The Failures of Eld Science

This time there were no robes, no hoods, no masks. Students were expected to become friends, and allies. And everyone knew why you were in the classroom. It would have been pointless to pretend you weren’t in the Conspiracy.

Their sensei was Jeffreyssai, who might have been the best of his era, in his era. His students were either the most promising learners, or those whom the beisutsukai saw political advantage in molding.

Brennan fell into the latter category, and knew it. Nor had he hesitated to use his Mistress’s name to open doors. You used every avenue available to you, in seeking knowledge; that was respected here.

“—for over thirty years,” Jeffreyssai said. “Not one of them saw it; not Einstein, not Schrödinger, not even von Neumann.” He turned away from his sketcher, and toward the classroom. “I pose to you to the question: How did they fail?”

The students exchanged quick glances, a calculus of mutual risk between the wary and the merely baffled. Jeffreyssai was known to play games.

Finally Hiriwa-called-the-Black leaned forward, jangling slightly as her equation-carved bracelets shifted on her ankles. “By your years given, sensei, this was two hundred and fifty years after Newton. Surely, the scientists of that era must have grokked the concept of a universal law.”

“Knowing the universal law of gravity,” said the student Taji, from a nearby seat, “is not the same as understanding the concept of a universal law.” He was one of the promising ones, as was Hiriwa.

Hiriwa frowned. “No… it was said that Newton had been praised for discovering the first universal. Even in his own era. So it was known.” Hiriwa paused. “But Newton himself would have been gone. Was there a religious injunction against proposing further universals? Did they refrain out of respect for Newton, or were they waiting for his ghost to speak? I am not clear on how Eld science was motivated—”

“No,” murmured Taji, a laugh in his voice, “you really, really aren’t.”

Jeffreyssai’s expression was kindly. “Hiriwa, it wasn’t religion, and it wasn’t lead in the drinking water, and they didn’t all have Alzheimer’s, and they weren’t sitting around all day reading webcomics. Forget the catalogue of horrors out of ancient times. Just think in terms of cognitive errors. What could Eld science have been thinking wrong?”

Hiriwa sat back with a sigh. “Sensei, I truly cannot imagine a snafu that would do that.”

“It wouldn’t be just one mistake,” Taji corrected her. “As the saying goes: Mistakes don’t travel alone; they hunt in packs.”

“But the entire human species?” said Hiriwa. “Thirty years?”

“It wasn’t the entire human species, Hiriwa,” said Styrlyn. He was one of the older-looking students, wearing a short beard speckled in gray. “Maybe one in a hundred thousand could have written out Schrödinger’s Equation from memory. So that would have been their first and primary error—failure to concentrate their forces.”

Spare us the propaganda!” Jeffreyssai’s gaze was suddenly fierce. “You are not here to proselytize for the Cooperative Conspiracy, my lord politician! Bend not the truth to make your points! I believe your Conspiracy has a phrase: ‘Comparative advantage.’ Do you really think that it would have helped to call in the whole human species, as it existed at that time, to debate quantum physics?”

Styrlyn didn’t flinch. “Perhaps not, sensei,” he said. “But if you are to compare that era to this one, it is a consideration.”

Jeffreyssai moved his hand flatly through the air; the maybe-gesture he used to dismiss an argument that was true but not relevant. “It is not what I would call a primary mistake. The puzzle should not have required a billion physicists to solve.”

“I can think of more specific ancient horrors,” said Taji. “Spending all day writing grant proposals. Teaching undergraduates who would rather be somewhere else. Needing to publish thirty papers a year to get tenure…”

“But we are not speaking of only the lower-status scientists,” said Yin; she wore a slightly teasing grin. “It was said of Schrödinger that he retired to a villa for a month, with his mistress to provide inspiration, and emerged with his eponymous equation. We consider it a famous historical success of our methodology. Some Eld physicists did understand how to focus their mental energies; and would have been senior enough to do so, had they chose.”

“True,” Taji said. “In the end, administrative burdens are only a generic obstacle. Likewise such answers as, ‘They were not trained in probability theory, and did not know of cognitive biases.’ Our sensei seems to desire some more specific reply.”

Jeffreyssai lifted an eyebrow encouragingly. “Don’t dismiss your line of thought so quickly, Taji; it begins to be relevant. What kind of system would create administrative burdens on its own people?”

“A system that failed to support its people adequately,” said Styrlyn. “One that failed to value their work.”

“Ah,” said Jeffreyssai. “But there is a student who has not yet spoken. Brennan?

Brennan didn’t jump. He deliberately waited just long enough to show he wasn’t scared, and then said, “Lack of pragmatic motivation, sensei.”

Jeffreyssai smiled slightly. “Expand.”

What kind of system would create administrative burdens on its own people?, their sensei had asked them. The other students were pursuing their own lines of thought. Brennan, hanging back, had more attention to spare for his teacher’s few hints. Being the beginner wasn’t always a disadvantage—and he had been taught, long before the Bayesians took him in, to take every available advantage.

