To Spread Science, Keep It Secret
post by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky)
Sometimes I wonder if the Pythagoreans had the right idea.
Yes, I've written about how "science" is inherently public. I've written that "science" is distinguished from merely rational knowledge by the in-principle ability to reproduce scientific experiments for yourself, to know without relying on authority. I've said that "science" should be defined as the publicly accessible knowledge of humankind. I've even suggested that future generations will regard all papers not published in an open-access journal as non-science, i.e., it can't be part of the public knowledge of humankind if you make people pay to read it.
But that's only one vision of the future. In another vision, the knowledge we now call "science" is taken out of the public domain—the books and journals hidden away, guarded by mystic cults of gurus wearing robes, requiring fearsome initiation rituals for access—so that more people will actually study it.
I mean, right now, people can study science but they don't.
"Scarcity", it's called in social psychology. What appears to be in limited supply, is more highly valued. And this effect is especially strong with information—we're much more likely to try to obtain information that we believe is secret, and to value it more when we do obtain it.
With science, I think, people assume that if the information is freely available, it must not be important. So instead people join cults that have the sense to keep their Great Truths secret. The Great Truth may actually be gibberish, but it's more satisfying than coherent science, because it's secret.
Science is the great Purloined Letter of our times, left out in the open and ignored.
Sure, scientific openness helps the scientific elite. They've already been through the initiation rituals. But for the rest of the planet, science is kept secret a hundred times more effectively by making it freely available, than if its books were guarded in vaults and you had to walk over hot coals to get access. (This being a fearsome trial indeed, since the great secrets of insulation are only available to Physicist-Initiates of the Third Level.)
If scientific knowledge were hidden in ancient vaults (rather than hidden in inconvenient pay-for-access journals), at least then people would try to get into the vaults. They'd be desperate to learn science. Especially when they saw the power that Eighth Level Physicists could wield, and were told that they weren't allowed to know the explanation.
And if you tried to start a cult around oh, say, Scientology, you'd get some degree of public interest, at first. But people would very quickly start asking uncomfortable questions like "Why haven't you given a public demonstration of your Eighth Level powers, like the Physicists?" and "How come none of the Master Mathematicians seem to want to join your cult?" and "Why should I follow your Founder when he isn't an Eighth Level anything outside his own cult?" and "Why should I study your cult first, when the Dentists of Doom can do things that are so much more impressive?"
When you look at it from that perspective, the escape of math from the Pythagorean cult starts to look like a major strategic blunder for humanity.
Now, I know what you're going to say: "But science is surrounded by fearsome initiation rituals! Plus it's inherently difficult to learn! Why doesn't that count?" Because the public thinks that science is freely available, that's why. If you're allowed to learn, it must not be important enough to learn.
It's an image problem, people taking their cues from others' attitudes. Just anyone can walk into the supermarket and buy a light bulb, and nobody looks at it with awe and reverence. The physics supposedly aren't secret (even though you don't know), and there's a one-paragraph explanation in the newspaper that sounds vaguely authoritative and convincing—essentially, no one treats the lightbulb as a sacred mystery, so neither do you.
Even the simplest little things, completely inert objects like crucifixes, can become magical if everyone looks at them like they're magic. But since you're theoretically allowed to know why the light bulb works without climbing the mountain to find the remote Monastery of Electricians, there's no need to actually bother to learn.
Now, because science does in fact have initiation rituals both social and cognitive, scientists are not wholly dissatisfied with their science. The problem is that, in the present world, very few people bother to study science in the first place. Science cannot be the true Secret Knowledge, because just anyone is allowed to know it—even though, in fact, they don't.
If the Great Secret of Natural Selection, passed down from Darwin Who Is Not Forgotten, was only ever imparted to you after you paid $2000 and went through a ceremony involving torches and robes and masks and sacrificing an ox, then when you were shown the fossils, and shown the optic cable going through the retina under a microscope, and finally told the Truth, you would say "That's the most brilliant thing ever!" and be satisfied. After that, if some other cult tried to tell you it was actually a bearded man in the sky 6000 years ago, you'd laugh like hell.
And you know, it might actually be more fun to do things that way. Especially if the initiation required you to put together some of the evidence for yourself—together, or with classmates—before you could tell your Science Sensei you were ready to advance to the next level. It wouldn't be efficient, sure, but it would be fun.
