Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

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Never read your idols!

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“Never meet your idols!” the saying goes. A similar saying might apply to re-encountering, after too long a time, someone or something that we once admired:* Working on a text on some early influences and non-influences on my own development, I downloaded a copy of “Broca’s Brain”—a work by Carl Sagan, which I recall reading with great enjoyment at a tender age.**

*For which the title of this text is a hyperbolic special case, not to be taken literally.

**How tender, I do not know for certain, but it was tender: “Cosmos” was, according to IMDB, released in Sweden when I was 7 (1982), which provides a lower bound, while leaving “mellanstadiet” (years 4–6 of school) provides an upper bound. (A better lower bound would be given by the publication of “Broca’s Brain” in Swedish translation, but a short Internet search did not find this information.)

Having now partially read, partially skimmed the introduction and the first of five parts (“Science and Human Concerns”), I am horribly disappointed and will not read on. Not only is the writing the type of poor non-science that makes popular-science books hopeless,* but Sagan reasons poorly, is weak on critical thinking, shows a lack of understanding of what little science is present, is highly naive outside of science, and pushes exactly the type of anti-scientific Leftist populism that is so dangerous and has done so much damage to the modern world. Too often, he abuses rhetoric to spread opinions, instead of factual arguments. Above all, I come away with the impression that he has not truly thought on and gained insight into most of what he discusses.

*E.g. through an immense amount of “human interest” material with only parenthetical mentions of actual science, through sloppy or faulty science, and through more attempts at saying how wonderful this-and-that is than actually demonstrating the wonderfulness (note e.g. the first quote below).

Between the “Cosmos” TV series, “Broca’s Brain”, and one or two other books (of unremembered title[s]), Sagan once seemed an intellectual giant to me. Right now, he seems like a “mid-wit”.

To look at some details:*

*Quotes with reservations for distortions during a PDF to text conversion. Some hyphenation at line-breaks have been removed (as have the line-breaks themselves). Some formatting might have changed.

This book is written just before—at most, I believe, a few years or a few decades before—the answers to many of those vexing and awesome questions on origins and fates are pried loose from the cosmos. […] By far the most exciting, satisfying and exhilarating time to be alive is the time in which we pass from ignorance to knowledge on these fundamental issues; the age where we begin in wonder and end in understanding. In all of the four-billion-year history of life on our planet, in all of the four-million-year history of the human family, there is only one generation privileged to live through that unique transitional moment: that generation is ours.

It might well be that there were many interesting questions posed and/or answered at the time, but that has not been unique to any given “now” for a long time. Consider e.g. someone seeing the breakthroughs of Galileo, Newton, Darwin, or Einstein, or one of a number of other big names, and the ensuing immense changes to our understanding of the world. Their contemporaries might very well have expressed a sentiment similar to Sagan’s. And: We are more than forty years, or almost two generations, past Sagan’s time of writing.* I am not convinced that the set of questions has changed that much or that the answers to them have been provided.**

*Here and elsewhere, I am not clear on what material was written exactly when. The book was published in 1979, but individual copyrights go back to as early as 1974. Depending on the exact quote, and what might or might not have been revised, we land at between 43 and 48 years ago using a year-minus-year calculation.)

**Sagan mostly speaks in generalities and it is hard to make a statement about any given question, because the question is not actually given. However, off the top of my head, I can recall no true and great revelation during my own lifetime (which is approximately the lifetime of the book), only smaller and more accumulating insights. Yes, we have evidence of the Higgs boson, we are reasonably certain how the non-avian dinosaurs died out (and that birds are dinosaurs), and we have a better estimate for the age of the universe; no, we have not seen the equivalent of heliocentrism, evolution, deep space, deep time, special and general relativity theory, quantum mechanics, maybe not even continental drift. (With reservations for discoveries yet to be widely known or sufficiently understood as important.) Moreover, it is in the nature of science that new revelations raise more questions than they answer and that answers tend to merely shift the problem from the current turtle to the turtle below it.

You could feel the presence of nineteenth-century museum directors engaged, in their frock coats, in goniométrie* and craniologie*, busily collecting and measuring everything, in the pious hope that mere quantification would lead to understanding.

*The setting is a French museum, which explains the language.

Apart from being one of many, many examples of atrocious writing, this simultaneously gives a hint of the agenda pushing to come and gives signs of own prejudice and lack of scientific understanding and/or mentality.

Not only is this unwarranted speculation about the long dead, but it also misses the point of measurements and quantification: Good science, outside of strictly theoretical fields, requires measurements, be it to get the lay of the land, to develop first ideas and models, or to verify/reject/refine these ideas and models. Understanding comes from thinking, but we need to have something to think about and a connection between the thoughts and reality. That someone takes an interest in quantification does, as should be obvious, not automatically imply that this is his sole interest and that he considers quantification to be enough.

As to what is measured: Let us say that you were a 19th-century anthropologist with an interest in the physiology of the human mind. Where would you begin your measurements and investigations? With a CT-scan? With an EEG? By cutting up the skull of a living human and placing electrodes into the brain? No, chances are that you would begin with calipers. Maybe, calipers would turn out to be highly insufficient at the end of the day, but you have to start somewhere, you have to start with something realistic, and you have no way of knowing in advance whether calipers will be productive or a dead end.

An array of large cylindrical bottles containing, to my astonishment, perfectly preserved human heads. A red-mustachioed man, perhaps in his early twenties, originating, so the label said, from Nouvelle Calédonie. Perhaps he was a sailor who had jumped ship in the tropics only to be captured and executed, his head involuntarily drafted in the cause of science. Except he was not being studied; he was only being neglected, among the other severed heads.

This is one example of how Sagan seems to push an attitude of something barbaric or wasteful with the collections of a museum. (And what is the point of wildly speculating on the man’s profession and fate?) Maybe, there are some objects who have never brought value or truly do reflect something barbaric, but current neglect is not a sign of this. It might, for instance, be that this head was once an object of intense study, but that this study is now long ended. Who says that the currently neglected might not prove of value at some later time? How are we to know in advance what objects are worth preserving? Etc.

Doubtless the savants of earlier days had hoped there might be some anomaly, some telltale sign in the brain anatomy or cranial configuration of murderers. Perhaps they had hoped that murder was a matter of heredity and not society. Phrenology was a graceless nineteenth-century aberration. I could hear my friend Ann Druyan saying, “The people we starve and torture have an unsociable tendency to steal and murder. We think it’s because their brows overhang.”

This reeks of politically correct “Those people of yore were evil racists. Thank good that we are so much more enlightened!” thinking:

Phrenology was not a “graceless nineteenth-century aberration”—it was merely something that did not pan out. A priori, it might or might not have, and the general idea (but not necessarily the details) was not obviously absurd. There are even aspects of it that proved true, notably the idea of a differentiated brain with different areas having different responsibilities.* (As a contrast, note that Leftists have sometimes tried to deny that even brain volume/weight might have any type of influence, and that the considerable physiological differences between male and female brains would, by some stroke of magic, be equally void of influence. There we have a truly graceless aberration.) From another perspective, that phrenology did not pan out and that no “telltale sign” was found might merely have reflected the limits of science and measurements at the time. Today, it is known that differences within the brain** can affect e.g. behavior (even among humans, as opposed to the more obvious differences between e.g. humans and horses).

*I am not certain whether this idea originated with phrenology, however, or whether it merely was central to phrenology.

**Consider e.g. the considerable influence of the amygdala. Unfortunately, the amygdala cannot be characterized by applying calipers to the outside of a skull.

As to his “friend” (actually, future wife), the quote is a good example of simplistic Leftist thought or argumentation—lack of insight, straw-manning, and borderline sloganeering. Not only does it suggest an active oppression and a level of poverty/whatnot that is only very rarely present, but it also ignores the overwhelming amount of crimes, then and now, committed for reasons other than dire need (or e.g. a wish for vengeance). Look at the current U.S. For that matter, look at Sagan’s U.S. As to overhanging brows, they might be irrelevant, but there is considerable evidence of at least one connection between something largely inborn, IQ, and various behaviors (cf. e.g. “The Bell-Curve”).

It was difficult to hold Broca’s brain without wondering whether in some sense Broca was still in there—his wit, his skeptical mien, his abrupt gesticulations when he talked, his quiet and sentimental moments. Might there be preserved in the configuration of neurons before me a recollection of the triumphant moment when he argued before the combined medical faculties (and his father, overflowing with pride) on the origins of aphasia? [And a looong continued rambling on the same theme.]

I am no expert on the workings of human memory, but I suspect that such ideas border on the ridiculous to someone who is an expert—and would have done so even at Sagan’s time of writing. With the end of neurological activity and the subsequent decay, chances are that virtually everything would be gone. Also note how Sagan, much like a phrenologist, wishes to extract information from the configuration of the brain—the one might want to do so by looking at bumps on the head, the other by looking at neurons, but the principle is not that different.

