Thursday, November 12, 2009


I was able to attend a lecture by Richard Dawkins, possibly the preeminent biologist on Earth, and I was surprised to hear during a question/answer session that he had apparently not considered the role of evolutionary biology in bringing forth intelligence, awareness... consciousness.

All manner of people use this term without thinking about it. Does it lend itself to thought? Yes, of course. Only a small effort is required. You can actually sneak up on knowing what it is.

But you have to set aside your ego. See, you’re not the only one who has one, this consciousness. It’s not only your neighbors, too. You can see it in anything, any creature which has senses. It’s easiest to see in creatures which have high-enough powers of observation and intelligence to make choices about what they do. But that’s not strictly necessary.

Your cat. Your dog. Look carefully, and you’ll sneak up on the idea that every creature with the ability to tell the difference between “there” and “here” is aware.

Hmm. Aware of their position, relative to what they are watching, hearing, feeling.

And they use these senses to compete. Here comes natural selection: if you can’t compete, you’re just not going to be around long if things get tough. Gee, I bet any kids you have would be wimpy, too. I can see that all around me. People make bad choices. So do dogs, cats, birds. Some of them die from those mistakes.

Of course, people at leisure can make bad choices for a looong time and not be immediately affected. There isn’t any immediate enforcement for some mistakes. Eventually, some of them think that patently stupid ideas are OK. It's hard to pass up instant gratification for anything in the future, no matter how horrible.

I’ll leave it up to you to figure out what those things might be. I get mad pointing those things out.

But the point here is that things like intelligence and awareness are matters of degree, and that breeding changes those things in populations large and small.

Don’t get mad that you’re not the exclusive owner of consciousness. You’ve already seen your dog or cat dreaming. They have it. It was bred into them by Nature’s relentless culling of the stupid.

Don’t be next.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Global Warming Issue: Automotive Physics

Magical thinking is not the answer.

Repeatedly, people have been offered (and repeat online) assorted schemes for obtaining a fantastic new way to travel willy-nilly in their own vehicle. I have seen boycotts, additives and a variety of biodiesel, hydrogen and hydrogen fuel-cell devices claimed as The Solution to:

a) high prices
b) dependency on foreign oil
c) excessive profits by oil companies
d) pollution
e) Global Warming.

I'd like you to study the issues. That way, you can avoid supporting some liar seeking public office, as well as make some decent decisions of your own as to what to do with your own money.

You may be tempted to dismiss the whole Global Warming thing, simply because you don't want to be told you can't drive somewhere on a whim. Also, you might be confused, or think it is too much effort to understand what is being presented. It's simple, and it's obvious: cars are being driven today, and they have not been before in terms of Earth history, because the idea that one lives a distance away from one's work is a recent development. It is hotter in the city, where automotive and service energy is expended. You can see this for yourself in pictures from space, like this one. Yes, that light represents terawatts of energy expended on the surface of the Earth.

All of the gases generated by the combustion of fossil fuels, and all of the energy generated by those fuels and by nuclear plants is released directly into our living environment.

There are arguments about what to do about this - but those arguments do not change the physics of heat transfer at all.

Okay. What has this to do with cars?

You own a vehicle with an internal combustion engine. Whether it is gas or diesel, it performs a number of conversions to get the energy stored in a pound of fuel to do a certain amount of work moving the vehicle.

Let me digress for a minute.
Energy is a measure of the ability to do work.
Work is the expenditure of energy against a load.
Power is the amount of work done per unit time.
Weight is a force, derived from the action of gravity on mass.
Mass is a quantity of matter. Note that this doesn't depend on gravity at all.
Combustion is a particular kind of exothermic oxidation, where something combined with oxygen reacts and produces high temperature.
Temperature is a measure of the kinetic energy possessed by a substance. It is NOT "heat".
Heat is the flow of energy from a heat source to a heat sink as a result of their difference in temperature.

When your vehicle was built, it was designed with literally hundreds of compromises in place. The term, "blueprinting", known to gearheads, means simply to make an engine conform perfectly to the design document; in the process, the engine gains efficiency, which lets it make more power.

How does your engine make power?
First and foremost, your engine is an air pump. It must pump air to provide oxygen to the cylinders for combustion. Cylinders are a convenient place to combine fuel and air, burn them, and extract the resulting energy by allowing the expanding gases to act on the piston. As the piston is forced outward, an assortment of rods, levers and gears turns the fuel's kinetic energy into mechanical energy - the motion of hard car parts like wheels. The end result is to let you do four things:
1) Accelerate your mass to a convenient velocity
2) Overcome rolling resistance
3) Climb an incline, increasing your store of potential energy
4) Literally "pump" your car or truck through the wind.

