What Evidence in Silence or Confusion?

My old friend Keith Henson has just been arrested again in his long conflict with the Church of Scientology, and his wife fears for his life.  Keith’s side of the story seems persuasive, but in good conscience I’d prefer to withhold judgement until I heard the other side.  Yet though Google finds 185,000 links on "Keith Henson" and "Scientology", I can’t seem to find any of them that present the other side.  Still, the law has officially taken Scientology’s side. 

I find a similar imbalance about cryonics, a pet topic of Keith’s and mine. 126 million pages mention "cryonics", and one million mention "cryonics critics" but I can only find a few by critics, and these don’t offer respond in much detail to advocates’ specific arguments.  Yet the official academic position is clearly unfavorable.  Similarly, millions of web pages celebrated my friend Eric Drexler’s vision of molecular manufacturing, while for years academics dismissed it without responding in much detail to his arguments; I’m not sure of the current status of this dispute.

My question is: how should an observer react to multitudes of vocal web advocates on one side, and on the other side official academic and legal institutions rejecting those claims while mostly remaining silent about their reasons? 

On one hand, it is surely a bad sign about a claim that official institutions don’t consider it worth responding to.   Officials must often selfishly think "why should I waste my time with such nonsense," and even officials with wider concerns must fear that detailed responses, no matter how logically compelling, would still legitimize the nonsense.  I admit that I do not always take the time to respond to every criticism I see of my claims on the web.   

On the other hand, officials do sometimes give detailed responses to popular "nonsense," such as the many detailed critical analyses we see of creationism, UFOs, Austrian economics, or denials of moon landings and Nazi death camps.   And if officials did not have strong critical arguments, they would surely be less likely to break their silence to criticize outsiders.  So in this sense the absence of criticism is favorable evidence.

I worked with Xanadu on the web before there was a web.  We were fans of cryonics, molecular manufacturing, and many other unpopular concepts.  Our core motivating vision was the hope that people would favor these concepts more once they could see the absence of any detailed criticism.   Clearly this has been a weaker effect than we had hoped.

A similar issue arises when many people are vocal in taking up some side of a dispute, but they can’t seem to agree much on their reasons. I noted recently that while the pro-discrimination side seems to largely agree on their reasons, the anti-discrimination side is all over the map on their reasons.   Is a side that can’t agree much on their reasons less likely to be correct, all else equal? 

Added:  Advocates of one officially disfavored view I mentioned have objected to their being listed along side the other officially disfavored views I mentioned.  So let me be clear: by mentioning a view as disfavored, I did not mean to imply that view is false, and certainly not obviously false.   

More Added: Here is news about Keith.

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  • http://www.dloye.com/myblog/bBlog-0.7.4.tar/blog/ dloye

    It would appear that legally there is no evidence in silence. WRT a threatening menace, silence is most likely disagreement, and gives a false sense of safety.

  • http://cob.jmu.edu/rosserjb Barkley Rosser

    Did you include Austrian economics on a list of ‘popular “nonsense”‘ to tease some of your colleagues or out of conviction that it is in the same category as denying moon landings and the Holocaust?

  • http://pdf23ds.net pdf23ds

    I think that a good consideration here is how likely it is that there would be more criticisms instead of silence if the potential critics had a strong case. Would we expect “the law” or Scientology or its supporters to present their case to the public (on the internet, say) assuming they had a strong case? If it would be very likely that they would, then the silence is strong evidence that they don’t. Then, we have to determine how likely they would be to *know* about the evidence supporting their side. If they would be very likely to have that evidence, then we can further conclude that the vocal side is likely right.

  • http://bpabbot.blogspot.com Ben Abbott

    I’ve just stumbled upon this site. Nice article. I’ll have to set aside some daily time to keep up with the articles here.

    Q: “Is a side that can’t agree much on their reasons less likely to be correct, all else equal?”

    I won’t address this point directly, but I will point out that the Earth was once (nearly) universally thought to be flat and at the center of the universe.

    Truth does not care much about popularity.

