But the mystery of the immune system is just one of the mysteries we're confronting -- or that's confronting us -- this week. Here's another. The other day my daughter brought over a large bag of dry cat food. I put it in a closet, but the cats could smell it, and it drove them nuts, so I moved it into the garage. A few days later I noticed that the cats were all making it clear that they really, really wanted to go into the garage, but we were discouraging that given the dangers of spending time in a location with vehicles that come and go unpredictably. I just assumed they could smell the kibbles, or were bored and wanted to explore new horizons.
But two nights ago I went out to the garage myself to get pellets for our pellet stove, and Mu managed to squeeze out ahead of me. He made a mad dash for the kibbles. Oliver was desperate to follow, but I squeezed out past him and quickly closed the door. At which point, Mu came prancing back, squeaking. Oh wait, he wasn't squeaking, it was the mouse he was carrying in his mouth that was squeaking! He was now just as eager to get back in the house as he'd been to get out. After a few minutes he realized that wasn't going to happen, so he dropped the now defunct mouse, and I let him back in.
|Mu, the Hunter|
Amazing. A whole undercurrent of sensory awareness and activity going on right at our feet, and we hadn't clued in on any of it. I'd made unwarranted assumptions about holes in the bag, but the cats knew better. Yes, I could have looked more closely at the kibble that had spilled out of the bag and noticed the mouse droppings. But I didn't, because, well, because it didn't occur to me.
Though, now that I'm clued in, I believe we've got another mouse...
|Mu and Ollie at the door to the garage yesterday afternoon|
I might even have been able to detect the mouse without seeing any of the evidence, just like the cats, if I'd tuned in more attentively, but I'm pretty sure it would have required better hearing. In any case, other bits of evidence more suited to my perceptive powers were available, but I didn't notice. I take this as yet another cautionary tale about how we know what we know, and I will claim it applies as well to politics, economics, psychology, forensics, religion, science, and more. We build our case on preconceived notions, beliefs, assumptions, what we think is true, rarely re-evaluating those beliefs -- unless we're forced to, when, say, Helicobacter pylori is found to cause stomach ulcers, or our college roommate challenges our belief in God, or economic austerity does more harm than good.
As Holly often says, scientists shouldn't fall in love with their hypothesis. Hypotheses are made to be tested; stretched, pounded, dropped on the floor and kicked, and afterwards, and continually, examined from every possible angle, not defended to the death. But we often get too attached, and don't notice when the cat brings home a mouse.
An illustrative blog post in The Guardian by Alberto Nardelli and George Arnett last October tells a similar tale (h/t Amos Zeeberg on Twitter). "Today’s key fact: you are probably wrong about almost everything." Based on a survey by Ipsos Mori, Nardelli and Arnett report disconnects between what people around the world believe is true about the demographics of their country, and what's actually true.
So, people in the US overestimate the percentage of Muslims in the country, thinking it's 15% when it's actually 1%. Japanese think the percentage of Muslims is 4% when it's actually 0.4%, and the French think it's 31% while it's actually 8%.
In the US, we think immigrants make up 32% of the population, but in fact they are 13%. And so on. We think we know, but very often we're wrong. We're uninformed, ill-informed, or under informed, even while we think we're perfectly well informed.
|Source: The Guardian|
The Guardian piece oozes political overtones, sure. But I think it is still a good example of how we go about our days, thinking we're making informed decisions, based on facts, but it's not always so. A minority of Americans accept evolution, despite the evidence; you made up your mind about whether Adnan is guilty or innocent if you listened to Serial, even though you weren't a witness to the murder, and the evidence is largely circumstantial. And so on. And this all has consequences.
In a sense, even if we are right about what we think, or its consequences, based on what we know, it's hard to know if we are missing relevant points because we simply don't have the data, or haven't thought to evaluate it correctly, as me in regard to Mu and the mouse. We have little choice but to act on what we know, but we do have a choice about how much confidence, or hubris, we attribute to what we know, to consider that what we know may not be all there is to know.
This is sobering when it comes to science, because the evidence for a novel or alternative interpretation might be there to be seen in our data, but our brains aren't making the connections, because we're not primed to or because we're unaware of aspects of the data. We think we know what we're seeing, and it's hard to draw different conclusions.
Fortunately, occasionally an Einstein or a Darwin or some other grand synthesizer comes along and looks at the evidence in a different way, and pushes us forward. Until then, it's science as usual; incremental gains based on accepted wisdom. Indeed, even when such a great synthesizer provides us with dramatically better explanations of things, there is a tendency to assume that now, finally, we know what's up, and to place too much stock in the new theory......repeating the same cycle again.