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Regards a diary on the rec list that suggests that the BP spill is the reult of man's over-reaching and a misplaced faith in technolgy: oh, bullshit.

Survivors of the accident say that BP employees browbeat the Transocean crew and ordered them to violate normal procedures, apparently nearly coming to blows with the crew of the oil rig.

And that is the fault of human nature, not technology. People have been dying in similar scenarios since the Stone Age, when man developed the ability to articulate really stupid ideas. The big guy in the tribe said "Hey we are going to march into this desert, and on the third day we will find water, or the gods will make it rain pomegranate juice. If you don't go, this will show up on your annual review."  And everyone died.

But bad planning, patently dumb ideas, and browbeating the people who know better are hardly the byproduct of reductionism or the scientific method. Indeed, fiascoes like Mao's attempts to reform agriculture, which killed millions, could only happen by ignoring scientists.

I do not expect to change anyone's mind. In fact philosophers have been kicking this can down the road for well over 2000 years, and it was Aristotle's rejection of a large body of empirical scientific data that kept western civilization (Aristotle's fan club) stuck in the Dark Ages for nearly a thousand years.

I could have ignored the whole issue except for a reference to "ontological reality." Slowly I turn.....

I don't expect to change anyone's mind - there are plenty of fans of ontologies, and for them, the concept is as stark and bold as bolt of lightning in a night sky. The lack of tangible results from these theories or tens of millions of dollars spent on these theories does not deter each new generation of acolytes. Ironically, "ontologies" are still with us because their supporters have decided to drop their definition of "ontologies," which violates all their principles.

Karl Popper pointed out the virtue of reductionist science - where it leads to a dead end, the weaknesses are clearly defined and the standard for a solution is also known.

(Reductionism) progresses by bold ideas, by the advancement of new and very strange theories...and by the overthrow of the old ones.

While reductionsism  has its shortcomings, the alternatives have brought centuries of stagnation, without any promise of peace or prosperity.

Popper again:

The Aristotlean method...has remained arrested in a state of empty verbiage and barren scholasticism, and that the degree to which the various sciences have been able to make any progress depended on the degree to which they have been able to get rid of this essentialist method......It is characteristic of the views of this school that they do not lead to any chain of argument that could be rationally criticized; the school therefore addresses its subtle analyses exclusively to the small esoteric circle of the initiated.

Oh snap.

Originally posted to bernardpliers on Sun May 30, 2010 at 10:43 PM PDT.


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Comment Preferences

  •  the real lesson of the BP disaster (17+ / 0-)

    is corporate ownership of govt regulators and Congress, and of course the short sighted "profit motive".  Maybe they thought the $75 million liability cap would stick, so drilling a mile down is worth it., even with the risks of an accident, which was largely due to corners being cut and rules not being followed. Nothing new there.

    •  I doubt they considered the consequences at all (6+ / 0-)

      in the process of trying to get the well finished. The profit motive and the project budgets on a huge undertaking like this might well have been enough. Pressure to keep to deadlines, pressure to keep the contracting costs down, pressure to push ahead and (most insidious) the rewarding of those who take risks and get lucky, even though they could just as easily have been the ones who took risks and got unlucky, blackening the seas for miles around.

      This is not a sig-line.

      by Joffan on Sun May 30, 2010 at 10:56:29 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Sadly, anti-intellectualism (18+ / 0-)

    is alive and well across the political spectrum.

    This is not a sig-line.

    by Joffan on Sun May 30, 2010 at 10:57:29 PM PDT

  •  okay, so you're saying (8+ / 0-)

    that the real problem is human fallibility, greed, arrogance, and stupidity?

    If so, I'm cool with that. But that doesn't mean that we aren't a little too complacent about the possibilities of magic bullets.

    Sometimes just because you're right, doesn't mean the other guy is wrong.

    Gulf gusher? Gulf crusher, more like it.

    by Miep on Sun May 30, 2010 at 11:11:47 PM PDT

  •  Why'd you have to write this after i took my (7+ / 0-)


    If I remember I'll respond in the morning with a Feyerabend quote I can't find right now.

