Monday, November 30, 2009

Science and Lore

I recently came across a use of the word "lore" to describe a number of woo beliefs. I think it describes it well. In the fantasy genre, wizards, adventurers, and so forth are often looking for lost, forgotten lore in ancient tombs, buried in the back of some powerful being's library, or in the ruins of an ancient civilization. In poorly thought out settings, all research is about digging up the old, and none about discovering the new. Worse, sometimes experimentation and innovation are treated as sacrilegious. Science is alive. Lore is dead.

Science does take the past into account, but when new data, gathered with greater care, precision, and attention to alternatives contradicts earlier knowledge, it changes to accept this new knowledge. The value of that knowledge isn't based off of its newness, but on the increased care and context it is collected with. This process continues, leading to more growth into subtler and subtler frontiers of knowledge.

You don't get that with lore. Lore is fixed. Lore does not change when new knowledge comes, because it values the old as absolute. The value of an idea depends not on the care in collecting it, but on the age and metaphysical authority of whoever said or wrote it down. This rule of seniority locks it down.

That is why I prefer the expansive nature of science. It has no such borders.


Dark Jaguar said...

This reminds me of an argument from a creationist I once heard. The basic claim is that evolution "isn't science because it doesn't make any predictions". This is one of those things where a nut bar picked up a couple of scientific concepts and just tried to pretend to use them.

The obvious counter-argument is that it HAS made numerous predictions, about creatures like archeopteryx existing, which were later confirmed.

You want to know how this person responded? "That's not a prediction! That fossil was already there, not something new they found!" Apparently, for them a prediction means describing a complete future event, as opposed to simply future discoveries of things that already existed.

By that logic, in a murder investigation a "prediction" that if suspect A did it, we would find suspect A's fingerprints on the murder weapon (for example) doesn't count as evidence because it isn't a FUTURE event that was predicted, like say the person directly admitting they did it.

Dweller in Darkness said...

Whenever you're talking to a creationist, you're talking to someone who's willfully blind. They don't have a blindfold on, they aren't blind from birth, they have their eyes screwed shut tight because they sincerely believe that if they open them and see the sun, everything they believe will turn into vapor.

Creationism is like a form of intellectual agoraphobia - it's irrational, so reasoning the person out of it is impossible, and the things they use to support their beliefs are often irrational.

Tom Foss said...

Lore works well for another reason: it's the opposite of Data.

Bronze Dog said...

*headdesk* I had Lore popping into my head repeatedly while typing, but for some reason my brain never made the pun-connection between Data, the android, and data, a collection of information.

Next time I bring it up, I should get some picture of the two in a standoff or something.

Buford said...

Some lore can be useful. It would be nice to know how the pyramids were built. That woudl shed light on the historical development of construction techniques and other things.

It is not likely to teach us anything that would be useful in our current age, although it is possible.

Most, but not all, of the historical value is to be learned from the examining the pyramids themselves, as-built. People in the Dark Ages would have benefitted more from detailed knowledge of their techniques than we would today.

Not much lost knowledge is terribly valuable. Greek steam engines, Mesopotamian batteries and Greek fire will not do anything but fill-in some gaps in the historical record.

Dark Jaguar said...

I thought we already had a pretty solid idea on how the pyramids were constructed, sledges and so forth.

Dunc said...

People in the Dark Ages would have benefitted more from detailed knowledge of their techniques than we would today.

Oh, don't get me started on the "Dark Ages" crap... The people in the Dark Ages didn't need ancient Egyptian masonry techniques because (a) they had iron tools, (b) they knew how to use the principle of the lever, and (c) they weren't interested in constructing monuments on that scale anyway. There was very little actual progress in construction technique from the Dark Ages to the Romanesque period (when they were constructing all those massive castles and cathedrals, which were far more sophisticated than the pyramids). What changed at both the beginning and end of the Dark Ages was primarily fashion.

Buford said...

Dark Jaguar-
We have some descriptions, but a lot of what we 'know' is not directly from the equivalent of the blueprints and Project plans. I agree that we know enough, but some dwell on the details and certainty- following the Dogs comments about Lore.

Not trying to get you started. My point was only that some age past might have been able to use the 'lost' techniques, where we have much better ones than anything they could have possibly used (unless the Aliens helped).

