Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website, www.rhysy.net



Tuesday, 28 April 2020

Thing What I Was Wrong About

Any blogger with any sense will tell you that there's a risk of saying stuff that's later found to be utter crap. It may seem perfectly sensible to go on a good angry rant about how Jar Jar Binks was the worst character ever, but then you learn that the actor was traumatised for life by the deluge of hate mail and suddenly things don't seem quite so much fun any more.


And yet in science we're supposed to delight in proving ourselves wrong. Indeed, everyone wants to overturn Einstein, or discover a new and unpredicted particle. No-one wants the stinky old Standard Model to be entirely right, although pretty much everyone wants their own special patch to be basically correct.

This peculiarity is so at odds with everyday life that it may explain a lot about the mess the world is in. Science progresses by making mistakes, whereas in politics an open admission of a mistake is tantamount to publically slitting one's wrists while falling into a tank of flaming piranhas who are all infected with COVID-19. Figuring out the general conditions as to when it's fun to be wrong (and when it isn't), and how we can apply these lessons in the wider world, will be the subject of a future post.

As a sort-of prelude to that, what about lil' old me ? A few years ago I chronicled how some of my major beliefs have shifted. But blogging makes it possible to track one's mistakes as never before ! So instead of evaluating past mistakes, this post will be an active attempt to see if any of my current beliefs are wrong. What, then, have I prophesied that turned out to be correct, and what utter garbage still haunts forgotten corners of the web ? You might have seen me rant a little on Decoherency that I think such an exercise is badly needed for popular political commentators, so this post is my effort to put my money where my mouth is. Or the ultimate in humblebragging, I guess.


Methodology

Much of Decoherency is the salvaged ruins of my posts on the fallen Google Plus, and while assembling those posts into blog form, I labelled cases containing predictions for the future. I've also included a few other examples from memory and from trawling the blogs the old-fashioned way. I divided these into two topics : science and technology, and politics. One is considerably more objective than the other, so these should provide a complementary approach.

Right then, let's begin.



1) Science and technology

Planet 9




Prediction

Let's start with something completely unambiguous.  On April 8th 2016, not recorded on Decoherency but preserved publically elsewhere in my records, I wrote :
I'm just going to go on the record and state that I think planet "9" is a silly thing, and a year or two from now no-one will care about it any more.
Which if any further clarity is needed, means that I thought the idea of Planet 9 was flawed and that there's nothing out there to find. By sometime in 2018, roughly, sufficient searches should have been performed that the object should either have been found or its existence ruled out.


Reasons

There were two things that bothered me, one scientific and one psychological. The scientific was the poor statistics given to prove the existence object. I think it's a major red flag to say that you can say a tiny sample size (six orbits !) is so completely inconsistent with random chance - it doesn't ring true. What does statistical significance really mean when you've got just one system under consideration anyway ? Not much, I think - we just don't know enough about how planetary systems form anyway.

As pointed out in a comment here, there were other lines of evidence, but as far as I'm aware, these were prompted by the six orbits. If you go looking for consistencies you're likely to find them, so this smacks of bias. To be fair, I mainly read the press releases rather than the papers (and I should know better than to do that...) but there didn't seem to be any alternative possibilities discussed by the claimants at all. "This is consistent with a planet", they said. Sure, but what else is it consistent with ? Did they deliberately try and come up with a strong alternative, or did they just jump straight on the one they liked best ?

The second reason is the show-offy overconfidence on display. Recall Rhys's Law Of Press Releases :
The value of a press release and the probability that the reported discovery is correct is anti-correlated with the grandiosity of the claims.
Why opt for a ninth planet ? "Glory" is the cynical answer, though that doesn't mean there isn't a planet to find. But to make such a claim with such extreme conviction from such a tiny sample size... nope, that's not credible. It's much more likely they wanted to do a press release* for publicity, not because their results deserved publicity. I even witnessed some degree of fanboyism over this, with a few people rather rudely defending their favourite experts against my own skepticism. And that's just silly. Where the hell are my groupies, dammit ?

*There's a lot of caveats to RLOPR. Obviously a reputable scientist with a proven track record is more reliable than Twitter user sheepfondler69**, but let's not go there today.
** Not a real example, hopefully.


Verdict

Total vindication, I think. There's been bugger all the press about this for the last two years, so my timetable was roughly correct. The problem is we still can't definitively rule it out, and it's very hard indeed to prove a negative : according to some estimates, it might be 10-15 years before we can say for sure, though others seem more optimistic. So yeah, I could still be wrong, but I haven't changed my opinion on this one. If I am wrong, well, having another planet in the Solar System would be pretty cool. I propose we call it Pluto.



The EM drive




Prediction 

Another totally unambiguous example, this time from 22nd November 2016 :
I'm just going publically on the record to state that the EM drive does not work and it will go the way of cold fusion and all the other pseudoscientific claims before it. That is all. Have a nice day.
And in a comment from the same thread :
It's claiming to violate a result so well-established it would be basically magic. Of course they can and should test it, just in case, but my prediction is that it's absolute bupkis. Best case : it's some super-weird quantum effect that can't be scaled up. Infinitely more likely : it's a measurement error.
I don't think I can state things any clearer than that.


Reasons

I know even less about the EM drive than I do about planetary orbital dynamics, but the whole idea contradicts physical findings that have been established for several centuries. Given all the past attempts to build perpetual motion machines and the like, history shows that such cases are almost invariably mistaken.

While claims of a ninth planet are at least entirely scientifically reputable, the EM drive is not - but my objections are similar (and the sensationalism is equally dangerous). They claim a truly extraordinary result based on observations of low significance at the very margins of observational limits, just like goodness-knows how many people before them. But scientific consensus is established precisely by this sort of testing and examination. If a test were to disprove it, the consensus would shift (not immediately, but it would). So by its very definition, the consensus view is hard to disprove, and the more tests it survives, the less likely any marginal result is to overturn it and the more probable such results are due to errors.


Verdict

Total vindication again. Here I'm at a serious risk of committing a kind of straw man fallacy - if I were to continuously go around saying, "the world won't turn into a sponge in the next five minutes", pretty quickly I'd objectively be a supremely accurate prophet. Likewise if one goes around only saying that low S/N claims about ways to violate feckin' basic physics will eventually be disproved, one could be unjustly hailed as a genius.

Oddly, a handful of normally intelligent, skeptical people did find the EM drive plausible. I've no idea why, they witnessed all the other hoo-hah about FTL neutrinos and BICEP2 and so forth, so you think they'd be more suspicious. Anyway, there doesn't seem any need to dwell on it. It was worth testing, because I think even really silly ideas should be tested as much as resources permit - just in case - but ultimately there's nothing to learn here.

Of course, there's a risk of circular reasoning : the consensus is more likely to be correct so anything that goes against it is not likely to be true. But the use of "likely" is critical. This is not at all the same as saying, "the consensus is a fact so anything contrary is wrong". So here's a bunch of examples form history of how the consensus shifted - generally, it shifts pretty rapidly when sufficient evidence is provided. Is it perfect ? No, but it works.


The Hyperloop




Prediction

As I wrote back in July 2017 :
I doubt very much this will ever become a thing, but you never know.
Somewhat expanded a year later :
I remain skeptical that this can be constructed on a large scale in the real world in an economically sensible way.
Basically I don't deny that the hyperloop may be technologically feasible, but I do deny that it will become a practical reality. More likely it will prove too expensive to construct - substantially more expensive than its advocates claim.