If humanity had never made the mistake—never gone down the religious path, and never learned to fear anything that smacks of religion—then maybe the Ph.D. granting ceremony would involve litanies and chanting, because, hey, that's what people like. Why take the fun out of everything?
Maybe we're just doing it wrong.
And no, I'm not seriously proposing that we try to reverse the last five hundred years of openness and classify all the science secret. At least, not at the moment. Efficiency is important for now, especially in things like medical research. I'm just explaining why it is that I won't tell anyone the Secret of how the ineffable difference between blueness and redness arises from mere atoms for less than $100,000—
Ahem! I meant to say, I'm telling you about this vision of an alternate Earth, so that you give science equal treatment with cults. So that you don't undervalue scientific truth when you learn it, just because it doesn't seem to be protected appropriately to its value. Imagine the robes and masks. Visualize yourself creeping into the vaults and stealing the Lost Knowledge of Newton. And don't be fooled by any organization that does use robes and masks, unless they also show you the data.
People seem to have holes in their minds for Esoteric Knowledge, Deep Secrets, the Hidden Truth. And I'm not even criticizing this psychology! There are deep secret esoteric hidden truths, like quantum mechanics or Bayes-structure. We've just gotten into the habit of presenting the Hidden Truth in a very unsatisfying way, wrapped up in false mundanity.
But if the holes for secret knowledge are not filled by true beliefs, they will be filled by false beliefs. There is nothing but science to learn—the emotional energy must either be invested in reality, or wasted in total nonsense, or destroyed. For myself, I think it is better to invest the emotional energy; fun should not be needlessly cast away.
Right now, we've got the worst of both worlds. Science isn't really free, because the courses are expensive and the textbooks are expensive. But the public thinks that anyone is allowed to know, so it must not be important.
Ideally, you would want to arrange things the other way around.
Comments sorted by oldest first, as this post is from before comment nesting was available (around 2009-02-27).
comment by Hopefully_Anonymous ·
2008-03-28T06:47:01.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Great, interesting, thought-provoking post, Eliezer. As you suggest towards the end, a multiplex of strategies regarding relating science to the public may be best.
I'm for creating straussian brands of widespread and/or fast-growing belief systems to compete with their sincere or exploitive versions. For example, rather than a cult of science made from scratch, I think a version of evangelical christianity where the top executives are focused on making the behavior of the masses more in our rational self-interest would be the better approach (although it would be interesting to see both tried).
comment by Psychohistorian3 ·
2008-03-28T06:55:56.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Insightful, as always, but this seems like it may have the esoteric value of some knowledge the wrong way around. There are certain questions, like "What is the meaning of life?" that science cannot answer the way people want to hear (as, "that questions is incoherent and pointless" is rarely viewed as satisfactory, regardless of its accuracy). It seems people choose religion because they are seeking answers to some such question (or, because their parents chose it), and they end up swallowing the earth being 6000 years old almost as an afterthought.
comment by Grant ·
2008-03-28T07:04:53.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I love most of your posts, but I think you might be off on this one.
Why successful cultures reward people who tried to discover and understand knowledge that was already known? I don't think they would; I think they'd reward people who go after secrets, mysteries, etc. People who make use of knowledge (preexisting or otherwise) for their own gain are of course rewarded anyway, but for the most part I don't think that describes science very well, does it?
What would be the purpose of rewarding people (who cannot make use of the knowledge) to 'discover' things already in the public domain? Wouldn't we rather have them striving to solve puzzles? I know its enjoyable for many of us to 'discover' science on our own, but for your average person I think thats a waste of time. In other words, I think scarcity in knowledge is beneficial for society, though maybe not for science nuts.
Can't you usually audit courses in most universities for free?
comment by Lowly_Undergrad ·
2008-03-28T07:37:37.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I think I, along with Grant, may have to disagree with portions of this entry. It seems your basic point is that if science was set up in the way the scientology and other cults are, it would obtain an increase in interest and pursuit. The problem I see with that is that cult knowledge is easy; science is hard. Learning a couple of simple beliefs at each level is simple. However, much like many people who would love to be a CEO of a major corporation, but abstain from attempting to achieve this goal due to the increased stress and demands of the position, the "cult of science" would face a similar issue. Learning advanced mathematics is not for the timid.
comment by Psy-Kosh ·
2008-03-28T08:12:12.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Well, ideally one would want us to be smart enough to not automatically overvalue hidden information or undervalue availible information. :)
Also, I'm reminded of a bit from the Discworld book Thief of Time. Kaos says to Sweeper something to the effect of "...You know all the hidden wisdoms. No, more than that. I suspect you are even wiser. You know the explicit wisdoms, the knowledge hidden in plain sight and ignored by most as they seek hidden knowledge."
comment by Anonymous27 ·
2008-03-28T08:29:49.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
What are you doing? Aren't you supposed to be saving the world?