Regardless of the fuel used, these tasks are FIXED by the configuration of your vehicle and the load it carries. You CANNOT dismiss any of these tasks and still move your vehicle.

What can you do?
Strictly speaking, you can only change the way you drive: go slower, avoid hills, drive less. The rate at which you do these things has a tremendous impact on energy consumption.

There is a spectacular table of obscure things at this link.
A compact car uses 94HP worth of chemical energy to yield only 20HP of mechanical energy - forward motion.
Wow. Why holler about a "miracle carburetor"? That's why - if only we could recover some of that wasted power!

Wait a minute. The engine design depends on the fuel supply. I CAN'T burn radically smaller amounts of fuel in that engine. Gasoline only burns within a few percentage points by volume, mixed with air.

Can you change fuels? Within limits set by the design of your engine, yes. Obviously, you are not swapping diesel and gasoline without destroying your engine; each engine is designed for its own fuel. Manufacturing variation may make a change of fuel brand or grade useful, but you have to take careful records to make sure you're not fooling yourself. ("Super" gasoline has anti-knock additives which suppress combustion. You actually get less energy from a gallon of it. Engines designed for it compensate for this in their design.)

So, can you get another engine in your next car?
What kind is best? The turbodiesel, until electric storage batteries are improved further. All of the technology is well established, and special manufacturing techniques do not include the high environmental costs of battery manufacture.

Take a look at this link about fuel.
So, forget alcohol. Notice the 66% yield vs. gasoline? Yes, that's a 50% mileage hit, along with a bunch of other problems with water entrainment and cold starting problems.
See the Hydrogen's 279%? No wonder people are clamoring about it.

But can you use it? No. Your engine's not designed for it; you can make it run, but not well. Your engine design is wasteful of heat. The production of H2 - the gas, hydrogen, occurs as a pair of atoms - is well known, but it's expensive to make.

Take a look at the Treadwell site, and you'll see the company which makes oxygen generators for the US Navy; I used to maintain two of them on a ballistic missile submarine. Their 7L16 model used about 65KW to make ~100CFM oxygen and therefore about 200CFM hydrogen. Now - go back to the link above and figure out how much H2 that really is. (Spoiler: about 18 grams)

In short, the lesson is clear: no matter what people say, you're not driving a Suburban or a pickup truck cheaply, because energy is not cheap. The production of energy depends on completely rigid natural laws. You have mistaken convenience for economy or efficiency, because manufacturers have made it so easy for you to zip around town in two-plus tons of steel. 
This bulk is not necessary, and when refinements arrive, you'll appreciate them. After all, a modern Corvette, complete with catalytic converters, will run away and hide from a Plymouth Superbird - while getting twice the mileage, running the A/C, displaying GPS info and listening to the stereo. 
Other examples abound!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Your Health Care Should be Yours - Not Up To Others

Keep these things up front where you can remember them:

"Health insurance", as discussed today, is NOT "insurance", because every person will access the benefits. In an insurance plan, some do NOT access benefits. This is actually socialized medicine. Be honest and enforce that term.

The entire purpose of "health insurance" is to pay doctors. Someone has to be paid to treat you, because nothing is free.
If you do not pay, you are not a customer, you are a commodity. Things will be done by policy, not the way you desire.
A policy is not treatment. If you do not make the market favor health care providers, no one will treat you. Your policy, subsidized by government or not, will be worthless.


Basic questions do not get asked as often or as loudly as they should:

  • Why should I ever pay for something I DO NOT RECEIVE?
  • Why should government ("other people") pick up all of the cost of anything?
  • Do you recognize that all resources, government included, are limited?
  • Do you know what your insurer's current practices are, and their relationship with your doctor? How about with other doctors? What do they have to say about non-routine procedures? Prescription painkillers?
  • Why are thousands of people who have nothing to do with actually treating me involved?
  • Why does the Explanation of Benefits - from an insurer - have dollar numbers on it that no one was paid?
This last is an artifact of the insurers agreement: a doctor will provide services for less than a "list price" in return for guaranteed payment.

What? Do you really believe that?

Really? The doctor doesn't adjust his prices to deal with the overhead of hundreds of forms he has to submit, and the correspondence regarding his services? Extra people in the office and at the insurer's offices do their jobs for free? Of course not. So people want government to step in.


