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What Scientific Concept Would Improve Everybody’s Cognitive Toolkit? Edge

Long-time reader Randy Brich reminds us all to head over to Edge.org and read the responses to the 2011 World Question given in the title. It will be worth your time to do so.

Before discussing the responses, here is my own in brief: be less certain. Regular readers will understand immediately what I mean.

This is echoed by Howard “Multiple Intelligences” Gardner who quotes a question Karl Popper would have scientists asks themselves: “How Would You Disprove Your Viewpoint?!” (Too bad Popper never put this to himself about falsifiability.) Gardner says, “a sizeable minority are skeptical about global warming — or more precisely, the human contributions to global change — because efforts to counter climate change would tamper with the ‘free market’.” An excellent point: too many skeptics (mainly non-scientist internet denizens) let the consequences, or rather politics, of global warming influence their estimation of the truth of the theory. The two questions are logically independent: knowledge of one gives no information about the other.

But Gardner forgets that a “sizeable” majority buy every instance of “It’s worse than we thought!” for the exact opposite political, or, better said, theological reasons. The over-certainty in this field is like a raging fever that only a thorough dunking in ice water could cool off.

John Allen Paulos (Innumeracy) gets it right by noting that “most numerical assessments are not point estimates. Rather they are rough distributions”. My own field—whose very purpose is to quantify uncertainty probabilistically—lets us down in this respect thanks to p-values and hypothesis testing, two methods which guarantee over-certainty by reducing all decisions to points.

Reading some of these, it occurs that anthropology is that field of study in which a professor looks to other cultures to confirm political prejudices of his own.

W. Daniel Hills requotes Sherlock Holmes, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” This is true. But left unsaid is that most things are not impossible—which is the strictest possible criterion—they are merely unlikely. Holmes was a better statistician than probabilist.

The “multiverse”, i.e. that (necessary?) concoction of modern physics takes a beating by psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, who has figured that “we” will live forever simply because in some universe in the multiverse one copy of us does so. To those physicists who are reading: see what you have done?

“The world is unpredictable” says computer scientist Rudy Rucker. But this is a technical statement and Rucker treats it as such. His answer is worth quoting at length:

To predict an event is to know a shortcut for foreseeing the outcome in advance. A simple counting argument shows there aren’t enough shortcuts to go around. Therefore most processes aren’t predictable. A deeper argument plays on the fact that, if you could predict your actions, you could deliberately violate your predictions which means the predictions were wrong after all.

We often suppose that unpredictability is caused by random inputs from higher spirits or from low-down quantum foam. But chaos theory and computer science tell us that non-random systems produce surprises on their own. The unexpected tornado, the cartoon safe that lands on Uncle George, the winning pull on a slot machine odd things pop out of a computation. The world can simultaneously be deterministic and unpredictable.

In the physical world, the only way to learn tomorrow’s weather in detail is to wait twenty-four hours and see even if nothing is random at all. The universe is computing tomorrow’s weather as rapidly and as efficiently as possible any smaller model is inaccurate, and the smallest error is amplified into large effects.

What Rucker says is true but incomplete. Take weather forecasts for tomorrow, which most agree are damn useful, meaning that we do a reasonable job saying what the weather will be. But Rucker’s weather is not a meteorologist’s. The real weather tomorrow at, say, noon eastern standard time is the state of every sub-atomic particle from at least the first few meters of the Earth’s crust, extending all the way to the sun. The weather of the meteorologist is a suitable average of these states in space and in time.

Rucker is right in saying that the real weather cannot be predicted, but the meteorologist’s weather can be, at least in some approximate sense. The magic occurs in defining just what “the weather”—or “the climate”—is.

Charles Seife (Proofiness) has some odd, and incorrect, views of randomness. But his heart is in the right place, in that he agrees with our dictum: be less certain.

There are many more, but that’s enough today.

18 thoughts on “What Scientific Concept Would Improve Everybody’s Cognitive Toolkit? Edge Leave a comment

  1. Before continuing here with Briggs I linked over and read Hahvahd-trained Psychologist Gardner’s meme – spewing coffee on the screen as his lack of logic jumped out at me. [Professor, I have learned.]
    Talk about assumptions based on assumptions! Gardner is totally invested in an unconscious “belief” system but doesn’t approve of faith-based critical thinking. Wow. I wonder if at this late date he is able recover his tuition?

  2. Some years back I worked for a company that had a first class pain in the ass for a systems programmer. He was involved in everything that affected the computer and would attend every meeting. I ran a tight meeting cover the agenda assign work to individuals or groups and get decisions made and agreed upon in the allotted time set aside for the meeting. This pain in the ass prided himself on disagreeing with everything, throwing a monkey wrench in everything. But as I came to know him better (not willingly) I realized he was correct more often then he was wrong and dealing with his complaints often fixed problems before they were problems. I still hated working with him but he made me do a better job and be better prepared. Everyone needs a smart ass know it all who loves to shot holes though your favorite idea.

