Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Pants On Fire, part 1

(For new readers: to skip the chatty introduction, and get to the discussion on communication; skim down to the ----> ---> ----> --->)

The bug is hanging on, and besides making it difficult to eat or work, it's making my brain very foggy yet. So I'm going to share a bit of previous writing with you. This is an essay from Jan. 29, 2002; written mostly out of frustration. It's written in the style of a newspaper Op Ed piece, though I've never pursued publication- the odds looked too long. The piece itself is too long- almost 3000 words, so I'm going to split it into 2 installments here. And, not to bushwack anyone, it includes a small number of words (maybe 4) children are usually not encouraged to use. They are necessary, I think.

The topics are bang on many of our recent discussions, here and on other blogs in this vicinity- and the statements are some I've run into nowhere else. We are in trouble; as a world. A huge part of the reason is our inability to understand our problems, communicate them, and decide what to do about them. We REALLY have to do something about that- and you know what? There is no chance the "governments" CAN; nor the "universities". They can't; at this point. I'm wondering, though, if the blogosphere might not actually have a crack at it. Though it's pushing on icebergs, always. I'll put up part 2 tomorrow. Do note the date this was written- I would not be patting the USA on the back so much today.

Pants On Fire
Jan 29, 2002

It’s pretty obvious to everyone these days that we (as in us humans) are all walking on thin ice, in terms of keeping everything (as in Life, the Universe, and) going. To most of us, all we need is a new dose of headlines to once again bring us to the pellucid realization that all of Humankind is teetering on the brink of destruction. Or as our great grandparents would have more briefly put it, the world is going to hell in a handbasket.

And it is, too. List any area of human endeavor, and you will quickly come up against major problems. Enron. Global warming. AIDS. Terrorism, real and imaginary. Opportunists using terrorism, real and imaginary, to advance their own agendas. Creeping up on us all is the suspicion that the crowing televangelists are right. The end is near.

America is a great place. No doubt about it. What an amazing experiment we are. We still, in fact, are breaking new ground constantly, in terms of what humans can do by way of self-government. We do try, very hard. I had the luck a number of years ago to have a job that took me into the offices of Congressmen and Senators, and into intimate conversations with a number of them. Lots of intimate conversations with their staffers. Sure, there were the stereotype slimy politicos that we all scorn, those just there for the power and sex. But I also met a lot of very sincere “good people”- folks who were there because they wanted to try to make things work. Very impressive, they were, in the face of the daily struggle with the endless crap. And I think there were more of them than there were slimeballs.

Cynicism is easy, and gets easier day by day. The reasons “things” don’t work is that the people in charge really don’t give a damn about them, we hear.

But in fact, they do; many of them. There are good people, even now, trying their hardest to keep the fabric of our world from unraveling. You know some too.

So how come it all seems to keep sliding downhill?

Our whole governmental and societal experiment was set up by some astoundingly smart people. When you dig into their system of checks and balances, and what they wrote and thought about them, it’s clear that here were a group of thinkers completely familiar with the history of human frailty. They knew to an amazing degree just how it is that rulers go wrong, and they gave long hard thought to how to prevent it.

Giving us the United States of America. What a place. At the age of 200, it still, mostly, functions; mostly dealing out what most would agree is a better form of government, and higher standard of justice, than is usually available elsewhere. All things considered, we do a pretty good job.

Still. Things are not looking very good at the moment; our government is creaky to the point of being a major source of humor for the rest of the world, as they watch us in amazement. And our whole decision making process feels both like we don’t control it, and like whoever does, is doing a really lousy job of deciding what gets done and what doesn’t.