  • michael vassar

    I think that it’s worth noting that in certain expert domains, such as medical diagnosis, people may learn to make reliable judgments without being able to articulate why they make them. In other domains, such as physics or engineering, valid expert judgments are very likely to be explainable.

    A casual and controversial observation of mine is that ‘conservative’ political positions tend to be better argued by their best advocates than ‘liberal’ positions are, but to none-the-less be incorrect the majority of the time for fairly subtle reasons which aren’t part of the debate at all. Over the years I have come to see a rough parallel between the political thinking style of intelligent ‘conservatives’ and, say, physicists, who are certain to be correct so long as their reasonable sounding assumptions hold, and between ‘liberals’ and say geologists, who can’t articulate their reasoning all that compellingly well but have a strong tendency to independently arrive at the conclusion that the Earth is much older than the few million years that the physicists keep telling them is the longest for which the sun could have possibly burnt.

    However, Drexler’s form of Nanotechnology is clearly under the engineering rubric, and the fact that he is able to articulate his position clearly while his opponents have not clearly articulated any logically coherent position speaks VERY badly of them. Likewise cryonics. The failure to rebut clear-cut arguments like those greatly undermines the legitimacy of the ‘legitimate’ academic (and legal?) ‘authorities’, e.g. the (already weak) level of (Bayesian) rationality properly attributed to them. Of course, most people with non-mainstream opinions are still cranks, but I conclude that the fact that an opinion is not accepted by mainstream academia constitutes fairly weak evidence regarding it’s truth relative to the evidential value of my considered judgment on the topic.

  • http://pdf23ds.net pdf23ds

    “and the fact that he is able to articulate his position clearly while his opponents have not clearly articulated any logically coherent position speaks VERY badly of them.”

    Using your earlier analogy, Drexler would be making the clear arguments like a ultimately mistaken conservative (or geologist), and his opponents would have the harder-to-articulate, but ultimately correct, points of view.

  • michael vassar

    Yes, but MNT is a form of fairly clear-cut engineering, making ttthis an unlikely place for such an analogy to be valid.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/jhertzli/ Joseph Hertzlinger

    One reason to be suspicious of undercriticized ideas is that science depends on criticism and undercriticized ideas tend to develop flaky details. If we don’t see enough criticism of nanotechnology/SETI/strong AI/cryonics we can expect flaky details to accumulate.

  • michael vassar

    I agree Joseph, but it’s hard to see what flaky details cryonics could accumulate, as it’s a pretty simple and featureless idea.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Barkley, my inclusion of Austrian Economics is not intended to be a complaint about it, it just fit the category I was listing of claims that are on the out with officials, but which officials bother to criticize. I thought I was clear in my post that I actually favor some officially unfavored areas.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    pdf, yes the question is how likely officials would be to present strong evidence.

    Michael, yes, a useful distinction might be between areas where officials can or cannot easily articulate their concerns. But I’m not sure observers are well positioned to evaluate which areas this applies to. Also, you may be an exception, but I doubt most observers are well positioned to produced a more informative judgment than the official reaction gives.

  • michael vassar

    Most observers may not be positioned to produce a more informative judgment than official reaction gives, but alternatively
    a) most observers may not be positioned to identify what group’s reaction counts as “official”.

    example

    Creationist vs. ID vs Evolution? hmm. ID seems to be both the middle ground and the most popular position, and to be supported by many politicians and scientists.
    UFOs? it says on television that the US military believes, and Reagan and Gorbachev made an public agreement to unite in the case of an alien invasion.
    Psychics? The CIA supposedly uses them.
    LSD causes (or “drugs cause”) incurable insanity the first time you use it? I learned it in School.
    God? All the public officials and even most of scientists say that they believe (but what makes science official, or one self-proclaimed ‘science’ a science and another not).

    b) the most plausible heuristic that I can see for identifying authorities is estimating the average wealth, level of education, or IQ among believers vs. non-believers and accepting beliefs who’s average believer exceeds the average member of some, seems to imply that some apparently contradictory fringe beliefs are probably true, both MNT and “hydrino theory”, for instance.

