Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘philosophy

Example of misinterpretable scenes / Follow-up: Eriksson’s Razor(s)

with 2 comments

Skimming through a recent text that partially deals with misinterpretation of intent/behavior/whatnot as racist, sexist, or generally “ist”, I recall an excellent example:

When I began the preparations for my second master’s thesis, I was talking for the first* time with the professor who would supervise it. Half-way through, he asked whether I knew what the “Newton” method was. I answered in the negative, and from that point on, like flipping a switch, he seemed to think much less of me—no matter what I said or did later.** Indeed, he seemed to think that someone who did not know the “Newton” method, must have slept his way through college.

*This was at a distance university and direct student–professor interaction was correspondingly rare. I might have taken one of his classes at an earlier junction. If so, there might have been one prior meeting for an oral examination, but I have no recollection of such a meeting (by now).

**Not that we had many interactions after this talk.

Now, what is this “Newton” method? Well, what he patronizingly described to me was something that I immediately recognized—from high school (!), where it had been taught under the name “Newton–Raphson”. Moreover, this name had always been used during my (very math heavy) undergraduate years. (But see excursion.) Indeed, as the topic was theoretical computer science, it is a near given that my background was actually heavier or much heavier in math than most of his other students. Indeed, even the high-school curriculum had involved at least a casual use of e.g. Runge–Kutta.*

*Or “Runge-Karlsson” as my math teacher (jokingly) insisted, “Kutta” being a slang word roughly equivalent to “pussy” in Sweden. This, of course, only made us the more aware of the “Kutta” part.

I immediately tried to explain the misunderstanding, but he would have none of it. Maybe I could have pushed the point further, but I did not want to antagonize him, it seemed like a small issue at the time, just a harmless misunderstanding, and he was quite old and I have had several negative experiences with trying to convince old people of something. So I let it slide—not realizing that this simple misunderstanding would dominate his impression of me and his later interactions with me: I did not know his “Newton” method and, therefore, must be a mathematical novice.

*I do not know how old, but optically he might have been well past seventy. Also note that my sentiment was stronger then than now, while my (already) negative feelings about kids have grow more negative over time. This is another aspect that those who cry “racism” and “sexism” might want to consider both where they, themselves, and their perceived oppressors are concerned.

It is very possible that my being Swedish had something to do with this, e.g. that the typical name simply is different in Sweden and Germany—but it was not a matter of anti-Swedish sentiment or, even, anti-foreigner in general. He arguably behaved poorly through not being open to my explanation, for not considering the possibility of differences in terminology, and for sticking to a first impression, but, again, it is unlikely to have been anything even resembling anti-Swedish or anti-foreigner sentiments or prejudices: “stubborn old man” and “used to students being ignorants” are more likely explanations.* Certainly, there might have been some mistake of my own, e.g. in that he might (or might not!) have turned out to be less stubborn than I thought, had I pushed the issue a little harder, or that my intellectual honesty was misplaced: instead of saying “no” I might have been better off with “of course, but I have not done any math in the last six** years, so refresh my memory, just in case”.

*To which I note that I would, myself, agree with that assessment of a great many students; and that I have, myself, been accused of being stubborn on occasion.

**As a rough approximation of the time between the completion of my first master and this event. I might be off a little. Portions of my pre-thesis studies were also arguably math, but (a) were not formally called math, (b) were a very different type of math (dealing with questions like computability and complexity in the computer-science senses).

Now, take the above situation and replace me with a certain type of woman, e.g. someone who believes what her gender-studies professor and Hillary Clinton have told her: Old White Man who refused to listen to me because I am a woman, just assumed that I know no math because I am a woman, and talked down to me because I am a woman!

Depending on the exact woman, it need not end here and e.g. a “No wonder that there are no women in STEM! We need quotas!” or a “He must be fired for discriminating me!” is possible.

But here is the thing: I am a man and this still happened to me.

Excursion on other cases:
In my early years in Germany, similar misunderstandings were comparatively common and by no means limited to technical terminology.

For instance, a very similar, but more easily resolved, incident involved one of my first interactions as an exchange student. The professor spoke of “CAD”, an abbreviation of “Computer Aided Design” in use both in German and Swedish, as well as the original English. The hitch: Swedes speak it as one word, in the English manner and usually with a roughly English pronunciation; Germans spell out the letters C-A-D in a German pronunciation.* Moreover, he had a fairly guttural pronunciation of “A”, even by German standards, and my not-yet-acclimatized ears heard C-R-D. And, of course, I had no idea what this CRD might be—while CAD was one of the known-even-by-laymen buzzwords of the day.

*Or they did at the time—this was over twenty years ago and I have not paid attention to current use. For that matter, I am uncertain when I last heard it spoken in any language.

For instance, I was once puzzled, while taking a class on environmental topics, by the oddly unambitious discussion of the “three-liter car” (“Drei-Liter-Auto”) as a future vision for fuel consumption. Swedish fuel consumption was (at the time) usually measured per Swedish mile, i.e. 10 kilometers—and three liters per 10 kilometers is not very impressive. However, Germany usually uses fuel consumption per 100 kilometers. Re-think the value in the context of a ten times longer distance, and it makes more sense. (Presumably, “three-liters-per-100-kilometers car” is not catchy enough.)

More generally, such traps can easily cause confusion of various kinds, and might well occur even among native speakers with a sufficiently different cultural background. Sometimes the distinctions can be quite subtle and surprising, e.g. because two scientists working in the same field have slightly different definitions of the same term or use different terms for the same concept. (Also see my last-minute discovery in the following excursion.) Then we have the confusion that can be caused by deliberate misdefinitions, as with e.g. the grossly incompatible-with-established-meaning use of “racism” to indicate something that requires a position of dominance.

Excursion on Newton–Raphson:
I am honestly surprised to see the Wikipedia page on Newton–Raphson method redirect to “Newton’s method”. Ditto that the Swedish page is located under “Newtons metod”. On the upside, the German page on “Newtonverfahren” (and the other two) does mention “Newton-Raphson-Verfahren” in the first sentence, implying that it is not unreasonable to believe that (even) a German professor (of a math-adjacent field) would have known that name too.

A possible explanation is that there is a difference between written material vs. oral conversation or e.g. formal contexts vs. informal ones; another that a certain set of books used by me happened to follow a certain convention; yet another that there has been a drift in use over time. This actually strengthens the example, because we now move from a Swedish–German incompatibility to something that could have happened even to a native Swede in Sweden (man or woman!), or a native X in X-land.

