[extropy-chat] No rejection of science! Re: SI morality

Chris Phoenix cphoenix at CRNano.org
Mon Apr 26 19:59:32 UTC 2004

"Hal Finney" wrote:
 > Chris Phoenix writes:
 >> 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.

Note what I said: a crisis of faith with regard to *scientists*, not 
science.  Much of your post makes it sound like I've rejected science. 
I have not rejected science.  I never said anything about abandoning 
science, as you implied a few paragraphs down.

Since your posts are usually high-quality, I'm especially concerned that 
your misinterpretation of me will affect my reputation.  So I'll have to 
go over that in detail.

 >>> Michael Crichton has called this "consensus science," and correctly
 >>> attacked it.  It's no more than a popularity contest for ideas, and 
 >>> popularity of an idea has little to do with its truth.
 > This is a dangerous road to take.  I'd be concerned that if I started
 > off doubting the practice of science as a guide to truth, I might as
 > well send in for my membership card in the Flat Earth Society, because
 > that's where I'd end up.

I did not say that science is not a guide to truth.  I said that 
"consensus science" is not a reliable guide to truth.

There's an asymmetry here.  If an engineer or other applier of science 
surveys the scientific results in an area, and finds agreement from many 
different scientists, then it's likely that what they agree on is 
reliable.  But if many different scientists get together and announce 
something, then it's likely that what they agree on is political.  Note 
that in the second case, but not the first, scientists are 
self-selecting.  And they are probably talking outside their field.  And 
so the consensus emerges from a political process, not a scientific process.

 > You complain above that individually, scientists can't practice science
 > because that requires interactive criticism.

Yep.  And I'm aware that most scientists don't try to go it alone.

 > And then you go on and criticize consensus science as being no more
 > than a popularity contest.  But this again overlooks the tremendous
 > importance of criticism in the scientific process.  A scientifically
 > unsound theory, even if popular, cannot withstand criticism for long.

What about scientifically unsound criticism of a sound theory?  That 
unsound criticism can withstand criticism for a very long time.  Note 
that there's an asymmetry here too, because even the soundest theory is 
only provisionally accepted, whereas a weak theory can be conclusively 
rejected.  This is as it should be.  But it means that scientists who 
don't like a sound theory can squelch it.

There's another facet of the way science is practiced today.  There is 
not much space for observations without theory.  We are happy to 
categorize, but mere cataloging is not interesting.  So an observation 
like "When I set up my apparatus a certain way, these meters read 
differently than I expect, and I can't figure out why" will get ignored 
unless they can say what it means.  But the minute they propose a 
theory, that theory is open for criticism--and once it's been well 
criticized, everyone forgets or discounts the original observations.  In 
some fields, it's hard to see how any new phenomenon could be discovered 
anymore.  "Our theories don't predict that, so it must be wrong" is an 
acceptable argument not just in thermodynamics but in high-energy 
physics, condensed-matter physics, and many other fields where we ought 
not to assume we know all there is to be known.

 > There is too much temptation to jump onto the critical side once people
 > see that it is going to win.  Science rewards successful critics,
 > and this self correcting mechanism is part of what has made science so
 > successful as an institution.

What determines the success of a critic?  Would you say it's the ability 
to turn scientists away from a certain course of inquiry?  I think this 
reinforces my point that solid scientific work is frequently 
discredited, lines of investigation cut off, and worthwhile questions 
dismissed.  Too many babies are thrown out with the bathwater.  Yes, 
there's a lot of bathwater to throw.  But when you say "science rewards 
successful critics," I realize how dangerous that policy is: critics can 
be successful whether they are constructive or destructive.

 > The real problem with abandoning science is that you will have no guide
 > to truth in our complex world.  No one can become familiar with all of
 > the technical details relevant to the issues we face.  By abandoning
 > science you are explicitly turning away from the people who have spent
 > their entire lives acquiring expertise in these areas.

I object vigorously to this paragraph.  I never said anything about 
abandoning science, nor was it implied in anything I wrote.

 > Do you really think you are better able to weigh the many complexities
 > around, say, global warming than those who have devoted their careers to
 > studying the atmosphere and climate?  Or similarly with other questions
 > like the safety of genetically engineered plants?  Or even, yes, the
 > feasibility of nanotech?

Let me take these one at a time.  Global warming: No, I don't think I'm 
in a position to weigh those complexities.

Genetically engineered plants: I know less than the scientists, but more 
than most of the people who are discussing it.  So I think I could 
contribute usefully to most non-scientific discussions of that topic.

Feasibility of nanotech: I have studied that for over a decade.  I have 
had many discussions with many different scientists, where both I and 
the scientists have felt the discussion was high-quality and worthwhile. 
  And I have seen more than a few scientists in nanotech fields make the 
most simplistic mistakes when talking about the feasibility of molecular 
manufacturing.  So I'm not completely sure that I'm right that it's 
feasible, and I'm always looking for evidence that I'm wrong.  But I 
have ample evidence of my depth and breadth of knowledge in the area, 
even compared to experts in the field.  And I have ample evidence of the 
strength of my arguments.  So yes, I do think I am better able to weigh 
the complexities in that area than almost any scientist.  If any 
scientist wants to contest this, I'll be happy to test my understanding 
in public discussion.

And seeing how scientists have been in this area have been careless, 
political, and just plain abjectly wrong on even straightforward points, 
I have come to wonder what other areas they might be wrong about.  Why 
has no one come forward to criticize Ratner's mischaracterization of 
Drexler's work?  Could it be because Ratner was himself being critical 
of an unpopular theory, and science rewards critics?

