Archive for the GIGO Category

A response to James

Posted in Blogging, GIGO on June, 2013 by melendwyr

From the thread about Bertrand Russell and the Ship of Fools; I’ve decided to expand my response to James into a thread of its own.  The quoted and italicized parts are from James, formerly of the comment thread.

“You believe that Bertrand Russell presented this argument.”

No, I’ve read the argument attributed as being presented by Russell.  Whether he originated the argument, or repeated a pithy formulation he encountered from someone else, I don’t know – and I don’t care.  I do care whether he ever used the argument, but only because I’ve said he did (and can’t find the attribution, which I had on-hand at the time I wrote the post).  If I hadn’t said that, I’d care only to the degree that it affects the perceived reliablity of the source.

One of the big problems I have with ‘philosophy’ is its focus on WHO instead of WHAT.  I care about the prepositions, not the individuals who happened to speak them first.  Identities provide academics with a deep fund of arbitrary information that cannot be logically derived – and thus they can profitably develop expertise that others can’t easily duplicate.  But that doesn’t make the information useful or valuable.

Forget me and my claim.  Let’s say we can demonstrate beyond refutation that Russell repeated the argument instead of creating it.  Now:  what difference does that make to its validity?  What strengths does it create or destroy, what weakness?

As far as I can see, absolutely none.

“Understanding the origin of an argument and its context provides tremendous help in the proper interpretation of the argument.”

It really doesn’t.  It can give insight into whether there were layered arguments – for example, Newton’s famous statement about standing on the shoulders of giants develops some interesting implications if you know he used to taunt his rival about his height, but those implications lie in the relationship between the primary meaning and a possible secondary one.  It changes the main meaning of the statement not at all.

If Hooke had been a very tall man, perhaps Newton would never have made that famous statement.  But would the statement have been any less, or any more, true in itself?

Ban John Horgan

Posted in GIGO, Science! with tags on May, 2013 by melendwyr

Several people I know have previously expressed the opinion, which I share, that science journalism in this country has really gone downhill over the past decade-and-a-half or so.  I once maintained a subscription to both Discover and Scientific American, and possessed a modest archive of their back editions, so I have a reasonable understanding of what they were like.  By and large, they were informative and intelligent, taking developments in various fields and expressing them in articles that a layperson could readily understand.  If you then wanted to know more, you could go and find a copy of Nature or a similar journal that contained more formal and within-the-discipline articles.

But slowly, they became vapid and foolish, the equivalent of supermarket tabloids; fewer articles and larger photos, less comprehensive information and more flash.

How far have they actually fallen?

The long trend of decline is something best seen by taking a look at the magazines, but you can get an idea of what their standards are like by examining this blog post by John Horgan, author of The End of Science.  (I’ve read it, didn’t think much of it.)

The standard disclaimer, that the opinions expressed therein do not necessarily represent those of the organization publishing them, isn’t going to cut it.  Not when the opinions involve the suppression of scientific research on politically controversial issues.


So who’s this Ron Ace guy anyway?

Posted in Doom, GIGO, Politics and Society with tags , , on May, 2013 by melendwyr

I’ve suddenly been bombarded with emails about inventor Ron Ace and his announcement that he’s come up with some revolutionary way to utilize solar power.  Despite not having a prototype, or anything other than calculations, newspaper articles are being published and republished all over the place – and it seems like lots of them are being forwarded to me.

See here.  It’s pretty typical of the stuff I’m getting.

Does no one remember cold fusion?  And that involved actual experimental error – as in an actual experiment, being performed.  There’s no such thing here,  no prototype, no testing.  Just a filing of a patent claim.

I’ve been told that the Patent Office regularly gets applications to patent systems of lights to indicate which way vehicles intend to turn.  And then, of course, there are all the perpetual motion machines, which they don’t even bother to look at any more.

I fail to see how this is different.  Why would anyone write a report about this, much less copy it and republish it over and over?  Are the people running our newspapers and news organizations less capable of figuring out what’s actually newsworthy than the people who forward ridiculous email rumors?

We’re being ‘informed’ by morons.

Libertarianism and Charity aren’t incompatible

Posted in GIGO, Politics and Society with tags , , , on May, 2011 by melendwyr

Regarding this post by mupetblast at TGGP’s Entitled to an Opinion.

I simply do not understand the people who claim or imply that libertarianism is an ‘evil’ philosophy. Or rather, I’m pretty sure I understand the motivations and purposes of most people who claim that – it’s the few who actually and sincerely believe it that I can’t quite grasp. But the idea itself is an absurdity.

To further the example brought up in the comments:

Is there anything in Libertarianism that would preclude Ebenezer Scrooge from taking his money and using it to buy the Cratchits a lovely Christmas meal? Anything? It’s his money, he can spend it how he likes, and I fail to see anything objectionable about purchasing food or delivering it to people.