The issue of the correct name for the method has been discussed on (at least) the English talk pages and the page has in the past been found under that name (at least temporarily, going by the discussion). Based on a skimming, the camps seem to be broadly “Newton–Raphson is more accurate” vs. “Just Newton is more common”.


Written by michaeleriksson

July 5, 2020 at 3:14 pm

Eriksson’s Razor(s)

with 6 comments

One of the main cognitive problems among humans is an overly large tendency to assume a conscious driving force of some kind, even when it is not necessary to explain the observed phenomena. For instance, a dominance of Jews in some area does not require a Jewish World Conspiracy—it might just as well be a result of different personal or cultural characteristics (e.g. a higher average IQ to explain success in science) or Jews being directed by outside forces (in the case of medieval banking). Ditto the Feminist paranoia “the Patriarchy”. Ditto the alleged “systemic racism” that makes head-lines in the U.S. at the moment, which, to the degree that it at all exists, is better explained by individual actions than systemic problems, and is largely a misinterpretation or incorrect explanation of observations to begin with—much of it discussed in “The Bell-Curve” decades ago.

Similarly, we do not need to postulate a divine creator or an extraterrestrial intervention to explain life as we know it: known chemical processes followed by Evolution suffices. We certainly need not give Evolution a teleological aspect, as with naive ideas of eyes having evolved for the purpose of seeing or that Evolution would be a continual, automatic process from worse to better. (The latter include such whoppers as ascribing the post-industrial increases in human height or the Flynn effect mostly to Evolution and being blind to the risk of a dysgenic effect from the currently low evolutionary pressure.)

That earth-quake was not caused by the wrath of the gods, but by natural processes in the Earth. That ball did not hit little Billy in the head because it was “stupid” or “mean”, it did so because external influences moved it to do so, including the wind and little Bobby. (Little Bobby, in all fairness, might have deliberately tried to hit little Billy, but there is a fair chance that he was genuinely just trying to score a point.)

I have seen so much absurd behavior from e.g. civil servants and customer service staff that I have often been tempted to assume a conspiracy—but I know that sheer incompetence is a (much, much) more likely explanation. Why would both the German “IRS” and DHL, e.g., be out to get specifically me? They might have an aversion to Swedes*, but shit happens all the time, even when my counter-part has no way of knowing** that I am a Swede. In those cases where I have a legitimate reason to suspect that my being a Swede was an issue, it has usually*** been in an indirect manner, e.g. that I might have had problems getting my first job in Germany because my German was quite poor at the time—or been something going back to the individual at hand, not a massive anti-Swede sentiment or deliberate policies directed at keeping Swedes down. If we look at foreigners in general, the risk of negative sentiments might be considerably larger, but would genuine xenophobes care about the few Swedes (geographical neighbors and members of another Germanic people) when there are Turks and Arabs to worry about? Unlikely, but my negative experiences remain.

*I am a Swede living in Germany.

**Most persons and entities that I casually interact with would not have access to this information through e.g. files, my name could easily be explained by a single Swedish great-grandfather, and many will have no opportunity to deduce otherwise. For instance, the DHL never rings my doorbell and can, therefore, not deduce my status through a Swedish accent. For instance, someone who sees me in the street would have little reason to reflect on the possibility that I am not a born-and-bred German. However, I could easily see how e.g. a Black man with a name like “LeBron Ali” could have drawn the opposite conclusion based on even my set of experiences (if transferred to him).

***One truly glaring exception was my first German bank account, at the now defunct Dresdner Bank. The bank refused to hand out the PIN for my ATM card, claiming something about my youth or my status as a student and explicitly telling me to go to the counter every time I wanted to make a withdrawal. I took this at face value at the time, but was soon told that this was unheard of by other students in the same age bracket and even another branch of the same bank called it an absurdity.

Even in the case of the Left, where there is some reason* to assume deliberate large-scale driving forces, chances are that much what might look like a conspiracy is just coincidence or caused by “natural” forces. For instance, the trigger for this text is a Mike Whitney text on UNZ, which pushes the envelope of a Leftist U.S. Conspiracy beyond the plausible.** For instance, is the DNC an evil force masterminding everything that happens—or is it just driven hither and thither by attempts to use the unstable political winds? For instance, is journalism (ditto, m.m., colleges, and whatnot) dominated by Left-leaning people because of a conspiracy, because people with Leftist opinions coincidentally are more interested in journalism, or because many Left-leaning people have independently (and to a higher degree than “Right”-leaning) had thoughts like “if I become a journalist [professor, whatnot], I have the opportunity to push my political agenda”? Has non-Leftist journalists [professors, whatnot] had a harder time to be accepted or get printed because of a systematic mistreatment by their peers or because the Left has had a majority and contained sufficiently many intolerant and bigoted individual journalists?***

*As with the “long march through the institutions”, the Frankfurt School, and Marcuse. (More on him in a later text.)

**Not to deny that individual portions of his writings might be correct or make sense, but when taken as a whole the result becomes highly dubious. I do not give specific examples, because the text and reasoning is confused, draws strongly on other sources, and it is hard to say for certain what individual speculation is right or wrong.

***If so, with the implication that the reverse might have happened if the Left had been a small enough minority in the press. (I use “might” as my experience with the Left and the non-Left point to a greater intolerance problem within the Left.)

A conscious driving force, a conspiracy, a deliberate attempt at sabotage, whatnot, might be the explanation in any given case, but it should not be our first assumption. Other explanations must be considered, we must look closer at the evidence and not jump to conclusions, we must consider the relative plausibility of various explanations, etc.

To this end, I suggest “Eriksson’s Razor” (V1.0):

Never explain an observation with a conscious mover, a conspiracy, a systemic problem, or a teleological force when coincidence, individual choices, game theory, natural processes, emergence, or similar, are sufficient.

To this, knowing the Internet, I add “Eriksson’s dumbed-down Razor” (V1.0):

Not a conspiracy, stupid!

Moreover, looking at the current world, I add “Eriksson’s PC Razor” (V1.0):

Never assume racism, sexism, or another “ism”, when the observations can be explained by either individual characteristics/behaviors of the subject(s) or non-“ism” characteristics of the actor(s), like a personal antipathy, selfishness, general misanthropy, a pre-existing bad mood, etc.

Finally, I add “Eriksson’s dumbed-down PC Razor” (V1.0):

Never assume “ism”, when “idiot” will do.

