Law in Contemporary Society

Damn the Torpedoes, Proceed Ahead Cautiously and Periodically Check Your Progress.

-- By SamMatthews - 12 Mar 2017

In an address to the BYU student body entitled The Moral Dilemma of Doing Good, Paul Eastman, professor of mechanical engineering, related the story of a student project to design and build a rocket to be evaluated at an Air Force testing facility. The engine fired, the launch pad filled with smoke, but no rocket emerged from the cloud. When the smoke cleared, the charred husk of their project lay immobile where it had been placed. Consoled by Air Force engineers, who assured them that multi-million dollar projects often perform similarly, the students began to wonder, “If we’d worked a little harder, run another simulation, could this have been avoided?” To Eastman, this was a metaphor for our efforts at social action: we are often faced with uncertainty as to the success (or even the merit) of our efforts, but must proceed ahead regardless.

A Scientific Approach to Uncertainty

Scientists are often caricatured as rigidly dogmatic and blind to nuance. “You can’t analyze that scientifically” seems to be code for “there are no clear answers.” Admittedly, science does have a problem with dogmatism. This may, as Imre Lakatos theorized, be a relic of the theological origins of modern science. If your conjectures about God and the Devil were wrong, you risked eternal damnation. Enlightenment philosophers rejected this, but science was then handed the task previously reserved for the Church: prove propositions beyond doubt. There may also be a selection effect: nuanced scientific discoveries can’t compete with Richard Dawkins for front page coverage.

Notwithstanding this reputation, I submit that science, on balance, has a robust approach to uncertainty and ambiguity. Science leans heavily on metaphorical reasoning to conceptualize alien ideas (what could be more ambiguous than wave-particle duality?) and while pop-science articles may not capture the nuance, scientists are keenly aware of the limits of their metaphors. Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, or NMR, is the science underlying MRI machines. It exploits the behavior of protons in a magnetic field. Protons are imagined as positively-charged balls which spin along an axis. We’ve known for more than a century that when a charged ball spins, it creates a magnetic field, as if its axis were a magnet. When that magnet is placed in a larger magnetic field the axis aligns with the field (imagine two bar magnets aligning when they get close). And when you suddenly change the direction of the field, the ball of charge begins to wobble like a spinning top.

All of this is well characterized and (apparently) well-understood. But here’s the kicker: We know the charge of a proton. We know the strength of the magnetic it makes by spinning. We can therefore calculate how fast it’s spinning, and when we do, we discover that the surface of the proton is traveling faster than the speed of light, which is impossible (according to our current understanding of relativity). According to everything we know about physics, the magnetic moment generated by a proton can’t be coming from the proton spinning. The statistician George Box once said, “all models are wrong, but some are useful.” When doing NMR, ignore the fact that spinning protons are impossible, and your model is quite useful.

The Uncertainty of Social Action

Scientists simply never know which experiments will pan out. “One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time. . . The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries.” (Martin A. Schwartz)

Some early abolitionists, seeing that a government elected by white slaveowners would never abolish slavery outright, attempted instead to abolish the slave trade, hoping that slavery would subsequently wither and die. Instead, this ensured that only source of new slaves became the children of current slaves, and, ironically, could have intensified the racial character of American slavery (a theory advanced by Mike Munger). I use this, not as a statement of truth (I haven’t investigated the theory sufficiently), nor to condemn early abolitionist efforts, but rather to illustrate the uncertainty that looms when we try to change the world: we may end up making it worse. On the other hand, some projects which, at the outset, seem to be useless or harmful, may prove surprisingly beneficial. Many “pure” mathematicians, who lauded number theory as being “unsullied by any application,” were sorely disappointed when it proved critical for developments in computation and cryptography.

Eight days before John Brown’s, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species; earlier that year, Peter Cooper established the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, which would eventually furnish a young Thomas Edison with much of his early education. It’s doubtful if T.H. Huxley could have hastened the end of slavery by forgoing his debates with Bishop Wilberforce, instead travelling to America to debate Josiah C. Nott. Might John Brown have doubted the ultimate success of his cause? His execution provided a rallying cry for the Union Army, and may have freed far more slaves than the raid itself ever did.

Acting in the Face of Uncertainty

Some who self-consciously try to shape the course of human events succeed, some fail, and others may accidentally produce results contrary to their purposes. Others may change the world in ways that they never anticipated. Aristotle thought that every virtue lay as the mean between two opposing vices. I think it unsound advice proceed recklessly, without heeding the risks (while it may have worked for Admiral Farragut, thalidomide provides a striking counterexample), but the “analysis paralysis” that comes from an overabundance of caution can be equally crippling. In life, as in science, the best course is to make use of the information available, and then proceed as seems best, being willing to alter your plans as necessary.

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r4 - 31 May 2017 - 23:35:37 - SamMatthews
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