Seriously, what the hell is this? I pay you to make a friendly AI and instead I find you BLOGGING?!
comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) ·
2008-03-28T08:35:31.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
The Singularity Institute has a human-resources problem and a PR problem. I've been taking haphazard potshots at this for 8 years and it hasn't worked. So I'm taking the time to write out full explanations, and the basics, and will eventually produce a book, and teenagers will read the book, go on to read other books, and then be hired by SIAI 7 years later. That, I'm afraid, is how it has always worked around here.
Also, if you're an actual SIAI donor, please identify yourself and cite amount donated - via private email, if you prefer.
Replies from: wizzwizz4
comment by Sam_B ·
2008-03-28T10:00:20.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
This post assumes a very positive view of humanity. It assumes that people aren't studying science in large enough numbers because the knowledge isn't exciting and attractive enough. The alternative assumption is that people aren't studying science because they're thick, or lazy, or both.
In Britain, fewer and fewer young people are choosing to study science at A-level (16-18) and university, despite the increased number of them continuing education after compulsory education ends (16). This is mainly blamed on them choosing to do new, 'soft' options, of which Media Studies is the primary scapegoat (but a Google for 'Mickey Mouse degrees' or a flick through the prospectus of a lower-order university will find plenty of others). This can't be attributed to the non-secret nature of science, because Media Studies is just as non-secret. If the open nature of science was really the problem, it would be a problem shared by every single subject from science to media studies to plumbing apprenticeships, and enrolment would be falling in every subject, not just science.
I don't actually disagree with the main point of the post - that secret knowledge is more attractive - but it wouldn't solve the problem of lack of interest in science. If science went cultish, they would see a short-term increase in interest, but then media studies academics would hide their 'knowledge' as well, and we'd be back where we started. Even if the knowledge was secret I've no doubt that most young people would consider the secret media studies knowledge more attractive than the secret science knowledge. "The chanting isn't as weird, and the robes are better, and even under those hoods you can tell the Physics cult is a total sausagefest."
Replies from: jschulter
↑ comment by jschulter ·
2010-09-11T00:44:22.401Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I think you might have failed to realize what will determine which cult people will choose. When the Media cult makes their presentation, they'll be reduced to showing a movie (or equivalent, maybe a lo-fi virtual reality) and saying "look at this fancy media we can create, wouldn't you like to be able to do that?" But then the Physics and Mathematics cult (I really do fail to see how they could be separated successfully) presents a light bulb, a tesla coil, and possibly a miniature sun and gets to say "this isn't even the half of what we could do if we wanted to. If you want to know how to do it, you'll have to deal with us."
comment by Roko ·
2008-03-28T11:14:03.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Eliezer: "The Singularity Institute has a human-resources problem and a PR problem. I've been taking haphazard potshots at this for 8 years and it hasn't worked. So I'm taking the time to write out full explanations, and the basics, and will eventually produce a book, and teenagers will read the book, go on to read other books, and then be hired by SIAI 7 years later. That, I'm afraid, is how it has always worked around here."
Interesting. And probably a good strategy. In my humble opinion, the most worthwhile things that have been written on the subject of Friendly AI have been written by Eliezer Yudkowsky. But who's to say that Eliezer has all the answers? It takes a lot of wisdom to realize that your best strategy might be to convince a large number of others to work on a problem that might be too difficult for any one person - including yourself - to solve.
I can personally testify that Eliezer's writing was instrumental in alerting me to the urgency and importance of working on friendly AI, and that is indeed what I plan to do.
comment by Will_Pearson ·
2008-03-28T11:54:54.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
"Right now, we've got the worst of both worlds. Science isn't really free, because the courses are expensive and the textbooks are expensive. But the public thinks that anyone is allowed to know, so it must not be important."
Anyone is allowed to pick up and read a bible. They are even given away free! The public still seems to rate the teachings in that though.
