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

Hal Finney hal at finney.org
Tue Apr 27 20:09:43 UTC 2004

Chris Phoenix writes:
> 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.

What I meant by following "science" is the principle that the scientific
consensus in a given field is the best guide we have to the truth in that
field.  Is it fair to say that you disagree with that principle?

> "Hal Finney" wrote:
>  > 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.

Look how we are parsing our words here.  I speak of "the practice of
science" as the guide to truth.  You deny saying that "science" is a
bad guide to truth, but you instead say that "consensus science" is not
a reliable guide to truth.

I don't know what you mean by "science" vs "consensus science" vs my
"practice of science".  But hopefully you will agree with my clarified
characterization above, since it essentially restates your comment about
consensus science.  That is, you will agree that you disagree with the
principle as I defined it.  And that should not damage your reputation.

I think my entire post can go through unchanged if you simply substitute
"the practice of science" or "the scientific consensus" for the shorthand
"science" everywhere.

> 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.

I don't follow this distinction.  You seem to be saying that if scientists
simply publish their results and there is widespread consensus, that is
probably correct.  But if they announce their consensus, it is no longer
probably correct?  Why?  It seems to me that the reason scientists would
make such an announcement is because there is widespread public error or
confusion about some scientific matter.  The public, for some reason,
disagrees with the scientific consensus.  For example, scientists have
gotten together and made announcements to support the theory of evolution,
or to denounce pseudoscience like Velikovsky or ancient astronauts.

It doesn't seem to me that public announcements are as much of a red flag
as you see them.  But that doesn't affect my basic point about scientific
consensus.  I say that scientific consensus should be taken as true.
If a public announcement does not reflect the scientific consensus,
then I would agree with you that it should not be treated as if it does.

This points out a difficulty with my proposal, which is that it is not
always easy for an outsider to know what the scientific consensus is.
I don't have a perfect solution for that, other than to try to read
from a variety of published reports, or ideally to actually talk to
some of the people working in the field.  The main point is that once
you do get some understanding of the consensus, you don't reject it
just because it disagrees with your preconceptions or your preferences.
You accept it as probably true.

> 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.

All these things are true; science is imperfect.  No surprise there,
for all human institutions are imperfect.  The reason why I still
maintain that we should trust the consensus of science is that we are
each imperfect as well in our judgement.  There is no reason to believe
that our individual imperfections are less than those of an institution
which is designed to iron out and correct the imperfections of those
who participate, and which history has shown to be very successful at
this process.

>  > 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.

It is this approach, of taking scientific things one at a time, which
I think is dangerous.  You are setting your judgement above that
of the scientific community.  It is dangerous to try to cherry-pick
among scientific issues to decide for which ones we will agree with
the consensus and for which ones we will decide that the scientific
consensus is wrong.  This makes it too easy for our individual lapses
in rationality to find an excuse to enter and influence our thinking.

Let me cut to the chase here so that this doesn't get too long.  I claim
that the scientific consensus is the best guide we have to truth.
This doesn't mean that everything any scientist says on any matter is
true, of course.  Nor do group proclamations by scientists necessarily
reflect the consensus.  But I think in most cases they probably do,
because otherwise there would be a counter-proclamation by those who
felt that the original group was misrepresenting the consensus, and the
whole public show would fall apart, undercutting the public education
goal of the original proclamation.

Essentially I am advocating the idea of following the scientific consensus
faithfully; you might even say, blindly.  The reason is because our
errors of rationality are so pervasive and seductive that we are more
likely to be wrong than is the scientific consensus.

This is not an easy principle to follow!  It feels like an abdication of
responsibility, like an abandonment of critical thinking.  But when I look
within, these feelings do not come from the part of me that loves truth,
they come from the part of me that loves myself.  They are a manifestation
of ego.  They come from an emotional desire to be the master of my fate,
which means making my own decisions about what to believe and what not
to believe.  Delegating these matters to any outside social institution,
even one whose track record in approaching the truth is greater than
anything mankind has ever developed, goes against powerful mental
instincts.  Nevertheless I claim that this is what we have to try to do.

>  > Rejecting science means rejecting the best and most successful institution
>  > 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.

It is this final attitude which is dangerous, that you will rely
ultimately on your own judgement of the scientists' evidence and
reasoning.  I would instead say that you should only try to determine
the true consensus of the scientific experts, and take that as the best
available approximation to the truth.  Going beyond this and measuring
their results against your own knowledge and preconceptions presumes
that you are less likely to make a mistake than those experts who are
working within the scientific framework.

Let me ask you one question: what do you think the scientific consensus
is on whether Drexlerian nanotech can work?  I don't really know the
answer, but I presume that you talk to people in the relevant fields
from time to time, so you would have a better idea than most of us.
Based on your observations, and ignoring any personal feelings you
might have on the matter, how would you most accurately characterize
the present day scientific consensus?

I ask this for two reasons.  One is that I am genuinely interested in
the answer, for I will find it very helpful in informing my own beliefs
on the matter, as I have explained.  The other is that it might turn
out that the most accurate description of the scientific consensus is
not actually anything you would disagree with.  I hesitate to mention
this, because my whole point is that you should accept the scientific
consensus even if you don't agree with it.  This point is better tested
by considering an issue where you have such a disagreement.  But maybe
nanotech is not a good example.


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