Home > Uncategorized > David Brin’s CITOKATE sounds very much like Elinor ‪#‎Ostrom‬ and her insistence on “contestation”

David Brin’s CITOKATE sounds very much like Elinor ‪#‎Ostrom‬ and her insistence on “contestation”

[Bumped up from a Facebook post.]

David Brin, in criticizing Michael Crichton on climate science (in 2005), sounds very much like Elinor ‪‎Ostrom and her insistence on “contestation” (emphasis added); he is also echoing Richard Feynman, as I note after the Brin quote:

Ironically, left-wing activists would gladly compile an equally lengthy list of erroneous or biased ‘scientific studies’ that have leaned the other way, at behest of corporate or aristocratic or neoconservative interests.

If you try, it’s trivial to pick and choose anecdotes and examples of dogma-driven excess, from any perspective. Given what may be at stake — either billions of dollars or else a perceived world-in-peril — it would be surprising if human subjectivity and bias did not sometimes bias outcomes.

This is, in fact the critical discovery of science. That we often perceive what we expect or want to perceive, often at variance with what is objectively true. The Cro Magnon genius of trumping objective evidence with subjective belief. The original and only true form of magic.

How has science dealt with this quandary? By encouraging open enquiry and vigorous reciprocal accountability. And by enticing younger researchers to take risks and challenge portions of the edifice that may be weak, with substantial status awaiting those who do succeed in toppling a paradigm, some time.

I have generalized this with a catchy acronym-aphorism – CITOKATE … or… Criticism is the Only Known Antidote to Error. A practicing scientist knows this, in his or her bones, even as the Cro Magnon ego inevitably tugs in the other direction, murmuring to each of us that we are 100% correct and that critics are all vile fools. Yes, that tug is overwhelming. Which makes even the partial success of scientific training – at making some egotists welcome criticism – all the more wondrous, almost a miracle.

The lesson for everyday life? If none of us are likely to catch our own mistakes, we can hope that others will catch them for us. And yes, even when eagerly rebellious, snotty graduate students do the catching. (Even Nobelists relearn this lesson, the hard way. There is no privileged safety from criticism, in science, though some Cro Magnon professors and laureates certainly do try.)

Brin further expounded on our collective fight against error in his 2011 commentary relating to the piece by Chris Mooney in Mother Jones called “The Science of Why We don’t Believe Science;” excerpts (emphasis added):

Not even those of us who are scientifically trained actually do objective science consistently well. Like all other humans, we are predisposed, with biased, emotionally prejudiced human minds, to first see what we want or expect to see – a dilemma first illustrated by Plato as the “Allegory of the Cave.” In one of the few things that Plato got right, he showed how each of us allows our subjective will to overlay and mask anything inconvenient about the objective world.

Now Chris Mooney (author of the Republican War on Science) explains how this age-old human flaw is being analyzed in scientific detail, by researchers who reveal it to be dismayingly intractable. It seems that obstinacy is as deeply rooted as love or sex! …

Of course, there’s hope, or we would never have climbed so far. In the last few centuries w discovered a general way around this dilemma. It is through the enlightenment process that underlies almost everything successful about our civilization – not only science but also free markets, justice and democracy. The one tool that has ever allowed humans to penetrate the veil of their own talented delusions.

It is called Reciprocal Accountability. Or criticism, the only known antidote to error.

We may not be able to spot our own mistakes and delusions, but others will gladly point them out for us! Moreover, this favor is one that your FOES will happily do for you! (How nice of them.) And, in return, you will eagerly return the favor. In our enlightenment – and especially in science – this process is tuned to maximize truth-output and minimize blood-on-the-floor. But it requires some maturity. Some willingness to let the process play out. Willingness to negotiate. Calmness and even humor.

It doesn’t work amid rage or “culture war.” Which is precisely why culture war is being pushed on us. By those who want the enlightenment to fail.

Which brings us back to Mooney’s cogent and detailed article, which explains the problem of “narrowcasting” to specifically biased audience groups, who get to wallow in endless reinforcement of their pre-existing views, avoiding the discomfort of cognitive dissonance from things like evidence ….


To keep reminding myself of my own potential for error, my usual email signature block ends,

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”
— Richard Feynman

If that fails, my wife is pretty reliable in pointing out when I am wrong! 😀

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:
  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.