Friday, February 11, 2011

UVA's Jonathan Haidt on the stifling effects of ideological conformism in social sciences

Engaging PowerPoint that generated some interest within the bastions of the Grey Lady, a salvo from the Times court intellectual HERE, which warranted a targeted response HERE (I love them-thar military metaphors):

Haidt is the proprieter of a fascinating site, been up for some time, called "Your Morals", an ongoing online moral psychology experiment, I've blogged about before. You can do your part for science by taking his surveys. For him, unlike Krugman, conservatives are not some strange tribe, or benighted (I like that word) gorillas in the mist beset by groupthink and "epistemic closure". Well, at the very least, they are not beset by these shortcomings to any greater degree than are their betters, like the haughty Krugman. From Haidt's return fire:

My research, like so much research in social psychology, demonstrates that we
humans are experts at using reasoning to find evidence for whatever conclusions
we want to reach. We are terrible at searching for contradictory evidence.
Science works because our peers are so darn good at finding that contradictory
evidence for us. Social science — at least my corner of it — is broken because
there is nobody to look for contradictory evidence regarding sacralized issues,
particularly those related to race, gender, and class. I urged my colleagues to
increase our ideological diversity not for any moral reason, but because it will
make us better scientists. You do not have that problem in economics where the
majority is liberal but there is a substantial and vocal minority of
libertarians and conservatives. Your field is healthy, mine is not. Do you think I was wrong to call for my professional organization to seek out a modicum of ideological diversity?

Groupthink is anathema to good science? Whodathunkit?

Jamie McIntyre: If you are going to review Rumsfeld's book, you might read it first.

That is at least one of the messages in this very biting must-read post. Another take-away. Apply the principle of charity, even if you think the guy was a martinet.

Key bits:

His new autobiography, Known and Unknown, is variously described by reviewers as “score-settling” or “a revenge memoir.” It is understandable that Rumsfeld, who has been demonized by a number of media-created myths, would want to point out a few facts to anyone willing to listen. But few are. And here’s the thing: On many subjects, Rumsfeld has a point! A recurring theme is that many of the knocks against him are based on widely misunderstood or mis-reported events.

At a town hall meeting with troops, the soldier complained about a shortage of armor for Army vehicles. You remember Rumsfeld’s infamous and oft-quoted response: “You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want.“

‘Insensitive’ was the word used, ” Diane Sawyer says, leaning in accusingly.
Rumsfeld’s answer: “Was it insensitive? No. Go back and read the whole thing. I cared deeply about the troops and my answer reflects it.“

But did anyone at ABC “go back and read the whole thing?” I’ll wager they did not. I’d be surprised if one person at ABC bothered to check the context of Rumsfeld’s exchange that day, even though the full transcript remains on the Pentagon’s web site.

If they did they would see that Rumsfeld did not — figuratively — tell the soldiers to suck it up, as the brief, edited clip implies. In fact, he gave a much longer, nuanced response, explaining what was being done to ramp up production of armored vehicles, how the Army was “sensitive” to the problem that some vehicles were under-armored, and stating the goal was to do as much as “humanly possible” to fix the problem. The next day Rumsfeld even praised the soldier who spoke up, saying it was “good” that ordinary soldiers express their concerns. “It’s necessary for the Army to hear that,” he told the New York Times.

Then there’s the oft-repeated canard that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and everyone else “lied” about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. To lie is to knowingly convey a falsehood, or by omission allow a known falsehood to remain uncorrected. There is simply no evidence Rumsfeld, et al did not believe what they were saying, at the time they were saying it, based on the intelligence they were getting. As Rumsfeld pointedly says, “The President did not lie. The Vice President did not lie. Tenet did not lie. Rice did not lie. I did not lie. The Congress did not lie. The far less dramatic truth is that we were wrong.“

And that really is the larger point of Rumsfeld’s rambling ruminations on his career. The truth is often far less dramatic than the myth. It’s hard for some people to accept, so enamored are they with the appeal of the oversimplified caricature that has up to now eclipsed a more nuanced portrait of a man who, though an imperfect human, has devoted his public career to trying to do the right thing.

The book’s title also somewhat ironically illustrates the difficulty so many in the press seem to have grasping even the simplest nuance. When Rumsfeld explained his straightforward concept of “known knowns, unknown knowns, and unknown unknowns,” ABC’s Diane Sawyer called it a “lecture” that “confounded” the reporters in the Pentagon press room.

