Learning from Patterns in History

Learning from Patterns in History

It is not enough to simply know history. Knowing history simply fills your brain with a bunch of facts. If you want to do something useful with the history that you know, such as learn from it to inform your decision-making, then you have to understand that history. Learning from history and understanding history means making connections, discerning patterns, and generalizing to new situations.
 
 
Steven Pinker writes about this in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature:
 
 
“Traditional history is a narrative of the past. But if we are to heed George Santayana’s advisory to remember the past so as not to repeat it, we need to discern patterns in the past, so we can know what to generalize to the predicaments of the present.”
 
 
If we want to make decisions about how to govern ourselves, about what we can expect if global warming intensifies, and about our economy, then it is helpful to look at patterns, trends, and outlier events of the past and understand them. We have to use statistics, test hypothesis against the data, analyze causal structures, and attempt to fit current situations into context using historical precedent. None of this is easy, and the science isn’t always exact, but it does help us better understand both what came before us and where we are currently. Patterns are what we learn from, and identifying real patterns rather than fluctuating noise is a complex but useful process.
 
 
Without taking the time to look at the past through a lens of data and science we leave ourselves open to misunderstandings of history. We will identify patterns that don’t actually exist, we will fail to put our current moment in the appropriate context, and we will be guessing as to what we should do next. By examining history and teasing out the patterns through statistical analysis, we hope to be able to make better decisions based on true historical precedence. We may still get things wrong, we may not use a large enough data set (or may not have a large enough dataset), we may not be able to generalize from the historical data to our present moment, but at least we are thinking carefully about what to do based on what the data of the past tells us. History is a story on its own, but with science it is a series of patterns that we can examine to better understand what has happened in the past and what may be to come in the future.
Knowledge Paradigms

Knowledge Paradigms

In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker explores the role that science, reason, and rationality played in mankind’s journey to become less violent. Throughout the long run of human history we have become less violent, less impulsive, more rational, and more considerate of others. Most humans alive do not live in small warring tribal bands. Most humans do not commit violent acts in the name of a deity. Most humans do not kill their neighbors for their own personal gain. Becoming smarter, Pinker argues, helped us become more peaceful in all of these areas. Becoming less impulsive and more thoughtful of how we relate to others has been a slow human process, but has played out in many important ways that contribute to the reduction in violence. We gained more knowledge about the world and pacified ourselves.
 
 
Pinker explores what enabled us to become smarter and what shifts in knowledge institutions played an important role in humans changing the ways we think. Science is one of the big factors that Pinker explores and he suggests that becoming more scientific, believing in objective inquiry rather than divine revelation, put people on a path toward peace. About science and knowledge he writes,
 
 
“Science is thus a paradigm for how we ought to gain knowledge – not the particular methods or institutions of science but its value system, namely to seek to explain the world, to evaluate candidate explanations objectively, and to be cognizant of the tentativeness and uncertainty of our understanding at any time.”
 
 
The values within science represent an important shift in an approach to human knowledge. Knowledge from a deity is absolute and cannot be challenged. Recognizing that our knowledge is instead limited, subject to revision and updating in the face of new information, and based on objective reality and not the word of authority or divine spirits is a departure from much of human history. It is uncomfortable to live with uncertainty and questions we have no way to answer, but it also makes us more peaceful. It makes us more considerate of the world, less sure of our selves, and less willing to follow leaders who encourage violence for dubious reasons.
 
 
Pinker continues, “though we cannot logically prove anything about the physical world, we are entitled to have confidence in certain beliefs about it.” Moving forward in human history, this is an important lesson we need to continue to think about. We don’t have all the answers about the physical world and we have even fewer answers about the human social world. We need to acknowledge that there is information we can be confident about even if we cannot prove every aspect of a scientific theory or belief. We need to recognize that we are fallible and cannot have complete confidence in our own beliefs and worldviews. We have to be willing to learn and update our beliefs. Doing so is the only way we can continue to exist and cooperate as a peaceful species.
Scientists Foot The Bill - Joe Abittan - Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens

Scientists Foot the Bill

I haven’t been good at keeping up with the show, but one of my favorite podcasts over the last few years has been The Don’t Panic Geocast. The final segment of each show is a segment called Fun Paper Friday where the hosts discuss an unusual research study that they came across. The hosts are geologists, but they search the web and accept listener submissions for papers that are unusual in terms of what they study, the conclusions they reach, or have some sort of fun and interesting findings. I once submitted a paper that they reviewed which demonstrated that physicians who use bigger words are seen as less smart and less competent than physicians who use simpler vocabulary when talking to patients. But one of my favorite fun papers from the show, one I always seem to find a way to bring up in random conversations, has to do with blunt force trauma and beer bottles. A few years back a study was published in an emergency medicine journal which showed that more severe blunt force trauma could be inflicted by an empty beer bottle relative to a full beer bottle. The full bottle tended to shatter on impact, so while heavier, the force of the impact was dissipated in the shattering glass. An empty bottle is lighter, but less likely to shatter, meaning more force is transmitted to the body being struck by the bottle.
 
 
This study is funny, a bit morbid, and seems totally useless from the outside. It is easy to think, especially if you work a busy, demanding, and difficult job, that it was a waste of money for someone to take a bunch of beer bottles and hit a dead pig with them while measuring the force of the impact. “Someone seriously got paid to do that study?” is a common response I have gotten from telling people about this study or similar studies that might make their way to a Fun Paper Friday segment.
 
 
But the answer is yes, and the research was published in a respectable journal because there are actually important implications for fields of forensics and emergency medicine. The hosts jokingly remarked that the next time you are in a bar fight this paper will help you, but the reality is that it really might help someone better address a wound in an emergency room or better identify a murder weapon at a crime scene. The science was a little goofy, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Additionally, the paper had some important structural mechanics and fluid dynamics considerations. How does a vessel react to an impact when it is full of fluid versus when it is empty is an important consideration in shipping industries, whether we are shipping soda, gasoline, or water on a space shuttle. 
 
 
Science funding, even for science that is funny and a little strange, is very important because it is science, with a foundation in basic research, which has fueled the advances in human living standards over time. In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “banks and governments print money, but ultimately, it is the scientists who foot the bill.”
 
 
Sometimes we know where the big scientific breakthroughs will come from. Anyone who was working on vaccines in the last two years knew their research was vital for human lives across the globe. Anyone working in lithium battery technology is aware that their research is going to be very important for our future. But there is a lot of science that is crucially important that we don’t recognize as important as it is. It isn’t obvious how the person researching a fungus in the Amazon could have a major impact on the world, but perhaps a discovery about that fungus could lead to new antibiotics or new mechanisms for developing vaccines. It is not clear how someone researching fluid dynamics in kitchen sponges is really going to make a difference in the world, but perhaps their findings unlock something that contributes to the design and development of ion channels in lithium batteries. 
 
 
Basic research can seem funny, but it sets a general foundation for the important work that goes into our breakthrough advances. And it is the breakthrough advances which change the world, allow us to communicate faster, improve our living standards, and allow us to do more with fewer resources. Scientists push the world ahead, footing the bill for the governments, bankers, and economies of the world. 
Challenges with the Scientific Process: Setting Priorities & Managing Conclusions

Challenges with the Scientific Process: Setting Priorities & Managing Conclusions

Science provides objective answers to questions about the world, but that doesn’t mean that science is an entirely objective enterprise. Science exists within a world dominated by human needs, biases, and prejudices which means that science can be impacted by the same political, discriminatory, and mistaken judgements and decisions that any other human activity can be overwhelmed by. In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari shows how this happens when it comes to selecting scientific research topics, setting the priorities of science, and when objective conclusions flow into the world where they can be used by less than respectable actors.
 
 
Harari writes, “science is unable to set its own priorities. It is also incapable of determining what to do with its discoveries.” Part of the reason why science cannot set its own priorities because science is expensive. Especially as we continue to make new discoveries, the subsequent steps require more time, energy, and resources. To discover the next quantum particle will require an even more impressive supercollider. To discover the next secret of the Amazon river will require taking new technology further up river. The cost grows, and individuals conducting research need to be able to convince those with resources to commit those resources to their particular interests. This means that science doesn’t unfold uniformly or in equal ways. As Harari puts it, “to channel limited resources we must answer questions such as what is more important and what is good? And these are not scientific questions.”
 
