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

Chris Phoenix cphoenix at CRNano.org
Fri Apr 30 03:26:20 UTC 2004

Hal Finney wrote:
 > Chris Phoenix writes:
 >> I never said anything about abandoning
 >> science, as you implied a few paragraphs down.
 > 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?

It is a good rule of thumb.  It is not a good absolute principle. 
Certainly a scientist should not always follow it, since it would make 
criticism impossible.

I follow it it many cases, but not all.

 >> 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".

"Consensus science" is not word-chopping.  It is a name given to a 
specific practice by an author I cited.
= http://tinyurl.com/3a6xz

 >> There's an asymmetry here.  If an engineer or other applier of science
 >> surveys the scientific results in an area, and finds agreement from 
 >> 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. 
 >> so the consensus emerges from a political process, not a scientific 
 > I don't follow this distinction.  You seem to be saying that if 
 > 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.

There are several possible reasons.  As I said, the announcement is 
almost always affected (tainted) by politics.  Sometimes, the 
announcement is simply to instruct the public.  But sometimes its 
purpose is to jump on a bandwagon and suppress dissent.

Again, we have to distinguish between "the consensus of science" and 
"consensus science."  The former, in areas where it exists, is a very 
good guide to the way the world works.  But let one scientist come along 
with a contrary observation, and the consensus vanishes.  At that point, 
consensus science often appears to silence the dissenter.  Learning to 
tell the difference between the two consensuses is very important.  I 
think we can agree on that.  And it's questionable whether a 
non-scientific observation, even if it's a personal observation, should 
be sufficient grounds for declaring the consensus broken.  But a lot of 
advances are made on the fringes and backwaters of science.

 >>  > Do you really think you are better able to weigh the many 
 >>  > around, say, global warming .... Or even, yes, the
 >>  > feasibility of nanotech?
 >> Let me take these one at a time.  ....
 > 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.

Yes, I am.  I don't do it lightly.  But I have enough knowledge and 
thinking skill that, at least in molecular manufacturing, I do set my 
judgement above that of the fraction of the scientific community that 
says it can't work.  They say stupid and shallow things.  I should 
believe them simply because they're scientists and I'm not?  When I know 
that they have not even read the most relevant literature?

 > 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.

If the original proclamation were motivated by education, I'd maybe 
agree.  But if it's motivated by a desire to save the world from 
environmental destruction?  Or to save their funding from being 
redirected to another project?  Or to save their reputation by defending 
a theory they've built their career on?  Then the counter-proclamation 
is simply the second round in a political battle.

 > Essentially I am advocating the idea of following the scientific 
 > 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.

I'll be the first to admit the seductiveness of rationalization and 
misapplied rationality.  But there's more than rationality involved in, 
for example, my assertion that molecular manufacturing probably works as 
claimed.  I've studied it for a decade and a half.  Whether or not I am 
a scientist, I am certainly capable of meeting scientists on equal 
footing.  I have argued skeptical physicists and biochemists alike into 
a position of "Hm, I guess we don't know yet."  If I disagree with the 
scientists, there is no consensus.  Sounds arrogant, perhaps, but I 
think I've earned it.

And by the way, you mentioned global warming and GMO plants.  Surely you 
wouldn't claim that there's anything like a scientific consensus on 
those topics?  Regardless of whether it's possible to judge which side 
is right--there are scientists on both sides.  Heck, a few scientists 
even support creationism, including The Guy Who Didn't Get a Nobel for 
MRI.  But the minute you start deciding for yourself which scientists 
should be counted in the consensus and which shouldn't, you're making 
your own judgements.  Either consensus is too brittle to be used, or it 
still requires you to think for yourself.

 > 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.

I think the track record depends on the field.  Medicine has had some 
stunning successes--but also some stunning failures.  It used to be the 
consensus that pellagra was contagious and childbed fever was not.

 >> 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.

I still don't see how you can avoid using your own judgement in picking 
which experts to listen to.  But more to the point, it *is* possible to 
become an expert yourself.  It takes a lot of work.  But by the time you 
can pick experts reliably, you're partway there.  Even before then, you 
can learn enough to spot flaws in scientific work.  If someone makes a 
blatant mistake, then don't listen to them on that subject, right?  And 
what if the mutually-acclaimed "experts" all make the same mistake?  And 
what if they have enough support from politicking that they can get away 
with it for a while?

 > 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.

I don't think there is a real consensus.  Some scientists and 
researchers, including Drexler, Merkle, Freitas, Feynman, and Phoenix, 
say it can almost certainly work.  Some, such as Smalley, Ratner, and 
Whitesides, say there's no way it can work--but their arguments are 
universally shallow and/or factually incorrect.  Many say they don't 
know, or it'll work but they don't know when, or they don't know what 
form will turn out to be best.

 > 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.

Sorry, no help there.

 > 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.

I'm not sure I disagree with the scientific consensus on anything 
important.  Of course, the mainstream view--the one that gets the press 
and the funding--is rather less reliable and more common than an actual 
consensus, and I disagree with the mainstream on several issues.  For 
example, nanotechnology and dyslexia.


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

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