Skip to comments.The Science of Ignorance
Posted on 06/24/2012 9:26:52 PM PDT by neverdem
The first attempt to formalize the study of ignorance came recently with historian Robert Proctor of Stanford University who coined the neologism "Agnotology" to describe what he believed to be culturally produced ignorance. His purpose was to expose junk science used by tobacco companies. Proctor's best contribution may be rhetorical, however. Science has lots of junk in the trunk, as do many other disciplines. Where method masks error, historic examples are legion.
Phrenology, graphology, and astrology were all, at one time, considered sciences. And reason or precedent is often used to promote falsehoods. Even Galileo capitulated when confronted with the received wisdom of the church. Luther and Calvin promoted predestination, the devil's influence, and anti-Semitism at the expense of reason, choice, and free will. Edison clung to direct current long after the advantages of Tesla's alternating current was known. William Randolph Hearst promoted the errors of National Socialism until Kristallnacht. And like a politician, Einstein was for nuclear weapons much longer than he was against them. Alas, Bob Proctor seems to be more concerned with the willful misuse use of science or method, rather than the study of the vice and virtue of ignorance
That vacuum was filled, in part, recently by Stuart Firestein at Columbia University, who now attempts to explain the large scientific role of ignorance in a small book. If brevity is the soul of wit, Firestein hits the mark. He criticizes the traditional brick building, or hypothesis based, approach to science and recommends more metaphors, more questions -- and more humility. Socratic nostalgia is not novel, but any use of metaphors or modesty is sure to annoy empiricists. With artistic aplomb, Firestein invokes the metaphorical black cat in a dark room.
When or if we turn on the lights, we often find that there are no...
(Excerpt) Read more at americanthinker.com ...
Ignorance has been institutionalized as a national desideratum for years.
Fed Dept of Ed anyone?
I think we have watched the Graph of Average IQ go from a BELL CURVE to more of a HOCKEY STICK.
One word: “irony”.
Inductive “logic” is to Western Civilization as a chain saw is to a day care.
Decades ago, the best and brightest entered higher learning which kept the standards high.
Now......not so much.
“Everyone should have a college education”...the mantra of the ignorant.
>> Edison clung to direct current long after the advantages of Tesla’s alternating current was known.
As if to suggest he was an idiot for doing so.
Whatever, Donovan. The art of discovery is inevitably a factor of dogged ignorance.
Hail the wisdom of the beneficiaries... /s
Methinks Galileo capitulated when confronted with the prospect of being burned at the stake.
Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing Ones Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Selected Article © 1999 by the American Psychological Association For personal use onlynot for distribution December 1999 Vol. 77, No. 6, 1121-1134
He doesn't mean the junk science of second hand smoke. That's funny.
In those days, even Galileo couldn't, and wouldn't, survive religious "wisdom." Neither could Joan of Arc.
Galileo didn't capitulate. He promised the bishops that he wouldn't publish anything controversial for a certain period of time.
Then he published a book saying that tides are caused by the earth spinning. He didn't believe that the moon's gravity caused tides in spite of the evidence.
Edison was half quirkiness, half tech genius. Doggedness helped him formulate the best light bulb filament possible with the technology of the time. Only when tungsten became feasible was it beat. But he was fighting the laws of physics with his visions of a DC power distribution system. AC yielded the option of being able to distribute the same power with less loss, and being able to stabilize end user voltages whether near or far. Since Tesla also had quirky, quixotic visions that had nothing to do with what we know as the engineering advantages of AC — like transmission of power for free through the air — this could have complicated Edison’s perceptions.
This guy’s problem is confusing political science, social science and economics with science. These disciplines use scientific tools, but they address problems unsuited to solutions with the rigor typically associated with the “hard sciences” or what we know of as the traditional physical sciences.
Too many disciplines suffer from “paradigm envy” in relation to the “hard sciences” - they think if they can master statistics and other traditional scientific tools they can make conclusions as definitive and consequential as those associated with physics and chemistry. But they’re generally operating with data which is tangled up with enormous error bars and numerous confounders - and it’s in that sense that they need a good bit more humility.
That may be true for many (most?) students who drive up phenomenal amounts of debt to earn degrees in fields of questionable value. For those who are handsomely paid to deliver those degrees, not so much. In fact, some highly intelligent people have learned it's easier to peddle snake oil to naive young minds than to earn a living the old fashioned way.