 
But even when good science is done, and even when accurate and objective measurements are obtained with reasonable conclusions drawn from those measurements, the impact of science can be unpredictable. Many scientific studies and results are obscure, with very few people outside a select expert community ever hearing about the results. But other conclusions can be taken out of their original context and can become part of the cultural zeitgeist. How studies and their conclusions are understood can get away from the researchers, and can be used to further specific political or economic goals, even if those goals really don’t have a real relationship to the original conclusion that was drawn. Harari demonstrates how this happened with scientific conclusions being merged with racist ideas about the inferiority of non-white people. He writes, “racist theories enjoyed prominence and respectability for many generations, justifying the Western conquest of the world.” Whether researchers were explicitly racist or not, their research was adopted by people who were, and used to justify unsavory political ends. The science became wrapped up in a political culture that wanted to justify discriminatory and prejudiced behaviors and attitudes.
 
 
This doesn’t only happen with racist ideas, though those ideas can be the most prominent and dangerous. Small scientific findings can be taken up by militaries, by corporations, and by media organizations which may use the research and findings in ways the authors could not have predicted. Research on technology that helps improve light detection could find its way into a guided missile, into mass surveillance systems, or onto the grocery store shelves to be used by advertisers. The science itself cannot control the way that results end up being used in the real world, and that can be problematic.
Science, Money, & Human Activities

Science, Money, & Human Activities

The world of science prides itself on objectivity. Our scientific measurements should be objective, free from bias, and repeatable by any person in any place. The conclusions of science should likewise be objective, clear, and understandable from the outside. We want science to be open, discussed, and the implications of results rigorously debated so that we can make new discoveries and develop new knowledge to help propel humanity forward.
 
 
“But science is not an enterprise that takes place on some superior moral or spiritual plane above the rest of human activity,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens. Science may strive for objectivity and independence, but it still takes place in the human world and is conducted by humans. Additionally, “science is a very expensive affair … most scientific studies are funded because somebody believes they can help attain some political, economic, or religious goal,” continues Harari.
 
 
No matter how much objectivity and independence we try to imbue into science, human activities influence what, how, and when science is done. The first obstacle, as Harari notes, is money. Deciding to fund something always contains some sort of political decision. Whether we as individuals are looking to fund something, or whether a collective is looking to fund something, there is always a choice between how the final dollars could be used. Funding could be provided for science that helps develop a vaccine that predominantly impacts poor people in a country far away. Funding could be provided for a scientific instrument that could help address climate change. Or funding could be used to make a really cool laser that doesn’t have any immediate and obvious uses, but which would be really cool. Depending on political. goals, individual donor desires, and a host of other factors, different science could be funded and conducted. The cost of science means that it will always in some ways be tied to human desires, which means biases will always creep into the equation.
 
 
It is important to note that science is built with certain elements to buffer the research, results, findings, and conclusions from bias. Peer review for example limits the publication of studies that are not done in good faith or that make invalid conclusions. But still, science takes place in society and culture and is conducted by humans. What those individual humans chose to study and how they understand the world will influence the ways in which they choose and design studies. This means that bias will still creep into science, in terms of determining what to study and how it will be studied. Early material scientists working with plastics were enthusiastic about studies that developed new plastics with new uses, where today materials scientists may be more likely to study the harms of plastics and plastic waste. Both fields of research can produce new knowledge, but with very different consequences for the world stemming from different cultural biases from the human researchers.
 
 
This is not to say that science cannot be trusted and should not be supported by individuals and collectives. Science has improved living standards for humans across the globe and solved many human problems. We need to continue pushing forward with new science to continue to improve living standards, and possibly just to maintain existing living standards and expectations. Nevertheless, we do have to be honest and acknowledge that science does not exist in a magical space free from bias and other human fallacies.
Truth is a Poor Test for Knowledge

Truth is a Poor Test for Knowledge

We live in what is being called a post-truth world, where facts don’t seem to stand up on their own and motivated reasoning drives what people believe. Politicians, activists, and people of note say wild things without regard to accuracy. Against this backdrop, many people have begun to argue that we need more truth in our news, statements, and beliefs.
 
