Archive for the ‘ Scientific ’ Category

More Encryption Is Not the Solution

I’m always pleased to see the recognition that, ultimately, politics is just people with lots of weapons doing what they want. In this instance, Poul-Henning Kamp, highlights the fact with respect to encryption as a “solution” to revelations about “government” spying.

INCONVENIENT FACT #1 ABOUT PRIVACY:
POLITICS TRUMPS CRYPTOGRAPHY

Nation-states have police forces with guns. Cryptographers and the IETF Internet Engineering Task Force do not.

Several nation-states, most notably the United Kingdom, have enacted laws that allow the police to jail suspects until they reveal the cryptographic keys to unlock their computers. Such laws open a host of due process and civil rights issues that we do not need to dwell on here. For now it is enough to note that such laws can be enacted and enforced.
. . .
Any person can have the right to privacy removed through whatever passes for judicial oversight in their country of residence, so that authorities can confirm or deny a suspicion of illegal activities.
. . .
if a nation-state decides that somebody should not have privacy, then it will use whatever means available to prevent that privacy.

via More Encryption Is Not the Solution – ACM Queue.

The article is short and worth reading. The author is clearly not an economist, “In the past quarter century, international trade agreements have been the big thing: free movement of goods across borders and oceans, to the mutual benefit of all parties. I guess we all assumed that information and privacy rights would receive the same mutual respect as property rights did in these agreements, but we were wrong.”

He also has an unhealthy optimism that the guys with the guns can be persuaded to dismantle the spy agencies (who, I’m sure, have lots of dirt on the guys with the guns); all -in-all the conclusion section is the weakest part of the paper.

Overall, his point is important: as long as institutions exist that are overwhelmingly recognized to have the right to do whatever they please up to and including caging and killing anyone who doesn’t obey, encryption will, at best, protect small handfuls of people. For people generally, a general solution is necessary, which is a delegitimization of the use of force by “government.”

The Limits of Science

Apropos of Kevin’s and my recent podcast, an article on the limits of science.

No rulers! Except for measurement! Science is pretty sweet, though.

In the podcast, we discuss logic as an essential tool in determining how one’s beliefs track reality. However, perfect Aristotelian logic can generate perfectly crafted non-sense given incorrect premises.

Similarly, science is the best means of testing hypothesis and incrementally bringing beliefs about reality in line with the natural universe (a.k.a., the universe).



Regardless of how rigorously one pursues knowledge with the correct application of the methods of science, and regardless of how large the body of scientific understanding becomes, it can never answer the questions it is so frequently purported to answer:
“Is this new drug safe?” “Is that amount of pollution too high?” “Are wages for those workers too low?” “What’s the minimum number of days of paid vacation that workers should get annually?”

Read more

These questions are not, exclusively, about the objective world. They incorporate the subjective; they can’t be answered except by each individual for her own circumstances. Appeals to evidence can be made to persuade someone to take action, but there is no amount of evidence that legitimizes coercion in these matters. Any appeal to science in the name of politics, or any other form of violence, is an appeal made on false premises and an indication of intellectual, if not moral, corruption.

Update: I just figured out that I could do this, here’s an embed to Kevin’s and my podcast on the limitations of logic.

Play

Control of One’s Body (or, Freedom of Conscience Part le Deux)

Another quick (probably not that quick) example where people’s freedom of conscience is most obviously violated comes to us from science magazine. Briefly, it’s one of those reports of a drug that successfully fights cancer (in this call, *all* forms) in petri dishes an mice. I have no expertise to evaluate the claim–though it is coming from *science* magazine. It’s an interesting article and compelling enough that the top level comments are from folks desperate for a miracle cure. This shit is tragic, so don’t read any further if you’re having a down day:

Husband and father of 3, age 31, high grade spindle cell sarcoma, stage 4 with mets- help! [email address] or find me (spouse) on fb, Heather Cimino in Fort Myers, Fl, willing to travel anywhere, just save my husband!

my wife has tumor that are killing her will you hurry up and get this sorted – is there anyway one can volunteer for a trial
[email address]

where do i sign up I have colon cancer i am 24 and it sucks I do not wanna go to the bathroom in a bag for my life!!!


Soooo, I get the feeling there are plenty of willing participants for a study; most of whom are facing death in the very near term. They have full access to all sorts of non-cures (I’m a skeptic) in the forms of crystals, charged water, intense prayer, tinctures and the like, but they can’t get access to prototypes of drugs that, by definition, can’t make them worse off and have already been shown to be effective against human cancers in test mammals (mice).

It’s fucking tragic, tragic and awful, and frustrating, and infuriating.

The comments on this page are mostly a fight over some particular alternative healer. At Hacker News, where I read the story–and where very few alternative healing folk hang out, you can get a sense the frustration at this obvious and heinous injustice. Providing the foil are the usual apologists claiming that

. . . exemptions will invite snake-oil salesmen . . . the rules weren’t created in some blind bureaucratic power-grab. They’re responses to actual problems that existed in their absence. They aren’t without their downsides, but they remain better than the alternative on balance

I found among the comments, an acronym that I hadn’t seen before, FUD, or “Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt”, have no doubt I plan to use it liberally in the future. The identification of this reactionary strategy when it was deployed was a highlight of the HN comments. A large number of people clearly grasp that the final word on what does or does not get done to a body should be made by the “owner” of that body; nobody else can legitimately intervene with force to compel a forfeiture of conscience.

