Like rants, only more “scholarly-sounding”.
In the 1950s, my mother taught me that the United States was the true shining city on the hill, that we had defeated Evil once and for all, that within a few more years we would have righted all our wrongs, corrected all our mistakes, stamped out poverty and discrimination, and achieved universal enlightenment… that everything was going to be OK!
In the 1960s, I grew up… and concluded that, based on the evidence, it might take a little more time and effort.
In the 1970s, I became cynical and pessimistic… until I realized that the world view you sustain with your expectations tends to become the world you view.
In the 1980s and 1990s, I got busy building a family and a life… deliberately and determinedly behaving as if I believed my mother was right after all.
In the 2000s, I grew up again… and regressed again… and experimented with a superposition of cynicism and optimism, because why not?
In the 2010s, well… see 1960s.
In the 2020s, see 1970s. Except when I hear Biden express optimism and hope, I’m reminded of my mother.
Whom (or what) do you trust? Why?
Theists trust in God. Patriots trust in the Constitution. Children [initially] trust their parents. Trump supporters trust Fox & Friends. Democrats trust CNN. Mulder trusts no one. Good scientists also claim to trust no one, but they are selective in their degree of distrust: they tend to trust the Bureau of Standards, the top peer-reviewed journals and their most respected colleagues. Atheists and libertarians trust their own judgment. Idiots trust everything they see on the Internet.
Some people claim we live in an Information Economy. This is naive. Information is cheap. Information is so readily available that we are all drowning in a sea of information. What is really precious is knowledge of which information is reliable and worth knowing. How can we access that knowledge? Only by trusting some authority. I wish I could say, “Trust only your own judgment!” but in order to do so (and not be a fool) you have to make sure your judgment is informed; and that returns you to the original question: which information can you trust?
So, whether you are a scientist or a voter or a consumer, you have the same problem: who is worthy of your trust? And how do you decide?
Most people today allow someone else to decide for them, thereby placing all their trust in that person. Perhaps they recognize that different people are qualified in different arenas, so they trust Chris Wallace or Anderson Cooper to accurately report the news, Suzy Menkes or Kim Kardashian to judge fashion, Nature or Popular Science to cover the latest science, and so on. Confirmation bias plays a huge role in these choices, even for physicists. Most people are wise enough to recognize this, but what choice do they have? None of us has the time or energy to dig down to the original data and analyze it ourselves, or to learn enough about fashion, music or art to make judgments more refined than, “I like that one!”
Let’s unpack that question, “What choice do they have?” Maybe we can do better….
If we wish to avoid falling back into the original trap of picking an Authority to trust based on our own uninformed judgment, we need to be able to consult many authorities whose judgment has been appraised by “juries of their peers”. This scheme is implemented in the scientific community by means of peer review, in which each new paper is reviewed by respected scientists with established expertise in the subject area. It works fairly well, up to a point, but is still beset by politics and confirmation bias: peer review is orchestrated by Editors who choose the reviewers. Moreover, peer review leaves no room for “disinterested third parties” to weigh in on the validity or importance of new research.
Social media are more democratic: anyone can “Like” or “Upvote” or (sometimes) “Downvote” a post; but few offer any opportunity (other than in a Reply) to specify what the reviewer likes or dislikes about the item, nor is there any “weighting” of the reviewer’s opinion according to their own credibility. This system could never produce a semi-objective (trustworthy) evaluation of anything. It is pure politics.
So the first criterion for a democratic, self-organizing system of evaluation is that it knows who is doing the evaluation and the extent to which they know what they are talking about.
Can Technology Help?
Google (among other entities) now uses every bit of accessible information about your browsing habits, you buying habits and your political habits to build a sophisticated model of you as a person, both to better serve your Googling needs and to better serve the advertisers competing for your attention. Like all innovations, this is both good news (“…better serve…”) and bad news (advertisers…). But the “deep learning” technology exists, and has been successfully applied to interpretation of “big data”. Perhaps it can also be applied to important data, like which theory of Dark Matter is more plausible, or whether the Global Climate Crisis will really kill us all.