“The Manhattan Project,” Brennan said, “was launched with a specific technological end in sight: a weapon of great power, in time of war. But the error that Eld Science committed with respect to quantum physics had no immediate consequences for their technology. They were confused, but they had no desperate need for an answer. Otherwise the surrounding system would have removed all burdens from their effort to solve it. Surely the Manhattan Project must have done so—Taji? Do you know?”

Taji looked thoughtful. “Not all burdens—but I’m pretty sure they weren’t writing grant proposals in the middle of their work.”

“So,” Jeffreyssai said. He advanced a few steps, stood directly in front of Brennan’s desk. “You think Eld scientists simply weren’t trying hard enough. Because their art had no military applications? A rather competitive point of view, I should think.”

“Not necessarily,” Brennan said calmly. “Pragmatism is a virtue of rationality also. A desired use for a better quantum theory would have helped the Eld scientists in many ways beyond just motivating them. It would have given shape to their curiosity, and told them what constituted success or failure.”

Jeffreyssai chuckled slightly. “Don’t guess so hard what I might prefer to hear, Competitor. Your first statement came closer to my hidden mark; your oh-so-Bayesian disclaimer fell wide… The factor I had in mind, Brennan, was that Eld scientists thought it was acceptable to take thirty years to solve a problem. Their entire social process of science was based on getting to the truth eventually. A wrong theory got discarded eventually—once the next generation of students grew up familiar with the replacement. Work expands to fill the time allotted, as the saying goes. But people can think important thoughts in far less than thirty years, if they expect speed of themselves.” Jeffreyssai suddenly slammed down a hand on the arm of Brennan’s chair. “How long do you have to dodge a thrown knife?

“Very little time, sensei!”

Less than a second! Two opponents are attacking you! How long do you have to guess who’s more dangerous?

“Less than a second, sensei!”

The two opponents have split up and are attacking two of your girlfriends! How long do you have to decide which one you truly love?

“Less than a second, sensei!”

A new argument shows your precious theory is flawed! How long does it take you to change your mind?

“Less than a second, sensei!”

Wrong! Don’t give me the wrong answer just because it fits a convenient pattern and I seem to expect it of you! How long does it really take, Brennan?”

Sweat was forming on Brennan’s back, but he stopped and actually thought about it—

Answer, Brennan!

No, sensei! I’m not finished thinking, sensei! An answer would be premature! Sensei!

Very good! Continue! But don’t take thirty years!

Brennan breathed deeply, reforming his thoughts. He finally said, “Realistically, sensei, the best-case scenario is that I would see the problem immediately; use the discipline of suspending judgment; try to re-accumulate all the evidence before continuing; and depending on how emotionally attached I had been to the theory, use the crisis-of-belief technique to ensure I could genuinely go either way. So at least five minutes and perhaps up to an hour.”

Good! You actually thought about it that time! Think about it every time! Break patterns! In the days of Eld Science, Brennan, it was not uncommon for a grant agency to spend six months reviewing a proposal. They permitted themselves the time! You are being graded on your speed, Brennan! The question is not whether you get there eventually! Anyone can find the truth in five thousand years! You need to move faster!

Yes, sensei!

“Now, Brennan, have you just learned something new?”

“Yes, sensei!”

“How long did it take you to learn this new thing?”

An arbitrary choice there… “Less than a minute, sensei, from the boundary that seems most obvious.”

“Less than a minute,” Jeffreyssai repeated. “So, Brennan, how long do you think it should take to solve a major scientific problem, if you are not wasting any time?”

Now there was a trapped question if Brennan had ever heard one. There was no way to guess what time period Jeffreyssai had in mind—what the sensei would consider too long, or too short. Which meant that the only way out was to just try for the genuine truth; this would offer him the defense of honesty, little defense though it was. “One year, sensei?”

“Do you think it could be done in one month, Brennan? In a case, let us stipulate, where in principle you already have enough experimental evidence to determine an answer, but not so much experimental evidence that you can afford to make errors in interpreting it.”

Again, no way to guess which answer Jeffreyssai might want… “One month seems like an unrealistically short time to me, sensei.”

“A short time?” Jeffreyssai said incredulously. “How many minutes in thirty days? Hiriwa?”

“43,200, sensei,” she answered. “If you assume sixteen-hour waking periods and daily sleep, then 28,800 minutes.”

“Assume, Brennan, that it takes five whole minutes to think an original thought, rather than learning it from someone else. Does even a major scientific problem require 5,760 distinct insights?”

“I confess, sensei,” Brennan said slowly, “that I have never thought of it that way before… but do you tell me that is truly a realistic level of productivity?”

“No,” said Jeffreyssai, “but neither is it realistic to think that a single problem requires 5,760 insights. And yes, it has been done.”

