Sunday, December 15, 2013

Why the Industrial and Scientific revolutions are deeply irrational (and why they may not last)

I read with interest this excellent article by Chris Mooney about how human cognitive biases and the way our minds work predispose us to doubt Darwinian evolution and embrace creationism:

7 Reasons Why It's Easier for Humans to Believe in God Than Evolution (Mother Jones)
Yet even as creationists keep trying to undermine modern science, modern science is beginning to explain creationism scientifically. And it looks like evolution—the scientifically uncontested explanation for the diversity and interrelatedness of life on Earth, emphatically including human life—will be a major part of the story. Our brains are a stunning product of evolution; and yet ironically, they may naturally pre-dispose us against its acceptance.
So what can science tell us about our not-so-scientific minds? Here's a list of cognitive traits, thinking styles, and psychological factors identified in recent research that seem to thwart evolution acceptance.

1. Biological Essentialism.
2. Teleological Thinking.
3. Overactive Agency Detection.
4. Dualism.
5. Inability to Comprehend Vast Time Scales.
6. Group Morality and Tribalism.
7. Fear and the Need for Certainty.

In any event, the evidence is clear that both our cognitive architecture, and also our emotional dispositions, make it difficult or unnatural for many people to accept evolution. "Natural selection is like quantum physics...we might intellectually grasp it, with considerable effort, but it will never feel right to us," writes the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom. Often, people express surprise that in an age so suffused with science, science causes so much angst and resistance.

Perhaps more surprising would be if it didn't.
But I think this article illustrates an even more general point. What the above show is that it's not just evolution that our brains are not designed to process--it's science more generally, since many of the same modes of thought are required for scientific thinking.

A lot of people wonder why the scientific revolution was so long in coming. Why were the ancients so hung up on mythical gods and monsters, and crazy ideas like falling off the ends of the earth? Why did this type of thinking hold us back for so long? In retrospect, of course, it seems so obvious to us, but that's because most of us are now trained to think this way from childhood in school. But what the article demonstrates is that scientific thinking is highly unusual. It actually goes against the "default" way our minds work. Our natural biases, predispositions, and thought processes, our "cognitive architecture" in the above phraseology, don't lead naturally to scientific thinking, and in fact has to be overcome to get to it. Our "natural" thought processes as we see above lead to religion, tribalism, superstition and magical thinking, which are what ruled human thought for most of our existence as a species (and to a large extent still do).

An oft-cited example is the phlogiston theory of fire. When you burn a piece of wood, you create fire. Thus, it was commonly assumed that fire was some sort of substance that was actually "in" the wood, and that you were just releasing it when you burned it. After all, how could you create something if it was not there to begin with? This theory makes complete  logical sense, but of course it's totally wrong. Alchemy and astrology were the forerunners of chemistry and astronomy, but magical/mystical thinking prevented them from evolving into the sciences they would eventually become.

Another example is the geocentric universe. Our senses unequivocally tell us that the sun revolves around the earth. Now we know that the earth revolves around the sun (most of us, anyway), but it takes quite a cognitive leap to get there. After all, if the earth were moving through space, wouldn't we all fall off? The same could be said for the earth as flat (something the Ancients managed to get past relatively early, but was still widely believed by the average peasant). But this "primitive" method of thinking defined the world for centuries, with no one making the leap beyond it. So many things that we know today are counterintuitive, from microscopic germs causing disease, to animals descending from earlier forms, to simple elements combining to form complex molecules, to the sun being just one of countless billions of stars.

Francis Bacon was actually a revolutionary. A lot of the "logical" thinking of the ancient world and Middle Ages kept us away from scientific thinking, as he pointed out. Logical thinking in his time meant abstract intellectual conceptualizing divorced from empirical feedback. This was syllogistic thinking - coming to conclusions based on presupposed premises - things like, "All men are mortal, Socrates is a man; Therefore, Socrates is mortal." These were often little more than rhetorical games, and not very useful. What Bacon proposed was inductive reasoning, hypothesizing and empiricism, ideas that later formed the scientific method as described by John Stuart Mill, Karl Popper and others. One of the reasons England got so good at this was because they were confined to their island facilitating intellectual communication, and had a lot of scientific problems to solve thanks to their far-flung colonial empire. A lot of the earliest prizes given out by the Royal Society had to do with solving problems related to navigation and geography, and many early discoveries were related to that*.