  3. “An excellent point: too many skeptics (mainly non-scientist internet denizens) let the consequences, or rather politics, of global warming influence their estimation of the truth of the theory.”

    Your peticoat is visible Mr. Briggs. Still as a statistitian how would you know?
    Accordibg to Richard Feynman “Mathematics is not a science from our point of view in the sense that it is not a natural science” (Six Easy Pieces).

    “My own field—whose very purpose is to quantify uncertainty probabilistically”

    Is it possible to quantify uncertainity other way than probabilistically?

  4. Gardner’s statement, made with certainty:

    “a sizeable minority are skeptical about global warming — or more precisely, the human contributions to global change — because efforts to counter climate change would tamper with the ‘free market’.”

    is not factual. I can assert with absolute certainty that he is wrong, because such global assumptions about human motivations are always wrong. So in this instance, an increased measure of uncertainty on my part is not called for.

  5. Yet, in the multiverse, where every alternative is realised, the wonderful truth is that there has to be at least one particular universe in which by sheer luck each of us as individuals have escaped any and all of these blows.

    Second, we live in a world where scientists are, in any case, actively searching for ways of combatting all such accidents: seat belts to protect us in the crash, aspirin to prevent stroke, red wine oxidants to counter heart attacks, antibiotics against disease. And in one or more of the possible universes to come these measures will surely have succeeded in making continuing life [“forever”?] rather than death the natural thing.

    Nah, if the “multiverse” relates to reality instead of fantasy – which it has to, because otherwise the term “reality” makes no sense as applied to the “multiverse”, so who would care about the “multiverse” then? – it can’t make “every alternative” possible. The “alternative” has to first be possible in order to be found somewhere in the multiverse. Sure, maybe we can’t know or describe everything which is possible, but that obviously doesn’t mean that everything we can imagine is possible.

    For example, I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to live as long as Humphrey imagines, simply because we were much more likely created with a built in lifespan, which Humphrey doesn’t consider because he thinks just because he can imagine eternal life, or whatever, that it is therefore possible. I’m amazed that he hasn’t thought of this other possibility because it’s so obvious.

    However, since the Universe is infinite – I don’t go in for multiple Universes because one infinite Universe is enough for me – I maintain that it is infinitely possible that everything that we do know is possible, occurs infinitely. So it’s possible that there are an infinite number of each one of us doing exactly what what we are doing at this exact moment – and we can say “hi” to them right now – as well as any other variation of the same thing, different activity, etc.. So that, since we know that “we” are possible, “we” have an infinite chance of existing for an infinite time and doing everything possible, infinitely.

    This sounds a wee bit dubious, but I still haven’t figured out what’s wrong with my reasoning. In addition, the Universe I’m talking about never “began”. It always was.

    As to “certainty” apart from its infinity, the Universe I’m conceptualizing has as its essence beyond scientific problems the feature of being mysterious: we’ll never find a stopping point to wondering about it, even if there’s a TOE, and who would want to anyway? An American Indian, Luther Standing Bear, pointed this out in saying something to the effect that, no matter what we think we know and write down, or know next, or experience, “we will still be confronted with the Great Mystery”, as scientists or as alive and living individuals.

  6. Jpeden: I see two problems with your infinite universe idea.

    1. There is no reason to suppose that real infinities exist. Infinity is a mathematical idea representing the fact that a rule, such as “next number,” covers an infinity of possible cases. That does not imply in any way that infinities exist in the real world.

    2. Even if a real infinity does exist, there is no reason to suppose that two or more members of the infinite set are the same. In mathematics there are infinite sets with no two members the same, so why should this be any different for real infinities?

  7. Briggs The real weather tomorrow at, say, noon eastern standard time is the state of every sub-atomic particle from at least the first few meters of the Earth’s crust, extending all the way to the sun. The weather of the meteorologist is a suitable average of these states in space and in time.

    That’s not the “real weather,” any more than the state of every sub-atomic particle in you is the “real William Briggs.” You could define it that way, but this would be useless.

  8. “Gardner says, “a sizeable minority are skeptical about global warming — or more precisely, the human contributions to global change — because efforts to counter climate change would tamper with the ‘free market’.” An excellent point: too many skeptics (mainly non-scientist internet denizens) let the consequences, or rather politics, of global warming influence their estimation of the truth of the theory. The two questions are logically independent: knowledge of one gives no information about the other.”

