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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Science Not Sales

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot:

In my recent post Science, Politics, and Administration, I wrote, among other things:
Those who prefer to emphasize scientific outliers as definitive rather than simply indispensable to science over the stolid solid science of consensus tend to be crackpots or dupes who foolishly mistake themselves for champions of science or who are indulging in rank fraud.
To this, an "Anonymous" commenter replied (this is much abridged, do follow the link for the whole exchange):
In my view, this isn't the best way to spot crackpottery. Oh, yes, crackpots always channel Einstein, Wright brothers, Tesla, Von Braun, etc. ad nauseum. But, unlike the genuine articles, they want special treatment of some kind for their ideas. Always…. [The] Wright brothers built their "flier" (and half a dozen various flying prototypes) first, and then sought investors. Some imitate those examples faithfully, and whether their ideas make it or fail miserably, I respect them. But do crackpots, con men and their dupes do that? Never! They don't bet their lives and fortunes on their ideas, they want a sure thing. So they go to courts, to TV, to gullible venture capitalists, to the internet, organize their own diploma mills, and get their share of "degrees", "fame" and sometimes, alas, quite real money. Their "success" is of course, as fake as their ideas and methods, even financial one…. The sheer hypocrisy of this fake-dissent is enough to make those types absolutely intolerable. Any dissenters are welcome, except fakes.
These points are well taken, surely, but I don't happen to doubt that at least some pseudo-scientific crackpots and futurological fraudsters are indeed willing to struggle selflessly and even die (at least professionally) for their dumb ideas, or might at any rate be too stupid or caught up in a full froth of True Belief to grasp that these are the stakes in the game they are playing at.

What matters to me is that we insist on the distinction of marginal hypotheses that are indispensable in principle despite their marginality to the process by means of which we arrive at ever more capacious consensus technoscience over the long run, and actual scientific consensus worthy of the name and warranting our reasonable belief as such many of the present pillars of which began as marginal notions but no longer are so.

I think that most non-crackpots who are strong champions of presently marginal notions will concede that their views do not yet represent consensus science even if they rightly or wrongly expect them one day to achieve that distinction.

They best not compensate for their marginality by pretending to a certainty that nobody has, they best not handwave about the ignorance or irrationality of their detractors rather than seek to better substantiate their cases the better to persuade them, they will surely be aware and best welcome the custom that it is the extraordinary claim that demands extraordinary evidences and that their marginality puts the onus on them, they will best reasonably qualify their claims in the face of objections rather than hyperbolize and make to bulldoze them over, they best behave like scientists rather than salesmen (or futurologists, all of whom are salesmen).

8 comments:

AnneC said...

I think that most non-crackpots who are strong champions of presently marginal notions will concede that their views do not yet represent consensus science even if they rightly or wrongly expect them one day to achieve that distinction.

This is sort of along the lines I was thinking when I posted about cryonics recently. It's an idea that's intrigued me for a long time but it's so difficult sometimes to sort out what's valid when something has so much weird subcultural stuff swirling around it.

jimf said...

> > The sheer hypocrisy of this fake-dissent is enough to make
> > those types absolutely intolerable.
>
> [A]t least some pseudo-scientific crackpots and futurological
> fraudsters are indeed willing to struggle selflessly and even
> die (at least professionally). . . by pretending to a certainty
> that nobody has. . .

Some people are blessed (or cursed, depending on your interpretation)
with a level of self confidence that literally warps
reality so that they are at the center of it. Of course, we're
all doomed to see the universe that way, to some degree, but
some folks take their "privileged" point of view a lot more
seriously than most of us.

The shrinks have a technical term for this -- such people are said
to have "alloplastic defenses". ("Ain't nothin' wrong with **me**,
it's the rest of you morons oughta be herded into a gas chamber.")

And BTW -- it's not pretense in those cases, it is (shockingly
enough, to "normal" folks) what they really believe.

Kate said...

This reads to me like a very long explanation for the term "self-delusion".

Dale Carrico said...