It reminds me of another common question: why was Industrial Revolution so long in coming? We know that the ancients had managed to build a basic steam engine and other automata. We know that they had sophisticated machines like the Antikythera Mechanism. We know they had things like cranes and were able to build huge public works like aqueducts and theaters. They were able to work with iron and lead. This has been a major puzzle for scholars and historians for a long time. When people learn that Hero of Alexandria invented a rudimentary steam engine back in ancient times, they wondered why the "stupid" ancients were unable to develop this into the logical progression of engines to create the convenience of our modern world (why didn't the Romans build railroads?). But really, the question is a lot simpler than it appears at first.

If you think about it, it seems completely counterintuitive that machines --mere "things"--could really do the work required in an economy, aside from a few isolated actions. Think about the kinds of things that our ancient ancestors did for a living to make their "economy" work: They had to forage for food, or grow crops by planting, plowing, reaping, and harvesting. They had to hunt, fish, or raise and slaughter animals. They had to cook food, ferment wine, press olive oil, and bake bread. They had to rear their children. They had to defend themselves from hostile  enemies and construct buildings, roads, and other public works. They had to mine and work metals into usable objects. They had to sail ships and trade goods. They had to spin and weave cloth and rope. They had to chop down trees. They had to adjudicate disputes and entertain themselves. Most of the economy was based in social relations and centered around the household. How could a simple machine accomplish any of those things? Why would one even conceptualize a machine to do this stuff? And why would you even think about using a machine when you have plenty of humans around to do all that stuff? After all, if machines were to do it, what would all the people do, especially all the slaves?

Most of the above tasks utilize the human hand-ear-voice loop. There's no way a simple machine could do those things. So it's hardly obvious that a spinning steam-powered aeolipile could be anything more than a curiosity for the amusement of royals. According to one story, when the principle of electromagnetic induction was demonstrated to Prince Albert by Michael Faraday he supposedly asked Faraday "of what use is it?**" A similar exchange probably took place between Hero and the ruler of Alexandria back in 60 AD. And Hero's his response was more than likely, "well, none, really."  Looking at that invention with eyes unsullied by our modern retrospective view, we would have hard pressed to make the intellectual leap to see that engine as being able to help you out with any "useful" work (especially since it could not generate much in the way of horsepower or torque). Useful work was the stuff I talked about above. A steam-powered whirlygig wasn't very helpful in getting any of that work done, now was it? Think about it.

Even the unthinking, rote mechanical work that the ancients needed to do like pumping water or a furnace bellows, grinding grain, or sawing wood, would not have made sense using such a device. It was far more practical to harvest wind and water --which was plentiful, free, and ubiquitous--to do that stuff, and that's exactly what the ancient people did. In fact, they got better and better at it over time. The Romans milled tons of grain at Barbegal in France. The Domesday Book, a survey prepared in England in 1086 AD, lists 5,624 water mills (this number is low since the book is incomplete), while a century earlier, there were fewer than 100. The Netherlands had five times more windmills in 1850 than it has wind turbines today. And, of course, there was plenty of animal power around for stuff like plowing fields and transportation.

Burning stuff is good for keeping you warm or cooking food, but how can it saw wood or grind grain? It bears repeating: this intellectual leap is hardly intuitive. Having to haul large cords of wood to an engine to do this stuff would have been more work than just doing it in the first place. And burning dirty, noxious coal would have been even worse--yuck! Besides coal was deep underground, and bringing this filthy, grimy rock aboveground was expensive, dirty, wretched, and frequently fatal work. Who in their right mind would do such a thing?

