Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
‘Science Is the Belief in the Ignorance of Experts’
Whenever I see the term “expert”, I think of Richard Feynman’s (Feynman is a brilliant Nobel Prize winner in Physics) National Science Teachers speech in 1966:
We have many studies in teaching, for example, in which people make observations, make lists, do statistics, and so on, but these do not thereby become established science, established knowledge. They are merely an imitative form of science analogous to the South Sea Islanders’ airfields–radio towers, etc., made out of wood. The islanders expect a great airplane to arrive. They even build wooden airplanes of the same shape as they see in the foreigners’ airfields around them, but strangely enough, their wood planes do not fly. The result of this pseudoscientific imitation is to produce experts, which many of you are. [But] you teachers, who are really teaching children at the bottom of the heap, can maybe doubt the experts. As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.
The linked article talks about a tweet by Paul Graham which states:
If you think you don’t trust scientists, you’re mistaken. You trust scientists in a million different ways every time you step on a plane, or for that matter turn on your tap or open a can of beans. The fact that you’re unaware of this doesn’t mean it’s not so.
Well, no. You “trust” engineers, and all the people in the chain that built and tested the many thousands of components in the aircraft, the mental health and competence of the pilots, ATC, other pilots, the people that produced the fuel … a nearly infinite chain of trust. Or, basically, you are taking a “leap” that isn’t really “faith” because most have not thought about any of this. Nor should you really, because a life that can actually be lived is based on all sorts of unconscious assumptions.
It would be very good however if many more people were aware that we all live by faith (usually unconscious), all the time. If more people realized that, we would likely be somewhat kinder to others.
“Science” is a method, a tool. It makes hypotheses and tests them. Very few of the people in that long chain to your flight were “scientists”. They were “experts” in some sort of discipline generally blindly following the “rules” (standard procedures) of that discipline.
In this world, the “experts” are imperfect and often fail. The passengers on the 737 Max trusted the chain of “experts” and the chain failed. The list of “expert failures” is endless … in these times it often starts with the Titanic. My favorite example is Trofim Lysenko whose “expertise” combined with political ideology resulted in millions of deaths.
Do the “experts” creating and pushing the new mRNA vaccine know what they are doing? We certainly hope and pray that they do. We do know that pushing a new technology to millions of people has significant risk. In software, we say “never take the first release.” Even in cars, many people want to wait a bit on a new model because there is a good deal of evidence there will be one or more “recalls,” some of which may be significantly dangerous.
The real world is often harsher to the new technology than the theories, early testing, and politics hoped it would be.
So before you “trust the science,” be aware that what you are trusting is the bureaucratic system that decided on “Operation Warp Speed” and decided that they had to roll out the vaccine quickly. Fortunately, there were only seven people on the Challenger when it “had to launch” on the cold morning of January 28, 1986.
Interestingly, Feynman was the person that discovered the technical cause of the Challenger Disaster.
The root cause was believing in “experts” (rather than understanding their ignorance), and the application of those beliefs by a bureaucracy to the launch decision.Published in Technology
“It’s the science” has become the new “Shut up!”
The problem with “Trust the Science” people is that Science can/should only inform policy, not determine it.
Yup. And the guy who says it is demonstrating that he doesn’t understand actual science at all.
I think that your observations about faith in science are spot on! They apply to normal times and places, where scientific and communication institutions (the news) are dominated by honest but imperfect scientists.
They apply today, too, as far as they go.
But they are no longer enough. We are no longer in normal times, and traditional social institutions are no longer dominated by the imperfect search for truth. They are increasingly controlled by people who bear the credentials, the responsibility, and the social influence to be honest scientists, but who are consciously engaged in a program of systematic deception in support of a radical, cultist ideology and the unlimited pursuit of power.
I am full of Science!
I worked in a large company that employed, among other specialties, engineers and scientists. The engineers were those who applied accepted scientific knowledge to the solution of practical problems. The scientists were those who did their best to expand the range of accepted scientific knowledge. Many of them seemed brilliant, maybe world-class, but I wouldn’t have trusted any of them to actually build anything.
Yes, but do you “trust the science” on the long term effects of the Chinese manufactured COVID virus? Many “experts” (even here on Ricochet) are calling it a respiratory disease, but it’s actually a vascular disease (thus, the damage to people’s kidneys) and the lung damage is a secondary effect. Did you know some men are having problems with ED due to COVID?
I’m trained as an engineer (just going back to it after 25 years). I always say the difference between an engineer and a scientist is that engineers have to make things work and experience the negative consequences when they fail at their jobs (like airline crashes and bridge collapses). Scientists not so much.
But, all of life is tradeoffs. I’m vaccinated. My nuclear family is vaccinated. Many in my extended family are vaccinated. I don’t mind if you’re not vaccinated, and I’m not going to spend my time trying to scare you with what could happen if you contract the CCP virus and you’re unvaccinated. Just remember: tradeoffs.
