Isaac Asimov’s “A Cult of Ignorance”
The great Isaac Asimov is a major figure in science fiction. He wrote more than science fiction (he was quite prolific), including popular press articles of which “A Cult of Ignorance” is one. Unfortunately, when doing cultural studies analyses, we often uncover bad or unsettling aspects of our culture. Many people deride cultural studies for this, but it’s important to understand that not everything about our system has benefited everyone else. Fortunately, because American culture is based (in part) on freedom of speech, we’re free to critique the system without fear of repercussions…that’s a system I’m glad to live under!
But Asimov doesn’t think Americans think critically enough. In fact, in 1980, he told us we didn’t read enough, so we couldn’t possibly have a right to know because we put no effort into knowing.
Consider the following themes of Asimov’s short article:
- What might be contemporary examples of this? Consider the anti-vaccination and COVID-19 quarantine protester crowds.
- For further information, beyond the scope of this class, check out evidence that the public trust in higher education has fallen.
- Who are the elites? What’s the difference between economic and intellectual elites?
- Right to know
- With great rights come even greater responsibility…
- What’s Asimov’s point about the public’s assumption they have the right to know?
- Credibility and trust
- What are credible sources? Who are credible people?
- How might you rank the following people in terms of credibility?
- Uber/Lyft Driver
- Hedge Fund Manager
- Asimov claims reading scores have dropped, but he doesn’t provide any evidence
- The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has been tracking reading (and math) scores since 1971.
- This NAEP graph (pdf) shows some improvement for particular age groups, but is it significant improvement, or does it look pretty much the same since 1971?
- Drop in magazine readership
- Consider Asimov writing in 1980…the internet wasn’t in anyone’s home, so newspapers, magazines, and network (not cable) news was how people got their information.
- Although debatable, one could get news information from more media these days (although not necessarily in-depth reporting), there are a good portion of Americans who don’t read books.
- Ignorance vs willful ignorance
- Consider “ignorance” in the non-pejorative sense to mean “not knowing.” We are all ignorant in that we don’t know everything. I’m extremely ignorant on nuclear physics, organic chemistry, fishing, childcare, among other things.
- The problem is willful ignorance or celebrating one’s ignorance as a badge of honor. Willfully ignoring the facts because they don’t fit one’s worldview is beyond ignorant; it’s just plain stupid.
- “true concept of democracy”
- He probably means that citizens need to be informed to participate in democratic institutions.
- Honestly, the United States isn’t really a democracy; it’s a republic where people vote for (the best and brightest…) representatives to pass laws and govern. However, this is a better discussion for your political science and history classes.
- Asimov is claiming at the end of his article that, without striving to learn, without having an educated citizenry who don’t celebrate their ignorance, we don’t have a true democracy or rule be the people.
- Oh well, what does he know. He’s just a scifi writer.* It’s not like he can predict the future…
*For those of you who don’t know me, this bullet point needs to be read in a sarcastic tone. I absolutely love Asimov’s work.
Possible final thought that has no real resolution: Why not trust the experts? Are there contemporary examples you can think of where the masses (or a large portion of the masses) don’t believe scientists–including health care experts? Also, what’s wrong with highway signs having pictures instead of words? Aren’t they easier to read instead of words?
Prefaces—How to Read the Book
There are more quotations below than you should expect for future readings. Because this is the first time we’re covering Collins & Pinch, I’ve decided to include more quotations from the chapter than usual. My assumption is that you’ve read the the Prefaces, Introduction, and Ch. 1, so we don’t need to go over every single detail of the chapter.
Partway through class today, I’m going to ask you to meet in small groups on your own and reflect on memory transfer from a molecular point of view. Consider what’s going on in our brains (or the brains of other animals) and how that memory event could get transferred. What are the implications of having a substance that transfers memory? What’s the difference between instinct and learned behavior? How might instinct be inherited?
I you’re curious, here’s a video of an old experiment on training rats from Yale University, Institute of Human Relations study by Neal E. Miller and Gardner L. Hart (0.15-4:15).
Preface to 2nd Ed.
- p. xiii: Collins & Pinch had scientists review their work, and the scientists offered their criticism. The authors claim they “examine each serious criticism, either accepting it and making a change or putting the sociologist/historian’s point of view.” What they mean is that some criticism is a matter of a priori assumption based on one’s discipline’s approach to knowledge. Simply put, scientists think differently about these subjects than do historians and sociologists.
- p. xiv: Their audience—average citizens. Their “book [is] mainly of benefit to the citizen and the novice, not the experienced scientist at the research front.”
Preface to 1st Canto Ed.
- p. xv: “Most science is uncontroversial.”
- p. xv-xvi: “For citizens who want to take part in the democratic process of a technological society, all the science they need to know about is controversial.”
- Don’t gloss over “democratic process” in that last sentence. Collins & Pinch have taken Asimov’s argument to heart and decided to help the public achieve their right to know by communicating to a lay (general, non-scientific) audience.
Preface & Acknowledgements
- p. xvii: “…how much authority to grant to experts.”
- p. xvii-xix: This preface identifies where they went to find out about the sciences they discuss. They interviewed scientists for some accounts and read descriptions for other accounts. They aren’t trying to replicate experiments; instead, they’re looking at how the science was communicated. They have critical distance as historians/sociologists.
- p. 1: False Dichotomy—“Science seems to be either all good or all bad.”
- p. 1-2: Science as a golem. Think of Frankenstein…created by a human and powerful but not able to control himself.
- p. 2: “the golem…is not an evil creature but it is a little daft….We must not expect too much.”
- p. 3: Collins & Pinch aren’t telling you what to think. They’re trying to show you there’s more to scientific discovery than clear, clean trajectories guided by scientific method.
