Saturday, August 16, 2014

Functional certainty

Understanding certainty I think is one of those weird arenas where it seems certain upfront. Certainty is being sure of something, right? But how do we know? And to me it's not a minor issue as people will argue relentlessly over questions of certainty. Yet I've made a point of emphasizing that many people have vast amounts of practical certainty in their lives with predictive power. Like in my country they calmly go to a water faucet and pour a glass of water. Or do they? Some have had that certainty challenged unfortunately with problems with their water supply. Others have long since lost trust in the municipal water and prefer bottled water.

But what makes them so certain the bottled water is safe?

Functional definitions fascinate me as when I say a definition is functional then I mean you can DO something with it. And I've focused on the predictive power of science to explain it.

Remarkably science has given us massive amounts of predictive power which we use for certainty. Water is a great example as our ancestors could die from the wrong drink. Beer and wine could purify water to some extent with the alcohol killing off nasty organisms we now know. For our ancestors it was more mysterious.

But how many people understand the biology of bacteria? Can you even name a common bacterium which can infect water? People in countries where clean water is not so taken for granted probably can.

You don't need to be a biologist to understand your certainty, or lack of it, around the water available for you to drink

Focusing on predictive power, like being able to get a drink of water from the faucet or reliably flip a light switch, gives a functional approach to science and allows us to tell when something is scientific, or not. And that allows people who do not even understand a particular arena of scientific inquiry to so determine! Which is a really big deal. It means you can manage scientists with a functional framework based on prediction.

IN a prior post I explained how scientists are like adult babies so maybe they don't like how easily they can be managed which is why the predictive aspect of science is not normally emphasized. That expression is an oxymoron in that it can't literally be true, of course and is meant to be humorous. Scientists retain one could say the childlike wonder to know.

To many the word "science" is powerful but mysterious, and difficult to understand.

I aim to demystify it.

Knowing that science gives predictive power means that if a scientist is talking to you, you can ask her or him, what can she or he predict with a particular scientific theory. If you get frustration in response, then the person may NOT be doing science.

For example, a doctor learning splints can predictably set broken bones. A student getting her MBA can predictably set up a process for managing orders or something business, more on a limb there, as I know less about business. But if said student were in front of me I could quickly zero in on what she could do with her knowledge.

Forcing prediction is something you can take for granted, like a biologist might be able to tell you that some water is now safe to drink after boiling as deadly organisms have been killed off. Do you really care about that last? Or do you really focus on that "safe to drink"?

A physicist working on fusion power can predictably if the theory is achieved talk to engineers about how to predictably use fusion for electricity generation. But we don't have that ability yet. So we're at the limits of science. If you talk to someone who is doing fusion research, you don't need to know much to find the limits.

So managing scientists is easy: ask them to predict something.

If they refuse, they're not doing science.

But don't make the mistake of asking what you can DO with something. Then you will be caught in a trap. Generally it's a bad idea to ask a scientist what you can do with anything. They have speeches well prepared to make you feel like an idiot for asking such a thing.

Prediction is the thing.

Famously scientists during World War II were terrified of the implications of Einstein's theory that matter could be converted into energy and predicted correctly that we could predictably exploit such a thing into nuclear bombs. Without that prediction, why would the research project at Los Alamos have been done?

Why bother with this focus on prediction and science?

Because it forces those adult-babies called scientists to focus. It pushes a scientist into giving the parameters of success. And makes scientists see where the truth can be determined.

Otherwise you can have a very expensive group of people milling around doing all kinds of things telling you it's "basic research" when they're like babies playing with their toes. Why? Because it feels good, of course!

Managing a scientist I emphasize again is easy: ask him for a prediction. Ask her to tell you what predictive value does a particular hypothesis have.

Even if the answer seems nonsensical you can usually tell when that person is doing real research or is fumbling in the dark trying to figure out what the real scientific research looks like.

People may claim our world lacks certainty. In my country I can ask them something simple, like how certain are you that flipping that light switch will work? Or how certain are you your car will crank?

Or maybe simply ask, really worried that everything will just fall apart at any minute?

But I'm pragmatic that way. Oh yeah, if person answers that he or she is, then I can just walk away. Clearly that person is on a different planet than the one on which I'm typing these letters now with the comfortable certainty that soon people in other countries will be reading them. I like that odd feeling as for now I'm the only person in the world reading these words. But by the time you read them, well...I don't know. Less certain there.

James Harris


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