15 January 2011

On Not Knowing What the Frack You are Talking About

Those of us who wish to break through to the next level of human existence, are going to have to learn to love uncertainty (via Bishop Hill). The science correspondent of The Guardian looks at some answers to the latest Edge question:
Carlo Rovelli, a physicist at the University of Aix-Marseille, emphasised the uselessness of certainty. He said that the idea of something being "scientifically proven" was practically an oxymoron and that the very foundation of science is to keep the door open to doubt.

"A good scientist is never 'certain'. Lack of certainty is precisely what makes conclusions more reliable than the conclusions of those who are certain: because the good scientist will be ready to shift to a different point of view if better elements of evidence, or novel arguments emerge. Therefore certainty is not only something of no use, but is in fact damaging, if we value reliability."

...Neil Gershenfeld, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Centre for Bits and Atoms wants everyone to know that "truth" is just a model. "The most common misunderstanding about science is that scientists seek and find truth. They don't – they make and test models," he said.

"Building models is very different from proclaiming truths. It's a never-ending process of discovery and refinement, not a war to win or destination to reach. Uncertainty is intrinsic to the process of finding out what you don't know, not a weakness to avoid. Bugs are features – violations of expectations are opportunities to refine them. And decisions are made by evaluating what works better, not by invoking received wisdom." _Guardian_via_BishopHill

The mind naturally hates uncertainty. If we do not know what is to happen, we cannot plan for it, and are at the mercy of "the fates."
The basic idea is simple. It is that to perceive the world is to successfully predict our own sensory states. The brain uses stored knowledge about the structure of the world and the probabilities of one state or event following another to generate a prediction of what the current state is likely to be, given the previous one and this body of knowledge. Mismatches between the prediction and the received signal generate error signals that nuance the prediction or (in more extreme cases) drive learning and plasticity. _AndyClark

Of course it is one thing to embrace uncertainty and accept humility. It is quite another to pretend to embrace uncertainty, then to tell everyone to shut the fuck up because you understand what is going on better than anyone else does. That is what several of the commenters at the Edge site appeared to be doing.
True science does not attempt to limit what models can be tested by which experiment. True science does not limit the nature of models which can be entertained and played with. True science does not play down the massive uncertainty within its boundaries so as to influence public policy on a massive scale -- for its own financial benefit and increase in prestige.

This is what we are dealing with in modern climate science -- and in a wide range of other sciences which have attracted the attention of politically ambitious scientists, politicians, and bureaucratic administrators. The quest to build better models -- falsifiable models which can be ruthlessly tested by experiment -- is being hampered and biased by political and ideological concerns. Even at more "enlightened" websites such as Edge.org you can see the underlying corrupting influence of politics.

That is why science is escaping the bounds that "scientists", science bureaucrats, science journalists, science publishers, politicians, political lobbyists on scientific issues, and other supposed gatekeepers of science are trying to maintain. The tools of experimentation are escaping into the public domain, with all the attendant risks and opportunities which that entails.

Scientists are also politicians, at least within their own little realm. Some of them actually sell themselves to "the dark side" and attempt to practise politics on a grander scale. If a scientist lacks humility in his public pronouncements and policy recommendations, he is not practising true science, but is practising politics.
Until we can quantify the uncertainty in our statements and our predictions, we have little idea of their power or significance. So too in the public sphere. Public policy performed in the absence of understanding quantitative uncertainties, or even understanding the difficulty of obtaining reliable estimates of uncertainties usually means bad public policy. _LawrenceKrauss

All models are metaphors and all metaphors are man-made. The greatest danger in financial modeling and the modeling of all human activities is therefore the age-old sin of idolatry. Financial markets are alive but a metaphor is a limited human work of art, entrancing perhaps, but inanimate. To confuse the model with the world is to embrace a potential future disaster. All metaphors have their limits. _EmanuelDerman PDF
Emanuel Derman Map of Emotions PDF

Humans are not programmed for rationality, except insofar as finding the next meal, or a relatively warm, dry, and safe place to sleep are measures of rationality. The lofty world of grand scientific ideals and integrities is more of a convenient fiction to justify academic and research budgets. The reality is more one of roiling emotions and jostling egos of unbridled ambition and jealousy.

Politicians of all stripes want to project an image of invincibility and absolute certainty. Journalists, speechwriters, and public relations hacks assist them toward that end. Scientists -- by keeping their mouths shut about how little they themselves know -- also assist the politicians (at all levels) toward their petty, venal ends.

One of the happy exceptions among scientists is Freeman Dyson.

My first heresy says that all the fuss about global warming is grossly exaggerated.
Here I am opposing the holy brotherhood of climate model experts and the crowd of deluded citizens who believe the numbers predicted by the computer models. Of course, they say, I have no degree in meteorology and I am therefore not qualified to speak. But I have studied the climate models and I know what they can do. The models solve the equations of fluid dynamics, and they do a very good job of describing the fluid motions of the atmosphere and the oceans. They do a very poor job of describing the clouds, the dust, the chemistry and the biology of fields and farms and forests. They do not begin to describe the real world that we live in.
The real world is muddy and messy and full of things that we do not yet understand. It is much easier for a scientist to sit in an air-conditioned building and run computer models, than to put on winter clothes and measure what is really happening outside in the swamps and the clouds. That is why the climate model experts end up believing their own models. _Dyson
But if your paycheck depends upon wrangling a grant from a government that is down to writing IOUs, you want to project a degree of certainty and a crucial pivotal nature within your research, which you cannot actually know or prove. You probably don't even believe it yourself, deep down, but bills must be paid, kids must be raised, appearances must be kept up....

The enormous academic, political, and journalistic house of cards which exists to bamboozle the public into believing that the ruling and credentialed class knows what it is doing, cannot last forever. It is already crumbling about the edges and showing deepening cracks in its infrastructure.

What should you do about it? Learn to embrace skepticism toward the proclamations of would-be authority, and adopt a robust system of planning in your personal life. Things do not typically turn out the way we expect. Learn to deal with a healthy measure of uncertainty and unpredictability.

And keep your powder dry, you just may need to use it.

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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