Sunday, April 15, 2018

Why Politicized Science Is Dangerous by Michael Crichton

I lifted a couple of pages from Michael Crichton's book, State of Fear,  and I am putting them in blog form so as to make sure his words enter the search engine databases of the world. We are all a little poorer - intellectually speaking - that Michael Crichton did not live on into a proper old age. He was a gifted orator and a sharp wit. And he did not lose his scepticism despite his wealth and fame.

On the occasion of the march for science, an annual science advocacy ( or so it might appear despite all the anti-Trump bias this time )  gathering that is meant to remind people where the positive changes for society come from, there must also be voices of caution about how some people practice science - just like every other profession - and how unchallenged theories, politicking, and the subornation of useful idiots ( I am refering to you #JohnOliver ) does not make society better off for science knowledge. People swept up in emotionalism, the kind of stuff that politicians do, make for worse discriminants of scientific value than anyone else. They are sold on a cult of personality, or other bad judgement, and that means they aren't paying attention to reality. 

Science is about reality. Not about feelings. Not about politics. Not about personalities. You can't arrive at the right answers if you are goaded into looking in the wrong places.

If you don't believe me, watch some old lectures by Professor Richard Feynmann on Youtube. He was the guy other Ph.D's in Physics turned to solve the equations for nuclear bombs. He was awarded a Nobel Prize for Feynmann diagrams. And he rejected all the pomp and pageantry of others that put on airs of invincibility.

If you are listening to a scientist, and he doesn't sound like a normal person, somehow his behaviour belies a notion that his ideas are better, then what makes you certain his ideas are grounded in reality?

Without further ado.  Michael Crichton's Appendix I ( verbatim):


Why Politicized Science Is Dangerous

Imagine that there is a new scientific theory that warns of an impending
crisis, and points to a way out.
This theory quickly draws support from leading scientists, politicians, and
celebrities around the world. Research is funded by distinguished philan-
thropies, and carried out at prestigious universities. The crisis is reported
frequently in the media. The science is taught in college and high school

I don’t mean global warming. I’m talking about another theory, which
rose to prominence a century ago.

Its supporters included Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and
Winston Churchill. It was approved by Supreme Court justices Oliver
Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis, who ruled in its favor. The famous
names who supported it included Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of
the telephone; activist Margaret Sanger; botanist Luther Burbank; Leland
Stanford, founder of Stanford University; the novelist H. G. Wells; the
playwright George Bernard Shaw; and hundreds of others. Nobel Prize
winners gave support. Research was backed by the Carnegie and Rockefeller
Foundations. The Cold Springs Harbor Institute was built to carry out this
research, but important work was also done at Harvard, Yale, Princeton,
Stanford, and Johns Hopkins. Legislation to address the crisis was passed in
states from New York to California.

These efforts had the support of the National Academy of Sciences, the
American Medical Association, and the National Research Council. It was
said that if Jesus were alive, he would have supported this effort.All in all, the research, legislation, and molding of public opinion sur-
rounding the theory went on for almost half a century. Those who opposed the
theory were shouted down and called reactionary, blind to reality, or just plain
ignorant. But in hindsight, what is surprising is that so few people objected.
Today, we know that this famous theory that gained so much support was
actually pseudoscience. The crisis it claimed was nonexistent. And the actions
taken in the name of this theory were morally and criminally wrong. Ulti-
mately, they led to the deaths of millions of people.
The theory was eugenics, and its history is so dreadful—and, to those
who were caught up in it, so embarrassing—that it is now rarely discussed.
But it is a story that should be well known to every citizen, so that its hor-
rors are not repeated.

