Showing posts with label Epistemology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Epistemology. Show all posts

Thursday, December 4, 2014

What is Science and What Can We Learn From it About Keeping Our Heads on Straight Generally.

Here are three posts trying to make some contribution to philosophy of science and to the public's understanding of it.

The first, What is A Machine? Natural Machines and Origins of Science tries to express something possibly original about the occasions when people have gotten a foothold on the path to a major branch of science.  Before the scientific revolution there were, hidden amidst the blooming buzzing confusion of nature, a few "natural machines".  Unlike the typical object in nature, they behave with predictable simplicity, although this may not be obvious for a long time -- until certain concepts and technologies aid in their analysis.  These include a heavy dense projectile in (parabolic, as it turns out) flight, and the system of the Earth, Sun, moon, and planets (and their moons).  Probably, I should say machines and mechanical processes, but I like the idea of a flying rock or cannonball as an ultra-simple machine.

The next essay, Finding Your Invisible Elephant. A Science Requires, and is Shaped by, a Tractable Subject Matter suggests that "scientific method", or other good epistemic processes such as peer review journals and conventions are not enough.  Once a discipline, through a fruitful set of techniques, is able to repeatedly find its way to make contact with a coherent set of fundamental facts of nature, only then do the practices of academia give rise to a ratcheting mechanism that can make the diverse efforts of many autonomous individuals and groups converge on better and better understanding of some set of phenomena.  This does not work for literary criticism, and its working in many fields of social science, such as sociology of scientific knowledge, is highly dubious.

The third essay, Global Warming and the Controversy: What is Scientific Consensus? Continental Drift as Example focuses on a case study of scientific consensus by a practitioner of the fairly new field of social epistemology, Miriam Solomon in her book Social Empiricism.  It concerns the gelling, over several decades, of recognition of the phenomenon of continental drift, or plate tectonics.  Many very diverse disciplines had to finally agree that they all had data pointing to the same surprising phenomena before it could legitimately be said that there was a scientific consensus.

Now, this falls short of what the title seems to promise, but is part of a project of trying to take small, sometimes painful steps in that direction.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Global Warming and the Controversy: What is Scientific Consensus? Continental Drift as Example.

    One common way of attacking the mainstream of climatology for its "global warming consensus" is to claim that consensus is just that sort of authoritarian "group think" that Galileo confronted in the Inquisition.  A companion claim is that mainstream climatologists have abandoned "the scientific method".  Some of those who say they have a case against AGW are likely to say that they are practicing the true "scientific method" and anyone who doesn't accept their experiment(s) or studies as decisive must be rejecting the scientific method.  They may also delve into the mainstream studies.  Global warming dissidents (who rarely sound to me like true skeptical thinkers) often cite studies by scientists who would be surprised to learn that anyone is saying their study disproved AGW, so it is often not scientists, but "science critics" claiming the scientific method has been abandoned by mainstream climatologists.  One person with whom I recently argued (on Facebook) said "When I went to college and took experimental psychology, the premise of experimentation was to challenge existing theory" and later "There is a scientific experimental process ... propose a postulate, select your population or test material, identify and isolate variables, run your test, draw conclusions, repeat, publish, then stand up to challenge."

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Finding Your Invisible Elephant. A Science Requires, and is Shaped by, a Tractable Subject Matter

The story of the blind men and the elephant comes from India.  One version, in Wikipedia follows:
Six blind men were asked to determine what an elephant looked like by feeling different parts of the elephant's body. The blind man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a hand fan; the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe.

Some may see it as a parable about the impossibility of knowledge, but the way I look at it, with enough blind men operating under the incentive structure of science, comparing notes, arguing this interpretation and that, they would eventually "get it" perhaps making a clay model of an elephant that one person could get their hands around.  Of course if they are no good a listening to each other, or lack persistence and/or the right sort of discipline this won't happen.

Previously, I wrote about how the few rare "natural machines" like the solar system have been a major factor in bringing sciences into being.  Now I'd like to suggest a different metaphor and try out the notion that the keystone of a science is finding its invisible elephant.  Rather than make all scientists blind, I'd rather make elephants invisible.

What does it look like when we are failing to find our elephant?  Maybe one man really is grasping a pillar, another a tree trunk, or hand fan, and another pushing on a wall.  No wonder their observations don't add up.  Suppose they insist on their observations adding up to something - then they may produce a forced "body of knowledge", something like astrology.

