I get letters

Publication date: 20 November 2013
Originally published 2013, in
PC & Tech Authority
(in which Atomic magazine is now a section)
Last modified 10-May-2015.


A couple of columns ago, I wrote about Neil Young's "Pono" high-bit-rate digital audio system, which aims to improve what Young says is the very, very bad quality of digital audio today.

Pono doesn't seem like a great idea to me, or, more relevantly, to people who work with digital audio for a living. This is partly because numerous blinded tests have demonstrated that audio above 16-bit, 40-something-kilohertz doesn't sound any better.

And if the Pono people have done any blinded tests of their own, they're keeping the results a secret. This does not bode well.

Also, Neil Young's hearing is by his own admission terrible, since he's not a young man, and has been playing loud music for decades, which he freely admits has seriously compromised his hearing. So what sounds better to him may not sound better to other people.

I got some feedback about that column.

The best was this, from one Gil Graham:

	When Daniel grows up, and after he has made
	maybe one thousandth of the contribution to the
	music industry that Neil Young has, then perhaps
	his gratuitous and offensive remarks may warrant
	publication in a serious publication. In the
	meantime, you give me yet another reason to
	abandon long-time loyalty to your magazine,
	which appears to be trying to lower its
	readership reach to the Justin Bieber

Rather than tell Gil that no, on the contrary, it is HE who smells, I found myself thinking about other Great Men who've developed enthusiasm for a project that was close, but critically not quite close enough, to their actual area of expertise.

(It is usually Great Men who do this, not Great Women. I think that's because of the underrepresentation of women in technical fields, rather than any particular difference in sensibleness between the sexes.)

The first example that sprung to my mind, as it should for any red-blooded Australian, was Peter Brock.

Peter was a hell of a driver, but not much of an engineer. He went to his early grave still stubbornly defending his "Energy Polariser", a device containing an epoxy matrix of crystals and magnets which was supposed to improve a car's performance and, somehow, handling, by tapping "orgone energy" to "align the car's molecules".

The only quantifiable effect of the Polariser was a strongly negative one on Brock's relationship with Holden. Literally dozens of other such devices, potions and pills have all been shown to be worthless.

And how about Linus Pauling?

Pauling was the only person ever to have won two un-shared Nobel Prizes, one Peace Prize and one in Chemistry. The Chemistry one, Professor Pauling thought, meant he was worth listening to when he discovered that you could cure cancer with huge doses of vitamin C.

Evidence for this theory was, and is, scant. Things did not improve when Pauling died, in 1994... of cancer. (See also the far less laudable Hulda Clark, who made a lot of money by not curing desperate people's cancer. Then she died, of... guess what?)

We'll never know how many people, before and since, have died early because they took vitamins instead of conventional therapy.

More cheerfully, the field of computing is richly supplied with brilliant visionaries who have strange pet projects.

Blaise Pascal invented the mechanical calculator. He wasted the last several years of his short life developing his eponymous Wager, which has since been used to unassailably prove that everybody should join numerous completely contradictory religions.

(Pascal was confident he'd proved the only true religion to be his own "Jansenist" variant of Catholicism. Jansenism has now been essentially extinct for more than two centuries. Isaac Newton also burned an awful lot of his life on religious flapdoodle.)

Seymour Cray, of the eponymous line of supercomputers, dug a sizeable tunnel under his house. He said that he talked to elves down there. They helped him with design problems.

(Engineers seem to be particularly susceptible to, when they reach a certain age, coming up with brilliant insights in fields they don't actually know much about. After a career of decades, a working engineer will have brushed up against, and been tempted to make assumptions about, so many other disciplines that they've a large number of deadly seed crystals of knowledge, waiting to grow into full-blown "Engineer's Disease". This usually involves perpetual motion, free energy, antigravity, cures for the incurable, and so on. Only very occasionally are sufferers of Engineer's Disease amenable to persuasion away from spending their retirement in one of these hopeless pursuits.)

Konrad Zuse, inventor of the first stored-program computer, in the Sixties came up with the idea that the universe is actually a simulation running in an unimaginably powerful computer. Other luminaries, like Ray Kurzweil, took that idea and ran with it.

There's no doubt about Kurzweil's brilliance; he invented the first multi-font OCR system and numerous digital music synthesizers, and currently works at Google, who are not renowned for hiring dullards. But Kurzweil also reckons we're rapidly approaching the point where intelligent machines make more-intelligent machines at an ever-increasing rate and thus cause a cataclysmic "technological singularity"... and after that, simulated universes are perfectly possible.

(Kurzweil is full of predictions like this, which have a habit of not coming true... or of only coming true because Kurzweil engages in post-hoc shifting of his "trueness" goalposts in such a way that the prediction may have "come true" before he even made it.)

There may be so many simulated universes, in fact, that as mathematical physicist Frank Tipler asserts based on more not-entirely-relevant knowledge, statistically we're almost certain to be in one right now. And it's probably operated by a benevolent entity who will allow our consciousness to live on after our deaths. Definitely, for sure. It is fated to be thus. The fact that such a situation would be very comforting for people who are getting on a bit like 65-year-old Ray Kurzweil, 66-year-old Frank Tipler, or 67-year-old Neil Young for that matter, is of course neither here nor there.