If I was trying to spread science, I wouldn't make it scare, I would make it social. How about a roleplaying game, Scientist: The Discovery! Scenarios are scientific problems with real world data and the players level up by solving them. Or perhaps fantastical, such as deflecting asteroids, but using real equations.
Also cults are not the thing you have to get science to the level of, today it is celebrity worship/sports following/world of warcraft.
The whole chanting thing put me off religion, I'd much prefer a ritual dance. And no bloody sacrifices.
I'm curious what exactly your HR problems are with SIAI, it doesn't seem to have any jobs or research posts open.
Replies from: quadibloc, jschulter
↑ comment by jschulter ·
2010-09-11T00:49:31.657Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
The sacrifice put me off a bit too. maybe a barbecue instead? The ox is still dead and exposed to fire, but we don't wast the utility of tasty tasty animal flesh.
And it definitely would be nice if all prominent scientists/mathematicians got the same responses we see for celebrities, instead of just the select few who become household names.
comment by Caledonian2 ·
2008-03-28T12:13:57.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Most people don't know how light bulbs work because it doesn't matter how light bulbs work. They can't use that knowledge in their daily lives, so it really doesn't matter how difficult it is to acquire that data - as long as it's difficult enough, it's not worthwhile to expend the effort.
Being a physicist doesn't give you any nifty powers, and the phenomena they have the knowledge to predict don't affect the everyday lives of human beings on a perceptible level.
Most people weren't clamoring to learn the Pythagorean secrets, either.
comment by Aziz_Poonawalla ·
2008-03-28T13:15:24.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
The reason I keep coming back to this blog is because you madden me. Long time reader, first time commentor. I appreciate the thought experiment you are conducting in this post but I think some of your own biases are driving the theory.
For example, you equate science with magic. I suspect this is because you have a romanticized bias towards science instead of practical, mundane scientific experience in the trenches. Arthur C. Clarke would be happy, god rest his soul, but the actual practice of science is the opposite of magic. The scientific method simply could not survive in an arcane mysterium context. As a practicing scientist, I not only rely on the knowledge of my fellow initiates to Ars Scientifica to hold my work to its rigour, but also the very public nature of the peer review process itself. There's a reason why PLoS and arXiv are so popular and groundbreaking - these are innovations in the process of peer review that drive us towards greater public transparency, not less. If Ars Scientifica were walled off from the public sphere and wrapped in layers of ritual, it would hamper the very process of inquiry and most importantly self-critique that is essential to the function of Science itself (and magnify the very real flaws and problems in the Method and peer review that persist today).
Secondly, you equate religion with the very small, very specific, and very (disproportionately so) vocal subset that is intelligent design/young earth creationism/etc. This is likely because you are biased in regards to the sample of religious folk you find yourself debating with online and in person. Ordinary deeply religious folk like myself are simply not insecure enough about their faith to care much that you keep referring to religion as a whole as an original sin of rationality (though I do admire your cleverness in inverting the metaphor!). However, that said, you tipped your hand a bit when you wrote above that "if some other cult tried to tell you [The Truth] was actually a bearded man in the sky 6000 years ago, you'd laugh like hell." I think at least part of the underlying drive behind the thought experiment at hand is the wish that science were accorded more respect, so that it least would have parity with pseudoscience. But if science has a PR problem, it is structural. It's simply not worth the effort worrying about it. I think Science succeeds in making an impact on people's lives irrespective of their respect for it.
By focusing only on the bearded sky dude you are avoiding the much deeper intellectual challenge of grappling with the far more mature manifestations of religion, the majority of which transcend minor details like young earths, bearded men, or whatever. The kernel of religion is not the trappings of the stereotype you invoke but rather the simple idea that existence is deeper than what can be accessed by the finite tools we possess.
I am fond of arguing that Godel's Theorem points the way towards the superset of knowledge that contains all that Science can discover and all that Religion seeks to uncover. I don't think ritualizing Science to make it more like religion, or systematizing Religion to make it more like science, is the answer.
comment by spindizzy2 ·
2008-03-28T13:22:19.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Many more people are studying science than can actually hope to find jobs in the field.
The real problem is not a scarcity of people, but a scarcity of smart people. The average guy in the street will not improve his own life or anyone else's by the study of science. Posts for lab technicians are easy enough to fill, after all.
Conversely, the people who really can make a difference by and large do not need any encouragement.
