That’s So Second Millennium

Episode 010 - Intellectual Citizenship (part 1)

June 4, 2018

Bill and Paul dive into a very simple question posed by Bill over email: "Please describe more what is intellectual citizenship?" That of course opens up a question that lurks behind every issue we discuss, and any philosophical or religious question touches upon, which is what we owe the universe, its Creator if it has one, and each other. We can't learn everything about everything, and we must make choices what to spend our time on.

In the political system we inhabit, in the U.S. and other contemporary representative democracies, we choose whom to trust to make decisions for us. There is a tendency to think about our choices in voting as a process of simply matching up policy preferences, but that leaves out of consideration the very important human question of which candidate will actually act on his or her stated policy preferences and do so effectively.

In our awareness of the broader world, when we give our allegiance to science, it's good to have an idea to what sort of thing we are pledging ourselves. Different sciences are at different stages of development and are more or less ripe for further paradigm shifts. Those paradigm shifts may come more or less "off in the distance," where they may or may not affect how we solve practical problems. The paradigm shifts we've discussed in physics didn't change how civil engineers made their calculations, but the plate tectonics revolution in the 1960s did have practical ramifications for economic geology and hazards assessment, just to name two things. The human sciences of economics, sociology, and psychology are good examples of sciences that are ripe for paradigm shifts. Indeed, currently, they are in the really unstable situation of having multiple competing paradigms.

When we apply science to a practical question, like the issue of climate change, being a good intellectual citizen means gaining at least some awareness of the different parts of the problem and the degree to which our experts can express certainty on each issue. Climate change requires at least three big components. First, we need the basic thermodynamics of how air and water respond to heat, how they move and mix. On that abstract level of physical laws, we have great certainty. Second, we need detailed data on the temperatures, wind speeds, air composition, etc. all across the planet. On that level, we have a great deal of data, but not as much as we could conceivably want. Third, we need models that run on as dense as possible a cluster of node points, which is to say models that divide up the atmosphere, land, and oceans into the largest number of little boxes possible; and likewise, models that take into account as much of the physics as possible, and not just a few of the elements. This is the really hard part, even with the computing resources we now have.

Bill wraps up the episode by noting how daunting we have made the question of intellectual citizenship and also how important the question of models is whenever we try to apply science...and maybe any body of intellectual knowledge...to our problems. We will take these questions as our point of departure for the next episode.