The Usefulness of Knowing What We Don’t Know

(with an offhand salute to epistemology)

Many months ago I got in a tiny snit about the polysyllabic word epistemology. As both Michael Tobis and my father (PW) are especially interested in the study of knowledge, I had to calm down, open my mind, and do some reading and thinking. I got to playing around with the words and reflecting about what is not knowledge. Accepting the state of not knowing is a possible safe stance for someone who is honest and doesn’t know but is unwilling to settle for falsehood; the armor of purity, as it were.

While tiptoeing into this rarefied realm, I was introduced to a fascinating polymath, Raymond Smullyan, who provides some puzzles and tests along the lines of the unanswerable Zen koan, a question that requires a shift into reality to be understood. I recommend Lao Tzu‘s Tao as a guide to improve the way we treat each other and our earthly home. Smullyan sees the Taoist as “one who is not so much in search of something he hasn’t, but who is enjoying what he has.”

As deeply valuable as this bit of Zen is, it could be perceived as wandering from my point.  It may also bother those who find religion an arena sheltering pushers of appearance over substance.

The bedrock starting point in teaching drawing is to get the student to stop pretending, to stop being afraid, and to venture out of hiding while assuming their naked honesty and best efforts were vastly better that a fancy suit of fakery. (For a beginner at drawing, it is not saying too much to claim this is the point of breakthrough.) It sounds easy but it’s not. We are conditioned to hide behind appearances.  A more advanced artist may find themselves retreating into the familiar, a phenomenon I call “quoting myself.” This kind of hiding is even more difficult to identify and shed, being layered with maturity. True wisdom is something that sometimes appears without defences.

In arguments about our planet, it is problematic for the layperson to distinguish true expertise from false. Often, I’ve been asked by arguers to do my own science.  I prefer to leave expertise to those who have done the work and demonstrated their understanding; this specious argument is designed to make fake claims prevail over true ones.

I suspect we are more distracted than ever in our current media universe, and ready to seize handy and convenient answers rather than working a problem through. I don’t know how this kind of openness could become widely understood, but I can’t help thinking that admitting one does not know is the first step to knowledge (to be honest some of my snark about epistemology exposes me as well).

coda:  I am not going to tackle epistemology, which I was intrigued to see got the juices of some of the best thinkers I know going, and would also no doubt expose my ignorance, but provide a reference here. I know you guys love this stuff, but when I read, “The problem of induction and the theory of confirmation,” I can’t help thinking these nicely constructed academic expositions are too complicated; it could be that it just invokes a sense of inferiority in me because I have to work to understand it. However, couldn’t we have it straight up? If much of what we think we know is a cloud of beliefs and hunches, some of which are verifiable and some not, it is my opinion that trying to quantify these things can be overworked, and doesn’t solve the underlying problem.

It [Epistemology] raises the questions what is knowledge, and how and to what extent do we have it. … not only knowledge and its analysis, but also related notions which are sometimes appealed to in giving an account of it: belief, justification, evidence and warrant. … also concerned with challenges to what, or whether, we can know: the problems of scepticism. … Typically we take ourselves to come to know things through reasoning (deductive and inductive), the use of the senses, introspection, and we come to retain knowledge through memory and pass it on through testimony, telling things to others.

Methodology is the study of scientific method, and it can act as an introduction to philosophy of science. Epistemology and methodology are interdependent disciplines: one can see methodology as applied epistemology, looking at how our most general epistemological notions come to be applied to the special case of scientific investigation and knowledge; but contributions go in the other direction as well: various elements of traditional epistemology, conceptions of evidence and knowledge, have been informed by study of scientific methods. One key concern is with the problem of induction and the theory of confirmation. The paper is also concerned with the nature of scientific explanation, and the status of theories: are we committed to the existence of those entities posited by our theories; how are we to choose between competing theories equally supported by the data; can theories be incommensurable?

more: If you are still reading, I have one serious and one trivial addendum.  First, I just read “What’s On Topic for Planet3.0 (worth a look) and observe that I am (with permission) straying here. But I’d like to invite and encourage argument, as my intent is partly to provoke.

Second, yesterday I came across one of my all-too-impassioned comments at the New York Times, which touches on my subject of not knowing. If anyone is interested, here. This blatant self-promotion provoked a frenzy of angry replies that got no traction, but provided the perfect foil for a further reply.  While the midpart could have used more critical thinking, I think the point is still valid.


  1. Susan - I wish I had time now to read and think through everything this sparks. My immediate thought was of similarities with Husserl's phenomenology - the bracketing of knowledge feels to me to have some parallels with what you describe about teaching drawing and the process of learning to draw.

    • As with Opatrick, your words provoke so many lines of thought. One has led in this (mischievous) direction. An artist who wanted to help me discover my own potential gave me Charles Reid's book; 'Painting What You (want to) See'. The relationships between scientific knowledge, publishing, the internet, the public interface, could all be summed up or explored just by riffing on that title alone. It occurs that an interesting area to consider is the distorting effect of the Lens of the Medium and the consciousness of this, which is kind of in the direction Husserl was pointing when he observed that philosophers needed to re-learn what they think they know and start again.

    • Thanks, that's terrific. I hope this snippet from your link to Husserl will tempt others to take a look:

      There is an experience in which it is possible for us to come to the world with no knowledge or preconceptions in hand; it is the experience of astonishment. The “knowing” we have in this experience stands in stark contrast to the “knowing” we have in our everyday lives, where we come to the world with theory and “knowledge” in hand, our minds already made up before we ever engage the world. However, in the experience of astonishment, our everyday “knowing,” when compared to the “knowing” that we experience in astonishment, is shown up as a pale epistemological imposter and is reduced to mere opinion by comparison.

    • Indeed, mischievous and fun! But for me if I can find astonishment my job is done, because I am not expected to find reality, only invoke a feeling that communicates beyond myself. That's both the bane and blessing (dammit) of art.

      btw, the original painting is 7 x 10 inches, and largely water based media; it's a bit more saturated than shown here. It was begun during a stay at Cape Cornwall and resolved some months later, partly by hiding some of it, as I tend to embrace a bit too much complexity.

  2. "Artifice"
    -- by Horatio Algeranon

    Authentic art
    Does not pretend
    To be so smart
    That it's the end.

    In my artistically uninformed opinion, the greatest art (Mona Lisa, Crazy Horse) are works in progress that are never really finished.

    Beautiful pastel, by the way.

  3. Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    - Yeats (The Second Coming)

    • September 1, 1939 WH Auden

      As the clever hopes expire
      Of a low dishonest decade:
      Waves of anger and fear
      Circulate over the bright
      And darkened lands of the earth,
      I and the public know
      What all schoolchildren learn,
      Those to whom evil is done
      Do evil in return.
      And no one exists alone;
      Hunger allows no choice
      To the citizen or the police;
      We must love one another or die.

  4. To me, the key point is this:

    "In arguments about our planet, it is problematic for the layperson to distinguish true expertise from false. Often, I’ve been asked by arguers to do my own science. I prefer to leave expertise to those who have done the work and demonstrated their understanding; this specious argument is designed to make fake claims prevail over true ones.

    I suspect we are more distracted than ever in our current media universe, and ready to seize handy and convenient answers rather than working a problem through. I don’t know how this kind of openness could become widely understood, but I can’t help thinking that admitting one does not know is the first step to knowledge ..."

    So we are in a rough spot. Nobody is expert on everything. "Doing the work" is as often to open oneself to manipulation as to gaining insight, unless one knows how to do the work and whom to trust for the raw materials.

    Going back to first principles leaves one in a madness of proving that "1 + 1 = 2" is actually meaningful, which in a very real sense is what Bertrand Russell did with most of his time; his numerous practically interesting ideas were mostly a hobby. And while that sort of intellectual honesty is admirable, it doesn't suit a time when decisions need to be made.

    That all said, I think it is fair to say that some people are better than others at winnowing the set of plausible ideas effectively. It is important to understand that this process has two parts - rejecting ideas that are impossible is easy if you are a nihilist; refusing to reject the truth is easy if you are credulous. Denialism, of course, is choosing credulity or nihilism on an ad hoc basis to defend an idee fixe. But threading the needle, holding on to what might be true, avoiding deciding either too soon or too late, this is the essence of actually being a thinking person, and ultimately being a positive contributor to democracy or indeed any civilized form of social decision-making.

    To some extent this has to be performed on trust. Susan has the advantage of having lived her life with a Nobel physicist. This provides a convenient shortcut. Most of us live more isolated from truth. To some extent, it is necessary to apply intuition. I think the main tool other than social intuition is not reason per se, as we like to pretend, but coherence. Lies are many, but truth is unitary. Things which are false are essentially misfits with truth. The more we know as individuals, both factually and methodologically, the more effectively we can sort this all out.

