Some much for his belief in Design
Posted by aogTuesday, 28 November 2006 at 12:08 TrackBack Ping URL

Orrin Judd is on one of his anti-Science kicks again, this time with a post about developing a hurricane resistant nail. He titles it “TECHNOLOGY IS TO SCIENCE AS ASTRONOMY IS TO ASTROLOGY” with the tag comment of “Tinkering matters. Thinking doesn’t.”. Naturally he ignores all the references in the story about how the tinkering depended on scientific results (such as metallurgy and geometric modeling). More basically, the overall action in the story was standard science, in which the tinkering occurred only because someone both observed the problem and thought about how to solve it. The lauded tinkering was organized and driven by the despised thought, which somewhat destroys the distinction Judd wants to make.

What’s most amusing is that his view of this process is remarkably like evolution, improvement by thoughtless tinkering.

Comments — Formatting by Textile
Andrea Harris Tuesday, 28 November 2006 at 20:17

I read through his post, which was mostly the quoted article, and I really can’t understand the point he’s trying to make with his “tinkering matters, thinking doesn’t,” never mind the title, which makes NO sense even in the Bearded Spock Universe. Maybe in the Weirdzo universe, I dunno. But anyway — so what’s his problem, he doesn’t want people to have homes that can stand up to hurricane force winds? As I still live in the state where I was born, Florida, I say to that “Screw you, Mr. Judd, with a rusty, bent, non-hurricane-proof nail.”

Or maybe that’s not what he meant — does he mean then that he thinks that this nail came about from “tinkering” but not “thinking”? Or is this entire idiot analogy supposed to say something about genetic engineering (which would only make sense if nails were able to replicate themselves) or the sad case of people who don’t chant “Halleluja praise Jeezus!” before they cook up a new invention?

My head hurts, as it always does when I try to figure out why idiots think the way they do.

Annoying Old Guy Tuesday, 28 November 2006 at 21:49

OJ’s basic thesis is that Science is a religion, and a bad one. When people point out the benefits of Science, OJ uses his redefinition technique and calls anything useful “Technology” (or “tinkering”) and anything else “Science”, thereby proving that Science is a bogus religion that doesn’t even deliver on its own promise of reason based results. This is one in a long series of posts intended to demonstrate that, but normally, as in this case, it demonstrates the completely rhetorical definition of “Science” he uses.

Sadly, OJ has an actual point buried under this sophistry, which is that there is such a thing as “Scientism”, the worship of Science as the all encompassing mode of thought for thinking about reality. You tend to see this most often with the hard core evolutionists, who cannot tolerate any dissent or even aspersions cast at Evolution. It is that intolerance of debate that distinguishes science from Scientism because, of course, the point of science is to formalize that kind of thing, not prevent it.

One sees another aspect of Scientism in the “soft sciences”, where in a cargo cult like fashion practitioners adopt the langauge and styles of science but not actual science.

I am drawn to thinking of this the same way that Deep Black thinks of capitalism — i.e., it is a label of an emergent activity, not really a thing itself. To reify that in to some concrete thing is to make a category error, which is precisely what Scientism is.

Peter Burnet Wednesday, 29 November 2006 at 04:14

Are you not over-thinking here, AOG? I doubt Orrin would say science is a religion (although maybe not to the point of putting money on it. :-)). Surely what he would say is that natural materialism is a religion and that technological or scientific progress is not dependent upon it. Also that technological progress does not just occur as a derivative of scientific theory—nails have been with us a lot longer than modern metallurgy and geometric modeling. He is challenging the famous Enlightenment “darkness/light” shibboleth that technical progress is dependent upon material rationalism and can’t occur without it. But he should have said “philosophizing”, not “thinking” in his tagline.

As to those references on how the tinkering “depended” on theoretical science, well maybe up to a baseline point, but don’t forget how important it would have been to put bumph like that into the business plan. We non-scientific types like to hear that jargon before putting our money down. It adds a little lustre to the venture and helps convince us we know what we are doing.

Brit Wednesday, 29 November 2006 at 05:39

Pondering what Orrin means when he uses terms is an entirely futile activity.

