When do we need science?

I often get into arguments with people and invariably I end up invoking science in a way to present evidence. Often this invocation of mine is countered with an accusation of, ‘you must admit science isn’t perfect’, where I am forced to admit that this is indeed the case. What is quite frustrating is that I more often find myself arguing against the blind application of science rather than for it, so when this accusation is levied at me, I find that a gross misunderstanding has occurred. With this in mind, I wish to attempt to clarify when the application of science is or is not appropriate or necessary.

Science is NOT appropriate for living, intuition dominates daily life. We do not need science to tell us how much pressure to put on the pencil so the tip does not break, this will be learned by trial and error. Similarly like Nassim Nicholas Taleb likes to say, we do need to ‘lecture birds how to fly’, birds can fly without understanding aerodynamics and the complicated physical laws that accompany them. A snake does not need to understand the mechanics of friction or momentum to learn how to slither. In this very same way science will very often shed light on things that we can already perfectly navigate through without this formalized mumbo jumbo. Religion would also fall in the intuitive domain.

Even science that is ridiculously close to the truth can often be insufficient for taking action due to the Precautionary Principle (a previous topic). Just because we find that something is unlikely does not make it less important, acting upon a hypothesis cannot be weighted without taking into account the magnitude of its implications. It follows from this that  it is worthwhile to invest in preventative measures when the consequences of an event are devastating even if the event is highly unlikely. An application of this is that it could be worth overreacting(a misnomer) to disease contagions such as Ebola and NOT to airplane accidents because the former does have a higher propagation effect (the probability of Ebola killing a million people is much higher than the probability of an airplane accident killing a million people).

With these devastating critiques of science, one might think I’m as anti-science as they come. However, this conclusion would be blatantly false; science is the most systematic way for humanity to approach objective truth. This truth need not imply anything about how we structure society or our lives. Yes, it may be misused but so can every possible freedom afforded to society, indeed this is the very definition of freedom. We avoid restricting freedoms of the masses based on what some people may do , we do not quarantine every individual because some people may be murderers. Free inquiry is a fundamental principle of every open society, the goal of science is to attempt to codify our knowledge, not to tell us how to use it. The fact that each person may infer from it what he wills is the very basis of an individualist society and why we need robust Kantian moral imperatives. This principled stance is vital to the open society so that when an inconvenient truth emerges, we have no need to change our social behavior; This is because our behavior was not derived from scientific principles in the first place but from irrefutable morality.

Science is not perfect and many hypothesis we take as temporarily right (a hypothesis can never be proven) end up being false; however when we are dealing with ideology and things away from intuition, science is how we put our biases in check. Inherently when one discusses ideology based on hypothesis which are out of the intuition of daily life and are contradicted by many other individual experiences, science must be invoked. The very first step to the scientific method outlined by Popper, before ANY empirical work is conducted is to clean up your hypothesis. If your hypothesis predicts the same observations an existing hypothesis predicts then your theory isn’t precise enough to be meaningful, much in the same way the hypothesis of ‘shit happens’ is not a credible theory. Any theory that cannot be disproven is fundamentally flawed and must be discarded or at least not believed in until it can be fleshed out to make observable predictions.

Technical point: The production of evidence is often a function of a function. What this means is that we cannot ignore the bias or effort that goes through the production process. If for instance there are ten thousand ideologically biased researchers who are searching to prove hypothesis x, then by pure randomness we can conjecture that at the 99% level, then there will be 100 studies showing an effect when none exists.

Finally, often we can come up with numerous theories that fit the same observations; invariably this happens in every field, so how do we choose one? The most philosophically consistent position to adopt in such situations is to choose the hypothesis that makes the least assumptions. This is often called Occam’s razor and it is possibly one of the most important elements in the selection of any scientific theory.

 

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Big ideas: Design vs Evolution

This was supposed to be a single post but I don’t like talking about concepts I haven’t previously introduced on the blog so I’m making the first post about design and evolution and then following it up with a post on movies and series.