The theory of eugenics postulated a crisis of the gene pool leading to the
deterioration of the human race. The best human beings were not breed-
ing as rapidly as the inferior ones—the foreigners, immigrants, Jews, degen-
erates, the unfit, and the “feeble minded.” Francis Galton, a respected
British scientist, first speculated about this area, but his ideas were taken far
beyond anything he intended. They were adopted by science-minded Amer-
icans, as well as those who had no interest in science but who were worried
about the immigration of inferior races early in the twentieth century—
“dangerous human pests” who represented “the rising tide of imbeciles” and
who were polluting the best of the human race.
The eugenicists and the immigrationists joined forces to put a stop to
this. The plan was to identify individuals who were feeble-minded—Jews
were agreed to be largely feeble-minded, but so were many foreigners, as
well as blacks—and stop them from breeding by isolation in institutions or
by sterilization.
As Margaret Sanger said, “Fostering the good-for-nothing at the expense
of the good is an extreme cruelty . . . there is no greater curse to posterity
than that of bequeathing them an increasing population of imbeciles.” She
spoke of the burden of caring for “this dead weight of human waste.”
Such views were widely shared. H. G. Wells spoke against “ill-trained
swarms of inferior citizens.” Theodore Roosevelt said that “Society has no
business to permit degenerates to reproduce their kind.” Luther Burbank:
“Stop permitting criminals and weaklings to reproduce.” George Bernard
Shaw said that only eugenics could save mankind.
There was overt racism in this movement, exemplified by texts such as The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy, by American author
Lothrop Stoddard. But, at the time, racism was considered an unremarkable
aspect of the effort to attain a marvelous goal—the improvement of
humankind in the future. It was this avant-garde notion that attracted the
most liberal and progressive minds of a generation. California was one of
twenty-nine American states to pass laws allowing sterilization, but it proved
the most forward-looking and enthusiastic—more sterilizations were carried
out in California than anywhere else in America.
Eugenics research was funded by the Carnegie Foundation, and later by
the Rockefeller Foundation. The latter was so enthusiastic that even after the
center of the eugenics effort moved to Germany, and involved the gassing
of individuals from mental institutions, the Rockefeller Foundation contin-
ued to finance German researchers at a very high level. (The foundation was
quiet about it, but they were still funding research in 1939, only months
before the onset of World War II.)
Since the 1920s, American eugenicists had been jealous because the Ger-
mans had taken leadership of the movement away from them. The Germans
were admirably progressive. They set up ordinary-looking houses where
“mental defectives” were brought and interviewed one at a time, before
being led into a back room, which was, in fact, a gas chamber. There, they
were gassed with carbon monoxide, and their bodies disposed of in a cre-
matorium located on the property.

Eventually, this program was expanded into a vast network of concen-
tration camps located near railroad lines, enabling the efficient transport and
killing of ten million undesirables.

After World War II, nobody was a eugenicist, and nobody had ever been
a eugenicist. Biographers of the celebrated and the powerful did not dwell on
the attractions of this philosphy to their subjects, and sometimes did not men-
tion it at all. Eugenics ceased to be a subject for college classrooms, although
some argue that its ideas continue to have currency in disguised form.
But in retrospect, three points stand out. First, despite the construction
of Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory, despite the efforts at universities and
the pleadings of lawyers, there was no scientific basis for eugenics. In fact,
nobody at that time knew what a gene really was. The movement was able
to proceed because it employed vague terms never rigorously defined.
“Feeble-mindedness” could mean anything from poverty and illiteracy to
epilepsy. Similarly, there was no clear definition of “degenerate” or “unfit.”
Second, the eugenics movement was really a social program masquer-
ading as a scientific one. What drove it was concern about immigration and
racism and undesirable people moving into one’s neighborhood or country.
Once again, vague terminology helped conceal what was really going on.
Third, and most distressing, the scientific establishment in both the
United States and Germany did not mount any sustained protest. Quite the
contrary. In Germany scientists quickly fell into line with the program. Mod-
ern German researchers have gone back to review Nazi documents from the
1930s. They expected to find directives telling scientists what research
should be done. But none were necessary. In the words of Ute Deichman,
“Scientists, including those who were not members of the [Nazi] party,
helped to get funding for their work through their modified behavior and
direct cooperation with the state.” Deichman speaks of the “active role of
scientists themselves in regard to Nazi race policy . . . where [research] was
aimed at confirming the racial doctrine . . . no external pressure can be doc-
umented.” German scientists adjusted their research interests to the new
policies. And those few who did not adjust disappeared.