‘Scientism’ is a problem where people assume that whatever scientists currently say - ‘scientific knowldge’ - is the unchallengable, absolute truth. Instead, scientific ‘knowledge’ can only ever be “our best guess at the truth based on using the scientific approach”.

So I agree that ‘Science’ isn’t a thing - it’s an approach, or a way of tackling a problem. It operates within limits: the limits of best theories with minimum assumptions, and based on the observable evidence. The scientific approach gets things wrong all the time - but the only way we know we’ve got things wrong is through the scientific approach.

So on to evolution: within these limits of science, the Theory of Evolution is the best explanation. You can accuse evolutionary scientists of being too intolerant of dissent, and maybe in some cases there is justification for that accusation, but the fact is that evolutionists have to put up with a kind of constant, scattergun bombardment which no other branch of science does. Nobody harangues geologists, meterologists and astronomers with ‘intelligent design’ theorems, though they would be equally (un)justified as ID theories of evolution.

The reason evolution gets this special treatment is (fairly obviously) that the notion that humans are descended from primates is offensive to some religious sensibilities.

Therefore, evolutionary scientists are constantly required to justify their theories for reasons that are outside the scientific framework. There is tons of dissent and debate about evolution - perhaps more than in any other field - within the scientific approach. But evolutionists are constantly required to justify the scientific approach to evolution itself, while other branches of science are not.

Scientific knowledge of evolution is just that - ‘knowledge’ within the limits of how science works. It is not only unfair to throw non-scientific missiles at it (which is what ID does), it is irrelevant. The correct evolutionist’s response to Intelligent Design etc is to say “if you don’t like the scientific approach, fine. But (a) that’s nothing to do with me; and (b) why don’t you apply your objections to all branches of science equally?”

Annoying Old Guy Wednesday, 29 November 2006 at 08:09


why don’t you apply your objections to all branches of science equally?

You have to give OJ credit for doing exactly that, eh?

Mr. Burnet;

There’s this post, for example — check the title.

But you also get back to my point. If you think rationalism isn’t necessary for progress, then you’re confirming the plausibility of evolutionary theory, something OJ doesn’t. That’s the amusing bit, that his science bashing leads to a place where he claims to believe in evolutionary technology but not evolutionary biology.

You are correct in a theoretical sense, but in practice the rate of progress for tinkering is vastly slower than the material rationalism based form. You don’t need a plane or a map to get from New York City to San Francisco, just your own two feet, but who thinks that’s a better way? The story cited illustrates this. Theoretically, they could have come up with the same nail without the material rationalist theories, but probably not in our lifetimes.

Brit Wednesday, 29 November 2006 at 08:12

“You have to give OJ credit for doing exactly that, eh?”

Except it’s never clear what it is he’s bashing from one post to the next.

Annoying Old Guy Wednesday, 29 November 2006 at 08:13

Brit, Ms. Harris;

I probably shoud have used anthopogenic global warming as the example for Scientism. The intolerance of dissent or even uncertainty is very evident on that subject.

David Cohen Wednesday, 29 November 2006 at 09:28

Actually, given OJ’s love of the broken windows fallacy, he probably would favor using nails that dissolve in rain driven by hurricane force winds. That way people will be forced to invest in new houses rather than whatever wasteful spending or saving they would otherwise do.

Peter Burnet Wednesday, 29 November 2006 at 13:26


What’s this, Hug an Evolutionist Day? Are we that mean? Do all those angry atheists we are encountering these days suffer from battered self-esteem?

Scientific knowledge of evolution is just that - ‘knowledge’ within the limits of how science works…

C’mon, that’s fine if you’re dealing with someone who says the earth is just five thousand years old or wants science classes to teach that rainbows are a Divine promise. But not when the main objection is that Evolutionists posit a theory of causation to explain mechanics and call it “knowledge”. You and David just had a great go-around about natural selection vs. genetic drift and I doubt either of you would call your views “knowledge”. Why isn’t natural selection “knowledge” in that kind of an intra-Darwinian debate, but suddenly becomes “knowledge” when challenged by an IDer on cause? Science is on firm ground when it insists only natural phenomenon are the proper object of its study, but not when it goes on to insist its theories by definition trump the non-natural on cause and that only an idiot would think otherwise.


