Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Dissecting a Politician

The unlucky focus of my dissection is Nigel Lawson who was actually the MP for the constituency where I grew up. The book I wanted to take some quotes from is "An appeal to reason: A cool look at global warming".

Even before the main text starts he uses some political tricks. This is from the Foreword:
"... this book, despite being promoted by an outstanding literary agent, was rejected by every British publisher to whom it was submitted - and there were a considerable number of them.

As one rejection put it: 'My fear, with this cogently argued book, is that it flies so much in the face of the prevailing orthodoxy that it would be very difficult to find a wide marker'. The prevailing orthodoxy can be both stifling and intolerant. Those that have the temerity to question it have to become accustomed to being labelled 'deniers' - a loaded term ..." 
Now this is already loading the book for the reader. There is no sense of objectivity and reason here. This is saying here is my reasoned argument that has been rejected by closed minded orthodoxy and I am right and they are wrong. The prevailing orthodoxy might actually be correct and so it might be the right thing not to publish something that is wrong.

Next in the Introduction:
"By way of preamble, I readily admit that I am not a scientist. But then neither are the vast majority of those who pronounce on the matter with far greater certainty than I shall do here. Moreover (and this is frequently overlooked) the great majority of those scientists who speak with such certainty and apparent authority about global warming and climate change, are not in fact climate scientists, or indeed earth scientists, of any kind and thus have no special knowledge to contribute."
So, he is ignorant but that is alright because everyone else is ignorant as well. So his voice should count equally to all the others. Actually there are various levels of ignorance. If you are stuck in an isolated valley on a camping trip with a party of friends and you break a leg. None of the party are doctors, but who would you rather have treat you, your friend the vet or your friend the accountant? I might not be a climate scientist but as a scientist I know how to weigh up data and make scientific arguments and I know what limitations there are in the data. This is a use of an appeal to authority and underneath it all his authority is that he is a famous politician who now sits in the House of Lords where they debated these issues. I remember Lord Ackner giving a similar argument about his authority as head of the bar and why it should not be questioned. Authority should always be questioned.

Next in chapter one is the absolute howler:
"Nor, incidentally, does the fact that a scientific hypothesis has been published in a 'peer reviewed' learned journal provide ipso facto any evidence either that the science is 'settled', or that the hypothesis in question is likely to be proved correct. It does not even mean that the author's data and methods are available for scrutiny, or that his results are reproducible, as scientific journals, in contrast to most leading economic journals, do not require this."
That is wrong in so many ways. Firstly they do require the data and methods to be available for scrutiny. Most of the references cited come from Science and Nature which are both poor at making the methods and data available in the articles as they are in the accompanying web material as they have strict limits on article size. Real scientific journals should contain all the details. Here he is using an ad hominem argument against all science. He also cites Popper and how theories need to be refutable, but here he talks about proving a hypothesis. According to Popper you can NEVER prove a hypothesis, knowledge is always contingent.

I hate peer review as well and as he later points out it can lead to conventional wisdom dominating and a lack of  risk taking,  but if done well by open minded reviewers who take it that they might be wrong it does strenghten papers by improving the arguments. This is so long as it is not used as a political tool as it so often is. Economics is actually critiqued by Popper in the Poverty of Historicism where he says we cannot predict the future and so it is doomed to fail, as it is based purely on induction. What we observe now might not be what happens in the future.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Aristitotle's Causes

  1. Material cause - what is the object made of

  2. Formal cause - the definition of the object - ontological argument - Wittgenstein's pictorial logic

  3. Efficient cause - how the object was produced

  4. Final cause - why the object exists

Ethics 101


Good and bad are not opposites - good is the mean between excess or deficiency. So between rashness and cowardice lies courage or boldness, between miserliness or profligacy lies generosity.

Mill and Utilitarianism

The best acts produce the most happiness, but to restrain hedonism and selfish personal happiness different pleasures had different values. The problem is that this leads to intellectual snobbery. The problem of high art that you can see in James Martin's book.

Trolley Problem

A runaway railway trolley will kill five people if it continues down the track or one person if it goes down the alternative track. Should we change the signal? That by a simple calculus of utility suggests we should switch the tracks. What about if the one person is a world famous neurosurgeon? Now imagine there is a bridge over the track with a large man and you can stop the trolley by pushing the large man onto the track and save the five. Should you push them?

Metaphysics 101

Kant's left handed universe

Is space absolute or relative? Newton thought that it was but Leibniz argued that if you created another universe but with everything translated then it would be the same, as only the distances between particles (internal coordinates) matter.

