Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Wrong thinking behind MOND and climate hysteria

MIT mindreader: AlterEgo is the new MIT device that monitors nerves going to speaking muscles and knows what you think about. It can recognize 100 words now. I guess it would work for Hawking. Too bad he's gone.
Solution aversion often has very good reasons

Ohwilleke has promoted the Wordpress blog TritonStation written by Stacy McCaugh, a MOND cosmologist. He claimed that some speed was incorrectly calculated in the recent paper about a galaxy without dark matter and a better calculation is compatible with MOND predictions. I have no opinion about that but I think it's unwise to trust such blog posts uncritically; at least, you should also read lead author Van Dokkum's polite response to McCaugh and others. (My previous blog post was about the ludicrous claim that in MOND theories, the MOND effect may be turned off by changing the initial conditions.)

However, McCaugh's blog also has a climate change category – with one text, Solution Aversion. In his opinion, it's a logical mistake to be skeptical about MOND and the climate hysteria because such a skepticism amounts to "solution aversion" which he claims to be a logical fallacy of a sort.

I am sure that McCaugh is wrong about the climate change debate and I find it very likely that he's wrong about MOND, too. But he's also wrong about the "logical foundations" that lead him to believe in both of theses ideas that are not backed by science.

He considers something called "solution aversion" to be a logical fallacy. But "solution aversion" is just the aversion to solution. It means that someone doesn't like some solution – either some particular solution that is actually explicitly proposed by somebody; or some likely solution that seems unavoidable if we want to "solve" something at all.

But in various situations, it may be both justified and unjustified to be averse to a solution simply because solutions may be right or wrong, beneficial or harmful!

He combines MOND and climate change in that text. It looks a bit weird but I will follow in his footsteps. McCaugh is clearly a climate alarmist. His left-wing readers were sending him an e-mail in May 2017 about the CNN exchange between Bill Nye and Will Happer, a Princeton physicist, climate skeptic, and a Trump adviser. All these kids wanted to hear that Nye was better than Happer.

Well, it just happens that McCaugh was a student of Happer in Princeton of the 1980s. So we learn that Happer was a "nice guy" but they didn't really like each other – partly because McCaugh was a frustrated chap and Princeton was too cold. Happer is also "brilliant" (the word appears five times) and has made "numerous fundamental contributions to physics" – to adaptive optics and spin polarized nuclei, among others.

On the other hand, Bill Nye is an entertainer. So McCaugh pointed out that Nye's debate with Happer is on par with Mickey Mouse's debate with Einstein (or a better example with less famous names). I guess that the brainwashed kids who are Nye's fans didn't like it, except for those who are still great fans both of Nye and Mickey Mouse, too.

OK, already in the 1980s, McCaugh was apparently shocked when Happer made this statement:
We can’t turn off the wheels of industry, and go back to living like cavemen.
I would think that every sane person views this sentence as a matter of common sense, perhaps an obvious tautological cliché, not something shocking. If we really stopped the industry, the population including 7 billions of people couldn't even survive. But we want more than just to survive. So not only we won't stop the wheels of industry completely; we won't even radically slow it down.

McCaugh "vividly" remembers that exchange when Happer "vehemently" defended the industrial civilization. McCaugh finds it logically wrong because Happer began by thinking about the solution to start with, not about the existence of the problem itself.

There are two problems with McCaugh's criticism:
  • Happer wasn't the first person who talked about the solutions.
  • When we talk about the relevance of some physical effect for the human society, we should think and talk about the solutions right away.
Concerning the first point, we must realize that the "proposed solutions" were the reasons why this effect in the atmosphere was discussed in the first place. After all, before Happer reacted by the sentence about cavemen above, we could read that:
In one instance, we had heard a talk about the potential for industrial activity to add enough carbon dioxide to the atmosphere to cause an imbalance in the climate.
So let's get the chronology straight. A speaker first talked about the alleged bad effects of the "industrial activity". And afterwards, Will Happer defended the industrial civilization against the cavemen. It makes complete sense: the efforts to "do something about the industry" were the very reason why so many people became so interested and talked about the greenhouse effect. The "political application" of the greenhouse effect was relevant from the beginning of this "debate", so Happer talked about it from the beginning, too. The "political application" is why many more people know about the extra CO2's greenhouse effect than they know about Happer's inventions in adaptive optics that are arguably more important.

Cavemen discovered a Škoda car some decade ago. What did they do with it? Yup, they took the lighter, created a fire, and after a few thousand years of progress, they may have their own industrial civilization that produces their own Škodas.

Concerning the second point, even if the speaker weren't talking about the "political applications" before Happer, it would still be right for Happer to think about these issues. If you say "the industry is bad", it's a sentence that a scientist's mind unavoidably has to evaluate critically. It means that a scientist pretty much automatically compares the costs and benefits of the subject – the wheels of industry, in this case – to determine whether the subject is a net benefit or a net liability. And make no doubts about it, it's net benefit.