Aren't you really, seriously insane for proposing that? You don't like what government is doing in the Middle East, you know public housing sucks...

The IRS is not your friend. Why would you even begin to think a Federal medical authority would be?

The Veteran's Administration has been proven to let veterans DIE to reduce their workload. THAT is a government-run healthcare system. Its administrators, just as is the case with health-care insurers, suffer no immediate penalty from witholding care.

Yet the Affordable Health Care Act has penalties in store for you if you get care other than by Federally approved means. Your health care plan cannot be better than Federal authorities decree unless you pay a surcharge.
Yes, you're sick; sorry, fill out the forms and wait. Wait some more. You've been promised that no one will be denied care. "Sorry, madam, you'll have to wait. You're not being denied care, it just isn't available right now. Have you submitted your paperwork? Then, the system is working." Oh, you want to go somewhere else, because some bureaucrat has not got it through their thick head that disease does not wait? 

Sorry. You can't. No. 
So, you are sick. The clerk is not sick. You will do as you are told. Watch in the mirror as the disease eats you alive, as you wait for the permission of someone whose income will never be challenged and who states that the system is working perfectly because paperwork is filled out.
In addition, this monstrosity is set up so that not only initially, even after you are signed up for it, it will "reset" and cancel the arrangements you have made with your doctors!
Doctors and hospitals are charging more and closing locations because of the costs of the "Affordable" Care Act.

Oh, joy. Did you vote for this? It's what happens when the ignorant clamor for government to give them something for "free".

Did you notice that the Affordable Care Act supersedes medical decisions made in your presence? Not only can you NOT keep your doctor, you cannot even keep the treatment she prescribes unless it is approved by someone who has never seen you!

The President of the United States LIED about this Act. It was pushed into law by "public servant" Nancy Pelosi, who did not even read the bill before signing it, and who said, "We have to pass this law to see what's in it." Why would you even think about supporting it? Why aren't you thinking about jail time for Ms. Pelosi?

I have another proposal, which will still ensure doctors get paid, which must happen. Here's the message I sent my Senators, and which I will repeat soon:

Dear Senator:

I believe I have a model for health care which could revolutionize the industry, improve efficiency and make you the object of public admiration. Bold claim? Well, let's see.

We should set up the "Medical VISA Card" - like this:

• This card would be issued by an existing Federal agency or contractor to every person attaining majority, or to the guardian of every person for whom one is appointed, upon their voluntary acceptance of a contract. This would establish positive ID for that person. There would be benefits to this - see below. I call this a VISA card just because that company has all the assets in place to do this already. The program could bear the name of the person(s) putting it in place.

• The card would be usable ONLY for prescription medicine and for visits to licensed doctors and dentists.

• The card would enable the consolidation of medical records and practices into  "portable" form. Currently, some states insist that "your" medical records are the property of the attending physician, and some consider them to be yours. Neither of these views serve the public well, but with a secure chipped card, all records can be accessed with the card in a chip reader at registered office locations. This feature would allow vast improvements in the administration of opioids and psychotropic drugs by preventing or reducing hoarding and prescription fraud. Software can easily track the daily use of these drugs, exposing when usage exceeds the prescribed amount for a particular patient.

• The card would have a "threshold". Reaching this number would trigger agency review of the use of the card and agency participation. Just like reaching a deductible works in your current insurance policies, the agency takes over treatment costs and decisions once they are beyond your capabilities. Think of a value determined by the person's economic status - the method by which credit is responsibly extended today.

• The balance would be due from the holder to the "medical VISA" agency, exactly as bank and other credit cards are handled today.

• An interest rate on outstanding balances would be established to pay the direct cost of the program (overhead), and to support an investment fund to be used for catastrophic illness and disability of all participants in the program (benefits). There will always be a percentage of the public who cannot pay for their medical care. This is a difficult situation, but until the system is self-financing, it cannot pay these charges. If you value health care programs as humanitarian and representative of the goodwill of the United States, funding MUST be established. Lying about this will do no one good.

• Card holders could be shown instructions for getting medical attention, and encouraged to avoid using emergency rooms for routine care. Hospitals could issue the medical card (facial recognition software can prevent multiple, fraudulent accounts) to send patients to other clinics.

Medical VISA card holders could build a positive, interest-paying balance in their medical account, as this is portable medical insurance. It doesn't depend on where you work!
This feature will eliminate the impossible burden now placed on small business owners by removing the hiring and hours thresholds for "insurance" coverage through work. That never made sense.
Bingo. More full-time employment.