To give examples of the “PC Razor”: If a woman is fired, do not just scream “sexist boss”, but do consider whether she was performing her job well or poorly and whether other reasons might have applied, e.g. that her boss simply (whether for good or bad reasons) did not like her personally.* If Black men appear underrepresented at a college, do not just scream “racist college”, but do investigate whether they are admitted by unfair or fair criteria and might actually be held back by, on average, worse grades and/or SAT scores.** If a White cop kneels on a Black criminals neck, do not just scream “racist cop”, but do investigate whether he used acceptable methods and whether he has a prior history of unacceptable behavior against arrested citizens (and, if so, by all means, whether Black victims were over-represented relative their proportion of arrests and/or criminals).

*As can be seen, a ruling of “not sexism” does not automatically imply that no fault or unfairness of another kind took place.

**Either could, obviously, point to some other problem that might need intervention, e.g. worse schools, but that is not the college’s fault. (And, again, I refer to “The Bell-Curve”, for why differences in cognitive distributions are a likelier explanation.)

Note on “mover”:
The term “mover” is taken to include e.g. the eponymous “Prime Mover”, divine beings, secret governmental agencies, the Illuminati, “mean” balls, and individual humans. This with the reservation that e.g. individual humans will very often not be covered by the Razor as a whole. For instance, an assumed Kennedy shooter could be a conscious mover, but would not be covered by the Razor: Kennedy was shot and any attempt to explain this without a human shooter would be far-fetched. (A dog accidentally triggered a loaded gun that just happened to hit the U.S. President in the head?) In contrast, an unknown mastermind behind the shooting is an example of a conscious mover that probably would be covered by the Razor.

I have considered a switch from “mover” to “agent”, as the original choice of mover was motivated by the exclusion of humans, where I changed my mind during the writing of this text. For the time being, I remain with “mover”.

Note on “conscious”:
This is not an entirely ideal word, as it e.g. can be disputed whether a secret government agency could be described as “conscious”. My very first draft used “deliberate”, but that seemed even worse. I also considered and rejected “sentient”. The point is that there is something more going on than e.g. a wind moving a ship forward. (But not necessarily as much as a fully sentient Boreas deliberately driving the ship of an offending Greek sailor onto a deserted island for the purpose of punishing his hubris.)

Excursion on other Razors:
Compared to the two most famous pre-existing “Razors”, Eriksson’s Razor could* be viewed as a sub-set of Occam’s Razor and as potentially slightly overlapping** with Hanlon’s Razor (which, in turn, could* also be viewed as a sub-set of Occam’s Razor). In addition, both Eriksson’s and Hanlon’s Razors have some overlap with the claim “shit happens”.

*For both Eriksson and Hanlon, they would be sub-sets if we assume that the respective encouraged type of explanation is more economical than the discouraged one. While I believe this to be the case, there is room for discussion and it need not be true generally.

**For instance, if Bobby, above, was covered by Eriksson’s Razor (but I would tend to exclude him), we would have an overlap with Hanlon’s Razor (which prescribes that we assume that Bobby did not intend to hurt Billy, unless more proof to this is present). The “mean” ball would be covered by Eriksson’s Razor, but would probably not be covered by most interpretations of Hanlon’s Razor. The Jewish World Conspiracy would be covered by Eriksson’s Razor, while Hanlon’s Razor has no bearing. The “PC Razor” has larger overlap; the “dumbed-down PC Razor” even more so.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 24, 2020 at 5:29 pm

The complication of the untested evil-doer

with 5 comments

One of my most important claims is that “evil is as evil does”, that we should measure others by their actions, not their opinions. (This with several variations, e.g. “fascist is as fascist does” and, in a wider context, the need to judge by actions and not claims, including e.g. with many businesses, politicians, and co-workers whose actions are contrary to their claims.)

A potential weakness of this attitude is that two equally good/evil/stupid/whatnot individuals can differ in their actions through different opportunities and abilities, different levels of material need, different exposure to provocations, and similar. What if the one has proved himself X and the other is currently untested? What if the one has hung over a volcano and the other has not?

A consequence of this weakness is the need to only make comparisons between people who have gone through sufficiently similar situations. For instance, comparing the character of Stalin with that of the office cleaning lady will be futile in almost all cases, because their lives have been too different: with the tables turned, the cleaning lady might have been a genocidal dictator, while Stalin might have been a conscientious cleaner.* We might still consider it unlikely that the cleaning lady would prove herself such a monster through statistical considerations (especially, when she has a good record within her prior opportunities and whatnots), but we cannot rule it out.

*We further have to differ between two variations: Firstly, my main focus in this text, a prior life that has simply revealed too little of the character of someone, e.g. in that the someone who would or would not commit mass-murder given the chance has never had the chance. Secondly, more tangentially, a prior life that has changed the character, e.g. in that a series of traumatic experiences created an unreasonable hatred.

Similarly, we cannot say that someone who has not done X would be incapable of X because he is currently innocent of X, consider someone harmless because of a lack of prior evil actions, etc.

However, and this is where the Left so often goes wrong, we equally cannot and must* not condemn someone because of something that he might or might not have done in an alternate reality, or might or might not do in the future—especially, at the word of his opponents. This with an eye on at least the following:

*Regrettably, this seems to often be a deliberate Leftist strategy, not just a lack of understanding of the problems involved, including variations like guilt-by-association, use of straw-men, and severe distortions of opinion.

  1. The presumption of innocence and its underlying principles. If in doubt, everyone is vulnerable to such accusations, including members of the Left. Indeed, guilt-by-association could easily be used against the Left too. If every nationalist (who is almost invariable and ipso facto condemned as nazi, fascist, racist supremacist) is just waiting for an excuse to invade Poland and kill Jews, then imagine what can be said about large parts of the Left, in light of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, et co.

    A reasonable world requires that we are condemned only for what we have done—not what our opponents claim that we would do when we finally have the opportunity. Some extrapolation might be justified for a changing situation, but only to the degree that it is made likely by prior own actions and statements, e.g. in that someone with an own record of political violence is deemed unsuitable for political offices by voters, who might then legitimately fear an abuse of the office to continue such practices on a larger scale. (Ditto e.g. someone with a record of embezzlement or great incompetence.)

  2. Given sufficiently extreme circumstances, most people can be brought to out-of-character, out-of-norm, or even outright horrendous acts, implying that the mere potential vulnerability in some set of circumstances is not enough—the circumstances have to be sufficiently applicable and likely. Moreover, because the extremity of circumstances, if any, that bring a given individual over the edge are not knowable before they have actually occurred, it might be better to avoid speculation altogether and (again) apply the presumption of innocence.