  • michael vassar

    Most observers, by the way, have whatever traits you want to assign them, determined not by the features of the universe, but by the features that you choose to identify as bounding the set labeled “observer”, e.g. the parameters of the reference class.

    Even assuming that one restricts one’s self to adult Homo Sapiens…
    Most humans, historically, couldn’t read, knew only dozens of people and a few thousand words, etc.
    Most contemporary humans have IQs below 100 and no internet.
    Most Western Academics can’t casually use high school math.
    Most Western Physical Scientists and Economists haven’t spent any time studying human rationality, it’s flaws, etc, and directing effort at correcting those flaws in themselves, via, for instance, testing their Bayesian calibration in a variety of contexts while using a proper scoring rule and otherwise trying to bring their behavior into accordance with normative rationality.
    Very few people of any sort have multiple partners with whom Aumann Agreement is practically applicable (this is distinguishable from cult membership by, among other things, much lower levels of dominance hierarchy).
    We should expect that the decision rules normative to the joint members of the last two reference classes differ substantially from those appropriate to “most individuals”.
    Since we can try to become joint members of the last two reference classes, and in fact, since our presence on this blog suggests that we ARE trying to do so, it is highly plausible that we are, in general, “well positioned to produced a more informative judgment than the official reaction gives”, or are at least seriously on the way to being so positioned.
    It seems to me that for any given post it seems reasonable to assume a reference class of that post’s readership.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Michael, I disagree strongly with the claim that because we read this blog and know a bit about related issues we don’t need to pay much attention to who else supports a position and can just figure everything out for ourselves.

  • michael vassar

    And I disagree with the assertion that that was what I wrote. Needing to be aware of the official consensus (among which officials?!) is VERY different from not being able to produce a more informed judgment than it gives.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/halfinney/ Hal Finney

    I’ve seen examples in the past of “crackpot” ideas where the overwhelming commentary on the Internet was pro-crackpot and the mainstream did little to oppose them. A recent example was the Y2K catastrophe. There was a substantial community predicting end of the world scenarios with Y2K – even books published about the coming Y2K apocalpyse – without much commentary in the other direction. Another example was AIDS HIV denial; although that still has some support in Africa as I understand it, it has pretty much lost ground in the West.

    My impression is that mainstream silence on these controversies comes from two parts. The first is a general sense that they have not met even a minimal standard of evidence and that until they do there is no point in considering them in detail. The second is the fear that by giving them attention and rebuttals, it will actually give these ideas more credibility. Creationism was ignored for a long time until it got enough political power to start making policy, and only then did the scientific community belatedly begin to address it. And indeed these responses may have lent the notion credibility, such that the new strategy among creationists is to “teach the controversy” – the mere fact that there is a debate is worthy of inclusion in textbooks, with both sides deserving equal time for their points of view.

  • http://cob.jmu.edu/rosserjb Barkley Rosser

    Hal Finney,

    Regarding Y2K it may well be the case that there was a potential problem, nobody really knew for sure one way or the other, and that concern about it led to action, and there was a lot of action and money spent to avoid it, was successful. So, that may be a case of a real potential problem that was effectively responded to, not one where a wise and more knowledgeable establishment sat on its hind end and did nothing out of its justified complacency, as implied by your remarks.

  • critic

    Drexler’s assemblers are certainly not a case of “fairly clear-cut engineering.” Outside computer science, clear-cut engineering is based on working models, which Drexler never came anywhere close to producing.

    Much of the problem is that these ideas tend to fall outside mainstream categories. Drexerism may be a valuable point of view, but it is neither science (being design not discovery) nor engineering (since Drexler never actual built anything that worked), so neither scientists nor engineers tended to think much about it. It is rather theoretical applied science, and the only academic community that comes close to that point of view is computer science, which is why, bizarrely, most of his followers were computer scientists who knew next to nothing about chemistry or quantum physics. Why should chemists care what some computer scientists who never got anywhere near a test tube say about chemistry, especially when when it sounds so farfetched and untestable?

