Friday, June 15, 2012

It Ain't Majic

The problem is that it ain't majic, it is science, and we need it to inform the debate about what to do about just about anything in today's world.  What we need is information without the disinformation. We don't need Judith Curry giving a platform and credibility to fools like Claes Johnson.  We don't need Tony Watts and Roger Pielke Sr. going around for ziggtity years telling people that the surface temperature records are nonsense, we don't need people claiming that vaccines cause autism and AIDS can be cured by beet juice.  It does mean listening to those who think and do science.

Science is young, barely emerging from the infant stage 100 years ago.  Rutherford's atomic model of the atom is only 101 years old.  The medicine of 100 years ago was as likely to get you dead as to cure you, but was a lot better than the medicine of 200 years ago which would for sure kill you.

One of the things that science (and Eli includes the technology enabled by science in this) has done is make it possible for many more people to live in the world and live to an age.  That has its difficulties, but a benefit is that there are lots of clever people thinking about how the universe works.

This is doubly hard because science has enabled technologies which make virtual worlds appear as real as the one we live in, look at your television, your computer, your Wii or Xbox.  Now you are a kid.  What is real?

The problem is that we have piled up a lot of great science in the last 100 years but to most it looks like magic (ask the guy next to you how a computer works), and we are taught to enjoy but not to believe in magic.


Anonymous said...


dbostrom said...

Some beliefs occupy hermetic locked rooms-- closed, sealed and admitting no freedom of exploration or opportunity to cement faith through deeper understanding. We can imagine a myriad of these spaces and populate them with whatever arbitrary content we please, if we're prepared to ignore incoherence.

Other beliefs sit in a space that may be freely traveled without fear of falling and offers itself to unlimited scrutiny, improvement and extension.

For those of us who "believe" in science, our beliefs occupy a continuum of testable validity that may be traversed. Each movement in this continuum of understanding may be recorded so as to produce a coherent map of what we personally know rather than simply believe. Others have already made this map for us, so we don't all have to be explorers and cartographers. The edges of this map are the boundaries of our scientific understanding as well as the limits of our "belief."

Conveying this notion of connected facts seems a key step in helping us avoid becoming Eloi and Morlocks.

bluegrue said...

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. - Arthur C. Clarke

dbostrom said...

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. - Arthur C. Clarke

A masterly author expressing an appealing but incorrect aphorism. Magic can't be explained while technology is necessarily explained even as it is built.

Hank Roberts said...

So how can we tell if it's magic or technology? Let's think of a few tests that might help. What would these predict, if observed?

a) Try breaking it:
Smoke leaks out.

b) Disparage it aloud:
Works perversely

c) Curse it aloud:
Quits working entirely.

d) Hit it with a stick:
Resumes normal operation

What've we got here then?

guthrie said...

The technology and magic thing is complex, and perhaps understood in many different ways now than ACC himself would have understood it.
For starters, magic was a technology the way it was used in medieval Europe. Or at least natural magic was; demonic magic was a little more straightforwards although the authors of the malleus maleficarum spend a great deal of time stating what demons can and can't do in the physical world.
Magic as technology involces principles of similarity and others that I have forgotten.
The point anyway was that magic works, but you can't see how. An advanced technology works, but you can't see how, because you lack electron microscopes, knowledge of advanced physics etc.

So to many people technology is a form of magic.

I would rather say that science emerged more from the infant stage in the later 19th century, thus 120 to 140 years ago. It took up its modern form in the early 20th century, but the specific approaches and philosophy of science dates back to the 19th century.

The problem with the clever people thinking about the universe is budget cuts and demands for research to be of monetary worth, when anyone who knows anything about science knows that isn't how it works.

Of course you have elided the large grey area between science and engineering. Iw ouldn't say it was science that brought us the X box, rather engineering, i.e. the application of knowledge of how things worked, with science being the activity which finds out how things work.

Hank Roberts said...

I think this is our current great experiment -- testing whether having many kibitzers and wannabees adding more and more words to the scientific discourse.

Waste of time, or promoter of growth?

More ideas, better critiques, copying of good ideas faster, more interesting papers,is good.

But, gack, seeing more and more newly-created "poor-reviewed science" journals, not good.

Unsolicited bulk email to lists of undisclosed addresses inviting [] science papers, promising a quick review -- hmmmm.

Chaff explosion, plagiarism boom, or many honestly new and intriguing science papers -- what's your bet?

Hank Roberts said...

I've been thinking, maybe a voice-over explanation would help reach some who don't read well.

Warning, autoplay sound comes on:

Brian Dodge said...

The discovery of the electron - you know, the nanoscopic thingies that run around inside your computer and ultimately allow you to read what I have typed - came the year AFTER Arrhenius published his seminal paper.

bill said...

That's a great video, Hank.

