Saturday, June 27, 2015

Knowing versus Not Knowing

Subtitle: Ignorance is no substitute for knowledge

The search for Truth - with a capital T - has a long history.  How do we define something as True?  In part, the answer lies in what that something is.  Easily verifiable statements are true, if the verification is positive.  For example, it is true to state that the Pacific Ocean lies to the west of North America.  At the other extreme, truth is elusive for highly subjective statements such as "my dog is cute."  The dog may be cute to some observers, but very ugly to other observers.   Another consideration is the iceberg principle: what may appear to be true (no danger to a ship from the small top of the iceberg) is not true when all the facts are known (the underwater, hidden, and huge part of the iceberg is a danger to a ship).  In a court of law, judicial notice is taken when neither party wishes to dispute the truth of a fact that has some bearing on the case.  The fact is taken as absolutely true, with no doubt associated with that fact.  An example of a true fact, one that would have judicial notice in a court proceeding, is that June 27, 2015, is a Saturday. 

Note, there are some who quibble and object that islands are part of North America and are surrounded by the Pacific Ocean.  An example is Santa Catalina Island, offshore southern California.  

Background - about me and why I write this article
For those who may be new to Sowell's Law Blog, SLB, I am both an attorney-at-law and have long experience in chemical engineering in a great number of process plants around the world.  In addition to my law practice, I write on a number of topics, and make speeches to various groups from college students to professional engineering societies.    SLB topics typically include climate change, nuclear power, renewable energy, fossil fuel energy, government regulatory issues, fresh water, NASA's missions, engineering and scientific professional liability, Free Speech and the First Amendment, especially defamation, and others.   My stance generates some responses, of which quite a few are positive and some downright nasty and negative.   A few commenters, who sometimes send email, resort to vicious personal attacks, character assassination, and libel.   

For some perspective, SLB has existed since March, 2008, and has received almost 120,000 pageviews from more than 40,000 unique visitors in 140 countries.  At this time, there are 280 posts, and the blog receives approximately 3,000 views per month.  (Those statistics are not especially notable in the internet world, yet they are what this blog has produced over its 7 year life.  This represents far more views, and far more visitors, and certainly far more countries than I ever envisioned.  Alexa's global rank for SLB is 21.4 million, out of more than 1 billion websites globally).  

What sometimes puzzles me is how so many people, typically those with nasty and negative comments, can hold the positions they hold.  This article explores some of the reasons people hold an opinion. 

Knowledge Matrix

A knowledge matrix is a binary matrix with two parameters, with each parameter taking one of two values.  The two parameters are 1) knowledge a person can have, and 2) the realization the person has of having the knowledge.   The two values for each parameter are yes, and no, as shown below.  

  A) Don't know but don't realize it
  B) Don't know but do realize it
  C) Do know but don't realize it
  D) Do know and do realize it

For A) a person doesn't know the knowledge but also does not realize he doesn't know.  This person is (probably) blissfully ignorant of that particular bit of knowledge.  Experience has shown that many people, perhaps most people, have this A) condition for a great many subjects.  As examples, an unpublished bit of scientific knowledge may have only a few people who know about it, while the rest of the world population don't know and don't realize the knowledge exists.  Also, social groups that are isolated have no knowledge of events outside their local area and may not realize the outside areas exist.  

For B) a person doesn't know the knowledge but realizes he doesn't know. This person is one who recognizes that such knowledge exists, but realizes that he himself does not know the knowledge.  For example, most of us (excluding medical doctors) are in this category with respect to deep medical knowledge.  We know that a vast medical knowledge exists, and we may actually know some of it, but we realize we don't know all that a trained medical doctor knows.   This also describes a person with a shallow knowledge of any subject, who realizes that a complex and deep body of knowledge on that subject also exists.  

For C) a person does know the knowledge but doesn't realize he knows it.  This may seem a bit unrealistic, since most of us are aware of what we know.  Yet, examples exist all around.  A shy person may have never made a speech in public, but once he tries public speaking and has success, he enjoys public speaking.  He had the knowledge of how to speak in public but did not realize it. 

Finally, for D) a person does know the knowledge and realizes he knows it.  This describes people who have studied a subject, or practiced activities until they are proficient.  

This becomes important, the A B C D categories, when matters of some public concern are discussed.  Especially with the internet and its literally millions of websites, it can be seen that writers (and speakers) from all categories are publishing their views.  But, pre-internet, similar situations existed with traditional print and broadcast media.  People who wildly speculate might be in A), they don't know and don't realize they don't know, but they write very wrong things.  People in B) may write, but acknowledge they don't know and therefore seek opinions from authorities and quote those authorities.  That in itself has problems, discussed later.  People in C) may write, although in my experience those are rare.  They know, but don't realize they know, so they don't write.   People in D) may write, those who know and realize they know, and have valid points.  