    Sometimes we place a piece into the wrong part of the jigsaw puzzle, but if we know how to solve these puzzles, it reveals itself by its failure to cohere with its surroundings. So there's something to be said for "doing the work" for ourselves. Even though it can never be adequate, it helps to contribute relevant facts and methods to the conversation.

    In the end, though, I suggest that knowledge is in large measure a social process, not one of pure reason. Pure reason ultimately failed to get from one plus one to two.

    • MT brings us back to the real point, which is communication and discernment.

      Although he figured out the physics of greenhouse gases in the mid-70s, on the whole my father defers to me on climate. He is quite firm about experts not pronouncing outside their fields. His main line lately has been HTC (high temperature conductivity, if I have it right) and there has recently appeared some material that dismayingly misconstrues his work (Anderson localization), a parallel with climate science in the way that clever appearance and neat graphics trump careful and accurate assessment of the true dynamics in question.

      This is why you will hear from Dyson and Gaiever on climate, but not from Anderson (except for the odd signature here and there), because they do not accept that knowledge in one field does not qualify them in another.

      As to discernment, I cannot count the hours I have spent ploughing through material with maths that I can't quite follow (having flubbed differential equations and changed over to art) and trying to extract understanding and meaning in the way partly described by mt above.

      My opinion is that lay people are capable of sorting out real from falsehood without being able to evaluate for themselves, but they first have to abandon the easy answers readymade from professionals who are all too ready to take advantage of their desire to appear to understand rather than to accept the limitations on their understanding and do what they can with honest acceptance of their limitations.
      I had the privilege of listening to a few top physicists at the weekend on the occasion of my father's 90th at Princeton, and a few words got jotted on an envelope:

      "embrace complexity"
      "embrace ambiguity"
      act without knowing everything

      "the importance of not being afraid of being wrong"
      (I think this was Pierre Morel from the University of Paris on "Modeling Risk"

      Now I can see these appear to be inconsistent with what I am trying to say, but in fact they are not. "afraid of not being wrong" in this context means not pretending, pushing right through without fear, as described in the bit about teaching drawing above.

      • "Nobel Advice"
        -- by Horatio Algeranon

        "Don't be afraid to get it wrong"
        The Nobel laureate said,
        "I once sang an unloved song
        And look at where that led."

        "But, of course, if I'd been wrong,
        I wouldn't be here now
        To play my well-loved, platinum song
        And sing it anyhow."

      • This is why you will hear from Dyson and Gaiever on climate, but not from Anderson

        Alas! Mortal physicists have the annoying tendency of being know-it-alls. Dyson seems a prime example. PW Anderson seems the prime counterexample...

        I just spent an hour looking in vain for my copy of PW's "More is Different" (Science 177 (1972), 393–396). It should have been in the folder on the shelf with books like Stuart Kauffman's "Reinventing the Sacred"...

        Now I forgot what I wanted to write...

        Those know-it-all physicists think that from knowing the isolated elementary details of a system one could in principle know anything else. They think that all natural science reduces to elementary particle physics. In "More is Different" PW gives some counterexamples which even a physicist could understand. (Life science, e.g., has many more, from the meta-chemistry of folding proteins to the atmosphere of Earth.)

        They also tend to switch to the other extreme: When you can't understand a Whole from dissecting it into parts, then you can't understand it at all.

        But, stuff really gets interesting when it forms a complex system with emergent phenomena. There you can have Husserl's "experience of astonishment". Such stuff is all around (incl. within) us.

        Methinks PW is/was really overdoing cautiousness and keeping silent. Of all "fundamental" physicists he seems most qualified of speaking up against climate science denial.

    • "Susan has the advantage of having lived her life with a Nobel physicist."

      Good Heavens, I had no idea. What an amazing pool of intellect and vision!

      Were I to be given the choice of PW Anderson's mathematical and physical intellect or Susan's artistic vision, I'd believe I'd choose the math and physics but it would be a tough choice. Sadly, I was given neither the choice nor either gift.

      With that out of the way, I've dived into this pool a couple of times. That is, trying to determine "truth" without expertise. A formula cannot be given, at least insofar as I can tell, for how to do this and I still face the problem from the most mundane (our firm has a forensics service line where we'll provide expert witness testimony with respect to construction defect litigation and the opposing side has their experts as well) to the most impactful (climate disruption), to the most woo infested (ESP, UFOs, "free energy," etc.), to the politically pragmatic (do guns really prevent crime?).

