Planet Ulrich

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What the general public (or nonscientists, at any rate) wish Scientists understood.

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In response to the Article, “What Scientists wished the General Public Understood,”
which of course, condescended and sneered in all the ways you’d expect media “scientists” to do.
Now, I think scientists do understand the ideas I’ve offered below, at least some of the time, in the abstract, but too many of them seem to fall into the usual bias/belief traps in the particular, those who call themselves “social scientists” most especially
(as an aside, I don’t know that I believe in “social scientists” at all, not, at any rate, as “scientists,” rather than people aping the language of science to make themselves sound more convincing, while misapplying bits of scientific method, generally more to dupe the public into thinking they are thereby objectively pursuing truth, rather than some other, usually better funded, agenda).
1.  Just because something can’t be measured, or can’t be measured precisely, does not mean it does not exist.
Common examples,

The passions

General intelligence (though this is more historic than current, we have gotten sufficiently adept at approximating it [Spearman’s g], or devising tests that allow us to quantify problem solving capacities that correlate to a high degree with other observed characteristics/consequences of intelligence to serve as effective and useful proxies; the only reason I even included it on this list is the Flynn effect, which seems to me has to be some kind of data artifact involving testing [increasing test scores over time in no way seem to correlate with actual increases in intelligence, which by every other metric seems to be declining in advanced societies [as we should expect it to; once all of the gains from normalizing nutrition and basic environment have accrued, differential fertility favoring the left half of the bell curve would strongly favor decline])
2.  Just because something can be measured does not mean that it matters
It is depressingly easy to manipulate people with spurious numbers having no demonstrable connection to anything, or numbers that are insufficient in themselves to have meaning, but which are thrust on the public with the implication that they mean certain things that in no way follow.
An example would be the argument that we share 98 or 98.5 or whatever percentage of our DNA with Chimpanzees, therefore we are largely indistinguishable, “scientifically”, from these creatures; this of course is more vulgar scientism than science, since we certainly cannot claim sufficient understanding of the vast complexities of the genome (or rather the consequences of genotypic variance on phenotypic life in the world) to make any meaningful statements about the importance, or lack thereof, of even the smallest genotypic variance, but we are obvious very different from chimpanzees.
Some more than others.
3.  If a theory conflicts with observed reality, or seems to make no sense, the problem lies with the theory, not reality, or our observations of it
It is easy to say this and everyone would agree, until they don’t like the results, then they start making excuses and qualifying, making questions of fact questions of motive, etc.
The current equality obsession is the best available example.
4.  It is more likely that men will lie than miracles occur 
Strictly speaking, again, this idea of Hume’s is cardinal to scientific thought, but it’s good to keep it in mind as a skeptical principle, because people are always presenting things that seem absurd or totally contrary to experience and reason as having been established by some abstruse process only intelligible to experts (such things may very well be in fact true, or as true as we can establish for now, but we should be on guard)
5.  Just because we do not understand something does not mean it is not real
People seem to always be reducing their view of the world to whatever fits into the latest set of theories, or what they think they understand about those theories; such people also tend to mock and sneer at the folly and ignorance of all who proceeded them.
It may not be expected of a scientist to say, “I have no idea why that happened or how that works” but it should be, as opposed to, “We cannot explain that, therefore it is impossible”.  This may seem inconsistent with the statement about miracles, but only on the surface (that is probabilistic, and merely places a higher burden on claims that depart radically from our understanding or experience, it does not say things should simply be dismissed because we can’t explain them).
6.  A simulation is not the thing simulated
Just because you can build something having certain apparent attributes of something else, does not mean you have built the thing itself.
We can make a smart enough chatbot now to fool most people into thinking it is human (or at least something acting at least as human as the people who chat into little windows for a living), but it’s a chatbot, not a person.  Making the computer more powerful or giving it more memory/data won’t change that.
7.  It is wrong to reduce what we do not understand to metaphors about what we do
We do not understand life, and it is a mistake to reduce it to a set of metaphors about other, simpler things, we do understand, because we know how to build them
A person is not a thinking machine any more than he is an engine.  It is a mistake to reduce thought to “computation” and “data/retrieval/processing”.  We know very little about how thought really works, or what consciousness is, but we seem to be rushing headlong from
a person can be like a machine
to a machine can be like a person
to a machine can be no different from a person
to a machine can be better than a person
Machines are objects.  People are alive.  There is a qualitative difference between life and nonlife that cannot be dismissed because we don’t know what it is, how to describe it, or worse, how it can be overcome.
8.  Thinking does not make it so
(what you think you know about something is not the thing itself; you may believe an object has come alive for whatever reasons, but it is or is not alive, which is to say, it has properties that are independent of your observation or whatever conclusions you have come to).

Written by ulrichthered

February 21, 2013 at 5:43 pm

Posted in Singularity

Tagged with , ,

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