Re: META: How to respond to Crank Science?

From: Anders Sandberg (
Date: Fri Aug 17 2001 - 10:39:34 MDT

On Fri, Aug 17, 2001 at 09:31:40AM -0500, Harvey Newstrom wrote:
> How should we respond to challenges to science or established facts? How
> much work should we undertake to argue the basics over and over again?
> (This used to be against the list rules in former years.) How much time
> should we expend defending our basic position that science is real and all
> scientists aren't part of a great liberal conspiracy of political
> correctness? Do we really need to examine unscientific organizations and
> methods just in case they might have stumbled across some truth that science
> missed?
> I have tried to respond rationally and scientifically to some of these
> claims lately. I am becoming discouraged that it is a waste of time and
> leads nowhere. If people do not understand the basic scientific,
> experimental, and statistical methods, then further discussion rarely helps.
> If people do not believe in these methods, the situation is even worse.
> Time is a limiting factor here. It is no wonder that most readers just skip
> these arguments. Should we just ignore these challenges as they appear?
> Does that make them appear stronger or weaker than directly confronting
> them? Is there a danger of filling the Extropian archives with all sorts of
> unscientific conspiracy theories that are posted as if they had all our
> support?

Your post mirrors my concerns to a large extent. There was a time
when I did my best to challenge bad thinking and pseudoscience on
this list and the swedish transhumanist list. But the problem is that
no matter how much time and personal energy you have, they will run
out when dealing with the true believers and the people who believe
in posting stuff about government UFO-coverups just "because it is
fun". So now I try to stay away from that, using my precious time on
other projects where I think it will do more good. But it is a
lose-lose scenario, because not doing anything about the posts will
fill the searchable, web-indexed archives with junk that *will* (and
to some extent already does) haunt our public image.

The problem of how much time one should spend on checking facts and
assumptions, and how wild world models one allow oneself, has no
easily answerable solution (I actually think it is uncomputable). At
the same time we all need to come up with our own individual answers,
and we have a right to choose how strict our epistemologies are. In
the long run we all by having a spread in the population of answers
to this problem - while some people waste time on wild speculations,
they sometimes come up with good ideas, and while others keep their
reality models so strict and simple that they sometimes ignore new
ideas they make sure they do not fall for false ideas.

The same could be said for discussion forums. Some are strict, some
are very loose. The question is what level to put this particular
forum on; what do we see as the purpose of the extropians list, and
how much do we value false positives vs. false negative errors in our

I would say the extropians list is intended to further the
development of extropianism - not transhumanism in general, but this
particular brand. Also, since extropianism is a practical philosophy
oriented towards actually achieving its goals rather than just
discussing them this means the list should be a tool for implementing
extropy in the real world. Debate and speculation have their places
here, but in the end they all should lead towards (or at least not
counteract) the actual creation of an extropian future.

Since we take an empirical and pan-critical approach (or at least
something like it, for you doubters out there) we should keep the
discussions here at the level which in the past most efficiently have
led towards the realisation of our goals. To me (and this is of
course a very debatable point where empirical evidence would be
welcome) the period when extropian thinking advanced most efficiently
was during the early time when the list was fairly homogeneous and
well educated about the basics. Homogenity itself is no virtue, but
having a forum where some basics are widely agreed on (and probed for
further improvements) combined with less overhead due to constant
clashes is very likely far more efficient than the current situation.
Achieving such a state would require a stricter moderation/membership
policy, losing diversity and introducing a higher risk for
group-think. Clearly such problems have to be balanced by the
benefits (how?).

As for pseudoscience and loose thinking, maybe one way handling it
would be to set up an epistemic policy on the list. Such a policy
would suggest proper standards for what claims could be posted and
how much empirical or scholarly backup is proper. For example,
"Posting of claims contradicting known or widely accepted physical
phenomena must be backed up by at least one independent empirical
study". While I do not think such an epistemic policy needs to
involve punishments for disobeying it, the existence of an accepted
standard of posting that could be invoked when someone makes a
spurious claim would likely have some effect. Setting up the policy
would by its nature be a fairly heated subject, but maybe it could be
managed by first allowing a smaller team to develop the core and then
put it up for a debate, like we did with the Transhumanist


Anders Sandberg                                      Towards Ascension!                  
GCS/M/S/O d++ -p+ c++++ !l u+ e++ m++ s+/+ n--- h+/* f+ g+ w++ t+ r+ !y

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