Anonymous said...

So you are saying we can discard previous old techniques to new better ones?

MWchase said...

We have the tools to make better tools than we had. No need to start a fire with a bow when we have stuff like Bunsen burners and oxyacetylene torches, unless we're in a situation where a firebow makes more sense.

Anonymous said...

So the previous knowledge is inferior to the new knowledge then? (Ie, a Bunsen versus A "FireStick")

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...
"So the previous knowledge is INFERIOR to the new knowledge then? (Ie, a Bunsen versus A "FireStick")"

What's the latin for the "argument from a need to feel superior" fallacy?

Adolf Missler :)

MWchase said...

Stop trying to make my position something it's not. If there were one piece of knowledge that overrode all others and made them always useless, that knowledge would be subsistence farming techniques, because putting all of our eggs in any other basket would kill us all. The point of advancement is not that we have 'better' techniques, but we have more techniques. That means more choices. Sometimes the choices are easy (iirc, the use of a single CO molecule will boost an electron microscope's resolution to the point where individual bonds are visible), and sometimes they're more difficult. The point is, they're here now, when they weren't before.

Dweller in Darkness said...

"What's the latin for the "argument from a need to feel superior" fallacy?"

Argumentum ad jackassum

Bronze Dog said...

Gabe: "So the previous knowledge is inferior to the new knowledge then?"

From the main post: Science does take the past into account, but when new data, gathered with greater care, precision, and attention to alternatives contradicts earlier knowledge, it changes to accept this new knowledge. (Emphasis added)

Gabe really is functionally illiterate.

MWchase said...

Here's an argumentum ad absurdum for y'all:

If new knowledge were always objectively superior to old knowledge, then, at some point in recent history, we would have been lighting campfires with nukes. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. There's nothing inherently broken about a fact, only in the way you use it.

That's why we make fun of Andrew Schlafly for claiming that quantum mechanics disproves relativity. Well, that, and the fact that he tries to cast the differences in predictions as a political debate.

MWchase said...

Hence my focus on facts. A lot of science is about approximations, so something can be helpful without being true. This is why we never factor in time dilation when talking about playing catch. (Or, if we do, it is a sign that either the game of catch, or the person discussing it, is unusual in some fashion.)

To lay it out: Newton's laws of motion are technically an inaccurate description of the universe. But unless we need that extreme degree of accuracy and precision, it's just not worth it to resort to relativity or QM.

Buford said...


If your first post in this thread is directed at me, my reponse is this:

If we have good proven ways of doing something, we need not pine away for having lost other techniques known in the past. We are not justified in deploying scarce resources to learn how the ancients did something if we can do the equivalent today.

If someone with the means and the interest wants to research the topic, more power to them. But I (and apparently most poeple here) don't feel that we're missing much of importance. When you make that discovery of past lore, by all means tell us about it. We're interested in learning new things- even when its an old thing. But we may still decide to keep doing things "the new old-fashioned way" as the carol says.

Anonymous said...

MWchase, it was a simple question, How did I "make yout position something it's not"?

Bronze Dog, interesting, I am "functionally illiterate" because I asked a simple question, wonder why you have issues with answering a simple question without resorting to insults?

Is this how you deal with Creationists? You insult them and run away if they ask you question and then laugh between yourself how "stupid they are" because... Erh.. You insulted them and ignored the questions?

Maybe it is time for you to look at yourself, you are far more then open minded I noticed, I also saw you prefered not answering the question, wonder if it is the root of the question that make you so hostile.

Anonymous said...

Added: Open Minded is suppose to be "Open Minded".

Dark Jaguar said...

Gabe, the problem is you try to force the concept of "superior/inferior" on things it doesn't apply to. You can't objectively say that a star is superior to a planet, or that a cake is inferior to a cookie. It's just stupid to try and apply it like that.

In the same way, it doesn't matter how old or new knowledge is so long as it was collected correctly.

Newtonian physics is "inferior" if you use it to describe things at a very large scale or at very fast speeds, HOWEVER it is markedly SUPERIOR to relativity in the context of day to day experiences. Why? It's easier to do the math with it and it yields the same results in those situations. Try to engineer a building using relativity and you'll end up taking a very long time of it indeed, while someone using newtonian mechanics will have completed many before you are finished.