Of course, a series of unique circumstances all eventually came together to bring this about. You had an island with limited natural resources surrounded by hostile enemies that was becoming deforested and running short of wood. You had coal mines on the sea that had a tendency to flood and needed to be constantly pumped clear of water. Now, suddenly, using coal-powered pumping machines made sense, and it came about 1698 - Thomas Savery's "Miner's Friend." You had several centuries of earleir mechanical discoveries to build upon, from the sophisticated gearing of saws and cranes to the precision metalworking of clock-making and automata, what Lewis Mumford terms the Eotechnic period. The Miner's Friend would be refined by a century of tinkering into the lean,mean, and relatively efficient steam engine of James Watt. Alongside all this was growing the incipient factory system brought about by England's colonial model -- importing raw materials from the colonies and exporting finished goods. The Enclosure movement and the Highland Clearances ensured plenty of desperate wage labor, and the cloth trade brought about the centralized, mechanized division of labor system that was just begging to be yoked to the new steam engine (the mechanical power loom being another advanced example of mechanizing labor). This was what Mumford called the Paleotechnic period. It turned out, counterintuitively, that the harnessing of coal and machines to do human work (in other words, energy slaves), caused the human race to completely transform itself in a relatively short time period, for good and for bad.  This was the Industrial Revolution, beginning in the English Midlands and spreading from there.

There are other factors as well. A lot of attention has been paid by economic historians to British institutions --political and financial-- as the major contributor to the Industrial Revolution. That is, things like a limited monarchy, low taxes, stable government, the rule of law, sophisticated financial markets, banking, wage labor, mercantilist trade, private property, and incentives to invent and profit off of one's inventions. This has been the principle focus of economists, but economists deal in the world of markets, prices, land, labor, and capital, and are mostly ignorant of science and engineering, so of course this is what they think about. But while those things may have played a role, it's hard to believe they would have brought about the Industrial Revolution by themselves, so looking to them for a cause is silly. Markets and trade had existed for thousands of years, as had banking and finance, and people had invented increasingly technologically sophisticated ways to do work  for centuries, as outlined above. If people had discovered the power of heat engines and fossil fuels in Roman times, it's doubtful they would have foundered due to any kind of "institution" - most likely the institutions would have evolved to deal with the new reality, just as they did in England. In fact, a lot of financial instruments were designed to specifically fund the burgeoning Industrial Revolution, they did not bring it about! The same goes for societal changes***. This should be obvious.

What the British managed to stumble upon mostly by accident was is the principle of the heat engine.  What the heat engine allows you to do is burn fuel and harnesses the heat differential between a hot place and the surrounding ambient temperatures to do mechanical work. The entire Industrial Revolution was built on this principle. What they had also stumbled upon was an abundant source of dense, storable, and transportable energy in the form of carbon-based fossil fuels. In fact, may of the most significant scientific discoveries were made in the Paleotechnic period by studying steam engines, things like the laws of thermodynamics and major discoveries in chemistry and electromagnetism. Thus, rather than science bringing about the steam engine, one might say the steam engine gave birth to science.

Eventually, electricity was able to be harnessed via the principle of electromagnetic induction mentioned above, produced by steam-driven turbines working on the same heat engine principle (along with the addition of oil and natural gas to coal to fuel all this). Mumford called this the Neotechnic period. Today, we might add a Cybertechnic period to his terminology - the use of the silicon-based microchip as an electronic "brain," combined with the digitization, the algorithm, fiber-optics, the barcode and scanner, and so forth to automate human mental processes, counting, speech and communication (the human hand-ear-voice loop). We might call this the Silicon Revolution, which is still playing out. But note that all of these are built upon the edifice of the heat engine and fossil fuels.

All of these circumstances are pretty unique, which is why it's doubtful the Industrial Revolution could have occurred any earlier than it did.  Not to mention, those unique circumstances probably could not have been found in just the right combinations anywhere else in the world, even the other likely contenders for discovery that had dense, technically advanced urban populations (China, Japan, the Arab world, other parts of Western Europe). No matter when and where it happened, we would be forced to wonder why it didn't happen earlier and someplace else, the same with every other human invention.

So these things - the scientific method and the harnessing of heat engines to do human work were hardly obvious at the time - they only are in retrospect because we have lived all of our lives in the world they have created. Given the fact that we are not "hard-wired" for science, and given the rabid opposition to so many types of science, from evolution to global warming, one might be forced to wonder if the the demon-haunted world of superstition might eventually reign triumphant in the end after all. And, of course, I don't think I need to say too much about the fact that the fossil fuels that provide the fuel for the  heat engines that modern technological civilization is built upon (including the Neotechnic and Cybertechnic eras) are  finite and limited supplies.

