This scene, from Season 2, Episode 2 of Star Trek: The Next Generation, features a fictional android named Data. In this scene, Lt. Commander Data, the Science Officer of the USS Enterprise, gives an important lesson, regarding science and skepticism, to his commanding officer, Captain Jean-Luc Picard. As is consistent with my standard practice (often explicitly stated, but always at least implied), when posting copyrighted material on the Internet, I encourage everyone to purchase this episode, in its entirety. It is available on DVD. This practice is not unlike loaning a book to someone, in the hopes that they will like it, and purchase it, and other books, by the same author.
The lesson of this short scene is related to many things, including, but not limited to, Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe, the Koch Brothers, Pulaski County Special School District Superintendent Dr. Jerry Guess, the scientific approach to understanding reality, the quest for the truth, and every single conspiracy theories ever devised.
Regarding Gov. Beebe: I have heard a lot of unsubstantiated speculation regarding the role of the governor in the PCSSD’s current labor crisis. There are people who are absolutely convinced that the entire attack against our unions and contracts, which give vital protections to teachers, and other essential workers in the PCSSD, was deliberately orchestrated by Gov. Beebe, from the beginning.
I have searched — hard — for evidence to support this claim. I have found no such evidence.
Does this mean that this claim about Gov. Beebe is false? No, it does not. It does mean, however, that “I do not know” is the only reasonable position which I can hold, at this time, until and unless I do find compelling evidence to support, or refute, this claim. I will not write something, nor say it, representing it as a fact, without compelling evidence to support it — no matter who makes such a claim, nor what side of any issue they are on.
Why am I this way? The subjects I have taught the most, for the seventeen years I have been a teacher, are science and mathematics, and I have been well-trained in what I teach. I have also done much coursework, and hold two degrees, in history. (Yes, I am fully aware that this is an unusual combination. I am an unusual person — but then again, so is everyone, in some way.) My teaching certificate gives me full legal authority, backed by my training, and checked with standardized tests, to teach, at the secondary level, in all three of these fields. In science, mathematics, and history, the importance of skepticism, and evidence, simply cannot be overstated. Therefore, if I do not have compelling evidence for something, I automatically take the “I do not know” position, which the fictional character Data explains in this short clip as “the beginning of wisdom.” I fully agree with this statement, and this skeptical attitude serves me well on the job, while teaching, as well as off the clock, when I do the off-duty, non-job-related work related to maintaining my solo or shared blogs (any posts ever observed, past or future, which appear on-line during work hours, are easily explained by the Tumblr-queue, and the ability to schedule posts in advance, things which all experienced Tumblr-bloggers understand well). This skeptical attitude affects every parts of my life, and I could not be who I am without it. When people ask my what my sign is, referring to the non-science (which sounds a lot like “nonsense,” I must point out) known as astrology, my answer is always the same: “skeptic.” It’s an honest answer to other questions, as well.
Related quotes on this subject, from well-known scientists:
- “The First Principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” ~Richard Feynman, Nobel laureate, physicist, and widely regarded as one of the greatest teachers ever, in any subject.
- “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” ~Carl Sagan, astronomer, most well-known for popularizing the scientific approach to understanding reality with his book, and TV series, Cosmos. I watched this entire series, and read the book as well, in 1980, at age twelve. It has profoundly affected my life.
- “Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth.” ~Albert Einstein, Nobel laureate and physicist. Without Einstein’s essential work, as well as Feynman’s, scientists in Nazi Germany would almost certainly have discovered the atomic bomb before the Allies did, and the world would be a far different place today. What authority was Einstein referring to? That’s easy to answer: ANY authority. To one who lives with a scientific mindset, everything is open to question, and this questioning is absolutely essential.
- “I know of no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too desirous of evidence in support of their core beliefs.” ~Sam Harris, neuroscientist, and my personal favorite, of all living authors.
- “The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what’s true.” ~Carl Sagan
- “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” ~Neil deGrasse Tyson, the world’s most well-known living astrophysicist, and host of an updated, second version of Sagan’s Cosmos, scheduled to air in 2013 and/or 2014. Why should we accept scientific knowledge as true? Well, for one thing, it works — modern medicine, which is based on science, is all the evidence one should need to accept that. Without science-based medicine, you would quite likely not be reading this, for one of two reasons: you would be dead, or you never would have been born in the first place. Another reason is this: because science is based on evidence — and, when evidence directs scientists to change their theories, competent scientists actually are willing to do exactly that, no matter how much they personally like those theories. If they aren’t willing to do this, they aren’t really scientists, no matter what their credentials.
- “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.” ~Richard Feynman
There are hundreds more such quotes from scientists … but on to the Koch brothers. David H. Koch and Charles G. Koch are bothers, and have a lot of money — that much, I have been able to verify. Many people claim that these two men are secretly controlling the attacks on unions in the PCSSD, as well as similar attacks in numerous other states, most of which, unlike Arkansas, have Republican governors. I have not been able to find compelling evidence to support this claim. Therefore, I do not know whether or not it is true.
Regarding Dr. Jerry Guess, PCSSD Superintendent: I was quite surprised to have someone tell me, recently, that e-mails I have exchanged with Dr. Guess were not written by him, but were, rather, “ghostwritten” by some other PCSSD employee. Without evidence, and having a scientific mindset, I was skeptical, and immediately requested evidence to support this claim, but there was no evidence available. I therefore took my automatic “I do not know” position, and did not blog about these suspicions held by others, whom I shall not name, until now. I did not anticipate an opportunity to actually test this hypothesis with an experiment, but such an opportunity presented itself, unexpectedly, when Dr. Jerry Guess himself approached me, on the evening of June 19, 2012, in the PCSSD’s Central Office boardroom, to have a personal conversation, which we proceeded to have. It was, for the most part, a friendly chat, and he did not make any attempt to intimidate, nor bully me, in any way. Since I will talk, to anyone who is willing to listen, about this labor struggle, and I saw no reason for me to make an exception that night, we simply had a conversation. Only one other person was present, and the conversation was not recorded, but I remember it well. It was, after all, an unusual event.
I began my testing of this “ghostwriting” claim by simply asking Dr. Guess about it, without identifying the source of the idea. My motivation was simple: I wanted to know the truth, and asking him about this topic was the obvious starting point. Dr. Guess immediately responded, and, while I do not remember his exact words, it boiled down to this: he told me, unequivocally, that he was the author of the e-mails in question. Would this have been sufficient evidence for me, by itself? Of course not! However, we talked for roughly twenty minutes, by my estimate, and both of us said many things. He demonstrated, to my satisfaction, sufficient knowledge of the content of these e-mails to prove to me that he had at least read them carefully. However, the experiment I was conducting did not end there. I listened carefully to what Dr. Guess had to say, and, more importantly, the way he uses spoken language. I have taken sufficient time, since then, to thoughtfully compare my recollections of the way he spoke, in a one-on-one conversation, to the written language in the e-mails I have received from him. I also considered the fact that Dr. Guess, in one e-mail, included written information provided by another high-level PCSSD official, and clearly labeled it as the writing of another person, whom he identified by name. Based on all of this evidence, I have now reached the following conclusion: on this one subject — the alleged ghostwriting of e-mails — I do believe that Dr. Guess told me the truth, and that he did, in fact, personally write the e-mails in question. Until and unless I receive compelling evidence to the contrary, I will continue to hold this position, for I have now tested it, as scientifically as possible, in my own laboratory. (Any part of the universe I choose to examine, in any way, is my laboratory.)
Because I have publicly criticized Dr. Guess, many times, it may shock those who regularly read posts on the “crisisinthepcssd” blog to see me make that statement about believing him, on this one subject, but I have made it, deliberately, and without any reservation whatsoever. When the man tells the truth, I will not shy away from stating so, publicly.
Honesty, and the search for truth, are of vital importance to me, in every part of my life. Have I ever told a lie? Yes, but not for a long time, having finally learned my lesson on that subject, once and for all, quite painfully and personally, in a private manner I shall not describe, other than to say that this lie, a “white lie” told to try to protect someone’s feelings, very nearly destroyed a friendship which I value highly. Lies are dangerous — especially to the people who tell them.
I know this with certainty, and from experience: I am a terrible liar, meaning that I lack the ability to convincingly be dishonest, so, if I tried to lie today, the lie would be instantly obvious to almost anyone who was paying the slightest bit of attention to me. For this reason, and others, I am highly motivated to be completely honest, in all things.
I will not lie about Dr. Guess, nor anyone else, nor will I disseminate information, presenting it as fact, for which I have no evidence.