      The best I've personally been able to do is some ad hoc combination of coherence as described by MT and some sort of intuition. And I greatly fear that "bias" can be a canny and effective impostor for intuition. In a blog post a couple of years back, I concluded that there are many issues on which I should simply eschew having an opinion at all.

      To Martin down-thread, engineers can give physicists a good run for their money.

      • I am touched and flattered, and mildly speechless at the compliment - best leave it at that. I mostly do the housekeeping and grounding since my mother's illness but learn more about him with the passage of time. When I first joined the climate fray, I depended on my common name to keep me anonymous but it is true that I know a lot about scientists and their bedrock honesty (exceptions notwithstanding) and it did help me plough through when I was out of my depth. Most of all, I think fake skeptic arguments fail to meet the test of internal consistency which becomes obvious as one delves into them, one by one. Such a waste of time and energy!

  5. I'm late; I'm late!
    For a very important date.
    No time to say hello; good by!
    I'm late; I'm late

    So there is only time to further muddy the (formerly pristine) waters of knowledge as justified true belief. Just as that concept of knowledge leads to a infinite regress so does

    I know that I do not know.

    I suspect greater modesty is in order, at least to start: I suspect that I do not know, but I might be wrong about that.

    That should lead one to a koan...

    • Indeed. However, it was "what" not "that" we don't know. Good point. I thought I had hedged myself about with enough caveats, but missed this important one.

      • So busy I left off the rabbet's final I'm late!

        Alas, the philosopher will quickly reduce what to that:
        Simplicius: I know what I don't know.
        Socrates: What don't you know?
        Simplicius : I don't know X. I don't know Y. I don't know...
        Socrates (interrupting): So you know that you don't know X?
        Simplicus: Yes, Socrates. And I know that I don't know Y, either.
        Socrates: You are certain of that?
        [and so it goes on, for ever and ever.]

        The difficulty lies in the epistemologist insistence on rational precision in the meaning of know. Indeed all the alternatives to justified in knowledge as justified true belief appear also to stumble in one regard or another under the savage attacks of modern day philosophers.

        Ignoring all that, in ordinary usage, there is a tension between knowing as being aware of through observation, inquiry, or information and knowing as being absolutely certain or sure about something:

        As a meteorological example I am aware of atmospheric Rossby waves but I am far from absolutely certain.

        Either sense is far removed from the performance of the ignorati, in which group I include experts in other fields who presume, without study, to pronounce on matters climatological.

        [I trust this brings this excursion into the minefields, at least tarpits, of epistomology to a close.]

    • I failed to acknowledge the Fergus Brown contribution to resources cited in my article, and recommend his post.

      Meanwhile, it is impossible to resist going off the reservation thusly. mt, feel free to "ruthlessly purge" if it goes too far astray.

      Better lyrics from HA here:

  6. There are genuine experts and then there are the "experts", who are far more numerous and prominent (and seem to dominate the climate debate)

    -- by Horatio Algeranon

    "Experts" are like flies
    Buzzing 'round the meat
    Whenever something dies
    They come in for a treat

    It matters not what kind
    'Cuz "experts" they don't care
    As you are bound to find
    They're buzzing everywhere.

  7. Susan:

    This is why you will hear from Dyson and Gaiever on climate, but not from Anderson (except for the odd signature here and there), because they do not accept that knowledge in one field does not qualify them in another.

    I understand what you're saying, but your father can surely come to some tentative conclusions about climate on his own.

    My degrees are in Environmental and Computer Sciences (the former, mostly Ecology). I'm not qualified to evaluate complex mathematics around subtle questions in Climatology, but that doesn't keep me from understanding the basic points. I did reasonably well in my Math and Physics courses in high school and in my first two years of college, and I learned to read maps even before that.

    That basic knowledge allows me to to understand the simple argument for AGW: C02 is a "greenhouse" gas; atmospheric C02 is increasing; the increase is largely from burning of fossil fuels; C02 increase is the forcing for warming, but feedbacks amplify its effects; increasing global average temperature will lead to negative impacts on large numbers of people.