Somehow, for example, the whole country seems to be in paralysis as we watch our government move us cheerfully down the path toward building a brand new, improved, Maginot Line In Space. No one wants a “missile defense”- no one with any brain imagines it will work; and any cretin with 20 lbs of plutonium would obviously be much more likely to just walk into the Stock Exchange and spread it all over as dust, instantly rendering New York uninhabitable for 10,000 years, rather than hope the 30 year old rocket he can buy would actually work. It’s obvious to the entire world that our New Maginot Line is to be built so that billions can be paid to defense contractor executives so they can build stuff that will never have to be used (apart from their new swimming pools and yachts)- and somehow we are all frozen in the headlights.... where is the voice, any voice, of serious opposition to this moronic undertaking? The paralysis itself is paralyzing.

 ----> ---> ----> --->

We stand here stupefied. How and where did our joint decision making process go so wrong?

As it happens, I am intimately familiar with another case in point, and I can see quite clearly how it went wrong. Yes, I’d be delighted to share it with you; I thought you’d never ask.

It’s Global Warming; a Really Big Problem. Is it real? Oh, please. Of course it is, how can you not see, understand, and get it? Yes. It’s real. And yes, we’re in deep shit.

It has been obvious for decades. Literally. I have been an invited speaker at 3 major international Global Warming conferences, in 1988 and 1989, kind of at the outset of “large discussion” of the problem; and again in 2002. Our decision making process has been basically motionless, the whole time.

Here’s why.

We rely, in the age of science, on scientific “opinion” to guide our deliberations. If you want to do the right thing, you have to ask the people who know what’s true. Your senator has more than one staffer whose main job is to get good scientific input.

But, actually, it doesn’t work that way. In truth, we rely on scientific opinion, as reported; by reporters. That’s what we vote by, and call our senators by.

No, I don’t think reporters are bad, or stupid; nor are the scientists. I wish it were that simple. Mencken comes to mind; “There's always an easy solution to every human problem -- neat, plausible, and wrong.”

This ISN’T simple, so pay attention. We’re all supposed to be big boys and girls now, and a little complexity past 2 + 2 shouldn’t scare us.

I grew up exposed to tremendous language differences. So quite early, I noticed that not all people who think they are speaking the same language, actually are. The seminal experience came when I was moved, at the age of 6, from Boston to Cherry Point, North Carolina; and at my first recess, on the playground, one of my new classmates approached me purposefully, placed his nose within 2 inches of mine, and demanded forcefully “Rrryewayangeerrrareb?” *

He was obviously utterly serious, and I had no idea, none, zero, zip, what he had said, or what he was talking about. As I puzzled about it over the years, it became clear to me that not only did I not comprehend the word, but the concepts within were a blank also; I had never heard of a Yankee, nor a Reb, nor had I any comprehension of their relationship. But it was all of the highest importance to my classmate. We did not become friends. The experience was useful when we next moved to Guam, and my classmates did not have English as their mother tongue.

And I was put on my guard about how remarkably common it is for humans to speak to each other, hold what passes for a conversation, and leave the conversation reasonably satisfied; but with no information having changed hands.

Scientists, journalists, “policy makers”, and the general public, are doing this now, big time. More than when our governmental guidebook was conceived.

Scientists, journalists, “policy makers”, and the general public do not, in fact, speak the same languages; and they do not know it. We need interpreters, and have none; don’t even know we need them. Sure, we have “science writers”- sorry, but it’s not enough; not even close. The technical jargons of different specialities have diverged to the point where they are genuinely different languages.

 To make it more confusing, most of our scientists actually believe they speak English. But they don’t. I am dead serious about this.

So, we’re at this big meeting on “climate change”, aka global warming. It’s 1988, earlyish in this discussion. All the climate modelers are there, talking about their models; all the reporters are there, listening to the scientists give their reports.

The scientists say; “The data are not yet conclusive; though the indications are strong, and point out the need for more study.”

The reporters, and congressional staffers, report that the scientists aren’t sure about what is going on, and want more study. Now there’s a headline.

I was there. Been there, saw and heard that. And neither scientists nor journalists nor staffers realized that they did not understand the conversation, simple as it appears.

Both scientist and journalist are victims of their professional training, which in both cases is designed to produce the most “truth”. But alas, unbeknownst to the noncommunicants, their operating definitions of “truth” are entirely different.

