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Intervention by Denise Caruso Read Intervention by Denise Caruso, Executive Director of the Hybrid Vigor Silver Award Winner, 2007 Independent Publisher Book Awards; Best Business Books 2007, Strategy+Business Magazine

THE ABSURDITY OF CERTAINTY:BEHIND THE THEME OF INTERVENTION

by Mike Neuenschwander ~ April 18, 2008.
Permalink | Filed under: 'Intervention', 21st Century Risk, Human Perception, Hybrid Vigor, Social Trust Online.

I’ve just finished reading Denise Caruso’s book, Intervention: Confronting the Real Risks of Genetic Engineering and Life on a Biotech Planet. I absolutely love it! As the book’s subtitle suggests, Denise recounts the tragedy of how hubris in the biotech industry — compounded by sub-standard risk assessment methods used by government regulators — has blinded us to potentially catastrophic consequences of releasing billions of living, reproducing, evolving man-made organisms the environment, the long-term effects of which are completely unknown.

But Intervention delivers a much broader message, about how the human propensity for hamartia isn’t miraculously expunged by mathematics, statistics, or the scientific method.

In proving her point about assessing the risks of genetic engineering, Denise calls into question the seemingly unassailable position of science in our culture. The book suggests we desperately need “a new kind of science” (to borrow Steven Wolfram’s phrase) — one that accounts for the nature of the beings (i.e., us) who are wielding its increasingly powerful tools. Try as we might, whatever model we create to try and describe reality, our scientific models inescapably say much more about human beings than they do about some objective reality. In the book, Denise exposes our lapses in rationality due to cognitive, social, and technological realities. Such lapses are everywhere in the areas I cover (technology, social trust, and privacy).

So while reading the book, I decided present my views on these issues in a blog post. Admittedly, going into some depth on Denise’s book on the Hybrid Vigor blog (which is Denise’s creation) seems almost self-congratulatory. But I think the larger themes in Intervention are relevant to most of the really difficult problems we’re trying to solve globally today, and understanding these issues will help focus our discussion at Hybrid Vigor.

Softening the Hard Sciences: The Triple Threat to Rationality

1. The Limits of Human Cognition

On the cognitive level, scientists may subconsciously fall in love with logical fallacies they create, without realizing that any theory they concoct is inseparable from their cultural conditioning. Models and theories are as much expressions of a person’s worldview as an expression of scientific truths. On this point, Denise quotes Paul Thurman, a Columbia professor of statistics and data analysis, who puts it rhetorically: “If I’ve built a model based on certain assumptions, that’s what I believe.” (p. 63)

Any assumptions built into the model are virtually undetectable to its creator and patrons; the model becomes a Matrix: “a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch. A prison for your mind.” Mike Walter, whose blog I follow from time to time, calls this brand of irrationality the “Wizard of Oz Syndrome.” The problem here is more than simple self-delusion; it’s the cognitive disability in human beings to view their work and their environment with true objectivity.

In theory, science is based on empiricism, so logical fallacies are supposed to be weeded out by peer reviews. To believe that model of the scientific method only illustrates my point. In practice, reliance on empiricism is the crux of the problem, because in most cases not enough data exist to form an effective model. To do good science, you need good data.

But as Denise puts it, “How do you know what to measure … when you’re looking for the risks in something completely new?” (p. 76)

2. The Effects of Sociality on Scientists

On the social level, we have learned that logical fallacies elicit cultish behavior. Once a fallacy attracts believers, it becomes a shibboleth to distinguish the intellectual elites from the ignorant masses — or “innumerates,” as the math nerds call us. Denise skillfully refutes their case against the innumerates with several examples, including the Long Term Capital Management debacle.

The problem with innumerates isn’t only that we lack perspective about numbers. … What’s more, [we are told,] we tend to personalize things — to be misled by our own experiences rather than being objective and rational and informed by the facts, an error in judgment that apparently no mathematician or scientist ever makes. … [But] to conclude that “innumerate” people cannot understand risk because they don’t understand sophisticated mathematical concepts is inaccurate at best and it certainly isn’t an objective truth. Thurman’s Nobel-winning economists doomed Long Term Capital Management by building their models on faulty assumptions, which they then relied on to make decisions.

