05/25/07 - incomplete information

In today's excerpt - drawing conclusions from incomplete information:

"If science works because we live in a world of regularities, it works in the particular way it does because of some peculiarities in our own makeup. In particular, we are masters at drawing conclusions from incomplete information. We are constantly observing the world, and then making predictions and drawing conclusions about it. That is what hunter-gatherers do, and it is also what particle physicists and microbiologists do. We never have enough information to justify completely the conclusions we draw. Being able to act on guesses and hunches, and act confidently when the information we have points somewhere but does not constitute a proof, is an essential skill that makes someone a good businessperson, a good hunter or farmer, or a good scientist. It is a big part of what makes human beings such a successful species.

"But this ability comes at a heavy price, which is that we easily fool ourselves. Of course, we know that we are easily fooled by others. Lying is strongly sanctioned because it is so effective. It is, after all, only because we are built to come to conclusions from incomplete information that we are so vulnerable to lies. Our basic stance has to be one of trust, for if we required proof of everything, we would never believe anything. We would never do anything -- never get out of bed, never make marriages, friendships or alliances. Without the ability to trust, we would be solitary animals. Language is effective and useful, because most of the time we believe what other people tell us.

"But what is equally important, and sobering, is how often we fool ourselves. And we fool ourselves, not only individually, but en masse. The tendency of a group of human beings to quickly come to believe something that its individual members will later see as obviously false is truly amazing. Some of the worst tragedies of the last century happened because well-meaning people fell for easy solutions proposed by bad leaders. But arriving at a consensus is part of who we are, for it is essential if a band of hunters is to succeed, or a tribe is to flee approaching danger.

"For a community to survive, then, there must be mechanisms of correction: elders who curb the impulsiveness of the young because if they have learned anything in their long lives, it is how often they were wrong; the young, who challenge beliefs that have been held obvious and sacred for generations, when those beliefs are no longer apt. Human society has progressed because it has learned to require of its members both rebellion and respect, and because it has discovered social mechanisms that over time balance those qualities."

[Suggested by a delanceyplace reader.]


Lee Smolin


The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next


Houghton Mifflin


Copyright 2006 by Spin Networks, Ltd.


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