Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Futurological Scientism and Pseudo-Science As Anti-Science Ideology and Theology

Contrary to their endlessly reiterated self-promotional declarations to the contrary, so many of these software industry drones pretending to be expert physicists and geneticists and nanotechnologists as well as corporate-militarist yes-men pretending to be bioethicists and think-tank futurists clearly are not joining the various sects of the Robot Cult because they want to do serious science or engage in serious policy deliberation.

I am reminded of those finger-wagging statements circulated occasionally by think-tanks and advocacy organizations stealthfully funded by petrochemical interests and loudly boasting the signatures of thousands of "scientists" to create the impression that the actually overwhelming scientific consensus concerning the urgent threat of catastrophic anthropogenic climate change is instead a left-wing conspiracy, but in which almost none of the signatories are scientists in fields the least bit relevant to the factual evaluation of the claims they are contesting (and for palpably ideological and not scientific reasons at that), if they are proper scientists at all. In such schemes the status and force of science is doubly looted and diluted: first, there is the specific undermining of an actually warranted consensus scientific belief, and an almost unprecedentedly urgent one at that, by scientists willing to conduct themselves unscientifically; and second, there is the general undermining of the force of warranted consensus scientific beliefs as such, however indispensable they may be to the administration of actually functional secular democratic societies, by actors irresponsibly willing to eschew long-term and general welfare for parochial, short-term, even minute momentary tactical advantages and gains. All this, in the service of extractive-industrial incumbent-elite profit-taking.

So, too, whatever its insistent but superficial scientificity, the substance and primary work of superlative futurology remains, as it always has been primarily:
one -- either ideological, consisting in prophetic utterances in the form of hyperbolic threat/profit assessments and marketing/promotional discourse wrapped in superficially technoscientific terminology providing incumbent-elite corporate-industrial interests rationales to justify continued profit-taking at the expense of majorities

two -- or theological, consisting in priestly utterances in the form of apocalyptic warnings of looming total catastrophes but also promises to the faithful of a techno-transcendence of mortality via super-longevity, error and humiliation via super-intelligence, and stress and worldly defeat via super-abundance providing both reassurance and consolation especially in the midst of the economic and ecologic distress of neoliberal-neoconservative technodevelopmental planetary precarization.

And, again, it is not just the reactionary political outcomes facilitated by their phony genuflections to scientificity that should be decried, but the deeper damage to the wholesome social force of science, properly so-called and in its proper precinct, that should worry critics of futurological (reductive) scientism and (hyperbolic) pseudo-science.

From half a decade ago, the post Is Science Democratic? provides some nice context.


jimf said...

Speaking of "consensus science", a leading light of >Hism
wrote, on the Extropians' list in April 2004
( )

"These are extraordinarily different things[:]
The practice of science is a social process.
The consensus of science is an opinion poll.

The actual working part of science is Bayesian probability theory, which
individual scientists and their social dynamics partially and imperfectly
mirror. . . .

Science intrinsically requires individual researchers setting their
judgment above that of the scientific community. The social process of
science encourages people to do the work and recognizes when they have
done the work. The social process is not an actual human brain, has not
the power of intelligence. If individuals do not have novel opinions and,
yes, disagreements, for the scientific process to recognize as correct,
there is no science. . . .

The overall rationality of academia is simply not good enough to handle
some necessary problems, as the case of Drexler illustrates. Individual
humans routinely do better than the academic consensus. . . .

Yes, the Way of rationality is difficult to follow. As illustrated by the
difficulty that academia encounters in following [it]. The social process of
science has too many known flaws for me to accept it as my upper bound.
Academia is simply not that impressive, and is routinely beaten by
individual scientists who learn to examine the evidence supporting the
consensus, apply simple filters to distinguish conclusive experimental
support from herd behavior. Robyn Dawes is among the scientists who have
helped document the pervasiveness of plausible-sounding consensuses that
directly contradict the available experimental evidence. Richard Feynman
correctly dismissed psychoanalysis, despite the consensus, because he
looked and lo, there was no supporting evidence whatsoever. Feynman tells
of how embarassing lessons taught him to do this on individual issues of
physics as well, look up the original experiments and make sure the
consensus was well-supported.

Given the lessons of history, you should sit up and pay attention if Chris
Phoenix says that distinguished but elderly scientists are making blanket
pronunciations of impossibility *without doing any math*, and without
paying any attention to the math, in a case where math has been done. If
you advocate a blanket acceptance of consensus so blind that I cannot even
apply this simple filter - I'm sorry, I just can't see it. It seems I
must accept the sky is green, if Richard Smalley says so.

I can do better than that, and so can you."

jimf said...

