William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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The Science-Is-Self-Correcting Fallacy

A group of self-correcting scientists discuss the various theories of melting butter.

A group of self-correcting scientists discuss the various theories of melting butter.

“You know my theory is true,” said the grant-wielding scientist, “Because science is self-correcting.”

That statement is a fallacy because, of course, even supposing that science is self-correcting, there is no guarantee that this fellow’s theory has been self-corrected. It may still be gloriously, yet fundably, wrong.

Yes, fundably. For an associated fallacy is the My-Grant-Was-Funded-Therefore-My-Theory-Is-True fallacy, which is a cousin of the My-Paper-Was-Peer-Reviewed-Therefore-My-Theory-Is-True fallacy, which itself is a spawn of the ageless I’m-An-Expert-Therefore-My-Theory-Is-True fallacy.

There is thus a whiff of the appeal to authority in the Self-Correcting fallacy. But it (the SCF) is much more than that, as we’ll now see.

How did the SCF arise? It has been observed, in several historical cases, that Theory A, itself usually a consensus, has been supplanted eventually by Theory B, and that Theory B both explains previous observations and predicts new ones better than Theory A. Theory A is discarded and B embraced. Think about the progress of the models of an atom from Democritus to the (consensus!) Standard Model of today. A clear improvement: self-correction in action.

Incidentally, did you notice it? Self correcting. Science is not the collective work of individuals, but a living entity, a thing apart from people, a being capable of repairing itself—and capable of anger and susceptible of being appeased. But let this pass.

From the truth that some theories have been corrected, it does not follow that all theories have been, or eventually will be, corrected. If it were true that all theories have been self corrected, then there would be no error in science, there could not now exist theories which are wrong. We see theories that are wrong (like catastrophic global warming, which makes failed prediction after failed prediction, yet the theory is still welcomed), therefore not all theories have reached self correction.

Then to say that all theories will eventually be self corrected is a matter of faith and is not a deduction. Why? It can be possible that every theory to date has been improved, and will continue to be improved, but it does not follow that all new theories will also fit this paradigm.

Also, it has not been demonstrated that all theories now “in play” have been self-correcting. It could very well be, and there is some evidence to suggest, that some theories are racing down blind alleys, self-destructing, as it were. This usually happens when theories are based on a false philosophies—and all physics must first needs a philosophy. For example, that the “laws” of physics work everywhere and everywhen identically is a philosophical and not physical idea. Multiverses and many-worlds seem to be examples of blind-alley theories.

Scientism is also incapable of ultimate self-correction. Scientism is the false belief that all theories are ultimately scientific; i.e. it is a futile attempt at supplanting philosophy, but which is a religion which only succeeds in masquerading its philosophy.

But let these examples pass, because they are beside the point. What is true is that to say that all theories are capable of self-correction is a matter of faith and is not a deduction. Given mankind’s pertinacious grip of error, nothing would seem more obvious than some theories can be perpetually wrong.

The Self-Correcting Fallacy is rarely stated blankly as the scientist who insists he is right because Science is self-correcting. But it’s not too far off, either. How often have we heard the phrase “The Science is settled”? If the science is settled, it is not in need of self-correction, and is therefore purged of error. Or perhaps some small amount of error is allowed—which, it is assumed, will itself be self-corrected—but because science is self-correcting, theories that reach public awareness must be “good enough” already. This is obviously false.

What remains true is that each theory must be judged on its own merits, and not on the merits of its expounders or that it was capable of self-correction.

Lastly, there is also a whiff of arrogance in the SCF. Scientists boast of science making improvements, and imply that other intellectual endeavors do not share this superior attribute. This is ridiculously false, a belief which can only be the result of an ignorance of human thought. For instance, history routinely improves its understanding, and even theology improves in time. Even a cursory reading in, say, the theology of Christology confirms this.

Of course, history, theology, and other humanities are awful prone to blind alley theories, too. But we have already seen science is not immune to these. We leave with the wisdom of Max Planck:

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

Which is at least proof that not all scientists are capable of self-correction.

Summary Against Modern Thought: God Is Not A Body. Part II

This may be proved in three ways. The first...

This may be proved in three ways. The first…

See the first post in this series for an explanation and guide of our tour of Summa Contra Gentiles. All posts are under the category SAMT.

Previous post.

God is not a physical body, that God is not a creature continued…but not finished today. We have instead a series of nested arguments, so it will take some careful reading to keep up. Each argument contains a premise, which is proved in the next point, which itself (once or twice) has a premise proved by the next point after. This goes on at some length; indeed, we will not finish the proof this week. Plus we ranging into analysis-like subjects, which aren’t always easy to keep in mind.