A second example of politicized science is quite different in character, but it
exemplifies the hazards of government ideology controlling the work of
science, and of uncritical media promoting false concepts. Trofim Denisovich
Lysenko was a self-promoting peasant who, it was said, “solved the problem
of fertilizing the fields without fertilizers and minerals.” In 1928 he claimed
to have invented a procedure called vernalization, by which seeds were
moistened and chilled to enhance the later growth of crops.

Lysenko’s methods never faced a rigorous test, but his claim that his
treated seeds passed on their characteristics to the next generation repre-
sented a revival of Lamarckian ideas at a time when the rest of the world
was embracing Mendelian genetics. Josef Stalin was drawn to Lamarckian
ideas, which implied a future unbounded by hereditary constraints; he also
wanted improved agricultural production. Lysenko promised both, and
became the darling of a Soviet media that was on the lookout for stories
about clever peasants who had developed revolutionary procedures.
Lysenko was portrayed as a genius, and he milked his celebrity for all
it was worth. He was especially skillful at denouncing his opponents. He
used questionnaires from farmers to prove that vernalization increased crop yields, and thus avoided any direct tests. Carried on a wave of state-
sponsored enthusiasm, his rise was rapid. By 1937, he was a member of the
Supreme Soviet.

By then, Lysenko and his theories dominated Russian biology. The result
was famines that killed millions, and purges that sent hundreds of dissenting
Soviet scientists to the gulags or the firing squads. Lysenko was aggressive
in attacking genetics, which was finally banned as “bourgeois pseudo-
science” in 1948. There was never any basis for Lysenko’s ideas, yet he
controlled Soviet research for thirty years. Lysenkoism ended in the 1960s,
but Russian biology still has not entirely recovered from that era.
Now we are engaged in a great new theory, that once again has drawn the
support of politicians, scientists, and celebrities around the world. Once again,
the theory is promoted by major foundations. Once again, the research is
carried out at prestigious universities. Once again, legislation is passed
and social programs are urged in its name. Once again, critics are few and
harshly dealt with.

Once again, the measures being urged have little basis in fact or science.
Once again, groups with other agendas are hiding behind a movement that
appears high-minded. Once again, claims of moral superiority are used to
justify extreme actions. Once again, the fact that some people are hurt is
shrugged off because an abstract cause is said to be greater than any human
consequences. Once again, vague terms like sustainability and generational
justice—terms that have no agreed definition—are employed in the service
of a new crisis.

I am not arguing that global warming is the same as eugenics. But the
similarities are not superficial. And I do claim that open and frank discussion
of the data, and of the issues, is being suppressed. Leading scientific journals
have taken strong editorial positions on the side of global warming, which,
I argue, they have no business doing. Under the circumstances, any scien-
tist who has doubts understands clearly that they will be wise to mute their

One proof of this suppression is the fact that so many of the outspoken
critics of global warming are retired professors. These individuals are no
longer seeking grants, and no longer have to face colleagues whose grant
applications and career advancement may be jeopardized by their criticisms.
In science, the old men are usually wrong. But in politics, the old men
are wise, counsel caution, and in the end are often right.

The past history of human belief is a cautionary tale. We have killed thou-
sands of our fellow human beings because we believed they had signed a
contract with the devil, and had become witches. We still kill more than
a thousand people each year for witchcraft. In my view, there is only one
hope for humankind to emerge from what Carl Sagan called “the demon-
haunted world” of our past. That hope is science.

But as Alston Chase put it, “when the search for truth is confused with
political advocacy, the pursuit of knowledge is reduced to the quest for

That is the danger we now face. And that is why the intermixing of
science and politics is a bad combination, with a bad history. We must
remember the history, and be certain that what we present to the world as
knowledge is disinterested and honest

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Common sense versus humanity.