    Not so fast there pardner.

    There are those who “let the consequences, or rather politics, of global warming influence their estimation of the truth of the theory”.

    However, there are others (and I suggest a majority of this subset), that object to the policy precriptions being made based on cost/benefot of doing something.

    That does not realte to the truth or otherwise of the dangerous AGW hypothesis, but it is central to the questio of “what should we do?” regardless of the truth of the DAGW hypothesis.

    I find that the argument you just outlined is a completely bogus, often one used against those people who validly question the sense of “doing something” when the associated cost might be a multiple of “not doing anything” in terms of mitigation.

    As in “Oh my God, hundreds of millions of people contract the common cold every year!!!”.

    We don’t need to argue the cause in order to come to a sensible conclsusion that no government intervention is required.

  9. “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”
    I’ve never understood that quote. How is it either true or useful? Since nothing is impossible, I assume that he means “extremely unlikely” – but then the rest of the statement makes no sense. Even if you accept that, what about multiple improbable scenarios that cannot be true simultaneously? I guess this is why I am not a famous fictional detective.

    Smoking Frog:

    Can you give a better definition on “real weather”? I am reminded of the movie “anger management” where the shrink gets angry at adam sandler for not answering his question “WHO are you?” in a satisfactory manner. (Apologies for bringing such a stupid movie into the discussion…)

  10. Why is it desirable to improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?
    Giving everybody a set of spanners will not turn them into expert motor mechanics.

    Is it possible that any concept can improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?
    By definition, only a concept that is known to nobody can improve the toolkit of everybody.

    Perhaps a better understanding of the “fallacy of many questions” is required?

  11. “ ‘Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.’ This is true.”

    No it isn’t. What remains is the possible, not the truth. Example: it will rain tomorrow or it will not rain tomorrow – both are possible, only one will be true.

  12. Adam:

    Sherlock Holmes was a mess, at least from a logical perspective. For goodness sake, the character didn’t even know the difference between deduction and induction.

  13. Smoking Frog says:
    24 January 2011 at 8:57 am

    Jpeden: I see two problems with your infinite universe idea.

    1. There is no reason to suppose that real infinities exist. Infinity is a mathematical idea representing the fact that a rule, such as “next number,” covers an infinity of possible cases. That does not imply in any way that infinities exist in the real world.

    2. Even if a real infinity does exist, there is no reason to suppose that two or more members of the infinite set are the same. In mathematics there are infinite sets with no two members the same, so why should this be any different for real infinities?

    Thanks for the criticisms. I took a lot of math in college, but that was a long time ago, so I don’t know if I adequately understand “mathematical infinity” compared to “practical infinity”, if it exists, which I still think it does.

    1. Given the fact that mathematics doesn’t have to apply to the real world, it’s not surprising that it can be made to say or imply nothing about the real world, something, however, which does not prove that the concept of infinity does not apply to the real world.

    But if the concept of infinity doesn’t apply to the real world by definition – because it’s only or solely a “mathematical” operation – then there’s going to have to be another term to cover the facts [as I allege them to be] that the Universe did not begin, and it has no “spatial” limits whatsoever.

    These “facts” are so obvious to me that I can’t imagine them to not be true, but that’s the problem with them, too: how would I know them to be necessarily true? My only answer is that the Universe has created an entity which wants to understand the Universe, so perhaps we know something about it on that “iffy”, allegedly inborn basis. Alternatively, I could instead have no idea what I am talking about!

    2. Mathematics may have “infinite sets with no two members the same”; but while this can apparently be proven according to or within the mathematical world, it can’t be proven in a real world which is infinite, simply because it is infinite. I don’t see how the mathematical world of infinite sets would necessarily describe the real world, a priori so to speak, unless it was by some kind of definition, when in the real world you still have to find these things out.

    However, even if the existence of these “infinite sets with no two members the same”, is proveable in the real world as a possibility or actuality there is no reason to suppose that it is the only possibility or actuality involving infinite sets. At least equally likely, imo, an infinite possibility remains, certainly for a repetition of what has already been shown to be possible in the real world.

  14. What Scientific Concept Would Improve Everybody’s Cognitive Toolkit?

    A couple of cups of coffee in the morning can do wonder to my thinking ability! Not a scientific concept though. ^_^

    How about “open-mindedness”? Is it a scientific concept? I think it is!

    JPeden,

    I keep the following link in a file named ‘favorite posts’. There are some comments, eg, #53, about “infinite’ universe. ’ I think you might like it.
    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2011/01/17/how-deep-the-universe/

  15. Practical infities must exist.

    I survived, thus proving infinite patience. My progency will not survive (trust me) if mine is less. Understanding, though, has its limits.

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