• This system does not discriminate between individuals based on anything but their reported income, and then, only to determine when the agency steps in. It doesn't care about citizenship or race. If you are an immigrant, you would be positively identified by this card. The system relieves the nation of the medical burden of immigrants.


Make no mistake about the fundamental nature of this card: up to the "threshold" amount, the holder MUST pay. People simply won't be careful with other people's money.

Current rhetoric insists on calling today's medical plans "insurance", which it is not, because there is no one who will not receive benefits.
A credit model for the delivery of services makes more sense by far, immediately removing the opportunity some have taken to characterize health care as "free" - which is completely impossible.

Senator, people understand credit cards. It's time to re-establish and strengthen the patient-doctor relationship.
This will do that.
Need treatment? See available doctors, check their reputation for service and prices. Get treatment. Hand the doctor your card. Pay the balance.

If you find merit in this, feel free to add to or subtract from it and pass it on - because there is a truth you cannot escape or deny:

You will not get to say what happens unless you are the one paying.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Faith - versus the Real World

If you have anything at all to say about Faith, you need to be objectively correct when you speak about anything else, or you will be dismissed for not knowing what you're talking about.

Both at work and away, I am frequently at odds with people who have not studied how things work in the real world. A subset of these is represented, locally and nationally, by those who would replace reason with faith, as if cities can be supplied with a loaf of bread and a fish, with some prayer.

The most conspicuous of these people use terms designed to lie about the purely religious bases of their proposals.

The lies and misrepresentations cannot succeed against an educated audience. This has been known for a long time.

Over 1600 years ago, Saint Augustine - Augustine of Hippo - had this to say about evangelists who open their mouths without knowing what they were saying:

"Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion." – De Genesi ad literam 1:19–20, Chapt. 19 [AD 408].

Yes, the faithful have a burden: they must show that what they propose has objective support and is useful. I suggest that evangelicals are no different from any other public agency seeking attention. To be considered, they must have merit, and beyond that of simply mouthing platitudes.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009


This time, it IS all about you.

There's hardly a better way to start a group of people arguing or giggling than to bring up homosexuality. Some people have this idea that human sexuality is binary - that you can only be male or female.

Sorry - that's not true - and this is not just my opinion, either.

Go look up Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome.

Whether you think God Almighty™, the Invisible Pink Unicorn or the Flying Spaghetti Monster is in charge, thousands of people in the USA and hundreds of thousands of people worldwide are born with serious genetic differences from "normal".
You may not properly address them as "Mr." or "Miss", and this is NOT a matter of their personal preference, as we have seen in the news recently - some are without gender. They have both traits, or neither.

Do you think you have the experience and expertise to tell the whole story about this issue? I suggest that is not the case - in fact, people who have spent their entire lives practicing medicine, in the research fields, at the most prestigious hospitals on the planet still have questions, as illustrated in the following link:

[Warning: content contains descriptions which may seriously disturb the reader]

Yes, surgeons and parents cut children.

Now, there's a funny thing: the US Constitution doesn't let anyone's life, liberty or property be stripped without due process, and you cannot show how someone born in the USA isn't automatically a citizen and remains one.

Now, the linked article shows that "how you are built" doesn't stop with external appearance. Libido and sexual orientation, two different things, are determined by genetics. Yes, some behavior is learned, but to make an analogy, it is the internal parts that make a car move. You can't see them.
You should have noticed that the "CSI"-type TV shows have shown you that detectives do not have to have genitalia present to determine the gender of the deceased...

There's a lot of fear in the straight community. The evidence is in their own words, such as "Gay marriage will devalue the concept of marriage", and so forth. Some of this fear is understandable (although such people are notoriously silent about their own misbehavior in bars). How could anyone be in doubt about the attractiveness of a healthy member of the "opposite sex"?

Go read the links. Sometimes, there is no "opposite".

But there is an awful lot of foolish noise, brought on by fear and sustained by ego. Have you heard the cry, "...but science hasn't found the 'gay gene'!" Umm, fearful fellow, there's no single "straight gene". Why would you even try that argument?

