No One Will Bet Against Science on August 21st

No One Will Bet Against Science on August 21st
Irene North/The Star-Herald via AP
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It has been widely reported that we live in a post-truth era where feelings and personal opinions matter more than objective facts. For instance, in a noticeable interview with The Guardian on February 12, 2017, Philosopher Daniel Dennett went so far as to say that; “We’re entering a period of epistemological murk and uncertainty that we’ve not experienced since the middle age." If this is true, betting companies should be up in arms over all the people who will wager that the Great American Eclipse, predicted to be visible from Oregon to South Carolina, will not happen on August 21st. However, it seems quite unlikely that anyone will bet against NASA getting this prediction right, so why this cherry picking in regard to when science is reliable or not? Is the post-truth sentiment just a facade?

It seems to be that part of the reason why people tend to deny specific evidence is that they lack willpower, similar as to why people might smoke cigarettes. This was the approach philosopher Immanuel Kant took to the enlightenment project as a whole in his acclaimed paper, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” (1784). “Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a large proportion of men, even when nature has long emancipated them from alien guidance (naturaliter maiorennes), nevertheless gladly remain immature for life. For the same reasons, it is all too easy for others to set themselves up as their guardians.”

Interestingly, it is often not so difficult to quit smoking when we see no other alternative, such as after a heart attack. In the same way, it only takes a Great American Eclipse for everyone to get on board with science, at least for a day, as the denial of its impending occurrence proves only to be a lost cause. In this way it seems that people are perfectly capable of cultivating their own minds and thinking for themselves, instead of buying into whatever irrational yet convenient views are out there, to paraphrase Kant.

One challenge to contend with is the availability of convenient views that have greatly multiplied in recent years. The internet has made it astoundingly easy to find writings and even whole communities of people who agree on what they want to believe, instead of on what is objectively true.

Nevertheless, the Great American Eclipse makes it clear that people, when prevented from conjuring excuses to be immature, will suddenly act like adults, at least briefly— and for some, perhaps long enough to make them comfortable “without the leading-strings to which they are tied”, as stated by Kant, who emphasized that “they would certainly learn to walk eventually after a few falls.”

We all want to be regarded as rational beings. The fact that there is no apparent denial in the Great American Eclipse occurring on August 21st shows that we are capable of collectively embracing science and its institutions, and of rationally seeking the truth. Reflecting on this discrepancy between our willingness and ability to be rational on the one hand, and the strange, irrational views of our post-truth era that we get ourselves entangled in on the other, should give us much pause for thought. It may well remind us to continuously weigh up the extent to which our criticism of science is warranted or not, as well as the extent of how our post-truth sentiments may simply be evidence of a self-imposed immaturity with which we are deferring our most prized asset, our ability to reason.

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