Both scientist and journalist are thoroughly professional; and it is professional suicide to speak, in public, using definitions of words that differ from their professional standard.

What very few layfolk know is that scientists have hammered into them a spectacularly rigid and demanding definition of “true” that no one else in the world uses. A thing is “true” if, and ONLY if, you can say so with a mathematically calculated probability greater than 95%. And if you can’t quantify and calculate it, don’t even think about it.

Ah, if only we could look at our politicians, and know that there were a 95% chance they were telling us the truth. In the real world, we’re used to judging the veracity of our leaders knowing at best we can give them a 60% chance. God, I’d love a politician I could believe 50% of the time.

So, what was really going on in 1988 was that the climate data the scientists were looking at, with huge variables, was only giving them mathematical “certainty levels” of around 85%. So, there’s an 85% chance, that this climate bobble is due to “real” global changes. Only 85%. The journalist hears “well, the data aren’t conclusive yet, but it’s interesting”, because scientists will be defrocked if they state in public that something is probably true, when the probability is less than 95%. You think I’m kidding? Ask a scientist.

The congressional staffer goes back, and says, well, they’re not sure yet. Hard to move decisively on that.

If any of us went to Atlantic City, and were given the chance to bet on a game where the chances of winning were “only” 85%, what would we do?

You and I both know; we’d bet the farm, and the wife and kids; you’re never going to get that close to a sure thing again.

The next layer of this onion is that the journalists also have a professional standard that turns out to be a catastrophe for truthseekers. Journalists are taught always, always, to provide a balanced report.

So they go to the meeting; a bunch of scientists are looking VERY worried, because they personally would bet exactly the same way you and I would in Atlantic City, and the journalist says, “hm, what does the opposition say?” And they look for contrarian scientists. Of course, they find them.

What shows up in the newspaper is that “some scientists are worried, but not sure”, and “other scientists say the first guys are full of crap.” This is very satisfying for a lot of journalists, who don’t want global warming to be true any more than the rest of us do, don’t like those smart ass science guys much anyway, and are glad they can’t agree on anything, and we’re given a lovely, balanced report, with all views represented.

What they failed to report, in 1988, was that only, say, 85% of the scientists were in total agreement that we were/are in deep shit (but not sure) and only 15% of appropriate scientists were in the contrarian position. (Incidentally, it’s only about 5% in the contrary position today.)

They also cannot point out, because of libel laws and professional courtesy, that most of that 15% of naysayers were professional assholes.

Oddly, universities frown on professors calling each other names like that, or telling truths like that. But we’ve all met them. In every college department, there’s the prof who got there more out of perseverance than brilliance; is pissed off at the world that they’re not really very bright, and have discovered that they can get lots of people to listen to them if they just stand up and say “BULL!” from time to time. These types are inescapable and ubiquitous.

The real equation, in 1988, was that 85% of the scientists who studied the problem were 85% sure we were heading for horrifyingly serious problems, and the majority of their opposition were known fools.

I do not think the journalists understood that.

And what they reported was: no one is sure, and Dr. Billy, a colorful contrarian, says “BULL!”.

I would like to think that our Congress, if given the actual information that almost all sound scientists agreed the trouble was real, would have started taking some kind of action about it all.

Fool that I am.

That, in fact, is what the scientists were saying- "we're in very big, very serious trouble, and need to do something about it now." But they were completely unable to communicate that to anyone- except other scientists.


*"Are you a Yankee, or a Reb?" inquiring whether I considered myself a part of the North, or the South, in the US Civil War (1861-1865). Our readers not from the USA may be surprised to learn that the "North" is under the impression this war is over, but many in the South still do not accept that idea.


etbnc said...

This damyankee (one who stayed!) looks forward to part 2.

This post reminds me of the frustration I feel while I watch the contortions folks go through when they wrestle with these ideas over at ScienceBlogs. Chris Mooney's blog, The Intersection, tries to cover some of this territory. It's a worthy effort, but painful for me to watch, let alone participate.