At o’Peer I have outlined a strategy for removing some of the politics from open Peer review and making it more democratic, more responsive and more trustworthy. Unsurprisingly, it has not “taken off” so far, partly because (let’s face it) I am just an amateur at the art of constructing software that can learn. Also, active physicists can’t afford to champion revolution against the Editors who now decide their future prominence. Also, there are vulnerabilities to be worked out… I will address this below, but first let me paint the big canvas:
- Everyone gets a unique ID that computers can recognize and confirm. This is already true for most physicists (see ORCID.org) and for all citizens of the People’s Republic of China — which illustrates the range of applications. But it is necessary for this system to know who you are, for reasons that will become obvious. Note that while the system must know who you are, you can still remain anonymous to everyone else, if you so desire.
- Your contributions to various human enterprises (e.g. Science or Art or Music or Prosperity or Altruism) will have been constantly evaluated by others, resulting in an accumulated credibility index in all those areas and more. The more refined and numerous the evaluations become, the more accurately your credibility will be established.
- When you are moved to evaluate someone else’s contribution, you can express your evaluation in as much detail as you choose. A refined Machine Learning algorithm will eventually be able to interpret your comments in quantitative terms. It will then weight your evaluations by your credibility index in that particular aspect of that particular topic, add it to a weighted running average of the global evaluation of said contribution, and thereby enhance or denigrate the author’s credibility index in that arena.
- Insincere, petty or malicious negative evaluations will not go unnoticed, but the resulting damage will be primarily to the evaluator’s credibility index.
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
Obviously, the list is endless. People will try to “game the system”. They will succeed. The system will have to be refined and adjusted constantly to make it more resistant to tampering and bias. This will be an enormous undertaking by an army of experts. But think of the possible “payoff”: a way to gradually, democratically and (eventually) fairly offer advice on whom to trust about what. But let’s list some of the pitfalls, in order to get started on refining the system before it even exists….
- Spoofing: lots of jerks will try to pretend to be the person everyone trusts. Biometric ID may help… or not. Of course, this problem arises in other realms as well.
- Hacking: the entire database and its maintenance will have to be protected by (for instance) blockchain elements that perform the storage as well as the learning.
- Conspiracy: groups of people will collude to raise each other’s credibility and/or the perceived trustworthiness of a chosen leader. I’m hoping that such people will not usually be able to garner much credibility themselves, which will hamper their efforts. This problem already haunts peer review in physics, but the steadfast skepticism of most physicists tends to dampen its negative effects.
Tell me what you think.
Let’s get started!
Twenty-four decades ago a cabal of “democrats” conceived a massive conspiracy to undermine the foundations of the American way of life (avarice, exploitation and corruption), replacing them with socialist fantasies about “inalienable rights” and “equality”. For all those years they have been insinuating themselves into bureaucratic positions such as the House of Representatives and the Supreme Court, where they worked tirelessly to consolidate their power. Some even infiltrated the Senate and the Presidency.
Today they are ready to seize total power and impose their radical ideas on even the richest Americans — in fact, especially on them. Their rallying cry is, “We’re coming for you, motherfuckers!” Prepare yourself.
A Quantum Field Theory of Education
Since science education is no longer considered enlightened unless informed by SCholarly Research On Teaching And Learning, a modern theory of education is needed in order to take full advantage of the clarifying terminology developed to make relativistic quantum mechanics more transparent. This essay constitutes the hermeneutics of a new quantum field theory of education (QFTE), in which the usual roles of integer spin intermediaries and interacting fermions are interchanged.
In QTFE, second quantization is applied to the following fields:
- Morons: a type of bozo that likes to condense into a moronic BEC which exhibits stupidfoolidity.
- Lessons: in QFTE all interactions between morons are mediated by the exchange of lessons, a type of fermion. This makes the interactions very weak, since no lessons are ever absorbed — just back-propagated on exams.
The moronic BEC has this interesting property: once it reaches its stupidfoolish ground state, unless excited by very high energy lessons, the bozos will continue to display stupidfoolidity indefinitely without any sign of dissipation; best measurements suggest a decay time of at least the age of the universe.
