Harbingers of Doom – Part X: Summary and Addendum

Here Be Dragons

This is the final installment in a ten-part critical review of the book Here Be Dragons, written by mathematical statistician Olle Häggström.

What began in March of 2016 has now finally come to an end with this summary and concluding thoughts. Throughout this series, we have looked at everything from biological weapons to ancient science, from cryonics to rotten apples, from teleportation to social anxiety, from futuristic Dyson spheres to sustainable and rural living, from climate change to asteroid impacts and many more topics.

It is no secret that most of this review series have focused on the negatives. It has exposed some of the many factual errors in the book and these have mainly been in areas that Häggström is least familiar with. However, there are many parts of the book that are not only decent, but even of extremely high-quality and better than I could ever have written. Thus, this tenth and final installment looks at the good, the bad and the ugly.

The bad and ugly stuff

Most of this series has focused on being a critical review of the book. This means that focus has been largely put on highlighting and exposing the many factual errors about history, philosophy, statistics, chemistry, biology and astrophysics. Since these have been covered in some details in the article series, I will not list them one-by-one, but instead provide a short summary of each installment.

—-> Harbingers of Doom – Part I: Ancient Maps and Biological Weapons: dragons on medieval maps, bioweapons, Stanislav Petrov, science funding, meat intolerance, and smaller humans.

—-> Harbingers of Doom – Part II: Anti-Psychiatry and Teleportation: social anxiety, psychiatric medications, cognitive skills from smartphone use, bioethics, heritability, IQ, embryo selection, radical life extension, rejection of mind-brain physicalism, teleportation, uploading the mind, Occam’s razor, particle physics, scanning, and cryonics.

—-> Harbingers of Doom – Part III: Luddism and Computational Eschatology: Moore’s law, mass unemployment, human-level AI predictions, and paperclip disasters.

—-> Harbingers of Doom – Part IV: Nanobots and Atomic-Scale Manufacturing: 3D printing, atomically precise manufacturing, ribosomes and ribozyme, and nanobots.

—-> Harbingers of Doom – Part V: Botching Philosophy of Science: science in antiquity, Feynman quotation, raven paradox, falsifiability, and statistical significance.

—-> Harbingers of Doom – Part VI: Doomsday Predictions: GMOs, epidemiology, microbiology, and expert surveys.

—-> Harbingers of Doom – Part VII: Aliens and Space: Fermi paradox, the Great Filter, black holes, equilibrium, Dyson spheres, and METI.

—-> Harbingers of Doom – Part VIII: Existential Risk and Pascal’s Wager: moral reasoning, values, rational choice theory, Pascal’s Wager

—-> Harbingers of Doom – Part IX: The Pseudoscience Question: examines to what degree, if any, the positions expressed in the book can be considered pseudoscience.

—-> Harbingers of Doom – Part X: Summary and Addendum: this post; provides a summary and addendum to the series.

The good stuff

Besides the atrocious nonsense discussed above, there were several parts of the book that were genuinely high-quality and more comparable to the level of intellectual integrity that Häggström has displayed in the past. This is, perhaps, Häggström at his most sharp. Here are some of the highlights:

Climate: the second chapter contained a pedagogic and hard-hitting coverage of climate change. It was not merely a dry description of facts, but an engaging coverage of the background, the evidence and more complicated issues such as feedback and climate sensitivity estimates. Throughout this, Häggström manages to preemptively refute several common climate denialist claims.

Geoengineering criticism: the second chapter also takes a skeptical look at the overblown claims by proponents of geoengineering, particularly those that involve depositing large amounts of sulfur-containing compounds into the atmosphere. It is not practically feasible (because it would require continued efforts over long time periods or risk instant ecological and societal heat shock) and might lead to several other environmental problems such as negative effects on stratospheric ozone and increased ocean acidification.

Chinese room objections: the third chapter feature a careful refutation of the fallacious intuition pump known as the Chinese room argument which seeks to undermine a reductionist view of the mind as a function of the brain. Although Häggström primarily relies on critical commentary provided by Hofstadter and Dennett, it is nevertheless a high-octane piece of critical thinking.

Recognizing that APM is impossible on its own: in the fifth chapter on atomically precise manufacturing, Häggström has no qualms whatsoever with admitting that it is physically impossible on its own because of the scale problem: even if you assemble billion of atoms per second, atoms has such small masses that you will only be able to produce a tiny, tiny, tiny amount of your product of interest even after a very long time.

Rejection of epistemic relativism: although Häggström does not advance the most powerful arguments against epistemic relativism or solipsism, he does reference effective pragmatic arguments against the notion. Despite its limitations, it is a refreshing defense of trying to achieve scientific objectivity as much as possible.

Admits curve-fitting: Häggström does rely on Moore’s law selectively in the book (and appears to have an ambivalent relationship to the idea generally), but his statistical background makes him admit upfront that it is a form of curve-fitting and that we should perhaps not trust those kinds of arguments fully.

Criticisms of Doomsday Arguments: Häggström spends the entire seventh chapter on picking apart the so-called Doomsday argument that seeks to predict the end of humanity based on a few pieces of data. He reveals that it outright abuses statistics or is based on questionable assumptions. He also takes on several different versions of it and show that they are not terribly persuasive.

Discussion of GMOs: although incomplete, Häggström does not fall into the worst anti-GMO traps in his discussion of genetically modified crops.

Scientific doomsday scenarios: Häggström writes a decent scientific coverage of the risk of things like asteroids, supervolcanoes etc.

Discounting: Häggström does a good job critically evaluating discounting.

Concluding thoughts

Overall, the book is well-written and because of its brevity, high tempo and broad scope, Here Be Dragons is a page-turner on the same level as any thriller. Here Be Dragons is, despite its flaws, a decent book. It is a broad survey of claims and beliefs that float around in futurist and existential risk communities and it does question some of them. However, it cannot be said to be a review of the knowledge that exists about these issues (because it makes a large number of factual errors of different kinds) and it is far too credulous and lacking in skepticism towards the beliefs held by the authors and those that the author looks up to in many places. Whatever your position on these issues are, it is a book that is well-worth reading (even for those who only want to get a good idea about what kind of arguments are being put forward within the existential risk movement).

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Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

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