So what does a science finding its elephant look like?  There should be some convergence of observations when the blind men work together effectively, like more than once a man grasps something like a pillar.  Attempts to find relationships between observations.  Maybe 4 men are saying "this is like a pillar", and they can tell by listening they are close to each other, and they reach out until they grasp each others' hands, and get a sense of where each man is, and maybe all link hands to discover that the pillars are in a rough square.  Someone again says it's like a rope, and they wave their hands around until the one with the "rope" finds he's roughly equidistant from two of the "pillar" men.  And on and on.  Someone says "this is like a creek", but his voice is too far away, so the others say "That's something else, come back to where we are."  And as long as they stay close together, maybe holding hands, circling the object together, certain observations occur repetitively, and all the relations between the observations begin to add up to something.  Maybe someone bounces a basketball their way, one grasps it and says "something new!" but they soon realize it isn't part of the thing they're trying to understand.  It is "irrelevant data", or "noise" as in Nate Silver's The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail - but Some Don't.

When observations add up and complement each other, and it becomes more and more clear which observations belong to the newly emerging object of study, and which do not, we can say there is a tractable domain.   Tractability is not absolute.  Until the 20th century, medicine was largely intractable.  We had only glimmerings of understanding here and there that could not be worked into any sort of whole.  Failure to admit this -- wishful thinking -- led to systems like that based on the "humours" (or 5 basic fluids supposed to account for the body's workings) which lead to inappropriate bleeding and purging, and sometimes even preventing elimination, all on the theory that too much or too little of some "humour" caused a given syndrome.

A tractable domain means one has a good sense of the thing that is under study - and this leads to techniques of study specific to the domain or object of study, unlikely to make sense in any other domain.   It might be invisible elephants, or equally invisible atoms, whose properties can only be known via more complex and roundabout ways than merely looking.  The idea that all scientific methodology can be summarized by one "method" is more often heard in disciplines that are trying hard to be scientific than in those which have gotten very clear about, and been shaped by, their subject matter.

Consensus that we are talking about the same thing (from different angles) is the sign that you may have found your elephant. In 17th century physics it was the large objects of the universe going around and around in patterns that Galileo, Kepler, and Newton finally made sense of and it lead to powerful general principals.  In the 18th century, various manifestations of electricity presented a mystery to be solved, once some of the phenomena proved to relate to others in certain patterns.  Lightning in the sky may somewhat resemble the sparks that jump from the glass globe that has been rubbed in a certain way, but are they really alike?  Benjamin Franklin is supposed to have answered this. In late 19th/early 20th century physics it was the structure of the atom (you can tell by now that a field might have more than one elephant, but it needs at least one).

Maybe it's just because of an argument I had a while back over global warming with a guy claiming methods cited to support it were not "the scientific method", and he described "the scientific method" as he learned it from his psychology professor some decades back ... but I really suspect it is a sign that a science has not yet gotten much traction when you hear so much about a (one size fits all) "scientific method".

Sometimes mistaken "knowledge" plagues humanity, and a radical new vision is required to prove tradition must be broken, and that a better understanding can be gained.  But the image of Galileo or Columbus or Pasteur standing alone is a kind of story that has itself become too much of a tradition - a story that our minds love to hear -- we are fooled into thinking that practically everything good had to come from such a stand.  We have an addiction to the idea of the individual rebel that is so prevalent that groups with quite opposite tendencies, such as Hollywood liberals and those who loathe such liberal politics are alike sunk in it up to their eyeballs.  We celebrate Steve Jobs and forget about Xerox PARC, a collaboration which generated the fundamental concepts behind the Apple computing model.  "Liberal" Hollywood gives us Dirty Harry, Jack Bauer, and dozens of other action heroes who act on their own, as well as heroic victims and lone whistle blowers by themselves against shadowy forces, and artists despised in their own lifetimes.

There really are many occasions for honoring such individuals, but our popular art and literature hardly recognizes anything else, and we tend to exaggerate their aloneness. Like Newton, had to stand on the shoulders of many others (not all giants).

Superheroes. which have gone from comic books for nerds to a main staple of Hollywood, seem to be the purest embodiment of our fascination with one great soul having to save the world with no help from anyone, and, of course they are the least realistic embodiment.  The right leaning press gives us  the lone gunslinger (in the supermarket yet) and heroic billionaires at risk of being tied up and paralyzed by the system.