Broca was a humanist of the nineteenth century, but unable to shake the consuming prejudices, the human social diseases, of his time. He thought men superior to women, and whites superior to blacks.

While I cannot speak for specifically Broca, these formulations, especially “social diseases”, are too far-going and speculative—likely more reflecting Sagan’s prejudices than those of Broca’s time. Leaving the specific word “superior” out of the discussion,* it was clear then and it is clear now, outside of politically correct propaganda, that e.g. great inventors, thinkers, scientists, whatnot tend to be male more or much more often than female—even given equal opportunity. The same applies to e.g white vs. black. Etc. A criticism is valid e.g. if someone were to conclude that all men are smarter than all women, but I have seen few examples of such thinking both in my own experiences of the current world and my readings of history and literature of the 19th century. Women of great actual and proven ability were not shoved off to the kitchen merely for being women—they just happened to be very rare. Possibly infected by Sagan’s tendency to speculate and imagine wildly, I cannot shake the image of someone trying to show Queen Victoria her proper place. She does not seem amused as she loads up for a devastating blow with her handbag.

*Firstly, it is not clear whether this is Sagan’s word or that of e.g. Broca. Secondly, it is unclear what type of superiority is intended, and a discussion would be hampered without clarifying this. For instance, and at one extreme, if we speak of some abstract human value, everyone might be tautologically on the same level. For instance, and on the other extreme, if we equate superiority with having a higher IQ, then these “prejudices” are correct (at the group level). I am also uncertain what the proper connotations of “superior” would have been in the original context—is Lake Superior actually better than Lake Huron? (Or is it simply further to the north? Or is there an other explanation for the name entirely?) Is your superior at work actually better than you?

Indeed, the current world suffers from massive prejudice in the opposite direction, that all are created identical in abilities (not just equal in rights), that what we accomplish in life is determined by how poor or wealthy our parents were, that a few additional years of education is what made the smart smart and the lack of these few years what left the dumb dumb, etc. (Whether Sagan did so too, I leave unstated.) This despite mountains of evidence to the contrary.

From another point of view, the defining characteristic of a prejudice is not that it is wrong, but that it is arrived at without sufficient investigation, deliberation, and whatnot. But was that truly the case with the opinions of Broca and his peers? They might have drawn from a wide range of experiences and observations, and might have arrived at these opinions in a perfectly reasonable manner. (This while their current counterparts might reject the very notion of this-or-that out of hand, because it “cannot” or “must not” be true; because a wrong word on the matter could lead to a “cancellation”; or similar—and never mind the actual evidence.)

Even so straightforward a question as whether in the absence of friction a pound of lead falls faster than a gram of fluff was answered incorrectly by Aristotle and almost everyone else before the time of Galileo. Science is based on experiment, on a willingness to challenge old dogma, on an openness to see the universe as it really is.


Where would Galileo have been without measurements and observations? Was not Aristotle’s problem (rumored to be) exactly that he failed to do measurements? Why would Galileo be better or worse than a user of calipers? The falling objects happen to be far less complex, and much more easily observed, than the human brain. If it had been the other way around, Galileo might be viewed as a quack and some phrenologist as a hero of science.

Can we know, ultimately and in detail, a grain of salt? Consider one microgram of table salt, a speck just barely large enough for someone with keen eyesight to make out without a microscope. In that grain of salt there are about 10^16 sodium and chlorine atoms. This is a 1 followed by 16 zeros, 10 million billion atoms. If we wish to know a grain of salt, we must know at least the three-dimensional positions of each of these atoms.

Do we now? Firstly, by that standard of exact and exacting detail, humans would know virtually nothing about anything, rendering the idea of knowledge nonsensical and contradictory to previous conceptions. Secondly, is this the right level of abstraction? For instance, virtually any relevant characteristic of this grain of salt will be independent of the exact numbers of atoms and their exact layout. For instance, the individual atoms are not salt. Thirdly, we have issues in the extended family of the Sorites Paradox and the Ship of Achilles. Would, for instance, a previous knowledge be invalidated if two sodium atoms changed places? (Likely with more concerns to be found on deeper contemplation.)

By analogy, would we require this level of knowledge in order to say that someone “knows his brother” or “knows math”? Well, maybe, someone could argue that there is a difference between knowing one’s brother and knowing him “ultimately and in detail”, but even here the bar must either be set lower or the exercise be pointless. If in doubt, what would the benefit of knowing someone/something “ultimately and in detail” be, if such excessive and pointless criteria are applied?*

*In addition, this is the wrong type of knowledge. (Cf. e.g. knowing his exact atomic configuration with knowing, say, his favorite movies, foods, places, whatnot.) However, Sagan notes that there is more to the grain of salt, he would presumably think the same about humans, and it would almost certainly be unfair to criticize him in this area.

If, as seems likely, every bit of information in the brain corresponds to one of these [dendrites], the total number of things knowable by the brain is no more than 10^14, one hundred trillion.

Why would this seem likely? On the contrary, from what I have read so far, as well as from common sense, it is highly likely that various memories are formed by some accumulation of something or other—and I am sceptical as to whether dendrites, per se, are these something or other. Even if we assume that they are, the equation of one bit with one dendrite is dubious, and seems like a naive attempt to apply a computer-memory paradigm onto the brain,* which simply does not pan out.

*I do not know how knowledgable Sagan was in the field of computing/computers/whatnot, but I have seen the same type of thinking from others in the past.

It is an astonishing fact that there are laws of nature, rules that summarize conveniently—not just qualitatively but quantitatively—how the world works.

Is it? Or is it merely a fact that seems astonishing to someone unfamiliar with the idea? (Here the questions should be taken at face value: it is often the case that prior exposure alters expectations, and I am not certain which set of expectations is the more reasonable a priori.)

It might be argued that rules could be found in almost any functioning system, because it is hard to avoid entering the realms of math or quasi-math beyond a certain point. Consider e.g. the “law of large numbers” and variations thereof, and how hard it would be for a large system to avoid it, even absent more deterministic rules.

We might imagine a universe in which there are no such laws, in which the 10^80 elementary particles that make up a universe like our own behave with utter and uncompromising abandon. To understand such a universe we would need a brain at least as massive as the universe.

Why? Even with a high degree of random or unexpected behavior, chances are* that abstraction and blocking of various types would reduce the load considerably—as would the likelihood that we only ever interact with a small subset of all those particles. For a sufficient level of “strangeness”,** the claim might hold, but for any reasonably likely universe, even well short of the actual universe, it will likely be false. In the other direction, for a sufficient level of “strangeness”, no brain might be sufficient—or capable of existence.

*Note e.g. the behavior of a gas or gas mixture, including the atmosphere that surrounds us: While the molecules of a gas underlie rules, they are quite chaotic when taken one-by-one, to the point that they might seem to behave entirely randomly and without rules when viewed by a naive observer. Nevertheless, when aggregated to a level that is observable by a regular human (without special equipment), they behave quite reasonably. Behavior on the quantum level might equally seem absurd to us, but still results in high-level behavior that is easily handled.

**Assume e.g. that your typical particle jumps instantaneously from one point of the universe to another in random manner, while alternating between being an electron, a positron, a beach-ball, and a tea kettle, and while its gravitational pull independently varies between zero and that of a star.

It seems unlikely that such a universe could have life and intelligence, because beings and brains require some degree of internal stability and order. But even if in a much more random universe there were such beings with an intelligence much greater than our own, there could not be much knowledge, passion or joy.

Again, why? On the first count, for a sufficient level of “strangeness”, he might be right, but for more reasonable levels he is likely wrong; and even at extreme levels of strangeness, the result might be a type of life and/or intelligence that is simply strange to us. (Contrast e.g. the eponymous entity from Fred Hoyle’s “The Black Cloud” with a regular human to see how radically different conceptions of life are possible—and then note that the unconceivable-by-humans might be far stranger yet.) The second count is ridiculous given the premise of “beings with an intelligence much greater than our own”—except in as far as passion and joy* might be aspects of life that simply do not apply to a sufficiently different life-form. This, however, does not require an extraordinarily strange universe—it is enough with a sufficiently alien life-form. (Contrast e.g. “Data” with the rest of the TNG Enterprise crew. To a lesser degree, the same applies to some other major characters in the franchise, including various Vulcans and the holographic “Doctor”.)

*Knowledge is less likely to be an issue, but maybe it is too in some extreme scenario—or maybe the idea of knowledge is different.

It is stunning that as we go close to the speed of light our mass increases indefinitely, we shrink toward zero thickness in the direction of motion, and time for us comes as near to stopping as we would like. Many people think that this is silly, and every week or two I get a letter from someone who complains to me about it.

Well, if he phrases it like that… (I am genuinely uncertain whether the formulations are idiotic or whether Sagan has completely misunderstood relativity theory.)

