February 21, 2016

Crisis: Privacy & Apple, Exxon & Science, Bullshit in Science
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Like Your Privacy? Then Get Behind Apple in Its Battle
     to Save It

2. Tomgram: Bill McKibben, It's Not Just What Exxon Did,
     It's What It's Doing

The Unbearable Asymmetry of Bullshit

This is a Nederlog of Sunday, February 21, 2016.

This is a crisis blog. It is a Sunday and I didn't find much that I wish to review: There are 3 items with 3 dotted links: Item 1 is about Apple and privacy; item 2 is about Exxon and the climate; and item 3 is about bullshit and science.

Also, Trump and Clinton won in Nevada, but since I am getting a bit sick from the very many journalists' interpretations of these and similar results, while hardly anyone of these journalists has any original thought, I skip these interpretations, apart from mentioning these facts here and now.

1. Like Your Privacy? Then Get Behind Apple in Its Battle to Save It

This first item is by John Kiriakou (<- Wikipedia) on Truthdig:

This starts as follows:

Apple CEO Tim Cook found himself this week as the country’s leading bulwark against the FBI and the Obama administration’s continuing efforts to weaken Americans’ constitutional protections and civil liberties.

Cook is fighting a federal magistrate judge’s order that would force Apple to create software to bypass the iPhone’s security features and give the FBI access to people’s phones and everything on them. On Tuesday he wrote a letter to all Apple users explaining the company’s position and promising to keep up the fight.

I wrote about this before, e.g. here. This was the general summary, and here is a more particular one:

The FBI argues that it is not asking for a back door, that it wants access only to Farook’s phone. This is absurd. As Cook wrote to Apple users, “The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone. But that’s simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks—from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable.”

Yes, indeed - and I note the utter moral degeneracy of the FBI. In that context, there is also this:

Furthermore, rather than address the issue legislatively, the government decided to use the All Writs Act of 1789 to force it. The All Writs Act was used in past centuries to compel people or businesses not involved in a case to execute court orders—in other words, the government knows better than you do, so just do as you’re told.

The implications of this, according to Cook, are “chilling.” The executive goes on to write: “If the government can use the All Writs Act to make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone’s device and capture their data. The government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge.”

Which is precisely what the FBI and the NSA (and so on for most or all other secret services) want:

Total secret access to all of anyone's privacy, so that they can - and now I quote from here - in secret "Deny / Disrupt / Degrade / Deceive" any user they want to, if they do not decide to arrest them in secret.

There is more in the article, that is recommended.

2. Tomgram: Bill McKibben, It's Not Just What Exxon Did, It's What It's Doing

The second item is by Tom Engelhardt and Bill McKibben on Tomdispatch:

This is from Tom Engelhardt's introduction:
In fact, a recent study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change by 22 climate scientists, suggests that when it comes to the melting of ice sheets and the rise of seas and oceans, we’re not just talking about how life will be changed on Planet Earth in 2100 or even 2200.  We’re potentially talking about what it will be like in 12,200, an expanse of time twice as long as human history to date.  So many thousands of years are hard even to fathom, but as the study points out, “A considerable fraction of the carbon emitted to date and in the next 100 years will remain in the atmosphere for tens to hundreds of thousands of years.” The essence of the report, as Chris Mooney wrote in the Washington Post, is this: “In 10,000 years, if we totally let it rip, the planet could ultimately be an astonishing 7 degrees Celsius warmer on average and feature seas 52 meters (170 feet) higher than they are now.”

Even far more modest temperature changes like the two degree Celsius rise discussed at the recent Paris meeting, where 196 nations signed onto a climate change agreement, would transform the face of the planet for thousands of years and result in the drowning of a range of iconic global cities “including New York, London, Rio de Janeiro, Cairo, Calcutta, Jakarta, and Shanghai.”

Actually, I am not much concerned with the state of the earth in 200, 500 or indeed 10,000 years.

My reasons are not that I disagree with the stated consequences of our present actions but that (i) I think it will be a considerable miracle if humanity exists in a 100 years more or less as it does now, that is with 7 billions of people or more, without major disasters and without major - atomic - wars, while (ii) I really do not see a feasible solution for the climate/ environmental problem with the present governments and economies, simply because adequately attacking these problems seems to be impossible with the kinds of governments and money that are available.

I much hope I am mistaken about both points, but much too litttle has been done on the second problem to be confident that the first miracle has any  appreciable chance of becoming real.

In any case, I just quoted from Tom Engelhardt's introduction: The article by Bill McKibben that follows is interesting and recommended.

