Knowledge and intelligence

LTU links to a lecture by Alan Kay on (ostensibly) the history and current state of programming. But he actually talks about confusing our beliefs with reality, the origin of ideas, “tinkering” as opposed to proper science and engineering, the abstraction-concretization-abstraction cycle etc etc.

Something he says about half way though the lecture reminded me in some ways of Rand’s “intellectual pyramid.” He considers knowledge and outlook to be superior, in most cases, to pure brain power, IQ. And he shows this by comparing Leonardo da Vinci to Henry Ford. “[Leonardo’s] IQ could not transcend his time,” whereas Ford had Newton, and those who built upon his ideas, to thank for his success. Kay says: “One of the wonderful things about the way knowledge works [is that] if you can get a supreme genius to invent calculus, those of us with more normal IQs can learn it. So we are not shut out from what the genius does. We just can’t invent calculus by ourself but once one of these guys turns things around, the knowledge of the era changes completely.”

A provocative quote, to end this: “If you take the word engineering seriously, and I do … we haven’t got it yet in software. We really don’t know how to do it.”

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“And all for a lie”

For him personally there could be no assimilation; he had known that after the first five years. By then he had learned fluent Russian, written and spoken, but he still retained a remarkable English accent. Apart from that, he had come to hate the society. It was a completely, irreversibly and unalterably alien society.

That was not the worst of it: within seven years of arriving he had lost his last political illusions. It was all a lie, and he had been smart enough to see through it. He had spent his youth and manhood serving a lie, lying for the lie, betraying for the lie, abandoning that ‘green and pleasant land’, and all for a lie.

Frederick Forsyth, The Fourth Protocol

Bookkeeper of Calories

I finished Taubes’ book a few weeks back and can now say that I’m absolutely convinced that his view that carbohydrates are directly connected to obesity and diabetes is correct. One of the blurbs on the back cover of the book calls it “the most important book on diet and health to be published in the past one hundred years.” It might very well be that too. Chapter after chapter painstakingly documents the errors and omissions, and the prejudices and biases that went into manufacturing the consensus against dietary fat and in favor of carbohydrates. I do not wish to go into the details, but I do wish to quote from the Epilogue-

In the 1890s, Francis Benedict and Wilbur Atwater, pioneers of the science of nutrition in the United States, spent a year in the laboratory testing the assumption that the law of energy conservation applied to humans as well as animals. They did so not because they doubted that it did, but precisely because it seemed so obvious. “No one would question” it, they wrote. “The quantitative demonstration is, however, desirable, and an attested method for such demonstration is of fundamental importance for the study of the general laws of metabolism of both matter and energy.”

This is how functioning science works. Outstanding questions are identified or hypotheses proposed; experimental tests are than established either to answer the questions or to refute the hypotheses, regardless of how obviously true they might appear to be. If assertions are made without the empirical evidence to defend them, they are vigorously rebuked. In science, as Merton noted, progress is made only by first establishing whether one’s predecessors have erred or “have stopped before tracking down the implications of their results or have passed over in their work what is there to be seen by the fresh eye of another.” Each new claim to knowledge, therefore, has to be picked apart and appraised. Its shortcomings have to be established unequivocally before we can know what questions remain to be asked, and so what answers to seek—what we know is really so and what we don’t. “This unending exchange of critical judgment,” Merton wrote, “of praise and punishment, is developed in science to a degree that makes the monitoring of children’s behavior by their parents seem little more than child’s play.”

The institutionalized vigilance, “this unending exchange of critical judgment,” is nowhere to be found in the study of nutrition, chronic disease, and obesity, and it hasn’t been for decades. For this reason, it is difficult to use the term “scientist” to describe those individuals who work in these disciplines, and, indeed, I have actively avoided doing so in this book. It’s simply debatable, at best, whether what these individuals have practiced for the past fifty years, and whether the culture they have created, as a result, can reasonably be described as science, as most working scientists or philosophers of science would typically characterize it. Individuals in these disciplines think of themselves as scientists; they use the terminology of science in their work, and they certainly borrow the authority of science to communicate their beliefs to the general public, but “the results of their enterprise,” as Thomas Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, might have put it, “do not add up to science as we know it.”

Taubes is being polite when he refrains from using the term “scientist” to describe someone working in these fields. These people discard empirical evidence if it doesn’t fit their preconceived notions, don’t understand causality (or physics, for that matter), specialize (and then work in isolated silos) to the point of lunacy, engage in research that is incapable of answering the relevant questions, and do a million other things of a similar nature. And then have to gall to provide “expert” advice to everyone else. If I look for a term to describe such a person, “quack” comes to mind. And witch doctor. And whatever you call those people who burned Bruno at the stake, given the way they treated scientists who dared to oppose the consensus, and the number of careers they managed to sabotage as a result.

I’m surprised at my own surprise, though, because this is not a unique situation. Hayek once “accused” economists of pretense and scientism. And what is the IPCC but an attempt at “manufacturing consensus”?

Crooked timber

From an article on the NY Times’ “The Stone”

Rational choice philosophy … was always implausible. Hegel, for one, had denied all three of its central claims in his “Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences” over a century before. In that work, as elsewhere in his writings, nature is not neatly causal, but shot through with randomness. Because of this chaos, we cannot know the significance of what we have done until our community tells us….

[…]

The result might look quite a bit like Hegel in its view that individual freedom is of value only when communally guided.

There is no doubt about the fact that the article is an attack on the very idea of individualism, but it is carried out in an indirect manner. The author attacks the synthetic individualism that is part of “rational choice theory” which he says was invented at RAND Corporation in the late ’40s and early ’50s to counter Marxist collectivism. And-

The overall operation was wildly successful. Once established in universities, rational choice philosophy moved smoothly on the backs of their pupils into the “real world” of business and government (aided in the crossing, to be sure, by the novels of another Rand—Ayn). Today, governments and businesses across the globe simply assume that social reality is merely a set of individuals freely making rational choices.

The bait-and-switch follows-

Today’s most zealous advocates of individualism, be they on Wall Street or at Tea Parties, invariably forget their origins in a long ago program of government propaganda.

So the ridiculous, zombie-like, “rational man” that many economists use to test their theories is now supposed to stand for all individuals and individualism, and what is individualism but the rotting corpse of Cold War-era government propaganda?

I neither know nor care what Hegel and Quine had to say on the subject of epistemology, but you cannot turn into a quantum mystic and argue that quantum mechanics and the related randomness makes individual choice meaningless, or impossible, and then somehow exempt the “community” from such ignorance. Adding up the IQs of the members of a lunatic mob does not a genius make.

The tyranny of the elected

This is what Congress Party’s Manish Tiwari said today:

If this democracy faces its greatest peril from someone, it is from the tyranny of the unelected and the unelectable.

I wonder what is so sacrosanct about elections and the elected. The mob votes for someone who then goes on to represent it, which in a first-past-the-post system like ours means that a fellow can become a representative of the people even if he gets a mere 20-30% of the votes. And he then follows the diktats of the “high command,” or the politburo or whatever, not the wishes of those who elected him. Even if he did look out for his voters’ interests, what about those who didn’t vote for him? Why should they be bound by his actions?

Tiwari’s “democracy” is a kleptocratic oligarchy at best, and an ochlocracy at worst. Defending such a system is an act of lunacy. Not that Hazare’s or Ramdev’s ideas and actions are any better. The political theater in Delhi now borders on the absurd.