I’m aware and I’m fine with it.
I grant that there are some notable failures in the track record of experts, but the non-experts’ record is far worse, at least when it comes to things like removing appendices and launching manned spacecraft into orbit.
What is expertise but some combination of extensive knowledge and experience? Nothing is guaranteed. We’re all just playing the odds.
The experts in Political Science and Psychology have often been worse than illiterate peasants who pay attention. Among the degreed woke, this horrible tradition has continued. Scientists and engineers however have been much better at advancing human knowledge and understanding.
Emerging class/cultural loyalties are making a lot of scientists into something different. Climate science, and the medical “science” of sexual identity come to mind. I live in a heavily white color county with a large research science contingent. The level of deference to complete and utter policy BS in the COVID fiasco seems driven more by an aesthetic and ideological preference for pseudo-expert bureaucratic rule than knowledge or critical thinking skills. Overpopulation, systemic racism, plastic bags… any “crisis” narrative that calls for expert rule is automatically uncritically endorsed. It is a class sensibility that masquerades as applied science.
Yeah. I see that too. I have also read a ton of scientists in the BBC that would say any leftist idiocy.
Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner!
The “intelligentsia” are all those whose opinions conform with their class peers’. Despite the name, many of them are actually quite stupid.
The intelligent are those who actually know a thing or two about a thing or two.
The wise are those who know that while intelligence counts for much in this world, it isn’t the be all end all.
They inherently believe the world is better when ruled authoritatively/totally by experts. They see the bureaucrats as the cream of the crop of experts instead of mediocre middlemen with egos far larger than their skills.
I’m of the mind of failing up. The bureaucracy is not elevated on merit.
My wife and I, and a good number in our circle of friends had the virus around the holidays. In general, “moderate flu”, but some harsher, though no hospitalizations. No evidence of “collateral damage” at this point. Having had it, my “tradeoff” is to “seek a second release after more data is in” … right now, Novavax is looking good. My bias from years of software engineering would be to “wait for the 2nd release” (like Novavax maybe) even if I was not a “survivor”. Yes, it is a tradeoff … in the real world, it always is.
I think this is an important point to the discussion.
“Science” is such a broad field that you cannot lump all science and every scientist into the same boat. There is “hard science” and “soft science” and a millions gradations in-between. As you point out about engineers, the success of their scientific decisions are known with absolute certainty because their machines or physical systems either work or fail on the spot. Laws of physics do not have much wiggle room.
When it comes to medicine and biology, things are not so clear because the variables are too complex to keep track of and not everything is understood. You still get a lot of “scientific” results, like curing some sickness, but it is not 100%. Psychology is probably on a rung lower than medicine, and the results are even more squishy and uncertain.
One of the lowest rungs on the ladder contains “Climate Science.” They don’t have to achieve any predictive results at all. They just get to make forecasts of what will happen in the far-away future long after they are dead. There is no way to confirm any important findings that they come up with during their own lifetimes. That’s why I admire weathermen much more. Even though they are dealing with a much softer science than hard physics, they are held accountable for their predictive results on a daily basis.
If you are not vaccinated and you detect COVID symptoms in yourself, and you have access to HCQ or to ivermectin, you will be perfectly fine. So in reality: not any real tradeoffs.
Fauci knew that way back in 2005. His co authoring a paper on the efficacy of HCQ in combatting corona viruses prove that he knew it.
Yet he withheld the remedies for whatever reason. (Except for the kidney killing “COVID remedy” remdesivir, that he has stood fully behind.) All this is possibly for his stake in the money his 2015 patent for the glyco protein that is used in each and every vial of the COVID vaccine materials will bring him.
Plus possibly also for the reason that the Globalists wanted to have this vaccine program that is hooked into reducing us to continually being masked up, locked down and eventually surrounded by the electronic harnessing that last summer’s TV show “Weekend Edition, Melbourne” demonstrated as being our future. Because the inner circle of the top families of the globe wants transhumanism to replace actual humanism.
A big part of the problem is that once a person becomes an expert in one field, that person often goes on to consider him or herself as being an expert in most fields.
I once was neighbors and friends with a man who had graduated from Northwestern with the distinction of holding more patents in his own name that any other student before him.
He happened to show up at my apartment one day to find me engrossed in working with some very fine old barn wood pieces I planned on converting into stands for my stereo speakers. When you work with old wood like that, using a hand saw, you proceed slowly.
My friend was irritated. “At the rate you are going, you’ll never finish your project.”
He took the saw from me, announcing “I know how it’s done.”
Rapidly sawing into the wood, he was pleased with the progress he was making. Except that 2 minutes into it, the board shattered into ragged pieces.
