On: An Awful March for Science Meme

A meme posted by March for Science – one that was liked more than 27,000 times and shared more than 20,000 times on Facebook, a number of them on my timeline – shows two cartoon people pointing to a number on the ground. One ‘toon says the number is a 6 and the other says its a 9. The meme’s original commentary – “Just because you are right, does not mean, I am wrong.” – is crossed out.

Below the crossed out tagline sits the heart of this meme’s message: “But one of those people is wrong, someone painted a six or nine, they need to back up and orient themselves, see if there are any other numbers to align with. Maybe there’s a driveway or a building to face, or they can ask someone who actually knows.”

This is an unscientific and fallacy-laden suggestion from a supposed proponent of the scientific method. Let’s break this meme down.

“Someone painted a six or a nine, they need to back up and orient themselves, see if there are any other numbers to align with. Maybe there’s a driveway or a building to face…”

Sure, it could be a number corresponding to a building or a driveway, but how can we assume this from what we are presented in the meme? What if the number is part of an art installation and represents nothing other than the fact that a 6 is a 9 upside down and vice versa? Sure, that’s a hacky artist, but it doesn’t mean either ‘toon is wrong.

What if these two chuckleheads backing up and aligning themselves reveals no building, no driveway, nothing but a number – a 6 or a 9, feasibly – seemingly on its own? Perhaps the number is both 6 and 9 drawn to represent whatever one is looking at from either direction? That’d be a helluva creative turn by the lot’s designer.

The driveway and building answer is a single choice in a sea of possibilities. Why do we insist on calling either of these people wrong without knowing the full situation? Why create a false dilemma fallacy by only giving two options of what the number can be?

“… or they can ask someone who actually knows.”

Ah, the appeal to authority, the least scientific of all the fallacies. It’s as if Plato’s Republic is here and we must search for a Philosopherking to find the true answer! Excuse me sire! What is this number beforth me?!

I have a hard time believing that the March to Science would take the advice of “someone who actually knows” without some serious scrutiny of this Philosopherking’s work. If they do take this decision on its face without further inquiry, I question their understanding of the scientific process.

“People having an uniformed [sic] opinion about something they don’t understand and proclaiming their opinion as being equally valid as facts is what is ruining the world. No one wants to do any research, they just want to be right.”

And the meme argues against itself. In claiming a winner without knowing context, the meme “just want[s] to be right”, to do no research into what else could be out there in the vast fake world of meme-land. It’s about as uninformed of an opinion as one can have.

And in defense of having an uninformed opinion: most of us have one about everything. We can all only know so much information; even the brightest minds are informed only by tests or actions they themselves or others have done, along with words they or others have spoken. Therefore, people having an uninformed opinion is not what is “ruining the world;” what’s ruining the world, if anything is, is this snide, meme-centric dismissal of nuance.

“No one wants to do any research they just want to be right.”

Ah, inductive hyperbole. “No one” wants to do any research, says a Facebook group representing a march for scientists.

Words matter: if no one wants to do any research, science would not exist. Period. To create a straw man argument against a group of nonexistent, non-researching hoi palloi is to fight against a ghost when a perfectly good opponent is sitting somewhere in the mist.

“They just want to be right.”

Oh yeah, indeed. I can see that.

Look: The truth is complex. Our system of truth-finding – the liberal social system that entails science, history, and journalism, among other tools – has a place for multiple points of view. Perhaps one view is right and the other is wrong, but very often multiple sides are both right and wrong. There’s nuance; even in simple moments, there are a million moving pieces all falling into place.

I understand people think many things are easily provable – and they’re right, but only due to the hard work of thinking out the many wrong options. For the especially hard problems, there should be brainstorming that goes beyond the obvious.

Carl Sagan wrote in his book The Demon-Haunted World that scientists – or anyone looking at a problem to be solved – should:

Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among “multiple working hypotheses,” has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.

Accompanying this meme, March for Science posted that “This is why we all need to understand the scientific method.” But does whoever posted this meme understand the scientific method? Or do they want to buy into a world where facts fit neatly into a package and that’s that?

If March for Science wants to demand more accountability in the thought process of its followers, they make a mistake to demand that accountability with the false dilemma fallacy, the argument from authority, and inductive hyperbole. These are well-worn mistakes that scientists and logicians have twirled between their fingers for centuries.

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