On Questioning Authority

The discussion of the polysemy (multiple interpretations) of the assertion “science has always been political” has tested the mutual regard that exists between myself and “Willard”, but has not shaken it. I am pleased that we are still friends despite this polar disagreement, one in which each of us is adamant.

Nor has he shaken my firm conviction that he is taking the wrong approach here.

In short, my position is first that the claim “all science is political”, frankly intended as a slogan, is vague; that is that it has many plausible interpretations some of which are surely true and some surely false and some liminal. And second that at least one of the most accessible meanings is false, and commonly held, and dangerous.

Consequently, regardless of intent, it is not a slogan of positive utility, and therefore Audra Wolfe should find another slogan if she needs one.

It’s been interesting enough that I intend to follow it up further.

We can expand on all the meanings of “science”, and then perhaps touch on all the meanings of “politics” that I can think of, though this has occupied less of my thinking over the years than the nature of “science” has.

Meanwhile, in trying to understand where Willard is coming from, I note another polysemy; the dual semantics of “authority”. And examining this dichotomy, I think, maps onto our disagreement.


Speaking of slogans, we boomers had a slogan, one which spawned many a bumper sticker. It was “Question Authority”. It was the “nullius in verba” of the hippie generation.

The trouble with this slogan is that there are two distinct semantic meanings of the word “authority” that can make this claim do two almost diametrically opposite pieces of semiotic work.

Consider the word “authority” as related to “authoritarian”, and contrast with “authority” as related to “authoritative”.

The latter (presumably more benign) sense is rather less common, but it’s around. We speak of “the authorities” in a given field as being those who are expert in the relevant knowledge.

==

“All of the authorities in cancer studies agree that tobacco causes cancer.”

“We don’t want the authorities telling us we can’t grow the tobacco we’ve been growing on this farm since my granddaddy’s day.”

In this case the putative authorities are aligned, but they are very different authorities. One claims authority insofar as it claims to be authoritative. The other asserts authority by projecting power. And presented in this way, it clearly is perceived as an intrusion of illegitimate power upon the farmer by influences he would likely consider illegitimate.

But is it illegitimate? The authorities (2) have influenced the authorities (1) to implement policies that make it more difficult for the farmer to live as his family has always lived. This is because there is authoritative information that the farm is doing collateral damage that is not captured in the pricing of his product. When this farmer “questions authority” is he questioning the legitimacy of the scientific claim? Or is he questioning the legal and social structures that enable the body politic to make it harder for him to make a living from his property? Probably he doesn’t care.

But we should.

===

Someone I know recalls a more elaborate bumper sticker.

“Question authority. Then listen to the answer.”

Which answer? “Because we are more powerful than you and we say so.” is one thing “Because you are doing far more damage to others than the benefits you receive” is another. These are different forms of authority, the authority of the power structure and the authority of science.

Are these authorities generally aligned, as in the tobacco example?

Or is science a nuisance of to power, the institution in society most suited to “speak truth to power” because it has from the beginning claimed access to truth by way of methods that are indifferent to power?

==

What does it mean for science to be authoritative?

I have an anecdote which I’d like to offer in evidence. I was holding an ordinary electronics engineering job. I had no particular scientific credentials at the time beyond being an engineer.

A colleague, also a degreed engineer, was a bit of an astronomy amateur. One day he came into work all excited about an educational video he had watched the previous night. He told me he had learned that the process for a star to collapse into a much smaller denser state (I can’t remember the deatils) took about “a microsecond”. I had not seen the video and was never as interested in stars as he, but I told him this must be wrong, that I did not believe that the any astrophysicist made such a claim.

I didn’t have the word “consilience” (basically coined by E O Wilson some years later), but the point was about consilience. The claim he was making was not consistent with my very firm understanding that nothing in science allowed signals to travel faster than light. If a process were to propagate outward from the star’s core, it would travel no faster than 300,000,000 meters per second, or 300 meters per microsecond. Since I was confident that any pre-collapse star would have a radius considerably in excess of 300 meters, I found the proposal inconsistent with what I knew.

I said that I strongly doubted the scientist had said anything about a microsecond, and that if she had, she probably wasn’t a real scientist.

My colleague was angry and upset at my arrogance. The scientist had impressive credentials. He had seen the video, and I had not. He was interested in astronomy passionately, and I only a bit. Yet I was confidently telling him that what he had seen was not true, based on little other than my confidence in what I had learned about physics a decade earlier.

He was so worked up about this that the next night he watched the video again. (Fortunately he still had the tape.) And he came back the next morning, sheepishly admitting that I was right, that the professor had spoken in terms of tens of minutes, which certainly in astronomical terms is remarkably instantaneous. I told him that the speed limit was the speed limit, that nothing really could break it without raising all sorts of contradictions. I “understood” it well enough, not from a deep familiarity with the evidence or the reasoning, but from a rough familiarity I had gained from reading popular science, particularly by Isaac Asimov and by George Gamow.

So was I arrogant? Well, maybe. Should I have left well enough alone? Maybe so. But settled science is settled science. If one sees some sign that a signal propagates faster than light, that’s the story, not just an interesting sidelight. The professor said nothing about overturning relativity. So something was amiss, and the most likely thing was that my colleague had misunderstood.

Was I arguing from authority? Well, there’s an interesting question. I myself had no particular status in the conversation – he was if anything a bit above me in the corporate hierarchy, and certainly more engaged in matters astronomical. But you could say I was arguing from the authority of Gamow, Asimov, etc., and everything I had learned about Einsteinian physics. Which was not much! But it was enough.

But Asimov and Gamow had no hierarchical authority over me. I was just their customer, an eager reader of their books.

And this further reinforced what I had already been quite confident of. These guys had been giving me the straight dope. This is how reality is put together. If you offer up something different, you are, with effective certainty, wrong, even if “science is fallible” and “relativity will eventually be overthrown by another more precise model” and whatever.

Signals don’t propagate faster than light, so stars can’t collapse in a microsecond. I have it on good authority.

===
Irene and I were discussing these matters last night. She was pretty strong in her formulation.

“It doesn’t matter what you believe,” she said “when I am telling you what is actually the case.”

What does “actually the case” mean?

===

The case starts with realism.

You can’t be a productive scientist without proceeding, at least provisionally, from an understanding that there is a real world you are trying to analyze. (You can be a solipsist or a relativist on your own time, but not when you’re sciencing. It just doesn’t work.)

Since the dawn of the enlightenment, we have learned that there is a set of methods and approaches that is enormously effective at increasing something we can call “understanding” of the real world.

This is not some deep metaphysical understanding, if such a thing is possible. It’s simply that it’s possible to get a good descriptive understanding what is going on in terms of matter and energy in the real world. Despite astonishing complexity, we are remarkably able to investigate and describe that complexity, and to interact with it in ways that prescientific humanity could not imagine.

In the early days of science, the method addressed such diverse items as the nature of oxygen, the circulatory system, the nature of electromagnetism, the origin of geological strata, and many others. People learned something about about just about everything.

===

Somewhere in the world is the world expert in geckos. Somewhere around him or her are a few dozen people also interested in geckos. If we ever have a gecko crisis of some sort, they are there for us to look up. And not having thought for ten seconds about them before writing this paragraph, I am nevertheless confident that they are out there, and that is they tell me something about geckos, they are likely to get it right. I am extremely unlikely to provide any new knowledge about geckos to them, and even more unlikely to come up with something contrary to their understanding that is not simply demonstrably wrong. That person is the authority on geckos, and his or her pronouncements on geckos are authoritative.

Does that make them “true” in some deep metaphysical sense? Does that make them amount to “understanding”in some pure logic sense? Of course not.

It just means that I had better put in a whole lot of time on geckos before I bother to challenge them. Otherwise I’m being little more than an obnoxious gecko-obsessed idiot.

===

Of course, once actual real-world controversy arises, the problem becomes more difficult. Obnoxious idiots with baseless claims suddenly have a business model. People want what the charlatans are selling, if the actual truth of the matter is inconvenient.

When the public is presented with conflicting claims of authority, we do not seem to have any way for people outside the field to distinguish between genuine authority and pretension.

This is the key theme of what I think about. How should we know? How can we know?

And this is what I want of a philosophy of science. Or of journalism. Or of somebody. We need ways to weigh epistemic claims for genuine authority in the sense of authoritativeness. We don’t have them. And we desperately need them.

===

Into this context enter, blithely, people who love to play with language, and who resent illegitimate claims of authoritarianism-sense authority. Conflating the two sense of “authority”, the power-claim and the understanding-claim, makes the attacker feel self-righteous when cutting down real experts a notch. Just who, exactly do they think they are with all their claims of gecko-certainty.

In short, instead of an epistemic thermometer, we what we get from the academy is generic one-size-fits-all doubtmongering. It doesn’t help.

===

Real, and occasionally immense, abuses of power exist in the history of science as social construct. Resentment at these abuses fuels this misdirected high dudgeon.

The no-true-Scotsman reply that I offer feels a bit thin.

Yes, Lysenko was a malicious lying Stalin-toadying bastard, but he wasn’t *really* a scientist in the sense *I* mean by scientist.

I could see you dismissing this as a circular argument.

But please, look at the historical context.

Science’s social roots are in a remarkable subset of members of the dominant class which rejected social authority for the authority of reason and evidence.

That’s what “nullius in verba” means! Show us the evidence! The motto of the Royal Society is a frank challenge to authoritarian dogma. Science began as a thorn in the side of political authority, and for the most part remains so.

To be sure, “science” is always a “privilege” in an important sense. Most people through history could not aspire to the level of leisure and concentrated study to effectively participate in the advancement of human knowledge. As a consequence, science is heavily salted by members of privileged classes. So its worst members are likely to have the moral blindnesses and failures of the particular aristocracy that spawned them. (The ones who could work around the job requirements are the worst!)

That’s all true enough.

===

But still, science has always been fundamentally opposed to the very sort of privilege that science-critics are decrying.

The key to understanding Enlightenment thinking, is the celebration of human potential quite independent of birth status. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to steal one of the Enlightenment’s most famous phrasings, applies to everyone, not just to the fortunate few that find themselves in the Enlightenment’s vanguard.

So here’s the key injustice to all this. Science itself has always been every bit the challenge to illegitimate authority that its critics like to fancy themselves.

To be sure, bad people claiming “authority” on account of privilege are bad, and real, as much in science as anywhere else. But to call them representative of science is to neglect the Enlightenment roots of the scientific enterprise of the past 250 years.

==

When I tell you what I know, I am telling you what is. I am not doing it to try to control you or manipulate you. I may be a very good person or a very bad person, but what is, is. When I tell you that I know something about it that matters to you, what you ought to do is establish whether you trust that I know what I say I know, and then if you do, to listen to me.

If I have harmed you in other ways, in a well-ordered world you’d have recourse, and in the real world you may have to face injustice. But, important though it is, that is beside the present point.

What is, is, and you’re better off knowing it than not. It doesn’t matter who figured it out, or how or why or whether they were rewarded or punished for it. It doesn’t matter for present purposes whether the knowledge is exact or complete, provisional or final. It matters that somebody knows something about something that affects you, and is trying to tell you about it.

Science has demonstrated for centuries that it is possible for human beings to gain remarkably deep and substantial descriptive and predictive capacities about the physical world. This understanding is the cornerstone of our society, but recent generations have come to take it for granted and even dismiss the wonder of it.

We navigate the world by understanding it. When people offer you the benefit of hard-won understanding, it is best not to hair-split, and surely not a good idea to spit in their face because they remind you of someone you don’t like.

==

Question authority by all means, yes. But the purpose of the question should be to distinguish genuine authoritative-authority from pretentious and malign authoritarian-authority. To dismiss the latter, while duly honouring and respecting the former.

Question authority, please. But please, for crying out loud, please listen to the answer!

 

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194 Responses to On Questioning Authority

  1. Steven Mosher says:

    “The case starts with realism. You can’t be a productive scientist without proceeding, at least provisionally, from an understanding that there is a real world you are trying to analyze. (You can be a solipsist or a relativist on your own time, but not when you’re sciencing. It just doesn’t work.)”

    Huh. Interesting theory. lets test it.

    Here is a productive scientist

    So much for the theory.

    I don’t disagree with much you say, but my point would be this

    YOU DONT NEED realism to be a productive scientist. You just need to articulate sentences that work. The metaphysical commitment to a “real” world is un necessary. It matters little whether there is a real world independent of you knowledge of it, what matters is that the sentences you construct about it work for you and other people. Of course if you want to claim the sentences work because
    that’s the way the world really is, then you open the epistemic can of worms. It has no bottom, its worms all the way down. Even math has no bottom. throw out the can.

    On one hand you seem willing to accept non corespondence theories of truth ( your coherentism)
    but on the other hand you seem unwilling to live with all the consequences of that coherentism.

    Willard is the more consistent coherentist. That’s what studying philosophy gets you.

    BTW I love the question authority stuff. I used to ask my students if they questioned stop signs

    Here is a book I recommend to you and willard

    https://muse.jhu.edu/book/31772

    “The meaning of any utterance or any sign is the response to that utterance or sign: this is the fundamental proposition behind Morse Peckham’s Explanation and Power. Published in 1979 and now available in paperback for the first time, Explanation and Power grew out of Peckham’s efforts, as a scholar of Victorian literature, to understand the nature of Romanticism. His search ultimately led back to—and built upon—the tradition of signs developed by the American Pragmatists. Since, in Peckham’s view, meaning is not inherent in word or sign, only in response, human behavior itself must depend upon interaction, which in turn relies upon the stability of verbal and nonverbal signs. In the end, meaning can be stabilized only by explanation, and when explanation fails, by force. Peckham’s semiotic account of human behavior, radical in its time, contends with the same issues that animate today’s debates in critical theory — how culture is produced, how meaning is arrived at, the relation of knowledge to power and of society to its institutions. Readers across a wide range of disciplines, in the humanities and social sciences, will welcome its reappearance.”

  2. ProfTomBot says:

    Science is a human social phenomenon. In our society, and those before us, science has been embedded in sociopolitical and economic domains as both rogue individuals and groups as well as institutions. You are right, science has always been political. I can only disagree, perhaps, in that the first scientists, pure and unknown to society yet, were non-political; but, I feel they were not scientists until they were recognized by society, and in being recognized became politicized.

  3. There’s an awful lot here, and I need to consider it all before saying a lot. But this is basically philosophy of Science and Epistemology.

    I used to be and occasionally still keenly am interested in philosophy of Science, for instance, having read a number of Kuhn’s books. A statement I once heard (sorry, forget the source) is that Statistics has largely displaced the need for a philosophy of Science. I kind of agree with that, but note that there is a philosophy of Statistics, one in which, despite Mayo and Gelman’s doubts, I personally come squarely down on the side of Bayesianism. And I do think the standard criticisms of Bayes are pretty contrived and disconnected from how it is practiced with actual problems. My guide is Jaynes, pretty naturally.

    I also put prediction primary, even if that is a pretty modern idea. Indeed, in recent years, prediction has become more crucial than even understanding, although that notion is controversial.

  4. Chris says:

    Not sure that’s a terribly useful example, SM. Firstly, Donald Hoffman does consider that there is a real world that he is trying to analyse. It’s just that he considers that the reality of the world is different to our perceived construction of that world (to an extent that may be deeper than is commonly considered to be the case).

    And his examples which are largely based around construction (by our brains) of our visual world are somewhat trivial; everyone knows that tomatoes aren’t really red; i.e. that “red” is a label that we agree on (more or less) to describe the perception of surfaces that absorb certain parts of the visual EM spectrum between UV and IR wavelengths.

    It helps to recognise that our descriptions of reality are largely operational. A good example would be the determination of the structure of a protein in solution using NMR spectroscopy. This relies on understanding that some atomic nuclei have a quantum mechanical property of “spin”, and essentially defines the structure of a protein in solution by calculating possible structures that satisfy a large number of spatial distance constraints involving H-atoms that are close in space. We don’t really know what nuclear “spin” is (we can use the v. useful analogy of a gyroscope) and effectively the only thing we “see” are the hydrogen atoms.

    We represent our protein in a graphics program with lots of different possible representations (atoms as spheres; bonds as sticks etc.) Clearly this representation isn’t a true description of the reality of the protein.

    We can also determine the structure of the protein using X-ray crystallography if we can make nicely diffracting crystals. Here the structure is determined by constructing a spatial representation of the electron density of the protein. We don’t “see” the H atoms at all since their electron density is puny.

    Again we represent our protein in a graphics program. Clearly this representation isn’t a true description of the reality of the protein either. But hey…guess what – the two representations are the same (NMR – spectroscopic method -we see only H atoms; X-ray crystallography – diffraction method – H atoms essentially invisible).

    Clearly we have uncovered a fundamental reality of the protein however we choose to represent this. Our entirely different analyses have produced a coherent description of the structure.

    We can go a step further and use our graphics program and knowledge of chemistry to design a molecule that “fits” into the active site of one of our structures (the AIDS viral protease for example). This molecule (Crixivan and its relatives) suppresses the development of AIDS and is used as part of a very successful multidrug anti-AIDS therapeutic cocktail.

    Clearly we do have a strong handle on the external reality of protein structures in this case despite our recognition that our representations of reality are just that – representations. The mistake is to assume that because we don’t understand everything (nuclear spin???) that we can’t make valid and operationally useful representations of reality. We really DO know the structures of proteins.

  5. Ken Fabian says:

    I routinely refer people to the Royal Society and National Academies of Sciences as authoratative sources of reliable information about climate change – the science isn’t any different to what the IPCC summarises but these institutions are less likely in my experience to be rejected out of hand, due to their well earned reputations. The material tends to be very accessible too. Not uncommonly I get criticised for appealing to authority – for using a logical fallacy by suggesting this. Of course I see it differently but it is clear to me that this argument – rejecting all appeals to authority – is also fallacious; absolutely anything can rejected out of hand using it, as our more egregious climate science deniers routinely do.