The above was written in response to an expression of more
conventional reservations about the rejection, by another poster,
of science as a "social process". (Yes, there are occasionally
sensible voices heard in >Hist circles, but they are in the minority,
I'm afraid. But this is one of them.)

> I've gone through a crisis of faith with regard to scientists recently.
> In many areas, I've come to realize, scientists are far too
> self-assured. They think they're practicing science, when in fact they
> are merely contributing to science. A lone scientist can run
> experiments, observe, make hypotheses, form opinions... but cannot fully
> practice science, because science can only emerge from interactive
> criticism. We are all too fallible to trust ourselves to generate good
> science without lots of help.
> ...
> So how can science be reported to the real world? If one scientist's
> opinion isn't trustworthy, what about lots of opinions together?
> Michael Crichton has called this "consensus science," and correctly
> attacked it. It's no more than a popularity contest for ideas, and the
> popularity of an idea has little to do with its truth.

This is a dangerous road to take. I'd be concerned that if I started
off doubting the practice of science as a guide to truth, I might as
well send in for my membership card in the Flat Earth Society, because
that's where I'd end up.

You complain above that individually, scientists can't practice science
because that requires interactive criticism. But in fact, most individual
scientists do work in a framework of interaction. Most scientists
that I've known are actually very cautious about criticism, and do
their utmost to make their presentations and publications bulletproof.
They'll go out of their way to mention any weaknesses or ambiguities
in their theories specifically in order to pre-empt their critics from
raising those points. Science is a sport where defense counts more than
offense, from my observations.

And then you go on and criticize consensus science as being no more
than a popularity contest. But this again overlooks the tremendous
importance of criticism in the scientific process. A scientifically
unsound theory, even if popular, cannot withstand criticism for long.
There is too much temptation to jump onto the critical side once people
see that it is going to win. Science rewards successful critics,
and this self correcting mechanism is part of what has made science so
successful as an institution.

The real problem with abandoning science is that you will have no guide
to truth in our complex world. No one can become familiar with all of
the technical details relevant to the issues we face. By abandoning
science you are explicitly turning away from the people who have spent
their entire lives acquiring expertise in these areas.

jimf said...

Do you really think you are better able to weigh the many complexities
around, say, global warming than those who have devoted their careers to
studying the atmosphere and climate? Or similarly with other questions
like the safety of genetically engineered plants? Or even, yes, the
feasibility of nanotech?

I have an extreme belief in the importance of being open minded.
I've written at length about the dangers I see in ideologies, the way
they blind us and control our thoughts. I've been strongly influenced by
the results that Robin Hanson has reported and extended about the ways
we fool ourselves, how we don't really seek the truth even though we
think we do. I believe in seeking the truth. To the extent that I have
an ideology, that's it. I try to look for those mechanisms in my mind
that are operating to push me off the path to truth, and to compensate
for them as well as I can.

One of the principles I follow is that if I believe something that
mainstream science disagrees with, I am probably wrong. It's for the
reasons given above. I'm not smarter than those guys, at least not
the smartest ones of them. And their expertise in these areas is far
deeper than my own. Plus they have this incredibly complex and elaborate
process of modelling and testing and subjecting each others results to
intense criticism, while my uninformed notions on those topics undergo
no such rigorous trials.

The lesson I learned from Robin is that if I disagree with someone
else, it's an accident of history which position I ended up with.
I could have just as easily been in his shoes. Hence I should have
no presumption that I am probably right, when there is a disagreement.
Given this perspective, when I am going up against a scientific consensus,
the odds are overwhelming that the scientists are right and I am wrong.

It looks to me like these attitudes are the only appropriate ones to adopt
for someone who sincerely seeks the truth. We have to try to discard
or at least overcome our prejudices and egotistical belief in personal
correctness and superiority. We have to be willing to change our minds
when we come up against a situation where the experts disagree with us.

Without the guidance of the best advice and analysis available on a
subject, I would be concerned about being vulnerable to all kinds of
quackery and fraud. We have many crazy beliefs right on this list.
Some here refuse to accept the reality of global warming. Some believe in
psychic powers. Some reject the link between HIV and AIDS. Some believe
the universe is packed full of intelligent life. Some believe that Israel
caused the 9/11 attacks. Some believe in cold fusion. And that's not
even mentioning the whole complex of beliefs about the Singularity.

Rejecting science means rejecting the best and most successful institution
mankind has ever developed for finding out the truth about the world.
It puts you onto a dangerous path fraught with tempting falsehoods that
can lead you astray. As I suggested above, you better set aside money
for your membership in the Crackpot League, because that's where this
road ends.

Hal Finney

jimf said...