    I can say I know those things, because with my basic knowledge, I can read and understand Weart's Discovery of Global Warming, and verify his sources. I can follow the work of Fourier, Tyndall and Arrhenius, and understand why Angstrom's criticism of Arrhenius was incorrect. I can interpret graphs showing C02, temperature and sea level over time, and understand the statistical methods used to show trends; I can grasp how carbon-isotope ratios point to fossil fuels as the source of the added C02; I can see that melting ice and thermosteric expansion will cause sea level to rise; I can understand that global climate zones will migrate polewards; I can read maps and see where people are concentrated; and so forth.

    Having worked through the arguments at that basic level, I can say that the case for AGW is well supported; and having come across the Least Hypothesis Rule early in my education, I can say that the onus is on deniers to show convincingly why it isn't; and that so far none have been able to.

    These things I can say I know, knowing pretty much only what I learned along with millions of other Americans. Yet no one would call me an expert on the science behind AGW.

    • Mal, you're going sideways from my point, which is that a reasonably informed layperson can learn from and respect expertise, but an expert in another field should not choose to assume authority in a field they have not studied. Note my examples, please. My father has other interests and responsibilities and respects the work I have put in, and comes to me for advice when he wants more resources. Sometimes he'll joke with his colleagues about his hothead daughter and what she might do if they don't act appropriately. At his age I feel he is entitled to make his own choices and respect them. He works with his friends and colleagues in his own way, and I hold a watching brief for him, for good reason. Nobody said that he had not worked through the arguments at a fundamental level; in fact I said he did, in the 1970s, and his understanding of physics is vast, while mine is almost nonexistent. This is one of the issues, that the science has been so well understood for such a very long time, and yet the same argument is resurrected to deny and delay.

      The points you make are so basic that you could have assumed that he and I absorbed them some time ago.

      I know we are all frustrated but shooting inwards does not solve anything, and there are limitations to shooting at all. That's why I've turned my focus to understanding better how people think and how understanding may be increased and emotional resources deployed to bring people together rather than divide them. I enjoyed turning my own experience and love of language to promote admitting we don't know as the start of real knowledge.

      • Susan, I apologize if I gave you the impression I was "shooting inwards". I have no doubt your father has satisfied himself on the basic physics of AGW. It is just that when you say

        My opinion is that lay people are capable of sorting out real from falsehood without being able to evaluate for themselves, but they first have to abandon the easy answers readymade from professionals who are all too ready to take advantage of their desire to appear to understand rather than to accept the limitations on their understanding and do what they can with honest acceptance of their limitations.

        my response is that many laypeople (well, at least those who went to school in the U.S. during the 1960's like I did) are able to evaluate for themselves the basic argument for AGW, if they take a few minutes to work through it. I certainly agree that a lot of nonsense comes from self-important deniers who don't accept their limitations. IMO, though, too many literate laypeople don't trust their own abilities enough to resist the deniers who are telling them the simple argument is wrong. People like ourselves may make the most headway with the literate laity by pointing them to the best presentations of the basic argument (I link to Weart's book a lot), and convincing them that they already know how to verify it.

  8. "My opinion is that lay people are capable of sorting out real from falsehood without being able to evaluate for themselves, but they first have to abandon the easy answers readymade from professionals who are all too ready to take advantage of their desire to appear to understand rather than to accept the limitations on their understanding and do what they can with honest acceptance of their limitations."

    This little clip of Feynman talking about magnets (but mainly about `how difficult a why question is') is great: Feynman refusing to `cheat' the questioner - I love it. It triggered a transformative point in my understanding of my own work. And I only just discovered this follow-up audio clip from the same interview that is perhaps even better, including the fantastic line: "As a matter of fact, it's simpler than the things you think are simple. You mix up simplicity and familiarity." And: "if you ask that 400 years of such an activity [physics] should come down to boxes that are going to be easy for you understand in two seconds always, you're asking a lot."

    What I get from this Feynman stuff - and this ties to MT's point about coherence - there are many levels of understanding. Feynman says, "when you explain a `why', you have to be in some framework that you allow something to be true - otherwise you are perpetually asking why." And that's true all the way down, and all the way up to whatever knowledge we can gain as non-specialists.

    But then, Feynman's refusal to `cheat' the questioner suggests coherence isn't really applicable for moving through layers of increasing understanding - you end up in frameworks that actually bear little resemblance to more common physical understandings.

    Though... another thought: I actually think Feynman does, in fact, explain it in a way that helps expand a layperson's understanding. He gets into explaining magnetism as part of the larger group of forces that also include ones keeping you from falling through the chair you're sat in. That still begs the question but it at least leaves the questioner able to understand, better than they did, just what they don't understand (hey, accidentally got back on topic!) And in so doing, he's then actually expanded their understanding.