You wrote, "It's been obvious for decades." Are you suggesting we should have paid attention to all those warning signs that said, Road Closed, Bridge Out? Are you suggesting that speeding past numerous warnings might somehow be just a little bit reckless? What a crazy idea!

Take care, let your immune system do its work, and we'll see you at part 2.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your article and I agree, as a person with a degree in biology, that your conclusions about mis-communication is correct. In science, you have hypothesis, but you almost never, ever say something is definitive because scientifically, there is always a possibility that might not have been considered.

However, as a southern state reader, I have to beg to differ with your opinion considering what people from the north may believe concerning the end of the Civil War. I can't tell you the number of "lectures" I have received from people from the North about segregation, slavery, etc. To which I always listen politely and then I ask, "Ever shared a coke (coca-cola) with a person of another color? Ever spent the night at their home? Eaten supper with them? Shared a room at college with them? Ridden in a car with them?" - and the answer is almost always no. So, while I know this wasn't the focus of the entry, I felt like I needed to make this point. Very few people that I know are busy fighting the war again and again - I'm sure that there are a few. I'm equally sure that there are a few people in the North, busy deriding folks from the South, with little knowledge of how people in the South actually live. Perhaps these two situations are not so different, mistakes have been made in the past, there has been mis-communication and assumptions about what other people are saying, but it doesn't mean that there hasn't been change and that today is the same as a few decades ago in South Carolina.

I like what you have to say, Greenpa, about the environment and I respect your right to say what you want on your blog - I just hate for prejudice (any prejudice) to be fostered.


Greenpa said...

Elizabeth- you are correct, and I was probably a little out of line. My only excuse is that my attitude in this case was partly that of the somewhat frightened 6 year old. There is plenty of prejudice in the north, to be sure. Still- I do find the number of Confederate flags in the South more than a little disturbing, as do most northerners, and many of my black friends. And it's pretty creepy to enter a place of business and be greeted by gorgeous framed portraits of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. So I stand by some of what I said- but I also agree that fostering any prejudice is a seriously bad and stupid idea. My college roommate, from Atlanta, would totally agree with us both- probably; he got along with everyone. I do apologize for any wrongheaded directions I may have hit there.

Christy said...

As a PhD scientist I can tell you you are dead on with the way scientist talk. You can never say anything is certain in science even if you are damn sure it is.

Christy said...

About the north/south thing, I think there is some truth to what greenpa said. Virginia converted Martin Luther King day to Lee/Jackson/King day (As in Robert E and Stonewall). What does this say about where their thinking is?

OK, I just looked it up and they separated the days from each other recently.

Hank Roberts said...

Chuckle. I remember being woken up at 4 am one morning, on a camping trip on the road in Tennessee, because the fellow student driving the truck, a Yankee, had gotten low on gas, pulled into a station, and the guy at the pumps (yes, this was long ago, they used to have people there who filled the car for you) was saying:
and waving the hose at the driver.

The driver couldn't parse that, and once I did, couldn't understand it.

"Fill her up?"

"Yeah. Her. The truck. Just say 'yup' and when you pay, say 'thank you sir.'"

Anonymous said...

From Nobel prize winner (Literature, 1980) Czeslaw Milozs
"When someone is honestly 55% right, that's very good and there is no use wranggling. And if someone is 60% right, it's wonderful, it's great luck, and let him thank God. But what is too be said about 75% right? Wise people say this is suspicious. Well, what about 100% right? Whoever says he is 100% right is a fanatic, a thug, the worst kind of rascal."

Milosz spends his book "the Captive Mind" trying to explain why Communism was so tempting to post-WWII poles, and winds up arguing that it is in large part a failure of our concept of "truth." A system where things come in bivalent "true" and "false" instead of hundreds of complex fine-grained "sorta"s leds itself to a kind of political hubris. Our notion of what we mean by the term truth are so screwed up and the scientist/journalist miscommunication is the tip of the iceberg. Philosophers have still different notions, as does the legal system, as does the education system. And other languages often have no equivalent of the English word truth, but do the same kinds of work with 3 or 4 unrelated words and concepts.