As someone who has to issue a lot of instructions to volunteers as part of making a living, I have to say that it put me in mind of my all-time favourite video describing the difficulties of explanation.

Hank Roberts said...

Well 'splain this to me, because Curtin at Deltoid says WTF has explained it to him therefore not the IPCC. And it's beyond me.
What'd they do, what'd they find different running climate models with their revised numbers?

Far-IR Measurements at Cerro Toco, Chile: FIRST, REFIR, and AERI ...
by RP Cageao - 2010 -
The Radiative Heating in Underexplored Bands Campaign (RHUBC) .... Peak to peak differences do not exceed 7%, except in the center of the CO2 band ...

The Radiative Heating in Underexplored Bands Campaigns (RHUBC
by DD Turner - 2010 - Cited by 10
plateau (CJC) in the Atacama Desert in Chile (near the RHUBC II site). ... carbon dioxide has a strong absorption band centered at 667 cm−1, whereas ...

FIRST Observaions of Far‐Infrared Spectra During the RHUBC‐II ...
CO2, CH4, N2O, CO, CFC‐11, CFC‐12, CFC‐22, CCl4, CF4, SF6. O3 from Mid‐laitude Winter atmosphere. H2O, temperature & pressure from RHUBC‐II ...

EliRabett said...

Try this

(btw Watts has it and a couple of Bunnies are playing along. There is teaching to be done)

also, please use html linking for long links, blogger is truncating them.

Hank Roberts said...


Sorry, that was me being lazy, I pasted from Google search results after reading that abstract (I don't get the full text).

The question I couldn't quite phrase amounted to "uh, what?" after reading that "... in climate simulations resulted in significant radiative and dynamical changes ... relative to the older water vapor model."

Soooo, go to Watts for edification, eh? well, ok. Shudder.

Martin Vermeer said...

> What'd they do, what'd they find different running climate models with their revised numbers?

The newer model (the line-by-line radiation code of which agrees better with these measurements than that of the older model) was known to behave significantly differently. If we may believe the reported result, we may infer that it was probably behaving slightly more realistically. Yes, could have been said clearer.

A small piece of an enormously hard puzzle, slowly making models better and better. Note that this concerns the upper troposphere/lower stratosphere, where there is very little water vapor in an absolute sense; but processes essential for the system as a whole take place there. Note also that "the entire terrestrial spectrum" is an euphemism for "those far-out corners nobody thus far bothered with", where the Planck curve is low.

Martin Vermeer said...

Just looked up what Curtin wrote at Deltoid... wow.

Hank Roberts said...

Anonymous said...


I always have two thoughts when I read pieces such as that: to what extent do cultural memes inculcated at a very young age colour our understanding of the world, and to what extent do the neurological phenomena described in such work indicate the intellectual limits of the archicture of the human brain.

Obviously, the existence of rational humans indicates that we can progress (perhaps through natural selection) beyond superstition, if we can carry along the cultural/educational adjuncts required to function without superstition. However, the observations regarding the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex activity of physics majors makes me wonder just how close to intellectual red-lining we are, given the current version of wet-ware and given how much our early cultural sofware uploading actually may be involved...

Bernard J. Hyphen-Anonymous XVII, Esq.

Anonymous said...

Well Color me stoopid, that is why they call me "Hey Stoopid".

Way back at the dawn of science in 1919, Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, was attacked by a wide variety of ignorant opponents, who failed or did not want to understand the basic science.

Extract from "Max Planke History of Science":

"This new scholarly approach to Einstein’s opponents reveals that criticism of the theory of relativity outside of academic circles began much earlier than the 1920s. The roots of this opposition can be traced back to the nineteenth century, when popularization of the natural sciences led many citizens to devote their leisure to the pursuit of scientific understanding. This leisure-time study of science led some individuals to create universal theories of their own; in some cases these simple, often mechanical explanations of the world enabled them to assemble a cadre of adherents drawn from a shared popular-scientific milieu."


The cranks or crackpots called Anthony Watts, Andrew Montford and their very small number of very loud ignorant Internets friends, are no different from those same lost souls of yesteryear.

The tiny number of cranks and ignorant crackpots, who fear change, will always exist in some shape or form.

Or, as Anthony's predecessors, all the horse buggy whip makers would say, at the beginning of the 20th Century, these new smelly horseless carriages, are just an expensive passing fad.

Watt, me worry?

Chris_Winter said...

Hank Roberts wrote: "I think this is our current great experiment — testing whether having many kibitzers and wannabees adding more and more words to the scientific discourse.

"Chaff explosion, plagiarism boom, or many honestly new and intriguing science papers — what's your bet?"

Chaff explosion. Which at some point forces the intervention of effective gatekeepers.

You know, I think this touches on the contention that having more people means more innovation, more problems getting solved. Therefore we must not try to limit population growth. I saw it most recently in Robert Zubrin's latest book, Merchants of Despair.

I do not agree with this.