    I think the real error comes with provisionally rejecting the validity of existing, published science rather than provisionally accepting it (due to trust in the institutions and practices and the existence and accessibilty of documentation, which also includes expert critiques and, where appropriate, resounding rebuttals). Whilst we can and should expect experts within a field to not take anyone’s word for it – for them to have a genuine understanding of the basis upon which conclusions are reached and recognise flaws and shortcomings as well as strengths – we should not expect them to apply a blanket rejection ahead of and in place of actually going through it personally. Especially we should not expect the lay public to set aside the expert conclusions and advice where we will not be able, lacking personal expertise, to do such critiques ourselves.

    For the general public the authoratative source is essential to understanding the implications of complex science and the role of organisations like the Royal Society, that draw on the world’s most accomplished scientists to critique and interpret it on behalf of governments and public should not be underestimated. I’d still love to see a collaboration with leading, high quality documentary makers, to produce an authoratative series suitable for prime time TV – a documentary that is done in conjunction with thorough documentation, of sources, methods and conclusions.

  6. Willard says:

    > Question authority, please. But please, for crying out loud, please listen to the answer!

    What happens when that listener still refuses to be swayed by the answer, MT?

    Asking for a friend.

    ***

    > I didn’t have the word “consilience” (basically coined by E O Wilson some years later)

    Consilience can be traced back at least to William Whewell:

    On Whewell’s view, once a theory is invented by discoverers’ induction, it must pass a variety of tests before it can be considered confirmed as an empirical truth. These tests are prediction, consilience, and coherence (see 1858b, 83–96). These are characterized by Whewell as, first, that “our hypotheses ought to fortel [sic] phenomena which have not yet been observed” (1858b, 86); second, that they should “explain and determine cases of a kind different from those which were contemplated in the formation” of those hypotheses (1858b, 88); and third that hypotheses must “become more coherent” over time (1858b, 91).

    https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/whewell/

  7. Brigitte says:

    Thanks Steven for the references. I shall follow them up for my own ‘enlightenment’!

  8. Chris says:

    Couple of other relevant points:

    Willard noted on the 2nd most recent thread in response to my description of the kick-ass scientific contribution of Regiomontanus in the 15th century that ” Regiomontanus was an astrologer”.

    That highlights some very interesting points relevant to the OP: firstly in 15th century Europe astrology was a respectable pursuit – one could call it a hypothesis that we now know is (largely) disproven. More importantly despite what we might consider a wrong-headed world view Regiomontanus developed what we now know to be scientifically valid representations of reality. The latter highlights some of the important requirements of an external reality, namely that our knowledge of reality is “path independent” (as in my protein structure example above) and decidedly not “culturally defined” (as some seem to wish to argue).

    Steven referred us to the very interesting ideas of Donald Hoffman. However one of the essences of Hoffman’s research (correct me if I’m wrong) is that the nature of reality is even more different than our current representations would tend to support and that this, for example, is a reason we’re not making much headway in understanding the brain and its construction of perception.

    However Hoffman’s ideas are hypotheses that may or may not turn out to be true, much like 15th century astrological pursuits. Science, and time, will tell…

  9. jacksmith4tx says:

    Ken Fabian,
    > I’d still love to see a collaboration with leading, high quality documentary makers, to produce an authoratative series suitable for prime time TV – a documentary that is done in conjunction with thorough documentation, of sources, methods and conclusions.

    What part of society are you trying to reach? I thought the reboot of Cosmos with Neil deGrasse Tyson was actually pretty good considering the target audience. Don’t think it changed much though. Maybe we need to ditch the documentary format and do it like a reality TV show.

    I found the series “The Brain with David Eagleman – What Is Reality” did an excellent job of exploring the various ways we define consciousness. With our our ability to use technology to acquire and analyze extrasensory information the definition of reality is extensible.\

    I have enjoyed the last couple of blog posts.
    For some reason I have a urge to go stare at Salvador Dali art work.

  10. Steven Mosher says:

    “Thanks Steven for the references. I shall follow them up for my own ‘enlightenment’!”

    ah, well. I can’t promise enlightenment. What seems to be the case is that, at least in western culture, we have had this long conversation about authority. People keep talking. I dont think nature bats last here.

  11. Steven Mosher says:

    “I have enjoyed the last couple of blog posts.
    For some reason I have a urge to go stare at Salvador Dali art work.”

    you could do worse.

    Here is an interesting question.

    willard? Dali? Thumbs up or down

  12. Steven Mosher says:

    “What happens when that listener still refuses to be swayed by the answer, MT?

    Asking for a friend.”

    observe what we do.

    We apply force. The nonverbal in the end controls the verbal

    Now, that force can be gentle: we shun them, we stop listening to them. that force can be less gentle. We diagnose them and medicate them. Or that force can be ultimate.

  13. Chris says:

    Ken and Jacksmith:

    The best science documentary series I’ve seen is the Aubrey Manning’s “Earth Story” which is constructed in the way that you (Ken) describe with a simple linear explanatory style that describes the evidence and it’s interpretations. The subject (historical geological development of the Earth) is relatively non-controversial but would be nice if this were a model for science programming in more controversial areas. Intellectual nourishment and hugely informative

    Absolutely worth catching if you can:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earth_Story

  14. Ken Fabian says:

    Jacksmith, Chris – the point of suggesting a documentary done in collaboration with an institution like The Royal Society is to raise the level of authoritativeness to as high as possible and reduce the opportunities to claim political or other bias to as low as possible. Others have done very good documentaries about climate change but few have had the production quality to hit prime time viewing and fewer have called on the reputation of leading institutions like The Royal Society or National Academy of Sciences for giving an air of authority – in my view, legitimate and defensible appeals to authority.

    And, yes, I know these organisations already do a lot to communicate the seriousness of climate change – but unless you are interested enough to look you are not likely to encounter much of it. It seems to me the ability to create stunning and compelling visualisations of climate processes is better than ever before but it needs that sense of coming from reliable, capable and non-partisan trusted sources.

  15. mt says:

    I am sorry this is so long. I was in a hurry, and didn’t have time to make it shorter.

    (Now who did I steal that from?)

  16. In short, my position is first that the claim “all science is political”, frankly intended as a slogan, is vague; that is that it has many plausible interpretations some of which are surely true and some surely false and some liminal. And second that at least one of the most accessible meanings is false, and commonly held, and dangerous.
    Consequently, regardless of intent, it is not a slogan of positive utility, and therefore Audra Wolfe should find another slogan if she needs one.

    I would not use it as a slogan, but when someone made the claim I would not reject it because there are interpretations which are misleading and dangerous.

    The person making the claim would then win Climateball ™ and give a reasonable interpretation in which the claim it true.

    Better explain in which ways the slogan is more true (science culture is important, which fields of science are funded, single studies/scientists less reliable) and ways in which it is less true (we organised science in a way that strongly reduces the influence of human biases on the outcomes, consensus very reliable).

  17. Dave_Geologist says:

    Here is a productive scientist

    Hmmm… Or perhaps a philosopher?

    Donald David “Don” Hoffman (born December 29, 1955) is an American quantitative psychologist and popular science author. He is a Professor in the Department of Cognitive Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, with joint appointments in the Department of Philosophy, the Department of Logic and Philosophy of Science, and the School of Computer Science.

    Oh dear, back to defining “science 😦 . 😉

    And yes I know it’s ad-hom, but he got an award from Chopra? That Chopra?

  18. mt says:

    http://languagehat.com/absolutely-no-jargon/

    “the ones that haunt me are the ones that slipped by me unnoticed; conversations filled with Rorschach blots where words spoken by one party constructed a completely different meaning in the mind of the recipients.”

  19. Willard says:

    > Dali? Thumbs up or down

    Down.

    ***

    > More importantly despite what we might consider a wrong-headed world view Regiomontanus developed what we now know to be scientifically valid representations of reality.

    You made me look, Chris. This made me smile

    In sharp contrast to the Epitome’s formality, the “Defense of Theon” is an angry work that brings out many of Regiomontanus’s working assumptions. It has its share of geometrical proofs and arguments, but it mixes these with invectives, insults, and asides aimed at George of Trebizond’s equally massive and equally polemical “Commentary on the Almagest.” The criticisms range from arithmetic howlers and errors in geometrical proofs to substantive differences in both outlook and approach to astronomy.

    While the precise place of Theon as a lightning rod in this affair remains to be elucidated, this much is certain: in his own commentary on the Almagest, Trebizond had attacked Theon, whose commentary Bessarion admired. There are, in addition, hints that Regiomontanus thought George was plagiarizing Theon when he was not attacking him. In most other places, Theon does not surface: Regiomontanus simply thought George’s interpretations of Ptolemy and cry and criticisms of later astronomers wide of the mark or plainly incompetent.

    That’s how we can recognize true scientists at work. Imagine if they had access to blogging.

    The physicality of his approach did not prevent Regiomontanus to innovate. From what I can gather, his main contribution was in trying to make astronomy fall under physics. This idea is less intuitive than it seems. At the time, the Earth and the Sky were still split and operated according to two different sets of laws. The nature of physical reality seeked was still essentialist, however. The author notes this marginalium that Regiomontanus wrote on his copy of Simplicius’ commentary on the Second Book of Aristotle’s Physics:

    Two things primarily are to be preserved in celestial motions, namely the primordial and intrinsic equality, and the phenomenon of inequality; the first is brought about by orbs, not by thin circles; the second, by circles describable on planes, by the power of demonstration. The first pertains to the nature of celestial bodies, which can tolerate no motion other than the uniform; the second pertains to human observers, to whom these motions seem unequal and disorderly. The first, if I may say so, Ptolemy completely neglected; the second, he pursued to the utmost, expressing the quantity of motions with numbers by means of foregoing demonstrations, their quality having been ignored, even though in book 3, concerning the Sun, he adopts this almost as a principle, that the celestial motions are equal and regular, etc.

    According to this argument, Ptolemy only tried to preserve the phenomena (the expression still has currency in the philosophy of science!) and did not question the “primordial or intrinsic” nature of what he was observing. That’s just not something the Ancients did in astronomy, or so it seems.

    While we can argue that looking for the essence of things has been important in the development or our scientific knowledge of the world, I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s a necessary prerequisite. What recent exchanges corroborated is that many scientists still take essentialism very srsly.

  20. Willard says:

    > words spoken by one party constructed a completely different meaning in the mind of the recipients.

    From a post against jargon, the only thing that could contain that problem, no less.

  21. angech says:

    Steven Mosher says
    “What happens when that listener still refuses to be swayed by the answer,
    We apply force. The nonverbal in the end controls the verbal.
    Now, that force can be gentle: we shun them, we stop listening to them. that force can be less gentle. We diagnose them and medicate them. Or that force can be ultimate.”

    The listener has no power themself?
    And no choice?
    Pity help them if they were a woman or a skeptic I guess.

  22. Dave_Geologist says:

    The best science documentary series I’ve seen is the Aubrey Manning’s “Earth Story”

    I remember that It was very good. And got the geology right, even though he’s an ecologist/ethologist by background. So he obviously consulted the right kind of authority 🙂 .. I subsequently met him at a Geol Soc conference. Really nice, a unassuming guy and very much a “people-person”, which is probably one of the main requirements for a TV documentary host presenting what many will see as rather dry topics. Same goes for lain Stewart, whom I met at another conference. He even said nice things about a couple of papers I’d published decades earlier (I was keynote speaker on that morning’s session, so maybe he read up in the KS’s – OTOH his early research was on earthquakes in the Med, and the papers touched on his field area in terms of setting up the boundary conditions under which his earthquakes occurred).

    I also met and shook hands with Nigel Lawson when he was UK Energy Minister. My post-handshake thought was “remind me never to buy a used car from that man”.

  23. mt says:

    Well, yes, jargon is precise and helps you communicate effectively with people who share your context. Mathematical notation is its apotheosis. But jargon is a barrier to communication to others. One thing I agree with from the #scicomm worldview is that it’s possible to say something completely correct in one context that is read as completely incorrect in another. Particularly notable are words with negative connotations in colloqial discourse “constraint”, “bias”, “uncertainty”, that are systematically misunderstood.

    “Negative feedback” is particularly noteworthy. Negative feedback is what workable systems need; it has nothing to do with criticism. I use “ameliorating feedback” for “negative feedback” and “exacerbating feedback” for “positive feedback” because otherwise I expect my meaning to be utterly misperceived by people who’ve never analyzed the stability of a feedback process.

    Here I am raising the point that “authority” is also a word that can be heard in two very different ways.

    Our disagreement revolves around meanings of “science” and “politics”. We also have a disagreement about “understanding” versus “belief”.

    (To be fair, I have no formal authority regarding language. But being of no particular culture I have hung around at the fringes of many cultures. Misconstruals of semantics and semiotics have always fascinated me. Maybe I should contrive some sort of a credential.)

    But we could conduct an experiment. Stop people on the street. Say “science has always been political.” Ask them whether they agree, and ask them to paraphrase. Look for keywords in their responses, and categorize them.

  24. Steven Mosher says:

    Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte

  25. Eli Rabett says:

    Much of this is contained in Susan Hassol’s list

    and Zelios’ tweet

  26. Willard says:

    > But we could conduct an experiment. Stop people on the street. Say “science has always been political.”

    Your itch. You scratch it. I’d rather start with contrarians. They’re supposed to be the ones who misconstrue the slogan. The lines of evidence I provided so far indicate that your fear may be unwarranted. If Ted can say that AGW science has become propaganda, it’s because it could not be, which means science isn’t always political.

    I’m the only one who skates on an empirical ice right now. All I see are armchair scientists who play Monday morning ClimateBall quarterbacks. What they offer messes with my business, and burdens me with a position that I have all the reasons in the world not to defend.

    Just like contrarians would.

  27. Dave_Geologist says:

    re positive and negative feedback (BTW I agree with the Twitterer who said don’t use vicious cycle).

    In geomechanics we generally use “damage” for any stress- or strain-induced change in rock or soil properties. Cue confusion with engineers, who pick contradictory “increase” or “decrease” meanings according to which is “good” or “bad” (bad = damage, of course).

    The seabed muds which were close to the grounding line have been damaged by repeated ice loading and unloading. Platform engineer “that’s not damage, it gives me a nice strong substrate to build on”. Piling engineer “you may not call it damage, but look at what it’s doing to my piles – they work perfectly fine everywhere else”.

    I’m modelling the damage zone around the frac we just performed on this well. Reservoir engineer “OMG what went wrong? How bad is the skin?” Me: nothing went wrong, the skin is fine. Damage in this sense is a feature, not a bug.

    We have to better represent the fault damage zone in your simulation to get the water-flood right. Reservoir engineer “How did we damage it? What went wrong? Did we pump too hard”. Me: No, no, nothing wen’t wrong, Mother Nature did the damage years ago. It’s just that my model predicts a tenfold increase in permeability parallel to the fault, and a tenfold decrease perpendicular, and I’d like to find a way to represent that in the simulator.

    And that’s people working together in the same company.

  28. Mal Adapted says:

    Excellent post, Michael. Somewhat to my dismay, you often articulate my own thoughts more clearly than I can ;^}. You’re excused from not having the time to make it shorter, even though a little judicious editing would make your logic still harder to escape. After all, under the mediocrity principle, every good writer (except Steve Gould) needs a good editor 8^D! In light of that, and of the superlative comments already posted, I’m taking extra time with a more substantive one of my own. Y’all go on ahead, I’ll catch up.

  29. Nick Stokes says:

    “On Questioning Authority”
    School speech night. Speaker says
    “When you go out in the world, you must always question authority!”
    Voice at the back
    “Why?”

  30. Joshua says:

    Willard –

    MT seyz: In short, my position is first that the claim “all science is political”, frankly intended as a slogan, is vague; that is that it has many plausible interpretations some of which are surely true and some surely false and some liminal. And second that at least one of the most accessible meanings is false, and commonly held, and dangerous.

    I haven’t read many of the comments, and I’m quite sure there’s much I couldn’t follow even if I had…and as such I’m on shaky ground asking for an explanation…

    Noting something of a difference between “all science is political” and “science has always been political”… I am curious as to in what way you disagree with what MT said in what I excerpted above? If you could provide an answer I might be able to understand, I’d appreciate it… Is it that you don’t disagree, but somehow that statement doesn’t address your point?

  31. Eli Rabett says:

    Science is a social activity. Saying all science is political is a move to control the gate.

  32. Willard says:

    > I am curious as to in what way you disagree with what MT said in what I excerpted above?

    To angrily yell at clouds may sometimes be more useful than criticizing slogans for being vague, Joshua. I would agree with your suggestion on the other thread – being thankful for the concerns expressed by the slogan would be better. MT should work on his own framing, because for now he’s appealing to a conception of science that is identical to most contrarians me and you met at Judy’s.

    His claim that “one of the most accessible meanings is false, and commonly held, and dangerous” is just wrong. It promotes falsities and strawmen that I expect from Lobstersonians, the IDW, or Freedom Fighters. It rests on a conception of Science that has nothing to do with the Enlightenment. Opening one book should suffice to see it, as long as it’s not something like Pinker, Hicks or worse.

    When hippies start hippie-punching with reactionary talking points, I think it’s time to punch back.

  33. Mal Adapted says:

    MT:

    Well, yes, jargon is precise and helps you communicate effectively with people who share your context. Mathematical notation is its apotheosis. But jargon is a barrier to communication to others. One thing I agree with from the #scicomm worldview is that it’s possible to say something completely correct in one context that is read as completely incorrect in another. Particularly notable are words with negative connotations in colloqial discourse “constraint”, “bias”, “uncertainty”, that are systematically misunderstood.

    Divergent readings of words that scientists borrow from common language are historically attested weapons in the hands of mercenary or fanatic culture warriors. Consider ‘fact’ and ‘theory’. The SJG obituary I linked quotes him addressing creationist attacks on evolution as “only a theory”:

    Evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away while scientists debate rival theories for explaining them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s, but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air pending the outcome. And human beings evolved from apelike ancestors whether they did so by Darwin’s proposed mechanism or by some other, yet to be discovered . . . In science, `fact’ can only mean `confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.’ I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.