I think you’re confusing the philosophy of rationalism, a top-down theoretical description of how the world (and especially humans) works, with everyday rational thinking in the face of a particular problem. You have to think rationally to figure out a sharp end makes the nail go in better or a crop won’t grow unless you seed first, but your success in so doing isn’t undermined by asking a priest to bless the nails or the seedlings. Whether it is enhanced is a whole other story.

Annoying Old Guy Wednesday, 29 November 2006 at 14:32

Mr. Burnet;

Not at all. The science backing the nail effort is the result of a top down, rationalist framework about the operational characteristics of reality. The project was a rapid success because of this framework, a framework utterly dependent on “thinking”. Moreover, the key insight of the scientific revolution was to apply “everyday rational thinking” to ever more general problems. The only difference is scope.

I think that the problem that arises is that the english phrase “how the world works” is ambiguous. It can mean this sort of “functionalist” view (“I have a model that accurately predicts behavior”), or it can mean an ontological view (“I know the actual construction of the subject”). This is the real point of confusion.

This is apparently a subtle point to many, as I frequently found it difficult to discuss with my co-workers even when directly relevant — i.e., there is what you meant your code to do, and there is what it does. This was a central point in my doctoral thesis so it’s one of my bugbears.

P.S. This is a key point in the debate about the Turing Test. Is there a difference between being able to treat an entity you interact with only via text (as you do with me) as if it were sentient and that entity actually being sentient? Science says we can treat reality as if the scientific models were ontologically correct, but that doesn’t mean the models are such. In both cases science cannot resolve the issue.

Peter Burnet Wednesday, 29 November 2006 at 14:40

Moreover, the key insight of the scientific revolution was to apply “everyday rational thinking? to ever more general problems.

They did that in the Middle Ages. The “insight” (your word) was to posit that rationalism could and should be applied to all problems and was by definition a superior approach to them, no? Any deficiencies were merely evidentiary, not philosophical.

Jeff Guinn Wednesday, 29 November 2006 at 14:57

The science backing the nail effort is the result of a top down, rationalist framework about the operational characteristics of reality. The project was a rapid success because of this framework, a framework utterly dependent on “thinking?.

Exactly, and why the post was not only internally self contradictory, which happens when you ignore word meaning, as well as externally: it is hard to hold tinkering works, except that, with regard to evolution, it doesn’t

One doesn’t have to resort to hard science to see the difference.

Last year, the central locking on our car stopped working. My first approach was to mix a whole bunch of tinkering with a tiny bit of thought: replace the door lock computer (who knew door locks needed their own computer?). I could only have gotten closer to tinkering, and further from thought, had I decided instead to replace the lug nuts on the left front wheel.

$90 poorer, and the darn locks still didn’t work.

Now to start thinking. Pull out the service manual, paw through pages of wiring diagrams, match the car to the diagram (thereby finding two errors), and do conductivity checks on each of the wires.

One of the signal lines to the trunk was open.

Given the effectiveness of a binary search, I then looked for a place to open the harness that was roughly halfway to the trunk, determine which side the open was on, proceed to the next accessible halfway point, etc.

Found the broken wire in the part of the harness between the car body and the trunk lid on the third test.

Tinkering and thinking couldn’t be more different, no matter whether doing science or many ordinary tasks in daily life.

So how does one defend the position that such analytically directed activity as making nails hurricane resistant is tinkering without coming off as a fool?

Annoying Old Guy Wednesday, 29 November 2006 at 15:05

Mr. Burnet;

Yes, the scientific revolution started in the Middle Ages. I dispute that the insight was that “that rationalism could and should be applied to all problems [emphasis added]”. I believe that it is a superior approach for all problems that involve modeling the operational characteristics of reality, but that’s a much smaller set.

joe shropshire Wednesday, 29 November 2006 at 15:38

Jeff and AOG: tinkering is thinking. Some guys just think with their hands, instead of on paper. The guy in the article appears to do both pretty well. (Leave it to a pilot to say something like “Tinkering and thinking could not be more different…”)

Brit Wednesday, 29 November 2006 at 15:47


David was talking rot in that debate of course, but he was at least engaging in a scientific debate - that is, he thought he had a more coherent explanation for the evidence based on what we know about genetics, and claiming that the evidence suggested that natural selection was less important in evolution than I think it is.

