Scientific attitude

It seems to me that even more than what you are researching, it depends upon what you think the scientific attitude is.

To me, the scientific attitude is one of eternal questioning, and eternal reliance on the evidence of experience to determine which of the candidate explanations available seems to meet all the available evidence within the uncertainties present in the experimental systems.

As such, the scientific attitude has two major foci:
1 understanding ourselves, our systems, the biases present within us, and finding effective tools to mitigate the effects of those biases; and
2 developing useful understandings of the rest of this reality within which we find ourselves.

Both seem to be potentially infinite paths.

The old Zen Buddhist saying that goes roughly like – for the master, on a path worth traveling, for every step on the path, the path grows two steps longer – is a great description of the necessary consequence of exploring any infinity, let alone an infinite nest of infinities.

And on this path, we must all start with the defaults delivered by biology and culture, and we must all be responsible for the paths we choose from that start. All such starts have many sets of simplistic heuristics that worked over some sets of times for our ancestors. That fact contains 3 major sets of risks:
1/ the risk that the simple understandings that were close enough for the past, may not be close enough for the present or future. So we must abandon all notions of Truth, and adopt probabilistic interpretations in all things.
2/ the risk that we underestimate the complexity and utility of lessons from our deep past encoded in our biology and culture, and in so doing dismantle something that has existential level value built in. A degree of humility is demanded.
3/ the risk that discovering something new that invalidates some aspect of our older systems then blinds us to other aspects of what is present.

And in doing modern science, we must be willing to question everything, and it pays to show respect when asking such questions. Both as individuals and as cultures, we are deeply complex, far more so than any individual human is capable of understanding in detail.

The science is now clear, that we never have direct access to reality. All of our perceptions are of a subconsciously generated model of reality, never of reality directly. Thus any understanding we may form is already a map of a map in a very real sense.

So there is a lot to gaining and maintaining a scientific attitude:
keeping a sense of childish wonder;
retaining uncertainty even when we are very confident;
being alert for the subconscious intuitions from our neural networks that all might not be as it seems;
being prepared to question the things that have served us best, if there is evidence that such questioning might be required;
being prepared to be a lone voice against the consensus if the evidence is that strong to us personally;
actively searching for sources of bias and uncertainty at every level of process and comprehension.

Having a scientific attitude is not necessarily a socially comfortable thing.

About Ted Howard NZ

Seems like I might be a cancer survivor. Thinking about the systemic incentives within the world we find ourselves in, and how we might adjust them to provide an environment that supports everyone (no exceptions) - see
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8 Responses to Scientific attitude

  1. William Struve says:

    Yes to probability thinking, but consider that physics requires 5-6 standard deviations to call something “real” whereas half a standard deviation is often good enough for the social sceinces (psychology, sociology, economics, and business). For chemistry and engineering, probability is often a secondary consideration, if it’s conidered at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Bill,
      I really do get that engineering is often dealing with such large collections of relatively simple systems that the probabilities present are less than the measurement errors of the tools in use, so can often be safely ignored in practice. And therein lies the danger. Getting out of the habit of thinking in probabilities.

      And I have run a software business for 32 years. I don’t think probability when programming, unless the circumstances are exceptional. Similarly when building things – measurement error is all I normally consider in the workshop.

      And when one gets down to the level of individual entities (at any level of organisation), then that has to change. But with Planck time being about 10^-40 of the smallest time we humans can experience, then it isn’t an issue we encounter when working with atoms (we are dealing with very large collections of time units, even when dealing with individual atoms).

      As you note, people are so complex that very little is certain, and uncertainty reigns supreme in most instances, which is something that economists and bureaucrats often forget.
      Many people engaged in science still have a Newtonian conception of a “grand clockwork”, that is entirely predictable given sufficient information. That entire conception seems to me to have been disproven beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, yet adherents remain aplenty (like Trick Slattery, though he would deny it, but it seems to me that he has just stepped back one level, but he hasn’t really given up on the idea completely).


