Knowledge isn’t linear

Human progress isn’t a straight line. This is as true of knowledge as anything else. Only in a computer game does knowledge accumulate through discrete ideas, with defined benefits and pathways.

In real life knowledge is messy, unpredictable and often the result of jamming together ideas and experiences in unpredictable ways. While experts can identify pertinent questions and fields for investment, history is littered with examples of unexpected intellectual explosions.

All of this came to mind as I read that the Australian government wants recipients of research grants to prove that it “advance[s] the national interest”.

Let’s overlook that the “national interest” and common sense are subjective, ever changing, and at least partially driven by intellectual progress.

One such intellectual explosion is chronicled in The unfinished game. Keith Devlin tells the story of a series of letters between Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat as they try to solve what is essentially a problem for gamblers.

Called the problem of points it posits a game where two players have equal chances of winning each round. For some reason the game is disrupted before anyone has won, and so the question is how to divide the pot fairly.

Pascal and Fermat exchanged a series of letters on this problem. Although this process doesn’t pass muster as research by modern standards, would this question have passed the politicians’ test? I doubt it. But the impact has been profound.

“Within a few years of Pascal’s sending his letter, people no longer saw the future as completely unpredictable and beyond their control. They could compute the likelihoods of various things’ happening and plan their activities—and their lives—accordingly. In short, Pascal showed us how to manage risk. His letter created our modern view of the future.

From what else I’ve read, the author oversells the letters a little bit. But it was undoubtedly a precursor of modern probability theory. It was part of a movement that profoundly changed the world.

“Even those who are not schooled in the mathematics of calculating odds know that the future is not a matter of blind fate. We can often judge what is likely to happen and plan accordingly. Yet before Pascal wrote his letter to Fermat, many learned people (including some leading mathematicians) believed that predicting the likelihood of future events was simply not possible.”

Without the ability to quantify risk, there would be no liquid capital markets, and global companies like Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, DuPont, Alcoa, Merck, Boeing, and McDonald’s might never have come into being.”

“Within a hundred years of Pascal’s letter, life-expectancy tables formed the basis for the sale of life annuities in England, and London was the [centre] of a flourishing marine insurance business, without which sea transportation would have remained a domain only for those who could afford to assume the enormous risks it entailed.”

All of this isn’t to say that government’s can’t and shouldn’t roughly guide their research dollars. Some questions are more pressing or have more potential than others, which is why the current Australian system contains peer review.

But that knowledge is a simple widget or knob to be turned up or down for national benefit is an ahistorical view of progress.

It’s time for other arguments about climate change

The “debate” about climate change is so poisoned it has brought down at least two Australian prime ministers, and the very term is redacted from US government websites.

So maybe it’s time to retire, or at least rein in, this line of argument. The externalities produced by burning coal and oil, from factory farming etc., have many facets that can be tackled. Notably, health.

Take this recent study on air pollution from researchers at Arizona State:

“We find that a 1 microgram-per-cubic-meter increase in average decadal exposure (9.1% of the mean) increases the probability of receiving a dementia diagnosis by 1.3 percentage points (6.7% of the mean). This finding is consistent with hypotheses from the medical literature.”

“Burgeoning medical literature provides reason to suspect that long-term exposure to elevated pollution levels may permanently impair older adults’ cognition, especially in the case of particulates smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter, commonly known as “fine particulate matter” or “PM2.5”. The small size of PM2.5 allows it to remain airborne for long periods, to penetrate buildings, to be inhaled easily, and to reach and accumulate within brain tissue. The accumulation of particulates in the brain can cause neuroinflammation, which is asso-ciated with symptoms of dementia…”

So, emissions are not just harmful to the environment, but human health as well. The suffering isn’t only in the long term, evident only in a computer model, but in the health of real people living right now.

It’s also worthwhile thinking about who bears the brunt of this. The workers in industries like mining, obviously. But as a recent hurricane in North Carolina showed, polluting industries are also often situated in poorer areas:

“Even after adjusting for socioeconomic factors — and even without a hurricane — life expectancy in southeastern North Carolina communities near industrial meat growers is lower than in places without these hog operations. A recent study published in North Carolina Medical Journal found that residents near the industrial animal operations had higher rates of all-cause mortality, infant mortality, mortality from anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis, and septicemia, and higher rates of emergency room visits than the residents in the control group.”

As Ketan Joshi has noted, denying climate science is now akin to being an anti-vaxxer both in the scientific illiteracy required as well as the harm being wrought. But we can’t expect to win this fight, especially in the short time we have to take action. Instead, we should change the subject. There are plenty of other arguments to make.


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