Reasons

I set these down in August 2017 :
Even if the cost per mile could be made cheaper than railways (and I don't see how it can), the infrastructure costs will still be enormous. If they weren't, HS2 wouldn't be costing us >£50 billion. I suppose it may work in a few cases where's there's nothing but flat, hard wasteland between widely separated cities, but everywhere else ? Nah.
Although there are some excellent comments made on that thread, I generally stand by this (conceding that there are indeed large areas flat hard wasteland in some parts of the world). Developing a mass transit system is going to be hugely expensive. How could a giant cross-continental vacuum tube shoot people around at substantially lower prices than railways, given that rail is an incredibly established technology and the infrastructure requirements are similar ? I don't see it. To clarify my prediction though, I say there won't be more than a handful of major hyperloop routes operating commercially within the next decade, and possibly none at all. I do not mean to say it's utterly impossible, just difficult.

With hindsight I may also have been utilising an airship/fusion bias. Fusion has been twenty years away for much longer than twenty years; airships are definitely coming back this year for reals according to innumerable popular science outlets. Big, grandiose projects fail more often than not, so betting that any new project will fail is the safer bet. Especially if the press go into orgasms about it.


Verdict

So far so good, but it's too early to tell for sure. Reviewing the Wikipedia entry, it looks as though lots of people are still interested and working on this, but there seems to have been precious little hardware testing in recent years. No-one's got a test track going at anywhere near the claimed full speeds, and the economic prospects are at best divided. Although there are some excellent comments preserved in this thread, I stand by my original objections.


SpinLaunch




Prediction

Lordy. Apparently some weird startup company is trying to launch things into space by means of a giant sling. The title of the original post says it all : "space catapults are not a thing and never will be". I was of half a mind that the company might be an outright scam.


Reasons

Again a bias against the success of grand revolutionary projects played its part. Is this fair or is it a sort of techno-racism ? I don't know. And there was an additional "that's just silly" factor, because spinning things round so fast they shoot off into space is, well, a bit daft. Using a CGI image of the factory doesn't help either.

More rational objections : its claimed speed is nowhere near enough to reach orbit, spinning in a vacuum to reduce friction will cause the released projectile to slam hard into the atmosphere when it exits the acceleration chamber, and you have to design a rocket (and satellite payloads) capable of functioning under extreme accelerations (based on a Wired illustration, this would be a bone-pulping three thousand g !). Maybe you could use it to launch bulk materials, but surely not any kind of delicate equipment - and since it seems geared towards small satellites, you're gonna have to have delicate equipment on board.


Verdict

Two years later they're still bringing in punters, raising tens of millions of dollars in funding. They were supposed to have tried a flight test last year, but didn't (though every space development company misses deadlines). It's too early to tell, but nothing has happened that's changed my mind in any way. I think it's stupid.


Honourable mention : VIRGOHI21




Prediction

I never really made any prediction here, which is why this is only an honourable mention. I cannot find my exact words, but I was skeptical of the most popular method used to explain the weird object VIRGOHI21 (the nearest thing I can find to the full description I wrote is here). In brief, I thought that two galaxies experiencing a close, fast interaction would not be able to produce an object like the one claimed.


Reasons

Unlike the other cases, this one is well within my field of expertise. It seemed to me that the earlier model had been very carefully tweaked to produce the best possible outcome but still wasn't convincing. Their main galaxy was too low in mass but too rich in gas, with the gas extended too far, the gas physics too simple. Their final result didn't reproduce the most intriguing and important feature of the system and I thought the scaling on their figure was misleading.


Verdict

After trying this for myself with simulations that corrected the apparent deficiencies, but also used many more galaxies, I have to admit that the central claim is likely correct. That is, an object such as VIRGOHI21 can indeed be produced by tidal encounters between galaxies. I still dispute whether this explanation is the correct one, however, as consistency isn't evidence : other explanations could be equally consistent and have not been tested. I think my doubts were reasonable and warranted, and the simulations worth running, but the main conclusion - the important bit - from the earlier paper is correct. So everyone's a winner here, but I was wrong in my central doubt.


Conclusions to part one

It seems apparent that 1) I'm wary of sensationalism; 2) I don't trust revolutionary claims; and 3) I've chosen easy pickings. If I really want to question my scientific world view, in future I should make predictions for more difficult cases that require greater understanding. Otherwise there's not much to learn here - I don't have an ideological stake in a big spinning vacuum tube or a missing planet. If I'm wrong about them, I can all too easily attribute this to a poor knowledge of business or orbital dynamics, which don't come with any moral or political elements attached. There's not much "belief" at work here, just knowledge with gaps. Filling in those gaps would make me less ignorant without having to rebuild any supporting structures. In no way is my identity attached to any of these ideas.

Or to put it another way, I don't wake up every morning and loudly proclaim,  "ahhahah, I bet the Planet 9 people feel really stupid today !". Until I started writing this post, I'd basically forgotten about it. Casual criticism on the internet shouldn't be taken for an obsessive vendetta. I never reached the stage of caring very much about any of these examples - sure, VIRGOHI21 is damned interesting, but that's not the same as being personal. Criticism of findings is, sometimes, genuinely directed only towards the findings and not the scientists who made them. I'm sure the planet 9 bunch are lovely people, though I'm less sure about the EM drive gang or the Spin Launch crew. They might well be idiots. albeit obnoxiously rich idiots in the case of Spin Launch.

Still, surely I shouldn't criticise fields outside my area of expertise ? In general yes, but some fields are cross-discipline. If I saw a study claiming that lawnmowers are the sole drivers of global warming based on dodgy statistics, I'd absolutely be entitled to debunk that. And criticism is not all the same as censorship : if I say, "I'm not an expert in this but I don't believe it, here's why", I'm emphatically not automatically calling for that research to be ended (I even said as much in the EM drive case). Ideologically, if not practically, I'd prefer to test everything, especially the things I disagree with because those are the most interesting. If I ever do call for research to be ended, I'd like to think I'd have some very good reason for that.

In short, when I say, "this is stupid", what I really mean isn't, "stop giving these people money", it's, "everybody PLEASE shut up about this and talk about something better now". Super-saturation with the latest improbable finding is the nerd equivalent of magazines full of discussions about vegan yogurt smoothies and celebrity hairstyles.

More interestingly, there's a conflict here as to whether I want this technological claims to be correct or not. I'll cheerfully admit to wanting to be able to say, "I told you so !", but at the same time, it would be genuinely cool to have a reactionless drive or a giant space catapult. Even without joining any fan clubs, the effect of bias isn't simple.

Let's move on to the more complicated cases where I do have a more emotive stake in the outcome.



2) Politics

Theresa May's fate



Prediction

As Stephen Pinker helpfully reminds us, "things that can't go on forever can go on for much longer than you think". Boy oh boy was this true of the sad tale that is Theresa May's government. Back in April 2017 I wrote :
For Theresa May it's do-or-die at this point : either secure a "mandate" from the populace or accept defeat and a potential change of course.
And in June 2017 I wrote :
She'll try to form a minority government with the DUP, and it will work for a little while but not for long...  Sooner or later - probably sooner - she'll break.
And then in October, when rumours were flying of a no confidence vote :
I suspect May will limp on for a little while, but this is probably the beginning of the end.
Then in July 2018, after a series of high-profile cabinet resignations :
I don't see even May managing to survive this one. She can't even look her colleagues in the eye. 
 But by December, just before a confidence vote finally happened :
I bet she wins.