    For instance, someone strongly opposed to stealing might not be able to resist the temptation when it is a matter of life-or-death, especially when a spouse or child is concerned.* Even murder might be a possibility for many or most: imagine someone pointing a gun at your children and threatening to shoot them, unless you press a button to cause a sweet old lady to be electrocuted—what would you do? (And: if you do press that button, would that make you more or less suitable for a political office than if you did not? Than if you never had been forced to make the choice?)

    *In some circumstances, this might even be legally allowed; however, there is no blanket exemption.

  3. Most people would, if at all, only become genocidal dictators or whatnot under truly extreme circumstances. For instance, the vast majority of even political extremists (let alone the overall population) has never killed a single human. How, then, can we assume that a specific individual would do this-or-that without a backing evidence well beyond “he is a political extremist”—let alone the much vaguer (and much more common) “I don’t like his political positions”?*

    *An added complication is that many on the Left seem to consider someone “not sufficiently Left” as “extremist”, regardless of other facts, and/or consider any “Right-wing” position as “extremist”.

    Even someone who does have a strong predilection will not necessarily act upon that predilection. For instance, there might be members of the extreme Left who would like to start a revolution in principle, but who deliberately abstain from any such attempt for various reasons, e.g. respect for the law, fear of setting a precedent for other movements, an unwillingness to cause the inevitable bloodshed.

    Assuming that someone with a certain predilection will act on this predilection is similar to assuming that someone who likes to eat will be obese: some are, most are not.

(Much of the above amounts to seeing a test correctly: If someone has been tested and passed, we can make a positive statement; if someone has been tested and failed, we can make a negative statement; but it is a fallacy to assume that being untested is the same thing as having failed (or passed) the test.)

Written by michaeleriksson

December 7, 2019 at 4:00 pm

Pascal’s Wager and Eriksson’s Wagers

with one comment

Pascal’s Wager is the well-known idea that we might just as well act as if God was real: if he is real, this is the best option; if he is not real, the loss is small. (This typically through contrasting rewards in the after-life with sacrifices during life.)

This idea is fatally flawed, most notably through ignoring that the existence of higher powers is not just a dichotomy of (the Christian) God exists vs does not exist.* Among other flaws we have a failure to account for probabilities and expectation values,** the naive assumption that God would fall for this,*** failure to consider the nature of God,**** ignoring other factors than personal benefit,***** and similar.

*What if the (faux) believer finds himself faced with Odin and Thor after death?

**The believer might see an enormous gain after death, if he is correct, compared to small losses while he is alive, but if the probability that he is correct is sufficiently small, he might still be wiser to not believe.

***If he is omniscient, he is unlikely to do so, and the believer might well find himself in great trouble after death. Terry Pratchett used a variation of this complication in one of his books, possibly “Small Gods”.

****What if God does not have the power to deliver? Is not good? Distributes reward and punishment arbitrarily? Etc. In effect, the believer does not just have to assume the existence of God, but of the existence of God (and the after-life) according to some norm. (Note the parallel to the first footnote.)

*****What if the implied behavior of the believer includes acts harmful to others in the name of God, e.g. crusades?

The general idea, however, is quite interesting, and I have myself used a similar approach on occasion, notably in what I will presumptuously name “Eriksson’s Free-Will Wager” (or “EFWW” for short):

We should behave as if we had free will: if we do have free will, this is obviously the right choice; if we do not, choosing to believe (or not believe) in free will was not our choice to begin with, so we might as well roll with the punches.

This idea can be generalized to other contexts, for which I introduce the more abstract Eriksson’s Wager (EW):

When there is doubt about what assumptions hold true, we should act in order to optimize the net-benefit over all sets of possible assumptions under consideration of their probabilities.

An obvious weakness of EW is that the payouts* and probabilities involved will often be unknown or even unknowable. Worse, even all sets of possible assumptions will often be unknown, forcing some degree of approximation.

*I will use “payout” as a catch-all for the expected result of a constellation of assumptions (given that they are true) and choices, irrespective of whether a more literal payout is involved. The value is not necessarily positive, nor necessarily quantifiable in a manner that allows comparisons or that different individuals will agree upon (but I will mostly pretend that it is). For instance, eternal damnation is a negative and unquantifiable payout, while an hourly wage is both positive and quantifiable (for a popular type of comparison).

Looking at EFWW through an EW point of view, we see that both the values and the probabilities of the two sets of assumptions (“we have free will” resp. “we do not have free will”) are unknown, but also almost irrelevant. If we have free will, with even a minuscule probability, only* incompetence can prevent us from being no worse off (more likely, better off) when assuming free will compared to not assuming free will. If we do have free will, we then do not lose and likely gain by assuming free will. If we do not have free will, our “choice” has no influence on the payout**. The overall payout difference if we act as if we have free will vs. if we do not can be written as p(e1 – e2) + (1 – p) (e3 – e4) = p(e1 – e2) >= 0, where p is the probability that we do have free will, e1 is the payout if we do have free will and act as if we do, e2 is the payout if we do have free will and act as if we do not, e3 is the payout if we do not have free will and act as if we do, and e4 is the payout if we do not have free will and act as if we do not. (By assumption, e1 is >= e2 and e3 = e4, while p, as a probability, is necessarily >= 0, and <= 1.)

*With some reservations for psychological effects, e.g. the ability to blame others for own failure.

**Proof-reading, I see some room for a dispute of this claim: While no deliberate choice takes place (because free will is absent), the “choice” forced upon the subject by some other mechanism (e.g. a divine remote control) could still have practical effects that manifests in a different payout. (With reservations for the possibility of choosing a payout that already considers this complication.) However, this point is irrelevant in as far as the overall payout cannot change due to a choice that does not take place. A suitable reformulation of the equation could take care of this. By analogy, if someone has a preference for fleeing burning buildings, this can affect his survival when he can move around, but not when he is under deep anesthesia. The building might or might not burn down, and whether it does can affect his survival, but his own preferences will have no effect.

EFWW is then a special case of EW.

Pascal’s Wager can similarly be written as p(e1 – e2) + (1 – p)(e3 – e4), with p as the probability that God exists and other variables obvious by analogy. Here too, p is unknown, but now relevant in most constellations: the implied assumption is that e1 – e2 > 0 is much larger than abs(e3 – e4), but a sufficiently small p can still screw this up. The other above counter-arguments can be included in this formula or extensions of it, e.g. in that an omniscient God might turn e1 small or negative for a faux believer, or in that the possibility of other gods is included in a third term (or a long series of further terms, depending on details), e.g. in that we now have p(e1 – e2) + q(e3 – e4) + (1 – p – q)(e5 – e6), where q is the probability that no gods exists and (1 – p – q) then is the probability that some god or gods do exist but not God; and e5 – e6 could outweigh e1 – e2, because eternal torture at the hands of jealous gods is a very bad thing.