    Toyota: Proof US Union Labor Still Does it Better

    by VelvetElvis on Sun May 30, 2010 at 11:15:19 PM PDT

  •  Reminds me of a former life .. (14+ / 0-)

    Having worked in quality control for a few years, I found that while yes, one can make pretty control charts of a what properly maintained process can do, in the end the most serious problems come from not understanding first of all, all the variabilities of given process, and perhaps more importantly the perfidy and foibles of those human beings.

    Here's an egregious example.

    I watched as defective material was OK'ed for use, over and over again for various political and nefarious reasons, forcing a manufacturing process to literally make a defective product, engaging a whole production line into making items which were defective, because production targets were more important. Then, I fought upper level management to stop shipping the garbage out of the door, because I couldn't stop the process that made the defective product to begin with [I tried, and was threatened more than once that my job would be at stake if I didn't back off].  

    Like a broken record, this happened, over and over.

    No matter how many Ishikawa diagrams [some folks know these as "fishbone charts"] I made trying to outline a process, there was always another defect mode I could not imagine, staring us in the face because I couldn't imagine [or chart] deliberately violating the precepts of out of spec materials. We chose as a corporation to make items using parts out of tolerance, parts out of specification, even knowing all the time and effort was being wasted, building crap.

    Forget about design; humans are cannot even able control a process that they can agree is essential to a satisfactory outcome, to agree to reject defective parts at the start of a process.

    The real world necessarily intrudes.

    Humans are involved, and the foibles of human behavior, error, greed, whatever prevent all technologies that created by humans to built in flaws. The very fact that almost every manufacturing enterprise has to have a thing called 'quality control' and 'inspectors' should tell anyone who is paying attention there's a problem.  

    In the real world, one must balance technology and science. Failures of technology are always at fault, because humans are involved. With science, at least you have some self-correcting error mechanisms in place; there the process is subjected to at least open and fair review [or at least should be].

    With technology, we are rarely told the facts, clearly and without prejudice. And we pay a price for that.

    Saul Alinsky:
    Power is not in what the establishment has, but in what you think it has.

    by shpilk on Sun May 30, 2010 at 11:50:19 PM PDT

  •  A nice rebuttal. (7+ / 0-)

    BP - Proving Oil and Water do mix.

    by amk for obama on Sun May 30, 2010 at 11:58:51 PM PDT

  •  Except for the carbon (5+ / 0-)

    Even if nothing bad had happened with the well, burning all that carbon's a major Promethean problem.

    You cannot save the Gulf. But you can make its death mean something. -- Crashing Vor

    by Land of Enchantment on Mon May 31, 2010 at 12:18:52 AM PDT

  •  Science has nothing to do with it (9+ / 0-)

    I've worked in a highly technical field for over decade.  When I started, the people with technical expertise made the technical decisions.

    In the passing years. things have changed.  People in charge now have degrees in shit like "Information Technology", which basically means they don't know anything technical, but they can tell technical people what to do.

    I knew exactly the problem when I heard about the rubber pieces floating up.  Technical people knew that meant that the valves were no longer intact, and pressure readings couldn't be trusted.  Business people said that the pressure readings were within specification, so the technical people needed to shut the fuck up.

    In my line of work if a screw was unaccounted for, we used to shut down a machine until it was located.  The chance that the screw might get be fired out of a lathe spinning at 10,000 rpms was unacceptable.

    Now the office people run the shop.  They make scheduling promises to customers, without knowing how long anything will take.  If a machine is out of production, they lose their minds.  When you try to explain the problem, they just think your technical jargon is a way of avoiding work (which is ironic coming from people who sit on their ass all day).

    The problem is that if the science doesn't agree with the bottom line, then we need to hire someone who doesn't know as much of the science.  There is a whole batch of pseudo-science business degrees out there, and they are making more all the time.