Sometimes I struggle to understand how normal people think. What facts they use, and how they arrive at ill-informed conclusions.

So people are upset this person sold metadata from information that users voluntarily uploaded to Facebook, after signing a user agreement they never read, including your drunk vomit photos and your silly comments about nothing?

But when the #NSA started stockpiling personal data from foreigners from the entire world (outside the USA) in this Utah datacenter, without probable cause nor a warrant, that was met with indifference?

Sunday, March 4, 2018

A response to Stuart Glennan's "On our craving for generality"

In Professor Glennan's "On our craving for generality", he makes an argument about an acceptable need for generality in philosophy and he conjures Professor Wittgenstein's lone criticism.

Wittgenstein also stated:

People are deeply imbedded in philosophical, i.e., grammatical confusions. And to free them presupposes pulling them out of the immensely manifold connections they are caught up in.

I like to paraphrase this by claiming what he really meant was the philosophers are masters of self-confusion. Because, within the folds of language, there are many interpretations to hide your theory in that make skepticism impractical and falsification impossible.  This is the malaise of philosophy borne out by the acceptable practices of it's mendicants. 

While Glennan is right that generalization allows one to make more useful rules ( associations, relationships), if you like, similar to natural philosophy, about the epistemological world that apply to a wider context than would otherwise be possible without generalization. I don't see, however, how he can always by correct when philosophy started out 2000 years ahead of science and has delivered so very little in comparison. This is not disputable by any performance metric one intends to measure. By time. By effort. By accomplishments.

Within the last 200 years, we have seen the capabilities of science-driven thought uncover billion-fold improvements in ability. The abacus may still arrive at instantaneous answers, but binary sequential computers can approach a Zeno's distance of that goalpost. One can scoff at technology, but the models inherent in those systems have also advanced and accelerated in complexity and generality as they are improved, generation after generation. Contrast this with modern philosophical by-products.

And yet, philosophers remain unmoved.  This should be frightfully unnerving for philosophers to see so many pass them by.  That, to me, indifference by philosophers speaks to a relative misapprehension regarding  the notions of achievement and advancement. These are all symptoms of a protected workshop, unwilling to change.

Even within science, the electrical disciplines goad the biological disciples to pick up the pace, as Intel's CEO, attending a pharmaceutical conference, implored them to ramp up the effort because more is possible, faster.

Professor Glennan, in the aforementioned article, points out:

"Wittgenstein’s worries about the craving for generality are in some ways reminiscent of Hume’s worries about the principle of induction. Hume argued that inductive inferences are grounded in our unwarranted commitment to a principle of the uniformity of nature. We use past experience to make predictions about future experience, but this can only work if the future is like the past, and we cannot, on pain of circularity, establish by induction that the future is like the past. Nonetheless we persist with our inductions. It is just habit.
The problem with Hume’s way of putting it is that it suggests that in the past nature has always been uniform; we know it has not.

The real question is not whether the future will be like the past, but when it will be."
Let me pierce that assumption (circular logic amounting to false tautologies) - and philosophical cover - by pointing out a simple proposition. While there are no absolutes like beauty and good, to propose these ideas as time-varying breaks neither generality nor specificity. To assign limits to good or bad may make for exclusions outside the frame, it also distinguishes "better" or "worse" as straightforward. Therein is a model. By claiming we can't induce that this bread, as Hume did, is as nourishing as the last bread may seem rational. But it evades the possibility that if we define the depth and breadth of what bread is, we can make a pronouncement within induction that makes sense. This is where science accelerated away from philosophy.

What philosophy lacks is not generality, it lacks specificity.  Ludwig von Wittgenstein arrived at philosophy from engineering, I can assure you as another engineer witnessing the practices of the philosophical knowledge tribe, what he found was lacking.  Not in the lofty goals nor the ability of the practitioners, but the madness masquerading as method.