It has been recently discovered that morons come in two types, spin 0 (little morons) and spin 1 (big morons). Big morons interact only through gravity, thus proving the validity of the old joke. (“…Why did the little moron stay on the horse? …”)
When a little moron finally absorbs two lessons it can’t forget, it becomes a big moron, graduates, and never interacts with anything again, except to add to the dead weight of “society“, a denser moronic BEC of big morons.
A very small fraction of the morons absorb enough lessons to be promoted into excited states called Professors, which decay gradually back to their ground state by lesson emission, contributing thereby to the production of a new generation of morons. Unlike in the case of leptons, however, successive generations of morons are indistinguishable. Perhaps this is because morons, having zero or integer spin, also lack a lepton number.
A lesson must have half-integer spin, or it would be just another bozo. Most lessons are spin 1/2 and have almost no substance; these are called light lessons or drek particles. Occasionally we find lessons with spin 3/2, the so-called strange lessons or boreyons, and very rarely we see a doubly strange superheavy lesson known as the Omygod boreyon.
Lessons have a rich spectroscopy. Even drek lessons come in many flavors. (Morons claim that the variety is endless, but what do morons know?) It has been speculated that lessons are composed by quacks, but this has never been confirmed, because quack Professors always invoke a physician’s principle known as “‘Ask on topic!’ freedom” when asked if they were involved.
The lightest lessons of all are called “new” lessons, which are closely related to “improved” lessons, neither of which have any substance at all. Only the charged lessons carry any weight, since even morons will absorb some lessons if they have paid good money for them.
Some speculative work has been done on the theory of stupidsymmetry, in which each moron has a fermionic partner called a “morino” and each lesson has a stupidsymmetric “slesson”. No one has the faintest idea how anyone could tell if this were true.
This theory was formulated over many years, but was first consigned to paper on November 26, 2006.
When I wrote this in 2013, I’d had a nasty head cold for the past few days. Then one day I felt better (though not yet well) and it was so wonderful it reminded me of something important:
Most of the time I feel pretty good, and all I can think about are the aches and pains and deficiencies that keep me from feeling perfect. I am well housed and well fed and well loved and well paid (well, pretty well) but my attention is rarely drawn to these good fortunes – only when I get caught out in the cold rain without an umbrella, or I miss a meal, or I’m away from my loved ones, or I get a bill I can’t pay right away.
This is a trite lesson, I know, but I think some reflection might help me devise a better strategy for maximizing the joy in my life. Bear with me for a moment.
We are creatures driven by gradients, not absolutes. Our sense of well-being is extremely sensitive to how much better things are today than yesterday, and not very sensitive to how good they actually are now. The wealthy cannot really appreciate their wealth, they only get satisfaction from accumulating more. The poor are not really different; if they become wealthy, after the initial delight their static wealth becomes just as hollow. This is perfectly understandable in this model. So is the wayward eye of the person with an attractive, loving spouse. The stranger’s approval means more than the lover’s, because we already have the latter.
Is there any way this understanding can be anything but depressing and discouraging? I think so. Arrange to lose what means most – your health, your family, your home, your wealth – just so you can enjoy getting it back? That’s no solution, though many people resort to it.
But at any given time you there are some things you lack, and hunger for, while other hungers are satisfied. You can maximize your appreciation of life by what I call “Gradient Hopping“: quit seeking what you already have; refocus your attention on your unsatisfied needs and take action to gratify them without compromising those which are currently in good shape. Later on you can (and will probably need to) return to service the currently satisfied needs, since most of them recur periodically. In this endeavor you are unlikely to accumulate unappreciated excesses of any needs – which will benefit others with whom those resources should be shared.
You may not like this. We live in an era of excuses, and everyone has lots of them. I’m here to tell you that they are mostly illusory and are holding you back from a better life. You will probably think I’m just lacking compassion. I don’t mind if you come to that conclusion after you’ve heard me out and given my words some thought, but if you start with that assumption, we both lose.
Case in point: I am 71 years old, and I just had my first cataract operation last week. It wasn’t so bad. My eye’s still a bit sore and the new lens hasn’t completely settled into position yet, so my vision hasn’t really improved so far, but I’m confident it will soon.
