[extropy-chat] SI morality

Chris Phoenix cphoenix at CRNano.org
Sat Apr 24 15:07:56 UTC 2004

Jef Allbright wrote:
> I would like to nominate this for Post of the Month, if we're still 
> doing anything of that sort.
> Thank you, Chris, for your insightful and practical comments on the 
> importance of context and *effective* communication with others of 
> different mind set.


I've gone through a crisis of faith with regard to scientists recently. 
  In many areas, I've come to realize, scientists are far too 
self-assured.  They think they're practicing science, when in fact they 
are merely contributing to science.  A lone scientist can run 
experiments, observe, make hypotheses, form opinions... but cannot fully 
practice science, because science can only emerge from interactive 
criticism.  We are all too fallible to trust ourselves to generate good 
science without lots of help.

I'm realizing that this is an interesting mirror of the problem of 
believing that one's mental context extends farther than it does.  A 
practitioner of a discipline from which value emerges may come to feel 
that they embody that discipline, and thus are personally infused with 
that value or quality.  A voter may come to believe that he represents 
the American people.  A scientist may come to believe that she has the 
ability to sort fact from fiction.  Both are wrong.

In many areas of science, we don't yet know which of several 
incompatible alternatives is more accurate.  Sometimes, we don't even 
know what questions to ask!  In such a case, any particular opinion 
cannot be the product of science.  Yet scientists express opinions in 
those areas all the time.  When practicing science, this is necessary 
and appropriate.  But when reporting on science, it borders on fraud.

So how can science be reported to the real world?  If one scientist's 
opinion isn't trustworthy, what about lots of opinions together? 
Michael Crichton has called this "consensus science," and correctly 
attacked it.  It's no more than a popularity contest for ideas, and the 
popularity of an idea has little to do with its truth.  In fact, in 
scientific terms, an idea can have nothing to do with truth, since no 
scientific theory is true, merely not-yet-false.  Science is a very 
effective way to extract ideas from the real world.  But we need some 
other way to send those ideas back to the world--to test the 
non-scientific validity of scientific ideas--to tell what will continue 
to work outside the lab.

A person can be a great scientist, making great contributions, even if 
their work is based on a theory that later turns out to be incomplete or 
even wrong.  When a great theory collapses, another great theory 
emerges.  But an engineer cannot build things that are prone to 
collapse.  Engineering, then, is where ideas are applied to the real 
world.  Engineering is the selection and subsequent use of those ideas 
that work reliably in certain real-world contexts.

One might think that a scientist practices engineering--they design 
experiments, they build lab apparatus, and so on.  But much of this is 
either tinkering, in which they don't know what will happen, or 
construction, in which they are going through predesigned motions.  Any 
scientist who is using only ideas that work reliably to get predictable 
results is not being much of a scientist.  And any engineer who uses 
untried ideas to see what will happen is not a very reliable engineer.

I'd have to say that in many areas, including some areas of great 
practical importance, trusting science today is about as wise as 
trusting medical doctors in the 19th century.  In fact, the analogy is 
pretty close: a 19th century doctor could identify quite a lot of 
conditions--they could convert observation into theory.  But when they 
tried to convert theory back into practice, the results were often 
tragic.  The trouble was that they thought that their ability to develop 
an understanding was sufficient.  They had no process in place for 
testing their understanding: no standard of quality for their work.

I don't have an answer for this dilemma.  In order to extract value from 
science, a theory must be tested against the real world--not just a 
lab's myopic slice of the world, but the whole complex thing.  It's 
nice, of course, if this can wait until there's enough depth of 
understanding and richness of data-gathering to immediately spot 
problems with the theory.  But this usually isn't the case.  I think 
it's safe to say that ecology is more complicated than weather.  It'll 
be a while before we understand, for example, the earth's ecology well 
enough to be able to engage in engineering rather than tinkering.  We 
may not even have the required math yet, and we almost certainly don't 
have sufficient computer power.  But scientists who would scoff at the 
idea of ever controlling the weather will make confident pronouncements 
about what we need to do to avoid ecological collapse.

For now, we must simply recognize that science by itself is unreliable 
with respect to most real-world problems, and that scientists will 
generally be unwilling to believe this.

In the forseeable future, we will have the power to coerce even massivly 
complex systems into simple molds.  This will enable us to apply 
tractable theories.  I have suggested this "heterostasis" in the context 
of medicine ("Nanotechnology and Life Extension," in _Dr. Tandy's First 
Guide To Life Extension And Transhumanity_) and I think it can also 
apply to the global environment.  We will be able to win the game--but 
only by changing the rules.  And while this will be seen as a triumph of 
science, it will in fact be a triumph of engineering.


Ps. I should cite a source: the mundane interpretation of the "loaves 
and fishes miracle" in my previous post is from a historical novel 
called "The Robe" that I read many years ago.

Chris Phoenix                                  cphoenix at CRNano.org
Director of Research
Center for Responsible Nanotechnology          http://CRNano.org

More information about the extropy-chat mailing list