(See also the Argument from Tinkerbell, the Argument from Existential Loneliness, the Argument from Warm And Fuzzy Things, the Argument from Destiny, and several others.)

My Pono column got me mail from some more courteous correspondents than Mr Graham. The reason why they were e-mailing me followed them all through their subsequent arguments, though, dooming them to end up in the same illogical position as every other audiophile, homeopath, iridologist and believer in chemtrails who's determined to stick to their guns:

"OK, sure, but science doesn't apply to my beliefs!"

What all this comes down to, besides someone's indignant defense of a personal hero, is the "Argument From Authority", also known as the "Appeal To Authority":

"This important and/or knowledgeable person, or people, believe that X is true. Therefore, X is true."

The Appeal to Authority is on every top-ten list of logical fallacies.

This is partly because it's no good in formal logic; the fact that Einstein believed his theory of relativity to be true does not, of itself, formally have any bearing whatsoever on whether it's true or not.

The main thing justifying the Appeal to Authority appearing on those fallacy lists, though, is that there's an unspoken subtext to the fallacious form, just as there's a subtext when someone objects to something because it's "discrimination".

In discrimination complaints, the taken-as-read subtext is that the discrimination being complained about is unfair. It's discrimination to put murderers in jail, to not teach the Flat-Earth Theory in schools, and to eat food, not rocks. But those examples of discrimination are generally agreed to be fair and sensible. Refusing to allow women to vote, or people to get married if they don't have the same skin colour, is not.

The taken-as-read subtext in an accusation of a fallacious Argument From Authority is that the authority being quoted does not have relevant expertise. Einstein, and countless physicists since, do have expertise relevant to questions about relativity. Their collective opinion still doesn't prove anything from a formal-logic point of view, but it's perfectly acceptable to appeal to their authority in an ordinary conversation when, as is usually the case, you don't have time to research and lay out a full argument in support of a view that's held by numerous relevant authorities.

If someone accuses you of fallaciously appealing to authority, and you're not engaged in some sort of formal logical debate, then they're implying that your authority does not have relevant expertise.

For an example of both sides of this, take the time when some creationists assembled a list of "more than 800 scientists" who don't believe evolution is real.

An immediate objection to this list, of people who agreed with a "Scientific Dissent From Darwinism", was that it was an appeal to irrelevant authority. About three-quarters of the list signatories were physicists and chemists and mathematicians and other such individuals whose academic qualifications were irrelevant to the truth, or falsity, of evolution. Although there's some overlap - a geologist might, for instance, have correct informed opinions about fossils - there's no particular reason to give someone's opinions about evolution any special weight just because they know a lot about protons, airfoils or Offenbach.

"A Scientific Dissent" also had some signatories whose degrees, even if they were in a relevant field, were from questionable Bible colleges or other unaccredited institutions, which if you ask me makes their opinions about anything questionable. Mail-order diplomas in particular, and that extra-special variant, diplomas quietly awarded to someone by an unaccredited institution that they themselves founded, should be regarded as anti-qualifications. A person who doesn't have a degree in something may be a very reliable authority on that subject, but if a person attempts to bolster their plausibility with a worthless degree from the University of Some Guy's Garage, everything that person says about anything is, to my mind, automatically highly questionable.

Many signatories of "A Scientific Dissent..." also didn't actually work as scientists, even if their degree was relevant and from a real university. Some had never worked as a scientist at all. This in itself doesn't disqualify their opinions, but when you present a list of "scientists" who agree with your claim about the world, most people would not expect that list to contain a lot of guys who got their degree in 1971 and have worked as a house-painter ever since.

All of these features together combine to make the "A Scientific Dissent" list readily describable not just as a fallacious appeal to authority, but as an example of pretty much every possible kind of fallacious appeal to authority.

The US National Center for Science Education helped this educational example along even further when they responded to "A Scientific Dissent" by creating a list of more than twelve hundred scientists who think evolution is real.

This NCSE list is longer than the creationist one, and contains markedly higher proportions of active scientists with relevant qualifications from real universities... even though the NCSE called it "Project Steve".

Project Steve is restricted only to scientists called Steve. (Or Stephanie, or Esteban, or some other Stephen variant.)

Even with that humorous restriction, the NCSE quite easily collected many more signatures, from people with more relevant expertise.

(One of the "Scientific Dissent" signatories is called C. Steven Murphree, which made it possible for him to defect from the creationist list to the evolutionist one. He did. Needless to say, the creationists have not felt any need to remove his name from their list.)

Formally, neither of these lists prove anything. It would be extremely amazing if thousands of evolutionary biologists were all completely wrong about evolution. Their very large amount of supporting evidence - it's often been pointed out that nothing in biology makes sense without evolution - could only otherwise have been assembled by means of an unfeasibly gigantic conspiracy, or deliberate deception by the creator of the universe. (Or deliberate deception by someone with the same skill-set as the creator of the universe.)

