Friday, January 17, 2014

How Much Reality Can You Take?

The global brains trust formerly known as the Reality Club has asked 176 great wonks to answer the following question: What Scientific Idea is Ready for Retirement?

There appear to be two main prongs to the 174 responses; the limits of maths and problems with misanthropism.

Firstly, there is quite a lot of hate out there for hammering everything into a bell shaped curve. Nassim Taleb crucifies standard deviation, which removes all the natural harsh spikes of chaos and rounds them down to meaningless but elegant shapes.

Gregory Benford applies much the same scalpel to the idea that maths can describe nature. There's way too much chaos in the system. And every system is dependent on intial conditions, feedback loops and whorls. There's rounding errors again.

Dean Ornish presents a practical example of this wedge issue, mooting that large randomised controlled trials are not a gold standard without bias. Observing changes outcomes. I call it Lab Rat Psychosis, and it explains everything from some anxiety disorders through to the non push-polling that passing for opinion polls these days. An opinion freely expressed is better quality than one squeezed out, but they don't graph so easily.

Bart Kosko looks at statistical independence and the probability of white noise. Beyond Markov chains, there lies a future dependent on past (initial?) conditions as shapers of the present.

Then there's other theme, the human misuse of the Anthropic Principle.

Andrei Linde takes a chainsaw to universal uniformity, noting that the cosmological constant may only be constant to our part of the universe, at this particular time. If the multiverse is a 10500 sided dice, our reality is merely a finite probability.

Amanda Gefter takes on the taxonomy of universe and snorts derisively. She does this by way of describing black hole inside/outside flow, before throwing entangled cats either side of the event horizon. Nasty.

Nina Jablonski looks at the myth of Race, which appears to be a Christian Slaver construct to justify their inhumanity to man. See also The Oatmeal on Christopher Columbus.

Julia Clarke, paleontologist, gets annoyed with people conflating birds with flying. Here in NZ, we are pretty attuned to concepts like flightless birds. Black Swans are a native species here too.

Martin Rees channels Richard Feynman, taking an axe to the supremacy of human intellect (e.g. statistics). He appears to be preparing the public for the fact that there may be no simple answers to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything, and that it may be onions all the way down.

Two critiques of misanthropy stand out. In light of Karl du Fresne's vivid story of his late brother-in-law, this extract regarding mental illness as a holistic condition including environment, not as solely a brain disease, bears mentioning:
The central form of psychosis, schizophrenia, is the psychiatric brain disease par excellence. But schizophrenia interacts with the outside world, in particular, the social world. Decades of research has given us robust evidence that the risk of developing schizophrenia goes up with experience of childhood adversity, like abuse and bullying. Immigrants are at about twice the risk, as are their children. And the risk of illness increases in a near-linear fashion with the population of your city and varies with the social features of neighborhoods. Stable, socially coherent neighborhoods have a lower incidence than neighborhoods that are more transient and less cohesive. We don’t yet understand what it is about these social phenomena that interacts with schizophrenia, but there is good reason to think they are genuinely social.

Secondly, Helen Fisher calls for the abandonment of Addiction. Love IS a drug, according to the rules of addiction, sez Fisher.

There's other rallies against forcing reality into narratives, how cause and effect may not always exist and how humans turn harmless orcas into killers through behaviour modification. Good contrary brain food all round.