Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Technical details versus big picture viewpoints in Anthropology and stuff

In my never ending search for knowledge and my recent studies in Anthropology I am finding something very interesting out about science in general.

Often the “big-picture” theories are easily contested while the technical details are not.

Working with some technologies I found that the most common “mistake” in working with a new technology was an inaccurate assessment of the variability in the output of the technology.

Manufacturing engineering is pretty simple, find out where the largest variability in time or results are and make that part of the process less variable. Mis-characterizing a technology as being less variable that it really is makes the technology more marketable. We often read about similar things concerning the drug industry. A drug is thought to be consistent and when it is released to the public the variability is actually so great that people end up dead.

In Anthropology the same thing is true. Often those studying a specific group of people create an ethnography which is later refined by later researchers. The technical details of the group are refined to become less variable over time.

In humanistic studies the technical details are less specific and not as easily quantifiable as they are in a more technical avocations such as engineering and manufacturing. All groups attempting comparative studies between groups will attempt to develop quantitative data which can be used to compare these groups. In humanistic sciences such as psychology and anthropology this quantitative data is subjective rather than objective. Bottom line, quantifying subjective data is different from quantifying objective data.

If we can agree on the subjective classification of details, and a lot of the time people don't, the technical details accumulated in any science are “facts” and can not be argued with.

As our data grows and we develop conclusions from the data and then use deductive or inductive reasoning to develop theories based on these conclusions we get farther and farther from facts.

My anthropological theory, “the world according to Jack”, is a high level theory on the development of culture. In most cases, like Aristotle and Aristarchus, it is the theory resulting from conclusions after reviewing the technical data which result in conflict between scientists.

Okay, in anthropology and psychology the data is pretty much all subjective so we can argue the technical data also. In this case we will ignore that, mostly because while I am smart enough to question the big-picture theories I do not have the technical expertise to question the subjective data collection. I don't have to be an expert on cars to tell that a car needs work done, there are lots of indicators. I do have to be a technical expert to determine exactly what details must be addressed to accomplish that work.

To give you an idea of how stupid and unreasonable debates about technical theories and detailed data acquisition are I will once again turn to the laughable geocentric vs heliocentric argument which our hero Aristotle won, proving once and for all (or almost two thousand years) that the earth is motionless and the sun revolves around it.

Aristotle put a ball on a string. He placed an object on the ball and then swung the ball around in a circle over his head, using the string. The object flew off the ball.

This was stupid, even for people who had no concept of gravity. Aristotle knew that there was some force which prevented him from jumping off the earth. He attributed it to gravitas or heaviness. Essentially people were too heavy to jump off the earth, but, if subjected to centrifugal force they would fly off the planet. Yeah, planet because Aristotle knew that the Earth was a sphere and that water will find it's own level.

How does water find it's own level on a sphere? This is actually one of the reasons people believed in a flat earth. Not anyone who understood geometry, just people with a very basic understanding of how things work. Imagine trying to explain how water at the bottom of the sphere didn't fall off to a person.

Aristotle knew, from studying shadows (even at sea) that the surface of the Earth was curved and that the surface of the Mediterranean sea curved with it. Why?

There are actually some interesting explanations for this, but, Aristotle was an expert showman so he ignored the things he didn't know in order to supply a culturally acceptable theory based on conclusions from factual data.

Like most scientists Aristotle knew there was stuff missing which he ignored and during debates used ridiculous “experiments” that made crowds laugh in support of him while ridiculing his opponents.

A politician once accused his opponent of monogamous heterosexuality during a debate, asking, “Do you deny that you are a monogamous heterosexual?” The opponent admitted he was and lost the election. This was one of William Randolph Hearst's favorite yellow sheet tricks, “Do you deny that you were ever in a mental institution?” or “Do you deny having sex with a prostitute?” Even today people fall for similar political propaganda.

The technical details are typically ignored in the debate surrounding the conclusions and theories developed from those conclusions.

It is the big-picture stuff that is fun and entertaining. However, developing an opinion on the conclusions from which a theory is developed without understanding the technical basics is the development of an uneducated opinion. Most of us gladly develop uneducated opinions.

On an Internet message board I was discussing evolution and one of the posters explained that he had minored in evolution. I explained that universities didn't give degrees in evolution, either majors or minors. Evolution was an anthropological theory and someone studying evolution would have taken classes in anthropology. Someone else posted a link to a small private college catalog which included a course on “evolution and natural science”. Sometimes I just want to puke at how hard people work at being ignorant.

How many of us develop political opinions without ever reading a single political party platform? Most people I discuss political party platforms with don't know what they are any more than my anonymous debater knew what evolution actually was. These are the basic technical details that I believe are required to develop an opinion.

Personally I would never hazard an opinion on a subject about which I have not studied the basics. This was not always true, in my twenties I was just as ignorant and opinion prone as most people.

I once told someone that the universe had to be either open constantly or intermittently open. He asked why it had to be. I considered this Hearstian question and refused to answer. A technically oriented question seeking a legitimate answer might be “how do you know that?”

One of the laws of physics tells us that a closed system will not gain or lose energy. Here we have a universe with energy in it. How did it get there? The system, like all systems with any energy in it, has to have been open at one point. Since we don't know if the universe is an open or closed system we can only say that the universe must be either intermittently or constantly open.

Open to what? Being religious I would say God. As a scientist I can say that I don't know what our system is open to.

All theories of the universe start with a miracle, here we have stuff. The technical details of physics and matter can't be argued. Okay, the subjective ones can, but, the objective data cannot be argued which is why so many scientists try to make subjective data look objective.

People need classes in statistics to get a B.S. In psychology or anthropology because they have to be able to convert subjective data into something that looks objective. This makes the conclusions look more substantive.

The bottom line is that science is filled with Hearstian stunts like the one Aristotle pulled that are used to argue conclusions and theories, but, properly collected data cannot be argued. Data can be supplemented and conclusions based on the data can change. Those conclusions can change theories. Properly collected data never changes.

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