And even then the meanings and cultures are changing. If you've never read Harry Frankfort's brilliant little book (about 100 pages) "On Bullshit" treat yourself to it. Its an argument on why bullshitting, as opposed to both telling the truth, and lying, is a growing problem.
-Brian M.

Anonymous said...

Oh also on the north south bit. Confederate flags, reb vs. yank, and slavery were all much bigger issues when I lived in Idaho than when I lived in Alabama. Indeed, in some ways even southern Indiana makes a bigger deal of it than Alabama did. That whole mess is still simmering in the American psyche, but I don't think it has anything like the same geographic shape it once did. Heck, I'd bet confederate flags per capita, have a stronger rural/urban difference than north/south difference these days. And there is a huge difference in confederate flags on display between Bloomington, Martinsville, and Terre Haute, 3 mid-sized towns in southern Indiana, and the motives for doing so are quite different.
-Brian M.

Greenpa said...

Brian M - I'll certainly look up Frankfort's work, sounds fun. I'f acutely aware that the scientist/journalist disconnect is only the tip of the iceberg- I was trying to not overwhelm the readers, and also hoping the narrow focus could lead to some kind of ACTION potential.

My old vegan interns, the academically brilliant machine killers, had actually seriously arrived at a point where they BELIEVED there IS NO SUCH THING as "truth".

Long conversations! Where it comes to for me is- rather than use the word truth at all, the question is "is there such a thing as objective reality?" And there, for me, the answer is yes. It's what scientists strive to describe. Can I SEE it? Now that's a good question, as is "can I describe it?" - but does it EXIST? yes, I think it does.

It seems to me this whole area ought to be the purview of Philosophy - and my impression is that at the moment, the discussion is mostly neglected. I think Philosophers could really help here; just by setting up courses that describe all these different definitions, descriptions, usages, - and failures; like the bridge that fell down, and our ability to ignore global warming.

First action item- start and formalize the discussion! I could well be mistaken to think it's not going on; but if it IS, some people who need to be taking part in it are unaware; I guarantee you, 99% of PhD "Scientists" are NOT AWARE that they do not speak the same language as the rest of us. They'll even get offended if you try to talk about it.

I think it's a big part of our mess. Can we get you to start offering a course in "Truth"? :-) Personally, I'd think that would be a huge hoot.

Greenpa said...

Brian M on the Civil War- sure, I'm aware of some of the differences, at least. Didn't mean for that to trigger so much response! Seems to me a kind of affirmation of my original observation, which was just supposed to be that a bunch of folks still spend time worrying about the rights and wrongs; while other bunches are pretty astonished to discover that anyone still cares. It's fascinating; but not something I intend to "do" much about. :-)

Greenpa said...

Czeslaw Milozs ' observations seem to me to be very similar to the Chinese "The man who speaks does not know; the man who knows, does not speak". Highly pithy, and with slight variations I think attributed both to Confucius and Lao Tzu.

My own translation for modern times "Smart-aleck whippersnappers are sure they do indeed know it all; experienced, careful observers quickly learn they know very little."

Anonymous said...

Philosophers have been diligently, seriously working on the problems of "truth" for the whole 20th century, it has DEFINATELY NOT been neglected. The problem is closer to the opposite, we work on it but our results are incomprehensible. Anyone who spends a couple days thinking seriously about it, and browses what other smart thinkers have said, comes to realize that it is a huge mess. Wikipedia, for example, classifies contemporary theories of truth into 8 main categories, plus several idiosyncratic thinkers, and the major world religions! And that's not a bad summary.

Its like quantum physics or economics. The facts of the matter are barely comprehensible, and still quite complex. Any simplification looks like it does a disservice and will land us back in the same mess, or an even weirder one. And its not really all one problem either, but several.

1) What's reality like? (objective? Subjective? both? Mostly objectively with little bits of subjectivity here and there? Something totally different that objects or subjects?)

