Good morning, Gentle Reader. It’s been an interesting week already, yet it’s only Monday. I’m in a “bar the doors and clean all the guns” sort of mood, but to keep things peppy around here (and to avoid involuntary commitment) I think I’ll muse over a graphic I snagged just yesterday. As is so often the case, I stole it from Mike Miles:
Younger Americans might not be aware of Isaac Asimov, as he:
- Passed away in 1992;
- Wrote actual books that contain no videos, JPGs, or hyperlinks.
Asimov was a prolific writer. If memory serves, he published over 200 books under his own name, and quite probably an equal number under various pseudonyms. His interests were wide – among his less well-known works were Asimov’s Guide to The Bible and Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare — and he possessed a seemingly boundless confidence about his ability to tackle any subject whatsoever. His science fiction remains popular today – so much so that other highly popular and capable writers have added to his Foundation saga with further volumes.
There’s no question that Asimov was highly intelligent. However, his confidence in his intellect led him to some strange positions. For example, he opined that a tax of 50% of one’s income was perfectly fair and reasonable. For another, he differed with another very bright man, the late Julian Simon, on his position about population growth, and took the losing side of Simon’s bet with Paul Ehrlich about the prices of commodities over time. Clearly, as intelligent as he was, he could also be wrong.
The above graphic nods toward one of the more controversial questions of our time: the proper role of the intellectual. What is it? What bounds it? To what extent should ordinary people place their trust in the opinions of intellectuals?
If there are hard and fast answers to those seemingly straightforward questions, I don’t have them. I don’t know anyone who does.
As I’ve said on several occasions, a powerful intellect is a tool, not a state of grace from which one cannot fall. Never mind the posturing of the “many kinds of intelligence” promoters; there’s no substance to the notion. Intelligence is about one’s power to handle abstractions through logical operations. In its generalized form – what Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein labeled g — it can be measured with fair accuracy. While allowances must be made for the influence of cultural factors on tests and testing procedures, the results of IQ tests have been shown to be reproducible within modest error bars. Indeed, they’ve become more so over time.
But even the brightest man can go badly wrong in his reasoning. The ways in which a powerful mind can go astray are many. We don’t collect logical fallacies and misapplications of logic because they smell nice.
One of the most important sources of intellectual error is the mistaken premise. If your premises are incorrect, reasoning from them is unlikely to lead you anywhere good. One of the most influential thinkers of his day, Thomas Malthus, started from a mistaken premise in composing his Essay on the Principle of Population. Later observations persuaded him that he had erred, which resulted in a revised essay describing how and where he’d gone wrong. Yet the uncorrected edition remains among the most influential works of all time.
No matter how bright you may be, ensuring that your premises are right is critical to good reasoning.
Have a fictional exposition on the importance of accurate premises:
“I just have a question about this.” Rachel nodded sideways at the vessel she’d brought. “Did she tell you about it?”
“Holly did. Fountain never said a word.”
“I made it according to her instructions, but it doesn’t have the same effect as hers.” She dug the printed recipe out of her purse, unfolded it, and passed it to Trish. “I couldn’t help but wonder what I did wrong.”
“Probably nothing,” Trish said.
“You’re not Fountain.”
Rachel merely stared.
“Why are you looking at me that way, Doctor? A scientist should know she has to control all the experimental variables.”
“It’s a postulate of the sciences,” Rachel said dryly, “that no investigator shall be deemed privileged over any other investigator. We carved that in stone after Rene Blondlot.”
“Who was that?”
“An investigator who wanted to be deemed privileged. When no one else could see the radiation he claimed to have produced, he said it was because only he could see it.”
Trish grinned. “I’ll bet that pissed off his colleagues and competitors.”
“It taught us something,” Rachel replied. “Either I bollixed up Fountain’s recipe or she didn’t give me all the details. No other explanation would cover it.”
“Only if you’re superglued to that postulate,” Trish said. “But let’s imagine that there was an ingredient Fountain didn’t tell you about. Then adding that ingredient would produce a drink with effects identical to the one she gave you at the hospital, right?”
Rachel nodded. “That’s my working hypothesis.”
“But there’s at least one other possibility,” Trish said. “What if Fountain gave you a complete list of ingredients but omitted a processing step?”
Rachel waved it aside. “Yeah, that would explain it equally well, but—”
“We’re not done yet, Doctor. What if the environmental conditions under which the shake is made are the missing factor?”
Rachel felt her jaw tightening and fought to relax it. “All right. Anything else?”
Trish smiled nastily. “Only your no-privileged-investigator postulate, Doctor. How would you like to test that?”