      • William Struve says:

        Hi Ted,
        “Antifragile” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is much more important than probability thinking since the latter attempts to predict an unpredictable future – an oxymoron at best.
        Folks love dichotomies (black-white, true-false, yes-no, ordered-random) but nature rarely behaves that way.
        Warm regards,

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Bill,

    Yes, anti fragile is important, and if taken too far can be a problem, in that it tends to maintain a static position, rather than exploring possibility spaces safely.
    So it is like everything, it needs to be in balance, and what sort of balance is appropriate will be very sensitive to context.

    I’d say that one can’t even start to seriously explore risk profiles unless one is thinking probabilistically. And once one is, then certainly, one should always be looking for convex responses to stressors, and sometimes that isn’t an easy option to find or develop (my own cancer journey being a case in point).

    One is still left with a couple of things that seem to be both important and true:
    1/ from database theory, the idea that the most efficient possible search algorithm (for a fully loaded processor) is the fully random search; and (analogous)
    2/ from David Snowden (complexity theorist), that the most efficient way to approach solving really complex problems is to have multiple “safe to fail” experiments, at least half of which are randomly selected from the available proposals (ie ignore the experts, as they are too biased to see real novelty).

    And yeah – interesting.


    • William Struve says:

      Hi Ted

      Robust tends to maintain a static position when stressed but antifragile (as defined by Taleb) will grow and thus explore when stressed. In my opinion, biological evolution is an example of antifragile.

      Theories are wonderful tools to model reality (whatever that is) and are of great help to our feeble attempts at prediction. Theories are fragile, however. The dust bin of the history is filled with examples, and more will be added as time (whatever that is) goes on.

      If I show a picture of a horse to someone and ask what it is, most will respond “It’s a horse.”, not “It’s a picture of a horse.” Even a full color holograpic movie of a horse (a great model of a horse) is far away from a real horse.

      Theories can, and somtimes are, taken as equivalent to reality. Take the American (US) theory of punishing crime to eliminate crime versus The Netherlands theory of helping the criminals change their behavior to eliminate crime. Neither has eliminated crime, but the latter seems to work better and cost less. The American theory makes crime antifragile, i.e. the stress of punishment increases criminal behavior in some, if not most, criminals.

      Enough for now, I’ve got to get some antifragile exercise…


      • Hi Bill

        One of those complex yes and no type things.

        Most people and me are not good matches 😉

        From one perspective, evolution is simply the differential survival of replicators.
        From another perspective, it is very much about the nature of the environment in which those replicators exist, and the source of “risk” to all levels of replicators present.

        At every level of replicator (and we as humans seem to embody at least 16 levels), if the greatest source of risk comes from others within the population, then competition results that tends to drive the system to some local minima of complexity, but if the greatest sources of risk come from factors outside of the population, then new levels of cooperation can emerge and stabilise (with appropriate sets of secondary strategies to detect and remove “cheating” strategies), and new levels of complexity and diversity result.

        Once one can “see” this, then the dominant social ideas about “competition” being “healthy” are clearly “cheating strategies” on the cooperative that is human society.
        And as Jordan Peterson so beautifully explains, there is always a tension between the tyrannical father of culture, the chaos of the mother of the unknown reality, and the freedom and responsibility of the individual.

        We as individuals have biology and culture, they are essential aspects of what we are.
        They have boundaries that must be maintained if we are to survive.
        We exist in biological, cultural and physical realities, and we have the perceptions and models of them that we do, that are in the first instance largely defined by the survival of heuristics over biological and cultural time. We all have to start from that base, whatever we do with it in our personal explorations of possibility and relationships.

        So, for me, I see all conscious experience as being essentially a model of a model of whatever reality actually is.
        The more we are each individually able to more closely model the complexity that is present in reality, the more closely our experience approximates that reality, and there must always be a trade off there, between having a model that is sufficiently simple that it can be computed in something approximating real time, and having a model sufficiently accurate but way behind time because of the time it takes to compute. That is one of the eternal trade-offs that reality and evolution force upon us.

        In this sense, of the depth of the models of understanding present, those theories are our experiential reality, whether or not we are conscious of the fact.