No, actually, it did not. It was not some mangled malapropism, or bureaucratic gobbledygook. It was a clear, perfectly lucid explanation of the challenge of making decisions with imperfect information. Any schoolchild could follow the logic, apparently just not some ADD-afflicted members of the media, who disingenuously and inaccurately mocked it as some sort of embarrassing gaffe.

“Dismissive” is a word often used to describe Rumsfeld, but “dismissive” perfectly describes his critics, who are unwilling or unable to re-examine their own assumptions in the light of new or overlooked information and fresh perspective provided by Rumsfeld, in his exceedingly well-documented work.

Ouch. That one will leave a mark.

Read the whole thing

DARPA and NASA make it cool to be a Star Trek (Original Series) Geek.

That's my story, and I'm sticking to it. They are launching a project called the 100 Year Starship. The idea is to get civilians of various stripes (futurists, business folks, sci-fi authors), and military and government folks together to think out a 'business model' for creating a starship that could make the trip to some nearby star (hopefully with a habitable port of call).

Here's the DARPA press release

And a Popular Science article on same.

The text of the DARPA release:

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the NASA Ames Research Center announced their 100-Year Starship Study in October. This study is examining the business model needed to develop and mature technologies that would enable long-distance manned space flight a century from now. Anticipated to last one year, the study kicked off in January with a Strategic Planning Workshop.

“For generations, people have been excited and inspired by exploration,” said Dave Neyland, Director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office. “This study hopes to inspire research of interstellar space travel, something with a very long time horizon. Through it, we hope to excite and encourage a younger generation that was not yet born when man first walked on the moon.”

The workshop brought together 29 visionaries with diverse backgrounds from aerospace engineer to science fiction author. Their mission was to steer efforts to develop a business model, establish a charter and develop the organizational construct needed to affect this long-term strategy. Over the course of two days, members met and discussed the requirements for seeding research that would enable interstellar flight.

“We picked the 100-Year Starship name because it would require a long-range sustainable effort to get our species to other stars,” said Neyland. “Looking at history, most significant exploration, like crossing oceans or continents for the first time, was sponsored by patrons or groups outside of government. We’re here because we’d like to start with a mechanism that gets this long-range project out of the government, and make sure it is an energized and self-sustaining enterprise.”

Workshop members addressed a wide range of issues, such as why humans should visit the stars, the risks involved, the economic and socio-political-religious obstacles, and the type of governance structure needed. Other topics, such as the importance of having short-term achievable goals, identifying a destination for a 100-Year Starship, bringing together a core group of experts/enthusiasts, interest groups and private funding, and the continued importance of science and technical education for the youth of the world were also discussed at length.

The workshop concluded with unanimous acknowledgement that there exist many unanswered questions and a great deal of work ahead. Planning is underway for follow on activities, with the study scheduled for completion by the end of 2011.

Think of this confab as being a new riff on the old reliable ethics class saw, the "Lifeboat Dilemma," a riff writ much larger. It raises a host of interesting questions. One question has an implied answer, built into the very bones of the project. That question: what entity is best suited to lead the effort, build the ship and man it? Seems that the model NASA and DARPA believes has the best potential is one based in the private sector. The idea seems to be something like the 16th Century European colonial model. Let the future East India companies of the world handle it, or at least head it up, perhaps with some government involvement.

An immediate issue with this is that there would seem to be no near term payoff for the investment. Unlike the European colonial powers, we can presume that there would be no analogs of tobacco rum or cotton wending it's way back home, making the enterprise a healthy money-making venture. So, how do you sell the private sector on the idea of a one way trip with no goodies coming back the other way?

Some other questions:

Who should go on the one way trip? What would be the criteria for inclusion? You would want people with technical proficiency for the immediate term. They would need to be able to maintain the ship, and improvise in response to unforeseen developments. We would hope they were able to pass on the know how, as well as their own history, and the history and culture of Earth. Would we want a representative crew? Or, assuming that would introduce possibly fatal friction, would we opt for a population that shared a uniformity of values and cultural attitudes? Would we insist on a particular form of governance? Should we expect that any form we insist upon will be carried on for the duration of the trip? These questions at least partially hinge on the physics of the case.

