USS Clueless -- Powerlessness and the rise of pseudoscience

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Powerlessness and the rise of pseudoscience

Reading various news sources on the net, I see the following things: One of the TV networks ran a show trying to prove that the moon landings didn't take place. A bunch of anti-tech radicals had a public meeting to try to create a large movement. The creationists are trying again, and this time they're calling it Intelligent Design Theory, which claims that study of science "proves" existence of higher intelligence behind everything.

Is there a theme here? I think so. Combine this with widespread belief in UFOs, ESP and Elvis sightings, what I see is a rebellion against scientific orthodoxy. And I think I know why.

The populus in nearly every country now is divided into an economic and technological elite and a much larger mass of people who've been left behind. There are people driving the bus and people who are just along for the ride. And being on a bus which is driven by a crazy man is a very scary experience. That's what we're seeing here.

I went to a bar recently and sat down to drink my soda-water-and-lime (I don't drink alcohol) and got to talking to a couple of guys. They were clearly "blue collar" and it came out that they were construction workers. I mentioned that I was an engineer and one of them said "An engineer? You're scum." And there was a beat, and he said "I'm just pulling your chain." He had been drinking a bit, and alcohol makes you bare your soul; I think his first comment was genuine (though I didn't take offense). I've seen this before. Engineers get a lot more respect than lawyers; it's rare for someone to dis me but it does happen.

I was, at that time, employed designing cell phones. I mentioned this, and in the course of the conversation I tried to explain a bit about how they worked in response to questions they asked me. And it became evident that while this guy really wanted, indeed needed, to understand that there was simply no hope. He was so far behind that he didn't even know what questions to ask, and wouldn't understand the answers in any case. It's been fairly said that to properly ask a question, you need to already know most of the answer. He didn't even understand most of the important words I would need for a brief answer.

It's faddish for computer cognescenti to make fun of America On Line, but AOL has become successful by democratizing the web. What they did, and the reason they succeeded, was that they were the ones who made computers work "for the rest of us" (despite the use of that slogan by another company). They created a turn-key solution, which is what the 80% on the bottom needed.

That 80% number is about the percentage of the adults in the US for whom Clark's law is now in full force: A sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. When I turn on an electric light, I know what's happening. I don't necessarily think about it every time I do so, but I know where the electricity comes from; how it's made; how it gets to my home, and what it does inside the lightbulb to make light. When I use my computer, I know what happens each time I press a key, or move my mouse; I know in great detail how nearly every technology that affects my life works. This means that I can figure out its limits and its capabilities, which means that I can get more out of my technology than most people do. When I drive a car I understand how the engine works and what its limits are; I understand the laws of motion and therefore what brakes do and how; I understand the manual transmission and how power conversion works. All this makes me a safer driver.

But that's because I have the knowledge base to understand it. I understand electricity because I've studied physics. I understand business because I've studied economics, military history and game theory. And I was able to study and understand all those things because I had studied a lot of other things. It all fits together. To really study something new you usually need fifty things before it. Physics is completely incomprehensible without at least a fundamental understanding of the principles of calculus. You can't really understand calculus without algebra and geometry. Algebra makes no sense without arithmetic. Military history is inexplicable without a broader understanding of history. Game theory makes no sense without fundamental understanding of probability theory, not to mention the principles of statistics.

And when you start getting into things like computers, the knowledge base you really need for truly deep understanding is extremely broad: electronics and software are not directly explicable without a lot of background.

But that's the point. I go through life with a virtual X-ray eye inside my mind. I know how car engines work; a car is not just a black box to me. I know how software works; a software malfunction is not just a piece of bad luck to me.

But to that 80% of the population, none of this is possible. They go through life dealing with things which are skin deep. A refrigerator is something that makes ice and keeps milk cold, not something that utilizes Avogadro's principle and the laws of thermodynamics. (Therefore I understand why it won't work when its door is open.) A cell phone is something with buttons that lets you talk to someone at a distance, not a device based on an ASIC which utilizes a radio link to communicate to an array of fixed radio transmitters. (Therefore I understand why my cellphone won't work in a subway.) Everything in their life is a miracle -- things that work most of the time, but the 80% don't have the slightest idea why, and which sometimes fail for no obvious reason.

