Three Things, and a Thought

h/t to Don at Zoopraxiscope for links to these two essays:

Richard Grenier, “The Gandhi Nobody Knows

Michael Crichton, “Aliens Cause Global Warming” (PDF)

I had read years ago about what a creep and weirdo Gandhi was, so this first article just reinforced a vague opinion. The second, though – wow. Regular readers here have possibly noticed my occassional reference to the Gell-Man Amnesia Affect:

“Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.” 

– Michael Crichton (1942-2008)

So, before this essay, I knew Crichton as a really smart guy who wrote some fun novels and coined a very useful concept – and had the sense of humor to ask Nobel Prize winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann (who is the sort of person Crichton would have lunch with) if he couldn’t attribute it to him, since it sounded better that way.

But this essay is now my second-favorite Caltech address, after the epic Feynman one I often quote, the ‘Cargo Cult Science‘ address. Crichton is also a very good writer (surprise), so where a large part of Feinman’s appeal is in his folksy bluntness, Crichton is a pleasure to read just for the nice English – and the hammer he throws down. Dude ain’t buying it:

To an outsider, the most significant innovation in the global warming controversy is the overt reliance that is being placed on models. Back in the days of nuclear winter, computer models were invoked to add weight to a conclusion: “These results are derived with the help of a computer model.” But now large-scale computer models are seen as generating data in themselves. No longer are models judged by how well they reproduce data from the real world increasingly, models provide the data. As if they were themselves a reality. And indeed they are, when we are projecting forward. There can be no observational data about the year 2100. There are only model runs.

This fascination with computer models is something I understand very well. Richard Feynmann called it a disease. I fear he is right. Because only if you spend a lot of time looking at a computer screen can you arrive at the complex point where the global warming debate now stands.

I’d love to quote pretty much the whole thing. He starts with a withering – and familiar to readers here – criticism of Drake equation. Oh, heck, here it is:

What is the Drake Equation? - Universe Today
looks scientifilicious….

This serious-looking equation gave SETI an 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. And guesses -just so we’re clear-are merely expressions of prejudice. Nor can there be “informed guesses.” If you need to state how many planets with life choose to communicate, there is simply no way to make an informed guess. It’s simply prejudice.

As a result, the Drake equation can have any value from “billions and billions” to zero. An expression that can mean anything means nothing. Speaking precisely, the Drake equation is literally meaningless, and has nothing to do with science.

Next, he makes a possibly topical observation:

Stepping back, I have to say the arrogance of the modelmakers is breathtaking. There have been, in every century, scientists who say they know it all. Since climate may be a chaotic system-no one is sure-these predictions are inherently doubtful, to be polite. But more to the point, even if the models get the science spot-on, they can never get the sociology. To predict anything about the world a hundred years from now is simply absurd.

And:

Just as we have established a tradition of double-blinded research to determine drug efficacy, we must institute double-blinded research in other policy areas as well. Certainly the increased use of computer models, such as GCMs, cries out for the separation of those who make the models from those who verify them. The fact is that the present structure of science is entrepreneurial, with individual investigative teams vying for funding from organizations which all too often have a clear stake in the outcome of the research-or appear to, which may be just as bad. This is not healthy for science.

“…cries out for the separation of those who make the models from those who verify them.” That’s it exactly. Ferguson never had his programming and numbers checked by a disinterested party. Instead, a known panic-monger with a history of hysterical – and hysterically wrong – predictions of doom, was allowed to be be judge, jury, and executioner of his own scheme. INSANE.

The appropriate disinterested parties would be numbers guys. Data analysts. Model builders. Scientifically literate experts in the scientific method. Expressly not other epidemiologists, even less politicians and journalists.

Finally, also years ago, I read somewhere that the origin of the English word ‘slave’ was Slav, that so many Slavs were enslaved that it became a brand name, as it were. Well, check this out:

The oldest written history of the Slavs can be shortly summarised–myriads of slave hunts and the enthralment of entire peoples. The Slav was the most prized of human goods. With increased strength outside his marshy land of origin, hardened to the utmost against all privation, industrious, content with little, good-humoured, and cheerful, he filled the slave markets of Europe, Asia, and Africa. It must be remembered that for every Slavonic slave who reached his destination, at least ten succumbed to inhuman treatment during transport and to the heat of the climate. Indeed Ibrāhīm (tenth century), himself in all probability a slave dealer, says: “And the Slavs cannot travel to Lombardy on account of the heat which is fatal to them.” Hence their high price.

The Arabian geographer of the ninth century tells us how the Magyars in the Pontus steppe dominated all the Slavs dwelling near them. The Magyars made raids upon the Slavs and took their prisoners along the coast to Kerkh where the Byzantines came to meet them and gave Greek brocades and such wares in exchange for the prisoners.

“The Cambridge Medieval History,” Vol. II, 1913, via https://www.etymonline.com/word/slave

That would be 1/2 of my ancestory. Note that Slavs were sold to – Africans. If this reperations nonsense comes to pass, I’m getting in line.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

7 thoughts on “Three Things, and a Thought”

  1. Crichton’s article was pretty good, but he does strike me as the sort of guy who ALMOST gets it, but isn’t quite wise enough to see the full picture – there’s some smugness in there in his spelling out of an opposition between religion and science, opposition I contend should not exist – and that he acts like it does exist is in fact in one very real sense the problem.

    But I suppose nobody can have everything.

    1. I saw that, too. Crichton is not nearly sceptical enough about the received history, but, hey, he’s on top of the modern problems. Feynman also wasn’t sympathetic to religion.

      Can’t have everything. At least, I suspect one could have a rational discussion about religion with either man. Might not get too far, but I suspect they could be reasonable about it.

    2. Opposition that DOES NOT exist, if the faith is Christianity. I love as much as anyone to see smart guys like Crichton and Feynman dismantle the modern Science myth, but to see them maintain the old credulous Medievals myth is discouraging. Do they really not know – I guess they do now – who created that whole method whereby the magical rhinoceros horn myth was disproved? They weren’t the only ones who believed that; they were the first to stop believing it.

  2. Eeeh, pick your targets– he’s already breaking their brains by explaining that Scientism is the religion-as-they-have-been-taught-it-is, distracting them with THAT level of stuff would just drive folks away.

    It’s like explaining saints to people. You don’t use the bible, or tradition, or anything like that with most people– you keep it simple. “God grants us eternal life, right? You ask your friends to pray for you, right? Why not ask you friends who are with God to pray for you?”

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