We can debate whether any given charitable intervention is effective and helpful. We can even debate whether charity as a concept does more good than harm – I don’t consider that question to be a simple one – but at least in our fictional example it would seem to have done a great deal of ‘good’. So what’s the problem?

Libertarianism concerns itself with private property, individual rights, and the relationship of the individual to the state generally. It really has nothing beyond those points to say about the interaction of individuals. Like Cratchit and Scrooge.

I’ve had it…

Posted in Blogging, GIGO, Science! with tags , , on April, 2011 by melendwyr

I’m becoming increasingly frustrated with Razib Khan’s combined failure to apply the standards of scientific reasoning and basic courtesy on his blog.

Recent posts, which ended once again in Mr. Khan’s closing of the thread, have annoyed me past the point of endurance.


Posted in GIGO with tags , , on July, 2010 by melendwyr

Blake Stacey complains that his blog, Science After Sunclipse, has no readers.

Turn on comments, Stacey. I mean, DUH.

Maybe after that’s done, we can start working on the rest of your problems… baby steps, baby steps.

Missing the Point

Posted in Doom, GIGO, Politics and Society on April, 2010 by melendwyr

I don’t know that there’s much of anything that any one of us can do to help the environment on Earth Day. Short of curtailing some near-criminal abuses we might be considering, there aren’t many changes in our daily routine that would really make that much of a difference – and if there were, they’d probably need to be implemented for longer than a single day.

But having schoolchildren use markers to decorate paper bags, and then giving those bags to local retail establishments to use – if anyone happens to request a paper bag – is less useful than doing nothing.

The One That Isn’t There

Posted in GIGO on November, 2009 by melendwyr

Q: What’s the most important leg of a three-legged stool?
A: The one that isn’t there.
– traditional joke-riddle

A specific neurological lesion can sometimes damage or impair specific neurological functions without touching others. In the condition famously known as “Ondine’s Curse”, for example, automatic control of breathing is destroyed while conscious control remains, so that without modern medical intervention nerve-damaged patients can survive only as long as they can remain awake. Such conditions are nevertheless unusual exceptions to the more general principle that complex, recently-developed, and ‘meta’-functions (those that monitor and control others) are first to be impaired and lost when the nervous system is stressed, damaged, or altered.

Demonstrations of this principle can be found by examining such phenomena as reversion under stress, oxygen deprivation, sleep deprivation, and various sorts of poisoning – most especially drugs with a gradual effect on nervous function. The primary reason it is considered necessary to have designated drivers who refrain from consumption of alcohol is that drinkers frequently underestimate the degree to which they’re affected by alcohol. Long before slowed reflexes and grossly impaired judgment become evident, the cognitive functions responsible for self-evaluation are dulled, and self-control diminished. A drinker who believes that they’re capable of driving safely may or may not be correct, even if their judgments would normally be trustworthy. Similar effects are found with other types of intoxication – people who say that they drive better after smoking marijuana have been shown to in fact drive more poorly. The more demanding and complicated the mental task is, the more likely it will be disrupted by any interfering factor, leading to poor performance.

The natural human’s an animal without logic. Your projections of logic onto all affairs is unnatural, but suffered to continue for its usefulness. You’re the embodiment of logic–a Mentat. Yet, your problem solutions are concepts that, in a very real sense, are projected outside yourself, there to be studied and rolled around, examined from all sides.”
“You think now to teach me my trade?” he asked, and he did not try to hide the disdain in his voice.
“The finest Mentats have a healthy respect for the error factor in their computations,” she said.

– exchange between the Lady Jessica and Thufir Hawat; Frank Herbert, Dune

Once a certain level of intelligence has been reached, any cognitive process can be emulated by any mind – it’s merely a question of available storage space and speed. The amount of processing capacity rapidly becomes immaterial. What’s important is not how powerful a mind is, but how well it detects, compensates for, and corrects its own errors.

It would be convenient if this capacity, which is difficult to gauge, were clearly associated with general intelligence. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case. We know that the self-regulatory functions of cognition can be completely destroyed without affecting such things as IQ scores. Thus, high IQ does not serve as a reliable guide to the presence of higher cognitive functions. Furthermore, my experience with smart people strongly suggests that they are less likely to develop that capacity. Being cleverer than the people around them, they are more likely to be able to craft invalid yet convincing arguments that others can’t counter or respond to. They have no need to develop stringent self-evaluation to accomplish social goals, and it’s very easy to convince themselves that they’ve chosen the correct course of action. What’s worse, they’re more likely to be able to craft clever arguments which convince themselves – and then, secure in the knowledge of their cleverness, they become less likely to check and re-check their reasoning. Average people have more experience of being shown to be wrong, and often have developed a greater willingness to lack confidence in their conclusions. This is both a strength and a weakness, but the strength cannot be acquired otherwise while the vulnerability can be compensated for.