Bronze Dog said...

Gabe, you're functionally illiterate because you couldn't pick out the answer from what I had already written, and latched onto a newage (rhymes with sewage) straw man that was already addressed.

I insult you because you are unable to read the answer, even when the important part is put into bold emphasis. How do I know? You ignored my preemptive answer and asked anyway.

The bottom line: I'm not ignoring the question. Anyone here can plainly see that you ignored the answer so that you could make a predictable, robotic rhetorical "question" to set up a pre-burnt straw man.

Bronze Dog said...

Every time Gabe posts, I get more curious what sort of theosophist-newage-organic-vegan-granola-cafeteria-"self-esteem matters more than grades and reading comprehension" school he went to.

I've heard horror stories about how some schools of that sort forbade teaching the 'three R's' down to basic literacy for fear of suppressing the children's creative spirits.

Put simply, Gabe, the age of the information is irrelevant to its value! If archaeologists dug up a prehistoric LHC that recorded data with more rigor than modern scientists, it would be accepted and held higher for scientific consensus until someone conducted experiments with greater care.

If some parapsychology journal releases a study today about a shoddy experiment with transparent Zener cards, it would not be accepted.

It's the rigor that makes information worthwhile. Age has nothing to do with it, which is why we balk at the idea that "lore," ancient knowledge, is inherently more valuable because it's older. The idea that new information is inherently superior is equally appalling.

Why the hell do you think we've been asking you for more rigorous data?

MWchase said...

All right, Gabe, you want the answer to that "simple question"?

A Bunsen burner is inferior to a firebow on a camping trip.

A firebow is inferior to a Bunsen burner in a laboratory.

In other words... Mu.

Tom Foss said...

Yet again, Gabe demonstrates that he is incapable of understanding that reality is complicated. He's apparently only able to grasp concepts once they've been dumbed-down into stark and simplistic binary. Ladies and gentlemen, the intellectual master race.

Two points: first, that new knowledge inevitably builds on old. Old knowledge and techniques often remain useful even when supplanted by more accurate or advanced ones. Newtonian physics vs. Relativity & QM is a good example, but a better one is the flat Earth theory. It was supplanted millennia ago, but it's still useul (even preferable) in some contexts: i.e., in architecture, where even very large buildings are constructed without going through the calculus necessary to take the Earth's curvature into account. The round Earth model is superior if you're looking to travel globally or launch satellites, but if you're laying a foundation, the flat Earth theory is better.

Second, there's a significant difference between inventing something and improving it, including how much imagination and innovative thinking is required. The Chinese and Egyptian guys who invented the clock were doing something more notable than the guy who decided to put one on a microwave.

Jim Roberts said...

Y'know, that could actually be a kind of fun exercise, taking an older technology and finding times when it would be more useful than a more modern technology.

Tom Foss said...

It's like that old joke about NASA spending several years and millions of dollars to develop a pen that writes in space, while the Russians just used a pencil.

I don't know if there's any accuracy to the joke, but it expresses the same sentiment.

Professor Preposterous said...

The NASA pencil story is inaccurate -- one would avoid using a pencil in space at all costs because a pencil could (and probably would) break, leaving debris floating around near your delicate equipment. Sometimes only a paper-thin piece of metal separated the human-habitable part from a hard vacuum, and if that were to be punctured....
So, pens. Pens do not typically shatter while under normal writing pressure.

Tom Foss said...

I figured that'd likely be the case. The shavings would be problematic, let alone the lead. In an environment where you have to be careful about burping, even little things we take for granted can be terribly dangerous.

But as I said, the point was the implication of the story rather than its veracity.

Anonymous said...

Tom Foss said:

"...let alone the lead."

You mean graphite, don't you Tom?


MWchase said...

I found the thing I was talking about. Turns out it's an atomic force microscope, not an electron microscope. Whoops. Anyway, look at this because it's awesome.

Anyway, with proper filtration systems, maybe a mechanical pencil would work out in space? I dunno.

Tom Foss said...

No, Jacqueline, when I write a letter, I want my words to take on the proper weight and deadliness.

Anonymous said...

Tom Foss said...
"No, Jacqueline, when I write a letter, I want my words to take on the proper weight and deadliness."

Better make it neutronium then!