Tuesday, January 01, 2008


1. Get deep sleep.

2. John Brockman's site The Edge has always been a source of endlessly fascinating interviews, articles, etc. His "The Edge Annual Question -- 2008" is "What Have You Changed Your Mind About? Why?" Easily over 100 prominent thinkers and scientists have written answers to that question, including Richard Dawkins, Nassim Taleb, Daniel Kahneman, Clay Shirky, Simon Baron-Cohen, Daniel C. Dennett, Helena Cronin, Aubrey de Grey, Nicholas Carr, John Allen Paulos, George Dyson, Paul Davies, Steven Pinker, Jon Haidt, Judith Rich Harris, Daniel Gilbert, Lee Smolin, Lee Silver, Robert Provine, Nick Bostrom, Freeman Dyson, Michael Shermer, Howard Gardner, and a lot of names that I didn't immediately recognize but who have interesting thoughts nonetheless (if such a thing can be imagined). The easiest way to read through all the entries is to start at Page 1.

Unsurprisingly, I liked this thought by John McCarthy:
Attitudes Trump Facts

I have a collection of web pages on the sustainability of material progress that treats many problems that have been proposed as possible stoppers. I get email about the pages, both unfavorable and favorable, mostly the latter.

I had believed that the email would concern specific problems or would raise new ones, e.g. "What about erosion of agricultural land?"

There's some of that, but overwhelmingly the email, both pro and con, concerns my attitude, not my (alleged) facts. "How can you be so blithely cornucopian when everybody knows ..." or "I'm glad someone has the courage to take on all those doomsters."

It seems, to my surprise, that people's attitude that the future stems at least as much from personality as from opinions about facts. People look for facts to support their attitudes — which have earlier antecedents.
I found it intriguing that two scientists (Robert Provine and Irene Pepperberg) attack the notion that science should consist of hypothesis testing.

I also was intrigued by this observation from Leo Chalupa, a brain scientist:
Here is a real puzzle to ponder: Every cell in your body, including all 100 billion neurons in your brain is in a constant process of breakdown and renewal. Your brain is different than the one you had a year or even a month ago, even without special brain exercises. So how is the constancy of one’s persona maintained? The answer to that question offers a far greater challenge to our understanding of the brain than the currently in vogue field of brain plasticity.
This observation by Paul Ewald is useful:
I still think that it is wise to trust the experts when their profession has a good understanding of the processes under consideration. * * *

I am becoming convinced, however, that the opposite view is often true when the expert opinion pertains to the unknown: the longer and more widespread the accepted wisdom has been accepted, the more hesitant we should be to trust it, especially if the experts have been studying the question intensively during this period of acceptance and contradictory findings or logic have been presented. The reason is simple. If an explanation has been widely and broadly accepted and convincing evidence still cannot be mustered, then it is quite reasonable to expect that the experts are barking up the wrong, albeit cherished, trees. That is, its acceptance has more to do with the limitations of intellectual ingenuity than with evidence.

This argument provides a clear guideline for allocating trust to experts: distrust expert opinion in accordance with what is not known about the subject. This guideline is, of course, difficult to apply because one has to first ascertain whether a discipline actually has valid answers for a given area of inquiry. Consider something as simple as a sprained ankle. Evolutionary considerations suggest that the inflammation and pain associated with sprained ankles are adaptive responses to promote healing, and that suppressing them would be detrimental to long-term functionality of the joint. I have searched the literature to find out whether any evidence indicates that treatment of sprained ankles with ice, compression, anti-inflammatories, and analgesics promotes or hinders healing and long-term functionality of the joint. In particular, I have been looking for comparisons of treated individuals with untreated controls. I have not found any and am coming to the conclusion that this widely advocated expert opinion is a detrimental holdover from ancient Greek medicine, which often confused the return of the body to a more healthy appearance with the return of the body to a state of health.

More generally, I am coming to the disquieting realization that much of scientific opinion and even more of medical opinion falls into the murky area circumscribed by a lack of adequate knowledge about the processes at hand.


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