Firstly, if Einstein’s relativity assumption holds,* there is no such thing as getting close to the speed of light—either something is at the speed of light or it is not. To travel at 0.999999999 times the speed of light relative e.g. the Earth** has much more in common with standing still relative the Earth than it does with actually reaching the speed of light. (Similarly, the numbers 5 and 5000000000 have much more in common with each other than with, say, Aleph-0.) Indeed, from the perspective of the traveller, his own speed (“eigen-speed”) is 0—plainly and simply, or the relativity assumption does not hold.

*There is (or was, when I was at Uni) some dispute as to whether it holds perfectly or just approximately, maybe whether the distribution of mass might create a preferred frame anyway.

**Which is not the same thing as travelling at 0.999999999 times the speed of light in an absolute sense.

Secondly, no our mass does not increase, we do not shrink, and time does not come near stopping. All these things remain exactly as they were—because our eigen-speed is 0. On the contrary, it is the rest of the universe which goes through strange changes.*

*From our point of view. If Sagan means something else, e.g. the point of view of an observer in Greenwich, he should not have spoken in terms of “we”.

(One might also criticize the use of the phrase “speed of light” as it misses the point entirely, but the use is so common that it would be unfair to criticize specifically Sagan for it. Indeed, at least in this text, I follow his example for convenience. As to the correct perspective: there is an upper limit on how fast information/causality/whatnot can travel and light happens to be one of the things that travels “at the speed limit”.)

For myself, I like a universe that includes much that is unknown and, at the same time, much that is knowable. A universe in which everything is known would be static and dull, as boring as the heaven of some weakminded theologians. A universe that is unknowable is no fit place for a thinking being. The ideal universe for us is one very much like the universe we inhabit. And I would guess that this is not really much of a coincidence.

A dubious opinion (and what seems like a gratuitous swipe at theologians): A known universe need not be static at all, although a static universe might be easier to know than a dynamic one. Unless the individual individually knows and understands the entire universe, there might be plenty of surprises. (And if he does know and understands it, chances are that he is a being so different from us that Sagan’s and my opinions are irrelevant to him. By Sagan’s own reasoning, the human brain would fall well short of the mark for any universe less trivial than a grain of salt.*) As to the unknowable universe, it will depend on what exactly is unknowable, but chances are that a high degree of “unknowability” would be very tolerable.** Not a coincidence? Is he postulating a divine creator or assuming a sufficient adaption of life to the universe? If the former, he seems hypocritical; if the latter, well, then life might adapt excellently to other universes too.

*Well, maybe a grain-of-salt universe would be boring, but this is a matter of the static state of a grain, not necessarily size or knowledge. Melt the grain and it might be much more interesting.

**Consider an alternate-universe pre-historic human who has no clue why he needs to eat and breathe, maybe even one who cannot rely on night following day and water flowing downwards, but who is certain that the ground will carry him and that that weird feeling in his stomach will disappear if he does eat.

Without Einstein, many of the young people who became scientists after 1920 might never have heard of the existence of the scientific enterprise.

Heh?!? This is too stupid to comment on, beyond bringing the stupidity to the readers’ attention.

[…] the famous equation, E = mc^2, which is so widely quoted and so rarely understood. The equation expresses the convertibility of matter into energy, and vice versa. It extends the law of the conservation of energy into a law of conservation of energy and mass, stating that energy and mass can be neither created nor destroyed—although one form of energy or matter can be converted into another form.


The complete conversion of one gram of mass [sic!] into energy […]

Indeed, Sagan himself gives conflicting signs as to whether he understands the equation: Either he does not or he expresses himself poorly.

Firstly it is very disputable whether “can be neither created nor destroyed” follows from the formula, as the core is a mass–energy equivalence, not preservation.

Secondly, mass cannot be converted into energy; matter only with reservations.* What can be done is to “convert” mass associated with one type of energy into mass associated with another, e.g. by converting some type of binding** energy into kinetic energy (movement of mass) or kinetic energy into gravitational potential energy (e.g. a mass on a hill) .

*The issue is complicated by Sagan’s inconsistent use of “matter” and “mass”: Matter is a poorly defined concept separate from mass, where, depending on definitions, photons and similar particles need not count as matter, but do have a (relativistic) mass. If, for instance, an electron and a positron cancel each other with two photons as result, it might argued that they were matter “converted” into energy, but the overall energy and mass is no larger or smaller than before. Mass is also a somewhat dubious concept, especially as too many resort to special treatment of “rest mass” over mass or relativistic mass in general. (This especially when it comes to photons, which, according to some, would be massless by dint of having no rest mass. A better perspective is to say that they have mass but no rest[ing] state. Again, being at the speed of light and being at 0.999999999 times the speed of light relative the Earth are two fundamentally different things.) As an aside, I personally suspect that mass is best viewed as a manifestation of energy, which would make the conservation of mass a side-effect of the conservation of energy.

**E.g. chemical energy between atoms in a molecule or nuclear energy between protons and neutrons in an atomic nucleus.

Before Einstein, it was widely held by physicists that there were privileged frames of reference, such things as absolute space and absolute time. Einstein’s starting point was that all frames of reference—all observers, no matter what their locale, velocity or acceleration—would see the fundamental laws of nature in the same way. It seems likely that Einstein’s view on frames of reference was influenced by his social and political attitudes and his resistance to the strident jingoism he found in late-nineteenth-century Germany. Indeed, in this sense the idea of relativity has become an anthropological commonplace, and social scientists have adopted the idea of cultural relativism: there are many different social contexts and world views, ethical and religious precepts, expressed by various human societies, and most of comparable validity.

The physical part might or might not (likelier*) be correct, but I doubt his claims about Einstein’s motivations. The claim is sufficiently unexpected and counter-intuitive that a greater amount of reasoning or references would have been needed. It also reminds me of “Fashionable Nonsense”. A more plausible seeming explanation is that Einstein took a leap that others had either overlooked or not dared. I note that the idea is arguably a generalization of Newton’s laws of motion, which could be seen as putting every fix velocity on par with staying still in at least some regards. What influence Einstein might or might not have had on social scientists I do not know, but I note that cultural relativism is only superficially similar and that using the one to justify the other is ill-advised. Moreover, cultural relativism is to a large part misguided and by no means the height of enlightenment: there are types of comparisons where A vs. B does not matter, but for most As and Bs, there will be some or many comparisons where the difference does matter—and very often important such.**

*Depending on what Sagan intends by “acceleration” and “fundamental laws of nature”. The core relativity assumption refers to fix velocities, and someone in acceleration can feel or measure a gravitation-like pull which is absent when moving without acceleration. If two objects move away from each other at fix speed, they will live in equivalent worlds; if there is acceleration, they live in different worlds, as the gravitation-like pull will be different for the two—most likely entirely absent for one of them, because he is not doing anything, while his counterpart is actively changing the relative velocity between the two. Also note how e.g. the “twin paradox” is based on an asymmetry caused by acceleration. (When we move from special to general relativity, additional restrictions might be needed.)

**To look at extreme ends: (a) Whether we pick the French or English language rarely matters, except when there is a pre-existing English- or French-dominated demographic—the languages are, in some sense, equally powerful and fungible. (b) Western medicine vs. the local shaman will usually leave the shaman in shambles, but if someone has eaten the wrong local mushroom, the shaman might do the better job—the systems are neither equally powerful nor fungible.

(In addition to the above, there are a lot of biographical detail and details of Einstein’s political opinions that could be seen as Leftist agenda pushing and as irrelevant to a text ostensibly on science or scientific thought. As my own text deals with Sagan and his work, I will not go into detail, but I do note, in Einstein’s defense, that Leftist opinions were easier to understand in the long gone past than they are today. Cf. e.g. [1]. Einstein was of a generation where some naivete was understandable, even among the highly intelligent and educated; Sagan does not have that excuse.)

But a very plausible case can be made that our civilization is fundamentally threatened by the lack of adequate fertility control. Exponential increases of population will dominate any arithmetic increases, even those brought about by heroic technological initiatives, in the availability of food and resources, as Malthus long ago realized. While some industrial nations have approached zero population growth, this is not the case for the world as a whole.

And the spectre of Malthus has scared the world again and again, but we are still here. The world population is more than twice what it was back then—and there is a lesser problem with food shortages today. (Excepting some artificially created issues, unrelated to population growth, notably the recent COVID and Ukraine situations.) Maybe a truly problematic point will come some day, but there are other problems that are far worse and more urgent—and here the then zero, now often negative, population growth of “some industrial nations” is a major problem.* These problems include dysgenics within the industrial nations, a demographic shift between industrial and non-industrial nations, and the turning of industrial nations into service nations (see excursion).

*Yes, he is right that the ongoing increase in the non-industrial world is a problem, but not due to global population growth. The problem is the demographic shift.

Of course, Sagan likely commits the error that almost every invoker of Malthus does—to assume that the population will grow and grow with less and less to share per capita. In reality, chances are that we would see a voluntary equilibrium before that point was reached. (If not, we would see an involuntary equilibrium when it is reached.) In particular, any exponential population increase simply would not continue once food becomes scarce enough (or water, living space, whatnot).

