Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Escalating Consequences of Local Failures and the Possibly Bright Future

As scientific research advances, so has our ability to improve many aspects of the human condition. The past century has seen dramatic increases in life expectancy, food production, standards of living, and literacy rates, along with decreases in violence and per capita deaths from warfare and improvements in areas such as civil rights and technology, among many others. There is still much work to be done, but we have a rapidly expanding set of tools with which to tackle the challenges we face. Unfortunately, these tools also present new dangers. It is commonly stated that technology is neutral. The larger the potential benefits of a given technology are, the larger the corresponding risks of misuse of that technology. A consequence of this is that the dangers of relatively small scale misuses of powerful technologies, whether accidental or intentional, are magnified. Even normally effecive management strategies can be fundamentally vulnerable to certain types of black swan events. If such technologies pose existential risks, the harm done by "minor" faults can be irreparable. If we act wisely, we can continue solving problems on many fronts. There is no "story arch" to the future beyond our own choices, and it must be emphasized that it does not follow from the existance of positive historical trends that existential risks will take care of themselves.

Sunday, June 1, 2008


"One death is a tragedy. A million is a statistic."
-Josef Stalin

It is often assumed that in order to be rational, a person must repress their emotions. Although our initial impulses will often lead us to unwise actions, in many situations we are actually unable to feel to a degree that is appropriate to the scale of a circumstance. Our emotions basically arise from a complex mixture of neurotransmitters in our brains, of which there are only a fixed amount available at any time. For example, the death of a loved one can cause deep and lasting pain, but a person's response to hearing of the deaths of ten thousand in a distant country is usually transitive, if they respond at all. We are physically unable to scale up our emotions to that level, to even glimpse what means for ten thousand people to lose their best friends, compared to what we would feel if we lost ours. This limitation also robs us of the ability to appreciate much of the beauty around us. The motions of the planets through the sky once mystified humanity for millenia, and now we have the explanation for this and many other phenomena at our local libraries, if not at our fingertips. Throughout history this property of our minds has been adaptive as people would simply go insane if their emotions could accurately reflect the magnitude of such events. Also, it was often beyond human power to do anything about tragedies like disease and starvation until recent times. Today, we are at the threshold of developing technologies that could alleviate so much of the suffering in the world. We have to rely on our intellects to develop these technologies quickly and safely without motivation appropriate to the scale of what's at stake from our emotions. I can not feel what the fact that 150,000 people die every day really means. It's not my fault that I can't, yet it bothers me anyway.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Exaggerated Uncertainty

It is often said that science has a PR problem. Scientific knowledge can obviously benefit society in many ways. Popularizers of science attempt to provide laypersons with a basic understanding and appreciation for the power and scope of rational inquiry. Their task is an important one. A technique used to do this is to present unexpected discoveries as exciting. This leads to the tendency of popular works to focus on historical scientific revolutions, periods of development where old paradigms were dramatically superceded. The classic examples of this are Einstein's work on the theory of relativity and the development of quantum mechanics. There is a downside to this approach, I think. This causes some people to believe that large bodies of evidence can be invalidated at any time by a new discovery. In other words, the need to update scientific models is not due to verifiable progress towards truth, but because the scientific method has weak epistemilogical foundations. In recent times this problem has been worsened by the acceleration of scientific progress and the shoddy journalism of the mass media that reports on these discoveries. In reality, scientific theories are updated because of incremental refinements to the body of knowledge in light of new evidence. This process of refinement is where the power of science lies. It is a widespread misconception that Einstein demonstrated that Newton was wrong. Newtonian mechanics is just as true for the size range and velocities that he observed in the seventeenth century as it is today. Einstein extended Newton's work to sizes and velocities that the progress in mathematics, physics, and technology during the subsequent two centuries allowed him to describe. Later scientists always have an unfair advantage over earlier ones because the incremental changes that survive rigorous testing are reliable. I think it would be helpful if popular science writers emphasized the reliability of incremental refinement and the beautiful concepts it illuminates. Much of the technology we use everyday without thinking about it requires a large number of facts uncovered by science to be true in order for it to work properly. Maybe if people understand how accurate the scientific process must be to give us modern conveniences, they will be more willing to accept its less tangible conclusions and value it more highly.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Conceptual Inertia

"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents."

- "The Call of Cthulhu", H. P. Lovecraft

The capacity of our short-term memory can constrain us as we evaluate our choices and beliefs. It is known that humans can only hold about 7 items in their minds simultaneously. As our attention turns to new items, we will almost invariably forget one or more of the items we were considering previously. As for knowledge that is stored more permanently, such as facts accumulated during a four month long university course, the way in which our memory of facts learned at the beginning of the course as opposed to recently decays is similar to a first in, first out stack. This effect can encumber our ability to change our beliefs, especially when we are faced with obstacles such as confirmation bias or emotional attachment. As a way of overcoming this, I often take note of facts or viewpoints that I am surprised by or disagree with to consider at a later time when my reaction has cooled. I also try to read about many different fields. I usually can't predict when I will have opportunities to update my beliefs. Contrary to Mr. Lovecraft's opinion, I believe that the world would be a better place if we could more efficiently discern truth and change our minds.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

On that note

I just found this related link.

H/T: Michael Graham Richard

Words I try to live by

"Do not ask permission to understand.
Do not wait for the word of authority.
Seize reason in your own hand.
With your own teeth savor the fruit."

-Robert S. Strichartz, "The Way of Analysis"

Declining Violence

It is often stated that people's behavior is growing worse and worse over time. A possible implication of this claim is that the collective rottenness of the human race absolves the speaker of the responsibility to work towards positive change, but we don't hear that very often, do we? So, is it really true that Americans are becoming increasingly violent? Statistics from the Department of Justice answer with a resounding no. There has been an especially sharp decline in violent crimes since the early 1990s. The murder rate is currently approaching levels not seen since the middle of the last century.
As an example of these trends, the murder rate of New York City is currently at its lowest point since reliable records began being taken. Contributing factors for this perception of increasing violence may be availability bias, the tendency to assign a high probability to events that one remembers occurring. In the not-too-distant past, there were only a handful of major television networks broadcasting news less than two hours per day. There are currently many television channels carrying news broadcasts, and some are dedicated, 24/7 news channels. Even local news broadcasts are longer, requiring more crime reports to fill the time. This does not even take into account similar material available online. Also, during the period from the early 1940's to the early 1960's, the time that the populous baby boomer generation was being born and raised, the murder rate seems to have been slightly lower than today. For a significant portion of their adult lives, baby boomers did indeed observe increased crime, and many are not yet aware that these trends have reversed dramatically. The uptick in crime during the 1960's seems to have been a local anomaly. Steven Pinker has presented a case that violence has been in decline for thousands of years. I do not argue that we should simply congratulate ourselves and resign to the many injustices that still persist. We obviously must continue making progress. In my view, we should not regard violence in our society as a measure of how much we have degenerated, but as behavior incongruent with the kind of society we wish to be.