    Hmm, think I'm doing that self-quoting thing.

    Random addition: this new Tamino post reminded me again (a) how amazing he is at putting fake skeptics completely on the spot and (b) the kind of approach to knowledge we have to deal with from that sort of person. The finer points of epistemology are a bit wasted in that respect - thank God we have people like Tamino able to tirelessly bash that stuff over the head.

    • I loved watching those clips and a few more from Feynman, such a great pleasure. This , sadly, begins with his obit, but between minutes 1 and 2 there's this:

      "When we go to investigate it we shouldn't predecide what it is we're trying to do except to find out more about it. If you thought ... you were going to get an answer to some deep philosophical question you may be wrong. .... The more I find out the better it is ... I just like to find out." [!]

      Now it occurs to me that we all continue our daily lives with the fascination of being human and of using mind in many ways, and all the materials that come with where we are, regardless of moral baggage. The difficulty is that the globe has twisted inexorably as each of us comes to a sense that action is urgent, it requires turning around, not just barging ahead. The very great pleasure of sharing mind and learning more is diluted with dread by the knowledge that same learning has furnished about the endgame of exploitation as we have come to take it for granted.

      Perhaps there's some cosmic miracle around the corner (I doubt it). Almost all the news coming in about our ability to influence action towards stewardship and caring seems to demonstrate the our direction is opposite to what is necessary. We can embrace love of knowledge for itself, but we know in a deeply disturbing way that this is no longer enough.

      All that we know and all that we have become cannot be undone, but the freedom we take for granted has been revealed not to be free. So what's to do?

      • "Ethically Challenged Science"
        -- by Horatio Algeranon

        What science is about
        Is simply finding out
        A rush to satisfaction
        No matter the reaction

        But ethics calls for patience
        To set out limitations
        On simply finding out
        When outcome is in doubt

      • "Doubling Down on Doom"
        -- by Horatio Algeranon

        We double down on doom
        And even hit at twenty.
        With ruin in the room,
        We still pretend it's plenty.


        "Doubling down on doom", which seems to perfectly capture our current approach, comes from Phil Rockstroh: ("Walking in an Anthropocene Wonderland")

        "Just what kind of suicidal clowns flounce through life gibbering on about bacon straws, cupcakes, online images of kitty cats, and the latest Playstation model when the specter of extinction looms and their psychotic leaders are doubling down on the criteria of doom?"

      • "So what’s to do?" Yes, don't know. The one thing I treasure about hanging round this community, though, is everyone's ability to hold awareness of the predicament in mind at the same time as the uncertainty. It's actually a very hard thing to stare at, day after day - sometimes feels like watching an oil tanker bearing down on the pier one is standing on.

        The difficult thing to manage, for me, is holding a realistic assessment of the direction things are taking without letting that knowledge too deeply into one's cells, as it leads directly to fatalism. The Kennedy quote that was top-right here until recently drives that home: "the problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics, whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need people who can dream of things that never were and ask, why not?"

        We all see the obvious realities and imagine obvious futures. But the future's never what we imagine. Jane Jacobs gets that best: she saw all development as a series of accidents fed by intention - where the actual intention rarely if ever led to what was intended, but the intention itself is the vital fuel. She's talking about economic development, but it applies more widely to how we get to the future, I think. She actually compares the process to art: the link between accident and intention is the attentive feedback applied by people steeped in the process. In art, as in development, you don't think stuff up, you get stuff down (that's a Julia Cameron quote I think).

        Which is a hopeful story: while we can't know the outcome (any more than people a hundred years ago could have known where we'd be now) we can know that throwing ourselves into the problem will lead to things we can't possibly predict - entirely predictably so, in fact. That doesn't say "give up", does it? And it also highlights how central not-knowing is to all development, and to our hopes of creating a future worth passing on to our children.