        Reality in this sense seems to be far more complex that Taleb’s model would at first glance seem to suggest, as one is dealing not only with infinite territories, but with infinite dimensions within the territories. His ideas can be extremely useful, and can also be a trap if taken too simplistically.
        One must always be willing to use the most efficient search algorithm possible occasionally (the fully random search) – and it does come with risk – risk is unavoidable (as Helen Keller accurately noted).


      • William Struve says:

        Hi Ted,
        By biological evolution, I was referring to chaper 4 in “Antifragile” by Taleb, where he describes the fragility of individual organisms leading to the antifragile survival of the group.

        What do you think about his idea that the antifragile nature of the restaurant industry is the result of the fragility of individual resturants?

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Bill
    I wish Taleb knew as much about biology as he does about economics.

    He has some great ideas.
    Both of those you mention are true enough in a sense, yet chapter 4 mischaracterises evolution badly.
    His claim “Everything alive or organic in nature has a finite life and dies eventually” is a common one, but one I strongly suspect is wrong.

    His statement “But it usually dies after reproducing offspring” is certainly wrong. Most life dies without producing offspring. If that were not the case, we would have continued exponential growth.

    His statements “Nature prefers to let the game continue at the informational level, the genetic code. So organisms need to die for nature to be antifragile—nature is opportunistic, ruthless, and selfish.” are most certainly wrong. Replicators simply do there stuff; and the embodied strategies either survive or not in the specific contexts of their experience. That is evolution at root. It rapidly gets hugely, strategically, recursively, complex.

    His logic on evolution is profoundly flawed.
    Nothing in evolution needs to be perfect – it only needs to be good enough to survive in that environment.

    And sure, we all have aspects that improve with use. We are complex systems, with many potentialities, and we only get to explore and maintain a fairly limited subset of those potentialities – that is the nature of being a very complex system well adapted for highly variable environments.

    I kind of like the general theme of anti-fragile, and at the same time it seems to miss something quite profound about the nature of life and evolution, and the idea that the most efficient possible search of a complex territory is the fully random search.

    There are many levels of things evolving simultaneously, and not many of them are aware of that fact.

    We embody many different levels of entity, and we are parts of many other levels of entities.

    [Added next morning] I Awoke at 3am and was thinking about what was wrong with Taleb’s synthesis – and it is this – he seems to almost entirely ignore the deep power of cooperative strategies, instead (as Rand did) focusing almost entirely on the competitive. In doing so he misses one of the most profound truths about evolution: competitive strategies tend to drive systems to some local minima of complexity, while cooperative systems tend to be free to explore new depths of diversity and complexity. {In this sense, freedom only has any real depth of meaning within a cooperative context – and all cooperative contexts have necessary sets of responsibilities present.} The key driver as to whether a system tends towards competitive of cooperative modalities is the dominant sources of risk. If the risk to individuals comes largely from other members of their own population, then competition tends to dominate; if most risk comes from factors external to the population, then cooperative modalities can emerge and dominate (provided they have sufficient attendant strategies to detect and remove any “cheating” strategies that emerge.

    As human beings we embody some 16+ levels of complex cooperative strategies. Characterising us as basically competitive (as he does) is so profoundly wrong, it is hard to believe that he can sustain the self deception involved; yet as he points out with the concept of “anti-fragile” such self deception is relatively common in our society.

    If he were more of a biologist, he would have to understand that all levels of complexity are fundamentally the result of cooperative strategic systems.
    His use of “Fat Tony” and the idea of “sucker game” show a very shallow understanding of the strategic complexity present in human systems.
    Taking that path is clearly a strategic route to the extinction of complexity.

    If we are looking to avoid extinction, we must take the cooperative route; the math on that is beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt.
    And doing so will involve an endless exploration of “anti cheating” strategic territories – the price of liberty is in fact eternal vigilance.

    Cooperative strategies allow us to do more with less, but the benefits of such technologies do actually have to be shared universally for there to be any sort of systemic stability. And that is not to say that all must have equal outcomes. And it is to say that all must have enough to meet what they consider their reasonable needs. That allows for infinite diversity.


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