Verdict

Wow, did I get things wrong. For more than a year I was predicting May's imminent downfall, but she didn't actually break until July 2019 -  two years after my initial prediction, whereas I was typically thinking she'd be gone within maybe six months. Only by the time the confidence vote happened did I realise that her track record indicated a pug-like ignorance of reality. May did eventually resign and her government did eventually break, but the point of the prediction was that it would happen soon - which it obviously didn't. As for the "accept defeat or change course", well, that one's somewhat a grey area : she won a majority, but substantially smaller than previously, and utterly refused to change course.


Reasons

I completely misjudged her character. I genuinely believed it when I said :
May does not do well under pressure; she called the election out of a peculiar sort of desperate opportunism, and we've seen her increasingly degenerate into robotic performances that make little or no sense.
Thing is, she doesn't do well under pressure. She doesn't do well anyway. But either she was totally unaware of how bad the situation was or just didn't care (or, perhaps, was genuinely trying to mend fences with unpleasant colleagues but going about it very very badly). I thought her robotic TV persona was just a way of masking her feelings and avoid having to deal with anything unpleasant, but, in fact, she might actually just be like that.

More charitably to May, I'd also misread the wider political context. For all her inefficacy, May was right about one thing : the facts. She had them on her side a lot longer than her detractors gave her credit for. Oh, she misused them with consummate skill, but it was really true that her stepping down earlier wouldn't have changed anything for the Tories and might well have left them with someone worse. I think I do have to accept a strong ideological preference on my part - a desperate hope that she'd leave and somehow things would get better.

Overall, 1 out of 4 (ignoring the ambiguous one about a change of course) is dismal. My assessment of the situation was biased and wrong.


Labour's leadership crisis



Prediction

Back in October 2016, Labour prepared to choose between incumbent Jeremy Corbyn and challenger Owen Smith. I wrote :
This is quite likely to result in the next major crisis in British politics. Oh, yippee.
I didn't really elaborate , but what I vaguely recall thinking was that either way we'd get factionalism that would split the party. Corbynites loved Corbyn and hated everyone else in the party, and vice-versa. A recipe for disaster for sure ! I predicted a Labour party split at least as early as 2017, in the event that Corbyn continued to be Corbyn :
Best case long term realistic solution ? Labour have to split.
Once they realise that and find that they're sliding back into the doldrums, all the old animosities will re-surface and they'll split.
But I'm pretty sure I thought that was a distinct possibility quite a lot earlier, though I can't find a record to back that up. Anyway, I thought that there was a very real possibility the Labour party would have been in such dire straights as to have or be contemplating a split by about now.


Verdict

Obviously, that hasn't happened, so again I was totally wrong. After leading Labour to disaster, Corbyn finally quit - thus rendering a split pointless. All the more so as - for now - the Corbynite movement is pacified with a leader acceptable to all divisions of the party.


Reasons

Corbyn seemed to have even more resilience to the facts than May. 90% of your own MPs want you gone and you think you can just carry on ? Foolish beyond belief. But I was mistaken about Corbyn's lust for power, which was not quite as bad as I feared *. I was also wrong in suspecting that the Labour party would refuse to grin and bear it after Smith's leadership bid failed (though if recent reports are correct, they tried a much stealthier tactic than I would have guessed, meaning I was still wrong but in a different way). Electoral disaster did happen under Corbyn, as I thought it would, but I failed to see that the party would then finally see sense and decide by some considerable margin to distance itself from the hard left.

*But only by a little, since the guy hung around for bloody ages after losing the 2019 election so badly.

So here I misjudged both the individual character of Corbyn and the group behaviour of the Labour party (the latter twice, for their response to each election). This is pretty bad, but not quite as bad as it appears. Corbyn was just a bit less of a shit than I thought, whereas the Labour party were either more sneaky and/or less principled, or possibly more weary, than I supposed. I think these mistakes arose from relatively minor misjudgements that had big consequences.


The Liberal Democrat resurgence(s)



Prediction

An interesting mix here. In April 2017 I was hopeful and maybe even expectant of a significant Lib Dem breakthrough :
The Lib Dems recently won some spectacular victories in by-elections... Anecdotally, I know too many once-devoted Labour supporters (both young and old) who are literally disgusted with Corbyn to take any claims of a shock Labour win seriously.
.... the "safe seats" idea appears to be passing, given both the previous general election and recent by-election results. Cardiff voted for Remain, which makes a Lib Dem surge here not so implausible.
Of course I didn't expect them to win or even come close :
I accept that we won't get a shock Labour or Lib Dem win, but would a Tory loss be so unexpected ?...  I do think there's a chance of an upset. 
And while we're here, as to the Tories :
The Tory minority is tiny. It's far less implausible to suggest that it might be reduced to nothing and the government replaced with a coalition of the left.
Whereas in November 2019, despite the Lib Dems having secured more seats via defections and performed extremely well in European elections :
I'd rather have the Lib Dems over Labour, but in Cardiff North that doesn't look like a realistic choice.
And I finally decided to vote Labour, despite despising Corbyn, on the grounds of tactical voting (which I also disapprove of). Oh how principled I am !


Verdict

There was no Lib Dem resurgence in 2017, so I was wrong there. The Tories did, however, reduce their majority substantially, though not completely, so I give myself partial credit on that score (and Labour lost, so I was right about that too). In fact the government even fell to an impotent minority, but only after months of by-elections and defections rather than due to the election itself. And I was right - having learned from bitter experience - that a Lib Dem choice just isn't realistic in Cardiff North, so choosing Labour was at least better than throwing my vote away to the Lib Dems. So full spectrum here : totally wrong about the Lid Dem resurgence, partially right about the Tory losses, right about Labour not winning, and right about the local Lib Dem failures.


Reasons

With hindsight, I cannot honestly tell you if I was merely hopeful or truly expectant that the Lib Dems would perform much better in 2017. I think I may not have even known myself. On the other hand, I was quite worried by voting Labour in 2019, thinking that I might be betting on the wrong horse - but a doubt in the back of the mind is not the same as an actual vote cast. I largely went with gut instinct in 2019 rather than any careful thinking.

Why wasn't there a big Lib Dem resurgence in 2017 ? I don't know. In 2019, overall I didn't believe they had much of a chance, having failed to convince me of their credibility and Labour - just barely - having done enough to satisfy me regarding the main issue of the day. But I have no idea how typical this way of thinking was. The first-past-the-post system (more on that below) means we should be extremely cautious about analysing overall results, so this remains confusing.



The 2019 election




Prediction

Here I have to say that I was outright silly, and fell into all the same traps as all the popular left-wing commentators. In a deliberately rhetorical piece in September 2019 I wrote about Boris Johnson :
Expelling MPs en masse is unlikely to be something the Tory party machinery is going to reward come campaigning season.
He can't even keep his family loyal... His singular approach of bully and bluster is fine for preaching for the choir - that's why he won the PM election with the Tory faithful - but useless for winning hearts and minds, which is vital for winning back Tory control of the House.
 Though I did temper this with :
While things don't look good for Boris come election time, we should remember that he's largely untested in such a campaign - even fools have a few strengths. Given the first past the post electoral system, it is still credible that, if the pro-Remain parties don't tread carefully, we could end up with a Tory majority. 
I was quite pleased with the rhetoric in that post, but that does make it harder to get at what I really meant. I was, I think, genuinely quite confident that Boris Johnson could lose the election. I added in a note of caution only to say that we shouldn't take anything as a foregone conclusion, but this doesn't negate my totally mistaken prediction.

