Scientia Contra Scientitatem (vel Fides et Sceientia, Manus in Manu)

Here’s an article titled Math is Racist, which is a misleading name.

Essentially  profiles a professional mathematician (sounds like a data analyst to me) who trucks with the Occupy Wallstreet crowd.  She claims that mathematics is being used to hurt poor people on loan applications, criminal sentencing, and so on.

A few thoughts:

1) It’s crazy easy to hurt poor people.  Want to not live by minorities?  Move somewhere with high property taxes.  Want to enmesh them in the criminal justice system and feel good about yourself at the same time?  Enact usurious vice taxes on things like cigarettes and alcohol and outlaw cheap vices like marijuana.  It’s not like you need to be a statistician to think of ways to hurt poor people.

2) One of the things they make you learn when you become a statistician is something called discriminant analysis, which is a fancy way for coming up with mathematical rules for separating things into groups.  The classic example is that you have a bunch of different flowers that look alike but are different flowers.  You create a mathematical model based on the size of the petals and sepals and it classifies them.

You don’t always get perfect rules to tell them apart, but you can do a lot better than random chance.  So, for example, if you had four types of flowers in a hat, picked one out and then randomly said it was one of the four types of flowers, you’d have a 25% chance of being correct.  Using discriminant analysis, you might be able to move that up to a much higher rate of accuracy (maybe 75 or 85%).

When talking heads talk about computer algorithms to predict our behavior, what they’re really talking about is discriminant analysis.  When you buy some stuff on Amazon, it uses discriminant analysis to figure out what “type” of person you are and then selects other stuff that your “type” might want to buy.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  But it’s not supposed to be perfect.  Amazon has an almost infinite number of products–if it randomly picked something to suggest, it would have a negligible chance of picking something you’d want.  But if it can improve that chance to even a few percentage points, it’s a success.

When you get turned down for a loan or face harsher penalties for crimes based on your zip code, credit score, and other things, that’s discriminant analysis.

3) My problem with the title of the article is that the profilee is clearly not anti-science.  She’s anti-a-particular-application-of-science, which is a very different thing.  She doesn’t not believe that discriminant analysis is a real mathematical tool, she believes that employing it in  loan applications or criminal sentencing is wrong.

A better way of looking at this is that she’s anti-scientism, which I’d define as the belief that “Science” and the scientific method is the only reliable guide for human understanding.

In a sense, anti-scientism is the entire underpinning of books like Frankenstein or Jurassic Park, which are essentially reframings of the question “Science tells us we can do this, but should we?”

4) We have a big problem politically (on both sides–but not with enlightened people like me who are moderates), wherein each claims that the other is “anti-science.”  (Liberal friends, you may not know that that conservatives think that you are the anti-science ones, but, like, it’s a thing. You need to read more NRO).

Sometimes the problem is legitimate dogmatic anti-scientism (opposition to an earth age in the billions of years or a belief that nuclear power is unsafe).  But that’s not really what we’re talking about here.  We’re talking about whether or not certain scientific methods or tools should be employed, which is a discussion of ethics.
Ultimately, ethics is something I have a hard time letting scientists police themselves on.  Scientifically, neuroscience can eventually tell us (maybe now?) which parts of the brain we could manipulate in order to create hordes of willing slaves, but nothing in the scientific method is gong to tell us whether or not we should.
I mean, heck, science tells us that H-bomb and mustard gas are super good ways of killing people, it tells us that forced chemical castration is possible, and that poor children are more likely to grow up to be societal drains.
But nothing in science or scientism can tell us not to gas the Southside of Chicago or chemically castrate the entire barrio population in Sao Paulo.
Instead, the woman from the article makes to me a very appropriate faith-based argument against using a scientific method to the detriment of people.
5) Faith is a funny thing, since it can be either deistic or non-deistic.  Lots of people believe in the golden rule because they think that a supernatural power wants them to.  Lots of others who are atheists believe in the golden rule because that’s the “right thing to do.”
But there’s nothing scientific about it.  It can’t be tested or created in a lab.  Sure, there can be studies on reciprocity in the natural world or game theory on outcome optimization and whatever, but nothing in the inductive scientific method could produce it.
Which means that believing that humans should obey the golden rule becomes a tautological “People should do this because people should do this.”  At this point, I’d argue, we’re talking about a belief that cannot be only rooted in logic or reason, which is another way of saying faith.
The great strength of science is answering the question “how?” and the great strength of faith is answering the question “should?”.
6) This implies, I think, that in order to utilize science to it’s best, we need faith to inform us (just as faith is best when it’s underpinned by rational and logical criticism).  Neither can exist in a vacuum.  Both are necessary for the survival of the other.
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