The ultimate irony is, our global capitalist system is utterly dependent upon scientific thinking to make it work, and yet now must work relentlessly to suppress many of its conclusions to keep going.

BONUS: Why We Don't Believe in Science (The New Yorker)

* The first example of mass production was wooden pulley blocks for the ships of the Royal Navy, by Marc Isambard Brunel. Hundreds of these needed to produced per day.

** Even Faraday himself wasn't quite sure at the time. Depending on which story you want to believe, he either replied "of what use is a newborn baby?" or, "I don't know, but I'm sure you'll find a way to tax it."

***Carbon Democracy argues that it was the dependency of the Industrial Revolution on organized labor proved by coal miners and dockworkers that allowed them to force democratic changes on the social structure, much against the resistance of the traditional elites. Universal suffrage in England came about only in the twentieth century after World War One.


  1. Oh boy. Where do I begin?
    You'd think that anyone peddling "scientific thinking" would actually effing LOOK at why creationists believe what they believe, so that maybe their list would not be all condescending negatives, but showed some open-mindedness toward fellow human beings who think otherwise? But noooo....

    Let's see. I can readily think of a few other reasons why people refuse evolution.
    * Historical science's wacky war on religion
    * Willingness to accept mythopoetic explanations as carriers of truth (also)
    * Evolutionary explanations' anomalies, and the grooming of certain facts to fit, like Cinderella's wicked sisters' big toe
    * Evolutionary science presented as dogma whose refusal marks you as beyond the pale, a denizen of the land of idiots
    * Science would be nice, prevalent scientism sucks

    "Alchemy and astronomy were the forerunners of chemistry and astronomy, but magical/mystical thinking prevented them from evolving into the sciences they would eventually become."

    Er, no. You can't know until you know. I would put it this way: They were the forerunners of chemistry and astronomy (you meant astrology, right?) and kept on evolving as understanding grew. Whether some mystical understanding would have been a good thing to keep within them, so they did not become wholehearted handmaidens in the pillage of the Earth, well, a thought, no?

    "[flat earth] was still widely believed by the average peasant"

    Proof, please? This is one of the canards of modernity and its pushers. In fact, the simple and obvious fact that ships sink beyond the arc of the horizon suggest that the earth is round, just like the moon in plain sight.

    Francis Bacon was a creep who encouraged the "rape of nature" cult. As for scientific induction, Karl Popper was highly critical of it. /end of rant

    Finally, we see things differently. How oddly refreshing. :-)

  2. I agree with Vera.. the success of the modern version of science is only in retrospect.

    The success of previous versions of "science," or even thinking, or religion, was already proven: tribal societies succeeded. Rome succeeded very well, thank you.

    Furthermore, the success of modern science is a very narrow view of success: is undermining the very basis of life on earth "rational"? Is condemning the beautiful biodiversity of life on earth rational? Is it rational to want to convert most sunlight falling on the earth into either human bodies or their infrastructure?

    Most humans from other cultures would find this result and view hideously ugly, unbalanced, unhinged, and immoral. Which it is. Luckily, the ancient Greek idea and principal of hubris will soon make the present arrangements a thing of the past, and a lot of human bodies and infrastructure will be converted back into other chemicals, species, and biosystems. It won't be pleasant for those being converted, however.

  3. I'm going to disagree here - you're making the mistake of conflating science and scientific thinking with the horrific abuses science has been put to in the modern world. But I don't buy the argument that they are necessarily related. I would be hestitant to lay the problems with the modern world at the feet of science. I don't think that's fair or accurate.

    Keep in mind, the abuse of the natural world did not begin with the Industrial or Scientific revolutions. Numerous books can attest to that (e.g. Plows, Plagues and Petroleum, Pan's Travail, etc.). If anything, they were even less knowledgebale than we were.

    - In fact it is science which tells us we cannot grow forever on a finite planet.

    - Any number of economic theories are contradicted by science, specifically psychology, sociology, biology, etc.; namely that people are not rational utility-maximizers, but are derive the most satisfaction from social relationships, adequate leisure, and doing self-directed meaningful work. The fact that we ignore these conclusions has nothing to do with science.

    - It is science that is teling us we are screwing with the climate at our peril with the amount of people we currently have on this planet.