    •  MBAs running things (7+ / 0-)

      Might have been the Soviet plot to bury us in our own ineptitude, and it worked.. just a few years late.

      Or was it our own oligarchy that decided sharing big bucks with technical people, insulted the value of country club networking.

      fact does not require fiction for balance

      by mollyd on Mon May 31, 2010 at 01:36:13 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  College became an extension of high school (7+ / 0-)

        I don't mean to rain on your grand scheme theory, but I think it is far simpler in scope.

        At some point it was just assumed everyone needed to go to college.  When I was younger the idea of getting any kind of business degree was a joke.  It was akin to the lowest educational path taken in high school.  Limited math and science sprinkled with vanilla electives.

        Instead of a concrete philosophy, you take intro to philosophy and ethics.  Instead of logic you take critical thinking.

        Pretty soon it was possible to spend 4 years in college without acquiring any depth of knowledge.  Three quarters of the students became generalists.

        As companies began filling their ranks with these generalists, their roles in companies expanded.  Everything technical became nothing more than an expense on the balance sheet.  They looked at all companies the same, and imposed a generic economic model.

        I once had a boss ask me to think about how we can take something McDonalds does right, and apply it to our business.  At the time I was grinding a parabolic mirror that was going to be used in a satellite.  Now I don't mean to disparage the good people in the fast food industry, but I'm pretty sure the guy working the fry station couldn't offer me a lot of help in measuring the focal length of a $50k piece of optical equipment.

        •  Careers Built On Character Assassination Of Techs (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Neon Vincent, Larsstephens

          Technical people can keep their profile as low as they like, it won't protect them.

          Kernberg's theory of aggression is that envy is synonymous with violent hatred. But someone can envy (and hate) another person over something they don't even want, just something they don't have. And it can be intangible, like peace of mind, or personal, like an intact family.

          But the point is that that the envied person is always characterized the same way - as sinister, secretive, mysterious, and above all dangerous. Think of how the Nazis treated the Jews and how that captured the popular imagination - they were portrayed as conspirators, with destructive powers that were mysterious in nature and cosmic in scope.

          In the same way, the people down in the labs are rumored to be a personal danger to the executives. They are a secret cabal of plotters.

  •  Mikulecky is retired crank (0+ / 0-)

    With a single agenda in life, to promote a weird concoction of anti-science, anti-intellectual nonsense he believes is the legacy of his hero, Robert Rosen, a rather marginal figure in the scientific world.

    Aided and abetted by Rosen's daughter, Judith Rosen, who keeps trying to profit off her father's books and puffing up the Wikipedia entry on him making him into some kind of prominent figure in systems theory (even though apparently no scientist of any reputation has even heard of the guy), it is sad that people here are taken in by someone who is apparently a bit off and pathologically obsessed.

    Like Rosen, Mikulecky's training is in biology, yet he pontificates regularly on the way the world works and how everyone else in the scientific world has it wrong - and, his rants always come back to promoting Rosen as some kind of Messianic figure whose vision will save the world from evil Science, if only we had the wisdom to heed his message.

    Just check out the guys' websites. Mikulecky is a classic crank.

    Sadly, he has found a gullible audience here, among the superstitious, fearful, anti-science crowd who long for the good ol' Dark Ages.

    Nothing pleases the crowd like an anti-science rant. Then, they dutifully enjoy the benefits of the science they shit on.

    Always make new mistakes - Esther Dyson

    by RandomActsOfReason on Mon May 31, 2010 at 01:22:43 AM PDT

    •  "no scientist of any reputation" has (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Larsstephens, dorkenergy

      heard of Robert Rosen?? Try Ludwig Von Bertalanffy, in his preface to the revised edition of General System Theory (p. xviii, sixth printing, 1979) where he was pleased to note

      A competent critic (Robert Rosen, in Science, 164, 1969, p. 681) found "surprisingly few anachronisms in need of correction" in the present book, even though some of the chapters contained in it go back 30 years."

      If you want to know more about which way Bertalanffy's reputation is trending, start with the special issue of Science (1 March, 2002) devoted to systems biology.

