Saturday, May 26, 2007

The blind leading the blind

Today's Washington Post has a piece "Is Atheism Just a Rant Against Religion", discussing the differences between the current social movements of "atheism" and "humanism." (May 26,2007, by Benedicta Cipolla). He notes that

At a recent conference marking the 30th anniversary of Harvard's humanist chaplaincy, organizers sought to distance the "new humanism" from the "new atheism."
In reflecting on that question, I recalled a quote by former US Defense Secretary Rumsfield, quoted here:
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, known for his straight-talking, no-nonsense rhetoric, was awarded this year's "Foot in Mouth Award" from Britain's Plain English Campaign. Here's the sound bite that won Rumsfeld the honor:

"Reports that say something hasn't happened are interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don't know we don't know."
My undergraduate work was in Engineering Physics, and I like to believe that I "believe in science" and am oriented to realistic concepts that you can use to build neat stuff that actually works. Still, after 6 years of that training, it was eye-opening to me to take a graduate seminar course entitled "The Sociology of Science", taught by the late Professor Dorothy Nelkin. This course explored "Science", with a capital "S", as a social movement and looked at the empirical evidence of how Scientists, individually and in groups, thought of themselves, described themselves, and then, often at odds with that, how they behaved and made decisions

By Science I will include Medical Science.

Before going on, let me, as always, make a warning on properties that depend on scale. The behavior of individual scientists may be quite different than the behavior of Science, just as the motivations and behavior of an individual doctor may be quite different than that of the American Medical Association. We need to keep that in mind.

I like people who are capable of careful observation and rational thought, as many scientists are and pride themselves in. Still, as a whole, the social enterprise of Science seems to me no different from the social enterprise of Religion, and bears some resemblance to the motto of the Math department at Ithaca's High School:
"Often wrong, but never in doubt!"
While I'm slamming groups, let me include both Management and Labor in that group. In fact, all human enterprises seem to have a problem with perception of their own limits. To the extent it means something, so do machines and automated machine-vision systems.

This is related to a famous problem studied by Godel, that, briefly paraphrased, says that there is no way a closed system can prove it is complete - it can only determine that it is self-consistent, at best.

One of the hardest things to perceive is our own blind spots.

The classic example is right in front of you, and you're not perceiving it right now, namely, your own eyeball's blind spots. (see the footnote). In fact, because a "blind spot" in perception is so annoying and distracting, your vision system papers it over, covers it up, and makes you unaware of the gap.

A similar phenomenon occurs at a larger scale, and well all can think of someone who thinks they know more than they do. In fact, some recent studies show that "stupid" people are often completely unaware that they are stupid. Apparently, our ability to perceive our ability goes down faster than our ability -- so as people become drunk, they are not capable of detecting how drunk they are, and are often belligerent if challenged, until they see the police video the next day -- when they sheepishly drop their complaint.

A high IQ is no defense against this type of blindness, as Stephen Jay Gould researched so well in The Mismeasure of Man, showing how huge biases in Science completely fooled even highly competent scientists. For example, when it was "obvious" to them that blacks were an "inferior" race, even scientific measurements of skulls, measured by filling them will buckshot, "showed" that whites had larger cranial capacities than blacks -- an observation that was completely wrong.

So, when Science, as an enterprise, arrives in town an announces that Religion can leave now, because the new kid has a handle on "everything", we should be a little skeptical of how large the gaps are in that "everything."

Since it's hard to see what we don't know, one way to estimate the reliability of Science, or Medical Science, is to look at the historical record. Over the past 3000 years, the record is quite clear and consistent -- at every point in time, Scientists and Doctors are certain that people in the "past" were ignorant, but now, at last, they have the new facts and are correct and have, you know, 98% of the world nailed down perfectly. But, viewed 100 years later, almost nothing they were asserting is seen, by themselves, to be even close to correct. In fact, the process has speeded up. If you walked into a genetics class with a textbook that was 5 years old, they'd tell you to throw it away because it was "out of date".

Hmmm.

So, observation number one, is that, to date, Science's self-confidence has been unjustified, by its own standards, and even what's "known" about the world changes so fast on a daily basis now that what's "known" today may be thrown out tomorrow. Very confident advice given on child-raising, nutrition, ways to deal with forest fires, is regularly overturned -- and yet, Science is astounded when people react poorly to "Trust us! We're Scientists!" or "Trust us! We're Doctors!"

