Saturday, March 15, 2008

Modern Myths

Someone asked me what are the greatest myths that people hold today.

The biggest myths are probably this:

first, that popularity is more likely to make something true rather than false.

second, that authority is more likely to make something true rather than false.

third, fourth and fifth, that there is something called the scientific method which the scientific community uses which grants it legitimate authority.

These are the main epistemological myths. The number of domain-specific myths are legion.

There is the myth that democracy is electioneering, thus that Cuba is less democratic than France, let alone Canada, let alone the USA.

In physics there is the myth that nondeterminism is intelligible and meaningful.

In metaphysics there is the myth of functional eliminationism, that qualia do not exist.

In politics there are the myths that human rights are anything other than a communist programme and that property is in any way compatible with human rights.

In economics, that financial (aka mainstream, Austrian, Chicago, etc) economics has any bearing to reality and is anything other than a rationalization for economic predation.

There is the myth of Relativism in anthropology, the myth that anthropology is a science instead of an anti-science. The myth that history is a science instead of record-keeping.

There is the myth that human cognition is unitary, that it can't be categorized in levels.

There is the myth that morality applies universally to all humans regardless of cognitive capacity.

There is the myth that genetic diversity is more important than intellectual diversity.

There is the myth that physical reality is magically different from mathematics.

There is the myth of magic, of descendance, of origins, of provenance, of essence, which inflicts all magical thinkers.

There is the myth that the past was better, that the elitism and exceptionalism of feudalism is "grand".

There is the myth that sacred (fearsome and incomprehensible) is good and profane (understood and controlled) is bad.

The most personal myth is that your parents weren't abusive when you grew up because hey, you love your parents right?

The greatest of all domain-specific myths is that complex systems (humans, cities, societies, countries, economies, even transportation networks) are linearalizable. That they can be reduced down to linear superpositions of component parts.

But if you give up the first five, the rest fall down one after the other like dominos.

6 comments:

Peter said...

The scientific method, interesting. It is a process, well defined, and exclusive. I would venture that many 'scientists' employ it well, and are careful enough to formulate their conclusions in a reasonable way. It is a property of a well reasoned investigation.

And with that said, I would have to agree that the 'scientific community', as a separate unit from an individual scientist, does not operate under the authority of the scientific method.

You rightly list myths one and two before you hit this one.

Richard Kulisz said...

Not only do individual scientists not use anything called "the scientific method" but there is no such thing. Feyerabend has proved this conclusively and the fact isn't even the heresy it was first treated to be.

The way science really works is on the principles of methodological diversity and epistemological autonomy. Everyone works in a different way and everyone learns on their own terms. That's it, that's all.

Note that I'm not talking about how scientists work here. This is the ideal of science which scientists fall woefully short of. Science has no method because it's based on an anti-method. Whatever works.

Peter said...

I wouldn't have thought that you, of all, would be a Feyerabendite.

What is the operational difference between what you are describing and the 'scientific method'?

Conjure some theory as to how something works. If it can reasonably describe observed phenomenon, and one can draw predictions from it, then it 'works'.

If it doesn't work, or doesn't account for some new evidence, then adjust the theory or set it aside.

If you've got some great example, I'd like to hear it. Otherwise, how is the scientific method a practically different thing than 'whatever works'?

Richard Kulisz said...

Your "method" is either general enough to be meaningless or specific enough to be false. Which is it?

Are you saying that science works in *exactly* those steps, in that *exact* order? Because if you are then it is false. And if you're not then you're not saying *anything at all*.

I also suggest you read up on the propaganda regarding the so-called scientific method. It's really quite specific. It ought to be since it's the jerk-off fantasy of mindless lab techs.

Peter said...

You've perked my interest, and I shall.

The 'method' I've described is, I believe, how it is generally taught and understood, although some sources add a step or two - Google can back me up on this. It excludes undemonstrable or unscientific claims. A scientific investigation to a well reasoned conclusion makes use of it.

But I have not set out to prove that all "science" is truly grounded in it. We have agreed that the community at large is not empowered by such a method.

The difficulty lies in the vagueness of certain terms:

Science - I can think of at least three definitions of the term which are often interchanged inappropriately. One of them can undoubtedly survive and advance without without any such thing as the scientific method.

"Whatever works" - I'm unclear about the usage here. This is the term that is general enough to be meaningless. It is simply a restatement of one of the definitions of science.

Again, a real life, perhaps historical, example might help your readers understand what you're saying more clearly.

Richard Kulisz said...

Science is the enterprise of creating useful non-arbitrary models of physical reality. It works using heuristics. Ad hoc rules that have been found to work, to produce models.

At any time and for any reason, those rules are amenable to change. Because none of them are built into the definition of science. None of them logically derive from the definition of science.

Those rules just seem to work. For now. *Most of the time*. And as soon as they don't most of the time, they'll be junked overboard.

If ouiji boards produced semi-reliable results most of the time, using a ouiji board would suddenly become part of The Scientific Method.

Except you know what? There is no scientific method. There's just a bunch of ad hoc rules that seem to work *most* of the time. And when those rules don't then a completely different set does. And the second set is logically incompatible with the first set.

So "the" scientific method is "do A and if that doesn't work then do not A". Some method!

So let's be clear. When you say:

> Conjure some theory as to how something works. If it can reasonably describe observed phenomenon, and one can draw predictions from it, then it 'works'.

Yes, this is what's "taught" and "understood". Meaning, yes this is the *propaganda*. But it isn't the reality because 1) it's not what the scientific community uses, and most crucially 2) it *doesn't work* all of the time. It doesn't even work most of the time.

Not only is it not how science is actually done, but it's not even how science *could be* done. It is neither a description of the scientific community, nor is it a description of how the scientific community practices science, nor is it a description of the ideal of science!

What it is is propaganda made by and for people who are deeply disturbed by the fact that science is inherently chaotic and anarchic. Without form and without order except for that which physical reality very weakly imposes on it.

Physical reality is one of the inputs of science and it's /part of/ the output. And in between the input and output there is ... a formless mass of nothing.