    I affirm those words in their entirety. I’d be surprised if, with a couple of exceptions, any aTTP regular did not. To be sure, many of us are academically trained to at least a baccalaureate degree in Science. The authorities we listen to are scientists. People of theistic faith, OTOH, are predisposed to trust their pastors at least as much as they trust scientists, and to be relatively receptive to ‘intelligent design’ bafflegab superficially disguised as scientific communication, even to openly hateful rhetoric against “atheist” scientists. Climate science confronts a similar cultural phenomenon: a plurality of US voters listens to the likes of Alex Jones, and doesn’t want to hear that the deferred cost of their comfort and convenience is now coming due in money and tragedy.

    Now, consider the Postmodern critique of Science in the documented service of profit and/or political power, and then the strawman Trumpist’s reaction to Gould and Hansen: “To hell with your facts and your theories! All facts are fake, all models are wrong, and I’m free to choose the reality I want: I didn’t descend from a monkey, and I’m not on the hook for climate change!”

    Which brings me to ask: can scientists effectively counter the power and profit motives with precise language? Or do we need to adopt the tactics of the AGW-denial industry? How can that be done without compromising a commitment to evidence-based truth? Is the so-far-successful opposition to the teaching of Creationism in public schools, though at the cost of Biology being taught at all, a model for enacting effective public policy to decarbonize? To my sorrow, I don’t know the answers. There’s some comfort, at least, in knowing it’s not all up to me!

  34. Joshua says:

    Thanks Willard,

    Now that I understand your point, I agree.

    I would add that I think that one could add another part to thanking people for their concerns: – simply asking for clarification.

  35. Willard says:

    Overheard in DMs:

    [W] if i tell you that science is political, what do you hear?

    [Dr Sarah Taber] accurate

  36. @mt,

    What does it mean for science to be authoritative?

    It means, in part, that when scientists forecast millions will die over a century due to extreme heat, that is a prediction which, unless the facts are fudged, is verifiable in retrospect. To the degree Science can repeatedly pull off such forecasts means it demonstrates, in the words of meteorologists, skill and is authoritative.

    The same can be had at much smaller scales … To the degree a group of individuals skilled in the art of Science can forecast what will happen when a particular solvent drenched structure is lit ablaze, that prediction demonstrates skill.

    I said that I strongly doubted the scientist had said anything about a microsecond, and that if she had, she probably wasn’t a real scientist.

    My colleague was angry and upset at my arrogance. The scientist had impressive credentials. He had seen the video, and I had not. He was interested in astronomy passionately, and I only a bit. Yet I was confidently telling him that what he had seen was not true, based on little other than my confidence in what I had learned about physics a decade earlier.

    Yeah, and that’s precisely it about scientific or any other deep knowledge: It is abstract and applies to situations far beyond its original observation. Predictive power permits one to rule out false predictions, presumably on a variety of criteria, but, still, rule them out.

    This is not some deep metaphysical understanding, if such a thing is possible. It’s simply that it’s possible to get a good descriptive understanding what is going on in terms of matter and energy in the real world. Despite astonishing complexity, we are remarkably able to investigate and describe that complexity, and to interact with it in ways that prescientific humanity could not imagine.

    The other fly in the solipsist’s or philosopher’s ointment is that today, some substantial patterns can be found by mechanisms which have little preconception about what they should find when presented with datasets. This is quite independent of concerns, like those voiced by people like Searle, that computation is mere symbol-pushing and cannot be thinking. The subjectivist might say scholars build in preconceptions in the form of models or priors, but it is very difficult to see where these might be in devices like Bayesian Additive Regression Trees lacking, as they do, a need for training data, unlike many Recurrent Neural Networks.

    The point is that if there is no reality “out there”, what in the world are these unthinking and unaware devices converging to?

    Does that make them “true” in some deep metaphysical sense? Does that make them amount to “understanding”in some pure logic sense? Of course not.

    It just means that I had better put in a whole lot of time on geckos before I bother to challenge them. Otherwise I’m being little more than an obnoxious gecko-obsessed idiot.

    I gently disagree here. If you are a credentialed and published ecologist, say, you might have something to offer to amphibian biologists in terms of insists regarding geckos, whether or not you are an expert.

    Real, and occasionally immense, abuses of power exist in the history of science as social construct. Resentment at these abuses fuels this misdirected high dudgeon.

    Taking this a step further, confounding all Science with European white colonialism is overreaching. First, whether they were Devils or not, Europeans contributed an awful lot to the world’s culture, stuff which is worth a good deal more than merely constructing weapons or means of conquest. And, I think, there’s more than a little beauty in what they made.

    Claiming that Science is merely a social construct, no more than a style of tapestry, is surely cherry-picking, ignoring its ability to predict.

    Question authority, please. But please, for crying out loud, please listen to the answer!

    The essential component of Science, championed and often best practiced by experimentalists, is to question yourself. So you’ve created wonderful hobbyhorse that may explain a lot. Your first responsibility to everyone and to yourself is to try to break it. That’s why, for example, with Bayesian Additive Regression Trees and any similar statistical method the first thing one does is subject it to diagnostics to be sure it’s not broken. Failing to do so is failing to know how to operate it.

  37. @Chris,

    … is a reason we’re not making much headway in understanding the brain and its construction of perception.

    Oh, I think people are doing pretty well.

  38. izen says:

    @-MT
    “I am sorry this is so long. I was in a hurry, and didn’t have time to make it shorter.
    (Now who did I steal that from?)”

    Pascal (allegedly)

    @-“You can’t be a productive scientist without proceeding, at least provisionally, from an understanding that there is a real world you are trying to analyze.”

    That opens a can of worms…
    Easier to start with an ad hoc assumption that WHATEVER there is, can be understood or is computable and will look exactly like a real world following discoverable rules. Science then becomes the most efficient method to discover the rules, or detect any inconsistency.
    A slip-up by Descarte’s deamon in keeping the Matrix consistent with the behavior of a ‘real’ world.

    Restricting science to post-Enlightenment activity that was in opposition to political authority throws out an lot of authoritative knowledge gained by people doing careful observations and forming hypothesis as part of a social system that was employed by kings, Caliphs and Mughals. Much of the understanding of astronomical events, and the mathematics appropriate to analyse them, comes from theological requirements for determining the timing of daily prayer, or annual rituals.

    The problem with using ‘authoritative’ as a qualifier for scientific knowledge is that it implies either that the accuracy derives from a specific human source, or that the ‘authority’ is a result of some inherent essence that imbues the practice of science.
    More often science is regarded as correct in society according to its technological utility. It is authoritative when it reduces disease, predicts eclipses and enables GPS on smart-phones.
    It is also authoritative when it developed nuclear weapons, an event that may have triggered a certain distrust.

  39. mt says:

    Pre-enlightenment knowledge lacked method. That’s why it didn’t progress rapidly. People were just as capable and reality just as accessible, but the amazingly powerful bag of tricks had not emerged.

    What we need from meta-scientific fields, STS, epistemology, history of science, etc., is not a bunch of ways to understate the success, but a deeper understanding of what that success is about, ideally one which can be applied to identifying the real thing.

    As far as I am concerned, climate science is already vindicated, but for those who think “CAGW” is what climate science is *about*, the only test is whether the catastrophic outcome occurs.

    I think it’s idiotic to undertake that test. I am, sadly, increasingly convinced we will do so, despite all the expert advice to the contrary. The ambiguous “let’s not do this experiment” path is not going to happen. I sadly expect complete vindication on this matter.

    But it’s our capacity on subtler predictions that ought to give us the authority to make this claim.

    In a sane world, that capacity would be compelling, and the shift away from carbon would have begun decades ago, in time to limit climate damage to a nuisance level.

    Willard’s pleasure in finding specific weaknesses in logic, his engagement in the game, his giving the game a name, these are interesting contributions. But the game is never completed, the audit never ends. Unfortunately, the fate of the world depends on completing the game. Perpetual overtime is a win for the procrastinator.

    We have to up our game. That means society has to be able to distinguish between sense and nonsense. I am convinced that this capacity is in rapid decline; I’m not sure there’s much we can do about it. But it still behooves us to try, and we could use all the help we can get.

  40. mt says:

    Hyper “I gently disagree here. If you are a credentialed and published ecologist, say, you might have something to offer to amphibian biologists in terms of insists regarding geckos, whether or not you are an expert.”

    OK, a fair correction.

    And as for sicking to one’s knitting, I’m hardly the best person to make the claim!

    But the thing is, it is possible to know geckos, and somebody does. It is possible to know planetary atmospheres, and someone does.

    Is it possible to know psychology, sociology, epistemics? Economics? Geoploitics?

    Not in the same way, I think, no.

    Serious people do think seriously about these things, but their knowledge is of a different and in important ways less potent kind. It seems to me more legitimate for outsiders to comment, even if we aren’t steeped in the jargon, because the knowledge bases are not deeply consilient.

    We are failing to explain this adequately, and we are gently and politely conceding authority which we ought to be holding on to with tenacity. We “know” “things”, for important meanings of “know” and “things”, that other ways of thinking cannot.

    To fail to make this claim because we don’t want to look arrogant is to fail posterity. Arrogance is not the only sin on the table. There is cowardice as well.

  41. Willard says:

    > A slip-up by Descarte’s deamon in keeping the Matrix consistent with the behavior of a ‘real’ world.

    An anecdote. The Matrix was inspired by Hilary Putnam’s thought experiment of the brain in a vat, which is more or less a semantic version of Descartes’ malin génie, which is an epistemic version of Plato’s Tavern. The movie inspired MRA activists and other conspiracy theorists to speak of red pilling, an event where comes one to realize that one was living in a Matrix matriarchy or whatnot.

    Now, check this out: Hilary is what we call an internal realist. His realism is not far from another modest realism proposal, which may appeal and surprise those who followed the Science Wars. Internal realists usually take conceptual schemes very seriously, i.e. lots of stuff is a matter of definition to them.

    So the creator of a thought experiment that inspired conspiracy theorists and MRA activists was actually not an anti-realist or a constructivist or a POMO. He was a realist-with-a-small-r.

    Let that sink in.

  42. Joshua says:

    MT –

    . I am convinced that this capacity is in rapid decline;

    How do you measure this? If you see a decline recently, do you have any confidence in determining if it merely a short term decline within a longer term trend of increase?

    When I look at the long term tend, I think there might be reason to see any recent decline, if there in fact one (I’m not sure at all), as noise in a signal.

    As bad as it is, I suspect that not long ago it was far worse. That doesn’t mean that I don’t see some severe challenges rearing their heads.

  43. mt says:

    Science fiction had the brain in a vat trope long before Putnam. Philip K Dick’s novel Ubik is all about it. It was published in 1969. The Star Trek pilot episode (1966) had a version of it.

  44. mt says:

    Joshua:

    “Technology and increasing levels of education have exposed people to more information than ever before. These societal gains, however, have also helped fuel a surge in narcissistic and misguided intellectual egalitarianism that has crippled informed debates on any number of issues. Today, everyone knows everything: with only a quick trip through WebMD or Wikipedia, average citizens believe themselves to be on an equal intellectual footing with doctors and diplomats. All voices, even the most ridiculous, demand to be taken with equal seriousness, and any claim to the contrary is dismissed as undemocratic elitism.”

  45. Joshua says:

    mt –

    I’d like to know how you measure the trend – apparently with confidence.

    I see problems – where people afflicted with DK, or shallow confidence (in nonsense) bolstered by easy access to information that has been put forth under a guise of “expertise, ” or other afflictions of bias have a lot of room to run around (in particular in the media and on the Interwebs) and make their opinions known. Perhaps people have more room to do so, and to so so more loudky, than ever before. It’s ugly and disturbing to watch. It’s extremely frustrating because it’s beyond our control.

    But perhaps more people know more accurate information about more things than ever before. For all those people who believe total nonsense about the climate, there are more people who know about how we are affecting the climate than 50 years ago, perhaps even 20 years ago.

    I think it is rather analogous to freedom fighters who look at a campus protest and see a society which has significantly diminished rights of free speech – not seeing the forest for the trees (i.e., not seeing the vast quantities of people who now have political agency who never had it before in the history of the planet).

  46. Willard says:

    > Science fiction had the brain in a vat trope long before Putnam.

    Indian philosophers might have been there first:

    Maya (/ˈmɑːjə/; Devanagari: माया, IAST: māyā), literally “illusion” or “magic”, has multiple meanings in Indian philosophies depending on the context. In ancient Vedic literature, Māyā literally implies extraordinary power and wisdom. In later Vedic texts and modern literature dedicated to Indian traditions, Māyā connotes a “magic show, an illusion where things appear to be present but are not what they seem“. Māyā is also a spiritual concept connoting “that which exists, but is constantly changing and thus is spiritually unreal”, and the “power or the principle that conceals the true character of spiritual reality”.

  47. Joshua says:

    Another analogy, perhaps – the “crises in science.”

  48. @Steve Mosher,

    We can also ignore them. The majority of people in the United States are choosing to ignore Science, at least on climate and ecosystems, even if they say they aren’t.

    To summarize and paraphrase a talk I recently heard by a religious leader:

    It is said that wisdom is obtained through suffering (Saṃsāra). If so, then, regarding climate, we are all each going to learn a lot of wisdom.

  49. MT quotes: “Today, everyone knows everything: with only a quick trip through WebMD or Wikipedia, average citizens believe themselves to be on an equal intellectual footing with doctors and diplomats. All voices, even the most ridiculous, demand to be taken with equal seriousness, and any claim to the contrary is dismissed as undemocratic elitism.

    Apparently even really smart journalists think this. There was just a main scandal (that somehow did not spread beyond Germany) on predatory publishing, fake journals that promise to be real peer reviewed journals, but accept any nonsense. Investigative journalists had a look and the problem is larger than I thought: over 5000 German scientists have used predatory journals or conferences.

    Those journalists were really afraid this was a problem, what if people read an article on drug X with some positive outcomes and start taking it. As if that were a good idea if the journals were real. As if you do not need any training to interpret the results, as if you do not need a good background to understand the papers well, as if you do not need to know the entire literature and not just one article.

    Even reading WebMD or Wikipedia is better than reading a (or a few) scientific article.

  50. angech says:

    At the Gold Coast on holidays. Small seaside fair. 4, yes 4, fortune teller tents.
    I digress.
    The discussion of the polysemy (multiple interpretations) of the assertion “science has always been political”.
    Great post MT.
    I like the concept of entropy here.
    Using politics has always been scientific.
    Now the arrow only runs one way.
    Most of us would agree that politics is not always scientific.
    Science may be pure but any and every use of it could have a political motive attached.
    Like the mug of water that is spilt.
    Run the frames back and it always goes back into the cup.

  51. angech says:

    “mt saysJuly 29, 2018 at 10:28 pm
    Hyper “I gently disagree here. If you are a credentialed and published ecologist, say, you might have something to offer to amphibian biologists in terms of insists regarding geckos, whether or not you are an expert.” OK, a fair correction.”

    Thank you both so much.

  52. Steven Mosher says:

    “@Steve Mosher,

    We can also ignore them”

    Maybe I should have used the word, “ignore” rather than shun.

    The easiest thing for MT to do is to recognize that when people say “science is political” that they
    are probably using words in a way that differs from the way he uses them and ignore them.
    Thank them for their story telling ( the history of science, is after all, elaborate political fiction) and get back to doing science.

    And further, he should recognize that there is no way using verbal behavior to control their verbal behavior. Witness the difficulty in even getting smart folks to offer their own definition of science or politics. And witness that we almost immediately get into discussions of meaning, weird semiotic theory ( take votes), where everyone thinks they are an expert merely because they use words.

    But MT doesnt want to ignore them because he thinks the idea is dangerous or potentially dangerous. C02 is worse, focus.

  53. izen says:

    @-MT
    “That means society has to be able to distinguish between sense and nonsense. I am convinced that this capacity is in rapid decline; I’m not sure there’s much we can do about it.”

    The evidence is that in the US the population is improving in its ability to distinguish between sense and nonsense.
    There are still twice as many people who reject (human) evolution compared to those that recognise the accuracy of that scientific understanding, but the trend is the Genesis literalists are shrinking while the ‘Don’t Knows’ are increasing.

    It seems unlikely that there is any strategy that would increase the acceptance of AGW science in the US, when the rejection of established scientific knowledge is so widespread and socially acceptable.

    Societies that lack this widespread acceptance of non-science also show much less opposition to the science around AGW.

  54. Jeffh says:

    The crux of the matter is that expertise matters, so in reading this thread I come solidly down on the side of mt. Too often I see laymen ridiculing the arguments and assertions of statured experts in climate science and other fields. The mainstream and social media have exacerbated this by giving the impression that all views have merit irrespective of the bonafides of who says them. As an ecologist who studies broadly plant-insect interactions, I would defer to an expert on geckos every time when discussions revolved around understanding their biology and ecology. Certainly some of my research more broadly might marginally overlap in terms of more general aspects of life-history theory, but the reason we specialize is that the fields of ecology and organismal biology are so immense that we need to compartmentalize.

    Similarly, I am flabbergasted at the sheer volume of people on the internet as well as journalists who, by sticking a finger to the wind, believe that they are instant climate scientists, and that as a result their views are as valuable as scientists who bothered to spend years of their lives at academic institutions studying and publishing in the field. One of the main tenets of DK is that the person confidently expressing opinions in fields well outside of their expertise vastly overestimates their knowledge. The comments pages of mainstream media and outlets like Yahoo! are filled with drivel by laymen masquerading as informed opinion. I actually find it very depressing, because a propagandist only needs to know a little more than their target audience to convince them (along with the receiver of information possessing some inherent bias in wanting to hear what the person is telling them). Bjorn Lomborg is a classic example of this. He writes convincingly about fields in which he has no formal expertise – like climate science, biodiversity and human welfare – to a targeted audience of laymen who he is well aware know less than he does. Lomborg’s work has been severely critiqued by real experts but for the most part he avoids them completely because he knows that they are better informed than he is and by engaging with them he risks damaging his credibility,

  55. angech says:

    The Union of Concerned Scientists strongly criticised The Skeptical Environmentalist, claiming it to be “seriously flawed and failing to meet basic standards of credible scientific analysis”, accusing Lomborg of presenting data in a fraudulent way, using flawed logic and selectively citing non-peer-reviewed literature.[70] The review was conducted by Peter Gleick, Jerry D. Mahlman, Edward O. Wilson, Thomas Lovejoy, Norman Myers, Jeff Harvey, and Stuart Pimm.