      Rosen and Bertalanffy were ahead of their time, but that doesn't mean others won't eventually catch up.

      There is no pestilence in a state like a zeal for religion, independent of morality. Jeremy Bentham

      by tempus binder on Mon May 31, 2010 at 02:18:08 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Bertalanfy was a systems theorist (0+ / 0-)

        Rosen was a biologist who had an "epiphany" and started to pontificate about unrelated issues. Mikulecky is a crank who assaults science and is as remote from reputable critique as I am from speaking Hindi.

        Always make new mistakes - Esther Dyson

        by RandomActsOfReason on Mon May 31, 2010 at 02:43:00 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Rosen was a pioneering systems theorist (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          tempus binder

          trained as a mathematical biologist. Bertalanffy was a pioneering systems theorist trained as a biologist. The latter is better known by the general public, but both are highly regarded within the systems community.

          Robert Rosen was President of the International Society for the Systems Sciences in 1980. (The ISSS was known as the Society for General Systems Research at that time.) You may recognize other names from this list of past presidents of ISSS:

          1956 Origin of the Society
          1957, 1958 Kenneth Boulding
          1959, 1960, 1961 Charles McClelland
          1962, 1963, 1964 W. Ross Ashby
          1965 Anatol Rapoport
          1966 Peter J. Caws
          1967 John M. Milsum
          1968 Milton Rubin
          1969 Lawrence Slobodkin
          1970 Bertram Gross
          1971 Stafford Beer
          1972 Margaret Mead
          1973 James G. Miller
          1974 Gordon Pask
          1975 Kjell_Samuelson
          1976 Heinz von Foerster
          1977 Sir Geoffrey Vickers
          1978 Richard Ericson
          1979 Brian Gaines
          1980 Robert Rosen
          1981 George Klir
          1982 John N. Warfield
          1983 Karl Deutsch
          1984 Bela H. Banathy
          1985 John Dillon
          1986 Peter B. Checkland
          1987 Russell L. Ackoff
          1988 Ilya Priogine
          1989 C. West Churchman
          1990 Len R. Troncale
          1991 Howard T. Odum
          1992 Ian I. Mitroff
          1993 Harold_A_Linstone
          1994 J. Donald R. de Raadt
          1995 Ervin Laszlo
          1996 Yong Pil Rhee
          1997 G. A. Swanson
          1998 Bela A. Banathy
          1999 Peter Corning
          2000 Harold_G_Nelson
          2001 Michael C. Jackson
          2002 Aleco Christakis
          2003 Kenneth D. Bailey
          2004 Enrique Herrscher
          2005 Debora Hammond
          2006 Kyochi (Jim) Kijima
          2007 Gary Metcalf
          2008 Timothy F H Allen

          "Rs Drove Us Into a Ditch"

          by dorkenergy on Mon May 31, 2010 at 11:29:33 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  Don't know about your language skills, but you (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          are mistaken about Rosen and Bertalanffy. (See list of ISSS Presidents for some other scientists who have heard of Rosen.)

          As for Judith Rosen, her father's work does not need "puffing up" and she has worked without pay to help bring out new editions of his manuscripts, at considerable cost to herself (personally, as well as financially).

          And you are also mistaken in your characterization of Don Mikulecky as "a crank who assaults science".  He is not assaulting science, though he would be justified in being cranky, given your ad hominem assaults on him and the Rosens.

          There is no pestilence in a state like a zeal for religion, independent of morality. Jeremy Bentham

          by tempus binder on Mon May 31, 2010 at 12:21:44 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  I think you misinterpret him (5+ / 0-)

      His point is that there are limits to reductionist science. I doubt he would dismiss it.  Also, to call him a "crank" is not only unkind, but ill-informed.

      I've been a "reductionist" life scientist - not an engineer or technologist - for more than 40 years and appreciate Don's perspective and think there is definitely value and some "truth" to it.  To think otherwise is closed-minded.