In another deliberately rhetorical post a few days later I concluded somewhat more successfully :
It is possible, however unlikely, that an election could result in No Deal or further prevarication. But it is also possible, and considerably more probable, that it could end the whole sorry affair.

Verdict

Even with my caveats about success not being certain, it's pretty clear that I actually thought Boris could very well lose. He didn't. But there is an important factor to remember here, one which, ironically, I've been at pains to examine before : the first past the post system. I mentioned this in the predictive posts, but badly failed to understand how it could play out. As far back as May 2015 I noted that :
The SNP's sweeping victory disproves any idea that a different system is necessary for the success of smaller parties.
Though that's a bit out of context as the original post was fairly nuanced. But the point is that the Tories did not win the popular vote; in fact, 52% of the vote went to pro-Remain parties. So even though I certainly underestimated Tory popularity, I also had a valid point. I was however utterly wrong in thinking that the Tory party might not support its own leader. This isn't quite as stupid a suggestion as it might sound, given recent reports that the Labour party may have tried exactly this during the 2017 election.


Reasons

The FPTP system makes the thing very difficult to analyse without doing detailed breakdowns on the numbers, which I'm not prepared to do here for the sake of a single paragraph. One thing I can state with confidence is that I overestimated Jeremy Corbyn's campaign ability, which this time wasn't as successful at clawing Labour back from abysmal polling figures as it had been in 2017 - the public, I think, were just fed up with him. Conversely, I probably underestimated Boris Johnson's popularity too, as well as misjudging the abilities of each party to work with the FPTP system (this, though, has led to a substantial shift in my opinions on proportional representation, discussed here).

I also think I may have simply been too close to this. With a vested personal interest, it's easy to get caught up in the daily sensationalism whereby every minor error of a politician is depicted as grounds to break their legs and throw them to the wolves - particularly if you happen to have a really profound dislike for them. And more cynically, it's arguable that the public just aren't interested in this stuff. Whereas an enthusiast of political theory will see Boris Johnson hiding in a meat locker (or the now-President of the Ukraine saying nothing much at all throughout his whole campaign) as a profoundly undemocratic act of avoiding scrutiny, the general public just don't care.


Honourable mention : Jeremy Corbyn

Not really a prediction but a simple case of changing my mind. Since this is described at length here, I'll just summarise. Initially I thought Jeremy Corbyn was a hugely underrated, charismatic, game-changing individual who was treated incredibly badly by the popular press. Now I believe he's a feckless, smug, patronising, authoritarian.... well, basically a horrible little man who I wish would just sod off. However, I did follow my own advice, which was to give him a year and see how he got on. The answer was, "terribly", and so although my initial assessment was way, way off, at least I changed my mind about him much sooner than most of the left-wing tabloids. Even now, almost unbelievably, there are still commentators who think he should have magically won and the Labour party should stand by him for some strange reason. It's pretty clear that my political prediction skills are frankly shite, but hey, at least I'm not that bad.


Conclusions to part two

I am way less good at remaining objective in the face of ideological preferences that I would have expected. I'm not wrong about everything, but I'm wrong a lot. Granted, if you go back and look at some of the cited posts in their entirety, you'll find that there are caveats - I don't often pronounce things as definitive either way. But the fact is that even when I'm only confident enough to make a "most likely" prediction, more often than not, I'm still wrong.

By my count, politically I'm wrong about twice as often as I am right. And what's worse, my correct predictions were all really easy ones. I can even add a few more failures from memory : at one point I was quite convinced a second referendum was inevitable, and I thought Corbyn's decision to admit he wasn't going to campaign in such a referendum would be something that would appeal to voters by virtue of its honesty; I also though there was a real possibility of Donald Trump starting another war; I didn't think Boris Johnson had any chance of getting a Brexit deal. So yeah, I'm bad at this.

Ideology has certainly played its part in blinding me to the obvious here. Even though my own moral viewpoints were not directly at stake (for example. that the Tories were re-elected doesn't vindicate austerity, nor does thinking Jeremy Corbyn is a total arse-monkey make me question renationalisation) my mere preference was enough to cloud my judgement. I didn't pin my reputation or identity on any of these predictions, but I still got them wrong.

There's also an interesting but complicated contrast here with the technology predictions. For those, I predicted failures but would have preferred it if they'd succeeded, whereas for politics I predicted failures and wanted failures. If preferences do influence beliefs and predictions, clearly this isn't as clear-cut as I first thought. The desire to be right for one's own sake (to blow a raspberry at people and say, "I told you so !") is not the same as the actual outcome wanted. Perhaps that's a factor I should consider more carefully in future predictions.

In fairness, sometimes I've been nearly right, but small errors can lead to big consequences. And some suggestions which may seem obviously wrong are not as daft as they may first appear. Still, undeniably some things I've said have been totally stupid. On the other hand, try and find me someone from the Independent or the Guardian (never mind the Mail) doing a similar exercise. Go on, I'll wait.



Summary


Ahh, the thankless life of the internet commentator.
I decided the easiest way to summarise all this and record things in the future was by means of a spreadsheet. I'll update this with future predictions too.

It's pretty safe to say I do better at science and technology predictions than I do at politics. Maybe I didn't put much basic ideology on stake in the political examples here, but I definitely wanted certain things to happen and certain people to be right or wrong. In contrast, in some ways I don't give a monkey's whether a whirly space vacuum tube thingy works or not. I mean, besides saying, "wow, that's cool", what's in it for me ? Nothing*. And we can easily and objectively test whether the whirly space thingy works or not, whereas judging someone's underlying motivation is always going to be at least a little bit subjective.

* Besides a massive nerd boner. That is, until space travel becomes so cheap as I can afford it myself, I don't have much of a personal stake in it.

If nothing else, I've discovered that it's damn hard to say what my real preferences are : I always want my prediction to be right for its own sake, but that doesn't mean I always want that outcome to actually occur. That'd be like yelling, "I told you so !" as the Titanic hits the iceberg. Maybe in the future I should more explicitly state what it is I'd prefer to happen. While praise and shame are reputed to be major drivers of belief, this exercise has made me wonder just how true that is - and reminded me that bias can act in different ways all at once.


A much simpler factor is that politics is just a lot more complicated : there are many more variables and assumptions I'm not always aware of; things I take for granted or never take the trouble to properly scrutinise. I'm never going to say, "Theresa May will continue to be unpopular, unless she manages to fight off a bear on the steps of Downing Street". Politics is a lot more provisional than technology - it has a lot more unknown unknowns. I have to assume Theresa May won't be attacked by a bear, otherwise I also have to consider the possibility of her being eaten by a lion or falling deeply in love with an inflatable sheep, or tripping and breaking her ankle in a field of wheat. Or something.

One thing that prompted this post (aside from the oodles of spare time) was the observation that professional political commentators seem to be truly adept at tribalistic bullshitting. I even made this lovely little chart, which I can simplify here :

How to very cleverly justify something really stupid. If I were to plot my predictions here, I suspect there'd be some in every quadrant.
Professional commentary on all sides seems to gravitate strongly towards that upper-left quadrant. They're darn good at persuading you of anything they like, but they don't often stop to acknowledge if they were wrong in the past. They're concerned far more with who than what - if someone they dislikes says something they approve of, it's invariably due to an ulterior motive or still inadequate in some way. Hence you get bollocks like holding different people to truly ludicrous double standards and absolutely no inkling of whether an author is truly being fair on just going on an angry rant. And what's particularly horrible, particularly insidious about the whole thing, is that even being aware of this doesn't automatically make you more skeptical or less vulnerable to letting confirmation bias get the better of you. I still head towards opinion piece headlines I approve of.