He was not attacking a scientific explanation because it was a scientific explanation, or complaining about the aesthetics. Nor was he positing supernatural intervention, nor talking about Bearded God-killers, nor suggesting that I worshipped Darwin as a God because I hate my father, nor questioning whether the whole project was worthless since “reason has proved itself a faith” etc etc.

Peter Burnet Wednesday, 29 November 2006 at 16:31


I know he wasn’t, the weenie. The man has been getting preogressively wetter since you heathens started telling him how reasonable he is. My theory is that he didn’t get enough hugs as a child. Well, that would be my theory if I were a rationalist.


The Medieval Scientific Revolution? Oh, that one was really cool. But I’m afraid we have a bit of a dispute about what the Enlightnment was all about.

“Modeling the operational characteristics of reality”? AOG, no fair, I’m a lawyer.

Annoying Old Guy Wednesday, 29 November 2006 at 16:59

Mr. Burnet;

That somewhat depends on what one calls the “Middle Ages”. Sir Francis Bacon, one of the early practioners, lived from 1561-1626. It looks like most people mark the end of the Middle Ages by the early 1500s. If you consider Bacon sui generis, then you are correct. If you think he built on earlier work, then it’s more debatable.

Brit Thursday, 30 November 2006 at 03:49

While we’re merrily walloping away at Orrin, let me add that I love the way his (often justifiable) cynicism about newspaper clippings of evolution-related scientific discoveries is completely abandoned if he thinks the scientific discovery supports his (elusive) personal theory of evolution (it rarely does).

Peter Burnet Thursday, 30 November 2006 at 05:53


Hey, you beardless Orrin-killer, you didn’t answer the question. Why is the role of natural selection a debatable theory in intra-Darwinian debates, but a proven fact outside?

Brit Thursday, 30 November 2006 at 06:05

I didn’t say it was a proven fact: I said that it is invalid to attack the scientific theory of evolution specifically by questioning the scientific approach generally.

Brit Thursday, 30 November 2006 at 07:02

ie. it’s a bit like arguing that a move in chess, say R-Q4, is illegal because ‘all board games are pointless and stupid.”

It might be true that R-Q4 is illegal, and it might be true that all board games are stupid, but the truth-value of the latter doesn’t affect on the in-game legality of the former.

Jeff Guinn Thursday, 30 November 2006 at 07:11


tinkering is thinking

I must admit, you have me there. On further reflection, tinkering is (or can be) goal directed atheoretical thinking.

Back in my previous, code-slinging, life, sometimes something just flat didn’t work. Obviously, the goal was to make it work. But without any theory at all as to why it didn’t, then I was left to tinkering: change something, run the code, see what comes flying out.

Repeat until one of:

  • gaining enough additional data upon which to form a theory
  • exhaustion
  • Eureka!

Given the differences between tinkering and thinking, the last was by far the least common.

Peter Burnet Thursday, 30 November 2006 at 07:39


I said that it is invalid to attack the scientific theory of evolution specifically by questioning the scientific approach generally.

Sure, but surely not to raise the limits of the scientific approach and argue that somebody’s theory goes beyond them.

As to your chess analogy, that will take some heavy thinking before I can respond without making a fool of myself by analogizing religion to bridge.

Brit Thursday, 30 November 2006 at 08:16

No, that would be ok.

Annoying Old Guy Thursday, 30 November 2006 at 08:52

Mr. Guinn;

When I was a teaching assistant, we referred to students with that approach as “perturbation programmers”. In an excellent example of unintendended consequences, I made that problem worse in an effort to improve the student experience.

We had had some issues about testing programs and verifying them, so I wrote a “hand in” program that took the student source, compiled it, ran it against test data, and forwarded the results on to a database for the instructors to consult during grading. I naively presumed that students would use this to hand in their work, after testing it. I am sure you are shaking your head and saying “what an idiot!” by now, but of course what happened was that the students rapidly came to depend on the handin program as their one and only means of testing. It was a wonderful boon for the perturbation progammers because they got almost instant feedback on what their grade for the machine problem would be so they could judge whether additional tinkering was worth the effort. I had students come out of the class without knowing how to run the compiler! I didn’t dare revert to the status quo ante, though, because even the good students would have thrown a fit. And so I did my part to advance the collapse of Western civilization one small step.

