[extropy-chat] Re: (my rationalism screed, Amara's answer) plus Drexler

Chris Phoenix cphoenix at CRNano.org
Sat Apr 24 20:50:27 UTC 2004

Amara Graps wrote:
 >Chris Phoenix <cphoenix at CRNano.org>:
>>attack the credentials of the observer.  They change the subject.  They
>>build strawman attacks, and frequently even appear to convince
>>themselves.  They form cliques.  They tell their students not to even
>>read the claims, and certainly not to investigate them. 
> to be fair, I don't think that this is the norm. Yes, it happens,
> but it is not the common way that scientists (that I know, anyway)
> think about and solve problems.

I don't think it's the way scientists solve problems.  I think it's the 
way scientists treat problems that they wish would go away.  Sometimes, 
when dealing with "creation scientists" and similar trolls, it's the 
only thing you can do.  But scientists do it to other scientists with 
equal facility.  Every tactic I listed is being used against molecular 
manufacturing.  Most if not all of them were used against Semmelweis, 
the futile discoverer of the cause of childbed fever.

Now, I must admit to some uncertainty.  Earlier today, I wrote that 
scientists should not make pronouncements about the real world unless 
engineering has been done to verify the theory.  I realized as I was 
writing it that this is an accusation often leveled against Drexler: 
that he declares that nanorobots will work without ever having built 
one.  The obvious response is that Drexler is doing engineering, not 
science.  But then, how can we expect scientists to give scientific 
answers to a non-scientific process?

<...and then I open Nanosystems, searching for a dimly-remembered 
phrase, and find that Drexler wrote about this in detail twelve years 

Ahem.  In Appendix A of Nanosystems, Drexler describes an activity 
called "theoretical applied science" or "exploratory engineering."  This 
is exactly what I was trying to get at as a bridge between science and 
engineering.  In theoretical applied science, one takes the best 
available results of science, and applies them to real-world problems, 
and makes plans that should hopefully work as desired.  Section A.3.1, 
"Science and engineering," describes how "Science and engineering differ 
in their goals.  Science strives to understand how things work; 
engineering strives to make things work.  Science takes an object as 
given and studies its behavior; engineering takes a behavior as given 
and studies how to make an object that will exhibit that behavior."

The bulk of Appendix A discusses ways that theoretical applied science 
can be practiced so as to give useful and reliable results, despite the 
inability to confirm its results by experiment.  "For example, all 
classes of device that would violate the second law of thermodynamics 
can immediately be rejected.  A more stringent rule, adopted in the 
present work, rejects propositions if they are inadequately 
substantiated, for example, rejecting all devices that would require 
materials stronger than those known or described by accepted physical 
models.  By adopting these rules for falsification and rejection, work 
in theoretical applied science can be grounded in our best scientific 
understanding of the physical world."

Drexler presents theoretical applied science as a way of studying things 
we can't build yet.  In A.7 Conclusions, he ascribes to it a very 
limited aim: "to describe lower bounds to the performance achievable 
with physically possible classes of devices."  And a limited role: "In 
an ideal world, theoretical applied science would consume only a tiny 
fraction of the effort devoted to pure theoretical science, to 
experimentation, or to engineering."  But here, I think, he's being too 
modest.  Theoretical applied science is really the only rigorous way for 
the products of science to escape back to the real world.  In my 
previous post, I asked how this could take place; well, this is how.

We might draw a useful analogy: scientists are to exploratory engineers 
as writers are to editors.  Scientists and writers are creative. 
Whatever they produce is interesting, even when it's wrong.  They live 
in their own world, which touches the real world exactly where and when 
they choose.  And then along come the editors and the exploratory 
engineers.  "This doesn't work.  You need to rephrase that.  This part 
isn't useful.  And wouldn't it be better to explain it this way?"  It's 
no wonder Drexler is hated and feared by the scientists.

Since exploratory engineering is rigorously grounded in science, 
scientists can evaluate it.  But only in the sense of checking its 
calculations.  MNT workers have spent the last two decades asking 
scientists to either criticize or accept their work.  This was half an 
error: scientists can show a mistake in an engineering calculation, but 
they can't (within the boundaries of science) accept its results.  To 
the extent that the results of theoretical applied science are correct 
and useful, they are meant for engineers, not for scientists.  An editor 
should check her work with the author.  But she should not ask the 
author whether he thinks she has improved it; she should judge how well 
she did her job by the reader's response, not the writer's.  Likewise, 
if scientists cannot show that Drexler has misinterpreted (misapplied) 
their work or added something that science didn't say, then the 
scientists should shut up and let the engineers decide whether the 
theoretical applied work is useful.


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

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