Science still on occasion needs the unique visionary who find a new elephant, or find out that everybody else had the elephant upside down.  Sometimes they can't make themselves understood, and suffer frustration, but, at least in the hard sciences, it still takes a unique vision to win the greatest rewards, such as the the Nobel Prizes.  Scientific culture is such that if nearly everyone is mistaken, and one person can demonstrate this, they may be controversial for a while, but the best proof or demonstration tends to win in time -- due to a culture founded on the idea that the truth is the most important thing

But the majority of scientists are trying to get more and more detail on the same elephant, like the astronomers who spent their lives even before telescopes plotting where the star or planet is in the sky at such and such a longitude and latitude at a certain moment, who gave Kepler and Newton the masses of data they required.  Without them, most great leaps could not have happened.

Scientific consensus has been confused with group-think, which is far more likely to come from think tanks set up to serve a particular political agenda, or scientists who cater to tobacco or oil companies.  True scientific consensus comes from many scientists putting maps, table, graphs, observations and experiments together and after much wrangling coming to approximate agreement about what they add up to.  It is often something that just one of the scientists cannot confidently pronounce without the others, all looking at the problem from different angles.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Is this a Real Project? Or What?

Whenever someone charges at the world waving the flag of truth, they almost never mean truth in and of itself; they mean some particular claim that for them burns so bright as to blot out everything else. 
Trying to get a handle on truth in and of itself seems to me a lot like wrestling Proteus, or the "Old Man of the Sea", as described by Menelaus in the Odyssey. The Old Man can answer any questions if captured, but capturing him means holding on as he changes shapes from a horse to a serpent to water to fire to whatever until he is worn out if one has the strength to wear him out.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Where to Begin (a "Truth Project" worthy of the name)? (#5)

Over the years, my thinking on why I should bother have developed and gotten clearer.

Theoretically,  with the Internet, we have immediate access to almost infinitely more "information" than was at our fingertips even 30 years ago.  But most people will probably agree that "most people" (but a different "most people" from themselves) are systematically mislead by information sources they trust.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Back to Truthology: "The Real Truth Project" Needs to Become a Reference Site

I still believe in the critical need for work on "Practical Epistemology", or maybe I should drop the Latinism and call it Truthology.

A blog should be a small part of that project.

About 15 years ago, I started the web site, or JMISC.NET (one is a synonym for the other) to explore and try to understand and share understanding of the period around the 1830s, with frequent excursions a couple of decades in either direction.  The title page said "Tales of the Early Republic", and I spent a lot of time looking at "miscellaneous" period documents, and, on an email list called "Jacksonian Miscellanies", publishing excerpts from these documents, with some commentary.  There were newspaper stories on spontaneous combustion, some very odd poetry, which was welcomed as filler material for newspapers in those days, a dueling manual (A high percentage of "Southern Gentlemen", including many congressmen had fought at least one duel -- in the majority of cases nobody died though injuries were common).  I got to have a mailing list of several hundred people, including many of the best historians of the era.  After a year or so I began going to conferences of the leading historians of the era, and in time it seemed to me that around half the people I met there were aware of my work, and very encouraging.

I started out not knowing anything about this period.  What it took was a lot of patience, reading historians past and present, but always going back to the original sources when I wanted to make a contribution, finding something that cast a surprising light on things, and putting it into one of my "Jacksonian Miscellanies" posts.  And meanwhile, gradually building a encyclopedic framework for jotting down detailed information as I learned of it.  What was New York like in 1830?  Well for one thing, New York much less than half of Manhattan Island -- not the other way around.  What sort of roads existed between Boston and Portsmouth, Maine.  When were they first connected by railroad?  What were the issues of religious controversy?  I built up a file of particular schools and colleges, small town, even particular churches and who had served as minister there and what their politics were.  I never knew enough to write a work giving important insights into some particular issue, but could hold my own in conversations with historians.

Ultimately, I need to build up TRTP (The Real Truth Project) to be something like that.  And it is mostly too abstract for me to try to deal with the issue of truth in general.  If I spent too much time on that plane, I would probably end up building all encompassing ideologies, like those of Karl Marx and Ayn Rand, that in my opinion cause people to lose sight of the real world, with disastrous consequences.

So there will have to be more specific sub-projects, one of which, is to try to map the landscape of America's (especially, and sometimes the world's) wars of ideas.

The resources will be extremely incomplete for some time to come, but I hope there will some useful things from the beginning.

Where to begin? I am going to take a look at "Watcher" organizations that try to map out the vast landscape of organizations characterized as "Right" and "Left".  Those who lean more or less "left" have organizations that try to compile a picture of funding sources in the network of organizations on the "right".  And vice versa.

E.g., the "Media Matters Action Network" has a section called "Conservative Transparency"  ( collects information on "conservative" or "right" leaning organizations of all sorts.

I am developing my own understanding of it at this link.