  56. Brigitte says:

    yes the ‘crises in science trope’ is as pernicious as the ‘science is political’ trope – in both cases there are, of course cases where there is a crisis and when science is political but this is not the point (some of the) people uttering these political statements are trying to make (although I can’t see into other people’s minds, I can infer some of what they want to do with what they say from the context in which they speak)

  57. angech says:

    “ the purpose of the question should be to distinguish genuine authoritative-authority from pretentious and malign authoritarian-authority. To dismiss the latter, while duly honouring and respecting the former.“

    There are certain ways of behaving that help seperating the good from the bad.
    When they do not occur one can have problems.
    Good scientists with poor attitudes do not help their cases.

    There are certain rules of understanding that help seperate the good from the bad, as you mention with the microsecond example. It can be as simple as a rule of scale or a heuristic of similar outcomes in different fields. It does counter the expert who has missed a vital step in his explanations

    Hence
    “But still, science has always been fundamentally opposed to the very sort of privilege that science-critics are decrying. The key to understanding Enlightenment thinking, is the celebration of human potential * quite independent of birth status.”

    I would argue that this sentence is a problem. We all can be scientists. Scientists are people who theorise or question theories until they get an understanding of it.
    Hence I am just as much a scientist as anyone else here.*
    Independent of any “expert” status.
    I (and Lomberg) do not have to have a degree in climate science to have a capacity to be interested in it, to keep learning about it and eventually in his case, to write articles about it in areas that he has developed expertise in.

    I see the Danes have a “Danish Committee for Scientific Dishonesty”. This is rather a surprise that enough Scientific Dishonesty in the world exists to actually have a Committe for it in this day and age. Would it have tried Gallilleo if he was around and challenging Scientific authority, MT?
    Or just the Lombergs and deniers of this world.

    I see where you are coming from and what you are saying. Climate change is not something with simple correct unfalsifable rules as you wish to believe. It is an edifice with many solid floors and many contradictions.

  58. David B. Benson says:

    Much ado about very little.

  59. Steven Mosher says:

    funny jeffh

    mt has zero expertise in semiotics.
    zero in philosophy
    zero in communication
    zero

    dk all they way. i dunno.

    notice in those disciplines the practitioners dont seem as quick to make these observations about expertise. hmm.

    heck yall prattle on about the englightenment like you actually read the primary texts.

    i love mt because he is sincere and earnest, and struggling with ideas bigger than his training.thats ok even if it painful to watch.

  60. mt says:

    Mosher. Economics too!

    I don’t *admit* to being a dilettante. I *claim* it.

    I know I’m Dunning-Krugering all over the g-d place. It’s a hard job but somebody has to do it.

    I hope the necessary corrections occur patiently and without sneering. We need to escape our disciplinary boundaries, not assert them! That’s what “wicked problems” are all about, no?

  61. dikranmarsupial says:

    “struggling with ideas bigger than his training” that’s research, isn’t it?

    BTW I’ve read a fair amount of enlightenment texts. Sadly you need to do more than just read them.

  62. Dave_Geologist says:

    Indeed angech. Lomborg “writes convincingly about fields in which he has no formal expertise … to a targeted audience of laymen who he is well aware know less than he does”. You can fool some of the people all of the time. In this case because they don’t know any better. But you can’t fool the people who know better, ever.

    Hell, he can’t even fool me. The other day he threw out a figure of 25,000 to 50,000 “coldwave” deaths in the UK each year, which have to be offset against 2,000 heatwave deaths. Feeling the Heat, 21m30s. Even I could see through that BS. First, it’s literally the first time, ever, I’ve heard the term “coldwave”. So he can decide what it means, and change the meaning to suit. I’d call that con-man behaviour if I encountered it in one of your beach arcades. Second, the excess winter mortality numbers are typically in the 20,000 to 50,000 range, so he’s attributing all of them to a “coldwave”. Excess Winter Mortality in England and Wales In any case, it’s completely different to heatwave deaths, which are carefully attributed to exclude non-heat-related things like drowning. A quick glance at the numbers shows most EWDs are due to respiratory and circulatory diseases, and Dementia and Alzheimers. So probably some of the latter also have respiratory or circulatory factors too. And 95% are in over-65s. A third are attributed to dementia, and many of the others probably had it too due to their age. So we’re primarily talking people who are in care homes, hospitals or institutions with central heating, where the temperature outside is irrelevant. Half are due to respiratory diseases. You get flu and pneumonia in Australia don’t you? It’s a damn sight hotter than the UK. How come your greater winter heat doesn’t protect you? Ah yes, of course, it has damn-all to do with how cold it is outside. A 1°C or 2°C rise in UK winter temperatures won’t make a significant difference to excess winter mortality. I’m not sure BS is a strong enough word.

  63. Willard says:

    > The crux of the matter is that expertise matters, so in reading this thread I come solidly down on the side of mt.

    Since nobody disputes that expertise matters, everyone should come solidly down to the side of mt.

    ***

    > that’s research, isn’t it?

    Color me old fashioned, but back in my days, research meant reading about what has been done. Also, when I settled to critize something, I read about it first.

  64. dikranmarsupial says:

    Willard, I meant research in the sense of “investigation to extend the existing body of knowledge”. If it is research in that sense, then it will take you beyond your training no matter how much you read first.

  65. mt says:

    Specific claims by Lomborg are a bit off topic, y’all. Let’s not open this specific can of worms here?

    What I’m more interested is whether there is some systematic way to assign credibility either to Lomborg himself or to his claims, where there is some middle ground between “sheer bunkum” and “the revealed truth of God”.

    In general, I think continua are more useful than sharp distinctions, particularly because when one makes sharp distinctions, it invites herds of eager nitpickers to tedious microexamination of essentially unimportant boundary cases. Yawn.

    To me, Lomborg is not “as wrong” as that guy who says there’s no greenhouse effect at all. Does that make sense to people? If so, is there some way we can codify this?

  66. Steven Mosher says:

    “I hope the necessary corrections occur patiently and without sneering. We need to escape our disciplinary boundaries, not assert them! That’s what “wicked problems” are all about, no?”

    This strikes me as the kind of defense I expect to get to at WUWT or Judith’s. Just toss out ideas and let the audience correct them.

    And what do we tell tell these guys? “go read the science”

    I think Willard’s empirical point still stands. We dont see any skeptics arguing that science is political. They are the ones with the notion that:

    1. Popper was right
    2. Science is one pure thing

    They use that notion to attack observational science, modelling, consilience, and coherentism.
    They use that notion to suggest that support by impure government money corrupts the results.
    I think the “slogan” is inept, but its not like any skeptics are actually using the “relatavistic” interpretation of the slogan as a weapon against climate science.

    Any way, still love ya MT. after reading what you wrote and the way you approached the question of meaning I might suggest this

  67. Dave_Geologist says:

    Aargh. So I Googled just in case I’d made a fool of myself, as it’s not my area of expertise 😉 . No hits for his claim but some for 2,000 deaths. Sounds more reasonable? Oh dear, he’s done it before*. And no doubt been corrected before. But he still does it. Why? And yet he feels hard-done-to by scientists? And hurt when people question his good faith?

    * Proving yet again that a lie can be half way round the world before the truth has got its boots on. “The death toll from Britain’s big freeze could rise to more than 2,000, as it emerged the Met Office had warned ministers a month ago about the cold snap.” Come, on, you thought that was a Met Office warning, didn’t you. Nope, only the cold snap. The 2,000, and 100 per day, was an unsubstantiated statement by the director of a fuel-poverty charity (as you can see from the second, Telegraph link). Who just might have an axe to grind. And assumes a three month cold snap, not the three weeks we got. Oh, and “the weather would likely see an average of as many as 100 people per day perishing in cold homes this winter, compared to a five-year average of 80 people per day”. So not 100 days or not 100 a day.? “Up to” 20 more per day than in an average winter. So even if the charity director wasn’t over-egging the pudding, because it’s just a bald statement we can’t tell whether he meant 100 per day for 20 days (wrong attribution per day), or 20 per day for 100 days (perhaps less likely, because three months is a bit long to be called a “cold snap” in UK vernacular).

    OK, a bit of rolling back, but Lomborg winds me up 😦 . “The Met Office said Mr Scaife was referring to a three-month outlook and that the extent of the cold weather only became clear around 10 days before it hit.” So, OK, maybe there was some honest confusion between a three-month lookahead for government planning purposes, and a forecast of a three month cold snap. And yes, “Respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses are exacerbated by cold conditions, especially among the elderly. Indoor temperatures of less than 53F (12C) are likely to cause health risks, Mr Smith [the charity guy] said”. Still, the homes are not cold because they can’t be heated. They’re cold because they can’t afford the fuel. Pensioners already get a £200-£300 winter fuel payment. We don’t have to wait for global warming to reduce cold-snap deaths. We could do it right now, by increasing the allowance, or by giving them lower gas and electricity tariffs. Cooking the planet is a rather drastic way to solve a problem when a bit more cash would do it. Need a source for the cash? How about this Carbon Tax thingy I’ve heard about 🙂 ?

  68. dikranmarsupial says:

    In science credibility is irrelevant, what matters is whether the argument is internally consistent and whether the strength of the support from observation or experiment. Whether Lomborg’s claims are credible depends on the specific claims rather than on their source. Sadly people in general don’t work like that and like to have convenient short-cut heuristics like personal credibility, which I’m not clear can be systematised.

    In general, I think continua are more useful than sharp distinctions, particularly because when one makes sharp distinctions, it invites herds of eager nitpickers to tedious microexamination of essentially unimportant boundary cases. Yawn

    Indeed.

  69. dikranmarsupial says:

    “This strikes me as the kind of defense I expect to get to at WUWT or Judith’s. Just toss out ideas and let the audience correct them.”

    The difference is that at WUWT or Judiths, the ideas would have been stated as facts, rather than ideas/opinions. IMHO that is a substantial difference. Personally I don’t think MT is being very DK, despite his modesty.

  70. Steven Mosher says:

    “BTW I’ve read a fair amount of enlightenment texts. Sadly you need to do more than just read them.”

    Ah ya, Before you even get to the englightenment you have to start with your Plato, Aristotle
    and the ancient skeptics.

    Then Aquinas and Augustine, Anselm, Duns scotus

    Then.. good grief I forget, Descartes, Spinoza ( ya monads!) Locke, Berkeley, Hume,
    Kant.

    Funny story: My first Philosophy midterm: Freshman year. Jame earle.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_A._Earle

    Question: Give socrates argument for the immortality of the soul in the Phaedo

    well its a dialog. And I can remember dialogs really really well.
    So I repeated the dialog as best I could from memory for the mid term. Filled up a whole blue book.

    Earle gave me a D. And explained, “son, when I said give the argument, I meant in your
    own words… Not repeat the dialog! you repeated the words but did you understand them?”

    And then he explained that our grade would be 100% on the final and the midterm was just

    “To get students to read the fucking text”

    end actual real quote.

    Anyway, he made an impression on me and I quit math and physics to study philosophy.

    hmm, prolly a mistake, but it was fun.

    Willard can probably attest to this as well but I was never ever asked to give MY IDEAS
    on a particular topic, until my senior year where you get to write an honors thesis if you are lucky.
    All of your time was spent explaining as best you can… what Hume thought, what descartes argument was, what kant thought. what was Husserls argument against solipism?
    It’s largely All Exposition.
    not “was Kant right?” Almost all of your work is deeply entertwined with existing texts, existing long argued questions. Doing anything original in philosophy is very rare.

  71. dikranmarsupial says:

    “Ah ya, Before you even get to the englightenment you have to start with your Plato, Aristotle
    and the ancient skeptics.”

    On reflection, it is more renaissance works that interest me (they go better with my lute and moustache ;o}), rather than enlightenment, so I “misspoke” there. But the point I was making was that reading doesn’t always lead to understanding, at least not in my case.

    “I was never ever asked to give MY IDEAS on a particular topic,”

    that’s a bit of a shame, sounds like a recipe for rewarding knowledge (including knowledge of other peoples interpretations) rather than understanding. However different fields have different requirements and methods, usually for good reasons.

  72. mt says:

    Mosh, if that’s what philosophy is, if I’m enjoined from having any opinion on it without going back to Plato, then it is of no interest to me or the world unless and until it produces a coherent consensus and an externally accessible validation thereof.

    To me it’s a weird and unworkable idea of intellectual progress. I don’t have to be able to cite Aristotle in detail to do physics.

  73. dikranmarsupial says:

    Especially since a lot of it will be incommensurable paradigms long overturned.

  74. The Very Reverend Jebediah Hypotenuse says:


    I don’t have to be able to cite Aristotle in detail to do physics.

    Not only that, you don’t have to do what Willard calls “research” and Mosh calls philosophy (literature searchs, lots and lotsa reading and exposition) at all.

    Grab a ball and a stop-watch, or a protractor and a pendulum, or a chamber with some super-saturated alcohol vapour, or a pair of lenses, or a couple of magnets…

    Where physics is concerned, actually getting your hands dirty digging for facts is at least as important as being literate.

  75. Chris says:

    I don’t have to be able to cite Aristotle in detail to do physics.

    Yes it’s interesting that we live in an age in which everyone is telling everyone else what they should be doing and how they should be doing it. From a philosophy of science perspective Kuhn is quite anxiety-inducing since his idealist notions of science seem to be quite difficult to live up to (as a scientist) – Feyerabend is a much better guide for the modern scientist IMHO – i.e. don’t listen to the blowhards telling you what you should do/know in order to do your job – just get on with it!

    And quite likely if you do so (going back to the subject of this thread) any authority that accrues through your endeavours will be based on the evidence that you collect in support of your interpretations…

    …for, if it’s about science it’s about evidence 🙂

  76. Dave_Geologist says:

    Color me old fashioned, but back in my days, research meant reading about what has been done,

    In science we call that scholarship 😉 . Research is done in the field, in the lab, in front of a screen with some downloaded satellite or telescope data, etc. Einstein reading and thinking about previously unexplained experimental results is very much the exception. Otherwise, where would you get those new experimental results?

    Reading about what has been done is of course a necessary condition (at least if you want to avoid rookie errors). I spent most of the first year of my PhD doing it. But it’s not a sufficient condition – just the stepping-off point.

  77. Chris says:

    …In science we call that scholarship

    Yup Dave and if one works in a UK Uni, you find that “scholarship” is one of the discrete categories that one needs to declare when returning the occasional surveys in which you determine how you divide your working time. So as well as the time you estimate you spend on teaching (undergraduate; postgrad) and research (publicly funded; charities, own) and admin (etc)…there is a category:Scholarship which is essentially the time you spend with your feet on the desk reading stuff. This is very useful when you can’t get the numbers for all the other components to add up to 100%!

  78. mt says:

    Kuhn (whose magnum opus I have in fact read, twice) misses the point entirely.

    I just came across this: https://www.quora.com/Whats-the-fundamental-reason-why-the-speed-of-light-cannot-be-broken-Why-does-the-universe-want-to-preserve-the-upper-barrier-on-speed-of-light-so-much-so-that-it-readily-slows-down-time-rather-than-see-the-speed-barrier-broken

    I’ll quote the excellent answer in full:

    ==

    The question was asked by an elderly retired high school physics teacher – and asked very respectfully. “Professor Feynman, I have always wanted to know why nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. Can you explain why?” Feynman got that whimsical twinkle in his eye and said with his characteristic flamboyance, [something like] “We have no idea! Oh, sure we can do all kinds of mathematics and elaborate derivations that we claim ‘explains’ it. But the fact is, we only have one universe to study. And in our universe, no object can travel faster than the speed of light.”

    == (end quote)

    Science is not about “explanations”. We never “understand why X”. We simply “understand that X”. Einstein overthrew Newton only from the point of view of “understanding why”; from the point of view of “understanding that”, the theory was all about such extreme situations that it took hundreds of years before anyone noticed the problem. We never introduce relativistic corrections in force balance problems in first year physics. We don’t have to. The “understanding” of ordinary motions from Newton and Einstein are immeasurably different in practical situations, though the deeper philosophical meanings of “space” and “time” can be seen as overthrown.

    Kuhn thinks relativity is a revolutionary overthrow of Newtonian physics. That seems to be the philosopher’s view.

    I once had a fairly well informed person tell me “nothing much happened between Newton and Einstein in physics.” Well. Hrmph. That was the moment when I noticed how little people appreciated Maxwell’s work. The way pure physics and philosophy talk, Maxwell wasn’t important, simply because he wasn’t revolutionary. This thinking has penetrated intelligent discourse.

    But after Newton, probably Maxwell’s work does more actual day-to-day work in contemporary disciplines than any other contribution. Why do we forget about it when considering the history of science? Maybe because it doesn’t raise philosophical problems! It just works!

  79. Willard says:

    > Grab a ball and a stop-watch, or a protractor and a pendulum, or a chamber with some super-saturated alcohol vapour, or a pair of lenses, or a couple of magnets…

    And either the book in which you’ll find the argument you set up to criticize.

    Or lots of straw.

    ***

    > Kuhn (whose magnum opus I have in fact read, twice) misses the point entirely

    Proofs by assertion might not be the best way to argue in favor of apoliticality.

  80. dikranmarsupial says:

    For me the main problem with Kuhn is that there isn’t a fundamental difference between small corrections to see to science and large “paradigm overturning” corrections, it is a continuum and whether it overturns a paradigm seems to me rather subjective. Small changes happen all the time, and have relatively little (individual) effect, so we don’t notice them so much; larger corrections are rather more rare, but they are only quantitatively different AFAICS.

    “Why do we forget about it when considering the history of science?” no [possibly post-hoc] thought experiments to explain them to the general public?

  81. dikranmarsupial says:

    “This is very useful when you can’t get the numbers for all the other components to add up to 100%!”

    Teaching, admin and research are the three halves of the job. ;o)

  82. The Very Reverend Jebediah Hypotenuse says:


    But after Newton, probably Maxwell’s work does more actual day-to-day work in contemporary disciplines than any other contribution. Why do we forget about it when considering the history of science? Maybe because it doesn’t raise philosophical problems! It just works!