I'm not saying that Science, as a whole, isn't way better than myth and superstition, but, frankly, that's a "low bar." The question for society isn't whether Science is "better than myth", but whether Science, now, at last, has stopped changing its collective mind on everything and, if it has, how complete a picture does it have and has it correctly identified its own blind spots?
Again, I'm afraid the response from Science is basically "We're now confident that we're right about 98% of everything [we see ] that matters [ to us ]." Well, you can drive a truck through the holes in that warranty.
One way to assess how many "bugs" are out of a computer program and how many remain, invisible, lurking to get you later, is to look at the track record of new bugs discovered per month, and see if it has gone to zero. If the track record is still a high number, odds are not good that "the last bug" has been removed. For Science, this number has not gone to zero yet, and society cannot be confident that all significant "bugs" have been removed.

But, there are the two implicit caveats that I highlighted in the quote just above. First, how much of the social world that surrounds us doesn't matter to Science and isn't counted in "the denominator"? The largest category of items in this bucket is described by the term "soft sciences". These are just "minor importance" areas to us -- such as psychology, sociology, raising a family, reducing crime, organization theory, politics, economics, human relationships -- in which the tools of Science didn't really work very well, if at all. Astoundingly (from outside) and almost without a second thought (from inside Science), these were dismissed not as failures of Science, but as "bad problems."

One is reminded of the story of a young boy who was learning to play baseball. After trying to catch three balls in a row in the outfield and missing every one, he came into the dugout, threw his mitt on the ground angrily, and declare "No one can catch a ball in that darned field!"

Again, hmmm.

I think I had noted earlier in my review of Richard Dawkin's attack on religion that his home base, the University of Oxford, described in public documents that they couldn't even agree on what e-mail system to install, and this organizational dysfunction had been going on for years. So here is a case of some of the world's best academics, all in one place, with 1,100 years of practice, and they have not learned how to make decisions yet about their own household.

They probably view this as a minor issue, but I read it as an indictment of the whole theory behind the enterprise of academia -- whatever problems it is they are solving, don't seem to include the ones that are killing us outside the ivied walls. Well, they say, trust us -- we'll get around to the "soft sciences" someday. That's a nice theory, if you don't care about who's dying right now and you imagine academia will continue to be funded happily by society for another thousand years of patient waiting.

OK, so much for failures we can see from outside the enterprise of Science.

The other highlighted caveat in the quote above deals with "everything [ we see ] ".

This raises a much larger question, and the one Don Rumsfield posed somewhat awkwardly as quoted above, is how right Science is about the "everything" that it doesn't even see [yet].

Is there any way that we can estimate or bracket what fraction of what goes on in the universe has even entered our consciousness or line of sight yet? How much is going on right now that we don't even have a clue is out there? That's what Don Rumsfield was trying to ask.

Well, I recall a nice lecture from professor Frank Drake, then at Cornell, the Director of the huge 1000 foot radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. (That's the big "dish" that was featured early in the movie Contact, as well as the site of some gunfights in some James Bond movies.)
I believe he's involved now in the SETI project - Search for extraterrestrial life.

Frank said that one thing that seemed to be consistent was that, every time we looked in a new part of the electromagnetic spectrum, we found not just new sides of things we already knew about, but we also found entirely new things we never dreamed of before. This was true for "optical" astronomy, "radio" astronomy, x-ray astronomy, near-infrared, far-infrared, ultraviolet, you name it.

The classic example early in the days of radio astronomy was the detection of the brightest object in the radio sky (after the sun) in a direction everyone thought was boring to look. It turned out, this was the center of our own galaxy, which also had so much dust in the plane of the galaxy that it was hard to see from Earth. That detection entirely changed our conception of where we were in the galaxy, literally.

In that context, I'd assert my own observation, which is that there is an equivalent effect along the axis of "scale" or size-of-phenomenon. That is, at every new scale we look at, we discover not just a new angle on what we knew about before, but entirely new things that change entirely our picture of the universe we live in and where we fit in it.

And, it's increasingly clear that the "emergent " properties at higher levels are not something that can be determined or even suspected by looking at lower levels of scale. Few scientists, looking at a beaker of "air", would "see" within it the potential for tornadoes and hurricanes.