Chapter 20: That God is not a body

9 Again. No infinite power is a power residing in a magnitude. But the power of the first mover is an infinite power. Therefore it does not reside in a magnitude. And thus God, Who is the first mover, is neither a body nor a power residing in a body.i

10 The first proposition is proved as follows. If a power residing in a magnitude be infinite, this magnitude is either finite or infinite. But there is no infinite magnitude, as proved in 3 Phys.[8] and 1 Coeli et Mundi.[9] And it is not possible for a finite magnitude to have an infinite power. Therefore in no magnitude can there be an infinite power.ii

11 That there cannot be an infinite power in a finite magnitude is proved thus. A great power produces in less time an equal effect, which a lesser power produces in more time: of whatever kind this effect may be, whether it be one of alteration, of local movement, or of any other kind of movement. Now an infinite power surpasses every finite power. It follows therefore that it produces its effect more rapidly, by causing a more rapid movement than any finite power. Nor can this greater rapidity be one of time. Therefore it follows that the effect is produced in an indivisible point of time. And thus moving, being moved, and movement will be instantaneous: the contrary of which has been proved in 6 Phys.[10]iii

12 That an infinite power of a finite magnitude cannot cause movement in time, is proved thus. Let A be an infinite power; and AB a part thereof. This part therefore will cause movement in more time. And yet there must be proportion between this time and the time in which the whole power causes movement, since both times are finite. Suppose then these two times to be in proportion as 1 to 10, for it does not affect this argument whether we take this or any other ratio.

Now if we increase the aforesaid finite power, we must decrease the time in proportion to the increase of the power, since a greater power causes movement in less time. If therefore we increase it tenfold, that power will cause movement in a time which will be one-tenth of the time occupied by the first part that we took of the infinite power, namely AB. And yet this power which is ten times the aforesaid power is a finite power, since it has a fixed proportion to a finite power. It follows therefore that a finite power and an infinite power cause movement in an equal time: which is impossible. Therefore an infinite power of a finite magnitude cannot cause movement in any time.iv


iThis highlights something I think sadly neglected by physicists. That to create something out of nothing, or to be the First Mover (in the Chapter 13 sense; also see this), requires infinite “power.” Just what power and how does that relate to other things we know or conjecture about the universe is very little is known. Infinity is a strange place, as we emphasize repeatedly and to say our intuitions aren’t in it is the minimum. Mathematics barely touches on it. Spheres that can fold themselves inside out without breaking? Can be split in two and be the same in size? Weird!

iiWe’re into the Land of Subtly here, where it is easy to get lost. Don’t forget our destination. That the Infinite cannot be a body. Now if God were an infinite body, that is all there would be. There would be no room for us. God would take up all the space. So God has to be something other than a body, while still being infinite. But what? That’s what the rest of this book of Summa Contra Gentiles is about: describing that what.

It seems to me that we are not at a sticking point, that the reader is willing to grant that God is not an infinite physical body. So I don’t want to take up space with minutiae; nevertheless, if you’re interested in the details, read Chapter 5 of Aristotle here.

iiiNon-locality anyone? How can entangled particles the distance of the universe apart instantaneously “decide” which states to take? Do we have an answer here, in the First Mover, or are things buried more deeply?

ivWe have a proof by contradiction. Perhaps it’s easy to miss, but St Thomas is assuming first that the infinite power causes an effect in finite time. The idea is that, by simple manipulation, if the infinite power causes an effect in any time whatsoever, we can construct a finite power that causes the effect in the same amount of time. This cannot be, thus the infinite power must operate instantaneously.

The proofs of the remaining premises aren’t in this article. We attack these next week because, I think, we’ve already reached the limit today (get it? get it? theological cum mathematical humor; plus, Yours Truly is rather in a hurry today).

[8] Ch. v.
[9] Ch. v. seqq.
[10] Ch. iii.

Scenes From A Mid-Sized University

A feminist riot is an ugly sink, unt, I think that it is just about time dat ve had vone!

A couple of small but notable items, lifted from one issue of a mid-sized university school newspaper.

  • “Student success is a major component of the strategic plan…” Component? Strategic plan? This from an article showing how STEM fields will receive more, and even primary, attention. The strategic plan includes “new Active Learning Classrooms”. As opposed to inactive?
  • “Student Government Associate vice president, [Name] believes if you’re not outraged by what’s going on in the world then you’re not paying attention…’There are so many really intense and scary things going on in America and overseas,’ [Name] said. ‘If we actually empathized those issues, weren’t so separated and actually paid attention to those, we wouldn’t be scared.'”

    So which is it? Outraged or scared? If you’re “outraged”, it’s a good bet you’ve have never read history or a novel which wasn’t chosen by the demographic characteristics of its author.