    Well… “It just works” until you start looking at things that are moving really fast…

    Then, it’s relativity that “just works”, philosophical problems notwithstanding.

  83. mt says:

    What’s the difference between proof by assertion and proof by demonstration?

    A citeable publication? Well, fine. Cite this site. Call me a published philosopher. Now it’s demonstrated.

    ==

    PS, Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions is *very* worth reading as a historical essay, until his dreadful concluding section where he just gets the epistemics of science wrong.

  84. @Jeffh,

    Similarly, I am flabbergasted at the sheer volume of people on the internet as well as journalists who, by sticking a finger to the wind, believe that they are instant climate scientists, and that as a result their views are as valuable as scientists who bothered to spend years of their lives at academic institutions studying and publishing in the field. One of the main tenets of DK is that the person confidently expressing opinions in fields well outside of their expertise vastly overestimates their knowledge.

    I would suggest, based in part upon reads of a couple of editions of Jacoby’s Age of American Unreason and her Freethinkers, that this idea of value of singular, personal opinion is key to American Christianity and American representative democracy. The former suggests that what matters is not knowledge of Scripture, but having been Saved, and a personal relationship with the Deity in Its several forms. Once such a relationship is in hand, there is a Divine Spirit with it, to which the policy deserves to listen. And, as the former, there is a strong tradition in the United States of viewing experts as unrealistic crackpots. Even the awesome Benjamin Franklin was ridiculed from pulpits because of his lightning rods — things which appear quite innocuous to us. But, recall, given the dangerous of stores of gunpowder, in the time of the American Revolution, there was a tendency to store these in churches, not only to shield the stores from British eyes, but also in a sense to call Divine protection upon them, so they wouldn’t blow. Of course, some did, often due to unprotected lightning strikes, and this is how Franklin’s invention finally won people over.

    Unfortunately, as I’ve noted elsewhere here, I fear the same kind of experiential proof is going to be needed to convince people climate scientists aren’t crackpots. Alas, to deflect what’s coming won’t be as easy as mounting lightning rods.

  85. The Very Reverend Jebediah Hypotenuse says:


    PS, Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions…

    It’s an oddly ironic title as well – Since Kuhn argues that, due to his incommensurability thesis, scientific revolutions are very not-structured.

  86. Dave_Geologist says:

    So back to how you tell what’s authoritative mt (I’d already posted the second BL when I saw you no-more-specifics-please 😦 ). Well what got me about that unnamed person was rather like the microsecond-to-cross-a-star example earlier. You can’t go through a winter in the UK without hearing “excess winter mortality” being bandied about between competing politicians. So I knew the numbers were in the low to mid tens of thousands, higher in a bad flu year. So if I hear numbers attributed to a “coldwave” which sound like total excess winter mortality, I call BS or error. Just as I did with the faster-than-light neutrinos.

    The other thing you can do is source-check. It’s really quick and easy nowadays. In the case of the claim on the previous thread that the Chinese Central Committee was overwhelmingly populated by scientists, engineers and Phd’s, it took only two clicks to find a Wiki page and one click per member to find out that only 3 out of the first 23 was an engineer or PhD, and none was a scientist (one social scientist though). Most are military/security, party hacks/bureaucrats, and journalists/propagandists.

    The cold-snap newspaper articles referenced the Office of National Statistics, and they have a website where you can download pdfs and spreadsheets for free. You can also sense check against particularly bad winters, either from memory or on Wiki. For example, every Brit my age remembers the long, cold winter of 1962-3, where deep snow really did last for months not weeks. 83k excess winter mortality. 69k the previous year. 50k the following year. So the lower bound of the claim can just about be made for the worst winter in living memory, at a time when hardly anyone had double glazing or central heating, still relied on open coal fires and queued in the cold at bus stops because they didn’t have cars. The other biggie was the Great Smog of 1953-3. Not especially cold, but a temperature inversion combined with pollutants to create a smog where you literally couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. It only lasted 3-4 days, but excess winter deaths were 83k that year. So interestingly, 3-4 days of pollution managed to kill about as many people as 3-4 months of severe cold weather. Who says human influence is puny? Flu epidemics? I googled Asian flu UK, saw it was 1957-8, but was surprised to see that was not a bad death year. Scroll down to the fifth link. Not even on Scholar and it’s a peer-reviewed paper listed on PMC. Excellently authoritative. Ah, it started in August and peaked in October so a double-whammy. It inflated non-winter figures, and was fading by winter. Only killed an extra 14,000 though. But so many people were off work it caused a recession.

    Obviously the real howlers, like the-one-that-shan’t-be-named 😉 , are easy. Their absurdity hits you in the face, and you don’t need fancy statistics or even high-school math to debunk them. The 2,000-death newspaper articles were in the realm of plausibility. You can still watch for howlers. For example, “three month cold snap”, when we’ve only had three weeks and the Met Office is predicting a break should raise a warning flag. “Up to 20” is suspicious. Don’t they have a central estimate? Is it 2? 5? 10? Surely they have one if it’s a proper survey or peer-reviewed paper. You should immediately suspect you’re being fed a P95, P99 or upper bound. And yes, source. Normally the Telegraph would treat the director of an anti-poverty charity as anathema. If they’re bigging up his warnings, they must have an agenda. They employ James Dellingpole to write climate stories. Not hard to guess what it is. And yes, even if you agree with the sociopolitical aims of the charity, you should expect its director to bend language and figures to forward his agenda.

  87. Willard says:

    > I meant research in the sense of “investigation to extend the existing body of knowledge”. If it is research in that sense, then it will take you beyond your training no matter how much you read first.

    Indeed, but how can you know that you’re extending the existing body of knowledge if you haven’t checked first? You better be lucky. And if you discover something at the same time another does, I pray that otter isn’t in Isaac Newton’s mold.

    There’s a reason why scientific papers have a section on lichurchur review. Arguing against that reality looks like a losing proposition to me. Arguing against the idea that one reads about the argument one criticizes, including the original sources, is more than a losing proposition. It’s how Lobstersonanism came to be.

  88. Dave_Geologist says:

    scholarship” is one of the discrete categories that one needs to declare

    Glad to know the bureaucrats allow time for it Chris. In my spells in the internal-consultancy part of my oil-and-gas employer, we were always under great pressure to minimise “non-chargeable hours”, including keeping abreast of evolving technologies. Ironic, given that “Technology Group” was part of the division’s name 😦 .

    And of course I didn’t mean to imply you stop reading/scholarship part-way into your PhD. It’s a lifelong endeavour. If only to avoid swapping rookie errors for complacent-but-out-of-date-old-dude errors. 😉

    BTW I didn’t count that part of my first year as “sciencing”; only the work I did on the data I’d collected in my short first field season.

  89. dikranmarsupial says:

    Willard “Indeed, but how can you know that you’re extending the existing body of knowledge if you haven’t checked first? ”

    That is completely irrelevant to the (very minor) point that I was making. As it happens the same discovery being made independently by multiple researchers is something that happens on a very regular basis (e.g. the discovery of the backpropagation algorithm for neural networks) and indeed in these days when there are so many researchers, it is more or less bound to happen as there simply isn’t enough time to read all of the work that might be relevant. They are however all doing research, whether it is original or not, whether they know it or not, whether they have checked or not.

    “There’s a reason why scientific papers have a section on lichurchur review.”

    That varies from one field to another (they also would spell it correctly).

    “Arguing against that reality looks like a losing proposition to me.”

    not that anyone is actually doing that.

  90. dikranmarsupial says:

    “Glad to know the bureaucrats allow time for it Chris.”

    They don’t, which is why they ask for a percentage of time worked, rather than hours worked? ;o)

  91. Dave_Geologist says:

    Chris explained it Willard, even down to the bureaucracy. Scholarship is what you do in the library and write up in the literature review. Research is what you do once you think you understand the pre-existing literature well enough not to duplicate what’s already known (unless that’s a feature not a bug), or go off and do something silly. It’s a necessary precursor to the research (and post-cursor, if that’s a word, when you’re synthesising and writing up your results). But so are pencil, paper ruler, spectrometer, laboratory, computer, word processor, eyes, ears, lunch, sleep, etc. They’re not research either.

  92. I typically question authority on scientific topics that are likely unresolved.

  93. Willard says:

    > That is completely irrelevant to the (very minor) point that I was making.

    Which was irrelevant to the point I was making, which is that one reads about the argument one criticizes.

    And since you responded to me, you’re the one being irrelevant.

  94. Willard says:

    > They’re not research either.

    One does not simply characterize something by what it’s not, Dave. What is research, then?

    While you respond, imagine that you’re speaking to historians.

  95. Mal Adapted says:

    hypergeometric:

    If you are a credentialed and published ecologist, say, you might have something to offer to amphibian biologists in terms of insists regarding geckos, whether or not you are an expert.

    Gecko-obsession may be annoying, but you’ll have more to offer amphibian biologists (no, not biologists who metamorphose from aquatic larvae to terrestrial adults) if you know the difference between reptiles and amphibians. You could have put at least that much time in on geckos, hyperg. Is this the price of biology’s political draw with Creationists ;^)?

  96. dikranmarsupial says:

    “And since you responded to me, you’re the one being irrelevant.”

    editing your comments again? Actually I was responding to something SM wrote, and I wasn’t discussing criticizing arguments.

  97. Chris says:

    a teeny bit off topic possibly but I’ve been wondering about all those people (some social scientists, for example!) that tell scientists how they’re supposed to work…how they’re supposed to communicate with the public…what philosophers they should have read…that their science isn’t “falsifiable” …and so on.

    It crystallised this afternoon when I glanced at the BBC Sports news and noticed a kafuffle about the fact that Bryson DeChambau (not a philosopher ‘though he sounds like one) didn’t shake Richard McEvoy’s hand properly on the 18th green as the latter won the European Open yesterday. Everyone has something to say about this – vast Twitter threads admonishing/justifying DeChambau’s (non)-handshake and articles on news sites.

    That’s the world we seem to live in. If I was to give any scientist a piece of general advice it would be – “just get on with it, do what you think is best and ignore the crap”. People are lining up to give scientists advice about how they should do their job or why they aren’t doing it properly. In fact scientists are doing fine IMHO and really do just need to get on with it..

  98. Willard says:

    > Actually I was responding to something SM wrote, and I wasn’t discussing criticizing arguments.

    Fair enough. Somehow, I felt that the sentence that followed:

    BTW I’ve read a fair amount of enlightenment texts. Sadly you need to do more than just read them.

    was related to the kind of “research” Mosh and I were talking about.

    Must be a vocabulary thing.

  99. Willard says:

    > a teeny bit off topic possibly but I’ve been wondering about all those people (some social scientists, for example!) that tell scientists how they’re supposed to work…how they’re supposed to communicate with the public…what philosophers they should have read…that their science isn’t “falsifiable” …and so on.

    I don’t think it’s off topic at all, Chris. I think it’s the subtext that is going on. If I may copy paste my tweets to that effect, which was on the Science Wars, as I don’t have time to shorten them:

    In retrospect, it’s obvious that the best way to shake down Realism-with-a-big-R is to introduce Realists to realism-with-a-small-r. Constructivism and anti-realism need more preparation for more scientific crowds.

    (That said, constructivism still have merits. And that’s coming from a closet Realist-with-a-big-R. Only facts that matter don’t make me root for constructive mathematics, for instance.)

    These questions are quite secondary to the smörgåsbord of interdisciplinary second-guessing.

    Perhaps interdisciplinary second-guessing was always with us. It often leads to misbehavior. This very thread adds another data point.

    I would agree with you that POMO (and critical theory in general) needs to shoulder its share of responsibility in the “science war” food fight.

    Nevertheless, it’s hard not to perpetuate finger-pointing when the search for systemic causes can easily be read as epideictic oratory. (Examples on demand.)

    The main way out would be to do more of what’s being criticized here. More than storifications – some history of science.

    ***

    Interdisciplinary finger-pointing is an old sport.

  100. dikranmarsupial says:

    No, that was a separate point; the point I was making there was that you need to do more than just read, you need to understand for what you read to be of much value. I know this because I have read loads of things I don’t really understand (yet), the main thing I learn from it is where the gaps in my understanding are. Lots of people though apparently (not referring to anyone in this discussion) read things and think they therefore understand them, but actually don’t (second law of thermodynamics provides many examples in climate). Some people understand things well with only the most cursory background reading. It seems to me to be better to try and focus on the substance of what someone is saying, rather than worrying too much about their background, especially if they are modest about it as MT is.

  101. Willard says:

    > the point I was making there was that you need to do more than just read, you need to understand for what you read to be of much value

    Good point. When I said:

    Color me old fashioned, but back in my days, research meant reading about what has been done, Also, when I settled to critize something, I read about it first.

    it did not occur to me that I should clarify that “reading” in the context of research implied understanding. I hereby declare it – when doing research, reading needs to imply understanding what one reads.

    MT should do the same. When he says

    Question authority, please. But please, for crying out loud, please listen to the answer!

    he should clarify that hearing sounds isn’t enough.

    Pending clarification on understanding:

  102. @Dave_Geologist,

    It’s a necessary precursor to the research (and post-cursor, if that’s a word, when you’re synthesising and writing up your results). But so are pencil, paper ruler, spectrometer, laboratory, computer, word processor, eyes, ears, lunch, sleep, etc. They’re not research either.

    Welllllllllllllllll …. I seem to recall there’s a respectable approach to study, in geology and paleomagnetism, where experimental results published by others are used as grist for calculation and theorizing, even to the point of digitizing maps and figures and extracting data from them. Sure, this might be a little old in the days where primary datasets are more accessible, but, nevertheless …

    There are also, in some fields, metastudies. Now, as a statistician and from my personal perspective, I do not like metastudies at all. Still, a good deal of medical policy and recommendation comes from synthesis metastudies, so we are subject to them whether we like it or not. (Check in on the metastudies which dictate acceptable ranges for diastolic blood pressure some time.)

  103. @Mal Adapted,

    As a hypothetical case, but one frequently encountered, I might not know anything about geckos in practice, but I might know that the technique used to assess relative prevalence of gecko populations has serious pitfalls and flaws, even if it is overwhelmingly accepted by gecko experts and reviewers in the Journal of International Gecko Studies. And I might know that the rotifer experts use techniques which have no such flaws. I might suggest the gecko people adopt these.

    It might not be surprising to you that gecko experts are sometimes resistant to adopting such recommendations, especially the reviewers at JIGS.

  104. dikranmarsupial says:

    The problem with Dunning Kruger is that you know whether you have read something, but you are not a good judge of whether you have understand it or not (at least if you think you don’t understand it, you are probably right, but if you think you do understand it, there is less grounds for confidence – at least that seems to me how cognitive biases are likely to work out). Best to be modest and self-skeptical.

    I think MTs use of “listen” implies attention, which seems to make that distinction. Of course it is too much to expect understanding or acceptance of the answer.

    :o) for the tweet.

  105. Mal Adapted says:

    hypergeometric:

    Unfortunately, as I’ve noted elsewhere here, I fear the same kind of experiential proof is going to be needed to convince people climate scientists aren’t crackpots. Alas, to deflect what’s coming won’t be as easy as mounting lightning rods.

    IMUMO, your comment identifies the primary obstacle to collective abatement of AGW: “The trouble with most people is not that they don’t know much but that they know so much that isn’t true” (attr. Will Rodgers). It will take more than precise language to act collectively against AGW, while collective action on a sufficient scale is still feasible. It will require evading, neutralizing or co-opting the cultural forces currently opposing the crucial transition to a carbon-neutral global economy. I only wish I knew how.

  106. The Very Reverend Jebediah Hypotenuse says:

    Willard:

    And either the book in which you’ll find the argument you set up to criticize.
    Or lots of straw.

    Interesting. I’ve seen many a student have small scientific epiphanies in a physics lab, without the need for a physics book or an argument to set up to criticize. All you need is an interesting matter of fact that cannot be waved away.

    Gyroscopes, for example, can be both fun, and educational!

    You made a point about “the book” here which seems to be quite relevant, or perhaps that was just lots more neo-Platonic straw?

    Speaking of finger-pointing…
    If science is a finger pointing to the Sun and the rotation of the Earth, then it is also a finger pointing to rotating Sun and sky above a stationary Earth. What we observe with our eyes is only the relative motion, that cannot be waved away.


    …how can you know that you’re extending the existing body of knowledge if you haven’t checked first? You better be lucky.

    Talk of extending (whatever that is) existing bodies of knowledge (whatever those are) sounds like old-fashioned scholasticism, to me, and that ain’t necessarily science.

    Nowadays, we mostly accept that the Earth rotates, and not the entire sky.
    That’s not because someone ‘extended a body of knowledge’ – not because some bygone natural philosophers happened to grope their way to a place slightly closer to the entrance of Plato’s cave – it’s because Foucault’s pendulum still swings, and because positional astronomy would be a complete mess without corrections for aberration.

    Existing bodies of knowledge aren’t so much extended, as they are refined, restricted, and replaced, because, if we are lucky, fingers get pointed at interesting matters of fact that cannot be waved away.

    Reading, understanding what you read – these are laudable goals. But no amount of careful reading will show you whether the words, as understood, are to be trusted.

    The Lord of the Rings may be internally consistent – one may read one’s way all the way to Mordor – but then, it’s fiction.

  107. Pingback: Science might be political, but….. | …and Then There's Physics

  108. @The Very Reverend Jebediah Hypotenuse,

    Interesting. I’ve seen many a student have small scientific epiphanies in a physics lab, without the need for a physics book or an argument to set up to criticize. All you need is an interesting matter of fact that cannot be waved away.

    I think even students who know the material can be impressed, even transformed by experiencing certain experiments. In my undergraduate physics labs, (1) measuring the speed of light, (2) measuring radioactive decay rates, and (3) repeating the Millikan-Fletcher oil drop experiment had a big effect upon me. And on the latter, there is a most impressive sequel which goes to the heart of what it takes to refute accepted methods, if shy of refuting some of the science. And the story continues here and here. Even Feynman chimed in.

  109. Not exactly on topic, but U.S. Supreme Court says Juliana v United States can proceed.

    Woo hoo!