Minor climatic fluctuations can destroy entire populations with marginal economies. In many societies where the technology is meager and reaching adulthood an uncertain prospect, having many children is the only possible hedge against a desperate and uncertain future. Such a society, in the grip of a consuming famine, for example, has little to lose. At a time when nuclear weapons are proliferating unconscionably, when an atomic device is almost a home handicraft industry, widespread famine and steep gradients in affluence pose serious dangers to both the developed and the underdeveloped worlds.


Minor climatic fluctuations? To some approximation, they could, but it is rare* and it is more likely that these populations are hit by something falling short of a climatic fluctuation, e.g. bad weather that ruins a harvest or two. Moreover, chances are that they would be partially bailed out by Western charity.

*As Sagan is not more specific, I have to be vague. If we are talking, say, the population of a small village, it is bound to happen every now and then. (But even here there is some chance that it is the village that dies, while the population moves elsewhere.) If we are talking, say, the population of an entire country, I can recall no single example.

Having many children? A half-truth at best. Chances are that having fewer children and giving them more resources and attention per capita would be better.

Little to lose? Lose in what sense and to whom/what? The last thing to do in a “consuming famine” is to have more children. If in doubt, the newly born are unlikely to live long enough to be useful.

Nuclear weapons? What do they have to do with the topic? What is unconscionable about having or proliferating them? (As opposed to using them and with restrictions to non-crazy countries. Note that the threat of nuclear weapons might well be what has prevented WWIII for more than 70 years. Also see excursion.) Is widespread famine supposed to greatly increase the risk of a nuclear war?

The solution to such problems certainly requires […] , and, especially, fair distribution of the world’s resources.

Here a specification of what Sagan considers fair would have been needed—not to mention what resources he means. It might be unfair that the Saudi’s have oil and the Swedes do not, but how is that to be rectified? What about the Swedish trees vs. the Saudi sand? A geographic lottery might see winners and losers, but is not inherently unfair, a win in one section might be a loss in another, and some degree of own choice is involved. Or does Sagan mean e.g. food? If so, much of the differences go back to whether someone works the land and how well—teach a man to farm instead of giving him bread. Or is this some hyper-naive far-Left idea that “once we have redistributed all the money of the rich to the poor, we will live in utopia for ever”?

At the other is the proposal of Gerard O’Neill of Princeton University to construct large orbital cities that would, using lunar and asteroidal materials, be self-propagating—one city being able to construct another from extraterrestrial resources. [With more on the topic following.]

Maybe one day, but here and now? It cannot be seen as a serious suggestion today, let alone in the 1970s. Focus on what is realistic and doable, including revisiting the Moon, first-visiting Mars, building more space stations, increasing space tourism, … Sooner or later, the critical mass will be there, and if the idea pans out, the cities will be built. I would suspect, however, that we would see a moon city first; in part, because benefits seem more likely; in part, because building an orbital city beginning on the moon might be a lot easier. For that matter, underwater cities might be a more reasonable first step.

We are not stronger or swifter than many other animals that share this planet with us. We are only smarter.

Apart from this claim being oddly placed and bringing nothing to its context: While humans have many limitations, in part due to trading specialisation for generalisation and physical abilities for brain power, they do fairly well in absolute strength and swiftness. (Note that most other animals are considerably smaller.) Yes, a human might lose a fight against an elephant or even a largish dog, but what about that fox, mouse, or ant? For larger animals, our brains have given us spears, guns, and other weapons. As to being smarter, I sometimes wonder.

Only a small fraction of the most able youngsters enter scientific careers. I am often amazed at how much more capability and enthusiasm for science there is among elementary school youngsters than among college students. Something happens in the school years to discourage their interest (and it is not mainly puberty); we must understand and circumvent this dangerous discouragement.

I am with him as far as the negative influence of school* is concerned, but (a) I am sceptical to the “small fraction” claim, (b) it is far from a given that school would discourage from specifically science, (c) to claim “more capability” among youngster is ridiculous. Chances are that those who choose a different career** do so for other reasons, e.g. later non-scientific interests, careers that allow better earnings, or the realization that science, as a profession, is not just fun and games but actual hard work. Maybe, some intervention in these areas might be beneficial, but the right to choose freely must be preserved. Moreover, apparent early capability can be misleading, especially when it comes to those untested in math.

*Here and elsewhere with reservations for what might be different between his and my respective school years and the schools of our respective time of writing.

**And, maybe, a science adjacent career, e.g. as a physician instead of a biologist, an engineer instead of a physicist.

It is clear that Albert Einstein became a scientist in spite of, not because of, his schooling (Chapter 3).

My point exactly—he still became a scientist. In a wider view, this chapter (Chapter 4) of “Broca’s brain” seems to implicitly commit the fallacy of assuming that the education makes the man, while the opposite is the truth. (The odder, as the preceding chapter went in the other direction.)

In his Autobiography, Malcolm X describes a numbers runner who never wrote down a bet but carried a lifetime of transactions perfectly in his head. What contributions to society, Malcolm asked, would such a person have made with adequate education and encouragement?

Probably very few and minor, even if the description is correct:* A great memory does not equate to a great scientist (or a great whatnot), no matter how much it might help, and there is no guarantee that he would even have wanted to become one. The question is not one of memory but of ability to think—the good thinker with a poor memory can use a notebook; the poor thinker with a great memory has no such aid. And referencing Malcolm X? Really? A racist, Islamist hate-monger?

*And it need not be. There might be an honest misestimate, exaggerations, misunderstandings, or even fabrication involved.

I believe that there are many more of [brilliant, daring and complex people] around—in every nation, ethnic group and degree of affluence—than we realize.

On the contrary, these make a small proportion of the population even in the West and the “smart” parts of Asia. Elsewhere they are rarer still. (Affluence, presumably in the sense of parental SES or something similar, is more secondary, once corrected for other factors, but by now, if not already “then”, there will almost certainly be a further rarity the lower in income we go, as there has been a filtering over many decades.)

Not all is bad, however. I note e.g. the implicitly anti-post-modern claim:

The well-meaning contention that all ideas have equal merit seems to me little different from the disastrous contention that no ideas have any merit.

(Although, contextually, I am not certain that his own investigation of what claims have what merit was very meritorious. Other claims might indicate a naive support of post-modernism.)

Or take a rare show of self-insight:

The question raises nagging uncertainties about which of the conventional truths of our own age will be considered unforgivable bigotry by the next.

A point which has been of great importance during the last ten or twenty years through the ever more extreme positions of the “New Left”.

Other positive examples include the use of Einstein to illustrate problems with the school system and the similarity of anti-science stances in Nazi-Germany and the Soviet Union. (The latter is of a particular interest to me due to my series on the Nazis and their correct classification as Left-wing. I also note similarities with how the current Left and the COVID fanatics treat science that speaks against their respective orthodoxy.)

As more of an aside, the long time between my current reading and the original publication has led to changes. Contrast e.g. the, by now, decades old ban on CFCs in new refrigerators with:

Steps have finally, although reluctantly, been taken to ban halocarbons* from spray cans (although no one seems to be worrying about the same molecules used in refrigerators) and as a result the immediate dangers are probably slight.

*Halocarbons include CFCs, but also many other chemicals of no relevance here.

Excursion on nuclear weapons vs. delivery systems:
I have long suspected that the creation of nuclear weapons had less impact than the creation of new delivery systems. There was e.g. an early fear that “the bomber always gets through”; and, looking at WWII vs. WWI, the main difference in terms of bombings were not the two (by today’s standards) small nuclear attacks but the massive aerial bombings of Japan,* Germany, London, and some other areas, which would have been inconceivable without a sufficient quantity of suitable** airplanes. Of course, without airplanes, there would have been no (or very different) nuclear attacks to begin with. The true killer might be the ICBM and the ability to e.g. bomb the Soviet Union from U.S. soil and vice versa. With conventional warheads, ICBMs might “only” be able to take out Moscow resp. Washington and New York instead of dozens of cities. But is that not bad enough? Alternately, countermeasures might be strong enough to ensure that “only” half the city is destroyed instead of the entire city.*** In contrast, nukes without a sufficient delivery system are of little value: What are you going to do? Smuggle a few nukes to Moscow by truck and have them waiting two decades for some future signal that their time has come?

*And the conventional bombings of Japan killed more civilians than the nuclear. (Yet, the one counts as war, the other as war crime…)

**Where suitability does not just include the capacity to carry a certain load, but also having sufficient range to reach the target, sufficient speed or height to not be shoot down, etc. Not many years before WWII, the planes for WWII-style bombings were simply not available. Indeed, even the Orvilles were just several decades back.

***Missing a single nuke can easily be worse than missing a dozen very large conventional bombs.

Then we have the question of other “mass destruction” attacks. What about an ICBM loaded with some deadly gas or infectious this-or-that?