And that is heartening. Clearly a growing number of people “get it.” Overriding the exercise of control a person has over their body is instinctually repellent in a healthy adult human. Beyond what should be an obvious moral case is the practical one. The idea that a tiny clan of self-aggrandizing control freaks can access and weight the subjective experiences and priorities of millions of complete strangers is ludicrous. The notion that they thereafter can craft a single set of rules that do anything other than confound the daily lives of the subject of those rules is, uhhh, even more ludicrous.

Add to that the fact that these petty tyrants are bought and paid for by entities who profit from illness and from having a monopoly on all manner of healthcare resources and it becomes clear that the purpose of the FDA and similar agencies can’t possibly be the health and well being of the subjects.

What is laughable and sinister becomes heartbreaking when these sorts of forces prevent people from seeking solutions to life threatening medical conditions. And let’s be sure I beat this dead horse deader, the FDA and it’s enforcers are so completely certain that they know categorically what all 300 million of us should consume/not consume, that they are willing to kill people, if need be, to prevent them from harming themselves. Shit, sometimes I can’t believe how fucking loony this all is.

Time Travelling God Particles

I’m no theoretical physicist, but I was a member of the institutional science community.  My particular bullshit field was “artificial intelligence,” but in the modern university, bullshit fields abound–sometimes with legitimate scientific endeavors buried within, or as an umbrella above, the bullshit.


I predict that large tracts of present-day physics research will be revealed as an exercise in mathematical masturbation–a sort of ueber-complex sudoku puzzle that only .001% of humanity has the intellect and training to attempt solving.  The sudoku metaphor can be extended to include the relevance of the solution to our questions about the nature of reality.


I’ll admit, I don’t have the mathematical chops to follow, replicate, or disprove the work of theoretical physicists.  My skepticism of their work stems from more primary methodological concerns.  Of primary concern is the lack of testable hypotheses–a feature found also in rank mysticism.

and then there’s this:

A pair of otherwise distinguished physicists have suggested that the hypothesized Higgs boson, which physicists hope to produce with the collider, might be so abhorrent to nature that its creation would ripple backward through time and stop the collider before it could make one, like a time traveler who goes back in time to kill his grandfather. (NY Times 10/12/09)

One of the two pysicists is Bech Nielsen of the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen. You probably recognize from his famous proposal that the Veneziano model was actually a theory of strings*.  A distinguished physicist indeed.

Nielson along with Masao Ninomiya of the Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics in Kyoto (less famous–doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry) propose that Higgs boson particles created by scientists in the future, travel backwards through time to prevent scientists in the present from discovering them.

Seriously.

Now I’m the first to sympathize with scientists forced to use metaphor.  Communicating an absurdly complicated topic to an untrained public is challenging.  I’m also sympathetic to the problem of the media in relating these metaphors to the public: how literal are they meant to be taken? Is the cat *really* alive and dead at the same time? Is space *actually* a rubber matt displaced by bowling balls? And so forth.

But, as far as I can tell, the Terminator metaphor above is meant to be taken literally.  Just substitute Higgs boson for Arnold, and anything-to-do-with-discovering-Higgs-boson for Sarah Connor.

The list of things sabotage possibly engineered by Higgs: the cancellation of the planned Superconducting Supercollider in the US in 1993, the various mechanical problems of the Large Hadron Collider, and the arrest of a resident physicist on suspcion of Al-Qaeda affiliation.

Seriously.

Of course, thinking like scientists, they’ve come up with a plan–a peer reviewed, up-for-publication-in-a-real-journal plan.  It goes a little something like this:

  1. Create a deck of 1 million cards.
  2. Write “Procede” on 999,999 of the cards.
  3. Write “STOP” on 1 card.
  4. Shuffle.
  5. Draw a card.

If the card says “STOP,” then it supports the claim that Higgs boson(s) are emanating from the future to stop scientists from creating them, and we should design more experiments so that Higgs, from the future, can tell scientists how they should proceed with their experiments.

I think it’s a great experiment, but I would go the additional step of not including the “STOP” card.  That would really cinch it.  As a “real time” way you provide Higgs input on HLC activity, you could have a grad students continuously flipping coins.  If one of them comes up heads one million times in a row then we know Higgs thinks we’re going too far.  Or, with nearly the same degree of scientific rigor, we could have a seance.  I’m willing to be the conduit through which the Higgs boson can make its will known to our world.


Seriously.



*I had no idea who he was either.

**Since it would cost, like, a billionth as much as their other bullshit experiments, why haven’t they done it?

Going on Record

I’m not an original thinker–at least not often. I do have, I believe, a better than average ability to sort claims into categories along the true-false spectrum. Of course, I have several biases in my data collection methodology–1. I am me and am partial to data that supports the hypothesis that I am awesome. 2) I have a terrible memory and am prone to construct narratives of my past beliefs from whole cloth supporting the hypothesis that I am awesome.

And so, the only solution is to go on record with my support of other’s predictions and see, over the course of time, how able I am to detect accurate forecasters from inaccurate.

I won’t take credit for the easy ones: Bill Kristol, George Will, Paul Krugman, anyone else in policy positions or in the MSM. These guys are never right*–it’s sort of their job never to be right.

No, I’ll try to stick to the alternative and academic media as much as possible. At least in those circles, there’s *some* consideration given to the track record of the person making a claim or prediction. Picking out the wheat from the chaff in this field will be a worthy test of my claim of super-average bullshit detection.

*Unless they’re contradicting a position they previously held–predicting two opposing outcomes does not equal accurate forecasting.