Hierarchy of the Grift

by Maria on October 6, 2021

Recently I was trapped in a room with a beautician trying to upsell me ‘treatments’. She handed me a glossy brochure for a process that involved lying down on a bed with a large inflatable bag secured around the waist, and having carbon dioxide pumped into the bag. This would, I was assured, cause my lower half to become thinner and less lumpy. It would cost several hundred pounds. I nodded, smiled, refused all offers, and left at the earliest appropriate moment, feeling quite grumpy about the utter crap marketed to women to stoke and then assuage our insecurities. There’s no point saying ‘No thanks, that’s bullshit pseudoscience and frankly insulting,’ because that would be rude. The only market signal permitted is ‘No thanks’.

I got to thinking about how these kind of products and services are disseminated. Before the young women in the salon press the brochures into our hands, they’ve been on a ‘training’ to learn how to sell this stuff as well as administer it. (Also, what happens to the young women? I rarely see older ones working in those places.) There must be trade shows with stands and people marketing this crap to each other, business owners making the trip and trying to invest wisely in the fashionable treatments of the future. There must be companies that develop them and, after a fashion, scientists or science-adjacent people who … I’m searching for a verb. Come up with it? Test it? (For some incredibly loose idea of the word test.) Suggest the science-neighbouring catchphrases and concepts to populate the marketing collaterals?

There must be a whole ecosystem of investors, licensors and people wearing white clothes and exquisite make-up who sell this stuff to each other, long before the poorly paid woman in that room chirps about ‘removing toxins’. How do the development people communicate to each other? At what level or in what contexts do they acknowledge that what they sell is bullshit, and the approximately three year life cycle of each product is based on novelty, marketability, and what can be squeezed into a tiny room and 30 minute appointment. Do they speak openly about the grift of getting salons to invest – probably on quite unfavourable terms – in their equipment, knowing it’s near impossible for people down the end of the chain to make more than a short-lived sliver of profit on such patently ineffective bullshit? Do they smirk?

The comparison that comes to mind is American rightwing shock-jocks, the guys spewing out cookie-cutter hatred on syndicated local radio stations across the country. The middle of the pyramid guys who believe the antivax disinfo, guzzle horse medicine and die of covid, as people higher up the chain got vaccinated the second they could. One thing this has all shown us is at what precisely which point in that pyramid where people must openly acknowledge the grift. The suckers aren’t just the listeners, but people at a surprisingly high grade of the hierarchy.

I’m curious if the sucker identification point is constant across human activity. Do the endless, derivative crypto-currencies you see advertised on buses – a clear sign it’s way past time to get out – have the same basic model as beauticians selling bullshit treatments, and women ‘investing’ in product for multi-level marketing schemes?

It’s also striking how gendered these grifts are, how tied up in intensively defined and policed social and political identities that don’t allow any air of questioning in. How cult-like the conditions for flourishing must be. Other people must know far more about this.

{ 82 comments }

1

Chetan Murthy 10.06.21 at 10:43 am

Maria, do you know the article “The Long Con” by Rick Perlstein (about the right-wing grift-industrial complex in the USA) ?
Also, there’s been a lot written about multi-level marketing businesses in the US, esp. among the Mormons.

I remember you’re not in the US, but rather in Europe. I am saddened to learn that this sort of thing is prevalent in Europe, too: I had always imagined that somehow Europe had managed to send all its shysters and grifters to North America, and so the people who were left were …. well, y’know, solid and stable. Ah, well.

2

Pittsburgh Mike 10.06.21 at 10:50 am

In the tech startup world, there’s a concept known as “arms merchants,” which has nothing to do with guns. Instead, if there’s a technology battle about to be fought with no clear winner, you can make more money selling tech to these folks than participating in the battle itself.

A good example these days is cryptocurrency mining. Buying into bubble currency with no interesting legal use is probably a bad idea. Renting overpriced computers to naive lawyers and doctors to do crypto mining themselves, on the other hand, is guaranteed free money. I doubt your typical internist is competent to figure out the GPU requirements for crypto mining.

When my nephew wanted to buy into one of these things to mine something called Aurora Coin, IIRC, I reminded him that the only person guaranteed to make money here was the guy selling him the computers. And if you’re looking around the table and don’t see the sucker ….

3

Matt 10.06.21 at 10:53 am

I was assured, cause my lower half to become thinner and less lumpy. It would cost several hundred pounds.

I’m not completely sure where my “lower half” starts, but I would certainly like my gut to become thinner. (It’s not particularly lumpy, just… larger…thank I’d like. My legs are doing quite nicely, thank you very much.) However, several hundred pounds seems like too much to me, even if I was very sure it would work. Do you think there’s a discount option available?

I rarely see older ones working in those places
…hmmm…starts to think about whether this place might be able to provide some anti-ageing treatments, and do I need those? So far, I think I’m just becoming a bit “distinguished”, but do I want to go any further than this? And can I get any such treatments at significantly less than several hundred pounds, in local equivalent?

4

MFB 10.06.21 at 10:54 am

Welcome to twenty-first-century society, Maria!

How I learned to stop worrying and love the Grift.

5

Cranky Observer 10.06.21 at 11:41 am

= = = At what level or in what contexts do they acknowledge that what they sell is bullshit, = = =

I have a coworker whose family has a successful business selling by subscription farm and rural living supplies of which half are generics of reasonably price and quality and half are products for the same market we could call “baloney” because while they aren’t quite bullshit they aren’t really legitimate to the skeptical eye either. They are generally intelligent and capable people, modulo their US political views. The thing is they actually believe in their baloney products – not crystal-level woo but supplements, nutriceuticals, food concentrate drinks and the like. Any attempt to point out the lack of any scientific or statistical outcomes basis for these products is met with a wall of “oh no no no, you see the 17% zinc in this supplement combined with the essence of hogwort in the drink causes…” – to me it is pure unadulterated salesmanship with no substance, but then again the most convincing salesperson is the one who really believes in what they are selling

6

Francis Spufford 10.06.21 at 11:51 am

I think you may need to allow for a largish zone of doublethink in the middle of the pyramid, where people contrive to believe and not to believe in the grift simultaneously – to believe it for purposes of partisan identification, for example, while disbelieving it enough to treat it as a strictly short-term opportunity. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Grift! For $299.99, we place your cat in this box and then pump it full of holistic healing gas to promote cellular repair and to eliminate free radicals…

7

Zamfir 10.06.21 at 12:02 pm

I once knew someone at a small company quite like what you describe, though perhaps more up-market. In the business of anti-wrinkle creams and the like. Scented fatty creams with magic secret ingredients. Well respected company!

What I found interesting: for the far majority of the company, it just does not matter whether the products work. It’s not that they are consciously running a grift, it’s simply not their department to wonder if the product works. The production people produce high-quality product, on spec. The office people keep the books in order and the organization running. The owners take their cut. The (many, many) sales and marketing people only care that the customers are happy and buying. That’s really not so different from sales at a company that sells a working product. Everyone is genuinely is genuinely trying to do their specific job, it’s only at the aggregate level that their jobs might be pointless.

Perhaps, somewhere deep in the company, there are some lab people who fully understand how empty the claims are. Most people just accept the marketing claims at face value, as long as the customers pay.

8

Matt 10.06.21 at 12:11 pm

Chetan said: I remember you’re not in the US, but rather in Europe. I am saddened to learn that this sort of thing is prevalent in Europe, too: I had always imagined that somehow Europe had managed to send all its shysters and grifters to North America,

You should look at the prevalence of cellulite “cures”, and the omni-presence of homeopathic “remedies”, in France, and you’ll be quickly dissuaded of any illusions that Europeans are immune to this sort of nonsense. Sadly enough, willingness to believe, and buy, nonsense knows no borders.

9

Jake Gibson 10.06.21 at 12:11 pm

I have concluded that Capitalist economies run on grift, marketing and advertising. Sell the sizzle, not the steak. But then, I am a cynic who sees the self-help industry as snake oil for the soul.

10

Maria 10.06.21 at 12:24 pm

Only now do I realise the absence of convincingly young-looking older women in beauty establishments is of course its own admission.

Thanks, Chetan, I haven’t read that one, though I do remember really enjoying a Perlstein book on US politics that my brother gave me.

Pittsburgh Mike, indeed. You also remind me that the point at which ‘crypto’ – let’s say ethereum – became a sucker’s game as far as I was concerned actually turns out to have predated the point it actually did, by several years. That’s a lot of money I left on the table, but I think I can live with it.

Cranky and Frances – yes! I forgot there of course must be a roiling sea of maybe/maybe nots or motivated believers somewhere in the middle. They’re so often the trickiest to deal with as doubling down on their own uncertainty at some unconscious emotional cost makes them impossible to convince. For me, the moment anyone who’s not a cellular biologist mentions mitochondria is the moment I check out.

This stuff really is everywhere. I’m very curious if there are activities not mentioned but that have the same basic structure.

