Second order con-science

Imaginative knowledge

February 7th, 2008

Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world. — Albert Einstein (1879–1955)

Better don’t make this known. Just don’t!

[Quote provided by frequent reader and commenter BB -- thanks a lot! Note that apparently there are at least two versions of Einstein's quote, see Did you know? Of course not ;]

Weight of nothing

December 3rd, 2007

You need to apply some weight
in order to see how much nothing is.

Ecological recommendations

September 23rd, 2007

When ecologists advertise their recommendations to save the world this often appears to me like young lovers who are enjoying a diverse sex life but who rarely practice safe sex.
And they think that if they used condoms more often the chance of catching STDs is decreased. In fact, it is (if we trust their numbers), nevertheless, they are probably already spreading their disease.

Multitudes of the nonexisting (dragons)

September 21st, 2007

Everyone knows that dragons don’t exist. But while this simplistic formulation may satisfy the layman, it does not suffice for the scientific mind. The School of Higher Neantical Nillity is in fact wholly unconcerned with what does exist. Indeed, the banality of existence has been so amply demonstrated, there is no need for us to discuss it any further here. The brilliant Cerebron, attacking the problem analytically, discovered three distinct kinds of dragon: the mythical, the chimerical, and the purely hypothetical. They were all, one might say, nonexistent, but each nonexisted in an entirely different way. And then there were the imaginary dragons, and the a-, anti- and minus-dragons (colloquially termed nots, noughts and oughtn’ts by the experts), the minuses being the most interesting on account of the well-known dracological paradox: when two minuses hypercontiguate (an operation in the algebra of dragons corresponding roughly to simple multiplication), the product is 0.6 dragon, a real nonplusser. Bitter controversy raged among the experts on the question of whether, as half of them claimed, this fractional beast began from the head down or, as the other half maintained, from the tail up.

— Stanislaw Lem: The Cyberiad. Harvest Book 2002 (original Polish edition 1967). Page 57, chapter “The Third Sally Or The Dragons Of Probability”.

Ignorance of nonsense

May 9th, 2007

Not ignorance, but ignorance of ignorance is the death of knowledge.
Alfred North Whitehead

If only nonsense would not make so much sense.

Bad science

May 5th, 2007

If there was a commandment for “(really) good liars” it might be: You shall not use fallacious arguments. A “bad liar” — heck, who would not want to be bad from time to time — might just as well juggle with fallacies, and hope for the listeners logical illiteracy.

The Fallacy Files is one of Internet’s finest collection of examples of fallacious reasoning, see for instance “appeals to ignorance“. Moreover, Fallacy Files comes with a weblog, a comprehensive taxonomy of logical fallacies, and more.

Bad Science is the tempting apple that does not fall far from the tree of fallacious reasoning. “If you ever doubted the dangers of fallacious reasoning” says Gary N. Curtis, author of the Fallacy Files, you should read Losing the Lottery by Ben Goldacre, “guardian” of Bad Science.

If you’re unlucky enough, fallacious reasoning could put you behind bars for the rest of your life for “murders” you didn’t commit, and which in fact may not be murders at all.
Gary N. Curtis, Fallacy Files

A nurse called Lucia de Berk has been in prison for 5 years in Holland, convicted of 7 counts of murder and 3 of attempted murder. An unusually large number of people died when she was on shift (…)
Ben Goldacre, Bad Science

If I myself was only safe from fallacy.

No fuss over ignorance

April 24th, 2007

Samuel Butler is often said to have said

Science, after all, is only an expression for our ignorance of our own ignorance.

which he might have never said. Anyway, I think that it might be hard to accurately cite this quote for anyone who actually read Samuel Butler’s note-books. But then, maybe he never wanted us to be that precise at all.

Knowledge (…) is based ultimately upon ignorance. To get knowledge out of ignorance seems almost as hopeless a task as to get something out of any number of nothings, but this in practice is what we have to do and the less fuss we make over it the better.
Samuel Butler, Note-Books

Double bind feedback

February 12th, 2007

At the end of a lecture series (again, and again on human ecology) students were asked for feedback about the lecture series as part of their exams. In order to get a certificate, students have to hand in a written statement including critical feedback about the lecture series.

If I was in need of self-affirmation, I would just do the same. Critical thinking is all good and praiseworthy. Indeed. Please criticize! Them, me, and don’t forget yourself!

Double binds and Catch-22s might be fun as part of brain-teasers, and they build grounds for game theoretic prisoner’s dilemmas. Though, some might want to keep in mind that double binds have also long been discussed in the context of schizophrenia. As much as they are versatile means of breaking one’s personality and self-esteem they are essential not only to modern techniques of torture.

On no side’s side:
You want feedback? — You got it.