If nukes are the larger problem, this is likely restricted to fusion-based devices, which are similarly more powerful relative fission-based devices as fission-based devices are relative conventional explosives. A dozen Tzar Bombas would be far worse than a hundred Little Boys.

Excursion on service vs. industry:
The value of services is usually far more fleeting and often more pointless than industrial production, which too few seem to understand. To this, as a personal anecdote: The first time that GDP (or some similar measure) was explained to us in school, I objected to the inclusion of services—make a toaster and someone has a toaster for ten years; give a haircut and the effect gradually wears off in a month or two. (And most other services have an even shorter period of value…) This while GDP was supposed to be used to compare different countries (with potentially differently sized service sectors) or the same country at different times (again, with potentially differently sized service sectors). Both the teacher and the class seemed to consider me silly. Since then, I have become aware of more points of criticism relating to services (and, off topic, points not relating to services), say, public sector “service” contributions to GDP often having a disputable true value (grow the civil service bureaucracy and GDP increases) or a hired maid being included in GDP while a housewife performing the exact same service is not. When push comes to shove, whether in GDP or “for real”, a service economy can be a giant on feet of clay.

(My current view of GDP is more nuanced than back then, as there are different perspectives. The perspective of the toaster vs. the haircut is valuable, as is the perspective that a toaster is often easier to store or export than a service, but there is also e.g. a perspective of spending, which pays for salaries, which pay for spending, etc., where the proportion of service to manufacture is more secondary than the circulation of money.)

Written by michaeleriksson

June 28, 2022 at 10:14 pm

Unorthodox thought and the ability to find refuge

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That diversity/freedom/tolerance of opinion is import to scientific and e.g. societal progress is hardly surprising—nor that the current trends towards the establishment of “official truths”, blanket* academic rejection of non-PC thought and limits on academic freedom** for its proponents, whatnot, are very dangerous.

*Because it is non-PC and irrespective of the state of evidence, arguments, etc. If a rejection took place on scientific grounds, it would be different.

**Limits on academic freedom are not in order, even when science points against an idea/theory/field/whatnot. This partly because early impressions can deceive, e.g. in that an implausible-seeming theory can be validated at a future time (as is fairly common); partly because once restrictions are allowed where they might seem acceptable, they can spread to areas where they are not acceptable. (Cf. e.g. opinion corridors and their current influence on politics and media.)

Compared to large stretches of Western history, this could involve a fatal change:

I am toying with the idea that the relative success of Western society between some point in the late middle ages and the 20th century was partially based on the ability of unorthodox thinkers or thought to escape oppression or to find an otherwise more nurturing environment. Comparing e.g. Europe and China, Europe had (a) a greater number of distinct groups with their own autonomous territory (e.g. the Italian, French, German, and Swedish areas), and (b) a much greater number of independent states (including the many German and Italian ones). This was not only a source of potentially greater diversity, of potentially a greater number of cultural and scientific centers, of potentially more literary traditions, whatnot,* but it also had the side-effect that someone with too unpopular ideas in one country or city could move on to the next, someone who woke the hostility of one ruler might make friends with another, etc. If all else failed, there was always the escape overseas, as with some unpopular religious groups. Of course, even if the individual thinker did not manage to escape, some of his books and ideas might still be available in other parts of Europe—Galileo might have been silenced, but his ideas lived on. In less dire cases, someone who failed to find sponsorship for an idea (or e.g. his art) in the one city might have better luck in another.

*On the down-side, also a risk e.g. of ideas traveling slower or never leaving the area of their origin.

A notable example is the Catholic–Protestant split: If the German emperor (or the Pope) had had the power and authority to just forbid Protestant thought, Catholicism would have remained dominant and without major competition, while the Protestant ideas might have lived on only in small and powerless under-ground movements. As is, many German rulers individually sided with the Protestant movement, there was a very major and prolonged turmoil, and both Germany and Western Europe ended up split roughly 50–50. Indeed, e.g. Sweden and England sided with the Protestant cause mostly because their respective king wanted to strengthen his own position vis-à-vis the Pope and the Church.

In contrast, Christianity once became the dominant religion in the Roman empire simply through having a Christian emperor. (And appears to later have aggressively lobbied the respective rulers when it moved into new territories.) Other attempts to reform the Christian faith or to split* from the Catholic church on a more local level might have had some temporary success, only to fail in the longer run, because there was no refuge available (as with e.g. the English Lollards).

*The East–West Schism had a very different character and very different circumstances.

Similarly, much of the great Greek progress took place in an environment of city states.

This idea is speculation, I have not gone through the (considerable) leg-work to see whether it checks out more in detail, and I have not even spent as much time mulling it over as most other topics. But: When we look at current developments, where scientists run an increasing risk of being globally condemned for having the “wrong” opinions or even researching the “wrong” topics, I feel forced to mention the possibility. What if even seemingly totalitarian, intolerant, whatnot societies still allowed progress through such escapes, while the modern, allegedly democratic, diversified, enlightened*, whatnot society will fail horribly? (This especially when combined with e.g. the strong current trends of anti- and pseudo-intellectualism in the softer sciences, an increased focus on feelings and subjectivity over facts and objectivity in public discourse, etc.)

*What passes for enlightenment today is often the exact opposite, the holding of a set of (often poorly supported) opinions and a pride in condemning everyone not sufficiently orthodox.

As an aside, the repeated use of religious examples above is not coincidental: not only are those among the most obvious—there is also a strong parallel in attitude with the current PC crowds. This includes many occurrences of a quasi-religious conviction of being right, belief without or even contrary to evidence, a wish to indoctrinate others “for their own good”, extreme condemnation of the “heretics”, and similar. Indeed, from what I have read about Galileo in the past, his treatment might originally have been met with more factual arguments and a fairer treatment than many heretics against the PC “truths”.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 21, 2019 at 4:34 pm

Brief thoughts on the decline of Latin and Greek as a scientific languages

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When I first, as a child, learned of the use Latin and Greek names for various plants, animals, and whatnot, it was explained to me that this was done to (a) ensure that there was a name that scientists speaking different languages could use and still be understood by each other, (b) still keep the names in a single language.

I am far from certain that this explanation is correct: More likely, the likes of Linnaeus simply started a tradition based on Latin as the then “science language” for his extensive classifications,* which was kept long after Latin lost ground to modern languages.

*Just like I prefer to write in English over Swedish—why not use the language more likely to be understood?

Still, the purported idea is quite sound: Using a single language allows for greater consistency and enables those so interested to actually learn that single language in order to make identification of the item behind the name that much easier;* and Latin has the advantage of lacking** potential for conflict (as might have been the case if English and French or Mandarin and Japanese were pitted against each other).

*Indeed, even a limited knowledge can be a great help, e.g. by knowing a few commonly occurring suffixes and prefixes.

**Or should do so in any sane era: Some politically correct fanatics apparently consider anything relating to “Western Culture” something to be condemned in a blanket manner. Nothing is certain, except for death, taxes, and human stupidity.

Unfortunately, the scientists of old did not stick to Latin, often turning to Greek. (This includes the names of many (most?) dinosaurs.) However this situation was still reasonably tolerable.

Then things started to get out of hand: Over the last few decades names have increasingly been coined in any locale language. For instance, this text was prompted by the recent discovery of the dinosaur genus Ledumahadi—apparently named “a giant thunderclap at dawn”* in Sesotho

*The silliness and apparent lack of “scientificity” of the meaning, however, has little to do with the language. Dinosaurs have been given similarly silly names from the early days of scientific attention (and many less silly names for extinct animals are obscure through e.g. referring to the shape of a tooth). In contrast, many of Linnaeus names could draw directly on existing Latin names for at least the genus (as e.g. with “homo sapiens”—“homo” being the Latin word for human).

Going by Wikipedia, Sesotho has some five or six million native speakers—considerably less than Swedish today and an even smaller proportion of the world population than Sweden in the days of (my fellow Swede) Linnaeus*. If Linnaeus picked Latin over Swedish back then, how can we justify picking Sesotho over both Latin and English today? The idea is contrary to reason.

If someone were to argue that Latin and Greek, specifically, had grown impractical due to the reduced knowledge among today’s scientists, I might have some sympathies. However, if we concluded that they should go, the reasonable thing to do would be to opt for English as the sole language, thereby ensuring the largest global understandibility. If not English, then some other, truly major language, e.g. Mandarin*, Hindi*, or Spanish should have been considered. Sesotho is useless as single language, and not using a single language will end with names that appear entirely random. It will usually even be impossible to know what language a name is in, without additional research, making it that much harder to find out the meaning.

*Here additional thought might be needed on how the names should be written. (Original writing system? Transliterated to the Latin alphabet? Otherwise?)

For those interested in “local” names, there is always the possibility of introducing an everyday name for the local language: Dinosaurs have normally been known by their scientific names even in the general population, but there is no actual law that this must be the case. Call the Ledumahadi “Ledumahadi” in Sesotho and use a Latin or Greek translation* as the scientific name and the default in other languages.