Badiou pointed out that truth and false must exist outside any one philosophy.

If so, then any philosophy is the right starting point to make the same inroads on epistemology as the others.

What the sciences developed that philosophy did not, was a set of standards.

They are not what you might imagine, like a protocol or even the scientific method.  They are instead bounded constants that explain the interrelations amongst many concepts. While mass in Newtonian models is incommensurable in an Einsteinian model (in the language of Kuhn), it makes a common reference frame that one can use to compare and contrast models and results.

These standards are mainly embodied as universal physical constants. Boltzmann, Hertz, Avogadro, Newtons, Amperes, and so on. Physical properties - that might be any tangible, practical units of measure - that allow any one's circular logic to depart one constant and arrive at another.  Many are arbitrary, they could be changed, and sometimes do. The length of a metre, the bounds of a second. If a model or proposition about these standards can't be transformed to another then it makes it very easy to falsify. That exposes more error and truth than a messy system where ambiguity is used as cover, not a reason to define and refine. This system makes a mesh or a lattice, or a torus of any circular logic. The transcendence isn't in the method but the patterns it creates in understanding.

Now, Glennan might counter with late-Wittgenstein (also from the Blue Book);

The idea that in order to get clear about the meaning of a general term one had to find the common element in all its applications has shackled philosophical investigation; for it has not only led to no result, but also made the philosopher dismiss as irrelevant the concrete cases, which alone could have helped him understand the usage of the general term. 
Late-Wittgenstein was a study in paradox compared against early-Wittgenstein.  At first,  Wittgenstein is fortified with an optimist's effervescence that symbols and systems had no limit to aiding man's comprehension. At the end, he'd drifted so far into the riddles of words - language is only one knowledge modality - that he'd lost his faith in a better tomorrow.

This all came about not despite his talents nor dedication. I suggest his conversion came about due to the philosophical company he kept, the ill-recognition of his vision, and the plodding pedestrian nature of other minds unwilling to extend their reputation to achieve a better model in philosophy.

As Bertrand Russell wrote of Wittgenstein:

...every morning he begins his work with hope, and every evening he ends in despair
Logical positivism was the attempt to bridge back to philosophy using the same successful techniques that have engorged natural philosophy with more knowledge than philosophy has achieved in 4 times the time. More's the pity that it was gradually excised and replaced.  Given the progress made, was that wiser for the discipline?

Yes, Kant dictates that experience is king, and while physical laws remain temporary theories, their lifespan may exceed the solar system if not infinity. A satisfactory state of affairs to give to our grandchildren.

Science has held its' progress because of formalized definitions and refined common reference frames. Despite the same tribalistic, political, sociological, difficulties of internecine rivalry inherent in all academia.

When and if string theories supersede relativistic models based on Lorentz transformations, that superseded Newtonian Platonic calculus, then mankind is better off than if one hadn't extended upon the standards.

Specificity doesn't proclaim that common reference frame logic is infallible, nor that any one set of arguments cannot be demonstrated false when compared to greater knowledge attained elsewhere. Falsifiability is still the goal, but the way to achieve it at every step in science is understood even if the ultimate outcome is not. Older scientists are proven wrong as new theories are proven better. Better may not be quantifiable in absolute terms, but the practical limits are widened nonetheless.

Let me represent the values of common reference points in an analogy.

Suppose that constants are like handholds on the face of a steep mountain. One can advance up the mountain by building a logical argument that clings to one of these constants.  If science was a pre-climbed mountain, Mount Science perhaps, then new climbers would arrive at the base camp with many visible, understood, and solid points to work from. If one climbs through a point but arrives at a dead end, some impossible vertical, then one can traverse back to another constant in the pursuit of a further plateau.  The mountain is nowhere conquered, but there are many beaten paths to ascend in comfort and safety, making attempts at higher points more achievable in a lifetime.

Now, imagine what today's Mount Philosophy looks like.