Rachel’s jaw tightened again. “How would we do that?”
Trish reviewed the recipe Rachel had worked from, finished her coffee, and rose. “For that, we’ll need Fountain.”
“I don’t understand, Miss Rachel,” Fountain said as she peered at the printout. “What is written here is exactly what I did to make your shake. I would expect you to get the same result if you followed these directions.” She canted her head. “Are you sure you did so?”
Rachel cringed internally. “Yes I am, Fountain. I was meticulously careful at every stage.”
“Do you still have an adequate supply of the ingredients?”
“Oh yes. I bought more than enough to make two more servings.”
“Then if it will please you and Miss Trish,” Fountain said with a look at Trish, “let us go to your home and try the recipe a second time.”
Trish shrugged. “I’m game. You’re in Foxwood, right?” Rachel nodded. Trish fetched a large purse from her bedroom and pulled out a ring of keys. “We’ll follow you.”
“Okay,” Rachel said. “We have here two potations—”
“Hm?” Trish frowned. “How do potatoes figure into it?”
Rachel chuckled. “A potation is something made to drink. Anyway, these two shot glasses contain samples of my and Fountain’s mixtures. The one in my left hand is hers; the other is mine. You’re the guinea pig.”
Trish smiled crookedly. “Couldn’t figure out how to make it double-blind, eh?”
“Nope. We’d have needed another participant, and Elise is at the clinic.” She offered the glass in her left hand to Trish, who took it and sipped from it.
“It’s okay,” Trish said. “Tasty, but I’m not getting the lift you talked about. Let me have the other one.”
Rachel did so. Trish sipped from it and immediately screamed in exultation. “Yee-HAH!” Her whole body vibrated visibly. She thrust her arms toward the ceiling and started bouncing on her toes.
“Now that’s what I call a tonic.” Trish bounced in place a few more times. “I’d do a few backflips if there were room enough. Looks like you got it right that time, Doc…hey, what’s with the long face? Fountain, did you tell Miss Rachel to do something you didn’t write down?”
Fountain’s face filled with woe. “No, Miss Trish! We both did exactly as the paper says. I swear it!”
“We did,” Rachel muttered. “We even synchronized the steps. I fibbed to you, Trish. The one in my left hand was mine. The one that lit your jets was Fountain’s.”
Trish frowned. Rachel shrugged. “It was the closest I could get to a double-blind test.”
“Hmph. Well, in that case, Doc, it looks as if we’ve found our missing ingredient.” Trish beckoned Fountain to her side and slipped an arm around her waist. “And it’s not sold in any store.”
“Yeah.” Rachel turned away. “Shit.”
[From The Wise and the Mad]
Admittedly, that’s a fanciful case. The premises of experimental science include this one: The identity of the experimenter does not matter. But in the fictional case above, it did matter: my character Fountain had unique powers over food, which my character Rachel MacLachlan lacked. Indeed, Rachel mentions the infamous case of Rene Blondlot and his “N-rays” in support of her thesis. It merely happened that in my fictional experiment, the identity of the “experimenter” mattered very much.
Of course, that was fiction. In the hard sciences, the “no privileged experimenter” premise is maintained absolutely. No one is permitted to assert the contrary and be treated as an honest researcher. But it serves to illustrate my point.
If a hard scientist, accustomed to dealing with inanimate matter manipulable by human beings, should venture into “softer” realms of thought that deal with self-willed human beings who can resist manipulation, premises that served him well in the laboratory can lead him astray. There are some lurid examples of this. The late Linus Pauling comes to mind at once. In his later life Pauling, whose work in molecular biology was genuinely groundbreaking, allowed himself to be used by certain interest groups in promoting their social and political causes. Never mind that his brilliance in biochemistry was irrelevant to such causes. His reputation was what they sought to exploit, and he permitted it.
To some degree, the hard scientist who allows himself to pontificate about economics, psychology, anthropology, sociology, political science, or the like is merely following his “fellow intellectuals” who labor in those fields. He might even tell himself consciously that “if they can sound off about all this crap, surely I can too!” But all commit the same error. People are not all the same! They vary too greatly in their desires, priorities, abilities, shortcomings, and influences to be treated as a hard scientist treats his experimental materials. They’ve always resisted absolute generalizations, and probably always will.
The many cases of intellectuals propounding absurd theses in peremptory tones with absolute assurance are a great part of why “intellectual” is today a term of dismissal, if not contempt. I have no doubt that Isaac Asimov was sincere in deploring that development, but the failure of intellectuals, including himself, to respect the boundaries around their expertise is the greater part of the reason for it.