Don't grow too complacent about the adequacy of short explanations, even if you're right to appreciate them once you've arrived at them via the hard road of processing longer ones.

With short explanations you're too easily left with the delusion that the bumper stickers you've memorized constitute intelligence when in fact you can't distinguish differences that make a difference.

It's like people who watch TED talks online who fancy themselves intellectuals in consequence.

It's not just science that isn't sales, neither is thinking more generally.

And so, to your point in particular, there is more than one way to be deluded about the beliefs one affirms as scientific, but also more than one way to be deluded about one's beliefs, since there are reasonable and unreasonable beliefs we hold in matters of morals, aesthetics, ethics, and politics, too.

For me, personally, the interesting thing about this post, and the one that preceded it, is that it concerned itself with differences between the proper demarcation of the scientific from the political while attending to those elements in each that render them most like one another. I agree with you that there are vulnerabilities to delusion that inhere in that fraught and porous demarcation. Understanding it requires many long explanations.

For them as has the patience and hankering for it, and are edified by such things, these long explanations are the occasion for thinking, and for understanding. An end in itself, for those who are drawn that way, the unexamined life is not worth living, and so on and so forth, and the beat goes on.

Dale Carrico said...

A side note, of the man with the sign: I'd probably buy.

AnneC said...

Dale wrote:

What matters to me is that we insist on the distinction of marginal hypotheses that are indispensable in principle despite their marginality to the process by means of which we arrive at ever more capacious consensus technoscience over the long run, and actual scientific consensus worthy of the name and warranting our reasonable belief as such many of the present pillars of which began as marginal notions but no longer are so.

I had to read this a few times but I think I get what you're saying here -- that is, it's important to avoid calling speculations about, say, nanotechnology "science" as that not only confuses (and indicates confusion about) what science actually is, which is to say it's a process by which we systematically find out stuff about the world and and over time incorporate ideas and findings with enough reasonable evidence into our worldview(s).

I've just paraphrased here to check my understanding, and I realize that a paraphrase is never the exact same thing as the original text, but is that anywhere near the neighborhood of right(ish)?

If so, it definitely correlates with the stuff that I've found so maddening about futurological subcultures: that is, a combination of pressure to "believe" in certain potential outcomes (or risk being branded "unscientific" or "pessimistic") coupled with a weird self-promotional drive that seems more concerned about popularizing banners to wave than about the actual content of their supposed goals, etc.

Dale Carrico said...

Far out ideas are of course crucial to the progress of science, and rightly cherished as such, but they don't actually count as science until they manage to attract an actual scientific consensus of warranted belief.

If scientific consensus finds some technoscientific claim unwarranted chances are that it is just that, even if it is true that some such views eventually achieve consensus and so contribute to scientific progress.

Futurological subcultures not scientific, they are fandoms that identify with idealized outcomes or gurus (or sometimes figures who themselves might pass muster as scientists however marginal their notions) and seek to substitute insular echo-chamber pseudo-validation and tribal enthusiasms for the actual substantiation, experimentation, falsification, publication that yields consensus.

In the really extreme modalities of futurological sub(cult)ure I criticize most emphatically here, like the eugenic transhumanists, the techno-immortalists, the singularitarian Robot God priests, the nano-cornupiasts, and so on, I fear that these tendencies are particularly pronounced, too often caught up in, at best deeply vulnerable to, the cul-de-sac of outright cultishness and all its unfortunate authoritarian paraphernalia.

Michael Anissimov said...

Dale, I really appreciate this post and aspire to the guidelines set out in the last two paragraphs.

Anne, the subcultural stuff swirling around cryonics seems pretty easy to strip away -- it's like, you freeze someone when their heart stops, with the expectation of future technologies that can revive them. Is this a good idea or not? Your answer will depend on what prospective revival technologies you know about and what level of credibility you grant them.

There's really little point in asking for revival of a mammal before taking the idea seriously, because by that point, you're already 99% of the way to successful human revival. I mean, we can choose to only take ideas seriously once they become mainstream, but that takes all the fun out of being an early-adopter, doesn't it?