[extropy-chat] SI morality
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
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