11

Maria 10.06.21 at 12:27 pm

TBF though, not all beauty products are BS. Retinol and hyaluronic acid have some, mild effects. You know they are effective because a) some actual, peer-reviewed science, and b)they’re available at low cost in generic packaging. But the best beauty i.e. anti-aging – a problematic elision – product invented is sunscreen.

12

Zamfir 10.06.21 at 1:52 pm

Once upon a time, I applied for a development job at a company that had forgotten how their own products worked. It took a while in the interview before they admitted it. The job was basically to re-discover why their existing designs were the way they were. Everyone who knew had left the company years before, and the company had focussed on optimizing production of a handful of their best-selling designs.

The sales department had some rules of thumbs, how they could adapt the products to different customer requirements. If the requirements went far from the baseline to make the simple rules unreliable, they would just decline to offer (or, I suspect, they would sell anyway and hope for the best)

To my best understanding, this was not a grifting company. The product probably did what they promised. For most people in the company, their job would be exactly the same if the company was a pure grift. They had some claims that they could not really verify, except that the customers were satisfied enough and willing to buy more.

13

Lynne 10.06.21 at 1:53 pm

Hi Maria!
You have reminded me of the time quite a few years ago I visited a new hairdresser for a trim (I had long hair then.) She’s never met me before, but she tried to persuade me to colour the grey in my hair.

“There’s no point saying ‘No thanks, that’s bullshit pseudoscience and frankly insulting,’ because that would be rude. The only market signal permitted is ‘No thanks’.”

I did think it was insulting. I just said, “Why? Don’t you like it?” I think you might have got away with asking whether the stylist thought you were fat. Having a reply ready doesn’t, unfortunately, do a thing about all the beauty treatments on offer.

I’ve been going to the same place for quite a few years now, and I know this is the place for me: last time I was there the stylist complimented me on the white streak in front of my mostly-grey hair.

14

Lewis L 10.06.21 at 2:13 pm

This bag of CO2 seems to be an outgrowth of what’s called Carboxytherapy which
involves the injection of CO2 percutaneously. It’s an interesting example of the transformation of any substance that has been shown to have some desired effect in some form into a quasi-magical entity that has inherent powers—so that simply being surrounded by the substance allows it to work its magic. Examples include various beauty creams that include vitamins and minerals that have effect when ingested but do essentially nothing when applied to the skin. Because there have been modest (very modest) effects of injected CO2 on subcutaneous fat mostly in small non-randomized studies I’m sure that marketers have used these publications to convince beauticians unused to critical reading of studies that this new CO2 bag therapy is a wonder.

15

Trader Joe 10.06.21 at 2:34 pm

” I’m very curious if there are activities not mentioned but that have the same basic structure.”

For many years I tended bar and there were any number of magical properties attributed to the products I dispensed….on a good weekend night people lined up three deep to imbibe a potion that made them feel young, made them feel good, helped them solve problems, made them smart and funny and much, much more.

The amazing part was I never had to say a word to make it sell and no one ever, ever, ever asked for proof – unless they just wanted to know the ABV.

16

Doug 10.06.21 at 3:11 pm

I will second the recommendation of “The Long Con.” It really is a touchstone. I hope that the Perlstein book you got was the short one; it took me a very long time to get through Nixonland, and I have not yet made it across The Invisible Bridge. Haven’t even bought my ticket to visit Reaganland.

17

oldster 10.06.21 at 3:23 pm

“I’m curious if the sucker identification point is constant across human activity.”

We typically don’t prey on those closest to us. And we are typically distrustful of total strangers. So the ideal pair are known to each other, distantly, or at least share some points of reference: they attend the same church, or had school-friends in common. Or, the grifter pretends that these things are true.
Hypothesis: suburban living provides the right degrees of familiarity-plus-anonymity to engender these transactions. Villagers are more careful not to destroy trust. City-dwellers are on guard against strangers.
I imagine that sociologists have looked at this.
Erik Prince, mercenary leader, and his sister Betsy DeVos, destroyer of education, owe their fortunes to the Amway scam.

18

Omega Centauri 10.06.21 at 3:38 pm

Chances are the customers think they work via the placebo effect. Then they tell their friends, so they become an unpaid extension of the marketing department.

And just as the best lie is built around a half truth, the best grift products probably contain a few ingredients which actually provide some minor benefit.

19

Ray Vinmad 10.06.21 at 6:41 pm

The wraps and unguents are ridiculous but the things that ‘work’ are also somewhat ridiculous because they assume some movement towards an ideal no one can reach. So botox and juvederm are similarly a kind of scam.

Unfortunately, you may have to play along to get love, be respected at work or even find work in certain cases.

If you look a bit closer you can see it’s often capitalism creating a background anxiety about whether you are valuable as a person. It takes a gendered form but it’s always going to be an open question and there’s always more crap to assuage your doubts about that for a short time until you find there’s something else that needs to be fixed.

20

Tim Worstall 10.06.21 at 8:31 pm

“Do they speak openly about the grift of getting salons to invest – probably on quite unfavourable terms – in their equipment, knowing it’s near impossible for people down the end of the chain to make more than a short-lived sliver of profit on such patently ineffective bullshit? Do they smirk?”

Yes. Used to know (generation ahead of me, I knew a couple of the sons, my generation) a couple of such grifters. There was a “wrap in bandages, lose weight” one and they were also the folks who always had a sports star on the front page of the London Standard advertising hair weave.

The trick (s) was threefold:

1) Is this something where people have to come back to the “clinic” regularly so that it is an ongoing “treatment”? Revenue streams, not one time sales.

2) Is it some vaguely believable story? The bandages one, for example, the “treatment” included a chat with a “nutritionist” or “dietician”. Hair weave is, well, it’s hair weave of course.

3) Pricing. The monthly pricing was, across countries, that the monthly treatment cost should be about the weekly wage of a secretary in that place. Expensive enough that it makes a profit/folks think it is doing some good and “cheap enough” that insecure middle/upper middle class class types will buy it.

Of course, the entire thing is manipulation of human psychology. And yet – one of the sons did admit to me that the bandage/lose weight thing made no sense at all. Except that it did work. Folks paying for the bandages would actually listen to and follow the dietician/nutritionist advice and follow it.

No, I don’t defend despite one of the sons being a very close friend and the two grifters being most kind to me as such.

But it is just manipulation of human psychology and the difference between this and “Nudge” is, well, umm….

21

J-D 10.06.21 at 9:41 pm

Do the endless, derivative crypto-currencies you see advertised on buses – a clear sign it’s way past time to get out …

Your reaction is mine, but contrariwise I saw an advertising poster for Bitcoin on a bus shelter which explicitly invoked the way in which the advertising was appearing as an indicator that it was time to buy in.

22

Alex SL 10.06.21 at 9:59 pm

My hunch is the same: presumably the lowest levels of the pyramid actually believe, the highest fully know that it is a fraud and hold the bottom in contempt, and in the middle it is a mixture, generously salted with people capable of doublethink.

What I find even more interesting is religion. I know it is not a polite thing to write, but to somebody like me, who is not convinced by the arguments for the existence of gods and immaterial souls, organised religion is a fraud, if we think the not-being-convinced out to its logical implications. In exchange for the granting of power and the giving of donations and tithes, promises are made that are never fulfilled. To somebody who is adherent of a religion, all organised religions except their own are frauds, if we think their being-adherent-of-one-religion out to its logical implications.

So, in this case, we may have the peculiar situation that the only significant part of the pyramid that knows (or rather, knew) that it is a fraud are people who were at the tip 1,900 years ago, and that the fraud has ever since been run by people who started at the bottom, convinced that it is all true.

And once I think that through, I can imagine that an economic or political fraud could also be run mostly by people who truly believe in it, if the circumstances are right and it keeps going for long enough.

23

Chetan Murthy 10.06.21 at 10:13 pm

Francis Spufford: to riff a little more on what you wrote:

(1) in On Bullshit, Harry Frankfurt explains that “in the end, sincerity is bullshit.” It’s really worth reading (very short book). The thesis can be summarized, I think, thus:

People have a tendency to infer from someone’s sincere belief in statement X, that statement X is more likely to be true. After all, people sincerely believe in only true things, right? So if you want to convince someone to believe statement Y, a great way of doing so, is to yourself sincerely believe in statement Y. So go about convincing yourself, eh?

(2) In enterprise software sales, there’s a saying (probably endemic to all in-person sales): “A good salesman doesn’t learn too much about the product; it gets in the way of being sincere with the customer.”

(3) once, in the middle of a six-month-long dumpster-fire cleanup at a big customer, one of my company’s sales team was talking to one of his colleagues about all the problems the customer was experiencing. He said, and I quote: “It’s really tough seeing all these problems; it makes it hard to be sincere with the customer.”

(4) Someone recently observed that MAGAts’ “beliefs” aren’t beliefs the way that we think about them, but rather “positions” that they hold until they’re no longer convenient, at which point they’re dropped. So a MAGAt can object to the covid vaxx on the grounds that it’s “experimental”, or nobody knows the 10-year-side-effects, but when they fall ill with covid, they’re OK with remdesivir, regeneron, and lord-knows-what-else, all of which is “experimental” and certainly not as well-understood as the covid vaxx. They’re just “positions”, used to score rhetorical points and signal to their fellow brethren.