  9. Dan,
    Nice points made there. I think that coherence is dealt with in an interesting way by Bayesian Epistemology and Dutch Books. In simple, every point of confirmation increases coherence and moves probability closer to 1, even if infinitesimally.
    I have found it useful in the past to reduce a climate counter-claim to one or more propositions and test the truth of the proposition or the validity of an argument, if there are a series of putatively connected propositions. 95% of counter claims don't even get past the first hurdle of logical consistency or meaningfulness. Of the rest, most can be demonstrated to be false, such as in Tamino's example. Occasionally, an intelligent or informed contrarian can make a statement which is consistent and meaningful; in these cases, it can be useful to dig a little deeper.
    Going back to Susan's points, there is some worth in trying to understand what counts as 'knowledge' or 'fact' to different people. For the vast majority of the time and the vast majority of people, knowledge amounts to little more than picking up on something someone else has said and choosing to believe it is true - in better cases, an argument from authority, in worse, a reverse ad hominem. We tend to 'know' what we are told by trusted sources; text books, professors, parents, doctors. On a more sophisticated level, the knowledge that I am safe in my car when I drive to work has so many dependent assumptions that it becomes impossible to dig down to a core assumption about myself, the car, the trip or any of the components; everything is based on an implicit trust in the knowledge of others. This is how we function in normal life.
    The willingness of a scientist to attribute certainty or near certainty to a statement or hypothesis depends on many things too, but mostly on the scientist's research, measurement, observation and reference to precedent. It is a far more rigorous assessment of objective or empirical 'fact' than our everyday acceptance of 'fact'. What, to a scientist, is accepted (a priori) tends to be based on decades or centuries of work; for the public, a lurid headline which panders to our existing prejudices is sufficient evidence to believe almost anything.
    What is frustrating is that, once a belief has been set into a mind, it is very hard to shift, even when it is evidently unjustified or based on falsehood.

  10. I have to thank you all for the directions you are taking this, beyond what I had hoped for. Life has interrupted my excessive posting but I will be carefully reading all of it and checking links when there is time. Next time I write something I'll try to leave out the smarty smarty bits.

    Mal, I think you and I pretty much agree, it's just a matter of focus. A simple rule for living I use sometimes (though incomplete; a kind of "including but not limited to") is that the only person I can change is myself. Of course that reasoning should not be used as an excuse for inaction.

    Oddly, I belonged to a kind of beer klatsch with art friends and Feynman at MIT in the 80s when he was in Cambridge working at Thinking Machines. He was not the central figure in the group.

    Turns out my father has quite a bit to say on this subject too; will try to mine some extracts from various bits, including his "More is Different" which points out that things are not oversimplifiable, if you will excuse my oversimplification.

  11. Susan:

    Mal, I think you and I pretty much agree, it’s just a matter of focus. A simple rule for living I use sometimes (though incomplete; a kind of “including but not limited to”) is that the only person I can change is myself. Of course that reasoning should not be used as an excuse for inaction.

    I'm sure you're right that our difference here is a matter of focus. Heh. When I first learned about the Dunning-Kruger effect (2009?), I winced. Since then, I hope I've been a little less eager to offer my inexpert opinion than I was previously ("Be the change you wish to see in the world") 8^}. My actions these days are pretty much limited to countering AGW denial on a few sites, mostly comment threads on newspaper articles. I have had a few lurkers thank for links to Spencer Weart's book, and also the NAS climate collection. That's been enough to encourage me to keep doing that.

  12. "Deceptive Nature"
    -- by Horatio Algeranon

    Appearances in Nature
    Are seldom what they seem
    Our simple nomenclature
    Can't capture Nature's dream

    • My own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.

      • It takes two to tango.

        Scientific discourse is alive and well in the climate sciences, just not in the proxy debates where science is forced to stand in for politics. See Gavin Schmidt's wonderful musings on the subject.

        Thanks for your concern.

        If you have any suggestions whereby anything but pantomime discourse can be injected into politics, I am sure many people outside our immediate circle would find it interesting.

    • Sean, I don't know if answering you will produce more of the same; it seems to do so elsewhere. Nobody seems able to persuade you that everyone is doing the best they can in trying circumstances and that others besides you on these boards are capable of thought. I heartily endorse mt's choices here, and had ventured my own efforts because I regard this is a safe place to open up a bit. So far, the conversation had felt like it was largely between friends, whether or not we are acquainted over time (and of course, largely through our writings). I would truly appreciate if, if you have more to say, if you would assume that we are all part of a larger community that requires us to work together rather than at cross purposes. Since you seem acquainted with some excellent teachings in the better core of some of the world's religions, perhaps you could take some of their advice to heart.

      If you have time for writing at this level and feel it's useful to mount continuous argument, I'd suggest you start a vehicle of your own of some sort to promote you opinions rather than overwhelming what had been, up to this point, a very interesting and open discussion. "A pox on all your houses" is not likely to achieve progress, is it? Abusing the host for setting the table seems a little over the top to me.

