Thursday, August 27, 2015

Surveys and statistics: opinions and facts

Henry Whitehead (1825-1896)
We tend to confuse the majority opinion with the truth. This is wrong, as expressed by Henry Whitehead:
Never fear forming a minority of one; majorities are usually wrong.
But sometimes the consequences drawn from public opinion are even more misleading than the opinion itself. In an article entitled Are we xenophobic? published in a Spanish high-diffusion newspaper on March 17, 2011, the author discussed the result of an official survey:
...Citizens believe that immigrants receive from the state...
lots more (30.8%) or just more (38.7%) than they contribute.
And he drew from this result the following comment:
Any sociological diagnosis would understand these figures
as a breeding ground for a reactionary and xenophobic social culture.
Saying the opposite is tantamount to denying a consistent reality.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Predicting social future: political correctness

2001, A Space Odyssey
As I discussed in a previous post, scientists are often wrong when they predict the future of science. Science fiction writers make mistakes too, especially when they are trying to predict technical advances. Consider the film 2001, A Space Odyssey, which got wrong almost all the developments proposed for that year. Fourteen years after the date in the title, we still don’t have a base on the moon, manned spaceships to Jupiter, artificial intelligence, or humans in hibernation.
We should remember Asimov’s third law of futurics, which states that predicting the social consequences of future scientific progress is more important than accurately predicting that progress. A SF story predicting cars, but not the parking problem, would not have been a good SF story.
In 1941, before Asimov formulated this law, Robert Heinlein correctly applied it in his short story Solution Unsatisfactory, which predicted the Manhattan Project, the atomic bomb, its use to end World War II and the subsequent nuclear stalemate between the great powers. Not bad, as an example of what you can do in a well-built science fiction story.