In the end, sincerity is bullshit.

24

PatinIowa 10.07.21 at 12:51 am

Well, let’s see, shall we?

Does higher education promote social mobility?

Does teaching, learning, and research at US universities enlarge our knowledge of the world, increase our understanding of human life, and help students live more fulfilled and effective lives?

Please forgive my old fart cynicism. The university I work for just 1) increased the minimum class size for an undergraduate section to go forward 2) enjoined faculty to help recruit students to help fill the budget and enrollment gaps that have arisen because of COVID, once again increasing our workload without increasing our pay 3) refused to stand up to absurd attempts of the state legislature to censor what’s taught in the classroom, especially by people of color and 4) refused to stand up to a state legislature that is flouting the science of COVID, putting faculty, staff, and students at risk.

The state budget ran a 1.2 billion dollar surplus last fiscal year, but we don’t have enough money to keep tuition down for students, or give the tiniest bit of financial security to adjuncts.

It’s easy to look down on the multi-level marketing nitwits. But we don’t really have to go that far afield for doublethink to become apparent.

25

Peter T 10.07.21 at 3:06 am

One philosopher remarked that all of Western philosophy was a series of footnotes to Plato. At the bottom is a conviction that there is a single ‘truth’ – the Reality throwing shadows on the cave wall. In matters of the physical world there is (or seems to be – it is certainly foolish if not lethal to assume otherwise) – which reinforces the conviction that it must be true universally. But for those in whom this conviction is not deeply embedded, there are multiple Truths, with no felt need to reconcile them. The world can be round as a matter of physical fact and flat as a matter of religious fact. Nor is this ability confined to the uneducated – in a good many of the social sciences there are a lot of things held to be uncontrovertibly true at the same time as the evidence refuting them is also acknowledged as true. My guess is even those at the top of the pyramid are in a real sense convinced that their claims are “true” even if not “factual”.

26

rsm 10.07.21 at 3:55 am

Isn’t Fauci sincere?

27

Gorgonzola Petrovna 10.07.21 at 8:11 am

How do you know ‘disinfo’ from ‘info’, when on your own side it’s all politicized up the wazoo, any expression of skepticism is suppressed, and doubters (not to mention dissidents) are systematically purged out of the system?

28

Maria 10.07.21 at 9:52 am

Doug, it was indeed Nixonland, not a short read, but I enjoyed and and learnt so much (which I’ve now forgotten!) about the US south, etc .

Hi Lynne! I love your response. I may well use it. On ‘treatments’, I’m now an “Oh that’s interesting, is there peer-reviewed scientific research to explain how that works?”.

In answer to my own question of are there other activities with a similar structure, holy moley; life-coaching. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2021/oct/06/life-coaching-brooke-castillo-unregulated-industry

29

Maria 10.07.21 at 9:53 am

Doug, it was indeed Nixonland, not a short read, but I enjoyed and and learnt so much (which I’ve now forgotten!) about the US south, etc .

Hi Lynne! I love your response. I may well use it. On ‘treatments’, I’m now an “Oh that’s interesting, is there peer-reviewed scientific research to explain how that works?”.

In answer to my own question of are there other activities with a similar structure, holy moley; life-coaching.

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2021/oct/06/life-coaching-brooke-castillo-unregulated-industry

30

both sides do it 10.07.21 at 9:59 am

+1 for The Long Con by Perlstein

Another classic article along similar lines of con men, bullshit and organizations: On Cooling the Mark Out by Erving Goffman

31

JimV 10.07.21 at 11:30 am

As noted by Alex SL above, the existence of widespread religion proves our innate susceptibility to grift. Noah’s Ark? Parting the Red Sea? Pull the other one, as the Brits say. (Is that what they say?)

Which makes the discipline of science, broadly defined as rigorously investigating all claims as objectively as we can, our only long-term hope.

32

ah 10.07.21 at 3:22 pm

The placebo effect is very very strong.

If you have designed a rubbishy clinical trial (here, put this great cream on your face, now fill in a questionnaire, does it make you feel good?) then it is easy to get a positive result. So it is possible for everyone involved in a product to 100% believe that it works and is real, just because they’ve never done the proper trials to test it. And then a few years later when sales are falling, the pseudo-science lab finds a different formulation that ‘really works’ and you sell that instead. And repeat.

33

Jim Harrison 10.07.21 at 5:36 pm

The alchemist in Chaucer’s Yeoman’s Tale is a cheat and a liar, but he uses the gold he makes from the marks to finance his doomed dream of actually being able to make gold from lead. Shaman and witch doctors, so I’m told, teach each other tricks to impress the natives such as the psychic surgery scam; but they also believe there is something real about what they or more skillful practitioners can do. The Amazing Randi’s integrity was exceptional, though, after all, he did figure out how to monetize his scruples. The explanation of fraud’s empire is kinda Kantian: as he wrote in the first sentence of the Critique, seeing through the illusions or even perpetrating them doesn’t make them go away. Or maybe it’s just that you have to be unreasonably susceptible to persuasion to be a good persuader.

34

rsm 10.07.21 at 8:42 pm

《 rigorously investigating all claims as objectively as we can》

Did the epicyclists rigorously investigate Aristarchus’s heliocentric claims and determine that, objectively, there was no observed parallax, thus the earth could not be moving?

What good is science if it cannot reliably select among competing theories, for millennia even?

35

John Quiggin 10.08.21 at 2:59 am

I think the grift goes all the way to the top. It’s only the nature of the doublethink that changes. Trump believes what he is saying, at the time, even though he is aware he will soon say something different.

36

Alan White 10.08.21 at 4:22 am

Prevagen sales in the US top somewhere over 200 million dollars a year. There is zero peer-reviewed evidence that it does what it promises to do–promote memory and prevent its loss especially in older adults. But you can see anecdotal commercials for its effectiveness hundreds of times a day on TV channels, and particularly on programs likely to be viewed by Boomers. It’s just the old adage of a repeated lie becoming a truth, now totally on view in Trumpism.

The profitability motive provided by unfettered capitalism especially in media–Facebook anyone?–laid the basis for this becoming the norm. And now that norm is poised to destroy anything resembling normative progressivism. At least old-time snake-oilers had to do their thing in-person as the OP vividly portrays.

37

JakeB 10.08.21 at 5:10 am

@Pittsburgh Mike–
reminds me of the thought about how you could make a tremendous amount of money if you went west during the gold rush — if you set up a business selling tools, food and other necessities to the miners.

More generally, I think Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland shows that perhaps that grift should be understood to be one of the basic pillars of American history and society, given that scams and making use of people’s weakness for what ought to be too good to be true seems to have been part of the country’s chemistry since before it was a country, starting even with John Smith.

38

MisterMr 10.08.21 at 8:47 am

@rsm 34

Science -> people make experiment in a way that is reproductable from others, became fashionable around 1600

Aristarchus -> dude born around -300, more or less 1900 years before science

The two aren’t really that comparable (nor is “science” the only thing different from grift, for that matter).

39

J-D 10.08.21 at 9:39 am

I doubt your typical internist is competent to figure out the GPU requirements for crypto mining.

Your typical internist, despite having access to the Worldwide Web, might even fail to grasp the difference between a GPU and a CPU.

40

Philip 10.08.21 at 3:17 pm

It could be possible that they all believe it when all they see is a placebo effect. Or they justify it to themselves by saying if people feel like it’s helping then it must be good.

Then there is stuff like ABA, which has no good evidence base but is put forward as a treatment for autism. See the link below for an example of the sales tactics used on parents.

https://web.archive.org/web/20190904141451/http://www.reputationelevation.net/how-to-enroll-more-aba-clients-by-overcoming-parent-objections-without-being-pushy-or-salesy/?fbclid=IwAR0Wvx5P9r2N_y0YzDMq9_CrAzRKdksilpNroi15MNirYv-_7qTjarnuIyE

41

Chetan Murthy 10.09.21 at 12:05 am

rsm: is Fauci sincere?

Sure he is, but that is not why we should believe him. We should believe him because
1. he has a track record of being right
2. this has resulted in him being a widely-acknowledged expert
3. and also thus-acknowledged by other widely-acknowledged experts

So a different way of putting it would be: “Sincerity should have no, no probative value”.

42

Chetan Murthy 10.09.21 at 12:36 am

rsm @ 34: “Did the epicyclists rigorously investigate Aristarchus’s heliocentric claims and determine that, objectively, there was no observed parallax, thus the earth could not be moving?”

I don’t know this bit, but I do remember reading in a book about the Keplerian Revolution, that
1. Kepler’s model and data did not allow to predict the movements of the sky to more accuracy than existing epicycle models
2. A contemporary took Kepler’s model and data, and recast it as a geocentric model — in the obvious way, since that means a change of perspective — and thus integrated Kepler’s model into the then-current geocentric perspective
3. The reason Kepler’s model won out, was that it was much simpler than geocentric/epicycle models with equivalent accuracy

I’d add #4: and then, over time, all the astronomers who clung to epicycles, died.

