given spatial or temporal scale, from there on it's more or less all seat-of-the-pants, gut-feeling intuition - in other words, the scientist is just applying common sense, as adapted to his particular domain of study.
What makes this false conception pernicious for the average person, but extraordinarily advantageous for institutional scientists and the oligarchy that utilizes them as tools of managerial control, is that it leads directly to people not trusting their own common sense. If science is always returning results that are totally incompatible with one's basic, instinctual understandings of how the world should work, and science is also the most reliable reality testing methodology we have, well then your common sense isn't worth a fistful of Zimbabwean trillion dollar bills. So just shut up and believe the science, peasant.
The truth is, anyone who spends a bit of time familiarizing themselves with the necessary information can then apply their common sense to reach very reasonable scientific conclusions.
The whole mask thing is a fantastic example of this.
We're told there's a respiratory virus about, and we breathe through our mouths. So, there are nasties floating in the air, and if you breathe them in you get sick, so stick a filter on your air holes and you'll be safe. Common sense, duh.
Which is about where public health authorities stopped with that, not because they wanted people to wear masks so they wouldn't get sick, but rather because their common sense told them that if everyone saw everyone else walking around with surgical masks, this would serve as visual evidence for the deadly pandemic and increase compliance with other public health measures.
Most people aren't really used to thinking about how small things can get. It turns out that viral particles are really fucking small. If an individual virion was the size of a ping-pong ball, the gaps between the fibres forming the weave of your typical mask would be miles apart. Once you have that rather important piece of information, you apply common sense and conclude, no, actually, masks won't do anything.
As we all know, they didn't. Score one for common sense.
What makes this example so instructive is that on the one hand you've got millions of ordinary people who do a bit of research for themselves, acquire the basic information, and rapidly reach an accurate conclusion. On the other hand you've got authorities desperate to keep people going along with their silly mask theatre, for the sole reason that it's a key element shoring up the psychological climate that enables their entire ill-conceived medical power grab to keep blundering on. As common sense started kicking in, the authorities tasked their scientific institutions to conduct a bunch of ridiculous, contrived experiments and p-hacked epidemiological to show that akshually, masks totally work, so you can't trust your common sense that they don't (ironic give that their whole play in the first place was to try and get people to accept masking based on everyone's naive common sense). There was even that Danish mask study that came back with powerful statistical evidence for the uselessness of masks; of course, unlike the regime-friendly studies, they had a lot of trouble getting that published, and the regime media refused to give it any attention (but to be fair, that study was of the genre 'science shows what everyone knows').
The point is this. Scientists aren't special. All they do is make use of a rigorously applied common sense, in the context of various specialized fields that are fairly removed from our daily experience, but the path to which was hewn from the jungle of the unknown by previous humans using their own common sense as machetes. There's a road from whatever you know to whatever you want to know, paved in common sense, and you can get there riding on your own common sense. Common sense is all you need (well that and knowledge ... but that's just common sense).
With the explosive development of open source science over the last couple of years, as millions of us discovered that authorities we thought we could trust were instead cynically deceiving us, I think a lot of the species are starting to realize that. Ordinary people have taken a hand at doing their own research, using their own common sense, and getting good results doing it. That's a good thing.
I've got nothing clever for that one. Flat Earth is genuinely retarded.
Most People Are Idiots
He stole everything noteworthy he did and treated his wife and son abominably. Nikola Tesla agrees. Fight me. And Nikola Tesla. He’s got a death ray.
To be fair, quantum mechanics is pretty weird too, what with the quantum tunnelling, wave-particle duality, uncertainty principle, entanglement, wave-function collapse/observer effect, and what have you. But frankly most people don't know much about quantum physics, and I've never met a single non-scientist who could recognize a portrait of Heisenberg or Dirac, whereas Einstein's ugly mug is ubiquitous. Especially that picture with his tongue sticking out. Ugh.
Which doesn't really exist, but anyhow.
I'm looking forward to a year from now when I came swap in Federal Reserve Notes in that line.
That analogy overstates the actual difference by a significant amount; see the pinned comment. But the point that viral diameter « pore diameter remains qualitatively unchanged.
John. I am curious about your numbers regarding the masks. You compare a virion (150 nm) with a ping pong ball (40 mm), so roughly 266,000 times bigger. In order for the fibers to be one mile apart, it would mean that they are separated around 6 mm. That doesn't sound right.
I don't think masks work. But you might want to revise your numbers. Also, this proves that working with very big or very small numbers is difficult.
I personally use the analogy of trying to capture sand with a tennis racket. You can get a few grains, but most of the sand will simply go away.
I believe it is more accurate and it is also easier to understand for everybody.
Great article once again you Barsoom war hero!
It is encouraging that 'ordinary' people are doing their own research. As you say, and well know, we need to be alert to the fact that most studies these days come predetermined with certain agendas to maintain or attract funding for more of the same. In the fantastically subjective world of the 'social sciences' this is ubiquitous, and of course in biology the biases and straight up propaganda are there too. Not sure about the hard sciences but I guess there's a bit of the same going on.
I spoke in 2020 with some German scientists in immunology and virology who had a paper pulled from a high-end journal with little good reason - they were, of course, debunking some propaganda about the immune system and gene therapy - When I asked them for the reason why their paper was retracted from the journal they said it was political, nothing to do with their results or the robustness of their study. They had been in the game for many years and had not encountered anything like this before (which seems surprising now). So when we do our research and use libraries such as PubMed we have to know that these journals are thoroughly curated, not just for good scientific method and significance, but for being on the right side of the narrative. I've been on a peer-review panel - if it doesn't fit the reviewers (or the chief editor's) paradigm the authors are told to go back and try again or it simply doesn't go through. It then takes more detective work to find the smaller parties doing honest work, probably not getting published by top-tier journals but can be found on Researchgate or their own relatively ignored blog. Consensus by the 'experts' or being published in Nature doesn't mean it's the truth, yet the majority of the population would say it does.