On a practical note, I would be very interested in a discussion of the best ways an individual can make a monetary / political / social contribution to the development of an AGI. Assuming this has already been argued out, does anyone have a link?
comment by Silas ·
2008-03-28T13:44:31.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Psychohistorian: Insightful, as always, but this seems like it may have the esoteric value of some knowledge the wrong way around. There are certain questions, like "What is the meaning of life?" that science cannot answer the way people want to hear (as, "that questions is incoherent and pointless" is rarely viewed as satisfactory, regardless of its accuracy).
I don't think that's the answer science gives, at least, not the complete answer. This would be an excellent example of "wrong questions" that Eliezer Yudkowsky discussed before (note: he linked this despite it not containing the solution to qualia suggested in the anchor text) and an excellent opportunity to right the wrong question.
"What is the meaning of life?"; rephrase as your confusion--> "Why do I want to know the meaning of life?"; taboo "meaning of" --> "Why do I want to know what signficance life has beyond what I can observe?" and so on.
Dismissing the first question should not be the end of it.
comment by Tom_McCabe2 ·
2008-03-28T15:35:59.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
"So I'm taking the time to write out full explanations, and the basics, and will eventually produce a book, and teenagers will read the book, go on to read other books, and then be hired by SIAI 7 years later."
I would certainly enjoy reading your book, and I'm confident that thousands of other people would enjoy it as well. However, I'm not confident that a book on rationality alone will do much for recruiting- Hofstadter's GEB was well-written and very widely read, and it didn't help recruit people for any specific organization.
"I'm just explaining why it is that I won't tell anyone the Secret of how the ineffable difference between blueness and redness arises from mere atoms for less than $100,000 -"
I'll give you $100 for a reasonably detailed explanation of this, as long as you publish it under the GFDL or a similar license.
comment by Silas ·
2008-03-28T15:58:11.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
"I'm just explaining why it is that I won't tell anyone the Secret of how the ineffable difference between blueness and redness arises from mere atoms for less than $100,000 -"
I'll give you $100 for a reasonably detailed explanation of this, as long as you publish it under the GFDL or a similar license.
I can think of a reason why Eliezer Yudkowsky won't take you up on this offer...
I mean, above and beyond not being able to hold up his end ;-)
comment by kevin3 ·
2008-03-28T16:00:17.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Mastering science is hard work...and it requires a willingness to ask hard questions and explore them wherever they may lead. Most secret cults survive by demanding allegiance to the faith, obedience to doctrine, and rejecting any critical examination of those beliefs or their origins.
Science, despite its lack of pop culture acclaim, is responsible for most of the progress in this world---progress against disease, against poverty, progress in describing and understanding the world and the universe in which we live. The openness of science to questions and to critical examination, and its adherence to standards of verification, make it the best method we have for separating truth from myth.
It does not however rid the world of stupid people....and that, my friend, is the real problem
comment by John ·
2008-03-28T18:37:38.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
In Nick Bostrom's paper on the survival of humanity, several potential catastrophe scenarios are technological ones. That makes me think that it might actually be a bad idea to popularize science.
The irony here is that information about how to create a catastrophe - how to make a nuke, how to construct viruses in a laboratory, how to make a nanobot - is just about the only scientific information that people are hiding. (Fortunatetly, though, they don't make a big deal about the fact they're hiding it.)
comment by Nato_Welch ·
2008-03-28T19:14:44.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Animal sacrifices have been replaced by DRM.
I haven't followed this to any of numerous possible conclusions, but I found the analogy irresistible. Think about it.
comment by Gwern_Branwen ·
2009-01-30T19:21:46.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
John: quite right. This actually reminds me of one of the common threads in Michael Crichton's works. From Jurassic Park:
'...Malcolm said. "A karate master does not kill people with his bare hands.
He does not lose his temper and kill his wife.
The person who kills is the person who has no discipline & no restraint, and who has purchased his power in the form of a Saturday night special.
And that is the kind of power that science fosters, and permits. And that is why you think that to build a place like this is simple."
"It was simple!", Hammond insisted.
'Then why did it go wrong?"'
'"I will tell you what I am talking about," he said. "Most kinds of power require a substantial sacrifice by whoever wants the power. There is an apprenticeship, a discipline lasting many years. Whatever kind of power you want. President of the company. Black belt in karate. Spiritual guru. Whatever it is you seek, you have to put in the time, the practice, the effort. You must give up a lot to get it. It has to be very important to you. And once you have attained it, it’s your power. It can't be given away: it resides in you. It is literally the result of your discipline.