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” – Richard P. Feynman

Rationality, like reading or arithmetic, is a skill alien to the human mind. Useful, certainly, but not natural. Development of the capacity for rationality requires strict adherence to a set of formal principles, and such adherence requires advanced self-evaluation to be maintained. Otherwise practitioners will quickly convince themselves that short-circuited thinking really is valid. If it’s a terrible thing to believe your own propaganda, it’s even worse to never realize you’re issuing propaganda in the first place.

The principles of rationality aren’t difficult. What’s hard is to implement them consistently and completely; our older, better-developed tendencies to associate our way through a problem and accept or reject statements on the palatability of their consequences, tend to override our better judgment.

How, then, can we develop the ability to put rational thought into practice?

Pound of Feathers, Pound of Gold

Posted in GIGO, Useful Aphorisms with tags , on October, 2009 by melendwyr

Which weighs more: a pound of feathers, or a pound of gold?

Close consideration of this riddle – and the conditions under which people tend to get it wrong – is helpful in understanding the limits of human rationality. It is a specific example which leads us to general principles of rationality failure.

These sorts of riddles and similar interpersonal language tricks (such as “Stupid says what?”) are especially popular among children but not among adults. Why is this the case? Partly because adults are more likely to have previously encountered and become familiar with their patterns, but there are other factors – including one very relevant one. Children tend to have less-developed capacities of impulse control.

It takes very little analysis to discover the ‘trick’ in the question; the concepts involved are relatively simple. But we’re confronted with the fact that people do answer it incorrectly, and that by manipulating aspects of the context in which the question is delivered, we can significantly increase the chance people will fall for it. What does this imply? That analysis is not being conducted in the erroneous cases, and that context is a contributing factor to whether people successfully engage in conceptual analysis. Specifically, that context determines whether people will counter their impulses long enough for analysis to be completed.

The key to these sorts of riddles is time pressure. If people feel free to take as much time as they like thinking over the question, they rarely fall for the trick. But if they’re trying to answer rapidly, they’ll screw up. Examples of situations that often result in such behavior include: competing against others to see who can be correct first, trying to demonstrate competence by investing little effort in answering, or encountering the question as part of a limited-duration examination. If several superficially-similar questions whose answer depends on retrieving facts from memory rather than performing logical analysis of the question are asked before the riddle is presented, that also tends to result in a wrong response.

The error occurs because of our weight-related associations with the concepts of ‘feathers’ and ‘gold’, our conditioned assumptions about the sorts of questions people are likely to ask, and a failure to inhibit the first impulses towards response. Feathers are far less dense than gold; any given volume of feathers will weigh far less than the same volume of the metal. Questions about a property rarely contain their own answers in a trivial way – we do not expect the defined quantities in the question to be equivalent relative to the property being asked about. And – this is the most vital aspect – it takes longer for our brains to process the question at a conceptual level than it does to activate our associations.

In the state of nature, organisms are often under intense pressure to produce results quickly. If they take too long, the resource they’re trying to exploit may be taken by a competitor – or worse, they may become exploited resources by a predator. So stimulus-response methods which produce generally-useful reactions tend to be favored over extremely accurate and precisely analysis that takes longer. As a consequence, natural modes of though available to humans favor rapid responses more than rigorous correctness – and in much the same way that the limits of our visual processing systems lead to optical illusions, which can be understood and thus constructed, the limits of our conceptual processing lead to inherent tendencies towards fallacies of reason, which can be exploited to produce riddles and language gags.

Just as other aspects of our behavioral response involve the repression of rudimentary reflexes, our thinking involves the inhibition of associational activation and reflexive reactions. The “more advanced” cognitive functions can take place only because the simpler, less resource-intensive, and faster functions are prevented from initiating responses before them.

In the wrestling match between the modern functions and the ancient ones they try to control, the more subtle and advanced features are at a distinct disadvantage. Which brings us to the next post.

Thoughts on Charles Bonnet Syndrome

Posted in GIGO, Medicine, Science! on September, 2009 by melendwyr

Possibly the most important lesson that should be taken from the story of Charles Bonnet Syndrome (CBS) is that correlation implies nothing about causation and even less about etiology.

Patients with general dementia, Alzheimer’s, or strokes were far more likely to communicate seeing things that weren’t there. So if you merely look at reported population statistics, visual hallucinations would seem to be associated very strongly with brain damage.

But the real problem was that such patients were much more likely to be uninhibited in talking about their hallucinations. Older people with loss of sight but properly-working minds feared the consequences of mentioning what they saw to anyone – at least partially because of the existing association in physicians’ minds between visual hallucinations and senility – and so said nothing. And so there was no awareness of the true rate of the phenomenon.

If you look at the actual statistics – the ones collected once the stigma of CBS was reduced, physician awareness increased, and elders gently but insistently questioned – then there’s no particular association between senility or brain disease and the hallucinations.

Remember – it took hundreds of years for the condition to even be mentioned in the English language, despite all of the people who must have experienced vision loss and CBS in that time. Despite all of the physicians who must have aged or had eye damage and suddenly experienced it themselves.