Recently I tried out a quite nice tool from Clearer Thinking, which is supposed to help you challenge your own beliefs. You give it a statement and then it guides you through the process of critiquing it. At the end, all I found was that my new, revised statement had just been made a little more watertight, proofing it against unforeseen circumstances (and/or enraged bears) but not changing the substance of it one bit. Bullshitting, it's worth acknowledging, is a perilously easy trap to fall into.

Knowing how wrong I've been, should I now re-evaluate my beliefs ? Well, clearly I'm not a great judge of character, so at the very least I should be more cautious in giving the latest political leader my support or disapproval. On the other hand, I will stand up and say I'm ready to change my mind about them in according to the evidence - at least, at lot more so than the gutter press. And while I'm actively annoyed by science and technology sensationalism, I'm much more vulnerable to the political kind, so I should try harder to keep it at arm's length. Hopefully being able to look back on my own record here will help remind me of that. Also, I've overestimated my ability to judge the opinion of the public and political parties; I've made several predictions when I had no access to the necessary inside information.

Finally, I haven't really made any predictions that directly flow from my deeper ideological beliefs, e.g. whether higher taxes would be a good thing or not, whether we should relax austerity or not - I've been concerned too much with individuals and day-to-day details. This means I've kept those beliefs shielded. I think they're backed up by existing evidence, but if I really understand them properly, I ought to be able to predict their effects in the future too.


One last point is that even an opinion formed in the upper right panel of the chart is not necessarily right or wrong, and likewise for the others too. Sheer luck, caused by all those nasty complications that is the mess known as "real life", means that even the stupidest person can sometimes outfox the cleverest. But generally, surely it's better to be rational than wholly irrational. So if we did get some analysis of how often the major pundits get things right or wrong, it might indeed be a good guide as to who's worth listening to and who's just blowing their own trumpet. Perhaps we could make an app to make this easier, or even teach it in schools so people will grow up without being afraid of being wrong. On the other hand it might just encourage even more bullshitting by making them too afraid to say anything of real substance at all, leading to garbage language that's utterly incomprehensible. That's not a prediction I'm willing to make.

Even with all this uncertainty, I'm willing to offer some take-home points :
  • Bias is complicated. We can simultaneously desire to be right and wrong, so how this influences a prediction isn't always straightforward.
  • We can be wrong due to simple ignorance, implicit assumptions, or fundamental mistakes. Not every wrong result means we should change our whole world view.
  • We can get things right for the same reason : essentially, sheer luck.
  • If we want to use predictions to test our ideologies, we have to expose those ideologies to direct testing rather than just testing individual characters and day-to-day occurrences. We need to specify clearly and ahead of time what we think will happen and why, and how different situations and conditions might play out. Otherwise we have no standards against which to judge ourselves, allowing us to get away with anything.
  • Being wrong isn't always fun, but it's usually a learning experience.

Friday, 27 March 2020

Virgo Virtual Visuals

Stuck indoors ? Of course you are. You bloody well should be, at any rate. But are you going stir crazy ? Are the walls closing in ? Do you long for the boundless freedom of the great outdoors ? Well, I can't take you outside, but I can show you a view of space you may never have seen before.

The Virgo Cluster is everyone's favourite galaxy cluster, and anyone who says otherwise is a liar. As the nearest major cluster to us, we can survey it with extremely high sensitivity in great detail. And with clusters being the densest type of galaxy environment, there's nowhere better to watch the life and death of galaxies. Kind of like Big Brother, only less voyeuristic and more gassy.

A very long time ago I made a map of Virgo using optical images of the galaxies to make a nice pretty picture :


I also did some more sciency-visuals by selectively plotting different galaxies, which was quite fun to look at in 3D. I even made a 3D flythrough :


Later, I massively expanded this to show the whole ALFALFA survey of over 30,000 galaxies in VR. It was the most complex thing I've ever rendered. So with Virgo already covered in quite some detail, and an even larger data set shown in the most immersive format possible, what more is there to do ?

Like everyone else, I'm stuck at home. This has given me the chance to learn something new : interactivity.

I won't labour the details because there's not really any point. The Blend4Web addon is really very nice indeed, and just works. With largely minimal adjustments, I can easily convert my files into standalone HTML web pages that work in an ordinary browser. It even offers a VR mode, without any of the hassle of setting up special cameras and re-rendering the blasted thing. So now you don't have to see whatever I choose to render for you - you can fly around for yourself.

Click here to open the interactive version. It's a 90 MB file so may take a while to open. Works on mobile devices but is best enjoyed on a PC.
The controls are simple : left button drag to rotate, wheel to zoom, middle button drag to pan around. And there are some options at the bottom for headsets and full screen and so on. But what exactly are you looking at ? That's where the buttons in the upper left come in. Time for a crash course in galaxy clusters !


Galaxy types

"ETGs" and "LTGs" refer to early-type and late-type galaxies. This extremely stupid nomenclature was devised by the fiendish mind of Edwin Hubble, apparently for the sheer joy of confusing the heck out of people.


Basically, early-type galaxies are smooth, structureless, largely red objects consisting mainly of old stars. All their hot bright blue stars have long since died, leaving only the faintest but most enduring stars behind - they're often said to be "red and dead". They've usually run out of gas, so they're probably doomed to spend the rest of eternity fading into nothingness.

Late-type galaxies, however, are where it's at. They've still got loads of gas left and are actively forming hot, bright, blue stars, and usually have lots of interesting spiral and irregular structure. The day may come when they too will cease star formation, but it is not this day.

The definitions are easy enough, but why these bizarre terms ? It's often said that Hubble thought that galaxies evolved from one type to the other, but this isn't true. In a footnote in a paper he explicitly denies this, saying he's just referring to how complex the structures are, not the chronological sequence. Which makes total sense, because everyone refers to simple-looking things as "early" and complex-looking ones as "late"*... or more likely Hubble just had a mad moment. Regardless, the stupid terms (like many others in astronomy) have unfortunately stuck.

* As in, "look at this early-type fish tank" or "this late-type roof garden".

He didn't do himself any favours by arranging them in this famous "tuning fork" plot, with early types on the left and late types on the right. I mean, who could possibly mistake this left-to-right plot for a chronological sequence ? Clever people being stupid again...
Anyway, if you toggle the ETGs and LTGs on and off, you might notice something called the morphology density relation. This just means that late-type galaxies tend to be found in less dense regions, and early-types prefer dense environments. Late-types are newcomers to the party, bringing in plenty of fresh booze but still themselves sober and hanging around cautiously on the periphery. Early-types are already utterly wasted and are buried deep in the throng.

(Or, if you want a really disturbing analogy, the youthful blue spirals are forever falling into the corpse pit of dead giants at the centre. Lovely.)

 You can just about see this in the interactive display, but it's a bit clearer here :

Early types in red, late types in blue.
Just why this should be is a matter of intense controversy. Does the environment set what sort of galaxies form or does it alter those that happen to fall in ? Or is it a bit of both ?

We don't know. Certainly, though, the effects of the cluster can be very powerful. Just as Big Brother is a great way to spy on people but doesn't give you a typical view of human behaviour*, so too are clusters hardly typical habitats for galaxies. Your average galaxy instead prefers to live in isolation, or perhaps a small group of a few or few tens of galaxies - not the thousands-strong hordes of a big cluster.