There is no authority in the universe which I am willing to accept without question. I even question my own opinions, constantly, to guard against the risk of fooling myself, for Feynman’s First Principle, quoted above, is something I have adopted as a guiding rule for my life. When evidence tells me I have been incorrect, as has happened before, I change my position, to match what the evidence indicates is true. That is the only approach which is logical. It is the only approach which leads in the direction of the truth. It is also consistent with my favorite passage from the Bible, found in I Peter 5:8, “Be self-controlled and alert.” Why is that my favorite Biblical passage? Simple: it makes good sense, and is excellent advice, to anyone, regardless of their views on any religion. It is a good thing to be in control of oneself, and it is certainly a good idea to be alert.
If readers of any writing of mine, or those who hear what I say, want to know why they should believe my statements, with the rare exceptions of obvious jokes (example: my sarcastic responses to the question “Did you get a haircut?” include such replies as “No, I set it on fire, and put it out at JUST the right moment”), or fiction which is presented as such, well, I just gave you my best case for believing me, by explaining my own thinking process, to the best of my ability.
That does NOT mean, of course, that I expect anyone to blindly believe what I write, or say, without question. To expect that would be a betrayal of the First Principle. I encourage everyone to fact-check everything I write and say. In class, I tell my students to point it out immediately if — or rather, when — I make an error, so it can be corrected at once, and we can move on. (There are no teachers who do not err, although there are teachers who have a very hard time admitting that they make mistakes.)
If you find evidence that I am incorrect, about anything I have presented, or ever do present, as true, please send me the evidence you have found, by e-mail, to email@example.com, and I will examine it thoughtfully, test it by any means I can devise, and, if necessary, issue retractions, publicly, with any necessary apologies. I know that I have not deliberately lied, ever, about anything related to the Crisis in the PCSSD, but I do not claim infallibility, on this subject, nor on any other.
Another well-known fictional character, Snoopy, was once depicted in a cartoon, writing a book on the subject of theology. When another Peanuts character pointed out, by implication, that a good title was needed, Snoopy responded (in a thought balloon, of course, as Charles Schultz always depicted Snoopy’s human “speech”) that he had the perfect title: “Has It Ever Occurred To You That You Might Be Wrong?”
It doesn’t matter what subject is under discussion. My answer to that question is ALWAYS an immediate “yes.”
On conspiracy theories in general, I now ask, for the reasons I have explained, for people to stop wasting their time, and misleading others, with such nonsense. Here are some examples of statements which respond to some well-known conspiracy theories. Each of these statements is supported by a mountain of empirical evidence — or is so absurd, on its face, that no mountain of evidence is needed, with the burden of proof being justifiably placed on those who make the ridiculous claim. There is no real evidence which refutes any of them. This is not a complete list, unfortunately:
- Exactly twelve people have walked on Luna, earth’s moon, thus far.
- The Nazis murdered many millions of people in the Holocaust, and kept meticulous records of their actions, making the Holocaust one of two leading contenders for the most well-documented event in human history. The other leading contender is, to the best of my knowledge, the series of six moon landings (two people landed, in each of these missions) from 1969 to 1972.
- The 9/11 attacks were not the work of the U.S. government.
- President Barack Obama was born in the United States of America.
- Vaccinating infants and children against numerous diseases, as doctors consistently recommend, is essential to personal and public health, and the people who refuse to do so, for any reason, are endangering us all.
- AIDS is caused by HIV, and that virus was not deliberately created by anyone.
How do I know these conspiracy theories are false? There is a well-known saying that explains one excellent reason, related to human nature itself: “Three men can keep a secret — if two of them are dead.” Hominids (our species, and, quite likely, closely-related, now-extinct species, as well) began using spoken language many thousands of years ago, and homo sapiens has yet, as a group, to shut up. I am certainly not one of the rare individual exceptions to this general trend.
Conspiracy theories are a waste of time, and are harmful in other ways as well, for they tend to make people more susceptible to misinformation, which can cause an unpredictable cascade of harmful effects. We currently have the truth on our side in this labor struggle, but conspiracy theories, related to attacks against unions of teachers and support staff, nationwide, are endangering that vital fact. We cannot afford to lose the truth — to any form of nonsense — for the truth is the most potent weapon in our entire arsenal of ideas. To those inventing, or spreading, conspiracy “theories” (a terrible name, by the way, for they aren’t really theories at all), on any subject, please do this: STOP. Such activity is NOT helpful.
~Robert Austin, often known, on-line, as “RobertLovesPi.”