22 May 2015

Bad philosophy 1

Different people are good at different things, which is no real surprise; but one of the common situations where some people suddenly become blind to this is scientists regarding philosophy.  Plus, well, most non-philosophers regarding philosophy.  I've had the good fortune to know a couple of serious philosophers of science, enough to appreciate that they've developed some understandings more profoundly than I have.  And, I'm immodest enough to extend that to 'more profoundly than most non-philosophers'.

One path of bad philosophy, the one which causes this post, follows from mistakes on the matter of certainty.  Or, naming it by way of the error it leads to, intellectual nihilism.  Certainty is a problematic concept for science, and science versus philosophy.  Errors come from both sides, so beware of throwing rocks.  From my philosophical vantage point, science is intrinsically uncertain.  My scientific excuse for that philosophical assumption is to consider the Uncertainty Principle.  It's enough for here to understand that you cannot, simultaneously, observe everything about a complex system (like an electron, an atom, or the climate system) exactly.  You can do pretty well, but there's always some uncertainty in the observations.

A different line of philosophy regards how and how well you can consider yourself to know something (epistomology).  One view of this derives from Karl Popper, under the label 'falsification'.  For here, it's enough to note that one can really only be confident about your knowledge to the extent to which you've tested it.  (Do, of course read further!)  Since you can only be confident about your knowledge to the degree to which you've tested the idea/hypothesis/theory/..., and any test of an idea (etc.) is intrinsically uncertain (uncertainty principle again), you can never be entirely certain that you have the right answer, idea, hypothesis, theory.  So some humility is in order -- for everybody.

Enter the bad philosophy.
On one hand, you can never be certain about what you think is true about the real world.  On the other hand, neither can anybody else.  The bad philosophy being to take the line that since the other person cannot be certain, the answer you like is just as reasonable.  Or needs to be considered, at least.  Where we can break the error in practice is to distinguish between more confident and less confident knowledge.  As I took up before (ok, stole, er, borrowed, in The Relativity of Wrong), even without certain or perfect knowledge, we can indeed tell the difference between more and less likely to be correct.

The intellectual nihilism, and bad philosophy, is to ignore this, and pursue the notion that as long as the other person's position isn't proven to be correct, yours is correct.  Or just that as long as the other person can't prove their position to be correct, they are wrong.  Or, ... any number of variations.  Intellectual nihilism -- thence the death of knowledge -- is when you declare that anything that's not certain to not really be knowledge.  (This comes under many hiding places.  But this is where the process winds up.)  Since nothing that's about the real world can be certain, you have to conclude that you know nothing about the real world.

If you know nothing about the real world, you should just not get out of your bed in the morning.  You can't be certain that the floor is still there, nor that there's air away from your bed, and so forth.  Thus the problem of the intellectual nihilist. 

If you choose to get out of the bed in the morning, you have rejected this nihilism.  Knowledge about the world isn't certain, but it can be good enough to get out of the bed.  Or decide not to jump out the window, or even to conclude that humans really do have something significant to do with the climate system (even if you're not certain about exactly how much).  We aren't certain about the exact contribution of humans to observed climate change, but we can be quite confident that it's positive (towards more warming) and greater than zero.

A practical illustration of the bad philosophy, and the prompting for this post, is over at Climate Etc., where Curry illustrates a severe failure to realize that her philosophy destroys her ability to claim anything about the world, either that she's correct or that anybody else is wrong.  As always, check it out yourself.  If you think she avoided the nihilism, certainly do comment about how she did.  In the mean time, I'll also observe that she fails to apply the method of multiple working hypotheses to her own hypotheses.  As I observed last fall, one adjunct to the method of multiple working hypotheses is that you have to kill off the less viable hypotheses in favor of the, currently, more viable.  That you can't prove that hypothesis #72 is false does not mean that you have to spend the work to keep it on the table.  It's both bad philosophy and bad science.  We can create an infinite number of hypotheses (if, somehow, you can't, I certainly can, and one of us is more than enough).  If we didn't mow down (if only temporarily) vast numbers of hypotheses, we'd never be able to make any progress.  T. H. Huxley has a good line in related vein -- Life is too short to occupy oneself with the slaying of the slain more than once. 

Thus it goes for doing science.  Once one of those infinity of hypotheses is slain, such as the hypothesis that CO2 has nothing to do with climate change, it stays dead.  Until and unless someone presents some serious evidence that the former examination of the hypothesis was incorrect, or comes up with new evidence, etc., we proceed with the hypothesis (theory?) that CO2 is indeed involved (level to be examined) in climate change.  Hypotheses then advance to discussing just how much of a factor it is.

So say I, but welcome your discussion.  Being discussion, if you present substance, I could change my mind. 


The Very Reverend Jebediah Hypotenuse said...


And finally, why does it matter whether we attribute 100% or 90% or 50% of the increase in atm CO2 to humans?


… the white part of the Italian flag is pretty big here.

Curry seems to rapidly alternate between "We don't know much" and "Everything will be fine" - and seems blissfully unaffected by the cognitive dissonance that the combination of those two claims generates in other people.

Robert Grumbine said...

Minor point: The cognitive dissonance is in the mind of the person holding contradictory thoughts at the same time. Curry in this case.

The Very Reverend Jebediah Hypotenuse said...

Point taken.

What I meant is that Curry seems to not suffer from cognitive dissonance. At all.

She claims that natural variability can explain recent climate change - but simultaneously argues for low CO2 sensitivity.

She is the Red Queen of climate science. ("Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.")

I am certainly not the first to notice this:


Steve Bloom said...

Blog => denialism => fame/Congressional testimony => happy customers

Whether what should be cognitive dissonance is real or not is a little beside the point given the commercial motive.

Robert Grumbine said...

From Twitter, @davidmanheim, contributed some relevant links for pondering philosophy and certainty.

The blog is titled "Less Wrong", which is well in keeping with my suggestions here.

Infinite Certainty

Confidence levels inside and outside an argument

And via Wikipedia, <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solomonoff%27s_theory_of_inductive_inference</a>Solmonoff's theory of inductive inference</a>

Robert Grumbine said...


And via Wikipedia, Solmonoff's theory of inductive inference