Thursday, May 4, 2017

'The Knowledge Illusion' - More Of An Illusion Itself

It's incredible how so many these days parlay a tautology into some kind of profound insight which is supposed to mesmerize us into paralysis of thought or action. Such is the case with the book 'The Knowledge Illusion' by cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach which,  in the words of one breathless reviewer (Yuval Harari):

"hammer another nail into the coffin of the rational individual... positing that not just rationality but the very idea of individual thinking is a myth."

And according to Publishers Weekly:

"Using a mixture of stories and science from an array of disciplines, the authors present a compelling and entertaining examination of the gap between knowledge one thinks one has and the amount of knowledge actually held in the brain, seeking to "explain how human thinking can be so shallow and so powerful at the same time" ... In an increasingly polarized culture where certainty reigns supreme, a book advocating intellectual humility and recognition of the limits of understanding feels both revolutionary and necessary. The fact that it's a fun and engaging page-turner is a bonus benefit for the reader."

Or, summing up in the words of one (5-star) amazon reviewer:

"The Knowledge Illusion tells us something depressing – we don’t know nearly as much INDIVIDUALLY as we think, and something liberating – COLLECTIVELY, thinking together, we can achieve magical things.

Day in and day out we use objects, such as a ballpoint pen, about whose inner workings we know nothing.  On more complex issues, such as climate change, we may have strong positions – but who among us could describe how global temperatures are measured, what the albedo effect is, what the main sources of greenhouse gasses are, and how climate models (which run on super computers) work?"

Each of which contributes to an unintended effect of the authors, that of rational nihilism, or again - paralysis of thought. I.e. "Jeebus, if I can't conceive of this stuff myself or work it out  - say using experiments and first hand knowledge- maybe I ought not be writing about it at all."  Poppyock!   Because the complexity of the world of knowledge is simply too much for one person to "work out" on his own, it is axiomatic one must rely on 2nd or 3rd hand sources. The issue is to ensure, as far as possible, that the sources are reliable.

Discounting the feasibility of sources being  factually correct we truly can't know anything- and that wipes out nearly all of history as well! "Did you actually go back and fight in the Civil War? Say the Battle of Bull Run? Then how do you know it happened?"

Uh, because I can read - and have read 14 different American history books that agree on it. That ok with you, Roscoe? Nope? Too bad, now go back to your comics and fake news!

A comparable argument is this hypothetical one from a climate change denier who might blab:

"Have you actually made the satellite and buoy temperature measurements to register global temperature changes? Did you acquire that data yourself? Did you actually go to see the West Antarctic shelf collapsing and glaciers melting? No? Then why should I accept any climate change you propose based on human agency or cause?"

Uh, because over 3,000- peer-reviewed papers have made that case, and one merely requires some basic understanding of thermal physics to read most of them.

And so again, we return to the position of rational nihilism: i.e. because an individual hasn't actually made the measurements or conducted the primary observations on x or y phenomenon then any arguments made by him for human-incepted climate change must be weak indeed, not tenable. Of course this is balderdash. If that claim were true then very few academic papers would be published.  The reason? Most academic, peer-reviewed papers depend for their existence on already published other peer-reviewed papers. It is then the peer review process itself which bestows scientific trust that published work has been properly vetted and is imbued with an inherent level of quality assurance. If that were not the case, virtually no intellectual advance in any sphere would be possible.

What about the extent of my first hand access to solar phenomena? E.g.
My Photo

While I was able to directly observe and photograph many sunspot groups for my analysis sample, the level of optical resolution was not sufficient to confidently classify all such groups by magnetic  class.  Hence, I needed to obtain higher resolution photos from Sacramento Peak Solar Observatory as well as Solar Geophysical Data recordings of the magnetic morphology - including vector magnetograms. Could I have done the vector magnetogram mapping myself? Sure, if I'd had $2 million to buy the vector magnetograph to perform the task!

Again, this shows how stupid and useless the whole argument on behalf of "direct knowledge and experience" is when you get down to it. Given the fact 99.99% of knowledge today is interlinked to networks of experts and publishable in academic journals, one doesn't require a curious and intelligent person to perform each task himself. Only to be familiar with the basic principles at work, say in how the greenhouse effect works.

Consider also my solar research identified a type of flare (SID) which necessitated close inspection of the soft x-ray records from the SMS-GOES satellite to ascertain the times for peak emission which later had to be tied to times of optical (H-alpha) flare occurrence. A typical soft x-ray flux record with the SID flares identified by SID and optical importance is shown below:

Image result for brane space, limits of inquiry
Could I have made the soft x-ray measurements myself? Sure! Probably, if I'd made my own $14 m investment in an x-ray detecting solar satellite! And had my own rocket to launch it into the appropriate orbit!

So yeah, there are issues - say to do with global warming science, about how global temperatures are measured, the albedo effect, ocean acidification and so on, but just because I'm not personally involved in each and every one doesn't mean the data are irrelevant - or the arguments for anthropogenic global warming are false! That is exactly why one must be wary of the sort of rational nihilism the authors are proposing - if even indirectly (i.e. as a subtext).