However, the A B C and D categories are not sufficient; what about those Ds who know, and realize it, but deliberately omit key facts or distort the facts, or outright lie, to further their agenda?  This has great application in several key areas discussed below. 

Furthermore, what about those who don't know and don't realize it, (A), but actually believe they do know and realize it?  They may trust authorities, and repeat the talking points.   These may be good, honest people, but they simply have never heard the opposing viewpoint.  (e.g. people who don't know that the climate scientists adjusted historical data, omitted variables in their models, ignore important correlations, include data that should be excluded as invalid) (e.g. in nuclear power, those who never have heard the safety, costs, or subsidy facts such as shown by TANP series) (e.g. renewable energy costs are rapidly declining, with increased production and grid penetration with no ill effects, storage is solved with MIT underwater storage) (e.g. fresh water is abundant but in the wrong places and the wrong times in floods, need transfer systems such as NEWTAP, or dams and reservoirs).

Tests for Veracity and Acceptance - Daubert Standard 

How, then, can one determine the truth of what people write?  The example of a court trial is given.  In US Federal Courts, and some state courts, an expert witness' testimony is tested to determine if the expert's reasoning and methodology is scientifically valid and can be properly applied to the facts at issue in the case.  The Daubert Standard has five parts:

(1) whether the theory or technique in question can be and has been tested; 
(2) whether it has been subjected to peer review and publication; 
(3) its known or potential error rate; 
(4) the existence and maintenance of standards controlling its operation; and 
(5) whether it has attracted widespread acceptance within a relevant scientific community.

Of course, almost none of what is written on the internet ends up in a Daubert analysis for validity.   Courts require the attorneys to prepare and submit arguments based on existing cases and a few other legal authorities.   Internet websites and blogs can function to influence public opinion, and individual opinions.  It is likely not necessary to run through the entire Daubert five steps, but an opinion that can pass all five steps certainly should carry some weight.    

What is interesting is how some people refuse to modify their opinions, even when faced with overwhelming proof that their opinion does not match the facts.   In some of my speeches, especially those to college engineering students, the audience members have not heard or been exposed to certain aspects of science and engineering.  It is an indictment of the primary and secondary school system that tries to indoctrinate the students with half-truths or outright false statements.   

For example, a student asked me years ago to read the environmental science textbook for a class he was taking, and comment on it.  I found it to be full of false statements, and very misleading where it had an element of truth.  The writer clearly had an agenda, and that agenda did not include the most good for the least cost.  One of the greatest false statements in environmental propaganda is that the Earth cannot heal itself.  One huge example is oil spills in the oceans.  The fact is that oil is a natural substance and has leaked into the oceans in very many locations around the world, and has done so for thousands if not millions of years.  Oil becomes part of the food chain in the oceans.  (one need only look up underwater volcanoes)  

Other tests for validity exist for an argument, with the several well-known false arguments from logic.  These include the appeals to authority, to heaven, to pity, and to tradition, arguments from consequences, ignorance, inertia, and from motives, the argument by force, by silence, the bandwagon argument, circular reasoning, the Big Lie, blind loyalty, the Ad Hominem (attacking the person), favoritism, bribery, complex question, the half-truth, lying with statistics, the non-sequitur or Red Herring, straw man, slippery slope, with more than 50 such fallacies listed here.   Many of these false arguments occur routinely in legal proceedings, in testimony, in depositions, in expert witness opinions, in attorney's summations, and at times, in judicial opinions.  It is important to identify the false arguments and refute them where possible. 

In matters concerning science and engineering, the data itself is subject to review, criticism, and many times, rejection.   A brief excursion follows, to describe what many people (apparently) do not know, or if they know, refuse to admit when discussing important topics. 

How Valid Is The Data

It is sometimes stated that all data has measurement errors, the only question is how big are the errors.  That is almost always true, but not quite.  Where one can have absolute accuracy is in certain data involving integers, or discrete objects.  One can, for example, count the number of chairs in a room, provided there is sufficient time to do the counting, the room is not overly large, and the number of chairs does not change during the counting.   For an ordinary room such as a banquet room in a hotel, one can quickly and accurately count the chairs.   One can also count the number of coins in a cash register.  (counting coins can be made much faster and more accurate by placing the coins in piles of ten, then counting the number of piles and multiplying by ten).   However, where a discrete number of things is not the object, measurements actually do have some error.   