Now what is interesting about this process is that, by the time someone has acquired the ability to kill with his bare hands, he has also matured to the point where he won't use it unwisely. So that kind of power has a built-in control. The discipline of getting the you so that you won't abuse it.
But scientific power is like inherited wealth: attained without discipline. You read what others have done, and you take the next step. You can do it very young. You can make progress very fast."'
comment by quadibloc ·
2010-05-06T18:37:59.725Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I found this article hilarious. The idea that the genuinely valuable truth about how the world really works could be found in lost tomes of arcane lore has crossed my mind at times.
The historical reason why we are not ruled by a scientific priesthood, though, is easy to see. Until fairly recently, science did not produce the power to perform seeming miracles. Only by operating in the open could scientists prove they weren't dabbling in witchcraft, because that crisis took place long before the atomic bomb or the Gatling gun.
"Wings Over the World" from H. G. Wells' Things to Come, of course, is the classic literary example of how this could come to pass after a collapse of civilization.
Replies from: JoshuaZ
↑ comment by JoshuaZ ·
2010-05-06T19:02:19.819Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Knowledge in lost tomes isn't completely unheard of. For example, the Riemann-Siegel formula (an important formula about the Riemann zeta function) was found by Siegel in the 1930s when Siegel was going through old papers of Riemann's from the 1850s. This sort of thing was more common in the Middle Ages where Greek mathematical works helped jump-start our understanding. Sometimes also today in sociology and economics, useful data sources are found in unexpected places (Fink and Stark's work on early religion in America in part relied on discovering that the old US census data contained a lot more about religion than anyone had previously realized). But that's not really the same thing since it is just data, not theory. I think the RS formula is probably the best modern example of this sort of event.
comment by TheOtherDave ·
2010-11-05T15:15:32.321Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
The thing is, even in our world most religious people don't in fact join esoteric orders.
In the US, a lot of religious people are mainstream Christians, and many of those don't even read the Bible, let alone study theology. They pick up a "password"-level understanding of Christianity which allows them to signal membership, and are content with that. The same is basically true of other religions.
In your alternate world, I suspect what you'd actually end up with is a lot of cargo cults.
Anathem takes a stab at this idea, by the way. It's delightful reading, but it doesn't take place in a universe very much like our own.
comment by handoflixue ·
2011-07-08T21:47:34.701Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
"Why haven't you given a public demonstration of your Eighth Level powers, like the Physicists?"
I continue to find this quote an invaluable heuristic. Thank you for the great post :)
comment by TheStevenator ·
2011-12-27T06:01:43.911Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Ahh... So this is why Harry and Draco meet at night wearing hooded masks instead of just studying in the library behind a quietus charm. :)
This was a fun post. While I enjoy the public access and general lack of rock climbing ablilities associated with learning science, it is a fun thing to contemplate. Maybe there is a way to implement this sort of thing in elementary school classrooms. Maybe kids would think science is more fun if you offered to teach them the amazing secrets if and only if they were able to give you a non-password answer for what hypotheses and theories are.
comment by MixedNuts ·
2012-01-16T22:13:48.112Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Wait, can't we actually do that? People start cults all the time. We could start our own, teaching deep secrets that are actually true. We won't bring it up, but when an initiate asks "Hey, isn't this exactly what they teach in college?", nod and say "Yes, but it's more fun our way.". Making your own light bulb might still look pretty mundane, so it loses some of the cult competition, but it's still more fun that school.
Replies from: thomblake, Minds_Eye
↑ comment by thomblake ·
2012-01-16T22:22:08.940Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I don't think anyone's presented that angle here before. The assumption had been that this system only works if you somehow make all of the scientific knowledge secret in the first place.
↑ comment by Minds_Eye ·
2014-12-05T19:02:18.325Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Is this idea actualy do-able, if so it sounds like it would be fun. The obvious questions (to me) are:
How do you screen for membership, and can we do this in real life without the government(s) screwing it over?
Replies from: ike
↑ comment by ike ·
2014-12-05T19:11:58.338Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Rule #1: don't talk about starting a cult in a public place.
Replies from: Minds_Eye
↑ comment by Minds_Eye ·
2014-12-11T19:37:01.903Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
...If I actually wanted to start a cult I wouldn't post it. I was thinking something of starting something akin to the secular solstice. (Though I doubt most people could tell a cult from a group like this.)
