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Abuse of Science and Tech

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Perhaps the most threatening aspect of science, save for its enabling the human race to engage in self-extermination, is the fact that it can be seized and worn as a mantle by truly dangerous individuals and movements. Like religious belief, science can be utilized as an ideological weapon by those with the worst intentions. This is one of the principal reasons why the general public's very limited knowledge of science--which hinders the public from asking piercing questions of pseudo-scientific demagogues--has important consequences.

Human beings are all too easily influenced by a thin veneer of rationality, and the use of a modicum of scientific jargon. Nazism's beliefs in the superiority of a particular race, which utilized corruptions of evolutionary theory, are a prime example of this. Likewise, its twin evil of communism, with its unshakable belief in certain models of human development, was quite willing to eliminate those who opposed any aspect of that approach. Such ideologies, for all their scientific aspirations, have more in common with the most primitive of religious beliefs than with any scientific field.

Excessive certainty is contrary to the very nature of scientific endeavors. A communist roommate once tried to "educate" me as to why Marx's science of human nature explained the past, present, and future of the human race. Clearly, in the face of the collapse of most communist states (they did wither away, though not as Marx predicted) a truly scientific movement or individual would be forced to reevaluate core beliefs. The fact that so many altered their views so little in the face of overwhelming experimental evidence is but one more nail in the coffin of communism. Radicals of all stripes-- religious fanatics, conspiracy theorists, fascists, xenophobes, and even obsessed Freudians, among others--are similarly convinced of the truth of their beliefs despite copious evidence to challenge their ideas. If you disagree with them, you fall into one of two categories: either you are a member of the enemy faction, or you have been sufficiently brainwashed (or repressed) that you have not yet learned that their movement holds the idea that will bring about utopia. (I strongly suspect that their utopias would be closer to Orwell's vision than Sir Thomas More's.)

Nor is it only radical ideologues who drape their research in the language of scientific sophistication only to subvert the core ideas of science. It is ironic that people whose aversion to scientific methodology contributes to their decision to pursue certain areas of study should then attempt to seek validation for their work by intimating that it has strong scientific underpinnings. Mainstream experts in the humanities and social sciences are often confused about when mathematical language is and is not appropriate. Citing statistics, graphs, diagrams, or mathematical formulae adds a mystique of authority to any viewpoint, particularly when one is communicating with audiences whose mathematical facility is no greater than that of the presenter.

Examples of this phenomenon surround every election campaign. During the 1992 American presidential race, a Yale professor claimed to have determined a formula that would predict the winner in future presidential elections, as well as the margin of victory. Utilizing quantitative measures of economic, social, and political factors, he predicted that George Bush would win re-election in the fall of 1992. People with a command of quantitative information could see the basic fault with this line of thinking: the professor was taking a handful of data points--the victors and margins of victory in a few elections--and using a multitude of parameters to fit a curve to these points. If the reader has a graphing program, they might try selecting a few random points and fitting a high-degree (i.e. multi-parameter) polynomial curve to them. One can easily design a curve which passes through the points, zigging and zagging as it goes, and which provides absolutely no insights either into what the points have in common or where future points might be placed. The professor, needless to say, was wrong; had he been right (a significant possibility in selecting a winner from among two leading candidates) his predictions would have been taken very seriously in the 1996 election.

Elections are hardly the only area of interest to society subject to overconfident forecasting. Extrapolating from current trends--e.g., concluding that if college tuitions are currently rising by X% per year, that they will continue to do so indefinitely--is usually an error. In general, predictions depend on very precise knowledge of initial conditions, and such knowledge is rare in the natural sciences, let alone the humanities and social sciences. In recent decades, chaos theorists have demonstrated how minuscule differences in initial conditions can dramatically shape large-scale patterns at a later time. The famed example of a butterfly's wing beating in China determining whether a hurricane hits Florida the next year captures the spirit of this line of thought.

Isaac Asimov, in his Foundation series, imagined a science of psychohistory, which would predict the historical movements of large numbers of human beings, in much the way that the behavior of a gas can be predicted in the aggregate, even if one knows nothing about the behavior of any individual gas molecule. The analogy breaks down because whereas individual gas molecules are indistinguishable from one another in their behavior and influence, individual human beings can have an impact all out of proportion to their numerical strength. Given that individuals arise from unique and unpredictable circumstances, human history is inherently unpredictable, save for in the very short term.

In addition to recognizing limitations in forecasting, scientists and engineers are well aware of the fact that they cannot measure any quantity with infinite precision. An example from my own experimental research, namely the simple measurement of a diameter of a platinum wire, may be instructive. My first attempt in this regard simply entailed placing a pair of calipers around the wire, closing them until they could go no further, and measuring the distance of their separation. However, the calipers' pressure crushed the wire, reducing the measured diameter relative to the actual one. I ultimately resorted to measuring the length of the wire and weighing it; from a knowledge of the density of platinum, I could calculate the volume of the wire and hence its diameter. This assumed that the diameter of the wire was uniform, that no impurities altered the density of my sample relative to the book value, and that my length measurement and weight were accurate. It is doubtful that my measurement was

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