    -Science told us antibiotic overuse would lead to resistance. Did we listen? No. Not the fault of science.

    -Science tells us the air we breathe is toxic. Are we listening? Nope.

    -Science tells us that overuse of phosphorus causes algae blooms, and that we need to conserve topsoil. Are we doing it? Nope. Not the fault of science.

    -Science tells us that fossil fuels are a finite resource, and has shown us the laws of thermodynaics. Have we taken this to heart as a civilization? No way.

    -Even though we have invented computers that can monitor all our actions, it is not science which dictates that this be turned into a all-pervasive surveillance state

    -All of ecology is a science. So is the systems thinking that led to The Limits To Growth. There is a lot of scientific thinking in Permaculture for example. (observe the world around you, adjust behavior, look at relationships, outputs as inputs, etc.)

    The abuse of the natural world is not a product of scientific thinking, in fact, it is in direct contradiction to it. If we lived in a world that truly was governed by scientific thought, we would be living in a very different one than the one we live in today. And I think it would be profoundly better. Instead it is governed almost exclusively by raw political power/heirarchical social relations. Maybe that's ineveitable, but it's hardly fair to make science the whipping boy for this.

  4. (cont'd)
    It's the attidue of if something can be done, it will/should be done that is the problem (The "Wired" Magazine" ethic). Its' the values of profits for the few above all other ethical considerations including the health of society that's the problem. It's the throwing out of the Precautionary Principle that's the problem. It's not science that dictates crowding people into cities and making them live in overgrown filing cabinets. it is not science that says every person on earth needs to have a car, and that public transportation is bad (in fact, efficiency argues the opposite).It's not science forcing us to work forty hours a week, medicate kids into a stupor, or throw potsmokers in jail. It's not science telling us to shop till we drop. Science alone doesn't decree that all of us must be guinea pigs for the few to profit. It's a question of values. We don't need to abandon science for irrationality to change our values system.

    People like the Koch brothers spend millions smearing and slinging mud at climate scientists while at the same time they probably employ thousands of sceintists, and are dependent upon them (the Kochs themselves have backgrounds in engineering). The difference is between the science that they can control and manipulate to get rich, and that which threatens their power. That was the point I was trying to make in the last line of the article. It's hardly fair to blame science for that. Sceince can make carcinogens, or it can make antibiotics. All too often, it's used to get us out of jam, and then we congratulate ourselves on our cleverness. But that's hardly the fault of science.

    And ancient values weren't all they're cracked up to be. A lot of Jews were murdered in pogroms because of "Blood libel." A lot of witches were burned and black cats killed. The Mayans tore people's hearts out to bring the rains back. Women were little more than cattle in partiarchal societies, and some still are today. What was the difference between those and other societies? Values. There was a lot of cruelty, brutality, rape and pillage in human history. While there's been a lot of misinformation on this topic, we should not sugar-coat, idealize or romanticize this, which can be easy to do.

    What I want is the values of science and rationality married to an ethical system that puts them into practice. We don't have that. What I want is a society centered around the human - the greatest good for the greatest number, rather than just what's good for "the economy" ie.the people on top ofthe power pyramid. Somehow we got fooled into thiking they are one in the same.

    Science has enhanced our lives tremendously. Its our shortcomings as a species that has made modernity so fucked up that people are questioning whether it's even worth it.

    1. "you're making the mistake of conflating science and scientific thinking with the horrific abuses science has been put to in the modern world. But I don't buy the argument that they are necessarily related."

      Let me see... how about "you are conflating marxism and marxist thinking with the horrific abuses marxism has been put to"

      or, my favorite:
      "conflating Christianity and Christian thinking with the horrific abuses it has been put to"

      I think the word conflate is too strong, but I really detest the whole gist of the argument. Of course there is a relationship. But apologists for any of them will not admit it. Bah humbug.

      If you have a way of thinking that leads so readily to "horrific abuses" isn't that a signal that you ought to change your thinking?

    2. "the abuse of the natural world did not begin with the Industrial or Scientific revolutions"

      True. It began with this civilization -- domination writ large. But... science has given it power to destroy the very planet we live on. Is that a rational thing to do?

  5. Greer has just written about it too, foreseeing a big revision of scientific thinking and method.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.