* Hopefully.

Truly isolated galaxies are frankly as dull as hell. Small groups, on the other hand, are surprisingly interesting. Their interactions tend to be slow, as the gravity is from only a few other galaxies. But this gives it a long time to do tremendous damage, so group galaxies often show spectacular streams of stars and gas flung out into extragalactic space.

Galaxies in the NGC 7448 group. At radio wavelengths the whole thing, along with many other systems in this region, is embedded in a massive "common envelope" of atomic hydrogen.
Clusters are different. With a much greater total mass, galaxies move very much faster relative to each other, meaning that gravity has little time to do any damage. But clusters also contain something else : gas. This is not shown in the interactive tool, at least not yet, but it fills most of the cluster. Galaxies moving through this very hot, very thin intracluster medium can lose their gas through ram pressure stripping. So although long stellar tails are pretty rare in clusters, tails of gas are more common. Ram pressure can completely strip even a massive galaxy, killing its star formation and, perhaps, eventually turning a late-type spiral into a red and dead elliptical. Well, maybe.


Subclusters and structures

Virgo isn't just one big group of galaxies - it's several different groups which are still in the process of assembly. I haven't shown all the groups here, just a selection of the major ones taken from this paper.

The main body of the cluster is imaginatively known as subcluster A. It's about 17 Mpc (50 million light years) away from us, while subcluster B is more like 23 Mpc (75 million light years) and the W cloud is considerably more distant at 32 Mpc (100 million light years). The distance circles in the interactive page are shown for the main cluster, so are obviously wrong for the more distant regions.

The other sub-groups (sometimes called "clouds") are much smaller than the main A cluster, but they're still large enough to have their own gas. They're effectively mini-clusters being gobbled up by the big one.

Measuring these kinds of enormous distances is tricky, and this is the main weakness of this visualisation. We can directly measure how fast a galaxy is moving towards or away from us with really quite astonishing precision, to within a 1 km/s or so. When Edwin Hubble wasn't inventing daft terminologies, he was busy quantifying how distance relates to velocity - and this seems to work very well in low-density environments. But not, unfortunately, in clusters. Here the enormous gravity overwhelms this "Hubble flow", so the velocities we measure don't bear much relation to true distances.

There are other ways to measure distance, but they're much harder and only available for a far smaller number of galaxies. So what I did here was to use the velocities as a proxy for distance and scale them so that the cluster has approximately the correct depth. This gives broadly correct results, in that you can clearly see the different clouds, but each individual galaxy is usually wrong. For example there's a famous pair of galaxies which are clearly interacting :

The big red elliptical is NGC 4649 while the distorted spiral is NGC 4647.
But you won't see this in the visualisation. Both of them are present, but the velocities of the two are quite different, making them appear much more widely separated than they really are.


Individual galaxies

The labels I chose based on some of my personal favourite galaxies in the cluster. If you click them, you'll get links to more detailed information (public outreach articles where possible, academic papers where not). Mainy of them refer to tails of gas, which I might try and add at some point in the future.

There's a total of 774 galaxies shown : 386 early-types and 388 late-types. This is a bit of a misleading view, because in reality there are a lot more ETGs than LTGs. But most of them are pathetically faint and don't have velocity measurements, so we have even less of an idea as to their distance.

Actually, it might not be so bad as that by now. I'm using the same data set as for the map I made years back, so by now we might have new data. But showing each galaxy isn't a trivial task. A lot of time and effort was spent in manually adjusting them images to make sure their size was correct and annoying artifacts and foreground stars were carefully removed. That's not a process I care to repeat, though most of the new galaxies probably wouldn't suffer from this (but, being so faint, it wouldn't make that much difference to the overall appearance of the thing anyway).

The size of the galaxies has been exaggerated by a factor of five. I wanted to make this an interactive feature where you could set the scale for yourself, but this proved difficult. Maybe I'll find a way to do this and update it as I learn more about Blend4Web, but for now, this scaling seemed to give the best balance between realism and the need to make a pretty picture.

Galaxies are also, as you can tell, rendered in the style of classic video game sprites that always point towards the camera. It should be possible to overcome this for many galaxies and give a more accurate 3D view, but I leave this for version 2.0


So that's all for now. Have fun exploring Virgo, and let me know if I've missed anything vital. There's lots more to do (more galaxies, higher resolution textures, colour correction to show the spirals better, add gas), but as a first effort I'm pretty darn pleased with this.

Saturday, 14 March 2020

Which Telescope Is The Best Place To Survive A Zombie Apocalypse ?

In these troubled times, it's important to consider the big questions. What's the meaning of life ? What is consciousness ? Where is all the toilet paper ? And, of course, which observatory is the best one to run to in the highly likely event that COVID-19 mutates and turns everyone into zombies ? I dunno, but here's my top five (and one honourable mention).


5) The Very Large Array, New Mexico


At first glance this seems like a really dumb choice to hole up in the event of a zombie outbreak. The telescopes are small and the on-site facilities are highly limited. There's only one way in or out of each dish, but at just 25m diameter, it would be easy for the shuffling hordes to build World War Z style human towers and climb on, probably collapsing the dish in the process.

The one advantage is that the site is remote and the population of the nearest towns is absolutely tiny. So it's going to take days before any zombie wanders in, and then they'll be in such low numbers that you could easily hold them off for a good long while until a full horde arrives.

VERDICT : POOR. Acceptable as an emergency stop-off - you could hunker down inside one of the tiny telescope instrument rooms and the zombies would probably never know you were there. But after that you'd want to get to safety pretty fast.


4) The McGraw Hill 1.3m at Kitt Peak, Arizona



This dinky little telescope sits atop a mountain some considerable distance from Tucson, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. It's not going to be at all easy for the zombies to reach the site, and most of them will hang around in Tucson anyway. Fifty miles is not that far, but the population density is still pretty low and the zombies wouldn't be able to scent anyone so high on the hill.


That's the good news. The bad news is that when the zombies eventually make it there, the site is poorly defendable - even worse than the VLA. Especially the 1.3m telescope. The building is small, one storey, and has easy-access. There's nowhere inside good to hole up in, and a minimum of hardware to play with. Yes, you could blast the zombies with some liquid nitrogen from the storage tanks, but that's not going to last very long. And with so many telescopes up there, it's pretty likely someone will already be carrying the virus, so you may not have as much time as you think to prepare.

VERDICT : POOR. Better than being down in the city, but too easy to get trapped in. You'll have more supplies than at the VLA, but a less defendable site.


3) The IRAM 30m Single Dish, Granada, Spain


Now we start to get serious. Although not much bigger than a VLA dish, the telescope is considerably more defendable and the site extremely well-equipped : being snowed in is nothing unusual here. Inside the main building you could live very comfortably, but your best bet would be to grab the wine and food and hole up inside the telescope itself. Not so much comfort, but very easy to stay hidden.

The uncertainty comes from the site and when the outbreak occurs. In winter, the shuffling hordes are going to have absolutely no chance of making it up the hill - without crampons, even a fully-functioning human would find it difficult. The problem is it's on a ski resort, so the number of potential zombies nearby is going to be high. So when you eventually need to get back down, you might have a problem. And in summer there will be hikers, so sooner or later you're going to have to deal with the zombies and not just hide from them.

VERDICT : Decent. A great place to survive the winter, but you'll have to escape come the spring thaw.