Pascal’s Wager is then not a special case of EW in general, although it can become so under sufficiently many simplifying/beneficial assumptions, as in simple dichotomy, very large or infinite rewards in the after-life, small costs in this life, and a preference for expectation values over other measures and considerations.

To expand on the latter, I deliberately do not speak of expectation value in the formulation of EW, because this could lead to a simplistic choice. (And I deliberately changed an original “maximize” to “optimize” for a similar reason.) For instance, in Pascal’s Wager, would most people take a mere one-in-a-million chance at great rewards in the after-life, even were these rewards large enough to drive up the expectation value? Probably not, unless the costs in this life were small or smallish.* Here personal priorities, risk aversion, optimism, etc., have to be considered. Similarly, playing lotteries is a bad idea for most (or most intelligent?) people, because the expectation value is negative—they would be better off investing their lottery money.** However, some might feel that the excitement or activity involved outweighs the extra cost.*** Others might feel that that small hope of becoming rich is worth it, especially when they have no other prospects. Similarly, in other cases, taking a small risk of losing large might outweigh a large probability of a small gain, even when the expectation value is favorable. Etc. Correspondingly, just looking at the expectation value or just maximizing some specific other number is simplistic.

*Compare with the lottery discussion and contrast this e.g. with giving a tithe to the church or abstaining from sex.

**Note that the amounts can mount up. For instance, saving ten Euro a week for forty years amounts to more than 20 grand.

***For instance, my maternal grand-mother participated in some Swedish lotteries (Penninglotteriet?) and she seemed to quite enjoy checking various lists and numbers to see whether she had won—even when she had not.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 6, 2019 at 10:55 pm

A dialogue on some topics relating to Plato’s “The Republic”

with 2 comments

Glaucon, I am sure that you know Plato’s “The Republic”.

I do.

Then you have also noted his way of presenting an argument?

I have. I find it most convincing.

I see. Would you agree that our understanding of a matter is improved through critical thought?


And that mindless and uncritical agreement does little to achieve this?

It is so.

Would you further agree that this applies also to the speaker, who might be more stimulated to investigate his own position, deepen his own understanding, and improve his arguments, when faced with some opposition? That there might even be cases, where a speaker comes to reject his old opinion?

You speak the truth.

Then I will also claim that the reader of a dialogue will be better off when this dialogue is not a one-sided presentation of ideas by the first speaker, interleaved with a blanket agreement by the second; especially, in those cases where the claims are specious, simplistic, one-sided, leave out a discussion of special cases, or similar.

Truer words were never spoken.

We might even argue that, unless satirical, a great convincer, or someone with an interest in finding the truth, or someone who respects his audience, should avoid such one-sidedness—even that an argument will often be more convincing when it is given a hard test and survives that test, than when it is left untested.

For sure.

As you agree so far: Would you still consider Plato’s reasoning convincing?

I admit that my faith is weakened, and I will return to his thoughts with a more critical mind.

Your doubts please me. Still, while his reasoning is often weak, there is much reason and many good ideas in his writings.

So there is.

Some, however, I find troubling, be it because of changing times or different preferences.

I, too, have always thought.

Are you not contradicting yourself, Glaucon?

I am indeed.

Any way, consider topics like the formation of opinions in the populace: While Plato makes a great case against lies in general, he appears to make exceptions when it comes to the rulers of a country. He also favors censorship of myths and legends to give the broad masses the right ideals.

This is so.

Today’s leaders are obviously often duplicitous, but they are far from Plato’s ideal.

How so?

Plato has an image of the best of the best being groomed for high office, as philosopher kings, while today’s leaders … Well, you do follow politics?

I do; and I see what you mean.

In fact, Plato seems to see a ladder of decay of government or governance where democracy is just one step short of tyranny as the penultimate stop on the ladder.

He does. But have you not yourself called democracy the least evil among forms of government?

Echoing Churchill—yes. I am not necessarily saying that Plato is right with his hierarchy, but I do find the perspective interesting.

It is indeed.

But to return to my earlier thoughts, it is clear that Plato’s ideas are often dependent on each other and do not necessarily function on their own. For instance, if we had a rule that a philosopher king might be allowed to lie to his citizens, while his citizens would be forced to speak the truth to him, and that rule actually proved beneficial, could we conclude that the same rule would be beneficial when the philosopher king gives way to an incompetent populist?

Certainly not.

Could we conclude that the same rule applies even for a merely reasonably competent politician?

No. I see your point that it has to be the philosopher king, or the rule might prove faulty.

Of course, even with a philosopher king, and even assuming that the rule is beneficial, which would still need verification, there is an ethical problem.

How so?

It juxtaposes a pragmatic benefit with an ideal of how to handle knowledge: At the very core of my beliefs on forming opinions, growing of knowledge, and similar, is the right to do so on one’s own terms, based on own thinking and with free access to information not distorted by others. Indeed, I have used a part of “The Republic” to illustrate this very thing.

Your insight blinds me like the sun does a cave dweller.

But a ruler lying to his people would be exactly such a distortion. So would censoring myths, legends, and tales to change their real or imagined message to something else. So, indeed, could a too one-sided dialogue be.

So it is. I do recall a certain vehemence on your part against distortion of literature.

I am pleased that you paid attention. From another point of view, one of the central ideas of the modern law system is that everyone should be equal in front of the law, and when a ruler is allowed to lie, while his citizens are not, then they are not equal in front of the law.


Similarly, modern thoughts on topics like the Rechtsstaat are steeped in ideas like safe-guards of democracy, use of checks and balances, giving the citizens rights towards the state rather than vice versa, …

Pardon me for disagreeing, but that sounds more like the 18th-century idealism.

Consider yourself pardoned: Unfortunately, proponents of a true Rechtsstaat are rarely heard today and the insight into what is needed has lessened; and many fall into the trap of considering any state that enables their own ideology and politics as an ipso-facto Rechtsstaat, if rarely using that name, while states that do not are condemned irrespective of to which degree they adhere to the ideals of a Rechtsstaat. Still, when we contrast even the 21th-century take with Plato’s times, the world is very different—and there are many of us who do hold and propose strong Rechtsstaatlichkeit.

I see your point. But: If we do have a philosopher king, what would the purposes of safe-guards be? And: Do we really need safe-guards specifically for democracy?