  110. angech says:

    mmt says: July 30, 2018 at 1:54 pm
    “Let’s not open this specific can of worms here”.
    I think opening cans of worms and fixing the problems, particularly if there are more than one, is something science does and needs to do.
    What I think you meant is not get into attacking personalities, which is a seperate matter, not related, and one I reluctantly but thoughtfully concur with.
    Dave G made an assertation that a British Office of statistics publication citing that Winter deaths
    are in excess of Summer deaths is BS. (In effect)
    On a post suggesting that we accept authoritative science when it is reliable.
    And without researching it first.
    “What does it mean for science to be authoritative?“
    Having it’s authority respected?
    I enjoyed Dave G’s eloquent arguments in a good cause, he has an interesting and energetic approach as a non expert in the medical field.

  111. This discussion of the sun and the rotation of the earth is apropos, as understanding some of this stuff is right under our nose.

  112. Willard says:

    > Talk of extending (whatever that is) existing bodies of knowledge (whatever those are) sounds like old-fashioned scholasticism, to me, and that ain’t necessarily science.

    Tell that to whom it may concern, Rev.

    The point you’re dancing around with these stylish squirrels is quite simple – if you criticize what someone writes, you need to read it first. This of course doesn’t preclude the possibility of divination. The same applies to your point. I agree with you that one needs to get up one’s armchair and do some science if one wants to discover stuff about the world. I would extend (is it kosher this time?) this observation to slogans and to the history of science.

    I’m talking about reading because MT speaks of listening. To connect the three points (mine, MT’s, yours) together: listening is related to trust, and mutual understanding comes from experiencing an exchange that involves more than appeals to authority. Contrarians distrust more those who present themselves as scientific authorities than science as an authority. If you want to know how and why, reread the last three threads.

  113. Steven Mosher says:

    “Mosh, if that’s what philosophy is, if I’m enjoined from having any opinion on it without going back to Plato, then it is of no interest to me or the world unless and until it produces a coherent consensus and an externally accessible validation thereof.

    To me it’s a weird and unworkable idea of intellectual progress. I don’t have to be able to cite Aristotle in detail to do physics.”

    1. You are not enjoined from having an opinion, just as Meterologists have opinions about
    climate science.
    2. What is of interest to you is not important. You generally have to show that you have a command of all the isues at hand

    Progress in philosophy? Google that. It’s all meditations on plato. Or maybe we should
    just dissolve all philosophical problems ( Willard will get these jokes)

    There is a weird little game we play in the humanities. Its called “have you read”

    That’s not exactly the whole story. We should ask “do you understand x?”

    Have you read Adura Wolfe? More importantly have you UNDERSTOOD her.

    Earle gave me a D even though I fully replicated the Dialog in the Phaedo. I gave
    the same argument in largely the same words. But did I understand it? I read it.
    I repeated it, but I did not show that I understood it. So in philosophy ( or literature
    or history) you generally have to show you understand the texts you want to criticize
    This usually involves explicating the argument given.

    “then it is of no interest to me or the world unless and until it produces a coherent consensus and an externally accessible validation thereof.”

    This would appear to be inconsistent with your behavior. Maybe you are the one with the coherence problem? You appear to show great interest in the topics raised. You think tweeting
    “Science is political” is dangerous, or potentially dangerous ( hemlock might be in order)

    I do see a little positivism in your approach to things ( external validation) and your approach to
    understanding meaning struck me as an odd first attempt at Ordinary language analysis ( related of course to the vienna circle) what seems problematic in this is that your position seems to depend on essentialism, while your analysis approach, is one typically associated with non essentialist

    Perhaps you can clarify by contrasting your views with the Vienna school and Oxford school?

    When meterologists opine about the climate, when they take isolated phrases such as
    “green house effect” and “control knob” and launch off on diatribes what do we tell them?

    1. Go read the science, the ACTUAL FUCKING SCIENCE
    2. Go do better Science if you think that science is wrong.

    you read tweet by wolfe.

    1. go read her book, her actual fucking book, and show you understand it.
    2. go do better intellectual history.

    what to know what she meant by “science is political” read her book.

  114. Steven Mosher says:

    “t did not occur to me that I should clarify that “reading” in the context of research implied understanding. I hereby declare it – when doing research, reading needs to imply understanding what one reads.”

    yes. I read Heidegger. Could not fucking understand him.

    Understanding meant standing there and in your own words
    giving the argument. no google, no index cards. give the argument, like it was yours.

  115. Bob Loblaw says:

    Combining reading, understanding, philosophy, and entertainment, I really can’t pass up the opportunity to mention Wanda’s point of view…

  116. mt says:

    In the sense of being able to repeat the argument in my own words with sufficient fidelity as not to discomfort the author, I doubt that I understand Willard’s point.

    It’s a useful sense of “understand”, though not the one I’m advocating in an effort to distinguish what science does from “belief”.

    I do however think I understand Jonathan Gilligan’s argument in support of Dr Wolfe’s slogan. It’s quite nice.

    I think it is not equivalent to WIllard’s arguments, which being more unfamiliar to me are rather more interesting. Perhaps Jonathan and Willard are or are mutually consistent. Perhaps not. I’m not sure.

  117. mt says:

    In an offline conversation, Willard says my arguments are very similar to the contrarian arguments he likes to demolish. He suggests that I have been a contrarian all along.

    While a bit taken aback by this, I decided that I should own it.

    I do have contrarian thinking styles. Had I NOT been exposed to the best of climate science, I quite likely would have been a climate contrarian myself. There but for the Grace of God go I.

    But just because there’s an academic community saying something is not enough to have me believe it.

    I’m certainly a contrarian about the parts of economics that address sustainability issues. I’m also on record being a contrarian about various other of the disciplines that hover around science like a bunch of fruit flies around a ripe banana.

    I am not a contrarian about climate science, because I find it compelling *as a science*.

    A key trouble we’re having here is that there are people who take climate economics more seriously than such diverse and comparatively authoritative fields as physical climatology, paleoclimatology, geochemistry, glaciology, chemical oceanography, and ecology. This makes me very unhappy, on a daily basis.

    I think the authority of academic disciplines is not something we should concede to, well, argument from authority (aargh!). Every sphere with a claim to authority needs to be able to make a good case for its authority.

    But the question of *to whom* to make the case is unresolved.

    I deeply wish there to be segments of the academy and/or the press who have the competence and courage to weigh these matters. Or some other unimagined institution perhaps.

    Admittedly, it is not an easy problem. I do think it’s crucial.

    Whom should we believe? Who should decide?

    C P Snow bemoaned the Two Cultures of the academy, but it wasn’t that serious in his time. His interest began with beholding misunderstandings at cocktail parties, if I recall correctly. Nowadays, scientists and those who analyze science for a living don’t even go to the same parties very much, or at best they congregate at different end of the room.

    Despite me and Jonathan Gilligan taking opposite sides on the question of the “science has always been political” slogan, we are both pleading for a realistic assessment of how science is done, blemishes and all, which includes appropriate respect for the amazing robustness of its conclusions.

    But this is quite emphatically not what we are getting from most of the people who take science itself as an object of study.

    The people within the academy to whom the job of determining “which science should we understand to be robust, which dubious, and which unsound” might naturally fall are in fact themselves not perceived as credible by the very people whose (remarkably successful) processes they are supposed to be elucidating.

    To be frank, they seem far more interested in defending their own intellectual bona fides than in understanding where science gets its own. Why some parts of science are so remarkably precise and reliable is an interesting question to scientists, and it’s the sort of thing we discuss endlessly over beer. We find it interesting, but it’s not our day job.

    We get the impression that official STS folk, whose day job it is, don’t find the question of where scientific authority comes form and where it resides interesting. Though it’s frustratingly hard to pin them down, they don’t seem willing to recognize that there’s a nearly miraculous success to account for. Most of them seem indifferent to the key, objectively verifiable, a priori astonishing fact of science’s immense success.

    They rely, in defending their indifference to *the key, central fact about science* “there is no certainty”, “theories are incommensurable”, “it’s all politics anyway” “socially constructed” “culturally cognitioned” etc. etc. They actually don’t seem to get it.

    And this, as the troll said to the donkey, is “the opposite of helping”.

    We know things. We need to know what the things are that we know. It’s like the body politic has had a stroke. The collective brain isn’t communicating correctly between perception and decision-making, even though all the pieces seem intact.

    Could it not be that there is an important sense in which science really is authoritative? If so does it not follow as a corollary that most of STS which is so uncomfortable with that authority is itself not authoritative?

    In the end if I have no choice but to choose one or the other, it’s not a hard choice for me. Critique didn’t build the internet or transplant a heart or unravel the genetic code or discover thousands of new planets.

  118. Willard says:

    Here is where I say something like what Jonathan says:

    Owning the political aspect of science goes hand in hand with making scientists look more humane. It’s a good thing in the long run, and more than prudent in the short run.

    […]

    In any event, not only science has always been political, it may need to become more political than ever. Think about it: just like women are operating a sea change in politics this year, why not wish for more scientists? Hopefully, more scientists would mean science-based policies.

    I added this other argument:

    Making science more humane is very important, but my ClimateBall argument was more important to me. In that spirit, I would never use the CG word. Contrarians don’t need me to advertize their talking points.

    ***

    You may also like:

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  120. @mt,

    … Critique didn’t build the internet …

    Actually, critique did build the Internet. You really oughtn’t opine on things you know very little about.

  121. Steven Mosher says:

    “Whom should we believe? Who should decide?”

    welcome to the englightenment.

    You might argue that the age of “reason” begins with the rejection of the “traditional” forms of governance: The king and the church.

    If you disagreed with the king or church, they had a way of dealing with your question: execution.
    and if you were a King who disagreed with the church, well, go read history.

    you could, if you were perverse, note that since the death of god and the king ( for the west) that
    we have been on a search for method of controlling interpretations that does not involve force.

    I show you the science and you must somehow be compelled to believe it.

    not happening.

    Whom should we believe? Let me bend your mind a bit. The fact that you can ask that, and the
    fact that it appears to be an open question, and not obvious on its face, should tell you something
    about the prospect of answering it in a way that will be compelling to everyone.

  122. Steven Mosher says:

    “C P Snow bemoaned the Two Cultures of the academy, but it wasn’t that serious in his time. His interest began with beholding misunderstandings at cocktail parties, if I recall correctly.”

    Err no. HE specific is NOT TALKING ABOUT COCKTAIL PARTY TALK

    He thought it was major roadblock in solving the worlds problems

    http://s-f-walker.org.uk/pubsebooks/2cultures/Rede-lecture-2-cultures.pdf

    “By this I intend something serious. I am not thinking of the pleasant story
    of how one of the more convivial Oxford great dons—I have heard the story
    attributed to A. L. Smith—came over to Cambridge to dine. The date is perhaps
    the 1890s. I think it must have been at St. John’s, or possibly Trinity. Anyway,
    Smith was sitting at the right hand of the President—or Vice-Master—and he
    was a man who liked to include all round him in the conversation, although he
    was not immediately encouraged by the expressions of his neighbours. He
    addressed some cheerful Oxonian chit-chat at the one opposite to him, and got a
    grunt. He then tried the man on his own right hand and got another grunt. Then,
    rather to his surprise, one looked at the other and said, “Do you know what he’s
    talking about?” “I haven’t the least idea.” At this, even Smith was getting out of
    his depth. But the President, acting as a social emollient, put him at his ease by
    saying, “Oh, those are mathematicians! We never talk to them.”
    No, I intend something serious.”

  123. Steven Mosher says:

    One thing that te CP snow example brings out. Its a subtle difference but gets to one of the major differences in how different disciples work.

    I am reading a science paper. I see a reference. Generally I don’t doubt the reference. X found Y.
    Makes sense, and at most I might read the paper just to check, but in general I use the past results
    to make new results and we get progress. Shoulders of giants and all that. Critique is never enough. you have to move the science forward.

    But if ANYBODY, even willard argued that ‘Snow argued X’, I am picking up that source to check
    That’s one reason wy you will always find us going back to foundational texts, ya that socrates fellow. Or If I quote a bible verse at willard, I know he is going to go read it in context. I know he
    is going to have a contrary opinion on it.Maybe he will go greek on me or maybe one of us will
    whip out some hebrew, but we definately going to the source text. every time. And if we are more sosphisticated it will involve specific commentators. we will probably go talmudic on each other.
    And the point is to show who has greater command of the literature. Make the other guy read some more.

    That’s the nature of the beast because the “connections” to the external world are really not much help. There is only who can master the texts, the argument, the sidelines, the everything written.
    There is no calling up snow and asking him what he really meant, and even if you could, his commentary on his text really doesnt have priority. It’s just another reading. There is no interviewing people on the street to see what they believe Snow meant. There is just you, the text, and a culture that tells you it’s an important work.

  124. dikranmarsupial says:

    SM wrote “1. go read her book, her actual fucking book, and show you understand it.”

    I wrote a longer response, but it seems not to have appeared, so here is the shorter version.

    Does Richard Dawkins have to read the bible, the Torah, the Quran, the Guru Granth Sahib etc. and show he understands them in order to argue that the God described in those texts does not exist? I would say “no” (although he would make fewer theological errors if he did).

  125. hyper,
    Maybe I misunderstand your link, but I didn’t think MT meant critiquing in quite that context. There’s a difference between providing comments that are constructive and seeing oneself as some kind of agent provocateur who simply go around finding things to criticise.

  126. Chris says:

    As I’ve said before: If the public doesn’t know how science works, it will be vulnerable to PR attacks like the “climategate” emails. If the public understands the political aspects of peer review, journals, funding, etc. and understands how these work similarly in…

    and

    Owning the political aspect of science goes hand in hand with making scientists look more humane. It’s a good thing in the long run, and more than prudent in the short run.

    Yes very much agree with these.

    However: we really do need to decide what we mean by “political” when discussing science/political. The above are examples of the small “p” political nature of science. If we’re concerned, for example, with appropriate responses to the scientific evidence on climate change then this is very much a large P” Political consideration. When considering the mantra “Science Has Always Been Political” I’ve assumed that this referred to the large “P” meaning of Political. If not then there’s really nothing to argue about and we could accept (once again!) that our argumentation has been based on semantic misunderstanding.

    An example: The chemiosmotic theory worked out in the mid to early-late 20th century uncovered what might be considered to be the most fundamental property of living things; the generation of solute (mostly ions) gradients across biological membranes and the use of the Free energy in these gradients to drive otherwise thermodynamically-unfavourable reactions. It won a Nobel Prize and is of immense importance to our understanding of all things biological.

    There was lots of small “p” politics involved in working out the chemiosmotic theory since there were two competing hypotheses with their own adherents who attempted to obtain and publish evidence in support of their views. However the science involved in this fundamental theory was never in any way large “P” Political. I doubt more than 1 of 100 people if asked would know about chemiosmosis despite the fact that it’s fundamental for understanding how living things “work”.

    Contrast with scientific evidence for smoking (large scale efforts at misrepresentation)… for a whole range of environmental pollutants (e.g. lead in petrol/paint – large scale efforts at misrepresentation)…for human-induced climate change (ditto). .that was/is highly Politicized

    The science behind understanding HIV-AIDS is an interesting example of transitioning of small “p” science to large “P” science – the science involving a small group of researchers engaged in what at the time was an obscure topic of what became known as “retrovirus’s” rather quickly became Politicized (small “p”-ish squabbling over priority of discovery and then widescale Politicalization due to the nature of the public health issues).

    If all we mean by “Science has always been political” is that competing scientists squabble over priorities, or proselytize in favour of their pet hypotheses, or bitch about the fact that they didn’t get their paper in Nature or their grant funded then that mantra becomes somewhat trivial…

  127. Chris says:

    …If the public understands the political aspects of peer review, journals, funding, etc….

    Following on from my post above – it’s quite instructive to consider how the small “p” political aspects of science have changed in the last ~ 15 years and how these changes have transitioned some aspects of critique of science to large “P” Politicization in support of dubious Political agendas.

    Not that long ago, you came to some point of completion of a study, decided that such-and-such a journal would be the appropriate place to send it and having done so there would be a pretty good chance (80-90%) that it would be peer-reviewed and published there.

    Things are different now. Small (or middling!) “p” political pressures ensure that one tries to publish in highest possible Impact Factor (IF – another example of small-to-middling “p” science politicization) journals. The following journey is not atypical : send the manuscript to Nature … immediate rejection….try a Nature sub-category journal (e.g. Nature Chemical Biology…. rejection -editor suggests the lower ranked “Nature Communications” – nope no luck – your paper ends up in the perfectly fine Nature Scientific Reports. Several publishers have adopted this wheeze of setting up a cascade of titles that allow them to capture the “very good but not stellar” papers to their stable.

    This is very different to how things were not so long ago as is the ludicrous explosion of new journals; the development of predatory journals; the new “science” of hunting for flaws in published papers and instigating retractions (not such a bad thing!) etc.

    This stuff has contributed to the large scale efforts at Politicization of science as a whole where the efforts align to attempts to trash science/scientists as a way of diminishing the scientific authority in general or in specific cases. It’s mostly US-based but in the UK for example it aligns with political efforts to diminish the standing of “experts” which started with attacks on the teaching profession, moved to doctors (their apparent standing needs to be diminished in order to pursue political changes in the NHS) – now it’s University academics that need to be cut down to size in support of Political efforts to turn Universities into markets for fee-paying customers

    Am I sounding paranoid yet? 🙂

  128. Dave_Geologist says:

    Yes of course hyperg. Metastudies, integration of previous results. I covered that further up “Einstein reading and thinking about previously unexplained experimental results is very much the exception.” I wonder as I’m typing if that is too strong, but no, it’s OK. While you don’t have to be as exceptional as Einstein, how many researchers conduct a metastudy vs. how many worked on the original studies? How many researchers worked on the new dinosaur tree? Three. How many people collected and prepared the original specimens, did the descriptions, and wrote them up so that the characters could be coded? Hundreds, perhaps thousands, judging by the size of their dataset. Synthesis papers are research, and are often very important. But doing exactly the same reading and distilling your understanding in a textbook is scholarship.