While these people are grateful for all the miracles in their lives, they are also resentful. There are nameless, faceless people out there doing stuff which can't be understood which is going to change my life in ways I can't predict, and I have no way to alter this. We're all along for the ride in a bus careening out of control at high speed because it's being driven by a mad man. Or so it seems to the 80%.

And so the backlash and the retreat to pseudoscience. The advantage of pseudoscience is that it's easy. If someone says "Minds can talk to each other" that's straightforward and doesn't require huge knowledge to understand, and indeed that's the primary attraction. Deep down there may be a suspicion that it isn't correct -- but the only alternative is to surrender to the careening bus. These alternatives might be right or might not be, but by adopting them I regain at least the possibility of control over my life. When I'm sick I can go to a doctor and let him prescribe for me something with a weird name that I've never heard of, or I can go to the store and buy Vitamin C and scentless garlic and gingko and take them for myself -- and be in control of my own fate. Again, that was speaking in the voice of the 80%. I, myself, also understand enough about biology that I can research drugs and understand their descriptions. I'm not powerless with doctors and I'll argue with them about treatment if I think they're wrong, and even when I don't argue I always asks what a prescription is intended to perform and how. It's interesting the reactions I get about this; some will take it right in stride while others resent it. I've even had a few which encourage it.

In particular, the one thing someone never wants to hear is "Something bad is going to happen to you and there's absolutely nothing which can be done about it." You've got HIV; you're going to die slowly and painfully within 10 years. You have cancer; it's spread; it can't be controlled and you're going to be dead in 9 months. You've got the gene for Huntington's disease and your brain is going to self destruct before you're sixty. You're heading down the big hill on the roller coaster and the track is out at the bottom and there's no brakes -- MAKE IT STOP!!

So someone comes along and says "You're not doomed. Give me money and I'll sell you something which will straighten you right out -- and oh, by the way, doctors don't know everything." That's just what someone in the 80% wants to hear: no, your situation is not hopeless, you still can control your fate.

People will embrace and believe such an explanation because the alternatives are completely unacceptable. This must be true because I refuse to accept that I'm going to die in a horrible fashion.

There's a technical name for this: appeal to consequences. It says that a statement can't be true because if it is the ramifications would be horrible. But that's not a valid judgement.

The biggest unsolved problem of the industrial revolution is that it made the majority powerless. That, in itself, isn't new; throughout history most people have been powerless. But the industrial revolution dangled the illusion of power in front of the broad populace and it's becoming evident that it was an empty promise. The populace has power, but without knowledge power is useless and they've discovered that they simply don't know enough to wield that power. Instead of a lot of people travelling the technological road on horseback or by foot, we now travel it in cars. It's faster and more comfortable, but only one person in five gets to drive.

Can anything be done about this? I don't think so, at least to fully solve the problem. The only possible way to fix this is to try to bring that 80% into the intellectual middle-class.

Unfortunately, the problem with that is that it's too late for most people. It takes literal decades to build the essential base of knowledge needed to understand many of these issues; you have to start as a child. It's still possible to pick up the knowledge as an adult but it requires a massive investment, one most people cannot or are unwilling to make.

Those of us in the 20% who do know what's going on have an obligation to try, however. And for the first time we have a tool: the web. If there's something you know a lot about, write about it and put it on a web page. I can't write an encyclopedia but I can describe certain aspects of CDMA-based cell phones. If you know about something, write about it and place it somewhere so that it can be accessed easily. There are millions of people who do know how some things work; if we share our knowledge it will go a long way to helping this.

But ultimately this isn't enough. We can't -- and indeed shouldn't -- make everyone into a scientist or engineer. Pseudoscience and irrationality will always be with us.

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