 > One of the principles I follow is that if I believe something that
 > mainstream science disagrees with, I am probably wrong.  It's for the
 > reasons given above.  I'm not smarter than those guys, at least not
 > the smartest ones of them.  And their expertise in these areas is far
 > deeper than my own.  Plus they have this incredibly complex and elaborate
 > process of modelling and testing and subjecting each others results to
 > intense criticism, while my uninformed notions on those topics undergo
 > no such rigorous trials.

That's not a bad principle, in areas you haven't studied much and don't 
care much about.  But there are several areas of great practical 
importance in which mainstream science is likely to be wrong and also 
likely to be overly confident.  I have seen a leading dyslexia 
researcher quoted repeatedly as saying that dyslexia has nothing to do 
with vision.  I know from personal experience that this is wrong. 
Vision is not the only component of dyslexia, but dyslexia frequently 
involves visual effects.  Given the number of dyslexics and the damage 
done by illiteracy, it's quite important to understand dyslexia clearly. 
  This person does good and valuable work.  But she also goes too far in 
debunking other good and valuable theories.

 > The lesson I learned from Robin is that if I disagree with someone
 > else, it's an accident of history which position I ended up with.
 > I could have just as easily been in his shoes.  Hence I should have
 > no presumption that I am probably right, when there is a disagreement.

I agree there.

 > Given this perspective, when I am going up against a scientific 
 > the odds are overwhelming that the scientists are right and I am wrong.

I don't see how this follows.  My beliefs are formed by many mechanisms. 
  The assertions of scientists are formed by many mechanisms.  On each 
side, some of these mechanisms are more reliable than others.  If I can 
look at the number "35", and know that it's 35, and see 53; or if I can 
read through a whole book and at the end be surprised to realize that a 
character's name is spelled differently than I had thought; then I know 
that I have a visual-mediated problem related to perceiving symbols, and 
anyone who says that such things don't happen is wrong.

If a scientist says that enzymes require water to work, and there's a 
whole field of study involving the industrial use of enzymes in 
non-aqueous solvents, then I know that that scientist is wrong.  I don't 
care if he has a Nobel prize in chemistry; he's simply wrong.  And I 
look at what led him to make such a glaring error, and I find that he 
was talking about something that he desperately wants to debunk.  Should 
I trust his other statements in that area?

 > It looks to me like these attitudes are the only appropriate ones to 
 > for someone who sincerely seeks the truth.  We have to try to discard
 > or at least overcome our prejudices and egotistical belief in personal
 > correctness and superiority.  We have to be willing to change our minds
 > when we come up against a situation where the experts disagree with us.

If I'm capable of understanding the expert's thought processes and 
evidence, then I will be even closer to the truth if I work out for 
myself the reason why the expert believes as they do.  And if I find an 
error in their work, should I continue to take their opinion as truth?  No.

 > Without the guidance of the best advice and analysis available on a
 > subject, I would be concerned about being vulnerable to all kinds of
 > quackery and fraud.  We have many crazy beliefs right on this list.
 > Some here refuse to accept the reality of global warming.

Which global warming: the raw temperature data?  The calculation of a 
warming trend?  The attribution of that warming trend to changing 
atmospheric gas composition?  The projection of future climate and 
change in climate?  Or the prescriptions that we should follow to avoid 
disastrous climate change?

Seems to me I read an analysis of gross statistical misconduct in one of 
the foundational historical-temperature-analysis papers: numbers 
cut-and-pasted from one section to another, stuff like that.

Now don't get me wrong: From what I've heard of the fragility of its 
mechanism, I'm personally quite concerned about the possibility of the 
Gulf Stream shutting down in the next decade or two.  But I would find 
it hard to call someone "crazy" who thought that it was too early to 
pursue trillion-dollar climate remediation programs based on today's 

 > Some believe in psychic powers.

Conversely, some believe that anything attributed to psychic powers must 
be fraudulent, and thereby miss an opportunity to learn about mundane 
but interesting psychology.

 > Some reject the link between HIV and AIDS.

Conversely, some (most!) follow the party line of "HIV is the exact and 
only cause of AIDS" so closely that they refuse to look at the 
possibility of other factors exacerbating HIV.  Those who blame it on 
drugs are obviously out to lunch.  But there's some interesting 
immunological work that hints that the immune system can start attacking 
itself if it tries to deal with two simultaneous diseases with 
complementary antigens.

In other words, if disease A presents a chemical -< then the immune 
system will make an antibody <-
But now when disease B presents a chemical <= then antibodies =< will be 
made against it.  But anti-B antibody =< will attack anti-A antibody <- 
and so the immune system starts fighting itself.  It seems that HIV and 
CMV have such complementary molecules, and their antibodies are also 
complementary.  Robert Root-Bernstein has written on this theory; I 
think he's the one who developed it.  But what's the chance of it 
getting a hearing in the scientific community today?

 > Some believe the universe is packed full of intelligent life.

So far, this isn't a scientific belief.  Why are you mentioning it?

 > Some believe that Israel caused the 9/11 attacks.

Likewise, why mention this in a discussion of science?

 > Some believe in cold fusion.

Funny thing: the DOE is now re-opening studies of cold fusion.

 > Rejecting science means rejecting the best and most successful 
 > mankind has ever developed for finding out the truth about the world.
 > It puts you onto a dangerous path fraught with tempting falsehoods that
 > can lead you astray.  As I suggested above, you better set aside money
 > for your membership in the Crackpot League, because that's where this
 > road ends.

And once again I say: I have not rejected science.  And I will caution 
you again to be more careful with other people's reputations.

I have complained at the way some scientists misuse science.  I agree 
that science is incredibly successful at finding out information about 
how parts of the world work.  But if a bunch of scientists band together 
to debunk something, I will not consider it disproved until I've 
considered their evidence and reasoning.


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

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