Also Rule #74: When I create a multimedia presentation of my plan designed so that my five-year-old advisor can easily understand the details, I will not label the disk "Project Overlord" and leave it lying on top of my desk.
(We are on the Evil Overlord checklist right? I never finished copying it down.)
comment by Gambler_Justice ·
2012-06-30T10:45:10.238Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Learning Japanese was a very fun experience for me. Why? Because it felt I was infiltrating some kind of secret cult. Learning to actually read all those incomprehensible moonrunes was like learning how to decode their secret messages. It was... exciting.
comment by Dahlen ·
2012-07-25T13:11:45.330Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
You seem to be working on the assumption that imbuing science with an aura of mysteriousness, at the expense of availability of knowledge, would somehow attract more enthusiasts than it would repel. Or, in other words, that there are more people whose main reason for not being into science is an (inaccurate) idea of it as a dry, boring, completely un-mystical pursuit, than there are scientifically-inclined people that would become frustrated with the cultishness and the secrecy and eventually quit, in the eventuality of a scenario like the one you proposed.
This seems quite unlikely to me, and I'll explain why.
For the most part it's a feeling that the scenario you came up with is pandering to the wrong audience. Consider the present state of things. Science is more or less out in the open, if you have the resources (mental, financial, time) to learn; a large majority of people is apathetic about science even after (presumably) having had encounters with it at various points during their education; some people that have probably had about the same encounters with science have gotten enthusiastic about it, and obviously did not need any science cults to get them to pursue it. Your thought experiment seems to be designed to attract more of the first.
First there's the concern about whether that "untapped" audience really has the potential to bring contributions that match the effort spent with attracting them. These people have been exposed to science already -- and it had no effect on their interests! In this case, do you think they'd really join a mathematics "cult" for the equations, and not for the social standing or need to adhere to a group? If not, then do they hold promise as potential thinkers?
As for the second category of people, those who wouldn't need any of that bullshit social incentives anyway, like I said, the unavailability of knowledge might be a disincentive. Science is hard enough as it is. It takes years and years to gather a decent enough body of knowledge in order to actually get to make advances in your own field; introducing silly social rituals along the way won't speed up the learning process. Moreover, there's the danger of not getting your message across in the first place, of it not reaching all of the people that could have been interested. So, all in all, bad idea.
Of course, I know you meant this more as speculation than anything; the premise just seemed faulty to me.
comment by afeller08 ·
2012-10-28T03:04:47.500Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I don't know to what extent we can hack our own perceptions of scarcity by intentionally directing our thoughts, but it seems like it's something worth trying to do:
"Scientific information is widely available. As a result, people will pay less attention to it than they would if it was hidden. As a result, it's better hidden than if it were kept partially secret. This means that scientific information is very scarce, and almost nobody knows that it is scarce."
Is there a way to phrase the above statement so that it carries the same psychological weight as, "Only a few people realize this now, but there's about to be a beef shortage"?
Edit: (... and is that the whole point of this post along with the story after it?)
comment by ChristianKl ·
2013-05-23T13:37:23.984Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I think that the assumptions that people join cults for gaining knowledge is flawed. Most people don't care about knowledge and truth.
Take scientology as example. Luke Muehlhauser about taking scientology 101:
This class - a religious class I took as an atheist in order to achieve an unrelated goal - turned out to be one of the most important classes I have ever taken in my life.
Most science classes on the other hand don't teach lessons that the student can afterwards use in his daily life. Science 101 is boring to a lot of students.
Most students of science classes don't feel like they get knowledge in the class that they has an immdieate effect.
Religious rituals do something to people.
comment by MarsColony_in10years ·
2015-03-06T02:20:27.404Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I can't help but think of the Ritual of the Calling of the Engineer. They date back nearly a century, and their ceremonies are conducted in private. The initiation ritual is conducted by the Corporation of the Seven Wardens, with only new and past initiates present, but no guests. Upon initiation though, each new member is given a symbolic Iron Ring, which is rumored to be forged from the mangled iron scavenged from the Quebec Bridge disaster on 1907. The ring is distinctly angular rather than smooth and comfortable, and is worn on the pinky of the dominant hand so that it will slide across an engineer's drafting table or paper as he or she writes. This is a constant reminder of an engineers lofty duties and responsibilities, and of those who died during the Quebec Bridge collapse.
For people in the US, there's the Order of the Engineer. Before joining, members must swear an oath to abide by "The Obligation of an Engineer":
I am an engineer, in my profession I take deep pride.
