finem respice

Science is Dead

Submitted by ep on Wed, 12/09/2009 - 14:04
his reach exceeds his grasp

It is not often that one finds a particular discourse shot through with the sort of threads, intertwined silver filaments, that touch at once on so many personal interests and gather so many errant thoughts into a larger whole that the emotional aftermath is best characterized as the shock of a sort of theoretical unification. It is even possible, only just, to appreciate (if not share) the kind of emotion that must prompt individuals to claim religious experiences as explanation. Even the hint of disappointment following the discovery that these thoughts were not uniquely one's own, that one could no longer lay claim to their original authorship, is blunted by the pleasure of discovering a kindred spirit and the small reminder that, at least as an intellect, one is (or was) just a little bit less alone in the universe.

Consider this passage:

The deterioration of the American media is dire loss for our country. When distinguished institutions like the New York Times can no longer differentiate between factual content and editorial opinion, but rather mix both freely on their front page, then who will hold anyone to a higher standard?

Or perhaps this one:

Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.

It was only last month when, contrasting to science, I penned:

Politics, however, is not about the search for truth. It is about the building of consensus.

And last week when I wrote:

At some point along the line someone decided that the United Nations should be involved. At some point along the line someone decided that Al Gore (a man with no scientific credentials of substance, but apparently some kind of former national politician of some former renown) was a good "face man." At some point along the line someone decided that commanding the unwavering loyalty of the "man on the street" was the critical path to success.

In short, at some point someone decided that it was time to "build consensus." Nay- a national and international consensus. You can hear the urgency in this particular quest even in the public statements our prisoners of public opinion have, from time to time, been known to make public. Phrases like "wide consensus among scientists" and "international mandate." Or, turning to their "not intended for public dissemination" discussions, the burning urgency behind finding as many thousands of scientists (any scientists) as possible to make sure the evening news had a nice, high number for the climate segment's sound bite.

How interesting that I would, quite haphazardly, come across effectively exactly the same line of thinking only to find that it had been delivered by Michael Crichton at the California Institute of Technology some six years ago. It is a pity (and in some small ways probably a blessing) that Crichton is not here to enjoy some small (if selfish) measure of self-satisfaction at having apparently been nearly perfectly right.

Crichton goes farther back than I had to find where, exactly, after 100 years of astounding progress, science seemed to come off the rails. In doing so he lights on one of my favorite formulas, the Drake equation, which outlines a methodology to calculate via probability theory the number of contactable extraterrestrial civilizations in the galaxy and on which he comments thusly:

This serious-looking equation gave SETI an [sic] serious footing as a legitimate intellectual inquiry. The problem, of course, is that none of the terms can be known, and most cannot even be estimated. The only way to work the equation is to fill in with guesses.

Crichton is, of course, exactly right. He is also right when he later suggests that what you get out of the Drake equation is exactly what you were carrying with you when you arrived in the first place. In the absence of even a hint of real data (at most we can make some guesses based on a set of n=1 for a pair of the variables), the Drake equation presents nothing but a framework through which to validate your confirmation bias by elevating your preconceptions to the level of "calculation." It is, of course, merely a data agnostic model. A tool.

Let's return to this later.

I have been a huge fan of Carl Sagan since I was a little girl. I suspect I will be ever possessed of fond, though somewhat bittersweet, memories imprinted those 13 nights I sat up watching a re-broadcast of Sagan's epic Cosmos series. Pressed, I would probably speculate, to the extent I can be credited with rationality, that many of my idiosyncrasies inspired today by curiosity, skepticism and irreverence likely have their roots somewhere back in those 13 nights.

Only a few years ago a former colleague and close friend admitted to me that on re-watching the series (it was re-released with updates in 2000, four years after Sagan died) he was literally moved to tears and immediately wrote to Sagan's widow, Ann Druyan, who co-produced Cosmos, that he owed a large part of his success in life to the series he watched anxiously and with reverent awe as a boy.