      The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt. Bertrand Russell

      by accumbens on Mon May 31, 2010 at 03:54:05 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Popper also saw the value of refutation (4+ / 0-)

    Indeed, his philosophy of science - and epistemology - is based on it.   Popper's quotes above speak to the necessity, if not inevitability, of scientific progress through the refutation of existing theories.  I suspect he would relish the argument between systems and reductionist science.

    The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt. Bertrand Russell

    by accumbens on Mon May 31, 2010 at 04:08:34 AM PDT

    •  Epistemology Leaves Me Cold (0+ / 0-)

      I like people who have the integrity to say that "Yes I have the street cred to develop my own jargon and set myself as a head of a unique system, but honestly I have better things to do."

      Popper seemed to be more of towering scholar, critic, and political thinker than a formal philosopher.

      At the end of the day, I've always liked something Crow T. Robot said (paraphrase)

      OK Professor, can the balloon juice and  make with the magic show.

      •  A little late in response, but .... (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        Popper seemed to be more of towering scholar, critic, and political thinker than a formal philosopher.

        Then you haven't read much of his stuff.

        The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt. Bertrand Russell

        by accumbens on Tue Jun 01, 2010 at 10:35:25 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Well It's Just What Blows My Skirt Up (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          I don't have much interest in watching people lost in the tall grass of epistemology. I'm not sure that Popper himself would have gotten much satisfaction in people still warming over those chestnuts into a third millenium. But I'm also sure he knew that was inevitable because people are by their nature going to think along certain narrow paths, especially in areas of cognition.

          I find his political writings to be far more fresh and urgent.

          Kudos for the Bertrand Russell quote. Can you believe that in America philosophers were once best selling authors?


  •  It's very popular for people to trash (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    bernardpliers, guyeda

    reductionism in my field, cell/molecular biology. Of course, these are people outside the field. Cell biologists know that the reason that "systems science" is possible in cell biology is b/c the current crop of scientists is standing on the shoulders of reductionist giants. Trashing reductionist science is one of those knee-jerk PC things to do, especially if you don't actually know anything about the field.

    Yet another food diary... What two people have for dinner: My 365 Dinners

    by pixxer on Mon May 31, 2010 at 06:28:22 AM PDT

  •  The original thesis was pretty silly (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    bernardpliers, pixxer

    It amounted to "I don't understand complex systems, therefore there is a part of reality that is non-material."

    by Dr Squid on Mon May 31, 2010 at 06:56:23 AM PDT

  •  I agree with the writer (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    bernardpliers, Larsstephens

    I believe that scientific theories have a range of convenience, and that a theory may be useful, i.e, generate correct hypotheses, without being reductionistic, that is, capable of being restated in the terms of a more 'fundamental' theory.  For example, we know that the earth is not the center of the universe but you can navigate a sailboat perfectly well using calculations from a geocentric theory.  However, you cannot navigate a Mars probe that way.  I think that the best scientific theories are those that are reductionistic, that could ultimately explain, say, my sense of my identity at the level of molecular physics.  But that is my belief, my preference.  Science itself is just one way that humans form abstractions about the booming, buzzing confusion around us.  

    But don't underestimate the importance of Popper's emphasis on falsifiability.  A scientific statement has meaning only if it is falsifiable.  A Creationist may assert that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago, complete with the fossil record that just confuses our thinking. I can assert that the earth was created 5 minutes ago, complete with you at your computer reading this thread, your head filled with a complete set of memories of a past that doesn't exist.  I can say it, but it is not falsifiable, so it is scientifically meaningless.

    The BP tragedy has nothing to do with science or engineering and everything to do with human fallibility and Bayesian statistics.  Every action contains a probability of disaster, and if you take enough of the actions the disaster becomes a certainty.  Humans seem incapable of seeing that the small risk of huge disaster ultimately becomes inevitable, just by the math of it.

    I don't belong to an organized political party. I'm a Democrat.

    by docterry on Mon May 31, 2010 at 07:19:48 AM PDT

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