I don't mean to insult all knowledge peddlers and administrators in the education market. There are some outstanding teachers out there who disperse information of real economic value. Unfortunately, there's no shortage of others delivering pablum like it was manna from Heaven. Even worse, there are the far more numerous education bureaucrats hanging onto the system for all it's worth.
Plus, it only follows that after you've been snookered out of a lot of money for a piece of paper in a field that doesn't really need it, you tend to demand that same paper from anyone else who wants a job. You're not likely to let someone get a “free” ride when you had to pay your dues, so to speak.
I see jobs that require college degrees all the time, but many could be easily performed by high school graduates after a bit of on the job training. The degree is simply a ticket, in some cases, to getting your foot in the door.
When the SHTF, a lot of people are going to be in sorry shape. Unless one can eat 8 1/2” x 11”, it might be far better to know a trade, like plumbing or farming.
“Any inquiry might be the search for a better metaphor. Indeed, what we often think of as “fictional” often does a better job with facts. There may be more truth in a single poem, play, or novel than might be found in a thousand tedious scientific papers; which probably explains why good art has so many repeat customers.”
I have trouble with this. Start down this path and you get I, Rigoberta Menchu (sp?), a falsified left-wing screed posing as a true story but known to be false and still taught in colleges because it is true in spirit.
Science may be tedious. But if done properly can reveal actual truths about the stuff we live in.
Completely agree. And he acknowledged the hack he was. Edison largely attributed his success to perseverance; something any craftsman, engineer, artist, writer, etc. would understand.
Those were both glorious and sacrificial years. Plenty of controversy, and second guessing, but here we are enjoying the spoils...
Good to hear from ya’, FRiend.
Thanks. I've met a lot of those confident incompetents.
We have one as president.
"There probably is more truth in a single experiment, scientific paper, construction project, surgical procedure, or circuit board than might be found in a thousand tedious poems or essays; which probably explains why good science and engineering has so many repeat customers."
But not in good poems and essays.
There are far more important and profound truths to be found in the writings of Aristotle, Aquinas and Shakespeare, than in any bridge construction project, says this formally trained engineer.
Furthermore, the natural sciences are based on a philosophical system outside the scope of what we call “science.”
Finally, it was the dogmatic teaching of the Catholic Church (specifically, the dogma of “creation from nothing”), that birthed science in the West.
"Luther and Calvin promoted predestination, the devil's influence, and anti-Semitism at the expense of reason, choice, and free will."There are enough theological, philosophical and epistemological errors in that statement by itself to prove that G. Murphy Donovan himself does not know what he does not know.
I agree with your post, but physics has also descended into unrigorous assertions, esp. in the climate thing.
It's a pdf but my Firefox 9 had no trouble opening it up.
It's a very important lecture on "consensus" in science and he does mention how it worked in the second-hand-smoke junk science debacle.
By diving as a non-expert into the subject of theology and doing a drive-by shooting, he certainly opens himself up to much flak. There is so much nuance in theology. He should hardly preach about ignoramuses.
Most modern web browsers know how to open common PDF viewers. Mine opened Adobe Reader in a browser frame.
Speaking of “tedious” I don’t know if I’m the only engineering student who found it droll that in the calculus of the thermodynamics of engines, one literally speaks of T*dS work. (Temperature on absolute scale multiplied by differential increment in entropy.) Did someone come up with S to stand for entropy just to produce that pun???
You’re absolutely correct about the whole “climate change / global warming” crap, but that’s because the emphasis there is political (”consensus”) rather than scientific.
Global climate is actually a really interesting field because it’s so doggone complex - everything from cosmic rays (which operate at the atomic level) to the earth’s albedo (which operates at the scale of the size of continents), as well as dozens of things in between influence global climate and its dynamics. Physicists should be having decades of fun trying to sort out all this stuff, because it’s just so complicated.
But the current debate has been dominated by politics, even in the professional scientific societies, like the American Chemical Society and the American Physical Society.
And that should be the key point - keep the science and the politics as much separated from each other as possible; failing to do so will just destroy what credibility the physical sciences have earned over the past couple of centuries.
And by the way, I’m not one of those folks who think science is the be all and end all of human endeavors; it does what it does exceptionally well, but it has limited value in dealing with most of the most important questions human’s face (like “why are we here?” and “how should we live?”).