 
This quest for truth is noble, but also has its downsides. The COVID-19 pandemic is an example of how standards around truth can become self-defeating and can contribute to people’s motivated reasoning and cynicism around information. Science has moved very quick with regard to COVID-19, but that has often meant changing recommendations for how to stay healthy. We have changed what we know about infection rates, hospitalization rates, treatment, prevention, and death. This means that what people know and believe about the disease may change on a weekly or monthly basis, and consequently public policy and recommendations change. Unfortunately, that change can be a difficult process. Former Press Secretary Sean Spicer unfairly used the quick changes in science around COVID for political purposes in a tweet. On the other end of the spectrum, people are not happy with how slow some regulations update in the face of changing science, as George Mason Economist Bryan Caplan unfairly mocked in another tweet.
 
 
Yuval Noah Harari would argue that truth shouldn’t be the goal. In his book Sapiens, Harari writes, “truth is a poor test of knowledge. The real test is utility. A theory that enables us to do new things constitutes knowledge.” We treat scientific knowledge and information about the world as clear and deterministic. The reality is that our scientific knowledge and understanding of the world is incomplete, especially on a personal level. We all live with models for reality, and we should not make complete truth and accuracy our goal. We should strive to be as accurate and truthful as possible, but we should recognize that knowledge comes from how well our models work in the real world. Improved information along with more accurate and true knowledge should help us perform better, do new things, make new advances, and improve the world. We don’t have to mock science, policy, or the statements of others. We need to look for ways to update our models and theories so that we can do the most with what we know. We should be willing to update when we learn that our information is not true or accurate. Holding ourselves to impossible truth standards doesn’t help us build knowledge, and can actually be an obstacle to developing knowledge. 
Scientific Observations & Math

Scientific Observations & Math

My last post was about science and newness. Modern science values new information more than existing information and rewards research that pushes forward into new territories. What unites new science in any field with the historical information that the new science rests on, is mathematics. As Yuval Noah Harari writes in his book Sapiens, “mere observations, however, are not knowledge. In order to understand the universe, we need to connect observations into comprehensive theories. Earlier traditions usually formulated their observations into stories. Modern science uses mathematics.”
 
 
Mathematics are used to communicate observations because mathematics can be objective, precise, and evaluated for accuracy.  My experiences of reality and how I may interpret and communicate that reality is not likely to be the same as the way someone in New York City, Tokyo, or Kabul experiences, interprets, and communicates their immediate reality. However, if we chose to measure our worlds through data and agree on the scales to use, we can begin to bring our subjective experiences of reality into a unified and consistent framework. A lot of how we understand the world is subjective. For example, I run a lot and a lot of my friends run, so a three mile run sounds short to me. However, for someone who doesn’t run often and doesn’t have friends who run often, a three mile jog may as well be a 26 mile marathon. Mathematics escapes the subjective, goes beyond stories and narratives that we may develop from our subjective experiences. It ties our collective experiences together into something more objective. Mathematics allows us to go from stories to real theories.
 
 
That still doesn’t mean we all understand and interpret the numbers the same. In his recent book How to Make the World Add Up, Tim Harford shares an example of national statistics in the UK showing that the average rail car has only 100 passengers. However, in Harford’s experience, traveling at rush hour, the average rail car is completely packed with far more than 100 people. The statistics can be viewed through a different reference point, through the average passenger traveling at rush hour, or through the rail car traveling throughout the day. Without mathematics we could never describe this reality in a consistent and unified way. Our descriptions of the world would be based on narrative and story. Mathematics gives us a grounding through which we can understand the universe in a more comprehensive and generalizable manner.

Newness in Science

“Modern science has no dogma,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens. “Yet it has a common core of research methods, which are all based on collecting empirical observations – those we can observe with at least one of our senses – and putting them together with the help of mathematical tools.” Harari continues to explain that science may not be dogmatic, but that there are two key defining aspects of modern science that set it apart from the ways that humans have traditionally understood the world. Those two aspects are the reliance on mathematics in understanding observations and the desire to seek out new knowledge and observations.
 
 
Mathematics gives us a common language to discuss observations and allows us to compare observations for veracity. Newness pushes our observations and knowledge in a continuously expanding manner. Relying on tradition, historical knowledge, and existing information has not been enough for science to advance. Newness has been a central idea in the basic structure of modern science. Harari writes, “as modern people came to admit that they did not know the answers to some very important questions, they found it necessary to look for completely new knowledge.”
 
 
New information is rewarded in academic institutions and drives the way that modern universities work. You can work at a college as a lecturer without doing research, but the prized positions are primarily research positions. As a researcher at a university you are rewarded for the number of papers you publish, and journals want to publish novel scientific studies. The goal of science today is to take what we already know and push beyond. Science doesn’t just help us better understand what has come before us, but helps us push into new worlds. We use math and the scientific method to make and communicate our discoveries.
 