Good questions. The first is likely easier to answer: Such safe-guards, or their presence or absence, must never be based on the assumption of an ideal situation. The situation might or might not be ideal today, but even then there is no guarantee for tomorrow. If I trust all my fellow humans, I could leave my door unlocked or even forego a lock entirely—but I do not. I might know and trust my neighbors sufficiently, but what about the mail-man? The mail-man’s vacation replacement? Guests of my neighbors? All strangers who pass by the house in the course of the day?

It is clear now. You say that the next king need not be a philosopher, despite having been carefully chosen and groomed.

Or that he was a philosopher king and has since succumbed to insanity or dementia, or that the choice was not careful, or that the grooming was flawed, or whatever other complications can occur. Worse, if the philosopher king is seen as a literal monarch, rather than e.g. one of the members of a governing council, then the main difference between him and the tyrant, who is the lowest rung on the ladder, lies in his person—not in the system of government. The later concept of an “enlightened despot” has a great overlap with Plato’s “philosopher king”, and illustrates in its very name how small the difference can be—the one despot happens to be enlightened, the other not.

Quite true.

To turn to the second point, I agree that safe-guards for democracy might seem a bit paradoxical in light of my other writings. The answer falls into at least three parts: Lesser evil, semantic misunderstanding/misuse, and the self-servingness of politicians.

I see what you mean by “lesser evil”, from past discussions, but you have to explain the others.

My pleasure: In terms of semantics, words like “democratic” are often used to imply certain things that are not necessarily relating to democracy. It is, for instance, possible to have a democracy without strong due process and to have due process without democracy; however, due process is often incorrectly seen as a part of democracy. Similarly, it is possible to have freedom of speech without democracy; and while it is arguably not possible to have true democracy without freedom of speech, many self-proclaimed democracies do have strong limits on speech. In such a context, “safe-guards of democracy” could include safe-guards for various civic rights, aspects of the Rechtsstaat, and similar—which I, incidentally, consider more important and beneficial than democracy per se.

That makes sense. What about the politicians?

Here we do not so much have an argument for as much as an explanation of such formulations, or of the safe-guards themselves: Politicians, in the modern sense, are kept in power by what passes for democracy and they are correspondingly set on preserving it…

Very true.

Wonderful. Then this will be a good point to wrap the discussion up, before our dialogue reaches Platonesque proportions.

If it is not too bold, I have some questions concerning the above and the later books of the “The Republic”.

Well, strictly between you and me, I have only read about half of it so far. You know how I tend to have a dozen books open in parallel, often over months, and how that annoying dialogue format makes it hard for me to keep my concentration up. It is true that the preceding might give an incorrect view of Plato’s ideas through this incomplete and unfocused reading, but I thought it better to get this text out of the way now, before I forget what I already wanted to say and before I have so much other material from the rest of the “Republic” that this text would grow too long and chaotic.

A most wise decision.

Glaucon, you are, unless I am much mistaken, a great sycophant.

I regret to admit that this is true.

Written by michaeleriksson

January 13, 2019 at 2:33 am

Follow-up: A few thoughts on what constitutes science

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As a follow-up to a previous text on science (and falsification):

Reading a discussion on due-process problems at Brown University, I see at least one special case where falsifiability can be a very good way of identifying non-science: When the system is rigged so that what a reasonable observer would see as falsification is turned into non-falsification—or even confirmation.

In this specific case, a college-internal sexual-assault proceeding was perverted by “training” given to the panelists, effecting exactly that:*

*Quoted from the linked-to page with changes only to formatting. Bracketed text is by the original author. Smith is a real judge presiding over a subsequent real trial.

After the incident, the accuser told a roommate what a great time she had with the student she’d eventually accuse; post-incident text messages sent by the accuser likewise indicated her having consented to sex. But one of the panelists, Besenia Rodriguez, said she didn’t consider the post-incident texts or conversations because her interpretation of Brown’s “training” suggested that sexual assault survivors behave in “counter-intuitive” ways. Therefore, she reasoned, “it was beyond my degree of expertise to assess [the accuser]’s post-encounter conduct . . . because of a possibility that it was a response to trauma.”

Rodriguez’s contention that her university-provided training shows that essentially any behavior—intuitive or counter-intuitive—proves sexual assault “clearly comes close to the line” of arbitrary and capricious conduct, Smith noted. Yet the training Rodriguez received, and the mindset she reflects appears to be commonplace in campus sexual assault matters.

In effect: How the alleged victim behaves after the alleged assault can incriminate the alleged perpetrator—but can never acquit.

This is the more problematic, because many of the accounts I have read over the years follow a pattern of: Boy and girl have a sexual, romantic, and/or flirting relationship of some duration. An event* takes places. Boy and girl continue their sexual, romantic, and/or flirting relationship. At a later time, sometimes months after the event, boy leaves girl, is caught with another girl, or shows interest in others. Girl immediately goes to college officials and declares the event to have been a rape or a sexual assault…

*I am deliberately vague, because (a) these are typically word-against-word situations, which make it hard to “find the facts”, (b) “finding the (college) law” is often done in a matter that goes well beyond what the regular law, established norms, common sense, whatnot would consider reasonable, e.g. in that even sex with mutual consent is considered a crime when the consent was not explicitly spoken or that of two equally drunk consenting partners, one was considered capable of consent and the other not. Worse examples exists—including here, claims the discussion, “[…]Brown’s current policy, which defines sexual assault as including such behavior as a male student giving a female student flowers, or flattering her, in hopes of getting her to agree to sex.”, which would make any type of courtship a potential sexual assault…

Similar cases (regarding falsification) include claims by self-proclaimed psychics that the presence of skeptics blocks their powers (i.e. “that I failed is not proof that I am wrong—it is proof that there is a skeptic present”); and feminists interpreting evidence in counter-intuitive or implausible ways to fit their preconceived ideas, notably in that signs of sex differences in behavior even in very young children are not seen as a falsification of their “tabula rasa” ideas, instead being proof that the “Patriarchy”, “gender stereotyping”, “structures”, whatnot are even stronger and earlier in their effects.

However, this does not alter the conclusions of my earlier text: The above is normally* not a matter of whether a certain claim/theory/model/whatnot is falsifiable (by a reasonable standard). The problem lies in one party (deliberately/dishonestly or through lack of reason) finding excuses to deny the falsification (by applying an unreasonable standard).

*In theory, it would likely be possible to construct, in advance, a more complex system that would be unfalsifiable for similar reasons—and, if so, the lack of falsifiability could be a strong argument against the status as science. However, even then, I strongly suspect that there would be other avenues to discredit the system, e.g. by pointing to tautologies or to insist upon an investigation of individual claims using system-external methods. (It could even be argued that no system, short of an “explanation of everything”, that alleges complete self-sufficiency could ever be trusted as a model of the real world.) To boot, the instances that I have seen to date have always struck me as fairly obvious “excuse making”, likely also having arisen after a first encounter with a falsification. (This includes all three examples mentioned above.)