Ch. 1 “Edible Knowledge”
- p. 5: Desire to find a way to “pass on our memories directly…without needing to spend years building the foundations first.”
- p. 5: Assumption that memories are encoded in chemicals.
- p. 5-6: “memories could be extracted from the brain of one creature and given to a second creature with beneficial effects.”
Think of the science fiction narratives this brings up. Humans can basically download information, thus, avoiding the learning process.
- p. 8-9: Critiques of worm memory transfer.
1) Worms don’t digest, they transplant large pieces and incorporate them into their bodies.
2) “Planarian worms were too primitive to be trained.”
3) “Different trainers may obtain widely differing outcomes from training regimes.”
- p. 9: prima facie—at first sight
ad hoc—for a specific purpose and no other
- p. 9: Golden hands argument. Skeptics consider this argument—that only certain people can competently do an experiment (or train the worms)—to be a red flag.
- p. 9: Bioassay—an analysis where “the existence and quantity of a drug is determined by its effects on living matter or whole organisms.”
Instead of the experiments transferring memory or learned behavior, the substances injected into the subjects yield results of such-and-such chemical causing such-and-such results. Memory isn’t transferred, but the experiment (like a drug) affects the organism.
- p. 10: More problems with training worms. Apparently, worms like slime, so they tend to follow the slime trails of other worms. If slime trails go right, worms will go right.
- Retort: we’ll clean the troughs…too much cleaning makes the worms “unhappy.” Maybe they need it to be clean but not too clean.
The Goldilocks effect is similar to “the Golden Hands” argument—not to clean, not too dirty.
- p. 11: A huge number of variables needed to be controlled for, and this led to both sides arguing for their stance.
The proponents claimed these variables came about because others were doing the experiments incorrectly, and the critics used them as reasons why “others fail[ed] to replicate the original findings.”
- Retort: we’ll clean the troughs…too much cleaning makes the worms “unhappy.” Maybe they need it to be clean but not too clean.
- p. 11-12: “Up to 70 variables were cited at one time or another to account for discrepancies in experimental results.”
- p. 12: “The greater number of potential variables, the harder it is to decide whether one really replicates the conditions of another.” Without replicating the experiment, other scientists won’t accept the findings of the original group.
- p. 12-13: The Worm Runner’s Digest hurt the credibility (the ethos) of McConnell. It included “science” and cartoons and letters to the editor.
- p. 13-14: The controversy ended because scientists moved on to memory transfer in mammals, so worms weren’t as exciting.
- p. 14: passionate crying out in protest.
- p. 15: Ungar’s experiment with morphine “might be thought of as doing a complicated bioassay rather than an experiment in the transfer of learning.” After all, he’s injecting the brains of rats given lots of morphine to build up a tolerance.
- p. 16: Scientific personalities and cliques—getting dissed or welcomed at the bar…Scientific personalities affect how one views/accepts findings.
- p. 17: “The sheer number and weight of experimental replications is not usually enough to persuade the scientific community to believe in some unorthodox finding.” Scientists have worldviews, which don’t incorporate ideas counter to their assumptions.
- p. 18: Scientist disposition is often “to start with grounds for not believing” an experiment that’s unorthodox or just new.
- p. 18-19: Stanford group, led by Avram Goldstein, replicated the experiments—even went to the lab of Dr. Ungar to follow their steps—but couldn’t corroborate the results.
- p. 20: Different measurements between Ungar and Stanford. Ungar recorded the length of time rats spent in the dark box; whereas, the Stanford group measured how long it took for the rats to go into the dark box (latency).
- p. 21: Psychologists in the field were interested in how memory worked and the difference between sensitization and specificity.
- Sensitization is the learning that happens after being trained.
- Specificity states that animals injected with the material from the dead hosts would yield specific behaviors. What if the injection produced different results under different circumstances?
- p. 22: McConnell, a psychologist, wanted to find out if “grade-A learning” could be transferred.
Ungar, a pharmacologist, “wanted to isolate, analyse and synthesise* active molecules.” He wanted “to find some reproducible transfer effect and study the chemical that was responsible for it.”
- *Collins & Pinch’s book uses British spellings, so, when I quote them, I use their spelling conventions.
- p. 22: Ungar had 4000 trained rat brains, a significant financial cost.
- p. 22: Too much to consider and too many competing theories. “So often in contested science, there is so much detail that is contestable that experiments can force no-one to agree that anything significant has been found.
- p. 22-23: Ungar claimed to have isolated Scotophobin, a substance in the brain responsible for fear of the dark, but too many questions surrounded its efficacy. “Several dozens of experiments are known, but there is sufficient ambiguity for both believers and sceptics to draw comfort from the results.”
- p. 23: Ungar’s death ended the search for memory-transfer chemicals. It was too costly for other labs to do the experiments.
- p. 24: Although the memory-transfer science was never verified, it wasn’t falsified completely. No decisive negation exists.
- p. 25: The publication Nature published a 5-page paper by Ungar about Scotophobin, but the journal also published a 15-page criticism of the science.
Basically, the scientific authority, from the powerful position as editor/referee of scientific discourse, disputed Ungar’s claims.
- p. 25: Memory transfer wasn’t disproved based on “decisive technical evidence….the principal experimenters lost their credibility….it just ceased to occupy the scientific imagination.”
What do you think? How does memory transfer? Wait a minute! Don’t we lose memories? Time permitting of course…
This article on Dark Matter isn’t required reading, but it’s a contemporary discussion demonstrating the imagination that scientists have when approaching and speculating upon their research.
Make sure you keep up with the reading on the syllabus and the class website. I’ll open up the webpages for next week before Monday. On September 15th, I’ll have notes on Collins & Pinch’s The Golem: What You Should Know about Science Chapter 2. I’ll have Chapters 3 & 4 notes on Thursday, September 17th.