Distributed Mind


Incidentally, I hope my raving about conservatives and enviornmentalism isn't offensive. I tried to be nice when making generalizations, but sometimes I'm a little blunt. Also, I was going to clarify my statement that I was inclined to follow the apparent consensus opinion among climatologists, etc. but (1) Firefox ate that post and (2) looking back, I was pretty careful the first time. I realized though that saying things like "well, I'm going to trust the climatologists on this" carries with it a lot of dangerous assumptions, or at least appears to - believe me, I'm no modernist believer in the religion of science (as I tried to indicate in my original post). The reason why I wanted to clarify that was first because I thought it was the weakest point in the post but what finally pushed me over the edge was reading a comment by the late Stephen Jay Gould in the preface to his revised (1996) edition of The Mismeasure of Man defending his right to critique what had traditionally been considered the domain of psychology. His insistence there on the traditional claim that such critiques should be judged on their content and not the qualifications of their authors is absolutely correct, of course. In the world of quick judgments though, I have to admit I sometimes look first to who is making a statement - not all statements are equally trustworthy or informed, and often one can find out a lot about whether the content of a particular critique is worth evaluating in advance simply by checking who the author is. To return to our specific problem, as I said, when Newt Gingrich (who ironically has apparently recently reversed his position on global warming - I'm pretty sure I already knew that but had forgotten it) says something about environmental science, I take it with some skepticism since he is avowedly and openly political. One could also consider things written by people like Bjørn Lomborg or economists (of which I believe there is a lot of literature, though I haven't checked recently). Now, I know that there have also been plenty of critiques of the idea from within climatology and absolutely should those (or even arguments from the aforementioned economists) be evaluated on their merits if there is reason to assume they have any (which is to say, I believe that people who are seriously interested in the theory of anthropogenic global warming will publish in peer-reviewed journals or at least a forum where it will be seen first by scientists even if not peer-reviewed, rather than in the popular press; I mean, shoot, even Alan Sokal had the decency to publish about his hoax in a journal). Now, so far I have not seen too many good arguments though from climatologists against the idea (and I know several points are subjects of debate, though with the mainstream position appearing to stand strong in most of those cases), though there are a few that seemed worth investigating. Certainly one should not be religious about the whole topic - modern science is premised on the idea that people will try to shoot down any given theory. In that sense, as I said before, I agree with some people's concerns that people are indeed turning global warming into an ideology. But just because some people are doing that, let's remember that does not mean the science is automatically wrong.

And this is where we get to a much more complicated issue that I rather side-stepped in the original post. How does one legislate based on science? I mean, we may know that the mainstream opinion among a certain group of scientists is some thing, but we do not know how long such an opinion will hold. It would be foolish to assume any current understanding of science will remain permanently. There are, of course, some theories that are better established than others and action should be taken accordingly in those cases (it would be silly at the moment, for example, for Congress to fund faster-than-light spaceships...) but even those theories are standins for more developed models to come. And some things are much more variable than that. Some well-accepted ideas of science in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries were ridiculous, harmful, or downright directly immoral. But again, we need to be aware that science is not monolithic, and not all theory is equally good, and just because theory may in some cases be adequate, we should not accept every proposed practice built on top of that. Eugenics is a classic example of how not to legislate based on science. A lot of the theory was dubious, but practice was even worse - and we shouldn't take serious the idea that things like forced sterilization were the realm of science (though certainly some scientists tried to put it within the realm of science). I think that the relationship between science (whether natural or social) and policy (especially given the limitations of both) is something that deserves continual and deep consideration. You can take that as a caveat on both sides (though perhaps not euqally) of the global warming debate, for one. But we can't stop there - this an issue that affects us all the time.

Speaking of both eugenics and The Mismeasure of Man... Last week I was whining about statistics and their abuses to one my colleagues, which resulted in that book being brought up. I've been doing a lot of reading on statistics for work lately (more on in another post soon, perhaps) and the idea of doing some non-technical reading about further abuses of them at the same time seemed like a fairly good idea. But, being preoccupied with other things, I did not immediately set out to do so; nor did I have any long-range plans to do so, for that matter. However, on the way to work today, I saw someone carrying a couple bags from the campus book store and the odd thought that they might be having a sale crossed my mind, so I decided to investigate. Indeed they were having a sale; in fact, all books except textbooks were 50% off - way too good to pass up. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how one looks at it, I suppose) there were no books I was even remotely interested in. Well, except for one, the title of which you can guess. Serendipity.

Gould's book is about what he saw as the fatally flawed hypothesis of intelligence as reduceable to a single measurable and rankable number that carries with it some sort of measure of worth or value. Or so I take it so far; I have only gotten as far as the (lengthy) preface to the revised edition so far. This is a topic I've been following with some casual interest since I first heard about Herrnstein and Murray's book The Bell Curve in college and with some additional interest since I read another essay by Murray on the same topic a couple years ago (which led to further reading which led to at least one post on race and crime, for example). In fact, I've been meaning to write something about this from a more philosophical perspective for some time; verily, even this week I considered doing so. I might have to now that I'm reading on the same topic. Basically what I want to lay out is that regardless of the quality of the science underlying such things (which plenty of peopke, Gould included, have taken difference with) we need to be careful how we deal with such things - this goes back to the question of "science" and policy. There's good moral reason to not treat groups or individuals differently based on "intelligence" regardless of what the theory says (and in this case the theory turned out to be pretty bad, though it continues to have a life of its own with people like Charles Murray). Which is sort of like saying "all men are created equal" is an excellent basis on which to build a country regardless of whether scientific opinion agrees with that idea at any given moment or not. But as I said, I think that ought to be a post of its own.

I'll have more to say about statistics soon; I've been reading too much about them recently, but I've picked up a lot of useful stuff about them, and a few more entertaining bits (such as an amusing rant by one of the authors whose book I have here to the effect that chaos as a science is more or less nonsense since noise in data prevents the formation of chaos in the real world).

posted at 18:32:33 on 05/31/07 by ben - Category: General


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