The problem is, I was told not to lift anything heavier than 10 pounds for 3 weeks, and “strenuous exercise” is a no-no for at least that long. So I have to “act like an old man” for 3 weeks. Sounds easy, right? My knees and back could use some “down time” to recover from running hurdles.
But after less than a week of enforced lethargy, it’s already becoming a habit! Right now I feel weak and fragile — pretty much like the stereotypical 71-year-old man — and it’s hard to imagine doing one pushup, never mind my usual 22. If I didn’t have documented evidence that I can indeed run the hurdles in Provincial age-group record time, I’d find it fantastical.
Which puts me in a position to understand why so many older people firmly believe that athletic competition is a thing of their distant past; that they will never be able to drop those extra pounds; that heavy lifting would be insanely reckless; that they’d better hang on to all the handrails lest they fall and fracture that doubtless-fragile hip joint; that their walks should not be too brisk lest the ol’ ticker get stressed out and stop ticking. Hell, I’ve been advised of all those myths by family, friends and medical personnel, many times.
So without empirical evidence to the contrary, why would I question the stereotype? And if I did “act my age”, how long would it take to make the stereotype true? Longer than 3 weeks, I hope!
Here’s the thing: how can anyone acquire enough empirical evidence to the contrary to convince themselves that they can Do It? One can watch others Doing It and get inspiration from that, but it’s surprisingly (well, not really) difficult for people to draw conclusions about themselves from evidence about others. (That’s called a “failure of enlightenment effect” by Psychologists, I believe.) The only thing that’s going to convince you that you can Do It is Doing It yourself! (That’s called a “Catch-22“, I believe.)
If you’re like me, that means more than just Doing It once and patting yourself on the back. The conviction dies within days when I try to ignore societal stereotypes of what I can and can’t Do. I have to Do It as often as possible, and try to Do It better each time — or at least not worse over the short term. Perhaps I’m insecure. Well, if you’re not, this should be a lot easier for you!
Shall I run through an inventory of excuses? No, that would be both mean and pointless. Deep in your heart you know what actually prevents you from Doing It (whatever It might be for you) and what is just an excuse, doubtless backed up by a firmly entrenched stereotype. Pain is real. Bones do break. Fat is hard to burn off (my metabolism seems to convert every gram of carbs directly into an ounce of fat). Spines compress with age. (I found out last week at that I am 2.25 inches shorter than I was at 25. Over two inches! Ack! it must be bone-on-bone all the way down now.) Pulmonary embolisms (I’ve had two) reduce your lung capacity. Chemo has many impacts. Shit happens. You are definitely going to slow down with age; but that’s what the Age-Graded Tables are for!
As long as you give yourself a full list of meaningful and worthy “It“s,
You Can Do It.
Now for the surprise: I am not just lecturing old people. You younger folks have plenty of excuses too, and are prone to regard great accomplishments and heroic deeds as out of your reach, for reasons you can recite by heart. Most of them are perfectly valid as far as they go, which is usually not as far as you think. The most important lesson I have learned in my life is that
You Can Do Far More Than You Think You Can.
And you’ll be glad you did.
I say, “If you do what you love with elan and determination, and don’t worry about ‘making a living at it’, eventually you will ‘succeed’.”
“Easy for you to say,” says the spokesperson for all those in despair over their careers. “You are the child of privilege, plus you got lucky.”
“This is true,” I confess, “but my way was never easy. I had to work hard at what I loved, and I never gave up, in spite of many challenges.”
“What do you know of ‘challenges’?”
“What do you know of my life?”
The argument goes on to compare the merits of “doing what you love” right now versus working all your life at a job you hate, in order to save enough that you can retire at 65 and then “do what you love”.
This elicits the response, “Retire? I will never be able to retire!”
Here’s the problem: neither debator can imagine the other person’s life experiences, and there is no argument that can convince either of the validity of the other’s point of view.
Your identity is your most valuable possession, in every sense of the word “valuable”. At the crudest level, anyone who steals it (i.e. can successfully convince financial and/or governmental institutions that they are you) can empty your bank accounts, put you into unrecoverable debt, commit crimes for which you may be held responsible and trash your credit rating, not to mention your reputation.