Are you on the other side of this argument, trying to make points about individual responsibility, autonomy and so forth, trying to get people to let you live the life you imagine others are having? You still have to beware of logical fallacies.
For instance, it isn't "homophobia" when a gay person is called a name. Don't believe me?
Do you think when somebody calls a black man a name that they have an unreasoning fear of blacks? No. Of course not. You're engaging in the fallacy of projection, because people who calls homosexuals a name are not afraid of gays - they are afraid of themselves. They have never, not once, had genetics or any other human behavior explained to them in a rational manner. They learned an automatic response from a loved one who cannot be challenged, sometimes cherry-picking a part of a religious text to back their, umm, mistake.

For those of you who think, "being gay is only a choice": not only should the above links show you how you are completely wrong, you should ponder the irony of insisting that it is only choice that caused you to pick Miss Pink or Mr. Black for the dance.
Gee, that means that with a simple choice, you could have porn-star sex with someone of your own gender!

Of course not.
Mechanical ability doesn't mean anything in gender determination. Some people are left-handed, some are ambidextrous, some are right-handed. Using your left hand doesn't make you left-handed. Using both doesn't make you ambidextrous. Using your right... you know.

You should know. But somehow, you're afraid to think. Maybe that's because you have been taught that sex or other intimacy is always dirty. That's completely unreasonable, so perhaps you shouldn't think that.

Bases, Part 2: Principles

Not morals, principles. The things that establish relationships between ideas, objects, observed phenomena, etc.

If you learn about principles, you have a ready way to determine if what you are watching is fact or fiction. If you've been shocked at the amount of learning you have to do to understand something you might take for granted, like DNA or the JPEG 2000 standard, well, that's understandable. But the people who figured this stuff out couldn't forget fundamental principles, and so, neither should you.

One thing to look out for: these are not subject to personal opinion. If you think so, check yourself and start over.

Some, but by no means all of these principles are:
1) At least 4 fundamental forces work on matter and energy all the time: gravitation, magnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. Look them up; magnetism, especially, isn't what you might think.

2) Conservation of mass and energy; a little-observed correlation of Einstein's famous equation is that it is only true if the sum of matter and energy in the Universe is a constant, and for short periods of time such as you might observe, there isn't much to contradict this idea.

3) Demonstrated by Newton's laws.

4) Cause and effect.

5) The inflexibility of definitions. You don't get to call something a "soul molecule" without showing your work. You can find a standard for a Bohr magnetron at the NIST's Web site - which means somebody actually uses that thing on a regular basis - but the point is that definitions enforce logical rigor. That is the only way you can produce useful results.

6) Statistics. This is one thing people shy away from, because their only experience with stats is when someone lies to them. You can get a toehold on what statistics really are with a couple of simple observations.
Zero (never happens) and One (always happens) are rare. One is so rare that it practically means the event predicted already happened.
Every stat has a domain. If I told you that the probability of Hank Aaron hitting a home run in Williams-Brice stadium was zero, that's because it's a football field. So you have to establish what the domain is when someone cites a statistic.
The word random is an absolute. Commonly, it is used for things that are just unpredictable, like the lottery - but notice something here: the lottery has a domain, within which the result always appears. The lottery is NOT random!

7) All measurements have uncertainty factors. This is repugnant to those who prefer everything explained to them in nice neat packages, but the world is not that way. Get used to it.

I'll add to this later. Some principles are really obscure, and I have to figure out how to explain them.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Bases, Part 1: Definitions and Standards

So - you form beliefs. You can't help it.
What can you do to avoid serious mistakes in your thinking? You have to ask yourself some serious questions.

What definitions are you using?

In order for Man to examine the world collaboratively, common terms had to be established. At first, this was a matter of cooperation for survival among the members of tribes. Later, common terms had to be invented to describe discoveries.
Discoveries are not just things. They are also the relationships between things, and these two categories of discovery immediately presented problems of precision in describing each.
When a discovery reveals the presence of a new thing, such as an animal, mineral or celestial object previously unknown, the description runs into the millions of words as the nature of the new thing is discussed. However, when something fundamental is investigated – something which will affect the evaluation of a myriad of other things – two things occur: a need for brevity, so as to enable the widespread use of a fundamental description, and a need for precision, so that measurements or other action stemming from the use of the fundamental property are consistent.

Note the word, “consistent”. Definitions must be selected such that personal opinion doesn't change them; in discussion, care must be taken to be sure that your audience is thinking about the same thing you are when the word is used.

What standards are you using?
If you look around, you’ll find that some things do not have terms of uncertainty. These are Standards. A Standard is a fixed definition of a concept, most commonly thought of as a physical property.
You may notice that a standard is exact. That’s because it is a special category of definition: a standard. Note that the word means something entirely different to the layman, like many scientific terms.
An example of a standard is the Systéme Internationale unit, the second: a second is the interval required to complete 9192631770 oscillations between the two hyperfine ground states of the Cesium-133 atom. Exactly.