That's what Happer did. There is no logical fallacy in it. It was a standard cost-and-benefit analysis. In this case, the outcome was obvious because only an environmentalist loon could propose to stop the wheels of industry. In the mid 1980s, climate change wasn't a mainstream topic – it started to become one in 1988. So in the mid 1980s, it was a domain of fringe environmentalists. And indeed, they have been talking about extreme and unacceptable "cures" from the beginning – about the stopping of the wheels of industry.

Again, what Happer did isn't a logical fallacy. Instead, what is wrong is for McCaugh to try to discourage the rational thinking about a given issue – in this particular case, to discourage the cost-and-benefit analysis. We don't want to do anything similar to "stopping the wheels of industry" simply because we find it obvious that the industry is doing so many good and vital things for us.

It would be fallacious if not dishonest to think about the truth value of a proposition if we started by an evaluation of the impact of one answer or another on us who have nothing to do with the proposition. But that's not the case here because the whole man-made climate issue is mostly about us, what we have allegedly done, what we're still doing, and what we should do in the future. So the very proposition is about these "political" questions which is why it's completely wrong to prevent someone from thinking and arguing about them!

McCaugh's reasoning about MOND is said to be "analogous" and he's wrong on this very different issue, for similar fundamental reasons:
Happer’s is just the first example I encountered of a brilliant person coming to a dubious conclusion because of solution aversion. I have had many colleagues who work on cosmology and galaxy formation say straight out to me that they would only consider MOND “as a last resort.” This is a glaring, if understandable, example of solution aversion. We don’t like MOND, so we’re only willing to consider it when all other options have failed.

I hope it is obvious from the above that this attitude is not a healthy one in science. In cosmology, it is doubly bad. Just when, exactly, do we reach the last resort?
We hear that it's "unhealthy" when someone recommends to consider MOND "as a last resort" only. But while MOND may still be "right" in some sense, it's totally legitimate for people to order their priorities and only consider MOND as a last resort. It's totally legitimate for the people to think that MOND is far less likely than dark matter. While the topic seems very different from the climate change and the wheels of industry, there are indeed some similarities.

We don't want to stop the wheels of industry because we see so many obvious arguments in favor of the industrial activity. That's why it's sensible to stop a discussion with someone who thinks about "stopping the wheels" rather quickly. The warming rate seems to be comparable to 1 °C per century and we don't know the cause or the right attribution, at least not reliably and accurately enough. But even if the rate were 5 °C, it would still be insane to try to "stop the wheels of industry".

The case of MOND is analogous because MOND seems to be the denial of the "framework based on Einstein's general theory of relativity". Like the industrial activity, general relativity (they even rhyme) has done lots of great things for us, it seems very pretty, predictive, beautiful, unique enough etc. In the absence of a justifiable new alternative to the industrial activity – or to general relativity – it seems unreasonable if not irresponsible to jump into the ocean of the unknown where the industrial activity is banned or general relativity is completely negated.

Why? Simply because it's wrong to abandon important, beneficial, useful things if you don't really have any alternative to replace them with. That's why it's so totally legitimate and rational to be averse to some proposed solutions, why "solution aversion" cannot be considered a universally applicable logical fallacy, and why it is in fact demagogic to demonize someone's rather rational "ordering of priorities" that leads him to dismiss some solutions and verbal exercises whose purpose is to promote these solutions; or that leads him to consider some ill-defined, not terribly motivated theories only as a last resort.

McCaugh asks the question "when do you exactly reach the last resort". Obviously, there is no precise and objective method to determine the moment. In the same way, there's no precise single moment when every scientist should undergo any paradigm shift and accept a new explanatory framework in science. It happens gradually although the speed is often high. But the fact that there is no precisely calculable "critical mass of evidence in favor of MOND" that could cause a paradigm shift does not imply that people must consider MOND to be as likely as dark matter. Decisions in science are all about the determination which hypotheses are more likely and which are less likely, as Feynman correctly said in his monologue about flying saucers. The defender of flying saucers – Feynman's antagonist – angrily indicated that he considered the probabilistic reasoning to be unscientific.

But the probabilistic reasoning is scientific – fundamentally speaking, all reasoning about natural phenomena is ultimately based on probabilities. McCaugh's pro-MOND complaint pointing out that "we can't precisely determine the moment when we reach the last resort" is pretty much isomorphic to the flying saucers' defender's claim that probabilities are unscientific. We can't identify the point precisely – it's fuzzy, much like probabilities – but like porn, a scientist knows it when he sees it. So scientists must take evidence into account even when it's fuzzy and doesn't settle the questions completely – and it's McCaugh and not his colleagues who is doing a mistake if he thinks it's a fallacy to take some incomplete evidence into account.

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