I thought little of this until I happened on the DVD set in a bookstore and bought it on a whim. It sat for over a month on my bookshelf until, one long weekend, I put the first disc in. I emerged from my media cocoon some 15 hours later a 105 pound lump of jello, feeling somewhat sheepish that I had so easily dismissed my colleague's almost regressive response.

Cosmos was as much a siren song to the discipline of science as it was an educational program. Sagan's treatment is simply masterful and I have not since encountered anyone so readily able to evoke a deep appreciation for, as Sagan terms it, borrowing from André Malraux (or perhaps René Magritte) La Condition Humaine. The basic anxiety evoked by the irony that "...a man's reach should exceed his grasp...."1 And in what I suspect an unlikely expansion of the theme it is hard to ignore this:

You're familiar with the phrase "man's reach exceeds his grasp"? It's a lie: man's grasp exceeds his nerve.2

Of course, not everyone responds to the immensity of humanity's insignificance with a burning desire to explore the cosmos (or at least ravenously gather what little knowledge we are, in the fleeting and wholly insufficient time frame in which we are actually permitted to enjoy consciousness, finally able to). There is a darker side of malaise and even malice that such conflicts can foster.

O wearisome condition of humanity!
Born under one law, to another bound;
Vainly begot, and yet forbidden vanity;
Created sick, commanded to be sound.3

[Ambitious men] may not cease, but as a dog in a wheel, a bird in a cage, or a squirrel in a chain, so Budaeus compares them; they climb and climb still, with much labour, but never make an end, never at the top.4

Or, to bring Browning's full quotation into what may be its proper context:

Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?

Apparently, by 1855 English authors (and poets) had at least shaken some of the consuming and pervasive darkness of the 1600s.

And even ignoring, for the moment, this darker side of oblivion's recognition, and setting aside the side-effects that inevitably accompany long gazes into the abyss (warning: abyss also looks into you, may cause drowsiness, do not operate heavy machinery) the drive to vanquish the more emotionally immolating symptoms of recognized insignificance can itself lead to a kind of madness. For the more infinitely unlikely or rare is the sudden spark of sentience in the form of homo sapiens, the more horrible and unsettling would be its loss. It isn't hard to see how this calculation readily transforms into advocacy (or even religion). For Sagan this sentiment, this urgent need for self-preservation, at least in Cosmos, takes form in the title of the final episode, and arguably the series' synthesis, "Who Speaks for the Earth."

Sagan suggests, persuasively in my view, that humanity is the Cosmos' way of knowing itself. But if this is so, the temptation to translate the concept into anthropocentric vanity is a strong one, and it has consequences.

In 1990, its mission effectively complete, now past the orbit of definitely-not-a-planet Pluto and after, as the story goes, much resistance, Sagan, a long time advisor to NASA, convinces controllers to point Voyager I's cameras back home, as it were, and snap a quick shot of the old neighborhood. Of course, the result is the famous "Pale Blue Dot" photograph, which inspired the title of Sagan's 1994 book of the same name. Sagan quoted from it in a 1996 commencement speech:

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

It is a great irony that the very emptiness and loneliness that surrounds us might prompt us, perhaps in a fit of overcompensation, to exceed our grasp.

Seven months after the speech, Sagan was dead.

Without a doubt, Sagan must be among the most significant, if not the single most significant modern (or perhaps ancient) advocates for science, the scientific method, and the merits of skeptical inquiry. To the very end Sagan taught a course on critical thinking at Cornell so popular it was often 500% oversubscribed, not to mention so deeply associated with Sagan personally that after his death it took the University almost five years to permit a successor (Yervant Terzian) to revive the class. His repeated indictments of superstition, ignorance, and irrational thinking on Cosmos and elsewhere marked him as one of the guiding lights of intellectualism in the 20th century. Cosmos remains, to this day, the most watched PBS series in the world. If one credits PBS' numbers, it has been seen by over half a billion people. His book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, focused on tools the reader could use to identify and debunk dubious claims and sloppy argument. Yet, against (or perhaps because of) this popular backdrop, even Sagan seems to have eventually succumb to the temptations of consensus and the poisons of advocacy.

Ironically, this temptation to advocacy is a sort of inverted form of Pascal's Gambit, wherein the infinite returns associated with religious salvation (eternal bliss), when dropped into an expected value calculation with any non-zero probability of that salvation occurring, result in infinite expected value numbers. Hard to resist converting to Catholicism in such circumstances. What's the net present value of infinite bliss? (If you asked "What's my discount rate?" please seek professional help).

Of course, there is also a sort of inverted "division by zero error" implicit in this sort of exercise. Expected value calculations lose all meaning and do so very quickly when infinity is used as a variable, as even vanishingly small probability assignments mean that even cosmically unlikely events are still worth betting vast sums (even all available sums) on. More crudely: "It's not the odds, it's the stakes," or perhaps "It if saves just one child...."

Where the costs of investing against such equations are low, the error remains relatively harmless. One could, I suppose, calculate the opportunity costs of pious living as near deadweight loss with vanishingly small probabilities of eternal bliss, but such costs are both subjective and (depending on the chosen faith) probably rather insignificant.

Given this, it is easy to see how even narrow odds on the total destruction of the human race suddenly justify incurring out-sized costs in preventative efforts. (Or the pursuit of advocacy by "any means necessary"). After all, what's a little data deletion, some aggressive instrument recalibration, or the act of packing a scholarly journal with sycophants when the fate of the world is at stake?

It is not often said of Pascal's Gambit that another implicit, and potentially fatal, assumption it requires is simply absorbed into the infinity singularity of the equation's construction. Christopher Hitchens, for example, wonders aloud if eternal bliss (or the conventional definition thereof) is actually even tolerable, much less comparable to infinite returns on investment:

Just consider for a moment what their heaven looks like. Endless praise and adoration, limitless abnegation and abjection of self; a celestial North Korea.

How does one calculate the expected value of a 50% chance that one will enjoy a state of being that has a 20% chance of being something you would consider eternally blissful?

It is an awful thing to indulge in the exploration of hero flaws. More terrible still to resist the sweet temptation to engage in the kind posthumous deification that seems to typify the western response to death (particularly when untimely). Sagan was and is a hero of mine and a man whom I would, without hesitation, credit with a significant (if absentee) contribution to my early personal development, making the exploration of his flaws both very painful and (after a fashion) very necessary.

Unfortunately, as his advocacy spread beyond the cause of scientific method into policy (Sagan adopted political causes as varied as the abolition of nuclear weapons and marijuana legalization) he fell into the same traps that seem to have ensnared the hapless scientists of the CRU. Crichton explains (scathingly) in the context of Sagan's support for the theory of "Nuclear Winter":

According to Sagan and his co-workers, even a limited 5,000 megaton nuclear exchange would cause a global temperature drop of more than 35 degrees Centigrade, and this change would last for three months. The greatest volcanic eruptions that we know of changed world temperatures somewhere between .5 and 2 degrees Centigrade. Ice ages changed global temperatures by 10 degrees. Here we have an estimated change three times greater than any ice age. One might expect it to be the subject of some dispute.

But Sagan and his co-workers were prepared, for nuclear winter was from the outset the subject of a well-orchestrated media campaign. The first announcement of nuclear winter appeared in an article by Sagan in the Sunday supplement, Parade. The very next day, a highly-publicized, high-profile conference on the long-term consequences of nuclear war was held in Washington, chaired by Carl Sagan and Paul Ehrlich, the most famous and media-savvy scientists of their generation. Sagan appeared on the Johnny Carson show 40 times. Ehrlich was on 25 times. Following the conference, there were press conferences, meetings with congressmen, and so on. The formal papers in Science came months later.

This is not the way science is done, it is the way products are sold.

The real nature of the conference is indicated by these artists' renderings of the effect of nuclear winter.

I cannot help but quote the caption for figure 5: "Shown here is a tranquil scene in the north woods. A beaver has just completed its dam, two black bears forage for food, a swallow-tailed butterfly flutters in the foreground, a loon swims quietly by, and a kingfisher searches for a tasty fish." Hard science if ever there was.

If this sounds familiar (drowning or even cannibalistic polar bears, melting ice on majestic mountains) there's a reason.

On the formula articulated by Sagan and others in Nuclear Winter: Global Consequences of Multiple Nuclear Explosions, Crichton points out that:

The similarity to the Drake equation is striking. As with the Drake equation, none of the variables can be determined. None at all. The TTAPS study addressed this problem in part by mapping out different wartime scenarios and assigning numbers to some of the variables, but even so, the remaining variables were-and are-simply unknowable. Nobody knows how much smoke will be generated when cities burn, creating particles of what kind, and for how long. No one knows the effect of local weather conditions on the amount of particles that will be injected into the troposphere. No one knows how long the particles will remain in the troposphere. And so on.

To its credit, the paper itself admits this, and does so right in the abstract, but does so in what, after some reflection, can only be thought of as political terms:

Although the results are necessarily imprecise due to wide range of possible scenarios and uncertainty in physical parameters, the most probable first-order effects are serious.

Absorb this for a moment, and I hope I am not torturing the meaning of this passage overmuch with my crude translation: "True, our findings are imprecise. But the imprecise possibility is very serious." It's not the odds, in other words, it's the stakes.

Sagan's assumptions, and likely in some measure his dedication to the original Nuclear Winter theory, caused him in 1991 to publicly, famously (and disastrously) predict that Iraqi oil fires started in the Gulf War would cause a mini Nuclear Winter in the Middle East. But why should we be surprised to find that this is the result when a theory that is populated almost entirely with assumptions and badly skewed by massive cost predictions meets the first few samples of real world data?

What other message could we possibly find in this transformation of a great scientist to a flawed, and finally human, advocate other than that advocacy is simply incompatible with science and the scientific method? Crichton again:

Finally, I would remind you to notice where the claim of consensus is invoked. Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way.

What pains me the most is a nagging uncertainty. What would Sagan think if he knew that Al Gore was using the Pale Blue Dot image in his anti-global-warming PowerPoint presentation? How does one comfortably wish that Sagan would be upset over the use of one of the icons of his life's work? What if he approved? What then?

Fortunately, advocacy of this kind has finally begun to lose its potency. Consider, the following after nearly 20 years of by-hook-or-by-crook, no holds bared advocacy and public shunning of skeptics:

Percentage of Americans who believe in angels: 55
Percentage of Americans who believe in anthropogenic global warming: 36
Percentage of Americans who believe in ghosts: 34
Percentage of Americans who believe in UFOs: 34

You have had 20 years or more and billions of public relations dollars at your disposal. You've resorted to tactics as varied as getting us young in schools and plastering our boob-tube programming with public service ads. You've poured subsidies into the field. You've enlisted the FDA, the EPA, the NEA, the United Nations, Hollywood, the Nobel committee and Al Gore. You've had a vice-like grip on the flow of information and hard data on this subject.

And you are polling two points above ghosts and UFOs and nineteen points below "angels."

I have some advice for you:


One of the easiest ways, it is said, to get the right answer is to post the wrong answer on the internet and wait a few hours for the inevitable corrections to pour in. There is a certain charm in this. It is not, contrary to popular fashion, the crowd itself that enables this effect, but the incredible gains in information velocity. It is not that the entire planet's collective consciousness pieces together the lyrics to Stairway to Heaven in parallel. It is that a few manically obsessed fans who finally have a public voice have labored for hours to accurately transcribe, for no conventional remuneration of any kind, every word ever sung by any once, present or potential future member of Led Zeppelin. That along with a bit of artificial selection quickly popularizes the most complete, or at least the most polished, version thereof. Amazing. Magic.

Not so sure? I'd wager that it takes you less than 5 minutes to find a list of every "Garbage Pail Kid" trading card ever printed and get that information from some source other than the original manufacturer. (In fact, I will wager that third party sources on the web are probably more accurate and complete). Or you can just use this link I have provided you after searching for 5 minutes myself, proving that even the process of conducting relevant searches eventually gets aggregated for the reader.

In this context, it is easy to see why disclosure terrifies the likes of Mann and the CRU, which depend on a certain degree of expertise exclusivity for their very existence. Before the massive gains in information velocity, advocacy was likely an essential aspect of science. That success and and notoriety were linked in science not even 30 or 40 years ago is easily established merely by watching a few movies from the 1950s. If we can say anything about the Sagan experience, it is probably that Sagan transcended the pre and post internet periods, but did not adjust to the needs of the latter. If fame was a prerequisite for successful science not a few decades ago, is it still?

It is interesting to note that not a month after the disclosure of just a portion of CRU models and data the public understanding of the issue has spiked to such a degree that almost anyone who has not been in a persistent vegetative state for the last month now knows that there was some issue of data splicing in the "hockey stick graph" after 1960. Those with a more wonkish disposition can read the analysis of a systems administrator sleuthing down the source of the leak by analyzing the data, follow the discussions of legal experts opining on possible criminal or civil liability for the leaker (or the leak's "victims") or review the "dehomogenization" of the Darwin Airport station temperature data in the Global Historical Climate Network dataset and muse over what appears to be pretty plain, manual and radical lock-step adjustment thereof.

The point is not that Willis Eschenbach, the article's author, is right or wrong about data manipulation. The point is that his findings (and therefore the underlying dataset) will likely be subject to several orders of magnitude more "peer review" than anything the CRU ever had to endure before the leak.

If you needed any more reason to believe that the traditional model of science and peer review, a system closely guarded from the tyranny of outsiders and their unending and infernal questions, is dead you might simply indulge in the realization that obfuscation is simply the last fig-leaf these institutions have left to cling to and reflect on the fact that in the 240 hours following the leak more pure knowledge and analysis was made available to the public than in the 24 years prior.

Dare we hope that the power to deceive, or at least control the flow of information, over the long term might actually be ebbing? Well, you might find the answer in the discovery that this is not even remotely an isolated bit of panic. Powerful forces used to controlling the dissemination of information are very worried.

Murdoch is talking about more than simply charging for access to the online versions of his newspapers, which The Wall Street Journal and a few others have been doing successfully for years. Railing against “content kleptomaniacs” like Google, Microsoft, and—which effectively syndicate News Corp. content without paying—Murdoch even suggested he might put up walls that prevent the stories in his papers from appearing in Google searches at all.

Congress is talking about bailing out newspapers this month. The FTC is targeting bloggers. What, do you suppose, is that all about?

Perhaps unsurprisingly Crichton saw this coming years ago:

The deterioration of the American media is dire loss for our country. When distinguished institutions like the New York Times can no longer differentiate between factual content and editorial opinion, but rather mix both freely on their front page, then who will hold anyone to a higher standard?

Media and science have merged, assuring the doom of both institutions in their present form.

Clever finem respice readers who recognize what may or may not be long and protracted but will certainly be a losing campaign by conventional content providers against the free flow of information would do well to short the old guard of the Fourth Estate. Very clever finem respice readers will immediately recognize the parallels and will augment their returns by shorting "peer review" and scientific journals in the same breath.

  1. 1. Browning, Robert, Andrea del Sarto (1855).
  2. 2. You would be hard pressed to recognize Billy Idol as Tesla in "The Prestige." (Edit: this is because it's not Billy Idol, but David Bowie... duh- FR regrets the error). But then, you knew this, as I was moved to cite it some time ago.
  3. 3. Lord Brooke, Mustapha V:iv (1609).
  4. 4. Burton, Robert, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621). So similar to Browning's sentiment apparently, that this quote is often erroneously attributed to him. The commonality of the two writers' initials probably helps perpetuate this error.
[Art Credit: Christopher Nolan "The Prestige," Film (2006), from the author's private collection. The pursuit of truth and excellence is the facade which conceals the baser motivations of vengeance, fame, hatred, sabotage, chicanery and, of course vanity. An outstanding tour of the contours that make public performance (and wholesale deception thereby) merely a means to a personal end, and murder.]

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