 
This is a new approach from most of human history. We don’t simply assume we already have the answers or that our current knowledge will be sufficient into the future. We look backward less than we look forward. Science is centered around what we can do with our knowledge, expanding that knowledge, and doing new things with it.
 
 
Admitting Collective Ignorance

Admitting Collective Ignorance

I generally agree that we are too confident in our opinions and judgments about the world. We live with a lot of complexity and very few of us are superforcasters, carefully considering information and updating our knowledge as new information comes along. We rely on personal experiences and allow ourselves to believe things that we want to be true. However, there are some modern institutions which help push back against this knowledge overconfidence.
 
 
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “Modern-day science is a unique tradition of knowledge, inasmuch as it openly admits collective ignorance regarding the most important questions “ (emphasis in original). As Harari notes, physicists openly admit that we cannot study what happened in the first moments of the Big Bang and scientists cannot explain what consciousness is or how it arises. On the largest problems science is great at admitting collective ignorance, something that is very unique among humans. Throughout our history many humans have attempted to answer the most important questions through narratives and stories, resulting in religions and dogmas. For modern science to eschew this trend is rather remarkable.
 
 
I would say that modern science actually goes a step beyond admitting collective ignorance in the largest questions we can ask. Something I often noted during my masters program, where we read a great deal of academic public policy and political science papers, was how often we could argue that authors were confident in their findings in the body of the paper (sometimes overstating the impact of their finding) only to admit in the conclusion that their study was limited in scope and could not be generalized to broader contexts. Within social sciences at least, papers encourage researchers to place their work within an appropriate context, and from my experience, the best papers do a good job of being honest and realistic about their conclusions. They admitted ignorance even when identifying effects that appeared to be real.
 
 
Humans cannot admit ignorance in business, politics, and religion. A CEO who admitted that the company didn’t really know what was happening and that they were operating from a place of ignorance probably won’t be CEO for long – especially not if they face a stretch of bad luck. Very few voters would elect a candidate who admitted to being ignorant on much of the world. Religions (in my view – which could be wrong) seem to provide more answers than admissions of ignorance (although Christians at least seems to admit that humans cannot understand their deity’s decision-making process).
 
 
Science is a unique place where we can admit that we don’t know much, even when announcing findings and things we have learned from careful study. This is one of the strengths of science and something we should do a better job communicating.  An admission of ignorance within science is a sign that scientific institutions are functioning well. That seems to have been forgotten at times during the pandemic, and often has been mocked by people who are unhappy with regulations and decisions by public policy officials.
Discovering That Humans Don't Know Everything

Discovering That Humans Don’t Know Everything

Humans have a great ability to explain the world through narratives that seem to make sense. One problem, however, is that our narratives may feel coherent, but fail to accurately reflect the true nature of reality. We are great at explaining why things happen a certain way, at identifying causal relationships between phenomenon, and creating reasons for why things are the way they are. We are not great at recognizing when we don’t know something and when our explanations couldn’t possibly be correct.
 
 
Yuval Noah Harari sees humans overcoming our tendency to create incorrect explanations of the world as a major development toward the Scientific Revolution. In his book Sapiens, he writes, “The great discovery that launched the scientific revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to their most important questions.” From our modern vantage point, this is obvious. We just launched the JWST into space to help us understand questions to which we do not have answers. And even with the incredible power that the telescope has, it won’t tell us why there is a universe at all rather than nothing. There are questions we realize that we do not have actual scientific answers for.
 
 
In the past, we used narratives to explain the unexplainable. Religious explanations are not scientifically based, but create compelling and relatable narratives to why the world is the way it is. Magic and other supernatural phenomena explained everything from earthquakes to human economic behavior. They felt correct on an intuitive level, but couldn’t possibly explain reality in an accurate way.
 
 
The Scientific Revolution required that humans acknowledged gaps in knowledge. It required acknowledging that narratives and myth were insufficient to explain the true nature of the world. From this starting point humans could begin to make objective measures of the world around them, could test their causal explanations, and could begin to understand the world in a way that assumed there were lessons to learn and that myth and stories didn’t contain all the answers we need.