    Similar for cryonics. Cryonics is neither medicine (it hasn’t cured anybody yet, and cryonicists agree that the frozen corpses are still legally dead) nor a religious ceremony like burial (since followers say their claims are based on science and neither depend on nor conflict with beliefs about the soul), though it has some characteristics of both. Again, it falls outside categories so neither medical people nor theologians tend to think anything of it, other than it being a strange practice and not part of what their profession does. Why bother disputing something outside your field? The only outsiders that have cared much about it are science fiction fans (because they love the weird and can imagine the far future), lawyers (who love dreaming up or getting involved in new kinds of disputes), dramatists (ditto), and sports fans (due to Ted Williams). Not people from whom you can expect much of a scientific critique.

    Another problem with Drexlerism, cryonics, and other such far-future visions is that they are unfalsifiable, at least in the way scientists and engineers normally go about falsifying ideas. Where in _Nanosystems_ is the section on experiments that can be conducted that would falsify or tend to verify the claims of that book? What experiments would falsify or verify cryonics? If a critic observes that current cryonics patients are full of cracks, their brains hopelessly cut up and jumbled, it can be retorted that the new procedures are much better (even though we haven’t observed these procedures for long periods of time yet) and that even the old patient’s brains will somehow be “decrypted” — “the information is still there”, so it’s “possible.” Tons of things are “possible” in engineering but aren’t close to being practical, and these things probably far outweigh the things that are. Drexler claimed to make workable designs for future technology without either actually building anything to test or proposing and predicting the outcome of experiments — how do you try to argue with that?

    Furthermore, they are claims about the far future, in which the vast majority of people hardly care. The motivation is lacking to refute claims that won’t make a difference anytime soon. (And when many Drexlerians tried to overcome this problem by predicting Singularity Real Soon Now, sometime around 2012 when the Mayan calendar ends and when Drexler and his friends would start getting uncomfortably old, they simply revealed the underlying religious nature of the movement for all normal people to snicker at, rather than convincing knowledgeable people of the urgency of debating the issues).

    In summary, Drexler’s claims and cryonics fall outside the categories of how both scientists and engineers normally judge things. Only computer scientists, who can go from theory to working model without bending metal, and thus find theorizing about design practical in own right, and science fiction fans, who are satisfied with poetic imagination, appreciate the mindset of theoretical applied science. But they don’t have the expertise to judge these claims, as their subject matter is primarily chemistry and medicine respectively. But since the claims are not presented in ways that chemists or doctors can verify or refute them, nor in a way that they can profit from by actually building something or curing somebody in the near future, they quite naturally and properly ignore(d) them.

  • michael vassar

    “Drexler claimed to make workable designs for future technology without either actually building anything to test or proposing and predicting the outcome of experiments — how do you try to argue with that?”

    Doesn’t this claim contradict itself? A claim that a design is workable IS a proposed test.

  • Curt Adams

    The Henson issue concerns more the point at which coercive intervention becomes justified. Official/expert silence is, to some extent evidence against their views, but it’s weak evidence, because they may be silent either to a) avoid being caught out or b) because it’s not worth the trouble. I think anybody in science understands that b) is a very big issue. In general then an outside observer should generally ignore such controversies. There are heuristics I find useful, mostly relating to how a side presents its data – the “right” side sometimes has direct and extensive cites to evidence, while the “wrong” side has only cites of cites of cites or even just argumentation. Accuracy of citations is also very handy – do the cites actually back up the claim?

    With Henson, though, the question is at what point it’s justifiable to lock somebody up because of their opinions. That’s a really strong claim and “not worth the trouble” no longer suffices as a justification. So here my take is that if the silent and silencing side can’t justify their position, they’re probably wrong – and certainly their claim is too weak to justify jailing somebody. The legal system is supposed to handle evaluating these claims, but, as we all know it’s far from perfect and in particular needs fair treatment from the judge, which is often lacking. If he really got a fair trial, the Scientologists should be able to defend it quite easily in comparison to what they’re shelling out for the trial.