      • "Suppartheid"
        -- by Horatio Algeranon

        I'd like to invite you all for dinner
        Except for those who spit on the floor
        A spitter may not be a sinner
        But I would say he is a boor*

        *bore works too

  13. "Abusing the host for setting the table" - nice. Always thought accusations of 'censorship' on blogs were weird - like not being invited round for dinner is apartheid.

  14. "... [S]everal things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously — I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason — Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration...." -- Keats, 21 Dec. 1817

  15. A small matter; mt said "Pure reason ultimately failed to get from one plus one to two."

    huh? you can't miss. one plus one, when you unfold the definition of +, is just the successor of 1, for which two is a convenient shorthand name.

    No doubt Whitehead & Russell must have worked long and hard on their Principia Mathematica, it was all so new then. But it was soon superceded. They missed the very helpful little definition of ordered pairs, and so had to work harder, and they introduced an unappealing hierarchy of set types to ward off known paradoxes. Simpler versions of axiomatic set theory soon came along.

    Set theoretic-based "ordinary arithmetic" is the same as what you get from Peano's axioms. 1 + 1 = 2 is a no-brainer. "it's even simpler than things you think are simple." After you define all the symbols including + and = that is. :)

    Michael, of course you don't ask "pure reason" to prove something from nothing. So some starting point is needed. At minimum, to make an inference of a "pure reason" sort, a rule of inference is needed.

    Pure reason does not tell us contingent facts about the world. That what makes it so pure ;). And that's where science comes in.

  16. I've been busy reinventing the lightbulb, and found Socrates is the source of "The unexamined life is not worth living" as well as "I know that I do not know" and a whole lot of other good stuff.

    It seems the evolution of our brains has not been a tale of great progress, sad to say.

    • Susan, if you are using "evolution" in the Darwinian sense, i.e. heritable change in brain anatomy and physiology, then I'm afraid there's little reason to expect progress. Not only is "progress" an idea with little currency among Evolutionary Biologists, but there's debate whether our brains today have any capacities not possessed by those of the first "anatomically modern" humans 200Kya.

      If you're speaking of cultural evolution, whereby each newborn child is inculcated with the accumulated knowledge of the society in which she is raised, it's reasonable to speak of progress IMO. Unfortunately the repositories of cultural evolution are vulnerable to destruction, in which case new generations will go back to making the same mistakes over again. Will that be the result of AGW? A bleak prospect.

    • Well, if it makes you feel any better, Socrates probably stole all his best lines from someone else (his gardener? ) who stole it from someone else....

      ..which eventually leads us back to the monkeys as the source of most profound sayings (unless creationism is true, in which case Eve probably said all the really smart stuff and Adam just asked stupid questions like "where's the clicker?")

  17. The drawing is lovely, but appears more complex than a direct (pre-verbal) response to the living world which is the response that most surprises me. The writing is clever. Methinks there is too much thinking here. Draw Antonio, draw! (Michelangelo)

    • Thanks. I've been thinking a little about this comment which addresses the other part of my life. Visited your site and enjoyed your work. As to choices about art, it's complicated. I have engaged in climate argument by choice, and like writing; there are reasons why the retreat from visual to verbal, but in choosing this image I mostly had two things in mind. First, was the visual synchronicity between P3's "look" and my color and design, second was a desire to reveal a bit more about myself once I realized this article was going to be front and center, and a long way third was that I still own the rights to my image despite having used it for the cover of Dad's book.

      I've done masses of life drawing for decades but that is not my current focus. It was not my intention to illustrate the further points I was trying to make, though the mention of astonishment and many of the other atmospherics of the science of knowledge which includes the knowledge of not-knowing have delighted me. My work and personal path are, as you note, inclusive of complexity and therefore not good examples of the exposure I recommend.

      Personally, I am moving towards trying to find the heart at the center of being, as the only path likely to lead to us all including ourselves as the family of humankind.

      • The heart at the center of being is the grand whole of our astonishing planet. -- That's why I love these trying times in this unique century: Some of those eternal questions turn so easy, and some turn into irrelevant nonsense. And no longer can we not conclude ought from is: We are freed from Hume's guillotine, if we look for the center of being (and notice it is in grave danger and suffers from criminial neglect). All that's needed is honest astonishment and to opt out of omphaloskepsis.

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