2) How does putting things into words work?

3) When does a set of words get to count as "true"?

4) When should humans consider a set of words to count as "true"? (as you noted scientists often figure 95% confidence intervals are good enough, so a genuinely false claim might be treated by humans as true because its in the 95% confidence interval, or a genuinely true one, treated as "undetermined" by humans, because it isn't in the 95% interval yet, and the scientific choice on question #4 is not at all the only one. Essentially, it is easy and tempting to blur the metaphysical issue and the epistemic one.)

5) How do we cope with the notion of "truth" within the logic system that we've been using more or less since Aristotle, and requires that all declarative statements be either true or false (and not both, or partly true, or "undetermined" or other notions we use all the time anyway, even though our decrepit old logical infrastructure can't cope with them, despite a couple of 20th century patch jobs!)

I tried to do a little bit of truth theory in one of my classes and it all went over their heads. Maybe I'll work up another brief Truth-theory power-point. As you say, tying the ultra-abstract issues to real-world problems will probably help. I've written a fair bit on truth subjects.

Also I don't think Milosz just means "Be humble about claiming knowledge" but also "even when you know what you are talking about, you are unlikely to be able to get it into words perfectly; your words will be a mixture of truth and error, even if you really do know!" And unlike the Chinese his answer ISN'T "say little," or "don't speak." But "say it anyway and hope that 60% right and 40% wrong is good enough." No scientist thinks they know it all, but they do often think they know a few specific claims to 95% true or more, and (worse) that they can communicate this knowledge via careful claims, at better than 60% right/40% wrong transmission rates.

-Brian M.

Greenpa said...

Brian - :-) I think you and I have a little bit of the language problem I was raising here- you are a trained philospher; I am a trained scientist. My guess is you'd agree we're different. A rude scientist I know puts it this way - "Philosophy has nothing to do with answers. It's never come up with ONE. It's about questions. That's useful, to be sure. But if you want answers; you'd better be looking to science. "

In the present case; " The problem is closer to the opposite, we work on it but our results are incomprehensible. "

- you're talking about more than a century of hard work, extensive discussion, and no progress. I'd have to suggest that's a powerful indication you're not asking the right questions, somehow. And that's really what I meant by "neglected" - there needs to be a concentrated effort to break out of the circles; and that's what I don't see.

I'd point out, before you take too much umbrage, that Big Science does exactly this also. Ever hear of the Cancer Industry? Billions. "We're working night and day for a cure! We're making progress!" etc, etc. Step back and take a look- they still can't agree on a definition; or a cause; and there has been only tiny "progress" - and only if you really want to believe it. People now live 4 years after diagnosis, instead of 2. Whoopee. (yes yes, it makes a difference for those affected; my mother went this way, I know about it.)

But they're locked into it- huge investments in present directions and processes; monetary, professional, and emotional.

Breaking that kind of deadlock is incredibly difficult - but - we remember those people wh manage it forever. Pasteur comes to mind immediately; Copernicus, Darwin.

Incredibly hard to do; probably only possible when you're young- but worth it. :-)

Greenpa said...

Oh, and; about the Chinese proverb there-

"Also I don't think Milosz just means "Be humble about claiming knowledge" '

I didn't get that from the proverb really at all. Chinese sayings are seriously tricky to translate; perhaps impossible. They're always layered; like 5 layers deep, with alternate and conflicting and complementary meanings intended to make you think; sometimes only comprehensible when you're looking at the written characters; which convey much more than the spoken version.

I think most of what you're saying is contained in the Chinese version- and more. :-)

(No, I don't read Mandarin- well, not much. Just enough to realize and have my teachers yell at me.)

Anonymous said...

Sigh, Now we have to have some science vs. philosophy fights. I am at a school that is in the process of eliminating philosophy, so I am a little sensitive on these points, but I do feel the need to defend my discipline a bit.