Design

A design is an article/product/item of manufacture that is the result of an architect’s vision. The key in design is the presence of the final vision from the initial stages of the process. Likely to be the biggest achievement of design thinking is the wheel.

wheel-invention

Intuitively, the wheel is uniquely the product of design thinking as half a wheel or a wheel with angles would be close to useless. Therefore, if we are calculating the marginal value of each design step and the steps are sufficiently small we would never come up with the wheel. This is because at most steps, the direction towards the wheel will never appear like an improvement. It is only when the wheel is completed (or close to it) that its value starts to emerge. Accordingly, it seems alternative improvements will always be chosen over those that will lead to the wheel.

Graph for blog

When the wheel is only 20 or 30 percent completed and only a step or two ahead can be envisioned, it is unlikely that the design process would continue and lead to the final product.

Design thinking does however make the product highly fragile. Since in essence it relies on the synergy of the components and not their value in isolation, damaging a component creates a non-linear loss in value. For instance, adding a couple of angles to a wheel quickly deteriorates its value as it can no longer roll smoothly. This fragility does not have to pertain to the object itself, it can emerge from the environment for instance a wheel’s utility is fragile to not being on flat ground.

This same logic applies to buildings, they are a product of design thinking. You know a skyscraper is designed because knocking down a small proportion of the building causes it be useless (collapse). It is designed to lean on certain components more than others. (I might come back to this in the form of urban planning in some future post).

Overall the weakness of design is its fragility. It does have potential for unprecedented efficiency but it is very reliant on its designer. If the designer has no sense of history he may not incorporate proper systems into his design which fragilizes the whole endeavor.

Evolution

Evolution is all about small steps, where you try different things in different directions and choose the one that better improve the outcome. There is a caveat of conscious versus unconscious evolution but it’s not important for my purposes.

Through evolution it is possible that the outcome be enormously complex. Perhaps one of the more famous examples is echolocation in bats or dolphins, which is an enormously complex process that is more efficient than most of what modern technology has pieced together. Perhaps a more intuitive example of evolutionary outcomes is in scheduling your calendar. Gradually adding routine things to your calendar (gym, dance, learning, etc) is an evolutionary process because you evaluate each addition separately.

Things that evolve through evolution are generally very robust to variation and damage. For instance in the scheduling example, if suddenly one activity gets cancelled, the value of the others is usually not suddenly damaged and you still have the value of the other activities and the free time you gained from the cancelling. Similarly half a lung is still very useful, though it will obviously be able to produce only a fraction of the full lung’s oxygen. In fact most (if not all) of the organs of the human body share this feature.

Technical note: When dealing with evolved entities its usually less misleading to rely on the Law of Large Numbers.

The thing about evolution that makes it robust is that it does not forget the past. It is conscious of history and has systems to incorporate the past into its future behavior.

Putting it together

To me evolution vs design is an important question in almost all domains in life. Should one plan or play it by ear and deal with things as they come along?

The truth of the matter is that nature (which is almost fully a product of evolution) has a statistical validity that makes arguing against it a highly challenging endeavor. Whatever was not robust was ruled out by millennia of evolution. Therefore a proposal that is an alternative to nature, to be credible must have a significance level that can be juxtaposed to these millennia of evolution. I.E though taking a car (a designed object) to work may appear universally more efficient, but the lack of walking may lead to heart problems, unbalanced psychology, etc. The thing about evolution is that it feels no pressure to inform its user what the benefit of a certain heuristic/habit is, so great care must be taken when trying to replace such heuristics. Evolution may give us instincts to delay gratification but a design thinker may not accept such a delay because he/she does not see the benefit, and if you do not see it, then you cannot design around it.

Evolution doesn’t have to be uniquely genetic or cultural. For instance the heuristic to look left and right when crossing the street is probably both a cultural heuristic and a genetic tendency, it is a method of taking the past and using it in the future.

Similarly the economics debates which used to be in large part dominated by either evolution (pure capitalism) or design (communism), have now become dominated with a mixture.  Ideas of pure design have mostly been shut down, they have been replaced with arguments about the provision of platforms and are inherently of higher sophistication. Property rights and the rule of law are seen as such a platform and debates over the welfare state can be interpreted similarly.  It does seem however that there is quite a lot of emphasis on this kind of design thinking without much mention of fragility, and it’s obvious to me that with things like nukes, the internet, and even central banking(I find this one particularly interesting), we are quite a bit more fragile than we have ever been.