Jeffreyssai stepped back, and smiled benevolently. Every student in the room stiffened; they knew that smile. “Though none of you hit the particular answer that I had in mind, nonetheless your answers were as reasonable as mine. Except Styrlyn’s, I’m afraid. Even Hiriwa’s answer was not entirely wrong: the task of proposing new theories was once considered a sacred duty reserved for those of high status, there being a limited supply of problems in circulation, at that time. But Brennan’s answer is particularly interesting, and I am minded to test his theory of motivation.”

Oh, hell, Brennan said silently to himself. Jeffreyssai was gesturing for Brennan to stand up before the class.

When Brenann had risen, Jeffreyssai neatly seated himself in Brennan’s chair.

“Brennan-sensei,” Jeffreyssai said, “you have five minutes to think of something stunningly brilliant to say about the failure of Eld science on quantum physics. As for the rest of us, our job will be to gaze at you expectantly. I can only imagine how embarrassing it will be, should you fail to think of anything good.”

Bastard. Brennan didn’t say it aloud. Taji’s face showed a certain amount of sympathy; Styrlyn held himself aloof from the game; but Yin was looking at him with sardonic interest. Worse, Hiriwa was gazing at him expectantly, assuming that he would rise to the challenge. And Jeffreyssai was gawking wide-eyed, waiting for the guru’s words of wisdom. Screw you, sensei.

Brennan didn’t panic. It was very, very, very far from being the scariest situation he’d ever faced. He took a moment to decide how to think; then thought.

At four minutes and thirty seconds, Brennan spoke. (There was an art to such things; as long as you were doing it anyway, you might as well make it look easy.)

“A woman of wisdom,” Brennan said, “once told me that it is wisest to regard our past selves as fools beyond redemption—to see the people we once were as idiots entire. I do not necessarily say this myself; but it is what she said to me, and there is more than a grain of truth in it. As long as we are making excuses for the past, trying to make it look better, respecting it, we cannot make a clean break. It occurs to me that the rule may be no different for human civilizations. So I tried looking back and considering the Eld scientists as simple fools.”

“Which they were not,” Jeffreyssai said.

“Which they were not,” Brennan continued. “In terms of raw intelligence, they undoubtedly exceeded me. But it occurred to me that a difficulty in seeing what Eld scientists did wrong, might have been in respecting the ancient and legendary names too highly. And that did indeed produce an insight.”

“Enough introduction, Brennan,” said Jeffreyssai. “If you found an insight, state it.”

“Eld scientists were not trained…” Brennan paused. “No, untrained is not the concept. They were trained for the wrong task. At that time, there were no Conspiracies, no secret truths; as soon as Eld scientists solved a major problem, they published the solution to the world and each other. Truly scary and confusing open problems would have been in extremely rare supply, and used up the moment they were solved. So it would not have been possible to train Eld researchers to bring order out of scientific chaos. They would have been trained for something else—I’m not sure what—”

“Trained to manipulate whatever science had already been discovered,” said Taji. “It was a difficult enough task for Eld teachers to train their students to use existing knowledge, or follow already-known methodologies; that was all Eld science teachers aspired to impart.”

Brennan nodded. “Which is a very different matter from creating new science of their own. The Eld scientists, faced with problems of quantum theory, might never have faced that kind of fear before—the dismay of not knowing. The Eld scientists might have seized on unsatisfactory answers prematurely, because they were accustomed to working with a neat, agreed-upon body of knowledge.”

Good, Brennan,” murmured Jeffreyssai.

“But above all,” Brennan continued, “an Eld scientist couldn’t have practiced the actual problem the quantum scientists faced—that of resolving a major confusion. It was something you did once per lifetime if you were lucky, and as Hiriwa observed, Newton would no longer have been around. So while the Eld physicists who messed up quantum theory were not unintelligent, they were, in a strong sense, amateurs—ad-libbing the whole process of paradigm shift.”

“And no probability theory,” Hiriwa noted. “So anyone who did succeed at the problem would have no idea what they’d just done. They wouldn’t be able to communicate it to anyone else, except vaguely.”

“Yes,” Styrlyn said. “And it was only a handful of people who could tackle the problem at all, with no training in doing so; those are the physicists whose names have passed down to us. A handful of people, making a handful of discoveries each. It would not have been enough to sustain a community. Each Eld scientist tackling a new paradigm shift would have needed to rediscover the rules from scratch.”

Jeffreyssai rose from Brenann’s desk. “Acceptable, Brennan; you surprise me, in fact. I shall have to give further thought to this method of yours.” Jeffreyssai went to the classroom door, then looked back. “However, I did have in mind at least one other major flaw of Eld science, which none of you suggested. I expect to receive a list of possible flaws tomorrow. I expect the flaw I have in mind to be on the list. You have 480 minutes, excluding sleep time. I see five of you here. The challenge does not require more than 480 insights to solve, nor more than 96 insights in series.”

And Jeffreyssai left the room.

Science and Rationality
(sequence)

Top

Book

Sequence

The Dilemma: Science or Bayes?