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We don't know shit - a manifesto


Take a moment - just a moment - to ponder the literal infinity of topics we don’t understand.

It’s humbling.

It’s also why science is so amazing and inspiring, because it slowly chips away at that vast unknown.

Is faster-than-light travel possible? We don’t know - maybe?

How did prehistoric humankind organize itself socially? Hard to say, but we seem to be figuring it out.

The real and pressing problem, though, is all the stuff we think we know, but are wrong about.

Sleep is important, right?

It sure is. We’ve learned that the less you sleep, the shorter your life. In fact, sleeping fewer than 6 hours a night actually doubles your risk of cancer!

You may have heard this, but it is wrong.

We know that kids who exhibit willpower at an early age - say, by resisting the temptation to scarf down a marshmallow - will perform better in school. Except, no.

That’s frustrating, but at least the billions of dollars we spend on Alzheimer’s research each year has brought us closer to understanding its causes, right? Oh, wait.

Once you start looking for them, these retractions, rebuttals, and oopsies pop up all over the place. But they rarely get the same press that the original findings receive.

In the face of all this mis- and disinformation, what are we to do?

We could just look away - continue to follow conventional wisdom and currently-accepted truths, hoping for the best.

We could disavow empirical knowledge entirely, and proceed entirely on vibes.

But there’s a middle path between these two options.

It involves a bit of scientific education - understanding some statistical concepts, and the value of meta-analyses.

There are political and social considerations as well - what incentivizes pop science publishers and academic researchers, and how does that impact the information we receive?

And then there’s the personal - how do we integrate this open-but-skeptical perspective into our own lives?

What habits have we developed, what choices do we make based on questionable outside information? What’s really at stake for us and our loved ones?

A portion of our taxes going to waste on spurious research is a shame, but most of us can live with that. (We’ll have to.)

But if you’re basing your diet on junk data gathered with a questionable methodology, it’s possible you can have better health and tastier meals by evaluating that decision.

I don’t have all the answers (I don’t know shit, either) - but I’ll be figuring things out, in public.

And in your inbox, if you’re open to that.

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© 2022 Brian David Hall