Excursion on colleges and quasi-judicial proceedings:
Considering both the extreme problems with due process (and competence, and consistency, and fairness, …) that exist today and the lack of obvious justification for this type of parallel justice system, I strongly recommend that colleges be prevented, if need be by real laws, to hold such quasi-judicial proceedings. Either a crime is alleged (and then the real police/DA/courts/… should handle the issue) or it is not (and then the college has no legitimate reason to call for punishment).* If and when a real conviction follows, the college might** be entitled to apply additional consequences; if it does not follow, the college should let things be. Even when a real conviction does follow, the college must respect the presumption of innocence in the time leading up to said conviction.

*With reservations for matters relating directly to the academic aspects (e.g. cheating on tests), where any other organization would be expected to act (e.g. gross disturbance of the peace), and when an any organization might legitimately suggest a mutual solution without law involvement. However, even here the student (like with conflicts with other organizations) should always have the choice to clarify the issue by criminal or civil law. College-dictated constraints on how students should interact sexually or romantically with each other are certainly not covered by these exceptions—and should not be allowed in the first place.

**Depending on the severity of the crime, potentially negative effects of the punishment or lack there of on the involved parties, etc. I note, however, that e.g. suspending or expelling someone for a parking ticket would be over-kill, while doing the same to someone who is about to go to jail for ten years will usually be redundant. Obviously, a college should not be allowed to e.g. expel someone and keep the full semester fees…

Written by michaeleriksson

August 10, 2018 at 5:31 pm

A few thoughts on what constitutes science

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I have long been annoyed by some general takes on science, especially with too great a focus on e.g. falsifiability, specific methods, and even, to some part, stringency.

To avoid misunderstandings, I consider these to all be important for science as a whole; however, they are not necessarily that important when we look at whether any given individual theory, hypothesis, experiment, model …, should be considered “scientific” at any given time. Ditto when it comes to the person behind them.

I tend to view science (in very abstract terms) as a combination of two antagonistic/interacting/complementary/whatnot aspects*: The addition of suggested knowledge, e.g. through observation, experimentation, induction, mathematical analysis, and even sheer speculation; and the removal of such suggested knowledge, e.g. through observation, experimentation, induction, mathematical analysis, and even sheer speculation**. In this manner, we have a gradually changing set of suggested knowledge, where the certainty*** ranges from next to nothing to very high, depending on factors like how long a certain item has remained unremoved, how much additional**** evidence has turned up, whether it is compatible with other suggested items, …

*Quite similar to how Evolution can, with some oversimplification, be viewed as the result of the combination of natural variation and natural selection. (I almost wrote “mutation”, but this would have been misleading, seeing that variation also occurs e.g. through genetic mixture in offspring, and at least some degree of Evolution would take place even absent mutation, or possibly further mutation. Instead, I opted for an ad hoc “natural variation”,)

**I am not entirely convinced that the inclusion of “speculation” is warranted in the second list. This could depend on perspective, the details of the matter, and how legitimate the filtering is. I choose to include it for reasons of symmetry, and lacking the reverse conviction that it must be excluded.

***This word should be taken with a grain of salt, as even long accepted “knowledge” can be modified or, rarely, rejected outright. If nothing else, it often turns out that e.g. a certain theory or model only is valid within certain contexts, e.g. sufficiently weak gravitational fields. The above process will (with some reservations for mathematics, formal logic, and similar) never create something true beyond the possibility of change—there is no certainty: What we have is more like a series of (ideally: improving) approximations of the true this-and-that.

****Which I have so far informally considered a part of the “addition” aspect; however, which might be better off in an aspect of its own. (As occurs to me during writing. Note that I am not trying to describe a formal and detailed philosophy of science, but merely my own intuitive and previously unwritten take.)

Consider e.g. the observation that the single apple hanging from a specific tree fell to the ground at sun-rise. We can now make, for instance, the two suggestions that if an apple falls, it will fall towards the ground; and that any apple will always fall at or around sun-rise. This is the addition aspect. To apply the removal aspect, we find another apple tree and watch it for some time. We might now find that no apple fell at or around sun-rise, and we can remove the second suggestion. At the same time, we might have observed that four apples fell at other times, and that these apples did fall towards the ground, thereby strengthening that suggestion. This remains the state of knowledge, well-supported by great amounts of additional observation, for quite some time—then someone brings an apple to a space-station… Observations on the space-station could then invalidate the “apples fall to the ground” hypothesis, but also add sufficient information to suggest a new and better hypothesis. (As can be seen, these two aspects are not necessarily separate phases or otherwise separate—quite often, they go hand in hand. However, the time between them can be long for any given suggestion.)

If we now consider the specific topic of falsification and science, the above did contain falsification—and, indeed, the removal aspect could to some degree be approximated by a pure falsification aspect. However, falsification is, then, at most half of science. Should someone who made the first observation and speculation be considered a non-scientist merely for not having himself performed further observation and experimentation, e.g. leaving it to someone who had a greater interest in the matter? No!* Should a hypothesis that is not falsifiable be considered “unscientific”, solely on the immediate** grounds of not being falsifiable? No—being or not being falsifiable does not alter the potential truth of a claim. We should, obviously, be aware and signal that what we see at an early stage might yet be highly speculative, lacking in independent verification, be poorly tested, …—but that does not automatically make it unscientific.***

*However, if he failed to appreciate the possibility that he was wrong, cf. below, the situation could be very different.

**But see below for why falsifiability is a hard-to-avoid criterion, even when its absence is allowed.

***In contrast, a refusal to consider evidence to the contrary, experimentation that is obviously flawed, conclusions that manifestly do not follow from the given set of observations, an overstatement of certainty, and outright cheating are all examples of things that can earn the label “unscientific” (or e.g. “pseudo-scientific”).

Indeed, to me, the core of being a scientist is simply this: Having a great wish to find out the truth—even should that truth be contrary to one’s own current beliefs, the scientific consensus, the public opinion, the claims of a powerful religion or the government, whatnot. This not necessarily to say that everyone having that core is automatically a scientist*; however, anyone who lacks it does not deserve the title. (In other words, the claim of being a scientist has been falsified for those who demonstrate the absence…) Similarly, the application of that attitude is the sine qua non for calling an activity “science” or “scientific”.

