Things Get Weirder The More You Study Them

I’ve been struggling to articulate my problem with science with some friends. Not in the sense of chemtrails or the modern world being inherently bad or something, not the idealized science that exists in peoples minds. The problem with real science as practiced by human beings. I have three lines of problems with any science outside experimental physics where there’s an actual reality to test things against.

My friends, to set up a straw man, believe in diligent, hard-working and often well-paid scientists. They possibly wear white lab coats and run experiments. There’s a selection process which somehow funnels the best scientists to the best problems where they Learn Results. These Results are then disseminated to the populace so we can all live better.

So, my problems with this:

First, it’s a giant circle jerk. Having worked in academic environments I’ve seen firsthand how much BS is produced. Most published papers are now not cited by anyone at all, ever. It’s become a write-only medium. So we can throw away 80-95% of academic output and on one level this is fine, it’s okay to frame academia as a place to experiment with a low chance of success. Almost no science studies are double, triple or quadruple blind which is what it would take to actually prove something tentatively in some small domain.

Second, Kuhn. I’ve seen up close highly paid smart people not see the wood for the trees. We have to wait for people to die for progress to happen.

Third, scientism and the application of science in the wrong places. Scientism is where we make things look science-y because of reasons. The application is much more insidious. Consider type-2 diabetes. We study the heck out of it and have scienced our way to artificial insulin which is great for T1 diabetics. Think of all those highly paid and smart researchers figuring out how to make insulin and getting past the FDA. The years and billions of dollars. But for T2, it just slowly kills you. It has enabled a vast number of people to begin and then keep their diabetes rather than solve the problem which is high insulin. Dr Fung points out the insanity of treating high insulin with more insulin, and the first sentence of his first book is “why are there fat doctors”? After all, doctors are smart, highly motivated, diligent and well paid so you can’t just say it’s bad morals, lack of information or laziness.

Today I caught this study about how much Titanium Dioxide diabetics have in their pancreas. Great work, good for them. But there’s something wrong. Again we have smart, motivated and paid researchers off studying some third or fourth-order effect instead of trying to fix the basic problem of diabetes. That problem happens to be also the biggest problem in retail medicine today – obesity predicts almost everything about your health outcome and we’re all obese or nearly there.

To avoid this human problem, we need to keep asking the five whys.

I love science the same way I love the idealized point, line, square or cube. They can only exist in our heads, just as science can only really exist in our heads. When it meets reality, we study causation the wrong way around, publish nonsense or study some downstream effect. And that’s before we use the scientific method to figure out how to make problems worse, like we did with insulin, along the way congratulating ourselves for our techno-scientific progress. Look at all the science the Russians used to copy the Shuttle or Concorde.

It’s like a drug addict who has a unknowing subconscious desire for a drug. They’ll use a vast amount of higher cognition and action to procure the drug and to logically prove to themselves why they need it. These higher-level faculties – the rational mind – are the servant to, not the master of, our subconscious. In the end though, it’s often-if-not-always a subconscious motivation that needs to be compassionately fixed to heal the problem. Throwing the logical downsides of drug addiction at an addict all day long doesn’t work at all.

Ah, but vaccines! And Boeing 787s! And particle accelerators! Of course – there are useful outputs of science-as-practiced-by-humans. Most of us wouldn’t be alive without them, that’s not the point. It’s that this is a tiny minority of science-as-practiced-by-humans and if anything were probably lucky accidents. After all, the guy who invented washing hands (which we all do 10 times a day now) was thrown in a lunatic asylum and died there for it discovering it and then trying to tell people about it! What a clown!

But that is ancient history, right? We’re better now!

I was walking around San Francisco once with a friend when I expressed a desire not to be caught downtown during an earthquake. He assured me that we were safe from collapsing structures since we probably now had “new concrete” that was probably much more earthquake proof. What a wonderful story! Look how easily we can invent narratives! I want some of this “new concrete” for my house! Plus, some buildings had survived previous earthquakes and were likely to be fine. Or were they weakened by previous earthquakes? Or maybe this “new concrete” if it exists has some fatal flaw. We will simply never know, we have to wait for the next earthquake to find out. And yet, here in the richest country in the world with scientists everywhere we can still build bridges that collapse as soon as you install them.

Lastly, there are real limits on our knowledge. First, Cantor’s diagonal slash puts real limits on what we can prove about anything. Cantor is why we remember Godel and Turing – it’s foundational to the computer you’re using to read this with. Second, we can’t even measure the length of a coastline thanks to fractals – as you measure things using smaller and smaller rulers the total measured length can tend to infinity!

These aren’t toys or silly extremes, they cut to the very heart about what it is possible to know (at least, using the systems of knowledge we have) even if we’re perfect and diligent science robots, let alone human beings. And, that’s only two of the constraints. There are more! In order to avoid these problems we have to limit any knowledge we try to build to small buckets of time, space and energy. Because if you study things too much, it gets very odd just like the transition from Newton to wave-quanta in physics. The more we try to pick apart reality using what we know about the human-scale world, the more odd it gets from our perspective. If you try to include the far past or future in your knowledge it all falls apart (the big bang, the heat death of the universe). If you try to include the very fast or very slow, it all falls apart (do I need to mention relativity?). If you try to include things very small or very large, it all falls apart (quanta or dark matter).

What do we do with all this? I have a clue. I’m writing a book about it, sign up to stay in the loop. You’ll only hear about the book, infrequently.

Comments are closed.

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes