It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Devil You Don't Know

Norbert Wiener, coiner of the word "cybernetics", eccentric and flawed though he was, was a genius at more than the mathematical level (where his ideas, largely unattributed to him these days, pervade much of modern engineering and science). His vanishing from the public consciousness is unjustified.

I'm rereading some of the popular materials written by Norbert Wiener that helped me form my point of view as a young adult. I guess I can be pleased with my young self (I believe I first read Wiener at 19) not only for having plowed through this dense and meandering but often subtle material but also for having retained so much of it.

Some of it is particularly germane to the question of "bad guys" on questions of fact and what to do about them. I think, like it or not, this is the crucial question we face. As scientists, we start off at a disadvantage. Wiener addresses why.

Wiener distinguished two diametrically opposed religious traditions, the Manichean heresy (or I would say, Zoroastrian) wherein the universe is finely balanced between good and evil and the final triumph of good is in no way certain, and on the other hand what he calls the "Augustinean" tradition (referring to St. Augustine), wherein evil is perceived as incompleteness, in other words lack or absence of good, and is therefore effectively countered by ethical efforts into filling the gaps.

The scientist is always working to discover the order and organization of the universe, and is thus playing a game against the arch enemy, disorganization. Is this devil Manichean or Augustinean? ... The difference between these two sorts of demons will make itself apparent in the tactics to be used against them. The Manichean devil is an opponent ... who is determined on victory and will use any trick of craftiness or dissimulation to obtain this victory. ... On the other hand, the Augustinean devil, which is not a power in itself, but the measure of our own weakness, may require our full resources to uncover, but when we uncover it we will in a certain sense have exorcised it, and it will not alter its policy on a matter already decided with the mere intention of confounding us further. ...

As to the nature of the devil, we have an aphorism of Einstein's, "The Lord is subtle, but He isn't simply mean." ...

This distinction between the passive resistance of nature and he active resistance of an opponent suggests a distinction between the research scientist and the warrior or the game player. ...

The scientist is thus disposed to regard his opponent as an honorable enemy. This attitude is necessary for his effectiveness as a scientist, but tends to make him the dupe of unprincipled people in war and politics. It also has the effect of making it hard for the general public to understand him, for the public is much more concerned with personal antagonists than with nature as an antagonist.

From "The Human Use of Human Beings", (c) Norbert Wiener 1950 and 1954, chapter 2.

Daemon image from


Steve Bloom said...

That last paragraph seems like it could have been written about Bart's interaction with Fuller.

John Mashey said...

Actually, that's the wrong game.

Consider truth as a football. Real scientists fight hard over the position, and strong evidence moves it down the field and scores goals. There are rules, and referees, and sometimes players say bad words.

Global warming is a Big Ten team [or UT for MT] playing the local high school. It's already 100-0 in the first quarter, so there's no doubt about the outcome [Getting warmer, we're doing it, it will get hot] although the final score [how much hotter] still has some uncertainty. High scores are bad. Final could Bad, or Worse, unless head coach takes strong action to hold the score down.

But oddly, many people can't see the score and aren't sure who's winning. A bunch of hooligans use amplifiers to drown quarterback's calls, steal the football, move the goalposts [couldn't resits that], throw rocks at players, and manufacture complaints to try to get players thrown off team. When all that doesn't work, they generate fog to hide the scoreboard, and get friendly PR commentators elsewhere to pontificate about poor play, even though they're nowhere near the game.

Then, next week, this all starts again at different stadium, so it's an old experience for the attackers, and a new one for the regular teams, who always start the game trying to play by the rules.

Behind the scenes, all this is organized by a network of bettors who don't like the real scores.

[Inspired by PSU-LSU mudfight in Orlando, although that was very close.]

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...

Interesting view of things. I suppose this leads to a question: Can we 'reduce' a Manichean task to an Augustinean task, and thereby make it more amenable to methods of scientific analysis?

In this case, of course, the task is different: it's not to know more about the climate, but to know more about the people who try to sow misinformation regarding what we know about the climate.

-- bi

Nick Barnes said...

Hey, Beastie isn't a devil! He's a daemon. His heritage goes back to Maxwell's demon, and thence to demons in Greek mythology.
Beastie is entirely benign.

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...

John Mashey:

I think the whole idea is that one needs to tackle the task that actually needs doing, rather than the task that you think should be done.

Using your football analogy: It's no use complaining that people aren't following The Rules, if the public doesn't know or care much about The Rules.

A better question to ask is, what are the real, de facto, unwritten rules of the actual game being played? What are the unwritten requirements of the task at hand? We need to grasp those.

In addition to an academic study of climate, we need an academic study of climate inactivism.

-- bi

rpauli said...

I might add another viewpoint...speciation. Good and bad as ways to differentiate what we are. With allegiance to one species, one can act to preserve and survive through multi-generations using behavior labeled "good". Contrary or evil acts challenge that species survival.

But that labeled as contrary or evil, may just be serving different goals of survival, and with allegiance to another group (the group can be as small as 1 ). Whatever the size of the group, each could see any other challenges to their good existence as evil.

This is one way to see a struggle by all living beings for survival resources. Some may prevail, some not. As all sustainable resources dwindle, it is possible that none may survive.

Unique speciation could extend to full individuation - where we have many plans to survive (each with their own standards of good and evil), and it is possible that no one will find the right system for surviving and thriving.

So now we could be fighting over the scraps.

Anna Haynes said...

> some of the popular materials written by Norbert Wiener ..."The Human Use of Human Beings"

Others you'd recommend? (he's new to me, I need a reading list)

> the passive resistance of nature and he active resistance of an opponent

An intellectually dishonest one; or at least, one who plays by a very different rulebook, that's kept secret.

> could have been written about Bart's interaction with Fuller

Yup. I bet we all started out presuming intellectual honesty; it's almost dishonorable not to.

Related, an oddity: both co-authors of "Betrayers of the Truth", a 1983(?) book publicizing cases of scientific fraud, have themselves recently(2-3 yrs) served as agents spreading anti-science climate change disinformation.
(25+yrs ago seems awfully far ahead, to be laying the groundwork for distrust in science)

Anna Haynes said...

And ditto to bi's "the task know more about the people who try to sow misinformation"

Much of what is known is scattered, online; bringing it together in 1 place is the purpose of Sourcewatch.
(but is there a less human-intensive way to inject it into Sourcewatch? - that doesn't compromise quality, I mean)

Vinny Burgoo said...

@John Mashey

Your American football analogy is wack. The game is more like 6-0 points in the first quarter with another twenty or thirty in the pipeline for the home team, little doubt about the outcome but a lot of doubt about the final score - yet only the final score matters. Which is another reason the analogy is wack. There's no point in winning the AGW-is-true game if you get the impacts wrong. Only the impacts matter and they are, as you say yourself, of uncertain magnitude.

Michael Tobis said...

The neither-duck-nor-non-duck position is not usually intellectually dishonest, but is rather intellectually incompetent.

The dishonesty is not in getting the duck wrong. It's in pretending that one is in a position to evaluate the existence or otherwise of a duck.

Journalists believe that their right to write about something constitutes ethical license to do so, and their getting attention for their writings justifies them, The fact that what they do is legal doesn't suffice to show that it's ethical. On the other hand, it isn't the same sort of intellectual dishonesty showed by Singer, Michaels etc., wherein evidence is carefully cherry picked to reveal a planned misimpression.

Rather it is evidence of the writer's failure as a reader to distinguish between sense and nonsense. Many people become bullshit amplifiers with perfectly honest intentions. Unfortunately, the very same blindness that makes it impossible for them to see who is lying makes it impossible for them to see that they are gullible.

This doesn't account for Revkin, who surtely knows better than what he writes. But it could easily account for Fuller.

So, although Revkin is usually more interesting than Fuller, he appears to be consciously a coward, while Fuller is merely confused. Revkin will have a tougher time explaining himself at the pearly gates, and probably has done a lot more damage. But Fuller, to be responsible, should find another beat, one where he is able to separate out the sheep from the goats.

Steve Bloom said...

I think Fuller is more malign than that, Michael, and not confused in the slightest. His description of the intellectual path he followed (from undecided/curious to being more persuaded by the likes of McIntyre and Lomborg) in the early months of his blog has no credibility.

Re Revkin, it will be interesting to see how he behaves now that he's no longer subject to editorial supervision.

Steve Bloom said...

As with Russian roulette, Vinny, the outcome is all in the timing. Keep playing long enough, though, and all uncertainty goes away.

Michael Tobis said...

Steve, if nobody were likely to be convinced by Lomborg and McIntyre, there would be no reaqson to worry about them. I find it entirely cerdible that people having a first serious look at the business find them more believable then the real realists.

Steve Bloom said...

I don't disagree, Michael, but you beg the question a bit since many if not most of those who find the likes of L/M appealing do so because of a predisposing ideology ("free market" or whatever one calls it). So the more pertinent question becomes why people who hold to that ideology prone to believing convenient untruths.

Vinny Burgoo said...

Re Steve Bloom's Russian roulette:

Another bad analogy. The outcome is too certain, too abrupt and too final and the timescale is too rigid. For Russian roulette to work with climate change, you'd need some sort of Gatling gun with an enormous but unknown number of barrels capable of firing everything from custard pies to non-fatal dum-dum bullets and loaded with a suitably small but unknown number of these projectiles, plus somehow a few prizes - a packet of sweets, the keys to an expensive car, a baby's arm holding an apple, etc. Not a very elegant contraption.

Tobacco might work slightly better. If you keep smoking long enough it'll almost certainly make you ill. If you're very lucky, you'll just get mild scurvy, be a bit short of puff but otherwise be healthy, wealthy, happy and wise (because, thanks to nicotine, you won't get Alzheimer's) and live to be 126, when you'll be struck by an asteroid and die quickly and painlessly with a small cigar stuck jauntily into your smile. If you're unlucky, sooner or later tobacco will give you one or more ailments that are serious enough to spoil your life, either directly or by exacerbating other factors. (The spoiling of course includes killing you but I don't want to stress that because only Lovelockian loonies reckon that AGW threatens mankind's existence.) Can you know which fate will be yours? No, but the latter is more likely, so you should probably quit. When? As soon as you can. Why? The chances are quite high that something else will spoil my life before the smoking kicks in. Yes, but there are a lot of something-else's. Dealing with them isn't really our business. We know about smoking. Smoking is an easily removable risk-factor. Trust me on this. I'm a dentist.

Hmmm. What it gains in accuracy, it loses in brevity. Perhaps all AGW analogies are wack.

rpauli said...

My favorite analogy is that of a giant Pakistani wedding - really. I attended one once and saw the men go outside and fire their rifles into the air in joy... this was in a fairly dense city and all I could do is wonder where the bullets would fall and what intensity and what kind of helmet should I wear. No one died that night.

But carbon combustion is like a gun shot into the air. Relatively harmless until we regard each automobile delivering millions of Carbon shots into the air. Millions of cars a day for 50 or 100 years. All of a sudden we got GHG bullets falling everywhere. And it will get worse.

Time to head back inside for the singing and dancing.

John Mashey said...

By the way, I think it isn't nice to show a generally friendly BSD daemon and all him a Devil...

Michael Tobis said...

Nobody like my illustrations this week.

The Augustinean devil is also a nice devil. That's the devil most people don't know. The nice one, the one that plays fair, the one that surrenders ground.

Michael Tobis said...

Nobody like my illustrations this week.

The Augustinean devil is also a nice devil. That's the devil most people don't know. The nice one, the one that plays fair, the one that surrenders ground.

Hank Roberts said...

tangentially related (Climategate), from one of my other favorite writers out there, this from Peter Watts:

"I’ve just been informed by someone codenamed “SciCurious” that my Climategate posting has been chosen as one of the “50 Best Science Blogging Posts of the Year” by an elite cabal of judges running something known as the Open Laboratory! Competition. (I do not know the purpose of the exclamation point. If it is a typo, it did not start with me.) Evidently these Top-50 are anthologised in dead-tree format for posterity, which is pretty cool.

Just to be clear: we’re talking about that rant in which I claimed that science depends at least partially on the pettiness and vindictiveness of scientists, and in which I proclaimed my fond desire to see the Pope immersed in nitric acid. One of the best science posts of the year, tube-wide.

I don’t understand it. I write about space vampires. I haven’t published a peer-reviewed technical paper in more than a decade. And yet, these troublesome vestiges of credibility continue to haunt me.

It is, of course, an honor ...."

gravityloss said...

So, to continue on the Wienerian hints and Frank-Bian reduction ideas, let's pedal back a little for the big picture.

A science needs to examine this, and there is perhaps already a right one, sociology.

Anybody know any sociologists who might know about research and other phenomena that are relevant to this kind of science denialism and its media propagation? And the failure of a proportion of journalism to grasp some central issue. (Is Monbiot the only journalist who has reported on the whole "think tank science" issue? Has anybody done it in the USA?)

Some good research projects, I imagine some dissertations on the subject in the future.

rpauli said...

I like to refer people to the excellent posting of

Richard said...

'As to the nature of the devil, we have an aphorism of Einstein's, "The Lord is subtle, but He isn't simply mean."'
But remember Bohr's retort to that (and the "God doesn't play dice with the universe" remark): "Einstein, stop telling God what to do."
I think that climate scientists (among others) are trying to convince themselves, as Einstein was, that they are dealing with an Augustinean devil when global climate is really a Manichean devil who can only be understood, if at all, with a mathematics of chaos that is only in its infancy. Remember the butterfly effect? When we can only understand the causal relationships among all the elements of the Earth's climate at the first-order or maybe if we are lucky the second-order level, and we don't even know how many levels there are that may cancel out those low-order effects, I don't see how it is possible to claim some precise level of confidence that, say, human beings are responsible for the apparent global warming taking place. As John von Neumann warned, “There's no sense in being precise when you don't even know what you're talking about.”