For real scientific revolutions, I think we underestimate the necessity for generational replacement. Or, as it is apparently called, Planck’s Principle: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planck%27s_principle

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it. . . . An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents: it rarely happens that Saul becomes Paul. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out, and that the growing generation is familiarized with the ideas from the beginning: another instance of the fact that the future lies with the youth.

— Max Planck, Scientific autobiography, 1950, p. 33, 97

Of course, none of this has a bit to do with the OP. That’s just about grift.

43

Chetan Murthy 10.09.21 at 12:39 am

Obviously by #1 in my previous comment, I mean that the existing epicycle models were pretty bloody complicated, which allowed them to predict things accurately. Kepler had a much simpler model that achieved nearly the same accuracy, and over time, that is what won over astronomers.

44

Chetan Murthy 10.09.21 at 12:48 am

Gorgonzola Petrovna: two answers:

for the run-of-the-mill civilian, the answer is: you don’t. you can’t. No random layman is going to have the mental faculties to actually interrogate whatever they’re presented. I mean, they’re not going to have what it takes to actually evaluate Young Earth vs. plate tectonics, and it’s foolish to think they could.

All they can do, is to pick trustworthy authorities. Which means “not your bloody pastor”.

for people who have been trained in how to evaluate scientific evidence, they can figure out if somebody is worth trusting. That’s really what’s going on: I don’t try to figure out whether Pons&Fleischmann are right about cold fusion; I try to figure out if P&F are worth trusting. And that is possible, b/c you can interrogate the community of working scientists to figure out if they trust P&F. And of course, once you decide that P&F aren’t worth trusting, it takes a lot to undo that judgment, just as it takes a lot to take a sender you’ve concluded (using some Bayesian process) is a spammer, and change your mind to him being legit.

All of this is pretty run-of-the-mill normal in technical communities. As a former manager once put it to me (about a certain executive at our employer who’d had a whole string of increasingly-expensive and increasingly-spectacularly-failing projects): “I don’t have to run that experiment again, to know the outcome.” Needless to say, he was correct.

45

J-D 10.09.21 at 1:29 am

There’s no point saying ‘No thanks, that’s bullshit pseudoscience and frankly insulting,’ because that would be rude. The only market signal permitted is ‘No thanks’.

Would it be rude to say ‘I promised my mother I wouldn’t’? (It would be rude for them to express disbelief.)

46

J-D 10.09.21 at 4:16 am

Responding to Chetan Murthy’s comment:

George Orwell wrote in 1946 a short piece for his regular miscellany column in Tribune in which he discussed a comment by George Bernard Shaw about how the widespread confidence place in expert opinion is evidence of credulity. Orwell went on to analyse the specific example of general acceptance of expert opinion about the shape of the Earth. After considering some weaker points and noting their weaknesses, he comes to stronger reasons for accepting the expert view: the times of eclipses are correctly calculated, and people navigate reliably from one point to another on the surface of the Earth, relying on expert conclusions about the shape of the Earth.

The point can generalised. The enormous accumulation of successes in the applied and technological sciences is also an enormous accumulation of evidence in favour of expert scientific opinion. The various branches of engineering and of the health professions all work far more often than not, and this is an excellent reason for supposing that the physical, chemical, earth, and life sciences on which they are based are accurate to a high degree: a higher degree, certainly, than the speculations of the unlearned. Scientific experts do make mistakes, of course, but they do so far less often than the non-expert, and the reason we are justified in supposing so is that we rely on the products of their work continuously and are justified in doing so by the fact that they function as they are supposed to, not invariably, but most of the time. We are following sound scientific reasoning in concluding that scientists have got things pretty much right because, among many other similar facts, the roof seldom falls on our heads.

47

Gorgonzola Petrovna 10.09.21 at 6:26 am

@44
This reminds me of a slogan I saw and heard probably a million times: “Учение Маркса Всесильно, Потому Что Оно Верно!” Translated as “Marxist doctrine is omnipotent because it is true”. On the walls indoors and outdoors, on TV, radio, everywhere. Oh, and also of Thatcher’s famous “there is no alternative”. Same sort of thing.

Anyway. I’d be very careful with ‘trusted authorities’. Especially those that use their political power to zealously and relentlessly eradicate all dissent, making it impossible for you “to pick” any other authority. In fact, I feel that’s a sure sign that your trust is misplaced.

48

rsm 10.09.21 at 6:37 am

So epicyclists had a wrong theory which they used the scientific method, before it was later so named, to prove, and they made accurate predictions that kept sailors on course, thus epicycles were true before Kepler? Are you all just saying the same thing I’m saying, that the scientific truth is arbitrary, fickle, social consensus?

49

J-D 10.09.21 at 6:50 am

So epicyclists had a wrong theory which they used the scientific method, before it was later so named, to prove, and they made accurate predictions that kept sailors on course, thus epicycles were true before Kepler?

No, they didn’t. Epicycles were used in an attempt to explain the motion of the planets; sailors don’t navigate by the planets.

Are you all just saying the same thing I’m saying, that the scientific truth is arbitrary, fickle, social consensus?

No, I’m not saying that. Those are not words I used and I’m not sure I understand what you mean by them in this context.

50

MisterMr 10.09.21 at 8:32 am

@rsm

The geocentrists (I think this is a better term than epyciclists) had a theory that fit the data that they had at the time better than the heliocentrists, and in fact astronomy was probably the only thing that we could call scientific in those time because they could all check each other’s results in a way other natural philosophers couldn’t, or didn’t.

So given the data they had at the time, yes, they had the correct model.

But as data increased the problems of the model increased: they had to continually increase the number of epycicles to approximate more and more the observed orbits, and there is nothing in the model that explains why the epycicles should even exist (their theory was that celestial bodies moved because there were angels pushing them).

Also there were big improvements in physics at the time (Galileo was the first to propose that speed is costant and objects in our experience slow down because of attrition, IIRC the study of ballistics for cannons helped on this).

Finally increased technology made it possible to have a telescope and see that there were craters on the moon (Galileo again) that proved that celestial objects had impacts and the celestial world wasn’t eternally always the same, as was previously believed, but was the same of our earthly world (the church refused this too initially).

Better data caused a theory change to a better theory, that is what one would expect if by “science” we mean theories that are checked against the data, that is what the word is supposed to mean.

At the time, though, the Catholic Church was very paranoid against heresy, because those discoveries happened in a period when there were many religious wars, so the geocentrist theory was somewhat mixed up with faith in the church because of one episode in the old testament where someone commands the sun to stop and the sun stops. This passage has to be interpreted in a non literal way if one accepts heliocentrism, which meant that OMG people who were not catholic priests were telling the church how to interpret the scriptures! Isn’t this obvious heresy?!

So the change from geocentrism to heliocentrism got mixed up with religious wars and is not a good example of scientific revolution.

That said, Kuhn wrote a whole book about scientific revolutions, called “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”.
While some people did read the book an came to the conclusion that it meant that science is just fickle social consensus, this is not what the book says.

The idea of the book is that science can only exist when scientists can check each other’s results (experiments can be repeated), however experiments themselves are conducted according to some basic theory. Generally in periods of normal science scientists extend scientific knowledge at the margin and do not put into question the basic theory.
As knowledge increases and more data comes in, the amount of stuff that can’t be explained will increase, untill some dude comes out with a new theory that changes the basic theory, so that previous data that was recorded through the older basic theory has to be re evalued, which causes a period of clash between proponents of the old basic theory and proponents of the new basic theory.
If the new basic theory wins a new period of gradual normal science ensues.

Kuhn in my opinion was perfectly correct, and I advise everyone to read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (it made a big splash when it come out in the 60s but I doubt many people read it now however it is a very good, short and readable book so people should really read it).

However the situation we are in when there is some sort of war on science is not the same of the scientific revolutions in Kuhn books, but it is more similar to what happened in Galileo’s time, because the fight is not between two scientific theories but between political sides, each of them (but the right more than the left) trying to push “science” towards their own political, not scientific, aims ( similar to how the Catholic Church was pissed off by heliocentrism because of the political reason that it meant that they couldn’t mantain a monopoly of the scriptures in a period of religious wars, not because they really cared of heliocentrism).

51

MisterMr 10.09.21 at 8:58 am

@Gorgonzola 47

The motto you cite is an example of political propaganda.

Political propaganda generally exists on both sides, however you have to be able to distinguish propaganda (of both sides) from not motivated science; if you don’t and treat everything as propaganda you reach a point where it is impossibile to have a reasonable conversation about facts of the world, so to speak a situation where an assertion like “the sky is blue” is judged on whether it is politically convenient and if it isn’t, the sky is pink instead.

In that situation, the only way to solve disputes is who shouts louder, and if that is the case it is only natural that everyone will just try to shout louder than the others.

So it is quite important to be able to distinguish propaganda from non motivated reasoning: for example, did Biden win the elections or did Trump win? If there is no way to solve this question objectively, then the only possible solution is civil war.