  129. mt says:

    Yeah, if you think RFCs are “critique”, you haven’t seen RFCs or you haven’t seen critique.

    But that said, before there was a software layer there was a hardware layer. Even software guys tend to write off how amazing, and how steeped in precise physical analysis, it is.

  130. Dave_Geologist says:

    Earle gave me a D even though I fully replicated the Dialog in the Phaedo. I gave the same argument in largely the same words. But did I understand it? I read it. I repeated it, but I did not show that I understood it.

    I think that’s pretty much true in any essay-based exam, Steven. It was something I had to learn (have pointed out to me) in Geology. In Maths and Chemistry (my minors) you could get perfect scores just by giving all the right answers. By shutting up and calculating. No understanding required. Some geology questions are like that (identifying zone fossils; identifying minerals under a microscope; measuring extinction angles and birefringence), others are not (explaining the gabbro-to granite fractionation sequence; or the line of hominid evolution in East Africa (the prof was an old East Africa hand so we got a bunch of palaeoanthropology thrown into the course)).

    Essentially, the message was that the best you could get by demonstrating full knowledge of the course was a 2:1. For a First, you needed to demonstrate understanding. And express that understanding in your essay. Same for the Petroleum Geology MSc on which I was an External Examiner. To get a Distinction (equivalent of a First), you had to demonstrate understanding, not just knowledge. It was brought home to me when we had to discuss student complaints about one quite numerical question (calculating the hydrocarbon generation potential of a particular basin IIRC). The question had some words about “explaining each step”, but a lot of people just provided the calculation and were upset when they got the right answer but didn’t get full marks.

  131. Dave said:

    “The following journey is not atypical : send the manuscript to Nature … immediate rejection…”

    What you need to do is get 44 of your colleagues to co-author a paper on how complex ENSO is and then it will get accepted to Nature

    “El Niño–Southern Oscillation complexity”
    https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-018-0252-6

    “Here we provide a synopsis of our current understanding of the spatio-temporal complexity of this important climate mode and its influence on the Earth system.”

    … alas resolving nothing, except reassuring people that by having 45 scientists declare ENSO complex that it has improved our understanding of the phenomenon.

  132. Dave_Geologist says:

    But if ANYBODY, even willard argued that ‘Snow argued X’, I am picking up that source to check

    I’d put a slightly different spin on that Steven. The reason I trust reference 31 when is says “X found Y” is because of the self-policing and self-reinforcing processes of Doing Science. Peer review, a hierarchy of journals that you can slide down if your reputation slips, etc. It’s part of why Science Works. Of course the author should always read the full paper and not rely on Z said X found Y. Because maybe your claim depends on y not Y, and you can’t be sure that X found Y and y without properly checking.

  133. Dave_Geologist says:

    BTW I didn’t mean to imply there that philosophers, social scientists, STSers, whatever are less trustworthy than scientists. Just that science is All Joined Up. So except at the forefront of a rapidly evolving field, there usually aren’t two or more equally valid opinions. And (a favourite bugbear of mine), some schools in some fields seem positively averse to clear, concise writing so it’s easy to misunderstand what X said.

  134. Dave_Geologist says:

    What you need to do is get 44 of your colleagues to co-author a paper on how complex ENSO is and then it will get accepted to Nature

    Well in fairness Paul, it says on the masthead and in the abstract that it’s a review article. Which Nature does, along with science-journalism articles. So in that sense it’s scholarship, not a research report. Aimed at a wide audience, given the box explaining terms all those working in the field already know, but the presence of 100 references. And at ten pages, I rather think it says more than just “it’s complex”, and is well worth reading.

  135. angech says:

    Steven Mosher
    “It did not occur to me that I should clarify that “reading” in the context of research implied understanding. I hereby declare it – when doing research, reading needs to imply understanding what one reads.” yes. I read Heidegger. Could not understand him.”
    Quotes (Wiki)
    “Language is the house of the truth of Being.
    The most thought-provoking thing in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking.
    Every man is born as many men and dies as a single one.”
    Thanks for improving my knowledge of philosophers.
    I think you are being too modest.

    The meaning of life is to make other people happy when you can and even if you do not need to.

    Not Heidegger.

  136. Dave_Geologist says:

    What is research, then?

    Fortuitously, are least in the case of science, ATTP gave a good definition in the next thread.

    (Using) the scientific process to uncover the nature of reality.

    (I think “uncover” in this context includes “understanding”, as opposed, say, to the Biblical creation story which is just handed down by an Authority.)

  137. Dave, It’s not really a review article, but an apparent synopsis of a conference that the co-authors all participated in. So in this case, to get a citation in the highly-regarded Nature journal, all each of the co-authors had to do was pay a conference fee. Is this a more fair observation?

  138. Dave_Geologist says:

    I don’t know Paul. I’m pretty sure the journalistic or News and Views articles don’t count as a formal publication. Or at least they shouldn’t. Don’t know about something like this. In the pre-electronic era it wasn’t unusual for one of the conveners to write up a lengthy summary because there wasn’t room for a thematic set of papers or special volume. She deserved some credit for putting in the effort. And I presume there must be something in the algorithm that distinguished between single-author papers and 50-author papers of equal weight. As an industrial scientist I never had to worry about that stuff. And back in my PhD days we didn’t have all that publication-metric malarkey. The field was small enough that we all knew who the top people were and which were the top journals.

  139. @mt, @ATTP,

    The RFC or Request For Comments system is the foundation of governance for the Internet. While there is no political government which runs it, it necessarily demands engineering coordination. Whereas some engineering technologies rely upon promulgation and enforcement of standards, such as those advanced by the IEEE (else your smart phone might not work when you moved to a different region), the Internet has a set of recommendations to which ISPs and vendors more or less adhere. They have no direct financial incentive to do so, nor is there any penalty if they violate a recommendation. Basically, if they do violate it, they might miss out on traffic or “eyeballs” or capability which relies upon compliance.

    Still, like most engineering standards, as these are advanced, there is a good deal of tussle back and forth among interested and participating parties, and the tussle can (ahem) get pretty intense at times. This happens, as far as I can tell, because there is an absence of an overruling authority. But once an RFC is adopted, because of this arrangement, there is always second guessing, partly from those who opposed the proposal in its present form in the first place, and partly from newcomers who think they have a better way. Some of these make it into RFC proposals, some don’t.

    But, worse, because these are recommendations, people can simply choose not to follow the RFC or even abuse it. That is a pretty strong critique. Accordingly, features and devices which were meant for certain things, such as HTTP headers (USER-AGENT, ACCEPT-LANGUAGE), are used for purposes of actual communication, which is not their intent. The Domain Name System (DNS) is used for command-and-control, not only by legitimate businesses, but by malware distribution networks.

    What’s remarkable, I think, is that despite this informal structure, the Internet is what it is, and it does what it does. But it is more of an emergent system than an engineered device, to the extent to which people like me and my colleagues study it almost as if it were a natural phenomenon. Moreover, it changes, responding to pressure from governments, large and innovative vendors and suppliers, from the advent of smart phones, from video distribution over it, and interests who try to innovate around each of these.

    It’s a very free-for-all place, and how it runs drives political authorities crazy. I daresay, as was seen with Zuckerberg testifying in front of Congress, that few leaders there understand how and why it works, despite their attempts at regulating it. It also means that attribution of harm using it is very difficult, although possible.

  140. Willard says:

    > Yeah, if you think RFCs are “critique”, you haven’t seen RFCs or you haven’t seen critique.

    Critique gave you week-ends, votes, wages, insurances, and health care, MT. You might reply that books don’t create movements. You’d have to apply the same standard to science.

    Computers are based on logic. We owe that logic to a philosophy adjunct. He’s also a father figure of analytic philosophy, a way of doing philosophy that has nothing to do with critique or Snow’s lichurchur, but everything with your polysemy argument: implicature, connotation, relevance, etc.

  141. mt says:

    You can make a computer out of springs and levers. It’s just not very useful. But if you make a computer out of electronic devices, that’s another story.

    Those electronics and the transmission systems that link them are not based Frege or Boole-descended discrete logic, but in continuum mechanics described by precise and elegant non-binary mathematics, following on from Maxwell.

    In an interesting coincidence, one of the first bits of particularly egregious deconstruction of science I saw alleged at considerable length that because Frege was a bad person who mistreated women (I take no position on this claim), mathematical logic was consequently an instrument of oppression and should be replaced.

  142. There are a couple of items in the ENSO review article that do point to future areas of research. The impact of the seasonal cycle, the connection to tropical instability waves, and the biennial mode observed.

  143. Willard says:

    > I think “uncover” in this context includes “understanding”, as opposed, say, to the Biblical creation story which is just handed down by an Authority.

    Or say being handed down a t-shirt with “E=MC2” written on it and be forced to wear it during initiation day. Learning by rote how to apply formulas or equations need not require any understanding of the world. By contrast, one can come to understand many things about Genesis by sitting in a theology class and follow the play-by-play in Aramaic.

    Sometimes I think scientists should have mandatory theology classes.

    The most relevant sense of “understanding” in science is explanation. In critical theory, understanding works differently, e.g.:

    Basic Apel, as a commenter observed.

  144. Willard says:

    > Those electronics and the transmission systems that link them are not based Frege or Boole-descended discrete logic, but in continuum mechanics described by precise and elegant non-binary mathematics, following on from Maxwell.

    You say “continuum,” but I don’t think it means what you think it means if you suggest that you can integrate it in transistors.

    A blast from the past:

    As an electrical engineer, mathematician, and physicist, Atanasoff’s thoughts turned to using electronics as a possible solution to problems of accuracy and speed in performing scientific calculations. Existing textbooks and research were not helpful, and his frustration increased as he felt closer and closer to making a major discovery, yet somehow seemed unable to pull all of his ideas together. During the winter of 1937, Atanasoff made his now infamous drive across the Iowa border, to a little roadhouse in Illinois where he stopped for a drink, was able to finally relax and let the ideas flow.

    The four ideas that came together were:

    He would use electricity and electronics as the medium for the computer

    In spite of custom, he would use base-two numbers for his computer

    He would use condensors for memory and would use a regenerative or “jogging” process to avoid lapses that might be caused by leakage of power

    He would compute by direct logical action and not by enumeration (counting) as used in existing analog caculating devices.

    He spent the next year making plans for his computer, and in March 1939 made a formal application to the college for funding a graduate assistant and for materials. Iowa State College approved a grant for $650. Atanasoff hired Clifford Berry, and they began to construct the prototype for the world’s first electronic digital computer.

    http://jva.cs.iastate.edu/operation.php

    If you need more information on that era, ask a historian of science.

  145. mt says:

    Sheesh! Now who’s out of their lane!

    The tubes he intended to use (and the transistors that followed) were primarily designed as amplifiers. They are indeed described by differential equations, and can indeed be used in analog mode to perform continuum calculations. The engineers that designed those tubes and the factories that made them use something other than discrete logic. The course in engineering school where you learn what a diode is and what a tube is and what a transistor is is something my poor brain shows multiple scars from. I promise you, Maxwell was there every step of the way.

    The relationship between continuum mathematics and discrete mathematics is not something I need you to clarify for me, nor is the history of the field of computation.

    You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, and you don’t need a historian to tell you your own story.

  146. Chris says:

    re Paul:

    Dave said:
    “The following journey is not atypical : send the manuscript to Nature … immediate rejection…”

    What you need to do is get 44 of your colleagues to co-author a paper on how complex ENSO is and then it will get accepted to Nature

    actually it was Chris (moi) that said this:
    https://andthentheresphysics.wordpress.com/2018/07/29/on-questioning-authority/#comment-127360

    But I don’t have a too much of a problem with this. Everything that is published, wherever it’s published, gets the recognition it deserves IMHO, especially nowadays with Internet Search engines. I don’t mind if Joe Schmuck’s paper get’s into Nature and mine doesn’t so long as mine gets into somewhere decent. Perhaps it’s easier to say this towards the end of a scientific career than near the beginning, and it’s unfortunately the case that these things matter more nowadays from a career perspective (a Nature paper does look good on one’s resume). But we do need to recognise that the small “p” politics of scientific publishing exist much as in the small “p” politics of the other aspects of our lives.

  147. Willard says:

    > You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, and you don’t need a historian to tell you your own story.

    You might not need someone who studies argumentation to tell you that you’ve just moved the goalposts with your “the tubes he intended to use,” MT. Keep backtracking to physics, and nevermind that it’s a logical design that solved ABC’s problem. If you do it the Michael Jackson way, the movement will be continuous and nobody will notice it.

    When did you study (the history of) computer science?

  148. mt says:

    It’s an obsession of mine. I don’t have a degree in it. I have given a couple of lectures.

  149. Dave_Geologist says:

    Or say being handed down a t-shirt with “E=MC2” written on it and be forced to wear it during initiation day. Learning by rote how to apply formulas or equations need not require any understanding of the world. [You can indeed, but I was answering the question “what is research”. Rote-learning is not research. Hence the second half of the compound word.] By contrast, one can come to understand many things about Genesis by sitting in a theology class and follow the play-by-play in Aramaic. [Indeed. That one’s scholarship. Not research.]

    My point was that in “(Using) the scientific process to uncover the nature of reality”, one has to uncover the nature of reality oneself, not have it handed to you or learn it by rote. I find it hard to see how you can do that without understanding. Learning, yes, especially rote-learning. Although good exam questions are designed to test understanding as well (see my comment above about geology exams). Scholarship can of course come with or without understanding. I could read about string theory until the heat-death of the Universe and still not understand it.

  150. mt says:

    Also I’m getting really tired of this “moving the goalposts” thing when I’m just trying to clarify.

    “No Maxwell, no tubes. No tubes, no computer!” -Zorg

  151. dikranmarsupial says:

    What MT wrote was perfectly reasonable and there has been no shifting of goal posts AFAICS. From a programmer’s perspective, a computer is a discrete logic device, but from a hardware device this is less and less true as you go through the layer of abstraction. From an integrated circuit design perspective, the analog properties of the components and interconnect becomes a very important issue, especially if you want to clock the chip at high speed.

    I think the article was distinguishing between binary and analog computers (which I suspect were developed for things like gunnery tables), they both use the same sort of valves and you would need to know the same maths to design both. I have a fascinating book from 1966 called “We built our own computers”, where sixth form students from Exeter school build binary and analogue computers. The idea of an analogue computer today seems a it weird, but there would have been tasks more easily performed then in that way.

  152. dikranmarsupial says:

    I should add vacuum tubes were generally designed as diodes or amplifier components (as MT suggests), AFAIK they didin’t make discrete logic components in the form of valves. I have my RCA receiving tube catalog and the radio designers handbook, but if they did make logic components then that might not be the best place to look. However to make complex logic circuits you would need the equivalent of several transistors, which is not easy to do in a single glass envelope. If anyone has a part number, I’d be happy to be corrected.

  153. @mt,

    I understand what you intended to mean by critique in the original, but I needed to clarify Internet and construction and governance which is as critical as the link layer and pretty much independent of it. For the most part there is nothing elegant about it at all, and my point is that it is largely the product of papered over conflict. Moreover, in the case of RFCs, as I said, they are observed by convention, and not completely.

    Nevertheless browsers and servers operate reasonably well, even if, today, what goes into a browser and how it operates is dominated by a couple of big players, e.g., RFC-2445, RFC-7413. Moreover, where there are ambiguities, big players tend to set the standard by interpretation, e.g., RFC 1738.

    I maintain that there is a lot of engineering criticism in the makeup of RFCs, most of it being done in the hallways and in informal online discussions. But some leaks through to the status of becoming RFCs. To wit:

    RFC 531 “Feast or famine? A response to two recent RFC’s about network information, JUNE 1973”

    RFC 555 “Responses to critiques of the proposed mail protocol, JULY 1973”

    RFC 874 “Critique of X.25, SEPTEMBER 1982”

    RFC 967 “All victims together, DECEMBER 1985”

    RFC 1705 “Six Virtual Inches to the Left: The Problem with IPng, OCTOBER 1994”

    RFC 1925 “The Twelve Networking Truths, APRIL 1 1996”

    RFC 2525 “Known TCP Implementation Problems, MARCH 1999”

    RFC 2923 “TCP Problems with Path MTU Discovery, SEPTEMBER 2000”

    RFC 3092 “Etymology of `Foo’, APRIL 1 2001”

    RFC 4074 “Common Misbehavior Against DNS Queries for IPv6 Addresses, MAY 2005”

    BCP 106 RFC 4086 “Randomness Requirements for Security, JUNE 2005” (“. The use of pseudo-random processes to generate secret quantities can result in pseudo-security. A sophisticated attacker may find it easier to reproduce the environment that produced the secret quantities and to search the resulting small set of possibilities than to locate the quantities in the whole of the potential number space. Choosing random quantities to foil a resourceful and motivated adversary is surprisingly difficult. This document points out many pitfalls in using poor entropy sources or traditional pseudo-random number generation techniques for generating such quantities. It recommends the use of truly random hardware techniques and shows that the existing hardware on many systems can be used for this purpose.”)

    RFC 4264 “BGP Wedgies, NOVEMBER 2005”

    RFC 4593 “Generic Threats to Routing Protocols, OCTOBER 2006”

    RFC 5684 “Unintended Consequences of NAT Deployments with Overlapping Address Space, FEBRUARY 2010”

    RFC 5887 “Renumbering Still Needs Work, MAY 2010”

    RFC 6039 “Issues with Existing Cryptographic Protection Methods for Routing Protocols, OCTOBER 2010”

    RFC 6269 “Issues with IP Address Sharing, JUNE 2011”

    RFC 6752 “Issues with Private IP Addressing in the Internet, SEPTEMBER 2012”

    RFC 7048 “Neighbor Unreachability Detection Is Too Impatient, JANUARY 2014”

    And, in case @mt thought that the speed of light was a limit …

    RFC 6921 “Design Considerations for Faster-Than-Light (FTL) Communication, APRIL 1 2013”

  154. “actually it was Chris (moi) that said this:

    sorry about that.

    I do agree with your assessment that the pedigree of the journal shouldn’t matter. FWIW, among physicists, publishing in Physical Review Letters is considered a bigger coup than Nature or Science.