3. The Unbearable Asymmetry of Bullshit

The third item is by Brian D. Earp on Quilette:

Let me start with quoting the beginning of the Wikipedia on bullshit:

Bullshit (also bullcrap) is a common English expletive which may be shortened to the euphemism bull or the initialism BS. In British English, "bollocks" is a comparable expletive, although "bullshit" is more common. It is mostly a slang profanity term meaning "nonsense", especially in a rebuking response to communication or actions viewed as deceiving, misleading, disingenuous, unfair or false. As with many expletives, the term can be used as an interjection or as many other parts of speech, and can carry a wide variety of meanings. 
    From: Bullshit - Wikipedia

I don't quite agree, for saying something is nonsense does not seem to me to be the same as saying that somebody is lying, which is what I think most people believe "bullshit" means ("especially") but then again I am willing to agree "bullshit" means (or may mean) several things to several people.

But then again, when I use "bullshit" about something or someone I mean that what is said or written is both false and dishonest: The people who spread bullshit know they are spreading falsehoods, and they do so because they expect advantages to themselves from deceiving others.

Also, this seems the sense in which Brian Earp (who is a scientist) uses the term, but before coming to that we need to get some facts about science:

Science and medicine have done a lot for the world. Diseases have been eradicated, rockets have been sent to the moon, and convincing, causal explanations have been given for a whole range of formerly inscrutable phenomena. Notwithstanding recent concerns about sloppy research, small sample sizes, and challenges in replicating major findings — concerns I share and which I have written about at length — I still believe that the scientific method is the best available tool for getting at empirical truth.
Yes. And real science - there also are varieties of non-real science, like pseudo- science - is driven by three concerns:

(1) real science is a systematic and conscious attempt to try to find the truth about something; (2)
real science is based on a set of methods that require at least some intelligence and considerable learning (varying from statistics and mathematics to "the scientific method" of framing and testing hypotheses); and (3) real science is the only systematic socially shared attempt to find out what is the truth about something (for all other socially shared things are directed at realizing or maintaining other values, like money, fairness, justice, beauty etc.)

Next, there is this difficulty about - at least - much of science:

At the same time, as the psychologist Gary Marcus has recently put it, “it is facile to dismiss science itself. The most careful scientists, and the best science journalists, realize that all science is provisional. There will always be things that we haven’t figured out yet, and even some that we get wrong.” But science is not just about conclusions, he argues, which are occasionally (or even frequently) incorrect. Instead, “It’s about a methodology for investigation, which includes, at its core, a relentless drive towards questioning that which came before.” You can both “love science,” he concludes, “and question it.”

I agree with Marcus. In fact, I agree with him so much that I would like to go a step further: if you love science, you had better question it, and question it well, so it can live up to its potential.

Yes, of course - and in fact one major difficulty with science is more serious than it is stated here: Very large amounts of current - real - science will turn out to be (partially) false later, indeed precisely as very large amounts of past - real - science has turned out to be partially false, mistaken, unfounded or misleading (also while being quite good science, in the past).

I don't think this holds for all of science, in part because I am not a total skeptic and in part because one must presume some facts to get to other facts, but even so it also remains a fact that most of our current science will be replaced by later science, that will be more correct, better founded, less false, or more comprehensive.

And this is also why it makes fundamental sense to look upon real science as being founded on probability: one's theories are normally nothing better but the best guesses one knows in the current circumstances, and with the current wider and presumed knowledge (that also is for the most part merely probable and not certain).

Next, there is this, which is quite true (!) (in my - qualified - opinion [1]):

There is a veritable truckload of bullshit in science. When I say bullshit, I mean arguments, data, publications, or even the official policies of scientific organizations that give every impression of being perfectly reasonable — of being well-supported by the highest quality of evidence, and so forth — but which don’t hold up when you scrutinize the details. Bullshit has the veneer of truth-like plausibility. It looks good. It sounds right. But when you get right down to it, it stinks.

The reason this is quite true is that real bullshit generally involves known falsehoods, and generally - in science - pretends to be scientific, while in fact it has a completely different end than finding the truth about things: one wants a job; one wants money; one wants preferment and one believes telling plausible lies is much better calculated to realizing these ends than keeping as well as possible to what one knows to be true or - at least - probable.

All of the above was quoted from the beginning of the article.

Most of the rest - which is recommended - are about a hypothetical medical researcher who does engage in bullshitting. The reasons he is hypothetical is that it would be very probably impossible to name real medical researchers without getting into real difficulties, and not because they do not bullshit, but because the precise proof that somebody is intentionally lying in science is usually quite difficult.

Indeed, there is also this difficulty, which is the end of the article:

As the programmer Alberto Brandolini is reputed to have said: “The amount of energy necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.” This is the unbearable asymmetry of bullshit I mentioned in my title, and it poses a serious problem for research integrity. Developing a strategy for overcoming it, I suggest, should be a top priority for publication ethics.

But this is an interesting article that is recommended.


[1] I am qualified because I have an excellent M.A. in science, and because I read more than 45 years in science. Those who did not make an M.A. (or B.A. or Ph.D.) in a science are not thus qualified, and are generally - with a few exceptions - not qualified to judge science well: You really need to study for some years, with a decent intelligence as well, to be able to judge science in a rational scientific way.

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