So it is not surprising that we invest a lot of effort in protecting and securing our identities. But can we ever succeed? Let’s take a long view:
Any sort of card or other physical device can be stolen. Most such ID is now backed up by passwords, PIN codes or personal questions, all of which can be guessed or extracted by sufficiently ingenious technology. I suggest that each new security technology will be followed quickly by a successful hacking technology; I know of no exceptions so far. Readable tattoos or implanted RFIDs don’t help, although they are a little more difficult to physically steal.
The next level is obviously biometric data: facial features, fingerprint and retinal image scanners are already in use at the “high security” end of the spectrum. Even supposing unhackable software is processing these data, there will soon be ways of simulating the real thing — if there aren’t already. It is not impossible to imagine DNA scanners fast and accurate enough to use for positive ID, but — as always — the ability to fake DNA can’t be far behind the ability to recognize it.
There is also the problem of access to records of whose fingerprints, retinal patters and DNA are whose. We are understandably uncomfortable with entrusting governments and corporations (assuming charitably that there is a difference) with this sort of access to our identity and whereabouts, even if, as they always say, “we have nothing to hide.” Moreover, if the archives exist, they can be accessed and even changed by sufficiently adept hackers. What would you do if DNA scanners suddenly started recognizing you as someone else?
Looking a little further down the technological road, suppose it eventually becomes possible to make a full scan of your brain, neuron by neuron, and that this becomes your ultimate ID? Will any entity that thinks like you, has your memories and believes it is you be considered by law to be you? And if not, why not?
I believe this is an entirely new class of legal, ethical and philosophical conundrum; but it is already in play. Best we think it through carefully and (if possible) rationally now, while there is still time to plan.
In Chapter 3 of “Life, The Universe and Everything“, Douglas Adams immortalized the idea of the “Somebody Else’s Problem” field, which makes things invisible. We all tend to look at the world of politics and war through an S.E.P. field. This has to stop.
Consider the problem of Islamic terrorism: most non-Muslims feel that it is the responsibility of the majority of sensible, peaceful, moderate Muslims to “do something about” those who perform hate crimes against innocent civilians in the name of Islam. And yet when a Muslim woman is violently attacked by “patriotic Canadians” for the crime of wearing a veil over her face, we dismiss this as an act of deranged idiots — not something we’d do, not something we condone, so not our problem. But it is our problem.
Conversely, when sects of fanatic Christians raise money to bring on Armageddon, or disrupt the funerals of soldiers, most Christians dismiss them as “wingnuts — not real Christians” and hence S.E.P. Wrong! When people who call themselves the same thing you call yourself do something despicable, you have three ethical choices: convince them to stop, have them officially expelled from said tribe, or withdraw from the tribe yourself. The collective is responsible for the acts of its individual members, and vice versa. That’s the social contract.
I know, it’s hard enough monitoring our own behavior without worrying about that of others; but in today’s world it is not enough to simply “set a good example”. Each of us has a responsibility to engage those we regard as “deranged”, find out why they think the way they do, and try to talk them out of it. We may not succeed, but we must try; otherwise nothing will halt the condensation of a diverse society into mutually hostile pools of like-minded individuals reinforcing each other’s prejudices.
Talk to your enemy. It’s no one else’s problem.
Academics pretend to believe that their writings are meant to transfer information intact from one mind to another. This is particularly ironic since they are so adept at preventing any such transfer, using ingenious obfuscatory language. But the model itself is deeply flawed. Words are intrinsically ambiguous, largely by design. When we read or hear another person’s words, what we extract is mostly our own invention — just as most of our memories are reinvented every time we recall them, until eventually we remember exactly and only what we choose.
A better model of communication is that words act as temporary couplings between separate individuals’ internal universes. As for most couplings, the strength and specificity of the entanglement is largely due to the prior intent of the participants. Thus a particular horoscope or I Ching excerpt conveys incredibly apropos information if we expect it to. (This is obviously related to the placebo and nocebo effects.) A set of words chosen randomly by a computer from a list can be made to seem deeply meaningful if they are chosen with a bias toward “deep” connotations — which in turn can be easily identified by simply searching for their frequencies of occurrence in “deep” literature. We fill in the blanks and find meaning in the result. That’s what humans are really good at.