Denise’s argument here reminds me of a hilarious episode of Zefrank on the role of consciousness. It’s good comic relief if you want to go check it out before continuing with the rest of this post!

Once a group of like-minded people isolate themselves from independent thinkers, groupthink sets in, and group members can be made to believe almost anything.

3. The Psychological Effects of Technology on Scientists

The introduction of technology into a social setting has demonstrable psychological effects on human beings, including scientists. An intervening technology may change people’s perception of a problem so they come to rely on the technology (a structural solution) and accept its authority. The result is blind deference to the intervening technology. Denise again allows Paul Thurman to make the point:

Many researchers simply believe the numbers that come out of the computer…. They say, ‘I have a model; that’s the right thing to believe. If there’s anything out of pattern, then I must have done something wrong.’ They rarely think that the model itself could be wrong. People don’t do the simple sniff tests anymore … they immediately cut to a quantitative explanation…. They infer a scientific precision that isn’t there…. But obviously even Nobel winners can build erroneous models. (p. 63)

The Absurdity of Certainty

Epistemology is the term philosophers use to describe the ways of knowing. Rather than try to define it, I’ll offer a small thought experiment. Answer these questions in your mind:

  • How good-looking are you?
  • How intelligent are you?
  • How do you smell?
  • How sure are you about your answers and how do you know?

Whatever your answers, the only certainty about this exercise is that you’ll be wrong. But something in the human psyche allows us to guess and make up answers — and then to believe in what we just made up as if it were factual.

There’s a game called “blind man’s bluff” that illustrates this point rather well. Blind man’s bluff is a kind of reverse-poker, in which players can see everyone else’s hand, but not their own. Players then make bets on their hands, not knowing what cards they themselves hold. It’s a riot to play. (Note: if you watch the video in the link above, in my opinion the game is more fun if you force people to place bets and not allow anyone to fold.) If you haven’t ever played blind man’s bluff, you should stop reading this blog post, get a few friends together immediately, and play a round. Go ahead! I’ll wait.

When you understand blind-man’s bluff, you’ll begin to understand that we humans are much more socially aware than we are self-aware. In fact, without others to play the game with us, we have no way of knowing the cards we hold.

As social creatures, our need to belong makes us just conscious enough of “self” to sense aloneness. We’re not adapted to survive completely on our own, so we bond with others. One of the primary ways we bond is by concocting stories about ourselves and others. Good stories are ones that help people coordinate behaviors and improve cohesion within a social unit. So naturally, we are also willing to believe others’ stories.

Our ability to believe is a virtue, not a flaw. The human propensity to invent stories and believe others plays a key role in the survival of our species. But it also means that our survival instinct favors social cohesion over intellectual acumen. In my opinion, if scientists understood the relationship between belief and social instinct, there would be little tension between religion and science.

I was glad to find that Denise avoids the pitfalls she writes about in the book. She doesn’t fight science with science. Instead, she simply asks for greater caution, in light of human frailty that leads to irrationality — the scientific community not excluded. And so I’m rating this book a “must-read” for the rational being.

2 Responses to THE ABSURDITY OF CERTAINTY:BEHIND THE THEME OF INTERVENTION

  1. The Hybrid Vigor Institute | hybridvigor.net

    [...] It’s a topic I’ve written on before (most recently in discussing Denise Caruso’s book, “Intervention”), but Giberson boldly goes where I didn’t dare in suggesting that “Science … has the raw material for a new religion.” But then he asks some hard questions of a scientifically rooted religion: What would this new religion be like once it became institutionalized? After all, if religion fills a genuine human need, something has to fill the hole created by its passing — something that appeals to billions of people. [...]

  2. WHY TRUSTING THE MARKET IS A SUCKER’S BET « The Hybrid Vigor Institute | hybridvigor.net

    [...] important themes on this blog. (For example, the Times article reads like a case study of my post on “The Absurdity of Certainty.” And as I pointed out in a recent post, the notion of [...]

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