52

Gorgonzola Petrovna 10.09.21 at 2:48 pm

@51,
like I said: everything is politicized now, even (somewhat surprisingly to me) medications. This is how western establishments operate now. There’s only one correct way to think about things. You can read some Taibbi for US-specific details. (“We’re similarly becoming a nation of totalitarian nitwits, speaking in a borrowed lexicon of mandatory phrases and smelling heresy in anyone who doesn’t.“)

53

rsm 10.09.21 at 6:28 pm

J-D: perhaps you might look up navigational planets?

From https://360.here.com/2014/05/21/gps-romans-unravelling-antikythera-mechanism/ :

《Although the Antikythera device is portable, and the instructions suggest that it was designed to be used by someone other than its maker, it was probably not intended for shipboard navigation; it was too delicate, too complex, and too rare. Some of the data it could generate, such as eclipse predictions, had no direct navigational application, and salt spray would quickly corrode the gears. The machine’s computing power, however, would have enabled its user to generate astronomical tables with which navigators could calculate their position.》

MisterMr: did the sun go around the earth in Aristarchus’s day? Again, what use is science if it rejects correct theories based on some kind of “the ends justify the means” analysis? Did science tell us for centuries that animals have no emotions, and do we still act as if that is true to justify animal experimentation today? But pet owners know science was (is still) wrong?

Did any society capable of building the Antikythera have the necessary intelligence to figure out how to make heliocentric predictions accurate enough to use, but Aristarchus would have had to build models all on his own with no help or funding, due to arbitrary fickle social consensus?

54

marcel proust 10.09.21 at 6:50 pm

@J-D (39):

Your typical internist, despite having access to the Worldwide Web, might even fail to grasp the difference between a GPU and a CPU.

I would add to the Cheka, the OGPU, the NKVD, & even the KGB to this list. They are appallingly ignorant about all the twists and turns of institutional tyranny in the USSR. And don’t get me started on their ignorance of the Okhrana!

55

steven t johnson 10.09.21 at 8:50 pm

It is often forgotten that “religion” is not only self-flattering claims about standing on the foundations of morality, genuine commitment to goodness, kindness to fellow man or however the high-minded like to phrase it. Religion is also about getting supernatural benefits in daily life.* The eternal after-life somewhere else is one but by no means is religion just about wishing away death. Religion is also about material benefits for health here and now.

Hence the very terms “witch doctor” and “medicine man.” Or Christian Science and Scientology. The prophets Muhammad and Ellen G. White and Joseph Smith enjoined novel dietary restrictions. Religion is to medicine as astrology is to astronomy and alchemy is to chemistry. Again, like them, it promises crassly material benefits in the here and now. Hygeia and Panacea if I remember correctly were Greek goddesses. But like a saint suspiciously similar to a pagan supernatural figure, they may still be with us.

It is not at all customary to hold religious beliefs, except minority religious beliefs, to any standards of rationality. There is only acceptable in polite company, versus not. Indeed the majority of the cultured pride themselves on siding with the religious—of course because they believe in standing on the foundations of morals or committing to being good or showing goodwill to those whose faith is contaminated by crass self-interest. Like disagreements over what is a cult and what is a religion (like disagreements over what is usury and what is interest,) disagreements over whether Hygeia and Panacea are truly part of the pantheon—however discreetly tacit their membership—will be inevitable. And so too will be the blatant reliance on non-rational “arguments” and anger at resistance.

When the noblest thinkers privilege religion in general, then arbitrarily deny those privileges, hoi polloi of a religious bent will spot the hypocrisy. Personally I think sincerity is the cheapest virtue of all, purchased wholesale by self-deception, but that’s me. Others think very highly of it. (And yes, religion is actually privileged in a genuinely meaningful sense, not the too-often imaginary sense indulged by angry people.) It is not consistent, to be sure, to commit to the non-rational to support religion then try to play the rationalist in other areas. Trying to be consistent is generally looked down as dogmatism, though.

rsm@34 “What good is science if it cannot reliably select among competing theories, for millennia even?” The brief but irrefutable answer is, the use that is made of it. It is common to distinguish science and technology but if you view science as the ways people have worked out to find out how things are, technology is a scientific tool. Measuring instruments are a glaring example still often overlooked. (J.D. Bernal noted this, as I recall.)

The other answer is also I think irrefutable and also short, but simply denied: It keeps you from believing in magic. Yes, there are people who love to prate about how science is probabilistic, that you can’t really say “There is no magic.” But if you claim to use probability, then you have to concede there are negligible probabilities, which means you are actually required to say “There is no magic.” Yet, that is rarely the case. There seems to be something fishy going on.

MisterMr@38 Dissection is an experiment. Examining the different stages of chick embryos by opening the shells is an experiment. Cutting nerves to see what happens is an experiment. All these were done in ancient times. Experiments disproved Aristotle’s notion of the brain as a cooling organ (though Aristotle was correct in wondering why so much blood flowed through the brain.) Cartoon notions about the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages are deplorable, but the truth is that much knowledge was indeed lost and much of what survived distorted for religious ends.

Chetan Murthy@42 claims heliocentrism was simpler. Absent a theory of gravity, it is not clear this is true at all. It is easy to confuse “simpler” with “using less words” or “having fewer parts.” But in science “simpler” I think should be identified with “using fewer metaphysical principles.” That is the sense I believe William of Ockham meant his famous principle. The geocentric models had unknown mover, spheres of some novel substance, poles anchoring them, holes for epicycles, and oh yes, equants (which at the moment I’ve forgotten what they even are!) In what sense is that simpler?

The heliocentric theory had the mystery of why sky objects move in circles. But it also had the grave problem that people couldn’t feel the Earth moving! I’m no longer certain we should think the most sophisticated thinkers actually took any of that literally. It’s not like they were puzzled by the absence of literal poles keeping the spheres centered on the Earth, no? Like modern scientists who think the wave function is merely a mathematical convenience, they just thought, shut up and calculate? The real impetus in accepting heliocentrism ultimately lay I suspect in the increasing belief in the unity of nature, that there wasn’t a quintessence in the sky, for example. Like plate tectonics suddenly letting geologists accept Alfred Wegener’s mere empirical facts, Newton’s law of gravitation made heliocentrism by replacing a host of mathematical conveniences with a material causality.

Chetan Murthy@44 notes that the “layman” relies on authority. This is not just true in science, of course. One of the most notable examples is the translation of Hebrew and Greek into English. The trust in the fidelity of the translation has been abused, as I recall. But as the otherwise inexplicable survival of the King James Version shows us, trust in authority can be a matter of familiarity. In practice, what I call “populism” holds that the equality of persons means the equality of opinions. I disagree but I am disagreeably dogmatic.

Most of what an individual believes is essentially based on authority. The thing is, science is not individual, it is collective, inherently so. Some philosophers attack science by deriding the “view from nowhere.” But the alternative is the view from somewhere special. This position I think is not really defensible.

Gorgonzola Petrovna@47 ignores that most people do not investigate, but accept “authority.” They may imagine they are independent thinkers who are not dogmatic but conjure it all up out of their personal experience, or something. Or they may just accept that the consensus in their personal milieu is common sense. There is a prejudice, as in Chetan Murthy above, that the true must be simple, intuitive, maybe even self-evident. Not so. That’s why science was so laboriously developed over the centuries. And why it had so many setbacks, too. The role of censorship is I think not nearly as prominent as the role of the megaphone, where mythology is promoted by volume, not so much by literally silencing others.

rsm@48 “So epicyclists had a wrong theory which they used the scientific method, before it was later so named, to prove, and they made accurate predictions that kept sailors on course, thus epicycles were true before Kepler? Are you all just saying the same thing I’m saying, that the scientific truth is arbitrary, fickle, social consensus?”

There is a famous insult, “not even wrong!” that comes to mind. First, “the” scientific method is not about predictions, not even falsifying predictions. That’s Mont Pelerin.
Second, there is no singular scientific method. Science and technology are about how things are (which by the way includes human beings.) The various methods devised to show this are very diverse, including such “ordinary” activities as measuring, mapping, classifying and so on.

Third, science is a collective enterprise. That is is therefore social is true but trivial. The thing is, not that the consensus can be (and has been many times!) wrong…but that the consensus is formed in confrontation with the world, not by fashion.

Fourth, the science in scientific method is not about finding some sort of essence that provides irrefutable proofs logically necessary proof inevitably produced from first principles. That’s Pythagoreanism/Platonism etc.

Fifth, one of the fundamental discoveries about how things are, slowly established by centuries of work, is that the world is natural. We collectively know too much about the universe to find a place for supernatural entities. This is no longer a hypothesis but a fact, in the sense that denying this fact is foolish. The supernatural is a negligible probability and must be neglected. That keeps the supposedly fickle social consensus tethered.

MisterMr@50 Two things come to mind. First, the real victory of heliocentrism I think came after Newton’s demonstration that elliptical orbits had a cause. There were still difficulties about the implicit notion of absolute time (as Einstein proved later) and about spooky action at a distance. But Newton simply disavowed speculations. The system of the world provided empirical unity to the universe. A material cause, even one that currently defies explanation, is scientific in a way consonant with the discoveries about how the world works.