  • 3,000 is a big number. In an article about September 11, “‘When you hear the number 3,000 it’s a lot, it’s a big number,’ [Name] said. ‘But when you see 3,000 then you realize it’s a big number.'”
  • Headline: “Pizza and networking event aims to end sexual assault.” The hidden power of pepperoni?
  • The above event was sponsored by—can you guess?—the “Women and Gender Studies Program”, the director of which said, “It’s an opportunity to make a collective calendar and learn to be riotous and active and amazing feminists on campus.”
  • A student said about the event, “It’s all about getting people talking and having conscious raising discussions that raise awareness.” I’m confused about what’s being raised, consciouses or awarenesses?
  • In the papers’ op-ed, a student explains her “lifestyle choice”: “For me, eating meat differs from accidentally eating a food I dislike.” It’s the same for me.
  • The rest of the paper, considerably more than half, was given over to the school’s sports teams.

Mark Zuckerberg Dresses Like A Bum



Why I am writing about this, what might seem to you, not-too-pressing subject? The answer is discovered below.

Before the reveal, an example of an ad hominem fallacy: “Facebook is not intelligently run because Mark Zuckerberg is rather plain in the looks department.” It’s the “because” that kills that argument because, of course, the visage of a man has little to do with his intelligence (there is even a slight negative correlation: hello Hollywood!).

An example of true proposition: “Mark Zuckerberg dresses like a negligent college student whose Friday night started late Thursday afternoon (hello CMU!).” Stating true propositions, simple statements of fact, is never a fallacy.

Here’s another: Zuckerberg has seven orders of magnitude more money than I: he rates thirty-some billion, whereas Yours Truly is rapidly approaching (but more usually receding from) multiple triple digits. A point of interest not because it is my duty to provide Facebook free content and Zuckerberg’s to profit from it, but because your author manages to invert the wealth ratio in terms of dress.

Meaning it costs very little to look beautiful. Zuckerberg has much, much more than very little, therefore he can afford to dress beautifully. And it is his duty to do so.

Zuckerberg has so much money that he can pay somebody to buy and take care of his clothes. Zuckerberg himself need never be involved,; he need take no more time than he currently takes in choosing his wardrobe, which is obviously no time at all, except for the microsecond it takes to grab what has fallen on the floor the night before.

One last assertion of fact: this result from a Google image search (one such is found at the top of this post).

Go ahead and try. You’ll see a limited range of images, most containing him in an ugly t-shirt in jeans, but occasionally wearing event-appropriate clothing. Which proves that he knows what it required of him, and sometimes acts on this requirement. But there are several images, such as one at some quasi-governmental official economic forum, in which he should dress nice but is dressed as if suffering from a hangover and has mixed up his wife’s t-shirt with his.

These facts being asserted, it must be that Zuckerberg knows the rules but chooses to flaunt them, knows what it means to dress beautifully but chooses for the most part to be ugly.

So why pick on Zuckerberg?

That’s the wrong question. The better query is: why is Zuckerberg is picking on us?

The man is in the public eye, knows he is, knows we have to look at him, knows that some will emulate him, knows what his duty is but flaunts it, thus he is a major contributor to the degradation of society.

“Briggs, you haven’t been drinking enough. Major contributor to the degradation of society? Time to crack open a bottle, brother. You’ve lost it.”

Major contributor, I say. You’ve heard of the broken windows theory, have you not? How letting little things slide, like graffiti on walls, trash on the lawn, and broken windows encourages far worse crimes like theft, listening to NPR, and voting for Democrats? Indeed, the theory isn’t a theory but common sense put succinctly; isn’t that so?

“Well, yes.”

Same thing here. Zuckerberg’s sloppy t-shirts, jeans, and tennis shoes lead to worse behaviors like instead of looking taking pictures with smart phones wherever one goes, veganism, and public boasting of small “carbon footprints”, not to mention he causes pain every time we have to see him, which, given the media’s obsession with money, is all too often.

But it’s the emulation that is the real curse. The young see a figure in authority clad in dollar-store rejects and figure they can and should do the same. And so whenever we venture outside we all have to pay the price of ugliness surrounding us.

This reminds me: a good statistical project could be to chart the amount of clothing worn by the average individual. Barbarians wore little to nothing; civilization, especially as it probed northwards, led to layering. But increasing decadence is peeling off these layers one by one. If I’m right (and I am), and controlling for weather, most people by 2100 will be down to an extra-large t-shirt, maybe drawers, and flip flops (encrusted with various expensive doodads to signal one’s allegiances).

Update Holy moly! Even the New York Times (sort of): The Death of Adulthood in American Culture (subtract standard self-flagellation about being a white man).

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