By John Sonmez August 4, 2014

I Hate Astronomers

The majority is not always right.

If you get nothing else from this post, but it has helped remind you of this fact, then I’ll feel that I have done my job.

The society we live in today is more connected than ever. It is easier and easier to share ideas and communicate. Right now I am writing this post from Maui, Hawaii. It’s amazing to think that the world is so connected that I can do my job from almost anywhere in the world.

But, here’s the thing: With an ever-increasing connectedness of the world, there is also an exponentially increasing amount of group-think. The easier it is for us to share ideas, the easier it is for certain ideas to become popular and to all but drown out the voices of other ideas—right or wrong.

Man, an astronomer looking through a telescope.

The plague of unthinking

You can see symptoms of this phenomenon everywhere. In the software development world, we are really good at grasping certain development methodologies, not based on their soundness or results, but based purely on popularity. How else do you explain JavaScript becoming such a popular programming language or dependency injection becoming so widely misunderstood, yet so widely used?

But, the phenomenon doesn’t just stop at software development methodologies. No, it extends to the culture of software development. At the risk of delving into politics again, the recent wave of “bro shaming” has been a great example of exactly what I am talking about. (Don’t interpret this as an endorsement or critique of that trend, I have an opinion on the matter, but I don’t intend to discuss it in this article.)

Outside of the realm of software development it is even worse. My Facebook and Twitter feeds are full of uneducated opinions and beliefs, not based on individual thinking, but almost entirely attributable to no thinking at all, just mindless following of what it appears the majority is supporting.

But, wait you say, aren’t there usually two sides of an issue? Don’t we see the pro-Palestinian and pro- Israel faction posts? The pro-life and pro-choice factions? The gun control people and the 2nd amendment people? What about the rape culture crowd and the anti-feminism crowd? Democrats and Republicans? Conservatives and liberals? Evolutionists and Creationists?

Yes, and that is exactly the problem. Who said there were only two choices? Who said either of these choices are correct at all? Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to ignore the binary nature of many debates. Yes, the light switch is either on or off, but how many times do we argue the state of the light switch based on what a majority that we happen to like says? And how many times do we fail to recognize when there indeed is a dimmer switch in place?

concept of choice

My point is: Most of us pick a side of a debate and blindly believe not only the arguments of our cause, but all of the additional baggage that goes with it.

Wait you say, not me. I don’t do that. I have good reasons for believing what I believe and I only support causes I believe in because I have formed my own opinion on the matter. My opinion just happens to coincide perfectly with the majority of other people who stand on my side of the line.

You are, of course, welcome to continue to hold this viewpoint—after all, the majority does—but, you have to at least admit it is kind of odd that so many people tend to come to the same exact conclusions about so many different issues.

I can see that I’m still not convincing you. I can still hear your protest in my mind. So, here is what I am going to do: I’m going to be the first to admit that I suffer from the weakness that I am accusing you of having. There. Now I am preaching to myself as much as I am preaching to you.

We give scientists, religious scholars and historians far too much credit.

Warning, I’m probably going to offend you here—perhaps even piss you off—too bad, it can’t be avoided.

The truth is, we tend to believe far too much of what we hear from “credible sources” based entirely on their credibility. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against science and scientific achievement, I’m not a conspiracy theorist, or a religious radical either. What I am is against the mindless acceptance of facts—or rather theories as facts—based on nothing but the authority of their source.

In particular I hate astronomers, and I’ll tell you why. Astronomers make up anything they don’t understand or doesn’t fit their model of the way things work. Whether you believe in creationism or the big bang theory, you have to admit they are both wildly crazy ideas—and more importantly that they are both completely unprovable.

Again, don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to try and sway you to my point of view. It doesn’t matter whether you hold my point of view or not. What matters is that you spend the effort and time to think for yourself on the matter and not base your opinion solely on what an authority says. Sometimes the right answer to a question is “we don’t know and we may never know.” But, that brings me back to my problem with astronomers; they don’t tend to ever say “we don’t know.” When something doesn’t fit their model, they invent an explanation that fits it.

I know I’m getting a bit heretic here, and again, don’t get me wrong, I know we know a lot of facts about space—we did successfully land human beings on the moon after all. But, it’s important to realize that certain ideas that we take for granted like the explanation of why there isn’t the expected amount of mass in the universe—dark matter—are nothing but attempts to explain away questions that should really be answered with “I don’t know.”

It infuriates me to no end when I read news articles that state the Earth is x-million-years old or that some event happened y millions of years ago as if it is an absolute fact, instead of a bunch of scientists’ collective guess. Again, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to convince you that the Earth is not old—it doesn’t matter if I believe it is or not—but, facts are facts and opinions are opinions. Facts are provable, opinions and theories are not.

????????

When we start treating opinions and theories as facts, simply because a majority of people believe them to be so or because experts tell us they are “basically true,” we start to venture into all kinds of dangerous territory. All kinds of historical atrocities have been committed because of this simple slight of hand. When people stop thinking for themselves and allow scientists, religious leaders, historians—and worst of all politicians—to do the thinking for them, the depravity of mankind fully blossoms and we surely are not far from a dark age.

And it’s not just scientists, it is religious leaders as well that are doing the thinking for the people and asking them to accept opinion as fact. How many people blindly follow the teaching of a religious leader without questioning what they believe or even opening up their own religious text to confirm what they have been told?

We don't have to be skeptical of everything

Again, don’t take this post as in support of or being against either science or religion or even conservatism versus liberalism. I have my opinions on both, but the whole point is that neither my opinions matter, nor do the opinions of those that have much more credibility on the subject than myself. The opinions that matter are your own. The opinions that are truly your own, not the ones that you or I echo imagining that just because they come from our mouths, they come from our brains.

This doesn’t mean that I’m skeptical of everything. It is easy to dismiss my viewpoint by saying that I am absolutely ridiculous. After all, one can’t simply question every fact that is presented to them. We have to take certain things on faith otherwise no progress will be made. You know, standing on the shoulders of giants and whatnot?

But, that is not what I am saying at all. I take for fact the things which can be proven as fact, but I don’t take them without the proof. If you tell me that 2 + 2 equals 4, I won’t just believe you. You’ll need to show me the proof of it. But, once you prove it to me, I’ll have the capacity to figure out what 5 + 5 is for myself.

Obviously, we have to take certain things for granted. There is no need to doubt gravity—although scientific explanations for gravity are still somewhat questionable.  Likewise, we know certain things about biology, physics, medicine and a host of other fields, but just about every field of study has some amount of opinion baked in with the facts and we are asked to eat the pie without ever knowing the ingredients.

So, here is the deal: Don’t take what anyone says for fact, just based on the merits of the source or their credibility. Opinions and theories are often presented as facts—even by sources that should know better. And, opinions are often sugar coated to convince you of their merit, without asking you to take a moment and think for yourself. The moral right, as expressed by the majority, is often used as a make-shift club with which to beat people over the head who dare to form their own opinions.

(By the way, I've recommended this book before, but if you want a though provoking read demonstrating exactly what happens when a societies individuals stop thinking for themselves, check out Atlas Shrugged)

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About the author

John Sonmez

John Sonmez is the founder of Simple Programmer and a life coach for software developers. He is the best selling author of the book "Soft Skills: The Software Developer's Life Manual."