Kant created a thought experiment to show Newton was right and Leibniz wrong by imagining a universe that contains only a left hand. Then if you create another universe this time with an identical left hand then while all the internal distances are the same these two universes are clearly not the same as they are mirror images of each other.

Now we have general relativity that shows that space is like a plastic sheet that folds and so the space we see are all those points that share the same time. The bending is caused by gravity and acceleration, which are equivalent.

The reason why relative and absolute are important comes when we consider,

Laplace's Demon

If the universe is composed of atoms (using atoms in the broadest sense to mean particles), and these are governed by the laws of physics then if there is a super intelligent demon that knows the positions and velocities of all the particles at a particular time. Then they can calculate the positions and veolicities for any other time and the future would be completely determined. There would be no possibility of having free will other than as an illusion. We would be destined to have the life we have.

Some argue that quantum mechanics removes this rigid determinism but this was the root of Einstein's famous saying that "God does not play dice". He means that the probabilities of quantum mechanics cannot apply to determinism and in particular the theory must retain causality. Events cause future events to happen. If causality is broken then there are no laws. Chaos is another example of what seems like random behaviour but it still maintains rigid determinism, it just requires an even higher standard of knowledge for the Demon.

Ryle's Ghost in the Machine

Descartes introduced the idea of dualism, i.e. mind stuff is different to physical stuff. This causes problems with understanding how the two interract. Gilbert Ryle thought this was the wrong view. For him they are an undivided whole and the body and its activities comprises the mind - a way of describing the machine's activities. In more modern terms we can imagine that mind "emerges" from the components of the body.

Epistemology 101


Epistemology is the theory of knowledge. The philosophy of understanding which determines the limitations of knowledge. The foundations of science depend on epistemology. Important questions are what is truth? How do we know? Absolutists such as Plato think that there is some perfect knowledge, an absolute truth that exists although we might never discover it. Relativists deny that there is an absolute truth and argue that knowledge depends on context.

Hume and Induction

The value of science is that it makes predictions about the future, usually these are based on past experiences. This assumes that the past is representative of the future. This process is called inductive inference. The question is have we observed all of the possibilities, so that our predictions are likely to be correct or are there any unknowns, either known or even worse might their be unknown unknowns (see Rumsfeld)? Hume said that it was not logically justified but this is how we actually operate.

Popper and Falsification

Popper argued that science cannot procede by induction and suggested that it develops by "conjecture and refutation". Scientists propose models of the world (theories and hypotheses) which are they then seek to falsify.  We cannot prove a hypothesis true, but any theory that cannot be falsified cannot be a part of science. This is a way of undermining pseudo-science such as astrology which does not try to provide a falsification.

Kuhn's Scientific Revolutions

In the structure of scientific revolutions Kuhn argued that "normal science" takes place in the context of scientific paradigms (fundamental world views) which define how we create our models/hypotheses. Sometimes these paradigms fail during revolutions which follow a period of crisis when existing science faces an increasing number of paradoxes. One example is the Copernican revolution in astronomy. The fluid model of electrical conduction is another important example as is the move to quantum mechanics from classical mechanics. At the minute both physics and biology are facing a period with an increasing number of puzzles and paradoxes and so it is possible that we are entering another paradigm change.


This is the view of William James. The question we should always ask is "What practical difference does it make?" If the answer is none then the alternatives can be implied to be the same. So a belief is true if if helps us practically - is it useful, helpful applicable. This is the nature of Truth. Probably this is close to how most scientists think. Is it also applicable to religion? Can we just believe certain tenets of faiths because they make a practical difference to our experience of our lives?

Friday, 10 September 2010

Rumsfeld on unknown unknowns

Baggini gives a version of Rumsfeld's speech, which he points out to be philosophically correct but in a context that I cannot find on videos of the speech. I cannot find a video of the section "Reports that say that something hasn't happened are interesting to me, because as we know there are ...". All the videos I can find show Rummy to be evasive and suggest he does not merit the benefit of the doubt he is given by Baggini, as he ends the interview saying I am not going to tell you which they are (known unknowns or unknown unknowns).

The video is here but it might be edited:
Most complete - starts at "There are .."
He also seems to have used the same speech more than once.
Here is another video.

Here is the official transcript version used by Baggini:

Rumsfeld: Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.
This is the problem of induction and the weakness of positivism. We just cannot know what we do not know. The typical example is swans are white, and experience said this was true until we found black swans. You can never prove a hypothesis you can only falsify it - see Karl Popper on refutations.

The term was used by the US military before Rumsfeld in giving guidance for war games and suggesting unknown unknowns should be incorporated into games so that they were unfair, because real life is unfair. For the Star Trek geeks an example of this is Kirk's response to the Kobayashi Maru simulation from the
Wrath of Khan.