*My limited knowledge does not allow me to make a suggestion.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 29, 2018 at 5:46 pm

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

Publishing of a censored comment II

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In the Swedish blogosphere, I have repeatedly stumbled across comments by one “Nymnchen”. She almost invariably goes on my nerves, because she has the very unfortunate tendency to try to lecture others from a position of deep ignorance and repeatedly proved weakness when it comes to reasoning and critical thinking. (One of the most extreme examples of the Dunning–Kruger effectw that I have ever encountered. Note that I actually enjoy and feel that I profit from discussing issues with intelligent, informed, and well-reasoned disagreers—Nymnchen is none of the three.) So in her latest comments on an old Swedish bloge: Here a new debater asks for clarification concerning some claims about the contents and conclusions of a few academic papers that she cites in favour of her position. None of the questions were in anyway inappropriate. Furthermore, with Nymnchen, there is more than a fair chance than the research she cites does not actually back her position.

Her responses contained very little of constructive character, but did contain a long rant about how presumptuous it is for a layman to question a published paper… (A rant, through which she, unsurprisingly, proved herself to be ignorant about science.) I posted the following (regrettably, censored) reply:


Oavsett ditt sista inlägg ser jag mig tvungen till följande svar, framförallt då jag från tidigare debatter har intrycket att din egen förståelse av god forskning och kritiskt tänkande inte ger dig rätt att kritisera andra:

Din argumentation när det gäller forskning är i sig på gränsen till oseriös. Helt säkert finns det ingenting att invända mot att en lekman framför synpunkter och ställer frågor. Skulle dessa vara naiva, då räcker det ju med att förklara varför.

Hur det förhåller sig med kvaliteten i just det här fallet kan jag inte säga. Generellt sett är dina utsagor dock av begränsad giltighet (och med tanke på vad Johan frågade verkar de orättvisa). Betänk tex att:

o Det finns inkompetenta i alla branscher, inklusive forskning.

o Även goda forskare kan falla offer för önsketänkande, ”confirmation bias”, och liknande.

o Områden som tex socialvetenskap och nationalekonomi har ofta problem med en ideologisk komponent som inte alltid undantrycks tillräckligt.

o Det finns många papers som har gått igenom peer-review och likväl senare visat sig vara felaktiga eller, i vissa fall, innehållande direkta klumpigheter. En rätt vanlig attityd är att den verkliga peer-review följer efter publicering, när inte bara en eller två, utan hundratals ”peers”, kan ge sina synpunkter.

o Det är inte ovanligt att det finns flera papers, alla antagna för publicering, som har olika uppfattningar. Det förekommer tom att resultat publiceras som är i stark kontrast mot ”scientific consensus”, tex undersökningar som visar på positiva resultat för homeopati.

o Även när forskningen är korrekt är det mycket, mycket vanligt att bloggare, journalister, politiker, ody., tyder forskningen på ett sätt som inte forskarna själva skulle stödja. Likaså att de rapporterar forskningsresultat utan att ange betingelser och antagande som forskarna skulle se som kritiska.

(In short: Nymnchen should be very careful about criticizing others. Publication does not make a paper the absolute truth [and here is why]. Even when the research is correct, there is no guarantee that the interpretations made by a blogger/journalist/whatnot are supported.)

Written by michaeleriksson

February 21, 2011 at 1:16 am

No—Homeopathy does not work

with one comment

For the future, I plan to not be drawn into discussions of whether homeopathy works or various aspects of the argumentation and evidence in the issue—be it with Robert Hahn or someone else. (Separate posts on specific sub-issues may still occur, however.) Instead, I will simply link here—with the request that the supporter of homeopathy read the below links and refute the discussions present there first. In the exceedingly unlikely event that he manages to do so, I will be willing to reopen the issue.

The following lines of counter-arguments are faulty and/or dishonest and will not be accepted:

  1. The claim that experimental evidence shows that homeopathy works; in particular, in combination with the claim that attempts to e.g. point to a lack of a known mechanism are merely a cover-up intended to discredit this “fact”.

    As pointed out repeatedly in the links, experimental evidence speaks against homeopathy. The accepted (weak) effects are all explained by non-medicinal factors. (Cf. the item on anekdotal evidence.)

    Exception: If, theoretically, the supporter can show a subsequent change in scientific consensus on experimental evidence, this is obviously allowed. I stress that merely pointing to the existence of a few hundred published-in-CAM-journals papers are not enough—consider the number of studies showing the opposite, the significantly lower credibility of these journals compared to the leading mainstream journals, the often lower scientific value (worse methodology, smaller samples), and publication bias. Also note the discussions of meta-studies, including Linde’s, in the linked-to articles.

  2. Ad hominem towards the authors or their sources (including accusations of self-interest or being bought by the pharma industry): If their ideas, reasoning, or facts are faulty—attack these instead. If not, well, then there is no justification whatsoever in attacking the man. Also bear in mind that it is the homeopaths who have the greater self-interest in the issue (i.e. any attack based on self-interest will strike even harder in the other direction) and that it is exceedingly unlikely that the totality of the opposition would be faulty in this regard.

    Exception: If a convincing case can be made against an individual debater, study, whatnot, with regard to e.g. methodology (not merely an alleged motive) then this may obviously legitimately be used to question an individual statement or result.

  3. As a special case: Denying non-homeopaths the right to speak on the issue. These may be less knowledgeable in the subject field, but may also bring superior knowledge or ability in other areas, including scientific methods or critical thinking. The denial is particularly weak when the outsiders are medical researchers from other areas. Further, good and correct science can be explained to outsiders in a way that is convincing—if some field as-good-as-consistently fails to do so, then this speaks strongly against it. Science bears up to scientific scrutiny and critical investigation by outsiders—quackery does not. Indeed, unwillingness to allow outsiders the opportunity to poke holes and unwillingness to constructively engage critics are themselves strong (but not conclusive) indications of quackery.

    Further note that the critics are not limited to outsiders. The possibly most notable examples are Edzard Ernstw and Willem Betz, who were both once homeopaths and now are vocal critics.

  4. Anekdotal evidence: “I know that homeopathy works! I have tried it succesfully myself.”

    There are a number of reasons why individual experiences can seem to indicate that something works when it, in fact, does not. Cf. some of the below links.

    Among explanations we have e.g. the placebo effect, coincidence and natural healing (if a thousand sick people take a particular preparation, at least some of them are likely to, by themselves, become healthy at the “right” time by sheer coincidence), an increased tendency to take medicine when a problem is at its peak, confirmation bias, and “extra-medicinal” factors like a better patient–physician relation. Further note that it is not inconceivable that some less-than-religious homeopaths would prescribe conventional medicine every now and then…

Primary sources should be used with caution in any attempt at refutation (but are certainly allowed): There is much value in primary sources, but they are also dangerous and, if possible, secondary and (to a lesser degree) tertiary sources are to be preferred (just as with e.g. Wikipedia’s take on sources). Note e.g. the greater risks of partiallity, statistical noise, methodological errors, and mis- or over-interpretation when using primary sources. This is particularly important for laymen, who often draw too fargoing conclusions from research (as proved by any number of journalists over the years). Note also that if a primary source claims X, then there may be two others that claim non-X.

A common counter-argument against clinical studies, that homeopathy would demand an individual treatment and that merely giving every patient the same cure is misleading, does have some merit. However, I am well aware of it, it is not (taken by itself) enough to convince, and there is no need to repeat it. Consider that better results in individual treatment are also what a non-medicinal explanation predicts (in particular, when several remedies are tried until something “works”), that clinical trials are still valid investigative tools (if a particular remedy is good for only one in ten, then this should still make a noticeable difference in a large enough sample or a meta-analysis), and that the alleged extreme inconsistency in results is contrary to what would be expected a priori if a medicinal effect was present (the mechanims in the human body are very similar from person to person and so complete deviations in result are very rare, allergies and over-sensitivities excepted). Further, the obvious main line of homeopathic research would then be to find better classifications and groupings to systematically pin-point the right remedies, with uses including better treatment, integration of similar methods into school medicine, and … building better samples for clinical trials. Such attempts have not been successful, which speaks strongly for a non-medicinal explanation of any success stories. Indeed, by Occam’s Razor, it is more likely that the different effects on individuals are either just an excuse or a misinterpretation of events—not an actual difference.

On with the links:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homeopathye Note the extensive discussions pro and contra on the talk pages.

http://www.homeowatch.org/e Many further links, including an own research over-viewe.

http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=11e Note: First of five parts. The other parts are linked from there.

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200910/cmselect/cmsctech/45/45.pdfe A thorough parliamentary report (UK) which includes both a high level conclusion and (in the appendix) more detailed statements and research overviews. A brief non-PDF summary from a different sourcee.

http://apgaylard.wordpress.com/2009/09/06/a-homeopathic-refutation-part-one/e (The second part deals with the dangers of homeopathy and is of little relevance to this particular discussion.)






http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1874503/table/tbl1/e Overview of meta-analyses and re-analyses based on a much-touted-by-homeopaths work by Linde. (Similar, more extensive tables are present in the PDF report above.)