To it I owe solemn obligations.
Since the stone age, human progress has been spurred by the engineering genius.
Engineers have made usable nature's vast resources of material and energy for humanity's benefit.
Engineers have vitalized and turned to practical use the principles of science and the means of technology.
Were it not for this heritage of accumulated experience, my efforts would be feeble.
As an engineer, I pledge to practice integrity and fair dealing, tolerance, and respect, and to uphold devotion to the standards and the dignity of my profession, conscious always that my skill carries with it the obligation to serve humanity by making the best use of Earth's precious wealth.
As an engineer, I shall participate in none but honest enterprises.
When needed, my skill and knowledge shall be given without reservation for the public good.
In the performance of duty and in fidelity to my profession, I shall give the utmost.
comment by themusicgod1 ·
2015-10-17T20:30:25.666Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
(this is the second copy of this comment, the first was regrettably lost in a browser crash. Use systems that back up your comments automatically)
This advice seems to fly in the face of Richard Hamming's advice to keep an open door. However perhaps the difference is subtle: Hamming suggested to have an open door but not necessarily to share your secrets, so perhaps there is room for a big science mystery cult to retain its own mysteries at every level of initiation. Perhaps there is a middle ground to be found between this and current 'open science' wherein secrets and ritual are more emphasized, but where the public has the ability to always query deep into the bureaucracy of the science temple/university.
More likely, however the best approach is all of the above, some kinds of thinking are enhanced by a certain size of a team, and there may be some problems that require an open-science sized 'ingroup', and some problems that are more tractable with an ingroup the size of a mystery cult.
comment by Alex_Arendar ·
2015-11-30T13:31:34.286Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
We should not also neglect the material side of the scientists status. For example, a junior in a family may be told by his father: "look our neighbor Bob, he spent 30 years of his life on science and look what a junkie car he has and what a small house he lives in. Better have a simple but reliable job, like buying t-shirts in China and selling them here or alike, that will give you a reasonable living." I have seen quite a lot of such justifications in real life and this has to be taken into account because it reflects the factual state of things.
Regarding making the products of scientific knowledge hidden and secret, well.... Eliezer has not made this site's content protected by initiation rituals and it is publicly accessible :P
If I had that $100,000 I would put on a grey robe, go to that Electricity Monastery and grant it to Eliezer to become my sensei and teach me about blueness and redness implied from atoms :)
comment by Pattern ·
2019-08-03T15:36:12.687Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
And this effect is especially strong with information—we're much more likely to try to obtain information that we believe is secret, and to value it more when we do obtain it.
There is an additional benefit to the process - filtering. Today there is so much information, that finding the info. you're looking for can be hard to find. And when the quality of sources varies so much, and can be difficult to judge, that driving a lack of interest does make sense. (As does forcing people to do a thing badly.)
For this world, I might recommend employing the Ikea effect - don't study X, build X/do what sounds fun in that space. Are there limits to what you can build? In this, Empiricism may be the way to go - the impossible hasn't been done yet, and you don't know until you've tried.
Perhaps in a world where calculus hadn't been invented it would be harder to reinvent - I still don't see why derivatives are important as a thing unto themselves, rather than as a special case where h=0. But if you make something, you have not only a better grasp of it, and context, but of where it does and doesn't work - yet. What someone else gives you, you may forget. What you have made once, you can make again - perhaps better this time.
Perhaps making a computer and an OS from scratch and programming languages and reinventing everything would take too long. But just as the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, the pursuit of growth that never ends may go far indeed.
comment by arrtoes ·
2020-08-22T07:13:08.201Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I could always walk into my local university library and find all kinds of crazy cool knowledge. Friends at the time were all excited about the Anarchist Cookbook, I kept trying to tell them the really interesting stuff was at the library (a specialized library, but still). Now we have the internet. You only need the books and whatnot if you want a piece of paper that says you know the stuff (I prefer stronger proofs).
I'm pretty pissed about the journals and data being paywalled, and dig the take on that (hey, it's not "public", so it's not exactly verifiable), here's something along those lines:
It is all about value and utility though, I think. There are so many facets to why we are where we are when we are. As a fan of paradox, here's some ruminations on one that might kind of fit in here, at least for some mulling over:
I've got faith we'll get there, eventually, even though we could be "there" already. FWIW, Science is not Truth, but it is pretty useful, unlike raw belief.