Surprise! There are timepieces which cannot measure that tenth digit. Yet the standard remains.

You can find a fair bit about standards at the National Institute for Standards and Technology. One of the big "WOW!" moments for you should happen when you realize that having a standard means a practical use is present for the standard. Yes, somebody needs to know a value for a Bohr magnetron!

Reality: nature does not “care” – is not influenced – by what we call parts of it. If we used 100 “beats” instead of 24 hours to describe a “day”, no physical effect occurs. As you might have noted, our definition of “second” leads to a “day” which differs with the movement of the Earth, and it is we, not the Earth, who must change our clocks now and then to synchronize with the Earth’s motion.

So, to sum up Standards and Definitions:
1) Definitions are terms we invent to communicate commonly, and they must be understood by all parties, such parties being aware of the “rigidity” and other limits of the definition;
2) Standards are definitions with recognized purpose and limitations.

Now, if you find you can’t stand being pinned to something you defined, that is a sign that either your argument or the definition you've used is incorrect. It hurts to be wrong, but only you can fix your position.
Others, relentless about establishing the bona fides of the information they’re viewing, will pass you by. It’s being done all the time, and right now.

Take a look around, and you might notice that many of the things you read and view are editorials - articles presented to emphasize a particular point of view. Take a few minutes to determine if the media you're watching is actually talking to an information source. If not, an element of hearsay is present. You should use standards and definitions to make sure that if a mistake is present, you don't get sucked into the hype.

Here's the hardest test of all:
Examine an opinion you have and see if the terms you use have any "special" meaning mixed into them so you can feel better. If so...

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Formation of Belief

There is a distinguishing feature of life: life fights for its continued existence. People are now a leading lifeform on Earth because of the powers of thought, including the ability for advanced abstraction. This talent varies, but many elements of thought are common.

Not many people think about how they think. Fortunately, the scientific method both exposes the weaknesses common in individual thought and allows those weaknesses to be addressed. You can improve your capabilities by recognizing how you form beliefs.

Ideas are acquired by observation. The individual can seek out data, or it can be imposed. It is in the acquisition and use of this data that individuals fail, and frequently.

Early in the investigative sciences, it was recognized that a single type of test, repeated, could return inconsistent results, as a result of ineffective controls on variables possible in testing. Surprisingly, a number of people could be fooled by the same test if they didn't recognize the lack of controls. This led to two things: a requirement of reputable scientists to publish the means of their determinations for peer review, and a way to determine fallacies of observation.
You can see a fine example of fallacies - some of which you've never suspected - at The Nizkor Project, and obtain a tutorial, which will help you eliminate flaws in your own reasoning, at the Fallacy Tutorial site.

When careful measurements were made possible, it was discovered that no two measurements were ever exactly alike. This made the science of statistics necessary and extremely important, as it was revealed that certainty only exists by definition.

Now, statistics is probably (pun intended) not what you think it is. Although lots of people think of statistics as a way for politicians to lie to them, the precision of manufacturing processes has made the science an essential part of everyday life.

As an individual, you are essentially an underfunded research company. You have to constantly make decisions as to what information is important, and then you have to figure out which information you have is correct.

But what does "correct" mean?

Unconsciously, you define "success" every time you are satisfied with something you do. Clearly, it doesn't bother you that pi has no end, when you can select a few decimal points and get the level of precision you need.

When you research an idea, you are limited by time and ability as to the amount of consideration you can devote to the task. Family and other distractions take time; sometimes, investigation requires special tools unavailable to you; the mental acuity and agility you can bring to bear may be insufficient to the task. At some point, the perceived return on investment - effort expended vs. gain achieved - reaches a zero, and investigation stops. At this point, the belief is "filed" as a mental "base" upon which future decisions can be made.

Our perceptions have two major limitations: prejudice, which includes everything a person thinks he or she knows, and acumen, the physical means with which we can investigate something brought to our attention.
Because of physical limitations and the innate process of judgment, your investigation cannot be complete. This means that whatever the belief, it cannot be the "whole story". It can only be good enough for you to continue on to other issues.

This does not change, is not affected, by your own prowess in your chosen field. Be proud of your achievements, but don't think that automatically conveys expertise or authority to you in another. If you did that, you would be wrong.