A couple more relevant quotes:

"[My] publisher said of somebody, 'That man will get on; he believes
in himself.' And I remember that as I lifted my head to listen, my
eye caught an omnibus on which was written 'Hanwell.' I said
to him, 'Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in
themselves? For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in
themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know
where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide
you to the thrones of the Super-men. The men who really
believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.' He said mildly
that there were a good many men after all who believed in
themselves and who were not in lunatic asylums. 'Yes, there are,'
I retorted, 'and you of all men ought to know them. That
drunken poet from whom you would not take a dreary tragedy,
he believed in himself. That elderly minister with an epic from
whom you were hiding in a back room, he believed in himself.
If you consulted your business experience instead of your
ugly individualistic philosophy, you would know that believing
in himself is one of the commonest signs of a rotter. Actors
who can't act believe in themselves; and debtors who won't
pay. It would be much truer to say that a man will certainly fail,
because he believes in himself. Complete self-confidence is not
merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness.
Believing utterly in one's self is a hysterical and superstitious belief
like believing in Joanna Southcote: the man who has it has
`Hanwell' written on his face as plain as it is written on that omnibus."

-- G. K. Chesterton, _Orthodoxy_,
Chapter 2, "The Maniac"

jimf said...

"If there are among my readers any young men or women who
aspire to become leaders of thought in their generation, I
hope they will avoid certain errors into which I fell in
youth for want of good advice. When I wished to form an
opinion upon a subject, I used to study it, weigh the
arguments on different sides, and attempt to reach a
balanced conclusion. I have since discovered that this
is not the way to do things. A man of genius knows
it all without the need of study; his opinions are
pontifical and depend for their persuasiveness upon
literary style rather than argument. It is necessary
to be one-sided, since this facilitates the vehemence
that is considered a proof of strength. It is essential
to appeal to prejudices and passions of which men
have begun to feel ashamed and to do this in the name
of some new ineffable ethic. It is well to decry the
slow and pettifogging minds which require evidence
in order to reach conclusions. Above all, whatever is
most ancient should be dished up as the very latest

There is no novelty in this recipe for genius; it
was practised by Carlyle in the time of our grandfathers,
and by Nietzsche in the time of our fathers, and it has
been practised in our own time by D. H. Lawrence. Lawrence
is considered by his disciples to have enunciated all
sorts of new wisdom about the relations of men and women;
in actual fact he has gone back to advocating the domination
of the male which one associates with the cave dwellers.
Woman exists, in his philosophy, only as something soft
and fat to rest the hero when he returns from his labours.
Civilised societies have been learning to see something more
than this in women; Lawrence will have nothing of civilisation.
He scours the world for what is ancient and dark and loves
the traces of Aztec cruelty in Mexico. Young men, who had
been learning to behave, naturally read him with delight and
go round practising cave-man stuff so far as the usages of
polite society will permit.

jimf said...

One of the most important elements of success in becoming
a man of genius is to learn the art of denunciation. You
must always denounce in such a way that your reader thinks
that it is the other fellow who is being denounced and not
himself; in that case he will be impressed by your noble
scorn, whereas if he thinks that it is himself that you
are denouncing, he will consider that you are guilty of
ill-bred peevishness. Carlyle remarked: ``The population
of England is twenty millions, mostly fools.'' Everybody
who read this considered himself one of the exceptions,
and therefore enjoyed the remark. You must not denounce
well-defined classes, such as persons with more than a
certain income, inhabitants of a certain area, or believers
in some definite creed; for if you do this, some readers
will know that your invective is directed against them.
You must denounce persons whose emotions are atrophied,
persons to whom only plodding study can reveal the truth,
for we all know that these are other people, and we
shall therefore view with sympathy your powerful diagnosis
of the evils of the age.

Ignore fact and reason, live entirely in the world of
your own fantastic and myth-producing passions; do this
whole-heartedly and with conviction, and you will become
one of the prophets of your age."

-- Bertrand Russell, "How to Become a Man of Genius",
28 December 1932

jimf said...

Interactive media and innovation guru Robert Tercek gave
an excellent talk at the HPlus Summit at Harvard this summer. . .

His presentation, titled “What Geeks Can Learn from Gurus,”
lays out the problem with trying to convince a public that has
already been inundated with years of poor imagery of techno-life.
Having worked with Tony Robbins and Oprah Winfrey, Tercek
offers a practical four step solution to the Singularity's
branding problem:

1. Make it Easy to Follow (Be Honest about Challenges)

2. Establish Rapport (No Jargon, No Freaks, No Weirdness)

3. Harness Emotional Energy (Appeal to Emotional Instinct, not Intellect)

4. Inspire Action (Talk About Today, Not Just the Future)

Well, Tony Robbins and Oprah Winfrey should know,
I guess.