Second, Kuhn if I remember correctly is trained in physics. Things work a little differently in the historical sciences and in the biological sciences. Seafloor spreading as a mechanism to cause continental drift fit in with our knowledge of how the earth worked, thus confirming Wegener. Historical sciences like geology and cosmology and biology of course do not work with arbitrarily limited models of laboratory science promoted by the likes of Popper. Social sciences of course are limited by the ideologically motivated refusal to conceive of people (individually or in aggregate) as determined. Old religious ideas are constantly being revived with jargon.

Or to put it another way, Kuhn needs to be supplemented with a structural theory of scientific counterrevolution. Evolutionary psychology I think would provide a superb example.

56

steven t johnson 10.09.21 at 9:08 pm

*”Religion” is also about things like redistribution of meat, in sacrificial religions. Or things like banking in religions with temples that accumulate treasure. Or about land development in religions with monasteries set up on the frontier. Or about threatening supernatural punishments for breaking tribal mores. Or…Almost all discussions of “religion” suffer from equivocation as to what is meant.

57

J-D 10.09.21 at 11:35 pm

So given the data they had at the time, yes, they had the correct model.

That depends on the exact sense in which you are using the word ‘correct’, and also what distinction you intend between ‘the correct model’ and ‘a correct model’. What are the implications of saying they had ‘the correct model’ for the work of contemporary astronomers of China, India, and the Islamic world?

Their non-expert contemporaries would have been justified in relying on what contemporary experts said about astronomy on the basis of their practical successes; modern non-experts are justified in relying on what modern experts say about astronomy (including their rejection of the models of astronomers of earlier times) on the basis of their (vastly greater) practical success. Contemporaries of Copernicus would have been justified in accepting accounts of epicycles on the basis ‘That’s what the experts say, and they seem to know what they’re talking about’; that doesn’t mean that anybody today would be justified in accepting those accounts, because experts today say differently, and (in a practical way) they seem to know what they’re talking about much better than earlier experts.

On the other hand, nobody was ever justified in relying on what alchemists said, because alchemy never worked.

58

J-D 10.10.21 at 3:19 am

J-D: perhaps you might look up navigational planets?

Perhaps I might. Then again, perhaps I might not. If you’re suggesting that I should, then you have failed to explain why.

MisterMr: did the sun go around the earth in Aristarchus’s day?

There’s been no change in the answer between Aristarchus’s day and now. You have not made clear that you accept that this is the case.

Again, what use is science if it rejects correct theories based on some kind of “the ends justify the means” analysis?

Science doesn’t reject correct theories on the basis that the ends justify the means. That’s not an accurate description of how science proceeds.

Did science tell us for centuries that animals have no emotions, and do we still act as if that is true to justify animal experimentation today? But pet owners know science was (is still) wrong?

Charles Darwin’s third book, The Expression Of The Emotions In Man And Animals, was published in 1872 and has never gone out of print. You haven’t explained any justification for the conclusion that science told us for centuries that animals have no emotions. I am aware that some people have thought that animals have no emotions, but I am not aware of any justification for describing that as a scientific opinion.

59

Gorgonzola Petrovna 10.10.21 at 8:06 am

@55 “Gorgonzola Petrovna@47 ignores that most people do not investigate, but accept “authority.” ”

I don’t think I ignored that ‘most people accept “authority”’ @47. Of course they do. Normally, they choose different authorities (including “your bloody pastor”) in different situations, and accept them with different degrees of trust/skepticism. They’re also, as we all know, unconsciously affected by constant repetition of the same assertion, whether they trust the source of it or not. It’s complicated.

Those who are guided entirely by what they hear on CNN, and dismiss everything else as ‘disinfo’ apparently do exist, but that’s a minority. I think I saw polling results recently (if you can trust those!) where over 60% of the US population distrust the establishment media.

60

MisterMr 10.10.21 at 9:32 am

@rsm

I believe you don’t get the distinction between natural philosophy (like Aristarchus or Aristotle) and science.

Descartes did say that animals have no emotions, but Descartes was a philosopher and a theologian not a scientist. He examined animals and human bodies and saw them like mechanical entities, but this conflicted with his belief in the existence of the soul, so he came about with the complete distinction of the spiritual world from the material.
From this he deduced that animals, having no soul (from his interpretation of the scriptures) could not have emotions.
Descartes though acted as a philosopher, not as a scientist, and I know of no scientist who said that animals have no emotions.

Again going back to heliocentrism, “science” doesn’t just mean the experimental method, otherwise if someone opens a new pizzeria and I experiment if their pizza is good I’m a scientist.
What changed around 1600 is that some people began recording their experimental results in a way that could be checked by other people, and this turned them collectively from “natural philosophers” to “scientists”.

So it makes no sense to blame “science” for stuff that happened before 1600, because science didn’t exist at the time, there was natural philosophy, that actually got a lot of things right, but also a lot of things wrong.

Science by the way also got a lot of things wrong, and will presumably get a lot of things wrong in the future, because as knowledge increases one corrects earlier errors; what differentiates science from natural philosophy is that science, by the mechanism of checking other people’s experimental results, is faster in shredding away the wrong theories, whereas in natural philosophy there isn’t really a way to adjudicate between two theories.

@Steven T. Johnson 55
I agree with the limits of Popper’s conception, but I don’t think this changes much in Kuhn’s logic.
I don’t know when heliocentrism became dominant but again there was strong religious (not scientific) opposition to it. The church didn’t actually say that Galileo had the facts wrong, they were just pissed off by the scriptural interpretation thing, so it is difficult to say when it became dominant from a scientific point of view (that is what people believed but couldn’t say because it pissed off the Church).

J-D: a model is correct when it fits the data, there is no other definition.

@Gorgonzola
Yes but are YOU able to distinguish between serious arguments and propaganda? Personally I think I am.

61

J-D 10.10.21 at 11:22 am

Your typical internist, despite having access to the Worldwide Web, might even fail to grasp the difference between a GPU and a CPU.

I would add to the Cheka, the OGPU, the NKVD, & even the KGB to this list. They are appallingly ignorant about all the twists and turns of institutional tyranny in the USSR. And don’t get me started on their ignorance of the Okhrana!

You left out the MGB and the MVD, among others.

In computing, meanwhile, GPU stands for Graphics Processing Unit, while CPU stands for Central Processing Unit.

62

nastywoman 10.10.21 at 2:12 pm

@
‘I think I saw polling results recently (if you can trust those!) where over 60% of the US population distrust the establishment media’.

Now how is that? – and that so much of the US population trusts all this ‘trump’
(the worlds new word for: ‘Utmost stupid Right-Wing Racist Science Denying Dreck’)
while at the same time so much of the US population saw all these friends and neighbours die from some virus a ‘trump’ declared to be nothing more than some flue?

63

steven t johnson 10.10.21 at 4:09 pm

J-D@57 asserts that alchemy never worked. It is the endless perversity of real life that eventually it destroys all conceptual schema, including the one where only the seventeenth century did science and everything before was useless superstition. Alchemists discovered elements like arsenic, antimony, zinc and phosphorus. Alchemists devised distillation and other laboratory methods. Transitional figures like Paracelsus and van Helmont were deeply influenced by alchemy.

Folk medicine, incorporated into religion, similarly “achieved” progress. The relationship may be clearer in Chinese culture?

The issue of pseudoscience, nonsense that dresses up as science, is largely about fraud…but then there’s another overlap with religion, with its faith healers.

64

steven t johnson 10.10.21 at 8:00 pm

MisterMr@60 blames science on…printing. Bernal maybe made the decisive point about new instruments.

Joking aside, the Roman Catholic Church’s power to intimidate was not decisive in the Protestant countries. Milton’s cosmology in Paradise Lost was ambiguous if I remember correctly, but not because of fear.

65

Gorgonzola Petrovna 10.10.21 at 8:37 pm

@60,
To have serious arguments people have to disagree about something. You need a controversy. Otherwise, when any questioning of the party line is suppressed and skeptics are swiftly denounced, what you see is just a series of assertions inside the echo chamber.

I don’t necessarily attach a negative connotation to ‘propaganda’, by the way. There’s nothing wrong (in most cases) with preaching a point of view. But what’s going on now is so massive, methodical, coordinated, it’s overwhelming…

But it’s probably different in Italy. Although, youtube, facebook, they are global-scale media. Do they keep you safe from disinfo in Italian?

66

Gorgonzola Petrovna 10.11.21 at 7:55 am

@60,
…no, I guess it’s the same in Italy, if you choose to trust this guy:
Dr Robert Malone, the inventor of mRNA vaccines, says he was branded a “terrorist” by the media in Italy…”

67

rsm 10.11.21 at 8:29 pm

J-D wrote:《Charles Darwin’s third book, The Expression Of The Emotions In Man And Animals, was published in 1872 and has never gone out of print. You haven’t explained any justification for the conclusion that science told us for centuries that animals have no emotions.》

Have you heard of Darwin’s ironically-named bulldog, T. H. Huxley, who published “On the Hypothesis that Animals Are Automata, and Its History (1874)”?