    This case sounds like a very good argument for very aggressive defense of free speech rights.

  • critic

    C: “Drexler claimed to make workable designs for future technology without either actually building anything to test or proposing and predicting the outcome of experiments — how do you try to argue with that?”

    MV: “Doesn’t this claim contradict itself? A claim that a design is workable IS a proposed test.”

    It’s not falsifiable until the (constantly moving) future date that the technology is supposed to work comes to pass — but Drexlerians and Singulatarians tend to insist that we believe them and take some sort of action _now_. Ditto for cryonics.

    Except for the extremity of sacrifice asked of followers, it’s like the sects and cults that insist that the Lord is coming soon, or that aliens lurk behind Comet Hale-Bopp and have come to take the Chosen away if only they drink the kool-aid. It’s not falsifiable until you’ve drunk the kool-aid, and by then it’s too late.

    What are needed are tests that scientists or engineers can perform in their labs today that reduce the uncertainty of the claims. Drexler should have, based on his mechanosynthetic theories, tried to predict what would happen if a chemist did X in the laboratory. But such testable predictions are conspicuously missing from Drexler’s work, which throws deep suspicion over the subject from standard scientific and engineering points of view. Cryonicists tend to be better at this, but unfortunately the uncertainties revolving around conciousness, brain function, and biological repair are even greater than those surrounding Drexler’s assemblers.

    Considering that there are a wide variety of scientists that speculate about the future these days, e.g. the climate scientists and the astrobiologists, there is a big need for distinguishing credible predictions about the future technology from the incredible. An important part of that is devising tests that one can perform today that reduce the uncertainty. But such tests were neglected by Drexlerism and seem to be difficult for cryonics.

    For example, there must be some experiments one can do to resolve the “sticky fingers” objection raised by Smalley to well-controlled mechanosynthesis. But Drexler and his followers neglected to realize, and then once the issue was raised refused to believe, that this was a genuine uncertainty in the program. To this day I’m not sure the appropriate experiments have been done, and if not it’s quite sad because the issue of what future technologies are possible is increasingly important (and naively discussed among climate scientists, SETI/astrobiologists, and so on who handwave about the future while pretending such prediction as all mainly just a matter of their own narrow projections of natural phenomena).

    Large numbers of people don’t care about testability and will believe anything that looks credible (in the case of Drexlerism, for example, that comes with a fistful of obscure equations). But the scientists and engineers in the relevant fields certainly do care about testability. This explains the juxtaposition between fan hoopla and expert silence that Robin was wondering about.

  • Chris Petersen

    critic, MV attached no date to his claim.

    A citation for further relevant experiments: http://www.molecularassembler.com/Nanofactory/Challenges.htm

    As I understand it, the case for plausible future reanimation of cryonics patients involves information theory as well as solely cryo-bio. Human cryopreservation could be viewed as a long-term falsifiable experiment (and the same for a functionalist philosophy of mind).

    Lastly, differentiation can be made between protoscience and pseudoscience.

  • critic

    Chris, my argument was about the historical situation in the pre-Smalley-debate era that Robin was referring to in his post — for the purposes of the above I was discussing from the publication of _Engines_ through _Nanosystems_. I’d be happy to learn that the situation has improved since then, as I expect it has given that mainstream chemists such as Smalley have now been debating this issue. But given the stubborness of both sides of the debate I still wonder the extent to which experiments have been done, or if such experiments have even been designed, that would refute or confirm Drexler’s claims.

    For example, there are a lot of interesting claims in _Nanosystems_ to the effect that important aspects of chemistry, quantum phenomena according to our most accurate physics, can be approximated with classical-style mechanical equations, and we can thus model nanomechanical systems with such equations. In principle one should be able to test these claims, though I have never read that Drexler or Foresight have proposed any tests that might prove them false. Rather they seem to have been deemed proven in the style of computer science and can thus be asserted as truth without experimental verification. But that’s not how science outside of computer science works (although string theorists in physics may have been picking up on this bad habit recently).