Or, a water molecule in your kitchen faucet has no concept that it is in a "pipe" that came from a "water tank" on a distant hill, as part of a system assembled by a town of people. It has even less chance of "understanding" your concern about whether a friend will "get into Harvard."

There is, at this time, I am sad to say, no "scientific" way at all, let alone a reliable and validated way, to look "upwards" and see phenomena that are much larger than ourselves in the organizational hierarchy of Life. Our toolkit for detecting "purpose" or "meaning" is empty, even for small scale problems we constructed that have a purpose. Most employees of a company are probably clueless about what the President of the company does with his time, and would only detect the difference if he or she stopped doing it. We live in the local present, and are not aware of efforts or movements that relate to longer term, larger scale possible futures and where, as a whole strategically, the company should "go." In fact we don't understand "go", on a company scale, we only understand "job" and "layoff".

And our Science, for all it can do in technical wizardry, cannot even tell us how to design a small company that will thrive and provide stable employment, let alone design a whole ecosystem of mutually supportive companies, communities, and civic life. It can't tell us, for sure, what to do to lose ten pounds and keep the weight off. It can't tell us what to do so our children don't go of the wrong deep end. And it certainly cannot tell us why it is worth it to get up in the morning and go to work, instead of just throwing in the towel and giving up.

I read in the paper of major initiatives to increase emphasis on "science and technology" in our national school system, so that we can "become competitive."

That seems to me a little like saying the reason we don't have a national medical record system is that we need more powerful computers -- when you can buy a laptop off the shelf with more power than the entire planet had to work with 50 years ago.

Maybe, in the perverse way that complex systems show us is so common, our problem is not that we don't have enough Science, as that we have too much of it, relative to some other things that should matter more. I'm not suggesting a Luddite approach of removing what we have, but, hey, really, if no one developed new technology for the next 100 years, we would get by and maybe we could learn to use what we have.

The problems in organizational structure that have to do with creativity, innovation, reliability, stability, agility -- those are problems that have to do with how human beings relate to each other, not problems of "technology" or "Science." These are the problems that Science said they'd "get to later".

Well, it's "later".

What we're dying on looks to me more like issues of "theory X" versus "theoryY" of management, Positive Psychology, small team cohesion, personal honesty, transparency, and integrity, etc. (See Virtue Drives the Bottom Line) These have to do with "purpose" and "meaning" and "other people."

The more we rip out meaning from our lives and try to replace it with technology, the worse things get - and the worse things get, the more desperate we seem to be to rip out more "humanities" (or humanity) and replace it with technology.

Maybe it's time to recognize that that's a death spiral we need to let go of as an approach.

I don't buy Science's claim that the problem is religion, and if we could only stomp out religion, we'd be able to reach Nirvana -- and our trade deficit with China would be resolved, and our children would be safe.

Instead of trying to kill religion or a particular Religion, maybe we should be trying to listen harder to what Religion is trying to tell us. Maybe there's one of those invisible "gaps" in our understanding.
"Often wrong, but never in doubt."
Interesting motto.

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2 comments:

Wade said...

You know, there's two approaches we've tried to stop incoming missile attacks. Approach 1 is to spend $100 billion on an "anti-missile system" - of the type that failed yet another test in the last day or so, because the missile it was supposed to defend us against misfired.
Approach 2 is to spend $37.15 on making friends with the people who would, if they could get it to work better than we can, launch missiles at us, we are led to believe.

Long term, I suspect that making friends is, net, less work and more likely to succeed than building an impregnable wall.

Maybe for a fair comparison, we should try spending an equal amount on each approach and see which one seems to be working better. I kind of liked our defense against attack by Canada - we had no defense, but they didn't want to attack us either. What's wrong with that?

Wade said...

Maybe we're doing too much worship at the altar of the God of Technology.

Maybe, it's not true that "Technology will save us!"

Here's the simple math. If "technogy" WAS the clue to survival, and China and India and Indonesia each have 5 times our population, then their top 10% of bright people will be way better than our top 10% by simple statistics, and their technology will end up being better than out technology, and we should throw in the towel. If we make this a winner-take-all-loser-dies competition, it's over before it starts and we lost.

If we shape this into a "There's room in Dodge for both of us, let's figure out how to be friends and work toghether" framework, we have a chance.

And that's our choice. Like Theory X and Theory Y -- either one is right, you get whichever one your own expectations cause to become reality.