On the Tedium of Being a Scientist (or Skeptic, at least)

Over the past three years, I have really tried to "up" my level of rational thinking.  My skepticism. I've taken the stance that conjecture is nearly worthless; taking action without solid evidence of its efficacy is generally wasteful.  Assumptions are almost always a mistake.

Note, there are some exceptions that would detract from the point if enumerated.

The inescapable problem with this attitude is tedium.

When someone asks you whether to use "which" or "that" in a sentence, you have to look it up.  When you complain that something isn't working the way you expected, and someone suggests how to fix it, you question whether that's a legitimate solution.  ...And if you eventually decide to "just try it", and it works, you're never satisfied that it wasn't just coincidence. When people ask interesting but less-relevant questions during decision-making meetings, you call them on information bias.

You spend inordinate amounts of time researching decisions, refining processes, and measuring progress.

You can't listen to any mass media, because it's so chock full of unverified, rushed assertions, presuppositions of guilt, and contextual bias.  You can't read opinion pieces, because they are so lop-sided and single-minded. You spend some amount of time after any serious discussion looking up the other participant's claims. You discount people's stories because they are "anecdotal".

When someone asks you to confirm something you're "pretty sure of", you take the time to look it up again anyway, because you know memory is fallible. You question your decisions, because you're aware of confirmation bias.  You refuse to make relative distinctions because of the contrast effect.

In short, your entire life comes into question.  Everything progresses more slowly, because of your perpetual uncertainty.  All in all, what you might have shrugged off and just did all become long processes with multiple steps.

The worst part about it, of course, is that there is no turning back.  Ever.  Because now you know that those old behaviors were wrong.  Simple, biased action is rooted in falsehoods. Now you're on the path of "truth"--or some reasonable epistemological approximation of it. Nothing less is even worth considering.  It's just wrong. Not. An. Option.

But it's hard.  : (

1 comment:

Victor said...


Dude, you are shooting for certainty, or at least a reasonable approximation thereof, but this is just an epistemic bias. Your methods depend on what you are trying to achieve.

For example, consider: what levels of certainty do you need when calculating, say, the amount of cloth it would take to make a head cover -- and the construction of an airplane?

Certainty without context is wasted. The realistic measure of truth is what works, and that depends entirely on what it takes to "work" in a given context. Applying epistemic to everyday situations is nigh pointless.

It's all about context, dude, and pragmatic optimality in that context. The value of the result must justify the cost of the effort. Certainty, or reasonable certainty, is not a self-contained, acontextual good.

For another example, consider this. Let's say you are trying to solve some problem which is best modeled via Traveling Salesman, an NP-complete problem. Correct solution is intractable, i.e. takes exponential time on deterministic computer. Whether you are willing to spend that sort of time should depend on how badly you need the optimal result. You can get a fairly good result incredibly easily -- depending on the nature of the problem, the "fairly good" result can be perfectly adequate, and it fact it might be wasteful to take the effort to achieve optimality.

Sometimes seeking optimality or correctness takes so much effort that it actually hurts the overall system, achieving inferior result to the approach which gets a fairly good answer fast. The answer might be worse, but you saved a whole lotta time, effort, and expense.