Neil Tyson on the Paradox of Our Brains–Self Deluding, and Capable of Science

By Chris Mooney | March 3, 2011 11:35 am

One of the recent episodes of NOVA ScienceNow was entitled “How Does the Brain Work?” On this week’s Point of Inquiry, I asked Dr. Tyson about the episode and what it found. Here’s a transcript, from around minute 6:20 of the show:

Tyson: Science exists, in part, in large measure, because the data taking faculties of the human body are faulty. And what science does as an enterprise is provide ways to get data, acquire data from the natural world that don’t have to filter through your senses. And this ensures, or at least minimizes as far as possible, the capacity of your brain to fool itself.

So to the neuroscientist, the brain is this amazing organ. And to the physical scientist, it’s like, ‘get it out of here.’ Leave it at home. Just bring your box, and have the box make the measurements. So that’s an interesting duality.

The brain–you can survive. My favorite among these is how easily the brain recognizes patterns even when there are no patterns there. You can statistically show there are no patterns, but your brain creates patterns. And the long term explanation for that has always been, it’s better to think that’s a tiger in the bushes, and then run away from it, and have it not be a tiger, than for it to be a tiger and not know it’s there and then you get eaten.

So the people who did not see patterns in the history of the species got eaten by creatures that were in fact making patterns in the visual din of the forest.

Q: The birth of science is, of course, the attempt to override this–and Francis Bacon talked about the “Idols of the Mind,” and that’s essentially what we’re now understanding through neuroscience. But it suggests there’s something about human nature where, scientific thinking is always going to be kind of the kid who gets left out of the group.

Tyson: I think the, if it were natural to think scientifically, science as we currently practice it would have been going on for thousands of years. But it hasn’t. It’s relatively late in the activities of a culture. Science as we now practice it…this is a relatively modern, that’s been going on for no more than 400 years. And you look at how long civilizations have been around, and you say, there’s a disconnect there.

Clearly, it’s not natural to think this way; otherwise, we would have been doing it from the beginning. And meanwhile, mathematics is the language of the universe–fascinatingly so–and yet science and math tend to be the two subjects that you will commonly hear people complain about in their time in school.

And so, I remain perennially intrigued by that fact: that the operations of the universe can be understood through your fluency in math and science, and it’s math and science that give people the greatest challenges in the school system.

Again, you can listen to the full episode here.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: point of inquiry

Comments (1)

  1. Manual (and belated) TrackBack: Ping.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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