“The real thing, like the Perseverance mission, is slow, difficult and expensive, but far cooler than the make-believe alternative.”

Good point by Palko. He’s talking about the Mars rover:

There’s a huge disconnect in our discussion of manned space travel. We’ve grown accustomed to vague promises about Martian cities just around the corner, but in the real world, our best engineering minds have never landed anything larger than a car on Mars and this is the least risky way they’ve come up with to do it. . . . The real thing, like the Perseverance mission, is slow, difficult and expensive, but far cooler than the make-believe alternative.

And it reminds me of a conversation I had with some people several years ago. They were talking about ghosts—someone had some story about some old house with creaking doors, and I was like: Pressure differentials causing doors to open at unexpected times, that’s interesting. Ghosts are boring! In the same way, a computer chess program is interesting. A box with a little guy hiding inside moving pieces around is boring. Real-world physics causing thunderstorms: that’s cool. Some dude like Zeus or Thor sitting in the sky throwing down thunderbolts: boring.

Similarly with junk science. The idea that we make predictions using implicit heuristics: cool. The idea that Cornell students can see the future using some sort of ESP: boring. The tensile properties of metals: cool. The idea that someone can bend a spoon without touching it: boring. The properties of real-life social interactions as they play out in a job interview: interesting. That a person can, by assuming two simple 1-min poses, embody power and instantly become more powerful has real-world, actionable implications: boring.

Or, I should say, some of these statements are interesting if true but boring if false.

We discussed the interesting-if-true thing a few years ago:

Some theories or hypotheses are interesting even if not true, as they represent a way of thinking. Freudian psychiatry, neoclassical economics, the median voter theorem: ideas like that are interesting, and I’m a big fan of research that explores the range of applicability of such theories.

Some other theories are, to me, only interesting if true. The Loch Ness monster: if true, the idea that there’s this sea monster out there that hasn’t really made itself seen for all these years, that’s kind of amazing. If false, though, it’s just one more boring story of media hype. Similarly, Bem’s ESP experiment: if true, how cool is that? If false, it’s just one more empty ESP claim backed up by shaky statistics, like all the others we’ve seen over the past hundred years.

Power pose is an example of a theory that is interesting if true or false. If true, it’s worth knowing that hormones and actual power can be so easily manipulated. If false, that’s interesting too because so many people believed it to be true: it’s worth knowing (and perhaps a relief) that it’s not so easy for people to manipulate their hormones and their actual power in that way.

Other theories can be interesting but much depends on the quantitative scale. The theory about beauty and sex ratio would be interesting if true—but a careful read of the literature reveals that, if the theory were true, the effects would have to be tiny, which implies, first, that maybe it’s not so interesting (how much would we really care about a 0.1 percentage point difference) and, second, that it’s undetectable given available data.

A lot of social science theories are like that: interest depends on the magnitude of effects or comparisons, and much of that is lost in the usual descriptions (in scientific journal articles as well as the popular media) which focus on the (purported) existence of the effect without any understanding of the magnitude. The most notorious case of this was the Freakonomics report on the beauty-and-sex ratio which claimed that “good-looking parents are 36% more likely to have a baby daughter as their first child than a baby son,” which is something like claiming that Tiger Woods has a new golf club that allows him to drive the ball 30,000 yards.

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8 thoughts on ““The real thing, like the Perseverance mission, is slow, difficult and expensive, but far cooler than the make-believe alternative.”

  1. RE: “Filed under Literature, Miscellaneous Science, Zombies”

    …so fiction is much different than reality, yet often interesting and stimulating, but fiction/imagination/speculation are routinely confused with reality by many uninformed people.
    Who knew (?)

    • What do we mean by informed? If anything, most fiction and non-fiction are authored by knowledgeable writers. Moreover, my own experience of casual conversations with creatives is that their narratives even if drawn from their lives contain fictional elements.

      I am much more aware of how I and others construct their narratives. I am much more disturbed by cognitive dissonance and the acceptance of deception in relationships. I thought M. Scott Peck covered dimensions of both in his book, the People of the Lie. Some of Peck’s patients were resistant to accepting that they had contributed to harm to others and themselves. What results sometimes is emotional blackmail in family, work, and personal life.

      I am as usual off topic to an extent. But it does relate in that I have witnessed cognitive dissonance and deception in very well informed/educated exprtise too. Such dynamics I believe are not only interesting but rarely made interesting in much social science research. At least today b/c of the emphasis on quantification and lack of really compelling writing talent.

  2. What is the real point in this discussion? It’s obvious that real science is good and it’s cool. It’s easy to see where is the real value of things: real science. It’s not a question whether something is cool or boring. It’s a question about where is the real value. For example, Freud was a big farce. Freud does pseudoscience. It’s not cool because it’s not real science.

    • Albert:

      Some things are cool even though they’re not real science, or real at all. Sherlock Holmes is cool. Lord of the Rings is cool. They’re not real. I guess you could argue that when fiction is cool, it is because it captures aspects of reality. Ghosts opening a door—that doesn’t seem cool at all, it just seems like a very crude mechanistic idea.

  3. Twenty-ish years ago I had a subscription to The Skeptical Inquirer for a while, until I dropped it for basically this reason: debunking is kind of ho-hum. Maybe of interest to an illusionist like James Randi, but not so much if you’re into whatever science a case supposedly involves.

    On the other hand, the question of why these phenomena have an attraction strong enough to inspire defensiveness becomes interesting again.

  4. I take issue with the sentence: “Some dude like Zeus or Thor sitting in the sky throwing down thunderbolts: boring.”
    Zeus, Thor and any other pantheon humanity can imagine are far from boring. The are complex reflections of the human psyche and key to understanding human culture in those times, just like our current “mythologizing” of figures like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Bill Gates and dare I add Trump to the modern pantheon? The gods humanity imagine are scary but far from boring.

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