《The attempt to reduce the endless complexities of animal motion and feeling to law and order is, at least, as important a part of the task of the physiologist as the elucidation of what are sometimes called the vegetative processes. Harvey did not make this attempt himself; but the influence of his work upon the man who did make it is patent and unquestionable. This man was René Descartes, who, though by many years [201] Harvey’s junior, died before him; and yet in his short span of fifty-four years, took an undisputed place, not only among the chiefs of philosophy, but amongst the greatest and most original of mathematicians; while, in my belief, he is no less certainly entitled to the rank of a great and original physiologist; inasmuch as he did for the physiology of motion and sensation that which Harvey had done for the circulation of the blood, and opened up that road to the mechanical theory of these processes, which has been followed by all his successors.

《Descartes was no mere speculator, as some would have us believe: but a man who knew of his
own knowledge what was to be known of the facts of anatomy and physiology in his day. He was
an unwearied dissector and observer; and it is said, that, on a visitor once asking to see his library, Descartes led him into a room set aside for dissections, and full of specimens under examination. “There,” said he, “is my library.”》

Did Huxley conclude Descartes was right, and moreover human emotions too are simply reflex (thus why not do involuntary vivisection on human subjects, right)?

Was behaviorism very scientific and adamant that animal emotions were just anthropomorphizing (the interested reader is invited to investigate this claim themselves, using internet searches)?

Quoting Huxley again:

《Now if, by some accident, a man’s spinal cord is divided […] If the spinal cord of a frog is cut across, so as to provide us with a segment separated from the brain, we shall have a subject parallel to the injured man, on which experiments can be made
without remorse; as we have a right to conclude that a frog’s spinal cord is not likely to be
conscious, when a man’s is not.》

Why any scruples about cutting some random human’s spinal cord?

What comfort is it to the frog, or human, if I say “don’t worry, if the science I’m using to justify torturing you is wrong, it’ll be corrected sooner than natural philosophists would have?”

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Chetan Murthy 10.11.21 at 9:10 pm

steven t johnson @ 63: points out examples from what we would call “unscientific” traditions, where the rules they come up with actually work. And this is completely true. What those traditions lack, what the hairdresser’s ecosystem of grifters lacks, is (as MisterMr@50 noted) the social system of publication, independent reproduction, independent peer review, and peer consensus-making, that make up the social process of science.

This social process is what makes science effective, and even though it can and does produce errors (even massive errors), it is what makes science more effective than any other method at arriving at a set of rules for understanding the natural world[1]

[1] where such a set of rules is nothing more than a “manual” that tells us “if you do X, Y, and Z, you can calculate the outcomes of measurements A,B,C using this method”. Sure, that manual might mention atoms, molecules, osmotic pressure, whatever. But those abstractions were invented in order to make the methods of the manual more-comprehensible and easier-to-explain and -use.

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J-D 10.12.21 at 12:23 am

J-D: a model is correct when it fits the data, there is no other definition.

One issue with this is which data are included and which excluded; another is the degree of fit.

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J-D 10.12.21 at 8:03 am

J-D wrote:《Charles Darwin’s third book, The Expression Of The Emotions In Man And Animals, was published in 1872 and has never gone out of print. You haven’t explained any justification for the conclusion that science told us for centuries that animals have no emotions.》

Have you heard of Darwin’s ironically-named bulldog, T. H. Huxley, who published “On the Hypothesis that Animals Are Automata, and Its History (1874)”?

I had heard of TH Huxley (and his sobriquet) before you mentioned them. I hadn’t previously heard of the monograph you mention and am grateful to you for drawing it to my attention. But it does not conclude that animals have no emotions, nor does it report that science told us so for centuries.

71

Tm 10.12.21 at 8:27 am

MisterMr 50: “the fight is not between two scientific theories but between political sides, each of them (but the right more than the left) trying to push “science” towards their own political, not scientific, aims”

On the one political side, we have fascists and their fellow-travelers promoting conspiracy theories (“Jewish space lasers”, “vaccination is a covert plan to chips the population”) and endagnering the lives of their supporters by inducing them to ingest ineffective and potentially toxic horse dewormer instead of taking a vaccine proven safe and effective in thorough clinical studies.

But wait, on the other political side, we have out of their mind woke librls denying the existence of Jewish space lasers and promoting a safe and effective vaccine against the serious scientific objections of a bunch of unqualified youtubers and fascistic Fox News talking heads, and showing their contempt for the rural working class by denying the effectiveness of horse dewormer paste as a Covid remedy.

So to sum up, serious people must conclude that Both Sides Do It, and MisterMr I’m not sure it’s fair to claim that the right does it “more than the left”. Probably, all things considered, the converse. You see, the maliciousness of the left is particularly highlighted by the fact that they advise their political opponents to take a life-saving vaccine, which practically leaves right-wingers no choice but to refuse the life-saving vaccine and die (https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/09/breitbart-conservatives-john-nolte-vaccine/620189/).

72

Tm 10.12.21 at 9:37 am

Gorgo 52: “like I said: everything is politicized now, even (somewhat surprisingly to me) medications. This is how western establishments operate now. There’s only one correct way to think about things.”

Our friend is overly harsh here. There are plenty of incorrect ways that people in the West think about things.

This brings to my mind an episode with RT DE, the German outlet of the Russian propaganda channel. Answering charges of promoting disinformation, the channel defended itself by claiming that it had never been reprimanded by the German Press Council. The Press Council is a self control institution of the German news industry that investigates complaints of journalistic misconduct. Its toughest sanction, if a complaint is found to have merit, is a public reprimand.

“It has never criticized RT, for one good reason: The German Press Council monitors only German media outlets that have pledged to heed the German Press Code. RT’s German-language service could have, however, voluntarily agreed to German Press Council supervision and pledged to honor the code. But this never happened…”

https://www.dw.com/en/youtube-rt-ban-in-germany/a-59371662

73

tm 10.12.21 at 9:48 am

rsm 67: Do you understand tghe difference between “Science tells us” and “some scientists believe/have believed”?

74

MisterMr 10.12.21 at 11:19 am

@Gorgonzola Petrovna 65
From my point of view, based on my experience of having a commited anti-vax (for the covid vax, not for other forms of vaccine) sister, the “suppression” of the other point of view is much stronger on the other side: when I question her opinion on the vaccine confronting the reported deaths from Covid VS the reported deaths from the vaccine (a difference of many orders of magnitude) she simply states that the number of deaths due to the vaccine are not believable because the government is cooking the books.
In order to have the deaths by vaccine comparable to the deaths by covid you have to mulitply the deaths by vaccine x 10000, four orders of magnitude (and would stlill be lower in proportion to the people affected).
Even if the government is downplaying the number of deaths by only reporting the cases that can be more clearly related to the vaccine (something that I believe is likely, btw) you have to assume a conspiracy that hides 9999 deaths for every accerted death, that is very not obvious.
Also, I know much more vaxed people than people who got covid, but I know of the father of a friend of mine who died by covid, and nobody who died by vaccine (I certainly know of people who had very bad symptoms from the vaccine, but then I also know of a guy who was sent in intensive therapy by covid, in a situation that was worse than any symptom from vaccine that I know of).
Which then leads to the more abstract problem: in practical, objective terms, either the vaccines are decreasing mortality, or they are a danger worse that covid itself (as the anti-vaxers believe). It might be that the vaccines are overall good but are not appropriate for this or that age group.
But all these are questions of fact, that have an objective answer, it’s not the same as having different opinions about what movies one likes or what society one wants to live in (differences of values).
So the answer to these questions doesn’t depend on wheter you like more one group or the other, you might have more or less sympathy for the italian government (which is forcing everyone into vaccination with a recent law where if you don’t have the green pass you can’t enter the workplace so your employer is forced to fire you) and more or less for the anti-vax croud, but this sympathy should not influence your opinion on whether the vaccine works and with what drawbacks.
After all if the vaccine works, it works even if the italian government is a bunch of assholes, and on the other hand if it doesn’t (or has very bad consequences) it doesn’t work even if the italian gov is the most enlightened and nice government in the world.
I see instead that you don’t judge the vaccine in itself, but just have an argument on whether the pro-vax or the anti-vax crews are more or less likeable.
This isn’t the correct way to “have a discussion”, it’s only a way to push for your side without taking responsibility for what your side is actually saying.

@J-D 69
“One issue with this is which data are included and which excluded; another is the degree of fit.”
True, hence yay Kuhn!
But there is a more fundamental problem: we are not born with a magic and mystical knowledge of the world, so we have to learn about the world through experience (that is a more generic thing than science).
Experience means that we create a model of the world in our minds, but when we see that the reality outside our heads doesn’t correspond with the model in our heads, we change our model accordingly; but in principle we will never reach a point where we can be sure that our mind model is perfect, we will always be in the situation that, when new experience comes in, we might have to revise our mind model.
Therefore we cannot judge our mind model against “truth”, we can only judge it against the experience we had up to that point, that are the “data”.
This is really the simple idea that nobody holds an absolute truth, everyone will have opinions that represent approximations of reality.
With “science” we have the same problem: a scientific model is supposed to represent reality, but (in particular for social sciences) will always be a simplyfication of reality, and anyway can only be checked against that part of reality we already know, that is to say the data we already have.