Other groups that watch and analyze other groups include:
  • Source Watch at ("left").
  • Capital Research Center at ("right").
OK, that's a wrap - a not insignificant start I hope.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

"Epistemology of Consensus"

This is from very early in my blogging

This is still very sketchy and evolving, but I'm putting it out just in case someone stumbles upon it and has a reaction.

I wanted to explore the phrase "Epistemology of Consensus". Has it inspired any serious philosophical current?
At the time I posted this, I found just seven google hits for the phrase.

Here is some exploration of the idea which may seem like wild ravings, but I post it in case someone stumbles across it who sees some kind of sense in it, especially if they will send me their thoughts.

I think as a practical matter, the way we decide what we think we know in our everyday lives is very much a matter of epistemology of consensus.
Also, another posting
suggests that in early stages of human development we relied on quite a PURE epistemology of consensus.

The Enlightenment helped spawn a "meme" (not, I think, a gratuitous use of that overused word) that is quite the opposite of Epistemology of Consensus. Now Enlightenment philosophers had good reason for attaching the consensus of their time, but this has become a sort of cliche, and frequently in my opinion, applied inappropriately -- the idea of the lonely genius who alone understands how it works -- surrounded by nattering idiots. This is often how the Glenn Becks of the world seem to see themselves (They think they're Galileos!!).

Daniel J. Boorstin however gave an accessible alternative view of the Enlightenment in The Discoverers, when he gave institutions, like first scientific journal, the Journal of the Royal Society, the salon movement, and other institutional constructs a central role.

Summary of the Seven Google Hits I Found (on 8/9/2010):
+ (Human Nature and Truth as World Order Issues by Miriam Steiner).
+ ASTRO.TEMPLE.EDU/~msolomon/cv.doc (Miriam Solomon CV):
+ (Article or chapter:
"From New Technological Infrastructures to Curricular Activity ...
Contained in book Designs for Learning Environments of the Future
2010, 233-262, DOI: 10.1007/978-0-387-88279-6_9 (Springer-Verlag).
(Excerpt from _Natural Law Theory: Contemporary Essays_,
Russell Hittinger 1992
If there exists a law of nature, it presumably exists
independent of our theories about it. But our theories about it
have so drastically restricted the meaning of 'nature' in human
actions to a political epistemology of consensus about basic good
or needs, that discourse about the role of the virtues, as comple-
tions rather than mere recognitions of needs, will have to find a
language other than that of modern natural law theory.

(Uses "Epistemology of Consensus" as an epithet directed at Paul Krugman).

MY THOUGHTS: The hits probably represent several different people's independent coining of the phrase. Not surprisingly, it occurs as a term of abuse in
HTTP:// written by a Von Mises-ian pseudo-skeptic who is "skeptical" about the consensus of the scientific community, but swallows the "Oregon Petition" whole.
NOTE: I've been toying with this phrase pseudo-skeptic, as it seems so many people from the Glenn Beckians to new-Agers (and there are indeed New Age - Glenn Beckian - NRA members -- like some friends of ours who edit a "Metaphysical newsletter", where by metaphysics I think they mean what I would call "Weird shit").
Anyway, the pseudoskeptic, as I look at him, tends to be skeptical about "mainstream" sources of news, theories, or wisdom, while latching onto some collection of arbitrary sources with far less claim to rigor than the sources they are so skeptical about. (Not to say the mainstream is beyond criticism)

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Epistemic closure

Did you hear the one about epistemic closure?

I find this little introduction, in the NYTimes online at

"The phrase is being used as shorthand by some prominent conservatives for a kind of closed-mindedness in the movement, a development they see as debasing modern conservatism’s proud intellectual history. First used in this context by Julian Sanchez of the libertarian Cato Institute, the phrase “epistemic closure” has been ricocheting among conservative publications and blogs as a high-toned abbreviation for ideological intolerance and misinformation.
Conservative media, Mr. Sanchez wrote at — referring to outlets like Fox News and National Review and to talk-show stars like Rush Limbaugh, Mark R. Levin and Glenn Beck — have “become worryingly untethered from reality as the impetus to satisfy the demand for red meat overtakes any motivation to report accurately.” (Mr. Sanchez said he probably fished “epistemic closure” out of his subconscious from an undergraduate course in philosophy"
Funny they should mention the National Review, where you can read a critique of Epistemic closure as represented (according to the reviewer) in "Mark Levin’s massive bestseller Liberty and Tyranny". But then, "Many of Mr. Manzi’s colleagues attacked him for his takedown of Mr. Levin." (says the NYTimes review).

The NR "The Corner" review is at