    With respect to these “challenges”, they don’t satisfy the need for falsifiability unless the statement “we need” from those challenges is to be read “if this experiment fails then mechanosynthesis as Drexler has described it will not work”, or particular forms of it will not work, or similar. Science wants to see Drexler or Foresight make statements of the form “if experiment X has outcome Y, then equations A1 … An from _Nanosystems_ are false — or at least too inaccurate to predict mechanosynthesis works.” Ideally a certain accuracy of these equations should be necessary for the success of mechanosynthesis, or at least the particular forms of mechanosynthesis on which Drexler et. al. have based their work, and the experiment can show whether or not the equations describe reality with the desired accuracy.

    Until quite a few such experiments are performed Foresight should be quite a bit more humble about whether mechanosynthesis will work in importantly practical ways, whether it will work with anything like the efficiency claimed for it, how many decades or centuries it might take to develop, or what specific forms it might end up taking.

  • critic

    It looks like the lack of communication works in the other direction, too!

  • mooshu

    The “other side” of Keith’s story can only be found on http://www.religiousfreedomwatch.org

    Scientology, Inc.’s own hate site against Keith Henson.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Mooshu, you are right, there is at least something here.

  • http://rafefurst.wordpress.com/ Rafe Furst

    Robin, your original question about how to react to or interpret imbalance in criticism may be illuminated by your own intellectual style, as I’ve observed it anyway. My observation is that you provide very well-articulated arguments for you own ideas, yet on the flip side when responding to others’ arguments you are often “tersely cogent”. You may have extremely well reasoned arguments encrypted in your responses, but without being more explicit and providing examples it’s hard to tell. You are not alone in this intellectual style, I suspect it’s quite rampant.

    Proof of my claim should be easily found in this very blog by comparing OWC:CWC ratios for each primary poster. OWC is the average word count for original posts, and RWC is the average word count for comments/responses. By “primary poster” I mean a person on the Contributor list. It would be interesting to see a ranking of each Contributor along this dimension…

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Rafe, I agree that my responses to blog comments tend to be terse, and that this reflects a more general phenomena whereby less prominent material gets less attention. So the indicator we are looking for is something like how much detail a response is given relative to the amount of detail one might expect, given the amount of attention the other side has gotten.

  • http://rafefurst.wordpress.com/ Rafe Furst

    Agreed. More generally though, you note “I admit that I do not always take the time to respond to every criticism I see of my claims on the web.” Yet, you probably should spend equal time, given your goal is removing bias and revealing truth. After all, you thought enough of your original claim to post it, why not back it up unpreferentially? Taken in aggregate, these sorts of micro-decision tradeoffs for your limited time may help explain the “conspiracy”.

    After all, it’s impractical to give equal time, and you have to introduce some sort of bias in determining what gets your attention and what doesn’t. Clearly the bias isn’t “truth value”, and it’s probably something more like “do I care what this particular critic thinks” or “who else will I impact in my response” or “can I even effectively communicate my message to this critic”. The first and third are very subjective, and the second is easily prone to error.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Rafe, giving equal time to all critics regardless of other context seems to me a very bad rule. You try it first and let us know how it works for you.

  • http://rafefurst.wordpress.com/ Rafe Furst

    That wasn’t my point at all. Rather that the very nature of deciding which critics to give more or less time to necessarily introduces bias.

  • Carl Shulman

    These quotes lowered my confidence in Smalley’s MNT critique:

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/reader/1576833445/ref=sib_dp_srch_pop/105-4819010-2978839?v=search-inside&keywords=smalley
    In an endorsement of this creationist book, Smalley wrote:

    “Evolution has just been dealt its death blow. After reading Origins of Life with my background in chemistry and physics, it is clear that biological evolution could not have occurred.”