1) "Philosophy is not about answers it has never come up with ONE." - Not even close to true. Its just that when we come up with one we stop fighting about that, and usually forget the issue. People simply rarely remember when we come up with answers. In fact, when we come up with nice clear answers, people habitually give a new name to that area and it spins off from philosophy. "Science" is a very new invention, less than 2 centuries old (long after the enlightenment), before that everything we call "science" today, was called "Natural Philosophy" and was considered a branch of philosophy. Much of math, and logic, and computer science was done by people who were called philosophers at the time, and only called mathematicians or or computer scientists in retrospect. I don't think what philosophers and scientists do is all that different. I'm old fashioned enough to think that science is basically a successful, well-funded branch of philosophy. Heck, scientists even get Ph. D.s, doctorates in philosophy.

2) "If you want answers; you'd better be looking to science." Again NO! Science doesn't give answers either. It gives data, and "our-best-guess-so-far-based-on-this-data." Science often makes progress by getting closer and closer to an answer, but it never actually gives answers! Even then science often progresses non-monotonically, that is in fits and starts, sometimes getting closer and sometimes further away, because that's how the-best-guess-from-this-data works. Science is like police investigation, or medical prognosis in that respect. If you want answers, you need to got to a political authority, someone with the power to say this is what counts as an answer here. Teachers have answers, not because they necessarily know, but because they have the power to enforce what counts as an answer. Police give our-data-and-best-guesses-based-on-them, and judges and juries turn them into rulings, answers. Scientists give our-data-and-best-guesses-based-on-them, and teachers turn them into correct answers on multiple choice questions, while politicians turn them into policies. Philosophers too, for what it is worth, regularly give our-data-and-best-guesses-based-on-them. Sometimes we reach levels of consensus comparable to science. The real difference, is that natural philosophers (scientists) have focused on expanding consensus for the last couple centuries, and other kinds of philosophers tend to focus on areas without much consensus.

3) "Your talking about over a century of hard work, extensive discussions, and no progress." NO! We've made progress. Lots of progress. We don't have a consensus, or anything close but that doesn't mean we haven't made lots of progress. Heck, Godel proved Godel's incompleteness theorem, one of the most beautiful and impressive results in all of mathematics, and pretty much completely killed logicism, which looked like a very plausible story before him. We have a solid consensus that logicism isn't how truth works now, and a hard-core proof to go with it. Eliminating a sane, tempting, but wrong answer IS progress. And that is just one example. Consider Heidegger's work on alethia. Or Davidson's on satisfaction vs correspondence. Or Graham Priests on paraconsistence. If I said the goal of physics was to give a complete list of the law-like regularities of physical objects, and characterized the 20th century as lots of hard work, discussions, and no progress a physicist would jump down my throat. The standard model is surely not the final story, and there is nothing like consensus on how to interpret the quantum results. Many Worlds vs Copenhagen Vs Statistical VS Consistent Histories etc, is a classic case of non-consensus, of the kind that used to be the norm throughout the natural sciences, and still is today in other areas of philosophy. But that doesn't mean physics hasn't made any progress. Cancer treatment too makes progress, just perhaps not as quickly as you would like. And for basically the same reason as in the truth case. Not all cancer works the same way. We have a single word, but dozens of different underlying situations. The situation is complex. On some kinds of cancer the progress is phenomenal, on some kinds barely any progress at all, on cancer-as-a-whole? Still fighting definitions and causes because cancer-as-a-whole probably isn't even a very helpful category.

