The Ministry of Truth

Religious creeds are a great obstacle to any full sympathy between the outlook of the scientist and the outlook which religion is so often supposed to require … The spirit of seeking which animates us refuses to regard any kind of creed as its goal. It would be a shock to come across a university where it was the practice of the students to recite adherence to Newton’s laws of motion, to Maxwell’s equations and to the electromagnetic theory of light. We should not deplore it the less if our own pet theory happened to be included, or if the list were brought up to date every few years. We should say that the students cannot possibly realise the intention of scientific training if they are taught to look on these results as things to be recited and subscribed to. Science may fall short of its ideal, and although the peril scarcely takes this extreme form, it is not always easy, particularly in popular science, to maintain our stand against creed and dogma.

Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington

The Orwellian title probably points out that you already understand how unlikely it is that any government agency, set up to tell people what to think, will tell them the truth.  We are concerned with discovering the truth — finding the facts — and we would like to know how to go about it.

In an earlier post I hypothesized that we are already halfway through the Singularity, with an informational component well underway, and a physical component to come.  I likened this to the Renaissance and Industrial Revolution, with the role of the printing press in the former being taken by computers and the Internet today.

Let us remember that the printing press created what might be called “interesting times” — the centuries of religious wars that racked Europe in the wake of the Reformation.  This is because the protestant ethic of openness of information (e.g. translations of the Bible that people could read themselves) directly challenged the centralized information-control structure of the established church. Ultimately science itself challenged the church’s claim to be the sole arbiter of truth.

It is certainly the case that the internet is challenging the standard centralized channels of information flow in the modern world. It is an interesting question whether this is more due to people preferring the internet because it is cheaper, more convenient, more varied, or more likely to be true than the mainstream media. It’s a combination, of course, but I think many mainstream intellectuals are somewhat in denial about the proportions.

Some people go farther and suggest that the same phenomenon will undermine centralized science itself (a long but rewarding analysis):

In this context, it is easy to see why disclosure terrifies the likes of Mann and the CRU, which depend on a certain degree of expertise exclusivity for their very existence. Before the massive gains in information velocity, advocacy was likely an essential aspect of science. That success and and notoriety were linked in science not even 30 or 40 years ago is easily established merely by watching a few movies from the 1950s. If we can say anything about the Sagan experience, it is probably that Sagan transcended the pre and post internet periods, but did not adjust to the needs of the latter. If fame was a prerequisite for successful science not a few decades ago, is it still?
It is interesting to note that not a month after the disclosure of just a portion of CRU models and data the public understanding of the issue has spiked to such a degree that almost anyone who has not been in a persistent vegetative state for the last month now knows that there was some issue of data splicing in the “hockey stick graph” after 1960. Those with a more wonkish disposition can read the analysis of a systems administrator sleuthing down the source of the leak by analyzing the data, follow the discussions of legal experts opining on possible criminal or civil liability for the leaker (or the leak’s “victims”) or review the “dehomogenization” of the Darwin Airport station temperature data in the Global Historical Climate Network dataset and muse over what appears to be pretty plain, manual and radical lock-step adjustment thereof.
The point is not that Willis Eschenbach, the article’s author, is right or wrong about data manipulation. The point is that his findings (and therefore the underlying dataset) will likely be subject to several orders of magnitude more “peer review” than anything the CRU ever had to endure before the leak.

This is exactly the same argument that is made for open-source software: many eyes find more bugs.  Software people know how it is flat impossible to write large complex codes without bugs.  The internet is a first step at taking a huge number of incompatible systems and making them work seamlessly together (and we have a looooong way to go).  Science as a whole will profit by moving, at least partly, out of the cathedral and into the bazaar.


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