Also of interest:

http://www.quackwatch.com/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/holmes.htmle A long, very well-argued, and well-known refutation of homeopathy by Oliver Wendell Holmes; however, also a very old text, which could be unfair to the homeopathy of today in at least some regards. On the plus-side, it shines some light on why there really was no reason to expect homeopathy to work in the first place.

http://www.ukskeptics.com/article.php?dir=articles&article=it_works_in_animals.phpe A brief view on homeopathy and animals—a topic otherwise given little space in the linked-to articles.

http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=4e A broader discussion of alternative medicines and pitfalls. Generally, this site (also present with an article series above) appears to have a large number of articles of direct or indirect relevance.

Written by michaeleriksson

January 26, 2011 at 5:57 am

Science and reason

with 12 comments

As mentioned earlier, I had a piece in planning about about a few posts by a controversial Swedish professor, published Spiritist, and believer in Homeopathy—Robert Hahn. As it turns out, a reasonably full treatment would require dozens of pages, which forces me to re-think that idea. My current plan is to write a limited number of posts on various topics relating to some selected ideas and arguments of his. The number and the time frame are currently unclear (do not hold your breath), but the below is the first:

One of Hahn’s main claims appear to be that reason is bad for science—specifically, that reason leads scientists away from observable facts, allows them to explain away observations they do not like, cements their pre-existing opinions, whatnot. (See e.g. [1]e).

This claim is it self based on faulty reasoning: Science needs more reason, not less. Above all, those who correctly use reason are less likely to be caught up in excuses, more likely to interpret observations in line with reality (not with their own pre-conception of reality) respectively be more open to alternate explanations, more likely to critically examine and re-examine their opinions, and so on. Importantly, they are far more likely to apply Occam’s Razor on excessively complicated explanations, to avoid begging the question, to not confuse correlation and causation, etc.

He has a particular beef with the application of reason by outsiders, having the correct insight that outsiders can lack critical pieces of understanding and information, which can lead them astray; but failing to consider that those cases are easily resolved by the insider explaining, using reason or clearly established empirical facts, why the outsider is wrong. Should the insider not be able to do this, well, then it is time to ring the alarm bells. Ask a physicist to defend the counter-intuitive claim that a light object falls as fast as a heavy object (when the effect of air resistance is sufficiently small) and he can explain about energy conservation, potential and kinetic energy, and the connection between both types of energy and mass (all extremely well-supported by observation). Alternatively, he could explain about gravitational force, inertia, and the connection between acceleration and force (again, extremely well-supported by observation). Ask an astrologer to defend the counter-intuitive claim that a human’s life and personality are strongly determined by the configuration of the night sky at the time of his birth and no good answer will be forth-coming.

Looking specifically at observations (e.g. in a medical study) there are at least two important issues where reason is an absolute must: Firstly, interpretation of the observation and its implications. Secondly, critical examination of the correctness/representativeness of the observation and what lead to the observation. An only slightly caricatured example (I deliberately avoid the, in context, more natural area of Homeopathy, to avoid a new debate on that topic):

A gender-scientist visits a pre-school, observes that the boys and girls are treated differently (e.g. wrt attention given) and concludes that this prejudiced different treatment teaches the children to assume certain unnatural “gender-roles” and that this must be counter-acted. This line of thought has a number of problems in terms of lack of reasoning, including (but likely not limited to):

  1. The difference in treatment can arise because of individual variations in the children, non-representative behaviour in the adults, or previous mutual experiences between the involved children and adults. (A much larger study would be needed.)

  2. There is more than a fair chance that the observations were at least partially flawed due to a too casual form of observation or a pre-existing bias.

  3. The presence of an observer could have affected the behaviour of the observed, e.g. in that some boys wanted to play tough in front of the visitors or some teachers wanted to be more exemplary “motherly”.

  4. A specific causality (children of different sex are treated differently as a consequence of “gender stereotypes”) is assumed, when there are other options available—including that boys and girls behave differently to begin with, causing the adults to merely react to this behaviour.

  5. Even if different treatment occurs, it does not necessarily follow that it will have a major impact or the kind of impact that gender-scientists often propose (e.g. that women are excluded from technical professions because they are “forced” to play with dolls as children). Above all, it does not in any way, shape, or form follow that different treatment would be the only explanation for differences in later behaviour.

(Note that the point of the above is not to deny that the way children are treated can affect their development or their behaviour in adulthood, but to illustrate where “science” without reason can lead—a theory that need not reflect reality and which can do more harm than good.)

One of Hahn’s arguments against the use of reason is a list of statements that he claims as proof of how reason has lead people astray. (Rather than digging for the English originals of the statements that he presents in Swedish, I point to an article of my own which discusses a similar set of silly (?) statements). This argument contains several weaknesses, including that many of these statements are incorrectly attributed, misquoted, or made-up (not, I stress, by Hahn), being urban legends of sorts. Other problems are discussed on the linked-to page, including that they need not be silly when read in their original context. The biggest obstacle, however, is that these statements, when actually faulty, are not based in reason—on the contrary, reason would have prevented them! Indeed, these statements could be much better used as proof of something completely different, namely that people who should be experts are not always right, be it absolutely or when compared to outsiders with a better head—the opposite of what Hahn himself feels where e.g. Homeopathy is concerned.

For instance, one of Hahn’s quotes (attributed to Lord Kelvin) states that flying machines heavier than air are impossible. Application of reason shows this to be a preposterous claim (when taken as a general statement, with no unstated constraints wrt to e.g. the minimum size of the machine or the time frame involved—and assuming that the statement was at all made): Birds can fly despite being heavier than air; ergo, heavier than air flight is possible. Now, there might be some hitch which would make it impossible for machines to fly when heavier than air; however, this is extremely unlikely by Occam’s Razor, considering the possibilities of making machines with a better lift-to-weight ratio by e.g. miniaturization, considering the existence of various kites and gliders, and considering the, even then, on-going advances in motors and materials. True, reason has not showed us that e.g. manned flight would be possible in a heavier-than-air machine and this question (and a number of others) must still be left to the engineers and scientists; however, the literal statement could with near certainty be ruled as incorrect already in Kelvin’s days—and it could be so by many an intelligent and educated layman using reason. Further, if Kelvin did make this statement (subject to the above reservations), he either did not use reason or he was not displaying an intelligent and sound mind at the time.

It is true that some who try to use reason fail miserably (and that no-one can claim perfection). This is not an argument against reason, however—just as little as a medical study with poor methodology would be an argument against medical studies. The very core of science lies in the interaction between observation and reason—without reason we have no science. (Outside of highly theoretical areas, the same applies to “without observation”.)

Written by michaeleriksson

January 16, 2011 at 6:21 pm

Wrong-headed belief in claimed expertise

with 9 comments

During my journeys in the blogosphere, I am often confronted with a wrong-headed belief in alleged experts on this and that. Gender-studies (and other variations of PC studies) is a particularly strong source of examples; others include homeopathy, parapsychology, and various charlatans. Typical examples include e.g. “X has spent 20 years doing Y and must know what he is talking about—who cares that scientists claim that he is wrong!”, “It is presumptuous of people from without the field to make judgments about the field or its practitioners.” (see an excellent Swedish examplee; I have a longer piece on this in mind, but never seem to get around to writing it), “Those who have not studied gender-science lack the tools to think about issues around gender/sex [men and women, the male role, whatnot].”.

There are at least three major issues involved:

  1. The claimed knowledge is often not what it should be: Too many “experts” do not actually know much about the field. Too many others draw their knowledge from faulty sources, e.g. by learning about the stars from books on astrology rather than astronomy.

  2. Raw knowledge is rarely enough for true expertise: Understanding is also needed—and all too many ostensible experts lack the intelligence too develop a true understanding. Indeed, it is not uncommon that a new-comer with a better mind can spot errors, misunderstandings, whatnot, after having been exposed to the matter for a small fraction of the time. (Also note that an outsider’s perspective can often be valuable even to true experts.)

  3. Similarly, even understanding is not always enough, but can have its value severely limited if the expert lacks the intelligence to actually apply the expertise in a correct manner, draw correct conclusions when confronted with new situations, understand basic reasoning about various results, and so on.

With some over-simplification, it could be said that expertise consists of two components—intelligence and knowledge. The problem then is that the naive correctly conclude that intelligence alone is not enough, but fail to realize that neither is knowledge alone. Further, as said above, the intelligent new-comer can often outdo the unintelligent veteran in at least some areas. This, obviously, is a reason for why those lacking in intelligence tend to go with arguments by authority, while those with more intelligence tend to wish for actual proofs, explanations, and (ad rem) arguments—a true expert would not need to refer to his expertise, but would actually be willing and able to explain why he thinks he is right.