In addition, one must skewer Yuval Harari's gibberish that "not just rationality but individual thinking is a myth"

No, it is not!   It is no more a myth than this keyboard I'm using to write this post is a "myth".  To be sure, Harari falls hook, line and sinker into the very morass of rational nihilism sown by the book's authors.. But it's a common error in mistaking the machinery of rationality or reason for reason itself. Thus, because much of the machinery by nature isn't direct but second hand, or removed from the  knowledge source, then the knowledge source is unknowable.  If that is so then any reasoning about it must be impossible, or a "myth".  But knowledge sources being removed from experience by even one or two orders does not erase it! The de facto remove simply means one must be much more cautious about the use of the secondary (or tertiary) sources.  One doesn't toss out the "baby with the bathwater"  because the bathwater is a tad dirty. I don't toss out all my history books on the Civil War because I wasn't actually there either to observe battles or participate in the era. Nor do I relinquish my right to reason about the meaning of that conflict because some hare-brained reviewer insists "rationality is a myth".

I did not take my thesis on flares and sunspot morphology and toss it out simply because many secondary (and tertiary ) data sources had to be subsequently integrated into it..  Nor did I toss it out - without writing a single academic paper - because I believed  the use of such secondary (removed) sources rendered my rationality or thinking a myth.  If I'd believed that crap for one second I'd not have submitted the multiple papers I did and had each published, e.g. the crux of my thought and having been summarized in a paper appearing in The Journal Of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, e.g.

The very existence of that paper and others disposes totally of Harari's ridiculous "thinking is a myth" claim. Indeed, my papers were requested by dozens of other researchers in far flung nations from the Netherlands, to (then) East Germany, to China,  Poland and India.

But claims like those of Hariri and even the authors get to the heart of the problem as articulated by Julian Baggini in 'The Edge Of Reason':

"The rehabilitation of reason is urgent because it is only through the proper use of reason that we can find our way out of the quagmires in which many big issues of our time have become stuck. Without a clear sense of what it meansfor one point of view to be more reasonable than another the position one adopts is ultimately based on nothing more than personal opinion or preference. When we give up on reason, the only tool we have left is coercion."

Basically, the sundry reviewers and authors (Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach) have given up on reason if it isn't based on direct, first hand knowledge. As I've shown this is bare foolishness, and not warranted.  What we need to do instead is recognize there are differing fields for reason to operate - hence for rationality. Some will be based on detailed 2nd and 3rd hand knowledge, and others direct knowledge and experience. Because the latter aspects are lacking does not disqualify the reasoning or the thought making use of it.   This in itself is the illusion fostered by The Knowledge Illusion, despite the fact the authors disavow any such intention.

My point in this post is that it's a spurious fool's errand to conduct an "experiment" to go around asking assorted people how toilets, cell phones or carburetors work, then write a book on it. In the end it doesn't matter if a person knows how a toilet works or not (unless he's a plumber or into doing his own plumbing). It's more important  to know where to go if one is truly interested, say like the book 'How Things Work'.   This is preferable to stuffing one's mind with tons of  irrelevancies that only create "register" problems in our already besieged memory stores.

More profitable and needed is critical thinking, which as Baggini notes, is tied to using 2nd and third hand data and information (properly vetted, obviously) to make a case - whether for greenhouse global warming, the validity of Darwinian evolution or the basis for economic inequality.  People also are better served learning more on the workings of their government and our own history - again from reliable sources.  They will then become the educated citizens Thomas Jefferson singled out in his 'Notes on Virginia'  when he wrote:

"Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves therefore are its only safe depositories. AND TO RENDER THEM SAFE, THEIR MINDS MUST BE IMPROVED."

Jefferson understood that a citizen "depository" of false beliefs and misinformation would ultimately destroy the Republic on account of the regression of citizens' minds.  He understood that citizens to attain this referenced improvement needed to read in a focused fashion and not believe everything they read.

Nor should they fall for the codswallop that they require first hand familiarity or knowledge themselves before offering an insight or opinion on an issue. No, they do not. But they are tasked with ensuring whatever sources they cite in a debate or discussion are impeccable, and also the principles cited are thoroughly understood.

In other words, you don't have to have been around more than a century ago when Svante Arrhenius first propounded the greenhouse effect, e.g.

But you should be able to account for its origin from basic thermal physics principles now!

See also:


"I believe it is unrealistic to expect entire classes to be devoted to free inquiry or creative learning via exclusively "first principles" understanding - by which I mean the student is responsible for all or most of the creative effort to learn all his physics "first hand" as it were - with zero outside input.  If we had all the time in the world, or at least more than 4 hours per week for lectures, 3 for labs, plus seven or eight years for physics students to graduate - that might be fine.
But seriously, what physics department today could even remotely entertain such a class or mode of subject delivery?  It would require vastly more time and resources, as well as a totally radical rethinking of physics pedagogy and would come up against the existing system for promotion and qualification..."

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