*Defining what makes a scientist, apart from the core, goes well beyond the area where I have a fix opinion. However, I do reject the notions that anyone with a Ph.D., or other specific degree, automatically is a scientist and that anyone without one automatically is not. (I also note that the word “scientist” could, depending on context, be used in a wider or narrower meaning, e.g. in that retirees or non-natural scientists are in- or excluded, or that someone with a certain qualification containing “scientist” or “science” is sloppily included in a blanket manner. These uses do not affect the more abstract concept discussed by me, however.)

Looking at falsification more in detail, there are (at least) two arguments for resp. against it. For it: Firstly, that anything really worth* knowing will have effects and that these effects can be tested against reality**, which opens a door for falsification. Secondly, that many hypotheses can by their nature not be positively proved (even should they be true!), while having a “co-hypothesis” that can be*** (which amounts to falsification of the hypothesis). Against it: Firstly, that falsifiability can usually (cf. the footnote***) only be used in one direction, making it a weak tool that needs other tools to help it. (Or, from another perspective: It only covers one of the two main aspects, cf. above). Secondly, that it often lacks the ability to consider anything but absolute existence/non-existence or another absolute.****

*Whether e.g. the Earth is orbited by a tea-pot is only interesting, beyond sheer curiosity, if its presence or absence has effects. Would it, e.g., double the tidal waves in size? If so, we can use mathematical modeling to to predict what the tidal waves should be with and without its presence. If the waves are not of the height predicted by the model, we can tentatively consider its existence falsified. (This cannot be done with certainty, e.g. because there might be other unknown influences or a modeling error.) On the other hand, if there are no suggested effects, be they tidal or other, it really does not matter whether the tea-pot exists. (As an aside, a reason why non-falsifiable hypotheses have a bad reputation is that exactly the absence of testable effects are used by charlatans to ensure that their claims cannot be repudiated. However, abusus non tollit usum.)

**In principle: It can well be that a practical test is only possible at some future time, e.g. due to restrictions in current technology. (Say, that current telescopes are not strong enough to spot a tea-pot in space.) Another reason could be that the effects that could be tested would only manifest at some point in the future, say that the tea-pot will only turn on its tidal magic ten years into the future (such complications are comparatively rare in e.g. physics, but could be of great interest if we look at e.g. economics).

***Consider again the tea-pot in space (with no “special powers”): In due time, its existence could be proved e.g. by observation from a space-ship, but its non-existence could never be, because we might simply have missed the right part of (enormously large) space: If we see it, we know that its there; if we do not see it, we do not know that it is not there. (This is, obviously, the traditional “black swan” example in a different guise.) In the same way, very many hypotheses are only open to one of proof and disproof—and those open to proof are often so only through the disproof of the co-hypothesis that the original hypothesis is false. Correspondingly, either we try to falsify the hypothesis it self (for a disproof), or we turn the hypothesis around and try to falsify the co-hypothesis (for a proof). (Fellow computer scientists should recognize the same principle in concepts like recursive and co-recursive enumerability; and see the similarity to the logical rules that A -> B and not-B implies not-A, while A -> B and B does not imply A.)

****In the original tea-pot example we have such an absolute—but what if the hypothesis was that tea-pots in space (not just Earth-orbit) are rare? Suddenly, finding that one tea-pot does not falsify the hypothesis. Even finding many millions of tea-pots would not necessarily help, unless they were distributed so that we could speculate (without a “true” falsification) that the density of of tea-pots in space is above some threshold. However, seeing that tea-pots have a connection to Earth, their presence near-by would not necessarily be even a rough indication when we move away from Earth. In contrast, (still non-falsifyingly), we could find that there are no or only very few (relative volume of space) tea-pots close to Earth, then that there are no or only very few tea-pots in increasingly greater and greater areas of space, after which the inductive claim could be made that tea-pots in space are in all likelihood rare, giving support to the hypothesis. If we had insisted on falsification, we could make no claim, not even of likelihood, in either direction; dropping falsification, we at least have something.

Excursion on myself:
Do I consider myself a scientist? Mostly, “no”; for the simple reason that my active* pursuit of truth and knowledge is usually related to areas outside of science. I do pride myself on having the above core, however; and I do have reasonable formal qualifications in form of two master degrees, should someone still use degrees as the main criterion. (I have a semi-finished text on “labels” where I will explore such topics a little further.)

*As in e.g. trying to come up with something on my own, and as opposed to e.g. reading and contemplating someone elses ideas. Cf. the difference between the first two items of an older list/discussion.

Excursion on pseudo-science:
A related problem is the application of “pseudo-science” based on e.g. the contents of what is researched. For instance, if a crypto-zoologist searches in good faith* for a rumored animal for which there are no strong scientific contraindications and whose existence is not obviously unlikely, it is wrong to automatically consider him (or his field) pseudo-science. Indeed, the undue tendency to do so has given crypto-zoologists a good excuse towards much of the (even rightfully) levied criticism of their work—on rare occasions, something new and spectacular has shown up (e.g. the mountain gorilla).** Instead, we should look at how scientific or unscientific his attitude and his methods are.

*As opposed e.g. a search for a hypothesized animal that not even he believes in, with the intent to give him publicity and to increase his book sales.

**And less spectacular new species are discovered quite often.

Similarly, older and now debunked theories, e.g. concerning the aether, phlogiston, or even phrenology, should not be condemned as pseudo-science after the fact. If someone today supports phrenology, that is quite likely to be pseudo-science, because the support will almost certainly require ignoring scientific developments that had not taken place when phrenology thrived. On the other hand, whether phrenology was a pseudo-science should be judged by the attitude and methods of the original proponents.* An area of science does not magically turn into pseudo-science when its ideas turn out to be wrong—it turns into outdated science. A good contrast is homeopathy: Today’s homeopathy is pseudo-science and/or quackery, because it has been continued against all reason; however, the original incarnation need not have been.

*Whether phrenologists (or the earliest homeopaths) would have passed the test, I honestly do not know. However, e.g. aether theories were a part of main-stream science for at least several decades, possibly considerably longer.

Of course, under no circumstances is it allowed to use “pseudo-science” based merely on disagreement with the conclusions or e.g. concerns of political correctness. Consider the common, usually grossly unfair, accusations raised by political activists against e.g. intelligence research as a racist or sexist pseudo-science—which is it self a thoroughly unscientific stance. (The reader might have seen me referring to e.g. gender studies as a pseudo-science. Based on what I have seen so far of attitude and methods, I stand by that assessment.)

Written by michaeleriksson

August 1, 2018 at 12:22 am