Errors exist in most data, but where the errors are sufficiently small, the end-user does not care.  Sometimes, measurement errors are random and tend to cancel out over enough time.   At times, statistical methods are used to determine if the measurement is within the usual (historical) range of error, perhaps one or two standard deviations.   If the measurement is outside that range, notice is taken and the measuring device may be examined for recalibration or repair. 

Topical Examples

Having now examined some aspects of what people know, if they realize what they know, writers with agendas, validity of arguments, fallacious arguments, and accuracy of data, specific topics are examined.   These include, in no particular order, nuclear power plants, climate change and its prevention, mitigation, or adaptation, renewable energy systems, and abundant fresh water.   Each of these has appeared in articles on SLB, and each has attracted comments both positive and negative.  

Nuclear Power Plants

The subject of nuclear power plants, that provide electricity, is immense with almost limitless individual topics.  The fuel itself has many aspects, whether uranium, thorium, or fusion.  The reactor design has many systems from which to choose, from boiling water, pressurized water, advanced boiling water, molten fluoride salts, radioactive spheres, small, medium, or very large capacity.  The power generation scheme has different aspects, from steam, to circulating helium, and supercritical carbon dioxide.   However, even within the arena of existing licensed technologies, the boiling water reactor using steam to drive a turbine-generator, great controversy exists.   

Many industry proponents write articles and offer comments on blogs that show they are blind to the many and serious negative aspects of nuclear power.  As my articles on Truth About Nuclear Power, TANP, show, economics, safety, and subsidies all are very negative.  Yet, when confronted with the truth, many proponents resort to name-calling.   Others resort to what I refer to as the "Yeah, but..." argument.   Some proponents actually insist that the current nuclear regulatory regime is too restrictive, and must be relaxed to allow the plants to compete economically.   One argument they make is to greatly increase the allowable nuclear radiation that can be routinely or episodically absorbed by humans.  In essence, they don't mind frying the populace from time to time in order to build more nuclear plants.  

What is very interesting is that TANP has very little original data, from me.  Instead, the articles are a compilation of known facts and valid statistics from a wide variety of sources.  As an example, the fact is that nuclear power produces only about 11 or 12 percent of the entire world's electricity, as published in several reputable sources.  The logical conclusion drawn and published in TANP is that nuclear power is not the safest and most economic power source, for after more than 50 years of mightily striving in the electrical generation marketplace, it remains only a minor player.   (Coal, natural gas, and hydroelectric all produce more kWh per year than does nuclear power).   This fact causes howls of indignation from the proponents, with their protests including over-regulation, lawsuits from attorneys, public scare-mongering about safe radiation levels, and more.  

Another plain and simple fact of nuclear power is that no nuclear plant would ever be built, anywhere, if not for massive government subsidies and almost total indemnification from harm due to nuclear radiation releases.  TANP discusses this at length, based on irrefutable facts such as the Price-Anderson Act.   Nuclear proponents twist the facts around, by stating that the cost of insurance for a nuclear power plant is a tiny fraction of the power sales price.  That is actually true, but only because the Price-Anderson Act covers the liability and forces each nuclear plant to have a tiny amount of insurance.  

What, then, can be the motivation of the nuclear proponents to howl in such indignation, to resort to vicious name-calling when the facts are published?   As I have stated or questioned before, do they really want to permanently poison the planet with plutonium?   Or, do they have a naive faith in the ingenuity of future engineers to magically solve the huge technical problems that exist in nuclear power plants?   My answer to that one is, some of the best minds in history have applied their best efforts to making nuclear plants safe, reliable, and affordable, for more than 50 years.  The results speak for themselves - five massive reactor meltdowns in less than 40 years, near-misses every 3 weeks (in the US) even after decades of operating experience, huge construction costs that require government subsidies, very long construction times that typically last a decade or more, massive amounts of reserve power to take over when (not if) the nuclear plants trip off-line, and very expensive decommissioning.  With all that effort, nuclear plants produce only 11 to 12 percent of the world's electricity.   

It certainly appears that nuclear proponents, whether writing or making speeches, are a combination of the knowledge matrix types: some write even though they don't know themselves and parrot authorities, some write with an agenda to build the plants no matter what.   One of the best ways to argue and prevail is to omit the negative points and hope the opposition fails to mention them.  Nuclear proponents are masters of that line of argument.  Some proponents, apparently, have great faith in nuclear plant advances, but zero faith in other energy technologies.  (renewable energy is discussed below). 

Climate Change and Prevention, mitigation, adaptation

Renewable Energy systems

Fresh water in abundance

(NB, more to be published on the remaining topics.)

Roger E. Sowell, Esq.
Marina del Rey, California
copyright (c) 2015 by Roger Sowell

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