So if we think of “communication” as a temporary entanglement of separate realities, it’s not hard to see why poetry seems so much deeper than prose: (a) it’s expected to be, by both the poet and the reader [placebo effect]; (b) pointless details designed to reduce ambiguity [Ha!] are omitted.
It would be fun to do some “big data” analysis on selected literature to demonstrate this model’s validity more explicitly. (Wait…)
(At a riverside cabin 11 miles south of Black Mountain, NC – 11 June 2015:)
Today I drove over to Asheville School, where I first arrived fifty-six years ago, almost to the day, and from which I departed several months later, never (I thought) to return. I’m glad I went back today, because it illuminated a turning point in my life that I had never fully understood before.
That summer long ago I had just completed eighth grade at a public Junior High in Winter Park, Florida. My family had a traditional respect for quality education and it was evident that I was ill-prepared for same, so they sent me off to Asheville to be brought up to speed in summer school. I have no knowledge of the considerations that contributed to that choice; I only know that I was a redneck kid with no interest in having my mind expanded. I spent the summer avoiding work, building model airplanes surreptitiously in my dorm room and complaining about the lousy fishing in the lake down the hill. I couldn’t wait to get back to the bass of Florida, and I soon got my wish.
When my uncle came to retrieve me at the end of the term, he was informed that I was not welcome back. In short, I flunked out. This was a little embarrassing, I recall, and even moreso when I reflexively called my uncle “Sir” thanks to a month or two of conditioning.
When I got home to Winter Haven, Florida I was duly enrolled in Denison Junior High, where I spent two weeks discovering the consequences of my impulsive choice. My home room teacher enforced discipline like a prison warden; my classmates were exactly what I had been at the beginning of the summer. It was Kafka’s hell.
I begged my mother to give me a second chance. Miraculously, I got one from Harry D. Hoey, then Headmaster of Cranbrook School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where my mother was working on her Masters degree at the Art Academy. This time I cooperated, and learning took hold.
I graduated from Cranbrook in 1963, from Trinity College (in Hartford, CT) in 1967 and then from the University of California at Berkeley with a Ph.D. in Physics in 1972; thence to an academic career at the University of British Columbia. A lot has happened. I’ve had a great life with many successes and few failures since that critical one at Asheville School. But the long story of my life is not really relevant to the point I’d like to make here:
Turning points don’t come easily, especially to willful adolescents. Sometimes the most generous gift you can give a child is to let them know in no uncertain terms that they have failed – failed to live up to your well-advertised standards, failed to live up to their own potential. “Cultivating self-esteem” has its place, but today it has become an obsession that does harm to those whose self-esteem comes only from others’ praise.
Love is meaningless if it has to be deserved; respect is meaningless if it doesn’t.
If you watch television, you can’t avoid hearing about how this pill or or that salve will miraculously cure your headache or skin rash or allergy, as long as you don’t mind a small risk of coughing up your lungs while convulsing and popping blood vessels in your brain. The warnings required by law in drug advertising are so dire that people make jokes about them, because taking them seriously would foster the worst kind of paranoia. (Somehow beer ads are exempt from such encyclopedic caveats; although alcohol is certainly a dangerous drug, it’s one we’re used to — and we still remember what happened when we tried to prohibit its use.)
Now I read about a study (see Wells & Kaptchuk) that shows how these warnings trigger a nocebo effect (see the eponymous Rant on this site): patients who are warned about possible side effects in the name of informed consent are significantly more likely to experience said side effects than those left blissfully ignorant.
It follows as night the day that all those warnings on TV about possible serious side effects are actually causing more such effects in the millions of viewers being warned. The legally mandated caveats are actually killing people! Surely the deep pockets of the pharmas are funding massive legal action to strike down these laws; if not, the first lawyer to think of it is going to make a lot of money.
Is there no way to retain the requirement for full disclosure without making more people sick? Sure there is: just provide all the information. Tell us how likely each of the side effects is; that information must exist, or it would be hard to justify requiring the warnings. The only problems are (a) viewers would have to acquire the wit to distinguish between a little and a lot (see my Rant on “Quantitacy” here) and (b) the ads would be several minutes long, unless the announcer learns to talk even faster!