On Mistrust of Science

March 4, 2015.

People talk about evolution denialism as evidence of a deep cultural mistrust for science. I think they miss the boat. I'm going to tell you a story from a long-ago employer that highlights it. Of course I see the same sort of fail frequently to this day.

The year was 2001, and I was a typist attached to a research group. I made the mistake of fixing the new printer, and the office was about to dump all of their tech support requirements on me.

The head of the group had a nice laptop, and it would not suspend/resume. It would just hard crash instead, with no indication of cause. But when it came from the factory, it would suspend/resume just fine. So someone came up with a rather brilliant and science-minded idea. They hypothesized that one of the programs they installed broke suspend.

So they wiped the laptop, and systematically installed one program at a time, testing suspend after each one.

They got to the last step, installed a small set of 3 do-nothing programs, and then tested one last time -- now it doesn't suspend!

They told me this story as they handed me the laptop. They told me the conclusion they had drawn is that it is impossible to know what program breaks suspend.


I think they must have had an implicit preconception that it couldn't have been one of those 3 programs, so even though their experiment indicated that it was, they didn't believe their own eyes.

This lab was full of the sort of college-educated won't-leaves that fill staff positions at a major university. They were smart enough to devise a proper experiment and successfully complete it. But when it was done, they didn't trust the results, they threw their hands up and said it is unknowable.

Our inability to trust science is much deeper than the jingoistic bullshit of identity politics.

This story has a happy ending. I fixed the laptop. Two weeks later I quit.