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Are Scientists Smarter Now, or Dumber?


A conversation with a friend of our oldest son solicited, if I understood correctly, the observation from this friend that people including students know more, are better educated, than in previous generations, thanks to things like the Internet. This is a very bright and curious young man, but I was dumbfounded by his statement.

He pointed to the fact that we, as a culture, “know more” than ever before. That is true in a limited sense, but acquisition of data is a long way from having the wisdom to understand and interpret it. The latter is what we mean when we talk about the kind of smarts that really matters. It’s what you do with what you know.

On the gathering specifically of scientific knowledge, our paleontologist colleague Günter Bechly nails it in a comment on Facebook:

My theory is: Scientists nowadays are far dumber than scientists centuries ago, which is a consequence of over-specialization and lack of philosophical education in natural science university curricula. The only reason why we know so much more than centuries ago is time, much larger number of scientists, and much more resources pumped into science, which resulted in an explosion of knowledge acquired by dumber scientists.

This might explain the unthinking dismissal of an idea like intelligent design not just by media people with a tendency to shallowness, but by scientists. I mentioned here the other day that even professionals in the sciences often seem to have gleaned the little they understand about ID from skimming the main Wikipedia article.

ID is a quintessential multidisciplinary field of study, asking us to consider not only biology but chemistry, cosmology, philosophy, and more. As Dr. Bechly points out, the trend to ever greater specialization combined with philosophical illiteracy go a long way toward explaining the condition of our “dumb” scientists.

Photo: (FBI Photosimage source) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.