    http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Richard_Smalley

    [edit] Sourced

    [edit] On God
    Recently I have gone back to church regularly with a new focus to understand as best I can what it is that makes Christianity so vital and powerful in the lives of billions of people today, even though almost 2000 years have passed since the death and resurrection of Christ. Although I suspect I will never fully understand, I now think the answer is very simple: it’s true. God did create the universe about 13.7 billion years ago, and of necessity has involved Himself with His creation ever since. The purpose of this universe is something that only God knows for sure, but it is increasingly clear to modern science that the universe was exquisitely fine-tuned to enable human life. We are somehow critically involved in His purpose. Our job is to sense that purpose as best we can, love one another, and help Him get that job done.
    May 2005, letter sent to the Hope College 2005 Alumni Banquet where he was awarded a distinguished alumni award; his illness prevented him from attending in person

    [edit] On evolution
    The burden of proof is on those who don’t believe that “Genesis” was right, and there was a creation, and that Creator is still involved.
    October 2004 address at the Tuskegee University’s 79th Annual Scholarship Convocation.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Carl, I don’t understand the relevance of your comment to this post.

  • Carl Shulman

    When official criticism is scarce but not completely absent, it is worth determining whether those who do invest in criticism are representative. The views of elite scientists and Nobel laureates should generally be weighted quite heavily in our deliberations, but Smalley’s belief in creationism is highly atypical among that class. We can then ask whether his unusual characteristics affected his engagement with the nanotechnology debate.

    If the answer is yes, then we can distinguish between effects on his belief formation (to the extent these exist his opinion should be discounted as a representative of elite or Nobel laureate thinking), and his motivation to enter debate (it would not be surprising that the few scientists who bother to engage in generally shunned debates have unusual motivation).

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    When most authorities are silent, the few who deviate to talk will likely be odd in some ways. So finding that a vocal critic is odd doesn’t seem to offer much evidence one way or the other on the main dispute. The main issue is explaining the silence of the others.

  • zzz

    Anders, there’s no obvious connection between slow discounting and irrational persistence. Slow discounting is relevant when deciding whether to undertake a sunk investment (based on its ex-ante expected return), but once the investment has been incurred the sunk cost should be ignored as having no bearing on further decisions.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/nickbostrom/ Nick Bostrom

    I agree that the bigger issue here is to explain the silence of the majority. Nevertheless, I have to admit I found it striking to learn that the most prominent and authoritative critic of MNT not only believes that MNT is impossible but also that “it is clear that” biological evolution is impossible.

    If I introspect on how I form my opinion on the feasibility and time scale of MNT, it seems that part is a direct assessment of how plausible it seems on technical grounds, part of it an assessement of how reliable the different parties to the dispute seem to be. The fact that I have read Drexler and talked with him, and found him very smart and insightful, helps boost my credence in MNT. I didn’t meet Smalley, but this new revelation casts doubts on his reliability. I think that how one interprets the silence of the majority might depend on one’s preliminary assessment of the plausibility of the claim at issue. If the claim seems absurd, then one might interpret the silence as confirmation of this impression – it’s probably so absurd that it’s not worth commenting on. If on the other hand the claim seems independently plausible and is supported by people one finds believable, and is opposed mainly or only by people one finds unbelievable, then one might begin to attach greater probability to alternative explanations for why the majority is silent. For example, maybe the majority does not have a strong view on the topic. Maybe they have a biased view and find themselves unable to articulate compelling arguments for their view, and therefore choose to remain silent. Maybe they face some kind of political/funding pressure to remain silent.

  • michael vassar

    Lyle Burkhead is another famous critic of MNT, in fact, back in the late 90s he was the only critic on the web who showed a more than rudimentary familiarity with the subject. That he also denied the occurrence of the Holocaust was also somewhat noteworthy.

  • http://www.ciphergoth.org/ Paul Crowley

    This link seems to be dead – any help you can provide finding the relevant article would be gratefully received, thanks!

  • http://www.ciphergoth.org/ Paul Crowley

    Looking as if you might mean Cohen GD. The magic bullets are blanks. Purported shortcuts to improving the aging mind. The American journal of geriatric psychiatry : official journal of the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry. 1998;6(3):185-95.