4) "Neglected - there needs to be a concentrated effort to break out of the circles" - That's talk about what philosophers of science call paradigm shift, and Lakatos talks about in terms of the difference between progressive and degenerate research programs. Sometimes the problem is an overweaming orthodoxy that won't let the new idea come through (as in Pasteur's case), but sometimes the problem is the lack of a coherent new picture to replace the old, (think of pre-Linnaean taxonomy). It's not like there is some radically better way to think about cancer that is being suppressed by the old gaurd at the moment. It's not a matter of breaking out of circle, as much as trying to come up with a new way to think about it. In logic, there is an oppressive old-gaurd paradigm that is deeply screwed up (called classical logic). And it needs to be rejected for at least a dozen reasons. But none of its competitors have succeeded in replacing it. Indeed, part of the problem, is that the newer pictures, fix this problem, or that one, but none yet devised fixes most of them at once. Logic has both problems, an oppressive old-picture, and a lack of a coherent new one. If anyone ever came up with a logical system that fixed most of classical logic's problems at once, that would certainly by a historical breakthrough. I'm working on it, but I don't have a good picture yet. Have you got a suggestion for re-thinking truth-theory, or are you just trying to tell me, "think of something better faster!" Because if so, I'll just reply, "harvest your produce faster!" I'm working on it, I'm working on it. And let's look at Copernicus, Pasteur, and Darwin. Copernicus didn't invent Heliocentrism, or develop new evidence or arguments. When new evidence started coming in over half a century later supporting Heliocentrism, Copernicus was just the most recent Heliocentrist people remembered. Pasteur likewise did not invent the germ theory or develop it much. What he did was provide lots of new experimental evidence for it. Darwin too, was not working with a particularly novel theory, but he did develop it in some novel directions, and worked hard on the arguments for it. In each case, much of the theoretical work was done earlier by people who are barely remembered today, and the big-names, just happen to be the one remembered when things tipped. Truth Theory, needs a Lamarck, a Herschel and a Grant, before we can get as far as a Darwin.

-Brian M.

Greenpa said...

Brian- I hope I'm not driving you too crazy. I'm assuming, partly, that as a philosopher you're used to vigorous conversation. :-)

YOU on the other hand ARE driving me crazy; I love your responses, but your comments make me want to really discuss it all with you- and I just blinking can't here/now.

I get the strong impression we would both enjoy a good long talk.

"Have you got a suggestion for re-thinking truth-theory" - :-) would you believe me if I said "maybe"? That would really need a face-to-face.

You'll probably get a kick out of the fact that my son aka - Beelar is here right now helping with harvest; and our biggest problem is that we keep getting sidetracked by long heavy philosophical discussions- not science-

wish you were here! :-)

Anonymous said...

Hi Greenpa:

I've been reading your blog for a few months and this is the first time I'm commenting (I'm a bit shy).

Slowly I've become increasingly aware of the human capacity to endanger themselves. After reading "The Party's Over" and "The Worst Hard Time", I started to become increasingly angry at everything and everyone. And very frustrated. Mainly because friends that I consider very intelligent thought my attempts at saving (or rather not wrecking the planet) was useless and/or funny. That infuriated me even more. I think I am a generally cheery person, but I am changing so much that I kept hoping others would too. I don't seem to have any faith in the so called human spirit. I am convinced that I am surrounded by idiots (as I'm sure they think I am one of the many downers who can't live a little).



polar cities, google the term

email me at danbloom gmail


Hi Greenpa, you are Greenpa of the Dot earth blog, right? i just made the connection. COOL!

Clif Brown said...

In your post you rightfully praised the founders of the United States. As I read it, I thought of what distinguished those folks - they were steeped in classical education, the liberal arts that are now derided as being worthless for earning a living.

It was because the founders had such a broad and deep knowledge of history that they were able to understand what had worked, what had not worked, what had been tried and what might be tried in government. Though they were typical of the age in being very curious and scientifically minded, it was their knowledge of the historical behavior of societies and government that informed the genius that gave us ours.

Needless to say, they would be very alarmed at the way things are today. The ship is listing badly and we need all hands on deck to right it.

Anonymous said...

Your comments on speaking different languages reminds me of when I used to work in a large organization and the dynamics of the place swirled around the head destructive asshole. At some point I realized how utterly devalued was the very concept of truth - actually, there was little concept of "truth". Value sprang from being able to survive politically/emotionally, and the language used, and the outlooks of the people, reflected that reality and those values. In order not to be swallowed up whole in this daily reality I would read Plato to keep some sanity and recover the concept of "truth".