2) The Green Bank 100m Telescope, West Virginia



The gargantuan GBT is a massive edifice that suffers from being too big to photograph properly. Access to the top of the telescope is by lift only, making it difficult for the zombies to reach. And even if they somehow stumble against the "up" button, they'll only come in limited numbers. The instrument room at the top wouldn't be luxurious, but you'd be able to hold the site against indefinitely large hordes. Plus, it's West Virginia, so getting guns won't be a problem.


The remoteness of the site is another big asest. Your only real limit is going to be the limited storage space at the telescope for food. And if that lift breaks, you're screwed.

VERDICT : Excellent. Get up quick and the zombies won't even know you're there. Only the space limitation restricts this from being a long-term way to ride out the apocalypse. You might be able to make it work, but you'd need some serious preparation time.


1) The Arecibo 305m Radio Telescope, Puerto Rico



As long as you come prepared, this one might be hard to beat. The site isn't as remote as the others but it's not bad. The telescope platform, however, is just about as defensible a site as you could ever hope to find. At the top, it's easy to disable the cable car so that the zombies can't even bring it back accidentally. Take out a few of the catwalk panels and that route is denied to them too. All you need do is put a few obstacles on the top of the catwalk and even that becomes impassable to the clumsy corpses.

Unlike the others, the interior of the telescope doesn't have much in the way of space restrictions. You'll need to disable the radar in case it gets accidentally activated and fries you, but this is easy. And being so far above the ground, the zombies are not going to be able to sight or scent you, so the chances of them even attempting access is minimal. If you prepare in time, you could rig up a zipline to the ground which the zombies wouldn't be able to use.

What about the case of an all-out attack ? The towers are too difficult for zombies to climb and the cables too strong to break. Should the zombies decide to build a human pyramid to reach you, it'd take hundreds of thousands - maybe even millions - to reach the platform -  a sizeable fraction of the population of Puerto Rico. Basically, that isn't going to happen.

The real risks come from perfectly natural disasters. The telescope has its own power generator, but who knows how long that will last without maintenance, so you're gonna be roughing it. A really big earthquake or hurricane might bring it down, but those are few and far between. Still, without maintenance, eventually enough of those cables are going to break, but this would plausibly take decades.

VERDICT : A solid choice. Needs some serious preparations, but less than the GBT, and potentially an ideal permanent residence for self-isolation.


Honourable Mention : The Sphinx Observatory, Switzerland


Doesn't make the list because it's not a functioning astronomical telescope, but still worthy of note. Virtually inaccessible except by train, permanently snow-capped, and hugely well-equipped for tourists so totally laden with supplies. A far more comfortable place to ride out the apocalypse than any of the others, but since it's a major tourist attraction the site may already been crawling with zombies when you get there.

VERDICT : Wildcard. If you reach it before the zombies do, you can live in indefinite luxury above the clouds. If you don't, you'll have a lovely view shortly before the brain-dead tourists rip you limb from limb. Oh well, at least you'll die somewhere scenic.

Thursday, 12 March 2020

A Handy Guide To Being A Supervillain

Why do seemingly clever people sometimes do really stupid things ? There are a host of reasons, not least of which are the networks in which people live. It doesn't matter if you're super-duper intelligent : if you're unfortunate enough to only know people who only ever talk about the latest drivel from Kayne West, then chances are you're going to believe a few crazy things yourself.

But a much more fundamental reason is that there are different kinds of intelligence and stupidity - or at least, different aspects of each. We tend to mistake mathematical, technical brilliance for a much broader sort of wisdom, as though anyone capable of assembling IKEA furniture without the instructions must also be a dab hand at international diplomacy. This, of course, is not the case. As the philosopher Epictetus said :
'But I'm a scholar who understands Archedemus !' You can understand Archedemus and still be an adulterer and a cheater, a wolf or an ape rather than a human being, what's to stop you ?
For a more recent example, look no further than the case of a lesbian professor of philosophy who sexually harassed a gay male student. People are indeed very, very strange and complicated beasts.

So what is this "wisdom" we're interested in, and how is it different from the regular kind of intelligence ? This is something that's bothered me for a while. Some people call it "critical thinking", others might call it "skepticism", but perhaps Ian Malcolm said it best :


That's a pretty decent definition of a clever idiot : sometime who has to work tremendously hard solving lots of complex problems in order to accomplish a really, really stupid task. Which in this case results in a bunch of dinosaurs eating everyone, making it something of a self-limiting problem.

So intelligence compromises many different cognitive skills. What I've suggested* is that this sort of critical thinking is the ability to overcome bias. Someone who's really good at thinking critically is concerned only with the truth, and is prepared to accept whatever the evidence says regardless of any other concerns. They'd be equally comfortable in declaring that the evidence says, "kill all the ginger people" as they would in saying it says, "give all the ginger people a billion dollars and a big bowl of ice cream". Whereas a bullshiter doesn't care about the truth at all, a really good critical thinker merely doesn't care about what the truth is - but does care a good deal about actually knowing the truth, whatever it may be.

* At least, I make a throwaway statement to that effect in the link, but I honestly don't remember if I had a moment of inspiration or read it somewhere else.

So let's go with this idea of two different kinds of intelligence. Analytic intelligence is about solving problems. Critical intelligence is about being able to accept whatever the evidence suggests, regardless of personal preferences. Doubtless there are more kinds of intelligence than this, but if we stick with just these two, we can make a nice chart.

But why bother ? First, charts are fun. I like charts. They give simplified descriptions that are useful in getting a handle on the messy complexities of reality. But more importantly, lately I've seen a misconception floating around in the left-wing UK media. Perhaps it was always there, but it's become much more noticeable in the last few months.

Specifically, the Guardian, Independent, Mirror and the like are full of headlines about how the right-wing political leaders are most certainly doomed. Whether through their own stupidity or an awakening on the part of the voters, just like the scientists who build Jurassic Park, they're permanently assumed to be on the brink of becoming a self-limiting problem. This is exemplified by this article in the Guardian which says that evil geniuses are a myth; that evil is always stupid and stupid is always doomed to fail. Never mind that a lot of damage can happen in the process, I think that's just plain wrong. So without further ado, let me explain why by means of a handy chart.


The Evil Genius Chart


Let's go through this quadrant by quadrant, because it's fun to pretend that people are so simple they can be divided into four big blocks. Note that the labels are intended to represent quite large areas. As for individual people, they can be found all over the chart : a scientist might be fantastic at thinking critically about the causes of muscle diseases but absolutely insistent that the English cricket team is the greatest force for good in human history.


The ideal scientist

Obviously the ideal case is pretty rare in practise.
As is very nicely explained on the blog Wait But Why, a perfect scientist cares a lot about how they reason and whether they're being honest. They don't care a fig what their conclusions are, just so long as they're as accurate as possible.

Your typical scientist doesn't necessarily reach the extreme top right of the chart, having maximum critical and analytical intelligence. Most mere mortals do have some biases they just can't shake off, but for your typical scientist this is not so much that they cause any serious difficulties. Being by definition more educated than laymen, they know better tricks for solving specific problems and understand the nuances better than most keen amateurs.

Really obsessed people, be they professional or amateur, might achieve incredibly high analytic scores, but unless they're in a professional environment, they might not do so well in terms of critical thinking. For that, you need other people telling you "you're wrong !" to keep you honest.

Of course, every scientist wants to reach the top right corner. They want to be able to solve every problem, no matter how complex, with the best solution possible. Sherlock Holmes is something pretty close to this ideal, but as we'll see later, his creator Arthur Conan-Doyle gives an interesting contrast.