To take two specific example:

  1. The claim that women earn 77 cents on the dollar when compared to men:

    The point is not whether this claim is true or not—but whether it gives the right picture. (As discussed in the linked-to page, it does not.) It does not matter whether there are even one hundred scientific (let alone ideologically motivated “scientific”) investigations showing the uninterpreted numbers to be correct. It does not matter how many people with a degree in gender-studies who claim that this claim gives the right picture. What matters is that simple thinking, combined with some additional facts, shows the claim to be misleading. If the “true believers” fail to do this simple thinking, or reject the result for ideological reasons, then they only discredit themselves—not the thinking.

  2. The claim that homeopathy works:

    Even a layman can soon gather enough knowledge to make some basic observations that are highly troublesome for homeopaths—including that there is no known mechanism by which homeopathy could have a medical effect; that the higher the quality of the study, the lower the measured value of homeopathy; and that there are a number of mechanisms (placebo effect, better “human” treatment of patients, co-incidence, …) by which homeopathy can seem to work, while having no medical value, which make anecdotal evidence and trials with weak methodology near useless.

    The above is not enough to rule out that homeopathy works, but it is enough even for a layman to reject at least some pro-homeopathy arguments, to remain highly skeptical, and to lay the burden of proof solidly on the homeopaths.

    (Of course, those who dig even deeper see even more reason to remain skeptical—to the point that homeopathy almost certainly can be considered nonsense.)

Finally, it pays to bear in mind that even the true experts, the best of the best, with the knowledge, the understanding, and the intelligence, are still only human. They are not infallible gods, they are often wrong when it comes to details or new areas of investigation, and they are, themselves, well aware of this.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 19, 2010 at 2:23 pm

On correlation, causality, and related issues

with 2 comments

The previous entry touched upon the question of fallacies. Recently, I have been involved in a Swedish discussion of povertye, which has put emphasis on some of my concerns.

Notably, there seems to be a considerable lack of understanding of questions such as causality vs. correlation, how scientific studies work, and similar. Annoyingly, this problem is very common, even among journalists and politicians (who should know better as a professional requirement)—and, horrifyingly, even the odd scientist.

Let us first look at the concepts of causality and correlation:

Correlation implies that there is a connection of some kind between two phenomena, personal characteristics, or similar—but is says nothing about how the connection works. In particular, it does not say that the one is the cause of the other, or the reverse; and it is quite common that a third something is the cause of both, or that they are partially mutually causing each other. (Technical use of “predicts” is similar: It too is not a causality, but unlike a correlation it can be a one-way street. If I pick out a random person on the street here in Cologne, there is a fair chance that he is German—the first predicts the second, with a high probability of correctness. On the other hand, picking a random German, the chance that he is on a street in Cologne is comparatively small—the second does not predict the first.)

Causality, OTOH, catches just this causing.

To take a few examples of how these concepts can work (and easily be misunderstood):

  1. Height and weight are reasonably strongly correlated. However, which is the cause of the other? An increase in height does (on average—a qualifier that I will leave out below) cause an increase in weight, because there is more body present. However, an increase in weight can also often cause an increase in height: Lack of nutrition can stunt growth and those who eat more are likely to both gain weight through fat/muscle gain and to gain height through a lesser risk/degree of malnutrition. In addition, entirely other factors can cause both weight and height gains (e.g., strictly hypothetically, that those genetically predisposed to tallness are also predisposed to obesity).

    Here we see a complex interaction of factors. We can further note that, although height and weight are correlated, the correlation is imperfect: An obese 5-footer can be heavier than skinny 7-footer. Correlations only rarely allow for predictions about individuals, and instead find their use where aggregates are concerned.

  2. Assume that we consider a large sample of men and women, with and without bikes (and that sex and the possession of a bike are independent of each other). Looking specifically at the three subsets women (X), bike-owners (Y), and female bike-owners (Z), we find that membership of X and membership of Z correlate: Being a woman increases the chance of being a female bike-owner and being a female bike-owner necessitates being a woman. In the same way, membership in Y and membership in Z correlate.

    It would now seem plausible to assume that since both X–Z and Z–Y correlate, then we would also have a correlation X–Y. That, however, is not true! There is (in this model) no connection whatsoever between X (being a woman) and Y (owning a bike).

    Here we see the risk of “chaining” correlations.

  3. Consider the set X of all Finns and the set of Y all people with Finnish as their native language. Clearly, X and Y have a strong correlation. It would now, on a too casual glance, seem plausible that the same applies to any subset of X. However, there are specific subsets which have no or even a negative correlation—notably, the large minority of Swedish descent.

    What is true for a set is not (necessarily) true for all subsets. (Including, obviously, individual cases, which can be mapped to sets with one member.)

  4. Consider a school class with blond and brown-haired children. The teacher (for reasons of his own) gives the blond children an apple and a chocolate bar, while the brown-haired are given an orange and bag of wine-gummy.

    Assuming that no other edibles are present (and that the children are not extremely voracious…), there are perfect correlations among the children between owning an apple and owning a chocolate bar, an orange and wine-gummy, being blond and owning an apple, and so on. There are also perfect negative correlations between e.g. apple-owning and orange-owning (not all correlations need indicate a connection of X -> Y, but they can also be of the X -> not-Y kind).

    However, there is no causation between apples and chocolate bars or between oranges and wine-gummy. (One of the main rules of science: Correlation does not imply causation.)

    Looking at e.g. being blond and owning an apple, we land in a complicated situation: On the one hand, we could argue that the blond hair did cause possession of the apple; on the other, this could be seen as a spurious thought because the actual cause behind the correlations is the teacher. (What is a causation and what not is often a far from clear decision, and care must be taken when basing decisions on ambiguous causations. In a similar vein, there are often causes and underlying causes.)

  5. Assume the same setting as the previous example, when a second teacher rushes in, confiscates all candies and replaces them with fruit (the bastard!), so that all children have exactly one apple and one orange.

    Here we see an oddity: Causation does not need to imply correlation.

    The first teachers actions did cause the students to be given candies, but the actions of the second nullified that effect. Similarly, the first teacher did cause the children to be given fruit according to a certain pattern, but this pattern (in the sample at hand) disappeared with the actions of the second teacher (without nullifying the actions of the first teacher).

  6. A (hypothetical) study of the NBA is made, with the result that the correlation between height and prowess (by some measures) is low, zero, or even negative.

    Does this imply that height has no effect on prowess? No–here we have the classic issue of a pre-filtered sample. Studying NBA players reduces the variation of ability to a very high degree (compared to the overall population) and the variation of height (to some degree). This makes the sample flawed (for many purposes) and the conclusion invalid.

    Repeating the same study on the overall population, without this pre-filtering, will show a large positive correlation.

    A correlation is only as good as the samples used (in general) and using samples which are “top heavy” (in particular) can hide correlations that actually are present.

  7. Similar to the above, other variations of highly flawed conclusions based on flawed samples can be constructed, e.g. by creating statistics on car accidents for the overall population based on a sample of hospital visitors; by using a conclusion which is true for one population, but not for another; or by making comparisons between samples that may be inherently unequal, e.g. by trying to measure a difference in hockey-ability between Swedes and Canadians by comparing random samples of NHL players. (The entry barrier to the NHL will be lower for a Canadian, which means that the Swedish sample will have undergone a stronger pre-filtering.)

An important conclusion from the above is that if a scientific study claims that “X and Y correlate” (or “X predicts Y”), great care should be taken before assuming a causation or suggesting new policy. In fact, even if the study actually does make claims about causality, great care should be taken: The scientist(s) may be sloppy, driven by ideological motivation or research grants, or seeing what the result “should” be (rather than what it is)—scientists are only human.

The last point is one of importance: Many non-scientists have a somewhat superstitious take on scientists, and assume that they master all complexities in they encounter, take all aspects of a problem into consideration, and so on. This is simply not a correct estimate: Even when a scientist is aware of all aspects (unlikely, bordering on a tautological impossibility), he will still be forced to make simplifications. A social-science study, e.g., may pick out a handful of variables of relevance, try to catch any remaining issues in a generic error term—and then proceed to test these on a sample that is too small, picked with imperfect randomness, or otherwise deviating from the ideals. (This not to mention the many other complications that can occur with flawed measurements, leading questionnaires, whatnot.)


As has subsequently occurred to me, the above examples can be somewhat misleading in that they are mostly “binary” (someone has/is something—or not). This was a deliberate choice to have simple and easy to understand examples; however, it is important to bear in mind that the typical practical case will be of a different character. The first item, dealing with height and weight, is a good example: There is no binary “tall implies heavy”, “short implies light”, but a a gradual increase of expected/average weight as height increases (and vice versa).

This is particularly important when I speak of “negative correlation” above: This should not really be seen as the presense of X implying the absense of Y, but as a decrease of Y as X increases. A good example is speed and travel time: If a vehicle goes faster (all other factors equal) the time taken for it to reach its destination decreases.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 26, 2010 at 5:52 pm