Fallacies: from J Baggini - Do They Think You're Stupid.

If I don't do it somebody else will

"If we want to stop the defence industry in this country, we can do so. The result incidentally would be that someone else supplies the arms that we supply."
Tony Blair

If you carry out the action then you are directly responsible. You cannot be held less responsible because it was inevitable. This confuses cause and responsibility

Existentialist Fallacy

This is the confusion of can or ought with must. Just because someone carries out an action or expresses an opinion, this just means that it is a legitimate choice. It does not follow that everyone should make the same choice.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Susan Greenfield - Stephen Hawking is like the Taliban

So says Prof Susan Greenfield. Now we all make heat of the moment comments and I also get tired of the excessive rants of the atheists who forget about pragmatism, not because they are necessarily wrong, but because they go the wrong way about making their point. But here is a nice article showing Prof. Greenfield's past track record.

Tom Chivers in the Times

Then there is her difficulties with the Royal Institution reported in the Guardian. In the end she did a deal to end the Sex Discrimination case - as also reported in the Guardian. The Telegraph was less sympathetic and argued that she should have been sacked.

If you want to see live updates of Prof. Greenfield's controveries then watch the Ben Goldacre twitter feed and the Bad Science blogs where she makes a regular appearance. Although she did decline to meet Goldacre for a debate at a literary festival.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Common Sense and the Common Cold

In his book "Do they think you're stupid" Julian Baggini takes Edzard Ernst to task over something he said about homeopathy.
"If you study medicine and pharmacology, you know that [homeopathy] can't work" - Edzard Ernst
'The alternative professor' Sarah Boseley Guardian 25th Sept 2003.

Baggini says that this is an example of the fallacy that if there is no rational explanation then it cannot be true. He then gives the example of Lord Kelvin saying that heavier than air flying machines were not possible, to show how our knowledge of the world changes and that just because there is no rational explanation today, this does not mean that there will not be one tomorrow.

Now this is true to a certain extent, but truth is a rather deceptive and tantalising (in the historical meaning of the word) concept. There are some things we know and we can know that our models will not be supplanted by some alternatives - flat Earthers are not credible any more. Kelvin is actually not a very good example as he was actually wrong pretty often - he showed the world could not be ancient or the core would have cooled completely and so gave the creationists plenty of ammunution against Darwin. He also said at the end of the 19th Century there were only two clouds (problems to be solved) before physics would be complete. Sadly the clouds lead to relativity and quantum mechanics and the end of his view of physics. In the case of heavier than air flying machines he just had to look at birds - they are a bit heavier than air.  Anyway too much digression back to Ernst. What Ernst means is that if you know medicine and pharmacology you know that there is no mechanism that can possibly allow homeopathy to have an effect. So you do not need to carry out the experiments as Baggini suggests. As these are harder to carry out unequivocally to deal with the placebo effect.

Anyway a much bigger mistake is his dealing with common sense and why it is often wrong. His example is the common cold and he cites Lewis Wolpert who uses the example of your mum telling you to wrap up properly and to dry yourself properly or you will get a cold. I know of doctors who share my mum's view, although my brother spent most of his youth trying to show she was wrong. The common cold is a virus and so being damp or cold has no effect, but being inside keeping warm with virus carriers does (this is why we get more colds in winter). Baggini cites this as true but this is the exact same mistake that Ernst made. Has anyone done the experiment to see whether it is true? In this case the virus is the mechanism for getting the cold but could we expand on this mechanism?

What are the effects of getting cold or of going about with wet hair and not dried properly?
  • Your body takes action to protect your temperature.
  • You shiver.
  • You get goose bumps.
Could any of these factors "cause" a cold?

Now I use cause in the broadest sense. Are any of these factors contributing to increase the likelihood of you getting the virus? Now I can make some thought models - I can do what Kelvin should have done. Here are some hypotheses:
  1. When I am cold my body has to warm me up by generating more internal heat and burning more fuel, this takes more oxygen and so I breath more deeply and more frequently increasing the chances of taking one of those viral particles into my lungs and so "causing" my cold.
  2. By using energy to keep warm I cannot use that energy in my defence mechanisms such as my immune system which is constantly fighting the ever present virus. So as I get "run down" in my weakened state it is more likely that I get a cold.
  3. Colds and flu are more frequent in the winter months and we do not change our patterns of behaviour sufficiently to explain this difference just because of being indoors more, and so this correlation must hide a true causative effect that we have not discovered yet.
Now all of these are reasonable arguments that could be true - so maybe common sense should not be discounted in this case.