And 'string theory'.
It's not even wrong.
However, the problem is that the direct, 'bare' effect of CO2 can be calculated, but there is considerable uncertainty in the net effect when feedback effects are included.
The climate modelers assume a large positive feedback, because it suits their purposes, but it could be negative, thereby reducing the effect of CO2 well below the levels assumed by the AGW activists/'scientists'. A small temperature increase can increase the humidity, thereby adding water-vapor effects to the CO2 effect, but the increased humidity can also increase cloud-cover which blocks the sun and thus reduces the effect.
No-one knows whether it is positive or negative, but the best guess IMO is that the feedback is NEGATIVE in the tropics and positive near the poles. This would give a net negative effect since most of the outward IR radiation is coming from the warmest regions of the globe.
Agreed. Which is why I kept his original modifier "tedious."
Sounds like a good explanation instead of just saying they ran out of letters to use as symbols. Just like 'p' for momentum.
I tell people they picked 'p' since it was first used to find the momentum of a stream of urine. Especially useful if you REALLY have to go.
Another geek oddity in physics is that "mass = rho v" but not Mass times Wade does not equal Roe v. Wade.
Oops. Got an extra “not” in there.
Thanks for the links.
Pournelle calls these the Voodoo Sciences and largely agrees with you. He first well-addressed the issue almost 25 years ago.
Worthwhile reading. A good thing to have in your pocket should someone trot out a Voodoo “Scientist” to support his agenda.
We have a real problem in that agenda-driven “Science” is pushing real hard Sciences into being more like the Voodoo Sciences. I am thinking specifically of Anthropogenic Global Warming. I have been saying for some time that the worst result of the AGW mongers is the damage their whole program is doing to real Science. Consensus is not Science no matter how many times it is proclaimed thus.
Another problem that political science, social science and economics face is isolating a single variable. They can’t come up with a solution to multiple unknowns. They do a good job when they just study one variable.
He criticizes the traditional brick building, or hypothesis based, approach to science and recommends more metaphors, more questions -- and more humility.
I wonder what the criticism is. A hypothesis is a question asked after making observations--is he recommending that we change the language? I'm not sure how metaphors would advance science, though. And I disagree that scientists need more humility. We try to make certain of our facts, but certainty is not arrogance (although some view it that way).
Thanks for the detailed reply - my scientific background is well-removed from atmospheric physics, but I still follow what I can of it because of the political implications there.
I’ve always been suspicious of the feedback equation - not just because it seemed like the sign of that particular coefficient was chosen to give positive feedback, but also that its magnitude was conveniently large enough to give a significant warming increase, but not so large as to imply an irreversible runaway affect.
I’d never seen anyone propose that the feedback might vary with latitude. For what it’s worth, I think that’s a really neat approach, and I hope you have some success chasing it down.
And especially thanks for plugging away at the problem objectively in the face of whatever political crap you folks in the field have to deal with.
A wonderful article - thanks for linking to it.
I’m always interested in intelligent discussion of the “two cultures” aspect of things like this, and Pournelle’s article was an easy read, as well as a lot of fun.
FWIW, Pournelle and Free Republic are the two sites I contribute money to. Well, and a little to Michael Yon.
He is very, very worthwhile. I’ve been reading him for about 35 years, in various guises. He is a true Modern Renaissance Man. He is getting up there age wise, and I will seriously miss him when he passes from the scene.
“I see jobs that require college degrees all the time, but many could be easily performed by high school graduates after a bit of on the job training. The degree is simply a ticket, in some cases, to getting your foot in the door.”
You are speaking of TODAY’S high school graduates, consider that college graduates of today don’t even have what used to be a high school education and the fact is that many college graduates now are working at the sort of job that would have been done fifty years ago by high school dropouts. I am not exaggerating, there used to be a lot of supervisors in manufacturing plants who had not finished high school, some of them advanced much farther than that. Now it is common to see “college graduates only” in ads for the sort of jobs that no college graduate would have considered taking in 1960. It was quite common then to see young men who had a high school diploma married and supporting children by the age of 22. In fact I was considered rather strange when I was still single at 23! By the time I finally married two days after my 28th birthday it was a shock to many who had long since decided that I would never marry!