I had enough extra wooden boards that at least it was not much of a loss. But when he handed me back my saw, he avoided any apology. On my end, I had to bite my tongue to not laugh out loud.
A feeling of expertise will always work best if combined with knowledge forged by experience regarding the task at hand.
What if you can’t find a doctor to prescribe HCQ (plus Azith) or Ivermectin? Has the FDA approved it for use against the commie virus? I don’t think so. I was prescribed both by a doctor in the family before the feds shut down the availability.
And there’s no such thing as “no tradeoffs.” Somebody pays for every choice we make in some way. That’s reality.
In addition to the gradations in degree of “hardness” of the applied sciences, which is what you described above) there is a sharp binary distinction between theoretical (pure) science and applied science, in terms of the purpose of the researcher. This should not be ignored, since a difference in ends is more important than a difference in means. That is not to say that in a given action, a person might not sometimes have a mixture of the philosophical goal and the pragmatical goal.
Yes, I’ve known some very good theoretical scientists who are also quite pragmatic. One is my nephew the astrophysicist and the other is a now deceased former colleague of Mr. C who was also a physicist, but in the real world of radiation effects testing (which no one can afford to get wrong). I don’t think either one ever bought into the leftist/statist claptrap that has infected science.
I worked with, more accurately in the same building with, a scientist who reminded me of Roger Penrose because of his manners and the way he dressed. Couple years earlier he had been involved with rational polynomial camera models, whatever they are. He had moved on and was upset that some young buck was about to pretty much solve the main problems in his new field of inquiry. When I said I thought that was great, he replied, “You don’t understand. I had planned on working that area for the next four or five years and this little [redacted] is ruining it all.”
Later on when I had approached him for some pointers on the area I was working, he said my question was very perceptive, that no one had really researched that area, and he could put me in touch with some colleagues. Maybe we could start our own IRAD (Independent Research and Development) project, and “of course, when something like this is started and has funding, it never stops.”
I wasn’t cut out to be a scientist.
I wish I had the math skills to do something like string theory — a field where no one has come up with ways to really test it empirically so as long as there are no obvious math errors in your papers, whatever you toss out there is OK and no one can prove you wrong while you show people how smart you are.
I worked in medical research labs for a while and it seemed like there was not as much cutting-edge thought as energy devoted to finding ways to get published and easily funded. In those days the scientist apparently would go to the Safeway or CVS and start reading ingredient labels, then pick something in common use about which nobody had written any papers yet. Grind out a limited budget with the administration, then order a five-gallon jug of the substance to be tested, and a couple of hundred mice. Then inject the unfortunate little buggers with just enough of the stuff to not kill them outright. And inject some equal volume of saline in the slightly less unfortunate rodents. Then kill them all after a while and begin arguing with the veterinary pathologist about whether the horrific issue damage visible under the microscope was at least a pre-carcinogenic lesion if not outright cancer so the scientist could publish some crapola about how 150,000 times the usual amount of XYZ found in baby food or skin cream carried a 10% cancer risk in mice and hope somebody would publish. Science!
You can even disprove God with string theory! Because, #Science.
I knew a guy who actually had a stand-up comedy routine about reading the squiggles and dots on some blowup of a plate from some collision test. The most common punch line was to point to where a line ended or just a blank space and claim that some entity of phenomenon was there and say “of course, we don’t see it here but we know it’s there.” He also invented a comedy religion that worshipped the High Zero. What must we do to be happy? Nothing. What is the point of life? Nothing… you get the gist. Being really smart can make one nuts.
This is an almost universal belief, but this is not how theoretical scientists judge their practitioners’ works. It’s close to the opposite of their value system.
These are two different premises:
The value system of applied science is different from that of theoretical science. It MUST be different, because the purposes of the two enterprises are distinct.
In each enterprise, OKness is determined by whether not the theory advances its goals.
Successful comedy comes from the comic pointing out the folly of those who count themselves as wise. He cuts them down to size. He puts them in their place.
To get the reaction he wants, the comedian must make an emotional connection with the audience, where they are in a state of willingness to accept his authority.
When he gets the listeners into this trust-connection–“I had them in the palm of my hand after the second joke, and for the rest of the night they couldn’t stop laughing!”–he succeeds.
If instead his listeners conclude that he is a vain, ignorant mocker of things he doesn’t understand, his attempts fall flat. Instead of making his victims appear ridiculous, he makes himself look pathetic.
This guy’s humor strikes me the second way.
Among medical Doctors, psychiatrists are the most leftist and surgeons are the most conservative. This was a throwaway statistic in Gad Saad’s book. With surgeons, the person either dies or lives. With psychiatrists, there’s always next week.
Interesting. Although we know a very conservative psychiatrist, but he’s a Catholic deacon. An example of religion having a moderating effect on a lot of nonsense.