Assuming that the technology available in 100 years is more or less like today's, the trip will be very long, taking generations. [Note that the planetary system mentioned in the PopSci article is 20 light years away. So, making the optimistic assumption that there is an Earth like planet there, that would entail that we would, at the very best, take a bit over 20 years to get there.

But, that's the rub. 20+ years is a possibility, and looks to be precisely only that, a mere possibility. The overwhelming probability is that we would have to rely on propulsion systems that move at what is essentially a snail's pace when compared to the speed of light.

Now, I'm not a math cypherin' kind of guy, but a quick calculation of how long it would take (found in an online discussion I cannot re-find, so I cannot link to it) to make that 20 LY trek has it a little something like this:

20 light years, translated into Car and Driver units we can understand lands us in a trip that is around 117,569,996,000,000 miles long. That's 117 trillion miles. Them's national debt scale numbers'. Holy Toledo.

Our fastest spacecraft is Voyager 1. It is now booking it outside the solar system at approximately 38,000 mph. So, assuming that is as fast as our starship could go, it would take about 353,000 years to cover the distance. Assuming 100 year lifespans, that's 3530 generations of folks that would be living on the starship. Assuming there is some way to up the speed by an order of 10, the trip would still take 35,000 years or so. That's an awfully long time. These numbers are stunning and I dare say prohibitive. No East India corporation would be interested in payoffs so far down the road. Nor would they seem eager to fund a one way trip into the dim recesses of the future, without some sort of return on the investment. These immense numbers lead to some other obvious follow-on questions:

What would have to be done to supply essentials for the inhabitants? Assuming we need to provide animal and vegetable life forms for food, how do you go about providing sustainable crops, how do you go about using waste, or disposing of it? How do you deal with the water supply, not to mention oxygen, and carbon dioxide?

The all purpose answer that comes to mind is that the starship will need to be freaking huge enough to sustain a complex ecosystem, not unlike the one we find on good old Earth. This raises yet further questions:

How do you engineer and construct something that massive? How are the flora and fauna going to live without the energy provided by Sol? Anything that large will presumably need to make use of gravitational forces to hold the bio-system together, literally. How do you generate sufficient gravitation or other inertial force, (centrifugal) within a ship? Can you? Assuming we use centrifugal force, setting up a rate of rotation, and can get that all going, what do we do about protecting the inhabitants from interstellar cosmic ray radiation? The faster you go, the worse that shielding problem.

Some other questions: Do we want the folks on the Mega-Mayflower to stay in communications with Earth?

Presumably we would want to keep abreast of their progress. So, we would need to fashion a communications system.

Now, it seems the best way to go about this would be to somehow push our entire solar system, propel it as a whole, toward the ultimate destination. Good luck with that.

Another option; make use of naturally occurring objects, like the moon. Turn it into Starship Mayflower. Problem is, if we do this, it might wreak havoc with Earth, rendering it less habitable. Monster winters, and hotter summers Some bad craziness, among other things, as Earth tilts more radically in relation to the plane of it's orbit. Also, 'moonless' animals on the Mayflower could apparently have some issues.

Darn. So that one is out. Forget the moon as Mayflower.

3530 generations or 353, one would expect that connections with Earth would become tenuous at best, even with communications. One would also suspect that it is more, rather than less likely com-links would fail. Suppose that happens, and repair is not possible. Hundreds to thousands of generations pass. Knowledge of Earth dims if the pilgrims do not carry with them a substantial volume of information about the home planet. What is more, it may occur that they forget how to read the history. What happens then? Well, consult Star Trek's episode "For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky" for one possibility:

A mythology in fact, a whole cosmology builds, and very few if any people know the truth. What is more, bad fashion design runs rampant, and security personnel are compelled to wear black leather feedbags as largely useless headgear.

The horror.

And, what is more, they may forget what they were sent out to do. If the mayflower is truly self sustaining, they may end up as analogs of isolated Amazonian tribes, with a peculiar cosmology that has strayed far from the truth, and a complete lack of perspective on their origins.

Then again, one might say, even if we could somehow nudge our solar system that way, and make the trip without ever leaving home, these things could happen anyway. At some point in the distant future, after some great cataclysm, our primitive descendants may dimly remember our time, as unimaginably long ago, and as a sort of Atlantis.

Oh god....that's a Donavan song. Time to quit:


OTR Classics- Phil Harris, Alice Faye go to a snooty party.

Phil and Alice back from vacation. Direct Link HERE