[extropy-chat] Peak Oil news

Hal Finney hal at finney.org
Wed Mar 8 07:56:51 UTC 2006

Ian Goddard writes:
> But wouldn't that imply that the popularity of a
> given set of statements should affect the evaluation
> procedures applied to them? My sense is that not only
> does keeping things meta entail excluding
> consideration of popularity, but even at a micro level
> the consideration of popularity runs the risk of
> systematically instantiating "socially correct," as
> opposed to ontologically accurate, conclusions,
> thereby defeating the whole project. 

That's a good question.  Should the conventional wisdom, the majority
belief, be held to the same standards as a minority or fringe viewpoint?

Look at the scientific establishment.  Most observers find a large
degree of conservatism and hostility to new ideas, which are forced
to meet a much higher standard of evidence than results that conform
to the accepted paradigm.  Robin's original Idea Futures paper was
"Could Gambling Save Science?", <http://hanson.gmu.edu/gamble.html>,
and proposed to overcome this kind of problem by using betting markets.

Maybe science could be improved by considering all evidence equally and
not favoring consensus views.  But maybe not!  Science has been very
successful in terms of its goals of advancing knowledge.  It's not
obvious a priori that its degree of conservatism is truly excessive.
Maybe science is right to be skeptical of evidence that contravenes the
conventional wisdom, even when the evidence looks good on its own.

Here's an amusing example that I ran into today by accident:
gasresources.net.  This is a site about the "abiogenic oil" theory,
that oil does not come from the decay of biological material, but
rather is a chemical resource that comes from deep within the earth.
This theory is often associated in the West with the late Thomas Gold
but actually originated in Russia and is relatively accepted there.

This site's a real piece of work.  Reading it you get the impression
that only cranks and lunatics hold to the opposing view, that oil is
biological in origin.  They even have a whole section on sociological
issues, including Feynman's "Cargo Cult Science" talk and examinations
of the kinds of cognitive errors that could let supposed "junk science"
like biological oil become accepted.

It's a real "through the looking glass" experience because the truth is
just the opposite: conventional wisdom in the geological community is that
abiogenic oil is a fringe theory that has little evidence in its favor.
Yet this site writes as though the biological origin theory has been
totally discredited.  Just to make sure I wasn't going crazy I checked
one site that recites some of the evidence I thought I remembered,
<http://www.museletter.com/archive/150b.html>.  It's not particularly
authoritative but after reading gasresources.net I was starting to wonder
if everything I knew was wrong.

The point is that in many of these disputed and fringe theories, it is
easy to come up with a very convincing-looking case for why they are true.
But that doesn't mean they really are true.  If you investigated every
theory for which there exists a credible-looking story, it would take
up all your time.

So we have a maxim: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
Even then, it's sometimes hard to know what is an extraordinary claim.
Robin says that medicine provides almost no quantitative benefit,
and that sounds extraordinary, compared to what most people believe.
Yet apparently it is the conventional wisdom in the relevant academic

My conclusion is that it does make sense to treat fringe views
differently from widely accepted ones.  The strategy I am following is
to find institutions for getting at the truth that seem like they work.
Markets are one, and science is another.  If and when those ever disagree,
as Robin's paper anticipated, then I don't know what to do!  There are
a few cases like that on FX, and I'm not sure what to make of them.

> An ideal example of applying a universal and thus
> 'meta' procedure to all empirical statements was your
> excellent critique on this list (years back) of the
> belief held by a relatively small group headed by some
> FLIR experts who opined that flashes on FLIR video
> taken during the final Waco siege show gunshots
> directed into the Mt Carmel center. Your analysis
> tested the veracity of claims on a micro case-by-case
> basis irrespective of who held them. You motivated me
> to second-guess the experts heading that belief cell,
> which I was in. Following your lead and with the full
> FLIR video and official report in hand I took to
> carefully examining each and every claim forming that
> cell at an ultra-micro level and found each falsified
> resulting in a wonderful example to behold in myself
> of total belief collapse. [*] ~Ian
> [*] http://users.erols.com/igoddard/wacoflir.htm 

Well, you deserve all the credit for that.  The truth is that my theory
was wrong.  You came up with the idea about material on the ground
fluttering in the wind to make things flash, which explained all the data.

Today I wouldn't even try to get into it.  This kind of fringe stuff is
too far off the radar to even be credible enough to pay attention to.
I'm sure that was already the case for most people even back then.
And after all, they were right, at a considerably lower cost than I went
through, and enormously lower than what you had to go through to get to
essentially the same conclusion.


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