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.