@rsm 67
To be honest, in the course of history most people religious or not did show very small scruples about cutting other people’s spinal chords, or otherwise killing or torturing other people.
That said, I think you misunderstand Huxley’s point: In those timens most people believed in the existence of the spiritual soul (and many peoiple still believe in it).
In that conception, emotions are part of the soul, not of the body.
In a modern materialistic conception as was developing at the time, emotion do exist but are just part of the body, what Huxley calls reflexes.
For religious people not having a soul (separate from the body) might, in some sense, mean that one has no right to life (though I doubt many religious people would say this), but this depends on the particular value that religion gives to the concept of an immortal soul, not really on materialism.
For example, one of the first proponents of animal rights was Bentham, who AFAIK was an atheist and a materialist.

This anyway has nothing to do with science and more to do with religion and or moral philososphy.

75

J-D 10.12.21 at 11:49 pm

“One issue with this is which data are included and which excluded; another is the degree of fit.”
True, hence yay Kuhn!
But there is a more fundamental problem: we are not born with a magic and mystical knowledge of the world, so we have to learn about the world through experience (that is a more generic thing than science).
Experience means that we create a model of the world in our minds, but when we see that the reality outside our heads doesn’t correspond with the model in our heads, we change our model accordingly; but in principle we will never reach a point where we can be sure that our mind model is perfect, we will always be in the situation that, when new experience comes in, we might have to revise our mind model.
Therefore we cannot judge our mind model against “truth”, we can only judge it against the experience we had up to that point, that are the “data”.
This is really the simple idea that nobody holds an absolute truth, everyone will have opinions that represent approximations of reality.
With “science” we have the same problem: a scientific model is supposed to represent reality, but (in particular for social sciences) will always be a simplyfication of reality, and anyway can only be checked against that part of reality we already know, that is to say the data we already have.

I agree, but I conclude that it is more precise to say ‘People in the fifteenth century were justified in relying on models that used epicycles’ than to say ‘In the fifteenth century, epicycles were the correct model’. The evidence available now justifies people in concluding that the planets don’t move in epicycles and also in concluding that they didn’t move in epicycles in the fifteenth century and that when people thought they did they were mistaken.

76

steven t johnson 10.13.21 at 6:56 pm

Chetan Murthy@68 first limits “science” to a professional community with journals and peer review, then limits “science” to predictions/measurements, reducing scientific concepts to mere conveniences.

I say again, science is finding out how things are, how they work. This is an inherently collective enterprise conducted by experience of nature. The concepts of nature may be expressed verbally but they are labels, not idle fictions, fickle words. Like every label they are in themselves schematic and meaningless, but indispensable if properly used. None of this orderly and systematic exploration of nature requires a modern-day training in laboratory science. The vacuum pump is science in this sense, indispensable to the creation of modern chemistry distinct from alchemy. Yet it has no credentials.

The rapid advances in science in sixteenth century depended upon new technology, like printing and pure substances (hard to do worthwhile experiments in chemistry with contaminated materials!) The superior results started there, not in the

As for the notion that science is merely predictions confirmed (or disconfirmed,) this means there is no such thing as historical science. Unfortunately that includes historical natural sciences like plate tectonics and the multiplication of species and the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram and all that implies. It was not a bunch of superior intellects with genius management skills. Francis Bacon was a publicist for informal practice, thus an advocate for getting systematic in funding. But he was not an originator.

By a curious coincidence, reading Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy (to go to sleep) I read the observation by—I’ve forgotten already who!—that the earth is like a dimensionless mathematical point when compared to the celestial sphere. That strongly suggests to me the ancients there knew stars were too far away for parallax.

77

Gorgonzola Petrovna 10.14.21 at 2:52 am

@72,
If YouTube’s block of RT’s German channels is about ‘misinformation’, when will MSNBC & CNN be banned for Russiagate conspiracies?

By the way, I have a beautiful recent abstract painting, for only $500K. Are you interested?

78

B Martensson 10.14.21 at 3:56 am

Maria Are you familiar with the book entitled On Bullshit by Frankfurt ?

79

notGoodenough 10.14.21 at 8:20 am

Well, just to toss my own handful of grit into the conversation (which seems to be a bit removed from the thread now!):

I think I might say (colloquially and simplistically) something like “science is (at its best) the process of constructing the most accurate understanding of reality possible based on the available evidence – and to apportion confidence with respect to the supporting evidence”. Over time the epistemic methodologies have improved (we now have a slightly better idea of how to approach this task compared to 2000 years ago), as has our general understanding of reality. I think one of the important things to remember (which, admittedly, does often get glossed over) is that science is not about handing down Indisputable Truths, but rather about offering “models” which are subject to revision (however, it is surely also worth noting that for very well-established theories, these seem to be decreasingly found to be “wrong” and more likely to be found to be “incomplete” – and so such revision tends to be more about finding where those models break down rather than discovering they were completely wrong).

The distinction between historical and experimental science is an important, and frequently productive, one. However, like many attempts at categorization, it is rarely that simple in practice. While it is true that many of the phenomena are, for all practical purposes, beyond experimental reproducibility (such as the Big Bang), it is (I would argue) also possible to test validity to a certain extent (cf. Tiktaalik, radiometric dating, etc.). Moreover, it is also worth noting that Dodick et al. (2009) found that historical sciences seem to use a more nuanced comparison of levels of confidence in constructed explanations compared to their experimental counterparts – and I suspect it is not accidental that this is in keeping with general Humeistic principles.

Scientists are, by and large, not “superior intellects with genius management skills” (at least, I would say, no more than any other profession), but people who have training and the inclination towards performing that role. In principle, I think most people could probably carry out my role more-or-less as effectively as I do if they’d had the training and the experience (and were prepared to tolerate the conditions currently imposed upon those who do so). On the other hand, I would say that “if” is a non-trivial one – but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

I think it is certainly true that anyone can do science – but, to borrow from that great philosopher Anton Ego (2007), this does not mean everyone can carry out good science, but that good science can come from anyone. The social processes are important – not because they are strictly necessary or the final word, but because we have found that it helps with the quality of the work (and, though this is often neglected in discussion, these processes are ongoing too). And while it is certainly true that having credentials does not a scientist make, I would suggest this is true in the sense that “you don’t need to study medicine to offer sound medical advice” or “you don’t need to practice playing an instrument to be a good musician” are true. The process of training in scientific rigour helps you learn how to carry out science without falling into epistemic errors – and while by no means perfect, there is a reason that it exists. In short, I would suggest that while the orderly and rigorous exploration of reality does not require modern-day training, modern-day training does help one carry it out.

Of course, this is all a gross oversimplification, but in my defense it would take a little more than a blog comment to do the topic justice.

Science is not an arcane process where the elite engage in high-minded discussion or rarefied principles, but rather mostly normal people (I’ll leave it to others to determine if that means “people who are mostly normal”, or “most of the people are normal”!) carrying out the troublesome endeavour of problem solving to make incremental progress towards “knowing stuff a bit better”. And while (as I have long noted) there are many fair criticisms which may be made of how it is currently being carried out, the process and the methodologies seem to currently be the most reliable tools we have – but if someone has better, I’d certainly be interested in seeing them.

Of course, I’d recommend everyone take this comment with a mountain of salt – after all, I’m but a random person on the internet – and I would strongly encourage those interested in the topic to contact those with relevant expertise (not as final authorities, but more as helpful references). But regardless, progress staggers on (one funeral at a time, as the saying goes).

80

Tm 10.14.21 at 2:29 pm

77, no idea why you are asking me that question, and not interested in anything you might have on sale, thanks anyway.

81

Chetan Murthy 10.15.21 at 1:07 am

Gorgonzola Petrovna: [you argue that MSNBC and CNN are peddling conspiracy theories about “Russiagate]

Gaslighter.

There is ample evidence that your boy Shitler was open to aid from Russia, and that’s shown in both the Mueller report and the Senate Intelligence Committee report (chair, notable Communist Senator Richard Burr). And lots of other evidence.

Gaslighter.

82

Gorgonzola Petrovna 10.15.21 at 12:08 pm

@80 Tm, never mind that, I got carried away.

About your dw.com piece. I don’t know if the fact that German Press Council doesn’t monitor RT (if that is indeed a fact) means that German Press Council can’t reprimand RT while responding to a reader’s complaint, for example.

But in any case, I find it highly unlikely that the absence of criticism from this Council would be the one and only RT’s argument against the youtube ban. Certainly dw.com should’ve provided a link to the page or video where the claim was made. So that we would be able to, you know, evaluate it in context, and to see the whole presentation or discussion, or whatever it was. Otherwise, it’s, you know, misleading…

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