Brit Thursday, 30 November 2006 at 09:05

And so I did my part to advance the collapse of Western civilization one small step.

Aaaah - Happy indeed the man who can say as much.

Jeff Guinn Thursday, 30 November 2006 at 10:29


My most heinous personal example comes from an Extract-Transform-Load project where I was creating a flat table from several relational tables.

The ETL job was rejecting records for no apparent reason, and apparently randomly.

Whereupon I spent a week tinkering until I noticed, serendiptously, that the rejected records (about 140 of several thousand) had duplicate values in a field that the source DDL had defined as unique (which I knew going in).

The 140 records dated from several years previously, before the DDL restriction.

Hard to know how thinking, as opposed to a week of tinkering (ended ultimately by looking at something else entirely) was going to fix that particular problem.

joe shropshire Thursday, 30 November 2006 at 13:54

And so I did my part to advance the collapse of Western civilization one small step.

AOG: Whitehead would have said you advanced civilization, at least for your preturbation programmers, by automating a step. You and Jeff have tinkered your way onto the subject of which mode of problem-solving is most economical. The rule of thumb I use in my present life as a code-slinger is: when all else fails, try thinking. That comes from a previous life fixing avionics, a trade that attracted a certain percentage of would-be theorists. In the same amount of time it took them to trace a missing signal through five pages of wiring diagram, I’d have swapped in the three cards that usually fail, backed out the two that weren’t failing this time, have the part back in the crate, and be halfway through the paperwork. I really don’t like to miss happy hour.

Annoying Old Guy Thursday, 30 November 2006 at 15:06

mr. shropshire;

Ah yes.

As part of my teaching responsibilities, I also had to maintain the computer lab the students worked in, with the help of three undergraduates (“lab rats”). Initially when something went wrong, we tried to figure it out and fix it. The systems weren’t robust to start with and with students whacking on them, problems were continual. After more than enough of dealing with that, we spent our time on optimizing the operating system install procedure. We got it down from a more than a day affair of work to two hours of mostly sitting around (primarily by the lab rats cracking the install logic on the vendor floppies and adding our own to do all of the local configuration). From then on, we would never spend more than one hour trying to fix a system. If, after that time, things weren’t working, we just re-installed the OS which fixed anything except a hardware problem. Our up time when from around 60% to 95% and we were spending less time at it.

Sometimes a bigger hammer is just the right thing.

Mr. Guinn;

I am not sure you’d call it thinking, but an exhaustive examination of reasons for records being rejected should have lead to the same result.

David Cohen Thursday, 30 November 2006 at 15:08

To mash all our interests into one big thread, the attempt to use evolution-based algorithms to generate code is based on tinkering without thinking. (Wait, I need to work Muslims into this… wait, “algorithms”, all set.)

Brit Thursday, 30 November 2006 at 16:19

You got global warming in there too.

Al Gore-ithms.

Annoying Old Guy Thursday, 30 November 2006 at 17:18

Actually, Brit, he should have blamed global warming on all the the CPU cycles used while generating the code (it’s actually enough of a problem that I have switched to low-heat systems to keep my office sufficiently cool).

Jeff Guinn Thursday, 30 November 2006 at 20:27


… but an exhaustive examination of reasons for records being rejected should have lead to the same result.

You would think so. The ETL job returned the correct code for the target data base, that we were trying to violate its DDL by inserting a duplicate. However, we carefully examined the source DDL, and it also prohibited duplicates, had done so — successfully — for as long as anyone could remember, and there was no record of it being any different. I guess I was simply slow to conclude that what couldn’t be, in fact, was.

(Deep background: I was thrown at Ascential DataStage with virtually no training, so I got far closer to tinkering than I prefer.)


Your approach is similar to mine, with a twist. Regarding my trunk lock application of the scientific method, my entering argument is that in any system, the failure is located in the most expensive part of the system. Hence the automatic decision to replace the computer.

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