But if you're arguing from authority that something is true, it's perfectly fair to present as a counter-argument the fact that a better authority disagrees.

Dragging this extended digression back vaguely in the direction of Neil Young and Pono, the actual professional digital audio engineers who say Pono makes no sense present a problem for the Pono believers. (Heck, it's even possible for ultrasonic intermodulation to make high-sample-rate music sound worse.)

Pono is not actually a whole new audio standard, either; it's your standard 192-kilobit-per-second-sample-rate, 24-bit-sample-depth audio, as seen not only in production studios but also in DVD-Audio, which has been around since the turn of the century but notably failed to set the world on fire.

And then there's Super Audio CD (SACD), which came out a year before DVD-A. It's a bitstream format that can effortlessly provide waveform accuracy far beyond that of CD audio, in six-channel surround if necessary... and which also failed to get traction, not least because it only sounds better, particularly for ordinary music reproduction, when you know you're listening to it. (And it helps to be young, because of the inevitable loss of high-frequency hearing with age, even if you aren't a rock musician who's abused his ears for decades.)

Pono recordings promise to truly sound different from the same albums on CD because music is promised to be re-mastered for Pono. There's no evidence that these improved recordings wouldn't sound just as good on CD as in high-bit-rate Pono, but it may be easy to check - there's been a suggestion that you'll be able to listen to Pono recordings on standard CD-quality equipment for free. Which would certainly show confidence.

Pono audio files and their special player still aren't available yet, so nobody's done any tests of it yet. But people who've gone to considerable lengths to do a well-designed blinded test of other high-bit-rate audio versus CD quality can't hear the difference.

"Audiophiles" who don't even seem to be aware of the existence of blinded tests, in contrast, hear the difference all the time.

This pattern holds perfectly for every level of contrary-to-physics audiophile enthusiasm. At base there's bit-rate and bit-depth stuff like this, where science agrees there could indeed be a difference with good enough equipment, but humans would not be able to perceive it. In the middle there's entertaining silliness like the notion that bits coming from an uncompressed PCM WAV file sound better than the same bits coming from a losslessly compressed FLAC file, or that there is such a thing as an "audiophile SATA cable". And, of course, the pattern also holds all the way up to the most preposterous quantum flapdoodle and magic rocks.

(Audiophile woo-woo review generator!)

Astonishingly, there's no nutty audiophile product that someone doing an uncontrolled listening test doesn't swear works. Not one! Every one's a winner, baby!

Unless you do a blinded test. Whereupon, to a first approximation, none of these things work.

The standard audiophile conclusion from this evidence is that the whole idea of blinded audio testing must be ridiculously wrong, because it reaches completely unacceptable conclusions. For instance, a $10,000 pile of audiophile amplification is in blinded tests difficult if not impossible to tell from an inexpensive consumer receiver. And big expensive speakers do not necessarily sound better than smaller cheaper ones, unless you can see them.

And, moreover, audiophile products that are actually absolutely terrible, to the point of qualifying as an actual scam, can be regarded as sounding fantastic by the anti-science brigade. People hear what they expect, even if there's no difference at all... or a difference that's the opposite of what they say they hear.

If you've spent a lot of money on fancy audio gear, this sort of evidence makes you look like something of a goose - if you accept it. So, like people who say that heaven must exist because if it does not then they will end up dead and they do not like that idea, you cheerfully appeal to consequences (another classic logical fallacy), disregard the inconvenient evidence, and continue to peruse catalogues of extremely expensive but allegedly fantastic audio gear.

I am at all times acutely aware that my perception, my cognition, and my memory are all unreliable. And so are yours, unless you're a robot, and possibly even then. The usefulness of uncontrolled human senses in precision measurement is very limited. That's why we have to do science to figure out what's actually true.

If you don't know this, though - and most people don't know how acutely fallible they are - then you'll be in the happy situation of being certain about all sorts of things that you, or similarly unscientific people whom you respect, have not actually come anywhere near proving.

Most of the time, your unwarranted certainty and consequent high self-esteem won't do you any harm.

Heck, it'll even make you happier, as you listen to your high-distortion valve amp and quantum-demodulated inverse tachyon speaker cables and effortlessly convince yourself that this is the best music any human has ever experienced.

If a surgeon develops a new operation, or a programmer writes a new program, or a musician plays a new tune, they know what they're doing, and will probably do a decent job.

But if a surgeon thinks they've discovered a new drug, or a programmer claims to have invented a new kind of transistor, or a musician creates a new digital audio system, the almost-relevance of their expertise may help them. Or it may lead them to overestimate their competence, and forget that their perception, cognition and memory are as fallible as everybody else's.

Unscientific audiophilia has given us LP demagnetisers, cable-conditioning machines, hi-fi gear so badly made that it may actually sound better when running from batteries, and little pylons to keep your wires up off the carpet. (Some writers allow that toilet-paper tubes work just as well for that!)

Meanwhile, science and empiricism have given us computers, jumbo jets, GPS, antibiotics... and high-bit-rate MP3s.

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