  155. mt says:

    I’m pretty sure the original insight is that the tubes can be switched back and forth from high to low saturation easily enough. These would have been ordinary commercial amplifier tubes at the time. Then you need to arrange them into a fast memory bit as per https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flip-flop_(electronics) . Out of those you can build a CPU.

    According to Wikipedia the idea traces back to two Brits, Eccles and Jordan, 1918.

    Don’t know if tubes designed for fast switching were available to Atanasoff and contemporaries.

  156. dikranmarsupial says:

    Sometimes I wish I still taught in an electronics department… ;o)

  157. dikranmarsupial says:

    According to this, the binary addition circuit for Colossus was built using Mullard EF36 valves – which appear to be a conventional pentode amplifier device. If specialist logic valves were available at the time, I suspect Colossus would have had them; project X was rather high priority.

  158. dikranmarsupial says:

    And L63 – general purpose triode amplifier

    “Perhaps the best anecdote is Chandler’s, who remembers telephoning an
    official in the Ministry of Supply yet again to ask for another couple of thousand EF 36
    valves and being asked, “What the bloody hell are you doing with these things, shooting
    them at the Jerries?”

    ;o)

  159. Mal Adapted says:

    MT:

    A key trouble we’re having here is that there are people who take climate economics more seriously than such diverse and comparatively authoritative fields as physical climatology, paleoclimatology, geochemistry, glaciology, chemical oceanography, and ecology. This makes me very unhappy, on a daily basis.

    Hang on, now. Speaking for myself, I take climate economics as seriously, not more seriously, than the earth sciences and biology. I’ll stipulate that Economics, as a cultural institution and body of knowledge, is to some extent less authoritative than those other academic disciplines, due to the nature of the subject matter: namely, our own complicated behavior. That means economists have to try harder than physicists not to fool themselves. Economics is nonetheless indispensable to our quest for justified (for reasonable values of ‘justified’), useful (for values of ‘useful’) knowledge of reality. Bear in mind we’re here to talk about an anthropogenic phenomenon, and a clear and present danger to human happiness if not sheer survival.

    Like Physics, Economics is self-correcting: for example, the concept of a rational economic agent is now understood to include cognitive motivators like risk-aversion and fairness, along with greed and the lust for power. If Economics is the scientific investigation of human behavior, that’s progress. Physics envy notwithstanding, in many cases Economics is demonstrably more successful than haruspicy! If you wish to argue the contrary, a few more Econ courses may qualify you to do so, assuming you still want to. E pur, i mercati esistono ;^).

  160. Willard says:

    > I’m getting really tired of this “moving the goalposts” thing when I’m just trying to clarify.

    Look. MT. I’m no POMO guy. You’re talking about what I did study, both the computer stuff and the argumentation stuff. Going from

    Those electronics and the transmission systems that link them are not based Frege or Boole-descended discrete logic

    to

    No Maxwell, no tubes. No tubes, no computer!

    indeed moves the goalposts. The first is “not logic,” while the second is “but physics.”

    Do you really think I am disputing that computers don’t rely on reality to exist? If that’s the case, then here it is. I, Willard, hereby solemnly declare that reality exists, and that one cannot simply create a physical computer without Maxwell equations to kick in.

    You’re still incorrect about the claim that computers didn’t need logic. As a matter of fact, they did. As a matter of theory, they may do too. Even quantum computers do.

  161. mt says:

    “You’re still incorrect about the claim that computers didn’t need logic.”

    Of course, since I actually know what I am talking about, I never intended to say any such thing; it’s a most uncharitable reading to suggest that I did say it.

  162. Willard says:

    > it’s a most uncharitable reading to suggest that I did say it.

    I know of no charitable interpretation in which Those electronics and the transmission systems that link them are not based Frege or Boole-descended discrete logic isn’t related to Frege or Boolean logic, MT. If that’s not enough, I still recall why Maxwell came up. Here’s the run down (dramatized for effect):

    [MT] Critique didn’t build the internet or transplant a heart or unravel the genetic code or discover thousands of new planets.

    [Hyper] Well, actually, RFCs looks like critique to me.

    [MT] if you think RFCs are “critique”, you haven’t seen RFCs or you haven’t seen critique.

    [W] Critique gave you week-ends, votes, wages, insurances, and health care [and c]omputers are based on logic.

    [MT] Those electronics and the transmission systems that link them are not based Frege or Boole-descended discrete logic. Only Maxwell.

    [W] Take a look at ABC, the first electronic uses logic computations.

    The actual point of all this is that your criticism of criticism may be a tad unfair. Don’t get me wrong – I endorse that science is what works. But you shouldn’t dismiss everything else as crap, if only because you never know when it’ll be useful for science. Besides, that’d be self-defeating. I’ve seen critique, and you’re not doing much else right now.

    Questioning is all well and good, as long as we’re willing to listen to the answers.

  163. angech says:

    it is. I, Willard, hereby solemnly declare that reality exists, and that one cannot simply create a physical computer without Maxwell equations to kick in.
    “I hate reality but it’s still the best place to get a good steak.”― Woody Allen

  164. Dave_Geologist says:

    I have a fascinating book from 1966 called “We built our own computers”, where sixth form students from Exeter school build binary and analogue computers.

    Ah, nostalgia time. I built both, some years later. Maybe the teacher was inspired by the book. We had to do a maths project and I opted to build a mechanical digital computer (a crude Difference Engine, if you like). On a work-experience placement to an engineering laboratory, I built a hydraulic control system which was mixed analogue/digital, using the same components for both (hydraulic version of FETs IIRC, using pressure in a closed LP system to open and close valves in an open, pumped HP system – with on and off threshold pressures but gradual opening in between). I had both on/off switches controlled by AND, OR, NAND, NOR gates, and analogue volume or pressure controls.

  165. Dave_Geologist says:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flip-flop_(electronics)
    Gosh, more nostalgia. It’s decades since I’ve heard the word flip-flop, other than in a footwear context 🙂 .

  166. Dave_Geologist says:

    And, at the risk of stepping into the lion’s den, there’s a whole Wiki page on analogue computers. Some of which were essentially scale models. No Boolean logic required. And, as in dikran’s electronic valve examples and my hydraulic valve example, the same hardware can do both – saturating the valve for on/off, using intermediate values for graduated opening.

  167. dikranmarsupial says:

    “You’re still incorrect about the claim that computers didn’t need logic. As a matter of fact, they did. As a matter of theory, they may do too. Even quantum computers do”

    Analogue computers do not (as D_G mentions)

    “Those electronics and the transmission systems that link them are not based Frege or Boole-descended discrete logic isn’t related to Frege or Boolean logic, MT.”

    I read MTs comment as meaning that even in a digital computer, the logic is an abstraction built on top of hardware which (at least at its lowest level) is “continuous” electronic devices. That is a correct statement, AFAICS, and especially when applied to valve technology.

  168. dikranmarsupial says:

    “He would use condensors for memory and would use a regenerative or “jogging” process to avoid lapses that might be caused by leakage of power”

    is a statement about the continuous nature of the electronics intruding into the discrete abstraction.

  169. dikranmarsupial says:

    D_G I still have the two-transistor (BC184s) flip-flop I made as a first year undergraduate sitting on a bookshelf in my office. Like my knowledge of electronics, these days it is mostly ornamental. Nostalgia-fest for me also ;o)

  170. Dave_Geologist says:

    I built all sorts dikran (with transistors, not valves). Mostly progressively more powerful amplifiers (for music, of course 🙂 ). Got me invited to parties 🙂 . The last one had mil-spec power transistors which could be hugely over-driven without failing (surplus military stuff was cheaper than new civilian – IIRC my final power transistors were also radiation-hardened for satellite/missile use). They did tend to warp the circuit board, so I did bring my trusty soldering iron for real-time repairs. sometimes without stopping the music, despite the board having no shielding around the high-voltage end 😦 . No HSE in those days. I also recall taking the batteries out of the Geiger counter in the X-ray lab because it wouldn’t stop chattering, and using boiling HF in a glass-fronted (frosted glass, of course 😉 ) fume cupboard because the fumes had destroyed the extractor fan in the plastic-fronted one 😦 .

    I gave up on electronics when IC’s bigger than simple op-amps came in. Too boring, no design or assembly skills required..

  171. Dave_Geologist says:

    Ah, I see my hydraulic-logic comment is in moderation for some reason. So some subsequent posts may seem out of context.

  172. dikranmarsupial says:

    D_G have been meaning to build myself a valve amp* for my electric guitar for years, but haven’t got round to it yet (discovered luthiery and lute-playing, so amp not required). Got most of the bits and pieces. Modern surface mount components and microcontrollers have made electronics as a hobby rather less interesting than it once was, but I miss it anyway.

    * valves don’t make high gain amplifiers very easily, they are not even very good at saturating, which is why they make good guitar amps ;o)

  173. dikranmarsupial says:

    I see I am in moderation now, no idea what was what I wrote that triggered it.

  174. dikranmarsupial says:

    I blame machine learning ;o)

  175. Willard says:

    Released.

    Why settle for machine learning when we can have deep learning:

  176. Willard says:

    > the logic is an abstraction built on top of hardware

    As opposed to Maxwell equations, which are in the tubes I suppose.

  177. @Dave_Geologist,

    Not clear what quantum computers are: They look analog, but, then, they are weirdly analog.

  178. @Willard,

    Why in the world is that thing about Deep Learning a “great meme”? I’m with Prof Mitch Marcus on this one.

  179. dikranmarsupial says:

    The tweet I noticed with that meme had a reply to the effect that there should be a third panel with a statistician safely and productively raking up some leaves ;o) I work in machine learning, so I should point out that treading on the head of the rake is not compulsory, just easy to do.

    “As opposed to Maxwell equations, which are in the tubes I suppose.”

    sorry, it really is tedious when (minor) errors are evaded rather than acknowledged. MT was making a perfectly reasonable point AFAICS, and this sort of response does you no favours.

    What MT wrote was “Those electronics and the transmission systems that link them are not based Frege or Boole-descended discrete logic, but in continuum mechanics described by precise and elegant non-binary mathematics, following on from Maxwell.” [emphasis mine]

    I don’t know exactly what MT had in mind when he mentioned Maxwell, but the transmission lines might include radio or IR transmission links, in which case Maxwell is obviously relevant. All wires carrying current generate magnetic fields, and if switched generate RF. Given that you have thermionic generation of electrons, indirect heaters and electric fields in a tube, yes Maxwell equations do describe things that happen in a tube (although I don’t think they are at a level of abstraction relevant to most tube circuit design). However, pointing out that the electronics happens at a level of abstraction below binary logic is certainly a reasonable point.

    At the end of the day, if you don’t know what someone means by something then you could just ask them, “How are Maxwell’s equations relevant to electronics”, rather than taking an adversarial approach all the time, which usually just ends up derailing the discussion and generating bad feeling. It is possible to have a discussion without having an argument.

    I think I’ll leave it there.

  180. Dave_Geologist says:

    Audiophiles do say they prefer valve amps dikran. I presume not being good at saturating makes for soft rather than hard clipping.

    Of course you could always go down the Brian May Red Special route and turn the volume up to 11:

    The pick-ups are wired in series rather than the more usual parallel configuration. The output is also added together when wired in series, meaning that with all three pick-ups turned on the output is tripled.

    Probably in series on Liar, so it could be heard above the drums and bass 🙂 .

    I sorta did go down that road, in that my final amp was a push-pull (another word I haven’t encountered for decades 😦 ).

  181. dikranmarsupial says:

    A May/Tufnel hybrid would be a thing to behold (provided it wasn’t Tufnel’s guitar and May’s amp ;o) IIRC May was fond of his VOX AC30 amps. I had something more modest in mind, a class-A amp of about 2 watts so I can have the nice distortion but without the volume.

    For audiophiles, I think that is only for the subspecies that measure quality in wallet-inches rather than THD. ;o)

  182. Willard says:

    > it really is tedious when (minor) errors are evaded rather than acknowledged. MT was making a perfectly reasonable point AFAICS, and this sort of response does you no favours.

    I saved your face at least four times in the last few days, dear Dikran. Should I do it one more time, or do as you do with Richie? Since you admit “I don’t know exactly what MT had in mind when he mentioned Maxwell,” go check back. Report.

    “Maxwell is obviously relevant” to build the “transmission systems” you emphasized the same way logic was relevant to build ABC. Nothing more, nothing less. And since you and I both know how logic is relevant to computation, you better cut your losses.

  183. izen says:

    @-Dave_G

    Wiki is not allways a reliable source.
    The idea that three pickups wired in series will have triple the output is not electronically credible.
    Even if the three pickups were all in phase the resistance (and inductance) that the pickup coils then impose on each other would reduce the total output to less then 3x one pickup.

    There is also no advantage in having a higher output from the guitar to get a louder volume, all that is down to the amp.

    What the series arrangement may do is alter the tonal quality of the signal, in part because the impedence match between guitar and amp input will be different.

    A valve, (or tube) is a high impedence input stage can be over-driven to get the ‘smooth’ distortion that guitarists like, but the use of valves on the output stage requires large high power transformers to step the valve voltages down to speaker levels.

    Nowdays it is easier to duplicate the various tonal qualities of valve input stages with mosfets, or in software after digitising the input, and then using switch-mode (class D) for the high power output stage.
    That way it does not take two roadies to lift the b$%&*y thing, and half the power isn’t just warming the stage.
    That might offend the purists, and like audiophiles there are people with enough money to pay for bespoke versions of old technology.

    The depressing thing is that the majority of the music people listen to now is an .mp3 download, usually removing half the audo information.
    Cassettes were better than that.

  184. izen says:

    Digital computers can operate without Maxwell.
    Had one of these when young.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digi-Comp_I

  185. @izen,

    The depressing thing is that the majority of the music people listen to now is an .mp3 download, usually removing half the audo information.
    Cassettes were better than that.

    Well, it depends in part on how the MP3s are made, but the point of music is to have more people listen to it than fewer. And the music industry, at least in the United States (which is all I know), has a long history of brokers trying to get in between the artist and the public, and taking the excess profits.

    To the degree that the MP3-like revolution impoverishes such middlemen, I do not shed a tear. Indeed, I might say the same for sci-hub, although I imagine that might be a tad more controversial. Also, frankly, although I’d love to toss them my fair share, needing to do it via Bitcoin is a hindrance, AFAIC.

  186. Willard says:

    As an old HI-FI nut myself, I’m of two ears about analog sound and numeric encoding. My mind knows about Nyquist theorem. But my body feels a difference. A concert is still a Very Good Thing.

    After some blind testing, I realized I could only discern the lesser compression ratios. Neil Young’s high-rate digital audio advocacy sounds misguided to me. It also wastes energy. So I bought a small Bluetooth speaker recently. Went for the Marshall instead of the Naim. Less expensive, more portable, sexier. Does the job.

  187. izen says:

    @-As an old HI-FI nut myself, I’m of two ears about analog sound and numeric encoding.

    Yeah, been there, done that.
    The thing that makes me doubtful about the whole HiFi argument is spending time a few decades ago in pro recording studios and around live concert sound.
    Apart from a few trenchant traditionalists they were eagerly dumping their valve amps and tape recording for solid state amps and digital recording systems.
    Although they tended to keep the speakers.

    It was noticable that none used the sort of systems that HiFi nuts regard as definitive. One reason is that while top-end HiFi sounds good and accurately reproduces recorded material it is incapable of handling ‘live’ sound from real instuments and good mics. Pluging a guitar or a mic on a snare into HiFi system was a good way of blowing it up.

    Pro recording studios tended to have systems with MUCH more headroom and speakers the size of a small shed. A Crown amp and Tannoy Lockwoods would be the minimum.

    Except for the niche market who provide a ‘classic’ system almost all recording is now put into good AD converters at the input, and encoded numerically onto a hard-drive, usually 16-24 bit at 96k. And played back (via equaly good and expensive DAs) on multi-amp powered speakers that start at several k in cost.

    For an .mp3 to sound as good as the uncompressed .wav file it usually ends up almost the same size. But a lot of what you can download from iTunes or Spotify gets crushed for file size which I suppose is why Dr Dre ‘Beats’ headphones which introduce a massive amount of low end resonance and distortion are popular. They are adding back in a (false) version of the lost detail.

    Such past experience has its downside. I now have significant hearing loss with very different frequency curves between left and right ears. So no stereo perception, but for some reason it makes cheap AD-DA conversion sound horrible. If the sound file is uncompressed and was made with good (expensive) sampling gear then the quality of what you hear seems to depend on the quality of the DAs and headroom/power handling of the speakers.

  188. izen says:

    Additionally – Live concert sound nowadays tends to have a signal path that converts to digital early (often at the stage box) processes, mixes the whole thing in the digital domain, and increasingly commonly feeds a digital stream to speakers that have built in DAs and multi-amped (low/mid/high) specialist drivers.

  189. Dave_Geologist says:

    Well I did only say turn it up to 11, not 30 😉 . But point taken. If you buy an mp3 from Amazon or Google it will at least have a CD-quality frequency range. Obviously there may be other compromises than frequency made in the compression process. Some artists make lossless flacs available at a higher price, but of course that just pushes the decisions and compromises further up the food-chain.

    And back to May, he was of course working in the pre-digital era, and in a genre where distortion is a feature not a bug. The opposite to an audiophile listening to a classical concert with a huge frequency and dynamic range, and silences where you also want very low hum and hiss.

  190. @angech,

    Ha! Regarding

    Language is the house of the truth of Being. The most thought-provoking thing in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking. Every man is born as many men and dies as a single one.

    a Famous Correspondent, one Charles Babbage, wrote to Lord Tennyson,

    Sir, In your otherwise beautiful poem (The Vision of Sin) there is a verse which reads

    ``Every moment dies a man,
      every moment one is born.''
    

    Obviously, this cannot be true and I suggest that in the next edition you have it read

    ``Every moment dies a man
      every moment 1 \frac{1}{16} is born.''
    

    Even this value is slightly in error but should be sufficiently accurate for poetry.

  191. Dave_Geologist says:

    If Babbage had written “Every moment dies a man, every moment five are born, but four of them die without issue”, he might have beaten Darwin to the punch 😉 .

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