Ignorant students


From the amazing they can talk webcomic. I will be a spoilsport and point out that neither children nor animals are really "born scientists" as it's popular to claim - the resemblance is superficial.
We've all got to start somewhere. Young children and various animals are really, really good at accepting reality as it is, or at least the evidence as presented to them. If a dog finds a ball under the couch, it doesn't get confused if it thought the ball was previously on the table. It just accepts reality and moves on. It may not have the slightest idea how the ball got there, but it damn well knows that is is.

When it comes to more advanced stuff, a lot of people are vaguely interested in something but aren't dedicated viewers - the difference between a Star Trek devotee who never misses an episode and has every stardate memorised and one who tunes in to ogle Seven of Nine from time to time. If presented with different possible solutions, the casually interested might be able to figure out which one is correct, but isn't likely to come up with either on their own. They just don't know enough of the subtleties to make the necessary connections, or understand the interrelated parts sufficiently well to work out what would happen in a new situation. Likewise for the uninterested : they may tell you which option is more likely, but they wouldn't ever stop to analyse the situation themselves.

Having a reasonable level of critical thinking but not analytic intelligence has another weakness. Being able to assess what the evidence suggests is a different from being able to understand if the evidence is itself correct. Children are extremely vulnerable to manipulation because they'll believe pretty much anything you tell them - they don't have the mental skills to asses statements on their own. Tell them that Santa exists and they have no problem in accepting that... but also tell them that fat people can't fit down chimneys and they'll spot the difficulty right away.


Sheeple


From the wonderful xkcd, of course.
A.k.a. the Great Unwashed, nice-but-dim. To borrow an example from Wait But Why, a sports fan does care about reality, but desperately wants it to go their way. If things don't, they have enough skill to work out all kinds of complicated (and not so complicated) reasons why it didn't, but ultimately they do accept it.

Politicians - at least the current bunch of morons - seem to be even more tribal than sports fans, partly because that's their professional role. They're supposed to be tribal, that's how the system works (and why it doesn't). Analytically they're certainly more sophisticated than sports fans, for the same reason. The region that the label for politicians represents is probably the largest of all groups : some reach very respectable levels of both kinds of intellect, others... don't.

At the lower left we have the extremes : the people so stupid they're barely capable of thinking at all. They accept whatever anyone they happen to like tells them without question, confusing their trust in the person with trust in what they're claiming. Left to themselves, they're largely harmless. Their danger lies largely in their participation in democratic systems which require a fair degree of skepticism. Without this, anyone appealing to the lowest common denominator has an easy time getting these people on board.


The evil genius



Finally we come to potentially the most dangerous realm of all : people who can figure things out, but use their skills only to justify their existing preferences. They don't really investigate, they rationalise.

This isn't necessarily dangerous, mind you. Arthur Conan Doyle presents a particularly nice example. Most famous for creating the ruthlessly logical and brilliant Sherlock Holmes, he himself believed in fairies. Frickin' fairies, for God's sake ! Even when a very obvious hoax hit the headlines, he saw it only as evidence for his beliefs. A decent scientist would never do that, or at worst would have to suffer the eternal shame of other scientists and quickly shut up about it.

But Doyle's fairies hardly led to any serious direct harm to anybody. Likewise, believing in the Flat Earth doesn't necessarily do anyone any actual physical harm. Even so, while the sheeple of the lower left are the most at risk from manipulation, it's the potentially evil people of this upper left quadrant which are the most likely to do the manipulating : when things go bad here, they can go very bad indeed. The people on the other side of the chart care too much about the truth to deliberately mislead anyone, but the people over on this side care more about getting their own way than anything as pesky as "facts".

This takes different forms. The "angry people in pubs", on on the internet, are often what we might call armchair bigots. They won't, unless strongly pressured, ever take physical action against people they dislike. But they are all too willing to vote on policies which harm other people. They care just enough about the truth to have the decency to be embarrassed (even if only unconsciously) by their opinions, but they're all too happy to absolve themselves of responsibility and let other people do their dirty work*. This is a very dangerous aspect of democracy, in that it makes villainy much easier by making it far less personal.

* We might be more sympathetic to armchair heroes, who want good things but aren't prepared to take any action further than signing a petition or, dare I say it, writing a blog.

It's said that to err is human, but to really foul things up you need a computer. In other words, the more analytic intelligence someone has, the greater their potential for damage if they don't also care about the truth. Hence the scientists of Jurassic Park were hardly what anyone would call evil, but they made a catastrophic mistake (at least according to the movie). At the more extreme end, while many Flat Earthers belong much lower down the chart, at least a few are capable of some serious mental gymnastics to rationalise their beliefs. They are not necessarily stupid, but dear me they're not the slightest bit interested in the truth.

And lawyers ? This is another excellent example courtesy of Wait But Why. A lawyer on their own has to be good at justifying any position, because that's what their professional role entails. By definition, they're not supposed to care about the truth, or only to the bare minimum necessary to formulate a defence of their client. Their interest is only in defence, in rationalising. The hope of the judicial system is that when such people operate in a system, doing the same process both for and against a client, a neutral observer will be capable of getting at the truth. Thus a lawyer acting in defence of a serial killer isn't evil, given the context in which they operate.

Whether this really works or not is an interesting question. On the face of it it sounds a bit daft*, so I propose an experiment : present a series of carefully staged scenarios to a bunch of scientists and a court and see which does best. We take it for granted that both courts and scientists are good at establishing facts, but the two systems are very different. Scientists criticise each other, yes, but the adversarial process is quite different to the courtroom situation. So when Captain Picard says :

* Get two people to make the cleverest, most persuasive arguments for and against a position ? Knowing how persuasion works, and knowing that people of the jury will lie all over the above chart, this seems like a very weird idea.


... we should wonder if a) this is really correct and b) whether there isn't a better way of doing things.


Conclusion : yes, you can be an evil genius, but please don't

To really describe the evil genius, we'd need to add malevolence as a third axis. As I said, lawyers aren't necessarily evil or doing evil things, and they certainly don't go home at night to cackle away in their creepy dungeons. Probably. But they do exemplify the kind of thinking that can be described as evil genius in the right circumstances. Sure, the people who fit all three criteria (highly biased, highly analytical, and highly malevolent) are rare, but they're also disproportionately dangerous.

This realm of uncritical, highly analytical intellect is what the British left-wing media is either refusing to believe in or doesn't realise is possible. It's why, as Stephen Pinker eloquently put it, "things that can't go on forever can on for much longer than you think". It's how people can have absolutely lamentably, horrifically stupid goals but then set about accomplishing them in amazingly sophisticated ways. It's one way - only one way, mind you - by which people can become locked in to a course that goes directly against their own interests.

Part of the appeal of conspiracy theories of the evil-lizard-men ilk is that we want to believe someone's in charge, even if they're not very nice. It helps us make sense of a messed-up reality. But saying that an evil genius is impossible, that anyone bent on a course that seems to be obviously self-destructive will in fact self-destruct, is also a mistake. Yes, eventually they may come crashing down in a big ugly heap, but the British media seems to think that every minor difficulty for them poses an insurmountable challenge - even as they keep on succeeding. This is to misunderstand how genuinely clever such people can be : just because their goals are those of lunatics does not mean they don't know some incredibly astute methods to accomplish them. To say that the evil genius does not exist is, I'm sorry to say, little more than wishful thinking.