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...